Dragon Pie

Tonight was one of those nights when I indulged in my passion for experimental cookery.

As seems to happen more often than not, I came up with something that was not only edible but actually quite enjoyable to eat. This one felt like something that’s worth trying again and there’s definitely room for improvement in the basic recipe so I decided to record it here (mainly for my own future reference, though the recipe idea isn’t copyrighted, so you’re welcome to try it — if you come up with some good variations, feel free to let me know).

The starting point was a whole load of leeks, potatoes and onions that I bought on special offer (a bag of each for a total of £1) in my local supermarket last week, and which are getting to the point of needing to be used up before they get too far past their best. Initially I had planned to do a leek and potato soup but I wasn’t feeling particularly in the mood for soup this evening and, after a bit of thought, I came up with an alternative plan.

Essentially, my idea was to make a kind of vegetarian shepherd’s pie (a leek-herd’s pie, I suppose, if leeks needed herding in the same way as sheep), with a base of leek and onion topped with mashed potato. I had one or two ideas to make the dish a bit more interesting…

I started by chopping up a leek and couple of onions (fairly finely) and sautéeing them gently in olive oil for a few minutes, adding a roughly minced clove of garlic shortly before transferring them to a lightly oiled casserole dish and mixing in a bit of chopped parsley and thyme from my windowsill herb garden. I would probably have added sage and rosemary too, in honour of Scarborough Fair, but my sage (which I’m growing from seed) isn’t yet quite big enough for harvesting and I couldn’t be bothered to go out and harvest the rosemary that, unlike my other herbs, is growing in my back garden. I also added around 100ml of red wine and then stuck it in the oven (around gas mark 5) for 15 minutes while I steamed some potatoes (prepared, with a little bit of mint, also from my herb garden, while I was sautéeing the leek and onion) ready for mashing.

Once the potatoes were steamed, I mashed them with a little milk and black pepper (not from my herb garden, and alas I don’t have space, time or money to keep a cow), then removed the casserole from the oven and put a layer of mashed potato on top of the leek/onion mixture. After grating a bit of cheese (gran padano, as that’s what I had in the fridge) on top, I returned it to the oven on a higher heat (up to gas 8, I think) while I fried an egg to go along with it.

The resulting pie was rather tasty, though the filling was perhaps slightly on the al dente side (not too much of a problem as I like a bit of crunch, and the vegetables certainly weren’t raw) and the topping could have done with being browned a bit more. I’m not sure if the best thing would be just to cook it for somewhat longer once assembled or to sautée the leeks and onions for a bit longer and then stick the assembled pie under the grill for a few minutes.

It occurred to me that the ingredients were mostly red, white and green, the colours of the Welsh flag. Since leeks, in particular, are an emblem of Wales, and potatoes (not to mention cheese-on-toast, which bears a certain resemblance to cheese-on-pie) are also a pretty staple part of our national cuisine, I decided to name my new dish “dragon pie”, although the wine seemed to turn from red to purple in the process of cooking so the chromatic effect was slightly lost in the final product.

Apart from the aforementioned tweaks to cooking times/methods, I’d be inclined to use a Welsh cheese (perhaps a local cheddar) next time round, although the gran padano worked fine. The wine was a fairly non-descript, though pleasant enough, cheapish Spanish merlot/cabernet sauvignon from one of my local supermarkets (not, as it happens, the one from which I got the veg) and, since there’s not a huge range of Welsh wines on the market (in fact, I can’t recall seeing any and if there are some I suspect they are quite expensive), I don’t think I’d be too worried about locally sourcing that ingredient; in fact, I think pretty much any reasonable red plonk would do the job ok.

I’ve got about half the pie left over, so it will be interesting to see how it tastes when cold. That, I suppose, I will find out tomorrow.

On the problem of muscle memory

Muscle memory is generally a useful phenomenon, as it enables you to do things such as touch typing or playing a musical instrument with little or no conscious thought as to what your fingers (or other appendages, though at the moment I’m specifically thinking of digital muscle memories) are doing.

I’m not sure how much it’s actually the muscles themselves that get used to how they should be moving and how much it’s the brain subconsciously serving up the information as it’s required.  I suspect it’s probably largely the latter, but “muscle memory” is still a convenient name.

