Sunday, December 28, 2008

Blueberry Port

PL here ...

I first sipped Blueberry Port at a science fiction convention - I-Con, held at SUNY's Stony Brook campus on Long Island, New York - in 2004. Duck Walk Vineyards, a little down the road on Montauk Highway in Southampton, was hosting a tasting, and I knew as soon as I saw that dark blue wine in a glass that I would really like it.

I'm partial to anything blueberry - probably stems from the time my father and I went out picking wild blueberries near our bungalow in Monticello, New York, and we got lost and didn't get back home until well after dark. This was a pretty big deal and worry for my mother in age before cell phones, but the blueberries we ate for lunch and dinner out in the thicket were the best I've ever had. Sweet, and, now I know, teeming with anti-oxidants.

Port, on the other hand, is usually a slowly acquired taste. "Fortified" is the word used to denote its invigoration with brandy - which stops the fermentation, increases the alcohol content, and retains sugar. This kind of wine, which gets its name from the Portuguese city of Porto on the sea, can be a little overpowering when made from grapes. But not when it's made from blueberries.

It's not cheap. Duck Walk charges $12.95 or more for 375ml, half the size of a bottle of wine. But the blueberries are handpicked in the wild in Maine... You can pour the port over ice cream, or just sip it on its own.

And, hey, wouldn't you like to be able to say to someone who comes over your place, next time, "Care for a glass of port?"

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Papaya King and Gray's Papaya

PL here ...

I first became impressed with Papaya King - to the point of thinking it served the best non-alcoholic drink in town - back in the late 1960s, when I was writing the songs that would become Twice Upon a Rhyme with Ed Fox over at his place on York Avenue and East 85th Street in New York. Papaya King was on the corner of East 86th Street and 3rd Avenue, and its "papaya drink," advertised in hilarious, garish signs as being a cure for whatever ailed you, was just delicious. It contained some kind of papaya juice, and probably a little pineapple, orange, and who knows what else, in a frothy mix that tasted out of this world, if you drank it right after you bought it. If you brought some home and drank it the next day, it just tasted run-of-the-mill good.

The signage, in addition to the elan vital claims for helping your digestion, was also not to be believed. FDR was said to have come up with the idea of the New Deal after drinking a papaya from Papaya King - which had opened (as Hawaiian Tropical Fruits) in 1932, so the timing was right - and even Lyndon Johnson's endorsement was on the wall, which, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, was not too persuasive. And if Presidents current and past were not enough, the Beatles were said to have visited Papaya King in 1965 before their appearance on Ed Sullivan, plus a sign proclaimed that Papaya King's hot dog was "Tastier than Filet Mignon."

The place made such an impression on me that I had Jeff Harris, the time traveler in my 1997 novella Loose Ends, buy two papaya drinks at Papaya King, and muse that there was nothing like it in his century. (He wouldn't have been able to take any drinks to go with him to the future, because, as I mentioned above, they don't travel all that well. Though, come to think of it, maybe instantly through time, they would.)

By the late 1990s, I had conveyed the lore of the papaya drink to my wife and our kids, but we tended to be on West more than East Side of New York, which brought us to Gray's Papaya on 72nd Street and Broadway. Gray's Papaya had started as a copy of Papaya King in 1972, and by the 1990s it was certainly giving Papaya King a run for its money.

Debates still froth about which has the better papaya drink. I'm reasonably sure that Gray's tastes a tiny bit more marvelous at first, but Papaya King's sits a little better a few minutes later. But I could have it reversed, and everyone who has tried papayas at both has their own opinions. The signage at Gray's certainly is not as wild as at Papaya King's, but Gray's does have its endorsement of Barack Obama in March 2008 going for it - though it hasn't yet claimed that that's where Obama got his idea for the New New Deal.

Gray's does have a winning sensitivity to economic hard times and the need they engender for cheap, tasty lunches - and dinners - and has been offering its "Recession Special" of two hot dogs and a papaya for years. It's now up to $4.45, still a good deal, but was recently $3.50, and with so many millionaires now out of work, one hopes Gray's sees the light and lowers its price to at least its previous level. The store recently has seemed to be perpetually under reconstruction, but that's a venerable New York City tradition - see the Bruckner Expressway, not to mention the Second Avenue subway, which actually was never constructed in the first place.

