Breakaway Cook

World-Class Wine, World-Class Matcha. Cooking Wine, Cooking Matcha

Drinking world-class matcha is SO much like drinking a truly great wine. Forget the health benefits of either for a moment, and let’s just concentrate on taste.

World-class matcha — and yes, I do count all three grades of Breakaway Matcha in this category — really is like a world-class red like Domain Romanée-Conti in many respects:  both are heady, have perfect balance, have umami in spades, have acidity that’s racy and almost electrifying, have multilayered flavors and aromas on both front and mid palate, and have a long, smooth finish.

Lots of agricultural similarities, too: geography, soils, amount and intensity of sunlight, humidity,  rain, harvest time, fertilizer . . . .

And then we have similarities of craft: harvest timing, inherited knowledge, method of picking, processing procedures, aging, blending … ALL of these factors dramatically affect the final product, be it matcha or wine.

That said, it’s also important to note that, just as there is no shortage of truly bad wine in the world, the markets are full of very, very poor quality matcha. Much of it starts off bad (by poor/cost-cutting agricultural techniques, and by machine harvesting new growth, stems and all) and winds up much worse: poor storage, excess supply, and a “race to the bottom” in price all add up to matcha that is either sugared (meaning, sugar has been added to it to make it palatable), badly oxidized (resulting in a hay-like colors and aromas), or simply lifeless and dead, bitter, dusty, and forgotten.

It is vile stuff; most unfortunately, this dead, cheap matcha is the only experience with matcha that many people have. If you’ve tried matcha and didn’t like it, join the club. That is what you had, and it’s ubiquitous.

Bad matcha is actually much worse than Two-Buck Chuck; it’s more like pouring a glass of “cooking wine.” Which is what it is, in essence:  most matcha is meant for culinary purposes. It may still have enough of a “matcha” taste to taste ok as green tea ice cream, as cookies and cakes and all kinds of confections. The fats and sugars in those confections will often mask off-flavors, and the result will be quasi-acceptable.

Great matcha is very, very different. It is meant to be drank, like wine, not used as a cooking ingredient. (I doubt there is anyone on earth who dumps half a bottle of Echezeaux into a pasta sauce.) All of the amino acids, umami, and acid structure of great matcha remain intact when brewed into a nice cup, but are destroyed/rendered undetectable if fat, sugar, and heat enter the picture.

So: think of great matcha as great wine. And think of culinary matcha as cooking wine. The parallels are pretty much exact.

But in another important sense, great matcha is the antiwine: instead of the soporific effects associate with alcohol, matcha provides a calmly stimulating effect, perfect for sipping throughout the day and becoming supremely productive.

One more difference, while we’re pointing out differences: cost.

  • Grand Cru Burgundies: $200/glass
  • “Cult” Napa wines: $75/glass
  • Excellent Napa cabernets: $30/glass
  • Mediocre Napa cabernets: $10/glass
  • Breakaway Matcha Blend 100:  $ 3/cup

Yes, the most delicious, rare, and healthful drink on the planet costs about 1/10th that of a quality cabernet, and even less less than a glass of subpar wine. Great news for hyperpremium matcha drinkers! AND great news for serious wine drinkers: if you’d like an Echezeaux-like experience that you drink all day long and that makes you MORE focused, calm, and awake, look me up!

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A New and Tasty Way to Cook Squid

I think squid is the great underappreciated seafood, and can’t figure out why it isn’t more popular. Provided you don’t overcook it (which is easy to do), it has a fabulous, toothsome texture, especially if you make a crispy crunch crust before you cook it. It’s plentiful and completely sustainable, AND it’s local, at least for us lucky Bay Area residents. It may not be widely available in the huge supermarkets, but those aren’t the places you want to be buying fish anyway. And it’s cheap — I rarely pay more than $7/lb for top-quality squid, and a pound will make three or four generous portions.

