Friday, 31 May 2013

Samos by Night


One of the nicest things about visiting Samos was that it remained warm enough to take a pleasant stroll long after the sun had gone down. In fact, for someone like me who burns quickly and dehydrates even faster, walking after sunset was far nicer than in the heat of the day. And the lights sparkling along the waterfront made for a beautiful display.






Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Learning Turkish with Rosetta Stone

A few weeks ago I got a press release from Rosetta Stone, announcing their new language-learning blog, #milestones. I had a look around the site, replied to say hi, and before I knew it I'd been invited to try out their product with a free six month subscription, and to join their European blogging team.

I know, I know. I was trying not to start any new projects. But free language courses? I can't turn that down.

I hadn't used Rosetta Stone before, so I was intrigued to see how it worked. I thought I'd share my first impressions for the benefit of anyone else who might be considering it. I'm mostly using the Android app, which has most (though not quite all) of the course content. The home screen presents a set of colourful buttons which show an overview of the course, along with your current progress (synched across your devices).

The different icons represent different types of module. "Core" lessons introduce vocabulary and syntax, which are then reinforced with a collection of shorter exercises in reading, writing, speaking, pronunciation, listening, and grammar. (If you have time to do several in one sitting, the software will send you from one module to the next without going back to the home screen.)

The most important thing to note if you're considering a subscription is that this isn't a holiday crash course. The first lesson does teach you to say "merhaba" (hello), but the course doesn't start with what you might consider practical phrases such as "what time is it?" and "where's the post office?", and you have to wait a little while just to get to "what's your name?". On the other hand there's early coverage of colours, clothing, family members, furniture, and numbers. This basic vocabulary allows you to build up your understanding of the language and its structures, using very simple sentences at first, before getting to more complex (and useful!) phrases.

The Rosetta Stone philosophy is one of immersion, with no English used, just information presented in the target language - something I've long dreamed of finding in a language course. But it's very carefully controlled immersion, with building blocks of vocabulary and syntax introduced gradually. The lack of translations does sometimes mean you might guess wrongly at what the pictures represent, and I've personally found it helpful to cross-check some vocabulary on Google Translate (which is cheating, I guess, but it has helped me out of a couple of sticky corners).

It's a bit of an "all or nothing" affair, though. You always need headphones and a microphone, so you can't really do some quick exercises on the train. And it's hard to go back and revise any vocabulary you've forgotten, because there's no straightforward index into the different chapters of the course.

I do really enjoy using the software, which is a definite plus, as I'm happy to spend a few minutes on it even at the end of a tiring day. I find the exercises fun and the vocabulary is definitely sticking: I've been reinforcing the lessons by labelling the yellow flowers and red cars in my mind as I walk through the streets, and hanging out the washing was a particularly good way to practise clothes and colours alike.

The course requires a combination of speaking (with voice recognition software to tell whether you're doing it right - something I had some issues with on my laptop) and writing, along with lots of exercises in selecting the appropriate label for a picture, as shown in the following screenshot.

My first post over at the Rosetta Stone blog was all about my reasons for choosing Turkish. Part of it is due to my dad recently buying a house in Turkey - but there are also aspects of Turkish which are particularly fascinating to me as a linguist, so I was especially looking forwards to seeing how these are taught.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of vowel harmony, which is highlighted in the very first grammar module. Vowel harmony in Turkish means that the vowel(s) in a suffix are dictated by (typically) the last vowel of the root. For example, look at the following four verb forms:

koşuyor (running)
yüzüyor (swimming)
yazıyor (writing)
iyor (drinking)

The vowel in the suffix has a four-way alternation (u, ü, ı, i) which might not be obvious to those of us whose native language doesn't even feature all these vowels. But if you didn't already know about vowel harmony before starting the course, there are exercises to show exactly how it works, in which you're required to select the appropriate ending for a given word:

The thing about phonetics is that this sort of thing happens naturally, in all languages: your mouth is naturally lazy, and tries to change shape as little as possible from one sound to the next. In that sense, getting it right "by accident" is quite easy. But in Turkish, spelling changes along with pronunciation, meaning you do have to exercise a little more care.

