Let 'Er Drip

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

I love very strong coffee. For years I used an espresso maker but tired of it because the coffee was "over" too soon. I'm now grinding my own beans and using a regular coffee maker, but I probably use enough for eight cups, although I'm making only four cups. I know I'm wasting coffee, but is there a more economical way to extract all the flavor I crave?

The amount of ground beans is only one of the factors that affect the strength of the brew. Others are the fineness of the grind, how it is packed, the amount of water and its temperature, and the length of time the water is in contact with the grounds. Espresso machines are designed to use the optimum amount of coffee (six to seven grams per shot), the optimum grind and packing and the optimum water temperature (198 degrees). But all these variables aren't usually adjustable in a commercial coffee maker.

So make yourself a giant cup of mock espresso. Grind a generous tablespoon of dark- or espresso-roast beans finely and put it into a folded filter paper inside a conical, one-cup holder resting on top of a cup. With a small portion of just-boiled water (it will cool down to the right temperature as you work), wet down all the grounds so they form a compact mass at the tip of the cone. If the grounds are not uniformly wet, some of them will float on the water and their flavor will not be extracted.

Then add the rest of the water in small portions, washing the grounds back down from the sides to the bottom with each subsequent portion. The idea is to maximize the amount of time that all the grounds are in contact with the water.

Sip contentedly.

When I was a kid, my mom prepared a steak sandwich made from what she called a "sandwich steak" -- thinly sliced beef she purchased at a butcher shop in our town. I went back there a few weeks ago and they're still selling it. I spoke with the butcher and he showed me the cut; he called it a sirloin tip and said it is sometimes called a knuckle roast.

I can't find it in any of my books, and I'd like to know exactly where the cut comes from before I ask the butcher where I now live. Any suggestions?

The word "sirloin" is misleading because the sirloin tip steak doesn't come from the sirloin primal cut, one of the eight sections into which a side of beef is first divided. The sirloin tip steak comes from the hip, an adjacent primal cut more often called the round.

Tell the butcher you want that portion of the hip containing parts of the vastus lateralis, rectus femoris and vastus medialis muscles, obtained by a V-shaped cut beginning at the patella, following the full length of the femur up to the vicinity of its acetabulum, then straight toward the prefemoral lymph node.

Oh, you don't think your butcher would react kindly to that request? Well, just recite this list of the sirloin tip's aliases: knuckle steak, ball tip steak, round tip steak, breakfast steak, minute steak and (always listen to your mother) sandwich steak -- until the butcher's eyes light up in recognition.

In my own kid days, my mother and her butcher called them minute steaks. I'd grill one quickly in butter in an iron frying pan, place it on a slice of buttered white bread, pour the browned butter from the pan over the meat, add a dollop of A-1 steak sauce, and cover it with a second slice of buttered bread. The butter dripping down my chin somehow enhanced this hedonistic experience.

I have a friend who praises the health and nutritional benefits of coconut oil and has shown me several books on the subject, which claim that it's a "good fat." My wife suggested that I look at the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic Web sites to see what they had to say on the subject. All of the articles said to stay away from coconut oil because of the high amount of saturated fat.

My friend indicated that because the organic coconut oil he had given me was non-hydrogenated and contains no trans fatty acids, it is both healthy and not a source of cholesterol. Can you shed any light on this issue?

The fatty acids in coconut oil are 85 to 90 percent saturated. According to the NIH, saturated fatty acids "are the biggest dietary cause of high LDL levels ('bad cholesterol')," and "too much saturated fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease." So the scientific consensus against saturated fats seems quite clear.

Nevertheless, a small group of people reject this mainstream judgment and champion coconut oil as a near-panacea that, among other things, promotes weight loss and prevents liver damage from alcohol consumption. (Viva la piƱa colada!) Not incidentally, promoting coconut oil also sells the coconut-centered diet books written by these people. Your friend has apparently swallowed their arguments along with the shredded coconut (45 percent fat) on his Hostess Sno Balls.

As your friend asserts, coconut oil is indeed cholesterol-free. That's because all vegetable fats are cholesterol-free. Only animal products contain cholesterol. And as your friend also asserts, coconut oil is indeed non-hydrogenated and hence trans-fatty-acid-free. The reason is that it is already so saturated, there would be no point in hydrogenating it. That would be even more senseless than hydrogenating lard, which is 39 percent saturated.

Determining the relative healthfulness of various fats is a complex and ongoing pursuit, and no single fat can be said to be a cure-all. People may sing the praises of coconut oil in books and on the Internet, but labeling coconut oil as cholesterol- and trans-fat-free is just as pointless as labeling it nonradioactive and plutonium-free. Robert L. Wolke (http://www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, the Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005).

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