Friday, December 30, 2011

O-toso Sake For The New Year

Raise a sakazuki of o-toso and toast Oshogatsu, the New Year.

About 130 years ago, after adopting the Gregorian calendar, Japan began celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1. One of the numerous Japanese customs surrounding this holiday involves sharing glasses of o-toso, a special herbal steeped sake. The term "toso" literally means “to kill or defeat an evil spirit.”  O-toso is supposed to protect people from disease and promote long life, defeating the "evil spirits" which might harm someone. And you don't necessarily even have to drink it to garner its positive benefits. There is an old saying that if a single family member drinks some o-toso, then everyone in that family will be protected against illness. That sounds good but can be even better, for if every family member drinks some o-toso, then their entire village will be protected against illness. So the more people drinking o-toso the better it is for all.

Like sake itself, o-toso originated in China, sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries. A famous Chinese physician, Dr. Hua Tuo, who was skilled in surgery, anesthesia, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, is thought to be the inventor of o-toso. Hua added a special mixture of herbs to some sake to create an herbal medicine, o-toso. That was not his only alcohol-related invention for he also created another concoction called mafeisan ("cannabis boiling powder"), which was an  anesthetic and created through mixing herbs with alcohol, maybe also sake.

It would not be until around the 9th century that o-toso started being being found in Japan and it was first only available to the nobility. Over time, it would slowly spread to the common people as well, which makes sense considering the history of sake during those centuries. It appears that o-toso first became associated with the New Year during the Edo period, when pharmacies started giving out the o-toso herb mixture, called tososan, to their patients as an o-seibo, a year-end gift. At home, the patients could soak the tososan in some sake, and then drink the sake, hoping that it would give them good health in the New Year.

It is thought that the original tososan mixture consisted of eight herbs, including cinnamon bark, rhubarb, sanshou (Japanese pepper), and less common items like kikyou (platycodi radix) and okera (atractylodis rhizome). This mixture has changed over time, and it is now common to find tososan in Japan made from apiaceae, asiasari radix, atractylodes Japonica, Chinese bellflowercinnamon, dried ginger, rhubarb and sanshou. You will also find other mixtures using a different combination of herbs. In Japan, there are numerous stores where you can purchase the tososan mixture to take home and mix into your sake. In the U.S., it is tougher to find, but you can find it at some Japanese grocery stores.

Different regions of Japan have developed their own o-toso drinking rituals, but one form seems to have become most dominant. There are supposed to be three o-toso cups, which resemble sakazuki, and they are of different sizes, so that they stack well together, one atop the other. The o-toso is poured from a vessel resembling a teapot and you are supposed to drink, while facing east, from the smallest cup to the largest.

There is some variation as to who drinks first in the household. In some regions of Japan, the head of the household will drink first while in other regions, the youngest member of the family will drink first, ending with the oldest member. It is felt that this progression will assist in passing youth onto the older members, though there may be a darker reason as well. There is allegedly an ancient Chinese tradition that young people would test drinks for their elders, to determine if the drink contained poison or not. So, if the o-toso were poisoned, you would not lose one of the revered elders.

In another older tradition, there appears to be different types of o-toso, though I had difficulty finding detailed information on these other types. The first, and smallest cup, is made with the usual tososan mixture but the second and third cups are prepared instead with mixtures called byakusan and toshōsan. Byakusan may be made with herbs and bits of meat and it is unclear what toshōsan contains. It seems that over time, the custom has become simpler, using only the tososan.

So raise a glass of o-toso and say "Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu." (Happy New Year!)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  The Dorchester Community Food Cooperative cuts the ribbon on its much-anticipated Winter Farmer’s Market in Codman Square Great Hall on January 8. Simultaneously, Ashmont Grill's Give Back @ The Grill program enters its second year by supporting the Dorchester Community Food Coop throughout the month of January.

Proceeds of its Monday Night Wine Club will be donated directly to the Food Coop. That’s $5 out of every $38 three-course wine tasting sold on Monday nights during January. If Wine Club sells out on those five consecutive Mondays, the Food Coop stands to benefit by close to $2,000. That’s a significant windfall for a fledging organization whose goal is to serve the civic and nutritional needs of the neighborhood.

“General Manager Tara O’Riordan has lined up the Give Back @ The Grill program’s beneficiaries for most of the year ahead. Proceeds for February and March will be donated to Elizabeth Seton Academy and to Codman Academy, respectively.  Monday Night Wine Club events will feature small plates of seasonal fare paired with: New World wines (Jan. 2), Jean Bousquet of Argentina (Jan. 9), Italian Reds vs. Whites (Jan. 16), Viva La France (Jan. 23) and the Pacific Northwest (Jan. 30).

2)  Before Clio temporarily closes its doors for renovations in mid-January to mark its 15th anniversary, Ken Oringer celebrates his flagship restaurant’s storied history with a retrospective menu that pays homage to the exotic ingredients, cutting-edge techniques and dramatic presentations that have earned him raves from Food & Wine, Gourmet, Esquire and more since opening the doors in 1997.

The nine-course menu features:

Tomato Water Martini (Basil Oil, Caperberry and Tomato “Popsicle”)
· This non-alcoholic, crystal-clear cocktail has been offered as an amuse bouche since Clio’s opening in 1997.
Island Creek Oysters (Cranberry Verjus, Osetra Caviar, Lily White)
· As one of the first restaurants to open its doors to the local Duxbury oyster farm that now supplies oysters to some of the country’s best restaurants, Clio celebrates its 10-year friendship with Island Creek Oysters by showcasing the local product through this humble, yet elegant dish.
Cassolette of Sea Urchin and Lobster (Parsnip Milk, Crispy Shallots, Candied Lemon)
· Considered by Chef Ken Oringer to be the best dish ever created at Clio, this cassolette led to Oringer’s victory against Iron Chef Cat Cora on The Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”
60° Poached Egg (White Asparagus, Crunchy Maple, Jamon Foam)
· Though the immersion circulator is a universal kitchen tool today, Clio started using it 12 years ago to create a slow-poached egg that playfully combines salty, sweet and earthy flavors
Celery Root Mousseline (Truffle Fondue, Bitter Cocoa)
· The result of Oringer’s time working alongside Ferran Adrià in the laboratory at El Bulli, this is the first foam preparation to have ever been served at Clio 14 years ago.
Lacquered Foie Gras (Sweet and Sour Lemon, Wild Ginger, Bee Pollen)
· Another dish inspired by Oringer’s friendship with an artisan producer, this dish features local Cape Cod bee pollen and Hudson Valley foie gras made by Oringer’s former college roommate.
Venison Cooked In Espresso Oil (Smoked Celery Root, Persimmon, Mugolio Jus)
· A variation on a dish that Oringer prepared for Iron Chef America, this new menu item has never been served at Clio before and provides a unique sneak peek into what the menu will look like post-renovation.
“Textures” of Winter Citrus (L’orange Sanguine, Aloe Ice, Hibiscus Sorbet)
· An updated version of a signature dessert created by former Clio Pastry Chef Alex Stupak (WD-50, Alinea, Empellón).
Milk Chocolate Geode (Hazelnut Sorbet, Milk Powder, Chicory Crumble)
· An updated version of a signature dessert created by former Clio Pastry Chef Rick Billings (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, China Poblano by José Andrés).

WHEN: January 9-14, 2012
COST: $125/person
RESERVATIONS: Recommended; please call 617-536-7200.

3)  Tryst, in Arlington, is launching its new Retro Brunch on Sunday, January 8th, 2012. Highlighting breakfasts of the past and throwback desserts like their house-made Twinkies and Devil Dogs, guests can look forward to stick-to-your-ribs, retro- fueled fare with culinary whim. Enjoy deep-caloric indulgences such as Annie's French Toast ($10) made with warm Portuguese sweet bread and cinnamon cider apples, or for something more hearty, try the Tryst Steak & Eggs ($17) featuring grilled steak, two eggs, crispy potatoes & hollandaise. You can also find dishes like the from-scratch Lemon & Ricotta Pancakes ($10) or Hand Cut Tagliatelle Carbonara  ($12 half order/ $19 full) with poached farm egg, crispy prosciutto, pecorino romano & cracked pepper.

It's not all about the food though. Guests can kick back and enjoy classic ‘50’s and ‘60’s music all morning and afternoon. And what would brunch be without handcrafted cocktails. Enjoy the “Father Knows Best Headache Powders” made with Ovaltine for those recovering from an evening of too much time travel, and the “Leave it to Beaver,” a blend of Bluecoat Gin, Cointreau, citrus, cream, and soda, both available for $12.

