Pasta with lamb and yoghurt (macarona bil laban)

macaronabilabanI thought I would share this simple but tasty Arabic dish which makes for a quick and easy lunch. I am not going to be bogged down by measures here as this is really so simple. This makes enough for two hungry people. All you need are:

  • a 250g pack of mince (preferably lamb)
  • a 500g pot of plain yoghurt
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a handful of pine nuts
  • pasta of your choice (this works well with penne)

First of all, fry the mince in a saucepan and season with salt, pepper and bharat (Arabic spice) or failing that, garam masala will do. Once the mince is cooked, set aside but keep it warm. Cook your pasta according to the instructions on the pack.

While the pasta is cooking, empty the yoghurt pot into a serving bowl. Crush the garlic clove (if you really like your garlic crush two cloves instead of one) and mix it into the yoghurt. Season well with salt and white pepper. Now saute your pine nuts in a non stick frying pan until they turn golden brown. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and mix into the yoghurt in the bowl. Add the mince meat on top and then sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts.

Serve immediately with a salad on the side. Word of warning: make sure you don’t add the yoghurt to the pasta in the saucepan as you don’t want the yoghurt to cook and go lumpy.

Farming off the care of our children is not always the answer

mother_and_childImage courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have just recently read an article in the Guardian kindly posted by one of my Facebook friends which argues that the cost of childcare is the biggest obstacle to equality in the workplace. It held up the example of Nordic countries where free or heavily subsidized childcare is available to all children from 6 months onwards, enabling a very high percentage of mothers to return to the workplace and resume their careers. The lack of affordable childcare in the UK, it argued, was depriving the economy and society from the talents of these many women.

What’s to disagree with here? I am a stay-at-home mum who gave up my fledgling career as a reflexologist/aromatherapist because the high cost of childcare could not be justified by the moderate income from my therapy practice. I know first hand how much a sacrifice becoming a mother can be. It has been hard having to care for a young child full time with very little outside help other than the occasional playgroups. This utopian vision of free or cheap childcare would have been manna from heaven for me. I could have continued to build my practice and perhaps also gone on to add additional therapies to my portfolio. What a loss to me and to society that I was unable to do so!

Or was it? Up until my son started full time nursery school at the age of 3, I did not work or earn a salary in any proper sense. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t busy. I had to care for my child, feed him, play with him, take him out to the park endlessly as well as take care of our house, groceries, cooking and cleaning. This was not a life of leisure and it felt like hard work a lot of the time. On the upside, I got to enjoy being with my son and to watch him grow from a small baby to a young boy. I was there when he took his first steps and when he spoke his first words. I had an opportunity to bond with him and to foster a very close relationship in a way that my husband, who was out working during weekdays, didn’t.

That’s not all. During that time I was also able to search for and find our house which we bought as a renovation project. I had to oversee the many works including removing pebble dash, re-pointing brickwork, installing new windows, new front door, new fireplace, new floors, new bathroom, a side return extension, new kitchen and landscaping both front and back gardens. I had to make a limited budget go a long way and spent long hours shopping around for the most cost effective products and services. I may not have earned an income but I contributed to the substantial appreciation in the value of our house. I also learned new skills and found out I was quite good at the property renovation business. A few years ago, when we were fortunate enough to come into some money, I was able to put these skills into practice by buying a sorry looking flat and transforming it into a beautiful home and then selling it for a profit, thus starting my property development business. When one door closes another often opens.

Now I know I have been extremely lucky to have a partner whose income was sufficient to support us all without my having to go out to work, a situation which many other women do not find themselves in. But I am glad now that I did stay at home with my son and didn’t drop him off at day care every morning. No matter how good a nursery is, it is never going to be a substitute for family. My son got love, cuddles and kisses from me throughout the day. I don’t underestimate the importance of physical affection in the development of a child. Yes of course there were times when he drove me up the wall but I had to remind myself that childhood is fleeting and not to wish away this precious time with him.

Many mothers have found that, like me, dropping out of the workplace has given them an opportunity to try out different career paths. This has given rise to the term “mumpreneurs” which is used to describe women who set up businesses from their home. Another way forward is to allow women (and men) to work more flexibly. Job sharing is now very common in the Netherlands – British employers should take note.

