Monday, January 28, 2013

Mexican Breakfast Casserole

There is a proverb attributed to Buddhism that goes something like this: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Recently, I was reminded about how true this is. You see, ever since I moved to North America, I've been wanting to learn how to quilt. The US has an incredible quilting tradition, so I wanted to learn at least the basics of this beautiful craft. Well, quilting was yet another entry on the long list of "Someday I want to {insert exciting activity here}" that I (and most of us, I think) seem to carry around in our heads.

Two years ago, I managed to buy a sewing machine. A year later, I even learned how to thread the darn thing. Yeah, it has been one of those learning curves.

And then I was fortunate enough to meet a lovely person named MP. We stayed at MP's home when we were house-hunting here in GA, and I basically wanted to move in with her. Every wall was covered in incredible quilts, all made by her. I mentioned my long time aspiration of learning to quilt. A few weeks ago, she called me and said, come over to my place tomorrow at 10 AM, we're going to quilt. And along with another friend, I found myself getting a beginner quilting lesson. MP is serious about teaching- she assigned us homework (sewing strips of fabric together with precise 1/4 inch seams). I am equally serious about learning- I stayed up and laboriously completed the homework, and held my breath the next morning as my teacher pulled out a ruler and measured my seams down to the fraction of the inch.

And that's how I find myself finally, finally working on first quilt using this easy pattern. Here's a quick look at my quilt top in progress:

So, anyway, the quilting teacher and us two quilting students have formed a nice little trio. We meet once a week or so, something for quilting sessions, and other times for knitting sessions since we're all knitters too. This Saturday, I hosted the knitting meet at my place and it was the most wonderful way to spend the day, sprawled out in the living room surrounded by yarn and patterns and knitting needles in the company of two creative and intelligent women. If our schedules allow us to keep this up, life is going to be very exciting indeed.

To fuel our crafting session, I made a big breakfast casserole with Mexican flavors. This recipe is something I made up, but it is inspired by many such recipes on the Internet. The nice thing is that the casserole is assembled and them set aside for several hours before baking, making it an ideal make-ahead recipe when you're feeding a crowd. If you have a large enough pan, the vegetables and beans could all be cooked together. This casserole easily makes 8 generous servings.

Big Breakfast Casserole With Mexican Flavors

 1. Tortillas: Cut 8 to 10 corn tortillas into six pieces each.

2. Cheese mixture: Mix together 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar, 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese and 3-4 minced scallions (green and white parts).
 3. Egg mixture: Whisk 8 eggs and add a splash of cream, salt and pepper to taste.
4. Vegetable mixture: Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil and saute 1 diced onion, 1 diced green pepper, 2 diced yellow squash and 1 cup corn (fresh, frozen or canned). Season with Mexican spice mix or chili powder.
5. Bean mixture: In a pan, briefly saute sliced vegan chorizo (optional) and 2 cups cooked black beans.
6. Assemble the casserole in a greased 9 x 13 casserole dish by layering the tortilla pieces, cheese mixture and veggies and beans. Once all the layers are made, pour the egg mixture evenly over the whole dish. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake (minimum 2 hours, at most 8 hours).

7. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 60 minutes or until the edges are bubbling and an inserted knife comes clean.

I served big squares of the casserole with a side of quick homemade chipotle salsa.

Blender Salsa

This salsa takes 5 minutes to make if you have a toddler dangling off your leg and 2 minutes if you don't. All the ingredients are pantry staples for me so this is a good salsa to throw together at the last minute.

Add the following to a blender jar:
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes
2 tbsp. minced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
Large handful cilantro, roughly chopped (I used half a large bunch, stem and leaves)
1 canned chipotle chili, chopped and 1 tbsp. adobo sauce
Juice of half a lime/lemon
Salt to taste

Let the blender whirr and your salsa will come together in no time!

As I was typing this post, I noticed that Kalyn just posted a recipe with similar flavors- a vegetarian bean and chile casserole- doesn't that sound good?

