Saturday, 24 September 2016

Omelette Exploration 6: The Masala Omelette

As regular readers will know, I am always interested in seeing and trying out new approaches to omelette making.  Being a regular reader of 'The Guardian' newspaper which has scores of recipes, sometimes every day of the week, but particularly on Saturdays, it is unsurprising that I have drawn inspiration from it.  Today's recipe comes from Vivek Singh and featured in the newspaper in October 2015:

This was the final part of a four-part series in which celebrity chef Nigel Slater gathered various breakfast recipes.  I will leave you to read the original article; fortunately the masala omelette is the first recipe in that list.  Naturally I put it to the test.  While this was put forward as a breakfast menu as Singh points out, it can be a dish for any time of the day and as with the bliny omelettes considered last month, it can be eaten cold.

The method of cooking is in line with the basics that I have outlined throughout.  What I would caution is keeping the quantity of spice under control and using fresh rather than dried ingredients as much as possible.  I have made this dish and ended up with a rather 'arid' omelette, almost too strong in flavour to eat comfortably.  That may be because I have a British palate and as noted before and not keen on tasting salt in my dishes.

I do think this is not really an omelette to be eaten on its own or unfilled and I would certainly encourage you to present it with a vegetable filling or indeed as an accompaniment outside the omelette.  Singh advises 'asparagus, olives, spinach or artichokes' in this role - are all favourite vegetables of mine and have a moistness which can temper the rather arid nature of this particular omelette.  I think I will come back to this approach to omelettes but in future will scale down the spices and will make sure that I have a lot more greens either to put in the omelette or alongside it.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Books I Read In August

'A Fool's Alphabet' by Sebastian Faulks
Given that I received this book from the friend of mine who also supplied me with 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' (1985) by Patrick Süskind, 'Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy' (1991) by Jostein Gaarder and 'Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe' (1991) by Bill Bryson, I should have realised that this book was going to be of that kind - pretentious and lacking entertainment.

'A Fool's Alphabet' has twenty-six chapters set in locations across the world beginning with each of the letters of the alphabet; the chapters are recounted in alphabetical rather than chronological order.  They cover incidents in the life of Pietro Russell; a few of his father Raymond Russell and one about his grandfather, between 1914 and 1991 (i.e. in Hobsbawm's 'short 20th century'), though most chapters are set in the 1970s and 1980s.  Sometimes the named location is simply the starting point and most of the chapter is actually about somewhere else entirely or, indeed actually about a different year to the one given in that title.

In theory, some mystery of Pietro Russell, a British man with an Italian mother, is supposed to come together as you read through the book and see short incidents from across his life and that of a couple of his relatives.  The only mystery is how a man is unhappy who has been sent to a crammer so he can get ahead; travels extensively; has wealthy largely pleasant friends; runs his own business; has a sustained relationship with a beautiful woman that even he recognises is out of his league and then marries, has three healthy children with and cheats on a Belgian woman far less patronising and harsh than most Belgian women.

For part of the time he undergoes psychotherapy, simply because he feels unlovable, nothing more serious than that.  Yet, the treatment seems to provide no benefit and he simply cheats on his wife before regretting it.  I do not know if Faulks lives in such a privileged existence to imagine that this is a hard life.  In fact Pietro should be aware that he has done far better not simply than his father and grandfather who fought (though admittedly survived) the two world wars, let alone many of the other people he encounters.  You quickly come to resent this ungrateful man and it is always difficult to enjoy reading incidents through the eyes of a character you come to despise.

The only good thing about this book are the descriptions of the different locations.  You get some well crafted vignettes of different locations with real care to detail so that nothing anachronistic appears despite the jumping through the decades.  It would have been better if different characters appeared in each, perhaps together providing some overarching 'message' about life.  Instead we end up with the fragmented story of a character who is easy to abhor.

