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Avoid using the expression “stair me in the face.” You do not want a staircase in your face.

me, on the importance of spelling.

Turning scripts into independant commands on Windows

Problem:

Dynamic language interpreters (“script engines”) in Windows don’t normally install in such a way that once you write a script, you can simply call it on the command line.

If you have a script named hello.py, you cannot just type “hello” at the command line and hope it will work. It won’t.

The file extension has to be registered as an executable file, and the default program for opening the script must be its appropriate interpreter.

Solution:

  1. Create a directory at C:mybin
  2. right-click on the My Computer icon on your desktop or in the Windows Start menu (in Win7 it is just called “Computer” and select ‘Properties’)
  3. Click on the Advanced Settings button, and then on the Environment Variables button
  4. Edit the PATH variable in System Variables, add the following to the end of its data:
    ;C:mybin

    (note: the semi-colon ‘;’ is important)

  5. save and return to the desktop.

We now assume that the scripts you want to run get saved to C:mybin

You will need to use the `assoc` and `ftype` commands to achieve this

1) Associate a file extension to a pattern name

assoc .jar=jarfile

2) Define the handling in the pattern:

ftype jarfile="C:jsdk-1.6.0_18binjava.exe" -jar "%1" %*

Surround the path to the executable with quote marks as best practice.

Surround the %1 argument with double quotes as well – this is the path to your runnable file; if it has spaces in its path, you need the double quotes to keep it whole.

Do not surround %* with quotes, this represents all the arguments that were initially specified on the command line.

This gallery contains 1 photos.

How things have changed… I really do wonder what Photoshop 1 was like, and if its features would still allow powerful image creation still by today’s standards – not considering ease of use which I suspect has come leaps and bounds! If Photoshop 1 or Photoshop 2, or a clone, were released today, would amateurs

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This gallery contains 1 photos.

saddest-summer: The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale

Beginner notes on photography

[Nerr – posted this too soon; need to upload some other pics to demonstrate, raid the old collection, do links, embed thumbnails…. arrrgghhh. Oh well, here’s the raw unedited version…]

I bought my first DSLR in October 2009, and as I write this now in August 2010, I believe I have come a fair way in learning some important basics in technique that can bring one’s photos out of the holiday-shots category [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular_photography ] and into the Good Photo area – setting me up well for artistic. This entry is to set down what I have learned in writing – for clarity in my own mind, and for the use of anyone else who is interested.

I will try to make this as simple and brief as possible, and you can pretty much read each section in the order you want, but just straight is probably better.

For more of my photos, see DuCakedHare.co.uk

1) Cameras – or why I wanted a DSLR

a) Digital or Film

If you are not looking to become a professional photographer, there is rarely much discussion on whether to buy a digital or film camera: just go digital. If you are just learning photography, the learning curve will be longer with film – and more expensive. Not only will you have a delay between the time you take the photo and the time they are developed, but there is monetary cost for the materials and development process, and many extra steps to learn in the development process if you intend to do it at home.

If however you are looking to become a professional, take advice from a few experienced sources before making up your mind.

That is all I have to say on the matter, not having done any film processing myself. From here on, I will refer mainly to digital controls, but with only a couple of exceptions, you will find that this directly applies to film as well, as that is where all digital concepts derive from.

b) Point-and-shoot (PaS) vs (D)SLR

You will of course know the main components of a camera, and its functionality:
-the sensor (which in digital replaces film)
-the viewfinder (what you use to view the scene before you actually take the photo)
-the shutter release (the button you press when you take the photo)
-the lens (the deceptively simple-looking glass setup at the front of the camera)
-the zoom control.

What sets DSLR and PaS cameras is the granularity of control you can have over these basics, and the further control you can obtain on other factors at play in the camera.

i) No control

This setup was prevalent in older consumer cameras, and exists still in some novelty cameras. All you are allowed to do is point the camera at the subject, and take the photo with presets built-in to the mechanics.

Typically, these can only be used in bright conditions, as that what they are designed for, and usually only take film. Even with these limitations, this type of camera offers enough for holiday makers, and has one nice feature: when you press the shutter release button, the shutter is released immediately. Great when you’re on holiday with kids (who just never stay still…)

ii) Menu control

Typical of Point and Shoot (PaS) cameras, you have a certain amount of control on your settings through the menus on the LCD screen.

Normally, you have out-of-the-box settings for different scenarios – landscape, portrait, macro, sunset, night and sport are the more common ones.

You can also opt for “manually” adjusting the settings through various menus and buttons.

iii) Direct control

PaS “manual” control however doesn’t beat the type of control you can get with some bridge cameras and full D/SLRs.

