Sunday, June 21, 2009

My New Toy

I got a new toy the other day.

It took a fair bit of effort to get it working. It is electrical and it works outdoors, so I had to crawl around under the house playing electrician and install a GFI outdoor covered outlet.

Then I got the thing unpacked, washed the components, plugged it in, turned it on, and wouldn't you know it? The thing started billowing smoke.

Fortunately, that is what was supposed to happen, because the new toy is an original Bradley Smoker.

This is a seriously ingenious device and a major upgrade from my little water smoker. The main things that frustrated me about the water smoker were that it was super hard to maintain a consistent temperature and it is impossible to cold smoke. And of course capacity - you can't put very much on the single rack of a water smoker.

The Bradley Smoker uses compressed hardwood piece pellets that it feeds continuously onto a burner, generating smoke. Another electric element controls the temperature of the chamber and it can be turned completely off for cold smoking. So you just set the temperature with a little slider, load up the feeder with pellets, put your food on the four racks, and go away until it is cooked. The cost of the pellets runs about a dollar an hour, which is a lot more expensive than cutting mesquite in your back yard, but not much more than buying hardwood pieces for smoking at Lowe's. And I don't have a lot of mesquite in my back yard.

The Bradley appealed to me because it places maximum emphasis on control, especially temperature control. There are even digital versions, but my research seemed to indicate that this was not really worth it and if I want to get really anal about it later I can always add an external digital controller.

The cold smoking ability was also key for me. What is the point in being able to smoke if you can't make perfect bacon or smoke your lox? And I don't even really need to bring up jerky, do I? Of course not.

The Bradley works spectacularly well. I made some smoked chicken thighs that I pulled and served with a vinegar sauce, some turkey legs, and some heads of garlic. It was really easy to use even though it rained the entire time (I covered the chute to keep the pellets from getting wet, but otherwise didn't worry about the rain). And the food came out quite nice. Quite nice indeed.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Smashingly Good Burgers

Anyone who knows me or reads my blog already knows that my favorite kind of burger is a big thick lean rare burger made from freshly ground beef.

The problem with that burger, though, is that it takes a lot of effort to prepare. Mostly because you have to grind the meat. I simply don't trust store-ground meat cooked rare, so what to do when you want a burger faster?

Well, there are fundamentally two kinds of burgers in the world (with lots of variation of course): thick and thin. Or in the words of A Hamburger Today, East Coast and West Coast. I like some thin burgers. I like Kidd Valley in Seattle. I like UBurger in Boston. I like 5 Guys. I long to try In-N-Out.

So, while fresh ground beef would obviously be better, I decided to experiment with the store bought stuff and the smash method to see how good a burger I could make.

How good a burger did I make? Frickin' awesome, that's how good. And it is FAST. Blazing fast.

I think the home cook actually has some advantages in making really good burgers this way, the biggest of which is cast iron. For browning meat cast iron kicks the butt of all of the big commercial griddles out there - no one makes them out of cast iron any more. Plus I've watched the 5 Guys cooks smashing burgers - they leave an awful lot of the crust (i.e. flavor) on the grill the way they transfer the meat around. All of the flavor on mine stays with the burger.

What do you need? A cast iron pan or griddle (not grill), a cast iron press, a really good/sturdy spatula, and some parchment paper. The parchment paper keeps the meat from sticking to the press and pulling back up off the griddle, so you get superior browning every time and as a bonus you don't need to keep washing the press.

The procedure:
  • Preheat your cast iron. You want it HOT.
  • Oil it if you need to (if it is really well seasoned, you don't need to)
  • Plop a ball of meat on it. Yes, I mean a sphere. 85% lean, please. You need the fat to make this good.
  • Wait a minute, put the parchment paper over the meat and smash it flat with the press. (and remove the parchment paper)
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper.
  • Wait until you see signs of the cooking coming through the cracks in the patty and there is a really good crust on side A and flip, keeping as much of the crust on the meat (as opposed to the pan) as possible (this is why you need a sturdy spatula). You get bonus points for flipping it to a fresh hot spot on the griddle.
  • Season again and put cheese on if you want it. When cooked through and cheese has started to melt, transfer to a bun.
The irony is that grilling season just started and I no longer have any desire to grill my burgers. Doh!


