Thursday, November 28, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Zesty Chilli and Garlic Tiger Prawns

It's been a busy week on the food front, what with the two curries, and now a stir fry. This one came from "Chinese Food Made Easy", by Ching-He Huang. This one requires all of about six ingredients, has a two-step cooking method, and takes about ten minutes start to finish. Which is pretty cool, really.

I did hit a problem early on, when I discovered that we had no rice wine in stock. I guess we must have finished it at some point. The consequence of this was that I had to replace this with a tablespoon of really poor whisky. Which worked out just fine, both from the taste point of view, but also in getting rid of some said whisky, which has been sitting around far too long.

Other that that, it all went very quickly. As usual with these stir fries, it is incredibly important to prepare all the ingredients before the first on hits the wok, as the moment that happens you haven't got a moment to spare. But having learned that lesson, I made sure I was ready.

I served the dish with noodles. It would have worked with rice equally well, I suspect. The recipe doesn't say to use either, but I think it would have been a bit lacking without something. And it tasted fine; certainly, this was the most successful of the three meals this week.

Tonight, I'm cooking meatballs and spahgetti in a tomato sauce from a jar. So it's a rather less challenging night!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Lamb Kofta Curry

Yesterday's effort was another one from the Hariy Bikers' "Great Curries". It was significantly better than the previous one, but...

Yesterday was not a good day. There have been a few of those this week, but what made yesterday bad was that there was a traffic jam on the way to work, which meant I was late, which meant I had to work late. And, since everyone else was late, too, the traffic on the way home was also bad, so I got in very late. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend any time cooking, but there wasn't any choice.

The first step of this curry was easy - I had to make up the koftas, which as basically just meatballs. So, a bunch of stuff went into the food processor, the mince was added, and then it was put in a bowl and covered to chill. That was on Sunday. Because of this, the meat had to be used yesterday, or it would have had to be thrown out.

Still, I didn't think that should be too bad - I just had to whip up a sauce, cook the meatballs in the sauce, and that would be that. How bad could it be?

Unfortunately, what I hadn't reckoned with was that the sauce required a 20-minute simmer step. Then, that done, the koftas needed cooked in the sauce... also requiring a 30-minute simmer step. It wasn't difficult, at all, but it was time-consuming... and it was the last thing I wanted to do after a hard day.

The resulting meal was very nice, and I'm sure we'll have it again (if only because we have half the koftas left over). But I won't be doing this on a week-night in future. The closest I'll come might be to make up the sauce in advance and freeze it for later use, thus reducing the hour and a half I spent down to half an hour or so.

So, this one was a victory, but rather a Phyrric one. Hopefully, tonight's prawns won't entail the same level of trouble...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reviewing the Artist

A couple of years ago, I somehow chanced to see Britney's (first?) performance on the X-Factor. There had been some weeks of build-up to this event, it being a bit of a coup for Simon Cowell's monument to self. And so, we had this much-hyped event, and she performed.

The performance was pretty awful, even by her standards - it wasn't clear exactly what went wrong, but something just wasn't right, either because she wasn't really ready, or because there was too much pressure, or she just didn't care, or whatever. But whatever the reason, it was a bad performance.

After which, the four judges led a standing ovation, and queued up to fawn over the global megastar and her 'wonderful' performance - a performance that they would have slated had any of the contestants given it. But because it was Britney...

A few posts ago, I talked about Ed Greenwood's novel "The Wizard's Mask", which is the worst novel I have read this year by a long, long way. And the reviews mostly reflect that. But every so often you come across a five-star review praising it for "non-stop action", or something similar... but mostly praising it because it's by Ed Greenwood, and he's a legend in gaming circles.

Over on the Imaginarium, I've made some comment about the adventure "The Devil's Spine", by Monte Cook. Again, the reviews of this are rather mixed, but most note that it is deeply flawed. Every so often, though, you find one that assigns it five stars... because Monte Cook wrote it, and he's a star in the field of game design.

