Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Coffee in Austria

I was surprised to learn that Austria has a strong, distinct coffee culture.  I probably shouldn't have been, as the adoption of exotic goods like cane sugar and coffee beans was the hallmark of European imperialists, and Austria, as the granddaddy of European imperial powers until the First World War, has been roasting, grinding, brewing, and drinking coffee for centuries.

The story of how coffee came to Austria was told to me several times during my stay.  In 1683, the Ottoman army, led by the Grand Vizier, besieged Vienna.  A Polish soldier named Jerzy dressed in Turkish garb and left the city to contact Duke Charles of Lorraine and ask for assistance.  Jerzy snuck back into the city, bringing a promise from the Duke.  With this information, the Viennese city council decided to resist the siege until reinforcements arrived.  The Turks were later defeated in the Battle of Vienna, and forced into a hasty retreat, during which they left behind several bags of coffee beans.  Jerzy is said to have been awarded, among other things, many of these bean sacks, with which he opened the first coffee house in Vienna.

Another version of the story has the Turkish beans discovered and brewed by a Capucin monk who, finding the drink too strong, dilutes it with milk, thus founding European coffee culture, and inventing what we, with most of the world (but not Austria!) call the capuccino.  That was the most complicated sentence I've ever written.

I have no idea if these stories have any historical merit, but the very fact that they are widely known and repeated speaks to the pride Austrians take in their coffee.  To further appreciate Austrian coffee culture, let's talk a bit about our own.

North Americans tend to distinguish between "normal coffee" and "espresso," sometimes erroneously pronounced "expresso."  Many think that these are two different types of beans.  They're not: they are two different methods for extracting the flavourful oils from a roasted, ground coffee bean.  The same beans are used in both methods.

"Normal coffee," that is, the coffee brewed in most homes before the morning commute, is drip-brewed and filtered.  Hot water is slowly poured over ground coffee beans.  Under the force of gravity it seeps through the grounds, absorbing the flavour of the beans.  A paper filter ensures that none of the grounds get into the final cup.

"Espresso" is made by forcing hot water under pressure through compact coffee grounds.  This method of extraction produces a very different drink than drip-brewing, as it extracts and emulsifies components of the beans that are usually left behind.  It yields an extremely flavourful liquid that can have an almost viscous mouthfeel.  This method also produces a bit of foam on top of the drink, called crema.  (Here's an interesting article on the formation of crema.)

In many parts of Europe, including Italy and Austria, almost all coffee is "espresso-style" coffee.  In my experience, drip-brewed filtered coffee was only available at a few touristy rest stations and hotels.  The reason I keep puting "espresso" in "quotation marks" is because much of the world uses this style of brewing, but doesn't drink anything called an espresso.  It's a bit like calling braised meat "coq-au-vin-style" meat.

Anyways.  Food historians now refer to three waves in the marketing and consumption of coffee in North America.  The first wave was the establishment of large coffee importers like Folgers in the nineteenth century.  The second wave was started by small coffee houses that made espresso-style drinks and categorized much of their coffee by country of origin and roast. This movement culminated in the proliferation of franchises like Starbucks and Second Cup that popularized a style of coffee loosely based on the Italian caffe.  I say "loosely" because the language is largely Italian (grande, venti, espresso, capucino, latte, americano, macchiato, ad infinitum...) but many of the practices (like the irresponsible use of foamed milk) are not.

The third wave, still going strong, emphasizes coffee bean roasting, grinding, and brewing as an artisinal trade.  Roasters and vendors are developing ways to categorize and discuss coffee that is similar to wine.  They sell their brew with detailed aroma- and flavour-profiles.   Their coffee us usually presented simply, without the elaborate, sweet, foamy accompaniments associated with the second wave.  Even so, ordering in a third wave coffee house can be an alienating experience to the uninitiated.  (If you don't know what I mean by that, go to the Garneau Transcend and try ordering "a coffee.")  Third wave vendors promote fair trade, and often develop lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with coffee bean growers and their communities.

Coffee culture in Austria has been much more static over the past hundred and fifty years.  Most of the classic cafés in Vienna were established in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  They have a fixed style of brewing and serving.  Ordering "a coffee" in an these cafés is a bit like ordering "beef" in an American steakhouse.  Here are some of the common drinks:
  • Brauner - Black coffee, served with a small dish of milk to be stirred in.  At one time it was available as either a Grosser Brauner (bigger) or Kleiner Brauner (smaller), though the smaller version is now more or less extinct.
  • Verlängerter - (Literally, "lengthened,") A Brauner pressed with a little hot water.
  • Melange - (From the French, literally, "mixture") Coffee with steamed milk, and often whipped cream.
Coffee drinks containing liqueur:
  • Maria Theresia (a famous eighteenth century Habsburg) - coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream.  I can't say for certain, but oranges might be associated with Maria because one of her residential palaces, Schönbrunn, in Vienna, is famous for its orange groves.
  • Fiaker - a Verlängerter with rum
  • Masagran - ice coffee with Maraschino cherry liqueur
The coffee is served on a silver tray with a glass of water, a small chocolate, and, if appropriate, a small pitcher of milk.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pickle Soup

This is exactly the kind of delicious, hearty, ingenious, frugal dish I love.

