27 November 2010

Southern Living

I just returned from Thanksgiving- this year, hosted by my older sister who has basically adopted Louisiana as her ancestral home. She's been there for years now, and has seamlessly transfused our original Yankee blood with a slow-burning southern warmth, from her charming circle of friends to the incredible regional food coming out of her kitchen.

As we sat on her porch, mincing herbs from the backyard garden for the grand meal, I made some Darjeeling to sustain us throughout the preparation. I kept trying to focus on the remaining tasks (chop the Brussels sprouts, peel the sweet potatoes, go stir the gravy) but my body started to relax in the sunshine and I ended up gazing lazily into the cups, marveling at how much stronger, cleaner the light was here than in New York.

The next day, I was treated to tea made for me, and I couldn't help but ease more into the place and the moment.

It was a deep, full-flavored Kagoshima sencha, expertly prepared- and a perfect accompaniment to as many leftovers and local specialties (baked cheese grits, fresh pecans and fragrant, sweet Satsuma oranges from the farmer's market) I could get down before the flight back.

I've made sencha countless times, and had it well-made for me more than once. But there was something so effortless, so easy in that day's gracious hospitality; with the soft light filtering through the Spanish moss that blanketed the live oaks outside, the moment absolutely absorbed me.

Thank you, south Louisiana. Y'all have reminded me how to savor.

10 November 2010

Hard to Swallow

I'm sick of food writing.

Why are food blogs- happy or unhappy- all alike? The self-referential, self-absorbed prose; the overpixelated hyper-macro photographs; the gushing exultation of formerly humble ingredients like the apple or whole-wheat flour.

The professional food media is little better. One recent review I read exalted a chef's on-site slaughter of a pig allegedly raised on hand-fed pears; another babbled about "thoughtfully sourced pork, lamb, and beef" and discussed a restaurant's atmosphere one evening "as if primed for a clever Tweet."

Can we please remove social media from food? It's on the level of blogging from the toilet. Yes, everyone eats (and expels)- that's even more reason to not immortalize it.

There are so many food publications and blogs in which you can feel the writers drooling over their dithyrambic creation and then, after a furtive glance to ensure no one is watching, fluff their hair a bit just so.

Antidotes do exist, however. Those food magazines, straight in the trash. A sunrise with a lone cup of yu hua, or rainflower, a round, soft, almost mossy Chinese green tea. And the blurry, unintelligible images and incredibly mundane comments on Pizza in the Streets. Pasta spirals with jarred sauce and canned parmesan cheese in a metal mixing bowl; Yuengling with a chipped plate of Entenmann's chocolate donuts (and is that a spoonful of peanut butter?); a half-eaten pretzel discarded on a dirty sidewalk. It's all here.

Clearly, I adore tea, and talking about it. I crave it like heroin. The taste always takes me by surprise, whether earthy or floral, grounding or transcendent, stimulating or soothing. But ultimately, it is just water and leaves.

It's still beautiful. Little more needs to be said.

22 September 2010

Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darjeeling

One of the countless introductions I've had since I moved to New York is to The Prisoner, a 1960s British TV series in which the main character, a former secret agent, is abducted after resigning from his job. He is held captive in a surreal village, given a number as identification, and constantly tormented and plied for information from an authoritative figure called Number Two.

My first roommate here- a design, music and general pop-culture savant- was the one who showed it to me. I remember thinking the opening sequence was cool, but quickly started to crack up throughout the hour-long episode. Everyone in village was dressed in bizarre, bright stripes, twirling big umbrellas while speaking in creepy aphorisms, and just seemed to be taking themselves so seriously. The prisoner himself (referred to as Number Six) was the worst offender, kicking, barking or snarling at every village accoutrement and inhabitant. There was one scene in which Number Six, invited for a chat with Number Two, smashes down a perfectly nice cup of tea that's been prepared for him without even taking a sip (I can't seem to find the clip, but trust me, it is hilarious).

I know my old roommate was annoyed at my failure to immediately recognize The Prisoner's brilliance. But after a few more episodes, I was hooked- and then I was the one shooting dark glares anyone who dared speak while watching. Perhaps my initial response was immaturity, or simply not enough exposure to the soul-crushing world of corporate employment; regardless, it's time now, over 10 years later, to pay due homage.

