Incredible, edible vodka

And Henri’s First Annual Bloody Mary Competition

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

There are times that call for something stiff. And while Henri enjoys little more than a tall glass of Bordeaux, sometimes a cocktail is in order.

Some readers may recall Henri’s backyard adventures with Jonathon and his Better Boys and gin and tonics, and, to be parfaitement honnête, gin is a respectable beverage—despite the fact that it’s English. In fact, it’s the only English food that Henri will go near. Black pudding? Mushy peas? Quelle horreur!

And gin was Henri’s drink of choice for many years, until the first time he came out to San Francisco and discovered the vodka martini.

It was a drizzly day in late December. L. and I had flown out to visit our friends Terry and Claudio, who were hosting their first annual cioppino feast—and who also wanted to show off their new antique store near Union Square. Of course, we spent the entire first day shopping, and by late afternoon had worked up quite a thirst. Terry suggested drinks at Le Central.

Le Central, it turns out, was one of the favorite haunts of Herb Caen, who claimed his famous “vitamin V” martinis fortified him and kept him from missing a single deadline in his nearly 60 years of writing a daily column for San Francisco newspapers. So naturally, it was vodka martinis all around. By his third one, Henri was hooked. In fact, hooked on vodka in general.

I’ve since discovered many, many ways to enjoy this wonderful boisson, most recently in an absolutely divine little cold soup made with melons and strawberries, as handsome as it is delicious.

Vodka, from the Russian voda, for “water,” was probably first developed—for its medicinal properties—in Russia or Poland some time around the end of the 12th century. By the late 13th century, people were, well, self-medicating in rather large numbers. By the mid-1800s, it was traditionally being served at Russian Imperial banquets, where meals began with bread and vodka.

After the Russian Revolution, many Russian vodka makers emigrated, taking their prized recipes with them. One of them, Vladimir Smirnoff, set up a distillery in Paris and then later came to the United States, where, in 1934, he established the first vodka distillery in America.

Vodka was originally made from distilled rye, then later from potatoes, and, over the years from a wide range of grains. Most modern brands are distilled from rye, wheat, barley, or corn. Recently, companies have been flavoring vodkas with berries, fruit, and even chocolate—the latter probably English.

Melon-and-Vodka Soup
3 cups cubed cantaloupe
3 cups cubed honeydew
1 cup strawberries
4 tablespoons vodka
4 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons lime juice

Separately puree the cantaloupe and honeydew, and keep in separate bowls. Add two tablespoons vodka and brown sugar and one tablespoon lime juice to each mixture. Puree the strawberries.

Serve by pouring melon mixtures into opposite sides of a bowl and letting them run together. Add a dollop of strawberry puree, and swirl once or twice gently with toothpick.

Vodka Martini
2 ounces chilled vodka (Ketel One, Stolichnaya, Grey Goose)
1 teaspoon vermouth
Garnish: cocktail olive, black kalamatta olive, hot pickled pepper, pickled onion, etc.

Place martini glass in your freezer. Put four or five ice cubes in a shaker; add the vodka, and shake until the shaker frosts. Remove vodka and martini glass from freezer, and place garnish on toothpick and set in glass. Pour vodka through strainer into glass over the garnish. Set teaspoon of vermouth 3 inches from martini glass for 10 seconds. Deposit vermouth in sink. Drink, see clearly, rinse, repeat.

Announcing Henri’s First Annual Bloody Mary Competition: It’s Bloody Mary season again—early September through August—and Henri is asking readers to send in their best recipes. Henri’s staff will then make and taste them all, and the CN&R will print the winner in the “Chow” column in the Sept. 22 ("Best of Chico") edition. Winner will also get an autographed copy of Henri’s book, Some Like It Hot.

Send your recipes to: Deadline is Friday, Sept. 9, at 5 p.m.