Sold yet? Good, now go find some. As always, I can’t recommend the folks at Monterey Fish highly enough. You can get quality squid (and other sustainable tasty fish) online, believe it or not, from I Love Blue Sea.

My latest and greatest way to cook squid is to give it a crust made of amaranth, that ancient grain that kind of looks like quinoa, except the grains are even smaller. I often use other crusts, including ground rice, ground pink lentils, farina, and spiced breadcrumbs, to make my squid, but amaranth is really nice: it imparts a nutty, poppy, very lively crunch to the squid.

To prep the squid, rinse and dry it thoroughly (don’t skip this very important step) and then rub the whole thing generously with olive oil. Season generously with good salt and pepper, spray the squid with more olive oil, toss on some amaranth on one side and gently press it into the squid. Spray the whole thing again with olive oil (so that the amaranth doesn’t just fall off when you transfer it from cutting board to pan). Heat up a cast iron (or other) pan, give it a film of olive oil, get it very hot, and gently place the squid inside. Cook until deeply browned, as shown in the photo, about 3 to 5 minutes, and flip it over to cook another few minutes. Serve with wedges of meyer lemon and matcha salt (or other salt) and a huge salad.

Anyone have any favorite (and great) methods of cooking squid?

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My Yoga Journal Essay on Fish, Umami, and Veggies

This article on the declining role of fish in my life was written for Yoga Journal. I  hope you enjoy both the essay and the three new recipes from the new vegetarian book. They did a terrific job with both the styling and the photography (and the editing, for that matter).

It was a little tricky to embed the PDF file I got from my editor there, but it should be readable — to increase the font size, hold down the control key while hitting the + sign.  Would love to hear your comments and opinions!

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Kabocha — The Lazy Man’s Squash

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The first time I tried kabocha was in a fancy tempura restaurant in Kyoto. It was one of those rare food epiphanies that come along once every few years: the perfect unity of sweet (kabocha is probably the sweetest of the winter squashes), salt (it was dusted liberally with matcha salt) and fat, delivered with ultralight crispness from the artful hands of a fry master. When he told me it was “pumpkin,” I was incredulous — this wasn’t like any pumpkin I had encountered. He hadn’t even bothered to peel it! But I wanted more of it, whatever it was.

I’ve been a kabocha fan ever since — it lends itself to quick roasting, steaming, braising, and pan-frying.  Prepping it couldn’t be easier because, unlike other winter squashes, you don’t have to peel it. It has a very tasty deep green skin with celadon stripes that’s better left on. So it’s just a matter of slicing it up into whatever shapes you like,  spooning out the seeds and strings, and proceeding. Use your biggest, heaviest knife for this job, and use lots of caution: the flesh is dense, and it’s hard.

But what a reward when it’s done! The brilliantly colored orange flesh turns buttery, flaky, and sugary, and takes well to spices and herbs. My go-to weeknight preparation of kabocha is a simple braise: cut up a few kabocha wedges into bite-size pieces, sauté in a combo of butter and olive oil, add freshly ground star anise, stir, add some stock, cover, and cook till soft, then top with good salt and chopped parsley or cilantro.

Its innate sweetness also makes it a natural for desserts. I like to gently poach some kabocha pieces in coconut milk and regular milk and warm spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, with a touch of brown sugar or honey. Simple and great. It makes a fine panna cotta and pudding, too. And I’ve made killer gnocchi with it.

But the simplest way to enjoy is to roast it in the oven. Cut it up into curved wedges or even, if you have the knife energy, into a julienne, place on a baking sheet, drizzle on some olive oil and salt and pepper, and bake it for 15 or 20 minutes in a moderately hot oven. When the edges begin to brown, it’s done. It’s fabulous on pasta, especially when combined with some fried sage leaves.

I always try to keep a few in my pantry, right next to the potatoes. They seem to keep forever, and it’s very comforting to know that a fantastic and easy dinner is nearby, even when the fridge is bare.

(photo by Robin Kok)

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