Somewhere in between Stockholm and Germany and Melbourne, I stopped cooking. Mostly it was because I was in other people’s homes, and also because I was happy to have someone else take up the kitchen work. But last February, I started cooking regularly again, and every time I chopped an onion or peeled a strip of carrot skin while also chastising a smaller member of my family for harassing another small member of my family, it comes to me: I feel more human with these instruments in my hand. And I am creating something every time I cook.
I’ve slid trays of frozen (from Aldi) chicken nuggets into the oven, browned skin-on chicken thighs, blitzed sauces in a blender and spooned batter into muffin tins. It has all felt so good and simple. I’m convinced that cooking is one of life’s ways of keeping me human, normal and grounded here on earth. I can spend an afternoon daydreaming about the months to come, I can read an article and have an opinion about American politics, I can get lost in the world of Kimmy Schmidt, but at some point my hands find the garlic, and as I slice, I come back down to earth. Here in my kitchen where I pull things together and make a meal that feeds us all. It’s not changing the world, but it’s changing the afternoon, and this is good.
There’s a meal I’ve come back to since moving to Melbourne. Maybe because I’m around my family again. When I was a child in a country town in the Philippines, Sunday evenings were for Maggi noodles. My mother usually added veggies into the pot of soup or browned meat of some kind or an egg. It was one of the few meals I cooked for years later in university because two-minute noodles. It is a food group, yes?
Aldi has these two minute noodles that proudly boast “No MSG” on the front, which is probably why it doesn’t taste right. The lack of a certain, what shall we say, enhancement to the flavour notwithstanding, Husband and I slurp this soup straight out of the bowl. I make it for a quick solo lunch, even the boys will eat it if there’s no liquid. They haven’t quite figured out how to eat soup yet.
This is as easy as it gets when it comes to a recipe. There are no real rules. Look in your fridge for the veggies or proteins you have. Cook it separately, add it into the noodles, and you’re done.
My favourite is fried onions and garlic in a pan, add in the mushrooms and keep sauteeing, then add asparagus or bok choy or kale or spinach and some soy sauce and oyster sauce, just a little bit to keep the flavour sharp. Cook the two minute noodles and serve into bowls, ladle a bit of the veggie mix into each bowl on top, slice a red chili and toss in a few sprigs of coriander. And if you want to take it to the next level? Top it off with a fried egg. I promise, it is basically comfort food in five minutes.
Two-minute noodles, for breakfast, lunch and dinner
There’s no need to overthink this. Make a topping, put it over two-minute noodles and eat. Or cook it into the noodles. Done and done-r. The recipe below is for a topping. This is the most basic version of a topping I like to make.
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
mushrooms, as many as you want
butter or olive oil
spring onion, sliced, separate white and green parts
chili flakes, sesame seeds and salt and pepper for garnish
1. Warm the fat in a medium-sized frying pan, and fry the garlic. Keep an eye on it, you want it to fry slowly so the flavours release gently without burning (garlic burns easily).
2. Add the white parts of the spring onion and seep sautéing.
3. Add the mushrooms to the pan and keep going until the it’s cooked to your liking.
4. Put your two-minute noodles in a bowl, top with the mushroom mixture, the green part of the spring onions, sesame seeds, chill flakes and an egg (or two).
It’s been raining and a crisp 22 C/72 F here in Stockholm, summer is fading away from us, and it won’t be long before the leaves start changing colour, and I’m wearing rain boots every single day. What is it about the summer freedom that makes table time so much fun? Perhaps it’s lighter food, the kind you can pick up with your fingers, the way everything seems crunchier and not because it’s a potato chip out of a crackling bag. It’s the pop of a sugar snap pea bending in your hand, the splash of juice against your face when the knife slices watermelon, the corn that gets stuck between teeth as you sink into the cob for each bit.
Ribs have been our summer food this year. I can’t remember now how many racks we’ve roasted or eaten with others. Many. It helps that both the boys love it, and I love the silent chewing that ensues when loaded plates are first put down in front of them.
