I NEVER expected my book "DamnYankee in a Southern Kitchen" to be prophetic, but a few years following its publication, here I am, a New York City transplant, living in Ivy, Va. -- pure South and pure country.
Choosing this Charlottesville suburb was no trouble for either my new husband or me. We both had seen and admired the city in precious, separate lives. But there was one problem. A new house and a new marriage proved to be terrible shrinkers.
This would have been no problem if I did not love to cook and entertain. Fomal dinner parties, I well knew, required more hours than I could spare. So I hit upon the solution of inviting guests for what I called a Spirited Supper, telling them to arrive any time after 5 p.m. The open-time invitation turned out to be a convenience for everyone. It allowed concert-goers to slide into their seats before the curtain. And parents could arrive later, having had time for children to be tucked in and baby-sitters to be sitting. Because these suppers consist primarily of dips and spreads, no knives and forks are required, making cleanup easy, too.
At these suppers, I quickly learned how to get a cocktail-time laugh. On the first round of drinks, I ask guests what they would like -- adding that we have everything except rye.
When the polite laughter subsides, I am told in accents firm and southern that it might be difficult even to find rye in a Virginia state store. "Bourbon," they kindly add, "is our drink." Beautiful Bourbon
There is good reason for Virginia's appreciation. This corn mash whiskey was named as a patriotic thank-you for the aid of France's royal family of Bourbon's during the Revolution.
History also says that days of old in Virginia began with a tray holding eye-openers of bourbon. With its service, guests were warned that no other drink would be served before breakfast. Today, while Virginians don't wholly turn their backs on whiskey, they frequently ask for white wine at cocktail time.
The Vermouth Cassis, a more intriguing white wine drink, is not yet a Charlottesville familiar. When I order it in restaurants here, I end up teaching the bartender how to put it together. Instructing students in the ways of that Burgundy-inspired aperitif. I describe a scene from the musical "Fanny." In it, father and son, usually at sword's point, momentarily achieve a warm rapport. Glowing with pleasure, the father, a bartender, offers his son a gift: "I will teach you," he says, "how to make a Vermouth Cassis."
"Great!" says the son, in French words to that effect.
The father, suiting action to words, begins, "You take one-third cassis." Pouring again, he directs, "You add two-thirds vermouth." Picking up a bottle of sparkling water, he finishes, "And then you splash in one-third club soda."
"But, Papa," the young man predictably protests, "that's four-thirds!"
Stamping his foot, all rapport finis, Papa snaps, "It all depends on the size of the thirds!" Knowing Variables
And Papa, of course, is right. Expertise as a bartender is confirmed by knowing how to deal with variables. In a Vermouth Cassis, these depend upon how sweet -- more cassis -- or how weak -- more wine -- a drink is desired and upon the flavor of the individual spirits as well.
The drink looks prettiest served on the rocks in a clear stemmed glass, with a lemon-peel twist. Zest is increased when the rim of the glass is rubbed with the yellow peel (often called the zest) before twisting and dropping it into the drink.
For variations on the variables, substitute white wine for vermouth, Then call the apertif a Kir -- a name honoring its inventor -- Canon Felix Kir, the priest-mayor of Dijon, Burgundy. If substituting red wine for vermouth, call it by its other French name: a Communard.
In addition to giving instructions at Charlottesville restaurants, I am, in turn, being instructed. For instance, I find when ribs are ordered, beef, rather than pork, will arrive. Baked Mexican potato skins, ordered at another restaurant, were analogous to baked stuffed potatoes instead of crisp-fried skins. The stuffing was delicious surprise composed of spice-hot mashed potato mixed with diced scallion cradled by crisp skins and steaming under a burnished crust of sharp cheese. Market Instruction
Markets, too, are providing southern instruction. A vegetable I had never seen before is the lovely, spring green chayote. "Is it a hard squash?" I asked the weigher.
"Yes," she said. "You bake it."
Blessed with a microwave oven, I just puncture its shell once or twice with an ice pick and flash it for about five minutes. After splitting the squash, I sprinkle my half with salt and fresh-ground pepper. My fortunate husband doesn't need to count calories, so he can puddle his half with butter.
