I'm still really enjoying my subscription to The Spicery and as Rebecca and Ruth are visiting this weekend I was keen for them to share the experience. So it was time to head back into the kitchen and try out another recipe. Yesterday I turned my hand to some North American cooking, and as you can see, by the time I'd gathered together the ingredients I'd taken up most of the workspace in my tiny kitchen...
The main meal I was cooking was a comfort food staple: pork and beans. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Pork - and beans. But I love the way that the Spicery's kits add multiple layers of taste and texture over a basic set of ingredients. They take something simple and turn it into an amazing and richly flavoured dish.
For a start, I took two tins of chopped tomatoes, and added several tablespoons of black treacle, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of wine vinegar, and the Spicery's pack of ground spices, which contained yellow mustard, three different sorts of paprika, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Give that a whizz with the blender and you'll end up with a thick rich liquid that already smells of lush barbecues and smoky goodness.
While I was preparing the sauce, I had half a kilo of diced pork belly and smoked bacon roasting in a casserole dish in the oven. It's the first time I've ever run the oven at its maximum temperature! After half an hour the meat was beginning to brown...
I drained the fat out of the casserole without burning myself, then Ruth (who was acting as my able assistant this time out) added the sauce...
Doesn't that look good? The final step before putting it back in the oven was to add three tins of beans, a peeled onion cut into halves, and the packet of whole spices - including two chipotle chillies, which just so happen to be one of my favourite recipe ingredients ever. This is really beginning to look promising.
It looked even more promising half an hour later when I took it out to give it a quick stir. Rebecca had already commented by this point how good it smelled, and believe me, it did.
Two hours after I started roasting the meat, the pork and beans was ready:
But that wasn't all; half an hour before we were ready to eat, I started on the side dish. Into the bowl went flour, eggs, lots of grated cheese, a drained tin of sweetcorn, half a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of baking soda and a pack of cornbread spices from the Spicery which included red pepper, thyme, garlic, celery salt and black pepper. The principal ingredient should be cornmeal or polenta, but I couldn't find any in the shops so I used the alternative suggested by the Spicery, which is semolina.
I stirred 150 ml of full-fat milk into this, and got a thick gloopy and sweet-smelling mixture. Those flakes of red pepper really stand out in all that yellow.
One thing I really like about the side dish recipes in these kits is how simple they all are. With the cornbread, all that was left to do was to spoon the mixture into a 20 cm baking dish...
...and then pop it in the oven for half an hour. When it came out it was a beautiful golden brown colour with a gorgeous sweet smell.
Before we served it up, Ruth and I compared our results with the recipe card. I think we did pretty well, don't you?
So, how was it? I guess you won't be surprised to hear that it was very tasty. The treacle in the sauce lent the pork a thick barbecue flavour and the chipotle chillies (which I'd left whole, rather than cutting up) meant that each mouthful gave you a pleasant catch of sweet heat in the back of your throat rather than burning through your tongue. The cornbread was delicious and the taste just offset the richness of the pork without being cloying, although the quantity in the recipe would have been enough for eight, rather than three; I still have half of it left over in the fridge. It's a satisfying and *very* filling recipe and while we ate very late on Saturday (I didn't start cooking until we'd finished watching Doctor Who), none of us felt like eating breakfast on Sunday morning.
I think I need to watch last night's episode again, because - as I said to Ruth while we were watching the show last night - I didn't think it made any sense. It was one of those stories that cropped up a lot during Russell T Davies's tenure on the show where an arbitrary threat would crop up and the Doctor and/or companion would find themselves in deadly, unstoppable peril, only for the Doctor to slap his forehead about forty minutes in to the show, mutter "of course!" and fix everything before the end credits rolled. The deadly gas that was going to asphyxiate everyone was cleared away in seconds, presumably after the director pointed out that having all the characters delivering their lines in gas masks would have made for much less dramatic television. But having removed the major threat to Clara, we needed another big threat to maintain dramatic tension, so then it was the engines that were exploding. Um, shouldn't the fact that the Tardis has a star collapsing into a black hole in its centre have been the big threat in the first place? But hey, let's throw in some glowing space zombies as well just to ramp things up a bit. Nice video effects and make up, but - seriously? I'm really, really tired of episodes like this, and it's a pity because parts of the episode were really interesting. The Doctor's confrontation with Clara where he finally asked her who she really was was fascinating, and the two actors played it impeccably. I loved the fact that we finally got to see the swimming pool mentioned in Matt Smith's first episode as well as a glimpse of the Tardis's fabled library...
