Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The construction and rocket birthday

November's birthday festivities peaked last Saturday with The Party. 24 kiddies plus associates, in a local park. Not too hard... until the weather set in.

On the bright side, it was a pretty clear decision to relocate the party to our house. It was loud, but everyone stayed happy and ate lots. What more could I ask for?

In the planning side of things, I realise that I made the mistake of heading for a double-theme. Big Bro wanted a rocket cake (and so did I after seeing one with "blast off" sparklers in Donna Hay), whereas for Little Bro, a construction-site cake seemed the most appropriate. It was a bit messy, but these were the centrepieces.

A bit hard to see here, but the candles on the construction cake were these witches hat/construction cone candles from It's All About Kids. They sneakily pointed out to me that they had construction-theme section, where I picked up a few hanging decorations, and bought a bit of yellow cardboard to make some "warning" signs (and forgot to take photos. Just think of the pictograms for "balloons ahead" and "party hat zone".) Didn't go as far as to get yellow and black balloons.

Rockets lend themselves a bit more to themed food, so out came the Biskart star cutters and the star-shaped foil containers from Aldi ages ago. Add jelly or mango pudding (made with agar agar for the vegetarian guests) and there are plenty of stars to go around.
The best moment of the day was of course singing happy birthday to my two little fellows- their official graduation into their next year, and the best thing about the day was that lovely sense of "I am so lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful friends". (Oops, I missed my Grateful post this week...)

The funniest moment was busting Big Bro and two little friends tipping out the party bags. It was too cute, and too much a sense of disaster-averted, given they were only onto bag number 4, to be cross.

I'm still catching up on a bit of sleep from a week of late nights cooking, but all in all we had fun. More importantly, I'll do it again next year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A quick plug- Sticky Mosaics

The lucky Bros received lots of cool presents for their birthdays, and in the interests of easy posts (rather than no posts) I'll try to mention a few. Like Sticky Mosaics, for Big Bro. This came from the awesome Entropy online toy store (for those in the know, their slogan is "it's all about energy"- how cool!).

Entropy is based in Townsville, but don't let that put you off (no offence to Townsville, but I never realised it was a mecca of educational toy shoppers!). It's full of "different" toys- not what you find around Melbourne shopping centres and the website has an easy to spend use layout with gift ideas sorted by price or age. And heaps of cool toys!

Big Bro has been busy in the last week sticking up his five vehicle mosaics. With a bit of guidance, Little Bro has managed to help, and the results are not too bad. They're certainly worthy of the kitchen art collection. And more importantly, Big Bro needed minimal parental assistance to get started and get going- a gift for the parents as well as him!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

This weekend I'm grateful for... just about everything

Cartoon by Nicholson, originally published in The Australian: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au.

For this weekend's Maxabella-inspired Grateful Post, I had started building a list early in the week. Then on Thursday and my list was blown apart by a seminar by Professor Jonathan Carapetis from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin. He presented a lot of facts to describe the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote communities in the Northern Territory. In some ways I knew the rough gist of the facts, but to have them presented in a clear, single package in a format I understood, and without obvious political undertones, was sobering.

Completely sobering, and depressing. Especially because the problems are so big that it's hard to see many immediate fixes.

To think about how being a mother with two small children in suburban Melbourne differs from being a mother in a remote Northern Territory community makes me extremely grateful for just about everything. And I suspect that anyone with the means to be reading blogs can feel the same. Not preaching, just suggesting...

I was most affected by one of the first pictures- small children, like my kids, joyfully playing in water in a remote Northern Territory community. All very nice, until we realised that the water was an open sewer. And the hard facts weren't any easier to take.

I've had trouble finding a single source for all the facts I remember from the seminar, so I'm just going to repeat what I remember- with an apology if there are glaring inaccuracies- and refer you to the ABC Indigenous Health site and the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet for more information.

How can I be anything but grateful for what I have when there are Indigenous families facing:

- a child death rate TWICE that of non-Indigenous children (and not much better than adults). And a sobering fact that in any Australian population, the less education a mother has had, the higher her children's risk of dying. Completely scary fact.

- overcrowded housing where in some communities the average number of people sleeping in a two bedroom house each night is SEVENTEEN.

- diseases like rheumatic fever and parasitic infections which have been eliminated from non-Indigenous populations.

- a substantial proportion of babies being born to already-malnourished teenagers, resulting in long-term health problems for both the mothers and the babies.

- the standard growth curve for children in remote communities being fairly normal growth to around 6 months, and then weight gain in the average child STALLS until around one year, presumably because of the inavailability of appropriate infant food. Forget about worrying about when to introduce wheat or dairy, or whether you're feeding your kids organic or not- it'd be insignificant if you had to decide whether you have any food suitable for your baby.

