Read an Excerpt
Canal House Cooking Volume No 6
The Grocery Store
By Christopher Hirsheimer, Melissa Hamilton, Margo True
Canal HouseCopyright © 2011 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton
All rights reserved.
THE BEST GROCERY STORE IN THE WORLD
The big rectangular sign that sits high on a pole outside a low-slung workaday-looking building on Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento reads "Corti Brothers Since 1947"; a smaller oval sign above it defines the place as a "Specialty Grocers". Inside, you will look in vain for frosted glass panels, trendy graphics, pin spots illuminating quotations from Brillat-Savarin, and other poncy modern food-shop furnishings. Instead, fluorescent lights shine down brightly on rows of standard shelving, neatly stocked; deli meats and cheese are stuck with old-style plastic price signs, the kind with numerals you can move around when something goes from $7.99 to $8.29 a pound. The smell in the air isn't freshly distressed pine flooring or the assistant manager's Acqua di Giò; it's food—the earthy aromas of meat and cheese, the woody perfume of coffee beans, the fragrances of sweet fruit and pungent garlic.
The important thing to remember about Corti Brothers is that while it may be a "specialty grocers", it is also a supermarket, in the traditional American sense. Fresh produce glistens in the kind of pristine abundance rarely found outside California. Fish and meat departments are well supplied, and feature everything you'd expect (boneless trout, salmon steaks, crab claws, mussels; T-bones and skirt steak, lamb chops, spareribs, chicken wings, and whole turkeys), albeit with a few surprises thrown in (stockfish as hard as a two-by-four, ground emu, corned beef tongue). You can order cold cuts sliced extra-thin here, pick up a couple of cans of beans, grab a head or two of iceberg, stock up on frozen orange juice and frozen ravioli. You can also buy skim milk, and toilet paper, and assorted victuals for Fluffy and Rex.
On the other hand, Corti Brothers would also be happy to send you home with a square-sided flask of Yanai Kanro Shoyu of Mitsuboshi soy sauce (unlike any you've ever imagined); or a bag of Ball Club Chippewa genuine wild rice; or a cake-like Loison panettone flavored with candied apricots and ginger; or a wedge of Montasio cheese from Latteria Perenzin in Italy's Julian Alps; or a bottle of Delamain 1982 Early Landed Cognac or of San Geminiano Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Oro Riserva—at $499 for not quite three-and-a-half ounces, so you know we're not talking about the stuff they put in the salads over at the Olive Garden. Wines—hundreds of them, probably three-quarters of which the average wine lover has never heard of, to his or her detriment—stand shoulder to shoulder in glorious array here, as do phalanxes of olive oils. Italian bitters? Single-malt Scotch? Fresh mozzarella or aged prosciutto? Rare Chinese tea? Canned haggis? Corti Brothers has got you covered.
Corti Brothers, in other words, is an unassuming treasure-house of absolutely superb food and drink items that share space easily with a vast catalogue of more pedestrian things. It serves its community—every stratum of that community. A measure of how well it does that may be seen from the fact that when the market lost its lease a few years back and another kind of food shop (cue the frosted glass and the Brillat-Savarin) announced plans to take over the space, the public outcry was so loud and large that the newcomers backed off and Corti Brothers was able to renew its lease for ten more years.
Corti Brothers is run today not by a Corti brother, but by Darrell Corti, the son of one sibling (Frank) and thus the nephew of the other (Gino). Darrell is a medium-size, gray-haired gentleman of Genoese descent, with long ears, a proud chin, and a mien that seems both amiable and scholarly. When he's working, he usually sports a dark blue smock, like something a grocer might have worn a hundred years ago. And if you were to be so ingenuous as to ask Darrell what he does for a living, he would most likely respond, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, that he is exactly that: a grocer.
And so he is, undeniably. But he is a grocer like Itzhak Perlman is a fiddler, or Kobe Bryant shoots some hoops. Darrell Corti is the not-so-secret secret of Corti Brothers—the reason it is unique, and commands such respect and loyalty. His father and uncle founded their business with the notion of not just selling food but talking to people about it, bringing it alive in ways that conventional supermarkets can't. Darrell took the idea and ran with it, first building up the wine department (which was his entry-level bailiwick within the store), then going off into the world to learn about and bring back pretty much the best of everything else and then share it with his customers. He learns about things because he is genuinely interested in them—though of course as a grocer, he also learns about them because the more he can evocatively describe the treasures he sells, the more his customers will buy them. "We don't have every good thing in the world here," he likes to say, "but everything we do have is very good."
