December 26, 2012

A Non-Traditionalist Japanese Chef does New Year's

Tojo's Great Pacific Roll

 Blog posts have a life of their own. You write them, forget about them, and then a day, week, a year later, there's a response. The process can be like sending out a message in a bottle, having it circumnavigate the globe and return to your shore with an answer.  Last New Year,  I  blogged about this article on Japanese osechi ryori,  which I wrote for Edible Manhattan.

I happened to be in Vancouver at the time, so I wondered where I might be able to find osechi in that Pacific city, home to lots of Japanese ex-pats and with great access to both freshly caught seafood and Japanese ingredients.

Then just recently, my bottle returned when I received this comment from Hopstepka, who I assume is a Vancouver blogger: "Just found your query. The best osechi ryori we've found is sold by Seto Sushi in Richmond. After that, there's Fujiya."

Thanks, Hopstepka! Seto's menu includes the delicious-sounding matsutake dobin mushi (translated as mushroom tea pot soup with seasonal pine mushroom) and an intriguing BBQ tako cake (BBQ octopus fish cake).

I got to wondering what my favorite sushi chef in Vancouver, Hidekazu Tojo, does to ring in the New Year at his eponymous West Broadway restaurant. Although he trained in a traditional Osaka ryotei, or high-end Japanese restaurant, Tojo says "I never really liked osechi. Everything is too salty, because the idea was that you put the food in a box that would last three or four days so you wouldn't have to cook during the holiday.
More of Tojo's sushi, fresh, fresh, fresh.

"Today, young people don't like overly salty cooking, and the people who come here are very health-oriented, they don't like foods that are to sweet, salty, or deep-fried. So I cook 'new traditional food.'"

For New Year's Tojo makes his usual omakase, or chef's choice menu, a series of small plates that progress from a sunomono, or vinegared vegetables, on to various steamed, fried and seared dishes as well as raw fish and sushi plates. He includes "new wave rolls" like his Pacific Northwest Roll of dungeness crab, avocado, scallop and fish roe, or his Northern Light Roll of wild prawn tempura, avocado and seasonal fruit rolled in a cucumber crepe.

During New Year's week, the chef will highlight traditional Japanese foods, where he updates osechi ingredients such as lotus root and black bean. He might lightly saute the lotus, and simmer the black beans in a less sugary-sweet syrup than the traditional style.

From the omakase menu, BC salmon with Asian vegetables, western-style sauce.

Referring to the somewhat westernized sauces and preparations that have crept into his food over 40 years in Vancouver, Tojo adds, "Even in Japan now, European, Chinese, Japanese food, all of it's mixed." In Canada, he believes, "The best way is to little by little introduce traditional Japanese foods."

Some osechi traditions die hard, though. Even an avowed healthy modernist like Tojo adheres to some of the symbolism that is an essential part of osechi. The colors red and white, he notes, are most important, symbolizing respect for ancestors, good health, and purity. They'll be represented on his plates in the form of the traditional kohaku namasu, a red and white vinegared daikon and carrot salad.  He'll also serve red shrimp, and a little bit of white dried fish.

So the traditional New Year's feast will be present at Tojo's, but in small bits and bites, slipped in between plates of some of the most pristine raw fish preparations you'll find on the West Coast.

Sounds great. The only problem: I won't be in Vancouver for this year's celebration.

December 6, 2012

Montreal vs. Paris: Advantage Pucks and Poutine

The great thing about Montreal is that it's so close and so French. I would call it a poor woman's Paris, but that would be doing the quirky Quebec city a disservice. It's only so in the sense that you can get there for less money than you would by jetting to Charles de Gaulle.

There  are so many only-in-Quebec things that make Montreal sui generis. Like poutine. This great ambassador of the category (below) was jumping with juicy bay scallops and shrimp, a real find on the menu of The Montrealais at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth.

Or the Montreal Canadiens, whose glory days may live in memory only, but aren't ones to wallow in self-pity, as the team's unsentimental locker room motto indicates. (A good credo for life in general, don't you think?) Even during a dismal lock-out year, you can pay a visit to the Habs' Temple de la Renomee (a much more accurate and evocative name than the pallid English translation, "Hall of Fame") at Centre Bell.

And where in Paris would you find a cheese shop called by the Franco-British name La Maison du Cheddar, filled with an assortment of artisanal Quebec cheeses?

Nor could you locate this in Paris: My favorite Montreal restaurant find, Van Horne, a fine art-filled pocket place where chef Eloi Dion oversees a kitchen staff of one other person and tuns out (at very reasonable prices) precise, detailed dishes like this compressed watermelon salad with fines herbes-infused tomato, marinated shallots, olive, capers, house-made ricotta and tomato chips.  

