Monday, August 31, 2009

A horse of another color (and flavor)

For my first dinner in Tokyo, 18 years ago, I went out with some acquaintances to a very traditional, old shitamachi (low city) restaurant. Our host, Mr. Sarata, promptly ordered raw horse and told me I had better get used to it, because people in Tokyo eat a lot of horse.

Five years passed before I encountered raw horse again. Partly it was the kind of restaurants I went to. Moreover, I didn't learn the kanji character for "horse" for about two years, so it may have been lurking on menus beneath characters I knew better, like "pig" and "bird" (which is always chicken, even though linguistically it doesn't have to be.)

I really don't remember my first impression of the taste of raw horse. I was being tested, but I am not squeamish, so my acquaintances probably got a more satisfying reaction from me on natto (fermented soybeans, which I've grown to tolerate) and shiokara (squid guts, which I still dislike).

Five years later, I was served raw horse as a delicacy at a ryokan (inn) in the countryside. It was slightly chilled and served with a raw egg, garlic and soy sauce for dipping. I found it delicious and finished not only my own, but also my squeamish friend Dean's portion.

After that it was in my repertoire of Japanese foods to order. But even though by then I could easily spot it on a menu, I rarely saw it on offer. I don't hang out in shitamachi, and maybe that's why.

Last week, though, I had raw horse twice, in two very different settings. The first, pictured at left, was at an open-air yakitori place in Shinjuku's Kabukicho district.

I was meeting an old friend for a late snack and frankly hadn't paid attention to the menu other than the sake list -- yakitori is pretty much yakitori. (I really like gizzard and heart.) Our neighbor got a plate of the tasty looking meat on the left, obviously not chicken or pork, so we wondered what it was.

The restaurant calls it "horse ham;" that plate was a bargain at 800 yen (about $9). It had been very slightly cured and was a little saltier than the raw product. It was delicious, with the tangy saltiness of the curing setting off the inherent sweetness of the horse.

I was surprised to find it in a yakitori place, but Kabukicho has plenty of shitamachi spirit -- it's the city's center of so many vices, packed with love hotels, massage parlors, yakuza bars, movie theaters, karaoke clubs and good cheap restaurants. One of my favorite liquor stores is there (Shinanoya) and there are three batting centers where you can swing at robotic pitchers for just 300 yen for 20 balls. Swinging and missing (EDIT -- Swinging and hitting long line drives) builds up an appetite; I really could eat a horse.

A few days later, in Kojimachi, a business district just north of the Imperial Palace, I was having a very pricey late-night snack in a stylish place with a great sake list when I spotted raw horse again. So I ordered it (1800 yen -- about $20), and it was served in the beautiful, more traditional presentation at the top of this page. While it was fine with the nama junmai ginjo sake I was enjoying, I really craved a nice red Burgundy.

Why do I like raw horse? It may be the most delicious raw red meat I've tried. It has great sweetness and juicy meaty flavor, and the mouthfeel is fine. While very tender, it doesn't melt in your mouth like Kobe beef; instead, it's just firm enough to require a couple short chews. I've almost always had it with chopped garlic and soy sauce, which are perfect accompaniments.

A couple days later, I saw raw horse on another menu, this time a fairly ordinary local izakaya. And it occurred to me that horse must currently be riding the wave of a culinary trend in Tokyo -- riding that wave into a guy with a sharp knife, that is.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mini Joy of Sake

The Joy of Sake is, overall, San Francisco's best annual sake event. But it changes from year to year: some years it's huge, with hundreds of sakes and many restaurants cranking out food.

This year's event on Sept. 10 could be the smallest since Joy of Sake started up six years ago. There's still expected to be about 100 sakes, which is surely more than anybody -- even my very thorough buddy Alder Yarrow -- can taste in three hours. Moreover, many of them are not available in the States, so this is your only chance to taste them unless you visit Japan.

But the venue, Yoshi's restaurant in San Francisco, is not as large as in past years. That's because this is a satellite event of a larger one held last week in Honolulu. Moreover, as it's in a restaurant, there will be only one food provider, unlike in past years when many local restaurants chipped in with sake-friendly dishes.

I am a fan of Yoshi's chef Shotaro Kamio's food. The tentative menu includes Okinawa Rock Sugar Braised Short Ribs with peach compote and yellow onion veal jus; Kakiage Tempura Fritters with fall vegetables, baby shrimp and Monterey Bay scallops; Steamed Halibut Wrapped in Konbu Seaweed with Dengaku sweet dark miso sauce; and Oven Roasted American Kobe Beef Tri-Tip with caramelized shallot teriyaki.

You'll want to get there early because the food runs out fast. Joy of Sake is usually under-organized, and this year's downscale version is likely to be more frazzled than usual.

