Monday, June 20, 2016

The Little Chef- Thoughts on Cooking and Parenting

We had a beautiful, relaxing Father's Day yesterday and I hope you did too. V and Lila, with Duncan in tow, started the day with leisurely morning walk to our neighborhood bakery to share a chocolate croissant. Later, we met up with friends at a board game cafe and spent the afternoon playing everything from Scrabble to Hungry, Hungry Hippo and Candyland, a very enjoyable and novel way to celebrate the amazing dads in our life.

Lately, Lila has taken over as the new sous chef here at the One Hot Stove world headquarters. What her resume lacks in experience is compensated in her enthusiasm. Every afternoon, this child comes home from preschool, bursts through the kitchen door and demands to know what we're cooking for dinner. She wants to participate in every step of the process, to touch and taste and smell everything. Often she will end up eating handfuls of raw veggies, boiled noodles, nuts and other ingredients even before they get put into the meal, and then she's almost too full for dinner- and frankly, that's fine by me.

Some of her favorite kitchen activities at this age are peeling and slicing hard boiled eggs, slicing tomatoes and avocados (with a hard plastic knife), juicing lemons, making lemonade, stirring ingredients together for granola, spinning down salad greens and yes, stirring things on the stove even as I stand by watching a bit nervously. Making ghee is possibly her favorite activity ever, but that has everything to do with getting to eat the caramelized brown bits left over after straining the ghee.

We don't follow recipes unless we're making baked goodies- this is just everyday cooking, and it is fun to see her developing an instinct for cooking, like knowing how to season a salad correctly with pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, without having to measure anything, and learning how to put together a simple meal from whatever we have on hand in the pantry and fridge.

There are other kitchen tasks that Lila does too- setting the table with napkins (we use dish towels from IKEA as napkins), water glasses and utensils, and helping to unload the dishwasher. Kitchen tasks involve all sorts of learning- math skills, sorting, matching, motor skills, sensory stimulation- not to mention the confidence gained from contributing to family life and being responsible for a job.

We were visiting the home of a relative with grown kids, and she remarked that her kids never learned to cook because their evenings were too busy with activities like soccer, piano and martial arts. "But what activity could be more important than cooking", I said, and she chuckled thinking I was being facetious. But I was dead serious. We all have to eat every day and it is really hard to eat in a way that's both tasty and nourishing (and budget-friendly, especially when you're starting out in life as a young person on your own) if you don't know how to cook.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I can't remember at all where I first heard or read this quote but it has resonated strongly with me for several months. (I just looked up the quote and it is from Peggy O'Mara.) This is a powerful way to repeat "mantras" that you believe in, and that you want your child to internalize as guidelines through life. The everyday routine of cooking and eating dinner provides so many opportunities for talking about values, priorities, manners, habits, attitude, gratitude. Here are some of the things I find myself saying over and over again. (And truthfully, these are helpful reminders for myself and not just for the kid.)

"Eat until your tummy is happy" is a way to get Lila to listen to her body's cues of when she is no longer hungry, when her hunger is satisfied.

"In our family, we don't waste food" is a general, gentle reminder to treat food with care, to serve yourself a reasonable portion, to not fling food around. We don't believe in the clean plate club. There's no guilt for not finishing the food on a plate- but it does not end up in the trash either. It just goes into a container to be eaten at a later time.

"You can say 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you'"- this is a reminder that when we are offered any food at any time by anybody, we can say yes or no politely, no questions asked. Responses such as "eww", "yucky", "it smells gross" or "I hate that" are not OK. There's no need for tiresome explanations of why you won't or can't eat something. Eat it or don't eat it, but always respect the food and just move on.

"The kitchen is closed" is a reminder to not leave the dinner table too early and then keep asking for snacks as bedtime nears.

"What's mama's number 1 job? My number 1 job is to keep you safe and healthy"- this is my usual reason for saying no to any number of requests- mostly about putting reasonable limits on sweet treats in a sugar-saturated culture.

Did you hang around the kitchen as a kid? Do your kids like to cook with you? 

Tomorrow is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and I hope you have a good one! And warm and cozy winter wishes to my friends in the Southern half of the planet.  

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Freezer Cooking Session

While I greatly enjoy cooking quick and simple dinners on an everyday basis, having a few meals stashed away in the freezer is like having money in the bank.

