Bon voyage, moi

So I finished up at work today for our Easter holiday. I had to do a quick tidy up as our new Head of Service starts the day I come back – basically I tidied up the piles of things to do. I even remembered to put on my out-of-office. Tomorrow there’s last-minute packing, money to change, bathrooms to clean, a school assembly to attend and the cat to take to her holiday home. Hopefully I’ll be able to get up-to-date with my 3 online courses. I’m really enjoying them but I’m not looking forward to catching up on it all when I come back.

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You’ll all get a break from me too because I’m taking a holiday from the blog – normal service should resume on April 8, which reminds me I’ll be celebrating my birthday in French style while I’m there. Mmmmm – gateau 🙂

Today’s track

Just to get me in the holiday mood 😉

Today’s recipe

Cinnamon pear cake with vanilla fudge sauce

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This is unashamedly lifted from Nigel Slater’s Tender Volume II. The sauce is fab with so many things, and the cake works with apple too – it would probably also work with pineapple. This is so tasty I almost forgot to take a photo before I tucked in, hence the bit missing from the end.

Ingredients

For the cake:

200g butter at room temperature

200g caster sugar

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

200g self-raising flour

half a tsp baking powder

For the pears:

750g ripe pears

half a lemon

40g butter

3 tbsp light muscovado suger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

For the fudge sauce:

100g light muscovado sugar

100g golden syrup

50g butter

150mls double cream

vanilla extract

Method: Lightly grease a 24cm loose-bottomed, non-stick cake tin. Heat the oven to 160C/Gas 3.

Peel the pears, roughly chop them and place in a bowl of cold water with the juice of the half lemon added to stop them turning brown. Melt the butter and sugar in a shallow pan over a moderate heat stirring occasionally. Drain the pears and add them to the pan and cook until tender and the sauce is thick. Take them off the heat before the sugar turns dark and bitter. Set aside to cool.

To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar together until light and creamy. Add the eggs and a little flour alternately to stop the mixture curdling. Fold in the remaining flour and the baking powder, followed by the pears and their syrup. Scoop the mixture into the tin and bake for 45 minutes till risen and golden and a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before removing from the tin.

To make the sauce put the sugar, golden syrup and butter in a small pan and bring to the boil, stirring only enough to stop it sticking. Stir in the cream and vanilla and leave to cool and thicken.

You can serve the cake cold or reheated with the sauce cold or reheated. A dollop of ice-cream wouldn’t go amiss too.

Fish and it’s not even Friday

Spent today at work trying to get things finished and tonight starting to pack for France – aside from trying to capture the scattered pieces of glass that fell from a great height onto the laminate floor in MiniMe’s room. Her two friends scarpered pretty quickly rather than face the wrath of HimIndoors. I had to borrow a Dyson because ours in knackered after HimIndoors tried to unravel the dining room carpet on Sunday. It’s going in to get fixed on Thursday but in the meantime thank you May for the loan of yours.

Today I have learned:

  • a watched genetic algorithm never reaches best fitness (you had to be there)
  • comms teams can learn a lot by studying complex systems, irrational behaviour and disruptive technologies
  • it feels like I’m 7 years ahead of everyone else in the organisation when it comes to digital inclusion
  • nothing much has changed in the past 7 years when it comes to digital inclusion

Today’s track

Today’s recipe

Savoy fishcakes

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Serves 2

These don’t have any potato in them so it doesn’t seem so bad having a side of fries with them.

Ingredients

100 salmon fillet

200g whiting

25g gherkins, chopped

25g spring onion, chopped

half a teaspoon Lazy Red Chillies

3tbsp mayonnaise

1 tsp Lazy Ginger

80g fresh white breadcrumbs

seasoning

oil for frying

Method: Steam the fish (I used a Chinese steamer in a wok) for 3 minutes then flake into a bowl. Add the gherkin, spring onion, chilli mayo, ginger, a third of the breadcrumbs and seasoning and mix together.

Put the remaining breadcrumbs on a plate. Take half the fish mixture, form into a pattie and cover in breadcrumbs. Repeat with the other half and put the fishcakes in the fridge for half an hour to chill.

Heat the oil over a medium heat and fry the fishcakes for about 5 minutes each side till golden.

