Thursday, January 31, 2013

#January Joy 31: Re-evaluate

 It is the last day of January, it went so fast. I want to keep on going. I mean, I want to keep on looking for the joy (but more on that coming soon). Florence's prompts, this being the last one, are over. I am so happy I jumped in and took the challenge because I feel like I've learnt a lot in one short month. First of all I learnt (remembered?) that I work best under pressure, when I have fixed goals and a date by which I should achieve them. I have set a calendar with things I'd like to accomplish, some of which I am so excited about, that I can't wait to tell you. One of those was taking the bull by the horns and finally presenting the NT2-II exam. It's over now (and as I write this I feel brain dead). Except it's not really over  because I am not sure whether I will pass it or not (listening and speaking were extremely hard). Anyhow, I think I will start using an agenda again. Or follow the advice of MayiCarles and get organized.

So... let's look back. I never showed you the result of the orange dye on my hair. I ended up choosing a blondish-copper kind of color instead of one of the red ones because I didn't want the color to be too old-lady-like. Since I had 1 year old highlights that were sun-bleached and had become very light, the color went in really well in those parts. The rest of my hair is still dark brown (though you see the reddish hue under the light), but now the contrast between the dark natural part, and the dyed parts is less harsh. I quite liked it.  We went on a date... for breakfast. Breakfast dates should be a must. They are absolutely the best, and breakfast food is so delicious.

We made a list of the places we'd like to travel to this year, we booked some tickets, and we were able to (unexpectedly) scratch London off that list. We went for (several) winter walks and I was happy to discover the first flowers of the year are already in bloom. Maybe they are crazy, but I like to think Spring is just around the corner. As for reducing my sugar intake... the complete sugar free diet lasted (only) for a week. But, but... I discovered that I can drink herbal teas without any sugar. I got a bunch of those (on sale) at Tesco and will drink black tea and coffee (which I am unable to drink without sugar) only every now and then as a special, rare treat. I don't like to go fully extreme on things because I am like teenagers, as soon as something is "forbidden" I want it even more. But we do keep an eye on labels and make sure there is no added sugar in the foodstuffs we buy. For instance, no more tomato sauce in a jar for us.  Banning sugar altogether was not going to work for me. After all the budget talk, we finally went to the bank and joined our accounts. And we are due to start our salsa lessons on February 5th. That's next week! Marcela might have convinced me to give running another try, with this program.

 All in all I loved January Joy. And here's why, in Rebecca's words:

"There’s always a reason to feel under the weather, a hard day at work, miserable weather, life not working out the way you had planned. #JanuaryJoy was about making time for yourself, finding joy in the little things, feeling proud of things you can do, making the most of new experiences and fitting in things you never manage to prioritise."

La vuelta al Mundo: Historias en mi cama

Dreaming of London.
 Este mes para el juego fotográfico de "La vuelta al mundo", el tema propuesto por Jackie  fue "Historias en mi cama". Según las instrucciones se trataba de:

<<...capturar trazos de nuestra cotidianidad... se puede ir mas alla de la vida cotidiana, puede ser fantasia, sensualidad y cualquier cosa que tu quieras que sea. Lo que nos interesa es la vida en las camas. Desde siempre he utilizado mi cama para leer, para ver películas amapuchada, para probarme ropa, escuchar música, organizar mis gavetas, conversar con mis mejores amigas o para saltar con mis hijas. Cuando viaja a España de vacaciones de verano, mis tías y abuela se desesperaban un poco por esta costumbre mia de usar la cama como escenario natural de un monton de actividades. Para ellas era algo asi como una pieza sagrada de museo: una vez rigurosamente tendida en la mañana era practicamente pecado arrugarla otra vez. Como usas tu cama? Con quien duermes? Que ves desde allí? Cómo se ve desde arriba? Como te ves tu en ella? Que texturas tiene? Que sensaciones evoca?>>

Si no conoces a Jackie, te recomiendo que visites su blog  Casi en Serio ya que es como una dosis de alegría. Me encanta seguir la cadena internacional de fotos tomadas por aquí, por allá y por todas partes. Todo el mundo puede participar, las instrucciones están aquí. Y aqui está mi contribución.
This month for the photographic game  " La vuelta al mundo"Jackie challenged us to show the world the stories that happen in our beds. Normally our beds are the scenery for all kinds of activities: reading, organizing, relaxing, watching movies... It was about documenting those little gems of everyday that make life special. If you don't know what I am talking about, here is the link to Casi en Serio, Jackie's blog that is like an overdose on joy and loveliness. Anyone can join this game: every month a new photographic challenge is prompted, if you are interested the instructions are here

Packing for London...

The lovely Misha, chilling while I chilled!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

#January Joy 30: Make something naughty to eat: Caramelized pineapple Crème brûlée.

Finally, I am back home. What a long exam that was (from 10h to 15h) and I've only been through half of it. The famous NT2-II  (Nederlands als tweede taal) exam is divided in 4 parts: writing, speaking, listening and reading. You can do each part separately, but if you are intense like me you do 2 parts each day. I am done with writing and speaking, and tomorrow I'll do the rest. Then I have to wait 5 weeks for the results. 

For anyone who might be interested, there have been some brand new changes to this exam. I can only assume this is part of their objective to attract only highly educated immigrants (argh). As of this month, one part of the written exam (which used to be a classic pen and paper test) is now fully digitalized. You are given a computer and you have to write directly in a word-processor kind of program. Here's the catch: not only do they evaluate that the grammar, spelling and use of language is correct. They also check if you format your text accordingly: as in they actually grade you on the use of feautures such as bold, italic, bullets and paragraph spacing. What! Not everyone is going to be a secretary in their life. Not everyone will have to write reports. I for one would be happy working mostly in a farm full of cows and goats, no fancy formatting skills needed. What irritates me the most is that many of the immigrants that are so often criticized come from countries with very difficult situations where they may not have had access to computers. Why are we been graded for computer literacy skills on a language test? It is so completely irrelevant and it strikes me as elitism. Moreover, as of January 1st 2013 the price of the exam DOUBLED. And if I understand properly (and this depends on the rules of the city where you live) the subsidies for a Dutch course that used to be given for free to any foreigner who requested them, in an effort to facilitate the "integration" process have been removed (I never got this subsidy because I was stupid enough to independently enroll myself to a course, and then they never refunded me for it). They keep making it more difficult, and the people in the worst situations, those who are the most vulnerable are the ones who will suffer it. To add to all of this, they make you pay at the public libraries (how are they public then? In Spain and Switzerland anyone can make use of public libraries for free). But they don't have any problem complaining about "the others", how they are here to take your jobs and how they do not want to be part of the society. I think I better stop ranting.

