Monday, March 20, 2017

The Dinner Talk Game

Today, I'm sharing a simple conversation game that has made mealtimes much more enjoyable for our family.

Weekday evenings around 5:30 PM is dinnertime in the One Hot Stove household- and it is peak chaos. We enjoy gathering together in the kitchen but it is a race against time as V and I tag-team to get everyone fed, bathed and tucked safely into bed. Amid the many distractions, we try to keep a dinnertime conversation going with Lila.  But everyone tends to be worn out by this time and a tired question like, "How was school?" gets equally tired answers like "Fine" or "OK" or just a wordless shrug.

Somewhere along the way, we started playing the Mad-Sad-Glad game- I forget where I came across this idea. You go around the table, and each person shares something that made them mad that day, something that made them sad and something that made them glad. It is a simple yet powerful prompt to think about the happenings of the day and share some of the ups and downs, and gives an opening to talk about things that may be worrying or upsetting you (the sad and mad bits) and find something to be excited, happy or grateful about (the glad bit).

With the success of Mad-Sad-Glad, I spent some time collecting other conversation prompts from various websites and typed up about 50 questions and printed them out- a handful of strips of paper that became our "dinner talk game". At dinner, we take turns picking questions and go around the table answering them. The questions are light-hearted, with the intention of learning more about each other's preferences, dreams, wishes and personality. I chose them to be engaging to preschoolers, but fun for any age. We have many hilarious and warm conversations based off these random questions.

For instance, for the question, "What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited", Lila surprised me by saying it was her best friend's room. Why? "Because she has so many pink toys."

For the question, "What would you rename yourself", the answer was "Unicorna" LOL LOL LOL

Some of the questions are pretty deep- like "What is the hardest thing about being ___ years old" as in, what is the hardest thing about being your age? Because there is something wonderful and something challenging about being every age, from 1 to 101.

In this end, this simple game is all about prompting each person to be curious about themselves- their likes and dislikes- and to interested in others.

For the question, "If you were the mom/dad, what rules would you make?", Lila said that she would have more family traditions, such as a family movie night. Good idea- we implemented that one right away. Since December, Friday nights are movie nights at our house, a special night when you get to eat dinner in the living room. On weekend mornings, we let Lila watch some TV, and those are the times when we are using it as an electronic babysitter to keep her occupied while we relax and do something else. Movie night is different because we actually sit down, put away the phones and laptops and watch the movie with her, and laugh together and talk about what is happening. So far, we have enjoyed many movies, including recent animated like Home and Zootopia, classics like ET and random children's movies I find on Netflix, like Paddington. Last Friday, a couple of friends joined our movie night for the ridiculous Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

If you would like to play the Dinner Talk Game with your own family, e-mail me (onehotstove AT gmail DOT com) and I will send you a copy of the questions within a day or two.

Simply print out the 2 pages of questions. Card stock would be sturdier but any paper will do. Then cut the sheets down the middle, then across so each question is on a separate strip of paper. Place the question strips in a bowl or jar on the dinner table. Take turns drawing questions and go around the table answering them.

What does dinner time look like in your family?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Dinner that Practically Cooks Itself

February may be the shortest month of the year, but for me it seemed to last forever and a day. The days were full of wide-ranging everyday dramas pulling me in different directions- respiratory viruses, ear infections, V traveling for work, my colleagues visiting from Africa, the start of our basement remodel, our biennial quilt show- and finally here I am in March, feeling a bit winded.

And let's not forget that Feb was the much-touted sugar free month. Well, my sugar free status lasted all of 24 days. On February 25, with my willpower at an all time low thanks to a nasty virus, what did me in was a box of Girl Scout cookies! There are a couple of adorable Girl Scouts in my life and hence the abundance of cookies this time of year. I bought several boxes of trefoils (shortbreads), the only kind of Girl Scout cookies that I like. I am not a fan of the thin mints that everyone seems to love. The trefoils are so good dunked in chai.

My sugar free month may not have been perfect but it was perfectly worthwhile. I am no longer reaching for sweet treats and desserts without thinking- just a moment's pause is enough to decide whether I really want to be eating something or not. And my taste buds are positively more sensitive to sweetness. So it was a good exercise and I am glad I did it- and many thanks to all of you who played along! Tell me how it went for you.

Almost every day of this past week, this is the scene in my kitchen. I start making dinner (precariously close to dinner time) by turning on the oven to 400F (convection roast) and pulling out a sheet pan. While the oven is preheating, I make a trip to the crisper to pull out any vegetables that are on hand, which I chop quickly and toss with olive oil and some seasoning. Then they go into the oven until tender and a little charred at the edges. It takes all of 15 minutes in my oven.

