Friday, July 30, 2010

Chocolate from Mimi - my first blog prize for timely following

I had a lovely surprise day before yesterday when I got home from work and an unfamiliar envelope graced the hall floor amid the brown envelopes (like those linked with cash bribes), window envelopes (bill statements detailing when and how much has been direct debited), charity clothing stickers, a Viking office supplies catalogue, and the Sky Digital magazine. I didn't recognise the writing either, so I thought - this might be my blog prize!

To elaborate - last week I read Mimi's post on her High Fives which Stephanie V had assigned her last January, after I had tagged Stephanie V. Mimi had offered to send some chocolate to her 50th follower and after such serendipity I thought why not? If I was quick enough I could get lucky and sure enough I was and did.

Here are a few photos of the lovely card Mimi made for me, and the delicious global medley of chocolate she sent - milk, dark, Papuann, Costa Rican, Malagasy and Peruvian - a veritable Around the World in Chocolate Memories! I remember seeing cacao pods and beans for the first time ever in Zanzibar on a spice tour there in 1990, on our first trip of many to that wonderful paradise island off the coast of Tanzania where we then lived. Some time earlier we had studied them in our Homeschool Geography class - and I was always fascinated by their place in Mayan history, where the name chocolate originated.

Commercially Zanzibar wouldn't rate highly, as West Africa countries like Ghana seem to have cornered the European market. That's all to the good, as it would be a shame to see those wonderful Spice Islands mono-cropped with cacao, instead of the mixed cropping that was there twenty years ago and which I hope still prevails. Everything grows in a cornucopia of aromas and heady fragrance; cloves, cardamoms, vanilla, cinnamon, and cacao are those I remember most vividly.

It's also quite political as Fair Trade Chocolate is essential to make its production sustainable for the farmers growing the crop at local level, and it's the only way to prevent their exploitation by multi-national corporations whose scruples are best kept in check with close scrutiny by their consumer base. Nothing like having an ethical issue with a product to give it the kiss of death, as so many sweatshop-produced goods manufacturers found to their cost. Having seen the benefits first hand of Fair Trade coffee production in Tanzania I'm all for it.

So thank you Mimi for sending me off on this tangent down memory lane - I don't often get philosophical over chocolate, but I loved this gift and hope it's the first of many if I get lucky and enter other competitions in the blogosphere. There's a photo of one of my double choc chip cookies, and the recipe's here if you feel inspired - or just get the munchies -by this post to get baking.

Who knows, maybe I'll do a prize giving myself one of these days - watch this space!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Capital Culture Shock - Art, Shopping and a Summer of Discount Tents

Last weekend I went to Dublin for a break with teen daughter and three of her friends - foolhardy you might say but they have been hanging out for the duration of the Irish summer hols, which must be the longest in the planet. At least that's what it feels like when it's late July and you realise you've only passed the mid-point of the three-month-long break.

With teenagers who are too old for summer camps (mostly targeting primary school children) but too young to work in a minimum-wage (lower for under-18s than adults) service job (roll on next year!) the boredom factor sets in fairly quickly. And that's just the parents who have the unenviable task of monitoring their movements without being seen to be too much of a "helicopter" parent.

The boredom threshold is quickly reached, and the refrain "there's nothing to do - I'm bored" ring out across the nation. As we are not going abroad on holidays this year this adds to the sense of deprivation, and lectures ensue (= poorly disguised nagging) telling them how lucky they are. When I hear myself echoing my mother - "It's far from sun holidays I was reared" - then I have to call a halt.

Hubby bought a tent in Argos a couple of weeks ago - sale offer, 4-person with a sitting room you could stand in and a nice separate bedroom, and an awning - and that has gone down a treat for sleepovers, especially given the nice warm summer we're having. The n
ights have been very mild, and there is nothing nicer than staying awake in the tent in comfort - eating all night and staying awake till the dawn chorus kicks in - and having a good girly giggle with a bunch of pals. The first night the tent was used it lashed rain, and that
added to the sense of adventure. Of course there are mega-extension leads that bring light from the house to the tent, so it can be far enough from the house to feel like proper camping - and the garden chairs fit nicely in the sitting room part, with an old kiddie's table to sit around.