Zoom (focal length) and focus are brought back to the lens and can be controlled easily, whilst aperture and exposure can be set through a handy control wheel, or other mechanical means on non-digital cameras. With all this literally at the tip of your fingers, taking the shot becomes much easier. You just need to get used to your camera…

2) Composition – the basic techniques

Whether you are using a no-control PaS or an SLR-grade camera, the following apply to any image making. These concepts actually come from the even older art of painting and illustration. As such, you could do worse than getting a book on art and composition to read at leisure.

a) Vocabulary

Before I get started, I would like to cover some vocabulary that will be useful in discussing photography.

“Focus” – if something is in focus, it is clear, as opposed to blurry. The opposite term is “out of focus”.

“Subject” – the main point of interest of your photo. Subjects can be in focus or out of focus

“Foreground” – anything in the frame closer to you than your subject

“Background” – anything behind your subject

b) Centering

The most basic rule, which states that you should centre your subject in the frame. The following rules break this one. In art, rules are guidelines, and guidelines only; properties of composition that can be explained, rather than relying on a je-ne-sais-quoi feeling.

In art, rules are made to be broken. And not everyone can digest the way others choose to break these rules.

A centred photo

c) Rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds runs along these lines: divide the frame into three equal horizontal strips, and also into three equal vertical strips. You end up with a grid of nine areas, with lines that define the boundaries, and intersections where these lines cross.

Individual small subjects can be placed on or near the intersections; tall or wide subjects can be placed along the lines, as well as horizon lines or wall lines (for example)

By keeping to the Rule of Thirds, you can easily create a pleasing composition without too much headache. Once you’re used to using the rule however, it’s time to start breaking it…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds

The couples in the following photo are each separated by the vertical lines, the heads are at the upper horizontal line:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4618505571/

d) Leading the eye

Leading the eye comes into play when your subject confers a sense of direction: a person looking to the side, a chapel that starts wide from the ground and gets narrower to the top, a jetty out into a lake whose origin is out of the frame.

If the subject is looking to the left, put them on the right line in the Rule of Thirds. Since the chapel points upwards, set its base on the bottom line of the Rule. If the jetty is at a diagonal, set it send in the top intersection of the Rule allowing for most of the jetty to be visible.

Again, once accustomed to this rule, break it.

The subject looks to the right of the picture, I left space to the right.

Looking to the right

The eye follows the train to the left, I allowed the front to be to the right.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4528871077/

e) Simplicity

This rule states you should throw the background – and foreground if possible – out of focus, and bring the subject into sharp focus. This allows the viewer to focus their mind on your subject, without being distracted by other irrelevant elements.

Focused on the subject

Of course, again, should you find reason to break it, do so without hesitation.

Subject deliberately out of focus

3) Basic lens control

a) Depth of field

When focusing, you can come across terms of “greater” and “narrower” depths of field. This property is affected by multiple settings, discussed further below, and is one of the most important concepts to know in terms of focusing.

Various objects exist at varying distances from you. Imagine standing in the middle of a highway, and there are intermittent lines drawn on the ground. A greater depth of field will allow you to have more of the lines in focus. A narrower depth of field will constrain the distance at which you get sharp focus to a given distance.

Narrow: On the road

Deep: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4272524228/

Variations of this is what allows you to take a photo of a person with the background out of focus, or to have both the person and the background in focus at the same time.

b) Aperture (f-stops)

Main property: Aperture controls the amount of light that is allowed to reach the sensor. Aperture is expressed in terms of f-stops, such as f1.8, f5.4, f12, etc.

The smaller the number, the wider the aperture, and the more light is allowed to reach the sensor.

Additional property: with all other properties constant, a wider aperture creates a narrower depth of field, whereas a narrower aperture creates a larger depth of field.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperture

c) Focal length (millimetres)

Main property: The focal length is expressed in millimetres and is better known as “zoom”. The greater the number, the more zoomed in you will be. Note that prime lenses are denoted by their single focal length (for example, 50mm), whereas zoom lenses are denoted by their focal length range (for example 18-70mm). On PaS cameras, there will be no focal length expressed, but a zoom factor (1.5x, 2x, 5x, etc)

Additional property: with all other properties constant, when the focal length is increased, the depth of field is slightly narrowed.

Additional property: with all other properties constant, when the focal length is increased, the amount of light let into the camera is reduced. This subsequently affects the minimum f-value achievable.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_length

d) Exposure (shutter speed in seconds)

Main property: The time the sensor is exposed to light.

By strong daylight you will typically shoot at 1/1000 – 1/4000 second. At night, you may need to allow for anything from 3 to 10 seconds. To capture the trail of stars moving across the skies, you will need exposures starting from around 10 minutes.

Additional property: a longer exposure is more likely to be blurry if subjects move, or if the camera isn’t stable.

Photo taken in a dark setting: Dancers

e) A note on film speed (ISO ratings)

Main property: Film speed determines how sensitive your sensor or film is to light, and is expressed in ISO ratings (ISO numbers)

Low ISO numbers (ISO 50, ISO 100, ISO 200) require longer exposures than high ISO numbers (ISO 800, ISO 1600, ISO 3200)

When shooting in bright conditions, lower ISO is preferred, but darker conditions (when no flash is used) demand require ISO.