Number Six, asked whether he wants "Indian or Chinese" tea for his angry little party, chooses Indian. So what better way to offer tribute than with a tasting of such a black tea, steeped in the storied British tradition of domination?

Darjeeling is one of the most beloved Indian teas. In the mid-1800s, the English established tea gardens in this remote, elevated region of western Bengal; by the end of that century, these had expanded into plantations and tea processing centers. And as Darjeeling leaves are processed from different pickings (or flushes) throughout the season, the distinct types make for an intriguing side-by-side comparison.

I brewed up both, and began with the first flush (bottom right). This is an early spring tea, with a delicate, slightly astringent, floral taste. The second flush (upper left), which is harvested from the later growth on the bushes, has a fuller flavor, with lingering muscatel notes. I much preferred its more developed aroma and roundness.

You can even see the difference in the leaves: the first flush (left) maintain a touch of green color, while the second flush (right) appears completely oxidized.

But taste is a strange beast. Try both, and see which you prefer. Regardless, there's no need to smash any cups afterward- unless you're feeling particularly oppressed.

05 August 2010

A Paean to Pound Cake

Summer is not my season. The only word I can use to describe myself from June to August, to be brutally honest, is wilted. I feel listless, shiftless, useless for weeks on end. I can't even summon up the concept of cold, no matter how many lush cardigans or autumn serenades I sigh over.

But what this heat does bring is an ease. Shoulders relax, gaits slow; clothing is pared to an absolute minimum. And while I do tire of wearing the same stained wifebeater every single day (it's actually too hot to imagine any other outfit), there's something refreshing about feeling so simple and stripped down.

And though it's now that I enjoy experimenting with iced teas and infused herb and berry syrups, at this point in the summer, I tend towards straightforward cold brews (megami sencha is the standout this year) and more simple accompaniments- like a plum straight from the refrigerator, eaten over the kitchen sink. Or a single, plain slice of pound cake.

Pound cake is like the ancestor of all cakes. It stands proudly without frosting, filling or other decoration. It's perfect as soon as you turn it out of the pan; unadorned, it shines more deeply- and with more lasting intensity- than all those gilded, gussied-up confections.

I always love the classic, but this lightly spiced version, from one of the last issues of the venerable Gourmet magazine, is just as delicious. I initially made it back in early spring, and with the first bite, thought the flavors perfect for the burgeoning season.

And I can now verify the cake works just as well when it's 92°. The exotic, floral aroma of the cardamom and vanilla are even a little more intense every time I lift the cover to cut another slice- something, I will warn you, that may happen more than once a day.

Cardamom-Vanilla Pound Cake
Makes: 10 to 12 servings.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 vanilla beans, halved lengthwise
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup milk, at room temperature

1. Heat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a 12-cup bundt pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess.

2. Whisk together flour, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat together butter and granulated sugar in mixer at medium speed, scraping side of bowl occasionally, until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape seeds from vanilla beans with tip of a paring knife into butter mixture (reserve pods for vanilla sugar), and beat until combined well, about 1 minute. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in lemon juice until combined well. At low speed, add flour mixture and milk alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture, mixing until just combined.

3. Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top. Gently rap pan on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool in pan 1 hour, then invert onto a rack and cool completely, about 1 hour more.

White tea, iced- or hot, if you're a masochist- is the best accompaniment. Its faintly smooth, sweet notes well complement the same in the pound cake. And since we're simplifying, look for a bai mudan (white peony) white tea, not necessarily the higher-grade silver needles. Bai mudan is a newer, much less expensive variety, but cold brewed, it's just as lovely.

03 August 2010

Tuesday Tea Tasting: Amithé

I'm sure it's happened to you: that feeling like you've accomplished nothing, the week quickly slipping from your grasp. It's not a pleasant sensation, but there is a painless remedy.

A Tuesday afternoon tea tasting.

Plus, my kitchen counters are slowly being taken over by clusters of little samples and packets, and I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night. So what better time to listen to Houses of the Holy three times in a row and brew up some offerings from Amithé, a new tea company I recently stumbled across.

