Cold brew coffee experimentation

After visiting Bluebottle Coffee in SF, trying out their cold brew awesomeness and subsequently seeing this whole cold brew thing blowing up across the California coast I had to give it a go.

The big coffee drippers at bluebottle are these amazing steampunk-esque brass looking behemoths. They drop cold (presumably filtered) water over loosely packed coffee grounds at a couple drips a minute. It probably takes in the region of 12-24 hrs for a complete batch to ‘brew’, but it looks amazing and tastes even better!

I figured I had to try it for myself. Cue playing around with a Hario V60 and some plastic bottles. The hardest part to make was the dripper – I needed something super slow, but reliable. I didn’t want it to stop part way through a 12 hr brew obviously. Also low tech is far more exciting. So I cut the bottom off of one of those 2 litre water bottles, and then cut it in half, and put the top end upside down in the bottom half – making a sort of supported funnel. I then made a pin/needle sized hole in the cap of the bottle, testing it a few times to make sure that a sufficiently slow flow of water got through.

Before

This was then positioned over my Hario V60 with lots of pourover ground coffee in the filter. And then this was delicately balanced on a jug to collect this awesome cold brew. I poured some water in, and waited. And waited. It took a while, like 30 mins before anything came thru, but it was working. At this point I decided to say fuck it, stop watching it and go to sleep.

Next morning, let’s say 12 hours later, it was done. 300mls of cold brew. It had that great almost nutty and ester-y aroma that I’d come to expect, and with a couple ice cubes in it, it was grand. Easy to do, just took a little while. Maybe I’ll try a little lower effort method next time!

After

Understanding Sansho/Szechuan Pepper

So this is maybe a little bit of a different sort of subject to what I usually go for, but it’s something that’s interested me, and I always felt that it’s totally un/under-appreciated in British society.

Since being in Japan a year or so ago, I’ve come to appreciate these different sorts of spices and flavourings that are used frequently over there, but have largely been ignored here in the West. One in particular here is the szechuan/sichuan peppercorn (called sanshō in Japanese). I came across it primarily in two dishes while I was there, both Chinese inspired (or just plain Chinese) but largely interpreted and used in Japanese cuisine often now, Mápó dòufu/mābō dōfu (see Wikipedia) and a particularly spicy ramen at a place I found in Kanda. In these two dishes, sanshō pepper was used to particular effect to enhance the sensory experience of the dish, providing a somewhat numbing and gradually building spiciness – something which I hadn’t really experienced before.

So turning to my favourite (and what I consider the definitive) book on food and food etymology, On Food and Cooking, I read this:

The Chinese spice known as Sichuan pepper and the Japanese sanshō both offer a strange and interesting version of pungency. They come from two small trees in the citrus family sometimes called “prickly ash.” Sichuan pepper trees are Zanthoxylum simulans or Z. bungeanum, and sanshō trees are Zanthoxylum piperitum. The spices are the small dried fruit rinds, which are aromatic with lemony citronellal and citronellol. The pungent compounds, the sanshools, are members of the same family as pipeline from black pepper and capsaicin from chills. But the sanshools aren’t simply pungent. They produce a strange, tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools appear to act on several different nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion.

Super interesting right? It’s a super weird little spice. While being called a pepper or a peppercorn, it’s not really, just dried (and then crushed) fruit rinds. So I came across this stuff as part of a mix in this ramen joint called Kikanbou in Kanda (lots of info on Ramen Adventures), a place where you get to choose the amount (both on scales out of 10) of regular spice and numbing spice (the aforementioned sanshō) in your bowl of ramen. It maybe comes across as a little gimmickish, but I assure you, it’s not. Both of those scales are pretty legit, and pretty spicy.

