Thursday, October 28, 2010

Weekend menus

The weekend is approaching, meaning that it's time to start planning menus. Before doing that, though, let's have a look at what we ate last weekend.

Last Friday, I felt that I was working in a commercial restaurant as I prepared several meals simultaneously. The programme was to eat sweet and sour chicken on Friday night (but cook it as late as possible), cholent on Saturday and prepare another batch of stir fried chicken and vegetables for me to eat during the week. I cooked the meals in reverse order to them being eaten.

First I chopped chicken breast and divided the pieces into two: one batch went into the fridge 'naked', and the other batch was covered in breadcrumbs, oregano and ginger before being shaken and then stored in the fridge. Then I prepared the vegetables: for 'my' meal, I diced yellow and red peppers, courgettes, carrots, pumpkin and onion, whereas for the family meal I left out the courgettes and carrots. I also added some pineapple chunks from a can of pineapple.

When everything was ready, I poured a little canola oil into the wok and turned it on (my wok is an electric wok). When the oil began to smoke, I poured in the chicken pieces and let them cook for a few minutes until all the surfaces had changed colour, turning them every minute or so. Then I add the vegetables, along with half a container of bean sprouts, let that cook for a few minutes whilst continually mixing the contents. When all the ingredients were mixed, I reduced the wok's heat severely and covered the wok. This allows the water in the vegetables to cook them (as steam) instead of the wok. Every five minutes I would open up the wok's lid and turn the ingredients again. After about twenty minutes, I deemed the dish cooked, and transferred the contents of the wok to a casserole dish which I stored in the fridge.

Whilst the wok was steaming, I was preparing the ingredients for the cholent. My wife had bought about a kilo of beef (cut number 8 in Israel, "shrir" or muscle, apparently called 'shank' elsewhere); this cut is ideal for stews as it contains a large amount of collagen which is broken down to gelatin during the cooking process. This cut is both relatively cheap and also low fat, although the pieces that my wife had bought seemed to have a comparatively large amount of fat which I had to cut off before cooking.

After the beef was cut up into cubes whilst removing most of the fat, I fried it lightly in order to 'brown' or 'sear' it. As 'Cooking for Geeks' tells us, this application of high temperature allows the Maillard reaction to occur, thus creating the familiar 'cooking meat' smell. The reaction occurs at around 160 degrees Celsius, whereas the slow cooker holds the temperature at around 65 degrees; if the meat were cooked solely in the slow cooker, this reaction wouldn't occur and there wouldn't be so much meat flavour.

Once the meat was browned, I put it in the slow cooker, along with potato chunks and peeled hard boiled eggs. Normally I would add 'white' beans to the mixture; I had indeed soaked the beans in water the previous night, but somehow the beans started fermenting, creating a very bad taste, so I had to throw them out. I used a can of baked beans instead - these beans are smaller and of course come in tomato sauce (not necessarily a problem). I also added onions fried in the oil in which I had previously browned the meat. This is an idea from 'Cooking from Geeks' and whilst I can understand the logic behind it, in practice it doesn't work too well as the onions took much longer than usual to caramelise. I think that next time, I'll fry the onions in clean oil.

So: in the slow cooker are meat, potatoes, eggs, beans and onions. I added a few handful of frozen stir fry vegetables (it would have been better to defrost them first), a small container of tomato paste, spices (salt, pepper, paprika and oregano) and water to cover. I turned the cooker on and left it ... until Saturday lunchtime. The dish was superb, although it had a slight 'edge' which might be due to the oregano.

About an hour before we were due to eat, I prepared rice; no secrets here. I also prepared the sweet and sour sauce by taking the pineapple juice from the can of pineapple and adding to it vinegar and brown sugar. I should have added a little ginger, but instead added water which turned out to be superfluous. I heated this mixture until it boiled, whereupon I turned off the heat. I mixed (not very well) some cornflour in hot water and added this in order to thicken the sauce. I will have to practice my cornflour techniques as the powder did not dissolve at all; I had to remove most of the lumps, which is why the sauce did not thicken.

When we were ready to eat, I heated up the wok again, lightly fried the uncoated chicken pieces, added the vegetables and the other half of the bean sprouts and stir fried the mixture for about ten minutes altogether. I did not steam it this time, but instead served straight from the wok. This also turned out very well.

Anyway: yesterday evening, I bought a kilo and a half of beef - much better looking pieces than the previous week's - and set a bowl of white beans to soak in water. This evening I will make cholent again, learning from last week's experience. This time I will put the beef on top of the beans and cover it with the potatoes - last week, the beef was on top, and some of it dried out. 

