Lots of recipes include red wine (for meat, pasta sauce etc) or white wine (chicken, fish, risotto etc), but as a Muslim, I can’t cook with alcohol. What can I use as a substitute?
Malka, address withheld
Wine is one of the cornerstones of European cuisine, in France, Spain and Italy, especially, and while many recipes say to cook it hard to “burn off the alcohol”, that’s a bit of a culinary myth – boiling or flambéeing do reduce the amount of alcohol in a dish, but they don’t get rid of it entirely.
The obvious solution would be vinegar, but it turns out there’s residual alcohol in a lot of that, too: cider vinegar, say, has about 0.1-0.15% alcohol content, while wine vinegars tend to be in the 0.15‑0.3% range (so long as it’s below 0.5%, there’s no legal requirement in the UK to mention that on the label, though). Add the fact that there’s also debate among Islamic scholars as to which, if any, alcohol-based vinegars are halal and which haram, it’s probably best to rule them all out.
“My sous chef is Muslim,” says chef and restaurateur Anthony Demetre, “and his take on it is that you definitely shouldn’t use any alcohol-based vinegar. But there is halal vinegar out there, too.” Demetre, who has just relocated his acclaimed modern European restaurant Wild Honey from Mayfair to St James’s in London, recommends using a heavily spiced stock instead, “to make up for the lack of alcohol, before adding something sour”. That, he says, could take the form of fruit syrup, citrus or tamarind, and reducing it to a rich, tangy sauce.
Pascal Aussignac, chef/patron of Club Gascon in London, agrees that the fruit route is a good starting point. “Anything that adds acidity – green apple juice, lemon or grapefruit – will lift a sauce and add an extra dimension,” he says. “But, for me, the best solution is verjus.” Verjus, or verjuice, is vinegar made from unripe grape juice, but its production involves no fermentation, so it fits the bill perfectly. “You can get white or red,” Aussignac says, “just like wine, and it’s been around for centuries [verjus was something of a staple in the middle ages].”
Aussignac uses verjus a lot, even in a classic sauce such as beurre blanc. “Treat it exactly as you would wine: reduce it down with chopped shallot, whisk in cream or butter, season, et voilà!” he says with a Gallic flourish. “Verjus has very high acidity, but it’s fruity, too, so you get the best of both worlds.” (Look for it in delis and online, but at £14-plus a litre, it’s hardly a cheap alternative.)
When I ask Nieves Barragán Mohacho, arguably the UK’s leading Spanish cook, for her take, she seems stumped at first. “I need to think about that. I’d usually go for a moscatel or sherry vinegar, but if they’re out, too …” Five seconds later, Mohacho has a eureka moment. “Juice!” she yells down the phone from her kitchen at Sabor in central London. “But you’d need a proper juicer.” She’s on a roll now. “Juice a fennel bulb. Fry garlic in olive oil, add the juice and good fish stock or bisque, and reduce. Stir in parsley or coriander, and maybe a little flour, to thicken, season, and you’ve got yourself a gorgeous, aniseedy sauce that’ll go with all sorts of seafood, especially shellfish. It’s like alcohol-free Pernod.”
OK, smarty-pants, what about meat? Mohacho laughs – she has an immediate answer for that, too. “Beetroot juice. Mix it with the pan juices, add chicken or meat stock, then reduce, and you’ll end up with a sauce with deep, earthy tones similar to a red-wine reduction.” Not surprising these people cook for a living, is it?
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