Tuesday 30 March 2010

What to pack for long haul flights...with kids

I feel as though I am reliving those final days before I headed off across the Atlantic. The last minute mania of trying to finish off work, hand it over, pack, write lists and organise everything down to the last detail.

Only this time I'm not heading off on a grand, scary adventure on my own, leaving my children behind for 6 weeks. No, this time .... they're coming too.

And this time, it's only 3 weeks and doesn't involve a boat. This time we replace lengthy boat trip with lengthy flight. All 26 hours and 10 minutes of it. Yes, that's 26 hours and 10 minutes with two small boys trapped in a confined space. I don't know whether to just get hideously drunk or whether I should concentrate on getting everyone around us blotto.

You see, we're flying to New Zealand to at long last visit my sister and mother. I am sure that I will love New Zealand. It looks like a very lovely place from the brochures. And it will be fantastic to see my family. But did I mention that it is on the exact opposite side of the globe, only lower down, from where we live?

I've reached the point where I've handed over all my work, but now have THE PACKING to do. First I have THE IRONING to do. Most people say, sod the ironing, it'll all be creased when you get there anyway. Probably. But there's a difference between ironed creased and unironed creased. And faced with crinkly jeans with jetlag, I'd rather just do it now. So that is tonight's little task. It's only 7.20pm and I'm already on my second glass of wine. This is a fleeting insight into my current frame of mine.

Tomorrow shall be the grand packing day. Packing what to take is fairly easy. Shorts and t-shirts that haven't had a look in around here for many months. Plus the odd jumper. And my new bikini. Yes - that's a bikini. Why? Because it's New Zealand. Very, very far from where I live so no problem right?

No, it's the on-board plane bag that takes artful packing.

Let's see what must go in it:
  • snacks. check. jelly worms and mini cheddars. I was angling for healthier options as they really don't need sugar in a confined space, but these will at least shut them up albeit briefly, whereas raisins would be declared rabbit poos and flung around onto neighbouring passengers.
  • entertainment: I've bought Mr Men Top Trumps (five in one brucy bonus card set thingy), Peppa Pig carry along colouring set and activity book with plenty of puzzles, word searches etc. These were meant to be a surprise. Me unveiling them at their peak of painfulness with a Ta Da! Except they've seen them and have been nagging all week to play with them.
  • entertainment cont.: I am relying on the largesse of Air New Zealand in the provision of many in-flight DVDs and kid friendly games to play. This is cutting down on my packing.
  • cleaning aids: liquid alcohol gel stuff to get rid of germs which we're going to suck straight into our nostrils via the on-board air conditioning, but you know, at least I'm making an attempt to avoid illness; wet wipes - because no wise mother travels without them; change of clothes for children because at least one of our 17 meals on board will land on their laps
  • comfort: pjs for all three of us. I know. The shame of wearning my Tesco tracky bottoms in public, but needs must when it comes to long haul comfort. Same goes for baggy top in which no-one will notice that I've taken my sodding uncomfortable bra off. (please tell me I'm not the only person who finds bras a modern form of chinese torture?)
  • comfort continued (because it's important): the lovely new Yondis from the makers of Trunki. I wrote to the good people of Trunki and told them that I was going to have to fly for 26 hours and 10 minutes with two children and they kindly sent me two Yondis, which I am hoping (wishing, praying) helps them to sleep. I shall report back on this.
  • Book: for me. Because I'm an optimist in thinking I might actually get to read it.
  • Medicines: Ideally I'd like to take a litre of calpol, the same of medised and liquid piriton for the kids, plus a jumbo box of airsick tabs and several dozen paracetamol for me. But given the liquid limits on board and the fact that they might think I'm running a drug smuggling operation (I am according to Waitrose who refused to sell me calpol, paracetamol and aspirin in one sitting lest I try to top myself), I'll probably opt for paracetamol for me and airsick tabs for the kids.
  • Beauty: eye drops and face cream (obviously 100 mls or less) so that I don't frighten small children and elderly pensioners when I get off the plane on the other side looking like a vampire. Possibly a comb too. You know. Papparazzi and all that.
  • Other important stuff: like tickets and passports and insurance and other mission critical bits that I will forget, voiding the entire mission.

I'm sure there's more. About another 50kgs worth, but now the iron is singing my swan song and I must away. Wish me luck.

