Keurig 2.0 is hot garbage

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A French press — my favorite way to drink coffee.

I like coffee, and I’m not all that snobby about it. Now, I don’t want my coffee to taste like hazelnuts or chocolate raspberry — I want coffee flavored coffee, usually back, sometimes with cream, never with sugar. But I like pretty much any kind of coffee, whether it’s the Folger’s I run through my drip pot at work, the house-roasted beans I take pour-over style at my local coffee shop, or the various varieties I make for myself at home in my French press. I’ve had lovely cafe au lait in the French Quarter of New Orleans, beautifully poured lattes in Seattle’s Pioneer Square — and on the flip side, I’ve had more than a few cups of wretched vending machine coffee in the English department building at the University of Arkansas. What I haven’t had — until today that is — is a coffee maker that dictated what coffee could be put in it.

Picture this: you grab your French press, and instead of that Fair Trade, lovingly roasted coffee that you normally buy, all you have is the can of Maxwell House you keep in the back of the pantry for emergencies. You plop a few tablespoons into the press, pour in the hot water…and your French press flashes an error at you for using an unapproved coffee and refuses to brew. Sound crazy? Sound far-fetched? Sounds like the Keurig 2.0 to me.

Now, the Keurig craze has never really caught on with me — I normally like more than one cup of coffee at a sitting, and the entire process of k-cups seems to produce a lot of wasteful trash with its single-use cups. I’ve also never had a cup of Keurig coffee that rated much better than instant — although I admit that most of my experience with the machines comes from hotel rooms, so I’m sure decent Keurig coffee is out there. But with the invention of reusable k-cups and Keurig pods that could be filled with any sort of coffee, I softened my view of the machines; they seem great for people who only like one cup at a time, especially if those folks are pressed for time. So when my mother-in-law bought a Keurig machine, I was happy for her, and looked forward to trying some of the varieties she’d bought to go with it.

Then she hit a snag: some of the K-cups worked in the machine, and some did not. She had purchased two types of reusable k-cups; neither type worked. About three minutes of internet sleuthing gave us the answer: Keurig 2.0 machines only work with Keurig brand k-cups. Instead of using their vast technological resources to build a machine that made a better cup of coffee, Keurig engineers installed a little sensor located right on the left of where the k-cup sits that can detect the foil ring around each official k-cup — and only then will the damn thing brew.

Are you freakin’ kidding me? DRM (digital rights management) in a flippin’ COFFEE MAKER? Welcome to America in the 21st century, folks — your damn coffee maker can pick and choose what coffee it’s going to brew, and it doesn’t matter that you’ve already handed the folks at Keurig an amount of money TEN TIMES what my French press cost, you’re going to have to keep shelling out money for their special k-cups forever and always if you want to use the machine.

Of course, you can hack the thing, something that took me about 5 minutes to accomplish. I cut one of the rings off of an “official” cup, taped it over the sensor, and had some bootleg coffee pouring in no time flat. And there are already third party k-cup makers who have supposedly managed to bypass the sensor in order to keep selling their own brand of cups. But the sheer fact that I had to break out the utility knife just to get my mother-in-law’s Keurig to make a cup of fresh-ground Caribou coffee makes me want to break stuff. And it still wasn’t as good as my French press.

The way I see it, this can only damage the Keurig brand. They’ve aggressively marketed the 2.0 with little to no mention that the machine will only brew approved pods. That’s not how you build trust in your brand. As for me, I’ll stick to the French press — or just buy this Bunn Multi-use coffee maker that uses pods (of any type), loose coffee, tea bags, or any number of other methods of getting a hot beverage in the cup. I know one thing for sure: my next coffee maker purchase won’t be a Keurig.

A tale of two rubs

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetAh, an Arkansas autumn Saturday — there’s really nothing better. And while there are a ton of people tromping through my neighborhood because the Razorbacks are in town, making it impossible to get out without some yokel stealing my parking spot, I’ve been through this all before: we stocked up on a weekend’s worth of goodies in advance.

But it’s beautiful, and as a nod toward the tailgating culture here in Little Rock, we decided to fire up the world’s tiniest grill and make some chicken, brats, and ribs. The chicken turned out particularly nice, and it was all due to a couple of dry rubs I used, a Mexican mole rub and a Southwest barbecue rub. Each was tasty in its own way, so you might want to give one of these a try next time you feel like cooking outside.

