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Cooking with wine so good you may want to cook first, drink later

WASHINGTON — Ask 10 cooks what they do with leftover wine, and, trust me, at least half will respond, "What's leftover wine?" Hilarious.

Of course, these jokesters are mostly members of couples, and they have no problem polishing off a bottle of pinot over dinner; it's just a little more than two 6-ounce glasses apiece.

A solo diner faces a higher bar. I've ended up drinking the equivalent of a bottle of wine over the course of a night with friends, but at home I'm usually a glass-and-a-half kind of guy. That means it takes me at least a few days to make it through a bottle, longer if I have restaurant meals on the agenda. (Sure, I could seek out those half-bottles, but they're too limited in availability and variety.)

Like others, I use a vacuum-saving system to buy me a little more time in the refrigerator. But it merely postpones the inevitable, leaving me a choice: Drink, dump or cook? Those who make meals for others can easily splash extra sips here and there into a stew, while I'm left trying to think of ways to use up larger quantities of vino without creating enough beef bourguignon for an army.

It's almost enough to keep me from opening a bottle in the first place. Almost, but not quite. I have to remind myself what wine is so good for (besides drinking) and then think of ways to combine those ideas with my favorite foods. One of the definitive works on the subject has plenty of answers: Anne Willan's 2001 Cooking With Wine. Willan lives part time in France, and, as she writes in the book's preface, "It has become as natural for me to add wine to the pan as it is for the cooks who were born here."

Wine gives food "instant complexity," Willan writes, but deciding how to use it isn't always simple. She cautions that young, fresh, fruity wines usually make better cooking ingredients than fuller-bodied wines, and she also says that some of the rules are meant to be broken, such as white wine for fish, eggs and white meat; red for duck, red meats and game. Indeed, one of the classic wine dishes is oeufs en meurette (eggs cooked in red wine).

That validates something I already do: Use light red wine to cook fish. Poaching is out, unless you want your cream-colored halibut to turn grayish-purple. But if you use just a half-inch or so of wine in a pan and cook the fish skin side down, only the barest edge along the bottom picks up a winey hue. I can live with that. And with salmon, it's not a problem at all.

Still, I was on the lookout for more inspiration, so I asked hundreds of friends and professional colleagues via Facebook for their cooking-with-wine ideas. They came back with some classics, such as deglazing pans after roasting meats, poaching pears or fish, and deepening the flavor of tomato sauces, as well as some that hadn't occurred to me.

Sure, I know you can make vinegar out of old wine, but one friend, blogger Lydia Walshin of Rhode Island (theperfect, cooks down wine to concentrate it and then adds it directly to vinaigrettes in place of or in addition to vinegar. I got dozens of suggestions to freeze leftover wine to use later, so I've added that to my strategy. I don't even bother with ice cube trays, instead just freezing a cup or more in a quart-sized resealable plastic food storage bag. Because the alcohol keeps the wine from freezing solid, I can easily break off whatever size piece I want.

Now, you've probably heard that you should cook only with wine you would drink, but that idea has been disproved. Many of wine's subtleties get lost with long cooking, Julia Moskin wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, noting that in blind tests, tasters preferred some dishes made with plonk over those made with much more sophisticated bottles. But it's true that opened, partly oxidized wine can become overly sour and therefore potentially ruin a dish, especially because cooking can concentrate a wine's most prominent flavors.

Even wine that's not so fresh, though, can be revived, which is the strategy behind one of my new obsessions. The idea came from Michele Humes, 27, a Brooklyn blogger who wrote about it at Her Mulled Red Wine Syrup is a truly delectable way to handle wine, even if it's starting to get too acidic. Humes, a former restaurant line cook who has her own blog at, was desperate the morning after a housewarming party and inspired by the mulled wine sold on street corners during the holidays when she lived in northern France.

All it took was sugar, spices and time for the wine to reduce and transform into liquid garnet. Now Humes chills it in plastic squeeze bottles in her refrigerator and pulls it out for streaks and squirts on various dishes, not all of them sweet.

"Well, the French love slathering their duck with heavy orange and cherry sauces, so an appropriately spiced wine syrup didn't seem like such a stretch and, in fact, works very nicely," she said. I haven't gotten that far with it, because I can't stop drizzling it over Greek-style yogurt or, frankly, just dipping a spoon in from time to time.

