A Coffee "Eye Opener"

I get made fun of a lot for the amount of coffee that I drink and the fact that it's decaf. Why? Because most people like to drink coffee in order to find some form of stimulation from the caffeine. I on the other hand really just enjoy the taste. But, there is one more reason I don't drink regular caffeinated coffee...that would be for "OVER" stimulation.

Yes, anyone who knows me knows that it is not suggested that I am EVER served caffeinated coffee. I am energetic enough as it is, and anyone who has been around me "on the coffee" knows to steer clear. Best friends, family, co workers, boyfriend - they all give me the look of "oh s#*t" when they know I have had a cup.

Case in point: a few years back I was Catering Sales Manager for a restaurant. I hadn't been there long, but everyone knew in the first few weeks how much coffee I enjoyed (well hell it was free...). They all thought I had been drinking regular coffee, until a manager friend, Paul (who literally always has a coffee in his hand), brought me coffee from his local favorite place one morning.

"Is it decaf?" I graciously asked. "No, regular. Why?" he asked, to which I went on to tell him what happens when I drink regular coffee. He began to laugh but also gave the familar "oh s#*t" look as he had come to know me pretty well and took the coffee from me. He said someday he was going to have to see it to believe it.

Well, he did.

A few days later on a hot, summer day, all of the managers gathered for a manager meeting. Paul brought up a tray of iced coffees in but had a separate pint glass already marked with a straw in it and said "Lesley, this is the decaf for you, my dear". I remember being so thirsty and so thankful that I literally sucked the whole thing down almost before the meeting started. Paul just stared at me in disbelief, as did a couple of the other managers. Then the looks of disbelief slowly transformed into laughable grins.

"What? Do I have some on my shirt?", I said as I frantically was checking out myself to see if I had spilled. "No, no," snickered Paul, lying through his teeth, "we just can't believe you drank that so fast!"

Well the joke was really on me because 10 minutes later it was my turn to run part of the meeting, and I couldn't talk. I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing or what I was trying to say. I started fidgeting and talking waaaay to fast, and that's when Paul and my manager friends burst into laughter. Paul then was able to get out while still laughing, "Lesley! I am so sorry! I tricked you, we all tricked you! It was regular coffee - we just didn't totally believe that the caffeine would make you this wired! Ha ha....!" I just had to laugh at myself. I mean, literally, it's like I could feel the caffeine, especially since I had downed the "venti"-sized iced coffee in T minus 1 minute. So, lesson learned for my managers and lesson learned for me: always stick with the decaf.

So back to the present "eye opening" experience. Over the past two years I have been somewhat religious about getting my venti decaf drip every morning, Monday thru Friday, at the McDonald's of coffee houses: STARBUCKS. It's not that I think its the best, but hell there literally is one on every corner or on the route to work. I actually got excited when they did the whole "Pikes Place" campaign thinking there would be an improvement in the beans. If there was, it was pretty slight - but I still remained a loyal customer. I never really went out of my way to go to Pete's or Tully's or a nearby coffee mom-and-pop place, so I settled with Starbucks.

Until I "met" Blue Bottle Coffee. I think anyone who's anyone who's anyone that lives and works in the SF (perhaps the whole Bay) area and enjoys coffee (and the foodie scene) has at least HEARD of Blue Bottle and more than likely stood in line (and it can be a pretty long line) for a cup of their individual filter-drip coffee. I was driving to work months back and saw a line of at least 20 people waiting at the kiosk they have over off of Linden and Gough and wondering what all the fuss was about?

It wasn't until 3 months ago that I had my first experience with Blue Bottle. I was at the Ferry Building and patiently (but antsy) waited in line with the other 20 or so people there. I ordered their decaf drip coffee (I think its $2.50 - yeah, not "cheap"), waited my patient 5 minutes while it steeped, poured in a little half and half, took my first sip, and smiled. Heaven. Who knew coffee could actually be this good? Obviously they are on the right track with their "artisanal microroasting". Whatever it is, this DECAF coffee is good.

