Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Three For One

In honour of "Jamie's Money Saving Meals", I thought I'd do a triple post with the results of my cookery exploits last week. It's nothing to do with my not being bothered to write three individual posts, no, not at all...

Naan Bread

I've previously tackled naan breads twice before, both times from "Gordon Ramsey's Great Escape". But while they were okay, they were never better than that, and a lot of work as well. So, at the recommendation of Captain Ric, I tried the version from the Hairy Bikers' "Great Curries".

Well, it's fair to say that these were much more successful - a whole lot less work, a whole lot less time, and better results. Next time, I need to make sure I use finer salt, and I also need to make sure they're rolled thinner, but otherwise they were a resounding success. And they were also considerably bigger than the other version, which is a plus.

Seeded White Loaf

This one came from the "Women's Institute Big Book of Baking", which LC was given for Christmas but which I have shamelessly baked from. Shocking, isn't it?

Other than the baguettes I cooked a few weeks ago, I've never really tackled bread. And the truth is that I see little point in cooking 'basic' breads, by which I mean the standard white or brown loaves one could buy from the supermarket. After all, you can't beat them on cost or on time, and unless you're pretty good you're unlikely to beat them on taste. And they go stale far more quickly. The one advantage is that you get to control what goes into the bread, which means you get to skip all those nasty additives... but, for me, that's just not enough to justify the effort.

(Perhaps if we had a bread maker, that would be different. But we don't use enough bread to justify that expense, and the unit could never come close to paying for itself. Besides, the fun of making these things by hand lies largely in, well, making them by hand, which the bread maker removes.)

But that's okay. There's way more to bread than just the basic white or brown loaves, and so I found myself tackling this seeded white. And it was easy to do - mix, knead, prove, knock back, shape, prove, bake. And the result was great - a nice, tasty loaf ideal for dipping in soup. It lasted two days, but probably wouldn't have gone beyond that... but that was okay, because it only lasted two days anyway.

The lack of pictures in the WI book was slightly unfortunate - it would be nice to know what I'm making. Other than that, the book is very good, and certainly much better than Paul Hollywood's "Bread", which I'm afraid I would have to recommend against.

Roast Chicken with Lemon & Rosemary Roast Potatoes

This one was a real experiment, not because I've not tackled roast chicken before, but rather because I was cooking in Lord Chocolat's kitchen (we were staying there at the weekend). The recipe itself came from "Jamie's Dinners", which I was using as it was the most familiar of the options available in said kitchen.

The process of this one was pretty simple, albeit time-consuming. Unfortunately, I misjudged the time involved, such that the meal was 'ready' far too early, but that's not a huge problem. I also have to question Jamie's quantity of potatoes, which was way too many for four people. (Should have stuck with the "four people... four potatoes" formula, or close to it.)

However, the worst problem was that when the food was 'ready' and we came to cut the chicken, we found that it was undercooked. I fear I must have misread the oven setting, or something like that. So the chicken, which was now open, had to go back in. When it came out again, it was now cooked, but it was also browned in places it should not have been. A shame, really.

Taste wise, the meal was pretty good. The potatoes, in particular, went extremely well. The chicken tasted good, too, though it was rather dry due to the mistake in the cooking. I served with some simply-done peas and carrots, though these were nothing to write home about, and some gravy that was more... gloopy than I would have preferred.

None of which was Jamie's fault of course - just a problem inherent in cooking in someone else's kitchen. Still, I'd defintely be willing to try this recipe again.

(In fact, for the past while I've been considering doing a BIG roast every weekend, in order to harvest lots of leftovers for lunches and the like. But I'm not quite there yet...)

The Dawn of the Third Age of Mankind

Amongst other things, last night I watched "Sleeping in Light", the last episode of the main "Babylon 5" show. I still have a couple of TV-movies to watch, and then "Crusade", and then a couple more TV-movies, but for the most part, basically, I'm done.

Watching that last series of "Babylon 5" is always an odd experience, because the main arc of the show was finished at the end of the previous series, and what follows is both less interesting and rather stretched. In particular, the three episodes prior to SiL always feel particularly weak, being little more than "this character leaves, then this character leaves, then..." That said, the last two episodes do always have a couple of moments that creep up on me every time - in "Objects at Rest", when Sheridan brings the White Star around for "one last look at the place", and we see the new generation standing in the place of the old; and in "Sleeping in Light", when he raises the toast to "absent friends, in memory still bright".

What was odd, though, was that this time the bit that really got me was the final parting between Sheridan and Delenn. I guess time changes, and people change.

