Sunday, March 30, 2008

WTSIM Lentil Soup

Food and Family is two today! I had meant to celebrate my blog's second birthday with a post on cakes, as Charlotte did when her blog turned two recently, but then I remembered that the deadline for WTSIM is tomorrow, I haven't posted anything foodie for ages and happen to have just cooked an enormous batch of lentil soup which fits in with Jeanne's theme of pulses. So I'm celebrating extremely quietly on leftover soup and bread from our Autumn Festival, amid the fallout of piles of dirty dishes from feeding twenty people and then finding our borehole pump has broken on a Saturday night. This effectively means no running water until we can get the electrician out tomorrow morning (hopefully). Buckets are filled from our rainwater tanks and drinking water bought in 5 liter containers from the supermarket. Luckily it was hot enough to swim today, so we're not too smelly!

We didn't get much mists and mellow fruitfulness for our Autumn Festival yesterday - instead we had summer drawing out an extended last blast, so I was baking and cooking soup with the doors shut to keep out the hotter outside air.

My lentil soup recipe is a classic Italian one from Marcella Hazan. Perfectly simple it brings out the flavour of the lentils and then I add my secret ingredient - ham stock from our Christmas or Easter gammon, hoarded in the freezer for just such a moment. It brings an extra background smokiness that lifts a great soup to the sublime. Don't worry if you don't have any though - this soup has enough flavour even just made with water. In Italy I used to get the wonderful tiny Castelluccio lentils for this soup, in England I bought the Le Puy ones from France. Here I just use the ordinary cheap, small brown ones. Each sort bring their own character to the soup, the exquisite tiny Castelluccio ones are my favourite, with a firm texture and nutty flavour but it is worth making even with the cheapest lentils, as long as they are the brown ones.

Here is the original recipe from Marcella Hazan:

Italian Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
40g/1 ½ oz butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped carrot
30g/ 1 ¼ oz bacon
220g/8oz tinned tomatoes, chopped with their juice
220g/8 oz brown lentils
1 litre/ 1 ¼ pints broth
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese

Saute the onion in the oil and butter over a medium heat, until light gold.

Add celery and carrot and sauté for another few minutes.

Add bacon and cook for another minute.

Add tomatoes and their juice and cook at a gentle simmer for 25 minutes uncovered, stirring every now and then.

Add the lentils stirring well into the tomato mix then add the broth, salt and pepper.

Cook, covered, at a steady simmer until the lentils are tender (usually about 45 minutes, but taste them to make sure). Add water if the lentils absorb all the liquid.

Just before serving stir in the parmesan and a tiny knob of butter.

I tend to make it with rather less precise amounts and don't always have fresh parmesan available, so often serve it without. When I'm using ham stock I leave out the bacon, as it doesn't need it then. If you ever have a fresh parmesan crust leftover, you can add that to the soup at the lentil stage for even more depth of flavour.

Of course we also made pumpkin soup yesterday to use up the insides of these...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kids' Paradise

I gave myself a day off from the computer today and went with the girls to Kirstenbosch Gardens, after dropping our son at his cricket camp. If you ever come to Cape Town, with or without children in tow, Kirstenbosch is a place not to be missed. A little piece of tamed and manicured mountain with enough wilderness for children to play, making man-made playgrounds or theme parks totally redundant.

First of all the girls made straight for this shaded jungle of twisted trees, broad intertwined trunks to climb and explore, requiring ingenuity and agility to traverse. I let my inner child have a go too and perched high up on a comfortable elephant sized branch, watching an agitated nanny try to get her small charges to come down to safety.

