Friday, 28 June 2013

Air & Space Museum Outpost - The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center



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When we were in the US last year, we headed just outside of Washington DC one weekend to see "the rest of" the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. I've been to the central museum a couple of times over the years, but never before had I visited this amazing hangar. I didn't even know it was there.

I've already blogged about the most imposing exhibit, the Discovery space shuttle, but that was far from the only interesting thing to see.

Andy was particularly excited to see the Blackbird (which was, I agree, spectacular) while I was more fascinated by the little ski-planes and sea-planes, and just generally had a lot of fun taking photos of all the funky displays. The museum is home to a number of record-breakers, and I was really fortunate that every few planes Andy would pipe up in excited recognition of some or another famous flyer. It was like having my own personal guide to the history of aviation.

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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Vegetarian Moussaka



One of the culinary highlights of my recent trip to Greece was rediscovering the joy of a decent moussaka. It was surprisingly easy to find a vegetarian version, too, which came as some surprise in this far-from-veggie country, although the time of year may have had something to do with this - we were there during Orthodox Lent, when apparently many people give up meat for the month. Given that we still sometimes struggled to find decent vegetarian catering, I can't imagine how hard it would have been at a different time of year.

Samos - Vathy

When I got home, I wanted to recreate some of the sun-soaked Greek flavours in my own kitchen. I've often seen moussaka recipes which include a potato layer, but that wasn't what we found in Greece, so I didn't include it. If you wanted a more hearty dinner, though, you could boil some potatoes (preferably a firm variety), slice them up, and include them in the middle. The herbs really make this dish, so I'd recommend using fresh if you can get them. Also, I'm not one for salting aubergines (eggplant), but you could add that step if you want.

Unfortunately I made this to feed some friends, and it was a busy day, so I didn't have chance to take a picture. It was nice, though. (I'll get a photo next time I make it!)

Vegetarian Mousaka
Serves 6

For the tomato sauce:
1 medium onion
½ green pepper
3 cloves garlic
1tbsp olive oil
1 cup (200g) dried green lentils
1 tin chopped tomatoes
500g tomato passata
2tsp thyme
1tsp sage

For the white sauce:
20g butter
30g flour
300ml milk
100g ricotta or other soft cheese

Also:
1 large aubergine (eggplant)
1 large courgette (zucchini)
2 large tomatoes
2tbsp parmesan
  1. Finely chop the onion, pepper, and garlic.
  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and sautee the chopped vegetables until soft.
  3. Add the lentils, chopped tomato, passata, and herbs to the pan, and simmer over a low heat for a couple of hours, until the lentils are soft (if you use pre-cooked lentils, this stage will be a lot quicker).
  4. Make the white sauce: melt the butter, add the flour to form a roux, then add the milk (stirring to break up any lumps), and stir until the sauce begins to thicken.
  5. Mix the soft cheese into the white sauce.
  6. Slice the aubergine and courgette, and fry for a couple of minutes on each side to soften. You'll probably need to do this in several "rounds", setting aside the cooked vegetables as you go.
  7. Also slice the tomatoes.
  8. Layer up the mousaka in a deep casserole dish. Start with half of the lentil mixture in the bottom of the pan, then spread out half the aubergine and half the courgette across the surface. Form the next layer from tomato slices, reserving five large slices for decoration. Add the remaining lentils, then another layer of courgette and aubergine, and top with the white sauce. 
  9. Arrange the reserved tomato slices on top of the white sauce, and sprinkle with parmesan.
  10. Bake for about an hour at 180°C, until the top has browned and the moussaka is hot throughout.


Monday, 24 June 2013

An Energy Bar Recipe And My First Marathon



Date & Brazil Energy BarsUntitled

Yesterday, I walked my first marathon.

My preparation for this included thinking "gosh, that's a long way" a few times in the weeks beforehand, and making some homemade energy bars (recipe below). Training? You don't need to train to go for a walk, do you? I mean, it's not like running... it's just putting one foot in front of the other.

Umm, yeah. This might have been a mistake.

