Cooking with Champagne

No, it's not seditious to use champagne in the kitchen — or when mixing drinks, for that matter

THE MOST OUTRAGEOUSLY ostentatious use of champagne is to bathe in it. Close behind is to cook with it. And that’s what this column is largely about.

For those of us who consider it to be mankind’s finest achievement — one that outshines the moon landing and the invention of the five-day week — champagne is the ultimate benediction. Its infectious gaiety has, unfortunately, pigeonholed it as merely The Drink of Celebration. And sometimes not even the drink, more the liquid expression of success, used to shower victorious Formula One drivers and as locker room shampoo for Grey Cup winners.

But champagne, were it less costly — and when I talk of champagne I mean the real McCoy, not Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco or even Crémant from Alsace, Burgundy or the Loire — could readily replace coffee as the 11 o’clock pick-me-up in offices across the nation. The late countess of Maigret, wife of the late heir to the Moët & Chandon champagne company, once told me that the best time to drink champagne was at that hour, accompanied by "thinly sliced chicken sandwiches."

The thought of mixing champagne with anything but champagne is seditious, while the idea of cooking with it can be downright heretical. Yet there are circumstances under which both activities — mixing and cooking — are legitimate.

Of course you are not going to make a champagne cocktail (a measure of brandy to a full flute of champagne over a sugar lump wetted with a dash of Angostura bitters) using Dom Pérignon, Roederer Cristal, or the world’s most expensive champagne, Krug Clos d’Ambonnay (close to $3,000 a bottle). For any mixed champagne drink, choose the cheapest bottle you can lay your hands on. Better still, downgrade your choice to a sparkling wine from somewhere other than the Champagne region.

The best-known champagne-based drink is Buck’s Fizz, half champagne and half fresh orange juice (the breakfast of champions). Then there’s Kir Royale, which is 3 oz. (9 parts) champagne with 1/3 oz. (1 part) crème de cassis. Less expensive is the Bellini, which combines peach juice and Prosecco. The cocktail was created sometime between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice. He named it the Bellini because its pinkish colour reminded him of the toga of a saint in a 15th-century painting by Giovanni Bellini. This drink, apparently, was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway.

If I won the lottery I would open a bottle of non-vintage champagne purely for cooking purposes. Usually, it’s a glass surreptitiously sneaked from a bottle of champagne for poaching the fish before the guests arrive. But there are occasions after a party when a third of a bottle may be left over and the wine has gone flat. Don’t throw it out, because it’s ideal for the kitchen. When you heat champagne it loses its bubbles anyway. What you want is that concentration of flavours and acidity from the wine itself.

Champagne is ideal in virtually all sauces and dishes that require slow cooking. Even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of preparing a whole meat dish, you can transform reheated beef with a simple champagne sauce.

The base is a half-pint of brown sauce to which you add a teaspoon of meat extract, a pinch of sugar and a shake of red pepper. Reduce the liquid by half, strain it and add a half pint of champagne. Warm the sauce and pour over the leftovers.

Champagne can be used in the preparation of all dishes from soup to dessert, both sweet and savoury. A cup of champagne does wonders for onion soup or for poaching any kind of fish. Try oysters marinated in champagne, a very easy dinner party dish. Using shucked oysters (4-6 per serving), poach them in their own juice until the edges curl; then drain and add to the oyster liquor 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of chopped onion, chives and parsley. Add a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce and a few drops of Tabasco. Chill the oysters and marinade and combine just prior to serving.

Perhaps the most famous recipe of the Bresse region of eastern France is poularde au champagne. In a deep skillet, gently sauté a cut-up roasting chicken in butter, turning pieces to avoid browning. Pour over a measure of brandy and ignite to burn off the alcohol. Add half a bottle of champagne and salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add half a pound of sliced fresh mushroom, already parboiled in salted water. Remove chicken pieces and thicken the sauce with 3 oz. of softened butter. Combine three egg yolks and half a pint of cream and pour over the chicken when plated. (Serves 4.)

Finally, if the whole idea of using champagne for cooking offends your sense of propriety, here’s a tip passed on to me by a chef: drink the champagne and use Gewurztraminer instead.

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.