newsletter #7 - paper cups, cooking over fire, coffee greed revisited

paper cups

I’ve always enjoyed drinking coffee out of paper cups.

Back in my college days, I had this professor who would walk into the lecture hall five minutes late with a paper cup of coffee. He’d always have that paper cup and he was always five minutes late.

For some odd, unexplainable reason, I really liked this image. A professor, balancing this almost-too-small of a cup of coffee, walking into the lecture hall day after day at the same time (late) with no hiccups. It made me want to be a professor, although, I can say now that these feelings were most likely from the glamour of the profession.

Either way, this paper cup image stuck with me, and over time, I noticed that I liked paper cups myself. But why? They’re pretty much single-use, destined to end up in a landfill somewhere, soggy after several uses, and are actually not 100% paper. There’s a thin layer of plastic on the inside of every paper cup that allows it to be “waterproof”. Yeah, you can’t even compost these mothercuppers.

Back to finding an explanation. Going back to my earliest recollection with that professor, this mystical, uncorrelated observation of being late and having a paper cup led to the story that this particular professor had the time abundance to actually stop and buy a cup of coffee. Everyday. That tells me that maybe he valued convenience, or at the very least, enjoyed the atmosphere of the coffee house that he visited. Or perhaps it’s more of a virtue signal of not having to worry about fiddling with sippy cups, plastic snap tops, and the dread of washing one more thing at home. Or, it’s just that the whole process feels simple. Nothing to wash. Convenient. The ambiance of a coffee house. Getting pretty coffee art. Talking to baristas. All of it is feel-good vibes.

I guess I’m okay with all of those explanations. The next time you do get coffee in a paper cup, drink it capless. Part of the experience is sticking your nose in the cup.

cooking over fire

A couple of weekends ago, I did some outdoor cooking with friends. The aim was to cook over a real fire.

Long story short, it was hard. It took three of us to get it right.

One guy was tending the fire, the other was monitoring hot and cold zones, and I was doing a combination of monitoring temperature zones and moving the meat around.

Fire is a living thing. You have to feed it, tend to it, stack the logs right, stack the right size of log, keep it burning at the temperature you want, oxygenate the burn, move some embers around for low n’ slow cooking … the list goes on.

We ended up with delicious grilled chicken and steamed fish, but man, it was tough. It would take several times to get all of that right if I were doing it myself.

That being said, being outdoors and cooking over a real fire is awesome. My only gripe was that I forgot to scale the goddamn fish before cooking it. Rookie mistake. We got tender flaky fish, but there was a lot of spitting that night.

coffee greed revisited

If you read my post on coffee greed, we left off at “two macchiatos in one cup” (no, not a dirty joke, put that shit away) 🥁.

A couple of baristas have modified my order to actually be a cortado or gibraltar with one or two extra shots (triple/quadruple cortado/gibraltar). This gives a little bit more milk to offset the overly sour quadruple macchiato. Whaddaya know, they have names for these things. 😂

Depending on the place though, the quadruple cortado is still slightly too sour. Perhaps a quadruple flat white is the next call of action, but only if my heart holds out. 😬

newsletter #6 - pizza w/o cheese, meat swaps, a need for clean

pizza without cheese

“Fuck no” is usually the first reaction I get from folks.

I’ll share some anecdotes to start the conversation.

As a kid, I always enjoyed pizza with extra tomato sauce, pepperoni, and sausage. When the pizza was eaten hot and straight out of the oven, cheese (usually mozzarella) was a great addition. Mozzarella adds body, stretchiness, and fattiness, all unique properties that we’ve come to expect from softly aged cheeses.

About a half-hour out of the oven, the cheese starts to cool down and get hard. This is about the time that things start to get a little wonky and less appealing. I’m not eating much “fresh” pizza nowadays, so waiting too long makes the mozzarella slide off like Pangaea and lends itself to a chewy texture.

In my younger days, as crazy as it sounds, I would constantly go back to the microwave to mimic the “fresh out of the oven” scenario. I’d be eating pizza slice by slice and before consuming each slice, I’d blast it in the microwave until it was hot as lava, and then I’d quickly gobble it all down as fast as possible while it was piping hot. “Optimal consuming temperature” is what I called it. Needless to say, I had a fair amount of upper soft palate damage. 😂

So to avoid all the mouth damaging, microwave blasting, semi-solidified cheese, maybe we just skip all the cheese pre-text and order pizza without the cheese. What do you say?

meat swaps

I’ve been listening to some podcasts talk about the future of the restaurant industry after the pandemic. We’re all hoping for a normal recovery but those more well-versed in the restaurant world suggest that the trend will break into several paths. At first, there will probably be a resurgence of folks who eat out, since we’re all tired of being alone and in our sweatpants. This may revive restaurants. However, there are some hypotheses that suggest otherwise:

  1. Eating out will become a high-fashion, extremely expensive endeavor, with “ticket” prices rivaling in the thousands of dollars, but it will come as a complete package experience (food, ambience, location, entertainment).

