In defence of modern parents

I introduced the lovely and talented Jane a short while ago when she shared her vegan chilli recipe with us. It was actually this parenting article which gave me the idea to ask her to write a guest blog post; she wrote it to encourage her friends on facebook but I think it definitely deserves to be shared more widely. Please do share it with parents who you know are doing a good job, we so often feel judged negatively that we could do with a little encouragement!

in defence of modern parents

So this past couple of weeks there has been an upsurge in the number of wildly overblown, emotive and derisory anti-parent fodder on Facebook and it’s beginning to drive me a little bit insane. Apparently modern parents are lazy, digitally distracted, lacking in the skills of a disciplinarian and all for an easy life as regards parenting. We are presented with black and white photos of crying children needing more from momma or graphics showing a huge phone dominating a lounge featuring sad children wanting daddy to play with them. In the same diatribes our generation’s failings are allegedly connected with the large incline in mental health problems and diagnoses of ADHD in the future generation.

So a few points to raise, factual and non confrontational, as counter arguments; The average loan to value percentage for a couple buying their first home is a whopping 82%. with the necessity to save a substantial amount for a deposit. Steps up the property ladder as families expand see mortgages soar past £200K and pretty much everyone, first time buyer or not, parent or not, is paying between £700-£1,000 per month for a mortgage and a similar amount for private rents per month. Most families now have both parents working around 37-40 hours a week and often running two cars due to the necessity to commute to find the right job. We are paying for the food, clothes and hobbies of our children. Debt is at an all time high and costs are rising all the time, particularly with the uncertainty of what will transpire economically and politically.

Fundamentally, it’s not an easy time to raise kids and despite all the accusations of lazy parenting and digital distraction lets have a think about these phenomena and re-frame these ideas in light of the above points. So full time working parents doing long hours and commuting long distances probably don’t have as much time to enjoy their kids as much as they would like to and part time workers are cramming vast amounts of work into shorter hours to prove their worth against a backdrop of sneering colleagues who envy their 2pm finishes. Those who run their own business throw heart and soul into trying to guarantee a regular and healthy income and though often working from home don’t get to benefit from the home life they are trying to sustain. We’re up against it aren’t we??

Parents are hard working human beings who have to plot hobbies and associated tournaments/exams, sports days, nativities, birthday parties, school trips. We also have to deal with unexpected illnesses and hospital trips, broken boilers, car problems and save for Christmas and birthdays. This factor hasn’t really changed to be honest over the years but what has is that because of both parents generally having to work long hours there is a very short window of time left to both accomplish the raising of healthy and well rounded children as per guide books and forums, and also the need to see our own friends and family and keep our minds healthy too.

There is constant “noise” from parenting forums, the guide books, the health visitors and the opinions of all and sundry on how we should be accomplishing this crucial task of shaping and nurturing a human and it is very bewildering and constant. It also makes it so hard to feel 100% confident in what you are doing, leading to further self-doubt.

The importance of modern parents keeping in contact with their own friends and family, the wind beneath their wings, cannot be underestimated. Especially when you think about the stress and exhaustion issues around modern parenting. Furthermore, the importance of parents having time for each other cannot be underestimated. Mental health problems in adults are rising as well as children because we are all depleted and struggling to cope.

And has ADHD really risen that dramatically in kids or was it simply not diagnosed back in the day? Were the kids labelled as “the naughty ones” and simply put in life’s Room 101? ADHD is real, it’s not a label, and physiologically the brain of a person with ADHD differs in structure and make up. It’s no-one’s “fault” and maybe statistics on this incline are not reliable because of the former lack of care and diagnosis.

As for the bad press single parents get, don’t get me started. For whoever reads this raising kids on their own I take my hat off to you, truly, because you are warriors.

Digitally distracted? To have a look at Facebook is sometimes the only time we can connect with our friends and see what they are up to, drop them a quick message and check all is well with them. It may not always be as meaningful a connection as a night out or a coffee with them but with busy diaries sometimes it is the only way. Those who love you the most will find the time for you no matter what and I am embracing the big night in these days rather than the big night out now haha! It takes weeks to find a date where all concerned are available but we get there.

