Friday, 17 April 2015

Playful shadows

When it's sunny, Eddie and I play on the way from school or into town, looking at the shadows and imagining the magical shadow world. We wave and say Hello to our own shadows.
Eddie might come up with some ideas like telling me that my shadow will eat me for lunch, but apparently his shadow won't eat him but will play with him instead.

The trees create the most beautiful shadows, some of which are crisp images, some are soft and almost watercolour-painted.

There are patterns and designs, zigzags and diamonds.

There are intricate outlines of the playground equipment and old benches.

Here is Eddie and I (and No, I don't salute, but try to take a photo) on the way home.

I love this image, it looks almost like a modern art, quite abstract and minimalist.

Have you guessed what it is yet?
Swings, of course.

As we walk along together, chatting and giggling, I think there'll be a day when my little man will grow up and won't want to be accompanied by his Mum. Will he still notice the shadows and maybe smile to himself, remembering our walks?

But so far we are the best buddies, and we love our little walks and talks.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Cakes and sanity

It's the little treats like a cup of tea or latte with a slice of cake or a pastry that keep you sane. I was talking to an elderly friend today, whom I have known for many years. We chatted about the latest news, and I told her that I try not to plan anything further than a day ahead. I live one day at a time.
When I go to bed and start thinking about the future, I cannot sleep with worry, which is mostly related to my older son with autism. Now that he reached 13, there is a whole plethora of new issues. One of them being even less tolerant to any break in routine or noise.
Since around Christmas time, he is keeping himself on his own, mostly hiding in the attic with his ipad. Not exactly a Mrs Rochester's case, but as frustrating and sad for me. He doesn't want to have any meals together with us. At Easter we had friends over for lunch, but Sasha didn't show himself even once.
When my husband is away, I find it especially tricky to watch over both boys, so I run upstairs-downstairs like a shuttle.
Mornings these days are a battle. Every simple task like inviting Sasha downstairs so that he has a breakfast or making him put his school uniform are physically and emotionally taxing. By the time he gets on the school bus, I feel like I won a Waterloo.
Then I grab Eddie and we run to his school. Later I do some grocery shopping and whatever errands I need in town. By the time I come home mid-morning, I am so ready for a cup of tea and something sweet, like a little cake.

Typically we always have either a homemade cake at home, or some Mr Kipling's goodies. My boys are particularly partial to Angel slices and Chocolate slices, so I tend to have a mini-stash of them. They are a handy size, not too big, not too small, individually wrapped and keep well.

When BritMums asked recently if life is better with cake, my answer is Yes. Little treats make life more tolerable.

I appreciate they are not exactly a diet food, for example, one of Viennese Whirls is 145kcal, one Bakewell tart is 200kcal. But then I run so much about, walking miles and miles every day (I don't drive), that I do burn quite a bit of calories as well.
My men all have a sweet tooth, they were delighted when a parcel arrived from Mr Kipling and BritMums with 3 boxes of Cherry Bakewells, Viennese Whirls and French fancies. These are the cakes that I don't usually buy, so I was quite curious to try them.

First we tried French Fancies. They look very pretty, dainty little things. Way too sweet for me, I couldn't finish even one. That didn't stop my guys, and the all the fancies were gone in 60 seconds.

Viennese Whirls with a raspberry jam and buttercream filling also got thumbs up from my guys. I was reassured to read on the box that the bakes contained 100% natural flavours and no artificial colours and no hydrogenated fat.

Eddie loved the swirls, and asked me to buy more.

From the selection that we received we liked Cherry Bakewells the most. The pastry is crumbly, with an almond-flavoured sponge and fondant icing is delicate. The sugar content is quite high in each pastry, so one is plenty. It is lovely as an occasional treat.

So, on the days when I feel overwhelmed or even blue, wishing for an escape via a time-travelling Tardis, a little cake with a cuppa is a sanity-saver.

This post is an entry for #betterwithcake Linky Challenge, sponsored by Mr Kipling. Learn more at

Thank you, BritMums and Mr Kipling for our treats!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Borscht with beet and carrot greens

Russian beet soup

I'm happy to try anything once (that is anything reasonably appetizing, so no insects, snakes or animal eyes, brain, or private bits). Recently I talked to my Mum on the phone and mentioned that I cooked a soup with beet leaves. She asked me if I ever prepared any meals with carrot's green tops. No, I haven't, and to remedy that I googled for recipes. Apparently they are edible, and that prompted me to cook a borsht with beet and carrot greens. I found a lovely bunch of carrot at the local market.