I've fallen so in love with the syrup, in fact, that it may have single-handedly changed my outlook about cooking with wine. Now I'm tempted to open a bottle and pour a glass just so I have an excuse to boil down the rest into that luscious glaze. Once I cross that line, I'll join the jokesters and ask: Leftover wine? What's that?

HOT TIP: Cutting salmon

This technique for turning a salmon fillet into an evenly thick steak comes from Henry Spit, a fishing guide in British Columbia, courtesy of his friend, food blogger Kevin Kossowan ( Washington Post

Use a sharp knife to slice through the middle,

making sure not to cut through the skin.

Lift the fillet and open it at the cut, folding each half outward.

The under (skin) sides of each half should meet.

The fillet now has an even thickness, with the skin sides

creating a center ridge.


Salmon Braised in Pinot Noir

1 slice uncooked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

2 ounces small cremini mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch slices (about 3/4 cup)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small leek, white and light-green parts, finely chopped (1/2 cup; see note below)

1 small shallot, finely chopped (1 tablespoon)

1 cup light red wine, such as pinot noir or Beaujolais

1 sprig thyme

Salmon fillet (6 ounce)

1-inch-thick, skin-on (pin bones removed), preferably center-cut, rinsed and patted dry

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a medium skillet over medium heat, add the bacon, and cook for about 8 minutes or until crisp. Transfer the bacon to a small plate; pour all but a teaspoon of the bacon fat in the skillet into a small bowl.

Return the skillet to the stove; increase the heat to medium-high. Add 1 teaspoon of the butter and the mushrooms; season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until mushrooms release moisture and it then evaporates. Add to the bacon on the plate.

Return skillet to medium-high heat. Add leek and shallot, stirring to coat with butter and bacon fat. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until vegetables start to brown.

Add wine and thyme; bring to a boil. Cook 3 or 4 minutes or until wine has reduced by half.

Season salmon lightly on both sides with salt and pepper, then place in the skillet, skin side down. Cover tightly and transfer to oven. Quick-braise for 7 to 8 minutes, checking to make sure the liquid is barely bubbling. (If it is bubbling too rapidly, decrease the oven temperature slightly.) The salmon will be done when it is opaque on the outside yet slightly translucent in the center. Transfer the fillet to a serving plate; cover loosely with aluminum foil while you finish the sauce.

Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain the liquid into a bowl, pressing on the vegetables and thyme to extract as much liquid as possible; discard the solids. Return the strained liquid to the skillet and place over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes, until the wine has reduced by one-third, then whisk in the remaining teaspoon of butter. Add the reserved bacon and mushrooms, stirring to combine. Cook for a minute or so until heated through; taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Spoon the sauce over the salmon. Serve hot.

Serves 1.

Note: To clean leeks, discard outer layer and trim the root end and dark-green leaves. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces, place in a bowl and cover with lots of cool water. Let sit for about 10 minutes to let any sediment fall to the bottom of the bowl; drain and pat dry.

Nutrition information per serving: 670 calories, 43g protein, 22g carbohydrates, 26g fat, 10g saturated fat, 110mg cholesterol, 542mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber, 4g sugar.

Source: Adapted from Molly Stevens' All About Braising (W.W. Norton, 2004)


Mulled Red Wine Syrup

1 1/2 cups any variety red wine

1/2 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split (not scraped)

2 whole star anise

1 teaspoon pink peppercorns

Combine wine, sugar, vanilla bean, star anise and pink peppercorns in wide pot or skillet over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to medium; cook for 10 minutes or until liquid becomes syrupy and has reduced by about two-thirds.

Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain the syrup into a small container; discard spices and let cool. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate. The syrup can be refrigerated indefinitely.

Makes 1/2 cup.

Note: This recipe's particular combination of spices is on the delicate side, but cinnamon, cloves, allspice and/or black peppercorns can be used for a more pronounced flavor.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 86 calories, 0g protein, 14g carbohydrates, 0g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 2mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 13g sugar.

Source: Adapted from a recipe by Michele Humes on

Cooking with wine so good you may want to cook first, drink later 04/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 4:30am]
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