It’s Boxing Day!

We don’t celebrate this holiday much anymore. Traditionally, it was when the lord and lady of the manor gave small boxes and the day off to their servants. Gifts were also given to purveyors, like butchers and grocers, and to other service providers like post carriers and taxi cab drivers. Inside the boxes are usually a little money, sometimes other surprises.

So, we may not have servants anymore, we still rely on postal carriers, bus drivers and grocery store clerks. So if you have a favorite worker you depend on, take a moment to give them something to say thanks.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today is the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere North of the Tropic of Cancer. The tropical zone doesn’t have winter.

There are many festivals associated with this holiday. China has a big one. The Winter Festival is full of dumplings and other foods. It’s called the Dongzhi Festival.

In many Northern European cultures, this time of year is called Yule, which is usually incorporated with Christian traditions.

In Ancient Rome, the Solstice marked the highlight of Brumalia, a festival honoring Saturn and Ceres, and sometimes Bacchus. The festival culminated in Saturnalia, marked by feasting, gambling and giving to slaves.

This special day, the longest night of the year is also called Blue Christmas, where people mourn for their lost loved ones because of the increased darkness.

In Wales, it’s called Alban Arthan, or The Quarter of the Little Bear and goes back to the Druid celebration of the Solstice. A key part of that was bringing a tree and mistletoe into the house to honor nature.

There are many more traditions for this time of year. Tell us, in the comments, some of your favorite seasonal traditions.

Coffee Talk Part 6: Other Brewing Methods

When you began learning about food, a whole new world opens up. It isn’t about being a foodie or a gourmet, but about what food meant to all different kinds of people. Beyond just food, there was also an education in drinks: fine wine, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, even milk.

We’ve looked at where coffee comes from, how different roasts affect the taste and the caffeine content, different grinds and grinders. Now, we’re looking at brewing. There’s boiling, gravity filtration and pressurized. And then there’s another classic brewing method.

Steeping is exactly what it sounds like. Boiling water is poured over grounds and allowed to sit for several minutes, allowing the hot water to extract the flavor from the grounds. The French Press is one of the most common methods using steeping. The French Press got its name because of the plunger. When the coffee has been steeping long enough, anywhere from four to seven minutes, the plunger presses the grounds to the bottom of the pot. The filter part of the plunger also holds the grounds down while the coffee is poured. This method usually requires a courser grind.

Another steeping method developed in recent years takes a page from tea brewing. Most of us are familiar with the tea bag. But there are also coffee bags on the market. The coffee is brewed in the cup just as you would with a tea bag. In Malaysia a muslin bag called a sock is used to steep a large pot of coffee. This is sort of a homemade coffee bag.

When we talked about other brewing methods, one used what’s called a flip pot. Water is boiled in a lower section while coffee grounds are in a filter in the middle and an empty pot on top. When the water boils the whole thing is turned upside down and the hot water allowed to trickle down through the grounds to the other pot. A similar method is used in one steeping method, called the vacuum pot. Water is boiled in the lower pot where building pressure pushes it up into a top chamber containing ground coffee. The coffee then steeps. When all the water has been pushed up into the top, the pot is removed from the heat and allowed the cool. The resulting vacuum pulls the coffee through a filter into the bottom pot from which it is then served.

There are two other steeping methods that have been developed in the last decade or two. One is called an Aeropress which combines the steeping of a French Press with the pressure of an espresso maker. Instead of using a plunger to press the grounds into the bottom of the pot, the plunger is used to push the steeped coffee through a filter into a cup.

Brand new on the market is something called a Softbrew, which is like a French Press without the plunger. Not a lot of information is available on the quality of this method.

So, now you know all the different ways to make the perfect cup of coffee and all the factors that affect the quality and the taste. But there are many myths about coffee making. We’ll look at those next.

Coffee Talk – Part 5: More Brewing

For many of us, our first exposure to coffee besides the always-on percolator in the family kitchen

More and more coffee is grown in open fields using chemical fertilizers to produce higher yields and greater mechanization. This presents an environmental danger worse than the super strong coffee that came out of that perculator.

Shade grown coffee not only produces better quality with fewer beans, but it also provides homes for many birds and other small animals. The loss of this traditional growing method is costing our world a good deal more than just the price versus high volume, cheaper coffee. There’s also the high use of water for processing the coffee crop. This is particularly important for coffee growing regions in Africa. Some promoters are pushing for ways to make better use of the coffee, such as using the wet grounds as mulch for plants in your garden or home. This supposedly helps keep away bugs.