Mole rub for chicken

  • 1 tsp espresso powder
  • 1 tsp cocoa
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2-1/2 tsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground dry ancho chili
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano (dried)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp warm water

Mix the espresso powder with the warm water until it dissolves. Mix each dry ingredient in, then add the olive oil. Blend until a thick paste is formed — I used a mortar and pestle. Adjust water and oil depending on how thick you’d like the rub — I find that a thicker rub stays on better. Rub your chicken with the mole and let marinate for an hour, then grill.

Michael’s Southwest rub for chicken (with advice from Louis Williams of Next Level Barbecue)

  • 10647051_599701496819452_3697122387361654800_n1 tbs sweet paprika
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 3 tsp cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp ground mustard (I used Coleman’s)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Mix all ingredients together, making sure that everything is blended well. You can add some oregano, thyme, or even some powdered sage to this, and it’s quite nice. A touch of cumin can add an interesting flavor, and smoked paprika can be good, too, although I find that it overwhelms things sometimes.

Just work the rub really well into your chicken, let marinate for an hour, and then grill. Enjoy, and happy cooking!

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Doctoring store bought stock

photo (6)So you hear it all the time, from chefs on TV, from cookbooks — even from this blog: make your own stock. And I think you’ll find that most of us serious cooks love making our own stock, and often keep a stash of scraps in the freezer just to add to the pot. Roast a chicken? Save the carcass for stock. Steak bones? Stock. Supermarket puts chicken backs/soup bones/beef necks on sale? Stock, stock, stock.

But let’s face it — you aren’t going to make stock every time, and you aren’t going to always have some delicious stock chilling in your fridge or freezer. We’re all busy, and we all have to eat, which means you’re going to head down to the soup aisle and take the quick and easy way out: pre-packaged stock or broth. Don’t worry, you’re in a happy place here — store bought stock isn’t the end of the world, but buying it at the store isn’t the end of your process, either.

So you’ve got your store bought chicken, beef, or vegetable stock and you’re going to just toss it into your recipe. Stop, take a deep breath, and follow a few simple tricks to get that thin stuff up to scratch. Your soups, braises, and other dishes will thank you. Here’s some tips for doctoring the pre-made stuff and turning it into something almost as good as homemade.

Doctoring store bought stock

  • Celery and/or leeks
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Peppercorns
  • Red or White wine
  • Garlic
  • Tomato paste
  • Herbs
  • Any and all scraps you might have

The secret to spiffing up your stock is to think of the store bought stuff as a base and then using it as a starting point for a quick-and-dirty stock-making session. When you do stock from scratch, you’re boiling down bones, meat scraps, herbs, and aromatics to produce a velvety, rich liquid that adds tons of flavor to thousands of recipes. You can still get a lot of that homemade taste into something from the store by simmering your packaged stock with these things. To add sharpness, toss in some celery or leeks; to add sweetness, toss in sliced carrots (the baby carrots you bought for your kid’s lunch are fine); for complexity, use diced onions and garlic. Wine is a common additive to finished stocks, so pour some in your pot — you’ll be shocked at how much depth a cup or so of wine will add to the finished product. Toss in a few peppercorns, and cheat things up even further by stirring in a spoonful of tomato paste. Alternatively, mix your tomato paste with your vegetables and roast them in a 400 degree oven for half an hour, then simmer your store stock with the caramelized results. And of course, if you do have a few scraps around, go ahead and toss them in — just add a cup or so of water. Herbs like bay leaf and thyme are also wonderful to toss in.

The result will be something far greater than pre-made stuff straight from the package. Simmer your stock and other ingredients until it reduces by about a third, then strain it off and discard your vegetables — you’re ready to cook. This process takes a little longer, but it’s quicker than making a pot of stock from scratch, and certainly makes your recipes taste better. Happy cooking!

Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson

photo 5 (2)Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson, a dish that is proof positive that absolutely everything sounds better in French. Here in the South, all that fancy talk translates to this: cheesy taters with sausage and onions. Either way, it’s delicious.