Additional property: the higher the ISO, the more noise (grainy specks) will appear in the picture.

At high ISO, in brighter the conditions, the less noise will be perceived.

High ISO: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4758318432/

f) hyperfocal distance

The hyperfocal distance refers to the distance at which you should focus your lens so that elements remain in focus from far, far away, to a certain distance near you. Typically, this means focusing at the lens’s infinity notch, and everything from a given distance away from you will be in focus.

If you use your focus ring in manual setting, and turn it so that it brings items far away in the distance into focus, you are at infinity. Items at this distance are still in focus, but items any closer are out of focus. This is particularly useful when you want to prevent your camera from “focus hunting” – delaying the moment the shutter activates whilst optimum focus has not been found.

Disposable cameras are set with a very close nearest-distance, which allows you to take those family shots against a mountain range in the distance. It’s also the reason why you can’t be too close to a person to take a photo without them being systematically blurred.

To find your infinity, you can use your auto-focus and focus on something very far away; then switch your focus setting to manual.

The following tool can tell you, for a given lens at a given aperture, what your closest in-focus distance will be: http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

4) Further techniques

a) Framing (using the environment to frame the subject)

If you can, use objects in your environment. For example, a doorway creates a frame within the frame in which you can place your subject. Or a blanket on the ground, and take the picture from directly above. Or the trunk of a tree with a low-hanging branch, which along with the ground create a three-sided frame.

Opportunities abound, and pay attention to what you frame with to add meaning to the whole picture.

Typical: In an archway

Unusual: In glasses

b) Long exposure

i) Constant movement

Instead of having a freeze-frame of a dancer or sports person, add a bit more time to your exposure to get that dynamic feeling.

Also, this is how the silky waterfall effect is obtained – but you would need a neutral density filter to evenly darken your lens to do that.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/4732969313/

ii) Multiple poses / with flash

Set your exposure to 15sec for example, and press the shutter release. Now go in front of the lens and stand in it for 10sec, very still. Walk out of the frame and let the exposure time out. You have now successfully introduced a ghost-you to the setting. Experiment with striking several poses in the same exposure too.

In dark conditions, you can use an off-camera flash to fire when you want (or just a regular halogen lamp that you switch on and off). You only need to flash the pose once and then strike a new pose immediately before striking again.

iii) light painting

In dark conditions, set the exposure to something over 5sec

Have your subject hold a small lit object (such as a phone with its backlight) and move it around. The resulting picture will have lines of brightness where the lit object had moved.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/5561500311/

c) “Soft focus”

Whilst strictly an out-of-focus state, the mind can still see enough clarity in the image to interpret it as a type of in-focus technique. To contrast in focus against soft focus, properly in-focus images are said to be “in sharp focus”.

Louise

5) Monochromatic (“Black and White”) versus Colour

There is an important consideration to take into account when choosing whether to shoot in monochrome or in colour.

In colour photography you are looking at the play of colours and gradients of colours, their softness or their starkness.

In monochromatic, you are looking for the contrast in amounts of light and dark. Colours, of course, can be mostly disregarded.

A colour-aware picutre: Secret City Garden

(and its monochromatic equivalent Mystic Garden )

A contrast-aware picture: Electric Circus

Both principles: Baths at Dawn

6) Processing in the digital darkroom

I have no experience of processing in the film darkroom, so I will not expand on that beyond this sentence; but suffice to say that digital post production of photos remains controversial amongst photographers.

a) To process or not to process ?

Should you or should you not edit what the camera captured? Is the mark of a photographer indeed in getting it right in-camera first time?

There are many stances to this debate, and many reasonings, between always, never, sometimes, only certain types of editing, only when absolutely necessary… Take your pick.

I like to think of it like this:

If you’re a journalistic photographer, it is risky business to alter an image, for danger of being accused of lying about the reality. The most that you could do is crop, as photo is essentially a crop of a wider scene in itself.

If you’re a fashion photographer, there is no way you will be allowed to leave the photo in its original state. Blemishes in the model’s skin, toning of the light, and other operations must be done to project the message. In this sense, the photographer is not really capturing an image of reality, but creating an image ideal for their message, much in the same way a painter adds allegories to the scene, and caricaturists alter the features of their subjects.

If you’re doing artistic photography, it’s really up to you. There are so many other controversies on what makes “good art” that the editing-or-not debate becomes a moot point.

Processed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/3501339589/

Unprocessed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ducakedhare/3501102089/

b) Processing software

Depending on what you want to do to your photos, you will need different software.

Everyone by now will have heard of Photoshop – from being lauded by designers and criticized by social activists, it’s heard of at all levels. From slight adjustments to full alteration and more, Photoshop can do it all. However, it costs several hundreds of dollars; luckily home users can get most of the functionality they are likely to need from Photoshop Elements, for under a hundred dollars.

