Sunday, May 31, 2020

Book Summary: The End of Overeating

A couple times every year, there are big book sales in our town. Great heaps of gently used books are sold for a dollar or two each and the proceeds benefit good causes like childhood literacy organizations and special programming at the public library. I shop these book sales with the wild-eyed enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, trying not to throw myself at the long tables filled with books. It is a win-win-win situation because you get to clear books out of your house and into new hands, find fresh books at rock bottom prices, and raise money for community good. Every time I hit one of these book sales, I buy a few books that look interesting and squirrel them away. But then I usually end up reading library books and these books are always saved for later.

By this time in lockdown, I have burned through my library books, "later" is here, and I have started to read through my rainy day book collection. My attention span isn't very good these days. I started on two novels of the family drama genre- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and neither of me was able to hold my attention. They went into the donation pile and will end up at one of these book sales in the future. The circle of life; used book edition.

This week I grabbed a nonfiction book from the "later" bookshelf and ended up devouring it (no pun intended)- The end of overating: Taking control of the insatiable American appetite by David Kessler, MD. This book was published in 2009- 11 years ago at this point- but everything it says remains relevant. I read lots of books about food and nutrition every year and there wasn't anything in this book that was particularly new but it was a good read all the same. The food industry parts of the book were fascinating in a horrifying, train-wrecky way and the food rehab parts of the books were a good reminder of the urgent need for change in food culture in the US, and increasingly all over the world.

The book is written in easily digestible, bite-sized chapters. While it mentions the research early and often, it is not science-heavy. For more of the neuroscience behind many of the concepts mentioned in this book, I highly recommend Hungry Brain by Stephan Guyenet.

The central question asked in this book is: What drives us to overeat? I would guess that this is a relatable question to most of us. For instance, those bowls of snacks like roasted nuts, chaklis and kettle cooked chips that we might set out for visitors. My dad calls this "veda khaana" in Marathi, which translates into "mad food" or rather, mindless food, which most people will eat almost automatically regardless of whether they are actually hungry or not. And often will keep eating until the bowl is empty.

Many people who are smart, self-aware, disciplined and successful in other parts of their lives are nevertheless frustrated by their loss of control around food. The author blames it on conditioned hypereating- we eat too much (more than what our bodies need) because we have too much tasty food around. Humans are biologically wired to respond to stimuli like nicotine, alcohol, illegal drugs, gambling. "..for most of us, food is the most readily available and socially acceptable stimulus."

Part 1 of the book is titled Sugar, Fat, Salt.

Human body weight stayed remarkably stable for most of human history, but in the last 40 years or so, something has changed and humans are getting heavier. Weight gain is primarily due to overeating; factors like genetics, metabolism and diet composition play a minor role.

More food is available, portion sizes are bigger- true- but just having food available does not mean we have to eat it. What is driving the out-of-control eating?

Our body systems- temperature, blood pressure, etc.- are kept stable through elaborate homeostatic processes. There is also such a homeostatic system for energy balance, that is, weight regulation. But it is not the only system in charge of food intake. A different system called the reward system is also involved. The reward system is a powerful biological force, encouraging us to seek out pleasurable things like food because in the past our survival depended on it." America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning." 

Salt, sugar and fat make us eat more salt, sugar and fat because they are all highly palatable and we keep eating these foods because of the stimulation rather than genuine hunger. The biological system that is designed to maintain energy balance can go awry when animals (including humans) have easy access to a variety of foods that are highly palatable foods.

The restaurant industry creates highly stimulating foods. Sugar, salt and fat are either loaded onto a core ingredient, layered on top of it, or both. In typical restaurant spinach dip, the spinach only adds a bit of color and health appeal. A high-salt, high-fat dairy product is the main ingredient. Salads use a bit of lettuce as a carrier for ranch dressings and are loaded with cheese chunks, bacon bits and fried croutons. All foods are made more compelling and more hedonic.

There is substantial scientific evidence that rewarding high-fat, high-sugar foods tend to be reinforcing, meaning that they keep us going back for more. Our desire for more is also influenced by portion size (if more food is served, more will be eaten), the concentration of fat and sugar (up to a point) and variety- in the number of foods offered but also in contrasting textures and flavors.

Rewarding foods are becoming increasingly more complex and stimulating. Ice cream used to come in three flavors, then more and more flavors became available, followed by premium, higher-fat ice cream and then mix-ins of candy into ice cream. Similarly, other foods like bagels that once came in a single flavor are increasingly tricked-out with flavor combinations that are loaded with sugar on fat on salt.