'Funeral for Figaro' by Ellis Peters
I can understand why crime authors like the settings of theatre or the opera for their stories.  There are often a lots of jealousy and passion; people coming and going through the crime scene; ample opportunity for disguise and yet there is a fixed circle of characters, something which is often required for a crime story.  They end up as some of the most tedious or irritating novels the author can produce.  Michael Dibdin's, 'Cosi Fan Tutte' (1997) is, in no doubt, his worst book.  This one is seen through the eyes of the owner of the theatre who is also director of the operas, Johnny Truscott.  He is a bit of a mess and poor, as a widower, raising his 19-year old daughter, called Hero (she is known as 'Butch'; Peters saddles her young female characters with unpleasant nicknames, e.g. 'Tossa' from 'The Piper on the Mountain'), who is bent on marrying one of the singers; this gives away the age of the novel.  However, at least Truscott is not as pathetic and unlikeable as Tom Kenyon, the 'narrator' in 'Flight of a Witch' that I read last month.

This Peters story is around a very peculiar repertory opera house run by a man who operated small boats for clandestine Allied missions during the Second World War (the book was published in 1962).  Using an assortment of opera singers; technical staff largely left over from his wartime crew and others who he rescued from Occupied Europe, he runs a regular rotation of operas, bringing in better known performers for leading roles.  One of these is murdered, apparently by a sword used by another character in the 'The Marriage of Figaro'.  Among the small group there are many with reason to kill the man, sometime collaborator in wartime Austria.

The problem with this book, setting aside how unattractive 'luvvie' performers are both in real life and in fiction, is that it is scrappy.  Too much of it is about opera; even the detective involved, this time Inspector Musgrave rather than Felse, is an opera fan and spends a lot of time critiquing the performances rather than trying to solve the crime.  You need to have a reasonable grasp of opera to comprehend what is going on.  However, in general you do not really care about the characters sufficiently and unusually for Peters, except for a surprising car crash, there is no sense of jeopardy.  There are some good twists in the closing couple of chapters and unusually for a British crime novel, the detective goes home blaming the wrong person for the crime.  Overall, however, except for the closing sections this is a rather dull story which especially in the opening sections is difficult to follow unless you are a fan of Mozart operas.

'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling
This is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and as I have noted in reading the previous ones, as they progress they diverge more and more from the movies.  In part this is because they increase in length and to cover all the incidents, sub-plots and characters which feature in the book would need a mini-series.  My edition of this book was 766 pages long.  The other trend I have noted before, continues and expands in this book.  Rowling is more concerned with Harry Potter as a schoolboy than she is with him as an adventurer.  The concluding battle is far more complex than it is shown in the movie, but the majority of the book is about summer holidays and school days, especially revising for and taking the OWLS exams, the magic equivalent of GCSEs.  This aspect is less interesting to me than the adventure, but as I have noted before, that is probably because I am a man rather than a boy. 

Rowling handles the schoolboy aspects well, especially Potter's on-off intimate relationship with Cho Chang, his feelings for and his disappointment about his late parents and his godfather, plus all his doubts about his study.  However, covering all these pretty mundane elements at such length saps the book of dynamism which remained apparent especially in the first three books.  In part this reflects Rowling's success as publishers are happier to let an author write what they want without editing it down, once they are a sure-fire success as Rowling had become by this stage.  This could have been a punchier book if it had been trimmed down; it could have easily have been 200 pages shorter and still have been engaging, perhaps more so.  Rowling's writing certainly has improved since the first book and some will find this a rich book to really sink into.  However, I think with length much of the excitement, more apparent in earlier books, has been dissipated.

'Bonaparte's Sons' by Richard Howard
This book published in 1997 was the first in a series of six books running to 2002, about Alain Lausard, a fictional soldier in the 5th Dragoon Regiment of Napoleon's Army.  I am very surprised that he got this book let alone another five published.  I suppose publishers are always looking for new historical series and they guessed that this one would appeal to those who had read Bernard Cornwell's series, published 1981-2007, about Richard Sharpe, a British rifleman in the late 18th century and early 19th century, largely during the Napoleonic Wars.  Howard starts with an often neglected part of the period, Napoleon's campaign in northern Italy.  His historical detail is fine it is just that the writing is painfully clunky.  I suppose these days the art of editing is unaffordable to companies and more relies on the author getting it right.  When he wrote this book, it seems Howard lacked such skill.  In one description of a battle he says the cannon 'opened up' four times.

