Friday, September 25, 2015

Books, Movies, Ballet

V and I have very different audio preferences when we are driving. I like to bop along to the blast of the local hit music station (while crossing my fingers that my preschooler can't catch some of the more questionable lyrics); V insists on tuning into the hushed voices of National Public Radio. I tease him about NPR lulling me to sleep but the truth it I am a fan. I'm always surfing over to their website and listening to their podcasts. Every summer, NPR picks a genre and publishes a list of 100 must-read books in that genre. I love books and I love lists so I'm all over this.

This year, they published a list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances. (You have got to look at some of those covers. Gah.) I had not read a single one of them- somehow I've managed to overlook an entire genre in my reading life. That was it- this would be my summer of romance reading. Such luxurious fun to sit around and read a romance novel. Well, in the frenzy of summer guests and travel, it did not work out in quite that romantic fashion, but I read a few books off their list and plan to read some more.

The first was a YA romance, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Anna is in high school in Atlanta, GA when her father uproots her and sends her to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year. She is miserable until she meets a new group of friends including an irresistible French-English boy. This was a fluffy but sweet teenage romance. Recommended if you're in the mood for a bonbon.

The second book was from the romance suspense genre, more appealing to me for the suspense than the romance, I'll admit- Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This one reminded me strongly of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And oh, it was a good read. A young English governess, a remote French chateau, a sinister employer, his dashing son, an escape in the middle of the night...this book started slow but I thoroughly enjoyed it by the end. Recommended! (Psst...Arpita, you will like this one.)

I did check out a third book off the list from the library, A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev but just couldn't get past the first few pages. I'll have to try this book again another time.

Some books other than romances that crossed my path this summer:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This bestselling novel from a decade ago narrates the aftermath of a brutal crime and the afterlife of a teenage murder victim as she watches over her family. A strange and disturbing premise, and the plot was meandering. I don't know what else to say about this book.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. M*A*S*H is probably my favorite TV show ever, and Alan Alda makes M*A*S*H what it is. I was excited to read his memoir, and it was an engaging read. I wanted to read more behind the scenes stuff about M*A*S*H but this is a true memoir, the story of a boy who grew up with a father who was a burlesque actor and a mother who battled mental illness, his struggles as a young actor and father of three daughters, a man who's been married to the same woman for 50 years and who doesn't fit into any showbiz stereotypes. I adored Alan Alda already and this memoir made me love him even more.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. My dad, who was visiting for a few weeks in summer, is crazy about aviation. He spends all his free time building really complicated model airplanes. My aunt suggested that I get him this book that was published very recently. We got a copy from the public library and after my dad read the book (he loved it), I read it too. This is a work of incredibly detailed narrative non-fiction that tells the fascinating story of the Wright brothers and how they built a flying machine. Today, we take it so much for granted that we can take a flight to another continent and get there overnight, while eating a hot meal 40,000 feet in the air on the way there. It is amazing to think back to how this all started.

There has not been much screen entertainment in my life lately. We subscribed to Indian channels for a while for visiting family members, and so I watched a bit of Sony TV- specifically, the finals of Indian Idol Junior! It was fun to watch Indian TV after many years. And we watched a very off-beat and Piku, a very off-beat comedy-drama. I enjoyed this movie, it has a lot of heart and great non-filmy (you know what I mean) acting. I see Amitabh Bachan in a totally different light now.

After watching all three hundred thousand episodes of Midsomer Murders, I was missing British crime drama and turned to Broadchurch, a British detective mini-series on Netflix. The story involves a crime (what else) that rocks a small community (what else) apart, and follows two detectives, one a friendly local and the other a brusque outsider (what else). It is a well-written, sad and dark narrative but worth watching. It doesn't hurt that it is shot in a gorgeous seaside setting.

