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the nuances of brain juice

By on Dec 3, 2013 in craft food, love, process | 7 comments

When I was 14, I started to drink coffee while at camp, thin bitter dark coffee dosed heavily with packets of hot chocolate mix. When I was 17 I was an exchange student in Denmark, where my host father looked me in the eye and declared that he was going to teach me how to drink proper coffee (and alcohol,) because if I learned how to do it in the U.S., I was going to learn to do it wrong. When I was 23 I lived in New York City and became enamored of the barrels of beans at Porto Rico Imports in the Village, making a pilgrimage from Brooklyn every time I ran out. When I was 27 I did a grad school project for an interactive media project called “The Obsessive Compulsive’s Guide to Coffee.” Now, at age 38 I have a kettle that heats my water to precisely to 200 degrees, which I slowly pour into a french press with precisely 4 tablespoons of beans for two cups of coffee, then let sit for 4 minutes, which I can now do without using a real timer, and I drink it black. Slowly. I say all this because even with all that evolution and slow learning, I know approximately nothing compared to the eloquent Tim Coonan, owner and roaster at Big Shoulders Coffee. Go ahead and look up Tim Coonan. You will find he has been a chef in some of the finest places in the world. He was at Spiaggia here in Chicago for nine years. And when you drink his coffee, it is not a fanciful mélange of bean and foam, a place where you will find beans excreted from a civet cat wreathed in such mystery and exclusivity you expect there to be armed guards around the cup of coffee. You will drink coffee. With flavor. No-nonsense and yet highly nuanced flavor. On a grey Saturday morning, Mr. Coonan was kind enough to let me come in as he roasted his last batch of coffee for the day. I was there at 10:30AM, and he had already roasted 100 pounds of beans. I walked in the door of his coffee shop and was immediately embraced by the heavenly scent of freshly roasted coffee. I had recently been introduced to this glorious scent by my cousin, owner of  Cimarron Books & Coffee out in Colorado who has become entranced with the coffee bean and had bought a home roaster to do experiment with roasting. The scent of roasting beans wafting through their house was for me akin to living inside a glorious caffeinated bakery where I was not sure I could inhale deeply enough. So walking into a place where they just roasted 100 pounds… well it was beyond any kid in a candy store analogy you have ever envisioned. Way beyond. Right in the front window of Big Shoulders sits a commercial roaster, all vivid, shiny, and green. Tim began to work on roasting a batch of Ugandan beans. He explained the stages, such as first crack, and we watched the beans shift from green to brown, far more swiftly than you might imagine. His eyes constantly flicked between the beans and his nearby laptop, where he had charts for previous roasts of this bean, and a gauge showing temperature. His nose was watching even more keenly. Despite the careful gauging of temperature and time, checking against previous roasts, a lot of this really does still come down to the nose. He said there are machines where you can just program a profile for the roast you want and let it go, but there are so many variables that can affect the batch that day he prefers to watch every roast and do it all manually. I asked about dark vs. medium roasts, and what I had heard about West Coast vs. East Coast roasts, and his answer was not really what I would have expected. I knew about dark roasts being really more about char than coffee, but when it came to the other descriptives, he spoke of how we keep using words like “terroir” and these other coastal definitions, but they are really borrowed from other parts of the culinary lexicon. We don’t really have language yet for just coffee. Terroir is about wine, and about where it is grown, the environment around it. While there is definitely something to that in coffee, it goes farther. It also is what the farmer does to the bean after it is harvested. There is a farmer in Mexico that lets the bean ferment just a little in the bean, giving it this lactic flavor that is unlike anything you will experience in coffee (no civet cats required.) Tim was kind enough to have the folks at the coffee shop make me a couple of cups of coffee, from a couple of batches he really liked. We stood next to a wall where he had some of these beans in glass jars, and he held up an Ethiopian to smell, which smelled pretty much like I expected (still lovely,) and then he held up a jar of this Mexican coffee with the fermented bean, and I think all of my neurons, faithfully fueled by coffee for many a year, did a double take. He said the first time he had this coffee, he had a...

