Thursday, January 31, 2013

Beer Review: Brooklyn Brew Shop's Everyday IPA

I don't do beer reviews. I'm making an exception for a few reasons. This guy that I have given a few of my not-quite home brews has returned the favour and has given me one of these beer kit beers. The kit comes from Brooklyn Brew Shop and it published a book that I am thinking of using for my first set of real homebrew from scratch. So, armed with his Christmas gift, he has spent the last four weeks waiting anxiously for this beer. He seems to think I have good beer. Guess he hasn't seen the post on doctoring beers with smoked salt, citric acid or the making vinegar out of beer.

I'll make you wait a few more seconds while I tell you why I don't do beer reviews. The first reason is that my tastes can be mercurial, in terms of beer. I can tell if it is good but not always if I like it. Also, I am not sure what breaking the beer down by the Appearance, Smell, Taste and Mouthfeel do for me. It doesn't give me the info that I need to decide if I want that beer again.

There are some standard descriptors that can be used but there is still a value judgement to be made about whether this style should have a lacy head or whether the citrus on the nose should match the citrus on the taste. Frankly, when I write a review, it would never be looked at again by me. I do use other people's reviews to help me determine if I should go beer chasing though. If I am going to spring for a case of import or order through the LCBO, I need to know if it is worth it. So, there you go.

Appearance: Golden murk with fluffy white head dotted with brown. Methinks this could've used some filtering. Looks more like a hefeweizen than an IPA. May have been too much carbonation as the small pour frothed and bubbled both out of the bottle and the glass. Had to finish pouring over the sink. A more than healthy level of sediment on the bottom of the bottle. When it settle a little bit, the bubbles come up like dust motes on a bright day when looking out my living room window.

Smell: Definitely an IPA on the nose. Hoppy grapefruit with a slight wet groat smell. Smell like Cascadian hops. The first beers that I had with this type of smell was the Flying Monkeys beers. It smells like that but a little less robust, thinner.

Taste: Hoppy with a slight fizziness followed with a wet grain taste on the back and then ending with moderate bitterness. Tastes like kasha (buckwheat) that has been sitting in the fridge. Mild nuttiness with residual other wet grain taste. As it warms up, I get a little caramel at the end. I don't think I like caramel with my IPAs. Maybe it is an imagining -- nah, there is something caramalty there.

Mouthfeel: More fizziness with a decent body. The fizz is a little like those fizz candies, so I think this could have used a little more fermentation before bottling. The carbonation doesn't feel full. Fucked if I know what that means but that is how I would describe it. It may be a little over done when bottled as well.

Overall: Not an unpleasant beer. It is definitely one that I would be proud of brewing for a few try at home. Does point out that you need more experience than just a recipe. My guess is that it was not in the primary for long enough and then too much fermentation happened in the bottle. Maybe some type of filter should be used with this type of beer or more care taken when bottling to ensure that the beer is a little clearer.

I think that this first experience for this guy should not be his last. He has made some beer that is better than just drinkable. Armed with a notebook and measuring what he did this time, I think that he could master this style either from a kit or from raw ingredients. Thanks for the beer.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Kid's Recipes: Pizza Grilled Cheese and others

There is a series of posts that I run about how to read recipes and I was tempted to group these following ideas under a post around grilled cheese or sandwiches. My son came up with a few of the suggestions and I realize that there is something to be learned from the process of involving your kids in cooking and menu planning.

Many folks are impressed by what our kids will eat. To them, it looks as if our kids will eat anything and try anything happily. This is only partially true. Our kids may be less picky than others but that is largely to a rule that is enforced at our table - 'Everyone must try one good bite before not liking something." That includes me and fish, my wife and brussels sprouts and anything the kids have decided they don't like that day. Eventually this practice has translated in willing to try one bite of everything.

I don't often cook with my kids but I involve them in planning the food. This does not mean that they decide what we are going to eat but it allows me to prepare them for what is coming and avoid meltdowns when it is clear that they are in no mood to try anything new. So, when they come up with a recipe, they create and make the whole thing. Here are two that have been a hit.

