The best meatloaf I’ve ever had, and it’s mine!

Meatloaf is one of those unsung crowd-pleasing dishes that nobody ever seems to write about. There are some recipes but many times they try to make it fancier than the simplicity of a block of cooked ground meat can sustain. Meat loaf should be simple, comfort food, but there’s still zillions of variations on it. Tonight I decided I wanted a turkey meat loaf and I decided to wing it, no recipe. I had an idea what I wanted to make but it was pretty much unformed until I started.

The thing with ground chicken or turkey is that it has little flavor on its own but it’s great as sucking up and enhancing whatever flavors you add to it. Get it right and it’s delicious, under-season it and it’s gonna be bland bland bland! Also, it’s very lean which is why its so healthy, but a small amount of strategic fat adds a bit of richness and depth. This came out so well that I just had to write it down before I forgot what I did!

1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1kg (2 lbs) ground turkey or chicken (aka turkey mince)
1 egg
2 inches worth crackers or saltines (unsalted). I used table water crackers but any plain cracker will do. If you don’t have them use breadcrumbs. Stale is fine!
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
120g (4 oz) grated cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp ground savory
1/2 tsp ground sage
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp chili powder
a couple of twists of black pepper
1/3 cup ketchup

for the glaze:
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup sweet soy syrup (or use teriyaki sauce)
Alternatively use a can of condensed tomato soup and add plain soy sauce and a bit of sugar.

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F, 210 degrees C. In a small frying pan put some olive oil and saute the onion on medium heat until it begins to soften, then add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes before removing from the heat. We don’t want them cooked, just have the edge taken off of them. Add them to the rest of the ingredients in a big bowl and mix well. Don’t add any extra salt, you won’t need it. There’s salt in the cheese, soy, and ketchup and that’s enough. Once combined well put a spoon of the mix on a plate and microwave it for a minute, then let cool and taste. There should be a bit of richness from the cheese, saltiness and umami from the soy, and umami, sweet, sour, and saltiness from the ketchup. If you want more richness add cheese, if it needs more zing add a bit more ketchup, and if it needs salt add more soy. Keep microwaving and testing until the balance is right. If you can’t taste the herbs that doesn’t mean you need to add more, this is because the herbs need more cooking time for the flavors to come out. You want the consistency to be thick enough to hold it’s shape, if it’s a bit too loose add some more crushed crackers or breadcrumbs. The crackers and breadcrumbs have 2 functions: one is to make it hold together, the other is to absorb the juices and keep the flavor from running out.
I prefer to put the mix into a bread tin although any dish will you. You can mold this into any shape you want or just lump it into a blob, just make sure whatever you cook it in has sides as there’s going to be some juice! It’s not huge amounts as this dish is pretty lean but there will be some. Don’t pour it away, it’s delicious! Once in the oven this will need to cook 45 minute to an hour depending on the shape you make it. As for the glaze if you want to get fancy you can brush it on halfway through cooking or if you’re pressed for time add it at the beginning, it’s just going to be a bit more crispy. Don’t be sparing, slather it on! Make sure that you get the meat up to 160F/70C as this will kill any salmonella or other bugs, and underdone chicken is horrible tasting anyway. Serve with your choice of starch and veggies.
Everyone loved this at my dinner table tonight. I gave my 2 year old son a big chunk and it all went down the hatch. I’ve been told that we will be having this again.

Pasta with sausages, spinach, and beans

I often cook without a recipe, throwing something together for dinner using a new ingredient or something special I’ve found. Yesterday I picked up some really good sausages from this market that comes once a month to Wanstead. I’ve had them before and they’re outstanding just grilled on their own but I wanted to do something with them that was more interesting. I also found some good spinach as well. So much of the spinach you get in the supermarket is pre-bagged baby spinach and while it is convenient in that you can just open the bag and throw it into dishes or salads it doesn’t actually taste like anything, and if it doesn’t taste like much it probably isn’t that nutritious either. The spinach I got was real big leaf spinach with real flavor.

