Ali’s Fruity Delight

My son Ali has created his first recipe! Here it is, without any tweaks from me.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 an apple
  • 1/2 a banana
  • 2 pots of fromage frais for children
  • 1 pouch of apple puree

Method:

Peel and slice half a banana. Cut apple in half, core it and slice into little cubes.

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Pour the fromage frais into a serving bowl.

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Add the apple puree and mix well.

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Now stir in the chopped fruit and serve. Voila!

When did school become so divisive?

Yesterday we braced ourselves for parents evening at our 6 year old son’s school. What should have been a straightforward, breezy discussion about what a good boy he is, how well he is doing, what small areas of improvement there might be for us to assist him with was marred by the big issue that has been concerning us all year: ability banding, otherwise known as streaming.

What happens is this. The children are divided into three ability groups (for convenience I will call them higher, middle and lower levels). In a classroom of 30 children they are divided into five tables, two at the higher ability level, two at the lower and one middle one. The children sit at their assigned table and are given work according to the ability level of their table. Their homework is also different according to their assigned ability level.

The idea behind this system is that it helps teachers to work more effectively with the children by tailoring lesson content to their ability. The children, supposedly, are not aware of this system as the tables they sit on tend to have cheery names of animals, flowers or trees. In reality, most children are well aware that there are tables for the clever ones and tables for the not so clever ones. According to recent research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, one in six primary school children in England are now “streamed” and this is a trend that is set to grow in the coming years as the streaming orthodoxy gains traction within decision making circles.

Yet the research by the Institute of Education found that while children placed in the top stream enjoyed significant positive benefit compared to those who had not been streamed, those in the middle and lower streams tended to do worse compared to children who were not streamed. In other words, this system benefits roughly a third of pupils but disadvantages the other two thirds. If you add to this equation the findings of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which indicate that children from poorer backgrounds are found to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, then you begin to see that this educational system not only favours the brighter students, it also strongly favours children from wealthier households. Hardly a recipe for social cohesion! More importantly, this shows that it is not actual ability of the child that makes the difference at this stage but the parents’ ability to coach them.

Our son’s experience in the classroom mirrors these findings. The children who sit in the two lower ability tables in his class tend to be from poorer, more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the children in the two higher tables mostly have well educated parents. My son is stuck in limbo in the middle. He is a bright, inquisitive and quick-witted boy. He is also very reserved in front of people he is not familiar with. In the critical first few weeks of school, when the teacher gets to know the children and assesses them, he failed to make much of an impression.

I was blithely unaware of the situation as of course, the school does not make it a policy to inform parents that their children are being streamed. One day, walking home from school, he happened to mention that the work he got given in class was too easy for him and that the children sitting at two other tables were doing harder work. He had also noticed that there were other tables doing super easy work. He wanted to be on the tables where the more interesting and challenging work was being given. My first reaction was to tell him that he needed to work harder on his reading, which was a bit of a struggle, so that he could impress his teacher with his improvement and get moved up to the harder work table. To be honest, up until then, I had not been one of those parents that spent long hours hot-housing their child. I read him stories at night but that was about it. I assumed, wrongly, that a bright boy would thrive in an Ofsted Outstanding school, regardless of whether I spent hours coaching him at home or not. The mistake was quickly rectified and we upped our game, practising reading and writing at home whenever possible. Within a short space of time I detected a massive improvement but this didn’t translate into a “promotion” at school.

There seems to be a lack of fluidity in the way streaming works in British primary schools. Once placed in that middle ability table, my son has not been able to move up despite our many talks with the teacher and head. To promote him would mean the “demotion” of another child. There lies the problem. The system by its very nature puts children in competition with one another. The status afforded to the children on the “clever” tables means they will resist being moved down. My son tells me that this did in fact happen to one of the children who was struggling with the higher ability work and needed to be moved down. He cried and cried and refused to change table. I don’t blame him! In the great British tradition of things, the streaming system seems to be a first past the post system.

In our case, we were told there were no “vacancies” in the higher tables but as a palliative they promised to give my son the same hard work as the top streamed children while still sitting on the middle table. It came as no surprise to us that he quickly adapted to the harder work. We have also been assured that next year all children will start again on an even playing field. Needless to say, we will be more prepared and make sure he isn’t unfairly placed in the middle again. I do wonder what effect streaming at such a young age has on the self esteem of children and on the way they perceive themselves. I noticed my son saying on more than one occasion that he wasn’t clever. This may have been an excuse for not making enough of an effort on his homework but it worried me enough that I now make it a point everyday to praise his cleverness.

