Skill a Week: Baking Bread

First off, sorry for the lack of updates recently. Had some family stuff going on and updating the blog here was not my highest priority.

What have I learned this week? I made bread! This was one of the things I had on my list of aspirations for 2013 – to start baking my own bread. This for a number of reasons:

  • Baking is useful for making a lot of foods, and bread is a simple baked product
  • I can make healthier, cheaper bread
  • It seems like a nifty skill
  • It opens the doorway (through yeast) to other micro-organism ventures, such as brewing, wine-making, yogurts, fermentation, pickling, etc, which are intriguing to me

I saw a few recipes that looked dead simple – and they are. The most basic bread is just flour, water, salt, yeast. Four ingredients, and about 10-15 minutes of time.

I followed the steps described by the gentleman who put together how to make perfect French bread in 10 minutes. There are similar batch recipes.

Another useful resource (for this, but also cooking generally) is this Bulk Foods website. I haven’t ordered anything yet, but the prices are great.

Anyway, I made two loaves, no problems, with this method. But eating them knocked me out. I’ve been tired generally recently but the bread was a bit exhausting (though delicious when hot). It’s so much flour. So I’m looking at a few possibilities. I’m going to try putting some wheat flour in the bread (to replace part of the white flour), as well as some oats and other grains. Just dump it in and see what happens. I’ve also got a book of bread-making recipes that looks interesting – one bread is a tofu bread, which I think will cut the carb content somewhat and add protein. Also I might add milk to the bread, or eggs. More ambitiously, I might try substituting in a bit of protein powder, for maybe 1/4 of the flour. This has worked fine for pancakes and crepes. Lots of different things to test!

Skill a Week: Cooking with Cast Iron

Time has led to some serious attrition in my kitchen wares. I started out four years ago with some space plates/utensils my parents didn’t need, plus a nice set of glasses given as a graduation present. Over time, I’ve dropped things, lost them, snapped them, etc… now I’m down to 4 plates, for instance, and 3-4 bowls, 4-5 forks, you get the picture. That’s still┬áprobably too many, because it just allows too much to build up in the sink… The latest casualty was a large teflon pan I had, maybe 10 years old, and pretty scarred. It wasn’t non-stick anymore, and I don’t want to get cancer in my twenties.

As a replacement, I bought an $18, American-made 12-inch cast iron skillet. Probably the most fetishized piece of kitchen equipment, and also the most durable. I like the thick, heavy metal, the black color, the slightly greasy feel. I like heating it over a gas flame. It reminds me of cooking breakfast at Boy Scout camp, cast iron pan on a Coleman propane stove. Tucked in an old wood cabin in the snowy Adirondacks, playing cards, fighting the wood stove, building insane sled jumps… but that’s another story.

This skillet was supposedly pre-seasoned, but that didn’t work out so well. So I’m seasoning it myself right now. I can tell I’m making progress, although there’s a lot of work to go. I try to improve myself, and it’s nice to own something which will likewise improve with each use.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  1. Lots of Pam and butter before eggs. Clean the pan right after eating, when it’s still warm, by pouring some salt in it and wiping with a paper towel.
  2. Wipe the pan down after cleaning with a thin coat of vegetable oil.
  3. Put more oil in the pan and toss it in the oven whenever baking something.

I’ve got two weeks of use in and I’m expecting a fully non-stick pan in a month or two. I’ve been cooking eggs, which are the worst, anyway.

 

Skill a Week: Kale Chips

I was poking around online for information on kale (for my green smoothies), and I found a recipe for kale chips. It’s dead simple and tastes good. The only downside – it requires turning on the oven. But I don’t mind that so much in winter – the oven doubles as a heater.

Kale Chips

Ingredients:

  • Kale
  • Oil Spray (Pam)
  • Salt
  • Garlic Powder
  • Cayenne Pepper

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Tear or cut kale leaves off the central stem into potato chip-sized pieces
  3. Place kale rounded side down onto baking sheet
  4. Give a quick spray of pam across the leaves (I used butter flavor, but olive oil flavor would work as well)
  5. Cover leaves first with garlic powder, then a few shakes of salt, and finally a dusting of cayenne pepper
  6. Bake for 10 minutes
  7. Eat.

