There's that window somewhere between early November and mid-February when it feels perfectly acceptable, maybe even wise, to pour yourself an after-dinner drink. Say, Port, or one of its American cousins like the Port-style wines from Prager Portworks in Napa (if it's not from Portugal, technically it's not Port). Unlike so many other digestifs, port has the handy value-add that it's very useful in the kitchen, adding a concentrated, syrupy depth to dishes. Or we imagined, as we really had no idea what to do with that bottle of port we've been sipping on. So we called the Pragers, who happen to be very nice people who make Port-style wines and cook a lot (arachnid friendly, too).

The family has been making Port ever since Jim and Imogene Prager founded the winery in 1979, so they've had a lot of time to devote to fortified cooking (their five children now run the winery). Winemaker Peter Prager once told us that the family simply puts Port in “everything.” His sister, Mary, gave us a few more useful tips, including her holiday roast ham recipe and a rather brilliant way to doctor up cake mix. If cake mixes can ever be brilliant. Get those recipes, plus details on the Prager tasting in L.A. tomorrow, Saturday, November 13th, after the jump.

Annual Prager Port and Lobster Wine Club Dinner; Credit: flickr user kenrg

Annual Prager Port and Lobster Wine Club Dinner; Credit: flickr user kenrg

“Port is actually really versatile,” says Mary Prager, who swaps out the wine in most recipes for Port. “You know, like when you make spaghetti sauce and rinse the can of tomatoes with water to get out the last bits? Dump in a little Port.”

Dumping is Mary's preferred Port cooking method (“I don't really measure.”), though she does stick to somewhat more structured rules when it comes to what type up Port to use for certain dishes. Anything beef or tomato based gets a splash of Prager red wine port, be it the Tomas (made from traditional Portuguese grape varietals: Touriga, Tinta Cao and Tinta Roriz) or their Petite Syrah Port.

But Mary actually prefers Aria, the family's Chardonnay Port, for most dishes. “It's so versatile. I use it in chicken, my son's favorite dish is just chicken with the port in cream sauce [a variation on the classic chicken with white wine cream sauce]. Or I put it in a vinaigrette for spinach salad… ginger skewered scallops with pineapple, fettuccine Alfredo, cheesecake, gosh, it really goes with everything. Have you ever used Port in a cake mix?”

Actually, we have not. “My mom used to make wine cake,” Mary says. “You take yellow cake mix, and instead of adding water, you use wine or white Port. Or you can use red Port for chocolate cake mix.”

Port is, of course, is sweeter than water. But when you're eating cake made from a box mix, sugar content clearly is not your primary concern. Being thicker than water, it's also bound to change the cake's texture. Mary checked with her mom, who indeed says this is a “really moist cake.” [Imogene Prager's recipe: 1 box yellow cake mix, 1 package vanilla pudding mix, 1 package Dream Whip, a hint of nutmeg. Add eggs and oil as directed. Instead of water, add Aria white Port. Bake in a bunt cake pan then sprinkle with powdered sugar.]

Is that Port box cake good? You can ask John Prager who is coming down from Napa to do a tasting at Wally's Wine tomorrow (Saturday, November 13th; 1 to 4 p.m., $10). He'll be pouring a late harvest Riesling and four Ports, including that Aria Chardonnay to do with as you please (boxed cake or otherwise). To make the Port-glazed ham recipe on the next page, you'll also need a bottle of their Tawny Port.

The Prager's Baked Ham With Brown Sugar Port Glaze

1 7-pound ham

1 to 2 tablespoons whole cloves

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Prager Tawny Port

1 cup packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees. Score the ham and push the cloves into the ham (scattered on the top).

2. Place ham on a rack in a large roasting pan. Pour 1 cup of Tawny Port over the ham.

Bake the ham for about 2 ½ hours, basting occasionally with the Port pan juices. Remove the ham from the oven.

3. Increase the oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, mustard and 2 tablespoons of port. Baste the ham with the glaze and bake for 15 minutes, or until bubbly. Let stand before serving.

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