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November 2013

OptiGrill Review: No Push-Button Future for Me


Once, when I was a boy, I saw an episode of “The Jetsons” that showed George, the father, coming home from work and complaining that his “button-pushing” finger was aching. Apparently, the jobs of the future involved little more than lifting an index finger. That strange fantasy must have lodged in my brain because when I was offered an opportunity to try out the new T-Fal OptiGrill, I jumped at the chance.

The OptiGrill is a high-tech kitchen gadget with special sensors, designed to automatically measure the thickness what you want to grill, and, with the push of a few buttons, take care of all the work. “Essentially, you can put a burger patty on the grill, press the "medium rare" option, and the OptiGrill will alert you when it is perfectly at medium rare,” its publicist said.

They sent it to me in the summer, and it sat around my house until tonight. I had a fierce hankering for a steak, and I thought it would be the perfect time to try it. I’ve become moderately adept at cooking a steak on the stove, but every time I make one I fill the house with smoke. And it’s stressful. I carefully watch the meat and measure the temperature, and hope for the best. The idea of a machine that could make the process easy and reliable (and less smoky) was too hard to resist.

I had one reservation about using the OptiGrill, but I tried to set it aside. My reservation is that I like to cook. I love the sound of onions sautéing and the aroma of a sauce reducing—the very process of cooking is so enveloping and magical, that I couldn’t imagine a machine coming close to the experience.

I unpacked the grill and prepared it for use. After I went out and bought two twenty-one day, dry-aged sirloin steaks from Union Market, I looked around online for suggestions. I had dropped $26 on the meat, and I didn’t want to mess it up. The Internet wasn’t much help. Gizmodo hated it. The "Dad's Corner" of something called Moms Review 4 You loved it. A commentor on Patio Daddio BBQ described it as a “George Foreman with brains.”

When I plugged it in, and heated it up, it smelled a bit weird—kind of chemically and electrical, and not at all appetizing. I chalked that up to its first-time use, but I wasn’t encouraged. Its lights started flashing and it started beeping, and when it was ready, I threw the steaks on the grill. The kitchen was filled with a pleasant aroma and I felt better. I looked at the indicator light, which was supposed to turn yellow for rare, orange for medium, and red for well done. The light turned yellow very quickly—too quickly for my mind—and then it started to shade orange. The glow throbbed and I was flummoxed. Light orange became dark orange. I didn’t know what to do.  Was the meat close to being ready? Was it done? What was going on under that silver shell?

I lifted the lid and took a peak. There were some nice grill marks, but the meat seemed to be steaming rather than grilling. This wasn’t working out well, and with dinner on the line I grabbed a cast iron frying pan and put it on a high flame on the stove. I pulled the meat from the OptiGrill and set it aside on a plate. As soon as the cast-iron pan was smoking, I sprinkled it with salt and tossed in the steaks. I did them one at a time to keep the heat in the pan up—I wanted a decent char as fast as I could, before the interior could overcook.

A few minutes back and forth on the cast iron pan brought the meat up to 125 degrees internal and gave the steaks a nice char. Dinner was saved, but the OptiGrill is not something I'll use again. I have a friend who saw the box in my apartment over the summer. He used to have a George Foreman grill and he asked me about it. I’ll give my OptiGrill to him. Perhaps he has the brains for it, and if he can get it to work I'll report back. I served the steaks with Chimichurri Sauce, and here's the recipe. 

Chimichurri Sauce 

  • 1 bunch (about a cup) fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • 2 Tbsps fresh oregano leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried oregano)
  • ½  cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp red or white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • A shake of red pepper flakes (about a ¼ teaspoon, or to taste)

Chop the parsley as fine as possible.

Dice the garlic.

Combine with the other ingredients, and let sit while you cook the steaks.

What Will Save Me from "A Drizzly November In My Soul?"


