Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dumpling Salad with Peanut Dressing

I have a very quick post today, sharing a meal idea that we've eaten on repeat throughout the summer. This one uses a few staples from the fridge and freezer to put together a light and satisfying dish in a semi-homemade sort of way.

Also, I ardently love Chinese take-out and this salad topped with warm dumplings and a tasty peanut sauce easily satisfies that longing for take-out on a random weeknight. It does have a few components to it, but nothing that's labor or time intensive.

Component 1: Salt and pepper tofu

Drain and blot away liquid from a block of extra firm tofu. Cut into bite size cubes.
Heat a couple teaspoons of oil in a nonstick skillet.
Place the cubed tofu in a single layer in the hot skillet. Let it cook patiently until golden. Resist the urge to keep stirring the tofu! Then, flip the tofu cubes and repeat.
Once the tofu is fairly golden, add 2-3 tbsp. nutritional yeast and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Keep turning the tofu cubes gently until they get a nice golden crust.

The salt and pepper tofu is so tasty by itself and versatile- it can be added to many different dishes. Set it aside while you make the sauce.

Component 2: Peanut sauce

I always riff on this recipe and don't think I have made peanut sauce the same way twice. Here is my "choose your own adventure" formula for peanut sauce.

The basic ingredients are
Peanuts (as peanuts, or as peanut butter or powdered roasted peanuts or whatever form you tend to stock)
Soy sauce for the salty taste, or tamari or teriyaki sauce or black bean paste
Sweetener (honey or maple syrup or sugar, say)
Something tangy (rice vinegar or lime juice or tamarind)

Other optional additions:
Creamy additions like coconut milk or tahini
Aromatics like onions, ginger, garlic, scallions, cilantro
Something for heat, like sriracha sauce or crushed red pepper or Thai curry paste.

Place ingredients in a blender, blend until creamy, then taste and adjust the balance of flavors. Peanut sauce can be stored in the fridge for a few days and used in salads, noodle dishes and as a dipping sauce.

Component 3: Dumplings. It is really fun to make these from scratch. More practical for a weekday, however, is to buy bags of dumplings and store them in the freezer. My favorite is Trader Joe's Thai vegetable gyoza. Cook as per package directions. 

Component 4: The salad base. This can be any mixture of greens and raw veggies. Our house standard is the 50-50 blend of lettuce and baby spinach that is commonly sold in supermarkets. Sometimes I'll add shredded carrots and sliced raw bell peppers to it.

Assemble the dumpling salad with the salad base on a plate, topping with cubes of tofu and warm dumplings, and finally a generous drizzle of peanut sauce.

What have you been cooking and eating on repeat lately?

Monday, October 01, 2018

Back After a Summer Break

Happy October, friends! My summer blogging lull led to an unplanned blogging break for a couple of months. September kept our family life humming as my parents were visiting over the month. I left you with a post about birthday traditions and birthday cake and theme of cake (and summer heat, incidentally) continued in September as we celebrated more birthdays.

For my mother's birthday, I went with a Southern US favorite, pineapple upside down cake, using this recipe, because it says the "best" right there in the title and also, it is made from scratch and not from a mix.

My modifications:

1. Use a 10 inch cast iron pan instead of a baking tin. A cast iron pan is traditionally used for this cake and results in a beautiful bake. The other advantage of using a cast iron pan is that you don't need to melt the butter separately in a bowl. Just put it in the cast iron pan and pop the pan into the oven for a few minutes while the oven is preheating.

2. I used 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick) and 1/3 cup brown sugar instead of the generous amounts specified in the recipe. This was more than enough to make a beautiful syrupy glaze. If you don't keep brown sugar in the pantry (I don't), it is very easy to make by adding some molasses to regular white sugar. I also reduced the sugar in the cake batter to 1/2 cup.

The cake came together beautifully. I would highly recommend this recipe if you're looking for a small (8 servings or so) cake that tastes great, is not fussy to make and looks festive. We served the cake with some butter pecan ice cream on the side, because my mother loves ice cream. The birthday dinner also consisted of spinach lasagna (another of my mom's favorite meals) and garlic bread.

* A Birthday Tea Party *

Mid-September was a big day as our little girl turned 7 years old. It was a special one since her grandparents were here to celebrate with her. My parents always threw really fun parties for my sister and I, growing up, and they added some of their special magic into this party for sure.

Lila wanted a tea party for a few friends with a castle cake. I searched online for something doable and cute, and the inspiration for this castle cake came from this blog, written in French but with lots of detailed pictures which make the process very easy to follow. I thought this castle was cleverly designed and beautifully finished.

For the cake flavor, we went with a marbled cake for a nice mix of vanilla and chocolate flavors. If I had more time and energy I would have made a third pink color to marble into the cakes, just for princessy fun, but the basic two-color cakes worked fine.

