Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Just ate this for dinner, wrapped in a tortilla, and I had to blog it for posterity. Not sure what made it taste so nice. A dollop of quark gave it a creamier than usual texture while a splash of oyster sauce brought out the flavour of the mushrooms really nicely. If I could replicate this level of omelette every time I'd be a happy man.

What would life be like without eggs?

Paris photos - grand dejeuner?

"Breakfast is not very copious ..." - Thomas Cook Traveller's Guide to Paris

This was the breakfast buffet to beat them all. On the first day we were simply blown away by the amount of choice. Due to incomplete information, we failed to appreciate that certain pastries were sweet, and we ended up combining sweet with savoury throughout the meal. We even made the rookie error of mistakenly eating a portion of heavy muesli too early on. However, carefully selecting a table behind a large screen meant we were hidden from public view and could engage in our random eating frenzy with abandon, and it also enabled much food to find its way into to our bags for later in the day, a welcome bonus. Yes, a good quantity was consumed but there was just no method to the madness. We needed more order and more discipline if we were going to make our mark.

On the evening of the first night I put a business breakfast buffet plan together, plotting out an effective multi-stage business breakfast eating strategy, maximising food input and minimising wondering between stations. We would also replace the pile 'em high approach with multiple visits, maintaining a semblance of decorum about the whole affair. Perhaps you think I jest? But no, this is a most serious affair monsieur. Click on the image below and see the bottom right quadrant:

It is titled 'Breakfast Plan of Attack Strategy'. The plan was designed to front load the protein, which came in the form of eggs. Mid-way through, we would clean our palates with yogurt and prunes. Then we would take down the savoury breads before striking hard on the sweets. The muesli would also star in the back half of the plan, playing a role as a filler and blocker to keep us going through the day. If new items were available we would improvise.

Execution was close to the script and proved highly effective. Eating time ran to about 1.5 hours, and when I turned to get more milk for my cereal they had shut up shop, with the head of the breakfast service dealing us a cheeky, knowing grin. However, by then our work was largely done. Here's how it went down:

As far from petite dejeuner as you can get

Tray 1: Potatoes, Scrambled Egg on Toast, Tea, Milk.
Tray 2: More Potatoes, Scrambled Egg on Toast, Boiled Egg, Coffee, Orange Juice.
Tray 3: Two Croissants with Cheese, Yogurt and Prunes and Honey, Capuccino, Grape Juice.
Tray 4: Large Plate of Scrambled Egg on a bed of Potatoes, with sauce. Bowl of Muesli, Hot Chocolate, four Sweet Pastries. Oh, and another Orange Juice.

I ate it all, nothing was bagged and nothing was wasted apart from a little bit of the muesli, which would have been eaten had I found more milk! I will remember this for a long, long time.

Film: The Hangover

I really enjoyed this film. It's a laugh-a-minute, manic comedy that skips along at a frenetic pace. Star of the show: Mr Chow. You'll know him when you see him.

In Paris, I noticed the film was renamed to 'Very Bad Trip'. It sounds lame but perhaps it works in French.

4.5 / 5

Paris photo slideshow - 30 pics

Mitchell & Webb comedy

Mitchell & Webb are back with a third series of their sketch show. They can be a bit crude at times but the good easily outweighs the bad:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Murray v Wawrinka

These guys are presently engaged in a gladiatorial fight to the last.

It's the first match played on the center court at Wimbledon with the new roof up and it's one that fully deserves to be remembered - with the court enclosed from the elements, each strike of the ball reverberates with the echo of a squash shot, adding to the electric atmosphere. Indeed, despite a marathon session running in to the early hours of the night (it's 10pm) both players are still darting around the court like squash players.

Right now it's two sets a piece and I 'd like Murray to win, but even more I want to see both players push through to the end without losing their composure.

UPDATE - Murray breaks Stan toward the end of the 5th set and serves out to win the match. 10/10 for performance (for both players), atmosphere, and outcome.

Paris souvenir

It's just the wrapper from a great tasting roll I bought while wondering the Latin Quarter in Paris, but mounted in an old frame that was destined for the scrap heap, it looks just the part.

We stepped into the Banette bakery store to ask for directions but the warm, comforting smell of baking bread was too much and I couldn't walk out of the establishment empty handed.

After framing the wrapper, I was in two minds as to whether to research Banette, fearing it may turn out to be a Starbucks equivalent of the bread world. Not necessarily a bad thing but I wanted something a little more 'authentic'. I needn't have feared for Wikipedia says 'Bakers Banette are not franchises, they are committed only to respect the methods of craftsmanship established by the master bakers of the research center Banette.'

Update - Selectspecs.com

Following an earlier post about on-line spectacle deals, I decided to shell out around £17 for two pairs of prescription glasses from Selectspecs.com. At this price, I figured it's worth taking the risk and reckoned about a 25% chance of non-delivery.

So far so good. I haven't received my eye goggles yet but James from SelectSpecs kindly left a comment on my previous post saying that the company were inundated with orders following publication of the deal on the ever popular MoneySavingExpert web-site, and he has offered to chase up the order if it goes astray. So far, however, all seems to be progressing well. They have kept my up to date with every stage of my order via e-mail and I should receive the glasses in about a week or so. I'll post a final update when they arrive.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Recipe: Michael Jackson's 'Shamone' banana & blueberry muffins

These super low-calorie banana & blueberry muffins are a retrospective tribute to Michael Jackson. Will I be making them again? Shamone yes!

