30 November 2008

Immortality, China-Green Style

On a recent trip out to the far reaches of western Mass (on a desperate pre-holiday yarn run, if you must know), I suddenly realized I was right by the tea shop owned by the knowledgable authors of one of the best books on tea, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Robert and Mary Lou Heiss. It's the sort of book that begs you to open to a random page and lose yourself in sensory delights, like the scent of tea roasting throughout Shizouka City, Japan, and a walk through the tea bushes with a small local producer.

On top of that, it's truly an encyclopedic guide to every type of tea and how it's consumed all over the world. I find myself constantly turning to it for reference and inspiration.

I was thrilled then to walk into Cooks Shop Here (65 King St., Northampton, Mass.), which the Heisses have run since 1974.

It was like being in the proverbial candy store, and I ended up with some amazingly fragrant Earl Grey (blended in-house), a bit of Yunnan Gold Tips and something new for me, Immortal Goddess or Emei Shan E Rui ($10 for 2 ounces), a Chinese green that Robert recommended.

I think this is what I've been missing about Chinese greens: This tea brews up a beautiful pale golden hue, like the November midmorning light, and tastes incredibly sweet, smooth and deep. I practically felt immortal- which is necessary when you're plodding through something as time-consuming as knitting- as I gulped it down.

I will admit, however, I drank four cups in a row, which may have had something to do with that feeling.

If you're ever in the area, Cooks Shop Here is well worth a visit. Even if you're not nearby, the carefully curated teas and drinking accessories are available online, and stay tuned for more: The prolific authors will have another tea book out in about two years. It may seem a while to wait, but there's plenty of tea to explore- and to read about- in the meantime.

And plenty to knit, ug.

25 November 2008

Pumpkin Pie Revise

I've never made pumpkin pie before. I know, I know. Wipe that look of shock off your face. It's just one of those things I've never gotten around to, like going to grad school or learning Portuguese and how to walk in a pair of Louboutins.

When I saw this recipe in the November issue of Martha Stewart Living, I knew it was time to update the life list. It's a pumpkin pie, but updated with a semisweet chocolate infusion and sheathed with a dark layer of bittersweet on top of the lightly spiced graham-cracker crust.

A brief note on the recipe: make sure to use a deep-dish pie pan, because you will have leftover filling- almost 3 cups worth. (Hey Martha, recipe test much?) I was initially annoyed, but when the spirit Yankee frugality led me to pour the extra into a few ramekins and bake them for about 30 minutes alongside the pie, I was deliriously happy with the results. A slice of pumpkin pie straight from the refrigerator is lovely, but a cupful of warm, puddinglike pumpkin pie filling right from the oven is divine.

Regardless how you eat it, the tea to drink with this soft, rich and soothing pie is something to match the chocolate flavor: Keemun, which brews up an aromatic cup with light cocoa overtones. This Chinese black tea undergoes an unusually long withering time as it's processed, which leads to a pleasant natural sweetness on the tongue. It's palatable even for a green-tea lovers (ahem).

I may even be drinking this one alone, after the pie is gone. Luckily, since I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year, I don't have to save it for anything.

21 November 2008

Matcha Points

I have a problem.

I want matcha on everything now that it's been demystified for me. And not just alone, or in desserts. What about pairing it with salt?

Don't try to answer. I can tell you, it's fabulous.

As a precursor to next week's main eating event, I present this triple-threat snacksgiving. Or would it be a hat trick? Regardless, it's an unusual assortment of sweet, savory and crunchy that's much more enticing than the colon-blocking chips and dip. And since they all incorporate green tea, or at least pair beautifully with it, you can actually call these healthy.

From the front, there's matcha-roasted pumpkin seeds (saved from the next dish), simmered kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and matcha popcorn. To make the seeds and popcorn, just follow your basic recipe using canola oil, salt and ingredient-grade matcha- and no microwave popping business, please. Just make it in a pan on the stovetop. If you can boil water for tea, you can do this.

Simmered Kabocha
Makes: 4 servings.

1-pound piece kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), seeded and peeled, if desired
4 cups water
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Cut pumpkin into crescent-shaped wedges about 3/4-inch thick. Put it into a medium saucepan along with the water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 7-10 minutes, until just tender.

