Chefs cook with coffee, brew up hot menu ideas; no longer seen as just a beverage, the proverbial cup of joe takes on a whole new meaning

Chefs cook with coffee, brew up hot menu ideas; no longer seen as just a beverage, the proverbial cup of joe takes on a whole new meaning – Culinary CurrentsĀ®

Bret Thorn

The notion of eating ground coffee beans doesn’t appeal to many people, but Robert Del Grande, chef-owner of Cafe Annie in Houston, thought about doing just that even before a happy accident on Christmas morning forced his hand about a decade ago.

He and a friend, who worked for a large food company, were “talking about pork loin basted with espresso or something,” Del Grande recalls, “about coffee [having] a meaty flavor.”

So cooking with coffee already was on his mind when, early in the morning, he started preparing a couple of beef filets for his family’s Christmas dinner.

Since it was early, Del Grande also was grinding coffee for his morning brew and spilled the ground coffee onto the cutting board where his filets were.

He decided to experiment on his relatives. He ground more coffee, rolled the filets in it, tied and roasted them.

“Nobody could tell that it was coffee,” Del Grande says, but they loved it,

And so a signature dish was born.

Now chile is added to the coffee that coats his filets, and in the past he also has added bitter cocoa, cinnamon and other spices.

Del Grande says that when you say “ground coffee” or write it on a menu, people think of coffee grounds, but it’s not the same thing. “Coffee grounds are all puffed up with water and gritty,” says Del Grande, who adds that most of their flavor has been extracted. “But if you take coffee and add a little oil, it soaks it up and becomes luscious,” more like a cocoa bean.

He says that’s what happens when you roll beef in coffee: It soaks up some of the fat from the beef.

“When you cook it on a roast or filet of beef, it gets very dark,” Del Grande adds, giving the visual appeal of a dark outside and pink inside reminiscent of steakhouse char. “You get tremendous richness on the outside, and it doesn’t come across as coffee.”

Del Grande also uses ground coffee as he would other bitter spices, such as fennel seed or cinnamon. He’ll sprinkle finely ground coffee powder, along with olive oil and sea salt, over roasted loin of lamb or beef.

“Put a little ground coffee on French fries,” he suggests. “Unbelievable.”

And of course the aroma of coffee will get most people’s juices flowing, “Even if I don’t want to have a cup of coffee, I don’t mind smelling it,” Del Grande says.

His idea of coating meat in ground coffee spread across Texas, and chefs from Houston to Austin give him credit for developing the technique, including Robert Rhoades, the new executive chef at Hudson’s on the Bend in Austin, and Hugo Ortega, the chef at Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe in Houston.

Ortega says an ex-cook from Cafe Annie brought the idea to Backstreet Cafe.

“We just gave a little twist to it,” he says.

Ortega crusts both venison rack and beef tenderloin with ground coffee. For the venison he mixes the coffee with some Creole mustard, presses it onto the meat, pan-sears it and then finishes it in the oven.

“The coffee gives a kind of smoky flavor and also a sensation of stimulating your palate,” Ortega says, adding that coffee’s natural sweetness and spiciness gives the food a different “dimension of flavor, beyond the ordinary…. It’s not like you have an idea of how it’s going to taste. It’s a very unique, distinctive flavor.”

At Hudson’s on the Bend, chef Rhoades kept the recipe of the former chef, Jeff Blank, for butter-smoked, espresso-rubbed venison.

For the rub finely ground espresso is mixed with salt, ancho chile powder and ground black pepper. The venison rests for an hour dressed in the rub before it’s slowly smoked until its internal temperature reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the venison is submerged in butter that has been heated to 140 degrees and placed in a stovetop smoker. If you keep the temperature constant, you can leave the venison submerged for up to four hours, the chef says.

Also in Austin, at Crimson restaurant, chef Misty Lowe grinds coffee and black peppercorns together and uses that as a crust on one side of pork tenderloin. She sears it crust-side down, turns it over and finishes it in the oven.

“It helps the pork hold the moisture in, and it will give you a nice crust and a nice brown edge,” she says. “We like to do a lot of things that are very Southern,” she adds, “and good old strong coffee is definitely a Southern staple.”

In the South brewed coffee is added to chili, it’s in braising liquid for brisket, and it’s an important ingredient in red-eye gravy.

Lowe combines it with balsamic vinegar and molasses and reduces it by three quarters. She uses that sauce for her pork loin. “It’s one of our most popular dishes,” she says.

At River Oaks Grill in Houston, executive chef Michael Fretsch adds about 2 quarts of brewed coffee to 4 gallons of stock as he starts reducing it to demi-glace.