First up, the signature Amithé ($17 for 1.5 oz.), a white tea strewn with rose petals that brewed up luscious, soft and sweet. Some claim white teas are redolent of perfume, and I can understand the comparison. But this one is so in the best way possible- think of sinking blissfully into a warm bathtub full of Chanel No. 5, not getting sprayed in the eye with a blast of Electric Youth. The tea gets even sweeter as it cools, which would make it perfect, iced, for any August picnic that stretches into dusk.

(Théo, left; Amithé, right)

Théo ($14.75 for 3.5 oz.) and I didn't along quite as well. An Earl Grey mixed with rose, jasmine and lavender, this is an ambitious blend, perhaps best for flavored-tea junkies. It's not cloying, as you might expect, but there were so many floral notes in each sip that I found it hard to concentrate and detect the base tea's essence. Maybe I'm just a lightweight. It certainly did look gorgeous as it was brewing- but then again, the most attractive ones are always the biggest troublemakers.

With a name like La Dame à Licorne ($17 for 2.5 oz.)- a little bit filthy, a little bit French- I was hooked before it even passed my lips. I kept trying to come up with descriptions as I sipped: was it earthy or grassy, slightly astringent or barely sweet? Then, suddenly, the cup was empty, and a sensation similar to what I imagine drives an alcoholic seized me. I'd never known this tea existed until two minutes before, but now I had to have another cup. This tea is so well-balanced and palatable; it's everything a Chinese green should be. At this point it may have been the tea talking, but those leaves really did look like miniature unicorn horns.

My final tea of the tasting was Fumoir ($21.50 for 7 oz.). Even while brewing, it smelled musky and dangerous, like someplace your mother would warn your teenage self to avoid. (She'd usually be right, but so what?) A gunpowder green tea, this full-flavored version is deliciously smoky- and if a nonsmoking vegetarian (ah, how boring we become with age) can be so bold, almost meaty.

Now it's turned into evening, I have a third cup of Fumoir in hand, and I'm not quite sure how it all happened.

But I suppose all the best parties end that way.

28 July 2010

The Crosby Show

We may still be trapped in the sticky, endless days of July, but that doesn't mean you can spend every single one on the beach.

Well, you can try. But the city inevitably calls me back. As much as I do love a thermos of mint iced tea (and my toes) wedged in the sand, sometimes it's nice to settle into a plush chair as pots of tea and a tower of sandwiches and cakes are brought out to you, silverware cool to the touch from the air conditioning.

A glass of champagne alongside doesn't hurt, either.

For an afternoon tea a bit less traditional, the new Crosby Street Hotel (79 Crosby St.) seemed a good choice. And overall, it was: the tea list is fairly extensive, and while the food is not very adventurous, it is well-prepared. I particularly appreciated the whole-wheat bread in the finger sandwiches; it's unusual to see anything but soft white bread at tea services, and it played nicely with the cool filling of creme fraiche and cucumber.

The scones were excellent: just sweet and firm enough to stand up to multiple slatherings of clotted cream and cherry jam. I can't recall ever eating them while listening to Chaz Jankel, either, which added another layer of delight.

But there were a few things off. While the service was very professional and attentive- when the waiter was around- long, long stretches passed without any sign of him. It's never pleasant to be hovered over, but an occasional check-in is appreciated. Less forgivable was the preparation of the tea. I truly cannot understand why a high-end establishment (and a British-owned one at that) would bring the tea to the table with the leaves still in the pot. I could time it so the first cup of Darjeeling was perfect; but the leaves had no place to go after that, so the next few cups were sadly overbrewed.

It's not difficult to brew tea, especially in a professional kitchen. There's got to be a timer and strainer in there somewhere. And this problem isn't limited to Crosby Street- unfortunately, I've ended up with the same bitter brew at almost every other hotel tea service.

Sigh. Will they ever learn?

The Crosby Street Hotel serves afternoon tea, $34; or champagne tea, $46, all day.

23 July 2010

Such a Beach

When you think New York City, you don't think of crashing waves, white-sand beaches littered with shimmering blue shells, or cool, salt-spray breezes tangling your hair.

And you certainly don't think of fish tacos and iced matcha.

Well, maybe it's time to.

Rockaway Beach is one of those gems of the city, so un-urban it's hard to believe a subway brought you there. And while I'm a firm believer in the beauty New York exudes every day, this spot is a particularly breathtaking example. (And this is coming from someone who grew up on the Atlantic Ocean.)

