Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Pav bhaji with a very pav-like focaccia, and what I'm reading

A couple of months ago, I heard of a program in our community that delivers food to seniors in need. Someone came up with the idea to add homemade bread to the food delivery as a gesture of love, and asked for volunteer bakers. I volunteered to send two loaves, and decided that one would be sweet and the other savory. I ended up being a cake baked in a bread pan and a bread baked in a cake pan.

This happened back in March, and for the sweet bread, I decided on a pumpkin loaf to use up the last can of pumpkin puree for the season. I found a recipe for easy pumpkin bread that uses a whole can of pumpkin and makes 2 loaves- one to share, and one for home. 

For the savory bread, I wanted to make a focaccia, because it is a versatile bread that can be made into a sandwich, or toasted, or served with soup. I hunted for a recipe with the main criterion being that it would make two loaves, again, one to share and the other to keep.

Finished focaccia

And somehow I stumbled upon this gem of a recipe. The ridiculously easy focaccia- as it is titled- is really, truly that easy. I followed the recipe closely. However, I was able to avoid using plastic wrap, just covering the bowl with a lid and also avoided lining the cake pans with parchment. My cake pans are dark non-stick metal and the focaccia slid out easily after baking. 

Dimpled, bubbly and ready for the oven

This recipe is a total keeper! With no effort at all, I got focaccia that was flavorful, airy, pillowy with all the good hallmarks of pav, being crusty on the outside but soft on the inside. 

* * * 

This weekend I made the focaccia again, as a pav to dunk into pav bhaji. 

My pav bhaji recipe has been a popular one on this blog, and one I've used for years, and I made the same recipe, just in an instant pot, using the saute mode followed by the pressure cooking mode.

  1. Saute 1 minced green pepper
  2. Add ginger-garlic paste, salt, turmeric, red chilli powder,  pav bhaji masala
  3. Add 1 cup of tomato puree
  4. Add rough chopped 2 potatoes and 1 medium head cauliflower.
  5. Pressure cook for 4 minutes
  6. Natural pressure release (or quick release after 10-15 minutes)
  7. Mash it up
  8. Simmer for a bit to thicken

IP pav bhaji

Serve with onion, cilantro, lemon and extra spice! 
Also butter.


* * *

Some good reads from the last few months-

Three Keys by Kelly Yang. This is the sequel to Yang's middle-grade book, Front Desk, which I adored. Mia Tang is back- a sixth-grader who helps her parents run a motel. This book is set in the 90s and covers the immigration-related political events in California at the time. 

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. This book was a very thoughtful and unexpected gift. The cover art is gorgeous. 12 year old Jude tells her story- in free verse- of leaving an unstable situation in Syria with her mother and fleeing to her uncle's home in suburban America. With ups and downs, she finds her footing in middle school. A beautiful story!

“There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It is said about
the nicest
kindest
people.
The type of people
who help you
rise.”

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. This one is a non-fiction parenting book by my favorite duo who wrote another book that I adore. My two kids are typical siblings in the "can't live with you; can't live without you" style, and it is always nice to find ways to quell some of the sibling drama that inevitably happens. A few of their tips:

Feelings-- Acknowledge negative feelings about a sibling in words and express what the child might wish. Show better ways to express anger but stop their hurtful actions.

Comparisons-- Avoid unfavorable comparisons AND favorable comparisons. Instead describe what you see, what you feel or what needs to be done.

Equality-- Instead of worrying about giving equally, focus on each child’s needs. Instead of claiming equal love, show each child how they are loved uniquely. Give according to need.

Roles-- Don’t lock a child into a role and don’t let the child themselves or their sibling lock them into a role (the bully, the victim, the smart one, the pretty one)

Fights-- In case of physical fights, pay attention to the injured party, not the aggressor.

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Just a good escapist cozy mystery. Or actually, two cozy mysteries in one book!!

Humans by Brandon Stanton. Stanton goes around the world interviewing people. Everyone- absolutely everyone- has a story and Stanton wants to hear it. This book is a collection of some of the photos and stories and it gave me all the feels. Stanton runs a blockbuster Instagram account- here's one of my favorite stories that he has featured- I dare you not to tear up. 

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon. I read this book for a task in the Read Harder challenge: Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness. Solomon has written an absolute tome on depression- part memoir, part investigative journalism, part history. 

How are you doing? What are you cooking and eating?

Saturday, April 17, 2021

California rolls, knock-off Hot Pockets, and what I'm watching

In my last post, I introduced the United Tastes virtual travel project that my daughter and I have started, and shared what we made for the four "A" states. Our alphabetical journey continued west from Arkansas to the great state of California, the Golden State

California is a state that is golden in many ways- it bears an outsize influence on the culture of the US and the world in general. There is so much to learn and admire about this state and its people. We read three books about different aspects of California history and life. The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock is an interesting slice of history and a tale of how a leader's vision helped to put laws in place to conserve some of our outstanding natural resources in the form of national parks. Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants by Tony Johnston is a funny tale of how denim jeans came into vogue in the days of the California gold rush. In First Day in Grapes Book by L. King Pérez, the author tells a story about a migrant child who goes to a new school every few months as his family travels from place to place to pick different types of produce in California.