Finally, I love that delicious and chewy St-Viateur bagels are sold at the airport, so that you can take a bag home like the parting gift from an over-generous host. I didn't even make it to the smoked meat category, but that's for another post. 

November 1, 2012

Have Refrigerated Meat, Will Travel: In Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Jake Dickson Wanders the Upper East Side

Inside his roving truck, Dickson and his meat remain chill, despite the disaster.
It's been surreal, sitting out Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath of death, destruction and displacement from the leafy confines of the Upper East Side. Just a few miles away, homeless people are wading through sewage or picking through rubble trying to salvage a few mementos, while up here, irate commuters stuck in traffic or waiting for the reduced-schedule Madison Avenue bus is about as bad as it gets. An incident early yesterday morning, though, brought the disaster closer to home.

On my power walk to the gym, I spotted a familiar face smiling at me on the corner of 84th and Lex. I waved and said hello, and a split-second later, put together face with name. It took a moment because the bearded visage was totally out of geographical context. What was downtown artisanal butcher, Jake Dickson, the guy behind Dickson's Farmstand Meats, doing on the Upper East Side, drinking coffee and loitering on a corner with his wife Jen and fluffy white Italian Spinone, Olive?

Of course, I realized, the Chelsea Market vendor must be among the tens of thousands of displaced downtowners, like the Greenwich Village friend who arrived yesterday afternoon to camp out in my apartment.

I'd be the first in line to buy if only some of these slabs were carved.
In Dickson's case, though, much more than a carton of spoiled milk is at stake. In preparation for Thanksgiving, he purchased a record seven-and-a-half animals, and says that when the power went out at his popular meat and sandwich shop he had to do triage. "We've had to prioritize, and sadly, abandon about 2,700 pounds of boneless beef, pork and lamb," he told me, about $15,000 worth of hanging carcass. To add to his losses, his car is likely totaled from the water damage it sustained.

 Leaving behind cheaper cuts like chuck, bottom round and trim, he packed up all of the cuts he dry ages, such as beef and pork loins and beef ribs. He salvaged his most valuable ribeyes andNew York strips as well as the "value-added" products he makes such as his bacon and pancetta. The latter take anywhere from three to five weeks to cure and represent thousands of hours of labor. The downside to a refrigerated truck full of valuable fresh and cured meat? "I'm staying with my in-laws and running the truck every few hours to keep it cold," says Dickson.

Roaming the streets of the UES all day and night looking for a new parking space is not Dickson's biggest problem though. Even more pressing is the need to reopen as soon as possible, since another round of already-slaughtered animals is hanging upstate, waiting for that empty refrigerated truck to come and pick it up. Since he only works with small local farmers, the orders for those animals were placed weeks ago, and time delays risk further losses and unhappy customers.

And as with every business shut down by the super-storm, the ripple effect can be measured in human livelihoods. "I have seventeen employees dying to get back to work," says Dickson. "Neither of our stores (he also runs a recently opened shop at the TriBeCa haute Food Hall All Good Things on Church Street) sustained any physical damage. We've cleaned up and can be ready to open within three hours of power coming back on."

Until then, you might see a white truck bearing black letters reading "Dickson's Farmstand Meats" inching along in post-hurricane gridlock. You'll know it's Jake Dickson, keeping his product chilled until the lights come on again downtown. 

October 24, 2012

Bringing New Life to Japanese American Hero Gordon Hirabayashi's Story

Three men, Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, defied President Franklin Roosevelt's order to 110,000 West Coast Japanese to submit to evacuation and imprisonment during World War II. Among their stories, Gordon Hirabayashi's has always struck me as the most dramatic.

Convinced that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional, he possessed the moral courage to defy it. He ignored a curfew placed on targeted Japanese, refused to post bail that would have sent him to a prison camp, and challenged the government on the constitutionality of the Order. Upon conviction, lacking the funds to get himself from Seattle, where he had been at senior at the University of Washington, he hitchhiked to Tuscon, where he was to serve out his sentence, sleeping in ditches along the way.

Forty-three years later, Hirabayashi's conviction (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943) was overturned by a San Francisco federal appeals court. Earlier this year, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So I was excited to hear that actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata's play about Hirabayashi, Hold These Truths, was coming to New York's Epic Theater. Last night Sakata spoke at a meeting of JAJA (an informal group of Japanese Americans and Japanese living in New York) at the Manhattan loft of Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma.

It was fascinating to hear the story of how Sakata's initial curiosity about Hirabayashi turned into a driving passion, inspiring her to try her hand at play writing for the first time. She forged a relationship with Hirabayashi, and immersed herself in his correspondence and papers at the University of Washington library. She lucked out, meeting Hirabashi when he was in his early 80s, his memory sharp and his naturally sunny personality on full display. Hirabayashi died in January after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a number of years, at 93.

