Tongs

There are times when you might not want to pick things up with your hands. In the kitchen, you'll use your hands for many many tasks, but sometimes they're not appropriate. Aside from items which are too liquid, the most obvious class of things to avoid using your hands on are things which are burning hot. After all, many of you will cook meat, and your hands are made of meat, so it stands to reason that you will not want to touch things that are at meat-cooking-temperature with your hands of meat. Depending on the item you're touching, you might want to use a towel, a dry towel, to insulate your cookable hands. You could also consider a pot holder or similar. However for some, shall we say "juicy" or at least wet items, you should consider using tongs. They're inexpensive, and they are useful in hundreds of day-to-day situations in the normal home cook's life. It's a rare day that goes by when I don't dirty some tongs, so consider keeping a couplefew pairs around, and save your hands some unintended cooking.

Tinkering with the Vacuum

At my day job, we have a Bodum Santos electric vacuum coffee maker. It's a lovely device, and given the choice between an automatic drip pot and this, I would always choose this. It's more automatic than a press, but more work than an automatic drip. The only thing that would stop me from recommending it wholeheartedly is that, out of the box, it does not make that great of a pot of coffee. Still better than drip, but not in the same league as a press. The problem is that the brewing time on the pot is too short. It's completely automatic, so you put the coffee in one chamber, the water in another, assemble, and hit a button. A little while later, and you have a pot of coffee. (for those who haven't read Coffee Time 2, here's a quick overview: coffee goes in the top chamber, water in the bottom, connected by a filtered tube. Heat the water until pressure from expanded vapor pushes the water into the top chamber where it mingles with the coffee, let it cool, and the water drops through the filter to reveal proper coffee). It knows when to stop brewing because it can sense how much water is in the bottom chamber, and as soon as it runs out, it cuts the heat on the element. It needs more time. The ability to modify the time between running out of water and cutting the heat would let me use far less coffee and get better results, but that's not something they let you do, unless it's in a double-secret control mode (which seems unlikely). There is something you can do, though. If you don't fully seat the top chamber, it raises the tube just a bit, and that allows a small pool of water to stay in the bottom chamber longer than it would have had the tube been as far down as it could have been. This lets it brew longer, thus making better coffee. I'm considering gluing some spacers onto the top of the bottom chamber once I have an ideal spacing down, but it would have been such a nice addition to allow a "plus 1 minute" option to the brewing cycle. Of course, all of this would be unnecessary with a manual unit, but that would remove some of the nice features like unattended operation and being able to set a timer for use overnight. More importantly, though, I have no way of using a manual unit at work, what with needing either a stovetop or an open flame. So, if you're using the Bodum Santos and want some stronger coffee, try not pushing the top chamber down all the way. Don't rest it loosely, otherwise you'll make a mess, but leave around a 1/8 inch gap.

Disposable teflon

I was at a cooking supply store today, and I noticed this package of 6 sheets of teflon coated paper for about $22.50. They were washable, but cut-able, and seemed odd. They were being marked as some kind of reusable parchment paper or somesuch, but they were nowhere near as durable as a Silpat. I'm guessing the ideal application is if you have, for example, a small bakery, and you make this particularly sticky cake. So you can cut the teflon sheets to fit your cake pan, and wash it when it gets dirty. However, I just don't see this working for almost anybody. Parchment paper isn't all that expensive, and Silpats or, if you know how to handle them, the silicone baking dishes would probably work better. Maybe there's some sort of specialty application they're great for (I see similar products for aiding in ironing transfer sheets, for example), but I can't say I'd advise using them in the kitchen.

