Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Bash 2013 (and tips on how to throw your own party)

It was a pretty amazing day yesterday.  Addie was ready in her costume at 6:30 AM!  We had to explain multiple times that our Halloween party isn't starting for hours.  But when our friends started showing up everyone couldn't help but be in a cheerful mood.  Halloween is such a fun holiday to celebrate with children.  Every year I get a little more adventurous and the party gets a little bigger.  This year I invited Addie and Bella's entire class along with their families as well as at least twelve families from the embassy.  There were probably close to 60 people at the party.

Justin was in charge of a spooky but fun playlist (think Ghostbusters and Jump In the Line) as well as games.  My husband really outdid himself with the games this year.  There was a ghost hunt to find the lollypop ghosts hidden in the garden, no hand dangling doughnut eating contest, and feel the creepy stuff (bowls of icky things like goblin snot, frog eyes, graveyard dirt, and zombie guts).  The kids were seriously concerned about the papaya seeds (frog eyes) because they really do resemble slimy little eyes.  We also had pumpkin sugar cookies for decorating.  The kids were wonderfully occupied.

I kept parents and grown-ups occupied with plenty of drinks.  The usual wine and beer but also a custom drink for the party called Zombie Blood (single shot cream de cocoa, single shot vodka, double shot coconut milk served on the rocks).  It was a huge hit.  A huge pot of vegetarian chili along with cornbread and cheese kept everyone's bellies full.  Most parents gave up right away with limiting the sugar intake of their children when they saw the delicious selection of treats.  Everyone was in a festive mood.  Halloween is truly a sweet holiday so everyone indulged in some extra sugar whether it was in the form of a cocktail or a meringue ghost.

On party day I'm in my element.  I love feeding people good food and seeing the joy on their faces when they are loving something they've tried from my table.  It was especially fulfilling to give some of our European friends a proper Halloween celebration and see their reaction to unfamiliar foods like chili and popcorn balls.  Even the caramel apples seemed decadent.  All day long I had people asking me if I was ready to drop on my feet yet or if I was ever going to sit down and get a bite to eat.  "Aren't you exhausted?".  I thought about it later after about 12 hours on my feet and by now, after all these parties we've thrown, I'm just getting better at it.  I'm not stressed.  I generally have things under control and on party day I just revel in how everything comes together for a great party.

After a few years of doing this, I'm going to share a few tips on how to throw a successful stress free party:

1. I know I'm going to get mixed reviews on this policy, but I'm a proponent for inviting your child's entire class so that no feelings are hurt.  Be prepared to get about half the kids attending.  I can't be apart of exclusion, especially while they are little.
2. Don't be afraid to tell people what to bring.  When they ask, be specific.  For this party, I told almost everyone who asked, to bring wine, beer or juice; whichever they preferred to drink.  Ask your closer friends to bring a side dish or a batch of cookies.
3. Forgo take-away gifts.  Give candy with games and have plenty of treats the kids can snack on like tiny bags of popcorn for each child.  But don't stress about a treat bag.  I've done away with this for my girls' birthday and other parties because for the most part those treat bags get trashed or lost within hours of the child returning home.  Plus all that junk is pricey!

4. In contrast to the inevitable loads of sugar served at these parties, have something incredibly healthy for everyone to eat.  Veggies and humus, salad, olives, fruit, etc.  In fact, I like to have mostly vegetarian dishes for parties.  They tend to be easier to prepare in advance and good meat is not cheap or easy to get in Addis Ababa. 
5. Plan your menu a week in advance. List the dishes, then make a detailed grocery list (divide the list into what you can buy a week in advance v. what you need to wait to buy two days before). Make a column for each day before the party and assign things to be done on each day.  A green salad should be made the day of the party but dips and casseroles can be made days in advance and frozen or refrigerated and then baked the morning of.