I think that my wife is going to cook chicken thighs in the oven on Saturday, otherwise I would be cooking chicken thighs and prunes in the slow cooker.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Calculating possibilities correctly

As these days seem to be devoted to raising public attention to breast cancer, I will write the rest of this blog in pink.

I read in another blog a posting about calculating possibilities correctly. I quote (my words are in normal type, the other blog is in italics):

How about “most women with breast cancer have a positive mammogram”? We’d likely agree. So what about “most women with a positive mammogram have breast cancer”? Not so, most women with a positive mammogram do not have breast cancer. Most diagnosticians don’t get this right when presented with the raw statistics – 1% probability that woman of 40 has breast cancer, 80% chance if she’s got it that the mammogram detects it and a 9.6% chance she’ll test positive if she hasn’t got it. The experts reckon that, based on these numbers, a woman with a positive mammogram has a 75% chance of having breast cancer.

They’re wrong, and not a bit wrong. They're massively wrong.

Putting the numbers a different way, “10 out of 1000 women at age forty who participate in routine screening have breast cancer [1%]. 8 out of every 10 women with breast cancer will get a positive mammogram [80%]. 95 out of 990 women without breast cancer will also get a positive mammogram [9.6%].”

Calculating this properly: out of 1000 women tested, there are 103 positive mammograms, of which 8 are true positives (breast cancer) and 95 are false positives. So the possibility of a woman with a positive mammogram having breast cancer is 8/103 or 7.8%

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Copper socks

I have to confess: I have a problem with my feet. If I wear shoes and socks, then my feet feel constrained; by the end of the day, the socks are damp from sweat, thus creating ideal conditions for fungi and bacteria to grow. Not surprisingly, I often suffer from skin problems on my feet due to fungi. So I wear sandals. As the weather in Israel is generally hot (the other day the temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius - in the second half of October!), this seems like a good idea: my feet can dry out and the fungi don't stand a chance. Unfortunately my feet dry out too much; I suffer from dry skin (itches) and cracked heels, which can be very painful. What can one do?

The answer appears to be ... copper socks! These are socks made from threads which include a small amount of copper, which prevents the growth of fungi and bacteria. Large scale tests have been carried out in the Israeli army, comparing the feet of soldiers who wore copper socks as opposed to those who didn't. The results apparently showed that the copper socks were very effective at preventing fungal infections.

The Chilean miners trapped underground for a few months were supplied with copper socks, and doctors who examined the miners after they were extracted were pleasantly surprised at the excellent state of their feet.

After googling "copper sock", I ended up at this site and ordered three pairs of ankle socks. Although nominally each pair of socks costs $14, the postage doubled the price, making each pair fairly expensive. On the other hand, it's a small price to pay for healthy feet, and apparently the socks last much longer than normal socks (and one doesn't have to change them so frequently).

Further investigation led me to discover that the socks are made by an Israeli company, Cupron. Despite this, I was unable to find any Israeli traces for this company on the web; it seems that they have a head office in Israel but their main presence is in America. The socks bore a label "made in China", which I suppose doesn't mean anything more than the fact that they were manufactured in China - the brains could be anywhere in the world. I even sent an email to the 'contact us' address on the Cupron site asking where one could buy such socks in Israel, which led to the following reply -
Our headquarters and our warehouse [are] located in the USA, we don`t have [a] warehouse in Israel. We're receiving a lot of emails and phone calls for buying the socks in Israel and we will consider to make something within the next weeks, I will update you.
[Ironically, the email was signed 'Shiri', which is an Israeli name. The poor English also leads me to believe that Shiri is Israeli, maybe living and working in America]

Coincidentally, there was a three page article about the Cupron company in Friday's newspaper business supplement which gave a wide company background, although there was nothing new for me.

And how are the socks? They are a bit tight (maybe the result of my wife hand washing them before I wore them) but don't cause me to want to scratch my feet. The socks are dry at the end of the working day and the condition of my feet seems to be improving - they're certainly not getting any worse. But paraphrasing Napoleon, an army marches on its feet, and one has to look after these very important but often abused appendages.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mocha too goes on holiday

Mocha the dog celebrated her fourth birthday in the past week. We're not sure of her exact birth date; we found her at the beginning of January 2007 and the vet estimated that she was about three months old. So she was born sometime during October 2006. Happy birthday!

While we were away, we decided to take her to a 'dog hotel' ('kennel' is hardly appropriate); this is basically someone's house and garden in a neighbouring settlement where the dogs are allowed to run wild. They get looked after and there is always plenty of company, but they are responsible for their own exercise.