Temperature Sensing

On of the concerns I'll have with the Kitchen Computer is how to actually measure the temperature of the various kitchen items in a way that can link into the computer. I've recently run across an article on a sensor for measuring temperature and how to use it. It's not quite what I need, as it only goes to 275°F, and that's not nearly warm enough, but I can scout around the various electronics supply houses and find one that matches my specifications. The best part of the article are the instructions on how to interface to the sensor, which will be good. An advantage of using a homemade sensor rather than trying to work with pre-made sensors is that I have much more freedom of form factor. For example, if I want a permanent sensor (or series of sensors) in the fridge without drilling a hole in it (which my fiancée Melanie would likely frown upon for some reason), then I could connect the sensors to a ribbon cable, which shouldn't affect the working of the door at all. Plus, it's just that much cooler if I can build my own thermometer probes.

Going too far

This is exactly what I'm talking about. It's a barcode scanner that hooks up to your computer. You can use it to scan every thing that you throw away and buy, so you can keep a "running inventory" of your kitchen. It'll make a shopping list for you so you can replenish your inventory to what it was. For anyone who's worked in retail, they can see the absurdity of the situation. Doing inventory is hard, and it works in retail for two reasons: 1) You have a set stock of products that, while it may change, you pretty much know what it is and will be, and/or you have to keep track of most of the information for other purposes anyways, so tracking what's there and what's gone isn't that much more difficult; and 2) You have to do that to find out what's been stolen throughout the year. Still, it's a lot of work. For the home, you aren't really all that concerned with shrinkage (from an inventory perspective, at least. I won't presume to guess what you worry about otherwise), and your inventory varies from week to week based on interest, season, and sales at the store. It would be especially difficult for me, as I tend to shop on the outer ring of the store, getting the fresh fruits, breads, dairy, etc, but avoiding as much prepared food as possible. I'll make a foray into the baking aisle and canned goods aisle, but even the baking aisle would do me little good, as I dump the flour into airtight containers immediately, so I wouldn't be able to scan the stuff as I ran out. So this is a classic case of a solution in search of a problem, and something that I wrote about in the first part of this series. Take a look at the rest of the series to get caught up on what I think would make a good computer.

Cast Iron Knowledge

The Irreplaceable Cast-Iron Skillet is a great collection of information on and techniques for using and caring for cast iron skillets. I have a cast iron skillet, and I do like it, though I don't use it as much as I think I should. I think my main reluctance is that you don't wash it in the same way as you wash most everything else, so it doesn't fit into my workflow as easily. Still, perusal of this page has inspired me, and perhaps I will make some tasty German Pancakes in it.

Immersion Blending

I had my first immersion blender years before I needed it. In the right hands, an immersion blender can bring a new dimension to a soup, smooth out a sauce, and generally keep you from having to go through the painstaking and sometimes dangerous task of transferring a hot, sticky liquid to a regular blender and back. In the wrong hands, an immersion blender is a way to make milkshakes without having to dirty the blender. Well, that's not true. In the wrong hands, an immersion blender is a terribly inefficient and messy way to get yourself to the top of the FBI's most wanted list. Using it for milkshakes and smoothies is kind of handy, if only the briefest touch of its full abilities. Once I started getting into cooking, I broke out the 20-year-old immersion blender that I got from my dad after a house cleaning/purge. It works, sure, but what I didn't realize at the time was that it works poorly. It tears through vegetables like a chain-saw through human flesh: sure, popular culture tells you this should work well, but when you actually try it, you start to think that maybe it was really designed to do something else. Hmmm, this entry is pretty gruesome. I blame chapter two of Near a Thousand Tables: A history of food. Those who have read it probably know what I'm talking about. Those who haven't, well, you can pick it up for yourself. I wouldn't want to get in trouble with the Vegans. Anyways. While visiting Melanie's parents over the Christmas vacation, I was convinced to make some Roasted Vegetable Soup, as Melanie loves it so. I asked her parents if they had an immersion blender, fearful of the limb-burning prospect of the stand blender, and I was relieved that they had one. I immersed the blender, prepared for five minutes of dedicated grinding, pushing the blender against the fully-cooked broccoli and hearing it struggle like the drill of a dentist who is working on what will eventually become his next yacht and summer home once the bill is paid. After all, that's what I did with my old blender. Instead, a quick fifteen seconds later I had virtually eliminated all recognizable vegetable matter. After remarking aloud that I intended to discard the old blender and buy this model immediately upon my return home, Melanie and her mom disappeared in a cloud of mystery and returned with what I eventually discovered was my new Christmas present of a Braun 200-watt Immersion Blender. Hooray! [amtap amazon:asin=B00004S9GX] It has removable attachments, so the bits that get dirty can be washed in the dishwasher. It even has a handy food prep attachment, for when you need to seriously chew through a small amount of vegetables and you don't feel like dirtying a knife or the food processor. Apparently, there's a 400 watt version, but I can't see why a home cook would need such a thing. Maybe one day I'll find out, but I think the 200-watt is the way to go.