I have since then cut off my ties to Starbucks, purchased some decaf beans from Blue Bottle, ground them myself, and now make a lovely pot of decaf coffee every morning at home to enjoy (and seriously, it tastes just as good as when the baristas make it themselves). But, this morning, curious, I thought, ok it has been a while now since I have visited my "ex" coffee house; perhaps I should just say "hello" and try it out again, just to see if I am missing anything. So, I went into my corner Starbucks, ordered the decaf drip, mixed in a little half and half, took a sip, and definitely was disappointed. It was just not the same as Blue Bottle - it was sour, tasted burnt, almost grassy? I started to amass the amount of money I have spent over the years on my old Starbucks. My boyfriend even commented on the Starbucks cup in my car when I picked him up from the airport this morning: "Whoa, Starbucks? I haven't seen you drinking that in a long time." Sigh.

But, I am a loyal fan of Blue Bottle now. Not to say I am going to spend the $$ every morning at the kiosk, but I will enjoy my pound of coffee beans for $10 (worth it) that I will continue to brew at home every morning.

Foodie inspiration...from an LA Times article, and MOM

My Mom is great for many reasons, but for years she has been saving me the Wednesday edition of the Los Angeles Times (LA Times) Food section. Since I don't live nearby anymore, she will normally save them for me (weeks and weeks) for when I am home to take them back to San Francisco. In the meantime, I browse the Food section from LAtimes.com, and recently came across this article: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-calcook17-2009jun17,0,243805.story

What I took most from the article is not bbq'ing the meat (because I live in a studio with no access to bbq'ing outside) but rather the cuts of meat they were talking about. Especially Top Sirloin.

Now, backing up to reference my Mom, there were many afternoons when I lived at home where she would look at me and say "I am craving Filet." With that, she would be off to the market and come back with Filet Mignon and an avocado. She would simply heat up the pan, sear off the steaks and liberally season them with Lawry's seasoning salt and Lawry's garlic salt (staples in our house, but that is for another entry), and cook them to a perfect medium rare. She would then cut the avocado into slivers, then into chunks, and season the avocado simply with Lawry's seasoning salt. We would immediately dive right into a protein overload, happily satiated with a glass of either Hess or Kendall Jackson chardonnay. We literally would stand in the kitchen instead of sit down, bent over the same plate, sharing the plate and almost fighting for the last bite.

I had a similar craving the other night, but with my budget being tight, I looked to the LA Times article and figured Top Sirloin would be the best bet to satisfy my needs. Besides, it was $8.99 a pound, hormone free, grass fed, and looked amazing.

I decided to simply sear the Top Sirloin in my pan with a little olive oil but with sea salt and pepper (sorry Mom, didn't have Lawry's seasoning salt!), cooked it perfectly medium rare, and heated up some brown rice (thanks Trader Joe's frozen section), and sauteed some baby spinach with a lot of sliced garlic. When I took my first bite, I was in heaven. I remember thinking, why on earth did we spend the premium over the years for the filet--the Top Sirloin is so flavorful! And, the best part was I was all by myself, and I had the plate all to myself. No fighting over the last bite this time!

So thank you, LA Times, for giving me a good reason (besides my budget) to switch to the cheaper cuts of meat because really it was one of the best homemade steak meals I have had since those lunches with my Mom. Except I forgot the avocado.

Perfectly medium rare

My garlicky spinach

A possible replacement for La Boca?

There are wines like the 1997 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for about $3,000.00; then there are wines like Castle Rock 2007 Monterey County Pinot Noir that I can get at Safeway on sale for $9.99 or up the street at my local wine shop for $13.99 (one of my favorite "everyday" pinots, I might add).

And then there is the elusive La Boca Malbec from Argentina (pick a vintage - doesn't matter) that beg the reason to be talked about. Why? Because up until about two months ago it was READILY available at Trader Joes nationwide (yes, even in Washington DC area) for the lovely, easy-on-the-wallet price of...$2.99.

Ok, this is not, let me repeat NOT, your friend's Charles Shaw crap all mixed together and bottled and sold for the same price (although I wish I had been part of the inception of Chuck Shaw, because damn those guys have to laughing all the way to the bank). This happens, or should I say "happened", to be one of the most drinkable, food friendly, bar friendly, back yard friendly, party friendly (did I mention wallet friendly??) wines I had ever had. Until that fateful day that I found out La Boca's fate from the general manager at TJ's. But, we must start at the beginning.