Hirabayashi's personality was so positive in fact, that pinpointing those moment of self-doubt and anguish that Sakata  knew she needed to give her one-man play dramatic tension proved to be one of the challenges of the project. Even though Hirabayashi gave her licence to "just make up" what she lacked, she preferred not to; luckily she came across enough early primary source material to illuminate those desperate moments. One  such discovery came when she learned that when Hirabayashi's parents were brought from their prison camp to Seattle to testify against him, the government refused to put them up in decent lodgings, instead making them stay in his prison cell with him. Hirabayashi swore he would never forgive the U.S. government for doing that to his parents. He was also, Sakata told the audience, deeply anguished over the pain he caused his mother by his actions, which she feared would separate him from the family forever. 

Asked how she felt about a non-Japanese, playing the role of Hirabayashi (Filipino American Joel de la Fuente stars), Sakata noted that the theaters at which Hold These Truths has been staged all conduct open auditions, and that all the leading Japanese American male actors who might have fit the part were busy working, which for any actor is  "a good thing."

From all reports this latest incarnation of the play is moving, beautifully acted and powerful theater; I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Hold These Truths
By Jeanne Sakata
Starring Joel de la Fuente
344 E. 14th St.
New York, NY 1009
Through November 18

October 11, 2012

Ishikawa Prefecture Drops in on NYC

Here are a few photos from a beautifully cooked and presented dinner I attended last night at Gramercy Tavern in celebration of one of Japan's most culturally rich areas, Ishikawa Prefecture. Hosts Michael Romano, president of culinary development for Union Square Hospitality Group and  GT executive chef  Michael Anthony presided over the event, held in a private room decked out to the nines by USHG's talented in-house floral designer Roberta Bendavid.

Before guests arrive,  ChefAnthony decides to preserve the moment.

Paying homage to the foods of Ishikawa, which is located on the more picturesque side of the country, the Sea of Japan coast, nine courses showcased oysters, lobster, crab and kinmedai (golden sea bream) among other delicacies. We sat down to a first course of sea urchin, creamy Hakurei turnips and apples dressed in miso and pumpkin seeds. A teepee-like wooden construction stood over each dish, an allusion to the yukitsuri rope coverings used to protect wintering trees in Japan, and in Ishikawa's Kenrokuen park.

Two of Ishikawa most famous exports (besides Chairman Kaga of Iron Chef  fame) are Kutani ceramics and Wajima lacquerware, both of which were represented at the table. I was so taken with this Wajimaware bowl, but the matsutake mushroom and crab soup inside it was equally refined. Chefs Romano and Anthony were assisted by a surprise guest, chef Shinichiro Takagi of Zeniya restaurant in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. (Orchestrating the dinner behind the scenes was Gohan Society founder and Korin Japanese Trading Corp. President Saori Kawano.) Later, Anthony noted that the one word he took away from the kitchen lessons of the evening was "restraint;" this clear soup exemplified that value.

Romano, who has been given the honorary title of "Ambassador of Culture and Fine Dining" by the governor of Ishikawa Prefecture, enthusiastically discussed his Ishikawa culinary finds, especially koji, the mold-innoculated rice that is enjoying its moment in Japan, especially mixed with salt to form a kind of super-seasoning, and ishiri, an Ishikawa-made super-powered fish sauce containing pickled and fermented squid intestines. In what must have been catnip to the roomful of chefs, Romano evoked those moments "when you just need a little something to round out a dish, fill in the middle." A squirt of ishiri, he marveled, "fills up a whole flavor spectrum on your palate." 

October 5, 2012

Kitchen Assistant Confidential

As promised, a little about the chefs who were invited to Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop in Napa. Not only were they a fun-loving bunch of guys, they were key players in arguably the highlight of the event, two amazing dinners that showcased both their talents and the products of selected purveyors.

Included were David Hawskworth, who made a name for himself at Vancouver's West restaurant before launching his eponymous Hawskworth (it was the talk of the town last time I was in Vancouver) in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Cuban-born chef Louis Pous, who headed The Dining Room at Little Palm Island in the Florida Keys before being tapped to become chef for the resort's parent company, Noble House; Daniel Stern, who heads his own restaurant group in Philadelphia, including showpiece R2L; Louisiana-born Danny Trace, who cut his teeth at Commander's Palace in New Orleans and now heads the kitchen at Brennan's of Houston, and Will Bradof and Paul Wireman of Trio in Jackson, Wyoming.

For the two dinners, each chef drew an ingredient that he (yes, it was an all-male group, though there have been women chefs invited to previous workshops) had to cook with, typically one provided by one of the 18 purveyors. Not only did each have to build his dishes around the designated ingredient, he had to try to incorporate as many other purveyor ingredients as possible.

