Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Homemade Instant Oatmeal: Recipes

A few days ago, I promised to post some oatmeal recipes, just as soon as they were tested. Well, I just finished off a bowl of Cranberry Orange oatmeal, and I'm ready to post.

A word of warning: I don't really like my oatmeal too sweet. If you're used to the teeth-rotting flavored instant oats that we normally see in the store, you may want to add a little sugar. In fact, some days I could really use the extra sweet, so I keep sugar packets swiped from Denny's and hotel coffee stations in my bag with my oatmeal. You know, just in case.

That said, taste is subjective, and you'll likely make your own changes. I certainly hope you do. I would love to see people posting their own variations in the comments area of this post. In particular, I fully expect Scothoser to post some blueberry-nut concoction.

The instructions for each of these are the same, so I've listed the individual ingredients for each one first, and then the instructions at the end. Enjoy!

Peach Ginger Instant Oatmeal

1/4 cup roughly chopped freeze-dried peaches
1 tsp finely chopped candied ginger
1 tsp white granulated sugar
1/2 cup plain instant oats

Strawberries 'n' Cream Instant Oatmeal

1/3 cup sliced freeze-dried strawberries
1 Tbsp non-fat instant dry milk
1 tsp white granulated sugar
1/2 cup plain instant oats

Apple Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal

3 Tbsp chopped dried apples
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 - 3 tsp dark brown sugar
1/2 cup plain instant oats

Cranberry Orange Instant Oatmeal

1/3 cup sliced dried cranberries
2 tsp orange drink mix
1/2 cup plain instant oats

Add dry ingredients to a pint- or quart-size resealable bag. Seal and shake to distribute evenly. Unseal, press out the air, and reseal. When ready to serve, pour into a bowl and cover with hot water. Allow to sit for at least a minute before stirring. Add more water, milk, cream, etc as you like. Add sugar or salt to taste.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Homemade Instant Oatmeal: Learning

It's not often I spend so much time and energy on just one dish, but this one is important to me. I don't really have all that many health problems, but I do have higher-than-average blood pressure. I can't say my cholesterol is really where it should be either. There are all sorts of solutions for these problems, ranging from low sodium diets to specialized medications. One solution that fits the bill for both problems is oatmeal. Fortunately for me, I like oatmeal. I think I always have, so long as it's done right.

For me, done right usually means Scottish oats, also known as Irish oats, pinhead oats, steel-cut oats. Sadly, this kind of oat requires extended cooking time, and isn't generally available when I travel. And I travel a lot. If I were to eat for breakfast what was generally available to me on the road, I would die of deliciously, fattily saturated bacon and sausage, assuming that the insulin poisoning from an assorted variety of tasty danishes didn't get to me first.

One day in Atlanta, I discovered that the training center I was at had instant oats. They weren't Scottish, but they weren't totally crap either. Two packets later, I was in apple-cinnamon heaven, but still in danger of the sugary goodness rotting away my body. Maybe instant oats weren't so bad after all, but they could still use some improvement. It was time to do research.

First, I had to look up recipes. I was planning to ignore most of the instructions anyway, but I still needed a starting point. I found a recipe that involved half a cup of oats, some dried fruit, sugar substitute and salt. Oats and dried fruit were good. I have yet to find a sugar substitute that didn't taste horrible, so that was out. Real sugar was essential. Prematurely-added salt would destroy the creamniness that could be weaned from the pentosans in the oats. If salt was to be added, it could not be added to the mix.

I like fruit. Fresh fruit is better, but dried will do in a pinch. That's good because fresh fruit is not known for travel or long-term storage. The problem with store-bought flavored instant oatmeal is the decided lack of fruit. The apple cinnamon has just enough apples in it to put it on the label, and nothing more. Sometimes it's even worse than that. Don't be surprised if you look at the ingredient list of your "Peaches and Cream" oatmeal and discover that it realy just has peach-flavored apples. I don't know about you, but I feel cheated.

Dried apples were easy to find. I'm also a big fan of dried cranberries, and it was almost as easy to find dried sweetened cranberries. After some considerable searching, I was unable to find dried peaches, except when combined with other dried fruit. Then one day in North Carolina, I struck gold: the Whole Foods market had a brand of freeze-dried peaches called Just Peaches. Right next to the peaches was a container of Just Strawberries, as well as several other varieties of freeze-dried fruits and veggies. I was set.

