Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Giant Pancake, and Everyday Habits

My summers seem to come in two flavors. Either they are long and lazy months when I peacefully chew through piles of books.  Or they are dizzy months with a near-constant stream of visiting family/friends interspersed with short stints of travel. Summer 2015 definitely falls into the latter category and I'm enjoying every bit of it. The way I eat has changed quite a bit this year, but when friends and relatives come to stay, I pull out all the stops and make the treats that I know they're looking forward to.

The first dessert of summer came with Father's Day last weekend. We got together with a couple of families and hosted a potluck for the daddies. For appetizers, we had sev puri, bruschetta with grilled peaches and blue cheese and fried eggplant rolls stuffed with goat cheese. Then we had falafel, spaghetti squash enchiladas and vegetable tian (a kind of deconstructed ratatouille). Everything was delicious but the hit of the evening was the dessert. I made no-bake Boston cream pie strata, a no-brainer for Father's Day knowing Lila's daddy's love for custard. I followed the recipe exactly as written, and it was fantastic. The pudding is cooked on the stove top and layered with store-bought graham crackers- an "icebox dessert" with no baking required. It is a messy, homely sort of dessert perfect for a casual gathering in summer. It is the sort of comforting dessert that takes people back to their childhood. I say this because one of our friends actually said, "You remind me of my mother" which left me speechless until he explained that his mother made something just like this!

Pudding has lately become the dessert of choice in our home as a way to use up extra egg yolks. Lila's gotten into the habit of eating a fried egg in the morning, but does not like the taste of yolk and insists that I separate the eggs. Miffed as I am (yolks are very nutritious and if you're choosing to eat eggs, it makes no sense to leave out the yolk), I pick my battles and keep the egg yolks aside. When friends from St. Louis visited us this weekend, I made chocolate pudding, and just as the recipe promises, it tasted perfect- just like a dreamy mousse.

Summer fruits are the highlight at this time of year in Georgia- watermelon, peaches and blueberries. The watermelon we simply cut into chunks and store in the fridge, as a refreshing snack to take to a picnic or to eat when you step into the house from the sweltering heat.

The local blueberries are tiny and perfectly sweet and delicately perfumed. The peaches, likewise, smell as sweet as they taste. We've been serving sliced peaches and blueberries with a scoop of good quality vanilla ice-cream for a no-fuss summer dessert. I happen to love Trader Joe's French vanilla ice cream. Sometimes I saute the peach slices in a bit of butter and rum, and sometimes not. Either way the taste is divine.

I wanted to showcase the blueberries in a farewell pancake breakfast for our friends who were driving off, and remembered seeing recipes for pancake batter that is baked in the oven in a large pan. It is a great alternative to standing over a stove making individual pancakes for a crowd.

This recipe is inspired by various recipes I found on the Internet. It turned out beautifully and is something I'd definitely make again- there are all sorts of seasonal variations one could do.

Giant Blueberry Pancake

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Place a 10 inch (or 12 inch) cast iron skillet in the oven while it preheats.

2. In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup almond flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
Sprinkle of cinnamon

3. In a medium bowl, mix wet ingredients:
2 large eggs, whisked (at room temperature)
3 tbsp. melted butter
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

4. Stir the wet ingredients into dry ingredients gently- don't over mix the batter. Some lumps are fine.

5. Pull the skillet out of the hot oven and add 1 tbsp. butter, swirl it around to coat the bottom and sides of skillet.

6. Pour in the batter into the buttered hot skillet and scatter 1.5 cups fresh blueberries on it.

7. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until cooked through. Cut into wedges and serve with your favorite pancake toppings- we like butter and real maple syrup.

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Image: Goodreads
I read an interesting book last week- Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin. I have been reading Rubin's blog for several years and she liberally posts excerpts from her books on her blog, so I felt like I had read bits and pieces of the book already. Still, it was nice to read it all in one place.

(The words in italics that follow are quotes from the book.)

Rubin starts by explaining why habits are important in the first place.

For good or bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. 
In many ways, our habits are our destiny. 

She does not have much to say on which specific habits are good or bad- that's for each person to decide for herself. But she does mention certain foundation habits: We do well to begin by tackling the habits that help us to:
1. sleep
2. move
3. eat and drink right
4. unclutter

Once you identify good habits that you would like to cultivate, or bad habits that you would like to outgrow, that's where the book really comes in: it identifies several strategies that we can use, in line with our own natures, to make the habit stick.

The take-home message of Better than Before is:
To shape our habits successfully, we must know ourselves.
We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature. 