The reason I talk about the ingrediants so much is that this italian-style recipe is so simple that the quality of the ingredients hugely affects the end result. If you use flavorless sausages and spinach then the dish will be flavorless too. Whenever you make any italian style dishes, or any simple dish, that’s the most important thing to remember. The ingredients below are what I used, you can change the balance to whatever you like, use greens or kale instead of spinach, or put in brocolli or beans, it’s all up to you.
6-8 sausages, whole
1 medium onion chopped
3-4 cloves garlic chopped
2 big bunches spinach, washed and roughly chopped
600ml water
1 knorr chicken stockpot or chicken stock cube
2 tsp dry italian herbs
1 can cannelinni beans, washed
1 tbsp cornstarch or flour
2 tbsp cream (optional)
half a box pasta shells, penne, or whatever you’ve got.
olive oil
vegetable oil

in a large saute or casserole pan (with a lid ) on high heat add a few tbsp of vegetable oil, not olive oil as olive oil geta bitter and can burn on high heat. We are going to brown the sausages without cooking them through. You can skip this step if you like but the browning causes caramelization and adds great flavor, so brown 2 sides of the sausages and remove them to a plate to cool. Discard the oil in the pan and let it cool to medium heat. Start boiling your pasta now. Add olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and add your onion. Saute until soft, add your garlic and flour and saute another minute or two. The flour is going to thicken the sauce and you want to cook it a bit. Add the water, stockpot or cube, herbs, and bring to a simmer. Don’t add any extra salt, there’s salt in the sausages, stock cube, spinach, and on the outside of the pasta from the salt in the water, and that’s plenty! Add your spinach and cover. Stir your pasta, make sure it doesn’t stick together. Slice your sausages up. After 5 minutes of simmering add your beans and sliced sausages, stir in, and cover turning the heat down to low. Cook your pasta until it is just a bit underdone and then scoop it out or drain it and put the pasta into the pan. If you do drain it save some of the pasta water, you can use it to add extra moisture to the dish if it gets dry. I use a big strainer I got at a chinese supermarket, they are great for scooping pasta.

Put the heat back up to medium-high with the lid off and add your cream and stir. The pasta is going to finish cooking in pan and so will soak up the flavors of the dish. Here’s where you may need to add some of that pasta water. You want there to be enough sauce to coat all the ingredients but not too much. Taste and season if necessary. Once the pasta is done (should be 1-2 minutes maximum) turn off the heat and serve as it is.

This was a real crowd-pleaser, my son even ate some of the spinach and that’s an achievement!

Why biofuels make no sense

There’s been so much hype about biofuels which are a technology that cannot at present make even a dent in our fossil fuel usage and put enormous pressure on both the ecosystem and food prices. It’s time to inject a dose of realism by demonstrating the scale of the issue, so here are some facts and figures all of which are freely available.

The numbers around biofuels are easy to calculate and clearly show that they are not a replacement for fossil fuels. Let’s look at jet fuel in the US to start. Biological Jet fuel comes mostly from oilseeds like Rapeseed (aka Canola), Peanuts, and Soy as well as other plants like palm and coconut. Although palm and coconut have higher yields per acre than oilseeds they cannot be grown in quantity in the US so this example will use Rapeseed which has the highest yield of oil seed crops at 102 gallons per acre. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US uses about 13 billion gallons of jet fuel per year, and at 102 gallons per acre that means we would use about 130,000,000 acres of cropland to supply Jet fuel from biological sources. The US has 406,000,000 acres of cropland so it would take a whopping %31 of all US cropland to supply Jet-fuel needs alone! In 2007 the US used 44 billion gallons of Diesel which uses the same feedstock plants as Jet fuel, so using the same yield figures that would take 431,000,000 acres of cropland to supply, that’s 106% of US cropland.