Much less well known is The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) which is available for Linux, Mac and PC. Free of charge, this tool was created to rival the abilities and featuers of Photoshop. It has some usability kinks relative to Photoshop, but overall works decently well – as far as I’ve heard.

Mac users have access to iPhoto, Apple’s standard photo organization and adjustment software, shipping with a number of photo effects that many users enjoy. Mac-only, as it comes bundled with the operating system. A down side is that every photo you edit exists as two files – a separate full-sized image file for each of the original copy and the edit copy (and thmbnails for each), which can seriously clog up your hard drive.

Windows users can get a super-light program called Photo! Editor from http://www.pho.to which works alright when it does, but has a number of stability issues. But hey, it costs nothing. Unfortunately, it does not seem to benefit from the code-reviewing and enhancements that come with OpenSource or Free Software Foundation programs.

Both Windows and Mac users can get Adobe Lightroom, which is aimed at professional photographers who mostly organisation capabilities, tone adjustments, and colour effects with fine control and make any blemish removals at the same time. Unlike iPhoto and non-managing software, edits are stored as instructions that are applied to the photo when you open it. The software costs a few hundred to get though.

Apple also has a professional grade photo editing package called Aperture, which also surpasses their iPhoto product, and is (as I have heard say) pretty much the serious competitor to Adobe’s Lightroom – with a similar price tag too.

For the record, I use Lightroom.

c) Typical editing

Once you have your photo editing software, you can experiment with some of the most common edits that you are likely to find yourself applying frequently – I will only name the most common but play around with all the options available.

i) Crop and straighten

Any photo editing software worth its salt allows you to crop your photo (choose a specific area of your photo, and leave out the rest), and straighten it. The programs listed above all have these abilities.

ii) Exposure

You will most definitely want to check that your photo is bright or dark enough for your purpose. Adjust the exposure level for this.

iii) Saturation & Contrast

Saturation affects how flashy the colours become. Highest saturation generally makes them scream out, whilst zero saturation brings the image to black and white. Genrally a good idea to add a slight bit of saturation when you feel there’s a lack of punch. Know however that many good photos play on low saturation for a softer feel. All depends what you want.

Contrast affects the light making bright parts brighter, and dark parts darker. Slightly increasing contrast can improve the light balance of the picture – though again, lower contrast softens the scene.

Contrast and de-saturation

iv) Warmth

Sometimes you will take a picture indoors and it will have that orange tinge to it – it’s time to cool the picture.

Though maybe outdoors on a nice day the picture came out too neutral or fresh – warm it for a more summery feel.

Conclusion

I hope this mini-guide has been useful to you as an introduction to photography. For more information, Wikipedia can explain in further details the topics I have covered.

Check out what other people are doing online at sites like Blipfoto, Flickr, deviantART; and grab a magazine or two centred around art photography to get ideas and further discussion about technique and working in photography.

Finally, I leave you with some advice when considering fil photography, and how to hone your skills:

1) Anytime you think “that’s pretty,” think “is that a shot?” Your first and foremost rule should be: Look for as many photo opportunities as you can.

That is not saying “take as many pictures”. Just look for them, and when you do see something interesting, frame up, compose, and see if you like it. After a while, you may no longer need to frame up to eliminate the “bad shots.”

2) Take any shot that from [1] that you’ve decided works. That’s the only true test. If the result is wrong, study why. You paid money for that mistake: learn from it.

3) As with your own shots, study any picture that grabs your attention, film or digital, magazines, Flickr, newspaper. Why did it work? Where were the lights? What’s the focus? Someone may have got a good shot by accident, but it’s up to you to decide why it worked if you want to do something similar…

The problem with using “Free Software”

Consider this: you are trying to get a task done, and the software is buggy or isn’t working as you expect it to.

You call for help. Where from? Nobody has any responsibility for free software. If you have a question, nobody has an obligation to answer you. A fix is only going to happen when someone decides they want to look into the problem.

Free Software is often horribly clumsy. Sure there are some stars of OpenSource to demonstrate it /can/ be done, but that doesn’t mean it is /being done across the board/

The only Free Software that is functionally stable to a point is software that programmers need. Things like operating systems, web browsers, compiler tools, etc.

Games come in a close second, but if it’s buggy, only coder gamers will fix that.

And photo management apps? All the free one’s I’ve had a go at are bad jokes.

Same goes for sound editing software which is in a dismal state (last I used Audacity [last year] it was still bare bones basic and not even fit for podcasts)

OpenOffice may be free, but it’s butt ugly and clunky. Okay, so I do have a rant to make on MS Office 2007’s interface, but MS Office 2003 got things pretty much right.

I could go on and on.

Red Hat and SUSE Enterprise run on open source software, but guess where they are making money? By selling support and code fix guarantees. To actually get help, you still need to pay.

So in the end, companies can use open source for business if there is a company guaranteeing support and fixes; and home users who aren’t techies still pay for their software – because getting help and fixing problems just doesn’t float well on forums with them.