While finely chopped condiments like relish, picalilli, and jam can be canned on their own, larger slices of vegetables like cucumbers, beets, and carrots require an acidic liquid in which to be preserved.  The liquid prevents the growth of aerobic pathogens by keeping air away from the vegetables and filling the space with acid, salt, and sugar.  Once the vegetables are gone, this delicious liquid can be used in a number of applications.

If this sounds at all gross to you, think about what is in dill pickle juice: water, garlic, black pepper, mustard seed, coriander, bay, cider vinegar, salt, and sugar.  The liquid has been cooked out and over the course of a few weeks or months has had time to mellow and balance.  It really is fantastic stuff.

My day to day use of pickling liquid is in dressings.  Thinning out mayonnaise with a bit of dill pickle juice makes a great dressing for slaw.  Thinning crème fraîche with pickled beet and horseradish liquid makes an elegant accompaniment for smoked fish.

I recently came across a traditional Ukrainian dish called kvasivka selians'ka that uses the brine from the sauerkraut crock:

[The soup] makes a thrify use of the sauerkraut juice that would otherwise be left in the barrel.  It seems appropraite for Pentecost celebrations, since by late spring the supply of last year's sauerkraut would probably have run low.[1]

It may only be November, but I've already gone through a few jars of preserves.  Today I had some dill pickles out, so I decided to make soup.

For this particular version, I browned carrots, onions, and the garlic cloves from the pickle jar in butter.  Then I added all-purpose flour and cooked the roux until aromatic and starting to brown.  Then I poured in some of the pickling liquid and whole milk, which I cooked gently until the mixture thickened.  At this point I added some boiled, chopped, russet potatoes, and some of the pickles themselves.

Some notes:
  • Consume very hot, with a healthy dose of black pepper, and a drizzle of cold-pressed canola.  I don't know why, but the flavour of cold-pressed canola goes extremely well with this soup.
  • The exact amount of pickling liquid you use will depend on how acidic the liquid is.
  • The starches (the roux and the potatoes) temper the acidity of the pickles.
  • Browning the onions and roux brings out their sweetness, which compliments the sweetness of the pickles.

1.  Pisetska Farley, Marta.  Festive Ukrainian Cooking.  ©1991 University of Toronto Press.  A very good read.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ice Clarification of Stock

This time last year I started thinking about preparations that take advantage of the frigid outdoor temperatures.  I made candy in the fresh snow and tried the "apple jack" method of concentrating alcohol by freezing.  I've just tried another sub-zero preparation, gleaned from the pages of The Fat Duck Cook Book.  It's a fascinating technique called gelatin-clarification of stock.

In culinary school one of the cool-but-antiquated dishes you learn to make is consommé.  Consommé is flavourful stock that is strikingly, brilliantly clear.

The classical method for clarifying stock uses something called clear meat.  Clear meat contains albumen-rich ingredients like egg whites and certain cuts of meat like shank.  When albumen coagulates, it forms a delicate network that traps the tiny particles that cloud stock.  Unfortunately, in doing this it also removes a lot of the flavour of the stock, so we need to add taste-fortifying ingredients to the clear meat.  The shank-meat will accomplish this to a certain extent, but we also add vegetables.

Once the clear meat is assembled it is added to the cold stock.  The pot is placed over low heat, gently stirred and very gradually brought to a simmer.  As the stock heats up, the eggs and meat start to cook, and the albumen network moves through the stock collecting impurities.  Once the eggs and meat are completely cooked, they form a thick mat on the surface of the stock, called the raft.  To release the pressure created by the simmering stock below, the raft should have a hole poked into it.  The stock-and-raft is simmered gently for about an hour, to extract the flavour of the meat and vegetables

Heston Blumenthal's technique for clarifying stock is completely different and absolutely foolproof, though it takes a while longer than the classical method.

Here's the theory behind his method.  A properly made stock will be rich in gelatin.  When chilled, gelatin forms a network similar to that of the coagulated albumen in cooked meat and eggs.

For a stock with a typical gelatin concentration, the network forms at any temperature below roughly 10°C.  If the stock is heated above this, the network melts.

Imagine freezing a stock to -18°C.  The gelatin sets up its network, and the water freezes.  Now imagine putting that frozen stock in a 4°C fridge.  The water content will melt, but the gelatin network will stay in tact.  As the water melts it will run through the gelatin network, which acts like a filter and catches the particles that cloud the stock.  Once all the water has melted you are left with a cloudy clump of gelatin, and a pool of crystal-clear stock.

To really test the clarifying-power of this technique, I made the an extra-cloudy pheasant stock by cooking bones and mirepoix at a rolling boil instead of a simmer.  Then I put the stock in a stainless steel bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it outside overnight.  It froze into a solid hemisphere.

To remove the ice, I inverted the bowl and heated the underside with a blowtorch.  Once the curved surface of the hemisphere had melted slightly, the ice slid out of the bowl.  I rested that ice in a colander lined with a clean dish towel, then set the whole contraption in a large glass bowl in the fridge.

