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Use spirits to up the flavor in foods

KevSchulz head bar chef Bridge Bar Chicago creates gin-cured arctic char. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Kevin Schulz, head bar chef at Bridge Bar in Chicago, creates a gin-cured arctic char. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 29, 2012 8:06AM



A good bottle certainly has its place in the kitchen. And we’re not talking olive oil.

Bathing browned beef in Burgundy, hitting a hot skillet with a little dry vermouth, or splashing game birds with cognac are par for the course for many home cooks. But wine and its kin aren’t the only fluids fit to enhance a dish. A little hooch — whisky, rum, gin, tequila — goes a long way to brightening up a variety of plates.

Bourbon, that great American whiskey, is arguably the most popular spirit in professional kitchens. No wonder. With its sweet vanilla and caramel notes balanced by a deep oakiness, it lends itself well to animal proteins and gives great depth of flavor to desserts. Paul Katz, corporate executive at Bottleneck Management, devised a pecan-crusted chicken with a lemon maple bourbon butter for the menu of the company’s latest venture, Old Town Pour House. “The rawness of the bourbon bites through the sweetness of the maple syrup, so you get a flavor that’s deeper, not sweet, sweet,” he notes.

Chef Zoe Schor incorporates bourbon into the chipotle puree she serves with polenta fries at Ada St. “You’ll often see polenta fries with basic marinara sauce or red pepper sauce,” she observes. “We just went a step further using chipotles and I find the sweet smokiness of the bourbon adds to the smoky spiciness of the chiles.”

Rum plays a key role in the kitchen at the pan-Latin Carnivale, where Executive Chef David Dworshak has graced a Cuban-style roast pork with a rum glaze (cut with a touch of lemon to balance the sweetness) or infused a simple caramel sauce with 23-year old Ron Zacapa rum to finish a game dish. “I think a lot of people have had a bad experience with bad rum,” muses Dworshak, “but when it’s good, the caramel and vanilla against that cane sugar skeleton make it great for cooking.”

Like rum, gin has rubbed some folks the wrong way. With its bite of juniper and distinctly botanical profile, it rarely makes it into a martini these days, much less make an appearance in the kitchen. But Kevin Schulz, head bar chef at Bridge Bar, is a fan, making a gin-cured Arctic char. “We take our cue from the notes we pick up in the nose of the gin — citrus, juniper, pepper — and make a rub with salt, sugar, lemon zest, thyme, and gin.” Schulz cures the fish for 12 hours in the refrigerator, then slices it sashimi-style. While he plates it simply, topped with pepper and shallots, it can be served as you would gravlax or smoked salmon, set on rye bread with a dollop of creme fraiche, or put on a bagel with cream cheese.

Patricio Sandoval, culinary director of Mercadito Hospitality (which includes Mercadito and Tavernita in Chicago) has included tequila in his Latin-driven program, but he notes that the Mexican spirit doesn’t generally figure in the cuisine of its home country. “For certain dishes, like shrimp soup, yes, but otherwise, you don’t see it used much at all. It’s something we started experimenting with.” Sandoval uses a blanco is his short ribs braise, zaps shrimp with some reposado, and integrates tequila anejo in a coconut mousse.

So set the sherry aside. The bar is open.



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