California food presents us with a number of choices. There is the famous San Fransisco sourdough bread, which is enjoying a trendy moment at this time but is more of a commitment than I wanted to make. The ever popular ranch dressing and green goddess dressing were both invented in California. Other choices were California club sandwiches and mission burritos. But my daughter suggested California rolls and that's what we went with. 

California rolls are a type of sushi, non-traditional but highly popular. They are characterized by being rolled inside out, with rice on the outside and the seaweed sheet inside. Usually they contain crab or imitation crab, but we followed this recipe for a vegan California roll. The other Cali-special ingredient in this roll is avocado. 

California rolls in the foreground and "regular"
sushi rolls in the background

The first order of business was to go to the local Asian store and buy some sushi rice (grown in California!) and roasted nori (seaweed) sheets. I already had seasoned rice wine vinegar at home. To serve with the sushi, I also bought a small tub of sweet pink pickled ginger. 

The vegan "crab" mixture calls for chickpeas, cabbage, carrot, etc. with a dash of cashew paste for creaminess. As odd as it might sound, it tasted really great. 

I made a cup of sushi rice in the instant pot. Then we laid out the "crab" filling, and thin slices of cucumber and avocado. We had fun rolling the inside-out California rolls with the help of a bamboo sushi mat, although they turned out far from perfect in our inexpert hands. Still very tasty, though! For a change, we also made some "regular" rolls using the same ingredients. Funny enough, the rice-out rolls tasted better to me. With the leftover ingredients, I made some sushi bowls the following day, also good to eat and very easy to put together!

It was fun to try something new, and I was gratified that it turned out tasty at the first try. Now I have 5 pound of sushi rice and will have to make these frequently over the next few months. This is good timing, as sushi rolls are a refreshing and light choice during the summer months. 

* * *

From California, we flew to Colorado, the Centennial State. We read two fascinating books about the history of the region- Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer by Deborah Kogan Ray, and The Ancient Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde by Caroline Arnold. We had the opportunity to visit Colorado for a cousin's wedding a few years ago, and it is such a spectacular place.

For Colorado we considered making a Denver omelet, which is a thick and sturdy American-style omelet (almost a frittata) with onions, peppers and ham. Another choice was to make a batch of trail mix, because I strongly associate Colorado with hiking, climbing and other outdoor adventures fueled by a baggie of trail mix. 

It turns out that Hot Pockets, the frozen microwaveable snacks, were invented by a pair of immigrant brothers in Denver, CO, in the 70s. I've never actually bought or tasted Hot Pockets but this factoid reminded me of the comedian Jim Gaffigan's bit on Hot Pockets, parodying their ridiculous ad jingle. We decided to make our own Hot Pockets for this state's food.

Hot Pockets! 

I found this knock-off recipe, which calls for a quick dough that is somewhat like pie crust. Normally, I would use puff pastry dough or something as a short-cut for pastries of this sort, but this dough came together in just a few minutes. I simply used a bowl, not a stand mixer. I stuck the dough in the fridge while I made the filling- mushrooms sautéed with some onions and garlic, with a bit of tomato sauce and Italian seasoning. 

When we were ready to make the Hot Pockets, I rolled out the dough, sliced it into 8 portions, added some filling + mozzarella cheese to each pastry sheet, then folded and crimped them. The resulting mushroom Hot Pockets were absolutely delicious! The crust was tasty and it would be perfect for samosas

* * *

My TV watching time is severely limited these days. I just go to bed as soon as the kids go to bed, and sometimes even before they go to bed! But here are a few good shows from recent months.

Looking around for some light reading, I checked out Tina Fey's memoir, Bossypants, a book that has been on my to-read list for many years. I love Tina Fey's sardonic brand of humor and her work on SNL, and this book was really fun to read. I particularly enjoyed the behind the scenes chatter about 30 Rock and have now started watching 30 Rock on Prime streaming. A great escapist sitcom.

During dinner every evening, we have been watching a couple of episodes of Jeopardy! on Netflix. My husband and I are both trivia buffs. Alex Trebek hosted this show for decades; he passed away a few months ago. I happened to find Trebek's memoirs The Answer Is . . .: Reflections on My Life in the new books section of the library (yes, the library is open again and it the biggest joy to be able to browse again) and it was a very quick and fun read. With little snippets and anecdotes, Trebek shares some moments from his life and from behind the scenes at Jeopardy!

Perhaps the most gripping show I watched recently is Challenger: The Final Flight, a four part documentary series on Netflix on the ill-fated space shuttle mission. The demands of managers and bureaucrats were prioritized over the concerns of engineers, with devastating results. 

Wherever in the world you are, I hope you are safe and well. Please share snippets of your life- what are you eating? What are you watching? 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Chocolate fondue, vacation eats, and the United Tastes

I had some inertia after my last post in Jan that turned into an unplanned months-long break from blogging- chalk it up to not wanting to crack open a laptop in the evenings after cradling one all day for work. As for weekends, they seem to disappear without a trace. Now Spring is here and I thought I would pop in and share some food moments from the past few weeks. 

Valentine's Day fell on a Sunday this year. We planned a cozy family meal with a special dessert- chocolate fondue- featuring the stereotypical ingredients for that day: strawberries and chocolate. 

My 9 year old enjoyed making these strawberry hearts. As fruit carving goes, these are easy peasy. Lop off the stem, cut the strawberry in half vertically (stem to tip) and carve a notch at the top end to make the heart shape. 


