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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Moka Pot Espresso (and Cafe Latte)

I used to have a fairly nice all-in-one coffee maker / espresso maker and milk steamer thing.

It was big and clunky, as the coffee and espresso functionalities were completely separate, despite the whole contraption being attached.

I used the coffee maker almost every day, and the espresso maker maybe once a week.  I loved the milk steamer... it was super cool - you basically just shove your milk up into the steam wand and it and pushes hot steam through the whole thing, giving you perfectly-steamed milk in seconds.  Handy if your wife likes hot flavoured milks like vanilla or nutmeg.

Anyway... as with most all-in-one contraptions like this, and similar to much kitchen junk intended to make your life easier or more convenient... it broke.  The coffee functionality still worked, and we used that right up until we replaced it 6 years ago with a nice new coffee maker we got as a wedding present.  But the espresso and steamer functionality requires a 'pressure chamber' kind of dealie.  The thing will not work without a proper seal (in order to accumulate and build pressure) and that is what broke.  Lame, right?

So, since then, I have been espresso-less.  I can't say I really missed it.  I mean, I drink really dark coffee for the most part, and brew it pretty thickly; in fact - when I first started drinking coffee I used to actually brew with espresso beans... not sure what that would be called, but yah... we used to drive out to the Italian market on 95th street (in Edmonton) just to buy huge bags of imported espresso beans and family- (Italian family-) sized vats of olive oil and tomato paste!  Good stuff.  I miss their deli counter.  

Besides, if I ever truly want one - there are about 6 places to get a decent espresso or americano within 50 metres of my front door.

Needless to say it hasn't been a priority for me to get a home espresso maker again.

Now... I've always seen, and have sometimes heard of, these Italian 'pot' style espresso makers.  

Mako pots I've since learned they're called.

I always just called them 'percolators'.  They reminded me of the old stove percolator my parents used to just place right over top of a firepit when we'd go camping.  Of course that one was 70s green.  And had years of soot blackening its bottom and sides.


But I always dismissed these Mako pots.  I thought they were too cheap to produce anything decent, and that they would be a lot of effort to clean / maintain / use.

Well, this weekend, we visited this kitchen 'superstore' way out in the boonies (I believe the quaint community was called Thornhill, or something like that?) and - you guessed it!!! - we bought one.

It wasn't because I'd never seen them before this large megalokitchenmart, nor that I had a premeditated desire to pick one up.  It was just that they had a huge wall of Mako pots.  They had big ones, little ones, fancy ones, cheap ones, and ones which were so excruciatingly Italian they had pictures of sports cars and supermodels on the box.  Just joking.  Barely though.

So, I spent a few minutes doing box-research.  You know - that highly subjective, rarely informative, type of research which involves reading the marketing blurbs on boxes and hoping that your opinion of the products will still come out informed but objective?  Yah.

In the end, we decided to opt for a cheap version, which would basically only be for casual and very intermittent use.

I believe our mindset at that point in time was a resounding, and unilateral, 'why not?'

So, the next day, I decided to give it a try.

The mako pot is actually very simple, and pretty efficient in terms of its design.

This particular version was made out the cheapest possible metal (the insides looked like solder), but I imagine the higher-end ones would be quite nice.

Now, the very first thing we did (see above 'cheapest possible' metal construction) was wash the thing thoroughly.  I scrubbed the whole thing, ran a 'dry run' (not dry, in fact, but without beans - so just clean water), scrubbed the whole thing again, and then did another clean water run.  I'm a clean freak.  The thought of dissolvable metal ions, or strange man-made particles, leaching into something I plan on drinking... makes me crazy.  Like spine-tingling, hand-tremor crazy.  I'm sure there are still some nasty things happening in this entry-level mako pot, but at least I can tell myself that I tried.

So, it is essentially three parts.

The water reservoir on the bottom, with a filter for the coffee (or whatever, I suppose) in the middle, and then the percolator on the top.

Water heated up in the bottom, rises through the beans, and up a central piston/tube-y kind of dealie to collect in the top.  So, it kind of is like those old camping percolators, except instead of dripping down through the beans, this steams up through them.

Super simple concept.

So, after thoroughly cleaning this bitch, I packed a full chamber of espresso beans.  the top part does a nice job of automagically "tamping" the beans in, but I still like to make it pretty compact and flush.

So, that goes in the bottom piece, which has been filled - to the 'valve' position - with water.  Then on to the stove it goes.