Oh, now that's just showing off.
But everything resolved itself with another RTD favourite trope, the Big Reset Button. It's just lazy writing. After last weeks gloriously weird episode, I knew that this week's story was going to have its work cut out for it, but I felt it was a huge disappointment. As I said, I really need to watch it again; maybe my opinion will improve. Unfortunately, I doubt it.
My new PC arrived yesterday and - once I'd stopped panicking that it wasn't working and I figured out that the video signal swapped from the DVI output during boot to the HDMI output when the Windows logon screen appeared - I made a decent start loading it with the software that I use (mainly music and audio production stuff). By the time I went to bed last night I'd put over fifty gigabytes of stuff on it, and there's still a lot more I have to copy across - the whole of Live 9 Suite will add another 55 Gigabytes and then I'll have to copy the projects I've been working on with the laptop. Thank goodness for large-capacity USB3.0 drives...
The machine itself is well-built, almost silent, and very, very fast. It boots ridiculously quickly thanks to the OS being installed on a solid state drive. The wireless card picked up my network without a hitch. The hot-swap disk drive slot has already turned out to be incredibly useful and now I can't imagine doing without it. The case is a plain black with very few distinguishing features, and so I've decided to refer to it henceforth as The Monolith.
Yes, with bold face. Trust me - it's entitled to it.
Before I went to bed I couldn't resist loading one of my Live 8 projects that had maxed out the old machine; the new PC purred through the song with the CPU usage meter running at no more than 15% and I was running six SETI at home work units through the thing at the same time. Oh, and it polishes off a work unit in just over half an hour!
Tonight I'll hook The Monolith up to my monitors, and connect the other peripherals that I use in the studio and we'll see what sort of latency figures I get. I'm also going to install Apache Open Office, which is a free alternative to MS Office. I hate the latest version of Microsoft's product, which I think is a significant step backwards in usability and functionality, and there was no way I was going to pay for yet another copy. I've already installed 7-zip, Firefox, IrfanView, InfraRecorder and Audacity; I will also install Thunderbird, The Gimp, CloneZilla and Filezilla (they're all free, they all work very well with Windows 7 and I can recommend them all). I suspect that all this will keep me busy for most evenings this week, but when I've finished I should be set.
That means I know what I'll be doing during for most of the Bank Holiday weekend in a couple of weeks: making music!
As if I needed an excuse to buy another pen; it's National Stationery Week this week. I started using a fountain pen when I was at grammar school, and I still prefer to write with one. I'm not a biro person, although I do use gel pens at work. I love writing with something that has a decent heft to it, and I prefer italic nibs as they allow your handwriting to be much more expressive - calligraphy has been a hobby of mine for decades. I don't use cartidges; every fountain pen I use has a converter and if I spend any amount of time somewhere you'll be able to find a bottle of black ink somewhere close by. However, I tend not to go for the more expensive pens as my writing instruments get a fair amount of abuse and they have to survive a day spent in my coat pocket or rattling around in my briefcase. My most recent purchase was under £30: a Faber-Castell Basic fountain pen with a lovely leather barrel, and I've been delighted with it. For a change, I bought this one with a broad nib and it writes beautifully as soon as you take the cap off.
If you're a biro user, why not splash out and try a proper pen for a change? Be warned, though - a pen habit can become very addictive...
The weather has finally changed. Outside, it's warm in the sunshine and as I type this I have the patio door open. From my chair I can see a collared dove sunbathing on top of the bird table, with its wings outstretched. Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon outside doing some gardening, mowing the lawn, and washing the car. I heard a familiar call as I pulled up the weeds; when I looked up there were three buzzards wheeling in circles in a thermal rising above the village. Later on, a flock of seagulls flew over, squawking as it their lives depended on it. The birds all know that spring has arrived, and the local pair of woodpigeons were literally billing and cooing on the fence on Friday afternoon. I can see three blackbirds on the back lawn right now, hoovering up the mealworms I put out for them (a food that is proving so popular that I'm now buying it by the ten litre bucket) and they look healthy and well-fed.
