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I’m on the Radio! (Well, Podcast.)

The Life of Dad After Show PodcastI had the pleasure of being a guest on the Life of Dad Aftershow (episode 85), hosted by two great guys, Ryan Hamilton and Art Eddy, who Christine and I have gotten to know through a network of dad bloggers.

One of the most rewarding things to me about learning to cook and sharing our ideas and techniques here is being able to feed family and friends. I mentioned in the show that there’s something I’ve come to realize: I like to eat, I love to cook, but I’m my best person when I’m feeding people. My goal here with Spoon & Knife has never been to show off cooking skills (plenty of people cook better than me!) but to educate and encourage people to get into the kitchen and cook, for themselves and for the people around them.

Thanks to Ryan and Art for giving me the chance to talk about this mission. It was also a test for me to try something other than writing. I feel I’m better in dialogue and conversation than I am forcing my ideas into written pieces with start, middle, and end. Christine and I have talked about this and toyed with the notion of other formats and media; I appreciate the guys for being my first crack at podcasting.

Go check out their site and network, have a listen to the show (and many others in their archives!), and leave them some love. They’re doing good work encouraging involved dads everywhere.

How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home

How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home - the science and art of making coffee. From http://spoonandknife.com

This is about what I have learned about how to brew a better cup of coffee at home. I’m not going to cover espresso-based drinks. It has been awhile since I wrote about this, and I’ve changed a few things and learned a great deal since then. This is the current State of the Coffee. Here goes:
 

The Four Ms of Espresso (and, well, not-espresso)

Part of the lore of good espresso is summed up by the Italians in four words: Miscela (the coffee blend) , Macinacaffe (the grinder), Macchina (the machine) and Mano (the hand or the barista). The same is true for brewed coffee as well, really. Those four elements, in no particular order, cover everything needed to make a great cup of coffee. (Well, with a little fudging.)
 

Miscela – The Blend

Grinding coffee beans at home

Buy quality beans, only what you can go through in about a week or so, and only whole bean. Really, that’s the basis of it. Local coffee shops are popping up all over, so try to get to know your caffeinated neighbor and support the local economy. Chances are, they are either roasting great beans themselves or are sourcing something much fresher than you’ll find in the grocery store or mega-chain.

Beyond that, try all sorts of coffee and get to know your own preferences. I’ve found that I tend to prefer coffee from Central America over the Middle East or Africa. Generally. Well, often, anyway. There isn’t a “top” or “best” growing region, they all show different characteristics of the soil, elevation, climate, et cetera.

I said there’d be a little fudging. As long as we’re talking about base ingredients, water deserves a mention. Always as filtered and pure as you can get. There is such a thing as “too” pure, but that’s mainly medical-grade. I most often use the water from my fridge filter, out of convenience. But remember when I said to make friends with the local coffee shops? When I really have my act together, I take an empty beer growler (never used for beer!) and fill up with water from them. They put in a high end filtration system when they built out the new cafe, calibrated to have a specific amount of dissolved minerals and stuff in the water, which makes it awesome to brew with.
 

Macinacaffe -The Grinder

Baratza Vario-W Coffee GrinderIt’s stunning how important this is to the quality of your coffee. I don’t care how you choose to brew or what coffee you use, the grinder WILL have a significant impact.

Basically, grinding is the act of smashing a coffee bean into bits. Try this experiment: Put a handful of beans in a plastic bag and bash them with a pot. Is every piece the same size? Definitely not. Some pieces will be larger chunks, others closer to dust.

When you brew coffee, you’re soaking the grounds in hot water trying to pull out all the flavor that you want without pulling out too much (which is bitter). The grind size affects this; smaller pieces extract faster than larger ones, so by the time the big pieces are done, the little ones are way overdone. Good grinding is therefore not just about grinding a size right for the brew method, but grinding as evenly and precisely to that size.

Cheap grinders just don’t perform that well (and there are good ones aren’t that expensive). This is where I’ve made the most significant upgrade at home, purchasing the Baratza Vario-W Coffee Grinder, after some obsessive research.
 

Macchina – The Machine

This is the part that always gets the glamour and focus. Truth is, with a bit of understanding of what goes on in extraction and why, almost any contraption can make good coffee. Broadly, I put brewing methods and devices into three categories:

  • Immersion- these methods soak or steep coffee grounds in water. They are usually the fullest bodied coffee, but often cloudier or bitter from tiny coffee particles. Examples include the French Press and the Clever Coffee Dripper but also, with a leap from hot to cold, includes Toddy and other cold-process brews as well.
  • Filtered – This includes most of the traditional coffee machines. Hot water is passed over ground coffee through some kind of filter. Examples include auto-drip makers as well as Chemex or nearly any other pour over setup.
  • Pressure – Not so different from filtered, but makes for a sufficiently different drink that I put it into its own category. Hot water is forced at pressure through grounds. Examples: Moka Pot, espresso.

