Archive for October, 2010

Egg & Chips

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

My wife has gone away on a week’s vacation with a girlfriend which gives me the opportunity to make meals that her indoors is not too fond of. A couple which springs to mind include liver and onions (she who must be obeyed hates offal) and my mum’s recipe for corn beef hash. My wife believes canned corn beef to be awful because it reminds her of dog food.

I only learned to cook about twenty years ago when I was going through a divorce. I couldn’t boil an egg to save my life, but at the same time I couldn’t afford to eat out continuously; particularly when I was entertaining my two children every other weekend. Ironically my sister-in-law steered me onto the road of cooking redemption when she gave me a cook book by Delia Smith entitled “One is Fun.” As the title implies it contained a list of recipes for one person which was ideal for me at the time. Delia’s critics accuse her of being too pedantic and patronizing to the reader, but for a cooking novice like myself she was a godsend; the simpler the better.

My mum and my ex-wife spent hours in the kitchen (not together I hasten to add) preparing meals and quite naturally I assumed that cooking must be incredibly complicated and way out of my league. In the case of my mum, she was the first to admit that she hated cooking, but it was a necessity to feed a family of four. Armed with a chip pan which practically every working class household in Britain possessed she could rustle up a good fry up with the best of them.

One of my favorite meals prepared by my mum was egg and chips. Sometimes during the summer holidays she would take my brother and I for a day’s excursion to Caswell Bay. We caught the No 40 double decker bus that terminated at the beach, and to a nine year old, the journey felt like a venture to the other side of the moon. Upon arrival my mum hired a deck chair, pulled out her knitting and set up camp while my brother and I played in the surf and sand. She made us a variety of snacks for lunch and we usually stayed until dusk or when the incoming high tide reclaimed the sand and pushed mere mortals off the beach as a hint to head for home.

Following the return bus journey, sunburned and sand blasted, we arrived home bedraggled, weary and usually starving. My mum would customarily rustle up fried egg and chips and when you’re tired and hungry the food tasted like nectar from the gods. There is nothing better than dipping golden home made fries, laced with salt and malt vinegar, into the canary yellow egg yolk, and finish off with a chip buttie (the spell checker doesn’t like this word-slang for sandwich) washed down with a cup of hot sweet tea.

My mum was the empress of comfort food and on a grander scale she made the best laver bread and cockles; served with thick Welsh bacon hanging over the side of the plate, grilled tomatoes and usually fried bread. Hash browns would make a wonderful substitute for fried bread, but who needs perfection? Laver bread is the poor man’s caviar and a cockle is a small but very tasty shellfish which very many years was farmed off the marshes around the village of Penclawdd on the Gower Peninsula.

Several years later, I made an amazing discovery attending my mum’s funeral. My auntie Beat told me that my granddad was making curries in the 1920s and 30s. He worked as a boatman in Swansea Docks which attracted ships from the Orient, New World and darkest Africa. Sailors disembarking at the quayside would give him recipes and exotic spices which he used to great effect. I believe he would have been amused and delighted by the plethora of Indian restaurants that emerged in Swansea by the end of the 20th Century. There must be over sixty Indian restaurants dotted around the City Centre of Swansea. Consequently, it was not surprising that my friend and I enrolled for evening classes in Indian Cookery and we learned to cook a mean vindaloo and madras curry with an onion bhaji thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, my mum did not share her dad and son’s love of curries. On the contrary, she was convinced that the local cat and dog population was severely reduced with the introduction of Indian restaurants. She was adamant they were health hazards and begged me not patronize them. However, she was mortified when her favorite restaurant, “The Burlington Tavern,” a local restaurant icon for many years, was closed by the Health Department citing 96 violations of the Health and Safety Local Government Act.

Over the last few years I have learned to cook many different cuisines-Italian, French, Thai, Mexican and of course Indian. I enrolled in Italian cookery classes where I discovered how to separate an egg and determined there is little difference between freshly made and store bought pasta. I love a good steak but equally I can’t resist baked beans on toast laced with a fried egg easy over.

Hoodoos Arches and Goblins (Part 1)

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Living in Atlanta, it’s always a relief to go on vacation to escape the smog, traffic congestion and general mayhem of an urban metropolis. So my wife and I decided to head for Southern Utah for eight days and hopefully explore their 5 national parks. We flew to Salt Lake City on a Saturday night and arrived at 1.30am which was 11.30pm mountain time. We booked into a hotel near the airport for the night ready for a fresh and early start in the morning. The Croatian night porter reluctantly allowed us into the hotel room claiming he had no record of our reservation and muttered something about an iron curtain.