For the fondue, I literally just made a chocolate ganache. 1/2 cup cream, heated until it simmers- then turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup chopped chocolate (I used a mix of dark and milk choc). Let it sit, stir until you have a nice creamy sauce. Serve warm. (Can be gently reheated if it gets too thick).

We served strawberry hearts and chunks of pound cake (store-bought this time) for dipping. Other things that would be nice for dipping include pretzels, graham crackers, bananas, apples- but we kept it simple with just two kinds of dippers. Hand a fork to each diner and let the dipping begin. What an excellent dessert for sharing with the ones you love! I can't believe we haven't done this before. 


* * *
One of my favorite things about the US in general, and Georgia in particular, are the state parks. National parks get lots of attention and kudos and that's great, but the state parks are accessible, scattered around the state and offering opportunities for low-cost, low-maintenance getaways that are a short drive from home. They are perfect for a family with young kids. We don't want to spend time in transit, and we don't need big, splashy destinations. Just a small, splashy destination preferably involving a lake, river, waterfall, ocean or other water body (both my kids absolutely love the water.) 

Earlier this month, we rented a state park cabin for the weekend and spent a couple of days next to a picturesque lake. I packed all the food we needed, and over this short vacation, we were able to go canoeing and hiking and build a campfire for s'mores. And it was all pandemic-safe- forget crowds, we barely encountered any other people. The cabin even had a small private lake beach right next to it. 

Row, row, row your boat

Eating on the porch

The little lake beach next to our cabin

Sunrise from the back porch

* * * 

From real travel to armchair-and-kitchen-travel- My daughter and I have started a project that we are calling the "United Tastes". She owns a book- Greetings From The 50 States: How They Got Their Names by Sheila Keenan, illustrated by Selina Alko. We are visiting each state- ahem, virtually- in alphabetical order, and reading a book or two from each state and making a food from each state. I've been writing about this project every weekend on Instagram; we are done with the first 4 states, all the ones that start with A. This project will take us well over a year. 

We started our journey right next door, in Alabama, and read a picture book about the civil rights struggle in Gee's Bend, Alabama- Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend: A Civil Rights Story by Alexander Ramsey Calvin and Bettye Stroud. We made banana pudding, a Southern specialty by layering vanilla custard with nilla wafers and banana slices. 

Banana pudding

Then we flew North to the vast expanse of Alaska, and made "fish" and chips, that is, frozen Gardein fishless filets and frozen chips, all cooked to perfection in a convection oven. The kids were so delighted by this meal. We read a book about how life (for animals and humans) in the frozen Alaskan landscape is so different from our own- This place is cold by Vicki Cobb. 

"Fish" and chips

Our next stop was back in the South, in the Southwest this time, in Arizona. We learned a bit about the Grand Canyon online (now that's a national park that I do hope to visit someday) and made baked veggie chimichangas- layering refried beans, cheese and sautéed veggies on a large tortilla, rolling it into a burrito and baking until crisp. This was a hit, a solid meal that will go into the dinner rotation.

Baked veggie chimichangas

Last week, we were in Arkansas. We read an Arkansas folktalk set in the Ozarks- Good Morning Granny Rose by Warren Ludwigand made Arkansas chocolate gravy- a sweet version of typical Southern breakfast gravy. I halved the recipe and reduced the sugar, and served the gravy on pancakes. The kids declared that chocolate gravy is even better than syrup. We might have to do this again for special birthday breakfasts. 

Pancake with chocolate gravy

This has been a really fun project so far and next week we will be in California. Any guesses for what we will make?

How are you all doing? What have you been cooking and eating lately?

Monday, January 18, 2021

Blog Post Redux: Make the Ghee, Buy the Paneer

I've been posting on One Hot Stove for about 16 years now. Yep, I've been blogging here practically since dinosaurs roamed the planet. I thought it might be fun to revisit some of my favorite posts from yesteryears. 

Today I am revisiting "Make the Ghee, Buy the Paneer" from March 2013. I started that post saying, "Once in a while, there comes along a book that is downright entertaining." Well, once in a while, there comes along a blog post that is downright entertaining to write, and this was one of those. 

The post centers around the question that every home cook has surely considered. In a world where anything and everything (and many things I could never have dreamed up) can be purchased in a store, should I buy or make any particular food or ingredient? In that post, I listed out things that I buy and things I make, and why. There are 99 comments on the post, counting both reader comments and my responses. Several readers chimed in with their own lists of things that they prefer to make or buy. 

In the post, I predicted, "This list has evolved since I started to cook, and will further change as I go along, I'm sure of it." What has changed for me in these 8 years? I still make all of the things that I used to make back then. But there is no denying that my life has gotten busier since that time.

It is said- Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two. Meaning, there are always three competing values of time, money and quality and there are compromises and trade-offs to be made. And truly, life in a nuclear family with two working parents and two young kids (not to mention a needy dog) does not lend itself to an abundance of free time. This past year has been particularly time-strapped as we are try to be playmates and companions to our kids on top of everything else. And so I prioritize getting a hot dinner on the table every evening, and make the extras that give the biggest bang for the buck (or the minute), using convenience foods to fill the gaps. 

