Every cook has a favorite way to improve the flavor of a recipe when it "just needs a little something." To spike a soup, some cooks garnish each steaming bowl with toasted sesame seeds and minced scallions. A shake or two of hot pepper sauce is popular for enlivening sauces, salad dressings and marinades, as are fresh lemon juice and Indian curry powder. A more recent trend is to swirl Thai curry paste into everything from scrambled eggs to pasta sauce.
But the oldest trick in the book is adding a splash of wine to the pot, then simmering for a few moments until the alcohol cooks away. This adds both acidic and fruity notes to the recipe, making it more flavorful and interesting. It's simple to do and works well in soups, stir-fries, saute's, sauces and stews. Unfortunately, when it comes to microwaving, the old routine needs some updating, because lack of direct bottom heat and shortened cooking time can leave the wine unblended and sour.
One way to ensure success when microwaving with wine is to use a wide, flat cooking container, rather than a tall, thin one. A wide container, like a glass pie dish, exposes more surface area of the food, so it will get hot faster and more evenly, and the flavors will have more of a chance to mingle.
When microwaving a sauce that contains wine, cover it with vented plastic wrap until it begins to bubble. Then, stop the microwave, remove the wrap, restart and let the sauce bubble on, uncovered, until done. Removing the cover gives the alcohol a chance to escape, along with some extra moisture, and what remains is a more intensely flavored sauce.
Let's say you're microwaving a sauce containing chopped Italian tomatoes and red wine. Two cups of tomatoes with a quarter cup of red wine will take about two minutes, covered, to begin bubbling, and will require an additional six minutes, uncovered, to finish microwaving. A big plus of microwaving sauces with wine is that, unlike stove-top sauces, they need no stopping, stirring or adjusting of the heat because microwaved sauces won't scorch and the container won't burn.
You can also use wine as the liquid when microwaving vegetables. A pound of chopped broccoli or thin carrot coins are tasty with about three tablespoons of medium to dry white wine. Microwave, covered, with vented plastic wrap for about four minutes. Try sliced beets with red wine or chunks of acorn squash with sherry. You may discover that the flavors are so lively that you can omit the usual salt and butter -- a handy trick to have up your sleeve.
Here are three techniques for using wine when microwaving. The recipes were created in a 700-watt microwave. If yours has less wattage, increase the cooking time slightly.
MUSHROOMS WITH ZINFANDEL SAUCE
5 dried shiitake mushrooms, each about 1 1/2 inches in diameter
2 sun-dried tomatoes (use the kind with no salt added)
1 cup water
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 cup red Zinfandel or other red wine
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Toss the shiitakes into a 9-inch glass pie dish along with the tomatoes and water and let it all soak for an hour. If you don't have time to wait, cover the dish with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until the mushrooms and tomatoes are soft and the water is the color of lightly brewed tea, about 3 minutes. When the mushrooms are cool enough to handle, use a sharp paring knife to remove and discard the stems. Thinly slice the mushrooms and tomatoes and put them back in the water.
Stir in the soy sauce and wine, and if you're using dried thyme, add it in now. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on full power until the sauce begins to bubble, about 2 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to microwave on full power until the sauce is rich, dark and aromatic, and slightly reduced, about 8 minutes. If you're using fresh thyme, swirl it in immediately after microwaving. Serve warm tossed with steamed kale or steamed snow peas; drizzle over grilled tuna, chicken or tofu and garnish with finely minced scallion.
Per serving: 21 calories, .7 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, .1 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 98 mg sodium.
GREEN BEAN AND FETA PATE
1/2 pound green beans
2 tablespoons sake or dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
7 ounces Greek feta cheese
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Top and tail the beans and chop them into 1-inch pieces. Toss them into a 9-inch glass pie dish along with the sake and garlic and cover with vented plastic wrap. Microwave on full power until very tender, about 4 1/2 to 5 minutes. (To enjoy the beans by themselves, not in the pa~te', microwave until just tender, about 3 minutes.)
Tip the beans, garlic and wine into a food processor along with the cheese and oregano and whiz until almost smooth -- the beans should be in tiny pieces, not quite pure'ed. Serve at room temperature or very slightly chilled as a dip for fresh vegetables or a spread for whole-wheat pita chips. To make a tasty sandwich, spread the pa~te' on rye bread or a bagel, top with watercress and enjoy. You can also stuff the pa~te' into cooked pasta shells or toss with cooked rigatoni.
Variations: To lower the fat, use half feta and half yogurt cheese made from nonfat yogurt. And if the feta is too salty for your taste, rinse it under cool water for about 30 seconds, then pat dry.
Per serving: 107 calories, 6 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 378 mg sodium.
CUSTARD SAUCE WITH SHERRY
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons arrowroot or cornstarch
1 tablespoon medium-dry sherry (marsala or dark rum are tasty, too)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pour the milk into a 9-inch glass pie dish and cover with vented plastic wrap. Microwave on full power until hot but not boiling, about 2 minutes. If the milk is very cold, this step will take a bit longer.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine the maple syrup, eggs, arrowroot and sherry and beat well with a hand mixer. When the milk is heated, pour about 1/4 cup of it right into the egg mixture, continuing to beat until combined. Then pour all the egg mixture into the milk and continue to beat until combined. Even if this sounds like a lot of pouring around, do it anyway because it helps the sauce combine smoothly.
Once the sauce is all combined, set the dish into the microwave, uncovered, and microwave on medium power for 2 minutes. Stop and whisk, then continue microwaving until thick and creamy, about 2 minutes more. Whisk in the vanilla. If you get lumps, whisk them out by hand. Serve warm or slightly chilled on fruit salads, saute'ed bananas garnished with toasted almonds, lemon cake, ginger cake, or ice cream.
Per serving: 116 calories, 4 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium.
Judith Benn Hurley is a Pennsylvania freelance writer whose book "The Healing Foods" (Dell) is out in paperback.