Happy Tau Day

Back in March, we (or at least some of us) celebrated Pi Day.

Now, pi (or π as it is properly written) is one of the best-known mathematical constants.  Any mathematician, engineer or physical scientist could easily quote you π to more decimal places than you’d ever need (and the mathematicians could probably also bore entertain you for hours with talk about how π is not just irrational but transcendental, etc.).  If you stopped a random person on the street and asked them about pi, there’s a fairly good chance (once you’d made it clear you weren’t talking about pie) that they would be able to tell you that it was something to do with circle, even if they couldn’t give you a definite number or a strict definition.

However, there are a few people out there who believe that π is not the best choice for a circle-related mathematical constant.  Instead they advocate the use of τ (tau) = 2π (≈ 6.28).  There are actually some pretty good reasons for this view, well articulated in the Tau Manifesto.  Rather than try to summarise the arguments here, I’ll leave you to read the original article if you are interested.

It seems to me that, while there is a strong case to be made for τ as the better choice for a fundamental constant, the use of π is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it is unlikely to be feasible to make the switch.  Also, since π (as it’s usually mispronounced, at least in the English-speaking scientific world) sounds like pie, it gives us an excuse to celebrate it by eating pie.

There’s no reason why we can’t have our cake (or our pie) and eat it too, by celebrating both Pi Day (14th March, or “3-14”)  and Tau Day (today, i.e. 28th June, or “6-28”).  Since τ  = 2π, the obvious way to celebrate Tau Day is by eating two pies.

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Non-Stick Penguins

I seem to have ended up in another new band!

More accurately speaking, a couple of friends and I now have a name to use when we perform together.  Instead of just being Jon, Rob and Magnus, we are the Non-Stick Penguins. So far our public playing has amounted to a handful of songs at an open-mic night last week, but there will doubtless be more.

I have known both Jon and Rob for quite a long time.  A couple of years ago, I started playing some guitar for Jon, who was writing and singing his own songs and needing someone to play them.  We did a few open-mic nights and informal gigs.  For the last few months we haven’t got round to making any music together but a few weeks ago we started again and this time it occurred to us to invite Rob, a mutual friend and fine guitarist, to join us.  Having Rob on guitar frees me up to play other instruments (so far mostly bass ukulele and violin) on the songs.

We have continued to play mostly Jon’s songs but for last week’s gig we also did a cover of the song Who’s going to lead the march upon the jailhouse by Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies.  It’s likely that we will do a few more covers (of songs by Harry and other people) in the future and we may even eventually do some of my songs, although I am not exactly a prolific (or especially talented) songwriter.

Green eggs (but no ham)

I mentioned yesterday that I was intending to do some more noodlesprucing for dinner.  That, indeed, is just what I did – with quite interesting results…

The starting point was a packet of spicy prawn flavoured instant noodles.  For vegetable content, I had some left over (uncooked) red cabbage and a spring onion that needed using up, so I chopped them up fairly finely and fried them in the saucepan before adding the spicy prawn flavour sachet and boiling water, followed by the noodles themselves.  I also lobbed in a handful of caraway seeds, as caraway is generally a good accompaniment to cabbage.

Having written yesterday about poaching eggs in baked beans as a way of noodlesprucing them (to use the term in its more general sense), it occurred to me that an egg could also be poached in the broth in which noodles are being cooked.  Since I happened to have an egg to hand, I decided to test this theory, putting the egg in about half way through the simmering of the noodles (i.e. about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time).

When I transferred my noodles into the bowl for eating I was initially somewhat dismayed to discover that the egg had turned a somewhat unpleasant, mouldy-looking greyish green colour.

I then remembered an exciting food chemistry factoid that I learned from a book several years ago, which is that red cabbage juice reacts with egg white to make it turn green.  As far as I recall, there is some enzyme in the cabbage juice that reacts with a protein in the egg; as far as I know, it only works for red cabbage juice.  I remember doing some experiments frying eggs with red cabbage juice and discovering that the result was not a particularly attractive shade of green.  Still, it doesn’t seem to have any appreciable effect (positive or negative) on the taste of the egg and it was comforting to know that this colour change was an expected chemical reaction and not an indication that I’d accidentally used a bad egg or something.