Mocha displays the affect of high speed and gravity on her body as she is chased by another dog. After running around, it's time for a rest, her favourite occupation.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Project Management course

I see that I haven't written anything about my current course for the MBA degree, project management, apart from noting the fact that I have started the course. This is partially because we started in August then had a three/four week break in September because of religious and personal holidays, and partially because I was not getting a 'handle' on the subject.

If I remember correctly (and this is a good test to see how much I need to revise), the first lecture was an overview, the second was about groups/teams/personnel management (most if not all of this material was covered in the 'organisational behaviour' course, so I didn't listen too closely), organisational breakdown structures, and risks (including contracts). Most of this was fairly dull and seemingly unconnected with the subject at hand, although the lecturer assures me that the course is holistic and that it will all come together at the end. It's clear to me at the moment that I will have to devote plenty of time to learning modules 3 (risk) and 4 (obs), especially as the exam will require one to write an essay on these subjects.

But now we're in the middle of a three week span of lectures on a subject which seems very straight-forward to me - time management, specifically what is the critical path, calculating the critical path (CPM and PERT) and calculating the time/cost trade off (assuming that quality is maintained), aka 'crashing'. This is fairly simple mathematics/statistics and this serves as a subject which separates the men from the boys. Those who have problems with figures have probably had it easy until now - and now they're struggling - whereas I've been struggling until now.

I found a file on our course site which gives questions and answers about CPM, PERT and EVA (we haven't touched that yet). I did two questions (CPM and PERT) and found them very easy. So I'm going to devote my studying time (ie reading the course book in the evenings) to going over modules 2-4 again. This will be the most efficient use of my time.

Sweet and sour chicken

I cooked sweet and sour chicken again yesterday, this time using the slow cooker as opposed to the wok version from last week.

Initially I marinaded the chicken cubes with pineapple cubes in the fridge overnight; these I removed from the fridge and placed in the slow cooker without turning it on, allowing the chicken to achieve room temperature. On the stove, I created the sauce - pineapple juice, vinegar, brown sugar, water and ground ginger. Once this mixture was clear and started to boil, I poured it into the slow cooker, and turned the cooker's heat to high. After an hour of high heat, I added a bowl of chopped red, yellow and green peppers, along with a little ketchup. After another two hours of high heat, I reduced the cooker's heat to low, and added a cup of hot water in which I had dissolved corn flour starch. I left this mixture for about another hour on low heat, during which I cooked rice. I served the chicken mixture on top of the rice. I did take a picture of the meal on my cell phone intending to show it here but the picture didn't come out well technically (too grainy).

The vegetables were superb; the sauce was very tasty and combined well with the rice but my wife complained that the chicken was too dry - maybe she means over-cooked. The chicken was ok, but could have been better. I think that it needs a little protection - the batter.

I think that I'm going to try a compromise. Because my time is somewhat limited on a Friday (I only come home from studying at 3pm; we eat at 7pm and I normally have an hour's nap after returning home), I'm going to fry chicken pieces in batter on Thursday night and then cook them in the slow cooker on Friday afternoon.

Last time I wrote that I don't like deep frying without giving too many reasons. It turns out that there is a good wiki on the subject which gives the reasons why I dislike deep frying
  • What does one do with the oil afterwards?
  • It's dangerous (see Ian Rankin's "Rebus" books in which he mentions how easy it is to commit arson - someone comes home drunk, late at night, puts the chip pan on the stove to heat up then falls asleep on the couch. Meanwhile the oil in the chip pan rises in temperature until it catches alight - and then the house burns down)
I did briefly check out electrical deep fryers - these should be thermostatically controlled and thus safer - but the smallest capacity that I could find was two and a half litres oil, and that's far too much. I'm going to fry the chicken batter mixture in an ordinary frying pan, but not cram too much chicken in at one go, as I did with the wok. This way the batter layer will be more complete.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cooking for Geeks

About a month ago, I read about the above mentioned book in some blog or another. Fortunately, Amazon allows one to 'look inside', so I was able to see whether this would be a suitable book for me. 'Suitable' is an understatement: this is a book for which I have waited 30 years, although I probably didn't know that.

It's a not very well kept secret that my first (and currently only) degree is in Food Science. The degree was based on four main subjects: biochemistry, analysis, microbiology and technology. I was strong on the first three but no so much on the fourth, which might be considered a problem when one considers that most graduates from my degree course found an opening in an industrial company. I tended to work more on the analysis side, and had stints with Schweppes and two 'public' analysts, the latter being laboratories whose customers tend to be local authorities or private people.