I was reminded of Tertia's post yesterday. She had put up photos of her twins riding for the first time on their first ever bicycles, training wheels firmly in place, Dad hovering nearby, an empty, smooth suburban back street, sun shining. She was flabbergasted and upset to be attacked by the parent police because they weren't wearing helmets. Apparently in the US it is law to wear helmets on bikes however small and the police can fine you. This is one of the things I like so much about South Africa - we are still allowed to take responsibility for our own kids and decide what is safe, how much physical risk we can let them take, without us turning into jelly. If these trees had been in a public space in Europe or the US, no doubt they would have been cordoned off, or at least have had large notices disclaiming responsibility for any injury sustained - maybe they would have been fitted with rubber mats or guard rails. Rant over!

The girls moved from scaling the heights to catching tadpoles in the stony stream, which kept them happily occupied for an hour.

There were several other groups of girls all engaged in the same activity, some of them disappearing way up the stream, far out of sight of the mothers on their picnic rugs. Containers of frogs, rather the worse for their prolonged immersion, were carefully carried back to the picnics, one girl vehemently insisting to her mother that the two frogs, which were floating upside down, were only acting. It took some persuasion to insist that the tadpoles and frogs needed to be released here in their natural habitat, not back home.

After some sandwiches that got rave reviews - home-made white bread with the leftover Easter gammon, we moved down to the sculpture garden for a culture fix and rounded it all off with an ice-cream. An utterly perfect South African outing like a shining jewel to be treasured.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter is...

Easter is about:

Hot cross buns made for the first time ever from Vanielje Kitchen's recipe;

Eggs, blown all week to provide blank canvases for ever newer, more innovative decorating techniques, involving my entire supply of food colouring, gold pens, candles, wax crayons, olive oil and so on.

Experiments with colour revealed that red and green often make a sludge brown, but if repeated often enough can get pretty close to black.

Much baking had to be done to use up vast quantities of pre-mixed eggs lurking in the fridge, but at least this way we don't have to find clever ways to eat hard-boiled eggs for several weeks like Johanna is busy doing! Mind you her recipe sounds worth boiling eggs for especially!

Easter trees to display our artistic endeavours, and of course chocolate...

The haul being counted only half way through the hunt. With one Mum and two doting aunts all masquerading as Easter bunnies, there was a record amount of eggs strewn liberally around our farm.

The Simnel cake, which apparently used to be a tradition for Mother's Day but now has become the traditional Easter cake, at least in our house. The kids mostly just like the marzipan balls and chocolate eggs, which leaves me with the cake for tea for a couple of weeks.

We did have the talk about the meaning of Easter at breakfast, after the chocolate egg hunt, just to balance things out - eggs symbolising new life and rebirth, but the talk got redirected on to how babies are made, by Youngest, who wanted to know how babies could come from eggs too...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Kindergarten D-Day

This morning I ruthlessly carried Youngest into kindergarten struggling and sobbing, handed her over to the teacher and left her there.

This was the culmination of much deliberation, procrastination, heartfelt discussions and agonising. It seemed that she was never going to submit willingly or even cooperatively to the process, so we had to do it the hard way.

We had a meeting with the school last week to clear up some of the lack of communication issues and try to establish some sort of understanding between us and the teacher, so that we felt more comfortable. Youngest then managed to develop hugely swollen glands on her neck with no other symptoms, last Thursday, the day she was due to start going to school on her own. A trip to the homeopath suggested a virus that her system was fighting, so we postponed the school attempt till today, the last week of term, but still.

This morning she got dressed and had breakfast quite happily, packed her bag with her snack and climbed into the car. I was allowing myself to hope a little bit... until we arrived at school, the big kids leapt out of the car and disappeared, but Youngest sat firmly in her seat holding determinedly on to the seat belt.

"I'm not going" emerged sottovoce from clenched teeth.

I was firm, encouraging, rational, to no avail.

I used superior force to remove her from the car.

She used speed and agility to nip round the other side of the car and attach herself limpet-like to the head-rest supports of the passenger seat.

I reiterated my calm but firm approach.

I tried unsuccessfully to prise her away from the car superstructure.

After ten minutes of wrangling, I managed to loosen her grip and carry her sobbing and struggling through the car park, along the path to the door of the kindergarten.

