Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A look back at 2014

Today is the last day of 2014, while tomorrow will be a 2015.  Nothing will change, of course, as we cross that imaginary line in the sand, as the calendar is simply an arbitrary construct, as are all ways of organising time.  Nevertheless, it customary at this time of year to look back over the past twelve months and reflect on the good times, and what one has achieved, with an air of smug self-satisfaction, and I would hate to be the only person on the internet not joining in with this self-congratulatory tradition.

  • I left the radiators on all year 'round, because I wanted to see what it would be like to live in the Seychelles (where they worship radiators as demigods).
  • I briefly spoke on the phone with the Pope but we got cut off when he lost signal.
  • I won three rounds of 'Uno' in a row.
  • I invented a new way of peeling vegetables which extracts the inner part of the vegetable through a tube rather than scraping off the outer layers in the old and inefficient method.
  • My friends all chipped in to buy me shares in the World's Largest Cucumber.
  • I rowed from Britain to Ireland across the Irish Sea in a boat made entirely from elastic bands.
  • I ate over 19,000 chips.
Another successful year!  Thanks for being a part of it – and here's to 2015.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Breakfast radio

Sitting in a van at six o'clock this morning, having traveled all night from a gig in Plymouth back to the East Midlands, I became more and more irritated by the banality and forced joviality of the presenter we were listening to on BBC Radio 1.

As this constant stream of inane babble, interspersed with regular pleas for listeners around the country to text the radio station and stick their oar in too (who actually does that, thinking 'yes, my life and what I'm doing right now are so interesting that all the other people listening to national radio will want to hear all about it'?!), seeped into my brain, I hosted my own little breakfast radio show on Twitter…

Thursday, 25 December 2014

#KITmasDinner 2014

If you didn't know, I planned and cooked all of our family Christmas Dinner this year.  It was pretty hard work – but also lots of fun!  I wanted to let you know what menu I chose, and what recipes I used here.

Roast topside of beef

1.85kg – oven roast at 200ºc for roughly an hour for a medium-rare joint of beef.  I was really pleased with how this ended up, it was perfect.

Chestnut Bourguignon pie

I simply followed this BBC Food recipe by The Vegetarian Society for a fun and interesting vegetarian alternative to the beef joint which still works with the same vegetable dishes and trimmings.

My pastry wasn't the best.  That is to say, the pastry itself was fine, but it wasn't quite the right shape for my pie dish (you can see a few gaps around the edges in the photograph) and I didn't have the confidence (not being hugely experienced with pastry) to adjust the shape properly.

Roasted chips in goose fat

This roast potatoes/chips hybrid potato dish of my own invention was really the only part of the meal with which I was disappointed.  Something went wrong during the cooking, and they didn't really crisp up fully all the way through.  They were quite enjoyable nonetheless, but didn't turn out as I had hoped.  The idea was to roast the chunky potato chips in goose fat at 200ºc for around an hour – I think, another time, I will use slightly less goose fat, and try par-boiling the chips for about five minutes first.

Creamy parsnip & horseradish gratin with Red Storm Lancashire cheese

This is a recipe I adapted from the 'Potato Bake' recipe in Rose Elliot's New Complete Vegetarian Cookbook – I used parsnips instead of potatoes, and layered horseradish sauce between the layers of parsnips in the gratin instead of using milk, so as to tie the dish in with the beef joint I was doing.  The Red Storm Lancashire cheese is a strong, creamy cheese which I bought in a local delicatessen.  I was really pleased with the way this dish turned out; it was cooked just right, and the balance of flavours between the parsnips and the horseradish was perfect (I had been a little worried that the horseradish would be too strong and overpowering) – but if I were to do this again, I'd use slightly more cheese, as there wasn't quite enough to cover the top of the dish fully, in the end.

Sautéed Brussels sprouts with black peppercorns

Fairly self-explanatory – sprouts peeled and cut in half, sautéed in olive oil in a frying pan with a handful of peppercorns for about twenty minutes.

