This afternoon, I harvested five stalks of rhubarb from the garden and whipped up the rhubarb bars I mentioned in my previous post.
One leaf disguised a particularly large garden pest…
I wound up using the crust from this recipe since I didn’t have any cream cheese, but it’s very similar to the one in the original link. Here’s the rhubarb stewing away before being pureed:
Then I added the other ingredients, including several splashes of natural food coloring (beetroot extract):
And finally, the finished product:
The verdict: yummy, but I found the curd a bit too thick for my taste–I like it a little bit gooey. Next time I might make more rhubarb puree or aim to keep it a bit runnier with one less egg and/or less cooking time.
Also, my pest turned out to be a helper later on:
The general sentiment around cooking and eating is that it’s a lovely communal activity, something we should share with those we love to enrich our lives and our souls. Usually this is true in my household, too–most days, we all eat together as a family and isn’t it
messy, noisy and chaotic lovely.
But not today. Today, I wanted a big, fat, sugary American cinnamon roll and I wanted it without a side of whining children who are eager to
send me round the bend help. My husband took the kids to the park so I decided it was a great time to whip up a cinnamon roll for one: bring on the mug cake recipes! This food is not for sharing.
The link above takes you to the instructions for this delicacy. Before we begin, I’m going to tell you a few other things this blog/blog post is NOT: it is not a blog that uses phrases like “guilty pleasures”–you might find my recipe for pink goop below disgusting, but I still don’t feel guilty about making or eating it. It is not one of those food blogs with professional photos–I rely solely on my trusty iPhone and terrible sense of framing. It is not a gourmet blog where everything is the best thing you’ve ever eaten–I make food in my teeny tiny kitchen, with minimal implements and regular ingredients. It is not a lifestyle blog where everything is super healthy all the time and I look amazing and live a picturesque life.
This is a blog where, if I really need a sugar hit first thing on a Saturday morning, I make a cake in a microwave. It’s a place where, if I haven’t got powdered sugar, I substitute marshmallows melted in said microwave with a teeny bit of butter and a splash of milk (stir and you get a super sugary, glossy pink “icing” as per the pictures). It’s a place where you’ll find honest reviews of a mug cake recipe: even though this isn’t the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had, it is pretty good and makes it possible for me to stop contemplating an expensive plane ticket home to Texas just because I need good junk food now (sounds like an oxymoron but trust me, it’s not).
So, to the cooking: I followed most of the instructions and found them accurate. I didn’t feel the need to be vegan today, so I did use regular butter to grease the mug and I spread a very thin layer of butter on the dough before sprinkling the cinnamon sugar (I used regular, not coconut). I cooked the cinnamon roll for the full 1 min and 10 seconds, but in hind sight, I’d shave 5 seconds off of that time. The dough is definitely not the same as a regular cinnamon roll, but it’s a good substitute, and on the whole I was happier eating this microwaved treat than some rubbish substitute I could find at the store (the Brits bake lots of nice things but when it comes to ridiculous excess, they struggle to match us Yanks).
As mentioned, I also made up a ridiculously pink
goop icing to top the whole thing off. I’ve made marshmallow fondant before, so I knew I could probably whip up a decent “sauce” using a handful of these. I’m happy to say it worked well: teeny bit of butter (so they don’t stick to the dish), splash of milk (a tablespoon? maybe two), and a generous handful of marshmallows, microwaved for about 20 seconds, then stirred vigorously.
Otherwise, I followed the recipe, and I pronounce it solid. I ate the entire cinnamon roll in my silent, sunny kitchen and loved every bite.
Now I’m off to enjoy the remaining moments of solitude with a book. Happy Saturday!
It turns out gardening in England is much easier than gardening in Texas. In Austin, I planted a small rhubarb plant and promptly watched it shrivel up and die, despite watering it daily. Here in London, it’s about to sprout legs and walk around! My eldest little calls it “blue-barb” and we were planning to combine the lovely stalks with homegrown strawberries, but the boys keep eating those straight off of the vine:
Anyway, I’m planning to harvest the first batch of blue-barb tomorrow, so naturally I spent a good chunk of today looking for tasty new recipes on Pinterest. Here’s what I unearthed (check out that pun):
2. Then I might make this old-fashioned rhubarb pudding cake, just to see if it actually works (magic pudding cakes are so much fun, although I find they don’t keep well).