Using fairy cake paper cases and regular cup-cake baking trays, I managed to get a full double portion of 24 muffins out of the recipe. Each serving is supposed to have 200 calories, but twice as many muffins halves this to 100 kcal per cake. I also replaced four of the five tablespoons of oil with four tablespoons of applesauce, which imparted a nice apple flavour and further reduced the calories per cookie to around 90 kcal.

If you can help it I recommend leaving these muffins out for a day (in the fridge or covered outside), as this makes them more moist and prevents the sides of the muffins from sticking to the paper cups. They keep extremely well for around a week in the fridge and make for an ideal healthy(ish), fast-food breakfast snack.

Recipe: Andy Murray's Peanut Butter Banana Cookies

The recipe is from Rara Bake's 'Peanut Butter Banana Cookies' although I imagine Andy Murray wouldn't mind a couple of these energy rich beauties between sets as he powers his way into the final week at Wimbledon.

The Andy Murray Cookie is pictured on the left - they looked and tasted much better in real-life. I recommend leaving them out for a day for the texture to settle and turn super moist. Also, these biscuits are best enjoyed with a glass of cold milk.

The only change I made to the original recipe is to use self-raising flour instead of plain flour + baking powder. The recipe is super simple and doesn't have any butter. Okay, it uses a hefty quantity of peanut butter in its stead, but I still like to think that still makes them a bit more nutritous than your average cookie. Delusional thinking, I know, but I'll happily work backwards and follow whatever line of thinking that leads me to making more of these gooey biscuits. Yes, these are om, nom, nom, nom five out of five cookies!

Michael Jackson ... a personal perspective

A few good memories:

- The first album I ever bought was Michael Jackson's 'Bad'. I still remember peeling the cling-film plastic wrapping off the cassette cover and playing it at every opportunity, even around the dinner table! These were the times when if an album didn't come with the lyrics in the sleeve, you would try to write them down using the 'play', 'pause' and 'rewind' buttons.
- After 'Bad', I discovered Jackson's back catalogue. I borrowed 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller' off a friend from school and copied them onto blank tapes (possibly my first act of piracy!). Both were great albums but 'Bad' was the album of my generation and it remained my favourite.
- The first book I remember buying is 'Moonwalk'.
- I enjoy dancing in public about as much as Stephen Fry - in other words, not a bit. However, I did get up at a good friend's wedding when MJ hit the play list.

I still have the 'Bad' tape in my car, my only non-digital music album.

One thing I was recently surprised to learn is that the dance sequence in Smooth Criminal that involves leaning at an extreme angle was not a camera trick as I presumed. It used a special shoe design with a recessed heel and was even employed in Jackson's live shows (see video below):

Scroll forward to 3:50 to see the magical 'lean'.

Thanks for the good memories.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paris photos on the way

Here's a smattering of the pics I took in Paris:

Commentary and more pics on the way.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Paris, but not the Hilton

Had great success with a couple of baking experiments last night, creating a batch of super-healthy blueberry and banana muffins (well, they are healthy for muffins!) and a tray of simple but great tasting banana and peanut butter cookies. They were good last night and even better a day later, providing much sustenance on the golf course! Recipes and photos will follow but not for a few days as I'm off to Paris (free flight, of course!).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nadal is old beyond his years

I was happy to see Andy Murray win at Queens but the final would ideally have been against Roddick. Still, it's a good motivational boost for the young Brit going into Wimbledon and now that Nadal has pulled out due to injury, Murray's odds must have shot up. Okay, if he does win, history will probably add the qualifier that Nadal was out of the equation, but lets cross that hurdle when we get to it. After all, there are the small matters of Federer, Jokovich, etc to attend to first!

Going back to Nadal, his balanced mental approach shows a maturity beyond his years. This is from Rafa's blog following his defeat at the French Open:

"The first thing I want to say is that it was only a tennis match yesteday. No big drama. It happens, and I knew it would happen one day. It had to be yesterday and well, now I just have to look at that match and see what I did wrong.

It is not a tragedy since as I say it had to happen one day. It is something I have to live with and that's it. I played really bad, very short, not agressive enough (or not at all) with out any calm and on top of that he played well... I simply did not play my tennis. Clearly it was not the best day of my life and I am not happy, but there is nothing I can do. It is hard to lose at a Grand Slam tournament, I know, but I must have confidence to keep working and fighting again.

One thing is also clear now to the public and that I have always said it: Every match is important, every round is difficult and anything can happen."
The Times have a nice article on Nadal here.

Men's tennis has become increasingly physical over the years, with Nadal driving the charge. The Spaniard must be well aware that his speed and stamina will decline over time and the question is whether he can reinvent himself and become a master of technique. It's open for debate but bear in mind that Nadal is only in his early twenties so there is time.

Quick thought: placebo effect

When a drug or treatment is proven to be no better than a placebo, its efficacy tends to be dismissed.