I use Grammarly for proofreading because, well, because every time I have a typo on this blog I cry uncontrollably. I don’t, of course, but Grammarly offered me a $200 Amazon gift card to start my post with that line, and they asked me to come up with a funny reason. Comedy, of course, is tragedy plus time, and, I thought, if I turned a typo into something tragic, it might be funny by the time you read it.

What is really tragic, though, is that I feel like I’m in the culinary version of “Groundhog Day.” I know I’m not alone in this. By definition, a parent who cooks is going to be a parent who gets stuck repeatedly cooking the most popular dishes. Over the weekend, I was talking to one of the dads I know through Nina's soccer. He cooks black beans, roasted chicken, a meat and tomato sauce every single week. I call this a cycle of recipe dependency—that is, we get addicted to the things that are easy and that our kids will eat.

It’s not exactly a depressing situation—we are, after all, eating well (guess what's back in season!)—but I miss the feeling of seeking out and succeeding at new dishes. It reminds me of Ishmael from “Moby-Dick,” who starts the novel by saying:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

I’m not going to head out to sea (who would cook for Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria?), but I do like to explore my cookbook shelf.  “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” one of my favorite food books of all time, was recently updated. It is a pocket-sized volume (that is, if your pocket is a bit large—this is a small but thick book), organized alphabetically, that defines everything from “aamsul” (a kiwi-sized fruit from western India,) to “zwieback (the twice-baked toast).”

It covers the basics with precision, observing that a hare is “a larger relative of the rabbit,” and it “can weigh as much as 12 to 14 pounds, compared to a rabbit at about 5 pounds.”

It offers tasty tidbits about the origins of dishes, pointing out that the name for “jambalaya” is thought to derive “from the French jambon, meaning ‘ham,’ the main ingredient in many of the first jambalayas.”

The book gets into folklore, noting that “in parts of Europe it’s believed that rubbing the skin with eel oil will cause a person to see fairies.”

And a good sense of humor is often present—about “Glühwein,” it observes that the name of the German mulled wine translates as “glow wine,” and “is so named not only because it’s hot, but because it gives those who drink more than one or two a definite glow.”

The book is very handy for settling arguments (in a pre-Internet kind of way) and for satisfying curiosities about odd foodstuffs. Plus, it’s very fun to read, and good for getting out of a rut.

Cornbread Man: A Real Crowd Pleaser

Cornbread Man
Nina made this cornbread man at the end of the meal tonight. I couldn’t help photographing it, because it brought to mind what I wrote about in my previous blog post. The green torso is a stalk of asparagus. For the longest time, we’d struggle with getting Nina to eat more than the tip of that green. Then she started to eat the whole thing. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but I do know what we didn’t do. We didn’t discuss it to death, and cajole her, and make her eat the whole thing (okay, we might have withheld dessert one night, but, hey, we’re only human), and the next thing I know she’s just finishing her asparagus. It can happen.

The cornbread, well, that’s another story. Everyone will want to eat it from the start!

Everyday Celebration Cornbread

  • 4 cups organic flour
  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal*
  • 1 light cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 and ½ tablespoons canola oil
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and a 4x8 loaf pan. Place the skillet in the oven to heat. The loaf pan can remain room temperature.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and oil. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ones in the dry ingredient bowl. Stir until mixed through, and no more. Add the butter and stir again until it is all mixed together.

Remove the hot skillet from the oven and fill it with the batter. Put the remaining batter in the baking pan. It should fill it about half way.

Bake in the oven for about 40-45 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a sharp, thin, knife into the center. It should come out clean. Cool on a rack (or better yet, cut some slices, slather with butter, and enjoy).

*As for cornmeal, I suggest (and Santa Maria insists upon) Bob’s Red Mill, coarse ground.

Note: This recipe is adapted from Sam Sifton’s “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well”; Sifton in turn adapted his recipe from Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill. Sifton added frozen organic corn (1 ten-ounce package, for those who want to try it—Sifton says mix it in just before the butter). I in turn, omitted the corn, so I guess I’m back at Schlesinger’s recipe, though I did cut the sugar by a third. 

Note Also: This recipe is very easy to cut in half.