3. Finally, to stick with the theme from my last post, here’s a vegan raspberry rhubarb crisp that uses nuts for extra flavour and crunch. (I haven’t made it yet but based on experience of cooking rhubarb, I’d double the sugar.)
And while I didn’t grow much in Texas, I did grow these carrots–I think it’s time to update the phrase “two peas in a pod”:
After Trump’s decision to leave the Paris accord, chatter has increased about what individuals, cities, states, and companies can do to abide by our pledges. This article from Forbes has a clear list of ways all of us can help. I already do a bunch of these things: the majority of my wardrobe is secondhand from charity shops (I love Savers in Austin, TX–can’t wait to go there whenever we visit next!), we have a car but only use it a few times a week as we prefer walking and public transportation, and we buy as much organic, local food as we can afford (hello, weekly farm box delivery).
But I still think there’s more we can do. In particular, I’m going to renew my focus on eating vegetarian and vegan meals at least 2 days/week (or six meals in total). My husband and I were both vegetarians for a long time before we met, and while we do eat meat now, we work hard to minimize the amount of animal products we eat while also paying attention to what we replace them with (e.g. more fruits and veg, rather than highly processed substitutes).
Cooking from scratch takes time and energy (and usually adds to the workload of women/moms), so when I find pretty easy recipes that are also vegan/vegetarian and yummy, I hang on to them for dear life. While I like cookbooks, I actually prefer recipes from bloggers because I find them easier to replicate in my own kitchen. Here are three of our favorite vegan (or easily made vegan) recipes from other bloggers:
Sweet Potato Taquitos: This recipe is our newest addition and my current favorite! I use a blend of sweet potato and butternut squash, but you don’t have to. I find them easy to make AND super easy to freeze, so I always double or triple this recipe and save the extra. We eat them with guacamole, black beans, and rice.
Slow Cooker Morrocan Eggplant: Super easy to make, and while you do have to hunt down the spice blend depending on where you live (in the US, I’ve found it at HEB, Central Market, and Whole Foods; in the UK, our local Sainsbury’s and Ocado both carry it), it lasts for ages. We like it with couscous.
White Girl Dahl: Easy and so, so delicious. This one is my husband’s fave out of the three. Pick any butter substitute (we just used veg oil) for the start of the recipe and skip the added butter at the end to make it vegan. We had smoked paprika roasted cauliflower on the side (chop up a head of cauliflower, toss in a couple tablespoons of oil with plenty of smoked paprika, salt and pepper to taste, roast for about 20-25 min) and naan.
So there you have it: three ways to be a climate activist. New recipes welcome in the comments section!
Confession: Despite the title of this blog, I never say “cheerio” – and neither does anyone else. It’s an outdated expression, but there are plenty of other British words and phrases I had to master when I first arrived in the UK. Here are a few, in case you find yourself struggling to grasp the locals when conversing:
To wind someone up – tease, annoy, or play a prank on; “Are you winding me up?” or “Your dad really winds you up, doesn’t he?”
To go pear-shaped – when something goes wrong; “It all went pear-shaped after I burnt the roast.”
To have the hump – be annoyed or irritated with someone: “Have you got the hump with me?” translates to “Are you angry/annoyed with me?”
Can’t be arsed – can’t be bothered, not worth the effort: “I’d like a cup of tea, but I can’t be arsed to make it myself.” Funny story with this one: when I first heard it, I was told the phrase was “I can’t be asked” (which some people do say). For months I used it in lessons with students until someone told me it was actually “can’t be arsed (or, in American, assed as in get off your ass). Apparently with my accent and speedy speech, students thought I’d been swearing in class on a regular basis. Whoops!
Bog standard – normal, unremarkable: “Yeah, the food there is bog standard.” or “I just need a bog standard car, nothing flashy.”