That's how I used to approach this result, but tonight I came up with a different response. It is to then ask the question 'How effective is the placebo?'. After all, surely it is the end result is that matters most.

Friday, June 19, 2009

30 days down, 45 days across

My weight trajectory since starting the 30 Days Down project:

During the 30 Days Down project I averaged a paltry 650 calories per day. Since the project ended I've been trying to average close to around 1800-1900 calories (net), which I estimate to be close to my break-even rate (i.e. calories required for a normal, relatively sedentary day, before any exercise). I've only been officially recording my calorie intake over the past twelve days but I'm in-line at 1872 kcal, albeit with some volatility. However, I'm on a final burst to get down to 8.5 stone and am currently targeting around 1,300 daily.

The below chart plots my weight at different times of the day, with a history of 37 days. The lower line is my morning weight (post morning bathroom visit), the upper line my weight from the night before (just before I go to sleep):

The aim of the chart is to form an idea of how a person's weight can change through the day. The average night-morning differential is pretty high at 0.84kg. It certainly highlights the importance of weighing yourself at a fixed time each day.

Film Review - Red Cliff

The most expensive Chinese film ever it may be, but the Western edit of Red Cliff is woefully inadequate. In the East, Red Cliff was released in two parts. Over here it has been crammed into a single 2.5 hour epic which is 80% battle scenes and 20% story. The battle scenes are epic, but in true John Woo style there is absolutely no effort at realism. Why Woo was chosen to direct this film is mystery - was Mission Impossible II not released in the East?

The film is partially saved by the realistic strategic decision making by the key characters - sometimes it is not heroic to fight to the death - but that is all. It's sad to say it but it looks like John Woo has turned into a one trick pony, and now the trick is old.

** 1/2

Back on the wagon

The weight-loss wagon, that is. I'm aiming for 8.5 stone. There is no logic other than the target being a nice round number, and achieving it would mean a peak-to-trough loss of exactly 3 stone. This may not be extreme but it's a handy pre-emptive strike against the dreaded 'middle age spread'. It also gives me a nice eating buffer to play with, which I will find most handy!

Because I don't have much further to go, I'm not restricting my calorie intake by that much. Going to the gym every now and then and eating a little porridge at night as an appetite blocker should do the trick.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Recipe: Hercule Poirot's humble lunch

Did the little Frenchman enjoy Boursin cheese? Poirot would protest that he isn't French, but then why were the ITV shows sponsored by Boursin for many months? Whatever the man's origins, this lunch is in his honor. I put it together in about fifteen minutes and ate some of the finest scrambled eggs in my short history. This food is good for the grey cells.

Du Pain, Du Ouef, Du Boursin

Contents of a most contenting lunch:

- Small piece of cold grilled aubergine (left-overs).
- Plum tomato, halved and grilled on cut side only. Seasoned with salt + pepper.
- Mushrooms, sauteed with salt + pepper. Crumbled Boursin added and mixed in toward the end.
- Grilled vegetarian sausage.
- Half slice of chunky wholegrain toast topped with Poirots scrambled eggs (scramble an egg in a little butter, add fresh chives, some chopped green onion shoots, and some salt + pepper. Mix in crumbled boursin cheese in the last 30 seconds of cooking).

Total calorie approximation: 350 (+ half slice cherry cake brings an indulgent lunch to 430 kcal).
"I am learning, Hastings. It is more English, yes, the humbleness? So, I am learning. I shall be the most humble person in the world. No one will match Hercule Poirot for his humbility." - Hercule Poirot

Recipe: A Businessman's Secret to Success (porridge and peanut butter)

If lunch is for wimps, you're going to need a filling breakfast.

Here's what I had this morning:

- Oats porridge cooked in water (I heated mine in the microwave and used regular oats, not instant), with half a teaspoon of peanut butter stirred in and cold milk poured around the edges. To close the deal, I sprinkled a little sugar on top.

By reducing the quantity of oats to just 20g the total calorie count is around 125 kcal, and that includes the half teaspoon of peanut butter.

Oats is filling enough on it's own. With the addition of a bullet of peanut butter, it should keep you going for many hours. It's certainly working very well so far: it's been almost two hours since I finished the bowl and it feels like I've only just eaten my breakfast. Yes, if you want the competitive advantage over your co-workers, use this breakfast to stay strong while people around you get hungry and lose their composure.

Recipe: Gordon Brown's Porridge

Our Prime Minister must be spinning in a world of hurt these days. He may have reformed the cabinet but the expenses scandal just isn't going away. To make matters worse, it looks like the Bank of England is now locking horns with the Treasury. Oh yes, and the economy continues to crumble all about the place.

In these troubled times I imagine Gordon Brown goes back to basics, turning to to traditional, wholesome fare such as an unfussy bowl breakfast of porridge oats. I made this last night and it was surprisingly tasty:

- Bowl of porridge oats cooked in water.*
- Pour cold milk around the edge to create a moat of cold milk.
- Light sprinkle of sugar.

Enjoy. I finally understand why the traditionalists often enjoy water cooked-oats accompanied with a jug of cold milk. It works a treat. It's also low in calories (about 125 kcal) and it's so filling that it put the kaybosh on any late night snacking.

