Thursday, August 20, 2009

Coffee (The Machine)

Before I was married, I drank coffee once. I was at a conference in a hotel that was so boring, I needed something to keep me awake, and there were no Cokes, my caffeine drug of choice at the time.

Then I got married to a coffee addict. A lot of people like coffee, I thought, maybe I could learn to like it.

Starbucks was coming along, but I didn't get it. Then I visited Vancouver. Vancouver and Seattle are are the hub and birthplace of "culinary" coffee in North America. We visited Caffe Artigiano, when I saw my first latte art. Something like this photo. It wasn't harsh, or bitter, or weak. It was as smooth as silk, rich like chocolate. Not steaming hot, but just the right temperature to drink it when they gave it to you. It was a small drink by modern coffee shop standards--only about 6 ounces.

I had to be able to do this. I got an espresso machine. A Saeco Classico (known now as the Saeco Aroma). Mostly it could make good espresso, but it took several tries each time I used to. The bad "shots" would be bitter or sour and generally undrinkable. The good shots were pretty good, but never matched what the best coffee shops could do. It was so hard to use, and the bad shots used up so much coffee, that we could only use it on weekends.

In my perfectionist drive to make espresso like I had in Vancouver, I took a barista class from Counter Culture Coffee. For six hours a group of six people brewed espresso, steamed milk and drank and critiqued our concoctions. I knew how to do this.

When I got back to my Saeco machine, I was making better drinks. It still took a long time and I still had a lot of waste.

Then the Saeco died.

I needed a new one. After tons of research, I bought a Rancilio Silvia. Now we have espresso every morning. Not perfect. But very good.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Farmer's Market Finds

One of the things I love most about going to the farmer's market is the discovery of a great food that I didn't know about. I'm not talking about anything new or weird like a strange African fruit. Just varieties of things that you see in the supermarket. However, most of the produce in a supermarket has been bred for tough skins for shipping and long life. In the supermarket world, if you don't sell it, you smell it.

Everyone should know about tomatoes at the farmer's market. They are just like you remember as a kid, very red, firm texture, mixture of sweet and acid. Those are easy.

Here are some new ones:

Eggplant. The specific variety here is called Listada de Gandia. This eggplant is actually egg-shaped, about 4 inches long. The skin is very thin and it has very few seeds. It is great on the grill, where it doesn't fall apart like regular black eggplants. This is actually quite meaty when cooked, and not bitter at all. Slice it into 1/4 inch slices, put a little salt on it and let it sit for a few minutes. Turn it over, put a little salt on the other side and let it sit again for a few minutes. Then dry it off, put a little pepper on it then a little olive oil and drop it on the grill on a medium direct heat. Don't let it burn, but its done when nicely browned.

Okra. In know, green slimmy stuff. Not Alabama Red Okra. It is truly red, and about the size of a large jalapeno, not long and skinny. The skin is very tender and it has more flesh than slime. Cut the stem off and slice the rest into 1/4 in. slices. Put in a bowl and mix in some salt, pepper and olive oil to coat. Put on a sheet pan and place in a hot oven, about 425 degrees. Let them roast for about 5 minutes then check them. If they have started to brown where they are resting on the pan, turn them as best you can to the other side with a spatula and put back in the over to roast again. They are done when they are golden brown and delicious on both sides. Pull them out, put in a bowl and eat like popcorn.

Fajitas (a recipe)

As I have mentioned, I love fajitas--the grilled smokey flavor of beef, with a slightly charred edge. I make it at home all the time. Its easy. Chipotles in adobe are available in cans in most supermarkets in the Mexican food section. Smoked salt is hard to find (I buy it online) but adds a great extra layer of flavor to grilled food. Also, you will notice that I add salt twice to the beef. Because the marinade is principally oil, after you add the marinade to the beef, the oil will coat any salt that had not already dissolved into the meat. Since salt is not oil soluble, it will not penetrate the meat, but instead remain as a chunk of salt and be wiped off with the marinade. Therefore it needs to be replaced to balance the seasoning before grilling--don't worry, it won't be too salty.

6 cloves garlic, whole, peeled
1 shallot, roughly chopped
3 or 4 chipotles in adobo
1/4 tsp. cumin, ground (fresh ground is best, but whatever you have)
3 oz vegetable oil
Kosher salt (or smoked salt if you have it)
1 lime
A whole flank or skirt steak

Turn on your empty food processor and drop the garlic cloves one by one into the feed tube until they are minced. Do the same with the shallots. Scrape the processor bowl with a rubber spatula. Drop in the chipotles and roughly chop them into the garlic and shallots. Add the cumin. Pour the oil slowly through the feed tube into the vegetable mixture until the vegetables are finely chopped and the oil is emulsified.