The mysteries of the Grill

There are challenges with any style of cooking. The challenges of regular cooking, the pots-and-pans, pour-and-stir style of cooking, is mostly one of "volume of material." There are so many methods, so many different ingredients, and such obscure terminology, that it's difficult to get going. Trickier is leaning how to combine ingredients in a way that tastes good, and getting interesting combinations of textures and flavors, that it's just a matter of getting through the material and remembering it, at least to reach a certain level. Baking is a bit different. Baking has a lot more required knowledge of chemistry and biology in order to get things working at all. There are magical proportions of ingredients, certain order of adding things. If that were all, it wouldn't be so bad, but because there are so many factors that have to be just right in order to work, and there's enough variation in materials available to the home cook, that you can't usually rely just upon the numbers; instead, you have to get a feel for when things are working and when they aren't, so you can make adjustments to a recipe if, for example, your flour doesn't have as high a protein-content as it did the last time you bought it. And then there's grilling. Grilling is, in many ways, the simplest of the three styles of cooking. It's basically a single style of heat application, or maybe two styles, depending on how fancy you're getting. However, as with anything simple, this means that there are fewer steps to get wrong, so if you do mess something up, it'll be more noticeable. Add to that what would appear to be an impenetrable black box of whatever it is that you're cooking, and you have what seems like some sort of voodoo. It doesn't help that much of the grilling knowledge is passed down, father-to-son, in family bonding rituals. The side effect of this is that, if there were something that the dad didn't know, it's likely that he wouldn't ask anyone else, or look it up, he'd just make something up that sounded good and pass that information along to the next generation. Not a good scenario. Fortunately, I'm here to help, with what will hopefully be simple and useful tips on grilling techniques. First, consider that the primary method of grilling involves high amounts of radiant heat hitting the item being grilled. Your hamburgers, your steaks, your rotisserie chickens, these are all applications involving that radiant heat. The secondary method is a lower energy heat, some radiant, some convection. If you close the lid, the air inside will get very hot, though not as hot as whatever is right over the coals. The tertiary method of cooking is conduction. While the conduction cooks very little of the food percentage-wise, it's responsible for the ever-important grill marks, which are almost as vital to grilling as a pair of tongs, both in flavor and presentation. The second thing to consider is how big the critter you're grilling is. Oh, sure, you could be grilling vegetables or making some sort of crazy coal-fired bread oven, but the trick to grilling is learning to cook meat so that it's flavorful and juicy. The other applications are interesting, but not the main focus; the meat, if you will. You won't? Okay, fine: the main focus. For our grilling purposes, there are two types of meats: thick and thin. Thin meats are your steaks, your hamburgers, your pork chops, and so on. The thick meats are your chuck roasts, your legs of lamb, and the like. The thick meats, in many ways, are relatively