As I stood in the dining room admiring my handiwork yesterday afternoon, I saw a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. Had something small just run from the back step, across the path and into the flowerbed? The thing to do when something like this happens is not to react, but stand quietly and wait. The chances are that if there was something there, you'll see it again. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, there was movement in the rockery under the bird feeder and there, scavenging for seeds that the birds had dropped, was a tiny little wood mouse. I watched it for about ten minutes before it disappeared under the fence behind next door's shed.
I had a lovely day yesterday, but last night I paid the price; every time I moved I added another twinge to my expanding collection of aches and pains. With losing weight I haven't got as much to sit on as I used to; an hour sat on bare concrete as I tidied up the borders (and pulled the gunk out of the water stop tap in the front garden so I could put its cover back on) has left my hips aching. My shoulders are particularly painful at the moment, too. As a result of this I think it was after four in the morning before I eventually dozed off . Luckily I have a long weekend: I'm taking Monday off as my new computer is being delivered (hooray!) so I can recover a bit before I head back to work.
Last night's episode of Doctor Who may well turn out to be my favourite episode of the series so far. It had a disconnected, dreamlike quality that seemed almost Lynchian at times. In the midst of a nocturnal thunderstorm (of course) The Doctor and Clara turn up at a vast mansion where Major Palmer (Dougray Scott) and his assistant Emma (Jessica Raine) are investigating the appearances of a spectral figure. It's November 25th 1974, (it was a Monday, the day Nick Drake died of a drugs overdose) and tweed jackets, waist coats, and brown tank tops are very much the order of the day.
Hello! I'm the Doctor!
If you like. And this is Clara.
Once the Doctor arrives, he delivers an enormous chunk of the most blatant piece of exposition I've seen in many years, but Matt Smith carries it off brilliantly and it doesn't feel at all forced or incongruous. It's just the Doctor being enthusiastic. He's delighted to be looking for a ghost. When he hears the first crash resounding through the house, the look of pure joy on his face is lovely.
And after the exposition's been dealt with, the dialogue this week is a delight. From Clara's "Doctor? Shh." and "I dispute that assertion!" to the Doctor enthusing about the word "Toggle" and the line "I'm giving you that face!" there's line after line of memorable dialogue.
Say we actually find her. What do we say?
We ask her how she came to be. Where she is.
Because I don't know. And ignorance is - um, what's the opposite of bliss?
Yes. Yes! Carlisle. Ignorance is Carlisle!
I just have to quote the little exchange between Emma and Clara:
Ugh. I'd rather have a cup of tea.
Me too. Whisky is the eleventh most disgusting thing ever invented.
The only very slight niggle I had was that Matt Smith's pronunciation of Metebelis Three (meh-TEBB-eh-liss) is markedly different from that of the third doctor, Jon Pertwee (meh-tah-BEE-lis). That blue crystal was a nod to the Pertwee stories The Green Death and Planet of the Spiders. But let's not be picky - the episode was spooky, genuinely unsettling and absolutely classic Doctor Who. More of this kind of thing, please!
I spent a very enjoyable evening yesterday at the Academy in Bristol, watching the Michael Schenker Group giving it a serious amount of welly in the hard rock department. Herr Schenker was joined on stage by two of his colleagues from the Scorpions, Francis Buchholz (on bass) and Herman "the German" Rarebell (on drums), together with Doogie White on vocals and Wayne Findlay on guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals. They took us to on a wander through Schenker's work as a solo artist as well as his work with the Scorpions and UFO but also treated us to some new material as well. I was glad to see that Schenker's still playing his iconic Gibson Flying V, and the Mad Axeman is still as proficient as ever. At one point he was playing a blistering solo with his left hand and taking photographs of the audience with a camera in his right.
Doogie had a fine line in crowd banter, too: "Ladies and gentlemen, these barriers at the front are here for your protection; we've got three live Scorpions here on stage." Great stuff, and the crowd responded accordingly, bringing them back for encore after encore, finishing off with - of course - Doctor Doctor.
As I picked my way home from work tonight I couldn't help thinking about what a mess the roads around here are in. The persistent low temperatures and unremitting damp, to say nothing of all the the ice and snow that we've had, have taken their toll on the concrete and tarmac. The M5 is in a right state, although in the last few weeks some of the worst potholes (where the road joins the M4) have been patched; there are quite a few chunks of the Wotton Road missing, especially through Rangeworthy, and even in the business park where I work the road surface is breaking up and the road there is a modern one - the park is less than 20 years old. By far the worst is the B4059 through Latteridge. It was never built to handle the amount of HGV traffic it currently takes and it's on the verge of completely disintegrating in places.
