Arrivederci Astana

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Sadly I have come to the end of my Astana adventures. This summer we moved back to the UK and are starting up the next phase of our lives. I have so many good memories and attachments that I will be taking with me from Kazakhstan, it is still hard to say goodbye.

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Springing into Action!

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This morning as I went out to the balcony to sip my morning coffee I was startled by loud “Hu-ah!”‘s coming from the secondary school nearby. Although I am not much startled by the strange and unusual in Astana anymore, and I had mentioned to any and all that the new school playground looked like a police academy course, it was a bit surprising to find it had been taken over by the army. Today is a normal school day for the kids, as far as I can see, so the little ones get to play whilst camoed men run about screaming. Always interesting here…

Rice Cooker Risotto

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Step 11

Yesterday I had one of those days of being overworked and overstressed, and the last thing I wanted to do was cook dinner.  My stomach was demanding an offering however, so I had to make something. Enter the rice cooker.

Now, if you are sometimes lazy like me in the kitchen, a rice cooker is one thing you MUST have! I highly recommend getting something from an Asian-maker as well, because they are just better at rice. (The one time I tried a UK-maker, I really lived to regret it! Our current “Cuckoo” cooker was cheap and cheerful from a Korean market and is sooooo much better! No crunchy rice!)

Now I have heard of cakes and bread being made in a rice cooker, and we had quite a bit of risotto rice lying around so I figured there must be such a thing as rice cooker risotto and tonight was the night to try it. I based my meal on this recipe here: http://www.foodgal.com/2012/12/the-magic-of-rice-cooker-risotto/  However, I must add that I never stick very religiously to recipes and I was feeling VERY lazy so this post is an even more abbreviated version!

Making this recipe is dead easy. Basically it consists of measuring stuff out and sautéing stuff up.

Step 1

Step 1 – Butter

First you set your rice cooker to warm (or regular cycle if yours is more nifty than mine).

Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter to the rice cooker and shut the lid to let is melt a bit.

Step 2

Step 2 – Take stock

Next you drop in one chicken stock cube into a measuring jug and add about 700ml (3 cups) boiling water and stir about. If you have some saffron, drop a pinch in. In Kazakhstan, saffron is relatively cheap but of low quality so it is perfect for recipes like this.

Step 3

Step 3 – Butter + Onion

For the next step, chop up 3/4 cup of onion (= about 2 small ones) and toss into the rice cooker. Mix it with the melted butter and close the lid again. (Side-note: Mine wasn’t even fully melted when I made this and it still turned out ok)

Step 4

Step 4 – Rice

For step 4, measure out 1 1/2 cups of risotto rice (about 192 grams) and mix into the rice cooker ingredients.

Mr Vermouth

Mr Vermouth

Now although the original recipe calls for white wine, I have to say that a bit of sweet vermouth is just the thing for risotto. It is a very harmonious pairing and we always keep a bottle in the fridge for occasions like this. Otherwise, white wine will do if you have it, or in Kazakhstan, vodka as there is always some of that lying around! Measure out about 1/4 cup (60 ml).

Step 5

Step 5 – Stock + Vermouth

Pour in the chicken stock and vermouth. Stir just to mix and shut the lid.

Step 6

Step 6 – Push the Button

My cooker is simple so all I do is push down the button to “cook” and leave it.

Step 7

Step 7 – Sauté

For my meal I just took leftovers from the fridge, a bit of kolbasa (sausage), some smoked turkey, some green onion and some frozen peas and threw them into the sauté pan with some garlic. I sautéed these as normal and added a dash of vermouth at the end just to cut through the kolbasa grease a bit. After that I just left cooking and had time for a drink and a sit down before the rice cooker finished its magic.

Step 8

Step 8 – Ding!

Wait for the rice cooker to finish (should be about 20 minutes) then open the lid to see your cooked risotto!

Step 9

Step 9 – Stir

When you open the cooker, you will notice a bit of liquid at the top. Don’t worry that your risotto has turned to rice porridge. It should be that the liquid of the risotto mix has risen to the top as the steaming process has occurred and the rice has expanded. Gently stir the liquid back into the rice with a folding motion and you should start to get a more risotto-like consistency. I suggest a rice paddle for this so you won’t be turning the lovely, flavorful gems of rice into mash.

Step 10

Step 10 – Mix

Next, take your sautéed items and add them into the risotto. Grate some cheese (parmesan if you’ve got it or in my case edam) over the top, add some salt and pepper, a dash of lemon or lime juice to taste and mix it all in together.