Take the piss – another way of saying make fun of, often by being facetious or appearing to be serious when you’re joking: “Don’t get upset, I’m only taking the piss.” Note: some people say “taking the mick/mickey” but this has anti-Irish connotations, so as a foreigner (am I still a foreigner if I’m married to/the mother of citizens? Hmm…) I avoid it. Also, don’t confuse this phrase with…
To get pissed – to get drunk. “You’re completely pissed” means “You’re very drunk”, not “You’re very angry.”
Come a cropper – fail badly: “The government’s policy on school funding is going to come a cropper in the next election.” One can only hope…
Throw a wobbly – have a fit or tantrum: “Mum’s going to throw a wobbly when she sees this mess!”
Pop to the shops (or anywhere else) – quickly go somewhere: “I’m just going to pop to the shops for some milk. Do you need anything?”
Curry – a general word used to mean all Indian food, NOT just dishes that actually involve the spice we call curry!! “Let’s get a curry tonight” means “Let’s order an Indian takeaway/eat at an Indian restaurant.” Top tip: don’t order anything on the menu that actually involves the spice we call curry. It’s not nice. Chicken tikka masala is a safe bet, or some kind of dahl (lentils) or jalfrezi (spicy but so yummy). I also highly recommend poppadoms and dips.
Dinner/supper/tea: Some folks call lunch, or the midday meal, “dinner”; these same folks probably call their evening meal “tea” or say “it’s teatime soon.” I’m told this is generally a working class phrase. Other (posher) folks call lunch “lunch” and “tea” means tea like with the queen, served in the late afternoon/early evening. These same folks call their evening meal “supper”, and dinner is nowhere to be heard.
The school run: dropping your kids off at school and picking them up again: “I’ve got to do the school run at 3, but I’ll be home after that.”
Holidays – any time off, not just Christmas/Hanukkah, usually involving travel: “Have fun on your holidays! Where are you going again?” or “It’s school holidays soon. Shall we meet up then?”
Bank holidays – public holidays that many/most people have off; some shops etc. are likely to be open but with more limited hours: “It’s a bank holiday this Monday. Should we have a barbeque [aka cookout] if the weather’s nice?”
Term time – when school is in session; most schools have three terms called autumn, spring and summer (they like to pretend winter doesn’t exist): “It’s hard for me to meet up during term time since I have to manage the school run on top of everything else, but I’m free over the holidays.”
Half-term – a break in the middle of a term, usually one week in state schools but sometimes longer in private schools: “I can’t wait for half-term – it feels like ages since the winter holidays!”
And that’s all I’ve got for now. Please feel free to correct me in the comments, since I’m definitely not a native speaker!
When I first lived abroad, I looked forward to every visit from family members, and every trip home. Now, after more than a decade of living abroad (and a few years hosting my spouse’s family when we lived in Texas), the novelty has worn off and irritation can easily creep in on all sides. I thought I’d share some of my experiences in the hopes that you might be able to avoid my mistakes. Read on to minimize
family feuds annoyances and make the best of your time together.
#1: If at all possible, do not let your family members stay with you, especially if (a) they’re American and you live somewhere that is not America, and/or (b) you have a small house. We live in a 1250 square foot house in South London and it is the biggest property we’ve rented in this country. With two adults and two kids, there’s really not much room to spare. My best friend and her (German) husband and son recently crashed on a foam mattress on the floor for two nights, but there’s absolutely no way my parents or siblings would ever tolerate this set up. Much better for everyone if they get an airbnb or a hotel room (airbnb is always cheaper, plus you can cook). Otherwise, be prepared to put up with a constant stream of comments about how small everything else, how uncomfortable and old-fashioned everything is, yada yada yada…seriously, it was bad enough listening to my mother complain about the washing machine (and lack of separate dryer) at the airbnb property they rented.
#2: Think about local holidays that may impact (positively or negatively) on travel plans. If you live in a touristy city or area, make sure you let your family know if something is going on around the time they want to visit. My parents recently visited for two weeks that exactly lined up with the Easter holidays here, so all of the London places they wanted to visit were super busy. They managed, but it’s worth warning people in advance if there’s a local festival, holiday, sporting event, etc. – especially since it can also drive up airfare and accommodation costs.
