A taste of taquila

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Substitute tequila for the alcoholic ingredients in your recipes for a rich flavor.

"Tequila is Mexico." So says Carmelita Roman, proprietor of the San Matias tequila distillery in the state of Jalisco. Ian Chadwick of Tequila Aficionado Magazine agrees. Noting that no other libation is so surrounded by legend and lore (there's a brand named after Pancho Villa and another after his horse), he claims that you cannot fully appreciate Mexico without understanding tequila's place in its history and culture.

With that in mind I recently journeyed to the namesake town of Tequila in the mountains of central Mexico, where they manufacture more than 500 brands of the stuff, to gain perspective on our neighbor to the south by pursuing the not so sobering task of learning as much as I could about its archetypal beverage.

The first thing I learned is that if you haven't tried tequila since your college days when, perhaps, its taste was less important than its wallop, you're in for a surprise. No longer a crude spirit to be knocked back quickly with salt and lime to cover its raw taste, today's tequila is for connoisseurs. On a par with fine cognac or brandy, it's made to be sipped and savored. Consequently, tequila these days can cost as much as $200 a bottle. Even the cheap stuff isn't all that cheap anymore.

Tequila's transformation from a drink that accosts to one that allures has taken a while. North America's first distilled drink, it's made from a plant, the blue agave, that has been cultivated for 9,000 years. Long before the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the natives knew how to make a beverage out of it. Using more sophisticated distilling methods, the Spaniards perfected it.

That quest for perfection continues, as I learned while touring the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, home of Herradura tequila, the brand which, according to my exhaustive research, is preferred by fully 50 percent of Mexican taxi drivers. (You won't find statistics like this in the Wall Street Journal!) Herradura is the only producer still employing natural fermentation. (In the old days they used to throw the dirtiest field hand into a vat of agave juice to introduce bacteria and encourage fermentation.) And they age their tequila in oak barrels, just like fine wine.

Thanks to the efforts of tequileros (tequila masters) at Herradura and other distilleries, tequila has reached the point where it's logical to consider cooking with it. After all, if you can add brandy or wine -- not to mention beer or Jack Daniels -- to a dish, why not fine tequila?

Try using blanco tequila (unaged) in seafood dishes or as a substitute in recipes calling for gin or vodka. Reposado tequila (rested, i.e., aged two months) works well in pork and poultry dishes and can take the place of rum, bourbon or scotch. A'ejo tequila (aged) can be exchanged for cognac or brandy and adds richness to desserts. Not surprisingly, all tequilas go well with chiles.

For me, cooking with tequila makes a lot of sense. Besides, I brought more of it back from Mexico than I should ever drink.

Jarabe Tapatio (Mexican Hat Dance) Pasta

This recipe is based on a favorite old dish, from the venerable Silver Palate Cookbook, which has been doctored with a little tequila.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 can (35 oz.) tomatoes

2 teaspoons tarragon

salt and pepper

1 cup heavy cream

1 pound pasta, preferably sombrerini (little hats)

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cups shrimp, crab or lobster

1/2 cup 100 percent agave blanco tequila

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves

Directions:

Cook onion in oil, covered, over low heat until tender. Chop and drain tomatoes and add to onions along with tarragon. Season to taste with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Let mixture cool slightly and puree in food processor. Return to saucepan, stir in cream, and simmer over medium heat for about 15 minutes until slightly reduced. Stir in cayenne and seafood and continue simmering until seafood is heated through. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Add tequila to sauce and cook only long enough to warm it but not so long as to evaporate all of the alcohol. Serve sauce over drained pasta and garnish with cilantro. Serves 4.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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