The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

September 28, 2010

I Guess you Can Have a Cow, Man: The Puyallup Fair

Filed under: Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:32 am

Although I have now lived in the Seattle area for nearly sixteen years now, I have never been to the Puyallup Fair until this past Saturday, even though to hear the way some people put it you’re practically required by law to attend the thing.  Although officially the Puyallup Fair isn’t officially Washington’s State Fair (the Evergreen State Fair happens in late August up in Monroe, and is a much smaller affair,) it is the largest annual event held in Washington State, with an attendance of nearly 1.2 million in 2009.   And I’m pretty sure a rather significant portion of those 1.2 million people were sitting out in front of us in bumper-to-bumper traffic on State Route 167 as me and a few friends very slowly made our way to the Fair this Saturday.   It ultimately took over three hours to make it from my friends’ house in Kirkland to the front gate at the Fairgrounds, a drive that should normally be somewhere around 45 minutes on a good day (or at least a day when there aren’t 50,000 people headed for the same place you’re headed to for some inexplicable reason.)  The fact that we ultimately ended up parked 1.6 miles away probably didn’t help any (and yes, I checked this using the Google My Tracks app on my phone, which actually works quite well for that type of thing as long as it doesn’t think you’re drunk, but that’s another story.)  Of course, as could be expected with that many people, it was quite crowded, and the sample seen above was pretty representative of the typical crowds encountered during our relatively brief stay at the fair.

That wasn’t to say that it was completely impossible to get around.  And even if you had to wade through roughly half a zillion people to get anywhere, there were still quite a few things to see and do.  If we had seen or done any of them I might even have something interesting to write here, but to be perfectly honest, I was pretty much there for two things:  Cows (in spite of lacking any particular reason for this)  and to find some of the Doom-on-a-Stick you keep hearing about at these things.  Anything else was just gravy.  After the jump, a few highlights (such as they are) from the visit.

(more…)

Advertisements

September 23, 2010

Not Exactly a Walk in the Park

Filed under: Random Stuff, Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 8:30 pm

Like a lot of people who I know, I do have to admit that I could probably use to lose a few pounds.  It’s not that I’m necessarily out of shape or anything like that, but working in a profession that involves a whole lot of sitting down at a computer all day, I probably don’t get as much exercise as I should all the time.  For the most part, the exercise that I do get comes from taking walks around the neighborhood.  When you start getting around by walking, Downtown Bellevue gets to be bigger than you might think.  Even what would seem to be a relatively short walk from my apartment to Bellevue Square and back is good for at least a mile and a half round trip, and adding a stroll through the mall or a lap around the trail in the middle of Downtown Park is usually good for adding at least another half mile or so.  Even so, I don’t always have time to go out walking, and with the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder I expect I’ll have to turn to other sources for daily exercise.  The exercise room in the building is one option, and a 15-minute session on an elliptical trainer can be good way to burn off 250-300 calories pretty quickly (which doesn’t do much good if there’s Little Debbie snack cakes in the house, but that’s another post for another time) but the main problem with that is that it’s mind-numbingly boring.  Of course, with this place being a reasonably fancy apartment complex, the exercise machines we have here are the fancy ones with all the bells and whistles including the built-in TV screens, but thanks to Comcast’s elimination of most of the analog cable channels there’s pretty much only local channels to watch anyway, which by the time I generally get around to exercising means I usually end up with either late night talk shows or infomercials.  So far I’ve just been switching over to the stat display and trying not to pay too much attention, but there’s no getting around the fact that without some sort of distraction exercising gets just a tad boring.

In theory I should be able to rectify this situation with one of the various gadgets I have sitting around, and I’ve been messing around with this, and finding that this doesn’t work quite as well as I’d like it to.  Sure the iPad has a nice big screen that would be ideal for the purpose (and the elliptical trainer even has a nice little spot for it) but there’s the pesky matter of getting stuff onto it that I haven’t quite figured out.  As you might recall if you’ve been reading this Blog for a while, earlier this year I somehow managed to turn a combination of warranty voiding, shotgun debugging, a fair bit of failing to acknowledge the elephant in the proverbial room (in this case, a failing power supply) and a completely unnecessary electrical shock or two into an upgraded Tivo with space for over 140 hours of HD programming.  If I had some method of getting the stuff off the Tivo I’d have plenty of content (read:  All sorts of crud I probably won’t ever watch but my Tivo insists on recording the stuff anyway,) but all the downloading and converting stuff is just a pain to deal with. 

As someone who probably has way too many gadgets for his own good though, I do have other solutions to the problem… Sort of.   It seems that fancy new Android phone I picked up a few months ago is supposed to be able to download stuff off YouTube pretty well, and with the 4G turned on it actually does do a pretty good job pulling random cat videos out of thin air should the need for such things arise.  The only problem with that is that with the 10-minute restriction on place on most YouTube clips, finding something to watch without having to spend half the workout time tinkering with things is a bit of a pain, to be perfectly honest.  In the end, the whole thing is barely worth the hassle, which leaves pretty much one thing:  Staring at the timer, thinking you’ve only got eight and a half more minutes of this (plus two minutes cooldown) left before you’re done with this. 