simple to cook and know when they're ready. Generally you'll cook over indirect heat, with a searing at the beginning or the end, and you'll use a probe thermometer or an instant-read thermometer to determine their doneness. There are plenty of sources on the internet for the temperature at which any given meat is both safe to eat and tasty, so use those as necessary. Bear in mind that you'll want to cook it under temperature by 5-10 degrees, then let the meat rest for 10 minutes covered in foil to let the residual heat finish cooking the rest of the way. This gives the meat a chance to reabsorb some of its juices, for a tastier meal. For the thinner meats, this is where the voodoo comes in. To be sure, you can still use a thermometer, but it's a little trickier to hit the center of a thinner piece of meat, and besides, it's far less satisfying. No, when grilling properly, you want to learn how to feel when the meat is cooked. At the early stages of your grilling career, that means literally feeling the meat, not making an emotional connection with it. As you increase your skills, well, the sky's the limit. Hold out your right hand, as if telling oncoming traffic to stop: fingers splayed in a relaxed manner, palm out. Using your thumb and forefinger of your left hand, feel on either side (front/palm) of your right hand until you locate where the bones meet for the thumb and index finger. The muscle that comes out from that part of your hand inside the angle formed by those two bones, that's what we'll call your Steak Zone. I know, it's very appetizing, but stay with me. Do you feel how tight the muscle is just away from the bones? That's a well-done steak, or as steak lovers call it, an over-cooked steak. Don't let your steak get this firm, for that means failure. Yes, I know, that's harsh, but there are realities to grilling steaks, and one of those realities is that a well-done steak is not good to eat. Another reality is that steak sauce is not good to eat on a properly done steak either, but we'll get to that later. Back to the Steak Zone. Continue out from the over-cooked/well-done section towards the open air. Stop when you've reached the part that feels more or less like raw steak, but not as cold or wet (hopefully). That's your range of feeling. Divide that into 4-6 distinct areas, and you have all you need to know to get started on your path to zen grilling. The closer it feels to the inside muscle, the more done it is. The closer it feels to the outside, the more rare it is. Combine that with lots and lots of practice, and you'll be a grill master in no time. I know, it hurts, having to cook and eat a series of steaks just to increase your skills, but sacrifices must be made. So, back to the steak sauce. A proper cut of meat, properly cooked, needs but salt, pepper, and, if you're exceptionally decadent, a smidge of butter to reach perfection. If you feel the need to break out the steak sauce, chances are that you've just skimped on the salt, because steak sauce is generally pretty heavy with salt. Add some on, and you should be good. Try it out; if it doesn't work for you, then enjoy your steak sauce, but I think you'll be surprised by the difference. Above is about 75% of what you need to know to successfully grill meats of various descriptions. Oh, sure, details will vary, recipes and spices will be thrown in, and we've completely avoided talk of what kind of grill to use, but the important thing is that you don't have to be born to grilling; it can be learned, and you can do it.