Viola! You have a risotto ready to be served up! It might not be Michelin quality, but on a tired evening, this is just the comfort food you need! Perfect for two, double the recipe for four.

Step 11

Step 11 – Bon Appetit!

Astana Eats #1: Sunday Brunch

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Morning breaks at -30

Morning breaks at -30

One thing I am often asked about is what I eat here in Kazakhstan. To give a better picture of this I have decided to highlight aspects of my current diet to give a flavour (haha…ahem…) of my culinary experiences. In this first entry we will look at today’s Sunday brunch:

Sunday Scramble

Sunday Scramble

Leftover stuffing from dinner (I even found cranberries for this one!) mixed with very anemic-looking eggs, scrambled with a few dashes of Worcestershiresauce and on top of this lovely, crusty, yellow bread freshly made at the local supermarket and a satsuma on the side (the stores finally have the seedless ones in stock).

As mentioned, eggs are not quite like what we get at home but certainly seem fresh (as the chicken guano often found on the outsides will testify). Especially here, it pays to thoroughly wash things before use! The eggs are all locally produced however, unlike a wide selection of items in the market that have to be flown in as Astana is miles from just about anything that isn’t steppe.

Fresh Bread from Ramstore

Fresh Bread from Ramstore

The best thing about this meal is undeniably the bread. Here in Astana, we are positively spoilt for choice in this one area! The larger stores, such as our Ramstore in MEGA shopping mall around the corner, tend to have their own bakery and produce very fresh bread in huge varieties throughout the day. The result is the best crusty outside, soft inside, still warm bread I have had aside from when I was staying in France!

 

 

Borovoye in October

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Cabin at Zhumbaktas rest house

In warmer, more temperate times (October) we were able to make a weekend visit to Borovoye, the “Kazakh Switzerland”. Just 4 hours drive away from the capital on relatively good roads, Borovoye is becoming a bit like Astana’s Lake Tahoe. We stayed at an interesting place called Zhumbaktas Rest House located in the forest close to Borovoye.

Zhumbaktas rest house fountain

Although the surroundings were beautiful in themselves, the staff seemed to take the structure of our stay very seriously. There were still definitive hangovers in attitudes from Soviet times. As an example of this, we were assigned to a dining table at the start of our stay and given a strict schedule of meals: 8am breakfast, 1pm lunch, 4pm snack/tea, 6pm dinner, 9pm late snack and 10pm disco… Needless to say we chose to respect but not entirely honor all of the Zhumbaktas ideals…

EAGLE!!

As you can see from above, if you are in a nature reserve, you must find wildlife (or wild-deadlife)! We didn’t see a single thing roaming free, but there were mounted heads galore and a few plastic creatures that seemed to reproduce around the fountain the longer we stayed. At night we could hear wolves which was exciting! The woods in the surrounding area were incredibly picturesque and made me think of “Peter and the Wolf” more than a few times!

Lake Borovoye

In the afternoon we decided to try to row around Lake Borovoye and it was by far the best way to see the area. For about 1000 kzt (£5) four of us had a large boat to ourselves for an hour and took a leisurely look around on a sparklingly sunny fall day.

Borovoye by boat

Mr. T and Me

Watch out for falling children

On the way back to the car, we noticed these strange rope courses in the trees that are apparently for children in the high tourist season. Needless to say, I hope they have all trained with a circus because there are no safety nets and a high looking level of challenge!

German tourists and Borovoye Market Stalls

There was also a little market next to the parking and we had a quick gander. There were loads of fragrantly smoked fish for sale (I was tempted until I realised it would have to sit in the car for a whole day!) as well as this outstandingly vibrant orange drink that little old ladies insisted was very health with vitamins and I had to sample…It was very healthy tasting indeed… I did finally buy a tub of fresh honey as this is something everyone raves about from this area of Kazakhstan. It was very fragrant and golden flavoured!

Shuchye Lake Woods

Shuchye lake

After an energetic night of card-playing and drinking with the crew and right before the 4 hour journey back to Astana-land, I took an calming walk around the woods outside of the guest house area. The route to the little lake nearby was stunning and made a dramatic change from forest to woods to lowland scrub and lakeside. Borovoye is certainly a place I will return to again!

House Tour – Part 2

From the Sitting Room to the Studio (my favorite bit)!

Studio/Office From the Doorway, not much to look at now, but this will change soon...

