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Gift Lab: Tea to Go

May 21, 2014

Tea to Go | UncommonGoods

Research:
Do you know that person who wakes up with just enough time to brush, shower, and dress and barely catch the train? Well that’s me. I’m all about getting things to go, in order to save time – typical New Yorker, I know. Hence the reason I chose the Tea to Go for my experiment, figured it would make the difficulties of staying warm on the go, a thing of the past.

Hypothesis:
I am hoping that this keeps my tea warm without burning my hand, as well as keeping it hot for at least an hour. With public transportation being as unpredictable as it is, this would be a big thing for me.

I’m going into this with no knowledge of how the glass apparatus would hold up against the traditional metal thermos that I’m used to. The plan is to use the Tea to Go all the ways that it has been advertised and to see if it meets the needs of someone who’s the definition of a person on the go.

Experiment:
First, I got everything prepared: a kettle of boiling water, 1 peppermint tea for those frigid mornings, 1 peach tea with ice for the playful days, and some loose White Riesling tea for those sleep-in mornings that you can only dream of.

Tea

The body consists of very a thick glass tube and a heavy duty rubber grip. The inner body includes a small perforated section for the tea, then a long portion where the liquid will flow through. I didn’t realize how tall it was until I put it next to my jar of Linguini noodles and, as you can see, it’s right up there.

Tea to Go | UncommonGoods

According to the instructions, I poured the hot water through the small compartment for the tea bag – that was a no go. The water took really long to fill up the tube and I wasn’t about to wait. It made sense if you had to time to allow your tea seep and brew a stronger tea, which wasn’t what I was going for. Instead, I filled up the tube from the larger side and things went smoothly. After letting it sit for 10 minutes, I gave the bottle a slight tilt to allow everything to diffuse evenly and off we go.

Making Tea | UncommonGoodsHot Tea | UncommonGoods

The rubber grip was hotter than I expected, but definitely manageable. After being out of my house for 20 minutes the tea was still extremely hot, and I had to implement the blow-and-sip method, which worked just fine. After being in public transportation for an hour, my tea kept hot (and this is with me keeping the top off so in order to drink). It didn’t really cool down at all, I still had hot tea after an hour and half – that’s a plus.

Loose Leaf Tea

I also gave it a try with loose leaf tea. From looking at the perforations you can tell that large loose tea leaves are the best choice, so that you don’t have leaf residue floating around. I didn’t take that into account until much later. Even though some of the excess tea got in the drinking tube, it was not a big deal. But it’s just something to keep in mind for those who don’t like things floating in their drinks.

The Tea to Go certainly holds up for hot tea 100%. NY Winter – here we come!

Iced Tea to Go | UncommonGoods

Next I gave the bottle a try with iced tea. I let the Peach tea bag seep in a little bit of boiling water before adding filtered water. The water was still relatively warm so I decided to add some ice cubes, which quickly melted but were able to provide me with a cold drink. Took my book, iced tea and an orange and enjoyed the break from freezing temperatures and read for a few on my stoop.

I came back in after an hour with very little tea gone (Harry is just that captivating!), and I was amazed to find out it was still very cold, like a beverage right out the fridge.

Conclusion:
Being a person who lives in New York and has experienced the wonders of Jack Frost first hand, the Tea to Go has become my accessory for those cold rushed mornings. It’s a pretty simple but effective device that will keep my hands and tea warm.

Not only is it good for those frigid mornings we’ve come to love, but it’s versatile enough to keep tea cool for those strolling days. I’m thinking it’s going to come in handy as summer approaches, since it has officially been added to my morning check list – keys, metrocard, money, and Tea to Go.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Get Ready to Grow with the Gardener’s Compost Container

April 24, 2014

Kara | UncommonGoods

Product: Gardener’s Compost Container

Research:
I’ve decided to test a new product our Product Development team created, the Gardener’s Compost Container. It’s an earthenware compost bin used to collect food scraps in your kitchen, while keeping away odors and flies with its two piece charcoal filter. I was excited to try this product because throughout my experience of using compost bins, I’ve never managed to find one that offered the functionality and aesthetic that I was looking for. I was hoping that this one would fit my criteria. I’ve been getting ready for summer by preparing my rooftop garden and so this composting project will be a main component of that.