It's probably best at this point not to mention the initial reviews of "The Phantom Menace", or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", or "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", or the fifth book in "A Song of Ice and Fire", or...

(And, for an example of the same thing in reverse, consider "The Cuckoo's Calling". When it was written by Robert Galbraith, it received decent reviews, but very few sales. As soon as it was written by J.K. Rowling, though, suddenly it was a best-selling work of genius.)

I suppose it's natural for reviewers to do this. To get Britney on the show, ITV no doubt had to promise the most gentle of treatment. An artist who is slated in a review of one product is unlikely to give interviews when the next is released. And, of course, the internet has made many fan-bases utterly psychotic, so a bad review may very well incur death threats.

The problem is, it's really not helpful if the review is of anything other than the product at hand. I already like Bernard Cornwell's novels, so if your review is really about those, and not about his current novel, you're not helping me at all. But if his current novel is a stinker and you tell me that, then you're actually being useful. I may well ignore you and get it anyway (in fact, I almost certainly will), but at least then I'll know to trust you when you want me off!

(It works both ways, of course - if you hate BC's novels, then that probably invalidates your review just as much as if you're a mindless fanboi, at least from where I'm sitting. But the ideal is if you usually like them, but are prepared to say if one sucks.)

(Oh, and for the record, there's no particular reason I chose Bernard Cornwell for that last example.)

Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that I now completely ignore pretty much any review that talks about anything other than objective tangibles. As soon as you move into the area of storytelling, or quality of art, or pretty much anything intangible, and especially once you get on to the next item in an ongoing sequence, it becomes really hard to trust whether the person is talking about this thing, or if they're being influenced by past performance.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Experimental Cookery 2013: Quick Chicken Madras

This one came from the Hairy Biker's "Great Curries". I had been looking forward to it since finding the curry on Friday (when LC proceeded to veto it, but no matter), and found time to cook it on Sunday.

Sadly, the curry did not live up to expectations. It was certainly quick, which was a plus, but it turned out to be lacking the heat that had been promised (nay, threatened!), despite my not deseeding any of the included chillis. In addition, the sauce was considerably more watery than I'd hoped, which meant that the whole thing just seemed rather bland. All in all, it was rather disappointing.

We will be having this again, once, if only because the recipe made up four servings and there are two of us. Sadly, I can't see us then making up another batch. A shame, really.

On the other hand, on Sunday I also made up the mixture for some lamb koftas, which we'll be having for dinner tomorrow. Hopefully, those will make up for yesterday's disappointment...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Alleged "story problem" in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Fair warning: there are heavy spoilers for both last night's "Big Bang Theory" and also "Raiders of the Lost Ark" throughout. So, under no circumstances should you read this post.

Last night's episode of "The Big Bang Theory" centred around a story problem in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", specifically that Indiana Jones is actually entirely superfluous to the story - without Indy, the Nazis still find the Ark, still open the Ark, and still all die. Basically, he contributes nothing.

"Aha!" I immediately said, "but that's not right - the Nazis were digging in the wrong place!"

At this point, Lady Chocolat, who is wearily used to my heckling BBT, noted that they were only digging in the wrong place because they didn't have the medallion, but without Indy they would have gotten it first time out, and so would have been digging in the right place. Oh.

So, you can imagine my mirth and amusement when that exact conversation took place later in the show. In fact, the dialogue in the show was almost a word-for-word match of both what I said and LC's response.


The "story problem" only actually manifests if you posit that the film is about what happens to the Ark. But it's not. In fact, not only is it not, but the very title of the film makes that clear: it's not "The Lost Ark", it's "Raiders of the Lost Ark". The story is about Indiana Jones, and Marion, and Belloc, and the Nazis, and what happens to them - of which the face-melting covers only half of it.

