PAIRINGS March 2001

PAIRINGS March 2001

Cooking With Spirits

Wine isn’t the only alcoholic beverage that can work magic in the kitchen. Spirits, too, can add that something extra to your favorite dish.

Consider, if you will, penne alla vodka. The sauce is made with butter, onions, garlic, plum tomatoes, heavy cream, basil, perhaps some dried red peppers and vodka. So why the vodka? Nigh-on flavorless vodka, when mixed with the mélange of flavors from the other ingredients, must just disappear in the sauce, right? Well, almost right. Vodka, like other distilled spirits, beer and wine, contains a not-so-secret ingredient known to us all as alcohol, and alcohol, according to Shirley Corriher, the acclaimed food scientist, is a flavor enhancer: It grabs the flavors of all other ingredients in a dish and heightens them to the max.

Professional chefs might not be aware of the scientific attributes of alcohol, but they know that when they add spirits, something magical happens. Brandy brings a lush richness to a sauce; Scotch can add a wisp of smoke; Bourbon enhances dishes with vanilla; and rum coaxes out the fruitiness of a dish. But more than that, the alcohol brings together all the ingredients in almost any dish in perfect harmony.

Few chefs are as fastidious about matching a spirit to a particular dish as is Bob Perry, executive chef at My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown, Kentucky. A native of the Blue Grass State, Perry, of course, leans toward Bourbon as his spirit of choice in the kitchen, but not just any old Bourbon will do: “Booker’s Bourbon is the most flavorful whiskey in Kentucky, and it shows through in my crème brûlée, but when I make barbecue sauce I prefer the smooth flavors of Maker’s Mark. For salad dressings I use Basil Hayden’s Bourbon—it’s light enough to marry well in my balsamic vinegar dressing. For my au poivre verte sauce, I use, well, I use brandy. It just works better.” Perry’s pièce de résistance, though, is his Seared Duck Breast with Bourbon Dried-Cherry Sauce made with Baker’s Bourbon: “The caramel and vanilla flavors in the Bourbon help to accent the dried cherries and pull the whole dish together,” he says.

Robert Carter, executive chef at Charleston’s acclaimed Peninsula Grill, doesn’t like using Bourbon in his kitchen—at least not in meat dishes—even though he was born and bred in the South. “The South is all about food,” says Carter, whose “resurrections of Southern staples” were heralded as “near-brilliant” by The New York Times’ food critic, William Grimes. But although he might shun a Bourbon-based steak sauce, many other spirits and liqueurs surface regularly in his repertoire.

He makes a Sweet Potato Flan with a dash of Frangelico; both peach schnapps and peach brandy are used in his Peach Glazed Shrimp; and the anise flavors of both sambuca and Pernod can be detected in two of his other seafood dishes: Oblio Shrimp and Arugula Asiago Oysters. “The Pernod came from classic French cooking, and the sambuca was born from that idea,” says this Johnson and Wales-trained chef. But beware. According to Carter, when cooking with spirits you should also use a fat or cream to mellow any harshness imparted by the spirit.

In New York City, at Le Colonial, a stylish French-Vietnamese restaurant, an entrée was created around a liqueur. “I was talking to the bartender who asked me to try a new passion fruit liqueur called Passoa, and I ended up creating my Grilled Marinated Pork Loin (Thit Nuong) around the drink,” says executive chef Hoc Van Tran. A native of Vietnam who has worked at Le Colonial since its inception in 1993, this innovative chef says that the Vietnamese don’t usually use spirits in the kitchen, but he made an exception for this dish.

Across the Atlantic, in Scotland—in the Speyside region, to be precise—David Yeadon, chef at Rothes House, a country-house hotel owned by a nearby distillery, frequently adds a tot or two of Scotch to the dishes he prepares. Although the Scottish Hotel School graduate uses some good blended Scotches in the kitchen, he doesn’t stop there; single malts make their way into Yeadon’s cooking, too.