Gardener's Compost Container | UncommonGoods

Hypothesis:

Based on my research, I suspect that this compost collector will perform very well as a bin that eliminates odors and keeps away the flies. In the past, I’ve tested other charcoal filters in my bathroom and in other areas of the house with great success. They not only do keep away odors, but they also reduce moisture. Since composting tends to create a lot of moisture, I’m hoping that this filter will keep the moisture to a minimum and help prevent any mold from growing in the bin.

Experiment:
I began my experiment by setting up the compost bin in my kitchen. Even though I would have loved to display this beautiful compost bin on my counter, I have very limited counter space so instead I placed it under my sink. I had a little trouble when I first placed the bio bag in it. The bio bag that comes with the product isn’t a perfect fit, so the edges of the bag did not fasten securely to the sides of the bin. It was an easy fix, though! In order to keep the sides of the bag from slipping, I used a rubber band to fasten the bag around the edges of the bin. Once the compost collector was set up, I was ready to start testing.

Open container with bio bag
Bio bag with band

For the next couple of weeks, my roommates and I put our food scraps in the collector. Our food scraps included fruit, vegetables, breads, pastas, tea bags, coffee grounds, processed foods, and more. Since meat and fish are typically geared for backyard composters and not indoor compost bins (as they are likely to attract pests), we did not put this in our compost.

Full Compost Container

When we filled it for the first time, I ran into a problem when trying to empty the bin. When I tried pulling the bio bag up and out, it ripped due to the weight of the compost, leaving a mess of food scraps at the bottom of the bin. To remedy this, I recommend not waiting until it’s completely full to change the bag. Since my bag was so full, I had to dump the compost into a grocery bag, carefully avoiding any spillage. Not only was this a hassle, but it defeated the purpose of avoiding regular plastic bags, which will need to be thrown away in the trash because they are not compostable.

Removing compost bag

Throughout these weeks of composting, I constantly checked the bin with no signs of odors and flies. My roommates had confirmed that they had not noticed any odors or flies in the kitchen either since the start of this experiment, which is a good indication that the charcoal filter is functioning as it had been described it would. In addition, I did not see any mold growing inside of the bin, which indicates that the filter is doing its job of reducing the moisture created by the compost.

Conclusion:
In conclusion, I found that the compost collector performed very well when it came to eliminating odors, reducing moisture, and keeping away the flies. The charcoal filter functioned as it said it would, leaving me and my roommates very pleased with the sustained hygiene in the kitchen. Through this experiment, I did come across a couple of problems that I did not expect to run into. The bio bag that came with the compost collector isn’t specifically made for it,so it’s not a perfect fit. It also tore when I tried to lift it out of the bin.

5 - under sink

When I use this bin in the future, I’ll look for other alternatives that would function better. One solution could be to go bag-less and use Bokashi-style composting in order to keep the compost manageable. Bokashi style composting is a method that uses a bran (which consists of a mix of microorganisms) to cover and ferment food waste to decrease odor and flies. Without the bag, people may be concerned with the hygiene of the compost bin, but Bokashi is a great way to solve the bag problem while keeping the compost collector sanitary. Without the reliance on bags, the compost process is naturally more environmentally sustainable as well. However, this solution also creates inconvenience for those who need to carry their compost to a drop-off at a local farmers’ market or community garden. For those who would prefer to use a bag, I would suggest that they use a small, fitted burlap bag, which is sturdy and can be reused over and over again without the concern of wear and tear. These bags are also breathable, letting in plenty of air to help keep the compost from smelling. Most community gardens and farmers’ markets do not accept bio bags, so this makes for a great solution.