Brewing can be done in many ways, from old-fashioned boiling to the common drip method to the French Press. These come in four basic categories: boiling, filtration, steeping and pressuring.

Pressurized brewing is commonly called Espresso, although there are some alternate ways of using water or steam under pressure to produce a concentrated coffee. A Moka pot, or Italian coffee pot is a three chamber stovetop device in which water is boiled in the lower part. The steam and water thus created is forced through a small opening into the middle section where the coffee grounds are. Between the middle and top sections is a filter. As the pressure builds, the coffee is sent through the filter into the top section where it is collected for serving. The strength is similar to espresso, but without the crema.

Espressing we’ve talked about already, but to cover again, finely ground coffee is packed into a thick disk called a puck. High pressure steam is then sent through the puck pulling out many of the hard-to-dissolve compounds and oil that regular brewing won’t remove. The toffee-colored foam that comes out is called the crema and is the mark of properly espressed coffee. Underneath the rich crema is a strongly flavored coffee that is thicker than regular coffee. It also has a taste not produced by any other method.

In recent years, single-serve coffee methods have come on the market which also use steam or high pressure water to quickly extract coffee from the grounds. These usually use pre-packed coffee pods for single-use brewing.

Boiling involves simply cooking the ground coffee in water, just like my father did on those camping trips. It’s simple and easy but does not provide the kind of control needed for a good cup of coffee. Egg shells and other additives have been used to help settle the grounds. This is called Cowboy coffee. The ground settle and then the coffee liquid is poured off the top. But some cultures use a simple strainer, much as traditional tea brewers use. This is most common with the very strong coffees of Southern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia Minor, especially Turkey. Very finely ground coffee, water and sometimes sugar are put in a narrow pot and boiled. Another traditional methods involves a single cup, common in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. There, this method is known as Mud coffee. Boiling water is added to a coup containing ground coffee. It is then allowed to cool, during which time the ground settle to the bottom of the cup. Only very finely ground coffee works in this method. Most boiled coffees are extremely strong and rarely subtle.

Filtration methods use a combination of boiling and gravity to brew coffee. First came the percolator. This device, whether electric or stove top, boiled the water, sending it up a tube to erupt over grounds in a basket, usually containing a paper filter. That moved into the drip coffee maker. Like the percolator, water was boiled and sent cascading over grounds. But unlike the percolator, the water was only cycled through the grounds once. Percolators keep boiling and circulating the coffee water through the grounds until a selected strength is achieved. Drip systems use a controlled release of the water from the basket containing the ground coffee. Ideally, this has to allow appropriate amount of time for the hot water to extract the coffee compounds before moving into the pot, or carafe, underneath the basket. Drip coffee can be automatic using an electric coffee maker, or manual, in which boiling water is pouted into a container at the top of the maker.

Another variation is called the Neapolitan Flip Pot. Like the Moka Pot, it is made of three sections. The lower section contains water to be boiled. The top is basically an upside-down version of the lower section. In between is a filter containing the coffee grounds. Once the water in the lower section comes to a boil, the pot is turned upside down to allow the water to slowly pass through the grounds in the filter section. This device can then be take apart with the now-lower section used as an ordinary serving pot.

We’re not done yet. There are other brewing methods to talk about, as well as one of the most popular — steeping. So, stick around for more Coffee Talk!

Coffee Talk Part 4: Brewing

If you’ve been reading this series, you’ve seen us take a journey through the world of coffee from the origin, to the growing, to the processing, roasting and grinding. Now, it’s time to get cooking.

The ground coffee can be prepared in two ways: brewing and espressing. Brewing is clearly the most common and the easiest and most forgiving method. Espressing requires high-pressure steam, finely ground coffee and tightly packed grounds to work correctly. Therefore, espressing should be left to trained persons.

The difference is the quantity and type of compounds that are removed from the grounds. Brewing will remove only the water-soluble compounds, while espressing removes oil-soluble compounds as well. Properly brewed coffee should be a shade of brown ranging from light to near black. Also it should be transparent, not muddy. Espresso should be a light, creamy caramel color, thick and opaque. Under the creaminess is a dark, concentrated liquid.

The key to all coffee making, no matter what kind or method, is water temperature. Too cool and it won’t remove the valuable flavor compounds, thus wasting the coffee. The most common mistake in making coffee is not having water that’s hot enough.

