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.

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.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Notes from the Equator

At the end of April, a colleague and I packed our bags and drove to the airport. Then came 2 long-haul overnight flights and 1 short-haul flight interspersed with lengthy layovers- 42 hours travel time in total, but who’s counting? We landed on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s third-biggest city, Kisumu. Right on the equator- zero degrees latitude. 

Sunrise on Lake Victoria

It was my first visit to Kenya, indeed my first trip to the African continent, but it felt like home right away. Maybe that’s because the project that I’ve worked on for over two years is based in Kenya, and so I work with Kenyans and for Kenya even when I’m in the States. As soon as I met my colleagues in person for the first time, it was like having an instant family there.

Kenya and India have many things in common- both are former British colonies. In Kenya, people commonly speak Kiswahili and the dialect of their tribe, but most people I met also spoke fluent English so it was easy to communicate. The country is home to a tiny minority of Kenyan Indians, and there are enough people of South Asian ethnicity residing in Kisumu that at least in the city I blended in and was often mistaken for a local. (It was different while doing field work in rural Kenya- there the school kids immediately called me out as a mzungu- foreigner.)

Sipping tea on the terrace
For a few weeks in May, I did get to live and work in Kenya as a local. We rented an apartment in town- a huge, lovely furnished terrace flat with a dozen large windows for the lake breezes to come right in. The weather was a total (and very pleasant) surprise to me. I expected to sweat it out on the equator, and instead, the temperature hovered between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there- basically my idea of paradise. I’m told that this has to do with the altitude, lake effect and the season of “long rains”, a season when thunderstorms come through almost every afternoon and leave everything lush and green and cool.

I chose a good time to visit. At other times of the year, the weather apparently gets much more sweltering and equatorial. After weeks of perfect temperatures, I landed in Atlanta on a 90-degree afternoon and said to myself, boy, do I have to go back to Africa for some cooler weather?

Breakfast: Spanish roll and white coffee
From Monday to Friday, we commuted to work, a forty-minute car or bus ride, half of it over dirt roads. I worked long hours, trying to make the best of the relatively little time I had there. Breakfast and lunch were served at the staff canteen, and the menu was the same every single day. 

Breakfast: White coffee (milk and water boiled together, with brown sugar and good old instant coffee stirred in) and Spanish roll- an omelet with peppers, onions and tomatoes rolled up in a chapatti. The other option for breakfast was mandazi- a huge donut like fried fritter but I never did try one.

Fruit salad

Lunch was ndengu (green gram/lentils stew), cabbage and sukuma wiki- sautéed greens. For meat eaters, there would be a meat stew and fried fish or chicken. Fruit salad came with chunks of watermelon and tropical fruits- pineapple, mango and avocado.

Spaghetti night
After work, we would often stop by the supermarket and pick up groceries, then cook a meal at home. We made spaghetti a couple of times, with cheese from Amsterdam, pasta from Italy (another colleague had just vacationed there), sauce with local ingredients, all washed down with South African wine. Another time I made chana masala and cabbage, and one weekend morning we made an elaborate brunch- pancakes with jam and omelets.

It is so much fun shopping in a foreign supermarket, where things are familiar yet different. I liked Kenyan tea- it is milder than the Assam tea that I’m used to, and in these weeks, I got used to drinking black tea- no milk, no sugar. And of course I had to check out the snack aisle and try Kenyan chivda and chilli-lemon flavored potato chips. 

Occasionally, we went out for dinner at different restaurants in town, for Ethiopian food, Chinese food and Indian food (they had the best paneer I’ve ever tasted). Indian food isn’t just found in Indian restaurants, it has a large influence on Kenyan food in general. Pilau (pulao) and chapatti and samosas can be found everywhere. I ate my weight in samosas, starting at the airport café at Nairobi! And one menu item I noticed in all bars and restaurants was chips, not the crisp packaged potato chips but what in India is called potato chips and in the US, French fries.

