Sake Tasting

Sunday, June 28, 2009

There's something to be said for the satisfying sound of a hard shot glass slamming onto a table at your favorite sushi bar. The odd tasting but soup like brew that makes up the sake shooter is a slightly disturbing - yet satisfying - concoction.

If you've never had one a sake shooter is composed of hot sake, a quail egg, a slice or two of green onion, a raw oyster, and diced chili peppers. It kinda tastes like soup with that sears your throat with the burn of cheap booze and capsicum. This has been the totality of my sake knowledge up until now.

"Cheap sake is always served warm," Ed Lehrman told me and the others over the phone during our conference call. "It's to cover up the undesirable flavors that develop." It made sense I suppose, I guess it's why most people at the sushi joints order good sake chilled.

"Also, sake in Japan is rarely drank with sushi. Usually with grilled seafood or other meats. More often than not beer is served with sushi."

Ahh, point goes to you Ed.

I was learning a lot over this little tasting session. My homegirl in Florida, Jaden, had been acting as a liazon with Vine Connections (whom Ed is one of the founding partners of) to organize a sake tasting with various other food writers. I was honored to be included with a distinguished group such as Andrea Nguyen, Amy Sherman, Matthew Amster-Burton, Lorna Yee, and Kim O'Donnel. When I first logged into the online conference room I was slightly intimidated as I'm a devout acolyte to their writing and strive to obtain even a slight modicum of their talent. To be in included in an event with them blew my socks off and clear into the washer.

After a few technical difficulties and a quick run upstairs to put my hair up and put a shirt on (no one told me my webcam would automatically be turned on) we were led through a sake tutorial (you can see Jaden's here) along with a a few question and answer sessions. Afterwards we were led through the various types of sake sipping, sniffing and analyzing through chat messages our takes on each proffering a nose of cheese or a taste of banana peel in an attempt to pin down the profile of each sake.

The sakes were each amazing, one in particular called Divine Droplets was particularly impressive. The brewer Takasago Ginga Shizuku builds an igloo every years as a place to press the sake during its final steps in processing in order to keep the sake pure and free of contaminants. It had a distinct nose of slightly stinky cheese, but a flavor that was crisp with notes of apple and pear followed by a pleasantly fermenty funk.

The tasting was assisted by the bottles themselves, the Vine Connections peeps ensure that their label is clear and describes the flavor, grade, type of rice, and so on. All participants were in agreement that wine, tequila, and all liquors should emulate this label model. Clear, simple, and useful.
Just as one might discover with wine or chocolate, sake develops personality based on it's processing mode, the type of rice used, the terroir. The whole tasting was culturally enlightening and gave you an appreciation for the sake brewers who had been dedicated to their task for years and years (one brewing company had been around fro over 800). All this knowledge and the understanding that you were drinking sake that had been carefully crafted using such precise methods bestowed a pleasure that was thought provoking. ...And tipsy. Drinking a bunch of sake at 10 am on a weekday will do that to a guy.

Now, having a tiny frame and a little roommate it was mandatory that I call over friends over to try them as well. After giving them the history of sake and watching Jaden's video on the sake making process we all went around and tried each of the sakes. We laughed and took notes, enjoying the sake and it's ability to bring us all together to enjoy one another's company. I was happy that I given the opportunity to learn about sake and then pass that knowledge on to the people I care about so much.

I'm looking forward to creating some desserts with sake and doing some dessert pairings in the future. Be sure to stay tuned to see what boils up. Another special shout out to Ed, Sarah, Jaden and all the peeps at Vine Connections for their kindness, articulate presentations, and generosity.


The Peerless, Popable, Tart, Sweet Cherry Plum

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Well, the skin is tart," said the woman at the Farmer's Market, her shale colored hair tied back with a piece of leather string.

"Tart?" I replied, eyeing the small baskets of curious fruit, what looked like plums but each no bigger than the masher in a bag of marbles. The sign for "Fresh Cherry Plums" caught my eye, and being an enthusiastic fan of both cherries and plums I was pulled in with near gravitic force.

"Extremely tart. From the tip of your tongue till the moment you swallow tart."