The roasted vegetables can be part of all kinds of quick dinners- they can be the subzi served with khichdi, or tossed with canned beans to make a taco filling or stuffed into grilled cheese or tossed with cooked noodles and some sauce- say, Thai-style peanut sauce or pesto.

Here are short "recipes" for my two favorite sheet pan suppers of last week.

1. Roasted cabbage and broccoli, seasoned with a little cumin and garlic. While the veggies were roasting, I made a quick khichdi in the pressure cooker- 1.5 cups masoor dal (soaked for a few hours), scant quarter cup rice, cumin seeds, a sprig of curry leaves, salt, a little pulao masala, water. For almost no effort at all, we had a piping hot supper that was perfect with a drizzle of ghee and a dollop of pickle.

2. Mexican style hash: Roasted cauliflower, green bell pepper, onion- seasoned with garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano. I tossed the roasted veggies with a cup of leftover cooked rice and a can of black beans, then stuck it back in the hot oven for a few minutes to warm the rice and beans. With some shredded cheese and bottled salsa, this supper hit the spot.

Sheet pan dinners are actually really trendy right now- and possibly the first time in my life that I am doing something trendy, purely by accident! But truly, when your goal is to eat a large amount of tasty and well-seasoned vegetables, cooked as quickly and easily as possible, then the sheet pan is your friend.

What have you been cooking this week? 

Monday, February 06, 2017

Velvety Cauliflower Soup

Cough and cold viruses seem to have taken over our community for the last week or so; everyone in our family has had their share of runny noses and mild fevers and disrupted routines. I've been making pretty simple everyday meals to keep us going, and soup is often on the menu- this cauliflower soup has been a particular favorite lately.

Many years ago, I posted this spicy cauliflower soup recipe from Alice Waters. These days, I am making and loving this version that is much more plain and not spicy; when blended smoothly, I swear it tastes like liquid velvet!

1. Heat oil or butter in a large pot.
2. Saute a diced onion and plenty of garlic.
3. Add 3 tablespoons or so nutritional yeast (or a couple tablespoons all-purpose flour, or some combination of flour and nutritional yeast).
4. Add in a head of cauliflower, roughly chopped.
5. Season with salt and pepper and stir around for a couple of minutes.
6. Add a couple of cups of water or vegetable stock, cover the pot and simmer until the cauliflower is tender.
7. Blend the soup to a velvety smooth texture, adding some milk/ cream/ grated cheese/ cream cheese if desired. I add some of these ingredients variously depending on what I have on hand and depending on what I am serving with the soup.

Last week I made a thicker version of this soup and served it as an alfredo sauce with pasta shells- it was a hit!

Just this evening I made a similar soup with broccoli, with a little carrot sauteed along with the onions, and with some cream cheese blended in- the result is just like the broccoli cheese soup so beloved in restaurants.

Sugar-Free February continues to go well. Over the weekend, I took Lila to a little neighbor's donut themed birthday party- there were boxes and boxes of frosted donuts of every kind- but I managed to keep on walking right past the table, and enjoyed some black coffee and fresh fruit instead.

At work, there seems to be a plate of muffins or brownies or leftover donuts from some meeting in the kitchen area every other day or so, and instead of automatically reaching for a stale muffin just because it is there (and regretting it 5 minutes later), it is actually a relief to walk away.

How is your week coming along? What's the best thing you cooked or ate this week? 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Sugar Free February is here! (And Jam Jar Dressings)

To everyone who is participating in Sugar-Free February- the big day (?!) is finally here. How did Day 1 go for you?

Around here, it was a pretty routine weekday. I'm fairly used to my twice-a-day sugar-free chai by now. It is not particularly enjoyable but it is a hot beverage and it has caffeine, so at least it checks off two important boxes. Instead of (lightly) sweetening my almond butter oatmeal the usual way with maple syrup or jaggery, today I sliced half a banana into it and that tweak worked just fine. Eating lunch at my desk, I doused my roasted vegetable bowl with hot sauce, then did a double take and quickly checked the ingredients on the bottle- and whew, no sugar there ;)

If you are looking for inspiration, might I suggest reading this Washington Post article- Ellie Krieger writes about why it can be hard to cut back on sugar and suggests practical ways to do it. I particularly like the couple of paragraphs that talk about the addictive nature of sugar. She has good tips about giving yourself a small sugar allowance per day and spending it wisely. But I must say that I don't much agree with her assertion that most of us should be eating more fruits and dairy than we already are.

* * * 

One of my favorite habits that helps us eat better is my "house salad mix" that I have described in this post. I make a big box of it every few days and we enjoy it in several meals with different dressings.

