Disco gin and tonic – yours to make at home with some electronic engineering

Regular readers will be aware of my tragic addiction to all things Las Vegas. It’s been nearly six months since our last visit, and I am pining for bright lights and cocktails. Few things make a drink nicer than some coloured lights in the vicinity.

Dr Weasel, ever alert to the causes of his wife’s grumpiness, decided to cheer me up by making me an animated, brightly lit drinks coaster.

Here it is under a gin and tonic:


And here it is, glass-free, displaying a spinning galactic ice-cube.


The coaster can be driven from any PC with a serial port and will display any 10×10-pixel video you wish. Over to Dr Weasel for his version of a recipe (100% less lead-free than the recipes you’ll usually find here).

You will need:

30 1K 0805 resistors (R1 – R30)
30 MBTA42 NPN transistors (Q1 – Q30)
10 100 Ohm 0805 resistors (R31 – R40)
10 FMMT717 PNP transistors (Q31 – Q40)
5 74HC594 SOIC shift registers (IC1 – IC5)
4 100nF 1206 capacitors (C1 – C4)

and finally:

100 TB5-V120-FLUX-RGB8000 RGB LEDs (LED00 – LED99)

The LEDs can be hard to get hold of at a decent price; eBay is once again the friend of the penurious electrical engineer.

Manufacture one or more PCBs using these Gerber and drill files. A double-sided PTH process is required, so it is probably best to use one of the various small-volume professional PCB manufacturers; I have found PCB Train in the UK to be fairly reliable. Assemble the board, taking great care when soldering the surface mount components. I found this one to be right at the limit of my dexterity.

Attach power and data cables to the connector in the bottom right of the board. Seen from above, we number the six pins:

1 2 3
4 5 6

The corresponding signals are:

  1. XVOLTS – drive voltage for LEDs. Connect to 4V current limited supply.
  2. SERIAL_CLOCK – shift data from SERIAL_DATA on positive-going edge.
  3. SERIAL_LATCH – latch 40 bits from shift register to LED control on positive-going edge.
  4. GROUND – common ground.
  5. 5VOLTS – supply voltage for control circuitry. Connect to 5V supply.
  6. SERIAL_DATA – input data for shift register.

To scan the display, clock 10 4-bit numbers into the shift register. To clock in a bit:

  • bring SERIAL_CLOCK low
  • modify SERIAL_DATA
  • bring SERIAL_CLOCK high

Once 40 bits have been clocked in, the SERIAL_LATCH signal can be brought high to transfer them to the LED control circuitry. Each 4 bit number selectively enables the red, green and blue LEDs in one row, and selectively disables all LEDs in one column. So if we clock in a string:

0011 0100 0111 ...

This sets all the LEDs in row 0 to blue, all the LEDs in row 1 to green and all the LEDS in row 2 to cyan (green + red). It disables all the LEDs in columns 0 and 2. By rapidly clocking in various combinations of values (typically with only 1 of the 10 column-disable bits low), we can scan the array to build up an image, and use pulse-width modulation to give a range of apparent intensities.

This firmware can be used with an Atmel ATmega644 to generate the required signals in response to serial input from a PC or Mac.

A couple of words of warning. Modern LEDs can be very bright indeed. You could probably hurt yourself pretty badly by dialling them up to full intensity and ignoring your look-away reflex, so don’t. Also, when debugging your firmware it is easy to stall the scanning process and burn out the precious LEDs. Use a decent current-limited bench power supply, with the current dialled back to a few tens of milliamps to avoid this happening.


The Great She Elephant does not so much celebrate her birthdays as rue them. She suggested Moro (Exmouth Market, Farringdon, London, 020 7833 8336) as the venue for this year’s quiet lunchtime wake for lost youth. I’m always happy to oblige – GSE has fantastic taste in restaurants.

Moro is a restaurant specialising in southern Spanish food with a strong Moroccan influence, run by the Clarks, a married couple who, confusingly, are both called Sam. It’s been going strong for ten years now, and shows no sign of slowing or losing popularity. Tapas is available all day at the bar, while in the restaurant itself you’ll find a menu that changes weekly, showcasing seasonal produce. (The menu for the week is available at Moro’s excellent website, so if you’re like me and mildly obsessive about what you eat for lunch you can start to decide what you want to order days before you visit.)