Emigrating to Israel effectively prevented me from continuing to work in the food field, as I have lived on a kibbutz from day one, and in those days, it was anathema for members to work outside of the kibbutz. Of course these days, the situation has changed completely and it seems rare for a member to work inside the kibbutz.

Although I have always cooked, my 'glory days' were when I lived as a student in a commune in London; I would cook dinner once or twice a week for up to ten people, although occasionally I would cook for up to thirty people. This cooking had virtually nothing to do with my studies but plenty to do with the fact that my mother, alei'a hashalom, was an excellent cook and ran a small catering business at one time.

Although I did work in the kibbutz kitchens, I wouldn't call this cooking. At times it was weight lifting and at times it was managing the flow of hot trays in and out of a huge oven, but not cooking.

Only in the past six years or so have I really been cooking at home, and in that time I have always looked to expand my cooking horizons. I often joke that I enjoy cooking but not eating, a fact which has probably damped my enthusiasm at times (because someone has to eat the food!). Over the years I have expanded my repertoire whilst acquiring new equipment; this expansion has often been recorded here.

But for most of the time, I've simply been following recipes in the time honoured fashion. One learns a recipe then starts changing it slightly over time until it eventually becomes something different. I find that I have to do this frequently as most British or American recipes don't match the requirements of an Israeli palate, and sometimes it's difficult to find the same ingredients.

'Cooking for geeks' is partially an explanation of the chemistry and physics of cooking (something which didn't fit into my degree course), partially about the joys of experimentation in the kitchen and partially explaining cooking to someone who would feel more comfortable in writing a computer program than cooking a proper meal (as opposed to ordering pizza). The most interesting part of the book at the moment (it's a book which one dips into, as opposed to reading it from start to finish) is the correct temperature at which to cook meat, so that one protein denatures whilst another does not.

So far, I've only cooked one meal according to the book, a simple meat stew. The book states that a long, slow cook is needed in order to convert collagen into gelatin: it's just as well that I bought a slow cooker a few months ago. Whilst the meat in the stew was cooked perfectly, there were some problems with other ingredients - my wife would prefer that I peel potatoes before cooking them (all the nutrition is contained just under the skin!), and the beans were slightly undercooked and bitter. I can easily change one variable - soak the beans in water for a longer period - and repeat the experiment.

Flushed with a sense of adventure, I tried sweet and sour chicken from a recipe which might have resulted in something similar served as the Chinese restaurant at which we ate in Prague. I discovered two things: one cannot deep fry in a wok, and that corn flour is not the same as corn flour. That last statement needs amplifying, as it is a result of mistranslating a term from English into Hebrew. Many recipes use corn flour as a thickener - this is basically starch, which absorbs the water in the food and builds a polymer (see the book!); this corn flour is a white powder. But 'corn flour' is also flour made from corn, and is a golden powder, similar to bread crumb powder. It's the type of flour that one would make tortillas from. Both products sort of have the same name in Hebrew: the white powder is called 'cornflor' whereas the golden flour is 'kemach tiras' (literally, corn flour). Mistakenly, I had been buying the second type of flour when I should have been buying the first type - this is why my sweet and sour sauce refused to thicken!

The food itself tasted quite good but looked terrible. The problem with the sauce has now been rectified, but I don't know what I'm going to do about deep frying the chicken, as this is a type of cooking which is banned in my kitchen. Theoretically if the oil is hot enough and the food dry enough, then deep frying is ok, but in practice things are always different. Anyway, I don't have a pan in which to deep fry. I think that I'm going to try a recipe for slow cooked sweet and sour chicken, which has a higher probability of succeeding.

Friday, October 08, 2010


I've written before about the ERP program with which I work. I think that this program is comparatively easy for the average user, but it comes into its own when talking about development. This program allows the developer to add tables, screens, reports and procedures, all with a standard format. This capability to extend the program's capabilities is what enables the companies using the program to customise it according to their needs. In my humble opinion, one of the companies in the group exaggerated in the amount of customisation that they demanded and created a program in which the non-standard seems at times to be larger than the standard.

In the past year and three quarters, I think that I've managed to encourage the use of standard procedures, whilst ignoring some of the more outlandish developments. The passage of time and changes in the working population have allowed some of the customisations to be forgotten. At the same time, I've added some customisations of my own, primarily designed to increase the use of the ERP and decrease the use of Excel.

The other day I was asked to develop a screen in which would be stored reservations of raw materials (a certain raw material will be ordered for a specific customer order and no other customer order should be allowed to use that raw material). Every company seems to implement this in a different matter (if at all) which may be why there is no coverage of this subject in the standard program. My development is not much more than two data tables and two screens; the data does not affect anything else in the program.

