I feel like I should be paying Alex for the amount I’ve learned about coffee this year– It’s like I’m enrolled in one of those $100 dollar barista courses, except I don’t have to pay anything (not to mention, I get to chill with some pretty awesome people in the process).
Neo, Alex and I convened in Espwesso (our student-run cafe, which I really don’t know why I haven’t written a post on yet) to brew the peaberry beans I bought at O Cafe. Little did I know that Alex, who had spent the weekend in New York, had brought a load of what he called “new toys,” including a Chemex.
The Chemex was actually my first introduction to pourover coffee, and to be honest, I was never a huge fan. To be fair, this was when I drank almost exclusively espresso and couldn’t appreciate coffee as a tea-like beverage with occasional fruity notes. I also couldn’t appreciate coffee that wasn’t scorching hot, and Chemex coffee takes a while.
(I did, however, make Indonesian Kopi Luwak on a Chemex.)
My “home base” cafe, Istria, recently made the transition from Chemex to Hario V60. When I asked Alex about this, he explained that Chemex is better for home brewing, since it makes enough to serve about two people.
I do, however, like the Chemex’s “rustic” appearance. To me, it looks like the sort of thing you would carry around in the desert while riding camel-back.
We tried out two coffees: the peaberry from O Cafe and a Joe Sumatra. Alex tweaked the grind a couple times for each coffee: I had no idea how he knew what to change; I was happy enough when I agreed that the first cup was overextracted. I don’t question, I just listen and watch the masters at work.
When it comes to tasting, I’m also just learning about flavor profiling. It’s so hard to articulate the underlying flavors within a cup of coffee even when you know they’re there. But then when acknowledges the presence of “red pepper notes” or even “fig,” you want to slap your forehead and wonder why you hadn’t thought of that.
This is all relative, of course– I do think that a lot of the time coffee labels are pretentious games of word association. “Sweet” becomes “caramel,” and the next thing you know, your coffee tastes like “a warm slice of apple pie on an autumn day, the crisp leaves blowing in the wind.” Exaggeration, I know.
The sumatra was great, don’t get me wrong, but the red pepper flavor Alex pointed out did catch me a little off-guard. I’m realizing that you never know what to expect from Indonesian coffees: every single cup I’ve had is different.
O Cafe’s peaberry still holds a dear place in my heart: the beans (which are tiny) are sweet and chocolatey, full-bodied but not too darkly roasted.
A trip to New York may be happening this weekend… who knows what coffee adventures lie in store?
It feels weird to blog again after unplugging. I’m not going to lie– I’ve never felt better in my life. To not even know what time it was, to realize that cliched as it sounds, setting daily routines make every day the same– when in actuality, every minute of every day is different. I felt cleansed, wishing I wasn’t such a slave to technology.
And then I remembered how rewarding it is to blog, to take photos of food, to get feedback from readers, and to feel like somewhere out there, there’s a world of people I don’t know who are hopefully reading this. I’m not going to stop food blogging– it’s my passion– but I am going to take Saturdays off, and that’s that.
Moving on: HOW TO STIR-FRY ANY VEGETABLE. Well, let’s just say any green vegetable for the time-being. I feel the need to do a post on this because my stir-fried vegetables are hardly even recipes. It feels redundant to post them again and again, yet I don’t feel confident that people think of various vegetables as interchangeable.
For as long as I can remember, my dad, FOOG (Father of Octopus Gourmet, if you’re new to the blog), has been making wonderful stir-fried vegetables in what he calls a “pure” style: with no ingredients other than garlic or ginger, peanut oil, salt, and sometimes corn starch, the vegetables really shine through. When you go to Chinatown, similarly to if you went to a Farmer’s Market, you wouldn’t pick what vegetables you were buying in advance; you would base your meal on whatever looked the best.
In Chinatown, they have all the classics: bok choy, baby bok choy, spinach, watercress, broccoli, etc., but they also have all kinds of leafy green crucifers that are not easily translatable. But you know what? It doesn’t matter what they’re called, or even what they are, really: as long as you get the feel for them, they can all be used interchangeably.