2. With a slotted spoon, remove pumpkin to a bowl. Boil down the cooking liquid until 1 1/2 cups are left, about 10 minutes. Add soy sauce and salt, stir, and then place pumpkin back in saucepan. Simmer an additional minute, then let cool before serving.

This dish would be quite the stand-in for sweet potatoes on your Thanksgiving table, actually. And if you put out a few bowls of the pumpkin seeds and popcorn before the meal, everyone will be in such a good mood by the time they sit down, they won't even notice they're eating tofurkey. (They wouldn't have last year, if my sister hadn't opened her big mouth.)

The only challenge left is to try to take a bad picture of popcorn. I don't think it's possible.

19 November 2008

Matcha: The Source

I've been having matcha out so much lately that this morning, I wanted to make it myself. It's been awhile, but thanks to expert tips from the lovely founder of Matcha Source, Alissa White, I just made the best bowl of it I've ever had at home.

First the tea is sifted into a warmed, dry bowl.

The water is poured on top and whisked to aerate the brew.

The most important step is how you consume it.

I sat in my favorite spot in the pale morning sunlight and concentrated on the feel of the bowl, the sweet, vegetal smell of the tea, and that unmistakable taste- it's like drinking the essence of green.

My back against the wall, I held the bowl until the last trace of warmth dissipated. I got up, rinsed the bowl, and was now ready to write.

Matcha Source is just over two years old, and the company finds its high-quality tea in Uji and Nishio, Japan.

In Alissa's words, "Matcha was love-at-first-sight experience for me. A friend popped open a can in my kitchen, and the green matcha smoke wafted out of the tin and that was it: I was hooked. It looked like pigment and smelled like something I'd never come across before.

My dream is to make matcha accessible for Americans; to promote it as a delicious (and nutritious) beverage that is easy to prepare; to encourage experimentation and to build confidence so people are not intimidated by its history and mystique."

It's a noble dream, and one I share.

Matcha, in case you've been sleeping through this entire year of blog posts, is a Japanese green tea (tencha), stone-ground into a fine powder. It's best known as the centerpiece of chanoyu, the elaborately codified Japanese tea ceremony. But you really don't need a tea master, a solid gold antique kimono or centuries-old chawan (tea bowl) to enjoy it. As Alissa points out, it's as easy as spooning the tea (1-2 teaspoons per ounce of liquid) into a vessel, pouring hot water (165°-180° F, never boiling) over it, whisking to mix and give the brew an airy, frothy texture, and just enjoying it.

It really is that simple. The only other essential tips are to sift the matcha before using it (which can actually be done to the whole canister in advance, if you prefer) and to drink it quickly. Matcha doesn't actually dissolve in water; rather, the tiny particles are temporarily suspended after whisking, which is also why it should be mixed vigorously and consumed quickly.

If you really want to sound like a nerd- and risk your physical safety at parties- learn the various grades: thick (koicha), the superior and sweetest variety that is used for chanoyu, thin (usucha), a more everyday brew, and ingredient-grade, which Alissa recommends when baking or blending matcha with milk or juice.

And finally, when asked about her favorite tea ritual, Alissa recommends "one shared with a friend on a fall afternoon, served in a warmed cup." I can't think of a better way to spend the rest of the day.

As a treat to warm up Tea Spot readers, take 10% off any order at matchasource.com with the coupon code SPOTCHA. It's got everything you need- from premium tea to tools and vessels- to enjoy matcha every day.

18 November 2008

Super Prize Me

I was raised in a house with very little discipline. My parents insisted they were not hippies, but considering one lived in a cabin at Lake Tahoe, the other on a houseboat in Hawaii, and that they spent a few years hitchhiking all over the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, I have my doubts.

Not surprisingly, such free spirits weren't big on making anyone do anything.

It was great.

But occasionally, when I have something I feel like I have to do, I just won't be able to do it. And I give up trying almost instantly, which is what happened a few days after my traumatic Starbucks tasting. I had such big plans to taste tea in all the other big fast-food chains, but I found myself standing outside a McDonald's on Lexington Avenue and much to the annoyance of the crushing lunchtime mob on the sidewalk, I literally could not force my legs to step inside.

