28 February 2006

Princes Street is Dead, Killed by Edinburgh Council

I was walking along Princes Street this other evening (to the pub admittedly) and it really hit me what a disgrace it has become. Edinburgh Council shoulder all the blame for poor marketing, red tape, no incentives and letting shops sit empty for months, almost years. Five major shops are currently empty with big "To Let" signs protruding out into a supposedly protected street. Ann Summers and Sainsbury's amongst others have been in trouble for the signs they erected and have had to have the replaced. The massive Burger King right opposite the Castle has now been empty for a year, only temporarily inhabited by a cheesy "Scottish shop" selling rugby union shirts and cheap kilts. Princes Street road is now just a four lane bus road, destroying the beauty and tranquillity of the Gardens and the spectre of the Castle. After 4pm it does change though, then it's just a single lane of stationary buses east bound, all with their engines on polluting the area and blackening the shop fronts. The final insult is that the old American Express shop at the pride and joy West End was finally filled after nearly two years with an amusement arcade, metres from another one *and* a strip bar *and* a real casino! While the council did do a little (but not enough) to try to stop them, they've done sweet fa to stop them blocking street signs and making the West End look even tackier (if that were possible). Just like the once great Hogmanay Street Party, Edinburgh Council has used its cancerous powers to humiliate another great Edinburgh landmark into a laughing stock. At the same time as killing off Princes Street, they also want to kill off local traders, telling this corner shop at the West End who have fresh fruit and veg outside that it's illegal and it has to go (though gambling in slot machines is fine). At least they are using my council tax money for something...  In other building related news I wonder how many people walked straight passed this office on Melville Street and never noticed anything unusal?

26 February 2006

Lime Fajitas & Hot Burritos Chimmy Changas for PhillG.com Fan Club

The first annual meeting of the PhillG.com Appreciation Society took place last night . Not really, I just cooked dinner for a few friends who happen to read my website. The early topics of conversation seemed to centre around my desire to launch a Live PhillG.com section with my trusty web cam but my friends were pushing me towards launching a XXX section and giving me plenty of material for it (verbally you understand). Back to the subject at hand, the recipes.

The starter was a single chimmy changa, topped with cheese and pureed fresh salsa around the plate. This was the first time I've ever tried this and I have to say it came out pretty well. The only fault with the starter was the salsa which was shop bought and then pureed, in hindsight it would have been much better with Thai sweet chilli sauce (e.g. Blue Dragon). Quite a quick starter, assuming you are going to be having burritos later on. Take one flour tortilla and place about 50g (one heaped table spoon) of hot burrito mince (to prevent issues with reheating meat) and put it towards the bottom of the circle. Fold the final few centimetres of the tortilla over the mince, then bring the sides in and finish by rolling all the way to the top. While this looks nice and tight you should really try to skewer it with something like the top of a bamboo barbecue stick. I put the wraps in two at a time in a deep fat fryer at 180°C for at most two minutes. The tortilla goes a lovely golden colour and the edges turn a crispy brown. Drain on kitchen paper and then turn seal side up (having removed the skewer) and sprinkle with not too mild cheese. You can throw this under the grill or if you are obsessed with gadgets use your trusty blow torch. Just start the cheese bubbling and then serve with sweet chilli sauce drizzled around the plate.

The main course was a dual help-yourself Mexican feast of lime fajitas and spicy chilli burritos. First the fajitas were made with about 100g of chicken per person, cut into strips across the breast (at most you want them 6cm long). Quickly brown them and then add in all the juice and any flesh that falls out from two really ripe (dark green) limes. At the same time (or even before you can keep them hot in the oven) I dry fried three peppers (red, green and yellow – orange is not the right taste) with absolutely no oil (maybe one crack of pepper). In a good non-stick pan you can heat the peppers all then need until the skin almost blisters in little black circles. With that I chopped two large onions, one red and one yellow, into large strips. If you have trouble with the vapours either work very closely to a running tap and splash it under it every so often or get some one who wears contact lenses to do it (thanks Samantha) – they are immune! Fry then off until the look beautiful with just a tiny amount of freshly ground sea salt. As the chicken is a few minutes off ready, throw in whatever spices you want, something like pepper, paprika, chilli even nutmeg. It is far easier to use a packet mix from a supermarket but it here you can tweak it how you like. Serve with fresh salsa, half fat creme fraiche (far better than sour cream) and the vegetables in bowls. As for the flour tortilla, microwave them in the pack and keep them in there on the table, they stay far warmer and keep their moisture if you do.

