fountain

Sigtuna town is full of tourists in the summer, families coming to soak up the sun, quaint old streets and waterfront. Little kids run around in the parks, grown ups sit in the outdoor cafes eating lunch, the lines for ice cream are long. I’ve eaten more ice cream in Sweden than I have almost anywhere. I queue up for a waffle cone of blueberry, creamy and sweet, purple jam-like ripple in places, it starts dripping down my hand faster than I can eat it, but licking blueberry ice cream from my fingers while sitting on a bench facing a shining lake seems very Swedish.

I walked to my hotel room on Wednesday morning, it is small and comfortable with beige wallpaper and yellow roses. The single bed is white and soft, the writing desk faces Sigtuna lake with white chiffon curtains that blow into the room with the steady breeze.

This place was an old monastery converted into a hotel and conference centre. Tuscan orange buildings with vines and roses that creep up the sides, one of my windows opened out on a rose garden courtyard and fountain. Beauty everywhere, climbing up the vines, pouring into my room, invading.

I slept for five hours when I first arrived and woke at 5pm.

Husband found this place after asking me what I was looking for, Beautiful, I said, something beautiful where I can rest, be quiet, think, sleep, write. He checked me in, brought me to my room, said goodbye with the boys – he blessed me, he released me, which in turn gave me freedom to fully enjoy it and to fully enter into what the time could be. Now I’m asking myself, How am I releasing the people I love? Or am I controlling them, trying to make them into what I want them to be? Or am I giving them the freedom they need to bloom, thrive and flourish?

Space to breathe. That’s what these three days were for me. I slept whenever I wanted to. I rarely went out. I sat on my bed and read and read and read. I wrote for fun, I wrote for serious, I just wrote. I took two showers a day. I went running. The first morning I woke up at 4:30am, no doubt the same time Baby was waking at home, because yes, they are always with me. You don’t stop being a mother.

There’s a dignity lost daily in the grind of motherhood, the inability to take a slow shower, the hurried pony tail and comfortable-over-style shoes, the way your body becomes a human washcloth and your brain a child activity centre. This isn’t a problem – all of these actions help me to love my children.

But we need dignity, it lifts our heads, reminds us that there is more, that our mind was made for something other than kids (even if you use it primarily for that now), that your body needs lavish care (even if it is wiping up messes now), and you can spend time on yourself (even if most of the time is spent on others now).

I feasted on a banquet of time and rest, one that filled me up, and a gift for which I will be forever grateful, but it reminds me – carve out a space in my day-to-day that is a space of dignity. Maybe it’s five minutes, maybe 30, and maybe one blessed day it will even be one hour (if one of my friends stops waking at 4:30am). But carve it out. Set it aside. A Sacred Stop. A Dignity Moment. Name it whatever you want, but call it something so that you know it is time set apart. It doesn’t matter if you have kids or not – all of us are pressed for time. Make time for yourself now, in whatever stage of life you find yourself. This is worth it.

sigtuna

In six days we remember the day we first arrived in Stockholm as a family. A two-year-old, a two-month-old, a new assignment, a new place, a new people, a new life waiting for us here. When I left Geneva, I said I was ready to write a new story and sing a new song, and for a while it seemed like I was. But winter came, sleeplessness came, and there was so much darkness. I think on this now in this season of light so bright I almost want to hide my eyes from it and disappear into a hole.

It is not easy to live in light when you’ve been in the darkness for so long.

But I am choosing differently now. I celebrate this place, I celebrate a new season of slightly older kids, more sleep, more connections in Stockholm, and I welcome it with open arms.

How will I live this next year? How will I love my children? My husband? What needs does my family met that must be met whether I want to or like to meet them? How can I meet them? What do they need from me? How will I love myself? What do I need of myself? How will I love my community? What does it need from me?How am I uniquely made and what space can I uniquely fill?

If there is anything I have learned it is this: We fight for what matters. We fight for our relationships. Sometimes it’s handed on a silver platter, and we say, Thank you, that was so easy. But most of the time, it’s carved one small victory. If we are armed with love and intentionality, we can battle for selflessness, faithfulness and gratitude: To be disciplined by selflessness, to endure in faithfulness, and to perservere in a committment to gratitude – in all things, at all times.

What about you? How will you live this year? 

combo
Well, hello there. It feels like it’s been a long time. Starting a blog post after a long absence always feels awkward. What to share? What to leave out? Is an explanation even necessary?

