Archive for December, 2006

Airlines, airlines everywhere and not even a plane to board…

So what should a poor dude be doing on Friday night before Christmas? Decorate the tree, maybe? Think about last minutes gifts, possibly? Or just stay home, enjoying some time with his family and waiting to celebrate his wife birthday due in a few hours?

None of the above: I’m stranded in Rome, after a crazy day spent doing urgent stuff which needed my physical presence (God, I hate notaries!), trying to find my way among Dutch documents showing up three hours later than expected, a Dutch-Italian translation which we had to adjust at the last minute, a notary making us wait for more than two hours and a breathless rush through Christmas traffic to get to the airport in time.

I’m now waiting for the last stupid plane of this hectic year to arrive, pick us up, and bring our honorable buttocks home after two gate changes and nearly two hours of delay (which add up to the 1h30m I enjoyed on the inbound flight this morning) . Should i mention what is the fucked up airline I’m flying with?

Off to Japan!

The die is cast: it was about time to put those FF miles to work, and we finally decided to head to Japan for a winter vacation, flying in Jan 31st to Tokyo and getting back Feb 11th from Osaka. Probably it isn’t the best time of the year to visit the country, as I understand we’ll have no cherry blossoms and we are pretty much going to freeze our butts off, but it was actually the only timeframe available considering our hectic schedules.

I’m really looking forward to this trip, and I’m frantically reading web pages about what to do and where to stay. The first impression I get is that we need to be somewhat prepared to a (welcome) cultural shock, as simple stuff such as getting around or finding the right hotel doesn’t seem that easy at first sight: I was unable to find driving directions – Google Maps doesn’t seem to have Japan covered, nor does Maporama, and the usual travel sites such as Expedia don’t have many hotel listings, while Japanese travel portals such as Rakuten seem quite hard to understand for a western guy (no stars, weird hotel and room descriptions). But hey, that’s part of the deal and it will be great to have a somewhat unusual trip!
I’m trying to understand what would be the best use of our mere ten days, assuming that we’ll have to cope with seeing just a tiny fraction of what Japan has to offer us. So far, what I’d like to do is:

  • spend at least one night at a ryokan, even though I guess foreigners who haven’t done their cultural homework properly don’t quite fit in a traditional Japanese inn with what seems to be a quite complicate ritual;
  • try the sento/onsen experience, which sounds great but also somewhat problematic as, non-Japanese don’t seem to be that welcome;
  • eat a Sushi breakfast at the Tokyo fish market (I assume it will be filled up with tourists, but I don’t want to miss it anyway);
  • get around on the Shinkansen. Assuming I can find a place to buy the Japan Rail Pass;

Both Wikipedia and Wikitravel are being extremely helpful, yet I’m feeling a bit lost about what to do and (mostly!) what we really shouldn’t miss. Any suggestion is welcome, as well as any opportunity to meet up!

5 things you don’t know about me

I’ve been tagged by Yoav, so let’s join the linkfest:

  1. I used to play guitar in a rock band
  2. I never had any formal English training at school
  3. I’m a compulsive reader, don’t bother calling me if I have a book in my hands
  4. I have an addiction to “Titanic” (yes, the movie, and yes, I’m deeply ashamed to admit it)
  5. I tried the most funky and freaky edible stuff, but I just can’t eat snails, even if you call them escargots

Andrew, Brian, Matthew, Sylvain, Ugo: your turn!

The Sunday post: down the rabbit hole

I guess this is going to be a controversial post: every time I mention rabbit cooking, quite a few people look horrified and start yelling “do you really eat THAT?”. I guess it’s a cultural issue: rabbits are pets in some countries, and it might sound weird to eat them. The idea of eating a small fluffy thingie might seem gruesome, but then again last time I was confronted on the subject, a rack of lamb was sitting in front of us, so to each its own I guess…

Anyway: rabbit is a core component in the diet of my homeland. In Liguria and Piemonte (that’s where my heritage comes from) every farmer has rabbits, and there is a ton and a half of recipes to cook what can be a very nice, healthy and tasty piece of meat. This week end I fancied a nice variation on possibly the most traditional rabbit stew I used to have since I was a small child: rabbit with olives and pine-nuts, somewhat Mediterranean style. This dish is usually prepared by cutting the rabbit in large chunks, stewing it with wine and various stuff, then use the sauce for pasta and serve the meat as a main course: what I like to do is merge the two, mincing the rabbit into a ragout and providing a richer sauce for a single main course. All this with a twist, of course. This recipe can be reused for any kind of stewed meat the Ligurian way: start off with a soffritto, add meat, wine, possibly some tomatoes, and let it simmer. Throw olives and pinenuts some 20-30 minutes before cooking completes, and you’re set. Then again, devil is in the details, as we’ll see in a minute.

