Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Roasting Coffee

The first time I roasted coffee, I waited until my wife had gone away on business for the weekend. My wife hates the smell of coffee and roasting coffee would be even worse.  I used a cast iron pan, turned the exhaust fan on high and opened a bunch of doors.  This method yielded an uneven roast when I was getting tired with shuffling the pan.  Chaff would light up and spark like a campfire. It took over ten minutes for the beans to crack. The goal was a cinnamon roast which is a really light roast but instead I got a mostly light roast with a few darkened beans.  I supposed that makes it a medium roast.  It did make for an interesting coffee that had the brightness of a light roast mixed with the smoky and bitter flavours of darker roasts.  Not what I wanted. I didn't do that again.

Flash forward to a few years down the road.  I bought a roaster (Fresh Roast SR 500 for those who care) with the intention of roasting out in our shed.  The first time I finally had the compunction to roast it was quite cold outside and I wanted to avoid standing in the shed for any prolonged time. This roaster is kind of like a popcorn maker.  Green beans are put into container with a metal grill on the bottom. Hot air is blown through moving the beans around for a period of time that is set on a timer.

So, I set it up just inside the door and opened it, hoping the smell would be drawn outside. Placed four ounces of the beans and turned it on for a four and half minute roast. Within about a minute, the house started to smell like burning coffee.  It wasn't the beans but the chaff. Soon, the fire alarm went. To be fair, my son had set off the fire alarm earlier in the week with a cap gun.  The fire alarm may be a little sensitive. I was preparing the same bean, Harrar Longberry, at three roasts (4.5, 5.9 and 6.5 minutes) for a taste test for a friend.  After the first roast, I resigned myself to doing it outside in the shed.

I am happy with the results.  There is some variation within the roast so maybe the fan has to be turned higher and turn the heat down.  Another option may be to roast less than four ounces at a time.  All in all, I think home roasting is the way to go.  I'll write about the results of the taste test in a later post.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On Recipes

I've been thinking a lot about recipes lately.  There must be a better way of representing recipes that appeals to the different type of learners. GOOD, ran a competition last year about redesign of recipes. Most of the recipes were geared to a more visual way of making a recipe accessible to readers.  Many included visual representation of techniques.  Reminded me of some of the step by step cookbooks that my mother had. Every step had a picture to show what was what.  It was clear what a translucent onion looked like or what a properly browned pot roast was.

Aki and Alex from Ideas in Food has written a post talking about the difference of a kitchen pro and a home cook.  A kitchen pro already knows what they are going to do at the start.  Most seasoned home cooks will adjust will little regard or knowledge about what they are doing. It strikes me that most recipes do not offer the why of the technique and that most home cooks don't care.  They have to get supper on the table and hope it tastes good.

In terms of recipes themselves, there is some thought of returning to a more instinctual style of cooking like our mother's mother's mother would recognize.  My wife has recently begun taking back the kitchen for two meals a week.  She has been getting more comfortable with improvising and making better decisions with flavours.  It is often more of a gentle art.  As long as you understand certain ratios, or certain techniques then you open up opportunities.  Whether it be ratios like Michael Ruhlman or more of an artful approach like A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider, there is definitely a move to a traditional approach to cooking.

If you look back to earlier mass cookbooks like Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer, you can see a collection of recipes that reflect a certain style of entertaining.  Each section would start with an overview of the area, usually arranged by course, and then follow with a few techniques and many recipes.  There was very little around how to improvise or change the recipes.  These books were intended to introduce women to nutrition and healthful eating; to act as a primer to a proper home economics course.The movement towards the science and technique of cooking continues with popular choices such as America's Test Kitchen.

What really sparked this review of types of cookbooks and recipes was the recent post about the cookie generator.  I can't help but believe that we can do better.  This idea of recipe generation gets close to marrying the science aspect of precision with the improvisational nature of creation.  Different websites have already begun to work in a way that values what you have in the house with the type of food you eat.  Searches and filters are working better to finding a recipe that will work for you.  This still feels as if it favours engineers and precision.

 It seems as if we are very close to being able to give everyday cooks all the tools they need to quickly reach a balance between the precise recipes of the recent past with the techniques and intuition of an older generation of intuitive cooks.  I am looking forward to seeing these moments because I think that there will be a growth of good food using traditional and scientific techniques with innovative tastes that will be really excellent.  Maybe we will get a glimpse on a new Escoffier in our lifetime. Or at least we will have a lot of really good recipes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: The Water Cure

You can never know when some passage will take your breath away.  The passage that I am talking about comes from the The Water Cure by Percival Everett. The book review portion of the post would talk about the plot -- a man whose child has been murdered takes revenge upon the person he thinks is responsible, or the allegory, an alleged child abuser is tortured by the father of a victim as an allegory for Guantanamo -- or the emotional depth, a man tries to come to grips with the loss of his child and marriage and the retribution on a possible perpetrator.