There really isn’t any “rule” as to whether you use garlic or ginger (or even scallions), but this is my opinion: vegetables that remain “drier,” like string beans, are best made with lots of slightly burned garlic (sliced, not chopped), whereas dishes that use cornstarch, like bok choy and broccoli, sing with the addition of slivered ginger. Watercress and spinach can go either way, but FOOG usually uses garlic and leaves out the cornstarch, letting the leaves wilt in a broth that then gets poured over rice.
Instructions for any green vegetable:
- Obviously, your first step is to wash your vegetables, especially if they’re leafy. Dry them if you want, but you don’t have to be too thorough. If you’re using something firmer, like broccoli, you can save time by parboiling it first, then rinsing it under cold water.
- Have your garlic/ginger chopped and ready to go, plus some cornstarch whisked with cold water if you’re using it. Next, heat some peanut oil in a wok until it smokes. Add the garlic/ginger and stir-fry on high until crispy.
- Add the vegetables and a pinch of salt. You may or may not need to add water. Let them cook down, but keep it on high. This is stir-frying, after all.
- Add cornstarch to wok if necessary, making sure it doesn’t clump. Taste for saltiness, let it all cook down, and serve.
Embarassingly easy, right? While I’m a purist and in this case less tends to be more, this “recipe” is really a rough guideline for what could metamorphose into a one-wok meal.
Example: what could have been a simple bok choy dish with ginger turned into an enormous medley of tofu, shiitake mushrooms and glass noodles.
- Oyster sauce
- Sesame oil
- Glass noodles
- Dried shrimp
- Dried mushrooms
You get the idea. Stir-frying is meant to be easy. Why do you think I make so much of this in my dorm room? It’s simple, it’s quick, it’s real Chinese cooking– forget those everything-but-the-sink stir-fries that involve water chestnuts and baby corn (blasphemy!). A Chinese meal is meant to have multiple dishes– the whole point is to serve these dishes with something that contrasts well. So pull out the wok, cover up the smoke detector… and if all else fails, you can smother it all with chili paste.
Announcement: this blog is going to be SILENT from 6 PM tonight to 6 PM tomorrow.
Tonight, I’m unplugging. Yes, this program is Shabbat-oriented, but you really don’t have to be Jewish to do it. We all know technology controls us (always a comforting thought). And as much as I love the joys of blogging, there are definitely times where I just. Don’t. Want. To. Do. It. (But I do– this is how much I love you guys)
So in the spirit of the National Day of Unplugging, I’d like to share some meals and dishes that never made it on to this blog. Why? Because I never took a photo. I never wrote anything down. Their only documentation is in my head. I actually wrote an essay on this once, but it is nearly impossible to document taste– what you think of as remembering taste is really smell, touch, your surroundings… In order to remember what something tastes like, you really have to put it in context. Where was it eaten, and how did you feel eating it? Who were you with? How did you feel before you took the first bite/sip, and after you were finally satiated?
Writing and photography are currently the only way we can preserve food in our memories, and yet it remains maddeningly frustrating that we will never succeed. Blogging is my way of bringing food to you, but it really doesn’t change the way I feel about it. I can envision the dishes I’m about to mention just as well as what I ate this week, practically taste them on my tongue– but not quite.
Taste is elusive. It defies technology, even if we don’t.
Octopus Gourmet’s Top 5 UNdocumented Meals:
(Surprisingly, none of these are in China, which is what would first come to mind)
1. Strawberry milkshake in Costa Rica when I was nine. I was, believe it or not, the pickiest eater in the world, subsisting mainly on a diet of McDonalds and dumpling wrappers (I discarded the filling). The detour our mini tour bus made is still vivid in my memory. We had stopped at a tiny local shack, hardly even a restaurant, where without requesting anything, we were presented with glasses filled with a concoction of the palest pink. It was a milkshake, but not in the traditional sense. There was no ice cream– only the freshest, sweetest strawberries you will ever had, whirred quickly in the blender with creamy whole milk.