It wasn't exactly a hardship, what with the likes of Broken Arrow Ranch, which harvests wild antelope, Napa Valley Lamb Company, The Hog Island Oyster Company, Sonoma County Poultry (home to the excellent Liberty Ducks), Sparrow Lane vinegars, and Devil's Gulch Ranch for rabbit.

Below is a menu-planning session with the six chefs, led by Brian Streeter, Cakebread Cellars' culinary director and American Harvest Workshop manager.

It was probably not easy for the chefs at first, not knowing each other and having to riff out loud on ingredients as they conceptualized their dishes, but they gradually warmed to the task. A good-natured Pous changed course on his quail dish, incorporating  a plantain mofongo (smashed with bacon and garlic, Puerto Rican style) that the rest of the group cajoled out of him. Stern described an antelope loin preparation wrapped in Fatted Calf lardo with a fried green tomato salad dressed with walnut champagne vinegar (as mouth-watering in reality as it sounded at the meeting). Trace decided on a king salmon caviar club with avocado squash and Bellwether Farms creme fraiche. As each came up with his dish, Michael Weiss, professor of wine and spirits at the Culinary Institute of America, suggested Cakebread vintages and varietals that would pair best with them.

One of the best parts for the non-chefs was getting to cook in the kitchen with the professionals. I assisted Trace and sliced the avocado squash on a Japanese benriner mandoline, washed arugula, chopped tiny cherry tomatoes and peppers and most painstakingly of all, helped placed micro-green garnishes on the tomatoes. We really could have used tweezers, but thankfully it wasn't that kind of kitchen.

Cakebread President Bruce Cakebread, in blue shirt, flashing his knife skills. 
Danny Trace assembling his salmon caviar club sandwiches.
My handiwork, sliced avocado squash, forms the base. 

In process: David Hawksworth's albacore tataki with
smoked jalapeno and corn vinaigrette. 

Things I learned from my time in the kitchen: that plating a dish like the one above requires the eye of an abstract artist; that six chefs can really produce a lot of dirty pots and pans and it helps to have cheerful dishwashers; that sheep's milk ice cream really does taste wonderful (that is when made with Bellwether Farms product and paired, as Trace expertly did, with Gourmet Mushrooms bread pudding, Marshall's Farm honey and a red-wine beurre rouge), and that it's more fun to be in the kitchen with the cooks than with the wine-and-hors d'oeuvres crowd on the patio

September 27, 2012

Hokkaido's Star Turn at Mitsuwa Marketplace

I managed to sneak away to Edgewater, NJ, today to catch my first Mitsuwa Marketplace fair. Hokkaido-Ten opened  this morning and runs through Sunday, and it's unbelievably fun for anyone who loves looking at and tasting new and interesting foods. If you've ever been to the Japanese depachika, the gargantuan food-stuffed basement wonders where regional festivals or celebrations of seasonal delicacies abound, this will feel reassuringly familiar. 

Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is famous for its beautiful scenery and seafood. So of course there was tons of it the latter, as well as many varieties of kamaboko (fish cakes), spicy things, unusual confections, and melon soft ice cream. 

These are slippery seafood and shellfish preparations, including combinations
 of herring roe and rapeseed plant, and engawa (a part of the scallop) and wasabi.
Loads of dried mackerel of all kinds, and in the center, a Hokkaido specialty,
horsehair crab.
An abundance of king crab, a lot of it over sushi rice. Here, sea urchin,
delicately shredded king crab and some superior salmon roe.
Pollock , cod, and salmon roe, any level of spiciness you want!

The fair is pretty kabocha-crazy, too, which made me happy.  These cakes are made from a mix of pumpkin and rice flour, so they are chewy like mochi. All were delicious but I was partial to the one on the left, flecked with black sesame and filled with a kabocha custard and bits of the steamed pumpkin itself.

More kabocha: a traditional red bean manju confection is steamed, enrobed in pumpkin paste, and then wrapped again in pie pastry shaped to resemble a kabocha pumpkin. Happy Fall! 

September 25, 2012

In Napa, Wine Colors All

So about that trip to Napa. One of the things I found intriguing was how the dominant wine culture of the valley seemed to set the tone in quality and obsessiveness for everyone from chocolate makers to tea purveyors.

Just picked.

From our hosts at the Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop, we learned a little about the constant experimentation winemakers engage in to keep improving their product. Variables such as root stock; clones; time of harvest; whether the wine is barrel or tank fermented; Brix, or sugar levels of the harvested grape; tank temperature, the choice of native yeast vs. non-native, are all carefully calibrated.