#3: Give your relatives advice, but if they’re anything like mine, be prepared for them not to take it. My brother once flew over for three days to meet his new nephew. I was so flattered that he went to so much effort to come and see us, and delighted that he abided by rule #1 and stayed in a hotel (especially since at that time we lived in a 650 sq ft flat). Unfortunately, he did not listen to me when I told him a single room wouldn’t be big enough for his 6’3” frame, and he spent his three nights in a very cramped bed that was most likely designed for adults from Shakespeare’s time (you know, when everyone was shorter and smaller, right?).
Another example: my parents wanted to take a day trip to Oxford and when they looked up the train times, it said it would take just over an hour to get there on the train from London. Of course, what they didn’t know was that it would take at least another hour just to cross London on public transportation to get to the train that would take them to Oxford. And did they listen when I told them? No. And did they have a nice day out? No. They barely managed to see the spires at all. So like I said, feel free to give your relatives advice, but try not to stress out if they ignore you.
#4: Resign yourself to dealing with tourist cliches. I took my mom to Paris and she wanted American wine. Ha! My dad loves to make jokes about English muffins. Ugh. I’ve taken almost every guest I’ve ever hosted to a red telephone booth and Big Ben/Buckingham Palace/Tower Bridge. Mostly I take refuge in introducing them to one of my favorite pubs at the end of the day. Top tip: try to work in at least one thing you like doing during a day of sightseeing, otherwise you’ll be a miserable tour guide.
#5: Set clear expectations in advance. This one is slightly more serious. Some family members will want to spend all their time with you. After all, if they only see you once or twice a year, they want to make the most of it, right?! Other family members will want some distance. They’ll see you for a bit, but not all day, every day. Other times family members don’t feel comfortable traveling abroad and are reliant on your for everything, while a different group of folks might view you as a convenient stepping stone to expanding their traveling horizons.
It’s best to try and find out how much time they want to spend with you, and be up front about how much time you can offer to spend with them, even before they buy their tickets. This will prevent major arguments and hurt feelings down the line when, say, they’re tired and want to have a night in, but you’ve made plans to take them out for a meal. Or vice versa when they want to spend every waking minute with you but actually you’ve got to work and also it’s your friend’s birthday drinks, etc. Just try to have a conversation about it in advance.
And if this advice sounds totally bizarre and irrelevant to your life as an expat, congratulations: you win the family lottery. Otherwise, feel free to comment below with your own tips and advice.
After four years as a stay-at-home mom, I’m headed back into the the working world. I’ve accepted what is pretty much my dream job: Head of English at a local state school. And there’s more:
My official start date is in September but I’m doing a few days here and there in between to prepare – and thank goodness, because I suspect this transition is going to be a big one.
Example: on Monday, I was scheduled to spend a half day at school. I’d reminded my husband several times, but he still hadn’t made any childcare plans the night before (it was his job to sort things out this time). When I asked if he wanted me to get in touch with our babysitter, he said it wasn’t necessary since our youngest would be napping and our eldest would be at school. (He works from home, so we have a lot of flexibility – thankfully!!) When I told him AGAIN that school would be closed, and that I would be gone for four hours rather than the two hours during which our youngest naps, he panicked. *sigh* Luckily, the babysitter was free and managed to help us out.
The following morning I was a total mess trying to entertain both kids and get myself organized. Somehow I managed to deal with the kids, but forgot to (a) eat anything before I left the house, (b) leave behind any cash to pay the babysitter, and (c) check to make sure I had any clean professional clothes. I turned up at work without a minute to spare in a mismatched outfit and with a rumbling stomach. Awesome.
The whole experience was surreal: grown ups were speaking to me, and not about diapers, sleep schedules or playdates. My memory felt unreliable, stretched to breaking point as I reached back years to access relevant examples for a training session. Plus, when it was break time, I got to, you know, take a break. Socialize.
It felt weird.