"Really!? I've had a tart plum before, but never a tart plum before."

"Oh well these are tart. Tart skinned that is. Some people like their fruit to have layers of subtley. A million different smells and aromas all competing. Who wants a plum with a hint of cherry with a nose of pineapple mysteriously waiting behind the bush ready to jump you? Not cherry plums though. There are two notes: Tart and Sweet. (With a plum taste of course.) In fact, I would say the skin on these plums stand up and shout, 'I'm tart! I'll make you flinch and squeeze your eyes shut!'"

"That doesn't exactly sound appealing."

"It's appealing because it's sweet," she said in a perspicacious tone that brought a sly bit of color to her somewhat pallor complexion.

"But you said it was tart."

"Yes, but I said it was sweet. The flesh is sweet, like juicy candy that's waiting to tell you the sweetest secret you've ever heard. Except the second you try to tell it to someone else you can't."

"Why can't I?"

"Because the juice will dribble down your chin." Obviously. "That's why I suggest you don't try to nibble it and just pop the whole thing in your mouth in a single bite. Swallow the secret, nibbling will just spread it around and make a mess of things like your chin and shirt. The tart will be tart, the sweet will be sweet and that makes it the perfect popable plum."

"A peerless plum! I'm convinced," I said, and handed her a dollar for a basket. Indeed, as I tossed a cherry plum or two in my mouth on the walk back to the car I enjoyed the belligerent tart and the unblemished sweet of the plum, then skillfully spit out the pits with a certain spin, arc and distance that can only be achieved after years of rigorous practice with cherry pits. A peerless plum indeed.

Cookbook Addiction

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Unyielding has come and gone, its wave of destruction come and gone. After the plague I was left with only one or two good cookbooks left (the indomitable Judy Rogers' is stronger than any paper devouring mold). The cookbooks I lost however were mostly pieces of crap - ones where recipes were poorly tested and didn't taste good. The pictures were lies, pretty, well lit, carefully staged lies that didn't accurately represent the dishes. The Unyielding destroyed it all.

However, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

After I posted about it Kalyn - you all know Kalyn, Demeter of the Food Blog Pantheon - read about my plea and sent me a kind gift. A copy of The Joy of Cooking. A culinary tome which I'm ashamed to say I didn't own before her generosity.

As I pulled Joy out of its packaging and opened the new cover with that ever satisfying crack that comes with popping the cherry of a new book binding. I began to pour through the book page after page, chapter after chapter. Recipes for Kwanza. The temperature to fry chicken at. What to look for in a healthy celery root. The proper method for shucking an oyster. How to properly set a table (I knew that one thanks to mom). It had the answers to everything and a delightfully motley mix of recipes from every walk and culture to boot.

Elise told me that the cookbooks I lost was a karmic favor to me. There was no point in owning anything that wasn't helpful. A good cookbook should inspire, enlighten, educate. A good cookbook should be read cover to cover late into the night with your nightstand lamp burning bright into the wee hours and with a flashlight under the covers after your parents tell you it's way past your bedtime.

It only takes one or two good experiences to cause one to develop an addiction. My few quality cookbooks were soon met with new authors. Tannis, Roden, Ong, Daley, Medrich, and Greenspan now sat next to Lebovitz and Waters. I began to pour through them to learn more about the culinary world like how to prepare Italian food with everyday ingredients, learning about the trials of pumpkin farming in Yolo County, and the alimentary practices of Hmong weddings.

Of course I'm doing my best to only pick the cream of the cookbook crop. Ones that have real soul and passion in them, that have an engaging story, cookbooks that transports me to the author's kitchen or where I can hear their voice whispering in my ear, "Sear the beef on every side. Small batches, and don't crowd them. Then add the star anise so they release their oils. You'll know it's done when it becomes aromatic."

Right now my current read is Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, a riveting book where every recipe has filled my kitchen with sweet smells of perky lemongrass and air heavy with the sticky scent of palm sugar, the smell luring my roommate down from her room for a helping of whatever perfumed dish I've made. In fact I have some chuck steak marinating right now for her recipe for beef stew with tomatoes, lemongrass, and star anise. Expect a review later on after I try a few more recipes out and finish reading it.