What can be done? Good question- Closing the Gap is a start, but the message I got from Prof Carapetis was that there is no doubt that even more money is needed (even though we are already spending huge amounts of money), and this money needs be spent in carefully considered and monitored ways to ensure the most benefit per buck rather than political gain per buck. More than that, it's too easy for all of us in the comfortable suburban blog-belt (and our neighbours) to forget what's happening in other parts of our country, making it easy for the inequities to persist.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes

If I were a good blogger I'd do NaBloPoMo and post every day in November, but two Novembers in and I've fallen into the same black hole both times where life catches up with me and sucks out my blogging impetus. It's birthday parties, it's Christmas, it's the garden picking up speed, last year it was our Swedish trip, this year it is the whole career change bizzo. November just doesn't leave much room in my head.

So excuse me if I do the occasional (or more) cheaty post, which tonight is just showing you something I bought, not even looking any better than when I opened the box.

Cookie Cutters from Bisk-Art.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The three sisters garden

I've been meaning to post for ages about my crop rotation system- and hopefully writing this will give me the guilt impetus to put fingers to keyboard- but for the meantime accept that a lot of my vegetable garden design is based on the principles of companion planting. This means putting plants together by matching their needs (eg, acid-lovers), where possible putting two plants with complementary features together (eg, basil and tomatoes), and also considering the order in which plants occupy a bed (eg, putting nitrogen-hungry brassicas after nitrogen-fixing ("making") legumes).

For a couple of years I have been reading about the idea of a Three Sisters Garden, most recently at My Little Vegetable Garden. It's a great example of companion planting, and has its origins in Native American farming. The three elements, squash, corn (maize) and climbing beans were the three major crops of cultures such as the Anasazi. These were not the nomadic "Indians" of the "Cowboys and..." stereotype, but in fact had sophisticated villages, some of which still exist, like these cliffside constructions in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mesa Verde is a plateau, and is it thought that the Anasazi inhabitants who lived there between 1400-700 years ago (before the majority of European historic buildings were built) made their homes on the cliff sides to maximise the use of the arable land on the top of the plateau for farming. Up there they even had irrigation systems, and the remains of squash, beans and corn have been found in the ruins. It appears that Mesa Verde was abandoned suddenly- in the space of 1 to 2 generations- and its people migrated south, perhaps because of drought.

Anyway, coming back to the Three Sisters, the traditional view is that the three plants- corn, squash and beans- are the sisters, each bringing something into the garden to support the other plants:
- the corn stands tall, and provides a scaffold for the beans to climb on
- the squash cover the ground, shading the ground to keep it cool and smothering weeds
- the beans fix nitrogen from the air into the soil where all the plants' roots can use it
(I read somewhere that sometimes a fourth sister, a flower to attract pollinators, was included)

As you cruise the Three Sisters literature online you'll find various designs of how to lay out the plot. I think a lot of the design has to come from trial and error. I half tried last year, and my corn ended up being smothered by the rampant zucchinis. This year, in the hopes of a more harmonious sorority, I have curbed the enthusiasm of the "squash" sister by demoting it from zucchini to weaker cucurbits like melons and cucumbers (which are not without their own trials). The corn are Digger's Dwarf (so may fail on the tall front, hence the frame below) and the beans so far are Purple Dragon and Sex-without-strings (what a name!) that I picked up from a local school fair. The vibrant green shoots in the background are logan berries which believe that they should be the fourth sister.

So far things are looking ok- though I won't count my sisters until they've fruited!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This weekend I am grateful for.... opportunities

Another week gone (and phew! What a week!) and time for another Maxabella-inspired grateful post. And this week I have a heap to be grateful for, much coming under the heading of

Being able to work (the paid flavour).
Having the option to work or not work.
A funding system that believes in me more than I do.
Friends and friends of friends who have the kindness to help me brainstorm.
Having enough momentum to formulate plans that get me out of my career crisis.
People who believe in me enough to give me a chance at my dream job.

How could I be anything less than grateful?

(And you readers may be grateful that this should draw an end to all my cryptic career-crisis-centred grateful posts!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kids say the darndest things

What a week! In good ways. Lots to be grateful for, which I'll save for tomorrow's Grateful Post, but in the meantime I will relay a few things I had recorded for time immemorial in Facebook

I only have kindy inmates classmates to blame for items 1-3 of Big Bro's latest quotable statements:
1. This is going to hurt a bit (said when prodding Little Bro)
2. Here's my business card. This is Alex- she's a nice girl. You can make an appointment
3. I'm so cool I'm 20 degrees.
4. Little Bro, can I flush your head please?
5. (When we were leaving for our lovely dentist) You can go, but leave the alarm off so I can stay here and do some work (like father, like son...)