First off, keep a close eye on these – the cooking time is a bit sensitive and you don’t want them to char. The chips are intense. The garlic, salt and pepper really pack a punch. The texture isn’t really similar to potato chips – it’s closer to dried seaweed you might find in sheets at an asian grocery store.

I’ve heard of other variations with, among other things: soy sauce, black pepper, onion powder, etc. Try and see what you get.

Skill a Week: Three Smoothies

I’ve made smoothies for years, but they were always very similar: banana, strawberries/raspberries, milk. Here’s three rather divergent smoothies that shake (ahem) things up. You can swap out almost any of the ingredients unless they’re in the name of the smoothie. the number one most important ingredient in these is banana. It will add natural sweetness and bind together the ingredients without being unhealthy. It also doesn’t have a strong taste.

I use a vitamix to make these: 30-60 seconds and everything is smooth. But I think with some coaxing and judicious ordering of ingredients, a regular blender could handle most of these.

Green Machine

This smoothie isn’t that tasty (it has a semi-sweet gardeny taste with a pulpy texture). But it’s super-healthy. There’s a ton of greens that can be difficult to eat on their own and you can dump in a lot of vegetables, so long as they don’t have a strong taste.

Sweet ingredients:

  • One whole pear (you can core if you like)
  • One banana
  • Apple juice (just a half cup will sweeten the smoothie)

Vegetable ingredients:

Other:

  • Cup of water (or chilled green tea)
  • 1/4 cup Coconut milk (optional)
  • Ginger (Tbsp)

There are three parts of this: the sweet ingredients, the super-healthy green ingredients, and the creamy ingredients (banana, coconut milk). The sweet ingredients end up dominating the taste, which is good, but the sweetness is cut by all the green vegetables. You can substitute in a lot of other things: spinach, sprouts, cauliflower, grape juice for apple juice, etc.

Peaches & Cream

The goal here is a lightly sweet, smooth and creamy shake. Rather than going for fiber and vitamins, you can add a lot of protein to this one.

Sweet:

  • Frozen peaches (1 cup)
  • Fresh peaches (1 cup)
  • Banana (1 large or 2 small)

Cream:

  • Skim Milk (1 cup)
  • Fat Free Yogurt (1 cup)
  • 1/2 scoop Vanilla or Cookies & Cream Protein Powder

Peaches have a relatively mild flavor, so you can’t sneak in too many vegetables; the light orange color is also delicate so any greens will turn it murky (if you care about that). I can toss in a handful of carrots without changing the taste or color. Also worth considering: cottage cheese instead of yogurt, vanilla extract, coconut milk.

Blueberry Smoothie

As long as you add enough blueberries, this smoothie has a very strong taste and a texture that accommodates grittier ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Blueberries (1-2 cups)
  • Small handful spinach
  • Half cucumber
  • 1 large banana
  • Flax seed
  • Water

You can substitute in tea or milk instead of water. A few carrots or heads of broccoli can be added as well.

Skill a Week: Apartment Cleaning

Forgive me, this is closer to a realization and a few tips. Every weekend where I don’t have something planned, I tell myself “this weekend, I’m going to do a great job cleaning my apartment!” And I never do. Now, there’s no particular reason for me to clean, usually. Sure, it’s nice to have a clean apartment, and I feel more responsible when I have one, but in the end I could instead live in squalor.

When my back’s against the wall, though, it’s awfully easy to clean an apartment. For instance, between Friday night and Saturday morning, I spent about six hours cleaning. And in that time, I totally re-arranged two rooms (a much better arrangement), cleaned a kitchen counter full of dishes, scrubbed the stove, cleaned the bathroom, mopped five rooms, changed bed linens, moved my computer, and dozens of other small things. In six hours! And that’s the amount of time I spend procrastinating on a normal weekend!