sweet, sweet snow

By on Nov 25, 2013 in craft food, libations, process | 0 comments

Once upon a time, on a sunny fall day on a quiet street in Chicago, a food blogger walked up to the gate of a long and low brick building. Before her was an aging metal panel of buzzers, and a tattered piece of paper taped over half of them with alternate instructions for only certain parts of the building. After a brief head scratch, the food blogger decided to move onto more modern technology and call the person she was meeting. A minute later, a tall woman with cropped red hair and improbably merry round black glasses popped out of a door a half block down the long and low brick building and yelled “RACHEL!” One would somehow like to think all this craft and local food happens in fabulously rustic kitchens or perfect retro factories with just the right amount of hipster grunge, but really? Sometimes it happens in a long and low brick building, and frankly, I don’t give a damn, because the end result is delicious. The tall woman in question is Melissa Yen, creator of Jo Snow Syrups. I had seen her out and about at the Chicago street festivals, doling out snow cones using what appeared to be a vintage ice shaver (it’s not vintage, it’s just a Japanese company that happens to make them look vintage.) On a particularly hot day at one of the festivals, I circled her booth like a parched vulture until finally the line was short enough, and dove in. My first experience was the tangerine lavender honey syrup drizzled over shaved ice in the classic little paper cone we all know from childhood. But this was no purple flavor or blue flavor. This was that smooth round sweet of tangerines, that little tang of honey and undercurrent of lavender rolling about, and I swear my core temperature dropped 10 degrees while my eyes rolled backwards from the pleasure of cooling down in such a scrumptious manner. A couple of months later, on a chillier September day, I encountered her again at a fair and tried the cantaloupe cardamom (which she thought was a bit too cardamom-y,) and I spied a bottle of woodruff syrup, a wonder I had encountered at a bar in Brooklyn a month before. I chatted with her a bit about how she was so much more than a fancy snow cone purveyor, and she graciously agreed to come have me hang out for a bit one fine day. And finally that fine day arrived. I made my way down to the door at the end of the long and low brick building, and upon entering, the first thing that hit me was the scent. Of granola. She uses part of the kitchen that Milk & Honey Granola uses, and there were several ovens full of granola roasting away, letting loose a homey scent of oats and sugar. We donned some very fashionable hairnets and went into the corner where she and two women were working away. Despite the proximity to the ovens full of tempting granola, I was drawn like a cartoon following an animated scent trail to her giant “tilt skillet” (a giant vat where they actually cook the syrup in enormous quantities that has this crazy motor setup that will slowly tilt the skillet over so they can empty it out into kettles for bottling.) Inside she was steeping cardamom rose water syrup. Let me pause here a moment. When I usually think of flavored syrups, it usually involves flavors hatched by a chemistry lab somewhere in New Jersey, bearing little resemblance to the flavor of the object in question. Purple flavor is purple flavor, not really grape. So when I say Melissa was steeping cardamom rose water syrup, I mean I was staring at a vat of syrup with an incredible quantity of whole cardamom pods and some cinnamon sticks steaming away, releasing a scent that really was within a hair’s breadth of causing me to float up and along in a state of ecstasy like a Looney Tunes character of old. Apparently the little old ladies at the Middle Eastern market look at her like she is insane when she buys 22 pounds of cardamom pods at a time. Fair enough. But this is totally my type of mad scientist insanity. On the table was a bin of figs from the day before, when she had been working on syrup for cream soda, for Farmhouse, a local restaurant. Actual figs, no weird chemicals involved. This is not to say there is no chemistry. Of course there is! It’s food, there is always chemistry involved, but not necessarily chemistry involving strange foreign substances emerging from a lab. Right when I got there she was testing the pH level of the cardamom rose water deliciousness to make sure it was at the right level, since it has to be at a certain level to ensure shelf stability. The only thing she uses to alter the pH is citric acid. Earlier in the day they had made and bottled some of the concord grape syrup, which is definitively not purple flavor. In fact, it isn’t even really all that purple. Sort of a glowing purply-red, like the best parts of a sunset, leaving me to occasionally just gaze at it wistfully. While waiting for the cardamom to be ready, Melissa pulled out...