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it's always five o'clock somewhere
I like to drink. This is no secret to anyone who knows me. Let's define some terms, here, though: I don't live in a constant state of intoxication. I don't—I can't—work drunk. I don't get drunk every night, or even necessarily every week. I don't get drunk on purpose. I mean, I know that alcohol will inebriate me if I consume a certain quantity of it, and in fact appreciate that quality in it, but I don't sit down at the table, open a bottle of whisky, and say "Boy, am I gonna get blotto tonight!"
And when I talk about getting drunk, incidentally, I don't mean fallingdown/throwing-up/screaming-and-flailing-or-sniffling-and-sobbing/out-of-control drunk. I mean drinking to the point that the chemical equilibrium of my body begins to be altered in various noticeable ways—my capillaries dilated, my muscles relaxed, my neurons disordered—all with pleasurable effect.
Drinking is not an obsession with me. It is far from the defining activity of my life. I don't wake up in the morning imagining what alcoholic beverages I will consume that day. Unlike an old friend of mine—an English writer born in Texas, now living in France, no less—I don't feel sad when I realize that I've had my last drink of the day. Drinking is simply a thing I do, a part of the mix. I drink wine with dinner most nights, rarely (these days) more than half a bottle or so, sometimes but by no means always preceded by a cocktail. The other nights, I might have a small whisky when I come home or a brandy before I go to bed, or I might have nothing at all. I almost never drink at lunchtime, unless I'm off somewhere where lunchtime drinking is the norm. Occasionally, day or night, circumstances permitting, I exceed these limits.
I don't drive drunk, but I'd be a liar if I said that I have never driven drunk. I was lucky (as were those on the road around me); I was blessed. And I don't intend to count on luck or blessings anymore. Sometimes, I came to realize some years ago, when we drink more than we've intended to, judgment and coordination take advantage of the situation and sneak off hand-in-hand in the middle of the party, so discreetly that we don't even notice that they're gone. One of the drinker's most important responsibilities is to keep an eye on them, even through the haze—and to shut the bash down (and give up the car keys) if they disappear.
Though I'm well aware of both the physical dangers of alcohol and its beneficial effects (in the latter case, I'm thinking mostly of wine's apparent values to the cardiovascular system and as an anti-carcinogen), I neither drink nor moderate my drinking for medical reasons. I do moderate it—I drink less now than I did 20 or even ten years ago, and will probably drink less in 2010 than I do in 2009—but only out of common sense. My body is less resilient now than it used to be, and, since I drink for pleasure, I try to avoid drinking to the point of displeasure.
Why do I drink, then? Because I like the way alcohol smells and tastes, especially in the forms in which I most often encounter it, which are (in approximately this order) wine, tequila, whisky, martinis and negronis, various brandies, and a very occasional beer, usually a very cold one in very hot weather. Because I like the trappings of imbibing, the company it keeps—the restaurants and cafés and bars and (usually) the people who gather in them. And—back to getting drunk—because I frankly like the way alcohol makes me feel. I like the glow, the softening of hard edges, the faint anesthesia. I like the way my mind races, one zigzag step ahead of logic. I like the flash flood of unexpected utter joy that sometimes courses quickly through me. I like the feeling of being almost but not quite in control.
A negroni is a simple combination of equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. We've ordered negronis in unlikely places, once in a plasticky Eurasian disco bar in Taipei. How hard could it be for a bartender to screw it up? The formula is so simple and relies completely on the guaranteed goodness of what's in the bottles themselves. But you'd be surprised. We've had them arrive in water goblets packed with so much ice you'd think we'd ordered iced tea, or shaken so vigorously they looked like tropical pink smoothies. We're happiest when it is made elegant, aperitif size, in a stemless glass with just a couple of large rocks and a sliver of orange, more rind than flesh. Its digestive qualities makes it a perfect drink to stimulate the appetite.
1 ½ ounces gin
1 ½ ounces sweet vermouth
1 ½ ounces Campari
2 small orange slivers
Pour the gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari into a tall glass and stir gently. Pour into two short glasses with a couple of large ice cubes in each. Rub the rims of the glasses with the slivers of orange, then add an orange sliver to each.
* For a Straight Negroni, if you love the bitter flavor of Campari but don't want the alcohol, fill a glass with ice and add a bottle of San Pellegrino's Sanbitter, a splash of club soda, and a slice of orange.
We make these when we're in the mood to sip something dark and husky. Others may prefer smooth bourbon, but we like the slightly rougher edge of Jack Daniel's against the sweet vermouth and the booze soaked cherry at the end.
