x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cooking without alcohol calls for innovative solutions

The question of how to cook certain dishes with replacement ingredients is a tricky one to tackle.

Chefs may argue that coq au vin cannot be prepared without the vin, but there are ways around it.
Chefs may argue that coq au vin cannot be prepared without the vin, but there are ways around it.

There's no way I can adequately describe my love for informed consent. Though I don't always succeed, I try not to have a sliding scale when it comes to the tireless tango between food and ethics. After reading about the recent debate on the use of alcohol in restaurant dishes, my mind swirled with thoughts; some based on personal experience, some on hypothetical situations, and some charged with a nauseating mix of love and apprehension for the collision of food and politics. I was reminded of a Pakistani college friend's sordid tale of deceptively being served a ham sandwich by his (then) fiancée, a small-town, corn-fed American girl, only to have her gleefully cry out after he'd swallowed the last bite: "See? You survived! I told you pork is delicious!"

Regardless of what you eat or drink, or, for that matter, what you believe others should be eating or drinking, people have the unequivocal right to know what they are putting into their bodies before it ends up there. There are also innumerable reasons beside religious beliefs why a person may choose to eschew a particular ingredient or food group; reasons such as disease (eg coeliac disease patients cannot eat gluten), lifestyle (eg a macrobiotic diet for post-surgical regeneration), general health concerns (eg giving up eggs and dairy in order to lower cholesterol), contraindications (eg grapefruit is contraindicated with Lipton, therefore the two mustn't be combined), general disfavour (eg the way some people feel about liquorice), squeamishness (eg the way other people feel about organ meats), and many more miscellaneous factors and phobias. Let's keep in mind that there are also many people out there who may choose not to consume food prepared with alcohol for non-religious purposes.

The question of how to cook certain dishes without alcohol is a tricky one to tackle. Chefs will argue that coq au vin cannot be conjured out of coq au white grape juice from concentrate any sooner than steak can be justly compared to ersatz meat substitute. However, when preparing dishes that call for alcohol for people who don't consume it, chefs will have to adapt their recipes with a similarly innovative approach as if they were cooking for diners with food allergies or other stringent dietary restrictions.

When it comes to making any substitution in a dish, it helps to identify the purpose of the ingredient that's being substituted. In the case of alcohol, which can play multiple roles, what needs to be determined is what will be missing without it: Body? Acidity? Flavour? Sweetness? Dryness? Astringency? Fruitiness? Complexity? Austerity? All of these characteristics can be approximated, if not replicated, without the use of alcohol.

Verjuice, or verjus, called husroum in Arabic, is the tart, acidic juice extracted from unripe grapes; it can be used as a wine substitute in many preparations. In a bouillabaisse and other fish soups that call for wine, use a great homemade stock, don't skimp on other seasonings, double up on sliced fennel in place of the anise-scented Pernod and consider cutting the final product with a squeeze of lemon juice.

For other soups, I love to use earthy mushroom stocks and cloudy, unpasteurised apple juice for depth and complexity; white grape juice can be used in some sauces and fresh tropical fruit juices - like pineapple and papaya - have the most extraordinary ability to tenderise meat in a marinade. Vinegars are also terrific tenderisers, though a wide range is not available here. The word "vinegar" derives from vin aigre, meaning "sour wine" in French, and needless to say, wine vinegars are difficult to find in the Emirates.

Even balsamic vinegar, which is thought to have evolved from saba (syrupy grape must), is usually made by boiling down the must of grapes grown for wine. If that's too much, you can always go for the widely available pomegranate molasses instead. It can be whisked with olive oil into salad dressing, drizzled on cheeses or fruit, or spooned over ice cream for a mouth-puckering sweet/tart sensation.

Detriments and disadvantages aside, let's put the history of mastery into perspective: Helen Keller was blind and Beethoven was deaf. The most talented chefs in Dubai will figure it out.