Category Archives: Highlights

What’s Been Cooking? Maternity leave, weeks 3-4

Swedish cardamom buns

In Germany, expecting and new mothers have the advantage of a legally protected, essentially “no work allowed” time for 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after their due dates. So now I am on Mutterschutz (maternity leave) and working my way through some cooking and baking projects to keep me from getting too stir-crazy at home and to try and stock the freezer with easy winter meals to reheat when our tiny human arrives.

You can catch up on what I made in my first two weeks off here. Below, see what I’ve gotten up to in my second fortnight off:

Week 3 – bread week, with a bit of soup

By chance, I seemed to settle on a few bread-making projects this week, so in the spirit of The Great British Bake Off, I dubbed Week 3 my personal “bread week.”

On Monday, I made traditional challah from the Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. It didn’t go quite to plan but was a fun process anyway. Read all about it here.

After the challah failure, F requested that I try my hand at a classic sandwich bread. After some sleuthing, I settled on smitten kitchen’s oat and wheat sandwich bread – it looked tasty, straightforward, and we happened to have all the ingredients at home. So on Wednesday, I put my bread-head back on and got to work. We only have one loaf pan (make that had – I just bought another one!), so I halved Deb’s recipe. The dough came together quickly with some whisking, dumping, and stand mixing (or hand-kneading, but to be honest I’m glad not to have to do that anymore thanks to investing in a stand mixer). I added two extra tablespoons of flour, as the dough was quite wet, then turned it out, plumped it into a ball, and popped it in a bowl for its first rise.

The first rise went a bit longer than Deb’s recommended 60-70 minutes, but I trusted her when she said this was a forgiving recipe. It proved nicely and shaping it into a log roll for the loaf pan was not difficult, although I should have made it a bit shorter, as I think the second rise might have been impeded by the crinkle in the middle (see picture above). Despite the crinkle, the bread baked up wonderfully and, if a bit low-to-the-ground, tasted great. If you don’t believe me, ask F, who said: “It could be a bit bigger but I actually like how dense it is and it tastes really good.”

On Thursday, I took a break from bread and made F’s delicious Hokkaido (aka “red kuri/kari”) squash soup with ginger and coconut. We’ve made it three or four times this fall, which I thought definitely merited its own blog post, so head over here for the newly posted recipe!

On Friday, I went back to bread – this time sweet, in the form of Swedish cardamom buns from NYT Cooking. The whole process took 4-5 hours, but most of that was hands-off time. I think I managed to roll and knot the buns kind of correctly, but some of them split apart in the oven. They also turned out a bit dark (and dry on the second day); I wonder if mine were actually smaller than the recipe intended them to be, although I made 16 as recommended. The cardamom buns did taste good, though! Quite sweet, but countered nicely by the cardamom. Friends professed their enjoyment after dinner on Friday, and a (flexible-ish) vegan friend even ate an entire bun! I’d make these again, perhaps with a shorter baking time and/or slightly lower temperature.

Week 4

I wasn’t feeling super inspired this week, but I ended up doing a bit of baking and cooking anyway.

oat & wheat bread, take 2

On Tuesday, I made smitten kitchen’s oat and wheat sandwich bread again, this time the full recipe. I used the rest of my bag of whole wheat/wholemeal flour, which was 540g, then topped up to the required 635g with spelt flour. I also used olive oil rather than sunflower oil in the dough (Deb says you can use either). The first rise was good again, and instead of dividing the dough I shaped and plopped it all into our new, very large, loaf pan. The bread turned out well – taller than last time – and tasted just as good as the previous loaf, with a nice crust. I froze it in two halves and we thawed it later in the week. The only unfortunate outcome of the freeze-thaw is that the bread dried out a bit and the slices were very crumbly. I wonder if adding a little more water to the dough would also help?

tofu noodles

For Tuesday lunch, I cracked open Anita Bean’s The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook, one of our favorites for easy, vegetable-forward, pantry-based meals. I made her tofu noodles: a tofu, noodle, and vegetable stir fry, simply seasoned with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and lime. It was quick to put together and tasted great, with enough leftovers to cover us for dinner on the same day.