* I used the microwave - just stop and start it a few times to stop the oats from boiling over. You can use instant or microwave oats but they aren't are filling because they've been crushed quite a bit, which translates to a a higher GI.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Vietnamese coffee has run out, a year later

I stocked up on Vietnamese coffee last July and today I am down to my last cup. After a few months the aroma from the coffee dissipated and it lost a good portion of its flavour, but a year later it still beats instant by a mile.

Extreme money saving on flights

Last week my car got a a free MOT and valet, and I managed to book three return flights to Milan for £130, all in. I was quite chuffed with this but I have just topped it by booking two return flights to Paris with British Airways for £0.00. Talk about extreme money saving.

Breakfast cake

Convinced by my earlier defence of breakfast puddings, I had a nice slice of cherry cake with my cup of tea this morning.

I won't pretend it's a healthy start to the day, but at least from a calorie perspective this slice of cake packs no more of a punch that a standard bowl of cereal.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fresh Cherry Cake disaster averted

Earlier disaster averted. It would have been better with the full butter portion (or equivalent), but this Fresh Cherry Cake recipe is thankfully a forgiving one and the lack of butter was partly made up for by the moistness of the cherries. The cake is simple and tasty and even with the half butter portion it doesn't taste like anything is missing. It has been good to me and it goes in the book.

Oh, you see the little one in the background? It has already been demolished.

Oh no, a ruinous cherry cake

There may be trouble ahead. I have just put a couple of cherry cakes in the oven but they may come out half-baked, so to speak. The problem is as follows: A common trick that calorie watchers employ is to replace half the oil/butter in a recipe for applesauce, which I thought I'd try. I'd bought the applesauce and was ready for action, but after halving the butter I forgot to add in the sauce. We'll just have to see how they turn out.

There is a contingency plan in place. If the cake falls apart when touched, I'm sure it will go nice with custard under the guise of a cherry crumble. They never have to know.

Recipe: Delia Plainview's famous milkshake recipe ... There Will Be Milkshakes!

"Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that's a straw, you see?" - Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

This is my milkshake recipe Eli. You see, last year, in the hot summer months, I experimented with a variety of recipes. While you had set about your singing and dancing, I was making milkshakes. Eli! All day loooong ... milkshakes! This year I have formulated the perfect recipe and it is oh so very, very simple. For each person you place a small banana and a roughly chopped apple in your blender. Add a little cinnamon and a few walnuts if you please. Then add skimmed milk and blend. Blend like you've never blended before and drink it up in the haaaawt sunshine. There is no need for honey or other sweetners, yogurt, ice, or any other such frilly businesses. It's beauty is in it's simplicity Eli, do you understand? But you carry aaaaawn with your song and dance. Just don't come to me when you are hungry and thirsty, because it will all be gaaaawn by then. I'm drinking my milkshakes with my loooong straw, drinking it up!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Quick thought: Michael Pollen's useless mantra

Michael Pollen is an interesting food and nutrition writer and his mantra to 'Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants' has spread like wildfire in recent years. The mantra has a 'truthiness' about it but I think it has caught on not because of it's sage advice but simply because it is highly memorable and catchy - it's an eating philosophy wrapped up in a sound-bite (excuse the pun!).

On reflection, I think the mantra is just a waste of space. Let's break it down:

1. Eat Food. As opposed to what exactly?

2. Not too much. By definition, if anything is 'too much' then less is better. This tautological statement is the equivalent to Yogi Berra's famous quip 'You can observe a lot by watching'. By definition, eating 'too much' is bad because it is 'too much'.

3. Mostly plants. Um, don't people eat mostly plants already? Surely what's important is the type of plant. Also, many tribal populations around the world don't eat mostly plant's (e.g eskimo's) and they don't seem any worse for it.

Don't get me wrong. I am currently listening to one of Pollen's podcasts and find his work quite fascinating, but in and of itself the mantra is totally unfit for purpose.

Where's Ripley when you need her?

In 2004 a satellite detected a mysterious heat bloom beneath an island about one thousand miles north of Antartica. A team of scientists were sent to investigate and in a legendary case of bad luck they started an all-out, full scale battle between Aliens and Predators. Human survivors were few.

You would think we would have learned our lesson from this episode but I have just read in The New Scientist that 'A tiny bacterium has been coaxed back to life after spending 120,000 years buried three kilometres deep in the Greenland ice sheet.'

Some things are best left buried.

Vitamin D quick follow-up

I have just got off the phone with my health insurance company's 'Dial-A-Doctor' service and one of the questions I asked the GP concerned my vitamin D levels (i.e. a typical asian living in the UK). A few points:

- I know people with darker skin need to be outside for a longer period of time (without sun block) to generate the same quantity of vitamin D as light skinned people. The doctor said I should be looking at exposure of 3-4 times a week, at around half an hour each time. However, he also said I couldn't be fully clothed and indeed need to wear shorts and no t-shirt to be sure of getting the proper quotient.
- He recommended I get a blood test to assess my vitamin D levels, both now and in the winter.
- Most people of south asian descent living in the UK are vitamin D deficient. The doctor works in Slough, an area with a high asian population, and he says pretty much everyone is vitamin D deficient, himself included.
- Diet is generally a poor source of vitamin D (should it be called a vitamin?) but you can get UVB irradiated mushrooms. Personally, I think I'll take to taking tablets to get a measured dose. I just need to know my levels before I start tinkering.