I have a week-long conference at work starting tomorrow, which will mean long and tiring days, so I wanted to get ahead of the game and stock the freezer with a few meals. A dear friend happily agreed to cook with me and split the loot- so we had a freezer cooking date last weekend. This was the first time I cooked specifically to stock the freezer. A surprising array of recipes are good freezer candidates so there's a lot to choose from. A few years ago, I wrote this post and got many helpful suggestions in the comments. This time, we made these 4 recipes. Before meeting up in my kitchen, we each gathered containers for freezing, and rounded up ingredients for two recipes each.

Mac and cheese- We doubled Martha Stewart's recipe and followed the recipe quite closely, while cutting down quite a bit on the quantity of cheese. The food processor made it a snap to grate all of that cheese in seconds. The rest of the recipe came together quickly and boy, did it make a huge pot of mac and cheese. We did not bake it- simply divided the pasta and sauce mixture into several baking dishes, topped with the breadcrumbs and covered the dishes with foil, to be baked just before eating.

Already this week I cooked up one of the pans of frozen mac and cheese. It went straight from freezer to preheated oven, the broiler got the top nice and browned once the baking was done, and the mac and cheese was pretty much perfect. I'll definitely be doing this again.

Madras lentils: We made a double batch of this recipe. Because the pressure cooker was going to be in heavy use for our cooking session (and I only have one pressure cooker), I did soak and cook kidney beans and lentils and have them ready the day before. So this recipe consisted of simply sautéing and grinding the tomato-onion masala and simmering it with the cooked beans/lentils, then cooling the curry and portioning into containers. I plan to pull this out from freezer to fridge a day before we plan to eat it, then reheat in the microwave in a glass container.

Potstickers: Again, we made a double batch (two packages of wrappers), and my friend took the lead on this one. I have to say that potstickers were by far the most labor-intensive of the recipes we made. We froze the potstickers on sheet pans, then transferred into bags for freezer storage. The idea was to make sure the potstickers didn't stick to each other in a giant lump- well, clearly I didn't freeze them long enough on the sheet pans because they have stuck together in the bags after all! We shall see how it works out when I cook these...

Mexican style Rice & Beans- No recipe here, and it would probably be a stretch to call this Mexican anyway. I made about 3 cups of yellow rice- sautéing the rice in olive oil on the stove top until toasty, with some salt, garlic and turmeric for flavor and color, then cooking in the rice cooker. The bean stew was simply soaked pinto beans cooked in the pressure cooker with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices.

All in all, it took us about 2 and a half hours for cooking and clean up. This included the time needed to deal with the kids' shenanigans. My friend's daughter and Lila are great friends and play well together. Well, that morning they raced around the house, knocking over and shattering a lamp (thankfully, no one was hurt except the lamp), and found a container of baby talc and liberally sprinkled it all over every square inch of Lila's room. At crucial cooking moments, like when I was stirring the roux and trying not to burn it, I would hear a shriek and a crash. All in a day's play, I guess!

The cooking session was hard work but we did have several tasty meals to show for it, neatly portioned and labeled and stacked in the freezer. I don't see myself ever doing the once a month freezer cooking thing (where you cook 30 days worth of meals in one day and freeze them away) but it certainly makes sense to stash away freezer meals when you're anticipating a busy time.

Last year, when I was away working in Kenya for a few weeks, I stocked the freezer with many meals for V and Lila and they appreciated it very much- they requested everything from broccoli cheese soup to pav bhaji, rajma and I forget what else.

Certainly the most painless way to stock the freezer with prepared meals is to double recipes on a regular basis (when you're cooking something anyway) and freeze away one half for another time- cook once, eat twice. I should try and do more of that.

Do you rely on the freezer for quick meals? What are your favorite freezer-friendly recipes?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Big Batch Vegetable Hash & Masala Omelets

For a few weeks, I couldn't seem to choose any books or TV shows or movies that I could really sink my teeth into. I flipped through magazines and half-heartedly watched some reruns of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote.

Then this week, a really good book and two great documentaries came my way.

The book was a graphic memoir, Blankets by Craig Thompson. As always, I am in awe of a talented artist who can bring emotions to life with detailed brushstrokes and not too many words. This is a honest and often painful story of growing up and of first love. This particular panel on the left resonated strongly with me!

I watched two memorable documentaries on Netflix streaming.