For Friday lunch, I made baked potatoes (aka jacket potatoes for UK readers) using this method (brine then bake at a high temperature), as recommended by The Kitchn. I can’t say the potatoes turned out differently from usual (I usually smear them with oil and salt, then bake for about an hour at 400F/200C), but they were certainly delicious with nice crispy skin. I topped mine with butter, sour cream, baked beans, and cheddar. F made a tuna-sweetcorn mixture for his. We devoured them too quickly to get a picture!

The autumn apple crop continues to put in a strong showing at our favorite fruit and veg stand at the Wochenmarkt around the corner from us. So for a Friday treat, I made these oatmeal brown sugar baked apples from The Kitchn. The apples split a bit towards the end of baking, but that didn’t put us off. Oats and walnuts added nice additional textures, and F proclaimed, “I love this!”

I’ve discovered Junior Bake Off (it’s quite sweet! And some impressive young bakers) and watched an episode this week where they had to make Viennese Whirls. I was inspired (and by “inspired” I mainly mean “developed a strong craving”…blame it on late pregnancy?), and on Saturday tried my hand at Mary Berry’s recipe via The Candid Appetite. Let’s just say that piping was attempted and quickly abandoned, so these became “buttery sandwich cookies” instead. Delicious, although almost too sweet, even for my taste.

Stay tuned for my next edition of “What’s Been Cooking” in a couple of weeks…


What’s Been Cooking? Maternity leave, weeks 1-2

I love apple season

In Germany, expecting and new mothers have the advantage of a legally protected, essentially “no work allowed” time for 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after their due dates. If I were fully employed I would not legally have been allowed to keep working. As a freelancer, I think I could have continued working into the 6 weeks pre-due date, but I decided not to because by 33-34 weeks it was already tiring to cycle back and forth for my teaching commitments.

So yes – now I am on Mutterschutz (maternity leave) and working my way through some cooking and baking projects to keep me from getting too stir-crazy at home and to try and stock the freezer a bit for easy winter meals once our tiny human arrives. Here’s what I’ve gotten up to in my first two weeks off:

Week 1

On Monday, we ate leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes for lunch, then I froze the rest of the meatloaf and decided to use the mash for a project that had been on my list for a while: potato varenyky using this smitten kitchen recipe. I have fond memories of eating varenyky in Ukraine, usually with sautéed onions, butter, and sour cream. A great cheap, cold-weather, stick-to-your-ribs, carbs-on-carbs kind of meal!

Varenyky!

The varenyky dough was simple to make and had a nice stretch to it, which made it easier to envelope the mashed potatoes and seal the dumplings. We sampled some for dinner – tasty, although the dough was maybe a tad thick – and I froze the rest of them.

Paratha

On Tuesday, I delved back into my Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook and posted about that here: Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Paratha.

Superbly chocolaty cookies

On Friday, I wanted to bake something sweet for the weekend, so went for Melissa Clark’s tiny, salty, chocolaty cookies from NYT Cooking. My goodness were they good! Chewy and with crispy edges, gluten free (in case you care! I don’t), and very rich (thanks to cocoa powder and dark chocolate). G came over for boardgames on Saturday and devoured quite a few of them, and other friends also professed their enjoyment. Will make again!

Week 2

It wasn’t specifically on my cooking project list, but we had leftover vegetables on Tuesday so I threw them into these Korean scallion pancakes from NYT Cooking. It was a great use of the veg and made for a nice, lightish dinner, although I wish the pancakes had turned out a bit crispier.

On Wednesday we were hosting friends for the group’s weekly vegetarian dinner. F made spinach lasagne and I contributed dessert in the form of smitten kitchen’s Versunkener Apfelkuchen (sunken apple (& honey) cake), which was based on a German recipe. Delicious! The honey flavor came through really nicely and the apples were cooked but not mushy. I didn’t include the salted honey glaze because we thought the cake was sweet enough without it. Friends enjoyed it and, when I asked how traditional the recipe was, a couple people said their mothers/grandmothers had made similar cakes. Score for cultural integration through Kuchen!

On Friday (a public holiday in Germany – thanks, Catholics!) we had friends over for brunch: pancakes, of course. Later, I made a big pot of these chickpeas from Bon Appétit. For dinner, I turned some into a spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric, NYT Cooking’s Alison Roman creation that became its own hashtag on social media. I’ve made #thestew three times now and it is so warming and delicious. It’s also quick and easy to throw together, quite forgiving, and flexible: add any greens that you happen to have; enjoy with pita, rice, or sweet potato; add yogurt and garnish, or not.

