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One move to America, one surprise pregnancy and a lot of fun later.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Foodie Penpal Guest post by Natalie Gibbs

Hi Readers!
I am Hazel's penpal Natalie. My little family lives in North Carolina, outside a minor town called Fayetteville, surrounded by cotton fields and the occasional trailer or horse. I am originally an urban girl from Seattle who's had short stop overs in Oahu and Richmond on my road to NC. I miss my Starbucks and 5 Targets within 20 miles! I am also a new Army wife (at least it feels new- 2 years?) and mom to a little ball of personality named Georgiana- who is turning 1 this month!

I love all things foreign... I am the girl who was thrilled! to do country reports in school, obsessed with Asian Supermarkets, and is annoyed I am a huge mix of blah European heritage that my family never cared to share or explore. I was so excited to be paired with my British penpal- they have the coolest things (bring on the Earl Grey)! After an exchange of emails, I received a extremely thoughtful foreign filled ethnic food box. Such loot! Channa Masala and Apricot Chicken Curry recipes and ingredients, quality flavored British teas, unique European brand flavored nuts (with ingredients such as chili and mango), and homemade Basil and Pinenut pesto (excess of basil results in fun gifts and tasty food products- been there!). The typed letter and enclosed instructions were wonderful to read for clarity and fun explanation. I have never had a penpal so detailed :)

When asked to do a post, which surprisingly in my years time doing foodie penpals had never happened, I thought it would be fun to cook one of the recipes I was sent to share with you. Hazel's Apricot Chicken Curry toddler recipe (sourced from her favorite British baby food maker's book) sounded delicious, but unfortunately my little tot only has one tooth- that did not stop me from selecting the recipe for my Husband and I- more for us! To accommodate adult appetites, I doubled the toddler version (originally stated yield was 2-3 toddler portions). Previously, I have only attempted Japanese curry (more like yummy gravy!) and Thai red curry. Indian curry always seemed so daunting.

Steps I took-
I cooked one minced shallot in a good heavy swirl of olive oil in a deep fry pan on medium head for about a minute.

I added 4 heavy handed teaspoons of mild curry to the shallots and toasted the curry for less than a minute with the shallots- stirring to coat the shallots and the pan. 

I chopped 8 moist, dried apricots and opened a can of creamy coconut milk. After added the apricots and coconut milk to the curried shallots,I brought the mixture to a boil (happened really fast) and then reduced and simmered for 5 minutes. 

I started 2/3 cup brown jasmine rice is my rice cooker to accompany the curry. I cut up about a half a pound of raw chicken tenders and added them to the curry mixture. I set the timer for 15 minutes since the chicken was cut in smaller pieces and because the curry was already on the thicker side. I placed a nice sized premade piece of naan in the oven a few minutes before the curry finished to heat through.

End product! Yum!
Things I discovered cooking Apricot Chicken Curry recipe- The sauce thickens quickly when using full fat coconut milk (we usually use light coconut milk), the chicken stays really moist and fork tender simmered in a thick coconut curry, the apricots can be cut as larger chunks (maybe that would make their flavor pop more?), tastes fabulous with naan!, and the recipe version tested makes two perfect plate licking portions.

Also, that sirachi goes on anything? So says the Husband!

When starting the recipe, my Husband was hovering to smell the flavors and as we ended our meal he was a member of the clean plate club. Great evidence of a wonder experience and tasty dinner thanks to my wonderful penpal. I was blown away by how easy it was to make Indian curry. From the very beginning the recipe was simple to follow and drool inspiring. I am so jealous that English people have such easy access to curries! I will trade them my access to Hispanic food anyday! More curries- less Taco Bell and Azteca please! ;)   
Please try it for yourself- I promise you will love it- we did! Hopefully one day Georgiana will get more teeth and I can start her on her path to being a toddler foodie with Apricot Chicken Curry versus her current dinner eats.

Thank you to Natalie for her guest post and how cute is Georgiana!


Foodie Penpal February 2013

blogbadgeSTAMP Foodie Penpals

My third month in the Foodie Penpals scheme and another fun time for me putting together my parcel to send, but more on that later.

This month I was paired with Abby Croft to send me a parcel.
She writes the blog It Melts into Wonder check it out.

In this months package I received the following:

Some Barilla Farfalle pasta but not just any old pasta, this pasta has a portion of vegetables built into it.  I had heard about this but had never bought any before.  This is great for my toddler as she will eat pasta at any time, hot or cold, so I cook this up for her Bento box and she eats it and get carbs as well as a veggie.