For me, this way of learning seems to work well. It's nice to see new forms introduced in context, and only then start to think about the detail of how the morphology of the words change. It makes each new lesson a bit like a puzzle, so you can start to figure it out for yourself as you go along, and then find out whether you were right in the more detailed exercises.

I'll be blogging regularly over at the #milestones blog, so do drop by to see how I get on. I'll probably write a more thorough review of the Rosetta Stone software here when I get towards the end of the program.

Course content is copyright Rosetta Stone. Screenshots used with permission.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Spinach & Mushroom Stuffed Paccheri

Mushroom & Spinach pasta

I'm always popping leftovers into the freezer, whether it's a couple of helpings of casserole or a half-used jar of pesto. And then if I'm not careful, they just sit there, forgotten. This dish was helped along by a couple of such things that I needed to use up: a tub of herby cream cheese, and some chilli tomato sauce.

Paccheri is a type of pasta consisting of large, fairly heavy tubes. When I saw them in the shop, my first thought was that they would be perfect for stuffing, but it's taken me a while to get around to it. Filling them this way is a little bit fiddly, but the result is worth it, I think. If you can't find paccheri, you could use the same filling for cannelloni or even as a lasagna layer.

Mushroom & Spinach Pasta

Mushroom & spinach pasta

Spinach & Mushroom Stuffed Paccheri
Serves 2

20 tubes of paccheri pasta
150g chestnut mushrooms
2 red onions
100g fresh spinach
100g cream cheese
black pepper

200g tomato sauce (I used a spicy sauce with chilli)
50g cheddar cheese, grated

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Cook the paccheri according to the instructions on the packet.
  3. Meanwhile, make the filling. Begin by finely chopping the onions and mushrooms.
  4. Fry the onions, mushrooms and spinach over a low heat, until the spinach has wilted and the onions softened.
  5. Add the cream cheese to the vegetables and stir through. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper.
  6. Stuff the pasta tubes with the spinach mixture.
  7. Arrange the tubes in the base of a casserole dish. If you have any spare filling, you can use it to pack into the gaps.
  8. Top with tomato sauce and grated cheese.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes, until the dish is heated throughout and the cheese has melted.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Pinterest launches in the UK

I've been using Pinterest for ages, so I was a bit surprised to hear that it's only just launching officially in the UK. Being part of an international community with no borders is one of the nicest things about blogging, but it does lead to strange moments when you realise you've joined a fairly US-centric community - though I've never actually felt that location is a central feature of Pinterest. Anyway, here it is: the official UK launch. I was delighted to be invited to introduce the concept to any of my British readers who might have missed it; this post is mostly for the benefit of anyone who hasn't tried it out for themselves yet.

Pinterest allows you to "pin" images from across the web, collecting beautiful pictures onto "boards" which you can organise according to your personal preferences. You can also follow other users, making it easier to follow their pins and re-pin anything that appeals to you. You can also browse the general stream by category, or search on any terms you're interested in - which makes for a fun pictorial recipe collection.

Yes, for me, it's mostly about the food. Now and then I pin dreamy travel images or useful tips, but mostly I use Pinterest for recipes. There's a huge foodie community, including loads of food bloggers, so there's always plenty of great stuff to discover. I keep one board for savoury dishes:

And another for collecting a virtual sugar-rush:

I also have a separate board just for cake decorating ideas, allowing me to split off the recipes I might be interested in making, from pictures I just want to use for visual inspiration.

If you're already on Pinterest, follow me @rachelcotterill and I'll be sure to follow back. If you've yet to join, why not sign up here and join in the fun?

Pin It Forward UK 2013This post is part of the Pin It Forward UK launch campaign. The next link in the chain is another travelling cook, Jonathan Brown, who blogs at Around Britain with a Paunch and pins as @browners on Pinterest.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Bangkok Thai Garden, Ottawa


It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the Bangkok Thai Garden was just across the road from our hotel, and advertised a special-price lunch menu. So when our first choice of lunch venue turned out to be closed for renovations, on the day we arrived, we ended up here instead. And we enjoyed the food so much that we came back a couple of times during our stay in Ottawa.

