Saturday, December 13, 2014

Towards a Healthier 2015

In the blink of an eye, we're counting down to the end of 2014. At this time of year, I always find myself reflecting on the year that was. As with most years, Twenty Fourteen had highs and lows for our family. We had many wonderful and memorable moments with our loved ones. The lowest low was V's father passing away. Indeed, all the sad and bad moments this year had to do with serious illness and deteriorating health among some of our close friends and family. Health is wealth, the old cliche says, but how often we take it for granted.

And that's what this post is- a long and rambling contemplation on food and wellness and where my life is headed. There's no recipe in this post but there is some food for thought- for myself and perhaps for some of you reading it. I guess I've been writing this post in my head for over 3 years and this week, I finally decided to type it and hit the publish button.

In the summer of 2011 in St. Louis, I was about two thirds of the way through a fairly uneventful pregnancy. We were happy and excited to welcome our baby daughter. My OB ordered a routine glucose tolerance test- and I failed it. I had gestational diabetes. I was surprised and not surprised at the same time. Surprised because I had the hallmarks of being healthy and low-risk with a normal BMI. Not surprised because I have a woefully strong history of diabetes on one side of my family and I knew very well how the genetic dice was loaded.

Things happened rapidly after I was flagged as having gestational diabetes. The very next day I saw a diabetes counsellor who taught me to finger-prick and test my blood glucose 4 times a day- upon waking (the fasting number) and an hour after breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was torture enough for me- I hate hate hate needles. It was all too much- I burst into tears in the counsellor's office but she was as kind and reassuring as can be. I also met with a nutritionist who taught me the basics of carb counting. The strategy was this: make sure I restrict carbs to 200 grams a day (budgeted over meals and snacks), do some brisk walking for exercise, test blood glucose, record my numbers and make sure they stayed within the acceptable range. If I could manage to control my blood sugar with diet and exercise, fine. If not, they'd dose me with insulin.

My baby's health was at stake. There was nothing I would not do for her. I pulled my act together and I was meticulous. I did everything I was told- counted carbs and walked for 10 minutes after every single meal. Working full time and trying to get stuff done before I went on maternity leave, I set alarms and did finger pricks at my desk. The numbers were always within range. My OB remarked that if all her patients were so compliant, she would see many fewer complications.

I had nine(!) friends and acquaintances who were pregnant at the same time as me. Everyone else was indulging in their favorite foods, eating for two, giving in to cravings. My life looked quite different. But at the end of my pregnancy, at a time when most women are feeling distinctly heavy and encumbered, I was feeling lighter and fitter than I'd ever felt. This whole torture of finger pricks, carb counting and brisk walks in the St. Louis August heat- it was working. Lila's birth was uneventful- although she was a smaller-than-expected baby and my OB and I realized that in my zeal, I had probably been stricter with my diet than I should have been. Two weeks after giving birth, I was back at my pre-pregnancy weight.

Gestational diabetes is situational; it resolves when the baby is born. Or more precisely, when you deliver the placenta, which is what produces the hormones that lead to insulin resistance. But a graduate of gestational diabetes learns some important things about her body's ability (or the lack thereof) to process carbohydrates and sees a big red flag that there is type II diabetes in her future if she's not careful. So in getting that warning sign, I will say that gestational diabetes was the best bad thing that has happened to me.

You'd think this episode would have changed my life immediately and forever. It did not. Humans can be exceedingly resistant to change. There's always an excuse and usually a laundry list of excuses not to change our habits. There was a new baby to care for and the next year went by in a blur. There was no mental space or physical energy to make any lifestyle changes. The year after that we moved to a new state and life just went on as usual.

Earlier this year, we went to visit our families in India for a month. Seeing older relatives is a form of time travel because you can see your future self reflected in them. I was seeing my extended family after 5 long years. Almost everyone I know has diabetes and its painful complications. I'm not just talking about those who are affluent and have unlimited access to food. The nice lady who cleans my aunt's house and who struggles to make a living as a maid also has diabetes. Everyone is on medication and many take insulin shots. Almost no one seems to have received any rigorous counseling about nutrition and exercise. Many have had perilous cardiac surgeries. I saw people with vibrant minds who are trapped in a body that is too heavy, with joints that are literally unable to take the weight. One close relative is losing her eyesight because of diabetic complications. In a nutshell- I was scared straight.

