Finally made it!

Tonight’s dinner was a partial success.

When I was putting together my latest grocery order, to arrive a couple of days ago, I decided to make a chile con carne as my main meal for the weekend (by which I mean that I would cook enough for several days, eat some both today and tomorrow and probably freeze the rest, not that I’d only have one proper meal over the weekend). Unlike the last several times this has been my plan, I actually remembered to add some chilli peppers to my order, so I’d count that as the first successful bit of the endeavour 🙂

When it came to making the meal, things looked promising. As well as the usual minced beef, chillis, onion and suchlike, I put in a bit of finely diced carrot and courgette, as I had some of each vegetable that were in need of using up. I also added a dash of vermouth, and I had high hopes for this being a good one.

Unfortunately I got slightly distracted doing other things while I left it to simmer and got back to the kitchen just in time to find it starting to burn as the liquid, which had seemed ample when I left it, had by now all boiled off or been absorbed. I was able to rescue it from being a complete inedible disaster (or worse, setting fire to my kitchen) but suffice it to say that this chile con carbon was not quite the sumptuous delight I had been anticipating. It will be interesting to see how it is tomorrow, as such dishes are often better on the second day when the flavours have had time to develop but in this case the flavours may be a little on the smoky side!

More successful was the side dish, as I’ve finally got round to having a go at making guacamole almost 30 years after first being shown how to make it.

Back then I was still at school, and it was a different, more innocent era in which teachers could invite their pupils over to their homes for things like extra-curricular computer programming lessons, which I very much doubt any sensible and well-intentioned teacher would dare to do these days (even ignoring the minor issue of a global pandemic). One of my teachers had lent me a computer and was teaching me how to program it, which entailed fairly frequent bike journeys (usually on Saturday afternoons) from my village to his in order to take some lessons. As well as getting a good foundation in programming (I was learning Pascal, not a language I’ve ever seriously used since then, but the basic principles of how to program a computer have largely stuck with me), I was introduced to some seriously good music (the highlight being the Penguin Café Orchestra, whose music I continue to enjoy to this day) and, on one occasion, was shown how to make guacamole. This was because my teacher, who had spent some time working in Mexico before joining our school, was preparing for a party that evening and was busy making some using an authentic Mexican recipe when I arrived.

Sadly I didn’t write down that recipe and don’t remember a huge amount from it, except that it involved mashing avocados with salt, pepper and a few other things in a bowl (with a fork, IIRC). Fast forward to this evening and I had an avocado that I’d bought pretty much on a whim in my grocery order the other day; rather than do my usual thing of cutting it in half and eating it out of the skin garnished with a bit of black pepper and perhaps some mayonnaise, I decided the time had come to try out making guacamole for myself. Fortunately there are plenty of recipes online, so I was able to get a general idea of how to do it (to supplement my memories from the last millenium) and then improvised from there. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Basically, I finely chopped an onion and a chilli pepper (carefully saved from cooking my main dish) and stuck them in a pestle and mortar (well, technically just in the mortar) with the flesh of an avocado, a bit of salt and pepper and a couple of teaspoons of lime juice. I then mashed the whole lot down (with the pestle, of course) and enjoyed eating it with a bit of tortilla. It may be worth noting that I had previously used the pestle and mortar to grind up some cumin, salt and pepper for the chile and had only given it a brief wipe out in between, so there was almost certainly a little bit of cumin in the guacamole too.

The other components of the meal also worked pretty well (namely, a bottle of well-chilled Mexican lager – not generally the sort of beer I go for, but ideal in the right context – a lovely bit of brie and then a couple of Mr Kipling’s trifle bakewells, which happened to be on special offer this week, for dessert). So if you count each of the individual components more or less equally, I’d say the whole meal rated about 4.5 out of 5.

And hopefully it will be less than 30 years before I next get round to making guacamole!

A great place to chill

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a band with a name like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra should play some very cool music. 🙂

The PCO (as I’ll shorten them, although I don’t know if this is an officially sanctioned abbreviation) is a band that I was first introduced to way back in about 1990, when I used to go across to my maths teacher’s house for computer programming lessons.  It’s a sad fact that this kind of thing would almost certainly not be allowed to happen now, due to child safeguarding laws and suchlike.  In addition to taking my first steps in programming computers beyond what ZX Spectrum BASIC had to offer (not that I’m knocking that, as it was an excellent introduction to the whole programming thing), these semi-regular Saturday afternoon sessions over the course of several months, or possibly a couple of years, introduced me to the fine art of making guacamole (a skill which I don’t think I’ve ever got round to putting into practice but it’s nice to know it in theory anyway) as well as a whole load of excellent music, of which the PCO is very definitely at the top of my list.

The music of the PCO is often-described as New Age; Wikipedia defines this as “an umbrella term for various downtempo music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism”, which is actually not too bad a description of the PCO sound in general, although quite a lot of their stuff (including most of my favourite pieces) is fairly up-tempo, energetic music.  There’s a good chance you’ve heard some of their music, perhaps without realising it, as several of their tunes have featured in films and adverts over the years (see the Wikipedia article linked at the start of this post for a list).

For some reason I used to believe that there was an actual Penguin Café (which I thought was in Edinburgh) and that the PCO was the band in residence there.  I now gather that this is not the case (at least the bit about the PCO being a house band for a café – there may well be a Penguin Café in Edinburgh as indeed there is one in Bangor).  Instead it’s the name of a group of musicians led by the English composer/multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes who, sadly, died of a brain tumour in 1997.  Incidentally, although the word café is properly written with an acute accent on the ‘e’, this seems to be absent from the official spelling of the band name.

The original PCO produced, I think, 5 studio albums and 2 live albums (as well as a few compilations) during their active years from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.  I have had the first four studio albums for quite some time and enjoyed listening to each of them many times over.  I have only just got my hands on the last studio album (Union Cafe, released in 1993) and one of the live albums (descriptively entitled Concert Program and hailing from 1995) and have so far only had time for one listen through each, but my first impressions are very favourable and I shall look forward to many more listenings of both.

One of the things I love about the PCO, apart from the many fine melodies, is the eclectic range of instruments to be heard in the ensemble.  Looking through the sleeve notes to Union Cafe, for example, I find that alongside violins, cello, piano, trombone, clarinet and cor anglais, there are appearances by a ukulele (that one has been a fairly common feature of pretty much all the PCO albums), electric aeolian harp and “clay pot and twigs”.  There’s also one track which was realized on a computer and another one featuring a guest performance from Kathryn Tickell on the Northumbrian smallpipes (as well as one with Nigel Kennedy – presumably this is back when he was still using his first name – on violin).  The whole PCO sound is very much instrumental music, although there was some use of vocals on their first album (mostly by Emily Young, who also painted the wonderful pictures of people with penguin heads that adorn most of the album covers).

Apparently Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, has taken up the mantle of the PCO, now redubbed simply as Penguin Cafe and has produced one album so far (with a completely new set of musicians), while many of the original members of the PCO have continued working together under the name of Anteater.  I’m not sure whether they have released any albums yet, but both of these bands may be well worth a listen whether they are following closely in the footsteps of the PCO or exploring new paths.