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Category — food

Coffee and Tea

Sundays May through October we have, in our neighborhood, what could accurately be called a “Farmer Market,” because these days, we’re down to just one farmer, except that I think he’s more of a consolidator for a few mostly-organic farmers and less of a farmer himself. But the produce he sells is good, and I really don’t need more than one vendor of green beans or potatoes.

There are other vendors, too, including Fresh Off the Roast, a local coffee roaster who started as a hobbyist but who has been steadily expanding his business. I’ve been getting my coffee from him for just over a year now. He roasts every Friday, and I pick up just enough for the week on Sunday. It works out very well. He blogs at Cuppa Joel.

There is now, at our Farmer Market, a tea vendor as well. A fellow Brooklander recently bought Pearl Fine Teas, which has mostly, I believe, been a mail-order firm dealing in higher-end loose teas. She had several teas–black, scented, and herbal–on display, which were sold in one-ounce packages. She blogs at TeaLove.

I drink more coffee than tea. Every morning starts with coffee, although I lean towards tea at work because low-effort tea is much better than low-effort coffee, doubly so if there’s nobody else around who would want to share the coffee. My tolerance for caffeine in the evenings isn’t what it used to be, so I tend to favor herbal teas after dinner, although there is no better accompaniment to dessert than coffee.

For our little Farmer market to become a center for high-quality beverages is pretty cool.

September 22, 2008   1 Comment

Iced tea

I like to make iced tea during the summer months. Not that vile powdered stuff, but real tea or herbal infusions. To make it quickly–so one doesn’t have to wait for near-boiling tea to cool all the way down to an icy-cold temperature, I prefer to brew double-strength tea and pour it over ice, such that most of the ice melts, and the near-boiling tea cools, together making an appropriately strong chilled drink.

How much ice does one need? Well, to cool 1 gram of boiling water down to the freezing point, 100 calories1 have to be extracted from it. Melting 1 gram of ice takes about 80 calories of heat. So a mixture of 56% (by weight) ice and 44% boiling tea will melt all the ice and leave the final mixture at 32°F.

How do you measure this amount of ice? Well, you could weigh it, but that’s not always convenient. Here’s a bit of mathematics to justify a simple approximation: The density of ice is approximately 92% that of liquid water. If you fill a container with ice cubes–or with any solid particles, for that matter–there is a fair amount of air space between the grains. If ice cubes were spherical, then only about 64% of the volume would be ice, and the rest air–this is known as the random close-packed fraction. Ice cubes aren’t spheres, but the fraction should be roughly the same. Which means that if you fill a container up with ice cubes, they would melt to a volume about 59% of that of the container. If you add 50% of the volume of the container of boiling water, the ice would represent about 54% of the total mass of water and ice, and mixing the two together you’d end up with a volume of liquid equal to 109% the volume of the container, at 32°F. To avoid overflow, you’d need to use slightly less ice and boiling water.

So, my iced-tea algorithm:


  1. Fill a container most of the way up with ice cubes
  2. Measure out as much tea as you need for the full volume of the container
  3. Brew the tea using a volume of water that’s slightly less than half that of the volume of the container
  4. Pour the brewed double-strength tea (through a strainer, if necessary) into the ice-filled container
  5. Stir to cool the tea and melt the ice; most of the ice will melt. Since the brewed tea will have cooled off a bit while steeping, it won’t have enough heat to melt all the ice and so there will still be some ice left.


The tea leaves will absorb some of the water, and many containers hold (slightly) more than their nominal volume, so using (say) exactly 1 quart of water to make tea in a 2-quart container shouldn’t present any problems.

To brew, I’ve adopted the Cook’s Illustrated technique of mixing the tea and cold water in a saucepan, heating over medium heat to 190°F, then shutting off the heat to let steep for 3 or so more minutes: all total, the brewing should take about 15 minutes.

I’m fond of a mint infusion: for a 2 quart container, use 2 Tablespoons dried mint. I also like minted iced tea, for which I use a mixture of 4 teaspoons loose tea plus 3 teaspoons mint for a 2 quart container.

  1. Thermodynamic calories, not food Calories. A food Calories, spelled with a capital C, is 1000 thermodynamic calories. []

July 2, 2008   2 Comments

Bittman on industrial food

Mark Bittman–New York Times food columnist and author of How to Cook Everything, a splendid cookbook with International and Vegetarian volumes, has been speaking and writing about many of the same food issues that Michael Pollan writes about. 

Bittman’s talk from the TED (=Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is now online. In 18 minutes–the length of all TED talks–he examines the ways in which the industrialization of food, particularly livestock, has been a disaster for the environment and our health. Also see his January New York Times article, which discusses the same ideas.

(via 3 quarks daily.)