So let us change to happier subjects and focus on making sweet things. One of the first things I knew I wanted in our kitchen was a blowtorch. I would then be able to caramelize things like lemon meringue pie or yes, crème brûlées. We had had our (plasticky) torch for a while, the boy was not even sure it was safe (I got it on sale once), but we recently got some gas and gave it a try. It was magic!  These pineapple-cinammon crème brûlées are delicious and very easy to make. I made sure I found a recipe that did not require to bake them au-bain-marie as I don't have an oven pan who would fit all my ramequins. They were so good, we ate them in a day and a half. 

What you'll need
1 can pineapple, in slices.
½ cups brown sugar
1-¼ cup  cream
1 cup  milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 whole egg yolks
⅓ cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 sugar, for caramelizing. 

What to do
Heat oven to 260ºC , and position oven rack 6 inches from the broiler. Arrange your pineapple slices on a buttered oven pan. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the pineapple. Place the baking sheet under the broiler, and broil until the pineapple turns golden brown. This will take about 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Center the oven rack and reduce temperature to 90ºC. In a medium saucepan, heat the cream, milk and cinnamon until it just begins to boil. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla until well blended but not airy. While whisking, slowly drizzle in about one quarter of the hot cream-milk-cinammon infusion. Still whisking, slowly add the remaining hot cream. Do NOT stop whisking at any moment. Doing this will prevent the eggs from curdling.

Arrange the caramelized pineapple pieces in the bottom of your baking dishes.  Tap your custard mix against the counter to get rid of air bubbles, and pour it in your ramequins, over the pineapple slices.
Bake the crème brûlées for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the centers are set.  To tell if they are done, tap the sides of the dish, and the custards should hold firm. Now place the custards on a cooling rack until they reach room temperature. Cover each dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 3 hours. We were so impatient that we just put them in the balcony for about half an hour until they were cold (see the cold European weather has its advantages). 

When ready to serve, sprinkle the top of each custard evenly with about 1 tablespoon of sugar. Using a blowtorch, brown the sugar until it bubbles and colors. Repeat for each custard. If you do not own a blowtorch, no worries, you could also caramelize the sugar using your oven.
 Sprinkle the custards with the sugar topping.  Place the pan under the broiler. Watch the custards carefully. Depending on your oven, it can take a few seconds or a few minutes to caramelize the sugar. When the sugar bubbles and browns, remove the custards from the oven. Let them sit a few minutes before serving.

Studying, answering questions....

Hello. This is just a short message to let you know that there will be a  "#January Joy 30: make something naughty to eat" post coming later.  It's just that right now I am busy busy studying as I will be presenting my official Dutch exam (at least 2 parts of 4) in a few short hours.  Wish me luck. (Otherwise, nothing really happens except we lose some cash).

PS. That is the boy grandpa's Dutch-Spanish thick dictionary from the "Real Academia de la Lengua Española" printed in 1947. Such a gem.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

#January Joy 29: Set a home spa... or a home lab!

 Alternative titles to this post could be "Am I crazy yet?", "Playing mind games" or "Being a well-learned hypocondriac". Anyhow, for this January Joy prompt (they are almost over... what will I do?) a home spa was suggested. The thing is I already did the home face treatment and the mani-pedicure.  And if I must be totally honest (which I like to be) I have never been to a SPA and have no urgency to do so, even if they paid me to. I hate people touching my body, and rubbing oily stuff into me (regardless of the nice smell), umm no thanks. Maybe later I'll ask the boy, one of the few persons whom I will allow to get close to me,  to massage my back or my feet, how about that for a home spa?

In the meantime I will let you in into the craziness that goes on inside my head all the time. Welcome. You see, I should probably stop reading, and I should probably not think (or talk) at all. Then I would reach the zen. But it's not going to happen any time soon. When you have been trying for a baby for so long, when not even the doctors have the faintest idea what to do with you (well, they do the same as with all of us in this boat), when you appear to be perfectly healthy and still you are not able to complete the second most primordial and primitive of biological tasks (the first being net survival) you start going nuts. You play games. If I get pregnant this month, my mom will be able to see the tulips in bloom. If it happens next month, baby will come at the same time as the boy's birthday, what a great surprise. If I get pregnant now, what will I wear to my brother's wedding? Oh, but I already got a (supertight) dress for it. Then you start believing everthing you read. I am taking vitamin D (highly dosed, in oil capsules) because I read in the slideshow that accompanied an article on infertility that it seems to help. If someone told me that by licking frogs I would get pregnant I would do it. Or that eating 7 green gummi bears every day would do the trick, I'd give it a shot too.

 So when a dear friend told me she'd heard silent (asymptomatic, undiagnosed) coeliac disease (gluten allergy) could be the cause of some cases of unexplained infertility I started reading into it. And I found all kinds of scientific literature* suggesting  a higher prevalence of celiac disease (CD) among infertile women compared with the general population. As well as a case of a woman who went on a gluten-free diet and almost immediately got pregnant. I of course started obsessing and went on a gluten free diet for 6 days or so. Before taking such a decision I went on to ask my gynaecologist about it, but the answer I got was: "Well, there seems to be a link, but the evidence is not conclusive yet. It could be that, and it could be a million other things (like thyroid disease) but we will not go check you up and down (since the treatment protocol will be the same anyway)". I know it is NOT thyroid disease because I already self-prescribed myself that test a year ago. My thyroids are functioning perfectly thank you very much.