Sony Alpha 350 – my review

I wrote the following in a response to a review of the Sony a350 camera that I have. Unfortunately, the response is limited to 250 characters… This is, for the record, my entire response/review.

Review on PhotoRadar.com

“I upgraded to a a350 once I decided that I was fairly competent with my Kodak point-and-shoot. The appeal of DSLR and having control over the main functionalities of shutter speed and focus made me choose this one, with advice from a salesperson, who stated the equivalent would have been an old Canon with a smaller number of Mega-pixels. The only drawback really was supposed to be that Sony is slightly behind the so-called leaders Nikon and Canon in terms of release dates for the latest lens technologies.

“The plastic does feel slightly cheap – the flap for accessing the memory card excessively so – but overall, the claim in this artucle that the switches etc are clumsy did not phase me. I was, as I say, upgrading from a compact, and such complexity was not unexpected. It does not take long to get used to, so long as you’re expecting some sort of learning curve any way. I don’t think I’d recommend getting it if you’ve already got more advanced cameras, as that would probably be a downgrade anyway, but from an upgrade point of view, all the dials and switches are reassuring…

“I have since bought a 50mm/f1.8 prime lens to accompany the kit 18-70mm/f.3.5-5.6 which does offer somewhat better images, and it (the prime) has become my preferred lens, the kit lens only coming in when I want to take shots al lengths shorter than 50mm.

“The mirror “snap” does sound very lunky compared to the Nikons I’ve heard and handled briefly. Most of the time though I do live music photography, so it’s pretty inaudible. But I don’t think a wildlife amateur would take to kindly to it. It *is* quite loud.

“All in all, anyone who’s upgrading directly from a compact will find this a very good buy. The only real thing is the necessity for some other lenses, but who’d stay satisfied with what they have anyway….?”

Correcting St Ives

Here’s an old riddle:

As I was going to St Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.

Each wife had seven sacks;
Each sack had seven cats;
Each cat had seven kittens.

Kittens, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St Ives?

The standard riddle answer is “Only one, the narrator. They met eachother, so the rest were coming from St Ives.”

That argument, however, is invalid. If they were that loaded, they would have been pretty slow, so could have been overtaken. And even if they weren’t, they could have met when one of the two parties had stopped for a rest. And there may yet be a plethora of other reasons why they could have met.

Then there’s the wording of question: “how many were going to St Ives?” It seems clear enough at first, but for strict mathematical consideration, we have to subtract the narrator and the man he mentions he met – they’re not part of the list of the final question.

Calculative answers, considering all are going to St Ives:

Humans: 9 (1 narrator, 1 “man” and 7 wives)

Living beings:
9 humans
+ 7^3 cats = 343
+ 343*7 kittens = 2401

==> 343+2401+9 = 2753 living beings

Listed items (kittens, cats, sacks, wives):

7 wives + 7^2 sacks + 7^3 cats + 7^4 kittens

==> 2800 of the listed items

That’s a lot of stuff.

The only sure thing that we can conclude from this is:
The man with the seven wives is not Christian.

Principles of Stir-Fry

I originally wrote this in an email to my cousin, and have kept it around as a reference should I need to give it to anyone. Since I have posted already two articles on the subject of cooking, I decided it was time I re-visited it at last…

And here’s the final installment in Tai’s cooking rants!

What’s the secret to a good stir fry? The answer: sesame oil, plenty of fragrant spices, thinly chopped ingredients and… a wok. Accept no substitutes.

Stir fry, like curry and risotto, is a concept dish. There’s a vague principle behind it, which is not ingredient-specific. It’s not as easy to pull off as a curry, but it remains fairly straightforward.

Here then are the key steps in the making of a stir fry…

1/ The four components

There are four principle components to a stir fry: the carbohydrates (or soy alternatives), the protein (not strictly necessary but highly advisable), the vegetables, and the spices.

a/ The rice

I’ll refer to “rice” out of practicality, although this could refer to egg noddles, rice noodles, rice, or even soy noodles if you need to cut down on carbohydrates.

As a general rule, you should use types that have as little of their own taste as possible, so as not to create a conflict later with your vegetables and spices. Once you are accustomed to doing your own stir fry, and know what effect each has, then you can start using such things as risotto rice or whole meal pasta.

I tend to prefer Thai or Basmati rice, although American long grain is also suitable. In noodles, I prefer thinner ones, egg or rice I don’t mind. Super fine noodles however tend to be destined for soups, but will do fine.

Without wanting to bash any brands in particular, there is one specific company that makes its noodles taste like cardboard. My advice is: cook a sample of whatever you intend to use and taste it. If it has little taste when plain (no soy, no sauces, no seasoning, no nothing), it is usable. If its taste is strong, good or bad, it will interfere with the rest of the cooking.

b/ The protein

I’ll refer to “meat” to designate whatever you choose as the protein: sea food, poultry, pork, beef, venison… If you’re cooking for vegetarians, use ground beans or tofu…. you can even use potatoes and a bit of cornflour if you swing that way, anything that holds together in chunks.