So a weekend in Dublin seemed like a nice diversion and was greeted with typical teen ennui - OK, we can go shopping, see a movie, and stay in a nice hotel. Museum visits or any cultural improvements weren't even up for discussion, so I didn't go there. Booked a couple of rooms in the Skylon Hotel in Drumcondra (wrong side of the river, one of the teens informed me, with genuine Ross O'Carroll-Kelly horror - she's city-wise having "grown up" in Dublin - on the right side of the river!) - and figured out the sleeping order would be 4:1 (they were happy to share a triple room) and we were sorted. I was pragmatic about the potential hazards of taking four young teens to a city three of them were unfamiliar with, as I felt they wouldn't leave the confines of whatever shopping centre they were deposited in, and I reminded them of the moral of "Taken", the chilling action movie about white slavery and wayward teens who didn't listen to their parents. They were pretty underwhelmed by my concerns, as they dismissed them as the usual parental fussing.

The trip to Dublin was a joy - the new tolled Abbeyleix Bypass reduced the 140 miles to just about 2hrs 40mins., motorway all the way from Cahir, and they slept all the way, after being awake all night in the tent. They decided to go to Blanchardstown shopping centre, which I thought would be a nice place for them - it was, but I didn't bargain for the nightmare on the M50 - SatNav was useless as the roadworks in what is known as Dublin's biggest car park (the M50 ring road) are unending and finding exits and ramps was a disaster.

I managed to drop them off, had a coffee and wandered around for an hour, then went back to the hotel and arranged to visit a friend later that evening. We spent some time with middle son who's finishing his MA in DIT, and I had plenty of time with him as well, while the girls hung out at the hotel with their shopping after I managed to collect them - a groundhog day experience as I overshot the exit ramp and got caught by the barrier-free toll cameras as I had to drive about 10 miles around the M50 and get back on track to re-enter the loop. Of course I missed the deadline of 8pm the following evening to pay the €3 and it doubled before I remembered it. No wonder it's such a controversial toll, and it's much dearer than the others on the motorway bypasses.

We had something to eat in the hotel, and then went to the cinema in the Omni centre in Santry - the girls to see the latest Twilight film "Eclipse" about sparkly vegetarian vampires, and my friend and me went to see the delightful "His & Hers" - sort of a documentary or narrative by women from young toddlers to elderly widows talking about the men in their lives - a real heartwarming feelgood film that had no commentary other than the women from the Midlands of Ireland talking to camera about fathers, husbands, boyfriends a nd brothers. It has got rave reviews, not surprisingly, given the dross that's in the cinema this summer it wouldn't be hard.

But what of culture, I hear you ask, as alluded to in the title? This turned out to be a spur of the moment thing that was a real delight as so many spontaneous decisions are, when the girls went to town Sunday afternoon after checking out of the hotel, and middle son and me went to town for some supplies for his thesis in Easons.

We drove around Parnell Square to find a parking space and there was one just by the Garden of Remembrance - around the corner from the Hugh Lane Gallery, with its Lavery "Passion and Politics" Exhibition, which was serendipitous as I had seen the famous Lady Lavery portrait in Lismore Castle at the Sotheby's Irish Sale Preview in April. That one sold for over €250,000 and we went to have a look at the current exhibition. The Hugh Lane is a fabulous facility for the city, as it is free, like so many of the National Museums and Galleries, and has a wonderful permanent collection as well as the special exhibitions like this. I really enjoyed it and took a few flash-free photos before realising that I wasn't supposed to - but I didn't feel too guilty as I don't see what harm it does when the flash isn't used.

The Politics and Passion refer to the new Irish Free State Government asking Laver y to paint a symbol of the new country (Éire, depicted by a beautiful woman) for the new Irish Currency, and then he used his high society American wife Hazel as the model. Given that she never set foot in Ireland (they lived in London) it must have been a controversial issue at the time, as her lifestyle would be pretty far removed from DeValera's Madonna and Motherhood vision of Irish womanhood! There were a lot of documents on display; correspondence between the Departments and Lavery and some from WB Yeats and other famous contemporaries of Lavery. I've come to the conclusion that Lavery was pretty full of himself - there are self-portraits of him receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Belfast and being conferred a Freeman of Dublin. They were probably the Posh and Becks of the Twenties, albeit with a lot more talent! And the irony of Lady Lavery adorning the currency for almost 50 years can't be missed, as they both represented the wealthy ascendancy that the new State was so keen to expunge from its history. But that's a whole other story and not one for this post; I might return to it one day.