Waking up in the morning and going to school is a rather routine part of a dozen years of a kid's life- several of our neighbor kids here take the iconic yellow school bus, while Lila like many other kids gets dropped off to school in a parent's car. Going down memory lane, V's school was next door to the building that they lived in and he tells of hearing the 15-minute warning bell, and using that as his alarm to hop out of bed, brush his teeth and race to school. Apparently he slept in his school uniform to save time in the morning! I remember taking an autorickshaw to primary school- believe it or not, 12 little kids and their heavy school satchels would be crammed into one autorickshaw for the ride to school and back, fitting into that impossibly tiny space like clowns in a car. In secondary school, I rode my bike (red BSA-SLR) to school clear on the opposite end of town. It seemed grueling at times, riding a bike over hilly and potholed roads while dodging chaotic traffic and trying not to gag next to trucks belching exhaust. The school uniform was a thick navy blue pinafore seemingly designed to absorb every burning ray from the tropical sun.

All of this paled to nothingness when I watched the 4 kids in the documentary On The Way to School. The documentary follows 4 kids (11 and 12 year olds- middle schoolers) as they make their way from home to school. A Kenyan boy and his sister walk 10 miles over the Savannah dotted by wildlife, carrying jerrycans of precious water dug up from the ground. An Argentinian boy and his sister ride a horse through desolate plains. A Moroccan girl hikes with her friends over winding mountain roads for hours, then has to hitch a ride to school when she gets into town. An Indian boy in a ramshackle wheelchair is pushed to school by his two little brothers. We just watch these 4 journeys (there's no commentary or lecturing whatsoever) that are everyday life for these small, beautiful children but are in reality heroic journeys that they undertake to get what every child deserves by right- a chance to go to school and learn. The NYTimes review is here.

Attacking the Devil is a very different style of documentary but just as heart-piercing. Thalidomide is a drug that I remember first learning about in an undergraduate developmental biology class as a classic teratogen- it causes severe birth defects in fetuses. The full story of thalidomide, covered in this documentary, is shocking and tragic- from how it was developed in Nazi labs, how war and other factors came together to make it a very poorly tested drug that was given willy-nilly to pregnant women as a harmless remedy for morning sickness for a few years, until it was realized with deep horror that it caused malformed limbs in the babies and worse. The company marketing the drug (a distillery, of all things) refused to accept responsibility, while the British government of the day sided with corporate interests. Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times in London, ran a brave, prolonged and unstinting campaign to gain recognition and compensation for the families affected by thalidomide. This is an amazing story of history, medicine, journalism and the best and worst of the human spirit. The Guardian's review is here.

What are you reading and watching these days?

Today, I'm sharing a rather simple recipe, one I've made for about three weekends in a row when we had friends over for brunch. A favorite morning dish in our home is vegetable hash with masala omelets. For just our family, this vegetable hash is easy enough to make in a cast iron skillet on the stove. For a bigger batch, it is nice to pull out a baking sheet or two and make a whole lot at once.

Big Batch Vegetable Hash

1. Preheat oven to 400F (use convection bake/roast setting if your oven has it)

2. Cut into bite size, any mixture of these veggies:
Sweet Potatoes
Bell peppers (green or any colors)
Brussels sprouts

3. Drizzle with oil (olive, canola or any other) and sprinkle with any combination of spices
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Cumin powder
Dried oregano
Mexican chili powder
Salt and pepper
all to taste

4. Mix the veggies thoroughly with oil and spices, then spread in a single layer on baking sheet(s). Roast until veggies are tender with crispy browned bits.

For the masala omelet, whisk together large eggs (I use two eggs per adult diner) with minced onion, cilantro, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. I use a small ladle to scoop beaten eggs into a hot oiled nonstick pan, making small fluffy folded omelets that cook quickly and are easy to serve to a crowd.

If you're in the US, hope you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday tomorrow and get the summer off to a great start! I have a big freezer cooking date with a friend- we want to make a variety of recipes to stock both of our freezers, and will report back on how that goes. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Chocolate Pudding Pops

Summer weather had arrived here in the South. A girl from the tropics, I love this change of seasons and don't mind the heat and humidity one bit. This evening was typical- the three of us gathered in the kitchen after school/work, and of course Duncan is always underfoot. Lila was in the mood to make popsicles so the two of us made chocolate pudding pops.

Meanwhile, V whisked up one of our favorite salad dressings and diced up avocado. We dined on big salads out on the porch, with fresh watermelon for dessert. Then, in an act of great optimism, V and Lila planted two avocado seeds in the yard, showering the seeds with dark rich compost from our bin. Fingers crossed that the seeds sprout!