Learn, learn and learn again

I had a dream meeting this afternoon. I wasn’t even meant to be there – I was just standing in for my boss. I’m not sure if every one of these meetings is as good as today’s but aside from the lack of social media all of my favourite topics were covered and I managed to contribute quite a bit to everything. First up was channel shift and the next thing we’ll be looking at is payments. As part of the channel shift conversation I threw in some user testing of the website as it is at the moment. I’m proposing some hallway testing where we set up some table on the landings between the lifts and the entrances to departments. We’d leave them  unmanned but with screenshots of web pages, a scenario and a what-would-you-click-next Q&A sheet. We’d also have a manned one outside the staff restaurant over a lunch time and with the other results it would give us some indication of what works and what doesn’t. I’m on the working group for this next phase of channel shift so that will be interesting.

Next up was digital inclusion and how we need to have a master plan or channel shift will never work. Those who know me know that I’ve been banging this drum since 2007 so of course I offered my services and again mentioned Our Digital Planet and how we should be getting the project to South Lanarkshire. It fits right in with the group’s plans so tomorrow I have to share the Our Digi Planet goodness. Part of that conversation led to me bang on about the fabulous demographics we get by using the esdtoolkit – another hobbyhorse of mine.

Rounding up all this was a comment about switching off other channels and forcing people down the digital route, something I would never advise but this did lead me to tell them about my trip to the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office last year. I think they all had to pick their chins up off the table at that point. But that led to a conversation about behavioural economics and I think I’ve won them over. I’m not sure I’ll be asked back though – I think I tired them all out 😉

On other news my third MOOC started today meaning I now have 3 online courses running simultaneously: An Introduction to Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute; Dan Ariely’s Guide to Irrational Behaviour at Duke’s University; and Disruptive Technologies at the University of Maryland. I must admit I’ve probably bitten off more than I can chew but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Today I have learned:

  • people sometimes learn things from me
  • for the next wee while it’s best if I take life in 10-minute chunks, any longer than that and I panic

Today’s track

I’m not a huge KT fan but this blows me away every time I watch it – outstanding talent.

Today’s recipe

Creamy chicken and mushroom lasagne

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Serves 8 easily

This is very rich and in no way healthy, although it’s healthier than a massive shop-bought lasagne.

a knob of butter

2 onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 small boxes of chestnut mushrooms

5 cooked chicken breasts (I did mine the day before in tinfoil with seasoning and a dash of white wine 180C/Gas 5) for 35-40 mins), chopped

a small bunch of parsley, chopped

3 tbsp Parmesan, grated

150mls double cream

750mls bechamel sauce (see below)

1 packet of fresh lasagne

For the bechamel

60g butter

1.5 tsp mustard

2-3 tbsp plain flour

750 mls milk

For the basil topping

1 small pack pine nuts

2 small packs basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

4 tbsp Parmesan, grated

enough olive oil to make a paste

Method: First make the basil topping. Blitz all the ingredients together and set aside.

Melt the butter in a deep frying pan and add the onion and garlic and cook till soft. Add the mushrooms and when almost cooked add the parsley and the cooked chicken. Next add the  Parmesan and cream and season. Simmer until the cream has thickened slightly.

Next make the bechamel. Melt the butter in a heavy based pan and add the mustard. Stir in the flour until you have a thick mixture. Add the milk gradually, whisking with an egg whisk to prevent lumps and heat until you have a thick sauce.

Heat the oven to 180C/Gas 5.

Now to put it all together. Put a layer of bechamel on the bottom of a big lasagne dish. Add a layer of pasta then half chicken and mushroom mixture. Add another layer of pasta then the rest of the chicken and mushroom. Add a final layer of pasta then spoon over the basil paste and top with bechamel. Add a sprinkling of Parmesan then bake for 50 minutes.

Happy birthday Mum

So today was my mum’s birthday meal which meant doing what I love best, preparing and cooking food then sitting down with my nearest and dearest to eat it.

The only thing I didn’t have to worry about was the birthday cake because my friend May, who lives far to handily at the end of the street, is Airlie Fairley Cakes so I asked her to make it for me. I think you’ll agree it was pretty spectacular and it tasted even better than it looked.

