Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rishi Ancient Emerald Lily

I've been in love with oolong for soo long that I can barely remember the last straight up green tea I've had. When I recently saw the attractive, slender whole leaves of Rishi's Ancient Emerald Lily displayed in a plastic baggie at my local natural foods shop, I decided to give it a go.

The Rishi website promises notes of pine nut and wildflowers. These I did not taste. I found the first brewing a little, for lack of a better word, seaweedy. It's a slightly unpleasant flavor I sometimes find in greens, and a personal reaction that can probably be traced back to my earliest associations with the stuff.

I first had green tea as a kid at the Japanese restaurants in my home town of Boca Raton where it was served along with miso and sushi. Those umami, oceanic flavors were so different from anything mom made at home, and when I drink green tea with a particular flavor profile today I can still summon up the befuddlement of my young palate.

Subsequent steepings proved more mild and less fishy with the nuttiness and grassiness that I associate with some of my favorite greens. The flavor was fine if unexciting, but what I really like about this tea is its organic and fair trade certification.

Sometimes, fair trade means a compromise in quality. Fair trade coffee and bananas are just as good as regular (or "evil") coffee and bananas, but they'll probably never be the THE best coffee and bananas. Of course human rights are vastly more important than complexity of flavor, which is why a pretty good fair trade trea becomes a very good tea in my book (or blog).

As I've discovered thanks to my new bowl, food and drink alone are not the sole components to pleasureable eating. Think about eating a Jean-Georges meal out of a tin can: it's just not the same, unless you're a goat. So in addition to lighting, tableware and presentation, we should all add ethics to our meal enhancing bag of tricks. This is one of the many reasons Chez Panisse remains so popular. After eating there, diners radiate a glow for more than one reason. There's the quality of the food and then there's the righteous feeling of knowing where it all came from.

I'm willing to give a so-so tea a great rating because of factors that have nothing to do with its flavor, and I'm not alone. Heck, I'm even happy to spend a little more cash to get this mediocre tasting but more ethically just product.

Restaurants, are you getting this?

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Monday, December 28, 2009

A Nauseatingly Decadent Christmas

This year I observed Christmas in the manner that I felt best befit my Jewish heritage: eating so much food that I felt sick.

On Christmas Eve there was tourtiere, a French Canadian meat pie that allowed Karen to embrace her culinary roots and me to eat three kinds of meat in one bite. As is the custom, the tourtiere was served with pickles, which help to cut the richness of the very once-a-year tasting pie.

Christmas day started with a cup of coquito, smoked white fish and Elise's challah (notice Oli's interest in it).

After doing the breakast dishes, we then made more breakfast. This time it was scrambled eggs with bacon and leeks, and of course by the time we'd finished it was time to start preparing dinner, a braised turkey stew.

Gripped by the festive spirit (and beer), I combined every delicious ingredient I could summon. I browned two turkey wings and one thigh along with onions, celeriac and carrots. In went several dried figs, some defrosted chicken of the woods from last autumn's bounty, dried shitakes in case defrosted chicken of the woods don't taste good (they do), a few Santa Barbara black olives, leeks leftover from breakfast, wild rice, which isn't really rice at all, fresh sage and parsley, a dash of pimenton, and an ample sprinkling of black pepper. Admittedly, there may have been fewer ingredients if I'd had fewer coquitos at breakfast #1.

Amanda brought some seriously marinated seared beef (in merlot and Sichuan peppercorns), and for dessert there were Karen's homemade truffles. Throughout the day I ate gingerbread ornaments off of the tree, without my hands. I also seem to remember eating some sausage, and probably putting some into the stew, too. There were copious amounts of Fingerlakes wine, Belgian beers, Belgian style beers, port, a small bottle of icewine that myseriously appeared, some Jameson with a lemon wedge, more coquito, and, in a nod to temperance, handfuls of mesclun mix eaten out of the bag. Oh, and some leftover goat gouda from our wedding. And at some point I ate three eclaires.

When I went to bed, I felt like I was body surfing on a wave of protein, sugar and alcohol. Sugar plum fairies would have danced in my head if all of the blood wasn't going to my stomach to fight the losing battle for digestion.

I went to sleep feeling as regal as the Nutcracker but woke up in the middle of the night feeling more like the eviscerated mouse king. Only instead of a sword, my stomach had been pierced by my own lack of self control around so much incredible food. Call it protein hara-kiri.

Cold, in pain, and alone in the darkest hours of the night, I swore that I'd never again eat and drink with such abandon. In the morning I woke up feeling fine and couldn't wait to do it again next year. Or maybe next week.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Market, Reviewed

Jean-George's new Boston restaurant Market was reviewed favorably in yesterday's Globe. You might recall my preview piece on Market from when JG was in town scoping out suppliers. That is all.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On Avatar

Spoiler alert: I'm taking a break from posting about tea and food to discuss the film Avatar, and in doing so I'll be revealing certain key plot points. More important spoiler alert: Avatar is a terrible movie.

Before we come along, the planet Pandora is inhabited by tall, blue humanoids that look part African, part Native-American, have pointy teeth and can hiss like snakes.

