Tuesday, May 25, 2010

First impressions of the iPad in Australia

B had to travel to the US for work a few weeks ago, and brought back an iPad.

Yes, an iPad. To go with our family iMac desktop, our work MacBook Pros, our iPhones and our iPod Touch. We are officially an Apple Geek Family.

My first impression of the iPad was that it is a giant iPhone. A big shiny screen with the single home button, and a few buttons and holes tidily hidden around the edges. I haven't fiddled around with it a lot so I can't comment on its technical specifications or setup. This post is about what I've seen of the iPad in action in our family's hands.

The operation is just like the iPhone- slide the menu to find the apps, touch to open. But, as lots of people have asked me, what does it do? Or, more specifically, what does it do that the rest of our Apple stable doesn't?

I have to say, not a lot- but what it does, it does really nicely. In true Apple style, the whole setup has that "wow" quality factor. The screen is crisp and sharp, and videos from iTunes look great. It's a bit too big for the resolution of a lot of You Tube clips, on the other hand.

The thing about the iPad is that it fills a gap I didn't know I had. For me, it replaces the iPhone and MacBook for on-the-couch surfing. Websites are heaps easier to read and use than on the iPhone screen (especially when entering text is required), but it isn't as clunky as having a laptop perched on your lap, despite having a screen nearly as big as a standard laptop. It is genuinely like a computer-in-a-book. Which brings me to my other favourite feature, iBooks. And Kindle. And Stanza. I am an eBook convert- they are really easy to read in any of these programs on the iPad (admittedly we are running the iPhone version of Stanza so it doesn't expand as well as the other two.)

Big Bro has been the biggest user of the iPad. As B posted on Facebook, "the iPad is a $600 toy for a 3 year old." Like the iPhone and iPod Touch, the controls are so intuitive that Big Bro has no trouble navigating. In fact, Little Bro, at the tender age of 18 months, can already scroll between photos (shhh, don't tell the American Academy of Pediatrics!) Big Bro uses the iPad for videos (dropping his tv use to almost zero)- we have held on to our US iTunes
account so we can access shows like Caillou, Super Why and Dinosaur Train which haven't made it to Australian iTunes. (And it's no coincidence that "pbskids-dot-org" is the first web address Big Bro knows...)

Big Bro also enjoys children's ipad software like Jack and the Beanstalk (which looks great on the big screen), The Cat in the Hat, and Drawing Pad, as well as his old iPod Touch favourites like Super Why, Toddler Teasers and Dora's Rainbow Ride.

I wasn't convinced that our family needed an iPad before we got one, but now we have it, I'm hooked. It will be released in Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland on May 28th, ready to fill a gap you didn't know you had.

Monday, May 24, 2010

This shirt says it all

I bought this t-shirt for Big Bro a few months ago, from the super-cool kids shop, Moppit (also on sale here). It was a bit big, so he's only now grown into it, and it is very appropriate! "Why? Why? Why?" (and the other interrogatives) can keep us going for hours!

Today's conversation in the car was a doozy: it began with "what happens if you don't eat?" and moved on to "but what if there's no shop to buy food from?" at which point I though it would be a good introduction to poverty and hunger and the rest. We worked through people having no money to buy toys because they needed to buy food, and people not being able to buy food at all. All flowing smoothly, until the next question: "So how do you lift up a couch?" Should he be a journalist one day, he would have an... interesting... interview style.

Big Bro is getting into hypotheticals too- the other day we were discussing how, if there was a fire inside, we would go outside. Next question: "but what if there's a fire inside, and lightning outside? Where would you go then?"* Geoffrey Robertson, eat your heart out!

