Monday, July 22, 2013

Better Living Through Cooking

Earlier this month, the toddler population of my household doubled. The way toddler math works is that a two-fold increase in toddlers corresponds to a ten-fold increase in general chaos. So let's just say that life has been busy and crazy and very, very entertaining since we became a family of four (again).

Say hello to the newest member of the One Hot Stove family. Duncan is a 7 month old, 50 lb. Plott hound- Labrador mix. We had never heard of Plott hounds. A bit of web searching told us that yes, Duncan most certainly looks like a Plott hound. It is an American breed of hound and as it happens, the state dog of North Carolina, the next state over. Plott hounds have a brindled coat, that tiger-stripey, salt and pepper look.

Apparently, Plott hounds were bred to be bear hunting dogs. Our Duncan is a lover, not a hunter. Look at that face. I will say that he has tried to dismember a couple of Lila's stuffed animals!

Lila calls him "Sweet Duncan" and "Dunkie Boy"
When we were ready to adopt a dog, we contacted the local canine rescue group. They have a network of volunteer foster families around town. What the group does is that they visit local animal shelters- these tend to be overcrowded, underfunded and loud, stressful places. They take dogs from shelters and put them in foster homes in a caring family environment, and then find permanent families for these dogs using adoption events, social media and their website. When you apply to adopt a particular dog, you get a week's trial to see if the dog and family are happy together, and only then is the adoption finalized. This feature turned out to be very important for us because the first dog we were given a trial with was not a good fit (he was a sweetheart but there were several other issues). The second one, as it turned out, was perfect.

We had explained that we were looking for a dog with an easy-going temperament who will be loving and tolerant of a toddler's awkward hugs and unexpected ear tugs. Because you know that as much as you remind a 2 year old to be gentle-gentle, they lack impulse control and you need a calm, big-hearted dog who can take it all in stride. We said we would be just fine with an older dog and that we prefer big breeds. Then we sat back and waited to see what dog the universe would send our way.

It seems that Duncan was abandoned in a neighboring rural county when he was a young pup and was found and sent to a shelter. The adoption coordinator e-mailed us excitedly and told us she thought Duncan would be a great fit for our family, and even though he is much younger than we expected, he really is perfect and we feel so very lucky to have him. He already had been given the name Duncan in the shelter and we think it fits him so we did not change it. V briefly considered naming him "Hobbes" after the tiger in Calvin and Hobbes but nah, he's a Duncan.


Duncan is a cuddle-bug and he has been following me around everywhere like a...well, puppy. Yes, I see now why they coined that expression. Whether I'm reading, cooking, typing or sewing, he's right there at my feet. I have a feeling you'll hear more about this pup in future posts (whether you want to or not, LOL) so let's move on to books and food now.

Image: Goodreads
Last week, Duncan and I snuggled up and read a book called The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. With a sub-title of "How a few simple lessons transformed nine culinary novices into fearless home cooks", this book is a combination of memoir, manifesto and cookbook in the one-year-project genre which is so popular these days, but which I seem to enjoy reading about anyway.

Flinn was a new graduate of the world's most famous cooking school in Paris but found herself struggling with the question of what to do next with her culinary diploma. While out buying groceries at the supermarket, she noticed the grocery cart of the mother-daughter duo shopping alongside her, piled high with boxes and jars of frozen and dried processed food. Flinn struck up a conversation with them and came away thinking about how many people are not buying and eating whole foods because they simply lack basic kitchen skills and knowledge.

And so she gathered a group of nine volunteers, all women of different ages and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and spend a year giving them cooking lessons. The book is an engaging and accessible description of this year-long project. It started off with home visits to each volunteer's home, and an audit of their kitchens, pantries, refrigerators and cooking skills- she had them fix a lunch that they typically eat. Then came a year of cooking lessons and another audit a few months after the lessons ended, to see if there had been any changes in the way the participants shopped and cooked and ate. Most participants saw big changes in their lifestyles while a few remained hesitant and unwilling/unable to change.

Now, any book that it telling me about the value of cooking skills is simply preaching to the choir. But the book was an inspiring read because of the sheer variety of subjects it covers. After all, a home cook has to be a jack of all trades- with some knife skills, and some knowledge of basic dishes and how to play around to make variations of them, and there's all the mental work of menu planning around a busy schedule. Most of all, a home cook needs the self-assurance that while the food industry does everything it can to convince us that there's better living through sophisticated food chemistry, the best living for our health, taste-buds and wallets is through cooking from scratch, plain and simple.