Borscht with beet and carrot greens
2 beets
2 carrots
1 onion
3tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
2 tomatoes
1 apple
1tbsp vegetable stock powder
2 big handfuls of beet leaves
a handful of carrot greens
2 potatoes
1tbsp chervil
2 spring onions

Chop the onion finely and fry with 1tbsp of olive oil until the onion gets translucent. Remove the fried onions from the frying pan and set aside in a bowl. Add more olive oil to the pan and fry the peeled and chopped beets and carrots for about 5-7 minutes, stirring regularly. Add a chopped garlic to the vegetables and fry for another couple of minutes.
Put the fried vegetables in a deep pan with the chopped tomatoes, apple, chopped carrot greens and vegetable stock, pour enough water to cover the veggies well. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, then add chopped potatoes to the pan, and cook for another 10+ minutes until the potatoes are cooked. Add the chopped beet leaves in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Add more water as the soup is cooked, so it does look like a soup rather than a stew. Though it is quite a thick soup. Season with salt and add some herbs, like chervil and spring onions.
Serve hot with a dollop of soured cream or Greek style yogurt.
This is a vegetarian version of the soup, you can of course, cook it with the beef or chicken stock.

Now, what about the flavour of the carrot greens? I love the beet leaves in soups, but cannot feign much enthusiasm for the carrot greens. They were OK, edible, but that's about it. There's probably a good reason why they are not as popular in cooking. They might be super healthy, but I didn't like the texture, and flavour didn't convince me either. I was glad that I satisfied my curiosity.
I suppose when the food is scarce then you would eat anything, and this is a Russian equivalent of the cucina povera.
Have you tried cooking the carrot greens?

Russian beet soup

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Photo diary: week 15, 365

Two weeks of holidays are almost gone, and my blogging has been put on hold. Too many play dates and activities with kids. The weather has been lovely most of the time, and our garden is changing its colours again, with vibrant tulips and hyacinths, daffodils and muscari, primroses and plum blossom.

05.04: We had a great Easter lunch with friends, who came over. I still haven't blogged about our Easter meal, the days just slip away... We were stuffed by the evening, but did find some space to nibble on the Heston from Waitrose Easter egg. It was a gift for my husband. I fancied getting this egg last year, but procrastinated and they were all sold out. This year I got one earlier and kept hidden. I liked the idea of a rice paper straw and the dark chocolate was very good. Is it worth £20? As a gift it is quite spectacular, but I will stick to the less pricey chocolate eggs next year. Eddie loved his white chocolate egg from Thorntons the best (and it was 2 for £6, with a personalised named on it, such a bargain), closely followed by Shaun the sheep chocolate egg. Kinder surprise Batman egg was more valued for the toy inside than for the actual chocolate.

Easter egg, chocolate egg

06.04: On Monday the weather was splendid, and we had a lovely walk to Cogges manor farm (another post that is waiting to be done, as I took a lot of photos). It was our first visit this season, and we got a new season ticket (the price has gone up). Eddie and I watched how the ladies were making the hot cross buns in the kitchen.

Making hot cross buns, Cogges, April 2015

07.04: My darling Sash is growing up fast. I might be biased but I think he's one handsome young man.

08.04: On Wednesday I had the groceries delivered from Tesco. I love their wild mushrooms, but it's always a surprise as to which variety will arrive. This week it was the turn of the morels. I haven't cooked any morels before, and asked friends on Facebook on what to do with them. I ended up just frying them with olive oil, garlic and a bit of soured cream. They do look a bit poisonous. In fact they're mildly toxic when raw. I just hope Tesco's mushroom-pickers know what they are doing, as I wouldn't be able to distinguish a safe morel from its poisonous false morels.

09.04: In the morning I took Sasha to the Guideposts club for a day, and later Eddie had a play date with his old nursery buddies Thomas and James. He had a great time, and didn't want to leave. I had a lovely time myself, chatting to their Mum Liz. I didn't take any photos of the boys together. That evening, as my husband was away, I fancied some okroshka with kefir. This is a cold Russian soup, it could be purely vegetarian or with meat. That evening I picked a handful of violets in the garden and scattered some over my soup for a splash of colour.

