One of my culinary heroes, the late Robert Reynolds, wrote a jewel of a book titled An Excuse to Be Together (it’s now out of print). The inspiration for the title is a quote one of his French friends would say when he sat at the table: “La table est un lieu d’excuses.” In other words, the table provides an excuse to be together and to enjoy each other’s company.
I think of wine the same way. To me, wine with food is a reason to gather with friends, to tell stories, to laugh and reminisce, to savor the present moment — if only for an evening. A great bottle of wine is an excuse for an impromptu dinner party, a reason to cook with friends and family.
Walking the aisles of a culinary bookstore recently, I came across a well-worn, dog-eared cookbook I had never seen: Cooking With Wine, by the internationally renowned author Anne Willan, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on French cooking and the founder of École de Cuisine La Varenne.
This one-of-a-kind cookbook, published in 2001, features 221 wine-based recipes from around the world, ranging from classics such as beef bourguignon and coq au vin to creative dishes such as port-wine gazpacho and tuna steak marchand de vin. Each recipe includes wine suggestions, both for cooking and for drinking. Sprinkled throughout the recipes are 24 winery profiles, providing a portrait of American food and wine; they range from Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon to Palmer Vineyards in New York.
For me, the discovery of this book — which is neither new nor flashy — was like rekindling an old friendship. It sparked a renewed interest in bringing wine into the kitchen to see how a splash of sherry or a cup of Beaujolais might enhance a dish. Most of all, though, the book inspired cooking, uncorking something new, and gathering friends around the table. An excuse to be together.
With great enthusiasm for her book, I contacted Anne and asked her to elaborate on a few tips when cooking with wine and for three recipes you can use now to throw a spring dinner.
In the intro, you write that you hope with this book to “herald a return to wine in the kitchen, so that a splash of red or white wine in the gravy or in the soup, as an addition to a dressing or a quick lift to a sauce, becomes as commonplace as pepper.” What first inspired you to begin this project — a book with the specific topic of cooking with wine?
I’m always looking about for new book ideas, and at the time I was on the board of a gastronomic organization in Napa called Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. As my contribution to fundraising, I wrote this book, which unites wine and food, and the proceeds went to the Copia. It turned out to be a very interesting project. I don’t know of anyone else who has explored what happens when wine hits the pan.
I love this passage about what wine brings to the plate: “Already mellow and rounded, wine adds instant complexity to a dish. The alcohol contributes not just zest and vigor, but it also reacts on food in various ways, as do other components of wine, particularly acid.” What are some other elements that you think wine brings to a dish?
Wine adds complexity and layers of flavor to a dish, even if it is not cooked but added raw — to a dressing, for example.
In the book, you write about rules for cooking with wine: “White partners with eggs, fish, and white meats; red goes with duck, red meats, and game. Chicken is right in the middle and can be cooked with either according to your taste.” Do you have any other specific tips or rules for cooking with wine?
In cooking, wine should not be heated at all, or very thoroughly cooked so it is reduced by at least half the volume. This mellows and rounds out the flavors, and of course boils off the alcohol, though that is not the primary purpose. Often this reduction happens as part of a larger project of cooking, such as the beef in a sauce Bourguignon.
Did you come across any particularly interesting recipes involving cooking with wine in your research for your newest book, The Cookbook Library?
Ypocras (spiced red wine). The recipe comes from [the famous French restaurant] Taillevent.
Kerry Newberry is a wine and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She believes a good glass of wine is a story of people, place, and time. Join her here as she seeks out the personalities, politics, and poetics that craft a wine from vine to table. Follow her online and on Twitter @KerryNewberry.
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