Sunday, August 25, 2013

pool party... before the summer finishes

The Summer school vacation is just too long in our part of the world (12 weeks this year!) It eats up the entire summer and so summer seems to disappear all too rapidly. I dread the cold weather and rue summer's demise. Anyway, we needed to organize a birthday party for our little Miss soon-to-be-five. We'd agreed upon a pool party and needed this to happen before our neighborhood pool closes on Labor Day (September 2nd). Thankfully our cool/wet Summer abated and the weather was spectacular for the big day today. 
kid soup
It was a challenge planning a party for 20 kids, plus adults, away from our home with no refrigeration, no cooking facilities and no ready access to water or power. Hence... we ordered pizza! 
I made colorful carrot and beet dips with crudités, fruit kebabs, a giant tossed spinach salad, and pesto pasta to curb appetites until pizza arrived. A sudden dearth of available blueberries meant our rainbow kebabs lacked the blue spectrum!
I made the easiest decorated birthday cake I have ever made - with ever so many thanks to the wonderfully helpful video at 52 Kitchen Adventures
I frosted a yellow cake using this recipe for cake and frosting. I used the India Tree brand of natural colors to create the lovely subtle coloring. Mietta was very happy with the result.
To ensure our vegan friends did not miss out on cake, I made my first ever vegan cake! I used the recipe here for a Chocolate-Mocha Cake. Instead of instant coffee powder, Paul pulled four decaf espresso shots for me to use. I omitted the coffee from the icing and used the icing on the sides of the cake in place of the ganache. I topped the cake with chocolate-dipped strawberries. It was surprisingly OK :-)
I made some pink lemonade and we had juice and water for thirsty swimmers. As we had so many guests, I made a Pavlova too, and strew this with fruit that didn't make it onto the fruit kebabs. 
In the interests of providing a healthy - less trashy type of 'goody bag', we bought some of Alex's range of craft projects to hand out. Mietta really enjoyed the paper bag puppet kit she received for Christmas - and I had kept this in mind for such an event. We filled some goody bags with a tub of playdough and a few clay tools for the younger guests and some bags with craft paper, stickers and origami paper for the older children.
We also had some balls for each child to take home. No sweets - much to Mietta's disgust "ALL goody bags have candy!" she protested. Well yes. Most do... but I have been trying to thwart this for years! In the past, we've given out: popcorn containers filled with microwave popcorn, pencils, erasers (for a movie theme party); a bag of healthy prepackaged snacks (Annie's bunnies, raisins, etc.); novel tastes and treats from the Asian supermarket; decorated letter cookies with the appropriate letter for each guest (decorated by Luc); board books for the younger set; bubbles, balloons... It can be a challenge to think of ideas that will delight - but not end up straight in landfill or harm little tummies.

We had such a good time - a really lovely day. Our wonderful guests graciously helped out with kid wrangling, clean-up, cake dispersal and cake storage (in a nearby fridge) - freeing up Paul and myself to actually speak to people... and for me to take a few photos! We were most grateful. 

Mietta had the best time and was a wonderful host. Her enthusiasm lasted ALL day. Upon returning home she immediately constructed one of the left-over goody bag crafts, then built Mega bloks with Paul all afternoon, before taking Rascal for a walk and having her first-ever attempt on a pedal bike. Phew!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

yes. we'll take your trash... we need it!

I heard about Sweden's trash dilemma earlier this year. A very successful recycling program has resulted in only 4% of Sweden's waste going to landfill (compared to over 50% of waste in the US).

The resultant dilemma of this success is a lack of a fuel source for waste-to-energy production facilities. To overcome the shortage, Sweden sources waste from other nations such as Norway... and they pay Sweden to take it!

The notion of recycling is catching on here... albeit exceptionally slowly. Our neighborhood recycling service now includes a dedicated recycling bin in the standard service. When we first moved in four years ago, we had to pay extra to have our waste for recycling removed! Guess how popular that service was :-/

I wrote about my frustration with America's apparent poor environmental awareness when we first arrived in Chicago here

Friday, August 16, 2013

vertical slum... or oasis?

image from YouTube
I read about this slum in Caracas, Venezuala. Torre de David - known as the world's tallest slum. On face value, it seems like an absolute disaster: a vacant, unfinished, unserviced skyscraper - abandoned during construction due to an economic crash... and then filled with some 2,500 squatters out of both protest and necessity.