PS - whoever the lovely person was who nominated me in the MAD blog awards, thank you very much. I looked at the categories and thought: oh well, there's no category for mad woman who wibbles on about something and nothing so that's my shot gone, and now look. Someone has gone and nominated me. Very kind. So thank you.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Competition: win a prize that could change your life!

Ever since I set up my own PR business almost 4 years ago, I have battled with one thing: Childcare. It has been a nightmare. When the kids were both still under 3, they went to nursery. But the nursery only had Mondays and Fridays available, the worst two days for me to get anything done in my industry. Plus if the kids were sick, they couldn't go and I was left once again not able to work. There were times when I had way too much work and needed extra childcare and other times when I didn't have enough work to justify having them in childcare, but couldn't risk losing my nursery place.

And did I mention the cost!! My pay used to go directly into my bank account and straight out again to the nursery. I should have just gotten my clients to pay the nursery direct and cut out the middle man!

I know I'm not alone in having these issues. Childcare for working parents - particularly those trying to freelance or set up their own business - is a nightmare. But now someone has at last had a brainwave. It is just such a good idea, that I absolutely had to work with them.

Take a look at http://www.third-door.com/ - particularly if you're a parent living in SW London.

Shazia, a mum to a 2 year old and 4 month old (so imagine how much sleep she's getting!), decided that there had to be a better way of allowing parents to work remotely with flexible child care that suited them.

So she and her husband created Third Door, where you get flexible work space (a hot desk or meeting room) with on-site childcare (in an OFSTED registered creche) all done on a pay-as-you-go basis.

No more having to stick to certain days assigned to you by a nursery. No more having to pay for childcare that you can't use when your child is sick. No more mad rush to pick your child up from nursery after work - because they're just downstairs. No more wondering how your child is doing, because you can pop in and see them, perhaps have lunch with them. No more working on your own in your spare bedroom without any other adult company as you can network with like-minded parents in your area. No overheads of having your own office.

The benefits just go on and on. Like I said, a brilliant idea.

The company is launching in May in Wandsworth, just up the road from Cupcake Spa for those of you who know it. And to help celebrate its opening, Third Door is running a competition that I genuinely think will change somebody's life.

The prize includes:
  • 30 hours of free workspace and childcare
  • Third Door membership
  • a Business in a Box package that includes logo design, company name registration, business cards, letterhead and website creation
  • 3 hours of consultancy from experts in finance, legal, marketing, PR, technology, social media and business coaching
  • a laptop
  • a smartphone

Basically all the tools you need to start up your own business or enable you to work part-time, freelance or possibly build up a blog. Sometimes in fact, all you need to be able to change your life is some child-free time to think, a blank screen to tap ideas onto, a strong coffee and someone to talk to. If you win this prize, you can do exactly that!

So if you want to enter, go here. And please help spread the word about this to anyone who you think would benefit from it.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Mastering the art of French Cooking (or not)

For Mother's Day I was given the Julie & Julia DVD, which I was very excited about. It's the perfect film for me as it involves cooking and blogging, two things I enjoy rather a lot. Based on true stories, it shows how blogger Julie Powell attempts to cook every recipe in legendary Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipe book - all 524 of them in 365 days.

Included with the DVD was a snippet of the famous cookbook featuring some of the recipes that were shown in the movie. My husband and I both drooled over the boeuf bourguignon and given that we have friends coming round for lunch tomorrow, I figured I'd have a go.

But then I read it.

OMG. How did Julie Powell possibly do it? I thought I knew how to make boeuf bourguignon, but apparently I had no idea.

So I've made a little photo blog plotting my journey through the process. I apologise for the length of this post. It's not me, it's the sodding recipe!

Step 1
Figure out how much stuff you need.

We will have 4 adults and 4 children at lunch. Her recipe is for 6. Could 2 adults count for 4 children? Dilemma. Sod it, going to follow her recipe and that's that.

6 people apparently require 3lbs of beef, 1lb of mushrooms, 6oz of lardons (more on these babies in a minute) and 24 small onions. Not to mention a lot of wine. And other stuff that I won't list verbatim in case I get sued for copyright. Here is all the stuff including cookbook.

Step 2
Lardons. Apparently you need a whole piece of bacon which you then have to separate from the rind, cut into lardons (which are not cubes as I always thought but sticks) and simmer for 10 minutes. I don't know where you find a whole piece of bacon like this but it's not in Sainsburys. Also, this fell into the category of 'Can't be arsed'. Which is why my lardons came in a cling film box already chopped, no rind in sight. So part 1 of the recipe and I've already failed the authenticity test.