Sweet & smokey 'pigs in blankets' (pork sausages with Bramley apple wrapped in streaky bacon) in Jack Daniels BBQ glaze with thyme

Pork sausages with Bramley apple chunks tightly wrapped in streaky bacon rashers and drizzled with Jack Daniels 'Sweet & Smokey' BBQ glaze and sprinkled with thyme, then baked in the oven at 200ºc for half-an-hour.

Roasted carrots

Roasted in goose fat at 200ºc for forty minutes.

Red wine gravy

After taking the beef joint out of the oven half-an-hour before serving, so it can 'rest' a bit (being roasted is exhausting work, after all!), I removed it to a separate dish and used the same roasting tin to make the gravy in order to catch and use all the meat juices and flavour.  I put the roasting tin over a gas hob and added half a bottle of red wine, some hot water and some (whisper it) Bisto gravy granules.  Easy!

Spiced ginger, Speculoos and dark chocolate cake

This recipe by Joy The Baker came to me via Twitter, and was recommended by a friend.  It sounded so delicious, and so festive, I thought I had to give it a go!  I always prefer cooking savoury food – baking cakes and other desserts always strikes me as something of a 'dark art' by comparison – but this recipe was actually pretty easy to follow (once you got over the American measurement sozes all being in 'cups', as if you're shopping for a bra instead of making a cake).  The 'Speculoos' topping is a wonderful caramelised biscuit spread from Belgium – I had to order this from Amazon in order to get hold of it, as I couldn't find any regular shops in the UK which stocked it!

Rory's famous Christmas Pudding

This is the only part of the meal which I didn't do, so I have no idea how to make this!  The picture came out well, though – and it was dark, fruity, boozy, and very tasty (all the things one looks for in a traditional Christmas pudding).

Everyone enjoyed the meal very much, and I had a great time cooking for everybody.  There are things I would change if I were to do it again, but overall I was pretty pleased with how it all turned out.  Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

'Anonymous'? Who even are you?

The hacking group Anonymous have given Australian music artist Iggy Azalea forty-eight hours (less, now, as this story broke yesterday) to apologise to American music artist Azealia Banks for alleged racist comments.  If it sounds like I'm making this up, I'm not – read this piece in The Telegraph for more.  It's real, and frankly, it's very disturbing.

What's disturbing is not the details of the Azalea/Banks feud, which I gather has been rumbling on for some time now, but the face that Anonymous have seen fit to get involved.

Anonymous are 'a hacking group'.  As I joke in title, we don't even know who they are – and that is a problem, when it comes to an issue like this.  Allegations of racism are serious, but they are a matter for the police – for real law enforcement agencies who have at least some level of accountability and transparency.  It is not for 'Anonymous' to take matters into their own hands and appoint themselves as some sort of 'world police' of the internet, especially not when it comes to matters so sensitive as this.

Drawing the line between protecting freedom of speech and being aware of racial sensibilities is a tough balancing act indeed – and an interesting discussion to have in its own right (one which I shan't be having here).  The way Anonymous are acting is tantamount to 'mob rule'; there is no due process here, and no accountability – there is a knee-jerk reaction to alleged comments, resulting in demands, and threats if those demands are not met.  That is not justice.  That is extortion – extortion carried out by a group against whom there can be no appeal, should you feel they may have acted unfairly.  This is the opposite of the way justice should work in any civilised society.

I'm not aware of the details of what Iggy Azalea said – or is supposed to have said – but I do know that the idea of the parameters of acceptability, and the punishments for perceived infringements, being decided by a shadowy, unaccountable group of people who are good at using computers is one which I find deeply unsettling.  Whatever the ins-and-outs of this particular incident, we should all be very wary of allowing ourselves to descend into a situation where 'Anonymous' can sit in judgement of us and mete out punishment with no recourse.

Monday, 22 December 2014

#Zzubwords – Taxpayer funded

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’. 

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog. 

Taxpayer funded

Used mainly by the press, anything can be described as 'taxpayer funded' to make it seem venal and self-serving.  A story in a newspaper about the Prime Minister going to negotiate with the European Union in Brussels won't excite much of a reaction; a taxpayer funded trip to Brussels, on the other hand, sounds like the greedy bastard is just going off on a jolly and letting someone else (you and me!) foot the bill.