It is impossible to have a one size fits all approach to this issue. There is undoubtedly a need for more affordable childcare, particularly for single mothers, families that need two separate incomes to get by or even to provide mothers like me with occasional respite from the non-stop 24/7 job of caring for a child. However, I am not so comfortable with the idea that women should en masse be expected to leave their child in the care of others in order to pursue their careers and that somehow society would be the better for it. I do feel that the job of raising a child is often undervalued and that given the choice, children are happier in the care of their parents than with strangers. Stay-at-home mums may be dropping out of the workplace but they are still contributing to society, helping to raise well adjusted, happy children who will be our future generation.

Scrumptious Carrot Cake

IMAG0866This cake doesn’t last long in my household, after one slice you just keep coming back for more! As with most of my favourite recipes, it is quick and easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 300g carrots (approx 3 medium carrots)
  • 225g self raising flour
  • 125ml sunflower oil
  • 65g caster sugar
  • 65g brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the icing:

  • 3 tbs unsalted butter, softened
  • 5 tbs cream cheese
  • 8 tbs icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a square 20cm x 20cm baking tin. Cut the ends off the carrots and grate coarsely. In a separate bowl  beat together the eggs, sugar and oil. Sift in the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate and cinnamon. Lastly fold in the carrots then pour into baking tin and bake for about 40 minutes. Leave to cool.

To make the icing beat together the butter and sugar then gradually beat in the cream cheese and vanilla. Once the cake is cooled, spread the icing on top and serve immediately.

Red Velvet Cup Cakes

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These cup cakes are so easy to make and perfect for a Valentines treat.

Ingredients:

  • 250g plain flour
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 175ml buttermilk (or juice 1/2 lemon mixed with milk to make up 3/4 cup)
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp red food colouring

For the icing:

  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 100g cream cheese
  • 150g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat your oven to 180C and line a muffin tin with 12 paper cases. Mix the flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda in a bowl (no need to sift it, just mix it with a spoon to get rid of lumps). In a separate bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar together, then mix in the vanilla extract and red food colouring. Beat in the eggs then finally alternate mixing in the flour mixture and the soured milk or buttermilk until you get a smooth batter. Divide the batter between the cupcake cases and place in the centre of your oven to bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

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While the cakes are baking, prepare the icing. Put the softened butter in a bowl (I soften it in the microwave on the lowest setting) and add the icing sugar. Beat with a small whisk until smooth. Now add the vanilla extract and cream cheese and beat well to get rid of any lumps. Taste your icing and add a squeeze of lemon juice if it is too sweet for you.

Once the cup cakes have cooled, ice them and for a decorative touch add some chocolate or pink sprinkles on top. Enjoy!

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Our Ideals of Romance Are Harming Society

ID-100238509Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Valentines Day is round the corner. All around us are the usual incitements to buy romantic treats for our loved one – although I was slightly bemused in Asda today to find there was also an entire aisle devoted to Easter eggs and most bizarrely, a marmite flavour egg. But I digress. This year, along with the usual valentine merchandise we have also to contend with the highly hyped new movie 50 Shades of Grey, based on the best selling book of the same name.

Now I do not claim to have read this book but I have enough of an idea of the gist of it. I did read the third instalment of the trilogy (it was the only one available in the library at the time) and not only did I find the sex scenes boring, I was also dismayed by the portrayal of a dominating, egotistical, and rather dysfunctional man as the ultimate romantic hero for our times.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a romantic. My teens and early twenties were spent, I am ashamed to say, devouring all sorts of romantic novels from Mills & Boons to Georgette Heyer. I longed for romance. I lived for romance. My dreams were full of brooding, handsome (and of course wealthy) heroes who would sweep me off my feet and transform my life.

Of course Mr Darcy did not come a calling. I doubt if he came a calling on any other young lady either, not even Kate Middleton who finally nabbed her prince after many patient years of waiting for him to pop the question. The truth is, Mr Darcy is a myth. We women have been sold a lie for centuries – a lie often peddled to us by our fellow women – about the nature of true love. We have been conditioned from childhood to want a prince charming to ride on his horse and rescue us (check out Colette Dowling’s book, the Cinderella Complex about women’s fear of independence).