I've never found a store bought dressing that I like (which may be just as well, since most seem to have added sugar...) but we usually make a quick jam jar dressing for the salad- where you add ingredients to a clean glass jar and get your favorite five year old to shake it up for you.

Our usual jam jar dressing is equal parts vinegar (either balsamic or apple cider), olive oil, a dab of dijon mustard, salt and pepper.

Meyer lemons are in season now- they are sweeter, less acidic and more fragrant than regular lemons. They make a fantastic salad dressing. Regular lemon juice will work  here as well.

To make garlic lemon dressing: Into a jam jar goes the juice of two meyer lemons, an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil (just eyeball it), some grated fresh garlic (use a microplane zester), salt and pepper to taste- then shake up the dressing until well emulsified.

More jam jar dressing inspiration here (check out the comments). See you in a couple of days! 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sugar-Free February: Planning and Prep

To everyone who is joining me for the Sugar-Free February challenge- welcome! We are 10 days away from February and this includes two weekends, which gives us all plenty of time to prepare. Diet is such a very personal thing, but I hope we can support each other in making whatever change, big or small, that we each choose to make.

Step 1: Prepare yourself mentally. Find a few minutes of quiet time and ask yourself-

What do I want to get out of this month-long challenge?

I want to reset my taste buds by cutting out added sugar for a month. I'm all about eating everything in moderation and not undertaking fad diets but the fact is that sugar is literally addictive, and sugar is literally everywhere, so I am trying this month of cutting back on it.

Step 2: Set the rules for yourself

These are mine:
  1. No foods with added sugar. This includes obvious foods like soda, cookies, candy, chocolate, cake, desserts, most baked goods and breakfast cereals. But it also includes other foods where sugar may be lurking- for instance, bread, pasta sauce and salad dressing. When reading ingredient lists, keep in mind that sugar is listed under many different names- for instance, there are 61 names for sugar listed in the right side-bar of this webpage.
  2. No artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners may have zero calories and zero carbs but their sweet taste leads to more cravings for sweet foods.
  3. Natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits and dairy are OK. 
Step 3: Prepare your kitchen

1. Get rid of the foods that you don't want to eat in February. Eat them up, give them away, throw them away, or wrap them in an opaque bag and hide them somewhere for the month.

2. Stock up on the foods that you do want to eat this month. Make a list of your go-to weeknight meals and stock up on the ingredients. Make a list of no-sugar-added snacks that you will want to eat. For your favorite pantry staples- which might be bread, pasta sauce, peanut butter or whatever- find good no-added-sugar brands.

Step 4: Start weaning yourself off sugar if you have to. I have a 2 cup a day chai habit, and I like it with milk and sugar. I have started to cut down on the amount of sugar I add- this week, I'm adding 1/4 tsp or nothing at all. This goes for any tea, coffee, soda or any other sugary drink that you might be in the habit of drinking.

Step 5: Think of some good distractions. Staying busy is a good way to ward off cravings. I have some big projects (home repairs, quilt show, a trip etc.) coming up in March and preparing for those will keep me busy, but I also plan to check out a few cozy books from the library.

Please use the comment section to share how you are preparing for sugar-free February! 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Week 2: Back to Square One

The end of a year and the beginning of another is typically a time for contemplation and new beginnings. Two years ago, I wrote a long and heartfelt post about gestational diabetes being a wake up call for me, and resolved to make some positive changes in my life in 2015. And indeed, 2015 was a year of hard work and many lifestyle changes. I put many new habits into place and gratifyingly, becoming lighter, fitter, stronger as the months went by.

And then, things changed again. By the end of 2015, I was pregnant with my second baby and the first trimester fatigue was overwhelming. I had to take life one day at a time. My history of gestational diabetes flagged me for an early screening test, the one-hour glucose tolerance test. I failed the test by a small margin, with my blood glucose measuring at 144 mg/dL when the cut-off is 140 mg/dL. This meant that I had to go in for the three hour 100 gram glucose tolerance test. My glucose measured perfectly within-range for the longer test, so my OBs and I collectively breathed a sigh of relief and they advised me to keep doing what I was doing in terms of being active and moderating my carb intake.

Around 25 weeks is when most pregnant women in the US are tested for gestational diabetes, and when this time rolled around for me, it was recommended that I go in for yet another three hour glucose tolerance test. And I did something that I rarely do in the face of medical advice- I refused to take the test. Why? Because (a) I am "borderline" on these tests, either narrowly passing them or narrowly failing them more or less depending on the day, (b) I find this test to be extremely unpleasant what with drinking 100 grams pure glucose on a fasting stomach and then sitting around the lab for 4 hours for 4 separate needle sticks, and (c) most importantly, if I failed the test, the next step would simply be that I would be testing myself 4 times a day with finger-sticks and a glucose meter and controlling my blood glucose with diet and exercise.

