January 29, 2012

Burns Supper: Selkirk Grace and Toast to the Lassies

Burns Supper, 2012

Last year we attended our first Burns Supper and it was a grand evening of traditional food, poems, protocol and whisky. We were lucky enough to be invited back this year, and this is the first post about that wonderful evening.

Aya was given the honour of opening the evening by reciting The Selkirk Grace.

We kept it traditional, but with one small, important word change.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
   And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
   Sae let the Good be thankit. 

 Keith was invited to prepare a Toast To The Lassies and addressed the challenge in as manly a fashion as possible.

Keith's Toast To The Lassies:

Before any toasting is done, we thank our starlit and effervescent Host, Eilidh, for bringing these much-anticipated Robert Burns Suppers together, taking up the Sisyphean task of communications and bridging the gap between our unfathomable ignorance and what needs to get bloody-well done.

Brian, our Chairman, we thank you, too, and I pledge to honour you with two masculine adjectives to be named later, most likely after my third whisky*. For while it is Eilidh who assigned me this privilege, it is Brian who forwarded me the trust to properly toast the Lassies in his presence, and for that I am truly grateful.

I must also give a nod and a wink to Greg, who last year showed us how this toast should be done. He navigated his way through the challenge with wit, warmth and sincerity, lit only by the light of his i-Pad. It is a fool who would try to follow that act, but a greater fool who would ignore the path carved by his success.

And now a Toast to the Lassies.

To properly toast the Lassies at heart,
I think we must really go back to the start,
Of all successes that evolution suggests,
Splitting into two sexes was surely the best,

None of us here, of course, can remember,
What life was like before there was gender,
Think of the emptiness, the complete perversity,
Of Earth in the days before biodiversity,

We left the tangled bank behind,
And what a pleasure then to find,
That mating benefits the Id,
Far more than parthenogenesis did,

Now, stereotypes about who's in control,
Are neither accurate nor droll,
No jokes from me about who makes the decisions,
Lest the coming Reply roast me through with derision,

Fair, gentle and loving” may be the cliché,
But we must agree, in the name of fair play,
That Lassies are not always as sweet as they seem,

Men's lives are enriched by these cherished Others,
Friends, sisters, lovers, wives and mothers,
We Lads are charmed into clumsy domesticity,

To a marriage a Lassie brings what she will,
Her blend of strength and passion and skill,
She offers her self, her sincerest treasure,
And man reciprocates with pleasure,

For every man quietly comes to know,
Whether or not he lets it show,
Without Woman there is no Man,
We say “Woman is, therefore I am”,

So Eilidh, Shawna, Tracey, Janet,
And Aya, my favourite on this or any planet,
Let this crude communication,
Show only our appreciation,

I've made this project too complex,
Is that the birthright of my sex?
My caveman forebears doubtless would,
Have made the point with “woman good”,

And now the toast is here at last,
We're one step nearer our repast**,
And as you drink, don't think me rude,
If I ask that we might all include,

Not just the Lassies in our quorum,
But all their kin who've gone before 'em,
Their living faces freshly bloom,
In every flower in this room.

To the Lassies!

©Keith Ikeda-Barry

*Brian's masculine adjectives, as pledged:

**Keith mistakenly thought the toast preceded the main course.

January 28, 2012

Morse Code Shiraz

You probably know Australian Shiraz. You may even have a bucketful of it kicking around somewhere just in case someone drops by with an armload of bacon cheeseburgers or you want to demonstrate to a friend what it was like to get hit in the face with a fruit pie when you went to clown school.

Cheap, plentiful and easy to drink but usually lacking in character, complexity or any sense of place beyond "Wine Lake, Australia". What a nice surprise to find a bottle with a flavour profile that over-shoots its low-end price tag.

Morse Code Shiraz
Henry's Drive
Padthaway, Australia
$14 in BC

A slick, eye-catching label on a $14 wine is usually a sign that more money went to the graphic designer than to the grower or wine-maker. But we decided to give it a try based on some tasting notes we read in the store.

