2014 Gift Guide, Day 23

December 16, 2014

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Aroma Matters

Just how much of  our sensory experience of food is informed by our taste buds, how much by our noses? I once did a radio show with Daniel Boulud, where we put clothespins on our noses, blindfolds on our eyes, and began eating jelly beans.  It was truly stunning; we literally could not tell the difference between cherry and licorice. Everything they say about taste being primarily smell is true. 

The Aromafork is much more appealing than clothespins and blindfolds. Drop a bead of lychee aroma into the tiny well at the base of this fork, stab a piece of roast pork, and voila!, you're eating pork while tasting fruit.  It's a cool trick – the kind that emboldens you to take flavor risks in the kitchen. 

Part elevated gag gift, part amateur science project, this is the perfect present for the curious cook. The 21 aromas that come with each Aromafork are natural, and the system seems designed to encourage delicious—if off-beat—flavor pairings.

Besides, it's so much fun.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 22

December 15, 2014

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Poor Man's Caviar

Or maybe not so poor. Bottarga, the cured roe of grey mullet, isn't exactly cheap. On the other hand, you get the hit of caviar – that sexy saline flavor – without the expense.  Because you just can't eat that much of it.

Bottarga is poised to be tomorrow's uni – the food darling of the moment – and we're going to see it on everything.  Why not?  It's fantastic shaved over pasta.  It's wonderful on salads. And one of the best dishes I've had recently is the bottarga April Bloomfield serves at The John Dory. She sandwiches it between a couple slabs of carta di musica, the Sardinian bread that seriously resembles matzo, along with generous amounts of butter and a sprinkling of chile.  It's almost impossible to stop eating, it would make a great appetizer at home – and it's particularly good with this bottarga.

Most bottarga comes from Greece, from Italy, occasionally from France. But this is a strictly American product: local, sustainably produced on the Sea of Cortez, and truly fine. This is Florida bottarga – and it's great.  Who wouldn't be thrilled to find some bottarga sitting beneath the tree?

And should you want a recipe, I've got one for bottarga pasta in my forthcoming cookbook.  But here's another recipe for bottarga pasta with lemon, ricotta and arugula that looks seriously delicious. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 21

December 14, 2014

 

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Looking Back

A man cannot be too serious about his eating for food is the force that binds society together.

Confucius 

If you want to see what China – and Chinese food – was like before wealth and pollution irrevocably changed it, you could not do better than the series called “A Taste  of China,” which was shot in 1984, in a now vanished land. 

The series begins with Masters of the Wok. At the start of the film we watch two master chefs and their minions prepare an elaborate banquet at the Shandong State Guest House in north China.  Among the many dishes are the hand-pulled dragon whisker noodles above.

But for me the highlight of the film is a visit to a peasant village, where we watch women make a dozen or so different kinds of bread and noodles using primitive tools.  It took me right back to the Chinese village where I spent time in 1980, a village which is now utterly transformed. The film moves on to Chengdu, and a visit to the market as well as the fledgling Sichuan cooking academy. 

The series is wonderful little piece of history.  The other half hour installments are The Family Table,  Food for Body and Spirit and Water Farmers.  This last chronicles the lives of Shaoxing farmers, focusing on "the traditional harmonious relationship the Chinese people have with their environment." Watching it just makes you sad. 

The DVDs, sadly, aren’t cheap.  But if you know someone who is really passionate about Chinese food, this would make a wonderful gift. 

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Twenty

December 13, 2014

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A Cup of Luxury

Got a caffeine freak in your life? Want to give her (or him) something that will really float their boat? Here it is. 

Gesha coffee is considered by coffee snobs to be the world’s best coffee; unroasted beans have sold for up to $170 a pound at auction. Named after its birthplace in Ethiopia, gesha boasts notes of citrus, melon, peach, herbs, and bergamot. Or so they say. It has a concentrated sweetness and quite a bit of acidity.

Most of the world’s gesha beans actually come from Latin America these days, where they’re grown on pampered plants at high elevation. This Blue Bottle trio of geshas costs a fortunte, but it brings together beans from three standout producers: Guatemala's Finca El Injerto, Panama's Los Lajones, and Colombia's Granja La Esperanza. If you're interested, act quickly: it's a limited run.  

Give this gift to someone you hold close; if you're lucky, you'll be around when she (or he) is in the mood to brew.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Nineteen

December 12, 2014

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Persimmons, Preserved

Before man found fire we used the sun to preserve food. And for good reason; it’s the most natural way to cook.

Drying does more than simply make food last longer.  It transforms many foods in remarkably wonderful ways.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hachiya persimmon. 

Raw hachiyas have an astringent flavor and fibrous texture that purges the mouth of moisture and makes you pucker up.  Dry the persimmons, however, and they become so honeysuckle sweet they seem like an entirely different fruit. 

In the traditional Japanese method for drying persimmons, called hoshigaki, strings are tied around the stems and the persimmons are hung on long poles to dry.  They are massaged every few days to active the sugars. It takes up to ten weeks to turn the persimmons truly sweet, and they become white in the process.  Available only in the late fall months, true hoshigaki are extremely hard to find.

The Otow Family Orchard has been growing and drying persimmons in Loomis, California since the late 19th century, and they have a fanatic following. A visit to their farm (or their website) is always a treat. They're out of hoshigaki at the moment, but they've got a new crop of persimmons drying in the sun right now, and they predict that they'll be ready to ship before the new year.  Just a promise will make a great present.

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Next year I plan to make my own hoshigaki. Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way offers instructions for preserving persimmons – and just about everything else.  The book comes out in August. Too early to pre-order?

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