Thursday, January 12, 2023

Instant Pot Black Bean Stew

A theme of the last week of 2022 and the first week of 2023 was that we were putting out fires, figuratively- burst pipes, flat tires on cars, and the like. The most upsetting of these incidents was that Duncan got bitten on the face by another dog. 

We needed care for Duncan while we were away in New Orleans for a few days, and found a great pet sitter who could take our pup into her own home. For several days, Dunkie has a blast with the loving pet sitter, her dog and other guest dogs she was hosting over the holidays. Then, literally two hours before we were to pick him up, the sitter's dog inexplicably attacked Duncan and left him with gaping wounds on the forehead and cheek, digging into a tooth pocket. Dunkie spent hours at the vet being sedated to get his wounds cleaned, and came home groggy, with a regimen of pain meds and antibiotics. We were distraught that he had to go through all this, just two months after his cancer surgery. The silver lining is that the bites could have been much worse than they were- so close to his eyes- and his wounds healed quickly, so we are grateful for that. Also, the dog sitter took full responsibility and covered the vet bills, which I am sure were considerable (they always are). 

Life is getting back to its routine rhythm. These days, I'm back in the office 3 days a week and working from home the other 2 days. Even though my commute is barely 10 minutes, it does mean that I have to plan ahead and keep dinner ready for the days I'm at the office. (We eat super early!!) Recipes that are even slightly more involved, like enchiladas, are now out in favor of recipes that virtually cook themselves, such as this black bean stew which I make at least once a week. 

Black Bean Stew

1. Soak 2 cups black beans in lightly salted water for 6-8 hours

2. In an Instant Pot insert, add

  • Soaked black beans
  • Frozen fire roasted bell peppers and onions (or chopped fresh veg)
  • Minced garlic
  • 2 chopped canned chipotle chilies
  • Canned or fresh crushed tomato or tomato paste
  • Dried organo
  • Ground cumin
  • Smoked paprika
  • Salt
  • Enough water to cover the beans plus more as needed

3. Pressure cook on HIGH for 14 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally. 

The chipotle chilies and smoked paprika give a wonderful depth of favor. I serve this stew in many different ways- as a soup with a quick quesadilla, or in a bowl with rice (brown rice is wonderful here), chopped onions and cilantro, a bit of sour cream, avocado, or cheese, lettuce or cabbage slaw- just whatever I have on hand. Pinto beans can also be used in place of black beans. 

* * *

This week I am...

Eating- We went over to our friends' place for a casual supper, and they made the most delicious thin crust pizzas. Our friend rolled out and stretched dough onto individual pans (he told me he bought them from a local Holiday Inn when they had a closing down sale!) and set out toppings so we could each make our own pizza. My homemade pizzas are the thick focaccia-style ones, and while those are great, these thin crust pizzas were a treat. Our friend mentioned that the pizza dough recipe came from the cookbook Ratio, and is the 20 ounce flour: 12 ounce water ratio. Someone has posted the recipe here. It does require a scale which I don't own. 

Watching- The 2022 series of the British Baking Show; one or two episodes of the kid version of the British Baking Show (it bothers me that they don't set simpler challenges for kids); random episodes of Murder, She Wrote

Reading- I'm in a reading slump where I pick up a book (and another and another) but find that I'm not in the mood for it. I think a trip to the library this weekend will perk me up. I did read an adorable book- Yummy: A History of Desserts, a middle grade graphic novel. With enticing stories and a few easy recipes, this book is informative and fascinating. My favorite part of this book is the world maps depicting how, say, doughnuts have versions across cultures. 

Trying- Two new classes at the gym. I wore boxing gloves for the first time for a cardio boxing class! The class is not a good fit for me, but it was fun to swing those boxing gloves around :)

How is the first half of January going for you?

Monday, January 02, 2023

Happy New Year, plus New Orleans Pics and Thoughts on Feeding Young Ones

Happy 2023! Another year is in the books and we have a blank slate in front of us. In these anxious and unsettled times, I'm wary of making any predictions, but cautiously hoping for the best. 

