January, we had fun

January was a great month on the blog.

I made some delicious soup (Honey-roasted parsnip and carrot soup), took part in a photo challenge (highlights below) and published the post which was Freshly Pressed, to my delight, on February 1!

I kick-started January with the First Thirty-one Photo Challenge, welcoming in 2013 with a photo a day.

Browse highlights from my entries below:

Day 1: Resolution:

Resolution: to get outside and go places

Resolution: to get outside and go places

Day 10: Gorgeous hand-knitted socks, knitted by a friend

socks

A wintry photo entry for day 14’s “Frost” theme

snowy tree

Day 19: Fur

fur

Day 31: snowdrops signal the end of winter

snowdrops

I also enjoyed challenging my writing skills with challenges from The Daily Post

My dream trip: a writing challenge about traveling set my imagination on fire.

Another writing challenge: Starting Over, a short story set in Mexico.

Cultural Life celebrated the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with this post:

January 28 1813.

And on January 31, I published this weekly writing challenge post, about saying an emotional goodbye to my mother at the doors of the operating suite. It was Freshly Pressed! I don’t often use the word “awesome” but being Freshly Pressed was the embodiment of that word. Thank you to everyone who commented, liked and shared my post. Welcome to my new followers and thank you for helping to create a great blogging month here at Cultural Life!

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Weekly writing challenge: my dream trip

Writing challenge: You’ve got three months, an unlimited budget, and a severe case of wanderlust. Where would you go?

This writing challenge from The Daily Post at WordPress.com sent my imagination into dizzying whirls of euphoric bliss. One of my big dreams is to travel with plenty of time to spare and a sizable (preferably unlimited) budget. Why not dream big?

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry” – Jack Kerouac

Month 1

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

Taxicabs On 5th Avenue by Julie Gentry

I would begin by spending two weeks in New York City, reveling in the bustling metropolis, seeing the sights and picking up a few bags of shopping along the way. My budget is unlimited, remember. But I am traveling partly via public transportation so I need to keep my luggage load light. This factor restricts me from an overly extravagant shopping spree. When it is time to leave NYC, instead of hiring a car, I hop on an Amtrak train at Penn Station.

I might take the Acela Express to Boston or I might prefer to take the Empire Service for a scenic tour through New York State. Either way, I would eventually arrive in Boston. The city is historic, beautiful and full to the brim with places to see and people to talk to about its fascinating past and the pivotal role it played in U.S. history. I visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, join a guided tour at Harvard Yard and follow the Freedom Trail: a 2.5 mile tour of Boston around some of its most historic places. It begins at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill Monument.

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

Downtown Boston by Bill Walker

After seeing the sights of Boston I get on the train and travel to Amherst, MA.

In Amherst, I plan to see the birthplace of Emily Dickinson and enjoy other sites of interest. I might check out a movie at the Amherst Cinema Arts Center, which shows a lot of indie films, before hiring a car and driving up to Portland, Maine on I-95.

On the way to Portland I spend two or three days exploring the Kennebunks (Kennebunk and Kennebunkport). Kennebunk and its sister are only 30 miles south of Portland and the two small towns are situated along a rocky coast. St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery is a peaceful place to visit, with a calm atmosphere and lovely gardens to wander around. Strolling along Kennebunk beach is simply glorious and I dip into the waves for a swim, admiring the expansiveness of the Maine sky and the vivid colors of the sunset.

I spend a week in Portland itself where I have a lot of fun exploring the quirky side of the city. The little arty coffee shops are ideal for lingering over a delicious brunch, chatting with the locals and hanging out with a good book and a cup of coffee.

Month 2

When the second month of my travels begins, I leave Portland and drive up the beautiful Maine coast.

I stop off at various towns along the way, staying in Bath and Camden for a few days. Visiting Bath gives me a fascinating history lesson into Maine’s Colonial past: the industry of wooden ship builders was a thriving way of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Visiting Maine Maritime Museum is a great way to find out more.

