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Cooking with Whisky

by Riannon Walsh
Single malts, the most elegant of all spirits, have long been ignored in the kitchen. With today's incredible selection of both distillery classics and independent bottlings available in the U.S., discovering whiskies with varied characteristics to weave into your recipes is becoming a great culinary adventure!

Few things are more heart warming than a dram of extraordinary single malt. Everything from the glowing golden color to the complex bouquet and mysterious Celtic lore surrounding, them makes single malts the perfect ingredient and accompaniment to a grand or intimate meal. Cooking with single malts brings an entirely new range of taste options and skills to your table. Compliment your special dinner with a well chosen wine, as the two beverages promote one another in ways that few people have come to appreciate. You may even choose to serve a delicately styled malt with the meal; a palate pleaser not often enjoyed in the U.S.

Contrary to the first reaction of many chefs when I raise the idea of cooking with fine whiskey, integrating single malts into your cooking will not impact the budget you've set aside to rent that summer beach house you've been thinking of all winter. The amount of spirit used in each recipe is small. Single malts have intense flavor and this factors heavily in controlling the quantities used. As with wine in recipes, the alcohol 'cooks off' leaving behind a unique enhancement to your dishes. Acquiring a familiarity with the huge range of available malts is helpful when experimenting, but in this article you'll receive a brief overview that will lead to many new culinary journeys.

Begin your single malt education with a working knowledge of the most basic regional characteristics so you are able to choose wisely when pairing cooking ingredients. These ultra small batch aristocrats of the spirit world are most easily broken down into 3 styles. As you come to know the single malt category better, you will see this as an immense understatement, but for simplicity's sake, we'll begin in this way; it's all you need to know to develop some amazing menus.

The majority of single malts are distilled in Scotland and the regional characteristics of Scottish single malts have come to be used in describing malts from around the globe. (Single malts are currently being produced in at least 9 countries including Ireland, the U.S., Sweden, Japan and France among others). Let's take a look at the characteristics of three regions, as well as a few of the factors that influence the style/flavour of a given single malt.

Single malt whisky

LOWLAND malts are known for their lightness of style and gentler taste elements. They may be the most versatile malts for cooking as their influence will be the least dramatic in your dishes.

HIGHLAND malts start to move into whiskies of more complexity and a deeper, richer flavour structure. These malts range enormously in smokey and sweet qualities and this allows them to be used to influence dishes from meats to desserts in wonderful and creative ways.

ISLAY & ISLAND malts tend to be the most aggressive whiskies. Many demonstrate heavy overtones of smoke and an ocean-like character. These will be the most pungent spirits in your repertoire and are superior additions to fish dishes (cooked or marinated for sushi), soups and any savory recipe.

Within these 3 categories, the whiskies are also influenced strongly by the WOOD in which they lie for several years before coming into the bottle. The large majority of single malts are aged in oak barrels previously filled with aging Bourbon. Some single malts (and more all the time) are being aged for all or part of their cask life in wood that first held everything from sherry to port to cognac. New 'finishes' as they are called, are being tried all the time. Aging in these specialty casks imparts incredible change to the whiskies over time. The most popular finish is sherry, and for cooks this is a brilliant style to add to your recipes from soups, to meats, to desserts!

The final influence on whisky character and flavour is PEAT. The malted barley which is the only grain utilized in the making of single malt whiskey, is very often dried over fires of burning peat before being ground into a 'flour' at the beginning of the whisky making process. This peat fire imparts a rich, organic, smoke quality in degrees based on the method used and the desired outcome.

A few single malts are not peated at all. Then there are those with medium amounts of peat, or that have so much influence from a specialty wood finish that the smokiness is overlaid and barely noticed on its own, as it blends into the sweet finish. Finally there are malts, several of the Islays and island whiskies, that practically knock you over with peat influence. Save these for cooking fish or game meats. They are absolutely at their best in those dishes!

Fortunately, almost all single malts name the region from which they hail on their label. There are several excellent guides at bookstores in the wine and spirits departments which give tasting notes on just about every bottling in existence. Several culinary and wine magazines now include tasting notes and reviews on single malts. Between the labels, the books, and assistance from a knowledgeable sales person at a fine spirits shop, you will be able to find a small but widely varied selection for your recipes. Another great way to explore is to attend a single malt tasting or to find a good bar with at least a dozen selections on its shelves. Convince the bartender to show off his skill by serving you a flight of 4 or 5 tiny drams of very differently styled malts. Remember that you can learn a great deal about these whiskies by using your nose alone, so even the chef who shies away from drinking can become an expert in cooking with fine malts!

Pour yourself a dram, tie on your apron and have a delicious Celtic adventure.