So I chose to skip the test, and go straight to the self-monitoring. I had my glucose meter from 5 years ago; I bought fresh test strips and new batteries, re-calibrated the meter and was good to go- testing 4 times a day (fasting + an hour after breakfast, lunch and dinner) and meticulously recording the numbers. Interestingly, two of my OBs thought my approach was perfectly reasonable. The third OB was not happy- her argument was that without the test, I don't have a diagnosis of being either positive or negative for gestational diabetes- having the diagnosis flags a woman for further tests. I saw her point and worked out a negotiation- I would continue self-monitoring and let them know if the numbers were trending high (but still skip the darn glucose tolerance test). And she would send me for a late-term ultrasound, which they recommend for GD+ women to make sure the baby wasn't getting too big (etc.)

I find glucose self-monitoring is the most amazing tool for me. You get instant feedback on how you are doing and how different types, amounts and combinations of foods affect your blood glucose. For instance, my numbers would always run high after eating Chinese take-out, even when I skipped the rice. They would run high when I ate take-out pizza, even if I ate only 2 small slices and a big salad on the side. The finger-pricks honestly are not painful, especially once you learn how to do them right, but I still find them unpleasant to do. There are a few non-invasive glucose monitors being developed- skin patches, earlobe clips- and I hope they are commercially available soon because I want to buy and use one of these. Regular glucose monitoring is the best way to prevent and self-manage diabetes.

Anyway, I managed to keep the glucose numbers within range during the pregnancy. After a few weeks of within-range numbers, one of the OBs said I could calm the heck down and test only 1 day or so per week. Even though last spring and summer was a hectic time for our family and there was no time for carefully calibrating diet and exercise, I believe that the reason it went better this time was because I was in better health at baseline and knew what works for my body. I will be eternally grateful that the baby was born uneventfully and with an average birthweight.

With a new baby, all kinds of routines and habits go down the tubes. We have been in maintenance mode. Now with a nearly 6 month old baby, I feel as though I am back to square one in some ways. And that is OK. I just have to work out a new normal in terms of eating and exercising. In life, the only constant is change and you just keep adapting and tweaking the routine to keep up.

So when this past weekend, a dear friend brought up the idea of doing a sugar-free month, I jumped up and said I would do it with her. She was inspired by this NYTimes article. The sugar-free month is intended to reset taste buds that have been over-indulging in sweets over the holiday season. It is a way to become more aware of how much sugar we consume on a day to day basis without even realizing it.

We're trying to get some of our friends and co-workers to join in on the "fun". The whole month of February will be our sugar-free month so we have a couple of weeks to prepare for it. When I say sugar-free, it is more of a "free of added sugars", meaning that sugars naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and dairy are fine. But really, each person doing the challenge gets to make their own rules about what foods they want to cut out and what habits they want to change.

Do you have any interest in joining our Sugar-Free February challenge? Let me know and I will post updates on the blog so we can all do it together. 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Week 1: Vacation Cooking and Board Games

Week 1 of 2017 saw us wrapping up the festivities of winter break and settling back into the work and school routine.

Christmas weekend kicked off with a visit by our friends Bala and Shankar and their two dogs. Bala and I met as fellow food bloggers in St. Louis (and fellow dog-lovers) and have been friends ever since.

Bala is an artist by profession and I've always been a fan of her intricate, graphic, henna-inspired designs. The life of an artist seems like it would be an idyllic one, painting the day away in a color-filled studio. Chatting with Bala, it was interesting to learn how busy and varied the work is- applying to get into the big art shows, driving to art shows almost every weekend, the sheer physical labor of setting up tents and displaying one's work, being on social media and connecting with patrons, all while painting and dreaming up new designs. It is fascinating to learn of a working life so different from one's own.
More of Bala's work:
Art by Bala and on Facebook

Board games were a major theme of this winter break. Bala and Shankar introduced us to one of their favorite games- Settlers of Catan. This is a wildly popular game and I was glad to finally get a chance to play it, but it is a strategy, role-playing type of game and not really my thing.

Right after their visit, we packed up the car and the kids and headed out to Tybee island on the Georgia coast for our first family vacation since Mr. Baby's arrival. Close friends of ours drove down all the way from Boston and Philly, and so we were 3 families- 6 adults and 5 kids-  getting together for several days of sandy fun.