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Weight Loss And The iPhone

I had a few extra pounds after the holidays. OK, a few more than a few. But not as many as some previous times. I'll leave my efforts to get off the diet roller coaster for another post (current thinking), but suffice it to say that I have once again managed to shed some poundage.

In late December I realized that I was going to have to buy a new wardrobe if I didn't do something. Sure, I used to have clothes one size up (and two sizes up and three sizes up...), but I got optimistic and threw them out after the last time I lost weight.

So my plan was to do the diet journal thing again. Set a goal, calculate a calorie budget, write everything down in a Moleskine Cahier and generally keep myself on track.

Then it occurred to me that I have a shiny new iPhone. Like a Moleskine Cahier and Space Pen, it can always be with me. Unlike a Moleskine it has the potential to do portion size calculations and easy numerical tracking. Plus since I am a gadget freak using the iPhone adds considerably to my motivation.

So I downloaded most of the apps in the App Store that I thought might do what I want. What I want is:
  • Ability to track calories by meal
  • A database of foods to replace my trusty Calorie King book
  • Ability to track weight over time
  • Ability to add my own foods to the database
  • Ability to track just calories (so I don't always HAVE to add something to the database)
I eventually settled on iShape. It does all of these things except that the database isn't complete by any means and doesn't replace Calorie King. It has some other nice features too. You set a goal weight and activity level and it calculates a target calorie limit for you and estimates when you will meet your goal. You can customize many elements (like set your own daily calorie target) and you can add in the effects of exercise and track your waist measurement and BMI. Plus tons of features that I never used (track water, fat, protein, exercise, etc).

I also added WeightBot for some additional weight tracking because I really like the user interface. And the sounds. Slick. But it lacks the one graph view I really want (start to finish), so it ended up not being quite what I wanted. iShape does it all.

Anyway the iPhone is a pretty good system for the diet journal approach. I always had it with me. I always had the ability to google for things that weren't in the database. I could snap a photo of a meal if I didn't feel like estimating it right that moment. It is slower than a notebook to add new foods, but much faster to deal with your favorites. The calorie tracking graph in iShape kept me honest and allowed me to try to make up for some bad days with some good days. The weight tracking (in both apps) kept me motivated as I saw the changes.

If you are a nerd and you have an iPhone and you are overweight (are those three things completely redundant?), give it a try. I guarantee calorie tracking works if you commit to it.

I hit my goal this morning. I have officially been under the "overweight" line for a few days, but it feels really nice to actually hit the target.

I hit my goal just in time to absorb the extra calories from my fresh homemade doughnut breakfast this morning. Did I mention that I got a deep fryer? All things in moderation.


(for anyone reading this who has never met me, those numbers are correct - I'm 6' 7")

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Sign of the Times

Grand Opening Sale/Store Closing

This store is a couple doors down from the Apple store in the Natick Collection mall.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Programmer's View of Self Checkout

Jeff Atwood has a blog post up comparing the open source software model with self-service check out lines at the supermarket.

But as a developer, that is not what I think about when I use the self-service lines (which I almost always do).

I think about how farking awful the software is.

I shop at one of several local Super Stop and Shop stores that have mobile scanners. You scan your Stop and Shop card at the entrance on a rack of mobile scanners. This presumably identifies you as a trusted (or at least registered) customer. A mobile bar code scanner lights up, you pull it off the rack, and away you go to do your shopping.

This is great (even with the software complaints) because I can bag my groceries into sturdy reusable bags as I go and push my whole cart through at checkout. In effect this lets me parallelize bagging/checkout with my shopping, which saves me huge chunks of time. When you are usually shopping with a tired 3-year old, you seriously want to spend the minimum time possible in the store. This process is made even more attractive by the fact that they have let go almost all of their dedicated baggers, so normal checkout is now considerably slower than it used to be.

Every once in a while you get "audited" by a clerk who enters a special code and scans several items to make sure that you didn't slip anything in to your bags. Even this doesn't take too long if the clerk wasn't halfway across the store when they get the page to audit you.

I have three major problems with the software:
  1. The scales are slow
  2. The checkout is slow
  3. There is huge disparity between stores
First the scales. The way the store deals with the problem of having to weigh produce is you weigh it at a special scale, then print a bar code, attach it to your bag of broccoli, scan the bar code, then drop it in your bag. Elegant and simple.

OK, but how do you look up "broccoli"? Well, there is a search screen and you can start typing "b-r-o" and as you type a set of icons will appear that match your input. This is a nice UI design. But you have to wait 4-5 seconds between each letter typed. It does not cache your typing so it won't catch up, and there is no feedback that your typing is pointless.

