Category Archives: ingredients

ingredients: coffee

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

We don’t often think of coffee as an ingredient, a product to be manipulated by temperature and technique to achieve a certain sensory effect. But whether we’re considering the origin of the beans, how they are ground or the increasing range of steeping techniques, coffee is just that—the starting point in an evolutionary process, a drinkable choose-your-own-adventure.

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Freshly roasted beans.

Coffee isn’t regarded this way by most consumers, because we rarely have the chance to experience proper tastings—side by side comparisons of different beans, roasting techniques or brewing styles. But at this year’s Food and Book Fair, I had the unique chance to do just that. Hosted by New York Times contributor, Oliver Strand, and illustrator/coffee afficionado Lars Huse our “coffee crawl” explored the caffeinated creativity of a few particularly tasty blocks in Williamsburg.

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Ground beans, ready for a straightforward “cowboy” style steep.

We first checked out Toby’s Estate, for a “cowboy coffee” cupping. A “cupping” is the industry term for a coffee tasting, and this rudimentary style of brewing eliminates variables that might otherwise influence  our perception of a certain bean’s properties. In this case, we were looking to understand the complexity of roasting, under the guidance of one of Toby’s in-house experts.

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Diving into the cupping.

In the roasting process, beans start at about twelve percent moisture. The green color of raw beans is a trait of chlorophyll, which slowly roasts out as the beans heat. During this process, the polysaccharides break down into monosaccharides, and help establish sweetness in the form of fructose and glucose. As the beans dry, they fade from green to yellow to orange. They also expand and when the moisture finally reaches the point of becoming gas, it emits an audible crack, similar to the sound of popcorn. A roaster is looking for something in between an underdeveloped bean (“baked”) and a “roasted” bean, one in which the taste of the roast overtakes the coffee’s inherent qualities.

Freshly roasted beans falling from the barrel of Toby's Probat machine.

Freshly roasted beans falling from the barrel of Toby’s Probat machine.

After tasting quickly brewed beans which had undergone varied degrees of roasting, we headed over to Blue Bottle, to experience the range of flavors and textures provided by brewing the same ground coffee in different ways. In this case, we were tasting Rwandan Kirezi coffee, a bean prized for its qualities, but that also provided a considerable risk to coffee brewers. For one reason or another, Rwandan beans are subject to a “potato defect”, which means that if one bad bean heats up in the roaster, the entire facility will smell like fried potato. When this happens, shops literally have to halt production and clean out the roasting machine in question, losing not only the current batch of coffee, but also valuable time—and the potato defect, unlike a “quaker” (underripe bean) cannot be spotted by eye.

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An Oji cold-brewed coffee.

We first sampled a cold brew, which expressed a highly developed mouthfeel and surprising level of sweetness. Prepared with a Japanese Oji brewer, this slow, 10-12 hour process also packs a mighty punch of caffeine, as the longer the brewing method, the more caffeinated the beverage. From there we sampled a Chemex brew, a style that hails from Chicago in the 1940s. This method requires “blooming” the coffee—to pour water slowly over the filter while the gases (“the bloom”) rise. The flavor was light and clean, but far less sweet (and caffeinated) than the cold brew. Last, we sampled a French Press coffee, an infusion brewing style that rendered an oilier, more viscous cup.

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Using all five senses at the cupping.

Waving off our growing “caffeine jitters”, we continued on to Sweetleaf Espresso Bar. Oliver chose this shop because it is one of the few that offer multiple types of espresso. An espresso grinder costs $1-4,000, and since each bean requires its own grinder to preserve its subtle character, it’s an investment many shops aren’t willing to take on. Tasting Ritual Coffee‘s “Stickball Blend” and “Rwanda Kiringue”, it was remarkable to note the differences in the darkness of the roast and the acidity of the flavors. If you’ve never tasted two espressos side by side, it’s certainly an interesting experiment.

Espresso at Sweetleaf.

Espresso at Sweetleaf.

From there, the wired group headed back to the Wythe, the epicenter of the Food & Book Fair. I had to step out to attend another FBF lecture, but left with the buzz of both caffeine and newfound curiosity.

Like a wine connoisseurs "tastevin", these silver spoons are the slurping equivalent for coffee cuppings.

Like a wine connoisseurs “tastevin”, these coffee bean-engraved silver spoons are the slurping equivalent for coffee cuppings at Toby’s Estate.