"The Chancellor Of The Exchequer eats some cheese on toast."  Well, fine.  The guy's got to eat!

"The Chancellor Of The Exchequer gorges himself on an enormous plate of taxpayer funded cheese on toast."  How dare he?!

See what I mean…?

Unless we privatise Parliament (can you imagine the rumpus that proposal would cause?!), of course politicians' pay, diplomatic trips aboard, etc. will be paid for with public money.  Using the phrase 'taxpayer funded' to smear politicians as greedy even when they're not being greedy and just doing their jobs is hardly in the public interest, and only serves to drive a wedge further between politicians and the public.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Sandwich review: Roast chicken salad with black pepper mayonnaise and juicy tomatoes by deli2go

The official description for this sandwich is:
Roast chicken breast, curly lettuce, free range black pepper mayonnaise and tomato on malted wheatgrain bread
Although this sandwich was perfectly serviceable, I felt a little let down by its lack of flavour.  The 'black pepper mayonnaise' was intriguing, and a large part of what drew me to this sandwich in the first place – in the end, though, the black pepper never really made itself known, and I would've been hard pressed to tell the difference between this and ordinary mayonnaise.

Unfortunately, this rather set the tone for the rest of the sandwich experience – whilst perfectly edible, this sandwich and all its ingredients fell a good way short of 'spectacular', landing instead in 'disappointingly tame'.  I would not buy this sandwich again.

Sandwich review: Two cheese and red onion chutney on malted wheatgrain bread by URBANeat

The official description for this sandwich is:
Cheddar and Red Leicester cheese with mayonnaise, caramelised red onion confit, spinach, red onion and chives on malted wheatgrain bread
This sandwich came highly recommended by my friends and colleagues in The Ultra '90s, so I was intrigued to sample it, and put some thoughts down on this Blog.  Thankfully, it did not disappoint!

I confess I had been slightly nervous about trying this sandwich, and about the possibility of having to tell those who spoke so highly of it that I hadn't actually been that impressed.  Luckily, this was never an issue, as this is a very enjoyable sandwich indeed; cheese and onion is a classic flavour combination which it is difficult to get wrong, but in this instance URBANeat get it very right – the biggest triumph here is the red onion chutney, which is brilliantly executed with the perfect balance between sweet and tangy flavours.

My only criticism of this sandwich would be that I might have preferred a slightly more mature cheddar cheese.  I often feel that the cheeses chosen by sandwich manufacturers are a little blander than I might like – I guess sandwich companies want to appeal to as wide a range of customers as possible, and URBANeat are no exception here as they err on the side of caution with a mild, creamy cheddar.  My tastes are for stronger, more full-bodied cheeses, and I would love to try a version of this sandwich with a more mature cheddar – nevertheless, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, and this is still a very well executed, enjoyable sandwich, which I would have no qualms about buying again.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Nigel Farage vs. Russell Brand on Question Time

Last night, UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage and comedian and political activist Russell Brand both appeared on the BBC's flagship political debate programme, 'Question Time'.  There were three other people on the panel too (Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt; Labour MP Mary Creagh; and Camilla Cavendish, a journalist for The Times), but no one seemed too bother about any of them – the programme was billed as a big show-down of Brand vs. Farage, left-wing populism against right-wing populism, and promised plenty of debate and (perhaps more importantly for viewing figures) controversy.

Personally, I don't like Nigel Farage or Russell Brand.  They are both snake oil salesmen who offer easy 'answers' to complicated issues, playing to the gallery and telling people whatever they want to hear.  In both men's simplistic world view, there are clear 'bogeymen' – scapegoats, at whose feet the blame for all the problems of the United Kingdom can be laid.  For Farage, immigrants and the European Union can be blamed for all our ills, whereas Brand can't see a single issue which isn't the fault of bankers, large corporations and rich businessmen.  Quick to apportion blame, and slow to proffer any meaningful alternative solutions, both men despise the 'out-of-touch' political èlite, think the mainstream media is 'out to get them', and seem themselves as the only saviour of a Britain which is going to hell in a handcart.