So is there any cookbook you love that I absolutely must check out?
By the way, there is a new post (of sorts) over at The Rhetoric of Rhubarb. Feel free to learn about the Balkan myth of vampire watermelons.

1000 Beans

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A picture (of beans) is worth a thousand words (probably about beans).
Picked up at the Sac Farmer's Market under the freeway from a wonderful Hmong family. The purple ones actually cook green for bio-chemical reasons I am unaware of. Very tasty when steamed with some red garlic then sloshed in a bit of butter, salt and black pepper. Three dollars bought enough to feed me a hearty helping every single day this week.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

I stopped just as the red stained cherry pit flew past my knees, through the legs of other shoppers and then struck the pavement rolling away out of sight. It was a close call, but nothing to be upset about. A rogue cherry pit or two is simply one of the risks you take at a mid-Spring Farmer's Market.

I looked over to see a woman and her friend sitting on the curb cheerfully punishing a bag of very ripe and nearly black cherries. I could smell the fruit from where I was standing, but had decided to buy a small flat of blueberries and enough plums to last through the apocalypse and still have enough left over for sorbet. There's only so much fruit a single person can go through after all.

Next to the pit spitters was one of my favorite Hmong stands which I frequent every week. As I moved over to the side, avoiding the bitter melons I began to peruse over a new type of chili I had never seen before. They were medium length, verdant and gnarled like the fingers of some fairytale crone.

I was encouraged to bite into one and found it sweet and palatable, something that would do well in a stir-fry with shallots and thai peppers. I would tell you the name but I am unaware how to type the phonemes necessary - not that I know them or the spelling - and even then I'm not sure Blogger can even type them.

I grabbed a handful and popped them in the bag. The lady behind the counter weighed it and told me the price. I began to get out my money when suddenly I felt a something small and wet strike the back of my neck with the tiniest thud that only I could hear. The object then tumbeled into my shirt collar and I could feel the tiny missile roll down my back leaving a small juicy trail until it fell out at the bottom. I looked and between my feet was a small cherry pit coming to a rolling stop.

A small look of horror and disgust crossed my face. I turned towards my attackers. The woman with the bag of cherries looked at me horrified for only a split second then turned her head, shying away from eye contact. If I did not see her face, I could not possibly blame her, I suppose was her theory. Her friend was blushing out of embarrassment that comes with association.

"Augh, god! You nasty bitch!"

It was then my turn to be horrified as it dawned on me that I had apparently yelled that loud enough to stop everyone near me dead in their tracks. Given, I'm not one to yell such things at total strangers. In fact, it's just damn right out of character for me - but when someone spits on you, well, all bets are off. I blame the show True Blood where I heard the phrase and now had started using it with gusto. I quickly followed up on my outburst to convince the surrounding populous that it was, indeed, appropriate.

"You spit a cherry pit at my head and it rolled down my shirt! That's just vile! Spit them at the ground or back into your bag!" I smacked the back of my neck with my hand and slowly pulled it across feeling the slime streak across my palm. I looked at it and saw the inky red juice had made a short smear. I could feel my lip curl with complete revulsion. I then showed it to the woman who looked at it, cringed, and apologized.

As I slowly wiped off my back and apologized myself for the "nasty bitch" comment and I told her that I understood it was an accident but to watch where she spat her pits.

I walked back to the car pissed that I had just done my laundry the other day. Cherry juice stains like hell on a good cotton shirt. A shudder went through my body. "Ugh... gross," as I wiped my neck again.

Mirabelle Plums

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No, these aren't tiny yellow tomatoes, rather these little canary colored orbs are tiny plums called Mirabelle plums. A very ladylike name for a plum so demure in appearance and coquettish in flavor.

Now according to Wikipedia they have great importance in the French region of Lorraine as this area has the perfect growth climates for the plum to fruit in. In fact "[since] 1996 the mirabelle de Lorraine has been recognized and promoted by the EU as a high-quality regional product, with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). This label guarantees a minimum fruit size (22mm) and sugar content, and can only be used in a specific geographical zone of production."