I enjoy the beaches of lovely Penobscot Bay and sample some of Maine’s finest seafood. Then I get back in the car and drive to the quiet, unspoiled Blue Hill Peninsula. I stay in the tiny town of Blue Hill and every day, come rain or shine, begins with a walk along the beach. I explore to my heart’s content, chatting to the locals and absorbing every bit of Maine life that I can.

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

Harbor View, Maine by Junior Libby

My eyes are filled with beauty and I hike the forest trails, cheeks rosy from vigorous exercise and legs aching at the end of a long day in the open air. From Blue Hill, I head to Bar Harbor which will be my base camp for a week as I explore Acadia National Park and take a trip to Bass Harbor.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Bass Harbor Lighthouse by Junior Libby

Then I backtrack to Boston, where I return my rental car and get on a plane at Logan International.

Month 3

My plane arrives in Nashville, TN.

I am so excited when I get off the plane that I almost begin singing a country music anthem under my breath.

On Stage by Junior Libby

On Stage by Junior Libby

I love country music and spending a whole week immersed in the Music City is heaven. By sheer coincidence, Dolly Parton is performing a gig in the middle of my week in Nashville. It is sold out but I exercise the power of my unlimited budget and manage to get myself a ticket. The week goes past too quickly and it won’t be long before I have to get on the road again. I have fun visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and shopping at the numerous vintage shops in Nashville. I spend my nights dancing to great music!

I drive from Tennessee to Louisiana.

It is an approx. eight hour drive so I am tired by the time I arrive in New Orleans and I head straight to bed. But the next day I am ready to take on the city! New Orleans is a vibrant, atmospheric city and I spend a few days enjoying the music, the food and the culture. The soul of the city is enthralling and the beat of the music makes your foot tap and your heart feel good. Laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll!

Alas, my three months of ‘wanderlusting’ across the States are nearly up and I speed up my leisurely pace a bit so I can fit in the other places I want to visit before I have to return to normal, everyday life. I fly from New Orleans to Denver.

In Colorado I stay at a ranch and go horseback riding in the beautiful Rockies.

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Spectacular! Colorado by Roberta Dulay

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

Horseback by Charles Rondeau

I finish my trip by flying from Denver to Seattle where I spend a few days in the city.

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Seattle Skyline by Julie Gentry

Downtown Seattle’s Pike Place Market is great fun to explore and I could easily spend a whole day meandering around there. I love a good book and a whole morning flies by when I visit the Elliott Bay Book Co.. Over 150,000 titles – oh yes, bliss! I also love a good latte and a trip to Seattle wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the original Starbucks, along with one of my new literary purchases so I can drink coffee, people-watch and read too. While in Seattle, I head to The Space Needle: one of Seattle’s most exciting attractions. I enjoy the novelty of dining at SkyCity restaurant, which moves 360 degrees!

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

Space Needle by Julie Gentry

After Seattle, I drive into rural Washington state, making sure my suitcase contains plenty of wet weather clothing! The Olympic peninsula is wildly beautiful and I love my time exploring the untamed, spectacular Olympia National Park.

When my three months come to end, I reluctantly have to conclude my trip. On the way, I have seen some spectacular places, eaten some amazing food, met some fascinating people and, to use a cliché, I have quite simply had the time of my life. My hunger for seeing the world has only increased and I would do this trip twice over if I could.

Photo challenge day 1: Resolution

Happy New Year!

I have chosen to take part in a 31-day photo challenge which I discovered via the blog, Fourtuitous.com. Starting off 2013 with a photo every day sounds like a fun idea to me!

Day 1: Resolution.

My resolution for 2013 is to get outside and go places. I want to spend more time outside, exploring the world, and less time sitting behind the steering wheel of my car.

Resolution: to get outside and go places

Resolution: to get outside and go places

I used the photo-editing website, picfull.com, to have some fun with applying filters to my photo.

Blog challenge roundup: the first 10 recipes

I apologize for the lack of activity on the blog for the past month. My weekly post schedule has slipped out the window but I’ve been busy, not to mention the fact that I spent two weeks of July hobbling around in pain, before having surgery on August 1st. Ideas for blog posts haven’t been flowing freely and I haven’t cooked anything exciting in the past month. But I intend to return from my hiatus this week so be sure to look out for frequent posts again and some more delicious recipes!

Recipes from around the world. Picture source: Map Of The World by Jiri Hodan

In the meantime, here is a roundup of the first ten recipes I have cooked as part of the blog challenge I set myself back in February. You can read about that in this post: I’m setting myself a challenge.

Recipe 1: Irish soda bread

For blog challenge recipe 2, Middle Eastern cuisine gave me one of my favorites: hummus

Recipe number 3. A trip to South America: Honduras

Blog challenge 4. I have a special fondness for Greek food and I was delighted by how these Greek koulourakia turned out. I have made this recipe many times since blogging about it and it gives delicious results every time! Greek koulourakia

Blog challenge 5. Nettle soup: this is an easy, money-saving recipe and, despite what you might think, tastes very good! European nettle soup

Blog challenge 6. A simple but yummy Indian curry: Indian curry

Blog challenge 7. Ah, this is possibly my favorite recipe so far from the ones I have cooked for my blog challenge: Valencia orange cake

Blog challenge 8. I threw a load of ingredients together for this and the combination worked very well: Italian-style pasta sauce

Blog challenge 9. A hearty dessert: Traditional English pudding

And finally, blog challenge recipe 10! These are too bad for anyone’s waistline but they are amazing! Blog challenge recipe 10 celebrated the Fourth of July by baking some American brownies.

I hope you will join me as I embark on the next ten recipes! These are the remaining countries and I have recipes to find and make for all of them: Canada, Australia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Portugal, Singapore, New Zealand, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Czech Republic, Belgium, Brazil, Turkey, Japan, Austria, Serbia, Costa Rica, Norway, Georgia, Belarus, Romania, Slovakia, Nigeria, Egypt, South Korea and Myanmar.

Quite a challenge!

Blog challenge recipe #7: Valencia orange cake

It has been way too long since my last Blog Challenge post. Here is numéro siete. This time, I chose a recipe from Spain.

National flag of Spain

Spanish food is amazing and I love tapas dishes but I don’t have much experience with Spanish desserts. So, this past weekend, I did a little research and discovered that orange cake is a popular Spanish treat. And because orange cake sounds so delicious, I baked one using the recipe below. The cake is delicious, full of flavor, with a very rich taste. Here it is!

A slice of Valencia orange cake

Thank you very much to Erica at Comfy Belly for giving me permission to reproduce the recipe text here. I recommend checking out her site (linked above)! I found it when I was searching for an orange cake recipe and will definitely be returning frequently for culinary inspiration and healthy new recipes.

Valencia Orange Cake
(recipe source here)

Ingredients

2 organic Valencia oranges
4 eggs
1 cup of honey
2 cups of blanched almond flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt

Method

1. Place two whole organic Valencia oranges in a pot with enough water to cover them. Add a tightly sealed lid. The oranges will float, but they should be mostly covered. Simmer them in the pot for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When you can easily glide a toothpick or fork through them, they are ready. You can add water to them while they are cooking, if necessary.
2. Cool the oranges for a few minutes, slice them into wedges and remove any pits or inedible parts (like the nub where the stem was).
3. Process the oranges until you have a smooth, orange paste without lumps.
4. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. (I bake using a convection oven setting, so I place the temperature at 300 degrees F).
5. To get a slightly lighter cake, separate the egg yolks and egg whites, and then whip the egg whites separately until stiff peaks form.
6. In a bowl, beat eggs (or egg yolks if separated) until well blended, and then beat in the honey and dry ingredients (baking soda, salt, and almond flour).
7. Fold in the almond flour and orange paste into the egg and honey mixture and blend well.
8. If you whipped the egg whites separately, here is where you want to fold the egg whites into the rest of the batter.
9. Use a spring form pan or a well buttered baking pan. Butter or oil the
bottom of the spring form pan. No need to butter the sides of the
spring form pan.
10. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Make sure to bake it thoroughly, especially in the center, or it may settle when it cools. Even if it settles, it still tastes wonderful.
11. Enjoy!

My to-list for 2012 has decreased…..by one item

There are a number of things that I want to achieve in 2012, such as visiting the beautiful state of Maine. Whether I will do all of them this year remains to be seen. But last Friday night, I checked off one of the items from the list: I went salsa dancing for the first time.

Salsa dancing — image source Salsa dancing tumblr. No copyright infringement intended and all rights remain with their owners.

Salsa is amazing. 3+ hours of almost non-stop dancing to fast Latino music is a fantastic workout. My hips and the muscles in my legs were still slightly achy two days after the class! The teacher is from Colombia and has a wonderful sense of rhythm. She told me salsa dancing is easier for girls because if the girl makes a mistake, it’s the guy’s fault! A good dancer will know how to lead so that his partner can follow without errors.

I already knew the origins of salsa dancing were in South America but I was motivated to find out more details about how the dance originated and which South American country it comes from. According to the Wikipedia page for salsa dance, there are now many different styles of salsa dance, including Cuban style, New York style and LA style. The primary origin is the Cuban Son dancing of the 1940s. When I read this on Wikipedia, I went in search (via the ever-helpful Google) to find out about Cuban Son dancing. This is what I found: www.justsalsa.com – the webpage explains the history of the dance and that many African elements are present. It’s interesting to realize salsa dancing and music has so many diverse influences, even though I think it’s often considered a solely Latin American dance.

One of the salsa songs I danced to:

Have you ever danced salsa? Are you a current salsa dancer? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂

Blog challenge recipe #4: Greek koulourakia

Greek flag

For my fourth blog challenge recipe, I chose to make something with an Easter theme. And I found the perfect recipe for delicious Greek koulourakia at Brownie Bites. Although you can buy koulourakia all year round from bakers in Greece they are a traditional Easter specialty too.

The only things I changed in the recipe:
1. I added more orange juice (about half a cup) than the recipe states but then I had to add more flour as the dough was too sticky.
2. I used brown sugar instead of white because I prefer baking with brown sugar and that was the only sugar in the store cupboard anyway!
3. I added approx. 1 tbsp of finely grated orange zest to the mixture.

Happy Easter!

Blog challenge recipe #2: hummus

No-one really knows exactly where hummus originated from but it is a staple dish in many countries in the Middle East, including Israel. So far, I have had exactly one blog visitor from Israel so this is my blog challenge recipe #2! It is a really easy recipe and didn’t take me long to make. This is my own recipe and so I have included quite a lot of garlic because I love garlicky hummus. But if you would prefer not to have garlic breath for the next 24 hours after you have eaten a serving of the following, you can cut down the amount of garlic to 3 or 4 cloves! The smoked hot paprika is optional, although it adds a wonderful smoky, spiced flavor.

Hummus recipe

Ingredients

¾ cup/170 grams chickpeas (dried weight)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tbsp tahini
6 cloves garlic – crushed
A pinch of hot smoked paprika
Approx. 1 cup water (boiled, then cooled)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Soak the dried chickpeas overnight in cold water. The following day, drain and rinse them. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then cook on a moderate heat for approx. 60 minutes or until they are soft.
2. When the chickpeas are cooked, drain them and rinse with cold water.
3. Mix all ingredients together and then blend until this mixture is thoroughly pureed: you don’t want lumpy, chewy hummus!
4. Sprinkle a little paprika on top and decorate with fresh herbs. Serve and enjoy!

I’m setting myself a challenge

Specifically, I am setting myself a blog challenge.

Some of my frequent readers might have noticed that I put a little flag counter widget on the blog a couple of months ago. I like seeing which continents and countries my readers come from. So far, I’ve had visitors from 28 different countries.

And I have decided that I’m going to cook a dish from each one of those countries and share the recipe with you here. My goal is to cook one per week so it will take me a few months to complete this challenge. I hope you will come along for the ride!

Now, which country shall I choose first?