Bourbon: The Best Food Since/With Bacon

by Emerson Beyer

How have you been celebrating National Bourbon Heritage Month? Probably by drinking a lot of whiskey, plus the usual parades, fireworks, sending roses to all the people you threw up on, etc. So although this weekend is the final weekend of Bourbon Month, I want to show you how to make bourbon an even more integral part of your life all year long. No longer should you feel limited by the amount of bourbon you can drink, because you can also be eating it in every meal, including breakfast. Tie on your apron, here comes a bunch of ideas!

Bourbon can become a staple of your daily diet, but you should build up to this slowly and deliberately. Start with something easy and obvious: dessert. Fruit loves bourbon, so macerate pitted cherries, diced pears, figs, raspberries or pineapple in bourbon and spoon them over vanilla ice cream. Put the fruit and liquor in a clean jar with nutmeg, allspice or a bit of vanilla bean and keep it in the refrigerator.

Have you mastered pie crusts, and do you feel confident enough to add a great new skill? Pastry cream is both easy (I promise, take a deep breath!) and impressive. At the end of this recipe, where she suggests liqueur, use bourbon instead — and lots more of it — at least a full ounce. It’s Bourbon Month! You want boozy cream! Prebake the crust (like a tart, no sides), then give it a layer of your bourbon pastry cream, and just before serving top with slices of soft fruit like peaches or bananas. (If you have a blowtorch, now is your chance to use it.)

If you haven’t mastered pie crusts (or don’t want to) I might suggest you learn to make choux paste first. It is exceedingly simple — easy to memorize even — and is the basis for gougères, the world’s greatest appetizer. But cheesy, wonderful gougères are a topic for another time. For now we are keeping things sweet, and you can use choux paste to make puffs to fill with your bourbon pastry cream. Things are getting a little French around here, non?!

Here’s one big, overarching tip on dessert: just about anything that calls for vanilla can be improved by adding a tablespoon of bourbon.

Okay, so you’ve got bourbon covering your sweets, but it’s not yet part of your ordinary weeknight dinner. I’m gonna be honest here: if you’re a vegetarian, you should skip this part. Seared meat with bourbon pan sauce is your flexible recipe for getting whiskey at suppertime. I don’t think this would work with tofu, but correct me if I’m wrong. Here we go:

1. Heat the oven to 400F, and take out an oven-safe skillet (big enough for all your meat).

2. You can use a pork chop, a thick steak (not skirt or flank, which are great for grilling, not searing), or a chicken breast. Salt and pepper both sides generously. For purposes of this recipe, I’m going to assume you’re making two pieces. There’s not much measuring involved, so you should be able to easily modify this recipe for your needs.

3. On the stovetop, heat the pan on a medium-high burner. Lubricate with a bit of butter and canola oil. The butter will melt, then foam, then subside.

4. Add the first piece of meat, wait 20 seconds, then add the second. (This is so you don’t cool the pan.) At first, they will stick to the pan. After a minute or two they should come loose. Flip them over. After another minute or two, put the whole thing in the oven.

5. Here’s where I hope you have some cooking sense. How long you leave the meat in the oven is up to you — it depends on the meat you’re using and how well-done you like it. Anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Use the Finger Test for Doneness.

6. Remove the pan from the oven and replace it on the stovetop. Put the meat on a plate. Add some more butter and oil as well as a diced onion. Cook that onion while you scrape the meaty residue off the pan. When the onion is nice and soft, sprinkle a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch over it. Stir it so the fat and flour mingle thoroughly.

7. Throw in some minced herbs. With the bourbon flavor, I lean toward rosemary, sage or tarragon. Mint, maybe, if this is for a Kentucky Derby party? Use as much as you like. A tablespoon or two is probably right.

8. Whiskey time! Pour in a cup of bourbon. Turn the burner up to high. Bring it to a boil. When you see it noticeably reducing, then . . .

9. Add a cup of hot stock. Beef stock if you’re making steak, chicken stock if you’re making pork or chicken. If there are meaty juices on the plate with the meat, pour those juices into the pan too. Boil it all together until the liquid is reduced by about half and it looks syrupy and delicious. Optional: You can put the meat into the saucy pan at this point, especially if you’re worried it may be undercooked. (Asking yourself, “Hmm, are these ‘meat juices’ or straight-up blood on that plate?”)

10. I would definitely serve this with sweet potatoes!

Oh my gosh, here you are digesting the equivalent of two or three shots of bourbon, and you don’t look like a wino, you look like a genius!

Now that your addiction (jk!) has transferred from the bottle to the burner, I have one more dinnertime idea for you that is dramatic and easy: get some shrimp and set those beauties on fire. More specifically: sauté some shrimp along with diced bell peppers and green onion in butter, then add a couple of shots of bourbon, let it get hot (you need to smell the vapor), and light it with a long match or lighter (that’s what’s happening in the very top photo). After a few seconds (but before all the booze burns off), blow it out or extinguish with a lid. Alton Brown has a recipe like this that he serves over grits. Baked beans would also be good.

At this point you have achieved a daily partnership with bourbon, even as Bourbon Month fades in your memory. As in any deepening relationship, you’re probably going to be seeing more of each other in the morning. Can you have bourbon for breakfast? Yes, bourbon is ready for this next step.

In fact, once you’re emotionally ready to be someone who has bourbon for breakfast, the technicalities of it are very simple. You can braise your bacon in cider and bourbon like this guy did; braise a big piece and you can fry it up bit by bit to enrich many breakfasts. Craving pancakes? Add a splash of bourbon (and some blueberries!) to the maple syrup as you warm it on the stove or in the microwave. Flavor whipped cream with a teaspoon of bourbon to top waffles. You can certainly make bourbon jelly. Making jelly is no different than making Jell-O shots in a jar, and anybody can do that. (Here’s some guidance.) Enjoy it on biscuits. A little piece of fried chicken would be pretty nice on those biscuits, too.

So what kind of bourbon should you buy to achieve culinary glory? I’m not one of these crazy bourbon fanatics. I have a simple palate, and I think Evan Williams makes very serviceable bourbon. One of the fanciest restaurants I know uses the Evan Williams green label (i.e., the cheapest one) to make a Perfect Manhattan that is very nice. Plus, the green label is available on a plastic bottle, which is lighter to carry home from the liquor store.

K. Emerson Beyer, environmentalist and gadabout, lives in Durham, N.C. and tweets as @patebrisee.