The beach may get a little crowded on the weekends, but if you can manage to trek out here during a sultry weekday afternoon, you will not be disappointed. Even if you don't go for a swim- which is tantamount to crime in this heat- it's worth the journey for the most authentic fish taco ($3) I've ever had on the East Coast, courtesy of Rockaway Taco (95-19 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens): crispy, hot fried fish; crunchy, sweet and spicy bites of shredded cabbage and radish; a bright squeeze of lime and inevitably, all over your hands and face as you devour it.

Chase it with an icy, vibrant green cold matcha ($4; supplied by Matcha Source) from Veggie Island right next door, and you may never want to leave. This adorable coffee shop/organic vegetable market also has an extensive selection of house-made herbal iced teas ($2.50), such as black mint, nettle and sorrel.

Unfortunately, I'd put away three tacos at this point, so I had to vow to try them on my next visit- I didn't want to have to wait another 45 minutes before jumping into the water.

Although, looking back at the pictures, this meal was quite possibly worth a life-threatening cramp while swimming. There are certainly worse ways to go.

13 July 2010

By Any Other Name

I used to find roses incredibly corny; boring, trite and unimaginative in a bouquet.

But over the past few years, those wild, uninhibited varieties that envelop a decaying fence or other quiet green corner have slowly crept into my heart and taken root. There those sweet little roses stay, even if I rarely see or smell them during their brief summer reign.

So perhaps it's a severe case of garden envy: I've been consumed with thoughts about how roses would taste in a rhubarb pie, or scattered over pastry cream and brioche. I've often enjoyed the petals mixed with black tea, so why not in an accompanying sweet?

Without any blooms to gather, these sesame-rose cookies are a good place to start. Imagine a classic peanut-butter cookie- interpreted in rich, evocative Middle Eastern flavors and crowned with the haunting essence of rose-petal jam- and you'll get the idea.

Better yet, make them yourself. The tahini and jam are available from Sahadi's, one of my absolute favorite food stores. And I'm happy to share that the cookies won the store's (and my, actually) first recipe contest. They're tasting all the sweeter now with my iced tea.

Sesame-Rose Cookies
Makes: about 2 dozen cookies.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup tahini
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/4 cup rose-petal jam

In small bowl, stir together flour and baking soda. Set aside. In medium bowl, mix tahini, butter, sugar, egg and salt together until well blended. Stir in flour. Cover dough, and refrigerate for 4 hours, or overnight.

Heat oven to 350°. Let dough sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes, then roll into balls (about 2 teaspoons each). Roll balls in sesame seeds, and place onto ungreased cookie sheets. Using the end of a wooden spoon, gently indent each cookie, taking care to press only about halfway through the dough.

Bake cookies at 350° for 13-15 minutes. Let cool on sheet 2 minutes, then gently re-form the holes the end of the with wooden spoon before removing to rack to cool completely.

Once cool, fill each cookie with 1/2 teaspoon jam. Serve, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

21 June 2010

A Peek Inside the Matcha Box

I haven't been on a tea hiatus, as much as the paucity of posts here may suggest. I've been drinking it every day as always, but I suspect some sort of creativity impairment is going on. Brain sprain, lack of inspiration, toxic environments- any one of them can strangle even the smallest seeds of ideas, and in combination, they're rather formidable distraction.

But when you hear word that your favorite matcha supplier has set up shop a quick subway ride away, somehow those crushing forces start to lose their power.

Stepping inside the quiet little shrine of Matcha Box (33 Crosby St.), I was instantly inspired. The expertly-prepared bowl of thick matcha ($5)- which I've never had before- followed by an iced matcha ($3.50) may have contributed a bit, of course. The matcha madeleine ($2.50) didn't hurt, either. And when I got to meet Matcha Source's founder, Alissa White, in person, the elements of anticreativity finally crumbled.

Alissa kindly agreed to an interview, so a few days later, I went back to find out more about the store. Matcha Source is based in L.A., so Matcha Box is pop-up shop- and one that was only about six weeks in the making, she explained to me. Earlier in the year, that whole volcanic-ash mess left her stranded with an unplanned week in New York. She started thinking about a cafe here- which would introduce more people to matcha as well as highlight this special tea's accessibility- made one call, happened upon a space, and with the help of her brother Benji, started setting up shop for the month of June.

