Archive for July, 2010

Cooking at Nom Nom Nom

18 July 2010

A bit late, this – thought I published this before I went on holiday to Scotland – I get back and find I scheduled it a month later than I should have (doh). Anyway – a different post from the usual as I talk about another one of things I like doing, a lot, which is food.

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Last week I took part in one of the most fun and interesting blogger events I’ve ever been invited to. Nom Nom Nom, or “The Bloggers’ Masterchef’, is a cook-off organised in aid of Action Against Hunger by the ever-enthusiastic and energetic Annie Mole (of Going Underground fame), held at the fantastic Cookery School on Little Portland Street in central London.

I felt a bit daunted before the event kicked off. I’m not a food blogger – I write about tech and politics and take the piss out of the Daily Mail; I’m someone who very much enjoys their cooking, but to be in the kitchen with “proper” food bloggers? I was intimidated. Luckily, my cooking partner (and flatmate) Tom (aka @flashboy) has done one of these before, and my nerves were (just about) calmed when he said it wasn’t as competitive as I feared.

Like all good geeks, I made sure I read up and practiced beforehand, eventually settling on three dishes that were summery. Tagliata, seared Italian beef with rocket & tarragon to start; sea bass baked on vine tomatoes with spinach, pine nuts and raisins for the main, and an English summer berry trifle as our dessert (and also our compulsory cold dish). We can’t claim originality – the starter & main came from Tom Norrington-Davies’ Eagle Cookbook, the trifle from Nigel Slater’s Appetite.

The blessing with nearly all of what we cooked is that we could get UK-based ingredients in season – the beef English, the sea bass from Anglesey, the fruit & vegetables from local farmers’ market – it was only the small things like the olive oil and raisins that would have to come from further afield. Furthermore, all the dishes were relatively easy to make and not too daunting, especially in a high-pressure environment.

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The tagliata went like a dream – a really nice cut of Hereford sirloin, seared on grillpan and then thinly sliced. Tarragon is an odd choice of herb to go with beef, but there was something about the aniseediness which works well with the rocket. The recipe we had also called for new potatoes – in retrospect though they were probably a distraction from the dish and didn’t add much.

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The fish was perhaps the simplest of the three dishes to cook, just season well, slash the flesh open to help it cook a bit quicker, and lay down on a bed of juicy sweet tomatoes & sliced garlic. I might have overdone it with sloshing the white wine on, which ended up making the toms being a bit soggy, but it still tasted fantastic. You might worry sea bass is a bit delicate to be overburdened by tomatoes, but it actually works out fine.

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Tom took charge of the dessert – alas in order to conform with the no cooking rule we had to use ready-made custard. A chance encounter in the newsagents led us to find some sherbert flying saucers, so he adorned each of the sundae glasses of trifle with them, which ended up as a really nice quirky little touch.

The upside of all of our dishes was that they didn’t require that much preparation. The downside is that they didn’t take much time to cook either, so after a lull in the middle after all the prep, the final few minutes were a real stress. We didn’t have a big enough pan for the spinach, so we had to do it in batches, without ruining by burning the pine nuts (something I was very careful not to do). By the time it came to plating up I was in a rush, so it wasn’t as neat as it could have been.

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We weren’t expecting to win, yet… well it turned out we were right, ‘cos we didn’t. But I was happy with what we cooked – especially when it was clear there were some genuinely talented cooks in the competition. Nevertheless we did get some lovely plaudits about our sea bass, and the trifle, including from the winners, which I’m going to to take as a top-grade compliment. Best of all, it was a real pleasure working in a proper kitchen, and with proper staff – the Cookery School’s staff were absolute angels from start to finish, tirelessly helping us with our every whim, and not minding when pressure meant there was no time for “please” and “thank you”.

It was also really good getting to know other bloggers, and indeed getting to know my own flatmate better – Tom tends to downplay his own culinary skills but at the cookup, but after that I now know he is a perfectly good kitchen lackey assistant chef in his own right as well.

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Many thanks go to the Cookery School (whose kitchen really is excellent), and the many people who made it happen, including Rosalind, Annie and Chris Osburn (who took all the pictures above, and I’m very grateful for him doing so, as I had no time to take proper pics). The event’s not quite over yet – the sponsors have donated prizes to a charity raffle in aid of Action Against Hungergo buy a ticket now to help make a difference.