I told her that I was going to hand her over to the teacher and come back at the end of the morning… did so and turned resolutely away.

Everyone tells you that it is worse for you, that they are fine the moment you are gone, but still there is always that lingering fear that you are betraying them, scarring them for life, sending them into therapy for years. A peacock flew in front of my car as I drove back up the dirt road to our farm. Was it an omen - good or bad - aren't they supposed to be bad luck - hadn't I better do her numerology for the day - shouldn't I have done it before.

I kept it together for the morning, did a bit of work, then went back really early to make sure I wouldn't be late fetching her, prepared for reproachful glances and mutterings.

You've guessed it - she was fine! Some of it was boring but she'd done a drawing and liked playing outside.

So now let's hope that tomorrow morning she'll walk in, of her own accord. She isn't too impressed when I tell her that she has to go every school day from now on, so I don't think it'll be plain sailing, but at least we've cleared the first fence.

(apologies for the mixed metaphors - my brain is now fried and can't come up with anything better!)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Dog Days

The dog days of summer are here, at least it must be the tail end now, (but wagging furiously!), those sultry, stifling days of heat that are summer's last blast before it renounces its sway to the mists of autumn. We've already had a few misty mornings, dressing up in layers for the morning school run, only to collect children, arms piled high with shed clothes, from a scorching dusty car park in a car with non-functional air conditioning.

I only recently found out where the expression 'dog days' came from. (Google is a wonderful resource!) I used to think it was something to do with 'shouldn't do it to a dog' or 'mad dogs and Englishmen', images of dogs lying flat out panting in the shade, but then I found out it's all about Sirius the dog star, who rises with the sun in full summer in the Northern Hemisphere. This probably means that we don't officially have proper dog days here in South Africa ….so all I can say is that it's blooming hot!

The perfect thing to find on the table for lunch, when we get back from the swelter of the school run, is a huge watermelon, cool crisp and fresh. I hardly ever buy them on my weekly shop, the trolley is usually too full and my budget already stretched to the max by the time I reach the fresh produce section. So I rely on my husband to impulse buy, for a steady supply. Asked to pick up some milk in Spar after an appointment in town, he turns our usual bread and cheese lunch into a feast, with a bagful of flavours - samoosas, salami, fresh rolls and the enormous elongated watermelon. It'll last several days, filling up the fridge with the rest, but guaranteeing a steady supply of sweet, refreshing crunch.

Returning to the dog theme - we have a new addition to the family, a short haired Jack Russell called Amy. You have to understand that she has inveigled her way into our home in the face of all my reserves of passive resistance ... obviously not very forceful when it comes to the crunch.

After Vygie died, the children immediately wanted to know - when could they get another dog? They wanted a small one to play with, perhaps another dachshund like the one their aunt had just adopted from a Rescue Centre. We put them off - maybe in the summer holidays.

The holidays came and went and they realised that we still only had three dogs. I put my foot tentatively down. Enough dogs, enough puddles on the floor, enough barking to go out in the night, enough money spent on tick collars and flea spray …boring Mum stuff ... like all the boring Mums in stories who deny their kids the joy of animals of their own. After all three dogs and three cats, plus a rabbit and two guinea-pigs clearly aren't enough for one family.

So when my sister-in-law came home from work, with the sad story of a colleague who needed a new home for his beloved pet, which was being bullied by his fiancee's two pugs, I said "Hmphh", as the children all joyfully chorused "Yes!"

I knew I was on a losing wicket. Amy was brought to visit, to demonstrate how sweet and well trained she is, and here she stayed. She is sweet. And not nearly as crazy wild as some of the Jack Russells that I've come across.

The cats have had to deal with her firmly. One duck sacrificed its life for her to learn that important farm life lesson - No chasing the tempting feathery creatures. I'm wondering if she will one day try to jump into the rabbit enclosure, but so far she is now keeping her killer instinct to the safer ground of footballs, rugby balls and any other balls that she can get her teeth into.