*On an aside, we've been devouring Flash, Crash, Rumble and Roll, full of information about electricity and the relative safety of different places from lightning zaps.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tangy Anglo-Asian Lamb Salad

When planning my mothers' day cookup, a friend recommended Nigella's Anglo Asian Lamb Salad (I seem to be on a Nigella roll at the moment!). Although I went with slow cooked lamb for the menu, this recipe sounded great and I was keen to give it a go. It was really good! As you'll see, I substituted a few local flavours.

lamb fillet (I had about 200g/person)
garlic oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon quince jelly (in place of Nigella's red currant jelly)
1 tea spoon soy sauce
chilli or chilli sauce to taste (I used peri peri)
1 spring onion, sliced
salad leaves (I used our abundant rocket with some sliced radishes)
pomegranate seeds (completely optional! I happened to have them and they went well.)
3 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped

Fry the lamb in the oil over medium heat until cooked to your liking (a little bit on the rare side is better)- Nigella says 5 minutes on one side, then 2 1/2 minutes the other side. Leave the lamb to rest, and whisk together the dressing ingredients. Slice the lamb into thin slices, and marinate them in the dressing. Arrange the salad leaves on the plates, put the lamb on top. Garnish with the rest of the dressing, the pomegranate and the mint.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Wiggly Circus hits St Kilda!

Back in my unemcumbered child-free days, I (unfortunately, in retrospect) didn't go to a lot of concerts- Jewell in the Yarra Valley and U2 in Denver (unforgettable!) are the only two that I can remember off the top of my head. For the past year I've been keen to take Big Bro to something, though fate had thwarted me: two Play School concerts sold out before I heard about them, and after missing two pre-sales I managed to secure Wiggles tickets for last December, which ended up being when we were in Sweden. So when I heard about the latest Wiggles concert, I was keen to try again. Yet again I had no success at the pre-sale (hint: it's hard to work out that to get access to the My Ticketmaster Wiggles presale you need to nominate "children's events" as an interest). Finally, in between two meetings at work I was able to log on and get some tickets. So come hell or high water, I was going to use them! And it was with a sigh of relief that I applauded the opening number, pleased that I had FINALLY made it to a pre-school concert!!

The concert theme was (obviously) the circus, with a bit of ballet thrown in, and plenty of the favourites: Fruit Salad, Hot Potato, and Twinkle Twinkle with stars provided by a disco ball and mobile phones in the audience, which Big Bro said was one of his favourite things (of course he held the phone!) His very favourite thing was apparently when they unstacked two crash mats... I would never have guessed! And his main observations during the concert was the lighting: look, purple lights! Look, the ceiling is blue! That being said, the thrill on his face when the each Wiggle walked on the stage was great to see.

Little Bro (18 months) also enjoyed the concert much more than I expected. He responded to a lot of the theatrical waving, and especially liked the non-human Wiggles (Dorothy, Wags and Henry). He even bopped around a few times, unlike Big Bro who is resolutely NOT a dancer. The eighty minute show went really well, and we even made it through the foyer without shelling out for any of the abundant merchandise!

The concert was at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, right next to Luna Park and around the corner from Ackland Street. The last time I had been on Ackland Street was the day Big Bro was due (but didn't come) so I- and the boys- enjoyed the indulgence of a pre-show cake at Monarch and a Grill'd burger after. Add in two seamless tram trips and clear, sunny weather and it was a wonderful- and thrilling- morning out.

On the way home Big Bro asked, "can we see the Wiggles again?" Definitely!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Whoever thinks that you can switch off your brain while parenting needs to spend a day at my house. Mental agility, swiftness of thought and an ear for the cryptic are definite prerequisites for the job.

Big Bro was eating an orange tonight. "Where are the bicycle men?"
After a quick check out the window, I asked what he meant.
"You know, the things in fruit that make you healthy."
I quickly replayed conversations we'd had over the past few weeks.
"Ah, you mean the vitamins."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gardening with the tiny tots

I decided I really needed to plant this year's broad beans. Surely I could do it with Little Bro in tow?

We managed to dig the bed, once Little Bro had found a shovel to his liking.

I managed to make a furrow while he was busy picking flowers for me to put in my hair.

I opened the seed packet. Big Bro wanted to put some in the furrow. No problemo. Little Bro wanted to put some in the furrow. He drops his first seed. That's ok. He places his second seed carefully in the hole. Well done!