When we found that this company also makes Pillar Box our hopes rose, since Pillar Box has a similarly bold, stripped-down label wrapped around a delicious value-packed wine.

The nose had the kind of power that might be expected, but was in no way just a poke in the eye with a fruit pie. Along with blackberry there were more complex aromas of tar, spice, Christmas cake, graphite, mint, eucalyptus and peppercorns. The eucalyptus was particularly interesting, since we were taught to look for it in wines from other South Australian areas quite near Padthaway: Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

The palate matched nicely, with concentrated black fruit, cooked plum, spice and Christmas cake flavours. The scores were "medium/medium-plus" across the board for acids, tannin, fruit and finish. We were impressed by the balance, which belied a high alcohol level, and how the fruit-and-spice flavours were uncluttered by oak characteristics.

The wine kept its balance nicely over 60+ minutes of drinking time, not falling apart or turning flabby in the slightest. In fact, the nose developed wonderful complexity over that time.

We drank it with big bowls of garlicky mabodofu, which matched very nicely indeed.

For a very different take on this wine, take a look at this dismissive review by a man in a tuxedo. He tasted the 2008 vintage, although I doubt there is much vintage difference in a "product" wine like this.

January 23, 2012

Local Fauna Update: Christmas in the Grotto

You might remember the local fauna that appeared, one piece at a time, in the "rock garden" (grotto) outside our building.

The little creatures change position every few days and this encourages the casual observer to rationalize the the new positions by inventing story lines. "Squirrel Tries To Eat A Nut In Peace" has some tense moments, but it's hard to beat the drama of "Sauropod Adores Masked Rider Who Is Wracked With Guilt".

We were delighted to discover that Christmas is clearly a time for putting aside all the drama of the rest of the year and coming together to worship The Egg.

See how even the tinfoil stars swing low to adore his ovoid perfection!

All hail The Egg!

We still do not know who is doing this. It really isn't us. Srsly. We would tell you.

January 21, 2012

Freeze-Dried (Powdered) Spinach

This stuff is great!

We've been adding a little when we make soup, stew, mashed potatoes, pasta, bread, muffins and milkshakes. It even gets sprinkled on yogurt and granola at breakfast.

It takes 900 grams of fresh spinach to produced 100 grams of freeze-dried/powdered, so it's a great way to get a dose dark, leafy greens in winter.

It adds just a little toasty, vegetal flavour, something like matcha (roast green tea). It also adds a slight green tint, which can sometimes be a bit odd. Just remember the lesson of this classic:

As with all dried food, keep an eye on the sodium content. Small servings, about 1-2 teaspoons, will do.

January 16, 2012

Porlex Coffee Mill

There are so many factors that go into finessing a better cup of coffee from your beans, and things can quickly spiral out of control into esoteric details and eye-watering expense.

One example: your coffee grinder. If you have one it's probably because you realize that pre-ground coffee quickly goes stale and that fresh-ground coffee greatly improves the flavour of your morning cup.


You may be as surprised as we were to find out that your reliable little $20 whirring-blade grinder is secretly acting against you, messing up your precious beans by chopping them unevenly.

So what? So when you add hot water the smaller pieces get "over-extracted" and larger pieces get "under-extracted". These quickly become very important terms when improving your coffee-making, and no, they don't average each other out.

A burr grinder works like a pepper mill, crushing beans between two rotating cones, and producing a nice, even grind which is essential for a good brew. This is what they use at your local café and why your nice, relaxing cup of coffee there is regularly interrupted by a mechanical, screeching aural assault.

If you start doing research on burr grinders you will find surprising things like this:
Spend at least the same amount on the grinder as you do on the espresso machine...
And shocking things like this:

The Espresso Parts' Mazzer Robur Competition Model: $3,564.00 

(That is only a grinder. You still need something to make the coffee.)

You may remember a post we made about Aya's Turkish coffee grinder. Some notable Japanese companies have been improving on that basic model and we recently bought one from Porlex.

