Archive for August, 2009

Pasta alla Elaine

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009


As to which pasta sauce reigns supreme in our house, it’s a toss up between “red sauce” and “pepperoncini.” I’ll save the pepperoncini recipe for another day.

The “red sauce” is my version of the tomato-based pasta dish my mother made so often when I was growing up. Unfortunately, we’ve got no Italian blood in our family, but I’ve eaten so much pasta over the years, I consider myself an honorary Italian.

tomatoesMy cupboard is always stocked with packets of dried porcini, cans of whole Italian tomatoes, and spaghettini. So all I need to do for a quick, easy, and delicious meal is bicycle over to my local supermarket to pick up a couple of ripe avocados, a packet of shiitake mushrooms, some ground beef, and salad greens. I’ve been making this pasta sauce for so many years, I do it on automatic pilot while listening to National Public Radio and sipping a tumbler of red wine.

Basically, you’re making a marinara sauce. For marinara, tomatoes are the most important ingredient. Any brand of whole Italian plum tomatoes will do. I’ve made this sauce many times with the cheapest canned tomatoes I could find, but it’s worth seeking out San Marzano tomatoes. They are richer tasting and meatier than any other type.

First, let’s do the prep work. Get yourself a glass of red wine. All right? Let’s go.

3 cans (14 oz. each) San Marzano tomatoes

• two bay leaves (preferably Turkish, the most flavorful)

• one package dried porcini (30 grams)

• 6 to 8 fresh shiitake mushrooms (caps only: sliced or roughly chopped)

• one medium onion (finely diced)

• 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• 200 grams ground beef or pork

• 4-5 large cloves of garlic (whole and peeled)

• 1 tsp.salt (preferably sea salt)

• 1 tsp. herbes de provence

500 grams spaghetti or spaghettini

• freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the Starter: two ripe avocados, one lemon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar

In a small bowl, add a half cup of luke-warm water to the dried porcini to cover. Let them soak and soften for 20-30 minutes. The water will become a deeply perfumed, dark brown broth.

Dice the onion. Peel 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic. The easiest way to do this is to smash the cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife. The papery skin will come right off. Open the three cans of tomatoes. Remove the stems from the shiitake and slice the caps.

Add 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive to a large saucepan. My family loves garlic, but I don’t want it to dominate the sauce, so I saute the garlic cloves on medium-low heat until they’re colored a pale gold. Be careful to turn the garlic frequently so that it doesn’t burn. When nicely colored, remove the garlic to a paper towel.garlic 1

At this point one of my sons will come over and snag a crisp clove or two. They’re delicious. Add the chopped onion, turn up the heat to medium and saute the onions until they’re translucent: maybe five minutes.

tomato masherNow add the San Marzano tomatoes. I use a potato masher to crush the whole tomatoes to an even consistency in the sauce pan. Toss in a bay leaf or two and a teaspoon of sea salt. Most marinara recipes call for oregano, but I’m partial to herbes de provence and use a teaspoon of that fragrant melange instead.

Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms. Squeeze the reconstituted porcini in your fist to drain them, reserving the broth. Chop the wrung out porcini roughly. Add them to the sauce. Pour the porcini broth, but not the grit at the bottom of the bowl, into the sauce. Stir.

In a separate fry pan, brown the ground beef, then add it to the sauce. Stir and let the sauce simmer and thicken uncovered on low heat for at least 45 minutes.ground beef

The great thing about this sauce is that it’s so versatile. You can add other types of mushrooms. Use ground pork or chicken instead of beef, or leave out the meat entirely. I’ve got no name for this sauce, but I’m sure my mother would approve of naming it after her: “Pasta alla Elaine.”