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We had a lovely dinner – I’ll share the recipes during the week – and we spoke a lot about the impending trip to France. As HimIndoors and I were dealing with the debris once the parents had gone home I had a lovely tweet back from Pamela Drukerman, the author of French Children Don’t Throw Food which I blogged about yesterday. She loved the review, thanked me for it and retweeted my blog. I love Twitter. That’s me regularly speaking to Nigel Slater, WW1 researcher and advisor to the BBC Paul Reed and now I have another best-selling author thanking me for a review. And Twitter’s not just great for speaking to famous people. I’ve made some really good friends on Twitter, some of whom have eaten my food, stayed at my house, watched roller derby with me or gone to the pub for a drink with me. The other thing I’ve noticed about Twitter is that it’s a great ice-breaker at conferences and events. I used to be a bit of a wallflower and a bit shy at these things but now the chances are I’ll bump into someone I follow on Twitter or someone who knows someone I follow. Even better is that we’ll have been tweeting about the event in the lead up to it and may even have arranged to travel to it together or meet to pick up our badges together. The people I’ve met through Twitter probably don’t even recognise the description of a shy and retiring Cal444 but it’s true – Twitter has given my confidence a boost.

Today I have learned:

  • MiniHim thinks I’m lazy
  • I can play music from our computer through our XBox using my phone

Today’s track

Today’s recipe

Roasted cherry tomatoes

These go really well with the salmon from last night and the leftover sauce is great poured over plain cous cous.

Ingredients

cherry tomatoes on the vine

a couple of glugs of olive oil

a couple of glugs of balsamic vinegar

Method: Heat the oven to 180C/Gas 5. Whisk the oil and vinegar together and pour into a small roasting tin. Put in the tomatoes, vine and all. The oil mixture should come halfway up the tomatoes. Pop in the oven for 40 minutes.

Bringing up MiniMoi et MiniLui

While MiniHim was at his swimming lesson this morning I finished the book I was reading, French Children Don’t Throw Food. I bought it for £3.99 in Sainsbury’s a couple of weeks ago while doing the family shop. It looked like pulp fiction but I bought it to get me into the mood for the trip to France thinking it would be some thow-away story about an American living in Paris with all the cliches of the day.

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I was pleasantly surprised to discover pretty early on that it’s written by an American journalist – Pamela Druckerman – who was living in Paris with her English husband when they found themselves pregnant. She spends the next 5 years comparing American parenting with French with a lot of research thrown in from French psychologists, doctors and educationists.

Not only did it all make perfect sense, it made me want to turn back time and move to Paris en famille with the kids young enough to benefit from the French way. I’m not just talking about the philosophy and the parenting practice but the fact that state creches and nurseries are heavily subsidised and accessible by all. The people who work there are all working to the same French system as the parents. the kids have four courses of adult food each day,  pureed for the younger ones and the everyone knows where they are.

I would advise anyone expecting a baby to buy a copy of this book and to use it as a bible for your sanity and your children’s. Even if you already have children its worth a read because there are things in it that it’ll never be too late to introduce. I’ve even picked up on a few tips for our trip. As well as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ French adults expect children of all ages to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, with confidence, to adults and for their parents to at least point out that they should be saying them. If none of this is done the children are considered ill-bred. Mine have been practising since page 188.

So, like Pamela I am now asking myself several times a day. ‘What would a French mother do?’ I haven’t resorted to Gauloises yet but I may try Sancerre soon 😉

In brief, over the last 2 weeks I have learned:

  • French parents work to provide their kids with a framework – cadre – then everyone knows where they are and what they’re doing. Children are given limits but freedom within those limits
  • French children, even when babies fit into the family routine, rather that the parents’ lives revolving around the child
  •  French parents don’t do parenting – they see it as education
  • French children are never described as ‘good’. Instead they are ‘sage’ – wise and calm
  • French women don’t diet – they just pay attention
  • French children are taught philosophy in school

Today’s track

Today’s recipe

Salmon wrapped in bacon

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Serves 2

Ingredients

2 salmon steaks, skin off

4 slices smoked sweetcure bacon

a little olive oil

ground black pepper

2 sprigs of tarragon

Method: Heat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Trim the fat off the bacon and lay two slices side by side, fitting the pieces together as best as possible. Lie the salmon on top and rub on some oil. Grind some pepper on top and lie the tarragon on top lengthways. Fold the bacon over and place on a baking tray. Repeat with the other salmon steak and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Life’s gone quiet

Another day of routine meetings, routine work and a tiny bit of social media training. After rushing home I had just enough time to do some meal  planning for the week before heading for the supermarket with MiniHim. It’s my Mum’s 65th birthday next Tuesday so I’ve invited everyone round for a birthday dinner. We’ll be starting with antipasti then chicken, mushroom and basil lasagne and finishing off with pear and cinnamon cake with fudge sauce. Recipes to follow.