A word about freeze-dried food. I don't consider it unnatural. It's just a different method, one which I might note is centuries old. What I don't like about freeze-dried food is eating it as is. The company that makes Just Peaches seems to intend them to be eaten like that. Personally, I think it needs to be reconstituted in water before it's any good. Luckily for me, that's how oats are cooked anyway, so I can deal with it.

The nice thing about putting together your own instant oat mix is that you can choose how much fruit you add. For a half cup of oats, I will add anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to 1/3 of a cup of fruit, depending on which fruit. Dried apples are a little less, freeze-dried strawberries get a little more. The other thing you can decide is now only how much sugar, but what kind of sugar.

The apples get dark brown sugar, plus some cinnamon and any other spice that I feel like adding. The peaches were better with white sugar, along with some finely-chopped candied ginger. Strawberries also got white sugar, along with was essentially powdered milk, labelled as "dairy coffee creamer". Don't use the crappy non-dairy creamers. If you want to know why, just take a look at the ingredient list. If you can get past the solid/powdered high-fructose corn syrup, I'll be impressed. Last of all, the cranberries got orange drink mix.

Okay, I lost you again, I know. Look, I like cranberry and orange together. It's like they were made for each other. The way I saw it, I had a couple of choices: add sugar + dried orange zest or add powdered orange drink mix, which was orange-flavored and already had sugar. I'm still wanting to try the orange zest and sugar, but since most people don't have the time to bother, I decided to go with orange drink mix for now.

Honestly, I would have been okay with Tang. Like most children of the 80's, I like Tang. But I couldn't find any at the markets I looked in that didn't have sucralose, aka Splenda. "It's made from real sugar, so it tastes like real sugar!" Blah. In my ever so humble opinion, it tastes like fake styrofoam, and it makes anything that it's added to taste even worse.

In Utah, we have a company called Stephen's Gourmet that makes powdered hot chocolate mixes. They're actually pretty good too; I've been addicted to their mint truffle flavor for years. They also have a flavor called Citrus & Spice, which they refer to as a gourmet wassail. It's not hot chocolate at all, but it's pretty good. I almost picked it up, but then I saw "Orange Creme" next to it and unwittingly bought that instead, not realizing that it was actually a cocoa flavor. The resulting oatmeal was still pretty good, but since chocolate oatmeal is still kind of weird for me, I went back and bought the Citrus & Spice. It's not Tang, but it's way better.

So, how much sugar to add? I don't like my oatmeal to be nearly as candy-sweet as commercial manufacturers do, so it took some experimentation. Depending on the other flavors and the type of sugar, I discovered that anywhere from two to three teaspoons was generally plenty for me. If you're adding something that is already sweetened, such as candied ginger or sweetened dried cranberries, you might be able to get away with less sugar. The powdered drink mix that I used was almost equal in terms of sweetness to regular sugar. I might also note that if you like honey and you frequent KFC, you might want to think about picking up some extra honey packets to use instead of sugar.

I still haven't really talked about the obvious ingredient: oats. You can buy plain instant oats in the store from the guy with the funny hat. For a single serving, I find that half a cup of instant oats is about right for me. Your mileage may vary. It's important that you use oats that are actually labelled as instant, or quick cooking. These are designed to be cooked in about a minute or less. Unless you want to tend to a pot of regular rolled oats for up to several minutes, this is what you need. Plus, when you travel, speed is of the essence.

Speaking of travel, how do I expect oats to be cooked in a hotel room? About half of the rooms that I stay in have microwaves, and that's just perfect. If your room doesn't, it probably has either a coffee maker, a hot water faucet next to the sink, or perhaps even both. In fact, I have stayed in very, very few hotels that did not have some sort of in-room coffee services. When I wake up in the morning, I fill the carafe about halfway with water, put it on the hotplate, and then hop in the shower. By the time I'm dressed and ready for breakfast, the water is hot enough. Since I don't drink coffee, and in fact don't really even know how to use a coffee maker, I can assume this is safe. Perhaps somebody will correct me on this.

Empty the oat mix into a bowl (I carry a cheap plastic bowl in my luggage now, along with a cheap plastic spoon), and cover with hot (boiling if possible) water. Give it a quick stir to make sure everything is evenly incorporated, then let it sit for a couple of minutes. Once it's soaked up some water, go ahead and stir to your heart's content. It will thicken as you stir. If you want to add salt, wait until it has started to thicken. The hotter the water and the less of it you use, the thicker it will get.

