Read an Excerpt
Canal House Cooking Volume No 5
The Good Life
By Christopher Hirsheimer, Melissa Hamilton, Margo True
Canal HouseCopyright © 2010 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton
All rights reserved.
it's always five o'clock somewhere
and never a bad time to pour a glass of something sparkly ...
The boys, Marco and Leone, are the blood and the beat of my four-chambered heart, but there is nothing greater than packing them off to their dad's house on Christmas Eve day, leaving me alone in my apartment for a solid 24. Goodbye little gentlemen, goodbye "Eeewww, mamma! There's something green in my pasta!"; goodbye shrieking, tearful squabble over tubby toy; goodbye bogus games of chess in which your rook takes all of my pawns in one move. See you in the morning, pumpkins!
I lock the door, load the dishwasher, blast the stereo, and sing along at the top of my lungs. My apologies to the upstairs neighbor, but I know every damned word of this thing and have since high school choir and she's going to have to live through my singing every single one of them at top pitch, for—after all—unto us a son is given. The crooked must be made straight and the rough places made plain. And to that end, the smell of lemon Cascade wafts out of the dishwasher as the glasses turn crystal clear. I know that my Redeemer liveth.
This is not to say that I spend the day relaxing, in the traditional sense. There are some people who just throw the shit in the closet, neaten the bedcovers, and light a cranberry-scented candle, but I am not one of them. With only a few hours until sundown, when my Christmas Eve guests will arrive, it becomes somehow imperative to me—and immensely soothing—to finally artfully hang my collection of antique knife steels, to sort out the Salvation Army clothes from the ones that still have life, to Mop & Glo every inch of the linoleum floor, to crawl out onto the fire escape and clean the outsides of the windows too, to sand down the stains on my butcher block kitchen counter with #57 grade sandpaper, and to arrange the books on the shelves. Not alphabetically. Please. That would be so anal-retentive and rigid. But still, you can't let John Berger just lie there next to T. C. Boyle as if they were equals.
I know some of you understand.
A full day alone is magnificent for me. Normally, I spend all 24 in the constant company of others. Having a family and running a busy restaurant pose special challenges to the solitude-loving Scorpio! There are always always people. Even in the quiet early morning prep hours at the restaurant, when I am staring sleepy and vacant at the espresso machine as it drizzles the brown gold into my cup, getting ready for my monster day, even then when the delivery brutes with their weight-lifter belts and pneumatic hand-trucks have not yet come clanking heavily down the hatch stairs and the jug of pine cleaner has not yet been tipped into the porter's mop bucket, there is still Manolo rhythmically sweeping upstairs. And then arrives the daytime sous-chef. And then the phone gal and, soon after, the GM and then we are welcoming lunch guests and wine reps and fire inspectors and then the evening crew shows up, followed by a hundred dinner guests. Even the walk home from work—which is less than half a block and is the daily solitude I can count on—even that is shared with East Village fashionistas teetering down the sidewalk in impossible shoes and too often puking between parked cars.
Home in bed with the boys (because that's our life at the moment until I can afford the space we really need and want) I merely doze throughout the night as some small but remarkably leaden foot or hand smashes me inadvertently in the eye or jaw. To spend the entire day alone—my restaurant shuttered for the holiday (nothing can possibly go wrong at work because there is no work!), kids safely stowed at their dad's while I howl all four parts of Handel's Messiah around my apartment—is, for me, the tip of the top of the freshest mountain.
By dark, I am sprinting to be ready for the guests. The apartment is now perfection—the paperwhites have popped and are reeking their narcissus deliciousness in the living room, there are freshly ironed sheets clean and taut on the bed with a duvet and six pillows puffed up like a thick layer of sweet white meringue where guests will throw their coats. On the now spotless old stove, my 10-quart scuffed Le Creuset simmers with a brothy soup thick with nicely cut vegetables. And I have been alone long enough; I'm ready for friends, conversation, laughing my brains out.
I throw myself through a two-minute shower, shave my legs and pits and—why not?—it's not bikini season but ... there, too. As long as we're getting down to such details as where Berger should rest on the bookshelf we might as well take the same care with our own body. Rejoice! Rejoice! Re-jo-o-o-o-oice greatly! With three minutes to go, I dig the accumulated crap out from under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and give them one quick-drying coat of Ballet Slipper. It's Christmas Eve, for Christ's sake.
By the time the intercom buzzes, I am assembling the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches of all time and the fridge is filled with seriously good Champagne, so packed that the bottles that can't stand up on the top shelf lie on their sides like stockpiled ammo down below. This is not the day I want to be drinking any of that chardonnay-sweet or over-yeasted bread-dough shit. I want tight effervescence, chalk on my tongue and the roof of my mouth, sugar turned to cold glass. WONDERFUL! COUNSELOR! ALMIGHTY GOD!
