Monday, February 26, 2018

Positive and enriching experiences at St Andrew's College

Yesterday an apparently damning report concerning culture at Sydney University’s residential colleges was provided to the ABC. As a member of St Andrew’s College Alumni I feel compelled to write and defend the institution, based solely on my positive experiences as a resident and student for three years.

Entitled The Red Zone, the full report is to be released later this week. According to the ABC, who ran the story across multiple platforms on day one of Sydney University’s O-Week, it contains details of disturbing rituals, hazing and victimisation, particularly concerning first year students. The stories ran by the ABC featured a handful of individuals who spoke out detailing their negative experiences.

I admire the bravery of these individuals and I certainly don’t doubt the veracity and seriousness of their claims. I hope they are in the minority, although I suspect this is a rose-coloured glasses view. I dearly hope we hear from current and recent students who are thriving, or have thrived, in the environment without engaging in, or being on the receiving end of, such unacceptable behaviours.

My own personal experiences are now somewhat dated, having attended the college from 2002 until 2004, but I hope they are still relevant and reflective of conduct today.

There were certainly some initiations for first year students, all of which I participated in, many of which included a large element of fun and none of which resemble the experiences of those who spoke out on the ABC last night. The only commonality I could identify was excessive alcohol consumption. At all times I felt like I could put my hand up and opt-out, something I did do once, and I never felt individually victimised.

I was part of the first intake of females into the college after a proud history of Andrewsmen being known as “Andrews Animals”. The majority of us felt warmly accepted into the college by the majority of the male students. I do acknowledge that across the community of colleges there was certainly a culture of misogyny and sexism. Whilst I don’t defend or condone these attitudes and behaviours, I feel that they were reflective of the position of broader society. As a society we have come a long way in the last 10-15 years and I hope this is reflected in the current students’ attitudes.

Would I allow my own son and daughters, currently toddlers, to a Sydney University College? Like all decisions I will be privileged to participate in for them, I will decide at the time, based on so many factors – is it right for them? Is the current culture appropriate in society’s eyes and for their personality? Can we afford it? Is it what they want? And so on.

Was it right for me? Certainly. I don’t deny it’s a secluded existence for a privileged few, and I would like to see more opportunity and accessibility for country students, but I feel enriched for the experience. I drank a lot and partied hard, but I also worked hard in an environment that was acutely focused on academic, sporting and social achievement.

To hear St Andrews’ take on these recent reports, and the specific references to the college, I encourage you to read their statement, here:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Blue mussels in tomato sauce

Image supplied by Downtown Magazine
Photographer: Kyle Manning. Styling: Jane Graystone

Too much soul searching lately and not enough food methinks. Not that we’ve been cooking anything remarkable because, you know, buuusy.

Unlike my recent post about it, I think this time we have been legitimately busy. Work has been hectic, Sam’s been a bit sick, the Christmas gatherings have started and we’ve had a 3rd birthday party for 50 people to plan. How did we even get to 50 people? One of the small challenges and great joys of living in a country town is the friendship network which extends from one connection to another, to another.

So we made a cake, fired up the barbecue, filled the kids with too much sugar and food colouring and then everyone went home in a storm of over-tiredness. Fun times. We didn’t have a party for the twins last year so it was a nice way to say thanks to everyone who’s invited us to celebrate with their kids over the last two years.

Anyway, this post is meant to be about food. So here’s a similar recipe to one I published in Downtown magazine’s 2016 winter issue. In the magazine I used a slow cooker, but here is the stovetop method - or you could even do it on a side burner on the bbq. Much more appropriate for the current season. Another seasonal adjustment is the removal of fennel. You could add a bulb of sliced fennel if you love the flavour, but sometimes it's a little tricky to find in summer - fennel's in season through Autumn and Winter.

Two years ago I did a cooking class st Sydney Seafood School. We covered the basics, which for most of us are far from basic. Filleting a fish, segmenting a crab, preparing octopus and cooking mussels.

Mussels have always been a mystery to me. These tight glossy black shells that miraculously open just at the right time. And what about the ones that don’t open and how sick will they make my guests?

Like most things I write about here, turns out it’s not hard. For Tamworth readers, you can buy fresh mussels from Woolworth. They come live in a sealed packet which is actually how you’d buy them from the fish markets, too. When you buy the mussels they must be closed. Sometimes they might be partically open, this is because of the lights in store and is ok, but if they're quite open even in a dark environment then no, not ok. 