The dining room is all stark wood and zinc, with a real feeling of bustle contributed to by the lightning-fast, extravagantly tattooed servers. Moro wins extra points for offering tap water alongside the bottled stuff, and for wordlessly topping up the jug when we’d finished (it was a hot, hot day). Although all these hard surfaces make for a noisy dining experience, especially when the restaurant is full, it’s a lovely atmosphere for lunch, especially if you can get a table near the window, overlooking the busy street, or one at the back where you can see into the kitchen. The wine list, mostly Spanish, is really interesting, and you’ll find a near-exhaustive list of sherries to sip as an aperitif. And somehow, despite the restaurant’s exotic menu and massive popularity, they manage to keep the prices sane.

I started with one of my favourite dishes in the world: sweetbreads. Moro’s were glorious little nuggets, dusted in a seasoned flour and fried to a rustling crispness outside, with nuttily soft middles. A cardamom and preserved lemon dressing tied them to chargrilled artichoke bottoms and left me feeling like I’d just eaten an angel. GSE’s cuttlefish was carefully braised over a long period with sherry, until it was soft and toothsome. A broad bean salad, made from beans so young and tender that they didn’t need removing from their skins, provided a great foil in texture and flavour.

If you see the words ‘charcoal grilled’ on the menu, order that dish. GSE’s lamb, which came with a pea and farika pilaf and pistachio sauce, was delicious; pink and sweet in the centre and charred on the outside. I asked for the vegetable mezze platter, which you can see at the top of the page. Hummus, an aubergine purée, a spoonful of a Syrian lentil dish, more of those baby broad beans, French beans in a yoghurt sauce and Imam Bayaldi (stuffed aubergine) were clustered around a remarkable perfumed, shredded beetroot dish which was flavoured with pistachio and fragrant rose water. I felt the Imam Bayaldi would have been tastier served at a cooler temperature (it and the French beans were hot, while all the other mezze were at room temperature), but this is getting into seriously picky territory. A flat bread, baked in the restaurant and filled with crushed nuts, was served alongside to dip into the mezze, along with some sweet and peppery radishes and other crudités, and a spicy pickled pepper.

These are enormous portions, and this rich, very positively flavoured food is deliciously, satisfyingly filling. We paused for a while and then opted to share a dessert (and I’m glad we did; it was very large and again, wonderfully rich). This yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranates was like a deconstructed, Moorish lemon-meringue pie. Moist sponge nestled against a frothy lemon sabayon, and more of those lovely perfumey flavours (this time from scented pistachio and heady pomegranate) underscored the whole thing.

Just walking into this room full of the smell of bread and charcoal is a treat. Eating there’s positive bliss.

Chicken and sweetcorn soup

This Chinese soup is a real favourite with children, and it’s pleasingly economical to make. You’ll only need two chicken leg joints (the joint with the thigh and drumstick attached) to serve four people.

You might have eaten this in Chinese restaurants. This is an egg-drop soup: this means it’s thickened by whisking a thin stream of beaten egg into the bubbling stock immediately before serving, leaving you with delicious strands of seasoned egg mingling with the chicken pieces and the sweetcorn. If you want to make extra to freeze, skip the egg stage, adding it to the defrosted soup immediately before you serve.

To serve four, you’ll need:

2 chicken leg joints
1 litre water
1 chicken stock cube
1 piece of ginger, about the size of your thumb, cut into coins
2 spring onions (plus extra to garnish)
3 cloves garlic
1 can creamed corn
2 tablespoons soya sauce
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 eggs
Salt and pepper

Brown the outside of the chicken pieces in a large, heavy saucepan with the garlic, spring onions and ginger for five minutes. Pour over the water and a tablespoon of soya sauce, and crumble the stock cube into the pan. Bring up to a gentle simmer and keep over a medium heat for half an hour, skimming any froth off the top of the stock as you go.

Remove the chicken from the pan, and use a knife and fork to remove all the meat from the bones, chopping it into small pieces. Set the meat aside and return the bones and skin to the stock, and simmer for another half hour.

Strain the stock through a sieve to remove the bones, ginger, garlic and spring onions. Return the clear liquid to the pan and add the meat you took off the bones earlier and the can of creamed corn to the stock. Add a splash of cold water to the cornflour in a mug, mix well and stir into the stock. Bring back to a simmer. In a large jug, whisk the sesame oil, a tablespoon of soya sauce and the eggs together. Remove the soup from the heat and stir it hard, drizzling the egg mixture in a stream into the rotating liquid. Taste to check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Serve immediately, dressed with some chopped spring onion.