It is not like I haven't been trying to do better all along. I read books and try to nudge my eating habits in the right direction. I've been struggling for years to get into an exercise habit. Part of my resistance to real change has been the feeling that things are not so bad the way they are- after all, I'm not overweight, and I have tons of energy and no debilitating symptoms per se.

But the logical part of my brain knows the evidence is mounting. My energy is more mental than physical and frequently a mind-over-matter thing. Climbing a couple of flights of stairs leaves me panting- this is pitiful for my age. When my toddler wanted me to jump with her, my sister overheard and commented that she hasn't seen me jump since the 1980s. I've been labeled a bookworm and a couch potato since the days of primary school and I fully embraced that label. My BMI may fall within the normal range, but I have no muscle tone. I participated in a research study last year (it was to study the effect of walking on body composition) and the scan showed that I have a very high proportion of body fat. This is called being "skinny fat", where even a person of normal weight has fat deposits coating their organs- a very high-risk situation for a variety of diseases.

Disease is a complicated thing, a subtle interplay of genes, environment and lifestyle factors. But you have to do what's in your hands even if there are no guarantees of dodging major illness. A friend of mine was athletic and robust and healthy as the proverbial horse, that is, until she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She told me that her underlying strong health helped her survive the harrowing treatment and now she's thriving again.

All these things have been running in my head for the last few months, and I sat down and identified two goals. My experience with gestational diabetes was hard at the time, but in reality, it showed that a modest increase in exercise (just brisk walks!) and a modest decrease in carb intake gave me good results in a matter of weeks. So those are my two goals at this time.

Already, I've been exercising more this year than I did before- walking and swimming. I'm gingerly getting into the exercise habit and will talk more about this in a future post if anyone is interested.

As for eating, what constitutes a "healthy" diet is a very loaded question. I'm interested in answering the question for myself, for my own body and its challenges. I don't know or care what the universally best diet is. Humans being omnivores, I highly doubt there is one ideal diet. There are likely many different ways to get to the goal of having a favorable body composition with good blood sugar control.

I eat a mainly plant based diet along with eggs and dairy and that's what I intend to keep eating. What will change is the proportions of foods in my everyday meals. In my case, I've identified the problem as eating excess carbs and for the last couple of weeks, I've started to replace some of the carbs with lots of vegetables. My goal is not to eliminate carbs or even to drastically cut them but just not to eat more than my body capable of handling. Beans, sweet potatoes, lentils are very nutritious and will be a big part of my diet. But I will find ways on cutting down on rice, tortillas, pasta and noodles at least for my everyday meals, while replacing them with a lot more cooked and raw vegetables. There's reason for me to be optimistic because I have several things going for me- I already cook in a "veggie-centric" style and know how to prep vegetables- I just have to ramp it up. I don't have a sweet tooth and rarely eat desserts anyway.

To change my habits, I have to know myself and work with myself, and not fight against my basic nature. I don't like drastic changes. However, subtle nudges in the right direction quickly become habits and stick with me for life. I am a moderator rather than an abstainer.

Publicly stating nutrition goals often attracts criticism. There will be people who think I'm going too far ("Just eat less and you will be OK, why vilify carbs?") and others who will think I'm not going far enough ("You won't be in the fat burning zone unless you cut out all beans and starchy vegetables"). But the reason I'm putting it out there is because making a public commitment is a strong motivator for changing habits. Because I was so sad to see diabetes and other metabolic disorders eroding the people I care about, and would like to talk about it. Because this discussion might strike a chord with someone else who is thinking about these issues.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all, and I will see you in the new year! We'll continue to eat well on this blog, I promise you. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving is a food lover's holiday and around here it has certainly been a week of good eats. The festivities started with a potluck lunch at work on Tuesday. I contributed a main dish- harvest pilaf and a dessert- pumpkin flan.

