Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh Starbucks, why?

Today it was announced that Starbucks will be producing instant coffee. Ironic, considering their business model hinges on pulling Americans out of their homes and local diners to sample their own high-end-priced version of cappuccino and espresso.

My first reaction is, why? I suppose Starbucks believes they will make instant coffee better than anyone else. However, this is a risky market to jump into. International Coffees already makes a variety that appeal to people that enjoy the convenience of instant with the flavor-shot of the day. And the cost, as well, as availability at the local grocery store, make them accessible to people that don't necessarily want to spend $5 for a coffee at Starbucks.

Not to mention Nescafe and Taster's Choice, who stormed on the market in the 1970s with their blind switch commercials and ridiculously convenient product. While the instant coffee produced by these two isn't fantastic, it's coffee when you need it in a hurry, it's portable, so you can take it on camping trips, and is not very expensive. And, for home cooks like me, you can add coffee flavor to something without adding the extra wet ingredients. So it makes it easy to duplicate recipes such as Brian Boitano's Cappuccino Panna Cotta (what do you mean I have to register to view the recipe???).

Now instant coffee is not exactly a new thing. According to Wikipedia, it was created around the turn of the century by a Japanese scientist for the Pan-Am Exhibition. The original recipe was regular brewed coffee that was heated and freeze dried. The main problem with it was that it sometimes didn't dissolve very well and left clumps behind. Additionally, while the dry stuff lasts a long time (long shelf life), if it gets wet it goes bad super-fast. In the 1960s-1970s food scientists and engineers discovered that spray drying, or pushing the coffee through an atomizer while drying it, resulted in more uniform crystals that dissolved more evenly and completely, giving us the instant coffee we all know now.

So really, the idea of Starbucks Instant, aka Via, is nothing new. It's just...strange coming from Starbucks. And the cost of about $3 for a 3-pack is also something of an oddity. Do consumers of inexpensive instant coffee really want to spend $1 a cup for coffee that costs $1.50 in the boutique? I'm not so sure. Via currently is scheduled to be available only at Starbucks stores, Target and Costco. With the increasing number of Super-Targets out there, more people are doing their grocery shopping at Target, however in most markets Target is neither the most convenient or cheapest available grocery store. And Costcos are not exactly found in all markets. I see this as a tough sell, at best.

Via is currently being test marketed in Seattle, Chicago and London. Has anyone here tried it yet? How's it taste?

Note: the picts from Google and the Houston Chronicle.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fast Food Menu Secret Items

Due to a variety of health issues I tend to avoid fast food as much as possible. However sometimes, particularly while traveling, it becomes necessary to find something somewhat edible super fast. CNN, today, posted an article titled "10 secret menu items at fast food restaurants." The most surprising item on the list was the number of "secret" items on the Jamba Juice entry. I honestly had no idea.

One thing not on the list: a friend of mine used to work at Whataburger and said that people would regularly come in an order a Big Mac. In this town there are several Whataburgers across the street from McDs. Well, my friend would often say "we can do it!" And would proceed to build a HUGE version (because the burgers are much larger) of the Big Mac with items at the grill. Now bear in mind not every location will think to do this, but it never hurts to ask.

Another thing I have noticed while dining out, just about everywhere: if there is something no longer on the menu, or that is only on the lunch menu when you're there for dinner, just ask about it. Very often you will be able to get it, as long as the ingredients are available. I've seen this happen at fast food restaurants, as well as fine dining establishments. It's a pleasant reminder that restaurants are in the hospitality industry.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upcoming Author and Chef Appearances

Alton Brown is coming to Austin. He'll be there October 18, 1-4 pm at the Whole Foods on Lamar to sign his new book, "Good Eats: The Early Years." The book should be available at most retailers today. In order to get the book signed by Brown, it must be purchased from the BookPeople in Austin, who will have it available at the Whole Foods.

Celebrity chef, Food Network regular, and food academic Rick Bayless is coming to Houston, this Wednesday, September 30. Because it's mid-week I won't be able to attend, but that doesn't mean none of you can't go. :-) He'll be at the Macy's in Memorial City Mall on Gessner at 6 pm for a "Mexican Fiesta." His Mexican food is the stuff of legend so I suggest you all go, if you've got the time and money. Tickets are $10 and available at that Macy's. The event is to raise money for the Houston Food Bank.

And, if you have a budget much larger than mine, Julie Powell, author of the book Julie and Julia, will be the featured author at this year's Book & Author annual gala. The event occurs on Sunday, November 1, 5 pm - 9 pm at the Houston Hilton Americas. The "cheap seats" are $250, putting this way out of my price range. However the money raised by the event goes to the Houston Public Library Foundation. By the way, Powell has a new book coming out soon titled, "Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession." Sounds fun.

