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Key Ingredient: coffee

Ben Sheagren of Hopleaf tames the bitterness of java

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The Chef: Ben Sheagren (Hopleaf)
The Challenger: Ray Stanis (Nellcote)
The Ingredient: Coffee

Legend has it that coffee was discovered by Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherd who noticed that his goats became more energetic after eating the berries of the bush and became inspired to chew some himself. Other tales—likely equally apocryphal—credit Sheikh Omar of Yemen, who supposedly tried boiling coffee beans while living in exile in the desert.

Whatever coffee's origin, it's so popular today that productivity in the U.S. would likely grind to a halt if it suddenly became unavailable. The main challenge in cooking with coffee, Ben Sheagren said, is bitterness. As chef at the Hopleaf, he cooks with beer quite a bit. But he thinks the bitterness found in coffee is different from that of beer.

"The hop is more automatically associated with a vegetative quality. It can be fruity, it can be grassy, it can be piney, soapy," he said. "Where the bitterness from coffee is more acidic, more sharp."


Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

They also react differently to cooking. "Bitterness in beer tends to be accentuated," Sheagren said. With coffee, "you're going to have the same level of bitterness. It's a fairly predictable ingredient."

Not surprisingly, Sheagren ended up using beer as well as coffee—Red Eye coffee porter from Two Brothers. It seemed like a natural pairing to him. In fact, he thinks there's a beer appropriate for almost any dish, "whether it be the lightest, brightest vinaigrette-type application or the deepest, richest, darkest demiglace. There's a flavor profile that's going to work."

Ben Sheagren hopleaf coffee

Sheagren brined some lamb racks in Metropolis coffee before doing a dry rub of ground coffee, salt, and sugar and hanging them up in the walk-in cooler for about a week. He then frenched them, leaving most of the fat cap on to protect the meat from the fire, and roasted them in a wood-burning grill with hickory.

The coffee porter went into a lamb jus, along with an espresso blend from Intelligentsia. "I was looking for as many ways as possible to incorporate coffee into the dish without steering it into the overwhelming area," he said. He even tried putting coffee in the smoker while smoking some cherries, but the burnt coffee aroma quickly made him change his mind.

The sides were the hardest part of the dish, Sheagren said; pairing coffee and fruit is relatively easy, but vegetables are another matter. He ended up making carrot puree, glazed fennel bulb, and braised pear.

Despite all the applications of coffee in the dish, the coffee flavor was relatively mild. "I'm pleasantly surprised that the bitterness of the coffee didn't transcend every other element on the plate," Sheagren said. "You get it a lot more from the aroma. You experience more of the scent than you do on the palate. The nose is a much more forgiving experiencer of flavor, so to speak, than the tongue."

Who's next:

Michael Shrader of Urban Union, working with curly parsley. "The ubiquitous curly parsley sprig as garnish is the worst nightmare of any serious chef," Sheagren said. "It's probably the most overused, abused, and taken-for-granted ingredient and garnish that has ever hit a plate. I figured, as pedestrian an ingredient as it is, the inherent challenge would be to elevate it beyond its humble and cliched roots."

Coffee-cured rack of lamb

Lamb (1 ½ lb rack serves 3-4)

Coffee brine

1 gallon water
1 cup salt
1 cup molasses
1 cup Metropolis Spice Island coffee blend

Bring water, salt, and molasses to a boil, add coffee, turn off heat. Let steep for five minutes, strain, cool. Put lamb in brine for 12 hours, remove, dry thoroughly.

Cure

3 T kosher salt
4 T dark brown sugar
½ cup Metropolis Spice Island

Massage cure into lamb. Hang with butcher twine (if possible) in cool, dry place for one week. Take down and trim and French (keep scraps).

Espresso lamb jus

Lamb trimmings
½ cup veal demi
1 bottle Two Brothers Red-Eye coffee porter
6 cups lamb or beef stock
1 large yellow onion
2 medium carrots
3 stalks celery
1 cup fresh cherries
2 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves
1 cup Intelligensia Hopleaf Blend espresso beans
1 T whole black peppercorns

Peel and dice vegetables. In large sauce pot brown lamb scraps (dump off excess fat once crisp and brown). Add vegetables, sweat on low heat until translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients minus stock and demi. Cook beer until no alcohol smell remains, add stock and demi, bring to a simmer, reduce by half. Strain and skim, return to pot, reduce until one cup liquid remains, season.

Carrot puree

6 cups carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cups chicken stock
½ cup cream
2 T chardonnay vinegar
2 T molasses
Salt and white pepper to taste
4 T butter

Add carrots, stock, cream, molasses, and vinegar to small sauce pot. Add 1 T salt, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until tender. Puree in blender, then add cold butter one tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper.

Braised fennel and pears

4 bulbs baby fennel
2 bosc pears
1 bottle Red Streak hard cider
2 sprigs thyme
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 T butter

Halve and trim baby fennel. Peel, halve and core pears. Heat large saute pan on medium-high flame, add butter, fennel, and pears face down. Once brown on cut side add thyme sprigs and one cup of cider, salt, and white pepper. Cover pan with lid and check every two to three minutes, adding more cider as necessary when pan is dry. As fennel and pears become tender, remove.

Cherry "gremolata"

1 cup fresh cherries, halved and pitted
1 cup Two Brothers Red Eye coffee porter
2 T molasses
½ t salt
¼ cup Intelligensia Hopleaf Blend espresso (ground fine)
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
½ cup fennel fronds
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 t coarse sea salt

Bring beer to boil with molasses and espresso, strain, cool. Slice cherries a quarter inch thick. Cover cherries in beer, macerate for one to two hours. Just prior to service, strain cherries, toss with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, fennel fronds and almonds.

Glaze

2 cups Two Brothers coffee porter
2/3 cup molasses
½ cup dried cherries
½ cup Intelligentsia Hopleaf Blend espresso beans
Reduce all ingredients together until they reach a syrupy consistency.

To Serve: Roast lamb in front of hot hickory fire, glazing periodically. Cook to medium-rare (finish in oven if glaze is causing too much char). Slice between bones. Arrange on top of carrot puree. Slice pears and fennel and arrange on the plate. Spoon jus onto clear areas. Spoon "gremolata" over sliced lamb, serve.

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