Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Flower Power

Since blogging about osmanthus last year, my mother had taken my not so subtle hint and procured a jar of these fragrant flowers (preserved in syrup) for me.

The jar has been sitting in the fridge like a wall flower since we got back from Sydney. While rummaging through my conserves and preserves at lunch, I made a mental note to come back to the gems inside...

It takes a lot of willpower these days for me venture from my tried and tested yogurt cake recipe. It works beautifully every time; it is relatively low in fat and is versatile as I turn out chocolate marble, Matcha marble, citrus and other versions of this fail-safe blueprint.

2 eggs
1 cup of whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tbsp preserved osmanthus

Preheat the oven to 180C, line the bottom of a round ten-inch cake tin/ a large loaf tin with parchment paper and grease the sides.

In a large mixing-bowl, gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla, oil and rum.

In another bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Add the flour mixture into the yogurt mixture, and blend together -- don't overwork the dough. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake for 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Let stand for ten minutes, and transfer onto a rack to cool.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No Barney for Us

I have often been puzzled by the Argentine schooling system. It doesn't help my confusion by being aware of stories about the lack of consistency in standards among schools; yes, even private ones.

First of all, if you ever express the slightest interest on the subject, most Argentines are eager to assure you that standard of education in this country is "very high", nothing short of "excellent". On what basis do they reach these conclusions, I have no idea because Argentina is nowhere in any kind of international benchmarking of education such as TIMSS or PISA (the USA ranks very poorly so comparsion there is futile).

I have slowly come to the conclusion that many of them are nostalgic about the golden era of Argentine intelligentsia. Argentine standard nowadays is probably still quite high within the Latin American context, quite possibly better than the USA even; however, that is no basis to determine its excellence (superlatives are not relatives). Also, I suspect that many parents judge the quality of education by whether they pay for it – the logic being if it costs money, it must be good and if it costs loads, it must be fantastic.

Of course, the fundamental question which needs to be asked is what constitutes good education. Each parent has different idea and it also depends on the general standard within the society we live in.

Two of our nieces and nephews in BA are both aged 5, neither of them read nor write without assistance. They are happy kids who do not seem to be behind their peers at their private pre-schools (primary schooling starts at 6 in Argentina instead of 5 as in many countries and it lasts for 7 years instead of 6 as in others). On the other hand, our niece in Australia who is barely 4 is reading unassisted story books which average at least 60-70 words per page.

More relevantly, this inconsistency exists within BA; an acquaintance's son sat for an entrance test to St Andrew Scots School in Olivos, just outside of Capital Federal. The boy who was the same age as our porteño niece and nephew at the time he sat for this test, was asked to spell and write down a range of words in English. Among them, "rocket" which spelling may not be all that obvious for a junior with English as his second language; I doubt very much if our niece and nephew could spell that even in Spanish.

Of course, some parents feel that if their children are a little older when they start knowledge-based learning, they will feel more confident as they should be more emotionally and socially mature by then to handle the rigour of focus and concentration. To these parents, teaching their 4/5 year-old "babies" is certain to cause irreversible psychological damage.

Fair enough, if the world functions on the same set of lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, that's not the case; that's not the case even within any individual barrio in our city. A porteño friend's niece is 2 and has just started at the fairly costly Washington School in Belgrano. She is an engaging child who can already count and say a few words in English. It is obvious to the mother that sending her daughter to school everyday is dumbing her down rapidly. In addition, their modern-minded family doctor feels that 2 is probably too early an age to be attending school everyday anyway. However, competition for a place at that school is so stiff that she cannot afford to lose it now.

I really don't know what we would do as parents if we ever need to face schooling choices in this city. I just have a gut instinct (while Guillermo is sure from his work and research) that learning to read or count is not necessarily demanding on young minds, it is only the adults who are constantly underestimating the capacity of their children. As long as the parents make learning fun and enjoyable, well-paced and not based on parental ambitions, there is no reason why children should be steered only towards a silly purple beast or a piece of talking sponge.

Check out Giro Didactico for educational toys; Av. Callao entre Santa Fe y Arenales (for other locations see their website)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Poor Little Thing

Even after 2 years in BA, there are still cultural expressions I find jarring. In cultures which I am more accustomed to, doting adults call their young bubs by all sorts of endearing names which are actually terms of endearment. In Buenos Aires, however, the most popular is pobrecito (poor little thing); I am still trying to get my head around this one.

