Monday, November 21, 2011

Jamie Oliver and the Busy Mum

I have been a Jamie Oliver fan for a while now. He's not as snooty as some of the other celebrity chefs out there, and I feel like not only would he be supportive of my tendency to adapt his recipes, he'd probably encourage it. It's not that I have the cheek to try and improve on a recipe by one of the world's most famous chefs, but those of you who have read my gripes about the availability of fresh produce here would know that adaptation is often a necessity.

While I was working I found it really tough to come home every night and think of something to cook for dinner. I tried desperately to be inventive and make meals that we could all eat, but most nights we turned to the old standards - spaghetti bolognese, curry from a jar, or some form of scrambled eggs. My husband, frustrated by my sensitive pregnant digestive system, refused to be responsible for important culinary decisions, after I shrieked for the dozenth time "Euurgh, I can't eat that!" And that was the status quo until one night when we happened to catch an episode of Jamie's "30 Minute Meals." I was captivated by the promise of a decent home-cooked meal on the table in half an hour, and motivated by Jamie's faith in me that I could do it too. The other books of Jamie's that I own have never let me down yet; his recipes seem do-able, and he taught me the basics of awesome pizza and simple, but oh-so-good risotto. So I bought the book and after a few trial and error attempts at one or two of the recipes, I decided to jump in feet first and planned our whole week's worth of dinners using meals from the book. I have to admit that I have yet to cook any of the meals in the promised 30 minutes, but I do not have a food processor, or a proper kitchen for that matter, and there is usually a small person hovering around my knees wanting saucepan lids to bang on while I'm cooking, so things will inevitably take a bit longer. It also helps if you have all of the main ingredients ready at the time of cooking, so you're not rushing over to the neighbour's to borrow mustard for the Mustard Chicken recipe.

My fellow Hong Konger's will know that the most ambitious part of this project of mine isn't the cooking part, it's the grocery gathering. Last night I sat down and made a list of everything I needed for the 5 or so meals I plan to cook this week, and the cupboard is pretty bare, so it was a long list! I only had time to visit one supermarket today and I knew deep down that it wouldn't be enough, but I valiantly hoped that I could at least get everything for one of the meals, for tonight's dinner. I was disappointed when I flicked through the book and found a gentle warning from Jamie that it was probably best not to mess around too much with the recipes when you first started making them. He said that they had all been tried and tested by his team and worked exactly the way they were printed in the book. Well, I'm sorry Jamie, but there was no way I was going to get my hands on Creme Fraiche today, and chicory? Forget it! I was disheartened, knowing it would be impossible to find some of the ingredients here, but I was determined to give it a shot and make it work with what I had.

I walked out of ThreeSixty with maybe two-thirds of the items on my list, and even though I knew there would be at least 2 more shops to visit this week to get everything, I was pretty pleased with that phase of the delicious dinner production process. D is away and I hate cooking for one so tonight I made Cauliflower Macaroni (sorry, couldn't find the recipe online to share it), hoping J would eat it with me. I didn't make the salad (no chicory), or the dessert (block o' chocolate will suffice), and I had to substitute bacon for pancetta, and cream for creme fraiche, but it was delicious! My 2 year-old chose chicken nuggets instead but the whole time we were eating I kept telling him he was seriously missing out, and I went back for more (and there is still a lot left over). I didn't time myself while I was cooking (I didn't need the pressure) but I have to say dinner was ready pretty quickly. Even though the whole point was to cook something tasty, quickly, cooking feels like less of a chore when the end result is that good. I figure if I can cook a decent meal on a two burner bench-top oven, in a tiny Chinese style kitchen, with equal parts enthusiasm and improvisation, in around 30 minutes, then anyone can. The most time-consuming part is the shopping, and the washing up as my husband will attest, but it's definitely worth a shot if you're super busy and looking for something a lot more interesting than spag bol for dinner during the week. And if Jamie can forgive me for messing with his recipes, and I can tolerate 3 trips to 3 different supermarkets to buy most of the required ingredients, we may just have a food revolution in our house (and more time for lazing on the sofa after dinner!).

PS: Thrilled to get a plug this week on as 'Blogger of the Week,' Yay!

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Blue Christmas

Anyone reading last year's posts from around this time would know I'm a Christmas-a-holic (yes, it's a word!). I love all of it, and now that we have our own little growing family, it's become all the more special. My husband was a bit of a Scrooge when we met, never really keen to make a fuss, but it didn't take long for me to wear him down infect him with the Christmas spirit. I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to the rituals of the season - pudding Sunday a month before, a fresh tree going up no earlier than the 1st of December, nothing but Christmas carols in the week leading to the day etc, etc. I've adapted a few old traditions and adopted a few new ones since I left home, but the one thing I found really hard to embrace was Christmas in Hong Kong.