Meanwhile, Little Bro has discovered the joys of questions: Whassat? Where's...? Where we goin'? What you doin'? What music is this? And the utility of "don't want to..."
This evening he also came up with two statements you don't want to hear from a nearly-2-year-old:
1. (holding a USB thumb drive) Puttit inna dishwasha?
2. (Standing at the top of the stairs) Humpty Dumpty had a great fall! Big jump!!

The best of all was our discussion of where to go on holiday.
Little Bro: go in Dada's car!
Big Bro: to crison!
Us: to Brisbane?
Big Bro: no, to crison, where bad guys go!
There may still be jobs for travel agents in 20 years time, I suspect...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cross-cultural anecdotes #2: bon hau/ni jour?

Big Bro (in an approximately correct pronunciation- let's be realistic!): un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.... I can speak Chinese!!

And this is the education we are paying for? ;-)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cross-cultural anecdotes #1: Anglo-Indian Breakfast

A soft boiled egg and last night's garlic naan (cooked on the barbecue, no less).

Cut the naan into fingers and dunk.

I had added some salt to the butter-garlic topping for the naan, and it blended perfectly with the egg.

And yes, we have an egg cup shortage (and yes, Christmas is coming, hint hint)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cup Week in the Garden 2010

Melbourne Cup Day is one of those points in the gardening calendar that has mystical properties- it's meant to be the time to plant out summer crops. It also reminds me to take stock of the roses, and compare their blooms to those at the Flemington Race Track.
The columbines aren't shy, either.

With all the lovely rain (did everyone else realise we're into a La Nina weather pattern? I only just did...) there has been plenty of chance for plants to grow. Including weeds, like this persistent ground cover (not sure of its name).
I thought this was a weed- and maybe it is- but it's turning into something interesting.
We had a Cup Day feast of broad beans and carrots- not huge, but my largest yet!
Not wanting to count my berries before they ripen (last year I lost the entire harvest to a heat wave) but if nothing else, I have a great crop of green loganberries.....

One of my goals is to have a daisy border around the lawn. This was one of those satisfying views where you suddenly think "I can see my plans working".

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The night of the long pincers, or Double Standards

Funny how I try not to let the boys watch anything involving physical violence on the tv, yet I am happy to step outside for some murderous vengeance after their bedtime.



Very clever of you to climb into the plastic bottle shielding the melon...

It was actually earwigs I was after- the little blighters are voracious!
There was no shortage :(



Hasta la vista, little insect....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bean round the full circle

Just as Chez Ilipilli have finished their broadbean harvest, ours has started. Over a month after last year's, I note- why? Did I plant later? Maybe; must get better at keeping records... Because the weather has been cooler- definitely a possibility. Because I planted different varieties- perhaps: last year was Coles Dwarf and Early Long Pod. This year was Coles Dwarf and Aquadulce*, thus removing the "early" element, and so far just the Coles Dwarf have produced. Looking around the plot, there are plants at all stages from flowering through to harvest-ready:

First harvest: 350g total weight, 100g of edible beans. (About the same as last year's first harvest)

Like last year, I can't think of a better recipe to start the season than Consuming Passions' Bean Feast (recipe here). The first taste was sublime :) Hello spring!

*there's a prize for anyone who remembered that last year I considered getting crimson flowering broad beans this year. They turned out to be way more expensive than Aquadulce, so I stuck with frugal white. Maybe next year...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Oat cuisine: how much would you pay for muesli?

Not long ago, a friend posted on Facebook that she had just spent $90 buying 3kg of muesli (granola) online. I was more than a bit stunned- why did she need to buy muesli online when there are heaps of mueslis on the shelves at the supermarket? And what did they put in $30-a-kilo muesli that wasn't in my apparently adequate under-$5-a-kilo muesli from Aldi?

After a quick Google, I discovered that in Australia there are almost as many muesli varieties available online as there are on a given supermarket's shelves. There are even companies that make custom muesli mixes to order (eg here, here and here...). Evidently many Australians take their breakfast seriously!

It got me thinking- what makes muesli taste good? And more importantly, does muesli become better the more you spend on it? And so my Great Muesli Taste Test evolved.

A few tentative enquiries to friends and cousins revealed that I could assemble a crew of curious tasters (Thanks!). A trip to the supermarket got me a range of mueslis that all fitted the "natural muesli" description, and a few enquiries brought me three donations of gourmet muesli (This Growing Life's budget doesn't stretch to minimum-spend-$75 purchases!) And an evening in front of Four Corners game me time to de-identify my ten candidates into ziplock bags.

The tasters were asked to give each muesli a rating from a standardised scale where, for example, 0= "This was so bad I couldn't eat it" , 4="I didn't really like this muesli but I would buy it if the price were right", 9="this muesli is great and I would definitely buy it", etc. They were also asked to specify anything they particularly liked or disliked about the mueslis. The tasters ranked their anonymous muesli samples, and the results between tasters were surprisingly consistent.

