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Welcome to another edition of What's for Dinner, my first diary contributed to the series. Tonight, let's discuss the different ways to use wine in recipes, other than marinating the chef. Wine can add great depth of flavor to any number of savory recipes (and several desserts). Equally important, the remainder of the bottle can be consumed with the meal. After all, as wine critic Matt Kramer once noted, "Food is the meaning of wine."

The first question you might have is, "What wine should I cook with?" The traditional answer is, "Whatever wine you will be pouring with the meal." This makes some sense, insofar as the influence of the wine in the recipe may echo the flavors of that in the glass. Of course, that may depend on how much of the bottle you need for the recipe; it's one thing to splash 2 oz. into a pan to deglaze it for a sauce, and quite another to devote half a bottle of Chateau Highfalutin' to a marinade. If you've pulled out a special (i.e., expensive) bottle to impress a date, find a cheaper version of the same grape to cook with. Try to avoid cooking with heavily oaked wines--those buttered Louisville Slugger flavors never seem to mesh with whatever else is in the pot. I'd recommend against drinking the oak monsters, too, but to each his own.

Never use the monstrosities labelled "Cooking Wine" that lurk on supermarket shelves near the oils and vinegars. These are a foul cocktail of cheap wine, salt, preservatives and God knows what else. Look at it this way--before they found their way into those bottles, these wines were so bad that not even the vinegar manufacturers would buy them. Enough said.

The next question is, "What about the alcohol?" The alcohol content of wine can range from 9% in some German Rieslings to well over 16% in some Zinfandels and in dessert wines like Port. In this context, alcohol is not your friend and needs to be cooked off, or it will throw the dish out of balance. If you don't believe me, try adding some wine to a sauce or dish right before serving it; you won't make that mistake again. The simplest way of addressing this problem is called reducing--by boiling or simmering the wine, the alcohol burns off (almost all of it, anyway, according to the kitchen scientist types) along with some of the liquid, which eliminates the nasty alcohol taste and concentrates the remaining flavors.

There are several ways to use wine in a recipe, and I will cover deglazing, marinating and braising. The first is simple enough. After sauteing or roasting meats or vegetables, there are always bits and pieces stuck to the bottom of the pan, even in most nonstick pan. Don't leave them there, they're full of flavor! Deglazing simply means pouring off any excess fat in the pan, placing the pan over a high flame on the stovetop, adding some liquid, and scraping up the browned bits as the liquid boils. Any liquid will do--you can even use plain water, though it obviously won't add any flavor. More common is wine, or stock, or both, as in the following recipe.

Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Mustard Cream Sauce

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded flat
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh tarragon or 1 tsp. dried
1 tbsp. creamy Dijon mustard

Melt the butter in a large saute or frying pan over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken to taste and saute in the pan. When cooked through, remove the chicken from the pan and cover to keep warm. Add the onion and saute until soft but not browned. Add the wine to the pan and scrape up whatever bits may be stuck to the bottom with a spatula or wooden spoon. When the wine has reduced by half, add the stock. When that has reduced by half, add the cream and tarragon. Lower the heat so that the sauce is just on the brink of boiling, and reduce the cream by about half, until it nicely coats the back of a spoon. Whisk in the mustard, return the chicken to the pan to coat with the sauce, and serve.

I suggest serving (and cooking with) a Chardonnay with this recipe, but if you want to impress your dinner companions, do you know what else pairs nicely with mustard and tarragon? Champagne!

Marinating simply means soaking food in seasoned liquid to both tenderize and add flavor. Often marinades feature some combination of an oil with something acidic, like lemon juice--or wine. Here is a simple marinade for a cheap cut of beef that responds well to marinating and grilling.

Grilled Marinated London Broil

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or run through a garlic press
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 to 2 lbs. London Broil

Pat the meat dry and place it in a Pyrex dish. Whisk together all of the marinade ingredients and pour over the meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate--preferably overnight, but for 4 hours at the very least. Or you could pour everything into a large Ziploc type bag--just make sure it's completely sealed. Turn the meat over a few times while marinating. When it's time to cook, remove the meat from the dish and pat dry. Discard the marinade. Grill to rare or medium rare--any longer than that and it will have the texture of shoe leather. Rest the meat for 10 minutes, then slice thinly across the grain and serve.

Here, you want a sturdy yet relatively fruity sort of wine, like a Cotes du Rhone, or southern Italian red. Plenty of good ones can be found in the $8-12 range. No need to uncork anything fancier here--you're grilling, so it's probably summer and you're eating outdoors at a picnic table off plastic plates!

Braising means cooking something something in liquid, usually covered, and over low heat. Tough cuts of meat respond well to this treatment. Your mother's pot roast is a classic example. My favorites for braising are pork butt and lamb shanks, but let's shift gears and throw in a vegetable recipe for the sake of variety. This is an adaptation of a classic Greek recipe. Because it is not identical to my Greek mother-in-law's recipe, she deems it an abomination. This is in keeping with the First Law of Peasant Cuisine, which holds that while there may be 10,000 versions of a recipe, the only authentic one is the one your mother made, and everyone else firmly believes the same of his or her mother's version.

Braised Green Beans

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 lbs. green beans, washed and trimmed
1 28 oz. can crushed or pureed plum tomatoes
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
OPTIONAL: 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives

Heat the oil in a large chef's pan or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute until soft. Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the beans, tomatoes, oregano and thyme. Bring to a boil, then cover, lower heat and simmer for an 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, until beans are tender. If using the Kalamatas, add them about 1/2 hour into the simmering process. Salt and pepper to taste before serving, but if using the briny Kalamatas, you won't need to add salt.

Here, you want a dry, rather acidic white wine like a Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or (if you really must) Pinot Grigio. You can stick with the same white with the meal, or given the heavy tomato influence, shift to a tomato-friendly red like a Chianti.

So, what's for dinner at your house, and what are you drinking with it?


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