With the rest of the chickpeas I’ll make some hummus and this creamy chickpea pasta. That should get us through the start of next week!

Stay tuned for my next edition of “What’s Been Cooking” in a couple of weeks…


What’s Been Cooking? “First month in Münster” edition

Hello there! Long time no blog, I know. My excuse is that F and I were moving countries. After a wonderful 6.5 years in London, we decided it was time for new adventures in a smaller place with a less hectic pace of life, so we moved to Münster, Germany at the end of May. It was hard to leave our friends and communities in London but we are glad to be in Münster, where we already have a good network thanks to F’s friends from his university days.

Part of moving into a new flat in Germany required buying and installing a kitchen. No, not just the appliances – an entire kitchen. Apparently it’s a thing in Germany. Kitchens are seen as “furniture,” and most flats come unfurnished, so…no kitchens! (Or at least they aren’t a guarantee.) Once a kitchen is installed in a flat or house, if those tenants move out they can either take the kitchen with them (yes, people do that) or they can sell it to the new people moving in.

 

Anyway, designing and buying a kitchen was a new experience for both of us. They are not cheap, but ideally we’ll be in this flat for the next 5-10 years so it’s a worthy investment and we both enjoy cooking and baking. We ended up at KüchenTreff Münster and had a great experience from designing through installation. I’d recommend them if you’re in the Münster area and in the market for a kitchen.

All that was a long-winded way of getting to the point of this post: what F and I have been cooking (and baking) in our new kitchen over the past month! Here goes, in no particular order:

 

I made our favorite Käsekuchen (German cheesecake) for F’s birthday in mid-June. He returned the favor for my birthday two weeks later by making our now go-to cherry pie from Stella Parks at Serious Eats.

 

June was Spargel-Saison in northwestern Germany. Spargel is white asparagus, which I never came across until visiting western Germany and Belgium in May/June. It’s a thing, and for many – like F – it’s something to be enjoyed in multitudes for a short time every year. It tastes completely different from green asparagus – milder and sweeter, to me. Peel it, then wrap it in a foil packet with butter and salt and roast it in a 200C/400F oven for 45-60 minutes. Yum.

Back to baking, the first thing I made in our new oven was a batch of my go-to granola. Needless to say, more batches have followed.

Anita Bean’s lentil-stuffed peppers from her Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook made for a tasty and light dinner on a warm summery evening.

We don’t usually celebrate the Fourth of July (American Independence Day), but F wanted to have friends over for a barbecue and he asked if flag cakes are actually a thing. I wasn’t sure, but I checked smitten kitchen and – lo and behold – she had a recipe for one. A classic yellow cake base (it stayed quite moist, maybe thanks to buttermilk) is slathered with cream cheese frosting and topped with berries in the shape of the American flag. I think it’s one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever done or made… It was a hit with our German friends and I’d definitely make the cake again, with or without the flag design.

What have you been cooking recently?

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International Women’s Day 2019

Happy International Women’s Day (IWD)! If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that IWD is one of my favorite holidays, and one I first became aware of while living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In short, IWD is a global celebration of women’s achievements but also a day to raise awareness and campaign for change around the continuing lack of gender equality in many countries and societies.

On this International Women’s Day, I did the following: sent messages to the inspirational women in my life; listened to “The Guilty Feminist” podcast on my journeys to/from work; had my ESOL and Functional Skills English learners do an IWD quiz and talk about things like the gender pay gap and paid maternity leave (or the lack thereof) in different countries; and lifted weights at the gym! See below for more tidbits that caught my eye for IWD this year:

In true Guilty Feminist fashion, here is my ‘I’m a feminist, but…’ for IWD, something my fellow RPCVs from Ukraine and other eastern European countries will appreciate:

I’m a feminist, but part of me misses being given flowers and chocolates and wished a good women’s day, love, happiness & luck in a short speech given by Ukrainian schoolchildren. 

So many inspiring quotes in the IWD Google Doodle.

Nicholas Kristof, on point as usual:

Some astonishing facts here:

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Supporting gender equality in athletics. There’s a big push in the UK for women and men to finally run the same distance in cross country races – it’s ridiculous that this is not yet the standard!