The Tryst Retro Brunch is only available on Sundays from 11AM to 2:30PM, and reservations are recommended so please call 781-641-2227.

4)  On Sunday, January 29, 2012 from 4pm-7pm, China Blossom, located in North Andover, and the Andover Chinese Cultural Exchange (ACCE) will celebrate the Chinese New Year with a festival sponsored by Yang’s Martial Arts. The Chinese New Year is a time to bring family together for feasting and celebration, and China Blossom will highlight this with authentic cuisine as well as various Asian traditions.

Guests will indulge in a dim sum buffet while they enjoy butt-kicking gong fu (kung fu) and lion dance demonstrations, as well as traditional Chinese dances and live cultural music. World-renowned player Zhan-tao Lin will wow the crowd with the Er-hu, which is similar to a violin with an exception of two strings. Lin is a professional musician from China who has won many competitions and performs broadly in the New England area, including at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Ma. In addition, celebrated musician Shin-Yi Yang is sure to please with the Gu-zheng, an ancient Chinese instrument that has strings that are plucked like a guitar’s. Yang is the founder of the Boston Guzheng Ensemble and the two-time winner of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship given by the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Folk Arts and Heritage Program. After you’ve had your fill of live entertainment, get the whole family involved with calligraphy and children’s crafts and don’t go home empty handed! There will be giveaways all evening!

Tickets are $25 per person (Senior and children pricing is available: Seniors, $20, Under 11, $15, Under 5, $9). Proceeds will benefit the ACCE, a non-profit community group dedicated to introducing Chinese culture. ACCE provides educational opportunities and support for charitable causes in the Merrimack Valley.

Seating is limited. To reserve early call Richard SooHoo, President of the ACCE at 978-470-2293 or email

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2010 Tikal Natural Malbec: Ernesto & Llamas

Have you ever sipped a wine that reminded you of llamas? Recently, I did and it is not as unusual as it may sound.

Last spring, I traveled to Argentina and met Ernesto Catena, the son of the renowned Nicolás Catena Zapata, and you can read of that encounter in Alma Negra: A Japanese Aesthetic in Argentina. Ernesto is quite the character, and definitely an intelligent and passionate man. One of his projects involves the Tikal Wines, which have been undergoing some significant changes within the last few years. In 2009, Ernesto produced his first Tikal Natural, a wine made from organically certified grapes, but his ultimate goal is to have his first biodynamic harvest in 2012.

I received a sample of the 2010 Tikal Natural Malbec (around $20) and decided to open it with a hearty dinner of Shepherd's Pie. As I opened the wine, it brought back to mind my visit with Ernesto, and all the llamas that wandered freely over the property. I recalled dining on freshly grilled meats as I watched the llamas gathered in the Mayan ball court. Such a pleasant memory.

Now for a little technical data for the wine geeks. This wine is made from 100% Malbec, grown at an elevation of 3215 feet, and the average age of the vines is about 12 years. It spent about a year in oak, mostly second-use French oak, with a small portion of American oak. About 3200 cases of this wine were produced and it only has an alcohol content of 14%. But most importantly, it is a delicious, excellent value wine.

With a dark purple color, the flavors of the wine burst into your mouth, a pleasant blend of ripe plum, dark cherry, intense spice and bits of mocha. The tannins are moderate, there is good acidity, and the finish is long and satisfying. It went very well with the Shepherd's Pie, and would go well with burgers and steaks, or even a hearty pasta dish. This is a wine of character, setting it apart from many other wines at this price point. I really enjoyed this wine and definitely recommend it.

I was not alone in my thoughts about this wine, as a few others who drank this with me had a similar reaction, though without the llama flashbacks. So my feelings about this wine were not merely colored by my prior experiences in Argentina. The memories appear to be only a pleasant side effect of this delicious wine.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Authors, Alcohol & Accolades: Volume 2

"Man being reasonable must get drunk; The best of life is but intoxication; Glory, the grape, love, gold - in these are sunk - The hopes of all men and of every nation
--Lord Byron

I am back with another volume in my new series, Authors, Alcohol & Accolades. Volume 1 showcased four of my favorite authors, and I have returned to highlight four more, and to delve into their drinks of choice.  I have found this to provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the writers I enjoy, and hope you like the interviews as well. You can look forward to further volumes in this series too.

Brad Beaulieu (Twitter @bbeaulieu)
Brad's debut fantasy novel is The Winds of Khalakovo, the first book in the The Lays of Anuskaya trilogy. It possesses a more unique Russian flair to its setting, as well as an intriguing combination of political intrigue, action-adventure and magical feats. Don't expect a breezy, easy read but savor its more literary bent, taking the time the enjoy its rich language and detail. A dedicated reader is going to be very satiated, and look forward to the next novel in this trilogy, like I am.

"Strangely enough, I wasn't much of a drinker in my twenties. It wasn't until my thirties, when I started to cook more, that I developed more of a taste for it, wine especially. I've tried all sorts of alcohols, largely just to explore something new—to see what all the fuss is about, as it were—but sometimes to cook with them. In beer, my current favorites are Trappist ales, especially Chimay Blue. In fact, I have some in my fridge now, waiting for me to make a new batch of beer-cheese soup. I also quite enjoy Scottish whiskey. I recently made a pilgrimage with some friends to Lady Gregory's in Chicago and tried a bit of Laphroaig Caideras, which was incredible. Hands down, though, my favorite alcohol is Pinot Noir. I love the complexity of a good Pinot, but I also like that a bit of the sweetness remains. My favorites are those that are fruit forward with a good amount of spice, plus some oakiness. My favorite winery is the Sanford Winery in Santa Barbara County, which got a bit of a cameo in the movie Sideways."

Jon Merz (Twitter: @jonfmerz)
A local author, Jon is relatively prolific, his stories ranging across genres including horror, fantasy, science fiction, espionage and more. His riveting Lawson Vampire series are supernatural-espionage tales, kind of like James Bond meets True Blood. He has created an honorable hero, a fascinating mythology, formidable villains, and lots of twists and turns. With several Lawson stories published each year, there is much to look forward to, as well as a future TV series! Highly recommended.  Check out his other novels too, like Parallax, Prey, and Vicarious or his short story collections like This Time of Night. And Jon, in collaboration with Joseph Nassise, just released The Cerberus Protocol, the first in the new fantasy-thriller HELLstalker series. I have not read it yet but will do so soon.

"My single favorite drink is Bombay Sapphire and tonic with three wedges of lime. The delicate flavoring of juniper in Bombay Sapphire blends remarkably well the lime. I'll pour a stiff measure slowly over ice, let it chill for about twenty seconds and then add the tonic water, stir, and then top it off with the lime wedges. This has been my drink of choice since college, through the military, and my time handling private security protection work - up to the present when I enjoy toasting a new publishing deal or sales milestones."

Kevin Hearne (Twitter: @kevinhearne)
One of the most enjoyable series I have read this past year is Kevin's Iron Druid Chronicles, currently consisting of three books, Hounded, Hexed and Hammered. It is an urban fantasy, a mix of druids, vampires, werewolves, gods of various pantheons, witches and much more. All three books are compelling and easy reads, and you will find it very difficult to put them down. I read all three of them within a week as I was captivated by their charms. A fascinating collection of characters, lots of exciting action, and a keen wit combine to make these books an excellent read, and all get a strong recommendation. The next book in the series, Tricked, is due out in April 2012.

"My favorite drink these days is a blend of brews that we in the Southwest call a Snakebite. Some people, however, call this drink a Black Velvet. Take your favorite hard cider—Strongbow or Woodchuck is best—and fill your pint glass halfway with that. Then pour some Guinness on top of that over the bottom of a spoon. You get a beautiful black and gold drink that mixes and changes as you go; dark and woody at first, light and sweet at the end. Serve with fish and chips from Rula Bula (or your favorite pub that knows what they're doing in the kitchen) and you're in a gastronomic holy land."

Mark Lawrence (Twitter: @Mark_Lawrence)
Mark's debut fantasy novel, Prince of Thorns, the first book of a planned trilogy, was a superb read, the riveting tale of an amoral protagonist, a fascinating anti-hero who is ruthless in the attainment of his goals. The tale is violent and not for the faint of heart, but that grittiness is also one of its assets. This is one of the best fantasy debuts I have read in quite some time. I eagerly await the sequel, to continue the tale of Jorg Ancrath, the Prince of Thorns, and urge everyone to check it out.