Some Tomato pasta sauce from a local supplier to where Abby lives in Indiana.  I used this with some minced beef and onions to make a Spaghetti bolognese.  It was delicious and I have a good size portion left in the freezer for a second family dinner.

Some pasta herb sprinkles from Penzey Spices.  There is a large Penzey spices shop on Rockville Pike near me, that I keep driving past and meaning to stop and go in.  Getting this spice has inspired me to make the effort now to go and have a look as I love all sorts of herbs and spices.  I think I will use this to make some garlic bread as well.

Lastly, I got a packet of Magic Pop crackers which I have seen in Wholefoods and the local Amish Market but just never got around to trying.  They are fat free and cholesterol free and were very light.  We tried them with some of my homemade hummus and they just melted in your mouth and let you taste the hummus without being overwhelmed by the cracker.  Here is the recipe for my hummus.


300g dried chick peas
1 onion, whole but peeled
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tbsps olive oil
9 tbsps Tahini
2-3 lemons
fat pinch cumin
3 dolloping tbsp Greek yoghurt

Soak the chick peas in water for 24 hours and then boil in the water with the onion, bay leaves and 3 unpeeled garlic for 3 hours.  Then remove a good 350ml of the cooking liquid to keep and then drain them.
In food processor, with double bladed knife. add the peeled, chopped garlic, a teasp of salt. 100ml of the cooking liquid, olive oil, tahini. juice of 1 lemon and cumin.  Blitz till well and truly pureed.  Taste, adding more liquid to soften mixture.  Process again, grind in pepper, add yoghurt and give another whizz.  Taste and add more lemon juice, if necessary or yoghurt or seasoning. according to your personal taste.  Put into bowl and cover and chill for at least one hour before serving.

So thanks to Abby for sending me these goodies to try this month.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Heart Healthy Chocolate Mousse

One of my friends found an unusual recipe for a Heart Healthy Chocolate mousse that would not kill your diet.  Mrs Mac found this on pinterest but was not brave enough to try it herself so I stepped up to the challenge.  I decided to make it for my husband for Valentines day and I did not tell him the ingredients until after he had tasted it.
It was impossible to tell that the main ingredient was avocado and it was tasty enough.  I am not a huge fan of chocolate mousse anyway but it was fine.  Very filling, we both only managed about half of the small ramekin so even better as we cut the calories by half again.  I probably would not make this for ourselves again but would definitely pass on the recipe or make it for guests for a bit of fun to get them guessing the ingredients.
A fun experiment.
Here is my effort.

 I made the candy hearts from Red Candy melts and some heart moulds I had in for Valentines day but if you don't have moulds just follow the directions in the recipe below or skip this part and decorate with a mint leaf or something else you already have. 

ps, I 'acquired' my packets of Splenda from Starbucks so I didn't have to buy a whole box of them.

Heart Healthy Chocolate Mousse
Heart Healthy Chocolate Mousse
  • 1 large avocado, stone and skin removed
  • 2 ounces semi-sweet baking chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk (or almond milk or nonfat milk)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup nonfat plain greek yogurt (plain regular yogurt is fine too, or use vanilla for a little more sweetness)
  • 2 packets sweetener or to taste (I used Splenda) or a little honey if you don't like sweeteners

  1. Place all ingredients except Splenda in a food processor. Pulse until smooth, wiping down the sides and stirring as needed. Add Splenda or sweetener one packet at a time, tasting in between. You may need more or less than 2 packets depending on how sweet you want your mousse.
  2. Place in a bowl and chill until ready to use. Serves 1 large portion or 2 small, however this is really rich and filling. I suggest 4 mini servings!
  3. To make the red hearts, melt about 2 tablespoons of red candy melts according to package directions. Place melted candy in a sandwich bag and cut off one corner. Pipe hearts onto a wax paper lined cookie sheet and chill until hardened.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder 

Award-winning "New York Times"-bestselling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Magician's Assistant) returns with a provocative novel of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazon rainforest--a gripping adventure story and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest's jeweled canopy

What an interesting book!  When I first starting reading it I did not think I would enjoy this book, no idea why, just the attitude I had in my head at the time.  I was very wrong.  From the start there was something about the story and the writing style that kept me enthralled and just wanting to keep on reading and reading.  The author has an amazing way of letting you peek around the corner of the story to see what is there and then presenting you with another corner that you just must get a peek around. 
The story itself was full of interesting and amazing facts as well as a number of moral and ethical dilemmas for one to ponder on. 

I did not see a lot of it coming in the story and I am normally quite adept at seeing what is coming next or anticipating the shock element.  Not so in this book, I was taken by surprise on a number of points, in a good way.