So when I got home from Japan in December of last year, the first thing that I wanted to do was to subject my family (who ordinarily are fans of hot peppers, hot sauce, and pretty much anything else hot – we grew habaneros, jalapeños, hungarian wax and serrano peppers in Scotland, and had a bottle of sriracha on the table at most meals) to the wonders of sanshō pepper. What better way to do this than with some homemade and awesome mābō dōfu.

mābō dōfu

I used a combination of a couple recipes on the internet – I always find following just one recipe silly, especially when most of the recipes that I am going to read will be Western interpretations of the dish. Surely I should maximise my understanding of the methods, ingredients and techniques by reading around the recipe and going from there. Try it – it works pretty well. One video that did help (and in general is pretty good with Japanese cooking) was the Cooking with Dog mābō dōfu recipe – worth a look for sure, especially with the unnecessariyness of the dog in the video. Getting some of the ingredients (the tough things to find were the Doubanjiang, the Tian Mian Jiang and the Sichuan Pepper) was a little challenging at first, but the local asian food store helped out. The result was pretty good, and not knowing how spicy it was going to be, everyone tucked in.

Everyone loved it, though did comment on the unique taste, which I believe to be from the sweet bean paste, and the interesting sensation on their tongue as the meal progressed. By the end, we pretty much felt exactly what was described in McGee – like a slightly burning or fizzing sensation on tongues, so much so that when drinking still water, it had the sensation of carbonated water. Just so bizarre! I’m not sure that by the end of the meal everyone felt content with their tongues on fire in a new way, but hey, that’s how it goes. Turns out that I had a lot of Sichuan pepper left at the end of the meal, and what better to do with it than put it in a regular pepper grinder and try it out with many more meals (potentially tricking more unknowing family members and guests in the process).

Closing notes. It’s an interesting spice. It smells very fruity, probably because of the citronellal/ol, and almost in the same way as gin. A kind of botanical/juniper fruitiness I guess. This led me to trying it in gin and tonics, with a slice of cucumber (in place of black pepper) to much success. It’s a little different, but if you have some adventurous guests, they’ll love it. It’s also fantastic with eggs, and especially morning omelettes, but then anything spicy is… All in all, I would highly suggest trying it out, and incorporating some Sichuan pepper into your diet, even just to add another dimension of taste and spice.

My Kind of Cookbook

I’ve recently started reading McGee’s classic — On Food and Cooking. It had been recommended many times both by my father, and amazon recommendations (not that I really take them all that seriously). It’s fantastic. I love it.

Being a bit of an intrepid scientist at heart, I like cookbooks/guidebooks/&c. that don’t tell you the whole story. I like it when a cookbook doesn’t tell you eveything about a given recipe. They explain in detail the important parts required for the recipe to work, but leave the main directions (or experimentation so to speak) up to a little bit of interpretation. Not only does it make the book so much more worthwhile, but if it’s written correctly (as it is with McGee), it becomes far more fascinating to read. I like understanding the scientific basis behind all sorts of things. Working out how and why things/reactions/experiments/products work the way they do, and given this information, how you can game it (so to speak) in order to achieve the best possible result. Kind of a minimum input maximum output sorta approach, but so much more.

It’s a little hard to explain I guess, so I think my point is best served with an example. From On Food and Cooking and on the subject of using copper bowls for eggs:

“It turns out that along with a very few other metals, copper has the useful tendency to form extremely tight bonds with reactive sulphur groups: so tight that the sulfur is essentially prevented from reacting with anything else. So the presence of copper in foaming egg whites essentially eliminates the strongest kind of protein bond that can form, and makes it harder for the proteins to embrace each other too tightly. Sure enough, if you whip egg whites in a copper bowl — or in a glass bowl to which you’ve added a pinch of a powdered copper supplement from a health food store — the foam stays glossy and never develops grains. A silver plated bowl will do the same thing.”

