Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flare Saute Pan

One of the cool things about being a blogger is that I get a lot of fun cooking gear and foods to test and write about.

Most of the time, I know what sort of things are coming. Companies will email and ask if I'm interested in their products, or they'll ask if I'm interested in a sponsored post.

But sometimes things arrive as a surprise.

Not too long ago, a really cool Flare saute pan arrived. I hadn't heard about it before it arrived, so it was a nice surprise.

It went straight into the kitchen so I could start having fun with it. The Flare pans were designed by an actual rocket scientist, with fins that channel heat along the outside of the pan.

When you're cooking with a normal pan, heat is wasted as it billows out from under the pan and into your kitchen. The fins capture that heat, or at least some of it.

After using the Flare pan for a while, I have to say that it does seem to get hotter faster, and it seems to retain that heat pretty well.

I have a feeling that the difference would be even more dramatic with a saucepan, since the heat would travel up the high sides of the pan - it would be great for getting water to boil quickly, and keeping it boiling.

The interior of the pan is nonstick, with a textured, nubby sort of surface rather than a slick one that I've seen in other nonstick pans. So far, nothing has stuck to the pan, and it cleans very easily.

Who's it for: Most people need some sort of saute or frying pan.

Pros: Nonstick, heats quickly.

Cons: Since it's made from aluminum, I don't think it will work well on induction.

Wishes: None, so far. It seems to do its job.

Source: I received the Flare pan via Nordicware at no cost to me.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Vacu Vin Cool Plate

When summer comes along, everyone enjoys eating outdoors. The problem is the uninvited guests. No, I don't mean that goofy neighbor across the street or those relatives that seem to be able to smell a freshly-grilled steak from across town.

I mean the wasps that want to nibble your steak, the fruit flies that flock to the melon slices, and the houseflies that don't discriminate.

Between those pests and the problem of keeping cool foods cool, is it really worth setting up that table outdoors?

The Vacu Vin Cool Plate is designed to make outdoor cooking and serving a whole lot easier.

Those steaks are big. You could easily fit four strip steaks.

It's a pretty simple device - lidded box with a metal tray that sits above a section where you put a reusable freezer pack.

The freezer pack is designed to fit perfectly into the tray, and to make it easier to stuff into your freezer, it folds in half.

One thing I really like about the box is that the lid lifts off easily, but if you lift it open rather than lifting it off, it stays in place in the upright position. That means you can take things out of it without having to hold the lid open. And since you don't need to take the lid entirely off, you don't have to find a place to set the lid down.

The Cool Plate has a lot of uses. For one thing, you can put food in it before you cook it, and the cooling plate will keep it from precooking from the blazing sun while also keeping flying critters away. When the food is cooked, you can use it to keep the food safe and warm. Just remove the rack and wash it - or just remove it - and take out the cooling pack.

You can also use it for keeping foods cool for serving - like those melon slices, cupcakes, or burger toppings and condiments.

This certainly isn't an ice chest or a freezer - it's meant to keep foods cooler than if you left them out in the open. But if you leave this sitting in the sun for a couple hours, it's not going to keep your potato salad completely safe. If you need to keep things cool for a longer serving time, you could refill the bottom area with ice from your cooler or other freezer packs. And of course, try to keep foods in the shade rather than in direct sun.

While the Cool Plate isn't the most attractive thing ever, it's also not ugly. It's marketed to be used outdoors, but you could also use it indoors to hold foods that you want to keep cool but easily accessible during a party, like deviled eggs, cold cuts, or lox for your bagels.

If coolness isn't an issue, it's still a nice serving container with that lid that lifts and stays in place.

Who's it for: People who want to keep foods cool indoors or out.

Pros: It's a low-tech device. I liked the size - big enough to hold enough, but not super-bulky.

Cons: This is going to be one more thing to store.

Wishes: Some folks might want a variety of sizes for different purposes.

Source: I received this from the manufacturer for the purpose of a review.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Duke's Mayonnaise

I love trying new ingredients. I'm always looking for new and odd things to try. Sometimes that means seeking out a new fruit or spice, and sometimes it means hunting down a new brand.

