Sunday, October 20, 2013

Courgettes Farcies (Seafood Stuffed Zucchinis)

Being up to my eyeballs in my dissertation continues to put my blogging mostly on hiatus (I'll be done in December!), but a woman's gotta eat, and if you gotta eat, you might as well cook, right? (And if your husband wants to try out his new camera lens, he might as well take food pics... It's a slippery slope.)

The French seem to love to stuff things, and I am learning to love it too. It's a nice way to compose a balanced dish, putting rich meats and sauces in with vegetables, keeping leaner meats from drying out, and stretching pricey ingredients with a bit of cheap starch and veggies. And, of course, it looks cool.

Zucchinis in France are more commonly stuffed with ground meat, rice and tomatoes, but Brittany is famous for its creamy seafood dishes, which I love and wanted to do homage to. The sweet mild zucchini complements the crab meat, and since zucchini comes in a variety of sizes, you can make one for every appetite, from toddler to full grown man.

 I made this starting from a risotto base, because I wanted leftover risotto for something else. But if you're time pressed, feel free to skip that step and just saute the onion, then toss it with any sort of cooked rice, even Uncle Ben's.

Courgettes Farcies
Servings: 3
Time: about 45 minutes
Planning Ahead: None, aside from shopping
The Funny Stuff: Crab meat and cooked shrimp, Boursin
Virtues: More vegetables, more better. Creamy, cheesy, gooey goodness.
Downsides: Labor intensive
Calories: ~475

Some zucchinis (I stuffed two big and one tiny, but you could do three medium zukes, or 5-6 tiny ones.)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1/2 c. dry rice (I used arborio, but you can use anything other than glutinous rice)
1/2 large onion, diced
1 can of crab meat
1 c. cooked shrimp
3 Tbsp. creme fraiche
3 Tbsp. Boursin cuisine (or Boursin spread mixed with extra creme fraiche)
1/2 cup Gruyere or Comté

Start by making risotto. Warm the olive oil over medium-low heat in a sauce pan, and then add the rice. Stir it until the grains start to turn a little translucent around the edges, then add the onion, and cook it until it's also transparent.

Dump in the white wine, and stir vigorously.

Once the white wine has been almost fully absorbed, add 1/2 cup water, and stir thoroughly. You'll continue to add water 1/2 cup at a time and stir, every time it starts running low on liquid, while you're working on the other steps.

Slice the zucchinis in half lengthwise...

Score the zucchinis deeply with a knife, making a rectangle all the way around the seed area.

Pop the seed area out with your fingers. If you're feeling thrifty, throw them in the freezer and save them for soup. (I'll give a foreigner's guide to French soup making in the next post.)

Once you've got the guts out of the zucchini, microwave them on high for about 6 minutes to start the cooking process along. While you're at it, start preheating your oven to "really quite warm" (which for me was 220 C., or about 425 F.)

If you've been adding water all along, your risotto should be looking something like this, with nice plump distinct grains that are soft to the tooth.  (If not, cook it a bit longer.)

Take the half-cooked zucchinis, and lay them in a baking dish or on a cookie sheet. Lay a few shrimp in the bottom of each one.

Put the risotto (or cooked rice and sauteed onion), the crab meat, the creme fraiche, and the Boursin all together in a big bowl.

Grate about 1/4 cup Gruyere or Comte over the top, and then mix everything together.

Spoon the stuffing into the hollow of the zucchini.

Lay the remaining shrimp on top, and sprinkle the other 1/4 cup of grated cheese over the top.

Stick them in the oven, and pull them back out again when they're golden brown on top (about 15-20 minutes).  If they're not as brown as you'd like at 20 minutes, give them a minute or two under a broiler.



All photo credits to Aaron Wood

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paris Dining: Au Fil des Saisons

I've been really bad about writing posts about Paris. I've been working hard on my dissertation, which takes up a lot of time and sucks my will to live, or at least to blog and take photos. I've been in a bit of a rut with home cooking (see also, dissertation), so I haven't had much to food blog, unless you want me to write about the wonders of Picard (It's a wonder, don't get me wrong.) I've had a bunch of really excellent meals here, from the plebeian (rocking good ham pizza!), to the sublime (Atelier de Joel Robuchon for my birthday! Oh la la!) However, most of the places I have eaten are all well documented restaurants, covered by many excellent food writers, with pictures (which I hate taking in restaurants), and I haven't really felt like I could add a lot to the conversation. Paris has got to be one of the most blogged cities ever, when it comes to food. However, I just had lunch at a little gem off the beaten path, and it was so awesome, I felt like I had to share, photos or no.