Since I’ve been mentioning soffritto a number of times already, it’s time to bite the bullet and see how it is done, as it’s easy enough to prepare in advance and, when done properly, can really make a difference. First of all, there are roughly three kinds of soffritto, depending on ingredients: onion only, onion, carrots and celery (the actual “italian soffritto”) and pancetta soffritto, which is italian soffritto plus some good pig fat. Don’t get carried away by the name, as most italians do: soffritto literally means “sub-fried”, but forget about frying altogether, as soffritto is really a stew of finely chopped vegetables. The vast majority of people tends to somewhat chop some onion, throw it in hot olive oil and let it burn for a couple of minutes, but that’s incredibly wrong. Soffritto needs two things: a good cutting attitude, as you’ll be done with your knife just before your vegetables turn into a paste, and a lot of time.

Once you’re done cutting, add a small bit of oil to a pan and immediately (cold pan, that is) throw the vegetables in. Use the smallest flame your kitchen can handle (some say that soffritto should be cooked over a candle) and wait. Stir from time to time and have a small quantity of vegetable stock (or water) boiling in a small pan aside: if the temperature gets too high, you want to add a spoonful or two to prevent burning. Then, again, use your patience: good soffritto can take even 45 minutes to cook (slow heat, remember?). You know that it’s ready when onions are transparents and vegetables are soft enough to be mashed with a slight pressure of a fork. Now the good news: once it’s ready, it will last a week in the fridge or months in the freezer. Usually I cook one full kilo of onions at a time (which require lots of tears), then I freeze them splitting it in spoonfuls as the typical portion I’m going to use later on (the ice cube mold works just fine, for the record).

As I did my homework correctly, all I had to do today was defrosting a portion of soffritto and taking the rabbit from the fridge a couple of hours before (I can’t stress it enough: meat has to be at room temperature). Also, since I wanted a ragout, I carefully separated the meat from the bones using a sharp knife. This doesn’t mean I’m throwing bones away: you should know by now that I don’t like wasting flavour: the biggest bones (legs, mostly) can still go in the pan, while the smallest ones, which would be difficult to separate once the meat is ready, were added to a small quantity of vegetable stock which I prepared in advance and which I was keeping on a low heat for later use.

The most important thing to remember when cooking rabbit is that we’re talking about lean meat, with little to no fat. Lean stuff is fine but it requires careful cooking to avoid the cardboard effect: usually, this means adding some fat to the cooking pot, and I was lucky enough to have a nice piece of Colonnata lard from our recent leisure trip to Tuscany (by the way, that trip was the reason for missing the Sunday post last week: it was good indeed to receive so many inquiries from readers, but just remember that these post happen only if I’m actually cooking something). If you can’t find lard, use pancetta. If you can’t use pancetta and have a really good and fatty bacon lying around, go for it. In any case, do add some fat or your meat will taste like shredded newspaper. I finely (finely! as it has to melt completely) chopped a good slice of lard and I added it to the pan with the soffritto over very slow heat, to have the soffritto and lard flavour melt. No need for oil, as soffritto already got its share, and lard was providing more than enough fat for the rabbit.

Meanwhile, I poured two glasses of white dry wine in a small pot. Wine is everywhere in italian cooking, but you have to make sure that the alcohol disappears in the shortest possible time, or your food will be bitter. This is why, especially when I’m using large quantities of wine I’m fond of the nice “de-alcoholyizing” trick, which requires boiling the wine separately, flaming it as soon as it starts bubbling (use a lighter, but pay attention, as the flame can be pretty high even if not extremely hot). When the flame goes off, the wine can be used safely and will add just flavour, not bitterness, to your dish.

