Tequila’s scent is unmistakable. The aroma is floral-sweet, sometimes edged with a subtle hint of vanilla. Occasionally a whisper of wet pine needles or even bittersweet chocolate. Maybe a little lime peel.
But open a bottle, and more than anything else, I smell a party. In close-to-the-border Arizona, tequila and festive backyard gatherings go hand in hand. As an ingredient, tequila also imparts a welcome spark to dishes from dips to desserts, soups to salads.
When using it in dishes, I use either silver or reposado tequila. Silver or plata (also called white or blanco) is bottled less than 60 days after distillation. Reposado ("rested") is aged up to one year and is smoother than silver.
With either style, look for those that say "100 percent agave" on the label. One hundred percent, all-agave tequilas have a richer, deeper flavor. Save añejo or muy añejo tequilas for judicious sipping, most often from a brandy snifter. Añejo is aged at least one year and up to four. Sometimes it’s labeled muy añejo when aged more than two years.
Only reposado and añejo styles have a natural golden hue that comes from aging. Tequila labeled "gold" is silver tequila with caramel coloring added.
Here are some ways to use tequila in easy-to-make dishes:
Party pineapple: Peel fresh pineapple, removing "eyes" and leaves. Cut in half lengthwise, and pierce at 1-inch intervals with bamboo skewer. In 9-by-13-inch baking dish, combine 3 tablespoons each of tequila, fresh lime juice and sugar. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add pineapple, flat side down, and spoon tequila mixture over fruit. Bake in 425-degree oven until lightly caramelized, about 40 minutes, basting with pan juices every 15 minutes. Cut in half or fourths lengthwise and serve with juices — either as a dessert with ice cream or top with chopped cilantro and use as an accompaniment to roast pork.
Tequila whip: Augment whipped cream with a little tequila for a luscious accompaniment to fruit-based desserts. Whip heavy whipping cream with powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Add tequila to taste, about 2 teaspoons for 1 cup of cream. Whip just until stiff.
Savvy salsa: In a nonreactive bowl such as glass or ceramic, combine 1 /2 cup finely chopped red onion; 2 cups chopped tomatoes; 1 large diced peeled, pitted avocado; 1 /4 cup minced cilantro; 1 fresh jalapeño chili; 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice; splash orange liqueur; and 1 tablespoon tequila. Gently toss and add salt to taste. Cover; chill 1 hour. Serve with tortilla chips or spoon over grilled fish or chicken.
Tequila-spiked salad dressing: Incredible served with salad made with mixed greens, sliced avocados and crumbled cotija cheese, this vinaigrette relies on tequila and tomatillos for its vibrant taste. Combine 1 /2 cup tequila, 1 /4 cup white wine vinegar and 1 /4 cup minced red onion in small saucepan. Boil on high heat until reduced in volume by half. Stir in 1 /4 cup tomatillo salsa (salsa verde), 1 /2 cup extra-virgin olive oil and garlic salt to taste. Cool. If desired, add 2 tablespoons minced cilantro or Italian parsley. Chill.
Gazpacho gusto: For appetizer portions, ladle your favorite gazpacho into chilled shot glasses or cordial glasses. Drizzle with a little tequila and garnish with whole (shelled) grilled shrimp.
Tequila-flamed mangoes: Many chefs love to use tequila to flambé dishes (such as shell-on shrimp entrees or fruit desserts). I love cookbook author Rick Bayless’ version of tequila-flamed mangoes. To make it, place 4 tablespoons butter in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and place in 350-degree oven to melt. Add 5 cups of fresh peeled mangoes cut into 1 /2-inch wedges. Sprinkle with 1 /2 cup packed brown sugar and toss. Bake 45 minutes. Just before serving, pour 1 /4 cup tequila (tequila silver is fine here) into small saucepan and set over low heat — don’t let it simmer. Sprinkle mangoes with 3 tablespoons sugar, and pour hot tequila over mangoes. Hold face (and hair) away from dish, and light tequila with long match. Use potholder to shake pan back and forth. When flames subside, serve with whipped cream, ice cream or yogurt.
Sangrita siders: OK, maybe this isn’t a dish per se, but these spicy-sweet chasers are so good, they taste like an appetizer. Sangrita is served in a small glass next to a shot of aged tequila. To make it, combine (in a pitcher) 2 /3 cup tomato-based vegetable juice such as V-8, 1 /3 cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon grenadine, 1 /4 cup fresh lime juice, 1 /2 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco), dash Worcestershire sauce and salt to taste. Stir and chill, well-sealed. Accompany tequila and sangrita with lime wedges.
Raspberry-tequila sauce served with petite cheesecakes: It’s easy to make a quick raspberry-tequila sauce. Defrost a 10-ounce tub of frozen raspberries in syrup. Process until puréed in food processor fitted with metal blade. Strain through a medium-fine sieve and add 1 tablespoon tequila. Stir and taste, adding more tequila if desired. Serve over cake, rice pudding, custard or cheesecake.