We had ribs several weeks ago at a friend’s house, and I licked my fingers and hands and tried to keep myself from eating my Baby’s food, easily the best ribs I’ve ever eaten. Perfectly cooked, flavoured and salted, not dripping with sauce or overwhelming but sticky enough to require a napkin. I had to find out how she did it. It was a dry rub, something I’m sure many of you have already tried, but I had never done. She gave me a list of her ingredients, and I played around and found a mix that work for me. These aren’t as amazing as hers, but as always, it’s an easy recipe, makes for a great family meal, and with a few weeks left of summery weather, perhaps it would suit your weekend table as well?
Dry Rub for Ribs
Inspired by Wilma
We ate these ribs with roasted potatoes with garlic, roasted asparagus and a rocket and baked nectarine salad. The salad was sweet and sour (with a lot of balsamic vinegar), the asparagus and potatoes suitably salty and the ribs a bit sweet, spicy and savoury. A wonderful combination.
2 TBSP dark brown sugar
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander
2 tsp sea salt
1. Mix all the ingredients together and store in a cool, dry place. You can use immediately or use some and store some, which is what I did. This should be enough for four baby back ribs.
2. To cook: I chopped five cloves of garlic for two baby back ribs and rubbed it into the meat and then rubbed the dry rub in.
3. Preheat oven to 140C /280F and once ready, put the ribs in (I put foil over my baking tray first for easier clean up at the end) and bake for two-and-a-half hours. You can also shorten the cooking time in the oven and put it on the barbecue for a smokier finish. My friend bastes with barbecue sauce, but I skipped that step for a bit less of the fiddle-with-the-oven time (Baby underfoot).
How We Fed The Toddler This Summer, just in case anyone gets the impression from reading this blog that our children eat three-course meals, cutting meat with a knife with their right hand and spearing broccoli with the fork in their left hand while they down organic kale salads. No one in our home eats like this. Just kidding. My husband totally does (and you should see his knife and fork skills).
The last few months have seen us struggling mightily to feed our three-year-old toddler. He has never been difficult to feed, but with every month of extra age, there have been some new peculiarities. NO SAUCE. NO TOMATO SAUCE. NO TOMATOES. THE SAUCE TOUCHED MY CHICKEN. PIZZAONLYWITHTOMATOSAUCE. We haven’t eaten spaghetti bolognese in months. I almost miss it. I’m sure you’ve been there, and I’m sure there is more to come.
This is not a post about curing toddler aversions – although if you have tips, please leave it in the comments – only to share one little presentation tool that seems to have made a difference this summer: The Communal Plate.
We spent most of the month of July in Stockholm for a family staycation. We ate as many meals as we could as a family, something we are rarely able to do when Husband is at work, and did a lot of eating outside. One day on a whim, I put everything on a beautiful black tray from Vietnam that a friend gave us for our wedding, took it outside and put it in the middle of the table. All of us had forks or used our fingers and picked food off the plate.
Mommy, what is this???? Little Boy wanted to know. The Communal Plate, I told him. He was hooked. He loved that we ate the food off the plate together, there was less of a focus on quantity of food to eat and more of the experience of eating as a family. He also probably loved that there was no sauce on anything.
We pulled The Communal Plate out as much as we could this summer, for lunch, for dinner, whenever it was possible. They both like vegetables, but we don’t eat salads all that often, so it’s not something they are used to. I don’t typically care too much about this, but it becomes a problem when we are guests in someone’s home where salads are usually part of the meal. So the communal plate became a great way to get a bit more of the “salad”-type food into our boys.
There are no rules here. I take a look at the contents of my fridge, chop up whatever veggies need to be chopped, thaw frozen chicken meatballs or warm up leftover chicken satay skewers. A can of beans would work well, we love olives, cheese, cucumbers, grapefruit, orange, avocado, red peppers, anything.