Thank goodness that the weather has changed over the last few days. It's been lovely and warm with the temperature outside in the mid teens, so the extra blanket on the bed has been washed and returned to the airing cupboard. On the drive home on Monday afternoon I saw the first swallow of the year, and today I saw some house martins. In the garden, the buds on the magnolia are finally beginning to open. I just hope we don't get another wave of frosts to kill everything off, which is what happened last year. The down side of this, I suppose, is that I will be doing my first big spot of gardening at the weekend. It will involve lots of weeding, by the looks of things.
Alexei Sharov at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore and Richard Gordon at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida decided that, as the complexity of life increases in the same exponential fashion as the number of transistors contained in a microprocessor or the number of scientific papers published every year, it should be possible to extrapolate the trend back and figure out when microprocessors were first built (the early 1960s, which is spot on), when the first science papers were published (the beginning of the 18th century, which is also very close) and life first sprang into, er, life. It's easy to do, because if you use a logarithmic scale for the y axis of your plot, in each case you'll get a graph with your data plots on a straight line.
Things didn't exactly turn out as expected, though. The result that their survey gives them indicates that if life has evolved so that its complexity always increased at a constant rate (in other words, if they draw their straight line back to where it meets the x axis), it must have originated around 9.7 billion years ago, give or take a couple of billion years.
If their findings are correct, that's a bit of a problem. At 4.5 billion years old the Earth just hasn't been around long enough to fit inside even the most extreme extent of their error bars. Sharov and Gordon suggest that this is because life came into being somewhere else before the Earth was formed. The most obvious candidate would be in the planetary system of the star whose supernova created the nebula from which our solar system ultimately condensed. We know bacteria can survive immensely harsh conditions but seriously, living through a supernova?
The thing is, if life really did start nine and a half billion hears ago, it would explain the Fermi Paradox (which is: if life everywhere in the Universe evolved as quickly as it has on Earth then our galaxy should be crawling with intelligent life - so where are all the aliens?) If it actually takes civilisations twice as long to develop as we thought it did, then if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, it might all be less civilised than we are. What a terrifying thought...
I'm back at work tomorrow after a week on holiday. My new music computer still hasn't turned up so I haven't been recording stuff and instead of making music over the past seven days I've at last managed to make a dent in the stack of books I have waiting to read. I started by finishing Andrew Hodges's excellent biography of Alan Turing, The Enigma. Turing's tale was ultimately a devastatingly sad one, and I was left wondering what Britain would be like today if his innovations and genius had been recognised for what they were. So many chances were missed.
When I worked in The Mansion at Bletchley Park for a few years in the 80s I had no idea of its importance (or that of Alan Turing), in the devlopment of computers. Now I'm fascinated by the place's history. The first reunions of wartime staff took place while I was there, and there used to be a photograph of one of the largest, with dozens of people standing outside on the lawn, above the desk in the Mansion's entrance hall. Visible in that photograph, in the window of room 19 upstairs, there's a chap in a shirt and tie looking out to see what was going on. That was me.
It's a sign of how out of hand my reading stack has got that this weekend I finally got round to reading a book I bought in December. At Christmas my aunt showed me a book she'd read which was written by a chap who lived in Stone in Staffordshire. The blurb on the book, about trips around northern England on a narrowboat, sounded fun, and I'd lived in Stone as a small boy; I went to St. Michael's Primary School in the town (from Google Street View I see the place is now the Frank Jordan Community Centre) and I can remember walking home to Millwalk Avenue with the chestnuts on Lichfield Road crunching under the soles of my shoes and the smell from Joule's Brewery in my nostrils. Childhood nostalgia was more than enough to convince me I should buy a copy, but it then sat, unread, in the ever-growing pile of books by my bed. Yesterday I decided that this would not Do, and that Something must be done, so I did it.