Studio/Office From the Balcony

Studio/Office Balcony

Office/Studio Lights! or Close Encounters of the 3rd-Kind..., notice the colour change...

View From Studio/Office: Day, you can almost see our resident wild(?) herbal-remedy growing in the grass below...

View From Studio/Office: Night

Blue Bathroom From Doorway, Flower power!

Blue Bathroom From Bath

End of Hallway (Master Bedroom off-screen left and Blue Bathroom left)

Spare Bedroom From Doorway, notice the heart-shaped light design...

Spare Bedroom From Windows

View #1 From Spare Bedroom: Day (This is the second time this school here has fallen down apparently...)

View #2 From Spare Bedroom: Day

View #1 From Spare Bedroom: Night

View #2 From Spare Bedroom: Night

Master Bedroom From Doorway

Master Bedroom From Walk-In Closet (Finally! Real Closets! Forget Narnia!)

Walk-In Closet

Master Bedroom From Windows

Ensuite Bathroom From Master Bedroom

Ensuite Bathroom From Corner Tub

Master Bedroom Lights! Yes, we sleep in a Central Asian Flower Bordello...

Dead Light Bulbs... We have 138 lights in total and loose wiring...fun times!

House Tour! – Part 1

It has taken some time, but finally we have begun to settle here in Astana. Take a full tour of our new home!

Main Hallway Looking at Entry Door, shoes off here!

Hallway Closet #1 From Entry Door

Hallway Closet #1 Opened, it's big

Hallway Closet #2 Next To Entry Door

Hallway Closet #2 Opened

1st Stop: Joker Bathroom/Utility Room From Toilet

Joker Bathroom/Utility Room From Doorway, sorry about the amount of knickers in this photo...

Joker Bathroom/Utility Room Towards Windows

View From 1st Joker Bathroom/Utility Room

2nd Stop: Kitchen From Doorway, the water cooler in the corner is our drinking water as tap water is off limits here...

Kitchen From the Balcony

Kitchen Balcony

View From Kitchen Balcony: Day, the Gotham-like structure is the "Triumph" Apartment building, modeled on the "Seven-sisters" Building in Russia...

View From Kitchen Balcony: Night, looking toward the "New downtown"

Hallway (Kitchen Doorway to the Left)

Sitting/Dining Room From Doorway

Sitting/Dining Room From Dining Table

Sitting/Dining Room From Windows

Sitting/Dining Room From 2nd Sofa, notice the massive dinning table for 8 that is not even currently extended...this is hopefully going...

Sitting/Dining Room Lights

View From Sitting/Dining Room: Day, similar to the kitchen, the construction site is a school.

View From Sitting/Dining Room: Night

More to come… Up next: My studio space!

Astana, One Week In

The "Rainbow" Bridge of Astana

Today we are one week in to our life here. We are getting into the swing of things but I suspect it will be easier when we get into our regular digs. Speaking of which, today I was able to inspect the progress in the flat. As suspected, we will now be scheduled to move in next Wednesday, not Monday. I appreciate all the work that is being done for us though, newly painted walls, new sofas and some curtain shopping next week are all being covered for us. Here’s a look at the current state of the flat:

Living room

Kitchen

Blurry Bathroom #1 - The "Joker" Loo

The Study / Studio

The Spare Bedroom

Bathroom #2 - Master Ensuite Bathroom

Courtyard Outside

We have a few cracks in the walls that have had to be filled and this apparently has taken some time to repair (Very typical for Astana). The older couple working on all of this together are very sweet and conscientious, if not the speediest 😉 I am told they have been working on it day and night! Anyhow, after the inspection and a look at some swatches for sofas (how house-wifey do I sound right now…) I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than use the offered driver (I think I am being too spoiled!). I took a lovely stroll along the riverside and through “Center Park”. It has been a lovely day that is sunny, not too hot with some breeze.

Center Park

The park is quite large and lovely. I was mainly by myself for much of the stroll, with only a few amusement stall vendors and moms with kids out and about at this time. I could also see signs that Autumn is on the way, which I am told usually lasts only a day before Winter hits!

Some Colour in the Canopy

On the Tip of Autumn?

The park itself is a strange combo of amusement park and woodland. It seems to only come to life on weekends and the evening.

The Largest Ferris Wheel

Sadly, after this tragedy struck as I managed to drop Mr T’s iPhone and shatter the screen 😦

Saiyaku!!! Sigh, sometimes life is so unfair!