Image: Goodreads

After I wrote that post, my dear friend Cathy gave me a cookbook that is written in a very similar vein, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila. This is a beautifully designed book and fun to read. When Chernila addresses the "why" of making foods at home in the introduction, she mentions, "Food made at home will change the way you think about food" and this is such a true and thoughtful statement. Making things at home does make you understand where food comes from and what goes into making it, at a time when we as a society seem to be consuming food products rather than eating food. 

Chernila's book is organized by supermarket aisle, and she provides a few homemade recipes for each aisle. Each recipe comes with a charming story or note, making this book more of a loose cookbook-memoir. I decided to take a tour of the supermarket with her and add my own notes.

Aisle 1: Dairy- Chernila gives recipes for making butter, buttermilk, yogurt and some cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella. 

I make- yogurt and ghee. I generally sub yogurt in recipes that call for buttermilk or sour cream. 

I buy- whole milk for the kids, non-dairy milk for the grown-ups, some cheeses as needed- cream cheese, ricotta, mozzarella, cheddar, paneer. 


Aisle 2: Cereal and snacks- The book offers recipes for granola, instant oatmeal, popcorn, cereal and granola bars, toaster pastries, potato chips, etc. 

I makegranola in large batches. My daily breakfast consists of steel-cut oats which also I make from scratch in batches in the instant pot every 4 days or so. I make snacks like cornflakes chivda, popcorn from kernels and mixed roasted nuts every now and then.  

I buy- some cold cereal to have on hand for the kids (I try to read labels and buy ones that are low sugar and high fiber that the kids will still eat.) I buy tortilla chips which we like as a topping for soups and bowls. And potato chips and other snacks are an occasional indulgence. 

I'd like to make- granola bars more often for the kids. 


Aisle 3: Canned fruits, vegetables and beans- applesauce, jam, pickles, sauerkraut, cranberry sauce, canning tomatoes and beans. 

I make- beans and lentils on a daily basis; cranberry sauce during the holidays.

I buy- cans of beans for last minute meals, Indian pickles and American pickles, cans of crushed tomatoes.

I'd like to make- refrigerator pickles. Quick pickled onions, for instance, are a lovely addition to many meals. 


Aisle 4: Condiments, spices and spreads- The book has recipes for ketchup, mustard, salsa, hot sauce, salad dressings, mayo, hummus, nut butter and a few spice mixes.

I make- salad dressings, some spice mixes like cumin-coriander powder, salsa, hummus, peanut chutney (podi).

I buy- hot sauce, nut butter, peanut butter, mayo, ketchup, mustard, some spice mixes.

I'd like to make- dips more regularly to always have on hand to accompany raw veggie sticks.


Aisle 5: Soups- Chernila gives recipes for stock, lentil soup, pureed soups etc.

I make- all kinds of lentil and vegetable soups.

I buy- jars of stock concentrate. 


Aisle 6: Baking needs and mixes- The book has recipes for pancakes, waffles, cornbread, yellow cake, frosting, pudding, vanilla extract, etc. 

I make- pancakes and waffles, cornbread, cakes, frosting, cornstarch-based vanilla and chocolate puddings.

I buy- a buttermilk protein pancake mix that my husband likes to use to make the kids pancakes on the weekends.

I have made my own vanilla extract once, years ago, by infusing vanilla beans that my boss brought back for me from Zanzibar. Except for that glorious exception, I buy vanilla extract. For the holidays, I treated myself to a big jar of vanilla paste (with the seeds in).

I'd like to make- pancake mix.


Aisle 7: Frozen foods- Chernila describes how to freeze vegetables, and gives recipes for pizza, veggie burgers, fish sticks, chicken nuggets and ice cream.

I make- extra portions of meals to freeze for later, ice cream and popsicles in summer.

I buy- frozen saag paneer boxes as emergency lunches, frozen peas, green beans, spinach, corn; some meatless frozen stuff like meatballs and nuggets. 

I'd like to make- more meals to freeze and stash away.


Aisle 8: Pasta and sauce-  The book has recipes for pasta dough, tomato sauce, pesto, mac and cheese and lasagna. 

I make- lasagna, mac and cheese, marinara sauce, enchilada sauce from dried chiles.

I buy- pesto outside of summer, bottles of pasta sauce for last minute dinners, dried pasta.

I'd like to make- gnocchi.


Aisle 9: Breads and crackers- Chernila offers recipes for burger buns, sandwich bread, tortillas, breadsticks, crackers, etc. 

I make- I rarely get around to making bread on a regular basis. It is an occasional project.

I buy- sprouted grain bread, rolls for the kids, wheat tortillas, corn tortillas.

I'd like to make- bread more regularly! 

Readers were most surprised/irked at my lack of roti-making skills in that post. For many Indian families, rotis (wheat flatbreads) are a number one staple and I did grow up eating them on a daily basis. But in my family here, we don't eat rotis on a regular basis- Indian vegetable dishes and curries in my home tend to be served with rice, or other grains, or just as a stew (think misal with toppings) or with dosa/adai


Aisle 10: Drinks- The book has recipes for lemonade, chai, herbal tea mixes, soda syrups, hot chocolate and liqueurs. 

I make- Chai, iced coffee (instant coffee frappes) in summer, hot chocolate in winter, smoothies, and the kids like to make lemonade and limeade on their own. My husband buys locally roasted coffee beans and grinds and brews his own coffee. 

I buy- loose leaf tea, herbal tea bags, instant coffee.