On a personal note, my word for 2023 is PAUSE. It represents an overarching theme to work on all year. Pause and not be so reactive with my kids. Pause and take a minute to enjoy the day. Pause and be more intentional. Pause and collect my thoughts and things before leaving the house. P-A-U-S-E. 

I don't know what this year will bring, but the graphic below shows some things I'm hoping for- making a long overdue trip to India, running a 5K in February with my daughter, and getting into the habit of meditating- which I have tried and failed to do over and over again. No sense stressing out about meditating; I will keep trying.

* * *
2022 had me traveling way more than usual. I took one international trip- to the UK- and visited four great American cities- Chicago (conference), Philadelphia (work but also fun because I met teammates in person and I love them), Seattle (conference but also fun as I met up with family and friends), and New Orleans (family fun). Here are some pics from the NOLA trip- it is a charming, fascinating city. 

Wrought iron balconies

Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde

More beignets

Colorful homes

A rosewater latte at Bearcat cafe

Street art

Street music

* * *

I was asked in a comment, "What are your thoughts on bread and all purpose flour? How much is too much?" and that's an interesting question. The short answer is I would buy and consume a LOT less bread and all purpose flour if I was not living in a home with children. But since I am living in a home with children, bread and all purpose flour are my compromise. Let me explain. 

Kids are born with different levels of pickiness, in my experience. You can influence it, sure, but you cannot control what they eat. I have two kids that were raised the same. Child 1 is an adventurous eater (she ate pickled okra with fried eggs for breakfast every day when she was 2 years old) while child 2 eats like six things in total. At a restaurant two days ago, child 1 asked for Greek salad, said she was craving vegetables, and tasted food from everyone's plate, while child 2 asked for French fries and nothing else (wait, no, he did eat gummy worms for dessert). Kids grow out of it so I try not to waste time worrying about the pickiness. My sister and I were very poor eaters as kids and we are nothing like it now. 

For child 2, bread is the one thing he will eat reliably. PB+J sandwiches is what he eats for lunch every day, and grilled cheese sandwiches fill in the gap when he refuses to eat what I make for dinner. I always- ALWAYS- set up a plate of regular dinner in front of him- curries, dals, pasta, tacos- whatever we're having. Whether he picks at it or not is 50:50. 

For child 1, bread represents independence. I want my kids to be competent cooks by the time they leave home. Around age 10, it is reasonable to be able to follow simple recipes and be sous chefs under my direction, and also to fix their own simple meals. Since this summer, child 1 has fixed her own lunch boxes for day camp, etc. She'll make a sandwich (Caprese is a favorite), add fruit, a granola bar, some veggie nuggets and so on. She makes lunches for herself and her friends with whatever she can find in the fridge. She chooses and helps herself to her own breakfast every day, no matter if it is something simple like yogurt, fruit, toast or cereal, or something a little more involved, like avocado toast and omelet. 

Two kitchen items have really helped her along- one is a little ceramic bowl for making omelets in the microwave oven in 45 seconds, and the other is a toaster oven. The toaster oven is so much easier and safer for budding cooks to use independently. 

Recently, V was out of town and I had leftover curry in the fridge for dinner. Neither kid wanted the curry so I happily ate it myself and invited them to feed themselves whatever they liked. Big sis set up a step stool and got lil bro to grate cheese. They worked together- a miracle in itself- and made tomato grilled cheese sandwiches in the toaster oven, with peeled oranges on the side. It may not be a nutritionally marvelous dinner, but they made it themselves, and that counts for a lot in my book. 

Likewise, all purpose flour is my way of making child-friendly foods at home- pancakes, waffles, muffins- with relatively less sugar and more wholesome ingredients. In time, I hope they will both expand both their cooking and eating repertoire, and be grateful for every meal.

* * *

This week I am...