When they're cooked, mussels will be about 1/3 open. The flesh inside should look set and have moved away a little from the shell. Like a cake moving away from the tin, perhaps? Hmm, maybe not. And don't fret over the ones that haven't opened them. Gently encourage them open and if they're not ok your nose will tell you pretty quickly. So here goes...

Blue mussels in tomato sauce

1 kg small blue mussels - remove from the fridge 10-20 minutes before preparing
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large brown onion, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry white wine
400 g canned tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup torn basil leaves

Scrub mussel shells together under cold running water to remove any barnacles. You'll find most mussels are pretty well de-bearded if you buy in the packet as described above, but if not, remove beards by tugging towards the round end. Never use the liquid that comes out of the packet as it is far too salty.

Discard any shells that are open and don't close then tapped or gently squeezed

Heat the olive oil in a large deep frying pan, or wok, over a medium heat.
Add the onion, garlic, pepper and a little salt (mussels are really salty, so don't go overboard), cover and cook over a low heat for about 10 minutes, until onion is soft.

Add the wine, stir well, increase heat and bring to the boil

Stir in the tomatoes, return to the boil, add mussels, cover and cook over very high heat for a couple of minutes, shaking the pan occasionally until shells start to open.

As each shell opens use tongs to move it to a serving bowl. Any that don't open when cooked can be pryed open with a blunt knife over the sink. See my note above about eating mussels that don't open.

Reduce heat to medium and cook sauce for a few minutes until it reduces and thickens slightly. Stir basil through sauce and pour over the mussels. Serve with crusty, fresh sourdough.

Serves 6 as an entree, or 4 as a main meal with a green salad. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

One foot in front of the other, in front of the other...

I really want this blog to be a positive space but there’s so much crappy stuff going on right now.

Last week we went to another funeral. Another friend’s Dad. Another soul taken far to soon - and so quickly - by cancer. We are all in our mid-to-late 30s, and our parents in their mid-to-late 60s. We didn’t expect so many of us to have lost a parent at this age.

And Mum has had a little (big) blip on the health landscape too. One which requires a large, scary operation and a long recovery. She is a little scared but putting on a brave face and just keen to get it done. I don’t think either of us have fully grasped the recovery implications. It’s just one step at a time.

And in amongst all of this, perhaps because of this, the parenting journey is such a grind. I’m back at work, which is a huge adjustment and a commitment I’m not used to. The terrible twos are morphing into even worse threes on the tantrum stakes, as is the norm. The sickness wagon has been hanging around for about three weeks now (c’mon, winter is long behind us). And the sleep Gods, who are generally pretty good to us, are dealing out a rough string of average nights. Everything’s just a little harder to deal with when you’re sleep deprived.

When people ask how I cope I ask how can you not? Just one foot in front of the other. And I spend a lot of time reminding myself how lucky we are to have a lovely home, good jobs, healthy kids etc. But these last few weeks I’ve taken a break from gratitude. Everything’s just a bit shit and I’d trade the material stuff and the jobs in an instant. And I’m tempted to trade the kids when they’re being brats and throwing a wobbly! But then they do something gorgeous, of course.

So I’ve had my little self indulgence, and now it’s time to play the gratitude game again, hug my kids and my husband tight and put one foot in front of the other.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Where is your busy?

Oh, we're all soooo busy, aren't we? It's not a new conversation, nor is that fact that most of us choose the level of commitment we have. That discussion has been done to death and will continue as we get busier and busier.

But what I want to ask is, do you know where your time goes? Do you ever chat to someone you haven't seen for a while and say "gee, I don't know what we've been doing, we've just been bus-eee"? 

(We'll get to that in a minute, but can we pause to laugh at the ridiculousness of stock image captions? This one is called "Casual Business Woman Typing On Laptop Whilst In Bed", but the real hoot comes if you check out this one: "Dedicated adorable mother starting an active day". It's useful lesson in how working mothers CAN have it all...)

Just sitting down and trying to catalogue the last seven days is tricky. We had an extra child last weekend as her parents had gone away for two nights, so that led to a hectic weekend. There was a lot of tending to baby Audrey while the twins and their sleepover friend followed Dad, Nan and Pa around the garden. A new sandpit was built but I can't claim any credit for that. I did make a cake and prune some lavender but I'm not sure what else sucked up Saturday.