Unlike Cornell, for example, Howard is unable to get descriptions of weapons of the time into the story without sounding like a technical manual, e.g.:

'Canister shot consisted of a tin case which ruptured on leaving the barrel, transforming the cannon into a massive shotgun as it released up to eighty one-ounce balls which had been packed tightly within.  Heavy case was also used, a more lethal version which could send up to forty three-ounce metal balls to its target in excess of 450 feet per second.'

With the weather, conversely, he becomes very poetic, e.g.:

'The sun itself was a massive burnished orb slipping slowly below the horizon, its dying light the colour of bloodstained bronze.  Birds returning to their nests were black arrowheads against the crimson backdrop.'

The story works on a familiar premise about a group of prisoners pressed into service in the army, in this case to defend revolutionary France in 1797.  The start is very much like the Second World War movie, 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967), though it uses stereotypes and the poor religious character simply mouths almost identical statements throughout the entire book; the womanizer does little better.  Though Lausard is the prime focus this does not stop Howard jumping between the perspectives of different characters sometimes in consecutive sentences; towards the book we get to see the views of newcomers to the unit and even hear conversations held in German, a language spoken by only one of the French soldiers.  I have written stories featuring small units of soldiers and it can be difficult to cover battles from just one view and to have sufficient distinction between each of the soldiers in the unit.  However, Howard is inefficient in his writing, seeming to thinking that repeating the same statements will provide character to each one rather than just emphasising how shallowly developed they all are.

The battle scenes are fine and dramatic and there is a sense of jeopardy as you are not certain who will be injured or killed.  There are extensive descriptions of the wounds various men suffer.  The scene in the hospital comes over like a catalogue.  I guess Howard wanted it to sound gritty and realistic, but again, repetition does not add anything, indeed it blunts the emotion trying to be communicated.  The first book is always tricky as you have to establish the characters and have them trained, etc.  Howard seems to feel that he needs an adventure, but because he is wasteful, this seems tacked on, far too briefly at the end; its conclusion is incredibly rushed.  He might have done better to start with this and then have Lausard reflecting on what had happened to bring them to this situation and the men showing their various traits by how they act during the escapade - this is something that is done pretty well in 'The Dirty Dozen' especially the rapist portrayed by Telly Savalas whose obsession upsets the whole mission.  These days, however, I know that many readers insist on a linear narrative and feel unhappy if you jump around in chronology.

Clearly someone appreciated Howard's work sufficiently to publish six of his novels.  Perhaps they improve as they progress.  I think Howard certainly needed to become very familiar with the Sharpe novels and see how you can effectively work a story in such a context and from such a perspective.

'Fascism' by Noël O' Sullivan
Rather than being a history book this is a political philosophical analysis of Fascism.  O'Sullivan does focus on Nazism and Italian Fascism, rather dismissing any other strands, notably monarchical fascism and clerico-fascism as pale imitations of these with nothing original within them. O'Sullivan pays particular attention to the constitution, the Charter, of the short-lived republic of Fiume, the Regency of Carnaro Gabriele D'Annunzio, (1863–1938) established 1919-20.  He sees this as the best articulation of a Fascist perspective.

Across the latter three-quarters of the book, he makes a very convincing case that Fascism arose from philosophical and political changes really starting around the time of the French Revolution then strengthening through the 19th century to provide fertile ground for Fascism in the 20th century.  He looks at factors such as the redefinition of freedom as something within an individual rather than exterior, the rise of the concept that a better society could only be achieved by the efforts of people, rather than, as for example previous, devotion to God and, the sense that struggle and sacrifice, typically through warfare, were 'good' of themselves as well as paving the way for the desired society.  There was also the aspect promoted particularly by Napoleon Bonaparte, that the leader was always right and should be able simply to command utter loyalty in the 'struggle' even if his directions turned out to be contradictory. This provides an engaging case.  His attempt to portray Fascism as 'directed activist' in contrast to 'passive activist' let alone 'limited' forms of government works less effectively and given what he says earlier on about the similarities between Fascism and Communism, it then seems artificial as he does later to try to portray them as very different in terms of this degree of activism.

