Between the plethora of Starbucks and Coffeebeans that dot the Shanghai cityscape and the rows of canned coffees lining convenience store shelves, I think it is fair to say that coffee is an integral part of modern human society. In fact, after petroleum, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, with current global production somewhere in the area of 7 million metric tons a year.
While coffee consumption began as a religious rite in northern Africa, global trade and cultivation has long made it available to the masses, and judging by the lines at aforementioned coffee shops, we couldn't be happier about that. Millions of us depend on coffee to kick-start our days and to fuel long nights at the office.
Besides the potent rush of caffeine, it has an incredible depth and complexity of flavor that defies definition. Coffee has become such a fixture in everyday life that whenever someone claims that they're tired a seemingly automatic response is to seek out a cup of it to keep themselves going.
However you chose to consume your cup of joe is a simple matter of taste. Some like it plain, black and bitter, while others, myself included, prefer it countered with a touch of sugar and dairy. While many of us take coffee for granted, using it as a simple tool to power through the day, the truth is that the culture and history behind coffee go far beyond what I can put down in one column.
This seemingly simply product has a history that reads like a soap opera of the ages. It was, at different points in time, idolized as a miraculous cure-all, banned as a narcotic stimulant, and the trigger for numerous revolutions and wars. While the modern interpretation of coffee has its roots in Ethiopia, its colored past saw it slowly spread to the Middle East and Europe over the course of the last 500 years.
Currently coffee is produced in over 50 different countries around the world. Like wine, the nuance of the coffee bean's flavor is largely determined by its environment, it's terrioir. And while you can purchase single-source coffees, much of today's gourmet coffee is actually a careful blend of different coffees from around the world, some of the more famous regions being Hawaii, Columbia and Ethiopia.
Outside of region, the greatest determinants in the flavor of the coffee are how the beans are treated after they've been harvested. Depending on the producer and the results desired, coffee can be roasted to different degrees, ground to different sizes, and brewed using a variety of contraptions, some simple enough to do at home, others requiring machinery that look more appropriate in a high school chemistry lab.
I am certainly no expert in the field but the standard rules for buying any foodstuff hold true. Fresher is better, check the roasting date on your package of coffee, if it doesn't have one or where you're buying the coffee from doesn't know, it's probably not such a great sign. If possible, always buy whole beans and grind the beans yourself at home. A coffee grinder is not an expensive tool and believe me, your palette will thank you. And when storing coffee, keep it as dry as possible, keep it cool, and out of light.
Regardless of what people may tell you, your refrigerator or freezer are not the best places for your good stuff, there is simply too much moisture and it is too easy for off flavors to be absorbed by the coffee.
Coffee's most traditional form is the hot beverage that so many of us are familiar with. But even then the applications and variations are seemingly endless. Espressos, macchiatos and cappuccinos are only the tip of the iceberg in the vast floating sea that is the world of coffee. Different countries, different cultures, many have their own variations on the preparation and enjoyment of coffee. Among the more unique, at least in my opinion, are the Vietnamese, who brew cups individually with a small drip filters and then combine with condensed milk, and the Turkish whose coffee is often triple-boiled in specialized pots and heated over hot sand. But the flavors and chemical compounds that make coffee so appealing are not limited to beverages alone.
There are countless foods that make use of coffee as an ingredient; ice creams, cookies and cakes are just some of the simpler items you may find in your local grocery store. Coffee makes a great component in a spice rub for grilling and smoking meats, the bitterness and richness adding a layer of complexity to the rub that is hard to replicate otherwise. I have added coffee to braises in the past, making use of its color and depth to add body to the stock and finished product.
But the recipe I have prepared today makes use of a cup of regular American-style coffee, something you can buy almost anywhere in the city. It's called red-eye gravy, a quick pan sauce from the American South. The traditional form calls for simply pan-frying a bit of country ham and deglazing with a cup of coffee but I like to believe that this version I present below is a somewhat more elegant version of an already delicious foil for salty pork.
1 pork chop, with fat on, about 3cm thick; 50ml espresso; 50ml reduced pork stock; 10ml honey; 10g picked thyme; salt and pepper
1 Score the fat of the pork in a cross hatch pattern, being careful not to cut into the meat. Season meat well with salt, pepper and thyme leaves. Let sit overnight or for at least 12 hours.
2 In a large frying pan over medium heat, sear the loin on its side, fat pressed into the pan. Cook for about five minutes or until fat is crispy and there is a large amount of oil rendered into the pan.
3 Pour out and reserve fat to one side. In the same pan turn heat up to medium high and sear both sides of the loin to a golden brown. About two minutes per side. Remove from pan and let rest.
4 In the same pan, pour in your coffee, making sure to scrape up any charred bits on the bottom of the pan. After 30 seconds add the pork stock and bring to a boil.
5 Add honey and reserved pork fat. Season to taste and strain. Sauce may taste slightly bitter to you if eaten by itself, but don't worry, that's a good thing.
6 Now you are free to slice up the pork loin, and in our case, served over polenta, roast shallots and mustard greens - and top with all of your red-eye gravy.
7 Enjoy and fight off scavengers that may have smelled your pork and gravy from the other room.