Apple, Peanut Butter and Cheese Roll Up 
I forget the original name that my son gave it and for that, I will be going to the list of bad parenting. Just kidding, there is no list. Just guilt. The original suggestion was to add ketchup but the chef was talked out of it. However, sometimes let them try it and they will let you know if it is good.
Take a tortilla and slather it with peanut butter or another nut butter, add tart apple slices (used Granny Smith) and a mild cheese (provolone works well). Roll it up and cut it into pinwheels.
Variations: Change the cheese. Add dried fruits. Add greens such as sprouts or lettuce. Use no nut butter. 
Pizza Grilled Cheese 
 This came up around a discussion about leftovers. My son suggested that we fold over pizza and put it in a grilled cheese sandwich. That discussion led to the following idea.
 Use your regular grilled cheese sandwich recipe but slather each piece of bread on the inside slice with spaghetti sauce and use mozzarella cheese in addition to your regular cheese. Pepperoni or salami is optional but always appreciated in our family.
Variations: Any toppings that you would put in a pizza will work. Just keep it to a reasonable amount so that the insides will warm through and the cheese will get all melted. Fig jam and asiago cheese are a combo that works well. Used fig jam with many different sharp cheeses and it is usually a success. Prosciutto and ham brings it into croque monsieur category but sometimes classic flavours are used in many applications. 
What I have really learned about kids and in fact, adults, is that it is easy to introduce new flavours and foods when you couch them in familiar terms like: this is a pizza with the stuff from that pasta you like... or these noodles are in the soup that you like. As long as there is a relation to something that they are familiar with and like, the process of trying new foods can be largely painless.

A little story to end this post... A friend of mine hates cranberries. I found out when I served a roast beef that was glazed with soya sauce and cranberries. She was polite but her husband told me right away that she wasn't going to like it. She surprised us by asking for the recipe and making it for her family several times. She still doesn't like cranberries by themselves but if they are part of an overall taste then they can be quite delicious for her.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Beer/Mead Vinegar Update #1

It's been a week or so since I put a couple of containers of beer and one of mead on my dining room table. They will turn to vinegar, sometime. When I started this experiment, I wondered how I would know when it is vinegar? How long will it take?

 Having some passing experience in waiting for things to ferment (bread, mead, bottle conditioning brews, sauerkraut), the answer is easy. It is done when it is done. Originally, I thought that maybe I could measure the pH levels, so I pulled out some pH paper and dabbed it into both liquids. The colours were just slightly different. That wasn't going to work. Ended up looking this up on the internet later and found out that beer acidity ranges from 4 to about 5.5 with the average beer being around 4. Vinegar clocks in in the high 3 to 4 range. So, there goes one method.

 Another test would be the smell. Have you ever smelled vinegar, I mean really smelled vinegar? Go get a bottle right now. Take a deep breath. I'll wait.
Are you coughing? I just got you to smell vinegar. (Hey what do you want, I've got a ten year old and a 7 year old boy in the house. This qualifies as good fun.) Notice the acrid hit at the back of your nose? Pretty potent stuff.

Every day, I take a little sniff to see what is going on in those jars. There are differences in the way the three samples are developing. The mead still smells heavily of honey and spices but it is a little rounder with no evidence of sourness. The medium more malty sample smells of spice and a darker smell. Granted, the major part of the liquid is a Belgian spiced ale and this could account for the remaining smells. The third darker and hoppier container has lost its sharpness and gone past a familiar smell that of leftover dregs of beer. In the summer, my garage will smell like that before the bottles go back to the beer store. There is a slightly oaty, sour smell underneath the fading smell of hops. Maybe that is the start of something good.

Of course, you could just taste it. The mead tastes like mead. The other two have lost the hoppy, bitter characteristics and I am not sure I would recognize them as beer. They both have a taste like the smell of wet buckwheat to varying degrees. Not sure if this is good but it is there.

No visual sign of a mother developing in any samples. I guess I'll have to wait until next week.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Restaurant Review: Absolute Restaurant

Sometimes I get hung up on words. Absolute Restaurant describes itself as "Fresh and healthy from-scratch cooking. Our chefs bring a cosmopolitan touch to classic bistro fare." I am not sure what constitutes cosmopolitan (looking at the magazine, it would suggest sass and sex and lists) other than using wraps and slightly elevated and elegant presentations. Strictly speaking, I would guess it means some comfort with different cultures. This would suggest bringing Toronto's diversity into home cooking. A Bistro is the tradition of family run comfort food in France where there is a lack of restaurant stuffiness and an earthiness and easiness of a talented home cook.