Not surprisingly it takes much longer (2-3x) to complete the process when using beans, as opposed to just running water through it cleanly.  So, on medium-highish, it takes about 6 minutes.  You'll know it's done when it stops making noise.  I'd advise against lifting the lid to 'peek' in there while it's still on the stove.  Just trust me.

So, that's it.  It makes about 2-3 espresso-sized cups.  Or one long shot for someone (like me) who likes it.

We have a couple of cute little espresso cups with saucers.  Just a couple, but they're fainsee!

Now... the taste test.  My first thought was that I could taste the newness of the pot a little still.  But immediately afterwards I was hit with the familiar warm and nutty, rich flavour of espresso.  It was very thick and dark, but still incredibly smooth.  There was almost no sedimentation (I get more sediment in my coffee pot), and it was piping hot.

So... on the whole, not bad for $15.  Not bad at all.

My first cup I had as-is, but for my second I added a spoonful of brown sugar.


Now comes the cafe latte.


There are countless pieces of junk out there to help you steam, froth, or sing florid lullabies to your milk.  Do they work?  Sure... I imagine most do, anyway.  Are they necessary?  Absolutely not.

Of course the best way to get lovely steamed, frothy, milk with perfect microfoam is to use a steaming wand like I described above.

The next best way to get decently steamed milk with foam (macrofoam), is simple and easy to do.

  1. Heat milk.  
  2. Whip.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 if necessary.
It sounds glib, but really you just have to whisk hot milk.

If you have a mixer with a whisk attachment, go for it, otherwise a hand mixer (egg-beaters) can also work.  If you do not have any fancy machinery, you can still do it with a hand-held wire whisk... just be prepared to put a lot of effort into it.

Myself, I pulled out my trusty cusinart and go-go-gadget-ed the whisk attachment.

Then I poured 2 cups of milk (this was about 1 3/4 cups skim, and 1/4 cup homogenized... so probably ended up being around 1% when all was said and done...) into my large liquid measure, and popped it in the microwave for a couple of minutes.  One of the only things I pop in the microwave.  If you care to, it would be better by stove-top... but ... meh.

So, after a couple of minutes in the microwave, and about a minute or so of heavy whisking, the milk ended up being very nice and frothy.

Now, in a cappuccino mug, or latte bowl, pour your desired shot (or three) of espresso into the bottom, and then add your steamed milk.  

Using a spoon, "hold" the foam (which is just resting lightly on top at this point) back while the milk pours.

After all the milk has been poured in, now spoon the foam out on to the surface.  If you were awesomer than I, and a supadoopa star, you could make some killer art if you used microfoam.  Not me though.  I just dump the foam on top.  :)

If you had wanted to add some sugar, you could have done so either first off before adding anything, or else to the espresso, before adding the milk.  It wouldn't be the end of the world to add it now... but stirring this puppy will wreck the floating foam on top.

You can however add a variety of spices on top.  Some freshly ground nutmeg perhaps, or a pinch of freshly shaved cinnamon?  A lot of coffee shops offer cocoa too... but that just seems weird to me.  :)

Cinnamon Okay.  Cocoa Nokay.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Grilled Corn-in-Husk

Never the most devout fan of corn, I still prefer corn 'on-the-cob' to canned, which was almost all I had growing up.  Blech.

Even frozen corn is better than canned... but anyway... that's a neither here nor there.

We barbecued a bunch of stuff on the grill here, and that included some corn on the cob.  Delicious stuff if prepared well.  And one of the things I particularly love to do, is cook it "un-shucked" (with the husk still on).

I forget where and when I actually saw this done for the first time... so I'm reluctant to give credit to the wrong party.  Suffice it to say someone showed me how to do it... just not too sure who that was...


The trick is to let the cobs soak in water for a good while before grilling.

Having the husk moist will help keep it from burning right up.

Grill it up in a hot (bbq) oven, and turn it frequently.  It can stay on for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, but you know it is done and ready, when the outside (husk) becomes completely burnt.  Yes, burnt.  

The seeds inside are still wonderfully protected, but have taken on a gorgeous flavour of the whole thing.

Now, at first I always thought that this next step - the act of shucking or removing the husk - would be difficult.

It is not.

Simply peel back all the outer layers, and then 'pop' them off.  The inner 'silk' of the husk can be very easily removed if you just grab the knobby thing at the end and slowly pull.  The trick is to try and keep it all together, and try to get it all in 'one go' so-to-speak.

It just comes right off!