At this juncture, I am going to insert a disclaimer: I watched this episode of Question Time in a van late last night, on an iPhone with a rather intermittent internet connection, whilst traveling from a gig in Caerphilly, South Wales, to a hotel in Thurrock, Essex.  I was very tired, cold and wet during this time so I may not have the most accurate memory of everything which happened during the programme.

I have been very critical of UKIP when I have written about them in the past.  I am not going to vote for them at the next General Election, and I would implore you not to either.  However, I genuinely felt that Nigel Farage came over better on Question Time last night than did Russell Brand.  At one point, I even felt a rare moment of sympathy for the UKIP leader, when, quite late in the programme, he answered a question on Grammar Schools from a member of the studio audience – Brand was then asked what his views on the topic were, and he immediately launched into personal attack on Nigel Farage, barely mentioning Grammar Schools at all, choosing instead to focus on the specifics of Farage's own education and upbringing.  What Farage's schooling had to do with the question I never could work out, but Brand seemed intent on making this a personal fight when the question had been on educational policy in general and its affect on social mobility.

This lack of genuine content, and fixation on attacking Farage personally rather than on points of policy (which was not confined just to the Grammar Schools question), made Brand look petty, aggressive and small-minded – an accusation which he (and many others) have levelled at politicians in the House Of Commons.  More importantly, however, it showed that he had come to Question Time with 'a gameplan' – to attack Farage, knowing that the UKIP leader would be an unpopular figure, and thinking he could win praise and applause from the studio audience and viewers watching at home simply by insulting Farage rather than by making any worthwhile points of his own.  This showed his complete contempt for the members of the public asking the questions, as Brand had obviously already made up his mind to take this approach no matter what issues came up during the debate – the kind of behaviour he would decry from any politician, but which he has no qualms with exhibiting himself, if he feels it suits him.

The most telling moment of the programme, however, was when Brand was challenged by a member of the audience to stand for Parliament himself – to put his money where his mouth is, and stand up for what he believes.  Brand did his usual trick of retreating to an "I'm just a comedian, mate!" position of safety, having demanded to be taken seriously politically, but I thought the audience member made a strong point.  Nigel Farage and UKIP have particular views – many of which I don't agree with – and a particular direction in which they want to take the United Kingdom.  They are giving people the chance to vote for that, or to vote against it, by standing for election next May.

Farage believes that the majority of 'ordinary people' (whatever that means) agree, broadly speaking, with much of what UKIP has to say.  If he is right, this will be reflected in their share of the vote at the next election – if (as I suspect), he is mistaken about that, this too will be shown up at the election.  But he has at least had the courage to put himself up for election, and give people the chance to reject his poisonous, simplistic and divisive ideology at the ballot box.  Russell Brand has no such courage – like Farage, he believes most people agree with him (and that if they don't, that is because they have been duped or misled, which is incredibly insulting and patronising), but he is not willing to put that to the test.

I think there are two reasons for this: he doesn't want to risk his ideology being rejected by the public, and he hasn't the stomach for any actual work if he were to be elected.  Whatever you stand for, and whatever your views, actually trying to be a real difference in politics is hard work – but standing on the sidelines shouting and jeering is easy.  Russell Brand has chosen the easy route.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

#Zzubwords – Sold off

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’. 

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog. 

Sold off

'Sold off' is a phrase which really just means 'sold' – but the addition of the 'off' always makes it seem somehow a little sordid or shameful.  People don't say that IKEA 'sell off' flatpack furniture, just that they 'sell' it – but if a government puts public sector assets up for sale, their opponents in other political parties will almost certainly decry the government's 'selling off' of this important national treasure (which, up until now, nobody had cared about).

The judgmental overtones of using the expression 'selling off' are clearly designed to imply that the sale is in some way shady – possibly even faintly corrupt! – and probably at a dreadful, rock-bottom price.  It's a way of tarring your opponents with the colourful brush of dodgy dealing and cronyism, taking the moral high ground, and painting yourself as a defender of the nation's interests against the ravaging forces of sleaze and avarice.