My son is one of the lucky ones. He has us fighting his corner. Not all children are so fortunate. How many primary school children are being left behind because of the socio-economic backgrounds of their parents not their lack of ability?

Stuffed Courgettes (Coussa Mehshi)

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Growing up Coussa Mehshi (stuffed courgettes) was one of my favourite dishes. I have not eaten it in ages though because it requires the special Arabic courgettes (the short pale green ones) which are only available in specialist shops here. The other day I wondered what it would be like to make this dish with ordinary courgettes from the supermarket. It turned out to be rather tasty. Not the real thing of course, but a close second. It takes a bit of effort but not too much to make. Here’s the recipe (makes enough for 4 people).

Ingredients:

  • 4 courgettes
  • 250g lamb mince
  • 1 cup pudding or other short grain rice
  • 2 tins of peeled plum tomatoes (or a bottle of passata)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 tsp tamarind concentrate
  • 2 tsp baharat spice mix (or make your own by combining cumin, coriander, allspice, black pepper & cinnamon)
  • 1/2 tsp dried mint

Method:

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First wash the courgettes, slice of the stalk and trim off ever so slightly the coarse bit at the bottom. Slice the courgettes in two and then hollow out the inside from one end using an apple corer. Don’t throw away the inside bits, these can be used to make a courgette cake or fried courgette patties.

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Once done hollowing out the courgettes, set them aside and make the stuffing. Place the rice in a bowl and wash it a few times in water then drain. It’s alright if there is a bit of residual water left in the bowl – this will assist the rice to cook. Now add the mince meat, a teaspoon of salt and the spices. Mix it all up with your hands until everything is combined.

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Stuff the courgettes with this meat mixture but make sure you leave a centimetre gap a the top to allow for the expansion of the stuffing during cooking.

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Pour the passata into a large saucepan (or if you are using tinned tomato, whizz it up in the processor first ). Add the crushed garlic cloves, the tamarind paste and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the tomato to a simmer then drop in the stuffed courgettes. Make sure the courgettes are well submerged in the tomato sauce. Add a bit of water to it if necessary.

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Cover and simmer gently for approximately 40 minutes, until the stuffing is cooked. You can test this by taking out a piece and slicing it in half on a plate. If the rice still looks a bit al dente, you may wish to cook for a bit longer. When the courgettes are cooked sprinkle the dried mint on top and mix it into the sauce gently. To serve, place two halves of a courgette on a plate and pour a generous amount of tomato sauce on top.

Overcoming Childhood Myths and Conditioning is not Easy

This week I have been reflecting on the Islamic traditions that have been bred into me from childhood and how my adult self can see logically that some of these rituals are myths but still finds it hard to shake off the conditioning.

I didn’t have a very traditional Muslim upbringing as both of my parents stood out from their community in being forward thinking and questioning about all aspects of life. Yet even within this progressive environment some dogma was passed on which stays with me to this day. I wonder what it must be like for children growing up in more conservative households, where their faith is set out for them with certainty without any room for debate. Could this be one of the factors that render young men and women vulnerable to radicalisation?

The media is in meltdown at the moment trying to analyse what could have turned Mohammed Emwazi into the monstrous “Jihadi John” we have seen in the appalling ISIS beheading videos, or what could have compelled young teenage girls to leave their families and head for Syria. Personally, I think you have to have a screw loose somewhere to enjoy slitting another person’s throat so perhaps we are all wasting our time trying to understand Emwazi’s motivation. Let’s not give this fanatic any more publicity than he already has.

However, the numbers of Muslims living in the west who have left the comfort of their homes to join the fight in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East is significant enough for questions to be asked about what makes them want to do it. They can’t all be psychopaths or thugs. Many come from stable family backgrounds and are grade “A” students. While there are no easy answers to this question one common thread seems to be that at one point or another these people have come under the influence of charismatic preachers, whether in mosques or online through social media. I am struck by the very dogmatic language used by the jihadis that have posted videos and messages online. It feels almost like they are parroting what has been preached to them.

Could it be that people who from childhood are taught religion in certainties rather than in shades of grey are more susceptible to the influence of others? Obviously many other factors would have to come into play to bring about radicalisation. I am certainly not putting forward the idea that a conservative upbringing is to blame for all this. I am just trying to address one of the factors which I think does make a difference. And that is the lack of development of independent thinking. Young people need to learn not to accept things just because they are told but to make their own journey and reach their own conclusions. Their faith will be the better for it.

