Breakaway Cook

A Few New Public Cooking Classes

What does this post have to do with our family trip to Toronto (here, Niagara Falls)? Nothing, but it’s been a while since I’ve posted a Daphne picture!

I’m doing a few public classes around the SF Bay area in October that I want to mention. As always, I’d love for you to come to one (or more!) if you can. Make sure you introduce yourself, too, if we haven’t yet met in person.

October 7, 6:30 – 8:30 pm: Homeward Bound, in Novato, CA. A fantastic organization that helps homeless people, including families, in dozens of ways. They’ve set up an impressive culinary training center, which is where we’ll do the class. They were even kind enough to send me a few free tickets for this event, so if you’d like to come and really can’t afford it, let me know. If you can, though, they can really use the support.

October 23, 2 – 6pm, followed by dinner: San Francisco Zen Center. More zen cooking! A vegetarian class, co-taught with maestra Dana Velden, who also led the Tassajara cooking retreat we did a few months ago. Another remarkable setting, in the Julia Morgan-designed ZC building on the corner of Laguna and Page. This will be a slower, more deliberate class that I know will strike all the right chords for many of you.

October 28, 6:30 – 8:30 pm, Draeger’s Cooking School in San Mateo. An autumn-inspired menu, for folks in the south bay.

Hope to see you at one of them!

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Breakaway Matcha Update — Coming Very Soon!

So much happening in the world of Breakaway Matcha, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. For those who don’t know about my quest for the world’s best matcha, here’s a post that will shed some light.

Tins are sourced and designed and redesigned and ordered, labels are designed (by design diva Stephanie Sawchenko, naturally, who’s also designed a fabulous new logo for me), shipping supplies are sourced, UPS account is set up, a tiny but very cool office space is secured, and — most importantly — the teas are being stone-ground as I type. It takes more than an hour to granite-grind 40g of tea, so it takes a while for this kind of hand-made, artisanal product to happen. All four teas I’ll be sharing are custom blended for Breakaway Matcha — they don’t/won’t exist anyplace else, and I consider myself very lucky to have been alloted the absolute finest tier of the finest matchas on earth.

It took me many years to hunt these down. The quality is life-changing; it’s shocking how good these teas are. They are unlike anything available in the marketplace, most of which is culinary grade; a different animal altogether.

So besides quality, what makes these beautiful teas “breakaway?” Lot of things:

  • style of preparation: you can get a much better crema with a handheld electric milk frother than you can with a bamboo whisk, so that’s what we do. I’ve tried a bunch, and will be recommending one or two.
  • served in smaller cups: I find the big matcha bowls too heavy and clunky (though they’re fantastic for soups). It’s much more pleasant to drink matcha out of smaller, espresso-like cups.
  • make your own ritual (or none at all): Japanese tea ceremonies, where matcha is served, have so many rules and stipulations that most people are too terrified of making a mistake to actually enjoy themselves. I’m encouraging people to make up their own, or bypass it altogether if you wish. Mine is pretty simple: I turn on the kettle, get out the sieve, matcha scoop, frother, smaller creamer/pitcher, and cup, sieve about a gram (two normal scoops, or about half a teaspoon) into the pitcher, and wait for the water to boil and then slightly cool (to about 190F) for a minute or two. I try to notice my breath during this time, to notice the incredible color, texture, and aroma of the matcha, to notice the active bird life outside my kitchen window, and to realize how absolutely fortunate I am to be alive in this moment. I might do a minute or two of yoga. When the water’s ready, I pour a half inch or so into the pitcher, turn on the frother, and create the magical crema. It then gets poured into my cup, with some additional hot water swirled into the pitcher to get all the green goodness, which tops off the cup. I then sit down someplace and drink it somewhat quickly, usually in three or four noisy slurps. I marvel at how good it tastes and how good my body and brain feel, and go about my workday. This happens three or four times throughout the day.
  • it’s  a tea for espresso lovers: the thick, electric green crema REALLY is a lot like espresso crema. Same exact mouthfeel.
  • breakaway matcha culture is probably closer to Italian coffee culture, with its joyous yet obsessed ways,  than it is to Japanese tea culture, whose history is incredibly rich — it is  is simply awesome in its beauty and relevance — but sometimes quite heavy and laden with too much . . . weight.  I believe that it can be, indeed must be, lightened, brought up to contemporary times, to be more suited to the way people live and work today. So I feel we’re honoring that tradition, paying homage to it, yet basking in its beauties in whatever way we like. There is no need to drink matcha exactly as the Japanese tea teachers say we must, any more than we must cook food exactly as Japanese culinary instructors and chefs say we must. We do whatever works. And man, does this way of drinking matcha work!