Finally the all important burrito mix. I chose to serve this with grated cheese and shredded lettuce (in addition to the fajita accompaniments) and a crafty secret extra – crushed Doritos. I find real maize tortilla chips too hard but Walker's Doritos are light enough to be crush (by hand or in a pestle and mortar) and give an extra texture to the dish. So at last we reach the mince. Take 75g each (plus 50g each for the starter, so 500g for four people) of lean beef mince and brown off in a bit of oil. Add one decent sized red and green chilli, finely chopped including nearly all the seeds. You can add a little bit of seasoning and even a few splashes of hot pepper sauce (e.g. Tabasco) and/or Worcestershire Sauce (e.g. Lea & Perin's). Finish cooking for about another 8 minutes and that's it! A nice, spicy and hot (for a big wuss like me) burrito mince. I served it for eating in the flour tortillas, the crispy taco shells look fun but create far too much mess and detract from the taste of the meat you've been slaving over a hot cooker to create.

23 February 2006

14 February 2006

Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue...

...With the Elephants and the Monkeys,
And you look like one too!

Hmm, I think I've got a couple of songs mixed up there (unless your birthday is on Valentines Day). I do accept that the classic image of a rose is red, but surely the colour of a violet is, well, violet - hence the name. It's as Demteri Martin says "I think they named the Orange before the Carrot". Anywho, I'm in deep trouble for leaving my valentines card to KT in the office :-( but as it turns out ... she was too busy to buy me a card! If I used that line people'd be gathering around in a hour or so for my funeral. For the first time since I was about five I haven't received a Valentines card today - attention all women, this is your chance to send me one! Years ago (my first year of uni) I sent one to someone I wasn't interested in (there was nothing wrong with her you understand, we were both to vibrant young adults who weren't attracted to each other) with a message I shameless ripped from a TV comedy (I'm not going to say which one, you have to recall it for yourselves): "Life without you would be like a broken pencil ... pointless". For that and many other reasons I acquired the nickname "smooth plips" (an unusual contraction of phillip). Back to my struggle to get through the day today though, after my I prepare my lovely home cooked meal tonight we can both relax and enjoy Liverpool beating Arsenal from 8pm. While it's great our other "game in hand" is televised, putting it on Valentines Day is just asking for trouble. Liverpool, Arsenal and Sky should be ashamed, nobody's up to anything tomorrow night... Well, seeing as it's on it would be stupid not to watch it in our lounge, with *one* card on the coffee table.

2 February 2006

Egypt Day 7: Is This The End of Phill G?

We are booked on a boat trip to Farun's Island to snorkel around a good coral reef. We both wussed out and hired wet suits as the water probably wouldn't be as warm as the hotel pool. In case you don't know how wet suits work, they allow a little water in which your body heats up and the water cannot escape so it keeps you warm. Once you fully grasp that you never try to take a slash in the water with a wet suit on (unless it's out of fear)... The coral and wildlife was very impressive, everything from swordfish and the very poisonous stone fish as well as all forms of angel fish including an emperor angel fish I got quite close to (but never touched, it's like a strip bar – no touching). It was a lot more varied than in Eilat but that's not a surprise as we were told the other day in Israel “when we gave the Sinai peninsula back to the Egyptians we lost all of our good coral”.

After half an hour of fun, a bit of salt water in the mouth (twice the strength of the Med) and a grazed knee from getting too close to the shore I started getting concerned. All of a sudden the waves lapping over the back of my head felt quite fierce. I popped my head up and noticed several people heading back to the boat. I swam back with my head under the water, breathing though the snorkel as the waves had become so choppy to swim normally (and the sea water is so salty, much more than in the Med). After climbing back on board i found i was one of the last to return, most people were huddling from the strong wind at the back of the boat (in the dry area). As lunch was being prepared we sat there. mesmerised by the bouncy waves that would be "red flag' conditions on any coast. After lunch everyone said they would be quite happy to Cut short our trip in order to return quickly to dry (and warm) land. 26 people and not one was interested in staying, even though we'd paid £40 each.

As we set ''sail" it became clear that someone had pissed off the Egyptian god of wind (okay I know they don't have one, but maybe Neptune/Poseidon was holiday here). These pictures do nor do the conditions justice. Even from our hotel you can see the white foam as waves break forcefully well away from the coast. Out there in the middle of no-where (with no other boat in sight) it was horrendous. I was too concerned to get my phone back out to take any pictures! There were waves well over 12' and we not only had to travel over these peaks and troughs, but also go across them and so be knocked badly for side to side.