The three-course lunch offer started with a "hot and sour" vegetable soup. Despite the 'hot' epithet this was far from spicy by Thai standards, but the vegetables were fresh and I enjoyed the light broth. The soup was followed (or accompanied, depending on the speed of our server) by crispy spring rolls with sweet chilli dipping sauce, another of life's simple pleasures.

For the main courses, there was a choice of several dishes, and the option to pick your own level of heat. My favourite was the deep-fried tofu & eggplant curry, with sugarsnap peas, bamboo shoots, and carrots (pictured above). I tried this as both "mild" (a bit spicy) and "medium" (quite hot) on different days - both good, just depending on my mood. Andy, on the other hand, was a fan of the sweet & sour vegetables.

Taken together, the three courses were very filling, and the hot food was a good contrast to the icy weather outside.






Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Weird Fashion in Montreal


One of the strangest and most fascinating exhibits at Montreal's excellent eco-museum was a very unusual fashion show. Several artists had been given a brief to construct dresses using a variety of waste products. From ammo casings to electrical wiring, the creations ranged from genuinely beautiful to simply provocative. The least practical of them all was made from fish skins... and had to be refrigerated.






Monday, 20 May 2013

Summer Vegetable Omelette (310 calories)

Spring vegetable omelette

If there's one thing I really look forwards to each year, from a culinary perspective, it's asparagus season. In the last few days we've finally started seeing English asparagus in our local supermarket - my cue to buy as much of it as I can possibly eat in the short season.

And apparently I'm not alone in my obsession. One Ingredient, hosted by How To Cook Good Food and Franglais Kitchen, is also celebrating Asparagus this month.

I have some friends who are also doing the 5:2 diet, and one of their staple fast-day dinners is an omelette. I hadn't really thought of eggs as being a low calorie food, so this was a bit of a revelation to me, and I thought I'd try my own variant. Along with a couple of bunches of asparagus, and a pot of fresh tomato salsa that I'd picked up for 39p in the sale, an idea was starting to take shape.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
The way I made it, this dish comes out at 310 calories per portion. I'm really lucky to have non-stick pans where I don't have to use any fat for frying; if you add oil, this will increase the calorie count a little, so you'd need to add that on.

In other news, I've set up a G+ Community for vegetarian & vegan fast-friendly recipes. I'm using this as a space to bookmark interesting recipes I come across on the web, and I hope it will become a useful resource for anyone else who's doing intermittent fasting. Everyone is welcome to join in and share low-calorie veggie meals - your own, or those you've found across the web.

Summer Vegetable Omelette with Salsa
Serves 2

For the omelette:
4 eggs
50ml semi-skimmed milk
salt & pepper

For the filling:
100g baby corn
80g fine asparagus spears
100g mushrooms
100g cherry tomatoes

To serve:
100g fresh salsa
  1. Beat the eggs with the milk, and season with a little salt & pepper.
  2. Slice the baby sweetcorn in half, and add with the asparagus to a large frying pan. Saute for about five minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms (thickly sliced) and cherry tomatoes (whole) to the frying pan.
  4. Meanwhile, divide the egg mixture between two small omelette pans and cook over a medium heat. Once the bottom layer of egg has solidified enough to hold its shape, flip the omelette to cook the other side.
  5. Once the egg is fully cooked, divide the filling between the two omelettes, and serve with a scoop of fresh salsa.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Patmos, Island of the Revelation (Greece)

Patmos trip

The beautiful Greek island of Patmos has one major claim to fame - St John was exiled here, and in a small cave, had the visions which led to the writing of Revelations. Not such a bad place to be exiled, we thought to ourselves as we climbed steep and winding streets beneath clear blue skies, with panoramic views across the coast.

Unfortunately, photography is forbidden within the cave itself - and the silent, dark-robed Orthodox monk who guards the door looked balefully at my camera with an expression that seemed to say "you might think you can get away with a silent shot or two, if you don't use flash, but God will know and he will damn you to the end of time." I don't really believe it's likely I'd be damned to hell for my photographic sins, but I do believe in respecting the traditions of others, so I was good (sorry) and resisted the urge to sneak a few snaps.