Harvest pilaf was nothing but my standard biryani recipe. I reduced the amount of rice, and instead loaded up the dish with all the vegetables that to me are the real stars of Thanksgiving. So in went a tray of roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and another tray of roasted cauliflower, beans and zucchini.

I've made pumpkin flan a few years ago and we had enjoyed it- pumpkin flan has all the flavor of pumpkin pie but in a cool and light custard. This time, I used this recipe from Lucinda Scala Quinn. It uses pantry ingredients (and at this time of year, I count canned pumpkin as a pantry ingredient) and makes a nice 9 inch flan. The minor changes I made to the recipe: (1) I used only 1/2 cup of sugar in the flan mixture instead of 3/4 cup, (2) I used regular granulated sugar and used a dollop of molasses to make it "brown" and (3) I made the caramel in a small saucepan instead of in the oven. For the bain marie (water bath that keeps the flan smooth and tender), I used a huge foil roasting pan from the supermarket. You only have to buy it once and then you can keep using it any time you need a bain marie.

We had a wonderful spread, including deviled eggs, spinach quiche with a puff pastry crust, a salad with kale, shredded brussels sprouts and dried cranberries, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, cranberry sauce with orange zest.

The salad was my favorite dish, a crunchy and fresh counterpoint to all the other heavy dishes. I loved it so much that I made something like it to take to our Thanksgiving dinner- which was another potluck at a friend's home. My starting point for the salad was this recipe from The Kitchn.

Here's how I made my version of Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad.

  • Lop the stem ends off 1 lb of fresh brussels sprouts. Using the slicing disk of the food processor, shred the sprouts. Also shred a cup or so of red cabbage. Core a crisp apple (like honeycrisp or gala or fuji) and make thin slices with a mandoline. 
  • In a small saucepan, melt 4 tbsp. butter and cook it until browned and nutty. In a large bowl, whisk the brown butter with 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp. dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste, until the dressing is emulsified. Stir in the chopped veggies and apple slices. (This salad can be made in advance). Top with roasted pecans and serve. 

For a main dish to take along to the potluck, I started out with the idea of making a butternut squash lasagna. Then I remembered that I had a box of jumbo pasta shells in the pantry and this seemed as good a time as any to finally cook those. Here's what I came up with, a mash up of various online recipes- and it was a resounding success.

Jumbo Shells stuffed with Butternut Squash and Spinach

Make the filling (I did this a few hours ahead of time):

  • Peel and cube a butternut squash (there are videos online that teach how to do this safely). On a large baking sheet, toss the butternut squash cubes with 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 425F until tender. 
  • Cool and peel the garlic. Place roasted garlic and squash (I used 2/3 of the whole large squash here and saved the rest for another dish) in a large bowl. Mash it up coarsely with a fork.
  • Thaw a box of frozen chopped spinach in the microwave, squeeze to remove excess liquid and add to the cooked squash.
  • Add 1 cup ricotta, 1 cup diced mozzarella
  • Add 1 tsp. poultry seasoning, 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste
  • Mix everything together and refrigerate until you're ready to assemble the pasta.

Cook the jumbo pasta shells according to the directions on the box. Here's what the cooked shells looked like- adorable and surprisingly sturdy. Lila was delighted and munched on a couple.

Make the sauce
I made 2 cups of basic white sauce for this dish. You could use a tomato sauce or no sauce at all.

Assemble and bake
Scoop about 2 tbsp. filling into each shell. In a 9 x 13 baking dish, pour the white sauce. Arrange the shells on top. Scatter with 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 30 minutes, then uncover and place under broiler for a minute or two to get the cheese browned. Ta da.

This pasta dish was full of flavor and had a pretty nice presentation (which is rare for me). Each person could conveniently serve themselves a shell or two.

I had enough cooked shells left over to make another (smaller) tray of shells the next day.

So, tell me, what's cooking in your world? 

Monday, November 24, 2014

What I'm Reading, and a Few Book Giveaways

Thanksgiving Week has arrived in the US. There's a buzz of excitement in the air. Already this afternoon there was a mad rush at the grocery store and I had to fight my way through a crowd to triumphantly score a the butternut squash.