Once the lard was melted in the soffritto, I took everything off the pan, as I needed to seal the rabbit meat at high temperature (which would burn the soffritto and waste my efforts). The pan was still greasy, of course, so I didn’t need any additional fat. A couple of minutes per each side of the meat chunks were more than enough to seal flavour, then it was time to add the soffritto back it together with wine, some rosemary, a couple of bay leaves (always break them in half as that will triple the flavour!) and, a couple of minutes later, half a cup of the (strained) vegetable stock I mentioned above and two-three ripe tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and cubed. Lid on, fire to medium-low, and Bob’s your uncle. Some twenty minutes later the time was right to add some pine nuts (slightly toasted to a very low heat) and a handful of olives. Olives matter: you really should look for Taggiasche, even though that might not be easy. The quest is worth the effort, though, as these Ligurian olives are really a different breed. If you’re the accomodating kind, use the best black olive you can get.

Fifty minutes were more than enough for my rabbit to cook. I carefully took every bone out, and finely minced the remaining meat to a ragout. Some work with eggs, flour and a rolling-pin produced a nice thin layer of pasta, which I rolled and cut into very small noodles (they’re called “Tajarin” in Piemonte). A large pan of salted boiling water received the pasta which in two minutes later, was ready for a light sautée in the saucepan together with the tagout. A sprinkle of cheese and, wow, it just feels like grandma’s!

Baitware, betaware, badgeware, oh my!

The fuss of the day: Terracotta is the new guy jumping on the Open Source bandwagon. Nice stuff, useful indeed and something I’m looking forward to use in our projects, but there is a catch. The license they adopted is the somewhat disputed MPL+attribution variant, which requires to display a prominent message on any “user interface screen”, something that seems to be highly popular among the next generation of Open Source product vendors. Waiting for the dust to settle, and leaving to the OSI the difficult issue of sorting out whether the amended license can still be considered Open Source, I will just dump a few comments before leaving for a few days out enjoying the Tuscany landscape.

As an Open Source guy committed to community based development, and as a strong believer of commons-based peer production, all I can say is that I have mixed feelings about the next wave of Open Source products. I’m seriously convinced that if you take cooperation away from the picture, all you’re left with is a (potentially useful) piece of code, somewhat without a price tag. Not bad, but not a big deal after all. I sincerely hope someday these guys will see the light and move from their current defensive approach, based on a strong quid pro quo paradigm and a somewhat irrational fear of the bogeyman making money with their software, to a full-fledged open strategy, built upon gathering people together to build better software, optimise the development process and fully leverage the power of Open Source development, while building a competitive advantage based on reputation, positioning and branding.

As utopian or socialist as this may sound, the theory behind community-based development is factual, pragmatic and capitalistic: there is little value in software developed behind firewalls, no matter how it gets distributed. The MPL+attribution license makes Open Source licensing nearly worthless, unless you’re fine having your application potentially look like a Times Square billboard: the paid-for license is the price you have to pay to make advertising go away. Let’s call a spade a spade: attribution, as phrased in the BSD and Apache license, is unobtrusive and meant to both give credit where credit is due while informing the final user about the origins of software. This new licensing model is not about attribution, it’s about advertising as a way to pay for software, somewhat the server-side version of shareware pleads for money: it’s about crippling the open source version, making it nearly useless. What we have, by all means, is a license which is trying to limit usage of the “free” edition, and a factual, if not literal, betrayal of the Open Source idea of increasing circulation of software.

I don’t have a problem with quid pro quo, mind you. We all have bills to pay, and all the yadda-yadda I’ll skip for brevity sake. Quid pro quo, however, is nothing but a barter which needs to level out: the more you offer, the more you get in return, and the opposite is true as well. Crippling the distribution with tricks to make people buy a commercial value means lowering the value, getting less in return and making software look like a Petri dish culture in comparison to the rain forest. Don’t expect bug fixes, don’t expect collaborative software development, don’t expect communities, don’t expect diversity to provide evolution: all you get is a ride on the Open Source train, which in my opinion won’t be able by itself to sustain business in the long run, as customers will either have an hard time understanding what Open Source really means (and run away) or develop antibodies to recognize crippled open source editions, driving to paid-for versions, from what really meet their needs (such as lock-in reduction, vendor indipendence and acquisition at the point of value, none of which is fully accomplished by the new productised Open Source approach).

