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First there was wine tasting… now coffee?

The wine snobs were first, with their sophisticated noses and babbles of dusty, mid-palate tones and tannic finishes. Close behind were the cheese tasters, raving of a strong-but-whimsical bleu cheese or perhaps a tangy gruyere. The chocolate tasters were next — single origin chocolate has now become all the rage.

And now, my friends, there is coffee tasting.

I suppose it makes sense that this dark, bitter beverage would make the tasting rounds; after all, its bitter cousins chocolate and wine were already on the tasting menu. But it’s becoming a little crazy. What’s next? Kool-Aid tasting?

I have to admit my curiosity is piqued. After all, I do love the dark brew (even in its decaffeinated form) and I’d be curious to taste several cups side-by-side. How does the Intelligentsia brew compare to Starbuck’s new Pike Place Roast, for example? I came to love the Chicago-based company’s fresh coffee and would love to see how it stacks up to the mass favorite.

Coffee tasting, in case you too want to try it, is called “cupping.” There are several “cupping” clubs in New York already and I’m sure that next time your trendy friends invite you over, it won’t be for a wine-and-cheese party, they’ll want to “cup” with you.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2008 in Coffee and Tea

 

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Drink Up: “The History of the World in Six Glasses”

Beer, yes, beer — has made history. And no, we’re not talking about the hazy stories told the morning after beer-soaked frat parties — we’re talking thousands of years of real history. Who knew that the bubbly, fermented beverage was once a form of currency in ancient Mesopotamia? Or that Egyptian mothers were urged to give beer to their children?

I feel like much was edited out of my history textbooks, likely the result of overzealous parents hoping to shield their innocent children from any book containing the word alcohol. But to censor alcohol is to censor history — the oldest forms of writing in several cultures include the intoxicating elixir. Fortunately, Tom Sandage’s book, “The History of the World in Six Glasses”, has filled in those critical gaps.

Sandage — the technology editor for the Economist — regales us with tales of how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have shaped history. And unlike your dry history books of yore, Sandage has full of cocktail party-worthy tidbits (and has any topic ever been more interesting for a cocktail party?) that keep you intrigued. Who knew, for instance, that tea began as a medicinal gruel in China, mixed in with garlic, shallots and ginger? Or that Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing during World War II so that it could be sent abroad to the troops to keep up morale?

What’s funny is that while reading the book, you recognize that, well, some things haven’t changed. Greek and Roman wine buffs distinguished between wines of different regions and prided themselves on their knowledge. In ancient Rome, wine became a symbol of social differentiation, of status and class. “For wealthy Romans, the ability to recognize and name the finest wines was an important form of conspicuous consumption; it showed that they were rich enough to afford the finest wines and had spent time learning which was which.”

Hmmm… sounds to me quite a lot like modern readers of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast!

My only complaint is that the book is too short. Sandage picks only several periods in history to highlight as he talks about the influences of these drinks when we well know that some of their influence stretches across different cultures and eras. For instance, how can you tell the story of coffee while mentioning modern coffee empires like Starbucks in only one line? Or how to talk about the history of wine without mentioning new regions like California, Chile and Argentina? Clearly, each of these drinks deserves a volume and it’s difficult to include everything, but all in all, the book is quite fun to read.

Some of my favorite facts (take these to your next wine-and-cheese — you’re sure to impress):

  • Coca-Cola still includes extracts from the koca plant, from which it was initially derived
  • In 1671, French doctors decried that coffee caused impotence and burned the blood (they did so at the behest of wine merchants who feared for their livelihood)
  • “Coca-Cola” is said to be the second most understood phrase in the world after “OK”
  • The word “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic “al-koh’l”; the Arabs became master distillers around 1000 A.D.
  • The first stockmarkets started in European coffehouses
  • The British began adding sugar and tea to their milk in order to mask the bitter and often adulterated beverage (merchants added loose leaves, ash, sawdust — even sheep’s dung to stretch the tea)
  • Sailors in the 1600 and 1700s were able to prevent scurvy by drinking “grog:” rum, lemon juice, water and spices on board
  • Greeks and Romans almost always drank their wine with water
 
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Food Reads, Wine

 

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Make space for the good stuff in the kitchen

Poring over the Williams Sonoma catalog, my heart begins to yearn. Heart-shaped waffle makers, ice cream machines, panini presses… sigh, I love kitchen gadgets. The idea that you can make everything at home, from paninis to creme brulee to pesto is incredibly alluring. Fellow foodies can relate. One trip to Sur La Table and your wallet instantly feels lighter.