This level of minute tasting and tweaking was evident in chats with representatives of Tcho chocolate. Just as Cakebread Cellar Master Brian Lee told us, "you can't make good wine with bad grapes," Tcho focuses on going to the source of their cacao beans and working with growers to improve plant genetics. They also strive to improve fermentation techniques and have created "flavor labs" that sound, in name at least, like the high-tech Cakebread lab where an infrared wine scanner has made measuring important chemical parameters in everything from freshly picked grape juice to finished wine a speedy 30-second process.

Nice packaging, Tcho!

Tcho further classifies its PureNotes single varietal dark chocolate by tasting descriptors: "fruity," nutty," "citrus," and detects "hints of red berry," mandarin oranges or roasted nuts, pointing out that tasting chocolate is an exercise of both "intellect and emotions." The maker liberally adopts the language of wine, but it's also closely tied to Northern California's other locus of power and influence, Silicon Valley; its founders are the people behind Wired magazine. So it's not surprising the company has devised an iPhone app to remotely control its chocolate lab, crowd-sourced the development of flavors, and connects with growers via the cloud.

Drink the Leaf's Dragon Eyes Blooming tea.

Another wine-influenced purveyor was Drink the Leaf  a Napa tea importing business started by Dan Ritzenthaler, a wine and restaurant industry veteran. At a tasting of Japanese and Chinese teas he gave for our group, I was struck by the uniformly high quality of his selection, how all shared a smoothness and elegance that is by no means commonplace in these teas. The palate of a wine person at work seemed obvious.

Ritzenthaler confirmed that his former focus on wine production and in restaurants prepared him for his adventure in tea. Not only is tasting paramount, but both share "great stories rich with history, farming, harvest, production, blending and the rituals" that accompany imbibing. Just as one would with wine, before launching his business, he says, "I studied well-known tea regions, researched varieties, tea estates blends," approaching it "as if I were producing a great wine." He and his wife continue to study and blind taste all of their selections, and Ritzenthaler notes that writing tea descriptions makes the same demands on the brain and palate as writing about wine. He's also seen the same "ah-ha" moment with tea that people have when first discovering wine. (For him that moment came with a bottle of Chateau Rayas; he still has the empty bottle).

Another example is Napa purveyor, Whole Spice, launched  in 2000 by Shuli and Ronit Madmone, who began by selling fresh-ground spices, herbs and blends at the local farmer's market. An online business followed, custom blends for restaurant and individual clients, an all-organic line. They opened their first retail store in 2009. I loved Cakebread resident chef Thomas Sixsmith's dish of Whole Spice vadouvan-dusted Devil's Gulch rabbit, which showed off the products of two purveyors in one dish and was served to us on the first night of the workshop.

The Madmones say that not only did their Napa location inspire them to create blends that work well with wine (herbes de provence salt, fennel salt and lime salt), they also blend per winery specifications, such as an ancho chili-thyme mix to pair with pinot noir for Bouchaine. Not surprisingly, the Madmones cook with spices often, says Ronit, noting, "We very much enjoy a white wine chardonnay."

Liam Callahan, Bellwether Farms

Winemaking may be a big influence on purveyors, says Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, CA, (makers of delicious sheep and cow's milk cheeses) but there are bigger and older forces at work. "There is something unique about the Bay Area and its love affair with great food," Callahan says, and it's one that "predates both Bellwether Farms and the high-end wines of our region." He's referring to the area's "incredible climate for food production," which gave San Franciscans access to the best and freshest ingredients, the raw material needed to develop epicurean tastes and standards.

"Once the winemakers of the region discovered how truly unique our vineyards could become they were able to cater to this local demand," Callahan says, adding that in the past 15 or so years, craft beer makers have tapped into this same market. Plus, he notes, the wine industry has the visibility to help purveyors "spread the word about our products because it commits so many resources to raise awareness of the region as a whole."

Okay, so soil, climate, a long history of great food, a food-loving audience, and an established wine-making industry with clout: It's all there, and it's all exceptional. It's no wonder none of us wanted to leave!

September 19, 2012

For a Day, Apples Rule the Roost at Astor Center

From a stinky "Sidra Natural" Basque cider, left, to Slyboro Ciderhouse's Old Sin cider, far right , a Cider Week preview.

For a brief afternoon yesterday, the grape ceded center stage to the apple at Astor Center.

The event was a trade and media preview of October’s CiderWeek in New York, designed to showcase the refreshing fermented beverage once brewed by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The affair had the secret-handshake feel of a persecuted religious sect revival, where makers—many of whom started out as small apple growers trying to figure out how to stay relevant in a globalizing market-- shared not-so-distant memories of being “treated like complete martians” at wine events, or being asked at tastings “where are the doughnuts?”

All that’s changing, though. Sales of apple cider were up 23 percent last year, and the big beer manufacturers, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch included, have all bought stakes in the emerging market, according to David Flaherty, operations and bar manager at Hearth and Terroir Wine Bars and a blogger of all things alcoholic. 