On Tybee, we climbed the lighthouse at the North end of the island. The kids- ages 3, 4, 5, 8 surprised me by climbing up and down all 198 steps of the steep circular wrought iron staircase quite enthusiastically. We walked the beach, dared each other to run into the frigid Atlantic and collected shells.

We took a day trip into picture-perfect Savannah where the kids loved the artzeum and the iconic Leopold's ice cream- I tasted the eggnog and lemon custard flavors and they were indeed outstanding. The lemon custard flavor has been sold in this shop since 1919.

But the stand-out highlight of our vacation was the adorable cottage that we rented for the week. The cottage had a cabana in the backyard, a heated salt-water pool, and a big screen TV, so it really was a self-contained place to hang out and connect with friends.

A vacation with this gang is all about the food. Tybee island has seafood galore (which the rest of our group enjoyed) but no vegetarian food to be found for miles and miles, so in the interest of self-preservation, I carried along a car-load of groceries. Other than two restaurant meals and pizza take-out once, we cooked and ate our meals in the well-equipped kitchen at the cottage. 10 people eating 3 meals a day, for 5 and a half days. That certainly involved a bunch of food and a bunch of planning.

5 vacation cooking tips that worked on this trip:

1. Pack a cooler: Our first meal on arrival was a dinner, and everyone would be tired and hungry after driving long distances, so in the days before we left, I made egg curry (the base sans eggs) and dal fry and packed them in containers and froze them solid. I carried these frozen containers in the cooler (where they doubled as ice packs) along with blocks of cheese and paneer, butter and cream cheese. At the destination (5 hours drive away), all I had to do was re-heat the curries, make fresh rice and boil some eggs, and a hot dinner was good to go.

2. Buy some refrigerated stuff on arrival: Right after arriving on the island, we stopped for milk, plain yogurt, eggs, flavored yogurt cups for the kids.

3. Take all the breakfast things: People sleep in, wake up at different times, and can help themselves to their breakfast of choice. Accordingly I packed bread, pancake mix, cheerios, home-made granola, almond butter, jam, maple syrup, fruit, hot chocolate mix. And there were the aforementioned eggs, milk, yogurt cups, butter and cream cheese. We even took some pesto for V's favorite breakfast pesto-egg-cream cheese sandwiches. So that covered all the breakfast bases and then some! As a plus, many of these ingredients also doubled as snacks, and on the last day, we could all pack sandwiches and snacks for the road trip back home.

4. Plan for favorite meals: I really wanted to make pav bhaji one night, and on new year's eve, I wanted a "snacky" dinner of sev puri and paneer tikka, and I had to write up ingredient lists for these meals. For Mexican night, I took along stacks of tortillas, canned beans, peppers and onions, a jar of salsa and a packet of taco spice.

In addition, I took along a box of pasta and some dry rice and dal and we ended up using it all.

5. Make a spreadsheet. It was the only way to make lists and keep things straight. I'll save this spreadsheet for future vacations.

We ate very well, and in a relaxed way, and most importantly there was no food waste. Whatever did not get used up on vacation came home with us to be eaten here.

This vacation worked because everyone was loving and cooperative. A couple of us did most of the cooking, and one friend was great about doing dishes and kitchen clean-up promptly. Others kept the kids busy in the pool and at the playground. Everyone pitched in and everyone got some time to themselves to go for a beach run, enjoy some quiet reading time and so on.

My favorite part was the board games we played over the week. A couple of them were old favorites- Taboo and Pictionary. Two of the games were new to me and I can't wait to play again- Apples to Apples and Codenames.

While sitting around the campfire and toasting marshmallows, someone started playing a game called "I went to the market" and that was lots of fun too- although I was pretty terrible at playing it. It is a hidden-rule game very similar to this going on a picnic game and this camping trip game. I love discovering new games like these which can be played anytime, anywhere, to pass the time.

This year I want to play more board games and card games- how's that for a new year resolution that I might actually keep?

Lila is at the age where she is learning to play board games as well. Memory games (with matching pairs of cards) are great at this age. Lila's favorite is a fairy memory game where she has memorized the backs of the cards. Playing with her is like playing in Vegas- the house always wins.

Go Fish is the first game that she understood the rules for and is able to play properly. Chutes and Ladders (what I knew as Snakes and Ladders) and Candyland are top favorites right now. They are not the most exciting but they do work on turn-taking and counting skills. Perhaps the most important thing to learn at this age is that it is only a game and not to fall apart when one loses! She also has Sequence for Kids, SET junior and Very Silly Sentences and we'll soon learn how to play those.

Do you like cooking on vacation? Tell me about your favorite board games!