Others have called coffee the “new wine”, regarding our growing interest in single-origin blends, roasting methods and styles of preparation. However, unlike wine, coffee offers a unique hobbyist element, in that almost anyone can play around with different brewing methods at home. If I had to choose, I’d probably opt for an (admittedly pricey) Oji brewer…but for the time being, my old-fashioned Italian moka will do.

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ingredient: garlic scapes

Late spring/early summer is – by far – my favorite time at the market. It’s the season for all things green, a brief window before the multi-hued produce of summer hits stands. It’s also a time when I’m likely to find ingredients I’ve never seen before – which is exactly what occurred at the Union Square Greenmarket, when I fell upon garlic scapes.

Garlic Scapes; Photo Credit: Umamigirl.com

I discovered these vibrant green coils between a barrel of string beans and a pile of shallots. Loving all things garlic, I grabbed a few fistfuls and hurried home to do some  research. Apparently, scapes are the flowering stalks of garlic plants, which must be trimmed to allow the bulbs to grow firm and plump. They should be trimmed before they coil more than once, or else they become too fibrous  and spicy.

My first experiment with the scapes involved chopping them into little segments and stir-frying them with baby bok choy. They certainly imparted a pleasant, spicy flavor and crunch, but I didn’t feel they were being used to their best advantage. Next up, I threw them into the pickling brew for a bunch of purple carrots. Again, they served their purpose, but regular garlic might have been better.

Finally, I recalled a video recipe by Kinfolk for ribboned asparagus salad.

At the time, I thought it a beautiful (if slightly tedious) way to prepare asparagus, and mentally filed it away for some special occasion. Upon shredding my first scape ribbon, the kitchen filled with a potent, invigorating garlic odor – and I knew I was onto something.

“Deconstructed Pesto” a la garlic scape and broccoli rabe

You could certainly stop there and serve the pan-fried scape ribbons over pasta, but I was more interested in coupling them with other vegetables. Pesto is one of the more common uses for scapes, which made me think of my pesto-loving father, whose favorite food is broccoli rabe. The final product thus became a sort of deconstructed-pesto dish – beautiful, delicious and surprisingly simple for how fancy it looks.

Garlic Scape Ribbons & Broccoli Rabe

Ingredients
  • 8-10 garlic scapes
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe
  • 5/6 anchovies
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
  • olive oil
  • grated cheese (optional)
  • lemon (optional)
Instructions
  1. Wash garlic scapes and cut them in half. Using a vegetable peeler, shred the scapes into long ribbons.
  2. Wash broccoli rabe and cut into small pieces. (Only use the parts of the stalk that have leaves/florets).
  3. Heat olive oil in a large pan or wok. Add anchovies to pan.
  4. When oil is hot, add broccoli rabe and garlic scapes. Stir periodically.
  5. After about a minute, toss in the chopped walnuts.
  6. Cook until greens are tender, but the scapes should still be al dente.
  7. Remove from heat, dress with grated parmesan and lemon juice to taste.

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ingredient: tomatillos

Few things excite me more than a new ingredient.

David Lebovitz's Ottolenghi Fried Beans w/Sorrell, Sumac & Feta

Most people tend to discover new edibles by reading and following recipes to a T.  This has happened for me, on occasion (See: TastingTable’s fantastic okra recipe or David Lebovitz’s take on Ottolenghi’s Fried Beans w/Sorrel & Sumac), but my habit of mix-and-matching recipes or using them for “inspiration” means that obscure ingredients like sherry vinegar tend to get the shaft.

On the flip, I’m an impulsive ingredient explorer.  I eagerly purchase new varietals of familiar ingredients (fairytale eggplant, heirloom tomatoes of any shape or size) and splurge on items I’ve never before seen (long beans and purslane are two of my found-on-the-fly favorites).

My zeal for new flavors hasn’t always worked out to my advantage.  Once, in Paris, I bought a piment antillais (a habanero pepper), thinking that – since Parisians cannot tolerate any level of spice – it must be safe.  I was wrong.  And furthermore, I was most wrong in deciding to crunch into a morsel of that pepper raw to “see how spicy it was”.  One liter of milk and a whole baguette later, I finally stopped crying.

Needless to say, I’m less experimental with foreign spicy substances these days.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good spicy salsa from time to time.