Now it's time to cover the seeds. Yes, Little Bro, that means we say bye bye to your seed. Yes, you can't see your seed any more. You know, it really isn't that sad that YOUR seed has been buried and is, technically, no longer YOURS.

It really isn't that sad, unless you are 18 months old. Then it is a tragedy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Like a girl...

Big Bro evidently has some confusion about the difference between boys and girls. Recently we've had lots of comments along the lines of:
- I'm going to write my name like a girl.
- I'll start school when I'm a girl.
- how old will I be when I'm a girl?

As far as I can make out, it seems that he equates "girl" with "older". No idea why! Oh, for a little window into his mind...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Homemade bread AND homemade butter!

Ilipilli recently posted about their favourite sourdough bread recipe. I had always thought sourdough was difficult to make, involving days or weeks (or more) of starter preparation, and subject to the whims of the microbial gods. This version uses a small amount of regular yeast, needs no (yes, no) kneading, and the taste is awesome. This is no tv chef hyperbole- the taste is amazing! Try it!

When planning my baking adventures, I got thinking about other homemade foods, and had a desire to make our own butter. I have to say from the outset that I'm not a big butter fan, having broken a twenty year old bread-needs-to-be-buttered habit over ten years ago. Believe me, after a few weeks off the butter wagon, you come to notice and appreciate butter (and dislike margerine!) a lot more. I still think butter tastes great on bread, but I don't have it regularly. Until recently, we didn't even keep butter-for spreading in the house, meaning butter-dependent guests had to dig into the cooking butter (which is no different, obviously, but just not so nicely presented!). Big Bro has, however, developed a taste for butter, so we've decided to offer it infrequently as a "sometimes food" (and certainly not automatically!) rather than have incomplete blocks of cooking butter.

So when I planned our bread baking, I thought we could make butter to go with it.

When I mentioned that we made butter, I was surprised by how many of my otherwise well-educated acquaintances didn't know how butter is made! Perhaps they never read Laura Ingals Wilder books with the churner on rockers, or saw the churning apparatuses at ye olde tourist houses? Butter is just made from cream that is whipped until it separates into the fat (butter) and the liquid (buttermilk). So you just mix cream past the whipped cream state. I remember I enjoyed making butter when I was a child- we did it by shaking a carton of cream until it eventually made a "slop slop" noise, indicating the butter and buttermilk had separated out. I didn't think Big Bro's energy and attention span were up to the manual version, so we brought in the big gun- the KitchenAid. For the record, I bought the cream at our local shop and couldn't get anything that didn't have gelatin ("thickened cream") which some websites say is a no-no, but it was fine: for the record (and anyone googling it!), you can make butter from thickened cream!

We put 300mL cream in the mixer
And whipped it.
And whipped it.
And whipped it.
And all of a sudden the butter separated from the buttermilk.
We strained the buttermilk off the butter and added a few pinches of salt to the butter. To make it properly you should wash the buttermilk off the butter with water (the buttermilk can go rancid) but as ours was just a demo-model, I didn't bother too much.

A few sips of buttermilk each, a smear of butter on our warm sourdough, and if we were feeling indulgent, a smear of quince jelly to top it off. And it was good.

Part of the AMB Blog Carnival.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Slow cooked Mothers' Day

With one thing and another, it seemed like my turn to host a family Mothers' Day lunch. As Big Bro had a swimming class that morning and I didn't fancy spending the whole morning in the kitchen, I went with cook-in-advance recipes (to be fair, I declined B's offer of take-away!). On the menu were:

- ilipilli's sourdough bread (with bought dips)
- Butternut and pasta soup
- How to Eat's chicken and chickpea stew
- couscous
- tabouli (finally, a way to use up my parsley!!)
- green salad

Everything was made the night before, except the couscous, taboulli, salad and bread baking, which took minimal effort. The lamb and chicken were my first attempts at true slow cooking, in a 140 degree oven overnight. I really like the feeling of slow cooking- no stressing about overboiling, an hour here or there is by-the-bye. If only the housework could be put on "slow" mode!!
And I'm never complaining about a meal that gives good leftovers for tomorrow's lunch!!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Making the inedible edible, part 1: quinces.