It is actually quite difficult to write my review without inserting a large number of spoilers as there were just so many parts of the story that I want to mention or comment on.  Luckily, this book is for one of my book groups, so I will get to discuss it with the ladies in that.  It is a book and a story that has filled my head up and is spinning around and around in there.

Why have I dropped one point!  I thought the ending left just a few too many questions unanswered for me.  Is there going to be a sequel??!!  I am torn on that as I would like a number of questions answered or things to happen but I am also, usually, disappointed by sequels so perhaps it is better left unsaid.  A great and interesting read and one that would be perfect for a bookgroup discussion.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

Buddha Da: A Novel

Anne Marie's dad, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, has always been game for a laugh. So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Center, no one takes him seriously. But as Jimmy becomes more involved in a search for the spiritual, his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife, Liz. Cracks appear in their apparently happy family life, and the ensuing events change the lives of each family member.

One of my main criticisms when I am reading and reviewing books is that sometimes I struggle with a particular vernacular.  If it is written with a heavy Southern or Negro vernacular then I find it hard to get into the story and I am often tempted to give up as I am not enjoying the book.  See my review on Go Tell it on the mountain by James Baldwin if you need an example.

So, it was with this in mind that I chose this book as this months read for one of my book groups.  I wanted the others to get some sort of understanding of what I mean when I say I struggle with certain American dialects.
Written entirely in my birth dialect of Glaswegian it does take a couple of chapters, even for me to get into the rhythm of this book.   It must have been an extremely hard book to write doing so entirely in Glaswegian without even any descriptive paragraphs in plain English.  I am quite impressed with the authors ability to do this as it would have been quite easy to just keep the conversations in Glaswegian while putting descriptive paragraphs in simpler terms.

The story itself is not a classic but it does have some depth and meaning below the surface, although some of that may be lost with people struggling to understand the language.  I felt quite sad for the characters in the end.  Although there was an element of happiness, I just thought that they would never be quite the same again and that there would always be a sadness in their minds for various reasons (trying not to give away a spoiler).

One criticism is that, despite the title, I thought it did not go into Buddhism enough or indeed Jimmy's journey in and out of it.  I felt that the whole side story with Anne Marie and Nisha and the CD was unnecessary and I would have liked more about Jimmy himself.  I know that the point of the whole Anne Marie story, was probably to show how for a 12 year old, life just goes on no matter what is happening with her parents and that she is, blissfully, unaware of all the drama that Jimmy and Liz is going through.  Credit to her parents for shielding her from it all though.

A good read to help me prove a point to my book group and one that does make one think but it is no classic or must read for everyone.  4 out of 5.

To end I want to write out a Scottish toast that you should give before eating or drinking:

Here's Tae Us; Wha's Like Us?.....
....Damn Few
and they're a' deid!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy


When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations

I really wanted to love this book as I have heard so many people knock it and felt that this was just sour grapes and not wanting Ms Rowling to have a success outwith Harry Potter.   Sadly, it seems, the detractors have a valid point.

The basic concept of the story regarding the fighting going on around the vacancy in the local council was very solid and could have made for a very funny farce.  Or if she had concentrated on the SocioEconomic element of the Weedon family and The Fields estate, then it would have been a more serious and interesting story.  It felt like she had these two separate ideas for a novel and merged them together into one, so doing neither story justice in the telling.

It took me a couple of hundred pages just to get to know which character was which as there were too many introduced all at once.  I didn't feel like I actually got to know (or indeed care) very well for any of the characters, which detracted from any enjoyment I could have had from this book.

It ended up being about 200 pages too long for me which, I believe, was caused by my point above of it actually being two separate novels merged into one.

I still gave it 2 out of 5 points as the author is, without a doubt, a talented author and has great ideas for stories but this one just did not give me much enjoyment and I would not recommend to anyone to waste their time reading it.  There are just too many good books out there that will provide a lot more enjoyment to a reader. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

All Families Are Psychotic

Psychosis: any form of severe mental disorder in which the individual’s contact with reality becomes highly distorted.

Douglas Coupland, the author who Tom Wolfe calls “one of the freshest, most exciting voices of the novel today,” delivers his tenth book in ten years of writing, with All Families Are Psychotic. Coupland recently has been compared to Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald, yet he is a man firmly grounded in the current era. The novel is a sizzling and sharp-witted entertainment that resounds with eternal human yearnings.