Still, we were raising money for the Meningitis Trust. This disease almost killed me when I was four years old, and every day I reflect on how lucky I am to be alive and able to do stupid things like this, so I had plenty of motivation to make up for my lack of experience. And we raised over £400, so it was definitely worthwhile. (If you have an event coming up and want to collect sponsorship online, click here to set up your own online fundraising page with JustGiving. Getting sponsorship notifications as we walked really helped us through the hard parts!)

The Cheltenham Circular Challenge is a series of footpaths which encircles the town of Cheltenham (about half an hour from where I live). For the marathon, the course was divided into four stages, with various water stations along the way, and buses back to the start from each of the quarter-markers. I walked with Andy and three other friends (plus a friend's nine-year-old daughter for a quarter of the way).

I really enjoyed the first section of the walk, and was surprised to find that I passed the first stage bus stop without even half-wishing I could hop on board the bus and stop already. I had a nagging feeling it wasn't all going to be so straightforward. The second quarter had a rather vicious hill, but it was the short-and-steep kind, and over soon enough. We were rewarded for our efforts with beautiful views over the city. The weather was perfect - grey, not too hot, but with barely a couple of raindrops all day.

Then, lunch. We'd left our picnic with the aforementioned nine-year-old (and her dad), so we had sandwiches delivered just as we needed them. We headed off again feeling refreshed.... but starting to ache in all sorts of weird places. The third section of the course was fairly flat, but featured one particularly evil field, with holes to fall into every other step. By the time we reached the third (and final) staging post, my hip was in agony, and for at least three miles I was seriously considering giving up.

One of our friends had already decided to stop at that stage. I sat on the floor, head between my knees, and thought very, very hard. I've had ongoing problems with my knee and my back... would I be doing myself more harm than good by going on? There's stubbornness, and then there's stupidity - and it's not always easy to know which is which. In the end, a couple of things swayed my decision. One, my husband assured me that there would be plenty of roads along the way, to which he could bring the car if necessary: going on wasn't an irreversible decision if things got too bad. And I was hurting worst in my hip, one of the few joints I actually haven't injured. If it had been my knee playing up, I would have known to call it a day while I could still walk. Determined to take as many breaks as I needed, I set off again, trying to fill my head with happy thoughts to distract me from the pain.

As the miles ticked on - agonisingly slowly - it got less and less likely that I would let my body get the better of me. With only three miles left... two... one... it was getting too close to the end to quit. And then, in a final act of course-setting cruelty, we had to walk through the car park. Past our car. For the second time, I seriously considered giving up. Only a few hundred yards to go. An insidious little voice nagged at me: surely I could count that as a win, and stop? Surely I could just send Andy to the end to get my medal? I could almost see the finish line, but it took every ounce of willpower to force myself to continue. Unable to stop the tears of pain mixed with relief, I stumbled the last few steps. I didn't even have the energy to argue when Andy sprinted ahead to get a photo of me crossing the line - nor was I able to force a smile or even wipe the tears for the camera. I was proud enough that I just managed to stay upright.

My final time was 10 hours and 55 minutes, making me one of the slowest marathoners of the day - but on the bright side, this gives me loads of scope for improvement if I do it again next year.

I got almost no sleep last night, because every twitch woke me with shooting pains. Today, I spent the morning curled up on the sofa in my pyjamas, trying not to catch my impressively large blisters on anything as hard and unyielding as a cushion. But by this afternoon, I'd managed to rig up enough blister-padding to wear shoes again, and went out for a celebratory afternoon tea with Andy. Walking is still slow, and somewhat painful, but it could be a whole lot worse. And it's all completely overwhelmed by the knowledge that I actually did it - a whole marathon.

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Happy smiles at the start line: Emma, Glynn, Jane, and me.

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Directions along the route.

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The circular route is a year-round footpath.

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Walking through the fields.

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It was nice of the Red Arrows to do a fly-past just as we were coming in for lunch.

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A much-needed tea break.

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Crossing the finish line.