This dish comes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, and was featured on an episode of her PBS show “The French Chef” way back before color had even been invented. It’s basically a casserole made from lightly boiled potatoes, Polish sausage, onions, Swiss cheese — and because this is a Julia recipe, a healthy dose of cream. The result is a savory, flavorful concoction of creamy textures, excellently melded flavors, and is one of the few potato dishes out there that works magnificently as a main course. There’s a little bit of prep work that goes into making the dish, but none of it is hard — and with results this good, it’s worth it. Here’s what you’ll need:

Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson (adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child)

  • photo 2 (5)Two pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced. I used Yukon Gold potatoes because I really love their flavor, plus they stand up to cooking nicely.
  • 1-2 onions, sliced — depends on how oniony you like your food.
  • One Polish sausage, sliced into pieces. Nothing fancy, I used Hillshire Farms.
  • 1 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups light or heavy cream. You can use regular milk, but come on, you’re doing a Julia Child recipe. Indulge yourself.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Butter

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add your sliced potatoes. You don’t want to completely cook them, just give them a boil of 10-12 minutes until they start becoming tender. While my water was coming up to the boil, I browned my sausage pieces in a skillet. Julia doesn’t do this in her version of the recipe, but I think browned sausage has a better flavor than plain, plus we’re going to use the fat that renders for our onions.

After the sausage is browned, set it aside for later. You should be left with a skillet that has some fat from the sausage in it, so go ahead and swirl a tablespoon of butter into that fat over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add your onions, cooking them until they are opaque and soft, but don’t brown them. Once your onions and potatoes are done, you’re ready to build your masterpiece.

On the bottom of a buttered baking dish, put a layer of half of your potatoes, then a layer of half your onions. Add just a touch of salt and pepper. Add the all the sausage to form a third layer, then top with the remaining potatoes and onions. Beat together the eggs and the cream, and pour the mixture over everything, then give the dish a good shake so that all that goodness settles to the bottom. Top everything with the grated Swiss cheese, then bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes. The egg and cream mixture will form a delicious custard-like layer (sort of like a quiche) and the Swiss cheese will turn a lovely shade of brown. Try not to go back for seconds on this one — I’ll bet you can’t do it! Happy cooking — and as Julia would say, bon appétit!

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Let’s build a charcuterie platter

photo 4 (2)So you’ve got people coming over and you need something for them to chew on while you finish up your cooking. Or maybe you just want to have the sort of dinner that is best eaten with the fingers — there’s a lot to be said for that. In either case, you need a charcuterie plate. 

When building your charcuterie plate, don’t screw around with the cheap stuff. Ham rolls and cheddar cheese from your local grocer might be okay for an office party, but this is something you’re going to serve in your home, to people that you (hopefully) like. So don’t be a cheapskate. Buying high quality ingredients is actually better in the long run — richer, better meats will satiate your guests better, quicker, and more thoroughly, giving them a real “wow” moment before you spring your soup, salad, and main courses on them. And if, like us, you like doing this for the occasional dinner, treat it like a night out at a good restaurant — a good meat and cheese plate should be an event, something to be savored. Make it memorable. Here’s how:

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High quality prosciutto from La Quercia

Step one is prosciutto, always. Good prosciutto is a symphony of salty, sweet, nutty, and wild flavors all rolled up into a thin slice of unctuous ham. With prosciutto, the idea that a little goes a long way is key, so don’t let the sticker shock of the per pound price frighten you when you step up to the butcher counter. Yes, if you buy a whole pound of the good stuff you’re going to be spending some coin, but unless you’re feeding your local high school football team, you won’t need anywhere near a pound. This stuff is sliced paper thin, which means each slice is light — and it’s so rich, a couple of pieces are more than enough to satisfy most appetites. My favorite prosciutto comes from La Quercia in Iowa — and yes, I’ve had the imported stuff, and I promise that La Quercia is better. The picture above features their Prosciutto Americano on the left and a cut from the shoulder on the right. Different prosciuttos will have different flavors, so get a couple of kinds — your butcher will most likely let you sample before you buy (and if they don’t, get a new butcher).

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Clockwise from top: Hillcrest Artisan Meats duck ham, pate, and Olli salmi

Now that you’ve gotten your prosciutto foundation, you need to add a few more things to provide some variety in texture and flavor. A pate (lower right) is a must-have (recipe here), although a liver mousse can also be good. Pate adds an earthy element to the plate — there’s a lot going on in a well-made pate, and something wonderful about cutting into something that basically amounts to meat butter. Rillettes, headcheese, or scrapple can also make for an interesting addition — it’s processed meat the old-fashioned way. Good salami (lower left) is always welcome, and while I prefer a hard salami, just pick the one you like the most. Don’t like regular salami? Go for sopressata, or add some beef to the plate with some thin-slice bresaola. Have fun and use your imagination!