In the opening pages, 65-year-old Janet Drummond checks the clock in her cheap motel room near Cape Canaveral, takes her prescription pills and does a rapid tally of the whereabouts of her three children: Wade, the eldest, in and out of jail and still radiating ”the glint”; suicidal Bryan, whose girlfriend, the vowel-free Shw, is pregnant; and Sarah, the family’s shining light, an astronaut preparing to be launched into space as the star of a shuttle mission. They will all arrive in Orlando today – along with Janet’s ex-husband Ted and his new trophy wife – setting the stage for the most disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction. Florida may never recover from their version of fun in the sun.

The last time the family got together, there was gunplay and an ensuing series of HIV infections. Now, what should be a celebration turns instead into a series of mishaps and complications that place the family members in constant peril. When the reformed Wade attempts to help his dad out of a financial jam and pay off his own bills at the fertility clinic, his plan spins quickly out of control. Adultery, hostage-taking, a letter purloined from Princess Diana’s coffin, heart attacks at Disney World, bankruptcy, addiction and black-market negotiations – Coupland piles on one deft, comic plot twist after another, leaving you reaching for your seat belt. When the crash comes, it is surprisingly sweet.

Janet contemplates her family, and where it all went wrong. “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people's family. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” During the writing, Coupland described the book as being about “the horrible things that families do to each other and how it makes them strong.” He commented: “Families who are really good to each other, I’ve noticed, tend to dissipate, so I wonder how awful a family would have to be to stick together.”

Coupland’s first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, became a cultural phenomenon, affixing a buzzword and a vocabulary to a generation and going on to sell over a million copies. The novels that followed were all bestsellers, and his work has continued to show a fascination with the digital, brand-conscious, media-dense culture of contemporary North American society, leading some to peg him as “an up-to-the-minute cultural reference engine.” Meanwhile, his deeper interests in how human beings function in this spiritual vacuum have become increasingly apparent. For example, the character Wade contemplates his father: “What would the world have to offer Ted Drummond, and the men like him, a man whose usefulness to the culture had vanished somewhere around the time of Windows 95? Golf? Gold? Twenty-four hour stock readouts?” Janet, on the other hand, nears a kind of peace with life: “Time erases both the best and the worst of us.” All Families Are Psychotic shows Coupland being just as concerned for the grown-ups as for the kids.

I would love to be able to see inside Douglas Coupland's head.  It must be crazy in there given the themes he comes up with for his books.  After reading and not really liking his book, Miss Wyoming, I thought I would give this author one last chance.  This book was just insane.  It is a book that you really need to be in the mood to read and one where you can suspend some logic and reality to find enjoyable.  It was funny in a lot of places but was almost just too much to be believable and to really get into.  In the end I quite enjoyed the journey of reading it but was left unsatisfied by the destination of the ending.  I felt it could have been a much better book with a completely different and more final ending, although I have no idea what that ending actually is.  This just felt a bit pointless but perhaps the futility was the authors point given the rest of the book.

The writing style and flow is good and he is a good author, you just need to be slightly loopy to get his books and I am, clearly not quite loopy enough.  3 out of 5 for an entertaining read but not one I would recommend to anyone or rush out to get.  Not sure I will try any more of this authors books as there are just to many other more enjoyable reads out there for me.

Foodie Penpal January 2013 - what I sent.

Month 2 of being a Foodie Penpal, which is a great scheme you can find here.

This month I was allocated Kirsten Diehl who described herself thus:

I'm so excited to see what you come up for the package! This is my first month and is a New Years goal to do programs and things like this so I'm excited! So ill give you a little back story so maybe yourll kinda of tell what things I may or may not like... First off I don't like spicy things. I'm sorry! My stomach can't handle that but that's the only thing really. Not a fan of peppers. I'm Greek and Italian so naturally I grew up eating those foods. I follow Tone It Up and eat pretty healthy. I work as a teacher, work afterschool and night class so my meals are prepped and then I take everything for the day with me. I love anything related to tea, coffee, cinnamon, choc, coconut and almonds. I don't really use jams or spreads other then almond butter- I love popcorn. Kind of addicted lol. I use a food scale, love buying kitchen tools and appliances and love cooking! So if it's something that needs to be cooked, have no fear! That's right up my ally. I love baking too. And when it comes to that it doesn't have to be healthy. My roommates love when I don't bake healthy treats lol. 

I hope that gives you some ideas and pointers in the right direction! I'm so exited to be apart of this! If you hae any questions I didn't answer let me know!