"How something tastes is in some significant degree a function of how you come to be putting it in your mouth. In many ways it's not dissimilar to the way in which we react to a novel. If it comes with recommendations from the right quarters, if it is sold as a work of genius, something a only connoisseur will appreciate the finest points of, with great packaging that tells a compelling back story... well we're more likely to see the good in it. London Pride is the flagship ale of the Fuller's Brewery, a company with 165 years of brewing experience, produced on a site where beer has been made for nearly four centuries. It is a mahogany bitter, a smooth and astonishingly complex beer with a distinctive malty base complemented by a rich balance of well-developed hop flavours from the Target, Challenger and Northdown varieties. Years back I whipped a bottle at random off the supermarket shelf and drunk it down without expectation. I realised I was pouring something rather special down my gullet and paused to read that 'astonishing/complex/distinctive/mahogany' verbiage off the label. London Pride is one of those rare products that makes you sit up and take notice without requiring the mood music to be right. The kind of thing we'd all like to achieve whether brewing beer (something I do badly) or writing a book (something I've had more success with). Try it. Enjoy."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shizuoka Green Tea: A Healthy, Delicious Choice

"You don't need to be a tea master to make good tea."

It seems that you once could only get green tea at Asian restaurants, but now, many other restaurants carry it as well. The health benefits of green tea have become more widely known, plus it simply tastes good. Recently, I attended a green tea ("ryokucha" in Japanese) seminar at the Itadaki restaurant in Boston, which was put on by some very nice people from the Shizuoka Prefecture. I previously discussed the Shizuoka sake tasting, and want to continue, detailing my experiences at their green tea seminar.

The Shizuoka Prefecture currently produces about 45% of Japan’s overall tea production, and they also are on the cutting edge of scientific research on the health benefits of green tea. In 2009, Shizuoka farmed approximately 19,200 hectares of tea plants and produced about 35,800 metric tons of tea. In comparison, Kagoshima prefecture, which occupies second place, has 8690 hectares and a production of 23,400 metric tons while Mie prefecture, in third place, farms 3520 hectares and produces 6510 metric tons.

Out of the over 80 cultivars that are used for tea, Yabukita is the most common, occupying 95% of the total hectares. In Japanese, "yabu" means "bamboo bush" and "kita" means "north." The name refers to when the Yabukita plant was first tested, as it was planted in an area surrounded by bamboo and one section of land in the north was apparently the best spot. Why is Yakubita so prevalent? Primarily, because the plant so easily can adjust to many different climates and soils while still producing an excellent tea.

Though tea was known in Japan prior to the 9th century, it did not rise in popularity until the 12th century when a Buddhist monk, Eisai, brought green tea seeds from China to Japan. Initially, tea was viewed more as a medicine and was primarily restricted to the nobility, but by the 16th century, tea drinking had begun to spread to the common people.

Green tea plantations in Shizuoka date back at least to 1241, when a monk named Shoichi Kokushi returned from China to his native province of Shizuoka with green tea seeds, which were then planted in this area. Tea growing became economically important in Shizuoka in the 19th century, enhanced by its climate, water quality, and proximity to major sea ports.

About 68% of the tea produced in Japan is Sencha ("roasted tea"), while Bancha occupies second place at 20%.  Sencha is the first crop of the season while Bancha is a lower grade of tea made from mature leaves and stalks. A few of the other tea types include Genmaicha (bancha plus rice), Tamaryokucha (steamed and shaped) and Gyokuro (which means "jade dew," referring to the pale green color of the tea when it is in a cup.)  Gyokuro is also considered the finest tea in Japan. The place where the tea is grown matters, as green tea grown in the mountains is usually softer and milder while green tea grown on the plains is often stronger.

We learned the proper way to prepare green tea, and got to sample several different types.  To prepare your tea, first boil some water and then pour that boiling water into several tea cups. This will help reduce the temperature of the water as green tea generally needs a temperature lower than boiling to best highlight it. Then, place your green tea leaves in your pot, about one scoop per five cups, and pour the water from the cups back into the pot. The tea should then steep for a certain amount of time, dependent on the type of tea. The higher the quality tea, the lower temperature the water should be and the longer it should steep. For example, tea temperatures will vary from 122-212 degrees Fahrenheit and steeping time will vary from 30-150 seconds.

Besides the fine taste, why else drink green tea? Well, there have been plenty of studies indicating some very positive health effects from this emerald liquid. Some of these include reducing the possibility of dementia by improving impaired cognitive function, antioxidants to fight cancer, catechins to help reduce body fat, prevent arteriosclerosis, and reduce allergies, a reduction in diabetes and blood pressure, as well as stimulate metabolism. Almost seems like there is little it can't do, and green tea certainly should be a regular feature in your diet.

Instead of drinking green tea, you can also use it in cooking.  Usually, matcha (green tea powder), is used to make everything from green tea ice cream to green tea noodles. I have enjoyed some green tea foods before, and at the seminar, the pastry chef at Itadaki made three treats for your enjoyment. The green tea cake was the best, moist and flavorful, though I also enjoyed the green tea marshmallow star. In using green tea in your recipes, you are only bound by your own imagination.

Finally, let me broach a potential area of concern for some consumers of Japanese tea products. After the terrible tragedy, an earthquake and tsunami, which struck Japan in March 2011, the Fukushima nuclear plant sustained some significant damage. There were then concerns about radiation levels affecting local crops. Though there were some initial problems in Shizuoka with the tea crop, radiation levels have significantly dropped, and continue to decrease, and are now at safe levels. In addition, Japanese customs are helping to ensure that no products leave their shores which pose a danger to consumers.  So, there is no reason to avoid Japanese tea products.

Raise a cup of green tea, enjoy its flavor and reap the health benefits.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Xmas & Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my family, friends and all of my readers!

May the glad tidings of this holiday season shine on you, your family and friends. May your celebrations be joyous and overflowing with great people, excellent conversation, fun times, delicious food and fine drink. May the gifts you give to others be well appreciated and bring joy to the recipients. May you thoroughly enjoy whichever holiday you celebrate at this season.

This is one of my favorite times of year as I love sharing the holidays with my family and friends, enjoying their company as we eat and drink to celebrate the season. It should be a joyous occasion, reveling in all of our blessings, for no matter what ills there may be, there still is much to appreciate. That appreciation deserves recognition and sharing, and not only during the holidays.

It is also a time for giving, for sharing with those less fortunate than us. Please donate as much as you can to your favorite charities, whether you give money, time or goods.

Make sure you have a safe holiday as well. Please don't drink and drive, and drive safely and cautiously. We hope that everyone will remain around to celebrate the New Year as well as the rest of 2012.

Drink and dine with passion this holiday, as well as every day of the year! Passion is what gives our lives meaning, what drives us toward excellence. A life devoid of passion is empty and shallow, and desperately needs change. Seek out whatever makes you passionate, and revel in its delights.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011: Favorite Sake Items

What were some of my favorite Sake items of the past year?

Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of the past year, 2011. I have already posted a list of my Favorite Restaurants, Favorite Food-Related Items, and Favorite Wine, Spirit & Drink Related Items. This is my final list, my Favorite Sake Items of the past year. This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year.

This is also a purely subjective list, based on my own preferences, and makes no claims about being the "best" of anything. But all of the items here have earned my strong recommendations and I hope you will enjoy them as well. For more sake related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.

Sake continues to maintain a prominent role on my blog. My passion for Sake has only grown and I continue to promote it to others, to spread the word about this fascinating beverage. I want to destroy the stereotypes about Sake and shine a light on the truth, to show its diversity and complexity. I want more and more people to taste it, and find joy in its flavors.

Sake Interview: Early this year, I was interviewed by the Boston Globe about Sake, a full page article which obviously pleased me very much. It provided exposure to myself, but also Sake in general, hopefully intriguing some people to give it a try. To any other newspaper, magazine or media, I am available for interviews or articles concerning Sake, so please just email me if you are interested in such.

Sake Tastings & Classes: I have presided over a number of Sake Tastings, Meals & Classes this past year, helping to promote this worthy beverage. This included a Sake brunch at AKA Bistro, a Sake & Italian Dinner at Prezza, Chilling with Sake classes at the Boston Wine School, Sake & Thai Dinner at Ronnarong, and tastings for New England Home Magazine & Quidley and Company Fine Art Gallery.  The response from the attendees at these events has been very positive, and many have been surprised by the diversity of Sake, often finding styles they enjoyed. Sparkling Sake has been a huge hit at these events, even by those who claimed they generally disliked Sake.  You can look forward to more tastings, dinners and classes in 2012.

Sake Exports: After a rough year in 2009 for sake exports, they have roared back in 2010. Statistics showed that from January to November 2010, Japan exports hit a record high of 12,223 kiloliters of sake, more than the previous one-year record of 12,151 in 2008. In 2010, the U.S. claimed about 25% of all Japanese sake exports.Much of this success is due to "steady distribution and to a recovery in the U.S., the world's top importer." Kanpai!