Porlex Ceramic Coffee Mill

 Beautifully simple.

The deep grooves in the ceramic cone draw the beans in towards the relentless teeth.
Who can save them? No-one! This is their terrible fate.

Let's try with me!

The long handle transferred lots of power to the mechanism, making quick work of our test batch, and producing a consistent sand-like grind.

The four-pointed adjustment nut controls the fineness.

Not had enough yet? Here's a review of the Porlex, comparing it to others by Hario, at Sweet Maria's (another excellent coffee site).

Next time: can we please just have a cup of coffee now?

January 15, 2012

Nero D'Avola

We found out about Nero D'Avola when we were in Sicily, its homeland. It's a funny little grape that does very well in the dry heat and volcanic soil there, and often comes out tasting like a medium-body new world Syrah. It was cheap and plentiful and we could grab a bottle anywhere when unpacking a picnic lunch.

It's also poorly represented here in BC so whenever we find a bottle from a winemaker we haven't tried before, we buy it. Our most recent find was this one by Purato.

It was not a success. When Nero D'Avola is good, it is plummy, spicy and backed by a tannic structure that you might expect from a grape that grows in mineral-rich pumice. This stuff was too light-bodied for a hot climate grape, and what it lacked in fruit it made up in an strange chemical, brettanomyces quality.

We're not surprised about the "brett" characteristics. Organic vineyards cannot use sulphur dioxide, the simplest and most effective solution to this notorious yeast problem.

We hope Purato will be able to control these challenges in coming vintages. It would be great to have a Nero D'Avola that lived up to our memories of meals in Sicily.
Picnic lunch on the ferry from Palermo, Sicily to Tunis, Tunisia. The big plastic cup is filled with Francesco Nicosia Nero D'Avola (see below).

These are some Nero D'Avola labels scanned from our travel journals:

Baroni San Lorenzo: Notte Di San Lorenzo

Our notes say we had this with shrimp and pasta and then finished it the next day with leftovers. Did we like it? Probably, although we didn't buy it again.

Rallo Vesco Rosso

Blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, as is much of what is available in BC. Again, no tasting notes in the old journals, unfortunately.

Francesco Nicosia Due Neri

This blend was our second favourite. The Nerello Mascalese is another Sicilian grape that makes earthy, flowery wines, which goes nicely with the fruity, peppery qualities of the Nero D'Avola.

Francesco Nicosia Nero D'Avola

This is the one we grabbed whenever we could find it. It was only 3 Euro per bottle. Rich, fruity, peppery with still enough acid to make it a great food accompaniment. Probably not as good as we remember, but if we never have it again, our memories will remain pure.

Cono Sur Organic Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenère

After knocking organic wines at the top of this post, we feel we should mention an undervalued, organic treasure. This Chilean star is only $14.50 here in BC, and that is a steal for what you get: well-made Cabernet Sauvignon with cherry-leathery darkness and a mid-palate backed up by the tobacco and black fruit of the Carmenère. We have been drinking this one since the 2006 vintage and it has been a reliable, delicious treat. Highly recommended.

Bonus points: the cute pun in the company name. It should be an eye-roll, but it's actually pretty clever.

January 9, 2012

Coffee Roasting: Better Beans

You might remember our first attempt at roasting coffee in an air pop-corn popper.

Finding better quality, green coffee beans turned out to be a bit of a challenge. We heard that Continental Coffee on Commercial Drive and JJ Beans on Powell Street sell some, but we decided to try Milano, whose delicious roasting aromas sweeten our neighbourhood air each week.

Milano doesn't sell green beans, but when we told their head roaster, Brian Turko, what we wanted to do, he was very helpful. He showed us around their roasting room and packed us a one-pound bag of beans from Nariño, Colombia.

Brian also gave us good roasting advice, telling us to stop the roast between four and five minutes, or just after second crack.

Following instructions on this helpful website, we measured out about 125 grams of beans.

We picked out all the ones that looked weird.