Note: all of the images above came from a Google image search.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Texas BBQ

Few things will rile up a group of foodies more than a discussion on barbecue. Specifically a discussion on what type of BBQ is best and who does it better. And Deep In the Heart I can assure you that Texans mightily believe they have the best damned barbecue in the World.

First, you might be wondering what makes Texas barbecue any different from, say, the pit beef and pulled pork sandwiches up in Baltimore. First off, barbecue is a process; it requires meat, or whatever protein, to be cooked at a low temperature for a long time. It is different from grilling, where meat, or veggies, are slapped on a grill until cooked. I know, I know, Northerners use the terms interchangeably, but in fact the two processes are very different in the culinary world.

Texas barbecue differs from that found elsewhere by definition; Texas barbecue is a slab of your meat of choice, usually pork or beef, generously rubbed with a salt and sugar based rub then cooked, usually with smoke, at a low temperature for hours to days. The result, if done well, is fall off the bone goodness that does not require any sort of sauce. And this is key, as barbecue prepared in other parts of the country are typically either mopped or finished with sauce or boiled in some sort of sauce.

And opinions within Texas vary greatly about who makes the best barbecue. I'll just name a few here, but I can assure you from personal experience, that there are many fine places to find barbecue in Texas, from road-side stands to fine dining establishments. I'll start with the local place to go: Rudy's with locations around Texas. It's very casual dining where you eat at very long picnic tables and wash your hands in a communal sink. They have pork, beef, ribs, turkey and sausage available from their smoker. The brisket, a favorite among many of the locals, has an intensely salty, sugary, beefy/pork taste and if you ask for it, they'll include the ends with your order. However, since I grew up sans brisket or ribs, I prefer their somewhat spicy hot sausage that is also cooked in their smoker. Great stuff when served with their green chilli stew. You order what you want to eat by the pound or link and meals usually average around $15 for one light eater and one heavy eater.

Next is Stubb's in Austin, Texas. Located at Red River and 8th Street, Stubb's is in the middle of everything. It's a concert venue, a restaurant and a local landmark. During SXSW Stubb's hosts everyone from Willie Nelson to OK Go to The B52's and everyone in between. However what keeps me going back there time and again is the food. I know that hot wings aren't barbecue, but I could literally take a bath in the sauce used on their hot wings. It is that good. You'll find these little gems on the appetizer menu, along with smoked duck quesadillas and to-die-for fried green tomatoes. If you're new to Southern food and in the Austin neighborhood, Stubb's is a good introduction. Stubb's offers barbecue by the sandwich and dinner plate. If you order a dinner plate, I hope you came hungry, because the portions are enormous and the food is "I don't want to put it down" good. Very moist, flavorful brisket, well-seasoned sausage links and never-boring turkey.

And the last place I'll mention here is town of Lockhart, Texas. I don't know how it happened but Lockhart proudly proclaims itself The BBQ Capital of Texas. And very few people dispute this claim. There are only four barbecue restaurants in Lockhart: Kreuz's, Black's, Smitty's and Chisholm Trail. Each has an international reputation for being the best Texas-style barbecue in the World. Believe it or not, I have only been to one of these. The reason I haven't been to all? Kreuz's is the first one you pass on the way into town and, damn, they're good. As soon as you pull into their parking lot and open the door you can smell the smokers and see the huge pile of wood (hickory?) used in the smokers. This place means business. When you walk in you see a place frozen in time. Long wooden benches on one side and a very informal cash-and-carry on the other. Walking down the hallway you see signs for the rules of the place: No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide), No forks (they're at the end of your arm), No salads (remember no forks), No credit (cards also)(bank doesn't see barbecue), No kidding (see owner's face). I guess it's a good thing they have an ATM at the entrance. At the end of the
hallway you're greeted by a room full of smokers and a couple of people in front of a butcher table. On most days I've been greeted by the same three people: an Elvis impersonator in a butcher's coat, a woman that looks like she's been there since the place opened, preserved by all the rich smoke and another woman that very closely resembles my grandmother. They ask what meat you want and how many pounds or links. A delay in answering is generally met with a bored stare. These people mean business. Upon answer you will see them spring into action and deliver the goods faster than your eye can follow them around the smokers. Next you take the goods into the cash-and-carry area where you have the option of sides. Some of the sides change on a daily basis, but each time I've been there they have had the most amazing German-style potato salad and sauerkraut I've ever sampled. They also have the
typical stuff people eat with barbecue: pickles, onions, etc. Sodas and beers are available in cans and bottles only; no messing with fountain drinks because these people only care about barbecue. When you sit down to eat it, you realize why. Oh. Em. Gee. Before my first taste of their barbecue I didn't know the stuff could taste that good. Without the use of sauce the brisket and ribs literally fall of the bone in moist, flavorful chunks. Every single bite is full of flavor. The sausage is unlike anything I've ever tried with a smokey, savory flavor that is unmistakable. Natives of Lockhart have repeatedly told me that one of the other three barbecue places is their favorite. And one of these days I'll try them all, but only after visiting Kreuz's first.

