30 July 2013

Two in Boulder: Boxcar Coffee Roasters and Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub

Boulder might have the most coffee shops per square mile of any town in Colorado, so a review measley shop might seem a little unnecessary.  When I am in Boulder (infrequently, because I always feel like I'm interrupting someone's photo shoot everywhere in that town), I usually just stumble into the first one I see. Considering how many coffee shops there are in Boulder, they are surprisingly uniform: heavily tattooed hipsters act as mildly annoyed baristas, twenty-something customers rock brightly colored skinny jeans and oddly lumpy knit hats, and the coffee is always strong (that part I like).  But I wanted to try Boxcar for two reasons: 1) Food & Wine Magazine makes a big hairy deal out of them, and 2) they seem to operate on a slightly different agenda, which particularly peaked my curiosity given the aforementioned monotony.

The Boulder store is located at 1825 Pearl St. There is also a Denver location at 3459 Ringsby Ct., though they are closed (?!?!?!) on the weekends, which seems like it should be illegal for a coffee shop.  The Boulder location shares space with Cured, a high-end meat, wines and cheese shop.  There are a few tables scattered around the shop and counters on either side, one for coffee, one for the deli.  It has a terrific old, small-town market feel to it, and the atmosphere is bustling.  It was quite possibly the loudest coffee shop I have ever encountered in quiet, slow-moving Colorado.  I kind of dug it.

Boxcar Coffee Roasters is definitely for coffee nerds. The coffee is roasted in small batches using a classic Ideal Rapid coffee roaster that was built in Germany in 1929, which Boxcar claims keeps the roasting temperature extremely stable. They also employ the “cowboy coffee” method, which allows them to steep the grounds at 203 degrees to mitigate the problem of Boulder's high altitude, where water boils at a lower temperature and coffee and tea can be said to suffer.  

We tried cappuccinos made by each of their two espresso varieties, "Stella" and "Bare Knuckle".  Both were delicious.  Despite the names, Stella was the more assertive of the two; it was full-bodied and rich with a little spicy bite at the end.  The Bare Knuckle was similar, but finished smooth and creamy, and sort of dissipated as soon as I swallowed it.  Neither was highly acidic or sour. You can read the details of both roasts here; the drinks--and the beans themselves, which Boxcar sells in-store and online--are a bit pricier than most, but true coffee connoisseurs can definitely tell the difference.  Even I can tell the difference, and I usually drink World Market Coffee at home. 

Conor O'Neill's

And on the other end of the spectrum, there is Conor O'Neill's, an Irish-style pub just south of the Pearl Street Mall on 1922 13th Street.  Yes, it is part of a chain (the only other location is in similarly hip and overpriced college town Ann Arbor, Michigan), but they do a great job of feeling local by creating a worn, patched-together aesthetic inside and also by hosting a full compliment of live, local musicians on a rather dense rotating schedule.  The menu is filled with Anglo favorites like fish and chips, shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, and even Scotch eggs on the happy hour menu.  The presentation of the food is just a little bit "dressed up" in an '80s sort of way: my mashed potatoes (a ubiquitous side item on the menu) came piped out of a pastry bag, but they tasted real enough.  Portions are large and the food is pretty authentic to Irish and English pubs. The curry and chips from the appetizer menu is a beautiful rendition of a mild, creamy, sumptuous English curry served alongside battered golden potato wedges--I could have been happy with it for my meal.  However, I was also quite happy with the homey (and enormous) pub pie made of a flaky, golden crust and filled with smokey sausage and mixed vegetables.  I was impressed by the level of colorful flavors packed into this pie! And, just like Mom would make, it came served alongside a big pile of steamed (unseasoned, but still bright green) broccoli and mashed potatoes.  Well, Mom probably wouldn't have made the potatoes all fancy-like, but you get the idea.  

The Chicken Cordon Bleu was a little surprising because it wasn't breaded--it was merely a sandwich of sort, with thin slices of charred grilled chicken breast on either side of a slice of gooey cheese and some pretty flavorless ham.  The chicken was great, actually, and again, laudably flavorful.  The ham could have just been omitted based on what it added to the dish, but of course, it is part of a traditional Cordon Bleu. Better to up the ante and find some better ham.  