My son had seen the Francis Bacon Collection a few times as he is a great fan of the notoriously untidy late artist. He certainly could identify with him on that score, with his vaguely similar artistic penchant for creative chaos in living spaces. Out of sheer curiosity I had to see the Francis Bacon Studio which was brought from London and lovingly recreated in a special viewing room in the Gallery, with every messy rag and paint tin (great ad for Dulux) and stacks of dusty books replaced forensically as they were in his London house. His Irish connections were as
tenuous as many of the great artists and writers we claim - he spent some years of his childhood in Dublin and then went off to school and fame in England. Some of his works were also in Lismore Castle at the Sotheby's preview.

It was a very pleasant interlude and I came away with my cultural antennae recharged, and determined to soak up some more free stuff on future Dublin visits - there's the Dead Zoo, the National Gallery, the National Library, and the National Museum at different locations around the city. Cork has the lovely Crawford Gallery and I visited there a few years ago. It would be nice to entice the teenagers to visit something like a museum but sadly they passed that stage after our last visit to the Dali Museum in Figueras in 2006! It'll be another decade or two before they'll rediscover culture and hopefully decide that it's not so bad after all.

Photos - from the top:
  • Blanchardstown Shopping Centre
  • The tent in the garden
  • Hugh Lane Gallery
  • Passion and Politics Exhibition detail
  • The Lavery Legacy and currency notes
  • Painting of picnic scene by Sir John Lavery
  • Fireplace in the Hugh Lane Gallery
  • Lady Lavery Painting by Sir John Lavery
  • The Francis Bacon Studio
  • An aptly titled bus - for teen daughter

Friday, July 23, 2010

Scrummy Savoury Samosas and Chappatis - a Taste of India

I have loved samosas since I first tasted them over 30 years ago when I went to live in Bangladesh, where they are known as shingaras. if the pastry is flaky and samosas if crispy!
The years in Bangladesh were an exotic exciting experience that proved life-changing in more ways than I'd bargained for when I set off on the great adventure. I met hubby in Bangladesh when he came to work there as a volunteer a year after I started my two year stint as a volunteer with the Irish-based NGO Concern, and the rest is history - that was the start of a long involvement with development work and living in extremely interesting places and generally way off the beaten track and far from the tourist trail - even by backpacker standards.

In Tanzania there was a large Indian community throughout the country, mainly Gujerati in origin, so samosas were widely known and wonderful. In Laos, where we also lived, there were not so many Indian restaurants, but the street food there was so delicious you could happily live with what they had to offer - and the local equivalent of spring rolls was comparable - pastry wrapped, deep fried and filled with spicy local meat and/or vegetables.

My introduction to Indian/Bangladeshi food was in at the deep end - food-wise it was an eye-opener and I have never looked back - I really enjoy samosas and have to curb my enthusiasm or my curves would need to be curbed big time! They are treats to be treated as such - occasional snacks or starters, and not something to sit down to when you've a good book on the go and the munchies set in. They are best with mango chutney on the side - as a dipsauce. You could also use sweet chili sauce but it's more Southeast Asian than Subcontinental.

Here's the recipe I use - and there are wonderful samosas locally available in the Farmers' Market, made by a new foodie outfit, Pie in the Sky by Maeve. She has lovely samosas - homemade with filo pastry, which I used in this batch. Our lovely Bangladeshi/Indian Restaurant, Saffron, does lovely samosas with the chappati-type pastry. All are preferable to the frozen or chilled ones you get in party packs at Christmas in the supermarkets.

I have also used Chappati dough rolled thinly and cut in half-circles, then folded over with the filling in the middle, and that is also delicious. In both cases, use sunflower or any vegetable oil, though olive oil might be a tad rich, and deep fry in small quantities in hot oil, dipping in for a minute or so tops. Use a slotted spoon and be careful of spatters. They will cook very quickly so be warned.