Is Texas barbecue the best in the world? I don't know if "best" is really the word I would use. Texas style is definitely unique. However the vast majority of the rest of the world has their own variety of barbecue, and I've only sampled a teeny tiny portion of what's out there. For lovers of barbecue, I highly recommend coming to Texas and judging for yourselves. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Note: Before anyone hammers me on this point, no, I haven't been to The Salt Lick or any of the Texas-style barbecue places in the Dallas-Fort Worth area yet. Realize I'm from the Northeast and a drive over 100 miles is still a BFD to me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Amazing sugar work/art

Sometimes the artistry of a pastry chef is so mind-bogglingly beautiful that you just can't imagine ever eating their creations. I found the following artist via the Sunday Sweets at Cake Wrecks. Her work is beyond amazing. She's a pastry chef in Japan whose business goes by the name Rosey Sugar. Her blog, in mixed English and Japanese, can be found here. And you can find her on flickr here. Absolutely amazing work.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Soda for Gamers

Jones Soda is currently offering a limited edition variety pack marketed to the gamer in your family.  

No word if they have one in magic missile.

Confessions of a Coffee Snob

I am a coffee snob.  And I know I'm not the only one.  In fact there were about 650,000 hits for "coffee snob" on google.

Being a coffee snob does not mean buying a cup of non-fat, decaf, double-whip, triple venti froth frappe, capay, whatever from Starbucks on my way into school every morning.  The vast majority of coffee snobs don't actually shop at Starbucks.  In fact there are over 3 million anti-Starbucks hits if you google "anti starbucks."  I'm not going to join the legions and tell you that they're evil.  However I feel they over-roast their beans and they usually taste burnt and bitter to me.  And after paying a Euro for each fabulous cappuccino in Florence and Rome, it's nearly impossible for me to justify paying four times that for a burnt espresso State-side.  When I go to Starbucks, particularly if I'm out and about and desperate for a caffeine hit, I usually buy their drip coffee, which isn't nearly so objectionable.  It's alright.  I'll even go as far to say it's just about as good as McDonald's coffee, which garnered a better rating with national taste tests.  

I have my own drip coffee maker at school that I take with me back and forth to the lunch room during coffee o'clock every day.  I just can't bring myself to drink Folgers, Maxwell House or Chock Full O' Nuts unless extremely desperate to stay awake.  I typically buy an HEB morning blend or Seattle's Best Blend 39, when available.    They're inexpensive, smooth, and available at the local grocery store.

Being a coffee snob means being very picky about how I like my coffee.  It's strange, but most Americans believe that they like their coffee very dark and very strong.  However, as Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates during his TED talk (embedded below), taste tests conducted on average Americans indicate that we actually prefer our coffee to be of a medium roast with medium strength.  And most Americans add cream, sugar and flavorings to their coffee, which cuts the bitterness of the extremely dark coffee they think they want.  So for the record, I like a medium roast of medium strength with no added flavoring or cream.   I only drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day so I like to make it good.

So what's the best way for this coffee snob to make coffee?  A french press.  A french press allows coffee to be brewed in such a way as to preserve the volatile oils and flavor compounds that add body and character to the drink.  Drip coffee makers tend to hide more delicate flavors and, in some cases, can burn the grounds with over-temperature water.  

Here's how I make coffee when I'm at home:
1. Add water to electric tea kettle.
2. Grind the beans (I buy pinion coffee from New Mexico Pinion Coffee Company in 5 lb bags) with a course grind.  Just enough beans for the amount of coffee I'm making.  Beans are stored at room temperature, in the dark, aka in a kitchen cabinet.
3. Add one scoop beans per mug of coffee.  Notice I didn't say "cup."  The cup designations on the sides of coffee makers are for cups far smaller than the average coffee mug.  If you add that much grounds you won't be able to taste anything other than grounds.  This isn't delicious.
4. When the water boils, turn off the kettle and wait for it to stop bubbling.  Then add water to the french press until just before the top.
5. Wait 3-4 min.
6. Stir the grounds and water then put the top of the french press on and push down the plunger.
7. Pour coffee and enjoy.  

The resulting coffee is full bodied, rich and flavorful with nutty notes from the piniones.  And an average french press carafe makes just about 4 coffee mugs full.