We normally think of Espresso makers as large, steamy, locomotive-looking contraptions that whistle and hiss. These use steam shot through tightly packed grounds to make the drink. But there’s also a vacuum pot commonly used in many homes, especially Italian homes, that produces a similar product on an ordinary stove top.

Brewing can break down into several different methods. Boiling was common until the 1930s when filtration methods like percolating became popular. Steeping is common for single portions or cups, and is still popular for high-end coffees.

There much more to learn about brewing a good cup of coffee, which we will cover in the next post.

Can Ramen Be Both Convenient And Healthy?

Ramen is a Bachelor’s Kitchen favorite. Not only is it cheap, it is filling. And what used to be a college dormitory staple has gone way beyond schools and have become a regular for those who are finding it hard to make ends meet.

But is it healthy? Well, it can be.

ramen-cuThe simplest way to up the nutrition of this simple noodle dish is to add vegetables and proteins. That can turn this staple into a complete meal. But you can take it a step further without a lot of trouble.

In The Bachelor’s Kitchen recipe section, we have the Asian Noodle Bowl, a simple way to use the noodles as an ingredient that abandons the salty flavor packet and adds good protein and vegetables.

A stir-fry is another quick and easy way to make ramen healthier. On the blog Dumbed Down Food  by Rick Brandt, a recent graduate from the University of Iowa, one of the most popular posts is Ramen Stir-Fry.ramen3

Here’s what you need: a small pot, a small frying pan, a package of flavored Ramen (chicken or beef preferred), a half cup of frozen mixed vegetables (small cut veggies are best), two eggs and a teaspoon of butter. The eggs, if you like them hard boiled, can be cooked ahead of time.

Start with the pack of Ramen and it’s flavor packet. Remove both from the wrapper, break up the noodles and put them in the small frying pan. Add enough water to cover them. Then add the frozen vegetable and put the pan over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the noodles and veggies are tender.

While that’s cooking, cook your eggs in the small pot or saucepan, if you haven’t already. Then chop them into bite size pieces. Drain the noodles and veggies, add the butter and the seasoning packet to the noodles and cook over medium heat for a couple minutes. Be sure to stir it a lot so it doesn’t burn. Add the chopped eggs and you’re done.

See? Even a busy, culinarily-challenged college student can do it.

The wonderful thing about instant ramen noodles is that they are versatile. Want a sandwich but you’re out of bread? No problem! How about a ramen noodle grilled cheese sandwich?ramen-burger-delish-blog Believe it or not, it’s the latest craze.

Cook a package of ramen according to the directions on the package. Drain the water and let them cool. Then add one egg and mix. Dump the contents of your pan onto a cutting board and spread them out until the pile is about a half-inch thick. Cut two bread-size squares from the pile and place each piece between two pieces of wax paper. Then put them into the refrigerator.

After about 20 minutes, the ramen “bread” should be holding together. Heat them in a pan for a minute or two on each side. Add three or four slices of cheese and stack the other noodle patty on top. Then finish it the way you would a regular grilled cheese.  The cheese will melt into the spaces between the noodles.

Or, perhaps you prefer to bake it into a ramen frittata, packed with shredded cheese, bacon and tomatoes. Better yet, just smother it in chocolate and ice cream for a one-of-a-kind dessert.

In the book Rah! Rah! Ramen, +Sara Childs+ explores dozens of quick recipes for using instant noodles in the microwave. The dishes range from Macmen N’ Cheese to a spinach cannelloni soup to lemon curd ramen. Childs says she could come up with plenty more.

“If you look at it as just a basic ingredient, you can keep adding with your imagination and take off on it.”

At its heart, ramen noodles are just wheat flour and palm oil. It’s what food historians call a “platform food,” on which you can build any flavors. On top of everything else, ramen is cheap.

But that’s not all. Ramen often brings out memories, of college days, of childhood, of young love and of hard times. And it leads to creativity, like ramen beef stew, ramen tuna casserole and ramen burritos.Mummy-Ramen-Noodles These creations might not be in the same league as restaurant quality noodle dishes, but they bring the art of cooking down to an “everyman” level.

Now when you open a pack of ramen noodles, you can let your imagination soar. Look upon this humble food as the vehicle for your own personal gourmet cuisine.

Coffee Talk 3: Roasting

Coffee beans are shipped from their production areas to the rest of the world as dry, green beans. Processors small and large then take on the rest of the process.