It takes quite a while for ice to melt in the fridge.  Mine took about 2 days.  Freezing the stock in a large, thin sheet would accelerate melting.

The results are surreal.  This is far and away the most dazzling stock I've ever seen.  In the photo below you can see how murky the original stock was.

There are two problems with this method, both stemming from the fact that you have removed all the gelatin from the stock.  First, the consommé has a very watery mouthfeel.  To restore the rich texture the diner expects from clarified stock, Blumenthal typically back-adds pure gelatin.

Second, the process has a very low yield.  The classical method also results in waste, but not to this extent.  I think that my yield was particularly low because of the muddiness of my original stock.  I started with 545 g of pheasant stock, and ended with 305 g of crystal consommé, a yield of only 56%.

Obviously this is not a process I will do very often.  Like, possibly never again.  If you take the time to make a stock properly, it will be clear enough to serve as a soup to all but the most pretentious guests.

Still.  An interesting experiment.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pheasant Pot Pie

Last November we started getting game birds, chiefly grouse and pheasant, from Mr. McLarney, who hunts them with his English pointer.  In exchange for the wild poultry, I provide Mrs. McLarney with a recipe for their preparation.

Cooking grouse and pheasant is fairly new to me, and I'm still figuring out the whole hanging-plucking-gutting-cooking thing.

From the cook's perspective, the ideal game bird (or rabbit) is shot cleanly in the head.  That way there's no shot hidden in the meat.  You get a higher yield, and diners won't unwittingly bite down on a piece of lead.  I have very little experience with guns, but apparently getting that head shot is relatively easy when the slow-witted bird is standing on the ground.  Mr. McLarney's birds are flushed from the grass and shot in flight, which makes it next to impossible to get a clean headshot.  The hard fall to the ground often breaks some of the bones and causes bleeding.  The damaged flesh has to be cut away before cooking.

I'm very interested in hanging the birds, which is supposed to make the meat more tender and flavourful, but the gunshot wounds and bruises that result from the flushing-method make me hesitant.

My bewilderment continues once the birds are in my kitchen.  Purists insist on dry-plucking game birds in order to preserve the skin, which is considered a gastonomic delight.  I've tried this a couple times now, and have found the skin of both grouse and pheasant to be inedibly rubbery.

As far as cooking, most sources, including Charlie Trotter's book Meat and Game, say that the birds can be roasted to just-doneness and yield moist, tender flesh.  I haven't had any luck with dry-heat methods.  My birds have all required a bit of stewing or braising, though maybe only 45 to 60 minutes.

In that vein, the most successful dish this year was pheasant pot pie.  Fergus Henderson has popularized the combination of pheasant and pig trotter.  The gelatin produced by cooking out the trotter goes a long way to masking any dryness in the pheasant.  In the recipe below, the procedure is adapted from Henderson.

Pheasant Pot Pie

  • 1 pig trotter
  • 1 L stock, either pheasant, chicken, or pork
  • 1 pheasant, skinned and jointed
  • 1/2 white onion, small dice
  • 1 carrot, peeled, small dice
  • 1 rib celery, small dice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry apple cider
  • 1/2 cup cooked wild rice
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 small bundle sage
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 12 oz of your favourite flaky pie dough

For the filling:
  1. Season the trotter and pheasant pieces with salt and pepper.  In a braising pot, sear the meat over high heat until thoroughly browned.  Remove from the pot and reserve.  Lower the heat to medium-low.
  2. In the same pot, sweat the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until translucent.  Do not brown the vegetables.  Remove from the pot and reserve.
  3. Deglaze the pot with the apple cider and reduce the liquid by 3/4.  Add the stock and bring to a boil.  Add the trotter and simmer until very tender, about 2 hours.
  4. Add the jointed, browned pheasant to the pot.  Return the stock to a boil and simmer until the pheasant is cooked through, roughly 15 minutes.  Remove the trotter and pheasant from the pot.
  5. Add the cooked vegetables to the pot and simmer gently for 30 minutes.  In the mean time, pull the meat from the trotter and pheasant (be sure that there are not bones left in the meat!)  Pull or chop the meat into large pieces.
  6. Add the herbs to the pot.  Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove the herbs and discard.  Add the chopped meat and wild rice to the pot.
  7. In a separate pan, melt the butter.  Once it is foaming, add the flour.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the flour is just starting to colour and becomes very aromatic, about 10 minutes.  This is the roux.
  8. Stir the roux into the other ingredients.  Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook until the mixture thickens.  Add the cream.  Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  9. At this point the filling can be chilled and kept in the fridge for a few days.
To serve:
  1. Spoon the filling into an oven-proof ceramic dish.  This can be one casserole, or several individual ramekins.  Roll out the pie dough to 1/8" thickness.  Press the pie dough over the filling.  Cut a few holes in the dough to vent the filling.  Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, then at 350°F until the crust is golden to amber, about another 40 minutes.
  2. Let the pie rest for 10 minutes before serving.