However it works, and whatever you call it, I maintain that most of the time it is very handy.  However, there are times when it can prove to be more of a hindrance.

Largely because I do quite a lot of typing in foreign languages that use diacritics (i.e. accent symbols), I regularly find myself having to reach for these characters.  In the old days, I used to have to remember or look up the ASCII codes for the characters I wanted (fortunately, back then it was mostly acute and sometimes grave or circumflex accents on vowels, and perhaps the occasional cedilla, for typing in French).

Both my home and office PCs have somewhat more sophisticated methods set up for accessing special characters.  Unfortunately they are slightly different, which is where the muscle memory can get in the way.

At home I use Linux most of the time, and I have a Compose key (currently the right “Windows” key, which isn’t used for anything else by default on Linux) set up on my keyboard.  Pressing this key followed by a pair of other keys produces a character determined by the keys pressed (a so-called “compose key sequence”); e.g. “compose”  + ‘a’ + ‘`’ (that’s a backtick, which hangs out just to the left of the number 1 on a UK keyboard, in case you were wondering) produces ‘à’. Many of the compose key sequences, such as this one, are fairly intuitive and easy to remember (or, you can just make an educated guess and if it doesn’t produce the expected result, delete it and try it again or look it up).  This is a very straightforward way of making a lot of special characters available on a standard keyboard, and is my favourite solution to the problem.

At work, I use a Windows machine.  On it I have installed a handy little utility called To Bach, which is actually designed to facilitate typing in Welsh but allows typing of the accents found in Welsh (mostly circumflex accents (â) – called to bach (“little roof”) in Welsh, hence the name of the software – and, less often, acute (á) and grave (à) accents on all the vowels – that’s a, e, i, o, u, y and w in Welsh – as well as a diaeresis (ä), which as far as can remember only occurs on the letter i in Welsh but can actually be typed on any vowel with To Bach) as well as certain other special characters such as ç and ñ that don’t actually appear at all in Welsh. It is set up by default to use the right Alt key as the main trigger key. For circumflex accents (the most common by far in Welsh), you just hold down that key (and Shift if you want a capital letter) and type the vowel you want. For the others, you hold down the trigger key and then hit another key (e.g. ‘\’ to get a grave accent) before letting go of both and hitting the vowel key for which you want the accent.

Both methods are very straightforward but because they are different I often find myself reaching for the wrong key combination (e.g. “right Win” + ‘a’ + ‘`’ instead of “right Alt” + ‘\’ + ‘a’ if I want an ‘à’ at work).

The obvious solution, which I may get round to at least partially implementing at some time, would be to reconfigure my Linux compose key settings to match To Bach (as I don’t think it’s possible to edit the configuration of the latter). Alternatively, there are Compose key utilities available for Windows, which would also give me easy access to characters that aren’t currently available via To Bach (e.g. if I want an ‘å’ on Windows – not that I often do – I currently have to either fire up the handy (but not quite so handy as To Bach/Compose) Character Map utility or remember the Alt+134 combination, while on Linux I just have to hit “compose” + ‘o’ + ‘a’) so I could just install one of those and drop To Bach, although having used it for quite a few years I’d be sad to stop using it now.

How black is my Friday?

This morning, I discovered that there are two different days that are both referred to as Black Friday.

Up until now, I’ve always understood Black Friday to be the last Friday before Christmas (or possibly before Christmas Eve), which is the traditional night for office Christmas parties and hence a particularly busy night for pubs, clubs, restaurants and the emergency services. This indeed appears to be the more traditional British English usage of the term. According to Wikipedia, the day is known in South Yorkshire as Mad Friday. Interestingly this is also a direct translation of the name used for the same night in Welsh – Nos Wener Wallgo. As a consequence, I often tend to think of it as Mad Friday myself (since I first learnt about the concept in Welsh rather than English) and I have been known to confuse people by calling it Mad Friday when I’m speaking English.

It turns out that in the United States they mean something quite different by the term Black Friday. Over there, it refers to the day after Thanksgiving Day (itself the fourth Thursday in November), which is taken as the beginning of the Christmas Shopping season and, in recent years, has become a popular day for shops to offer promotional sales (with extended opening hours). According to an article on the UK edition of the Huffington Post this morning, this idea has now spread to our shores, although we still don’t celebrate Thanksgiving itself. I can’t say I’ve noticed it at all (except on Amazon, who have been having a Black Friday promotion – I didn’t pay much attention to the advance advertising and assumed they were getting ready for 19th December), but it’s possible it just hasn’t reached North Wales yet.