I used this recipe and made two round cakes. We weren't sure how many parents would stay for the party so to have enough servings, I baked an additional marbled loaf cake using this recipe. I always reduce the sugar in cake recipes and it seems to work just fine. The cakes were baked the evening before the party and stored covered at room temperature.

The frosting was a whipped chocolate frosting- I used this recipe which makes a lovely frosting that is a delight to eat. It is a combination of butter, melted chocolate and a chocolate pudding all whipped up into a light and thick frosting. If you hate the greasy taste of conventional frosting then this is one to try.

A couple of hours before the party, my dad (an adept cake decorator) and I put together the castle. The two round cakes were layered with a thin filling of raspberry jam and the cake was iced with a generous layer of the whipped chocolate frosting.

Castle turrets: We made 4 small niches in the cake and stacked Oreo cookies to make the castle turrets. The roof of the turret is made of ice cream cones. We used some waffle cones but it wasn't exactly easy to trim and flatten their edges; I should have looked for flat bottomed sugar cones. The tops of the cones were lopped off just a little bit to allow candles to be stuck in.

Lila wanted to play a part in the cake decoration so she made a castle door with a fruit strip, and the facade with some cocoa batons and put some candies on the top. All in all, we ended up with a very homely but sweet castle that looked like this! I didn't get a really good picture but you get the idea.

Decades ago, for one of my childhood birthdays, my parents made paper butterflies and hid them in the yard for a scavenger hunt. We decided to do a reenactment. In the week before the birthday, my mom made a few dozen elaborate, hand-painted paper butterflies using paperboard from the recycling bin (cereal boxes and such). We hid them all over the yard and the party guests had a great time hunting for butterflies.

For the tea party, we set the table with an embroidered tablecloth, some paper doilies and pretty china plates that I found in a yard sale. Along with the cake, we served pink lemonade, a rainbow fruit tray (painstakingly made by my mom) and crustless cucumber sandwiches. 

I promise we eat things other than cake around here! 
Indian Chinese as made by my mother!
Veggie manchurian, noodles and sweet and
sour sauce.

A snacky dinner for watching the US Open Finals- I used my general formula here for putting an appetizer tray together:
(a) Nuts
(b) Fruit
(c) Crackers and cheese
(d) Chips and dip- in this case sweet potato tortilla chips with guacamole.

* * * 
As for the books I've been reading over summer...

Task #19 of the Read Harder 2018 challenge was A book of genre fiction in translation. I realize I don't seek out any translated books so I went with the mystery genre (my go-to genre for casual reading) and read The Snack Thief (the third in the series of Commissario Montalbano mysteries) by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli. This series is set in the fictional seaside town of Vigata in Sicily. Inspector Montalbano is a salty Sicilian, irascible by nature but with a good heart and keen perception. He is a food lover and what truly makes him emotional are beautiful meals, usually consisting of perfectly cooked pasta and seafood. In this book, Montalbano ties together three seemingly unrelated cases- the gunning of a fishing trawler's immigrant crewman in international waters, the stabbing of an elderly man in his apartment building's elevator and the case of a five year old boy who is stealing other kids' lunches. Sicily reminds me of Bombay in a way, with its quirky personalities and messy politics and corruption.

For Task #12: A celebrity memoir, I picked up Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. I've been a fan of Neil Patrick Harris right from his Doogie Howser, MD days to his role of Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. This memoir was tremendously fun to read. It is written in a gimmicky "choose your own adventure" way, but what can I say? The gimmick works. It was fascinating to read about this phenomenally talented theater kid from a loving home who got a break working in TV at a young age, working on set in LA while still in high school in New Mexico. This is a charming and entertaining read, just as you would expect.

Found in a library book sale!
For Task #9, A book of colonial or postcolonial literature, I read The Financial Expert by R.K. Narayan. This tragi-comic tale is set, as with R. K. Narayan's celebrated stories, in the fictional town of Malgudi in Southern India, during the colonial era, in the 1930s and 40s. It traces the life of an ordinary man, Margayya ("he who shows the way"), a self-proclaimed financial expert (more like a loan shark) who goes from rags to riches to rags. This novel is a social commentary on money dealings in small towns in the British colonial era and possibly also in this era nearly a hundred years later. I would love to pass along my copy of this book (99% of the books I read are from the public library but I own this one), so email me if you're in the US and would like to read this book. Book has been claimed :)

Image: Goodreads
Front Desk by Kelly Yang is a newly published middle grade novel. I came across a  glowing and beautifully written book review for this book on Niranjana's blog and immediately went looking for a copy. Front Desk is a moving and heart-warming story (based on the author's own childhood) about a 10 year old girl, the daughter of recent Chinese immigrants, who runs the front desk of the motel that her parents are living in/ cleaning/ managing. My own kids are too young for this book but I know I will read it with them when they're older. If you are looking for a short and meaningful read, I highly recommend this book.