Back to making the actual oat mix. You'll want some quart-size (or pint-size if you can find them) zip-top baggies. If for some reason you have trouble locating some, the TSA always seems to be handing them out for free. But since they'll probably get unhappy with you when you start stuffing handfuls into your bag, you'll probably just want to head to the store and pick up a box. Besides, you'll probably be mixing things together before you leave for the airport anyway. Toss all of the ingredients in a bag, seal it up, give it a good shake (especially important if you used brown sugar, which may clump if it's not broken up), unseal it to press out any air, and seal it again. I usually pack five or six of those in a gallon-size zip-top baggie, along with a few packets of sugar horked from diners or hotel coffee stations, just in case. Don't worry about the baggies of oatmeal, the TSA hasn't seemed to mind just yet. But if I were you, I wouldn't use powdered sugar. That's the sort of confusion you want to avoid altogether. And if you're bringing honey, keep in mind that it does fall into the "liquid or gel" category.

A final note on salt. I have found that I like my oatmeal without any at all, and that's even better for my blood pressure. If you decide that you need salt, don't add it all to the mix itself. It will likely retard the thickening process, and that's probably not what you want. Carry salt packets with you, and add just a little after the oatmeal starts to thicken.

Now you have the theory on how homemade instant oat mixes can come together. I'm almost finished testing some basic recipes. Since testing involves making up a serving for breakfast, it can be a little slow. For those who don't want to wait, feel free to start experimenting. For the rest of you, expect an upcoming post to include instant oatmeal recipes for apple cinnamon, peach ginger, cranberry orange and strawberries and cream.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adventures in Customer Service

I just got back from Mountain View, CA, which is increasingly becoming one of my favorite places to teach. The training center has brand-spakin' new computers that run like a dream. They're easy to PXE-boot, they have wide-screen monitors, and I will never come close to maxing out their resources during lecture or lab. The office manager there is great to work with, and I always have an interesting variety of silicon valley students.

This trip seemed to be going especially well. No problems with the flight out, and I'd been there enough that I knew my way around the area. I still used a GPS to get to and from the airport, but I never had to turn it on the rest of the week. I was getting worried about my car rental, however. My car this time was reserved at Enterprise, whom I had never before dealt with. I usually rent from Alamo or National, which are essentially the same place. Past experiences with places like Advantage Rent-a-Car had left me nervous of other rental places. Alamo wasn't bad, so I usually stayed with them.

When I got to Enterprise, there was no line at the counter. I walked up and started the ritual of pulling out my drivers license and credit card. The man behind the counter was friendly as he asked me a few questions. He even offered me a bottle of water for the road, which I gladly accepted. When he was finished, he told me how to get to the Enterprise booth outside, making sure to mention that he had just sent a message to them on the computer to let them know that I was on my way. This is where things started to get different from the usual car rental.

Before I even got to the booth, a man was walking towards me from it. As I got close, he extended his hand to greet me with, "Mr. Hall?" I shook his hand and he started asking me about what car I was going to rent, after offering me another bottle of water for the road. I confirmed that I was indeed expecting an "economy" car, and was already hoping for a Corolla or an Aveo. They had been my favorite economy cars in the past, and I now start to look forward to them. He pointed to a few cars, noting which ones were economy and which ones I could upgrade to for another $5 a day more. Since none of them were the Corolla or Aveo, I selected the Kia Rio. I'd never driven a Kia before, and I thought I might as well check it out.

By this point, I was already amazed. The closest I've ever come to actually picking out my model was along the lines of the man at the counter telling me where the economy cars are, and that the keys were in the door or the ignition, have fun. This guy was already giving me personal service. He went to grab the keys and returned a few minutes later to inform me that he could not locate them. He offered me a free upgrade to either a PT Cruiser or a Dodge Caliber. Since I think that PT Cruisers are uglier than sin, I went with the Caliber.

When he returned with the keys, he went around the car with me to inspect any current damage, making notes on the clipboard. This is always an event left to me to perform myself, and I was surprised when he noted little things that I might not have even bothered with myself. He then offered to pull the car out of the stall for me while I initialled everything on the paperwork. When he came back, he made sure to write his name on my copy and point out his phone number, emphasizing that if I needed anything, that I shouldn't hesitate to call him. Even without the free upgrade, I was already more impressed with Enterprise than with any other rental company.

At this point, I had thought to spend that evening writing up a review of the experience. But then I thought better of it, and decide to wait and see how they handled the return on Friday. I'm glad that I did. When I pulled into the return area, there was no line. It also seemed remarkably small compared to the usual return line, which tends to seem more like a parking lot where rental companies store returns until they can service them. The man that came to help me out this time did the usual walk-around, and printed my receipt. He then offered to drive me to the terminal in my rental car, so that I didn't have to take the shuttle bus.