  2. Mid-level restaurants will all but be dead. On Yelp, these might be classified as the three dollar sign ($$$) restaurants. Think about the nice bistro down the street with the delicious ribeye, or the minimal hipster place serving fusion tapas.

  3. The rise of takeout and foods that “last” in transit will rise, due to the lingering fears of the pandemic. A Thai curry fares much better than fried chicken when eaten some period of time later.

  4. Ghost kitchens for the efficient cooking and delivery of food will become the norm for any type of “eating out” that doesn’t fall under number 1 and 2. An add-on to this point might be that “kitchens” and “where you eat” will separate and curated outdoor eating areas will become the norm (I guess you can call that a “park”?).

The last possible development is my own hypothesis revolving around community. The reason why I always wanted to eat out was to have a good time with friends and try the latest dishes from chef creatives. However, technology and social media has made it extremely easy for what we would call “amateur” cooks to share their creations. They can do it as hands-off as just sharing on social media, or they can go whole-hog and create an entire supper club experience serving blue fin tuna from fucking Japan and using dry ice smoke to create an ambience.

The key is that there will be more micro-cooking from friends to friends. Smaller communities that trust one another will transcend any pandemic fears while keeping the “fun” essence around.

During the pandemic, I did cook for my friends on occasion, and in the latest installment, we swapped meats. I made smoked ribs for a batch of friends, and in return, they offloaded a frozen chuck roll they didn’t know what to do with. Maybe I’ll eat it myself, or turn it around again and turn it into a picnic basket for a hike or something. This is doing what I was envisioning - being a cook in service of your friends.

a need for clean

Life cycles in the grey areas. I know the feeling when a kitchen is spotless and immaculate, and I don’t want to do any cooking just to preserve that cleanliness. The result is me eating shit out of the freezer or finding meals that involve super minimal preparation.

I’ve also experienced an extremely dirty kitchen. Oil splatters everywhere, every dish we own in the sink, trash can full to the gills, but this usually results in an array of amazing dishes that rival creations I’ve gotten in restaurants.

You can imagine this tradeoff on a sliding scale - dirty and complex or cleaner and simpler. You can’t have one without the other. Even if you efficiently clean while you cook, you still sacrifice attention and effort.

Life cycles in the grey areas. Pick your tradeoff for the day and understand you can’t optimize for everything.

newsletter #5 - coffee greed

I like good coffee. Most people do.

I started off as a guy who liked the black stuff - espressos, double-shot espressos, and Americanos (espressos + water). Over time, I’ve found the pure espresso to be a bit too sour for me. As my tastes moved toward the “darker is better” side, Americanos became too diluted. I found myself ordering “Americanos with less water”, and even that was too light.

A 12-ounce cup is usually the standard, but I always asked for 6 ounces. A shot of espresso comes out to around 1 ounce, so a 1 ounce to 5 ounce coffee/water ratio would be much better than a 1 ounce to 11 ounce ratio. If it was a double shot diluted to 6-8 ounces, that brings the coffee water ratio to 1:3 or 1:2, which is even better. But because coffee places are generally inconsistent as to how many shots an espresso drink contains, it’s a pain in the ass to ask and do all the math. Americanos with less water also trend towards being a bit too sour, so really, I was back to square one.

One of the ways to quench the “sourness” from espresso is to smooth things over with milk. Of course, adding enough water, like in the case of an Americano, works to reduce sourness too, but again, dilution results in less “coffee”.

The answer then, is to get a traditional Italian macchiato, which is non-diluted espresso with just the tiniest amount of frothed milk. The milk serves to smooth things out. Contrast that with a latte, which basically replaces the water of an Americano with milk - not what I’m looking for. When I ask for a macchiato, many baristas confirm that it’s the traditional one I’m talking about, not the bastardized “macchiato” that Starbucks makes (a sugary delicious bomb in its own right).

So, the macchiato has served my purpose for quite some time, but drink something long enough, and I will find something wrong with it. This time around, it wasn’t a characteristic of the coffee that wasn’t to my liking, it was just that I wanted more. So really, being a glutton was the problem.