Also, here’s a strange thought: I’m going to be paid for this time. At some point, there would be a paycheck with my name on it (probably virtual, but I’ll take it). It hasn’t occurred to me until now, but the past four years represents the only period in my life since I turned 16 when I haven’t collected a paycheck. Someone thinks my time is worth money, and this is incredibly validating. Given that I had actually hoped to start work a year ago but struggled to find a job that fit my qualifications and our family’s needs, the impending paycheck feels especially awesome. I think back to the interviewer who suggested that I was too old for a particular job (completely absurd, but there you have it) and feel thankful and not a little relieved to have wound up where I am now.
So I made it through my first half day, and realized that I’m nowhere near as organized as I should be for September. And by “I”, I really mean “we”, because this is a transition for the whole family and you can be damn sure my husband will be picking up some of the slack. I have no intention of trying to be one of these supermom types who does all things professional and domestic. Here are some of the things I’m thinking about:
Advice? Experience? Links to other articles to read? I know the whole work/family conflict is a big one, and I’m hoping someone out there has some tips…
Two years ago, I was nearly 42 weeks pregnant with my second little one and every hour stretched into eternity. Those extra weeks past my due date were exhausting, but probably really helpful in the long run: we’d only just finished our South Austin home renovation, and in our
last-minute panic spare time, we set up the house and adjusted to our new space.
And here I am, reminiscing about my baby-turned-toddler, and contemplating a second renovation project here in London. I can hardly believe it, but it’s got me thinking about how we got started in Austin. The first big step, sometimes even before picking a property, is looking for a reliable contractor. But if you’re a total beginner, where do you start?! Here’s how we chose our guy in Austin:
#1: Look for someone with reviews. We started by looking for companies with reviews on Houzz and Yelp. I’d eliminate anyone who didn’t have four stars and up, and often eliminated companies without at least 5-10 solid reviews. We were inexperienced, and we didn’t want to hire someone who might also be inexperienced! Then I scanned the reviews for key words and phrases: “on budget”, “on time”, “polite”, “respectful”, “professional”, “quality”. I also paid attention to the scope of the project(s) mentioned – if a company only had experience with huge, big-budget projects (or the opposite), they probably weren’t going to work for us. (More on this later.) We were looking for someone who dealt with modest additions and home renovations.
#2: Check their website and portfolio. After looking at reviews, I headed to the company’s website to see how they described themselves and the type of work they wanted to do. There’s no point in hiring a contractor who wants to work on million dollar projects to do your modest project, because the minute something bigger comes along, you’re likely to be ignored. Some people might argue that all contractors have to start somewhere, and I’m sure this is true with some companies, but I didn’t want our house (and life savings) to be ceremoniously dumped if a juicier option appeared. I also looked at photos of projects they’d completed: did it look like our style? Did it look like quality work?
#3: Make sure they’re registered with the Better Business Bureau. This type of organization may seem less important in the days of Yelp, etc. but to me, it’s a sign of integrity. Your local BBB will log and handle disputes between customers and businesses, and you can check if a company is registered (and for how long) and that company’s history here: https://www.bbb.org.
#4: Read between the lines. I called one company and had a super short chat with a partner there. He gave me their pitch, I told him what we wanted, and he said, we don’t do projects under $250k. (He also said, we don’t build things that fall down, which made me laugh. Like, those are the two alternatives: a house that collapses or a super-high-end architectural masterpiece.) Thank you, goodbye.
One company with a reputation for doing mid-range, high-style projects couldn’t return our calls. Message received.
We found a contractor we really liked, and on their website, they featured a remodel for a house one street over from ours. The style looked great and they had a strong reputation – sounds great, right? We held a meeting at their office and went over our plans. The guy was totally unenthusiastic and his ballpark estimate was definitely out of our price range. When we asked him about the house in our neighborhood, he kind of shrugged and dismissed the question until we brought it up again. Turns out that project was for a family member – someone’s sister-in-law. Suddenly, the guy’s attitude made more sense: they didn’t usually work with our style of house (that is, 1960s ranch – they preferred older homes) and they didn’t usually work with our budget. We moved on.