Whisky Glass

Whisky Recipes

All recipes, except dessert, serve two generously

Salmon Sashimi 'Aperitif'

1/3 lb. Sushi quality salmon (tuna or Chilean sea bass work equally well)
One eigth cup peated Islay whisky such as Lagavulin, Ardbeg or Laphroaig
*1-2 t. wasabi horseradish
*2/3 c. prepared seaweed salad or spicy radish sprouts
* 2 T. sliced ginger
starred ingredients are available in better markets or Asian markets

Marinate: Place 1/3 lb. sushi quality salmon in a small glass or ceramic bowl (Do not use metal). Pour whisky over fish and marinate 20 minutes, turning once at 10 minutes. Drain fish and slice into 1/3 inch thick rectangular pieces

Place seaweed or radish sprouts on small salad plate and arrange fish on top. Place a 1/2 T. dollop of wasabi and 1 T sliced ginger on plate. Serve with chopsticks

Lamb Chops with Fresh Figs
(served on a bed of barley and winter cherries)

4-6 small lamb chops
1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 t. butter
1 T. chopped shallot
1 clove chopped garlic
1/2 t. coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 t. red peppercorns
1 1/4 c. very rich prepared veal stock
1/4 c. single malt (suggested: Highland Park, Balvenie, The Macallan)
4 fresh figs, carefully peeled and quartered at ROOM TEMP.
4 fresh rosemary stalks, 2-3 inch long
*1/2 c. dried cherries soaked in small cup with 6 T. (slightly warmed) whisky for 1 hour or longer
1/3 c. medium Scotch style barley (rice section at markets)
1 1/2 c. water
salt to taste
*can be prepared up to one day ahead

Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add barley and 1/2 cup veal stock. Cover and simmer 45 minutes, checking for doneness. When all liquid is absorbed, turn off heat, add and stir in soaked cherries and peppercorns, reserving 15 cherries for the lamb dish. Cover and leave set while preparing lamb.

Sauté shallot and garlic in oil and butter in small high sided heavy pan until soft (about 3-4 minutes), over low heat stirring to prevent sticking or overcooking. When soft and translucent, remove half the vegetable from the pan and remove all but 1 t. of the remaining fats.

Raise heat to medium and add chops turning after 2 minutes on each side (should be slightly brown - do not raise heat too high or meat will toughen).

Lower heat and add three quarters cup veal stock, black pepper and whisky. Simmer turning chops every minute until desired doneness (about 3-4 minutes for medium). Remove chops to covered platter and continue simmering sauce, tasting to add salt. Add about 15 dried cherries. Sauce should be reduced by about 1/3.

Season barley with salt, pepper. Fluff and place a bed of barley on dinner plates. Arrange chops and figs on barley bed. Spoon sauce generously over. Garnish with fresh rosemary stalks and serve

Beet, Chevre and Spinach salad with Orange Sweet single malt Dressing

best when prepared several hours in advance and served room temp
2 T. orange juice
1 T. Lowland single malt (Auchentoshen or unpeated malt , Glengoyne or try the new California single malt, St. George, which is especially fruity in character)
1 generous T. honey
2 t. dried thyme
2 T. balsamic vinegar
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
pinch salt

Whisk olive oil, salt, honey, thyme, orange juice and whisky well. Whisk in vinegar until well-blended.

Salad: Baby spinach leaves/generous 1 c. per serving
Butter lettuce, several leaves torn and tossed with spinach
Julienned fresh-cooked or canned 'fresh' beets - about 3 oz. per serving
1/2 small log mild chevre cut into 1 inch slices
1/4 c. ground almonds (press cheese rounds into almonds til coated)
1 orange peeled and sliced into rounds, cut in half. Use 4 halves per serving
6 T. fresh mint, chopped

To assemble:
Base of spinach/lettuce
Top with beets, then orange slices and almond/chevre rounds. Sprinkle with mint. Add dressing to taste.

Chocolate Raspberry
Spirited Torte
8-10 Servings
Cake Batter:
1 c. plus 4 T. semi sweet chocolate chips or 9 oz. broken up semi sweet bar chocolate
5 T. milk
14 T. unsalted butter, room temperature cut into pieces
1 c. sugar
13 T. sifted cake flour
5 eggs, separated, room temperature
1/2 c. sherry finished single malt (Abelour's Abunadh, Macallan or Abelour 10)
1 c. raspberry preserves
fresh raspberries for garnish

Chocolate Glaze:
1 c. semisweet chocolate chips or 8 oz. broken semisweet bar
8 T. unsalted butter cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350° F. for 25-30 minutes

Line bottom of two round 8 or 9 inch (24cm) cake pans with waxed paper. Lightly grease pan sides and covered bottom with vegetable oil or butter. Dust lightly with flour.

Cake Batter: Melt chocolate with milk in small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Mix in butter pieces until melted. Stir in sugar. Whisk well until very smooth. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes. Pour into large bowl. Scrape in all batter. Sift in flour, whisking to blend. Whisk 2 T. of the chocolate mixture in yolks, blending well to prevent yolk curdling. Pour yolk mixture back into chocolate mixture while whisking. Mix until completely blended and smooth. Set aside.

Beat egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Whisk Chocolate mixture a few times to lighten and then gently fold into egg whites.

Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and place in centre of pre-heated oven. Bake 25-30 minutes or until sides of cake pull slightly away from pan and only a crumb or two stick to straw inserted in middle (convection baking time approx: 20 min.).

Cool in pan 10 minutes. Turn out on rack and cool completely.

Place one cake layer on serving plate. Brush top and sides with half of the whisky, wetting thoroughly. Spread the raspberry preserves in an even layer over the top of cake. Place second layer on top and brush top and sides of this layer with remaining whisky until cake is thoroughly drenched.

(can be made ahead of time and left to thicken at room temp)
Melt chocolate and butter over low heat stirring continuously until blended. Cool in refrigerator about 20 minutes until just spreadable (will harden after it is on cake). Frost top and sides of torte smoothly. Place with fresh raspberries in a decorative pattern on top. This cake keeps extremely well for up to 5 days if foil wrapped.

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