Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Interesting tastes

According to Big Bro, his little friend at kindy's favourite food is coriander.
If that is true, good for him!!

Monday, June 28, 2010


Occasionally when searching for one photo, another interesting one with the same file name springs up. This is Big Bro after his second birthday party, releasing his birthday balloons- yellow, blue and red.
(I know, it's very bad form in the sustainable living department to release balloons...)


Today was the heaviest of the three frosts we've had since the solstice. I know it's not much by the standards of some readers, but this is about as much frost Melbourne ever gets.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pizza Party

We had friends with children over for dinner tonight and it was a lovely evening- the kids were able to play peacefully for most of the night, meaning the adults were free to sit and eat and talk. Makes me want to host dinners more often!

When we have pre-school-aged children over for a meal I often feel a bit stumped about what to cook. Meals are so much more pleasant when parents aren't stressing about their child not eating. Today's visitors are lovely, well-adjusted, easy kids to host, but even so I did find myself planning several main dishes to avoid the chance of serving a child's most hated food. In the end I made a vegetarian lasagna (Jamie Oliver's eggplant lasagna from the July 2010 delicious) and decided to set up a make-your-own-pizza station for the children. In retrospect the pizzas went so well for both children and adults, and were so easy to set up that I might as well have forgotten the lasagna (as nice as it was- I'm looking forward to leftovers tomorrow!). I'll definitely be keeping this in mind for future gatherings.

Pizza Dough
This was just enough for four adults and four children aged 1-5 who also had salads, corn on the cob (all de-leafed by Big Bro- I was so proud!) and lasagna. So maybe count on this feeding 4 comfortably.

300mL lukewarm water
7g dried yeast
500g strong white flour (I use Lighthouse brand from Coles)
a pinch of salt (a Big Bro-sized pinch, which was nearly a fistful!!)
1 tbs olive oil, plus more to grease the bowl

Mix the water, yeast and a spoonful of flour, and leave for a few minutes to wake up the yeast. Mix in the remaining ingredients and knead- I did 10 minutes in the KitchenAid, which is perhaps 20 minutes by hand and may have been excessive! Place the ball of dough into a greased bowl, cover and leave in a warm place to allow to rise- probably doubling by about 2 hours? Punch down the dough, knead a couple of times and divide into 8 and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes.

When you are ready to assemble the pizzas, turn the oven up to about 250C. Put a pizza stone and/or baking tray in the oven to heat up. Roll out the dough balls on pieces of baking paper for easy handling- the above mix will make 8 thin bases around 20cm x 10cm (which can obviously be divided again if needed).

If you didn't want to make the dough you could use bought pizza bases, pre-packaged naan, turkish bread or pita bread (but the baking times would probably vary- I'm sure you could Google it).

Pizza Toppings
Our friends are vegetarian, so we offered the following toppings for the kids to choose from, all grated or chopped into manageable pieces:
- mozarella cheese
- feta cheese
- tomato paste
- sundried tomatoes
- grilled eggplant (from a deli)
- grilled capsicum (from a deli)
- green and black olives
- sweet corn kernels
- pear (makes a nice pizza with feta or blue cheese, and you could add walnuts)
- tinned pineapple (why not?)

Obviously the options are endless, but other suggestions for omnivores would be diced ham, bacon, chicken, smoked chicken, smoked salmon, anchovies, fresh vegetables, roasted pumpkin, grilled zucchini, mushrooms, chilli, pesto, barbecue sauce....... Or if you weren't too overloaded in the main course, go for dessert pizzas like peach and almond, berry and ricotta, nutella and banana, raisin, sugar and cinnamon.... And fold the pizza in half to make a calzone!

Bake the pizzas for 10 minutes in the very hot oven and serve.

With tonight's success I got on a roll of thinking about other make-your-own foods that would work for an informal dinner. I came up with:
- nachos or quesadillas
- pasta (creamy or tomato bases provided along with various vegies and meats, with an adult to cook and a variety of pasta shapes to choose from, or assemble mini-lasagnas in foil containers)
- fruit flans (pre-make the pastry shell, let the kids paint it with chocolate to seal, and provide a variety of fruit and custards and creams to add, then glaze and refrigerate)
- smoothies
- pancake toppings, icecream sundaes
- decorate your own cookies.

What are some other ideas for make-your-own parties? And what's your favourite pizza?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pre-school Politics

I was trying to explain the current political situation to Big Bro (to explain why I wanted to listen to the radio in the car). My side of the conversation went like this:

Do you remember Kevin, who's friends with Obama? He might be getting a new job, and someone called Julia might be getting his job, so she can be Obama's friend. Not your friend Julia- a grownup Julia with orange hair. She likes orange hair and her friend Tim makes it orange*. Julia might be going to be Obama's friend because she didn't want to be Kevin's friend any more, and she's asked whether she can have Kevin's job. It's because some people- John and Bill and Mark- thought Julia was better than Kevin, and that Julia is a winner so they wanted to be Julia's friend. Uuhhh... which really isn't a nice way to play with other people, is it?