Tofu is the one vegetarian protein source. Please don’t make the mistake of seeing it as a meat substitute, whatever anyone says. It is a food in its own right, and I would gladly use tofu one day and pork the next. It absorbs the flavours around it and is especially well suited to this kind of cooking.

Chicken tends to work well with herbs and fruits. Turkey is a good replacement too if you are slightly tight on budget, noting that you can still get away with a good stir fry with about a half a chicken breast’s worth per person.

Duck and pork tend to be better with sweet marinades, and then grilled – I once had a marinade recipe for pork for 4 people requiring 5 table spoons of sugar. Delish. If you do use sugar in the marinade, I must caution you: sugar caramelizes under heat. Anyone who has tried using sugar in a pot will probably admit having had to throw the pot away. In this case, you’d be better off grilling – place a pan covered in tin foil under the grid to minimize cleaning requirements.

Beef tends to be more “earthy” and I would more likely use seasonings like cumin, ginger and garlic with it. If you’re thinking spicy, beef stands up to it better than other meats I find.

Avoid fish, as this kind of meat is too delicate for the purposes of a stir fry. Rather, make a vegetable stir fry to serve along side fish.

Sea food can also be the basis for stir fry, although not being a seafood fan, I cannot advise on it.

You can also use any leftover meat from previous meals, with gravy instead of stock – this would be added then only in the finalization stage. Trust me, this works wonders :-)

c/ Vegetables

Whilst vegetables are vegetables, include here any form of fruit, leaf or root you wish.

Note that cabbage (which is often used in Asian dishes) has a bitter taste so you may want to shallow boil that for about 5 min before doing anything with it. Same goes for courgettes and aubergines. The added work means I generally omit these.

d/ Seasoning

By “spices” I will be referring to spices, herbs and various other seasonings.

Also, there are a number of common sauces to be found in an Asian kitchen. They are all pretty potent – a little goes a long way. They include (and are in no way limited to):

-sesame oil: a must, gives a distinct smell of “Chinese restaurant” and a sweet background taste

-soy sauce: another must. This replaces salt entirely, and should be used sparingly

-oyster sauce: very sweet – but don’t treat it like sugar. Use for anything in the protein line when you’re going to fry.

-hoi sin sauce: generally for chicken and pork. Very sweet. And kinda fruity in its way. Great for marinating something that’ll be grilled.

-fish sauce: also known as “nuoc mam” (say nwok-mam). Very fishy and rather salty. Used in soups quite often, and not strictly sea food: I recall a recipe for chicken noodle soup that relied heavily on fish sauce. The raw smell is off-putting, but its effect if used wisely and once cooked is magnificent.

2/ The utensils

There are four essential tools when working the stir fry path:
-the round-edged wooden spoon or spatula, of strong build
-the non-stick wok, as large as your hob can handle
-the super sharp 6-inch knife, or cleaver
-the big wooden chopping board – and I mean *big*

Keep in mind that the wok is designed to distribute heat evenly. Don’t use any ordinary pan.

I insist that the spoon or spatula be wooden and round-edged – not plastic, and certainly not metal. You need to use a non-stick wok where the food will not stick to the sides – a lot of heat and frying means that without the non-stick property this will happen a lot if you don’t keep things in motion constantly.

You will damage your pan severely if you use anything but a round-edged wooden implement on this kind of wok. Use a metal implement here and after two or three meals, you might as well be cooking on a car bonnet.

Always keep your knife sharp. Lots of chopping and dicing is involved. To avoid dulling the edge, when you scrape stuff from the chopping board with the knife, use the blunt edge, not the sharp edge.

So yeah, a chopping board too. Doing it on the counter will only destroy the surface, not to mention that it’s hard to pick up the counter and bring your chopped ingredients to the wok.

3/ Prepare the rice

Prepare your rice (or equivalent) in advance, as this should ideally be cold when you add it finally to the stir fry. If you’re in a rush, having it ready an hour before you start cooking the vegetables is decent. There is no inherent problem in using the freshly made hot rice straight from the pot, but for reasons unknown, it’s better if it has been cooled for a while.

Note that if you are using noodles that are of the quick-cooking sort, you can add these when finalizing. Just pour some boiling water into the wok and add the noodles. Don’t be too enthusiastic on the water. If the noodles are not cooked by the time the water is absorbed/evaporated, you can add more water. The opposite will yield mush and a longer time to get the excess to evaporate.

4/ Prepare your meat

Chop the meat into pieces no more than about half an inch at its thickest point. If it’s seafood, you can generally leave it as is.

Generally, you’ll want to marinate by adding some seasoning to the meat an hour or so before you cook it. This can be anything, from something basic like rubbing some crushed garlic over it and sprinkling with coriander and a bit of soy, up to a complex marinade as done for satay or char siu.