So, the lesson here is that, once you get started, it’s shockingly easy to do a serious amount cleaning, so long as you put your mind to it.

And here’s a very simple cleaning tip I picked up. Previously my cleaning arsenal had mostly consisted of windex, bleach, draino, paper towels, vinegar and baking soda. At a dollar store I found 6 dishrags in a bundle for $1 (they’re very shoddy/loosely knit). They’re so much more effective and re-usable than paper towels. First you can use them for drying things, then wiping down mostly-clean surfaces, then mopping up drink spills, and then finally cleaning/scrubbing seriously dirty things – one dishrag can easily replace a roll of paper towels. If they get disgusting, you can throw them out; if they’re just dirty, you can run them through the washing machine. One thing I cleaned was the stove – I think paper towels are too soft to cut through accumulated oil spatter, but the dishrags were rough enough that it posed no problem.

Also useful – using an old sponge to cut through layers of grime in the bathtub or bathroom sink. I’d used paper towels here as well and they always left some grime behind. But after 2-3 months of use a sponge gets gross and is only suitable for this type of cleaning (or wiping down kitchen counters).

Skill a Week: Knife Sharpening

The last set of knives I bought was probably 5 years ago. They were wonderfully sharp when I bought them, now they’ve become dull. After all, 5 years of wear is quite a bit (I also inherited a few cheap knives that probable hadn’t been sharpened in 15 years)! Of course, since I’m trying to cook more frequently, it’s important to have a razor-sharp knife.

So, it was either replace the knives or sharpen them. And if to sharpen, what method to use? Well, if you asked me 5 years ago, I might have just replaced them. I suspect a lot of people end up doing that. But these were decent knives, so I didn’t want to get rid of them. Then, the question became how to sharpen the knives. There’s a lot of options. For instance, I was considering this Accusharp knife sharpener.

I was really enthusiastic at first, but I also felt uncomfortable. There was a dissonance I felt when considering this purchase that made me uncomfortable. First, the reviews were mixed. The device sounded effective, but according to experts it was damaging to some knives. I didn’t want that – but then, if I sharpened by hand I’m sure I wouldn’t do a great job either. Worst than being semi-effective, it was a cheap, disposable solution for knife sharpening. It also wasn’t “traditional,” and in the end, even if I saved time, I wouldn’t learn anything that could be usefully applied to other edged devices. So – it was down to sharpening by hand.

I ended up buying a Japanese waterstone (I might also buy a sharpening steel next year). I’m not sure exactly what it’s made of, but it feels like a very smooth, dry, piece of fabricated stone. When I say it feels dry, I mean it – it’s as though it sucks the moisture out of your hands when you handle it. You have to let it soak before using it – hence the name ‘waterstone’.

I looked up a few Youtube tutorials, and found this one featuring an older Japanese chef the most useful.

I also learned a few things through experience. First, leaning over the stone is important to maintaining the right angle of the blade through the full stroke. Second, the slurry of stone powder generated by sharpening is critical – as it gets generated, the sharpening goes better and better. Maintaining that slurry on top of the stone is key.

I sharpened five knives, and it ended up taking me an hour. I bet after another few sessions of sharpening, I’d be able to do the same 5 knives in half an hour. The knives are delightfully sharp. To me, the best test is with a tomato. By the end of my sharpening, I could simply hold the knife on top of a tomato and it would be able to slice right through.

This is a skill that’s only periodically useful, maybe every few months. But I enjoyed sharpening. Once I got a rhythm going, it was almost meditative, and it also felt good to be doing something by hand.

Skill a Week #3: Programming a Game

I have a confession. One of the core things about who I am is that I consider myself a programmer. And yet, for over four years now, I haven’t done any programming outside of work.

It’s true! It’s shameful! My excuse is a lack of time. But that’s a terrible excuse. It’s one of those things I can’t really explain. Programming makes me feel so good and yet I haven’t done any programming on my own.