Sad Sake News: On March 11, 2001, Japan was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, which primarily affected the Tohoku region. This was a tragedy in many respects, with a terrible loss of life and my sympathies go out to all those affected. More than half of the Tohoku region’s 145 sake producers were adversely affected by the disaster, and a few of the sake breweries were completely destroyed. Fortunately, many of them are showing positive signs of a comeback so hopefully 2012 will be a far better year for them. So please give your support to the Tohoku breweries.

Favorite Japanese Sake: The stand out this year for me was the Kirin Daiginjo Hizoshu, which was aged for five years under very low temperatures. This is unlike any aged sake I have ever had before, and I would not have known that is was aged unless someone told me. It was an incredibly complex and intriguing Daiginjo, clean, smooth and mellow with plenty of subtle and captivating flavors. It was such a surprise, and a sake I would highly recommend to all sake lovers.

Runner-Up Sake: For Thanksgiving, I opened the Tedorigawa "Silver Mountain" Yamahai Junmai, and found it to pair nicely with my dinner, from the roast turkey to the wild boar roast. It had some of that earthiness that I like, and would probably have gone well with a variety of other foods too, especially due to its higher acidity and umami. Forget Pinot Noir next Thanksgiving and opt for Sake.

Favorite Domestic Sake: This year, I visited the SakeOne Brewery in Forest Grove, Oregon, and tasted through their portfolio. Their Nama Organic Junmai, on draft, most impressed me with its enticing nose of fresh fruit. On the palate, it was crisp and lively with plenty of delicious apple, pear and hints of tropical fruit. It is well worth stopping by the brewery and quaffing a glass of this unpasteurized Sake.

Most Unusual Sake: Sake is generally made with yellow koji-kin while black koji-kin is used for the production of awamori. Black koji-kin can develop strong citric acid which might destroy the delicate flavors of sake. But the Kuro Kabuto Junmai Daiginjo is a sake made from black koji-kin, and it is a success, a compelling and delicious sake. It possesses some lush orange flavor as well as tart apple and melon, and a bit of sweetness that is balanced by its acidity. Smooth and easy drinking, it will appeal to any Sake lover seeking something a bit different.

First Organic Japanese Sake: Though you might have seen organic Sake before, the rice for those Sakes was grown in the U.S. It is very difficult to grow organic rice in Japan, but it has been done and the first organic sake using such rice is now on the market, the Chikurin Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo. This is an amazing Sake, with plenty of complexity and a multitude of flavor layers. It is is an artisan Sake, and it is reflected in its high quality.

Consumer Friendly Sake: As Sake can be very intimidating to the average person, efforts to make Sake bottles more consumer friendly can help.  Green River Sake Company, a newcomer to Massachusetts, is a Japanese brewery which has created a line of Sakes for the U.S. market where the labels are simple, and almost completely in English except for the large kanji on the front label. The labels lack any technical details with the intent of just describing the flavor profile of the Sake. Plus, and most importantly, the Sakes tasted very good.

Favorite Domestic Sake Brewery: In September, I was able to tour the SakeOne Brewery in Oregon and I was impressed with the facility. I also tasted through their portfolio and found many excellent value Sakes, which would be a great way to introduce newcomers to Sake. Because of their low price, newcomers would be more likely to take a chance and pick up a bottle. Their infused Sakes would also be very versatile  for making cocktails. If you visit the Portland area, you should take the time to visit this brewery.

Favorite Portland Sake Spots: Portland, Oregon is a hot spot for sake lovers, with an abundance of izakayas and sake bars. While in Portland, I visited two, Miho Izakaya and Zilla Sake House, and both impressed. Miho had plenty of delicious food to accompany your sake, while Zilla had an incredible sake list and killer sushi. Both spots get my recommendation and I look forward to checking out more izakayas next summer in Portland.

Sake Charity Event: This past year, Wine Blogging Wednesday #72 was all about Helping Japan after the tragic earthquake and tsunami by trying to get wine bloggers to drink and review some sake. Though it did not get as much participation as hoped, those that did participate were eager and passionate about the endeavor. Hopefully, in 2012, more bloggers will taste and discuss Sake on their blogs.

Favorite Sake & Food Pairing: The Sake and Italian Dinner at Prezza was amazing, especially due to the killer food prepared by Chef Anthony Caturano. Rabbit Parmigiano, Mushroom Risotto, Wood Grilled Pork Chop, Fig Turnover. I paired these dishes with four different dishes, showing the attendees the versatility of Sake with Italian cuisine, and I convinced them that such a pairing could work. It is all about the umami.

Favorite Local Stores for Sake: In the Boston+ area, finding good Sake can be difficult, but the situation has improved since last year. More wine stores are stocking at least a little Sake, which pleases me immensely. Here are a few local wine stores which carry good Sakes and deserve your support: Urban Grape (with over 30 Sakes), Lower Falls Wine Co., Ball Square Fine Wines & Liquors, Wine Connextion (excellent discount prices), Reliable Market, and Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet.

New York City Stores For Sake: Besides Sakaya, an all-Sake store, and Astor Wine & Spirits, which has a very good Sake selection, you should also check out Ambassador Wine & Spirits. With about 100 different Sakes, kept in a temperature controlled room, Sake lovers should enjoy perusing all of the selections, from small 300ml bottles to large 1.8 liter bottles. In addition, they have a large selection of Shochu. It is well worth checking out this shop.

Favorite Sake News Article: Though the article is not long, Sake Pairings, in the Chicago Tribune, promotes pairing Sake with non-Japanese cuisine, something I too strongly advocate. Sake Evangelist John Gauntner is quoted: "People think that with sake, you have to eat Japanese, you have to be authentic but they need to get over that and think about just pairing sake with food in general." He also stated: "...the key to pairing sake is an open mind and a willingness to experiment." That is why I like exposing people to sake with what might be considered offbeat pairings, from mushroom risotto to pizza. I want them to see the myriad of possibilities of sake with food.

My Favorite Sake Post: In a similar vein, my favorite Sake post of all those I have written this year is Sake, Amino Acids & Food. The article goes into some of the science behind Sake, especially how it interacts with food. Umami, that fifth taste which is akin to savoriness, plays a very important role, helping to make Sake an excellent pairing for many different types of dishes. I am currently working on an expanded version of this article, going into more detail. Look forward to it in 2012.

Favorite Sake Legend: If you are a Sake lover, then I am sure you would very much like to meet some red-haired Shojo, water spirits whose supernatural powers often seem to revolve around Sake.  From a never ending Sake pot to a Sake that cures all disease and gives long life, what is there not to like? Tanuki just cannot compete with Shojo.

Sake Friends: I have met a number of other Sake lovers on Twitter, and this year got to meet three of them in person, all in Portland, Oregon. It was a great pleasure to meet them, chat and share some excellent chilled Sake. Gordon, Dewey and Marcus all made me feel very welcome and I look forward to seeing them again next August, when I return to Portland. They are all great guys and well worth following on Twitter.

Wine Blogger's Conference 2012: Finally, the WBC for 2012 will be held in Portland, Oregon. I really hope that they will hold a breakout session on Sake, to educate and entertain the attendees. It would be a great location with the SakeOne Brewery nearby, and so many izakayas and other sake destinations in Portland. And when I return to Portland, I hope to visit some more of the excellent sake bars, and hang out again with my sake friends there.  2012 is going to be a great year.

What were some of your favorite Sake items this year?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  Executive Chef Brian Poe, of Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake,  is debuting nine new savory snacks as well as a “Midnight Special” each evening for late night dining. Designed with a super-spicy kick, this Special will change nightly.

Chips & Dip ($8)
Deep fried prosciutto, turkey and chicken skins, candied pork belly, homemade chive garlic and onion seasoned Yukon gold chips, 5 Spoke Creamery Chive Fondue
Chipotle Wings ($9)
Smoked jalapeno rubbed, poblano and blue cheese sauce
Grilled Bacon, Steak & Cheese Bites ($10)
Bacon wrapped Newport steak, white cheddar, homemade jalapeno A1
Albondigas ($8)
Three signature meatballs in chipotle broth
Grilled Pizza ($13)
Artichoke and lime alfredo, mozzarella, pepperoni, seasonal mushrooms, chervil
Harvey WineBurger ($11)
Flat patty steamed on the grilled with red wine, caramelized chile spike onions, Texas toast, American cheese, chive and jalapeno mayo
Breakfast Quesadilla ($8)
Cilantro butter fried egg, ham, Velveeta, Swiss and American cheese, hash browns, salsa, sour cream, HellGrande sauce
Sobriety Fries ($6)
Cilantro curried crushed red pepper fries, sriracha, ketchup, fresh squeezed lime
Poe Nachos ($12.75)
Salsa, signature cheese blend, refried beans, lettuce
(available plain, chicken or steak)

WHEN: Sunday – Wednesday: 10:00pm – 1:30am; Thursday – Saturday: 11:30pm – 1:30am

2)  The Mohegan Sun WineFest 2012 will be held from Friday, January 27 to Sunday, January 29, 2012 at the Mohegan Sun Casino. This is a large and diverse wine tasting event and one I highly recommend. I attended the event last year and it was well run, with plenty of excellent wines and foods. Plus, you get the chance to meet some culinary celebrities.