Make sure to throw the husks in the compost bin, as they are very biodegradable. 

Now, doesn't this corn look delicious!!

Roll em up in some margarine, add a pinch of salt, and then plug-in your favourite corn on the cob holders.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cast Iron Pan

So it was my 6th-year anniversary this weekend, and my wife bought me a cast iron skillet.  Iron is the 'traditional' gift idea for year 6.  I'm pleased... I always wanted a nice cast iron skillet, and I've heard lots of good things about the "Lodge" brand of cast iron products.

Of course... some more Le Creuset ironware would have been better.


Just kidding!!!

It's handy to be able to cook right from the stovetop to the oven, and it's really solid and holds a lot of heat really well.

Plus, if you season it regularly, it has a decent non-stick surface to it as well.  Seasoning can be done with any kind of animal or vegetable oil, and also prevents rusting of the pan, if done often enough.

And while there is some debate over how to clean and care for your cast iron cookware, I think I'll fall into the category of just 'wiping' clean, rather than using soap or any sort of scouring.

I'm the kind of cook who sautes a lot of garlic and onion in olive oil, so I look forward to having layers upon layers of this gorgeous flavour build up in this pan.

Anyway, I'm happy to have this pan, and I imagine it will become one of my new go-to pans for most things.  I envision making a beautiful penne pasta and then popping it in the oven to become 'baked' penne.  I even foresee an authentic corn bread happening, and I'm not even a big fan of corn bread.  Should be fun!

I wanted one with double handles, so this one is good.  I do plan on using this puppy in the oven once in a while, and she can get awfully unwieldy - especially at high temperatures (arguably the worst time for a pan to become unwieldy). 

And let's not forget that when the inevitable zombie apocalypse arrives, a good cast iron pan is an excellent bludgeoning weapon.

Friday, May 25, 2012

One of the Ways I Like to Serve Bread

OK, so I realize it might be a little trashy, but sometimes we like to pretend that we live in the Old Country.  You know, coming home from work with a fresh baguette, a knob of cheese, and maybe a bouquet of flowers?  Oui, dans le panier de ta bicyclette, n'est-ce pas le cas?

And one of the ways I love to serve up a fresh baguette or artisan bread, is to serve it appertif-style.

So, neat slices of bread, OR rough, hand-ripped chunks (in the peasant style!) in a nice bread basket or something, and served alongside an assortment of additions.

In this case, a few different cheeses, a few different olives, and a plate of olio e aceto.

You could also mix up some various meats and go for a traditional antipasto kind of thing if you like, but often I choose to skip that and just go with olives and cheeses and stuff.  

There's enough unhealthy salts and fats goin' on already without adding some cured meat to the mix!

Anyway, so I heated up my bread basket stone.

What's a bread basket stone, you ask?

Well, I'm glad you ask, because I'm delighted to tell you.

Some bread baskets (like mine) have a cool little energy-storing terracotta or stone piece which can be pre-heated and then stashed underneath the bread in order to provide a subtle, somewhat-lasting, warmth to the bread.

Cool, right?

See, look at mine:

The nice, washable, cloth insert even has a velcro closure.  Very handy.

Anyway, the stone takes a good 10 - 20 minutes to heat up all the way depending on how hot you have your oven.  But then you just (carefully, with a mitt) take it out, and put it in the fabric.  

Then, I like to to arrange the insert a little bit so it looks nice, tucking in the corners and billowing out the sides a bit...

I don't think that my masculinity suffers from this sort of thing... presentation is an essential part of food preparation, and men have been doing that for millenia.



Sliced up the bread.

And then in it goes.

That part is done.

Now comes the fun stuff.

We're usually pretty good about keeping several kinds of cheese on hand in our fridge.  What can I say?  We like cheese.

This week, however, we had just picked up a couple of really nice sheep's milk cheeses, one hard, and one soft.

So, cubed, sliced, chunked, whatever you choose, spread them out into a decent-looking array.  If you have some really soft cheese, make sure to include a cheese knife.

The last time I was at a dollar store I found a few cheap wooden planks for like 99 cents each.  So I bought a couple.  They are an inferior grade of wood so I would never think of using them for cooking, (planking, grilling) nor certainly ever as a cutting surface.  But I figured for 2 bucks it would be nice to have them as serving platters.  I think they look cool.  Better than a corel dish, at any rate.

Olives take no brains at all.  Just dump them in a somewhat aesthetically-pleasing serving bowl or plate or what-have-you.