Why else, in the 21st century, are women still under-represented in politics, in business or in the media? Why is there so much pressure on women to be sexually desirable to men (boob job anyone?) when there is no similar pressure on men? Why do we still believe this myth that the ultimate romantic hero is a powerful man to whom we must submit?

The irony is that love, true love, is a wonderful thing. I was fortunate enough to find it and I can tell you it looks nothing like Christian Grey, Mr Darcy or Heathcliff. My true love is a bit of a nerd with a middle aged paunch, a tendency to flatulence and to fret if he has displaced his keys or mobile phone. He is also my best friend – no one, not even my family, understands me like he does. I can talk to him about anything and everything. He tells me I am loved every morning and every evening. He holds me in his arms every night and gives me comfort. He is my champion, encouraging me to do things I would not have the confidence to do otherwise. That ladies, is a true romantic hero. I wonder how many more functional relationships there would be in society if women understood this.

Our obsession with new food fads is all about us looking for a quick easy fix

The other day I came across an article about a young girl named Ella who recovered from a debilitating auto-immune illness by eliminating sugar, gluten, meat and dairy from her diet. In the process she created imaginative healthy recipes which she posted on her food blog. This proved so popular that a book deal followed together with a lot of publicity, helped no doubt by her photogenic appearance and her family connections (she also happens to be the daughter of a politician and a supermarket heiress).

Intrigued by all the hype, I decided to check out this blog and try out a recipe or two. I struggled to find main dishes that looked tasty to me – let’s face it some veggies can be nice but most are a penance to eat. In the end I settled for the pea and spinach pesto pasta (though I omitted the peas – not fond of them). This was an easy to make dish and I must admit, also rather tasty and filling. It didn’t feel particularly ground breaking as I had made my own pesto many times before, but I did find it interesting to omit the cheese and add lots of lemon and spinach instead. The flavours reminded me of my Mediterranean food heritage where spinach is usually cooked with lots of lemon, olive oil and garlic. So far so good then.

I then turned to the sweet treats section of the blog and decided to try out the sweet potato brownies. The photos of them looked gooey and delicious. I followed the recipe to the letter but mine did not turn out quite as attractive. They didn’t taste much like brownies either. That’s not to say they were horrible, as after I got used to the different taste of them, I found myself going back and forth to the kitchen to have another slice of my virtuous treat. By the next afternoon, all the brownies had been eaten up. Something else had happened too. My digestive system, usually fine and healthy, had clogged up fully.

Constipation is never a comfortable state of being and after two days of it, my energy levels were near zero. There followed another 4 or 5 days of gassy indigestion before my system went back to normal. My husband said to me in amusement that I had just spent a week detoxing from the detox.

This got me thinking. Why are we embracing all these faddy diets? What is wrong with a bit of gluten, or a bit of dairy or for that matter a bit sugar in our daily fare? Yes there are some people with allergies to these foods but the majority of us have no problem digesting them. Our forbears have been eating bread, cheese and meat for centuries. Why all of a sudden must we stop? Why must we deprive ourselves of all this delicious bounty that God has given us? Can’t we eat what we like but in moderation and in balance?

I once made a pizza with a cauliflower crust. It was ok but nothing close to the real deal. The other day my husband and I went out for a pizza and I was bemused by the expanded menu containing low calorie lighter cheese thin crust pizzas with a hollow bit in the middle piled with salad. Why go out for a pizza and then choose a sorry excuse for one? I guarantee it won’t taste half as good as the classic pizza with the real cheese. We only have one life on this earth and we are so lucky to have all this wonderful bounty. Shouldn’t we enjoy what we have in moderation? After all, we don’t go out for pizza everyday so when we do, let’s make it a proper treat.

I’m not advocating a gluttony fest, just saying that most foods are fine as long as we don’t eat too much of them. Yes of course, let’s also try to keep on top of our five a day portions of fruits and vegetables. And maybe we should also think about a more active lifestyle. Our forbears ate butter and sweets but they also moved a lot more than we do.