The central problem with this book is in its first part.  O'Sullivan is utterly scathing of any previous interpretation of Fascism provided by historians and politicians up to that date (the book was published in 1983).  He dismisses them as naive and foolish, seeking to through aside all of the attempts to analyse and synthesise on the political movement.  This makes very difficult reading and undermines the faith you have in O'Sullivan.  There is a sense that he damages his academic credibility in making sustained attacks on others in the field, with no concession.  It also rouses suspicions that he is less confident in his own line than one might expect and so feels he must blow away every last alternative before turning to his thesis.  I advise you to avoid Chapter 1 entirely.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Omelette Exploration 5: The 'Lyon Housewife' Method

I am no fan of Michael Portillo (born 1953) either as a politician or a television presenter.  However, this approach to omelettes came as a result of me channel surfing and ending up watching the final episode of Series 3 of 'Great Continental Railway Journeys'.  It was first broadcast in late 2014, but has been repeated since.  Portillo, the presenter, was in the French city of Lyon, somewhere I would like to visit, talking about the traditional, homely 'housewife' style of cooking which is apparently favoured in the city, even among chefs.  This is in contrast to much of the restaurant cooking in France these days.  Even in small places in backwaters the cooking is heavily influenced by nouvelle cuisine approaches which is clearly the prime method taught by chefs and catering schools these days.  The Lyon chef Portillo was speaking to used the example of omelette making to outline the Lyon approach and, this being an interest of mine, I took on board what was said and tried it out myself.

Apparently the Lyon approach is to put coarse sea salt into the egg liquid before cooking.  Once the liquid is in the pan rather than moving it so that the liquid is spread evenly, instead you cover the pan and then draw the cooking egg incessantly into the centre, with the gaps left behind filling with remaining uncooked egg liquid until the omelette is cooked right through.  Of course you use butter for the cooking.  As it is, French butter tends to be very salty.  Typically you come across two types of butter - doux meaning 'sweet' which is unsalted; and demi-sel meaning 'half salt' which has 3% salt content, but tastes as if it has much more.  I would only ever use a doux butter if I had to use French butter.

I do not really see the benefits of this approach.  You end up with very much a 'gathered in' omelette almost looking like a rosette.  Without the flat surfaces you do not get the golden brown coating that I personally favour.  There is also a risk as when you over fill an omelette, that it will break up and you get something resembling scrambled egg rather than an omelette, not bad in itself, but not what you are seeking in this case.  There is a challenge with fillings if they are put in at the cooking stage because they have a different consistency than the egg liquid and can get 'left behind' in the gathering in so leading to a maldistribution of filling in the finished omelette.

I know it is a question of taste, but the sea salt was overbearing, despite me only grinding a pinch of it into the egg liquid, giving the omelette a dry, thirst instilling taste.  I suppose that counters the moistness of omelettes.  However, if using the Lyon approach be aware of the impact that it will have on your fillings; the flavour of a mild cheese or ham will disappear, you would have to use a blue cheese and a strong-flavoured ham to appear beyond the salt, ending up with an 'arid' omelette with a forceful flavour which might make an interesting change but probably too much for the ordinary British consumer.

Perhaps I need to practice more with this approach.  However, for me it produced an omelette very different from one with the attributes I aim for.  I would be interested to hear from others who have given this method a shot or use it habitually to hear more about the benefits of it.  Maybe it simply stems from a dislike of strongly salted dishes in contrast to some people I know.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Nice Biscuits

Tesco Nice Biscuits

This is a type of biscuit that is available from many companies, that I have not yet explored but will look out for from a range of shops in coming months.  Note that while many biscuits may be 'nice' these are 'Nice', apparently, possibly, named after the city on the French Mediterranean coast.  The fact that the Dutch equivalent are called 'Nizza' biscuits adds to that view, as the Dutch word for 'nice' is 'mooi'.

As with many biscuits available in Britain there is a shape and a patterning which you will almost always find with this biscuit.  There are no 'tractor tyre' edges as on a shortcake biscuit though there is no reason why there could not be.  There is something about how the biscuit appears, no matter what company produces it, that is important to signal to consumers what they are receiving.  Though, as I am increasingly noting on this blog, actually the tastes are more and more varying from what you might expect from that type of biscuit.

