Postcards from Austin


On beautiful, unspoilt week-ends such as this, sometimes all you need is a few images to remember what you photographed with your eyes.

Texas Capitol – built from pink granite, the largest capitol building in the USA

Running free beneath the trees

Twisted juniper tree
Spirals and turns

Precious cargo

Taking shade in 35C/95F… 
Cowboy monument

Waiting for the bats on the banks of Lady Bird Lake

XO,
N&N

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Simply Spring Ham and Pea Risotto

A savoury and hearty meal on a warm spring day

Being married to a chef has its advantages, and I’d like to think that I have gleaned a small fraction of his culinary knowledge in the process. Left to my own devices, I’d probably still be eating warm, buttery baguettes, soup and tomato salad for dinner every night. I was taught how to prepare risotto early on in our relationship, and I am always grateful for the ability to create a delicious one-pot meal in 30 minutes or less.

This risotto recipe has been made time and time again in our house, and you can vary the ingredients to suit your particular tastes. For springtime, we love using English peas and ham, two staples we always have stocked in our refrigerator.  We also enjoy making this dish using mushrooms and scallops: there is a limitless combination of protein-vegetable options!

Ingredients:

1/2 bag (or box) of Arborio rice
20 English pea pods
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 cloves of garlic
Salt/pepper to taste
32 oz./900g chicken stock
White wine
1/2 stick of butter or 4-6 T. of olive oil
Chopped, cooked ham
1 onion

Tools:

Large saucepan
Your favourite sharp paring knife
Microplane or cheese grater
Wooden spoon

The first step is to decide if you will be using butter or olive oil in your risotto.  This is very important because you cannot ‘mix’ the two ingredients; if you start off with butter, you must finish with butter, and the same holds true for olive oil.  Begin by shucking your pea pods and placing the peas in a small bowl. Next, dice your onion and garlic and toss them into a saucepan over medium heat.  For our recipe preparation, we heated them in the pan along with a 1/4 stick of butter.

Sweat the onions and the garlic until they have a lovely limp texture.

Add half a bag (or box) of Arborio rice to the pot.

Toast the rice along with the onions and garlic for at least 30 seconds, stirring all the while so the ingredients do not burn.

At this point, you can add a bit of white wine to de-glaze the pan, before you begin adding your chicken stock.

Add enough chicken stock to cover your rice, and do not stop stirring the ingredients!

Repeat this process several times. You should never be able to see the bottom of the pan without any liquid – if you do, you know it is time to add more chicken stock!

Grate your parmigiano-reggiano cheese and place aside in a bowl.

After about 15 minutes, taste a small bit of your risotto to check if the rice is cooked. If the rice is still firm, keep adding your chicken stock and stirring until you reach the desired texture. Once the rice is done, add your peas, chopped ham and the remainder of your stick of butter.

Toss your cheese on top and stir together thoroughly.  Spoon into a bowl, finish with some more grated cheese, and enjoy!

Living in dreams…

Photo courtesy of Penguin Classics

Now into my third trimester of pregnancy, I have noticed that I suddenly have greater bursts of energy.  I am genuinely grateful for this because I honestly felt really rough there for a while.  I would find myself getting increasingly dozy in the afternoons, and literally dragging my feet up the stairs to bed at night. The heat in Texas certainly does contribute to a kind of malaise that takes its hold slowly and lulls you into a lazy stupor. My nurse practitioner told me that generally it is thought that the second child weighs upon you hardest, but in fact, it’s actually the third one that totally knocks you for one exhausted, messy loop.  I felt reassured by these words, knowing that what I was experiencing was not only normal but also expected.

Perhaps it is because my hands have been quite busy lately, all of this readying of things that need doing, writing lists, and turning things over and over again in my mind. I have several friends giving birth soon as well, and as a result, I have been creating N&N pieces for their darling little ones and sending out parcels. I am so very excited to welcome all these new babies into our world when the time comes.

All the while I am still homeschooling the children, and looking forward to developing enough curriculum now so that I am not back-pedalling once autumn comes along. I admit that motivation certainly comes in waves, with various peaks and valleys for all of us, but inspiration is never lacking. In fact, I would describe inspiration as overwhelming these days, so much information everywhere and a limited way I can assimilate it all. My mind jumps from all of the projects I’d like to work on, to all the handmade things I plan to make for our new son – a mobile for his crib, toys, receiving blankets, hand-sewn onesies… then on to refreshing summer recipe ideas and all the way back down to Earth again to the practicality of ordering banal things like hangers and wall anchors. Ordering books still seems to take precedence over my other purchases, and you can never go wrong when you rip open a parcel and crack open a new book, or less glamourously, buy an eBook, download it and sync it to your eReader device.