Then comes my favourite.  The olio e aceto.  Oil and Vinegar, but it sounds so much cooler in Italian.  There is so much variety in oils and vinegars these days it's awesome!  
Go CRAZY with mixing different things here.  Of course the plain version of this is also delicious - just olive oil and balsamic vinegar - but I strongly encourage anyone to get out there and sample the amazing variety of flavoured oils and vinegars out there!
And because bread is, pretty much as standard, not only bland but also absorbent, it is the perfect medium for getting this assault of flavours to your tongue.

You can even add a few more herbs or spices to the mix, but I'd avoid going too far with this, just for texture's sake.  You don't want to have this be a paste.

So, for my own, I used my trusty, home-made, herbes-de-Provence extra virgin olive oil, with a good dose of a blueberry flavoured balsamic.  Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

I could just drink this stuff!

I like to use a pasta bowl or otherwise wide-rimmed bowl, for ease of dipping and sharing.

I did choose to grind up some freshly dried oregano, as well as a pinch of salt and pepper.

But that's it.

Gather up all the separate plates and set them up on a large serving tray, or if you're entertaining guests, arrange it all 'buffet-style' on a large table.

Super easy, and if you throw in a salad or a few raw veggies, this can easily be upgraded from appetizer to meal!

In any case, however, it is one of my favourite ways to enjoy fresh bread!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Butterhead Lettuce, Avocado, and Chèvre Salad

My wife loves butterhead (or butter-leaf, as she calls it) salads.
In fact, the butterhead variety of lettuce was totally foreign to me before I met her.

I remember the very first meal she ever prepared for me.

It was a butterhead lettuce salad, with avocado and chevre in a light vinaigrette.

Just like this.


We nabbed a couple of (tiny) heads at the Farmers' Market last weekend.  They were very small, but very tender.

So, I washed, trimmed, and dried the lettuce and then sliced up half of an avocado.  I sliced the avocado half into small cubes, put them in their own small mixing bowl, and then squeezed a half a lemon's worth of juice on them.

This is a lot, but we're going to save what's left in order to form the base of the vinaigrette, in just a second.  Besides, it helps keep the avocado from turning brown, so dual-purpose.

Next, I seasoned the avocado with a bit of freshly-ground black pepper, a dash of marjoram (lots of other herbs would work too), and a pinch of salt.

That gets added to the lettuce, in a large serving bowl, but try to keep the juice at the bottom so don't just up-end the whole thing.

To the leftover juice, and spices in that small mixing bowl, I added a couple swigs of my flavoured red wine vinegar (herbes de Provence) but really any light vinegar would work.  An apple cider vinegar is lovely, as is a couple glugs of a light white or rosé wine.

Give that a whisk and that's ready to be put on immediately before serving.

After that it's just a couple of finishing touches to the salad.

Crumble in a few large chunks of chèvre (goat's) cheese.

And then sprinkle something on for texture.  Like 'crunchy' texture.  I like nuts, almost any kind of nut will do.  An extremely hard toast or crouton would also work.

Myself, for this salad, I sprinkled some sliced almonds over top.

Then just pour on your vinaigrette, and serve!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My First Polenta

Despite my penchant for Italian cuisine, I have never made polenta before.

Crazy, right?

So, as usual when trying something for the first time, I looked at a whole bunch of recipes, and read up on some different techniques.

For the most part, everyone agrees that polenta from scratch is time-consuming and can be tedious.

After having tried it myself, I concur.

At its simplest, polenta is literally just corn meal, salt and water.  It can be tricky to cook however, as the corn meal needs to be continually mixed around in order to fully incorporate all the moisture it can.

But that's it really.

Some recipes called for a ton of ingredients, some only a few.  Some people suggested baking it after boiling, others not so much.  Many involved adding more liquid to make "soft" polenta, others suggested dry polenta which could be fried or even grilled afterwards!  A few used cream or milk, and many suggested garlic and onion.

There were also a surprising number of recipes which involved tomato sauce.  I think I'll try that some time.  It sounds delicious.

So... for my first time, I wanted to follow the 'basic' recipe very closely, but I also did not want just 'plain' (unflavoured) polenta.  So I chose to add a few root veggies, and some corn and some cumin.  A particularly good-looking recipe was one from chef Michael Smith whom I respect quite a bit.  He's not the flashiest of chefs, and I don't love everything he makes, but for the most part he is very consistently good.  Plus I share his mindset of experimentation and playing with whatever you have on-hand.  Of course, his pantry is like 5 times bigger than mine, but still... it's a good rule to live by.