Put simply a Nice biscuit is always rectangular, pale in colour and with the word 'NICE' impressed on the top side and little indentations right around edge.  It can have a covering of sugar on the top side.  It is quite a sweet biscuit and you should find strands of coconut as you bite through it.  Some can have a soft bite to them, a lack of snap, but really they should not crumble.  These from Tesco largely have these element, they have a reasonable snap and you can sense, rather than taste the coconut in them.  The striking thing about them was that they felt very 'dry' on the tongue almost as if I was eating a cracker biscuit.  This was not expected from a Nice biscuit.  Overall aside from coconut shreds, these were almost painfully plain biscuits.  They seemed better as they matured a little in biscuit jar, but I was not getting the experience I was expecting from these biscuits.  They are not appalling but I think Tesco needs to work at the recipe.  They look perfect but something is missing, some sweetness and certainly some moistness from the coconut to make these good Nice biscuits.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Oaties

Tower Gate Oaties

Seeing that I am reviewing another biscuit from Lidl, I guess it is time to head across town to the one branch of Aldi I know there and buy some of theirs to see how they compare with their rival discount supermarket.  With oatie biscuits (I guess 'oaty' would sound too much like porridge) the comparator is always the McVitie's Hob Nob biscuit (particularly loved by Germans).  These from Lidl lack the sweetness of the Hob Nob, they are plainer.  The texture is mixed.  There are the oat chunks that you would expect but the biscuit around them lacks substance and certainly the greater chewiness of the Hob Nob.  The packet is much smaller than many from Tower Gate, notably their ginger nuts.  This is not a bad biscuit and in fact would work better as a biscuit-for-cheese rather than as a sweet biscuit.


Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Books I Read In July

'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
As I have noted before, I come to read the Harry Potter series from watching the movies more than once each.  This book marks a jump in length from its predecessors; my edition had 636 pages.  As with the previous volumes I have read, the story largely focuses on Harry's life at school.  The adventure element forms a smaller part than in the movies.

The book introduces characters that do not feature in the movie, including magical creatures, additional house elves and members of the Ministry of Magic and of the Weasley family.  There is also a sub-plot about Hermione Granger campaigning for the rights of house elves, an enslaved species in the magic world.  The gaps between the three trials that Harry has to undertake are longer but the portrayal of the challenges themselves, especially the first one, are far shorter than how they are shown in the movie.  This is a shame especially as little Quidditch features in this book.  It also includes lengthy exposition especially towards the end.

I like the book because it has these various sub-plots and the reappearance of teachers who largely disappear in the movie.  It is also good at seeing the qualms in Harry's mind, both standard teenage concerns and the risks of facing his nemesis, Lord Voldemort who experiences a leap forward in strength in this book.  Overall it is not a bad book, but I wanted more of the adventure and less of the vacillations of Potter, but then I guess it is aimed at someone who is 14 and not 48.  As yet, however, I have not been put off completing the series.

'Rumpole's Return' by John Mortimer
Though, as I noted last month, Horace Rumpole, unlike the characters around him, never seems to age, in this book he has retired.  He has gone to live in Florida where his son is an academic.  Interestingly his daughter-in-law is pregnant but continues to smoke.  Rumpole soon tires of life in Florida and returns to his old chambers when called upon by a former colleague.  The story is pretty much a murder mystery with Rumpole and his son gathering evidence on both sides of the Atlantic to help Horace make a defence in a murder case.  The story is alright but is a little unsatisfactory in the comings and goings of Rumpole and the question whether he could really retire and then return.  He has not sold his London flat and his wife comes back from Florida after him too.  By the end of the book the status quo ante has been re-established.  I accept that some of this stems from the fact that these are stories based on what was proving to be a successful television series and so the drivers are those of broadcasting than how an author might work a novel or series of short stories.  The notable change especially from the first book in the series, is the lack of humour, the only funny bit is a repeat of a joke told in an earlier book.  It passes the time to see Rumpole and the quirky characters around him with the addition of interesting aspects of English law and forensic science, but it lacks the engagement of the first book and I do wonder if it is a case of diminishing returns.