I have been known to use an alcohol base for a number of my marinades, as they add a nice flavour (and gives me a good excuse to buy more up-market bottles). For example, letting the beef soak up some red wine and a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

A note about using alcohol in cooking: stewing and marinating in alcohol is fine and dandy on any day, in any style, but one rule is golden: If you wouldn’t drink it, Don’t cook with it. That’s absolute.

5/ Prepare the vegetables

a/ Fire up the wok

You’ve prepared your meat, good. Heat the wok to “pretty damn hot”, with some regular oil and a hint of sesame oil. If you want to use one of the above mentioned sauces, why not. Remember that they’re all potent, and a little goes a long way.

At this point, you can add any combination of spices you want. Cumin is strong and potent, giving a beefy punch, garam masala is sweet, coriander seed is nice and mellow. Choose what you like according to what is needed, if anything at all.

Now throw in the meat, stir well, and get at the greens. The finer you can chop them, the better. Stir the meat from time to time to keep it cooking and not charring.

b/ Get the greens in order

Ideally, you want all the vegetables to be soft when they reach the mouth. This is where emphasis really needs to be put on the dicing as small as possible.

Remember that things like leeks, celery and most roots like carrots and radishes are very fibrous and will take longer to cook. Other softer items like onions, spring onions, tomatoes and sweet pepper will take a lot less time.

I would advise to only use about three or four different vegetables in one go, but that’s entirely up to your taste in the end.

To minimize time spent on the whole, chop the tougher vegetables first, add them to the hot wok, and then chop the less tough ones whilst the others are cooking. Remember to give the wok a stir every minute or so.

6/ Finalize the taste

The meat should be completely cooked by now, and the vegetables all soft. At this point, if there is any liquid left from marinating, add it in. Wait for the liquid to start bubbling before proceeding any further.

If you have any stock at hand, use some; otherwise stock cubes or stock powder/granules are fine too when dissolved in a bit of boiling water.

Add your rice (or affiliate) to the mix and stir it all up so that the ingredients are evenly spread out. Here is where you add the dry noodles, as mentioned previously.

Taste it. If the flavour needs enhancing, add some stock, or a little bit of soy – but not too much. Use soy sparingly, taste your food, and add sparingly again. Many of my own dishes went wrong from my hand slipping on the soy.

7/ Done

Take the wok off the fire, grab some chop sticks (or if you are less dexterous, a fork) and a plate or tall bowl.

I like to eat my stir fry accompanied with a nice pot of green jasmine tea. Pu’er tea is not bad either. Both are recommended by doctors, dieticians, Buddhists, Taoists, yogis, and my mum and I. It’s probably the only medicine any normally constituted person would be hard put to overdose on, and just about the only thing I will accept to take for colds, headaches, stomach aches and weariness.

Chow time!

Principles of Curry

True to form, this installment of Tai’s cooking ramblings is about CURRY.

So I have gone over a number of curry recipes in my Asian Cookbook, scouring them for any patterns. The patterns for currying are fairly simple, and I think I have pretty much understood the why of most methods….

Note that I will only talk about meat-based curries, as these are all I have been able to read up on so far. And all I am interested in, to be quite honest.

0) Main concepts

Firstly, curry is basically about adding spices to your otherwise main ingredients.

Secondly, know there are two main ways of spicing your meat: marinated in a bowl for several hours (or even days), or using heat from the pan.

Thirdly, know that there are two main types of curry: dry curry and curry with sauce.

Fourthly, for sauce-based curries, know that you can add the meat you are currying to the pan before the liquid, after the liquid, or with the liquid.

And now for the general template…

1) Select the spices

There is a wide array of spices to choose from, and most of them are of the type that do not burn your mouth. When I say “spicy”, this does not necessarily imply “using paprika/chili/hot peppers”. Think of turmeric, saffron, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, the humble onion, coriander seed, etc etc. These are all spices. You can also include herbs in this list as well, along with usual seasonings such as salt and pepper, and even fragrant teas if you so want.

Some have more of a musty taste, some more sweet, some are simply colourful without being too strong in aroma, some are grassy… Use your nose and a bit of imagination. Think of the kind of meat you are going to use.

The combinations are limitless.

2) Chop the meat

In curries, the meat is cooked in bite-size chunks from the start. Most of the combining of the ingredients happens pretty quickly, so it is important that the meat be cut before anything else is done. At this point I should note that a little goes a long way. Say you would serve a quantity of two chicken breast fillets for one person. I would use two chicken breast fillets for a curry for four to five people. Especially when a sauce will be present.

In the same vein, any large/long vegetables you intend to use should be sliced and diced in advance, for the same reason, although this is less of a concern. Do as you see fit.

3) Spice the meat

Here’s where we start to make variations:

a) Marinate

Marinating meat is a matter of mixing the meat with a selection of the spices you are using. In a bowl, add the spices with a tablespoon or two of water, and stir to mix evenly. You can even use a blender for this, if you are using, say nuts or fragrant vegetables.

