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 pantry.com), 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 seriouseats.com. 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 finefuriouslife.com, 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?