6. Make your life easy and only put food on your menu that you can make in advance.  I made homemade pizzas for a party a year or so ago and it was the worst plan I've ever had.  I was at the oven topping and baking pizzas most of the party.  Never again (unless you are throwing a pizza making party and all the kids can roll their dough and top their own).
7. Start making ice a day or so in advance.  Here in Ethiopia, we can't go buy edible ice.  We have to make it at home and that takes time!

8. If you are serving alcohol (which I advise), go the extra mile and pour the red wine in a decanter.  Instead of just lining up your liquor on a table, create a signature drink for the event (or look up a recipe to a drink and use that).  Display the drink recipe, gather your bar tools on a tray, and let your guests pour their own drinks.  If the drink calls for a special mixture of something, do it in advance and serve in a carafe or small pitcher.  Label everything. Your cocktail will be a hit and people will be thrilled you made the effort.  How many times have you been at a party and looked at the vermouth, gin, and bourbon and then glanced and the juice and just gave up mixing a cocktail and moved on to the wine?  Creating a special drink is a sure way of getting rid of that bottle of Bombay Sapphire that's been sitting there for a year.  Trust me!

9. Have activities for the kids.  I'm finding this to be more and more important the older the children get.  When they were tiny we just let them roam and play.  Now they need games and things to keep them engaged and active.  It's the toughest part of parties for me.  I rely on Justin for help in this area.

10. Don't stress.  Maybe the caramel on your apples starts to slide off (guilty) or your cake is a little lopsided, who cares?  The point is that you went to the trouble and sometimes the things that look the most hideous taste the best.   Give yourself a break.  Planning a party is tough.

What about your party planning and executing tips?  I'd love to hear some other ideas.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Curried Quinoa

I'm probably the absolutely last person to jump on this quinoa bandwagon.  I felt a little like that with couscous too.  Oh well, at least I've discovered it at all right?

I struggle with getting dinner made during the days leading up to a big party we throw.  I'm busy with all sorts of things during the day on top of all the normal mom stuff.  Dinner tends to be an afterthought.  It usually happens with an "Oh, crap" moment when I look at the clock and its 3:30 PM and I haven't even thought about what's for dinner.

Today, quinoa saved the day.  Did you know quinoa is a complete protein and contains twelve essential amino acids?  I didn't, until I ordered a bag of organic quinoa from and it came with a cute little note about the product complete with cooking instructions and fun facts.  Okay, I can dig quinoa.  

I threw together this recipe and it was so fast and tasted so good I have to share.

Curried Quinoa
3 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups organic quinoa
1 Tbsp curry powder
1 small onion chopped
3 cloves garlic minced
1 small carrot chopped
1/3 cup dried black figs chopped (cranberries would be good too)
1/3 cup walnuts chopped
1/3 cup shredded or chopped chicken
2 Tbsp fresh coriander leaves
1/2 lime

Bring the broth and the quinoa to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Once boiling turn it down to low, add the onion, garlic and curry, cover with a lid and let it simmer.  About 5 minutes later add the chopped carrot.  Once the quinoa starts soaking up most of the water you can stir the mixture and then add the walnuts, figs, chicken, and coriander.  Squeeze the lime juice into the saucepan and stir.  Turn the stove top off and keep lid on quinoa until ready to serve.

My favorite thing about quinoa is that it stays moist while soaking up the flavors.  It's not dry.  You could surely convert this recipe into a vegetarian dish by using vegetable broth instead of chicken and not adding any additional meat.  I'm kind of excited to try quinoa in a million other ways now.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Spooky Halloween treats and crafts with kids

It's Fall Break this week so all three of my girls are home with me.  This makes my life infinitely sweeter but infinitely more chaotic.  In preparation for our Halloween party this weekend, I have a list of things to accomplish every day.  It helps to break up the cooking, baking and crafts so I'm not up all the night for two nights before the party.  Having the girls home gives me a few more road blocks to getting the list done.  But we're working through it!