There is a decent and building body of evidence pointing to a correlation link between vitamin D deficiency and a host of ailments, from weak bones to poor heart health, MS, cancer, and other autoimmune conditions. I need to conduct further researches in this field, especially concerning negative effects of high doses, although preliminary findings suggest it's quite hard to overdo it with this vitamin.

From a 2008 review on the literature:

"A deficiency of vitamin D has been attributed to several diseases. Since its production in the skin depends on exposure to UVB-radiation via the sunlight, the level of vitamin D is of crucial importance for the health of inhabitants who live in the Nordic latitudes where there is diminished exposure to sunlight during the winter season. Therefore, fortification or supplementation of vitamin D is necessary for most of the people living in the northern latitudes during the winter season to maintain adequate levels of circulating 25(OH)D3 to maintain optimal body function and prevent diseases."

Source: Vitamin D and living in northern latitudes--an endemic risk area for vitamin D deficiency.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Assymetric eating theory

My hayfever kicked into full gear yesterday, producing symptoms similar to a really bad cold or mild flu - my tastebuds were totally dulled by a loss of smell and the general weakness and lethargy that comes with hayfever left me wanting sugar, sugar and more sugar. Eating my regular evening meal strangely produced no sense of satiation and after I ate my first portion I had seconds, and then thirds. About an hour later, I had fourths. Then I moved onto the sweets, eating squares of fudge, chocolate of several varieties, a handful of bombay mix, some biscuits, a packet of raisins and a flapjack. I wanted to overdo it because I wanted to kill the 'more-ishness' effect these high sugar snacks can create. Overdo it I certainly did. By the days end I had consumed about 3,400 calories, double my recent average. Further evidence of excess came by way of the regular morning weigh-in, when I witnessed an increase of 1 kilo.

I'm already half-way through making amends for my misdeeds, with my current net calorie intake coming in at a mere 100 kcal as of 5:30pm, and it shouldn't be long before my average is brought back in line. However, what strikes me from this experience is how easy it would be to write the 'night of indulgence' off as a slip of one's discipline and revert back to my normal eating pattern instead of making proper amends. The problem with conveniently forgetting one's excesses, or allowing a treat every now and then without taking proper account, is that the mind forgets but the body remembers and the weight would gradually pile on. This asymmetric eating pattern (i.e. more days of indulgence than days of calorie restriction) is surely a route to pile on the pounds. I wonder how many people fall into this trap?

Special Agent Ray likes his cookies

A comment on the post:

'Yo man, the writer of the film read this and sent it to me. I really appreciate the post, and love havin' a cookie named after Agent Ray. Best wishes, Gonzalo Menendez.'

Friday, June 12, 2009

More vitamin D, more omega-3, and less omega-6

I don't recommend taking multi-vitamins tablets on a regular basis because the science suggests there is close to no benefit from doing so, unless of course you have a deficiency that needs to be bridged.

However, based on my researches the one supplement I am considering taking on a regular basis (i.e. through the winter months) is Vitamin D. If I didn't eat sufficient oily fish, I would also take fish oil tablets to get my dose of Omega-3, and if I was a vegetarian I would be probably be eating quite a bit of flax (a non-animal source of omega-3, although probably not as good a source of omega-3 as fish).

I am also reverting to light olive oil (not extra virgin) and occasionally butter for almost all cooking purposes, except for infrequent deep-frying (too costly!). Why this switcheroo to olive oil, which is high in mono-unsaturated fat, versus the supposedly heart-healthy polyunsaturated plant fats that are commonly used as a frying medium by asian families the world over (i.e. sunflower oil, vegetable oil)? Well, human diets have traditionally had a much higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils than is presently found across the population and most plant oils are extremely high in omega-6 but not omega-3 (both belong to the family of polyunsaturated family). While the evidence suggests there are benefits to be had from increasing our intake of omega-3 oil, another way to adjust the ratio in a favourable direction is to reduce our levels of Omega-6. The scientific support for this change doesn't appear to be as robust as it is for taking Vitamin D supplementation, nor is it as strong as the support for increasing one's intake of omega-3, but what I have read so far has been sufficiently convincing to keep an eye on my omega-6 intake.

Note that omega-6 seems to be present in high quantities across our food system, from packaged food to processed foods, from fast food to food prepared at home. The important point is that this seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon and we may be ill adapted for such a change.

Generally, I'm not interested in eating purely for functional reasons. Food is simply too nice for this automaton approach! However, I have developed a bit of an interest in the science of nutrition and am happy to tinker with my diet around the edges based on the (ever changing) evidence.

Digital archives are everywhere

Digital archiving of magazines, newspapers etc is pretty much the standard these days. Now, PC Pro reports that "Channel 4 will become the first UK broadcaster to place its back catalogue online completely free of charge."

As television and internet merge, I imagine the personal media recorder device (e.g. video, hard-drive, DVD) will become increasingly redundant.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A finger biting MOT and a day of quite amazing money saving

I had a bit of an MOT adventure today.

