Cooking with coffee
Everyone knows that coffee is a great drink. More surprising is the fact that coffee is also good for eating - and not just in the form of chocolate-covered beans. In fact, coffee is a fully functional ingredient that is useful in all kinds of culinary combinations.
"I don't think people often think of coffee in terms of an ingredient in a pot roast or something," says Michael Kierans, owner of Prague's Káva Káva Káva, noting the number of coffee recipes available on the Web. "There are tons of recipes with sweet ingredients, but the savory recipes struck me as a very interesting idea, a new way of having coffee."
Pot roast with coffee is just one variation of java-enhanced cuisine. The Web site www.recipesource.com lists hundreds of recipes with coffee as an ingredient. Many are sweet cakes and cookies, of course. But the site also includes recipes like onion soup with espresso, pork with port and coffee sauce, coffee-flavored meatballs and coffee-flavored chicken wings. Other recipes include a "cowboy brisket" with coffee, coffee risotto with orange and lamb cutlets in coffee sauce.
It might sound new, but the use of coffee as a foodstuff probably goes back to its earliest history - it is a fruit, after all, resembling a bitter cherry. Among the tribes of Ethiopia where it originates, coffee is often eaten rather than drunk.
According to Antony Wild's Coffee: A Dark History, it is used:
"... in 'chewing and blood-brotherhood ceremonies' by the Buganda tribes, and in the 'slaughtering of the coffee' ceremony, in which the Oromo celebrated the birth of cattle or children. The Oromo, the tribes who inhabit the corner of southwest Ethiopia where coffee originated, considered coffee to be the buna qala -the tears of Waqa, the supreme sky god. ... In the ceremony coffee was roasted, along with barley, in butter. ... It has been reported anecdotally that coffee mixed this way with butter was also eaten by soldiers, farmers and merchants faced with hard work or long journeys."
Over the past 500 years, the devil's bean has jumped from primitive food for soldiers to haute cuisine and everything in between. Experts note that a small amount of coffee adds depth to many recipes, a flavor sometimes described as "smokiness" or "earthiness." It is especially useful with heavy red meats, where its bitterness and acid can cut through the fat.
The American cookbook writer Craig Claiborne included a simple recipe for a coffee-emboldened sauce, "Red-eye gravy," in Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking. In it, strong black coffee is used to deglaze a pan in which a slice of ham has been fried, marrying with the pork fat and sticky bits to create a coffee-flavored sauce to pour over the meat.
But coffee has other uses beyond mere flavoring. Due to its acidity, a rub of ground coffee can help tenderize tough cuts of meat, breaking down some of the firm connective tissues. In this case, it should be very finely ground to avoid an unpleasant grittiness in each bite.
However you want to cook with it, Kierans advises that when using káva as an ingredient, you should choose your beans just as carefully as you would for the coffee you drink.
"In the cowboy brisket, I would say you'd want to have espresso," he says. "If you like the flavor of coffee and want it to be prominent in the recipe, I would go for a dark roast. But if you want it in the background, I would suggest a light roast. The question is: How much do you enjoy the flavor of coffee?"