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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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)
For step 4, measure out 1 1/2 cups of risotto rice (about 192 grams) and mix into the rice cooker ingredients.
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).
Pour in the chicken stock and vermouth. Stir just to mix and shut the lid.
My cooker is simple so all I do is push down the button to “cook” and leave it.
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.
Wait for the rice cooker to finish (should be about 20 minutes) then open the lid to see your cooked risotto!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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…
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
I have finally gotten around to getting my new contact details and business cards in order! I am addicted to moo cards for quick, creative, quality products and the best thing is that they are in both the US and UK! Here is a preview of my new Kazakh identity:
From the Sitting Room to the Studio (my favorite bit)!
It has taken some time, but finally we have begun to settle here in Astana. Take a full tour of our new home!
More to come… Up next: My studio space!
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:
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.
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!
The park itself is a strange combo of amusement park and woodland. It seems to only come to life on weekends and the evening.
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!