I’ll leave you with this from UNESCO:

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How did you celebrate International Women’s Day 2019? Let me know in the comments!

At the National Theatre: “Hadestown”

Back in November, my parents flew over to London for the long Thanksgiving weekend. They were keen to go see a show while in town, and Monday night was the most convenient for going out. A musical called Hadestown was on at the National Theatre and it sounded quirky: jazz-folk music, based on two Greek myths, written and directed by women. As both shows F and I have seen at the National Theatre were excellent, I thought we’d give it a go!

“Hadestown” set at the National Theatre

And we were glad we did.

Intertwining the Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/Persephone myths, Hadestown brings us to the modern-day industrial in what could be a southern railway town / New Orleans piano bar. In addition to the four protagonists, other characters from Greek myth are in attendance: Hermes, messenger god, narrates much of the story; and the Fates ever weave around the characters, cajoling and tempting them.

Speaking of the Fates, I think they get some of the best music in the show, with hints of Bossa Nova and tight, edgy but round harmonies. Check this one out:

In other music, the song “Why We Build The Wall,” set as a kind of call-and-response reminiscent of the Old South, is powerful and chillingly relevant to today’s politics. Eva Noblezada, as Eurydice, has a great voice. I was less impressed by Orpheus’ solos, but I think that’s because the character’s musical style is quite different from the rest of the show. It’s more folksy, and reminds me of the music from Once, contrasting – probably on purpose – with the jazzier ensemble pieces.

Final verdict: Hadestown, while sometimes jumpy in narrative, is a fantastic show. The music is jazzy, bluesy, folksy, and above all, catchy. Some tunes and themes resonate heavily with today’s political environment. It was also great to see such a diverse cast, with plenty of talent to go around. Highly recommended!

Of course, an evening out on the Southbank isn’t complete without taking in the London lights from Waterloo Bridge. London really is a magical place.

 


Year in Review: 2018

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by. Time flies. As we enter 2019, here are some reflections on my 2018.

Running and fitness in 2018:

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2018 I ran 1,271.3km =  789.95mi, which is 298.2km/185.29mi more than in 2017 – I’m really pleased with that!
  • Overall, it was a good running year. I refocused on building my endurance base with Sunday long runs, did a lot of Saturday morning parkruns, and even got in a smattering of speedwork in the warmer, lighter months. I also did some run-commuting to or from work.
  • I ran my 50th parkrun in March 2018! This had been a major goal of mine and I was excited to achieve it (the t-shirt is great, too). My parkrun total currently stands at 63, with more to come in 2019.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,054.6km = 1,276.67mi of commuting to/from work in London. Fewer than 2017 because my commute is now shorter. More energy for running!

Favorite books read in 2018:

  • In 2018 I read about 22 books. There were quite a few that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but to balance those out there were some gems:
  • Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach. I really liked Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Manhattan Beach was a very different sort of novel but did not disappoint. I loved the 1930s-40s dockside setting as well as the strong female protagonist and a bit of intrigue. Great writing, too.
  • I don’t usually read much non-fiction, but Dave Eggers’ narrative non-fiction book The Monk of Mokha reads like a story, which makes its reality all the more interesting. I learned a lot about coffee and Yemen – apt, given the current situation there.
  • I am a sucker for historical fiction, and Ken Follett is one of my favorites. In 2018, I read A Column of Fire, the third book in Follett’s “Kingsbridge series” that starts with Pillars of the Earth. Just so good.
  • One of my best friends recommended Tamora Pierce‘s Song of the Lioness quartet, which I raced through. Nothing like a good young adult series with a strong female lead and a bit of magic and mystery!
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliant, and I read her first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, last year. It was not quite what I expected but I couldn’t put it down and her writing is excellent.

