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