Thursday 28 August 2014

Summer Essentials #03 – Keeping Cold and Caffeinated: Tips for a Perfect Iced Coffee

While sweltering heat might no longer be so common at this point in the season, mornings are still hot enough to merit a good cold beverage. In our land of lengthy winters where hot beverages are the norm, and where autumn leaves will soon find us collectively guzzling cappuccinos, we have to prize these moments of summer bliss where we can sit out back and break our fast on a perfectly chilled iced coffee and a bowl of fresh berries... or on a less healthy note, a fresh pain au chocolat!

The latter became a bit of a ritual this summer for my dear flatmate Tyson and I (and our many fantastic house guests) as we’d pack up our coffees, teas and ice and walk to Montreal’s Lachine canal where we would pick up fresh pain au chocolat before enjoying a lovely breakfast in good company while soaking up the sun on one of Montreal’s finest vistas.
A summer of experimentation with iced coffee has provided me with a certain amount of experience when it comes to making it. And subsequent thought on the matter, and people’s pleasant surprise when trying our iced coffee has made me realize something: many a person has no idea how to make a good iced coffee! This might sound odd to some, I mean technically it's just ice...and coffee...right? Wrong. Well, I mean, mostly wrong. Sure you can take some good old filter coffee (ick) and mix it with ice and what not but I’ll guarantee you that in most cases it’ll just end up tasting like watery sock juice. So how do we solve this quandary? By tackling each attribute of a good iced coffee one by one.

Common Iced coffee issues:
     1) Iced coffee often lacks flavour
     2) Iced coffee is often not cold enough
     3) Iced coffee is often watery

For our first issue, we have to tackle the fact that much iced coffee is made with bad coffee and might taste like charcoal, or like the aforementioned sock juice. While not the coffee connoisseur that some of my friends are, I do know enough about it to state I like lightly roasted coffee and prefer an espresso or French press to the filtered stuff. So tip number one, use good coffee and a good method of extraction.

From here we move on to issue number two: temperature. Here we can do one of two things, either chill coffee, or use a cold extraction process. As someone who likes my little stovetop coffee maker, I tend to stick to espresso which I chill the night before* or if I am with someone who has access to a fancy machine, we draw some shots and pass them through ice.

Now we’re faced with another issue, we can either cool coffee overnight whereupon it oxidizes or cool it in ice, whereupon it gets watered down.

Alternatively, you can whisk it in a cold water bath whereupon it chills without being diluted. While this option might seem like a perfect solution, at 7am in the morning a cold water bath and whisking treatment for my coffee is hardly an exciting prospect (nor are all the dishes it creates).

This leaves me with my two favorite solutions: making ice cubes out of coffee and cooling my coffee with ice made of coffee or adding a coffee concentrate, such as a “good” instant coffee (cue the horrified screams of coffee lovers everywhere) to my espresso and then chilling it with ice. The second option tends to occur most often with me as I

a) often lack the forethought of making coffee ice and

b) hate doing the dishes required by a cold water bath

Another solution is to make a “cold-extract” coffee, which entertainingly enough I’ve seen marketed as some kind of fancy shmancy new invention that is terribly difficult to make. Well Montreal food trucks and hipster cafes move aside! Cold extraction coffee is one of the easiest things you can make, no specialty tools or expensive machines required! Simply mix water and coffee directly in a container and let sit overnight in the fridge. As the water is cold, it’s more difficult for the coffee to infuse so you’ll probably want something like a 1:2 ratio of coarsely ground coffee to water. Combine it in an airtight container, leave the mix in the fridge overnight and strain the next morning! Cold-extract coffee is generally less acidic and has a strong concentrated almost espresso-ish taste (in my opinion anyway, but hey I’m no barista.) Cold extract coffee, certainly with coffee ice cubes thus solves all three of our coffee quandaries providing a good tasting, cold coffee that is not watery! Though of course...this also requires forethought, but cold-extract coffee is a great solution for a Sunday brunch, certainly if like me you tend to spend your time chained to the stove, coaxing coffees out of a stovetop espresso machine.

Anyway: in theory you have now made your cold-extract coffee, or have chilled some nice espresso or what not, should you have gone the coffee ice cube route you can now combine them all together for a proper punch of rich, chilled caffeine to greet any morning stupor. If you’re into the black coffee thing, you’re good and ready to go, however, if like me you prefer your coffee sinfully adulterated feel free to play with it at this point.

Coffee Additives:

My morning usual is normally one of the aforementioned coffee bases mixed with cane sugar, a bit of skimmed milk and some soy milk for added thickness. I also tend to add a touch of vanilla either in the form of extract or infused into the aforementioned cane sugar. While cream would otherwise be a favorite option, neither my lactose-intolerance nor my waistline would be terribly grateful to me for its daily addition to my summer diet.
Other fun additives can include hazelnut extract, vanilla syrup, melted dark chocolate (I’ve also heard of people melting nutella into their coffee) or if you’re really sinful, Irish cream, Grand Marnier of Frangelico.


On a final note, I feel obliged to mention that should you take the coffee to go and decide on not adding coffee ice cubes, I’d recommend transporting the ice in a separate container and draining the melted water off before adding the ice to your coffee. This prevents the water from melting into your coffee and makes for a better drink when you arrive at your destination.

Here’s hoping that these few tips (which seem to have become a veritable wall of text) can help contribute to providing you with a morning free of insipid iced coffee! 

*However many claim that as it ages overnight the coffee oxidizes and tastes icky, I tend to vacuum pack mine by putting it in a mason jar piping hot and capping it so it seals...I like to think it helps.