But at $50, with plenty of sake and food if you get there in time, it's still good value -- especially because you can pour the sake yourself. Take my advice and be there before the door opens, and grab some food right away: it will be gone before the sake is.

And although they don't usually provide spit cups, I spit anyway (I use whatever plastic cup I can scrounge.) Most sakes are more than 15 percent alcohol, so it's easier to get messed up on it than on Zinfandel.

One other tip: write down the names of the sakes you like, including whether they're ginjo, daiginjo, junmai, honjozo. It's hard to take good tasting notes in a crowd, but it's easy enough to find three or four new bottles to pick up later.

Joy of Sake
Sept. 10, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Yoshi's restaurant, San Francisco
Tickets $50 advance, $60 at door

To buy tickets click here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oriental Passage

Sign on a pachinko parlor in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Things I'd forgotten about Tokyo

Walking around Shinjuku this afternoon, brushing past offers of cheap beer, moderately priced women and a room to sing songs, I realized I had forgotten how aggressively people sell things here.

You learn to tune it out, because as you walk down the street people – and robots -- are constantly beckoning you into shops. If you stop and show interest, you instantly get an enthusiastic, “please come in and take a look!” Yet fortunately, once you get inside, sales are usually not high-pressure. Tokyo people work hard to draw you in the door, then let you browse in peace.

This is just one of many things I'd forgotten about Tokyo. I left here 11 years ago, after spending nearly 8 years. Much of the time I spent selling stories about modern Japanese culture to various magazines, and with each story I learned a little more, so by the time I left I knew Tokyo as well as one could hope to understand an ever-evolving city of 20 million.

But in more than a decade away, I had forgotten some of the day-to-day realities. So here are a few random observations that people who live in Tokyo take for granted.

* Tokyo people are so earnest about their jobs. It's inconceivable to imagine the “I just work here” attitude you get from most American store clerks. And even though the service is great, you never have to tip anyone.

* I'd rather get my eyes examined by a Tokyo eyeglass shop employee than by an American optometrist. The Japanese are more accurate.

* Tokyo police are genuinely happy to give directions. I wouldn't ask a US cop for help unless, literally, my life depended on it. But I stopped a bicycle cop the other night, while looking for a certain noodle shop, and when he heard my question, he smiled immediately because he knew the answer, and he went out of his way to lead me there.

* There are free public toilets everywhere, and they're clean! Try saying that about a US city.

* Speaking of which, there's no vandalism, which allows many civilized touches. For example, every subway station has a defibrillator – that anyone can use -- with illustrated instructions. Can you imagine how long that would last on the New York subway before people starting shocking their homies?

* Most buildings have staircases on the outside, so they don't have to be heated and air-conditioned. That makes such good sense that it makes you wonder why more buildings worldwide aren't designed that way.

* When I lived here 11 years ago, a well-to-do area named Azabu-Juban had no train stations within a 15-minute walk. Now there's not only a subway station there – two entirely new subway lines serve it. In contrast, in California half of the Bay Bridge was destroyed by an earthquake 20 years ago and it still hasn't been rebuilt. Don't tell me that's a more difficult engineering project than tearing up Tokyo and adding two entirely new subway lines. In Tokyo, when people decide to do something, it gets done.

* There's no reason to ever go hungry here. Every street is teeming with quick noshing options: noodles, grilled meat skewers, rice balls. And there's more delicious food to be found in the average Japanese convenience store than in the average American supermarket. What's amazing is that, surrounded by all this, Japanese manage to stay thin.

* There's no societal prohibition here whatsoever against alcohol. Feel like a drink? You can buy canned cocktails from vending machines or 12-year-old whiskey in a 200 ml bottle from your local convenience store. If there's an anti-alcohol lobby, I never heard about it.

* Speaking of no societal prohibition, sex is for sale casually and cheaply under a lot of different guises, even in business districts, if you know what the signs say. (Hint for non-Japanese readers: Look for bathtubs, soap bubbles and signs in bright pink.)

* Coca-Cola is way more omnipresent here than in the US. You can barely walk 200 meters without passing a Coke-owned vending machine.

* Shinjuku train station handles four times as many people in a day as the entire BART system in San Francisco. You could sit anywhere in the station with a camera all day and not be bored.

* That said, Tokyo is so frantic that if you're goofing off for a couple hours, you feel out of place. There's endless shopping and eating, but so little green space. Sitting and reading a book, a favorite activity of backpackers everywhere, makes you stick out like the proverbial nail that must be hammered down.

* Older coffee shops, selling mediocre weak coffee for twice the cost of Starbucks, are still useful because what they're really selling is a quiet place to sit for awhile. I had forgotten how fast, crowded and hot-in-summer Tokyo is, so I retreated to these coffee shops twice in one afternoon.