'Flight of A Witch' by Ellis Peters
This is another of Peters's books featuring members of the Felse family.  This one was published in 1964 and so George Felse has just been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector and his son Dominic is a sixth former.  Both appear in this book, but as is common for Peters, they are supporting rather than leading characters.  As in many of her books set in England it is based in the border region with Wales, but unlike in 'City of Gold and Shadows' (1973) by which time George is a Detective Chief Inspector, the region is portrayed very bleakly.  The story is centred on an 18-year old girl (the age of majority until 1970 was 21 so people below that age were still considered children though they could have sex at 16, they could not vote), called Annet [sic] Beck.  One difference from the mid-1960s compared to today when more people have children in their 40s than their 20s in Britain, a child of a couple who had turned 40, as Annet is, was expected to be 'wrong' in some way.  Annet disappears for five days and is connected to a crime committed in Birmingham.  The bulk of the story is about finding out what happened to her during those five days and who was the man with her involved with the crime.  There are a range of suspects and George Felse aided by Dominic and a friend of his, plus one of Dominic's teachers, Tom Kenyon, seek to eliminate the suspects and force the actual man involved out of cover.

Ellis does jump around between points of view but less often than in some of her other Felse books.  The steady investigation and the elimination of a number of seemingly likely suspects is handled well.  The main problem is how bleak the book is.  This is not simply a result of the dreary setting, but also because so much of the story is seen through the eyes of Tom Kenyon, foolishly besotted with Annet who is the daughter of his landlord and bitter throughout as a result.  He comes across as a very pathetic character able to contribute much to developments and in fact spends the bulk of the climax a dumb, incapacitated spectator.  The trouble is that you often identify even if only distantly with the perspective of the one showing the story.  Looking through the eyes of George or Dominic consistently would have been alright.  However, seeing so much through Tom's eyes makes you feel dirty.  Unlike Annet he has no form of redemption or even like the criminal, of release.  He ends being humiliated by one of his pupils and has any potential for affection spured.  As a result you feel that his life is pointless.  That is no way to be engaged with a novel.

'Stars and Stripes Forever' by Harry Harrison
I know there is a current tendency for many authors to write 'what if?' novels which accentuate the greatness of the USA or show how it would have benefited from having more of the attitudes of the Confederate States in its make-up.  This book published in 1998 can certainly be seen as one of the first such alternate history books.  It starts well, looking at the real incident of the stopping of the British ship, the 'Trent', in 1861 which was carrying two representatives of the Confederate States to address Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III, by a Union naval ship.  This was violation of Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War and added to British support for the CSA.  Due to its military failings, Britain never formally recognised the Confederate States but did build warships for their navy.  In this alternative, Queen Victoria is angered and her husband Prince Albert is weakened by the illness that was killing him, slightly earlier than in our world.  As a result a strongly worded ultimatum goes to President Lincoln and this leads to Britain entering the war on the side of the Confederates.  So far, so feasible.  These elements take you to almost half way through the book.

Of course, some people argue that no 'what if?' book is feasible, because it is not what happened.  This is despite the fact that in real history it is the least likely thing that happens.  In this book, one British naval party makes a mistake in bad weather and so assaults Biloxi, a Confederate town rather than Deer Island which is occupied by Union troops.  The British forces go on the rampage for some reason through the town looting and raping.  This is seen as sufficient to immediately encourage the Confederate forces to call for a ceasefire from the Union.  Within a day of the British mistake, Union and Confederate troops are fighting side-by-side against the British both in the Mississippi and then in New York state.  Very quickly President Lincoln meets with Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA and they agree on joint action against the British in 1862, setting aside the two years of civil war and the issues that provoked it, very speedily.  The combined forces not only go on to eject the British from the USA, but provoke the French-speaking Lower Canada to break from Britain, then seize the remainder of British territories in North America bar Newfoundland and easily capture all the British Caribbean islands.  A Francophone uprising against British rule is probably the most feasible of those steps, there having been one in 1837-38 which had to be put down by the military.  Setting that aside, at the same time the CSA Congress agrees to the ending of slavery and then abolishes itself effectively returning all the seceded states to the Union by 1863.