These are my sort of books, and I think this particular strategy works particularly well with cooking and cookbooks. Ultimately it’s super-applied chemistry, but rarely is it presented in that fashion. There are surprisingly few books where the details in the methods are explained, allowing the actual recipes to be glossed over, or to take a back seat. I feel that most of the time, the recipe is the obvious bit, the ingredients are generally open to a bit of interpretation, however what you need is essentially the minimum effective dose for the reaction that the dish is based on to work successfully.

There are a few more books like this that I’ve encountered. The first similar one that I found, and enjoyed, was the Bread book in Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s River Cottage Handbooks collection. It had recipes for various breads, but it didn’t just jump into that. It went though some simple theory behind it (yeasts, rising, sourdough starters &c.) and particular points or changes that you could make in order to improve the bread, like keeping the oven humid. It made the point that bread is better when baked in a humid envoronment, acknowledged that most ovens aren’t particularly humid, and came up with a solution on how to make them humid (have a pan at the bottom of the oven in which you pour boiling water as you put the bread in to produce steam). It’s pretty much coming up with a problem, and developing a feedback loop to solve it. I wish more books were like this. I suppose it is the way I think, but it’s wonderfully logical too.

The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss does this too to some extent. In the later sections of the book he outlines some important reactions (The Maillard reaction, for example) and explains why they form, what dishes you may have had where they play an important part, presents a dish that showcases the reaction brilliantly, and how, in the future, if you’re making a particular dish, what you can do to best make the reaction perform successfully. At times he could go into more detail, but I think at an intro level, it’s perfect. Not too sciencey, and sufficiently pop culturey and laddish to be accepted by a large audience. McGee plunges the depths that Ferriss’ Four Hour Chef lacks. It’s detailed, perfectly explained, and draws on significant historical theory and scientific background to make a pleasant reading experience. Not for everyone, but it really hits the nail on the head for those burgeoning molecular gastronomy types.

What I’ve done so far this year

I owe myself some sort of recap on what I’ve been up to so far this wonderful January. Partly to convince myself that I have, in fact, done something, and party to set a level to base myself off (and obviously do more) for the rest of the year. Having been home in Scotland now for just over a month, I’ve had to adjust to a much different (and in particular slower) pace of life. We’re trying to move house, and so I’ve been involved with a lot of the cleanup, packing and moving boxes around that we all associate with moving. There’s a lot more to go, so I don’t want to get bored quite just yet.

Photography

BOPI’ve done a fair amount of photography related things so far this year. More than I think I’ve done probably. I travelled down to Cambridge a week ago to see friends and photograph the BOP. Possibly the best sort of party ever, and it was a change shooting one with my 5D3 instead of my old 350D. Having a 35mm lens that actually is 35mm (and not 1.6 x 35) was a nice change, as was being more knowledgable about playing around with flash settings, knowing what to expect, what I wanted, and how to get that result. The photos are available here.

More along the photography lines, I’ve had a chance to read Syl Arena‘s wonderful book on Speedliting. Not only does it explain wonderfully how and why flash works the way it does, it goes into a suitable level of detail on how digital camera settings can be understood and work together. I knew most of this already, but reading it from his perspective, and seeing it all set out in front of me has only helped my understanding more. On a whim, I went out an purchased a short e-TTL cord so I can put my Speedlite off camera. I haven’t really had much of a chance to put it to use, there being few opportunities for portrait sessions etc, but I plan to soon. I also got hold of a EX580 Speedlite which I can use as a wireless master to trigger my existing flash to create far more wonderful and varied flash effects. I’ve got much more into reading photography blogs and forums as of late too. I think it’s especially great getting angles on products and techniques from totally different parts of the industry.

Food

Braised eggs with spinach, roast tomatoes, sweet potato and yoghurt.

When left alone for a while, I have this wonderful tendency to migrate to the kitchen, cook some wonderful (and sometimes bizarre) dishes, and make A LOT of mess. I’ve had this opportunity this month quite a lot, and so I’ve managed to make some wonderful meals, using both old and new recipes, both from cookbooks and from free-styling. In the last week I’ve taken a little inspiration from Ottolenghi, chopping and changing some of his recipes to get some interesting dishes. These included a warm lentil, danish blue, and roasted tomato salad, Braised eggs with spinach, roast tomatoes, sweet potato and yoghurt, and some interesting mixes of sweet potato, apple, squash, garlic and chill all slow roasted.