We had a friendly conversation as we drove, and talked about how Enterprise had bought out Alamo and National last year, and how Avis and Hertz were both owned by Budget now. He dropped me off precisely where I needed to be, and helped me get my bags out of the car. By this point I had already changed my travel preferences at work from Alamo to Enterprise, and I had grown increasingly happy to have done so. My upcoming trip to Ohio already has a reservation with them, in fact. Never before have I been so impressed with any car rental experience as I have been so far with Enterprise. I look forward to renting from them in the future.

My trip wasn't all daisies and rainbows, however. I mean, my room at the Comfort Inn was decent, and the people I met were generally very friendly. But I couldn't help but notice that almost none of the really good restaurants on Castro Street (which is where the training center is) take American Express. Remember the snide Visa commercials they used to have that proclaimed that "so-and-so does this, but they don't take American Express"? Back then it seemed like an anti-advertisement for those places, a warning to keep me from getting disappointed when I got there and tried to pay. Now those commercials reverberated in my mind, as I made mental notes to avoid certain restaurants in the future. By now it feels like if I want to pay for food in Mountain View with my AMEX card, I'm stuck with Boston Market.

One experience in particular that struck me was on Wednesday night when I discovered a Subway restaurant right next to the Caltrain station. There were two oriental girls working the counter. I don't mention their ethnicity here because I'm racist. I think that in any other circumstance, I would have just referred to them as "two girls". But the way they handled things kept reminding me of myriad travel shows, were a tiny crew of workers behind a food counter somewhere in Asia somehow managed to handle dozens of customers at the same time. In this case, they had four customers, and they seemed to have no intention in serving them in the order in which they arrived. In fact, I was the last person to place my order, and the first person to pay for and leave with it. And despite the fact that I frequently pay for meals at Subway with an AMEX card, do you think I was surprised when this one only took Visa, Mastercard or cash?

The customer service didn't stop there, of course. Normally when I leave San Jose, there's a direct flight back to SLC around 6 o'clock or so. The last one this time left just before I would have gotten to the airport, so I was stuck with a 2-hour connection in LAX between two different, unaffiliated airlines. Because they were unaffiliated, I was told that I couldn't check in for the second flight until I got to LAX. The first flight was American Airlines, which I had never flown on before, but I'd heard bad things about. They didn't disappoint, because when I got to the gate, they had already posted that there was a half hour delay. Before long it had turned into a 50-minute delay, which I was actually okay with; that meant an hour in LAX instead of two.

We boarded, and the flight attendant seemed friendly enough. After beverage service, she even went down the aisle to see if anybody had any connections that they needed information about. When I told her that I was headed to Salt Lake, she started referring to things from memory instead of from her paper. She told me that since it was a United flight, I would need to get onto Bus 5 which would take me to Building 6, from which I would need to walk to Building 7, where I would need to go through security again. Sometimes, she told me, if they weren't too busy, the bus drivers would take me to Building 7 if I asked, so that I wouldn't have to do security again.

When the plane got to the terminal, it took almost 20 minutes for a gate agent to drive the walkway to the plane and let us out. When I got to the bus area, I was told that I needed to wait off to the side for my bus. After about 10 minutes, my bus showed up. The driver was unwilling to take me to Building 7, and the tone of his voice allowed no argument. Those of you who have ever had to scramble to make a connection can see where this is going. Leave it to American Airlines to turn a 2-hour layover into a mad dash for the gate. That's when I started trying to call United Airlines to let them know that I was coming. I never found their phone number or anything else helpful on their site, and eventually called Expedia instead.

Expedia told me that my flight was actually in Building 8, and that it was the last one out of LAX to SLC that night. When I got to Building 6, I checked the terminals and saw that I needed to get to gate 88 post-haste. The Expedia agent assured me that I had almost half an hour, and should be able to make it in time. As I got to the security checkpoint I asked the guard how to get there, and he told me to follow this hallway to my right, and no, I wouldn't have to go through security again. When I was out of his sight, I started running.

I got through Building 7, and then continued onto Building 8. Gate 88 was at the very end of the concourse, and I ran to it, becoming increasingly worried as I noted that the boarding area was suspiciously empty. The display at the gate didn't even have SLC listed on it and the boarding door was closed, so I asked the agent if it was too late to board for SLC. She gave me a confused look and told me that the SLC flight wasn't leaving from that gate. I must have looked suddenly anguished, because she looked suddenly helpful. She told me that I needed gate 84, which I had just run past. She also assured me that it had not yet left. I asked if she could print me a ticket anyway, which she did. Now that I was checked in, at the airport no less, I knew I had much less of a chance of the plane leaving without me.