However, someone at some time smuggled a few seeds out. The ones you see pictured came from a co-worker's garden which is located in Sacramento. So the EU did not protect it just so well.

How do they taste? Even before breaking the skin these plums are extremely fragrant to the point that even a day after driving with them for just 30 minutes my car still soaked in their scent. I would describe the scent as definitely that of a plum, but dainty, almost whimsical like it's trying to tickle your nose. A fairy scented plum.

The flavor isn't very plummy but rather tart from the skin and the flesh extremely sweet. It's like the fruit is meant to be a study in tastes. Often I can only eat one or two before I have to stop from sugar overload. However this sweetness lends itself well to jam to distilled spirits.

Now outside of jam and booze, if you've experienced these plums how do you use them? I ask because I have a zillion and could use some ideas. ;)

Hunger Gone to Pot (Or Heroin as it Were)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The hand was shoved suddenly into the cabin of the pickup truck and there, sitting in a sad little raggedy ball on the palm of his dirty, yellowed hand that was rutted with age was a pathetic wad of pot. 

"You wanna buy 'dis weed?" said the owner of the hand and the pot. "Two dollars."

BF and I were stunned into silence. An event that does not often occur in my overly verbose life.

Now, understand, my experience with pot is minimal. The two times I did try it I coughed so hard I actually vomited - the first time in the street, the second in a friend's bedroom trash can. Sexy, no? I did get a second-hand giggly fit later that night, but nothing so awesome as to risk horfing out my rib cage in a violent coughing fit in attempting another drag.

Generally, however, I don't care if others do it. Just not in my house. Cigarettes and weed, you smoke it outside. Legalize it for all I care, it'll raise some good revenue and God and Schwarzenegger know that California is hurting financially and a legitimate pot industry backed with crazy taxes would be a nice shot in the arm. Sell it in a locked cabinet near the Virginia slims at the grocery store.

Yet, I draw the line when a creepy old man who I might normally walk off the sidewalk to avoid were he coming my direction reaches into the car I'm sitting in and tries to peddle it out. Call me a prude, I guess. It's just bad manners if not anything else.

"I don't need it. I prefer hard stuff."

"Oh... uh... I see. Well we're okay," I stumbeled. I was thanking God that BF was in the driver's seat and I didn't have closer contact to the face that had more lines than a Boston roadmap. I tried not to look into his shallow eyes, pink and watery that echoed to years of abuse and hard times. I would have been sucked into the sadness had I not been so unnerved. This was not meth or pot abuse which I could recognize and had seen before.

"I prefer heroin."

It was heroin abuse.

"That's pretty hardcore," replied BF. He seemed to be keeping his cool whereas I was just at a loss for words.

"I prefer heroin." The man slurred the word out as "harrowen". "So you wanna buy this?" It was a harrowen' scene indeed. It was then we heard a loud and audible roar, like a sad cry from any number of beasts in the forest. It was his stomach. He did not seem to notice.

This man needed a sandwich. Not to mention drug counseling, invasive dental surgery, a shower, and to get his arm and pot out of the fucking car. Still a thought crossed my mind; much like the oil slick of a man meth addict I encountered not so long ago this dude was not eating. After hearing his stomach rumble that audibly we knew he was hungry, yet instead of looking for food to nourish himself here he was hawking crumpled bits of pot in order to score a bit of smack.

It made me think of a few people I know and still care about. I hope that they are okay.

"We're good dude. Good luck finding a buyer." BF turned the key and rolled up the window forcing the man to pull back his arm. We drove off to dinner in silence for a bit. We still had to take in the strangeness and horror of it all, it's not everyday that a raw shot of human suffering and harsh reality come to you curb side like a drive-in diner waitress.

After a while I broke the silence. "You sure we didn't need any harr-O-win?" I asked.

We laughed. Not because it was particularly funny, but because we weren't sure what else to do. Here's hoping he doesn't find a buyer, and instead finds his way to the Food Bank or rehab.

