Every 18-year-old is sent away to college with one great pearl of family wisdom echoing in their ears, a mantra to hover over their shoulder, cartoon angel-like, and guide them through the rest of their lives. Laertes got “to thine own self be true.” My roommate’s was “never funnel hard liquor.” And mine was this:
Dry vermouth can take the place of white wine in any recipe.
Um… no applause? Nothing? Ow, a tumbleweed.
Though I’ll admit it seems lacking in profundity, this little piece of advice has made my life in the kitchen much easier. Why, you ask? Because nobody likes a wet martini, that’s why.* Even if you pound martinis like Nick and Nora Charles, a bottle of vermouth is liable to stick around your kitchen for weeks, if not months: it won’t get used up, and it won’t go bad. White wine on the other hand only keeps for a few days after you’ve popped the cork. Granted it has probably been drunk by then, but the fact remains: to cook any of the million recipes that call for white wine you will have to run out and buy a new bottle. Does your apartment have a wine cellar? Mine neither. So give yourself a break: keep a bottle of vermouth at your side and you’ll always be ready.
Now perhaps you are still skeptical about the taste, and about the ramifications of replacing wine with liquor. Well don’t take my word for it. On page 31 of an ancient copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, noted chef/secret agent Julia Child writes: “White wine for cooking should be strong and dry… As the right white wine is not as reasonable to acquire in America, we have found that a good, dry, white vermouth is an excellent substitute, and much better than the wrong kind of white wine.” After all, vermouth is white wine that has been infused with herbs, fortified with brandy and given a screw top. Julia makes another important point too: this only works with dry, white vermouth. Apparently some mixological tastemakers are already tired of absinthe and have anointed vermouth the next It-booze, so beware of the flood of the sweet, sour, red, pink, orange and otherwise exotic vermouths coming to bars near you. Stick to the basics for cooking. Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, and Noilly Prat are the most common brands of dry white vermouth, and none of them will set you back more than $10.
So give me your tired, your poor, your lazy home-chefs, yearning to eat well. When you stumble home from work to a barren kitchen with nothing but a few chicken breasts in the fridge, some garlic on the counter, and an overwhelming urge not to go back outside, let vermouth be your savior. The case study is a quick, simple recipe that usually calls for white wine, but is just as good, more convenient, and maybe even cheaper after our experimental booze transplant.
Pollo al ajillo
(Adapted from The Moro Cookbook, by Samantha and Samuel Clark)
– 3 chicken breasts
– 3 bay leaves
– A whole bulb of garlic
– 1 cup white wine dry vermouth
– ½ cup water
– Olive oil
1. Heat about 4 Tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan.
2. Separate the cloves of garlic and fry in the olive oil, with skin on, until light brown. Remove and set aside.
3. Dredge chicken breasts in flour and season with salt and pepper. Brown in pan, about 3 min. per side.
4. Add vermouth, shaking the pan so it emulsifies with the oil
5. Simmer for a few minutes to burn off alcohol, then add ½ cup water. Cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
As a final note, some have pointed out that one of the perks of cooking with wine is that you get to pop the cork and drink while you cook, and that using vermouth robs you of this pleasure. Nuts to that. It sounds to me like what you just got yourself an excuse to mix a stiffer drink. Bottoms up.
* Apparently Fareed Zakaria likes wet martinis, but I trust the free market will expose the error of his liberal attitudes towards vermouth.