There seems so much which is rushed through in this alternative.  Yes, Lincoln wanted to end the war but would not do so at any cost.  He did not recognise the CSA as a legitimate state or Jefferson as a proper President.  Meeting him in the way he does in this book would suggest to many that the CSA was being treated as a sovereign country.  In our history, even after the CSA had been soundly beaten in 1865, many found ways around abolition of slavery and did not roll over easily.  Harrison points out that at the end of the war in 1865, combined, the USA and CSA had an army larger than any European country and he believes that this army could have defeated all those armies fighting in unison, let alone just the British armed forces.  This overlooks the fact that it took the Union Army until 1865 to defeat the Confederates, even with a comprehensive blockade.  Furthermore it overestimates the strength of the Confederate forces, dependent on poor equipment, to fight British regulars and win easily.  Somehow, overnight the two sides of the bitter conflict set aside their differences and they are empowered, especially the Confederate troops, with a new vigour and indeed skill.

The other thing is that the British keep making mistakes and the Americans make none.  In addition, new equipment and weapons are pressed into service with minimal difficulty and are used appropriately throughout; the ships needed are always in the right place at the right time and do not malfunction when needed for victory.  The British, in contrast, cling to old ways.  The war portrayed is largely a re-run of the War of 1812, which is a fair estimate of what might have happened.  However, everything that could go wrong does so for the British and even the civilian population of Washington D.C. prove to better, more committed fighters than British regulars.  The Confederates are shown largely, with a few notable exceptions, as being happy in an instant to stop fighting the very men who drove them to leave the Union and throw over their hard-won allies, the British immediately, making no use of them to leverage any concessions from Lincoln; they simply swallow return to the Union as it was and abolition of slavery just because John Stuart Mill says it is the right thing to do.

Overall the book suggests somehow that the American Civil War was simply an error and the two sides were only fighting half-heartedly for what they believed in, despite their differences being so severe to lead to war in the first place.  To Harrison it only needed a rather feeble invasion in a couple of points to overcome these differences in a matter of days and set the USA to be able to severely damage the largest empire of the day with a handful of iron-clad ships, almost always in perfect working order.  This book starts well, but then Harrison slips into a jingoist fantasy.  He could have reached a similar conclusion much more feasibly, especially given that this is the first book in a trilogy.  Yet, for some reason he feels compelled to rush it all through making it highly unrealistic.  I can only think this comes from a great deal of arrogance as he writes at the end of the book: 'Events, as depicted in this book, would have happened just as they are written here.'  Even an author of a novel about true historical events cannot claim that.  In this case many historians and authors would argue that the path this book lays out is far from having been likely even with the British error.  This could have been a far better book, but for a fan of alternate history books it will be very frustrating to read.

Non Fiction
'The Economic Impact of the Cold War' by James L. Clayton
This book was published in 1970 so only covers the first half of the Cold War and it is primarily focused on the impact on the US economy.  It starts by looking at a range of economic/political perspectives on what defence spending does to an economy.  However, its central focus is a very astute analysis of the so-called military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower identified in 1961, i.e. the intimate connections between government departments, especially the Department of Defense and big companies particularly in aeronautics, ordnance and engineering.  It shows that despite the USA portraying itself as the home of free enterprise, in fact the billions of dollars in defence contracts from 1941 onwards led to a large chunk of the US economy really being a complicit cartel, a kind of corporatist economy more familiar in Fascist states than democratic ones.

The book draws on a wide range of contemporary sources, putting both sides of the case, both broadly, e.g. on whether defence spending boosted or drained the economy and on specifics such as the Vietnam War and ABMs (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) both of which were controversial at the time.  The book is very interesting on how uneven defence spending has been across the USA and shows that the current day prosperity of California and Texas was promoted by vast defence-related spending in these states in the post-war period.  It reminds of schemes that have long been forgotten and highlights the waste and poor quality often produced from such expenditure.  Thus, the analysis is of the kind which could be applied to governmental spending today as we are familiar with similar stories for example in software developed for the health service and air traffic control.  It is also the only book that I have read that presents a negative view of the US efforts to put a man on the Moon and how the money spent on the missions provided little benefit for the country and could have been better spent.