Roast duck with tarragon creme fraiche sauce

This is probably the worst photo I’ve ever put on this blog – this duck is out of focus and really ought to have been photographed later, once it was plated up. There’s a reason for this – the little guy was smelling so good that the hordes gathered around the table had the duck carved, chewed and well on the way to being digested about fifteen seconds after the shutter closed.

I’ve mentioned roasting ducks before in relation to collecting the fat for use in potato dishes later. This recipe should ensure you a perfectly crisp, deliciously seasoned and glazed skin, fragrant and toothsome flesh, and plenty of delicious creamy gravy to anoint the meat. A large duck like this (the plate it’s sitting on is a giant one) should serve four.

1 large duck
2 spring onions
1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground paprika
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon onion salt
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
1 bunch tarragon
1 bunch parsley
250 ml stock (use a good pre-prepared stock or make your own with the bird’s giblets)
3 tablespoons crème fraîche
1 tablespoon quince jelly (use redcurrant jelly if you can’t find quince)
1 glass white wine
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 ½ teaspoons light soya sauce

Remove the bag of giblets from inside the carcass before you begin, and use the contents to make stock. Take any poultry fat out of the inside of the duck along with any excess skin, and use it to make gratons.

Dry the duck carefully inside and out with kitchen paper. Use a fork to prick the skin all over the bird (this will help excess fat to escape and help the skin to crisp beautifully), and place the halved lemon and the spring onions inside its cavity. Mix the salt and the spices together in a bowl, and rub the skin well with them, keeping a teaspoon of the mixture to one side. Sprinkle any remaining rub inside the bird. Place on a rack in a baking tray in an oven preheated to 200° C (400° F) for 45 minutes per kilogramme plus 15 minutes, basting every half hour with its own fat. (The duck will release a lot of fat; that rack is there to make sure that the bird doesn’t sit in the fat and burn.)

Chop the herbs very finely and combine them with the quince jelly in a separate bowl.

To make the sauce, take the stock and bring to a simmer, reducing until flavourful. Stir the cornflour into the cold glass of wine and tip the mixture into the bubbling stock with the crème fraîche and the teaspoon of rubbing mixture you reserved when you prepared the duck. Keep the pan on a low simmer.

Ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, use a teaspoon to ‘paint’ the uppermost skin of the duck with the jelly and herb mixture and return the bird to the oven. Keep a teaspoon full of the jelly/herb mixture and stir it into the sauce. Taste the sauce and add more jelly or tarragon and salt if you think it needs it.

The duck will be beautifully glazed, its skin crisp and savoury from the spice rub. Rest the bird for five minutes once it comes out of the oven and serve with roast potatoes, a sharp salad to cut the richness of the flesh, and some green vegetables. Remember to decant the fat from the roasting tin into a large jar to keep in the fridge for roasting and frying potatoes.

Chicken pieces roasted in homemade barbecue sauce

This is a one-dish recipe requiring very little attention once it’s in the oven – a good option when you have guests for dinner and you want to talk to them before eating rather than skip in and out of the room in an apron with a spoon all evening.

If you’re not comfortable cutting a chicken into joints at home, you can ask your butcher to joint it for you. If you don’t have easy access to a friendly butcher, you can make this dish with a mixture of chicken thigh and leg joints from the supermarket instead – it’s important, though, to use chicken pieces with the bone in and the skin on for ultimate tenderness and flavour. This barbecue sauce is made from dried spices, soya sauce and white wine. It’s strong and delicious, so serve with plenty of rice (I cooked mine with a little saffron) or another plain starch to soak up all the flavour.

To serve four, you’ll need:

1 large chicken, jointed
4 shallots, cut into large dice
150ml white wine
150ml soya sauce
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 tablespoon sundried tomato puree
1 inch of fresh ginger, grated
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon chilli powder (chipotle powder is nice here for the smoky flavour)
1 tablespoon liquid smoke (leave this out if it’s unavailable where you live)
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 200° C (400° F).

Space the chicken pieces evenly in a large metal baking dish, and sprinkle the shallot pieces around them. Drizzle with a little olive oil and bake for 30 minutes, until the chicken is browning and the pieces of shallot are starting to take on colour at the edges. A lot of fat will have rendered out from the chicken skin, so use a tablespoon to remove as much of it as you can.