The events include:

Celebrity Chef Dine Around
On Saturday evening, January 28th, Celebrity Chef Dine Around will feature some of the most prominent names in the industry. Food and wine enthusiasts will be served signature dishes by celebrity chefs, paired with wines from the nation’s top winemakers from 8pm-11pm in the Uncas Ballroom. The evening also includes a champagne reception presented by Möet & Chandon to benefit Channel 3 Kids Camp. Scott Haney and other Channel 3 personalities will also be in attendance in support of the camp. Signature dishes will be served by a variety of celebrity chefs and winemakers themselves including Bobby Flay, Ben Ford, Todd English, Jasper White, Govind Armstrong, Donatella Arpaia, Kate MacMurray, Kim Canteenwalla, Betty Fraser, Michael Ginor, Ihsan Gurdal, Andy Husbands, Robert Irvine, Emily Luchetti, Elizabeth Falkner, Mary Ann Esposito, Marc Forgione, Larry Forgione, Bryan Forgione, Daisy Martinez, Douglas Rodriguez, Jason Santos and Jacques Torres.
Tickets for this culinary extravaganza are $175.00 per person.

Elite Cru Tasting
Wine lovers can get up-close-and-personal with some of the “best of the best” vintages from all over the world at the Elite Cru Tasting from 3pm-5pm on Saturday, January 28th in The Cabaret Theatre. This event, in its third year, will offer select vintages from premium wineries and producers. The tasting will also feature oysters, shrimp and gourmet cheeses with guests having the chance to talk one-on-one with winemakers for the duration of the affair. Tickets for this one-of-a-kind opportunity are $200.00 per person which includes admission to the Saturday Grand Tasting and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Channel 3 Kids Camp.

Bourbon Tasting
Sun WineFest is excited to bring back its Bourbon Tasting presented by Beam Global Spirits & Wine from 6pm-9pm at Leffingwells Martini Bar on Friday, January 27th. The 3-hour tasting will give inquiring minds an opportunity to mingle and enjoy the insight of Bernie Lubbers, Whiskey Professor for Beam Global Spirits and Wine and author of Bourbon Whiskey Our Native Spirit. Bernie was named “Global Whiskey Ambassador of the Year, 2009” by Whisky Magazine at Whisky Live! in London. Taste the artisan attention of 100′s of years of tradition through Plan B’s unique bourbon inspired menu paired with a variety of fine bourbons including Maker’s Mark, Booker’s, Knob Creek and Jim Beam. Savor them straight or enlist the help of Plan B’s mixologists to create a crafted bourbon cocktail.

Dedicated space will also be provided for a premium cigar sampling hosted by AVO Cigars—Cigars in Perfect Harmony. AVO Cigars bear the name of famed pianist and legendary cigar connoisseur Avo Uvezian. After a successful career as a Jazz pianist Avo Uvezian toured the Caribbean in search of the finest tobaccos and the best factory for making his cigars. In 1982 he found both in the Dominican Republic. Today AVO Cigars are enjoyed by aficionados all over the world and Avo’s lifelong quest for perfect harmony has brought him great success in not one, but two careers – music and premium cigars. Tickets are $90.00 per person with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Channel 3 Kids Camp.

Bubbles & Bon Bons
Topping off Sun WineFest’s blockbuster weekend is the popular Bubbles & Bon Bons event in The Cabaret Theatre from 6pm-9pm on Sunday, January 29th. Guests will sample high-end champagnes, chocolates and cheeses inside The Cabaret Theatre featuring Jacques Torres, one of the most beloved and highly regarded pastry chefs and chocolatiers in the world. Jacques will be joined by Emily Luchetti, recognized around the world for her award-winning sweet creations and the author of five cookbooks, Elizabeth Falkner, owner and Chef of two Michelin recommended restaurants in San Francisco and Executive Pastry Chef Lynn Mansel from Mohegan Sun. This event will appeal to all of your senses through decadent desserts, luxurious champagne, delightful entertainment and an opportunity to mingle and party with fantastic chefs in an intimate setting – you won’t want to miss how we bring the Sun WineFest 2012 to a close! Tickets for this sumptuous event are $95.00 per person.

WineFest Grape Stomp
Things will get a little messy as teams try to out-run, jump and stomp the competition during the 3rd Annual Mohegan Sun WineFest Grape Stomp to benefit the American Diabetes Association. The event will begin on January 28th at 4:15pm on the main stage in the Uncas Ballroom during the Grand Tasting. Sixteen teams will bare their feet and have three minutes to stomp as much grape juice as they can out of a vat of grapes. The team application for entry can be found at

First place will win $1,500, an overnight stay at Mohegan Sun and a complimentary dinner for two at Todd English’s Tuscany. Second place will take home $1,000 and third will receive $500.00. The top three teams will also win well-deserved pedicures from Elemis Spa. The deadline to enter the competition is January 5, 2012.

Oyster Open
Sun WineFest brings back the fan-favorite 8th Annual Mohegan Sun Oyster Open presented by Bud Light Lime on January 29th at 4:15pm. Professional shuckers from the best restaurants, raw bars and shellfish and seafood companies on the Eastern Seaboard will compete for a first place prize of $3,500 cash and the championship belt.

Second and third place winners will receive trophy plaques and will take home $1,000 and $500.00, respectively. To enter, potential participants can download the application at The deadline for Oyster Open registration is January 4, 2012.

Grand Tasting:
The weekend’s main event, the Grand Tasting takes place from 12pm-5pm on Saturday, January 28th and Sunday, January 29th in the Convention Center at Mohegan Sun. Over 1,000 wines, spirits and beers will be on-hand for tasting as well as sample dishes from some of the area’s finest restaurants.  There will be a nominal charge for the sampling of signature dishes – a portion of the proceeds benefits Channel 3 Kids Camp. Tickets for this weekend attraction are $70.00 for a one-day pass and $120.00 for a weekend pass.

Tickets for the Grand Tasting, Elite Cru Tasting, Celebrity Chef Dine Around, Bourbon Tasting and Bubbles & Bon Bons may be purchased online at,, over the phone at 1-800-745-3000 or in person at Mohegan Sun’s Box Office.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Authors, Alcohol & Accolades: Volume 1

Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
--Ernest Hemingway

From Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, writers have often been fond of alcohol. I write and am no different in my love for alcohol, though my writing quality, including my short stories, is certainly not on par with men such as those. I guess significant alcohol consumption does not always transform into greatness. Besides writing, I also derive great enjoyment from reading the works of others and voraciously devour many a book. Above, you can see a small portion of my library, which now occupies two rooms in my home. Thanks to the iPad though, I can purchase ebooks and save lots of room in my house.

Because of my love for books and alcohol, I devised an idea to combine these two interests in a new series I call Authors, Alcohol & Accolades. In essence, I interview numerous authors, asking them to tell me their favorite wine, beer or alcohol. They say you can judge a person by what he eats and drinks, so this might give you a better insight into these authors. In addition, at least for now, the only authors that I will present will be those whose books I have read and enjoyed. These will be all authors that I recommend, who have penned compelling books which I am sure others will enjoy too.

So let's see what some of my favorite writers like to drink.

Jonathan Maberry (Twitter @JonathanMaberry)
Jonathan is relatively prolific and diverse, from writing Young Adult zombie novels to penning Marvel Comics. He is also very successful, being a New York Times bestselling author and receiving numerous acclaims for his work. I am a huge fan, finding his work to be very well written and usually completely riveting. His latest novel, Dead of Night, is a compelling zombie tale, one of the best of that genre I have read. His Joe Ledger series is action adventure at its peak, kind of James Bond meets the X-Files, and I eagerly await the fourth novel in that series. He has also written several horror-related non-fiction works which are also very interesting. Overall, I cannot recommend Jonathan's books enough.