Getting tested was going to prove complicated as I would first have to go to my general doctor, convince her that this was needed (this is not difficult, I would simply have studied all the symptoms and told her I had them), had her send me to the gastroenterologist and then have him approve the test. Such a loss of time. In my frantic searching I found out there is a home blood-test for IgA (antibodies) against tTG (tissue transglutaminase, the primary test ordered to screen for celiac disease). As someone who would very much like to work at a biochemical clinical analysis lab, I went on and did the test. (Part of my motivation was that I was dying to have some shortbread wafers we got as a present, as well as some pita bread and a croquette). But at this point I also just wanted to know. It was lots of fun doing the test. And for once a test gave the results I wanted: it was negative. I don't have coeliac disease. Yet another perfect test to add to our mysterious list. I can go on with my cookies and cake addiction. Dear God, if you are reading this, could you please grant us a miracle soon?

*Celiac disease: an underappreciated issue in women's health. Shah S, Leffler D.Womens Health (Lond Engl). 2010 Sep;6(5):753-66. doi: 10.2217/whe.10.57.

 Primary infertility as a rare presentation of celiac disease. Rajput R, Chatterjee S.Fertil Steril. 2010 Dec;94(7):2771.e5-7. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2010.04.032. Epub 2010 May 26.

 Prevalence of celiac disease in a cohort of women with unexplained infertility. Jackson JE, Rosen M, McLean T, Moro J, Croughan M, Cedars MI. Fertil Steril. 2008 Apr;89(4):1002-4. Epub 2007 Jul 26.

 Increased prevalence of celiac disease in patients with unexplained infertility in the United States. Choi JM, Lebwohl B, Wang J, Lee SK, Murray JA, Sauer MV, Green PH. J Reprod Med. 2011 May-Jun;56(5-6):199-203.

 Women and celiac disease: association with unexplained infertility. Pellicano R, Astegiano M, Bruno M, Fagoonee S, Rizzetto M. Minerva Med. 2007 Jun;98(3):217-9.

Monday, January 28, 2013

#January Joy 28: Bake some bread: Rosca de Reyes recipe!

 For this January Joy prompt, as promised, I am bringing you the recipe for a traditional Mexican (and as far as I know, Spanish) holiday bread. This year we made our own, as we were lucky to have over a friend who is actually studying to become a pastry chef. She has a lot of experience already, and she is still learning new techniques. So, I can tell you, this Rosca was delicious. I brought some of the ingredients from Mexico (namely the little Jesus figurines, which are simply impossible to find  on this side of the Ocean*), some candied fruit, dried orange blossom (flor de azahar)...
But before going to the recipe (and don't worry you don't need any fancy equipment, just your hands and some patience, as the dough has to rise 3 times), I wanted to dig in the history behind this tradition:

<< Rosca de reyes or roscón de reyes (kings' ring) is a Spanish and Latin American king's cake pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany. It is traditionally eaten on January 6, during the celebration of the "Día de Reyes" (literally "Kings' Day"), which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men. In most of Spain, Spanish America, and sometimes, Hispanic communities in the United States, this is the day when children traditionally get presents, which are attributed to the Three Wise Men (and not Santa Claus or Father Christmas). In Mexico before children go to bed, they leave their shoes outside filled with hay or dried grass for the animals the Wise Men ride, along with a note. 

The tradition of placing a trinket (figurine of the Christ Child) in the cake is very old. The baby Jesus, when hidden in the bread, represents the flight of Jesus, fleeing from King Herod's evil plan to kill all babies that could be the prophesied messiah. Whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine is blessed and must take the figurine to the nearest church on February 2, Candlemass Day (Día de la Candelaria). In the Mexican culture, this person also has to throw a party and provide tamales and atole to the guests. In Spain, roscones bought in cake shops hide in their interior a figure - either of Jesus or others like little toys for kids and a dry faba bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned and becomes the "king" or "queen" of the banquet, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay next year's roscón.>>**

Now, as for the recipe. We roughly based ourselves on this one, but we modified it by adding an infusion of milk with orange blossom and using typical Mexican candied fruit and "costrón de azúcar": 4 stripes of a sugar and butter crust that represent the cardinal points which were supposed to guide The Magi on their journey. 

What you'll need
-140 g starter yeast ("mother dough", see recipe below)
-120 g milk
 -340 g flour
-70 g sugar
-6 gr. dry yeast (or 15 gr. fresh yeast). We used 1 pack dry yeast.
-2 eggs
-60 g butter
-lemon rind
-a pinch of salt
-candied fruit of your choice to decorate. You could use candied orange, dried almonds, figs, dates or other fruits. Traditionally, the candied root of a cactus, biznaga (Echinocactus platycanthus), was used, but it is an endangered plant so it is better to avoid it.
-1 egg, beaten (to decorate).
-dried orange blossom.

For the starter yeast,
90 g flour
50 g milk
2 g dried yeast

What to do 
Mix all the ingredients for the starter yeast and let ferment for 3 hours at room temperature. You could also leave it a whole day in the fridge (this is what we did. When we came back from a day in Haarlem, we set ourselves to work).  

Preheat oven to 200ºC. Make an infusion with milk, orange blossom and cinammon. Let it all boil together and then rest for a few minutes.