Other highlights of 2018, in no particular order:

  • F and I wanted to travel more in 2018, and we certainly achieved that goal. Here’s where we went:
    • A snap weekend in Zürich with my parents. What a nice city!
    • A lovely trip to Provence in early spring (that post has somehow been lost! Sad. If you go, stay at the La Bastide Perchée guest house in Venelles).
    • A few days in the Ardennes at C’s family farmhouse, with both sets of parents.
    • An amazing two-week holiday in California in August, plus a couple of days in NYC (including seeing Emma!).
    • A long weekend with friends in Münster in October, followed closely by a weekend in Düsseldorf with friends and F’s sister.
    • Almost two weeks in Germany over Christmas/New Year, with the in-laws and friends. Good food, good running, great people, and relaxation.
  • Seeing friends regularly over the year for lunches, dinners, drinks, coffees, and board gaming (game highlights: Seven Wonders, Quacksalber von Quedlinburg, Schnapp die Robbe!).
  • Having my parents and five friends with us for our Thanksgiving-in-London celebration.
  • Continuing to enjoy cooking and baking, both new recipes and old favorites. F and I have become more mindful with how much meat we eat and where we get it, plus we’ve been focusing on fuelling ourselves well for our respective cycling and running.

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2019 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2018:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2019.

#BecauseESOL

I don’t share a lot on this blog about my job as an ESOL teacher for migrant adults in London. This post, though, hits home in how accurately it encapsulates the ups and downs of what it’s like to be an ESOL professional. It’s not an easy job, but most of the time it’s worth it. I hope Sam’s post gives you some insight into what I do most days at work!

Sam Shepherd

I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to…

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50th Parkrun

It has taken me almost 5 years, but I’ve finally done it: I’ve run 50 parkruns! Remember when I ran my first parkrun in April 2013? That run is still one of my fastest parkrun times (ignorance is bliss when you don’t know about the hills on the course). I ran parkrun occasionally but not consistently for the first 4 years, but when I started getting into the 30s last summer/autumn, I resolved to make it to 50 parkruns by early 2018.

Post-50th parkrun email. In the 50 Club!

I would’ve hit 50 before this weekend if I hadn’t gotten a bad cold over Christmas – I had plans to run 2-3 parkruns over the holidays! – but here we are on 17th March 2018 and my goal has been achieved.

When you look at how many people have run upwards of 100 and even 250 parkruns, 50 doesn’t seem like much, but it still takes commitment to get up for a 9am run on a Saturday. For me, it helps that F gets up over two hours earlier (!) than me on Saturdays to cycle in Regent’s Park, so my 7:50am alarm doesn’t seem too bad compared to his wake-up time.

In celebration of my impending 50th parkrun, I baked these oatmeal raisin cookies to share around afterwards. Fellow Heathsider Shaan was running his 25th and Hannah was running her 30th parkrun, so they provided some millionaire’s shortbread (yum). Gabi mustered a few other Heathsiders to join us at Finsbury Park, and it was fun to be cheered on my milestone before the start.

Some Heathsiders post-parkrun

Did I mention it was snowing and blowing this morning? You can see bits of snow on the grass in the photo above. After a balmy week of 10+C temperatures, the mercury dropped on Friday night and Saturday morning was a brisk 2C with some gently falling snow that the wind subsequently whipped around up the backside of the Finsbury parkrun course. But we braved the elements and felt extra virtuous for it. I had a busy week and felt tired so decided to run a steady Z3/4 parkrun and came in at 24:02. Not so speedy, but a solid time and a good up-tempo run for me.

My 50th parkrun stats

Now that I have reached my 50 parkruns milestone, let’s take a moment to look at my parkrun history. While a lot of people try to run as many different parkruns as possible – dubbed ‘parkrun tourism’ – I’m a creature of habit and usually run at Finsbury Park or Ally Pally due to their proximity to my flat. I have run Hampstead Heath parkrun once and F and I even ran a parkrun in Liverpool when we were up visiting friends a few weeks ago.

I love parkrun because you can run it however you want. When I feel like testing my fitness, I’ll go to Finsbury park and hammer it (did that last weekend, hence this week’s steadier run). If I’m up for a scenic run on mainly trails, I’ll go to Ally Pally and sometimes push it but sometimes run at social pace with Gabi or Jo. I’ve volunteered twice and need to do more of that to give back to such an amazing community.

Now that I’ve reached 50 parkruns, what’s next? In general running goals, I have a number of 10k races coming up over the spring and summer so I am working on building my endurance and long run distance. Maybe I’ll try to do Hampstead Heath parkrun more often and build that into my weekly long run. We shall see. For now, I’ll rest on my small laurels and enjoy the weekend!