Jonathan's preferences: "I’ve always been a whiskey guy. We’re Scottish, and I have uncles who are Scotch brokers. However I like cold whiskey and if I pour single malt over ice a thousand years’ worth of Highland ancestors will rise from their graves to kick my ass. That’s why I started drinking bourbon. Nobody starts a knife fight if you pour Knob Creek or Heaven Hill over ice. If all I can get is beer, then I love a cold schooner of Yuengling. It’s a fine Pennsylvania beer from the nation’s oldest brewery, and it’s as satisfying in the dead of winter as it is on at a barbecue on a sweltering summer afternoon."

Bernard J. Schaffer (Twitter: @ApiarySociety)
I first encountered Bernard's short story collection, Women & Other Monsters, and his twisted horror stories appealed to me, especially Cold Comforts, a chilling tale sure to get under your skin. That was followed up with his novel Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, which pits Jack the Ripper against the famous detective in a gruesome and fascinating tale. Most recently, he has been the editor of Resistance Front, a collection of short stories from various authors, from professionals to newcomers, where all profits go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A great book, for a great cause, and for only 99 cents, it is also a steal. Please seek out all three of these books.

Bernard's preferences: "My drink of choice is beer. There is nothing better than sitting in a dark tavern drinking something cold from a tankard that is so big it takes two hands to lift. There is a more pure craftsmanship to beer, in that anyone can make it. You don't need a vineyard in Italy of rare grapes, you don't need aged oak caskets of bourbon inherited from the Duke of Wales. You just need a little ingenuity. A little effort. I will drink any beer, regardless of how strange it sounds. I've had pumpkin beer, strawberry beer, ginger beer, and every shade of light or dark. At present, I prefer Modello and Tsing-Tao. Last year it was Smithwicks (pronounced Schmiddicks). Sometimes, there is nothing better than a good old Miller Light, because that is what they serve at Citizen Bank Park, and it reminds me of being there."

Joseph Nagle (Twitter: @SterlingNovels)
In the tradition of Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum, Joseph has written two exciting novels in his Michael Sterling series, The Hand of Christ and The History Thief: Ten Days Lost. Both novels are packed with action and intrigue, a rollercoaster ride of adventure and espionage. The details appear well researched and there are interesting historical elements fueling the plots. If you want an adrenaline rush of excitement, check out both these books.

Joseph's preferences: " tastes are for inexpensive, oaky chardonnays. But truth be told, my favorite drink is said chardonnay with a splash of grey me crazy, but that's just me. I love the crisp cold of the oaky bite as it is followed by the clear burn of the vodka - a wonderful drink at the end of a hot, exhausting day."

Brett Talley (Twitter: @BrettjTalley) If you enjoy Lovecraftian stories about the Cthulhu Mythos, then Brett's first novel, That Which Should Not Be, should be on your reading list. Well written and suspenseful, this book would have made Lovecraft proud, delivering a carefully crafted horror story with the looming specter of Cthulhu. I have read tons of other Lovecraftian stories, and this is definitely one of the better ones. I look forward to Brett's future novels.

Brett's Preferences: "What's your favorite alcohol? Difficult question, and one that could be answered in a hundred different ways. None of them wrong. All equally defensible. But when I think of alcohol, I think of people. The bacchanalia is not a party for one, after all. Favorite alcohol? Bourbon. Makers Mark, if I am being specific. It permeates my past, present, and future. It was with me on hot, muggy college afternoons in the fall when football was in the air in Tuscaloosa, a pretty girl on my arm and bourbon and Coke on my lips. In sugary sweet Mint Juleps with lifelong friends at a Kentucky racetrack where the horses still run. On golf courses and sandy white beaches. At weddings, and yes, after funerals. It is the flavor of my adult life, the thread that runs through a hundred different gatherings, a thousand smiles, unending laughter. So it will continue until the day I die. And then, God willing, my friends will raise one last glass to me."
You can also read the additional volumes in this series:

Volume Two
Volume Three
Volume Four
Volume Five
Volume Six
Volume Seven
Volume Eight
Volume Nine
Volume Ten
Volume Eleven

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011: Favorite Food-Related Items

What were some of my favorite food-related items of the past year?

Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of the past year, 2011. Last week, I provided a list of my Favorite Restaurants of 2011 and now I want to address my favorites for other Food-Related Items, from markets to books, from ingredients to bakeries. This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year.

This is also a purely subjective list, based on my own preferences, and makes no claims about being the "best" of anything. But all of the items here have earned my strong recommendations and I hope you will enjoy them as well. For more food-related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.

Favorite New Food Magazine: Chef David Chang's Milk Bar and Ssäm Bar made my list of Favorite Restaurants of 2011, and now his new magazine, Lucky Peach, makes one of my lists too. A quarterly magazine devoted to food, it is eclectic and irreverent, with fascinating articles, essays, recipes, and more. I eagerly devoured the first issue, and then again, the second issue, which was recently released. If you love compelling food writing, then pick up Lucky Peach.

Favorite Meat Cookbook: For carnivore's everywhere, check out The Butcher's Guide to Well Raised Meat by Joshua & Jessica Applestone and Alexandra Zissu. The book is part memoir, history, cookbook, and reference guide, with a mission of promoting local, sustainable meat. You will learn much about the art of butchery, proper cooking techniques, the differences of heritage animals, uses for offal, how to shop, and plenty more. A fascinating reference book, this earns my hearty recommendation.

Favorite Dessert Cookbook: Though released in September 2010, I didn't get a copy of this book until earlier this year. Flour, by local chef Joanne Chang, is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to do some baking. It begins with very useful introductory information about the basics of baking which could benefit anyone, before leading into a diverse variety of recipes from the famed Flour Bakery. I am sure you will find plenty of appealing recipes, for both sweet and savory treats. I highly recommend this book to anyone who intends to do some baking or loves desserts.

Favorite Ethnic Cookbook: Both encyclopedia and cookbook, Flavors of Malaysia by Chef Susheela Raghavan is a comprehensive and intriguing look at Malaysian cuisine. Besides all of the recipes, there is a lengthy history and reference section. There is even a section on how to give a Malaysian flair to other recipes. It is well written, interesting and very informative, one of the best ethnic cookbooks I have seen in a long time and I highly recommend it.

Favorite Food & Travel Book: If you are traveling to Tokyo, or just enjoy Japanese cuisine, then you should read Food Sake Tokyo by Yukari Sakamoto. You'll learn Japanese terminology, sushi etiquette, deciphering a Japanese menu, and much more. And if you are going to Tokyo, you will find plenty of intriguing recommendations for restaurants, food markets, and more. A fascinating book.

Favorite Japanese Cookbook: If you want to learn how to prepare Japanese cuisine, then you will enjoy the lessons found within My Japanese Table by Debra Samuels. There is lots of basic information as well as numerous recipes, from sushi to desserts. There is even a chapter on creating Bento boxes, one of Debra's passions. It is an aesthetically pleasing book too, with plenty of interesting recipes, and home cooks should definitely check it out.

Food Issue of the Year: One of the most important, and sometimes controversial, food issues I addressed this year was seafood sustainability. From the Legal Sea Foods blacklisted dinner to concerns about bycatch of sea mammals, I have covered a number of local seafood issues, delving behind the science and rhetoric. The importance of this matter cannot be underestimated, but it is sometimes difficult to get to the truth behind the issues. I am sure the issue will retain its prominence on my blog next year as well. To read all of my posts on this topic, check out the sustainability tag.

Favorite Food Trade Event: The International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS) is a massive trade event, a showcase for purveyors of seafood, as well as related vendors. You'll find tons of free seafood samples and learn much, from sustainability to cooking. It is an engaging event and I wrote several posts about the show, including: Ten Things You Should Know, Five More Things You Should Know, The Key to Sustainability and Food of Interest. I was also quite pleased that I won iPura's First Annual Tweet & Blogfest for my coverage of the show. I am looking forward to defending my title, which I call the Fish Head Whisperer, at the IBSS next year too and highly recommend all food bloggers attend as well. I welcome the competition.

Favorite Cheese: I was fortunate to taste a new cheese coming to the U.S., the Gligora Dairy Paški Sir, a Croatian cheese made from ewe's milk. It smells of grass and herbs and the taste is complex, with a tasty melange of herbal flavors, a mild creaminess and hints of salt. The cheese has a cool story behind it as well, and any cheese lover should try to find this new and exciting cheese.

Favorite Frozen Food: Though it may not be as good as fresh made, sometimes frozen foods actually deliver well on flavor. Maristella's Fine Foods Seafood Pot Pies were delicious, and someone might not even realize they were frozen. With intriguing flavor combinations like Lobster with Saffron Scented Creamed Corn and Wild Alaskan Salmon with Horseradish & Chipotle, the pastry was flaky and contained plenty of seafood. If you need a quick fix for dinner, give these a try.

