The Right Fat Chance

Ari LeVaux

Oxtail and country style pork rib braised in wine and coffee. Photo by Ari LeVaux.
Oxtail and country style pork rib braised in wine and coffee. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

Thanks to the impact that coffee and wine have on my taste buds, breakfast turns me into a speed freak. Steak, meanwhile, converts me into a temporary alcoholic - at least until it’s gone. 
Put me in front of a greasy or sweat breakfast, and I’m going to drink coffee like it’s oxygen. This is how my body extracts maximum pleasure from the muffin or omelet I’m chewing-by bathing my mouthful in coffee. The coffee’s acidic bitterness makes the flavors of the food stand out, and completes the meal. I’ve researched this relationship at many a greasy spoon diner, where servers endlessly circle to keep your cup full. What the coffee lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity. That’s important when you’re eating with a beverage condiment, because the last thing you want is for that well to dry up.
Later in the day, there are many foods that essentially command me to drink wine. If I’m chewing a succulent piece of meat, for example, I need to be drinking wine at exactly the same time. Otherwise I get distressed, like an addict in withdrawal.
While there are many foods that go well with wine, only one, meat, will make me drink wine like a dehydration victim would drink Gatorade. When meat and wine are available, it is a scientific fact that I will be stuffed and wasted. And that is pretty much the only time you will see me wasted.
Other than producing buzzes, coffee and wine otherwise seem completely different. But if you look beneath the surface you can see that they are competing for the same niche in the ecosystem of your dining table: the acidic beverage niche.
Acidity serves to enhance the pleasure derived from fatty foods. The fat coats your taste buds and the acid washes that fat away, exposing and stimulating the taste buds and creating fireworks of juxtaposition. If necessary, you may have to adjust fat levels to achieve this balance. I generally do so with mayonnaise.
This principle of creative tension is at the heart of established pairings like wine with cheese, coffee with cream, and 10,000 other flavor combinations.
One thing you rarely see is coffee and wine together. One of them always needs to be there, but having both would be like having two alpha males in the same room. Potentially rough, and at the very least, awkward and uncomfortable. But it turns out that another one of my favorite foods, chili pepper-aka chile-can smooth over this tension.
Like wine and coffee, chile goes exceptionally well with fat, from the jalapeno popper and its elder the chile relleno, to the requisite squirt of hot sauce upon your big greasy breakfast.
Like coffee and wine, chile produces its own kind of buzz-an adrenaline rush, to be exact. And like the others, chile has many proven and suspected medical benefits, including reducing body inflammation and improving lipid levels in the blood. But unlike coffee, wine or fat, there are few apparent reasons not to indulge one’s chile-tooth to its fullest.
For years, I took it as a given coffee and wine simply don’t mix. It’s an either/or situation. But this assumption was categorically discredited when I bit into a piece of pork belly that had been braised with red wine, coffee, and red chile.
Amazingly, the coffee and wine were able to join forces and forge a common flavor all their own. This union was mediated by chile, the sharp bitterness and sweetness of which formed a narrow bridge between the normally disparate flavors of wine and coffee. That all this flavor alchemy came together in the context of a succulent piece of pork made the experience all the more mouth melting.
This revelation went down at the magical, and sadly defunct Casa Vieja in Corrales, New Mexico, where I consumed this dish next to a cackling fire of fragrant desert wood. Since then I’ve endeavored to recreate this recipe, and somewhere along the line I think I actually surpassed the original, stealing tricks from similar recipes I found online.
My current version combines pork and venison, but any meat will work, even chicken. Bones, whether in oxtail, osso bucco or ribs, will improve the result. The tougher the meat, the better. But if using very lean meat, there needs to be some fat, like bacon or olive oil.
The wine and coffee-based broth tastes kind of disharmonious when you first combine the ingredients. But it eventually cooks into something special, a flavor that is deep and darkly delicious and thoroughly unique.

Fatty meat cooked in coffee and wine

2 lbs meat
1 cup wine, of a quality you would drink
1 cup of strong coffee (no greasy spoon brew here)
3 bay leaves
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons mild red chile powder
2 Santa Fe style dried mild red chile, seeded and crumbled
2 mild pasilla chile (or more red chile), seeded and crumbled
Salt, pepper, and garlic powder
Olive oil

Brown the meat in whole chunks under the broiler. In a pan, sauté the onions, garlic and bay leaves in oil. When onions are translucent, add chile. Cook a minute, stirring, then add the coffee and wine. Cook until the volume reduces by half. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Add the meat. Cover meat with stock or water, and slow cook or braise for 4-8 hours, until meat is completely tender. Add water, wine or stock as necessary to replace any evaporated liquid. Season again.
Serve in a bowl with minced onions and a hunk of bread, which will absorb the mysterious broth and deliver it to your mouth, where no further adjustments will be necessary. No hot sauce. Not even mayo (well...). Not even wine or coffee (but if you want to, please do).  
This dish won’t give a caffeine high or a wine buzz, but it provides a kick all of its own. It was, after all, the pursuit of a flavor fix along these lines that got me into coffee and wine to begin with.