Spirited Away: Let Cognac Upgrade Your Cooking

A glass will cheer and comfort, and a few drops will make these dishes extraordinary.

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Chicken livers with cognac and oranges. A classic, with subtle flavor.
Chicken livers with cognac and oranges. A classic, with subtle flavor.Credit: Dan Peretz

The wine used to distill cognac is not drinkable. It is extremely dry and tart, and the green grapes from which it is extracted ferment very quickly in alcohol. It is then boiled in large copper vats several times over, until drops of eaux de vie, “the water of life,” finally emerge from a slim tube.

This “water of life” is still too sharp-flavored and clear, and only after being aged for a minimum of two and a half years in oak barrels made of wood from the Limousin forests does the taste soften and the color turn a deep amber hue. As you walk through the chilly wine cellars, your nostrils happily fill with the alcoholic fumes. People from the Charente region of France where the commune of Cognac is situated refer to these vapors as part des anges, “the part of angels,” and these angels are a very special bunch.

The master mixer collects the eaux de vie from the various distilleries and the various grapes and mixes them together, and then with pure spring water, and then he mixes it again, and keeps on tasting it until the cognac on his tongue is exactly the same as the cognac that he produces every year, and exactly like the cognac made by his father and grandfather before him. Outside the Cognac commune, this drink is called brandy, and it is also good and revivifying like its cognac relative. But, as the saying goes, a good name is more precious than gold, and no name is as cheering and comforting as cognac.

Cognac is sipped from low, pear-shaped glass goblets, that are first cradled gently in the palm of the hand to warm the amber liquid slightly and send its aroma wafting into the nostrils before it slides down the throat. Cognac is not a merry-making kind of drink; it’s a drink that spurs thought and burrows deep in the soul. You drink it while lounging in the library, or in a darkening living room as evening falls, listening to an old Jacques Brel or Yves Montand record, nibbling on a little sausage or cheese, and letting the heart pursue its conversation with itself uninterrupted, like the water of life.

Chicken livers with cognac and oranges

This classic dish is flambéed in front of the diners. I’ve chosen to add some winter oranges, peel and juice, to sweeten the dish a little. Generally, cooking or roasting livers should be done quickly and carefully to ensure that they are seared evenly and that the insides remain soft and pinkish with a juicy texture. They mustn’t get too dry. Thus it’s customary to use a heavy cast iron pan that is well-heated before the livers are put in. The other flavors are added after the edges of the livers are slightly seared and the insides are still juicy. The most important step of all is to take the skillet off the heat in time.

Roasted or fried livers should be served immediately, without delay. If not, the livers may be used for chopped liver or pate, but they cannot be served when dry and cooled to room temperature. One last thing about the cognac: The recipe calls for 1/4 cup. Since I pour directly from the bottle when cooking, the amount cited is just a recommendation; I probably use a little bit more. But since the cognac lends a very subtle flavor, don’t be afraid to add a little more to the skillet if you’re feeling so inclined. A few more drops for the chef won’t hurt either.

1 kilo chicken livers

75 gr butter

1 red onion

2 oranges

1/4 cup (60 ml) cognac

sea salt

coarsely ground black pepper

Trim the livers well, removing all fat and sinew, and divide into lobes. A skilled butcher will gladly do this for you. Heat a cast iron skillet over a high flame and when hot, add the butter. Peel the onion, slice into thin rings, and add these to the skillet. Fry while stirring with a wooden spoon until deeply golden.

Add the liver in stages, three or four pieces at a time, so as not to cool down the hot skillet. Let them become seared on each side, flipping them with a wooden spoon, and taking care not to let them dry out.

Grate the peel of one of the oranges and save the zest. Then squeeze this same orange and add the juice to the skillet. Let the juice evaporate while gently shaking the skillet. Heat up the skillet again, turn your face aside and pour in the cognac carefully, because it could flare up in the skillet. Gently shake the livers until the cognac evaporates.

Season with salt and pepper. Cut the second orange into rounds (without peeling it), and then cut these into quarters. Remove any seeds and add the orange pieces to the skillet. Stir gently and turn off the heat. Sprinkle the grated orange zest on top, and serve immediately, accompanied by steamed asparagus or brussel sprouts cooked in butter.

Almond and olive soup with cognac

This soup’s origins can be traced to the French Vichyssoise – a creamy leek and potato soup, but then the almonds and olives visible from our windows in the Ella Valley come into the picture. The creamy texture becomes rough thanks to the almonds, and slightly bitter thanks to the olives, while the cognac that’s added at the end lends a little sharpness, and a trace of sweetness from the grapes.

50 gr butter (or 3 tbsp olive oil)

2 leeks (white parts only)

1 1/2 cup blanched and ground almonds

1 cup dry white wine

2 potatoes

8 cups vegetable or chicken stock

30 cracked bitter Syrian olives

sea salt

ground white pepper

60 ml cognac

In a deep pot, melt the butter over a high flame. Cut the leeks into thin slices and add to the pot. Stir and sauté until translucent. Add the ground almonds and continue stirring until they are absorbed in the butter, but not browned. Stir in the white wine.

Peel and cut the potatoes, add them to the pot and let them simmer a little in the wine mixture. Continue stirring to keep the almonds from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Then lower the flame and simmer for 20 minutes until the potatoes have softened.

Pit the olives and add half of them to the pot. With an immersion mixer, blend the soup into a smooth paste, season with salt and white pepper, then blend some more until the texture is smooth.

Chop the remaining olives and add to the soup. Then add the cognac and simmer for five more minutes.

Serve hot with a little grated Parmesan cheese or some chopped fresh tomatoes.

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