The idea of poaching an egg in my noodle broth seems to work very well and I’ll doubtless try it again in future.  I assume that if (as is usually the case) I’m not cooking up red cabbage with the noodles, the egg shouldn’t come out green.  Who knows, though, what other interesting colour changes I might discover.

Noodlesprucing

Over the years, I have eaten many instant noodles.  Although not quite living up to their name, they are nevertheless quite quick to prepare as well as being cheap and, with not too much extra work, quite tasty and reasonably nutritious.

I don’t generally prepare them quite as directed on the packet (which is usually to boil/simmer them for about 5 minutes in water with the contents of the included flavour sachet added).  The simplest change, which I always make, is just to cook them for a bit longer, usually around 10 minutes. This makes them softer and more succulent than they would otherwise be.

The other way I perk up my noodles, which not only improves the taste but also provides a nice lot of variation on the 4 or so basic flavours sold by my local supermarket, is to add various spices and occasionally other ingredients.  This can be as simple as just a dash of extra paprika or whatever else comes to hand when I reach for the spice cupboard.

As an example of a slightly more sophisticated noodle-enhancement, here’s what I did last time I had noodles for dinner, a few days ago.  I started by chopping up a spring onion and lightly frying it (with a small amount of oil) in the saucepan I would be cooking the noodles in.  While it was frying I boiled a kettle and then added boiling water, the chicken seasoning packet (contents) from the noodles, a bit of extra 5-spice powder and a dash of soy sauce to the pan and let it come back to the boil.  I then added the noodles and simmered for about 10 minutes before serving in a nice deep bowl with a generous blob of salad cream in the middle.  It was very tasty for a meal that took less than 15 minutes to prepare.

The reason I mention this now is that I have come up with a new word for the culinary art of transforming instant noodles into fine dinners without too much work: noodlesprucing (so called as you are sprucing up the noodles).  I’m not sure how long I’ll continue to use that term and I suspect it won’t catch on with the general public, but I submit it now as a humble offering towards the enrichment of the English language (as well as a potential inspiration for any budding chefs, especially those on a tight budget).

Despite the name, there’s no reason why noodlesprucing can’t also be applied to other foodstuffs.  The one that springs to my mind is baked beans (especially when served on toast), mainly because I have been doing mildly exciting things with these for longer than I have with noodles.  Again, it usually amounts to cooking them up with random spices; I quite often like to put some cheese on top as well, or to poach an egg in the baked beans.

I shall probably have noodles for dinner again tonight, so I will doubtless engage in a spot more noodlesprucing.  It remains to be seen what inspiration will strike this time, but I look forward to finding out.

Good while it lasted

It seems that the lovely summer weather we’ve been enjoying for the last week or so has now come to an end, at least in my corner of North Wales.  There were clear signs of overnight rainfall when I got up this morning and the sky is threatening more rain soon; it was spitting slightly when I last went outside.  Actually, to be fair, the weather isn’t (yet) nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe it would be today.  It’s certainly overcast but it’s not raining torrentially as people seemed to be predicting (not that I got round to checking up with an actual weather forecast).

Still, the fine weather was lovely while it lasted and I’m sure we’ll enjoy the next bout (hopefully fairly soon) all the more for having had some slightly less wonderful weather in the meantime.  Also, if it does come on to rain properly, at least it will save me having to go out and water my garden.

Notes from the Russian Kitchen

I mentioned yesterday that culinary-related activities have been a feature of my latest resurgence of interest in things Russian.  I wasn’t solely alluding to the kvass that I brewed a week or two back.

I recently decided to add a Russian cookery book to my library and, after browsing the available options at my local online book emporium, decided to get the aptly named Russian Cookbook by Kira Petrovskaya (or possibly Kyra – both spellings of her first name appear on the back cover and inside the book; I guess in Cyrillic it would be Кира – nicely unambiguous), published by Dover (1992; ISBN: 978-0-486-27329-7).

