Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Cooking With Wine: Using Alcohol in the Kitchen

Wine and Other Alcohol in the Kitchen

One of the simplest, and often quickest, ways to add a serious depth of flavour to your cooking is to add wine, beer, spirits or other alcohols. Wine is one of the “must have” ingredients in my kitchen, used almost as regularly as other seasonings and flavourings such as salt and pepper, butter, oil, herbs, garlic etc. When used correctly, the alcohol itself cooks out so that you can use it even if you are a strict teetotaller, and it is therefore also safe for kids and anyone else on a booze-free regime.

This is not a “cooking with wine” recipe as such, but a general guide to alcohol in the kitchen: adapt and use where you like. I’ve used wine as the example throughout, but most is true about cooking with beer, spirits, fortified wine, cider etc.

Rule One: never cook with wine that is not good enough to drink. There is no such thing as “cooking wine.” Wine is used in cooking to add flavour, so why would you want to add flavours that are crude or second class? This doesn’t mean that you have to use expensive wines, even if your budget can stretch to it. Use good, everyday, drinking wine that you would happily pour into your glass to have with your dinner, or when lying back on the sofa with a good book. Furthermore, the majority of recipes do not call for a whole bottle of wine, so what else are you going to do with the rest of it than drink it? Wine does go off once opened, you know. Waste not, want not.

Rule Two: as I mentioned in the first paragraph, make sure the alcohol has a chance to cook off. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water (78C compared to 100C) so this is easily achieved: a minimum of a few minutes bubbling will do it, and of course in the majority of recipes the cooking time is far in excess of this. Just don’t chuck the booze in just before you serve, and you will be fine.

Rule Three: despite being told the contrary in so many classic recipes and methods, avoid marinating meats in wine or other alcohols (and, for that matter, citrus and vinegars etc) for very long. Yes, the wine will seep into the meat, adding flavour, but the alcohol also wants to bond with the moisture content, and will thus tend to dry it out. Use marinades that are mainly oil-based, and reserve the wine etc for the cooking.

Rule Four: where practical, use wine to deglaze the pan. After frying or roasting meats, fish, vegetables, or pretty much anything, add a glass or so to the hot pan, stirring and swirling up all those tasty sediments at the bottom, and let it reduce a little while the alcohol boils out. Add to your gravy, stew, stock, or just pour these winy pan juices over the finished dish.

Rule Five: substitute. Don’t forget that most wine cookery recipes come from countries and regions where wine is cheap, plentiful and easily available. Even though a decent drinkable wine is available to most budgets pretty much everywhere, why not substitute a form of alcohol that is local to you? I did exactly this recently in my Mussels with Chorizo in Cider recipe, using local cider where wine is a more knee-jerk choice.

A final cautionary note: alcohol can flame when added to a hot pan, so BE CAREFUL. Spirits will obviously do this, sometimes intentionally, as in flambé dishes, but the alcohol in wine too can rapidly vaporise and catch, along with fats released from your food, so do take care!

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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mussels in Cider with Chorizo Recipe

No apologies for posting another seafood and chorizo recipe so soon; my recent Monkfish and Chorizo recipe has been one of my most popular this year, getting lots of organic search traffic, proving that more and more people are understanding the wonderful affinity between the spicy, tangy chorizo and other charcuterie alongside the sweetness of shellfish.  I also thought I’d better get a mussels recipe out there soon as it’s getting toward the end of the season in my part of the world: the old rule about only eating them when there is an “R” in the month is a good one, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.  Basically, it is the Autumn/Fall to early Spring – the winter months when the bivalves are not spawning.

I am using cider because I live in the West Country of England, and the good stuff is easily available; choose one that’s fairly dry  You could, of course, use white wine or beer if you prefer, or a light fish stock if you don’t like to cook with booze (but don’t forget that alcohol evaporates in the cooking, leaving you with no buzz other than that from the resulting depth of flavour.)

