My refrigerator is plastered with magnets featuring wine platitudes. One of my favorites reads: "I love to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." I love to cook, and a good bottle is almost always part of the process. Wine possesses an amazing convivial characteristic, unknown to other alcoholic beverages. Sharing a good bottle of wine with friends while adding a dollop to a recipe meshes the flavors of your favorite wine with your food and friends. But why mesh them at all? Years ago, I worked as a chef, paying dues in the pristine kitchens of City Grill and Pricci in Atlanta. It was there I learned the important venerated role wine plays in the intricacies of food preparation. The amount, use, type and quality of the wine matters immeasurably.
The acids in wine can actually transform the composition of food, especially tough meats. It acts as a tenderizer, penetrating the fibers and softening proteins to make chewy meat soft to the teeth. Only because of color, chicken and seafood should be marinated with white wine, while red wine should be used for red meats. But if all you have is red wine and a couple slabs of chicken, then feel free to indulge; your chicken will be purple but tasty. Marinate meats for at least two hours or more in the fridge to achieve results, and soak seafood no more than two hours because the delicate flesh will actually begin to cook.
Sometimes it's the wine flavor you'd like to keep. For instance, wild mushrooms are amazing sauteed with port wine and garlic (see recipe). But a little dab'll do ya. Too much wine and all you'll taste is wine, even if you try to boil it all out. A light touch is best, and a few minutes of boiling will mellow the sharp alcoholic taste.
Normally, you'd want to use dry wines for savory sauces and marinades, but a sweeter wine like Madeira, port or late harvest can add depth to a sauce for gamey meats such as duck, and give a dessert sauce some added zing. Some dry varietals to stick with: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
But does quality of the wine matter? Yes, in some circumstances. If you're only using wine to marinate and not create a sauce, then go ahead and use something in the less expensive range. But, if you're making a sauce that will add to the flavors of a dish, then the quality of wine used makes a big difference. Think "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Would you want to taste cheap wine in your painstakingly prepared coq au vin? Now, would I suggest using a $50 bottle of wine? Uh ... no. But don't cook with what you wouldn't drink. Period.
With visions of wine flavors dancing in your head, grab a bottle, pour it in a pot and reap the rewards of wine and food combination.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail email@example.com.