Anyway... this particular recipe of his called for a few things I disregarded in favour of my aforementioned desire to keep this close to a 'basic' polenta, but one thing which seemed cool was the addition of corn.

So, this is a simple polenta with a little bit of garlic and onion, with corn kernels.

Start, as always, by finely chopping your veggies.  I used a small amount of white onion, a few cloves of garlic, and a tiny shallot just for an extra nudge.

Finely chopped, or minced even, saute these in a generous glug of olive oil for about 5 to 10 minutes.

I ground up some cumin seeds and some white peppercorns for flavour, and added that as well.

While that was simmering, I put on the water to boil.

I read some varying accounts of what the ratio of water to corn meal should be, some saying 3:1, some 4:1.  Plus there was the stipulation that you could opt for more liquid to make the end result 'softer'.  I believe a few people even referred to this as 'polenta mush'.  Not sure that's the technical term.

Anyway, because I am a texture freak, and I really did NOT want there to be any graininess or coarseness to the polenta, I opted for a generous 5:1 ratio.  So, 5 cups of water to 1 cup of corn meal.

Now this is the tricky part.

With a large whisk, slowly and gradually, stir in a steady stream of corn meal to your boiling water.

Before too long, this will begin thickening substantially.  At this point switch to a wooden spoon, and keep stirring.

Once it begins thickening, you can mix in all the sauteed veggies and oil.  This will become very well blended over the next 30 minutes of stirring.

The trick that I learned about this stage (the 20-40 minute stage unilaterally decreed as the 'tedious' part of making polenta) is that it is not about mixing the corn meal, but about constantly moving the meal granules about in order to expose them to as much moisture as possible.  So, bear that in mind when 'stirring'.  Try to move the corn meal around a lot, and to continually bring the stuff at the bottom up to the top and back.

The corn meal will literally soften and expand when it absorbs moisture.  So the trick to getting soft polenta with no graininess, is to stir, stir, stir.  Well after your mixture looks totally blended, keep stirring in order to keep exposing the meal to the moisture, giving it a good chance of absorbing every drop that's left.

In order to make sure I hit a good consistency, I just periodically sampled the mixture with a fork now and again.

I decided to try baking it for 15 minutes - as many recipes advised - so I greased up a loaf pan and set that aside.

When the polenta was ready (it was probably about 35 minutes on the stove), I stirred in some corn and some cheese.  Frozen corn and a hard sheep's milk cheese which I forget the name of.  :)

Most of the recipes (including the Michael Smith one which actually called for the frozen corn) said to mix these last ingredients in right at the last minute pretty much.  So in they went, and then I transferred the whole mix to my baking pan.

It looked very... interesting...


Into the oven for 15 - 20 minutes at 350°, and it came out looking golden and (relatively) crisp.

It came out of the pan very easily, and was sliced even more easily.

It was good.  And I'd consider my first attempt a success.

A few things though:

One, upon first tasting this, my first impression was to spread a bit of margarine on top.  Much like I would bread.  I guess that is no surprise.  But, it suggests that my next attempt (Polenta #2) will definitely substitute some milk, cream, or even butter for all that water. The 'plain' polenta was very much just that.  Some extra fat in there would not go amiss... even just more vegetable or olive oil would work.

Two, the corn was good.  But the contrast between the relatively savoury polenta base and the sweet and juicy corn kernels was quite sharp.  I think I would do corn again, but perhaps add a touch of sugar in the mix to make the whole thing a bit sweeter.  Any kind of sugar would work, including fruit.  So that's an idea.

I definitely would try making a more 'Italian' kind of polenta in the future, with the addition of some tomato sauce and maybe a pepper or something.

The bottom line, however, and something which did surprise me, is that polenta is wholly VERSATILE.  I believe you could make a polenta to go with almost anything, with the right customization.

And the notion of 'grilling' a nice spicy polenta is definitely intriguing.  I think a slice of nicely grilled, crispy polenta would serve as a positively excellent bed for anything from grilled vegetables to a nicely barbecued flank steak or something.  Grilled asparagus with a drizzle of aioli overtop, grilled fish with butter, or a steak with a creamy pepper or blue cheese topping.  The possibilities are endless.

Definitely opened up a whole lot of new opportunities for me.  And this stuff is so cheap, and despite taking a bit of time, is dead simple to make.