But none of that matters to me.  I was gobsmacked with this next description.  It occurs just after some sections that talk about torture and the possibility of killing intruders.  The main character has a quirk where he does not eat in restaurants but rather takes his own food and pays for dishes that he orders but holds all the food.  Remember when you are reading this that he has a man in his basement that he is torturing.   Warning: Graphic Scenes of wanton butchery.
"We slice, cut, rive, cleave, rend, split, tear open the entire body from the anus to the chin. Find a fold of skin on the belly and grab it between your thumb and forefinger, roll it between your fingers, then carefully puncture, pop, pierce the skin. Avoid perforating the gut. Then simply, plainly, easily, honestly slit the body all the way up to the throat and down to the tailbone. When you find the sternum and the pelvis, just, merely, simply (always simply) cut down to the bone with your knife.  When you come to the testicles, don't cut them off. Simply, plainly, easily, honestly, cut the skin between the testicles and leave one testicle attached to either side. Then carve, divide, chiv, cleave, slice down through the hams to separate, divide, dissociate the buttocks from each other. Once you've apportioned, parted the hams, take your sharp knife and score out the anus. Now you've got him slit from stem to stern. Once this has been accomplished, achieved, realized, locate your meat saw.  Cleave through the sternum until the rib cage is open. Then saw through the pelvic bone. Do not perforate the bladder. If you cut it, you'll spray urine over some of the best meat on the hindquarters. Keep the saw blade parallel to the bone and cut carefully. Take up the knife again.  Cut the windpipe just under the chin and grab hold. Separate the smooth muscle tissue holding the entrails from the carcass. Slice this tissue while you pull on the windpipe; the entire gutpile will come easily free, will roll out. Be certain to completely remove the colon and the bladder , which can sometimes hang up on the pelvic bone. This is a source of bacteria and also heat, so it's very important to remove all the entrails.  The elk is field-dressed."
That just blew me away.  I have seen the butchering process and for the first half, I was sure that he was butchering a pig. I was thinking of the connection between humans being called long pigs and members of the porcine persuasion.

Also, the description was lyrical and evocative.  I winced and shrank at least once.  When reading this section, I also began to understand the pull of the pornographic torture movies that are out now.  If you traced the rise of these movies, I would guess that it may be a response to American involvement in torture.  Is it a justification or a way of providing a valid revulsion without turning that revulsion against oneself?  So, a way of outering our disgust so that we do not turn that disgust on ourselves.

Might be a bit heavy for book review on a food blog but the description of the elk superimposed against the idea of field dressing (field of war and field as in hunting field) just struck me as not dehumanizing an animal but rather reanimalizing or naturalizing the human.  This juxtaposition still resonates and I am left with a more visceral response to torture and a return to the reverence of animal life.  This by no means that I am into vegetarianism but rather reconnect with our animal nature and feel the proper remorse when eating ribs.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gift Giving for Foodies

Over the Christmas season, there were a number of occasions that I had to give gifts to people that I felt I did not know well enough to get a personal gift.  Most times, it is easier to get a gift card and hope that you get it right. Giving me a Starbucks card because I love coffee might seem perfect but not necessarily if I am an activist or a coffee snob.

So, what about giving food?  Believe it or not, most people are not so thrilled with a 30g piece of dark chocolate with espelette pepper inside.  The exotic and profane that most foodies wish to receive are nightmares for people.  It is equivalent to receiving socks and underwear when you are six.

Homebaked cookies are making a comeback, as are canned goods.  One of the best gifts that I have received this season was a set of four canned goods that included port cranberry sauce and two different chocolate sauces.  My mother who finds pomegranates exotic received these from my sister as well.  The recipes were chosen as being standards with slight twists.  As a foodie giving a gift, you would do well to remember this.