Macchiatos were too small. They were a grand whopping total of 4 ounces, and I was too impatient to wait until tomorrow just so I could have another coffee. So, I did what most others do. I went for more. This is something unheard of, at least for myself. Usually, I have much better self-control.

I had this thought about a week ago, and well, I acted on it. I marched straight back to the barista and asked if I could have another. Amy ordered the first round, so I was sure I was not going to be identified. But the first words out of the barista were “oh you’re back for more? I’m so glad you liked it!”

I laughed awkwardly, paid, and whisked my second coffee away, nearly spilling it as I half-powerwalked back to my seat in an effort to hide the flush in my cheeks.

Of course, after downing my second coffee, I had more to say. I was talking my mouth off to Amy since my brain was moving at the speed of light and my palms were sweating bullets because I was probably in full cardiac arrest under the influence of FOUR shots of espresso.

“You know Amy, it could’ve been in one cup.”

So after all of my qualms, I think I’ve come up with the perfect solution which balances all the issues of volume, prominent coffee taste, optimal milk amount, excessive containers, and enjoyment value.

The next time I order my macchiato:

  1. I’m going to order two macchiatos, ensuring that each macchiato consists of a double shot. This preserves the intensity of coffee flavor.

  2. For one of the two macchiatos, I’ll ask for decaf, which fixes the caffeine problem. This means two caffeinated shots and two decaffeinated shots.

  3. Macchiatos naturally only have a dab of milk foam, so two dabs of milk foam still keeps the milk volume low. If one macchiato tastes great, doubling the ingredients should be no problem right? This isn’t baking.

  4. Asking for two macchiatos in one cup means I save on a cup. I’m saving the Earth.

  5. On average, a macchiato is about 4 ounces. This means in the end, I get around 4 ounces of espresso to 4 ounces of milk foam which puts me at a coffee/milk ratio of 1:1. That means for every ounce of coffee there is an ounce of milk or whatever. Awesome. You can’t lose with a 1:1 ratio.

  6. I don’t have to wait anymore for the next day to enjoy another coffee. I can have it now.

The only con? Baristas will probably hate the hell out of me. “Sir, why not just get a cortado or a flat white?” to which I will respond with my points above, in a very pedantic, nerd-explanatory voice in which they will oblige to just so they can move on with their life.

Also, this smashes my wallet pretty nicely. This “super macchiato” shoots the cost into the $6-9 range, depending on location, tax, and tip. But man, it’s gonna be great. Don’t be afraid to fucking get what you want. Customize your life.

newsletter #4 - power outages, sauce making, chard

power outages

There’s been a string of power outages in the Bay Area. The first time was because of wind. The second time was wind and rain, and the third, wind, rain, and probably a tree branch. I guess these outages come with the west coast storm territory, albiet “mild” storm territory, given that it’s California.

In the first instance, the power was out for almost eight hours. I didn’t think much of it, mainly because I was in the process of waking up. It didn’t really occur to me even after the audible “clunk” you hear when the power goes out and the piercing silence that comes after it.

The second worst thing that could happen after waking up is not having hot water to make a decent cup of coffee. The first is having your water shut off and not being able to take a shit or wash your face. Power outages suck.

Opening the fridge was out of the question, since I didn’t want things in there to get warm. I couldn’t heat up water for a cup of joe, and I forgot to charge my phone the night before. Two hours had already gone by and with the PG&E website alternating between “sorry our website can’t handle the volume of requests right now” and “no estimate has been provided yet,” my options began to weigh heavily on me.

Coffee was my number one priority. For some reason my brain was stuck in the local minima of “I don’t have power”, and I wasn’t thinking about easier solutions. I was going deep into the rabbit hole. “Maybe I can use my cast iron pans on some hot briquettes and collect some of the local tree branches to get some kind of jerry-rigged fire going. Then I can boil water in a pot outdoors, have some coffee, and maybe even make lunch.”

My brain finally snapped out of it. “Just walk a couple blocks, get a cup of coffee and a croissant and shut it.” There were plenty of easy solutions, but they all sat uneasy with me.

I’m the type of person who hates being caught unprepared. It slightly concerns me that cities are the first to be fucked when shit hits the fan, since nothing in a city naturally “grows” there, if you know I mean. Food arrives through various distribution channels from farmers who are further out. Water arrives by some magical form of irrigation. People are tightly packed in a city and are mostly living “resource to resource”, like one might live paycheck by paycheck. When the well dries up, everyone will fight over what’s remaining. Power, for the most part, helps keep our perishable resources safe and edible, and by analogy, keeps the well consistently stocked.

