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Throwing Down the Pizza Gauntlet

16 Jun

If you were to ask Max at any given time of the day what he would like to eat, that he would reply “pizza daddy!” I used to be able fob him off with packaging quiche or frittata as pizza but he’s wised up to that one now. So Friday night in the Down Under house is pizza night and I’m not complaining. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like pizza and with a little help from my 2 year old Sous Chef I am interested to see how close the homemade version gets to the real thing.

The gauntlet I threw down to myself, what sort of idiot throws down their own gauntlets, was to make each member of the house the pizza of their dreams. Max is the only carnivore in the house so I went for a salami, spinach and mushroom pizza. Anna excels herself when it comes to making chocolate disappear so I went for a dark chocolate, pear and hazelnut creation. And for me the pizza that has me coming back for seconds is a little caramelised onion and rosemary potato number that I’ve swiped from our local pizzeria.
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I used Felicity Cloake’s “How to Cook The Perfect Pizza” recipe. For someone who has never made their own pizza dough before I can’t emphasise enough how great this recipe is and if you have a food processor it’s remarkably mess free, you literally bung all the ingredients in and let it do its thing (although I must confess that me and Max quite like a bit of mess, Anna less so).

Do
• Prep all of your toppings and have them ready to go, this is where the kids can get involved and pretty up their own pizzas.
• Rubbing a thin layer of olive oil over the pizza base before adding the topping creates a seal that stops the base from getting soggy.
• Use a pizza stone if you have one.
• Track down some 00 flour for a soft, chewy base
• The longer you leave the dough to rise the more flavour it develops – 4 hours will do the trick
• Have a bit of Italian opera on the radio in the background, it adds authenticity and makes the pizza taste better.
• Dust the base with semolina to add a slight crunch and avoid sticking
• Make more dough than you need, it keeps for a fortnight if it’s sealed in an airtight container.

Don’t
• Overdo the toppings – that’s not how mama used to make it and will result in a soggy base
• Use toppings that will burn, for the chocolate pizza in hindsight I should have added the chocolate and nuts when the base was partially cooked because both will burn if they are cooked too long.
• Undercook your pizza, have your oven on its highest setting with the pizza stone or tray in there until it’s bloody hot.
• Once you’ve worked your dough into the perfect pizza-y circle don’t leave it lying around to dry out, get the toppings on and get it cooked.
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The pizzas were a big hit, I always know when I’ve hit the right note because there is a collective silence (crunching and slurping aside) which otherwise doesn’t happen in our house. I think I have a new role in the house, that of Friday night pizza maker and a new name to boot from my little boy “Pizza Daddy”. It’s a lot of fun, costs a fraction of the restaurant prices and tastes pretty darned good. The next gauntlet I have thrown down to myself is to have a pizza party for Max and his besties, with all the littlies decorating their own small pizza, sound slike madness has set in doesn’t it?
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Ingredients (Makes 6–8 depending on size)
500g pizza flour
10g fresh yeast (or 7g instant dried, made up as on packet)
½ tsp sugar
320ml warm water
1 tsp salt
Your chosen toppings
Olive oil and semolina flour, to serve
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Directions
1. Mix the yeast with the sugar and leave for 1 minute. Stir in the water, then add to the flour and mix in a food processor on the lowest speed until it comes together into a soft dough. Add the salt and then turn the speed up slightly and mix for another 4 minutes. Alternatively, mix them together with a wooden spoon, then turn the dough out on to a work surface, add the salt, and knead for 10 minutes.
2. Put the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl and then turn over to coat. Cover with a damp cloth, or cling film, and leave in a warm place for four hours. Then do what I did and watch on in amazement for 4 hours (it was a slow day) as it bloats up to something enormous.
3. Turn the oven to its highest setting and add your pizza stone, terracotta or heavy baking tray.
4. Divide the dough into satsuma-sized pieces and roll into balls on the work surface using the palm of your hand. Dust a work surface with a little flour and semolina flour and put a ball of dough on to it. I cheated with a rolling pin and rolled that sucker until it was paper thin, if you think you handle the whole throwing, spinning and stretching business then good luck to you.
5. Working as quickly as possible add a layer of olive oil to the base and add your toppings. Mine were all sauce-less but a thin layer of Passata would have been my preference. Transfer the base on to the hot surface and cook for about 8 minutes until crisp and golden. Eat it when it’s still hot enough to hurt, just a little.
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Do you make your own? What is your dream topping?