Survival Mode has been the name of my game in the past few months, and it doesn’t leave room for  anything other than what keeps you treading water. I’ve tried to keep breathing though. Inhaling and exhaling, I can do that. I guess you can say it’s been an even mix of life with two small kids, sleep deprivation, cultural adjustment, dealing with sickness, the disappointment of laundry that won’t wash and fold itself. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

I’ve been reaching for whatever I can find in the fridge for our meals, waking when the boys get up and stumbling around in my pajamas until 9am. No routine, no meal plan, no celebrations – these are the things that are my downfall every single time. Some people flow with the changes of a day, I don’t. I flow from one to two to three on my schedule, and if there is no plan, I look like a lost, confused person wandering around with no map and likely, I’ve dropped my phone in the toilet, so not able to call for help.

meat

But the fog lifts, as surely as winter gives way to spring and spring gives way to summer (or more spring if you live in Sweden), the fog lifts. It must. It cannot last forever. I’ve moved past survival mode now, and while I’m far from thriving, this place in between is an improvement even though my laundry still refuses to wash and put itself away.

Yesterday it felt like we had our first real summer day as a family. The sun was out, it was hot, the sunscreen came out (our June weather was much like Melbourne, Australia, where it is winter), we played football, climbed on balance beams, I planned ahead and made Sunday dinner. We sat down together as a family, held hands and thanked God for our food.

And it was very, very good.

plate

Oxtail Stew

Adapted from Jamie Oliver

This isn’t a summer meal, but when I saw oxtail – or what I thought was oxtail, I suppose one can never know when you’re working with a language you don’t understand – I had an instant craving for oxtail soup. I ended up making this recipe instead. We ate it with roasted sweet potato mashed with some feta cheese, a green salad and blanched sugar snap peas. The lightness of the sides offset the heavy, wintery taste of the stew. 

This cut of meat isn’t for everyone – it’s not classy, quite fatty and grizzly, but when cooked for so long, something beautiful comes out. 

1 kg oxtail, chopped into 4cm chunks (I bought mine like this, but you may have to ask a butcher to do it for you)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
1 medium leek
4 stalks of celery
4 medium carrots
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
4 dried bay leaves
4 cloves
2 heaped tablespoons plain flour
275 ml beer
stock of your liking (I used porcini stock I still have from a trip to Italy last year, and it was diving, but I think beef or vegetable stock would be great as well)

1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF. 

2. Take a large roasting tray and put the oxtail inside, cover with salt and pepper and drizzle over with olive oil, make sure each piece is well coated, and put in the oven for 20 minutes. 

3. Chop the leeks, celery and carrots into chunky pieces (it cooks for so long that larger pieces are better – it won’t disintegrate so quickly). Put the veggies with olive oil into a large ovenproof casserole pan over a medium heat, toss the rosemary and bay leaves in there as well and cook for 20 minutes or so until the veggies have a nice colour and smell sweet. 

4. When the oxtail’s time is up, take it out of the oven and reduce the temperature to 170ºC/325ºF.

5. Stir in the cloves and flour to the veggies on the stove, then add the beer. Let it reduce for a bit, add the oxtail and any roasting juices, cover with stock and stir well. Keep it on the stove, make sure the heat is high and let it boil then put it in the oven for around 5 hours or so. I stirred every hour and kept track of the liquid content. I put the lid on around hour 4. 

6. When it’s done and cooled, take the oxtail out and remove the meat from the bones and return into the stew.

My grandmother passed away on Tuesday. She would have been 96 in December. This is an essay I wrote about her when I was living with her and some other family in Sri Lanka in 2009. Growing up all over the world didn’t make for a lot of regular time with our grandmothers, so the few memories I have are extra precious to me today.
Irene Regina Samadanam Anketell was born on 11 December 1918. She is my grandmother, and I am seeing her now for the first time in eight years. I can’t even remember what she looked like then, probably some variation of old.  She is 90-and-a-half now, with a keen mind and a disintegrating though still-functioning body.

My grandmother was the baby of the family, the youngest daughter of nine siblings, born to David and Eunice Anketell of Jaffna, at the tippy tippy top of the Tamil class totempole. Ammamma (what I call her, it is Tamil for grandma) used to tell me when I was younger about the horse-drawn carriages that drove them around the town. Their ancestral home in Uduville, which is still standing after 30 years of war, was made by laborers from India.

Adored by everyone and a real knockout, my grandmother sounds like the belle of the ball character out of a southern American novel. Just today she was telling me (while we looked at the photo below) about how she used to wear her saree Colombo style, to emphasise her small waist and sumptuous figure, and that she heard a guy at her university say she had “luscious curves.” Ammamma went to to university for two years, studying English, Latin, mathematics and logic at the University of Colombo, probably sometime in the 1930s. People I have met around the world during the past years often remark about her charm, wit and vivaciousness. Apparently she had a personality that endeared her to all.

ammamma2

Dolly, Ruby and Irene Anketell, I’m guessing Ammamma was 21 or 22 at the time

But 90 years, being widowed at 56, five children and 11 grandchildren in four countries, and life in general takes its toll.