PS: 20 swappers have signed up for the Spice and Something Nice swap so far. If you live in the US and would like to join us, see this post for details. You have until Sunday to sign up. Sign ups are now closed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sign Up for the "Spice and Something Nice" Swap!

I was looking through my spice shelf yesterday and realized that most of my favorite spices are gifts. Like the amazing sambar powder that I won in a raffle last year from another blogger's kitchen, or the garam masala that my mother gave me that gives even the most ordinary dal fry a little something something. Getting small gifts (and sending them) in the mail is such a fun surprise and you often end up discovering new favorite things this way.

And so, on a whim, I've decided to organize a small swap where we'll send each other two small gifts: a "spice" and "something nice".

The Spice can be homemade or store-bought. It can be a powder or a paste or indeed a bottled sauce. It can come from any cuisine. It should just be something that you personally love using and want the other person to experience and enjoy. If you want to include a recipe, or a note with suggestions on how best to use the spice, that would be fine too.

Something Nice is just a small treat for the other person- a nice chocolate bar, a book or magazine, perhaps a luxurious soap or hand lotion or lip gloss, scarf or earrings, or your favorite snack or beverage. Just one small treat that you particularly love and want the other person to enjoy. Again, this can be homemade or store-bought.

An important note: This swap is only for those living in the US. Why the geographical restriction? Because shipping stuff from one country to another can be (a) expensive, (b) a hassle because of customs forms and paperwork and (c) can take a long time. I know this from doing lots of international swaps on another website. I'm very sorry if I am disappointing anyone, but keeping it within the US makes it easy and quick and affordable for the participants. If anyone outside the US is excited by the idea of such a swap, I invite them to organize a parallel swap in their own country; please feel free to copy any of these swap guidelines and let me know if I can help you in any way.

Another important note: You do not have to be a blogger to participate. You just need an e-mail address which you check on a regular basis, and you have to be willing to meet the deadlines for shipping.

So, if you want to play, here are the details:

1. Sign up by e-mailing me at onehotstove AT gmail DOT com with the following info: Your name, The US state you live in, and your e-mail address. The deadline for signing up is next Sunday, February 3, 2013. NOTE: Sign ups are now closed.

2. I will e-mail you the name and e-mail ID of your swap partner by Monday, February 4, 2013. Chat with them via e-mail and learn a bit about their likes and dislikes and them put together a small package with two things- a "spice" and "something nice".

3. Mail out your package by Sunday, February 17, 2013. Towards the end of the month, we'll start getting our gifts in the mail!

4. When your gift arrives, take a picture and e-mail it to me- I'll do a round up here so we can ooh and aah over what everyone got.

If you think your friends would like to participate, please spread the word about this swap. The more participants, the merrier! This swap calls for very little commitment and I hope it will be a fun little exercise to brighten up winter for us. Have a great weekend, everyone. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Aren't books amazing? I mean, they're nothing but squiggles on paper but somehow as your eyes gaze on the squiggles, they make a whole new world come alive inside your head. And with a good book, you come away a better person, with a tad more empathy and a little more wisdom than you did before you started . Well, here are some hits and misses from the last few months.

Sometime in 2012, I started seeing ads for a new mini-series on PBS (the public broadcasting channel), named Call The Midwife. Always interested in issues of women's health, I sought out the book that this TV series is based on. The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth was one of my best reads of 2012.

The author was a young woman from a comfortable middle-class home who, when the time came to make a career decision, did something very unlikely- she left her nice life and went to live in a convent and work as a midwife in the slums of London. This memoir is hilarious and devastating in equal parts. Her case studies are snapshots of what life is like on this planet- so wretched, so hopeful, so tender and so cruel all at once. If you've read and enjoyed James Herriot's stories of being a vet, you will appreciate how this memoir is written by someone who clearly loves her work and clearly respects the people that she serves. And at the end of the book, there is a completely enjoyable essay on  the Cockney dialect of English. Truly, read this book if you can find it. You'll probably stay up half the night to read it (I did) and sob uncontrollably once or twice (I did this too). By the way, I did see some of that PBS mini-series based on this book and thought the book is SO much better. Your mind will do the dramatization, there's no need for actors and television here.