Ugali making in action
My favorite dinner, without a doubt, was when my Kenyan colleague had a bunch of us over to his bachelor pad for a typical Kenyan meal. If there’s a kitchen around, that is where you will find me, and it was no different in his home. I jammed myself into the tiny kitchen and tried to help. We made 4 dishes one after the other on a single burner- a meat stew, a vegetarian stew for me (soy chunks, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and onions). The third course was the must-have side dish in a Kenyan meal, the sukuma wiki (greens). Finally, he made the staple Kenyan starch- ugali, cornmeal cooked in water into a thick solid pudding. Chunks of ugali are broken off and dipped into sauces and side dishes and eaten.

Friday evenings after work we would go to a lakeside bar and watch the sunset over a Tusker and or Nile Special beer, or a spicy Stoney tangawizi ginger beer. Sunsets over Lake Victoria are spectacular and left me quite speechless.

Sunset on Lake Victoria

On the weekend, I went on a hike in the equatorial rainforest- we saw birds and monkeys, including a troop of baboons. Then we visited the family home of another colleague and his wife (a high school English teacher) who laid out a hearty Sunday lunch. She made a stew with soy chunks, carrots and onions and tomatoes, lentils, pilau (pulao cooked in stock), chapatti and cabbage. It was a pleasure to sit down to this big meal right after we’d been hiking all morning.

Lake Victoria is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world and dominates the landscape in this part of Kenya. I went out on a long boat ride at 6 AM to see the sunrise- again, a spectacular and memorable sight. There were beautiful water birds all around. But my favorite part was spotting the hippos. There is a herd of about 16 wild hippos in Kisumu bay and they are most adorable- those cute little ears! I saw a baby hippo and some adults. They snort and spout water and laze around in the lake. Hippos are also huge and territorial and they can move very fast and attack humans if they are annoyed, so it is best to coo at them from a safe distance, which is what I did.
Can you spot the hippos?
Kiswahili is a sweet language, the lingua franca of much of East Africa. During my time in Kenya, I learned a few phrases, apart from the all-important “food words” that I’ve mentioned before in the post. Asante sana (thank you very much), habari (what’s the news), karibu (welcome), hodi (knock knock), sawa (OK) and some Kiswahili slang thanks to one of my younger colleagues- I say mambo, you say poa. Oh, and kiboko (hippo)! 

Last week, I read a post titled 5 Things That Traveling Taught Me About Cooking and agreed heartily with what the author said. Here are 3 things that my Kenya trip taught me about cooking.

1. It is OK to eat the same thing again and again. What I saw of everyday Kenyan food was simple and humble with meals being much the same from day to day. And that is OK. Food is sustenance and not necessarily a big production in much of the world. I think I should stop worrying too much about serving something new and different every day. Lentils and sautéed veggies as the default meal works just fine. 

2. Simple ingredients can make flavorful food all by themselves. The home cooking and canteen food I tasted in Kenya was very minimally spiced. Even the local Peptang brand hot sauce tasted absolutely bland to me. Dishes got their flavor from basic ingredients like onions, tomatoes and carrots. At some point, I wished I’d thought to pack a small bottle of sriracha sauce and lime pickle, but honestly, eating this way was a revelation. I'm going to try going easy on spices some of the time and let simple flavors shine. 

3. Greens are good eats. In Kiswahili, the phrase sukuma wiki literally means to stretch the week, as in, cheap greens to stretch the more expensive ingredients of the meal. Sukuma wiki was my favorite thing about the food in Kenya. In the bazaar-type open markets, you can buy greens that are already finely shredded and ready to cook- 50 Ksh (50 Kenya shillings- approximately 50 cents) worth can feed a crowd easily. I loved seeing how easy it was to sauté them up and eat a big pile of greens at almost every meal. With the CSA boxes, I already have been eating more greens than ever this year, and this trip solidified my love for it.

I feel so lucky to be able to spend some time in Kenya- a beautiful land, home to beautiful, kind and friendly people. A lot of the people I know who work on African projects find themselves falling in love with the countries and the people in spite of the challenges of living and working there, and I can see why. Life is tough but people are tougher. I was very sad to fly out of Kenya and equally happy to land in Atlanta- which I guess is the mark of a successful trip. 