Within a stones throw of my work is Au Fil des Saisons (6 Rue des Fontaines du Temple 75003 Paris). It's down a tiny little street, and is about 15 feet wide, with a very understated sign. You could blink and miss it. However, should you happen to find it, walk inside, say bonjour, and ask for a table. The owner speaks excellent English (although please be a good traveler, and at least start with "bonjour"), and is friendly and warm.

As noted, I've been having a lot of really good food in Paris, and before that, in California. Au Fil des Saisons is not the best restaurant I've ever eaten at. (That honor falls to Manresa, in Los Gatos. Sorry, Monsieur Robuchon. And I'm still holding out for The French Laundry, which is on my bucket list. I hear the food there is pretty decent.) It's not even haut cuisine. However, I have never eaten in a restaurant with such painstaking attention to detail. There is nothing here that is not lovingly crafted or chosen to be excellent. There are no "throw-away" dishes. Everything has been refined, from the amuse bouche to the coffee.

When I sat down, a tiny basket of potato chips landed on my table, golden brown, and very thin. They were very lightly salted, and had that nuttiness that comes with just the right amount of caramelization. The owner came by with the menu (on a free standing chalkboard), offered to explain it to me in English, and then very sweetly explained his recommended dishes slowly and clearly in French when I told him I was working on my French.

I started with a cold cucumber soup (something I discovered in Paris, and love on hot summer days. Also very popular with my two year old, so if you're trying to get your kid to eat more veggies...) Like most I've had, this was cucumber, creme fraiche, and mint. Lots of grated cucumbers for texture, and a little tiny scoop of basil sorbet (very sweet and pungent) in the center of it. The basil really made it pop, and stand out from the "liquid tzatziki" soups that I've been getting. Very refreshing. I reached for the bread to sop up the last of my soup, and noted that it was excellent, even by Parisian standards, chewy with a good crisp crust, and very slightly hearty.

Next, I had the volaille farcie, chicken stuffed with ground mushrooms. I was expecting a very French bistro implementation of chicken, but what arrived had strong Asian overtones. It looked very much like Thai "angel wings", with a drizzle of shallot sauce, and came with a colorful side of stir-fried julienned veggies, and what appeared to be a puck of plain white rice. The chicken wings looked tasty, but I braced myself for disappointment with the sides.

The chicken wings were excellent, as expected, with a savory ground mushroom filling stuffed under the skin of the wing, and cooked to crispness, with little pops of salt sprinkled on at the very end (a technique which I love, and Manresa also does to perfection.) I moved on to the veggies. As I suspected, stir fried in soy sauce, but quite good, neither over nor underdone. Finally the rice, and a pleasant surprise. What looked like plain white rice had been cooked in olive oil, with a little bit of onion added, and some matching pops of salt. Very simple, but done perfectly, and absolutely delicious.

I decided to forgo dessert in the interests of my waistline (next time!) and went straight for the espresso. The espresso is brewed by the owner, and is strong, sweet, and mellow with a hint of molasses. (Definitely not Cafes Richard.) The sugar was plain white, rather than raw, but that let the molasses notes really shine.

All told, it set me back 30 euro or so. A little on the pricy side (sadly, I am unlikely to bring my coworkers on a weekly basis), but totally worth it as a splurge. Next time I'll get dessert. I'm sure it'll be fantastic.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

How Do You Say "Thing-Fetcher" in French?

My daughter has been complaining bitterly for a week or so, because the two little Duplo figurines that came with her blocks (who she carries everywhere, and has dubbed La Fille and Le Garçon) have gone missing. We looked all over the apartment to no avail, and the nanny worriedly confessed to having taken them to the park one day, but swore they'd come home at the end of the day. I sighed, and made a mental note to hit the toy store sometime in the next few days, and then thought no more of it until this morning.

This morning, I was looking for a different missing toy, when I happened to look behind the radiator in her room. There were La Fille and Le Garçon! Also two pieces of toy fruit, one Duplo block, the digital thermometer (when did she get her hands on that?), and a small toy egg. Oh, and a pile of old, dusty crumbled paint coating everything. All of it about 18 inches down a tiny little crack too small for my arm, or even hers.