As for the second half:

In the absence of Indiana Jones in the story, Marion's arc is rather different. As in the film, she is in her bar, and is approached by the Nazis about the medallion. As in the film, she refuses to give it to them. At which point, the Nazis torture her, kill her, and take the medallion.

Conversely, with Indiana Jones in the film, things play out as we see: Marion leaves her bar, deals with her alcohol problem, and is last seen happy and smiling. Realistic or not, that's the impact Indy has on her arc - she's alive and happy at the end of the film.

Likewise, Indy is changed by the film. At the start of the film, he's a hard-bitten scientist (as he says in "Last Crusade", archaelogy is the study of fact), but the climax of the film requires taking a leap of faith. And, like Marion, he has tackled at least some of his demons in the course of his adventure, not least the issue of his broken relationships with Prof. Ravenwood and Marion herself. (Not that that's really a good thing - the relationship between Indy and Marion is not entirely... appropriate, to put it mildly.)

Of course, without Indy in the film, none of that happens either.

(For what it's worth, the same is true in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", too. Again, he fails to get the treasure, but that's incidental to the real story, which is about the broken relationship between him and his dad.)

#55: "Pathfinder: Demon's Heresy", by Jim Groves

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Roast Experiment

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was considering the possibility of doing a big roast at the weekend and then harvesting lots of leftovers for the following week. Since then, we have attempted this experiment twice, once with a roast leg of lamb and the second time with a roast chicken. So, the results...

The Lamb

The basis of this meal was a "boneless leg of lamb", bought from Tesco for £14 (if I recall correctly). This was cooked quite simply - just rubbed with oil and then seasoned, and then placed in the over for a couple of hours. Naturally, it was accompanied with some roast potatoes, and we had roast carrots as well. I added a few peas to this. Finally, there was mint sauce and a lamb gravy - sadly, not made from the meat juices themselves but rather from a packet.

It was very nice, but due to a miscalculation while carving, we both had way too much. That's not a big problem, but it did cut down on the leftovers.

The remains of the lamb would go on to provide a total of five lunches. Two of these took the form of "leftover lamb and mint couscous", taken from "River Cottage Everyday" by Hugh. This was an interesting one, being a variant on a chicken-based lunch I've blogged about before (in the dim and distant past). It was quite different from the chicken version, and I liked the use of apricots, but I did find it a little lacking compared with the chicken version - perhaps adding (quite a lot) more pepper would help?

On the Tuesday and the Wednesday, then, we had the rest of the lamb, this time in pitta bread-based 'sandwiches', with the addition of some yoghurt and cucumber. Again, this was okay, but a little bland. Here, I think the addition of some mint (which, sadly, had run out), and also some salt and pepper, would have helped.

Still, I was pretty happy with that, all told. The Sunday roast was excellent, and the lunches made for a nice alternative from our more usual fare.

The Chicken

I was on somewhat firmer ground with this one, as I've roasted chickens on several occasions (I've only done lamb twice, or perhaps thrice). This was a large chicken, again from Tesco (£6, I think), rubbed with oil and seasoned, with a mix of rosemary and thyme stuffed in the cavity, and a lemon. Easy peasy.

Again, this was complemented with some roast potatoes (which came out exceptionally well this time), and this time some "baked in a bag" carrots per "Jamie's Ministry of Food", and a little gravy (Bisto). Curiously, there wasn't a parsnip in sight.

This time, I was a bit more cunning when harvesting the meat - I stripped the bird completely, then divided it into six portions, one each for myself and LC, and then four to keep. This proved an almost ideal amount of food for the night, though there were still too many potatoes and carrots. Given that the total cost of those was in the region of 50p, though, I'm not too worried about throwing a few odds and ends away.

Unfortunately, it was in the use of the leftovers that inspiration failed. I had some great sandwiches on Tuesday and Wednesday, made simply by mixing some chicken with a tablespoon of BBQ sauce and a tablespoon of hot chilli sauce (they would have been better with some lettuce and tomate as well, but we didn't have any), and LC had some sandwiches with just the chicken. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a nice sandwich... but they just didn't feel inspired.