A lot of the book is devoted to this figuring out what makes you tick. For instance, to see how a person responds to expectations from oneself and others, Rubin has developed the four tendencies framework. Just for fun, I made V take the quiz in the book- which he did with a bit of an eye-roll- I know he thinks such quizzes are a little woo-woo. I thought (and still think) of myself as an obliger, but V pointed to the upholder section and said, "That's you". He's more of a questioner. In any case, I know that I'm the sort of obliging, rule-following person who likes having habits, developing new habits and reading books about habits! 

I definitely use habits to get routine work done and out of the way, leaving me time and energy that I can put towards doing things that are either fun or meaningful or both. For instance, a few years ago, I would have a conversation/battle with myself every single evening about doing the dishes after dinner. Should I wash the dishes? Am I too tired- should I leave them for tomorrow? Can I go do something fun, then drag myself back to the kitchen to do the dishes? It was so tedious and a total waste of time- because dishes don't wash themselves no matter how much you dawdle and hope that they do. I finally got into a streamlined routine- we finish dinner, I do the dishes (it actually takes only a few minutes when you time it) while V gets Lila ready for bed. I've made a ritual out of it- after washing dishes, I wipe the counters, tidy the kitchen and put the dishwashing sponge in the microwave to sanitize it. That's my cue that the day's chores are done and I can enjoy the rest of the evening. The next morning, it is a pleasure to start the day in a clean kitchen. A banal habit, but one that's definitely made my life better. (I do want to extend this habit to giving the kitchen floor a quick sweep and mop too).

My other favorite habit- zero inbox. I either reply to e-mails right away, or archive them if I don't need to (or want to) answer them. I usually have zero e-mails in my inbox, and never more than 5. Checking e-mail too frequently- now that's a habit I am still working on. 

Rubin discusses how people often fall into one of two groups- whether a person thrives on competition or cooperation, likes to be active during the morning (lark) or evening (owl), likes to overbuy or underbuy, likes simplicity or abundance. It was fun to see where my own nature fits in: I don't like competition (except with myself), I thrive on cooperation, I am 100% a lark- a morning person, an underbuyer, a simplicity lover, a familiarity lover. The book urges you to ask yourself questions on how you like to spend your time, what you value and your current habits.

The pillars of habits are strategies that can be used to establish habits. I find that I'm already using many of these, and I agree that they are very effective. For instance, I use the strategy of scheduling (just putting an habit on the calendar) to go to my thrice-weekly fitness classes, and it works very well for me. I use the strategy of inconvenience to stop myself from over-eating salty fried snacks- I simply stopped buying potato chips, tortilla chips, chaklis on a regular basis- and if I don't have it in the house, I can't eat it. Sure, I can get in the car and drive to the store and buy some, but I'm way too lazy to do that.

Rubin has many interesting insights into habits.

We must all pay, but we can choose that for which we pay. 
For instance, I can go to bed early and miss out on watching TV, or I can stay up late watching TV but miss out on good sleep and feel groggy the next day. Either way, I pay a price, but I get to decide what is worth more to me. 

Habits multiply, for better or worse, within individuals.
So true. I started this year wanting to make just one small change, and it snowballed into something much bigger as the habits multiplied.

They also spread from one person to another. 
Again, this has been so true for me. Habits are truly contagious. I've caught the evening walk bug from my neighbor. Some friends have said that they've gotten into the habit of cooking vegetables from eating at my house. 

I can't make other people change, but when I change, others may change; and when others change, I may change. 

How are your habits working for you? Do tell! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Two Summer Soups and my Unlikely Summer Project

Soup may seem more of a Fall and Winter thing but we've been enjoying these two soups in this warm weather- one served hot and the other served cold. Both are very plain looking, but I promise that they taste better than they look. They are light and refreshing and I will be making them again and again.

Avocado Soup takes about 5 minutes to make, and no cooking needed.

Simply blend together:
  • 2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and diced
  • 3 small red radishes, chopped
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • Juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Serve chilled!

Leek and Zucchini Soup was a way to use up my CSA bounty. My German friend uses cream cheese to add body, richness and tang to soups and that's what I did here.