The Anti-Griddle

Anti-GriddleThere aren't very many new ways of cooking that have been introduced in the past several hundred years. After the oven, things stagnated until the microwave and eventually the Easy Bake Oven and its related ilk, such as GE's Advantium. So it's nice when something kinda different comes along. In this case, it's the anti-griddle. Technically not useful for cooking, since there probably aren't too many changes to protein structures and the like associated with it, but it does allow for a new type of food preparation. The anti-griddle is a -30°F surface that sits in your kitchen like a griddle. You place something liquid on it, and it will become solid, or solid with a liquid core. The important thing is that this happens very, very quickly, unlike your basic freezer. This lets you do some interesting things with shaping frozen foodstuffs, though it's probably a bit overkill for working pastry dough. It would be interesting to see what happens with things like meats and fruits, where the slow freezing process causes relatively large ice crystals to form and damage cells. If this could do your initial freeze very, very quickly, then this would be a great addition to, if not everyone's home, at least mine. My guess is that, since it appears to work via conduction, it will not be useful for as many applications as one might hope. This technology is brought to us by the same people that make the swank thermal circulators, so they get the thumbs-up from me. But for goodness' sake, don't stick your tongue to it! via Boing Boing.

Kitchen Computer Part 3 - Experimental Interface

Now we have a computer that should keep track of our recipes and time our cooking. Next, I need something to help me with making new recipes. There's a few aspects to this that would help out in day-to-day kitchen use. First, I need to be able to easily track what I put into an experimental recipe. Too often I'll get into the thick of something, make recipe adjustments, and don't track them. If it's just something for me, that's no problem, but if I'd like to share with the world what I've done, it might be nice to pay attention to what it was. The second, and perhaps more useful to people who don't have a food web site, is having an easy interface on all of the various things that foodstuffs do when interacting with other foodstuffs. Certain spices will increase yeast activity, and consequently make a better rising loaf of bread. Or, for something more complicated, eggs will interact with foods in a variety of ways with its various proteins, fats, emulsifiers, etc., and they are vital for use in many recipes and are a good option in others. It would be nice to have all of that information within reach, as it were, while making up new recipes. For the recipe tracking, that's not too difficult. The method with the least impact on workflow would be to have some sort of voice recording setup. Maybe a wireless headset/microphone hooked to the computer, with a button I could hit to tell it to record, so I don't get a lot of dead space. If I can synch information from the clock as well as the miscellaneous thermometers and whatever else I might pile onto this, it should be easy to reconstruct a proper recipe from the information I collect. For the knowledge base, if I may steal a term from 1990's AI research, it would be interesting to have a choice of food types to prepare, such as a bread, a casserole, or a soufflé. It would then have handy all of the tidbits of information that I might want relevant to that type of food. So, if I were making a pie crust, and I wanted it flakier, it could tell me that a chilled, solid fat worked into the dough in large chunks is what I would want, or if I want to make it sweeter from there, what I could add as well as what the secondary effects would be. Add some sugar, it will sweeten and tenderize. So I am imagining some sort of iPod-style menu interface, to go with the input device chosen in part 1 of this series. Choose the food type from the menu, and perhaps a food subtype, and so on until you get to a base recipe with solid but generic characteristics, from which you could modify to your needs. Perhaps you need to make a form of the recipe suitable for commercial baking, or perhaps you need something that would work with a savory recipe rather than a sweet one, or perhaps you need a vegan form of the recipe for a young man you're trying to impress. The hard part of the interface would be constructing it, obviously, but also making a structure flexible enough to easily add new information as it comes along. Moving 'Searing a steak' from the 'increase juiciness (and flavor)' to 'increase flavor (and decrease juiciness)' when you find out all those other cook books were wrong about the reason to sear would be very useful, and you don't want to have to work hard every time new information comes along. Next, imagine being able to add new information in and share that with other people you know who also have a kitchen computer. So if Jenny down the street discovered that the bulk orange blossom honey they sell at whole foods will kill yeast, so not to use it in bread, she could put it in her computer and you could see a little note about honey that Jenny put in. You wouldn't necessarily want just anyone to be able to give you information, but sharing among a trusted community would make experimenting with recipes much easier. The other nice aspect of the kitchen computer experimentation interface is that it would make a great teaching tool. You could play around with a recipe on paper, as it were, see what it's supposed to do when you modify it, and them make the recipe. As you do this more, you will learn the information in the database, and not have to rely upon it as much. Special Note: The Food Geek member Kevin Druff suggests this roll up keyboard as a good one for the kitchen computer, as it's inexpensive, durable, squishes up easily to fit in a drawer, and is dishwasher safe, apparently. Thanks, Kevin!