Kara with Compost Collector

Overall, the beautiful design and charcoal filter feature make the Gardener’s Compost Container a functional design without sacrificing aesthetic. With a few adjustments to the use of the bin (eliminating the bio-bags for a more practical alternative), it makes a perfect compost collector. NYC Recycles is piloting an organics collection program where they will be picking up compost in my area this summer. So I look forward to using this to collect lots of food scraps, especially in the upcoming months!

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: I Think I Scan

February 6, 2014

Angie | UncommonGoods

Product: Smartphone Film Scanner

Research:
I take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. I own approximately seven cameras. While most of us now have a camera in our pockets, along with our bank books, train schedules, maps, concert tickets and everything else smartphones have condensed into portability, I still appreciate photographic film. I have appreciated it over the years to the tune of a box full of developed negative sleeves.
Negatives
The Makerof the Smartphone Film Scanner, Lomography, has an awesome reputation for designing super-cool photography products that stimulate visual creativity (three of which I already own), so I was excited to test this one.

Hypothesis:
Using my Apple iPhone 4S, the Lomography Smartphone Film Scanner should provide me a way to preserve and use my developed negatives, and add these previously printed photos to my online digital albums.

Smartphone Film Scanner | UncommonGoods

Experiment:

Out of the box, the scanner seemed simple enough to assemble; there’s a small instruction manual that points out the key components of the scanner unit, including the stackers, the base, the clamps and the LomoKino Mask (which you must lift and remove, lest your initial scans will be 1/3 of their intended size).

*The fine print: requires 2 AA batteries! (Pause. This launched a house-wide search for fresh batteries.) Battery door is a bit difficult to open; I needed to use a paper clip to lift.

3Batteries

The instructions noted to use only two stackers with an Apple iPhone 4/4S. (Stackers allow you to adjust the distance from your smartphone to the film to maximize the resolution.) So, I removed one stacker and assembled the unit.

4Stackers

Next, the directions were to attach the smartphone to the scanner by placing the phone between the clamp winged platform on top of the scanner. Once the phone is camera-lens side down on this platform, you’re supposed to close the clamp wings to secure the phone onto the scanner, with the lens squarely on top of the scanning chamber. However, while the scanning chamber’s opening is centered, the phone’s camera lens is not; the iPhone camera lens is to the left of the phone. So, you have to manipulate the entire top of the platform to also move left or right, after you’ve clamped the phone in place. This was not immediately understandable from the instructions given. (In fact, I’m not even sure it’s understandable here; just know that you will need to maneuver the platform around a bit to get your phone directly over the scanning chamber, i.e. hole on top where the camera lens must be.)

Clamp

I then inserted my negative strip using the film advancing wheel on the base of the unit and flipped the “on” switch to illuminate the light panel for viewing the negative. I enabled the camera feature on my iPhone, worked on centering the negative with the lens, and snapped a photo. The photo saved to my camera roll. Cool!

Negatives 2

Now for scanning!

The instruction manual suggested visiting a site to get the app to scan.
I logged on to the website:
http://microsites.lomography.com/smartphone-scanner/#app

I initially downloaded the free LomoScanner App EVEN THOUGH there is a bit of a disclaimer on the page about technical issues that have been experienced by early users.

7App

And sure enough, on both my iPhone and my boyfriend’s Android, the LomoScanner apps crashed. (Luckily it was easy to fix, but I decided not to try the app again.)

Returning to the drawing board, I download one of the other many suggestions for apps that were given on the Lomography site. (Not all of them were free, ranging from .99 to $4.99.) The Photoshop Express app (by Adobe) is FREE, and took seconds to download.

Photoshop Express

Nothing to sign into or request to trade your email address for access, the PS Express app simply offered the choice of “take a picture” or “open from camera roll” upon opening. I chose to access my camera roll, where I selected the picture I previously snapped of the negative.

