The year draws to a close, and wherever we are, or whatever our persuasions, we all might experience some cheer and merriment and look forward to wishing our loved ones joy, peace and prosperity for the year ahead. It also occurs to us that there will be many who are less fortunate, for many varied reasons, and so in the coming weeks we might remember them. And if it be in our power to alleviate suffering or spread good cheer, especially among complete strangers, we should do so with gusto …and as often as we are able.
I write this month’s edition in a different vein – from a spectacular ski lodge on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, snifter of Cognac in hand, counting blessings and looking back on lessons learnt. It is my firm belief that lessons learnt are in fact blessings in themselves, and one might seek to keep learning until that final ‘feet first’ moment. It has been a tumultuous year – yet one that has given great personal satisfaction. Rather than write on a single topic I share here some anecdotal footnotes that have held some inspiration for me as I discovered them. The sentiments have been expressed at some time or another in my earlier posts. I hope my readers will find some merit in them and in this format.
1) There is probably no way for our species to contemplate absolute truth. It is only a conviction we feel, born of circumstances and predilections, based on the limitations of understanding.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote “…I don’t bother about absolute truth or even enquire whether there is such a thing, but define the truth as the system of my limitations.”
2) If the above is a reasonable assumption, then we probably should take ourselves much less seriously. If there is good work to be done, then let us put our shoulders to the wheel with unflinching determination. If there is prejudice afoot and our course demands judgement ‘in truth’ over others – we should find something else to do.
3) Lao-Tse was right. “Where there is harmony at home, there will be order in the nation and peace on earth.” We are habit forming creatures and what sentiments govern ‘this thing over here’ usually govern ‘that thing over there’.
4) We hear that the mind can heal the body. We believe it …or at least we want to believe it. While we’re waiting for evidence of that let us recognize the fact that the mind can wound the body. We might actively seek to divert mental stress.
5) Elections. We expect to choose the best among us to lead us out of our fears and govern with equity. To achieve this we use a process that conjures the worst in us, preying on our fears and forcing prejudicial choices. We wholly expect this system to work well for us. Refer to No. 1.
6) A gun, of any kind, is designed to emit a high velocity projectile that causes utter damage. Developed to gain the upper hand in time of war, it is designed to remove stress, responsibility, deliberate reasoning and any chance of caution or redress from the user. Do we really need that lack of responsibility and deflected moral fiber – sanctioned by law – on our city streets? When charged by an errant rhinoceros we prefer to stun. When chasing an errant teenager we prefer to kill. Really? WTF!!
7) Democracy, Justice, Fair Governance, Liberty. Words used lightly in an election cycle to create ‘feel good’ jingoism. All of these great privileges are a hard fought fight. A fight that must be fought every day. These privileges rise or fall in the hands of a population who we hope are intelligent enough to know our Constitutional framework and its vitally important prescription of the dissenting voice that is equally valid. Democracy, Justice, Fair Governance, Liberty are not ‘one size fits all’ T-Shirts, despite what card carrying, card reading politicians might say. Be wary of cookie cutter politicians who promise to govern in monosyllabic words. Even baking cookies is more nuanced than that.
8) COP21/CMP11 – a.k.a. the Conference on Climate Change – for all the skepticism surrounding it, proved something remarkable. In June we acknowledged that a large, misguided group of the population (at times 48% depending on the question polled), thought climate change to be a hoax if not a liberal conspiracy. In Paris, on December 12th, almost 200 world leaders in a plenary session admitted the problem and then defined its possible solutions. Their rallying cry, “Long Live The Planet, Long Live Humanity. Long Live Life Itself.” Now there’s a cause we haven’t heard before!
9) “Lucky is he who takes the good in all,
and through chance and events – by reason is led.
What is wont to make others weep,
for him is cause for laughter and in the turmoil of the world he will find peace”.