1. Heat 1 tbsp butter. Saute 3 leeks, prepped and chopped, and 3 zucchini, chopped, for a few minutes. Optionally, 1 chopped potato can also be added (and then omit flour from step 2).
2. Add salt and pepper, 3 tbsp. nutritional yeast and 1 tbsp. flour. Stir well for a couple of minutes.
3. Add 3-4 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the vegetables are very tender.
4. Stir in 1 bunch chopped spinach and let it cook for a couple of minutes.
5. Add 3 tbsp. cream cheese, cut in cubes.
6. Use an immersion blender to blend everything into a smooth soup.
7. Add 1/2 cup milk or cream. Taste for salt and pepper, then serve hot.

*** *** ***
I was telling a friend about my exercise routine at the gym. He said to me- that sounds great, but you really should be running. I gave him a strange look- um, do I look like a runner from any angle? He proceeded to give me a lecture about all the benefits of running and how life-changing it is. Running is hard on the knees, I said, to which he quoted research that says it actually strengthens the joints (he's a physiotherapist and keeps up with the research on such things.) For every reason I gave him why running would be a terrible idea for me, he had several reasons why it would be a great idea. Later he started passing along copies of Runner's World magazine for me to read.

V overheard our conversation and decided to start running in the early mornings with Duncan. The thing about running with a dog is, after you do it once or twice, the dog expects to do it every day and you're obliged to take him for a run just to get him to stop whining. So man and dog have been jogging for a couple of months now.

It is my good fortune to have friends who care enough to badger me if necessary to try something that they truly believe will be good for me. After ignoring my friend's many lectures on the joys of running, I finally caved in and did something crazy. The local running store has a program where they train newbies for 10 weeks and then get them to run a 5K. I signed up and got fitted for running shoes. I was honest with the instructor about exactly where I stand. It might be just a 5K but for me it is the equivalent of running a marathon. I mean, the last time I ran, I was trying to catch a bus. And that was during the Bush administration!

The plan is to start my running program in July, train steadily over 2 months and run the 5K in September. I guess  This is going to be quite the adventure- learning to run in Georgia in summer. It is one hundred degrees out there, and summer only officially starts 5 days from today. If I don't collapse in the middle of the street somewhere, that will surely count as a success! But 2015 is my year of trying different ways of staying active and I am excited to give running a shot to see if it is something I will like.

In any case, it is good to have a few different exercise options to choose from. Swimming, which I love so much, has been on hold for a few weeks because I have a stubborn toe injury-  some sort of soft tissue infection which is requiring multiple rounds of antibiotics. I have to avoid swimming until that clears. Run when you can't swim, swim when you can't run- that would be a good thing.

Meanwhile, V is once again nominated for the Husband of the Year award. He gave me the sweetest birthday gift- a fitbit, one of those wristbands which tracks your activity and sleep. "As a data geek, you'll love this gadget"- he promised me, because in general I don't gravitate towards techy gadgets. I was very touched by his gesture of loving support and recognition of my efforts to get more exercise.

I do really enjoy wearing my fitbit. 10,000 steps per day is the arbitrary but commonly used target number for staying active. (This comes to about 5 miles a day for the average person, but only about 4 miles for me because I'm very short and have a small stride.) Turns out I walk 10,000 steps most days without too much effort. I've always felt like I run around all day long, and now I have hard proof of that. On days when I do a lot of cooking, I swear I get over 5000 steps just tracing the little triangle between my sink, stove and fridge. The tracker has been a good motivator to keep walking even in this heat, to and from work a few times a week, and in the evenings a couple of times of week in the company of my neighbor.

So...to make a very long story short, that's my unlikely summer project, to train for a 5K- wish me luck! All advice for a running newbie will be gratefully accepted :) 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Veggie Box Late May 2015 and Spring Roll Omelet

The late May CSA box was brimming with herbs, greens (including two that were new to me) and the start of the summer veggies. Here's how we enjoyed them. 

Zucchini, Summer squashMizuna: I had to look up mizuna, a peppery Japanese green leafy vegetable. Lila helped me unpack the CSA box and sort through the contents and taste-test the more interesting ones. I asked her what we should make for dinner, and she pointed out these three vegetables and said let's make pasta with these. Good idea. I sautéed up zucchini and summer squash half moons in olive oil and garlic, tossed in chopped mizuna at the end, then added a bit of ricotta for some creaminess. With some whole wheat penne, it was a good meal.

Kale: This one's an old friend by now, and I made kale dal with it. 

SpinachLeeks: These went into a soup. Recipe coming up next week! 

CilantroMintCucumbers: My friend and her friend requested an Indian cooking lesson and I was delighted to cook with them. We made egg curry (the basic sauce from this recipe with hard-boiled eggs), mint pulao and cucumber raita. 

