Sunday, September 22, 2013

Houndstooth Coffee Class: How to Make Iced Coffee That Doesn't Suck

Houndstooth has stood out in the ever-growing Austin coffee scene for its constant innovation. They were the first to offer different brewing methods by the cup, the first to go with a rotating selection of roasters, the first to set up real coffee education programs, and the first to go major retail with the best selection of home coffee equipment anywhere in town.

Houndstooth is also the place I learned to make good iced coffee. I had written off iced coffee a few decades ago, based on the bitter, weak stuff my dad used to drink out on the porch on summer afternoons. All through my coffee-loving years, all good coffee has been hot, even if all hot coffee has not been good.

Until now.

About 12 of us filed into Houndstooth's swanky new digs in the Frost Bank Building right after they closed for the afternoon. Daniel Read, the manager of coffee education (really, they have a manager of coffee education), walked us through some solid basics. Before we start with the process, though, some basic things you need, and one of thing that you don't maybe need exactly, but will make your life much better if you have it.

Things you need:

  1. Coffee Maker. We used Clevers in the class, at home I use Chemex or Hario pour-overs. French Press also good. All inexpensive.
  2. Good Coffee. My all time and forever favorite is Cuvee, a roaster just outside of Austin.
  3. A kitchen scale. My favorite is from OXO, and it's less than $30.
The one single thing that will make it even better:
  1. A grinder. My favorite is from Baratza - the Encore. Basic, as far as grinders though, and while it's not exactly cheap (about $130), you make it up pretty quick once you stop buying anything starting with the words "iced venti...". Fresh ground coffee is massively better than not-fresh-ground coffee. Massively.
And once you have those things, how to make great coffee (iced or hot) comes down to this: .06.

.06 units of coffee for 1 unit of water. A cup of coffee is about 300 grams of water - multiply by .06, and it comes out to 18 grams of coffee. No more messing around with tablespoons, no more guessing. Just .06.

What does this have to do with iced coffee, you may ask?

Turns out, you make iced coffee just the same way you make hot coffee, only substituting 100 grams of ice cubes for 100 grams of the water. Easy.

Here's how we made it in class, and how I now make it at home:
  1. Heat the water. I use an electric kettle. You want water that's in the high 190s, temperature-wise. Easiest way to get there - boil the water, take it off the heat, wait 30 seconds.
  2. While the water is heating, grind the beans (medium grind for the pour-overs, coarse for the french press), and measure out 18 grams.
  3. If you're using anything with a paper filter, set it all up without the coffee and pour a little water through to rinse the filter, dumping out the water that runs through.
  4. Set your brewing set up on the scale, add the coffee, and zero out the scale again.
  5. Add 200 grams of water.
  6. Take the resulting hot steamy concentrated coffee, and pour over 100 grams of ice.

And that's it! At this point, the coffee may still be a little warm - I usually wait right up until the moment I'm going to drink it, pour it over a cup full of ice, and slurp it down before the ice has much of a chance to melt.

Still in the mood for iced coffee, but not up for the hassle? Two options for you:

  1. Head down to Houndstooth. Go up the counter. Order an iced coffee.
  2. Start with a cold-brewed option (locally brewed Chameleon Coffee is my favorite), pop it open, pour over copious amounts of ice, and go.

And there it is: Iced coffee that doesn't even remotely suck.

  Houndstooth Coffee on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Root Cafe - Local Little Rock Love

A few weeks ago, at the tail end of a road trip from Michigan back down to Texas, my oldest daughter Ella and I found ourselves looking for breakfast in Little Rock Arkansas. We'd been through this part of the country before, but never really ventured off the interstate.

The Root is just east of Downtown Little Rock in a sweet sunny little neighborhood full of cute brick storefronts and quirky shops. It's the perfect setting for The Root, which is in itself a sweet, sunny, gem of a cafe.

The Root Cafe is part of the food-centric movement that is rediscovering classic southern diner food. For years, this stuff - once pulled from gardens and cooked up slow - has been replaced with increasingly processed schlock, canned and shipped in from across the planet. Places like The Root have gone back to gardens and handmade and have reminded us all what sausage gravy, biscuits, and fried eggs are supposed to taste like.

Ella and I were the first ones in the door that morning - early enough to get a comfortable, breezy spot at a table on the front porch. The day would heat up later, but in early morning it couldn't have been more perfect. I chose a special for the day, sausage blueberry pancakes, and Ella went with the biscuits and gravy.