Since the weather got warmer, I've been making popsicles on a regular basis. These chocolate pudding pops are a recent favorite- they are creamy and decadent and the perfect portion-controlled treat. As a plus, they use pantry ingredients that you (or your mini-helper) can whisk in seconds and cook in minutes.

Chocolate Pudding Pops
(Adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6-8 popsicles depending on the size of your molds (I get 7 pops in mine)

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, mix dry ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • A pinch of salt

2. Whisk in and stir well:

  • 2 cups whole milk (can also use a bit of cream in place of the milk)
3. Microwave the mixture 2 minutes at a time, whisking well in between until the mixture is cooked and thick (takes me 5-6 minutes).

4. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Let the pudding cool a little. You could easily stop at this point and just gobble up the warm pudding. However, if you can restrain yourself...

5. Scoop into popsicle molds (it is too thick to pour) and freeze for several hours.

Other than the pudding pops, simple orange juice poured into the popsicle molds makes for a most refreshing treat. What are your favorite homemade popsicles? It would be fun to make kesar pista kulfi sometime...

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Golden Adai

I am the biggest fan of Southern Indian cuisine, and following right after the Kerala stew post is this recipe for adai, a member of the dosa family. Adai is made with a mixture of various lentils and rice and not fermented.

This recipe was my starting point.

Soak: In the morning around 8 AM, right before I left for work, I rinsed thoroughly and soaked

  • 1/2 cup rice (I used sona masoori)
  • 3/4 cup whole skinned (white) urad dal
  • 3/4 cup chana dal
  • 3/4 cup toor dal

Grind: Around 5 PM, I blended the soaked ingredients in the Vitamix in two batches. Any powerful blender or mixie or wet grinder will work to make this batter. The Vitamix did the job effortlessly in seconds, resulting in a thick and smooth batter. While grinding, I added a few curry leaves to add flavor, and in the spirit of using up every bit of food, I added some pickled mangoes (the ones left behind in the jar when all the pickle juice was used up). They added an interesting tangy flavor too. Finally, I stirred some salt into the batter.

Make adai: Heat a griddle and use some oil to make adai; the batter can be spread as thin or thick as you like.

These proportions of rice and lentils made a substantial amount of batter, it lasted us a couple of meals and then I had it a few more times for breakfast.

The adai is good plain, made just with the batter alone. The next day I added a chopped bunch of beet greens to the batter, which worked beautifully. Ginger, onions, shredded veggies and greens, spices like cumin seeds would all be wonderful additions to the basic batter.

I'm completely pleased at how easy is to make adai, particularly on a day when I'm short on dinner ideas or low on groceries. As long as I can pull out a few dals and soak them in the morning, a good dinner is guaranteed.

A couple more additions to the Vitamix page: nut butter and nut butter chocolate chia pudding.

What are you cooking this week? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kerala-Style Stew

A major highlight of this month was a week-long visit by my sister and nephew. The little guy is only a few months younger than Lila and they had a great time playing, squabbling, snacking and napping together and making the rounds of every playground in town.

One afternoon my sister cooked ishtu (stew), a recipe she learned from her Malayali friend. You simply cook vegetables, add coconut milk and finish off with a fragrant tempering.

  • Start with about 8 cups of mixed vegetables. We raided the kitchen and fridge and used diced potato, cauliflower, summer squash, carrots, and also used two veggies from the freezer- peas and cut Italian beans (these are larger and flatter than regular green beans).
  • Add enough water to cover the vegetables, add minced ginger, cut green chillies and salt to taste, and boil until the veggies are just tender. We used a pressure cooker without the weight- simply using it as a tightly closed pot to get the vegetables to cook evenly and faster. 
  • Drain out excess water from the tender veggies- and store it for use in another soup or dal or curry.
  • To the cooked vegetables, add a can of coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer for a few minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat 1 tbsp. coconut oil. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves and add it to the curry. You're done! 
This stew is a great example of the cuisine of the Southern Indian state of Kerala- simple, fresh and flavorful. We served it with some freshly steamed rice and pickle on the side. I ate it in a big bowl as a stew with just a bit of rice, and a handful of potato chips to add crunch. An excellent meal! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Vitamix Diaries

With a milestone anniversary and my birthday both coming up in April, V sweetly asked me if I had anything in particular on my wish list. Before I realized it, I heard myself blurting out "Vitamix". And so for the last couple of weeks, I have on the kitchen counter the blender of my dreams. One doesn't think of a blender as a particularly romantic gift, but in this case, money did in fact buy happiness (and many great meals.)