I had even fantasized about the ensuing purge after such a Spurlockian tasting, in which I'd treat myself to a real, pure cup of green tea. But why go through such torture before the reward?

I kept walking up to one of the best cafes in the city, and quite possibly, the entire country- where else can you get such a perfectly made bowl of matcha ($2.50) but Tafu (569 Lexington Ave., on 51st St.)?

I don't know how this little gem, hidden in a back lobby of a Double Tree Hotel, has managed to stay in business over a year, but I'm incredibly thankful it has. It only serves Japanese green teas and desserts, but it does so with impeccable precision. I've written about it before, but I can't say enough good things about this place.

The sweets offerings change with the seasons, and most have tea as a main ingredient, resulting in fabulous pairings with whatever you're drinking alongside.

After the matcha, I settled on a pumpkin wabi-sabi cupcake ($1.80) and a hot caramel-matcha latte (or kuromitsu, $6), strictly for comparison. This is what a blended tea drink should be: sweet, milky and a pleasant hint of vegetal bitterness, all playing off each other with every sip. It somehow manages to feel like it's good for you, even as it tastes better a pillowcase full of Halloween candy to a 5-year-old.

A latte here is almost twice as much as what Starbucks charges, but it's worth it to get the taste of real matcha, not some ersatz tea concentrate, prepared by people who actually know how to handle the leaf.

If you've never had matcha- or if you have but think you don't like it- please, try it here. It may just change your mind.

12 November 2008

The Shame of Starbucks

Everyone has that dark secret, the one you're ashamed to ever utter out loud.

Years and years and years ago, after going dancing in Boston with my sister and two friends, we spotted a hitchhiker on the way back. He was standing at a stoplight on Comm Ave., apparently left by his friends after a Red Sox game, holding a filthy towel scribbled with NORTH SHORE. I was driving The Boat, the family station wagon of such proportions as you can't even fathom in today's gas-conscious world (which also leads me to the dark secret of who put the solely-leopard-print-Speedo-clad sticker of Frank Zappa on the front bumper, much to my father's rage- but that's my sister's story to tell).

Four girls, none of us a day over 18, with a giant car: Of course, we rolled down the window and asked if he wanted a ride.

Of course, he said yes, even after we balked a bit as to our destination. "Sure, we're going to a shore." We were in fact headed home to the South Shore, which is the opposite direction from the North Shore. But beggars can't be chosers.

Nearing home a half-hour later, we were giving each other glances in the rearview mirror as the guy would just not shut up- about the great seats he and his buddies had at the game, how fantastic of a dancer he was, how his Ferrari was in the shop again. I couldn't stand listening for another minute, so I pulled into a state park where our friends were often fishing on summer nights. I parked the car, we all got out and with one look, the four of us bolted into the woods along the shoreline, knowing that the terrain was too dark and unfamiliar for him to follow us. We hid out for an hour, rolling on the ground trying to stifle our laughter, then snuck back to the car. Our passenger was nowhere in sight.

Yes, we abandoned him. (Keep in mind, this was in the blissful era before cell phones, and also before public transportation came to the suburbs- especially at 3 a.m. So he really was screwed.)

Why? He was drunk, he was not attractive, and above all, he was tediously boring. And I was 16.

That was my deepest, darkest secret until today, when I decided to try tea at Starbucks (no address; you know where one is).

I made my order sotto voce, half expecting all the coffee drinkers to jump up with shouts of "Unclean! Unclean!"- until I remembered they'd probably been sitting there for at least nine hours, so why would they get up now?

My choice was the green tea latte ($3.50). And while I hate giving away the ending, the cup found its way to the nearest trashcan as soon as I stepped outside.

It was syrupy sweet, with an artificially fruity and from-concentrate green-tea flavor. Is it just me, or is the Tazo brand of tea not necessary something a menu should tout? Its teas try to make up for poor quality by concocting bizarrely flavored blends branding themselves as desirable states of being, like calm, awake, refresh or (shudder) om.