This morning I dropped the old wagon off at our local Audi dealer for its annual MOT. They kindly drove me back home, where I sat with fingers and toes crossed. It was to no use, as a few hours later they phoned with bad news. The rear exhaust bracket had corroded to dust along with a large section of the piping, and Audi would only fit the entire exhaust section at a cost of £1,300. Other recommended works to make the car good included replacing top mounts and fixing the play in the rear wheel bearings, for a further £450. Before you get the wrong idea, let me say that the Audi garage are great in terms of service. They dropped me off and picked me up from my house. They also washed and polished my car and gave it a thorough internal vacuum and clean up. The customer service assistant also recommended that I look elsewhere to see if I could get the crucial work done at a low cost. And did I mention that it was all free, even the MOT?

In my sad state, figuring I'd need to spend at least a few hundred pounds to fix the tail end of the exhaust section, I popped by an honest, local garage just up the road from where I live. They had a ramp free, took a quick look and within minutes a bunch of guys were busy welding away. I asked if they'd do the MOT but the boss man recommended I go back to the original garage for a retest.

I called Audi again and even though it was quarter to five they said if I was fast I could have a retest, again for free. I drove like a banshee and just made it in time, and they looked at the welding fix ... and it passed!

Total outlay for the day: £10 (but I'm giving another tenner to the garage when I drive by for their good work).

On the operating table

I'll admit that I have an irrational emotional attachment to my horseless carriage, an end-of-the-line Audi 80 Sport (yes, 'Sport' I tells ya'). There is a lot not to like about this car: a nasty dink on the bonnet; poorly functioning electrics; a faulty and volatile petrol gage; severely corroding alloys, and on and on. However, all the negatives are outweighed by comfort and aesthetics. Okay, it doesn't look good from every angle but the Audi 80 has defintitely got a retro vibe about it and the styling of the interior suggests that the designers either got very lucky or they took their time and put a bit of TLC into the design. This car hasn't just been thrown together. Look at the picture of the interior below - see the lines, appreciate the nice little door handle, the spacing between the various objects, the carpet cushioned siding!

Book review - Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a fascinating book takes the author's discovery of the Tiktaalik fish as a jumping off point and delves deeply into our evolutionary past.

Shubin may be a scientist first, but his writing skills are exemplary and he succeeds in simplifying complex ideas to their basic essence, a clear sign that he is a master of the subject matter.

By the end of this relatively short book I had learned a great deal about the origins of our body's key structures in the context of the evolution of life on earth.


**** 1/2

Here's a passage describing how the first organisms with bodies may have formed:

'That is essentially what Martin Boraas and his colleagues provided. They took an algae that is normally single-celled and let it live in the lab for over a thousand generations. Then they introduced a predator: a single-celled creature with a flagellum that engulfs other microbes to ingest them. In less than two hundred generations, the algae responded by becoming a clump of hundreds of cells; over time, the number of cells dropped until there were only eight in each clump. Eight turned out to be optimum because it made clumps large enough to avoid being eaten but small enough so that each cell could pick up light to survive. The most surprising thing happened when the predator was removed: the algae continued to reproduce and form individuals with eight cells. In short, a simple version of a multicellular form had arisen from a no-body.'

- And an early, crucial comment on what we don't know about the past:

'If you consider that over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, that only a very small fraction are preserved as fossils, and that an even smaller fraction still are ever found, then any attempt to see our past seems doomed from the start.'

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mario Kassar's Parsley Salvation

Well, I watched Terminator Salvation and it proved to be way better than expected. Many reviewers have poured vitriol onto T4 but loyal fans have been turning out in their droves and the film is currently in the number one slot. What is most ruinous however is the trailer, as it gives away a crucial part of the film ... why do so many trailers do this? That gripe aside, and forgiving an annoyingly convenient ending, what we have here is a great actioner and a plot that does enough to keep you guessing through to the near end. Salvation is also superbly filmed following in the realistic style of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, etc, and the acting is more than decent enough - Christian Bale's fake deep voice (a la Batman) quickly returns to normal after the first few scenes and he isn't at all bad in the role of John Conner. That said, Bale is outplayed by Sam Worthington in the excellent role of Marcus Wright. There is also a special guest appearance in the final battle scene - guess who's back (kind of).

I don't know where the franchise can go from here, but to me at least Salvation marks a revival in the brand - perhaps we will see a resurgence of scrap metal terminators joining the ranks of scrap metal Predators and Aliens that you find on the souvenir stands around the world, and Terminator vs Alien ... now there's an idea.

When the film started, I noted that Mario Kassar was the producer. I'd seen the name several times before, in a film close to my heart. Yes, he was executive producer on the Rambo trilogy!

I made a half jar of parsley oil later that evening by lightly heating some extra virgin olive oil and dropping some chopped parsley, chili and other herbs into the mix for about a minute or so. It ain't half bad with some crusty toast.

And the link between the parsley oil and Mario Kassar? Umm, I'm struggling here. How's about I give a four star rating to both Salvation and to the parsley oil (i.e. not quite amazing, but might make again).

The Shield beat them all

... and that includes The Sopranos and The Wire (so far).