I have lost count of the times people have said to me that I am not learned enough to make a judgement, that I have to trust what the religious scholars tell me. They have spent years reading all the religious texts whereas I only know a dozen or so surahs of the Qur’an by heart. If they say so then it must be true.

So they tell me I must always eat and drink with my right hand, not my left. When I cleanse myself before prayer, I must always follow the ritual of washing my limbs three times on each side (starting with the right of course). When I pray in the privacy of my home I must cover every single hair on my head although it’s alright for my brother to show God his hair.

Now I am a grown up and can think for myself. I sometimes drink with my left hand if it is more convenient but I always get a little frisson of doing something naughty. I try not to be too dogmatic about the Wudu’ ritual but somehow can’t stop myself from washing my arm three times on the right then doing the same on the left. I have tried to pray in my bedroom without a headscarf but each time I have felt very awkward so I have reverted to the traditional head covering when I pray even though both my heart and my head tell me that God does not care about these trivialities only that I approach my prayer with pure intentions. Conditioning is hard to overcome.

Pasta with lamb and yoghurt (macarona bil laban)

macaronabilabanI thought I would share this simple but tasty Arabic dish which makes for a quick and easy lunch. I am not going to be bogged down by measures here as this is really so simple. This makes enough for two hungry people. All you need are:

  • a 250g pack of mince (preferably lamb)
  • a 500g pot of plain yoghurt
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a handful of pine nuts
  • pasta of your choice (this works well with penne)

First of all, fry the mince in a saucepan and season with salt, pepper and bharat (Arabic spice) or failing that, garam masala will do. Once the mince is cooked, set aside but keep it warm. Cook your pasta according to the instructions on the pack.

While the pasta is cooking, empty the yoghurt pot into a serving bowl. Crush the garlic clove (if you really like your garlic crush two cloves instead of one) and mix it into the yoghurt. Season well with salt and white pepper. Now saute your pine nuts in a non stick frying pan until they turn golden brown. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and mix into the yoghurt in the bowl. Add the mince meat on top and then sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts.

Serve immediately with a salad on the side. Word of warning: make sure you don’t add the yoghurt to the pasta in the saucepan as you don’t want the yoghurt to cook and go lumpy.

Farming off the care of our children is not always the answer

mother_and_childImage courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have just recently read an article in the Guardian kindly posted by one of my Facebook friends which argues that the cost of childcare is the biggest obstacle to equality in the workplace. It held up the example of Nordic countries where free or heavily subsidized childcare is available to all children from 6 months onwards, enabling a very high percentage of mothers to return to the workplace and resume their careers. The lack of affordable childcare in the UK, it argued, was depriving the economy and society from the talents of these many women.

What’s to disagree with here? I am a stay-at-home mum who gave up my fledgling career as a reflexologist/aromatherapist because the high cost of childcare could not be justified by the moderate income from my therapy practice. I know first hand how much a sacrifice becoming a mother can be. It has been hard having to care for a young child full time with very little outside help other than the occasional playgroups. This utopian vision of free or cheap childcare would have been manna from heaven for me. I could have continued to build my practice and perhaps also gone on to add additional therapies to my portfolio. What a loss to me and to society that I was unable to do so!

Or was it? Up until my son started full time nursery school at the age of 3, I did not work or earn a salary in any proper sense. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t busy. I had to care for my child, feed him, play with him, take him out to the park endlessly as well as take care of our house, groceries, cooking and cleaning. This was not a life of leisure and it felt like hard work a lot of the time. On the upside, I got to enjoy being with my son and to watch him grow from a small baby to a young boy. I was there when he took his first steps and when he spoke his first words. I had an opportunity to bond with him and to foster a very close relationship in a way that my husband, who was out working during weekdays, didn’t.

That’s not all. During that time I was also able to search for and find our house which we bought as a renovation project. I had to oversee the many works including removing pebble dash, re-pointing brickwork, installing new windows, new front door, new fireplace, new floors, new bathroom, a side return extension, new kitchen and landscaping both front and back gardens. I had to make a limited budget go a long way and spent long hours shopping around for the most cost effective products and services. I may not have earned an income but I contributed to the substantial appreciation in the value of our house. I also learned new skills and found out I was quite good at the property renovation business. A few years ago, when we were fortunate enough to come into some money, I was able to put these skills into practice by buying a sorry looking flat and transforming it into a beautiful home and then selling it for a profit, thus starting my property development business. When one door closes another often opens.