The cave itself has been extended, and turned into a fully-fledged Orthodox shrine. I haven't had much experience of Orthodox churches, and was surprised by the tendency to cover everything in hammered silver or gold leaf. The three-part stone in the ceiling (from which the voice of God is said to have issued) remains a natural lump of rock, but the alcoves of John's pillow and hand-rest have been silver-lined, and the walls decorated with icons and crosses. Our group was split between those who "really felt something" in the cave and those who (like me) were intrigued but not totally absorbed in the experience.

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

At the highest point of the island, the Monastery of St John was founded to commemorate John's revelation. The monastery was also strict about photography within its chapel and museum, but the lovely courtyards presented plenty of photographic opportunities. The painted frescoes were impressive, and the museum was well-stocked, although not very informative to those of us not already familiar with the paraphernalia of the Orthodox church (it's another beautiful silver thingumy? Well, great, but what's one of those for?)

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

The island itself is also rather picturesque, and we enjoyed a pleasant stroll between whitewashed houses before returning to our boat.

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Patmos trip

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Mango & Coconut Truffle Bites

Coconut & Mango Truffles

I made these little truffle bites in response to this month's We Should Cocoa challenge, organised by Chocolate Teapot and Chocolate Log Blog. I've only just discovered this event, as it's being hosted this month by my bloggy friend Shaheen at Allotment 2 Kitchen - but since you all know what a chocoholic I am, I expect I'll become something of a regular! Shaheen picked mango as this month's special ingredient, which is also right up my street.

Mango and coconut are natural tropical companions, and since it's a cocoa challenge, there obviously needed to be some rich dark chocolate involved. Something about that combination suggested a rich truffle, rolled in dessicated coconut. The filling is quite moist, so you really do need to chill it before dipping in chocolate - but on the plus side this means you get a great contrast between the snap of the chocolate shell, and the soft texture of the truffle. This is a vegan recipe so long as you use a vegan cake for your crumbs.

Coconut & Mango Truffles

Mango & Coconut Truffle Bites
Makes approx. 25

250g (10oz) dark chocoloate
50g (2oz) creamed coconut
200g (8oz) cake crumbs
120ml (½cup) mango puree
250g (10oz) dessicated coconut
  1. Melt 100g (4oz) dark chocolate with the creamed coconut.
  2. Crumble the cake into fine crumbs, then mash the cake crumbs and mango puree together.
  3. Add the melted chocolate to the mango mixture, and stir with a  spatula until thoroughly combined.
  4. Form the mixture into small balls, arrange on a large plate, and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, melt the remaining chocolate.
  6. Roll each truffle ball in melted chocolate, then coat in dessicated coconut.
  7. Chill in the fridge before eating.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Accidentally Visiting a Rainforest - Capilano Suspension Bridge Park


We weren't sure whether we should visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge. On the one hand, it's not like we find ourselves in Vancouver every day (or even every year), so if we missed it we didn't know when we'd have another chance. But the weather was so grey and misty that we weren't sure we'd see anything.

We decided to take the bus up the mountain, and decide when we got there whether the views would justify the entry fee. Luckily a family was coming out just as we arrived, so we asked them if they thought it was worth our while: they said yes, so on we went.

And as it happened, the mist made everything look ethereal and atmospheric, so if you ever find yourself wondering whether it's worth going in less-than-perfect weather, I'd say yes, definitely.





The bridge itself has been there since the 1890s, providing a practical footpath across a steep-sided gorge. When the owners replaced the bridge in the '50s, they tested the steel of the old bridge cables, and found that the old cables were still just as strong as the new ones they'd put in their place! Which must have been a little galling.





There's also a treetop walk through the rainforest.

Wait... rainforest? In Canada? This was news to me.

The information boards around the walkways explained further: this is a "temperate" rainforest, rather than the more stereotypical tropical kind, and is a protected environment in western Canada. Unfortunately we didn't see much wildlife beyond a few squirrels, but it was nice to wander between the trees.






The newest feature at the park is a cliff walk, a narrow path attached by cables to the rock. Although less impressive than the suspension bridge, it did give some more great views and a different perspective on the gorge. Again, the walk is enhanced by info boards - in this case, the one that stuck with me was the fact that the trees can absorb a huge amount of their required moisture from the air. Which cast a somewhat more positive perspective on a very misty day.




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