A dear friend in London rang to chat and check on my WIP (work in progress/ my bump); we talked about funky kids' clothes, state-of-the-art European strollers, etc. I also vowed to her that I will nurture my child to be environmentally friendly and unspoilt by the materialistic culture we live which point my buddy pointed out, not without a touch of irony and a grain of truth, that putting my newborn into a Bugaboo stroller is not actually an auspicious start to a simple life! OK, I think what I meant was that I shall try to find a balance between the impulse of giving my child the best and being mindful of not spoiling him.

In any case, I suspect Guillermo and I would most probably end up playing the baddies as the current parenting trend seems to be that of yielding to your kids' every wish – saying no to children doesn't seem to be an option for parents anymore. This trend is one we are definitely not going to follow. Anyway, our child will not be short of relatives spoiling him; my mother is already shopped out with baby's clothes for 3 seasons following the birth in August.

Speaking of clothes, there are wonderful choices available these days; unfortunately, the styles Guillermo and I favour are not available in Argentina. For now, I can only drool in front of my computer most days and occasionally make an internet purchase or two.

You see, surprisingly my easy-going husband has turned out to be quite the fussy shopper for baby's clothes. His rules are simple but difficult (at least if to be carried out in BA): no infantile patterns such as little sheep or bear, no ball of any sport or automobiles, no letters, no numbers, no logo/ brandname on prominent display...and preferably not in gender conditioning blue. And, certainly not in traditional tailoring and styles which make kids look like they belong to the Victorian era, with a butler and a governess trailing behind.

Judging by the popularity of Mimo & Co which is almost all pastels and the primness of high-end children's wear such as those offered by Paula Cahen d'Anvers and in shops along Arenales, casual, unisex and unadorned baby clothes will have a long tough road into the Argentine market.

We did a mini-scale market research into this by surveying La Familia. When Guillermo told his grandparents and parents that we bought an onesie (all-in-one) in black and grey stripes, their faces dropped - the unison of that expression was absolutely priceless! Abuela sighed with "pobrecito" and his parents didn't quite comprehend what he meant exactly by "black and grey". Yes, it is a very smart looking black and grey onesie...if only so after the quick surgery I performed on it; it had a logo of a baseball with "minimimo" (Mimo & Co's baby line) on the chest which I carefully unpicked from the inside so it is now unadorned and looks much hipper.

I think I'd better be prepared that my baby would be referred to as a poor little thing maltreated by his weirdo parents who are to put him in strange clothes and deny him of sugar, salt and dulce de La Familia, Guillermo and I are definitely beyond reproach. Pobrecito indeed!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cupcake Imposter Caught!

I have just recieved some bemusing news from a fellow baker, blogger and BA resident. Apparently, someone was posting anonymous comment on his blog and then signing himself/ herself off as Miss Cupcake.
This fellow blogger suspected something was up because we have been communicating privately and he knows my writing style rather well. He simply confirmed with me via email and the imposter was exposed immediately. As of now, we do not know if this imposter is trying this cheap trick on other Argentine blogs.
It amazes me the dizzying new lows some people are prepared to stoop. I cannot pretend to understand their motives and have no wish to do so; it'd just be a waste of my precious time. However, it is unfortunate and inconvenient that readers of various blogs have to endure this sort of immature behaviour.

Who is Gina Ford?

Like a lot of good things in life, I discovered Gina Ford and her childcare method through a negative write-up on her based on partiality and misunderstanding.

Ms Ford is one of the most prominent childcare experts in the UK; she trained and worked as a maternity nurse for over a decade before turning childcare expert and writer of popular childcare books. While her books have been translated into four languages and she has personally chalked up considerable wealth through book sales, her recommendations to new parents on how to establish a successful sleeping and feeding routine is none short of controversial.

The screening of Gina Ford: Who Are You To Tell Us? on television in the UK has caused the BBC a lot of flack from parents who have used their common sense in following the recommendations outlined in Ms Ford’s books to raise happy, contented babies and toddlers who feed and sleep well routinely.

Having observed closely how various parents raise their children at a range of ages in different cultures and most importantly how these children are developing into pre-schoolers and beyond, I am firmly rooting for a sensible yet loving routine.

The greatest barrier I've come across so far, especially when talking to Argentines, is that whenever the word routine and children are mentioned in the same breath, the quick "shoot-down" response is almost always that children are to be enjoyed; and that's the end of the importance of a healthy routine for growing children.