I'd like to make- hibiscus tea. 


Aisle 11: Candy and sweet treats- Chernila gives make-at-home recipes for supermarket favorites like Oreo cookies, Fig newtons, Twinkies, peanut butter cups and marshmallows. 

I make- date and nut treats; cookies occasionally, including almond biscotti, jam thumbprint cookies, cardamom shortbread.

I buy- pound bars of dark chocolate; cookies on occasion.


Your turn: Tell me what you buy versus what you make! 

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Welcoming 2021 with lasagna and jigsaw puzzles

2021 has arrived quietly after a year that felt about a decade long. Our little family celebrated New Year's Eve quietly at home with a candle-light dinner. The kids made some decorations with construction paper, and declared themselves in charge of appetizers- they put out a tray of crackers with peanut butter and jam, and some apple slices. I made a big pan of vegetable lasagna.

A friend had made and shared some delicious lasagna over Thanksgiving that we enjoyed, and sent me the recipe- vegetable lasagna, from Cook's Illustrated. With a filling of mixed fresh vegetables, and no-cook red and white sauces, it is a little different from my go-to recipe, the spinach lasagna from Cook's Country, which uses boxed frozen spinach and a red sauce, and some ricotta and eggs as part of the filling. 

I was happy to try this new recipe but of course, I altered it to suit what I had in the fridge (using up some jarred pasta sauce and ricotta) and my personal tastes (cutting down drastically on the cheese). The other thing about Cook's Illustrated recipes is that they can be head-scratchingly complicated at times, and I chose to make the vegetable filling in a simpler way. 

So here's my shorthand version of the vegetable lasagna recipe-

1. No-cook red sauce: I used a bottle of store-bought pasta sauce. 

2. No-cook white sauce: I used ricotta because I had it on hand, some half-and-half instead of cream, 3/4 cup parmesan, 1 tsp. cornstarch, and some minced garlic.

3. Veggie filling: (my easy way) On a sheet pan, toss together 1 diced Italian eggplant and 2 diced zucchini with some olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in oven- I use a 400C convection setting for 12 minutes. While veggies are roasting, heat a little olive oil in a large pan and saute a bag of baby spinach with garlic. Mix the roasted eggplant/zucchini and the cooked spinach- this is the veggie filling. 

4. Chopped kalamata olives: about 1/2 cup (we probably used a little more)

5. Chopped/shredded mozzarella cheese: about 1 and 1/2 cups

6. No-boil lasagna noodles- 12 of them


Assemble in a greased 9x13 tray in this order (fractions are portions of the ingredient):

Layer 1-

  • 1/3 red sauce
  • Shingle 4 noodles
  • 1/2 white sauce
  • 1/2 veggies
  • 1/2 olives
  • 1/3 mozzarella
Layer 2-
  • Shingle 4 noodles
  • 1/3 red sauce
  • 1/2 white sauce
  • 1/2 veggies
  • 1/2 olives
  • 1/3 mozzarella
Layer 3-
  • Shingle 4 noodles
  • 1/3 red sauce
  • 1/3 mozzarella
Cover with foil. Bake at 375F for 35 minutes. (Mixture should be bubbling). Rest for 25 minutes before cutting and serving.

On new years' day, in keeping with local traditions of eating lucky foods, we ate black eyed peas amti and collard greens wadi for dinner. 

* * *

In 2020, my daughter and I became jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts and assembled puzzle after puzzle. Little bro also caught the bug- "I'll find edge pieces for you, Mama". Over the holiday break, we had plenty of time to fill (I had two full weeks off from week- can't remember the last time that happened!)- and took on a variety of puzzles. Puzzling can be a wee bit addictive. 

Pokemon collage-style 1000 piece puzzle

Deer puzzle- tough because of the shaped border
and irregular pieces!

Gingerbread houses puzzle- came with different sized pieces
so kids and adults can both enjoy it

Landscape puzzle- 1000 piece

I was never a "candle person" but have discovered this month that a sweet-smelling candle can be a comforting presence in the evenings. Now the kids remind me to light a candle after dinner and it is our cue to wind down for the night with puzzles, books or games. It is a nice addition to our cozy evenings, and we'll especially cling to these simple pleasures over this winter.

Vintage wool shop puzzle- 300 piece

Happy New Year, and may 2021 bring a measure of safety, health, peace and stability to our hurting world. How was the holiday season for you? 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Thoughts on Sugar, Two Sweet Treats and a Book Report

Nicola Twilley recently had a fascinating article in the New Yorker on the race to redesign sugar. "In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy"...or sweetened yogurt/cereal/drink etc. etc. with added sugar. Well, that certainly changed in a big way and very quickly! The article talks about corporations taking on the challenge of designing a better sugar, "to continue selling countless sweet things in a world that is increasingly wary of sugar".  

Artificial sweeteners have not solved the problem. They don't taste the same as sugar and don't behave the same way as sugar in baking and cooking. The other issue with artificial sweeteners, even for people who don't mind the taste, is that they are not the get-out-of-jail-free-card that they seem to be. Our metabolism is complex and not easily fooled. One of the food scientists quoted in this article says "Anytime we think we've got one over on our biology, there will be collateral damage somewhere"

"The problem is that sugar isn't easy to replace" so the new race is to redesign sugar, and Twilley describes attempts to do so, by restructuring sugar crystals, embedding silica in sugar crystals, and manufacturing rare sugars (rare in nature) commercially that taste sweet but are unable to be digested by the human body. 

