Entertaining Without Alcohol. By Dorothy Crouch. Acropolis Books Ltd., $14.95.
When I was a much younger man I just loved to read cookbooks. Some of them were like travel fantasies, and an armchair tour of old cobblestoned Europe or the sun-bright dusty streets of Casablanca were just a page-flip away. I learned to make fettucine from "A Cook's Tour of Rome," and I could see the legions marching away from the city even as I kneaded the egg-rich dough to the husky rhythms of (are you ready?) Carly Simon.
Well, reading "Entertaining Without Alcohol" is a lot like being with a good friend or two, and it is a lot better reading than any of the crusty old peckinsniffer books that always tried to tell me how to dash the wine just so into the sizzling pan in which I was cooking the veal, or to fold the cheese just so into the beer (the rich, light German imports, my deah, are said to be fabulous for this), or how the rum, when added just so, will cook out of the confections and leave our balled-and-rolled cookies, how shall I say, assertive and yet not arrogant.
You see, in all of that, I never heard tell of anybody laying in a supply of cooking gin, or vodka, which for a few years, or decades, were my aperitifs of choice.
Dorothy Crouch knows a good deal about cooking, and about food. She proves this over and over in this really important book, whose users likely should be cooks who are cooking for others who are recovered alcoholics, for whom any alcohol at all is an invitation to a painful and self-abasing death.
The recipe section really takes up about half the book, and ranges from soups and stocks and seafood, through specialties, sauces, marinades, beverages (including non-alcoholic holiday punches) to desserts, some really rich ones that take the place of those guaranteed to send guests reeling out into a holiday night.
For instance, our writer gives us a recipe for Mussels in Sauce Without Wine, reminding us that it is an alcohol-free version of a popular restaurant specialty that "tends to be composed primarily of white wine."
The recipe calls for 2 1/2 quarts of mussels, 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, 2 shallots, chopped, 1 clove garlic, chopped, 1/4 cup clam juice, and pepper, which Crouch calls "optional." In this reader's kitchen, pepper is optional only in such things as ice cream, and not always there.
Now important here is that Crouch tells you not only how to make the sauce, but also how to clean the mussels (or clams, which can be used quite well with this recipe), and the result of a rich, rewarding bit of sensory gratification that runs like this, in part:
"Check the pan -- the mussels are done when their shells are open and they have released all of their wonderful juices into the bottom of the pan Our writer gives us a recipe for Mussels in Sauce Without Wine, reminding us that it is an alcohol-free version of a popular restaurant specialty that "tends to be composed primarily of white wine." . . . This dish is served in soup bowls, usually without spoons -- the idea is to use a little seafood fork to get the mussel out of the shell and then scoop the soup up with the shell."
Recovered alcoholics particularly will get a kick out of the realism in the first half of the book, in which Crouch tells how to give a non-alcoholic cocktail party or one where drinkers and non-drinkers, for whatever reason, are invited (you use two bars, with the glasses and other accoutrements completely different for each), and where Crouch rather explicitly describes the drawbacks of having a drinking situation at all in the guise of entertainment.
One classic, which upon reading has made a number of recovered alcoholics wince in recollection of their own behavior patterns, involves how to handle it when a drunk shows up:
"From my point of view, the biggest problem is the distinct and unpleasant personality change that often takes place as the level of intoxication rises. Some of these drinkers seem to cross an invisible line, at which point you must deal with a monster in your house. My initial reaction always used to be one of fear until a friend who is a recovering alcoholic made the following suggestion: 'Find something to compliment the person about. This something must be true, as drunks are super-sensitive about what they believe is and isn't true about themselves. Keep complimenting the person until their anger is relieved.' "
Besides good reading, genuine good humor and a sense of love of the reader, "Entertaining Without Alcohol" deals with some very important and often overlooked matters, such as the alcohol content in vanilla and other extracts, and so-called "non-alcoholic" drinks, such as alcohol-removed wine and non-alcoholic beer, which are called "ideal for the sober, for the occasion's driver, and for those who avoid drinking for reasons other than alcoholism.
"These so-called 'non-alcoholic' drinks have only about .05 percent alcohol content and have the advantage of tasting more (in the case of the beer) or less (in the case of the wine) like the real thing." The alcohol content is on the wine label, but not on the beer label, the author points out, and I can tell you that any alcoholic who fools around with stuff that tastes like what he used to die for is putting his or her life on the line.