V, Lila and Duncan managed beautifully on their own, as I knew they would. The only thing I did for them was to stock the freezer and pantry with prepared meals. Since Lila’s birth, I hadn’t been away from her for even a single night, until I left for weeks. But V is an extremely competent Dad and she is old enough to understand where I am going and that I will be back. They went camping one weekend. Some cousins visited another weekend. V was even a "dance dad" and got Lila ready for her first ballet recital. With V's month long India trip closely followed by my own, we're all happy to be on the same continent and looking forward to enjoying summer together. And I hope you have a wonderful summer too!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The List: April 2015

April is my birthday month and always an interesting time for taking stock of my life. I spent the month having a mini existential crisis ("What am I doing with my life?"), catching up with old friends who call/e-mail with birthday wishes and consoling myself that age is just a number and the best is yet to come. Meanwhile, many of my quilter friends are decades older than me and when I tell them how old I am, they swat me away, saying, "Oh sugar, you're only a baby. Just you wait."

This was also a whirlwind month for us. V was out of the country most of this month. And now I'm off to Africa for a few weeks for work. One Hot Stove might be pretty quiet over the next month or so, but I wanted to leave you all with a little round-up of the highlights of this month.

Cooking: I got turnips again in last week's veggie box and since two readers suggested that I make turnip sambar, that's just what I made. This right here is officially my favorite way of eating turnips now. The turnips soaked up the tamarind and spice and were just perfect.

To go with the turnip sambar, I made some sautéed cabbage- tender and juicy, it is a great rice substitute to my taste. With a dollop of ghee, it made for a most satisfying meal.

Baking: Carrot cake. I used this recipe from The Kitchn, halved it and made it in an 8 inch round pan, and made a lighter frosting with much less sugar. Carrot cake and Spring, they just go together so well.

Reading a lot of random magazines and only a few actual books- On Immunity by Eula Biss, The Kitchn Cookbook by Sara Kate Gillingham and Faith Durand and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Laura Markham.

Watching intense documentaries on Netflix: Touching the Void- an incredible tale of mountaineering and survival, Dear Zachary- a documentary tribute by the filmmaker to his murdered friend, Into the Abyss about a death penalty case in Texas.

I also watched a couple of movies (again, movies that everyone else on planet Earth has seen years ago)- Groundhog Day and Bridget Jones' Diary- both were good fun, and Dirty Dancing- I've loved that last dance scene and song forever but finally saw the whole movie.

A friend recommended Smilla's Sense of Snow so I watched it, and thought it was full of atmosphere but with the most absurd plot. And my all-time favorite show is now on Netflix- M*A*S*H- and that makes me so happy.

Laughing at Lila and Duncan. Our gentle giant puppy Duncan has finally stopped growing. I think. He was 95 lbs in January, 95 lbs of pure goofy sweetness. He loves little kids, he loves people, he loves other dogs, he even loves cats. And people love him- we can't take him anywhere without people stopping to coo over him.

Duncan is big enough that he feels like he can get away with anything. I caught him sitting on my bed atop the freshly laundered sheets and yelled at him to get off. Lila heard me, marched into the room and said, "Mama, you yelled at Dunkie and that hurts his feelings. Please can you ask him nicely? Try again." So not only do I have an over-sized dog who won't listen to me, but I have a over-sized dog who won't listen to me and who has his own spokesperson.

Lila is at the age (3) where kids are highly entertaining. Lila is in a hurry to grow up. She can't wait to be 5 years old like the cool older kids in her class. She asked me, "Mama, when I am 5 years old, can I drink coffee, use markers and wear a bra?" I told her she could do one of those three things, but she can't use markers till she's 10.

They teach her all kinds of things in preschool. Lila came home talking about Abraham Lincoln. Who's Abraham Lincoln, I asked her. "He's the cutest president of the United States".

Tell me what you're been eating, reading, watching and laughing at. 

I will be back to the blog in a few weeks, when I return from Kenya- my first trip to Africa. Wish me luck!