Saturday, March 21, 2020

One-Pot Rajma Chawal, Pizza and Quarantine Reading

We are sheltering in place, like broad swaths of the globe. I have started my new role as a second grade homeschool teacher. My daughter's public school has been superb- earlier this week, the principal and assistant principal stood outside the school for 3 hours as parents came by to pick up packets of worksheets and home lessons. Every morning, teachers post a cheerful message and mini assignments for the day. The class teacher called each family to check on the children. Everyone is trying to do what they can under the circumstances.

Our 8 year old does a few worksheets (language and math) every day and then has plenty of time left over to play with her brother, spend hours coloring, play board games with me, arrange and rearrange Pokemon cards, read and watch some TV. Honestly, for an 8 year old there is no dearth of ways to fill time. It is such a great age. There are so many things I haven't even suggested yet, like podcasts, craft kits, jigsaw puzzles and sudoku. I'm trying to do something new every day with her. Yesterday, we watched a Khan academy video together- an introduction to multiplication. It was great! I am so grateful for people like Sal Khan and so many other artists and educators that put out valuable content online for free.

Three year olds are a different story. Our toddler has the attention span of a fruit fly and it is harder to engage him in activities for any period of time. He hopefully asks me every morning if school is open yet. Clearly he misses his buddies and teachers and the full schedule of his wonderful Montessori school.

User error
I was looking for a baking project that we could do together and decided to make overnight pizza dough for a pizza lunch the following day. I have all-purpose flour in the pantry but no bread flour. There was some active dry yeast in the freezer but no instant yeast. So I looked around for a recipe that used the ingredients I had on hand and ended up using this recipe. It resulted in a wonderful workable dough in minutes. The kids used a bowl and a dough whisk- no mixer or food processor needed.

 I plopped the dough in a plastic box in the fridge. It has been a while since I made any kind of yeasted bread from scratch and apparently I've completely forgotten how much dough rises, even in the fridge. The next morning, I found this overflowing box in the fridge. (Insert facepalm here.) It was easy enough to cut out the dried-out bits and salvage most of the dough.

When lunch time was about an hour away, I oiled a heavy half-sheet pan with some olive oil and plopped the dough into it. In hindsight, I should have used 2/3 of the dough and saved the rest. Using all that dough on one pan resulted in a thicker pizza than I wanted. Yes, mistakes were made. I covered the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes. Then the kids patted it down to cover the bottom of the pan edge to edge.

They topped the dough with a few spoonfuls of pizza sauce (made on the fly by mixing jarred marinara sauce with some pesto) and handfuls of shredded mozzarella.

I baked the pan pizza in a 450F oven. Yet another mistake- I should have cranked up the oven to 500F. The top of the pizza browned before the bottom did. Another improvement would be to bake on the lowest rack of the oven instead of the top rack like I did.

After this absolute litany of mistakes, guess what, though? It was still the best pizza I've ever made at home. It was like a thick crust focaccia pizza, but the texture and taste were just so good. I'm going to try this again next week with fewer missteps, hopefully.

Pan pizza slices; notice how the top is perfect but the
crust (upturned slice) could have used more browning.
*  *  *

Apart from occasional experiments as with the pizza, I have been cooking simple, nourishing meals for the family. One recipe in our regular meal rotation is the brown rice and black bean instant pot recipe that I have posted before. On a whim, I made an Indian riff on the recipe by using kidney beans instead of black beans and subbing in Indian spices. It made a wonderful and easy one pot rajma chawal- served here with green beans subzi

Soak 1.5 cups dry (raw) kidney beans, then rinse thoroughly.

Mix the following in the instant pot-
  • Soaked kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup dry (raw) brown rice, rinsed
  • 7 cups water
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
Seasoning- all to taste
  • Kasuri methi
  • Cumin-coriander powder
  • Paprika/ cayenne
  • Kitchen king masala
  • Salt
Cook on high pressure for 22 minutes.
Natural pressure release.

* * * 

When the public library announced last weekend that they would be closed for at least 2 weeks, I ran over there in haste. This is my version of panic buying- panic checking out of an armload of books.

Much of my quarantine bookshelf consists of books that were picked up strictly for their soothing and distracting qualities. Wodehouse on crime by P. G. Wodehouse is on my living room table right now, a dozen short stories each based on some sort of misdemeanor or deception. 28 Barbary lane is a book I've wanted to read for a while and this seems like a good time for gossipy, soapy stories about the inhabitants of a block of San Francisco. I also added a McCall Smith for good measure and the latest Maisie Dobbs novel.

Some of the books are intended for particular tasks in the Read Harder 2020 challenge- Bomb is YA historic non-fiction about the race to build the bomb, Village School by Miss Read is for the task- book that takes place in a rural setting, The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is for the task about a middle grade book not set in the US or UK- it is set during the India-Pakistan partition.

For the Read Harder 2020's task on graphic memoirs, I read a trio of middle grade graphic memoirs by Raina Telgemeier and enjoyed all three. Guts is the candid story of Raina aged 9-10 dealing with mysterious GI issues and anxiety, and using therapy to help. Smile is the mind-boggling memoir of how one mishap (falling and breaking two front teeth) led to a couple of years of painful and complicated dental procedures. Sisters is the relatable story of sibling drama during a two week family road trip.

My daughter is reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. An interesting title and a dose of dark humor for the times! As you can probably tell from the picture, she's on book 9 now. She loves the fast-paced adventures in this series. A friend generously handed down the whole series to us a couple of years ago and it is great to have these in our little home library.

How is your week going? How are things in your neck of the woods?

Spring equinox 2020: Fresh air on the porch

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sipping Soup for Viral Times

This big blue planet seems like a small place now, as everyone around the globe is huddling from and struggling against the novel virus COVID-19. Around here last week was relatively normal (we were on Spring break and even took the kids to the High Museum in Atlanta), but now schools are closed for the next week and quite possibly longer. All around us is a ghost town as people seek to isolate and contain the virus, even as a few cases have been confirmed around us.

Amid all this uncertainly, one thing is for sure- we are among the lucky ones. V and I are able to work from home. We have each other's support to take turns caring for the kids and pulling out our laptops to catch up on work. We'll get our salaries no matter what the next few weeks look like. We are fortunate to have cash on hand to be able to stock our kitchen and pantry to a reasonable extent with essential goods- and no, I have done absolutely no panic buying and hoarding. The dry rice, beans and lentils in my pantry will see us through many months if it comes to that.

I'm crushed to think of so many who are not as lucky. All the parents who lack childcare and aren't allowed/able to work from home. The lost jobs. The shuttered small businesses. The rich will sail through this while the poor will get poorer. The health implications of a pandemic are bad enough and then the economic devastation will be unbelievable. I hope we can all come together and get through it in one piece.

While the local kids are home and parents are collectively gearing up to entertain youngsters who are too used to a busy week of school, extra-curricular classes, play-dates and outings, here's one more factor that's not working in our favor: the weather forecast for the next 10 days. There's rain followed by more rain.

I'm trying to be creative and come up with fresh ideas for the kids. Not being a particularly fun and playful person by nature (!), this is going to need some work and an attitude shift from my end. We can't treat this as an extended weekend. There needs to be some structure and routine and purpose to our days.

No matter what else we do, one priority is to find ways for myself and the kids to be physically active, rain or no rain. This morning I suggested that we learn how to do yoga surya namaskars or sun salutations. I have wanted to learn this for a while. We found a video online and followed along in our living room. My toddler would have none of it but my daughter loved it. It felt good! We'll try to do these every morning as a wake-up exercise.

In the afternoon, I looked out at the grimy-from-winter screened porch and asked the kids if they would like to clean the porch so they can eat lunch out there even on rainy days. They shocked me by enthusiastically working together to sweep the floor and wipe down everything and then calling us out for a "grand reopening". Amid the sibling squabbles and bored whining, I LIVE for moments like these! Clearly, I have to find more projects for them to do together.

* * * 

Here's a recipe that's often featured in my home when the forecast looks like this- a basic vegetable soup. I call it a sipping soup because I love making a thinner version and sipping it straight from a mug- it is very therapeutic for scratchy throats. I find usual broccoli cheese soup recipes to be too heavy with all that cheddar and heavy cream. This is my fairly minimalist recipe; it uses a little bit of cream cheese to add thickness and no other milk, cream or cheese.

Broccoli Sipping Soup

1. In an electric cooker insert (instant pot or such; although it could also be done in a regular pot on the stove), combine roughly chopped florets and stems from 2 heads of broccoli, and 1 roughly chopped medium carrot.

2. Add 4 cups water, 1 tbsp. nutritional yeast and seasoning. The seasoning can be salt, pepper and herbs of choice. Or your favorite seasoning blend. Or what I most often use is 1 tbsp. of better than bouillon seasoning- the roasted garlic flavor this time.

3. Pressure cook on HIGH for 3 minutes. Quick release pressure.

4. Add 2-3 tbsp. cream cheese (I buy the bar kind) to the cooked mixture. Then blend everything until smooth.

5. Add juice of 1/2 lemon; taste and adjust the seasoning.

Here's a note specially for these stocking-up times. While I buy fresh vegetables regularly and they are what I use most, I also keep a reliable stock of frozen vegetables on hand.

This (on the right) is a frozen veg blend that comes in very handy to make this sipping soup, a standard supermarket "California medley" of broc, cauli and carrots. A bag of these veggies cooked in the same way makes a hearty pot of soup.

Hope everyone stays safe and healthy out there. Tell me what's happening in your corner of the world. (I really do miss this blog when weeks go by and I don't/can't post. I keep trying to get into the groove of posting more regularly...) 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Neapolitan ice cream cake, and unexpected snow

I am a heavy user of the local weather app. Out of sheer necessity. In January and February in these parts, you never know if it will be 40F or 70F on any given day, and you need some predictive guidance on what to wear.

Last weekend, though, I wasn't paying attention to the weather app on a lazy Saturday morning and something magical happened. We looked out of the window and saw fat snowflakes drifting down. Oh, we have ice storms every now and then, but the last time I remember actual white fluffy snow falling in our town was over 6 years ago. The kids whooped with delight. Our toddler was seeing snow for the first time and could not believe his eyes. The magical winter wonderland lasted for a few hours, then the snow melted as rapidly as it fell.

* * *
Ice cream might be more of a summer treat than something one craves in winter, but we were celebrating at work in January and my coworkers dropped not-too-subtle hints for ice cream cake. I was only too happy to oblige because with ice cream cake, you can produce crowd-pleasing results with the very minimum of work and sit back and accept compliments. It can be assembled ahead of time, which helps for mid-week things.

I made a simple Neapolitan ice cream cake for the work lunch with three flavors of ice cream and some crushed cookies in between the layers for added crunch and texture.

  1. Buy 3 pints of ice cream- I chose the three classic flavors of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, but any compatible flavors will do. Non-dairy frozen desserts will work just as well as conventional dairy ice cream.
  2. Set out the ice cream on the counter to soften.
  3. Crush a few oreo cookies in a bowl. I used gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies (one of my coworkers is gluten-intolerant) and the advantage of using gluten-free cookies is they are very crumbly. Bad for eating out of hand but good for crushing into crumbs with your bare hands. 
  4. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. Let it overhang.
  5. As the vanilla ice cream softens, tip it into a bowl, mash it into a soft serve and layer in the pan. Top with a layer of cookie crumbs. Set in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
  6. Repeat the ice cream and cookie crumb layering with the other two flavors. 
  7. Freeze until needed, then turn out into a platter and slice. 
  8. Serves 10 or so.
Another favorite ice cream cake recipe is here, Indian cassata ice cream.

* * * 

My bundt pan, purchased straight from the Nordicware factory in Minneapolis, is one of my prized kitchen possessions but I rarely need cakes that serve 16 people so it isn't often pressed into use.

Our daughter's school hosted an art show- every student chose one piece of work to display. Desserts were passed around at the show. I took the opportunity to use the pan and contributed a lemon bliss bundt cake. The recipe from King Arthur flour is a keeper and one I've made many times before. It yielded a beautiful big cake that my daughter lovingly glazed with lemon-sugar. Because of the sturdy and tight crumb, I was able to cut about 26 neat and skinny slices from this chonker of a cake.

* * *

One rainy evening, some of our son's friends and their parents came over for an impromptu play date. We picked up some pies from our favorite pizzeria to feed the crowd. There was lots of pizza left over and that is how I discovered so late in life that store-bought pizza freezes beautifully. The following week, I was able to thaw it out and reheat it in the oven to crispy perfection, and then eat it in a favorite way, as pizza croutons in a big arugula salad.

* * *

In early January our Duncan got post-surgery X-rays and got the all-clear from his surgeon to break free from his living room confinement and resume some of his old life again, going on walks and such. The mad running in the dog park is still contraindicated and he'll likely never get to do that kind of thing again, sadly. He has clear signs of arthritis and we are managing it with medications and TLC.

These pictures were taken on an unusually warm and sunny day when he flopped down in the front yard after a walk and just wanted to sit there amid a big pillow of fallen leaves and soak up the sun rays.

Tell me how February is turning out for you!

Friday, January 03, 2020

Winter break in Dallas, and 2019 in Books

Happy 2020, friends!
May it be a good one!

Black eyed peas and greens curry
for a lucky New Years' Day lunch
Christmas idlis!

We spent our winter break with my sister in Dallas. Our flight landed on the afternoon of December 25 to balmy temperatures in the 70s- that's Christmas in Texas! (Temperatures did drop later in the week.) 

My sister thoroughly spoiled us with loads of presents, drove us all over town for outings and treated us to great food. When I jotted down all the things we did over 5 and a half days, I'm amazed by how much she managed to pack into this trip. 

Winter break with 3 active kids ages 8, 7 and 3 meant hitting a lot of kid-friendly places in town- along with local trails and playgrounds and a visit to the town library, we visited the Dallas arboretum, crayola experience theme park, an arcade game room and a trampoline park. The kids' absolute favorite was the Epic Waters indoor water park; our kids are all water loving creatures who are most at home in their bathing suits. 

At home, the kids watched TV (Scooby Doo, other cartoons, British Baking show) and the older two played some video games, we played Uno and discovered a board game that my doodle-loving daughter loved, called Rapidoodle, and made gingerbread houses.

The trip was a food festival from start to finish. We ate out at Avila's for Tex-Mex and I enjoyed my enchiladas mexicanas, three cheese enchiladas in red sauce, with two sides- roasted veggies and a bright lettuce salad. Dallas has incredible Indian food; the authentic South Indian Sunday breakfast buffet at Adyar Ananda Bhavan was a treat. Another favorite meal was the Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet with loads of salads, crispy falafel and a dozen dips and sauces. 

My sister is a great cook and also made us meal after meal of dishes like chana masala and aamras (bottled from the mango tree in our parents' backyard in Southern Maharashtra), Christmas idlis (all-naturally dyed with beet and spinach pastes), paneer bhurji, sabudana khichdi, and potato theplas. We had chaat- sev puri and pani puri- for 2 dinners in a row. Such is vacation eating! 

Now it is back to normal life and back to reality.

* * * Book Report * * * 

Goodreads compiled these 2019 reading stats for me
I've completed Book Riot's Read Harder challenge for about three years now, and again in 2019, it rewarded me with some amazing reads, books that I might not have picked up if it were not for the challenge. 

Here are the 24 books I ended up reading for Read Harder 2019, listed by genre. The task is given in parentheses. 

Non-fiction- The first three in this list are must-reads and the others were really good too. 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (journalism)- A work of  investigative journalism about the dystopian economy we live in. Many older Americans find themselves unable to find jobs, and with menial jobs find themselves having to make hard choices, such as between housing and healthcare. 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (nonviolent true crime)- the story of Theranos, the blood diagnostics tech start-up that perpetuated corporate fraud.

Couldn't Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (prison)- this was an amazing read- women inmates write short memoirs of their early lives. Writing as therapy. 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (book by women/AOC that won a literary award in 2018)- a raw and thought-provoking memoir.

The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More - More or Less (fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads)-  philosophical but highly readable meditation on frugality and simple living.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise (business)- this was a fun read about the movie and franchising business. Lots of great tidbits for Star Wars fans, of which I am moderately one. 

Children's/ YA- the first two are well worth reading.

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (diversity children's book)- a true picture book biography- touching and inspiring. 

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (animal POV character)- a wholesome story with sci fi features.

Hidden Figures (by AOC set in space)- the story of black women mathematicians helping to win the space race. Great story but not told in the most interesting way. 

George (trans author)- it was a good book, if a little boring.

Novels- The first 6 in this list were the ones I enjoyed the most.

Rubbernecker (neurodiverse)- this was a murder mystery that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Definitely one of the books I doubt I would have picked up but for this challenge. Highly recommended for mystery lovers. 

The Martian (self-published)- smart, science-forward, realistic sci-fi book. 

Convenience Store Woman (translated book- women author/translator)- a quirky and enjoyable novella about a women who does not fit into societal norms. 

The Nature of the Beast (cozy mystery)- a satisfying read, cozy but quite intense.

Daddy-Long-Legs (novel written in letters)- a gentle, heart-warming novel. 

The Wild Book (OwnVoices Mexico) - a middle grade fantasy novel. The concept of this book is irresistible for book lovers.

The Twentieth Wife (AOC historical romance)- It is beautifully written but the relentless zenana drama was not fun.

The Man in the High Castle (alternate history)- great concept but the plot line was confusing. 

Graphic works- All the ones on this list are great reads.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York (humor)- I am officially a Roz Chast fangirl.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (LGBTQIA comic) - an honest memoir of the author's relationship with her distant father. 

Myth Atlas: Maps and Monsters, Heroes and Gods from Twelve Mythological Worlds (mythology)- this coffee table style book is entertaining, informative and quite simply eye candy. 

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story (manga)- a good refresher on tidying! Something that I am constantly doing, it seems. 

The Dharma Punks (OwnVoices Oceania)- a graphic novel about a single night in the life of a young rebel.


American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (poetry)- poetry isn't my thing but this slim volume had some poems that gave me all the feels.

The 2020 Read Harder Challenge has several interesting prompts and I'm excited to work my way through it. (Your recommendations for any of the tasks are most welcome, and if you're doing the challenge then I'd be happy to share my recommendations for some of the tasks.)

Of course, I read books other than the ones for this challenge. A couple of months ago, someone I know gave birth to a sweet little baby boy, and this child was born with hemophilia. The news reminded me of my undergrad genetics classes and what we learned about hemophilia, the royal disease, as it was historically referred to. This led to me checking out Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra's son Alexis had hemophilia and it indirectly led to some of the biggest turning points in Russian history. This history book is a doorstopper at 640 pages but I just blew right through it. It was my favorite book of 2019 in terms of how interesting and informative it was. Massie was a historian (an American specializing in Russian history) and a master storyteller- he died earlier this month. 


Many kids are content to sit and play quietly by themselves. My two, on the other hand, are the type that need constant engagement and/or company and/or attention and rarely play by themselves. Happily, this year the 8 year old has taken off as a reader. For the first time in her life, there are blocks of time when she is not to be seen or heard, happy to be on her own reading. I hope this is the start of a lifelong infection with the reading bug. Her recent favorites have been a number of chapter book series including Ramona Quimby, Ivy + Bean, Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, Zoey and Sassafras, A to Z mysteries, Amelia Bedelia, and so on. Her other passion is for reading non-fiction books that are collections of animal facts and "500 amazing things" and such. 

For Christmas, one of her aunts sent her a few of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books! We're reading Five on a Treasure Island together now. It makes me nostalgic- let's see how reading this book now will compare to my memories of reading it decades ago. 

Meanwhile, the 3 year old can't read yet but is becoming equally fond of books. It is practically the only time you can get him to sit still for a minute. His current favorites to read over and over again are books about Pete the Cat, Maisy, and Mo Willems' Pigeon series. 

What are you reading these days?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Holiday Crafts and Goodies

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! It is winter break over here and the "making" is in full swing. Here is a quick round up of all the baking and crafting going on over at casa One Hot Stove.

The elementary school hosts a holiday market each year in early December, putting tables in the hallways and letting kids, teachers and parents sell homemade stuff to each other. My 8 year old was very enthusiastic about earning a few bucks for her piggy bank and worked for weeks getting her inventory ready. She had 4 items this year.

Being in prime chapter-book reading age, bookmarks are a much used item. We made two types, one with paper and the other with yarn.

Paper bookmarks with holiday lights,
made with acrylic paint and fingerprints.
She learned to make pom poms recently, with scrap yarn and a pom pom maker- those little plastic doodads make it easy and fun to make uniform sized pom poms.

Pom poms tied to a large paper clip
make for cute and colorful bookmarks.
 Over Thanksgiving, we took a beach trip to Amelia Island, Florida. The beach was full of the most beautiful shells. Most interestingly, we discovered that many of the shells had perfect holes in them. A web search revealed that some creatures such as moon snails drill holes in clams to eat them, leaving behind shells with perfect little holes. We threaded yarn through these nature-made holes to make shell necklaces.

Finally, this was our bestseller from last year and was very popular this year too: Melting snowman cookies

Store bought large cookies, with frosting dabbed on. Marshmallows
with candy googly eyes, pretzel sticks for arms, m&ms for buttons.
V celebrated his birthday- every year, I like to make him a special cake. Well, this year, time got away and I hastily made a batch of birthday brownies instead, with sprinkles.

My holiday baking this year:

Pear and banana mini loaves

A new recipe I tried this year was cardamom shortbread. Shortbread are my favorite type of cookies, and cardamom arguably my favorite spice. The recipe is originally from the amazing Alice Medrich that I found via Smitten Kitchen. The only fiddly part is cutting the shortbread after the first bake, when it is quite crumbly. I added cardamom to the batter. Easily the best shortbread I've ever eaten.

This one is a keeper.

A holiday recipe I make every year, almond biscotti
or more accurately, mandelbrot.

 Here is a recipe that needs no cooking or baking. You let a food processor do all the work. 
Just nuts and dried fruits blitzed together and rolled in sparkling sugar.

Another holiday recipe that is made on repeat- my version of sugarplums.

A holiday tray for friends

Another small holiday sampler tray

Other little handmade gifts:

I wrapped some co-worker gifts in fabric instead of paper,
inspired by the Japanese art of furoshiki.

A tiny knitting basket ornament (a couple of inches high)
for my son's teacher who is a new knitter. 
I paired the knitting basket ornament with a gift card to a yarn store.

Matching owl hats for my kids and my nephew.
The pattern is Who?

Happy 2020! I'll see you in the new year! Tell me what you're making for the holiday season. Any favorite gifts?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

How Not To Die, and other food for thought

I recently read a book called How Not To Die by Michael Greger. Right off the bat, I thought the title was irksome- after all, which one of us is going to survive this crazy train called life? While there are people who dream of prolonging human life and go to extreme lengths to hack longevity, but I have no desire to live into my 90s and 100s. But I know this provocative book title is more along the lines of how not to die of diseases that you could prevent.

The book starts by saying that diet and lifestyle have been known for years to reverse heart disease. Why are doctors still prescribing drugs and surgery? Because there are other forces at work in medicine besides science. The US health system runs on a fee for service model where doctors get paid for pills and procedures prescribed. There is little profit motive for promoting whole foods.

The first part of How Not To Die examines the risk factors associated with a bunch of diseases that are some of the leading causes of death today, including heart disease, several cancers, Type 2 diabetes and infections. I was not a fan of these chapters because the author appears to cherry-pick studies (including some clearly poor quality studies, such as ones with tiny sample sizes) that fit what he believes, rather than looking at the overall body of evidence.

The second part of the book promotes a whole foods, plant-based diet as being the healthiest one. Greger uses a traffic light system:
Unprocessed plant foods get the green light;
Processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods get the yellow light;
ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods are red light foods.

Unprocessed in this case means nothing bad added and nothing good taken away. Greger's suggested diet is free from all meat and dairy and eggs, and also from all added oils and fats.

He has a list of the daily dozen- 12 foods that should be consumed daily in appropriate serving sizes-
1. Beans and legumes
2. Berries
3. Other fruits
4. Greens
5. Cruciferous vegetables
6. Other vegetables
7. Flaxseeds
8. Nuts and seeds
9. Herbs and spices
10. Whole grains
11. Beverages- water, tea, coffee
12. Exercise

The minute I read through Greger's daily dozen foods, a mental picture popped up- a typical Maharashtrian taat or platter. A sample taat would have on it neatly arranged bowls of dal or amti made with lentils, sprouted beans usal, cooked greens, other stir-fried vegetables, a raw salad or koshimbir, a chutney with some combination of nuts, herbs, seeds and spices, chapatis made with whole wheat flour or bhakris made with jowar. A single meal would tick off most of these boxes.

 In fact most vegetarian meals in several Indian regional cuisines would look pretty similar to this. Even among the non-vegetarians, meat and fish is usually an occasional food eaten once or twice a week, and eaten in modest portions.

All in all, I'm on board with Greger's list of foods to eat on a daily basis for optimal health. We all would do so much better if we focused on eating more of these foods. I don't agree that this is the only diet that can be healthy. I particularly object to Greger's implication that a whole foods plant based diet is a panacea and can prevent all disease- that's just terribly misleading.

I've always wondered why India has such a massive Type 2 diabetes problem when most people eat simple, plant-based foods. One factor, of course, is genetics. It is said that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. There are so many great things about the everyday Indian diet (see above) but there are some things that are not so good- white rice is eaten on a daily basis. Many people consume several cups of tea a day, each with spoonfuls of sugar. Oil is used plentifully in Indian cooking. Worse, dalda or hydrogenated vegetable oil is often used. Fried snacks and sweets are very popular. As is the case everywhere, affluent people have access to plentiful food and often simply eat too much. There are probably many other note-worthy risk factors not related to diet, such as stress caused by crowded city-dwelling and polluted air, and the lack of a cultural emphasis on exercise.

Even during the two decades when I was living in India, I saw some cultural shifts- the increased popularity and availability of foods such as bread made with refined flour, cookies, pastries, puffs and instant noodles. The eating-out culture took off in a big way. Weddings moved from traditional sit-down lunches (pangat) to lavish buffets.

(Greger, incidentally, talks about how great traditional Indian diets are and explains away the high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by blaming it on ghee used in Indian cooking!)

All in all, this is a good book to read and think about. 2019 was a very positive year for me in terms of diet and exercise. I have slowly changed many of my eating and cooking habits, and learned more about strategies to keep myself and my family nourished and satisfied. This book made me think of a couple more changes I want to make- to buy and cook more greens, to use less oil in my cooking (it is so easy to go overboard) and to find ways to cut down even more on the fried snacks that are my kryptonite.

To give a real-life example, when I was making steel-cut oats kheer, I wanted to toast the oats in ghee to make the kheer even more flavorful. On second thought, I didn't. I skipped that added fat and the kheer was wonderful anyway. The point is not that all fats are bad, or that I am personally going to cut out all added oils and fats, but that it is incredibly easy to add fats and oils into dishes that don't need them.

A good quote from How Not To Die:
 “Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and returning your brain’s dopamine sensitivity to its healthy, normal levels can help you live life to the fullest and allow you to experience greater joy, satisfaction, and pleasure from all the things you do- not just what you eat.”
The premise of How Not To Die is that most diseases that people die from are preventable and that we as individuals have the power to choose an optimal diet that will keep us healthy. Funny enough, right after reading this book, I read another book called Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health by Sandro Galea, and this book has a very different perspective.

Galea says that much of our conversation about health has to do with lifestyle and making choices for better health. And that this is wrong. The range of choices depends on context, factors beyond our immediate control or even awareness. There are inherent limits to personal choice. Our health is shaped by things that are much larger than any individual- things like policies, and the places that we end up living in, and sheer luck.

Where does the truth lie? Somewhere in the middle, I believe. There are many things we can't control and many that we can. There are those (me included) who, through a large dose of luck, have education and privilege and a comfortable paycheck, which gives us a pretty wide range of choices. People like us can and should exercise (no pun intended) good lifestyle choices.

Here's to a healthy 2020 for us all! 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Steel Cut Oats: A Revival

For about 5 days in November, I was trapped in a dome in Washington DC- a 19 story, glassed-in dome, resplendent in holiday decorations and glitzy as all get out. It was a convention center and I was there with some colleagues for a conference. 

For all that opulence, the food choices in this place were pretty dismal. Between talks and sessions, when we had the time (and decent weather- this was DC in November, after all) to step outside this place, there were some good meals to be had nearby. Thai restaurants are usually good bets and we found one that had warming curries and bright, crunchy fresh spring rolls. Another evening I got to try a Beyond Burger for the first time. I'm not sure if I liked it or not. One evening I gave up the hunt for local restaurants and slipped into a Chipotle franchise, got myself a big bowl of lettuce, roasted veggies and black beans with lashings of hot salsa and ate it up sitting on my fluffy hotel bed, watching reruns of Forensic Files

Over in the convention center, the hunt for breakfast was proving difficult. The breakfast sandwiches either had meat or the wrong type of cheese (I'm weird about cheese) and the sugary breakfast pastries had no appeal. There in the warming cabinet were little cardboard cups of plain cooked steel cut oats. It seemed like the best option. To the bland oatmeal I added a few pinches of salt, and a spoonful of grape jelly from one of those single serving packs. That little cup was so warming and delicious. The nutty and nubby texture of the oatmeal was quite simply delightful. How had I forgotten about this wholesome and humble ingredient for years? I enjoyed that oatmeal breakfast four days in a row and it kept me full and happy until lunchtime. 

Back home I bought a canister of steel cut oats as soon as I could get to the grocery store. Steel cut oats are the least processed form of oats- they can take a lot of time to cook on the stove, which is why I haven't bothered much with them in all these years- but the electric pressure cooker makes them a hands-off, easy-cook option. 

For weekday breakfasts, I have been making plain steel cut oats and then adding some toppings right before I eat it. 

Basic steel cut oats

(About 4 servings)

1 cup steel-cut oats
3 cups water
1/4  tsp. salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release.

Scoop cooked oats into a bowl. Add a handful of berries (I use frozen ones) and a tablespoon of peanut butter or other nut butter. Stir and enjoy. 

This weekend, we had new neighbors over for brunch and decided to dress the oats with cardamom and nuts for a kheer-like porridge. 

Oats Kheer

1 cup steel cut oats
6-8 pitted dates, chopped
3 cups water
1/4 tsp. of salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release.
Stir in 1 cup (or more) of almond milk and a tsp. of ground cardamom.

(Any kind of milk will do. I imagine thin coconut milk would make this taste like a payasam.)

To serve, top the oats kheer with chopped dried fruits and nuts. I used pistachios, walnuts, cranberries and golden raisins. The dates and dry fruits make the kheer gently sweet. I did not feel the need to add sugar. 

Leftover oats kheer
for breakfast today
THE TOP THREE SECRET TRICKS- OK, not so secret and not really tricks but I find that I enjoy steel cut oats immensely if they are not cold, thick and gummy but are instead (a) soupy, which means they might need additional liquid (milk or water) after cooking because oats absorb a lot of water. (b) Oats are best warm, and a stint in the microwave gets this done quickly. Steel cut oats reheat beautifully so they can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge. (c) A little bit of salt goes a long way in making oatmeal tasty, even in a sweet context as with the kheer.

Some of my new-found enthusiasm for steel cut oats is certainly tied to a book I read recently called How Not To Die by Dr. Michael Greger. (Weird title, I know.) More on that book next week.

* * * On The Screen * * * 

This weekend V and I did something that we rarely get to do these days- we got a babysitter and went to the movies. The movie was Knives Out, a very entertaining ensemble murder mystery with a twist. Not the sort of movie that you necessarily need to watch on a big screen or anything, but it was a fun night out. Maybe it will come out on one of the streaming services once it is done in the theaters.

NOVA on PBS has some interesting documentaries. The best one I've seen recently is called Look Who's Driving, about recent advances in self-driving cars. This was informative and very scary in parts- such as when they showed people who own semi-autonomous cars but act as though they are fully autonomous ones, taking actual naps at the wheel of a car that is not yet self-driving. Cars are getting pretty smart but what can be done about humans?

Speaking of technology and scary stuff, I happened to see a video of a "robot dog" made by the company Boston Dynamics- and it was unbelievable to see the smoothness, speed and agility of this mechanical animal. That same day, I saw Metalhead (series 4, episode 5 of the Black Mirror series) and it was literally terrifying. I really love this series but have to be in a certain mood to watch it. 

Right now, V and I are enjoying Jeopardy episodes on Netflix and sporadically watching Grantchester on Amazon Prime. 

* * *Doggie Drama* * *

Draped in his favorite security blanket
Duncan is now 2 months past his surgery and is recovering well. He seems to be his old self again and is able to use his leg without limping. The main problem right now is that he is bored right out of his skull. Overall, he is being such a good boy but every now and often there is some moaning and whining as he begs us to let him run free. But we are being pretty strict with the confinement and doctor's orders are being taken seriously. 

The vet surgeon will X-ray his leg in early Jan and if she is happy with how it looks, he will get to resume his normal life. Fingers tightly crossed!! 

Tell me what you're doing as we count down to 2020- 22 days to go.