Tatsoi: This was another mystery vegetable, and a bit of research showed that it is a tasty Asian green also known as spinach mustard. I used it in these spring roll omelets. Remember those tasty fried spring rolls in Indian Chinese restaurants? They have a filling of seasoned stir-fried vegetables. Here I made a similar filling and rolled it up in an omelet for a light dinner.

Any or all of the following vegetables would work in the filling: cabbage, carrots, greens, scallions, bell peppers, leeks, broccoli, mushrooms, snow peas, onions. I used what I found in the crisper.

Spring Roll Omelet

1. Saute vegetables in 1 tbsp oil until crisp tender: thinly sliced onion, shredded cabbage, chopped tatsoi.

2. Season the vegetables to taste with some of the following: nutritional yeast, black bean sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, pepper. Set the filling aside.

3. Beat 6 eggs with salt and pepper. Make thin omelets. Roll them up with the filling and serve.

*** *** ***
I'm not much of a movie watcher usually but lately I've watched a dozen of them. Movies are an efficient way to kill a few hours during sleepless cross-continental flights. And also to spend long summer evenings when I'm too beat to do much else- of course, I pretend that a movie is really 2 TV shows and watch half of it one evening and the other half the following evening.

Most of the movies I seek out are flat-out comedies or feel-good dramas. Hot Fuzz (2007) is a hilarious British parody of police dramas. An ambitious, highly competent police officer and his bumbling sidekick try to solve a series of mysterious murders in a cozy English village.

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002): This is the screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde's famous play of the same name. I haven't read the play but has assumed that being from the Victorian era, it would have some serious social message. It has nothing of the sort- it is just a silly comedy of mistaken identities. If you're the Downton Abbey type, you'll love this one- great cast, extravagant costumes and mansions and lots of butlers and maids everywhere.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012): A British feel-good comedy drama. A group of British seniors are looking for an affordable retirement destination and find themselves in exotic Jaipur, in a dilapidated old family mansion that the enthusiastic but clueless Sonny (Dev Patel) is marketing as a hotel for the elderly and beautiful.

Chef (2014): Another fluffy, feel-good comedy drama about a chef who quits his high-end job and starts a food truck. There's no heavy script here and not much a plot either, but there are many big-name actors, a peevish blogger, much tweeting, a road trip, dozens of Cuban sandwiches and a happy ending.

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010): I have a friend who watches TV and movies like his life depends on it. He has seen absolutely everything on Netflix. I asked him for recommendations and he texted me a list of 10 movies- all strange ones that I had never heard of. This one is a French language film, a social comedy set in 1960s Paris exploring the upstairs/downstairs life. An affluent prim and proper couple's life intersects with the more dramatic lives of a group of Spanish maids who live in the top floor of their apartment. It is a sweet and simple story- not even that much of a story really- but I really enjoyed watching it.

Not everything that I saw was silly and funny, and these were some of the more serious ones.

Still Alice (2014): An American drama based on the novel of the same name. Julianne Moore plays a 50 year old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. There's not much of a plot in this movie, just a heartfelt exploration of what it must be like for an intellectually powerful and active mind to start deteriorating rapidly. A very sensitively done movie.

Theory of Everything (2014): This is a story of the early relationship between the celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. Brilliant physics student falls in love with a pretty arts student, and right around then, at the age of 21, he is diagnosed with a fatal illness. Improbably, this man survived beyond the 2 year prognosis (and is still surviving and thriving in his 70s) with his wife was his steadfast advocate and caregiver and they had 3 kids together. Life has twists and turns, relationships are complicated but I thought this movie was so touching and so sweet in portraying them. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are adorable together.

The Imitation Game (2014): Another British film, another brilliant mind. This story is less romantic though, and actually quite tragic. In this historical thriller, Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician Alan Turing (regarded as the creator of modern computing) who is called upon by the military during WWII to break enemy codes. I wish Turing wasn't portrayed as quite so brusque and unlikeable and I wish there was more "history of the science" depicted.

Life Itself (2014): This is a biographical documentary of the film critic Roger Ebert. I watched Ebert and Roeper every week on ABC in the early 2000s. (I'd never watch the movies they featured, but I enjoyed watching the TV show about movies.) This is a fascinating and honest portrayal of Ebert's life, especially in his final years when he lost his jaw and his voice to salivary gland cancer but kept writing until the very end.

Have you seen any of these movies? I hear the next season of Orange is the New Black will start streaming next week so I guess that's coming up next next on my to-watch list. What have you been watching? I'd love your summer movie recommendations.