Next week, I'll tell you about my holiday cooking but today, here's a rundown of the books I've been reading lately. And scroll down for some book giveaways.

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes (Jana Bibi Adventures #1) by Betsy Woodman is the story of a Scottish woman who makes India her adopted homeland in the decade following independence. She inherits a large house on a hill station and moves there. The very existence of the town is threatened by a proposed dam, and the story revolves around Jana Bibi and the colorful town residents who rally around to save the town. This was an easy and pleasant read but not particularly memorable- I like books that "give me all the feelings" and this one did not emotionally resonate with me for whatever reason.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French is a taut psychological thriller. This one, just like all of Tana French's other books that I've read was emotionally wrought, riveting, memorable and a book I just couldn't put down. The premise of the book is not very plausible if you think about it, yet the writing and atmosphere pull you right into the story. If you're looking to lose yourself in a book over Thanksgiving weekend, this is one I would recommend.

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn. Horn goes into the Cold Case Squad of NYC, following along on four cold (as in unsolved) cases involving complex and brutal murders. Along the way, she studies the politics and bureaucracy of the department, the challenges they face and the personalities of the detectives involved. It is interesting stuff, except that Horn has the most fragmented and confusing narrative style. Despite my annoyance at the disjointed writing, I read the book in 2 days flat so it definitely kept up my interest. I read this book as part of a read-along for Nonfiction November; here are two other reviews of Restless Sleep by bloggers who read it this month.

And now for some book giveaways. I have three cookbooks that were sent by the publisher and one book of short stories that I won in the giveaway. I've enjoyed these books and would like to pass them on to someone else. You'll need a shipping address in the US to keep shipping costs affordable for me. I'll keep the giveaway open until the morning of Monday, December 1, 2014.

1. Rainbows in the Desert by Archna Pant is a book of short stories set in India. I won this book from Siri's blog (she has a short review there too). I read it and quite enjoyed it and am ready to pass it along for someone else to read over the holidays. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Leena.

2. Savory Pies by Greg Henry is a good cookbook for those of us who lack a sweet tooth but find a good savory pastry quite irresistible. There's a wonderful variety of recipes in this book- there's everything from pot pies to pizza variations, empanadas and calzones. There are savory (and to me, thus infinitely superior) versions of desserts, such as artichoke clafoutis, polenta cobbler and mushroom tart tatin. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Jane.

3. Homemade Condiments by Jessica Harlan. Many home cooks are adept making their own versions of condiments. I remember my mother making ketchup when tomatoes were in season, and making pickles and chhunda was the thing to do when we were drowning in raw mangoes from the backyard tree in early summer. In my kitchen, I often make salsas, chutneys and salad dressings (but so far, I've always bought mayo and mustard and ketchup). This book is a gem, covering all sorts of condiments from ketchup and barbecue sauces to pickles, relishes and dessert sauces. Some of the recipes that look really good to me include chipotle ketchup, avocado goddess dressing, sweet chili sauce and hoisin sauce. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Prachi.

4. Classic Snacks Made from Scratch by Casey Barber. I remember reading this in one of Michael Pollan's books: Only eat junk food that you've made in your own kitchen. (Or something to that effect). Well, if you've ever dreamed of making homemade versions of snack foods, Casey Barber has the recipes for you. This is such a fun cookbook. There's everything from cookies (eg. graham crackers) to twinkies, cool ranch doritos, pudding pops, cheetos! Some of the recipes are pretty simple to make, like the pudding pops, while others are very involved. But full points to her for closely replicating these (in)famous and celebrated treats. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Divya who said her favorite snack is fruit and nut biscuits!

What are you reading these days? 
Any big plans for Thanksgiving week?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Indian-Spiced Hash and Omelet

We had a week marred by coughs and colds. Random khichdis and soups dominated the dinner menu all week. With cough syrup for dessert. On Sunday I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and made some eggs and potatoes for breakfast. This is a standard breakfast on this continent, for sure, but with some help from the masala dabba to give it some sinus-clearing oomph.