Sunday we went to brunch at the fabulous Goonoo Goonoo Station. Tamworth is so lucky to have such a great venue in town and we went with Mum and two international visitors who were staying with her. Don't ask me what happened after brunch. We arrived home and the sandpit was finished so I think the kids passed a lot of time in there. Maybe it was actually Sunday that I did the pruning. So what the hell did I do on Saturday?

Is it a challenge of the memory or do we genuinely have large gaps in our day, voids that are caused by pottering and social media.

Today I played with the kids for a bit until their Nanny arrived. Then I came down to do a bit of work at my little bookkeeping-slash-real-estate-mogul job, helped mum with a few jobs around town, returned to do a bit more work, ate my lunch, picked up my car (which I'd left at mum's), [fill large gap here], inspected a leaking toilet, called a plumber, stuffed around looking at emails and sat down to write.

The main inspiration of this post is that it's been a while. And instead of the usual "sorry guys, I've just been bus-eee", I decided to put a bit more thought into it. On a macro level I can totally account for the busy-ness (kick-started a side hustle, returned to my comms job 2 days a week, went to my sister-in-laws wedding in Sydney) but isn't it hard to narrow that down to the day-to-day?

Do you have to bill your time at work? I am so good at it. But imagine if you had to bill your time at home. What would be your go-to for those voids? "Unproductive"? "Filing"? "Team meetings"?

I'm probably all of the above. Because social media is totally "filing", right?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rosy Cheeks Muesli

This post was meant to be about breakfast. But Oh My Goodness have I been sidetracked!

I love my breakfast, and that love has grown even more since having kids. You can read about it here, here and here. There’s something special about getting up before everyone else so I can savour my bowl of muesli (in summer) or porridge (in winter) in the peaceful early light. That morning space before the kids rise has become so important to me that it’s seen my alarm creep further and further forward over the last 3 years.

With priorities like this you can understand how much I enjoyed meeting Katie Godden, creator of Tamworth’s Rosy Cheeks muesli, at a recent Savvy Birds event (if you live in or near Tamworth and haven’t been to a SB event you’re missing out!)

I told her about my blog and my pre-Tamworth life as a brand ambassador for delicious goods and she generously sent me home with two bags of her “delicious nutritious”, paleo-inspired, health promoting muesli, one of them being Primal Cheeky Choc.

What? Yup, that’s right. Chocolate granola. I didn’t think it would be my thing. But I was so wrong.

Boasting coconut flakes nuts, pepitas, raw cacao and more, I am seriously addicted. I don’t eat it for breakfast, instead I sprinkle it on yoghurt as an alternative to the sugar laden snacks that I’m STILL eating, despite being off the “breastfeeding diet” for nearly three months. I’m also partial to eating it like trail mix, returning to the pantry again and again for a nibble. To be fair, I think that’s how Katie intended for it to be eaten, as opposed to a standalone breakfast product. Her serving suggestions include:
  •           Straight from the pack
  •           Blended in a smoothie or milkshake
  •           On top of your favourite smoothie bowl
  •           Combined with other puffed cereal products at breakfast time
The other product she shared with me, Primal Granola, is a more traditional breakfast but no less delicious. Muesli and porridge is a weekend treat for me and I love a fruit-free, granola style muesli topped with yoghurt and berries.

Packed full of cashews and almonds, Rosy Cheeks’ Primal Granola has a great crunch and texture and delicious hints of coconut oil and maple syrup.

I’ve been blessed with relatively good health so far, so I’m all about flavour, but Rosy Cheeks was inspired by Katie’s own health journey, after battling poorly controlled Type 1 diabetes and asthma. You can read about this journey on the Rosy Cheeks website, but in a nutshell Katie cut out gluten, dairy, processed food and refined sugars. She also cut back on carbs. Essentially Katie adopted a paleo diet, raved about the health benefits and created her delicious Rosy Cheeks range to ensure she could eat delicious, wholesome food, even on busy days.

If you’re after health benefits, read more on Katie’s website and buy Rosie Cheeks. If you’re after flavour, take my word for it and buy Rosie Cheeks – visit the website for stockists or to buy direct.

