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BAJA Cooking on the Edge

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Deb's Writings

The Devils Brew

by Chef Deb

I discovered coffee early one morning in a French truck stop, on a back road in Normandy. We were on a motorcycle, it was December, raining and cold. We walked in the door like gunslingers in a spaghetti western, desperate for anything hot to drink. Our bad French amused the weathered old man behind the bar but he understood us well enough. He drew two steaming shots of hot espresso from an ancient pump machine and set the tiny cups on the rough zinc bar. We tossed back the coffee in one gulp like the truck drivers around us, though it was almost too hot to swallow.

The coffee was a revelation.

It was powerful but smooth, balanced between bitterness and richness, sweet and buttery. From the creamy foam marking the top to the last bit of dregs, I was hooked by my first espresso. Since then I have had all kinds of coffee, from the weak and evil standard restaurant brew to a Turkish coffee that actually had to be chewed; but to this day, I cannot smell fresh coffee brewing without remembering the blue smoke of Gitanes cigarettes, the rainy streets and the smell of that wonderful espresso in the old bar. Proust had his cookie; I'll take the coffee.

Once, a cult and culture of coffee bloomed out of a legend of dancing goats.The cult whirled across Africa, Asia Minor and medieval Europe and became a favorite of mystics, poets and revolutionaries. For centuries, the controversial black brew has been equally feared, and revered while growing deep roots at every stop, and on every continent.

Now a giddy, heart-pounding love affair has blossomed between modern America, and the little green bean with the magical powers. We love our coffee, our joe, our java, our lattes --- and we don't care who knows it. It looks as if it will be a long-term relationship. Aside from a few heathens who will drink anything - even that reconstituted syrup stuff - most of us are developing a taste for really good coffee, just as we have learned to appreciate good wines.

Not surprisingly, coffee - like wine - can give a whole new dimension to many recipes. Though the use of coffee in cooking has ancient roots, most cooks are not used to thinking of coffee as a flavor enhancer or ingredient.

Think of how unsweetened chocolate adds a unique underpinning to the traditional Oaxacan mole, and it's easy to see how effectively coffee can be worked into many traditional and new preparations.
Given java's long slow creep around the world from its birthplace in Yemen, it probably isn't surprising that it has such a track record in the recipe books. Cooking with coffee may have started with a snack of crushed coffee beans mixed with fat eaten by the natives of Ethiopia before going into battle (possibly the world's first high-performance food). Coffee, with its ancient pedigree, fits right in with today's sophisticated and adventurous food concepts.

Like any other food, when raw coffee is exposed to heat, it undergoes a series of chemical reactions. In a gas or wood fired roaster, the basically tasteless yellow- green bean becomes an oily, aromatic love child - with splendid flavors, deep notes, richness and brightness unmatched in any other food.
Coffee's flavor is one of the most chemically complex, with subtle notes that range from chocolaty to floral, even fruity. The best espressos perfectly balance dark, smoky sweetness and bright acidity with other, completely unique savory undertones.

The professional coffee-tasting lexicon includes descriptive phrases that might be more familiar to connoisseurs of wine. Coffee flavors can include spicy (pepper, clove, coriander seed), resinous (maple syrup, black currant, cedar), caramelly (caramel, fresh butter, roasted), nutty (roasted hazelnuts, roasted almonds, walnuts) chocolate (dark chocolate, vanilla, toast) and finally pyrolytic, or heat-created (malt, roast coffee, pipe tobacco).

These tastes can be worked into many recipes with surprising, delicious results, adding a new twist to many main ingredients. Pork preparations and even some savory sauces work beautifully with the infusion of coffee; Chef Charles Sanders of Bluepoint Restaurant in San Diego recently worked espresso into a wildly popular salmon special. And then of course, comes dessert! Coffee flavors are heavenly when paired with caramel, chocolate, nuts, figs, bananas, cardamom, and cinnamon.

At a recent tasting in San Diego's Cafe Moto, owner Torrey Lee used adjectives like bright, earthy, vibrant, effervescent, winy, full, dark, smoky, fruity (grapes, blueberries) to describe a tableau of samples of estate grown coffee beans from Guatemala. These beans would soon be roasted and blended by him into the numerous specialty and private blend coffees of the Cafe Moto coffee line, sold all over the United States.

Lee sounded much like a winemaker as he explained how climate, soil, weather and harvesting affect the flavor of the coffee beans He sounded much more like a chef as he discussed the different roasting techniques used to create his unique styles of coffee, and the eventual balancing of flavors in a blend.
As the owner and official "nose"of the company, Lee's job is to select the best beans from the year's crops, from all over the world; create a unique roasting signature, and to ensure consistency from year to year with an extremely variable product: raw coffee.

Lee has brewed coffee with many different flavorings including coffee with cayenne peppers.
"I saw a barbecue place down in Mission Beach," he confessed, "and it got me thinking about what kind of coffee you'd make for a place that called itself 'Texas Hot'!"

What to Buy

As is so often the case in life, love means never having to say you're sorry you were cheap. Your basic supermarket grind simply will not do. To use the wine analogy again, never cook with anything you wouldn't serve on a first date.

To cook with coffee, that means digging deep to buy the best fresh roasted beans, grinding fresh and brewing strong. If your are one of those people who turn into the Tasmanian Devil after a cup or two, you can substitute quality decaf espresso in all recipes with absolutely no loss of flavor.

For cooking purposes, dark roasted, full-flavored espressos are essential. The roasting process deepens sweetness and enhances the bean's native flavor so the coffee taste will stand out when combined with other ingredients in a recipe. Except when noted, the brew should be made double strength.

The traditional "French Roast" is the darkest coffee roast, which creates a very full, nearly bitter and slightly oily flavor that combines perfectly with chocolate and sugar, the holy trinity of ingredients. In France, where coffee and chocolate have had a long and fruitful partnership, cooks always add a little strong coffee to a chocolate mousse. Italian Roast is suave, smoother and slightly sweeter with a creamy finish. This coffee would be overwhelmed by chocolate, but it performs admirably with all kinds of nuts and spices, and naturally sweet fruit like figs and bananas. Italian Roast is the perfect choice to use in ice creams and gelatos.


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