So in order to supply Jet and Diesel fuels from domestic farming in the US would take %37 more cropland than the US posesses, and that’s before we even touch Gasoline and Avgas use which by the way is 136 billion gallons per year. Since Ethanol only has 80% of the energy density of gasoline we will need to grow enough corn for 170 billion gallons of Ethanol to replace gasoline. Corn yields 390 gallons of Ethanol per acre, so we will need 436,000,000 acres of land to grow enough ethanol to replace gasoline, which is 107% of US cropland.

In other words we would need 2 and a half times more cropland than we actually have to grow enough biomass to replace our transportation fuel use. Even if we turned over every single acre of cropland we have to biofuel production we would only supply 40% of our transportation fuel needs and we wouldn’t have anything to eat!

The ecological concerns of biofuel productions are worth mentioning as well. Indications are that the US is already overfarming available land, and the result is topsoil loss and more critically in many areas water resources are becoming exhausted. This means that in the mid to long term the US will have to farm LESS, not more to be sustainable.

If we push biofuels as a solution to fuel imports we will drive up our food prices dramatically, and also reduce the surplus food that is used to help feed the world’s hungry. As the world’s population continues to grow there will be more and more pressure on farming to keep food on the table, and I for one am not willing to have kids starve so I can have supposedly “green” fuel!

We cannot supply our transportation fuel needs using biofuels as there simply isn’t enough land and fresh water to grow the biomass needed to supply fuel and feed the population, in fact we can’t even make a dent in our fossil fuel use. I’m not anti-biofuels, there should be a place for them in our fuel economy, however we need to do so in such a way that they will not take food from hungry mouths and drive up food prices. Like it or not the reality of the situation is that we will be putting fossil fuels in our airplanes for a good while yet until substantial research and development produces viable green energy solutions. Food first, fuel second!

Swine flu – It’s better than dying (I think)

Having swine flu is like being doped up, then locked in a sauna and beaten up by angry French-Canadian separatists armed with oars. It’s that fun. Somebody kept sticking knives in my lower back and twisting them, and this same vicious bastard also turned up the gravity to 6 timer Earth-normal so I couldn’t move and do anything about it. Not fair! Oh yes, let’s not forget that my throat was constricted so breathing was difficult, and my nose was running so much that what space there was left in my windpipe was being closed off by a torrent of mucus. Yummy!

The only positive is that it hasn’t lasted that long. 2 days of 104 degree fever, agonizing pain, and extreme discomfort has been followed by 2 days of much lower fever, dull aching, and major discomfort. Now my only complaint is being a bit weak and having a nasty cough, whoo-ho!

Some would say about an experience like that “I wouldn’t wish that on my own worst enemy”. Well why not, it’s perfect! Hideoous discomfort but extremely unlikely to be anything more than a really bad experience, it’s just what I’d like to see my worst enemy experiencing, except of course I don’t have any that I know of. Maybe if I had enemies I’d think differently. unfortunately far from my worst enemy getting it exactly the opposite – my 16 month old son Joshua’s got it as well, poor guy.

The gummi bear attack – now I’ve officially heard it all

One of the great things about working in the network and security arena is that it is constantly evolving. There’s always a new story to either educate or amuse, today it’s a story about a brilliant use of gummi bears.

Now thought I was fully versed in the uses of gummi bears. Was I not the instigator of the imfamous Bronx Science last school day gummi bear stick-a-thon, where we managed to cause $15,000 dollars of damage to one of the science labs using nothing but a jumbo bag full of those candies?
Of course not! That was simply a joke. I have no idea how that incident happened! I certainly didn’t discover that a gummi bear would get sticky enough to adhere to ceiling tiles when thrown, I certainly didn’t demonstrate these capabilities to my classmates, and I most certainly didn’t spend the next 30 minutes in wanton gummi-bear destruction, sticking them to ever surface that we could. Like I said, I have no idea how that happened, we had all left when our teacher hadn’t shown up.