Mix the starter yeast with the rest of the flour, pinch of salt, lemon rind, eggs, sugar and milk-orange blossom infusion.  Work the dough for at least 1 minute. Once these ingredients are well integrated add the butter, bit by bit and work the dough for another 10 min. The dough will be light and sticky. You should continue working the dough until it becomes smooth, very soft and shiny. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, on a greased bowl covered with a damp cloth, until it doubles its volume. Work the dough for 5-10 min and form the "roscas" (rings). To do this, make a smooth ball of dough, dig a hole in the middle of it , then roll it between your hands and stretch it to the desired size. Insert your figurines / faba beans at random places on the bottom side of your rosca. "Paint" your dough with the beaten egg, place it on a tray covered in baking paper and let it ferment for another 45-60 minutes, until it doubles its volume again. Decorate with candied fruit or almonds, add the sugar crust stripes*** and bake for 16-18 min or until golden brown. Enjoy with a delicious hot chocolate, preferably the Mexican kind.

*If anyone would like some figurines, drop me an email with your address and I'll be happy to send some your way.
** according to the wikipedia.
 ***For the sugar crust:
 Mix 100 gr. butter with 90 gr powdered sugar and 90 gr. of flour to form a dough. Let it sit for a while (preferably in the fridge). When you are ready to decorate roll it out and cut stripes, then put them over your Rosca, at 4 corners to represent the North, South, East and West. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

#January Joy 25: Do something/Go somewhere you have never been before

 Today I will be attending the PhD defense of a dear friend. It will be my first time attending such a ceremony and I have to say I am very curious. We've had other friends (not many) become doctors (in the proper sense of the term) but every time we were not able to get off from work for it.  She studied Chemistry and has some kind of biomedical specialization so I am quite excited about it. Have you ever attended such a ceremony? I hope the jury is not very hard on her.

Later in the day for the "do something" part I will make my very own homemade almond milk, as explained by the great Sarah Britton, from My new roots, in her inspiring Ted Talk. All you need is almonds, a muslin cloth (or an old, washed pantyhose) and a blender.

What will you be up to?

*Image source

Thursday, January 24, 2013

#January Joy 24: Have a clear out (cupboard or whole room).

Oh this one is hard for me. I am the hoarder in the relationship. The one that has trouble getting rid of stuff just in case we would need it someday. What if the zombie apocalypse dawns on us and we do not have an array of plastic bags? Or recyclable gift-wrap paper? And boxes. I am kind of ashamed to confess that I was kind of attached to the beautiful cardboard box in which our KitchenAid came. For lack of space we finally threw it away 3 weeks ago. As a result our (little) storage room looks more organized.

For a long time I used to keep my baking tins, muffin trays, bundt pan and so forth inside the oven itself. But last Christmas we got a roasting pan, one of those you use for the turkey, that comes with a grilling tray, which is quite handy because I can just bake stuff that you would normally fry (like chicken nuggets), without the food losing its crunch. With this last addition the rest of the stuff would not fit in the oven anymore. So we had to find a solution. We moved some stuff around (from under the sink, to the storage room or to the gas meter cabinet) and we found a space for my ever growing collection of pans by the water boiler cabinet.

Are you a keeper or a hoarder? How do you organize / keep everything you need (buckets, iron, cleaning products, vacuum cleaner, broom, mop, tools, stairs...) in a small place? Do you tend to collect stuff (like plastic bags or newspaper cutouts?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

#January Joy 23: Create some memories: Snowy London !

We were away the last few days, not caring about the weather and just enjoying one of our favorite cities in the World, which would be no other than London. (That is the reason I am a bit behind answering your lovely comments, but I'll get to that in no time, now that I'm back at home with a cup of tea in my hands). The main idea behind this trip was a class I was supposed to take. We had everything ready: flights, hotel reservations and a detailed plan of where we were going to go. We were supposed to make it to Brighton, where we've both never been to. Imagine my surprise when I received an email on Friday morning (our flight was early on Saturday) letting me know that due to the massive snowfall and subsequent chaos in the roads and railway system my class had been postponed. What ! I panicked for about 10 minutes. The time it took me to figure out that changing our flights (at 42 EUR per change of flight) and considering a possible 1 night penalty for a last minute cancellation in our B&B reservation was going to be more expensive than just going with the plan. And so, I just extended one of our reservations (I have to say working at a hotel-reservation website made me an expert in solving this kind of situation flawlessly in virtually no time) and we decided to stay in London the whole weekend (the original plan was to be there barely 1 day, arriving on Monday afternoon, and leaving the next day at 17h).

It was lovely absolutely beautiful, even with the sloppy mess that the melted snow left in the city, and having to fight with the giant snowflakes and wind all the time. It meant that we spent less time walking, and more in the underground, to get from one place to another. We probably saw more museums expositions than we would have had the weather been different. Which was totally worth it because one of London's perks is that most of the museums (with the exception of some particular exhibitions) are completely free! Anyhow, for this January Joy challenge, make some memories, I am showing you here my scraps, tickets, newspaper cutouts, pamphlets and random papers that will for now go in the box-of-junk (as the boy calls it). At some point I will make a photoalbum-scrapbook. But one thing is for sure, I will never forget the sight of London all covered in white: it made me think of Narnia so much, and of life in Jane Austen's time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

#January Joy 22: Make something crafty: curtains

Hmmm. I am not at all a crafty person and my hand-eye coordination is not good either, but I have had this little project in the back of my mind and we're tackling it.
We have this little room, we call it the yellow room, that is still missing curtains. You guessed it, we're going to make them. Here is where I ask for your advice / help / input. We would like to have rolling curtains, as a matter of fact we already got the support from Ikea (that came with boring gray curtains) so all we'll do is replace the actual cloth.. The project does not seem too hard, as we basically need to make  2 rectangles (1.82x0.63m and 1.82x1.20 m), that will be then pasted to the support with double sided tape.

Choosing a fabric was very hard, we had seen a few that we liked at the Swedish place, but not one that really convinced us. Then I discovered the beautiful fabric's Sol designed and we fell in love with her "bubblegum stained glass" pattern. It reminds me of a PCR gel. The thing is we needed 6 yards of cotton canvas, and when you add the posting (45 USD !!!!) and 25 % taxes (that we would have to pay for sure) we were a bit shocked with the grand total. But don't worry Sol, we still plan on using your fabric for something, that's how much we love it.

