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

2 tablespoons tequila

4 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

For the chicken, in a zip-top plastic bag, combine Vidalia onion, the 1/2 cup tequila, and 1/4 cup lime juice and olive oil. Add chicken and move around in the marinade so it is well coated. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature or longer in the refrigerator.

Prepare grill for cooking chicken (medium-high). Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade. Spray-coat the grilling rack. Add chicken and grill about 5 minutes per side, until done. Cool 10 minutes, then cut into 1/2-inch-by-2-inch strips.

For the dressing, in a large bowl, combine all dressing ingredients. Taste for seasonings and adjust. Add chicken strips and toss gently to coat with dressing.

To serve, arrange lettuces on 6 chilled salad plates. Top with chicken mixture. Arrange 2 tomato wedges on each plate. Garnish with parsley or cilantro. Makes 6 (or more) servings.

Tequila shrimp

You get to flame the tequila in the shrimp-cooking skillet. Serve this main dish with a small salad of spring mix lettuces, thinly sliced radishes, diced jicama, some cucumber and a poppy seed dressing.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/4 cup thinly sliced onion

1/2 cup julienne cut jalapeno peppers (seeds and pith removed)

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined

2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar

1/2 cup tequila

4 cups seeded, finely chopped Roma tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped, fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

5 teaspoons fresh lime juice

6 to 7 cups hot, cooked rice, for serving

2 medium-size avocados, peeled, pitted, cut into 6 wedges each, for garnish

In a large, nonstick skillet over medium, heat olive oil. Add onion, jalapenos and garlic, and saute 8 minutes, stirring often. Add shrimp and vinegar and saute 3 minutes.

Light a match. Pour tequila into one side of the skillet and ignite. Let flames die down. Add tomatoes, cilantro and parsley, and cook 3 minutes, until thoroughly heated, stirring often. Remove from heat. Stir in lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To serve, line a large serving platter with the hot rice. Spoon on shrimp mixture. Garnish platter with avocado wedges. Makes 6 servings.

Turkey tequila

This is a variation of a piccata preparation, usually made with veal. But turkey cutlets are less expensive and, arguably, more politically correct. This offering is more Italian than Tex-Mex, proving tequila's versatility.

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon coarsely black pepper

6 large turkey cutlets, rinsed, patted dry

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots

4 garlic cloves, sliced paper thin

1/3 cup tequila

1/3 cup reduced fat/sodium chicken broth

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons small capers, rinsed, patted dry

2 teaspoons minced, fresh oregano

About 4 cups hot, cooked angel hair pasta

Fresh oregano leaves, garnish

Shredded Parmesan cheese, for serving

In a shallow bowl, combine flour and black pepper. Dredge turkey in flour mixture; set aside.

In a large, nonstick skillet, over medium, heat olive oil. Add 3 of the turkey cutlets and cook 3 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Remove to a platter and tent with foil to keep warm. Cook remaining turkey cutlets the same way, adding more oil if needed. Remove to platter to keep warm.

To skillet, add shallots and garlic and cook 1 minute. Add tequila, chicken broth, lemon juice and capers, scraping bottom of skillet to stir up any browned bits. Add oregano, bring to a boil and simmer 2 minutes. Turn off heat under skillet. Return cutlets to sauce, just to warm them back up.

To serve, arrange cooked pasta on each of 6 plates. Top with a turkey cutlet and some of the sauce. Garnish with fresh oregano leaves. Pass the Parmesan. Makes 6 servings.

Margarita crisp

This should start a discussion among friends. Which is better: A margarita as an aperitif? Or a margarita as dessert?

P.S. A fun way to serve this post-prandial treat is in stemware whose rims have been wetted, then dipped in raw cane sugar. If the stemware is good size, you can put a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in the bottom before adding some of the crisp.

3 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs

10 crispy coconut macaroons, slightly broken up

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

5 cups medium strawberries, hulled

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup tequila

5 teaspoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or triple sec or other orange liqueur

Vegetable cooking spray

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

Sliced strawberries (about 2 cups), garnish

Fresh mint sprigs, garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, pulse-process graham cracker crumbs and coconut macaroons until macaroons are finely ground. With processor on, slowly pour melted butter through food chute and process until well blended.

In a bowl, place the 5 cups strawberries. Add sugar, tequila, cornstarch and orange liqueur, and stir well. Spray-coat an 11-by-9-inch baking dish. Spoon strawberry mixture into dish. Sprinkle with macaroon mixture, then almonds. Bake for 25 minutes, until sauce is thickened and bubbly. Cool slightly before serving warm. Garnish with sliced strawberries and mint sprigs. Makes about 6 servings.

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