Espresso coffee for the absolute beginner

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t about the coffee so much as it’s about having “a thing” … some people chew gum, others smoke. I like coffee, so coffee is “my thing”. In any sit-down-job, long periods of deep concentration really pays-off up to a point; once you hit that wall though, it  is very difficult to stay on top of things. That’s why deliberately stopping to “do your thing” really gives the brain a chance to get back on track.

Nowadays I can (and do) enjoy three to four very small coffee-breaks every day; you might think I get very little sleep, but did you know that espresso has LESS caffeine than a regular cup of java, especially in the super-sized cups we’ve grown used to? [Note: My Dad had a pretty high tolerance for caffeine, so some of my coping with coffee I inherited, but still: espresso has less caffeine is the real message!]

The right tool for the right job

If you’re a first time espresso machine buyer, simply: the first espresso maker you buy is never the last one you ever buy, so do not buy the biggest one with all the bells and whistles attached!

Buy something small that looks easy to use and easy to clean.

The only metrics you really need to see on the box is that it is capable of 15-bars of pressure and promises a consistent temperature.

Speaking of temperature: don’t go for the stylish stainless-steel espresso cups. They don’t retain heat very well. A tepid cup of espresso is a shot of disappointment so, buy the nice and thick ceramic ones. I’ll leave the choice of saucers up to you. =)

While you’re at the store, get a couple of those tiny coffee-spoons, narrow espresso cups won’t accommodate most of the spoons in your kitchen. A small sugar-bowl that is easy to open with one hand is good to keep near the espresso machine too.

Bean there, done that

Tastes will vary, so recommending a brand isn’t going to help. You can always ask at places where you’ve enjoyed espresso before. Some restaurants even have the brand on display. Grinding your own beans is an option, but starting with pre-ground will get you familiar with the consistency of espresso grounds which is finer than regular coffee grinds.

Try not to get something super-special or difficult to buy. Better to get used to a brand that is easy to find so you never run out. My brand is available at two or three grocery stores in my neighborhood so there’s always some around when I need to stock up.

Making your brew!

No matter what bean or machine you get, temperature plays a significant role in the actual taste of the coffee. Really. Cooled-down espresso just doesn’t pop and often tastes awful. The secret to keeping espresso warm is in the coffee cup. Remember I told you not to buy the stainless-steel ones? We’re going to nuke ours in the microwave so steel cups are definitely off the table for good espresso.

Here’s “my espresso thing”:

  1. Take a clean espresso cup, fill it with hot water from the kitchen tap. Microwave the cup for 25 seconds.
  2. Take 1 scoop of espresso coffee and put it in the filter, flatten the scoop of coffee, but don’t pack it down. Packing coffee too hard makes water flow difficult.
  3. Dump the water from your warmed espresso cup and run the machine, letting the brew go directly into the warmed cup.
  4. Add sugar. [I only use 1 or 2 coffee-spoons of plain-old white granulated sugar, but the only rules here are the ones you make yourself.]

Drink the espresso within 1 or 2 minutes at the most otherwise it will be too cool and won’t taste very good anymore.

Start slow

Now I know I said that I do this espresso-thing three or four times a day. However, you respond differently to caffeine than I do. So try to limit yourself to one or two cups per day at the most for the first week until you can gauge your personal tolerance level.

One more thing…



Saturday Sketch: Mark Muttle

Being such a terrible communicator it is better than mere irony that I find you reading this…

In fact, I am such a bad communicator that I need to practice talking all the time (and you thought I was just crazy, talking to myself all day!), rehearsing simple questions and statements as often as I can. You see, my bad communication skills tend to let me jumble up really simple conversation starters like “What time is it?” into “Kinky Brussels sprout sadist!”. Just try and explain that one away to the unfortunate person standing next to you on the subway platform or in front of you at the grocery checkout line. Not easy.

Take all assurance that this situation is just as embarrassing to me as it would be to an unfortunate person like you could be one of these days.

Hence, the writing is good enough practice to retard the broken engine in my head just enough that “Orange boot heel scrap metal” comes out correctly as “I think it is about to rain, oh darn.”

It is not all bad, cryptanalysts have approached me about turning my affliction into a natural cryptography method. After all, what better cryptography tool than your own brain and mouth? No one can tell that you have a special cryptography device and you can use it at any time anywhere or all the time everywhere, if that’s what you really want.

However, I have accepted nothing and made no promises to these cryptanalysts yet I am suspicious that other people watching me believe that I have already turned myself into a super spy and attempt to converse with me in super-secret spy language. For example the other day a bus driver told me to “get encapsulated by the bluest fire exit” instead of “exact change only”. I found that a little suspicious.

Combine Tuna and Olive Oil for a Healthy Snack

I’m a snacker… a nibbler… a sampler of foods. This is not a good trait, snacking on commercial snack foods leads to eating a lot of unnecessary calories, preservatives and salt.

Last year I decided to put a stop to eating food that isn’t nourishing or make me a healthier person. I may not have a perfect record but my weight is way down and I really enjoy eating my snacks far better than anything I get ready-to-eat from the grocery store. Really I mean it: eating any of my favorite snacks actually tastes so good to me I feel happier!

Even if my snacks don’t appeal much to you, try to build your own snack, using these criteria:

  1. Is there at least one high-quality ingredient in the snack (e.g. olive oil is my “high-quality ingredient” in this recipe)?
  2. Before you taste it, does it smell really good?
  3. Are the ingredients easy to get and keep in the kitchen?