“The principles of cooking with whisky are the same whether using single malts or blends. Select the whisky to be used for its flavor,” says Yeadon. “Try fuller-bodied whisky—usually single malt—for meat dishes, and the lighter malts or blends enhance dessert. Definitely avoid using the very heavily peated/smoked single malts [such as] the Islay whiskies, as they are much too dominant in a recipe. My personal preference is for Speyside malts, which have lots of body and flavor and are in general quite sweet.” Yeadon adds that only small amounts of whisky should be used in cooking
since its purpose is to enhance the flavors, not to dominate them. Yeadon makes appetizers, entrées, and desserts with Scotch as an ingredient, but our favorite recipe is his hearty Filet of Beef “Rothes House” Style.

For a spirit-laced dessert, we turn to New York’s W Hotel, which sports a health-oriented retail shop called Cool Juice. George McKirdy, executive pastry chef, makes fruit-packed energy bars for Cool Juice, and he adds just a touch of applejack to the mixture to round out the flavors: “The bars are full of winter fruits and dried fruits, and I thought that the apple flavors found in applejack would meld perfectly into this recipe,” the pastry chef explains.

McKirdy often cooks with spirits in the kitchen, but he warns that they should be used sparingly until you get a feel for them.

So put some spirit into your cooking—with spirits. Add a tot of brandy to a favorite sauce, a shot of whisky to your venison stew, or perhaps a little rum to your pecan pie. Remember, there’s no need to buy full bottles of liquor if all you need is a few tablespoons for a particular dish. Instead, buy a selection of miniatures that you can keep handy for when the need presents itself. And if you fancy a gin and tonic while you toil in the kitchen, well, hey, that’s okay, too.


Oblio Shrimp

Adapted from a recipe by Robert Carter, executive chef of the Peninsula Grill, Charleston, South Carolina.

  • 1 cup white rice
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons finely diced Vidalia or other sweet onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3/4 cup Oblio sambuca liqueur
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon diced red bell peppers
  • 1 tablespoon diced green bell peppers
  • 1 tablespoon diced yellow bell peppers
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
  • Salt and white pepper

Prepare rice according to package directions and keep warm until you are ready to serve.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, shaking pan frequently, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add shrimp and cook until pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

Pour in Oblio liqueur and stir, scraping up any bits from bottom of pan. Very carefully ignite liqueur, shaking pan gently until flames subside. Stir in heavy cream. Simmer until shrimp are done and sauce is thickened.

Add red, green and yellow peppers and tarragon. Whisk in remaining 1 tablespoon butter until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over white rice. Makes 4 servings.


Grilled Marinated Pork Loin (Thit Nuong)

Adapted from a recipe by Hoc Van Tran, executive chef of Le Colonial, New York City. You can find fish sauce, oyster sauce, five-spice powder and wasabi paste in Asian grocery stores or on the Asian shelf of your supermarket. This dish also goes well with seasoned rice.

Marinade and Pork:

  • 1 1/2 cups fish sauce
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup prepared Asian oyster sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons sake
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • 1 (3-pound) pork loin, trimmed and cut into 8 equal sections


  • 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped shallot
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1 cup reserved marinade
  • 1 cup Passoa (passion fruit liqueur)
  • 2/3 cup warm water
  • 3 tablespoons Japanese wasabi paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Combine fish sauce, honey, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, sake, sugar, pepper and five-spice powder and stir to mix thoroughly. Pour 1 cup of the marinade into another container and reserve for the sauce. Place pork slices into a shallow nonreactive pan in a single layer and pour remaining marinade over them, turning to coat on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, turning occasionally.

To prepare the sauce, heat oil in a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add shallot and garlic and cook until the garlic is golden in color, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add reserved marinade, Passoa, water, wasabi paste and sugar. Stir until heated through, well blended and smooth. Remove from heat and keep warm.