One of the things the author mentions is what she calls "flavor profiles". It means that you can start with a basic ingredient (the one she uses is chicken breasts) and spin it in different directions by using a different combination of seasonings- soy sauce and ginger for a Japanese-inspired version, pesto and mozzarella for Italian and so on. She even has a handy cheat sheet of the flavor profiles. I found myself nodding because I certainly use these tricks to churn out distinct dishes from the same suite of ingredients that I use day after day. For instance, take beans, onions and peppers. Add cumin, oregano, adobo sauce and cilantro to make "Mexican" quesadillas. Add tadka, curry leaves and garam masala to make a dal. Toss with basil and tomato sauce to make "Italian" sauce for paste. Authentic or not, it is a simple way to make interesting meals with pantry staples day after day after day.

The most sobering chapter for me was The Secret Language of Kitchens in which Flinn made initial home visits and inspected the fridges of the project volunteers. Sobering and depressing because of the sheer scale of food waste that is described. I'll just give two examples that I read in this chapter. One participant explains that she and her husband shop in warehouse clubs where you pay less to buy large packages of foods. So it is cheaper to buy a pack of 4 romaine lettuce heads, say, even if you KNOW you can use only two and throw two away. Still cheaper than buying two at regular price. This particular person works for an aid organization helping poverty-stricken people. Cognitive dissonance, much? Another participant has so much food in her freezer that she discovers frozen meat at the bottom of the freezer, long expired, that had been bought for a camping trip three years earlier. She had simply forgotten about it. Now it all has to go in the trash. Both these attitudes bothered me more than I can say.

But we all know that even people who care very much about not wasting food can still waste food. It happens. An over-full fridge with leftovers rotting in the back. Greens bought with pious intentions that never get cooked. Exotic ingredients that you don't know how to use.

Starting tomorrow, I'm doing a small, manageable project to clean out my own kitchen and eat down the food in it. Want to join me? Check back for a fresh post tomorrow and we can work on it together.

44 comments:

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    1. He is! Loves to snuggle and lay on top of people :D

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  2. I skimmed thorugh one of the coursera offerings called 'Child Nutrition and Cooking' recently and it was along the same lines. I cannot agree more with these folks. Lunch and dinner should not be coming out of a cardboard box, atleast not everyday.
    Nupur, there is an idea for you right here. You could do a post/posts along the same lines for vegetarians. That would be so interesting and helpful.

    Sowmya

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    1. You mean a series of posts on basic cooking skills? There are already lots of excellent websites and videos for that though.

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  3. Nice to read about Duncan! Lucky him and lucky you!

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    1. We do feel very lucky, Abodh! Hope he is happy with us.

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  4. Hello Duncan, you are a cutie!!!
    I'm joining this clean-up with you Nupur, as I had intended to de-clutter my kitchen/house and therefore my life starting today. I'm guilty of wastage and I am trying really hard to stop doing that. It bothers me a great deal when I discover food when its past its usability and I have to throw it out. Its part overzealousness while shopping, part fear that I might run out on a busy night and a big part being disorganized (this part I'm working on the most!).
    Beyond just curbing the wastage, I want to do something to shift the balance in favor of those that have no food to eat.. not even 1 or 2 basic meals to nourish themselves, while some of us throw so much away. I have some ideas on how I want to do this, maybe I'll get my thoughts together soon and post about it.
    Sorry about the long reply, it just touched a nerve!

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    1. Archana- it touches a nerve for a lot of us! I for one would love to hear your ideas on sharing food more equitably and you'll definitely have my full support for any project you do to address this.

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  5. Congratulations on the new addition to the family! I read an article about these animal rescue volunteer groups a while ago in the Good housekeeping magazine. Duncan is lucky to have found you!

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    1. The animal rescue volunteer groups are amazing, Nikita. We met some really kind people during this process.