And this is what Twilley writes at the end of her article after taste-testing foods made with high-tech forms of sugar-

"As I cleared away the uneaten treats, I thought about all the money and the scientific ingenuity that had gone into creating them, and I started to wonder: "Couldn't we just eat less sugar?" BINGO!! 

"Just as the only good substitute for sugar is sugar, the only way to eat less of it, sadly, is to eat less of it."

As it happens, I've been trying to eat "less of it" for a while now, partly because everyone would be better off eating less sugar but also because of a strong family history of type 2 diabetes and a personal history of gestational diabetes. 

Why not go the whole way and just quit eating added sugar altogether? Many people do just that and are very much happier for it. And depending on my future medical needs, it is absolutely a step I am willing to take. But...but...at the moment, I am choosing the route of moderation rather than abstinence. Because...well, a bit of sugar does sweeten life. In most cultures, it is a symbol of celebration and festivity. It is fun to make and give and receive and share sweet treats. 

And when I say moderation, I mean true moderation, which takes a bit of sustained and intentional effort in today's sugar-saturated world. Sugar is a good servant but a terrible master. Over the years, I've made my own rules around sugar to "enjoy responsibly" as the booze-makers like to say. 

For one thing, I trained my tastebuds to go without sugar in everyday drinks. I now prefer drinking tea and coffee without sugar. Try this one weird trick to save yourself countless lbs of sugar consumed over the years! I never drank much soda and juice anyway.

The other biggie is not buying cookies and other sweet treats on a regular basis. Amazing how little willpower is required to avoid something that is not in the house. I used to buy cookies "for guests" and then sneak into them. Now I avoid temptation altogether.

When I do make treats, I make them with whole ingredients, using good recipes that I like, and make no effort to look for low-fat, low-sugar, or diet recipes of any sort. But I do cut down the sugar in recipes because I prefer them that way, and I make treats in controlled portions (mini, bite-sized) and share them generously so lots of people can get a taste but no one has a pile of sweets that they feel compelled to over-eat. I avoid cooking or baking with artificial sweeteners- they don't taste good to me and I don't care to have them around. 

But what about self-care and treating yo'self? I have three treats on hand always- (a) fresh fruit, (b) flavored herbal tea, (c) dark chocolate. For this last one, I buy a Pound Plus (half a kilogram to be exact!) bar of Belgian dark chocolate from Trader Joe's and chop it into small bits and stick it in the fridge for use in baking and rare evening treats. 

The nice thing about getting older is that you know your own preferences. I get my joy from quick and simple bakes (see two recent examples below) and it frees me from having to do anything different or more complicated. I can admire confections and baked goods (on blogs, Instagram, bakery windows, baking shows) for their art and creativity without feeling any desire to make them or eat them. 

Perhaps the best thing about eating very little sugar on a regular basis is that when you do eat it, it feels special. And you don't crave it all the time so you are in control. Being trapped in a cycle of cravings and guilt is no way to live. 

* * * 

Years ago, while visiting my sister, I bought a sweetheart rose muffin pan from the Nordicware factory tent sale in Minneapolis. As adorable as this pan is, the nooks and crevices can make it a nightmare to turn out cakes. I used it once, had a frustrating experience and put the pan away. 

Then I stumbled upon a DIY cake release paste- you mix equal parts (say, 1 tbsp) shortening, oil and flour, whisk it into a thick paste and brush the paste thoroughly on the inside of the cake molds. I decided to try this trick on the sweetheart rose pan, and the outcome would decide if the pan stayed or went into the donation pile for some other baker to wrestle with. 

A close family friend turned 78 in October; she was recovering from a double fracture and I wanted to drop off a birthday treat. Here was my chance to try the rose pan. My daughter used a silicone pastry brush to paint the cake release paste thoroughly on the mini rose pan. Meanwhile, I made the batter- my favorite Lemon Bliss Bundt cake recipe from King Arthur Baking. I replaced 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup almond flour. 

The batter perfectly filled this mini rose cake pan plus 12 regular cupcakes. And the cake release formula worked like a charm! A bit of glazing and the baby cakes were ready to be shared with the birthday gal. She was delighted and so was I.

Greased rose molds, and fresh from the oven

A bouquet of rose muffins

* * *

For Diwali, I managed to make one single mithai. I have very little mithai-making experience but also did not have the bandwidth to research this recipe with a busy work week. So I just put a few ingredients together that I had on hand, went for a simple coconut burfi with my daughter's help and hoped for the best. This loosey-goosey approach is not recommended for mithais but I guess I had some beginner's luck.

Coconut burfi in mini muffin cups

1. Heat 2 tsp. ghee in a pan. 
2. Add 1 packet sweetened coconut flakes and stir around on fairly low heat until aromatic (watch carefully because coconut burns easily)
3. Add 1/2 cup almond meal and most of a can of sweetened condensed milk
4. Cook together, stirring often, until the mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes
5. Turn off heat and add 1 tsp. cardamom
6. Let the mixture cool a few minutes. Scoop half the mixture into a lined loaf pan and pat it down
7. Into the other half, put in a few drops of food coloring (totally optional; my daughter enjoyed this) and stir well. Add the dyed mixture into the loaf pan as a second layer
8. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight
9. Cut into small slices or blocks

The mixture looked fairly sticky when we made it, but after a day in the fridge, the two-tone burfi was solid and looked pretty legit. I'm going to make these again for Christmas gifts. You could have fun with the flavors and colors, such as a pistachio layer and an orange layer.