I wholeheartedly agree that children are indeed enjoyable and I cannot foresee any reason why I wouldn't enjoy my child as I already enjoy others'. However, it is important to remind ourselves as parents that we are guardians of a human being, not an entertainment system. I am also positive that if children have a routine which leads them to sleep and feed well, they are even more enjoyable in their waking hours. That's just good commonsense - we, adults learn, work and play better when we are healthy and have had a good night's sleep why should children be any different?

What is different, however, is that children need more hours of sleep and it takes them longer to wind down enough to fall asleep. Hence, taking children out to dinners and parties until way beyond mid-night may not take a toll on the adults but certainly does more harm than good to the children in the long run.

I'm sure I'll look up Ms. Ford's books when I get back to Sydney for my 3rd trimester but her official website Contented Baby provides a very helpful start on her philosophy and methodology.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Soy Wearable!

While Guillermo and I were enjoying afternoon tea at a cute but obscure little place along Pasaje del Correo, he asked me if I knew of soya oil. Apparently it is a significant Argentine export to its major buyer - China. I've a vague idea that it is for industrial use and commercial-scale food production; I could be completely off the mark but it prompted me to think more about what this amazing little bean could do...

That was how I stumbled upon soy fibre. According to the website of a clothing line named Baby Soy, Henry Ford of Ford Motor first talked of soy fibre in the 1940s and was photographed wearing the first known soy suit and tie. Technological breakthrough in 1999 made mass production of soy fibre realistic and economically sound. The invention of soy textile was awarded the gold prize by World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2003.

Soy fibre is manufactured from extracting the proteins from leftover dregs from soya oil/ tofu/ soy milk production, turning waste into useful products. The resulting textile is sustainable, utilising renewable natural resources.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, soy textile has the same warmth retention as wool and better moisture transmission than cotton, making it very comfortable to wear. Thus, ideal for baby clothing as it keeps babies warm and dry. It is also soft, smooth, and light; with silky lustre and a cashmere cotton prices!

While Argentina is a major producer and exporter of soya, most are sold in the form of primary products. This soy clothing retailer I have found is a company based in California.
If there is an entrepreneur out there who would import the cutting-edge manufacturing technology to Argentina, who knows, maybe a new page in our economy could be written...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nature's Multi-vitamins

As a routine question, my doctor asked me at our monthly check-up yesterday if I was taking multi-vitamins. My answer was a slightly intimidated "no".

It is increasingly becoming common knowledge that if one's diet is balanced and sufficient of micronutrients, excess water soluble vitamins are passed from the body through urination. Excess non water soluble vitamins find it harder to exit which may actually cause the body more harm than good – one such example is vitamin A.

I was probably too self-conscious to go into detail with him just exactly how much thought has gone into my daily meals these days; lest he found me a little too obsessed.

At the moment, besides my daily glass of fortified orange juice (vitamin A, C, E); yoghurt with sesame and linseed (also known as flaxseed); and Vegemite (vitamin B complex) on wholewheat toasts, my meals most often consist of either spinach, acelga (Swiss chard), or fennel. Otherwise, I have a big serve of the fabled grass-fed Argentine beef for a dose of iron from an animal source; sardine or salmon for an omega-3 boost; or ricotta for extra protein and calcium.

The George Mateljan Foundation is a non-profit organization free of commercial influence, which provides a website named World's Healthiest Foods. Their mission is to provide unbiased scientific information on nutrient-rich foods. You can go to the website directly or click on each food item mentioned above to read more on their nutritional values.

My prescription for multi-vitamins is still sitting in my purse; I probably would get round to buying them at some point just so I can utter an appeasing "yes" in 4 weeks' time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Licensed to Parent?

When one of my cousins was of age to obtain her driver's licence at 17, she sagely observed that people are required to do much more in preparation for managing an object than parenting a human being. I have been thinking about that lately, especially after witnessing an incident on Sunday evening.

Our family gathering last Sunday took place in yet another restaurant with a pelotero (a large playroom commonly found in family restaurants in Buenos Aires). I have often wondered if these restaurants get away with serving indifferent food because the customers are only too grateful they have a place to dump their kids.

Upon entering this heaving restaurant, bursting at the seams from a busy Sunday trade, our nieces and nephews promptly took off their shoes and socks to run uninhibited among the seated patrons while we were waiting at the entrance to be seated. After a 30 minute wait, we finally settled at our table; the kids went into the pilotero and that was where they stayed most of the evening except when they came out for a bite of food or a sip of water.