2. Vegetarian tagine in Montmartre in 2008. I did, in fact, return to the same restaurant and order the same dish, but good as it tasted, the magic had dissipated. My friend and I were lost and hungry. What looked deceptively small from the outside turned out to be the most comforting little Moroccan restaurant. First, there was mint tea, poured from a copper teapot with a long spout like a watering can. We sipped the steaming liquid in little shot glasses guilded with flower designs. The tea was almost too sweet, but the mint was cold, sending chills down my esophagus while the heat of the drink burned my chest. The tagines were next—served in clay pots, there were carrots, olives, zucchini, and preserved lemons. We ate in silence, letting our taste buds govern our minds, and occasionally we would find a dried apricot or fig, like buried treasure. The couscous had none of the metallic taste of the boxed kinds—the grains were fluffy, almost dissolving on our tongues. The meal, like the couscous, was too elusive. The ghost of the flavor lingered in my mouth, then disappeared as quickly as it had come.
3. Local stir-fried noodles in Shanxi province. I don’t particularly like noodles, but Shanxi is known for them. After a long morning of archaeological exploration, my parents and I stopped at a small courtyard house. There was elderly man, maybe in his sixties, who let us sit down. I don’t even remember if he was a complete stranger or not. What I do remember is the air, which was heady with the smell of ginger crisping in hot peanut oil. “Are you hungry?” He asked us. We were. A woman was turning out plates of chewy wheat noodles interwoven with tender napa cabbage. I slurped and chewed those noodles like I hadn’t eaten in days.
4. Butternut Squash and Apple soup with Pheasant at Blackbird in Chicago. I had finally overcome my phobias and become a die-hard foodie. I was also going through my fancy restaurant phase. That being said, I ordered this soup on three different occasions, it was that good. Squash and apple puree, without the unnecessary addition of cream, was sweet and velvety, but aggressively studded with house-made croutons and shreds of earthy pheasant.
5. Finally, salmon sashimi at Ajihei in Princeton, of all places. I was going from New York to Princeton with my cousin, and we had been given generous cab fare from our grandma. We didn’t end up taking a cab, so that money got added to the sushi fund. The restaurant is one of those places that is literally never open and located below street level. Everything we ordered was incredible– spider and salmon skin rolls were little bundles of crisp nirvana and silky avocado– but it was at Ajihei that I had the best salmon sashimi of my life. It was so marbled with fat as to be nearly stripey, so creamy chewing was unnecessary.
I realize that most people skim over wordy posts, which is why I do my best to avoid them. But I think we underestimate the power of words, which in many ways allow us to experience taste far better than a camera would.
As much as I’d like to say I really keep up with the Chicago coffee scene, I don’t follow coffee blogs as much as I probably should. So imagine my delight in late December when I happened to glance at Time Out’s restaurant section and spot an unfamiliar name under “Newly Opened”: Darkcloud: Urban Coffee Lab. First of all, what was a coffee lab (and are there suburban ones?), and how would I found out? Next stroke of luck was the date of the cafe’s grand opening– what do you know… it was the following day!
So I hauled myself up to Lincoln park (which is probably a quarter of the distance to Metropolis, so no big deal) to experience a cafe opening in the flesh. But what, you might wonder, is so special about Darkcloud in particular? No, it’s not the industrial, graffiti’d space (although that is pretty cool) or even their rotating selection of different roasters (see my reviews of The Wormhole and Buzz Killer Espresso). No, what distinguishes Darkcloud from any cafe in all of Chicago is that they have a Slayer.
No, not this kind (although that would be arguably more awesome):
But this kind:
Initially, whenever coffee big shots mentioned that a cafe had a Slayer, I assumed it was some kind of drip coffee contraption, like a siphon. It never occurred to me that it was a kind of espresso machine. Ironically, even though I used to prefer espresso to pourovers, I never knew much about the different machine models.
To my understanding (after some internet research and asking the barista, who was more than willing to explain), the Slayer, aside from looking pretty cool (and costing $18,000), allows for the upmost precision when pulling shots. It allows you to actually adjust the pressure for each individual grouphead (aka “pressure profiling”). Why would you want to do this? Well, just as every coffee is different, the time it takes for each shot to drop will vary depending on the type of beans you’re using.
Because of this, Darkcloud weighs their espresso differently, depending on the beans (You can see a great video of this here).
So my question is– is this kind of precision necessary? A double shot of espresso takes up such a miniscule amount of volume– can you even tell? I ordered a traditional cappuccino and prepared to find out.