As a Jew, I found the portrayal of my people in Inglourious Basterds to be rather flattering. If I were Masai or Sioux, I'm not sure I could say the same of the creatures in Avatar, who with their ear stretchers and monkey chant-like prayer ceremonies are clearly meant to represent the indigenous peoples of Earth, only hotter.

With air-brushed features and waspish waists, the Na'Vi look more like something from the pages of Cosmo than National Geographic. In creating a race of athletically superior, scantily clad supermodels, Cameron commits one of the biggest colonialist no-no's: sexualizing the natives.

In the director's defense, the Na'Vi have an elaborate social order, rich spiritual traditions and live in harmony with their planet and their god. Of course all of this, including learning to control flying dinosaurs with your hair, is mastered by the protagonist in three months.

Though the film champions indigenous rights, it's white people (in blue bodies) who get the best health care. When the Na'Vi tribe is decimated in an attack meant to evoke September 11th, instead of looking after their own, the entire clan gathers to appeal to their god to heal one white lady. And who unites all of the tribes to save the day? A white guy, on a red dinosaur.

Halfway through the film, at which point you'll already have to pee, I found myself wondering how Cameron could possible resolve a situation that, in the real world, has yet to be resolved: how to make peace between corporate interests and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. The solution was fantastical flying reptiles, some guns, and the will of god. (forehead smack) Of course!

But my problems with Avatar extends beyond the portrayal of the Na'Vi. Despite the film's title, the actual theme of what it means to have an avatar was underdeveloped beyond the notion that if you don't have legs and your avatar does, you like it. The 1994 Aerosmith video for Amazing makes you wish you had an avatar more than Avatar does.

Also, what's the message for the thousands of adolescents who are flocking to see the film in crowds as thick as the trunk of the Hometree? That deep down, who you really are is your twitter account.

A word on the effects. Contrary to what you are clearly meant to think after being beat over the head with millions of dollars of technology, I didn't find the CGI drenched landscape realistic or even engaging. I found most of the effects shiny, cartoonish, and sort of... fruity.

The 161 minutes of eye candy make you feel the same way you'd feel after eating real candy for 161 minutes. After Halloween, all you want is a piece of lettuce and a glass of water. After Avatar, you crave real actors and good writing.

Also, who named the planet Pandora?

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Leeks and Eggs (or Eggs and Leeks)

What, besides dirt that's impossible to remove, is there to not love about leeks? They're like onions without the bite, plus some spinach.

I've played around with leeks a lot and found that they're as versatile as they are funny to anthropomorphize. Though most chefs would say "discard" if you asked them to free associate a word with leek greens, I'm a big fan. You can blanch them and crisp them in hot oil as a garnish, you can chop them up and add them to a soup, or you can do my absolute favorite thing to do with either part of a leek. If you've read the title to this post, you know what that is.

A warm mound of leeks and eggs is the most comforting breakfast imaginable. Disagree? What, do you think French toast is? You're wrong: it's leeks and eggs.

Leeks and eggs are like peas in a pod, only better, because they're two things and because they're better than peas. They go together perfectly, and I could waste your time by describing exactly how and why, but instead you should just go make some.


Recipe: Scrambled Eggs and Leeks for Two (People)

Leeks (about half of a normal sized leek or five inches' worth or 3/4 cup chopped)
4 eggs
a pinch of salt
a pinch pepper
a pinch of your cheek, to know that you're not dreaming

1. Slice the desired amount of leek once down the middle and then chop into half circles, about the thickness of a Necco wafer.

2. In a deep bowl, pour cold water over the chopped leeks and thrash them around to remove the dirt. Once the dirt has settled, skim them from the surface and rinse again.

3. Warm a glug of olive oil or a pad of butter in a pan, enough to cook both the leeks and then the eggs. Add the leeks. Cook until tender but not crispy.

3. Add the whisked eggs, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring, to achieve a custardy, small curd scrambled egg. Serve with toast.

4. What else do you need to know?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

In today's The Pour, Eric Asimov writes the following:

"You might have to travel to Sauternes territory, southeast of Bordeaux, for a demonstration of how a good Sauternes can highlight and amplify the sweetness of, say, lobster."

Though I don't think you really have to go anywhere to get that lobster and Sauternes would be good.

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Self-Fulfillment Through Servingware

As I've said before, when it comes to food, I'm all about the food.

I'm much more concerned with the quality of what I'm actually eating (both gastronomically and ethically) than with the pedigree of the china it comes on or the knife it was cut with. That said, we've received some really nice wedding presents that have caused me to re-think my hard line on non-edible kitchen items.

Granted the gifts have remained within the spectrum of our preferences. Rather than a home sous-vide machine, we've received items such as a handmade Oaxacan table cloth and a lazy Susan made from a "retired" wine cask, but even these crunchier accoutrements have shown me the pleasures of atmospheric dining, and now that I've been there, I'm not sure I want to go back (to eating lunch directly from a hot skillet).

Salad just tastes better from the bowl pictured above. It turns ordinary dining into feeling like you're having dinner at a the hole of a very well-off hobbit. We're nursing the last greens we'll be getting from our winter CSA, and they deserve no less pomp than being nestled in the hollow of a handsomely carved walnut burl.