I know it’s kind of cliché to say that there’s got to be a better way of doing this, but, well…  There’s got to be a better way of doing this.  Maybe.  At least I’ve bot a pretty good idea now of how living rooms get cluttered up with disused exercise machines.

September 14, 2010

Photo Dump: Back 2 Shcool Edition

Filed under: Photo Dump, Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 2:23 am

Repeating the third grade?

The last few weekends have been surprisingly busy, as I’ve gone about trying to make sure all of the various Summer stuff gets accomplished while Summer is still around. I’m sure I’ve already bored my readers (all six of them) with all the gory details of most of the various events, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone through the various photos that have accumulated on my phone and put together a photo dump post. As usual, this is comprised of various things that I have run across in my various wanderings that seem interesting (or something resembling interesting) but not quite enough so to warrant their own posts. You’ll find these after the jump.

(more…)

September 13, 2010

The Quest for Teriyaki

Filed under: Food — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:53 am

If you were to ask someone  the first thing that comes to mind when talking about food in Seattle, chances are that seafood would be the first thing on the list.  An item which is a lot less likely to come up in the conversation and yet at the same time perhaps even more prominent in this area is teriyaki.  It seems that just about every street corner in some neighborhoods has some sort of teriyaki joint on it (and if you’re slumming in Downtown Bellevue as I seem to be these days, there’s a good chance most of them are going to have sushi as well, or possiblyeven just the sushi with no teriyaki in sight.)  The odd thing about this is that even though teriyaki is nominally Japanese, there’s not much Japanese about the stuff you’re going to find around here.  It is highly unlikely that you could go anywhere in Japan and find the combination of chicken, rice and vegetables (or salad, depending on where you get it)  that typically comprises an order of teriyaki as you typically see here.  In fact, it’s surprisingly rare to find a teriyaki place owned by someone of Japanese descent (most of them actuallyseem to be owned by Koreans.)  It’s also surprisingly easy to take teriyaki for granted after you’ve been living around here for long enough.  I know quite a few former residents of the Seattle metro area who cite the lack of good teriyaki as being one of the things they miss about living here.  And although it seems like it would be simple to make it at home, it’s really a lot less straightforward than you might think.

Finding the ingredients for chicken teriyaki  in your local supermarket and putting them all together obviously isn’t going to be a problem for most people.  Anyone can chop up some chicken, cook it up in a pan with some sauce and end up with something vaguely resembling teriyaki.  Then again, if you take that approach, chances are the results are going to end up disappointing.  A lot of people seem to assume the problem lies in the sauce, but among all the various teriyaki places I’ve tried around here, I’ve found that generally there’s little to distinguish one place’s sauces from another’s.  After all, the basic ingredients that go into the sauce are pretty well-defined, and if you are so inclined finding the stuff in a bottle isn’t too difficult (in fact, some teriyaki places around here bottle up their sauce and sell it separately.)  What I have found to be a major distinguishing factor is the way the meat gets cooked.  The reason that teriyaki you’re cooking on the stove is turning out flat is that most stoves just can’t put off enough heat to properly brown and carmelize things.  When it comes to Chinese stir-fry (for which a lot of the same principles apply) they actually have a term for this:  Wok hei.  Basically, the idea is that in order to properly stir-fry you need to be cooking in a wok over very high heat (some even go so far as to say that only an open flame is suitable for this) with constant stirring or tossing.  While this approach definitely works (and the results can be delicious, there are some Mongolian Grill places in the area which do a great job of this,) if you actually go somewhere that you can watch teriyaki being made you’ll see that they aren’t actually doing this.

The vast majority of teriyaki places around here keep their kitchens out of sight, but most of the ones at the local malls (which often produce better teriyaki than some people might think) do their cooking right in front of the customers.  It’s from watching some of these places that I’ve gotten most of the techniques I’m trying to apply when trying to make teriyaki at home.  The main thing these places have in common is that they all boast big commercial griddles, with nary a pan in sight.  I suspect most of these are electric, but when you start getting into the commercial grade stuff not only is there more precise temperature control than the average home cook is going to get from their stove, but there’s generally a higher range of temperatures to work with as well.  Judging from the amount of browning that happens, I’d say these are probably running quite hot (although different zones of the cooktop are probably also set to varying temperatures as well for things like sauce application and holding.)  Based on my observations it’s this browning which seems to be one of the major contributing factors that differentiates good teriyaki from mediocre teriyaki.  You also notice when you watch that no sauce is applied to the chicken until just before the meat is ready to come off the griddle, presumably because it would interfere with this browning if it was applied too early.  With these things in mind, what can you do to replicate this at home?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