I have shown the stages of wrapping in the photos. I hope you give them a go. You will pay about €2 (two Euro) per piece in the market or takeaway, and they are really easy to make once you have the necessary stuff in store.

Peas and Potatoes Samosas.
(You can add unsalted cashew nuts for a more upmarket samosa if you have them, as the book recipe indicates)

Ingredients (makes about 12 large/20 small samosas)
  • 12os/350g. potatoes - peeled and diced

  • 4oz/125g frozen peas

  • 45ml veg. oil

  • 1 onion - peeled and chopped

  • 1 garlic clove - peeled and chopped

  • 1inch/2.5cm ginger piece - peeled and chopped

  • 1tsp garam masala

  • 2tsp curry paste - mild or medium as you like it (I use Patak's or Sharwood's)

  • half teasp. cumin seeds

  • 2tsp lemon juice


  • Boil the potatoes and peas in boiling salted water for 8-10 mins, until potatoes are tender, then drain
  • Heat oil in frying pan
  • Add onion, garlic, ginger, spices, peas and potatoes

  • Stir fry for 2 mins

  • Add lemon juice and cook gently for 2 mins

  • Remove from heat, roughly mash the mix and season with salt/pepper to taste


    Frozen Filo can be used - about half a pack - it's handy if you can handle the thin sheets - that's what you see in the photos I took.
  • Cut into strips about 4 inches/10cm wide X 12inches/30cm long

  • Put the mix on one end of the strip and fold the strip over the mix

  • Then fold it again and again until strip end is reached.

    As it's so thin it has to be folded a number of times to get any substance in it, and it is lovely and crispy. It is probably more calorific as the oil will be trapped in the layers of the pastry.

    Preferably I would use Homemade pastry - like Chappati dough rolled thin. This is more substantial and doesn't have to be layered like the Filo Pastry.

    You can use this for Chappatis and just make dinner-plate size circles from the dough. Then shallow fry in a smidgen of oil for a Paratha-like bread, or if you have a heavy cast-iron griddle pan, do them the trad Indian way with no oil, just browned with char-grilled bits - the real thing and delicious as a wrap or to mop up your rice and dhal.

    Pastry/Chappati Dough
  • 8oz/450g plain flour

  • 2oz/60g butter or 3 tablespoons oil

  • water to mix to stiff dough

  • half teasp. salt


  • Mix all pastry ingredients and knead well until smooth and not sticky

  • Leave for a while to rest

  • Pull off golf-ball size pieces and roll into a ball

  • Using a rolling pin and floured worktop, roll into teaplate size circles, cut in half and place cooked filling on one side of semi-circle
  • Brush edges with water and fold over to seal

  • Deep fry in hot oil until golden brown in heavy-based frying pan (you could use a deep-fat fryer if you have one - I don't and it's not necessary)

  • Drain well on kitchen paper
  • Serve with Mango Chutney and enjoy!

You can eat them cold as a lunchbox snack, or warm them up in the oven. As they are veggie they will keep in the fridge in a covered container, or in the freezer, and you can re-heat them quickly in the oven.

They are also great party snacks. For our New Year's Eve Party the last two years, I made a massive Indian buffet - Beef curry, Chicken curry, two types of Dhal, Basmati Rice, and a mountain of homemade Chappatis, with lots of samosas and onion bhajias and raitas on the side - some day I'll give the details in recipes - way too much information for one post.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Prize Giveaway at a Blog near you - Summer Reading Delights

Ann over at Inkpots n'Quills has a lovely competition and here is the link to it - she is running a giveaway for signed copies of Barbara Kingsolver's books The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna which I blogged about in my last post as we are reading The Poisonwood Bible for the Bloggers' Book Club as a July choice.

Ann went to a talk in Dublin this week where Barbara Kingsolver was speaking and she is kindly running this giveaway of two Kingsolver books - the aformentioned The Poisonwood Bible, and The Lacuna, her latest. One book will go to the 100th follower of her blog and the other to a follower who posts it on their blog - like I'm doing! Pop by her blog and join/leave a comment - it could be you in the immortal words of the National Lottery!