Once I'd started, I read the whole of Narrow Dog to Wigan Pier in one go because I didn't want to stop. Terry Darlington's writing is warm and funny; he has a fine and idiosyncratic turn of phrase and his story of travelling on a narrowboat with his wife Monica and their two whippets, Jim and Jess is a classic of eccentric English travel writing. It reminded me several times of Mark Wallington's lovely book 500 Mile Walkies, not least because the dogs play as much a role in the book as their owners. When I'd finished the book - the third in a series, I discovered - I immediately went online and ordered the companion tales, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne and Narrow Dog to Indian River. I am sure I'll enjoy them every bit as much as I enjoyed book number three.
After last week's disappointing affair, last night's episode of Doctor Who was rather fine, I thought. The mere fact that it featured an appearance by the great David Warner was enough to put it into television's first division for me (while I never got to see him on the stage, I've been an admirer of his work for decades and anyone who's done as much work in the universe of Star Trek as he has will command my instant respect). Mr Warner's entrance, complete with a nod to Ultravox, made me laugh out loud, as did a line he delivered to Clara later on.
Mark Gatiss's story was a huge improvement on last week's confused mess. The plot was much more focused and driven than of late; think Alien meets The Hunt for Red October with more than a nod to The Abyss thrown in for good measure. Half an hour into the show I was wondering how they could possibly wrap everything up in ten minutes, but the resolution was achieved in a satisfying manner without too much hand-wavy nonsense. The dynamic between the Doctor and Clara is still being established, and took one or two unexpected turns last night. At the end it appeared to be Clara, rather than the Doctor who saves the world - and by singing "Hungry Like The Wolf" at that. Once again I got the impression that something very odd is afoot with the Doctor's reality. Even for a show like this, there are too many weird things going on and I wonder whether he may not, in fact, be where he thinks he is...
One thing that didn't really work for me was the Ice Warrior himself. While the old-style suit looked properly amazing, the CGI was woefully unconvincing and those dreadful puppet hands should have been left (or even laughed) off camera. And why, once again, does every militaristic alien on the show have to be shown walking about by stamping its feet like some petulant toddler? At least the incidental music had been reined in a little this week, although the show still makes far too much use of musical cues to tell you that this is a SCARY BIT! and HOORAH FOR THE DOCTOR! as if you couldn't figure the simplest of plot points out for yourself. The trailer for next week's show looks interesting, although I suspect we'll be back in Scooby Doo territory with something that looks like a ghost, but which will turn out to be something else entirely. Still, not long to wait until the episode written by Neil Gaiman, now.
I put cinnamon on my coffee this morning, and it's one of my favourite smells. One of my strongest memories of living in Florida in the 90s was the pervasive smell of cinnamon in the shopping malls; not just from the ever-present Cinnabon franchises but also from the cookie stores and the coffee shops. It's an aroma of self-indulgence and comfort, the olfactory equivalent of a log fire or a cosy duvet. I've always imagined that when the Guild say "the Spice must flow" in Frank Herbert's Dune, the spice that they're talking about would smell and taste of cinnamon. It's an ur-spice; the ancient Egyptians were importing it in 2000 BC from the east and Sri Lanka still produces nearly 90% of the world's true cinnamon. Because it came from so far away, it was an expensive substance back then; the Roman writer Pliny the Elder records that a pound of the stuff cost the equivalent of 10 months' wages. The emperor Nero - who knew a thing or two about conspicuous consumption - burned enough of it to supply Rome for a whole year on the funeral pyre of his wife Poppeia.
Underneath the cinnamon there's also a rich, buttery note of fried garlic from the chicken and mushrooms I chucked in the wok for last night's supper. I love garlic almost as much as I do cinnamon, but it's a very different ingredient for cooking. In particular, while I can imagine putting too much cinnamon in a recipe, it's almost impossible to use too much garlic; the taste just gets better and better. I've made curries before now using a whole bulb of garlic, and the flavour I got as a result was fabulous. Garlic's a member of the allium genus, but while onions, chives, shallots and leeks add a bit of texture and taste to most dishes, garlic does something almost magical. It's getting to that time of year when the smell of ramsons, or wild garlic will pervade the woods in this part of the world. I've never cooked with the stuff and every year I find myself wondering what it would taste like - the wikipedia page just says that the bulbs are "very tasty" which is encouraging but not exactly helpful. I see that Nigel Slater is a fan ("perfect for lamb"), though. Human consumption of ramsons goes back even further than cinnamon, with an impression of a leaf found in a Danish settlement dating from 3500 BC.