Russian cold soup
Kefir okroshka, Russian cold soup

10.04: My Mum keeps asking me about the garden, so I walked around, snapping all the corners of our garden for her. There's our mini-rockery from the pebbles Mum brought from our trips to Cornwall. I love it, it reminds me of our times together by the sea.

11.04: My husband is still away, so we didn't go out today. Instead we played at home and in the garden. Eddie loves talking to our neighbours across the stone wall, and asks me to lift him up so he can say Hello. Just the other day as I was talking to our neighbour Judy, Eddie piped in "May I ask you a question?" She smiled and said Yes. He then, looking angelic, asked "When will you invite us to your house?" 
Here's my Superman/Batman hybrid super hero, enjoying the sunshine.

TheBoyandMe's 365 Linky

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Oxfordshire trout (Regional recipe)

My home town Perm, Russia, and Oxford have become twin cities back in 2004, but long before then there were lots of people going on exchange visits. Thanks to this exchange programme between our Universities, I have met the most wonderful people. Some of them became my closest friends. And that's how I met my husband too, when he arrived to my home town to do research for his DPhil. We met 21 years ago, and married in 1996 after I finished my Master's degree in Canterbury.
I still remember our first bedsit, which was a college accommodation, in a house we shared with another newly married couple, and some single students. We cooked in the same kitchen and shared gossip and jokes. At that time my cooking repertoire was limited mostly to the Russian dishes. Being married to an Italian, I started learning the basics of the Italian cooking, and buying cook books.
About that time I bought a locally published cook book "Oxford in Europe" which collected the recipes from Oxford and its five twin-cities from across the world: Leiden, Bonn, Leon, Grenoble and Perm.
It's a very amateurish edition, and it makes me laugh at some of the supposedly Russian recipes, but hey, it was one of my first cook books, and I treasure it.
One of the local Oxfordshire recipes included in the book was for a trout cooked with bacon . Now, I confess, I have never come across this recipe before or after, and wonder just how much it is a regional speciality, and how much it is a recipe invented by one of the local families.
But it is pretty good, and I suggest you give it a try.
The recipe is very simple. I have slightly adapted it (the original recipe asked for 4 trouts and 8 bacon rashers). I cooked enough for the two of us, as my fussy little eaters would only eat fish as in fish fingers or tuna pate. Well, Eddie also eats fish and chips at school, but never at home. Sometimes I despair.
Now the original recipe has the most unfortunate name Isis Trout, named of course, after the local river Isis. But I don't want my blog posts to attract the wrong sort of people. MI5 are cordially invited to peruse my recipes, of course. But it's not an easy name, just look at what happened to the dog from Downton Abbey? Anyway, I renamed it as Oxfordshire trout.

Oxfordshire trout (for 2)
2 trout fillets
8 bacon rashers
salt, pepper
fresh lemon wedges to serve with

Take a ceramic dish, sligthly oil it and put half of the bacon rashers. Place two trout fillets on top, and place the rest of the bacon over the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes at 180C uncovered, then cover with the foil and cook for another 10 minutes.

The trout works very well with the bacon.

Alison from Dragons and Fairy Dust is running a Regional Recipes linky. I'm adding my simple recipe to her linky.
Dragons and Fairy Dust

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Photo diary, week 14, 365

Happy Easter to all you lovely people! My weekly photo diary is posted a bit later this week, as the weekend has been busy-busy-busy. Every moment I can spare I pop into the kitchen to listen to the Hall of Fame on Classic FM, what a feast! Luckily I spent a lot of time cooking yesterday evening and first half of today, as we had friends coming over for Easter lunch, so I had a perfect excuse to enjoy the music without being interrupted. 
Now going back to last Sunday, the 29th. Nothing eventful was happening. My husband was away, so boys and I spent the day at home, playing in the garden. My Mum planted the hyacinths' bulbs last year, and this month they have been giving me so much pleasure, as I can see the beautiful blooms from my kitchen. Thank you, Mum, and I wish you were here to see your flowers.

30.03: Sasha spent a day with the Guideposts, and Eddie and I ran a lot of errands on Monday. Passing by the Entertainer shop is a dangerous business for my pocket, as Eddie inevitably wants to buy another Lego toy. This time he went for Ninjago set.