Mix all the other ingredients in a measuring jug and whisk with a fork to make sure everything is well blended, then pour evenly over the chicken pieces and shallots, trying to make sure all the chicken is nicely coated. Put back in the oven for another 30 minutes, basting twice, and serve immediately.

If, by some amazing freak of appetite, you don’t eat this all in one go, the chicken is great the next day taken off the bone in sandwiches.

Elderflower fritters

I spent yesterday making this year’s batch of elderflower cordial. The wet weather earlier this year in the UK seems to have been a great thing for the elder bushes, which are positively groaning under the weight of all their flowers. The flower heads were so heavy with creamy pollen that I picked six extra heads to turn into fritters.

Foraging is brilliant. There is nothing like the warm glow you get from eating food which is, to all intents and purposes, free; it’s also a great pleasure to know that the food you’re eating is from a healthy environment (be careful to pick your elderflowers well away from any roads, and, as always, leave plenty of flowers on the bush – you’ll want them to turn into berries later in the year) and is perfectly fresh. Look for blossoms which are in full flower, and which have not yet started to brown or drop petals. For fritters, try to pick the heaviest, most pollen-filled flower heads you can find about three hours before you cook them. Pop them in the fridge in a plastic bag. Their scent will develop after picking and they’ll be very perfumed when you come to cook them (don’t leave the flowers in the fridge any longer than three hours or their scent will start to turn in the direction of cat wee).

To make six large fritters, you’ll need:

1 egg
200g flour
50g sugar
1 pint (450ml) milk
Six large elderflower heads
Flavourless oil to fry
1 tablespoon honey
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

Using a fork, beat the egg, flour, sugar and milk together with the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon and put its juice aside. Let the batter rest for an hour.

In a large, non-stick frying pan, heat about ½ cm of oil over a high flame. Check the elderflowers for any arthropod inhabitants, but don’t wash them (you want to hold on to that pollen). Hold a head of elderflowers by the stalk and dip the flowers into the thick batter, then drop them, flower side first, into the hot oil. Fry the fritters in pairs so you don’t crowd the pan; they’ll brown better this way.

Turn the fritters after about two minutes – the flower side should be a golden, crisp brown. Fry until the stalk side is also crisp, then remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper.

Remove to a serving plate and scatter the perfumed fritters with some fresh elderflowers, pulled from their stalks, and drizzle with the honey and lemon juice. Serve piping hot and crisp.

What the World Eats

I loved this photoessay from Time. A few years ago, photographer Peter Menzel and journalist Faith D’Alusio visited thirty families across the world, and documented what they ate in a week in the book Hungry Planet. (The picture here is the British family’s weekly shop. I can thankfully say that my own weekly shop looks a lot more like the Chinese family’s haul, but rather more vegetabley.)

There are some shocks and surprises here, where weekly food rations are broken down by budget as well as by content. Well worth a look.

US shopping – chillies and peanut butter

Regular readers will have noticed that there are a number of American recipes on this blog, some of them requiring ingredients that are hard to source in the UK. I usually deal with this by dragging a very heavy suitcase full of cans of creamed corn and hot sauce back home every time I visit America.

Happily, I’ve found an online company operating in the UK (and delivering worldwide) which stocks almost all the American ingredients I use habitually. (See this post for other online suppliers.) There’s Franks Hot Sauce for making Buffalo wings (in the picture above); Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker cake mixes (great for cheats‘ cake recipes); creamed corn (unaccountably hard to find here) and cornmeal to make cornbread; Aunt Jemima pancake mix; and all the Cap’n Crunch you can shake a milky spoon at. The Stateside Candy Co has slightly awkward navigation, but once you’ve found your way round, it’s easy to get your hands on what you’re after. Prices are a little higher than they are in America, but shopping like this does mean that you don’t need to buy an extra suitcase.

Alongside several pints of Frank’s hot sauce and enough creamed corn to bring the digestive tracts of a small village to a shuddering halt, I bought a jar of one of my favourite things on Earth: Smuckers Goober Grape (pictured left). This is a wonderful swirled confection of peanut butter and grape jelly (grape jelly being yet another thing it’s hard to find here) to spread on your toast direct from the jar. This is the problem (at least for me) with shopping for food online – it seems perfectly calibrated to make me buy snacks. I also ended up with a pack of Scorned Woman cheese straws made with chilli sauce (mediocre, full of additives and not recommended) and some perfectly noxious but also perfectly addictive pretzel bits filled with cheese.