Actually, there is also a third (though technically, this usage predates the other two) Black Friday – the name has sometimes been used as a synonym for Good Friday, i.e. the Friday before Easter, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus (Easter itself, if you didn’t know, celebrates his resurrection; it’s not just an excuse to eat too much chocolate). I was vaguely aware of this usage although I don’t think it’s very common these days. Probably just as well, as it’s confusing enough having two different days with the same name.

Another blog is born

Just over a year ago, I started a second blog.  The purpose of that one was to enable me to write in Welsh (mainly for the sake of practicing my written language skills) without cluttering up this blog with posts that most of my readers couldn’t follow (I’m assuming that most vistors here can speak English but not that many will know Welsh).

As I expected, my writing on that blog has been much sparser than on this one.  In fact, I only wrote my 5th post there yesterday, after a gap of over a year!  Still, it’s nice to have the blog and feel I’m doing a little bit to increase the amount of Welsh in cyberspace as well as keeping my own language skills reasonably rust-free if not exactly finely honed.

Last week I had my second ever visit to Spain – a lovely week in Catalonia with some most excellent friends (including some I’d never met before I went there).  In preparation for this, I’ve spent quite a lot of my linguistic energy over the past few months on trying to brush up on my (woefully limited) Spanish.  I got plenty of opportunity to speak Spanish (and learn a few words of Catalan) while I was there, and this has fired my enthusiasm to keep working on the language, partly in the hope that I’ll be visiting the area again before too long; I also hope to be able to visit other bits of Spain and perhaps Latin America and to continue to explore Spanish literature and films, as well as being able to talk to Spanish speakers who cross my path in North Wales or elsewhere.

I was very conscious while I was in Spain that, although I could understand a reasonable amount of written and (to a lesser extent) spoken Spanish, I was severely limited in what I was able to say (or write, not that I had very much occasion to write while I was there).

Therefore, I have just started yet another blog.  This one is similar to the Welsh one but in Spanish and purely to give myself *cough* regular practice at actively using the language.  Since I speak a lot less Spanish than Welsh, the posts are likely to be fairly short and I’ll try to keep them simple.  I’m hoping that I might get some useful feedback from Spanish speakers but even if I don’t, the simple act of forcing myself to write (and as far as possible, think) in Spanish on a fairly regular basis should be immensely helpful in my efforts to learn to speak and not just vaguely understand it.

As with the Welsh blog, this is actually my second attempt at a blog in Spanish.  (One of my first posts on this blog was a potted history of my earlier blogs, including both of these, if you’re interested.)  Similarly, the posts on the Spanish blog, like the Welsh ones but unlike the posts on this blog, won’t be automatically publicised on Facebook or Twitter but can be accessed via an RSS feed if you want to be able to follow them.

On The Fine Art of Compromise

This year I have celebrated (and blogged about) both Pi Day and Tau Day.

If you read slightly between the lines of my Tau Day post, you may have correctly got the impression that, in principle, I’m in favour of the idea of  τ, which is the  same as 2π (i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius), as the more fundamental constant (mainly because it gets rid of the factor 2 in quite a few formulas and therefore renders them a little bit more concise and beautiful) but, because I tend to be (or at least think of myself as) quite pragmatic (or maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist), I don’t see any great likelihood of τ replacing π in general usage anytime soon (and, looking on the bright side, at least π gives us the opportunity to make jokes about pumpkins).

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I particularly enjoyed today’s installment of the xkcd comic.

Of course, pau isn’t a Greek letter.  According to my favourite fount-of-much-knowledge, however, it is an alternative name for bao (aka baozi), a type of Chinese steamed bun which, co-incidentally cropped up in an episode of Firefly (just to link this into yet another recent post on my blog).  Therefore, if we were to adopt the compromise solution of pau instead of pi or tau, we could celebrate by eating bao (and perhaps watching Firefly, or at least the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”).  It’s an unfortunate linguistic coincidence that the word bao sounds very much like the Welsh word baw, meaning mud and often used as a euphemism for certain other similarly coloured but somewhat less pleasant substances, as in the phrase baw ci (“ci” being Welsh for “dog”).