When I look around and think of all my friends and acquaintances I see parents setting good examples of the work ethic, showing how you get what you want through graft and effort alone. I see parents encouraging their children to enjoy hobbies and taking them to wonderful museums, theatres, big green spaces, foreign climes and expanding their minds with these efforts. I see parents who work long hours standing on the sidelines of a football pitch through winter for more hours at the weekend when they could be relaxing!!!

For those on lower incomes just the simple things have to be enough, and those like us on a single income plus a smidge from the cakes try to find out about the free stuff and seek out the vouchers, which takes commitment and skill to find haha! My kids have visited some wonderful places though, climbed a thousand trees, swam in open waters, enjoyed roaring fires in cottages, and tried all sorts of everything from a hobby perspective and never at a great cost. But however and whatever parents are doing I see in my friendship circle that they are doing it universally well, with the greatest love and commitment. I want to say to you that if you ever doubt yourself when reading these derisory posts, to challenge your self-doubt and think about what you have done that has made your child smile and all that you have achieved on life’s hardest but most rewarding journey. I can assure you that just being there for them, in a warm environment, with a decent meal and the example of a parent or parents who work hard and love them immeasurably is enough. You are enough.

Thanks again Jane, I needed that bit of encouragement!

Fish poached in a rich tomato sauce

Poached Fish

This is a dish which I came up with a few weeks ago. I often fry fish, but I had bought some tomatoes which were disappointingly too soft for salad and needed cooking, so I decided to make a sauce to poach the fish in. A much healthier option! I had a good idea in my head of how it would turn out, but it wasn’t until I was able to smell and taste that I realised that it had a distinctly Spanish feel to it.

I used Nile Perch, quite a strong meaty fish which is pretty cheap here in Dubai (we’ve been having a low-spend January). I served it with Buckwheat cooked with mushrooms (based on this recipe), and frozen peas because I hadn’t been organised enough to get any other green veg.

This served two adults and a child with some leftover.

p.s. I made it again last night and forgot to add the spinach, it was still very yummy!

Ingredients

  • a small onion
  • a couple of cloves of garlic
  • a couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes, halved (you could also chop larger tomatoes into chunks, I just happened to have cherry tomatoes which needed using)
  • a teaspoon of oregano
  • half a teaspoon of paprika (you can add more later to taste if you like)
  • a teaspoon of vegetable stock powder, or half a teaspoon of salt
  • frozen spinach – this is difficult to measure out because it usually comes in a big block. I banged the frozen block (while still in it’s packaging) on a hard work-surface to break it up a bit and used as close to a handful as I could.
  • a teaspoon of tomato paste
  • two pieces of a meaty fish, I used Nile Perch.

Method

It is best to make this in a large shallow pan with a lid if you have one.

Gently fry the finely chopped onion and garlic until soft. Next add the tomatoes along with the spices and stock/ salt and gently cook with the lid on the pan until the juices have come out of the tomato. Put the spinach in a jug or bowl and add just enough boiled water to cover it, when it has defrosted add the spinach and water to the tomatoes along with the tomato paste, turn the heat up and leave the lid off to allow some of the liquid to boil off (at this point I would start cooking the bulgar wheat). After about five minutes taste the sauce and add more seasoning if it is needed (this is all down to personal taste).

Turn the heat down so that the sauce is gently simmering and place pieces of fish on top of the sauce. Put the lid on and let the fish steam for about five minutes, then turn the fish over and cook for a few minutes longer. The exact cooking time will vary depending on the type and thickness of the fish; it needs to be served as soon as it is completely cooked through, if it is left much longer you risk it becoming a bit tough or rubbery.

Serve with the buckwheat and some green vegetables.

Janey's Venerable Vegan Chilli!

Hurrah, a guest post – thanks Jane! It is so refreshing to be able to share someone else’s cooking and writing styles. I met Jane at a toddler group that I used to go to when I lived in the UK. She is a supermum (although I’m sure she doesn’t always feel like it) who has set up her own business making incredibly impressive party cakes. You can see her fabulous cakes here. This isn’t a cake recipe – I expect that she didn’t want to share her trade secrets!