Preheat grill or grill pan to high. Remove pork slices from marinade and discard marinade. Place pork on grill and cook to desired doneness, 1 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving platter and drizzle the sauce over pork or serve it on the side. Makes 8 servings.

Filet of Beef “Rothes House” Style

Adapted from a recipe by David Yeadon, executive chef of the Rothes House, Scotland. If you wish, serve this dish with mashed potatoes or other mashed root vegetables.

  • 1 (2 1/4-to-2 1/2-pound) prime filet of beef
  • 8 slices bacon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1 heaping tablespoon flour
  • 1 heaping tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup The Glenrothes Vintage Single Malt, or a hearty Highland Single Malt such as The Macallan
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream or crème fraîche
  • Fresh herbs for garnish

Preheat oven to 425F. Place a roasting rack into a roasting pan.Wrap strips of bacon around the beef filet and tie at intervals with string. Place on the roasting rack. Roast for 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the desired doneness. (An instant-read thermometer will read 120F for rare; 125 to 130F for medium-rare; 135to 140F for medium.)

Meanwhile, pour remaining oil into a large skillet. Add onions and garlic and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently, until soft and lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in tomato paste, flour and peppercorns. Add stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently until ready to serve.

When beef is done, remove it from oven. Carefully remove beef, on its rack, from the pan and let meat rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, set the hot roasting pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Add about 1¼2 cup of sauce and stir, scraping any browned bits from bottom of pan. Pour contents of roasting pan into the sauce in skillet.

Strain sauce into a saucepan; discard solids. Set over medium heat and add whisky and wine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, add cream and remove from heat. Stir until thick and smooth.

When ready to serve, remove strings from beef. Slice and serve with sauce. Garnish with fresh herbs if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Seared Duck Breast with Bourbon Dried Cherry Sauce

Adapted from a recipe by Bob Perry, executive chef of My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, Bardstown, Kentucky.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup Bourbon
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • 2 whole duck breasts, split (4 pieces)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

In a heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine sugar and water and bring to a boil. Cook, washing down the sides of the pan with a moistened pastry brush, until the temperature reaches 222F on a candy thermometer. (Work carefully; hot sugar can cause a nasty burn.) Remove pan from heat.

Mix orange juice and Bourbon and pour into sugar. Stir well. Mix in cherries, remove from heat and let them plump for 20 minutes. The sauce may be rewarmed.

Meanwhile, using a sharp knife, score skin and fat of duck breasts in a checkerboard pattern. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and coat lightly with a bit of olive oil. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place breasts into pan in a single layer, skin-side down. Sear until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and sear on the other side, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 5 minutes.

To serve, slice each duck breast half in medallions and fan slices out on serving plate. Drizzle sauce over slices and decoratively around each plate. Makes 4 servings.

Cool Juice Energy Fruit Cake

Adapted from a recipe by George McKirdy, executive pastry chef at W Hotel, New York City. McKirdy uses this recipe to make “energy bars” at W, but it makes a nice fruitcake-style loaf, too.

  • 1/2 cup applejack
  • 1/2 cup chopped dates
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried figs
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1 cup chopped golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons applesauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of ground nutmeg
  • Butter, vegetable oil or non-stick cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup whole wheat cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

In a heavy saucepan, combine applejack, dates, figs, apricots, raisins, brown sugar, applesauce, cinnamon, allspice, salt and nutmeg and stir well. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes and remove from heat. Scrape into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 325F. Lightly butter or spray with nonstick cooking spray two 7 1/2-inch-by 3 1/2-inch loaf pans. Sprinkle pecans, walnuts, flour, baking powder and baking soda over cooled fruit mixture. Fold in until well combined. Divide dough in half; place each half into one of the prepared baking pans. Bake for 1 hour, or until loaves have risen and a toothpick inserted into them comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Turn out and cool to room temperature. Serve immediately or wrap well with plastic wrap to keep moist. Makes 2 loaves.

Published on March 1, 2001

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