Favourite artists, from A to Z

In response to Keith’s challenge over at Thiamin Trek, I’ve come up with a list of my favourite artists from each letter of the alphabet. The challenge is to only pick one from each letter. In some cases that was easy (I, O, X), in other cases it was teeth-gnashingly hard (B, M, R). And if I were to put this list together again in a year’s time, it would probably look quite different. Make of it what you will…

Letter Artist
A The Art of Noise
B Barenaked Ladies
C Coldplay
D Doves
E Extreme
F Falco
G Gorillaz
H Hall & Oates
I Natalie Imbruglia
J Billy Joel
L Live
M Sarah McLachlan
N Nirvana
O Outkast
P Glen Phillips
Q Queens Of The Stone Age
R Radiohead
S Supergrass
T Toad The Wet Sprocket
U U2
W Paul Weller
Z Zero 7

(In the interests of cheating, here are some very close runners-up: Badly Drawn Boy, The Bluetones, Gomez, Lifehouse, Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews, REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheà Seger, Talking Heads, The White Stripes.)

(Update: under the letter Q, “Queen” should have been “Queens Of The Stone Age”. I highlighted the wrong entry while cut-and-pasting from the spreadsheet I based this list on…)


I just passed the Microsoft exam 70-315 this morning. This is the second of five exams I need under my belt to gain the MCSD.NET (Microsoft Certified Solution Developer) certification. I qualified as an MCSD on the old Visual Basic 6 track back in 2000, but the new .NET track will certify me on all the juicy goodness in C# and the .NET framework.

I know my .NET stuff already, but as an consultant/contractor, the MCSD certification provides potential clients with some evidence of this ability. On the other hand, it looks like I’ve just landed a contract (due to start in February), so the absence of the certification certainly isn’t a barrier to getting work.

I’m hoping to take some of the last three exams in the next few weeks, but with the new baby due this Saturday (!), I’m not sure quite how much study time I’m going to be able to put in….

The importance of resting meat

Have you ever cooked a steak at home and wondered why it never ends up quite as succulent and tender as it does in a restaurant? A lot of this is down to the technique of resting the meat.

When you cook a piece of meat, the muscle fibres that are in closest contact with the heat contract. (There is a chemical process underlying this, involving the coagulation of proteins, but don’t worry about that.) As the fibres contract, all the juices that nestled between them get squeezed away from the source of the heat. It’s just like squeezing a sponge. When you cook the meat on both sides, all the juices flee from the edges of the meat into the centre. If you cut the meat wide open, the edges will look brown and cooked, but the centre will appear bloody and raw.

If you serve a steak (or a loin of pork, or a nice cut of lamb) straight from the pan like this, by the time the plate reaches the table, the meat will usually be lying in a small puddle of its own juices. If you’re hosting a dinner party, or trying to impress someone special, this can ruin the finely prepared effect you’re looking for.

Instead, take the meat out of the pan, place it on a warm (but not hot) plate, and leave it to stand for a while. Between 10 and 20 minutes is usually about right. As the meat slowly cools down (don’t stick it in the fridge for rapid cooling), the muscle fibres that were so tense before start to relax. It’s the reverse of the sponge effect. As the fibres relax, they reabsorb the juices from the centre of the meat, and draw it back towards the edges.

The result is that if you cut open the steak now, the whole of the inside will appear evenly pink. The residual heat from the edges will have cooked some more of the centre, and the edges will have reabsorbed some of the juices, thus altering their “well done” brown colour. Relaxed meat is more tender and succulent than tense meat, because the juices–and their flavour–have been reabsorbed rather than wasted.

Note that because the meat will have cooled down, it is worth giving it a little bit of heat before serving it: put it under a grill (broiler), or gently re-heat it in a warm (but not hot) pan for a minute or so. This will bring it back up to comfortable eating temperature without cooking it further.

No matter what the quality is of the meat you’re working with, letting it rest properly before serving makes a big difference to the experience of eating it. Even poor cuts are vastly improved by not overcooking them, and letting them relax for a while. Another advantage for the cook is that it takes some of the time pressure off cooking the meat. In the time that it is resting, you can be working on something else, like preparing a salad, cleaning up some of the mess you’ve just made in your kitchen, or (more realistically) enjoying a nice glass of wine.


“Dad, what are cows made of?”

“Beef, milk, and leather.”

Not that Alex is asking questions of such complexity yet, but I need to start practicing.

The Plumed Horse

Abi and I were down at the Plumed Horse restaurant in Crossmichael yesterday, for a last short break before the new baby arrives (due in less than two weeks now). It’s a pity that our favourite restaurant in the whole of Scotland is about two hours’ drive away, but oh! the food!

The Plumed Horse dark chocolate souffle with apricot sorbetI started with a smoked haddock and spinach quiche, with a roast scallop, and lemon dressing. My main course was fish again: fillet of brill, with crab mashed potatoes, a shrimp and scallop fishcake, and shellfish sauce. For dessert Abi and I both had the dark chocolate soufflé with apricot sorbet. The horse’s head emblem in the plate is actually a stencilled dusting of cocoa–a lovely little touch.

Abi and Martin at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, November 2000The souffl&eacute reminded us of the other Plumed Horse restaurant, the one in Saratoga, California, where we enjoyed a fabulous meal at the end of 2000. We had dark chocolate soufflé for dessert then, too, with a dark chocolate sauce to go over it. Abi was pregnant with Alex at the time, though not quite as far advanced as she is now. And just as on our trips to the Scottish Plumed Horse, it was a two hour drive away, only then it was from Oakland down into the South Bay. We had Abi’s parents with us then, and Mick and Sarah, who had managed to stash young Thomas somewhere for the evening.

It’s an odd coincidence that the two Plumed Horse restaurants are located just where they are, and that they have become so closely associated with family, and particularly baby events. It means that it’s not just our stomachs, but also our hearts that keep drawing us back there.

New Toys

As of this afternoon, I’m the happy owner of a new Motorola v525 phone. I haven’t had much time to play with it yet, but the colour screen is nice, the built-in camera is nice, the polyphonic ringtones (with the option to install my own MP3 to play) are nice, the user interface (which I’d been warned was complicated) is nice, the battery life is very nice, and the overall size and feel of the phone in my hand is, well, nice.

I haven’t actually called anyone on it yet, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like in actual use, but I’m sure that will be nice, too.

Also, from early next week, we’ll also be owners of a new Fiat Punto. Whether we’ll be happy owners remains to be seen. We’ve resisted having a car for so long that it’s going to be very odd having one again. With a new baby (forthcoming) and a toddler, it’s going to be undeniably useful, and with me making the move into IT contracting (more on that soon), it will increase the range in which I can operate. But we’ll have to constantly remind ourselves that it’s easier to walk, or cycle, or take the bus for many journeys in and around town.

(But on the other hand, it’s a new toy. Toys are cool. The new car is shiny, and it’s black. It has a CD player, and adjustable lumbar support in the driver and passenger seats. Groovy.)