Parkrun tourism at Princes parkrun, Liverpool!


Year in Review: 2017

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I haven’t written a “year in review” since the end of 2014, but this year I felt the desire to do so as 2017 becomes 2018. While there are plenty of awful things that happened globally in 2017 – politically, environmentally, etc. – I would like to focus on the more personal positives in this post.

Running and fitness in 2017:

On the way to a 5-mile PB at the Perivale 5, Dec 2017. Photo credit: Bespoke Photos.

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2017 I ran 973.1km =  604.66mi. This is about 39 more miles than in 2016, so I’ll take that as a slight improvement.
  • The first half of the running year wasn’t great, as I had a really nasty virus over the Christmas holidays so had a slow return to fitness in early 2017. I had a brief return to the track in the summer before developing some plantar fasciitis. Since then, I’ve focused on building up my fitness base with tempo work and longer runs. That has seemed to work, as in fall/winter I ran my fastest 10k since 2015 and a 5-mile PR/PB!
  • In 2017 I discovered how much I love trail running/racing. Now that I have invested in trail shoes, I hope to do more trail running in 2018. I ran in Trent Park for the first time and loved it.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,760.3km = 1,715.17mi of commuting to/from work in London. About 200km/124mi more than in 2016.

Favorite books read in 2017:

  • In 2017 I read about 21 books. I didn’t love everything I read but here are some books that have stuck with me after finishing them:
  • Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard. I’ve loved Chevalier’s writing ever since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring as a teenager. Chevalier also happens to be an Oberlin graduate and I was fortunate to see her speak when I was in college. At the Edge of the Orchard is a historical novel of migration to the American West during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and ’50s. The human characters are interesting but much of the novel is actually about trees: apple orchards and then California’s redwoods and giant sequoias. It has really stuck with me and I’ve recommended it to a number of people.
    • I also read Chevalier’s newest novel, New Boy, this year. It’s a chilling retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set on a school playground and I’d recommend it to any English teachers for their students to read alongside the original play.
  • Somehow in all my study of English literature, I had never read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. My parents recommended it to me after reading it for their book club a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with this early detective novel. It has all the good stuff – missed messages, mistaken identities, charming villains – while remaining accessible even for those who aren’t used to reading 19th-century novels.
  • I absolutely love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (the first one is called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and this year I read the seventh and eighth books back to back. Every time I open a Russell-Holmes novel, it feels like coming home. Something about King’s writing style just sits well with me. The novels are at once historically dense, character-driven, and detailed but not slow-moving. My dad first got hooked on the series years ago, and I would recommend it to anyone who, to use Netflix-speak, enjoys “historical novels with a strong female lead”. There’s also plenty of mystery and detective work involved!
  • I loved Robin Hobb’s 4-book series, The Rain Wild Chronicles, recommended by a fellow choir singer. Hobb creates a fascinating and robust fantasy world – realist but with touches of the magic and mythical – and tells a good story.
  • Rachel Sieffert, A Boy in Winter. A poignant WWII novel set in a small Ukrainian town. Sad but beautifully written and worth reading for a slightly different perspective.
  • Darragh McKeon, All that is Solid Melts into Air. Wow was this good. A close family friend – my Belgian “aunt” – recommended it and I loved it. It’s set in Soviet Ukraine/Russia/Belarus in the late 1980s around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The shifting perspectives never felt jarring and it’s quite timely, despite being a historical novel. Highly recommended.
  • F and I finished reading Walter Moers’ Die 13 1/2 Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär, an epic fantasy-type novel that we took turns reading aloud. It helped my German a lot and was good fun! I also finished a book of short stories in German – Karen Köhler’s Wir Haben Raketen Geangelt – that were almost all depressing but I loved the writing style and it was accessible enough for me to understand most of what was going on.