This turns out to be a relatively slender volume, with just over 200 pages in A5 format, but it is stuffed full of exciting (and, apparently, authentic) recipes and a certain amount of discussion about Russian food.  It is sadly lacking any pictures or Cyrillic script versions of recipe names (or even transliterated Russian names for quite a few, which are only given English names) but nonetheless it promises to be a handy book.

So far I have only tried cooking three things from the book but they have all worked quite well and I look forward to trying more soon.

On Monday night, I made “Baked Ground Beef and Potatoes”, aka “Zapekanka with Meat”.  In a way, this is a bit like an inverted shepherd’s (or rather cottage, since it uses beef rather than lamb) pie, as it starts with a layer of potatoes (sliced and lightly fried, rather than mashed), on top of which is placed minced (or ground) beef cooked up with onion and seasonings.  A mixture of eggs and milk is poured over the top of the whole thing and it is then baked in the oven for a while.  The book doesn’t say anything about what Zapekanka (or Запеканка in the Cyrillic script) is, but a brief bit of research with Google (as Wikipedia, my usual first stop for random knowledge, doesn’t have a lot to say on this subject) indicates that it is a kind of cheesecake.  Apparently there are lots of Zapekanka recipes, some sweet and others (such as this one) savoury.

This evening, I made a fresh mushroom soup and new potatoes in sour cream (no Russian name given for either).  This was a bit of a menu-planning fail as I hadn’t realised the extent to which potatoes and sour cream are both key ingredients of the soup (which actually contains more potato than mushroom, even though I used more mushrooms than the recipe called for) and so I was slightly potatoed-out by the end of the meal.  Still, both dishes were very tasty and either would work very well alongside something slightly less similar.

In addition to these bits of cookery, I have recently had a go at preparing a traditional Russian drink called Перцовка (Pertsovka).  This is simply pepper-infused vodka.  It’s not mentioned in my new cookery book but I’ve come across references to it in several other places.  There are apparently some commercially-produced versions available (though possibly not easily in this country) but it’s pretty easy to prepare for yourself as there’s nothing more to it than sticking some pepper in vodka for a bit.  Several recipes I looked at called for peppercorns (i.e. black pepper, aka piper nigrum) and others for chilli peppers (various species in the genus capsicum).  I suspect that both may be authentic, but I decided for my first experiments to try chilli peppers (mainly because I’d bought some for the purpose before I discovered alternative recipes using peppercorns).  These particular chillies were not especially hot ones, and I just put one whole red chilli (minus the stalk) in a smallish beaker and covered it with vodka overnight before decanting the vodka into a bottle (and using the chilli in a pasta sauce I was cooking up – the vodka was not noticeable in the end result).  The pepper-infused vodka has quite a pleasant taste and is supposed to be a good remedy for colds and other ailments (though I suspect that’s probably just the Russian equivalent to the Scottish use of whisky as a panacea).

Once there lived a crocodile…

My recent experiments with kvass have been just one of the manifestations of my latest bout of slavophilia.

I have been interested in Russia for quite a long time, at least since a school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (shortly before it was renamed back to St Petersburg) in 1991.  I learned a small amount of Russian for that trip and then had a chance to study the language as a subsidiary module at university for a year in 1997-8.  Hand-in-hand with my interest in the language has been an interest in the culture of Russia.  Along with most of my other interests, these enjoy occasional periods at the forefront of my attention, with often quite long gaps in between.

In addition to various culinary-related activities and a spot of balalaika playing, not to mention listening to quite a lot of Russian music (including some by the Mighty Handful), I have recently been having another attempt to dust off my Russian language skills which have largely languished in disuse since I finished my university course 15 years ago.  My main goal is to be able to tackle some works of Russian literature (which I enjoy reading in translation) in their original language.

