Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Crazy Kitchen Gadget That's Not That Crazy! - With Bonus Recipe

I Love My 4 Burner Stove-top!
    Have you ever found a kitchen gadget and thought, "This thing is ridiculous!"? I have, many times. While perusing through a local dollar store a couple of days ago, I came across something that seemed like a dumb idea. It was a plastic/silicone ugly green "chopper." At first, I couldn't figure out what it could possibly be used for. At closer inspection, it purported to break up clumps of chopped meat while browning or frying. Hmmmm....I do that quite often, also with sausages and other things. I wondered if it would make that any easier. Hey, for a buck....why not try?

Weird Looking, I Know.
Once home, I searched a bit in the freezer and found a 2-pound block of hamburger to try it out on. I figured it would make some meat sauce/sort-of bolognese that would get used with lots of recipes later on. So, I defrosted the meat in the microwave using the built-in weight defrost function and turning it over halfway through. Make sure you watch carefully so it doesn't begin to cook. Slightly frosty is OK as long as you can get it apart. While it's defrosting, heat up some olive oil in a large skillet and add fresh chopped garlic (or freeze dried!) and some finely chopped sweet onions. I finely chop some carrots as well and toss them in. By the time these are in the pan, the meat is ready to go. Dump it into the skillet and use the tool to break up the large chunks until you get the size you prefer. Add some salt and pepper to taste.

 When the beef is mostly cooked through, add your choice of canned tomatoes. I prefer crushed (28 oz.), but stewed or whole would be fine. I'd break up the whole ones with this handy tool, but you don't have to. Add some water or consomme, lower the heat to simmer and cover. Cook until done. It will be a rich, thick sauce.

The Business End.
There are some obvious uses for this aside from chopped meat. I make a killer Chili that begins with cubes of chuck. They would be easier to break down (even though they are fork soft) with this beastie. Then there's my favorite beef and barley soup that uses the same cubes...except you have to fork split it before it goes into the soup. This would be perfect. Pretty much anything that you can cook in a skillet that needs to be broken up (even frozen veggies and the like) are great candidates for this thing.

This handy dandy tool works great as a stirrer as well. The more I look at its design, the more I believe it could be used for other purposes. Not sure what...maybe a back scratcher? Give me some time, I'll find some other uses for sure.

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Lithium Ion Rechargeable Batteries For Flashlights?

    As an admitted flashlight aficionado, I am constantly on the lookout for new models and better ways of powering them. Recently I wrote an article about the big brother of my daily carry flashlight. Unlike its smaller cousin, it can run on either 3 AAA Alkaline batteries OR a single 18650 Lithium Ion Cell. Let me tell you, there are A LOT of choices out there at all price levels for those rechargeable batteries. I ordered a whole bunch (and chargers too!) to test and report on. These are UNBIASED reports as no company furnished any merchandise at all. Here's what I found out...

All batteries are not created equal. While researching the 18650 size I found wildly differing claims on capacity. From 1500mAh all the way up to a whopping 6000mAh. Of course I just avoided the lowest ones and ordered some from 3500mAh up to the 6000mAh. Each group was ordered with its own brand of charger. More on those later. Once they arrived (many, but not all were shipped from China or Hong Kong), I got down to testing. I used one of my lights (an XML-T6 Cree version) that can run on 3 AAA batteries or a single 18650. Since voltages vary quite a bit from fully charged to almost dead, the range is actually about 3.5 to 4.2 V nominal, with the Li-ION version staying at a higher voltage for longer and supplying more Amps over a longer time period. In English, it stays at a higher power level and brighter...longer. So on to the test. With two of the same flashlights each running one type of battery, I turned them on and let them run till they dimmed noticeably. The Li-ION started brighter and stayed brighter longer. No real surprise there. Now let's talk about run times.

The Big Brother Was Used For testing
All over the place. The batteries marked with the highest capacity usually weren't better and the lowest ones were usually a bit higher capacity. Best I could calculate, the nicer ones had around 3300mAh and the cheapest ones were around 1200mAh! All for the same price, each. Be careful, there are a lot of false claims out there. I did find out that the batteries that rate consistently higher are heavier. Around 45 grams. The cheaper "knockoffs" are a lot lighter at 26 grams. Now on to chargers.

12 Volt And 120 Volt Chargers

Since these batteries can be charged with 5 Volts, they are a natural to use a USB cable as a power source. The higher the amperage the better, as Li-ION can charge at fast rates with more amps going in. (**Within reason!) The typical trickle USB charger at .500mA will eventually charge one, but slowly. 1 Amp is better. The chargers that come with the batteries were, essentially, all the same. They list at around 750mA charging and for the 12 Volt DC charger (cigarette lighter plug) only around 500mA. They will charge...just slowly. Figure a bit less than overnight for a 50% used battery. You can always buy a much better, higher quality charger. In fact, I've ordered several and will be testing them over the next few weeks.

**WARNING!** I know there is a real danger using sub-standard lithium-ion batteries. There is a real worry about "thermal runaway" -- this is when the battery overheats when charging or discharging and it causes a cascade effect, causing the battery to melt down or even explode. Monitor these batteries carefully until you are sure they are working as advertised. It always pays to be careful when dealing with new technology.