I am currently enjoying re-visiting the world of the Price family in the turbulent Congo of The Poisonwood Bible and marvelling at how well this book weathers a re-read - not something I do very often but in this case it's a delight.
So I hope this encourages you to read these great books if you haven't done so - and have a great summer wherever you are - even those of you in the winter of the Southern Hemisphere - I loved that aspect of life in Tanzania - fires in June and July in the Southern Highlands a few degrees south of the Equator never lost its appeal to my inner child!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Bloggers' Book Club vs. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt - who won?

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt was the Bloggers' Book Club choice for June. I didn't get it until last week when Ann kindly gave me her copy from the library when we met for lunch - yes, it was so nice to meet a fellow blogger in reality rather than virtually and we had a lovely chat - and she will probably write her own comment on the book.

For me - I was defeated before I even started. I didn't like the premise of the book, writing stories for children in Edwardian or Victorian times seemed a bit pretentious to me anyway, and the size of the book was pretty intimidating for a summer read that wasn't blockbuster/bodice-ripper/chick-lit genre. I got about 40 or 50 pages into it and found I kept losing track of the characters, there was a touch of The Railway Children about the opening pages without the promise of a good yarn along the way, and I slowly found myself losing the will to live.

So I quit while I was still breathing unaided. I returned to the book I had set aside in the effort - The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver - with a sigh of relief and I am thoroughly enjoying her rehash of the lives of revolutionary Mexico in the mid-War years as seen through the eyes of a house staff member of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, complete with houseguest asylum seeker Trotsky. The history in this book is all very accessible and readable and maybe I just wasn't able to deal with all the preachy detail in the Children's Book, as it too is full of history and way too much information on everything, so maybe I just need to 'fess up to not being as clever or intellectual as I like to think I am!

Anyway this is short as people will drop by to see what I thought of the book, and I don't want to chicken out of commenting on it - if I sign up to the group I feel I should participate - and that's not done grudgingly but from respect for those who put the effort into it - and I have great admiration for those of you who have had the tenacity to see it through. Those who have seem to have mixed feelings about it and so far I haven't read a totally positive review.

I went to Amazon after I quit and was surprised to see the critiques there - so many people said it needed major editing and it seemed to have been lazily proofed that so much unnecessary repetition crept in unnoticed. It seems almost an academic tome if you want to know all about the Arts and Crafts movement and then some, but why dress it up as a novel then?

I guess I am not in a fair position to comment when I failed so spectacularly to read the book, so I will leave it at this. I am really looking forward to re-reading next month's offering - Kingsolver's classic The Poisonwood Bible. This is a long time favourite which I cited in a recent HSE Staff magazine profile (if you want to check out the piece it's on page 88 of the magazine Health Matters) as my favourite book of all time. It resonates on so many levels for me. I hope you all enjoy it as much!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Apostrophe Anarchy - Grammatical Gremlins or Glitches?

I found these crimes against punctuation in the local papers this week and couldn't resist adding them to my growing collection of assaults on the English language and grammar. I have already ranted on this theme in previous posts here , here and here- and it looks like there's fodder a-plenty to fill many more posts in the future!

As I drive around in my work I am always drawn to signs on the road - often temporary - which are hilariously erroneous and always try to have the camera at the ready, that's if it's safe to stop and snap. Sadly I missed one recently about agricultural "machine's" entering and leaving a field, but don't you just love these ones here?

The rain is lashing down this weekend, and I thought it's time for a rant; the weather has been so good this summer we can't moan about it as we have done for the past number of years, and we are rapidly running out of conversation topics. As a national past-time you can't beat talking about the weather - a topic guaranteed to bring about national unity in a way that the Government can only dream about.

It never ceases to amaze that these kind of gremlins get past the editing departments of the newpapers, local or national, and I am not out to "get" them, as they perform a great service to their community. However, some judicious editing and proof-reading wouldn't go astray, as I think it's a bit OTT that there are so many glaring errors in one week between two papers.

My worst nightmare in writing this kind of post? Getting it wrong and having a "Greengrocer's Apostrophe" (or even a "Greengrocers' Apostrophe" to pluralise it!) moment myself - would serve me so right for being so sanctimonious about the hapless copywriters (copywriter's?!?) who get it so spectacularly wrong. My son (who oft berates my Eats Shoots and Leaves grammar fascism) pointed out the sponsor's one to me before I'd spotted it, and that set me on the trail of headlines - and I was pretty surprised to turn up the rest in one week's issues!