  • Watching Dine With Me, a reality show where strangers cook dinners for each other and rate each other's dinner parties (we found this time-pass show at our vacation rental and it was ridiculous drama, but I had fun imagining what I would cook...) + this cute music video recommended by my sister. 
  • Reading Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged by Brittany Polat- you can tell that I'm tired of constantly losing it at my kids' shenanigans :D 
  • Listening to lots of 80s and 90s music
  • Starting to train for a 5K run
  • Making cinnamon swirl bread- one loaf for home and the other to donate to a local soup kitchen. I finally bought a stand mixer a couple of years ago and use it often. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but this bread exceeded my expectations. My kids wouldn't believe that I made it.
  • Cinnamon swirl bread

    Loaves of fresh bread

  • Assembling a birthday gift for my sister. It was a "five senses" gift with something for each of the senses- a customized playlist and earrings for Sound, skin care products for Touch, a colorful board game and jigsaw puzzle for Sight, a cookbook and recipe binder for Taste and perfumes for Smell. Plus a book on spirituality for the sixth sense, Insight.

How did you spend winter break? Are you making any resolutions for 2023?

Saturday, December 24, 2022

10 Freezer Staples, and One Thing I Never Freeze

Georgia has been in a state of emergency this weekend with extremely cold weather. In keeping with the freezing weather outside, I thought of writing this freezer-themed post. The list below is long and I certainly don't have all of these items in the freezer at all times. They rotate in and out. But each of these has, at various times, saved us from a mediocre takeout meal, fed last minute guests, or fended off an untimely grocery run. 

Blanket weather

10 Freezer Staples

  1. Fruit
    • Frozen blueberries: I eat some for breakfast every day
    • Other frozen fruit like cherries, peaches, mango which I use for
      • Smoothies
      • Protein shakes
      • Quick compotes for topping pancakes, cheesecake, etc. 
    • Seasonal buys like cranberries- purchased after thanksgiving and used for desserts and date cranberry chutney in winter
  2. Vegetables
    • Boxed spinach for lasagna, saag, casseroles
    • Edamame as a quick side for Asian-inspired meals
    • Okra- okra sambar and okra-potato sabzi
    • California medley- for sipping soup
    • Fire roasted peppers and onions- soups, stews, stir-fries
    • Italian beans/ green beans- sabzi and khichdi
    • Peas- curries, samosa filling, peas pulao
  3. Basic ingredients
    • Ginger garlic paste- I make enough to fill several small jars and pull them into the fridge one at a time
    • Ginger, chopped- mainly used for chai
    • Coconut- chutneys and curries
    • Butter- baking
    • Puff pastry during the holidays
    • Dosa batter
  4. Flours
    • Almond flour for baking
    • Flaxseed meal for adding into oatmeal and baked goods
  5. Plant-based meat substitutes
    • Quorn nuggets- my son takes two in his lunchbox every day
    • Chikn strips- meal starter
    • Crumbles- meal starter
  6. Breads
    • Sliced bread- sandwiches
    • Mini naans- quick pizzas
    • Burger buns, rolls
    • Rotis and parathas
    • Tortillas- wraps and quesadillas
  7. Hash brown patties
    • Aloo tikki chana chaat
    • Hash brown casserole
  8. Frozen meals
    • Store-bought- for those occasional times when we have no lunches on hand and no time to fix anything, it is easier to grab a boxed meal from the freezer than to walk out and find lunch in the cafeteria. We have a few favorites from Trader Joe's that we keep on hand- palak paneer (although that's been out of stock for months), vegan tikka masala, chana masala
    • Homemade- when I have extra curries/dals on hand, I box them in individual servings. A relevant post: On freezing Indian food
  9. Take out fake out stuff
    • Frozen dumplings
    • Vegan orange chicken
    • Veggie burgers and frozen fries
  10. Extra food that can be frozen for later use instead of being wasted
    • Overripe bananas
    • Cheese, shredded
    • Sweets and treats
One thing I never store in the freezer- spices. I find that it completely kills the taste.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the fridge and crisper were quite bare and I needed to put together a quick dinner. The freezer came to the rescue with a box of spinach. I paired it with a block of hi-protein tofu to make this spinach and tofu curry, inspired by Vegan Richa's recipe. It literally takes 20 minutes to put together and was a good reminder of how it helps to keep a well-stocked freezer. 

Every few weeks, I do a freezer eat-down by scanning for items that have been in there for a while and planning to use them up in the next week. 