If you've never had a papaya drink - at either Papaya King or Gray's - trust me, you'll love it, but, again, drink it right away for best effect. The only drink that ever came close is Orange Julius - "a devilishly good drink" - but that's another story...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trader Joe's

PL here ...

If I were to tell you that I sometimes think the music playing in Trader Joe's is better than the food, believe me, that would only be a very high compliment about the music, because the food is superb. A few days ago, I heard the Four Season's Ronnie and the Beau Brummels' Laugh Laugh in the Trader Joe's on Central Avenue in Westchester - I'd say it's been decades since I heard either song anywhere, including on WCBS-FM, the great oldies station in New York.

But about Trader Joe's food - it's astonishingly good, healthy, and inexpensive. Here's is a little of what my wife Tina and I picked up on our last trip:

1. Chicken Drumettes ... boneless white chicken meat, already cooked, no preservatives, no artificial ingredients ... about 20 pieces - 3 is certainly enough for lunch and even a light dinner. Melts in your mouth.

2. Pomegranate Green Tea ... 64 ounces of tea, kettle brewed from green tea leaves, pomegranate juice, pear and eldeberry juice ... the cane sugar ingredient is not overwhelming (15 grams per serving) ... Delicious.

3. Trail mix of shelled pistachios, almonds, and cherries ... speaks for itself...

The first two are just a few dollars each. The trail mix can be a little more, depending on the size of the package.

By the way, if you like chicken, Trader Joe's also has delectable Mandarin Orange and Tempura chicken packages. Under $5 dollar each, and they make great dinners with Trader Joe's jasmine or frozen organic rice. The rice microwaves and comes our great. (On my microwave, 3 drumettes for 1 minute at 7 out of 10 power works perfectly. If you keep the drumettes close together, they'll not only be happy, but you will, too, because the heat in the microwave works more evenly. At least it does, in mine.)

A few things to beware of ... Not every item in the store is organic. Some of the nuts and dried fruits have sugar added. Some of the ready-to-eat dinners have a lot of sodium. So, in all cases, read the labels carefully, as you would in any store.

But the main problem with Trader Joe's is that the store is sometimes - well, often - out of stock, on one or more great items. They run out of items at the warehouse, temporarily discontinue them, then bring them back. (This happened this past summer with the Pomegranate Green Tea.) The remedy for this is stock up whenever you can, and/or go to the store often.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


PL here ...

A science fiction editor I know pretty well - you won't be able to guess who she is, she hasn't edited any of my books - once said that if she wanted to eat raw fish and seaweed, she could go stretch out on some sea shore, face to the ocean, and open her mouth...

Well, aside from not working very well in winter - unless you're a member of the Polar Bear Club, which is another story - what you can get to eat in a Japanese sushi restaurant, whether raw fish or seaweed, is a lot more tasty. In fact, sushi is my favorite food.

Or tied for first place with Italian food - vongole (clams) or calamari (squid) to be exact...

But sushi is a cold, sweet, salty protein rush. Not everyone likes it - but it's a lot more than you can get, mouth open, at the shore. A significant joy of sushi is the vinegared rice, which not only tastes great but keeps the fish fresh. And of course the mix of fish could never swim up on any single shore. Sushi comes in pieces and various kinds of rolls. Each piece is a mini-food pyramid, with protein (fish), carbs (rice), and vegetable (seaweed). If you order piece by piece, you can easily control how much you eat, even better than with Chinese dim sum and Spanish tapas. Your high school fitness teacher should have loved it.

My wife introduced me to sushi back in the 1970s. Her boss loved it (he lived to a ripe old age). Now I actually eat more more sushi than she does.

Here are a few of my favorites, with explanations:

White tuna: I get it whenever I can. It's much more vibrant than any regular tuna, including Yellow Tail, which is quite good.

Ebi: This is sweet, raw shrimp ... and it's sweeter than sugar ...

Soft-shell crab: Served in any way is delicious. I like mine in a "roll" - crab on the inside, seaweed wrapping, rice in the middle ... the soft-shell crab is cooked ...