Anyway, let’s just say I know about gummi bears and how they can be used to disrupt schools, but this story is a new one on me. It appears that some Australians are using them to aid truancy by spoofing the fingerprint systems in charge of taking. These enterprising young people have discovered that the gelatine has the same capacitance of human skin and have made replica fingerprints. They have their friends go to school and log them in using these replicas fooling the system into thinking that they are present.

Now besides this story being hilarious there are some security implications:
– This shows how easy it is to fool a fingerprint scanner. It’s been known for some time that fingerprint scanners can be spoofed however the sophistication of the attack had been much higher. This shows that a teenager with some gelatine, time, and a hatred of history class can easily fool the system.
Note that this attack requires a willing participant. You couldn’t use this type of attack to grab someone’s fingerprints without their knowledge, I mean who wouldn’t be suspicious of someone saying “hey there, would you mind sticking your right index finger into this pot of jello for me?”
– There’s no substitute for human inspection. Have as many automated systems you want but if someone wants to they can trick the system. Technology is not always the solution to the problem, or at least it’s not a complete solution.
– 2 factor authentication is not a solution when there is collusion. Having a pin as well as a fingerprint would be useless in this system as the student swiping the fake finger would have the pin as well. 2 factor authentication is only useful when the user has a vested interest in keeping it secret

Refactoring, Renaming, and version management

I’m using the netbeans IDE to write my Java and overall I think it’s excellent. It’s a completely different experience to perl coding where my idea of version management is to save-as a different filename. If I want to rename something in Perl I do just that. With modules it’s a bit more involved but not that tricky.

I was writing a Java program to interface with a SQL server. This program morphed into something completely different so I decided it was time to rename it. Now what?

I discovered refactor->rename. Brilliant! rename to something else, job done. I re-compiled and ran it and got this:


Wha? sql_test1 was the old name, not the new name. The files had all been changed, what’s the deal? ok, google: java netbeans NoClassDefFoundError after refactor . Now sort through the results. No joy. I found that the file had the old name for main.class. Haha! Changed it to the new name. Then I got the same error except with the new name. What gives?

Eventually I found an article here where I found the answer: A) don’t use Main, your program to something else and B) The class must be capitalized! That’s what tripped me up, I had it in lower case. Once I renamed my class to be capitalized it all worked fine.

My conversion from Perl to Java

About 10 years ago I picked up a bit of Perl out of necessity. I’d had some basic programming instruction, literally basic, then a bit of pascal, then a semester of C in college so I had the vaguest of ideas what I was doing but that was all. So when I had to re-write a perl script that someone else had done it was all pretty new to me. Over the next 10 years I gradually built up my perl programming experience from basic scripts to automate network management to writing my own modules and large scripts of several thousand lines interacting with SQL databases and excel.

Am I a perl “expert”? No, but I am a decent hack and my coding skills have served me very well over the years. Perl is an amazingly flexible language, it’s been described as the duct tape of computing but I don’t think that does it justice. It’s more like the Legos of computing, you can do anything with it and there’s add-ons for everything imaginable. It may not be pretty but it works.

So why learn Java? To write mobile apps. Perl is very command line, it’s not meant to build interfaces.

I’m starting this blog thread to record my experiences trying to convert from Perl to Java as others may have similar problems.

Wok to Walk – I’d wok elsewhere

I was walking through Soho in London and I came upon a noodle bar called “wok to walk” on Brewer street and thought I’d get some takeaway noodles for lunch. The place certainly looks promising with a trendy look and feel, organized and clean cooking area, and 3 step menu. There’s 2 types of chili sauce on the tables along with your standard asian restaurant accompaniments It’s all fresh and made to order in front of you and service was quick. I decided on udon noodles with chicken and broccoli with Thai coconut sauce as it has a couple spicy-looking symbols next to it and I like some heat. The portion size was disappointingly small for my £6.35, nevertheless I headed back to work with a sense of optimism which was unfortunately misplaced.

