Soft drinks

Often, when I order a soft drink in a restaurant, one of my friends will comment on how strange it seems that a food and wine editor likes such a 'common' drink. Some people think I should be drinking only premier grand cru wines or vintage champagnes with all my meals. But there are certain cuisines that (in my opinion) go well with certain types of soft drinks. I won't drink just any soft drink, though - it can't be caffeine-free, diet or flavoured with anything like cherry or - worst of all - vanilla. For me, it's classic or nothing.

The base of all soft drinks is water, mixed with various colourings and flavourings, often with caffeine and/or carbonation. The precise formulas of the most famous brands are top-secret, with (if urban myths are to be believed) only one or two trusted employees knowing exactly what goes into the drink, and the recipe hidden away in a safe. Certain brands are famous worldwide but there are others rarely found outside the country they're made in.

Although many food snobs would never consider using a soft drink as an ingredient when cooking, 'soft drink cuisine' goes back a long way. Some dishes sound awful - a recipe that consists only of chicken, ketchup, onion and a cola drink seems particularly gruesome, as does another that calls for chicken, cola and packaged Italian dressing. But there's nothing wrong with using soft drinks in your food as long as you take the inherent flavours into consideration (remembering that the strongest taste is sugar) and as long as you don't let the soft drink dominate.

I once had a food writer over for a Spanish meal of tapas and paella. He complimented me on my sangria and when I told him it was made with a popular lemon-lime drink, he refused to believe me until I mixed another batch (I later felt justified when I peeked into the kitchen of a famous restaurant in Macau and saw them mixing their sangria the same way). Mix one bottle of chilled, decent quality red or white wine with two cans of cold Seven-Up or Sprite. Add a good splash of orange liqueur, some chopped fruit (apples, oranges and grapes) and a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice to balance the flavours. Stir and serve cold.

I also like to use cola drinks in recipes where I want a brown colour. When I make spring rolls, I often dip them into cola before frying them - the sugar makes them brown without overcooking. I also use cola when I'm making carnitas (bits of tender, browned pork). Cut slightly fatty pork into large-ish chunks and simmer in a mixture of chicken broth, cola, fresh lime and orange juice, chilli, garlic, oregano and bay leaf. When the meat is tender, turn up the heat and let the liquid reduce, then let the meat brown in its own fat. Serve with tortillas, salsa and guacamole.