Oh and I watched First Position, a documentary on Netflix that follows six young ballet dancers as they prepare for an elite competition that may decide their professional fate. (The name of the documentary, first position, refers to the one of the 5 classical foot placements in ballet.) The dancers are so young, so ridiculously talented, so insanely hard-working. This is a well-made documentary that is totally worth watching.

I love dance SO MUCH- all forms of dance, classical, contemporary, you name it. Dance moves me to tears the way music moves some people to tears. I took Kathak lessons for nearly a decade as a child and have been missing dance in my life these days. Certainly there's no Kathak teacher for tens of miles around me. We do have a dance studio in our town, but classes are expensive, the times and locations are not convenient and it is just really hard to fit one more thing into my schedule right now. I've been satisfying my dance cravings with an hour of zumba every week.

You can imagine my joyful reaction when my regular old gym announced some new fitness classes for Fall, and one of them is a ballet class. I've been going for a few weeks now (swapped in this class for another fitness class I was attending). It is a low-maintenance class in terms of gear; we don't wear tutus and ballet slippers- just any workout clothes and socks/bare feet. The instructor has 40 years experience teaching ballet; she retired from running her own ballet school. She either doesn't notice or doesn't care that none of the students in this class are spring chickens; she just teaches us in the same intense way she probably taught her 10 year old students. "Ballet is a bit like being in the army", she said in the first class, which just about sums up her approach! Not complaining. I actually love teachers who expect a lot from their students.

We're learning basic ballet positions and moves. It is all about posture, balance, core strength, discipline, intentional and controlled movement, and learning a lot of French ballet terminology as we struggle to plié and relevé and dégagé. All while being commanded to "feel beautiful". LOL. I don't know how beautiful I feel as I pick myself off the floor and hobble home after class, but this class makes me so happy. It is a mental health boost as much as anything else, and sheer delight at being able to live out a fantasy and feel like a dancer for a few minutes. 

What are you reading and watching these days?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

In a Pickle: Making Kimchi

The early years of life are full of firsts. The first step, the first word, the first feel of sand and waves on the toes. Every day is new and exciting. The novel experiences tend to taper off as the decades roll by. This past week my routine and quite predictable life got a jolt with two new experiences- running my first 5K race and taking my first ballet class. Actually, make that three experiences- a friend taught me to make kimchi- the fermented Korean pickle.

The 5K was the culmination of 10 weeks of training. Our race was a fundraiser for a therapy program for kids with special needs. At 7:30 AM on a thankfully not-blazing-hot race day, we were at the registration counter, picking up our bibs and feeling like legitimate runners as we pinned them to our shirts. We stretched as a group, wished each other well and joined the throng at the start line. At that point, I realized that the race course was a series of rolling hills- not a flat patch in sight- and my heart sank to the soles of my running shoes. Running is bad enough and hills really kill me. No turning back now.

The start was called and the elite runners took off like a shot. Calm down, guys. It's not a race, you know? ;) The rest of us started trotting after them. Running is a very mental thing. It is hard and I want to stop right away. I have to keep talking to myself non-stop and coaxing myself to take one step and then another and another. During the race, I distracted myself by looking at everyone around me. It was marvelous to see that runners (and walkers, and run walkers) come in all shapes and sizes and all ages. Everyone's out there doing their best and cheering each other on.

The race course went through a nice neighborhood. We ran to the halfway point, then ran back. I can't tell you how relieved I was to see runners coming back on the opposite side of the road. It meant that the halfway point must be somewhere within reach. The organizers had placed signs at each mile (5K= 3.1 miles.) The first mile seemed ridiculously long as I huffed up the hills. The second mile went by faster as I passed a water station, saw several of my running buddies returning from the halfway point and gave them high-fives, then passed the halfway point myself.

The third mile was pure misery; I was very tired and cross, asking myself over and over why I was doing this stupid thing anyway. I wanted to sit by the side of the road and cry. Meanwhile, elementary school-aged kids were passing me. Seniors were passing me. Somehow I stumbled to the end of mile 3 and a course minder said the magic words, "You're almost there". Then my running coach spotted me and urged me up the last hill. One last dash to the finish line- V was standing there with Lila and that cheered me right up and I made it to the end with a smile on my face.