Husband grilled these chicken skewers on Saturday, so the boys and I had the leftovers on our Communal Plate for lunch this week. Tasty, easy, delicious. Happy tummies, happy toddler, happy parents.
700g chicken breasts cut into small chunks
½ a small bunch of fresh coriander
1 clove of garlic
3 heaped tablespoons good-quality crunchy peanut butter
a 2cm piece of fresh ginger
1. Put the garlic, ginger, lime juice, garlic, coriander (stems and all) and peanut butter into a blender or food processor and blend at a high speed. If you’re making this for older kids or adults, chili is recommended, but I left it out because our kids are a bit young for very spicy food.
2. Add a few splashes of soy sauce and some water and blend some more. It should be a a sauce-like consistency, not thick like a paste, but not too runny either.
3. Coat the chicken pieces in it and put in the refrigerator to marinate for a few hours. I usually do this in a bag because it’s easy to make sure all the chicken gets properly coated.
4. When you’re ready to cook, thread the chicken onto skewers, drizzle on some oil and barbecue on a hot grill until it’s cooked. You can also cook it in the oven under a hot grill for 10 minutes on either side. I’ve also cooked these on the stove (not on a skewer) like a stir fry, and it’s been great. Drizzle on some honey toward the end of cooking, whatever method you use, for a sweet finish.
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.
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.
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)
freshly ground black pepper
1 medium leek
4 stalks of celery
4 medium carrots
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
4 dried bay leaves
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.
I guess you can call this “A Few Hours in the Life…” or “How We Eat Something Other Than Frozen Pizza.” (The recipe for a fabulous salad is part of the post…you just have to hunt for the pieces like a treasure because I have zero time to write it all out.)
I can’t remember when I realized I would have to cook something for yesterday’s lunch because there were no leftovers, but I had all the ingredients for a roasted butternut squash, fennel and spelt salad, and it seemed easy enough.
Baby went down for his nap in the crib upstairs, Little Boy was zooming around on his scooter. I started skinning and chopping up the half of a butternut that was in our fridge. Toward the end, I asked Little Boy to help me, and he came in and put the little pieces into the roasting tray, we sprinkled sea salt, pepper and olive oil and tossed it. I put the roasting pan into the oven (170C) and set the timer for 15 minutes.
Little Boy starts pushing the knobs on the oven, and I get down to his level, look him in the eye, and say Josiah, what are you doing? What is obedience? He looks everywhere except my eyes, eventually meets them and says, No. So I say, That’s right, kiddo, obedience is no touching, if you do it again, you get a time out.
Baby starts crying – I did not check when he went to sleep but it had not been long – and Little Boy does not look like he will co-operate with the whole running upstairs, running back downstairs routine, so I put him in his chair at the dining table, turn on the nursery rhymes on Starfall.
I run up to pick Baby up, start rocking him back to sleep until I realize he will not go back to sleep without a bit of nursing, so nurse we do. Eventually I hear the timer start to ring, baby is “asleep” so I put him down, run downstairs – notice that Baby started crying again – pull the pan of squash out and set it on the counter while Mary Had a Little Lamb plays in the background.
Keep trying to put Baby back to sleep. I put him down semi-asleep again, he starts fussing almost immediately, I run down anyway for five minutes.
So the next ingredient in the salad because – you know – I’m cooking!
I take one bulb of fennel* out of the veggie basket and decide not to use the second one, wash and start slicing into medium-thick wedges. I’m about to put it all back in the oven when I remember that there’s supposed to be a clove of garlic chopped into the mix.
Never leave out the garlic.
Back up the stairs I go to see if Baby will be soothed to sleep. At some point I give up and just take him down to the kitchen, plop him into the bouncy seat. My little extrovert. He’s full of cheeky grins and coos now and wants to have a little chat while I start chopping garlic into tiny pieces. I am thinking about the other bulb of fennel in the fridge. What will I use it for if not in this salad? Is this going to be one of those things that just gets thrown away after a week or two? I take it out, chop it up and put it into the roasting tin.