Two Potato Hash

1. Heat 2 tbsp. oil/ghee in a cast iron pan.
2. Add 1 diced medium onion, a sprig of curry leaves, 3 cloves minced garlic, 1 tbsp. cumin-coriander powder, 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder and 1/2 tsp. red chili powder (or more to taste). Stir fry for a minute or two.
3. Add 2 medium potatoes and 1 sweet potato, all evenly diced (no need to peel unless the peel is too thick).
4. Stir to coat the potatoes with spices and cook on medium-low heat until potatoes are tender and browned.

Masala Omelet

When a friend visited last Christmas and offered to make breakfast for our crowd, she made one giant omelet instead of making several small ones. So clever. I've used her method here.

1. Beat 5 large eggs.
2. Add 2 tbsp. minced onion, 1/4 cup minced cilantro, salt and pepper to the beaten eggs. Add some minced green chilies if you like the heat.
3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil/butter in a 12 inch nonstick skillet.
4. When oil is hot, add egg mixture and swirl around to spread evenly.
5. Scatter with 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese.
6. Reduce heat to low and cover skillet.
7. Cook for a few minutes until the eggs are set.

Cut omelet into wedges and serve with the potato hash. There you go- a sunny breakfast for the perfectly lazy morning.

Last week, I got a few requests for the cabbage raita recipe; you'll see it updated at the end of this post.

What did you do this weekend? See you Monday week with some book reviews and a few book giveaways!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

For three days straight over this weekend, we did our favorite thing- we had friends over for a meal at our home. This is fun year round but especially enjoyable when the weather turns chilly, when it is too cold and dark to spend time outside. That's when the warm kitchen is the place to be.

The festivities started on Friday, Lila had a day off from school for Fall break (following a day of prancing around as a rainbow for Halloween). We invited her two best friends from school over for a play date followed by lunch. Kids fought, played, yelled, giggled, sometimes all at once, while I got a chance to get to know their parents who I normally just wave to in the school's parking lot. At Lila's request, lunch was mac and cheese and a tray of roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes. With apple and yellow pepper slices for snack and mixed berries for dessert. I used Martha Stewart's recipe for the mac and cheese (I had pinned it from this post some years ago) with a few modifications: I scaled down the recipe to a 12 oz box of "white fiber" spiral pasta, used less cheese- and used cheddar, pepper jack, Parmesan and cream cheese instead of the ones mentioned in the recipe. It is a wonderful recipe, makes a large batch and reheats beautifully.

On Saturday, my crafting buddies came over to sew and knit, and I made them a supper of broccoli cheese soup and caramalized onion- lentil pilaf. A friend got peanut butter bars for dessert.

Then on Sunday, I made a meal for friends of ours who love Indian food. I think they would burst into tears of disappointment if I ever served them mac and cheese. For them, I made some of our all-time favorites- chana masala, jeera rice, cabbage raita, egg kebab and one sort-of new recipe, stuffed eggplant curry.

This recipe started with some fresh and tender Japanese eggplants (the slender, long ones) from the Asian store. I have much better luck with this variety being sweet and tender, compared to globe (Italian) eggplants or the baby Indian ones. Then I was inspired by Meera's recipe and this one originally from Indira.

The idea was to make a thick paste for stuffing- with herbs, spices, nuts and contrasting flavors of jaggery and tamarind. Then to fill it into eggplant sections, and finally to pressure cook the eggplants with a bit of coconut milk (which forms the gravy) because pressure cooking gives evenly cooked eggplants reliably and effortlessly.

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

1. Wash 4 Japanese eggplants. Remove and discard stem. Cut each eggplant into 3 or 4 sections. Make a deep lengthwise slit in each eggplant piece.

2. To make the stuffing, grind together (adding a little water or coconut milk as required)
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup fried onions (from a can, or saute them yourself)
2 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tbsp. cumin coriander powder
1/2 tbsp. garam masala/koli masala/ goda masala/your favorite masala
1 bunch cilantro stems and leaves
1 tbsp. jaggery
1 tbsp. tamarind paste
Salt to taste

The stuffing should be a thick paste- taste it and make sure it has a good balance of flavors. Fill it into the eggplant sections using a tablespoon.