* People generally shower at night instead of in the morning; this gets very apparent by afternoon on a hot day.

* On the trains, women read books; men flip through big manga (comics). There are fewer exceptions to this than I remembered.

* You always have to wear nice socks when visiting businesses because you never know when you'll have to look professional with your shoes off.

* Movies are expensive (about $18) and the last show starts at 6:30 p.m. in a country where most people are still at work then. I have no idea how movie theatres stay in business.

I grant you, none of these observations are original or ground-breaking. So maybe they're not worthy of Tokyo, which is both. I had also forgotten how much I love it here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shiso-flavored Pepsi. Can Pepsi Tuna be far behind?

Ever been torn between eating that leaf that comes on the side of your sushi plate, or drinking a Pepsi?

Now you can have the best of both worlds! (As long as you're in Japan, that is.)

New Pepsi Shiso is light green in color, rather than the dark green of an actual shiso leaf. Maybe Pepsi thought a vegetable-colored soda would be unappealing, whereas a foliage-flavored one, great!

Yet to be fair, I have to say, this is actually pretty good. It tastes very strongly of shiso with a lighter taste of Pepsi cola in the background. It's nowhere near as sweet as actual Pepsi and doesn't have the unpleasant chemical aftertaste of Diet Pepsi. It's sweetened by grape sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, but this is not a diet drink, with 200 calories in a 490 ml bottle.

What's not listed among the ingredients is actual shiso. The bottle does list "natural ingredients," whatever that means. To me, shiso in Pepsi is an unnatural ingredient.

I shouldn't be surprised that the taste of shiso, however created, is so stunningly accurate. Japanese are the world leaders in bizarre beverages.The culture embraces trends at a faster change rate than anywhere else -- this summer's "it" dessert, or socks style, or cell phone cover, will be completely uncool by October. And urban Japanese with the money to travel the world love imported flavors from everywhere, in all kinds of contexts: mangosteen chewing gun, salted licorice cigarette holders. So there's a big industry in finding the next popular flavor, in hopes of reaping a few months of TV "wide show"-fueled massive sales before everyone is on to the next thing.

Pepsi Shiso was on sale, so maybe I missed its moment already. I'm told that last year they did Pepsi Cucumber. Hopefully I'll be here when they bring out Pepsi Raw Mackerel.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sake in a can

Japan is the world capital of bizarre beverages. I had a great one this week before even arriving: sake in a can.

Made for ANA by the Niigata producer Shirataki, Sora no Jozen Mizunogotoshi is a junmai version of one of my favorite export sakes. It's everything you'd want from a can of sake on an airplane: clean, refreshing and fairly dry, more so than the junmai ginjo version in bottles. There's some fresh lime and honeydew fruit with notes of rice cracker, coconut and light cream. The little cracker-and-nut snacks they hand out bring out more fruit, but with the less-salty main course, I get back to clean and refreshing: this is a food-friendly sake that's perfect for its purpose.

What made me sad is that I was the only person I saw drinking it, though it was by far the best drink available in economy class. The beers were typical Japanese major brand lagers, nothing wrong with that but they're available in vending machines all over the country. Where the sake completely kicked ass was over the wine selection: private label Vin de Pays Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Languedoc. Cheap, unimaginative and not very food-friendly. ANA also has a private label Charmat-method sparkling wine that's too sweet and simple for my taste. You can get Chivas Regal but no single malts, and there's basic gin and vodka but no cocktails.

Of people having a drink with their meal, I'd say more than half in my area had one of the wines. I even saw one guy sticking an unopened 187 ml bottle of Languedoc Chardonnay into his knapsack. Dude, that's like stuffing your pockets with the rice crackers! OK, I've done that, and so did Joe DiMaggio, so I shouldn't judge.

But here we had a junmai sake from Niigata -- a premium sake made only with rice, water and koji mold from one of the best regions in the country -- up against an industrially farmed international grape varietal fermented in skyscraping tanks and pawned off on a foreign airline looking to pay the lowest possible price. And we had a crowd of mostly Japanese people along with Americans who know enough about Japan to fly there. And nobody, but nobody, other than me preferred the sake.

This made me sad. But it's not surprising. Sake makes up only 8 percent of liquor sales in Japan, compared to 67 percent for beer. Wine is at just 4 percent but rising, and I can't complain about that since I am peddling a book on wine, not sake, to Japanese. The sad thing is, if I did write a book on sake, young Japanese just wouldn't care. They're uninterested in what they see as their grandparents' drink, even though the quality of sake has never been higher. No wonder top producers are so interested in the burgeoning US market.