Kitchen Computer Part 2 - Timing is everything

At this point in the series, we have a basic computer setup with recipes and a series of thermometers. Not a bad start, but we need more. I had some friends visiting this past week, and I wanted to cook a nice dinner meal for them. Since I don't see them often, I figured I'd go all out and make it as thoroughly home-made as I could. There was a berry pie, some gyros, hummus, tzatziki sauce, and, as a special request, some mushroom-stuffed mushrooms. Although I made the pie the night before, the rest I was making the day of (though I could have made the hummus and tzatziki sauce the night before as well, I was kind of tired at the time). What's this have to do with the kitchen computer, some of you ask? Get to the point, others of you demand? Okay, fine. Dinner started at 7 PM, and I wanted everything to come out on time. So I worked backwards, and figured out how long everything would take to do. The gyro meat was going to take up the oven, and so would the mushrooms, but hey, the gyro meat needs to cool for right around the amount of time the mushrooms need to cook, so I can put those in at the end, almost as if I had planned it that way. That sort of thing. Getting everything done so that it was both ready and still warm was ideal, though I am certain the Barefoot Contessa would have 20 easy tricks for keeping things or reheating or whatever. However, I am not the Barefoot Contessa, I am The Food Geek, so I wrote on all of the recipes exactly when I needed to start each step in order to get it all done exactly at seven. Don't think my girlfriend didn't give me a loving-but-strange look when she saw that. It's tough being a geek sometimes, but not really that tough. It worked really well. Still, if the meal had been slightly more complex, I would have had problems. I only really have two timers, and one of those is a thermometer. Plus, had I become distracted, I might have missed a start time, because those weren't set to timers. But, I thought, The Kitchen Computer could save me here! At its simplest, I would set up as many timers as necessary. I would give some variability to the timers to let you do the "Cook for 40-50 minutes depending on your oven, elevation, and karma" recipes. It could give a warning beep at the beginning to let you check for doneness, then continue on if it's not ready. Wouldn't be a bad idea to allow you to connect it to a thermometer as well, though usually you need either temperature or time, but still. If you're cooking a new type of recipe, you might want to be able to tell, at a glance, roughly how long something will take to cook. There's another reason, that I'll tell about you later on. Of course, naming the timers would be nice. I could link them to the recipes easily enough, but I'm getting the nagging feeling that I'm going to want a keyboard. And maybe some sort of mouse or trackpad. Hmm. There's probably a good, rugged keyboard out there somewhere, but I think I'll work to make the interface be happy without a keyboard-mouse combo as much as possible, especially for day-to-day tasks. The basic timers are in, but I still want to leverage the power of the computer to make my life easier, so we need a timeline. Yup, I want to be able to have the computer tell me when I need to start all my dishes and various phases. I would give it an eating time, then give it the recipes, and it should be able to work out the rest. This means that the recipes will have to know where the various cooling and resting phases happen with respect to the rest of the recipe, and I'll want to keep an eye on things to make sure I don't go crazy with putting in too many times into the recipes and making it bulky and never used. But if I have to make bread, then there are several resting periods in the middle of the recipe, a cooking portion, and a cooling portion at the end. If the computer doesn't know where these go, then it'll overlap everywhere. After it sets up the timeline, it'll need to track the time to make sure I'm on schedule. So I'll want to tell the computer when I've finished any given phase moved to the next. Also, if a bit of meat or somesuch is taking longer cook than expected, the computer will see that and adjust the timing of the items farther down the line. It would know where the slack in the schedule would be, so it could also tell you if dinner is going to be a bit late or not. That way, hungry guests can know for sure how long they have to wait, and whether they should stuff themselves on your tasty, tasty appetizers or just get drunk on the beverages you have strewn about the party for their enjoyment. I think this will be a great addition to the Kitchen Computer, as long as I pay attention to the areas that would be over-optimized. Keep it easy to use, try to avoid having too many input devices, and don't make it too hard to key in your recipes.