And finally, just for the sake of nostalgia and in need of some comfort reading, I read The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. And it was as entertaining as ever.

How was your summer? Catch me up on your life!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Birthday traditions, and a splashy birthday cake

Our little boy turned two years old, and his big sister was excited for weeks leading up to his birthday. She is such a doting sister, and a very family-oriented kid. Where her dad and I are 100% not religious and very loosey-goosey with traditions of any kind, she insists that she would like us to have special family traditions.

We chatted a bit about this and decided to establish five fun family birthday traditions starting with Niam's birthday this year:

1. A big, colorful, festive birthday banner will be strung up in the dining room the night before each person's birthday. Years ago, I had bought a fabric panel designed to be cut up and assembled into just such a banner; Lila and I finally completed it earlier this month, so our family birthday banner is ready and was used for the first time for Niam's birthday.

2. On the morning of the birthday, the birthday girl/boy will wake up to a small surprise. For Niam's birthday, we inflated a few polka dot balloons the night before and left them around the living room. The toddler was indeed surprised and delighted and ran around madly with the balloons in his pajamas at 5 in the morning!

3. On the morning of the birthday, we will make the birthday boy/girl's favorite breakfast, stick candles in it and sing the birthday song before leaving for work/school or whatever the day brings. We made a stack of chocolate chip pancakes for Niam and it was a delightful way to start the day.

4. We will have a special birthday dinner where the birthday girl/boy gets to choose the menu or choose the restaurant if we decide to eat out. I am looking to buy/make a birthday tablecloth and a special birthday plate for the birthday dinners at home. For Niam's birthday, we made some of his favorite foods- mac and cheese, corn on the cob and roasted broccoli.

5. For the kids, I will make a special birthday shirt announcing their age that they get to wear for the day. I made one for the little guy using a plain striped onesie appliquéd with the number 2 with a bit of fabric from my stash.

The idea is to make the day special- both in terms of anticipation and happy memories- while also keeping things fairly simple and doable on my end. Because the fact is that while traditions are fine and good, they are a lot of work for the person who upholds them. To keep things organized, I have a box designated for the banner, candles and other birthday supplies that will be used time after time.

Apart from the actual birthday full of newly minted traditions, we hosted a small birthday party on the weekend for some of our friends and neighbors. A July birthday in Georgia can mean only two things- either you choose a venue where you can cool off in the water or you stay indoors with the air conditioner on. We took our chances with the weather and opted for a party outside, renting a picnic pavilion in a local park that has a splash pad- a playground with water features.

I made an under the sea/ fish tank cake to go with the splashing/ water theme. No original ideas here; the cake decoration was completely cribbed from various cakes I saw online. The nice thing about this cake is that it looks quite sweet while needing NO skills whatsoever to decorate. And you can decorate it in 5 minutes flat using a few items that you can buy in the supermarket. Read on for the details.

1. The cake: My sister recommended this chocolate cake recipe that she always makes for my nephew's birthday cakes. I wanted more servings so I took that recipe and this recipe, put the ingredients from both recipes together to make one big batch of batter, and baked it in 2 pans- a 8x8 inch one and a 9x13 inch one. Confused yet? ;) The idea was to make a big cake and a smaller cake so Lila and I could each have a cake to decorate and we would have enough servings to go around.

You can make any shape/size of cake as long as you have a flat surface for decorating.

2. The frosting: You need blue frosting for the water. We made standard buttercream frosting with 3 drops of blue gel food color + 1 drop green gel food color. Spread the frosting on the cake- it doesn't need to be smooth, in fact, a few waves and swirls give the frosting texture and the cake looks more realistic.

3. The sand: Crush vanilla wafers (or any brown/sand colored cookie) in a food processor to sandy crumbs. I sprinkled the crumbs/sand over the lower one-third of the cake.

4. The seaweed: Buy Fruit by the Foot and Fruit roll ups. Cut the candy into the desired length, twist and ruffle it and place artfully on the cake.

5. The pebbles: To make pebbles/ rocks at the bottom of the water, I used raisinets candy (chocolate covered raisins) with a few colorful jelly beans.

6. The fish: The "schools" of fish are cute little Goldfish crackers- buy the kind called "colors" which comes in a few fun colors. Other sea creatures include gummy fish and gummy worms.

7. Castle: Use a couple of vanilla wafers (the rectangular ones with the hatched pattern) and a few knife cuts  to make a castle.

This is Lila's cake- you can see that she is not a minimalist! Her cake tells a whole elaborate story where the castle is a school by the coral reef and the fish all have names and are going to school etc. etc.