(And, given that I feel like a bit of a brag... last night's dinner was a second go-around of Lorraine's Tandoori Chicken Wraps with Cucumber Raita and Mango Salsa. This fed two of us, and left over enough stuff for lunch today, which was delicious. Now that's more like what I mean by "inspired"!)

I can't say I'm disappointed by the results of the chicken, either. In fact, in terms of value-for-money, it worked out rather better than the lamb. Still, I think next time I might have a go at Jamie's chicken stew that he makes with leftover chicken (if I can persuade LC to go for it).


All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the way this has gone. I think a bit more planning is probably called for, specifically in the use of the leftovers once they've been harvested, but the basic idea seems solid.

Of course, the impetus for this came largely from "Jamie's Money Saving Meals". The roast chicken quite clearly did save a bit of money, while the lamb was much less certain (especially since I over-catered on that first night). Still, in all honesty that was really a fairly minor issue for us.

Next up is probably roast pork. Though, frankly, I have no idea what I might do with those leftovers.

The Worst Book of the Year

Ed Greenwood is something of a living legend in RPG circles. Indeed, now that Gary and Dave have passed on, he's probably the biggest name we have left. Primarily, he's famous for creating the Forgotten Realms, the most expansive and most detailed RPG setting in existence. He's also the author of a great many novels, mostly set in those same Forgotten Realms.

I've read two of EG's novels, now. The first of these, "Spellfire", I read back when I was in my mid-teens, and it was the first time I realised something that has since been borne out too, too often: game-related fiction sucks. It's not a universal law, but exceptions are few and far between. (And, in fact, it applies to most licensed fiction - whether it's a TV series or movie, a computer game or RPG, or even something ghost-written with a celebrity's name on the cover, it almost certainly stinks. There are, of course, good reasons for that, but I digress.)

Over the past year or so, I've been reading through the "Pathfinder Tales", a series of, yes, game-related fiction. These have the key advantages that they're pretty undemanding reads, they're mostly pretty decent (within the confines of game-related fiction), and that they're a series of self-contained novels - this isn't the standard, never-ending fantasy epic. I'm not going to claim them as high art, of course, but they were entertaining enough.

Some months ago, I discovered that the "Pathfinder Tale" I was scheduled to read in November was "The Wizard's Mask", written by one Ed Greenwood. This did not fill me with confidence. Still, it's a series, and I wasn't going to read them all but one. Besides, maybe he'd improved in the quarter-century since "Spellfire"...

Or not.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the book did not start terribly well. We're introduced to the first of our two main characters, a sometime-thief who now wears a cursed mask that is gradually stealing his face away. That's pretty cool. And then the other, a halfling former-slave who is now hiding out in a turnip wagon.

Our halfling promptly finds herself on the run from the guards in the new town the wagon has arrived in because... well, for no real reason, actually. So, she runs, and runs, and runs. The chase scene goes on far too long, then ends in an absurdly unsatisfactory manner, and that's chapter one done.

The chase scene then picks up in chapter two, and carries on for the next hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, she encounters our masked friend, and hires him to protect her (because obviously the person to trust is some random guy you met on a rooftop while on the run, and obviously he'll agree to act as bodyguard for a paltry sum). Also, they pick up a nemesis, who is introduced almost literally as a deus ex machina, saves our protagonists for no apparent reason, and then tries at length to kill them, also for no good reason.

And then, after a hundred pages of chasing, we get to The Plot. Huzzah! Our heroes, and their nemesis, must travel to a dungeon and recover a treasure, just because. So, off they go. There then follow some wanderings, during which the nemesis suffers from a clear case of split personality: half the time, he wants to kill our heroes for no good reason; the other half he wants to recruit them to serve his nation, again for no good reason.