Step 3
The book calls for 2 inch cubes of beef. But shoring up the 'can't be arsed' pile, I avoided going to the butchers to get a wodge of beef which I could chop up into cubes and instead bought 2 for £6 packs of stewing beef from the supermarket. This was a bad idea. Because whoever does the chopping of stewing beef for Sainsbury's obviously uses a blender. The meat is shredded, rather than cubed. But hey ho, away we go onto the next weird bit.

Apparently, unless you dry your meat, it will not brown. I refused to believe this. In all my years of making stew, I have never dried my meat. And it has browned. So not being as au fait with Julia as I am with Delia, I referred to the British goddess of all things knowleagable. And damn her eyes, she too suggests that one dries one's meat before browning. For the love of God.

So here I am drying my meat with kitchen towel.

Step 4
Now that my meat was free of all moisture, I proceeded to brown it, in small batches (of course) in piping hot oil. Except two problems arose. First, the bottom of my Le Creuset casserole dish (in orange as specified by the movie) burnt. I couldn't believe that this would add tremendously lovely flavour to the end product, but if I turned the heat down, despite now being bone dry, the meat wouldn't brown, it would bubble instead.

Second, after removing the meat (with the specified slotted spoon), I found there was no oil left in the pot and kept having to add more. In contrast, the recipe says that after you've browned all the meat, you should pour off the browning fat. What browning fat?? Obviously this was due to my corner cutting approach to lardons that was making the difference.

For your viewing pleasure, browning meat in batches with burnt bottom of pot. Steady on before the excitement kills you.

Step 5
Having already browned my vegetables (carrot and onion) and not being able to drain off all this mythical excess browning fat, I added the beef and lardons back in and then had to add flour. Now in most Delia stews, she does this too. But here's Julia's secret twist. After adding the flour and swirling it all around, you put the casserole dish into a super hot oven for 4 minutes, take it out, stir it, and put it back in again for a further four minutes before you can continue on your merry way with the rest of the recipe.

Now I was all ready to add this to the 'Can't be arsed' pile, but thought I'd give it a whirl. After all, Julia must have known what she was doing right? But she didn't specify whether to leave the casserole lid on or off. I opted for off. And whaddaya know? It actually does make a difference. It gets all crusty and brown and looks good enough to eat at that point. Don't. Obviously. But for any of you out there who might feel this is a step towards madness, fear not. Putting the flour covered meat uncovered in the oven rocks.

Sadly in my excitement about learning this new cooking truth, I forgot to take an after picture, but here's a before pic - prior to crusty loveliness.

Step 6
Now we get to add the lovely flavoury bits - the thyme, tomato paste, garlic, bay leaf (which apparently should be crumbled but mine was fresh and didn't fancy being crumbled, so got torn instead) - stock and critically, wine. The recipe calls for 1 and a quarter pints of wine - which funnily leaves just enough in a standard sized bottle for the chef to have a little glass to fortify themselves before embarking on the next stage. See exhibit B below. Exhibit A shows where the rest of the wine went (doesn't look massively appealing at this stage, but I had a sneaky taste and it was good.)

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Step 7
Now you pop your casserole into a much cooler oven and have a sip of wine while it bubbles away for 3 to 4 hours. And then you start preparing 1 billion mushrooms and attempting to peel 1 squillion onions. Actually, I had shallots because Sainsburys doesn't believe in stocking tiny silver skinned onions unless you like them already pickled.
Julia's recipe (having been very specific all the way through) suddenly seems to run out of steam, as though she too is enjoying a glass of wine at this point and can't be arsed to spend too much time talking about mushrooms and onions. Basically she says: saute mushrooms in butter, brown braise the onions.

So, how much butter? Given it's a French book I went for LOTS and managed to sautee my mushrooms beautifully. See below

Brown Braising. What exactly is that? Not a term I'm overly familiar with, but I figured it meant braising in stock. So using the mushroomy juices and the rest of a pack of beef stock (leftover from the rest that had gone in the pot) I braised the onions. Only I forgot about them (might have had something to do with mid-afternoon wine) so they were probably slightly softer than they needed to be.

But the end result was a luscious bowl of mushrooms and onions just waiting for their turn to get jiggy with the beef.