This book, pictured above, is currently in my shopping cart on Barnes & Noble’s website. It is an absolutely stunning rendering of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Yayoi Kusama, acclaimed Japanese Contemporary artist. One of the most interesting things about Kusama is that she has suffered from a rare medical condition since she was a child, whereby she sees colourful dots on everything. This is reflected in her artwork, giving it a kind of dream-like quality that allows her imagination to soar openly and vividly – it is simply exhilarating.

Beyond the humdrum of everyday chores and life in general, is my constant desire to live in my dreams. One not-so-faraway day in the future, when we move yet again, I would like to move to a country house. Surrounded by land and trees, a walled-in garden, with nature all around, I envision the children just running free each and every day, taking in the landscape and living an outdoor life. A place for our cat to enjoy the sunshine outside, without us having to worry that he’d get lost, a glass-walled conservatory for me to read and lounge while our birds sing in the bright light of day, a farmhouse kitchen for my husband with soapstone counter tops, wide wooden plank floors, double sinks and induction burners…these are the places and spaces that occupy my mind, and keep us wanting to achieve more from the lives we’ve been given. I never thought I’d want to leave the city – we’ve always lived in cities – but I am just at the point where it no longer works for us as a family, particularly with the spirited, high-energy children we’ve got. Moreover, city life is no longer what my husband and I wish for us as a family.

Here in downtown Austin, the children ride their bikes in parking lots and go for walks along the creek (where we see all kinds of animals, from wild Quaker parrots to water and garter snakes, to turtles, and even lizards). It’s extraordinary to have this kind of wildlife running through the city, and I would love to experience the very same in quieter surroundings, without traffic fumes or having to watch for cars and trucks constantly. Well, let’s leave the snakes off of my peace and tranquillity list – they are an unnecessary addendum I could do without!

Turtle on Shoal Creek 
Birdwatching in the middle of downtown

Found one at last! Elusive Quaker Parrot – and his bird bath.

Where do your dreams take you? What kind of life is the one most worth living?
Til next time,
XO.
N&N

In Focus: Mama-to-be, Part 1

Welcome to our first installment of In Focus: Mama-to-be! In today’s post we are featuring Deb, from Berlin, Germany.  Deb and her husband are expecting their first child this May.

N&N: Congratulations on your pregnancy! How many weeks along are you now?
Deb: Thank-you very much! I am currently in Week 36.

N&N: Have you experienced any morning sickness with this pregnancy?
Deb: Sadly, yes, throughout my first trimester and into my second.  And morning sickness is a misnomer — it can linger around all day and night.


N&N: What are your cravings or aversions (if any)?
Deb: Aside from an irrepressible need for Snickers bars, I had some strange cravings in the first trimester and for awhile was weirdly susceptible to desperately wanting anything I saw — if someone was drinking a Pepsi, I was amazed to realise that the only thing I could imagine consuming was a Pepsi, which I needed immediately… until I saw something else.  Sadly, I also had strong aversions to anything that my husband suggested he make, even though I otherwise love his cooking.  He was pretty amused when I proudly announced one day that I’d discovered the key to what I could eat: anything flat.  So for a while there were a lot of squashed grilled cheese sandwiches and celeriac root schnitzels.  I was also very grateful for salt and vinegar potato chips, and, in my second trimester, big juicy oranges.


N&N: How would you describe your pregnancy style?
Deb: Laid back.

N&N: What are your go-to items for getting dressed in the morning?
Deb: Long tank tops and mini skirts to make up for tops that get progressively shorter as time goes on!

N&N: Have you altered your beauty routine during this pregnancy?
Deb: Not really, although my routine was pretty basic to begin with.  Since I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep for the last eight months, I sometimes reach for mascara to create the illusion that my eyes are open…


N&N: What, in your opinion, are staples for any woman building her maternity wardrobe?
Deb: Belts to cover up the fact that you can’t do up the top button of your pants.  Long layers.  Leggings.  Your partner’s jeans.  Comfortable bras.  And friends who lend you a piece or two from the maternity wardrobe they no longer need.



N&N: What is the best piece of advice you have received to date? 
Deb: The best piece of advice I ever received was years before I was even thinking of getting pregnant, but I remember it still: a friend with a wonderful wife and spectacular daughter once told me that there was never a wrong time to have a baby with someone you love.


N&N: What is the worst advice you have received to date?
Deb: “Get lots of sleep while you can!”  I’d love to, but my body apparently has other plans.


N&N: What have been your favourite moments about being pregnant? Not-so-favourite?
Deb: So far, I’ve had a few favourite moments: feeling her first kick, which landed on my husband, who was resting his head on my belly at the time; hearing her heartbeat for the first time; chatting to her while riding my bike (but only when no one was around!) and listening to my husband chat to her; realising my appetite had returned; and experiencing the excitement of my entire extended family.  Worst moments were definitely the combination of sleeplessness and morning sickness and a couple of nights spent worrying through a few odd pains (which thankfully turned out to be just that: odd pains).


