On Data and Databases, Maillard Reaction Version

I write nonfiction. I read almost nothing but nonfiction. Does this make sense?

Of course it does, but it still surprises people. People still give me fiction to read. I manage to read it, but there’s not a lot of enthusiasm.

There’s a weird vibe out there, something I was ignorant of until we moved into this era of sharing. Actually more than one weird vibe. A lot of women around my age really are into drinking wine, and not in a sommelier or snobby way. For example.

But the readers are the ones who knock me back a bit. Some of these people describe behavior regarding books and reading that looks pretty much like garden-variety compulsion, and they revel in it. Hard to argue with that sort of passion, although the assumption that it’s a guilt-free habit is the weird part. I love vegetables! I want more vegetables! I want a whole room of vegetables so I can take a week and eat all of those vegetables without leaving the room, and then I want another week and another room! I think I’ve made my point. Too much of a good thing is too much of something.

Although I’m sort of amusing myself by speculating on lives based on Facebook posts. This should not be mistaken for science.

I’ve been reading the above book lately, although it’s not that easy. My wife ordered it for me, having heard of it and thinking it might be of interest. Science and cooking? Call me Alton Brown and set me up. I can get into this.

Lately I’ve been reading about steaks. For some reason, I started having some minor digestive issues with beef years ago. Nothing serious; kind of a stomach ache sort of thing, and I drifted more toward other meat. I’ll still eat a burger or a steak occasionally and I don’t notice any discomfort, so maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe I just got tired of beef.

But my wife is another story. She does enjoy a good steak, and any time is a good time. Since I’m not usually going to join her, this is something I’ll pick up at the store for those late nights when she gets home hungry, but I leave it to her to cook. It’s a steak; stick it under a broiler.

Last night, though, having read a few pages of this book regarding pan-frying steaks, particularly the kind of steak my wife eats (smaller, strips or rib-eyes), I decided to go for it. It always seemed a little messy for me, but again: Not a big beef eater.

This was a good-looking New York strip, about 12 ounces. Following instructions, I unwrapped the steak and seasoned it generously, then left it on a plate in the refrigerator for about an hour (secret #1: Salt your meat if you have time to let it sit for at least 40 minutes; otherwise do it just before it goes in the pan. Between that and 40 minutes is not a good place).

I heated the pan and used a thin layer of canola oil (secret #2: The meat will actually bond with the metal used to cook it, and the oil also provides a smoother layer so that it cooks evenly), nice and hot. I seared the steak, 30 seconds on each side (searing doesn’t seal in the juices, but it does provide that nice crunch and flavor, the Maillard reaction), then turned down the heat and started flipping.

(Secret #3: Steaks of this size, less than 1-1/2 inches thick, are best cooked as quickly as possible. The quickest way? Flip those suckers every 30 seconds. A shorter time actually takes longer to cook, since the steak spends more time in the air being flipped. You don’t have to do this; it just makes it fast. I cooked that steak in about 5 minutes.)

I might have overshot a bit; I was aiming for 130 degrees F. internal temperature, which is medium rare and about perfect, but I was using a meat thermometer and that’s hard to do with a one-inch thick piece of steak. Should have just trusted the feel. At any rate, I got a bite and it was everything you could reasonably ask for in a steak cooked by a non-professional. Science. Go figure.


The other night, when we were showing Groundhog Day at church and I was setting it up, I mentioned to the group that I could answer specific questions about the film after we finished; I was a human IMDB for this movie, I said.

Someone suggested that I explain what IMDB meant (Internet Movie Database), but a few days later, with some of the same people, we had a conversation about who had the IMDB app on their phone and who didn’t.

It’s a useful reference tool, particularly since I suspect there’s an area of the brain devoted to storing titles of movies and books, and names of actors and actresses (and characters). This area is obviously the first to become less accessible, starting around the age of 45 or so. The IMDB app is like bifocals, then.

Here’s the utility in having a smart phone, one that wrestles with the downsides. It’s Memory Part D, supplemental insurance for failing recall. My phone will chime in a couple of hours to remind me to take a vitamin. Tomorrow it’ll nudge me to leave a tip for the paperboy, and so on. I’m just grateful, really.

And in this season, when I’m trying to minimize the distractions of this world, which mostly involve screens of some sort, it turns out that technology is actually a nice thing to have around.

I’m talking about my Fitbit again.

But, really. As unnecessary as it always seemed to me, and maybe annoying to boot, it turned out that I love this thing. Exercise has been erratic for the past year and a half, stopped because I wasn’t eating enough to compensate for the calories I’d lose and then increased, but inconsistently.

In the past week, then, Fitbit tells me I’ve covered 28 miles. Some of those are based on step counts, some on deliberate exercise tracking, but the latter is what’s mostly changed. A guy who two years ago was routinely walking/hiking 30+ miles per week, I’d dropped down to less than 10. We’re heading up again, and I can tell the difference already. Better mood, better sleep. Some weight loss, but minor and easily fixed. I seem to switch between weeks of light eating and those when I indulge more. I’m currently down a couple of pounds from the beginning of the year, nothing to worry about.

But I’m this guy now, I guess. Or for the time being. A guy who spent probably 30 years constantly fussing about his weight, accomplishing nothing but gain, then changed his routine completely and lost a bunch, now has to keep an eye on the scale for exactly the opposite reason. This reversal fascinates me to a degree that usually means it has to be incredibly boring to everyone else.

Ergo, finis. Yay Fitbit. Yay Lent. Yay exercise. Yay science and cooking and good steak, you betcha. All good here at the moment.


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