Step 8
I just interrupted this blogging session as my beeper went off. It's been simmering away now for 3 hours (I had to add a little water after 2 hours). It looks and smells utterly divine. Ready to eat. HOWEVER, according to Julia, we still have a way to go.

Now I am supposed to pour the contents of the casserole dish into a sieve and catch the liquid. I then have to wash the casserole dish and put the meat back into it and then scatter the mushrooms and onions over the top. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to skim the fat off the top of the 1 pint of sauce and thicken it till it coats the back of the spoon.

Bollocks to that.

I have ignored it all. My sauce already coats the back of a spoon, there isn't that much fat on top and this is a French meal after all so what the hell. (I think maybe her oven was less feisty than mine, hence more liquid and my lack of excess fat probably comes down to not using the bacon rind - which you are supposed to add at the wine stage, to be removed later).
Instead, I have calmly, and assuredly, put my mushrooms and onions into the beef, giving it a stir. Now it shall sit quietly waiting until tomorrow lunchtime, when it will be gently re-heated, served with steamed rice, buttered green beans and crusty french bread. And wine. Obviously. To be followed by a sticky apricot pudding. Ah yes, we're all about the slimming in this house.

So here is the almost end product. I've tasted it.
It. Is. Gorgeous.
Definitely worth the effort. Sure it might have tasted even better had I followed the instructions to the letter, but a little creative license doesn't seem to have done it any harm.

Wish I had smellternet so you could get a whiff of it. Bon Appetit!
P.S. Cooking this recipe was easier than trying to upload photos to blogger. I won't be repeating this photo blogging experiment!

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Life. You know. Stuff and other things

It's been a while since my last post. Couldn't really top the whale thing really so just kept quiet. And things have been busy. Here's a recap of the last two weeks or so -it's an eclectic mix with no real theme other than the merry madness that is my life:

I turned 37. As my lovely husband pointed out in my birthday card, I am now in the heartland of my mid-to-late -thirties. Thanks dear.

I was given (by the same man) a cross trainer. Before you shriek "How rude!", I asked for one. I figured that as I never, ever have time to exercise (because taking two kids on a run isn't a good thing) I would just exercise at home. I knew (as did he), however, that the cross trainer would simply gather dust in a spare room unless there was some incentive for me to get onto it. So he also got me a TV and DVD player and the box set of Sex and the City, so I now have my own personal gym (spoilt I know). I have found though that SJP has less pull power than RPatz in Twilight. I can cross train for hours watching him.

My children earned purple belts in karate. I believe this has nothing at all to do with their skill and everything to do with incentivising their parents to keep paying for expensive lessons. And even more expensive gradings every few months. However, they were so incredibly proud of themselves as they were awarded their shiny belts (complete with dragon motif - whoa cool, check that out mum!) that it made remortaging the house all worthwhile.

I have attempted to fit two month's worth of work into one, as the children and I (sans husband) will be flying to New Zealand in two weeks time. We're heading off to see family (at last!) and will be gone for almost all of April. Don't forget me when I'm gone. But more importantly, do give me your top tips on how to survive a 30 hour flight with two small boys who are very much like dogs. See the next point.

I have often said that small boys are like dogs. They both need to be fed often and run even more often. However, this week it went a step further. I was in the shower. They were tugging, yanking, pulling at each end of a soft toy (a dog incidentally). Neither would let go. They were growling at each other and I could tell that one of two things was going to happen. The toy dog would rip in half or one child would lose strength and fall over backwards into the loo. But I was naked, in the shower, soap on my hair. What was I do? I tried yelling. It fell on deaf ears. So I opened the shower doors, took a handful of water and flung it at them. It worked instantly, just like dogs. They were horrified and called me a meanie, but I simply tucked it away into my 'mummy strategies that work' folder for future use.

I have toyed with a new business idea. A business that would involve cake. And pretty cups and saucers. And other girly things. It was originally my husband's idea, but I have girlified it so much that it is now unrecognisable to him. I might reveal more on this if I decide to go ahead with it.

I have questionned the unfairness of life as my friend's IVF failed again. And despite the moment of envy I felt while I was suffering from an extreme hangover crossed with a cold, dealing with hyper children on Mother's Day morning while she got to have a leisurely lie in, I know that I wouldn't trade motherhood for anything. It's so easy to take little things like spontaneous cuddles from sleepy boys for granted, when you get them on tap. And I vowed not to take them for granted ever again.

And that's been about it. How about you?