Well, I changed that. A buddy and I were talking about making a game – perhaps even starting a company to do so. Finally last weekend I proposed that we meet up and start programming. Neither of us has much experience with this, but I think we’re both excellent programmers. So the first thing was just to start getting experience making a game. We decided on a tower defense-style game, and a game framework (Love2D). It uses a language I hadn’t tried before (Lua). And to be honest, I’ve rarely done much graphics programming or games. So, just getting started was a challenge.

After the first 4-5 hours, I was really enjoying myself. I had some basic competency in the language, and before I went to sleep I realized “hey, I have enough knowledge now to make a tetris clone!” So, that’s what I did. Only took a few hours of puzzling to get it working, with menu, all the keys and everything. Then, as I was cooking dinner, I thought to myself “Hey, you know what would be cool? Trying to make Conway’s Game of Life in under an hour!” I like Game of Life, it’s a very simple sort of program that leads to interesting emergent phenomena. And, lo and behold, I was able to write a decent version in about half an hour. Then, another half an hour to add different game speeds, pausing, and different grid sizes.

I’ll be honest, I was really happy with these experiments. It was rejuvenating – I felt like I did about programming way back when I was in high school. That there’s just a whole world of things you can create and mold exactly how you want. Things you care about, rather than things you do for grades or work. I’d also been really down on my programming abilities. Because, although I consider myself a good programmer, and most people I work with agree, I suffer from a startling lack of diversity in experience. All the cool projects I see other programmers doing, I know nothing about! I was really scared that making Tetris would be difficult, when in fact it was really, really simple.

At this point, I’ve probably spent about 15 hours programming in this environment (love2d/lua, editing in vim). And I feel wonderful. I’ve got a playable tower defense game, and I’m comfortable making pretty much any sort of feature change to the game at this point.

Maybe this is pretty specific. But I think generally people become unintentionally confined in their jobs, as though they were wearing a straitjacket. They end up creating nothing. But creating anything is rewarding and refreshing.

Skill a Week: Frugal Apartment Clothes Cleaning

A bit late, maybe, but the skill I’d like to highlight this week is a cheaper way of cleaning clothes (particularly for apartment-dwellers).

Prior to this year, I had lived in a building that had a washer & dryer, except for two years in college. It’s a huge pain having to travel to do laundry; even worse, if you work odd hours you might not be able to get to a laundromat. Here’s the solution I’ve worked out:

I bought a small portable washing machine. There are two varieties: a hand-operated model, and an electric washer. I went with the electric model, because I’m lazy. Its priced at $250, but 9 months in, I’m happy with it. Assuming it doesn’t break for another year or two, I won’t have any complaints.

It’s light enough to be easily carried by two people. It’s 17″ by 17″, and under 3 feet tall. It uses a regular power outlet, and a nozzle attachment you put on a sink. The waste water goes into the tub. The load size is enough for a king-sized sheet, plus maybe a few socks, or 8-10 undershirts. Like I said, it’s already paid for itself in terms of convenience. If I assumed the laundromat would cost $5/week, I’m approaching payoff in pure cost terms as well.

In addition to the small electric washer, I have a drying rack (from Ikea). Everything dries on it, and there’s no wear on clothes compared to a heated dryer. If I had a yard, I’d use a clothesline… but I don’t. For half my clothes (sheets, towels, underclothes, some shirts), the drying rack is good enough. For the other half, particularly work clothes, I don’t want the wrinkles. I have two solutions here. Historically I’ve just taken all the work clothes – a single huge load is feasible, since they’re all pre-dried – and carried it to the laundromat, where 50 cents and 15 minutes is enough to heat and de-wrinkle.

However, that’s kind of a pain, and some clothes just need a quick once-over, so I’ve been (re-)teaching myself to iron clothes. I don’t mind the process of ironing. It can be rather calming. On the hole, it probably costs the same as the laundromat, in electricity terms. But it’s convenient to be able to do just a few shirts at a time.

Skill a Week: Cheap Food

The inaugural “Skill a Week” is one way I’ve been practicing to make cheap food: rice and beans (or, a vegetarian chili). It’s cheap, healthy, and tastes good. What’s not to like?

