As downtown desk jockeys a dozen years ago, a group of guys and I would frequently belly up at lunchtime at Focaccia Florentina for the main attraction: Penne alla Vodka. The creamy red tomato sauce with red peppers, green peas and a touch of vodka coats al dente penne for a singular pasta experience like few others in the city.
The unorthodox ingredient, vodka, imparts a mildness to the dish and keeps the cream stable as it is heated. There was never any worry of drinking on the job, as the alcohol in the vodka would evaporate out of the dish come serving time.
I still yearn for the entree, and occasionally make the trek downtown just for it, but the lunchtime favorite makes a more important statement about cooking with wine and spirits - do it. Don't be afraid. Whether deglazing a saute pan with a little white wine or adding a splash of red to beef stew, the subtle touch of wine and spirits expands a dish, extracts flavors and adds depth.
Mom used to make a beautiful and simple white clam sauce with fresh garlic, basil and oregano, and either the juice from canned clams or vegetable broth, clams, and a healthy slug of dry white wine. She'd bring everything up to temperature and serve over linguine noodles. I now make this dish for my family, but add a healthy dose of crushed red pepper. I also break tradition and let the kids put grated Parmesan over the clams. I know, purists everywhere are scoffing at the thought of cheese and seafood, but it's delicious.
Anyhow, do add wine and spirits into your favorite recipes. One of the most frequent e-mail questions I receive from readers, friends and neighbors, is on this very subject. What is a good wine to cook with? My short answer is just about any that hasn't received any oak aging. You want the wine to be as clean and pure as possible without the wood flavors. You want the wine to add to the dish and not detract from it. Grape and fruit flavors adds, wood detracts.
I like the bright acidity of a stainless steel-aged sauvignon blanc, from New Zealand as an example, and add a splash to civiche, along with tomatoes, lemon and lime juice, cilantro, red onions, green onions, jalapeno peppers, garlic and a mix of seafood and avocado.
On the red side, there are many applications, the most famous being spaghetti. Who could forget the Peter Clemenza character in "The Godfather" as he taught young Michael (Al Pacino) the secret to good sauce, as he poured a glass of Chianti into the pot? I take a twist on the red wine application and use it to deglaze the pot after I've browned beef or Italian sausage and an onion, and build my sauce upon that. You can use Chianti, but I actually prefer something a bit sweeter like gamay or pinot noir since you'll already have a high acid content from all the tomatoes.
One other application that I really like is to grill a couple steaks, nice thick-cut rib-eyes or New York strips with ample fat content, and make a red wine reduction as a finishing touch. I'll pan-sear the steaks at high heat, then transfer to a Pyrex dish to finish in the oven. I'll take the pan drippings and add a few tablespoons of minced shallot or yellow onion, salt, black pepper and saute, then deglaze with 1/2 to 1 cup of cabernet sauvignon. Allow the wine to simmer and condense with the onions and spices, and serve it over the steaks when they're done. Plus, you have almost a full bottle to savor with the steaks.
Finally, spirits are a true secret in the kitchen; they impart flavors if you're working with liqueurs, or added exciting new flavors to some of your favorite ingredients. Tequila lime shrimp or chicken is an excellent example. You can toss some shrimp or breast meat chicken, or both, into a ziptop bag with fresh lime juice, salt, black pepper, cilantro, a couple of diced jalapenos and 1/2 cup of tequila for a wondrous and simple marinade. Allow to steep for up to four hours and grill away.
Each of these examples is a great use of wine and spirits in your cooking. Shake up tonight's dinner.