Meanwhile, there's a metronomic (but, of course, completely unexpected) set of ambushes. Seriously, the book almost literally has five pages of tedious 'characterisation', three pages of banter, and then ten pages of our heroes running away from arrows sent by either of two ill-defined armies. Huzzah!

Worse is yet to come, because when our heroes reach the dungeon, they are set upon by purple, magic-eating cats. No, really.

Now, that would be fine, if it were just a few pages in an otherwise-excellent book. However, it turns out that those cats are a critical plot device that will form a major part of the scenery for the final hundred pages of the book. Yay!

So, our heroes go through the dungeon, demonstrating just how badly traps are handled in most D&D adventures (seriously, you can practically hear the dice rolling, first for Perception and then for Disable Device). And then one of the characters loses a hand.

But not to worry, because for the rest of the novel, she suffers from a Schrodinger's limb. It would appear that the hand-loss was a late addition to the plot, because in the very next chapter she is said to throw something with both hands, while at another point she catches something with her spare hand.

And then the exciting climax of the novel, wherein our heroes run away from cats, while throwing the treasure from one to the other. Oh, and avoiding ambushes that occur exactly once a chapter.

This isn't a bad book. This is a book that makes "The Da Vinci Code" look inspired.

And, actually, that's something that's worth contemplating for a moment. Back when I read Dan Brown's great work, I came away convinced that a novel didn't need to be good, or even make sense, provided the whole thing was paced at a high enough speed. Keep people reading so fast they can't contemplate the nonsense of the plot, and you should be fine.

But "The Wizard's Mask" puts the lie to that, because it is paced very very fast, and that doesn't save it. It's just awful.

So, that's the worst book of the year. I would say "so far", but I really hope nothing else comes close...

#54: "The Wizard's Mask", by Ed Greenwood

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Mixed Curse

So, I'm ill.

It all started on Wednesday, just as I was about to leave the office. I'd packed up, and was about to grab my jacket, when I was in turn grabbed for one of those Very Important Conversations that occasionally happen at work. Anyway, during the course of said conversation, I could feel my throat tightening. "Oh, here we go," I thought, "the twice-annual cough..."

Thursday wasn't much fun, and Friday was worse. And then, at the band's centenary celebration, I was first asked to help call out the raffle winners (yay!) and then the band played. The net result of this was that I aggravated my throat. Not good.

So, on Saturday I had virtually no voice. On Sunday, likewise, I spent the day huddled in front of the TV. And even today I'm off work and feeling pretty miserable.

And, of course, everything else had to be cancelled to make room. The one-shot RPG session on Saturday, which was itself a rescheduled event, had to go, since I had no voice with which to run the game. And the game tomorrow is also gone, largely as a precaution. I'll not be going to band tonight, and had to skip out of a wedding that the band were playing yesterday - though, fortunately, that wasn't a solo event so they had enough people without me.

Being ill sucks.

However, it does have a couple of up-sides. Being stuck in front of the TV all day meant that I've managed to finish off both "Crusade" and the last two "Babylon 5" spin-off movies, which is good - neither of these was very good, to be honest, so it's nice to have them off the to-do list. Likewise, I've caught up on both "Atlantis" and "Homeland", both of which remain on my "not quite bad enough to drop" threshold. (In both cases, there are bits that are excellent, and bits that are pretty awful - and in both cases, they could be vastly improved by dropping at least one of the main characters.)

And, finally, I've managed to make great strides through the worst book of the year, which I'll be very glad to see go. I think that will warrant a post all of its own, but the short version is this: the first chapter is mostly filled with a chase scene that is okay, but goes on way too long. That chase scene then picks up again in chapter two, three, four, five...

#51: "Pirate's Honor", by Chris A. Jackson
#52: "The Carpet People", by Terry Pratchett
#53: "Clarissa Oakes", by Patrick O'Brian

(Note: none of these is the book to which I refer...)