By the way, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’ve prepared this dish probably 10 times or so and consider this variation a success.

The Recipe

This recipe provides enough for 6 cereal bowl-size servings. If you usually eat a large volume of food, like me, that probably translates to 4 meals that will stuff you.

Ingredients

Note that this is just a rough guideline – feel free to toss whatever in. I’ve included costs for the full batch, based on buying store brand foods, but not in bulk, in the NYC area. I really just have a rough guideline for the cost of spices; suffice it to say that ethnic grocers and non-name brand (ie, non-McCormick) spices are the way to go. Also, feel free to experiment. I’ve tried some garam masala, sriracha sauce, vegetable broth, bay leaf, etc. The key spices are chili powder, garlic, and lemon juice – the lemon juice in particular makes a huge difference.

Ingedient Qty Cal Fat Carb Protein Cost ($)
Garlic Paste 2 Tbsp 15 0 6 2 .15
Goya Salsa 1 Cup 85 0 20 0 1.05
Dried Black Beans 3 Cups 1200 0 264 84 2.25
Brown Rice (Dry) 1 Cup 685 5.5 143 15 .30
Onion 2 Medium 100 0 23.5 2 .75
Lemon Juice Concentrate 1/4 Cup 0 0 0 0 .15
Chili Powder 2 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Cumin Seeds 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Turmeric 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Black Pepper 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Salt 1 Tsp 0 0 0 0 .05
Olive Oil 2 Tbsp 240 28 0 0 .50
Total 2325 33.5 456 103 5.40
Per Serving 388 5.5 76 17 .90

Preparation

  1. Beans are (ahem) well-known to be gassy. However, proper preparation can reduce this unfortunately side-effect substantially. The key is to get the beans pre-soaked, which starts to destroy some of the chemicals that lead to gas. I start preparing the beans about 2 hours before I begin cooking. Take 3 cups of dried beans and put them in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, turn off the stove and let the beans sit for 1 hour. They’ll absorb a lot of water during this time. After the first hour, strain the beans and rinse – you’ll see a ton of black run-off. Put them back in the pot, and cover with water again. Wait another hour and then strain them again. This is pretty flexible, you can try 45 minutes or 90 minutes or whatever.
  2. Dice up the onions, and fry in a pan. I add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then I add the black pepper, 1/2 the garlic paste, 1/2 the chili, and the cumin. It smells really good. Continue frying for about 5 minutes while preparing the other ingredients.
  3. I cook my beans in a pressure cooker. I’ll put some oil in the bottom to prevent burning, and spread that around, then dump the beans in. Add in 1 cup of dry rice, and then 5 1/2 cups of water. The water is also flexible, I found 5 1/2 cups gives about the consistency I want, thin enough to eat with a spoon, but not soupy.
  4. Add the onions to the beans, the rest of the garlic, the rest of the chili, and the turmeric. Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure
  5. Cook 30 minutes after reaching pressure, then turn off the heat and wait 5-10 minutes for the pressure to subside.
  6. Open the pressure cooker, and add 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1 cup of whatever cheap salsa you found. Add salt to taste. The chili will be mildly spicy, at this point I add in additional hot sauce. The salt and tomatoes/lemon (both of which are acidic), if added earlier, will give the beans a tougher texture, this is why I wait until most of the cooking is done before adding these ingredients.
  7. Cover the pressure cooker again, and cook at pressure for 10-15 minutes
  8. Done! I add some cheese to my chili before serving; I’ve found that at heat even big chunks of 75% fat free cheese will melt (usually fat free cheese melts poorly). Store leftovers for work lunches or dinner.
  9. I don’t have a microwave, so to reconstitute I put 1/2 tablespoon of oil in a pot to prevent burning, add 1-1.5 servings of chili, and then ~1/2 cup of water, and heat for 7-8 minutes.

Hopefully this was useful. I enjoy the chili and for 90 cents per serving, the price is right, too. Any suggestions would be appreciated. The latest thing I heard was to try adding cinnamon; I might also try cocoa powder.