Using a fork, poke some holes into the beef, all over. Sprinkle salt (smoked salt if you have it) liberally over he beef, both sides. Let sit for a few minutes for the salt to soak in a little. Liberally spread marinade over both sides of the beef. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Remove from refrigerator at least 1 hour prior to cooking.

Start a very hot fire on your grill for direct heat grilling.

Unwrap the beef and remove most of the marinade using paper towels (if you don't it will burn and be bitter). Sprinkle more salt on the beef. Drop the beef onto the grill. Turn the beef when the edges start to brown, but don't let it burn. The beef will be done when it starts to weep juices between the fibers of the meat for medium rare.

Remove from heat and let sit for at least five minutes. Slice thinly and squeeze lime juice over meat.

Serve with sauted onions and bell peppers on flour tortillas and the usual fajita condiments.

Vietnam Grille (multiple visits)

As I have previously discussed, I love Vietnamese food that screams "Fresh", meaning a la minute cooking with fresh herbs. A new restaurant, Vietnam Grille, 5615 South Blvd., meets and exceeds these standards.

Our first visit was on a Saturday, to a fairly full restaurant. The Charlotte Observer had recently given it 4 1/2 stars and we were excited to try Vietnamese again.

Fresh is the word. Each dish, be it the eggroll apps or the house made soups, came with a small plate of herbs. The baby egg rolls that Vietnam is know for comes with a small plate of whole lettuce leaves and fresh herbs and sauces. The soups come with a plate of herbs and fresh sliced peppers that you can add to taste. The egg rolls are denser that I expect, but everything else we ate, from the fresh spring rolls, to the soup to the bun (a light rice noodle dish) was excellent.

On our second visit we went for lunch on a Wednesday. The crowd was smaller, and chef was sitting in the dining room as the table next to where we were seated. We exchanged pleasantries. Then I asked him to order for us. Best decision I have ever made.

He brought us a grilled meatball appetizer that was great. We got a plate of several meatballs served with dried rice paper wrappers. He showed us how to quickly moisten the wrappers in a bowl of water, add some of the fresh herbs, then wrap it up and eat it with out hands. Lovely.

For main dishes, he brought us a grilled pork on broken rice dish that was outstanding. As he described it, the rice is literally broken into small bits, similar to couscous, that allowed it to easily absorb the sauce that was on the delicious bits of grilled pork.

This is a place to keep on the top of the list.

Vietnam Grille
5615 South Blvd
Charlotte, NC 28217-4129
(704) 525-2408

1900 Mexican Grille (First look)

I like Mexican food. I like Tex-Mex food. Actually, I like any food that is prepared with care, thought and a passion for what is being presented to those who will be eating it.

Then there is 1900 Mexican Grille, located in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The restaurant is in an enormous space that had previously devoured a local Italian restaurant where the intimate food could not compete with the architecture. The restaurant had only 3 tables seated when we entered. Mariachi music was playing so loudly we asked to be seated as far away from the speakers as possible.

As always, I ordered a margharita. I love the real thing--simply tequila, lime, triple sec in a glass with ice and a lime and salt garnish. Rarely do I get anything that I good, but I hold out hope. What I got tasted watery, medicinal and overly sweet, with a cloying corn syrup taste. Undrinkable.

The menu offers the usual tacos, burritos and fajitas. I really like fajitas, with the smoky, grilled favor and the crunch and contrast of the condiments. So we ordered the Fajitas de la Casa for the table, which included beef, chicken and shrimp as well as our choice of flour or corn tortillas.

The good: the portion we were served could have fed four or five people.

The bad: the taste and the texture. Clearly everything in the dish had been previously prepared and was sitting in a steam table waiting for a victim to order it. Both the beef and the chicken looked like gray chunks of poor quality stir-fry, with no salt, let alone any other type of seasoning. Onions and peppers were a gooey, soggy mess. Now the worst part: I had to spit out a shrimp when I bit into it. It was tough as rubber and coated with some type of unidentifiable barbeque type sauce that was a terrible contrast to any shrimp, let alone these.

We pecked at the food as best we could then asked for the check. The server nicely asked if everything was ok, and I said no, it was terrible. He quickly returned with our check, with half of the price comped.

No one should have to eat food of such a poor quality.