I really enjoyed testing this recipe. We used smoked paprika because we couldn’t get hold of liquid smoke. The observant amongst you will also note that we missed out the sweetcorn – we were convinced that there was some at the back of the cupboard, but alas there was none. This made a huge amount of chilli – we should have invited the neighbours! I am looking forward to having it again as a freezer meal on a lazy evening.

vegan chilli

I love this “chuck it al in” chilli in January, a veg packed antidote to the over indulgence of Christmas and mercifully quick to temper one’s exhaustion at the thought of what to serve for tea (the eternal dilemma haha)! Protein rich, store cupboard friendly and super yummy with either long grain or wholegrain rice with some home-made guacamole or for vegetarians sour cream with chopped chives/grated cheese. The liquid smoke, if you can get hold of it, adds a super special magic and really does take it to a new level! Lastly, kids actually like this….all three of mine and this is a minor miracle as they all have such different tastes (I have a Venn diagram under a fridge magnet lol).

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 red and 1 yellow pepper
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into batons
  • 1 broccoli head chopped into florets
  • 1-2 tbsp of chilli powder depending on your spice threshold!
  • 1 tsp of smoked paprika or a splash of liquid smoke
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin
  • 1 tsp of oregano
  • 1 tin of chick peas
  • 1 tin of kidney beans
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (add a little veg stock if required)
  • 1 tin of sweetcorn
  • 1 tsp sugar (I would start with half a teaspoon and then add more to taste)

Method

I used a large, shallow pan with a lid.

1)  Saute the onion and garlic on a medium heat in the olive oil until starting to soften.

2)  Lower the heat and add the carrots and broccoli, plus the peppers, stir frying until they soften a little.

4)  Add the chilli powder, smoked paprika/liquid smoke, cumin and oregano and stir until the veg are thoroughly coated.

5)  Add the tomatoes and chick peas, as well the kidney beans and sweetcorn. Add the sugar and stir through.

6)  Simmer away on a low heat until the veg are cooked through but still a little al-dente and the liquid in the tomato base sauce has thickened (if it is still a little watery add some diluted cornflour to thicken at the last minute or add more liquid if vice versa…either another tin of toms or veg stock).

Serve as suggested above and enjoy!

vegan chilli

Mum's Vegetable Pie

This is the delicious vegetable pie made by my mum, which I alluded to in my Bread and Butter Pudding post. It used up all the vegetables we had in the fridge, along with pastry and cheese which were left over from making New Year party snacks. A great using-up meal, and a special treat since I didn’t have to cook that evening (thanks mum!).

What is your favourite recipe for using up Christmas and New Year leftovers?

vegetable pie

Ingredients

  • one leek 
  • one carrot
  • a handful of mushrooms 
  • a handful of green beans
  • a splash of cream
  • a couple of spoons of cream cheese (we used a Middle Eastern cream cheese called Labneh, it is similar to Philadelphia cheese)
  • a small handful of hard cheese (we used stilton)
  • one egg
  • a sheet of puff pastry

Method

Saute the leeks and mushrooms together in oil or butter for a few minutes. Next blanch the carrots and beans and combine all the vegetables in a bowl  with cream, cream cheese and crumbled stilton. When this mixture is cool, stir in the beaten egg (it would be good to keep a little bit of the egg to one side to brush the pastry with).

Lay out the pastry on a baking tray and put the filling on one half (leaving space around the edge to seal the pastry parcel). Brush the edges with milk or egg and then fold the pastry over so that it has a lid and press down the edges with a fork. Brush with egg or milk and top with a grind of salt.
Bake at 180oC for approximately half an hour.

vegetable pie

Bread and Butter Pudding with Dates

Date Bread and Butter Pudding

I often don’t get through a whole loaf of bread before it starts going dry. I hate to waste things so I have been putting dry-ish bread in the freezer for months, with the aim of eventually getting round to making bread and butter pudding.

