Tequila makes a spirited contribution to dinner

Tequila is a colorless, sometimes straw-colored liquor made by fermenting, then distilling, the sweet sap of the agave plant (a durable, long-lived cactus, also known as the century plant). It originated in Tequila, Mexico. Hence the name.

While distilleries start with a sweet agave sap, the end result is rather more spicy and sharp-tasting than sweet. Most of the tequilas we buy for our at-home purposes are 80 to 96 proof (meaning they contain 40 to 48 percent alcohol). Some, which are prized by tequila aficionados and poured in tequila bars, such as Azul 17 in Columbia, are considerably more spirited than that.

We think of tequila as the sole province of such spirited favorites as margaritas. But this interesting quaff can also be used in cooking. As with hearty wines, tequila can add its own personality to the proceedings. It's especially good used in salsas and homemade mayonnaise to serve with quiet ingredients, like chicken and turkey cutlets, pork, seafood. You can even use it in dessert.

Our exercise du jour sets out to prove it. Here's how we plan to do it.

Chicken with tequila mayo

This main dish salad provides plenty of flavor for not all that many calories. And plenty of tequila, too, but don't forget: most of the alcohol burns off as you grill. We marinate the chicken in a tequila mixture. And we add some spirit to the homemade mayonnaise. Serve with warm flour tortillas. Or add crunch with multicolored nacho chips.

Note: When buying tequila that you plan to use for cooking, as well as drinking, it's probably best to buy the "blanco" (clear) rather than the aged-in-oak gold color.

The salad

1/2 cup chopped Vidalia onion

1/2 cup tequila

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds (or more) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

4 cups each, torn romaine hearts and iceberg lettuce

2 medium tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges

Fresh parsley and/or cilantro sprigs, garnish

The dressing

3/4 cup mayonnaise (reduced fat is fine)

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped (toasted) slivered almonds

2 teaspoons each, chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley and cilantro