Cognac, Your New Best Friend

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By Deirdre Bourdet

I’m not a brown liquor kind of girl, but cognac has a special place in my heart and kitchen pantry.  Soups, vegetables, cheeses, meats, desserts–virtually anything you’re cooking ascends to a higher plane when kissed with cognac.

Many people have had cognac cream sauce with steak. Many people have had cognac with lobster and crayfish, either as a bisque or in the shellfish sauce.  But few people in the states have enjoyed cognac-macerated prunes the way the Europeans do.  In France, pruneaux-Armagnac is a classic and much beloved ice cream flavor made with–yep, Armagnac and prunes.  This combo also finds its way into other desserts with regularity… not surprisingly.
Stateside, I personally love cognac-soaked prunes as a sweet-savory accompaniment to cheeses.  After a few hours in a room-temperature cognac bath (or just a few minutes in a warm one), the humble and wizened little plums transform into a luscious, savory, decadent paste with just a quick chop from the chef’s knife. It’s a revelation with tangy cheeses, like ricotta, chevre, and the like.  I frequently mix a pinch of chopped thyme into the paste as well, and add some textural interest with something crunchy like toasted almonds.  

Cognac’s uses certainly aren’t limited to prunes, though–I haven’t hit a dried fruit yet that wasn’t delicious soaked in the ambrosial amber liquor.  Cherries, raisins, apples, apricots, pears, blueberries… they’re all good.  A coarser chop of the softened fruit makes them perfect for mixing into sautéed bitter greens, or salads, or even sweet potato mashes.  Why not? The cognac’s round, deep flavor and alcoholic bite offsets the sweet notes and adds a rich and savory note to anything it touches.

Obviously, other ingredients with sweet flavors (like ham or fresh shellfish) also rock out with cognac accents.  A quick deglazing splash into the hot pan creates a sophisticated and complex-tasting sauce in about 30 seconds, even without any other ingredients.  This is true of ingredients on the truly savory side of things, too.  Any seared meat gains a wine-friendly, versatile, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it flavor from a deglazing sauce like this.  And a final splash of cream or pat of butter swirled into the sauce takes things even further into the realm of delicious fantasy.

Even better, you don’t need to shell out for pricy cognac to use it in your cooking.  I find that Trader Joe’s $10 bottle works just fine.  Of course after developing a taste for the stuff in your food, you may want to invest in something you’d actually sit around and enjoy sipping after dinner… in which case I’d recommend spending a bit more.  But start with the cheapie and see where it takes you.


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