Cue the tomatillos.  I had never consciously consumed a tomatillo until one week ago, when my CSA bag arrived full of these little green, cloaked, tomato-like creatures.  Assuming they weren’t spicy, I cracked into one and was surprised by the seedy, dense interior.  After a bit of research, I learned tomatillos are a key component in  salsa verde.

Since I’m always up for an adventure involving my blender (which, yes, I use in the place of a proper Cuisinart on many occasions), salsa verde it was.  While I like spicy, I prefer something a bit milder than your typical salsa verde, so rather than jalapeno, I opted for a pickled Anaheim chile I already had on hand.

Salsa Verde (for the Cuisinart-deprived)

Ingredients:

A dozen or so tomatillos
½ a red onion
De-seeded, pickled Anaheim chile
A chopped handful of cilantro
1/4 cup lime juice
A good squeeze of honey (I used alfalfa honey)
salt to taste

1)  Chop tomatillos, onion, chile and cilantro – add to blender.
2) Add honey, salt, and lime juice to blender.
3) Use the ice/pulse setting to chop and a “poker” (usually a high-quality chopstick in my case) to push down the unchopped chunks in between pulses.
4) Patience, my friends.
5) And voila! After 3 minutes or so, you have an amazing, medium/mild salsa verde.

Note: Salsa verde is a great condiment for any leftover frozen turkey scraps you still have from Thanksgiving – turkey enchiladas!

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ingredient: cephalopods

I’ve always had a certain fondness for creatures of the deep.  This isn’t entirely unexpected, as I grew up by the water and my grammar school had its own private beach.  I can still toss marine biological tidbits into normal conversation – about the sex lives of slipper limpets, for example, (they’re hemaphrodites of the “sequential” variety) or how to decipher the gender of a crab.  Heck, I summer-camped on a historic schooner, my favorite beany baby was “Inky” the octopus, and even my college application essay began with the phrase “I love tunafish”.  But at a certain point, my affection for all the fishies-in-the-sea became a hierarchy, in which the cephalopod was king.

Random shot from a Parisian photo gallery - I call it "cephalopod clothesline".

Squid, octopus, cuttlefish and their ilk make up the class “cephalopoda”.  They are perhaps some of the most “alien” underwater creatures known to man – inspiring everything from childhood curiosity to intense fear (Note to self: do not watch late-night Discovery Channel features on the legend of giant squid.)  So odd are they in form and fashion that, for most, nothing about them inspires hunger.  That is, until you eat them.

For me it started very simply – fried calamari.  By the age of 13, I was a fried calamari authority, preferring the legs to the body and a light tempura-y batter to a greasy, dense crunch.

Yet, for many years, “calamar” (as my American-Italian-ish peers would say) was my only cephalopod exposure.  That is, until the summer before college, when my family boarded a sailboat from Istanbul to the Greek isles.

"Dinner!", as they say in Oia.

It was on the beach in Oia, on the island of Santorini – largely considered the most photographed place in Greece – that I first was inspired to eat octopus.  As I lay tanning, a beautifully bronzed man with a snorkel mask splashed around in the waves.  Just as I was dozing off, he lept – victorious – from under the waves, exclaiming (in Greek) what I can only imagine was “DINNER!” – for there in his hands was an aubergine, writhing octopus.  After the commotion died down (and my sister got over the fact that she was just swimming around with such creatures), we jumped back on our 4x4s and raced off to eat our own little lunch.  It was that day, in a shack teetering off the cliffs, that I first sampled fresh, grill-blackened octopus.

From there on, calamari took a back seat to its larger, wilder cousin.  From baby octopus slow-roasted in sauce (Trattoria Il Panino, Boston) to refreshing octopus salad (Otto, New York), I preached the octopus gospel high and low, to any fellow eater who would listen.

"Pouple en promotion" (Octopus on sale)

And then I moved to Paris.  It was there, for the first time, that I saw an octopus for sale.  But during those first six months of study-abroad, I was too intimidated by the prospect of de-scaling or de-shelling fresh-caught seafood (let alone butchering and cleaning an octopus) to purchase a single item from a poissonerie.  But the following year, when I returned to study food culture (and had learned that the poissonier would clean and prep your fish for you), I finally attempted to cook my favorite edible beast.  (Click here for more on my octopus-cooking adventure).