We were worried about the colder weather cooling down the air popper. It is only a 1200 Watt engine, which is 20% smaller than the 1500 Watt machine recommended on that other website. The air intake is on the bottom of the machine, so to stop cold air coming in and cooling the roast, we put the popper in a big paper bag. This recirculated the air very well. Almost too well, actually.

Stirring the beans on our first roast.

The bag got so hot that some of the chaff burned, floating up like orange cinders above a campfire.

At 5:18, just after second crack, we stopped the roast.

The roast looked uneven, and some of the beans had burned spots.

We picked out the ones that were too dark and too light.

The beans get stored in a jar for 24-36 hours before making our first cup.

Next post: the new grinder!

January 7, 2012

Katsu Curry Lunch in Kyoto

Need a quick, filling, delicious meal in Japan, something at the opposite end of the scale from sushi?

Look for the most adorable piglet mascot logo around.

You don't have to be able to read the menu, just find the photo of the meal you want at the price you're willing to pay.

Coins in the slot, push the button, take your ticket; just like taking the train. The delicious curry train. To Lunchville.

Human interaction has been minimized to save time, money and embarrassing eye-contact. Look away as your rice is weighed on the scale.

Look back and hurray! It's ready!

Breaded pork cutlet, rich, spicy curry, white rice and pickles. This cost about seven dollars and was hugely satisfying, especially with a cold pint of Kirin Lager.

Now if only the delicious train stopped for about twenty minutes in Nap Town.

*Edit (Jan 8/12):
We have been reminded that there was a very famous system like this called Automat in New York City back in the early 20th century. This site gives a good impression of how different it must have been at the time.

January 2, 2012

The Slowest Way To Make A Cup Of Coffee

There is a coffee roaster nearby and the wind often carries a deep, earthy, caramel aroma which sends us scurrying to Kafka's (nearer, better, friendlier) or our kitchen in search of a cup.

The thought of roasting our own had never occurred to us until we found a bag of green coffee beans in a supermarket in Mexico. Families there often roast their own beans at home in a cast-iron pan, and that seemed like a reasonable project for us to attempt, what with having harnessed fire and so on.

Turning to the ever-helpful internet, we found a good how-to on this site. While it was fun, it was also very smoky (setting off our fire alarm) and the dried skin/chaff went everywhere. Our batch of beans looked alright, but we were forced to conclude that roasting is also quite difficult, since the coffee we made tasted awful.

A few months later we heard about people using air popcorn machines to roast coffee outdoors, and this seemed like a reasonable project for us to attempt, what with having a big bag of left-over green coffee beans and so on.

A new 1200 Watt air-popper and left-over Mexican beans.

Another website provided very good instructions on using an air-popper. The two most notable stages of the roast are First Crack and Second Crack, where the beans make an audible 'tik' sound, as if you'd dropped one on a marble floor. Second Crack is the indicator that that beans are very nearly ready.

Here is how it went:

We let the popper run for a minute to warm up before adding the beans.
(We chose not to waste your time with a photo of an empty popcorn machine, but instead skipped right ahead to one with the beans in. Still with us?)

1 minute; chaff already starting to fly, but outdoors can deal with it.

2 minutes; colour starting to change.
Moment of panic as hot chaff went up someone's nose.

3 minutes

4 minutes; a delicious caramel aroma and lovely colour.

First crack at 5:15!

6 minutes

Second crack at 7:45!

Finished roasting at 8:45.

Cooling in a sieve.
Not the most even colouring, but a beautiful, coffee brown.

Fresh-roast beans need to "off-gas" for 12-36 hours, depending on what kind they are, so we kept ours in a jar overnight.

How was the coffee we made after all that?


Some research revealed that the quality of the final cup of coffee depends hugely (and unsurprisingly) on the quality of the beans. The reputation of no-name, Mexican beans was singled out as being particularly wretched.

Hunting for good, green coffee beans in Vancouver seems like a reasonable project for us to attempt next, what with having harnessed the power of hot air, and so on.

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