The small artisanal producers are feeling the pressure to show Americans what the good, small-batch stuff tastes like before the bigs move in. Judging by the impressive selections they had on offer, as well as their enthusiasm, drive and ability geek-out on a par with the most hard-core winemakers, they could be on their way to becoming the next artisanal breakthrough product.

One delicious example was the Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider that Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchard is producing in weekly batches. Her brew, the color of Fuji apple juice, is unfiltered, unsulphered, and sold in 2-liter growlers at selected farmer’s markets. Typically the alcohol content of ciders is low; hers is about 6 percent, and its taste will become more robust as the apple season progresses and she moves from Empire, Ginger Gold and Honeycrisp apples to Baldwin, Winesap  and Jonathans. Ryan was still high on a 12-day visit she made to Cidrerie du Perche in Normandy, France, maker of a gorgeous cidre brut that has the signature leather and barnyard funk of classic cider tempered by floral notes.

Louisa Spencer of New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill Ciders said she switched from farming Cortland and McIntosh apples to grow European cider varieties. Not only have they thrived in the soil of the Northeast, she added, they’ve become hardier, more intensely flavored and better fruit-bearing than in native soil.

Bullish on the future of artisanal cider, Spencer added, “There’s no reason that we can’t become the Sonoma of cider.” 

September 15, 2012

Report from Napa Valley: Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop

I'm just back from an eye-opening trip to the Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Workshop in the Napa Valley, where the visionary Cakebread wine-making family has been holding annual confabs for chefs, purveyors, selected loyal customers and a few members of the press for 26 years now.

Artichoke in Dolores Cakebread's garden.

The idea of the workshop is to show invitees the intricacies of wine making, introduce talented chefs from across the country to some of Napa's top purveyors, and give them a chance to both taste and cook with those products. It's also an opportunity for rarefied feasting, fun and superior imbibing, though on our first day Culinary Director and Workshop Manager Brian Streeter warned us that the schedule he devised wasn't for sissies: our days began  as early as 6:30 a.m. and were packed with tours and tastings, as well as team-building civilian-pro cooking sessions.

Among the things we learned: that the valley's high-quality wine production across a wide range of grape varieties owes a lot to its rich array of soil types. Even though it's only about five miles long and an eighth of the size of the Bordeaux wine-producing region, Napa is home to 33 different soil "series," which account for about half of all the the types of soil found in the world.

Tortilla making for our Mexican breakfast in the vineyard.

Director Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich

After a beautiful Mexican breakfast served in the vineyard, Viticulturist and Cakebread Director of Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich described his job to us. The level of high-tech detail that viticulturists now have at their fingertips boggles the mind, at least it did mine.  Halkovich explained how seven weather stations plus various probes and meters on Cakebread's 500 acres keep track of dozens of indicators in its many micro-climates, from minute shifts in temperature and humidity to changes in soil moisture, root activity, gas exchanges, photosynthesis and water conductivity in the plants. He can call up the changing, detailed picture painted by these indicators on his iPhone or iPad, all of which help determine decisions on leaf pruning, irrigation patterns and harvesting. Then there are soil enhancers from fish emulsion and brewed, microbe-rich compost "teas" to what Halkovich called "bugs in a jug," which consume nutrients added to the soil and dissipate them evenly via their decomposing bodies.

Forni-Brown tomatoes in all their glory.

Some of my favorite parts of the Workshop were visits with purveyors. Forni-Brown Gardens in Calistoga produces 50 varieties of the best tomatoes I've ever tried, as well as microgreens for restaurants including The French Laundry. The organic gardeners try to keep up with chef Thomas Keller's admonition, "smaller, smaller!" Among the varieties they grow are micro daikon, arugula, cilantro, chives, red mustard, upland cress, basil cinnamon (the latter of which Forni-Brown partner Barney Welsh says "on lobster will knock your socks off"). When I asked Welsh what the secret to the garden's other-worldly tomatoes is, his answer: partner Lynn Brown "is obsessed with every detail" involved in growing them. It also helps to possess the kind of patience only few are blessed with, essential when it comes to growing those labor-intensive microgreens. Forni-Brown mostly supply restaurants but is open to the public for a plant sale once a year.

Cilantro microgreens

I'll be posting more pictures and reports and blogging more about purveyors and chefs who attended the American Harvest Workshop, so stay tuned!

August 30, 2012

Iconic Old Bay Seasoning Turns 70, Doesn't Taste a Day over 35

I'm still recovering from all the Old Bay seasoning I ingested on my trip a while back to the Old Bay HQ of the world, Baltimore. I mean both through mouth and eyes, since not only does the city's seafood rarely leave the kitchen without a dusting (ranging from light sprinkling to thick carpet) of this snappy seasoning, the city was also awash with Old Bay iconography.

