blarg?

food

A little while ago, the espresso machine in our office broke down. This doomsday scenario is, and I say this without the least bit of hyperbole, the most catastrophically dire situation that can exist in this or any other possible universe. If the intertubes felt slow for you the last few weeks, that’s probably why.

After a while, I started asking a colleague, Sean Martell, to ‘shop up some old war propaganda every few days, to express our dismay.

So, here you go.

We Need Coffee To Survive

It Can Happen Here

We Can Do It

Mercifully it is now fixed, and productivity should normalize in a day or two.

You need a Silpat nonstick cooking mat, a baking tray, an oven and tongs. Turn the oven up to 400, but you don’t need to let it finish preheating; this starts from cold. Silpat goes on the tray, bacon goes on the Silpat and it all goes in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

No other interaction, no stirring, no splatter, no mess. Pull out the tray when it’s as crispy as you like; I prefer crispy bacon so I aim for the 25 minute mark, but there’s room for debate here. Pick the bacon up and shake off any excess fat, plate your evenly cooked, perfect-all-the-way-across bacon, done. Cleanup is incredibly easy, just pour the grease out and rinse the Silpat and tray with hot water.

This has really revolutionized my bacon-having experience. You should try it.

I’ve had this in the queue for a while, not sure why it didn’t get put up. Well, here it is.

Get a bottle of a good bourbon. I’m partial to Woodford Reserve, myself, but there’s clearly room for disagreement here. But if I said “good bourbon” and you thought “Wild Turkey” or “Jim Beam”, then good Lord, son. No. Turn off your computer, pack your bags and move out of the fraternity immediately. It’s time. Leave your sweatpants, jerseys and sportball caps behind; they are the things of children, and you know in your heart that you are no longer that child. Today is a new day; go forth, young man, and bro no more.

Once you’ve worked that whole life-change process through and secured the bourbon, get some really good whole-bean coffee.

As above, there’s room for disagreement. And likewise if you thought “Starbucks” then you’re due for a second spiritual-growth vision-quest where you come back knowing the difference between the bouquet of a fine wine and whatever’s left of a burning sneaker after you’ve put it out by pissing on it. You’ll have to work out the specifics there yourself but you get the idea. Just get it done.

Personally, I’m partial to a lightly-roasted north-African coffee; they tend to have a complex, floral flavor to them that I think offsets the rich, buttery taste of Woodford Reserve very nicely. If you’re partial to a bourbon with a brighter or sweeter taste, a Bulleit for example, they’ll pair well with something more robust that’s been roasted mid to dark. Experiment, is my advice; there’s lots here to love, and much science to be done to refine it.

The process is:

  • Measure out a little over half of a cup of coffee beans and a full cup of bourbon.
  • Pour the coffee beans directly back into the bottle, topping the bottle back off from the cup of bourbon.
  • Close the bottle back up and put it in a cool, dark cupboard.
  • Drink the leftover bourbon.

You’ll need to wait at least four or five days for that to properly infuse, maybe as much as a week, and don’t rush it; you’ll only be cheating your newly-grown-up-with-a-refined-palate-that-deserves-better self – but take it from me, you’ll be happy you did.

I own two French presses, I have a reasonably competent electric grinder and by and large that makes my morning coffee a pretty pleasant thing. I usually brew my coffee in the smaller of the two; as much as I love coffee I don’t have the time or inclination to drink an entire pot in one sitting, so that one stays on the shelf most of the time.

But when summer rolls around, it’s a different story; the larger bodum – similar to this dingus from Ikea, though I picked mine up at a yard sale for $2 – starts to get a lot of attention, because cold-brewed iced coffee is a great summer-morning drink.

It’s about as easy to make as anything could be. If you’ve got a decent grinder dial it down to a coarse grind, and in about a five to one ratio of cold water to coffee, mix it in the french press. Then put it, unpressed, in the fridge the night before you want to drink it. Throw it in while you’re making dinner, it should have a good 10-12 hours.

My fridge doesn’t have the vertical space to leave the unpressed plunger in, so that part stays on the counter; I’ve tried covering it with saran wrap or not, it doesn’t seem to make a difference that I can detect. Regardless, you push the plunger down in the morning, and you’re left with an uncomplicated, crisp cup of cold coffee with lots of flavor and very little of the bitterness and acidity that can ruin a mishandled bean.

There’s no accounting for taste, so some people still want to put milk and sugar into this, but I urge you to give it a try neat before you do; you’re not going to need to mask the bitterness of industrial-coffee here, or rush to drink it before it becomes unbearable. Be advised, though: that same lack of acidity makes it very easy to drink, and iced coffee is at least, and maybe more, caffeinated than standard drip coffee or espresso. So it’s very easy to get the jitters, if you’re not careful. Just pour it over some ice cubes and off you go.