I find this definition confusing because this restaurant does not present itself in that way. Originally, there were two restaurants, one in the Beach and the other at Yonge and St. Clair. I have eaten at both and found the one on the Beach more fitting of the bistro name. Now there is only the Yonge and St. Clair location.

The seats are not the coziness of home and the uniforms of the servers are professional. This is not a bistro but rather a restaurant reaching to describe its food. Dishes are classic flavours from various French and French influenced cuisines. Lamb is curried and served in a wrap with basmati, golden raisin, spinach and mint showing off an eastern influence. Barbequed duck sits with dates, leeks, spinach and yams. The salads have the same type of panache. Arugula, apple and walnut break, a classic flavour, is broken up with fig-pomegranate dressing.

None of these combinations will seem too out of place for people familiar with classic cooking. This might contribute to the success of the menu. Give people something that is quite familiar with only the smallest of twists. Maybe they were too wary of that F word - fusion, that has become a very dirty word in restaurants.

More likely, the success of the place is that the lunch menu's most expensive item is the steak frites, though they don't call it that, at fifteen dollars. It is a salty, meaty piece of steak that tastes vaguely of liver meaning that the steak is probably as described, a flat-iron steak. The frites are the saltiest thing on the menu but you can't make them without going to the edge. Fries are supposed to be that way.

All the lunch items are about the right size for a noon day meal and arrive in time so that you can leave the restaurant within a 45 minute lunch period. I even suggested that we host our staff Christmas luncheon there. This was the first time that service was a little less than adequate. There are still some rough edges on service after being open for a long enough time to know better. Rather than accept the reservations for the same time, maybe suggesting to the clients to stagger their times would have worked better.

I can't leave this review without discussing the soups. They are all good and seasoned just to the point of tasting the salt. Quite a deft hand with the seasoning. The quinoa salad which sounds as if there is too much going on with yams, arugula, edamame, almonds and spiced yoghurt turns out to be an interesting eat without being overwhelming or confusing. My favourites are the wraps. Good, filling not perfectly executed but worth the money in an area where sitdown lunches are either wrapped in wax paper and still cost as much or served in restaurants where the food is more classical and the prices match.

If the office were closer and I were a sit down for lunch every day kind of guy, I would be here more often. Instead, once every three months, I will convince a coworker to head to the restaurant for a relaxing and competent lunch that won't break the bank. Every area needs a lunch joint like this.

Absolute Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recipe: Beer Vinegar, Mead Vinegar Experiment

A confluence of events has led me to try my hand at making vinegar. I've been interested in the whole fermentation thing for a while: cheese, beer, bread and mead. I've made those or at least the simplest form of those. Kimchee and sauerkraut are also not unknown to this guy with Polish background. It always seems to me that the simplest thing is to leave food to ferment.

Several times I have looked at the mother at the bottom of the Bragg's container and thought how easy it would be to just drop some apple cider in there, but sometimes I'm too lazy to get a bottle of cider to let it rot. Also, my kids would be so mad if I brought home special apple juice and didn't let them drink it. So, it hasn't happened.

This past week, the universe has given me signs, or I have let my inner sloth free, whichever you would like to believe. Various sources have given me pieces to the puzzle and I intend to put them together. Just for curiosity, I will list those little hints just to prove that I am not crazy.

Hint #1: Secrets of the Best Chefs. On page 344 which is Hugh Acheson's section (from Ottawa, ahem), a hint in the margin states:
If you buy a vinegar with a live culture (like Bragg's), when the bottle is almost empty, you can start a universal vinegar (meaning a vinegar composed of lots of different liquids). Just refill the bottle with beer or leftover wine and cap it with cheesecloth and string. A few weeks later, you'll have vinegar ready to go.
Hint #2: Kitchn article about leftover Champagne. (Who has leftover champagne?)

Hint #3:  Niagara College First Draught Rudolphs Red Nose Ale at The Only Cafe. It tasted sour, but not in a good way but rather in a vinegar way.