10Dashboard

Once the photo was chosen, it was opened in a dashboard, where all the scan edits take place. First, I chose to crop the image, to rid the photo of the notched side framing. I also rotated it into a vertical portrait. Next, I chose “invert,” which essentially makes a negative out of the negative, “inverting” the original image. Since I started with a negative (the absence of color), the inversion actually deposits color. The result, in this case, was a color photo with a bluish tint. Using the brightness and contrast tools, I “warmed” up the photo, adjusting the tint, vibrance, highlights and other varying degrees of sharpness and clarity to improve the photo quality. But, alas, for some reason, my beloved “red” shiba inu, Kobe, remained blue in the photos. Below is the best I could get. I saved it to my camera roll , but it looks like there’s more I can do with photos in the future to get different results. (Check out this video for some ideas.)  Some more experimenting is required!

BlueKobe

 

11ahhh

Conclusion:
Overall, what was  produced by the LomoScanner wasn’t exactly what I was expecting–especially after the process of assembling everything and downloading apps, editing, etc., but it does beat my throwback Thursday (#tbt) habit of taking pictures of photographs (which result in a slightly blurry, glassy-eyed view).  As with all Lomography products, the LomoScanner has a loyal, even cult-like fan base, and the Lomographic community even offers tutorials, classes and online support to share tips and tricks. So, if you have the time or are into experimenting with photography, I’d say go for it.While the product is fun, if you just wanted a quick way to rid yourself of a box full of old negatives like I did, this might not be for you.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Cocktail Bitters

December 19, 2013

Morgan | Bitters

Research
I’m a devoted whisky (and occasionally whiskey) drinker and usually enjoy my Scotch like I enjoy the top shelf of my dresser: neat. But I was intrigued to see if bitters might prove an opportunity to salvage a liquor I’ve all but quit–rum. The recipe calls for a high-proof rum, so I picked up one of my favorite antiseptics, Bacardi 151. I also bought an aged rum (to test my bitters in later) that I was hoping might change my opinions of the drink. That rum, Plantation Grande Reserve (note the fancy pants name), was a vast improvement over any rum I could remember tasting (in either direction), in my younger days, so I was looking forward to a different experience, perhaps.
Bitters 1

Bacardi 151? Hello old friend.

Hypothesis
I don’t think I’ve ever tried bitters before, but I’m coming in with a semi-open mind. I like bitter things. There’s something smart-sounding about the word “bitters.” As I have a general preference for straight alcohol, I’m not sure how much this will “add” to the experience, but perhaps since I’m less predisposed towards rum, it may make that drink more enjoyable. (Spoiler alert: I cheated and came up with this last line after the experiment.)

Experiment
Preparing the mixture is actually a good bit of fun, adding the composite spices and ingredients as if your high school science teacher were a part-time bartender. (I didn’t see you and you didn’t see me, Mr. Chard.)

DIY Cocktail Bitters | UncommonGoods

Here I am masterfully peeling an apple and not cutting myself, the skins to be mixed into the jar of rum and spices. No blood! Easy enough.

The preparation requires a morning and evening shake of the mixture in its jar, which is a fun way to interact with your little blooming bundle of joy, and to appreciate the visual richness and beauty of the concoction as it does its thing. Eventually you’ll forget to shake it one morning and you’ll feel guilty for the rest of the day. Just let it go–it’ll be fine.

DAY 1 TEST
Finally, after a long and eager wait, 2 weeks are up and it’s time to open my present! Hold on there just a minute, bud–a few more steps before we’re ready for cheers. First we have to strain through cheesecloth (which doubles as gauze if you cut yourself peeling that apple earlier–try to use the clean portion).

Bitters | UncommonGoods

The liquid is separated from the solid ingredients, which are placed on the stove to simmer with water then cool. This is a good opportunity to be extremely impatient, blow on the mixture, and just dump it in hot anyway. (Again, you’re probably fine.)

Bitters in Process | UncommonGoods

After cooling, we strain the mixture once again. OK, this is your exit solids! In the trash you go! We then get started on simple syrup (a sugar and water mixture that is heated and added in equal parts to the rum mixture). Add to dropper bottle then the big payoff.