I've just realised that I'm writing about food again; you can tell it's a fast day, can't you?
It is Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream. No, I'm not continuing the food theme; this is Matthew Inman waxing lyrical about the mantis shrimp over at the Oatmeal. One mind-boggling fact about the tiny, psychedelically coloured predator: if we could move our arms at just one tenth of the speed that the mantis shrimp moves its appendages, we'd be able to throw a baseball into orbit.
Just think about that for a second.
My new machine hasn't turned up yet, but I have pulled the old Dell to bits and I'll be chucking the old hard drives into the new machine when it arrives. In the meantime I've been using the laptop as I work my way through the Suite 9 manual and teach myself how to get the most out of the software. Yesterday I was playing with input chaining: using the output of one track as the input for another. By applying different delays to the two tracks I was getting some interesting polyrhythms. I also came up with a number of cool sounds, but all of the things I've saved are just fragments so far - the next step will be to weave them into a piece of music.
I'm relaxing at home today after a lovely weekend up in Solihull with Rebecca, Rob, Ruth and Will (and more about why I was there in a moment). This week I'm on holiday. I've got a glass of red wine, the gas fire is on, and I've already done the week's shopping. I have no plans made for the rest of the week; I'm just going to stay in, read books, listen to the radio, drink coffee, watch movies, and make music. That's my sort of holiday.
I've put the fire on to take the chill off the living room, but outside the temperature has finally reached double figures. The weekend was lovely and sunny, and I'm hoping the cold weather is on its way out at last. The buds on the magnolia are showing signs of opening, so I hope we don't get any more severe frosts. It's about time everything turned green again after a long, grey winter.
I was in Solihull because on Friday I was photographing a wedding. Ruth and Rob's friend Lauren got married to her boyfriend Dale in St. Mary's Guildhall in Coventry, and I was there to help record the occasion. The venue was spectacular and that's not hyperbole, that's a simple statement of fact. The wedding ceremony took place in the crypt underneath the building, which meant I was shooting with very slow shutter speeds, but my goodness, what amazing results I got...
Then it was outside for confetti...
We popped round the corner for formal photos outside the front of Coventry Cathedral...
And then back to the spectacular main hall of St Mary's for the wedding banquet...
...followed by an evening of dancing and karaoke!
I'd taken over a thousand photos, and prompted by Rebecca's brother I worked out that the end results amounted to just under fifteen and a half billion pixels. By the end of the night I was shooting half-second exposures, but the results worked. All the same, I was very relieved when after delivering the photos on a memory card, the bride's father sent me a message saying "you captured the day I remember." Phew!
That was a very memorable weekend, and I had an absolute blast.
I am a complete coffee obsessive. This morning I ground a fresh batch of coffee for my home machine, and everything came out right; there are few things in life I find more satisfying than making a perfect latté. As I make my morning shot I sometimes wonder whether I should have chosen a career as a barista, I get such a kick out of the process. It would be very easy to drink pints of the stuff every day, but I'm limiting myself to one or two cups.
So it'll come as no surprise to hear that I couldn't resist - I've backed the Nomad Espresso Maker on Kickstarter. Uniterra have comfortably made their pledge goal, so I should get my hand-pumped coffee maker in August. The Aeropress I have in the office is filling in my coffee deficiency while the company's machines are being replaced, but I much prefer espresso coffee to drip or cafetiere coffee, and the Nomad will give me access to the good stuff in a tiny, portable package. From the videos on the Kickstarter page it looks like the Nomad produces a lovely crema (the creamy brown foam that sits on the of an espresso) and I can't wait to try it out. Needless to say there will be a full report on the blog as soon as it arrives.
I think I'll be leaving the TV switched off tonight. As soon as the news was announced, Twitter pretty much spontaneously combusted.
It's a bank holiday Monday and I've just cleaned up the kitchen after yesterday's mammoth cookery session (see below). I'm afraid I don't feel like doing anything more intellectually challenging than that today - I was up until 3 am last night with a tickly cough that just would not let me sleep, so today is going to be spent quetly, listening to music and generally relaxing.
Last night I made another recipe from the curry subscription to The Spicery that Ruth bought me. The pack I was using was for a chicken madras curry, with sides of saag aloo, pilau rice, and a lemon mint raita. The first thing I did after laying out the ingredients was, naturally, to take a photograph of them...
