Having worked in some of the country’s most cutting-edge kitchens, including Boston’s Clio, New York City’s wd~50 and Chicago’s Alinea, chef Alex Stupak is well versed in pushing the culinary envelope.
Stupak opened Empellón Taqueria in New York City in 2011, pursuing a personal passion for modern Mexican food and Tequila. His creative take on South-of-the-border eats proved so successful that it spawned two spinoffs in Manhattan, Empellón Cocina and Empellón Al Pastor.
“People are finally recognizing Mexican cuisine for its deep, rich and multifaceted qualities, instead of thinking of it as street food,” says Stupak. “One trend I think that diners will see is the integration of Tequila into cooking and food pairings, much like how wine is incorporated into French cuisine.
“Many of us were first introduced to Tequila as a drink that you shoot, but with an increase in [the] variety of sipping Tequilas on the market, these spirits carry a richness of flavors that can be highlighted in Mexican cuisine.”
Here are Stupak’s tips on how to bring the trend home, plus a Tequila-infused recipe.
1. Don’t be afraid of using high-end Tequila in recipes.
“I was recently asked to do a Tequila pairing dinner, and I mixed a Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo into a smoky, tomatillo-based red chili salsa. The natural sweetness and caramel flavors of the Tequila resulted in a great borracha (“drunken salsa,” recipe below), and the rich vanilla notes work well with the Oaxaqueño chilies and tomatillos.”
2. Cook with Tequila just like you would with wine.
“I once incorporated Tequila into a sauté of morel mushrooms, and as the Tequila reduced with the cooking juices, it resulted in a rich, sweet flavor, much like Sherry does. I’ve also created a queso flameado, like a cheese flambé with chorizo that has a nice pour of Tequila on top. Once the alcohol cooks out of the dish, the remaining flavors are rich and fragrant and really elevate the delicious cheese.”
“I would never have used Tequila in dessert unless I experimented. We succeeded with a toffee that was infused with Tequila, which made a fantastic sauce for fresh fruit and sorbet. To do this, you caramelize sugar and deglaze it with cream, followed by a pour of Tequila, then allow it to simmer for a few minutes. You remove it from the heat, let it cool and then chill it in the freezer. The alcohol content results in a toffee sauce that is as thick as fudge.”
Recipe: Salsa Borracha
Courtesy Alex Stupak, chef/owner, Empellón Taqueria, Empellón Cocina and Empellón Al Pastor, New York City
3–4 medium tomatillos (about 5 ounces total), husked, rinsed and patted dry
2 Pasilla Oaxaqueño chilies
1 garlic clove, skin on
½ medium white onion, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon honey
¼ cup Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo Tequila
Preheat broiler. Roast tomatillos on baking sheet until blackened in spots, about 7 minutes. Turn them and blacken for 7 minutes. Remove from broiler and let cool.
Remove stems from chilies and tear open. Discard seeds and veins.
Warm a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Toast chilies, turning occasionally, until wisp of smoke is visible, about 45 seconds. Remove pan from heat, and transfer chilies to bowl. Cover chilies with hot water. Place heavy plate over chilies to keep submerged. Soak for 30 minutes.
Reheat skillet over medium heat. Add garlic clove and onion to pan. Roast, turning occasionally, until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Remove clove and onion from skillet, and let cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel garlic and discard skin.
Drain chilies and discard liquid. Place chilies in blender with roasted tomatillos, garlic and onion. Add salt, honey and Tequila. Purée on high until smooth, working in batches if necessary. Pass purée through fine-mesh sieve set over bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use. Salsa will keep up to 1 week. Yields 1¼ cups.
Stupak’s Tequila and Food Pairing Ideas:
“Blanco Tequilas work well with light, cold seafood dishes that have a citrus element, such as ceviche.”
“Reposado Tequilas pair wonderfully with grilled vegetables.”
“Añejo Tequilas go great with savory dishes that have a natural sweetness, such as barbecue sauce, or try incorporating a splash of Tequila into a Thai or Indian sauce.”