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In this installment of our Food Skill Builder series, guest-resident geek gourmand Jeff Potter runs through some of the cooking capabilities of common hotel and office kitchenette appliances and some yummy food you can make with them. -Gareth

I have a confession to make: I’m a picky eater. My everyday cooking is much more about healthy, simple foods that get the job done than the over-the-top, involved productions that one might expect from the author of a food science book. Don’t get me wrong, I love whipping up a fun, multi-course meal with friends. But day-in, day-out, I’m much more likely to stick to simple, healthy meals that have a good nutritional profile.

But what about those times when I’m away from my home kitchen? Finding healthy, affordable meals while on the road is unfortunately still hard. Luckily, by knowing a little food science, you can re-purpose common kitchenette appliances, like coffee makers and toaster ovens, found in hotel rooms or on your cube farm, into something more than they were originally designed for. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Coffee Makers

Coffee makers are the combination of three different things: a hot water dispenser, a “pot” (usually glass), and a hot plate. Ignore the hot water dispenser, and you’ve got yourself a stove-top setup that can cook anything that normally gets cooked via simmering. Oatmeal? Soft-poached eggs? Crab legs or stew? They’ll all work, for one simple reason: the coffee maker gets hot enough-around 200°F-to trigger the chemical reactions that cause things like the proteins in eggs (~144-158°F) or starches in oatmeal (~200°F) to cook.

While the idea of pulling off a stew in a hotel room is probably beyond most of us–although I do know one person who’s done it (not yours truly)–things like oatmeal are super easy. You can even pack up your own TSA-friendly oatmeal mix before you hit the skies. In a small plastic bag, measure out one cup steel-cut oats, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, a spoonful or two of raisins, and a small handful of walnuts. Check into your room, drop the dry ingredients into the coffee maker’s pot, and fill the reservoir with two cups of water. Set your coffee maker to go off an hour or so before you want your breakfast the next morning, and off you go. (You might want to rinse out the coffee filter part in case there are any stray grounds.) Total time? Five minutes. Total cost? Less than a Starbucks coffee. Snag some yogurt at a local store, and you’ve got a good blend of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins. Tasty, too!

Pro-tip: a plastic bag of steal-cut oats, walnuts, raisins, and cinnamon will keep practically forever. Stash a bag of this mix in your cubicle for days when you’re running late and don’t have time for breakfast at home.

Toaster Ovens

Like coffee makers, toaster ovens get a bad rap from the get-go: the first word just screams: “I’m only good for one thing: toast!” Nice try, Mr. Toaster… Toaster ovens are nothing more than small, miniature ovens. They’re not designed to run for hours on end, and aren’t as well-insulated as their bigger brethren. Still, they can be used quite successfully to do everything from poaching salmon to baking cookies.

Ovens are essentially “hot air chambers” that heat up air which then in turn heats up whatever items you pop inside. This type of heat transfer is called convection. In an oven, air imparts energy into your food, a dry cooking method; in a coffee maker, it’s the water that transfers the heat, making it a wet cooking method.

One of the key differences between dry and wet cooking methods is temperature. Wet cooking methods–steaming, poaching, boiling–can only get the food as hot as the water (~212°F under normal circumstances); whereas dry cooking methods–roasting, baking, grilling–can get foods much, much hotter. In cooking, there are two important chemical reactions, the Maillard reaction and caramelization, that don’t occur until well above boiling point. Because of this, these reactions and their resulting flavors can’t occur with wet cooking methods. This is why boiled or steamed Brussels sprouts are so bland. Next time, try roasting them: quarter ‘em, coat with olive oil and sprinkle them with a little salt, and roast ‘em. You’ll get these great, richly-flavored Brussels sprouts.

How does knowing this help somebody like me when trapped in a hotel room? Given a coffee maker, microwave, and if I’m lucky, a toaster oven, and I can think about what type of heat the given device produces. Once I understand that, I can think about foods that match up with what each device can do.

Take a toaster oven. They get plenty hot to brown toast, so things like cookies will work too. Place a spoonful of cookie dough on top of a piece of tin foil, drop onto the wire rack in a pre-heated toaster oven, and 8 to 10 minutes later, you have fresh-baked cookies. (If you’re on vacation with your significant other, snag some cookie dough from a grocery store and then when s/he’s not looking, pop the dough into the oven. Snuggling up to watch a movie with fresh cookies while on vacation = repentance for every time you had to work late…)

If you’re on a budget but still want a gourmet lunch at work, poached salmon works surprisingly well in a toaster oven. Salmon, like most fish, can be quite easily cooked in oil at relatively low temperatures, and a properly-cooked piece of fish, straight out of the oven, has this incredible texture and flavor. With fish, like most meats, it’s the temperature of the food, not how long it’s been in the oven, that matters. Snag a probe thermometer, a heat-safe bowl, a piece of salmon, and some olive oil. Place the fish in your bowl, cover with olive oil, and insert your probe. Set the thermometer to beep at ~130°F and transfer to your toaster oven. Two tips for making this easier: 1) have the store cut the salmon into individual-size portions, so that you’re not having to do any cutting; and 2) use a small container–a coffee mug will even work–that just fits the fish, so that you only need a few tablespoons of oil to cover it. Once the fish is done cooking, drop it onto some fresh greens, and you’ve got an easy, healthy, and great-tasting lunch.

Even if you don’t try making oatmeal, poaching salmon, or baking cookies, hopefully these office cooking tricks will inspire you to try adapting your favorite dishes to work with whatever appliances you have at hand while away from home. I’d love to hear what on-the-road tricks you use for cooking-both success and failures! Drop me a note in the comments below, or on my blog.

 

In the Maker Shed:
Makershedsmall
Cooking for Geeks
Jeff Potter, O’Reilly, 2010
Are you the innovative type, the cook who marches to a different drummer, used to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in the science behind what happens to food while it’s cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own unique dish? Author Jeff Potter has done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for his friends.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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