While the book looks at a single country over a particular period of its history, the way it analyses the situation and provides frameworks for this analysis, it is an engaging book which can be taken forward to use as a basis for analysis of state-commercial relations especially on vast schemes the output of which is difficult to measure in tangible terms of success.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Omelette Exploration 4: The 'Bliny' Omelette

If you are not familiar with 'bliny', they are pancakes, with savoury or sweet fillings, originating in Eastern Europe.  The singular is 'blin'.  They are also popular in the USA, largely as a result of their use in Jewish cooking.  A bliny pan is a frying pan about the size of your palm.  Naturally it can also be used for making omelettes.  All the rules I have outlined in previous Omelette Exploration postings, i.e. that you need butter for the cooking, good free-range eggs and should avoid an excessive amount of filling, still apply.  The question of the filling is even more important with the 'bliny' omelette than the standard, larger omelettes that I have written about so far.

Heat is also a vital factor.  This is something that people often get wrong and there is nothing wondering about clouds of butter smoke pouring from your pan and yet, you tend to want a golden colour to your omelette.  People tend to forget that the pan itself gets hot, it is not simply about the flame or electrical glow beneath it.  Indeed if making a number of omelettes as you will tend to do with the 'bliny' approach, by the end you will find you can do quite a bit of cooking actually lifting the pan away from the heat source and using the heat retained in the metal of the pan to finish them.

Cooking bliny omelettes is a fast process and you will need to make sure everything is in place, including the people who are going to eat them.  The quantity of egg liquid you pour into the pan each time will probably be equivalent to the contents of a third to half an egg.  Be sure that you can pour your egg liquid in with care and not just dollop in too much that will prove difficult with the small plan usually ending up with egg liquid wasted all over your cooker.  Keep the filling to no more than what you might hold between three fingers.  It tends to go into the centre of the omelette rather than being evenly distributed as with standard omelettes.  Indeed you may fold the bliny omelette over in half to effectively make an omelette 'sandwich' of the contents.

The bliny approach allows you to vary the fillings from omelette to omelette so catering to a range of tastes at your table.  I did this approach with four people none of whom liked the fillings favoured by the others.  As before, cheese is a good ingredient for sticking together; herbs are not problem, but make sure that heavier fillings like ham or bacon are cut into small pieces, smaller even than with a standard omelette, otherwise they will break the structure.  You can then easily end up rather than a perfect sunshine disc of omelette with simply lumps of omelette adhering to bits of filling.

As with the mille-feuille omelette, there is something aesthetic about the bliny omelette.  With the former you are looking for the layers when you cut through it.  The bliny omelette is about a row of discs of omelette.  I suggest a minimum of four per person's plate, lined up, slightly overlapping each other; perhaps with a different filling in each.  Unlike with a standard omelette, however, they are not at the centre of the dish, they are the accompaniment.  Thus, you might want to keep to vegetable fillings, e.g. finally chopped onions, especially red onions or spring onions, or mushrooms, maybe even fresh chunks of tomato, rather than meat.  Your main item on the plate may be slices or ham or even cold fish, a piece of peppered mackerel will go well with a set of bliny omelettes.  I tend to do this approach with my diners ready to eat straight from the pan.  However, there is nothing to say that you cannot produce a range of bliny omelettes and then store them to eat later, especially at a picnic.

Cooking four to sixteen bliny omelettes in the same pan is going to mean it is hot.  By the end you will find that the egg liquid will cook on contact with the pan surface.  For this reason you may want to leave plain/unfilled bliny omelettes in your set to last.  Of course, there is something elegant about a whole set of unfilled omelettes anyway, well, in my view.  What you will find unless they are being coloured by blackened butter in your pan, is that you will not get to the golden brown shade on the outside that you will find with standard omelettes.  They will be the yellow or (hopefully if you are using good eggs) orange shade of the egg liquid.  This is fine.  As they are thin and small, they are certain to be cooked right through, a great phobia still of British people eating omelettes.  In addition, the trick with some olive oil, that I have mentioned before, can help give them a golden tinge.

The bliny approach is different to the typical one of going in with big omelettes jammed full of stuff.  They allow you to produce omelettes for a range of tastes around a single table and to provide what I feel are an attractive food especially for going with summer dishes.