Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

No doubt many people saw the mediocre movie made from this book  Corelli’s Mandolin,  beautifully filmed but as usual, not nearly as compelling as the book, which is written in lively, colorful prose from the viewpoint of several unique characters. These unique individuals include the main female character Pellagia, a traditionally raised Greek daughter who dutifully cooks for her father and becomes engaged to the local stud but then flips convention on its head with her later choices; Dr. Iannis, her father, who has his head in the clouds, who cures wild animals as well as human beings and whose inner monologues kept me vastly amused and entertained; and of course, the titular character himself, Captain Antonio Corelli. It was a wonderful read, but also very depressing and sad…..kind of like life itself.  Set on the gorgeous island of Cephallonia during World War II, the heartbreak of war is brought vividly to life in this place that has remained timeless until now. I suppose it goes to show that the horror of war leaves no place and no one untouched.

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Being set in Greece, of course the food depictions are luscious, with descriptions of wonderful octopus, mezedakia, which are little finger-type foods served like appetizers, dolmades, spinach pies in miniature, and my favorite, the passage below, set during the feast of the local saint, St. Gerasimos.

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“Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl, and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours and composed epigrammatic couplets at each other’s expense.”

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How can you not love a book that uses the word “epigrammatic” in the same sentence as such a delectable food passage? Anyhoo, kreatopita is the traditional meat pie eaten on Cephallonia, and can contain ground beef, feta cheese, onions, oregano and assorted other ingredients such as potatoes, rice, garlic, or tomatoes. The idea, I gather, is that each Greek cook has their own individual version of this recipe, and that is what true home cooking is all about. Having the skills to cook something and add tweaks or twists that make it truly your own, and which is part of the joy of this blog for me. It’s the ultimate in creativity, and I did it again here with the Cephallonian meat pie, using a base recipe from the marvelous blog site Lemon and Olives, with some added tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
16-20 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed and covered with damp towel
1 cup melted butter
1 lb. good-quality ground beef, preferably organic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Fresh oregano, fresh mint and fresh dill – use dried if fresh are not available but use less
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of good, drinkable red wine.
1 cup of crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of frozen green peas

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 365F. In a skillet under a medium burner, add the olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of sea salt for flavoring and to keep the onion from burning. Add the ground beef to the onions and garlic in the pan, and brown for about 10-15 minutes, stirring to break up the meat.

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Chop the equivalent of a 1/2 cup each of the fresh oregano, mint and dill. In another bowl, crumble up the feta cheese with your hands, and add the fresh herbs to this mixture. Fresh herbs really allow the flavors to come through, so if you use dried, use 1/2 tablespoon of each. Stir to mix and let the flavors mix together while you attend to the still-cooking meat.

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Add the tomato paste and the wine and the beef and stir again. Lower the heat  to medium low and let the red wine reduce, stirring occasionally. Add in the peas and stir again, so that the heat of the skillet will help them defrost. The scent of the meat, the wine, the peas and the herbs will rise up and hit your nasal passages like a dream. Delicious!

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You want the liquid reduced to nothing, so as not to make the phyllo dough soggy, so once the liquid is all gone, remove the meat mixture from the heat and let it cool for about 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, add the crumbled feta and herb mixture, mix well, and leave while you prepare the phyllo dough pie base.

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In whatever type of baking pan you have – I used a buttered disposable baking pan – lay one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter again. Continue in this vein until you have 8-10 sheets of phyllo layered on top of each other, each layer covered with butter. You need to do this fairly quickly, as the phyllo dough dries out easily. If you cover the dough sheets with a damp towel, this should help, but don’t take too long at this stage.

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On this buttery surface, add your meat-feta-pea mixture and spread everything out so that it evenly covers the dough. Add another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the meat mixture, brush with butter, and repeat until you have a topping of 8 more phyllo sheets to cover the meat.

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Poke a few holes in the top of the dough and pop that bad boy into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll be able to smell everything baking and your mouth will probably water so much that you’ll need a swig of wine to help. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and eat with joy in your heart! Opa!

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

For MGC, who turned me on to Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Here’s to you, my dear.

I’ve often thought F. Scott was the man of my dreams, albeit 50 years too early. The man could write, loved to drink, was a party animal, and as handsome as any man I’ve ever seen. I mean, what else is there in life? I could totally have been his Zelda!

F Scott Fitzgerald
 

Fitzgerald is, in my humble opinion, the quintessential author of the Jazz Age, that gilded pre-war time of parties, sexual freedom, sparkly dresses and headbands bedecked with feathers, the “Charleston,” and sheer excess. Nowhere is this dazzling and dark era brought so beautifully to life than in The Great Gatsby. I had a crush on Jay Gatsby after reading this book in my older teens, and fed by watching Robert Redford play him to perfection in the original film. But as I get older and read this book over and over, I find myself increasingly……not disliking him……….but wanting to shake some sense into him. However, since I know what it’s like to carry a long-time torch for someone who’s not a part of my life, I can understand. Or perhaps I understand all too well and that’s why I want to slap some sense into J.G. – figuratively smack some sense into myself as well?

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I digress. One of the pivotal, and my favorite, scenes in the book is when Gatsby whisks his lover Daisy off to New York City to escape the heat, along with her horrendous husband Tom, her cousin Nick who is the de facto narrator of the book, and Tom’s quasi-girlfriend Jordan. They end up at the Plaza Hotel, drinking mint juleps and getting crazier in the heat, until tempers explode and truths are told that change everyone from that point forward.

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In honor of the Kentucky Derby, and my love for Jay Gatsby and this book, here is a lovely little recipe for that old Southern favorite, a mint julep. This method, which worked VERY well for me, serves one, so feel free to increase ratios as needed.

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INGREDIENTS

1 highball glass
1 spoonful of sugar
1 spoonful of water
7-8 fresh mint leaves

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Enough crushed ice to fill the highball glass
Bourbon whiskey of your choice. I love Marker’s Mark, so that’s what I used here.
Dash of nutmeg
Fresh mint leaves for garnish

METHOD

Add the sugar to your highball glass. Add the water to just dampen the sugar. Don’t souse it. This is about what you want.

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And know that this is truly for a bourbon whiskey lover, as the amount of sugar doesn’t really cut the liquor flavor. So use a bourbon you really like, or add more sugar and a bit more water.

Add in the mint leaves and muddle them a bit, if you have a cocktail mallet. If not, the back of a spoon should work. You want to release the oils in the mint. Add three or four more fresh mint sprigs to the sides of the glass.

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Put in the crushed ice to the top. You essentially don’t want there to be room for anything except bourbon. Did I mention this drink will knock you on your ass?

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Fill the glass with bourbon whiskey. It’s actually a very pretty color if held in sunlight. If this amount of bourbon freaks you out, use half that amount and add a bit of water. It won’t taste the same, but you also won’t find yourself lying on your kitchen floor drunkenly singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not that that’s ever happened to me. I’m just saying it for YOUR sake.

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Add a small dash of nutmeg over the top, which takes this cocktail to another level flavorwise, and garnish with the remaining mint leaves.

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Sip and enjoy, preferably with a good friend while wearing a Derby-esque hat and watching the ponies.

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