*not really true.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rainy afternoon with three boys

B's sister, nephews and parents came over on a rainy afternoon, so with four adults and four boys stuck inside I needed to quickly think of a way to keep some of the boys occupied. I seem to be consulting Nigella a lot recently, and quickly decided that her cheese biscuit (Cheesy Feet) recipe would be robust enough for my little helpers. It worked well, though we needed a bit more flour. And kept three boys messily busy for thirty minutes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Giveaway: Time is ticking!

Remember that each comment posted in June (unless you are a Chinese Spammer) earns an entry in the Callistemon Seed Giveaway. The days are getting longer here, and there are only 8 more of them until the end of June!

More cute T-shirts

We dropped down to Collingwood Children's Farm a few weekends ago, and had a quick look at the neighbouring Abbotsford Convent's Makers' Market (like a farmers' market, but selling handmade things). We came across a stall from DokiDoki Designs selling cute screenprinted T-shirts. These were our selections: a dinosaur for Big Bro,

And an octopus (with the reverse colour scheme to this) for Little Bro
The seller was kind/clever enough to drop her business card into the bag, and I found lots more great designs on the website.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Super Solstice Soups

The weather has taken a decidedly wintery turn recently, which means soups are a great meal. These are two of my favourites, both of which I made last week. They're both from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. The ingredients can easily be modified to taste. I've tried the chickpea soup with tinned and dried chickpeas, and I have to say that the extra work of soaking the dried chickpeas was worth it.

Chickpea and Pasta Soup
Soak two cups of dried chickpeas in water with 2 tsp baking powder, 2 tbs salt and 2 tbs flour overnight (or longer). Drain, rinse and put in a pot with 3L of stock and a muslin bag (or other retaining device!) containing 8 cloves of garlic and 3 rosemary sprigs. Add a couple of tbs of olive oil (I don't add as much as the recipe advises) and simmer and simmer and simmer for hours (about 4?) until the chickpeas are soft. Remove the garlic and rosemary, and add about 750mL tomato puree (I use tomato pasata or tinned diced tomatoes). Boil about 10 minutes, check seasoning, add about a cup of small pasta, boil until the pasta is cooked. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Nigella's Slow Minestrone (not to be confused with her Minestrone in Minutes)
Finely chop 3 onions, 2 celery sticks, 3 zucchinis, 1/4 cabbage, 5 carrots, 100g green beans, 300g potato and heat in butter and oil over a low heat, gradually adding each vegetable. Add 1.5L stock and the rind of a piece of Parmesan cheese, and simmer about 2 hours. Rinse 1 tin of cannellini beans and add, simmer another 10 minutes, then add about a cup of small pasta. Simmer until pasta is cooked, and serve with lots of grated Parmesan cheese. It's not a good-looking soup, but the flavours blend together to make an amazing, warm dish. It freezes pretty well, too, so I have stashed some away in freezer bags for quick dinners for the boys

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Three new favourite books

B had another US trip and brought back a good pile of books for the boys. He chose well as there have been some instant hits. A couple were ones I had suggested because I keep seeing them discussed online as classics but had never read: The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Judi Barrett*). They're quite different-The Giving Tree superficially tells about a series of things a tree can provide (fruit, shade, wood...) but is really a story of unconditional love: the tree gives each of these items to the boy, until the tree is reduced to a stump on which the now-elderly boy can sit. For a picture book, it's a really touching story.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, on the other hand, is ridiculously funny- the tale of the far-off town of Chewandswallow, where food falls from the sky, for better or for worse. It's probably the first book that Big Bro and I have both had a genuine belly-laugh from.

B also chose another book, Flotsam (David Wiesner), because of its Caldecott Medal, which we find is a reliable sign of a good book (we've also enjoyed Madeleine's Rescue, The House of the Night, The Snowy Day, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and My Friend Rabbit amongst others). It's a wordless book (Big Bro was quite puzzled by this!) about a boy who develops the photos from an underwater camera he finds on the beach, to discover pictures of mechanical fish, octopuses at home in their deep-sea living rooms reading by the light of angler fish lamps, and the previous human finders of the camera. The illustrations are amazing, and the fantasy of the story is made even more real by the wordless stand-alone pictures. I'm already planning which upcoming birthday children will be receiving Flotsam from us!

*Judi Barrett's books were brought to my attention by a reference to Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House in The Bean Trees. One good book leads to another...