The girls are mostly a big help.  So far we've made orange popcorn balls on a stick for super kid friendly snacks, lolly pop ghosts, and spooky Halloween drawings for a diorama.  It's our second year for making these adorable meringue ghosts.

I used this basic popcorn ball recipe only adding orange food coloring with the butter and vanilla.    Next time I'll make it a darker orange because once you stir it in, the orange sort of spreads out and doesn't look as bright when on the kernels. But, I also used more than 9 cups of popcorn since I don't see the need in making the snack too sweet. Addie and Bella had so much fun helping with the popcorn balls.  They did a great job molding them.  You have to go quickly so the syrup doesn't entirely cool or else the popcorn won't hold together.

I added a thick craft stick and a Halloween bag with a tie so they won't get stale before kiddos get to munch on them.

 Did you ever have Ed Emberly's drawing books as a kid?  We had some and I remember how awesome it was to follow his step by step instructions for drawing some pretty intricate stuff.  My mom found Ed Emberley's Big Orange Drawing Book and sent it to us for our Halloween crafts.  Addie grabbed the book, paper and popsicle sticks and just ran with it.  She's so creative.  I especially love the haunted mansion.
 Lolly pop ghosts are a super easy kid craft for Halloween.  We use Tootsie Pops, facial tissue, bakers twine and a black marker.  This year I dug up some googly eyes which were a lot of fun.  Check out the clever ghost on the left who has a spooky pirate patch for an eye.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Avocado 3 ways

When days get long here in Ethiopia, I find myself grasping for something to hold on to that makes me happy. If I can identify just one little thing about Addis Ababa every day that is truly amazing or beautiful or delicious, then I can get through that day*.  More often than not, these little life saving things are edible.  It's a perfectly spiced cup of tea at Bambis, amazingly frothy macchiato foam at TO.MO.CA, the special sauce on the cheeseburgers at Sishu, or the grilled eggplant yogurt sauce at our favorite Turkish restaurant.  I love food and simple good food makes me happy.

And it doesn't have to be something at a cafe or restaurant.  Preferably it's something I can have at home-every day.  Right now that something is avocado.  The avocados sold right now at the road side produce stalls are divine.  They are creamy when ripe like Haas avocados but have almost a sweet taste to them.  They remain nice and firm when sliced before their prime, perfect for salads.  As a family, we're eating at least two avocados a day.  I don't plan to stop until the lovely fruit can no longer be found in the city.  When you find something like this here in Addis, you eat it continuously until you can't get it anymore!

Avocado lends itself to being used on top of things as a garnish.  But in this case the garnish is hardly an afterthought.  The avocado garnish in these dishes is truly what brings all the components together.

Let it be known that I eat avocado plain.  Well, not plain, I like lime juice and salt on mine, but I am perfectly happy eating it by the slice or mashing it in traditional guacamole.  Those uses are a given but my three new favorite ways to eat avocado are the following.

1. Avocado topped bagel with cream cheese.  I can't get enough of this for quick lunches.  I make bagels at home because it's hard to find good ones in Ethiopia.  The cream cheese is truly just a soft white cheese we order from Kenya.  But it does the trick.  The avocado on top of this bagel makes the meal quite delicious.  For the avocado, I roughly mash it with a bit of chopped onion, tomatoes, lime juice and salt.  No recipe details needed.  Simple as that!

2. Avocado with polenta cakes and a chickpea bacon gravy.  This was one of those meals where lots of great stuff got thrown together.  It was a hit among my girls.  Polenta cakes are a nice change from the usual potatoes or rice.    The avocado is such a nice cool element compared to the other components of the dish.

For the polenta cakes
Boil 1 3/4 cups water with a large pinch of salt.  Whisk in 1 cup of polenta slowly and take off the heat.  Keep whisking until thick.  Spray a 8x8 inch square baking pan with non-stick spray and spread the thick polenta mixture in the pan.  Cool in the refrigerator.