Kitchen Computer part 1 - Humble Beginnings

I'm toying around with the idea of making a kitchen computer. Why? Well, the obvious first reason is that I'm a geek, so putting a computer in every room of the house is not necessarily an idea I'm opposed to. That's right, every room. Still, one normally needs more reason than that, especially if the room is host to a myriad of things that computers don't like, such as water, knives, heat generating boxes, and onions. And many attempts at computerizing a kitchen are complicated with minimal added value. So what do I want out of it? Good question. I have some ideas, but I'm hoping for some help from my various loyal (and soon to be loyal) readers. As I come up with ideas, I'll put them into this series, but I'd like to hear from you what you think of any of the things I come up with, as well as ideas of your own. As I'm able, I'll start to work on putting this device together, with documentation of how I do it, and downloads of any software I make. This will almost certainly be Macintosh software, as that's what I use. If anyone else wants to do something similar with Linux, Windows, BeOS, Palm, a tricked out iPod, or whatever, send me a URL and I'll link to it. Now then, let's get to it. The obvious place to start would be recipes. Recipes are useful and easily available on the computer, so this would make sense. However, it means you'll have to have a display device that is large enough to display the recipes from your prep area, and ideally you don't want to go messing with it while your hands are covered in flour, so probably big enough to show the whole recipe at one go. Microsoft Kitchen of the FutureThe tricky part is that recipes are an easy place to over-optimize. People naturally want to do things such as allowing you put in the ingredients that you have on hand, and having the computer figure out what recipes you have that fit your available means. Then you want to be able to keep track of what food you have on hand so you don't have to put it in each time, then you want the computer to tell you when you're out of something, and pretty soon, you've got one of those Kitchens of the Future that nobody would ever use. Which is not to say that having recipes is bad, but it is to say that you always have to maintain an eye on final function, and consequently know when to say, "enough!" So, a simple recipe viewer, and a display large enough to read them. Okay, that's good so far. I might also include a printer, because there are times when you want to move the recipe about, or keep it next to messy things, or what have you. And, since I already have a printer, that's a minimal investment for me. Output is covered. Which leads us to input. How do we get the information we want, and activate all of the other cool features of the site. Well, generally people go for touch screens, which are a cool way of inputting data when you have just a monitor available, but they're expensive, especially for Just Some Random Monitor, especially a large one. Plus, if we went for something crazy like a projection display (Microsoft did this in their Kitchen of the Future), then the touch screen wouldn't work. Then if you switched monitors from a CRT that you had lying around to an LCD, you'd have to replace the touch screen, etc. I don't like that option. Keyboard and mouse are also normal. Modern mice don't have the physical ball to get gummed up, but if the laser or light sensor is covered, then you have to do some cleaning, which would be unfortunate. A keyboard just collects crumbs and their ilk like crazy, and although they are potentially dishwasher safe (well, certain keyboards, and that's with limited testing and only in emergencies), that's still a pain. The iPod has a nice interface, though, and it has very minimal inputs. Maybe we could get by with something like that. Griffin Technologies has a cool device called the PowerMate, which is a scroll wheel with a button, plus some cool LEDs built in for feedback and special effects. That would let us go through a menu structure and select recipes, but might not give us all the control we need, having just one button. Still, it's a start, and we might be able to find something else to add on along the way. Perhaps a presentation remote control or similar. Thus far, what we have is somewhat uninspiring and easily done with a recipe book or even a computer in another room. So we need the fancy features. One feature is that we could use Google as a measurement converter, which is handy from time to time. Still, not worth the time, trouble, and money. Griffin PowermateNo, what I want is something catchy, something that brings utility, something that is hard to reproduce with standard tools, and something that will make my life easier in the kitchen. What I want are...thermometers. But thermometers exist in the normal world, you may think. Sure, but not like this. I want wireless probe thermometers that can be linked to alarms, recipes, and can record the temperature vs. time so I can look at it later and make recipe adjustments with it. I could put one thermometer in the sugar on the stove, and the computer will warn me when it's approaching the right temperature for my recipe. One for the lamb on the grill, so I don't have to stand there watching it if my attention is called away. One for the oven, so I can tell if the internal temperature is correct or not. One for the fridge, so I can always know if it drops into the danger zone. One for the bread starter that I have resting on the screened in porch. One for me, so I know if I have a fever. The possibilities are endless. No, I don't know exactly how I'll make these, but I'm pretty sure I have most of what I need. And sure, I could just get a bunch of wireless probe thermometers, but those are expensive, and after a few, it comes to the cost of your whole thermometer system. Hypothetically, anyways. Obviously, research will have to be done, but it's worth doing just to have, especially for me. Okay, that's enough for a start. If you have an idea or suggestion, create an account and comment, please. I'd love to hear your ideas. For the rest of the Kitchen Computer series thus far, check out: [series-info:left]