My goal was to run the 5K in under 36 minutes- my time ended up being 35:46 minutes so I made it with 14 whole seconds to spare. I did technically run the whole way; I say technically because much of it was laborious jogging as if through molasses. I am SO GLAD I did this. The sweat and tears are totally worth it. I got inspired by people at the race. I saw myself in a new light.

Someone asked me later if the race was fun. Well, it was fun before the race and really fun after (several of us went out for brunch, sweat-soaked, wearing race bibs and all) but the actually running is definitely not what I would describe as fun. It may get easier if I keep at it. I'm not in the running program any more but plan to run on my own 2 or 3 times a week and sign up for another 5K in November.

* * *
Speaking of novel experiences, cooking as a hobby lends itself to many firsts- there are always new things to try in the kitchen. Today, my dear friend generously invited a small group to her kitchen and we made kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented Korean pickle, often spicy and garlicky, made with cabbage or radish and such. It is a recipe that she learned from her Korean-American college roommate.

Five of us gathered in my friend's kitchen. We were each instructed to bring a bowl with the vegetable that we wanted to pickle. Two of us brought napa cabbage. One got cubed diakon (white) radish and carrots and the last person got shredded turnips and red radishes.

The method for kimchi making is easy enough, in 3 steps:
1. Salt the vegetable to draw out the water.
2. Add the seasoning- ginger, garlic, red chili powder (you can buy a special Korean variety) and green onions.
3. Pack it into a jar and let it ferment naturally for a few days.

For a delicate vegetable like napa cabbage, in step 2, instead of adding seasoning directly to the salted vegetable, my friend had us make a paste of the seasoning (with some water and flour) and then apply it.


1. Chop 1 head of napa cabbage.
2. Add kosher salt- about 3/4 to 1 tbsp. salt per pound of vegetables.
3. Stir the cabbage and salt together and let the salt do its thing and draw out water from the cabbage. The cabbage will shrink dramatically in volume.

4. Meanwhile, heat 1 cup water and 1 tbsp. flour (rice or all-purpose flour) and bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in 1 tsp. brown sugar. Turn off the heat and cool to room temperature.
6. To this flour-water mixture, add 1 tbsp. minced ginger, 1 tbsp. minced garlic and 2-3 green onions, chopped, and the all-important Korean chili powder, about 2-3 tbsp.

7. After an hour or two of the cabbage marinating in salt, drain away the salt water and rinse the cabbage. Return it to a bowl.
8. Stir in the spice paste and mix well.
9. Pack into very clean glass jars, pressing the kimchi down with a spoon to get all the air bubbles out and make sure the vegetables are submerged in the spicy brine. This recipe with 1 head of cabbage gave me 2 full jars.
10. Set the jars on a plate at room temperature for 3 days or so to let it ferment. Then refrigerate. Eat after a week.

I'll update this post to show you what the kimchi looks like as it ferments, and to report on the taste!

While salting out our veggies, we snacked on kimbap, Korean seaweed and rice rolls. So delicious. Positively addictive.

Roasted seaweed sheets
Seasoned sushi rice
Pickled diakon radish
Shredded carrots
Sautéed spinach

Roll, cut, eat.

Cooking with friends has got to be the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Tell me what's new and exciting in your life!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

On the Run, and a recipe for Carrot Raita Dip

I heard a whoosh and Summer 2015 sped by before I knew it. For our family, the last couple of months went by in a blur- the guest room was solidly booked with visits from parents and friends, we spent a week in Minneapolis to see my sister with the requisite afternoon at the Nickelodeon theme park (my kid is an adrenaline junkie, much like her daddy and totally unlike me). Then we went on a 1600 mile road trip (over just 5 days!) for a reunion with old friends. Plus I've had a pretty big change in my schedule when I switched back to working full time a month ago.

A fun shopping trip on my travels: Nordic Ware, the baking ware manufacturers, have their factory right in the middle of Minneapolis. Last year, I spotted it but we couldn't get off the highway right then and missed going there. This time I dragged my mom and sister to the Nordic Ware factory store and we lucked out. They were having a giant tent sale- their first in a decade. Oh, the excitement of being surrounded by stacks of baking pans in every shape and size. Like being a kid in a candy store, only better. I restrained myself and only bought two pans: their classic bundt pan and a rose-shaped muffin pan.

At home, the kitchen was constantly busy but I never paused to try anything new or different- it was easier to trot out old favorites. I do have a recipe to blog about, though. We met up with friends for a potluck with the theme of "salads"- which seemed appropriate for August but in fact it turned out to be a rainy and cool evening. I was asked to bring an appetizer and made something very familiar but in a newish avatar- carrot raita served as a dip with chips.

I used tender curry leaves and minced them, so you don't have to pick out the leaves from the dip. A touch of chillies would be a nice addition for those who can handle the heat. Cucumber, beet or radish, even greens like spinach or kale would work well in place of the carrots.

Carrot Raita Dip

1. Heat 2 tsp. oil in a small pan.
2. Temper it with 2 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafetida, a few minced curry leaves.
3. Stir in 1 cup shredded carrots and salt to taste, cook them for a minute.
4. Cool the carrot mixture, then stir it into 1.5 cups Greek yogurt.
5. Add a handful of minced cilantro.
6. Chill and serve.

Serve with vegetable sticks or potato/lentil chips. 

* * * 
Summer 2015 will be memorable for another reason- it is my summer of running. In a moment of misguided enthusiasm, I signed up for a 5K race and have been training for it since July as part of a running group. We're a motley bunch of about 15 people and most of us are very new to running. We meet one morning and one evening every week. Our running coach is unrelentingly cheerful and supportive; she smiles sweetly while kicking our collective behinds. 

So far, it is been exciting, hard, painful, amazing- all of the above. And kind of hilarious. The very first time we met, the coach walked us down to the Olympic-size athletic track and announced that she's going to measure the baseline mile time for each of us. And I asked her- this shows you how stupidly unprepared I was for all this- how much of the track is a mile? Turns out it is FOUR TIMES around the track and I was like, NOOOOO in total disbelief. Is it too late to switch to the 100 meter training? That evening, I did run (or rather, run-walked) the mile, with a baseline time of 12:52 minutes. I thought I was going to die. My legs felt like lead the next day. 

Over time, we've built up a routine. The coach is a stickler about warming up, then running with good form, then cooling down and stretching. Each session focuses on something different- running up and down hills, keeping a steady pace, trail running, doing drills, trying to go slightly longer distances each time. 

Running sounds simple enough (you just put one leg in front of the other), but it is the hardest thing I have ever done. It takes cardiovascular fitness and stamina that I just don't have. Learning to run in 95-100 degree F heat and high humidity of Georgia has been interesting to say the least. As one of my teammates said, some days it feels like we're running on the surface of the sun.

Running with a group is what keeps us going. There is a sense of commitment and positive peer pressure. No matter the reason for not wanting to run- it is raining, you slept badly- you just show up and you run. Our progress is modest- we've gone from barely being able to run a mile to running 3 miles. Still, it feels scary and rewarding to step out of one's comfort zone and do something that you did not think you could do.

I've been working as steadily as I can, trying to keep up with my training through all the visitors and trips. I did short runs around the lake promenade next to my sister's home in Minneapolis, on a leafy urban trail in Virginia and in a nice hilly neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A Kenyan colleague stayed with us for 10 days in July and I dragged him out to run with me- "You're Kenyan, so you can run, right?" Yes, he could run. He protested about not being in shape, then casually ran 2 miles in 16 minutes.

The 5K is just a few days away. My goal is to run the whole race (not walk any portion of it, I mean) and to finish the race in 36 minutes or under. But it doesn't really matter what happens- just showing up, training and running with determination is enough. 

How was your summer? Tell me everything! I've missed being here. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tofu (or Paneer) Tikka Salad

On our way to drive a dear friend to the airport, we stopped for dinner at a popular Atlanta restaurant called Chai Pani which serves an eclectic selection of Indian street food. Restaurant menus are prime inspiration for the aspiring home cook and that day, I came away wanting to replicate the grilled paneer salad that we enjoyed there. The menu describes it as organic spring mix with pickled beets, red onions, cucumber & tomatoes topped with grilled house-made paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese). Served with cumin-lime dressing.

This evening, I made my own version of this salad for a quick weekday dinner.

The first component: The greens or the salad base. I find that eating fresh greens is all a matter of convenience- if the greens are prepped and chopped and sitting in a transparent box in the fridge where you can see them, they get eaten quickly. But if a head of lettuce is hidden in a bag in the crisper, it is likely to languish there and end up in the compost heap.

The game-changer has been to prep the greens as soon as I get home from the store, before the greens get a chance to be shoved into the bottom drawer. I shred the lettuce or chop it into bite size pieces, then rinse it thoroughly in cold water and use a salad spinner to dry it as much as possible. Then I line a large plastic box with either paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and put in the chopped greens. I'll often top the greens with other salad components, like shredded carrots and strips of bell peppers. Then the lid goes on tight and the box of greens is ready- it lasts for several days in the fridge and I can pull out handfuls at a time to make all kinds of salads.

The second component: The grilled tikka. Tofu or paneer would work equally well here- in my home, paneer tends to be something we make when we have company and tofu is more of an everyday ingredient. This morning, I made a quick marinade similar to this one, whisking yogurt, besan, tandoori masala, ginger garlic paste and salt together. I drained the tofu, patted it dry, cut it into cubes, mixed them into the marinade, and refrigerated it for the day. Right before dinner, I heated a non stick pan with a bit of oil and pan-fried the marinated tofu until it was golden brown and crispy. Of course, a real grill or broiler would work great for this step as well.

The third component: The dressing. We got some mint in the last veggie box. I pulsed together chopped cilantro and mint to a paste, then stirred in yogurt, cumin powder, salt and lemon juice to make a quick sauce.

The final component: Thinly sliced onions marinated with lemon juice and a bit of salt. The lemon juice quickly pickles the onions and takes the harsh raw edge off.

Finally, just assemble the salad: a bed of the salad mix, topped with warm tofu cubes, a garnish of onions and a generous dollop of dressing. We loved every bite. I can't wait to make this for all my family and friends- it has all the makings of a crowd-pleaser.

*** *** ***

Summer 2015's reading has been extremely rewarding so far....

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. A beautiful, articulate and thought-provoking book on aging, elder care and preserving a person's quality of life at the end of their life instead of simply prolonging it at all costs.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg. Another very vivid and thoughtfully written book that took me deep into Afghan culture and into the lives of Afghan women.

Burnt toast makes you sing good : a memoir of food and love from an American Midwest family by Kathleen Flinn. This one is more light-hearted than the first two books. Flinn was raised as the youngest child of parents who were broke more often than not but who adored each other and embraced all sorts of whacky adventures. The book is full of her vivid, happy memories of family life.

I read some wonderful graphic novels:

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi. Through bold and graceful black and white sketches, Satrapi narrates the story of growing up as a precocious child of liberal parents in Tehran as it was rocked by the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq.

In American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang brings together three seemingly unrelated story lines into a funny and creative story, fable and memoir all rolled in one. I am astonished at the talent of these artists. You can read graphic novels so quickly, but each and every panel is drawn so painstakingly and is a work of art in itself.

Right now, I'm reading Think Like a Freak (Freakonomics #3) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and it promises to be interesting. 

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.

*** *** ***
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. 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.