But even the fanatics can recognize buys that were not worth their dough.

Many of my friends are building up their kitchens or creating a wedding registry. From my time cooking, here are some ideas on how to stock your kitchen — and some gadgets/appliances to cross off your shopping list.

Get This: Food Processor/Blender

Not That: Blender

Why?

Reduce kitchen clutter by getting one appliance that serves two functions rather than two appliances. Cuisinart’s duet food processor/blender lets you create perfect smoothies and margaritas with the blender. With a quick swap of a few parts, you’re ready to make pesto and hummus with the food processor. Cuisinart is the best brand for food processors and their blenders are top notch.

Get This: Vita-Mix Turbo Blender

Not That: Juicer

Why?

Although the Vita-Mix is pricey ($350-$400) it is by far the best way to make juice. Rather than separating the pulp from the juice like regular juicers, the Vita-Mix’s powerful blades create silky, nutritious juice that retains all of the fiber and vitamins. Plus, throw in some frozen fruit and yogurt into the Vita-Mix and in a matter of minutes you have the creamiest frozen yogurt you’ve ever tasted. Try doing that with a juicer.

Get This: KitchenAid Stand Mixer

Not That: KitchenAid Hand Mixer

Why?

Versatility. The hand mixer can whip egg whites and beat brownie mix, but with the KitchenAid stand mixer, a new world of possibilities opens up to you. You can make pasta dough, pizza dough and bread — oh, the bread. I’m sighing right now just thinking about it. Yes, it’s a significant upgrade, but well worth it.

Get This: Bodum French Press

Not That: Fancy Espresso Machine

Why?

Don’t get me wrong, having fresh espresso in the morning is pure luxury. Having an espresso machine, however, is more trouble than its worth. At first, you go through the honeymoon period, lavishing the machine with love as you make your espressos and machiattos every day. Then the problems begin: it’s a hassle to clean, some part begins to malfunction. Soon enough, it’s just a big hunk of plastic and metal relegated to a dark corner in your kitchen. Avoid the pain and frustration with a French Press from Bodum. A few scoops of coffee and some hot water and voila, you have fragrant, rich coffee with none of the bitterness of drip coffee. Clean up is a snap and if it breaks, you’re out $30, not $300+.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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Buzzed

Back in the day when I was writing for the Chicago Tribune, I would guzzle down a Red Bull in the afternoon just to keep my head up — and that’s after several shots of espresso in the morning, mind you. The long stressful hours often made it hard to get enough sleep and the Red Bull would keep me afloat for the rest of the workday.

“How can you drink that stuff,” my coworkers would say, gasping and grimacing as though I was drinking pure liquid caffeine. And as they said this, they stood with their Grande Starbucks coffee cups filled to the brim.

As it turns, they were the ones really gulping down the stuff. According to CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter (the best consumer nutrition source out there), a Grande Starbucks drip coffee has 330 mg. of caffeine. That’s like drinking seven Diet Cokes (45 mg. each). Or like having four Red Bulls (80 mg. each).

Even your home brew can really pack the caffeine — a 16 oz. cup brewed from Starbucks store-bought grounds can have 260 mg. of caffeine.

Espresso is a lightweight by comparison. Each shot has only around 75 mg. Because the grounds are exposed to water for a short amount of time (when the hot steam pushes through), the resulting liquid has much less caffeine. Drip coffee, on the other hand, allows the grounds much more contact with water, resulting in a higher caffeine content.

What surprised me about the Nutrition Action article is how food companies are now stuffing caffeine into all sorts of food products, from gum (Jolt Gum has 60 mg.) to sunflower seeds (Sumseeds sunflower seeds packs 140 mg. into a small package!) to beer (Bud Extra beer has 55 mg.).

Why all the fuss? By consuming several of these products a day, you could easily reach pretty high levels of caffeine and become addicted, causing a bunch of problems.

As an alternative, when you’re feeling sleepy at work, take a short walk outside to perk up and switch to green tea. If you’re reluctant to cut your caffeine fix, at least ask for the half-caf option at Starbucks 🙂

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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