May 28, 2008   No Comments

murky no more

DC recently suffered the inglorious closing of murky coffee, which had served what was by far the best coffee in town. First reported on in DCist, the Post later picked up the story, and owner Nick Cho has posted his version of the events on the murky coffee website. I did not visit murky as often as I would have liked: it was in a part of the city, near Eastern Market, that was awkward for me to reach. But whenever I was in the area, I would make a point of stopping in, usually for their amazing Classic Cappuccino. Fortunately, their branch in Arlington (even more awkward to get to) remains open, and I do hope Nick is able to follow through on his determination to open another DC store once his present mess is cleared up.

Nick, through his store and his through his efforts in the specialty coffee industry, has done wonders for the local coffee scene. I’ve been a coffee enthusiast since receiving a coffee grinder for my birthday while in high school. I soon picked up Kenneth Davids‘s Coffee: a Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying—my first in what is now a collection of many dozens of books about coffee—and Sacramento, fortunately, had a good number of respectable coffee shops.

Out of high school, I didn’t really keep pace with the specialty coffee industry. Chicago’s coffee scene was comparatively underdeveloped when I was at college, so although my collection of books grew, my coffee experience stalled (although a friend of mine and I did experiment with roasting our own coffee). The coffee shops in downtown Ithaca (but not on campus) were an improvement, but I didn’t have much opportunity to hang out in them. What I hadn’t realized, during this decade, was that a new movement in coffee was taking shape, calling itself the “third wave.” In a sense I kept missing it: Intellegentsia Coffee opened in Chicago just after I had left, and Gimme Coffee opened in Ithaca just as I was entering the intense dissertation-writing last year of my graduate school career.

Characteristic of third-wave coffee firms a never-ending pursuit of sensory quality, a bean-to-cup acknowledgement and appreciation of everyone in the coffee industry, and an ideal that everyone along that chain, from coffee farmer to barista, can make a comfortable living and have a successful career in their crafts. (Whether that last one is actually feasible remains to be seen.) Barista competition, travel “to origin,” direct-trade relationships, and critical cupping are part and parcel of the third wave. It seeks to move beyond the diversions that plagued the specialty coffee industry that I grew up with, such as flavored coffees and “sell-by” dates on coffee beans that are months after the roast date. It stands in marked contrast to the strategy adopted by Starbucks, which in order to keep up its relentless pace of expansion, replaced its La Marzocco espresso machines, which need a trained barista to operate, for push-button super-automatics, that any fool can use. That’s my take, anyway, on the third wave.

Nick brought third wave coffee to Washington. I met him once, when I took the espresso skills class he taught at his Arlington shop. Nevertheless, like many coffee aficionados, I feel as if I know him well, primarily because I listened to his podcast.1 The podcast, which Nick does with friend and Baltimore-area coffee shop owner Jay Caragay, is aimed at those working in the coffee industry. It’s heavy on insider gossip, often long and rambling, reliably entertaining, and occasionally brilliant. In part because of the podcast, Nick has (had?) been a rising star in the specialty coffee business, notably including a successful run for a seat on the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Murky coffee was first closed by the DC government for failure to pay taxes, then evicted by the landlord. A controversy has erupted in online forums: is this, as Nick claims, the result of financial mismanagement spiraling out-of-control, or is murky trying to cheat on its taxes?

I’m convinced Nick is being honest. The picture one gets of him, from the podcasts, is of someone completely committed to quality coffee, with a purist streak that often puts his vision of great coffee ahead of business sense. He won’t, for example, sell you a straight espresso to go, and he wasn’t interested in selling the big-name soft drinks that the previous incarnation of a coffee shop had sold. And one also gets the sense that he’s prone to bouts of bad judgement: see podcasts 64 through 70 to see what I mean.

But please, don’t let those be your only sample of podcasts. Some of the most interesting ones:

53: An interview with Temple University historian Bryant Simon, who is working on a book about Starbucks.

27: Once you get past the first hour or so, which is mostly insider gossip, there’s a fascinating interview with Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans, revealing why Fair Trade is a far more complicated subject than one might think.

26: Interview with Rob Stephen, then ascending president of the SCAA board of directors, on his vision for the SCAA and his experience working on Dunkin Donuts’ coffee program.

56: Interview with the directors and producers of the film Black Gold, which examines Ethiopian poverty in the context of coffee.

I suspect that the next podcast will go into tremendous detail about the shop closing; Nick has never shied away from discussing his personal difficulties. While his account of the events might leave a few things out, I really do think he’s being honest.

  1. The “explit” warning on the podcast is an understatement: several episodes become vulgar in a manner reminiscent of An Evening with Kevin Smith. []

March 25, 2008   1 Comment

Anyone for a meat-judging pool?

