Now we're cooking

Carefully chosen wines can flavor a variety of dishes

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Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, most of us think more about food, buy more groceries, and cook more than we do during the rest of the year, which makes it a good time to talk about wine, not as a beverage but as a flavor in cooking. When the recipe says "1 cup dry white wine," will anything costing from $3 to $30 do? Would an Australian Chardonnay and a French Muscadet work in the same recipe?

To begin with, it helps to know what happens to wine during cooking. Conventional wisdom has always been that the alcohol evaporates and is therefore eliminated. But that's not exactly the case. Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture research (as reported by the Mayo Clinic in 1997) shows that when you add wine to a boiling liquid, then immediately remove it from the heat, 85 percent of the alcohol remains. The longer you cook the mixture, however, the more alcohol is eliminated. After 15 minutes, 40 percent remains; after 1 hour, only 25 percent; and after 2 1/2 hours, just 5 percent.

Clearly, people who must completely avoid alcohol shouldn't cook with wine. For most of us, however, a small amount presents no problem. The question is, how should the wine be used to take advantage of the flavors it can contribute?

Chefs are a good resource here. They use wine in two ways: First, as a basic building block to give stews, stocks, and marinades an extra dimension. Added early in the cooking process, wine marries with the other ingredients, so in the end you can't taste the wine itself, although it has added more layers of flavor and richness than water could have. Second, chefs often finish sauces, meats, and vegetable dishes with wine precisely so you can taste some of the actual wine.

Here are some guidelines.

1. Never use poor-quality wine. If you wouldn't drink it, don't pour it in the stew. A wine with sour or bitter flavors will contribute those flavors to the dish.

2. Never use cooking sherry or any other so-called cooking wines. These wretched liquids are horrible-tasting, cheap, thin base wines to which salt and food coloring have been added. They make foods taste worse, not better.

3. If a recipe calls for dry white wine, the best and easiest American choice is a quality Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that is completely dry and has a fresh, light herbal tilt. We've used it, for example, in our easy wine gravy for Thanksgiving. If the dish has bold or spicy flavors, however, try a Gewürztraminer, Riesling, or Viognier. They each have dynamic, exotic floral and fruity aromas and flavors, which create a fascinating counterbalance in a bold or spicy dish.

4. If the recipe calls for dry red wine, think about the heartiness of the dish. A rustic, long-cooked casserole of lamb shanks or a substantial beef stew needs a correspondingly robust wine. Use a big-bodied red Zinfandel or Petite Syrah. Less hearty dishes can take a less powerful red, such as a Merlot from Chile or a Chianti (Sangiovese grape) from Italy.

5. Match wine flavor to food flavor. Sometimes the flavor of the dish will suggest a desirable flavor in a wine. Every time I sauté mushrooms, for example, I can't help but add a little Pinot Noir, which, like mushrooms, is earthy.

6. Don't miss port, sherry, madeira, and marsala! I couldn't cook without these scrumptious wines. All four are fortified, which means they have slightly more alcohol than regular wines, but they pack a bigger wallop of flavor, too. And once opened, they last six months to a year. Get the real thing: port from Portugal, sherry from Spain, madeira from the island of Madeira, and marsala from Italy. California versions are very weak.

Port has a rich, sweet, deeply winey flavor ― a must in meat casseroles. Use either ruby port or the style called late-bottled vintage port. Sherry's complex roasted, nutty flavors can transform just about any soup, stew, or sautéed dish. Two styles work best: amontillado and oloroso. Madeira, with its toffee-caramel flavors, can be mesmerizingly lush in sautéed vegetable dishes. Use the medium-rich style known as bual. And marsala's light, caramel-like fruitiness is incomparable in Mediterranean sautés. I like to use a dry one.

WINE PANTRY

Here are some of my favorite versions of the absolutely staple wines for cooking. (And don't forget to sip a glass while you're stewing and sautéing.) Prices are approximate.

Sauvignon Blanc: Callaway 1998 (Temecula, CA), $8

Gewürztraminer: Louis M. Martini 1998 (Russian River Valley, CA), $12

Riesling: Paul Thomas 1998 (Columbia Valley, WA), $6

Zinfandel: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red Bin #106 1997 (California), $11

Petite Syrah: Guenoc Petite Sirah 1996 (California), $16

Port: Graham's Fine Ruby (Portugal), $14

Sherry: Osborne Amontillado (Spain), $7

Madeira: Blandy's 5-year-old Bual (Madeira), $17

Marsala: Pellegrino Dry Superiore (Italy), $10

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Bogle "Old Vine Cuvée" Zinfandel 1997 (California), $10. A round wine, jam-packed with fruit. Great for drinking ― and, at this price, you could also slip some into the beef stew.

Sunset's Wine Club

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