For the chickpea bacon gravy
Bacon maybe 6-8 strips
1 med onion chopped finely
2-3 cloves garlic minced
1-2 carrots diced
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 can chickpeas drained
1/2 can mushrooms chopped or fresh is even better

Brown bacon until crispy in a large skillet.  Set the bacon aside but leave 2 Tbsp of the grease. Add the onions and carrots and saute on medium heat in the bacon grease for 3 minutes.  Add the garlic, a dash of salt and pepper and continue cooking for a few minutes.  Add the flour and using a spoon stir to coat all the vegetables in the pan.  Turn the temp up a bit and continue to stir for 3 minutes.  Slowly pour in the broth and bring to a light boil stirring frequently.  The broth will thicken.  Add the chickpeas (I drain most of the liquid but don't rinse them-I like the flavor the juice adds), mushrooms and crumbled bacon.  Stir and add salt and pepper to taste.  A little red pepper flakes would be nice if you aren't cooking for little people.  Let the mixture simmer on very low heat covered with a lid so the liquids don't all boil off.

Take the polenta out of the refrigerator and cut it into four large squares.  Then cut the squares in half to form triangles.  Heat another skillet on medium-high with a tablespoon of olive oil.  When nice and hot, place the polenta cakes in the skillet and brown them on each side for a few minutes.  The outer edge will get crispy.  Slide one onto a plate and top with the chickpea bacon gravy.  Don't forget to add large avocado slices!  Tomatoes were also a nice garnish for this meal, balancing out the salty bacon gravy.

3. Zesty Chicken and White bean soup (topped with avocado).  Here I am with soup once more.  Try this soup and you will be so happy you did.  It's not too zesty because my girls loved it.  I made a whole wheat cornbread to go with the soup.  Try substituting a bit of whole wheat flour in your cornbread recipe next time, it's really nice!  This meal is super healthy.  Absolutely no oil, cheese, cream, etc.
Zesty chicken and white bean soup
1, 15 ounce can no sodium added chicken breast (or fresh cooked and chopped chicken is even better-sadly, we're short on chicken in Addis these days)
5 cups chicken broth (homemade or from the box-low sodium preferably)
1, 10 oz can mild green chilie sauce (enchilada sauce)
2, 9 ounce cans white beans
2 large onions chopped
2 medium carrots chopped
1 med or 2 small zucchini roughly chopped
2 red peppers roasted with skins removed and diced

In a large soup pot combine everything but the chicken, beans and zucchini.  Add a teaspoon or so of salt and a tablespoon of cumin. Bring to a boil for a few minutes then turn the temperature down to a simmer and let the broth and vegetables simmer for 10 minutes or so.  More or less won't matter too much.  Add the chicken, beans and zucchini and stir.  Taste the broth again and add salt and cumin to taste.  Let it simmer on low for as long as you want.  When ready to serve, ladle the soup in a bowl and place a big hunk of cornbread in the middle.  Add avocado slices on top.  The cool creamy avocado is so nice mixed with bites of the hot zesty soup.

*let me say here that obviously my three amazing daughters and fantastic husband always fall in the category of "something that makes me happy, and gets me through the day".  This blog post is just about the other stuff that help with that.

Halloween decorating

It's that time of year again!  Halloween is just around the corner and we've been preparing the house for the big event!  Our annual kids Halloween party is next weekend and we can't wait to have a house full of little monsters and goblins running around with their faces stuffed with sugar.  I think we're ready for Halloween, what do you think?

Last year, we spent a lot of time making decorations for the house and I was able to re-use most of those things.  But we also have some fun new things around the house.  One of my favorite purchases were these vintage Halloween post cards which I placed over some of our framed artwork.  It transforms that picture into a great Halloween display.  The vintage pictures are adorable and so many of them wish the recipient luck on Halloween.  I find needing luck on Halloween romantic!  These are the cards in case you want to decorate your own house with them.  I considered for a moment turning them into a bunting but I couldn't bring myself to punch holes in them.

