Wine Club Newsletter - September 2017
Reflections on Cooking with Wine
Early on in my culinary career (we are talking about the mid 1970’s) I was energized by my new discovery and love of wine at my new position in the first French restaurant in North San Diego County, Mon Ami. I had just graduated to the glorious position of line cook, direct from my dishwashing duties, under the tutelage of a real French Chef, and I was on a tear.
None of the recipes I was dealing with involved the use of cooking wine, and pretty soon I was needed on the floor to help with service. This seemed like a natural calling to me, and I relished meeting people who loved exploring and enjoying the culinary arts.
That summer, Mon Ami was serving fresh lobster with a Beurre Blanc sauce. This was so good, it made me crazy, so then and there I learned how to make Beurre Blanc. It was easy, basically chopped shallots, fold in soft butter with reduced wine, and voila!
While serving, I met a delightful couple, a surfboard manufacturer and his lovely girlfriend, who shared the same enthusiasm I did for the lobster dish. I told them I liked it so much I learned how to make it. They invited me over to their place, saying they would buy the lobster, provide some Chassagne Montrachet, and I was to cook lobster and make the sauce. DEAL!
The appointed day comes, and I am standing ready with the lobsters at the grill. I ask the host for some wine to make the Beurre Blanc sauce, and it’s a choice between this sweet cheap wine he had called La Salle or the Chassagne Montrachet. No way, I’m drinking the Chassagne, and we’ll cook with the La Salle.
Big mistake. The resulting sauce bordered on sickly sweet, and there was no way to remedy that. I was embarrassed, but learned a valuable lesson about cooking with wine, which I later discovered has flexible dimensions of correctness.
A few years later I am the newly crowned manager of Mille Fleurs Restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe. (This was a couple of years before my good friend Bertrand bought the place). The existing chef insisted on cooking with better than average wine, generally about $15 a bottle, back in those days. The cooking wine bill was going into thousands of dollars a month. I tried a few of the same recipes with more reasonably priced wines, and could barely notice a difference.
After we sent that chef bye-bye, I brought in one of the top chefs in San Diego of that period. He held the same beliefs that I did, that cooking wine, if standardized, didn’t matter a great deal to the final resulting dish. Turned out he bought cooking wine by the jug, the kind that had a ring at the top, so he could grab it by his finger and gurgle down a liter before dinner service without having to use a wine glass. His food was excellent though.
A couple of very different ideas about cooking with wine, to be sure. There is a science behind all this, and it can become lengthy and more complex then we may need to consider.
So here are a couple things you want to think about regarding wine you cook with:
Imperfections in the wine, like too much wood, too herbal, too old, chemical, will not go away and they will haunt your dish.
Use a reasonable, decently priced wine that is not a standout with imperfections, that you would like to drink while cooking. Reduce the wine . . .
Drink, cook, drink, cook . . .