Some beans will be decaffeinated using one of two methods. The most common is to soak the beans in water, which draws out much of the caffeine. Another method is to apply steam which draws out caffeine oils from the beans. In either case, a small amount of caffeine will remain in the beans. The caffeine that is removed is sold to the pharmaceutical industry.

The most delicate part of processing is the roasting. This is more of an art than a science and requires a skilled human operator who gauges the smell and color of the roasted beans. Mere seconds can be the difference between a perfect roast and coffee that’s burned and useless.

Here’s something you might not know. The lighter the roast, the higher the caffeine content. Breakfast blends usually use what’s called a City roast. This type of coffee is complex in flavor because certain oils are destroyed by high heat. The darker roasts, French, Italian and Espresso, have a bolder, sweeter flavor but less caffeine. Medium roasts, also called House or Classic roasts, combine the qualities of both light and dark. This is an all-purpose roast found in most commercially available blends and coffee served in restaurants and coffee shops.

Storage becomes an important aspect at this point. Air, heat and moisture are the enemies of keeping coffee fresh and flavorful. But there are some myths about the proper way to store you coffee, whether already ground or as whole beans.

It is true that if possible beans should not be ground until just before brewing. However, if properly stored, pre-ground coffee will lose only a small amount of its character while waiting to be brewed.

You’ve probably heard that you should keep your coffee in the refrigerator or freezer. But it’s not as simple as that. In fact, continually removing and replacing coffee as ground or beans from the cold environment to the relative warmth of your kitchen can quickly destroy the quality of the coffee. If you’re not going to use the coffee for a couple of weeks, put it in the freezer. If the time frame is more than a couple days but less than a couple weeks, the refrigerator is the best place for the coffee. But if you’re using it every day, just keep it in an air-tight, opaque container and a cool, shady spot in the kitchen.

If you buy whole beans, you’ll have to grind it at home. Yes, there are still some grinders in some grocery stores, but they are mostly gone. They cause a big mess and are hard to clean. They’re also no better than buying a can of pre-ground coffee.

There are two types of grinding in common use today: chopping and burr grinding. Chopping is what you see most often in homes. This uses two steel blades to grind the beans and depends on the amount of time in the grinding to determine fineness. However, because this method produces a lot of coffee dust, it should only be used for drip and percolating brewing. The dust will clog up espresso makers and French presses.

Burr grinding is a miniature version of the old fashioned gris mill in which the seeds are passed between two large stones, one turning while the other is stationary. Today’s burr grinders found in coffee houses and some homes uses steel parts but the same principle. The quality or fineness of the grind is determined by setting the distance between the grinding wheel and burr. This offers more accurate and even grinding with less powder.

There are two other forms of grinding that are less common. One is pounding and the other is rolling. In both cases, a heavy weight is used to break up the coffee beans. Pounding uses a mortar and pestle to grind the beans into a fine power used for Turkish style coffees. Roller grinding is used only at commercial coffee producers because of the size and weight of the machine. The beans are sent between two large steel drums like a pasta machine or the old fashioned washer wringers.

Next, it’s time to start brewing the ideal cup of coffee.

Coffee Talk 2

Coffee has become one the major commodities exported, traded and imported all around the world. Lots of people will try to steer you away from your morning pick-me-up, but there has yet to be a definitive study proving either coffee’s harm or its benefits. The active ingredient in coffee that causes the controversy is caffeine, a chemical stimulant found in seeds, leaves and fruit of many plants. Caffeine is an xanthine alkaloid and a psychoactive stimulant. Plants make it to use as a natural pesticide. It is the most common and most widely consumed psychoactive substance used by humans.

Whether coffee is healthy or not is a medical argument that goes back and forth. One thing that has become clear in discussing the health benefits of caffeine is how coffee is prepared and in what quantity it is consumed determines how bad it can be. Many doctors say that as a central nervous system stimulant we simply don’t need it. But it has been found very useful in allowing certain pain medications to be more effective. Personally, I think a couple cups in the morning won’t do much if any harm. But if you put away pots of the stuff there could be a problem of over-stimulation which would affect mood, concentration and sleep.

Coffee begins as seeds of a bush. The ripe seed pods are picked by hand, which is part of the cost we see in prices at the grocery store. Next, the green berries are processed in one of two ways: wet or dry. Dry is obviously easier. The berries are laid out in the sun to dry before the flesh is removed to reveal the coffee bean. In the wet method, the berries are allowed to ferment before the seeds are removed and prepared for the next step in the process.