In MiniMe news, her English teacher was so impressed by a piece of her writing today that she has to type it out over the weekend  for her work folio because it’s ‘too good to be hidden in a jotter’. She also came home with a certificate for ‘receiving a substantial number of merits’. She can’t remember how many she’s had and the woolliness of the wording suggests the school has lost count too.

Today I have learned:

  • compared to all the other children in the supermarket MiniHim’s behaviour is exemplary

Today’s track

Just coz..

Today’s recipe

Chicken sandwich with lime mayonnaise

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Serves 2

Ingredients

2 chicken breasts

seasoning

2 limes

2 tbsp mayonnaise or aioli

4 Warburtons Sandwich Thins

salad

Place the chicken on a piece of clingfilm and fold it over. so it’s covered. Beat with a meat tenderiser or a rolling pin till it’s about the thickness of a £1. Heat a griddle and cook on a medium heat for five minutes then turn over. Season and sprinkle with lime juice while cooking.

Mix the juice of the remaining lime with the mayonnaise and put in a small dish to serve on the table, Prepare the salad and put in a bowl to serve.

Split and heat the Sandwich Thins.

When the chicken is ready, cut into strips and serve so people can help themselves to fillings.

Checking the checklists

Not much to say about today. MiniMe’s school phoned just before lunch to say she wasn’t well so I had to do a mercy dash to pick her up, take her to my mum’s then back to work. It took nearly 3 hours all in with a half-hour stop for a cuppa.

HimIndoors went back for her after dinner then the three of us sat transfixed watching Kevin Fong on Horizon – How to avoid making mistakes in surgery which looked at the various methods that are being used to make surgery safer and the science behind them. It’s definitely worth watching on the iPlayer and I’d recommend it to anyone who has to make decisions under pressure or who work as part of a team with traditional, strict hierarchies.

Today I have learned:

  • under pressure the brain tends to fixate on one thing, missing opportunities happening on the periphery
  • under pressure the brain slows down time
  • simple checklists are stopping more than one third of people going on to develop complications after surgery
  • removing rigid hierarchies make processes more likely to succeed
  • exhausting a checklist allows the brain to move on to more innovative solutions
  • Kevin Fong is the new Brian Cox
  • I don’t like soused herring
  • I don’t like rye bread

Today’s track

Today’s recipe

Creamy herrings on toast

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Ingredients

Serves 2

1 small red onion, half sliced, half chopped finely

1 pack dill, chopped

2 tubs rollmop herrings

2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I had to resort to balsamic, hence the funny colour)

200mls soured cream

2-4 (depends on the size) sliced rye bread, toasted

Method: Put the chopped onion in a bowl with the dill, reserving a few sprigs for a garnish. Drain dry the herring, removing any onion and pickle. Cut into strips and add to the bowl with the vinegar and cream. Mix well.

Add the herring mix on top of the toast and garnish with the leftover dill and the sliced onion. Serve with a side salad and a bottle of cold beer.

Me and genetic algorithms!

Work was pretty uneventful but when we got to my mother-in-law’s to pick up MiniHim she had this big pink envelope that was causing her concern. It was addressed to a lady in Streatham whose address was only vaguely similar to hers in that the street number was the same and if you said her town out loud it sounds similar to Streatham but that was about it. The envelope even had the first part of the London postcode but it had somehow made its way north of the border to South Lanarkshire. What was worse was that it originally arrived last week so she’d popped it in the post box across the road and the postie had delivered it for the second time today. We brought it home with us and filled in the second part of the postcode – the address checks out OK. HimIndoors is going to hand it in at the post office across from work tomorrow. Wonder if it’ll turn up at her house again next week?

The next module in the complexity course finally went live today – genetic algorithms! It sounds more sinister than it really is. It’s basically taking two strings of outcomes and joining them to make a new child string. The process is repeated until you have generations of code that eventually work better than the originals, kind of Darwin for computing. Those who know anything about complex systems are probably rofling or pmsling right now but that’s the best explanation I can muster.

