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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

A Good Cup o’ Joe

Luwak has coffee brewing down to a science. He says there are two main factors that determine the outcome, “dilution” and “extraction.” The strength of the coffee relies on the coffee-to-water ratio–the dilution. The quality of flavor depends on extraction, which is determined by how fine the coffee is ground, how long it steeps, and by the quality of the water itself.

Start with good, fresh coffee beans. For drip coffee makers, grind them to a consistency that allows the water to run through in about 4 minutes. Less than 3 minutes and the coffee is liable to be weak, more than 5 minutes and it may become bitter tasting.

The method:

Measure 2 tablespoons per 6 fluid ounces of brewing water. Calculate how long it takes for the brew to finish dripping through the filter. (The last few drops taste awful; don’t wait for those.) If it takes much more than the 4 minutes, try a coarser grind. Less than 3 minutes, grind it finer. Adjust the grind setting, or count the seconds you’re grinding, to get it just right.

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The grind of coffee beans

Wickles

Wickles are called wickles because, supposedly, they are “wickedly delicious pickles.” They’re sort of dilly, garlicky and sweet, all at the same time. ipsedixit says they really punch up a sandwich of pulled pork, or even a banh mi. The company is based in the south, but Wickles have been spotted in Ohio and upstate New York, so they’re out there.

They can be ordered online. It took about 3 weeks for Pegmeister to receive hers, but they did arrive, and with a complimentary jar of relish as compensation for the wait.

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Wickles?

The Year in Food 2006

The Year in Food 2006

From bad spinach to exploding lattes: The tastiest moments of 2006. READ MORE

Lingering Yeast Infection

As if it weren’t bad enough having to read blog entry after blog entry about the Jim Lahey no-knead bread recipe published last month in The New York Times, Mark Bittman is back, telling us even more about it (registration required).

The saturation of this recipe is deep and wide. According to Bittman, “In the last few weeks Jim Lahey’s recipe has been translated into German, baked in Togo, discussed on more than 200 blogs and written about in other newspapers. It has changed the lives (their words, not mine) of veteran and novice bakers.”

It’s such a simple recipe, he needs to come back and explain it again?

His pointers this time around are practically remedial:

SALT Many people, me included, felt Mr. Lahey’s bread was not salty enough. Yes, you can use more salt and it won’t significantly affect the rising time.

YEAST Instant yeast, called for in the recipe, is also called rapid-rise yeast. But you can use whatever yeast you like.

As Bittman claimed in the original article (registration required), Lahey’s technique may be the best thing since sliced bread, but please, its 15 minutes are done. We’re over it, we’re bored with it, now we’re just getting annoyed by it.

And now I can’t even go knead some bread to let off steam!

How to Tie Pancetta

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Greens Goddess

Greens Goddess

Cookbook author Deborah Madison spills the beans with CHOW. READ MORE

The Chocolate Wars

A century ago, Big Chocolate was a nest of corporate espionage, counterespionage, betrayal, and other intrigue. Yes, kids, Mr. Slugworth would definitely have paid Charlie to steal one of Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstoppers.

With a brand-spanking-new M&M’s World retail store opening in New York’s Times Square, the chocolate wars may be heating up again. The problem? The new 25,000-square-foot M&M’s superstore squats menacingly across the street from an existing (smaller) Hershey’s store. Newsweek has a piece that looks at the corporate rivalry between Hershey’s and M&M’s parent company, Mars.

Was the decision to put the store across the street from Hershey’s a malicious one?

‘We wanted to be in New York, we wanted to be in Times Square, and then we wanted to be in the best location we could find,’ John Haugh, president of the Mars retail group, says. ‘Coincidentally, that happened to be across the street from another chocolate brand.’

Well then, I guess not.

Followers of the Foam

You’ve seen them around—waiting for the elusive email from El Bulli, snatching up tableware designed for Alinea, and ordering food-grade sodium alginate. They’re the fans of molecular gastronomy—mad scientists in the kitchen.

Food blogger Rob, of Hungry in Hogtown, is one of the faithful. When he’s not putting his sodium alginate to work re-creating El Bulli’s famous liquid ravioli (for the uninitiated, that’s ravioli without pasta to keep it together), he’s mixing white chocolate and sturgeon caviar, caramelizing trout roe, gilding a quail egg, and smuggling the El Bulli 1994–1997 cookbook, not yet available in North America, back from Europe.

Rob even credits early incidents of food experimentation (throwing disliked vegetables back onto his plate as a child) as attempts at culinary experimentation. “Grandma, do you remember that time I ‘made’ deconstructed spinach?”

This month, Rob is deconstructing Homaro Cantu and a meal at Moto. He imagines Cantu as the class nerd in school, president of the chess club. “Marginalized by many, poor Homaro … overcompensates for his nerdiness by being the biggest, baddest nerd he can be. In the kitchen … this makes Homaro Cantu a molecular gastronomy chef who thinks too much about the ‘molecular,’ and not enough about the ‘gastronomy.’”