She left me quite a wide description to work with but I jumped on the word popcorn.  We had just had a couple of movie nights with the ladies from my book group and one of them had made some homemade popcorn which was a huge hit.  So, I gathered together the ingredients for both the recipes and sent them to Kirsten so she could cook up a batch for herself and her roommates.  Here are the recipes for your own enjoyment:

Orange-Honey-Sesame Popcorn (4 servings)

Sweet enough to pinch-hit for dessert, this seasoned popcorn is a combination of flavors that will be a winner with everyone, so be prepared to make a second batch on demand.

2 tablespoons margarine (or butter)
3 tablespoons orange blossom honey
1 teaspoon fresh orange zest
8 cups hot air-popped popcorn (about 1/3 cup unpopped kernels)
3 tablespoons pan-toasted sesame seeds (see Note below)

In a small saucepan, melt the margarine over low heat. Stir in the honey and orange zest.

Put the popcorn into a large serving bowl, pour the honey mixture over it and toss lightly to combine. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve at once.

Per serving: 184 cal, 3g protein, 7g fat, 26g Carb, 0mg Chol, 38mg Sod, 3g fiber
Source: Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook Copyright 19

Sesame seeds can be easily & quickly toasted in a dry skillet on the stovetop. Use medium to medium high heat and stir frequently until seeds are lightly brown and fragrant – takes about 2-3 minutes. Or you can purchase already toasted sesame seeds.

Chili Mole Popcorn (4 servings)

These exotic flavors carry with them the savory chili-chocolate charm found in a classic Mexican mole sauce.

1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vegetable seasoning (see Note 1)
1 teaspoon salt (optional) (see Note 2)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper (see Note 3)
Butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray (see Note 4)
8 cups hot air-popped popcorn (see note 5)

In a cup or small bowl, combine the chili, cocoa, vegetable seasoning, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Lightly spray a large serving bowl on all sides with butter-flavored spray. Add 2-3 cups hot popcorn, spray lightly and sprinkle evenly with a heaping teaspoon of the mixed seasonings. Add another layer of popcorn, spray and seasoning mixture. Add a final layer of the popcorn and spray, and sprinkle remaining seasoning over all. Serve at once without tossing (see Note 6).

Per serving: 71 cal, 2g protein, 2g fat, 13g Carb, 0mg Chol, 20mg Sod, 2g fiber
Source: Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook Copyright 1995

Note 1: I used Salt Free Mexican Seasoning a brand made by The Spice Hunter available at Whole Foods and Rodman’s.

Note 2: I would typically delete salt but since I use salt free chili powder & vegetable seasoning mix, I added ½ teaspoon salt.

Note 3: Use ¼ teaspoon regular ground pepper to make the mixture much spicier. That’s what I used the 1st time I made it, when I thought it was spicier. The 2nd time I made with fresh ground pepper, not as spicy, so depends on your tastes.

Note 4: Omit the spray if you are making old fashioned oil popped corn on the stove. I think it tastes better this way, but it’s easier, faster & less calories to air pop.

Note 5: 1/3 cup popcorn kernels yields about 8-9 cups popped corn. I use whatever that makes without measuring popped corn.

Note 6: I toss it, alot of spice sinks to the bottom, but I think it sticks better that way. Maybe if you consume right away without transporting, ok to not toss, try it at home!

I also sent a selection of teas with the instructions on how to brew the perfect pot of tea.  Being British a cuppa is a very important part of the day and one needs to learn at a young age on how to brew the perfect cup.  Here is the way I suggested:

Experts recommend using two separate pots when making tea. The first will be used to boil the water, and the second is used to brew the tea in. Loose tea leaves can be added to water directly and then pulled out with a tea strainer, or a tea ball, which holds leaves inside a metal container, can be used.
1. Begin with fresh water. If you don't drink your faucet water, don't expect tea to make it taste better. Bottled and filtered water make the best tea.
2. Begin to boil the water.
3. As the water begins to boil, remove teapot or kettle from heat.
4. Pour a small amount of water into your brewing kettle. This will "scald" the pot. Discard the scald water immediately. (This is step is used to keep your tea warmer.)
5. Pour remainder of boiling water into teapot or kettle.
6. Add tea to pot or kettle. If you're using tea bags, add four bags for every six cups of tea. If you're using leaves, it's best to gently pack leaves into a tea ball. (Note: Tea balls can only be filled halfway. Overpacking a tea ball will cause it to explode.)
7. Time the brewing process. Most types of tea take 3-5 minutes.
8. Remove tea bags and balls.
9. If you've used tea leaves, you will need to strain your tea as you pour it into a cup. 

So that was the package I sent off and I hope my penpal enjoyed it.