If you’re following, that’s the 15-minute roasted squash, two medium-sized fennel bulbs sliced, and a clove of garlic chopped. Top it all off with a toss and a bit more olive oil, and back in the oven it goes for 20 minutes. (Set the timer. It’s always a good idea.)
I measure out my spelt, which I don’t think is spelt but something I brought from Switzerland called Ebly – it looks like pearl barley. Maybe. Who knows. Some sort of puffed grain. Easy to cook and fun to chew, so I really don’t care any less. I have not had time to figure out what spelt is in Swedish. Or what spelt is in English.
Either way, it’s two cups of Ebly to three cups of salted water in a pot on the stove.
I go over to check in Little Boy who looks totally bored with Incy, Wincy Spider an happily wants to get down. We begin a little kitchen dance that involves him wanting to get into stuff and me trying to keep him happy because I know he’s hungry.
Want fruit! Want bread!
How about some butternut squash and fennel in a few minutes?
Butternut KWASH, he says.
Zero, zero, he says pointing at the timer, ring ring! Ring ring!
Nope, I reply, that’s an eight, see an eight can look like two zeros on top of each other, and I walk over to his blackboard and draw two zeros on top of each other that look like an eight.
Turn down the now-boiling Ebly so that it is only simmering.
We count down to zero while watching the timer. I am amazed that this can be fascinating to a two-year-old, but really, I’ve stopped asking questions.
The timer goes ring ring! and I pull out the roasting tray and toss everything again and scatter about 50 grams of whole walnuts on top, everything goes back in the oven for eight more minutes.
I check the Ebly, and it seems done, grab a colander, put it in the sink, check for the toddler before I start handling the boiling liquid and pour.
HOT HOT!! Very hot!
Now, I tell him, I’m going to get a nice salad bowl out, and we’re going to make a nice salad.
But he’s hungry and wants to try the Ebly. Why not. So he sits down at the Red table! and starts eating a small plate of Ebly. He rejected it last week, so this is a success. I put the Ebly into a salad bowl that was a wedding present from Australia and watch the way the steam curls up toward the ceiling, with the still alive herbs and gorgeous October light in the background, and I think, I need to take photos of this. Because the herbs will probably be dead by afternoon.
The timer goes ring ring! again, and out comes the tray of roasted veggies, I mix it all up with the Ebly and toss it on the red table! and then remember that half a lemon gets squeezed over the whole lot. Miraculously there is half a lemon, cut and waiting in the fridge.
Little Boy squeezes the lemon because citrus has no chance when his hands are around.
We sit down and eat our lunch. This salad is fantastic, I think to myself, the textures are lovely – crunchy walnuts, soft fennel and squash, gummy Ebly. There’s supposed to be grated parmesan through the whole thing, but I’m not eating dairy at the moment.
There’s laughter and talking, Baby keeps smiling at Little Boy and trying to “talk” to him and to me. Little Boy eats all of his walnuts and starts to take mine off my plate.
How do you ask Mommy? I say.
Please Mommy ayyy I be cused! he says because it’s one of his little memorised phrases.
Not that one, I say, Please Mommy may I have a walnut. I don’t know what he says back to me, but I give him the walnut.
Butternut squash is let completely untouched – it was his favourite first food two years ago – and for two weeks now he has steadily refused it. I can’t be bothered arguing. There is enough salad for another meal for Husband and I (and snacks for me during the afternoon). Baby is happy, Little Boy is looking very ready for his nap.
I’ll call that a good morning. We’ll tackle the butternut squash again next week.
This recipe is from delicious. magazine, but I cannot find the recipe online. It was from the November 2011 edition, page 91, “Hugh Goes Veggie,” recipe by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
*If you are breastfeeding and have supply issues, fennel is supposedly a simple way to increase milk supply. I was given fennel tea in large thermoses by the midwives in the hospital after both of my sons were born.
(New to this series? Start here and follow the links to each day’s post.)