Were we in the US with all of our stuff, I'd head for the garage like the clever tool-using mammal I am, and go grab the tool that I, and everyone I know, calls a "thing-fetcher". It's that handy little deelybobber with the button on one end and claws on the other, sold at finer Home Depots and automotive stores everywhere. However, I had a feeling that if I marched into Leroy Merlin and asked for a "récupérateur des choses", I wasn't going to get very far. Further, as it turns out, even in English, it's not sold as a "thing-fetcher". It is a "pickup tool", which sounds ever so much more refined. A bit of Google Translate later, with a cross-check against some Google shopping results, and I managed to uncover that the tool I want is an "outil de ramassage". And that it is only sold in automotive stores. Which they don't have in Paris. Because everyone takes the metro. Damn and blast.

So in the end, there I was like every primate for the last millennia, fishing out her toys one by one with some sort of stick. (In my case, a plastic coat hanger, but a tree branch would have been just as effective. Maybe more so.) I damp-wiped the toys with a paper towel, and then washed them thoroughly, just in case that was lead paint, and then we vacuumed up the paint chips with a HEPA filter vacuum, and ran the HEPA air purifier in her room for an hour to catch any stray particles. We'll check with the owner about the age of the paint, but it's probably fairly modern.

In the mean time, the little duplo family is reunited, the thermometer is back in the bathroom on a high shelf, and now I just need to figure out how to get twenty-eight cents euro out of the 350 year old mortise and tenon joint on the stairs, where she carefully dropped them one by one...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Idiot's Guide to Finding a Good Publication Venue (mostly in Computer Science)

So, here you are. You've gotten into grad school. You have had your first big idea, or maybe your second or third. You've done a bit of research, confirmed that it's viable, and now you want to find a conference or journal to submit to. But which one?

Alternatively, you are looking at papers from a field that you're not very familiar with. You've found a paper you think is interesting, but you're not sure if it's a good paper from a reputable publication venue, or junk science from The International Journal of Crackpot-O-Rama. How do you find out? (Hint: citation count is not the whole story.)

Here, then, is a brief guide to figuring out out whether a conference or journal is a good venue, and you should send papers to it, or trust papers from it. This guide is mostly drawn from computer science, since it's the area I know best, but I think most of the principles generalize to other scientific disciplines. The humanities are entirely different, so someone else will need to help you out there.
  1. How broad is the charter of the venue? Do they cover everything from AI to Z-order curves?
    Venues with a very broad purview are often paper mills. The canonical example of this is, of course, The World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, but there are many others in that vein. A good venue has a clearly defined scope, usually on a single area of specialization or special interest topic. (For instance, SuperComputing takes papers on systems, programming languages, computer engineering, and visualization, but it's all very clearly focused on "problems people with supercomputers have".)
  2. How diverse is the program committee? Is their nationality all the same, are they all from the same few universities, or does the nationality of the members closely match the country where the conference is held?
    There are a lot of smaller regional conferences in a topic area which are held in a specific country, and draw their entire PC from there (China and India have a number of these, and since they're large countries with lots of universities, some of them are pretty good, but you should still examine them closely. The US does not get a pass on this, either.) This isn't a terrible thing, and sometimes good papers wind up in regional conferences, but it suggests that these are smaller fry, not the top tier venues in a field. A really good venue is prestigious to serve on, as well as to publish in, and it can usually attract PC members from all over the world.
  3. What is their acceptance rate? (Do they publish their acceptance rate?)
    A good venue will probably get more papers than they can publish. Some good venues are extremely exclusive. Others try to be able to accept more good papers, so they have more tracks, special issues, short papers, etc., but they're still going to wind up rejecting a lot. Somewhere in the 10%-20% range is good, 30% is OK (The World Multiconference not withstanding), more than that is a little suspicious. Less than 10% probably means that the papers they accept are really good, but they're probably not a great submission venue, unless you have something truly earth-shattering, AND you write like a god. If they don't publish it at all, be very wary.
  4. Pick a steering committee member, or a couple, and go look at them on Google Scholar. What's their H-index like? Are they well cited? (How does their H-index stack up to your advisor's?)
    While PC members are sometimes recent PhDs who have shown show promise in their field, the steering committee should be well established, and have done a lot of high-quality research in the venue's area.

