Far be it from me to suggest that anyone should find cooking with wine in Britain off-puttingly expensive, but I do concede that, thanks to our swingeing taxes on alcohol, it can be expensive. The trouble with wine is that once opened, it doesn’t keep, so anything left over has to be drunk (isn’t life hard?) which means that next time you want to cook with wine you have to buy another bottle.
This is where, spirits and fortified wines have the edge. Spirits, including liqueurs, don’t actually live indefinitely, but their deterioration is slow and slight, as you will know if you have a liqueur hoard from Christmases past stacked up at the back of the cupboard. Madeira lives a very long time and port should keep well enough for a few weeks in the fridge (we’re not talking here about expensive vintage port that should be drunk within two or three days, not frittered away in a frying pan). Fino and manzanilla are the most fragile of the various types of sherries, but if you keep them refrigerated they should be fine for cooking for two or three weeks. Dry white French vermouth, such as Noilly Prat, is extremely useful: you can usually use it where a recipe calls for white wine, but its shelf-life is limited, like fino and manzanilla.
The other advantages of spirits are drama and ease. Crepes flambéed by a greasy waiter at your table in a restaurant may be as naff as it comes, but doing a few steaks or some prawns in view in the kitchen always impresses the guests (just don’t flambé the fixtures, fittings and yourself as well). As for ease, what could be simpler than a ceviche?
Tuna Ceviche with Vodka and Lime
A brilliantly fresh, simple dish that can be made in any quantitites and can be prepared up to 3 hours in advance, giving you time to enjoy your aperitif and your guests. Don’t be put off by the idea of raw tuna: the spirit “cooks” the fish. Vodka works particularly well, but I’ve also made a successful version using Cognac (from a French cookery book inevitably). The one essential is absolutely fresh fish.
800g fresh tuna, ideally cut into four steaks
4 spring onions, finely sliced
1-2 teaspoons grated ginger
Zest of one lime
4 tsps fresh lime juice
4 tbsps vodka
salt and freshly ground pepper
To make cutting the tuna easier, chill it in the freezer for 20 minutes before you start, or make sure it’s been in the coldest part of the fridge.
Put the steaks flat on a board and slice down through them to give strips not much thicker than a pound coin (sometimes you will be cutting across the grain, sometimes along it). Cut the slices into squares roughly the size of a postage stamp and remove any stray bits of membrane.
Put the tuna in a shallow dish and add all the other ingredients, including a generous amount of salt (apologies to the health police).
Refrigerate for 1–3 hours. Serve on salad leaves and snip some flat-leaf parsley or coriander over the, by now less pink, tuna. Drink a really crisp dry white wine or vodka.