Friday, May 29, 2009

One Dinner, Four Kuramoto

For several years now, I have been sharing my passion for sake by hosting special dinners and pairing sake with my cooking. After travelling in Japan and meeting sake professionals, I have the privilege of bringing special guests to these events to share their enthusiasm and their stories of the trials and tribulations of the craft of brewing sake.

This year, I had the good fortune of hosting four kuramoto at my Spring kaiseki dinner. The kuramoto is the president of a sake brewery, and in some cases (especially among smaller breweries) the president is also the toji, or brewmaster. Each of the kuramoto were visiting from a different prefecture, so I thought it would be exciting for the diners to taste the junmai ginjo from each of the breweries. For the unfamiliar, junmai ginjo is a description of how the sake is brewed, using only water, koji, yeast, and rice which has been polished of its outer forty percent to remove impurities. With all other things being equal, our guests could judge the nuances in the art of sake brewing from different regions.

The meal began with a sake from Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan. Kotaro Saito is the fifth generation kuramoto of Saiya Shuzo, the makers of Yuki no Bosha. This sake is a yeasty, full flavored junmai, rich and floral with hints of apricot and white pepper. The brewery uses Akita Komachi rice, and the toji uses a blend of their own cultivated yeasts and the yamahai method to develop its flavor. I chose to pair it with a salad of hato mugi (a Japanese barley), asparagus and rabbit loin, dressed with white miso and garnished with rosemary blossoms and burnet from my garden. The idea behind the pairing was to accent the yeasts with the barley and white miso. The fruitiness of the sake was complemented by some persimmon preserves I had made in the fall, and the peppery notes were supported by the rosemary blossoms.

For the next course, my good friend Taka Yamauchi poured his Watari Bune 55. Yamauchi-san is the seventh generation kuramoto as well as the toji of Huchu Homare Shuzo. Watari Bune is named after the heirloom rice used to brew it, the father strain of Yamada Nishiki, the most celebrated sake rice. This variety of rice was once widely grown in Ibaraki Prefecture. Because it is a tall rice, it is susceptible to typhoons, and it is also a late harvest crop, making it more vulnerable to insects. It gradually fell out of favor. Because Yamauchi-san wanted to use locally grown rice, he was advised that Watari Bune was a quality sake rice. He found the rice under preservation at the Ministry of Agriculture's National Research Institute. He was able to secure a 14 gram sample of seed. After three years of harvest, he was able to create the first Watari Bune sake in over fifty years, and it does have a distinct flavor worthy of his efforts. Portland is well acquainted with "the fifty five," it's largest consumer outside of Japan. This is one of my favorite sake. It is full flavored, nutty and earthy, yet it has hints of tropical fruits. Very layered, so I decided to pair it with many layers of umami, a miso marinated scallop baked and served on a nettle puree with a salad of seaweeds and mushrooms. Omoshiroi desu ne!

Ms. Miho Fujita joined us for her first visit to the United States. She is the kuramoto of Mioya Shuzo in Ishikawa Prefecture. This region is distinguished by its rich yamahai's, but the style at Mioya is completely sokujo. For their junmai ginjo, the toji, Yokomichi-san uses Gohyaku Mangoku rice to inoculate the koji, and the local Noto Hikari rice for the shubo. This sake is called Yuho, which means "happy rice." It is complex for its soft and silky texture, with a finish of herbs and flowers, a subtle nigami (bitterness) and umami.

I had been thinking of a shellfish dish, so I paired razor clams and hokki gai (surf clams), briefly poached in a court bouillon, thinly sliced and presented with fava beans, red celery and hakurei turnips. Again, I took advantage of my garden lilacs, picking the flowers and making a light infusion with the poaching liquid. Then I made a mousse-like lilac pillow (gelatin sponge) for the salad to rest on. The sweetness of the shellfish and the shibumi (astringency) of the flowers matched the sake perfectly. I ended up liking this dish enough to put it on the spring menu at Park Kitchen.

The final course was served with Chikurin Karoyaka (lightness) from Okayama Prefecture. Niichiro Marumoto is the kuramoto and toji of Marumoto Shuzo. As if this was not enough, he also grows his own rice, and he is the first and only USDA certified organic sake producer in Japan (as of 2009). In this picture, Marumoto-san displays his yamada nishiki rice. His sake is very elegant, with a slight effervescence reminiscent of champagne, the flavor of cherries and a mellow finish. Marumoto-san uses a technique very similar to the solera system used to make sherry. He blends some of the previous years sake with the new brew, which adds richness and body. I wanted to pair it with a rich fish and a bright, acidic accompaniment. I have been poaching black cod in olive oil this spring, so I paired it with onigiri (pressed rice) studded with pickled radish, a sauce of rhubarb, and a salad of peas and their tendrils. Marumoto-san is a purist at times, and I knew I was taking a chance by serving fish and rhubarb with his sake, but even he seemed to like the pairing.

The dinner concluded with cheers and fellowship, and the four kuramoto had a chance to meet a new and growing audience of sake drinkers in Portland. Many thanks are due to Marcus Pakiser, the sake sommelier for Columbia Distributing. It is his expertise and understanding of sake which has expanded our sake market in Portland. Kanpai, Marcus!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Farewell, Sweet Rapini

With only a few weeks of spring left, and fewer rainclouds on the horizon, we bid farewell to the wonderful Northwest crop of rapini. It's a little strange to be writing about food that we won't see again for another year, but this year it has caught my attention how much misunderstanding there is about this vegetable. I've seen articles published in newspapers and on blogs, as well as a few very respectable books, which all fail to identify what this mysterious vegetable actually is.

Here in the Northwest, we have a shorter growing season than California and many of the southern states. Spring comes very late up here. We don't see the first local sweet peas or favas until it's nearly summer. Instead, we have rapini. Down in California, they don't see a lot of rapini. They don't have to wait for it. By Groundhog Day, they can be planting full fields of crops for spring. Up north, it doesn't matter if you plant your spring crops in February or early March. They aren't going to grow, because there just isn't enough sunlight! If you do plant, the growth is so slow that the crops you plant a month later will actually catch up to them.

So what can you grow? Brassicas that have been harvested throughout the winter are a great source of food from Groundhog Day until the Vernal Equinox. Brussels sprouts and kale, cabbages, collards and turnips; most of the vegetables in the family have a large root stalk. After they are harvested, the plant will continue to send energy up through the root stalk, creating budding sprouts that we call rapini.

These shoots come at different times, depending on the plant. Brussels sprouts have an early sweetness, while some of the cabbages and collards are the last to develop good flavor. They have varying colors and leaf shapes, also depending on the plant. There are deep red shoots from red kales and cabbages, pale green from brussels and turnips, and dark green from cavolo nero and other dark kales. (The photo above shows three different varieties). These crops are enormously popular in Italian and Chinese cuisine, which places a higher value on bitter flavors.

Don't be mistaken into thinking that these are some mysterious cousin of the turnip, or a variety of gai-lan or broccolini. They are all brassica shoots (There is one exception you may see in the grocery store, and that is broccolini. It is actually a cross between broccoli and chinese gai-lan. It resembles rapini, but is not cultivated in the same way). Whatever variety you may buy, they will all have small florets with different leaf shapes surrounding the tips, and thin stalks. The quality can usually be judged by the tenderness at the base of the stalk. Shoots that have been cut too late or long ago will be fibrous and woody instead of tender and bittersweet. I'll be looking forward to them again next year.