Anyway, back to sake in a can: I'm surprised this isn't more popular, since the format has an obvious advantage for vending machines, which are still dominated by One Cup brand sake in a small 180 ml glass. (When I first moved to Japan as an itinerant traveler, I bought some One Cups and used them as glassware, after emptying them, much as US college freshmen sometimes drink from used jelly jars.)

The question of how long it would take before sake absorbs some nasty metallic taste should be moot, because the more older sake I drink, the more completely convinced I am that sake needs to be as fresh as possible, preferably drunk within 6 months of release date. For ANA this is not a problem as the airline can probably order canning in alignment with its needs.

I've had wine in a can (sparkling wine from Coppola), and while it's fun to bring to the movies, it just didn't work for me taste-wise. But sake is a brewed product more akin to beer than wine, and not even a complete beer purist would refuse to drink beer from a can, especially on an airplane. Maybe glass is better, but a can is good enough for this purpose. If it were available outside of ANA, I'd take it to picnics, ballgames, and anywhere else people bring cans of beer. Take a note, Shirataki.

This was only the second-most unusual beverage I had yesterday, but the winner -- a drink so weird I just had to try it -- richly deserves its own post tomorrow. Set your imagination free on the strangest combination of soft-drink tastes; I'll bet this one tops it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

All about miso

Like soy sauce before it, miso is a defining element of Japanese food that is now finding its way into the wider world of international cuisine.

Most Americans are first introduced to miso through miso soup. But given the chance to work with it, people find miso adds depth of flavor, umami and nutrients to everything from meat loaf to ice cream.

Five chefs spoke about, then demonstrated, their use of miso in July at a tasting panel at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Of the five, only one chef was Japanese.

“Before going to Japan, I didn't know how to use miso except in a Japanese restaurant,” said Swedish-born chef Staffan Terje of the San Francisco Italian restaurant Perbacco. “I am a research cook. Miso is a fermented product that really enhances flavor. Being of northern European descent, there's a lot of fermented flavors that we have in common. Fermented foods really heighten flavors in food.”

Miso is believed to have originated in China. Japanese documents mention its use as early as 701 AD, when it was a delicacy for the nobility and Buddhist monks. Back then, miso was generally eaten straight (still a pretty good method – try it with crudites.)

During Japan's centuries-long internal wars between various city-states and clans, miso made the perfect food for traveling samurai: it stores well for long periods, is lightweight, and contains many vital nutrients. In fact, Japan's first miso factory was started by a military commander in Sendai.

Miso has never been restricted to a single type. The flavors and colors vary greatly depending on the source ingredients.

Miso is usually made from a mixture of soybeans and a malted grain. About 78% of the miso in Japan is made with rice, while about 6% is made with barley. Some miso – about 5% -- is made purely from soybeans, while 11% uses some mixture for the malt. Soybean-malt (“mame”) miso is dark brown, with a deep, rich flavor. Barley-malt (“mugi”) miso can be either light yellow, with a sweet flavor, or red, with a full-bodied flavor. Rice-malt (“kome”) miso has the most varieties.

As with wine, there are great regional differences in miso, but it is less from the raw ingredients than tradition and process.

To make miso, soybeans and the grain are steamed until they break down into a mash. A koji mold starter is added, and the mixture is fermented and aged. Different regions achieve different flavors by introducing the koji at different points in the process. Kyoto residents like their miso very delicate, while in Nagoya, they like it as potent as possible.

Among its other potential health benefits, miso is believed to help prevent type 2 diabetes, reduce hypertension, reduce the rate of bone loss in women suffering from menopause, and even reduce radiation sickness. People who drink a cup of miso soup every day are believed to have a 33 percent lower chance of developing stomach cancer.

The chefs' panel discussion included (in order of the dishes they presented):
Ravi Kapur of Boulevard, a Michelin-starred California cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco
Staffan Terje, known for his innovative yet comforting northern Italian cuisine at San Francisco's Perbacco
Bruce Hill of Bix, a San Francisco restaurant known for modern versions of classic American dishes
Paul Canales of Oliveto, an Italian-focused restaurant in Oakland known for producing his own cured meats
Shotaro Kamio of Yoshi's, a jazz club and sushi restaurant with branches in San Francisco and Oakland that's known for innovative takes on Japanese cuisine

The five chefs took a tour of Sendai earlier this year, along with a visit to Tokyo, where they said they ate only street food.

“The thing that struck me was that Japanese food is similar to Italian food in its aesthetic of purity,” Canales said. “It was always really clear what you were eating and why you were eating it.”

Terje said the eye-opening dish for him on his Japan visit was beef brisket and beef tendon simmered in a miso broth that he ate at a Sendai restaurant run by a relative of Kamio, his fellow panelist.

