Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cooking with Wine

As a journalist, I like to interview people—to “pick their brains” and glean new insights and information. Much of what I’ve learned in recent years has come that way—by talking to experts in a wide variety of fields.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about cooking and entertaining. Recently I talked with several chefs in Texas, and asked them what they thought was the easiest way to turn a routine meal into something really special. They all gave me the same basic anwer: use wine in your cooking!

"Eating is one of our greatest sensory pleasures,” says Chef Kent Rathbun, pictured above. “However, when you add wine to your cooking, you end up with an even greater sensory experience.”

The alcohol in the wine evaporates while the food is cooking, so it’s not that you’re going to “feel tipsy” after eating the food, Rathbun explains, but rather that you will experience new taste sensations. “Adding wine enhances, intensifies and accents the flavor and aroma of your entrées,” he says.

As owner and executive chef of Jasper’s and Abacus Restaurants of Dallas, Austin and Houston, Rathbun definitely knows what he’s talking about. “I cook with wine almost every day,” he says. “Wine is a wonderful addition to many dishes, from soups and stews to broiled fish, roasts and desserts.”

Wine can be used as a marinade ingredient, a cooking liquid, the basis for a sauce, and as a flavoring in a finished dish. For most recipes, Rathbun recommends you reduce the wine by at least half before adding it in as an ingredient. You might simply put it in a pan on the stove and boil it down, or you could add wine to pan drippings or caramelized onions in a pan and then let that simmer together. This causes the water elements to evaporate out of the wine, and creates a richer, more mellow flavor.

In one of Rathbun’s recipes, he might start out with a half gallon of wine and reduce it down to two cups before adding tomatoes for marinara sauce, or chicken or beef stock for soup. “You end up with a sauce that’s very big in taste—to the point that it might not even need any salt,” he says. On the other hand, if you don’t reduce the wine and add it into a dish that’s almost finished cooking, your food would have more of a sharp, raw taste, according to Rathbun.

It’s worth noting that not only do foods cooked with wine taste sumptuous, they’re often very healthy too. “You are contributing a distinct taste to your food, but doing so without adding extra fat, sugar or salt—which most of us do not need,” notes Lona Sandon, MEd., RD, LD, a registered dietician in Dallas on the staff at U-T Southwestern and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Of course, cooking with wine may seem a little daunting or intimidating to some people—especially if they’re not cooking enthusiasts or are nervous about trying out new recipes. But, cooking with wine is easier than you might think, at least when you’ve got the basics down. Here are some important tips:

* Choose a wine that complements the food with which it’s paired.

The first thing you will need to think about is whether to use a red or white wine in your recipe. “Red wines generally go best with beef, venison and marinara sauces, whereas white wines seem to fit best with seafood, poultry, pork, and creamy, dairy-based sauces,” advices Brian West, Executive Chef and owner of Café Paladar in San Antonio and Stone Oak, Texas.

White wine tends to add a much more subtle flavor to a recipe than red wine does, and is ideal for dishes like baked chicken, poached seafood and fettuccini Alfredo. Red wine is much bolder and more flavorful than the white varieties, and is great in stews, broiled beef steaks, spaghetti sauces and other entrées that require a lot of punch.

As far as what variety of red or white wine to use, West suggests you put the same wine in your recipe that you’ll be drinking with the meal. If you are cooking an ethnic dish, cook with a wine that comes from the same region. This will guarantee you a good flavor pairing.

* Cook with quality wine

Never cook with wine that you would not drink. Don’t use very cheap wines, wine that’s turned to vinegar, wine that’s been corked for a long period of time, or any poor-tasting wine. Sometimes people use these kinds of wines in their cooking, Rathbun says, just to try to use it up. But that’s a big mistake. “If you reduce an already bad-tasting wine, you’re only going to intensify its bad taste because now you’ve taken all the liquid out of it,” Rathbun says.

This does not mean, however, that you need to go out and buy a $50 bottle of premium Bordeaux to use in your beef stroganoff. “That’s overkill, and it’s unnecessary,” Rathbun says. He says a $10 or $15 dollar bottle of wine would probably do fine—as long as it is a good quality vintage that you enjoy.

* Avoid cooking wines

Do not use the “cooking wines” found in grocery stores, typically in the same aisle with the vinegar and bottled marinades. “These wines are generally poor quality and have a lot of salt added to them,” West notes. Using these wines will affect the recipes that you use them in—and not in a good way!

* Don’t add too much or too little

Consider the overall balance of flavors in the dish, and don’t add so much wine that it disrupts the balance of flavors. Remember, “the wine should enhance your recipe, not overpower it,” West says. At the other extreme, don’t add so little wine that it is inconsequential. Obviously it will take some experimentation before you know exactly how much wine flavor you like in your food. To get you started, braising a 4 to 6 pound beef roast with ½ to 2 cups of wine works well for most people. To flavor soups, add a tablespoon of wine at the start of the cooking process for each cup of liquid. You could replace 2 cups of the liquid in your spaghetti sauce recipe with wine, and then start it simmering. You can add less wine if it’s already been reduced.

* Add wine in the beginning of the cooking process

If you’ve already reduced your wine, you can add it anytime—even at the end of the cooking process or in uncooked dessert sauces and it’ll taste great. But if you’re adding unreduced wine, be sure to add that early on in the cooking process so that it can simmer with the food. This will reduce the wine and bring out the smoother flavors. If you add wine too late, it could impart a harsh quality to your dish, Rathbun says.

* Be willing to experiment

Don’t be afraid to wine in recipes that don’t call for wine. In fact, wine may be just what’s needed to add life to a recipe! And even when a recipe does call for wine, you may want to use a different type than what the recipe specifies. Be creative, and let your taste buds be your guide.

“In the beginning, you’re going to have to do some experimentation to see what works for you,” West says. Feel free to experiment with using various kinds of wines, in varying amounts, in different types of dishes. When it comes to cooking with wine, there are no hard and fast rules. These are just some general guidelines to make cooking with wine a little less daunting.

“The important thing is to have fun while you’re cooking,” Rathbun says. He recommends you save a little wine for your glass so you can sip on it while you’re cooking. Then you’re sure to enjoy yourself—not only when you’re eating the food, but when you’re preparing it too!

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