If you make this cake for a party, I highly recommend serving the leftover candy in small bowls alongside because all the kids will want the slice with the gummy fish!

Along with the cake, we served lemonade, snacks (crackers and corn puffs), fruit (apple slices and watermelon cubes) and cheese.

Lemonade for a crowd: I'm jotting down the formula for future reference. Mix 4 cups sugar and 4 cups water in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar dissolves, then cool to make simple syrup.
  • Fill a 2 gallon cooler two-thirds with water. 
  • Add the simple syrup made above.
  • Add 30-32 ounces lemon juice. This can be freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I took a short cut this time and used two 15-oz bottles of RealLemon lemon juice concentrate. 
  • Stir the syrup, water and lemon juice, then fill the rest of the cooler with ice.
To minimize waste, we took along a plastic tote with plastic plates, plastic and stainless forks in a caddy, and plastic and stainless steel cups. All the dirty dishes got piled back into the tote to be brought back home and into the dishwasher. We did use a few paper napkins and a few paper plates but there was way less trash than if we had used all disposables.

Also, the birthday boy is too young to have an opinion about birthday gifts and party favors, so we were able to request no gifts and skip the party favors. Being in a park with a splash pad and playground meant that there was no need for additional party activities and all in all, this turned out to be a fun, simple and low-key birthday party.

* * *

The summer reading continues with the Read Harder 2018 challenge.

Task #3: A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance). Mystery is my favorite easy-reading genre and I started reading a classic mystery, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Fifty pages in, I just couldn't get into the book and gave up. Around that time, I happened to read this New Yorker article on artificial intelligence, and it reminded me of an old friend from graduate school who loved Isaac Asimov's robot novels. So I happily switched genres and read Asimov's I, Robot, a classic of science fiction. Science fiction is not a genre I generally read but this one is a classic for a reason. A reporter is interviewing robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin as she retires- she narrates interesting cases from her career, and in doing so, traces the evolution, so to speak, of robots. This is such a fascinating story collection- it is based around the three laws of robotics coined by Asimov, which influenced not only subsequent generations of science fiction writers but also real life scientists working in the field of robotics.

Image: Goodreads
For Task #8: A comic written or drawn by a person of color, I chose The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American writer/artist/teacher. Through her unique, sepia colored illustrations, Thi Bui narrates the story of her parents' childhoods, how they met and started a family against the backdrop of civil strife and war and the circumstances that led them to take their little kids on a harrowing and unpredictable journey as refugees. The amazing thing is that Thi Bui started chronicling the oral history of her family, decided that graphic art would be a good medium to tell her story and then had to teach herself how to draw comics! Incredible.

A lot of the memoir talks about how the trauma of growing up in unstable times reverberates across generations. Thi Bui ends the book with this gut-wrenching sentiment: "But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don't see war and loss or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free." 

Back in grade school, history was an almost universally hated subject, and those dreadful history textbooks were chock full of disjointed events, wars and the dates to memorize. What a tragic lost opportunity that was. I wish we had learned history through memoirs and novels that told poignant stories from various points of view, the ones I'm discovering just now as an adult. Reading The Best We Could Do taught me more about the history of Vietnam that I ever knew.

For Task #11: A children’s classic published before 1980, I picked up All of a Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor, first published in 1958. This is one of a series of books about a large and loving family (5 daughters and a son) growing up in 1910s in New York City. It is a warm and comforting series of stories about daily life in NYC in the days of the first world war, siblings and their little life adventures and Jewish family traditions. This would be a good book to read aloud with 9-12 year olds- I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and will look for the others in the series.

Tell me about your family traditions and birthday celebrations!! What are you reading these days? 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Lemon Rice for Vegetable Lovers

Memorial Day- May 28 this year- is considered the official kick off to summer. Ours started memorably enough but not in a good way! We had the wettest May on record with 18 continuous days of rain. On May 28 at dawn, I awoke to a loud bang and in a half-asleep, dazed state, saw the ceiling fan going haywire with sparks flying out of it. No joke, and it was not a dream. It turns out that in the overnight storm, a large tree limb fell on our main power lines and sparked a dangerous electrical surge into our home.

The surge damaged our refrigerator, cooking range and microwave to the point of no repair. The refrigerator's water lines were damaged, causing the kitchen to flood, so the water mains had to be shut off. The surge caused the heating/cooling system to malfunction, and the power and internet cables had to be cut by the power company for safety reasons. In one fell swoop, we lost all the modern conveniences that we take for granted, during a holiday weekend. It took us almost 3 weeks to dig out of this mess. As expensive and aggravating as this month was, it could have been a lot worse and we are thankful that there was no fire and no one was harmed.