Cona Vacuum Brewer

SubZero Refrigeration BeautyPretty. Out of my price range for a vacuum coffee brewer, but this is a lovely unit. Read more about how it works in Coffee Time part 2. Quoth the seller: "This the king of vacuum coffee brewers. We are one of a handful of coffee sources that offers Cona Vacuum Brewers. These are beautiful, elegant, and a bit scientific-looking; aficionados of these believe it's the ultimate brewing method. I think the results are remarkable ...I have never brewed a bad cup on the Cona. They are used in a handful of fine inns, B&B's and restaurants (such as Victoria and Alberts in Disneyworld). "It's main features is that the coffee is entirely prepared in glass; there's no contact with metal components. Because it operates by a vacuum principle, coffee is always infused at the precisely correct temperature every time, and over-extraction is not possible. It's the brewing method for romantics, and is prepared at the table with heat provided by the spirit lamp."

A Tale of Two Teapots

When you make tea, the leaves absorb a great deal of water, and some of that is released back into the pot as tea. The water grabs the flavor components off of the tea. Like coffee, there are flavorful components to tea, and there are bitter components. The main difference in preparation is that with coffee, the water washes over the grounds, whereas with tea, the water passes through the leaves. In both cases, the extra bitter comes from steeping too long, but with tea, you can get extra bitter components from wringing out the water that wants to stay inside the leaves. So, properly, black tea is prepared by pouring boiling water, seriously boiling water, into a pot with tea leaves, waiting four minutes, and separating the tea from the leaves. In a pinch, that's it. Traditionally you would use a standard teapot, put the leaves in, then the water, wait, and pour out through a strainer. Ideally, the teapot would made of some manner of heat-holding material, and you'd have warmed it before hand to keep the water as close to boiling for as long as possible without applying direct heat after mixing the water and the leaves. Bodum Assam Tea PressFor the modern consumer, this causes some problems, like what to do with the extra tea in your kettle that you're not going to drink immediately. One option is to only make a single cup's worth of tea. Another option is to share. Another is to find some way to keep the water and leaves separated, like Bodum does with their Assam Tea Press, pictured to the right. The Assam functions by having a basket in the middle of the teapot where the leaves reside. There are holes up the top 2/3 of the basket, so the water can more or less freely mix with the tea leaves. After four minutes, you press a plunger down into the basket, which pushes the leaves into the bottom 1/3, where there are no holes. Voila! You have your tea separated from your tea. The bottom of the pot is even small enough to put on a standard coffee cup warmer, which may keep the tea a bit warmer as you move from cup to cup. There are some downsides, though. First, it's thin glass, so it's not going to hold the heat in well. Though the coffee cup warmer may help some, it will likely affect the basic quality of the brew from the proper connoisseur. The second is that it has a tendancy to dribble tea onto the floor or counter unless you are very careful in your pouring. I'm not that careful, so I tend to clean up a lot of drops of tea. Finally, the plunging action does squish the leaves some, so it'll almost certainly keep you from making the absolutely perfect cup of tea. ingenuiTEA tea pot from adagio teasThe second option is adagio teas' ingenuiTEA teapot. This is for a more-or-less single serving of tea, and it's a very clever device. Mix the tea and water in the cup, wait 4 minutes, then set it on top of a standard-sized coffee cup. That releases a valve which will allow the water to pass through the filter at the bottom of the cup through a hole, and into your cup. Downsides to this are that is holds about a cup and a half worth of tea, which is somewhat inconvenient, as the tea leaves stay with the water for whatever is left. It might be worth finding a larger cup to accommodate. Another problem is, like the bodum, the pot has thin walls, though plastic this time, which won't hold the heat in. Finally, you have to remember not to carry the pot by the bottom, or you might spill hot water on your hands. Day to day, I will tend to use the ingenuiTEA rather than the Assam, unless I'm making tea for more than just myself. If I'm serving High Tea for company, or if someone who really cares about tea visits, then I might have to break out the proper tea pot and do things up right. In any case, either of these pots will be leaps and bounds above using a tea bag, especially if you combine it with quality, loose tea leaves.