As a side note, the most expensive coffee in the world comes from the North forests of South America where a cat-like animal eats the berries, releasing fermented beans from the other end. I’m pretty sure you can understand why this “cat poo” coffee costs so much.

The beans are then washed, sorted, graded and dried. Drying is done on screen-bottomed tables allowing air to circulate all around the beans which are spread out in a thin layer. They are then bagged and shipped around the world.

The next step in the process is roasting. This can make or break a coffee, no matter what processing or brewing methods are used.

Coffee Talk

Like lots of Americans, we really like our morning coffee. But it was an acquired taste. It was bitter and nasty. When we got to college, it became a lifeline for those long nights of study and… well, other things. The coffee world is exploding. The recent National Coffee Day reminded us it might be time to look at this culturally important beverage.

Coffee originated in Northeastern Africa around Ethiopia. It spread into the Arab world and then around the Mediterranean and into Europe. It is now grown in over 70 countries around the world. The plant is a type of evergreen bush which produces green seed pods slightly larger than most grapes. As the pod ripens, it turns a bright red, which gave the pod its name: cherry. Inside the cherry is the seed, which is usually called a coffee bean.

There are two kinds of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is considered the higher quality and grows in higher altitudes of equatorial regions of the world. It is considered to have better flavor but less body than the more common Robusta. The later is a hardier species of coffee and grows at lower altitudes. Naturally, Arabica coffee is more expensive. Robusta is usually used for pre-ground coffees, like the commercial supermarket brands, and decaffeinated coffee. The reason decaffeinated coffee uses the less expensive Robusta beans is that coffee companies know people won’t pay more for something that has less in it. The process that removes the caffeine adds cost to the processing of the beans. Sometimes both varieties are used to get a particular flavor profile. Arabica beans are grown in Northeastern Africa and Central and South America from Mexico to Columbia to Peru. Robusta is grown throughout Southeast Asia, central Africa and Brazil.

Where the coffee is grown has a big impact on the flavor. Altitude, rainfall, heat, insects and other crops all affect the taste. Some of the most desirable coffees are grown in places like Hawaii, Jamaica, Columbia and Sumatra. Brazil grows the most coffee, followed by Vietnam, Columbia and Indonesia. The ideal coffee growing conditions are bushes in the shade of larger trees. These produce lower yields but superior tasting coffee. In addition, traditional coffee growing methods give shelter to animals and other plants, making the crop more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Because of demand, more and more coffee is being produced in open areas with the aid of chemical fertilizer.

Soup Great Way To Use Leftovers

Leftovers accumulate quickly at this time of year. We make those bigger-than-usual dinners and have plastic storage containers full of small amounts of starches, vegetables, meat and gravy. What do you do? What do you do?

Well, the housewife of the past would know what to do. When the refrigerator gets full, make soup!vegetable-soup-lg

One of the wonderful things about soup is that you can make it from just about anything. Leftovers are particularly good for bringing together a quick meal in the stock pot.

What we had in the house. Since we had chicken instead of turkey, there was really only a little meat left from when I made stock. Because I had planned to make soup, I had picked out the meat from when I made stock from the mostly barren carcass of the bird. I also had plenty of chicken stock, homemade just a few days ago. I had made a pot of Great Northern beans with onion a week before, a little brown rice and some vegetables that had been stir-fried. We also had some nice broccoli crowns.

I found a recipe for a broccoli, cannelloni bean and cheddar soup that I thought could be adapted to my use. So, I started with two cups of homemade chicken stock and the same amount of water. I prepared one large broccoli crown by cutting it into bite size pieces which I washed. I brought the stock and water to a boil and added the broccoli. When the broccoli was tender, I lowered the heat to a simmer and added about a cup of my Great Northern and onion bean mix, a pinch of kosher salt, a few grinds of black pepper and made sure everything was cooked through. Then I added the stir-fried vegetables, about a quarter cup of mushroom gravy, about half a cup of shredded chicken and about a cup of shredded cheddar cheese. I poured about half the soup into a bowl and used an immersion blender to puree the mixture to add texture to the soup. I added the puree back into the pot along with about two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and it was ready to go. We discovered the dish could be improved by adding a squeeze of lime juice into the bowl just before serving.

Soup is easy and a great way to clean out the refrigerator of all those little partial servings of leftover whatever. It goes great with a salad or a half sandwich.