Conor O'Neill's offers a menu of what could easily be quite bland, gut-busting food, but they manage to take great care with preparation and seasoning, yielding instead a wonderfully modernized version of old English/Irish classics.  In this way, I guess they're not so traditional.  The taps featured a couple of local beers, but focused mainly on what you might see in the UK: Murphy's, Guinness, and Bass were front and center.  The pints were generous Imperial-sized.  And the vibe was not so much like the rest of downtown Boulder these days: friendly service, grungy digs, and reasonably-priced, heavy, homey food.  I think I've found my new post-hike place for lunch.  

26 July 2013

Bring on the Zucchini! Fritters

My neighbors are already "gifting" me their overgrown zucchini, which is not so much a gift as a social burden.  Apartment dwellers can preach all they want about my ungratefulness, but until you have lived in a neighborhood in which everyone digs up their yards every spring and plants whatever is easiest to grow (hint: it's zucchini!), you will never truly understand how much it sucks to see your neighbor making his way across the front yard with an armful of the stuff.  It would be a treat if it came once or twice per season, but everyone has too much zucchini, and everyone wants to dump it on their neighbors.  And so, every August I have to get creative because a) I hate wasting food, but b) zucchini bread gets really old, really fast.  In fact, it was never that good to begin with.

I love anything fried, and I have often enjoyed it as a temporary cure for late-summer zucchini infestations, but it's not the healthiest thing in the world, and it still suffers from blandness without a whole lot of seasoning in the breading.  These fritters (really, little zucchini "hash browns") are baked and enjoy little pops of saltiness from diced feta and kalamata olives.  You can eat them as a snack, stack them up with fresh tomatoes, or use them as a substitute for the little dry hunk of meat you were planning on serving for dinner with your rice or pasta.  I like to top them with a little plain yogurt mixed with a smashed garlic clove and salt to taste; my husband slathers his in hot sauce.

Baked Zucchini Fritters

Makes 12

2 cups grated zucchini (about 2 zucchinis)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons diced feta cheese
1 tablespoon roughly chopped kalamata olives
¼ cup all-purpose flour (or add a protein punch with garbanzo flour)
¼ cup breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and red pepper flakes to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
After grating the zucchini, sprinkle with a little salt and place in a colander for at least 15 minutes to drain. When ready to use, squeeze out the excess liquid by handfuls before adding to the mixture.
In a medium bowl mix the grated zucchini, garlic, feta, olives, flour, breadcrumbs, egg, oregano, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined.

Form the zucchini mixture into twelve patties (six per baking sheet) using a ¼ cup of the mixture to form cakes, then flatten slightly into patties (see photo, above). Place patties on the prepared baking sheets and bake on one side for 18-20 minutes or until golden. Flip the patties and bake for another 10-15 minutes.

23 July 2013

Drinks for hot days...

After a brief respite, it's back up to the triple digits here in Northern Colorado every day.  There's really nothing reasonable to do with that besides drink.  Perhaps you are in the same boat. If you time it correctly, you can make both of these and just go back and forth all day between depressant (Blueberry-gin cooler) and stimulant (Cold-brewed coffee), maintaining a delicate balance that feels somewhat like sobriety.  Good luck.

Blueberry-gin cooler

Makes 4 drinks

1 cup blueberries
1 cup gin
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
½ tablespoon cardamom pods
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Club soda

Cook blueberries (fresh or thawed from frozen) in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbly, mashing with a wooden spoon as you stir.  Remove from heat and add the gin.  Cool, strain, and chill.  Over medium heat, bring the sugar, water, and cardamom pods to boil (watch the pot carefully!).  Remove from heat and stir well to dissolve.  Cool strain, and chill.

To make drinks, shake together blueberry gin, spiced syrup, and lemon juice.  Pour equal amounts into four glasses and top with desired amount of club soda.  Garnish with lemon wedges if desired.

Cold-brewed coffee, “Mexican” style

Serves 2 or more

5 oz. ground dark roast coffee
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
5 cups water

Place all ingredients in a French press or pitcher and steep in the refrigerator 12-24 hours. When ready to drink, separate the grounds and dilute with an equal part of water or milk.  Pour over ice and serve.

19 July 2013

Ramen and snap peas salad

Inspired by Smitten Kitchen's Sugar Snap Salad with Miso Dressing, I created a cool, satisfying dish for lunch or a light dinner on these sweltering July days.  I adjusted the dressing quite a bit so that it wouldn't be so salty, but the general flavor is similar.  And you all know I loves me some ramen, but I think this would also work well with soba, udon, or any kind of thin spaghetti-like creature.  Whatever, do what you want.