Update: The Viewer’s Choice award is now up and running over at the Nom Nom Nom website – if you liked the look of what Tom & I cooked, or you just like us anyway, then place a vote for our team, Nom Nom Nom De Plume. Vote early, and vote often – you can vote once a day ;)


“Your Freedom” is a failure. How to make it better

1 July 2010

Today the Government launched a new website called “Your Freedom” – designed for members of the public to suggest repeals or modifications of laws they find restrictive or bureaucratic. The name’s a little misguided from the start – after all, laws can be used to guarantee and enforce freedoms as well as restrict them, so merely repealing a law does not necessarily entail “freedom”. But let’s let that pass.

This could have been a nice idea; crowdsourcing opinions from ordinary citizens and the wider public away from the professional lobbyists or niche activists and giving them a more coherent and representative voice. It could be used to take a hard look at some of the laws that people have found restrictive over the years, whether they be anti-terror laws, anti-smoking or anti-foxhunting (for the sake of this analysis, I’m deliberately being neutral on what I think of these respective matters). Instead, it’s so vague and generalised that it’s become “a massive dickhead magnet” (© Justin) within hours of opening.

The submission form (login required) doesn’t ask for specifics on which laws or regulations should be looked at, but rather “ideas”, which renders it near-pointless. The questions for the form fields are so vague – “What is your idea?” and “Why is your idea important?” that you could literally put anything there. The moderation policy implies they operate post-moderation – i.e. no moderation – with little or no prescreening at all.

The result is that any old shit can get in, and it does. Even if those ideas are proposing adding more new laws, rather than taking them away – such as Restrict Immigration which turns into a rambling stream of barely-consciousness:

… Schools cannot cope with the amount of children who speak different languages and it is holding back our children’s education. The same with gypsies. If this is a life style they choose, fine. Contribute to the tax pot or do not expect use of public services. Why should taxpayers provide taxis for their children to attend schools etc. Ridiculous.

The ideas look like something that’s fallen off the back of Have Your Say. In fact actually if you look at the relevant HYS page you’ll see exactly that – people spelling out just how they want the government to enforce their own petty prejudices rather than reform what we have. Let’s look at the comments beneath:

Prison meant to be for punishment, but the so called Human Rightists…

Ok enough. Next…

My proposal would be for a new law…

Oh, fuck off.

So, what can we learn from this? First off, design your site better. If you want people to propose changes to laws, then make the users think about those laws when submitting. There should be a mandatory field asking them to specify which acts or regulations they would want to change – e.g. “Terrorism Act 2000″. Anyone who just writes “laws about immigrunts“, or doesn’t put a proper name for the law, or the year, filter it out.

(This has a beneficial side-effect – with a bit of fuzzy parsing, we could include a link to the relevant law on OPSI in the proposal so we can look up the more relevant section, and it also makes finding related proposals on the same law easy, a sort of auto-tagging).

Secondly, pre-moderate. If a proposed change is totally incompatible with our international obligations, say if some idiot wants to get rid of all human rights legislation or leave the EU or scrap the NHS, the moderation team should have the sanity and bravery to filter it out. Anything badly spelt, in all caps, copy & pasted from The Chap or proposing repealing murder, bin it. This is not an issue of denying freedom of speech – the green ink brigade are free to write wherever they like – but of keeping the site a proper and sensible civic space. If you want to get the most out of an online community, you have to keep it in good order.

Thirdly, delete duplicates and employ an algorithm to suggest duplicates to a user before they post – look at the number of duplicates for repealing the Digital Economy Act (though you’d think geeks especially would check for dupes before posting). Having five posts all call for the same thing dilutes the popularity of all of them, and leads to incoherent arguments for their repeal, weakening it further.

The shame is that here and there on the site there are constructively-argued ideas to help fix parts of our legislation that are inefficient or restrictive – for example CRB checks, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or financial risk for small entrepreneurs (not that I agree with any of these, just that these were examples that look properly thought-out and considered at the very least).

As it stands, the site will end up as a total mess – in fact it’s well on the way there already. When it comes to closing the site down, I bet the politicians will take one look at all the “ban human rights act it give free school meals for wearing a burka” posts, shrug their shoulders and say that “the citizens have spoken, but it’s utter rubbish – they had their chance and they blew it”. No, the government who have blown it – they had their chance to make a valuable public resource, but we’ve instead got another poorly-designed, poorly-maintained failure.