There is apparently also an Indian bread, from Goa, called pau, and a Hawaiian feather skirt called a pāʻū.   These could also make an appearance in a celebration of Pau Day.

A blog is born

You may have noticed that I occasionally like to write blog posts in Welsh.

Since I’m aware (if slightly surprised) that several people follow my blog and that not all of them speak the language of heaven, I have generally tried to refrain from writing too often in Welsh and, when I do, to provide an English translation or at least a summary of what I’ve written.

However, I have for a while been considering the alternative solution of setting up a separate Welsh-language blog, to enable me to keep writing stuff in English for the benefit of my family, friends and other random blog followers and also to write a bit more in Welsh without having to worry about translating stuff.  To that end, having discovered that I can register multiple free blogs at WordPress, I have now set up Gofod-M – the Welsh M-Space blog.  Of course, any Welsh-speaking members of my family, friends or other random blog followers are welcome to follow that blog as well as this one.

I may well continue to write occasional snippets in Welsh on this blog (with translations) and I’ll probably occasionally cross-post between the two blogs, although I envisage them having quite separate (though probably equally random) content.

If this experiment goes well, I may think about (or actually do, since I’m clearly already thinking about it!) setting up one or more further blogs in other languages so I can practice writing in those too.

NB: Unlike this blog, I’m not planning to automatically publicise posts on my Welsh blog on Twitter and Facebook, so if you use one of those to get updates on my blog and want to follow my Welsh blog too you’ll probably want to explore alternative means of doing so.  I recommend the RSS feed.


A new word I have

Question: What do Yoda and Gerard Manley-Hopkins have in common?

Answer: The speech of both is characterised by anastrophe.

There’s a fairly good chance that you’re familiar with the Star Wars films and therefore aware that Yoda tends to speak with a non-standard word order (“Help you I can” or “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”).  It is less likely that you knew that anastrophe is the technical term for this.

I was first introduced to this term a few weeks ago when my brother, Wulf, was visiting me and happened to mention it in conversation.  Being a fan both of the small, green Jedi Master and of obscure words, I was delighted to learn this word and resolved to slip it into conversation at the first available opportunity.  Unfortunately I forgot it before I had a chance to do so, but Wulf wrote about the word in his blog the other day.

To save me forgetting it again, I decided I would write about it here (with links both to Wulf’s post and the Wikipedia article on the subject, which you’ll find above).

The term “anastrophe” is  a Greek word (ἀναστροφή in its native alphabet) meaning “a turning back or about”.  As a technical term in English (and a number of other languages which have also borrowed it from Greek, with slightly varying transliterations) it refers to deviations from the usual word order of a given language for the sake of emphasis.

The Wikipedia article remarks that Yoda, as a non-native speaker of English (or rather, Galactic Basic, which is represented by English in the Star Wars films) may have been using non-standard word order by mistake rather than on purpose, so his speech may not technically class as anastrophe.  Interestingly though, he does occasionally use standard word order.  Sometimes it seems to be for special emphasis (e.g. “You must not go!” when warning Luke against going to help his friends in Cloud City before completing his Jedi training), which suggests that it could be a kind of inverted anastrophe. At other times there doesn’t seem to be any special emphasis and one is led to suspect that the scriptwriters were just being inconsistent (or, if the weird word order is due to Yoda’s imperfect grasp of Basic and, presumably, the influence of his first language, perhaps it  is intentional that he sometimes gets it right and sometimes wrong; I’m sure my Welsh is a bit like that!).

The other example of an anastrophe user I mentioned was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English poet who, according to Wikipedia, was particularly identified with the use of anastrophe.  He was quite experimental compared to many poets of his time and made several (fairly successful, IMHO) attempts to adapt the Welsh-language poetic techniques of cynghanedd to English verse, which is what especially attracts me to his work.

Here is just one example of a line from Hopkins, taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (one of his longest and best-known works):

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

This line illustrates both anastrophe – in the rearrangement of “they took to the shrouds” – and cynghanedd-like features — the repetition of the “sh” sound and the “took” – “shook” internal rhyme, and possibly also the alliteration of “hurling” and “horrible”.  It certainly works well, at least within the context of the poem.