While I’m not a doomsday prepper, it pays to be prepared, either to escape out of a city or still be able to carry on some semblance of normalcy (read: what absurd way can I dream up to get some coffee?). Or, maybe I’m just a pyromaniac that likes to cook over fires.

sauce making

I’ve been exercising some sauce making skills recently. I usually take one of three routes. There are quick pan sauces, the more complex stock-roux-reduction route, and also the lazy reduction route.

When doing anything involving reduction, try not to over-season before you’re done reducing, unless you want to eat mouthfuls of salt.

We all know the purpose of sauces. It’s just to hide shitty, dried out meat that you fuck up when cooking. Obviously, try not to fuck your meat up, but if you do, go for those sauces.

Don’t be scared, sauces are not hard. It’s just a combination of building dry and wet flavors and then turning it into an emulsified liquid that has a certain consistency.

Pan sauces look something like this.

  1. sear off some meat, sauté some veggies, get some browning going

  2. deglaze the pan with some alcohol, reduce the alcohol

  3. add some stock, whisk and reduce to desired consistency

  4. taste, add salt, eat the sauce, or strain then eat the sauce

Sauces using a roux (flour + butter, cooked) look similar, except you’re using the roux to thicken the sauce.

  • extra pre-step, make a roux

  • steps 1 & 2, same dealio as a pan sauce

  • at stage 3, instead of reducing, you strain the liquid and add it slowly to a roux, and that thickens nicely to a gravy

  • then taste, add salt, eat

  • sauces utilizing a roux can be quite meta. A demi-glace for example, involves making espagnole (brown stock + extra aromatics + brown roux) and then reducing a 1:1 ratio of espagnole with brown stock. But, don’t be intimidated with all of that, just understand sauces are a combination of extracting flavors using dry and wet methods, and then thickening it in a way that you like.

Sauces using just reduction are the easiest. Tomato sauce is a great example.

  • similar to step 1 of a pan sauce, roughly chop some garlic and shallots, sweat in olive oil, get some light browning going

  • add some tomato paste, sweat that off

  • add canned San Marzano tomatoes, reduce

  • leave overnight, and it gets reallll good the next day, season before eating

  • if you’re really lazy, you can also do olive oil, San Marzonos, and garlic powder with reduction and it’s still really good.

on menu

Here’s a cheap, delicious vegetable addition. Get some rainbow chard, chop on the bias into pieces about the size of your thumb. Get a pan searing hot with some oil, chuck it in, throw in some chunky garlic, and sweat everything off. Add a pinch of salt and taste. Don’t crowd the pan. Right before the chard is too soft, give it a healthy squeeze of lemon, toss for another second, and slap it onto a plate.

newsletter #3 - roots, chocolate milk reviews, grocery shopping at multiple places

rediscover your roots

One of my friends never disappoints. He sends me stories of folks who overcame tough circumstances and found their way into the world of cooking, not only as a craft that I feel can heal people but bring them closer to who they truly are and where they grew up.

I have two main reactions to the story above.

One, I’m coming around to the fact that I should be more grateful I didn’t grow up in tough circumstances. It wasn’t too long ago that I would’ve said something really shortsighted to myself like, “people who grew up in sheltered environments are weak-minded and less suited to break out on their own.” While there might be specific environmental circumstances that make that true, it is quite dismissive of a person’s potential to just do stuff.

If you were born with some semblance of great, even decent opportunity, be fucking grateful. In a way, it’s all a probability game. You literally started as a conglomeration of atoms and cells that constituted “you”. We were all born into a specific set of circumstances and all have the potential to create something uniquely meaningful. Regardless, it will always take hard, smart work to get there.

I encourage this kind of probabilistic perspective when viewing your own existence. It makes other people’s stories, near and far, more beautiful and inspiring. Just know that you are on your own path.

Two, buying groceries at the Chinese market, ordering Taiwanese food, reading about the history of Taiwan, and using Mandarin when speaking casually to my parents IS NOT CUTTING IT when it comes to understanding my roots.

I’m on the edge of what you would call a “white-washed” Asian (Asian American?). This might sound bad, but I like to think that being on the cusp has given me the capacity to really communicate, appreciate, and capture the specific memories of my roots.

