Why not splash some booze in your food, too?

‘Dishes that called for booze spoke of glamour and dining over candlelight’
‘Dishes that called for booze spoke of glamour and dining over candlelight’
Image: Haarala Hamilton/Telegraph

People who poke around in my kitchen cupboards are often surprised (even a little alarmed) at how much booze I keep. There’s the usual stuff that any cook has (vermouth, Marsala, brandy and various types of sherry) and some more unusual bottles (Japanese plum wine – it makes a fantastic ice cream – and elderflower liqueur, for example).

There’s even an ancient bottle of kirsch, which has such a glorious label (my parents bought it in 1964). I just keep the bottle and refill it.

I learnt to cook as a child, which means I started in the mid-1970s. When I flicked through my mum’s cookbooks – her tomes from Marks & Spencer and Cordon Bleu – many of the recipes called for booze: crêpe Suzette, steak Diane, mushrooms with brandy and cream.

I loved these dishes. They spoke of glamour and dining over candlelight. At 14, my idea of a good Saturday night was to have a friend to stay and feed her steak Diane. I knew it was important to incorporate the brandy with the other ingredients, not to add it at the last minute (otherwise it would taste ‘raw’) and I enjoyed the theatricality of a flambé.

Of course, in those days, good food largely meant French, but even years later, when I was living in my first flat, I was still making sauces with Madeira.

Now with different ingredients, we conjure ‘global’ flavours – pomegranate molasses, miso, Thai fish sauce – and we’re almost dismissive of anything we cooked before 1990 (I mean, when did you last even consider making crêpe Suzette?). But things come in waves. The other day I found myself caught up in a discussion on Twitter about flour-thickened sauces (oh lovely béchamel) and began to crave the dishes I cooked decades ago.Fashion is cruel. It doesn’t consider quality. It damns and then, occasionally, it rehabilitates. This is to do with fatigue, of course. We love the new, and only take time to reassess the old once it’s faded.

I haven’t banned them from my kitchen, but there are days when all I want to do with pomegranates is throw them against the wall. They once made food look jewel-like, now they’re scattered over any dish that is vaguely Middle Eastern.

So with this week’s recipe I wanted to look back and say, ‘Have you forgotten how bloody brilliant some dishes are?’ When I thought about how to represent that kind of recipe, I realised that most of them contained booze. Alcohol is built into a dish, making another layer of flavour and mutating as it cooks.

A dish that contains alcohol shouldn’t be big and bold – it has exchanged its characteristics with the other ingredients, and the other ingredients have exchanged theirs with the alcohol. Everything has melded.

The flavour profiles alcohol offers are huge. Dry Marsala (try specialist wine merchants and good Italian delis) tastes of nuts and mushrooms and gets slightly sweeter as it reduces. Its happiest partners are veal and chicken. Sherry comes in so many different styles it makes no sense to consider it as just one drink. Manzanilla has a flinty seaside saltiness, which offsets the sweetness of clams and mussels (try using it instead of white wine for making moules marinière); amontillado contains citrus, as well as nuts and grapes; oloroso is heavy, though not sweet, and evokes raisins and glowing mahogany furniture. Braise beef cheeks in it – drink some along with the dish – and you’ll fancy yourself in a dark Madrid bar.

With Christmas and New Year but a near memory it’s likely you have few booze bottles hanging around. Don’t leave those bottles to gather dust. Keep a few right near the stove. – The Telegraph

Recipe

Chicken with wild mushrooms, shallots and Marsala

Serves 4-6

Chicken with wild mushrooms, shallots and Marsala
Chicken with wild mushrooms, shallots and Marsala

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil

1.8kg chicken, jointed into 8 pieces

16 shallots, peeled

200g chestnut mushrooms, thickly sliced

200ml dry Marsala

200ml chicken stock

15g dried wild mushrooms (optional)

4 sprigs of thyme

15g unsalted butter

125g fresh wild mushrooms, larger pieces chopped

1 garlic clove, grated to a purée

Method

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan or shallow casserole. Brown the chicken on both sides over a medium heat, seasoning it as you do so. Remove the chicken once it’s coloured.

Sauté the shallots in the fat left in the pan, turning to get a good colour on them. Again, it’s about colouring, not cooking the shallots through. Remove them too.

Add the chestnut mushrooms to the pan and sauté them briskly over a high heat to brown them. Season.

Stir in the Marsala then return the shallots and chicken to the pan (skin-side up). Add the chicken stock, the dried wild mushrooms and three sprigs of the thyme. Bring to a simmer.Cover the pan and cook for about 35 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through, removing the lid 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time. If you want the juices to be thicker, then remove the chicken and simmer the cooking liquor and mushrooms until the liquid has reduced.

At the same time, quickly heat the butter in a large frying pan and sauté the fresh wild mushrooms until they are golden. Add the garlic with 30 seconds to go. Season and add the leaves from the remaining sprig of thyme. Return the chicken to the pan and heat through. Check the seasoning then spoon the wild mushrooms over the top.

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