We were without a kitchen for several days. Friends came to the rescue in many ways. We were able to borrow fridge and freezer space from one friend to rescue some food. Others let us borrow a mini fridge, slow cooker and toaster oven so I had a makeshift kitchen until we were able to get new appliances installed. It was my first time using a slow cooker- I tried a few different things, including a tortellini (stuffed pasta) casserole, which turned out a bit mushy but edible, and rajma, which turned out a bit watery but also edible. The most successful was a simple red lentil dal with summer squash, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

Chantarelle mushrooms: The rain may have caused havoc in some cases (trees falling and all that) but it also caused a boom in chanterelle mushrooms. I wrote last year about foraging for chanterelles and this year this expert mushroom forager (and eater) Lila is at it again. We are enjoying them simply sautéed with garlic.

For a few weeks, lacking a functional kitchen, I gave my CSA vegetable boxes to friends. But here are some highlights from the veggies that I did end up using over the month.

Napa cabbage: For the first time, I bought some fresh Hong Kong style noodles from the Asian store. Not knowing any authentic way to cook these, I just pan-fried them, then topped them with roasted napa cabbage and mock chicken with a sweet and sour sauce. This impromptu dish was a hit.

Green garlic: I remember my aunt buying green garlic (they look like green onions but with a distinct, delicate garlic aroma and flavor) when it was available seasonally, and very rarely, in Mumbai. She would cook it in into simple scrambled eggs and it was such a delicacy. I was excited to get green garlic in the veggie box and that's exactly how I cooked it- into scrambled eggs. 

Tomatoes: For Father's day, we made a simple dinner of some of Daddy's favorite foods, including this deluxe bruschetta/caprese salad mash up with thin slices of baguette topped with tomato slices, mozzarella, fresh basil and chopped olives, all drizzled with garlic-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Collard greens: What else but collard greens wadi- the very best way to eat your greens. 

Shishito peppers: Last week we got some of these mild peppers in the box. I had never tasted them; V remembered eating them in a fancy restaurant a while ago. We cooked them in a searing hot cast iron pan and enjoyed them as in, with a yogurt dipping sauce. 

Lemon rice for vegetable lovers

There was a bumper crop of cabbage and green beans in the CSA box last week and I inaugurated my new oven with this twist on a classic South Indian dish- lemon rice, a light, tangy dish just perfect for summer.

This version is a hybrid of lemon rice and cabbage rice. It fits in with the way I like to eat- with vegetables front and center, and the recipe makes a big batch.

1. Make rice in a rice cooker or stovetop and let it cool down. I used Jasmine rice because that's the staple in my kitchen, and this dish uses about 3/4 cup (1 rice cooker measure) raw rice.

2. Roast 1 baking sheet worth of vegetables at 400F until slightly charred at the edges and tender throughout. I used cabbage and green beans. Carrots, zucchini and summer squash would work well in this recipe, and steamed green peas or black eyed peas would be a nice addition.

3. Juice a couple of lemons and set the juice aside. In a pan, heat some oil. Temper with mustard seeds, chana dal, urad dal, asafetida, turmeric, fresh ginger and fresh curry leaves. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

4. In a large mixing bowl, toss together the cooked rice, roasted veggies and spice-lemon mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.

*** Book chat ***

Appliances may have let me down last month, but books did not disappoint. Oh, it was a glorious reading month.

Image: Goodreads
 For the Read Harder Task #5: A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries, I read The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. BRICS is the acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and of these countries, I chose a book based not only in India, the land of my birth, but set in Malabar Hill, a neighborhood in South Bombay only a mile or two away from the place where I was born.

This book is a historical mystery based in 1920s Bombay but so many of the neighborhoods, landmarks, bakeries and foods mentioned brought back my own memories from the Bombay of the 80s and 90s. I will refer you to Niranjana's excellent review of the Widows of Malabar Hill and add only that if you are looking for a solid summer read, this one is worth picking up.

Image: Goodreads
For the Read Harder Task #6:A book about nature, I read Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Astrophysics- the science of nature at its biggest and most expansive. The book starts off with this quote:

"The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

But after declaring this, Tyson takes on the personal responsibility of helping ordinary mortals make sense of the universe. This slender volume features 12 essays, each of them highlighting some delicious feature of astrophysics. It is only June, but I am pretty sure this is going to be my favorite book of the year.

For the Read Harder Task #14: A book of social science, I picked up Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The author is an NPR reporter (religion beat) who interviews dozens of people going through midlife, and talks to many social scientists researching aspects of midlife, plus there is a memoir theme running through this book.

For all those who like me are staring midlife in the face (!!), some takeaways from the book.

Three themes to living richly in midlife:
1. Engage with verve.
2. Choose purpose over happiness- the concept of eudaimonia (flourishing).
3. Your thinking is your experience.

Two of the many suggestions from the author:
Aim for meaning and not happiness, and you will find both.
At every stage in life, you should be a rookie at something. 