Ramen and Snap Peas Salad

Serves 2

1 package instant ramen noodles (discard seasoning packet)
2 small radishes, thinly sliced
½ cucumber, diced
5-6 Romaine lettuce leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces
A little bit of red onion, thinly sliced (optional)
½ pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 cup small broccoli florets
1 small carrot, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
Toasted sesame seeds , for serving

1 heaping teaspoon grated ginger
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon miso
1 teaspoon honey
¼ cup rice vinegar
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Handful fresh cilantro or basil
1-2 teaspoons water

For dressing: blend all ingredients in a food processor, adding water gradually until you get the consistency (and amount of saltiness) you like.

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to boil.  Add the broccoli, carrot, and sugar snap peas and cook until the broccoli is slightly tender but still firm and bright green, about 3 minutes.  Drain in a colander, running cold water over the vegetables to stop the cooking process.  Cut sugar snap peas in half or thirds to match the size of the carrots.

Return the pan to the heat with more salted water and cook ramen according to package directions (omitting spice packet). When done, drain in the colander on top of the vegetables and run everything under cold water to bring to room temperature.

Meanwhile, assemble the cold salad underneath.  Layer lettuce, radishes, cucumber, and onion (if using) on a serving platter.  Mix the noodles and cooked vegetables together in the colander and scatter over the top of the salad.   Drizzle dressing over the top and mix gently to evenly coat.  Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

16 July 2013

Recipe review: Yvette van Boven's Spicy Labneh

I love Yvette van Boven's latest cookbook, Homemade Summer.  The recipes are clever and inviting, the photography and typesetting, a mix of "handwritten" and typed fonts, is whimsical without being sickening, and van Boven's writing style is carefree and empowering in the kitchen.  An example: "you could add some sugar here, though I never do."  Another example: "you could add a splash of vodka, but then it won't be virgin.  Oh well."  Here's my adaptation of her super-fast, super-tasty yogurt-based dip which is heaven on the patio with drinks and unexpected friends.

Spicy Labneh

Adapted from Homemade Summer

1 garlic clove, minced and smeared into a paste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup plain yogurt
generous handful chopped fresh herbs (mint, basil, parsley, dill, cilantro...)
extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
pinch crushed red pepper flakes

In a dry, hot pan, toast the cumin and sesame seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes (stir constantly).  Combine garlic, salt, and yogurt in a small serving dish.  Sprinkle paprika, toasted seeds, and red pepper flakes on top, drizzle with a little olive oil, and then sprinkle with fresh herbs.  Serve with toasts or a baguette.

12 July 2013

Fava beans are in!

...actually, I believe they're on their way out; it's usually the end of the season when my ghetto natural food store starts to carry things.  Fava beans are common in Mediterranean cuisine, and they're also a popular snack sold roasted and coated in neon-red chili powder and "lime" flavoring at my neighborhood panaderia. I'd never tried them before, but their similarity in appearance to lima beans (which I have hated since childhood) turned me off.  Well, that and the supposed terror of preparing them.  But you know what?  They're really not difficult to make, and they are DELICIOUS!  Bright and zingy, these beans cook up tender and mild enough to compliment just about anything.  I kept it simple with this dish to keep from drowning them in other flavors.

Don't eat the outer skin!  Yuck. 

My tip for removing the beans form their skins is written into the directions; here is another nifty discussion on the topic.  Don't avoid them; they are so worth the little bit of extra effort! You can eat this simple rice dish alongside grilled fish or chicken, but I gobbled up a double portion for lunch and didn't miss the carcass.

I also use kitchen shears to speed up the scallion slicing.

Fava Beans and Rice

Serves 4 as a side

1 pound fava beans, shelled
1 cup jasmine rice
2 scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
6 fresh mint leaves, chiffonaded
Salt and black pepper to taste

Cook the rice in salted water according to package directions.

In the meantime, boil fava beans in salted water for 2 minutes.  Drain in a colander and, when cool enough to touch, slip out of their outer skins.  (I like to pierce the skin with a pairing knife, then peel it away while also squeezing out the inner bean.)

When rice is done, place in a serving bowl and stir in the fava beans, garlic, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.  Drizzle with the olive oil and scatter scallions and chopped mint on top.  Serve hot or room temperature.

And I added a fried egg on top!