 Following a mentally stimulating exchange at reception the next morning, we gratefully made our way to the car rental office and picked up our gleaming red Ford Mustang convertible to commence our road trip, but not before they tried palming us off with a Chrysler Sebring. “Same color, same class, what’s the difference?” asked the bored car attendant. I wondered what he would say if I gave him a one dollar bill for a twenty and replied: “same shape and color; what’s up dude?” Anyway I digress.

The five national parks in Southern Utah are Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands which was in the order we planned to visit them. We cruised the 254 miles down to Springdale which is a small tourist town on the outskirts of Zion National Park. We didn’t make reservations in advance and decided to take pot luck. Unfortunately this was Memorial Day weekend and the major motels were full.

Luckily we found a room in a guesthouse a couple miles away in Rockville. The landlady, a six foot, bespectacled red head from Lithuania, was determined to persuade us to stay another night which was not in our plans. She chatted incessantly in an irritating nasal tone which would have given a woodpecker a headache and merely strengthened our resolve to move on. She did recommend a Thai restaurant for our evening meal, but while the food was reasonable, the service was eccentric and had the ambience of an air raid shelter.

The next morning with breakfast mercifully over, we entered our first national park of the trip. Zion is very popular with tourists and vehicular access is only permitted via the park shuttle. The shuttle takes you into Zion Canyon which unveils its eight layers of red and white sandstone, displaying what has taken two hundred million years to carve and mold. It is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. The canyon walls loom high above; in most places they are 2,000 to 3,000 feet high.

 Elevations in Zion range from about 3,800 feet to almost 9,000 feet. We toured the park for about an hour taking a number of photos along the way, and we were admittedly overawed by the sheer scale of the mountain scenery. However, it was too crowded for out tastes and we quickly retreated to the sanctuary of the mustang. My wife turned on the ignition and the mustang began to purr. She then pressed a button on the dashboard and majestically the roof quickly slid back and we were on our way to Bryce Canyon via the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel which led us to fascinating shapes and patterns at the top of the sandstone layers.

 If Zion’s scenery can be described as spectacular, Bryce Canyon is truly magical. The elevation of the rim varies between 8-9,000 feet creating a natural amphitheatre which comprises thousands of fantastic shapes known as hoodoos. These are pillars of red and yellow sandstone formed by erosion which naturally has taken place over millions of years. Nearby forests and meadows stand in striking contrast to the intricately eroded rocks. Hiking on some of the trails through the maize of hoodoos is an unforgettable experience. If you let your imagination run wild, faces and images of famous people can be found sculptured on the rock faces. Internationally famous sculptures Rodin and Henry Moore must be rolling in their graves; nature does it infinitely better.

 One drawback with Bryce Canyon is the limited places to stay. I believe there are two. One is the Park Lodge which is booked solid way in advance and the other is Ruby’s Inn situated a couple of miles from the park entrance. Ruby’s accommodation reminded me of a Welsh mountain sheep; it was warm and breathing with no fancy frills, but what more did one need when the great outdoors claimed center stage? So we stayed at Ruby’s for two nights and witnessed some incredible views on the hikes we attempted.

Alas, it was time to leave the magical kingdom of Bryce Canyon and head for possibly the least known of the parks: Capitol Reef (elevation 7000 feet.) We drew consolation in the knowledge that we would be cruising along Highway 12 almost all the way to the next park. Highway 12 is classified as an all American Scenic Byway and an All-American road and it didn’t disappoint. It comprises 124 miles of beautiful and awe inspiring vistas, winding its way through the Dixie National Forest and the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

 The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a huge chunk of public land engulfing much of the Southwestern Utah desert. The national monument is a 1.9 million acre oasis of mostly primitive land strewn with streams, monoliths, slot canyons and scientific treasures galore. This parcel of land dominates the rural southern section of the state of Utah. By the time we arrived at our hotel we had run out of superlatives for the magnificent scenery.

Capitol Reef National Park is one of the least crowded and certainly the most surprising of the state’s national parks. Encompassing nearly one quarter-million acres, the park features colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons and graceful arches. The park preserves the 100 mile long Waterpocket fold, which is a giant buckling of rock in the earth’s crust. We gingerly drove the mustang for its evening constitution along an unpaved road through Capitol Gorge, a narrow rocky route with 60 foot high walls which cuts through the fold; enhanced by the sunset and shadows on the rock faces it was quite stunning and mesmerizing.


Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

My friend’s son celebrated his birthday on 10th October, 2010 which is a truly unique date, and it prompted me to compile some lists:

Ten British Rock Bands recalled:

  • The Beatles were influenced by Buddy Holly, Elvis and Eddie Cochran in their formative years as a struggling band plying their trade in Hamburg, Germany, but over a period of seven years (1963-1970) they changed the course of popular music.
  • The Yardbirds featured a great vocalist in Keith Relf who unfortunately died too young from a drug overdose. An emerging Eric Clapton played lead guitar; R&B orientated with a bluesy, smoky atmosphere to their music.
  • The Animals were the first band to make it big from Newcastle; gritty, earthy sound fronted by the pock-marked Eric Burdon with Alan Price on keyboard. They were the first band to produce a Number 1 single over 5 minutes long which was a cover version of an old blues classic “House of The Rising Sun.”
  • The Hollies were a solid mid-stream group fronting Manchester’s challenge to Liverpool as the capital city of sixties pop music. They had a string of hits before founder member Graham Nash left to form one of rock’s super groups, “Crosby, Stills and Nash.”
  • Rolling Stones were the antithesis to the Beatles clean-cut image. Unkempt, unwashed, rebels with a cause to making lots of money. They were competent musicians but with Jagger gyrating and strutting around the stage they became great performers.
  • The Kinks fell just short of greatness with a unique style orchestrated by Ray Davies who fought constantly with his jealous and younger brother Dave. They produced one of the classic rock tunes, “You Really Got Me,” later covered by The Clash.
  • The Who is my wife’s favorite band: violent, moody, destructive, and malevolent(The Who not my wife, cue cymbal.) They were never quite the same when they lost Keith Moon, their manic drummer, to a drug over dose.
  • ELO (The Electric Light Orchestra.) I liked their use of violins and cellos in their line up. I rejected cellos lessons in school because I wanted to play the drums and then years later fantasized about playing cello in the ELO.  Jeff Lynn was the leader and later produced and played in the phenomenal band “The Traveling Wilburys.”
  • Queen: Freddie Mercury was irrepressible as a front man and performer. He saved Live Aid back in 1985 by producing an energetic and memorable set second to none.
  • Deep Purple: for personal reasons I just loved their throbbing track, “Smoke On the Water.” Kudos to Sharon.

 Ten of my favorite destinations:

  • Durham: I went to Durham on a field trip with no expectations. It was mid March but the snow was falling heavily creating a stark contrast to the brooding, dark stained walls of the majestic cathedral that dominates the town. I felt like I was walking though a scene from a Hallmark Christmas card. It was here that I first discovered a stout beer called “old peculiar.”
  • Three Cliffs Bay, Gower is a majestic beach where soft, powdery white sand melts through your toes. It is protected from inclement weather by fantastic limestone rock formations, overlooked by the ruins of a medieval castle. Access is problematic which thankfully keeps most of the punters away.
  •  Winchester is a city steeped in Saxon history, and was originally the capital of England. The Wykeham Arms is arguably the best pub/restaurant in England providing elegant accommodation and service second to none. A statue of Alfred the Great greets visitors as you enter the city and step back in time.
  • Chicago comprises the best Blues clubs, and restaurants owned and named after Chicago icons Michael Jordan and Harry Caray. Chicago pizza and river boat rides through downtown make this a memorable city to visit, but boy is it windy.
  • Big Sur, California comprises stunning coastal scenery. The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the USA, if not the world. Crossing Bixby Creek Bridge is truly breathtaking and for a second or two you feel like you’re flying like an eagle.
  • Bristol is probably the most underrated city in England. Move past the concrete jungles of modern shopping centers and multi-storey car parks and take a stroll down Park Street which oozes history and atmosphere comprising a plethora of bars, restaurants, eclectic shops and art galleries.
  • Bedfont is a blue collar district near to Heathrow Airport. My wife rented an apartment there for approximately 18 months, and the concord flew majestically over the friendly confines twice a day. Tucked away in the High Street was a little gem of an Indian restaurant that served a mean murghi jhal frezi.
  • Paris is a city of contrasts. I shared a room in an attic (a gitte?) with a friend on a college field trip, and he snored continuously like a warthog. I met my future wife in a bistro in Ille Saint Louis, and we returned to spend part of honeymoon there a few years later. I was also mugged in the Metro for my troubles so I have mixed emotions when I think of Paris.
  • Savannah is a unique city inextricably linked to its colorful history by a series of delectable town squares depicting various characters who played a notable part in its evolution.
  • Buenos Aires is a vibrant and dazzling city. Its architecture is an eclectic mix with various elements resembling Barcelona, Paris and Madrid. The City is the home of the Argentinean tango and there is no dance more romantic or sensuous. My lasting memory of Buenos Aires was the preponderance of dog walkers some of whom were grappling with 10-15 leads at any given time.