Other highlights & achievements, in no particular order:

  • Singing Bach’s St John Passion in English with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Bach Camerata at St John Smith’s Square in central London.
  • Visiting my close friend Hannah in Bulgaria, where she’s working as a Fulbright ETA.
  • Spending a lovely long weekend with F in Bath.
  • Family and friends descending on London for our post-wedding celebration in July. It was lovely to have a casual party in a local pub and that so many people made the effort to come from near and far.
  • Spending a week walking in the Cotswolds with F. We stayed in a little AirBnB in the village of Longborough and spent each day walking a different loop, stopping for pub lunches and enjoying our escape from big city life.
  • After three years teaching ESOL to migrant women at a charity in Tower Hamlets, I got a new job at a charity in Hackney. I’m still teaching ESOL mainly in Tower Hamlets but also learning about and sharpening my skills in project management and partnerships. It was hard to leave my old team – a close-knit group of amazing women – but it was the right move to make and I’m enjoying my new role. It’s also interesting to see how two charities in the same sector operate quite differently.

Cotswolds walking

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2018 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things. We hope to travel a bit more this year and I’d like to build up my running mileage to 10-mile or even half marathon fitness.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2017:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2018

Race Recap: Golden Stag Mile (#MyMile)

I ran a mile this week. So what? you say. A mile is no big deal.

What I mean to say is I raced a mile this week — on the track. Now that’s serious stuff!

The stars aligned this month as Strava (the social network for athletes) put on a 1 mile initiative, encouraging people to run a mile hard, record it, then tag it and share it with a #MyMile hashtag. Coincidentally, a north London running club was putting on the Golden Stag Mile event at Finsbury Park track, which is home base for my club‘s training sessions. A short jog from home and only £4 to enter and test my fitness with a mile on the track? Yes, please!

I have started getting back to speedwork in the past couple of months but have only managed to get to the track about once every two weeks. Not being in top speed form, I put my estimated finish time down as 6:30 and hoped to finish under that.

Luckily, I was put in a race with a few other Heathsiders whose speeds I’m somewhat familiar with. I knew if I could keep Esti and Hannah in my sights, I could run a good time. I talked strategy with a few other Heathsiders while warming up — turns out, there are conflicting views on how to pace a 1-mile race. Do you go all out and just try to finish? Do you save some for a final kick? Pace it like a 400m or 800m race (go out hard, steady, push, finish)? One guy said he breaks the mile up into 1000m, 400m, and 200m and recommended trying to stay with anyone near me, letting other runners pull me along. I liked that suggestion and decided to try and stay with people as long as I could.

Well, that worked for the first two laps of my race. I got out fast and Esti soon pulled up alongside me. We stayed more or less together for the first lap and were in a nice pack with Hannah and a couple others. They pulled away and I set my sights on staying near the man in the yellow shirt; I passed him towards the end of the second lap.

That’s when things got tough: I was in no-man’s-land with no one near me for the last 800m of the race. Not ideal. There was a guy 5 seconds ahead of me and someone 5 seconds behind me. There was no time to look at my watch — I just had to run by feel and try to keep going. My mouth was dry and my legs were tired, but I pushed as much as I could, had a little bit left to kick, and finished in an official time of 6:20.1 — an automatic PR/PB, since I’d never raced a mile before, and under my goal time! It was very hard but I felt accomplished afterwards. Heathside had a great showing and the event was really well-organized by Barnet and District AC. Looking forward to next year!


Dim Sum Class at London Cookery School

Early this year, I came across a Time Out London discount for two people to attend a dim sum cooking class at London Cookery School*. Excited (who doesn’t love dim sum?), F and I jumped at the opportunity. Neither one of us had ever done a cooking class before, despite (or maybe because of) how much we both enjoy cooking. But dim sum is not something either of us would have attempted to make at home without some prior knowledge, so the class was the perfect opportunity for us to learn some new cooking techniques. By chance, we ended up booking the class on our first wedding anniversary — what better way to celebrate than that? (And how have we already been married a year?!)

Our dim sum class taught us how to make three of the most popular steamed dumplings that might grace a dim sum table:

  • Har Gow  蝦餃 (crystal prawn dumplings)
  • Chiu Chow Fun Gwor  潮州粉果 (chiu chow steamed dumplings)
  • Sui Mai  燒賣 (open top steamed pork and prawn dumplings)

I won’t share the recipes, as you should probably do the class to learn how to make the dumplings, but I’ll provide some pictures and commentary/observations on the class and techniques that we learned.