By this point most of you are probably just thinking that I'm completely nuts.  Coffee is coffee, right?  Well, not so fast.  Much like variations between wines, there is tremendous variation in flavor between different varieties of coffee beans, blends and roasts.  Roasts range from very light cinnamon to very dark Spanish roast.  And just as wine grown in different parts of the world has different flavor profiles, so too does coffee (in the regions in the picture to the left).  Kona does not taste like Sumatra or Arabia.  And, also just like wine, the price of coffee beans ranges from very inexpensive to extremely expensive, with devotees on all ends of the spectrum.  

So here's my challenge to you. If you are the type of person that typically only drinks instant coffee or Folgers/Maxwell house, go out and pick up a bag of Seattles Best Blend 39 (about $8 a lb at the grocery stores here).  Brew it in your normal coffee maker, which ever variety you have, with no more than one coffee scoop of grounds per coffee mug of water added.  Then let me know what you think.  If you hate it, well, go back to your normally scheduled coffee, tea, Mountain Dew, etc.  If you like it...welcome to the club.  

Note: the images in this post came from Wikipedia and a Google image search and are not my own. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


In an effort to familiarize myself with blogspot and to use up a little time between experimental time points, I'll post about something that seems to have become an American obsession: bacon.

These days it seems all it takes for someone to garner attention to their food is to add bacon.  Or even say the word "bacon" in the title.  For example, this past March I went to the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show.  The true star of the show?  Chicken Fried Bacon.  Not making it up. Fried bacon garnered more press than ZZ Top, or even Hannah Montana.  For those wondering what "chicken fried" is, well, it's a process.  Chicken Fried means that the cook/chef coated something in the same batter that would normally used for fried chicken then deep fried it.  If you're wondering about chicken fried chicken and chicken fried steak, those are pieces of meat that have been pounded flat and then battered and fried.  What does it taste like?  Like fried chicken with bacon in it.  The texture is WAY too crispy because the bacon is fried beyond recognition before being battered and fried again.

However the American love affair with bacon doesn't even come close to stopping there.  I just googled bacon and got 42,900,000 entries, including this rather disturbing "bacon briefcase."  On a recent trip to Hastings I found a display with a bacon wallet, bacon jelly beans and gummy bacon.  LOL...wut?  There are even multiple blogs dedicated to exclusively to bacon, including Iheartbacon, baconunwrapped, and bacontoday

So does this love for all things bacon mean that Americans are eating tons of the stuff?  As a matter of fact, it does.  According to US Census projections, sliced bacon will account for $2.83 billion in sales in 2010.  The foodservice industry is paying attention and according to the same link, bacon as a business has seen a 5% growth in the last 5 years.  And this article was written in 2004.  From what I've seen the business has only grown bigger since.   

So is America the largest consumer of pork products as a result of our worship of bacon?  Not by a long shot!  According to Wikipedia, China consumes almost 6 times the pork products that the US does.  And much of China also salts and preserves their pork in a manner not unlike bacon.  

Why do Americans (and Canadians) seem to have a peculiar obsession with bacon?  Again, according to Wikipedia, Bacon Mania was brought about by, of all things, by the Internet.  In short, bacon is popular because everyone is talking about it being popular.  It's ubiquitous (according the, more than 50% of all American households keep a supply of it in their refrigerators), it's something we can all identify with and, let's face it, it's darned tasty.  

And, just in case you haven't seen/heard/read about enough bacon for today.  Here are 100 uses for a strip of bacon.

In victus illic est vita: In Food There Is Life

Welcome!  This is the first post in my newly reincarnated Foodie blog.  Some of you might know my other foodie entries over on LiveJournal.  However from now on the food-specific stuff will be here and the LiveJournal blog will remain my fitness and personal blog. 

First off, what does Cibatarian mean?  Cibus is one of several Latin words for food.  It implies food specifically for nourishment.  Cibatarian is a word I made up.  It's a combination of librarian and cibus.  More importantly, it wasn't already in use by another blogger.

So exactly what will this blog be about?  All things food.  I love food.  I love to prepare food, eat it, talk about it, watch people eat it and hear others talk about it.  Food is a social event, an expression of love, and a necessary activity, all wrapped up in one.  Food is also a challenge we all must face in one way or another.  For example, I am unable to each any plant in the genus Allium, as in garlic, onions, chives, leeks, etc, or anything that produces allicine.   I have other friends who are unable to eat other ingredients.  So for us to get together for a meal we have major challenges.  But the results, friendship, great food and fun times, are well worth it.  

Disclaimer: I am not being paid in any way to write this blog.  It's a labor of love for one of life's greatest pleasures.  

In wine there is truth; in food there is life.