Ten of my favorite dishes I love to prepare and eat:

  • Chicken tikka masala
  • El Cid chili
  • Chicken with lime and ginger
  • Murghi Jhal Frezi
  • Mussels Provencale
  • Nana’s  ham and pea stew
  • Shepherd’s pie with cheese-crusted leeks
  • Turkey with a hint of Thai
  • Poor man’s jambalaya
  • Salmon fillets with fava bean sauce

Sunday Sport

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Every Sunday for five months of the year the NFL dominates the American sporting calendar. Pre-game shows hit the air waves early Sunday morning followed by live games on the national TV networks at 1.00pm, 4.00pm and the evening game usually shows up around 8.30. However, on Sunday October 3rd, the sporting action was shared with three other sports; well that was the case in my household.

Despite the appalling weather on day 1 of the Ryder Cup the conclusion on Monday provided dramatic theater. This was the first time in its 83 year history that the Ryder Cup was extended into Monday to play the singles matches. Graeme McDowell won the cup by claiming a victory in the last singles match over a blubbering Hunter Mahan and Europe won by the slenderest of margins 141/2-131/2. Nevertheless the cup was really won on Sunday. Following another rain delay in the morning all 24 players entered the arena to participate in the remaining two foursomes, and 4 four balls.

 The match score overnight was 4-2 in favor of USA, but Europe led in all six matches to be played on Sunday albeit by narrow margins. It was almost asking the impossible for Europe to accomplish six victories against seasoned US PGA campaigners but they almost pulled it off by winning 51/2 points from the possible 6. Lee Westwood and Luke Donald set the tone by demolishing the previously unbeaten pairing of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker 6&5.

 Europe were gathering momentum aided and abetted by Captain Colin Montgomerie looking for intents and purposes like a constipated bulldog driven around the course by the token Welshman in team Montgomerie, Rhys Davies. At the end of Sunday’s competition the match score was now 91/2-61/2 in favor of Europe. Traditionally the Americans are stronger in singles as it proved once again. But they couldn’t quite pull off another “Brookline” comeback; failing tantalizingly close by one point.

The TV controls were overheating from the constant channel changes as I switched back and fore to Arsenal v Chelsea in between greens and tees. This was a clash of two London rivals who have finished in the top four of the Premiership for a quite a number of seasons. As usual, the match was played at turbo speed and nail biting intensity. Chelsea always looked capable of scoring with Arsenal’s defense looking as shaky as ever. Arsenal’s back five – Fabianski, Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Clichy- sound like members of the United Nations Security Council. Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s enigmatic striker from the Ivory Coast breached their security and scored his 13th goal in 13 games against Arsenal to lead his team to a well earned victory.

Arsenal play some pretty football spraying the ball about with great lucidity, but they have not beaten Chelsea or Man Utd in the premiership for the last four seasons. Put simply, their rivals have developed a strategy whereby they allow Arsenal their share of possession, suck them into their half and then strike with pace and power on the counter-attack. There is no doubt that Arsenal are close to making a major breakthrough but, unless they quickly become more streetwise, failure when it matters most threatens to become an insurmountable habit.

No sooner had Eduardo Molinari sunk a putt on the 18th green to earn a valuable and significan ½ point for Europe, I was turning over to Fox to witness the kick-off in the Falcons v 49ers match up.

 The talking heads on the local sports stations had been warning the Falcons to be wary of the 49ers coming out fast and furious to prove to observers they didn’t deserve a 0-3 record. The Falcons failed to heed the warning and by the end of the first quarter they were trailing by two touch downs, 0-14.In contrast the Falcons looked flat and listless; possibly suffering a reaction from their hard fought victory in New Orleans the previous Sunday. Tantamount to a baby taking its first steps, Ryan tentatively led his offense back into contention with a touch down and field goal to trail at the half 10-14.