Yes, I know I should have ordered straight espresso, but they were featuring an Intelligentsia Ethiopian, which I knew would be too bright for me on its own (and sure enough, when MOOG joined me and ordered espresso, she nearly gagged. But she’s a die-hard cappuccino drinker). Initially, I was skeptical that such a bright coffee would work with the milk, but the barista assured me that it “brought out the spiciness of the beans.” And sure enough– he was right. There really was something almost fiery about the underlying espresso, but not so pronounced as to overwhelm the (perfectly foamed, by the way) milk.
But would I have been able to pinpoint that it had been made on a Slayer? I’m going to be honest and say NO. It was a really incredible cup of coffee, but I also found it hard to judge it without being biased. The same way you can’t dislike a $300 bottle of wine, it’s hard to turn up your nose at something made on such an extravagant piece of equipment.
As for the cafe itself? Unfortunately, I can’t speak for what’s going on now, since I only showed up the day it opened. I’ve been following them online, however, and crying silently that I can’t attend their coffee classes, which are complete with food pairings.
Dark Cloud is unique: not only does it have a Slayer and a wide range of espresso offerings, but it is located in Lincoln Park, a generally pretty yuppie area (as opposed to say, Wicker Park).
When I get back to Chicago, I know what cafe I’m visiting first:
It’s time for some Slaying.
The story which I am about to tell is 100% truthful, although it seems a twist of fate. It resembles a certain food column in the New York Times, where the cook seems to have “nothing in the kitchen,” yet turns out impeccably braised meats and pie crusts presumably by accident (Yes, Melissa Clark, I’m thinking of you!).
But rest assured, last night Old Mother Hubbard (aka Octopus Gourmet) went to the cupboard (or rather, bookshelf) and found it bare. To be honest, cooking was the last thing on my mind. After an unrestful night’s sleep, I had a headache and really just wanted some miso soup. The problem? No miso. The dining hall just wasn’t an option– there are only so many times a day one can frequent the salad bar.
I inspected my ingredients and mulled over a few options. Literally everything was almost out: I had but a scant handful of brown rice and one lone packet of soy sauce. No fresh vegetables, unless you count kabocha squash and celery. Here is what I did have:
- Dried shiitake mushrooms
- A few kinds of dried seaweed
- Dried Chinese shrimp
- Oyster sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
- Eggs that needed to be used up
- Does tap water count?
Like the menorah that burned for eight nights, the combined powers of my rice cooker and Asian dried staples somehow created a miraculous elixir, something along the lines of a Macrobiotic “stone soup.” Rather than drag out the induction burner, I threw almost everything into my rice cooker and hoped for the best.
Congee, or zhou, is one of the world’s most comforting foods, but it is nearly almost always made with white rice. I, alas, had only brown rice, which retains its chew and doesn’t thicken the same way, but is delicious in its own right. After pouring what was left of the rice into the rice cooker, I added shiitake mushrooms, a few dried shrimp, and a lot of water, then let it cook. It wasn’t long before it had come to a boil and the rice had begun to soften.
In the meantime, I had decided to use the kabocha squash as a side. If I haven’t mentioned this already, kabocha is my favorite food in the entire world– I adore its sweet, nutty flesh and hearty texture, especially when I’m feeling under the weather. And the best part about kabocha? It may be the only vegetable I know that tastes better steamed than roasted. So I cubed it, put it into my steamer insert, and let it steam while the congee simmered.
Fifteen or so minutes later, the squash was tender and the congee ready for flavoring. As I suspected, it tasted of absolutely nothing. I sacrificed my soy sauce packet and a few twists of the black pepper mill, then tasted. Fail. The soup lacked body. Even if I had had more soy sauce, it would have only made it more one-dimensionally salty. All of a sudden, Eureka! I had it. Oyster sauce (the key to perfect fried rice, by the way) is both savory and sweet, with a slightly fermented smell. I added a hearty tablespoon and tasted the congee again with a huge smile on my face. The oyster sauce added just the right amount of “roundness” to the soup.
After a few minutes, I generously drizzled the whole concoction with sesame oil, sesame seeds and chili paste. As for a garnish, cilantro or scallions would have been ideal, but I had none. No matter. I sprinkled on some celery leaves and ate the congee straight out of the rice cooker.