Now excuse me, I need to get to bed early so I can enjoy my breakfast tomorrow.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Strawberry and rhubarb crumble

Strawberries have been super cheap these last few weeks. Anyone know a reason for this? I thought this meant they were currently in season, but a quick google tells me that between Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland there’s pretty much “strawbs” in season somewhere in the eastern states all year round.

From here we could launch into a conversation about buying in season, buying local and ensuring a fair price for the farmer – all of which are important issues, but it’s late on a Friday night and I’m single parenting three under three this weekend so let’s just talk dessert, ok?

For some, cheap strawberries means jam. I don’t have time for jam. Maybe one day, but in the meantime, cheap strawberries mean strawberry and rhubarb crumble.
If I’ve been to your hens party and was asked to provide a recipe, chances are you already have this one. It’s my go-to for bridal shower shares. Everyone loves a crumble (right?) and I like to think the strawberry and rhubarb filling makes this one just a little sexier. What’s more, it’s super easy to make and a lot of the prep can be done in advance. Sound like perfect dinner party material?

I can’t remember when I first started making this dish. It started out as “strawberry, rose geranium and rhubarb crumble” from The Good Weekend’s “Any fool can cook...” section. I think it was written by Matthew Evans but I can’t be sure. I still have the original clipping but my version is now considerably different. The original had very firm views on the crumble:

“This one doesn’t resemble a muesli topping, relying on coconut or rolled oats. It’s simpler, more classical and far better in my view.”

But somewhere along the lines I put the rolled oats back in. Does that make me a radical? I just like a bit more substance in my crumble. If you’re in the traditionalist camp, or any other crumble camp for that matter substitute in your own mix. The crumble here freezes well so you can whip up a dessert in a hurry and works just as well with a traditional apple filling (try 8 sliced red apples, 2 Tbsp sugar and juice of ½ a lemon instead of the fruit mix below).

Strawberry and rhubarb crumble

170 g plain flour
65 g self raising flour
170 g raw sugar
pinch salt
170 g softened butter
1/3 cup rolled oats
1/2 bunch rhubarb, chopped into 2-3 cm pieces
1 punnet strawberries, hulled and halved
2 Tbsp honey, warmed
1/2 tsp vanilla
A splash of rosewater

Combine flours, sugar, salt and 120 g of butter in the food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add oats and pulse briefly to combine.

In a medium casserole dish, toss the rhubarb and strawberries with honey, vanilla and a splash of rosewater then press the mixture down.

Just before baking, sprinkle the crumble mixture over the fruit. Chop the remaining 50 g butter into small cubes and scatter across the crumble.

Bake in a 200 degree C oven for 30-40 minutes or until the top is browned.

Serves 4

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Food and flowers for grief and joy

What a fortnight it's been. I have met new babies, sent my own baby to daycare for the first time, celebrated an engagement and farewelled a friend's father, taken before his time.

Over the last three years I have seen life's book ends first hand with the birth of my twins in 2014, the untimely passing of my own father in 2016 and the arrival of our third baby at the beginning of this year.

When Dad died close friends and kind acquaintances alike came forward with baked goods, casseroles and flowers. I couldn't help but think back to when the twins were born and I realised that  life begins and ends with food and flowers. And kindness.

It's easy to extend kindness and joy when life begins. Cute baby presents and cheerful flowers. But when life ends there can be an awkwardness surrounding what to do and say.

Most of my friends are in their mid to late thirties and too many of us have already lost a parent. Some of them have lost siblings and others have seen children, nieces and nephews battle serious illness.

When anyone you know experiences these heartbreaking life events, don't be awkward. Just remember: kindness.

Send flowers if you like. Or a plant if you know it won't burden the recipient. I'm a big fan of plants and take comfort in caring for those I received last year after dad's passing, but not everyone's life's circumstances suit plants. I was immensely touched by those who went to the expense to send flowers or the effort to cook, but a simple phone call is just as powerful. Don't know what to say? Well say that.  "I don't know what to say but I am thinking of you", or "there is nothing I can say to fix this but please know I'm here." It need not be a long conversation and chances are your friend may not pick up the phone. But they will know that you care. And trust me, it means a lot.

Have you experienced loss? What did you find comforting and/or useful?
Do you have a go-to gesture that you call upon when friend's experience heartache?