“After this trip, I learned miso is not a specific ingredient for a specific item,” Terje said. “It's a universal ingredient that can be used for many things. When I sampled the beef brisket and tendon in miso broth, I thought, wow, I've just got to put this in my short ribs when I get home.”

Terje said that creating appealing vegetarian and vegan cuisine is a constant challenge, particularly in the Bay Area, where so many diners insist on it. Miso is a huge help because it adds richness and protein, yet is totally vegan.

“If you try a vegetable broth, they're very mild,” Terje said. “Adding miso to a vegetarian broth, suddenly you have a lot of depth. I had a customer who insisted on having a vegetarian risotto. I added miso to the broth, and it had so much richness and flavor that the customer thought I didn't follow his request; he thought I used beef broth. But I convinced him it was miso. I don't often like to cook vegan dishes because they taste kind of bland, but suddenly you have this ingredient that adds depth and richness.”

It's ironic that Kamio ended up with the dessert course, because as a native of Sendai, he has the longest experience with miso as an ingredient in savory dishes. Perhaps that gave him the confidence to create a dessert that actually had the strongest, most noticeable flavor of the miso itself, sending the audience out into the evening with a sweet taste of miso on their palate.

The menu:

Albacore Tuna with Red Miso and White Balsamic Vinegar (Kapur)
Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Fried Green Tomato, Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad, Burrata Cheese and Miso-Basil Vinaigrette (Terje)
Sauteed Black Cod with Clams and Chanterelles (Hill)
Pork Belly Cacciatore (Canales)
Vanilla Sendai Miso Ice Cream and Saikyo Miso Jasmine Tea Ice Cream (Kamio)

Kapur's dish led off with very delicate flavors and textures; miso's richness was noticeable in the sauce, but not much on the fish itself.

“Local albacore is very lean,” Kapur said. “It's very soft. It's almost too delicate to work with. I wanted to concentrate the muscle, so I made a marinade with miso and some microplaned garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The marinade shows up in the sauce on the plate and also in the eggplant.”

If Kapur's dish wasn't particularly Japanese, Terje's was even less so, even though the flavor of miso was unmistakable.

The dish was assigned as a “salad course,” but Terje interpreted that loosely with his fried green tomato topped with rich burrata cheese. The cornmeal breading on the tomato had enough crunchiness and miso flavoring to be reminiscent of a miso sembei (rice cracker), an irony because Terje said he hadn't ever tried one; he just hit on the combination in his search for the purity of the ingredients.

“The cornmeal holds in the miso flavor,” Terje said. “I marinated the tomatoes overnight to really press the flavor of the miso into the tomatoes. The burrata on top gives the richness and the salad on top gives the brightness. In the end I was able to bring out a lot of miso flavor while still keeping its identity and let the other ingredients speak. I always want to have counterbalance in food so that after a few bites it's refreshing.”

Hill's black cod dish was soft, rich and earthy: a dish that cried out for either red or white Burgundy (in fact, the beverage served with all the dishes was chilled green tea courtesy of event sponsor Ito-En, and it was a fine palate cleanser.)

While his intent was purely to make the dish delicious, Hill also showed that miso has an interesting effect on a dish's richness. All the chefs agreed beforehand that miso can be used to make a broth richer, and can even be used as a substitute for butter. But in this dish, Hill showed that miso can prevent a rich, fatty fish like black cod from being overly rich.

“The black cod can be almost too rich in some preparations, but miso cuts through the richness of the fish," Hill said.

Canales, who has used miso in cured meats, did not shy at all from richness in his dish, Pork Belly Cacciatore. That said, the miso flavor was completely hidden.

Kamio's dessert course of two different miso-flavored ice creams was accented by miso shortcake. He said he liked using miso in sweet dishes because “it adds a lot of depth and it's not what you expect from a sweet dish.” Still, he said that even though it has its own sweetness, miso is a challenge in sweet preparations.

“Miso is really salty and hard to control for dessert,” Kamio said.

While the food was being served, audience members and presenters related unconventional ways in which they had used miso.

“A friend said yesterday she put miso in her cheesecake and it made it more 'adult',” said Thy Tran, cookbook author and director of the Asian Culinary Forum.

“When I cook beef with onions, I add miso to the broth to give it more layers of flavor,” said a food product developer.

Yumi Satow, assistant professor of consumer and family studies at San Francisco State University, said, “One of my students put miso in a muffin. It had a really strong, good flavor.”

One cookbook author said, “I put miso and butter on popcorn.”

Kiyoshi Takahashi, manager of the Miyagi Miso & Soy Sauce Cooperative Association, said, “I went to an event where a chef chopped up French fries and put them in miso soup. It was amazing.”