Now that it is January I am in fridge and freezer emptying mode; I do this every year to try and use up Christmas leftovers and decrease spending for a while. A week into the new year we had a fantastic leftovers meal of vegetable pie, invented by my mum, followed by bread and butter pudding made by Steve. A cheap delicious meal, no food waste, and an evening off from cooking for me – winner! Steve based the bread and butter pudding on a good-old Delia Smith recipe from our old family recipe book. He adapted the recipe to use dates instead of currents and candied peel, and omitted most of the sugar other than some lovely crunchy demerara sugar on top.

Ingredients

  • 8 slices of bread, buttered
  • a handful of chopped dates
  • 12 fl oz/ 350ml milk
  • 3 eggs
  • A couple of tablespoons of demerara sugar
  • Grated rind of a small lemon
  • Ground nutmeg

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 180oC.

Rub butter onto the base and sides of a deep oblong baking dish (Delia Smith says a 2 pint dish, I just choose one which looks about right).

Butter the bread and cut it into triangles. Place a layer butter side up into the dish and sprinkle on some chopped dates, add another layer of bread and repeat.

Measure out the milk (you can add cream if you are feeling decadent or have some to use up, as long as it adds up to the correct volume). Add the whisked eggs to the milk and then pour over the bread. Delia adds sugar, the lemon rind and nutmeg to the milk, but I prefer to add them at the end for a delicious crunchy topping.

Sprinkle the sugar, lemon zest and nutmeg onto the top and then bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. It should end up lovely and gooey in the middle with a crispy top. The crispy sugar and lemon is delicious.

Chocolate Creams

Raspberry Creams

It has become one of Steve’s Christmas traditions to make hampers for some lucky few friends. I made a small contribution (this year I made Delia’s Chicken Liver Pate) but it is mostly Steve’s hard work. He finishes his teaching for the semester and (mostly) finds it calming making delicious treats in the kitchen, of the type that I would find far too fiddly and time consuming.

One of the favourites are mint creams, but it seems that Peppermint Essence is hard to come by in Dubai which led to some good experimenting this year. We had raspberry creams for the hampers, followed by orange creams for my Christmas present. What could be more romantic than chocolate made by your husband?… that he uses his wedding ring as the perfect size cutter (well cleaned first of course).

The basic recipe is based on one from The Crafty Larder, chosen because it doesn’t use raw egg white. Here, in his own words, is Steve’s method for making chocolate creams.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 tsp flavouring (peppermint, raspberry, orange, etc.)
  • 2 tsp liquid glucose
  • 4 tsp water
  • 250g icing sugar
  • 100g 75% dark chocolate

Note that the quantity of water/flavouring may vary slightly and it may take a couple of attempts to perfect. If the mixture comes out too wet then add more icing sugar, if it is too dry then add a very small amount of water at a time.

Method

1.      In a bowl, mix the first three ingredients (plus food colouring if desired).

2.      Add the icing sugar and then thoroughly mix together to form a smooth workable dough, if the dough crumbles add water, if it is too sticky add some icing sugar.

3.      On a glass board sprinkle some icing sugar and then roll out the dough to a thickness of roughly 5 mm. During rolling sprinkle icing sugar to the surface regularly. You can place a sheet of baking/greaseproof paper on top to prevent sticking to the rolling pin. I however found this unnecessary. If the dough cracks during rolling then sprinkle more icing sugar.

4.      Using a cutter (my wedding ring is just the right size, cleaned of course) cut the dough into small rounds and place them onto a surface which is sprinkled with icing sugar. Leave them to dry for half an hour.

5.      Place a piece of greaseproof paper onto a tray that you can place into the fridge, flip the creams onto the greaseproof paper, then place them into the fridge overnight to continue drying.

6.      The next day melt the chocolate and dip the mints. I use a fork for this which produces an even coat, with relatively thin chocolate. I slide the chocolates on the fork slowly on their side, and then flip them such that the side that touched the fork is upwards. Depending on the temperature and consistency of the chocolate this will produce a texture to the chocolate surface. Place the coated chocolates back onto the greaseproof paper. During this stage you may add food glitter or an identifier of some form to the surface if you are making multiple flavours of chocolate creams.

7.      Place the chocolates back into the fridge to set. Once set they are done.

Using my wedding ring I make approximately 100 chocolate creams from this recipe.