My first encounter was with the above giant can on view at Harbor Center, the  food and entertainment-plex that hugs the city's Inner Harbor. Fringed with a toupee of touristic plush Maryland crabs, the display got me thinking of one of my favorite foods in the world; softshell crabs.

Then came this exciting drive-by siting of a five-story tall Old Bay can on the front of an otherwise undistinguished-looking parking garage at the corner of President and Pratt Streets. I love how they dubbed the place "Old Bay Garage" as well as the welter of parking signage and arrows, all of it topped by one of those ubiquitous mini-mall peaked roofs and what is either an Old Bay shield or perhaps the state seal of Maryland (maybe one and the same?).

Though my heart was set on a feast of softshell crabs seasoned with Old Bay, I didn't find it at the lovely Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point, where delicious fish and lamb dishes and the most politely Old World server ruled. However, I did discover that this was an especially important time for Old Bay, and that I had stumbled into a massive celebration of the seasoning's 70th anniversary (or somewhere near there, it's a little unclear exactly when the company was born).

The "Summer of Baytriotism" was an official deal, which accounted for the extra OB voltage around town, including the 82-ton can of Old Bay on the parking garage. There was an Old Bay recipe competition, and another for the title of "Voice of Old Bay Radio," which went to the person who could mangle their vowels in the best Baltimore manner and sound the most old-timey while at it.

Ground Zero for the celebration seemed to be Miss Shirley's, where the celebration kicked off, and where plastic Old Bay bottles elbowed out taller competition for top billing in tabletop condiment racks.  

After gobbling down this softshell "BLT" Benedict, featuring cornmeal-crusted softshell, red and yellow tomatoes, smoked bacon on sourdough rounds and Old Bay remoulade, my quest was over.

Though I could recreate this dish as home, I somehow can't get myself to use the can of Old Bay my Maryland cousin gave me, even though I know Baltimoreans around the globe have it shipped to them in order to recreate the taste of home. For an outsider, it's just not the same unless you get your Old Bay at the source.

August 23, 2012

Ivan Ramen Pops Up at Momofuku Noodle Bar

Yesterday was a red letter Japanese noodle day for me. First, I had a perfect summer bowl of cold sansai (mountain vegetable) soba at Cocoron  on the Lower East Side, preceded by a plate of petite, silky pork and okara* croquettes on a bed of watercress with a tonkatsu-type dipping sauce.

Corocon, located on a gritty stretch of Delancey Street, is authentically Japanese in that it is un-airconditioned, cramped, with bar seating and a few tables. Servers are quick and attentive, spiriting over a spouted-lacquer pot filled with soba-yu to mix with the leftover savory broth at the bottom of your bowl for a warming cup of soup.

As if that weren't noodle enough for one day, things got even better that evening, when I stopped by Momofuku Noodle Bar on First Avenue, where the American ramen master Ivan Orkin had taken over the kitchen for one evening to accommodate the overflow of guests shut out of an earlier pop-up appearance. Orkin is a rarity in Japan, a ramen maker who has succeeded amid the teeming competition of the Tokyo noodle universe. His attention to detail has made him a success, even spawning an instant version of his ramen that's been a hit in Japanese convenience stores.

On the menu at Momofuku were Orkin's classic shio ramen made with rye noodles, super-fatty pork belly, boiled egg and fermented bamboo shoots, and some new boundary-stretching varieties that Orkin is planning to serve at his yet-to-open lower-Manhattan restaurant (he's still looking for a venue). He's created dashi that use no meat broth, exploring the vast selection of Japanese dried fish and shellfish. His ago dashi, for example, is made with dried flying fish, shrimp and scallop.

We liked Orkin's Spicy Chili Mazemen, scant on broth and incorporating chipotle chili, eggplant soffrito and scallions, in which the chili adds a backdrop of peppery heat, acting as a supporting player without overpowering the dish. The bits of bacon in the Triple Garlic Mazemen were addictive, though it's important to mix this dish well (think of it as the ramen version of the French salade composée, where each ingredient is prettily mounded atop the noodles) to evenly incorporate the salty powdered dried bonito and shiitake.

Checking out the pop-up were Japanese cookbook author Harris Salat and chef Ryuji Irie, who are getting ready to open their own restaurant, Ganso, in downtown Brooklyn soon. Commiserating with Salat over the layers of city bureaucracy that slow the process down, Orkin said, "In Tokyo, all you need is a stove and a space and you're in business." Hey, New York City Department of Buildings, take a cue from Tokyo and let these guys cook!

*I wrote about okara, the soy bean mash by-product of the tofu-making process in this post on my cooking lesson with Brushstroke chef Mitsuhiro Narita.