Cookbook author Eric Gower rubs miso under the skin of chicken for roasting in lieu of salt and pepper, one of his friends said, adding that, “The chicken is so delicious that way.”

Kamio said he likes to use miso when barbecuing.

“On top of barbecued chicken or beef, you can put miso-tomato sauce,” Kamio said. “If you have any leftover sauce, don't throw it away. Put it in the refrigerator. The next day, you can add a little balsamic vinegar and you can make miso dressing.”

Canales said he used miso in a sauce for swordfish carpaccio. “It was in an emulsion with some saba and some verjus,” Canales said. “I drizzled it over the carpaccio and it was really delicate. It was beautiful.”

The outpouring of creativity with miso is to be expected, said Rona Tison, Vice President of Corporate Relations for Ito-En North America. Miso is a relatively new ingredient for non-Japanese, who are just beginning to realize its possibilities. She made an analogy to another soy-based product that has been a very successful crossover.

“Twenty years ago, Kikkoman had to give out recipes to teach people how to use soy sauce,” Tison said. “Now everybody has a bottle of soy sauce and it finds its way into everything. You find it in spaghetti sauce, everything. So maybe miso is at that early stage now.”

Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Fried Green Tomato, Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad, Burrata Cheese and Miso-Basil Vinaigrette
created by Steffan Terje of Perbacco restaurant

Miso and Cornmeal Crusted Green Tomatoes
6 slices Green (Unripe) Tomato, sliced ½” thick
½ cup Red Sendai Miso
¼ cup Buttermilk
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Fine Cornmeal for Coating Tomatoes
Mix miso and buttermilk into a smooth batter. Season with salt and pepper.
Dip slices of green tomato in miso-buttermilk mixture, then dredge in cornmeal.
Fry slices of tomato in hot oil (375F) until crisp. Let drain on paper towels.

Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad
1 cup Red or White Corn Kernels
1 cup Cherry Tomatoes, halved
Miso-Basil Vinaigrette, see recipe
Salt and Pepper to taste
Basil Leaves
Mix all ingredients in a bowl.

Miso-Basil Vinaigrette
¼ cup Red Sendai Miso
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¼ cup White Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
2 tbsp Chopped Basil
Mix all ingredients in a bowl with a whisk.

Fried Green Tomatoes
Burrata Cheese
Basil Leaves (Green and Purple)
Corn and Cherry Tomato Salad
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Place a slice fried tomato in the center of the plate.
Top with burrata cheese. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Spoon salad over burrata cheese.
Garnish with basil leaves
Drizzle plate with a little bit of balsamic vinegar.

Saikyo Miso Jasmine Tea Ice Cream
created by Chef Sho Kamio of Yoshi’s Restaurant
Makes 1 ½ Liters
600 ml. cream
300 ml. milk
300 ml. hot water
2 jasmine tea bags
30 grams mizuame
10 egg yolks
180 grams sugar
200 grams saikyo miso (sweet white miso)
Brew the tea bags in the hot water and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeezing out liquid. Set aside.
In a non-reactive saucepan, combine cream, milk, and mizuame. Bring to a scald while whisking occasionally.
In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until color is pale and mixture is lighter in color (about 3-4 minutes).
Temper the cream mixture into the egg yolks by adding the cream slowly while whisking. Return contents to the saucepan.
Whisk in miso.
Continue cooking and stirring making sure that a thermometer reads at least 50 degrees Celsius and taking care that the miso does not burn on the bottom of the pan.
Add brewed tea.
Remove from heat and strain through a chinois.
Chill in an ice bath or overnight for best flavor development.
Spin in ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Goverment says Wine Spectator Top 100 wine is shite

David Powell, founder and winemaker of Torbreck Wines, says he has in his office a pair of framed documents about his 2002 "The Struie" Barossa Valley Shiraz.

One is from the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, a government bureau which approves or rejects all Aussie wines intended for export. Yes, every vintage of Yellow Tail in the US has been approved by the AWBC.

The other is from Wine Spectator magazine.

"The AWBC letter says, 'We're releasing this for export, but you need to improve your winemaking'," Powell says. " 'This wine is barely good enough.' "

The Wine Spectator letter congratulates him on the wine being chosen as No. 38 of its Top 100 wines in the world in 2004.

Says Powell, "If I were in charge of Australian wine for a day, I'd put to a slow death everybody who works for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation. They're run for four big companies and the people who sit on the board make that mass-market 'beverage wine' shite, and that's what they think wine should taste like. The greatest wines in the world, great Hermitage Syrahs and botrytised Semillons and wines like that, would never get exported from Australia because they wouldn't taste like wines the AWBC drinks every day."

