Saturday, December 14, 2013

How to brew a perfect cup of coffee

What you need to know about coffee
By: Chef Cristian Feher

To many people, coffee is the essence of life. Whether you drink it to start your day, to beat that afternoon bout of narcolepsy, or to finish a great meal, coffee is a part of our lives. But what is coffee, and what do you need to know about coffee? What makes good and bad coffee? Here's what you need to know.

Coffee is a stimulant - actually, the caffeine inside coffee is a stimulant. "Yeah? Tell me something I don't know!" You might say.

Well, I mention it because of this fact: Most drugs work the same way (caffeine is a drug). A little bit of drug X has a stimulating effect, but a little more of that same drug X has the effect of a tranquilizer, and an even larger doze of drug X can even kill you. But we're talking about caffeine, so let's just focus on it as an upper and a downer - you're not going to die from drinking coffee.

A little coffee [caffeine] will act as an "upper". It will add itself to your endocrine system and speed you up! But, if you drink too much of it, you will get to a point where that caffeine will actually start acting as a "downer". It will make you even more tired than you were before you started drinking coffee. The amount will vary by your body size and tolerance for caffeine, but it will act this way.

So, that's the first thing you should know. Too much coffee will tranquilize you.

Equipment is important. What you brew your coffee with can be the deciding factor between a good cup, and a bad cup of coffee. You also need to know about time, temperature, and water.

You have to use a CLEAN COFFEE POT. You see, every batch of coffee you make, leaves a layer of oil in the coffee pot. If you don't properly clean out this oil with a degreaser (dish soap), your next batch of coffee will suck. The rancid oil left behind will ruin your next batch. Even a little spot of oily coffee residue can ruin your entire next batch. This is why an instant coffee machine, like a Keurig, is better than a traditional coffee pot. (I am not paid by Keurig and have no promotional relationship with them).

Use fresh coffee. Ground coffee has a limited shelf-life as soon as it's introduced to oxygen. It will only last 2 to 3 weeks before the oils start to go rancid - and that's when it's kept in a cold, dry place with a tight lid. So, either, buy small batches, or grind your own coffee. Again, K-cups (as in Keurig cups) are vacuum sealed to keep the ground coffee fresh right up until you brew it. Your local coffee shop also (probably) grinds their coffee daily.

Use filtered, bottled water. Tap water contains a cocktail of chemicals, resins, bacteria, and even metals that will affect the taste of the coffee. Only a neutral water from a bottle or filter will let your coffee shine through.

Temperature makes the difference. Coffee should be brewed between 195 and 203 degrees F. Above that, and you burn the coffee, making it bitter. Below that, you don't extract the essentials of the bean, and it turns out watery and bland. Again, a Keurig machine, and other high-end coffee makers keep this constant temperature for you while brewing. Or, you can do this yourself with a thermometer and a French-press.

Brewing time should not exceed 8 minutes - after this, you burn your coffee. Letting your coffee sit on a warming plate (as in most office coffee machines) burns the coffee and gives it a nasty taste. You should throw coffee out that is older than an hour - or make iced coffee drinks with it (as McDonalds and other fast food places do).

In keeping all these things in mind, you can now brew a perfect cup of coffee! What you put in it at this point is up to you. Milk, sugar, cream, flavoring agents - these are all good and will vary person-to-person. But the main point is that you know what makes good and bad coffee, and how much of it serves your purpose.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to cook for guests during the holidays

Coping and Cooking for the Holidays

By: Chef Cristian Feher

Yes, it's true that the holidays are, indeed, the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, it's the hap-happiest season, with those holiday greeting and gay happy meetings. There'll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (or guitar by a palm tree if you live in Florida). But if you're the one in charge of feeding everyone... it can be just plain stressful.

Having fed thousands of spirited, hungry people in my life, here are some tips which will bring a little joy and sanity into your hectic routine of feeding your holiday army! And maybe this year, not only will they sing songs about you, but you won't have to cry into a bottle of wine when it's all over.

1. Hire a personal chef to do it all for you! But, if you'd still rather do it yourself, please proceed to number 2 on the list.

2. How much is too much? Quantities are very important. It can seem like a guessing game when you're trying to figure out how much food you should make. And God forbid, you run out of food! Your mother-in-law will never let you forget it. But don't panic. Just follow these guidelines:
  • Plan to serve 7 pieces of hors d'oeuvres per person if you're going to serve dinner right after. But if it's during the day, and your guests won't be eating a main meal any time soon, plan 10 to 12 hors d'oeuvres per person. If you're not feeding them a main meal at all, make 12 to 14 pieces of hors d'oeuvres per person.
  • Older people tend to eat less than younger people. Teenagers eat like monsters.
  • Prepare 6oz (raw weight) of meat per person.
  • Prepare 1Lb (raw weight) of turkey per person.
  • Prepare 1 chicken breast per person.
  • Prepare 5 to 6oz of seafood (like shrimp, squid, scallop) per person.
  • Each lobster should be about 1.5 to 2 Lbs each.
  • Prepare 8 to 12oz fish fillets per person.
  • Prepare 4oz of potatoes, salad, vegetables, rice, or pasta per person.
3. Timing is everything! So, you've got all your groceries sitting there, and it's time to cook it all. This is the point where most people, not knowing what to cook first, want to run away to China and never look back. After all, dad can re-mary, and the kids can find a new mom, right?

The way to tackle this in a calm and collected fashion is to make a list of all of your food items, and put the estimated cooking time next to each item. For example, it might take you 30 minutes to cook mashed potatoes, 3 hours to roast a turkey, and 1 hour to peel, cut, and cook veggies. So, you just start with the longest time first and work your way down this way:
  • Start with the turkey, because that takes the longest (3 hours)
  • Then, prepare the veggies (1 hour)
  • Then, make the mashed potatoes (30 minutes)
  • Start cooking X plus 1 hour before you serve the meal. X=the time it takes for the longest dish to cook - in this case, it's 3 hours for the turkey. So if dinner is at 6pm, start cooking at 2pm.
  • It helps greatly to prepare all of your ingredients the day before. This means, chopping, dicing, slicing, defrosting, etc.
Once an item is cooked, you can keep it warm by putting a lid on the pot, putting it into a sealed plastic container (which you can microwave when it comes to time to serve), or putting the food into a tin foil pan with lid, which can be thrown in the oven at 400 degrees, 10 minutes before serving to heat it back up.

4. Clean as you go! There is nothing worse than finishing a big cooking session, only to realize that your kitchen is an absolute mess. Every single pot, cutting board, and cooking utensil in your kitchen is now perched on top of each other forming a perilous tower of terror above your sink!  Again, to keep from running away to China, clean as you go. When you're finished using something, clean it, put it on the drying rack, then back where it goes. Trust me, you will be very happy when you're cooking is all done, and your kitchen is actually clean!

5. Don't ask - tell. And while this philosophy can be applied to many aspects of life, I am talking about menu planning. Instead of taking requests from your family and/or guests, YOU decide what the menu is, and you tell THEM. This way you are in control, and you don't volunteer to prepare a menu that, a. you don't know how to make, or b. would take you 15 hours to prepare if you had seven hands! Make your own menu with dishes that YOU know YOU can cook, and dinner will be a success!  The holidays are not a time for experimenting with new dishes or taking requests - especially when you are cooking for a large group of people.

Next time you have a rainy weekend in August, is the perfect time to try out new experimental recipes for the holidays.

I hope these tips will help you to actually enjoy entertaining this holiday season! Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanza, and if you celebrate Festivus, may your feats of strength smite your opponents by the pole!