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Bean Trees

As I mentioned the other day, I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees as an eBook the other day. Wow, what a great read! It's the story of Taylor, a tough cookie from rural Kentucky, who finds herself stranded in Arizona with a toddler girl, Turtle, who was
handed to Taylor to save her from an abusive home on an Indian Reservation. Turtle has a mysterious fascination with seeds, which is finally explained when she and Taylor return to the Reservation. The subplots all revolve around characters caring in different ways for others, and I enjoyed it as a feel-good book.

I've only read two other books by Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, which I thought was quite different, and her "year in the life of" autobiography/ food revolutionary Animal Vegetable Miracle, which mentioned enough of Kingsolver's life history and passions that I could spot many of her own experiences being woven into The Bean Trees. I'm keen to move on to the sequel, Pigs in Heaven- I loved Taylor, Turtle and the characters so much that I need to find out what happens next.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three Milestones in a Day

1. End of an era: today Big Bro (and I, I guess) graduated from the Maternal and Child Health System. In Victoria, the health and development of children is checked at regular intervals from one week old until three and a half years by a neighbourhood MCH Nurse (equivalent to the UK health visitor). Every appointment we have had in the last few years has reminded me of a post from the Now and Gen blog: "sometimes the Government does get some things right." Of course all the MCH nurses vary, but those I have known have all struck the right balance between advising, reassuring, encouraging and listening- which is what a parent needs. And today, Big Bro went in for his last checkup, and was given the go ahead to go forth into the world. I am still shaking my head that it was only 3.5 years ago that his Apgar scores were entered onto the first page of his health record "blue book". Seems like a lifetime- which of course it is. I will have to remember to take tissues to Little Bro's final checkup!

2. First dual bike ride: also in the developmental milestones category, today was the first day I took both boys out on their bikes (a Eurotrike for Little Bro and an Aldi run bike for Big Bro)- Big Bro has a tendency to get too far away, so in the photo you can see his "string", the length of which defines his permitted riding zone on the street. It was an otherwise unremarkable trip to the drycleaner, but as I've never been a confident bike rider I hope it's the start of lots of good biking experiences for the boys together.

3. New reading era: On a completely separate note, I finished my first eBook (on the iPhone, in Stanza), Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, which probably deserves a post of its own.

Asparagus: the first cycle

One year on, the unruly asparagus foliage had yellowed, so it was time to trim it back ready for next year's new shoots. One more year of growth, and then we can have a taste (but only a taste!) of our asparagus crop.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Easy promises

Sometimes it's easy to make promises to your kids...

Big Bro: Can we go to another Wiggles concert?
Me: Sure, I'd love to- I'll keep an eye out for when I can get tickets.
Big Bro: And I want to go to a Jay Laga'aia concert. (Jay Laga'aia is Big Bro's current music fave obsession.)
Me: Yes, that would be fun. I will see whether he is coming to Melbourne.
Big Bro: And I want to go to a cleaners concert.
Me: Ummm, well- I haven't heard of any cleaners who do concerts, but if I do hear of one I will try to get us some tickets.

Honesty is the best policy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vasili's Garden is Back!

A few years ago, when we were living in our garden-less apartment, I enjoyed watching Vasili's Garden on SBS. It's a very informal garden show, going around to people's gardens- at the more obsessively vegetable oriented end!!- and Vasili chatting with the owners, often older European migrants. It was informal, as though it is just a video camera filming one person showing another their garden. It was a nice change from the standard scripted gardening shows, but evidently didn't have the audience that SBS wanted, and vanished, to be replaced by the more conventional Costa's Garden. My aunt (hi!) just put me onto the fact that Vasili's Garden continues on Channel 31, which is a Melbourne community tv station.

Like the rest of the world, we don't actually get Channel 31 on our telly, so I was pretty pleased to find the episodes are on line. Have a look! And remember, every comment is an entry to win the June Callistemon seeds giveaway. Let us know what you think. Maresi!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Of Oils and Orangutans

Little Bro's had his first visit to Melbourne Zoo last week, and I would say on balance he enjoyed it. "On balance" meaning that we got off to a bad start, when the first animal we saw was a gorilla up close-and-personal (no chance of a photo!). Admittedly it was through glass, but Little Bro was still wise enough to know that responsible mothers shouldn't be leaving their offspring within picking distance of a Lowland Gorilla, and vocalised this opinion!

He did chirp up once I took him to the less threatening "ish,ish" carp enclosure (supposedly there is a hippo in there; I don't think I've ever seen it) and by the time we got to the monkey walk he was in his element. We'd bought Friends of the Zoo Membership ($100 for a year of unlimited visits) so I didn't bother being too ambitious, so after the monkeys we just "did" the tigers (which roared), the elephants (including Baby Mali in the distance), the orang utans, the giraffes and the meerkats, and that was well and truly enough for this visit.

The Zoo is running the Don't Palm Us Off Campaign which ultimately aims to use consumer power to reduce the demand for palm oil, much of which is being produced in plantations that are replacing Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests (so reducing orangutan habitat). The campaign is to demand that palm oil is specifically labelled in food ingredients lists, so that consumers can actively avoid it if they choose.

