Eat in

Cook­ing with al­co­hol may seem a bit 1970s, but the flavours it cre­ates never go out of fash­ion

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - GOOD TASTE - with Diana Henry Stella’s award-win­ning cook­ery writer

PEO­PLE WHO POKE AROUND in my kitchen cup­boards are of­ten sur­prised (even a lit­tle alarmed) at how much booze I keep. There’s the usual stuff that any cook has (ver­mouth, Marsala, brandy and var­i­ous types of sherry) and some more un­usual bot­tles (Ja­panese plum wine – it makes a fan­tas­tic ice cream – and el­der­flower liqueur, for ex­am­ple). There’s even an an­cient bot­tle of kirsch, which has such a glo­ri­ous la­bel (my par­ents bought it in 1964) that I just keep the bot­tle and re­fill it.

I learnt to cook as a child, which means I started in the mid-1970s. When I flicked through my mum’s cook­books – her tomes from Marks & Spencer and Cor­don Bleu – many of the recipes called for booze: crêpe Suzette, steak Diane, mush­rooms with brandy and cream. I loved these dishes. They spoke of glam­our and din­ing over can­dle­light. At 14, my idea of a good Satur­day night was to have a friend to stay and feed her steak Diane. I knew it was im­por­tant to in­cor­po­rate the brandy with the other in­gre­di­ents, not to add it at the last minute (oth­er­wise it would taste ‘raw’) and I en­joyed the the­atri­cal­ity of a flambé. Of course, in those days, good food largely meant French, but even years later, when I was liv­ing in my first flat, I was still mak­ing sauces with Madeira.

Now with dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents, we con­jure ‘global’ flavours – pomegranate mo­lasses, miso, Thai fish sauce – and we’re al­most dis­mis­sive of any­thing we cooked be­fore 1990 (I mean, when did you last even con­sider mak­ing crêpe Suzette?). But things come in waves. The other day I found my­self caught up in a dis­cus­sion on Twit­ter about flour-thick­ened sauces (oh lovely béchamel) and be­gan to crave the dishes I cooked decades ago.

Fash­ion is cruel. It doesn’t con­sider qual­ity. It damns and then, oc­ca­sion­ally, it re­ha­bil­i­tates. This is to do with fa­tigue, of course. We love the new, and only take time to re­assess the old once it’s faded. I haven’t banned them from my kitchen, but there are days when all I want to do with pomegranates is throw them against the wall. They once made food look jewel-like, now they’re scat­tered over any dish that is vaguely Mid­dle Eastern.

So with this week’s recipes I wanted to look back and say, ‘Have you for­got­ten how bloody bril­liant some dishes are?’ When I thought about how to rep­re­sent that kind of recipe, I re­alised that most of them con­tained booze. Al­co­hol is built into a dish, mak­ing an­other layer of flavour and mu­tat­ing as it cooks. A dish that con­tains al­co­hol shouldn’t be big and bold – it has ex­changed its char­ac­ter­is­tics with the other in­gre­di­ents, and the other in­gre­di­ents have ex­changed theirs with the al­co­hol. Ev­ery­thing has melded.

The flavour pro­files al­co­hol of­fers are huge. Dry Marsala (try spe­cial­ist wine mer­chants and good Ital­ian delis) tastes of nuts and mush­rooms and gets slightly sweeter as it re­duces. Its hap­pi­est part­ners are veal and chicken. Sherry comes in so many dif­fer­ent styles it makes no sense to con­sider it as just one drink. Man­zanilla has a flinty sea­side salti­ness, which off­sets the sweet­ness of clams and mus­sels (try us­ing it in­stead of white wine for mak­ing moules marinière); amon­til­lado con­tains citrus fruits as well as nuts and grapes; oloroso is heavy, though not sweet, and evokes raisins and glow­ing ma­hogany fur­ni­ture. Braise beef cheeks in it – and drink some along with the dish – and you’ll fancy your­self in a dark Madrid bar.

With Christ­mas com­ing, it’s likely that you’ll have more booze hang­ing around. Don’t leave those bot­tles to gather dust once the fes­tiv­i­ties are over. Keep a few right near the cooker.

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