One type of brewing isn’t “better” than another; it really does come down to taste and what characteristics of the coffee are desirable. Filtered brewing tends to bring out the brighter, more subtle flavors and acidity. Immersion methods tend to extract more and highlight the deeper, richer flavors and have a stronger body or mouth feel. Think of it like the three-band equalizer on a car stereo. Filtered pour-over methods are like turning up the high or treble side and dialing back a bit on the bass. Immersion brewing cranks up the bass and mids, which squash out the high frequencies. Pressured brewing like espresso is like turning up all three at the same time.

Basic Home Brew setup for making Coffee
 

Mano – That’s You!

This is the part that ties everything else together. First off, the “best” coffee is whatever matches your taste and preferences. If what you love is waking up to a Mr. Coffee pot of drip coffee, or a boiling kettle and a jar of instant coffee, then by all means have it your way! The point of all this is to think more critically and holistically about coffee, to have more options at the ready, and to understand a bit more how all these factors affect what goes into the cup.

That said, some brewing is more technical or requires more finesse and dexterity. Much has been published on the ways to pour water into a Hario V60 to achieve an even extraction, for example; this is beyond the scope of this writing. Depending on what kind of coffee you are brewing for, read up, watch videos, and talk to the folks at your local coffee haunt for tips and advice.
 

Some Basics To Get Going

Using a variable temperature electric kettle to get water to the right temperature

Now, welcome to my coffee ritual. This varies a bit depending on a whim really, but should illustrate the concepts above.

  • I do most of my brewing now in a Clever Coffee Dripper. This is a hybrid that brews immersion-style, but filters the coffee at the end like a pour-over. I really prefer the deepness of brewing like this, but it solves the bitter grit or cloudiness problem of a French press.
  • Good beans, good water are key. A standard dose, and where I would start with a new brewer, is 6O grams of coffee per liter of water. (A scale is truly your best friend here, regardless of how you brew. Consistency matters.) I find I like mine a little stronger, so I go to 32g per 500ml of water.
  • Coffee generally brews best around 195-205 F over 3:30-4:00 minute brew time. This is most certainly a work of trial and error to hit this range and decide whether it’s more pleasing to be on the high side or the low. Using a Variable Temperature Electric Kettle will make getting your water to the right temperature much easier.
  • Bloom. Bloom is what happens when you first introduce hot water To coffee grounds. The trapped gases (mainly carbon dioxide) in the coffee beans is released. I pour over just enough water to wet the grounds and let it sit for 20-30 seconds. You should be able to watch it bubble up. Then add the rest of the brew water. The science behind this is that the gas otherwise forms a vapor barrier that keeps water from making contact with the coffee; what I know is that doing this yields a better and more even consistent extraction.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

I said back at the start that this is my current state of affairs. Fact is, There is a LOT to learn about coffee, and our understanding of science and technique is constantly evolving. A year from now, I maybe doing some thing completely different. The fun is in the journey.

I hope your daily cup gets a little better for reading this; please ask questions in the comments!

Weeknight Bites – Salad with Bacon and Egg

Salad with Poached Egg

Quick one this time for a Tuesday night dinner in a hurry. This salad with bacon and egg is a play on the French frisée aux lardons, but spun about for what I had on hand.

One of the nice things about poached eggs is that you can do them ahead of time and keep them in a container of water in the fridge for days. Dunk them in warm-hot water for 45-60 seconds to refresh, dry on a paper towel, and you’re ready to go.

In this case, I had a head of romaine left from Mother’s Day, but I’ll freely admit to using pre-cut bags of lettuce from the grocery store. No, it’s not hard to clean and cut lettuce, but even I need grab-and-go ease once in a while. It’s not really a “processed” food, and while it doesn’t have the bright flavors that fresh lettuce would have, it’s fine for a meal for myself.

Cutting the Poached Egg on the Salad

Basically, this is a lettuce salad lightly dressed with crispy bacon and a poached egg. Wash and cut the lettuce (or cut open and dump out the bag) and place in a bowl. Cut a few strips of bacon into inch wide pieces and cook until crispy; remove to a paper towel to drain while you strain and save the rendered bacon fat in the fridge. Heat the poached egg in hot water, and place on a paper towel to drain. Dress the lettuce lightly – just glistening, and you’ll get some more from the egg yolk – add the bacon, place the egg on top, finish with a bit of salt and pepper, and enjoy!

Warm bacon, warm egg, cold lettuce, and a bit of seasoning. Really, you can’t go wrong. (Heck, fry the egg if you prefer it that way.)

