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April 21, 2008

Vermouth romance

Filed under: Chicken,Spirits,Wine — Mr. Henry @ 9:32 am

In the thrall of his own remembrances, Mr. Henry set out to prepare a proper Moroccan dinner for the family. Unfortunately, however, he could not devote half the day to the task, nor had he prepared pickled lemons 30 days ago. What to do?

He telephoned Nadia for help. She recommended a one-hour stovetop tagine (stew) of chicken with grated onion, saffron and ginger. In this tagine there is a curious trick common to Moroccan cooking: you load the ingredients upside down.
Nadia uses Cornish game hen but Mr. Henry prefers skinless chicken.

In the bottom of a heavy stew pot, place the chicken without oil or butter. Grate two normal sized onions in the food processor and pile the onion on top of the chicken. Add a teaspoon or more of ginger, a half package of saffron, salt, pepper, touch of cooking oil, and tablespoon of butter. With low heat the meat will brown slightly, release juices, and steam the onion. Once the covered pot is leaking steam, stir the tagine and continue cooking on low until meat is falling off the bone. If you want more sauce, add a touch of stock early on.

In Morocco this is served over couscous accompanied by prunes stewed in sugar and cinnamon. A crusty bread, however, serves equally well.

Mr. Henry inhaled the simple but exotic amalgamation of flavors redolent of ancient Andalusia and, despite Nadia’s express rejection of this idea, poured in a good half cup of dry white vermouth. Was it anathema? Well, so what if it was. The result was excellent.

Mr. Henry rarely makes a sauce without adding some spirit or other. More often than not, however, he pours not from the bottle but from the chef’s personal glass.

Lately Mr. Henry has been on a something of a vermouth binge, the dry white French version, mind you, not the sweet red Italian version. A fortified and spiced wine, vermouth adds magic to any dish that includes the flavors of Provence or the Piemonte. Think of herbs de provence, garlic, and rosemary – all rather intense flavors that can easily become too insistent. How do you force them to blend so that one does not predominate? Any white wine will work, but vermouth’s spices yield an aroma less sweet and more woody.

One of the forty or more spices in vermouth is juniper, hence its walk-on role in the dry martini. Wormwood (the origin of the word vermouth) adds another woody note, an aroma that recalls the dusty hillsides of Provence.draguignan053.jpg

In the 1980’s outside Draguignan in the Var, a forest fire destroyed much of the old growth forest on either side of the autoroute that follows almost exactly the ancient Roman via Domitia. Setting out from Gawain’s castle one sunny morning Mr. Henry climbed a long hill through waist high bushes vigorously sprouting from the charred earth. For no apparent reason he kept dreaming of roast lamb. Covered in fine pungent dust, he realized he had just hiked through two miles of rosemary.parsnip_gladiator.jpg

Last week he found some firm parsnips in the market and decided to roast them with garlic, shallots, olive oil, herbs de provence, and fresh rosemary. In the LeCreuset oval gratin dish, beautiful for serving, he roasted his parsnips covered for 45 minutes. The dish was nearly done but seemed, like Winston Churchill’s pudding, to have no theme. A liberal pour of vermouth and another 15 minutes in the oven was the coup de grace.

On Saturday night after Little Henry returns from fencing class, Mr. Henry usually set up place mats in front of the TV to watch reruns of Monk and to eat hamburgers. Mushrooms sautéed with bacon and onion provide a savory accompaniment. Here again a dash of vermouth brings it all together. Be sure to add it when the pan is hot so that the alcohol evaporates more completely and the food does not absorb it too deeply. Otherwise you get vegetables that taste of little else but vermouth. There is such a thing, after all, as too much romance.


  1. There’s a red vermouth??? Wow. The things I miss not drinking.

    Still, while I’m a lifelong teatotaller, I love to cook with spirits. Yes, I know, that makes little sense, but hey, a lot of things about me are completely contradictory.

    That tagine and the parsnips sound wonderful. And now I’m dreaming of roast lamb, too. The good news is, Mr. Twistie would probably try a tagine of chicken, onions and ginger. They are among the few foods he does not fear.

    Comment by Twistie — April 22, 2008 @ 9:04 am

  2. Mrs. Henry is a teetotaler, as well, Twistie, and like you she appreciates cooking with spirits.

    Mr. Henry routinely serves foods that contain wine or spirits to his ex-alcoholic friends. The alcohol quickly cooks away (especially if you flambé). What remains is the distilled essence of flavor. Using spirits is the cook’s shortcut to deliciousness.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — April 23, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  3. Well, I’m no teetotaler, but not a huge lover of white wine, so we too keep white vermouth on hand at all times for just this reason. I heard first heard this suggestion from Julia Child years ago on one of her 1980’s tv shows.

    She also recommended having Madeira and Port in the spirits cooking stash in addition to white vermouth.

    Comment by Phyllis — April 23, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  4. a fine and inspiring post, will buy a bottle asap! There is cooking to be done!

    Comment by Klee — April 23, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

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