While Chef K and I were organizing recipes for submission to Star Chefs Quick Meals, we focused on home kitchen appliances for inspiration... and one that is a fairly new-comer to the American kitchen...
Several brands have combination microwaves on the market as we speak. Wal-Mart recently had an Emerson on sale for $70. For those who don't know, a combination microwave is an appliance that looks pretty much like your average microwave oven but also has a heating element within to offer a combination of cooking methods... microwave and radiant heat. That means it has the ability to heat food more quickly and simulaneously with microwave technology while allowing conventional heat (and convectional in some cases with the addition of an internal fan) for maillard reactions... i. e. browning.
This may seem of little interest for the professional chef... but look deeper. The technology is very similar to units that Hitachi (picture above) was producing over 2 years ago in Japan. I posted about it here. Hitachi uses the dual-cooking methods to guide foods through the cooking process by closely monitoring the temperature ranges in which umami-rich amino acids thrive and die. This is the same as the Japanese method for making dashi as the oven quickly takes food above the 50C temp (because we lose valuable inosinic and guanylic acids continuously below that mark) and keeps foods as long as possible below the 80C temp (because glutamine acid continues to increase as long as food is held below this mark). Traditional dashi requires close monitoring of these temperatures coinciding with the addition and removal of the kombu and bonito flake. The result is noticeably different from putting the ingredients in a pot of water and boiling them without concern of temperature or time.
This technology and information is not new, but very little has been done in the West to utilize it. More accurate cooking methods such as sous-vide can offer more control if the end goal is known. For now, I cannot help but be excited about combination microwaves. It seems like another stepping stone laid down on the road to an umami rich American kitchen. Americans love umami. They just don't know it. Japan has had this on the market for over 2 years, and all I want is one for my house that will work on American voltage. Is that too much to ask? How much longer will I wait?
And if there are any chefs out there who dismiss the microwave as an appliance not worthy of being used in a professional kitchen, I invite you to look into what Ferran Adria was doing at the 2008 Madrid Fusion... we are just barely tapping into this technology as a viable and unique cooking technique (the stuff that Adria revealled a couple of months ago has been under experimentation in his taller for over 2 years now). Microwaves have been in most kitchens for decades, and we have used them for very little except heating coffee and making popcorn. It's time to take another look.