The weirdest part of the tea, though, were the bitter edges that crept up behind all that sweet. And it was bitter like chemicals, not overbrewed tea. I had to freebase the ricolas I found at the bottom of my bag just to get the flavor out of my mouth.

Clearly, Starbucks is trying to make green tea palatable to an unfamiliar audience. But tea really doesn't- and shouldn't- taste like this. No wonder people think it's bitter the first time they taste it without sugar.

I realize going to a coffee chain store to taste tea is bit like critiquing the rolls at a steak house. But this is where the vast majority of this country gets its hot drinks, so what Starbucks is pushing as tea affects the mass perception of it. Maybe consumers are finally starting to develop taste buds, however, if the company's fourth-quarter performance is any indication; maybe, just maybe, this means tea will ultimately be appreciated by Americans as something beyond fast food.

11 November 2008

No-Raisin Zone

I don't believe in raisins at any time of day, but especially not at breakfast, and especially not in a fruit compote, a dish I hold forever dear- it's one of the first meals I ever had in a restaurant (sadly, the long-gone Kiev on 2nd Ave.) when I moved to New York.

I hadn't thought about compote in a long time, though, until I spotted a version stewed with tea in the October 2008 Gourmet.

The original recipe called for serving it over couscous, but I'm hooked on Irish oatmeal right now, so that's what I paired it with. You could certainly use any grain (quinoa would be good- and quick), depending on how long you can wait to eat.

Oatmeal With Fruit-Tea Compote
Makes: 4 servings.

1 1/4 cups water
3 tablespoons packed dark-brown sugar
1 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit (I used cherries, cranberries and chopped pears)
1 teaspoon loose black tea (Darjeeling), in a tea ball, or 1 tea bag
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 cups water
Pinch salt
1 cup Irish oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Toasted almonds and warm milk, for serving

1. For compote, simmer water, brown sugar and fruit in a small saucepan over medium heat, uncovered, stirring, until liquid just starts to become syrupy, about 8 minutes. Add tea and let steep off the heat for 10 minutes. Remove and discard tea, then stir in lemon juice.

2. For oatmeal, bring water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Stir in oats and lower to a simmer. Cook 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Mix in cinnamon.

3. Spoon oatmeal into bowls and top with compote, then almonds and milk, if desired.

This is the perfect breakfast for a crisp, almost-winter morning; the black tea plays off the concentrated flavor of the dried fruit and readies you to face the day.

And if you brew a plain cup of the same type used in the compote to sip alongside it, you can really detect the notes in the tea- and take in that much more caffeine.

02 November 2008

Hot for Helianthus

The weekend is a lovely time to bake. You have more energy, no particular place to be (if your social calendar is similarly cobwebbed) and plenty of time to clean up the naughty egg that rolled off the counter and into the black, fuzzy hole between it and the stove.

Oh, and increased concentration since you can savor three cups of tea before breakfast is even figured out. This Saturday I decided on these seemingly seasonal-appropriate muffins and another cup of my favorite classic hot chai.

Weekday mornings are nowhere near this good.

Sunflower-Seed Muffins
Makes: 1 dozen.

1 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup toasted, unsalted sunflower seeds, plus 2-3 tablespoons, for garnish

1. Heat oven to 325°. Line a regular muffin tin with paper muffin cups. Sift together flours, baking soda, salt and nutmeg into a small bowl.

2. In a medium bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until fluffy, about 1-2 minutes. Add both sugars and beat to combine well. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to the batter in three stages, beginning and ending with flour and beating well. Stir in the 1/2 cup sunflower seeds.

3. Spoon batter into each muffin cup, filling to just below the top. Sprinkle tops evenly with reserved sunflower seeds.

4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until muffins have risen and a toothpick inserted in the center of one comes out clean. Remove from pans and let cool on a rack.

Due to the cakelike process of making them, these muffins are tender and almost sweet enough to pass for cupcakes, with a pleasant nuttiness from the toasted seeds and caramel overtones from brown sugar.

Make no mistake, this is not health food. But you have the rest of the weekend to torture yourself with that or to take another muffin, sit back and have your friend entertain you with stories of driving cross-country with a guy who brought a severed sunflower head to snack on during the ride.