Via Ethicurean, a Wall Street Journal article about a shamefully under-appreciated and under-publicized competition… intercollegiate meat judging. I had no opportunity for this at my undergraduate institution, and even though my graduate institution has an Animal Science program, I think it focuses on dairy instead of meat. I do wonder if anyone runs meat-judging competition pools? Or if meat judging is ever televised?

March 22, 2008   No Comments

Listen to Pollan

I’ve been paying attention to food more or less since I moved to DC. Throughout grad school, I didn’t really take the time to cook or think about food (except at Thanksgiving). I’ve had a latent interest in cooking since college, but never had done much about it. I started cooking more frequently living in DC, and I made enough money to eat, occasionally, at nice restaurants, and I discovered Cooks Illustrated magazine, and my wife and some of our friends were also interested in food, and the Washington Post has a better food section than the Ithaca Journal, and we had the opportunity to join a CSA and shop at farmers’ markets, so everything sort of fell into place.

Without a doubt, Cooks Illustrated has been the most influential component of the “how can I make good food” question. For the “what role do our food choices have in our relationship with the natural world” question, though, the most influential voice has been that of Michael Pollan.

He’s written two books about food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I’ve only read the first–it’s a lucid, alarming, deeply thoughtful, hopeful, yet non-judgemental examination of American food systems, structured by tracing the sources of the components of four meals that Pollan prepares. (See a review here.) Pollan has been one of the leading voices in the nascent revolution in food awareness, drumming up orders of magnitude more interest from non-farming states in the Farm Bill than ever before, and inspiring websites like The Ethicurean.

With that, I present and recommend two recent interviews in which he talks about In Defense of Food.

Interview on CBC’s The Current radio program.

Segment on Sierra Club radio.

February 6, 2008   No Comments


I was 34 years old when my son was born; my father was only 29 when I was born. Yet despite the fact that more time will have elapsed between my childhood and my son’s than between my father’s and mine, my perception is that while the world in which I grew up was fundamentally different than that in which my father grew up, my son is growing up in a world that is a slow, gradual evolution of the world of my childhood. Perhaps it’s because it’s only relatively recently that I’ve self-identified more as an adult instead of as a young person, and have wanted to categorize more years of advancements as belonging to my youth than I would acknowledge belonging to my father’s youth. I don’t really know what the right comparison to make is–Matthew is several years away from an age against which I can compare any real memories. And when he’s old enough to think about it, I could imagine Matthew reasoning that the lack of digital photography, a ubiquitous internet, and the need to buy music on physical media all as evidence that my youth was stone-age by comparison. We don’t really know what the world will look like when Matthew is old enough to remember it, but we can make some comparisons about the years in which we were born.

First, transportation. Amtrak was formed in 1971: passenger rail when Matthew was born is roughly the same as when I was born, and completely different from when my father was born. At some point before I was born, the passenger-miles of the airlines overtook that of the railroads. The present Interstate Highway system, begun in 1956, is similar to when I was born.  

Figure 1943 1973 2007
Population (M) 137 212 303
Cars (M) 26 124 232
Cars per capita 0.19 0.59 0.76
Interstate Miles 0 35461 46837


So I think its fair to say that the transportation world in which I was born was fundamentally different than that in which my father was born, but Matthew’s transportation world is similar to mine.

For sports, my dad grew up in the era of the original 6 NHL teams, and before interleague play in Major League Baseball, but looking at the figures per 100 Million population is interesting:   

Figure 1943 1973 2007
NHL teams 6 16 30
NHL teams per 100M 4.4 7.6 9.9
NFL teams 10 26 32
NFL teams per 100M 7.3 12.3 10.6
MLB teams 16 24 30
MLB teams per 100M 11.7 11.3 9.9


So while the NHL has definitely grown in each era, there was more football per capita when I was born than either now or when my dad was born. Most significantly, there was more baseball per capita when my dad was born than either now or when I was born. Sort of makes me wonder about all the hand-wringing that goes on about how baseball expansion is supposed to have diluted the available pitching talent.

One other facet that I thought was different about my dad’s youth, but isn’t really, is candy. I remember my dad telling me about ads for Clark bars when he was a kid–even though they’re still available, they really aren’t heavily advertised, nor were they when I was young. But according to this timeline of American candy bars, it looks like the golden age of candy bar inventions were the 1920s and 1930s; pretty much the same selection had been available for my dad as for me, and Matthew benefits from the rather small handful of candies (Whatchamacallit, Twix, Skittles) that were introduced during my youth.

January 22, 2008   2 Comments

Fondue thoughts

A few years ago, for Christmas, we got a fondue set from my brother and sister-in-law. With everyone here for Christmas this year, we decided to echo a tradition of the sister-in-law’s family and have fondue on Christmas day; as per our family’s tradition, we do the turkey Christmas eve so that we aren’t spending all of Christmas day roasting a turkey.