Hint #4: Finally got around to flipping through wild fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and read the section on vinegar. It turns out if you leave a fermentable liquid past the booze stage, you get vinegar. So, that got me to thinking...

I have two containers of "leftover" beer in my fridge. One is for maltier beer and the other for hoppier, more bitter beer. I use these leftovers for making bread, baked beans and messing around with other recipes. I add to these containers when I get a mediocre but drinkable brew, some dregs from a large bottle or the last drops from a long night.

The question was whether to use a mother that I had floating at the bottom of a malt whisky vinegar. I have decided after reviewing other beer vinegar experiments to try from scratch. Most others have used Bragg's but Katz states that you don't need a starter. Considering the success that I had with mead a couple years ago, I am going to take the chance.

So, I have taken a bit of mead, malty beer and hoppy beer, covered them with cheesecloth and leaving them out for a few weeks. Here is what they look like now. Check back in a few weeks and we will see and taste what happens.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Restaurant Review: The Artisan Baker

This new place took over from Il Passione just south of St. Clair and Yonge to settle beside another French influenced shop called Panier Rouge which just closed. I was a little skeptical given the location across from the way from Delica who also serves a similar style. The overwrought advertisement that graced the doors during the renovation did not make my skeptical nature subside.

In the ad, there was a lot of talk about the art of baking and references to jewellers or some other stuff without mention of the baker's name. It sounded like marketing speak for an eventual chain. If someone had just told me that the place was going to be some Montreal style boulangerie, it would have made the prose palatable.

Inside, yet more barn board grace the floor. I am beginning to wonder what barns are being built out of nowadays if every small shop is taking good wood and putting it on the floor. I would like to continue to be grouchy about this place but I can't. The decor makes sense with the whole approach of the place and the food is good.

First and foremost, a place with bakery in its name must have good bread. Here the baguette, the grain breads and the croissants are done well. Each layer of the croissant can be flaked and then peeled away and that shows the proper technique of laminating the dough and letting it rest. It is seriously flaky and buttery with the right amount of give. The bread passes.

This place also serves pastries, sandwiches, hot meals and cheese. The first week they were opened some of the sandwiches weren't quite there. The ingredients of ham, asparagus and cheese should have worked but the ham was too meek against an aggressive cheese. The asparagus seemed like an after thought and the whole thing, while tasty, suffered from a little disconnect. Later sandwiches did not suffer the same fate. I guess the early jitters are gone.

Now to explain what I mean about the barn board being right for the place, these guys are really into an idea of place. Most of their goods are from here to just the other side of Ottawa. The cheeses are available for slices with your lunch and they are served at the correct temperature. At home, I have a hard time letting Grey Owl come to the warmth that is needed to properly enjoy it. This is something I rarely see at a lunch place and I am glad.

There is a sort of joie du vivre about some of the servers and especially from the manager and chef. When I grabbed a Croque Monsieur one day, the chef smiled and said, "Ah good. I spent all morning working on it."  They truly want you to enjoy the food that they like. Unfortunately, until they get all the right staff, there are some staff who get it and others who are just serving you lunch. There is something to getting food from someone who would like to have what you are having, and more importantly, are happy for you to try this food. It reminds me of when a family member is cooking for you and handing you something that they think you will like.

There are some of the Gallic touches that have changed or need to be changed to meet the expectations of Toronto clients. The queueing always seems weird in Toronto. There is a fairly standard system setup in this restaurant but like most of Toronto not lining up for buses, the line may not make sense to them. Just down the street there is another place that requires you to understand their queuing system and it does well. It will just be a matter of time before regulars will be there to show people how the lineups work.

I have heard some grumbling about the wait but so far, but I have always received my meal with plenty of time to dine and get back to the office. Most of the grumbles have been from confused people trying to figure where they need to go or deciding what they want.

The lids on the warming/serving trays don't allow for seeing the goods and that is a shame.  The hot meals are good consisting mainly of sauced meats with sides. Braises with  mash and veg. There is always a soup or two and all of them have tasted simple, straightforward and solid. French onion and butternut have already made an appearance. I am interested to see how these change with the seasons.