“It adds a little depth and richness to it,” Fretsch says.

Coffee now is spicing up proteins all over the country.

In the chain world Chili’s corporate chefs recently created a java steak, a 10-ounce strip steak that was rubbed with java “spice rub,” which included a delicate coffee flavor. The steak was intended as a limited-time offering, but ultimately was scrapped before making it that far.

Rippe’s Steak and Seafood restaurant in Seattle turned heads recently when sous chef Allison Jester mischievously rolled 12-ounce filet mignons in freshly ground espresso beans. Jester got the idea from a front-of-the-house co-worker who mentioned that her aunt used instant coffee as a rub.

Jester suggested it to management but says they didn’t really warm up to the idea.

“I mentioned it to Joe [Labatt, the executive chef], and our front-of-the-house manager, and they both scoffed at me and turned their noses up at it,” Jester recalls.

“On Sunday evenings I run the place by myself,” the sous chef says. “So I use them as my lab days, basically…. I get to be the creative one, and everyone’s OK with that, so I … run off-the-wall specials.”

The Sunday night she tried the coffee experiment her espresso filet was the No. 1 seller.

“It’s easily our most popular steak right now,” says Labatt, noting that the coffee gives the steak a nutty and light, smoky flavor. “It’s a very nice complement to the steak.”

At Kaya in Pittsburgh, executive chef Kevin Sousa and sous chef Brandy Stewart mixed very fine Turkish-grind espresso with cumin, coriander, sugar, cayenne pepper, chile powder and kosher salt and dredge venison loin with it. They found that it brought an earthiness to the dish. “It’s really, really nice,” Sousa says. “The bitterness of the coffee balances the spice and sweetness.” So now they serve it with chestnut puree, Chinese long beans and seared mango as well as some demi-glace finished with the spice mix.

“It’s a very, very popular dish,” Sousa says. “We’re going to keep it on the menu through the winter.”

In New York, Massimo Girardi, chef at Acqua Pazza, adds both ground espresso and a shot of brewed espresso to his tagliolini. The ground beans give the pasta a coffee taste; the brewed espresso gives it color.

He cooks it and serves it with rock shrimp and fresh Tuscan porcini mushrooms in a sauce of reduced lobster stock, olive oil, white wine and tarragon. He says the rock shrimp is sweet, the porcini are earthy and the coffee, being both sweet and earthy, ties the other ingredients together.

Also in New York, at Town, executive chef John Johnson mixes fresh orange zest with whole espresso beans, Aleppo pepper, fresh jalapeno peppers, cumin, coriander and raisins in a fight lamb broth. That’s the braising liquid for lamb shanks, which he cooks in sous vide overnight.

“The coffee imparts a very deep background flavor, and it ties together the chile, the orange and the sweetness of the raisins.”

The lamb is strained, and the spice mix is pureed and passed through a China cap. The liquid is reduced separately, and some of the spice mix is added back to make a sauce with which to coat the lamb before serving it.

At Mark’s at The Mark hotel in New York, executive chef Andrew Chase reduces equal amounts of duck consomme and heavy cream by about three quarters and then adds lightly cracked espresso beans and lets them infuse, covered and away from heat, for about 10 minutes. He serves that sauce with duck breast crusted with honeyed nuts and garnished with brandied cherries, endive and orange zest.

Chase says the coffee adds a “bass note” to the dish.

In Boston, at Hammersley’s Bistro, chef-owner Gordon Hammersley doesn’t cook with coffee beans, but he does use brewed espresso–along with brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, grainy mustard and other spices–as a marinade for either beef or pork.

“The tannins in the coffee tend to break down meat in similar ways that wine and vinegar do,” he say. They also add bitterness and sweetness to the meat, he says. He marinates a thin steak for as little as 45 minutes. A large pork roast will take four to five hours, he says.

When brewed coffee is used as an ingredient, it often is reheated and reduced, but John Manion, chef at Mas in Chicago, doesn’t like the bitter quality coffee takes on if it is reduced. So for his mango-coffee reduction he slowly reduces simple syrup with fresh mangos, spiced with just a little habanero pepper, until it is very thick, and then adds the coffee. After that point, “If you bring it past a low simmer, it’ll get bitter on you really, really quick,” he warns. Otherwise, he says the sauce has a nice balance between coffee’s natural bitterness and the sweetness of the mango and sugar.

Unlike many other methods of using coffee–Manion says his gave his sauce, which was served with pan-roasted venison–a “pronounced coffee flavor.”

“It has more coffee than mango,” he says of the sauce. The dish, however, is not currently on the menu.

“I love the sauce,” he adds. “It might show up again.”

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