This spooky black cheesecloth is new as well and it's perfect for the mantle.  I have two more that I plan to drape on top of a white table cloth during the party.  The holes are a little too round and nice I kind of wish it looked a little more ragged but it will do!  It would be really cool to drape this from windows or door frames for trick-or-treaters.

My folks sent a box of Halloween goodies and it included the wonderful spider web material that stretches and pulls to look like cob webs and spider webs on just about anything.  The girls loved helping with this and more than once I've caught St. George tugging at the webs and getting it caught in his teeth.  We let our homemade pipe cleaner spiders crawl in the webs. Our ancient Arabic "blackboard" looks extremely spooky covered in cob webs!

 A few paper silhouette spiders have joined them.  The rest of the spiders can be found scurrying up our fireplace mantle.
 Black owl, mice, cat and bat silhouettes are lurking around everywhere.  We're still using our painted sticks, this year we added orange lights.  The orange lentils in the vase are the very same ones from last year!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ashlynn Olivia turns 2

Today marks the start of Ashlynn's second year!  We've been battling the terrible two's for months now so I can't really say that's going to be something new we see in the coming weeks.  She may be independent and spirited but she's also a pure joy.

I wish I had more time to put into words how I feel about our third daughter.  I find myself tongue tied and even with a bit of writers block when I sit down and try to write about Ashlynn.  She's going to look back, as all third children do, and get irritated at how little is written and recorded about her baby years (Although she can't complain about not having any photographs).  She'll envy the long heartfelt letters I wrote to her older sisters on their birthdays for sure.  But here's the thing,  Ashlynn is my last child.  She's a complete Mama's girl and hardly lets me out of my sight to have a moment to sit and write anything about her.  She's an all consuming kind of kid.  She has a really intense personality that is amazingly sweet at times but horridly bossy at others.  Her Auntie Brienne has nicknamed her aptly, a little dictator.  Which is really spot on.

At the age of two, Ashlynn can put her own DVD in the DVD player.  Her preferences right now are Ariel, Epic, and Elmo.

She eats a two eggs for breakfast every morning.  Then two hours later is asking for crackers.  Her favorite food is crackers and popcorn.  I can get her to eat anything in the form of a soup though.  I make a lot of soup for this reason!

She's sleeping in a toddler bed and has been for about a month and a half.  She has her own room and sleeps from about 6 pm to 6 am every night.  No progress on potty training yet.  When I ask her why she doesn't want to go poop on the potty she tells  me "No, I go poop in my diaper", which is a fact I am eager to change.

Ashlynn is a very physically active child.  She loves to climb, jump, dance and wrestle.  She is most happy doing these things with her older sisters.

One thing that is especially fun about our youngest daughter is how quickly she's started speaking.  She uses mostly full sentences to get her point across.  At 1 year she had quite a large vocabulary and from there she's just added on!  It makes life so much easier knowing exactly what she wants or needs.  She's able to ask for things and tell us what's wrong.  A few weeks ago she woke crying in the middle of the night and was able to explain to me that her foot hurt and asked me to rub it.  With the other two girls, I would have been guessing forever trying to determine what was the matter.  Having the ability to communicate with her sisters during play allows them all to get along better as well.  We love hearing her talk and the cutest things pop out of her mouth.  I will never get enough of hearing "I love you Mommy" or " carry me Mommy".  She is especially fond of saying "where did my lovie go?" and "No, I want to go in the car too" and "oops, I spilled_(fill in the blank)".

Ashlynn adores her sisters and has since she was very tiny.  They are her favorite people in the world next to her parents (or maybe her sisters are favored a bit more).  She at her happiest deeply involved in anything her sisters will let her join.  Turning the couch into a slide, dress-up dance party, chalk art outside, movie night with popcorn, Barbie playtime, it doesn't matter she's in!