My Little Moment With Masterchef

12 Jun

When I was younger I had foodie aspirations and lots of them. I loved to cook, I loved to cook before it was cool to love to cook. I used to spend what little money I had on recipe books, gourmet ingredients and eating out. I wrote several business plans for several foodie enterprises but never quite found the right formula to convince me to take the plunge. I had my own successful stall at a farmers market making delicious organic soups, think Porcini Mushroom and Truffle Oil. I was always trying to throw elaborate dinner parties to my motley crew of mates who would rather be down the pub.
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When I was 24 a little show started in England called Masterchef, it was a runaway success and developed a huge cult following. The format in England was very different to the Australian version, it’s a lot more about the cooking and the contestants food knowledge rather than trying to build television personalities. Each episode I think had eight new contestants and after 4 challenges you were left with one winner who goes onto the next stage. I loved the show and by the time the second series were auditioning for contestants I had convinced myself to have a go.

I painstakingly filled out the novel sized application form, complete with “who is your food hero?” and “what is your signature dish?” and sent it off without too much hope of ever hearing anything in reply. A few weeks later I was at work and a young lady informed me that they loved my application and would I be available for a phone interview. I made my way to a toilet cubicle, a truly awful place to discuss food, locked myself in and began to wax lyrical about all things edible. I was in there for a good 30 minutes and I must confess it was a little awkward sitting back down at my desk.
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A week later I got the same call and made my way back to the toilet cubicle. This time it was a chap who drilled me on whether I could commit time to the show, how my girlfriend would feel about me being away, whether I was financially in a position to do so, etc. This was another substantial call which left my colleagues wondering if I needed more fibre in my diet. I got a letter through the post advising me that I was successfully through to the final stage of the audition process. One more test and I could have my mug on telly. This time I had to cook something at home and bring it along for a tasting panel.

I spent the next few days scouring recipe books for inspiration for a dish that (a) was delicious (b) was delicious cold (c) I was capable of making. After trying a few recipes out I settled on a chocolate fondant, a crumbly case with dark, rich, chocolate oozing out once attacked with cutlery – surely a safe bet? I made it a few times, Anna being the very indulged and willing guinea pig and made sure it still oozed and tasted the part after the hour I would be travelling to the studios.
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I arrived and gently carried my precious cargo following the “Masterchef Auditions” signs before taking my place in line with ‘the others’. This had the nerve inducing feel of a job interview. I was called in and sat at a desk in front of 3 young women, suddenly my decision to go for a chocolate overload felt like it was going to pay off. “What have you made for us today Matthew?” They set about the fondant with forks and spoons and before long I felt like I was playing Billy Crystal in the When Harry Met Sally’s fake orgasm scene x 3! There were unrestrained orgasmic noises of pleasure coming from each one of the judges, it felt a little awkward to be honest.

When they had composed themselves they told me that I had passed with flying colours and the final hurdle would be an audition in front of a television camera. Gulp! Clammy hands, sweaty forehead, a furiously pumping heart and a quivery voice are not the tools for this particular trade. I was called into a room, the young women who had put me so at ease were replaced by a very formal looking older man and the biggest camera I have ever seen in my life was pointed at my face. I had a sinking feeling that the dream was about to turn into a nightmare and it did. I turned into a stuttering rabbit in the headlights and kissed goodbye to my Masterchef dream.
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Sure enough I fell at the last hurdle. So there you have my little moment with Masterchef, “little” being the operative word. Despite the bitter ending it’s pleasing that as a young man I stepped outside of my comfort zone to chase my dreams; it’s something I still do today and is one of the most important life lessons I hope to pass on to Max……along with cooking of course.
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Are you a fan of getting out of your comfort zone? What life lessons do you hope to pass on to your children?

My Top 10 Stock Cupboard Essentials with Kids

6 Jun

Cooking for kids is an art form and one that evolves as they do. I never really know what the reaction will be when I plonk a plate in front of Max, if its good he will end up wearing it around his mouth and if not I will usually end up wearing it about my person. Throw in the endless trips to the supermarket and the urge to feed your kids a healthy and varied diet and it can be a pain in the bottom. One thing that helps to minimise that painful bottom is stocking up on those versatile ingredients that so often save the day. You probably already have a fair idea of what works in your house but I thought I would share my Top 10 Stock Cupboard Essentials and some of the different ways I use them.

Tortilla Wraps – These are a staple in our house and can be used in lots of different ways. You can get all different kinds including wholemeal. As well as using them as they are intended and rolling them up with a filling (tuna mayo gets the nod from Max) I will also use them as a pizza base, I sometimes cut them into little triangles, bake them and have them with a homemade dip or Max’s favourite as a quesadilla stuffed with spinach, cheese and mushroom –once you fold them the kids can’t see what they’re eating so they become a good vehicle for veggies.
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Chick Peas – I love that Max eats these because it’s something simple and healthy that requires no prep. We take them out with us for his snack or if his lunch is looking a bit sparse I will fill in the gaps with chick peas. I will add them to soups and once they are blitzed they add an extra bit of flavour. And you can’t mention chick peas without mentioning humus, I blitz a couple of cans at a time and add lemon juice, a bit of garlic, some olive oil and Tahini (but to be fair chick peas, olive oil and a bit of water does the job).

Lentils – Lentils are very good at ticking the cheap and healthy boxes. I use the little orange ones mostly because they cook quickly and the flavour isn’t as strong as the green ones. I use them to thicken soups, they cook in about 10 mins and can then be blitzed up to make sure the soup gets from bowl to mouth without too many spillages. You can use them to make patties along with grated carrot, onion and potato. You can add them to Bolognese sauce instead of mince and again you can make dips with them, sweet potato and lentil works well.
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Risoni – Risoni is the pasta that looks like rice and is also known as Orzo. This is a great addition for the stock cupboard as it’s much quicker to cook than rice or other pastas and time nearly always seems to be of the essence in our house. I will make a sauce with béchamel, cheese, mushroom and spinach or if I need a quick fix I just add tuna and pesto and Max loves it. You can also use it to make a cheats risotto, adding stock rather than water and finishing with pea, cheese and ham for example. Its another good thickener for soups as well as it absorbs the excess liquid.

Frozen Chopped Spinach – So I keep banging on about spinach and this is my all time favourite ingredient for Max. It costs a grand total of $1 per box, it’s chopped to a size that works for little people, its super healthy and it’s not got a huge amount of flavour for them to object to. Pretty much anything that gets cooked in our house I will add a bit of spinach, if you think about it it works with cheese dishes and tomato based dishes which covers just about all bases. Pizzas, frittatas, soups, pasties, pastas, chilli’s, quesadillas, rice dishes and even a cheeky toasted sandwich all respond well to a bit of spinach.
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Pesto – Max loves the stuff and given the fact that it has such a strong flavour it can mask some of the veggies that he isn’t quite so keen on. Check the back of the jar and go for the one with the highest percentage of basil. One of the easiest meals I do for Max is spaghetti with pesto, tuna and spinach. The biggest drawback is that you will suddenly start noticing little green splatters all over the house.

Miso Soup – Max is a big fan of salty foods and this is the healthiest salty food going. You can buy little sachets from the Supermarket I think 12 will set you back around $3. Try cooking noodles/rice in it and serve with stir fried veggies or adding it to soups for a bit more flavour. Its quick, cheap and healthy.
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Cream cheese – I use it as a cheat cheese sauce for pastas, just add some to cooked pasta and stir it in. Max is quite partial to chopped veggies (carrot, capsicum and celery) and a good smear of cream cheese helps it all go down without any fuss. If I’ve made a soup and want to cool it down quickly I’ll add some cream cheese. Spreading a little on a wrap will help the sides to stick together without the contents decorating your floor.

Frozen Puff Pastry – Pastry is something that scares me a little bit but I’ve been embracing the frozen stuff more and more. I pull baked things out of the oven with a sense of pride and amazement at how damned good they look. We have filled pastries with spinach and ricotta, cheese, onion and potato, chicken and mushroom, chicken and leek, cheese and ham or a curried potato, pea and onion for the adventurous kids. You could also make sausage rolls, pies and cheese straws. Not the healthiest but sometimes you just want your child to eat some bloody food and pastry seems to help.
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Soy Sauce – Back on the salty theme, if I want to guarantee Max eats his veg I will splash a bit of soy sauce on it and stir fry it. Brocolli, carrots, peas, beans, zucchini and onion all get the soy treatment. I also use this trick with noodles, rice and tofu.

So at any given time if you were to poke your head in and around the Down Under larder you will generally find all of these ingredients, bustling and barging for cupboard space. These are the items that get me out of those sticky situations when I can’t quite face another trip to the supermarket. With these bits and pieces at hand I have a varied repertoire of meals at my disposal to keep the poor lad from going hungry and the poor Dad form tearing his hair out.

Whats always in your larder and what do you do with it?

From Mud to Mouth – Bok Choy Stir Fry with Ginger and Oyster Sauce

2 Jun

From Mud – With an impressive track record in killing plants, I seem an unlikely candidate to have a bountiful allotment. It never ceases to amaze me how much food that finds its way into Max’s eager mouth has been grown in my very own humble veggie patch with my not particularly green fingers.

To Mouth – Recipes will therefore feature a core ingredient grown by my own fair hands as the star of a delicious show. That ingredient will be transported from its muddy home to an obliging mouth in less than an hour and it doesn’t get much better than that.
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This week’s recipe features Bok Choy. About 5 weeks ago I purchased a tray of Bok Choy seedlings, I’ve never grown them before but I’ve heard they are particularly quick and easy to grow and anything that green has to be good for you too. Yesterday I went to have a look at how the plot was looking and I had a row of full sized Bok Choy ripe for the picking.

Given the amount of stir fries we get through in our house a surplus of Asian Greens is no bad thing. A few weeks back I went to a cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant and ordered a tofu stir fry with ginger and oyster sauce, it was sweet, sticky, salty and scrumptious. I went home and played around with some Chinese flavours and I think I’ve got to a point where it’s a passable impersonation. I doubt whether it’s particularly authentic but it’s quick, tasty and easy.
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As well as the Bok Choy I use whatever veg we have handy, I tend to favour green slightly bitter veg (capsicum, broccoli, beans) because I think the sauce has enough sweetness. Carrots and onions also get the nod, while ginger, mild chilli and garlic all provide flavour. A good stir fry requires a smoking hot wok (or large frying pan), a non-flavoured oil (sunflower, peanut, vegetable) and a bit of thought about what is going to cook first. Keep the vegetables crisp and don’t overcook them, keep moving them around in the pan and don’t add too much liquid up front or they will steam/boil.

I know tofu isn’t universally popular but I’ve found that firm or fried tofu is delicious as long as you add flavour to it. I can’t do the silken stuff, it’s a textural thing and makes feels like I have a mouth of snot. It’s cheap, healthy and it lasts forever in your fridge and as if that isn’t enough I’ve managed to convince Max that it’s pretty darned good too. If you really can’t bring yourself to have it in your life just leave it out, or add prawns, chicken or beef.
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Ingredients (serves two very hungry people)
1 Bok Choy
1 Broccoli Head
1 Green Capsicum
1 Brown Onion
1 Carrot
1 Thumb Sized Piece of Ginger (cut into thin slithers)
1 Garlic Clove (finely chopped)
½ Mild Red Chilli (depending on how you like your heat)
1 Packet of Firm or Fried Tofu
1 cup of Jasmine Rice
Splash of non-flavoured oil (sunflower, peanut, vegetable)
Oyster Sauce, Soy Sauce, Sweet Chilli Sauce (1 tablespoon of each)
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Directions
Put one cup of Jasmine rice in a saucepan with 2 cups of salted boiling water and leave to simmer.

Chop your veg, try and cut the veg into sizes that will encourage them to cook at the same times. Cut the leaves from the stalk of the bok choy. Cut the ginger into thin slither and cube the tofu.

When all the liquid has been soaked up by the rice it should be ready, place a plate over the top and the rice will stay warm and steam to fluffy perfection.

Once your veg is prepped, place a wok (or large frying pan on a high heat), when it starts to smoke add your oil.

Add all of the veg and tofu apart from the Bok Choy leaves and start stirring. Keep moving the veg around and when you feel they are ¾’s cooked add the leaves (don’t overcook the veg, you want it to have some bite)

Add the garlic chilli and ginger and the three sauces. Keep cooking until the sauce thickens into a sticky caramel.

Serve up with the rice and icy cold beer.

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Sunday Suppers – Crispy Skinned Salmon in a Miso and Mushroom Broth

26 May

Since the arrival of our little plus one Sundays are about spending time together as a family, there may be a nice day trip, there will usually be a walk to the park and we make sure there is always a nice grown up supper to look forward to once max is tucked up in bed. This is one of those awesome recipes that I stumbled across by accident and is now well and truly a part of the household repertoire. It requires 4 ingredients, about 10 minutes from start to finish, it looks the part and it tastes like its straight out of a fancy Japanese restaurant. Being pescetarians we eat a lot of fish and top of that list seems to be salmon. It’s delicious, healthy and the clincher is that Max digs it too. I’ve been getting into Miso soup recently after making friends with the local sushi takeaway they’ll throw some in with my sushi rolls. I have noticed a few recipes that combine Miso and salmon, so I thought I’d try using Miso soup as a broth for the salmon to sit in and by golly it works!

Ingredients (per serve)
1 Sachet of Miso soup
1 Small Handful of chopped spring onion greens
1 Portion of Salmon Skin On
1/2 very finely sliced medium sized Swiss Brown mushroom (or whatever mushroom works for you)
Coriander leaves and a few slithers of mild red chilli to garnish (optional)
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Directions
Heat up a frying pan on a high heat without any oil. Run your fingers across the salmon and using tweezers pull out any bones. Turn the salmon skin side up and generously season with salt and pepper. Massage a little non fragrant oil (sunflower/vegetable/peanut) over the skin and flesh. Place the salmon skin side down in the pan and using your fingers push down to ensure all of the skin crisps up.

Empty your Miso sachet into a bowl, add the chopped spring onion, the finely sliced mushroom and the recommended amount of boiling water (for 1 sachet of Miso). Add the coriander leaves and your delicious broth is finished. The raw mushroom will cook in the broth and help to flavour it.

Back to the salmon, it takes maybe 2 minutes on a high heat for the skin to crisp, you want to get it as crispy as possible before you turn it over, have a sneaky peak to see how it looks. Once the skin has crisped turn the heat down to a low/medium setting and turn the salmon so the flesh side is down.

Look at the shape of your salmon and understand that one side might be much thinner than the other. This means you want to lift the thinner side off the pan so that it isn’t making contact, the residual heat form the skin will cook a thin piece of salmon. The colouring on the sides of the salmon will indicate how cooked it is, you can also give it a squeeze and it should feel firmer rather than squishy. Bear in mind that the salmon will continue to cook in the broth and that there is no danger in eating salmon that is under (I actually prefer it).
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Once your happy the salmon is cooked the way you like it, place it into the broth and voila you are done! If that looks a bit meagre for supper you can put some stir fried Pak Choy on the side or add some noodles/rice to the broth. If you prefer white fish I think snapper would be more than up to the job. And if you’re not a fan of fish I reckon a nice chicken breast would work too.

From Mud to Mouth – Smoked Trout and Dill Fishcakes

15 May

There are a few boxes that I like to tick before cooking a new recipe. What can I harvest from my allotment? Will Max eat it? Will I eat the leftovers? Is it time and money efficient? Do the flavours work together? Is it healthy? Will I earn a few Good Husband Points? This particular recipe requires a giant red permanent marker to emphatically tick all of those boxes. Did I mention it only requires 4 ingredients?
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This is a little insight into the rambling and roving thought process behind the recipe and how it came to be. A quick scan of my humble allotment and I noticed we had some dill that needed picking before it goes to seed. That’s a good start; dill only likes to hang out with fish so we can start thinking about dill and fish. One fish that is delicious, cheap (about $6 per fish) and often overlooked is trout and in its smoked form Max loves it, furthermore it saves time on the cooking. The best way for me to get Max to eat a new flavour is to somehow turn it into something resembling a patty complete with crispy edges and succulent centre.

Root vegetables, beans and pulses can be used to bind patties but the vegetable that will work best with smoked trout and dill is the humble potato. If that potato happens to be floury and fluffy you won’t even need egg or breadcrumbs to prevent the disaster that is a fragile fishcake. It would be good to add a bit more green and another level of flavour, one way I get Max to eat spring onion is to add it to mashed potato; the Irish call this Champ I call it mashed potato and spring onion. And there you have one oversized paragraph that reveals the method to the madness.
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Ingredients (Makes 6-8 patties)
1 smoked trout
1 bunch of spring onions (the greens only)
4 medium floury potatoes (Maris Piper, King Edward, Coliban)
A bunch of dill
A little olive oil to fry
That is all

Directions
Preheat your to 200 degrees C. Take a fork and repeatedly stab your potatoes like they did something wrong and put them in the oven. Baking the potatoes delivers the most fluffy results and this recipe is all about fluff, if time is your enemy you can bake them in the microwave.

Meanwhile remove the flesh form the fish. The skin will peel off in one long and pleasing strip if you make a little nick up around the neck (do fish have necks?). Take a fork and place on the spine (like yours it runs down the middle of the back) of the fish and gently pull towards you. The fish will come off in nice big flakes leaving behind a Tom and Jerry like fish skeleton. Break the flakes up into a bowl (keep an eye out for any rogue bones)
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Chop up the spring onion greens and finely chop the dill.

Once the potato has cooked scoop out the flesh and combine all the ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Using your hands (obviously) take the mixture and roll it into patties the size of a kittens head. If you want to joosh them up a bit sprinkle some sesame or poppy seeds either side.

Add to a pan with a small amount of hot oil (add more for further crisp factor) and cook on a medium heat, turning when the edges look nicely crisped.

Further jooshing for yourself or the more discerning child could be in the form of a creme fraiche or yoghurt , lemon and dill sauce. Bon appétit peeps! This is one of those meals that can be enjoyed by the whole family and comes in under $15
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My Cold Weather Tipple

12 May

As soon as the mercury begins to plummet and trust me it has, my tipple of choice turns from gin and tonics to whisky. There’s something very pleasing about the warming, sweet, smokiness of a good whisky, I suspect I may also have watched too much Mad Men, if that’s possible? Anna is adamant that whisky is nasty stuff but I like a challenge and set out to change her mind. Traditionalist whisky drinkers turn their noses up at hot toddies but what do they know, a good hot toddy on a cold day will convert the staunchest of whisky critics. It’s like mulled wine only much, much better.

Some turn to toddies for the medicinal qualities that citrus, spice, heat and alcohol bring to the table, but I drink them with or without a sniffle, in fact sniffle-less is more pleasurable. Whiskies are far ranging in their subtleties and ideally you will taste a few to find ‘the one’. For any entry level whisky sceptics I recommend a nice, sweet bourbon and your local bottle shop will steer you in the right direction I’m sure. If you’re all about rum a spiced rum ticks boxes too. Recipes are generally there to be tinkered with, use them as a guideline and tweak to your taste, the addition of orange zest was all my own but works really well. I also have a hunch that using a bit of warm ginger beer would works wonders too.
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Toddies taste better in front of a fire, so if you have one light it up and get cosy, blankets are good too. I picked up an old chiminea at a bric a brac market recently and it’s become my winter companion. I get lost in it’s flickering flames and warm embrace, my inner Neanderthal can’t get enough. Don’t judge me but I’ve taken to filling my coffee cup with a nice toddy for afternoon strolls in the park with Max, father and son have never enjoyed the park so much!

Ingredients (for each toddy)
60ml water
5 cloves
Cinnamon stick
3 slithers of peeled ginger
1 strip of lemon peel
1 strip of orange peel
60ml whisky
2tsp honey
1-2 tsp lemon juice

Directions
Put the water in a small pan along with the spices and peel over a low heat. Bring to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile rinse a heatproof glass with hot water and dry.
Pour the whisky into your warmed glass and then pour over hot water and spices. Stir in the honey and lemon juice, taste and adjust to how you like it.

What do you turn to to warm you’re cockles when things get frosty?

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