3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pressure cooker. Temper it with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, asafetida and turmeric.

4. Stack the stuffed eggplant neatly in the cooker. If you have a wide pressure pan, that would be ideal. I only have a handi-shaped cooker and it worked fine.

5. Pour 1/2 cup coconut milk + 1/2 cup water over the eggplants. Close the pressure cooker and let it cook.
I barely let the cooker come up to full pressure before turning off the heat. Eggplants cook quickly and I did not want them to collapse into an overcooked paste.

6. Remove the eggplants into a serving dish. Top them with the thick gravy. Serve!

Edited to add: A few readers requested the recipe for the cabbage raita. Here it is, easy as can be.

2 cups finely shredded red or green cabbage
1 grated carrot (optional)
1 finely diced cucumber (optional)
1 diced tomato (optional)
1 tbsp. minced onion
2 tsp. cumin-coriander powder
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt to taste

Mix together and serve!

What have you been cooking these days?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Mindless Eating

Knitters like to talk about the many benefits of their hobby- knitting keeps your brain active, you can make adorable hats for the babies in your life and it is cheaper than therapy, even if you go in for the pricey yarn. I'll add one more benefit to the list: knitting can help you eat better. I had a long-standing habit of mindlessly eating my way through mountains of chips and chivda while watching TV. Instead, I now knit my way through scarves and sweaters while watching TV, and have to scramble to fit in my chips and chivda consumption during some other time of the day (Don't worry, I somehow manage to do it. I'm talented like that.)

Anyway, this whole thing about how our food consumption is largely controlled not by our hunger, but by habits and hidden factors in our environment is at the heart of a book I just read: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

Image: Goodreads
Wansink has a background in communication research and consumer behavior. He designs clever studies to understand food psychology- many of the studies from his lab and from other research groups are described in Mindless Eating. For instance, think of days-old, stale, rancid popcorn. Not appetizing, right? Not something you would eat even if it was given to you free. In a study, people were offered free (but very stale) popcorn when they went to see a movie right after they had eaten lunch. The movie goers ate it anyway. We are so powerfully conditioned by the smell of popcorn, the sound of others eating popcorn and the association of movie theaters with popcorn-eating that we are compelled to eat even stale popcorn that does not taste good, even when we are not hungry.

Another classic experiment is the bottomless soup bowl, where a bowl of tomato soup is rigged under the table and connected to a large pot which keeps refilling the bowl even as the diner eats from it. We expect that after we've had a bowlful of so of soup, we'll stop eating because we simply won't be hungry any more. Not so. People kept eating as the level of soup in the bowl stayed the same. Our eyes decide how much we eat (I can see that the bowl is empty, so I've obviously eaten enough soup) and not our stomach.

Our expectations of how a food should taste affects the way we feel it tastes. A group of people were told they were tasting strawberry yogurt. Then the lights were turned off and they were give chocolate yogurt to taste. Over half rated it as having a "good strawberry taste". They couldn't see the yogurt, but were expecting strawberry yogurt so that's what they tasted.

This book came out a decade ago. Food psychology findings are of great human interest and they regularly make their way to mainstream media, so I can't say that there was anything in this book that was absolutely novel for me. But Wansink has a friendly, chatty and slightly goofy style which was fun to read. He points out the pitfalls that cause people to eat more than they intend to, and offers suggestions for tweaking our lives to make it easier to eat the way we want to eat.

I love food, enjoy food and am deeply grateful for having food. Under no circumstances do I want to trick my body into starving itself. But if I can set up my environment and build small habits to avoid consuming food that I don't particularly want or need, that would certainly be helpful. And that's where this books gives a few pointers.