A Vitamix is one of those heavy-duty, high-performance, expensive blenders- a biggie as far as kitchen upgrades go. My tools and gadgets are well-loved and cared for, and they certainly get a workout in my busy kitchen. As years go by, they pay for themselves many times over. I'm still using the Braun immersion blender that I bought with my first grad student paycheck 15 years ago, ditto the food processor I bought with wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle a decade ago. I wear thrift store clothes and drive a cranky old car but save my pennies for top of the line cookware and get emotionally attached to my kitchen appliances. Priorities :)

There are many brands of high-powered blenders out there, but I didn't do much research and headed straight for the Vitamix simply because I've used it a few times when I taught cooking classes and was familiar with it. I did buy a certified refurbished blender to bring down the cost a little- and am glad I did. It looks and feels brand new.

Of course I've been busy playing with my new toy. The very first evening it was delivered, I gave it a rinse and made an apple pie smoothie for dessert- just a blend of almond milk, a handful of oats, apple (skin on and all), a dash of maple syrup and cinnamon, and ice.

Since then, I've used the blender almost every single day. With the days getting warmer, we love making iced coffee frappe in the afternoons. For two servings, I use about 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup almond milk, 3 tsp. sugar (or other sweetener; adjust to taste), 1 tbsp. instant coffee (adjust to taste) and a cup or so of crushed ice.

It blends into an amazingly refreshing drink in a few seconds. V is a big coffee snob with his shade grown Honduran coffee beans that he grinds fresh every morning and all that jazz, but he also admits to loving this frappe made with apna good old freeze-dried Nescafe.

Soups are probably the biggest reason I bought this blender- it makes them smooth as silk, as luxurious as what you find in fancy restaurants.

My standard no-recipe formula for vegetable soups-

  • saute onions and garlic in olive oil or butter
  • add a bit of flour to make a roux
  • add some milk/cream for richness
  • then lots of vegetables and water/stock, salt and pepper
  • simmer until tender
  • blend until silky smooth
This works for (a) corn and mixed veggies, (b) tomato-carrot, (c) broccoli, (d) spinach, (e) mushroom, (f) zucchini, among others. Inexpensive frozen broccoli and spinach work just as well as fresh vegetables. For broccoli, spinach, mushroom and zucchini, I use nutritional yeast to add a wonderful umami taste to the soup. This blender can actually cook soup as it blends- but I haven't tried doing that yet.

I've also used the Vitamix in some Indian cooking- it made a very smooth cilantro-coconut chutney and tomato-coconut-onion curry paste.

The blender came with a manual- called, with gravitas, "Introduction to High-Performance Blending". There are a great many things in there to try, and I've come to love the wet-chopping method, in which you add great big chunks of vegetables (say, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots) to the blender along with water and pulse it, then drain the water away to be left with finely chopped veggies in seconds. Pretty nifty. I used it to grate cauliflower and carrots to make these savory samosa-like tarts.

As I keep testing recipes with the Vitamix, I'll keep updating this post- that way, folks who have access to high powered blenders can refer to it if interested. And if you own one of these powerful beasts, I'd love to know what you like using it for.

May 4, 2015
Nut butter: I blended (pressing down with the tamper) 1 cup roasted cashews, 1 cup roasted almonds with a bit of salt and a couple of tablespoons of canola oil- it made a wonderful nut butter. V enjoyed it on good bread with a drizzle of nice honey. Can't wait to try more customized nut butters.

It is hard to scrape every bit of nut butter from the blender so it is a good idea to use it immediately for another recipe that needs nuts or nut butter (like a smoothie, or curry paste).

Instead of cleaning out the blender, I left a bit of the nut butter in and tried this recipe for chocolate nut chia pudding- it was very easy to blend, I poured it into small stemless wine glasses and chilled it for dessert, then served it with some sliced strawberries. I thought it tasted OK- very filling, not too sweet, a tad gummy. Not sure I'll be making this again.

May 5, 2016: Golden Adai, a cousin of the dosa

May 15, 2016: Creamy cilantro dressing- made from this recipe. I put in a whole bunch of cilantro, stems and all, and cut down on the olive oil (a couple of glugs as opposed to 1/2 cup)- it was thick, creamy and flavorful. We used it on a taco salad- bed of lettuce/shredded carrots/yellow peppers, topped with sauteed onions, peppers, zucchini, fresh corn, black beans, then the dressing, a sprinkle of cheese and crushed tortilla chips.