How Cell Phones Saved the Onion Dip

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Photo by Maria Robledo

"Honey, you gotta help me. I'm freaking out!"

My novice-cook boyfriend was making Real Onion Dip for the first time for his upcoming dinner party, and had phoned in a panic, his usual cool-under-fire self completely gone.

"I'm trying to caramelize onions but they don't look right...I don't really know what they're supposed to look like."

"Okay," I said. "First, turn off the heat. Now tell me what they look like."

"I don't know how to describe them. I guess they're kind of brownish with little dark bits; is that caramelized...?"

The problem with trying to solve cooking questions over the phone is the difficulty anguished cooks seem to have describing just exactly what things look or taste like. I needed more information if I was going to help my boyfriend solve his onion problem. Then it dawned on me.

Imagine using Skype for culinary trouble-shooting or one-on-one demos, about how to make an omelet, or beat egg whites for a soufflé, or pare an artichoke to its heart...

"I have an idea! Why don't you take a picture of the onions with your cell phone and email it to me. I'll take a look and see what I can figure out."

A few minutes later a blurry photo of diced onions in a nonstick skillet appeared on my computer screen; they were pale with flecks of dark. I could see right away what the problem was. I called David back.

"The onions are cooking too fast because the heat's too high. The whole thing about caramelizing is to cook them slowly, at a moderate heat, so that they all turn pretty uniformly deep golden brown. Turn the heat to low and take your time with them. If you want, send me another picture when you think they're about done."

Fifteen minutes later David called, his old confident self. "I sent you another picture. THAT's what you mean, right?"

"Yeah, that's exactly right. Perfect."

Our impromptu cooking lesson via cell-phone camera and email was a revelation. We used it the next day to figure out if David's first cake had risen properly (It seems he may have measured the flour incorrectly). The idea held huge possibilities. Imagine using Skype with a live feed from the computer's camera for culinary trouble-shooting, or even better: one-on-one demos, about how to make an omelet, or beat egg whites for a soufflé, or pare an artichoke to its heart...

Recipe: Real Onion Dip

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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