Now I know I have been extremely lucky to have a partner whose income was sufficient to support us all without my having to go out to work, a situation which many other women do not find themselves in. But I am glad now that I did stay at home with my son and didn’t drop him off at day care every morning. No matter how good a nursery is, it is never going to be a substitute for family. My son got love, cuddles and kisses from me throughout the day. I don’t underestimate the importance of physical affection in the development of a child. Yes of course there were times when he drove me up the wall but I had to remind myself that childhood is fleeting and not to wish away this precious time with him.

Many mothers have found that, like me, dropping out of the workplace has given them an opportunity to try out different career paths. This has given rise to the term “mumpreneurs” which is used to describe women who set up businesses from their home. Another way forward is to allow women (and men) to work more flexibly. Job sharing is now very common in the Netherlands – British employers should take note.

It is impossible to have a one size fits all approach to this issue. There is undoubtedly a need for more affordable childcare, particularly for single mothers, families that need two separate incomes to get by or even to provide mothers like me with occasional respite from the non-stop 24/7 job of caring for a child. However, I am not so comfortable with the idea that women should en masse be expected to leave their child in the care of others in order to pursue their careers and that somehow society would be the better for it. I do feel that the job of raising a child is often undervalued and that given the choice, children are happier in the care of their parents than with strangers. Stay-at-home mums may be dropping out of the workplace but they are still contributing to society, helping to raise well adjusted, happy children who will be our future generation.

Scrumptious Carrot Cake

IMAG0866This cake doesn’t last long in my household, after one slice you just keep coming back for more! As with most of my favourite recipes, it is quick and easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 300g carrots (approx 3 medium carrots)
  • 225g self raising flour
  • 125ml sunflower oil
  • 65g caster sugar
  • 65g brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the icing:

  • 3 tbs unsalted butter, softened
  • 5 tbs cream cheese
  • 8 tbs icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a square 20cm x 20cm baking tin. Cut the ends off the carrots and grate coarsely. In a separate bowl  beat together the eggs, sugar and oil. Sift in the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate and cinnamon. Lastly fold in the carrots then pour into baking tin and bake for about 40 minutes. Leave to cool.

To make the icing beat together the butter and sugar then gradually beat in the cream cheese and vanilla. Once the cake is cooled, spread the icing on top and serve immediately.

Red Velvet Cup Cakes

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These cup cakes are so easy to make and perfect for a Valentines treat.

Ingredients:

  • 250g plain flour
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 175ml buttermilk (or juice 1/2 lemon mixed with milk to make up 3/4 cup)
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp red food colouring

For the icing:

  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 100g cream cheese
  • 150g icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat your oven to 180C and line a muffin tin with 12 paper cases. Mix the flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda in a bowl (no need to sift it, just mix it with a spoon to get rid of lumps). In a separate bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar together, then mix in the vanilla extract and red food colouring. Beat in the eggs then finally alternate mixing in the flour mixture and the soured milk or buttermilk until you get a smooth batter. Divide the batter between the cupcake cases and place in the centre of your oven to bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

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While the cakes are baking, prepare the icing. Put the softened butter in a bowl (I soften it in the microwave on the lowest setting) and add the icing sugar. Beat with a small whisk until smooth. Now add the vanilla extract and cream cheese and beat well to get rid of any lumps. Taste your icing and add a squeeze of lemon juice if it is too sweet for you.

Once the cup cakes have cooled, ice them and for a decorative touch add some chocolate or pink sprinkles on top. Enjoy!

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Our Ideals of Romance Are Harming Society

ID-100238509Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Valentines Day is round the corner. All around us are the usual incitements to buy romantic treats for our loved one – although I was slightly bemused in Asda today to find there was also an entire aisle devoted to Easter eggs and most bizarrely, a marmite flavour egg. But I digress. This year, along with the usual valentine merchandise we have also to contend with the highly hyped new movie 50 Shades of Grey, based on the best selling book of the same name.

Now I do not claim to have read this book but I have enough of an idea of the gist of it. I did read the third instalment of the trilogy (it was the only one available in the library at the time) and not only did I find the sex scenes boring, I was also dismayed by the portrayal of a dominating, egotistical, and rather dysfunctional man as the ultimate romantic hero for our times.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a romantic. My teens and early twenties were spent, I am ashamed to say, devouring all sorts of romantic novels from Mills & Boons to Georgette Heyer. I longed for romance. I lived for romance. My dreams were full of brooding, handsome (and of course wealthy) heroes who would sweep me off my feet and transform my life.