Today when Ammamma walks, it is a slow shuffle forward, she rocks back and forth like an unsteady reed, each step requiring leverage from the rocking motion of her fragile hips. She is a wisp of a woman now. Her body’s brittle bones look like they could snap at any minute, penetrating her sagging, translucent skin and rupturing the bulging green veins. The curves are gone, robbed by time and a mastectomy.

We were sitting on the couch yesterday and talking; the sofa looked like it would eat her small frame in its folds as she rested her neck against it, face turned upward to look at me.

What was your favourite decade of your life, Ammamma?

What?

Decade…you know, your favourite 10 years, or just years of your life?

She paused.

When grandpa saw me, and, you know…when that all happened. He thought I was so beautiful.

She was referring to how she and my grandfather met, and their famed love story. Louis Richard Jayaratnam Watson was a young doctor who needed a place to stay for a few days, and through a family connection, stayed in the house of Ammamma’s oldest sister, Daisy, and her husband. My grandmother was also there at the time, he took one look at her and fell madly in love. She was around 18 or 19 at the time. He begged her not to return and finish university (for fear that she would get snatched up by someone else) and asked her to wait for him.

She did. She quit university and waited for seven years without seeing him, without hearing from him. They were married in 1942.

He wrote me a song before he left the first time…he didn’t write the song. It was a song at the time.

Somewhere the sun is shining, she warbled faintly, So honey don’t you cry, we’ll find the silver lining, the clouds will soon roll by, each little tear and sorrow only brings you closer to me.

Her voice was without the sound of loss, her eyes shone softly, and for a few moments, she was young, beautiful and adored once more.

salade 2

For us Easter lunch always means a spread of salads, some warm, some cold, but the table is full of a variety of vegetables. Even though the centerpiece is a roast leg of lamb, I still think it’s the salads that steal the show. I try to pick recipes that will be colourful, fresh, full of flavour and inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine.

This year I made four “salad” type dishes. I planned to make three, but while I was cooking on Sunday morning I realized the recipes were for four people, and we had five adults plus two hungry kids. But the potato drawer was full of sweet potatoes, so I sliced those into thick wedges, tossed with cornflour, cumin, chili flakes and sea salt and roasted them for a filling side dish (inspired by The FauxMartha‘s sweet potato fries recipe).

Time was involved, yes, but this is a meal we eat once a year. The time is worth it, and honestly, I had so much fun in the kitchen getting lost in my work. Now, on to the salads. All of the recipes are from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Do yourself a favour and get this book. One day I’ll get out of the salad section, but for now, I can’t help myself. I am not a salad person. I laugh in the face of people who think salads are a meal. And yet. This cookbook. These salads. Fresh, tasty, punchy, at once crunchy and then it’s smooth. Almost all of the ingredients are simple and easy to find, and when it’s not easy to find, I leave it out, and the dish still tastes great.

I know I can get into trouble for using the word easy, but these salads are easy. There is very little food preparation involved, most of the work happens in the oven or in the jar you’re shaking that’s full of tart dressing. Trust me on this. If I’m an expert on anything food related, I’m an expert at knowing what will make for awesome results with as little work as possible.

pomegranate

Roasted Aubergine with Saffron Yoghurt

from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, p. 29

The most important part of this recipe to me is to make sure you roast the aubergines until they are a beautiful golden brown colour. At this stage, they are soft while the outside is caramelised slightly and a tiny bit crisp. Honestly, I don’t think the dressing is necessary – it is lovely, but if you want to keep it lighter, skip the dressing. I didn’t have any saffron, so I substituted turmeric to get a yellow colour. 

serves 4

3 medium aubergines, cut into 3 cm circles
olive oil
2 TBSP toasted pine nuts
a handful of pomegranate seeds
20 basil leaves
coarse sea salt and black pepper

Saffron yoghurt
a small pinch of saffron threads (I dissolved several dashes of turmeric in 3 TBSP of hot water)
3 TBSP hot water
180g Greek yoghurt (I used Turkish)
1 garlic clove, crushed
21/2 TBSP lemon juice
3 TBSP olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 220C/420F. Line a baking tray with baking paper (for easier clean up) and place the sliced aubergines on it. Brush with olive oil on both sides – don’t be tempted to skip one side, it really does make a difference to the taste and colour. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. Roast for 20-35 minutes, but keep an eye on it depending on what kind of oven you have. For me the salad is made when the aubergines are roasted well but not too roasted, and it’s worth taking the time to check and re-check. Their done when it’s golden brown in colour. (Tip: You can roast these up to three days before hand and keep in the fridge and warm them up before serving.)