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  6. Loved this post Nupur. esp the part about food wastage because about a year ago i realized that as a family we did end up throwing away some food atleast every week. Sometimes it was cooked and not eaten because we ate outside(I have a 2 day policy for throwing out food sitting in the fridge so..) and other times it's because I got over enthu at my local Ranch and bought tapioca I intended to make chips out of but never did. It bothered me a lot esp. because I am an acutely sensitive person on the whole- sensitive about hunger that exists around me, sensitive to shortage in food in some places in the world although I do not make a din about it in anyways. So I switched to freezing cooked and prepped meals which over all has turned out better for us. It's a lot of effort upfront but has reduced my very frequent grocery shopping trips and the the ones I do are better planned. But.....I'm not very sure it's healthy to eat frozen meals even if they were cooked with authentic and healthy ingredients. Do you have a take on this? Would value your inputs very much. I have to say though the fewer grocery trips are doing my wallet a lot of good because you see I'm kind a druggie in a cocaine store when you put me in a farmer's market or a produce aisle or a roadside farm stand. I cannot get enough of all of it:-) I also love feeding my small family and am constantly coming up with recipes to tickle their taste buds. The "freezer" way I now hoard recipes mentally or bookmark them in cookbooks and then set aside 3-4 days a month(usually a weekend and 1 more day) to get it all done enlisting the labour of my hubby and son(who eat more and do less:-)) to make all my bookmarked recipes.

    And yes, a huge, huge welcome from all of us to Duncan. My border collie Tara sends doggie to doggie sniff and wag of her tail to him. What a stately name he has and you know what I adore that slightly melancholy but utterly lovable look in his eyes. May you have a ton of new happy memories to create with him and Lila(another beautiful name I say).

    Deepa

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Deepa! I haven't come across any evidence that frozen food (made from scratch as you say) is nutritionally worse than fresh food but I'll read more on this in the coming days and share what I find.

      I'm curious- why do you have the two day policy? I mean, it is good to consume refrigerated food sooner rather than later but I don't know that I would throw it out after two days.

      Thanks SO much for your sweet wishes for Duncan :) Yes, he does have the soulful hound eyes.

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  7. Hello Dunkie Boy! A warm welcome to the virtual world of food and dog (and all animal) lovers who will send you lots and lots of love and hugs and cuddles !
    Nupur, Duncan is ah-dorable. Ekdum vaghoba :)

    Coming to the 'kitchen eat-down' plan, I'm in! Will wait for the post tomorrow.
    I am guilty of trashing some stuff now and then and it weighs on my mind and makes me miserable. My Father always used to say, when I was little, there are many who will consider these scraps as heaven sent and you are throwing them, think about that. I did and loathe throwing anything.

    Looking forward to tomorrow.

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    1. Ekdum vaghoba LOL You just cracked me up! Yeah he occasionally gives a vaghoba growl too (when he hears a noise outside and wants to be all guard dog like).

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  8. Hello,

    Let me begin by saying.... a promise of a post from you tomorrow is like sunshine on a rainy day!! :-)

    Duncan looks a sweetheart... am so glad you could open your doors and your hearts to him!! he deserves the best.. having had a rough start in life!!

    I so agree with your take on 1) non wastage 2) eating healthy and fresh... coming to think of it .. it is really not that difficult to cook meals every day.. I was lazy over the weekend.. and we ordered /went out for almost every meal... Sunday evening I cooked a simple upma.. and my family relished it.... far more than the fancy dinner or the lunch!! that was an eye opener!!

    Take care.. hope ur lil one is excited about the new family member!!

    Regards,

    Meenal

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    1. You're very sweet, Meenal!! My little one is head over heels in love with Duncan. They nap together, play together and hug constantly :)

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  9. Welcome, Duncan!! What a gorgeous dog and a perfect addition to the OHS family. Your next challenge sounds most intriguing. Good luck!

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    1. Reading your new post, I am putting myself forward for the challenge, albeit tentatively. Sharing the horrors that lurk inside my fridge with the rest of the world is a daunting prospect.

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  10. Woof Woof Dunkie Boy! :-) What an adorable little darling you are! I will look forward to your updates here. A big hug to you sweetie pie.

    I am on a fridge and freezer clean up spree right now so eagerly waiting for your next post. We recently took membership after a lot of thought at a big warehouse store, the main reason being affordable organic grocery. I still rely on my regular produce store for fresh fruits and veggies that we buy in just the required quantities. I have realized that it helps me if I go shopping with a roughly planned menu for the next few days or else I can't resist buying every fresh veggie I see!

    - Priti

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    1. Thanks Priti- Duncan is adorable but not as little as one might think ;) He is a big guy and will probably get bigger!

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  11. Oh, Duncan is so adorable! He is one lucky pooch to become part of your family, and it's great that Lila is growing up with a doggie brother! There is something in his eyes that reminded me of dear Dale, somehow.
    Looking forward to watching him grow and reading about his antics.
    I loathe food wastage, and I am finally getting better at curbing myself from buying stuff that looks good at the moment. Luckily in NYC it's easy to buy fruits and vegetables fresh several times a week, so that way I buy small quantities and try to use them up.

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    1. Kamini- Duncan's soulful hound eyes remind me VERY much of Dale! It really is fun to see how Lila and Duncan are bonding.

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  12. Welcome to the new family member Nupur. Duncan is a cute name and he is adorable. I am sure Lila must be so excited to play with him.
    I am guilty of wasting a lot of food. I have been trying my best to change it. Recently I have been trying to do grocery shopping after everything in fridge is consumed. I also try to finish as many beans/dals in the pantry as possible.

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    1. Thanks Shilpa! Lila is SO excited to play with him- they are forming a tight bond.

      Like you, I have many dals in the pantry and have been trying to rotate through and use them.

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  13. Congratulations, Nupur! What a gorgeous dog. He is so lucky to have joined your family.

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    1. Thanks! We're the lucky ones to have found such a wonderful pup!

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  14. Hi Duncan! He's adorable, Nupur.
    I just read your fridge clean up post too.
    I'll try to participate this time.
    Thanks to the abundance of summer produce, I tend to over buy, fruits especially, and my fridge is currently bursting at the seams. I also keep nuts and masalas in there so, that adds to the clutter. I will tackle it this weekend.
    My freezer looks like it belongs on the show Hoarders.
    We grow veggies in our backyard and whatever we can't use gets chopped up and I stick that in the freezer. Add to that I'm a working, nursing mom and one shelf is full of bags of breastmilk. We are actually discussing buying a chest freezer because I'm afraid one of these days our fridge will give up.

    All this despite giving a lot of it away to friends.

    I did buy a juicer last year to tackle this abundance of produce and we compost in our backyard but we still end up wasting some of it and it makes me feel guilty every time.

    -Anu

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    1. Thanks, Anu.

      You know, I hear about nuts and masalas being stored in the fridge/freezer but honestly I find that it dulls their taste. I keep mine in the pantry and have not had a problem with them going bad, even though I live in a rather hot place (GA). But I totally understand how seasonal produces can be tempting to over-buy!

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  15. you won't believe it if I say that I look forward to your posts which are like a breath of fresh air because it refreshes me ,a grandma of college going girls who migrated to the west afew years back , so much !.I have cooked some of your recipes and your way of narration in every postabout anything is so endearing, Nupur!
    I am sure Lila is happier with Duncan around!wish her all happiness

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    1. Thank you so much for the sweet note! I appreciate your good wishes very much!

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  16. Lovely to hear abt Duncan!! Give my love to baby Lila and baby Duncan! Good times ahead...:)

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    1. Thanks so much :) Already the household is much more vibrant and fun. And messy!

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  17. Congratulations on your new fur baby. "Dunkie boy" is adorable.....such lovely eyes. Hope you and your family enjoy years and years of fun and happiness with him.

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    1. Thanks SO much for the sweet wishes!

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  18. dear nupur..

    congratulations for the new furry baby boy ! Im sure hes going to keep u really busy. :)

    Lila is now a tai...I hope shes enjoying his company as much !

    Im in for this project...great post nupur..

    luv
    mauli

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    1. Hi Mauli- Lila adores her new puppy and they are inseparable. And yes, they both keep me very busy by getting into all sorts of trouble.

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  19. Congratulations to you and your cuttie cuddle bag for he is really lucky to have your family's affection and for you since he will be showering all his affection too :-)

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    1. Very true- he showers us with affection, sometimes hurling himself on me with love and knocking me to the floor :)

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  20. Welcome to the newest member of the family and Congratulations to you guys :-) Leela happy to share attention ?

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    1. Thanks! Lila loves the pup and showers him with attention and hugs and kisses :)

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  21. Dear Nupur, Am coming here after ages and missed all the updates! Congratulations on Duncan, he is gorgeous! and is armed with eyes that will have any human melt. He could not have chosen better with a family to come to. much love to everyone!

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    1. Thanks so much Arundati :) We feel so lucky to have him!

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  22. Duncan is adorable! I have had a busy summer and just catching up with your posts. So great to meet your newest family member.

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Thank you for taking the time to say hello!