Think about this problem space for a moment. There are at most a few hundred items in the produce section. Even on most embedded systems you should be able to fit the whole searchable database in RAM. Even if you store it in a horribly inefficient way. How on earth can this be so slow? I am reasonably confident that I could write a vastly superior search implementation on my 2002 era java enabled phone. My blackberry and iPhone could both do this without breaking a sweat.

Fortunately there is a shortcut. If you know the PLU code you can enter that. I occasionally skip purchases if I can't easily find the PLU code, though. It's just not worth the pain.

OK, on to the checkout. When you are done shopping you go to one of several special lines and scan a special barcode that signals that you are done shopping. This triggers the unit to start downloading data (or notifies the central system if the downloading happens as you shop - whatever). You place the scanner in a holder by the checkout stand and scan your Stop and Shop card at the register.

The register then starts ringing up your order. One. Item. At. A. Time. At about a second or a second and a half per item. What? They have all this data for what you purchased at their finger tips and it has to go this slow? Think about this problem space for a moment. Is this a different problem from recalculating a spreadsheet? No, it isn't. How would you feel if your spreadsheet took 1-1.5 seconds per line to recalculate? You would throw your computer through the window - that's how you would feel.

OK, now my last problem - disparity between stores. A little over a year ago I went to a different local Stop and Shop and used the same system. It isn't as close to me, but it is near a favorite liquor store and a Starbucks so I find myself in the neighborhood from time to time needing to do some shopping.

Well, imagine my surprise and delight when I got to the register and my entire shopping cart rang up instantly. Not. One. Item. At. A. Time. Sweet! They fixed the bug.

It has been over a year and my store still hasn't updated their system. What? Who does Stop and Shop hire to do IT project management? What are they thinking? If you have a known bug that is likely to drive people nuts and you have fixed it, for goodness sake put it out there for your users. You look like a total idiot if you don't.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cinnamon Scones

I experimented with a cinnamon variant of my basic scone recipe for a group meeting today and it seemed to go over fairly well. I was again asked for the recipe.

I used just the basic recipe, but substituted these cinnamon chips (Cinnamon Flav-R-Bites from the Baker's Store) for the dried fruit and sprinkled cinnamon/sugar on the top instead of raw sugar.

They were pretty tasty. If you are a fan of cinnamon scones, I highly recommend this approach. Do not attempt with the basic store bought cinnamon chips that are the consistency of chocolate chips - you won't be happy.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

My New iPhone

Everything interesting about the iPhone has probably already been written, but I got a new iPhone for Christmas and I am going to make a few comments anyway.

I am totally hooked on my iPhone and I wish I had gotten one sooner. I didn't because I couldn't convince myself that I wanted an iPod on my phone or a phone on my iPod.

I had it all wrong. The iPhone is the best mobile computing platform ever and it just happens to have a phone and an iPod. They are almost incidental.

I owned my iPhone for two days before I even plugged in the earphones. It is a great iPod, but doesn't hold a candle to my 120g classic for capacity and variety. I don't really like the idea of sucking my phone's battery with music, either.

But I am doing most of my personal email, most of my RSS reading, and most of my web searching/surfing and social networking on the iPhone.

The keyboard took a little getting used to, but I type almost as fast on the iPhone as I do on my blackberry now. I typed this entry with it. (iBlogger)

It is also a great gaming platform. Fieldrunners isn't just a "great game for the iPhone." It is a great game. Period.

It isn't a replacement for a sketchbook, but one can do simple doodles and contour drawings on it. (No. 2)

It is a brilliant calculator. Sci-15c and i41CX+ are both excellent apps. The fact that I feel the need for both probably says a lot about me - but I'd rather not examine that too closely. :-)

I have been spoiled for a while by having a blackberry with GPS and Google Maps and I am no longer willing to live without that functionality. The iPhone is better.

It is a great Twitter client - I am using Tweetie for almost everything Twitter.

It is a brilliant wifi locator (WiFinder).

Plus there are lots of totally new things you can do. Mobile Pandora is cool. As are SnapTell and midomi.

And in a pinch it is even a kitchen timer, diet aid, eBook reader, white noise generator, binaural beat machine, clock, flashlight, level, or a ruler.

I use my computers less now.