09 July 2013

Recipe review: Mushroom "risoniotto"

If you haven't yet explored River Cottage Veg by the terribly clever Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, you really should.  Junkies of all things Gordon Ramsay will recognize him as the agricultural consultant on The F Word (by far Ramsay's best show, in my opinion)--he was the guy bringing over lambs, hogs, and other temporary family pets destined to be slaughtered and served in the kitchen at the end of each season.  Never mind the therapy those Ramsay kids will need in their adult lives, Fearnley-Whittingstall is admirably insistent on sustainability and staying as close to the farm with our food as possible.  River Cottage Veg is the latest in his series of cookbooks detailing what he serves on his urban-ish farm, River Cottage.  The entire book is vegetarian, and it uses practical, common ingredients in some creative (but not crazy) combinations.  A great example is his comforting risotto-like dish made from mushrooms and orzo pasta.  I made a several alterations here, which I think would be Hugh's style as well.  This is an easy, tasty dish to serve on the side of something more substantial or as a main course with salad, and it's open to substitutions as your pantry and refrigerator demand.

Mushroom "risoniotto"

adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Veg

Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side

2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 pound mixed mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
8 oz. whole wheat orzo
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons plain yogurt (the original calls for heavy cream, which would be less tangy)
salt and black pepper
generous handful fresh parsley, chopped

Bring a medium saucepan of well-salted water to boil and cook orzo according to package directions.

In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, about 8 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and some salt and cook until their liquid has released and evaporated and there is a little browning in the pan.  Add the balsamic, garlic, and thyme and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until there is almost no liquid left.  Add the white wine and do the same.  Lower the heat to a low simmer and stir in the yogurt and parsley.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the cooked orzo and stir into the mushroom mixture.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

(This photo is from Hugh's fancy-schmancy book.)

05 July 2013

Turning Lebanese (salad)...

Come to think of it, I don't even know if this recipe is a rip-off of a Lebanese salad.  Maybe it's an Israeli salad--?  While I sort out my accidental cultural insensitivity (and I will later apologize like Paula Deen), please enjoy this variation on yet another something you can eat cold for lunch or dinner.

Lebanese-American Salad

Serves 3-4 as a light meal

1 cup pearled barley, rinsed and sorted
1 cup fresh parsley
½ cup fresh mint
1 garlic clove, peeled
Juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ cup diced cucumber
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
¼ cup diced red bell pepper
2 scallions, sliced
4 Romain leaves, rinsed, dried, and chiffonaded
2 tablespoons slivered almonds (optional)

Cook the barley in well-salted water about 20 minutes or until al dente.  (Or, skip the salt, use about 2 quarts water, and keep the spent liquid to drink later.)  Drain in a colander and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, make the pesto: place parsley, mint, garlic, lemon juice and zest, red pepper flakes, and salt to taste in a food processor.  Blend until it forms a chunky pesto and stir into the barley.  When the barley is room temperature, add all the vegetables and stir to combine.  Sprinkle the almonds on top if using.

02 July 2013

An old English favorite for Independence Day

I am going to write something shocking to regular readers: I'm trying to cut down on my alcohol consumption.  It's not necessarily that I want to, but as I near my 39th (no really, it's not 39 + 2 or anything) birthday, I find that my body is just not flushing out the toxins at the same rate as it did in my 20s.  Or even last year.  So, I have been on the hunt to replace cocktails during cocktail hour, because I still think that breaking to enjoy the afternoon on the porch or patio should be considered a mandatory part of your daily schedule.  But feeling dehydrated and slightly dizzy all night is no fun. While those around me can still pound the vodka and gin, I'm trying to mix it up with some healthier alternatives.  Perhaps you are, too. Or perhaps you were never a borderline alcoholic and you're just looking to add to your smug, better-than-me collection of health tonics.  Whatever.

Barley water is an old-fashioned English drink for summertime, and it is surprisingly refreshing.  It will keep for a week in the refrigerator once it's cooled, and you can always throw in a splash of your favorite clear liquor if you just can't stand to go boozeless.  Whip up a batch or two for your July 4th picnic and enjoy the irony.

Basic Barley Water

Makes about 1.5 quarts

1 cup pearled barley, rinsed and sorted
2 quarts water
3 tablespoons lemon juice
scant 1/4 cup honey

Combine the barley and water in a medium sauce pan, cover, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and cook until barley is tender, about 20 minutes.  Strain out the barley (keep it, for goodness' sake--I have a salad recipe coming for that on Friday) and whisk the honey and lemon juice into the cooking liquid.  Allow to cool completely in the refrigerator before drinking.


All of these additions can just be added to the final product while it's still hot...

  • 2 sprigs of fresh mint + a few fresh lavender flowers
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon rose water + 4 cardamom pods
  • 6 thin slices of cucumber and 1 thick lemon slice