Hareiller Chicken

On the meat side of things, I’ve almost perfected Tim Ferriss’ Hareiller Roast chicken, become a hero at grilling lamb chops and slow-roasted the hell (in the best way possible) out of a wonderfully balsamic lamb shoulder. I’ve got my take on Ferriss’ Osso Buko on the cards for this evening. Photos to follow. I’ve also made a few wonderful minestrone soups, using both a generic recipe, and one from Delia, both of which turned out nicely, though somewhat different. After Christmas lunch, and bread sauce making, I’ve started to apply a similar technique to making stock, using lots of cloves and nutmeg. It’s a particular somewhat warming (and vaguely spicy flavour) that I’ve grown to like. I tried applying this further (to roaring success) when making black refried beans. In the part of the recipe where one boils the hell out of the beans (mainly because I don’t have the time, nor the patience, to soak them overnight) I added some cinnamon bark, an onion stuck with cloves, and some nutmeg (in addition to all the wonderful other things). The result – amazing. I now consider myself some sort of demi-god in the refried (black) beans arena. Thankfully my father thinks so too.

Having the space, time and opportunity to cook so much recently has given me a great chance to learn more from others, to appreciate some new (and different) flavour pairings that I hadn’t quite thought of before, and realise that while some cuisines share very similar ingredients, the order and relative quantities of cooking with them can make all the difference.

Flavour pairing wise, I have this great affinity towards this thai hot sauce mixed with thyme on my morning eggs. It’s just wonderful.

Bowtiful Ties

Banner4Earlier this month I mentioned that I’d got Bowtiful running in a little more of an elegant way. With it’s wonderful webstore and twitter/facebook/etsy/folksy accounts, I have my fingers in all sorts of pies. But more on this another time.

And more

I brought my ridiculously dangerous bright orange fixie back up to Scotland when I came back from Cambridge so I’ve now had the opportunity to tear around the streets having a great time. I’ve applied to some wonderful jobs, made/published/converted some brilliant eBooks that will be going up on the Kindle Store soon, and even read some books. Especially Ryan Holiday’s book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, which has thoroughly tainted my opinion of online media. Shame.

Fall Ramen Adventures

So as a little update to my previous post on exploring Japan’s fine cuisine through little ramen joints, I managed to check a few more ‘best of the best’ places off of the list. Also as a sidenote, I feel that 80% of recent posts have been about Japanese food. That’s not a bad thing.

So this evening I went back to Bassanova, a place in Shindaita recommended due to it’s slightly different style thai fusion (among other things) ramen. Last time I went I had the first thing on the menu/ticket vending machine, the tondatsu wadasisoba. It was solid, but nothing really to write home about. Anyway I figured I should still go again just to at least try the thai green curry esque ramen if nothing else, however, while I was planning on getting it, I noticed the autumn/fall special – a spicy chilli bean tsukemen (above). It’s a little on the pricy side (¥1000), but you get a lot of noodles, some freaking awesome chilli broth (with spicy sausage and assorted beans contained within) and, wait for it, smoked chashu. It’s the absolute highlight of the dish. So so wonderful and it pairs so nicely with the slight tangy spiciness of the broth. My only complaint is that it could be served a touch warmer (but maybe that’s just be being picky?). Nonetheless, totally planning on going back there. It is, also, the only ramen joint that I’ve found so far that plays fairly loud american hip-hop as you slurp your noodles. It makes it that little bit better.