A few years back, a best friend had a few people over and decided to open a bottle of La Boca Chardonnay. Now I had never heard of this winery, and she knew this. I remember her pouring me a glass and asking how much I thought the wine cost. I said I had no clue, and with that she informed me it was $2.99. I was like, what? It was so drinkable! Well, that bottle went down very easily, with my friend continuing on about how she found it at TJ's, etc., etc., and then said I had to try the Malbec. So, onto bottle #2 (we don't mess around) we went - and dove straight into the Malbec. It was smooth, drinkable, with definite blackberry jammy-ness but also that earthy, woodiness that you expect from a Malbec. When she told me again it was $2.99 I almost leapt from my chair (needless to say, there may have been exaggeration b/c of my wine consumption up to this point).

The night went on and on, but I was hooked. I mean seriously, I could buy a case for $36, a price that I do spend on a single bottle.

It's only now that I look back at how many glasses (and bottles) I have bought over the years. Beyond the fact its price point was great, it was just a fantastic, easy wine. I have braised short ribs with it, and of course had a few (ok, more than a few) glasses while waiting for the ribs to cook. I have served it to guests who reply, "Whoa, that's great, what is that?" La Boca Malbec; take that Screaming Eagle.

So fast forward: same aforementioned best friend's birthday this past April. She calls me to say she can't find it in the Pasadena, CA, area. I said I would look for it here in San Francisco. I go to my local TJ's and see they they too are out of La Boca Malbec! WTF? Upon asking the manager what was the deal, I found out that La Boca had been in talks with TJ's about renegotiating their contract, and wanted TJ's to raise their price since Rite-Aid was able to sell it for $6.99. TJ's said nope; instead the answer was that TJ's would not renegotiate at the higher price and they would phase out the Malbec. My jaw dropped. The manager said I was not the first person who had come into the store asking for it, bewildered that this was going on, and then to utter, "Damn, I should have bought a case recently!"

So I posted on Facebook as my status,

"Trader Joe's may be "phasing out" La Boca wines? Say it ain't so...what am I going to replace my $2.99 a bottle "splurge" with..."

to which many friends, far and wide, all chimed in with their shock, all in disbelief. One girlfriend started calling around to TJ's down in San Diego to see if she could find a case or two and bought what were probably the last 3 in the county.

It was a period of mourning knowing I was going to have to move on. I mean, with all of the decently priced wines at TJ's you really need to just start tasting and navigating through them...by buying and tasting them. I have been on a mission to try to find something that I like, that is similar to my missed Malbec (sniff), and at the same price range. I believe I have found a contender.

Panilonco Merlot/Malbec blend from Chile. $3.99 a bottle.

This was me enjoying it with my grass-fed top sirloin, brown rice, and garlicky spinach (blog entry and recipe to come) the other night.

My heart (and liver) are slightly empty from the void that La Boca Malbec left, but I have a feeling that Panilonco is going to be the "cure".

A toast to my first post

Creating this blog was a chance for me to blab about my two favorite things: eating and drinking. I mean, really, 5 O'clock really is the best time ever, and thank God it is around dinner time. Or, is that "Miller Time"?

Please find humor in what I say; challenge my cooking techniques; bring new ideas to the "table"; create your own review of my dishes and wine selections; tell me that the 2006 Tori Vineyard Zin from Wilson isn't good, but be damn well ready to back up your claim; be well read on Omnivore's Dilemma, Soul of a Chef (basically anything Michael Ruhlman), food blogs, food mags, and Food newspaper sections; be prepared to collect corks, menus, pictures, and even cocktail napkins. As I love my experience in food and wine (and other beverages), I want to make this a fun blog to read. And, of course, enjoy what I have to say - just like that perfectly cooked 6o-hour sous vide pork belly and seared scallop dish from Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, CA (hell, even if it wasn't cooked for 60 hours, it was damn well the best I have had).

Whatever your beverage of choice, please raise a glass and toast to my ramblings of cooking escapades, adventures in the $10 and under wines at Trader Joes, frequent excursions out to eat (and drink), visits to the famed farmers markets of Northern California, jaunts to the wine country, and most importantly, enjoying my favorite hour of the day. I hope it will become yours too. Oh, and don't forget the food.