Most of my knowledge of Russian literature (in translation or otherwise) is confined to prose, but I have enjoyed my limited exposure to Russian poetry too.  In particular, I have fond memories of a poem that I studied as part of my Russian course.  This was Крокодил (Krokodil = Crocodile) by Korney Chukovsky, a popular children’s poet who was mostly active during the Soviet era.  We only actually studied the first 30 or so lines of the poem in our class and I later discovered that it is considerably longer than that (I think I originally thought we’d done the whole thing).  At one time I could remember more or less the whole of the section we’d studied.  These days I only have the first half dozen lines firmly committed to memory, although I can also remember several later snippets.

Here’s how the poem starts:

Жил да был
Крокодил.
Он по улицам ходил,
Папиросы курил,
По-турецки говорил –
Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!

That’s about as far as I can remember without having to look it up (although I did check the spelling).  A rough prose translation is:

Once there was a crocodile.  He was walking down the street, smoking cheap cigarettes and speaking Turkish.  Crocodile, son of Crocodile!

Obviously that translation loses all the poetry, even if it does retain the meaning fairly faithfully.  I did have a quick go at making a verse translation, but I didn’t manage to come up with anything good that stuck reasonably close to the original meaning.

There are a couple of interesting (?) observations about this first bit of the poem.

One is that, when I first learned it (in 1998, fairly shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I learned the third line as Он по Невскому ходил (“He was walking down Nevsky Prospect”; Nevsky Prospect is the name of the main street in St Petersburg).  When I looked for a version online a few years ago it had replaced по Невскому with по улицам (i.e. “down the road”, without specifying which road).  I had assumed that this edit was to remove a Soviet-era road name, but on checking it up just now I discovered that Nevsky Prospect was actually the original name (it was changed for a while during the Soviet era to Проспект 25 Октября – “Avenue of the 25th of October” – to commemorate the October Revolution of 1918) and that the poem was written in 1916, two years before the revolution took place.  I’m guessing that the original text had the reference to the Nevsky Prospect, that the other version was a later edit (most likely during the time when the road had a different name) and that both versions are now in circulation.  I think my preference is probably for the Nevsky version, since that’s the one I first learned and it sets the poem in a more definite location.

Another observation is that a reference to smoking in a children’s poem seems quite surprising if we judge by the standards of our own culture but is probably somewhat less so if we remember that the poem was written nearly 100 years ago in another country.  I remember my Russian teacher explaining the meaning of папиросы (papirosi), which is not the standard Russian word for cigarettes (сигареты – sigareti); I can’t remember entirely but I think it was essentially a type (rather than a brand) of cheap cigarettes commonly smoked in the Soviet Union (there are pages about papirosi on Wikipedia in several languages – including Russian, German and Spanish, but not English; I can’t quite follow any of them well enough to do more with a quick skim reading than just confirm my vague memory – it’s not that important for understanding or enjoying the poem anyway).

Finally (just because I know it will wind up a few of my friends to give three observations when I’ve said there were a couple :)), the line “Крокодил, Крокодил Крокодилович!” (Krokodil, Krokodil, Krokodilovich! = “Crocodile, Crocodile, son of Crocodile”) was the first line of the poem that I learned, as our teacher taught us that when she was explaining the Russian naming system (with its strong emphasis on patronymics) sometime before we looked at the rest of (the start of) the poem.  Although it is clear from the rest of the poem that it is about an actual crocodile, the word is here being treated as a proper noun (i.e. a name) and it is the name not only of the eponymous protagonist of the poem but also of his father (or, if not their actual name, it is at least indicating that his father was also a crocodile – probably no great surprise from a biological perspective!).  In any case, it is a lovely turn of phrase that rolls beautifully off the tongue in Russian.

Although we only did the very first part of the poem in my Russian lessons, I have subsequently read somewhat more of it.  I still have quite a lot to get through, though, and I will need to improve my Russian somewhat in order to understand it.  Still, if the start is anything to go by, understanding this poem will itself be a rich reward for any effort I expend in learning the language.