Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mise En Place 1.0: Meal Planning for the iPhone

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Downloading is working again! Please let me know if you have problems: You all have (unfortunately) been great bellwethers for these issues. As a thanks to everyone for your patience, I'm extending the introductory price of $1.99 to go through Monday, October 5.

It's a different problem now, at least, but there is once again a problem downloading the app. I have contacted support at Apple and will work to resolve this problem. And, yes, this is frustrating, but I appreciate you all hanging in there.

I'm pleased to announce the release of Mise En Place 1.0, an iPhone/iPod Touch application I wrote to help cooks like you and me make more interesting, complicated dishes during the week. I describe its purpose as "What do I need to do today to make sure dinner is delicious two days from now?"

My app centers around prep tasks. It's one thing to come home and roast a chicken. But if you remember the night before to salt the bird, the chicken is a lot better. My app helps you remember that step by letting you break a dish into tasks and then showing you which need to be done on each day. Need to take something from the freezer the morning before you cook it? Add a prep task. Need to make stock on the weekend for risotto during the week? Add a prep task.

You should buy it, because then you can support my development efforts and suggest features that would make your meal planning easier. Its normal price is $2.99, but I'm offering a special introductory price of $1.99 through Sunday, October 4 Monday, October 5. Save 30 percent by buying now!

I've talked about my meal planning techniques in the past. Once I realized that planning meals for the week is much like planning courses for a dinner party, I developed a system involving outlines and printouts that made sense to me. Once I started carrying an iPhone, I began to wonder how it could be part of my system. Being a programmer, I wrote the app I wanted. (This naturally means that the app can also help you with the logistics for a multi-course dinner party. I've used it to pull off both brunches and dinners in the last few months.)

You can use the app to plan out a schedule of meals and their prep tasks, manage shopping lists, take notes, and chart out your dinner schedule for the week or beyond.

You should buy it. Really. In just a few days, the price will go up, and you'll need an extra dollar to get it.

And let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

White Wine Vinegar

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Homemade white wine vinegar has always escaped my grasp.

For almost four years, I've been making red wine vinegar. Every few months, I pull a new batch of ruby red, fruity and complex vinegar — better than any commercial product I've had — from the squat oak barrel on our mantel and ladle it gently through cheesecloth into green, 375 ml bottles.

Some people coddle their sourdough starters: I pamper my vinegar. Every few days for the last few years, I have sniffed at my barrel, plunging my nose into the fumes of spoiling wine to gauge the liquid inside. I have sipped vinegar straight from a spoon to evaluate it, describe it, and critique it. I have bought wine solely to replenish my barrel when I feared that bottling would drain too much. I have nurtured my vinegar back to health after it has strayed too far from the acetic acid path. I have read everything I can about this ingredient, digging into folklore, chemical pathways, and ideal conditions for the transforming bacteria. When I tell my wine students that Sherry is made similarly to true balsamic vinegar, I'm always surprised that they don't get the analogy.

I know my vinegar.

But white wine is a tricky beast. Without red wine's protective tannins, it should spoil faster. Wine is, after all, simply one point on the path to vinegar. Winemakers compensate for that defenselessness, however, by adding sulfur dioxide, which inhibits the decline to vinegar. Good for the wine drinker; bad for the vinegar maker.

Each time I've started a batch — and I've probably tried three or four times — it's failed. It goes flat. The aroma dies. Mold forms.

But I knew it was possible. The guys at Oak Barrel, Berkeley's mecca for winemakers, brewers, and vinegar makers, talk as if there is nothing to it. "Oh, yeah, I always have a batch going," one of them said to me. I chat these sages up, trying to divine from their comments the one, obvious thing they're neglecting to tell me. The thing that prevents a bottle of my own white wine vinegar from gracing my pantry.

I decided to try again, armed with years of vinegar experience and research. I started with a bottle of low-sulfite Viognier. I diluted it to 10 percent alcohol, about the maximum the bacteria can handle. I poured it into a glass jar, enshrouding my makeshift crock with a bag to protect the liquid from light damage. I added starter culture from Oak Barrel, not trusting the wine's ability to go to vinegar itself. I whisked it vigorously every day, providing oxygen to the hungry bacteria.

I checked it a few times each day. Sometimes, after its daily whisking, I would get a sense of the vinegar within, a clean scent of acetic acid and wine. But most of the time, it smelled of Parmiggiano cheese and hazelnuts, the smells of oxidation, with mere hints of acetic acid and ethyl acetate.

Two months or so into its production, I sniffed the jar. With no whisking at all, it had the clean vinegar aroma I had only glimpsed before. I tasted it. Definitely white wine vinegar, though still raw and coarse without its six months of bottle age. I let out a little yell, and told Melissa. I tweeted it. I couldn't contain my excitement as I carefully drew off 375 ml and brought it downstairs to mellow.

I have already come up with 2 liters of use for my 375 ml. I want to infuse one bottle with tarragon and other herbs. I want to infuse another with pomegranate. I want to use some to start cider vinegar. Maybe some malt vinegar as well. Red wine vinegar would start those, but it would also tint the liquid.

But vinegar-making has taught me patience. I will try the bottle in March and see how it's developed. I've added more diluted white wine, with normal sulfite levels, to my crock. I whisk it daily. I sniff it daily. It's taken me so long to produce one bottle, I don't trust I'll get a second one.