So apart from the fact that she keeps nicking MY place on the sofa, and I keep being mean Mum and insisting that a dog's place is on the floor, she has settled in pretty well.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Kindergarten Blues

This week has been a major struggle with our attempt to get Youngest into kindergarten. She is five now and should have one year of kindergarten before starting school next year, though she is on the cusp of the cut-off birthday date and so could wait one more year after that.

She went to another small kindergarten with her big sister for a few months when she was 3 ½ but then suddenly went through a huge separation anxiety phase for several months. (We're not sure what triggered it, though she had been sick that week, and her favourite aunt had been in hospital with pneumonia a month before that).

Last year I tried to start her in the kindergarten of the school where the older children are (the small one having closed), but it was big and noisy and she really didn't seem ready, so I left it till this year, since I'm working from home anyway. She spent her mornings last year quite happily playing elaborate imaginative games, drawing, playing with the rabbit and guinea-pigs, while I was at the computer.

The beginning of this school year found me back in the UK, my father having just died, so my husband was left with the job of taking her to the first day at school. He stayed with her for a couple of hours and then left her. She retreated behind the curtains for the rest of the morning, neither eating nor going to the loo, nor playing. He decided to wait.

Once I got back we decided that I should take her a couple of mornings per week and stay with her, to give her a chance to get used to it all and find her feet. So we've done that for about three weeks now, some days going quite well, other days with hiccups. I've been trying to stay unobtrusively in the background wherever possible, finding sewing jobs to do to stop me going crazy with the tedium! She has got one friend there, so she has been alright as long as she could sit beside this friend, hold hands with this friend at ring time and play with her in outside time. Any unfamiliar activity had her retreating back to the curtains or to me, but I was hoping that we're making progress.

She had a gastric flu bug at the beginning of last week though - not too bad but a fever for a couple of days, which sent her back into cling mode. We missed a day of school and I turned up with her the next day to be told that the teachers had decided that I shouldn't stay any more with her, that it was school policy that parents shouldn't stay and that if a child wasn't ready to leave its mother then it wasn't ready for school. I was first upset then furious. I insisted on staying with her that day, as we'd had no preparation for this next step - the kindergarten teacher said it was fine with her, that it was a decision made at the teachers' meeting and I should discuss it with the other teachers.

I've spent the rest of the week in an emotional turmoil trying to work out the right thing to do - for her. I protested to the teachers and I can write a letter to ask them to reconsider, but that doesn't help for next week. We've had a couple of conversations with Youngest herself to prepare her for going by herself, but this separation thing is still a huge issue for her and so far she is adamant that she isn't going to go without me. This child is by far the most stubborn (or strong-willed if you prefer!) of the three, but also extremely sensitive, so I worry about her being traumatised if we take her in kicking and screaming against her will.

One element in all this is that we are not 100% confident in the kindergarten itself. The previous one was small with 12 children and an experienced teacher. This one has 25 kids, a teacher and assistant, but less experienced. The older two are at this school though and any alternative would mean another half hour drive and complicated school run logistics, so we want to give it a chance.

My husband is deputed to have another talk with her. Right now the emotional washing machine inside me means I can't see straight on it, let alone be detached and convincing about why she should be brave and take a deep breath and go.

Has anyone else had to deal with this level of separation anxiety? She was fine when I went to England, it is just with regard to school that it is a big deal again, and when she was sick and had to have me near her all the time. I am flirting with the idea that there is some past life baggage behind it all, as there is no great trauma in this life to explain it. Or is you don't do past lives, then just part of her character that she was born with - her major life challenge. Shame that her parents have to go through the wringer too!

Edited to add: I've just looked back at my post from her first leaving kindergarten in 2006 - my blithe confidence that it was going to be a short lived phase has be in growls of sardonic laughter!