Whatever fills the plate/bowl looks like the proper serving size to us. It is well documented that the size of dinnerware has grown over the decades, to the point where we're mindlessly overeating simply when we serve ourselves food for a meal. I remember buying a set of dinnerware from Crate and Barrel some years ago, and the bowls were so huge that I use them as serving bowls and not to eat from! This is a very easy problem to fix. Buy smaller bowls and plates and you'll eat more reasonable portions.

For a while now, I've been serving dessert in stainless steel vatis/katoris (small bowls) that I bought in India. They are perfect for a satisfying sweet finish to the meal, in a dainty portion. I try to be a good host and don't want to trick anyone into eating less. Anyone who wants seconds is welcome to take them but people rarely do. As the book says, the best part of dessert is the first two bites.

There is plenty of other advice in this book that's sensible enough: See how much you're eating- don't eat straight from the package. Aim to eat until you are no longer hungry; not until you're full (there's a big difference between those two). If you don't want to eat something, put it out of sight and inconvenient to reach (no candy dishes on the desk if you're trying to avoid sweets). If you want to eat more of something, make it convenient (cut up veggie sticks front and center in the fridge for snacking).

There's a lot of stuff in this book that's just good fun. Things that seem pretty obvious when you think about it, but are backed by studies and statistics. There's a whole chapter on how food with an alluring name tastes better to us. Traditional Cajun Beans and Rice is more appealing than Beans and Rice. Belgian black forest double chocolate cake sounds dreamier than plain old chocolate cake. Think about this next time you're cooking for company, or naming a recipe on your food blog!

Wansink talks about the Nutritional Gatekeeper of the family, the person who does most of the food shopping and cooking. They are a powerful influence on how each member of the family eats. He does very interesting studies on what he calls "the curse of the warehouse club" which shows that buying supersized containers leads people to over-consume. The bigger the shampoo bottle, the more you pour out, and so on.

There was one or two things in the book that I found jarring, such as when Wansink talks about ideal body weight for women based on a rule of thumb used by modeling and acting coaches. Um, no. That kind of obsession with thinness is unhelpful; healthy people come in all sizes and being thin does not equate being fit.

But this quibble aside, I found Mindless Eating to be a quick, helpful and enjoyable read. If you can better understand where you're over-eating, you can do something to fix it. Next time I'm parked next to the chips and dip at a party, I sure hope the book cover will flash in front of my eyes. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

Soup and sweater weather has arrived in the South East US this week. Tomatoes and sweet onions are giving way to root vegetables- sweet potatoes being a special favorite of mine for the way their sweetness complements savory dishes. We love them roasted as sweet potato fries, and mashed into vegetable cutlets. The combination of sweet potatoes and legumes is wonderful- some of our favorites include black beans and sweet potato quesadillas and burritos, sweet potato and vaal dal and sweet potato hummus.

Yesterday, I was in the mood for soup but not so much in the mood to spend time making it. The oven came to the rescue for hands-free cooking, as it often does. I thought of the roasted onion and garlic soup that I make once in a while. You roast vegetables, then puree them with stock. Ta da. You have soup.

I used the same principle to make this easy sweet potato soup. I was out of vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, bouillon and all such soup basics. A pantry restocking is in order, clearly. Anyway, I went ahead with only milk and water as the base of the soup, with some smoked paprika to add flavor. It worked just fine. You can tell that this is a flexible recipe.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

1. Pre heat oven to 425F. If you have a convection setting on the oven, you'll want to use it- it will cut roasting time significantly.

2. Peel 3-4 sweet potatoes and chop them into chunks. Peel and chop 1 large onion into chunks. Take a head of garlic, separate into cloves (no need to peel the garlic cloves now).

3. Place all the vegetables together on a sheet pan. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until the vegetables are browned and soft.

4. Pop the garlic cloves out of their peels. Place all roasted veggies in a pot.

5. Add 1 tsp. smoked paprika, 4 cups water and 1/2 cup milk (or cream or a combination) to the vegetables and blend them into a smooth puree. Add more water if required. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

6. Taste and add more seasoning if required. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of yogurt/sour cream and a sprinkle of paprika.

Are you fond of sweet potatoes? What's your favorite way to cook them? 

Oh, and do you have a must-try soup recipe to recommend?