Best of all was the bottle of Amazon Peppers. These are preserved in vinegar, and their small size and prettiness might obscure the fact that these are basically the hottest things I have ever put in my mouth. The orange ones at the neck of the bottle are orange habaneros – at between 200,000 and 300,000 Scoville Units, these are among the hottest chillies in the world. Touching the edge of your little fingernail to one of these guys and then touching the nail to your tongue will have you running to the tap for a big glass of water.

Habaneros are deliciously fruity, and, treated with respect, can act like a solid hot sauce. I used one between the two of us to accompany the Coca Cola chicken I cooked on Monday, and we sliced minuscule slivers off it to dab on the chicken pieces on our forks. We sweated a lot and found ourselves screaming occasionally, but we were happy. The yellow and red peppers in the bottle are the much more benign (at 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) Capsicum frutescens, the same pepper that’s used to make Tabasco sauce. Happily, the vinegar has carried the heat from the habaneros at the top all the way to the bottom of the bottle. You can use the very spicy vinegar as a cooking ingredient, and top it up when you’re done – heat will continue leaching out of the chillies.

Excuse me as I wrap up this post early. I need to go and wash my tongue.

Gordon Brown – please get out of my living room.

The government is proposing to crack down on middle-class drinkers of wine, and is making noises which appear to mean that eight units a week (according to the BBC) are indicative of ‘a problem’ with alcohol. That’s four glasses of wine a week.

I can’t be the only person who, on reading this piece of puritanical, nanny-statist rubbish this morning, ran straight out to buy a bottle of wine. This comes hot on the heels of last week’s announcement that they were going to ignore the advice of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and, flying in the face of all the published studies, instruct pregnant women to abstain from even a single glass of wine a week, or risk being looked at very hard by a dour man with a clunking fist.

It all comes together now. I assume that Gordon’s going to use a camera in my dustbin to measure how many wine bottles I throw away, and raise my taxes accordingly. I hope you’ll all join me in raising a glass to the very important fact that I enjoy my autonomy, and am perfectly capable of worrying about my liver on my own, unaided by the civil service.

Sticky chicken pieces in coke

One of the recipes on this blog that gets more hits than almost all the others is the ham in Coca Cola recipe I posted a couple of years ago. (Do try it if you haven’t yet – it really is good.) This means that my ears pricked right up last week when talking to a couple of Chinese friends, who were discussing a Chinese student recipe involving chicken wings, a wok and some coke; a delicious but extremely easy recipe, apparently impossible to mess up through student drunkenness.

I had a play with some bits of chicken (thighs rather than wings here, because that was what was in the fridge), soya sauce, ginger, garlic and coke when I got home, and I’m really pleased with the results. If you enjoy Malaysian cooking, with its propensity for sweetness in savoury dishes, you’ll love this; the sweetness is balanced by the dark spices from the coke, the zing of the chilli and some lovely aromatic ginger.

Make sure you buy full-fat coke, not the diet stuff. Diet cola will not work here – the sauce won’t thicken as it caramelises, and you won’t achieve any sweetness from it because the aspartame will degrade and taste revolting.

To serve two, you’ll need:

4 chicken thighs (or other chicken joints with the bone in and the skin still attached)
Coca Cola to cover
4 cloves garlic
1 piece of ginger, the size of your thumb
1 red chilli
4 tablespoons light soya sauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil

Pat the chicken dry with kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Leave to one side while you slice the garlic finely and cut the peeled ginger and the chilli into matchsticks.

Heat a little vegetable oil in a wok or a large pan over a high flame, and fry the chicken pieces until the skin is beginning to brown. Add the ginger, chilli and garlic, then stir fry for a minute. Pour over the cola so the chicken is covered, and add the soya sauce and the vinegar.

Put a lid partially over your wok or pan, making sure that you leave a gap at one side for plenty of steam to escape. Turn the heat down to a medium setting when the cola begins to simmer, and leave, turning the chicken occasionally, for about half an hour (depending on your pan), until the coke has reduced by more than two thirds and the liquid in the pan is syrupy. Serve immediately with rice, a little chilli sauce and a sharply dressed salad.