Waiting for the OSI jury to return the verdict about compliance of these advertising clause with the Open Source guidelines, all I can do is stressing once more why we need an Open Development definition. No hard feelings towards SugarCRM, Alfresco, Mulesource and friends who just happen to focus on Open Source as a new software distribution rather than a disruptive new development model: it’s not a problem of mudblood vs. pureplay. I’d love those guys to embrace community-based development, and I’d be happy to start a conversation to let them know why I feel they are losing business, yet the software market is large enough to accommodate everyone. As long as we provide our customers with accurate taxonomies so that they understand what they are dealing with.

My new job

Now that the news is out, I can finally blog about it. Effective today, I’m no longer leading the italian branch of Sourcesense: as the European operations are taking place and getting into shape, I need to devote most of my time and effort to coordination and nurturing of our international plans. In a few days I will officially lead Sourcesense Europe, and I can clearly see new challenges on the horizon such as foster the Sourcesense brand and build a great network of Open Source-savy actors.

My italian seat will be taken by Giovanni Pirola, former director of the Sun Java Center and a great professional overall. I’m extremely happy to see Giovanni on board, and I could hardly think of any better choice: Giovanni has been in the Java industry since its inception, and has a fantastic track record in delivering great stuff to the Italian market. I guess I can safely say that he’s the most prominent guy in the italian Java landscape nowadays, and I’m sure he will outperform and attain all our objectives. Knowing that such a big guy was interested in Sourcesense was to me a huge boost, and the final evidence that we are indeed on the right track. Welcome, Giovanni: I know that Sourcesense Italy is in good hands and will be a real blast!

On a personal basis, it felt a bit weird handing over my desk to Giovanni: I used to be the only guy in the office with a fixed seat, and now I’m back to a road warrior status. Cutting the umbilical cord is never easy, but I know there was a great reason behind it. I’m now trying to figure out some logistics of my next job, which I expect to be full of traveling around, splitting my time among no less than three different countries , getting the European house in shape and caring about the next part of our journey. Interesting times ahead, indeed!

Small and local events win.

I know I’ve been through this before, but the evidence I’ve been gathering as of late deserves a new post.

First we had the first edition of the Open Source Business Academy: more than 120 people, where we managed to gather no less than 120 top managers, IT strategist and CIOs in a room to talk about Open Source strategies. A huge success, and a great way to announce our public presence.
Then, this weekend, the Rome edition of the Italian JavaDay has been a blast: more than 700 (yes, seriously, I said SEVEN HUNDRED: take a look) Java developers attending a geek venue build around a great program, a few generous sponsors (including Pro-netics, one of the companies behind Sourcesense), a non-working day and free admission. Numbers are even more mind-boggling if you consider how the event was supposed to be local stuff, limited to the Rome area and strictly in italian.

Reasonable budget (enough to be covered by sponsors) and good content is all you need to make people show up. No travel expenses required, no permission to ask from a boss, not even a day off is the event runs on a weekend day. This is a recipe for success, and I’m more and more convinced that the future of conference goes in that direction.

The Sunday post: of slicing and dicing

A bowl full of vegetables

Sometimes cooking is about planning, especially when we have a hectic time coming. All work and no play, makes Gianugo an unhealthy guy: we’re coming home late on a regular basis, and usually all we can think about is either ordering a pizza or hack a quick pasta with whatever we can find in the fridge.

We figured out this week-end would have been a good chance to get some head start for future healthy dinners: the italian tradition is full of variants of what we call “minestrone”, which can be roughly translated as “the big soup”. A plethora of recipes which include different ingredients and different approaches to cooking, yet share something in common: vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Minestrone is basically a free for all, the mantra is somewhat along the lines of “if it’s green, it gets in”: there is no set recipe, it really depends on seasonal availability, but variety is key as you want to add as many kind of mixed vegetable to get different flavours and a lot of healthy stuff.