Favorite Use of Fruit: While dining at Miho Izakaya, in Portland, Oregon, one of the dishes was Wasabi Watermelon, and though simple, it was impressive. Watermelon cubes, soaked in a wasabi sauce, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The juicy watermelon had a slight spicy kick which paired well to the sweetness of the fruit. Can't wait to make this next summer.

Favorite Chocolate: I feel that salty foods and chocolate make a great pairing, which is one of the reasons I enjoy bacon & chocolate. While in Portland, Oregon, I found the Xocolatl de David Chocolate Bar with Parmigiano Reggiano, and this was an excellent combination, the saltiness of the cheeses working well with the sweet chocolate. I can easily see other similar cheeses working well too with chocolate.  

Favorite Local Ice Cream: Alcohol in ice cream does not always work out, but there are exceptions. J.P. Licks makes a Wild Turkey Bourbon Ice Cream, a smooth and creamy frozen treat with just enough bourbon flavor to delight. Let your children enjoy vanilla and chocolate while you savor this more adult dessert.

Favorite Cookies: Gluten free cookies never tasted so good. Miss Maura's Delectable Delights produces a full line of cakes, cookies and pastries, including numerous gluten free delights. The Lime in the Coconut cookie was especially tasty, and it had a very homemade feel to it. The cookies are pricey, but you do get a high quality product.

Favorite Portland Food Stops: While visiting Portland, Oregon, I found several cool food markets, bakeries, donut shops and more.  For creative ice cream, check out the newly opened Salt & Straw, where I especially enjoyed their Pear With Blue Cheese ice cream. For a wide assortment of salts, artisan chocolates, wines and more, venture to The Meadow. And you can find a compilation post, discussing some excellent places to get donuts, cupcakes, and pie.

Favorite New NYC Food Market: An Italian mecca in New York City, Eataly addresses all of your needs, from cookbooks to fresh fish, from cheese to fresh pasta. You can shop for all your home cooking needs, or dine at their numerous restaurants. Where else will you find a vegetarian butcher?  There is little Italian you won't find here, but because of its huge popularity, it might be easier to venture there during off hours.

Favorite Toronto Food Stops: In the Distillery District, you will find an excellent bakery, the Brick Street Bakery, as well as a superb chocolate shop, SOMA Chocolate. If you travel to Yonge Street, you will find the interesting Cookbook Store, a place to find all of your food books needs, including some Canadian books that are not available in the U.S.

What were some of your favorite food-related items this year?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rant: Beware Vegetables!

Vegans and vegetarians beware, as you might be unknowingly ingesting genetic material which could adversely affect your health. In fact, anyone eating vegetables is susceptible to this potential.

It seems that every week we are learning something new about the food we eat, either that the food is now more dangerous or more beneficial. Scientists are always studying the effect of various foods, and their results can change the way people diet.  It can be hard to keep up so what food can you really trust? Well, there is a new study adding to the confusion, and Ill try to keep the science lesson to a minimum.

MicroRNAs, which have come to the forefront of scientists' attention during the last ten years, are fragments of genetic material and they contribute to gene regulation, basically helping to determine how and when genes shut on or off. These microRNAs are found in both animals, including humans, and plants. Analysis and study of these microRNAs could lead to very positive results in defeating diseases from cancer to diabetes. But there is a potential dark side as well, which is only at the infancy of comprehension.

A recent Chinese study found, by studying rice, that microRNA in plants can actually enter the human body when those plants are ingested. Despite being digested, these microRNA can still survive and travel into the human bloodstream. Tests were performed on mice using a specific microRNA called MIR618, and the results showed that increased levels of this microRNA led to elevated cholesterol levels. So, eating rice could thus increase your cholesterol through these microRNAs.  If true, does that mean Japanese sake, made from rice, could also cause increased cholesterol? I really hope not.

Some plants could pass on positive microRNA but as the field is still very new, there are many unknowns. Their effect could even turn out to be so minimal that it could be ignored. But questions remain. For example, what types of microRNA can grapes, and thus wine, pass on? Should you really eat your broccoli? Are vegans and vegetarians playing Russian Roulette, not really understanding what the vegetables they ingest might do to their health?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sipping Shizuoka Sake

Come for the green tea and stay for the sake.

Recently, I attended a green tea seminar at the Itadaki restaurant in Boston, which was put on by some very nice people from the Shizuoka Prefecture, located about 110 miles southwest of Tokyo. The region was located on the Tokaido, the most important road during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), which joined Tokyo to Kyoto. One of the most well known and treasured landmarks in Shizuoka is famed Mount Fuji.  Probably the most famous product of this prefecture is green tea (of which I will discuss more in an upcoming post) though they also produce sake.

After the tea seminar, I grabbed a bite to eat and then returned to the restaurant as they were going to hold a sake tasting later. I had the opportunity to taste six Shizuoka sakes, which are probably not currently available in Massachusetts, and maybe not even anywhere else in the U.S.

Sake had never been a huge product in Shizuoka though the last 30 years have seen some significant changes and improvements to their sake industry. Much of the credit goes to Denbei Kawamura, who worked for the government, and can be considered the Father of the modern sake industry in Shizuoka. Not only did he work with the sake breweries to improve the quality of their products, but he also created Shizuoka HD-1, a special sake yeast which elevated the overall quality of their sake. The region currently has about 28-35 sake breweries and most of them are relatively small operations.

In 1998, the government of Shizuoka decided they needed to grow more of their own sake rice, so they began a study on creating a different form of Yamada Nishiki, considered the greatest of all sake rices. Their research led to the development of Homare Fuji, a sake rice with shorter and sturdier stalks, giving it better protection from harsh weather, and its rice kernels also contain less proteins. Approximately 31 farmers now grow Homare Fuji, and at least 20 Shizuoka breweries now use this rice in at least some of their sake. There is even a special label (pictured above), which resembles Mount Fuji, and which can be added to the neck of certain sake bottles that meet the standards for the use of Homare Fuji. Though all six of the sakes I tasted used Homare Fuji rice, one lacked the bottle neck label, though I am unsure why.

In general, Shizuoka sake is said to be generally low in acidity, light and easy drinking. It probably would be an excellent sake of which to introduce a newcomer to sake, who might be turned off by some of the strong flavors of some sakes. One of the most famous brands from Shizuoka is the Wakatake Onikoroshi "Demon Slayer," produced by the Oomuraya Brewery. I certainly loved their sakes, both the Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjos, and they are especially good value sakes.

As the six sakes I tasted do not appear available in the U.S., there appears to be little information available on them in English except for one blog, Shizuoka Sake: The Cream of Japan. This sake blog concentrates on the sakes of the Shizuoka region and has some pertinent information on all of these sakes. Thus, for each of the six sakes, I will be linking them to the blog post which describes the sake and/or brewery, where you can find additional information.

Of these six sakes, I enjoyed them all, and each presented its own unique flavor profile, though all use the same rice. They all were either Junmai or Junmai Ginjo, and they certainly were easy drinking, a style that even newcomers to sake would embrace and established sake lovers would savor.

Senju Homarefuji Junmai Ginjo
This was my favorite of the six because of its complexity, smoothness and appealing taste. It had a bit of a floral nose with hints of fruit but on the palate the fruit was more prominent, plenty of melon, green apple and hints of citrus. It was soft, mellow and elegant with some intriguing nutty notes, especially on the finish. This is a bottle I could just sit and drink in its entirety, savoring each delightful sip.

Hatsukame Okabemaru Junmai 
This is a richer and more full bodied sake than the Senju, which you would expect as it is not labeled as a Ginjo. Interestingly though, the rice has been polished down to 55%, which makes it technically qualify as a ginjo though the producer chose not to label it as such. It possess ripe melon, pear and mild pineapple flavors, and also is smooth and easy drinking. It seems less complex than the Senju as well.

Oomuraya Takenokaze Junami Ginjo
From the producer of Wakatake Onikoroshi, this sake has much of the appeal of the Onikoroshi, a smooth and supple sake. The fruit flavors are a bit restrained allowing intriguing herbal notes to take more of the center stage. Its complexity is compelling and I would highly recommend it.

Kunpai Homarefuji Tokubetsu Junmai 
As some people would say, this sake is "as easy to drink as water." It is silky smooth and mild with very subtle fruit and steamed rice flavors. Very elegant and restrained. Its apparent simplicity does conceal its greater depths.

Sanwa Garyubai Junmai Ginjo 
This is another sake where the herbal notes play a strong role in the taste, complementing the pear and melon fruit flavors. Though smooth and elegant, there is a bitter tinge to the finish, though not an unpleasant taste. This would be an intriguing sake to pair with food.