I grate the sharp cheddar and slice the blue cheese, sliver fresh mango, and thinly slice a few jalapeños. On the counter is a jar of Hellman's mayonnaise. There may still be a few people who don't know about Hellman's as the perfect and only cooking fat for a grilled cheese sandwich, so here it is: Don't use butter. Don't use oil. Instead, smear a thin film of Hellman's mayonnaise on the outsides of the sandwich and set it in a nonstick pan over low-ish heat. If some of the cheddar melts into the pan, let it set there until it makes that nutty, crunchy lace, which is one of the treats of life.
I like the blue cheese grilled on pumpernickel with a few strips of bacon. But the absolute best is just plain grated cheddar with a little mustard and mayo stirred in to season it. For a second course, I like the cheddar with mango and a few spikes of jalapeño.
The buzzer buzzes and my friends start piling hungrily into my apartment. I fill the crystal flutes to the top, one for everybody, and we clink and cheers. For me, the flute itself hits an especially sweet spot. Almost everything I drink at work I drink out of a plastic quart take-out container which may or may not have had harissa vinaigrette, Bloody Mary mix, or blanched and peeled calf's brains in it the day before. No matter how sanitizing the run through the dish machine is, most of the time my ginger ale tastes weird.
Heidi, my best friend, for whom Christmas Eve with grilled cheese and Champagne is as fixed a ritual as it is for me, at last arrives. For upwards of 15 years, she's brought the shenanigans. The human Christmas tree she and her girlfriend, Diana, the acrobat and aerialist, once made in my living room by one standing on the other's shoulders and holding a star overhead, dressed in green costumes. The lopsided Christmas wreath made of cardboard and tufted tissue paper, whose imperfections and crazy pipe cleaners would make Martha Stewart bust out in a nervous sweat. Soon enough, here she is, changing the lyrics from "He" to "Cheese" and I promise you, you have never laughed so hard as when she empties her lungs, in falsetto, with, "And Cheese shall pur-i-fy-ihy-ihyihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy-ihy. And Cheese shall pu-u-rify."
I'm in a clean and pretty dress that would matter if I spilled something on it, I've got a real glass filled with very real Champagne, I've managed a spritz of Annick Goutal's Eau d'Hadrien down the old cleavage and Heidi is making me laugh my head off. I'm fully in the Good Life.
After they have all gone, I load the dishwasher anew, squirt the lemon gel into the little compartment, change from my dress into sweats and clogs, and take a cab up to their dad's to sneak in. The boys are deep asleep; I can see their faces, illuminated by the yellow tree lights. The four chambers of my heart flood to see them again.
I first fell in love with "grower" Champagnes several years ago when Kevin Pike, who distributes wine for the well-known importer Terry Theise, invited me to a portfolio tasting of these wines, and a chance to meet their producers, in New York at Tribeca Grill. We had poured Champagne for years at our restaurant and had been very happy with a major marquee name, Laurent-Perrier, whose consistent quality and style we appreciated. But through these small producers—who bottle just a few thousand cases instead of several million, working the distinctive soils of Champagne to grow all of their own fruit and make them into sparkling wines of immense personality and character—we discovered a whole new world of sparkling finesse. Sometimes called "farmer fizz," the wines come from estates that have been producing Champagne for centuries. But now the younger generation of wine makers have embraced an artisanal approach, and they are making a big impact.
Through Kevin I got to know Terry. At a time when most importers were focusing on one or two big Champagne houses, Terry had found all these different, vivid personalities, and it opened my eyes. It was a bit like discovering the uniqueness of Grand cru vineyards, whether they are in the Mosel, Alsace, or Burgundy. Now don't get me wrong, I will never turn down a glass of Krug, but these guys from the small farms of Pierre Peters, Margaine, Gaston Chiquet, and Pehu Simonet provide artisanlike quality at a powerful value.
At almost all restaurants with great wine programs, you will now find an array of these producers, whose names you probably will not recognize. Simply let the sommelier know that you are interested in trying a grower Champagne and soon you'll be introduced to this relatively new category of fine wines. They are more affordable than bottles from the big houses, so pass over the Moët et Chandon and the Taittinger and look for these less familiar bottles—and seek them out at your local wine shop, too. A votre santé.
GROWER CHAMPAGNES * HOW TO READ THE LABEL
RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) Meaning roughly "grower-winemaker", who both sells grapes/juice/wine to the big houses and produces their own Champagne using at least 95 percent of their own fruit to make their wine.
SR (Société de Récoltants) Two or more growers, who are often related, share premises to make their Champagne, sometimes under more than one brand label.
NM (Négociant-Manipulant) Indicates that the producer purchased more than 5 percent of their grapes; the wine is not a grower Champagne.
Choosing a Rosé versus a more traditional bottle is up to the drinker, but the two are equals when it comes to serious bubbly. Rosé Champagnes gain a hint of color because the juice was left to sit with the dark grape skins for a short stint, or because a small amount of red wine was added to the blend. They often contain more Pinot Noir and Pinot Menuier than Chardonnay, so they typically have a fuller, fruitier style, though, of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs
By way of introduction to these two terms, it's helpful to know that there are three important grapes in Champagne production and three main regions where grower-winemakers are planting right now. Most Champagne is a blending of these three grapes.