    If a venue hits all four of these points, it's probably a good venue where you can submit your work without besmirching your good name forever. However!

  5. Not all papers in good venues are fantastic papers. If you're looking at a paper from a good venue, it's been through a round of peer review, so the blatantly awful has probably been thrown out. But that doesn't mean that it's a stellar paper. A bunch of things can collude to let a less than good paper slip in.
    1. They didn't get a lot of good papers.
      Sometimes the pickings are slim, and venues aren't going to cut back a whole day, or skip an entire issue, just because they didn't get great papers. So less good papers will, grudgingly, get accepted. (Although they'll often also step up the invited talks and highlight papers, which is another indicator you can look for that a given year was not as good as usual.)
    2. The reviewers were really swamped, and not as on the ball as they should have been, or weren't as expert in that sub-area as they needed to be.
      Sadly, this happens too. Reviews are run entirely on volunteer effort, and that means sometimes there just aren't enough expert reviewers to go around. A paper which looks superficially good may have deep flaws that someone in a rush, or not deeply read in a sub-area, might miss. Maybe the idea was sound, but their evaluation methodology was flawed, or vice versa. Maybe it's a great idea, but someone invented it 20 years ago in a different discipline. Always, always, do your own leg work, especially when it comes to related work and experimental methodology. Never assume that just because someone said it in a conference last year that it's right, or appropriate for your problem.
    This is where things like citation count start to come in. Now that you've determined that the venue itself is good, now you can start asking questions like "How many people have cited this paper?" and "How many people cite papers by people who cite this paper?" (In other words, doing the whole PageRank thing.) But there are a lot of reasons not to trust raw citation counts, especially in contentious areas. People may cite the paper just so they can debunk it. Bad scientists may cite the paper because it agrees with what they believe, even if it's not actually that great of a paper. The best papers will have lots of citations, from good researchers, who say positive things about it in their papers. If it's a really recent paper, then you're going to have to go off the person's previous publication track record, or their advisor's, if they're really new. (On the other hand, it's rare for someone's first or second paper to be really good solid work.)
As always, however, your best guide to publication venues is going to be people who know that area. If it's your area, and you're new to it, ask your advisor or senior lab mates to tell you what's good. If you're looking outside of your area, see if you can find a research buddy in that discipline. Good luck, happy reading, and happy publishing!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Coriander versus cilantro: the confusion continues.

Things I learn... I thought I knew that coriander (the dried herb) and cilantro (the fresh leaf), both came from the same plant, but that Europe doesn't distinguish between the two, calling them both coriander. However, I was flipping through On Food and Cooking just now, and discovered that the reason why Americans call fresh coriander cilantro is because there's a Central and South American herb called culantro (Eryngium foetidum), which tastes much like the Middle Eastern herb, coriander (Coriandrum sativum), and has mostly been displaced by it throughout Latin America. So odds are good that your guacamole was made with coriander. But to add another twist to the story, culantro lives on. It's still sometimes used in Latin America, but it has been enthusiastically adopted by Asia, especially the Vietnamese, who use the leaves as a substitute for Vietnamese coriander, Persicaria odorata (which is neither a coriander nor a culantro). So your cilantro is probably coriander, unless you're eating Vietnamese, in which case it might be culantro, or something else entirely. As a side note, the unpleasant "soapy" flavor that some people are sensitive to is the result of a fatty aldehyde, decenal, also present in citrus peels. So if you don't like cilantro, you probably won't like citrus zest, or citron, the much-maligned fruitcake ingredient. (Then again, why are you eating fruitcake, when you could be eating this?) It's not present in the seeds, however, so most people who hate the taste have no problem eating coriander heavy cuisines such as Indian. It's also heat sensitive, so it's possible that lightly cooking the cilantro would drive off the offending soapy component. However, most of the other flavor compounds in cilantro are even more volatile, so it'll probably just taste grassy. Try it at your own risk.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Adventures in Paris, Part 1 of many: In which I completely fail to buy an onion.

As may have already become clear in previous posts, I don't have the best luck when it comes to onions. I tend to run out at inconvenient times, or forget to buy them, or find that the ones I have are rotted just when I'm getting ready to cook. However, I've never actually failed at purchasing one before.

