I spent the first Sunday of Advent on a plane reading Matthew 1 and crying over the lineage of Jesus. Tardy in creating a wreath for our family this year, now I am thankful because on Monday I had a better idea.

Matthew 1 touched my heart – more posts about that – and I spent some time meditating on Mary and Joseph, their first year of marriage, pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem and birthing a baby in a stable. Did she have the light of a candle? Who cut the umbilical cord? With what? Does delivering the son of God mean a painless delivery?

The western advent wreath with its evergreen branches, berries and acorns seemed out of place in my life this year as I long for the simplicity of the first Christmas where the only gift  available to a poor couple was The Gift, crying and bloodied with placenta and afterbirth. This is my small offering as I prepare my heart for him this year.

I’m calling it our Advent Table. Covered by a highly flammable wheat-coloured grass to symbolize the manger, rocks for the path they walked to Bethlehem, and candles – because they are pretty – arranged in the shape of a cross where the baby now man would be covered in blood once more so that we can have hope.

Monday nights can be a bit hectic as I need to cook and eat something before I rush out of the house for a few hours in the evening, husband comes home when I come home and it’s nice then to have dinner straight away. I had about 30 minutes to cook, a bit of chicken and nothing else very promising in the refrigerator. One day I will learn how to live by a meal plan.

In my head popped this idea – “Orange chicken.” Don’t know where it came from; I think it was God. I vaguely remember some orange chicken dishes in a Chinese buffet, but it’s not something I’ve eaten elsewhere. I quickly did a recipe search, and all the recipes would take too long and involved baking. So I improvised, and made my own. It was amazing, and I made it again for myself the next day (pictured).

  • Orange Chicken score your chicken breasts and start them frying in a tiny bit of oil. Make a mixture of orange juice, honey, Chinese 5 spice (or any spice that you like), crushed garlic and chili flakes. I don’t have quantities because I just made, tasted and adjusted the mixture – it was a bit like a marinade – as I went along. There should be a good amount of it though, enough to cover the chicken in the pan. Flip the chicken and pour the mixture over it, cover and let it bubble. When the sauce thickens and the chicken is finished, you are done.

Geneva is cold, rainy and grey these days, which has me contemplating tropical islands and sunshine. But the gloomy weather has its bright spots: it is perfect for soup making, and I love soup. During my long blog absence, which will be explained at some point, soups are one of the things I played around with the most in the kitchen. I made this one on Tuesday – I loved it, husband loved it and a friend who stopped by last night loved it as well.

The inspiration of this soup is a Sri Lankan curry, and several of the elements in it would be found in a basic rice and chicken curry meal (minus the rice). It has lentils, leeks and chicken in addition to all the spices and herbs. It was quick and easy to make with very little prep involved.

  • Curry soup chop a large onion, sautee with curry leaves in olive oil in a large soup pan, add lentils and keep sauteeing (more lentils means a thicker soup, less lentils a thiner one). Add water and chicken pieces (I used thigh/leg pieces) and salt. For spices I put cumin powder, garam masala and a Sri Lankan curry/chili powder. Add whatever kind of curry powder you like though as the different powders you add will create a unique curry flavour. Once it boils, reduce heat and simmer for as long as it takes to cook the chicken through and the lentils. At some point, I added chopped leeks as well. When it’s done, remove the chicken and shred it into the soup. Stir it all together and cook for a few more minutes. Top with chopped, fresh coriander leaves at the end.
  • A possible variation The soup was too spicy for me, so I added some milk, and it tasted great. I didn’t even think about this before, but I think either milk or coconut milk would be a very nice addition in the future.

Husband and I had a minor dispute last week. I made tacos, which means an Old Del Paso mix for the meat and for the guacamole. The mixes make it easy and quick for me, and to be honest, I love the flavour it gives the guacamole in particular and fantasize about it’s taste in my spare time. This probably makes me pathetic or an addict to MSG, which brings me to our disagreement. He said that there was MSG in it, and I said no way, that’s only in Chinese food.

Marriage advice for women everywhere: Listen to your husband.