Here is the first of several snack ideas to share with you. Preparation time is minimal, it will take you longer to read this blog than to actually make it!

Tuna, olive oil and Tabasco

My Dad was Portuguese, if there is one thing you learn from Portuguese cooking it is this: olive oil and fish were made for each other. Olive oil makes even average fish taste really good! If you don’t know from olive oil, be sure to get the “extra virgin” kind as it has the nicest flavor.

The recipe:

  1. Open 1 can of tuna, drain oil/water and empty into a bowl
  2. Splash on some Tabasco to suit your taste
  3. Pour 1 tablespoon (20ml) of extra-virgin olive oil
  4. Add fresh ground pepper
  5. Inhale the aroma!
  6. Mix together with a fork

Those used to tuna-and-mayonnaise my find this on the “dry” side. Try adding some fresh diced sweet pepper or cucumber to the mix to moisten the concoction.


What are your favorite snack recipes?

Searching for Writing Ideas

Just one of those days: the impulse to write is definitely here, yet the mind is a blank and searching – vainly – for a topic.

Moments like this make me suspect I burned off excess energy last week, instead of building momentum. It’s confusing when the two outcomes are possible doing the same activity. The only difference is where your efforts take you. Me? I am at mostly the same spot I found myself in last week, with no forward movement to point to. I would call that a lack of momentum, wouldn’t you?

I am going to turn this into a learning opportunity by forgoing the pressure to write, taking out my notebook instead and jotting down every possible blog/writing idea I can think of. In fact this will be my new daily habit for accumulating writing ideas. Call it “preparation”. Call it “homework”.

Will it work? You will start to see more posts here if it does.

P.S. Boring topics like the one above shall be excluded from any list.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Notebook Even Closer

If you’re going to write, then write.

No, that’s not right, scratch that. Start with this:

If you’re going to write, then better have a place to put that writing in.

Much better!

So what is the point? I first thought of this post over morning coffee, no particular day this week.

No laptop… No smartphone to hunt-and-peck a posting full of  typos and incoherence… No, oh, let’s be honest: I had something better to do than write a blog post at just the same moment the very idea occurred to me, so how did this posting ever come to be?

I had a notebook… a small notebook and a nubby little pencil that sits in the bottom of my daypack, minding its own business until I need it. I jotted down my idea in 50 words or less, then went back to the thing I really wanted to do.

If there is yet another thing I keep teaching myself over and over is taking a notebook everywhere is my habit, not my hobby. The over all goal is to write a lot more than in the past; that won’t happen unless I provide myself with something to write in! For years upon years I did myself no service by promising myself “I’ll remember it later“… I didn’t. Nobody does. A prize-winning idea or two is lost in the ether every week when relying on memory alone.

The Five Stages of Glasses

Stage 1: Denial and Isolation

Glasses? I don’t need glasses! … Glasses are for old people! I’m not old… I’m not. You’re older than me, by three weeks, so where are your glasses, huh?

Stage 2: Anger

This is all… your… fault! I wanted to get the widescreen TV but nooooo! And I’ve been squinting at that tiny 30-inch standard TV ever since. No wonder the eye-doctor thinks I need glasses.

Stage 3: Bargaining

What if I move the couch further away from the TV? All we got to do is knock out this wall, it was always in the way and… no, I’m sure it’s not a load-bearing wall but we can risk it, can’t we? What do we pay insurance premiums for?

Stage 4: Depression

Look at me. I’m old…. Hey, turn that down! You call that music? …To hell with the glasses, I might as well get bifocals and a hearing-aid because that’s what all old people wear… where’s my cardigan?

Stage 5: Acceptance

Hm. John Lennon wore specs all the time and he was in his twenties. I should get some of those Lennon specs… I would look so… awesome wearing Lennon specs while playing acoustic guitar for our friends! Honey? Where’s my guitar? …Well which one is it? The garage or the attic? Never mind, I’m going to go get some John Lennon specs! …what do you mean they’re “old ladies'” glasses?

Bonus Sketch: Area Man Throws Out Soup

“Actually, it was chowder… clam or chicken. I don’t remember anymore, the label had mostly peeled off. All that time on my shelf and I can’t even remember what the label looked like, what kind of an insensitive bastard am I,” said Sam Flagweaver of himself, clearly distraught over the loss of a hearty snack.

The label had mostly fallen off after the sides of the can slowly bulged out after years of resting on the second shelf of the 3rd cabinet from the left. The bulge was a telltale sign of botulism, but Sam still checked the “best before” date printed on the top—just to be sure.

“I remember the day I brought it home,” opined the accountant (currently unemployed), “I was in the store and I was wandering aimlessly in the general direction of the frozen chicken wings and corndogs when I passed by the soup aisle—the chowder was on special that day, two for one–and I said to myself ‘chowder? I could do chowder…’ so I bought two cans and some Lemon Pledge—I wasn’t going to eat it, that’s what I went there for in the first place.”

“I brought that soup home, all happy and stuff… The first can never even hit the pantry shelf, I heated it up and ate it right away. Then I put that can on the second shelf and never gave it another thought—until now (lunchtime)…”

“I kept telling myself: ‘better finish of that chowder today, Sam’. But I was all: ‘nah, there’s still time’… and now: it’s too late. I thought there was more time… there was no more time… dammit!

At this point Sam punched the wall, terminating the interview. At this moment he is sitting in a corner, rocking and muttering to himself “never again… never again…”

The can of chowder is survived by a box of Saltines. Sam will not be made aware that the Saltines had turned moldy from sitting next to a spoiled can of soup until a later date and after much professional therapy.