Usability for Cooking

Those of you that know me know that I really enjoy cooking. Well, really, I enjoy eating good food, but I’ve found that the easiest (and most inexpensive) way to get good food it to make it yourself. So, tangentially, I enjoy cooking.

As a result, I spend a lot of time online looking at various interesting recipes on the internet (and through cook books, but this post is mostly about the internet). One thing I’ve found is that most sites that offer a good deal of recipes, are lacking in their actual usability; not because they’re not designed like other sites, but because they’re designed exactly like other sites. Most of them are designed as simple lists of categorized articles or blogs, with ratings and comments. This may be fine for most blogs or new sites, but cooking is this inter-related web of techniques, derivations, substitutions, and adaptations that (in my mind) can’t be served properly by this common model, but does lend itself well to the web in general. The problem is that people get locked into this core method of usability, and don’t realize that it doesn’t work in all situations.

This, in my mind, actually violates a core tenant of usability in information systems: get the information that the person needs to them as quickly as possible, and allow them to access related information quickly and easily. For cooking, this is not just related reciepies. This may mean linking them to information about the techniques required for a particular recipie (creating a roux, blending a soup, searing a piece of meat, grilling, broiling, etc), the potential ingredient substitutions (can I substitute different types of mushrooms, stocks, water, etc) or additions (can I add garlic, Tabasco sauce, or rice to this dish, and where). Additionally, potential side dishes, wines, derivations (versions of the same recipe that use similar but different ingredients) and nutritional information are all common things I want to see with a recipe, but rarely see in any web recipe outlet.

And don’t get me started on comments. 90% of comments of recipe sites are worthless: “This tasted great! I will do it again!” is pretty common. But that last 10% is sometimes useful. “Lightly salt the zucchini to drain the moisture first,” “Added garlic to this dish and it really brought out some of the flavors,” are good comments, and are related specifically to an ingredient, addition, or substitution, so why are they at the bottom of the page instead of where it might be useful to me?

What does this have to do with games? Well, nothing really, but it does point out an alarming trend in general usability: this idea that once you’ve found one system that works, you tend to apply it to other systems where it’s not as useful, or (worse) where it doesn’t make sense. So, when you’re designing your user interface for your next game, just think to yourself for a second: “Am I designing this interface this way because this is the easiest and best way to access this information, or because it’s the way it’s always been done.” You’ll be surprised how often you answer yes for the later, and find another, better way to do it.

The Heat Is On!

So, as Darius is aware, one of my favorite hobbies (next to game development / design) is cooking. Actually, I’ve wanted to combine those hobbies by making a cooking game, but I think someone beat me to it. At least in Japan.

Anyway, this evening I mad a fairly good dish that I wanted to share with people, and I figured who better than loyal blog readers? So in an effort to be more bloggy I’ve added a new category to my blog (which I might update when I make something particularly tasty) and starting it off with Mexican Pizza!

Mexican Pizza

  • 8 Corn Tortillas (hard flat ones if you can find them, I couldn’t)<
  • Fry Oil (I used peanut, Canola probably would have been better)
  • 1 can refried beans
  • ½ a pound of ground beef
  • Shredded lettuce (or you can chop up some romaine hearts like I did)
  • ½ Cup of cheese (I used a Mexican blend)
  • Preheat oven to 350.

    If you couldn’t find hard corn tortillas, fill a medium skillet or sauté pan about 1 inch high with fry oil. Make sure there’s enough room at the top for oil to bubble and heat it to about 325 degrees. Drop your tortillas in the oil one at a time, frying them until golden brown, flipping half way through (about 30 seconds per side). Set aside.

    In the mean time, open your can of refried beans and heat them in a small sauce pot over low heat, stirring occasionally (these are pretty much the instructions from the side of the can).

    When finished frying the tortillas, empty the oil from the pan, or set it aside to cool before storing it for another fry session. Either way, you need an empty medium skillet or sauté pan.

    Brown the ground beef in the sauté pan, seasoning however you like (you can use taco seasoning or whatever. I used salt, pepper, Maggie, and Chipotle Tabasco sauce). When done, empty into the refried beans.

    Arrange 4 corn tortillas on a baking sheet (I lined mine with aluminum foil, you don’t have to, it just makes cleaning easier). Divide the beef/bean mixture between the for tortillas. There may be some left over. Just put it away for burritos later in the week. Put the other 4 tortillas on top and cover them each with lettuce, then cheese. Put in the oven until cheese is melted (only like 5 minutes at most. Just watch them.)

    Serve with salsa.

That’s it! I do have some improvements. Instead of lettuce (or along with lettuce) you can grab some scallions (green onions) and put them on top, and if you like tomatoes those are also welcome. Some Cilantro either in the beef/bean mixture or chiffanade on top would also probably be good. Salsa before baking, on the other hand, would probably be bad since it tends to make the tortillas soggy.

Enjoy!