Palm oil and its derivatives are found in a huge range of processed food as well as soaps and cosmetics. The problem is that in Australia it can be listed under the generic "vegetable oil" label, or as a number of products such as cocoa butter substitute, emulsifier E471 and sodium lauryl sulfate so it's not that easy to identify. As this table shows, without this labelling requirement it's really hard for consumers to know what they¹re buying- even when companies provide information about which products are palm oil-free, there are heaps of intricacies to maneuver through: Sultana Bran is ok but Sultana Bran Crunch isn't, Haigh's and Lindt chocolate is ok unless it is filled. And buying soap without palm oil is a real challenge- it seems that most of the options are from online boutique companies.

The campaign is already having an effect: following public pressure a number of manufacturers- including Cadbury's and Nestle- are phasing out palm oil or switching to sustainable sources. But without the labelling change consumers have to take the incentive and time to research palm oil-free options for their shopping lists if they choose that this is a battle they care about.

We can only hope that this action is happening soon enough: some estimates are without action now, orangutans will be extinct in the wild in the next 10-30 years. It has been a dream of mine to one day take the boys to Borneo to see the orangutans in the wild, so switching my purchasing to palm oil-free products will be a small part towards getting there.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A simple preschool flower game

I cut out flower pictures for Big Bro from a Tesselaar catalogue and drew different coloured boxes on a sheet of paper. He loved pasting the flowers into the correspondingly coloured boxes.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Making the inedible edible, part 2: olives.

Following on from my success in the quince jelly department, another friend gave us these fresh black olives from her tree- about 8 cups. Fresh off the tree, they're incredibly bitter, as Little Bro discovered when he thought they were grapes... :-P

My friend hadn't manage to turn her olives into anything edible (they went mouldy or were too salty) so we were left to our own devices as to what to do. A quick google took me to the Olives Australia website which has heaps of recipes. With an authoritative name like that, I put my faith in OA and put most of my olives into their "favourite method", in which the olives are soaked in 1:20 vol:vol brine (10 cups water + 1/2 cup salt) for two weeks, changing the brine daily and then matured in 1:10 brine in jars. That's where we're up to I'll report back in a couple of months about how they go!

Out of respect for Gardening Australia I saved a cupful of olives for their factsheet recipe, where olives are salted in a perforated container for a week, then rinsed free of the excess salt and frozen until use.


With damp week, it's time to refresh the snail deterrents around the seedlings. This one is a two-in-one mix: crushed eggshells and coffee grounds.

Are you lurking? Remember that every comment posted in June is an entry for the Callistemon seed giveaway!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Completely out of left field

Big Bro (while eating breakfast): why can't you build a house with your mouth?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Liquidambar autumn leaves

We have a huge deciduous tree in our front garden which puts on a great show in autumn. I had been wrongly calling it a maple until tonight (oops!), when a quick bit of confirmational Googling and this easy tree identification key identified it as a Liquidambar (American Sweetgum). Not that it diminishes the appearance of the leaves in the thin autumn sunlight.

Happy First Blogiversary! And a delurking giveaway!

Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday dear blo-og!
Happy birthday to you!

Yes, on 1st June 2009, This Growing Life came out of my head and into the blogosphere. And we're still here. And I'm still having fun!

Some facts from Blogger and Statcounter (see the counter at the bottom of the page?)
- in the first year there have been 4740 visits, from all around the world (but mostly Australia and USA)
- I have 14 faithful followers (ok, admittedly one is my mum...)
- the most popular single post (and most searched for) is The Cardboard Box Kitchen, with the (now finished) Frankston Sand Sculptures, Consuming Passions' Bean Feast, and two posts about earwigs and earwig traps also consistently bringing in new visitors
- my most commented on post was Lazarus of the Garden, with 6 comments, from 6 different people (5 of whom weren't me!)

I enjoy posting, but what I really enjoy is when I know someone has read my post- like you!

Now that I've been around for a year, I'd love to meet some more of you.

So I'm declaring June to be Delurking Month! That's right, pop out of the shadows and click on the comments box. As a delurking incentive, This Growing Life will be having a birthday giveaway...

... this handy, *postable* packet of seeds, sponsored by Yarra Trams. (No, we don't have a big budget for prizes here at This Growing Life...)

Inside are 10 cardboard seedsticks with Weeping Bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis), a "small weeping Australian native growing to a height of around 5m. Flowering with masses of bird-attracting red brushes in spring."

So the deal is, every comment left in TGL in June will be entered into a draw, and I will post the seeds to the winning comment writer.

(Each comment will be given a number based on its order, and Random.Org will randomly select one)

So you have to be in it to win it: start those comments!!

And I'm looking forward to another year of This Growing Life!
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