Diwali on the porch


* * * Book Report * * *

Since I wrote my last post, I've more or less stopped watching TV in the evenings in favor of retiring early with a book. The time change throws off my kids' sleeping schedule every single time. Our toddler, already an early riser, started breaking his own records and waking up at about 4:30 AM since the switch to standard time. So I have given up on evenings spent with TV and crafts and instead I just go to bed at some bizarrely early hour and read for a bit before passing out. 

(But I did watch a documentary last month which I absolutely must recommend- My Octopus Teacher, streaming on Netflix, or watch it online here. A burned-out filmmaker dives into kelp forests off the coast of South Africa and forges a beautiful friendship with an octopus. I am not one for animal documentaries but this one was stunning, touching and I hope you get a chance to watch it because it is the perfect antidote to 2020.)

Starting with three novels- At a good friend's recommendation, I read Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Pinto is a humorist and journalist based in Mumbai; I grew up reading his articles regularly in the papers and was happy to read this short novel written by him. Em and The Big Hoom is set in the Western suburb of Mahim, Bombay, and narrated by a young adult son who tells the story of growing up in a nuclear Goan-Christian family with his parents and sister in a typical 1-BHK (one bedroom-hall-kitchen) apartment. The big thing looming in their lives is the mother's mental illness, the latter being an almost taboo topic in Indian society. The family sips endless cups of tea and the children grow up as they chart their way through the mother's bipolar disorder and repeated suicide attempts. This is a wryly touching and unexpectedly funny novel. 

For Task #14 in the Reader Harder challenge (Read a romance starring a single parent), I read One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. This book was a pretty good weekend read, considering that romance is my least favorite genre ever. A single mom in England is juggling two jobs and barely scraping by, trying to do her best to care for her quirky stepson and math wiz daughter. Then the whole family (including an oversized dog) somehow end up on a week-long road trip with her wealthy housekeeping employer. Adventure and romance ensues. If you're willing to overlook the implausible situations, this book is a light and fluffy read. 

Another heartwarming novel that I read last month- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor is a survivor of horrific childhood neglect and abuse. Somehow she finds it within herself to live independently, hold down an office job and go about daily life, even while dealing with extreme loneliness and coping with it in less than ideal ways. Over the course of the book she encounters kindness and friendship and starts repairing some of the trauma.

Over on the non-fiction side of things, I read Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Hans Rosling, who passed away a couple of year ago, was the mind behind the interactive website Gapminder, which is also home to his daughter-in-law Anna Ronnlund's brainchild, Dollar Street. Both these websites are well worth a visit. The idea of this book is to debunk common misconceptions that people have about the state of the world, and the take home message is that things are better than we think, and getting better all the time. The problem with this book is that Rosling can be condescending and some of his conclusions are rosier than what I believe the reality is. But the book has many great examples of global health issues and is insightful, inspiring and fun to read. 

Right now, I'm reading another great non-fiction book, The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson. There is something soothing and escapist in reading about particle physics and universal truths which puts our everyday lives and woes into perspective. Plus nothing can beat quantum physics for sheer wackiness. 

My daughter picked up a book called Diwali Festival of Lights by Rina Singh from the seasonal library display shelf. On first glance, it looked like a generic non-fiction book written for children, with informative text descriptions and stock pictures. But I leafed through it before putting the book into the return pile and loved it. Rina Singh's book is off-beat and written from the heart, and from the perspective of an Indian immigrant celebrating Diwali. There is a chapter on the history of Indian immigration to North America, and how Diwali was celebrated invisibly until very recently. There is a chapter on how Diwali has evolved- from traditional to noisier and more commercial, but also from religious to cultural and secular. Singh writes about a village of widows in North India who upturned tradition and started lighting diyas and celebrating Diwali. About Diwali celebrations in the slums of Mumbai. And yes, the book is sprinkled with colorful pics of diyas and rangolis and burfis and laughing children. If you're looking for a meaningful Diwali book for school-age kids, I would recommend this one. 

We put up this sharing library in our
front yard to swap books with neighbors


Happy Thanksgiving
weekend to everyone in the States! Wherever in the world you are, tell me what you are cooking, watching and reading. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Texas Caviar, Brown Rice Pilaf and What I'm Watching

Summer days have given way to cooler temperatures and darker evenings. We continue to take life one day at a time. My new job leaves me pretty frazzled at times, and the rest of the day is spent in putting dinner on the table, parenting and chores. We try to get out and walk on trails and in parks every chance we get.

My daughter and I have started doing "cozy evenings" and those are the highlights of our days- we draw the curtains and turn on the lamps in the living room, then snuggle under blankets on the couch with mugs of herbal tea (she's partial to the fruity flavors) and play a rousing game of Scrabble. 

The other cozy thing that we do once a week or so is a baking project. We have a new favorite cookie recipe- jam thumbprint shortbread cookies. I used this recipe which calls for all of 6 simple ingredients. The dough is mixed in a bowl, then goes into the fridge to chill for an hour. Dough balls are imprinted to make a little well, jam is spooned in and the cookies are baked. This is an easy recipe to make with kids. 