So, what's the verdict? You get what you pay for. Sort of. The cheapest ones and the more expensive ones are all the same price...within a few dollars. When you get to the name brands (Panasonic) they are much more expensive, but actually match their rated specifications. The ratio is way off -- you can buy 5 knockoffs for each "real" one. If you find a good supplier, you can get decent knockoffs and have lots on hand.  As always, YMMV!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Even The Old Radio Can Learn New Tricks! - A Better Cassette Adapter

Of Course, The RV Already Got An Upgrade!
    Many of my vehicles still have cassette players. I like it that way. I have a large collection of cassettes that were amassed during the early 80's long before CDs took their place. In many ways the cassette is superior. No, really. Try tossing a CD into the back seat and then retrieve and try to play it! They need to be held like their bigger vinyl brethren the LP/Record. By the edges, carefully avoiding scratches. The only issue is most cassette player stereos for cars don't give you a way to input your music or your cell phone. Sure, you could wire it all together on the back if you have a high end stereo, but what about something simpler?

A while back cassette adapters were selling like hotcakes, they looked just like a cassette with a headphone plug coming out of it and simply plugged into your cassette tape slot and allowed you to plug into the headphone jack on your music player. Voila! Music through your stereo. Worked pretty good. Then most folks abandoned their standalone music players for their phones. Unfortunately, most phones lose their ability to "hear" when the headphone jack has something plugged into it. Now what? Simple, get one that has a built in microphone. I found just that for $2.50 at Wal-Mart. In the clearance aisle no less!

The next question...would they live up to the hype and actually work well to feed music into your stereo and your voice into the phone? In a word...YES! Not only does it allow you to use your phone as a music device, it allows you to use your phone, hands-free while getting loud, clear sound from your stereo. Win-Win! In addition, it has a really handy retractable cord reel that you set at various lengths or pull all the way out. It stores the cord neatly when not in use. Not so great is how careful you have to be to pull both sides equally or the cord will tangle. Be will be rewarded.

You can use this gizmo with almost any installed stereo in your RV as long as it plays cassettes tapes. After my recent stereo upgrade, I have built in Bluetooth capability so don't need it in the RV. If you have an 8 Track player (and remember what that is!) you are out of luck!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Easy, One Pan, Mexican Meal - Works With MANY Ingredients!

Yeah, It's Cold.
    Being cooped up in the winter, there's not much I can do except dream about this season's trips, modifications and improvements to the RV and eating. When it's cold out nothing satisfies like cooking a great meal and relaxing while eating it and watching the snowfall outside. Traditionally, this meal is a soup or a stew. I also do chili, but that's a whole 'nother article. (It takes me 17 hours to make the perfect slow cooker chili...and it's well worth the wait!) I raided the fridge recently and had very few ingredients for a hearty meal....and I just wasn't in the mood for big prep and clean-up chores so this recipe just "jumped out" at me.

MMMMmmm, and No Heartburn!
I love the spice mix and flavor profile of good Mexican food. I'm NOT talking about fast food that wants you to believe it once knew someone from Mexico, I'm talking about honest to goodness, home-cooked fare that families (well and single folks too) would eat for dinner when not going all out. Simple, fresh ingredients and easy techniques....that's all there is to it. So, what did I end up making? I noticed a bag of those red, yellow and orange, tiny sweet peppers in the produce drawer. Next to those was a medium sized red onion and a bunch of rubber banded fresh cilantro. In the freezer I found a 1 pound block of chicken tenders. Some Salsa and chopped garlic from the top shelf of the fridge, some lime juice as well...rounded out the recipe.

Fresh Cilantro Cannot Be Beat!
Over to the spice cabinet, I pulled some Chili powder, black pepper, Kosher salt and a bottle of regular hot sauce (you can pick any brand you like)  While defrosting the chicken in the microwave, I cut the peppers and onion into 1/4 inch slices then cut those in half. The more uniform they are cut the more evenly they will cook. Once that was finished, the chicken was ready to be cut up. On another cutting board, this time(!) in 1/2 inch slices then in half like the vegetables. Sprinkle some Kosher salt on the chicken and the vegetables (NOT too much...) Pull a bunch of leaves from the cilantro bunch and roll them up. Cut horizontally and then lightly chop to get the flavor coming out nicely.

My Folding Handle Skillet
Pull out your 12 inch (or larger) skillet and put some vegetable oil at the bottom...about 1/4 cup is fine. After the oil is good and hot, turn down the flame (or remove from heat after turning down your electric stovetop) and add the onions, they will sizzle and likely splatter a bit. I use a splatter guard to keep things clean. Put them back on the heat and reduce to medium high. Once the onions are slightly translucent add the chicken. Push it around with whatever tool you prefer to cook with. Once it's cooked on the outside add the rest of the vegetables, but NOT the cilantro. Sprinkle the top with lime juice, stir, then turn down the heat to medium and cover the pot. Let it cook for a few minutes until the vegetables are the way you like them. Take off the lid, add 1/2 cup of salsa and the cilantro. Mix well and put the cover back on for 3 minutes or so. That's it! Done.

Everything comes out tender and flavorful. AND you can serve from the skillet on a trivet or big potholder. Yes, you could eat from the skillet as well, but that might be considered a bit barbaric. Clean-up is a breeze. A great meal for a miserable day.

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"