Monday, September 30, 2013

From College Cook to Home Chef

Christina’s Guide to Cooking
Or, how to jump from college student to home chef in 10 minutes (kind of).

I wrote this up for a friend to summarize some cooking tips, thought I would share it more widely! This is for anyone who has an interest in developing home cooking skills. The focus is on simple and cost effective techniques. These also make great gifts to ask family for at the holidays. Also girls dig guys who can cook.

Things to Buy for your Kitchen
You don’t need all these things, they progressively will improve your ability to cook effectively at home. You can buy them one piece at a time. Amazon links provide examples, but research on your own what’s best in each category!
  • Refined Coconut Oil: Or other oil with a high smoke point. So you can sear meat at a high temperature.
  • Cast Iron Skillet ($32): Must be hand washed, rusts if you put it in the dishwasher. Provides the best sear on meat. Is very non-stick when used properly.
  • Basic Knife Block Set ($32): Ensures you have the right tool for any cutting task.
  • Chef’s knife ($37): Use this to cut most things, use the knife block set for everything else. Take good care of it. If you want high end try this one.
  • Crock Pot ($50): Make large quantities of tasty food simply and cheaply. Most recipies are - throw a bunch of ingredients in crock pot, leave alone for 6 hours.
  • Pressure cooker ($55): Optional, but you can do a lot of cool stuff with a pressure cooker.
  • Sous Vide ($404) + Food Saver($80): Ok this one is expensive and not for everyone, but with this you can elevate yourself from home cook to home chef. Long term this can save you money (see the Sous Vide section). Don’t buy the “combo” version that includes a vacuum sealer as the food saver brand one is much more reliable.
  • Modernist Quisine at Home ($86): If you buy a Sous Vide this will teach you how to use it and make restaurant quality dishes. You can do the same with the Internet, but this is a great guide and is highly recommended.
Also make sure you have cutlery, spices, and plates :P

How to make Tasty meat
I am going to keep this super short.
Season your meat. Salt and pepper is fine, or you can buy a different seasoning mix. Amazing how many people don’t do this!

Use oil in the pan. If you are concerned about calories, eat less meat.

Sear the meat. Meat with a good sear is much tastier than meat that is limply cooked. How to sear.
  • Heat your pan to a hot temperature with the oil in it. If the oil starts to smoke, buy better oil.
  • Drop the meat in and sear it. Don’t move it around for a couple minutes.
  • Flip or stir gently to achieve an even sear.
  • Also see this more detailed guide
If lots juice is coming out of the meat, you are stirring it too much. If it takes more than 2 minutes to sear, your temperature is too low. If the meat seems burnt, your temperature is too high, or you cooked it for too long.

Once the meat is seared you will want to cook it on a lower heat (assuming you didn’t use a sous vide). Your cast iron pan is great for searing, but takes too long to cool down, so use another pan if you have to cook it more. The other pan should be pre-heated. So irritating, why not get a Sous Vide?

That’s it for basic cooking, if you can make a great steak you are 90% there so figure out the other 10% by googling :P

Why Sous Vide are Awesome

A picture is worth 1000 words.

A Sous Vide is expensive, is it worth it?  Yes for many people for the following reasons:
  • It will cook your meat perfectly 100% of the time
  • Your meat will be better cooked than any restaurant unless they use a sous vide in which case it will be equally cooked.
  • You can leave meat in a Sous Vide for hours and it won’t become overcooked. You can go from Sous Vide to table any time in five minutes. This means you can focus on cooking the rest of your meal, the meat is easy.

How to cook meat in a Sous Vide:
  • Seal your meat in a food saver bag. Remember to season. You don’t need to marinade but you can if you want.
  • Put it in the sous vide, set the temperature, and leave it in for the prescribed cooking time (usually 2 hours but see this guide)
  • Leave it in the sous vide for hours if you want, it’s fine.
  • When you are ready to eat, take it out of the sous vide, sear it, serve it (takes 5 minutes)

How you can save money by cooking with a Sous Vide.
  • You can buy less expensive cuts of meat and they will taste better than expensive meat. Do this enough times, you'll save money. Try chuck roast, brisket, top sirloin.

How to Cook other things

Google it.

What if I'm Vegetarian?

I'm sorry.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 2 - Dishonored

Dishonored is game two of the seven games in seven days I played over the Christmas 2012 holidays.


I played Dishonored and Deus Ex back to back. My main concern with Deus Ex was execution in gameplay. Luckily, Dishonored knocked this one out of the park.

Balancing quality of game features versus scope of game features is one of the major challenges of game dev. Deus Ex favored the more features more options approach, while Dishonored kept scope tightly under control but executed at higher quality. Despite a smaller scope game options in Dishonored like completing games undetected, and without killing anyone, helped make the player feel like they had real choice in how they play. Smart game development in my opinion.
The combat in Dishonored also  feels really solid. The stealth feels a little old school and not super innovative – but it’s solid and that’s what’s really important. Graphics are very good. Story was compelling and surprised me.

So dishonored is fun, polished, and you should play it. Of all the games I played over the break this is the one I’m most excited about returning to.

Dishonored gets the Christina 2012 award for – Game I Most Want To Keep Playing

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Game One - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This is game one of the seven games in seven days I played over the Christmas 2012 holidays

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I felt torn by Deus Ex. It has incredible artistic style. The cutscenes and writing are good, as are the thematics. I appreciate the fact that the game tries to let the player solve problems in a variety of ways. I know firsthand from working on the Mass Effect series how hard it is to give players meaningful choices in how they develop their characters that effect how they solve problems in the game.

Despite all these positive aspects - the game has issues.

Perhaps it’s because I worked on Mass Effect which is also a sci-fi RPG, with shooter combat, that I find it hard to overlook flaws in how Deus Ex is executed. The shooting feels clunky. The HUD is awkward particularly the in-game item highlighting. AI feels unpolished. These are all criticisms I would also direct at Mass Effect – which is why I worked so hard to fix those issue in ME2 & ME3.

In the end I found these issues distracting enough that I chose to put down Deus Ex pretty early to focus on other games. I may return, but if I do I’ll probably turn combat down to easy, so I can rush through the combat and enjoy the story, level design, and progression mechanics which seem to be really well done.

One last thing - I would have liked to see more early exploration of the protagonist's feelings about being cybernetically augmented against his will. Perhaps this happens later in the story, but he seems to take it too easily.

Deus Ex gets the Christina 2012 award for – Most Ambitious

Seven games in Seven Days

 I wanted to use some of Christmas break to catch up on video games I didn't have time to play over the year. I set myself the following goal - play seven games in seven days.

I figured it would be interesting to have my followers on twitter give input into which games I should play, so I did a quick survey. Here are the results.

I played six of the top seven games. Unfortunately I had some technical problems with Borderlands 2, so I substituted in The Walking Dead which should have been on my list anyway!

I didn’t complete all of these games, I played them long enough to get a feel for the overall design. This is pretty typical for game designers, we’d love to complete every game we play, but it’s more important to widely survey a bunch of games. Here are my quick thoughts from most voted to least.

Over the next week I’m going to post one mini-review each day talking about my experience with each of these games. Each game will also get an award for whatever struck me most about that game. We’ll call these awards The Christinas :P

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