It is then Kitty’s job to package them for the hampers, usually in greaseproof paper parcels tied with ribbon and a pretty label.

chocolate orange creams

Sustainable Dubai Living?!

If you have been following my blog for a while you have probably noticed that I am interested in the origins of my food, love shopping locally and seasonably and try my best to use up what I’ve got and keep food waste to the minimum. I try my best to shop sustainably and ethically, get cross about pointless packaging and try to dispose of the waste I do make carefully. And now? This self-professed greeny has moved to Dubai! The land of excess. The city in the desert. The city of air conditioning and desalinated water. As you can imagine this is a challenge. How can I live sustainably in this place? Is it even possible? Do the little things that I do make any difference in a land where, if the whole world lived to this excess, we would run out of resources less than a quarter of the way though the year?

Inspired by an article I read recently about trying to be ‘green’ in rural America I have decided to share with you a ‘week in the life of’ me trying to live sustainably in Dubai. Some of the challenges are very different, some surprisingly similar.

This post is a little longer than my usual, but please stick with me and let me know your thoughts.

Sunday

It is the beginning of the week (weekends being Friday and Saturday here) and Steve makes his first packed lunch salad for the week. We buy most of our vegetables from Spinney’s which is just a few minutes walk away (a very hot few minutes unless we go early or late in the day). A little while ago they were selling reusable cloth bags for vegetables, they seem to have stopped selling them but I am still using them. They are also happy for us to take pots back to the deli counter to refill. The vegetables, not surprisingly, come from all over the world. I remain unsure whether it is better to buy local vegetables grown using desalinated water or things brought in from overseas. A positive choice I can make is to avoid pre-packed vegetables.

Steve’s Greek Salad

  • Half a cucumber
  • a small tomato
  • Half a small onion
  • Feta cheese
  • Balsamic vinegar

Variations

  • Chopped olives
  • Hummus
  • Baked chopped beetroot
  • Hard boiled egg
  • Line caught tinned tuna

We also do some of our shopping at the local organic shop, making use of their fantastic discount days to replenish the store-cupboard and buy some meat for the freezer. It is quite an expensive place to buy meat even when there is a good discount, but as we only eat it about once a week we can afford to be choosy. I also love that they sell some ingredients loose which cuts down on plastic.

Monday

It is hard in summer to entertain a little one here, it is too hot and humid outside. My friends and I take it in turns to host playdates at home, but sometimes we just need a change of scenery. Today I took baby to a soft-play area to meet some of his little friends (they were all awake at the same time for once – a miracle). I choose a decaffeinated ice mocha at the café there, it is served in a glass jar not a disposable plastic cup like many places – good. But… I am too slow in turning down the straw, and I notice that having decaf means that the coffee comes in an individual plastic package to keep it fresh. You win some you lose some I suppose?

I get home and the little one has a nap, worn out from his playing. Do I have a nap myself or do the washing up? The perpetual question of a stay at home mum. I go with the washing up. It takes a while for the water to come through hot enough, so while it heats up I collect it in old milk bottles to water my plants on the balcony. Growing up in the driest part of the UK and then spending time living in Australia has made me rather sensitive about wasting water. While on the subject of washing up – one of the easy small changes I made a while ago was to start using washable cloths rather than sponges, it’s not a hardship to put them in the washing machine so this is an easy way to reduce waste.

Tuesday

For the first time since starting on the large refillable bottles of water we have run out before our Wednesday delivery and have to buy bottled water – bother. We also need to buy a big bucket of yoghurt for baby. I don’t think that there is a good alternative to buying yoghurt in a plastic tub – I could make it myself but I would still need to buy the milk in plastic bottles. At least buying a large volume reduces the packaging and baby is excited to have another bucket to put his toys in, and for playing water at the beach.

Wednesday

Today our big refilled bottles of water are supposed to turn up. I could lie to you and say that everything went to plan… but I’m going to be honest and admit that I forgot to top up the water app with money so the bottles didn’t turn up. So, I had to go shopping for bottled water again. Fail.

