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Kitchen Spirits


I came home the other day with a bottle of grappa. If you’re unfamiliar with it, grappa is a sort of clear Italian brandy made from the grape skins and pulp left over after making wine. Until recently it was thought of as a peasant drink, but it was “discovered” by someone – probably a marketer – and rapidly went upscale. I had my first taste on an Air Italia flight to Rome and quickly acquired a liking. It tends to be harsh, but the better grappas offer subtle complexities. I’ve found I like it better than brandy.

Liquor CabinetI’d bought the bottle not to drink but to make a dessert I’ve been meaning to try involving grappa, grapes, and mascarpone. I drink very little, but I can’t imagine cooking without booze. Whether wine, brandy, whiskey, or a liqueur, all can bring richness, depth, and even cultural elements to a dish.

Take the French classic, Coq au Vin. This traditional peasant dish is supposed to be made with a rooster (coq) past its breeding days. It’s tossed into a pot with some vegetables and red wine and slowly braised until tender. Why red wine? Because an old chicken is gamey and red is a better match for that gamey flavor than white. With a young hen or pullet white wine would work as well and might even be a better match for the meat, but, of course, it would lack the cultural connection.

The photo is of my liquor “cabinet.” When cooking, my most common “white wine” is dry vermouth. It works with most of my dishes and keeps me from having to open a whole bottle of white wine when I only need half a cup for a reduction sauce. To the right of the white vermouth is a three to four year supply of Kirschwasser, a cherry brandy. Kirschwasser is a key ingredient in cheese fondue, and in front of both is a bottle of Calvados, a French apple brandy that I often use in apple dishes. (There’s another bottle of Calvados in back, I’m not sure why I have two bottles.)

Grand Marnier, an orange liqueur, is great in a lot of different desserts and can make a nice addition to an orange vinaigrette. My editor points out that bitters – like grappa often considered a digestif – also do well in salad dressings. Bourbon is very Southern and can be a great addition to a pork marinade or barbeque sauce and I even have a recipe for sweet potatoes with bourbon and truffles that’s amazingly good. Rum is also a great addition to sweet potatoes and marinades, adding a Caribbean element to the dish.

In the background are bottles of cognac, vodka (I make a mean shrimp pasta with vodka), Amaretto, and Fra Angelica. I’m not sure why I have a bottle of sweet vermouth, I don’t recall what I bought it for, but it’s been around awhile. What you don’t see in the photo are two decanters on top of the bar containing sherry and port – favorites for pan sauces – nor do you see the rack of wine directly above the liquor.

Wines, beers, liqueurs, and whiskeys all have a important place in cooking. They bring interest, flavor, savor, and history to our meals whether you’re making Beef Carbonade with Belgian beer, Chicken Picatta with Italian Vermouth, or Lamb Daube with French wine.

And in the event you’re interested, here’s what I did with the grappa…

Grapes with Grappa and Mascarpone

3 cups seedless grapes (red, green or both)
5 tbsp grappa, divided
2 tbsp honey
3 fresh tsp lemon zest
6 oz mascarpone cheese – at room temperature

Puree 1 cup of grapes in a food processor or blender, transfer puree to a strainer over a small bowl and press to extract juice. Discard pulp. Add 2 tablespoons grappa, honey, and lemon zest and whisk to mix well. Add mascarpone and mix well. Chill for three hours.

Cut remaining grapes in half and add remaining grappa. Cover and allow to sit for 3 hours.

Spoon grapes into individual small, chilled bowls. Top with mascarpone and drizzle with grape juice.

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