Today I have learned:

  • half-hour meetings never stop after 30 minutes
  • I should offer post-traumatic stress counselling for people who have had social media conflicts

Today’s track

A floor-filler if ever there was one!

Today’s recipe

Spinach and mushroom filo pies

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Serves 2

Ingredients

200g bag of ready-to-use spinach

butter for frying

1 onion, sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped finely

1 handful of mushrooms sliced

half a tsp Lazy Red Chillies

seasoning

a dash of soy sauce

a grating of cheddar cheese

Butter for brushing

2 sheets of filo

Heat the oven to 200C/Gas 6

Put the spinach in a large pan with a tsp of water and put on a low heat until wilted. Remove to a colander, rinse in cold water then wring out as much water as possible.

Melt the butter in the pan and fry the onion, garlic and mushrooms with the chilli till cooked. Add the soy sauce, cheese and spinach and stir till mixed. Season with lots of black pepper. Spoon the mixture into pie dishes.

Melt the butter and put the first sheet of filo on the work surface and brush with melted butter. Cut to fit the pie dishes and layer the filo on top of the filling. Repeat with the second sheet. Put the dishes on a baking tray and put in the oven for about 20 minutes till golden on top and filling is bubbling.

Horses for courses

By the time I got to work I felt like I’d already done a full day’s work. In reality I’d done about half a day before I got to my desk. We woke up to a good few inches of snow so I immediately slipped into winter weather mode – quick shower then computer on and phone at the ready. The first thing I do is tweet the first half of my postcode, the number of centimetres of snow and #uksnow on the council account, inviting people to do the same for their area to add to the national picture. This is good because it gives me a fair indication of where we’re likely to have school transport issues or school closures. People seem happy to chip in and you can tell who’s exaggerating for effect. From there I’m checking for texts and email for info from Education HQ who’s first with the closures. If they tell me of any they go on the homepage of the website which tweets automatically but there can be a delay so I tend to tweet closures independently. From there I update a directory on the site which updates our mobile app. All the while I’m keeping an eye on the council’s main Twitter account and its Roads account trying to answer people’s questions where appropriate. I sit tight working from home while HimIndoors gets the kids to school. It’s safe for me to leave when the Education web contributor and one of the other content approvers is in the office then I can get on the snowboots and head for the bus stop. It was nearly 11 o’clock by the time I was changed and at my desk.

At lunchtime I signed up for my next MOOC, even although I’m still doing my complexity course. I have to say I’m impressed with the amount of preparation that has gone into this one and it seems more academic. It’s Dan Ariely’s Introduction to Irrationality at Duke University. This seems more up my street and it’s all the stuff I’ve been learning from the behavioural Insight Team at the Cabinet Office. In fact it was Simon Ruda from the team who introduced me to Dan’s work and I’m really looking forward to this intense 6-week course. Week 1’s required reading is all academic papers including How actions create – not just reveal – preferences, Tom Sawyer and the construction of value, The great rationality debate and Do defaults save lives. There are quizzes in each module but there’s a written assignment and an exam. If I pass I get a nice certificate signed by Dan but no credits from the university. But then, just like camera club, I’m not in it for the certificate, I’m in it to learn.

Today I have learned:

  • people tend to over-estimate snowfall by 2 cm
  • mine is the lost generation that uses both imperial and metric but doesn’t really understand either completely
  • French children have their very own sweary word – caca boudin. They learn when it’s appropriate to use it and when it’s not – it’s OK in your own room but not in the living room in front of granny!

Today’s track

This morning while tweeting as the council a guy called me babe. This raises a couple of questions:

  • how did he know the person tweeting was female?
  • does he think the council is female?

Anyway I felt like tweeting him the link to this track – but I didn’t.

Today’s recipe

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Chicken and tarragon pasta

Serves 4

Ingredients

olive oil for frying

3 chicken breasts, cubed

a knob of butter

3 handfuls of mushrooms, sliced

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

125mls white wine

185mls double cream

1 tbsp tarragon chopped

100g Parmesan, finely grated

black pepper

tagliatelle to serve

Method: Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the chicken in batches till lightly browned. Remove to a plate.

Melt the butter in the same pan and cook the mushrooms. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Stir in the wine and simmer for 5 minutes until nearly evaporated. Stir in the cream and the chicken and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the tarragon, Parmesan and some freshly ground black pepper and heat through.

Serve on a bed of tagliatelle.