The runny egg yolk thickened the broth, adding an almost roux-like creaminess. Meanwhile, the kabocha squash had somehow infused with the umami elements of dried shrimp and shiitakes– it, too, had become multilayered in flavor. As I alternated bites of kabocha with slurps of unctious congee, I could hardly think, my tastebuds were going so wild.
How did what had begun as having “nothing” on hand turn into such a feast?
Brown Rice Congee with Seaweed and Poached Egg
- a scant 1/4 cup brown rice
- Water to cover
- 6 dried shiitaki mushrooms
- 4 dried shrimp
- 1 packet soy sauce (a few tsp)
- 1 TBSP oyster sauce
- A fist-sized lump of dried Chinese seaweed
- Black pepper
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 TBSP chili paste, optional
- 2 eggs
- Sesame seeds and celery leaves, for garnish
- Plug in your rice cooker
- If you want to save time, you might consider boiling the water in an electric kettle first, or you can just add it with the rest of ingredients and wait a bit longer.
- Add all the dried ingredients except the seaweed to the rice cooker, cover with water, and set to “cook.”
- Wait (times will vary) until the brown rice is slightly mushy but still chewy.
- Add soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, and seaweed, letting it wilt.
- Meanwhile, crack an egg (or two, as I did) into a small container and slide into the simmering congee. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the egg is cooked to your liking.
- Turn off the rice cooker and drizzle with sesame oil, chili paste, chopped nori, and celery leaves.
- Prepare for a foodgasm.
Simply Steamed Kabocha Squash
- 1 kabocha squash, cubed (no need to peel)
- Salt and pepper, sesame seeds, optional
- Insert the kabocha into a steamer over boiling water or congee and cover.
- Let steam 10 minutes, or until soft.
- Serve, flavoring if you desire.
Wesleyan and Bard have been neck and neck in college surveys for as long as anyone can remember. These surveys and articles range from serious– Princeton Review (although even they cited both colleges as having high rates of “birkenstock-wearing, clove-smoking vegetarians)– to humorous– the Onion.
It’s not that I mind coming second to Bard in certain categories– in fact, I’m still completely baffled as to why we beat them in the Huffington Post’s list of Top 10 Hipster Schools. But with the Onion’s most recent article, Bard College Named Nation’s No. 1 Dinner Party School, I knew I had to take a stand and speak up for Wesleyan students everywhere.
I realize that the article is a joke, but the more I read, the more freaked out I got, and the more I started to wonder how The Onion gets their information. All jokes have a basis in fact, and it wasn’t so much the school they chose as what they said about it. To quote from the article:
School officials said Bard has made a number of positive changes since 2005, when a student was sent to the hospital after ingesting in excess of three poached tilapia fillets in less than an hour. Steps taken to manage the dinner party scene on campus include freshman orientation classes encouraging students to eat alone in their dorm room at least three times a week; banning the use of fondue kits on campus; and contacting the parents of students found using vegetables or tofu from the school’s dining hall in their homemade stir-fries.
“using vegetables or tofu from the school’s dining hall in their homemade stir-fries?” Have you read my guest post on dorm cooking at the Breakaway cook? Are these people hiding under my bed (where I stash my induction burner)?
So in defense of Wesleyan (or maybe just myself), I bet these Bard students have kitchens, at the very least. I have a couple friends at Bard and one of them lives in a wood-frame house as a freshman. I bet none of them cook meals at which at least 3 dishes are present IN THEIR ROOMS. Oh, but according to the article,
“That’s why we have a strict policy that any student attending a dinner party with more than four courses will be immediately suspended.”
Just this weekend I threw a dinner party. Unfortunately, the dishes were nothing new, but the company was, and I wanted to treat them to some old standbys: Star-Anise Spiced Eggplant, Stir-fried Eggs and Tomato, a variation on Bok Choy with Soft Tofu and Glass noodles with spinach, and brown rice.
I have special chopsticks reserved for guests, octopus plates, and a nice little coffee table. I put a lot of effort into dinner parties and the relaxation and gustatory pleasure they provide.
I’ve been in touch with people from Bard and I have yet to hear anything about dinner parties. So props to The Onion for a scarily accurate representation of American liberal arts schools and their hippie dinner parties– just don’t discount Wesleyan.