It’s so easy, and so good.

You Shouldn't Be Rapping

This week’s mad science news is that I’m starting to experiment with sous-vide cooking now that I’ve gotten around to building myself the necessary tool to do that, uninspiringly referred to as a sous-vide cooker.

The idea of sous-vide or “vacuum-sealed” cooking is that you can achieve various interesting results by cooking things at low and often quite specific temperatures for much longer periods of time. Eggs can actually be poached in the shell, for example, and meat of any thickness can be cooked to perfect medium rare all the way through before a quick searing on the grill to finish and serve.

It turned out to be pretty straightforward; you can use a slow cooker, but if you have a pot and a wall socket you can get the rest of the way there for about $100 in parts. While the resulting tool won’t get you all the way to the tenth-of-a-degree precision that professionals may insist they need, you can get an accuracy of plus or minus one degree for fraction of the cost.

That will be a familiar experience for anyone who’s ever bought professional lab equipment, no doubt; want that extra shaving of a decimal point’s worth of fractional accuracy? That’ll be a 20000% premium, please. Fortunately for me amateurishness can be pretty easy on the budget, at least in the short term.

This has been interesting reading, including the temperature charts that I was soliciting on twitter the other day. I’ve also been looking at this list of food temperatures from Health Canada, and a comparable U.S. Government food safety page with a just slightly jaundiced eye, as their tendency to err on the side of cook-until-rubberized is understandable. Even more unfortunately, most of the other sites I’ve found have all the familiar hallmarks of trending-term content farmers, and no.

Nevertheless, a quite high quality of ingredients and information about temperatures and times is important when one possible failure mode is the E-Coli-A-Gogo version of the Sea Monkeys Home Aquarium and a night in the ER vomiting out your lungs. Did that image dissuade you? It’s OK if it did, this isn’t for the culinarily timid or faint of gut. If not, excellent, let us press on; just don’t be doing this with discount meat, you know?

Assuming you have a medium-to-largeish pot to hand, you really don’t need much:

  • About a meter of loose extension cord wire and separate male and female ends you can attach it to. Three prong, please. You can pick this up at your local hardware store for between five and ten bucks, horribly overpriced at that.
  • A dozen or so smallish marrettes just to cleanly tie it all together. Hardware store, likewise.
  • The parts that your hardware store won’t have are a Temperature Controller, a solid state relay, and a thermocouple. Those links go to the places I got mine, and I was pretty happy doing business with them – they insisted on a shipping method with a tracking number to ship to Canada, but their prices were a lot better than I’ve found elsewhere, so.
  • A standalone electrical element like that one, and a wire rack of some kind that fits in the bottom of your pot. This is the part you can substitute with a non-digital slow-cooker (and possibly even a rice cooker?) if you’ve already got one of them.

I won’t go through the step-by-step of wiring all of that up, but email me if you like. The basic idea is this: power comes from the wall and goes both to the temperature controller and through one side of the relay. The other side of the relay, the control circuit part, is likewise wired up to the temperature controller (the documentation for that thing is here) as is the thermocouple. What you’ll end up with is essentially an extension cord with a thermometer switch; it switches on when the temperature drops below some value and off again once you get back where you want to be. You should clip the thermocouple wire to the side of your pot with a clothespin or something so it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pot, or your readings will get a bit skittish. The wire rack is just to keep the zip-lock freezer bags you’ll be using from touching the hot bottom of the pan directly.

That’s about it. The only thing I have left to do is to find myself a reasonably pretty project box for the whole assembly – right now it’s a little inelegant with all the wires hanging out, but it works like a charm. I’m going to be trying something a lot like this out tomorrow night, just to see what comes out the other end of it, and I have it on good authority that butter-poached ribeye is one of the greatest things in ever.

I’ll keep you informed!

Fall Colour

Pour two ounces of Sortilège into a tumbler. Fill with unfiltered apple cider and stir with a cinnamon stick.

Serve quite cold.

I am going to call this a Canadian Autumn, I think.

Fresh Rain

Oh, blarg, why do I abandon you so. I have been neglecting this space in favor of the twitters, whose twits are legion, and who is so, so uncomplicated. Also I’m trying to start a business here and it’s kind of busy. Excuses, excuses, I know, but I feel like I should tell you about it.

Have I mentioned this? It’s not news to most of the world, I’m sure, but our recent culinary discovery has been this: brining stuff in strong tea. That’s turned out to be a pretty powerful move, particularly when we’ve gone with the really smoky-tasting Lapsang Souchong
over chicken or (particularly awesome) fish; trout that’s been brined and pan-fried thusly has this great lox flavour to it, but is still a big, tender piece of meat. That costs about a tenth what a comparable pile of actual smoked salmon would cost, I might add, which is also nice.