To make a long story short last Tuesday we went to a huge fabric shop in The Hague and we found a fabric that convinced us.  So project curtain here we go. We were also silly enough to buy 2 m. of each fabric (the blue one is "darkening" , for the side of the curtains that will look outside) and as soon as we got home we realized we needed another 2 m of each fabric.
Have any of you made rolling curtains? Do you have any tips? This will be the first time I touch the sewing machine, so I need all the angels with me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

#January Joy 21: Try a new vegetarian dish (or week) + a Ratatouille recipe

The lovely views of medieval St. Paul de Vence

For this January Joy challenge, I will try to go for a vegetarian week. I will also take the opportunity to share the recipe of one of my favorite dishes: Ratatouille. If I don't count Jell-o, this was the first real meal I learnt how to cook. I learnt this recipe when I was 12 or so from my aunt while spending the summer at a Bergerie (shepherd's house) in the South of France. I have been cooking it ever since. We probably eat it at least once every two weeks, that's how good (and healthy) it is. It's also true that I am crazy about aubergine / eggplant so I'll take any chance I can to eat it. To me this dish tastes like summer but it can be enjoyed the whole year long. There are many variations to this recipe, this is just my take. You can eat it with rice, quinoa or mashed potatoes for a fulfilling meal. The next day, when cold, it is delicious as a salad or sandwich filling.

What you'll need 
-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
-1 shallot, chopped.
-1 aubergine / eggplant
-2 bell peppers ( I like to add color, so green and yellow for instance)
-1 zucchini / courgette (is the name in English squash? )
-salt, pepper, dried provençal herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil).
-olive oil

What to do
 If you have one, this is the moment to take out your Dutch oven. Otherwise, any sturdy pan will do. Cut your vegetables in 1 x 1 cm. dices.Warm some olive-oil. When it's ready (you can tell by putting a wooden spoon over it, if bubbles form around it you're good) add the garlic and shallot and gently sautée them. You should get them transparent. Once they're ready add your aubergine, and let it cook until it starts to become soft. Add the bell peppers, and later, the zucchini. You want your vegetables to cook and mix their flavours. At this point you can add salt, pepper and herbs. The salt will have an osmotic effect and push the water out of your veggies, making everything softer. Add the tomatoes and mix everything together. Some people like their ratatouille soft, almost like a purée. Others like it to keep a certain "crunch". I like to let the aubergine and the tomatoes completely melt and mix, but the boy likes it with more consistency. It does take a while so just be patient and cook it to your liking. Enjoy !

Friday, January 18, 2013

#January Joy 18: Do some family planning. (Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.)

 Hahahahhahahahahahahahaa. Do you hear my ironic laugh? Can I laugh at this prompt for another half an hour?

Ok then. Let's recapitulate. Family planning. Plan a family. Plan. Yeah. Plan. As far as I know, we can only plan things that are under our control am I right? Or can we plan the uncontrollable? And if so, can please someone tell me how? Of course this subject is a little bit sensitive, given our situation.  I started planning a family, in my mind, since I was a little girl, and I decided it was possible, that I was open and ready for it when I was 24, at the time I graduated from my first degree. I hadn't met the boy then yet, so it was not a real possibility. Once that we were together we knew we wanted to start our own little clan pretty much right away. You know how the rest of that story is going. So I guess what I want to say is that you can't plan a family. It's the biggest lie since Santa Claus. It's like human rights. You can say that health is a human right, but some people are just born with awful diseases, what happens to their right then? I never understood that. What I understand is that sh*t happens. And how we deal with it is key.

As you start on the family planning journey, you  decide to throw away your birth control of choice. You  budget. You resolve that you are ready and get in synthony with the universe. From that moment on you jump. And you hope. If you are lucky, you will be within the 75-90% of couples that will get pregnant within a year of unprotected, properly timed intercourse. If you are part (and I certainly hope not) of the 10-25%·* that will struggle, or like us, a member of the 1% , you start watching the World as from a different reality, from some kind of lonely, sad, parallel universe, like mermaids**. You start looking at how life (in the most literal sense of the word) happens to everyone but to you. And you wonder. Why? Really, Why? Did I do anything wrong to deserve this? Is this a sick joke from the Universe? When will it stop?

If there is one lesson I've learnt in trying-to-build-a-family-with-children-land is that you have to be ready to let go of ALL control. Any sensible, honest account of pregnancy will let you know that the biggest shock of all is losing control of your body, or rather, realizing that we do not have any control at all. And what about lovely people that have had to go through the heartbreaking, life shattering event of a miscarriage? If family planning existed, if there was control, these awful things would not happen. We would all be able to keep healthy little babies in our wombs just out of our love and willpower. But Nature is not perfect and Science does not know everything. Letting go of control is the first step in family-planning. Accepting that you're in for the scary, the terrifying, the dreadful. All you can do is hold hands and hope for the best. 

Oddly (and please do not stop reading after I say this), I have been finding comfort in the words of a prayer we used to say everyday, at 12:00 sharp at my hardcore-catholic middle school, the Angelus. These words repeat the answer that Virgin Mary gave to Archangel Gabriel after she heard the news that she would be bearing the son of God in her womb. These words are: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Be it done unto me according to your word. Hágase en mi según tu palabra. 

There is acceptance in those words, there is letting go. There is a total, a complete, surrender.
And to survive this journey, I have to surrender too, to let it go. Now, whenever I am having a hard moment I think of those words and I let them take over me. It's going with the flow. It is choosing to walk the (hard) path that has been laid in front of us. Taking it one day, one month at a time, hoping for the best, choosing joy.