The next contractor was a guy in his 50s: very friendly, professional, great reputation – he met me at the house to discuss our plans. His estimate was 50% over the top of our budget and didn’t even include everything we wanted. He told me it wasn’t possible to get what we wanted for our budget. He also had a six month lead time before he could even begin to work on our project.
I started to think that contractors were overbidding for our project because they didn’t want it – and I was right. Austin is a highly competitive market for anything involving real estate. Successful contractors with a lot of capital have their pick of projects, and ours simply wasn’t glamorous or expensive enough to justify their time, so they jacked up their prices to discourage us (or rake in a big profit if we agreed, I guess). Once I learned to think about our project from a contractor’s point of view, the process became much easier. I started pitching our project as the Toyota of home renovations: I’m not looking for a luxury product, just something functional and reliable made with safe, quality materials (and a hint of design). The pace started to pick up, and the next contractor I spoke with was “the one.”
#5: Choose someone you respect – and who respects you. You’re going to spend a lot (A LOT) of time talking with your contractor, so pick someone you respect. Between my husband and me, I knew I’d be the person working most closely with our contractor. He worked full-time and I was a “stay-at-home” mom. (Of course, anyone who’s done that job while pregnant knows it’s hardly a walk in the park, but it was more flexible than my husband’s schedule.)
Also, my husband really didn’t have the vision for this project. He was on board, but he couldn’t see it. He also had very little experience with construction, whereas I’d grown up with a Mr. Fix It dad (also an engineer) and worked with Habitat For Humanity, so I felt more confident talking about the process. So I needed a contractor who I wanted to work with AND one who was willing to work with me – not so easy, it turns out.
All of the contractors we met were male. Most of them were at least a decade (more like two) older than I was. If my husband was in the room, they spoke to him – even if I’d asked the question. One contractor – the one who overbid to discourage us and told me we’d never get what we wanted for our budget – said as his parting remark that he’d be happy to go over all of this with my husband since he was probably the one making the decision.
Uh, no. Absolutely not. I am not going to pay someone who thinks it’s acceptable to engage in overtly sexist behavior. In the end, the contractor we hired was a man, but he was younger – pretty much my age – and totally comfortable working with me.
#6: Be completely up front about your project from the minute you first meet your (potential) contractor until you shake hands at the end. Tell them what you want. If there are things you’re not sure about, speak up. Give them your actual budget, including your contingency. (We did generally wait until we’d had a rough estimate from contractors before revealing our magic number, but I’d done enough research to know I wasn’t asking for the earth.) Tell them how you’re paying for it – cash, finance, or both. For example, we told our contractor that we’d being paying cash. Bonus: no delays waiting for the bank to release the funds. Downside: once the money was gone, it was gone. That number included our contingency for any problems that emerged, and he needed to know that up front. Honesty now makes everything else so much easier later.
I could actually keep writing about #6, but I think I’ve held you hostage long enough. Maybe next I’ll tackle tips for a successful relationship with your contractor! If you can add to this list, feel free to comment below – and good luck finding “the one”.
I started this blog when we purchased and renovated our first home in Austin, TX. We bought the house knowing we were going to undertake a big project but on a clear budget, and all of the home reno blogs I found were geared toward super high-end projects (I’m looking at you, Houzz). The homes were beautiful, sure – but way out of our price range.
So if you skip back in time to my earliest posts, you’ll read all about the renovation process on our South Austin home. But I lost focus (read: had another baby) and forgot that super important part of the project, the BIG REVEAL! Here, in all its professionally photographed glory, is the finished product…
Sadly – as in, really sadly, I cried when I handed over the keys to the new owner – we wound up selling our house when we moved back to London. However, the renovation paid off, and we wound up recooping everything we invested in the house, plus a teeny tiny bit extra. Not bad, considering we’d owned it for exactly two years. (My eyes are stinging as I write this post. Thinking about this house still makes me emotional!) Here’s a super short summary of what we did:
Actually, that seems like a lot! In fact, I might just have enough confidence after tackling this project to consider doing another renovation when we eventually buy a home in London. Check back in a few months to see if Autumn 2017 finds us looking for another general contractor…