N&N: How have you prepared for baby’s arrival? (Setting up nursery, buying baby gear, etc.)
Deb: Our first step was moving to a bigger apartment.  We’ve been incredibly lucky: our friends, colleagues, and even our new neighbours have offered us the things they no longer need, from a baby bed to a stroller to clothing.  Now that I’m on maternity leave I’m looking forward to collecting all the clothes and baby accessories that are left!  But beyond the material things, my husband and I continue to make a point of spending time with each other despite all the frantic preparations.  And my Mum will be flying in to help us out for a couple of weeks when the baby comes!


N&N: What advice would you give to other parents expecting their first child? 
Deb: Trust yourself.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the incredible amount of information and advice that’s available, but remember: chances are your parents didn’t know about half the things you do now, and you turned out pretty fabulous, right?  Pick one or two go-to websites and/or books and try to fight the instinct to Google, which will always ultimately lead you to an unlikely worst-case scenario.  Listen to people you feel comfortable with, like your doctor, your midwife, and friends and family who’ve had kids and seem to know what they’re doing.  Most importantly, listen to your own body.  You might not be able to do all the same things as before;  if that’s the case, don’t fight it — find alternatives instead.  If you don’t feel great, lie down.  If you do feel great, enjoy it!


N&N: Many thanks to Deb! Wishing you a healthy and safe delivery and a lifetime of happiness with your new baby girl! 

If you are a pregnant mama and are interested in being featured in an installment of In Focus: Mama-to-be, kindly send an email to info@nikoandnonnie.com

For the love of Longhorns…

Valentino, majestic longhorn extraordinaire

Our love affair with longhorns began before we even arrived in Texas.  Texas is famous for these creatures, and I suppose we thought it would be relatively easy to catch a glimpse of one. We had never seen one in our lives – that is, until a few short days ago. Our trip to Dallas and Fort Worth was an eye-opening one. We made the 4-hr journey north (never in our lives had we ever envisioned living south of Dallas, TX of all places!) through Salado, Temple, Waco (famous for all the wrong reasons), and up through Italy. Italy, TX was a wonderful surprise – what began as a random turn off the side of the highway resulted in the best gas station pit-stop in the world.  Imagine pulling up to a gas station with a live country band, a smokehouse, more beef jerky made in-house than you can shake a stick at, tonnes of food, sparkling restrooms, unfailingly friendly staff…well, who would have thought such a place existed when you were most desperate for a break. And who would have imagined there was a place called Italy, TX (afterall, it is Paris, TX that skyrocketed to fame because of the Wim Wenders film).  While the journey from Austin to Dallas is a bit of the straight and narrow, the highways are lined with the kinds of gorgeous wildflowers for which Texas is known, adding some bits of visual interest along the way.

Did we anticipate Dallas as being a vast urban centre with an extremely dense downtown, with apparently more restaurants and shops per capita than NYC…no, we certainly did not. Were we slightly swayed by the general misimpression (like much of the rest of the US *hangs head in shame*) that Dallas represents a kind of yee-haw Texas where everyone drives a massive truck? Yes.  Were we totally and utterly wrong? Absolutely.

While it can be said that here in Austin, people (mostly women) wear cowboy boots in a very ironic, hipster way (afterall, Austin is one of those too-cool-for-school cities) they are in fact worn without irony in Dallas and Fort Worth. Cowboy boots (often with spurs!), hats paired with lavish, artisinal (and extremely expensive) belt buckles are de rigueur amongst the elite, contrasted with designer clothes and stiletto heels. It is a very interesting mix indeed. I got to see some spurs first-hand while dining at Chef Tim Love’s new restaurant, Woodshed Smokehouse. Folks, we weren’t in Austin anymore, that was for certain. Those spurs were serious, and definitely of the “don’t mess with Texas” variety. I imagined the men wearing them were some sort of oil barons, who’d swung by the resto for some rabbit and rattleskin sausage. I kid you not. I also avoided all eye-contact.

Fort Worth, just a short 35 minute drive from Dallas is a city that stands on its own two feet. Old, historic buildings from the 1800s mixed with new architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, shopping, eateries…

Bass Performance Hall – the crown jewel of Forth Worth
Tarrant County Courthouse, reminiscent of City Hall in Leeds, UK

After exploring downtown Fort Worth, a visit to the historic Stockyards was in order. Our best surprise -longhorns, at last!- awaited us. Now that we have visited with these animals up close, I can say with certainty that they are nothing short of extraordinary beasts. What are longhorn cattle? Well, ages ago, the early Texas settlers bred their own Eastern cattle with feral Mexican cattle they found bound between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. The result was a kind of long and mangy cow with varied speckles, hues and horns extending up to 7 feet (roughly 2.1m) in length. They are extremely hearty, resistant to most diseases and able to endure intense heat and challenging weather conditions; their meat is some of the leanest beef you’ll find, much like American bison. They are kept both for the quality of their meat and also because of their integral link to Texan history.