We get around 28-33 cookies from each batch and each one is scrumptious. Fruit preserves or jams that are loaded with fruit taste the best. The cookies are classic, sweet and simple- they taste like the popular Pepperidge Farm cookies or the Indian jam biscuits that I so loved as a kid. 

The kitchen churns out simple meals of the beans and rice variety but I haven't had the bandwidth to try anything new or different. Speaking of beans, while I remain an ardent fan of the Instant Pot, I have been trying and failing to determine the right amount of time to cook beans so they are just-cooked and tender, not mushy and falling apart. Mushy beans are fine for dal and soups, but I like tender, intact beans for salads. Suggested times on Internet recipes (even well-tested ones) have been no use at all. 

I wanted to make black eyed peas salad (known more colorfully as Texas caviar) but knew that the IP would turn the black eyed peas to mush, so I chose to soak the black eyes peas (chawli in Marathi, lobia in Hindi) and cook them in a pot of salted water right there on the stove-top. They took all of 25 minutes to cook to perfect tenderness.

The salad itself has a few fresh vegetables and herbs and a warm dressing which serves to flavor the beans well. Texas caviar is one of those great recipes- easy to make, holds in the fridge for a few days and pairs with simple sandwiches or pulaos or casseroles to make a complete meal. 

Black-eyed peas salad/ Texas caviar

(I used this recipe as an inspiration)

3 cups cooked black-eyed peas

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 small can of corn, drained

1/4 cup minced red onion

1 minced red bell pepper

Dressing: Make the dressing by heating together in a small saucepan

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. juice from picked jalapenos

1 clove garlic, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

Additions:

minced pickled sweet and sour jalapenos

minced cilantro

Toss all the salad ingredients together into a big bowl. Add warm dressing and mix together. Add minced jalapenos and cilantro. Chill and serve. 

* * * 

After making and eat the Texas caviar, I still had some cooked black-eyed peas in the fridge. So I paired them with brown rice pilaf for another meal. Brown jasmine rice has a nutty flavor and nubby texture and we have come to love it. 

Brown Rice Pilaf

Soak 1 and 1/2 cups brown jasmine rice for a few hours.

Heat 1-2 tsp. oil in the instant pot on saute mode. Saute minced onion for a few minutes. 

Add ginger garlic paste, salt to taste and spices- turmeric, Kitchen King masala, kasuri methi.

Add 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes, soaked and drained brown rice and 2 cups water. Turn off saute mode.

Cook on high pressure for 15 minutes. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then do a quick pressure release. 

* * *

I found a new sitcom to watch last month- Derry Girls on Netflix- and it was a fun way to end the evenings. Each episode is only about 20 minutes long, so chances of falling asleep on the couch are lower. 

The series is set in the 90s and revolves around five friends in an all-girls' Catholic high school. Hey, I went to an all-girls' Catholic high school in the 90s too, and was part of a group of five close friends! Therefore nostalgia is a big factor for me in liking this show. 

The series is set in the city of Derry (or Londonderry) in Northern Ireland. The teenagers are up to the usual teenage shenanigans against the backdrop of "The Troubles", the struggle and violent conflict over whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or the Irish free state. I vividly remember references to the Irish conflict in the news from the 90s- Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, the IRA.

Derry Girls also made me very nostalgic for 90s music, which always and forever will be my comfort music. Snippets of dozens of iconic 90s songs liven up the scenes. One of my favorite supporting characters on the show is Sister Michael who definitely reminded me of some of the nuns who taught me. (To this day, if I see a nun, I am on my best behavior.)

One thing that I didn't really care for is the weird dynamic between the grandfather and the father where the former bullies his docile and decent son-in-law. But apart from this, a fun show and highly recommended. Rated Mature. If you want to watch just one episode as a trial, I suggest Season 2, Episode 3, "The Concert". 

From Ireland, I took a virtual flight straight to Bihar. Having finished Derry Girls, I was looking around for something new to watch. Something similarly light and heartwarming. An old friend (who I hit up on Instagram for media recommendations) told me about the Hindi series Panchayat on Prime. I enjoyed this series so much- only one season has been released but I hope there will be more. 

Panchayat features Abhishek Tripathi, a city boy and recent graduate who fails to land a lucrative job. He reluctantly accepts the post of panchayat (village council) secretary in the tiny village of Phulera in Bihar. There he finds himself living in a room at the back of the council office, and his coworkers consist of the council head, his deputy and an assistant. Secretary Abhishek navigates the comedy and drama of rural government and village life while desperately trying to study for his MBA exams so he can get out of there. With haunted trees, family planning slogans and a dramatic flag hoisting, this slice of life series is definitely worth a watch. And I was thrilled to see a very well-known actress playing a prominent role.  

A series I started watching with my daughter- Worst Witch on Netflix. Fun and recommended for the 8-12 year old set. The episodes are all about friendship, the struggles of growing up, fitting in, etc. all with some magic thrown in. It will appeal to fans of Harry Potter (which she read over summer) because it is a fantasy drama about a group of young witches at a school of magic- although to be clear, Worst Witch is based on a book series that predates Harry Potter by a couple of decades. 

Quick link: Chatting on Food Waste Day.

What are you cooking, eating and watching these days?