Monday 18 August 2014

Summer Essentials #02 – Summer Bounty: Rehabilitating Rhubarb

You’ve all been bombarded a time or by my endless rants about the importance of preserving, the joys of jam making etcetera, etcetera. But one thing I feel like I haven’t quite focused on enough is the importance of enjoying the bounty of summer in the moment.

Succulent peaches, tangy cherries and fresh berries are often epitomized as the apex of summer produce they can be cooked, accentuating cakes, cobblers or crisps. They can provide colour to nearly anything or can simply grace the table plain (and really, that’s only if they manage to make it there!) These fruits have carved a niche in my earliest memories taking a vivid place in a way which only food can. I don’t only remember the juices of a perfectly sweet Ontario peach running down my chin when we visited my grandmother; I remember learning to forage for berries in the Saguenay where beautiful bushes provided ample rewards for a long winter of waiting.   

In addition to this though, there is a memory which might be a bit less conventional; eating raw rhubarb. As I’ve shared my recollections of rhubarb with people, I’ve been appalled to find that to most, rhubarb is only a component used in making a strawberry pie less cloying...or at least less boring. This leaves me flabbergasted as my first memory of rhubarb is most certainly sitting down alongside my mom with a stick of freshly picked rhubarb, peeling it and dunking the strange rhizome into granulated sugar before chomping on it with relish. Indeed some people eat it with salt instead! (granted, that one is perhaps a tad odd) Aside from eating it fresh from the ground, we would savor it as the chief component in an upside down cake served with a large dollop of ice cream (indeed this dessert, referred to as rhubarb pudding, familiarized me with the British concept of pudding, quite different from the flacid viscous puddings we refer to here!) With all this in mind, rhubarb’s purpose in livening up pies was only something I stumbled upon much later.

These are only a few of the uses for rhubarb, that some people complain that they have too much of they stuff leaves me totally stumped! Why yes, you might get sick of eating it raw, in pies or puddings but certainly you can’t have too much!? It is well suited to cakes and to muffins, it freezes well and perhaps most surprisingly it makes a good cocktail!

Indeed, if you’re tired of chomping on this root and your freezer is full to bursting what better to do than drink the stuff? To make rhubarb cordial is easy enough. Remove the leaves, clean, cut, cover in water and boil until soft. Add sugar to taste and let sit and strain when ready! Voila, c’est fait, it’s done, you now have a delightful summer cordial! Care to store it for awhile? Cook it down further with more sugar and make a syrup, less space in the fridge and a good additive to add kick to water...or vodka... or as a substitute to grenadine in any cocktail.

Play around with this one, drink, be merry, lift your a glass and live in the moment!

Thursday 7 August 2014

Summer Essentials #01 - Faites Simple: Kale, Sweet Potato and Walnut Salad with Balsamic Mustard Dressing

With summer wrapping up, it’s best to remember that we still have the finest of the season yet to go: the gorgeous days of August and early September, and those cool evenings which accompany them are ideal for entertaining. For me they are doubly prized as these moments precede the next chapter of my life--my move to Toronto for my Ph. D. 

While I love what I’ll be doing and am excited to get started, these final days of freedom between degrees are bittersweet. Saying goodbye to my beloved Montreal (and the wealth of French pastry it provides) has made me treasure every moment of this second half of summer.  I don’t know about yours, but my summer has been rich and bountiful: traveling to Europe for research, completing my MA thesis, warm visits with friends from as far away as Calgary and England, packing up my Montreal apartment, moving my belongings all in an epic overnight venture to Toronto and of course lots of good eats! 

In  an attempt to get the best out of the season, I’ve decided to start this little series of posts called “Summer Essentials,” some will contain recipes, others general pointers, some just glorious photos...either way, I hope they help you keep a firm grasp on the ever-fleeting days of this 2014 summer!

First on the list? I’ve decided to turn once again towards Escoffier and encourage his age old mantra of “Faites simple,” loosely translated as “keep it simple.”  This mantra can apply to everything from dining to dressing. If one of the finest chefs ever born believed in simplicity in food, why say different? Certainly in summer where the freshest tastiest fruit and veg are readily available! Fortunately, this fresh tasting dish can be made in all seasons meaning that memories made under the August sun might manifest themselves later in the year at the tip of your fork. Enjoy it hot or cold, as a main or side-dish, but most importantly? Enjoy it accompanied by friends and a few bottles of chilled white or rosé.


For the base:
Three sweet potatoes
-A large bunch of kale chips
-Olive oil for coating
-A large handful of coarsely crushed walnuts
-1/4 tsp. each of cayenne pepper and black pepper

For the dressing:

-3tbsp. each of strong dijon and modena balsamic. 
-2 cloves of garlic, peeled.
-A generous pinch of salt 
-Sugar or maple syrup to taste
-Handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped 

1) Preheat oven to 350, chop sweet potato into small cubes, coat with olive oil and cayenne, let bake until tender and penetrable with a fork, about 25 minutes
2) Chop kale, mist with olive oil or brush lightly, salt and pepper generously before adding to the oven for the last 5 minutes of cooking. When the sweet potatoes are ready, remove them from the oven, lower heat to 250 and continue baking kale until crispy

Well crisped kale should be able to stand on its own
3) Chop the coriander and assemble the dressing by passing garlic, sweetener of choice, mustard and balsamic through a food processor until thick.

Combine crunchy kale with tender sweet potatoes, coat with dressing and dust with coriander and walnuts.