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Cooking With Wine

Three local culinary experts illustrate how a touch of vino can enhance your favorite recipes

The world of wine can be, well, intimidating. So in talking to several local culinary experts, it was a happy surprise to learn that, though choosing a wine for the glass may be daunting, splashing it in the skillet needn’t be.

“Whenever wine is used,” says Janet Fletcher, food writer, and author of the recently released Cheese & Wine, “it’s there for acidity. It’s subtler, of course,” she adds, explaining that the acid in wine is more diluted than that in vinegar or lemon juice. But the purpose is the same: to add brightness.

Jacquelyn Buchanan, Julia Child director of culinary programs at Copia, elaborates, using the example of a favorite minestrone recipe. “Without wine, it’s flabby,” she says. “The soup has flavor, but less structure.” With wine, she says, the soup becomes layered and more complex. “It’s memorable.”

Buchanan’s favorite types of food to add wine to include soups, stews, braises, and sauces. “Anywhere you combine a good stock with wine,” she says, “you’ll get a really good effect.” She regularly adds a touch of vino to her risottos and desserts as well. “I prepare a lot of poached fruit and fruit compotes,” she says, “and I’ll start by making an aromatic wine syrup [a combination of wine, water, sugar, and fresh herbs such as lemon verbena] to combine with the fruit.” Fletcher notes that wine is also ideal in marinades, because it tenderizes without the harshness of vinegar.

Sondra Bernstein, chef and owner of the Girl & the Fig restaurant and its related businesses, comes to the subject from a different angle. Because her cuisine is French based, many of her recipes include wine by tradition. Among her favorites are Pernod-scented mussels and braised leeks. “And we do a great Provençal gazpacho,” she says, “with a splash of wine for flavor.”

Being a restaurateur, Bernstein has many wines at her disposal. So what does she recommend? “I wouldn’t use anything too oaked,” she says. How about the old adage that you shouldn’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink? Buchanan agrees and uses cooking sherry as an example. “I’d never use it,” she says, grimacing. “It’s horrible.”

Bernstein advises cooking with wine that’s “inexpensive, but not cheap.” Fletcher agrees: “Don’t use anything too fancy,” because once it’s heated, most of the wine’s nuance cooks off anyway. Most often, she grabs “whatever’s in the fridge.”

As for pitfalls, the experts advise not overdoing it. Fletcher recently made a risotto that was too tart. “There were already a lot of tomatoes—the wine sent the acidity overboard.” Buchanan adds: “I might not use wine if I had a very fresh or special ingredient that I wanted to stand on its own.”

Bottom line? As with anything you’re cooking, “think about how you want the recipe to end up and use wine to help you get there,” says Buchanan. On the other hand, if what you’ve ended up with needs a certain something, adding wine can help.

I’ll drink to that.
Lavender Beurre Rouge

From The Girl & The Fig Cookbook by Sondra Bernstein (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Bernstein recommends this sauce—a twist on a classic wine sauce—with grilled salmon.

2 TBS minced shallots
1 cup red wine
1 bay leaf
1 cup heavy cream
½ tsp dried lavender
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and white pepper

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the shallots, wine, and bay leaf. Cook the liquid until reduced to ½ cup. Add the cream and lavender and cook until reduced by half. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the butter, 3 or 4 cubes at a time. Be sure they are incorporated before adding more. Return the pan to meium heat and season the sauce with salt an dwhite pepper. Strain the sauce and serve. Makes 1 ½ cups.

Port-Glazed Pears

From The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books, 2000). Fletcher serves these pears halved, sliced, fanned out, and drizzled with some of the cooking syrup--with a hunk of Stilton cheese alongside.

1 cup ruby Port
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
4 srips lemon zest
2 ripe, firm pears
1 ½ to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

In a small saucepan, brink the Port, water, sugar, and lemon zest to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. While the mixture hats, peel the pears. Add the pears to the simmering liquid, setting them on their sides. Cover with a round of prachment paper that just fits over the pears, tucking in around them. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

Lift the parchment and turn the pears over in the liquid so they cook evenly. Re-cover and continue cooking until they are just tender when pierced, 1- to 12 more minutes. Remember that they will continue to cook a they cool.

Transfer the pears with a slotted spoon to a refrigerator container. Simmer the poaching liquid over medium heat until reduced to ½ cup. Let cool completely, then add the lemon juice. Pour over the pears, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. Turn the pears in the syrup every couple of hours so they develop a burgundy color. Serves 4. By Jacquelyn Buchanan. Buchanan notes that you don’t really taste the wine in the brownies—but it helps make the added cherries taste like the best you ever ate!

Cherry-Cabernet Brownies

By Jacquelyn Buchanan. Buchanan notes that you don't really taste the wine in these brownies--but it helps make the added cherries tast like the best you ever ate!

1 cup dried cherries
1 cup Cabernet Sauvignon
One 21-ounce package brownie mix
2 large eggs
½ cup canola oil, plus more for greasing the pan

In a small saucepan, combine the cherries and Cabernet and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 to 60 minutes. Drain the cherries, reserving the soaking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with canola oil. In a large owl, combine the brownie mix, eggs, oil, cherries, and ¼ cup of the soaking liquid. Stir until well blended. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 27 to 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool thoroughly before cutting. Makes 16 to 20 brownies.

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