White Chardonnay grapes make up 96 percent of the plantings in the Côte des Blanc region, and some Champagne produced here is 100 percent Chardonnay, in which case it is labeled Blanc de Blancs. Chardonnay contributes crisp acidity to a blend and can also provide the yeasty, nutty, or biscuit-like flavors that sometimes appear.
Pinot Noir is the leading grape in the Montagne de Reims region, and it adds softness to the texture of Champagne while also serving as the backbone in many blends. A blend heavy with Pinot Noir may feature more red-berry tones like strawberry, cassis, and raspberry.
The dark purple, almost black Pinot Meunier grape is known for adding richness and body and is planted heavily in the Vallée de la Marne. It provides fleshiness, structure, and lushness. A blend featuring only the two dark-skinned grapes—Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier without any Chardonnay—is called a Blanc de Noirs.
NV (Non-Vintage) and Vintage
Most Champagne is non-vintage, NV on the label, meaning that it was made from a few different vintages blended together. A vintage Champagne will have a date on the label, which indicates that 100 percent of the grapes used to make the wine were harvested in that year. A maker may choose to produce a vintage Champagne if they've had a particularly impressive harvest year. A vintage Champagne must be aged for at least three years before release, while a NV bottling is only required to age for one year.
Cru is the French word for "growth place." In the Champagne region, the terms Premier Cru (sometimes "1st Cru" on labels for the American market) and Grand Cru refer to the villages where the grapes were grown, rather than vineyards or estates, and were a way of denoting wines of superior quality ("Grand" being the top level). These days the system is less valuable, since the quality of crop varies from grower to grower rather than village to village.
Extra Brut, Brut, and Extra Sec
The dryness of a wine indicates how acidic (versus sweet) it is. Extra Brut is the driest, then Brut—the most common—followed by Extra Sec, which is a bit sweeter than brut.
Other Terms: Sélection Réserve, Grande Réserve, Spécial Réserve, Cuvée
All of these terms mean that the winemaker decided that the bottling was in some way superior to his regular production. The terms are not regulated, but can help you choose between two bottles from the same producer. You might splurge for the Grande Réserve, which will be more expensive than the same maker's entry-level bottling, for instance. The word cuvée, which means "vat," could signal any number of things. A cuvée name for a bottling (Cuvée Saint Denis, for example) might mean that the grapes in the bottling are from a specific vineyard plot that the grower has deemed especially expressive of the terroir. However, it could also refer to a special blend.
The label will also list the village where the Champagne was made and the address of the estate in very small print.
Who is Selecting and Importing the Champagne?
And finally (some would say most important), check out the label on the back of the bottle. It will tell you who selected and/or imported the Champagne. Most of the recommended bottles below are the selection of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Rosenthal Wine Merchant, Selection Becky Wasserman, and Terry Theise Estate Selections. All have exquisite taste, search high and low to find the finest wines, and stake their reputation on the producers they choose to represent.
OUR FAVORITE FARMER FIZZES
A. Margaine "Special Club" Blanc de Blancs, Brut, 2002—100 percent Chardonnay. Just down the road from Veuve Clicquot, in the village of Villers-Marmery, is Arnaud Margaine. Making Champagnes with striking aromas, Margaine made a surprising move by planting 90 percent of his parcels with Chardonnay—in Pinot Noir country. The "Special Club" is his top cuvée from 2002 and has warm gingerbread notes. The Special Club is a collective of 26 top RM producers. The club members taste each other's top cuvées and decide which are worthy of the "Special Club" designation and the vintage bottle shape. Gimonnet, Bara, Hébrart, and Lassalle are also members of the club.
Diebolt-Vallois à Cramant, Brut, NV—40 percent Chardonnay, 35 percent Pinot Noir, 35 percent Pinot Meunier. This family estate produces refreshing, bracing Champagne in the village of Cramant, in the Côte des Blancs region. The acidity is like crisp green apple, but the body is full, like a beautiful Chablis. They are registered as NM, but they do grow most of their own fruit.
Godmé Père & Fils Blanc de Noirs, Brut, NV—100 percent Pinot Noir. From the village of Verzenay, where red grapes outnumber white, comes this smoky Blanc de Noirs. It has flavors of toasted nuts, vanilla, burnt orange, brown butter, and chewy fruit skin, and is best served with food rather than as an aperitif.
Guy Larmandier Rosé, Brut, NV—82 percent Chardonnay, 12 percent Pinot Noir. The pretty pink color will make you think of sweet fruit, but this rosé is exceptionally dry, with almost no dosage (added sugar). It's been called the Billecart-Salmon of the grower Champagnes, and is beautiful and fresh. The brand began as Larmandier Père& Fils, and the family tree includes Pierre Gimonnet and Larmandier-Bernier.
Excerpted from Canal House Cooking Volume No 5 by Christopher Hirsheimer, Melissa Hamilton, Margo True. Copyright © 2010 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Canal House.
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