Aaron ran out to grab a few things for dinner and breakfast the first day we arrived, but today has been the first day I've felt up to navigating a French supermarché, and we needed groceries badly. So I gathered my bags, put together a bilingual shopping list, and went merrily off to to the Carrefour. Unlike the small shops, which are very helpful, the supermarket experience in France is generally not so different from the US (which is to say, apathetic), and one can wander up and down the aisles in peace, quietly gawking at the yogurt (100+ kinds!), the ethnic food aisle (fresh ramen noodles! Tortilla chips! nuoç mam!), and the meat case (smoked duck breast! Whole rabbit!)

I managed to find everything on my list, and went off to the cash register, feeling very proud of myself. Remembered to say bonjour, and was happily bagging my groceries, when the cashier started brandishing the single onion I bought for tonight's dinner, and asking me a question. The first time around, I missed it entirely, catching only the oignon at the end. I apologized and asked her to repeat herself, but didn't get much further, aside from balance. I looked around in vain for a cashier's scale, and then realized there didn't seem to be one.

We tried to bridge the linguistic barrier, but to no great success. I still have no idea what I was supposed to do with the onion. All I can guess is that I was supposed to weigh it myself. At the checkout somewhere? In the produce section? (Perhaps there's a way to label the bag I missed?) After several rounds of apologies between the cashier and I, it was decided that it would be better for everyone if I did not, in fact, buy the onion. I left with two full bags of groceries, and no onion. After getting home and thoroughly laughing at my predicament with Aaron, I hopped downstairs to the tiny family grocery right under our flat, where they smiled at my terrible French, and helpfully typed out my total so I knew how much to pay them for my two small onions. Getting over the constant interaction and the language barrier is a little intimidating, but there's a lot to be said for genuinely friendly customer service.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Matters of more substance...

I was having a discussion today with the inimitable Mr. Teacup over on Twitter. I decided to summarize my thoughts in a less compact form, thus also giving him room to respond in more than 140 characters, and perhaps we can have a pleasant discussion. Or a well-reasoned unpleasant discussion, or who knows what, but at least we'll have room for it.

I don't know much of Mr. J.W.R. Teacup, Esq., but he has generally proven to be a well read and thoughtful dude, albeit perhaps further steeped in Marxist theory than I normally go for. (I'm more for pu-erh, or a nice chamomile. Marxists are often terribly bitter when oversteeped, although they add a pleasant flavor when part of a blend of other thinkers.) He is not, to the best of my knowledge, an engineer of any flavor, although it's quite possible. Which brings us to the current topic of discussion.

We were both holding forth on a subject somewhat near and dear to my heart, the question of whether everyone in the world should learn to code. He initially pointed out the post by Jeff Atwood titled "Please Don't Learn to Code" in which Jeff, a programmer himself, rightly points out that most people will never need to code, will be terribly bad at coding, and probably ought to focus on other things in life. All of which I hold to be true. However, I still believe everyone in the world should learn to code.

Actually no. I don't believe that. Here's what I do believe. Everyone in the world should be exposed to the practice of logic, of critical thinking, of problem decomposition, of forming hypotheses and testing them by painstakingly changing one variable at a time. The reason why I advocate for programming over any other science or engineering discipline is as follows. Computers are ubiquitous. Computers, at least these days, are pretty much unbreakable to a novice (ah, those halcyon days of setting IRQs by hand!) You can make a mess of things in your little sandbox, but a reboot will fix almost anything you may have done short of deleting your hard drive. Code is highly repeatable, unlike frogs. Type the same line of code 10 times, and it will do the same thing. And the behavior of your code is not already known, unlike the laws of physics, so you can't cheat by looking it up on the internet or in the back of the book. And you don't even need to know algebra!

This makes programming a superb microcosm for teaching and demonstrating the principles of certain types of well structured thought at a fairly early age. I will cheerfully agree that most people will suck at writing code. However, I believe that the process of learning how to write code will make them better people in a fundamental way, similiarly to the way that learning to critically read Stendhal will make them better people, despite knowledge of Stendhal being one of the most useless things known to man. The act of critical thought in and of itself, the ability to analyze, dissect, and be aware of one's own assumptions is a key part of an education, and one that I think is sadly lacking from both engineering and the liberal arts. Engineers avoid literary theory, claiming it's full of unwashed anarcho-Marxist hippies, literary theorists decry engineering as an oppressive tool of patriarchy and false consciousness, and both sides lose out on key intellectual tools.