To return to the subject of knives, we also got a really, really good knife. I used to think that sharp was the only important feature of a knife, but I've now tasted Japanese steel, and I like it.

Watch out, bushels of root veggies in my hallway.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Flavor Imbalance

When cooking, one generally tries to achieve a balance of flavors. If your dish is salty but flat, you can splash in a little lemon juice for acidity, and so on.

But what about a dish with boldly unbalanced flavors? What about something that just screams one single ingredient? Like CHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICKEN!!!!!!!!

That's what happened when I made the soup pictured above.

I normally go for balance, but an off-balance dish can be much more interesting. Granted, this only applies to those who want their food to be "interesting."

Butternut squash puree is, by now, a no brainer. Even a stupid baby could make it. I've made it many times, sometimes with cream, sometimes with stock, sometimes with nothing more than water, and it's always easy and tasty. But since I rarely cook the same thing twice, I decided to mix it up this time.

No parsley garnish. No splash of cider vinegar. No trace of nutmeg. No roasted garlic. No sweated onion. Very little salt. I only added a small but dense amount of chicken jus replete with a thick layer of yellowish fat. It was not stock, which would have been delicious and well balanced. No, this was a one-note addition. And that note was chicken fat.

Though simple, and though it didn't contain anything remotely like, say, pomegranate seeds, shaved parmesan or a drizzle of truffle oil, all of which would have been lovely, it was a challenging bowl of soup. Rich to the point of disconcerting, chickeny to the point of overshadowing the typically dominant, sweet squash, it was unlike any butternut puree I'd ever had. Even the color was more poultry than plant.

If I'd had it at an otherwise unremarkable restaurant, I would have thought it was terrible. Why didn't they at least sprinkle on some black pepper? But if I had been served it at a great restaurant, I would have marveled at their audacity.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Quote of the Day

From the fascinating NYT piece on the new and (not at all, really) affordable sous-vide machine for home cooks:

"English chef Heston Blumenthal, who once sous-vided a whole pig in a hot tub..."

I'm sure sous-vide cooking is extraordinary, but can you imagine anyone who buys one of these things feeling anything but regret about their purchase in 10 years?

An imagined conversation in 2019:

Wife: Honey, let's get rid of that creepy machine you bought that costs as much as it costs to feed many starving children.

Husband: But I was just going to make some perfectly poached eggs, even though, with talent, I could do so more or less for free.

Wife: All right. But I'm going to put it with the bread machine and salad shooter.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Black Garlic

I'm not going to beat around the bush: black garlic is crazy, and you should try some.

I can't think of any other foodstuff that is at once so familiar and so confounding. When you taste a clove a black garlic, you know that you're eating garlic, yet the flavors have all been rearranged in new and different configurations. In terms of taste, black garlic is to garlic as ice-9 is to water.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, black garlic is non-black garlic that has been specially fermented and aged. Like most delicious things, it's long been used in Asia for medicinal purposes and is now being exploited in the West.

And with good reason. One word you'll often hear associated with b.g. is "fruity," and it's true. In comparison to boring old raw garlic (yuck!), the dark stuff is mellow, sweet, and... very difficult to describe.

When Amanda made an aoli with both roasted garlic and black garlic, the mysterious flavor only deepened, though walnuts were suddenly apparent. Black garlic reminds me of real balsamic vinegar without the tang and with.... again, hard to say.

I guess that, like Coke, black garlic tastes like black garlic.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Poached Chicken

Now I love a roasted chicken as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy is Simon Hopkinson. In other words, I really love roast chicken. But if you're not going to eat the whole thing as soon as it comes out of the oven, with your bare hands, hunched over the skillet, dredging it in its own fat, roasting may not be the wisest use of a bird.

If you're cooking a chicken to eat all week, poaching provides a much moister option. Cold roasted chicken, by which I mean a roasted chicken that has been refrigerated and not some feat of molecular gastronomy, is quite delicious but seems so much tougher and drier than when you ate it hot. Yet poached chicken can stay downright silky when cool, even a few days after refrigeration.

In the past I've always boiled, but Fuchsia Dunlop has turned me on to the magical texture of the gentle poach. See the awesome Land of Plenty for the full technique, but the basic idea is that you boil water, add the chicken, bring back to a boil, simmer, then "plunge" the chicken into cold water to stop the cooking process. Here's mine in it's cooling bath/watery grave.

You think any chicken cooked in liquid is moist and tender, but you've never had it this good. Another bonus is that you're then left with the poaching liquid, which in my case also contained about a thumb's worth of a crushed ginger, a few pathetic old carrots that looked like a very tan witch's fingers, and a dried chili from Common Ground a few years back.

I drank the liquid in a bowl of noodles with a few paper thin (assuming the paper was cardstock) slices of raw kohlrabi. Doesn't that seem like something you can do?

Apart from the brutal murder of the chicken, it was a remarkably tranquil dish.

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Breaking News: Holiday Cocktails

See here for my latest piece in Stuff magazine (Boston) on holiday drinks to rival eggnog.

Though deep down, I do love eggnog. I suppose I even love it not deep down.

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