I decided on bourbon because, well, I like bourbon and it seems to feature in a good number of bitters cocktails. I could make a cocktail, but I’d rather really taste the bitters here just to see how they work with the alcohol. A bit of bitters drip drop into some Buffalo Trace bourbon.

Drinking Bourbon

Unfortunately, it wasn’t doing it for me. Nope. Had I done something wrong? I don’t think so. Was it last Friday when I neglected to shake the bitters? Were they exacting their revenge? Nah – I don’t think bitters hold grudges (although they are called bitters…). I think it was just the combination. The iconic Buffalo Trace flavor now muddled into something indecipherable and a bit all over the place. I added a bit more but that just added to the confusion. My eyes saw the Buffalo Trace and my mouth was failing to compute.

Give up? No way. We’ll try again tomorrow.

DAY 2 TEST
New shirt, new day, new opportunity to drink.

Back on the saddle and off the wagon with something a bit more compatible, perhaps – rum. Yes, my aged rum would make a late-game, surprise guest appearance in a highly unscientific evaluation.

In one glass – straight aged rum
In the other – that same rum with a few drops of bitters.

Bitters and Rum

This one makes sense. The rums obviously blend well, and this time I’m able to actually taste the spiced apple. Not overpowering, but definitely adds another dimension. Yeah – I get it.

Conclusion
I could see this enhancing a mediocre rum or allowing for a drinker to taste a decent one from a different perspective. I imagine you could mix into a number of different cocktails with different alcohols. (The instruction booklet names a few.)

The highlight for me though was the process. Enjoying a drink usually consists of nothing more than opening a bottle and pouring it. Occasionally this might involve stirring in a few extra ingredients–and sure–there are even bitters you could buy. But there was something very satisfying about the process; in the interaction with all the individual ingredients, in the ultimate unification of those flavors. There was something satisfying in the wait. Alcohol is one of those things that can take longer than anything to get right. We buy liquors that have been waiting for years, heck, decades to taste just right, then we sip them and they’re gone.

This kit represents the process, the time, the care that goes into a good drink. This probably won’t change my lineup of standby drinks or undying love of a good straight Scotch, but it was an interesting ride, I learned a bit, and I have something new to taste along with some of my old favorites. Nah, I ain’t bitter.

The Uncommon Life

Gift Lab: Flip & Tumble + Wine Tote + Bentgo: A-leftovering we will go

November 22, 2013

Research

I hate waste. I’m really OCD about it. Disposable shopping bags, takeout containers, and water bottles really bug me. And yet, I do shop, eat on the go, and need H2O. Thus was born my quest for the perfect personal food transport equipment.

3-ItemCollageHypothesis

Our Flip & Tumble Reusable Shopping Bags are light and small and hold a lot. Sounds promising. Our BentGO Lunch Box is good looking. Most of its lunch-toting brethren are decidedly not. It’s also a good size, and except for the lids, microwaveable (for warming up, not cooking), and dishwasher safe. Also promising. Our Wine and Beverage Tote, with its tough canvas outer skin, seems a lot sturdier than fold-up plastic bottles I’ve used before.

Experiment

Step 1: Shopping.

This was mostly accomplished at the Park Slope Food Coop, of which I am an enthused member. A sustainability-minded organization since forever, the coop doesn’t give out shopping bags. Flip & Tumbles are perfect for shopping there. They weigh virtually nothing, open up in a jiffy (faster and easier than any shopping bag I’ve ever used), hold a lot, and are strong and sturdy. The even have a non-slip patch on the inside top of the shoulder strap.

Giftlab food-bags 016-CROPPED

Here’s how they look full of groceries.

Giftlab food-bags 019-CROPPED

Here are most of the ingredients, spread out. (The bags actually held a lot more than this.)

Step 2: Cooking.

I bought a spaetzle maker no less than 6 years ago, and until now, had never used it. Sound familiar, gadget lovers? I saw this recipe in the New York Times, and knew this was what would make spaetzle happen in my kitchen.