A couple of points to note when cooking the pasta: Make sure the water is properly salted. And don’t rely on the timing written on the package. Set your timer a minute or two earlier than the recommended timing and keep tasting the pasta until is done al dente. Drain then immediately toss the pasta with a cup or two of the sauce.  Serve with some extra sauce on top and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

My son, Christopher, who always votes for “red sauce” says if you add more cheese, it’s double the goodness.

avocado starterThe starter is easy too. Halve an avocado, remove the stone, peel and slice the avocado. Arrange the slices on a plate. Mix one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice with two tablespoons of olive oil. Drizzle the lemony oil over the sliced avocado, add a few drops of balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finito.

Serve these dishes with some crusty bread and a green salad and Buono Appetito!

I never get to eat right away, though, because at this point my dog starts pestering me until I dust her kibble with freshly grated cheese.

Bar Radio: Tokyo’s Best Gimlet

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Radio Bar Gimlet

Bartender Koji Ozaki is an artist though he would politely disagree. For over forty years he has been pursuing beauty and perfection as poured from a cocktail shaker. Order a gimlet at his Bar Radio and you run the risk of not being able to drink one anywhere else. At least that’s what happened to Ryu Murakami, the famed novelist and Bar Radio regular, who recounts this delicious dilemma in an essay dedicated to the gimlet in Ozaki’s sumptuous Bar Radio Cocktail Book.

Ozaki, 65, is dapper and trim, perfectly at ease in his summer uniform of stiff-collared white shirt, white bow tie and white vest. His movements behind the long walnut bar are graceful and precise. Though he has a reputation for reticence, when he talks about his craft smiles come easily.

“The gimlet is a simple drink but difficult to make well,” explains Ozaki. “You’ve got to put aijo, love, into it,” he adds flashing a smile. ”Making a delicious cocktail,” he says, “is exactly like preparing a delicious bowl of green tea.”Bar Radio flowers 2

Since he was 17, Ozaki has studied tea ceremony and Japanese flower arrangement. He is a licensed teacher of both. Everything at Bar Radio—the service, the drinks, the decor and accoutrements—are informed by biishiki, an aesthetic consciousness, and by the desire for utsukushii ugoki, beautiful movement with no wasted motion. Both types of awareness, says Ozaki, are essential to bartending.

Every detail of Bar Radio has been thoughtfully designed by Ozaki. On an antique cupboard stands a large, dramatically lighted flower arrangement. Smaller arrangements too are spaced along the bar. Art Nouveau lamps with thick glass shades drop soft pools of light on the walnut counter and gently illuminate the hundreds of bottles that line the long shelves. Several vintage radios sit silently among the collection of gleaming antique cocktail shakers. Jazz drifts unobtrusively from hidden speakers.

Ozaki hails from Tokushima Prefecture. He started his working career as a salary man, but quickly tired of it. He fled to Tokyo at 24 and found employment in a coffee shop that also served drinks in the evening. He taught himself the rudiments of bartending from an old copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book. Eventually he got a job as a bartender in the Ginza where he worked for six months. In 1972, he opened his first bar, Bar Radio, in Jingumae. His next bar, 2nd Radio, in Gaienmae followed in 1986 and 3rd Radio, in Minami Aoyama, opened in 1998. The first two establishments have since closed, and 3rd Radio, after an extensive remodeling, is now simply called again, Bar Radio.

Radio Bar Exterior“The gimlet should contain only fresh lime juice and dry gin,” Ozaki explains as he twists a lime wedge inside a small square of white cotton cloth—a traditional Japanese method of extracting juice. All fruit-based cocktails at his bars are prepared in this manner.

The tea ceremony has clearly influenced his cocktail shaker technique—no brusque movements that might disturb a guest. Ozaki holds the shaker in his fingertips. The elbows are kept close to the body and the shaking is performed only with the wrists. “It must be done elegantly, like a lovely dance,” he says.

He pours the gimlet into a delicately etched cone-shaped, 100-year-old glass from England. The lime juice and gin have married to form a pale jade opalescence rimmed with foam as fine as diamond dust. He sets the glass on a coaster then pushes it five centimeters forward until it rests, like a fashion model, under a spotlight.Bar Radio gimlet 2

When designing cocktails, Ozaki believes the glass is the most important factor. “If you think of fashion,” he says, “the glass is like a dress, the clothes on a model.”