We celebrated her second birthday on the day she was born as a family because it happened to fall on a holiday here in Ethiopia.  She woke from her afternoon nap to find a pile of gifts and a birthday cake waiting.  She needed zero explanation on what to do with her presents and when it came time to sing Happy Birthday and blow out her candles she sat smiling and even sang along a bit.  Having big sisters simply preps you for life!  What a lucky little girl.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

truth be told...

it was kind of a rough week/weekend.  To start off, I feel a bit cheated by the weather here.  Meskel has come and gone and where we were promised sunshine, the rain continues.  We've been having consistent power inconsistency!  HA!  Last week the generator ran for more two full days straight.  Then when the city power finally came back on, our home couldn't connect and ran on generator until someone came out to fix it.  The US government shutdown has us all feeling a bit down.  Just disapointed and under appreciated.  The internet left with the power and never came back on.  We were left with little power, no TV (AFN is run my the government) and no internet.  To top it off, a huge circuit in my kitchen blew during a power surge in the middle of my baking for Market Day.  Fighting back tears, I packed up my scones and baked them at a neighbors house.

Justin and I were pretty grumpy this past weekend, we count on talking to our families on the weekends and Justin relies on AFN and the internet to watch his football games.  We went to Octoberfest on Saturday night; our first date night in ages.  I declared it a dud when I got to the front of the German sausage line and saw the tub of Americas Choice yellow mustard sitting there.  It's the little things folks.  Can't a girl get real German mustard for her German sausage at a GERMAN OCTOBERFEST?  Is that too much to ask? When it rains it pours and little things like nasty yellow mustard feel extra awful!

But I'm trying to look on the bright side of things.  The internet miraculously came back yesterday after hardly even a bleep for a week.  The sun is shining today and that is a huge relief.  We've discovered a new grocery store that is closer to our home.  The less time we have to sit in the car on the roads in Addis is good.  My poor Adelaide is sitting on the school bus to and from school longer right now due to all the road construction and traffic in the city.  On a good day she gets on the bus after school at 2:45 pm and arrives home at 4:45 pm.  Poor girl stumbles in the door carsick and parched.  It totally stinks living so far away from the school.

But I digress back to complaints. Sorry!

Here is what is helping me feel cheery today:

  • Avocados are amazing right now in Addis.  Big and creamy and sweet.  I'm eating at least one a day.  Justin likes them chopped with tomatoes and onions.  Bella and I like them sliced with a little lime juice and salt. Addie and Ash pass all together!

  • is my new favorite website.  We're trying all sorts of their dried fruit and veggies.  The fruit chips are amazing.  I struggle to get my girls to eat fruit and veggies like most mothers in this world.  I've discovered they like crispy freeze dried fruit!  It's such a great snack.  More on in another post soon.  

  • Halloween is coming and we've been decorating already!

  • Ashlynn Olivia turns two next week.  Holy moley my baby is growing up.  She's so stubborn and independent.  This age is so challenging.  She wants to be with me even when I'm busy and the only way I can keep her entertained is to let her "cook" right along with me.  She gets bowls full of flour (the crappy store brand I ordered last time just to see if it was any good-it's not), measuring cups and spoons.  She's in heaven and I get a few rushed moments to bake.  

  • Two new albums my husband downloaded for me (before the internet crapped out) are Chvrches The Bones of What You Believe (perfectly 80's) and Lourde's Pure Heroine.  Justin is the music guru in our house.  He's much cooler than me in all honesty, he chooses the music in our house and these two are my new favorites.  
  • Eggs.  I love eggs.  They just might be my favorite food.  Fun fact about me: I eat a two egg omelet with salt, pepper and  a sprinkle of cheese every single morning!  Anyway, I topped my lemon vegetable risotto with a fried egg the other night for dinner and it was pretty amazing.  BTW- making a beautiful photo-worthy fried egg is harder than it looks.  HA!