 To my mind, he overdoes the throws to Tony Gonzalez while neglecting Roddy White, supposedly the number one receiver. A second field goal by Matt Bryant in the 3rd quarter separated the two teams by one point going into the final quarter. Thanks to a fumble by a San Francisco receiver, Ryan was afforded the opportunity to drive his offense down the field to give his goal kicker the chance the win the game. Bryant duly delivered his 3rd field goal of the game to win it for the Falcons 16-14 with two seconds remaining. They claim that the good teams sometimes have to win ugly and this was certainly not one of Ryan’s better days.

In between shouting and screaming at Ryan and the Falcons, I was tuning in to watch the Braves stumble into the playoffs. They had to win the 162nd and final game of the season and the Padres lose to the Giants if they were to avoid a one game playoff and take their place in post season as the Wild Card. Their opponents, Philadelphia were assured of the Division title and appeared disinterested in proceedings.

By the end of the 5th innings, the Braves were coasting with a commanding 8-2 lead, only to see it ebb away by the top of the 8th. The Braves’ veteran closer Billy Wagner entered the arena in the top of the 9th with his team’s lead cut to 8-7. He manfully struck out the last three batters and the Braves crawled over the finishing line. Several hours later, news came through confirming that the Padres had lost and the wild card was ours. Bring on the Giants people.


Brotherly Love

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

 Following an extremely close-run election campaign and ballot, Ed Miliband pipped his media favorite elder brother David in the Labour leadership race by a 1.3 per cent margin. Sons of Jewish immigrants, the political pair were both educated at a North London comprehensive before winning places at Oxford University where they gained first class degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. In 2007 they became the first brothers to serve simultaneously in the Cabinet since Edward and Oliver Stanley in 1938. The Labour leadership election of September 2010 was largely expected to be won by David Miliband (born 1965) but his younger brother Ed, had different ideas!

Under the Electoral College system employed by the party, voting power is divided equally between three sections: MPs and MEPs, affiliated organizations including trade unions and ordinary party members. Because Ed Miliband owed his selection as leader to the support of the trade unions and the left of the party, many observers quickly jumped at the chance to label Edward, “Red Ed”; also obviously they were assisted in this because his father was Ralph Miliband, the Marxist theorist.  

Red Ed has made an amazing advancement; from writing speeches for the then future Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the 1990’s and advising him whilst at the Treasury, he has made a spectacular rise to prominence. Mr. Miliband was Gordon Brown’s adviser/counselor from 1994 to 2002, at which point he left the Treasury to secure a safe parliamentary seat in 2005. Mr. Brown then appointed him to his Cabinet. He therefore does not represent a break with Labour’s past: he helped shape Labour’s past.

With such a close contest, one could perhaps anticipate some animosity amongst members and the Miliband clan. It could be difficult to unite the Labour party behind the young Miliband when virtually half of those in the party arguably would have preferred his brother. This remains to be seen. Mr. Miliband joked about his “Red Ed” nickname, yet the abiding impression left by the new leader was that, under Labour, the big state will be back

The new leader – who was elected as an MP two years AFTER the Iraq war – told the conference the conflict was “wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations”. David’s extraordinary outburst over his brother’s statement confirmed that he would NOT be standing for Ed’s Shadow Cabinet – and will walk away from frontline politics.

Like the outpouring of grief following the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, the decision by David Miliband to leave politics has a great deal to tell us about the nation that we have become. Many commentators have spoken of the event as a “tragedy”. Almost all have praised the “courage” of the former foreign secretary. The refrain has been: “David must do what’s right for him.”

Very few have urged that David Miliband should have put his own preferences aside – and done, instead, what was right for the Labour Party and for the nation. Nobody told him to put wounded pride behind him. Nobody talked about stoicism. His wife burst into tears when the result was announced: she’d have done him a favor if she had given him a sharp slap and told him to pull himself together.

For the party faithful, the fact that the new leader’s speech was fundamentally dishonest will be of little consequence; to the country, it should be. Red Ed set out to create the myth that he leads a new political “generation” – he used the phrase at least 40 times – that represents a complete break with Labour’s past. This simply will not wash. The new leader appears to have learned from his mentor, Mr. Brown, not to place too great a store on clarity or principle.

In concluding his acceptance speech Red Ed called for a New Politics – a cliché that has been uttered by every freshly minted progressive leader since John F Kennedy. It is doubtful whether he had the faintest idea what he was talking about. So how about a return to an old politics which respects experience and fortitude, duty and service? Meanwhile we urgently need to turn our back on the empty, shallow, meretricious narcissism on display at the Labour Party Conference the other week. Labour may yet rue the day they picked the younger Miliband to lead them.