If you are going to cook with wine and I recommend you do the first and most important rule of thumb is: cook only with a wine you would drink. I don’t mean go out and buy a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild to make Beef Stroganoff. But if the wine is OK to drink, it’s OK to cook with. The wine to avoid is so-called cooking wine located in the supermarket near the vinegar. I’d rather use the vinegar. “Cooking wine” is, first, a poor quality wine packaged so it can be priced higher than it should be, and second, a wine to which salt has surely been added, either to prevent you from drinking it straight or to “help” in seasoning. Avoid it even if it means not using wine at all.

So, to start I would suggest using a very mainstream white and/or red to cook with. As you get more accustomed to using wine as an ingredient in your creations, you can start to play around with which wine you want to use. You could buy an extra bottle of the wine you are planning to serve with dinner, and use it in the dish. Or you could get more creative. How about using a Sauvignon Blanc, known for its herbaceous quality as a wine, in a dish highlighting herbs. Zinfandels have a berry or cherry character, which would be a nice background to a fruit sauce for duck. A buttery Chardonnay is the perfect base for a beurre blanc. The more you learn about the characteristics of your favorite wines, the more creative you can be with how you cook with them.

There is one more class of wines for cooking that don’t fall into the red or white category. These are fortified wines such as Sherry, Port and Vermouth. The reason they are called fortified wines is that an additional neutral grain spirit i.e. extra alcohol has been added to the initial wine before a very long aging. This extra alcohol helps in the preservation of the wine and helps develop some of the complexities through the increased aging. Each of these wines has individual categories that range from delicate and dry to sweet. Be careful when choosing one for cooking. You wouldn’t want to use a sweet sherry in a dish where you wanted a dry one. These wines, because of their increased aging, develop intense flavors. Some sherries have a nut-like quality from the aging. Ports can be sweet, and good for fruit dishes or desserts. Vermouth differs in that assorted herbs and spices have been steeped in the wine, giving it a very unique flavor and I use it a lot. A dry Vermouth would be good in place of a white wine. A sweet Vermouth would be a great addition to a fruit dessert that has a hint of herbs in it.

Coq Au Vin

2 cups pearl onions

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 rib celery, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

4 slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch bits

2 teaspoons canola oil

1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1-1/2 cups dry vermouth

2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

To peel the pearl onions, bring a small pan of water to a boil. Cut a small x in the bottom of each onion. Blanch the onions for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cool running water. Trim off the stems. The skins should slip off easily. Set the onions aside.

Mix the flour with the salt and white pepper. Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off excess.

In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the pearl onions, celery, carrot and sugar. Cook slowly until the onions begin to brown and caramelize, about 4 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and cook an additional minute.

Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside. Brown the bacon, then remove from the pan and set aside with the vegetables. Add the canola oil to the pan with the bacon drippings and heat over a medium-high flame. When the oil is hot, brown the chicken on all sides, about 6 minutes.

Return the vegetables and bacon bits to the pan with the chicken. Crush in the tarragon and thyme and pour in the vermouth. Bring the liquid to a boil. Cover and simmer on low for 30 minutes.

Remove the chicken and vegetables to a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve sprinkled with the chives.

Serving Suggestion:

Cook 1/2 pound of pasta, such as fusilli or penne, until al dente. Drain and, when the chicken has finished cooking, stir the pasta into the pot and mix thoroughly with the sauce. Serve the chicken pieces on a bed of pasta and sauce.

Yields: 4 servings