My beef with coffee

I love coffee. I really love coffee. And espresso. And any incarnation thereof.

I’m not too picky, really. Especially for a Seattleite.

But a few months ago, driving back from Montana, I noticed something odd that’s been bothering me ever since: About 3o minutes after I drain the last of a good cuppa – a dense, dark French roast or a perfect Americano – I taste the distinct flavor of beef.

It’s not that the coffee itself tastes beefy. That would be gross.

No, it’s later. I taste it after the cup is long gone, when I’ve moved on to my writing for the day, or have driven farther down whatever road requested the hit in the first place. When my brain has moved on to other things. I’ll just be sitting there, then BAM, it’s the iron-clad flavor of pure cow. The soft veal carpaccio at Wolf, flashing pure mineral across my tongue.

But it’s from coffee. And that’s weird.

Have you ever noticed this?

I googled “coffee beef aftertaste” and found notes from coffee cuppings everywhere. Coffee is like wine, of course, full of intricate flavors available to those with well-functioning taste buds. But the beef flavor never comes to me when I’m expecting it – in fact, if I drink coffee, and look for steaky flavors, I usually can’t find them. It’s always a good half hour later. It’s a sneaky beef taste.

I wanted to consult Harold McGeehe would know – but remembered I still haven’t bought the book.

Anyway. The truth is, I kind of like her, the little pet cow that follows my taste buds around, and peeks her head out at the strangest times. And last night, two hours after one such appearance, I decided I wanted to eat her for dinner.

It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t made a brisket yet this winter, and with temperatures finally dipping just below freezing on a regular basis, late January seemed to be the right time. (Yes, I said finally – because really, what’s winter without a little nip inside the nose, a bit of frost-kissed grass, and ice in the driveway that crunches heartily under each step, like Grape Nuts without milk? It’s not winter.)

Winter view from porch

This morning I crept out onto the frosty porch just after dawn, and crawled up onto the bench, where I knew a view would be waiting. Those pesky bushes, I thought first, gazing past the full moon toward the snow-covered Olympics. Then I reconsidered, remembering that without winter, I wouldn’t see the mountains at all.

But – yesterday. Yesterday, I found a good-sized beef brisket, trimmed it neatly, seared it in a hot Dutch oven, and braised it in a mixture of coffee and spices. It’s the simplest braise – truth is, none of the root vegetables in my refrigerator volunteered for a dunk in Fiore – sweetened at the end with brown sugar, and a touch of cream. (I resisted stirring in a hunk of dark chocolate, but I’m sure that would be delicious.) The meat fell into long, moist strands at the touch of a fork, and when my husband came home, we piled it atop buttered wheat berries and felt it warm us from the inside out. There at the dinner table, with an expectant palate, coffee and beef seemed like a most natural pairing. The coffee didn’t taste at all burned, as I feared, and it didn’t seem to bother my sleep a bit.

I feel kind of sorry for this brisket, though – any way you slice it, it’s brown meat with brown sauce, humble and simple and, well, kind of ugly. I hope it doesn’t feel too pressured by all the sexy specimens on the cover of food magazines – that pouty pot roast, flanked by legions of baby carrots and perfect parsnips, in the bowl that matches so well, or that sultry plate of lamb shanks, lounging on their haute-exotic dinnerware.

When I open the leftover brisket for lunch today, I’ll soothe it. Don’t you worry your pretty little head, I’ll say. All those other girls, they’ve had work done.

Then I’ll enjoy it, and finish off the meal with a good cup of coffee, and the cycle will begin again.

coffee-braised brisket with cream and sugar

Coffee-Braised Brisket with Cream and Sugar (PDF)

Spiced with ground coriander, cumin, chili, and dried oregano, this unusual brisket suggests Mexican roots. Serve it over whole grains, such as wheat berries, wild rice, brown rice, or polenta, or on a bed of egg noodles, with plenty of sauce.