First up, tea (yum cha): the instructor Will explained that tea is an integral part of the dim sum experience. In Hong Kong and southern China, people will often say, “Do you want to go for some yum cha?”, meaning “Let’s go have dim sum (but of course there will also be tea).” The first page of our class booklet included explanations of some common teas (wulong/oolong was served during our class) as well as some key dim sum etiquette:

Once everyone had washed hands and poured tea, the class got going. We started by making three different fillings for our dumplings: a prawn-based mix for the har gow; a pork-based combination for the chiu chow fun gwor; and a pork-and-prawn mixture for the sui mai. Here are some things we learned while making the fillings:

  • Corn flour (cornstarch, to any Americans reading this) is used as a binding agent.
  • It’s best to use fattier minced pork (~20%) for dumplings.
  • Baking powder is often added to Chinese meat dishes as it gives the meat a lighter, springier feel and helps tenderize the meat, too.
  • Salted radish adds a depth of flavor (umami, if you will).

Fillings at the ready!

Next, we prepared the dough for the har gow and chiu chow fun gwor. This was quite fun and similar to making chapati dough: add hot water to starchy mixture, bring it loosely together, then let it sit and hydrate for a few minutes before the final kneading and rolling. The dumpling dough did require a couple of specialty ingredients like wheat starch (regular flour won’t cut it) and tapioca flour, but overall the technique wasn’t too difficult and the dough turned out a beautiful alabaster white with a smooth, silky feel.

Will demonstrated how to roll, cut, stuff, and fold the dough into dumplings. The har gow were difficult, as it took some dexterity to make the neat pleats for the classic shape. You can see that my first couple of attempts (top of the picture below) were not successful, but it got easier with practice. The chiu chow fun gwor were easier to form into a simple crescent shape.

The first batch of dumplings then went into the steamer while we formed the sui mai (with pre-made dough, as it’s a trickier dough to make and get thin enough). Those went into the steamer, too, and we were ready to eat!

The class lasted about three hours, and it was a great experience to learn how to make an entirely new sort of cuisine. If you’ve never done a cooking class before, I’d recommend it. Take a friend/partner along and get cooking!

*All opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any way for this post. It was just so enjoyable that I couldn’t help sharing with you, dear readers!


Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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International Women’s Day 2017: Be Bold For Change

Today is one of my favorite holidays: International Women’s Day (IWD)! On this day, people celebrate the achievements of women past, present, and future, and also raise awareness about gender inequality that still exists today.

IWD holds a special place in my heart because I first learned about it during my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. The 8th of March is celebrated in fine style in Ukraine, with women receiving flowers, chocolates, gifts, and many well-wishes from others (mostly men but also pupils/students, if you happen to be a teacher).

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year it is “Be Bold For Change,” focusing on how people — women and men and everyone in between — can help forge “a more inclusive, gender equal world” (IWD website). I can’t complain about that theme! Teaching English to all women, with all women means we talk a lot about empowering women. This term, my ESOL Entry 3 class has had a number of lessons about volunteering, work, and employment and we’ve had a few discussions about gender (in)equality in the workplace. My Functional Skills English Level 1 learners spent part of a lesson reading about the suffragettes and discussing women’s rights historically and now.

Today, we had a lunchtime IWD event at work for our learners to come and celebrate with us. We encouraged staff and learners to wear traditional dress from their or another country. Many of my colleagues wore beautiful saris, and I rocked up in my Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered blouse), recalling fondly the two Women’s Days I spend in Sniatyn:

Wearing my Ukrainian vyshyvanka on IWD

Tutors designed a number of activities for our learners to engage in. These included “find someone who” with positive and empowering elements: Find someone who has run a marathon, who has made someone smile today, who has fixed something at home, who has give someone advice, etc. There was also a gap fill quiz with facts about women’s rights around the world, a map to identify where you are from and write what you like about your country or another one, and places to record a dream job and personal strengths.

Over 60 of our learners attended the event and had a great time chatting, snacking, doing activities, and watching speeches by inspirational women like Malala Yousafzai. I wish I could post pictures of our learners all dressed up and mingling, but many of them are vulnerable and so you must imagine instead!

I like to take International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate all the incredible women in my life, from family to friends to colleagues to students and more. You inspire me to be stronger, fitter, kinder, and more thoughtful. You inspire me to push myself and to encourage others. You inspire me to keep life in perspective and move through it with joy. You inspire me to persevere. Thank you, and keep fighting for equal rights for all humans.