While a comparison between Alinea’s Grant Achatz (whose innovative cuisine Rob recently sampled) and Moto’s Cantu leaves Moto in second place, Rob pays homage to Cantu as well. “A dinner conceived and executed by Cantu is not to be missed; to be debated, loved, and reviled, yes, but never dismissed.”

His notes from the dinner include:

Does anything say good eats quite like a notice that the cracker cum menu you’re about to eat is made using patent-pending technology? The menu is a neat trick, but the cracker itself is nothing special, being only marginally more savory than the paper it replaces.

The ‘plate’ for this dish resembles an overdone, hyper-modern Battleship board that has spent too much time on a fetish porn set…. Shame about the overdone presentation and the underdone beans, because the bison itself is succulent.

Goat cheese snow and balsamic—According to our server, goat cheese snow is made using a paint sprayer. I guess that means I need a paint sprayer for Christmas, because it’s wonderful.

And for those of you with an aspiring molecular gastronomist on your holiday shopping list, a paint sprayer is only one of the options for your gift-buying consideration. Wired News has released its list of “Gifts for the Nanogastronome”, which includes an industrial dehydrator (all the better to make your pineapple powder with), an immersion circulator to monitor the temperature of your sous-vide, and the Cuisine Technology Anti-Griddle, “a minus-30-degree ‘cooking’ surface that freezes foods on contact.”

All of which should make the Robs on your list very happy. But not nearly as much as a pair of those desperately desired El Bulli reservations would.

Booze Brothers

Following hard on the high heels of Lorraine Bracco’s wine involvement, yet another celebrity has dipped a toe into a vat of crushed grapes. Early in 2007, the fruits of Dan Akyroyd’s wine labor will be hitting the sold-out markets.

It’s not made by him exactly—he’ll be splashing his name across a line of Canadian wines put out by Diamond Estate Wines & Spirits. According to a press release from Diamond, the wines will be available in two pocketbook stages: “the Dan Aykroyd Signature Reserve Series of super-premium offerings and the Dan Aykroyd Discovery Series of mid-priced wines.” Super-premium sounds like a gasoline choice to me.

As the year draws to a close, the moneyed public is waiting breathlessly to get their hands on the first of these super-premium wines, the Signature Reserve VQA Niagara Peninsula Vidal Icewine 2005. (Say that three times fast after shotgunning an entire bottle.) However, if you’re hoping to get your hands on a bottle of the Signature Reserve VQA, etc., due to be released in 2007, tough luck. Aykroyd, who might have more in common with Louis Winthorp III than he thought, announced, “I am excited to report that every bottle of Dan Aykroyd Signature Reserve VQA Vidal Icewine 2005 has been allocated for sale to our key clientele and has been fully subscribed before even being released.”

Aykroyd told Wine Spectator that Otis Redding band member Steve Cropper introduced him to wine during the filming of Blues Brothers:

One night he poured me a Napa Valley Cabernet, and it changed my whole perception of what I wanted to taste for the rest of my life. From there he said, ‘How would you like to try something French?’ And after French wines, it was super Tuscans.

Aykroyd also told WS that he’s been holding on to a bottle of Château Trotanoy Pomerol that River Phoenix gave him. I’d be real careful about drinking what looks like sediment in that bottle, Dan.

... and I hesitate to open that, because it’s special, but you can’t let these reds sit around for too long. At 15, even eight to 10 years, I find these Bordeaux are fine, and then after that you take a chance. You open it up, and it could be salad dressing. You just don’t know. But I’ve had very good luck.

Cheap Fun Wines commented, “We kid you not when we first read the name of his new wine we thought it said ‘Viagra,’ which would be an interesting way to put a little punch in your vino.”

Entertainment Weekly’s snarky column “Hit List” sniggers sarcastically that “Wine Spectator calls his Blues Brothers 2000 ‘extraneous with notes of desperation.’”

Hey, Elwood, I gotta ask, what wine goes well with dry white toast?

Time Out Dishes It Out

The latest issue of Time Out New York rates each of the city’s prominent reviewers (subscription required for all links here) on a scale of 1 to 6, turning the tables on the arbiters of taste. The judges—a pretty impressive group—use criteria like taste, writing style, and knowledge of the given discipline (art, music, film, etc.). For nearly every discipline, the top three critics have average scores in the 4.5–5.0 range. And then there’s food, where only one reviewer even breaks the 4.0 mark (Peter Meehan of The New York Times’s ”$25 and Under” column, who comes in at 4.08, outscoring the paper’s chief critic, Frank Bruni, by an embarrassingly wide margin).

Do New York’s restaurant reviewers really suck that much more than its other arts-and-culture watchers? Maybe, but that just seems so counterintuitive at a time like this, when food is being treated with ever-increasing seriousness in major newspapers all over the country. Are critics better in other cities? Is the ranking just a bunch of unscientific bunk in the first place?

Or perhaps part of the issue is that food criticism is inherently more difficult than other forms of criticism in certain ways. For one thing, I know that if I hate a film or piece of music and then read a super-smart review explaining the merits of the piece—putting it into a context I hadn’t understood before—I may well be inclined to soften my view; it would be a lot harder for a critic to persuade me to reconsider a dish or meal after the fact. There’s just no talking someone out of a gag reflex.