After all, their Sponsor's mightn't Get's it or wonder what kind of fishing competition can a club with only one angler host? I'm sure Cappoquin has plenty, as I am sure that there's only one crafty Paul alluded to in the article below!

I am sparing their blushes by not identifying the offending media but I am sure you can find plenty in your own locality - just be a little vigilant and keep smiling - there's plenty out there to brighten up a dull summer's day!
The burning question is - are they Glitches or Gremlins? You decide!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bowled over - by a Cricket Knitting Challenge

At last - I have completed my latest and most challenging knitting project since I took on knitting some Aran sweaters for a German priest friend in Tanzania in 1983 - the cricket vest for my son has finally seen the inside of his kit bag. I finished it last night and felt inordinately pleased with myself. I had begun to think it mightn't see this year's cricket season and I'm sure Shayne felt the same, but after some sticky wicket starts, I got on a roll a few weeks ago and really enjoyed making it. I'm slightly bereft now that it's done and I am already looking to my next project.

There's something incredibly Zen-like about knitting - it's relaxing and yet it concentrates the mind just enough without being tiring or tiresome - and there's the satisfaction of seeing it progressing through the various stages. The challenge comes in the form of the difficult bits I was unfamiliar with - the V-neck was a new design for me and yet it was very simple once I mastered the art of P2togTBL (purling two together through back of loop, for those knitting virgins among readers).

I had another hiccup when I realised I hadn't got the yellow wool as I had thought to do it in just green and cream - but then Shayne told me the Lismore Cricket Club colours were green and yellow - so I had to improvise the bottom border on the nearly completed back by ripping from the bottom rib to the border and effectively knitting from the border back to the rib rather than ripping the whole back and working back up - luckily the short-cut worked a treat.

So I hope you like the end result - it is incredibly heavy as it is made with about 14 x 50gm balls of Wendy Merino Double Knitting pure wool. The pattern called for Wendy Mode but when I went to the wool shop in Dungarvan - Monica's, a little shop packed to the rafters with wool and related accessories and a knitting browser's paradise - the lady there suggested the Merino instead of the Mode which is a wool blend. As both were the same price I opted for the Merino and it was fabulous to work with, and I really enjoyed making it. I was a bit shocked at the total cost as I am sure it would be cheaper to buy a factory-made jumper (and not in pure wool) for half I paid for the wool - and that's not counting the labour which I never factor in. The wool alone cost €65 - and if I was to make it for sale I suppose I'd have to up that to €100 to cover labour (which would be way below minimum wage rates!). So I will stick to doing the knitting for family and friends.

There is also a sentimental factor in all this that brings me back to my youth, as I recall my beloved mother who spent years of my childhood knitting Aran jumpers for a local designer who went on to achieve international renown on the fashion knitwear front. He was Cyril Cullen, and as he worked in the Social Welfare office in Lismore in the 1960s he recruited local women to work as home knitters when he went into the knitting and design full-time. He is still active in fashion and design and it is nice to think he got off the ground with his team of home knitters around Lismore back in the old days.

I guess that's where I got the love for knitting when I learnt it as a child from my mother rather than in Home Ec in school, where we laboured over sample squares and the dreaded sock with the impossible heel-turn I never could master. Even now I break out in a sweat at the thought of even attempting to turn a heel, though I am determined to give it a go one of these days.

I have an idea to make a mini-jumper for Sofia with the same colours and configuration - I have to try to find a V-neck cable baby jumper pattern now as I am not skilful enough to make up a pattern myself. I have got some great knitting books as presents in the past year and they have great tips on finishing garments and other useful stuff I always winged in the past. Now I am tempted to follow the expert guidance on joining seams and even experimenting with creating patterns, once I get a bit of confidence that my modifications might work!

Watch this space as I will keep updates and sit-reps and other progress reports coming!

The photos show:
  • The finished slipover modelled by Shayne,
  • The slipover after pressing
  • The pattern
  • The V-Neck detail
  • The wool with the ripped rib
  • The work in progress