I found myself wondering, though... will I ever watch this show again? The thing is, "Babylon 5" genuinely is one of my top-three sci-fi series of all time, but the truth is that both the first and the last series are a bit of a slog, and it's also true that the DVDs are really not of good quality (and there will probably never be a blu-ray or digital release, sadly - the digital models required to upgrade the CGI to HD have been lost). Plus, I know the story, and I'm constantly finding myself with more to do and less time to do it in - will I have the time to dedicate to watching it again? And if and when I do, will I still have the means to do so?

I also found myself pondering just where B5 sits within that "top three"? The other two series are "Star Trek" and "Doctor Who", of course, but which is best? Both those series probably have more really good stuff than B5, but equally, the both have huge amounts of dross, and a lot that's better in concept than execution - "Voyager", "Enterprise", and a big chunk of old-Who. And "Deep Space Nine" owes a fairly significant debt to B5 for changing the nature of series TV, as does much of new-Who.

And then... "Babylon 5" is the only one I have on DVD, and the only one I'd really make time to watch. But, I wouldn't sit down to watch B5 if it were on TV, where I might for either of the other two (since with B5, it's the whole series, or nothing; DW and ST (apart from DS9) don't have that weakness).

I guess there's only one way to find out... Fight!

Two Things About the Bake-off

Firstly, and briefly, I was rather amused by a certain irony last night.

For several weeks, one of the finalists has been consistently criticised for style over substance. It has been a constant refrain: style and substance. Substance. Substance.

Last night, the final bake, the one that the competition inevitably comes down to, the show-stopper challenge, was a wedding cake. That is, one of those creations where style is of critical importance. In fact, one of those creations where the style of the thing is vastly more important than the substance - the function of the cake is to be the centre-piece for the room, to look good in the resulting photos... and then, as an afterthought, to taste good in that tiny slice that each guest gets to taste.

So... amusing.

But the second thing is this: for some time, indeed since the end of the last series, that has been the feeling that the show will inevitably be being moved to BBC1 next year, presumably so it can attract a larger audience.

Which is, frankly, bizarre. Are we supposed to believe that there are large numbers out there who have TVs that only get BBC1 and ITV? Or is it that their remote controls don't have a number '2' on them?

Honestly, it's ridiculous. People who want to see the show can get it. People who don't want to see the show can watch something else. But that's true whether the show is on BBC2 and the "something else" on BBC1, or the reverse. They're just numbers... and it's not even as if they're channels that are in competition with one another. (Of course, equally, there's no reason not to move the show. For exactly the same reason - they're just numbers.)

(In fact, franky, the concept of different 'channels' is fast becoming obselete. As recording becomes ever more popular and convenient, and as TV streaming services like iPlayer and 4oD become ever more prevalent, it becomes increasingly irrelevant whether a show is on BBC1, 2, 3, 4, BBC Hats, or whatever other channel there is. The provider matters, since one might have access to BBC but not Sky, and of course it matters whether you have to suffer adverts or not. But the distinction between BBC channels, and especially between the channels that everyone gets? Not a jot.)

#48: "Pathfinder: Sword of Valor", by Neil Spicer
#49: "The Nutmeg of Consolation", by Patrick O'Brian
#50: "The Blood of Gods", by Conn Iggulden

Monday, October 07, 2013

Wait... Why Is That Legal?

When preparing for my driving test, one of the things I was told was that if you drove at 30mph in a 40 zone, you would be marked down. Do that consistently, and you would be failed for it. Because one of the requirements of being a competent driver was that you had to keep the traffic moving, which meant moving at a speed suitable to the road conditions.

Which, really, is as it should be.

As I was driving to work, I noted a number of vehicles with various stickers on the back, indicating that the vehicle was somehow limited in speed. You've no doubt seen them - they are becoming more and more prevalent on our roads.

Now, in many cases, these stickers merely note the (theoretical) limits applied to the vehicle by law - on particular roads, large vehicles have a lower speed limit that they must follow, and that's that. (I say theoretical, because it's a rule, not a true limitation - if the driver chose to break the law, the vehicle would indeed go faster. Not that I'm at all suggesting that they do, or would...)

However, I also noticed a few vehicles that weren't bound by law to follow any special speed limit, and yet had such a sticker. And, indeed, at least one of these was marked by a sticker indicating that the vehicle was limited to 68mph. This was on the M9, a road that has a 70mph limit along most of its length (although we were in a lower, variable, limit zone when I saw the van in question).

Now, I know that there's no legal requirement that you must drive at the speed limit, nor indeed is there a (relevant) minimum speed limit on the motorways. However, it is a condition of the driving test that you drive at an appropriate speed, and that you don't unduly slow the flow of traffic.

On a motorway with a speed limit of 70mph, very often the appropriate speed to drive is indeed 70mph. And a vehicle driving at less than that speed, especially one driving just under that speed, does indeed impede the flow of traffic - due to their presence, anyone who wants to go faster (most road-users) now have to move across into the single, faster, lane, slowly pass this one vehicle, and then proceed. The effect of this, especially a peak times, can be very significant.