Other supermarket pleasures are the packages of toothsome country ham slices and the casually stacked piles of Virginia hams, special-order treasures in the rest of the country.
Charlottesville boasts another miracle -- an astonishing specialty-food shop, appropriately named Foods of All Nations. Its shelves are abundantly lined with the precious -- caviar and truffles and saffron -- as well as the down-to-earth -- pots of marigolds and pansies. In the fresh-vegetable area, water chestnuts, snow peas and even shiitake mushrooms invite a Chinese-cooking binge, especially if one's husband is susceptible to the blarney of: "How perfectly you chop vegetables!" But I would not prepare a Chinese Spirited Supper. Freezer Finds
I depend instead upon a freezer storehouse of made-aheads. These ensure that, if necessary, a party can be put together on the spur of the moment. Cubes of cheese -- some sharp, some bland -- slices of turkey or beef cut to fit cocktail-size bread, toasted nuts and pate are a few of the foods my freezer holds.
In addition to these tried-and-true favorites, I seem to have invented another guest-pleaser. I call it Hodge-podge, because essentially that is what it is. The melange is too filling to serve as a dinner party hor d'oeuvre but just filling enough to satisfy appetites at a Spirited Supper.
I prepare it by pureeing vegetables that have been cooked to make soup stock. My stockpot usually holds onion, carrots, celery ribs and tops, a can of tomatoes, an inch or two of parsnip and snippets of fresh ginger. Ginger and parsley are stored in the freezer with my collection of bones and wings and things, where they, too, keep indefinitely.
Prudent French housewives make a thickish soup by adding these pureed vegetables to the stock. Unhappily, many American cookbooks direct that the vegetables be discarded -- chilling words to this waste-not-want-not cook. Until I learned the prudent French trick, I at least served the vegetables to a friendly dog or cat.
A Hodgepodge can be varied endlessly. Its essence is liveliness of flavor. A combination of herbs, such as basil, thyme and marjoram, can enspirit a vegetarian version. Enliven the addition of cooked poultry or drained canned tuna fish with curry powder; add slices of cooked Italian sausage, hot red pepper and fennel seed to make an Italian Hodgepodge; devil a ham Hodgepodge with sharp mustard; and add flavor zest to stir-fried ground beef with chili powder.
Here is a recipe with variations on the Hodgepodge theme. HODGEPODGE (Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups) 2 cups vegetables cooked to make stock 3/4 cup diced cooked meat: chicken, turkey, duck, ham or 3/4 cup cooked fish or shellfish or canned tuna or smoked oysters 2 tablespoons instant minced onion or 1/4 cup onion, diced fine 2 to 3 teaspoons spices: curry powder, chili powder, cayenne powder Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish: Snipped parsley or chives, riced hard-cooked egg (white and/or yolk), paprika
Puree vegetables, combine with other ingredients of your choice, and season to taste. Serves 6 to 8 guests, depending upon the number and quantity of other foods served. TOASTED NUTS
Rinse walnuts in a sieve and while still wet sprinkle heavily with coarse (kosher) salt. To prepare in a microwave oven, spread nuts on paper toweling on a plate. Cover with a paper towel and flash 2 minutes. Stir, and flash approximately 2 minutes more, watching carefully to prevent burning.Alternately, toast in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Almonds, blanched or not, may be prepared the same way. PATE MAISON (4 servings hot, at least 6 cold)
Serve this hot, for dinner, then refrigerate or freeze the leftovers to slice very thin. Garnish the serving plate with cornichons. 8-ounce can tomato paste, divided 1 onion, chopped fine 3/4 pound ground beef 1/4 pound pork sausage 1 egg Quick-browning aid (optional)
Combine half the tomato paste and all ingredients except quick-browning aid in a bowl. Shape into a loaf and place on rack in pan with low sides. Brush with quick-browning aid.
With a knife, press a "well and tree" design into top of loaf, by making one long vertical groove and radiating from it four or five crosshatches. Foll grooves with remaining tomato paste. Bake in 350-degree oven until firm, about 1 hour.