There's a twist to this twist: Powell opened two bottles of the 2006 The Struie on Tuesday. One had noticeable brett, though it didn't ruin the experience, but the other didn't and was a much more pure expression of old-vine Shiraz. So much irony here; no further comment.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

California Winetopia

Today our book "California Winetopia" was released. Woo hoo! After writing this I'm about to open the best bottle of bubbly in the house.

Of course, if you're reading this, you may not be able to read the book, as it's in Japanese only. It's a guide to northern California wines and wine country, and hopefully it fills a niche in the market as there is very little on these topics currently published in Japanese.

About the cover shot: Though I turned in dozens of photos, the publisher didn't think any of them worthy of the cover. They wanted something with grapes, but no people. So I spent two days in Napa and Sonoma County doing nothing but shooting beautiful vineyards. On the first day, my car broke down on Dry Creek Road in the middle of nowhere and I had to be towed back to San Francisco. The next day I borrowed my friend Steve's car and shot all day long, taking countless photos: landscapes, vine closeups, you name it. Sent 'em all to Japan.

That cover shot you see was graciously provided to us by Seghesio Family Winery. As a book-cover photographer, I guess I'm still a fairly decent writer. Hopefully even in Japanese.

So a heartfelt thanks to Seghesio and to all the other wineries, restaurants and hotels that generously allowed us to use their photos of their properties. I wanted to convey not just the deliciousness, but also the beauty of California wine country, and you helped to do that. I only wrote about (and requested photos from) placesI like, so I hope that a few extra Japanese visitors will find their way to you.

I also need to thank and acknowledge my wife and co-author, Mami Ishikawa Gray, without whom this book would never have happened. For some reason Amazon Japan insists on listing her as the translator, but that's simply not true. If there are any charming word choices in the book, they are hers.

If you really want a copy, it's available via Amazon Japan (although in two weeks it should be available at Kinokuniya bookstore in San Francisco's Japantown.) Now we've got a bottle of bubbly to open. Banzai!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

President Obama has a lousy palate

President Obama, our leader, has bad taste. Not in policies, women or baseball teams, perhaps. But when it comes to food and drink, even the most devoted Obama follower needs to not order what he's having.

I don't think Obama's actually a non-taster by the standards established by University of Florida professor Linda Bartoshuk (herself a non-taster). If he was, I don't think he'd prefer dijon mustard on his burger.

But his burger-gate episode was the only time I'm aware of that Obama has evidenced good taste in public life. Let's look at the counter-evidence:

* With the entire world twittering about his choice of beer, Obama picked a Bud Light, a product so tasteless that it's advertised not as delicious, but merely drinkable.

* Obama's favorite wine is also America's favorite super-premium wine: Kendall-Jackson Vintners' Reserve Chardonnay. Not to say that America has bad taste, but ... well, this is the country that prefers Doritos and Transformers II. I had K-J Vintners' Reserve last week for the first time in a while, and had forgotten that it's sweeter than sweet tea. But Obama likes it.

* Obama brags about his chili recipe; it's the one food he talks about making. But the recipe is lame. He uses a can of tasteless red kidney beans instead of more flavorful legumes. He lists it as "either turkey or beef," as if there's no difference. Turkey chili? That's for non-tasters. The spice comes from 1 tablespoon of chili powder; there's no jalapenos, cayenne pepper or even black pepper. It's boring chili for somebody with limited time and care.

* On the campaign trail, the guy lived on Met-Rx chocolate and roasted peanut protein bars: Sweet and salty enough to reach even the most dull tastebud. He also loves Planters Trail Mix.

* Michelle Obama regularly ordered thin-crust pizza in Chicago, but Barack Obama prefers deep-dish, even calling one St. Louis version the best pizza he'd ever had. Sorry folks, deep dish pizza is a platter of ballast. If you want to taste rather than consume, you get thin crust.

* Obama is well-known for staying healthy by eating a lot of vegetables. I'm glad he's healthy -- I want him in good shape to run the country -- but I have to point out that non-tasters also eat a lot of green vegetables because they don't taste the bitterness. In fact, I suspect a majority of vegans are non-tasters, and why not? If you taste in pastels instead of neon, why wouldn't you eat the healthiest diet possible?

* Obama wisely lets Michelle choose restaurants for their now-more-rare public dates. No wonder -- I heard from a former employee of Spiaggia, the upscale Chicago restaurant often listed as the Obamas' favorite splurge, that Michelle was the serious foodie, sometimes ordering wine off the list in advance from home so it could be decanted, and often ordering dinner for both of them. This proves Barack's self-awareness and willingness to delegate, which are good things. But think about it: if Barack Obama could pick a good restaurant, wouldn't Michelle occasionally let him choose?