To round out the meal, I decided to make mashed sweet potatoes with lime and honey (the recipe calls them yams, but they are NOT; shame on you, Saveur!) with broiled grapefruit for dessert.

11-18-13UG-giftlab-cooking 004-CROPPED

I put the sweet potatoes in a casserole dish and stuck them in the preheated 350 degree oven.

I then sliced the leeks and cabbage (separately) very thinly in the food processor. I melted a bunch of butter in a big frying pan and sauteed the leeks. But I forgot to take photos of all that, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

CabbageCookingCollage

The savoy cabbage, sauteeing on top of the already-sauteed leeks.

11-18-13UG-giftlab-cooking 021

Above is the mixed white all-purpose, whole wheat, and whole rye flour (yes, I ground it from the berries, here’s why), to which I added an egg and whole milk. It’s supposed to end up like cake batter, not bread dough, so you keep adding milk until it feels right. Because I used whole wheat flour, which the recipe doesn’t call for, I used more milk than recommended, because whole wheat flour absorbs more liquid.

11-18-13UG-giftlab-cooking 001

My spaetzle maker in action, at long last. You pour the batter gradually into the white hopper which you then slide along the holey stainless steel part that’s straddling the pot of boiling, salted water. The dough slips through randomly, drops into the pot, and cooks very quickly, rising to the top.

11-18-13UG-giftlab-cooking 022

It’s pasta…it’s dumplings….it’s spaetzle!

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The recipe calls for thyme, which I conveniently have growing in one of my kitchen windowboxes.

Now it’s time for it to be topped with grated Gruyere cheese, put in a casserole dish, and baked. But wait–where’s that dish?!

11-18-13UG-giftlab-cooking 044

Oh yeah, it was baking these. When I took them out, I didn’t bother cleaning it, because sugary, gooey sweet potato ooze can only improve a dish. I did mix it in, though, so it wouldn’t just burn on the bottom.

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The casserole in a state of baking readiness.

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The sweet potatoes, mashed with a fork and mingling with their new BFFs: butter, fresh lime juice, and honey.

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20 minutes after being put into the 425 degree oven: Done.

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Now for the broiled grapefruit. Easiest thing ever: cut in half, top with brown sugar (or not), turn broiler on, pop in citrus.

~An interlude, during which I eat this delicious dinner, and sleep. A new day dawns.~

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The true and ultimate destiny of this food, of course, was being consumed as leftovers. I added some homemade kefir I put into a can that I’d fished out from the recycling and washed (see above re: “OCD about waste;” also, it was the perfect size), because I thought it would go well with both the casserole and the grapefruit.

11-19-13UG-giftlab-cooking 038

Stick a fork in it–it’s done.

Step 3: A) Eating and B) Drinking

A) The spaetzle dish, like most casseroles, was even better the next day. It nuked up beautifully in its spiffy BentGO container. I ate it in about two minutes flat. No, I will not show you what that looked like. My mother might be reading this, and it would make her cry to see that all those years of table manners lessons were wasted on me.

UG giftlab-wine tote 004-CROPPED

B) The Wine and Beverage Tote, alas, was filled only with water, because I was at work. (You think I can write all juiced up? No. I leave that to pros.) For purely scientific purposes, I did fill it with wine the night before. Miraculously, it holds an entire, normal-sized bottle, though you have to make sure the bag is poufed out all the way while (carefully) pouring. I recommend red wine, because the Tote isn’t insulated, so the wine will be at room temperature before long.

I really appreciated its sturdy canvas exterior, because it freed me from the nagging worry that something sharp in my bag might gouge it. If there’d been red wine inside, I would have appreciated it even more–no, not because of the alcohol; because of the potential for mess. (OK, the alcohol, too.) Note that I swapped out the original petite black carabiner with a larger one of my own, partly–but ONLY partly, I swear–because mine is pink.

Recipe links:
New York Times: Rye spaetzle gratin with savoy cabbage, leeks and caraway
Saveur: Mashed sweet potatoes with lime and honey
TheKitchn: Sweet and smoky broiled grapefruit