This text authored by Lorenzo Da Ponte forms part of the chorus from the finale of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. How well he knew life, and how well he lived it. Born a Jew, a forced convert taking the name of the local bishop who confirmed him, a seminarian, a priest, an unrelenting Casanova with a tremendous talent for the written word, an exile from Europe, banned for bad behavior from three great European cities, the collaborating librettist on arguably Mozart’s finest three operas, a farmer, a grocer and then an honoured American professor of Italian whose bequeathed writings later formed the core of the library collection at Columbia University – the remarkable life of Emanuele Conegliano strongly suggests that we should take his advice.
On a completely different tack – and with a nod to the therapeutic qualities of cooking –here are three highly indulgent holiday recipes from my kitchen that celebrate Cognac. When served together, they make a fine meal. Enjoy. Here’s wishing you all Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year ahead in 2016.
This variation on the simple Gravlax preparation substitutes Cognac for the customary Vodka.
Sushi Grade Wild Caught Salmon – Washed and Filleted in two long halves, skin on.
2 cups: Soft Brown Sugar
2 cups: Sea Salt
Large Bunch Coarsely chopped Fresh Dill
1 and ½ cups Fine Cognac.
Choose two flat large cookie sheet/pans of the same size. In one, lay the Sushi grade filleted Salmon halves, side by side, skin side down. Apply generous quantities of brown sugar and then salt to both halves. On one half spread the fresh dill and douse both halves with Cognac. Artfully flip the two salmon halves together keeping ingredients firmly pressed together. Cover the fish with a sheet of wax paper. Place the other cookie pan on top and depress with appropriate weights. Canned goods work nicely for this. Place in refrigerator for 24 hours.
Before serving, gently wash away marinating ingredients, allowing for salmon to flake off with each serving.
Mix Mayonnaise, Hot Mustard, Horseradish and Heavy Cream into a Sauce – quantities to taste. Serve with Lemon Wedges, Capers and Slices of lightly buttered brown bread.
6-8 Chicken Thighs with skin on – bone in
Two cups milk (buttermilk works well)
1 and ½ Cups of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the nuttier the flavor the better.
Stick of Butter
1 cup Cognac
Two cups rice flour
1 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
2 tsp. Garlic powder
2 tsp. Ginger powder.
Wash chicken thighs, leave ‘skin on bone in’. Dry chicken pieces well.
In two cups milk marinate chicken pieces for up to 8 hours, a minimum of 4.
In a dry mixing bowl add all ingredients listed above from Rice flour to Ginger Powder. Mix until evenly incorporated. Drain the milk and add pieces of chicken to the seasoned flour, turning and coating thoroughly. Allow to sit on a wire rack.
In a skillet, heat olive oil and half the butter to medium high, allowing for consistent heat without burn or smoke. Gently cook chicken pieces for ten minutes on each side allowing for the bone to protrude and flesh to be properly cooked. Do not crowd the pieces or turn too frequently, nor fry all at once if the oil temperature cannot be maintained.
When chicken is crisp and done, add the remainder of the butter, all the Cognac and flambée just before serving. Serve with your favourite sides. Fresh steamed asparagus spears and hollandaise sauce complement well.
Cognac Bananas Foster.
This easy variation on the New Orleans favorite is quick and a great way to end a meal, if friends can join in the cooking.
1 stick of butter
1 cup soft brown sugar
5 tangerines or satsumas
5 large bananas – ready to eat, but not necessarily over ripe.
1 cup Fine Cognac
In a flambée pan or large metal skillet, add the butter and the brown sugar, incorporating into a molten mixture over medium heat. Add the flesh of 3 satsumas coarsely chopped and the juice of 2 – to the mixture. Add the flesh of all the bananas sliced down the length and then evenly in one inch pieces. Mix gently with all the ingredients so that orange and banana is coated evenly and hot.
Raise the temperature, add the Cognac, touch to the flame and ‘voila’. Serve immediately over dark chocolate gelato.