Kindle for the Food Enthusiast

The image used in the preview of this article was taken by John Pastor and used via a Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license It's hardly a secret, especially after Oprah told everyone to buy one, that Amazon has* an e-book reader called the Kindle. There's a general review of the Kindle and a comparison between it, books, and other e-book readers, but those who already own a Kindle and just want to know what books to get for it can scroll down to near the bottom, past the blocks of text and into the listy bits. The basics Your general purpose e-book reader is a small device, generally the size of a paperback book or thereabouts, designed to hold a bunch of books on it. The screen of an e-book reader is usually what's called e-ink. Unlike your general LCD screen, the e-ink has a very high contrast ratio, meaning that it's easy to distinguish between the words and the white space. Also, it's completely reflective, so unlike a laptop, it works just as well outside in full sunlight as it does inside under a lamp. And it does require a lamp, because also unlike a laptop screen, it doesn't have any sort of backlight. So, just like a book, you need to ensure that there's a proper reading light source available. What's special about the Kindle There have been several e-book readers over the years, many of which are from Sony. What makes the Kindle so special? The Kindle has a built-in cell-phone modem, meaning wherever you have an EVDO connection, you can shop for, buy, and receive books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. So, if you're stuck at the airport and nothing you have in your library suits your tastes for the 4-hour layover, you don't have to buy the latest Stephen King novel from the airport newsstand. Instead, you pop into the Kindle store, search through there hundreds of thousands of titles, and within a few minutes, your new book will be ready for you to read. Best of all, it doesn't take any more space in your luggage or your home library for the extra book. Because it has an always-on internet connection, you can even browse the web in a pinch. The browser isn't the best, and the connection is a little slow, but it's great for popping over to wikipedia to look something up that might not be in your library. Pros vs. Books As mentioned, you can have hundreds or thousands of books on your Kindle, and they won't take up any more physical space. The largest of books will never be heavier than the smaller books. You can make annotations, highlights, or page clippings from books, and those will appear in a centralized file that you can reference later, as well as interspersed within the books themselves. It's hard to argue with the ability to hold a library in your bag. The biggest advantage of the Kindle vs. a real book, aside from space savings, is the ability to search everything in your library all at once. For me, this is especially useful. If I want to find out what I know about aubergines, I can hit the search button and see: aubergine-kindle.png Likewise, if I do a similar search for "maillard" and click on the On Food and Cooking link, then I will see something like: maillard-kindle.png Clicking on any of those items will take me to the part of the book referenced. It is unbelievably handy. What are the downsides The biggest downside to the Kindle vs. books is that the Kindle does not handle the organization of large numbers of books very well. You can sort them by title, by author, or by recency, but that's it. You can't sort by genre, you can't make custom lists or groups, and you can't put them into folders. I really hope they fix this problem, because it's the one thing that keeps me from going crazy putting lots of extraneous-but-free books on my Kindle.** Another downside, which is much more obvious but should be stated, is that the Kindle is a battery-powered device. This means that, if you don't keep up with the charging, you will be book-free until you charge it back up again. This is rarely a problem, especially if you don't leave the network connection running all the time. One of the advantages of e-ink is that it really uses very little battery power, and mostly just to change the page. I've gone for days of regular use without having to recharge, though it's wise to get into some sort of charging routine. While there are pictures in the Kindle, they are not as sharp as they would be in a book, and they are never in color. Generally they're good enough to get by, though. Finally, the Kindle does not support all of the features of the e-book file format that it uses. Specifically, it can't handle tables, which means that there are sections to some books that look like lists that would make much more sense if the Kindle decoded them properly. This and the organization of books should just be a software update, so it's possible that they'll fix both of these problems. Maybe. What do I have on the Kindle, anyways? Although I have many other titles on the Kindle, these are the things that are related to food and/or cooking. From the Kindle Store: From other sources: On Food and Cooking and Bakewise are the two titles that currently get the most use. I can't yet fully recommend the other titles, because I haven't gotten through them all, but these seemed the most useful to have on hand of what was available at the time. As time goes on, I'll update the list here. If it weren't so expensive, I would pick up a copy of Chef's Book of Formulas, Yields, and Sizes as well, because it sounds terribly useful for a reference library. Perhaps one day. Preferably one day when the price is lower. *- Well, I say "has" but they're sometimes backordered, such as at the time of posting. However, according to commenter Karen, there are refurbished Kindles available. Read her comment for more information. **- There's this great e-book from feedbooks.com that has links to kazillions of free e-books, whether public domain or creative commons. You download the book into the Kindle, then click on the links in the e-book, and it will put the book onto your Kindle, as if by magic. They have some cool other services as well, and they have things that work with other e-book readers, so go to their site and peruse.

Nerding out your Roasting

Thinking back to the old Kitchen Computer idea of yore, one of the important aspects of it is being able to monitor, in depth, the temperature of, well, everything in the chain of the food. So, obviously the food itself should be monitored, the cooking environment, the cooling environment, and the resting environment. This will not only let us know whether the food is done, but how quickly, what path it takes, whether it should be safe to eat or not, and if cooling it down made everything in the fridge go bad. I've explored the topic of temperature control in the past, but I had never found quite the right sensors to use. I've been playing around with the other aspects of the computer interface, such as the microprocessor and the communications, but the temperature sensors were never quite right for me. Fortunately, I am not the only geek in the world, and someone else has done much of the legwork (and, really, all of the work) for tracking these temperatures. Enter the Turkey Tracker, which was live-casting temperature updates for a turkey, the smoker, and the outside environment. There was even a video stream, photos, and everything. This is a project by, according to the list of authors on the blog, Robin Parker, Michael Weinberg, and Chris Chen. The Turkey Tracker Blog has plenty of words describing what's went into the process. What Went Into the Turkey Tracker describes some of the hardware and software, including the ideal, high-temperature thermometers that I'll need to use for my setup (though I may have to have separate probes for low-temperature sensing). There's even a FAQ, that gives answers on cooking and temperature sensing techniques. To see what it all looks like, you can check out this Flickr set about Project Wirebird.* Obviously, I'll be learning much from this example, so that I can build a strong and powerful kitchen computer. There is talk of open-sourcing the code as well as having multiple turkey-trackers next year, so perhaps I'll get in on the fun then. via Make. *- The image I used for the preview of this article was taken from that Flickr Set, and is released under a Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike License. So, as with my stuff, feel free to use that image or its source, but be sure to give attribution. Also, if you use that image, be sure to license whatever you use it in similarly.

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.

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]