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I do just that- browsing in the library looking for covers that look interesting. That's how I picked up this book in the children's section. Frenemies in the Family: Famous Brothers and Sisters Who Butted Heads and Had Each Other's Backs by Kathleen Krull. This book is informative and delightful and very funny, a gossipy series of essays on famous sibling sets. It covers everyone from royalty, presidents, sports figures right down to the Gosselins. 

How was your month of June? Hopefully not as eventful as mine ;) 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Doctored Ice Cream Recipes, and Summer Reading Kicks Off

I attended a lecture once by a nationally known quilter and she talked about her experience pitching patterns to quilting magazines. She told us that the editors loved two words in the description of the pattern- those two words being "quick" and "easy". Of course they appreciated creative and original patterns and all the rest of it, but those two magic words sealed the deal.

Quick and Easy are very beloved words in the recipe world too. Entire fortunes have been built on 30 minute meals and 3 ingredient cookbooks and semi-homemade cooking shows. You can love from-scratch cooking, as I do, and still have a soft corner in your heart for recipes that produce good results quickly.

As the days warm up quickly and cool desserts are on the menu, I'm sharing two quick and easy recipes for ice cream treats that start off with good quality store bought ice cream and need minimal work for really great results.

Rosewater, used judiciously, gives an indescribably exotic and alluring flavor to desserts. I've made this ice cream two or three times in the last month for different groups of friends and each time, a small scoop of the pistachio rose ice cream left them feeling delighted. This will be my go-to dessert of the season. If you love kulfi and Indian ice cream flavors like kesar pista, you will love this so-simple-it-is-hardly-a-recipe recipe.

Pistachio Rose Ice Cream

1. Set out 1 quart (or 4 cups) good quality vanilla ice cream (I love Trader Joe's French Vanilla but use your favorite brand) on the counter for several minutes until it is soft-serve consistency. Don't let it melt completely.

2. Dump the soft ice cream into a bowl.

3. Add:
1/2 cup chopped roasted pistachios
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tbsp. rose water 

4. Fold the additions into the ice cream (a silicone spatula works well), then scrape back into the container and refreeze. 

For special occasions, cake is my go-to dessert, personally. But many of my near and dear ones seem to prefer ice cream to cake. On her sixth birthday in Fall, Lila requested an ice cream cake. Last week, I was organizing a co-worker's farewell party and she too requested an ice cream cake. If you need a simple ice cream cake that will feed a crowd and please the crowd, here's a- you guessed it- quick and easy recipe.

Oreo Ice Cream Cake

1. Set out a quart each of two flavors of ice cream to soften on the counter- I use the classic chocolate and vanilla but other flavors will work too. 

1. Crumble a box of Oreo cookies (gluten-free or regular) into a bowl. You can smash them right in the bowl, or use a food processor to crumble them. Add 1/4 cup melted butter and stir into the cookie crumbs.

2. Add the cookie mixture into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan and pat down to make an even layer. 

3. Layer with the softened chocolate ice cream and stick it back in the freezer for a while to harden.

4. Layer with the softened vanilla ice cream and stick it back in the freezer to harden. 

Optionally, add a layer of fudge sauce in between the two ice cream layers. I decorate the top layer with sprinkles before putting it back in the freezer.

Here is another easy ice cream dessert from the One Hot Stove archives- the tricolored Cassata, and some ideas for an ice cream social. 

*** Lila's summer reading ***

Kindergarten is finished and school's out for summer. A very exciting thing happened during the last week of school. Lila's school was adopted by a local non-profit that promotes literacy by providing a dozen books (free, and theirs to keep forever) to every child in the school so they have a little home library and can keep reading to prevent "summer slide". I volunteered one morning for the book distribution. The non-profit brought in boxes and boxes of incredible age-appropriate books. Hundreds of books were laid out attractively on several tables, grouped by theme, just as they would be in a book fair. Classes came in one by one and the kids went "shopping" for a dozen books of their own choice. This was a total kid in a candy store situation for any book lover.

We were warned to not steer kids to particular books or to balk at them choosing 12 Star Wars books or whatever. This was the time for non-prescribed books to promote reading for pleasure.

Lila's dozen books
Predictably enough, Lila came home with 12 PINK books about princesses and Dora and stuff, including one book by Danielle Steel of all people. My heart sank that she didn't pick out any of the amazing books that I saw displayed. But this isn't about me so of course I said nothing. We will continue to bring home lots of books from the public library all summer, and enjoying all the books from our home library that we are building up bit by bit.