Overall the food was pretty disappointing. Although the noodles and broccoli were well cooked the chicken was dry and there wasn’t nearly enough of it and the broccoli to warrant the cost of the food. Still, a good sauce would have made it all worthwhile but sadly the Thai Coconut I chose because of the 2 fiery heat symbols next to it on the menu was devoid of both spice and flavor. I got a hint or two of lemongrass but no fish sauce or lime, none of that tongue-coating sweet-sour-salty wonderfulness you would expect from even a moderately good thai sauce and there wasn’t even a hunt of heat. I know that there’s a big difference between what I and your mainstream human consider hot but I can tell you with absolute certainty that no chili has been even brought into the vicinity of that poor excuse for a sauce.

Whomever created Wok to Walk spent plenty of time on the look and feel of the place and not nearly enough on the quality of the food. I didn’t come in because they had trendy-looking white-on-orange signs, I came in because I wanted some good food. If I’d paid half the price I did I still would have considered it a waste of money and at the price I paid it’s highway robbery. Do yourself a favor and go to Wasabi or Samurai instead. It’s not made to order but it’s much better value for money.

Review – “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy is a haunting story of a dying man trying to save his son in a world blasted of all life and hope after an un-named apocalypse, empty of all but the “lucky” few survivors scrabbling for the precious few remaining cans of food in the burnt ruins of the world. The only reason he hasn’t used his only remaining bullet to end his own suffering is his desperation to get his young son he loves far enough south to survive the coming winter.

There is very little reminiscence in this novel, you don’t learn much about this man or what happened to the world because it truly doesn’t matter. The starving people in this story are down to their rudiments both in mind and body, almost all personality and emotion leached out of them. They are as grey as the landscape.

The author manages to maintain an undercurrent of desperation, fear, and hopelessness in this novel in a way that is completely immersive and convincing. The author states that he got the idea when in Texas with his son, and to me this seems like an outpouring of the fear every father has about his children, only amplified. The detailed way he narrates the day to day struggle of the characters and the man’s hopes and fears tells me this is a story about the author and his son, that this is a vehicle for him to vent his worries about the future. I’m a new father and this really connected with me in ways hard to explain which is one of the reasons I find this book so compelling.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it’s certainly one of the darkest. I highly recommend it but it is not for the faint of heart.

baby songs and desperation are a bad combination

My baby is almost 6 months old and in the squirming while being fed stage. Sometimes it’s so bad it’s impossible to get the bottle to his lips. When he’s like that the only way to get him to settle down is to sing to him. Switching tunes makes him stir so I have to keep on the same tune no matter how long it takes to feed the little guy. I’ll tell you after 15 minutes “the wheels on the bus go round and round” gets a bit old, and sometimes I make some verses up out of sheer boredom. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes I wonder how corrupt my mind is to be coming up with this stuff.
“the brakes on the bus go squeak squeak squeak” – well, in London they often do at least. Your mileage may vary
“the wipers on the bus go swish swish swish” – yep, good. Neutral and sounds cool to a baby
“the driver on the bus goes swear swear swear” – huh? Where’s that come from? I’ve rarely heard one swear, if they do it’s on the inside
“the hoodies on the bus go stab stab stab” – whoah! bad bad bad, re-enforcing negative stereotypes about poverty and youth! Usually they just sulk and play crappy music on their mobile phones, it’s when you make an issue about it that they stab you.

Old macdonald also gets the same treatment.
“and on that farm he had a rat” – I guess it’s plausable, they never say that he wanted a rat or even knows he had a rat on-site so I guess we can keep it.
“and on that farm he had a moose” – wha? What farmer has a moose? Clearly came up with this at 3am.
“and on that farm he had agricultural subsidies” – well, larely true unfortunately for the developing world. It’s topical and current, but what infant cares about politics? think baby Greg, think baby!