Doi Kaiun Hana No Ka Junmai Ginjo
This was an unusual sake, and apparently is made in a style that was previously produced 100 years ago and which was only recently resurrected. If I tasted this blind, I might think it was a wine as it presented with a strong red berry taste, and was almost sweet. It was very different from the other five sakes but as I don't know much about the style it is trying to replicate I cannot comment more. The trouble with not being able to read kanji.

If you get the chance to try some sake from the Shizuoka prefecture, I recommend that you taste them, and I bet you won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

2011: Favorite Restaurants

What were some of my favorite restaurants of the past year?

I have already posted several of my Favorites' lists and and now I want to concentrate on my Favorite Restaurants of the past year.  This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of memorable matters I have experienced and/or posted about over the past year. Some of the winners are the same as last year, and if so, I will provide a link to last year's list where you can read the details of that restaurant. Restaurants which are consistently good certainly deserve recognition, and I have tried to place their returning winners at the bottom of this post.

This year, I have also added a special new category, Overall Favorite Restaurant. This will highlight one place which has most impressed me over the past year, a consistent performer which has maintained a superior quality in all aspects. This restaurant receives my highest recommendation though all of the favorites in this post are also very worthy, deserving of my strong recommendation. In addition, you will find more Favorites from outside Massachusetts as I traveled a good deal this past year. I hope you enjoy all of these recommendations.

Overall Favorite Restaurant: Congratulations and kudos to Bergamot, an innovative and impressive restaurant in Somerville. Their food is superb, and the chef often combines what may seem to be disparate ingredients and creates delectable and harmonious dishes. From a phenomenal Pork Belly Ravioli, to an incredible Roast Chicken, the ever changing menu always has plenty of compelling dishes. They also have a killer wine list, with plenty of interesting choices, as well as an excellent cocktail program. Service is always professional and attentive, and the entire staff works well as a single unit. I have written a few times about Bergamot, including here, here and here. Every time I have dined here has been an excellent and delectable experience. It receives my highest recommendation and I urge all my readers to dine here.

Favorite Suburban Restaurant: The winner is AKA Bistrowhich won last year for Favorite New Suburban Restaurant. This is another restaurant which is very consistent, offering excellent French and Japanese cuisine, very good service, and an interesting wine and sake list. From the savory, home made Miso Soup to the addictive Mussels, both cuisines please the palate. Though they are located only a few minutes off Rt.128, they still seem a hidden treasure and you should make the effort to dine there. The Runner-Up in this category is 51 Lincoln in Newton, which has an eclectic menu of cuisines, including Italian, Latin, French, Thai, Cambodian and more. The food is usually local, artisanal and quite delicious. I need to eat there again very soon.

Favorite Suburban Italian Restaurant: Italian restaurants are ubiquitous in the suburbs, but too many of them are simply average. But you can find an excellent Italian spot in Woburn, Tre Monte. They offer reasonably priced and hearty portions of tasty Italian staples and their own specialties. In addition, their Bolognese is killer, and I am very picky as to my Bolognese sauce. They also deserve kudos for their Arancini, a great blend of a crisp and crunchy exterior concealing lots of gooey cheese.

Favorite North Shore Restaurant: This winner also has a killer Bolognese and Arancini, making it a worthy choice for dinner. 62 Restaurant & Wine Bar in Salem is gaining lots of recognition for its cuisine and the kudos are well deserved. Plus, they are bold enough to have an all Italian wine list, including plenty of interesting choices.This is another restaurant I need to dine at again very soon.

Favorite Unique Ethnic Restaurant: Sometimes delicious food can be found in the most unlikely places. Moby Dick, located on Huntington Avenue, looks very unassuming, the kind of place you might walk by and never give a chance. But their food will surprise and impress you, from their moist and tender kabobs to their intriguing rice dishes. Very reasonably priced, portions are good and there are plenty of options, including organic and vegetarian. Don't pass this place by!

Favorite Pizza Chain: Many pizza chains offer, at best, only an average pizza and it is often better to find an independent pizza shop. But, Naked Pizza is one of the exceptions, offering a tasty pizza, which is also healthier for you. The pizzas are generally reasonably priced, though I have a small issue with how they price their additional ingredients. They are mainly a delivery and take-out shop and make a great option rather than places like Dominoes. They only have two locations currently, Brookline and Brighton, but are looking to expand and hopefully they will venture out to the suburbs at some point.

Favorite New Hampshire Restaurant: I don't dine enough in New Hampshire and that should change as there are a number of worthy spots throughout the state. This year, I was most impressed with Lobster Q, located in Hampstead, which offers seafood and barbecue. Their clam chowder was superb, the fried clams quite a delight and the ribs were compelling. Much of their food is made from scratch, including their barbecue sauces, and the quality elevates this place above many similar places. So if you are in southern New Hampshire, why not make a stop here for lunch or dinner.

Favorite Newport Restaurant: You probably would not expect to find creative Mexican cuisine in Newport, Rhode Island but it exists and it is excellent. Perro Salado, Spanish for "salty dog," does not offer traditional Mexican cuisine but rather Mexican-inspired dishes, and they are making some amazing food from their Grilled Romaine Caesar Salad to the mouth watering Sticky Pork Ribs. They have plenty of different tequilas, including an extensive list of cocktails such as margaritas.

Favorite Syracuse Restaurant: When seeking restaurant recommendations for Syracuse, New York, nearly everyone mentioned Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. They were largely correct and I will add my recommendation as well. Forget the wine list, this is a place for beer, hard cider and cocktails. For food, go for items like the Catfish Strips, Cornbread and BBQ Pork Ribs. A casual place, service is very good and the prices are reasonable.

Favorite New York City Bakery: NYC has so many excellent bakeries and restaurants, but I do have to give kudos to some of my newest finds. Momofuku Milk Bar, part of David Changs's culinary empire, is innovative and creative, with plenty of absolutely tasty baked goods, both sweet and savory. From Cornflake cookies to Cornbread with cortija cheese & jalapenos, their products really impressed. Please check them out!

Favorite New York City Lunch: David Chang deserves much praise, and the Momofuku Ssäm Bar, located across the street from the Milk Bar, is the place to go for lunch. You must have their Rotisserie Duck, which offers simply one of the best pieces of duck I have ever had, tender, moist and flavorful. This duck has remained locked in my memory and on my next trip to NYC, I will definitely return here. Their Steamed Pork Buns impressed as well, and I don't think any of the dishes will disappoint. Rush to eat here!  

Favorite Charlottesville Restaurants: While at the Wine Blogger's Conference, I found time to explore a number of restaurants in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I lucked out, finding several worthy places. I compiled a single post, describing the good places that I found, from excellent country fried steak at The Nook to delicious sushi at Ten.

Favorite Portland, Oregon Restaurant: This is a tie between two restaurants, Pok Pok and Ping, owned by the same chef, Andy Ricker. From the addictive Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings to the mighty Kha Muu Thawt, Chef Ricker is creating some superb Asian cuisine. The restaurants are casual spots, a great place to hang out with friends, drink and enjoy tasty food. I will be sure to return there when I go back to Portland next summer.

Favorite Underappreciated Restaurant: For the second year, the winner is T.W. Food in Cambridge. Though its location is off the beaten path, it is well worth the effort to dine here. It is an intimate spot with superb food and wine, killer special events and very reasonably priced for the quality you will find. Make a resolution to dine here in 2012.

Favorite Brunch, Traditional Fare: For a second year, the winner is AKA Bistro in Lincoln.

Brunch, Traditional Fare-Honorable Mention: For a second year, my choice is Tupelo in Inman Square.

Favorite Brunch, Non-Traditional Fare: For the third year in a row, the winner is Myers & Chang in the South End.

Favorite Donuts: For a second year, the winner is Donut City in Lynn.

Favorite Japanese Restaurant: For a second year, the winner is Oishii in the South End.

Favorite Chinatown Restaurant: For a second year, the winner is Gourmet Dumpling House.

Favorite Asian Buffet: For a third year, the winner is Taipei Tokyo Cafe in Woburn.

Favorite North End Restaurant, High End: For a second year, the winnner is Prezzadue to dinners like  this one, with Rabbit Parmigiano.

Favorite North End Restaurant, Moderate: For a second year, the winner is Nebo.

Favorite North End Restaurant, Fusion: For a second year, the winner is Taranta.

Favorite Italian Restaurant Outside the North End: For a second year, the winner is Coppa.

Favorite Italian Restaurant, Somerville: For a second year, the winner is Pizzeria Posto.

Favorite Suburban Steak House: For a second year, the winner is Beacon Grille in Woburn. 

Favorite Fried Seafood: For the second year, the winner is the Clam Box in Ipswich.

What were some of your favorite restaurants this year?