Along the way, Darrell has accumulated a range of knowledge that is truly encyclopedic—which he shares freely and with obvious pleasure. When he was inducted into The Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008 (and he would be the first to tell you that while vintner is commonly used as a synonym for "winemaker", its original meaning was "wine merchant"), the proclamation, besides acknowledging his key role in helping to promote the California wine industry, noted that he "has mentored a generation of seminal food and wine professionals with impeccable taste and articulate discourse."
I don't remember the first time I met Darrell Corti, which is curious because Darrell is one of the more memorable fellows I have ever encountered. I suspect that it must have been sometime in the early to mid-1970s, though, and I do recall that the first time I referred to Darrell in print, I spelled his name "Daryl." I also once incurred his thankfully short-lived animus by calling him a know-it-all.
Well, hell, he is a know-it-all. But he's a know-it-all who really does—at least in regards to food and drink and the proper service and sybaritic enjoyment thereof. (Actually, he also has a pretty good knowledge of Romance languages both commonplace and marginal, European cultural history, opera, incense—about which he has occasionally threatened to write a book—and probably a few hundred other subjects.) His friends sometimes call him "the professor". When the winery sales manager Gretchen Allen-Wilcox launched a Facebook fan page devoted to Darrell—who, incidentally, would likely have had no idea what a Facebook fan page was at the time, and probably still doesn't quite grasp the concept or particularly want to—she dubbed it "Darrell Corti will always know more than you about Food and Wine". As she explained in an early post on the site, when she and her husband, who at one point had worked as a deli manager at Corti Brothers, "would occasionally find a subject that we had researched and with pride, we would present what we knew to Darrell. Inevitably, he would not only correct us on our misinformation, but proceed to provide a historical recount of the product, its country of origin, and its historical significance. Dejected but not defeated, we would retreat back to the books to try to find holes in his stories. We never could."
Well, of course not. I've long since learned that there's no percentage in trying to one-up Darrell. Even if it happens that you do somehow know something about food or wine that he doesn't, he'll likely understand the significance of what you know better than you do—and if your fragment of knowledge leads to something good, he'll figure out pretty quickly how that something can be incorporated into a well-seasoned life. And the next time you stop by Corti Brothers, you'll probably find it on the shelf.
Colman Andrews, our dear friend and mentor, was the cofounder of Saveur and is now editorial director of thedailymeal.com.
it's always five o'clock somewhere
makes 4 cups
One of the first edible plants up in the spring is mighty rhubarb, with its heart-shaped leaves and long succulent bright red or green stalks. Rhubarb is known and relied on for its purgative powers—it's a natural spring tonic. If you want to make this before the season, frozen rhubarb works just fine. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall turned us on to rhubarb syrup in his The River Cottage Year (Hodder & Stoughton, 2003).
4 pounds fresh rhubarb, cut into pieces, or 4 pounds frozen rhubarb
1 1/3 cups superfine sugar
2 cups (10 blood oranges) fresh blood orange or orange juice
Put the rhubarb and sugar into a pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 50 minutes. Add the orange juice and cook for 10 minutes. Use a fine sieve to strain the juice into a bowl. Return the juice to the pot, bring to a gentle boil, and cook for about 20 minutes, until it has reduced to a light syrup. Measure the syrup and, if necessary, continue to cook over medium heat until it reduces to about 4 cups. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
This drink borrows elements from two great classics: a sugary rim from the sidecar and tequila from the margarita. Deliciously tart rhubarb and sweet orange juice stand in for limes. We prepare our glasses ahead of time, first by wetting the rim with a little rhubarb syrup or orange juice, then rolling the edge of each glass in superfine sugar. We stash the glasses in the freezer for a while so they get frosty. They won't stay that way for very long once you take them out, but they look so beautiful and appealing while they do.
For each drink we mix together 3 ounces Rhubarb Syrup, and 2 ounces tequila, then pour it into sugar-rimmed glasses filled with lots of ice. We garnish the drink with a slice of orange. Or if you prefer your drink "up", sugar the rim of a stemmed glass and put it in the freezer until it is frosty, then pour in the cocktail.—makes 1
Spring, with all its glories—its lightness, its frothiness—deserves to have a drink created in its honor. Normally we don't like to mess with, or muck up wine—how can you improve on a vintner's miracle? But in the spirit of the season we add (give or take) 2 ounces Rhubarb Syrup (page 12) to a Champagne flute, then pour in about 4 ounces ice-cold Prosecco. Spring has sprung!—makes 1
For a nonalcoholic drink, pour 3 ounces Rhubarb Syrup into a stemmed glass. Add cold bubbly water. Serve over ice, if you like.—makes 1
Early bartending guides mention this classic, whiskey made tart with lemon juice, sweet with sugar, and sometimes frothy with egg white or seltzer, but the classic recipe is rarely what bartenders follow these days. Bastardized over the years with bottled and powdered sour mixes, it is overly sweet and tangy—a shame when the real thing is so simple to make.