I also managed to make it along to Kurori. It had a bunch of good reviews, and I wasn’t really aware that it had been ranked as no 1 in Japan for some time until I’d been, but this place is legit and serves up a mean miso ramen. It’s near Ichigaya (and hence near class) so on a day off, I popped over there and joined a queue outside an unlabelled Ramen shop that I was pretty sure was it. Heck this place is so bad-ass and has such a reputation that it needs no shop sign. After a good 20 minutes wait, we were allowed in to order and take our seats at the bar (yes, there are only 8 seats in this place). One person (I assume the master) was making the ramen, and by the looks, sounds and tastes of it, was doing a hella good job. This was a fantastic lunch, and I shall be returning for sure.

Dreams of Sushi

Last night I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (link to rotten tomatoes) all about the 86 year old Michelin 3 star chef behind the restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. It’s a great little documentary exploring his life, the unfathomable passion and quest for perfection that he has with his work. Wonderfully well shot too, I loved the timelapses and scenes from Tsukiji market, though at the same time I felt that there was a little overuse of a fisheye lens in capturing these scenes. I found the distortion overwhelming and unnecessary in some of the motion scenes where perhaps a 14 or 20mm rectilinear lens would be sufficient. Minor criticism though.

Otherwise I would love to go to his restaurant, thing is though, that it costs pretty much the same as one month of rent – ¥30,000. Probably worth it, but alas I don’t have the cash to spare currently. However, having had a little look around, there are a number of places that a) have a Michelin star and b) do a reasonably priced lunch deal. The cheapest is even in the region of ¥800 (~£6.50). Yes, I will be going at least once in the near future.

Ramen Exploration

So one of the things that I missed while I was away from Japan was ramen. Last time I was here I remember going into this small little place in Harajuku, guessing what looked good from the vending machine menu and the pictures on the wall, and ordering it. What I got was a fantastic bowl of tantanmen-esque noodles. Absolutely fantastic. Literally like nothing I’d ever tasted back home. Once getting back to the UK, I’ve looked around for more great ramen. Any style, I just wanted something vaguely authentic and Japanese. I couldn’t find it.

I could get close, a shop would look like a authentic Tokyo ramen-joint (a hole in the wall/up some stairs etc.) but it wouldn’t have a vending machine, nor would it only sell ramen and even the ramen that they would sell would be awful. Some places didn’t even get that close.

Now that I’m back I’ve realised two main things. Firstly, I need to make the most of my diminishing 3 months here by visiting/tasting/sampling all fantastic different sorts of ramen (and udon and soba). There are some unbelievably wonderful little places that make some killer noodles on many a street corner in Tokyo, and I wanted to sample the best of the best. I can’t quite use Yelp as I mentioned previously, but a New York Times article on the ramen fanatics from a couple years back (http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/travel/31ramen.html) put me in touch with a few blogs to check out. As a result I’m aiming/trying to go to all the places on the Ramen Adventures Best of the Best list. It may take a while, it may cost a little, and it may involve a little travelling, but I feel the adventure and the discovery will be worth it. Understanding the food and cuisine of a country is just a wonderful way of experiencing their culture.

Secondly, it would just be an incredible idea to uplift a super tradish ramen place from Tokyo and drop it in central London. It just would go down so well. Make it small, make it cramped, give it a vending machine with pictures, and most of all, make your own noodles and make some great great broth. Something transcendent. While I’m probably not the best person to do this – my skill in making great Ramen is essentially non-existant – someone should, and I would fully support them and big up their store if they did. If you’re planning on running with something like this, get in touch, I’d love to help out in some way.

Anyway, I’ve started hitting up the restaurants on the list, and some not on the list. So far so great. Nagi Golden Gai was subliminally fishy (mackerel) with just the best atmosphere. Bassanova, which I caught on a quiet Monday night, was different, yet very pleasant. I’ll be back there for sure just to get some sweet variation. And Ichiran, while not on that list, and a chain, was fun for the customization options. I had it super spicy and garlic-y as in the photo above. It didn’t help accidentally getting the broth in my eye…