I brought him the packet of guacamole mix, and he read the ingredients in German first (everything here is in French, German and Italian). Mononatriumglutamaat. That could be anything, I retorted. Then he went on to French. Glutamate monosodique. Or mono sodium glutamate in English. I don’t need a translator for that one.

No one needs to do research to find out that MSG is not good for our bodies, so I decided to find a way to do tacos – my Mexican preference because it’s so easy – sans mixes – after I finish the leftover guacamole seasoning, of course. Waste not, want not.

Last night I made my first tacos without taco seasoning for the meat. It didn’t taste the same, but both of us liked it, so that’s a good start.

  • Taco meat sautee a whole chopped onion in olive oil, add mince and brown. Once it’s quite well-cooked add cumin powder, garam masala and chili powder (I used a Sri Lankan curry/chili powder) and a bit of Worcester sauce. The last one is the one I’m iffy about – it didn’t alter the taste too much because I didn’t put a lot. Add salt to taste.
  • Guacamole (granted this was with the mix) two avocados roughly mashed, half a small onion chopped, two garlic cloves crushed, generous quantity of coriander chopped,  a few squeezes of lime, lots of salt. Mix together. If you want it spicy, chop a red chili into it.
  • Tomatoes making my own salsa is one of my culinary goals for the next little while, but I do like the basic chopped tomato pico de gallo thing. Chop two tomatoes, half an onion chopped, two garlic cloves crushed, chopped coriander, lime juice and salt.

Next week – homemade guacamole. Maybe.

There isn’t much I miss about Melbourne. Friends were the obvious highlight of my time there, but I don’t know if I could find a culture more opposite to mine than Australian culture. Functioning in Melbourne involved giving up many aspects of life that I loved and valued, and I felt like I was constantly having to adapt to be able to fit in. But adaptation has its benefits. I picked up many new skills in Australia for which I am thankful – driving, camping and beach-ing to name a few.

My favourite gift from Melbourne though was its food. I have done my share of world travel, and I think I have been to the majority of significant world cities, so I don’t take it lightly when I make the following statement – Melbourne has some of the best food in the whole world. It’s probably because the whole world, almost, is in Melbourne. It doesn’t hurt that the cost of eating out is also reasonable.

That city nourished and taught my taste buds and gave my hands confidence in the kitchen. It’s only now that I enjoy the benefits of the years of eating out at Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Afghan, and so many other restaurants.

One of the vegetables I learned to love in Melbourne is the pumpkin. I grew up eating it in Sri Lankan pumpkin curries, and in the US it is only a dessert, of course. But in Australia (and the U.K., I found out later) pumpkin is roasted regularly for dinner. It is now a favourite vegetable of mine, but sadly it is rarely, if ever, available in the supermarket here. I gave up on ever eating it until a few weeks ago when there was a bin of autumnal gourds in Coop. Apparently pumpkins and squashes only come out in the fall here. I bought a pre-cut and wrapped C-shaped piece of pumpkin, but it was tasteless and disappointing. My second attempt was much better.

This one is technically a butternut squash (based on what it looked like), but tasted like a pumpkin after it was cooked. The Penang curried beef was spicy, salty and a bit sweet, and the pumpkin was predominantly sweet (naturally) and a bit spicy. The broccoli is for good health (just boil it for a few minutes with salt).

  • Penang curry let the beef cook in the liquidy sauce for a while until the sauce thickens. I didn’t have the thick coconut cream, but the regular coconut milk worked just fine. As always, pay attention to the proportions of curry paste, coconut milk, fish sauce and sugar.
  • Butternut/pumpkin chop it into similar-sized pieces so that it roasts evenly. Heat your oven to a medium temperature (I would give an exact one here, except that our oven doesn’t have temperatures, only 1-8, and I have yet to figure out what that means except that I cannot bake). Toss the chopped pumpkin in olive oil, salt and whatever spices you want. For this pan I sprinkled paprika and chili flakes. I personally find that savoury flavours work well with pumpkin because it is so naturally sweet. Bake for however long it takes to cook (usually between 20 and 40 minutes).