3. While the aubergines are roasting, make your dressing. I had Turkish yoghurt and no saffron threads, so I put 3 TBSP of hot water into a bowl and put several dashes of turmeric into it to dissolve and then mixed that into the yoghurt. I didn’t even check the amount of yoghurt I had, to be honest, I just eyeballed it based on the quantity of aubergines (and we still have a lot of dressing leftover).

4. Add the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt to the yoghurt and stir to mix it all together. Taste and check if there’s enough salt and lemon juice. You should be able to taste the bite of the garlic and tartness of the lemon, my favourite part of the dressing.

5. To serve: arrange the warm, roasted aubergines on a platter, slices overlapping. Drizzle the dressing over and leave some on the side as well. Sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds and pine nuts. Be generous. I don’t follow the recommended quantities here – I really pour it on. Finally lay the basil on top.

salade

Fennel and Feta with Pomegranate Seeds and Sumac

from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, p. 17

This is another favourite salad in our home. We are fennel lovers cooked or raw, although there aren’t too many salads out there that can pull it off raw. Fennel has a distinct, licorish-y taste, it’s sharp and quite chewy if not sliced finely enough. I’m sure it’s not everyone’s favourite vegetable. But with the pomegranate and this sharp, sour dressing, the fennel sings, and tastes fantastic with roasted meats. I’ve made the salad with and without feta (because of lactose intolerant guests), and I don’t miss it, but I’m not a huge dairy person. The sumac adds a nice touch, but if you don’t have it, just leave it out. 

1/2 pomegranate
2 medium fennel heads
11/2 TBSP olive oil
2 tsp sumac
juice of 1 lemon
4 TBSP tarragon leaves
2 TBSP roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
70 g Greek feta cheese, sliced
salt and pepper

1. Start by making the dressing. In a bowl mix the olive oil, lemon juice, tarragon and parsley leaves, sumac and a bit of salt and pepper. Set aside. I didn’t chop the tarragon leaves, by the way, just picked them and left them whole, so it’s almost like another tiny salad leaf in there as well (I made this the evening before and refrigerated it.)

2. Remove the leaves and green fronds from the fennel and set aside to garnish at the end. Cut off and discard the base then finely slice the fennel lengthwise. The cookbook suggests a mandolin, which I don’t have, so I just try to get each slice as thin as possible. Toss the fennel with the salad dressing, making sure that the dressing coats each slice.

3. De-seed the pomegranate. (This video from The FauxMartha is helpful.)

4. On a platter, layer the fennel then feta then pomegranate seeds and keep repeating until it’s finished. Garnish with fennel leaves, more pomegranate and a sprinkle of sumac and serve immediately.

josiah basil


Baby, Little Boy, Husband and I had scrambled eggs and avocado for breakfast, we cleared the plates, put Baby down for his nap, then got to work. Husband fired up the barbecue outside, Little Boy ran around as, Papas große Helfer (Papa’s big helper), and I stood between my kitchen counter picking basil leaves, toasting pine nuts, chopping and roasting aubergines, washing yams and cucumbers, slicing fennel, shaking dressings up in jars, and generally having the most fun I’ve had in a long time in the kitchen.

It’s taken four years for me to realize that Easter lunch is my favourite meal to cook and eat every year. Perhaps after the long European winters, a spring celebration makes me feel more alive, the weather has usually been beautiful, sunny and warm. Remembering the meaning of Easter also resonates with me more than the typical feasts do, and every year we have made the intentional choice to stay home for the long weekend and invite people to our table for this special day.

lamb

Whatever the reason, I love our Easter meal, and this year was no exception. It was a warm day, we took our dining table outside and ate in the sun. The leg of lamb, which we normally roast, Husband first sealed on the barbecue. Little Boy spun the basil dry in the spinner (one of his favourite kitchen tasks), and I prepared the salads. Family feasts are so much more fun when everyone is involved.

Cooking our Easter meal is usually the thing that takes me out of the winter food slump and into a spring of asparagus greens and rhubarb pinks. The colours, textures, the crunch, it all shouts, LIFE. LIfe is here. New life is here.

We welcome it with open arms.

drink salad

salad 3

salad 2

(Recipes to come later in the week. )