What do you have in your freezer that you don't see on my list? 

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

A Bit of Holiday Baking

2022 is rapidly coming to an end but not before we kick off year-end festivities with a few sweets and treats. I haven't done any full-blown holiday baking yet but here are a couple of treats from the last couple of weeks. 

Holiday Lights Cupcakes

My daughter's school hosts an annual holiday market every December. Kids, parents and teachers are all invited to sell their homemade goodies to the school community. It is a whole lot of fun to see budding entrepreneurs selling their wares- jewelry, soaps, bookmarks, sweet treats, origami ornaments, and so much more- with carefully decorated signage and charming salesmanship. 

My daughter sold tubs of sugar scrub that she made with a friend, and some melt bead jewelry and homemade cupcakes. The holiday lights cupcakes looked adorable, were tasty, and they sold out quickly! 

They were easy and fun to make. We used this recipe for two dozen soft cupcakes, and made a half batch of this buttercream frosting. Each cupcake got a flat layer of frosting, and then my daughter drew "strings" with a black writing gel pen (sold in the baking aisle of supermarkets) and added some M&M candies as colorful lights. 

* * *

Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

I've long admired baking projects of shaped sugar cookies with intricate icing but always thought that cut out sugar cookies were too much of a bother with having to chill and roll out dough. My daughter's class was doing a cookie decorating event and a batch of sugar cookies was requested, plus I have a bunch of cute cookie cutters that were handed down by a friend who was downsizing, and they have been sitting around sadly unused. This recipe looked very promising, and the word that jumped out at me was "play-doh". I might be severely lacking in the dough rolling/ roti-making division, but you better believe that I've done my time with many, many tubs of play-doh in these last few years. 

And the recipe really is everything it promises. It resulted in a beautifully soft play-doh like dough, and my daughter enjoyed rolling it out and stamping out cookies, re-rolling the scraps several times to make more batches. It made a LOT of cookies and they were soft and tasty. The trickiest part, I would say, is determining when the cookies are done baking. You want them to just get firm, not brown. 

The cookie decorating event was postponed, and these cookies are safely sitting in the freezer waiting for their turn with icing and sprinkles.

* * *

This week I'm...

  • Watching Season 3 of Derry Girls
  • Reading Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation by Linda Villarosa- a brilliant book
  • Listening to That's Where I Am by Maggie Rogers and Block Rockin' Beats by The Chemical Brothers
  • Doing Fitness Blender's five day workout challenge for busy people
  • Making gift bags (for odd-shaped gifts) out of wrapping paper using this video tutorial

Enjoy the last two weeks of 2022!

Monday, December 05, 2022

Duncan Turns 10, and What I'm Reading

This weekend we celebrated the 10th birthday of our sweet big dog, Duncan. It was a special milestone because he has been grappling with medical issues for the last few months. We're grateful that our boy has made it to this birthday.

Big boy with a little birthday hat

Duncan started to have severe skin and digestive issues in the middle of this year. It was a suspected allergy, either to something in his food or something in the environment. The vet treated it with diet changes (expensive hydrolyzed food which he was NOT a fan of), topical applications, and injections of a neutralizing antibody, among other things. The problem was somewhat within control but then, we noticed a lime-sized lump under his "armpit". A needle biopsy showed mast cells, immune cells responsible for immediate allergic reactions. This is a form of skin cancer in dogs. 

Long walks in the fresh air

Duncan had surgery in late October to remove the tumor. The good news is that he recovered quickly from the surgery and his allergy symptoms have disappeared for now. His skin and digestion is back to normal for now, and he is feeling energetic and happy. 

The bad news is histopathology on the tumor showed that is a grade II tumor with actively dividing cells, so there is a chance the cancer has already spread and could recur. We weighed the pros and cons and decided not to treat him with chemotherapy for now. We are letting him live his life and enjoy each day with all the things he loves the most- treats, love and hugs, long walks and trips to the dog park.