Well, that's more than enough dinner for me. I included the soft-shell crab not only because it's delicious but because it's cooked. Most sushi shrimp, unlike the raw Ebi, is cooked, too. These are good entry morsels into the world of sushi, if you're squeamish about eating fish raw. But, look, lox is raw, and you've probably eaten some of that at one time or another. Tuna sushi is just lox's next-door neighbor.

Miso soup, made from soy, is a good way to start - the darker the better. Edamame - soy beans in their pods, boiled or steamed - is a scrumptious and very healthy appetizer. Green tea is great to sip with sushi. Plum wine is fine, and sake is smooth and transcendental.

If you have room for dessert, I'd go with red-bean ice cream.

I should mention that Jeremy Piven - Entourage's Ari Gold - was recently diagnosed with mercury poisoning, and tuna sushi may be implicated. But he ate it twice a day, and it's not clear at this point whether the sushi, Chinese herbs he also consumed, or both are to blame. Whatever the case, consuming too much of anything can make you ill - people die every year of water poisoning. Much as I love sushi, I'd stay with the twice a month to twice a week at most mode - never twice a day, every day. I don't know if Aristotle ate raw fish, but he was right in his principle of moderation, at least when it comes to food.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

White Tea

PL here ...

Welcome to the first post of this new blog, Educated Tastes - about food, drink, restaurants, recipes, groceries, the whole enchilada ...

You may know me as an author of a dozen books and a blogger about television on Infinite Regress. People often ask me what I'm drinking when I'm writing, when I'm watching television, when I'm writing about watching television. Come to think of it, I'm drinking it right now...

In fact, whatever I may be doing and watching, I usually drink it at the end of long, tiring days - even long days that are not tiring. It has enough caffeine to keep me sharp, without keeping me awake, unless I want to be.

A long time ago, I used to drink coffee. But it had the strange effect of turning me into a real grouch the next day. Some people said this was a complete reversal for me.

I can't recall exactly when I switched to tea.

Tea's a touchy thing. It's not that hot in northern New Jersey, and I'd guess that's because of the water. It's almost always good in London, probably for the same reason. In New York City, and close by, it's usually good. A lot depends upon the tea, too, and how you prepare it.

First, white tea is a kind of green tea, best prepared not by boiling but steaming water. Best of all is water that just starts to steam. But if you forget about this and the water starts to boil, just wait until it cools down just a bit.

I have seen and sipped white tea in bags, and it's ok, but do yourself a favor and get some sort of tea maker. You can use a tea-ball and chain - you can buy them ranging from new to Victorian antiques - and they sell plastic contraptions for under $25 which make excellent tea from loose leaves.

I sometimes put white tea leaves in a cup, add water, and let the tea brew in the cup. Most of the leaves settle to the bottom, and they're fun to suck on.

White tea comes from the tips of green tea leaves. Which means they are the most tender part of the leaf. Unlike black tea leaves, green and white leaves are not aged.

White tea is said to have powerful anti-oxidizing qualities. That's good, but I'd drink it anyway, because I like it what it tastes like, and how it makes me feel.
It comes in lots of varieties. I'd recommend Mutan - it's sweet and smooth. If you want a white tea with a little more tingle, try Silver Needle.

The age of the tea leaves - how long they have been stored - is extremely important. We're not talking wine here. The fresher the tea the better. I bought some white tea in an old Chinese shop in London a few years ago. I had the idea that maybe I was getting a taste from some secret, delicious, ancient stash. The tea itself was very old, that was certain. It tasted like it came from the Manchu dynasty - which means, it tasted awful. Old tea tastes like some kind of wood shavings, which, although I've never tasted, can't taste too good.

White tea has become one of my favorite off-beat beverages. It also seems to be attracting a lot of public interest - I have more listens on my White Tea episode than any other piece on my Ask Lev podcast. If you'd like to hear it - it's about 3-minutes long - just click on the player below.

All right - you saw this coming. I've got some water on the boil that's starting to steam ...

I'd send a cup to you right through the Web, if I could, but java script can't process tea - not even java - just information, like this ...

3 minutes more about white tea