Signs are often misaligned or missing and adds to the confusion in the customers mentioned above.  Aleady, some French words have been given English translations. I am ambivalent about this. It makes me wish they made pets de soeur (nun's farts).  The religieuse are wonderful choux pastry treats, think of two cream puffs topped with chocolate, that are meant to look like nuns in a habit. They have been renamed nuns.

Some of the context of the place is rooted in French Catholic history and the lusty approach to food. There is a serious attempt to provide you with pleasure in eating. The only problem for me is that it is hard to get out the door without spending 15 dollars, so I will only be able to go once a week without breaking my piggy bank. I guess I could always sneak out and grab a mille feuille or some delicate pastry or grab a loaf of bread for home and maybe just a nibble of cheese...

The Artisan Baker on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Beer Flavoured Coffee, 1st Attempt

I guess the title gives the punchline away. This first attempt at creating a beer flavoured coffee didn't go as planned but I learned quite a bit during the process. I guess the first question that I hear when mentioning this little experiment is WTF? What ever gave you that idea? (Note: not what an interesting idea or that's so cool).

Instead I'm left with explaining some convergent trends in my life of coffee, beer and food. Last winter, I made butter beer (butter, sugar, beer and spices warmed through) as part of a medieval feast. I have also had hot buttered rum and been hearing rumours of hot buttered coffee. There is a leap of logic that connects the noun of each of these clauses; whatever you do to rum or beer, you can do to coffee.

The second piece to the puzzling puzzle is coffee flavoured stouts and porters. I love Mill St. Coffee Porter. Some malts have a coffee like profile to them and I like it. I am planning on doing a brew with a medium brew in a pale ale at some time. That has got me to thinking. (For those of you who are still following along with the beer-rum-coffee (BRC) connection, barrel aged beers in rum casks exist - Innis and Gunn is one example.)

So, now that I have peaked down the rabbit hole, it may be time to get a little closer. How does one flavour coffee? There is rum flavoured coffee (There is that connection again.) but I am fairly sure that is an industrial process. I suppose I could brew coffee and add beer like one adds rum or maybe even brew coffee using beer! Okay, let's not get crazy, yet. There is a process called monsooning.

The easiest way to explain monsooning is to go with the romantic tale of coffee being transported during the rainy season from India to Europe and the loads got all wet and salty. The Europeans, not knowing any better, kept drinking it and preferred it to the regular beans that came after when shipping got better. I call bullshit on this story. If this was the case then I am sure that this coffee would be better known. Just throwing out a wild guess but there have been quite a few tastes from India that have taken root in England due to the colonial days. India has produced milder, less acidic coffees for quite some time and it maybe that some of the British brought back those tastes with them. Like all fermented and 'ruined' products, someone probably didn't want to throw out a ruined crop and decided to try it and liked it or at least didn't dislike or die from it. Anyways, Malabar coffee is worth checking out. Aravind on the Danforth has it as their house coffee.

So, the background is finished. In short, I decided to try and make a monsooned coffee. Tradition dictates that the coffee is exposed to the monsoon for a month or greater. I don't have the patience. My first thought was to use a humidifier with a rack and add a little salt to the place where you normally put the Vapo-rub. One thing, yeast is alive. When I put the beer (aged witbier - meaning starting to get to skunk) in the reservoir and turned it on, all I got was beer foam bubbles. It reminded me of bubble blowing machines in malls except with the added smell or yeast and no laughing kids.

Second attempt was to use a steamer. Bring up to steam. Turn off. Cool off. Repeat as many times as possible for one week. The beans did plump up and lose some of the dry looking characteristics. I used a Sumatra Takengon for the experiment. I took some of the monsooned beans and some of the not-monsooned beans and roasted them in my roaster for the same time and same heat. There was a noticeable difference on the roast. The engorged beans roasted darker and were slower moving around in the roaster. Could be due to the additional liquid causing the beans to be heavier and water does help with holding heat. Think of the many times you hear - It's not the heat but the humidity.

The flavour was subtly affected. There was no trace of salinity in either cups. The treated beans seemed to have a slight depth of flavour but I am not sure if it was due to the roast or whether the beer made some impact. I will try this experiment again when some homebrew is going off or the next time someone gifts me a six-pack of 'Premium' brew. Also, my burr grinder is busted and I have to find some small appliance shop to fix it. I know Beer World Problems.