Here are a few views from along the route, with many thanks to Andy for carrying the camera all the way:

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Date & Brazil Energy Bars
Date & Brazil Energy Bars
Makes 20 bars
Calories per bar: 150

1 cup (140g / 5oz) brazil nuts
2 cups (340g / 12oz) whole dates
1 cup (200g / 7oz) apricots
1 cup (140g / 5oz) raisins
2tbsp golden linseeds
2tbsp sesame seeds
  1. Finely chop the brazil nuts in a food processor. Remove to a large mixing bowl.
  2. Whizz the dates, apricots, and raisins in the food processor until fairly smooth (a few small lumps are okay).
  3. Add the pureed fruit to the mixing bowl, along with the nuts, and add the seeds.
  4. Knead the mixture until the nuts and seeds are evenly distributed.
  5. Line a traybake tin with greaseproof paper, and push the fruit mixture into the pan from one end, compressing it as much as you can by hand. Depending on the size of your pan, you probably won't fill the whole thing, so wrap the paper up over the spare edge.
  6. Chill in the fridge for an hour.
  7. Top with more greaseproof paper, find something large and flat (like a chopping board) that fits within your traybake tin, and use to compress the mixture by piling with heavy objects such as books.
  8. After a couple of hours, you should be able to neatly cut the bars with a sharp knife.


Friday, 21 June 2013

Samos Archaeological Museum



Samos

This was my first visit to Greece, and the Archaeological Museum on Samos was the first Greek museum I visited. Now usually, when I visit a country for the first time, it's a revelation to see the local historical narrative, and I pick up any number of unexpected facts about the indigenous cultures.

In Greece? Not so much.

Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that you can see many collections of Greek art and artefacts in the great museums of the world. In particular, I've spent a lot of time admiring the displays in the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

Still, the Samos Museum has a nice collection, and it was great to see the finds in context. I was particularly intrigued by the pre-Christian statue head (below) whose face had been removed and etched with a cross by later Christians.

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The archaeological site at the back of the museum wasn't open to visitors, but it was nice to know it was still an active excavation.

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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Perfection Satisfaction Promise, in Ottawa



Perfection Satisfaction Promise - Ottawa

We passed the tiny, unassuming cafe that is Perfection Satisfaction  Promise en route to a different restaurant, and the specials board caught my eye. As soon as we got back to our hotel, I looked online for reviews, which were largely focused on the fact that the restaurant has been set up by followers of a popular guru (with words like 'cult' being thrown around a lot), but I would guess most travel-addicted vegetarians have eaten in enough Hare Krishna restaurants that a slightly different peace-and-love philosophy just washes over you. It does, however, make for rather an unusual restaurant name. In any case, the consensus seemed to be "nice food, culty atmosphere" so we decided to try it out for ourselves.

The restaurant really is tiny, and we ended up perched at the breakfast bar while we ordered, although we were then able to move to the end of a small table. I get the impression that it's always packed - there were even signs announcing, primarily for the benefit of the local student population, that wifi would be switched off during the lunch rush to discourage loitering!

We ordered two different kinds of soup (both lentil-based, rich, and very filling) and also some samosas and onion bhaji for starters, which were excellent. For our main course, both of us wanted to try the special which had originally attracted us to the restaurant - a filo pastry bake filled with roasted vegetables, which tasted every bit as good as it looked. We were feeling pretty full by the time we got to contemplating dessert, but the mouth-watering vegan cheesecakes were just too tempting to pass up. I love cheesecake and these were perfect - we had one chocolate, and one blueberry, they were creamy and rich but not too sweet. If I lived nearby I think I would be eating here a lot, and always saving space for dessert.

At the end of our trip, we were stranded for a day by flight delays. We'd been looking forwards to getting home and were tiring of rich  food at every meal, so we came back here for a lunch of simple vegetables. An assortment of fresh veggies are offered with a choice of accompaniments and sauces - we each picked a different combination, and were impressed by how nicely cooked it all was.