*** My summer (and beyond) reading ***

I occasionally like doing reading challenges, where you are assigned reading tasks that encourage you to try different genres, seek out new authors and expand your reading horizons just a little bit. Late in the game, almost halfway through the year, I came across Book Riot's 2018 Read Harder Challenge and started it last month, with 24 tasks to be completed until the end of this year. I've completed 3 of the tasks, described below. If you have suggestions for the other tasks (check the link to see what they are), I would love to hear them.

A book published posthumously: For this task, I chose a book written by a terminally ill man whose dying wish was to be a published writer- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

This brilliant and highly motivated man in his mid-thirties had been in school almost his entire life, training to reach the rarefied heights of medical research and practice. On the way there he acquired a degree in literature and almost becomes a writer. In a tragic twist, he was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer while months away from becoming a dual qualified neurosurgeon-neuroscientist. Even as he knew that his demise was only months away and his career goals were dissolving, he found a new goal- to write a book (this memoir). The first part of the book is Paul's life as a neurosurgeon in training, helping patients deal with life and death situations. The second part of the book is his role as a patient facing death himself. Finally there is an epilogue beautifully written by his wife- she finished the book and fulfilled his dying wish by getting it published.

Kalanithi ponders the question "What makes life meaningful enough to go on living"? and I was thinking about this book for several days after I read it.

A book of true crimeColumbine by Dave Cullen. Ironically and sadly, I started reading this book the day before the latest school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. I was still living in India on April 20, 1999 and have no personal recollection of the Columbine massacre. But later, the very word Columbine came to be a symbol of school shootings and I do remember going to see Michael Moore's documentary, Bowling for Columbine, in NYC. Cullen's investigation runs wide and deep. His narrative does not follow a linear timeline but goes back and forth between incidents but it is engaging and makes sense as he talks about the two teenage killers and their thirteen victims, plus the others left with serious lifelong injuries.

The reigning theory of Columbine was that these were two bullied teenagers who lashed out in a horrific way at the people who hurt and bullied them. In contrast, Cullen's book portrays the mastermind, Eric Harris, as a psychopath bent on indiscriminate destruction. The "why" of Columbine quite possibly was a combination of the two. What is left unanswered is how to identify kids going down this spiral- which they do on a regular basis, with horrific consequences. I came away with a better understanding of what psychopathy means and it truly is jarring to realize what a poorly understood mental condition this is, and that these charming, manipulative people are a substantial proportion of the population. 

A comic written and drawn by the same personGhosts by Raina Telgemeier. This is a middle grade graphic novel and after seeing it displayed in the school library, public library and book fairs everywhere, I finally read it myself. Catrina's kid sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, and to help with her breathing, the family moves to a foggy, ghostly small town by the sea. The book describes their adventures there. The illustrations are full of color and life and the story revolves around themes of family heritage, sisterhood and confronting fears of death. It is worth mentioning here that the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration is a major theme in the book and the author has been criticized for not portraying it in an accurate way.

What are you cooking, eating and reading this month?

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

More Veggie Boxes and a Curry Leaf Harvest

Happy May, friends. In our household, the big excitement of April was the installation of a pretty sweet play set in the backyard. 

It was a home project many years in the making. Northeast Georgia is a pretty hilly landscape and looking at our sloped, wooded, crazy overgrown backyard, I never had any hopes of being able to put in a play set for the kids. But sometimes it just takes finding the right people for the job. I finally found two guys at the recommendation of a neighbor who assured us that they were experts in safely installing play sets on hilly, uneven terrain and they did so in just 4 hours on a sunny morning. The shock, delight and pure joy on the kids' faces when they got home from school was priceless. 

They now have a lookout tower with a little bridge going to another roofed tower, with a slide and three swings and a cute little picnic table. All in a cool and shaded spot. Lila hosted a grand opening of our little playground, with lemonade and apple slices served on the picnic table. It makes me so happy that our yard is being used more and that the kids will have more outdoor time in a space we can share with friends and neighbors. 

Meanwhile, the veggie boxes have been keeping me busy in the kitchen and filling our plates with colorful fresh produce. 
Week 2 CSA haul
Saag paneer

This is what week 2 brought us...
1. Arugula- Another batch of potato arugula frittata.

2. Carrots- I roasted these with some sweet potatoes. Kids loved it.

3. Lettuce Mix- Taco salad.

4. Kale and Mustard Greens- Saag paneer. Saag is my go-to dish for hearty greens; my version is quick enough to make on a weeknight and we all (even the kids) love it.

5. Red radishes and Turnips- Made a simple subzi with this, to go with some khichdi.

6. Strawberries- eaten as a snack.

Week 3 CSA haul
Week 3's CSA brought us

1. Beets, Carrots and Spicy Salad Mix- I made a big salad with all of these with a mint and cilantro dressing, and served it as a side for biryani when we hosted a farewell dinner for a friend.