Soaking in the sunshine

Sitting pretty

 * * *

Book report-- 

First up, books that are written for children or about children, but make for meaningful and satisfying (and quick) reading for adults--

Carrie's War by Nina Bawden, first published in 1973, tells the story of a brother and sister who were evacuated from London during WWII and sent to live with strangers in a mining town in the Welsh countryside. It is a wonderful coming of age tale and a wartime classic.

Another book set in wartime- White Bird by R. J. Palacio (published in 2019) is a beautiful graphic novel that tells the story of a young Jewish girl hiding in France in WWII. This is a very sad and very good story of how ordinary humans are extraordinarily kind and brave. 

Room to Dream by Kelly Yang (published in 2021) is the third installment of the Front Desk series. This was a fun and uplifting read. The plot line of a tween writing a newspaper column seemed unrealistic but I was surprised to learn that in fact this is exactly how the author embarked on her writing career at a very early age! Amazing!

On to fiction for adults--

This year I've been enjoying books by Elizabeth Strout. I love her perceptive writing about about inner lives and the human condition. The most recent one I read is Oh William!, published in 2021.

I always enjoy a juicy mystery for mindless reading. One I picked up at a used book sale was a good read- The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh #12) by P.D. James, published in 2003.

I have been reading many good non-fiction books--

A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by Neil Bradbury, published in 2022, was an easy and informative read, with case studies on some of the world's best known poisons. The author covers case studies with some (not in-depth) coverage of the molecular modes of action of these poisons. The most fascinating chapter for me by far was the one on Polonium-210. 

Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe, published in 2022, was another crime-related read. This is a collection of Keefe's long form articles from the New Yorker magazine- several articles were fascinating, giving glimpses into the worlds of death penalty attorneys, wine forgeries and money laundering in Swiss banks, among other things.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham, published in 2019, is a gripping and well-researched book. We have all heard about this nuclear accident that is basically a synonym for nuclear accidents, but I felt like I finally learned more about what really happened, why it happened and how it was handled. Right after I read this book, my husband and I watched the HBO mini-series Chernobyl- also fascinating and worth watching. I'm still thinking about this book and series.

A book that I picked up partly because it sounded interesting, and partly because it is relevant to my work, is Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath and Karla Starr, published in 2022.  This is an engaging read, especially for anyone whose work involves science communication. Humans are bad at truly understanding anything bigger than very small numbers, so we should think of alternative ways to communicate numbers by translating them. Some examples from this book- Try focusing on "1" instead of a larger number. Instead of saying there are 400 million civilian owned firearms in the US, say there's one for every man, woman and child, with 70 million left over. Recast in different dimensions. A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 32 years. Or saying that 1% is a penny out of a dollar. Convert to familiar objects. Instead of measuring the recommended serving size of a food in ounces, say that it is a size of a deck of cards.

I'll end with the most unusual, delightful and really quite terrific book I read this year- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders, published in 2021. After class 10, pretty early in my academic life, I was directed to the science steam of education and have not taken any humanities classes at a higher level. This book is essentially a graduate level literature course in book form, a novel (no pun intended) experience for me. Saunders teachers a university class on the Russian short story. In this book he features 6 short stories (in their entirety) by Chekhov, Tolstoy and others, and methodically dissects them to give (a) insights into the art and craft of short stories and how fiction works in technical terms, and (b) even more profound insights into how the short story, and fiction in general, is a reflection of human values and how it fosters connection. Reading this book makes me wonder if I have gained anything at all from all the fiction I've read in my life, and makes me want to think about books more deeply. 

What have you been reading these days?

Friday, November 25, 2022

A Crowd-Sourced Thanksgiving Meal

To all who celebrated Thanksgiving this week, I hope it was a good one! My sister and nephew were visiting for the week and we had a wonderful holiday together. Thanksgiving is a feasting holiday, a cook's holiday, and I enjoy planning my menu weeks in advance. This year, time slipped through right my fingers. A week spent in Seattle for work, assorted minor respiratory illnesses going through the family, some volunteer commitments on Saturdays...all of that left me blinking last weekend, wondering how Thanksgiving could already be around the corner. 

Pumpkin pie!

I decided to crowdsource the menu this year, and went around asking each family member what one or two things they would love to eat at Thanksgiving. These were the responses- 

Husband: Mushroom Wellington

Daughter: Mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy and cranberry sauce

Son: Mac and cheese

Nephew: Pumpkin pie

Sister: Apple cobbler

Me: Turkey-less roast from Trader Joe's, because we get that each year, and some vegetables to round out the meal

Portobello Mushroom Wellington

And just like that, we had our menu-

  • Two main dishes
  • Three sides
    • Mac and cheese, a stovetop version
    • Mashed potatoes
    • Roasted green beans and Brussels sprouts
  • Two must-haves
    • Cranberry orange sauce 
    • Mushroom gravy
  • Two desserts
  • Two drinks
    • Apple cider (spiked with rum for the adults)
    • Coke (requested by the kids, a rare treat)

I went for a grocery shopping run on Tuesday and made sure we had all ingredients on hand. I made cranberry sauce on Tuesday. On Wednesday, my sister made the pie crust and I made mashed potatoes. We spent Thursday morning cooking at a leisurely pace. My sister made both the desserts. 

Apple cobbler- tastes like pie,
but so much simpler to make

Everyone was eager to dig into the food so we ate our Thanksgiving meal as a late lunch at 1:30 PM. This turned out to be a great idea because we were all done with cooking and could spend the rest of the day relaxing. My sister and I took the dog for a long walk and then did some sewing. V took the three kids to a movie- Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile- which they all thought was kinda strange and not their favorite. Then we had coffee and dessert and more Thanksgiving food later in the day. 

The rest of the week leading up to Thanksgiving was a lot of fun too. We watched movies- like Enola Holmes 2- and played our favorite board game, Codenames, and a memory game with the 6 year old. There was playground time and quite a bit of eating out. My sister and I assembled two jigsaw puzzles while listening to our favorite music. 

A quick seasonal decoration, made by wrapping
fabric around bath tissue rolls!

We sewed some mini stockings
as gift card holders for teachers

What did you make for Thanksgiving this year?

Monday, November 07, 2022

A Very Good Veggie Chili

Two weeks ago, in a cooking funk, and with the temperature dipping down quite suddenly, I turned to my Pinterest "Soup" folder and found a link to the boldly named Best Vegetarian Chili in the World. I was headed to the store and picked up some celery, a green bell pepper and a bag of frozen veggie crumbles. Everything else came from my pantry and I modified the recipe a little. I don't know about the best chili and all that, but it was a wonderful, hearty chili that made a BIG POT (we love leftovers around here). aIf that's good enough for you, read on for my version of the recipe. 

I realized that I don't have a go-to chili recipe. Maybe this is it! It required a bunch of cans but that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is this white bean chili recipe that I haven't made in a while- that will be something to put on the menu soon.

A Very Good Veggie Chili

  1. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in 1 chopped onion, and season with bay leaves, cumin, oregano, and salt
  2. Cook and stir until onion is tender, then mix in a bunch of chopped veg: 2 stalks celery, 1 green bell peppers, jalapeno peppers (I actually added 1 habanero pepper grown by a friend), 4-5 cloves garlic
  3. When vegetables are heated through, mix in the vegetarian burger crumbles. 
  4. Reduce heat to low, cover pot, and simmer 5 minutes.
  5. Mix 1 can crushed tomatoes and 1 can tomatoes with chilies into the pot. Season chili with chili powder and pepper. 
  6. Stir in 1 can rinsed garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and 1 can rinsed black beans. Add some water if needed. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer 30 minutes. Stir in some canned/frozen corn, and continue cooking for a few more minutes.

How to serve: I love eating chili just as a stew, topped with some minced raw onions and cilantro, and crushed tortilla chips. Maybe some sour cream and shredded cheese. But it is lovely alongside a simple quesadilla. If you have more time and motivation, make a pan of cornbread. Or serve it over brown or white rice. Possibilities! 

I'd like to flavor this recipe with ginger, garlic, garam masala and see how it works as an Indian-fusion chili. I'll report back! 

Do you have a favorite chili recipe? What are your favorite winter recipes?