Cooking with spirits is not exactly an obscure practice. There are enough ways to use whiskey in the kitchen — from pancakes to chili — to feed an army, or at least flesh out a Buzzfeed listicle. Indeed, it lends itself to a wide array of dishes. But what if, in the sweaty months of summer, you're looking for a spirit when bourbon simply will not do? It may seem strange, but we suggest gin. And not sloe gin, either. Not the liqueur used in venison, for example, but the real stuff. In other words, gin that you’d otherwise mix with tonic.
There aren't a lot of chefs slicing and dicing with gin. On the east coast, we found Brooklyn’s John Poiarkoff, the fetching executive chef at the Pines in Gowanus and Willow in Bed-Stuy. He began cooking with gin in earnest about a year ago. After trying a number of dishes, he put gin-cured fluke on his Pines menu, and it quickly became a mainstay. “I don’t know why people don’t use gin more often,” he says, cheerfully. (It's also in Willow's gin-battered soft shell crab.)
Poiarkoff favors Greenhook. It's got "a lot of savory botanicals," he says, but it’s not "super junipery." This characteristic is vital, as it happens, because juniper is the dominant flavor in gin, so there’s a chance it will engulf a dish’s tastes and smells. Therefore, he continues, it’s important to "balance and complement the flavors."
For example, when combining gin and fish, or gin and vegetables, you don’t need to add much else. (This, in fact, may be the reason Poiarkoff isn't aware of any contemporaries cooking with gin. "Gin has so many flavor notes to it, which are fun, but it's really tough on food because it's got so much flavor on its own," as a chef told the Wall Street Journal.) He recommends American style dry gin — Bombay Sapphire or Hendrick's, on the higher end.
On the West Coast, we found Mark Sullivan, chef/partner of Bacchus Management Group. He's been cooking with gin on and off for five years, particularly at Spruce in San Francisco, and is partial to drizzling it on raw snapper and halibut. Sullivan is fond enough of gin, in fact, that he's private labeled one for each season.
Like Poiarkoff, Sullivan says he's not aware of any competitors doing the same — perhaps because it’s not the easiest thing to cook with. "It's very potent," he says. "To use it requires a fairly deft hand. Otherwise you’ll be swimming in it." (Literally. Sullivan doesn't cook off the alcohol.)
Sullivan takes a stab at accounting for the lack of interest in cooking with gin, as opposed to, say, whiskey. "The thing about gin is, you either love it or hate it. I'm Irish. I love gin. It makes a good cocktail. But I know people who have a straight out aversion it."
He also fingers juniper as a culprit. "It's pretty aggressive," he says. "That's part of why you don’t see it in cooking as much."
John Poiarkoff’s Gin-Cured Fluke
- 1 fillet fresh fluke or salmon
- kosher salt
- zest and juice of 1 lemon (keep separate)
- 1 small piece ginger
- 1 stalk rhubarb
- 1 small cucumber
- 1 sprig mint
- gin (Greenhook preferred)
- 1 cup grapeseed (or other neutral) oil
- rice crackers
- Mix together ½ cup kosher salt with 2 tbsp sugar and the zest of one lemon.
- Place a double layer of plastic wrap on a table and place the fish on top of it. Season the fish generously with this mixture, then drizzle about an ounce of gin over the fish. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and let the fish cure in the fridge for at least an hour. The thicker the fillet, the longer it will take to cure.
- While the fish is curing, peel and dice the rhubarb into ¼ inch cubes (use a pairing knife to peel the rhubarb. Just cut into the top of the stalk, right behind the skin, pull toward yourself, and the skin will come right off).
- De-seed the cucumber and dice into cubes the same size as the rhubarb.
- Place the rhubarb and cucumber into a zip-top bag with a pinch of the same salt-sugar mix that you used to cure the fish, the juice of half a lemon, a few slices of ginger, and a splash of gin. Seal tightly and rest at room temp for 30 minutes.
- Strain the liquid from the veg into a measuring cup. Add lemon juice until you have 1/3 cup of liquid. Discard the ginger or eat it. It’s done its job.
- Put the liquid into a bowl and whisk in 1 cup grapeseed oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Unwrap the fish and rinse off any excess salt under cold, running water. Dry on paper towels, then dice it the same size as the veg.
- Mix the fish and veg (about 3–1 fish–veg is a good ratio) and stir in enough dressing to coat everything. Taste and season with salt, pepper, or a little extra lemon juice if necessary.
- Tear up some mint leaves and fold them in. Serve with rice crackers or potato chips.
Mark Sullivan’s oysters with gin mignonette
Yields: 12 oysters
- 2 tbsp shallot, minced
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp vermouth (we like to use Dolin vermouth)
- 2 tbsp gin, high quality (we use Bacchus 'Specific' SMMR gin—citrus, cucumber, coriander, cilantro)
- ½ tsp coriander, coarsely cracked
- ½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 12 oysters, freshly shucked
- cilantro, chiffonade (or coarsely chopped)
- In a medium-size bowl, combine the lemon juice and sea salt.
- Add the minced shallot and macerate (soak) for three minutes. Stir in all the remaining ingredients, except for the cilantro.
- Place 1 heaping tsp of gin mignonette on each oyster, then finish with cilantro.
Mark Sullivan’s summer gin-cured halibut
- 12 oz fresh halibut, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- 1 tbsp shallot, minced
- 4 tbsp cucumber, diced
- 1 tbsp gin, high quality (we use Bacchus 'Specific' SMMR Gin—citrus, cucumber, coriander, cilantro)
- 1 tbsp dry vermouth
- 1 tbsp mandarin orange juice
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and cracked
- 12 sprigs cilantro
- sea salt
- On a large platter, arrange the halibut slices in a single layer. Allow to chill in the refrigerator. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice and kosher salt. Add the minced shallot and macerate (soak) for three minutes.
- In a medium-size bowl, add the macerated shallot, cucumber, gin, vermouth, mandarin orange juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and coriander seeds, and mix. Reserve chilled.
- Dress the raw halibut with the gin vinaigrette, and garnish cilantro leaves and a sprinkle of sea salt.