2. Bok Choy and Scallions- These, along with tofu, went into a stir fry, served with rice.

3. Radishes- Made a radish raita with these.

4. Spinach- Spinach and tomato dal.

5. Strawberries- Snack.

Now that warm weather is here to stay (famous last words?), we brought our two curry leaf plants out of their indoor winter home and back outside to revel in the glorious spring sunshine. The plants were getting too lanky so V decided to give them a haircut, a solid pruning of the top to encourage lateral growth. I ended up with branches of curry leaves piled on my kitchen counter.

Many stems have been wrapped and stored away in the fridge. But I had about 7 packed cups of washed and dried curry leaves left. Those got converted into 3 bottles of podi, ready to be enjoyed with idlis and dosas.

Curry leaves and curry leaf podi
The curry leaf plants are about the only "kitchen gardening" we do- our sloped and shaded yard doesn't offer many possibilities. But V and Lila have also put in a small herb patch- fingers crossed! 

Are you doing any gardening this year? What's cooking in your kitchen? 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lava Toffee, and the CSA begins

Lava Toffee: Candy with a Chemistry Lesson

Puttering in the kitchen with kids is always messy and fun, especially when it results in some funky looking candy. A few months ago, Lila went to a one-day science camp. Her favorite activity of the day was the making of a candy called lava toffee. When I went to pick her up in the late afternoon, she was waiting not-so-patiently to taste the confection. Unfortunately something had gone wrong with the recipe (they likely did not heat it to a high enough temp)- the candy failed to set and the campers did not get a taste. Little miss was crushed and only settled down when I promised her we would make it at home "one day". That day came during Spring Break week in mid-March.

You know the quick and dirty volcano you can make with just vinegar and baking soda? This candy works on a similar principle, only using heat instead of acid to release carbon dioxide from the baking soda. You cook a sugar syrup to the hard crack stage; this is the temperature (300F) which gives a hard, crunchy texture upon cooling. Then add baking soda to the sugar syrup. The heat decomposes the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to sodium carbonate, water and carbon dioxide. The bubbles of carbon dioxide make the sugar syrup foam with a dramatic lava effect and the candy cools into a beautiful honeycomb candy. Lila is too young to understand or care about the science of lava toffee; all she wanted to do was eat it, but older kids might appreciate it as a tasty science experiment for a school science fair!

 I used this recipe- it needs only a few pantry ingredients and a candy thermometer. The recipe worked like a charm, foaming dramatically and then cooling quickly into this light, spongy, crunchy candy. A cup of sugar makes a very generous 8 inch x 8 inch pan of candy. The only thing to watch out for is that the candy burns quickly: take the syrup off the heat the instant it gets to 300F. Our candy ended up having a bit of a burnt after-taste because I let it linger at 300F for a few seconds. Next time I will skip the honey, which probably also contributed to the burnt taste.

The Spring/Summer CSA begins. 

Our first CSA haul
A couple of years ago, we enjoyed a weekly local vegetable box delivery (community-supported agriculture or CSA), as seen in these posts. Then we were busy with other things and I did not renew the subscription. I just got around to signing up again for a CSA for 16 weeks.

The first box contained:
1. Strawberries- Washed and eaten in 5 minutes flat.
Parsley dressing
2. Carrots- Tender spring carrots are best enjoyed as a snack and that's what we did.
3. Radishes- Radishes, radish greens and carrot greens all went into a radish sambar.
4. Beets- Beet thoran as an accompaniment to khichdi.
5. Parsley- Made into a simple and wonderful dressing in the high-powered blender with tahini, lemon juice, salt, pepper and some water.
6. Arugula- Potato arugula frittata; took this to a friend's house as our contribution to the meal.
7. Scallions- Tofu stir fry.
8. Baby greens- A few different salads.

You can't eat any more locally than this! These collard greens came from the vegetable garden in Lila's school- proudly planted and tended and lovingly harvested by the kindergarteners. Lila came home with a bag of shredded kale and recited a recipe- to cook it with sea salt, vinegar and honey. 

Kindergarten-grown collards

* * *
Fitness Update: I wrote a couple of months ago about signing up for a weightlifting class called BodyPump. So far, so good. I have been going religiously 3 days a week for the last 12 weeks. The biggest difference I see with regular exercise is that it brightens my mood. I do feel stronger but there are no magical before-after pictures like you see in the ads- building muscle is not something that happens overnight and it is going to take a lot longer than a few months. I am excited to keep doing this.

When I schedule exercise formally by writing it in my calendar, I can stick to it. Once in my calendar, the fitness class is on par with other things that I don't blow off on a whim- like conference calls and parent teacher conferences.  The plan to start running again has not materialized because I have vague desires to run but never put in on my calendar, but I hope to add in some running or swimming into the exercise rotation in the coming weeks.

How has March/April been for you? Tell me everything!