Poached Egg on Salad

Cook’s Notes – Gluten Free Benny BLT (Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato, Eggs Benedict Style)

Gluten-Free BLT Eggs BenedictMaking the Gluten-Free Benny BLT was a fun one to put together. Not only is it a chance to practice a few techniques – poaching eggs, making hollandaise sauce, plating for visual appeal – but it’s a chance to use some fantastic cured pork I had prepared myself as part of The French Pig workshop.

Let’s talk bottom-up on this one, then:

Tomatoes are great when they’re ripe and in season, and bland when they aren’t. None of them looked right in the grocery store, but I was able to find some really nice ones from local farmers at Revival Market. Don’t do this with a sub-par tomato; find something else – a biscuit, an English muffin, some baked beans – to substitute.

There’s a bit of a story behind the parsnip leaves. What I really wanted – what I had my heart set on – was a nice crisp piece of Boston lettuce. Not too big, but curved slightly to act as a cup for the bacon and egg. However, this is one of the hazards of eating locally from good markets – occasionally, they don’t have what you want. I asked for any other lettuce, which they were out of – and reminded me that the day prior, they had done a Burger Sunday special to strong demand and had used every bit of lettuce they had. Whoops. There were bunches of beet greens and other strong greens, but these were going to be far too earthy and bitter for what I wanted.

If not having something is a hazard, then one of the saving graces is the people on hand. Always, ALWAYS build a relationship, not just a transaction, with the people who provide you with food. In this case, Edgar came to my rescue. I asked about the parsnips leaves (I’ve tried using carrot greens before, but with limited success). In a chain grocery, I’d have gotten a “we don’t sell that” response. In contrast, Edgar’s reply was “Let’s try it!”. He came out to the produce case, pulled a leaf off a parsnip, tasted it, and suggested it might just work for what I was doing – and cut off a small bunch for me. It’s these little moments that make getting to know your suppliers so useful.

The bacon is shown in pieces. It works. Truth be told, I had wanted to cook it and keep its spiral shape, but I didn’t think to put a press on it as it cooked in the test batch (hey, any excuse to eat more bacon) and it tightened up into a bowl shape instead. Afterwards, I tried it with a press to some success but still curling action. Lardons are best here.

There’s an entire other post coming on how to poach an egg – this is one of those things that are surrounded by as much kitchen myth and old tales as actual science. Short version – hot-but-not-boiling water, deeper than you think you need, and have a few extra eggs on hand.

If I describe hollandaise sauce as just a warm mayonnaise that uses butter for the oil, some of you might realize how easy it is to make a hollandaise. (Of course, for anybody who followed that description, you’ve probably already covered making hollandaise.) I did this one over a double boiler because I could do a small volume that way and because I wanted to see if I could do it the old-fashioned way. I’ve not tried it, but I believe it can be done with a stick blender in small quantities – the hot butter will heat up the egg yolks – and I’ve seen it done in larger quantities in a proper blender. There’s still something fun about doing it by hand, though, so whisk away!

The chives on top are there for a bit of flavor but to really give a shot of color to the dish. Adding small accents of green at the last moment does a lot to make a plate seem more fresh and enjoyable.

And that’s about it! I won’t say this was especially fast to put together, but with a bit of practice it will be. Enjoy!

Be sure to check out the original recipe post for the Gluten-Free Benny BLT if you haven’t already!

Cook’s Notes – Making the Flounder Ceviche Recipe

Flounder Ceviche Appetizer Recipe  -  Cooks Notes

Honestly, at its heart, the Flounder Ceviche is small pieces of fish marinated in citrus juices. You can use any type of fresh fish or even shellfish such as lobster or scallops. The key is that it must be as fresh as possible. The rest are complimentary flavorings. The permutations are nearly endless; I suggest searching for “leche de tigre” (“tiger’s milk”) for more information or ideas about how to marinate the fish.

Controlling the marinade controls how spicy or sweet you want to go. Blends of many tropical fruits – oranges, lemons, limes, even pineapples, passionfruit and the like – can make the base of the marinade. I have trouble imagining a ceviche without shallots and cilantro, but that’s just me.

The key is the technique – marinating the fish long enough to change and “cook” the protein without overdoing it and turning it to mush. Find a good recipe to use as a base and branch out from there; you don’t want to introduce risk by having poorly prepared or under”cooked” fish making somebody sick. That said, this is incredibly easy to do right, so don’t be afraid of ceviche. Just because you didn’t turn on the stove doesn’t mean that the result isn’t properly prepared food.

There aren’t really more notes I have for this – it’s the kind of food I like to make when I can get a nice fresh piece of fish and play with each time. I haven’t made the same ceviche twice. Here are some links from resources I trust on ceviche why’s and how’s: