How are you doing?

A Red Southern Bishop at Avis Dam. The wildlife in Namibia is interesting even though we can’t go anywhere, so here are some photos of some of the most commonly-seen animals around Windhoek!

No, really. How are you doing?

I hope you’re at least doing alright. The world is a crazy place right now, and this is a hard time.

We are okay / doing the best we can / muddling through / taking it day by day.

Some days are better than others. I’d say I’m better now than I was in the earlier days of our lockdown, mostly because I’ve figured out how to manage myself more effectively.*

I feel like I’m getting the hang of the whole working remotely thing. It’s all about accepting the imperfect/less-than-ideal and just going with the flow. We set up M’s art station next to my standing desk and sometimes he’ll sit down there and say he has work to do. Also I am totally at peace with his screen time amount. We both still have a lot of work to do and if watching Disney+ or playing a game on his kindle keeps him occupied while we’re both on calls, that’s just fine.

Lovebirds in the neighborhood

We spend most of the our weekends outside in our yard, watching movies, cooking more-time-consuming-than-normal food, or playing Gloomhaven.

I’ve enjoyed having time to dust off some cookbooks and try new dishes, or to finally cook the things in my NYT Cooking recipe box. Here are some of our favorite new recipes:

Gloomhaven is an awesome board game that we got last year when we had several Amazon gift cards lying around. We first tried to play it shortly after arriving in Windhoek when we were jet lagged and tired. It was such an extraordinarily confusing experience, we put it back in the cupboard and didn’t even think about playing it again until now. We figured that we’d have the time to finally sort through everything and we were right! It’s really fun, interesting, and it’s nice to currently have four days (we are at the end of a four-day holiday weekend) to work our way through it. There are like 95 different scenarios, and each scenario is its own game. They all build off each other, but you can just play one scenario and then put everything away; you don’t have to play the entire thing all at once.

Artie the Explorer!

I have never in my life been so grateful to have a dog. Artie has been a lifeline for all of us lately. Her persistent optimism, playfulness and happy demeanor give us all something to look forward to and she helps keep us busy. And she is M’s only non-adult companion right now. It’s hilarious watching them run around chasing each other. She is a saint.

So, yeah. That’s how we’re doing. Not great, not bad, basically fair-to-middling.

*This is basically through focusing on things that I can control and having “good” habits like reading books, walking Artie, making the bed, doing yoga, etc. Then I track it all. It helps me feel more intentional and productive.

Dassies, or rock hyraxes. The elephants’ closest relative!

My pandemic preparedness shopping list

I am not prone to panic. Worry, yes; panic, no. That said, I am worried about this COVID-19 outbreak. While there are no cases in sub-Saharan Africa yet, my gut tells me that it’s just a matter of time. I’m not being an alarmist. I’m being practical.

So, what am I going to do? I am going grocery shopping.

Some locations have seen a huge spike in the number of cases over the past few days, like Northern Italy, and others are locked-down, like Wuhan, China. In both of these places the grocery stores are either a mad-house or completely wiped out. Additionally, current WHO guidance states that anyone without a severe form of the disease should be isolated and managed from home. Remember that most cases of COVID-19 are basically nothing more than a cold (if you do not have an underlying health condition), so it’s completely do-able. But if someone in one home gets COVID-19, chances are that all other family members in that home will be self-quarantining too, which means no work, no school, no grocery shopping, etc.

At this point it’s not a bad idea to plan on potentially having to stay at home without leaving for several weeks, whether that’s due to a spike in cases, I’m sick myself, or someone else is sick. To do this, I’ll need to stock up on some basic groceries, plus some other things which I didn’t really consider at first.

When do I want to do a larger-than-normal grocery run? Now, before people are panicking and when products are still easily available? Or later, only when absolutely necessary, when thousands of my closest friends are running around the store like chickens with their heads chopped off and the shelves are bare?

I’d rather go shopping now.

The delightfully empty cleaning supply aisle at Super Spar

I’m not saying I’m going to start canning butter or go into zombie apocalypse mode; I’m simply saying that I’m going to buy a few more of everything than usual. The main thing is that I don’t want to buy anything we wouldn’t normally need. For instance, I don’t like canned vegetables other than tomatoes, so now is not the time to start buying them.

Worst case scenario, we are prepared to spend quality time at home by ourselves for a few weeks and maintain some semblance of normal life; best case scenario, we don’t need to buy pantry products again for some time.

Without further ado, I’m buying the following, which I think is a solid list applicable to just about everyone:

  • Cleaning supplies, particularly those for disinfecting things
  • Dish soap
  • Hand sanitizer/soap
  • Paper products: toilet paper, paper towels, tissues
  • Toiletries (toothpaste, shampoo, anything you use every day)
  • Tylenol, Advil, etc.
  • UHT or powdered milk (whole milk for M, skim milk for me)
  • Pasta/rice/etc
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Canned beans
  • Cooking oil
  • Meat, eggs, or some other form of protein
  • Frozen fruits and veggies
  • Squash (butternut, acorn, etc: fresh squash last a long time on counter)
  • Flour
  • Easy-to-cook frozen food (what if all adults are ill and no one wants to cook?)
  • Bread
  • Condiments (mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, any other family favorites)

We also have a few things are specific to our household that I’ll stock up on:

  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella
  • Crackers
  • Mini-packs of Haribo gummy bears
  • Yeast
  • Popcorn
  • Granola bars

You may also want to buy if available/necessary:

  • Clorox wipes
  • Extras of any necessary prescription medication, if possible
  • Dog food
  • Cat litter

Oh, and wine. If I’m going to be stuck at home, I’m going to need some wine.

Keep in mind that in the case of a pandemic, utilities are unlikely to be affected because infrastructure won’t be damaged (probably). While it’s always a good idea to stock extra drinking water just in case, that’s not my primary focus right now.

In the meantime it’s important to stay informed. Here is the link for CDC’s COVID-19 information page, here is the link to the WHO COVID-19 page, and here’s the link to my favorite COVID-19 tracker. And don’t forget to wash your hands!

 

How to host a holiday meal and not go crazy

2018 Thanksgiving dinner!

In November, as in many previous years, we hosted Thanksgiving. It might be too late, with Christmas being next week, but I feel like at this point I’ve accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge (mostly by making a lot of mistakes) that might be helpful to other people. I’m also going to share my stand-by recipes that I make just about every year.

Without further ado, here are my tips for hosting a holiday meal:

  • Make lots of lists. Make a guest list, a grocery list, a list of the serving dishes and place settings you’ll need, a list of who is bringing what, and a list for every day leading up to the holiday with amounts of time you’ll need for each component of each dish or facet of the meal. For example, set aside time to clean up or set the table. And set aside 15 minutes before the guests arrive to get ready yourself. Don’t forget to factor in time for keeping the kitchen under control, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher or a friend helping you with dishes.

    My to-do list. Things got crossed out and moved around, but mostly I stuck to it.

  • Ask everyone to bring something. If you’re not in the US, your group of friends might have holiday traditions that differ from your own, and ask them to bring whatever their favorite dish for the holiday is. Or, if someone can’t/doesn’t cook, ask them to bring alcohol.

    Our Thanksgiving cohost is an amazing baker, and she offered to make nearly all of the desserts. We wound up with the Thanksgiving dessert selection of my dreams!

  • Ask about dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find out that someone is lactose intolerant or a vegetarian after you’ve planned your menu.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. Go grocery shopping the weekend before, recognizing that you’ll undoubtedly forget a few things and will also need to go to the store the day before. We make cranberry sauce and gravy ahead of time, and I’ll also prep the components for various dishes (i.e. make pie crust, boil the sweet potatoes, or chop the onions and celery for dressing) up to several days in advance. Set the table the day before, decide upon and clear off your serving space, and make labels if needed. This sounds really fiddly, but I’ve found that making a cute little sign to put by the punch bowl eliminates a lot of questions, especially when you have alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. This past Thanksgiving, I surprised even myself and I had several hours to snuggle on the couch with M and watch Netflix’s She-Rah revival on Thanksgiving Day. It was marvelous.
  • Do not turn down help. If someone offers to bring something extra, come over and help set up, or stay and wash dishes, your response should always be, “That would be awesome!”
  • Always serve appetizers and pre-meal drinks. People usually arrive hungry and it’s good to keep everyone busy (and sated) until the meal is served. Usually appetizers are one of the first things that I ask someone else to bring. If you need suggestions, baked brie, antipasta platters, veggie platters and buffalo chicken dip are always popular. This past year we made ginger liquor and served cranberry-ginger punch. It was very popular and tasty.
  • Spatchcock and grill your turkey. This frees up the oven for other things, in addition to giving the turkey amazing flavor, and by spatchcocking your turkey, you drastically reduce the cooking time. If you don’t have access to a grill, at least spatchcock your bird. Remember that the turkey needs to rest for at least 30 minutes and you shouldn’t serve it immediately after it’s done cooking.
  • If you know something is going to stress you out, don’t do it! The goal is to share a meal with people you love (or at least like) and to have fun. There’s no reason to do anything you don’t want to do!
  • Not related to hosting, but still important: If you’re not living in the US and you see an ingredient you know you’ll need for a holiday meal, buy it. I spent $15 on a huge bag of frozen cranberries in August and I stock-piled plain canned pumpkin when I saw it in May. The canned pumpkin came in especially handy when it was nowhere to be found in November and I was giving away cans to friends.

    This dressing/stuffing will change your life. I’m not joking. The recipe is below!

Here are our favorite recipes, including some new favorites and others that I’ve been making for nearly a decade:

Appetizers and cocktails

Cranberry ginger punch (made with ginger liqueur): This is our new favorite holiday cocktail. Easy and a good crowd-pleaser
Sweet potato bites with feta: roast the sweet potatoes ahead of time and make the feta filling separately. Then assemble day-of
Baked brie: There are many schools of thought on baked brie, but I think this one is the best. A good friend who is the ultimate host introduced me to it and it’s awesome. Roll the puff pastry very thinly so it bakes evenly and quickly. Make sure the slits don’t go too far down the sides or your cheese will leak out
Bacon-wrapped dates: Lightly cook bacon in the pan, so it’s about half-cooked. Slice the dates, remove the pits, and stuff them with blue cheese. Wrap each date with half a slice of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, or until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is warm.
Buffalo chicken dip: An easy crowd-pleaser; serve with celery and sliced baguette

Dinner

Bacon-shallot gravy: I’m not a gravy person and I could literally drink this
The best stuffing ever: DO NOT skip the sausage
Brined turkey: I’ve tried a number of brine recipes and this is by far the best. You can actually taste the flavor of the brine in the turkey. If I’m spatchcocking the turkey, I leave it in the brine for 24 hours. If I break down the turkey, then I do 12-15 hours. I’ve never done the whole herbed butter thing
Goat cheese mashed potatoes: I don’t know who actually has time to use a food mill.  Not me. Regardless, this goes well with turkey and also beef and lamb

Dessert

Black-bottom oatmeal pie: Like pecan pie, but better, frankly
Pumpkin pie: This recipe is my favorite for pumpkin pie, hands-down

There are other tips/tricks and recipes that I’m probably forgetting, so please consider this to be a “living” blog post, and feel free to share your own suggestions!

Baking at home in Dhaka

I love to bake, so whenever I move to a new country, it’s always kind of an adventure figuring out what will and won’t be available on the local market. Sometimes I guess correctly, sometimes I don’t.

Before we came to Dhaka, I stocked up on baking powder because I’ve never been able to find baking powder outside of the US. Baking soda, on the other hand, is usually available everywhere, so I thought there was no need to bring that.

My first week in Dhaka, I was perusing the baking aisles and what did I see? Shit tons of baking powder and zero baking soda. Also lots of custard powder, whatever that is.

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

I did eventually find baking soda at Dhali, but only after I spent $4 to order a tiny box of it on Amazon.

There are lots of things you can find here on the local market that surprised me: Crisco, cake and brownie mix, pre-made frosting, vanilla extract, sprinkles and other decorations, brown sugar, powdered sugar, nuts (including walnuts and pecans), cream cheese, heavy cream, yogurt, peanut butter, and dried fruits, including cranberries. Some of it is expensive (nuts are ridiculously pricey), but mostly the prices are about what I’m used to in the DC area.

The peanut butter selection at Dhali.  It's not bad!

The peanut butter selection at Dhali. It’s not bad!

Since we are with the embassy, we are also able to shop at the commissary, which has some things (when it’s stocked, anyways) you can’t find on the local market, like puff pastry, Pillsbury croissants in a can, cinnamon rolls in a can, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

If you are moving to Dhaka and love to bake (or if you’re coming to visit and want to make me even happier), you should bring: unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate (chocolate chips, dark chocolate, etc), corn syrup, yeast packets or jars of dry active yeast, and nuts.

One thing you will not find anywhere and cannot ship or bring in luggage is cooking spray. If you can’t live without it, I suggest investing in an oil mister thingy. I butter baking dishes with butter wrappers, which works really well, and so far hasn’t been too big of a problem. But I do miss the convenience of a big container of Pam, that’s for sure!

Ramadan and other random things

Ramadan started last week, and it lasts until July 17, which is the date of Eid al-Fitr (not to be confused with Eid al-Adha.  I had no idea there were two Eids before moving here.).  Eid al-Fitr is one of the main holidays in Islam, and Ramadan is the period of fasting that leads up to it.  In terms of religious holidays, just like Christmas is the big one for Christians, Eid al-Fitr is the big one for Muslims.  From what I understand anyways; I could be wrong.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, which here is about 6:30 am to 6:45 pm. One afternoon, we walked to our favorite bakery, Holey, which caters to expats and is open during Ramadan.  All the usual market and tea stalls along the way were still there, but they were covered in tarps.  You could see some people behind the tarps drinking tea, although there was definitely less hustle and bustle than normal.  This is the first time I’ve been in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan, and it is interesting.

I am not observing Ramadan, and now that we are settled into our apartment, I’ve started doing some baking.  I made a mango upside-down cake for our amazing social sponsors, which was so good I made a pineapple up-side down cake the next day for me and Nate.  I’m sad to say that I made the cake 4 days ago and it’s almost gone… and Nate’s not much of a dessert eater, so, yes, I’ve eaten nearly the whole thing.

Not the best photo I've made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

Not the best photo I’ve made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

This morning I made an apple coffee cake that is also really good.   Nate likes coffee cake more than I do, so I’m really hoping that he’ll eat this one.

Whenever I’m cooking in our kitchen here, I’m always struck by the amount of garbage that we produce.  This is primarily because, since moving to Dhaka, we don’t recycle anymore. Even worse, we don’t pick up after our dog.

A few nights ago, we were cooking dinner and Nate asked if we needed to save a glass jar.  I said, “No, just toss it in the recycling.”  His response was, “Um, don’t you mean garbage?” Right…. Currently in our garbage there is paper, a empty egg carton, a yogurt container, soda cans, and an empty milk box. I feel so guilty.

I’m able to rationalize not recycling here because there are people who go through the garbage and pull out the recyclables. Not that I think that picking through garbage should be something people have to do to survive, but, hey, at least someone is trying to make some money and also happens to be helping the environment.

And if we picked up after our dog, then we’d be walking around with a bag full of poop and no where to throw it away.  We do our part, to the extent possible, and encourage Athena to take care of her business on the trash piles. But still, it feels strange and wrong.

Well I’m not really sure how this when from Islamic holidays to everything we’re doing wrong for the environment, but there you go, that’s my train of thought these days.

At home, finally

We moved into our permanent residence, and we love it here.  In our temporary apartment I never really let myself get 100% comfortable because I knew we’d be leaving, but here we can arrange the furniture how we want, re-organize the kitchen, and actually spend some time making this place feel like ours.

Our apartment is really long. Like a “huh, that’s interesting” kind of long.  We are trying to decide how to rearrange it and partition out the space because you could literally have a banquet for 25 people, at least, in the dining room.  Luckily the flooring is these huge square tiles, so I could easily map out the dimensions of the rooms and furniture.  And this is what I’ve been playing around with:

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

Some people (Nate, most likely) would say I have too much time on my hands

We are going to request some additional furniture, and hopefully things will be set up the way we would like in no time!

My favorite things about this apartment are the living area, which gets loads of natural light, especially in the morning, and the roof-top garden. We are lucky to have houses next to us rather than apartment buildings, so they don’t block out all the sunlight.

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

We might not have a yard, but this is almost as good!

The roof has a nice, high wall (at least five feet tall) and tons of grass.  In our last apartment, the people that lived above us actually lost one of their dogs because he jumped over the roof wall chasing a bird.  So, we were always very careful whenever we took Athena on the roof there, because she could definitely put her paws up on the ledge.  Thankfully, here there is no risk of that happening, and there are these glass areas where she can look out, so she has no desire to see over the wall anyways.

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

Athena explores new spaces and new species of shrubbery

We also have loads of storage in the kitchen, which is something I’m very excited about.  This is the first time in my adult life that I’ve had a kitchen to call my own that I don’t feel totally cramped in.  I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I seriously can’t wait for our HHE to get here.  All our bakeware, kitchen appliances, and weird gadgets/dishes won’t need to be stashed in random places around the house and will finally have a place to go!