About I hour into our return voyage and three people were throwing up. These wee nor people a ho usually feel sea- sick as four others had already taken the free sea sickness medicine. In fact Xe first person to go off, all over her own coat that she was using to Keep warm, was a lovely old lady that has been on dozens of cruises. The middle aged man didn't seen the queasy type either and he soon went off over the side of the boat, right in front of me. By this time we had been going as long as it took to get there and there was no end in sight. I was feeling very queasy myself, a horrible combination of the excessive motions and hunger. I tried to distract my brain by singing nursery rhymes and making up nonsense songs to try to achieve some mind over matter (although l wasn't hopeful after the disastrous failure of my six minute walk to the the Dead sea). There were three really bad times when I genuinely felt I was going to regurgitate lunch - first time I moved quickly to the side so I didn't accidentally erupt over my fellow distraught passengers. By this time we felt we had seen the worst of it and we could battle it out for a little longer. With rad we came over a really big wave that Knocked us sideways and scared the hell out of just about everyone. A poor lady walking a long the wet deck when this happened and she was hurled face first into the side of the boat, a distance of over 1.5 metres. To say this freaked me and everybody oat is a gross understatement. A box of our shoes flipped over and they went cascading down the deck but nobody cared - we were too busy clinging on to any thing we could grab.
Many more big waves and stupid distractions later and we were close to the marina. This return trip had taken over two hours, one of the longest in recent memory (not mine obviously). As we *slowly*entered the bay we noticed a large group of people on the rocks, just behind the security fence. I noticed a few flashes and as we reached audible distance the started clapping our safe return! It turns out it was the staff from the water world centre who clearly realised just how bad it was out there. We clapped out of relief for the captain as we hurried to jump back on to Terra firma. As we walked away we vowed never to speak of it again.

It's dinner time now and I'm struggling to eat. It may be due to the rocking motions I'm still feeling from the sea, it may be due to the half tube of Pringles I scoffed as I lay safely back on my hotel bed earlier, who can say?

Six hours one from our return and it's nearly bed time. When I close my eyes and I still think I'm swaying but there is something for worse than that. We are supposed to fly back tomorrow but I've Just flicked on CNN and scared myself senseless. I can't face another trip like that return boat ride ever again and now I'm dreading waking up in the morning. KT tried to guess what had disturbed me - a hurricane perhaps? I'm afraid it is something far worse. I've just found out today is Groundhog Day.

1 February 2006

Egypt Day 6: I Sank Even Further Than Yesterday

Israel again, this time Eilat and coastal town very close to the Egyptian border. First we went to a Coral Reef centre and the pictures have to been seen to be believed. the first animal we came across was the Sea Turtle – the very same one I was swimming with 3 years ago Barbados. I'm not going to say much more about the fish here as I think my pictures go someway to doing their beauty justice.

Two of my dreams (and surely everyone's) is to go diving at a coral reef and go swimming with wild dolphins. Now imagine you could not only do them both on the same day, but in the same place! the Dolphin Centre is a very special place that is home to 9 bottle nose dolphins originally from the Black Sea (literally all life in the Red Sea is protected, including shells). The live in a large marina and are not fed or forced to do tricks. If they want to come up to the trainer and play games with him for fun then that's great, if not they can do what ever they want. There is no Pavlovian reinforcement going on with performing for visitors. Furthermore they only get 20% of their daily food which means they remain active hunters and not enslaved in captivity. The dolphins even treat sick children with their sonar, something two doctors are studying all year round in the labs at the centre. There are several other animals here too, including a stray dog that thinks it's a dolphin, a few ducks, a few cockerels and so on. All of them are strays that just turned up one day and have decided to stay. They are free to leave it they want to.

After a little watching the girls play around my feet (there are seven females, one male baby and of course one alpha male) it's time for induction to the world of SCUBA (yes it's an acronym like LASER and GIMP). This stuff ways a ton by the way. The only problem I had was walking into the water on the pebbles as my feet are still very sore from yesterday. I can't begin to tell you how fulfilling it was to be six metres underwater with all colours of tropical fish dancing around living coral and investigative dolphins playing around you. Better than Caribbean waters and swimming with 300 year old sea turtles. The coral and other sea life was almost as good at the Coral Reef centre we were at earlier. Our tour guide told us a story afterwards that she doesn't go in the water anymore after an incident that happened to her two years earlier when she was 42. She was swimming in the human area and as she approached the edge of the dolphins home several dolphins rushed over to her. The trainer call out in Hebrew “I'm bet you are pregnant”. Needless to say she was and now has a one year old daughter!