Our version is simpler still. We forgo the egg white and mix our citrus juices, focusing on freshness rather than texture. Instead of the classic garnish of an orange slice and a maraschino cherry, we opt for a slice of lemon to match what's in the glass.
3 ounces whiskey or bourbon whiskey
1 ½ ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ½ ounces fresh lime juice
1 ounce Simple Syrup, below, or 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
2 thin lemon slices
Put the whiskey, lemon juice, lime juice, and simple syrup, into an ice cube—filled cocktail shaker, cover, and shake vigorously. Divide the cocktail between 2 rocks glasses, adding a few more ice cubes to each. Garnish with lemon.
SIMPLE SYRUP * Put 1 cup superfine sugar and ½ cup water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, gently swirling the pan to help dissolve the sugar as it melts. When the sugar comes to a boil, cover, and cook for about 1 minute. Let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
WINTER'S JEWEL—RUBY RED GRAPEFRUIT JUICE
When the canal alongside our studio is frozen hard, it's easy to forget that other parts of the country are bathed in sunny fruit-ripening warmth. Cutting into a juicy grapefruit with its burst of fresh citrus scent transports us there. Grapefruit—from California, Texas, and Florida—are in their prime from January to April and we are so glad to see them piled high at our grocery store. The sweeter Ruby Reds from Texas are our favorites to juice for cocktails, so we buy them by the bagful while they are plentiful.
Before vodka became so fashionable, many cocktails like these were originally made with gin. We like our dogs either way.
Fill two small glasses with ice. To each add 2 ounces gin or vodka and 4 ounces fresh pink or Ruby Red grapefruit juice. Give each a gentle stir.—makes 2
ITALIAN GREYHOUND * Follow the directions for the Greyhound, adding a splash of Campari to each cocktail.
SALTY DOG * Follow the directions for the Greyhound but first moisten the rim of each glass with grapefruit juice, then roll the rim in a saucer of kosher salt.
PERRO * Follow the directions for the Greyhound, substituting 100 percent agave blanco tequila for the gin or vodka and adding the juice of ½ a fat, smooth-skinned lime to each cocktail.
PERRO SALADO * Follow the directions for the Perro but first moisten the rim of each glass with the cut side of 1 lime wedge then roll the rim in a saucer of kosher salt.
crax & butter for dinner
makes 2 cups
We spread this Southern classic on Club Crackers instead of eating it the other traditional way—between two slices of soft white bread.
8 ounces extra sharp Cheddar, finely grated
One 4-ounce jar pimientos, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon grated yellow onion
½ cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup cream cheese
½ teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Pinch of ground cayenne
Put the Cheddar, pimientos, onions, mayonnaise, cream cheese, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a medium bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until it is well blended and the Cheddar becomes creamy. Refrigerate for about 1 hour before serving. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
BLUE CHEESE WITH BLACK PEPPER
This savory butter is great on grilled steaks, lamb chops, roast chicken, and baked potatoes—oh yeah, and crackers too.
Put 8 ounces (2 sticks) softened butter (preferably Irish) into a bowl or the bowl of a food processor. Add 4 ounces good blue cheese and lots of freshly ground black pepper too. Use a fork to blend it together into a coarse mash or blend it together in the food processor for a smoother butter.—makes about 1 ½ cups
ANCHOVY & LEMON BUTTER
Each little smear of this salty citrus spread packs a whole lot of flavor. On a cracker, it is the perfect cocktail crunch as you sip an aperitif.
Put 8 ounces (2 sticks) softened unsalted butter (preferably Irish) into a bowl or the bowl of a food processor. Add 12 oil-packed anchovy filets, 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne, and the grated zest of 1 lemon. Use a fork to blend it together by hand into a coarse mash or blend it together in the food processor for a smoother butter.—makes 1 cup
SMOKED SALMON BUTTER
Use the best hot- or cold-smoked salmon available. If you don't have preserved lemon, use the grated rind of a fresh lemon and a good squeeze of its juice. Put 8 ounces (2 sticks) softened unsalted butter (preferably Irish) into a bowl or the bowl of a food processor. Add 4 ounces smoked salmon, 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne, and the rind of 1 small preserved lemon minus the pith. Use a fork to blend it together by hand into a coarse mash or blend it together in the food processor for a smoother butter.—makes about 1 ½ cups
Excerpted from Canal House Cooking Volume No 6 by Christopher Hirsheimer, Melissa Hamilton, Margo True. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Canal House.
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