Perfection Satisfaction Promise - Ottawa

Perfection Satisfaction Promise - Ottawa

Perfection Satisfaction Promise - Ottawa

Perfection Satisfaction Promise - Ottawa


Monday, 17 June 2013

Peppermint Mocha Cupcakes (Vegan)



Peppermint Mocha Cupcakes

It started with JoJo's Cupcakes in St Michael's, Maryland, where I first encountered the idea of a peppermint mocha cupcake. I tend to shy away from sweet drinks, so "peppermint mocha" is not the name of something I would order in a coffee shop. I love coffee and chocolate and peppermint in almost equal amounts, but I couldn't quite imagine how the taste would work in combination. You know how sometimes you try something new that sounds a bit weird, and then five minutes later you can't imagine not knowing that it's an awesome flavour? It was like that with peppermint mocha cupcakes.

This was last autumn, and Maryland is now a lot further away, so I've been half-heartedly intending to make some of my own ever since I got home.

Then a friend (coincidentally also called Jo) invited me round to watch a US television series called Cupcake Wars. I don't watch much TV of any description, but a show that ends each episode with a couple of bakers having to compete in producing a thousand-cupcake display has a natural appeal to me. Plus I just love the weird ingredients that the contestants are asked to incorporate into their baking. But I digress.

On one of the early episodes, the winner was a vegan cupcake-baker whose creations looked simply amazing. Unfortunately her name was Chloe, which kind of breaks the pattern here, but we'll forgive her that because her baking is awesome. A quick Google later and I found myself with the recipe for Chloe's chocolate strawberry shortcake cupcakes, one of the very cakes she made on the show. I've made variants on these cakes a couple of times, now, and this is fast becoming my go-to cupcake recipe because they rise so nicely and have a great, moist texture.

I'd run out of bicarbonate of soda, so I used baking powder instead and skipped the vinegar to balance out the acidity. I also tweaked the recipe from volumetric to weight-based measures, translated everything into metric, and tweaked the flavours to create my own peppermint mocha variant.

Peppermint Mocha Cupcakes

Vegan Cupcakes: Peppermint Mocha
Makes 16

For the cakes:
210g (1 cup) caster sugar
265g (1½ cups) plain flour
40g (1/3 cup) cocoa powder
2tsp baking powder
¼tsp salt
120ml (½ cup) sunflower oil
240ml (1 cup) strong coffee
1tbsp peppermint extract
75g dark chocolate
5g coffee beans

For the frosting:
150g vegan margarine
75g icing sugar
1tsp peppermint extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F).
  2. Finely chop the dark chocolate (or use chocolate chips).
  3. Crush the coffee beans with a pestle and mortar.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder.
  5. Add the liquids, and whisk until smooth.
  6. Stir through the crushed coffee beans, and chopped chocolate (holding back a little for decoration).
  7. Divide the batter between about 16 cupcake cases.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the cakes have risen and a skewer comes out clean. (Exact timings will depend on your oven.)
  9. Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.
  10. Cream the margarine together with the icing sugar and peppermint extract, and whisk until light and fluffy.
  11. Spread the frosting on top of the cupcakes, and sprinkle with a little extra chocolate.
This month's We Should Cocoa challenge, hosted by Victoria at A Kick At The Pantry Door, happens to be on the theme of mint, so I'm submitting this recipe there. Thanks to the wonderful chocolatey blogs of the Chocolate Teapot and Chocolate Log Blog for organising the event.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Samos: My First Greek Island



Samos - Vathy

I went to Samos for a conference. Sitting around in a hall full of academics is, I'm guessing, not the most conventional reason to go to a pretty Greek island, but I'll take what I can get. Fortunately, in addition to days of powerpoint, the conference also included a great cultural program with day trips to nearby Ephesus and Patmos, as well as around the island of Samos itself.

We stayed in the main port of Vathy, which boasts a strange mixture of architecture: picturesque winding streets, whitewashed staircases, one ultra-modern shopping boulevard, a scenic harbourfront, and a couple of streets crumbling into absolute ruin.

Further afield, the fields are almost implausibly green, and tiny villages perch on hillsides overlooking the sparkling seas. I could certainly get used to walking through streets overhung by citrus fruits and colourful flowers.

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

Samos - Vathy

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Samos

Samos

Patmos trip


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