It seems to be a time of year that a lot of people are trying to offload their excess harvest. Our neighbour was more than happy to pass over 3kg of quinces, meaning I could finally do what I had been meaning to for years: make quince jelly. Quinces are one of those fruits that are pretty unpalatable when fresh. Out of interest I tried a small bite and it was fibrous and a bit sour. Fortunately, millennia ago some bright spark had the wisdom to try cooking them- and the change is dramatic!
I chopped the quinces into chunks and removed the wormy bits, then covered the chunks (seeds and all) with water plus the zest of one lemon and the juice of two lemons, and started simmering.The really cool think about quinces is that when they're cooked, the flesh changes from white to pink/red. The ever-reliable On Food and Cooking which informed me that quinces contain lots of colourless and bad-tasting tannins which turn into red anthocyanins when heated in acid conditions. This is another great description of the biochemical virtues of quinces.

After a couple of hours my quinces had turned pale pink, and I wasn't sure whether it was enough, but it was late and I was tired, so I set it up to strain overnight through a colander lined with muslin. I got 2L of cloudy pink juice (cloudy even without squeezing the muslin) so I wasn't feeling too happy about my prospects!! (Which is why I didn't take any more photos until the end!) But I went on, adding 2kg sugar to the juice, and starting it simmering. Now came the tricky bit- working out how long to simmer for to reach setting point. Joy of Cooking said 10 minutes, this site said 20. The last time I tried to make jelly, I missed the setting point, and ended up with toffee, so I was ultra-cautious this time: every five minutes, I dripped a small bit of the liquid onto a cold plate to see if it would set. Finally, after not 10, not 20, but 40 minutes, I had reached the setting point, and it was time to pour my jelly into sterilised jars* and cross my fingers.

I was over the moon the next morning when I discovered that I did indeed have quince jelly- clear and red, and the right balance of firm and soft to be spreadable. It has to be one of the most beautiful foods, and I will withhold all modesty and say that the taste is awesome!

Postscript: The week after I made this I decided I'd had enough of trying to guess setting points, and bought a candy thermometer!

*To sterilise jars, I fill them with a centimetre of water and microwave them without the lids until it's boiling. I then put the lids on and leave them for a while, with the idea that the steam will sterilize the lids, and then tip out the water and put the jars in a 120C oven with the lids ajar to dry. In this case I had my jars lined up in a roasting tin which was a good way to shift 8 jars in and out of the oven, and also to catch the slops when I filled them.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Static garden

The garden has been having a quiet patch at the moment. I'm waiting for the last climbing beans to dry, and I am deciding what to do with the eggplants that only just flowered, too late for any harvest (I'm hoping that I might be able to overwinter them in a pot). I've been gradually shifting the leaf drifts onto the garden as a cheap mulch, and pulling out the last dried remnants of the zucchinis and tomatoes. I'm having a mental break too. I have all sorts of things on my to-do list- plant the vernalised tulip bulbs, plant broadbeans, order a delivery of manure, plant more brassica seedlings- but to be honest, the kitchen is a more inviting place at the moment. I think I was a bear in a former life- hibernation sounds like such a good idea right now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Random thoughts

While packing the dishwasher, I got thinking about how there are some people who scrub dishes until the last stubborn dried morsel of food comes off, and others who soak the dish in water until the food softens and comes off.

I'm definitely a soaker, not a scrubber if I can help it. What does that say about my approach to life? Do I wait for problems to sort themselves out rather than tackle them head-on? Does the world need both scrubbers and soakers?

Hot and sour soup: another home grown meal!