Budget mueslis: Under $2/500g
Coles Smart Buy Muesli- this no-name, no-fuss muesli with sultanas, dried pineapple and banana chips didn't do much to arouse the tasters. One commented that it was surprisingly fruity for something that looked grey, while the "evil banana" sealed its fate for two of the five tasters. Average score 5.2.

Golden Vale (Aldi) Fruit and Nut Muesli- this is my every day muesli, but the tasters found it bland, boring, and were unconvinced by its "tropical theme". Average score 4.2.

Low cost mueslis: $2-3/500g
The Muesli Company Premium Muesli- the consensus on this muesli was summed up in the comment "lots of fruit and seeds- a nicely balanced blend". Its average score 6.8 belies its popularity, and it would have scored 7.75 (and been outright winner) if we ignore the date-hating taster's big thumbs down to its sliced dates.

Lowan Swiss Muesli- this was described as a "good basic muesli", though some objected that it was too sweet or had a strange taste. Average score 6.

Mid-range mueslis All $4.99/500g
Carman's Natural Bircher Muesli- Carman's is a brand that seems to get a lot of word of mouth promotion- I was put onto it by several enthusiasts. The tasters all enjoyed its cinnamonny flavours- a trademark Carman's aroma- though there were comments that it was too rich for every day and a bit goopy in the mouth from all its sesame seeds (denture-wearers beware!). With an average score of 7.5, it was equal most popular.

Just Organic (Aldi) Cranberry and Almond Muesli- this muesli uses finer oats than most of the others, and also stands out with a large volume of puffed wheat. The tasters' consensus was that while there was a large volume of additives, they were very limited in variety. Average score 5.8.

Specially Selected (Aldi) Continental Natural Muesli- the third competitor from the Aldi stables was the most popular with "heaps of fruit, nuts and seeds", and was only criticised for containing whole almonds ("a bit of a mouthful") and too much banana for a banana-hater. Average score 7.5.

"Premium mueslis" $10-11/500g
Whisk and Pin Leura Natural Muesli- this was easily the most visually appealing muesli, with a range of oversized chunks of dried fruit and nuts, including mango slices, whole wild figs, dried oranges and cashews. However, these impressive elements were also this muesli's downfall, with it being declared a mouthful, tough and too chewy. Our tasters were certainly keeping breakfast time practicalities in mind, and with an average score of 4.2, Whisk and Pin's muesli was the shock loser of the night (equal with Golden Vale).

Willow and Stick Natural Muesli- this gourmet muesli was repeatedly praised for its fruit and nut mix, and cinnamon flavour, though there were less favourable comments related to its fruit being a mouthful and it being a bit rich. Still, with an average score of 7.2, it was joint runner up in the popularity stakes.

Brookfarm Natural Macadamia Muesli- our tasters liked the macadamias and cranberries, but criticised this muesli for being soft, flaky, sweet and rich. With an average score of 7.2, it was a close second-favourite.

Putting this information graphically to show the spread of scores for each sample:
The budget mueslis were the worst performing category, but mueslis from the other price ranges fared equivalently. The two most popular mueslis overall were the mid-range Carman's and Specially Selected, ranking just ahead of Willow and Stick and Brookfarm, all of which received universally positive rankings. Interestingly, though, Carman's and Brookfarm both received comments along the lines of "nice, but too rich for every day". The rest of the mueslis had their scores split between the "like and dislike".

The surprising dropout of the day was the premium muesli from Whisk and Pin. It was certainly the best looking product, with large chunks of dried mango, whole dried figs and wedges of dried orange. But these impressive inclusions were Whisk and Pin's downfall, with the consensus being that it was too hard to eat.

So what do I conclude about muesli?
Firstly, if our results are anything to go by, while budget (<$2/500g) mueslis skimp on taste, above this price range there is little to be gained in the pure taste by paying more. The two mueslis topping the overall scores were from the mid-range Carman's and Specially Selected, scraping ahead of two of the three premium mueslis, Willow and Stick and Brookfarm.

Of course, average scores don't show whether a muesli was liked by all but one of the tasters (as was the case for The Muesli Company's Premium Muesli). The highest individual score of 9, meaning "this muesli is great and I would definitely buy it" was awarded by two different testers, to two mueslis- Willow and Stick Natural Muesli and The Muesli Company's Premium Muesli.

Of course, our results also don't say anything about the value of factors other than taste, like organic ingredients or appearance. But at the end of the day, I don't feel inclined to rush out to shop online for gourmet muesli. The mix-your-own mueslis sound like a fun gift, and I may yet venture into the mid-range priced mueslis, but that will do me.

What about you? What is your favourite muesli, and would you shell out online for breakfast?

Declaration: mueslis from Whisk and Pin, Willow and Stick and Brookfarm were generously donated by the companies on request.

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