31.03: On Tuesday we went to the Bleheim park with Eddie's school buddy N, his little brother C and their Mum. We had a wonderful time, running through the maze, playing in the pleasure garden, riding on a train named Winston, having light lunch and admiring the butterflies, fish and birds in the Butterfly House. These little cuties (I think they might be estrildid finches, but I might be wrong) are so beautiful.

01.04: On Wednesday our friend Jen took us by car to the Burford garden centre, another of our favourite places to visit. Eddie happily posed for me in the original Tardis from the BBC Doctor Who series.

02.04: a little coffee break with Mr Kipling's French fancies, pretty to look at, way too sweet for me, but my boys gulped them in one go, like that Tiger who came to tea.

03.04: Next day we were sampling Mr Kipling's Viennese whirls, again approved by my guys.

04.04: Yesterday Eddie and I spent a few hours wandering from supermarket to supermarket, trying to find some white eggs. I had this idea of dying eggs for Easter table. Fat chance. All the eggs were brown. What happened to the white eggs? Are they not en vogue any more? We were quite tired and stopped in Costa for a cup of coffee for me and a choccie snack for Eddie.

TheBoyandMe's 365 Linky

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Silent voice of autism

Sasha's selfie

Just because they watched a few films and read a couple of articles on autism, some people presume that all people on the spectrum are savants with exceptional skills and abilities. Just the other day my Mum met someone from my old school who asked about me and said "Yes, we know that one of her boys is a genius". It doesn't help that parents of children on the spectrum like to endorse the myth by sharing all those pictures on Facebook and printing mottoes on t-shirts that Leonardo, Michelangelo, Einstein were autistic. First of all, you cannot make a diagnosis centuries later. Second, for every "Leonardo", there are thousands and thousands of children like my boy who are non verbal, socially inept, with big developmental delays and extremely difficult behaviour. Let's just say I don't find these "positive-thinking" slogans helpful.

Sasha's still life photos

That doesn't mean I cannot find any positives in Sasha's autism. I believe his world outlook is different, and he has a good eye for detail. He finds the beauty in the most mundane things, and that is a gift. He can be fascinated by an object, and examine it, taking photos in different light of the day, like that fitted sheet on the radiator in the attic where he likes to hide. He took photos of it through the day, as the light was fading.
He doesn't arrange the objects artfully, he takes photos of them as he finds them.

Some of his compositions make me think of the minimalist art. You or I would pass by those objects without a second glance, but Sasha thinks they are worthy of our attention.

He likes the simple patterns and arrangements but he also doesn't mind the mess. In many ways Sasha is still a very young child, he enjoys the stories like The Gruffalo and Tiddler, he watches Kipper the dog on Youtube and probably will be watching it when he's in his 40s. Yet his photos show a mature side of him, his appreciation of the world around.

Old window in the attic and floor pattern in the bathroom in Italy
But it's Sasha's selfies that I find the most endearing. He is 13 now, a difficult age for any neuro-typical kid, and much more challenging for a child with autism. Body changes are confusing. My boy is as tall as me now, and soon will be even taller. He might be as big as me, but inside he's still a very young child, confused and often frustrated, scared of the changes around him and inside him.

By taking numerous selfies, it's as if he's searching for answers "Who am I?". Some of them are fragmental, you see the glimpse of a smile, or just part of his face. It's a study, research into himself. 

Sasha's non verbal. His ipad is a way of communicating with the world. Not that he shows his photos to us. 
His selfies show different moods, there are some smiling images, there are pensive ones. There are also some upsetting self-portraits, when he has been distressed and crying, with tears running down his cheeks or a hand grasping his head in despair. I couldn't share those photos on my blog, they are too poignant and vulnerable, and they make me so sad. Living with autism is very challenging. And profoundly life-changing for the whole family as well.

He often favours the technicolour photo settings on his ipad. I found a whole series of photos he made recently, where he holds little Gruffalo books above his head. It is clearly a message of some sort, and I wish I could guess the importance of this message.

So here he is, not a Leonardo, not a Rain Man, not an Einstein... My lovely boy who is as unique as any other person with autism.

If you found this blog post interesting, you might want to see the other posts about Sasha's photography on my blog - see The fragmented world of Sasha and Sasha's Selfies.