Bourbon can make many foods better

By Elizabeth Karmel/AP

If ever there was a season for bourbon, it’s fall.

The rich, round vanilla notes of a good bourbon complement our favorite autumn foods.

That goes for meats, vegetables and sweets. It’s an equal opportunity spirit that makes everything taste better. A splash of bourbon is an easy way to up the flavor ante and elevate your home cooking.

This undated image released by Elizabeth Karmel shows a sweet potatoes dish with pecans and bourbon. A splash of bourbon is a very easy way to up the flavor ante and elevate your home cooking. (via AP)

For example, a little bourbon and brown sugar mixed with butter, salt and pepper transforms ordinary sweet potatoes and winter squash into a side dish that steals the spotlight. To coax all the flavor out of these vegetables, make sure to roast instead of boil them. One of my signature dishes is Sweet Potato Bourbon Mash . When I am feeling extra fancy, I top the mash with sweet and spicy praline pecans. It’s good all year long but tailor-made for Thanksgiving, and a sophisticated substitute for traditional marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.

My go-to kitchen bourbon is Maker’s Mark because of the high vanilla and caramel notes and the round full flavor. But I like to use different bourbons for different uses. If I am using bourbon to flambe a pork chop, for example, I use Booker’s Bourbon because it has a high-alcohol content. The current batch of “Country Ham” Booker’s is perfect for finishing a grilled pork chop with a quick table-side flambe. In fact, if you are a fan of country ham and prosciutto, I suggest you serve some thin slices with a thimble of this bourbon as an appetizer. It is a perfect pairing — take small bites of your favorite salty ham with a small sip of this uncut, unfiltered barrel-strength sweet and fiery bourbon.

Flambe sounds old-fashioned, and it is. But it is also a “wow” presentation, and leaves the pork with a whisper of whiskey flavor that adds dimension to the chop. I like to brine my thick-cut chops, grill them directly and finish them over indirect heat before dousing with 

Booker’s and setting them on fire. Be sure to do this on a heat-resistant platter or sheet pan. After the flames have burned out, remove to a platter, let rest for 10 minutes, carve and serve.

My favorite new bourbon is Uncle Nearest. It is being distilled in honor of the first African American master distiller, Nathan “Nearest” Green. The bourbon is bold and spicy with caramel and maple notes. Lately, I have been using it to make whiskey butter that I put on top of a grilled or cast-iron seared steak. It’s also great on fish, chicken and pork. Since oil and water, or in this case butter and bourbon, don’t mix, I soak chopped shallots in a tablespoon of bourbon and then mix them into soft butter, and add a bit of coarse salt, white pepper and chopped curly parsley for a multi-use whiskey butter that finishes any dish.

If I don’t have time to make a homemade dessert, I frequently serve dressed-up ice cream and cookies. I buy the best-quality vanilla ice cream that my grocery store carries, drizzle it with Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon Whiskey, serve it with crisp store-bought cookies like Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies and call it a night! The smoky maple bourbon isn’t overly sweet and doesn’t taste artificial like many syrupy liqueurs on the market. It’s also good drizzled on baked or grilled fruit, or in fall squash purees.

On days I do make dessert from scratch, my bourbon bottle is close at hand. I add bourbon to homemade applesauce, apple pie, sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and anything chocolate. I use it to make a glaze for an apple cake or pound cake. I even have a blondie recipe that I call Tipsy Toffee Bars that benefits from the depth of flavor that bourbon creates. I like to think of bourbon as a maxed-out vanilla extract.

Even if you buy your dessert from a store, you can make it semi-homemade with a “flavor bomb” of Bourbon Whipped Cream. A dollop will literally make everything taste better. This is especially helpful during the holidays when you might not have time to bake a pie or cake from scratch. To make Bourbon Whipped Cream, add 1 tablespoon superfine sugar and 2 tablespoons of your favorite bourbon to heavy cream as it is being whipped. Beat until stiff and serve immediately. Refrigerate any unused cream.