The shelves behind the bar sparkle with glassware from the finest crystal makers of Europe and Japan: Baccarat, Saint Louis, Lalique, Hoya, and others. Many are antiques or “one of a kind” pieces. Glasses for champagne cocktails, highballs, and water were designed by Ozaki himself. But he won’t take all the credit. Many of his customers are artists and designers, he explains. “They are very good teachers.”

Bar Radio glassware 2Creating a new cocktail is not difficult, he says. Every night he invents many, then forgets them the next day. Eventually the popular ones become standards. “The most difficult thing about making a new drink is naming it,” he confides. Cocktails usually get their names from flowers, fruits, or places, but such labels are dull. Ozaki came up with naming his original cocktails after Hollywood movie stars, such as the Marilyn Monroe, the Greta Garbo, the Marlene Dietrich, the Humphrey Bogart, or after jazz composers and compositions like the Duke Ellington, the Satin Doll, the Mood Indigo, and the Prelude to a Kiss. Ozaki says the spirit used in the drink outlines the star’s character—the other ingredients and the glass provide the story and drama.

He has experimented with cocktails flavored with chocolate from the boutiques of Jean-Paul Hevin or Pierre Marcolini. They have proven to be quite popular—as are his “healthy cocktails.” Made with fresh fruit like mango or Kyoho grapes, these drinks have a low alcohol content. “They don’t cause hangovers,” explains Ozaki. “And are good for a woman’s skin.”

Radio Bar coasterOzaki says Tokyo bars are the best in the world for their vast selection of spirits and high level of bartending. He stocks over 250 brands of Scotch single malt whiskey, thirty some brands of bourbon and rum, plus a dozen varieties each of brandy, marc, cognac, calvados, grappa, gin, vodka, tequila, and, of course, many liqueurs. He doesn’t, however, use Japanese alcohols. They don’t suit cocktails, he says. “Sake and shochu are most delicious just as they are.”

Every week Ozaki gives lessons in tea ceremony and flower arrangement to all his bartenders. Once a year he conducts a seminar in which he lectures to some 150 bartenders, mostly from the Ginza area, on the fine points of drinks like the Martini or the Sidecar. Ozaki estimates there are about 20 bars around the city run by his “graduates,” bartenders who have worked and studied with him. “If a person is unusually sensitive, and pays attention to details, he can learn to be a good bartender in three years,” he explains. “The average person needs ten years.”

Ozaki’s passion for beauty and design is exemplified in the Bar Radio Cocktail Book displayed on the bar. The book is lush with color photos of cocktails in exquisite glasses and settings, essays by famous customers, and hundreds of bilingual recipes.

His passion for design also extends to the type of customer he prefers. “The drinking should be done without any commotion,“ he says. “Sometimes I have to ask a person to leave.” Groups of two or maybe three are best—with four people, voices get too loud. “The most important thing,” he stresses, “is that customers should enjoy the atmosphere here.”Radio Bar water glass

His table charge is one of the highest in the city—2,000 yen per person, and a drink, on average, costs about 1,500 yen. The plate of otsumami, however, the tidbits that traditionally come with a first drink in Japan, are of extraordinary quality: slices of plum marinated in white wine with vanilla, Parma ham with fresh figs, cream cheese with walnuts and raisins, fresh kiwi fruit with mint cream, and tiny scallops marinated with olive oil and parsley. These savories are served on Italian porcelain with a fork and knife procured in a Paris antique market—sterling silver with turned wooden handles.

Ozaki’s art is fleeting. It lasts an hour or an evening. Yet it leaves a lasting impression—a stunning drink, an alluring encounter you can have nowhere else. Calling oneself an artist, he says, would be awkward. He prefers the term artisan. “But I would be honored to be considered an artist,” he adds with a quick smile. “A good artisan can someday become an artist.”

Bar Radio 3-10-34 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3402-2668. Open Monday to Saturday 6pm to 1am. Closed Sundays and Holidays.