I’m going to have limited quantities — there is only so much of this stuff. I expect that long-term readers of this space, and my other writing, will want to experience it and make it part of their daily routine, as I have. I know that many of my close friends will. I will do my best to secure a long-term (as in: as long as I’m alive) supply from these incredible farmers.

I’ll talk about the health benefits of matcha another day, but I do look at my daily enjoyment of this matcha not only as epicurean delight along the lines of an especially great Burgundy (with the added benefit that it promotes wakefulness, not drowsiness), but also as a preventive health measure, a daily practice kind of like yoga or meditation that I know is very, very good for me. Its concentrative properties are legendary, too. The ability to focus, to not be distracted, after a cup of matcha — thanks largely to the combination of caffeine and L-theanine, the amino acid that not only gives matcha is incredible umami, but which is also proven to enhance cognition and mood in a synergistic manner with caffeine — can make a massive difference in one’s personal productivity.

I also hope to share some delightful ceramics made specially for this matcha, but that might take a little longer. More on that later, too.

Mid to late September is our target date for the arrival of the matcha. We’ll definitely be holding some tasting events in the SF Bay Area, details of which will be outlined here (or, more accurately, in the matcha pages Stephanie is creating now — we’ll roll out the new website, complete with a gorgeous new section on matcha, sometime this fall). The new vegetarian book is coming, too, this fall; we shoot the last video session this coming Saturday in SF  – if anyone wishes to help out with prep and clean up, and to see how we do it, I’d be hugely grateful. Wish me luck with all of this, please!

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Sea Change Radio Interview + “Ethnic Organic”

I recently did a fun and in-depth interview with Alex Wise of Sea Change Radio called “Eat, Drink, and Be Sustainable.” The whole thing is here.  In one segment, I talk about an essay I wrote years ago on why more “ethnic” restaurants and markets don’t make the plunge into the organic world, and some reasons why the organic movement seems to focus on the culinary traditions of Italy and France, and not so much on the cuisines of Japan, India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia (the mainstays of breakaway cooking).

The essay was buried so deeply in the site that I myself couldn’t find it! So here it is, at Alex’s request, below. Would LOVE to hear some reactions — I know it’s much longer than usual, but sometimes a little extra depth isn’t a bad thing . . . . Please let me know what you think.

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It’s Time for “Ethnic Organic”

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I get dizzy just thinking of the thousands of newspaper and magazine articles written about food in California. It’s a flood that never stops. But if I had to reduce ALL of them—and we’re talking many millions of words here—to just two words or phrases, I’d probably choose “seasonal/organic” and “ethnic.”

When I consider what makes food in California unique and special, I first think of Chez Panisse, The French Laundry, Gary Danko, and many other great restaurants here that use artisanal, often organic ingredients, and I think of the farmers’ markets that supply them. But just as quickly the thousands of Thai, Indian, Japanese, and many other nation-based restaurants that make up such an important part of our contemporary culinary identity pop into my mind. We can walk outside, seven days a week, and eat just about anything, from just about anyplace, and expect it to be not just good, but really good. We take all this for granted, but it’s astounding how many options we have to eat.