4 ounces Jack Daniel's whiskey
1 ½ ounces sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 maraschino cherries
Put a big handful of ice cubes into a large glass. Add the whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters and stir gently. Strain into two chilled stemmed cocktail glasses, if you like that look, or into two lowball glasses; add a cherry to each.
working up an appetite
Dusting the zucchini with flour before dipping it into the batter helps the batter cling, which makes for a delicious puffy coating. Zucchini deep-fried this way are irresistible; even the vegetable-finicky (kids or adults) won't turn their noses up at these.
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1–2 cups white wine
4–6 medium zucchini
Canola, peanut, or corn oil
1 lemon, halved
Small handful parsley leaves, chopped
For the batter, whisk 1 cup of the flour and ½ teaspoon salt together in a medium bowl. Gradually add 1 cup of the wine, whisking until the batter is smooth. The batter should be about the consistency of heavy cream; thin it with a little more wine if it is too thick. Set the batter aside.
Put the remaining ½ cup flour into another medium bowl and season it with a good pinch or two of salt. Cut the zucchini in half crosswise, then lengthwise into fat sticks.
Add enough oil to a heavy pot or wok to reach a depth of 2 inches. Heat the oil over medium heat until it registers 350° on a candy thermometer.
Working in small batches, dredge the zucchini in the seasoned flour, then toss the pieces into a sieve and shake off the excess flour. Give the reserved batter a quick stir. Dip the lightly floured zucchini into the batter, shaking off any excess. Carefully add the zucchini to the hot oil one piece at a time to prevent them from clumping together. Fry the zucchini in small batches, turning them as they brown, until puffed and golden all over, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spatula to lift the zucchini out of the oil, then drain the pieces on paper towels. Season with salt while still hot.
Serve the zucchini in the small batches as you fry so it stays hot and crisp. They are quite delicious with a squeeze of lemon juice and garnished with chopped parsley.
BEANS WITH SAUSAGES & TUNA
We like to use baby lima, great Northern, navy, or cannellini beans for this dish. Simmer the beans slowly, gently rehydrating them. That way they are less likely to overcook and have their skins split open.
2 cups dried white beans, soaked for a few hours or overnight
1 onion, halved
1 clove garlic
3 bay leaves
One 8–12-ounce piece fresh tuna
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
A few black peppercorns
1 handful parsley leaves, chopped
Drain the beans and put them into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches or so. Add the onions, garlic, and 2 of the bay leaves. Bring the beans just to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and very gently simmer them until they are swollen and tender, 30–90 minutes depending on the freshness of the dried beans. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir a generous pinch of salt into the beans. Let them cool to just warm or to room temperature in the cooking liquid. (The beans will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.)
Season the tuna with salt, put it into a small pot, and barely cover it with olive oil. Add the remaining bay leaf, the peppercorns, and a strip or two of zest from the lemon. Poach the tuna over low heat until it turns pale and is just cooked through, 10–15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the tuna cool to just warm or to room temperature in the poaching oil. (The tuna will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Discard the aromatics before storing it and let the tuna and oil come to room temperature before serving.)
Grill the sausages over a hot charcoal fire or gas grill until they are browned and crusty all over and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Drain the beans, discarding the onions and garlic, and transfer them to a serving platter. Season them with salt and pepper. Arrange the sausages and the tuna over the beans. Moisten the beans with some of the poaching oil from the tuna. Scatter the chopped parsley on top and serve with wedges of lemon.
MUSHROOMS ON TOAST
Our friend Patty Curtan, a wonderful cook and artist, was working with us for a few days at Canal House when chanterelle season arrived in our neck of the woods. Early one morning I found two handfuls of mushrooms, enough to get excited about, but hardly enough to make a meal for the three of us. By late morning we were starving, so I quickly sautéed the mushrooms and served them over thick slices of buttered toast. That got our appetites going for more. But it wasn't until early fall, long after Patty had gone back to the West Coast, that I landed on the mother lode. Up over a ridge on a dark wooded slope I came upon a virtual field of "blooming" golden mushrooms. It took less than 15 minutes to gather all that I could fit in my bag—nearly 20 pounds! With those we made a wild mushroom ragù, like the one on the next page, and ate like kings for a week.—MH
Melt 3 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil together in a skillet over medium heat. Add a minced clove of garlic and ¾ pound cleaned halved mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté the mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until they have released their juices, about 5 minutes. Stir in ¼ cup heavy cream and a handful of chopped parsley leaves and cook for a tiny bit longer. Serve mushrooms and their creamy juices spooned over hot buttered toast.
