Wine makes any gathering festive, especially when you spread it around a little. This season, try splashing it into entrées, salads, sides, and desserts as a flavorful way to liven up recipes—without adding fat.

Different wines impart their own individual tastes—oak, fruit, dry, sweet—to whatever dish they enhance, says David Kamen, associate professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America. “Plus, [wines’] acid helps cleanse the palate, and the sugar gives you a little balance,” he says. Nora Pouillon, owner and executive chef of certified-organic Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., uses full-bodied wines “to add earthy, complex flavors to sauces and stews,” as well as sweet dessert wines for after-dinner treats. (Pouillon created the recipe for wine-poached pears, featured on our cover and below.)

In general, the better the wine, the better it will taste in your food. But you don’t have to spend a lot; most of the organic wines used in these recipes cost less than $20. Pick up a bottle or two and pour on some flavor. Just remember to save a glass to toast your results.

Pears Poached in Sauternes with Chocolate Sauce
Serves 4 / Pears are a perfect match for sweet, light dessert wines, and chocolate adds a special-occasion touch. This recipe from Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., uses a half-bottle (called a split) of Sauternes, made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscatel grapes shriveled to concentrated ripeness. Barsac or late-harvest wines can be substituted. Make sure pears are fully ripe for best flavor.

4 ripe Bosc or Anjou pears, peeled
1/2 bottle or 2 cups Sauternes or other sweet dessert wine
Peel from 1/2 lemon
4 whole cloves
4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup light whipped cream
Mint leaves, for garnish

1. Use a small melon baller or a pointed vegetable peeler to scoop out seeds and core from the bottom of the pears, leaving pears whole.

2. Pour wine into a nonreactive saucepan just large enough to hold the pears in a single layer. Add lemon peel and cloves and bring to a boil. Add pears, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender, 10–15 minutes, occasionally turning pears for even cooking.

3. Remove pears from saucepan and keep warm. Boil remaining liquid until wine is reduced to 1/2 cup and has a syrupy consistency. Remove saucepan from heat and remove cloves. Add chocolate and stir to melt and combine. Sauce will thicken as it cools.

4. Place each pear on a rimmed dessert plate and spoon one-fourth of the chocolate sauce over and around it. Garnish with a 1 tablespoon light whipped cream and a mint leaf.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 254 calories
% fat calories: 41
Fat: 12g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 8mg
Protein: 2g
Carbohydrate: 37g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 7mg

Cranberry-Apple Merlot Sauce
Makes about 3 cups / Traditional cranberry sauce often lacks one thing—spice! This recipe uses plenty, and the fruity Merlot balances out the tart cranberries. If it’s too tart for you, use a sweeter apple like Fuji in place of the Granny Smith. Organic wine suggestion: Frey Vineyards Merlot.

2 cups Merlot
2/3 cup natural cane sugar or brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened apple juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3 whole cinnamon sticks
1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced (about 2 cups)

1. Combine first 6 ingredients (Merlot through cinnamon sticks) in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cook over low heat for 15 minutes.

2. Remove cinnamon sticks. Add cranberries and apples. Increase heat to medium and cook until cranberries begin to pop, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/4 cup):
Calories: 120 calories
% fat calories: 2
Fat: 0g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 0g
Carbohydrate: 30g
Fiber: 3g
Sodium: 43mg

Drunken Sweet Potatoes
Serves 8 / Who knew sweet potatoes could be so elegant? This makes a healthy alternative to marshmallow-topped sweet potato casseroles. The wine adds a complex, rich, and unusual flavor and deep color. Organic wine suggestion: Yorkville Cellars Cabernet Franc.

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup red wine
3 sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cup honey
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Combine raisins and red wine in small bowl; set aside.

2. Prick each sweet potato with a fork and bake. After 45 minutes, place parsnips in a small casserole dish and set in oven. Continue baking for 45 minutes more. When potatoes and parsnips are soft to the touch, remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, remove sweet-potato skins and place pulp in a medium bowl. Mash until smooth. Mash parsnips separately, then add to sweet potatoes and stir to combine. Add honey, butter, and spices; combine thoroughly. Stir in raisin-wine mixture.

