My hangover, part deux: all things considered
The proximate cause of yesterday’s hangover was the simplest of all: the wines (and food) were just so delicious, we couldn’t stop drinking (and eating). Who worries about the possible consequences later on when life affords you so much pleasure now?
So Marilyn and I drank. Some people begin planning the menu with the wines, some with the foods. My strategy was a cross-breed of both. I knew I wanted sparkling wine. I had a bottle of Roederer Estate’s 2002 L’Ermitage Brut, a wine I’d given 91 points two years ago, but that, I figured, could well be showing better than that now. But other than that sparkling wine, I had no idea what other wines to serve. That would depend on the food.
There is a hot-smoked Pacific salmon they sell in my local Whole Foods. This form of smoking is different from the cold smoke by which the lox of my childhood fantasies is prepared, being drier, smokier, flakier and, to my tastebuds, spicier. I have developed an addiction to it, even though, at $22 bucks a pound, it isn’t cheap; but a little goes a long way. I knew I wanted to do something with it for Marilyn that would allow the sweet, smoky fish to star, but not be overwhelmed, and so I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions. There were lots; Wilson Daniels’ (who wrote it? Lisa Mattson used to but she’s with Jackson now, I believe) was the best and simplest. Garlic-rubbed bruschetta (Semifreddi’s sourdough baguette), toasted with a little butter and EVOO, topped with the fish, a poof of crême fraiche and a sprig of dill. With that, of course, the bubbly.
While I was shopping at Whole Foods in the fish department, it was impossible not to remember that this is Dungeness crab season. I’ve already had plenty over the last month or so since it started. It’s easy enough to have the fishmonger crack it, and the added advantage yesterday was that they were practically giving it away, at $3.99 a pound. So one cracked crab it would be. Marilyn de-meated the crab, carefully making sure no shell pieces remained behind, while I prepared the rest of the mixture, which was a modified version of a Paula Deen recipe.
I like Paula Deen’s recipes. They’re fancy enough to satisfy my tastes, and everything she does seems delicious. For the crab cakes, she had recommended binding with–not just any old bread crumbs–but ground-up Ritz crackers. Well, they certainly don’t sell Ritz crackers at Whole Foods, but they do have an “organic saltine cracker” from a brand called Back to Nature that sounded Ritz-like, so I bought it, ground 8 crackers with a mortar and pestle, threw the fine crumbs in with the cleaned crabmeat, added 2 chopped green onions, some mayo, an egg (but skipped Paula’s recommendation of 1/2 cup of chopped bell peppers), Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, lemon juice and Cayenne, and mixed.
“Don’t mix it too heavily,” Marilyn, an old crab cake maker, admonished me. “And don’t break the crab pieces up.”
“I was going to put everything in the food processor,” I said with a straight face. She ignored me, as Marilyn has largely learned to do concerning my puns over the years.
I made patties with the resulting mixture, put some EVOO and butter into the cast-iron pot, got it hot, dredged the patties lightly in white flour, and fried them for about 5 minutes on each side.
But a topping was needed. Crab cakes need something pretty to dress up in–nothing too heavy is needed. I’d happened to have two golden mangoes I’d bought, again at Whole Foods, two days previously, because instead of their usual $3 price, they were $1 each, a bargain. I pinched them. One was still firm, the other pliant and squishy; it was ripe for the slaughter. A perfect thing to combine into a relish with mango is corn. This is not corn season, however, one of the more lamentable aspects of winter. But Whole Foods has a very good 365 Brand of canned corn, very sweet, far superior to anything frozen. The rest of my corn relish consisted of chopped jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and garlic, splashed with a little lime juice and soy sauce, and sprinkled with salt and pepper.
That was all good enough, but more was needed–something to precede the salmon bruschetta. Something small and savory, not filling, but that would excite the palate. Since the menu already was developing along piscatorial lines, I spied the most perfect, plump and fresh scallops in the self-same fish counter, right behind the cold-smoked salmon. Instantly I understood the preparation: sear the scallops rapidly over high heat in butter, EVOO and a few chopped garlic pieces. Throw them over a few leaves of chicory. Sprinkle with toasted black sesame seeds, then drizzle the leftover hot butter sauce over all, slightly wilting and sweetening the tart greens. That would be my first course, the amuse bouche.
The Roederer provided a bridge between the scallops and the salmon bruschetta, and how good both those two dishes and the wine were. Pinpointed umami, essence of the salty ocean, waves of interlocking flavors, with the bubbly both finer and nuttier than it had been two years previously. The crab cakes were cooked quickly, all the prep work having already occurred. They were a little too liquidy; next time I will put in more crushed crackers for binding. At one point I told Marilyn they were more like blintzes than true cakes. But she hushed me and told me how good they were, with the mango-corn relish sweetening them and adding texture, and I had to admit, they were the greatest crab cakes I ever savored. Or maybe it was just the night and the company that made them seem so. With the cakes I opened a Bouchaine 2007 Estate Pinot Noir that was light-bodied and silky and so spicy with cinnamon and raspberries that it seemed an ethereal embodiment both of the Carneros and the perfect 2007 vintage. A perfect match.
There would have been no hangover had it ended there, as it should have, as any sane host would have done. We’d already consumed two bottles of wine, not to mention two glasses of Chardonnay each I’d served as a cocktail (and I will not mention the brand because the wine wasn’t very good). The meal, however, did not end with the last sip of Pinot Noir (which I decanted). Somebody had given me a bottle of Port: Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny. I had decanted that, too, earlier in the afternoon, before Marilyn arrived, and just to make sure, I took a sip. If you know Tawny Port, you know its rich, silky, refined, almost taffeta mouthfeel, and how good, wise and wonderful it can be; and the Taylor Fladgate was all that, and more. With it, we ate the only things I hadn’t made from scratch: chocolate brownies, brought once again at Whole Foods. The decanter of Port was almost empty by the time all was said and done.
The amazing thing is that Marilyn suffered no ill effects from all this imbibing. I, however, had the most severe hangover in years. It receded, mercifully, as the day wore on. Chuck asked if we could meet for coffee at Whole Foods at 2, and when he saw me–unshaved, unkempt, stooped over, in black stocking cap and shades–he said I looked like somebody who was begging for money. In fact I was begging for the ill effects of the hangover to fade. I could not drink coffee, so Chuck suggested something salty and protein-y, to help the stomach. I got three large turkey meatballs from Whole Foods’ hot-food area. They were perfect turkey meatballs, sweet, spicy and buttery, and they did have the effect of settling my digestion. I suppose, if I ever get another hangover this severe again, I will again turn to turkey meatballs as a curative. But I hope not to have another hangover. The thing I don’t understand and probably never will is why we think, the night before, all will be well, as we throw caution to the winds and eat and drink as if there’s no tomorrow. There’s always a tomorrow until, well, the day there isn’t; and then we won’t have to worry about hangovers anymore. The reason, I suppose, that we drink, eat and make merry before we die (and as I said in opening this piece) is simply that the wines were so delicious. That’s the story of my life: I love, not wisely, but all too well.