The simplest desserts sometimes require the simplest posts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Here you go," I handed BF the metal ice cream scoop after running it under hot water. As he plunged it into the carton of Dreyer's it easily cut through the creamy, vanilla bean, slow churned, super fatty goodness leaving a molten trail of dairy behind it. As he carefully tried to roll out perfectly spherical scoops I washed the blackberries. We had plucked them a few days ago at an Edible Sacramento staff dinner at Mike Madison's farm (the author of The Blithe Tomato), we had gathered what was probably the equivalent of $20 worth of near-Jurassic in size berries though we hadn't put a dent in the long row of well kept blackberry bushes.

We then plopped ourselves on my mangy couch with our bowls of berries-n-cream and clicked on another episode of South Park. We each then took a bite.

Quiet set in and after a few moments the silence was broken.

"Wow," uttered BF. He's a man of few words but they're usually the right ones.

"This is good," I stated.

"This is really good," he was able to reply before shoving another spoonful of the dalmatian dessert into his mouth.

Not another word was said until we had both finished our bowls.

365 x 26 in Under a Second

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Myself, being a person of forgetful nature, am inclined to lose track of many things. It can then be no surprise that more often than not I forget that it's my birthday. In fact I only remembered last year when my brother called me and wished me well. Even then there was a small argument on when my birthday was (not the day itself but wether it indeed actually was that day). I like to think of myself not so much as absent minded and forgetful but as possessing an endearing lack of recollection. Still, this year I did well and was actually aware of June 2nd's personal importance ahead of time.

Now I'm very proud of myself for surviving yet another 365 days on Earth and was willing to celebrate it. Being highly accident prone to the point of being a general hazard to myself and others I think it's worth a little reward. (I didn't do something foolish and kill myself, let's celebrate!) So I took the day off from work intent on not doing a goddamn lick of work, studying, or anything that one could call even remotely productive.

After Eat Beast woke me up at 5:30 per his usual schedule to feed him I got back into bed and slept in. When I woke up 4 hours later I had a simple breakfast of oatmeal with blackberries that the BF and I picked at Mike Madison's farm over the weekend. I stretched out on the couch in the pair of boxer briefs I slept in and sipped down a steamy over-steeped cup of chai tea as I read the New York Times and my favorite web comics. It was a successful and deserved start to my day.

Come noon we went to Dad's Kitchen to meet up with the BF's sister, a baker at the neighboring Freeport Bakery, and her girlfriend for lunch. We laughed and traded stories, I flipped off the offensive table umbrella that called me an asshole (another story), and sighed a deep sigh after failing to finish off a Dad's Burger - a burger covered in cheese and seared in a blanket of bacon served on a roll with pickeled onions, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce all homemade and/or grown by staff - and a side of garlic Parmesan fries.

As we settled over the bill I was in a small state of nirvana. A state which hardly ever lasts.

For just a second I stop and reflect on where I am. Am I where I thought I would be at twenty-six?

At times I feel I should be a bit further along than I am now. I haven't had my Grand Adventure in life. I haven't published a book yet. I haven't even thought of starting a family or settling down, though the thoughts are beginning to niggle at the back of my head. I haven't sky dived. I haven't learned how to make a macaron. I haven't tasted a squash blossom or a truffle. I haven't been to Alinea, French Laundry, Manressa, Contigo, Zuni Cafe or Chez Pannise. I haven't finished my Masters. And I'm still not quite one hundred percent sure what I want to do with my life. I'm twenty-six. Aren't I supposed to have done a bit more by now?

But then again, I'm twenty-six. I've done a lot I'm proud of. The blog. My education. My writing. My recipes. My relationships. My travels. My small apartment that I've made into a quaint home of sorts. My cats, annoying as they are. I'm proud of all of that.

My mood on all this depends on the day, if I've eaten, what I've recently read, my stress level and the position of heavenly bodies in relation to me.

The worry subsides quickly. All these thoughts have occurred in my own slowed perception of time. In less than a second I'm snapped out of reflecting about the last 26 years and if I spent them right. I know I have. I'm with people I care about and who make me laugh. I join the others in laughing over erectile dysfunction of the extra greasy fries (which are the tastiest ones by far) and they limp over shyly in your fingers.

This moment sort of defines where I am - surrounded by good people and good food. A good birthday to be sure.

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