In the course of writing a database trigger, I needed to refresh automatically the data screen, specifically a line different from the current line. I remembered that there was such a function listed in the documentation, so I hauled out the manual, found the relevant section and added the necessary command to the trigger. Instant syntax error.

I contacted the company who supports us about this; normally they answer my programming questions quickly (for example, how do I display data on the screen in a different colour), but this time I was given the bum's rush. I was sent a copy of the documentation (which I already have) and told that if I don't solve the problem, the company will be willing to do so for a fee. I checked the documentation to see whether it had been updated from the version which I have, but the relevant section showed no changes.

Somewhat annoyed, I decided to scan all the existing triggers in the program; this idea caused information overload as there are a lot of triggers. So I scaled down my request and asked for the code to all the triggers in screens beginning with A; once this was displayed, I searched for the word 'refresh' (the necessary command) and found it quickly. It turns out that the command has to be called with a parameter, presumably the number of seconds to wait before refreshing. I added 'refresh 1' to my trigger's code - and it worked perfectly.

In order to close the service call which I had opened, I wrote that I had found a solution without giving any details, although I did write that there was a mistake in the documentation. I was sorely tempted to write that I would reveal the correct syntax for a fee but decided to cut down on the sarcasm.

From the very first time that I saw the documentation, I saw that one could only understand it after one understood what was necessary to do. The documentation is sometimes hard to understand, lacks examples and in this case, totally wrong; instead of writing 'use the refresh command', they could have given an example.

Such problems are very annoying; very often, solutions come via favours from other developers or via hard personal graft. It shouldn't be like this.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Malta log #3

On our second full day in Malta, we rode on one of those get-on get-off tour buses which travel all around the main island of Malta. This way we got to see much more of Malta than we had previously. After leaving Valetta, the first stop was at Medina; we knew not to get off the bus but we advised other travellers not to miss this. The stop after that was Medina Glass, a glass making/selling facility seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We did alight here, spent some time in the facility and unfortunately missed a bus, making the wait longer than it need be.

The next stop was in Mosta, which is almost exactly in the centre of Malta. This town boasts the third largest unsupported dome in the World, which we photographed from all sides before having a very rich - and cheap - lunch in a cafe across the road. The bill for the four of us was only slightly more than the cost of one portion in the restaurant in Medina the previous day, and the food was far more filling. Unfortunately, there isn't much more to do in Mosta so we had to wait there for more than an hour before the next tour bus came.

This bus took us around the northern coast of Malta, which is completely different from Valleta. There were a few small beaches, high rise hotels and a more resort- like ambience. There is a region called Golden Bay which is equivalent to any beach resort, except for the fact that the beach area is somewhat limited. The whole of the eastern coast of Malta was like this; every five minutes we would see a minute beach, a marina and a hotel.

Eventually we found ourselves back in Valetta, near the main bus station. We had to stop a taxi in the street to take us back to the hotel, but it transpires that where we stopped was only about a ten minute walk (for most people) from the hotel.

In the evening, I booked a boat trip for the following day; for this we would be picked up at the Castille Hotel, which turned out to be midway between the hotel and the main bus station, albeit up a steep flight of steps. When checking out the meeting place, we came across the Saluting Battery,and above it the Upper Baccara gardens. A very pleasant place to visit.

The following morning, a taxi took us to the Castille Hotel (there was no way that my father could walk those steps), and from there a minibus took us to the harbour from which the cruise ships leave. We went on the "Gozo, Comino and Blue Lagoon Fernandes" cruise which took us back up the eastern shore of Malta to the other islands in the Maltese archipelago, Comino and Gozo.

Comino is an almost unhabited piece of rock whose Blue Lagoon features another postage stamp sized beach. We stopped here for a few hours; some people swam whereas others went on a speedboat, investigating the many caves nearby. We opted for the (extra cost) speedboat, which was good fun. After an on-board lunch, we sailed for Gozo, made a 180 degree turn in the harbour, found another isolated spot for swimming (which seemed extraneous) and then headed for home. Most people by this time were nodding off.

This morning I made a quick excursion to St John's Co-Cathedral, which like everything else in Valetta, is only a few minutes walk from the hotel; I had to pick up some bits and pieces which we had tried to buy in a tourist shop the previous evening. I didn't bother taking my video camera, which was a shame, as there was an army trooping of the colour outside of the cathedral.

In another hour a taxi will come to take us to Malta airport. From there, we will leisurely make our way back to Prague, wait a few hours in Prague Airport, and then catch a plane back to the Holy Land. Estimated time of arrival is 3am tomorrow morning. This is going to be a long and boring day.