Although I am a free-range kind of guy, and can, in fact, gather mussels from the beach within a ten minute walk from my front door, I see nothing wrong with using farmed mussels: these rope or net grown beasts are often plumper and less gritty than their wild counterparts, and current thinking is that they tend to have a positive rather than negative impact on the environment.  Whatever you use, make sure that they are very fresh and Alive-Alive-O! both at the point of purchase and before cooking.

Don’t be scared of shellfish and the horror stories of food poisoning you’ve heard: buy from a reputable source (or gather in the wild from a clean beach) and you will be fine as long as you follow three simple checks:  1) discard any with cracked or broken shells.  2) before cooking, the mussels should close firmly, either during the washing/cleaning process, or when tapped on your worktop: discard any that don’t.  3) after cooking, they should all be gaping open – again, discard any that have remained closed.

Cleaning is simple: fill your sink or a bowl with clean water, and tip in the mussels.  Use a scrubbing brush, your fingers, and if necessary a small knife to get rid of the beard and any loose debris or major encrustations of barnacles – this should only be a matter of seconds per mussel; we are not entering them into an exhibition, so don’t spend your day polishing them.

Quantity-wise, you’ll need about half a pound/225 grams of mussels in their shells per person for a starter, and perhaps double that for a main course.  I have given quantities below for a two-person main course; adjust accordingly.

I have chosen chorizo simply because I love the stuff, but on another day I could keep my recipe truly local to my part of the world by substituting some good, dry cured, properly smoked bacon (none of the brine-injected fake-smoke-flavoured stuff, thank you) or perhaps even some chopped sausage.

As we are cooking the mussels in their shells, you will need a pretty large saucepan with a lid (I have a good sized stockpot that I use for this job) and some large serving bowls – plus another bowl on the table for the empty shells.  This is a pretty messy meal in the eating, so also have ready plenty of napkins!
Serve with lots of good, crusty bread to add some carbs to the meal and to mop up the plentiful juices.

Mussels in Cider with Chorizo Recipe(for two as a main course)

2lb/900g good, plump, live cleaned mussels in their shells (see safety notes above)
4oz/115g chorizo, from a chunk, not the pre-sliced stuff - chopped roughly into fairly small dice
4oz/115g shallot or onion, peeled and diced fairly small
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and diced finely
1 pint/half litre flavoursome dry cider
A good handful of fresh parsley, chopped finely
A splash of oil to sauté the alliums/chorizo
Freshly ground black pepper to taste – you should not need salt as the mussels will release their own briny juices during cooking


Put the splash of oil into the pan over a medium heat, and gently sauté the onion/shallot and chorizo until the alliums start to soften and the chorizo begins to ooze its paprika-coloured juices – about five minutes.  Add the garlic, and continue to cook for a further minute or two – do not let the garlic burn.

Add the cider and freshly ground pepper, bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let simmer for five minutes so the flavours can merge and the alcohol evaporate off.  Tip in the cleaned mussels, and return to the boil.  Immediately put a lid on the pan and, using cloths or oven gloves, give the pan a good shake every minute or so – you may need to reduce the heat if they boil over or you feel the liquid is evaporating/reducing too much.  Lift the lid after three minutes, stir in the chopped parsley, and check that all the mussels have opened – if not, cover and shake again for another minute or two.

Tip: if you want to go for perfection here, mussels are ready as soon as the shells open and will toughen with further cooking, so you can remove these to the serving dishes as you check, leaving only the closed ones to continue steaming.  If any haven’t opened after around five or six minutes, they are probably never going to, so discard them.

Decant all the mussels and their cidery juices into the serving bowls and enjoy.  It is perfectly in order to use your fingers: slurp out the first mussel, then use its shell as a kind of spring-loaded chopsticks-type utensil to eat the rest, using a combination of spoon and crusty bread for the juices.

This Mussels in Cider with Chorizo recipe is obviously a take on the classic Moules Mariniere which uses wine, along with cream and a buerre manié at the end to thicken the sauce – the thickening agents are used to avoid having to boil and reduce the sauce which would otherwise become too salty.  You can certainly thicken the sauce if you like, but I prefer the lighter version as given here.