I LOVE cooking with wine. It’s my second favourite thing to do with it. (There isn’t a third.)
A glass of white in your risotto, a splash of port in your gravy, a flagon of red in your beef stew – pop, glug, splosh, bubble – and dinner is elevated to the next level. A drop of the good stuff (or, dare I say, even the not-so-good stuff) adds acidity, depth of flavour and brings out umami in a dish in a way that a squeeze of lemon or a dash of stock cannot. It allows you to create food that not only satisfies the belly, but warms right through to the soul. What’s more, cooking with wine makes your home smell incredible – like you’ve walked into one of those idyllic roadside bistros in rural Southern France – one odour I don’t mind lingering in my soft furnishings.
There are, however, a couple of commonly held views about cooking with wine with which I – possibly controversially – disagree. The first is that you must only ever cook with wine that you would be happy to drink. While I possess a degree of
snobbery discernment when it comes to the wine I quaff, I do not feel the same about stuff I’m going to bung in a stew, unless of course it’s a special occasion or I’m feeding someone with a chef’s palate. I have, on more than one occasion, made a pretty decent fist at boeuf bourguignon using a variety of past-it dregs from bottles that have been gathering on the windowsill for well over a week. The same goes for a perfectly palatable coq-(not)-au-riesling I made recently with a bottle of Pinot Grigio Blush (a ‘gift’), which was anything but palatable in its original state.
I have my standards, of course (although my bar is set quite low). If the wine smells like it would be better suited to a plate of chips than to the pot I won’t use it, and if it is corked to start with, I have learned (albeit the hard way) that no amount of cooking, reducing or seasoning will stop the end dish from smelling and tasting like a stagnant pond.
But wine is expensive – the average price per bottle is now north of a fiver – so I say keep the good stuff for drinking (saving, or even freezing any leftovers) and buy a cheap wine box which can sit happily in the back of a cupboard for months for all your culinary needs (or for moments of emergency self-medication when the wine rack is bare).
Then there’s the issue of using wine in dishes that may (or let’s face it, may not) be eaten by kids. ‘Just leave it out,’ advises Jamie O. But why? Of the kids I know who are happy to have their protein ‘contaminated’ by a sauce, many appreciate that unique tang that booze brings without being consciously aware of its presence (my teen would probably eat a shoe if it was smothered in a sauce made with marsala, while the 10yo is positively addicted (poor choice of word?) to brandy-laced peppercorn sauce). I can understand it might be viewed as questionable parenting to feed a boozy trifle to a five-year-old, but in hot dishes the cooking process does away with any alcohol. And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that can happen? Happy, giggly, but – very quickly – sleepy kids.
And if all that hasn’t put you off dinner or playdates at mine, I don’t know what will.
Wine-braised chicken with juniper
This dish, based on one I found years ago in The Guardian by Hugh F-W, is simple and quick enough to make for a weekday supper but the addition of juniper gives it an unusual and sophisticated flavour, making it perfect for a dinner party. The juniper also makes it smell like gin. Win, win. (Anyone got the number for AA?)
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 heaped tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
- 1 chicken, jointed into 8, or about 1.5kg of chicken legs/breasts
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, bashed (don’t worry about removing skins)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig rosemary
- a couple of sprigs of thyme
- 1 tbsp juniper berries, lightly crushed
- splash marsala (sweet fortified wine) (optional)
- 500ml white wine
- 300ml chicken stock
- 1-2 heaped tbsp full fat creme fraiche (or a generous splash of double cream)
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- salt and pepper
- chopped flat leaf parsley to garnish
- Put the seasoned flour in a large freezer bag, tip in the chicken and give it a good shake until the chicken is lightly coated (skip this stage if you are low carbing or gluten free).
- Heat half the oil on a high heat in a large heavy-based pan or casserole and brown the chicken, in batches if necessary, until golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate.
- Turn down the heat to medium, add a splash more oil to the pan, then add the onion, herbs and garlic and cook gently for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent.
- Add the marsala (if using) and wine and let them simmer for a few minutes, scraping off any caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan, then add the stock and the juniper berries. Bring to the boil and then simmer for a further five minutes.
- Return chicken, skin side up, to the pan, and braise, partially covered, on a low heat for 25-30 mins until the chicken is cooked through.
- Remove the chicken once more, then strain the sauce through a sieve and return it to the pan (you can skip this step but I prefer a smooth sauce, as the flavour of a bitten juniper berry can be a little overpowering). Reduce a little then add the creme fraiche and mustard then reduce a little more so the sauce has the consistency of single cream.
- Return the chicken to the pan, warm through and scatter with parsley. Serve with mash or flat pasta noodles such as pappardelle or tagliatelle and greens of your choice.