3. Transfer mixture to an 8x8-inch baking dish. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts and bake an additional 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 295 calories
% fat calories: 15
Fat: 5g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 6mg
Protein: 4g
Carbohydrate: 62g
Fiber: 7g
Sodium: 43mg

How much alcohol burns off?
All the alcohol in wine evaporates when cooked—right? Actually, it depends on several factors, including cooking time and temperature. The longer and hotter a dish is cooked, the less alcohol remains; for example, 75 percent of the alcohol remains after flaming a dish, but only 10 percent is left after two hours of baking or simmering. Dish size also affects evaporation; the smaller the surface area, the more alcohol is retained. Still, wine generally doesn’t contain a lot of alcohol to begin with—usually about 12 percent to 14 percent— so cook to suit your preferences.

—Elisa Bosley

Wine-Poached Chicken and Root Vegetables
Serves 4 / By cooking in broth and wine, the chicken develops a complex flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. This dish tastes wonderful with the Cranberry-Apple Merlot Sauce. Organic wine suggestion: Cooper Mountain Reserve Pinot Gris.

1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup julienned carrots
1/2 cup julienned parsnips
1/2 medium red onion, diced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 chicken half breasts (less than 1 inch thick), about 3 ounces each
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon dried sage

1. Preheat oven to 325°. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, carrots, parsnips, onion, and chicken broth. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add white wine and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Place in an 8x11-inch casserole dish, sprinkle with oregano, rosemary, and sage, and cover with broth-vegetable mixture.

3. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake for 15 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 158 calories
% fat calories: 21
Fat: 4g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 47mg
Protein: 22g
Carbohydrate: 10g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 177mg

Pumpkin-Chardonnay-Mushroom Risotto
Serves 8 / A colorful addition to the holiday table. For variety, add other types of winter squash, or try using a dry Jack cheese in place of the grated Parmesan. Organic wine suggestion: Badger Mountain Chardonnay.

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/3 cups water
2 cups peeled, cubed winter squash, such as acorn or pumpkin
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine, such as Chardonnay
2 cups (about 6 ounces) fresh mixed mushrooms, such as chanterelle, porcini, and button, sliced
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. In a medium saucepan, combine broth and water; heat and keep warm.

2. In a separate saucepan, steam squash cubes in a steamer basket set over boiling water for 10–15 minutes or until tender. Set aside.

3. In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, sage, and rosemary; sauté for 2 minutes. Add rice and stir thoroughly to coat. Add wine and stir until it absorbs, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth mixture and stir, allowing broth to absorb, about 2 minutes. Repeat, adding 1/2 cup broth at a time, stirring nearly constantly, allowing each addition to absorb before adding another (this takes about 20 minutes total).

4. Meanwhile, heat remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, stir, and sauté for about 5 minutes.

5. After the last addition of broth, slowly stir in squash and mushrooms. Add Parmesan cheese and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (2/3 cup):
Calories: 211 calories
% fat calories: 16
Fat: 4g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 3mg
Protein: 8g
Carbohydrate: 36g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 265mg

Different wines impart their own individual tastes—oak, fruit, dry, sweet—to whatever dish they enhance.

Pomegranate-Spinach Salad with Cabernet Dressing
Serves 4 / Pomegranate seeds (also called arils) add eye-popping red to this green salad. Pomegranates are available in grocery stores throughout the fall and in specialty stores during the later winter months. Organic wine suggestion: Badger Mountain Meritage.

To avoid stains, submerge pomegranates in water while slicing. Cut into quarters, then bend sections backward to remove seeds. Discard peel and white membranes.

6 cups (about 5 ounces) spinach leaves, washed and dried
Seeds from 1 fresh pomegranate
1/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1 tablespoon red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In medium bowl, toss together spinach, pomegranate seeds, Gorgonzola, and walnuts.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together red wine, vinegar, olive oil, and orange juice. Stir in minced garlic and basil. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Divide salad into four bowls. Top each serving with 1 tablespoon dressing and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 156 calories
% fat calories: 72
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 4g
Cholesterol: 13mg
Protein: 5g
Carbohydrate: 6g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 205mg

Mulled Wine
Serves 6–8 / Like its virgin cousin, spiced apple cider, mulled wine incorporates the key holiday spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—into a deliciously warm and decadent drink. This recipe provides a basic mulled-wine blend, but if you’re feeling adventurous, add some freshly grated ginger, ginger juice, or extra brandy.

1 bottle (750 ml) red wine, such as Merlot or Pinot Noir
1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange peel
3 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 ounce brandy (or more to taste)
1/3 cup honey, plus more to taste

1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes; do not boil. Adjust sweetness to taste. Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 88 calories
% fat calories: 1
Fat: 0g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 0g
Carbohydrate: 22g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 7mg

Photos by Leigh Beisch