With all this cross pollination going on, we’d expect to see more of a seasonal, organic influence in all the ethnic food, and more of an ethnic influence in all the organic food. Yet, we see very little of either, which is a bit of a mystery to me. There is this rather stark divide between the ingredient-driven organic movement, which tends to showcase cooking that is in essence based on rustic French and rustic Italian traditions and the wines that go with them, and the equally ingredient-driven cuisines of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; it’s just that the “ingredients” of the latter are often prepared concoctions like miso, tamarind, preserved lemons, adobo, pomegranate molasses, oyster sauce, and dozens of other intensely flavorings from around that world that I call “global flavor blasts.” At least in the United States, the emphasis is more on these bold flavors than on the highest quality produce and meats available, though I think eating produce and meats in the countries of those traditions is a more pleasant experience than it is here, because it’s almost necessarily all local stuff.

Considering the ubiquity of farmers’ markets and ethnic markets, then, it would seem utterly natural for California (home) cooks and (restaurant) chefs to combine these two pillars—the organic and the ethnic—and a few exceptional restaurants have, but for the most part our ethnic communities have not embraced the organic movement, and the organic community has not embraced ethnic foods. This is baffling, given the intimate mingling of the two, and it seems destined to change as the world and its national culinary boundaries inexorably continue to shrink.

The organic movement—and by that I mean people who produce and consume sustainably raised produce and meats, ideally purchased and eaten within a few hundred miles or so of where they are grown—has not been quick to adopt nonEuropean ingredients and techniques. Farmers, of course, aren’t responsible for what chefs do with their product. But, at the same time, a lot of the farmers, especially the higher-profile farmers who sell their wonderful goods to the higher-profile restaurants like Chez Panisse (which has pioneered symbiotic and direct relationships between farmers and chefs) are becoming increasingly influential, and I can’t help but wish that they would familiarize themselves with some basic global flavor blasts and begin recommending their use alongside their gorgeous, sustainable product.

Visit the Ferry Plaza on Saturday mornings, or the Marin farmers’ market on Sunday mornings, and you will see what is surely some of the finest and most varied raw food available anywhere, no question about it. But if you ask the farmers what to do with all this great stuff, they’ll inevitably tell you the same thing. They’ll say, “oh just sauté it with a little olive oil and garlic, salt and pepper, maybe a little dash of lemon at the end. It’s great.” And it IS great. The Euro-inspired preparations for all of that artisanal produce are magnificent. We really cannot say enough flattering things about them.

But I think we can take it all to even further gastronomic heights by increasing the global flavor tools at our disposal while still keeping things familiar enough to be cozy and comfortable. Corn on the cob? Instead of the classic butter treatment, try drizzling on some fruity olive oil and sprinkling a little salt that’s been blended with kaffir lime leaves. Lightly tinged green, perfectly organic eggs that come from happy chickens? Poach them, then combine matcha (finely powdered green tea) and salt and dust the eggs with it. You’ll never go back to eating them any other way! Seasonal, wild-caught salmon? Spoon on pomegranate molasses and olive oil and roast it in a hot oven. All are nearly instant ways to enjoy the foods we love in vibrant and easy new ways, with the simplest of little borrowings from other traditions.

Moreover, unlike many of the seasonal, organically driven restaurants and bistros, who often boast of the origins of their ingredients right on the menu (“Grilled Wolf Ranch quail with Chino Farm vegetable medley ragout”), it’s rare—even almost unheard of—to go into a higher-end ethnic restaurant and find a lot of emphasis on locally grown, sustainably produced things (though Dosa, Aziza, and the Slanted Door are three notable exceptions). It’s more about technique, tradition, and global flavor blasts, even though fresh vegetables do indeed play important roles. So why is it that the great chefs of these traditions are, by and large, slow to join the organic movement?

For starters, they tend to rely heavily on ingredients from home. Japanese food, especially, requires ingredients like miso, umeboshi (pickled, salty apricots), konbu, mirin, and many of the fish needed for a “proper” meal of sushi. It’s more or less imported and prepared in toto exactly as it is in Tokyo, except … it loses something along the way. The same might be said for much Southeast Asian food, for Indian food, and for Middle Eastern food. We in the United States have this notion that, unless we can get more or less the exact same fare as that found in the home countries of those cuisines, it won’t be “authentic” and is thus unworthy of our attention. Notice that we don’t feel as strongly about getting perfectly authentic versions of Mediterranean food; we somehow give ourselves license to adapt these cuisines to local conditions. And in California, that increasingly means local, sustainable, and, if possible, organic.