Yet octopus was not to be my ultimate cephalopod obsession.  It was on my 21st birthday, in Venice, that I first discovered my true cephalopod love, the cuttlefish.  And in particular, cuttlefish ink.

In the United States, it is often possible (in high-end Italian groceries) to buy dried black pasta.  This pasta is dyed with cuttlefish ink, an ingredient you’ll be hard-pressed to find sold independent of the dyed-pasta format.  But in Venice, nero di seppia runs through the restaurants like water through the canals.  From risotto to spaghetti – if there is a pasta product in sight, it can be spruced up with this dark and mysterious sauce.   It was in a little trattoria off the Campo San Leonardo that I first tried this truly unique Venetian delight.  I can still remember the lighting, where I sat at the table, the way the parsley decorated the plate.  This was a truly incomparable flavor – like none I had tasted before or would ever taste again after.

Spaghetti al nero di seppia (Venice)

Luckily, in Paris, fishmongers sell miniature packets of l’encre de seiche, perfect for a plate of risotto for two.  I seduced all my friends and lovers with black risotto for months on end, excited to introduce them to the little-known ingredient.

It soon dawned on me, upon moving to New York, that I had left my steady supply of cheap, perfectly-sized packets of cuttlefish ink behind.  And for a time, I could not find cuttlefish ink at all, let alone in a cheap or convenient format.  And then came Eataly.  On a whim, I asked if they sold nero di seppia, and the fishmonger looked at me as if I had 5 heads.  But upon consulting with an Italian colleague, he brought me a small (and expensive) jar from the storage room.  It almost seemed a black market for black ink– but I eagerly paid the steep price.  (Note: these days, you can find cuttlefish ink just sitting out by the anchovies and other pre-portioned fish products at Eataly).

And so my days of black risotto, paella, and pasta entertaining resumed.  But my American comrades were less adventurous eaters than my Parisian pals (and more likely to be strict vegetarians), and eventually, my zeal for serving ink-sauce entrees waned to an infrequent whim.

There were glimmers of hope of course.  A squid-ink soup at Kin Shop.  A particularly lovely paella negra dinner party.  Then finally, a particularly unappetizing plate of spaghetti al nero di seppia (in Venice of all places) abruptly brought my affair with cuttlefish to an unexpected end.

Salt and Pepper Cuttlefish, Taste of China

That is, until this weekend.  I was in Connecticut, visiting my parents for a day or two, when they suggested we try out a new “authentic” Chinese restaurant, Taste of China.  Given my previous experience with “authentic” ethnic food in suburbia, I was just hoping for a less-greasy plate of General Tso’s chicken.   And then I saw the menu.  “Salt and Pepper Cuttlefish” – it was too good to be true! For despite my love of cuttlefish ink, I had never actually eaten (but a morsel of) the beast itself.

My mother laughed when it came to table.  Nubby little fried bits of perfectly seasoned cephalopod.  Resistant, but far from rubbery, and served atop a refreshing shaved salad – it was everything I could have ever hoped the little bugger would turn out to be.

So now, a new cephalopod adventure: learn to cook and clean a fresh-caught cuttlefish.  Perhaps by the end of 2013?  I dare say this one might require some traveling…

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at-risk ingredient: “bintje”

For les belges, the “bintje” is not just the runt of the potato litter.  With it’s uncompromising crunchiness, this traditional tuber is an undisputed symbol of Belgian national heritage (in a country plagued by an ongoing identity crisis).

The Wall Street Journal recently chronicled the unsteady future of this edible edifice of cultural unity, and a number of different foodie publicationshave started to spread the word about the “bintje” cause.

So why am I joining the pro-bintje masses?  Because (1) bintje is just really fun to [attempt to] pronounce, (2) I have a personal connection with the french-speaking Belgians of Wallonie and (3) the bio-diversity of ingredients  available to us directly affects our health, longevity and creativity.  That means that our access to different varieties of an ingredient – such as the potato – provides us with a dramatic increase in nutritional benefits (not to mention varied flavors, textures and other advantages).

I do not want to live in a world where we are restricted to 4 or 5 of the most common potato varieties.  The future of all heirloom potatoes – and heirloom products in general – hangs in the balance of our support of causes like that of the bintje.

…not to mention the future of our ever-curious taste buds.

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