To make the brisket a day ahead, let the beef cool to room temperature in its braising liquid, and refrigerate overnight. Before serving, skim any fat off the surface of the sauce, then proceed with simmering, etc. Slice the beef cold and reheat it in the finished sauce.

TIME: 45 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 to 6 servings

One (roughly 3-pound) beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
4 cups strong-brewed coffee
1/3 packed cup brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid (such as a Dutch oven) over medium heat. Season the brisket with salt and pepper on both sides. When the pan is hot, add the oil, then sear the brisket for 5 to 7 minutes per side, until very well browned. Transfer the brisket to a plate and set aside.

Add the onion, and cook and stir for 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft, adding a tablespoon or two of water if the onion begins to stick to the pan. Add the garlic and spices, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the coffee and bring to a strong simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release any good brown bits from the bottom of the pan. As soon as the mixture simmers, slide the beef back in.

Braise the beef in the oven for one hour. Carefully flip the beef, stir in the brown sugar, and braise another 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the beef comes out with absolutely no resistance.

Transfer the brisket to a shallow bowl, and cover with foil. Return the pot to the stove and cook the sauce at a strong simmer for 15 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by almost half.

In a small bowl, whisk the cream with the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons cold water until no lumps remain. Add this mixture to the simmering sauce, stirring as the sauce thickens. Season the sauce to taste.

Slice the beef thinly across the grain, and serve with sauce.

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10 Comments

Filed under Beef, gluten-free, recipe

10 responses to “My beef with coffee

  1. That sounds lovely. I wonder if the marinade would be suitable for pork ribs (my budget is at the mercy of the market, and when pork ribs are down to $2/lb., pork ribs it is).

  2. Sounds to me like it would work – try it and let us know!

  3. Bree

    I don’t even eat beef and this made my mouth water. Plus it was just so perfectly-written and entertaining in that inimitable Jess style: “I kind of like her, the little pet cow that follows my taste buds around… And last night… I decided I wanted to eat her for dinner.” Love it! I have never noticed the taste of cow after my coffee… Maybe it’s imbued in the milk. ;)

  4. Ooooh. That sound good! I haven’t made brisket yet either… and you made me laugh, too.

    I definitely get strong coffee aftertastes, but it always reminds me more of mushroom than beef. Will taste again shortly.

  5. Bree, you may be on to something – I do use milk in my coffee . . .

  6. Ruth

    I had to read this aloud to Bridges this morning. You really had us laughing!

  7. Rachel H.

    I’m sending this recipe to my dad. I’m hoping he’ll make it and invite me over for dinner. I think he’ll be up for trying a brisket without the usual wine and cranberries.

  8. andrea

    I was just reading the April issue of Cooks Illustrated tonight and had to write. In the Notes from Readers section, there was a question about MSG and natural glutamates. Their response said this about natural glutamates, “Being a natural amino acid, the same molecule that builds proteins, glutamate leaves a savory, meaty taste on the tongue.” Meaty taste on the tongue? I have to let Jess know about this! :)

    Could that be what you are experiencing? They list onions, soy sauce, tomatoes, and wine as having glutamates – why not coffee?

    Just thought I’d share.

  9. Andrea, that’s genius – I looked around a little, and found this article:

    http://www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.php3?article_id=218392537

    on coffee, which says that your brain secretes natural glutamates in response to the arousing effects of caffeine. So the coffee doesn’t actually contain glutamates, but causes your body to release a similar natural substance. This totally matches the 30 minute wait time I experience – and the article also addresses something I didn’t mention, the fact that I’m somehow able to sleep very easily after drinking coffee, especially about 1 hour afterward. Perhaps my high/low caffeine system just works *really* well?

    Thanks!

  10. Kathleen

    I have an old cookbook from the ’50s that contains a recipe for leg of lamb basted with a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. The book says it’s a Swedish dish. I’ve tried it and it is fantastic.

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