On another culinary front, modulo a bit of fiddling around it turns out that these two links provide excellent, excellent advice about making pizzas at home, and even my amateurish fumbling has produced better pizza than we’ve been able to order in.

You’ll need cast iron pans for that, but it turns out that nobody knows they’re resurfaceable, so once they’ve messed them up they throw them away and buy cheap nonstick pans, which if you’re paying attention means advantage: you.

I’ve had a lot of luck picking up the semi-wrecked cast-iron cookware I see at garage sales and reseasoning them as per this excellent advice, though I preface that with the scorched-earth approach of hosing them down with oven cleaner and letting them stew in an heavy garbage bag for two or three days. Stripping them right to the bare metal has proven to be the right approach, though I should tell you that the people who claim that cast iron gets smoky are Doing It Wrong, and seasoning their cookware with oils that have a relatively low smoke point. I did that wrong myself at first, but now that I’m doing this the right way around it turns out that 50-year-old cast iron actually works better than my two-year-old teflon, and I’m always happy to chalk up a victory for the old school.

Taste is so tightly bound to memory that I have a hard time believing that I can appreciate or even even taste food on its own, in a void of context. I wonder how many of my likes, dislikes, loves and hates are like that; not about the thing, but the echoes of memory that come with it, the place I was, the people I was with. And the person I was, maybe, and let’s not pretend there’s not some tightly-wound feedback loops in that part of your brain.

I have some fairly clear insight into some of these things, introspectives that come to me at odd moments and are often a little to easy to romanticize, but I think I should make a habit of being as honest as I can with myself about my motives in loving and hating what I do.

Grates

This all occurred to me while I was putting some sauerkraut on a street dog down at Yonge and Dundas today. If you’d told me once upon a time that cabbage fermented in vinegar was delicious, I would have told you that was a lie, because that’s not even food and what the hell is wrong with you. But at some point in my childhood I’d read an Encyclopedia Brown mystery in which Bugs Meany is caught out in some scam involving a rare penny by a miscue involving mustard and sauerkraut. I remembered that (and even remember remembering it, oddly) but I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the stuff in the wild until my family went to New York to visit some relatives. I might have been ten, maybe? Eleven? And I’m pretty sure that was the first time I had a dog from a street vendor, and a pretzel, remembering Bugs Meany and giving it a try.

And I still don’t think I know what sauerkraut tastes like on its own. Whatever else it is, to me it tastes just a little bit like the completely uncynical, unalloyed joy of being eleven years old and seeing New York for the first time.

Today at Yonge and Dundas, for no obvious reason, there were a couple of kids playing some classic eighties hiphop on a big old boom box at the corner, dressed in old-school Adidas jackets and (yes!) hustling people at three-card monte. Some days I think these things are part of some elaborate Truman Show production, staged just for blissfully ignorant me. That can’t be, can it? It seems unlikely, but thanks either way, random kids. I know it’s a long story, but because of you my lunch tasted even better today.

The Maestro Doles Out The Eyebrow

Oh really, she says? Yes, really. Salad dressing:

  • Two ounces of a good olive oil,
  • About 3/4 of an ounce of balsamic vinegar,
  • One clove of garlic,
  • Half a lime, and
  • Some powdered wasabi.

And small mason jar or other glass container with a lid. Peel the garlic, give it one good thump under the flat of a knife and drop it in the jar. Squeeze the lime juice in and add the oil and balsamic, then sprinkle in the wasabi.

Close the lid, shake vigorously and put in the fridge an hour or so before it’s time to serve it up. I made this up one night, and I’ve had it a couple of times, since; This is a surprisingly uncomplicated, rich-tasting dressing that hints at its ingredients without them rushing you all at once, and makes your basic mixed green salad taste like a pretty opulent meal.

This has been in my drafts forever. I am a very bad cult leader, not sharing my wisdom; I will endeavor to do better.

So, it turns out that once you’ve got a good recipe to start with it’s pretty trivial to make your own pickles; they come out far better than you’ll get off the shelf, and unless you’ve got some mad Rabbi, crafty Slav or elderly Mennonite brewing them up in a kitchen near you, you’re unlikely to find better.

The vinegar in that recipe is enough; you should skip the boil-the-jars-with-pickles-in step since it softens them up, but that recipe scales right down if you want to make a small batch to try it out. And the eight-week waiting period is unnecessary – they improve, but a week or two is fine. Small batches in Mason jars are easily done, and pretty great.

But this point is key: Dill pickles? Old news, boring. What you want are basil pickles. They’re awesome. Not as awesome on their own, arguably, but when used as, say, a hamburger topping? A huge improvement. Use more garlic than they recommend and a quantity of fresh basil instead of the dill (maybe even throw in a hot pepper, if you’re so inclined) and you will not be disappointed.