I ran back to Gate 84, and discovered that my flight had not even started boarding. Happy day! I sat down to finally rest, and wait. A few minutes later, the passengers started boarding, and I happily boarded with them. After the plane door had closed, the captain got on the horn and apologized for the late departure, as they had been waiting for the plane to arrive. Who knew I could be so happy for United Airlines to be late?

At least Enterprise managed to do things right, even if nobody else could be bothered. I'm glad that my next trip includes no connections, even if I get stuck on a Canadair jet both on the outbound and return flights. You know what I always say, nothing says fun like 3 1/2 hours on a cramped regional jet.

French Firefox Cookies

Every so often, somebody new runs across either the Firefox cookies or the Ubuntu cookies that I made so long ago, and I see another spike in my stats. Usually it's no big deal, just somebody posting a link on their blog or perhaps a message forum, occassionally accompanied by a note on how crazy I must be. Frequently the blog or forum will be in a non-English language, such as Spanish or Polish. Sometimes I can translate, sometimes not.

Somebody who speaks French apparently decided that my instructions needed to be translated into their language. At first I was a little surprised to see lolcat captions printed on my photos, but then I became flattered when I realized that they had seemingly lovingly translated all of my instructions. I skimmed over it and suddenly saw the phrase, "MUHAHAHAHAH PWND NOOB!"

Now, my French is pretty rusty (read: I don't know French), but that didn't look like it translated from something that I wrote. It was time to send the article through the Google translator. There were comments about "the author", some of which I chalk up to them calling me crazy, etc., and the occassional quip about something or other. The "noob" comment translated in Google to, " Well, that was simple yet your little cousin of 5 years may well be (but she knows disassemble a computer-back in less than an hour with your eyes closed with one hand behind their backs?? MUHAHAHAHAH PWND NOOB! )". I'm not entirely sure what that means still. I think it means the previous step was so easy your 5 year old cousin could do it, but then again she could take apart a computer with one hand tied behind her back in less than an hour. Ha ha! You just got pwned, noob!

Right. Anyway, now I'm just plain amused at their translation. I'm not sure, but I think I like their sense of humor. Almost makes me want to learn French just so that I can get a real translation of it. Still, if you want the instructions in French, there they are. Enjoy.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Context Menu Extensions for Firefox

This morning I stumbled upon something interesting in Firefox. I clicked on Tools >> Add-ons >> Get Ubuntu Add-ons. One of the items available for installation was called "Context Menu Extensions for Firefox/Iceweasel". It promised, among other things, the ability to add custom items to context menus (aka the "right-click menu") in Firefox, including external programs. I've long wanted something like this, so I decided to take a look.

I checked the box and clicked Apply. It looked like it was doing something, but when it finished the menu option was gone, and I couldn't find any trace of it having installed anything. I bit of searching and hassling Christer led me to discover that the package name in both Debian and Ubuntu was actually called mozilla-ctxextensions. I also discovered that I should have new menu options under my Tools menu, but I couldn't find any.

I tried running "aptitude install mozilla-ctxextensions", but it said it was already installed. I ran "updatedb; locate ctx-extensions" and only found one file: /usr/share/app-install/desktop/mozilla-ctxextensions.desktop. That file didn't give me any hints to anything. I ran "aptitude remove mozilla-ctxextensions" and then installed it again. This time locate found lots of files, so I figured I must be good to go. Unfortunately, restarting my browser still revealed no extra options.

I finally found what looked to be the problem. When it installed, it created a symlink called /usr/lib/iceweasel/extensions/{4C4D8A1D-1E3C-439e-9298-16073A5C4851} that pointed to /usr/share/mozilla-extensions/ctxextensions. No such link existed in /usr/lib/firefox/. So much for having it work in both Iceweasel and Firefox. I made another symlink with the same name, pointing to the same location, in the /usr/lib/firefox/extensions/ directory and restarted Firefox. Bingo!

Not only do I have extra options in my Tools menu, I also have an additional Extensions menu. Looking through the preferences, this looks like an extremely customizable tool. And in the spirit of open source, I have been able to find absolutely no documentation as of yet, except for a few random bug reports from Debian developers saying that they won't fix something or other with it. I was able to find the author's homepage,, which is of course mostly in Japanese.

Has anyone else played with this tool? I'm interested in using it, but it would be nice to have some documentation to save me some time in learning it.