After seeing several cookbooks in a row that were emphatic about the need to use Duke's Mayonnaise, it seemed like a sign. I had to try it. But of course it's not sold where I live. That would be too easy.

I checked online and I was about to pull the trigger on buying a bunch or jars - it's the only way to buy it to make the shipping costs reasonable - and then I had an idea. Maybe they'd be interested in a review.

A mayonnaise review.

Not too long after that, I had my very own jar of Duke's, waiting for me to do something interesting with it. But first ... a taste test.

I sampled it plain and I sampled it along with some tomato - because what's better in summer than a tomato and mayo sandwich? And I compared it to the mayonnaise I usually buy.

So here's a midwesterner's view of a Southern staple: I like it.

That's the short version. It's got a nice smooth, creamy, and not-weird texture, which is a plus when trying to mix it with anything. And it's got a little more tang than my standard mayonnaise. That tang is much more noticeable when I was using it plain, like on a tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwich.

On the other hand, when I used Duke's in a recipe, like mayonnaise or deviled eggs, the difference was, well ... maybe not noticeable. That's because I cook everything to taste, and I tend to add my own tangy flavors to salads. So maybe I'd learn to do less adjusting with Duke's.

Maybe with some recipes, I could even get away with just Duke's if I wasn't getting fancy with lots of other flavors.

But I think where Duke's really shines is when it's used as a condiment on a sandwich where it's the only condiment. Like on that tomato and mayonnaise sandwich, or a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich.

And, dang, now I want a sandwich.

Who's it for: Mayonnaise users.

Pros: A little more tang, good texture.

Cons: If it's not sold in your area, shipping is expensive; it can't be shipping in freezing weather.

Wishes: I wish this was sold at my grocery store. Really. That shipping is a big deterrent.

Source: I received this from the manufacturer for the purpose of a review.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Coffee Maker 3.0

Very recently, my beloved Breville single-cup coffee brewer started exhibiting strange behavior. It was making peculiar sounds and it was dispensing less and less coffee with each brew.

In a fit of do-it-yourselfishness, I watched a few YouTube videos and decided that a filter was clogged and I could fix it.

How hard could it be? I used to fix computers for a living.

I unscrewed a bunch of screws, took out the filter, cleaned it (and there were little bits of stuff in there that looked sort of like very fine coffee grounds) and put it all back together.

I reassembled it, filled the water tank, plugged it in, and pressed appropriate buttons.

It spewed a little bit of water, and then nada. No more water pumping at all.

I took it apart several more times, trying to figure out what I had botched. I watched more YouTube videos and followed more advice. Then the menu buttons didn't work. That wasn't an improvement.

The next morning, after drinking some instant coffee, I toddled off to find a new machine. Most of them proclaimed that they only worked with Keurig cups. Nope, that's not going to do. I like using my own ground coffee and sometimes I get samples of non-Keurig brands of coffees and teas.

When I can afford the really good ground coffee, I splurge. Otherwise, the cheap stuff will do - and that's a heck of a lot cheaper than those K-Cups, so it's very budget-friendly.

I had a couple of choices of coffee makers, and picked a mid-priced machine that looked fairly sturdy. When I got home I set up and tested the machine - a Mr. Coffee model - by running water through it - and hot water came out of it. It took quite a while for the water to heat and the water to dispense, but it wasn't a super-expensive machine, so I figured it wouldn't kill me to be a tiny bit more patient in the morning.

I wasn't planning on drinking more coffee that day, so I let it rest until the next morning.

But then I thought, gee, I like those folks at Breville and every product of theirs that I own has been really solid. Even the coffee maker. Other people complained that their Keurig machines were lucky to last 6 months or a year, but I'd had the Breville for ... well, a long time.

I wasn't looking for a replacement machine, but I thought Breville might have some tips on fixing the problem. They did have a troubleshooting page on their website, but it didn't have any more information than the videos I watched. And we know how helpful those were.

I chatted with a very friendly person at Breville who gave me a few tips, but finally we concluded that the pump must be malfunctioning or some other deep internal thing had gone bad. Which makes sense. It pumped a lot of water over its lifetime without any problems.