Half an hour short of midnight, our nephew who is 5 came out for a sip of water. He passed by a neighbouring table where a notebook computer was switched on but left unattended; the lady owner of the computer had left it, flipped open, temporarily while she checked on her son inside the playroom. Without any hesitation, the child went up to the computer and started mucking around on the type pad. When the owner returned and witnessed what was happening, she told our nephew off and complained to the waiter serving our section.

Let's not go into whether it was smart to leave one's valuable unattended, even if it was only for a second; and let's not even question why these parents and their kids were still out at that hour of the evening. It was the lady's prerogative.

After being told off by a stranger, our nephew came up to our table and sulked while the father put his protective arms around his son's slender shoulders. Our nephew did something he shouldn't have done but all children make mistakes and misbehave at times so that's not the real problem. What was disturbing, however, was that the adults (including his aunt and uncle who are also parents) huddled around the boy blaming the lady for having her computer there in the first place.

Guillermo and I were stunned by the adults' collective reaction to the incident and the way they had chosen to handle the situation. We would have thought that explaining gently the need to ask for permission before touching someone else's property would figure somewhere or are we just another two of those lesser people, deemed by self-righteous parents, whose opinion on child rearing they love to brush-off with their favourite line "you don't understand because you are not a parent"?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Cocoa Nibs Mark II

Since Guillermo is working throughout Semana Santa (Holy Week), I am staying home to play in my domain – the kitchen.

As the common perception of a pregnant woman is still of that she should be eating day and night to feed the growing critter inside, I have been questioned frequently by family members whether I'm eating enough. Except my mother, nobody in Guillermo's family is interested to know that a woman of normal weight only requires an additional 250-300 calories a day during her pregnancy.

At our family gathering last night, Guillermo finally felt the need to step in. He explained to his puzzled grandparents and parents my pregnancy diet. It really is no mystery; my diet leans towards plenty of plant and animal proteins; and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) through vegetables, fruits, seeds, grains and seaweed. I have cut out almost all "white" or junk carbohydrates except an occasional plate of egg pasta or noodles served with vegetables or meat. My salt and sugar intakes are also very low.

When Guillermo fancies a pizza, I use wholemeal pizza base from HausBrot and pile on top natural tomato sauce, sautéed zucchini and a little mozzarella.

I have three main meals a day plus two small snacks, either mid-morning and late afternoon or bizarrely late at night. If I feel hungry late at night, my snack is usually a serving of natural unsweetened yoghurt with a teaspoon of ground black sesame and linseed stirred in.

I know I'm very lucky with this pregnancy that I'm not craving greasy burgers or some such: I felt sick just watching our nieces and nephews tucked into greasy fries and deep fried and bread-crumbed junk, more commonly known as Milanesa last night.

So to feel like a normal being with vices, I tweaked the oatmeal cookie recipe from a couple of weeks' ago...the result is very much loved by "the pregnant husband".

3/4 cups plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
60ml Wholefood Planet Organic Peanut Butter (chunky)
60ml tahini (runny consistency)
1/2 cup raw sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large eggs
1 cup oats
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips (70% cocoa solids at least)

1. Preheat oven to 180C, and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Sieve flour, salt and baking powder together in a medium bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, mix together peanut butter, tahini, egg and sugars.

4. Stir dry ingredients into the wet mixture with a large spatula. Stir in oats, cocoa nibs, and chocolate chips.

5. Place dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets in generous spoonfuls, leaving at least 3cm in between. Should the dough be a little dry, add more runny tahini.

6. Bake until cookie edges turn golden brown, 20 min. Slide cookies (on parchment) onto cooling rack. When cooled, store in airtight container.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My Heart Breaks a Little...

...each time I see a loving parent or grandparent add sugar to an older baby's formula milk, give it sweetened fruit juice or Cindor (a chocolate flavoured & sweetened milk drink with no less than 200mg of sodium per portion) marketed by La Serenissima as a good source of nutrients.

I blame this misguided Argentine phenomenon on the professionals who fail to educate themselves and the public at large. Unfortunately for all of us, the country still lives in an era which people believe sugar is good because it gives energy. Glycemic Index and how it affects our health, our moods and learning ability in the young still hold little meaning to the common folks here; and very few of them associate what they put in their children's mouths with the detrimental effects on their children's long term health.

I came across a short but excellent post by Kathryn Elliot of Lime & Lypcopene - Kathryn is a qualified clinical nutritionist and naturopath in Sydney. The post disputes the claim that fruit juice is good for babies. Actually, I would argue that fruit juice is of no particular benefit to anyone; the best way to obtain all the micro-nutrients and fibre in a piece of fruit is to eat it.