The Power of Packaging

Several months ago a prominent restaurant architect returned from a trip to Japan bringing us a small gift of green tea. He said, "I have no idea if this is any good, but I loved the packaging. I just had to give it to you." And so we examined the slender pouch of tea, the size of a small puffy envelope, sporting a beautiful water color of a Japanese woman with a flower in her hair. 2013-04-08-04072013122245PM.jpgThis diminutive offering, whose contents weigh less than an ounce, elicited powerful emotions. It evoked an unexpected feeling of calm and grace and provided a narrative of a faraway, almost magical place. I immediately thought of a book I read when I was a kid: The Hidden Persuaders. Written in 1957 by social critic and advertising guru Vance Packard it demonstrated the power of color, type, and imagery in the choices we make every day -- why we buy one product over another and what "hidden" factors drive our needs. I'm not at all suggesting that my desire for this particular green tea was a result of manipulated expectations, but I was aware, as I was after reading Packard's book as a teenager, the subliminal urge to learn more about GARASHA -- the brand name of the "extra choicest" green tea produced by Japan GreenTea Co., Ltd.

My interest was further piqued because tea shops these days are on the rise in the United States. Starbucks last year purchased the 300-store Teavana chain and is expanding it rapidly. And Talbott Tea was purchased by Jamba Juice. So something's in the air.

Established in 1969, the company is the leading tea trader of worldwide teas in Japan and the pioneer of Japan's herb and spice retail trade. In 1982, the company opened Japan's first herb and tea shop "Tea Boutique" in Tokyo, and they now manage four tea rooms in Japan.

With 90 employees, the company, whose president is Isamu Kitajima, has dozens of trading partners all over the world and imports and distributes in Japan rarefied products like Cerulean Seas Sea Salt (from California), Argan oil from Morocco, and Cafix from Germany -- a caffeine-free coffee made from herbs.

Interestingly, the name Garasha is the Japanese pronunciation of the Latin "Gratia." The name, which means grace, underlies the spirit of the company's ethos: a commitment to a healthy life by the grace, or gifts, (Garasha) of nature.

The traditional teas, in these compelling restored old tea packages, come in three styles. Genmaicha green tea is combined with roasted brown rice; Sencha green tea is steamed to prevent oxidation and results in a sweet and fragrant brew, and Hojicha green tea is roasted. Like the special art of pairing wine with food, each of the teas matches well with particular dishes. Given the well-documented health benefits of green tea these days, I may do a tea-and-food pairing exercise soon. Will let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, here is a lovely drink to try as warmer weather, and cherry blossoms, are soon to arrive. It comes from my book, Healthy 1-2-3, winner of the IACP Cookbook Award (and nominated for the James Beard Award). It is a recipe for iced green tea, stirred with stalks of lemongrass. Use Garasha's Sencha green tea, if you are lucky enough to find it.

ICED GREEN-LEMONGRASS TEA Green tea is known to be very healthful, full of antioxidants and other good things for your body. Lemongrass, a long pale green stalk, is a staple of Thai cooking and adds a mysterious, citrusy flavor. A squeeze of fresh lime is optional.

2 stalks lemongrass (plus more to use as "stirrers") 2 tablespoons honey 2 tablespoons Sencha green tea leaves

Tear off the rough outer leaves from the lemongrass and discard. Finely chop the remaining stalks, including the darker tops and place in a large saucepan. Add 5 cups water and the honey. Bring to a rapid boil. Lower the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the tea. Cover the saucepan and steep for 10 minutes. Strain into a pitcher and discard the solids. Refrigerate until cold. Serve over ice. Serves 4

The Vodka Table

I'm a convert. A trip to Sweden convinced me that nothing -- not even your favorite champagne -- goes better with caviar than an ice-cold shot of good vodka. The same goes for all kinds of herring, smoked eel, gravlax and smoked salmon, crayfish and sharp, spiced cheese...the stuff a Swedish smorgasbord is made of. A chilled snaps prepares the palate for these salty or smoked delicacies, smooth but neutral alcohol cuts through the fat and balances the salt. Several years ago, bacon-infused vodka made a big splash, lending panache to a category of "carnivorous cocktails."   This year, Vivid Vodka, filtered through 12,000 pounds of virgin coconut husks, touts crystalline purity and is apparently a headliner in Vegas. But for me, the most interesting thing about vodka, is the food that it accompanies:  Ergo, the history of the smorgasbord. In New York City in the '60s, my idea of heaven was to go with my family to the Scandia, or Stockholm restaurants and eat until I could eat no more.

A capsule history:  In the 15th century vodka was a medicinal product. It was mixed with herbs and spices whose selection depended on whether you were curing a person or a horse. By the close of the 17th century, Swedes were consuming vodka as their natural beverage. It was a terrific social lubricant and they "drank" it out of a bowl with a very large spoon. Skal -- cheers -- means bowl. Snaps means to swallow quickly; a shot.

The world's first salad bar: The smorgasbord, Sweden's gastronomic treasure, evolved out of something called the "aquavit buffet" or the "vodka table."  From ancestral roots almost 300 years ago, the smorgas -- literally a slice of bread -- and bord -- a table -- grew into an elaborate presentation of 60 to 70 dishes that, after an international odyssey, evolved into today's enormously popular salad bars. In the 1700s when the tradition began, a social evening in Sweden began with men drinking branvin ("burnt wine") -- a name that included all distilled spirits but specifically vodka and flavored aquavits. While men waited for the women to adjust their clothing after a hard ride across country, they assembled around their host's "vodka table," drinking branvin and nibbling on a multitude of herrings -- sort of a Swedish tapas bar. As time went on, the vodka table become a competitive social phenomenon, with hosts straining to create the most lavish, largest presentations. So much so, according to an executive of V&S Vin & Sprit AB, the company that launched Absolut into the world, a royal decree was issued by the government to end the ruinous competition.   Even at the turn of the century in restaurants in Sweden, "the vodka canteen" -- an elaborate silver fantasy dispensing several flavors of "branvin" -- was displayed at the center of the smorgasbord and guests were encouraged to eat and drink as much as they wanted. The canteen was affectionately known as Fritz. Vodka was included in the price of a meal -- but it was considered bad form to slug down more than half-a-dozen snaps.

How branvin became vodka: The stuff that Swedes were slugging down with their herring in the early smorgasbord days was pretty low in quality and high in bothersome impurities. Spices, usually caraway, were added to make such snaps drinkable. A bright fellow named Lars Olsson brought from France a method of "rectifying" or cleaning branvin's impurities by continuous distillation: he produced a spirit that needed no flavoring (not even bacon!) and was free of objectionable fusel oil. In 1879 he created the brand "Absolut Rent Branvin," meaning absolutely pure branvin. It was only in the 1950s that the Swedes started calling the stuff "vodka" -- taking their cue from Smirnoff, which was the first company to market the spirit internationally.

Putting on the "fritz": In this day of high operating costs and speedy business lunches, the smorgasbord is now more a symbol of Sweden than a reality, and you won't find many in America's cities, either. Stockholm is down to just a handful -- the most famous being the Operakällaren (the Opera Cellar.) After all, according to the Stockholm Restaurant Academy, a proper smorgasbord must have at least twelve preparations of Baltic and Atlantic herring plus graved laks (literally "buried salmon") and other smoked and poached salmons. Then comes the smoked and cured meats, the hot course, and dessert. Each trip to the table should be accompanied by a clean plate and at least five trips should be made.   That's far more costly than a crayfish taco. The Guinness Book of Records certified that the world's biggest smorgasbord measured over 1207 feet long with less than two inches between the serving dishes. Imagine the fun.   And while vodka producers continue to duke it out with claims of virgin birch charcoal filtration and aroma-therapy flavors, I say, bring back "Fritz" -- and you'll sell more vodka than one thought imaginable. Skal.

The Holiday Bartender

There are bartenders who make a living mixing cocktails, and baristas whose wages are earned behind espresso machines. There are high-concept tea masters, sommeliers, and soda jerks, too. At home we are never expected to be any of these, but when guests arrive for your holiday parties some simple instruction might be helpful. After all, there's a week's worth of celebrating still to be done. I tend to restrict drinks at my dinner parties to champagne and wine and perhaps one great cocktail. I suggest you try all the ideas here, or create your own, but choose only one as your "house special." "What you don't need," says wine writer Anthony Dias Blue, "is people sidling up to your bar expecting a Singapore Sling or a mai tai," or both!

I know a thing or two about drinks. At age 16, I was a bartender, illegally, at the Olde London Fishery in Queens, New York. I was tall for my age and looked the part. Next, I had the ultimate pleasure of helping create two of New York's most spectacular bars - the Rainbow Promenade at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, where Sleepless in Seattle was shot, and the Greatest Bar on Earth on the 106th floor of the now legendary Windows on the World. A great drink is always remembered.

When making cocktails, apply my 1-2-3 principle: 1-The best drinks are made from the best raw materials -- including freshly made ice cubes. 2-Temperature is critical. Serve mixed drinks in chilled or frozen glasses and white wine properly cooled, and keep a pitcher-full of a pre-mixed cocktail in the fridge so it doesn't inflict global warming upon your ice cubes. 3- Use the appropriate glassware. And you'll notice that unlike most cocktail recipes, which measure the alcohol in ounces or shots, I use tablespoon measures for simplicity's sake.   Great drinks are not about lots of ingredients: Rather it is about the discreet balance of flavors - with acidity and sweetness being key factors.

While it's always festive to serve name-brand bubbly to put your best foot forward, it can be very expensive and not always necessary. In fact, just this week I invented a beautiful cocktail for Lenox China called "Bittersweet" - using Prosecco (or cava or any other inexpensive brut sparkling wine) - to which I add Campari, Chambord, and a bit of freshly-squeezed orange juice. It is a perfect match with my Smoked Salmon Quesadillas strewn with bits of grated lemon zest and snippets of fresh basil.

Many guests are opting for sparkling water and nonalcoholic "mocktails" these days, so you'll be a great host if you offer those. Even a jug of freshly-squeezed blood orange juice, which I call "Nature's Kool-Aid," shows that you have considered the needs of all your friends.