The Soprano's was superb stylistically and it gave us a great many classic moments. The Wire is more 'complete' and balanced. For me however, The Shield is one step better because it fully involves you from the get-go, dragging you kicking and screaming through it's dark world. It is gritty, brutal, corrupt as hell, and is acted and filmed to perfection. RIP The Shield. RIP Strike Team.

PS - I know The Shield is a distant memory in American, but the final episode just recently aired on Channel 5 in the UK. Nothing will fill that slot. Also, The Wire is only mid-way through on the BBC, even though it ended a long time ago Stateside. Talk about being late to the game.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The tempting cupboard of joy

With good intentions I wrote the word 'banana' in my food diary. As I made my way downstairs I felt my fruit based determination withering, and by the time I was at the last step it had evaporated completely. Instead of taking a right into the kitchen I swung left and found my way into the naughty 'cupboard of joy' in the living room.

Went I went back upstairs, I crossed out the word 'banana' and wrote down the word 'fudge'.

Sunny Hundal's article in the Guardian

'The hope we've gained from the BNP' is one of the most read articles on the Guardian web-site over the past 24 hours and it's written by Sunny Hunday, a fellow comrade.

It would be nice if some of the readers are people involved in the country's political machinery, because they really need to heed the message.

Recipe: Special Agent Ray Sanitago's 12 Rounds of Oatmeal Cookies

These cookies tasted way, way better than they look. They are slightly crisp on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Yes, this recipe produces close to the perfect cookie (and some pretty tasty dough besides). I halved the recipe and managed to create 11 large rounds so why is the recipe called 12 Rounds? Well, it could have easily made 12 nice sized cookies, but reason for the name is that as soon as the cookies were placed on the cooling rack I went to the cinema to watch the film '12 Rounds'.

I could have watched 'Terminator Salvation' starring Christian Bale but I plumped for '12 Rounds' starring WWE wrestling superstar John Cena - sometimes you just want cheese and lots of action and explosions. 12 Rounds delivered the 'bads'. The lead is played by John Cena who looks like a Matt Damon on steroids. In all honesty Cena belongs in a side role, perhaps playing a body guard or any position that requires a generic action man. As a WWE wrestling hero in the States he gets the lead in 12 Rounds. He's much better than a Hulk Hogan but he's just not an actor. Note, this is what you want in this type of film. Dialogue is sparing and extremely cheesey, with memorable lines such as 'Don't be a hero, it's not in your pay-grade'. To make things better we are given annoyingly poor acting by the head of the FBI team, which is fortunately matched by the woefully bad acting by the evil terrorist terrorist himself. Fortunately, these two guys don't get a scene together - it would have created a massive cheese explosion. Yes indeed, 12 Rounds is so bad it's good. Channel 5 must be bidding for the television rights already. As for the plot, you know how most films culminate in a high adrenaline action scene? Well, imagine a folder at Fox studios that holds ideas for these all these action scenes, and then imagine some executive happening across them thinking how good it would be if they put them all these scenes together in one film and created any kind of plot to hold them together. This is the kind of recipe that would give you '12 Rounds'. For the extra special sauce, 12 Rounds is produced by the same guy who gave us Speed and we not only have a bomb on a bus scene but we also have a runaway tram. What is more, the story for Cena's cop partner and best friend is also lifted straight from Speed. The producer didn't even try and a good thing too.

Going back to the cookies, they are named after the FBI character 'Special Agent Ray Santiago', who get's to say his name and title 'Special Agent Ray Santiago' several times through the film. What's great is how his bit role as FBI side-kick develops into a kind of partnership with John Cena's character. Ray Santiago is a man who has had enough of the system and the rules and his boss, and he just wants to help as best he can. It may not be in his pay grade to be a hero but Santiago is a hero, and these biscuits are in his honour.

Special Agent Ray Santiago (right) just wants to help

Gonzalo Menendez is the actor who plays Santiago and you have probably seen him around. Looking at his profile on IMDB he has carved out a bit of a niche, appearing on a whole host of crime shows in one guise or another, straddling the role of criminal and cop : he went from playing 'Pablo' in 24 to a role in Damages. From there it was a case of Cold Case and double CSI (NY and Miami). Then over to Numb3rs and Criminal Minds, and then Hollywood baby, with a role as 'Uniform Cop' in Fracture, 'Lieutenant' in Rise of the Silver Surfer, and finally culminating in a pretty decent role in 12 Rounds. I hope Menendez is giving better roles as time goes by. We're watching you buddy.

Variations to the cookies:

- Beyond adding a dash of cinnamon you can just stick to the script. The other variations are not crucial.
- I managed to overdo the salt, not realising the recipe called for unsalted butter (in the UK, salted is the standard). Just a pinch of salt next time.
- I reduced the half cup of butter to a third, which I don't think imparied the taste. It also meant just 200 calories per large cookie, which is darn good for what you get.
- Added a few cranberries. The basic cookie recipe can be tinkered with with all sort of toppings. I'm thinking chocolate, walnuts, etc, perhaps even some banana.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Ah, sunny days of June

... yes, quite:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Good old gime II

I went to the gym today hoping to watch the French Open final while gently cycling away a few hundred calories, but they weren't showing the tennis on any of the screens, the guile! All was not lost however, as I had hit 'record' on my video (are we still supposed them videos these days even when they record to DVD or hard-disc?), and the food sections of the Sunday papers made passing the time that much easier.