Our first year here, we hadn't been here that long when Christmas came around, so spending it here made sense. We had good friends staying with us, and copious quantities of alcohol, but it just wasn't the same. We headed back home in 2008 for an Aussie Christmas, but in 2009 we had a 3 week old baby and another HK festive season was our only option. Last year we spent most of December in Australia but with D having to work Boxing Day we decided to fly back to Hong Kong on the 22nd for Christmas here once again. With an Aussie Christmas so tantalisingly close last year, it was very hard to get on that plane, but being in our own home just the 3 of us, around the tree, doing our own thing, it strangely felt right. In previous years I complained about being "stuck" in Hong Kong, and tried to make the best of what I felt was a bad situation by celebrating the fact that it was cold, baking every hot Christmas treat I could find a recipe for. The mulled wine and mince pies worked their magic and this year, now that I have my Aussie Christmas locked in (at the beach! With my family!) I've realised what I'm going to miss.

Every year that we've had Christmas in Hong Kong we've ordered a tree from our local supermarket. The year J was born it arrived the last weekend in November so it was half dead by the time Christmas arrived, but that has now become a treasured part of our family Christmas - guessing how early the tree will arrive and taking bets on whether or not it will go the distance! I mentioned to D last week that I saw the order forms for the tree when I was shopping, and he said "we'll have to get one." I was shocked but proud that my once anti-Christmas man of the house had made such a drastic turnaround that he was willing, insisting, that we have a tree, all dolled up, despite the fact that no one will be here in December but our helper and the dog.

The reason for his need for a tree, and for my melancholy, is that we're not entirely sure the house will be empty at Christmas... D and I, in our 8 years together, have never spent a Christmas apart. There have been years when he's worked Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, but never Christmas Day. This year he's been told he has 0% chance of getting the day off, but we find out for sure tomorrow night when the December roster comes out. Knowing that we'd likely be apart, I made plans this year, booking a holiday house on the south coast of NSW so that, if D should end up somewhere other than home, J and I would at least be able to celebrate with family, in a place that makes me very happy. We're crossing our fingers and toes that D will be able to join us, but it's highly unlikely, and the thought of a Christmas without him makes me very sad. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that we will be spending Christmas in Australia, and I can't wait for J to spend that time with "Nan and Pop", who he just adores, but something will be missing. Wandering around the shops yesterday looking at all the decorations that are out already, I was almost in tears as I imagined my husband sitting up at home by himself in front of the tree, eating cereal for Christmas lunch before heading off to Taipei or Colombo or somewhere else that isn't very Christmassy at all.

It could be worse, I know. There are families who are separated for long periods, and for more serious reasons. Dads miss birthdays and holidays all over the world, all the time. Given the nature of his job we're really lucky that D hasn't missed more, but this is the first time my little boy's dad will miss Christmas with his family, and that's breaking my heart. It took me a long time living in Hong Kong and fighting it to realise the true meaning of "home is where the heart is." I think this year I've learned that the spirit of Christmas lives there too...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Baby Brain

Unlike Man Flu, baby brain is a genuine, debilitating infection, affectation, inflection, affliction. Some say it's the result of your brain gently marinating in a potent cocktail of baby-making hormones, or the slight rise in your body's temperature. While others believe that the thought of giving birth and adding a new human to your world is such a distraction that your brain can't possibly process anything else. Whatever it is, I don't know any mums-to-be who have escaped this particular pregnancy side-effect.

While you may be a gorgeous, glowing, baby-making goddess on the outside (or not), upstairs there is not a whole lot going on. In other words, the lights are on but no one's home. I noticed a big change when I was pregnant with J, I felt like my brain was turning into swiss cheese, and once he was born things didn't really get better. I must have lost a million brain cells over the last year and dropped a few IQ points just through the sheer effort of trying to keep my tiny human alive, running on very little sleep and desperate for some kind of instruction manual. Not to mention the effort required in putting myself back together physically and dealing with the hormonal "ups and downs" that come after having said baby. Then I fell pregnant again and realised I must've regained some of that previous brain power over the last two years, because once again I've noticed a significantly diminished mental capacity. I am the embodiment of the saying "I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on."

On the weekend I updated my Facebook status, joking that I should not be left in charge of small children or allowed to operate heavy machinery. But I was only half-joking. Just that morning I had been to the supermarket and wandered around aimlessly until I remembered what it was I actually needed. I had written a list but forgot to take it with me! I ran through a mental list of all the ingredients in the dish I was cooking (a basic beef stroganoff) but still drew a blank on what I was missing. In the end I remembered, mushrooms, aha!  But later that day I walked out the door and left my keys behind. It wasn't until I got to the car that I realised. I forget what I'm saying mid-sentence and some days my son has a better vocabulary than I do. I often go upstairs to get something, get distracted by something else, and come back downstairs without what it was I went up there for in the first place. Just today I was filling in forms for J's playgroup enrolment and I had no idea what day it was, let alone what the date was. Don't get me started on how overwhelmed I was by the direct debit authorisation form...

The upside to all of it is that I am completely oblivious to everything else going on around me. I can sit back in my baby-induced haze and play with my little boy all day. Now that I've finished work (goodness knows what I taught those poor children) I don't need much thinking power. Which is just as well because I'm going to be relieved from grocery shopping duty pretty soon, and if I leave the oven on one more time, cooking might be out of the question too.