So, drinking water. An interesting dilemma here in Dubai. Arguably we could do better than the refilled bottles and have a filter tap installed in the sink… arguably we don’t even need to do that. Dubai water is, I’ve been told, drinking water standard at source however people still don’t trust it; possibly rightly because in some buildings there can be issues with corrosion of pipes. What I would really like to do is to send a sample of our tap water off to a lab so we can find out whether we can drink it or not. I expect that this isn’t an option so for the moment I’ll stick to my big bottles and do a little more research into filter taps.

Thursday

We have got back into the habit of using Steve’s bread maker again, which cuts down on packaging and means that there are no preservatives. The flour is packaged in paper and is an organic British brand, there doesn’t seem to be a more local alternative for Bread Flour. The oil and sugar are in plastic but bulk bought, yeast is in a tin but has a plastic lid to keep fresh.  We still buy local Arabic bread which is incredibly cheap, fresh and great with salad and for dipping in hummus – it is packaged in plastic, but at least the bags are the perfect size for our bathroom bin.

Friday

It’s the weekend!

I have decided that I want a bikini. I have to say that I am not a confident bikini wearer, I much prefer the support of a full cossie when swimming; but it is too hot and humid to comfortably walk across the road to the pool with a swimming costume under my clothes (first world problem?!). Which brings me to clothes. A bikini is the second thing I have bought since we arrived here in March, I also got a light long sleeved cardigan which I can wear with almost everything – which is great because I dislike baring my arms which are two dress sizes bigger than the rest of me (and at times it is inappropriate to have bare arms here, so it’s very useful garment).

I don’t like buying new clothes too often. I worry about the sweat shop it was probably made in. I worry about the resources used to make it – oil for manmade fibres, the huge amount of water for growing cotton. I love inheriting preloved clothes from friends and finding lovely things in charity shops. I am not sure whether charity shops exist here, but I think that I will put some time into organising a clothes swap – I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday

It is still the weekend, but the chores continue. Washing clothes seems never ending. Recently I have been reading about how we should wash clothes less in order to save water and lessen the micro-plastics getting into the water. This is difficult in such a hot climate and with a baby. Wearing more natural fibres would help (but I don’t want to buy new clothes, and growing cotton uses a lot of water so is not necessarily a good environmental option – difficult). Hopefully when it cools down in the autumn I can wash the grown-up clothes less. I could also be more consistent in separating out washing which just needs a quick ‘de-stink’ from clothes which baby has covered in food and… other nastier things. Having said all that, I don’t think that the onus should just be on consumers for reducing microfibres – this is an interesting article which discusses things which the industry could do before clothes even reach the shelves.

When we moved to Dubai I started using washable nappies. I would have liked to have done this from day one but I didn’t feel up to the task with a newborn, and then when I had things more ‘together’ the thought of having to dry them in a damp British winter was a bit much. Now I have finally have time, energy and a warm climate to dry things in – hurrah! Having said that I only use them when I am near home, I don’t like the idea of carrying a poo-filled nappy around with me all day.

Some final thoughts…

One of the points made in the article about being ‘green’ in rural America which really resonated with me was ‘some people feeling bad for decisions largely out of their control – and many people not feeling bad for actions they can control‘. Personally, I know that I am the kind of person who can easily start feeling guilty about things which I don’t do. Sometimes this is good and can lead to action, other times it just adds to the fatigue which often plagues me. When my little one was born I made a conscious decision not to use washable nappies and managed not to feel bad about it – I knew my limits and knew that I would probably surpass them with a newborn. Some environmentally conscious friends tried hard to tell me how easy it is to wash nappies, others supported the fact that I recognised my limits and was looking out for my mental health (thanks Kate!).

If you have got to the end of this post, thank-you  –  I hope that it hasn’t been too long and rambling! I would be interested in your thoughts – especially if you live here in Dubai and have any tips. I know that some of you will be of the opinion that I am over thinking things and that I should chill out a bit, and that others will think that I am not doing enough. There are lots of things that I haven’t discussed, such as all the flying you do when living internationally. Is there any point in the (arguably) little things I do day to day when I fly back to the UK a couple of times a year?! I think that is a discussion for another day!

So, your thoughts?