* I read all of "Dreams From My Father," and one of the things I liked best about Obama is his "exotic" background -- childhood in Indonesia, teen years in Hawaii. Does he miss sambal oelek? Does he reminisce about gado-gado and nasi goreng? No. While at Harvard, did he miss kalua pig? No. Obama had the opportunity to grow up with a palate as sophisticated as his politics, but instead he eats protein bars.

All of that said, I wonder who has the best palate among American politicians. Political events all have cheaply catered meals and bland menus because nobody wants Rush Limbaugh talking for a week about wilted arugula. And it's hard to become governor of California, let alone President, if you spend too much time thinking about lunch. Gavin Newsom, former wine shop proprietor, may learn this next year. If not, he might become America's highest-placed gastronom.

If there is a consequence to Obama's lack of taste, it's in his relatively small interest in giving us real change in farm bill policy. Though I'm sure he understands the environmental issues, if he can't taste the difference between organic celery and the standard supermarket version, he'll never be quite as motivated.

I didn't write this post to bemoan the man, though. I still think he's likely to be the best and most important President of my lifetime. I'd love to meet him in person. But if so, I'm going to take a tip from Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley and order my own drink.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Plumarines -- a new kind of fruit

I bought a few plumarines at Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market last weekend, and discovered that this is a stone fruit so new that nobody online has written anything about them yet.

So here it is: the first plumarine post. Not exactly the same as live Twittering the new health care legislation, but it'll have to do.

Plumarines are a cross between plums and nectarines. The ones I bought had light red outer skin, speckled with yellow. The flesh is off-white with deep maroon around the pit. They're only as big as a plum, not a nectarine, but they're heavy for their size.

They're very juicy, in part because these were very ripe. The flavor is closer to the sweetness of a white nectarine than the tartness of a plum, but you can taste hints of plum flavor. I found these to be very delicious, as good as any of the stone fruits I sampled at the market on Saturday, and that was quite a large number.

Their juiciness would make them a challenge for fruit pies, but a boon to drier baked goods. That said, these are so tasty and unique that I don't see any reason to, literally, tart them up. You could serve a little vanilla or ginger ice cream on the side.

Why am I writing this post? Two reasons. First, so that the next person who searches for plumarines finds my blog and can then move on to reading about other stuff like cocktails on a stick.

Second, so I can start using them in wine tasting notes, probably with off-dry Rieslings. "I'm getting apricot, plumarine, a whiff of diesel ..."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cocktails on a stick!

Ever been torn between the urge to have a frosty cocktail or a popsicle? Now you can do both.

Liq boozsicles come in two flavors -- strawberry daiquiri and margarita. Spinal Tap fans may bemoan the absence of "love pump," but it's early; cocktails-on-a-stick are currently only available in Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

I'll bemoan the decline of Western civilization in a moment, but first the question is, how do they taste?

Given what they are, they're actually quite good. The strawberry daiquiri is sweet and smooth. I didn't love it, but I'm a wine guy who doesn't love strawberry daiquiris anyway; it had no off flavors and I couldn't taste any alcohol. My wife, who has a sweet tooth, loved it, and at 6% alcohol (more than a beer, less than a real cocktail), she caught the right level of buzz.

After trying the mild-mannered strawberry daiquiri first, the margarita was a shock: It's intensely flavored, with potent lime and tequila flavors and a noticeable saltiness. It's nowhere near as sweet as you'd expect a boozsicle to be. Once again, I'm not generally a frozen margarita guy, but I've been served cocktail reimaginings like this at Michelin-starred restaurants and this one would not embarrass a top chef. I don't know if I'm going to give up drinking reposado tequila straight, but this is probably the best popsicle I've ever had.

It should be: these Liqs sell only in bars for $6 to $8 each. Glacial Brands, the manufacturer, claims they're available at The W Hotel (Phoenix), Trump Hotel (Miami), The Hilton Hotel (Ft. Lauderdale), Deauville Hotel (Miami), and Marriott Harbor Beach (Ft. Lauderdale). In those hot places, I can imagine coming in from an afternoon stroll and having a Liq by the pool.

Glacial Brands claims to use premium rum and tequila (though they don't name brands) and real fruit and juices. Based on the taste, I believe them. Quite honestly, I expected to take one liq of each of these and then mock them. But for what they are, they're actually good.

Now, for my Republican readers: Yes, Liq represents another step in the decline of Western civilization, with peddling booze to young people. I mean, shouldn't 21-year-olds have to drink shots of cheap booze like we did? It's going to take them hours to consume enough hooch at 6.0% alcohol from these to get really polluted. What's the world coming to?

Cocktails on a stick. Can wine on a stick be far behind?