In which case, I have to ask: why is it legal for vehicles to be limited in this way, when it is known that such limits will have a deleterious effect on the flow of traffic for everyone else?

#47: "Mockingjay", by Suzanne Collins (Not a comfortable read, even after the grimness of the first two. Still, an outstanding trilogy.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


For the past week or so, I kept seeing adverts for this show, and kept meaning to set the digibox to record it. I think promptly forgot to do so on Saturday. Still, thanks to the magic of iPlayer, that wasn't really an issue.

To a certain extent, I pity any new fantasy TV series. They inevitably get compared to "Game of Thrones", and the comparison is inevitably "not as good as". This despite the fact that they're very different shows doing very different things... and also that "Game of Thrones" really isn't quite the work of genius that it's made out to be.

As for "Atlantis", I enjoyed it... mostly. It's certainly better than "Robin Hood", though not yet as good as "Merlin" was at its best. (In particular, "Merlin" really benefitted from Anthony Head and Richard Wilson giving it some much-needed gravitas, in the same way that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan elevated the "X-Men" movies above standard comic-book fare.)

It is true that they've really mangled Greek myth, to the extent that the show is less authentic than "Hercules: the Legendary Journeys". It's also true that, some few trappings aside, the characters have a far too modern sensibility. And there's too much of the "manly men save the day" about it - though it's just possible that that might change a bit down the way.

But I liked their take on Hercules (despite mis-spelling his name again). It actually makes sense that, if his strength comes from being the son of a god, he doesn't need to be the ripped titan we usually see. And I liked most of the chemisty between the cast - the three leads in particular go well together.

All that said, there's one thing that really bothers me about the show. In fact, one single word... Pythagoras.

There are three reasons I object to his inclusion, two of which would have been trivially fixed. In most respects, the answer to "what's in a name?" really is "the difference between an enjoyable show and a hugely annoying one."

My first objection to them using this character is that, unlike Minos, Hercules, and the rest, Pythagoras actually was a real person. And so, where you can basically do whatever you want with the other characters, settings, and events (such as giving Jason Theseus' job of killing the Minotaur, moving the whole thing to Atlantis, or mis-spelling Heracles). But, with Pythagoras, you don't get to do that. If you're going to use real people, you've got to get them right. (And, incidentally, the reason it's different when Doctor Who uses Churchill or other figures is this: such characters are always guest stars appearing in the occasional episode; here, it's a major character due to appear in every episode.)

My second objection is that it's evident that the writers know roughly one thing about Pythagoras: he's "the triangle guy". After all, that's literally the first thing Jason says on learning his name, and it's something that they gets repeated several times in the episode.

But Pythagoras was no more "the triangle guy" than Archimedes was "that bath guy" or Newton was "that apple guy". In each case, that's the thing they're most famous for... but in each case it was a comparitively tiny aspect of a lifetime's work. Constantly repeating it as some sort of joke was really irritating.

(And it was all so unnecessary. Just change the name, drop the triangle 'jokes' and you've got a much better show, and actually lose nothing in the process.)

My third objection, though, was something that couldn't be fixed just by changing the name. As noted, that "triangle guy" thing was repeated several times. At least one of these took the form of Hercules suggesting that Pythagoras bore the minotaur to death by telling it about triangles. And similarly, when Jason takes Pythagoras' place in the labyrinth, his justification is that Pythagoras great legacy is that millions of school-children will be bored learning his theory. It's a joke, see?

Well, ha. Bloody. Ha.

Yes, I get it. Maths is hard. Chuckle. Maths is boring. LOL. Oh, it's so funny. Indeed, I fear my sides have split.

So, what we have here is a show where manly men go off and have adventures, where women exist (it would seem) to look good, to be rescued, and if they're very lucky, to give the hero some magic token that preserves his life. Sort of. A bit. Oh, and where we once again get to play "let's laugh at the geek!"

Dear BBC, thank you so very much for that new and interesting bit of banter. I've never seen that done before! (And never mind that "Pythagoras' legacy" includes the computer on which this script was written, the building in which it was written, and any and all food that the writer consumed when doing so. See, that's the thing about foundations of mathematics - they affect everything that comes after. And even that's ignoring the significant impact that Pythagorean philosophy had on Plato, and consequently on Western thought as a whole.)

As I said, it's mostly a reasonably entertaining bit of fluff entertainment, the very thing to hold down the "Doctor Who" slot until DW is back. Except for that one blemish that just ruins it. It's such a shame.

#45: "Johnny and the Dead", by Terry Pratchett
#46: "Johnny and the Bomb", by Terry Pratchett