However, I haven’t properly done this. I haven’t talked to my grandmother since 2013. I haven’t conveyed the joy I got from my grandma sneaking Taiwanese goodies in her suitcase to the US for almost a decade. Nor have I shared my experiences of strolling the night markets of Taiwan when I was 10, or cooking with two generations under a home-fired wok. My grandma has hit ninety years of age. My mother and father are also in their seventies.

This is a small reminder to myself (and maybe you) that it’s important to understand and capture your history before the storytellers of your youth leave this Earth.

chocolate milk reviews

I found a site that is all about chocolate milk reviews. This is the type of site that I look for when I travel. It’s not just a general blog about what they ate on vacation or restaurant reviews. It’s someone who focuses exclusively on one particular product. Their obsession is your gain by similar niche interests, but really, it’s that much more helpful because they really dig deep.

For Christmas, Amy and I wanted to drive around and look at Christmas lights while sipping hot chocolate. We’re snobby as fuck, so we were like “eff that Swiss Miss packaged noise”, and we went looking for the “best” cold chocolate milk so we could heat it up and do our thing.

We were standing around in Target running some errands and figured we could eliminate a stop and pick up some chocolate milk. Target, while stocked nicely with other food essentials, reallllly shit the bed when it came to chocolate milk. There was Clover 1% chocolate milk and your regular bottled Nesquik stuff. Looking it up online was when I discovered this site, just an absolute smashing collection of chocolate milk reviews. Clover scored a paltry 4.5 out of 10. Nesquik, an even better 3. We were in the red light district of chocolate milk. We had to at least break 6, right? RIGHT?

We looked up Trader Joe’s chocolate milk. 9. Goddamn. “Looks like we’re gonna have to make another pit stop.”

Fast forward 20 minutes, we’re standing in the line at Trader Joe’s waiting to get some chocolate milk. I was still scrolling through the site. “What got a 10?” Several years ago, Amy and I visited Straus Creamery. They’re a very good purveyor of milk and dairy products. Straus chocolate milk scored a 10.

“Ah shit, where do they sell Straus? If we go to Whole Foods, I’ll basically be spending 50 paychecks worth for one bottle, and we can’t go all the way up to Marshall to the farm. That’s waaaay the fuck up north.” The fact that I even contemplated it was a sign of how desperate I had become.

“Why don’t we check Sprouts?” Amy said, “it’s in the same plaza here.”

We split efforts. Amy held our place in line, and I shuffled off with a spring in my step that surprised even me. There were THREE bottles of Straus chocolate milk at Sprouts. I don’t know why I’m emphasizing three. It wasn’t like I was going to take all three of them (or was I? … like a fatboy). We ended up with the best choice for the night.

After that night, Straus chocolate milk ruined Trader Joe’s chocolate milk for all eternity. After the sweet, sweet taste of a 10, 9 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Was it really worth the hour? Fuck yeah. Was it worth being disappointed in every other chocolate milk we get now? Probably not, as we’re forever stuck in hoity-toity chocolate milk land.

Big ups to Perry James over at his one and only, kickass chocolate milk review site.

grocery shopping at multiple locations

How many grocery stores do you hit per week?

I’m one to hit up multiple grocery stores to get a certain subset of items at each store. Here’s a grocery stream of consciousness to get your juices flowing, either because you jive with what I’m thinking or you’re angry that I’m such an idiot.

“Well, we have to get coffee, and I don’t want to just buy it from a coffee shop since I want to try some other brands which means we’ll need to hit up Whole Foods since they have a decent coffee selection, but also, I’m feeling some salmon belly this week, and well, Whole Foods doesn’t have that, or they might, but it’s expensive as hell, so I’d rather hit up Ranch 99 since they got that in stock at the De Anza location, and we can also get some daikon, eggplant, and thinly sliced meat there too, oh, but the selection of thin meats there isn’t too great, so we have to go to HMart or Hankook Market for that selection of thinly sliced pork collar along with some banchan veggies, oh, and for baking we need some chocolate chips, but chocolate at Asian markets just sucks ass, so we can hit up Trader Joe’s too, and we can pick up some coffee filters and tea, but Trader Joe’s doesn’t have Rooibos tea and they don’t exactly have the type of oranges I want, so we have to make sure we get Rooibos at a Safeway or something, and oranges at Ranch 99, oh, and we’re out of rice, but I like that specific brown short-grain bag we got at Ninjya Market, and there’s some fish collars we can pick up there too, but wait, we should also double back and get chocolate milk from Sprouts 😂 …”

My car uses 91 octane and gets like 20 mpg in the city. 😐

Loading more posts…