Can you imagine if some of the higher-end ethnic restaurants began to take good produce more seriously? It would be a wonder to walk into an Indian restaurant and look at a menu , and instead of seeing pretty much the exact same list of foods that you’ve seen in the last 20 Indian restaurants you’ve visited, some of them would try some new local things, and also to brag about the quality and origin of their produce (“Aloo Gobi made with new Marin Roots potatoes and organic cauliflower from Full Belly Farms”).

The organic and ethnic worlds have not yet embraced, though I detect the beginning movements of a mating dance, and think it’s inevitable that it will happen. Why? Because the world is getting smaller every day. A lot of us today have had the experience of traveling and eating in what used to be called “exotic” countries. Flights are significantly cheaper than they used to be if we adjust for inflation (and even sometimes on an absolute basis), and it’s just not that exotic or daring or unusual anymore to walk with hill tribes in Laos, to visit lemurs in Madagascar, to trek in Nepal or Tibet, or to island-hop around Indonesia and the South Pacific. Cheap fares, more wealth, and Lonely Planet guides have ensured that nearly all of us nowadays have experienced some kind of travel tinged with exotica.

Today, it’s just not as “other” to experience the cuisines of these far-flung countries as it used to be. Has anyone reading this not had Thai cooking? Younger people especially, who have grown up with this huge panoply of ethnic restaurants, find it difficult to imagine a world without them—it’s that much a part of their cultural make up. And as time goes on, this trend is only going to get stronger–it’s not as if, all of a sudden, global travel and global cuisine are going to get more esoteric and harder to find. In short, it will get less “other.”

It is this “otherness” that, in my opinion, prevents ethnic cuisines from entering the mainstream organic movement. Even in a place as culinarily sophisticated as the Bay Area, many of us still have a good deal of trepidation when we walk into an Indian market; there’s the woman with the sari, the ragas are playing, there’s a heady mixture of cardamom, coriander, and chiles from the lunch she’s just prepared that’s filling the store. It’s still an “other” experience; it’s not that easy to just waltz in, browse the shelves, and let the experimentation begin. Oddly enough, however, it might be stores like Whole Foods or even Trader Joe’s, and their ready acceptance of more and more ethnic ingredients and ethnic-inspired prepared food, that will bridge the gap. We somehow feel more confident buying unfamiliar ingredients in a more familiar space.

Part of this dynamic, too, is that these ethnic communities used to have really wonderful produce sections, back in the 70s and 80s. One would go there for quality produce—it was actually much better than what you could get at Safeway at the time, before the rise of farmers markets. Nowadays it’s a very different story. It seems like it’s all about the cheap—whoever’s got the cheapest access to the crap they sell from the Central Valley, where price is absolutely Almighty, sells the most. It’s sad, but it’s an accurate description of the produce available at most ethnic markets these days. Ethnic markets are of interest to us not for their fresh vegetable and fruit selection, but for their global flavor blasts.

It’s such an exciting time to be a cook, and an eater. It’s high time we learned to accept and play with what may seem slightly exotic ingredients today, but which are destined to become more mainstream and add sparkle and excitement to our meals. Does anyone even remember when sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil—products that couldn’t be more common today—held that edge of the new and exciting? The same trajectory is in place for global flavor blasts like lemongrass, tamarind, miso, saffron, unusual citrus fruits like yuzu and preserved lemons, pomegranate molasses, matcha, umeboshi, and many, many more.

I, for one, can’t wait.

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The Role of Sweetness in the Breakaway Kitchen

And, finally, the last video shot in the breakaway kitchen by the great Henry Hopkins.

I think most domestic cooks underplay the role of sweetness in making great food. There is nothing worse than tasting something excessively sweet when you’re not expecting it, but a lot of food can be improved by adding minute quantities of some complex sweetener like agave syrup, good artisanal honey, maple syrup, palm sugar, date sugar . . . and then there are the sweeteners that really elevate, like ginger syrup and jaggery syrup, both of which are demonstrated here.

Have I missed any? Let me know if you have a favorite sweetener, and your thoughts on sweetening!

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