A note here on the importance of not underestimating the grammatical skills of menu-board writers. The pancake special was "sausage blueberry pancakes", which I interpreted as "sausage [and] blueberry pancakes." Turns out, if they wanted to say "and" they would have. So these were light, delicious pancakes, real maple syrup, local blueberries, and sausage - not on the side in the patties or links, but crumbled right into the pancake batter. It was not an approach I expected, but it was awesome. The savory spice and salt of the sausage was the perfect counterpoint to the little juice bomb blueberries. I am a proud member of the of real-maple-syrup army - I could drink the stuff - but these pancakes were in such simple lovely balance that it was barely needed. Ella's gravy was the other standout - it was a cream gravy, but it was anything but heavy, with local Falling Sky sausage and little hint of bright sweetness to it. With the simple, buttery biscuits, it was near perfect. We both had fried eggs along side, with the kind of bright yellow yolks that only come with the pasture raised chickens that don't live too far up the street. Locally roasted Mountain Bird Coffee was worthy of a visit all by itself.

I have seen enough places like this - East End Eatery in Gainesville FL; Monument Cafe in Georgetown TX; Veritable Quandary in Portland, OR; Fork in The Road in Lansing, MI - to be convinced that this is not a fluke. That in bright, innovative corners of towns in every corner of this country, food is being rediscovered - food that remembers where it came from and tastes like love. The Root is one more reminder that these places are out there, just waiting to be found.

Root Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 28, 2013

la Barbeque: The Best Brisket I've Ever Had

Let me start out by saying this: I have never eaten at Franklin's. I've had intentions, but then there's always something I'd like to do with my mornings, and one things leads to another, and it's 100 degrees, and I skip it.

So, it is entirely possible that better brisket exists. Just really hard to imagine what that might be after a lunch at la Barbeque.

LA BBQ sits on that fuzzy line between a trailer and storefront. It's outdoor seating (pleasantly shady and bearable even in late June Austin), and there's a pretty straightforward two-window trailer where you order and pay. At the same time, it's a permanent establishment, with two enormous smokers set up off to the side of the lot, firewood stacked up, and a gravel parking lot all on its own. A galvanized trough filled with ice holds sodas in glass bottles - Mexican Coke FTW.

It's kind of the perfect setting, actually, and the operation was remarkably efficient  - busy, but hardly a wait at all.

The glory here, though, is in the meat. I was there with my daughter and we split a few slices brisket and a link of the sausage. Both were off the chart. The brisket - smoked for about 16 hours over a combination of Oak and Pecan wood - was meltingly tender (go with the fatty - the lean was still amazing, but less of transcendental experience). The flavors were layered and balanced, with smokey, almost sweet flavors, against the peppery crust. There was sauce on the tables, but I have never been less tempted to use it. It was also thickly sliced - I used to think I only liked brisket sliced Rudy's style into thin strips - but this cured me of that right quick. It was simply ideal meat, no need to shave it off like deli meats or slather it in sauce like lesser cuts.

The sausage, which we ordered as an afterthought, was no less extraordinary. It was a little looser than others I've had, with a touch more crumble to it and just the faintest of spicy kick. I wish I could identify the spices in there, but it was all too completely integrated to pick out individual notes. Salty and blissful.

We ate all we could hold, and then some.This redefined the meaning of barbeque - we weren't leaving any of it on the tray.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Josephine House, Spectacularly Reinvented

I can barely imagine the Austin Jeffrey's opened into nearly 40 years ago. The city was a third of the size it is now, the downtown skyline stretching up only half as high. In a town like ours, a restaurant from 1975 is monumental, it stretches into legendary history. And over the decades, Jeffrey's kept on plugging away, a fancy neighborhood hangout getting a bit worn around the edges as more and more ambitious dining options opened all around it. Finally, it just didn't fit anymore, and there was a moment of hesitation where I don't know that any of us really knew whether it was going to pull through.

Over the last year, the McGuire Moorman Juggernaut has been restoring and reinventing Jeffrey's and its sister restaurant (they share a kitchen and a breezeway) Josephine House. I have yet to try the mother ship, but Tracy and I stopped by Josephine for a memorably lovely lunch this week.

