The Samovar

My first thanksgiving
November 29, 2008, 9:38 pm
Filed under: Cooking, Food | Tags: , , ,

I gave thanks for the puissance of the colonialists who conquered the natives, thus allowing me to be enjoying this fine ritual eating of a turkey. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with the Americans I was eating with.

It was very exciting for me to have a thanksgiving dinner because I’d never had one before and it was like getting to have an early christmas dinner. So off we went to find the ingredients for a traditional thanksgiving, which is not an easy task in Paris and involved trips to La Grande Epicerie and Rue Mouffetard. The turkey itself was the most difficult bit, seeing as it’s not a particular favourite of the Parisians. We did find some eventually, but I knew when I saw the 4.5kg beasts that there was no way they would fit in my tiny Paris apartment style oven, so I tentatively asked si on peut prendre une demie-dinde and much to my surprise, yes we could! And here it is, in my tiny weeny little oven.


And later on, cooked:


We also had homemade cranberry sauce:


And stuffing:


There was also mashed potatoes, and spiced, caramelised sweet potatoes, which you can see being made here:


There was also pumpkin pie and carrot cake for pudding (no picture for some reason I forgot). Man, did we eat waaay too much. I wouldn’t have eaten anything at all the next except that I brought the remainder of the pudding in to work so that people in my office could have some, but as hardly anybody came in to work that day for some reason, I ended up eating most of the carrot cake myself.


Verdict: English christmas dinner is better, but this was pretty good too.

Ethical vegetarianism
November 10, 2008, 6:17 am
Filed under: Ethics, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: ,

amerikanbeat blog has an interesting article on Marxism and “ethical” vegetarianism that is worth reading.

The difference in my current thinking has to do with the connection between opposing the killing of animals, and being a vegetarian. I don’t think there is much of a connection, in fact. That is, the fact that it is wrong to kill animals does not mean one ought to be a vegetarian. It doesn’t even make vegetarianism a good idea.

I previously wrote something slightly silly about vegetarianism on this blog, but the discussion it led to what was quite interesting. The focus of the discussion was different to the focus in the article linked to above, but in the comments I wrote the following which I think is somewhat relevant to the Marxist take of the article:

I do think though, that at some point in humanity’s future we will all choose (but not be forced by law) to stop eating animals for ethical reasons… The more general issue is about what and who you care about. As our personal circumstances improve (we’re lifted out of poverty for example), we gain the possibility to be compassionate towards others that we didn’t have before.

Pinchy: the story of a gumbo
November 9, 2008, 3:31 am
Filed under: Cooking, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

So I had promised a friend that I would make her a gumbo since about a year ago, and now she’s leaving Paris in a week or so, so it seemed like if I was going to do this gumbo it had better be this weekend. After a year of build up this was going to have to be some pretty awesome gumbo. So I wrote my ideal list of ingredients from the most luxury gumbo recipe in my creole cook book, thinking I’d head to the shops and see which bits I could find:

  • crab
  • oysters
  • prawns
  • chicken
  • beef
  • bacon
  • cooked ham
  • ham bone
  • green peppers
  • onion
  • scallions
  • tomatoes
  • celery
  • parsley
  • thyme
  • (other things I already had: bay leaves, cayenne pepper, filé powder which someone had brought over from the US for me specifically for this gumbo, salt, pepper)

It was a little late in the day, too late to start trying to find a good fishmonger and anyway most of them are closed at that time, so I just went to the big supermarket near me. Well what do you know but this supermarket was selling live crabs and lobsters (and at not a bad price really, €5 for a crab, €12 for a lobster). So I picked up most of the ingredients above, leaving out the ham and substituting mussels for oysters because they were only selling oysters in boxes of 24 which would have been fine for the gumbo but the thought of shucking 24 oysters was not fine.

Well, I’ve never bought and cooked a live, scuttling animal before. Mussels don’t count – they’re alive but they don’t scuttle. Crabs scuttle. At the supermarket, they just pop the little guy into a bag and you take him off, meanwhile he’s trying to claw his way out and just generally acting agitated. I don’t think the girl at the checkout had ever seen anyone buying one of these before and was a little upset about having to pick up the bag. On my way home I decided to name him Pinchy after the lobster in the Simpsons. This was probably a mistake because I knew I was going to be pouring boiling water over him and boiling him to death soon. Here’s Pinchy preparing for his fate.


Turns out that having boiling water poured on them is quite agitating for a crab. Hopefully I won’t be having nasty dreams about the next moment. Twenty minutes later, here’s Pinchy again.


Well anyway, that’s really the exciting part of the story over. Then we got to cracking Pinchy open and teasing out his fat and flesh, etc. But boy, was he a damn tasty crab. Assuming the bad dreams don’t kick in, I think I’ll be buying some more of his kind, and maybe a lobster or two too. I won’t detail the long and rather laborious (approximately 4 hour) cooking process. Suffice it to say many things were chopped, complicated stocks were produced by boiling up various animals, carcasses, heads, etc.

End result: pretty damn good shit. I think I can improve on this gumbo, but I don’t see myself making it often. It’s pretty expensive and very time consuming. Plus, I ended up using pretty much every pot and pan in my apartment twice over. Fortunately, I had helpers to do the washing up.

Some more pics.

I actually ended up using quails rather than chicken because a whole chicken was too much and the little baby chicken was €8 compared to these two quails at €3. And they even came with their little heads still on. Making gumbo is not for the light hearted.


The mussels.