We did discover that a sterno-powered fondue pot, although fine with cheese and chocolate fondue, in which you coat a piece of bread or fruit or cake with a thick yummy liquid, isn’t up to the broth (or oil) fondue in which you actually cook a bit of meat or vegetable in a simmering liquid. We were thinking, though, that it would have been nice to have had an electric fondue pot as well, but unless you’re really into fondue, do you really want to have two (or more) fondue pots around all the time?

Wouldn’t it be nice, that is, if there was some sort of small appliance “library,” or community registry of small appliances that people could borrow for a day? Crock pots, chafing dishes, large coffeemakers: all things that are very useful on occasion, but I don’t know that I want to devote shelf space to all of them.

Grating the Gruyere and Emmentaler, I realized that the density of grated cheese can vary tremendously, and was sort of annoyed that the recipe in my Fondue cookbook gave only volumetric measures for cheese, not weight. I looked up two other cheese fondue recipes, and found, for the basic ratio of cheese to white wine:

  • Fondue cookbook: 4 cups cheese to 2/3 cup wine
  • Joy of Cooking: 1 pound cheese to 2 cups wine
  • Fannie Farmer: 1 pound cheese to 1 cup wine

Fannie Farmer further states that 1 pound of cheese is “about 2 1/2 cups.” In the back of the Joy of Cooking, you can find that 1 pound cheese is 4 cups grated, and this ratio, 4 ounces grated cheese per cup, is also given in several Cooks Illustrated recipes, although they don’t have a cheese fondue. Thus it looks like all the fondue recipes are talking about the same amount of cheese, but with a factor of 3 in the cheese:wine ratio. 

In a sense, it is this wild variation in recipes from trusted, standard sources that leads Cooks Illustrated to try 50 variations of a recipe before publishing the one they find to be the best. But there’s another lesson here, which I eventually took in: if you melt some swiss cheese with some wine, and throw in a bit of kirsch and a little nutmeg, salt, and paprika, you’ll get something very tasty, and if you’re still worrying about the ratio of cheese to wine, then you haven’t had enough wine yourself.

January 7, 2008   1 Comment


In Montgomery County, Maryland–one of the suburban jurisdictions bordering DC–a ban on trans fats in restaurants took effect this week, at the start of the new year. The most rational explanation I’ve read of what trans fats are, and why they should be avoided, is Michael Chu’s writeup, mostly about fats and heart disease, on his site Cooking for Engineers. The quote that stands out most–and I wish he had a citation for this; he has citations for many other points the article makes–is this:

 In addition, trans fats have been found to replace necessary saturated fats in fat cells resulting in an unusable substance taking the place where a fuel and nutrient source should have been. This leads to the body increasing capacity of fat cells in order to maintain fuel and nutrient storage levels.   


The Post has an article that details the preparations Montgomery County restaurants  have taken to prepare. I hadn’t given much thought to the ban itself, but what struck me reading the article is how pervasive industrial pre-prepared foods are in restaurants. Apparently, pancakes and pretty much any baked good comes from a trans-fat laden mix. And the Tastee Diner’s cheesecake was from Sara Lee. 

When buying food for home, I read labels and generally try to avoid processed foods, but in restaurants I generally gloss over all that. Partly, of course, because it’s really difficult to figure out what goes into restaurant food. I suppose I make a big mistake if I assume restaurants approach food in the same way that I do at home. I suppose it’s naive to have thought that restaurant corned beef hash could have come from anywhere but a can, but still, I find it a bit disheartening to learn that the cheesecake came from some factory far away.

January 3, 2008   3 Comments

Dutched out

I trust Cook’s Illustrated far more than any other cooking resource. Before I discovered Cook’s, I would rarely try a recipe and serve it to guests without having (successfully) made it for myself first, but recipes from Cook’s are generally so reliable that I will experiment like that. So when Cook’s Illustrated finds that Dutch-processed cocoa works better than natural cocoa in most recipes, I’m willing to believe them.

But finding Dutch-processed cocoa! We’ve been unsuccessful looking in: The local natural food coop, the local organic store that serves as our neighborhood’s grocery store, two Safeway stores, one Giant supermarket, a Trader Joe’s, a Korean grocery store, and finally, a Whole Foods, where I had thought I had previously been able to buy Droste brand Dutched cocoa.

What’s really irritating about trying to find Dutched cocoa at Whole Foods is that can make shelf space for, from one brand: All natural unsweetened cocoa, all natural hot chocolate, new world drinking chocolate, old world hot chocolate, traditional hot chocolate, Aztec spicy hot chocolate, and mocha hot chocolate. But no Dutched cocoa!

December 9, 2007   1 Comment