The two gifts of food that I gave were a little different from each other.  One was a secret Santa gift that could be homemade or bought with a limit of twenty dollars.  It was for someone who was new at work and I didn't know very well.  I made some homemade truffles using sweetened condensed milk.  The recipe was split into threes and different flavourings were chosen for each; banana with coconut, rum rolled with caramel butter pecan cocoa mix and cherry rolled in almonds.  The balance of flavours was not as good as a chocolatier or chocolate maker but overall the texture was better than store bought.  A few touches personalized the gift and it seemed to be well received.  At least it did not receive the hidden six year old reaction.

The second gift was to my brother-in-law.  He has become more adventurous since marrying a woman of Portuguese descent.  It was hard to figure out what he had and did not have and so I decided that a consumable was the way to go.  I remembered that his sister my wife spoke many times about her brother's love of maple.  So, I went and put together a maple leaf themed basket.  It did not hurt that he liked the Maple Leafs, a hockey team in Toronto.

In went maple leaf cookies, maple sugar, maple sucker, maple syrup, and maple cheese.  A few more things went to round it out including a child's book, "The Hockey Sweater".  In return, I got a "You always think of good gifts."  For a foodie, it should be easy to give gifts that speak to the receiver without appearing as if you are acting superior.  A food does not have to be crushed by the feet of orangutans or defecated by civet cats in order to be good nor exotic.  It has to evoke memories and a good emotional response.  In the words of the mortal John Hodgman, 'That is all.'

Monday, January 2, 2012

Fruit Wines

One of my first memories of homemade wine is of the dandelion wine that my father and his brother made.  In the summer, us kids helped picked the dandelion flowers in white ten gallon pails.  Later in the year, the smelly mixture was placed into bottles and eventually decanted or swigged.  The taste was tannic and alcohol forward.    I would now recognize that taste as the slightly bitter flavour of the flower but at the time it tasted like old cold tea.  The alcoholic sensation was probably because my father and uncle liked sweet wine.  They must have added more sugar in order to mask the bitterness of the dandelion.  Sugar, when all grown up becomes alcohol.  I remember something that tasted a lot closer to cheap rum rather than wine.

While dandelions aren't exactly fruit wines, the process I described is one that most people think about when they think of fruit wine.  That is unfortunate because fruit wines have a lot more to offer than some amateur uncle noodling with a carboy in the basement or garage.  But haven't we seen a revolution in craft brewing?  Why has this not flowed over into fruit wine production?

I wouldn't be surprised if fruit wines become the new microbrews.  There is the same ability as the craft brewing, and there is the option for innovation and elevation.  There is a lot of room for this kind of product in the marketplace but more importantly, the wines are fun and tasty.

Fruit wines, in general, are simpler wines.  Some of the best offer a soft alcohol with a hint of the fruit.  The nearest relative in the liquor store is the wine cooler but where those taste overproduced, and slightly candy like, a true fruit wine has a lot less of that.

One of my favourite fruit wineries is the Kawartha Country Winery located just outside Buckhorn.  Their list of fruit wines includes elderberry, rhubarb, blackberry, shiro plum and many others.  There are a few cordials but on the whole the wines are slightly sweet or off dry.

Some other good fruit wineries that are a good start are Archibalds Winery just outside of Toronto who has excellent apple cider and fruit ice wines and Rodrigues Winery from Newfoundland with a really good blueberry. These are really worthwhile checking out as even in the dead of winter,  a few sips can evoke summer on the porch.

These wines are great for desserts, hot days and sipping with friends.  Some are dry enough to be a great meal pairing that can be as varied as roast pork or even hamburgers.  It is too bad that there is such a small selection available at the LCBO and most of these can only be found at the winery.  I guess I should plan my summer vacation and figure out which wineries I will visit... Hmm, summer vacation...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

This is a post that will be done many times today.  What will we do different this year to be a better version of ourselves?  One of the major ones that crops up time and again for most people is weight.  I wonder if that comes up more for food bloggers than others?

Anyways, I am grateful that this year I began this blog and I am finding my voice on food.  I have always loved it and I hope I always do.  There is always something new to discover.  Most times, it is just new to me.  That has always been the point of cooking and discovery for me.  I like the look on people's faces when they taste something and say something to the effect of "How could I have not known about this?"  or even more satisfying, "I don't like x but I like this."

That moment of joy and wonder on someone else's face is why I cook.  It is also why I began blogging.  I cannot pretend to have any new food wisdom; a vast majority of what I learn can be found if someone is just trolling the internet.  The only thing that anyone can bring to food is their point of view.  I hope this year to bring my point of view more often and more focused.  After doing these posts for the last eight months, I hope I have learned a little more about this medium.  This is my New Year's resolution...oh and I could stand to lose a few pounds.