A note about wine: The party line on party wine is to go "big." Offer wine or bubbly from magnums - it's always impressive and there are great products from around the world that provide terrific value. We have found a "house red" from Argentina that is a blend of malbec and bonarda (an ancient grape of northern Italy.) It is $10.99 a magnum! Reserve your premium wines for smaller dinner parties and start celebrating now.

"Bittersweet Champagne Cocktail" You may substitute Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) for the Chambord.

1 bottle brut sparkling white wine (prosecco, cava or champagne) ¼ cup Campari ¼ cup freshly-squeezed orange juice 2 tablespoons Chambord (raspberry liqueur)

Pour all the ingredients in a large pitcher and stir gently.   Pour mixture into chilled champagne flutes.  Serves 6

"Apple and Anisette" This is a sophisticated highball and one of my seasonal favorites.

1 lemon ½ cup fresh (unpasteurized) apple cider 1 tablespoon anisette

Remove a long strip of lemon peel using a small sharp knife.  Cut lemon in half and squeeze to get 1-1/2 teaspoon juice for each drink:  Put 4 ice cube in a large rocks glass.  Add cider and anisette and stir.  Add lemon juice and stir again.  Garnish with lemon peel and add a colorful stirrer.  Makes 1 drink

"Christmas-tini" Very elegant. especially in an extra- large martini glass.  Excellent choice for the entire Christmas season.

1 tablespoon peppermint schnapps ½ cup cranberry juice 1 tablespoons vodka or currant-flavored vodka

Make sure all the materials are chilled, including the martini glasses.  For each drink, pour schnapps into the glass.  Top with cranberry juice and float vodka on top.  Serve with little green straws.  Makes 1 drink

"Ginger-Pear-Lime Martinis" Make these by the pitcher so that you don't need to be shaking and stirring when your guests arrive.

1-1/2 cups pear nectar 2-1/2 cups apple juice 4 limes 4 teaspoons honey 1-1/4 cups vodka 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled

Stir pear nectar and apple juice together in a pitcher. Halve 3 limes and squeeze 6 tablespoons juice into the pitcher.  Add the honey and stir until dissolved; stir in the vodka. Grate ginger on the large holes of a box grater.  Place the grated ginger in a paper towel and squeeze to extract 1 tablespoon juice; add to pitcher.  Stir, cover, and chill well. Pour into chilled martini glasses or serve over ice.  Garnish each with a thin slice of the remaining lime.  Serves 6

"Cocteau" A very special holiday libation - here's an after-dinner drink invented by me to honor the artist.  A "Cocteau" instead of a cocktail!

4-1/2 tablespoons Armagnac 1 tablespoon yellow Chartreuse 1 tablespoon crème de cassis, plus more for floating

Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice cubes.  Stir vigorously.  Strain into chilled cocktail glass.  Float more cassis on top, letting it filter down into the drink. Serves 1

I Wonder Who's Drinking My Vodka

A few days ago, after a nice enough brunch at Char No. 4 in Brooklyn, I bought a bottle of vodka. Not to replicate the Bloody Mary served at Char -- they make theirs with bourbon and it's great! -- but to test yet another recipe. I had concocted a formula for apple-ginger-pear martinis that made their way into my new cookbook Radically Simple (they take only five minutes to make!), but I needed a hip summer libation for a new project.  My idea was to use hibiscus tea as a base and go from there. After choosing a bottle of pretty cheap vodka in a local liquor store (it still cost $21.00), I sat with it, and my family, in the back of a car service.  It sloshed around as the car moved rapidly through the icy slush from the Heights to the Slope.  So eager to start "cocktail-ing," I high-tailed it to my kitchen and went right for the ice cubes.  "Oh no," I sighed.  "I left the booze in the back seat."  "Someone in New York will soon be drinking my vodka." If it happens to be you (!), here is the recipe for the quite-addictive apple-ginger-pear martinis.  Make them by the pitcher so that you don't need to be shaking and stirring when your guests arrive.  As for the martini made with hibiscus tea, simple syrup, fresh ginger, and lime, I decided to use GIN instead.  Blessings to my husband who reluctantly parted with a few shots of his beloved Old Raj.  It's one of the most expensive on the market -- and definitely one of the best.  Cheers!

Apple-Ginger-Pear Martinis

1-1/2 cups pear nectar (Goya makes a decent one) 2-1/2 cups apple juice 4 limes 4 teaspoons honey* 1-1/4 cups vodka 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled

Stir the pear nectar and apple juice together in a pitcher.  Squeeze 6 tablespoons lime juice into the pitcher.  Add the honey and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the vodka.  Grate the ginger on the large holes of a box grater.  Place the grated ginger in a paper towel and squeeze to extract 1 tablespoon juice; add to the pitcher. Stir, cover, and refrigerate until very cold.  Pour into chilled martini glasses or serve over ice.  Garnish with a slice of lime.  Serves 6

*Read yesterday's blog about honey and the upcoming bee event at Stone Barns, just in case you missed it!