The top picture up there is my “wild card” meat, a house-made duck ham made by my butcher, Brandon Brown of Hillcrest Artisan Meats. Your butcher will probably have some of these specialty items that they make, so asking “hey, what’s good in the case” is always a great place to start — surprising things can happen. Brandon has fed me things like pastrami made from lung, house-made coppacola, and various sausages that have all been tasty. That duck ham has fat to it like the prosciutto, but also comes with a compelling smoky flavor that makes it different from anything else on the plate.

Now that you’ve gotten a variety of meats, you need cheeses. Gouda, brie, and blue cheeses are all good for a meat plate, as each appeals to different people and represents a variety of flavors and textures. Chevre or fromage blanc are also nice, as their soft consistency lends itself to spreading on bread or crackers. Cornichons, olives, pickled vegetables (okra, asparagus, and pearl onions are always good), and Dijon mustard are also good additions, and of course you have to have some good bread and crackers. Spiced nuts or other sweet items are optional, but can provide a nice sugar balance to all that cured meat.

Building a good charcuterie plate is almost as fun as eating one. Picking out just the right sort of meats and cheeses is something of an adventure — and your guests will certainly thank you with every bite. Happy eating!

Coppacola from Hillcrest Artisan Meats

photo (4)Go ahead and spend some time looking at that picture over there. I can wait. I promise you that nothing I’m going to say about it will exceed the sheer beauty of that photograph.

Did you take it in? How could you not, right?

That, my friends is some house-made coppacola from our friends over at Hillcrest Artisan Meats. You may have heard me mention them a couple of hundred times. Hey, when the food is this good, a man’s gotta talk about it, you know?

So I’m sitting at work last week, and I load up Twitter to find a message from H.A.M. that I should stop by the store to try something new. At almost the same instant, I get a text message from Steve Shuler over at the Little Rock Foodcast telling me that it would most definitely be in my best interest to head up to the Hillcrest butcher shop. Neither message let on what is awaiting me there, and since I don’t need much of an excuse to go hang out at the meat counter, I hurried that way as soon as I got off.

What greeted me was that lovely display you see up top: pork cured with salt and sugar, rubbed with cayenne and left to air-dry for 4 months. Unlike other versions of this salume I’ve had, this wasn’t dried to the point of having a leathery texture, instead possessing a chewy, unctuous texture that hit the sweet spot that comes with the perfect balance of muscle with fat. The flavor was salty, spicy, earthy, and wild all at once, with a sort of elegant funk to it that gave it one hell of a character. I chewed a couple more slices in silence, eyes half closed, experiencing one of those food moments that only seem to happen to me with good pork. It was a delightful and delectable triumph, and a sign of more good things to come from the H.A.M. crew.

Special thanks to Brandon and Tara Brown for sharing this particular delicacy with me — I made sure to buy a pound of hanger steak as a thank you (and I still got the better end of that deal, because I had hanger for my supper). Yet another reason why Little Rock has the best butcher shop in these United States. Happy eating!

Great salad, or greatest salad?

photo 2Sometimes, all I want to eat is a salad. There’s just something that’s extremely compelling about the light, fresh crunch of greens topped with a little bit of protein and a killer dressing. We’re blessed here in Little Rock with several places that know their way around salad, from the cheese-piled chef-style salads at US Pizza to the artisan meat and cheese affairs served up at Boulevard Bread Company to a chicken liver-topped masterpiece at South on Main that blows me away every time. And after eating salads all over this city, I think I’ve found the greatest salad that Little Rock has to offer.

And it’s being sold at a burger joint.

Now before you scoff, let me clarify: this ain’t no regular burger joint. I’m talking Big Orange, part of a family of restaurants that has made excellent salads part of what they do. Starting with ZAZA Pizza in the Heights, these restaurants excel at pretty much everything they do. And with the Thai Chop Salad, I they have gone above and beyond a mere salad and into the realm of the sublime.

The Thai Chop is a massive plate of romaine lettuce, shaved cabbage, tasty tomatoes, fresh jalapenos, red pepper, cilantro, basil, peanuts and sauteed steak, all served with a spicy, tangy dressing that is one of the most compelling combinations of ingredients I’ve ever had. You may think I’m being hyperbolic about how good this salad is, but I promise you, it’s even better than I can describe. Savory, spicy, and at the same time cool and light, this salad keeps the flavors coming in all directions. I love Big Orange’s burgers, but lately this salad is all I want to eat — and since the Midtown location is just up the block from me, I eat there often.

Summertime is salad time, so if you haven’t tried this one yet, put it on your agenda. The Big Orange gang also tries to locally source ingredients whenever possible, which is another plus — so pass on the burgers on your next trip and try the best thing on the menu. Happy eating!

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