250 calories later I decided to shut up shop and come home. In times gone by I would eat a tin of microwaved sardines on wholegrain toast as my post gym snack. This time around I decided to fry the sardines in a pan. Cooking time was extended by a couple of minutes, but the sardines were great with the addition of a little pepper, lemon, and a crushed anchovy, elevating them well above a purely post work-out, functional food. This snack restored the calories lost at the gym but I still had quite a bit of room to work with so I threw some crumpets in the toaster on a high setting. When they popped out and were slightly crispy I immediately smeared them with anchovy garlic butter and wolfed them down with some tea - nice.

Oh, and despite all this talk about food, food, food, I still seem to be losing weight at the margin. Quite amazing really.

Recipe: Super Fast Blueberry Cheesecake Pots

I thought I'd put our few remaining blueberries to good use and try my hand at making a version of the Blueberry Cheesecake pot, inspired by a recipe on the BBC Goodfood site. My effort didn't come out remotely as good looking but it certainly tasted delicious, was faster to make, and it was way lower in calories than the Beeb's version (less than 200 calories vs 599 calories for the Beeb's pot). Indeed, as soon as I finished it I suffered from a condition I call 'chef's remorse', wishing I could have made more. Cruel cruel hindsight.

All I can say is 'will make again'.

Spot the difference

What you need:

- Blueberries
- Digestive biscuits (2)
- Quark cheese*
- Lemon juice (half teaspoon)
- Castor sugar (2 teaspoons)

Method (takes about 5 minutes):

1. Make the syrup in a frying pan by adding a teaspoon of castor sugar to a splash of water and crushing and mixing the bluberries (leave a few whole berries aside) so they released their juices. Mix about a bit and leave on the lowest heat to reduce and intensify.
2. While syrup is heating, crush the two digestives in a freezer bag and pour the crumbs out into two glasses. Whip a teaspoon of sugar and a splash of lemon juice into about 170g of quark cheese and spoon into the glasses.
3. Top with blueberry syrup and whole blueberries and serve.

These pots would have tasted great cooled down and chilled in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes, but as a night time treat the hot syrup contrasted with the cold cheese very nicely.

* What is this Quark you are talking about Willis? It's a super low-fat cheese (0.2%), Eastern European in origin me thinks, and can be found in most Sainsbury's stores for around 70p. It's got less calories than low-fat cottage cheese and a mere 15% of the calories of the mascarpone recommended in the original recipe!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Happy 100th birthday

A member of my family is about to turn 100. I do not expect a letter of congratulations from the Queen, although I did receive a nice glossy magazine through the post that preemptively commemorates the event.

The family member I am talking about is my Audi, a car I love to bits despite it having several electrical faults, a thirsty engine and a pretty nasty dink on the bonnet. I dread the day when the old horse has to be put out to pasture.

Happy birthday Audi.

Good old gime

Just back from the gym after taking a short break. I did a spot of cardio, burning 250 odd calories while reading the Saturday newspapers. The front pages of the broadsheets informed me of an apparent political upheaval that is taking place at Westminster but my concern was with another section, the food section! I look forward to repeating the process tomorrow as the Sunday papers have meatier sections on all matters culinary.

As soon as I got home I made up for the caloric deficit with a pot of cottage cheese with almonds, a teaspoon of honey, and some bluberries mixed in for good measure. This was followed by half a small roll with some avacado guacamole that I had made earlier in the day. Nice. Note, I think exercise is a terrible way to lose weight but if that is not your objective it sure creates a nice buffer to play with.

PS - I realise this obsession is a bit much and it will surely pass - it just seems that my taste buds and related neurons kind of rewired themselves during my 30 Days Down starvation project, a strange and unexpected side-effect.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Recipe: The Chapadilla

Something special happened earlier this week. We took the chapati (or roti) recipe that our family has followed for many generations and we put a Mexican Quesadilla spin on it. The Chapdilla was born.

Divide a single chapati sized dough ball into two smaller balls.

Roll a ball out into a thin pancake (about half the thickness of a normal chapati or roti for the same amount of dough).

Set aside and repeat

Fill half the chapadilla with any dryish curry mix.

Fold over and press down to seal (doesn't need to be perfect)

Place in a hot frying pan on a low heat, so it starts cooking like a normal roti (no oil is used at this stage) and make the other chapadilla.

Place the second filled chapadilla alongside.

After a short while, flip the first chapadilla and then flip the second. Allow enough time so they cook on the reverse side (about a minute).

The dry cooking stage is now complete. Time to crisp them up a bit. Spray the cooked sides lightly with a little oil spray or butter, and flip. Because of the dry cooking very little oil is needed.

After a minute or so on a low heat, spray the top-side and flip over once more.

Serve. Ignore the knife and fork, this is finger food at its finest.

I calculated the oil stage adds a mere 10 calories per chapadilla, yet the end product tastes a bit like a parotha (a calorie bomb of a dish which is caked in butter and oil). I am still amazed at what we have on our hands.