August 2, 2012

Francois Payard Can Dish it up Cold, Too

Who says muggy, ugly weather can't have it's silver lining? Yesterday it was these cute little ice cream sandwiches in the French manner from irrepressible patissier Francois Payard. They are to the soggy chocolate wafer-wrapped specimens of old what the short rib and foie gras burger is to the Big Mac: artisanal sorbets and glaces sandwiched between springy, candy-colored macaron shells. My favorite:the passion fruit (far right), which has a refreshing astringency, though the pistachio-raspberry version gets the silver.

Guests lapped these frozen bonbons up in the bright new outpost of  FBP bakery at Columbus Circle (1775 Broadway at 58th St.), along with champagne and FP's newest brain-freeze wave: haute soft serve ice cream, the vanilla enlivened by three different types of vanilla beans, and the chocolate made with Valrhona. For now, this treat is only available on the Upper West Side (there are also FBP locations in Soho and Battery Park City, and an FP chocolate bar in the Plaza Hotel Food Hall).

The best news, at least to this wary new arrival on the Upper East Side, is the October opening of FP Patisserie, a resurrection of sorts for his former flagship patisserie in ladies-who-lunch territory, on Lexington Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets. It will include Payard's full array of cakes, desserts and chocolates, a dine-in bar for everything from coffee and tea to beer and wine, plus a lunch and brunch menu. "Everyone is going big, but I'm going small," says the master baker, of the 40-seat venue, which has been a hit concept for him in Las Vegas. For once, we can be happy that what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

July 18, 2012

Six Sauces and You're Set: a Preview of "Hiroko's American Kitchen"


There's no end to the protean imagination and adaptability of the Japanese cook, and last night I was witness to yet another example of this fact. This fall, cookbook author, chef-consultant and popularizer of  Japanese cooking techniques Hiroko Shimbo will launch her third cookbook, Hiroko's American Kitchen. To give it a test run, she gathered a  group of journalists at her sprawling loft apartment near Union Square to sample some of its dishes.

Shimbo's smart idea is to offer the home cook six basic mother sauces, which can be made in large quantities and frozen, ready to pull out to create deeply-flavored dishes ranging from Japanese comfort foods like omuraisu (fried rice wrapped in an omelet) and okonomiyaki (a savory pancake stuffed with cabbage, noodles, seafood or meat) to hybrid dishes such as miso-braised lamb and a version of  an Italian-style white bean soup flavored with sausage and dashi (dried skipjack tuna and kelp) stock.

This dish, made with mushrooms and poached eggs, was inspired by her visit to a Madrid restaurant specializing in mushrooms, El Cisne Azul. There, a mix of local and exotic mushroom was sauteed in garlic-infused olive oil and topped with runny, sunny-side-up eggs. Shimbo's adaptation pairs a mix of sauteed button, portobello and shiitake mushrooms with her mildly sweet-sour white sumiso sauce and konbu (kelp) stock for a double dose of umami.

The chef noted that one of the icons of Japanese cooking, Yoshihiro Murata of the Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi, has divined the optimal temperature at which to extract the utmost umami from konbu stock: 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In her "chef's method" for making the stock, you wipe a 1-ounce square of konbu off with a moist, clean kitchen towel and immerse it in a large pot of water over medium heat. When it reaches 140 degrees, adjust the heat carefully to maintain that temperature and cook it for an hour. 

There were many other delicious dishes: a dashi-based soup filled with cornstarch-coated, fried wedges of avocado and salmon, infused with grated daikon radish and garnished with dill; thick, creamy eggplant rounds sauteed then steamed and topped with Shimbo's spicy miso sauce, and thin slices of  tempura-style fried beets, squash blossoms, and okra. The chef's two secrets for super-crispy tempura are to  slice vegetables very thinly (unlike in Japan, where thicker slices are the rule), and if you don't have tempura flour, use a blend of 80 percent cake flour and 20 percent cornstarch.

One of my favorites dishes was a whole branzino simmered in a mix of water, sake, mirin, and Shimbo's "super sauce," (a blend of soy, mirin, konbu and dried skipjack tuna flakes) garnished with shredded ginger. She removes impurities by blanching the fish in boiling water for 30 seconds then dipping it in ice water before steaming it. This typically Japanese process of removing impurities (she'll brown short ribs or spare ribs and then pour boiling water over them) can cause consternation among Americans, who fear the loss of flavor, but Shimbo likes the cleaner flavors that result. I recalled that at Brushstroke, chefs either pre-salt fish and then wash it off with water or sake to remove impurities, or will even pre-saute the fish.

You might even see some of Shimbo's six sauces--kelp stock, dashi stock, white sumiso sauce, spicy miso sauce, best basting and cooking sauce (BBC, a sweet soy and sake sauce), and super sauce-- on the shelves of your grocery store one day; she's exploring ways to bottle and sell them commercially.