Since commercial kitchen equipment is a bit beyond my budget (and quite a bit beyond my available kitchen space) I’ve had to settle for a consumer grade electric griddle of the type you’re going to find in many stores.  This is definitely an improvement over the stove for the task, but it also comes with a number of pitfalls:  First of all, you’re still going to be a few thousand BTUs short in the heat department, as the temperature control on my griddle only goes up to 400 degrees (even the low-end commercial ones I’ve looked at max out at 700°F.)   Second, I have yet to find a non-commercial griddle that doesn’t have non-stick coating on it.  Although the stuff is great if you’re trying to cook eggs (something I don’t do much of really,) I suspect it’s more of a hindrance than a help in this process, and also severely limits the tools I can use.  In my experience, trying to manipulate stuff with a silicone-covered spatula seems to be the culinary equivalent to typing with boxing gloves on.  Well OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but all things considered I’d much rather just use plain old metal utensils any day (it is for this reason that the vast majority of pans in my kitchen have are stainless steel without nonstick coating.)  I’m using boneless skinless chicken thighs for the meat.  Breasts would probably work as well, but I generally find them a bit too flavorless for my liking.  I was originally cutting the chicken up and marinating it in a mixture of mostly soy sauce and pineapple juice, but it quickly became apparent that all this was doing was adding more liquid on the grill which was interfering with browning.  I”ve since tried using just a light coating of sesame oil before putting it on the griddle, which works a lot better.  I’ve also seen some teriyaki places apply oil to the grill directly, which probably helps prevent sticking on the metal surface.

Using the techniques I’ve picked up from watching the chefs at the griddles and applying them at home, I’ve managed to get the results to look pretty good, but there’s definitely some bugs to work out of the process.  For one thing, even though the meat as seen above looks pretty good, it’s still turning out fairly dry.  I suspect that what’s happening here is that the lower heat means I need to cook longer to get the proper browning, where the high heat of the commercial griddles prevents this from happening.  I’ve also messed around with making my own sauce by combining soy sauce, pineapple juice, Worcestershire Sauce and a small amount of sugar, then reducing it to a glaze on the stove before applying it to the meat near the end of cooking. A more typical Japanese sauce recipe typically also includes a sweetened rice wine called Mirin, but I don’t normally use alcoholic ingredients in my cooking so I haven’t tried this.  I’ve seen a mixture of sugar and rice wine vinegar suggested as a substitute, which I might need to try.  I’ve also seen mention of a so-called “new mirin” with less than 1% alcohol content which might work as well if I can find it somewhere.   Either way, there seems to be no one exact right way to do this.  I’ve been thinking I might need to try some sort of brining to allow longer cook time with less drying.

I definitely still have some work to do if I want to figure out how to make teriyaki as good as some of the local restaurants at home, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.    But when all is said and done though, one question remains:  What’s the point?  After all, it’s relatively trivial to go get a nice big container of take-out teriyaki for seven or eight bucks and easily make two (or even three) meals out of it.  That may be true, but as I’ve noted above, the whole teriyaki phenomenon seems to be mostly local to the Seattle area, and there’s no guarantee that I’m not going to find myself living a thousand miles from the nearest decent teriyaki joint at some point.  Even now, I’ve found that the teriyaki options available in downtown Bellevue are somewhat lacking (I will spare you another rehash of my well-worn rant about the lack of late night dining options in the area though.)  I’ve also found it’s a lot cheaper to make the stuff yourself.  Besides, if you can figure out how to do it yourself, why not?  It never hurts to try…

September 7, 2010

It’s the Most Nerdiest Time of the Year: PAX 2010 Roundup

Filed under: Culture, Games — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 7:32 pm

"Bad ideas I have had", part #17,653 in a series.

 

As anyone who follows the video games industry is well aware, the Penny Arcade Expo has become a pretty big deal.  Last year’s PAX completely maxed out the available space in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, and sold out completely with a total attendance reported in excess of 60,000 people.  In 2010, not only did PAX expand to the East Coast for the first time with PAX East in Boston, but PAX Prime (as the Seattle show has been dubbed) has expanded even further, moving its main theater and concerts to Benaroya Hall and allowing the exhibition hall to expand even further.  This year for the first time, PAX brought with it major announcements, 

Once you have been to PAX enough times, you begin to realize that ultimately the exhibition hall is only a part of the whole experience, as there’s all sorts of stuff to do.  The Console Freeplay areas provide rooms full of systems and a big library of games you can check out, which provides a nice little opportunity to try out some of the stuff you might be on the fence about.  There’s all sorts of panels all throughout the three days of the show, and although only a handful were of interest to me this year, there’s a good chance everyone’s going to find at least one worth attending.  As usual, there were also the concerts which are a big draw, although this year I was unable to attend either of them.  There was also more content this year more tailored to professional interests in game design and development, something I’ve occasionally tinkered with in various forms but haven’t ever been really all that serious about (that’s probably a subject for another post, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to actually writing it?)  And as usual, PAX is also one of the more interesting people-watching locations you’re going to find anywhere (assuming that those are actually people in some of those suits, at least. ) After the jump, a roundup of some of the stuff I saw at PAX 2010.  Also a quick note:  Don’t expect to find much on the games themselves.  To be honest, I didn’t try a whole lot of them, and virtually all of the big-ticket games on the show floor require waiting through lines measured in hours to get anywhere near them, something I just don’t have the patience for. 

(more…)

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: