Cooking With Spirit
A splash of wine can elevate a sauce to heavenly culinary heights.
Thursday, May 4, 2000
So spake the matriarch of post-modern cuisine in Volume I of her classic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Who among us could possibly imagine Julia in the kitchen without a wine bottle at her side? How utterly debased! But further, who among us who require a saucepan in hand to know happiness would be capable of producing a meal without wine as a component?
Immortalized on that list of firsts that includes such trenchant precedents as first kiss, first date and first car is my first beurre blanc, which as I recall, turned out to be much better than any of the other previous items. I was rigorously following a recipe from Bon Appetit, and permanently etched in the archives of my culinary victories is the wonder I experienced at creating a thing of such peerless beauty.
What began as half a cup of white wine, a splash of white wine vinegar and about a tablespoon of finely minced shallots was then reduced down to barely a couple of tablespoons. Next, magically, over very low heat, with the addition of a copious 12 ounces or so of butter, a smooth, silken pool emulsified before my very eyes, as if by Providential decree. In that pot was proof, by God, that I could cook. There have been some ill-conceived sauces that never lived to defile their accompaniment, but my first beurre blanc became the inspiration that urged me on to greater glories.
"In its varying forms, it''s one of the most versatile sauces that exists," attests Robert Kincaid, chef/proprietor of Robert''s Boulevard Bistro. "It appears seven or eight different ways on my menu. The reason it''s so versatile is that it can be the medium for infusing other flavors, like peppers, tomatoes, basil, dill, saffron--I use all of these. Beurre blanc is a great mother sauce. I can''t imagine cooking without wine, because it scents everything, gives it movement. It''s the one item I know, besides salt, that makes the difference between bland and excitement."
To consider the fate of coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne, bouillabaisse or veal marsala--marsala is wine fortified with brandy--without the gift of the grape is a pretty pale existence. At Stokes Adobe, Chef Brandon Miller is celebrating squid season with red wine. He starts by sauteing fresh Monterey Bay calamari with lots of chopped garlic and then adds fresh, diced tomatoes and kalamata olives to the pot, bathes everything in good red wine and sends it into the oven for a long, slow braise. After reducing the liquid down to the right consistency, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, some fresh chopped parsley and fried polenta croutons take it all to the finish line.
With a plethora of good quality inexpensive jug wines to choose from--a bonus of the burgeoning California wine industry--keeping a jug in the kitchen is the culinary hedge against debasement, and a cup for Julia and one for the pot continues the noble cause.