And the final product. Well, it doesn’t look that great but with gumbo it’s the taste that counts, not the appearance.


And here’s a bonus item, last week’s pumpkin:


Freedom and inequality (and blogs)
November 8, 2008, 5:35 am
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

Readership of blogs follows a power law distribution, that means roughly that if you rank all the blogs in order of readership, then blog N will have a readership proportional to 1/N (actually it’s Na but a is close to -1). This means that almost all blog traffic goes to a small number of blogs, and the vast majority of blogs will have almost no readers (like this one, but that’s fine by me). The same rule appears to apply to many situations: readership of web pages generally, word frequencies in the English language, digital song sales, etc. There are some mathematical arguments that if you assume people are free to choose from a large number of options (of any sort), but that other peoples’ choices will affect them, even if only marginally, then power law distributions follow. In other words, this is a natural and unavoidable situation.

Well, I haven’t thought terribly deeply about this, but are there consequences for democracy? Presumably change happens slowly in these power law distributed readerships because they’re based on others’ preferences. Does this put a fundamental limit on the rate of change of opinions? Does it make propaganda inevitable? I don’t know. Anyway, for those of us who believe in equality, I think that there is a challenge to be met in these observations.

November 8, 2008, 5:04 am
Filed under: Philosophy | Tags: ,

I just had a thought about happiness which is a bit of a mindfuck.

If you think about the evolutionary function of happiness, the obvious thing to think is that evolution selects a meaning for happiness so that if we attempt to maximise it that will maximise reproductive fitness. (This formulation could well be wrong.) Now presumably if we were quite happy most of the time, we wouldn’t put much effort in to things and so we wouldn’t be very fit. On the other hand someone who was pretty unhappy would put lots of effort in and so would be very fit. Therefore evolution will tend to select unhappy people (but presumably not totally depressed people, there has to be a possibility of happiness for it to work). Now that’s already a mindfuck because it means that the driving force behind our existence wants us to be unhappy. Shit.

But you might think, maybe that’s not so bad. Evolution will have chosen some things that make us happy that in the environment in which we evolved were fairly rare, and maybe with better technology etc. we can get more of those things and that would make us happy. In other words, perhaps a happy world is possible. Yeah, well, maybe (although the evidence rather suggests that more wealth and technology makes us less happy). But there’s another nasty possibility which is that we habituate to our current level of happiness. Just as you cease to hear a noise when it’s played constantly or smell an odour that is present constantly, and only detect it when it goes away or gets louder or stronger, maybe you cease to feel happy about the things that make you happy when they’re always there. In other words, you’ll always be tending towards unhappiness and only feel happy briefly in moments of change when things improve. Double shit.

So is it true? And if so, what the fuck do we do about it? I mean, what do you do differently if you know that happiness can only ever be a short lived thing and not something permanent? I can think of a few ideas but I’d be interested to hear what others think.

More bourgeois food
November 5, 2008, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Food | Tags: , , , , , ,

You’ve probably heard all you could possibly want about Obama, so here’s some bourgeois Parisian food I ate while Alastair was visiting me last weekend instead.

Let’s start with these macarons from Gerard Mulot.


We have from top left to bottom left in clockwise order; chocolate and coriander seed, passion fruit and basil leaf, orange and ginger, green tea, chestnut, and hazelnut. GM’s macarons are fantastic, but they’re nothing compared to the true master of the macaron, Pierre Hermé. Sadly no macaron pictures from PH, but here are some of the fantastic cakes on offer (click to get a closer view):


This time, I had the tarte citron aux citrons which was a perfect lemon tart but nothing beyond the ordinary, and Alastair had the tarte au caramel which really was something beyond the ordinary, much more like a salted butter caramel (and a very salty one at that) than the usual creme caramel (which I’m not a fan of at all). We also managed to find time to have dinner at Alain Senderens:


Sadly the pictures from inside didn’t come out very well (you can see the slightly bizarre orange lighting scheme), but here’s me doing a minimal job of pretending not to be scruffy. (I’ve done my best to correct for the lighting but it’s not perfect so the colour may seem a little odd.)


We both went for the tasting menu, which featured an amuse bouche of butternut squash soup with mussels; a starter tout cèpe of cep (porcini) mushrooms cooked in many different ways with an oeuf mollet (like a poached egg); a fish course of an open ravioli of lobster with vanilla foam and shoots of tétragone (I don’t know what it is); a meat course of duck with various beetroot things and wasabi; a pre-dessert of pineapple and coriander jelly; and a dessert Fine Dacquoise au poivre de Séchouan,
marmelade au citron confit, glace au gingembre
(meringue with szechuan pepper, marmelade of confit lemon and ginger icecream). Of these, the mushroom starter and lobster were amazing (although Alastair is not a great fan of mushrooms so he doesn’t share my opinion there), and the rest were just very good, with the exception of the pudding which I was not a fan of at all. Meringue doesn’t do it for me and the flavours were overdone. All in all, an excellent meal but you’d be better off going to L’Astrance for lunch, cheaper and better.

Anyway, we weren’t quite done after all that so we nipped in to Angelina’s to try their famous hot chocolate. Well, it was pretty good, much better than the normal powder+milk combo you get, but really, mine is better. Angelina’s may have been making it for over a hundred years, but they put too much sugar in and it’s too touristy there.


Bof! I suppose I should stop enjoying myself here and get some work done now…

Don’t get too excited…
November 5, 2008, 1:42 am
Filed under: Politics | Tags: ,

It looks good now, but…