Josephine House - the teeny tiny house that has mostly served as an event space for years - is Jeffrey's outpost for lunch and a bit of an early happy hour. The indoor dining space isn't much larger than a typical suburban dining room - a handful of tables under a gorgeous front window. To supplement, Josephine House spills outside onto a side patio under a giant ancient tree, onto to the front porch, and even onto a picturesque 8-top on the front lawn. It's getting a little steamy for al fresco dining, but you settle into it, and at least on a breezy 90 degree day in late May, it just works. Every design detail here is thought through - the contrast of  navy and white details, the buckets of lilies, the copper gutters and downspout, the marble table tops. You can't find a space that isn't beautiful.

The menu is straightforward and simple, with first rate details and execution. This is a place that has every potential of being stuffy and pretentious, and while it's definitely a fancy lunch, it's completely approachable. Case in point - Tracy had the BLAB. That would be Bacon Lettuce Avocado Beet. The house made bread was a little spongy with a hint of sour, the bacon deep and smokey, the beet sweet and the green just the faintest hit of bitter. It was brilliant - in just one bite, the tastes bounced from one flavor to the next to the next, trailing on.  In one way, this is just a sandwich with potato chips. But it's one of the best damn sandwiches and some of the best damn potato chips I've tried. And just try to say "I'll have the BLAB" and have it sound pretentious.

I had the Chicken and Egg - again very simple and beautifully conceived - cannellini beans, roasted carrots, roasted brussels, chicken thighs, garlic, with a fried egg balanced on top. With a bit of their sourdough to mop up the broth, this was a stunning, simple stew, and a perfect lunch. We lingered on for a bit, ordering a pot of the Stumptown french press (not bad) and an incredibly rich, dense chocolate torte with marscapone cream and macerated local strawberries. 

I assume that this menu will be shifting on a regular basis - strawberries like that are fleeting - but if what we ate was any indication of how brilliantly it will continue to come together, we have a revival on our hands that could go another 40 years. We'll see what Austin looks like then.

Josephine House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Contigo - Eating Al Fresco in February and Loving It

Strings of miniature bulbs are strung over long picnic tables all across the courtyard. A set of yard games are laid out past the tables, where kids who didn’t know each other 15 minutes ago are playing like old friends. The barn door to the bar is wide open and warm light glints off of shelves of exotic liquors and onto the gravel. We really don’t need the warmth, but a fire pit off to the edge of the courtyard springs to life as the sun sets.

This is what it’s like it to eat outdoors in February in Austin, at least at Contigo, over by the old airport. There is hardly any building at all – just an open space covered by a simple roof, and an open space that is not covered by anything. Somewhere, there is a kitchen nestled back in there, churning out amazingly nuanced dishes, but it’s pretty well hidden from view.

I don’t mean to get all whimsical on you guys. I know how you all hate that, but there’s really no other way to describe this place. The food by itself is fantastic, but it’s made even better by the idyllic simplicity and camaraderie of the surroundings.

Like many in the new crop of East Austin trend setters, everything here that can be made in-house is - bacon, bread, pate, sausage. But this is not so much comfort food reimagined, as it is comfort food rediscovered. The sausage in the pigs-in-a-blanket is what a lil’ smokey was meant to be; the dough surrounding them is chewy, freshly kneaded, wrapped and baked. Green beans are tempura fried and served with a kicking little Asian aioli. Pate is lush and accompanied by the single best preparation of eggplant I’ve ever had – sliced razor thin, tempura fried, drizzled with honey. More bread (or less pate) would be welcome – the proportion seemed a bit off – but it was all delicious. And that’s sort of the way Contigo rolls.

Big plates are a little more mixed than the small ones, with some really spectacular bright spots, and a few small misses. Our kids gravitated to the burgers, and while I appreciate that they were not fancied up and messed with in any fundamental way (predominate spicing was salt and pepper), the buns were a little sweet for our taste and the fries were well seasoned but a little floppy. You get the sense that the kitchen’s primary love is not churning out burgers. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pot Roast with spaetzle was absolutely luscious – unbelievably tender, with layers of flavor and winey broth that defined and rounded out the spaetzle beautifully. The mussels were also good, with a booming thai-inspired lime/coconut broth and julienned root veggies. Not a lot of variety on the desserts, but what they have are lovely – apple handpies with a little glass of spiced milk and dense, lovely buckwheat chocolate cake.

You leave this place feeling like you’ve done more than eat well – you leave Contigo feeling like you’ve lived well.

Contigo on Urbanspoon


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