*(in 10% of all struggling couples (10%)  all the tests appear perfectly fine, so your diagnosis is "unexplained")

** Thanks Luna, for linking to Jiraffe's beautiful text:

"Being submerged, being infertile reminds me of the great Hans Christian Andersen story called The Little Sea Maiden, destined to watch her dreams and desires but always from a great distance, under water or at the surface. For that is how infertility feels to me. I am like a mermaid. It’s not possible for me to walk on land and do things that come naturally to the mortals who are earthbound. Bargains need to be made, lessons learnt, relationships tested in the most severe of ways for me to achieve one dream of happiness. Infertility is a curse. And worse, so often it is a silent curse, one that cannot be revealed to those around us. So those who suffer from it are doubly afflicted. I wish that the mortals happily walking the land could read this story and comprehend its truth. For infertiles are so often at the mercy of fate, of sea witches. And so often, no one knows" 

Last Image source.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

#January Joy 17: Get a hair cut or try a new color

 For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a red-head. But the shade I dream of is not red-red, it's more of a blondish kind of orange. I even have a pinterest board called I wish I was a ginger. I'm not gonna deny, I've colored my hair before. But with my dark-brown hair it is very difficult to get the shade I want, or to be precise, it is very easy to end up with a reddish-old-lady shade. But I am doing it (again). I just have to find the right off-the counter little box and hope for the best. I did get one of those yesterday, but I think I am going to have another look since on daylight it seems to promise a shade that's more red and less orange.

A hair cut is not something I am going to try though. My hair is very thin and somewhere between wavy and curly. I don't know why it is so hard for hairdressers but every time I've gone they've left me with very short hair, that instead of curling gets all spongey with humidity so I look like the boiler just exploded in my face. Or like Spongebob Squarepants. It took a while, but I've discovered long is better and whenever I ask them to trim my ends they always confuse 2 cm. with 20 cm. Lately my mom is the only one I'll let cut my hair, I know I should cut it sometime but I just can't trust anyone. Last time I cut it the ends kept pointing outwards, instead of ending nice and round and towards the inside. I ended up tying my hair in a knot , braid or ponytail, everyday, until it grew again. So, no scissors for me.

What about you? Do you have trouble finding a good hairdresser? Have you ever dared with drastic color changes?

 Images from here, here, here, here,and here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#January Joy 16: Look at the budget, make a savings plan.

 Money, money, money. It's always hard to talk about it isn't it? I always half dread that moment of the month when we sit together and look at our finances and organize everything in the handy spreadsheets that the boy created for that purpose (I am more of a paper-lover kind of gal, who's always keeping tickets or else I forget where the money went).

We have quite a list of places we'd like to travel to, some of which are an ocean away. If we really want to make that happen we are going to have to save. Actually, saving is one of our general objectives, so our budget already contemplates setting some money apart every month.  So what is this going to mean? Well, it'll mean being very aware of where the money is going. I don't usually spend big quantities of money in one go. If I ever make a "big" purchase (like a fancy cocktail dress, a new coat, boots) it is often after thinking long and hard if I really need or want said item, after a thorough analysis. That's why it took us so long to get our beloved KitchenAid,  (1 year and a half after the wedding, even if we actually did not pay for it, since we used the last bit of our wedding gift certificates at a department store)*.  But news flash: little amounts add up. If I don't consciously think / organize / budget myself I can spend a lot in small things: a cup of coffee there, a notebook here, that pretty binder, baking supplies+ingredients, pocket books, train and bus tickets...

It is pretty straightforward though, you have an income and you have expenses. You should always make sure that you spend less than you have. In our case, to increase our saving rate we'll have to cut down some expenses, and since there are some things that can not be cut out (like insurance, or the mortgage) we have to cut from other places: our grocery spending, the "fun" (going out) + "extras" (birthday gifts, treats, etc.) budget. We also do not use credit cards except for the absolute necessary (online payments where it's the only payment option), and in that case we make sure we pay straight away, or maximum within 3 months. We are lucky enough that the education system in Europe is subsidized so we did not have to get study loans (and I was blessed  to get a Swiss scholarship). Other than for the house we are strongly against getting debt or stuff on credit (like a car). For instance, we'd only get a car if we could pay for it in its entirety. The boy just reminded me that we've also recently changed TV / internet and insurance companies, so this will mean a total of EUR 800 saved in the whole year. (I knew this but I completely forgot).

 Anyhow, as it is we are basically living on 1 salary (and we are incredibly lucky to be able to do so). Sure we don’t spend loads on money, we are quite good at the saving game, like I said, at least it is something that we both aspire to and when we make big purchases (like a DSLR camera this christmas) it is after a lot of thought and research…. For instance we actually got this camera and simultaneously decided not to have any other presents, it was THE present. It is also true that when I was working, that is, up until last September, my full salary went to savings or was used for stuff like tickets to Mexico. In my experience, when possible, this arrangement works quite well.

Budgeting is hard but I think living alone as a student helped me get good at it: there were certain things I wanted (like books!) for which I saved and certain others I didnt care for at the time (like my nutrition, so I lived on pasta + tomato sauce + oatmeal + milk) for which I didn’t spend a lot. But it is just a matter of organizing and compromising. It comes down to "we really want A, so let’s not do B for now."

Do you have any budgetting tricks under your sleeve? How do you deal with all of this? 

*I have to say it was the best decision ever, baking and being able to tackle complicated recipes and continously learn has been like therapy for me.

** I just found Mayi Carles' blog, Heartmade (thanks Marcela) and if you like organization tips, funny hilarious videos and some crazy inspiration go check her place out. 

*** image by the talented Mayi Carles, really go there !

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

#January Joy 15: Read a new book.

I am going to start this post by sending you all to Any Other Woman's book swap. It is the best thing that ever happened to the blogosphere, I believe. Like bookcrossing, but then improved. It is open to anyone, anywhere and participating is as easy as leaving a comment. If you choose to participate, you will be assigned someone to whom you will have to send a book (the choice of which is totally free, and the book does not even have to be new, recirculating books is also encouraged), and you will receive a book right in your mailbox. Perfect deal no? Better than pen-pals I say. So head over there, leave a comment (the deadline is Thursday the 17th), and then come back. I will be waiting for you.