Around the same time, I read another memoir called My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock. Hancock was a celebrity-gossip blogger who wanted more from life and took on a year of taking on her fears and trying new things, based on a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, "Do one thing every day that scares you". Now, I do appreciate the author's desire to face her fears and get out of her comfort zone. But the whole thing came off as being shallow and gimmicky- like learning to swing on a trapeze, or swimming with sharks or learning to do dangerous maneuvers in an aircraft. To me, this had a whiff of that awful awful TV show Fear Factor. What's the big deal with doing stunts? The person who doesn't settle for an easy life (like that midwife up there) is the one who is truly fearless, not the person who overcomes her stage fright by doing crude stand up comedy for one night. I'm probably being too harsh but reading these two books around the same time definitely made me roll my eyes while reading this one.

Along these very lines of conquering one's fears and taking on adventures is another very fascinating memoir, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed describes her life in her early 20s- a very troubled life with all reckless decisions around drugs and men. Out of nowhere, she gets the idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on the US West Coast and actually goes on to do an 1100 mile solo hike. I got completely sucked into her story. This woman was so desperately ill-prepared- she could not life her backpack even off the ground, she ran out of money and water, her toenails fell off one by one while hiking- but she just literally puts one foot in front of the other. This is one story worth reading for the unique adventure that it is.

I was so fascinated by Wild that this week I read yet another memoir of an author who goes hiking on a long trail. A Walk in The Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. Similar to Strayed's book, this one has a new and inexperienced hiker who takes on a very ambitious trail, but there the similarity ends. The book has its comic moments, and the author has many things to say about the park service and the history of wilderness preservation in the US. It was an interesting read but not something I would call particularly memorable for me. I'm adding this book to the What's in a Name reading challenge for "Lost or Found" because there's the word "rediscovering" in the subtitle.

Reading books about ill-prepared people who get up and go for months-long hikes is tempting me to go off and do long hikes too. Just kidding. I'll be right here on this couch if you need me.

All of these books were non-fiction but I've been reading a couple of novels too. I did start J. K. Rowling's (yes, that J. K. Rowling) much-awaited novel, A Casual Vacancy. Found it too casual and vacant and didn't finish it. I just did not find myself caring enough about the characters in this book. It was relentlessly petty and depressing and I just gave up. Not that I have anything against depressing books (as the next book will illustrate) but I have to care about the characters.

Image: Goodreads
Last week I read Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. This book first appeared on my radar when its movie adaptation won several awards a couple of years ago. What made me want to read it is that the book is set in rural Missouri and in the years that I lived in MO, I heard several descriptions of life in the Ozarks, and it was mostly negative- the poverty, the meth labs. This short and intense novel tells the story of a teenager who's having to grow up too fast and specifically, about an episode in this teenage girl's life where she has to find her father who has skipped bail (and risk losing her home if she doesn't find him). The author succeeded in transporting me to this bleak landscape for a few hours and to a life and culture completely foreign to me. I'm adding this book to the Monthly Key Word Reading Challenge where "Winter" was one of the key words for January.

So, tell me, what are you reading? I'm linking to It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Soup for Comfort

I can't thank you all enough. For the condolence messages for Dale from all over the world, for the e-mails and virtual hugs and words of comfort. They all helped immensely and we are so grateful for it. Last week went by in a blur of sadness and sickness as all three of us one by one came down with seasonal coughs and colds.

A couple of weeks ago, we had made plans with friends to get together for a casual dinner last night. A Sunday night supper of soup and grilled cheese where three little girls could play together as we parents enjoyed chatting about this and that. I'm glad I went ahead with our plans because the home filled with the aroma of simmering soup and the sound of laughing kids and it altogether lifted my spirits.

This is what our menu looked like:

1. Two soups- Tuesday soup, a perennial childhood favorite and a curried sweet potato black eyed peas soup, something I put together just based on what I had in the pantry. I've posted the recipe for Tuesday soup here in 2005, OMG that was over 7 years ago.

2. Salad- I set out baby spinach and sliced red pepper, some olives from the olive bar and a bowl of homemade marinated mushrooms. Then I made a simple dressing by whisking together apple cider vinegar and olive oil, garlic, oregano and salt and pepper.

3. Grilled cheese- I read this great tip (originally from Cook's Country) for making grilled cheese sandwiches for a crowd and last night, got a chance to try it out. It is a clever tip and worked very well.
   I started with good quality sliced bread, softened butter (set it out a few hours ahead of time) and shredded cheese, a mixture of cheddar and pepper jack. 30 minutes before we wanted to eat, I preheated the oven to 375F. Then I set out a rimmed baking sheet and started assembling sandwiches on it (each slice of bread was lightly buttered on both sides). Once the sandwiches were laid out (I could fit about a dozen on the sheet), I placed the second baking sheet on top to weigh down the sandwiches and put the whole thing in the oven. 20 minutes or so later we had sizzling grilled cheese sandwiches- a whole tray ready at once- with perfectly golden crusts and melty cheese inside. Success!

4. Dessert was some homemade vanilla custard, and we folded in fresh berries that our friends brought over. This combination was light and enjoyable and the big bowl of custard was absolutely scraped clean.

I forgot to take a picture but here's an abbreviated recipe for the Sweet Potato Black Eyed Peas Soup. It turned out to be the surprise hit of the dinner for kids and grown ups alike.

1. Saute a chopped onion and several minced cloves of garlic in olive oil.
2. Season with salt, red chili powder, turmeric and cumin powder.
3. Add cubes of peeled sweet potato and soaked black eyed peas.
4. Add vegetable stock, cover and simmer until sweet potatoes and peas are tender.
5. Use a masher to mash down some of the veg/beans to make the soup thicker if desired.
6. Add lemon juice and plenty of minced fresh cilantro (and a dash of garam masala; optional).

Have a good week, dear friends. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


I am so sorry to tell you that our beloved Dale passed away yesterday. He lived for about 14 years, which is a grand old age for a dog his size; we were fortunate to share 12+ of those years with him. Now we're left with a gaping Dale-sized hole in our hearts.

There's so much I want to say about Dale but I can't bring myself to type anything right now. But I do want to thank and hug each of you who sent Dale their love and best wishes through the years. This quirky and sweet dog brought laughter and joy to many people, some that he met and others that he never met and that's the best kind of legacy to leave behind.

Dale (1999-2013): You'll always live in our hearts

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Evolution of Family Dinner

2013 started out in the best way possible, with a big pile of books patiently waiting to be devoured. For the past few days, I've been reading Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach.

Image: Goodreads
Part cookbook and part memoir, this book chronicles the evolution of family dinner for one American family- from life as a young professional couple to the time of young parenthood and raising two kids under two, to the present time when parents and school-going kids gather at the dinner table.

In many cultures, cooking dinner every night would be the absolute norm; but in the US, eating out every night or relying on frozen meals is not unusual at all, which is what makes this book a good resource for families who are trying to get into the habit of cooking and eating family dinner. Interspersed through the book are essays, tips and this family's favorite recipes.

Interestingly, from an early time in her married life, the author kept a daily dinner diary (she's been doing this for over 14 years). Just a line scribbled in a notebook noting the dinner menu of the day. The book contains several pictures of pages from her  notes. I can see how this little habit can be quite useful in many ways. For very little effort, one could have a mini-diary of family life, with mentions of celebratory meals and birthday dinners, as well as records of weeks and months of hurried meals and frequent take-out meals when a big work project was underway, say, or when the family welcomed a new baby. On a more practical level, one could see at a glance what the most popular meals on the dinner rotation are- a useful tool for those moments when you feel like you're completely out of ideas about what to make for dinner tonight.

I was so inspired by this idea that starting last week, I started keeping a dinner diary of my own. It is a plain old lined notebook with a little pen tucked into it, and my cue to write a 10 second dinner note is when I'm turning down the kitchen light for the night.

There was some stuff in this book that did not resonate with me. The author's frequent and lengthy essays on mommy guilt, for instance. Guilt is so boring and unproductive- I avoid it at all costs. This family's eating habits are very meat and fish-centric so I did not find the recipes in this book very useful, although there is a recipe for salad pizza that looks just delicious. Finally, I would have to say that her blanket rule of not having family dinner with kids under 3 is ludicrous. It can work very well for some families- more often than not, our 15 month old eats with us at the table, eating the same dinner we're eating. I'm not saying that it always works, or that it will continue to work for us as schedules (and levels of pickiness) change, but there's no reason to strongly advise parents to not even try.

There are several things in this book that I really really identified with. The first is her acknowledgement family dinner is a family affair, in the sense that in a 2-parent household, there has to be equality and both parents have to do their share of household chores. The other idea that resonated with me is this basic love for family dinner. There is so much joy in coming together in the kitchen, chatting and playing and making dinner together. We go to work to earn our daily bread, or rozi roti as the expression in Hindi goes. The dinner hour is when we get the joy of actually translating that dough that we earn into real bread for our table. Microwaving a frozen dinner just does not have that same feel to it. The third valuable take-away lesson from this book is that there's no need to strive for perfection- just do the best you can.

As I read about the author's chronicles about family dinners over the years, I enjoyed thinking about my own experience with family dinner throughout my life. Dinners as a child were often eaten with my sister because my parents typically worked in the evenings- picture two picky eaters trying to eat together, staring unwillingly at their plates. While attending junior college in Mumbai, I lived with an aunt who hated to cook (and who hadn't a clue about balanced nutrition or parenting at the time- that all has completely changed since then), and dinners were usually food delivered from nearby restaurants or get this- Pepsi and chips. Isn't this what all teenagers dream about? And yet, I got sick of it and started to cook on my own. Later, there were dinners with my uncle and his family where the whole family ate dinner while watching Looney Tunes because the only way the toddler cousin would eat was while staring at Cartoon Network. Then followed dinners at hostel at graduate school, sitting with a gang of girlfriends frowning at the green mush of a subzi- but by then, I was well over my pickiness and ate the green mush very enthusiastically.

The first time I had access to a kitchen was in graduate school in NYC. My roommate happened to be American and vegetarian, and she and I took turns cooking dinner. In return for cooking and cleaning every other night, we got to enjoy a hearty home-cooked meal every single night- what a great deal. She often made falafel (from a box), tofu (dredged in egg and breadcrumbs and fried- SO good), homemade pizza, tortilla soup (that I still make very often). I often made chana masala, egg curry and pasta. We may have been overworked students on modest stipends but we ate like royalty.

And then there are the last few years, where V and I have been enjoying family dinners by ourselves, with friends and with our baby. Our dinner time seems to be moving to an earlier hour all the time- it started as 8 PM in NYC, then 7 PM in St. Louis and now we eat at 6 PM. (I live my life by the clock and when we really do eat on the hour, on the dot.) With my fondness for early dinner, it can be hard when we visit friends/relatives who think nothing of eating dinner at 9 PM or even later. I'm practically fainting with hunger by then.

The one glaring (and blaring) thing I need to change about our family dinner these days is to learn to switch off the TV. Our dinner time is 6 PM and that's just the time when I feel like having the local and national news on in the background. It is a horrid habit. I need to convince myself that the news is not worth watching anyway, and we should focus on enjoying dinner and conversation.

So that's my rambling essay about family dinner. This book is going to be listed under the Foodies Read challenge on my 2013 Reading Challenges page. Yes, I managed to join a couple more challenges before the new year began.

Today, I woke up with a plan- I had a new recipe to try that I was quite sure would make it into our dinner rotation. I was going to run to the store to pick up some vegetables, then cook and blog about the  recipe in this post. But you know the old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men going down the tubes? Something to that effect. (Sorry, Robert Burns.) Well, after several weeks of enjoying good health, our poor Dale is very sick today. So I'm staying home and trying to make him comfortable. Last time he got this way, he bounced back very well, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that he recovers again. I'll see you next week with an update, and maybe even a new recipe or two.

Your turn- tell me something about dinner in your family.