She said that the model I had was discontinued "several years ago" and that even the newer model of single-cup brewer had been discontinued for some time. See, I told you my machine was old.

So, she couldn't offer a direct replacement, but she did offer a discount on anything else of theirs that I might want to buy. Anything else ... not just a coffee maker. That was a pretty good offer. Unfortunately, they only had full-pot coffee brewers, and I needed a single cup model.

Oh well. At least I had Mr. Coffee to keep me company in the morning.

I joked with my husband that I had fixed the coffee machine, and I only replaced one part - the part that starts at the outlet and ends at the mug. I crack myself up...

But apparently I didn't fix it well enough, because the morning cup of coffee was tragically weak. And the amount brewed wasn't huge. This didn't bode well for happy, perky mornings.

Weak coffee bolstering my shopping savvy, I wandered off to another store, determined to find a single-cup brewer that didn't require K-Cups. Again, that narrowed down the search considerably. I found a few models that shyly said that you could use any brand of cup-thing, and some that whispered about using your own ground coffee, but then I found one that very prominently proclaimed that you could use all the third-party products with no problem. It even came with its own refillable filter thingie (a technical term, right?), but I could also use the filters and holder that I already had.

The coffee maker that caught my eye was called the iCoffee Opus, and it also boasted a swirl technology that allegedly brewed the coffee better. There was another iCoffee model, the Express, but it didn't have a water reservoir, so you had to add the water for each cup, and I imagine the brewing time would be longer.

Call me skeptical. Swirling water sounds good, but would it make a difference? I got online and found a review on a coffee-lover site and the iCoffee Opus was highly praised. It was rated better than a Keurig.

That was enough. I grabbed the Opus box, dragged it to the register, and brought it home. Sorry, Mr. Coffee, but you're being returned.

While the iCoffee Express was a little less expensive than the Opus, I decided that I didn't want to add water for each cup of coffee, and a faster cup of coffee was a good thing, too.

I set it up as soon as I got it home, and ran some water though it. One nice feature is that you can set the amount of coffee you want to brew in half-ounce increments from 4 to 12 ounces. I chose 12 ounces, because I use a big coffee cup and I wanted to see how full it would be. That worked just fine. And then I decided that since my first cup of coffee that morning was insanely weak, it would be fine if I brewed a supplemental cup of coffee.

For testing purposes, of course.

And ... what do you know? It wasn't weak.

I've been drinking K-Cup-like coffee for a while, from a company that sent me sample for review, and I have to say that this cup had more flavor, more layers of flavor, more depth of flavor, more coffee flavor ... than I had noticed before.

Well, wow. That's interesting. Apparently the swirling-water technology makes a difference.

Later, I tried a tea product that I had. It had more flavor with the iCoffee than I'd tasted before.

The swirl-technology reminded me of a device called CaliX that I saw on the TV show Food Fortunes, but that device was just the coffee-holder-thingie rather than a whole machine. I haven't tried it, but if you've got a single cup brewer that's functioning but not brewing a great cup of coffee, it might be worth looking into.

So - I usually don't review anything until I've used it for a while, but in this case, I thought a "first impression" post would make some sense, since the machine is made to do one thing - make coffee - and there's no learning curve in operating it.

Besides brewing a nice cup of coffee, the iCoffee is also a rather attractive machine with pretty blue lights. And, if you need a visual cue that the brewing is done, a blue light shines on the cup when the coffee is dispensing. The light turns off when it's safe to remove the cup.

The one thing this brewer doesn't have is a clock. Which is great. A coffee maker isn't something that needs a clock, and I have plenty of other clocks in the kitchen.

Of course, only time will tell if this coffee maker lasts as long as my last one. I certainly hope so, because I like my morning coffee, and I'm really happy with the way it brews.

Who's it for: People who want a single-serve coffee maker.

Pros: It makes a good cup of coffee. It looks good on the counter.

Cons: Not the cheapest machine in the world. It's also not the most expensive.

Wishes: So far, nothing. It does what it's supposed to do, and it does it well.

Source: I bought all three of the coffee makers that I wrote about; one is being returned to the store.