Sustainable sippers, part 5: Ah, sake

American producers are making some mighty fine versions of the traditional Japanese rice wine, including SakeOne Momokawa certified-organic line and Takara Sake’s Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama. As with grape wines, offerings range from those made with organic ingredients–organic rice and/or koji (yeast)–to those that are certified organic.

Benefits: There are six styles of Momokawa, from lush, fruity Organic Junmai Ginjo to the traditional-style, minimally filtered Pearl. The sake is affordable enough (about $11 a 750-ml bottle of Momokawa and $7.50 for a 300-ml bottle of Organic Nama) to host a tasting for your friends.

Drawbacks: Berkeley, California-based Takara Sake’s product is made with certified organic rice from the nearby Sacramento Valley, but the rice wine itself is not certified organic. Also, it’s made in very small batches and may be hard to find.

Sake-jito

Inspired by the Cuban cocktail, this drink uses organic sake in place of traditional rum for a cocktail that’s refreshing and subtly sweet.

8 fresh mint leaves

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 ounces organic sake

2 ounces sparkling water

1 mint sprig (optional)

  1. Place mint leaves in the bottom of a highball glass, add sugar and juice. Muddle (crush) with a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon. Add sake; stir. Add crushed ice. Top with sparkling water. Garnish with mint sprig, if desired. Yield: 1 serving.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka and gin

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 6: Tequila

Sustainable sippers, part 4: Mix with care

If you use expensive organic spirits in a cocktail, be sure the other ingredients are organic, too. Organic spirits generally don’t belong in a neon-green apple-tini, says Square One Vodka founder Allison Evanow. “Don’t shop for your mixers in the liquor aisle; shop for your mixers in the produce aisle.”

Use organic fruit purees as mixers. Mixologist Darryl Robinson, a k a DRMixologist, who creates organic concoctions for special events and at the Hudson Bar at New York’s Hudson Hotel, always selects peak-flavor, in-season fruits. “I’ll puree them and freeze them to use later.”

“Don’t shop for your mixers in the liquor aisle; shop for your mixers in the produce aisle.” Unless, of course, it’s a bottled mixer made with organic ingredients.

Choose organic sweeteners for cocktails. Robinson uses organic agave nectar instead of simple syrup made with white sugar. He also likes organic brown sugar or organic maple syrup for cocktails made with dark-colored spirits.

Balance the flavors. Organic spirits, like a botanical gin, can taste bolder than conventional booze, says Robinson, so you may need to adjust the amount of other ingredients. His secret ingredient: organic pineapple juice. “Just a splash, even in a cocktail that doesn’t call for it, can make a difference.”

If you do use a bottled mixer, make it an organic one, like modmix or Monin’s organic line.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka and gin

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila

Sustainable Sippers, part 3: Vodka and gin

Vodka and gin are two examples of small producers using organic ingredients to craft first-rate spirits. Some examples include vodkas from Square One,Highball Distillery, and Vodka14Juniper Green Organic London Dry Gin and TRU2 Gin are among the organic gins.

What makes it organic: Square One is crafted from 100% organic rye by DRinc., an Idaho-based distillery that has been certified organic since 2000. Highball Distillery’s certified-organic Elemental Vodka is produced in a wind-powered facility, also from organic grain. Vodka14 is crafted from organic grains and Rocky Mountain spring water. Made with 100% organic grain and botanical herbs in a distillery in Central London, Juniper Green is certified organic in the United States and United Kingdom, while Los Angeles-based TRU2 Gin is made with certified-organic grains and a complex blend of 14 botanicals.

Benefits: Organic vodka is flavorful, smooth, and subtly sweet. It’s nice to sip neat or in a simple cocktail. Organic grain byproducts from producing vodka may be recycled as animal feed. Organic gins are crafted with an intriguing mix of botanicals (TRU2’s blend includes lavendar, vanilla, and chamomile in addition to traditional juniper berries, for example), which makes for a complex, Old World-style spirit.

Drawbacks: Small-batch liquors, including organic vodka and gin, are expensive. Prices start at about $35 for a 750-ml bottle. Availability is limited, too. “You can go into a lot of states and not find any organic vodka,” says Gray Ottley, owner and chief marketing officer of DRinc.

Basil Gimlet

This cocktail, from Square One Vodka, is typical of what founder Allison Evanow calls “culinary cocktails,” which combine organic spirits with high-quality ingredients. Experiment with different varieties of basil–Evanow likes to use Thai or lemon basil, but any type will do. Square One’s Cucumber Vodka also works well in this recipe (so well, in fact, that this was my favorite evening cocktail last summer).

4-5 fresh basil leaves, torn

2 ounces organic vodka

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce light agave nectar

  1. Place basil in the cup of a cocktail shaker; muddle (crush) with a muddler or the back of wooden spoon. Add crushed ice, vodka, juice, and nectar; shake for 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Yield: 1 serving.

Organic Tom Collins

A Tom Collins is a classic, simple cocktail, and an ideal way to showcase the complex botanical qualities that are the hallmark of many organic gins.

1 1/2 ounces organic gin

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon light agave nectar

Sparkling water

Lemon slice (optional)

  1. Combine gin, juice, and nectar in a highball glass. Add crushed ice, and top with sparkling water. Garnish with lemon slice, if desired. Yield: 1 serving.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 2: Wine

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila

Sustainable sippers, part 2: Wine

Winemaker Paul Dolan (photo by Evan Johnson)

Producers of organic wines include Bonterra, Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards, Paul Dolan Vineyards, as well as a host of European winemakers. And that’s good news, because more producers means more availability and a wider range of price points.

What makes it organic: Organic wines contain organically grown grapes, but not all are certified organic. That’s because winemakers may add sulfites, an antibacterial agent, to achieve a shelf-stable product. Many producers prefer to tout the biodynamics of a wine, says Brett Chappell, director of sales and marketing for Calypso Organic Selections, which imports organic wines from Europe, Australia, and South America. Biodynamics refers to a holistic, closed ecosystem, which includes companion cover crops, composting, and other practices to enhance biodiversity, improve the soil, and, ultimately foster better-tasting grapes, explains Colleen Stewart, wine educator at Bonterra.

Benefits: Grapes that have been cultivated organically have 30 percent more resveratrol, on average, than conventionally grown grapes, according to The Organic Center. Resveratrol is a phytochemical that has been shown to reverse neurological aging and promote liver health in animal studies. Organic wines can be a good value, too. Bonterra’s selections, for example, run $10-$15 a bottle.

Drawbacks: Organic wines can be confusing to identify, since they range from those that are certified organic to those made with organic grapes. Read labels closely.

Rose Berry Sangria

Rose has come on strong as a popular wine in recent years and lends itself to a colorful and refreshing version of sangria, the Spanish sipper.

1 (750-ml) bottle organic rose wine

1 cup fresh organic orange juice (no pulp)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon light agave nectar

2 cups assorted organic berries (raspberries, blackberries, and quartered strawberries)

  1. Combine wine, juices, and nectar in a large pitcher. Add berries; stir gently to combine. Chill at least 2 hours. Stir gently before serving, and pour over ice. Yield: 6 servings.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 3: Vodka & Gin

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila

Sustainable sippers, part 1: Wine and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

What's in your glass? If you want to know, read the label.

Like many, you may have resolved to eat more sustainably in 2010. You’ll pay a bit extra for organic produce, dairy products, meat, and packaged goods because it’s good for the planet and, most likely, good for you, too.

You can start by saying farewell to 2009 (and not a moment too soon, huh?) and welcoming 2010 with a planet-friendly cocktail. Organic wine and beer have been around for awhile, and more recently they’ve been joined by expertly crafted sustainable spirits, including vodka, tequila, and gin.

The benefits of organic alcohol are mostly environmental, though there is emerging evidence that organically cultivated crops, including those used to produce wine, beer, and spirits, may have more nutritional value than conventional. The industry generally doesn’t tout the health benefits of alcohol, but considers organic cocktails a lifestyle choice. Buying organic alcohol is “as much an environmental/moral decision as a quality one,” says Allison Evanow, founder of Square One Vodka. “You are supporting sustainable farming,” adds Gray Ottley, owner of the Idaho-based organic distillery DRInc., which produces Square One.

Anecdotally, fans point to the smooth, easy-drinking quality of organic tipplers that won’t leave you hung over the next day. Organic wines, for example, tend to be lower in alcohol and sugar, which makes them particularly food-friendly and “easy on the palate,” says Brett Chappell, director of sales and marketing for Calypso Organic Selections, which imports organic wines from Europe, Australia, and South America.

When choosing organic spirits, “you are supporting sustainable farming,” says one industry expert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the labeling of all organic products, including alcoholic beverages, and different labels signifying varying degrees of organic credibiity:

  • 100% Organic: a product must contain all organic ingredients and include “Certified organic by” with the certifying agent’s name on the label. Labels may include the USDA/Organic seal, as well as the term “100% organic.”
  • Organic: must contain at least 95% organic ingredients; cannot contain added sulfites, but may have up to 5% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients that are not commercially available in organic form. Labels may carry the USDA Organic seal and/or the certifying agent’s seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: must contain at least 70% organic ingredients; may contain up to 30% nonorganically produced agricultural products. Wine, for example, may contain added sulfur dioxide. The label may list specific organic ingredients (such as “made with organic grapes”) and/or the percentage of organic ingredients. What you won’t find on the label: the USDA Organic seal.

Imported organic alcohol may or may not be certified organic by the USDA. Instead, it’s likely to be certified in its country of origin. These designations are comparable to (and in some cases more rigorous than) the USDA Organic seal.

Also in this series:

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka & Gin

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila

3 books, 3 ways to cook

Which book is best? That depends on how you like to cook.

The holidays bring with them a flurry of cookbooks, which makes sense. People probably do more cooking now than any other time of year, and cookbooks make great gifts for, well, cooks. Here are three, each with a distinct point of view. Are all three for everyone? That depends on how you like to cook.

Good reference: Cooking Light Way to Cook ($29.95)

First, by way of full disclosure, I used to work on staff at Cooking Light, so, yes, I’m a bit partial to this “guide to everyday cooking.” But that also means I can vouch for the thorough testing that’s done to vet the recipes and techniques in the book. It’s organized by technique (braising, sauteing, roasting, and so forth) with lots of helpful step-by-step photography, which makes it particularly handy for novice cooks. There’s also ample info about equipment and ingredients (does butter fit into light cooking? Absolutely). And, of course, since it’s from Cooking Light, the emphasis is on healthy recipes. Looking for something hearty to warm up a winter evening? Make a pot of Beef Daube Provencal, a classic recipe originally created for Cooking Light by Lia Huber (founder of Nourish Network).

Great Expectations: Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller ($50)

Thomas Keller, revered by many as the best American-born chef,  shares his version of family-style cooking in his newest book. In some ways, it’s both an extension of and the polar opposite of Cooking Light Way to Cook. If Cooking Light’s book is about getting supper on the table tonight, Keller’s is about crafting dinner this weekend. But if the basics in Cooking Light Way to Cook are too basic and you’re ready for the next step, I urge you to get a copy of Ad Hoc. It will challenge you, in a gentle way. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have Keller in your kitchen, but his voice comes through in the pages of Ad Hoc, and reading the recipes is a bit like having him coach you at the stove–conversational, thorough, and friendly.

Keller makes some concessions to the home cook. The first recipe, “Dinner for Dad,” which consists of his late-father’s favorite barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes, collard greens, and a dessert of strawberry shortcake, calls for bottled barbecue sauce. “Try to find a sauce with some integrity,” Keller urges, “preferably from a small producer.” He also allows store-bought shortcake for assembling the dessert.

That’s the exception. Overall, Ad Hoc encourages the home cook to a higher standard, with multistep recipes and lots of technique. Meatballs with Pappardelle is a perfect example. Keller’s version of this humble family standby calls for four kinds of meat, which, ideally, you grind yourself. Or ask the butcher to grind for you. Picking up pre-ground meat is offered only as a last resort. He also calls for homemade dried breadcrumbs and homemade pasta (the book has recipes for both), and an Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce that takes several hours to prepare (it’s delicious). The meatballs are stuffed with fresh mozzarella and I’m surprised Keller doesn’t call for making that, too, ’cause, yep, there’s a recipe for that in the pages of Ad Hoc. You see what I mean when I say that Ad Hoc is for weekend cooking.

You can prepare a decent, even good, meal in 20 minutes, sure. But great meals, memorable meals, take longer. They just do. And that’s what Ad Hoc is about. My advice: Start with the Basics section at the back of Ad Hoc. This is where Keller shares some wonderful (and wonderfully approachable) building blocks for great dishes–sauces, doughs, and the like. The Oven-Roasted Tomato Sauce is just one example. Yes, it takes a couple of hours to make, but it’s not hard and you’ll be rewarded with a complex-flavored sauce that will enhance all manner of dishes, even a simple bowl of pasta.

Culinary Off-Roading: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman ($27)

Although I make a living developing recipes, I’ve always said that a recipe is only a template to inspire the user to create something new. In Ratio, Ruhlman tutors you in the basic formulas behind cooking–everything from batters and doughs to forcemeats, sauces, and custards. Want to whip up a batch of biscuits for supper tonight? Armed with 3 parts flour, 1 part fat, and 2 parts liquid–plus a trusty kitchen scale–you’re ready to go. Basic ratios won’t yield the best biscuit, pizza, or vinaigrette you’ve ever had, Ruhlman notes, but they are the basis for true culinary creativity. “Ratios free you,” he declares. Interestingly, Ratio is sprinkled with Ruhlman’s tempting recipes, but these simply serve as examples of how basic ratios inspire new variations. His new accompanying Ratio iPhone app ($4.99) makes it even easier to calculate ratios for any yield. Now, go have some real fun in the kitchen.

Goodies for foodies

It’s that time, when we’re all searching for just the right thing to put under the tree, next to the menorah, at the Kwanzaa table, or whatever. If you have a foodie or two in your list, you’re in luck. There are a ton of gadgets and equipment for all budgets. Some must-haves I think belong in every kitchen include:

Sharp vegetable peeler

One the best pieces of equipment in my culinary school knife kit turned out to the Messermeister Serrated Swivel Peeler ($8). It’s light, nimble, and sharp. Even better, Sur la Table sells it in a selection of juicy colors.

Digital thermometer

I use my Taylor Commercial Instant-Read Digital Thermometer all the time. With a capacity up to 450 F, it’s  versatile enough to test the doneness of meat or keep track of sugar as it cooks for candy.

Kitchen scale

I’m hopeless at eyeballing ingredients, so I use a digital kitchen scale for everything from weighing out pasta to scaling ingredients for baking. My favorite is the Oxo Good Grips Food Scale ($49.99), which has an 11-pound capacity, removable stainless-steel deck (makes it easy to clean), and a light-up digital display that pulls out (nice when you have a large bowl overhangs). Of course, it also has a taring function and the option for Imperial or metric weight.

Good knives

Mac the Knife: These imported Japanese knives live up to the hype.

A good knife is a cook’s best friend, and everyone has their favorite. Mine is the Japanese-made Mac knife, which is lightweight, well-balanced, thin, and maintains a sharp edge. Their knives are also well priced (starting as low as $25 for a paring knife). Shop around online to find the best deals.

If a quest to eat cheap and/or local fare means spending more time in the kitchen breaking down whole chickens or filleting fish, a good boning knife is a helpful tool. These knives boast thin, super-sharp, flexible, 5- or -6-inch blades that make it easy to separate meat from the bone or skin a fish. Again, check out what Mac has to offer.

Stand mixer

A KitchenAid stand mixer is the workhorse of many professional and home kitchens. Why? It’s versatile. You can use it to mix a cake batter, knead bread dough, or whip up a meringue. Optional attachments extend its reach to include making ice cream, grinding meat, stuffing sausage, or rolling out pasta. (Hint: I’m asking for the pasta attachment this Christmas.) Mine mixer is from the tilt-head, 5-quart Artisan series ($299.99), and I confess I bought it because, well, it was apple green and went very nicely in a kitchen I had just remodeled. It still does a terrific job, but if I were buying a stand mixer know, I’d pay a bit more for the Professional 600 series ($399.99). It has a more powerful motor and 6-quart bowl for bigger jobs.

If someone already has a KitchenAid stand mixer, surprise them with a Beater Blade ($20), a paddle attachment with rubber bumpers so it scrapes the bowl while it mixes. KitchenAid, why didn’t you think of this?