So... a new book. Do travel guides count? Because I can not seem to put down the newest addition to our travel book collection: The New York Times: 36 Hours: 125 Weekends in Europe. At the same time I am still busy with "Reading Lolita in Tehran", but there are quite a few books that I'd like to read, "Moranthology" by Caitlin Moran being one of them and "The World until yesterday", the latest book by Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist and author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and its sequel of sorts: "Collapse".

Anyhow, I thought this would be a good opportunity to make short reviews of the books I have read in the last 18 months or so? Some are biographies, some are easy picked-at-the-airport reads, some are the bestsellers that everyone has read, some are classics... you can tell I just like books, as long as the story is good enough for me to sink in it, I'll keep on reading (though I do have a penchant for fairy tales, fantasy and secret worlds, no wonder Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Rayuela, Stardust and Harry Potter are all amongst my favorite)

Cemetery of Prague by Umberto Eco. I liked this one, I wrote my first impressions about it here. It is very scary how it portrays the human attitudes we use against "the other" (groups, nationalities... you name it) and it is sad to see how this is still happening every day.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. An easy read, I liked the story, specially the parts where the main character talks about the writing process (which made me think of Lauren). I loved the movie too, but I am a fan of Emma Stone, so what can I say? )

The invisible circus by Jennifer Egan. I was attracted to this story because a part of me always wanted to live the revolutions and student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Maybe I am romanticizing, but I get the feeling that the youth back then really believed a change could happen, they were pure idealists. I feel our generation is very critical, can clearly pinpoint at the problems, but from there, finding the solutions to a better world is a hard, seeming surmountable task. We really don't know where to go, and that leads to a certain indifference, hopelessnes, disappointment. Anyhow this book tells the story of a girl on a trip through Europe tracing back the steps of her sister who died on mysterious circumstances while being involved in the protests and the counter-culture movement of 1969.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I really liked The Virgin Suicides(both the book and the film), so I had to read this one. It was entertaining, I was caught by the story from the beginning, and could relate to some of the characters. The description of depression and mental instability are poignant. I'd give it a 7.5 or an 8.

Storyteller, the life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock. This one I really enjoyed, I like to get to know the author and the life and inspiration behind a man who could create such wonderful worlds as The chocolate factory and Matilda. It was very entertaining, and also very real. The part describing the stroke of his first wife ringed a bell because we lost Mark's grandma to a cerebrovascular event after 6 months of  her being completely changed.

Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses by Laure Adler and Stefan Bollmann. This is mostly a book full of beautiful paintings, but it gives an explanation and historical context of each painting, starting in the Middle Ages and going all the way to contemporary art. It is more of a coffee table book, but I really really enjoy it and I had been wanting it for a very long time, so serendipitously finding it in Paris was very exciting.

La emoción de las cosas by Angeles Mastretta. This is her latest book, and the most biographical of all. I like to get to know the author behind the stories, in her books she portrays Mexican society and politics in such a vivid, real, natural way. This book is mostly a collection of separate anecdotes and you will end up feeling like you've been chatting with her over coffee and some butter cookies.

Leonora by Elena Poniatowska. This one is good. Real good. Elenita can write, and Leonora Carrington's life was fascinating. Get your hands on this one, you won't regret it.

Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas. I picked this one at the airport, it is just a novel but the back-cover description had me intrigued: " 'Bright Young Things wanted for Big Project.' They're in the prime of their lives but our bright young things are all burnt out. Six sparky twenty-somethings just out of university and working dead-end jobs, they are all bored to tears with their lives and looking for a way out. When a mysterious job is advertised in the newspaper, they all apply. What they least expect is to find themselves prisoners on a deserted island. There's food in the fridge and they have a bedroom each, but there's no telephone, no television, and no way to escape."

The particular sadness of lemon cake by Aimee bender. I love lemon cake, so this title caught my attention. I found the story quite disturbing, and it made me sad. If art consists of the artist making the reader feel something, this book certainly succeeded. I also like how it mixes magic with everyday events, much in the way Cortazar did.

For better, for worse the science of a good marriage. by Tara Parker Pope. This book was meh. Don't bother with it, it is not worth your time, your pennies or the trip to the library. If you want to read a discussion on this book go to A practical wedding. But really Science? This book is not about science. I guess I expected anthropology, or studies on the biological basis of human behaviour regarding the way we relate to each other (for that kind of thing I recommed Desmond Morris, though he can make you raise your eyebrows, he's controversial like that). Making a bunch of surveys and psychological tests that a middle schooler could come up with and then analysing the data collected in such a way is not science.

El albergue de las mujeres tristes by Marcela Serrano. This one is just an easy read, a soap opera kind of book. But the story takes place in Chile, where my best friend lives, and the main character is in love with a doctor (like my best friend) so I guess I just wanted ome gossip.

Les écureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi by Katherine Pancol . This one is what you would call chick-lit. It is easy to read, funny, keeps you entertained. Nothing transcendental.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea. This one is a favorite. I just really really liked it, it describes the lives of 4 (privileged) girls in Saudi Arabia and their everyday struggles and love stories in a very restricted society. But there is some hidden depth in it.

The turkish embassy letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. These are the letters describing Lady Mary's travels through Europe all the way to Turkey in 1716, giving an insight to life at that time: the freedom conferred on Muslim women by the veil, the value of experimental work by Turkish doctors on inoculation (which led to the development of the very first vaccines and further eradication of smallpox) , the beauty of Arab culture. She was basically an early travel blogger.

Optimum nutrition before, during and after pregnancy by Patrick Holford and Susanna Lawson. This one is very very good, even if you are not planning in gettting pregnant. It covers every aspect of a healthy nutrition and explains the why in very simple terms. It also helped me finally come to terms with my 32-year old metabolism and weight and stop obsessing with trying to (quite nonsensically) lower my BMI.

And you? What have you been reading? Any books that I should absolutely read?