Watching a short documentary produced by Vocativ, another (contrary) story emerged. One where housing is viewed less of a commodity and more of a basic right. Where a supportive community has evolved and adopted innovative solutions to a seemingly hostile environment. Where a severe shortage of housing makes a vertical slum far preferable to one on ground level that is subject to the vagaries of weather and lacks the same sense of community. Accessibility is limited due the lack of elevators. This is an inconvenience but aids safety as people must climb multiple floors. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking film.

Vocativ is a crowd-sourced media start-up in beta stage. An independent news service, this will be an interesting source for information. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

texting and driving don't mix

image from YouTube
When we first arrived in the States over 7 years ago, I was really taken aback by the number of people talking on cell phones while driving. Having come from a country where this was illegal, it really angered me to see people distracted while behind the wheel. Since that time, texting while driving has become popular, more prevalent and such a preventable danger. 

It is obvious when people do it. I have seen cars swerve across lanes. I have seen drivers clearly not watch the road as they look into their device. I am livid at such blatant disregard, disrespect and pure selfishness. I have a couple of friends who actively yell at or visually chastise other drivers they witness texting (including a police officer!). I applaud their bravery and fortitude - and hope that their actions have helped prevent accidents. 

Texting while driving has been recently been made a primary offense in the state of Virginia. It is difficult to see how this law will be enforced given that talking on a cell phone while driving is not illegal. 

I am so glad to see some recent high profile traction on this issue. This is something we MUST educate our young children about. 

I know several people who take a very cavalier approach to road safety: speaking on the phone, drifting through stop signs or failing to seatbelt their children when driving in their local neighborhood. This does not send a positive message to their children whilst in the car. Monkey see - monkey do. I don't want my children to take any risks when behind the wheel - particularly as they will become immortal/bullet-proof teenagers one day - so I seek to enforce safe behavior by modeling it. AT&T has released a It Can Wait campaign, encouraging people to take the pledge to not text while driving. I have done so. 

Werner Herzog*, the German Film Director has released a short documentary From One Second to the Next telling the stories of several people affected by texting accidents - from a variety of perspectives. It is heart wrenching - but a must see. 

The United Kingdom is using a very shocking and graphic video produced by the Gwent Police Force to educate high school students and raise awareness of the dangers of texting while driving. 

When the appropriate time comes, I will be making my children watch these videos. I seek to enlighten my children to make good decisions and to be brave enough to encourage their friends to make good decisions too. 

*Werner Herzog does have a lighter side too - see my blog post here


Paul was eying up a cucumber from our vegetable garden... imagining turning it into a Raita and gobbling it up. Given his obsession with garlic, I was sure he meant Tzaziki and so set out to make one yesterday. Actually, he really did mean a Raita - having had some recent Indian inspired meals - and was somewhat taken aback by the garlicky taste!
Prior to beginning, I drained some plain yoghurt to a stage somewhere between a Greek Yoghurt and cream cheese consistency (i.e. less whey than Greek). I did this as Cucumber is so watery and I wanted to prevent a sloppy mess. 

1 cup Peeled, Grated and drained Cucumber (about 1 cucumber)
1 cup Drained Greek Yoghurt 
2 cloves Garlic, crushed
1 tsp Chopped Fresh Dill
¼ tsp Salt Flakes 

A couple of hours before commencing, drain Plain or Greek Yoghurt to remove whey. 
Cut cucumber in quarters lengthwise. Scoop out seeds. Grate flesh and then squeeze as much moisture out as possible. Use paper towels for the final squeeze. 
Mix together Yoghurt, Cucumber, Garlic, Salt and chopped Dill. 
Place in serving dish. Serve as a dip with Crudités, Turkish Bread or fresh or toasted Pita Bread. Serve over grilled lamb, Souvlaki or Gyros. Serve with Grilled Vegetable Kebabs

I don't usually bother peeling the cucumber if I use a Continental/Hothouse/Burpless Cucumber - some green from the skin can look nice. 
Finely chopped Mint can be used instead of Dill. 
love the fresh herbs from our garden - parsley, dill & mint tonight
...Anyway, we found ourselves with a Tzatziki without anything to accompany it! Some Lamb burger/rissoles thrown on the grill with some sliced eggplant and a Tabbouleh salad made with Chick Peas/Garbanzo beans... and voila a mediterranean meal was made! 
tabbouleh using chick peas instead of burghal /bulghur wheat