Without thinking, tonight's dinner was again about as home-grown as I can manage. I feel pretty proud :)

Hot and Sour Chicken Noodle Soup
(loosely based on a recipe from Nigella Bites)
For the soup, boil together:
3 cups stock
1 stem lemongrass, finely chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime (from a playgroup mum's awesome garden)
1 tablespoon chilli sauce (to taste)
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

Green beans, chopped and cooked in the soup
Leftover roast chicken, shredded and heated in the soup
Cooked homemade pasta, shredded bok choi, silverbeet and radish in each bowl

Ladle the hot soup, beans and chicken over the noodles and greens, slurp!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rainy day and a landmark: homemade pasta and homemade pesto

It was pouring this morning and Little Bro was a bit under the weather with gastro, so with community spirit in mind I didn't want to take the boys to any of our usual indoor haunts. Cooking seemed a good way to keep Big Bro entertained, so (conveniently ignoring our pasta stockpile) I thought we'd give homemade pasta a go. It was super-easy: 2 eggs and 200g "continental" flour (I'm not sure if this is strictly 00 flour but it says it's for pasta and noodles), mixed and kneaded in the Kitchenaid with a sprinkle of water until it made a ball of smooth dough. After a 30 minute rest (the pasta, not us!), it was time to dust off three years' worth of dust from my pasta roller and roll. Back in my childfree days I used to think pasta rolling was ideally a two person activity: one to turn the handle and one to manage the pasta, which needs to be fed in straight, and laid out straight as it gets longer. And with Big Bro powering the roller, it was fairly easy to keep the pasta straight, even with Little Bro on my hip.

Then came my favourite bit, the cutting!

A quick dip in boiling water, then stirred with some of the homemade pesto I froze a couple of months back, and we had our first completely homemade lunch! And it felt good.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Proud Parent Post

After a few months of wavering interest in writing his own name- and the occasional proof-of-principle- Big Bro had a flurry of name-writing this afternoon. It was as if suddenly something clicked- this wasn't just one of those weird parental suggestions (like "eat some salad") but might actually be useful! Suddenly he mastered the first name, and whizzed off a good representation of our last name. (My decision to make this a semi-anonymous blog sadly prevents me from showcasing these achievements!) I spelled out a few short words (eg "moo") that could be made with some of the letters which Big Bro had just mastered, and then offered a blank sheet with the suggestion that he could write his name and we could stick it on his bedroom door. Big Bro decided he'd prefer "[Big Bro]'s room" so he wrote his name, I provided an apostrophe, he provided an S, I spelled "room" and on request assisted with the R ("like a man dancing"*), then he produced the OOM, and a picture of a snake and a moon. And I was the proudest Mama on earth :)

*no idea if it's a kosher method, but I've taken to explaining how to write letters as pictograms: A is a mountain with a road, S is a snake, T is a telephone pole...

In other language news, Little Bro is in the midst of a linguistic bloom. At the same age, poor old middle-ear-effused (ie, deaf) Big Bro had still been assigned to the "in the normal range", "boys are slower with language" (delete my opinion of this) category with five "words", three of which were "da" (for dog, duck and Dada). So it's a huge thrill for me to have a child (and a boy, no less!) who can pick up words from a single hearing or from normal conversation. Tonight's offering was "ba-ba-yu" for the outdoor device that cooked our sausages and corn ("kohn", a favourite). Little Bro certainly has the practicalities of speech worked out: I haven't yet had the heart to refuse his insistent "mama, bahbools" when I start running the bath, while if I haven't fully woken up by breakfast time, it's a bit handy to be directed, "bohl... eee-bee (weet-bix)... (sul)tanas...". And close to my heart are words like "garduhn", "flowa" and "(c)ooki(ng)". It's a
gorgeous age, and so much fun to get my first glimpses into Little Bro's thought processes. Did I already nominate myself for Proudest Mama of the Year?

As a postscript, if you ever suspect your child has a potential hearing problem, ignore all the wellwishers, shed any anxieties about being an overly anxious parent, and get a hearing test!! (I can write more on the subject if anyone is interested!)

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