I had spinach, a lemon, onions (chopped for the curry, but sliced for the saag aloo), tomatoes (tinned for the curry, fresh for the saag aloo), some waxy potatoes (I'd bought some charlotte potatoes, which are a favourite of mine), basmati rice and, out of shot, some diced chicken and a pot of natural yoghurt. And, as you can see, I had another spectacular array of spices, all measured out and ready to use.
This cookery session was a bit more ambitious than usual, as I was cooking several dishes simultaneously, but I'll cover them separately here as things will get too confusing if I skip back and forth. Let's cover the chicken madras first. The first spice packet I opened was the whole spices (Kashmir chillies and curry leaves) which were fried in oil with a knob of butter thrown in for good measure.
After a couple of minutes the chillies had softened and gone a darker colour, so in went the chopped onions. These had to fry until they start to caramelise, which takes a fair amount of time (it's amazing how many recipes tell you it'll only take five minutes or so - it takes much longer than that). After they'd started to brown, I added half the chopped garlic.
While this was going on I'd pureed the chopped tomatoes with my hand blender with salt, sugar, the ground spices pack (lots of toasted spices including chilli, coriander, cumin and mustard), the juice of half the lemon and 200 ml of water. When the garlic had been frying for a couple of minutes I added the chicken...
You don't wait for the meat to brown or seal, you just stir it in to the onions and then pour in the pureed tomato mixture.
Then it's just a case of leaving it to simmer for half an hour until the sauce has reduced down and the chicken is nice and tender. The final touch, just before serving, is to stir in the packet of blended garam masala spices.
Meanwhile, I'd also been making the saag aloo. This starts off by frying some mustard seeds with cumin, fennel and asafoetida in oil with more butter until the seeds start to pop, like popcorn.
Then, in goes the sliced onion. Once again, you have to wait for the onions to begin to caramelise...
I'd never really considered how the way you chop onions affects the resulting texture of the food you're cooking, but after cooking the curry and this dish side by side I really got it. The saag aloo is full of silky strings of spinach, and the strings of onion fit in with that perfectly. When the onion had browned, in went the rest of the garlic, and 200 g of spinach. That started off as a panful...
...but after a couple of minutes, the leaves had wilted down to the bottom of the pan.
That meant it was time to add another packet of spices, together with a teaspoon of salt, the fresh tomatoes and the potatoes. Yes, I know, I forgot to chop the potatoes up - I had to do it in the pan.
I left the resulting mixture to cook with the lid on the pan for ten minutes. When I took the lid off, it was beginning to look the business.
I cooked the saag aloo for a further ten minutes with the lid off (so the kitchen was filled with a fantastic smell) to reduce the mixture down still further. By this time the spinach was dark and silky and the potatoes were just beginning to soften. Perfect!
The rice was a big surprise. I fried the spice kit in butter for a couple of minutes (anything that involves a whole stick of cinnamon is okay as far as I'm concerned)...
...then stirred in the dry rice until it was coated in the mixture. It was already beginning to pick up that distinctive yellow colour.
Then you add the water, stick the lid on the pan, and leave for 20 minutes. When I took the lid off again, the water had been absorbed, and the spices were lying on the top of a pan full of absolutely perfect, fluffy pilau rice. It was mouthwateringly good - it puts the microwavable stuff to shame.
The final task was to add a pich of salt and a pinch of sugar to 200 grams of yoghurt, stir in the juice of the other half of the lemon, and add the raita spice sachet.
And that was it. All that remained was to put everything together on a plate, and see how it tasted...
Now I've been a curry fanatic for decades, ever since I lived in West Wickham and Anita and I used to go to Diwana's in the High Street. I've cooked my own curries for nearly as long, and I've tried all sorts of spices and pastes and sauces to get that authentic taste, and I like to think I make a pretty good curry. But this was in a different league. It's easily the best Indian meal I have ever cooked and it was tasty, rich, profoundly satisfying food. The mixture of different dishes worked incredibly well together and the raita toned down the spiciness of the chicken dish. I'd got an endorphin high off the thing by the time I'd cleaned my plate, and even after I'd eaten my fill I had lots left over to go in the freezer. Thanks once again to Ruth for giving me such an enjoyable present!