Minestrone has a downside: it needs small quantities of a lot of vegetables, which then take forever to wash, clean and dice to perfection. The process is quite long and somewhat boring, and it doesn’t quite fit in the non-weekend routine. Luckily enough we have refrigerators nowadays, and vegetables can stand freezing just fine: this means that from time to time we tale over the vegetable department of our grocery store, grab large quantities of ingredients and devote to a slicing and dicing day, which produces a hefty quantity of good stuff we can store in the freezer then pop in a pan and have in our dishes one hour afterwards.

Given the different variants I mentioned before, what we’re after is building a cooking base as fresh vegetables rather than cubes, then adjust it with some fresh stuff according to what we want to eat. The shopping list, again, depends on the season and the grocery store availability, but usually we start with a few varieties of green stuff (spinach, swiss chard, different kinds of cabbage: the more the merrier), then add flavour with celery, leek and onion, and top it with some chunky stuff such as green beans, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomato, courgette and aubergine. All this has to be carefully washed, cleaned and finely diced: the key is merging flavours, and a spoonful of minestrone should contain at least 3-4 different veggies.

All this vegetable cleaning produce a lot of leftover, as I don’t want fibrous matter in the finished product. This means a lot of stuff would be potentially wasted, as I need to carefully separate leaves from stems, use just the gems from cauliflower and broccoli, take away both ends from the green beans, peel peppers and tomatoes and so on. Throwing that stuff away is stupid, as there is a whole lot of flavour which can be squeezed. While I’m cleaning the vegetables, then, I throw the parts that wouldn’t fit in my base in a large pot, add cold water and let it simmer for an hour or so, adding a sprinkle of salt at the very end: the filtered result is an excellent vegetable stock which can be used for a nice risotto, as a base for a vegetable soup or as a cooking aid for basically everything that doesn’t need strong meat stock. We usually freeze it in 1lt and 1/2lt bags, saving a great deal of flavour and time for nice future dishes.

The final result is a few bowls of mixed diced matter: it’s time to split it into freezer bags (consider 5-600g per bag) and store it. It lasts no less than a couple of months, and makes an excellent head start for the soup of choice. All we need is some fresh ingredients that wouldn’t stand freezing very well: carrots and potatoes for sure, but you might add mushrooms, beans, chickpeas or lentils as well, according to your taste. The cooking process is straightforward, as all you need is throwing the (frozen) stuff together with the fresh ingredients in a large pan with 3 liters of cold water (let me stress it: it has to be cold water, as this will both ensure brighter colours and extract most of the flavour from the vegetables), then let it simmer for an hour or so. Halfway through, you might want to take some of the potatoes out, squash them with a fork and pour the mash back in: this will help thickening the liquid, producing a nice and creamy soup. If you want to add tin beans instead than the real stuff, wait until the last five minutes or so, as they’re already cooked. You might also want to throw some small pasta in (look for “ditalini” at a good grocery store. If you can’t find it, use the smallest format you can get), or even some rice: make sure you don’t overcook it, though, as minestrone needs to rest for a good 10-15 minutes before dishing it out. Pour the final result in a bowl, add some parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of good olive oil and possibly some pepper, and you have an healthy and tasty dinner in little to no time.

Some variants now, to prove how flexible this recipe can be:

  • if you want some extra flavour, finely chop some onion, celery and carrot to make a soffritto, let it stew with some olive oil and a very low heat, then add vegetables and water;
  • for the extra kick, add some bacon or pancetta to your soffritto;
  • don’t throw away those nice parmesan crusts: scrape the surface, rinse, cut in small cubes and add it 30 minutes after the water is simmering, they will taste delicious!
  • add a spoonful of pesto when you dish out the minestrone (avoid the soffritto step if you want to stick to the tradition of “minestrone alla genovese”);
  • mix the minestrone with a hand blender (not exactly my cup of tea, but kids tend to like it more than the chunky stuff);
  • use bread crouton instead than pasta.

Finally, consider an alternative for the day you’re wiil devote to dicing stuff : after a few hours at the cutting table, the last thing you want is eat minestrone for dinner. A good steak can be a great alternative, or use the vegetable stock to cook a great risotto. Save the vegetables for the busy days, and you’ll have a perfect dinner for those cold and damp times when you need some comfort food.