"It was completely unplanned, so the concept of a pop-up shop- temporary, spontaneous- appealed to me," Alissa said. And it struck me, as we sat just outside and absorbed the somehow intimate, still-neighborhoody feel of this stretch of Soho (only a block away from Broadway's throngs of tourists and shoppers), what could be more fitting? One of the most central concepts of the Japanese tea ceremony- which is basically a paean to matcha- is ichigo ichie, or a celebration of the unique and ephemeral nature of every encounter. While I may wish Matcha Box would stay forever, there's something special about its fleeting presence, and a welcome beauty (or wabi sabi) in its impromptu, imperfect setup.

That's what I kept telling myself, at least, while Alissa set up a tasting flight of matcha for me.

She uses Matcha Source's gotcha ($28 for 80g) in the iced matcha and matcha lattes ($4). It's an ingredient-grade matcha, but it shines in these simple, cold preparations. I assumed most customers would order these, and Alissa and Benji did tell me many did- but others do come to sit with a bowl of the traditional-style tea.

Alissa then prepared a bowl of both morning ($33 for 30g; $3 for a serving) and kama ($45 for 30g) matcha, so I could taste them side by side. I've had Matcha Source's morning matcha before- it's what I often make at home- but under her experienced touch, the tea was transformed into a vibrant green, light and refreshing brew that sang of natural sweetness.

And the kama, somehow, was even better: made with more matcha, the tea had a thick, velvety feel in my mouth with a complex but balanced taste of sweet, bitter and intense greenness that lingered long after I put down the bowl.

This is matcha at its finest- outside of Japan, at any rate. If you've never experienced it, you must make a journey to the Matcha Box.

It's only around for a few more precious days- until June 30- but keep in mind there will be a "fire sale," as Alissa told me, during the last week. So while the drink may disappear all too quickly, you can stock up on matcha and everything you need to prepare it (like the matcha set with tea, $69) once Matcha Box is gone.

And if you can't get to New York by the end of June, you can still order matcha online and learn to make it yourself.

However you end up drinking it, may you find matcha as inspiring as I do.

Matcha Box is open 4pm- 7pm Thursday and Friday, and 11am- 7pm Saturday-Tuesday; it is closed on Wednesdays.

31 May 2010

Iced Tea for the Truly Lazy

It's strange how much effort you can direct toward not doing something. Working, washing dishes, doing taxes, folding laundry, writing: all can be avoided if you really try.

And at the end of the process, after all that effort, you're left with...nothing.

Maybe I'm not being fair to my fellow man, however. It could be that I, not all humankind, am the expert procrastinator. I can only guess about other people; I know for a fact, however, that I'm really talented at not getting things done.

If this strikes a chord, though, then I have a drink for you. Even if it's above 90° for an entire weekend in May (or just feels like it), you will have the energy to make this iced tea. Yes, you can also work on not making it, but then you won't have a crisp, cool glass to toss back as you think about all the things you won't get done today.

(I do realize I'm posting this on the last evening of a long weekend- which means it's less likely you actually will have the time to devote to crafting delicious drinks by the time you read this- but I was rather busy doing nothing but drinking iced tea all day.)

Lazy Iced Tea

Pour 4 cups water into a large glass pitcher or jar. Tie 6 tea bags together with kitchen twine, and place into pitcher. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours. Remove tea bags, pressing to extract liquid, and stir in half a lemon, thinly sliced. Mix 4-6 tablespoons honey with 1/4 cup boiling water, and stir into tea.

Refrigerating the tea overnight means you don't even need to bother with ice, which often ends up diluting the brew. It's already ice-cold and perfectly steeped, never bitter. And before you gasp at the bags, relax. I'd rather people use them and at least make homemade iced tea as opposed to buying an overpriced, oversweetened bottle of factory-made swill.

For this batch, I used the British standby PG Tips, which the company was gracious enough to send to me for sampling. Even though I'll still never stray from loose tea, I was surprised how clean and bold a flavor the bags produced. And drinking something originally known as Pre-Gest-Tee (for its alleged digestion-aiding properties) is fun- even shiftless chimps agree.

Laziness transcending species: definitely something for future study. I'll get to it.