*First image found here.
Post edit

 As it could not have been better timed, the postman just delivered a little box with my awaited Spanish-Dutch and Dutch-Spanish dictionaries. So there goes, a brand new (second-hand) book(s) for today's prompt. Also, I totally forgot to mention these books, as Marcela reminded me in the comments:

How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran. I wrote about it here.

Eat, pray, love + Comitted by Elizabeth Gilbert. I liked the first one, but was not crazy about it. Comitted though, I really enjoyed as I like to learn about history, culture and the origins of the things we do, and she does a profound analysis of the history of the institution of marriage among different countries and ages.

Monday, January 14, 2013

#January Joy 14: Monday mani or pedicure

I think the other day I already more or less explained how taking care of my nails (or face) or generally getting savvy in all those girly things like mastering the cat-eye have never been my thing. Lately though, I am starting to wish I was a makeup expert because I would love to be able to do this on my own (I've tried, with crying emo results. That's how I learned liquid eyeliner is not to be placed on your inner lower eyelid).

One thing that I can do on my own (well after erasing the extra borders with acetone) is paint my nails and toenails. And it really is fun. I've been experimenting with color too: for my brothers wedding I went with a green-turquoise sparkly confetti effect, and in the last weeks I have been wearing a pearly-bright-coral polish.

Now, inspired by Florence I am back to my usual natural peach but with a sparkly middle finger :p
If you can treat yourself, it is lots of fun to get your manicure done professionally. There is a salon here where you can book with your friends, sit together in this really high seats and get all pampered while drinking Turkish tea in authentic little cups. My sister and I did that one day before the wedding and it was great. Of course, that day it was pouring and we had to go out in the rain, run to the French bakery to get the macarons and then pick up my aunt and cousin at a café (not a coffee shop) in the center. Day-before-the-wedding rush. Not even Christmas-day shopping can beat it.

Have you been playing with your nails recently? What are your favorite shades? Is it really possible to have a proper cat-eye done at home?

*The image of Mad-Men's Christina Hendricks was found via Pinterest.

Friday, January 11, 2013

#January Joy 11: Go to the movies

 Oh the movies. So many memories. There used to be a time when the local cinema had a 2x1 offer every Wednesday and so, it was movie night. Every Wednesday I'd go to the movie theater with a group of friends,  sometimes we watched movies just for the sake of watching them.

These days we don't go to the movies so often, what with downloading being legal in The Netherlands, we only really go when there is an epic movie that really deserves to be seen in the big screen. Or when we just don't want to wait. We'll try to sneak in a movie night this weekend, it's been so long since we went. We'll probably see "Koning van Katoren", one of the favorite childhood books of the boy.

What is your favorite movie of all times ? I absolutely loved "Jeux d'enfants" (Love me if you dare), and "10 things I hate about you" was one of my faves in high-school. I asked the boy and he says Gladiator and Forrest Gump are high on his list. More recently, "Intouchables" and "Et si on vivait tous ensemble" (All together) were a big hit among both of us.

First image via here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

# January Joy 10: Plan a getaway

 This might be my favorite # January Joy prompt yet. It is no secret that we both love to travel, that we want to see the World. So many places to explore. In order to get organized I thought I'd make a list of the places we really want to go to this year, and then, make it happen. I spent quite a while yesterday looking at airplane fares, apartments and the such. This year we'd like to make it to:

-California (I think of Yogi bear saying this, does anyone remember that episode?)
-Marseille and Côte d'Azur, this one might be a road trip.
-Switzerland (I haven't visited my family there since 2009, oops. Maybe we can drive there for once)
-Barcelona (it feels like home) and Madrid (I yet have to reconcile with the city, I was there only a day and a half and the city didn't do it for me).
-Cyprus, maybe?
-Milan (a very good friend is there right now, I really want to see her)
-Insbruck / Münich (another high school friend lives in the area, really want to meet again, after 12 years)
-London (the boy and I have both been there separetely, and we love it over there. We want to explore it together now)

I do realize this is already a long list and we might not be able to go everywhere this year (specially because with fertility treatments you never know exactly when you are going to need to be at the hospital, or else you loose a cycle). Planning is key, and to start what better than to budget and to search for offers and ways to save. Also, not to sound like a commercial*, but KLM has just released its annual "Wereld weken deals" (World weeks) where you can often find very good prices: I'm talking Middle East destinations starting circa 360 EUR, Asian for 500 EUR, Mexico for 600 EUR (for this one prices normally start at 900 EUR and that's if you're lucky prices didn't go as high ad 1200 EUR) and most European destinations for 99 EUR.

If you really want to cut costs some tips that we've learnt along the way are:

1. Stay in apartments or rooms with a kitchenette. You will be able to cook some meals and not eating out all the time will save you some pennies.
2. This one goes together with tip 1.:  go to the supermarket. It is a great way of experiencing the local everyday life, you'll find new products and you will get cheaper stuff.
3.  Try staying outside the city, or in the surrounding metropolitan areas, but do research and make sure you're in a safe place and public transport is available. You might want to investigate the price of public transport too, because if it is crazy expensive (like in London) it might not be worth it. You'll need to calculate if the difference in price + cost of transport compensates or not...
4. Depending on how long you are staying you could maybe rent a car for a couple of days: you'll be able to road-trip a bit, which is an experience on its own.
5. If you don't want to rent a car, find out if there are buses / trains or other means to get to places of interest. Think of using the transport as the locals would, and not services oriented for tourists.
6. If you know anyone who has been to your destination, or who lives there, by all means, ask for tips, they will know better than anyone.
7.  East Side Bride -approved destination city guides are both hilarious and informative. They give a good idea of what to expect, at least as a first approach.

Do you have any trips planned already for this year ? Where do you dream of going?

* PS: This is not a sponsored post. KLM did not pay me to write this, it's just me giving you a tip I find useful. Though if they feel like buying me a plane ticket or two I wouldn't complain either. 
Given that we met on one of their airplanes and all...

* last image  found on Pinterest
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