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pink Dip / Beetroot Dip

To avoid any potential complaints about eating beets/beetroot, I name this dish Pink Dip or Pink Hummus... and the kids are ready to eat it without further questioning. Along with a Carrot Dip, I have made this dip to serve at Children's parties... simply because the color is SO intense and beautiful. It has a wonderful sweet yet earthy flavor and is simply delicious. My favorite accompaniment would be Turkish Bread - a kind of Ciabatta we were able to purchase easily in Australia - but I have yet to find a substitute here. Unfortunately, we only had corn chips available when I made this the other night. 
I have thinned the dip with a little extra yoghurt / lemon juice to make a sauce to serve with, what I thought were Lebanese fish balls (via an ancient recipe from Robert Carrier). I believe these were called Blehat Samak. I found a similar recipe at Mietta O'Donnell's site.
Anyway, I roasted several beetroot at once. I used one and a half to 'pickle' and serve on classic Aussie-style burgers, and reserved the remaining beets for when we had a pre-dinner snack emergency. 

2 medium fresh beets
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tblsp tahini
1 tblsp lemon juice
1/4 cup Greek Yoghurt (or as desired)

Wash beets well and cut stems (leaving a couple of inches intact - to prevent all color escaping!)
Wrap beets in oiled foil and bake in oven for 1½ hours at 350℉ (or until skewer can be inserted easily into beets). 
Wash cooked beets under running cold water to remove skins and stem. Drain. Allow to cool. 
Blend beets with garlic, Tahini and Lemon Juice. Stir through Yoghurt if thinner / creamier consistency is required. Add salt to taste. 
Use rubber gloves when skinning beets to avoid turning a vivid shade of red!
Sour Cream may be substituted for the Yoghurt... but we have become extremely fond of our homemade Greek Yoghurt. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer Pizza

Lovely big bunches of fresh basil transform into jars of pesto that lie in wait in our refrigerator. The Pesto is mixed through pasta, spread on toast with goats cheese, becomes a sandwich filling with grilled summer vegetables... and even tops a pizza from time to time. I make it with a big bunch of washed and dried basil, couple of cloves of garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and freshly grated parmesan (or other hard Italian cheese). If I find myself out of pine nuts, then I sometimes use walnuts. This is one of those foods that the kids love to help with - whizzing the blender and having several 'taste tests' along the way. Quantities are totally optional and so no two pestos are ever the same. 
I often slow-roast cherry tomatoes in the oven - especially as it cools after cooking something else. Coated with some olive oil and a light grind of salt (and sometimes pepper), I roast the halved tomatoes at around 350℉ for 30 minutes, then at around 200℉ for another hour or so... depending upon how 'dry' I want them to be. These become sweet and are oh-so-good thrown through pasta (sometimes with pesto), a salad or included on hors d'oeuvres. 

With some pesto and roasted tomatoes on hand, I decided to make a pizza. I was always a little scared of making my own pizza dough... until we got a mixer. Since being somewhat upset after burning out a motor of a handheld mixer, our KitchenAid (with dough hook), makes light work if it! I use a dough recipe from A Cooks Companion

Basic Pizza Dough 
2 sachets dried yeast (8.75g each)
1 tsp Salt 
400g flour
20ml Olive Oil
250ml Water (lukewarm)  

Mix yeast, salt and flour using an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix water and oil into dry ingredients and knead for about 8 minutes until smooth and elastic. (Knead for 10-15 minutes if doing by hand). 
Grease a large bowl with olive oil (1 to 2 tsp). Place dough in bowl and cover with plastic wrap or tea towel. Keep in a warm, draught-free place and allow to rise to double size (approx. 90 minutes). 
Knock back dough, gently fold in 4. Cover and allow to rise again for another 30 to 45 minutes. 

I like using a combination of flour - All Purpose / White Wheat / Wholegrain / Bread Flour - dependent upon whim and desired flavor. Paul prefers heavier use of white flour as he likes the 'bready' taste and rise of the dough. I usually compromise with a 50/50 mix of All-Purpose and Wholewheat. 
Pesto Pizza 
I flattened the dough onto a baking tray and spread with Pesto. I then covered the dough with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese and topped with the slow roasted tomatoes. A quick grind of black pepper, drizzled oil (leftover from the tomatoes) and into a very hot oven for 10 minutes. We have a pizza stone - so I transferred the pizza to this to bake for another 5 to 8 minutes. The size was a little too hard to manage - and I ended up cutting the pizza in two to place on pizza stone. 
I topped the finished pizza with some torn basil leaves, slices of fresh tomato from the garden and a very light drizzle of balsamic vinegar.