Then mix in the meat so that each piece is nicely coated. You can use your hands to do this, it is much more efficient than trying to play around with a ladle or spatula. Just remember to wash thoroughly before and after.

Leave this marinade in a bowl in ambient temperature for 2-3 hours, or covered in the fridge for a day or two. In the fridge, covering is important – otherwise all the contents of the fridge, especially the butter, will taste of curry thereon after…

b) Heated in the pan

You can simply heat oil in the pan and add all the spices immediately. You will need to ensure that everything you are going to use is at hand, because this is going to go pretty fast and you don’t want anything burning.

3 bis) The pan spices / softening the vegetables

This is basically like 3b), except that 3a) there will be a separate set of spices that you are heating in the pan, as opposed to the ones that you are marinating the meats in. They could actually be exactly the same, but there’s little point in that.

This applies especially when you are using vegetables as well as the meat, wherein you are softening them before proceeding to the rest of the cooking. If using onions or other vegetables, some recipes call for browning, some advise against.

The effect of browning onions and garlic is, beyond softening them, is also breaking down some of their more potent components into sweeter versions. Again, depending on what you are trying to achieve, do it or don’t do it, at leisure.

4) Add the liquid (optional)

A curry does not necessarily need to be a sauce. As a point of illustration, chicken tikka is (or so I am told) a dry curry, that was brought to the UK from India. Chicken tikka masala however was allegedly invented in Glasgow, when the autochtonous eaters wondered why the curry was so dry… No sauce to dip their chips in.

a) Nature of the liquid

i) The classic liquid is coconut milk. You can find this in cans or cartons in supermarkets, or in Asian food stores you can even find bags of dried coconut milk. The latter is better value for money, though you have to prepare it in advance of your cooking (takes two minutes).

ii) The other very popular liquid base is yoghurt or cream. Mild or sour, yours to decide which you use. I personally would go for the milder variety, as it interferes less with the spices I selected, but that’s simply a point of opinion.

b) Adding the liquid

i) Liquid first – If you add the liquid first, you are essentially allowing it to absorb the spices and the vegetables flavour in advance of adding the meat. In such a way, flavours are likely to bleed both ways, from sauce to meat and meat to sauce.

This is also useful if the meat is quick-cooking and you can’t allow it to be in cooking heat for too long, such as with some fish and most seafood.

ii) Meat first – In this case, you are not really adding much of the flavours to the meat, as when it hits the hot pan, searing will occur, sealing up the meat. Make sure you are stirring well so that none of the meat is burned, or end up unevenly cooked. Some juices might bleed out into the pan, but the meat will generally keep a relatively distinct flavour from the sauce.

Once searing is complete – the outside of the meat is cooked, but the inside is still pretty raw – you can add the liquid.

This technique is most advisable if you’ve marinated the meat with different flavours than those you heated in the pan.

iii) Meat and liquid together -You might also have been marinating the meat in spices in the liquid in advance. In which case, just add everything together. It becomes a bit like the situation described in 4bi), except that the liquid at this point is still cold, and everything will heat up together.

Quite frankly, I have no idea in what situations you would do this. It’s just that I’ve read it, so I include the idea.

5) Simmer for a while

In the case of sauce-based curries, you will need to leave time to simmer for the meat to cook. This is best based on your judgement, and how small your meat pieces are.

A rough bet is about ten/fifteen minutes simmering, whilst stirring from time to time to avoid the mixture burning to the bottom of the pan.

You can check the readiness by isolating a big chunk of meat and cutting it at its thickest to see if it is cooked all the way through.

6) Eat it :-)

And it’s done. Serve with white rice – Thai or Basmati are the classic types (please note that for best delectation there should be around two volumes of rice per volume of curry) – or couscous, or even simply on/with bread.

Enjoy!

Post Scriptum

To illustrate the limitless spice combination concept, I have a little anecdote.

When I was a child, I used to like the idea of potions – from comics like Asterix (and the Druid Competition story), through various fairy tales, and other alchemic stories, I just imagined myself concocting some miraculous potion.

Goodness knows why, but one day I raided my mother’s spice cabinet. I took a little bit of each spice powder in there and put it in a milkshake shaker I had got as a freebie somehow. The deed done, I proceeded to add a spoon of it to boiling water. To my dismay, it didn’t even dissolve into an interesting soup. I sealed the mixer and left it in my bathroom for years.

When cleaning out my room once I had left for uni, my mother chanced upon this magical mix and recognized the contents as spices. Having verified this with me, and I “not being able” (read: not willing) to detail the reason for its existence, multiple curries were made out of it.

They were each eminently palatable, even if I do say so myself. Pretty impressive for a completely random, unmeasured mix of spices… 😀

Next time on the Tai cooking channel: stir fry, or turning leftovers into feature meals.