MUSHROOM RAGÙ ON POLENTA
We love all sorts of mushroom varieties and this stew lends itself to using a mixture of different shapes, textures, and flavors. If you don't have time to make polenta, serve the ragù over thick slices of crusty toast that have been lightly rubbed with a peeled clove of garlic. Set a poached egg on top of each and grate some parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino over the eggs.
For the polenta
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
For the ragù
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pounds mixed wild and/or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned and halved or quartered
Leaves of 4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons sherry
4 canned whole peeled plum tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
½ bunch parsley, leaves chopped
Salt and pepper
For the polenta, put 5 cups of cold water into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in the polenta and 2 generous pinches of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the polenta, stirring occasionally, until it is tender, 45–60 minutes. Don't underestimate the time it takes to cook polenta—about an hour for the cornmeal to fully soften. The polenta will swell and thicken as it cooks. Stir in a little more water as needed if it gets too thick before it's finished cooking. Stir in the butter and season with salt. The polenta can rest like this while the ragù is being prepared.
For the ragù, heat the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter together in a large skillet over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft and translucent, 3–5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the thyme and sherry. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hand as you drop them into the mushrooms. Add the stock, parsley, and remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Simmer the ragù over medium-low heat until it is stewy and has thickened a bit, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper (it will most likely need it). Spoon the mushroom ragù over the warm polenta.
eat your vegetables
Belgian endive is pleasantly bitter and delicately crisp raw, but we like how it sweetens and becomes supple when braised this way.
4 tablespoons butter
6 Belgian endives
Salt and pepper
1 cup chicken stock
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the endives to the skillet, season with salt and pepper, and cook for a few minutes, turning them as they brown. Reduce heat to low and add stock. Cover and braise, turning endives now and then, until tender, 30–40 minutes. Uncover the skillet, increase heat to medium-high, and cook for a minute to reduce any pan juices. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Taste for seasoning.
Peel off the large tough outer layer of the bulbs to get to their tender, sweeter hearts.
2 bulbs fennel, trimmed and halved lengthwise
2 cups whole milk
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons butter, softened
Arrange fennel in a medium pot in a single layer. Add milk, garlic, and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Partially cover pot and gently poach the fennel over medium-low heat, turning it occasionally, until tender, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the broiler. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to butter a gratin dish large enough to fit the fennel in a single layer. Arrange fennel in the dish cut side up. (Save milk for another use or discard it.) Grate parmigiano-reggiano over the fennel, sprinkle with a little nutmeg and pepper, and dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Broil until the cheese is golden brown, 1–2 minutes.
BEETS WITH BUTTER & TARRAGON
We prefer roasting beets to boiling them because they retain more of their earthy "dirty" flavor cooked this way. This simple preparation barely merits a recipe, but for quantity's sake, figure about 3–4 small beets per person. Prepare more or less depending on the size of the beets and your guests' beet-loving tastes.
12 smallish beets, leaves trimmed
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 handful fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°. Wrap each beet in aluminum foil and roast in the oven until tender, 45–60 minutes. (Take the beets out of the oven, unwrap one, and pierce it with a paring knife to check if it is soft.)
Slip the skins off the beets. Halve the beets, if you like, and put them into a bowl. Toss them with the melted butter and the tarragon and season with salt and pepper.
MASHED RUTABAGAS WITH LOADS OF SCALLIONS
Rutabagas, also known as swedes (swedish turnips) or yellow turnips, are kind of an old-fashioned vegetable. If you are under twenty-five it's most likely that you have never even eaten one. But we like their cabbagey-turnip flavor, though they do benefit from a little doctoring up! Sometimes we add a starchy potato or two as rutabagas can be quite watery.
Put 3 large peeled rutabagas cut into medium size pieces into a large pot of salted cold water. Add 1 peeled potato and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the rutabagas are tender, at least 60 minutes. Drain the vegetables into a colander, then return the empty pot to the heat and add 4 tablespoons of butter and a generous cup of finely chopped scallions. Sauté the scallions for about 2 minutes. Return the rutabagas and potatoes to the pot and mash with a potato masher until smooth. If they are too dry, add a splash of hot milk or cream. Season with lots of salt and pepper and add as much butter as your conscience will allow.
Excerpted from Canal House Cooking Volume No 2 by Christopher Hirsheimer, Melissa Hamilton, Margo True. Copyright © 2009 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Canal House.
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