The fellow you see at the top of this post is Valentino. We were totally enamoured by him. While the sign said to stand back 20 feet (even though they look docile, these creatures are easily agitated!), Valentino kept coming closer and closer to us. We were stood on a promontory, chatting to him while overlooking his pen. As such, we got to admire him up close, taking in his very impressive set of horns.  I will say this about the longhorns: from the look of those horns, there is no outrunning or escaping from them should ever you find yourself being pursued by one!

REAL cowboys.

Magnificent Valentino takes a drink

My favourite horse of the afternoon

Lead cowboy prepares the cattle for their march through the city

Longhorn cattle  – all so different and beautiful in their own way
Wall of longhorn ID photos – can you spot Valentino?

Longhorn cattle march peacefully through the city – beyond impressive!

Chef Tim Love’s fine dining restaurant

Must pause and pay homage to a legendary American writer 

My belly, my boy, a lollipop and…Wyatt Earp!

A requisite stagecoach picture for my husband

Americana door detail

Hacienda style

Remnants of historic Stockyard Station

Attractive horse lanterns – would love these at our house!

We will most certainly return to the Dallas-Ft Worth area to explore in the future, having barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do there.  Highest priority on our list: a visit with our new friend, Valentino. Hook ’em horns!

What’s in your basket?

I am sitting down with a large glass of ice water on this Wednesday evening, taking a bit of a breather while I wait for my popsicle mixture to cool down before I pour it into the moulds.  It is more than slightly counterintuitive that I must actually boil all my ingredients, invariably heating up the kitchen (it’s hot outside!) but also quite necessary to tenderize the fruit as much as possible. It becomes a rhythmic routine of mopping the sweat from our brows, chop-chop-chopping the ingredients, stirring everything in the saucepan and returning to mopping our brows once again. Tonight’s icy treat features mango with a splash of pink grapefruit, and at the rate our freezer is labouring along, the pops won’t be ready until it’s time for a bedtime snack.

Not many days now until Easter! We are going away to a resort to celebrate (this might very well be the first Easter my husband is not working…and our last vacation before #3 arrives…). Lying poolside, reading and enjoying cool drinks, indulging in pregnancy massage and not having to cook or clean a thing – that’s my kind of holiday! The only logistic I have failed to figure out is how precisely the Easter Bunny is going to get his goodies to our children…we are setting out early Easter morning, too early in fact to do our normal traditions of an egg hunt and baskets, so a little creativity is going to be required. Maybe explaining that the Easter Bunny had to swing by the resort to take a dip in the pool and catch his breath…and that while he was there he delivered everything to our room? Yes, that might do. Of course, the children are now also convinced that there are in fact five Easter Bunnies, thanks to The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward. Does that mean they will be expecting 5x the goodies in their baskets? I hope the salient message that five bunnies are required to get the job done worldwide was not lost on them. Oh dear.

Speaking of baskets, this year, we have switched to Bolga baskets. All of the baskets we have bought in the past are usually swept up by A+F to house toys, art supplies and what have you, and by Easter of the next year, are in total disrepair and cannot be re-used.  Bolga baskets, made in Ghana, are handwoven from elephant grass.  You can purchase them here at Bella Luna Toys (my absolute favourite Waldorf toy website) or even check with your local fair trade and organic supply store. While they are not decorated with bunnies and do not have any sparkly bits (sadly, two things that are sure to appeal to our children), the baskets are extremely durable and don’t have any rough edges, making them a perfect vessel in which to place treats for eager young hands. The baskets can also be lined with colourful play silks as an alternative to Easter “grass” or confetti.  We will also be adding treat pouches made from recycled paper that A+F worked on with me this week.  I recently did a tutorial on them here for the Natural Kids Hearth&Home blog, where I will be a regular blog contributor. I will also be guest blogging for some other websites in the coming weeks, and will be posting the links for those contributions on this blog and on Niko & Nonnie’s social media pages.

I am also excited to announce a new weekly feature that I will be doing on this blog entitled, “In Focus: Mama-to-be” in which I will profile expectant mothers, some first-timers, some seasoned – all very interesting indeed.  They will share their thoughts with us about their pregnancies as well as offer tips and advice on beauty and styling for the long 9-month haul. Much to look forward to in the near future!

It looks like it’s just about time now to strain my fruit…I hear little feet coming down the stairs to assist me in the kitchen – don’t they just have the most accurate internal clocks?

Wishing all those that will be celebrating Easter, Passover (or both!) this week-end a happy and safe holiday with your family and friends.

XO.
N&N