Of course Mr Darcy did not come a calling. I doubt if he came a calling on any other young lady either, not even Kate Middleton who finally nabbed her prince after many patient years of waiting for him to pop the question. The truth is, Mr Darcy is a myth. We women have been sold a lie for centuries – a lie often peddled to us by our fellow women – about the nature of true love. We have been conditioned from childhood to want a prince charming to ride on his horse and rescue us (check out Colette Dowling’s book, the Cinderella Complex about women’s fear of independence).

Why else, in the 21st century, are women still under-represented in politics, in business or in the media? Why is there so much pressure on women to be sexually desirable to men (boob job anyone?) when there is no similar pressure on men? Why do we still believe this myth that the ultimate romantic hero is a powerful man to whom we must submit?

The irony is that love, true love, is a wonderful thing. I was fortunate enough to find it and I can tell you it looks nothing like Christian Grey, Mr Darcy or Heathcliff. My true love is a bit of a nerd with a middle aged paunch, a tendency to flatulence and to fret if he has displaced his keys or mobile phone. He is also my best friend – no one, not even my family, understands me like he does. I can talk to him about anything and everything. He tells me I am loved every morning and every evening. He holds me in his arms every night and gives me comfort. He is my champion, encouraging me to do things I would not have the confidence to do otherwise. That ladies, is a true romantic hero. I wonder how many more functional relationships there would be in society if women understood this.

Our obsession with new food fads is all about us looking for a quick easy fix

The other day I came across an article about a young girl named Ella who recovered from a debilitating auto-immune illness by eliminating sugar, gluten, meat and dairy from her diet. In the process she created imaginative healthy recipes which she posted on her food blog. This proved so popular that a book deal followed together with a lot of publicity, helped no doubt by her photogenic appearance and her family connections (she also happens to be the daughter of a politician and a supermarket heiress).

Intrigued by all the hype, I decided to check out this blog and try out a recipe or two. I struggled to find main dishes that looked tasty to me – let’s face it some veggies can be nice but most are a penance to eat. In the end I settled for the pea and spinach pesto pasta (though I omitted the peas – not fond of them). This was an easy to make dish and I must admit, also rather tasty and filling. It didn’t feel particularly ground breaking as I had made my own pesto many times before, but I did find it interesting to omit the cheese and add lots of lemon and spinach instead. The flavours reminded me of my Mediterranean food heritage where spinach is usually cooked with lots of lemon, olive oil and garlic. So far so good then.

I then turned to the sweet treats section of the blog and decided to try out the sweet potato brownies. The photos of them looked gooey and delicious. I followed the recipe to the letter but mine did not turn out quite as attractive. They didn’t taste much like brownies either. That’s not to say they were horrible, as after I got used to the different taste of them, I found myself going back and forth to the kitchen to have another slice of my virtuous treat. By the next afternoon, all the brownies had been eaten up. Something else had happened too. My digestive system, usually fine and healthy, had clogged up fully.

Constipation is never a comfortable state of being and after two days of it, my energy levels were near zero. There followed another 4 or 5 days of gassy indigestion before my system went back to normal. My husband said to me in amusement that I had just spent a week detoxing from the detox.

This got me thinking. Why are we embracing all these faddy diets? What is wrong with a bit of gluten, or a bit of dairy or for that matter a bit sugar in our daily fare? Yes there are some people with allergies to these foods but the majority of us have no problem digesting them. Our forbears have been eating bread, cheese and meat for centuries. Why all of a sudden must we stop? Why must we deprive ourselves of all this delicious bounty that God has given us? Can’t we eat what we like but in moderation and in balance?

I once made a pizza with a cauliflower crust. It was ok but nothing close to the real deal. The other day my husband and I went out for a pizza and I was bemused by the expanded menu containing low calorie lighter cheese thin crust pizzas with a hollow bit in the middle piled with salad. Why go out for a pizza and then choose a sorry excuse for one? I guarantee it won’t taste half as good as the classic pizza with the real cheese. We only have one life on this earth and we are so lucky to have all this wonderful bounty. Shouldn’t we enjoy what we have in moderation? After all, we don’t go out for pizza everyday so when we do, let’s make it a proper treat.

I’m not advocating a gluttony fest, just saying that most foods are fine as long as we don’t eat too much of them. Yes of course, let’s also try to keep on top of our five a day portions of fruits and vegetables. And maybe we should also think about a more active lifestyle. Our forbears ate butter and sweets but they also moved a lot more than we do.