Over time, sights and smells, times and locations become cues that lead us to eat rewarding foods. Particular foods become linked to nostalgia and emotion. The opioids produced by eating rewarding foods can relieve pain and stress and calm us down, making us feel better in the short run. We cannot control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains are rewired by eating these foods.

My thoughts on this part of the book: The term "layered and loaded" is going to stick in my brain. As a home cook, I try to cook food that is tasty. But it is oh so easy to overdo it with the sugar, salt and fat in the name of making a dish irresistible. The problem is then you succeed and the food is impossible to resist and you end up eating more than you want to.

The layered and loaded phrase also reminded me of chaat- those tempting Indian snack foods and some of my personal favorite things to eat. They are a good example of how deep fried dough (puris) and contrasting tastes (spicy chutney, sweet chutney) and textures (creamy yogurt, crunchy sev) are all layered and loaded and made completely irresistible. A lot of our favorite foods in every cuisine are fried, salt, spicy and/or sugary even when they start from wholesome ingredients or are made at home.

The next part of the book talks about The Food Industry.

The food industry has discovered what sells. Chain restaurant entrees are composed of chopped and ultrapalatable components that look appealing, need minimal chewing (refined food simply melts in the mouth) and are very high-pleasure, with very high calorie density. Very little in the appearance or flavor of chain restaurant food would point to just how much salt, sugar and fat it is loaded with, or how easily it goes down.

The development of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls is a great case study of how the industry creates products that are indulgent and irresistible with a combination of visual appeal, aroma, texture and consistency.

Purchasing indulgent food is an inexpensive form of entertainment, so the food industry increasingly behaves like the entertainment industry. Indulging in a premium snack is seen as a small moment of relaxation in a stressful life, a bit of 'me-time'.

Fats and sugars used to be scarce and therefore we developed the biological tools to seek out and appreciate them. Today oils and sugars are among the cheapest commodities because of rapid changes in agriculture and commerce. The food industry has enthusiastically embraced this business opportunity to use oils and sugars for a profit.

Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American industrial food is meant to stimulate. It is mostly composed of easy calories that need little chewing.

We are taking products of other cuisines- eg. Chinese, Vietnamese- and making the dishes distinctly American, usually by adding more sugar and more fat. And also taking American processed foods and sharing them with the rest of the world.

Sophisticated food technology- artificial flavorings- are often used in addition to salt, sugar and fat to make food hyperpalatable. Traditional Italian gelato is made with whole milk, eggs and sugar but most commercial gelato in the US begins with a processed base made with ingredients like milk solids, glucose solids and a gum and emulsifier combination, along with a host of artificial flavors. Flavor chemists can develop any type of flavor to transform a food. "A topping that covers tortilla chips can look like cheese but contains mostly oil and flavoring."

There is constant eating opportunity. "Call it the taco chip challenge- the challenge of controlled eating in the face of constant food availability". Every single day and everywhere you go, foods are available, plentiful and cheap.

My thoughts on this part of the book: It is interesting to get a sneak peek into the food industry but it left me feeling sad, angry and disgusted. Because for large swaths of the US population, processed food is the only food that's available and affordable. You might think you are eating a simple burrito in a chain restaurant, but it is a food-like substance designed to cater to your tastebuds rather than actual food served to fuel your body. It is devastating to think of the millions of people who are heavily overfed and facing chronic health consequences while simultaneously being completely undernourished.

It is SO SO tricky and hard to find wholesome foods in a standard supermarket setting. I'll give you an example of common items that most American families buy regularly- cereal, granola bars, peanut butter, canned fruit, applesauce, pasta sauce. For each of these items, what you will typically find in supermarkets is loaded with sugar and fat. Granola bars are just refined cereal and sweeteners, applesauce is spiked with sweeteners, canned fruit is packed in heavy syrup, peanut butter has added sugar and oils. The list goes on. If you want wholesome versions of these items, it takes careful label reading, and shelling out money for premium brands. Or having the time and expertise to make items from scratch at home without added sugar, salt and oils.

The rest of the book has chapters titled Conditioned Hypereating Emerges, The Theory of Treatment, Food Rehab and The End of Overeating. These chapters reiterate the issue of why we overeat and what we can do about it as individuals and as a society. Some of the stuff in these chapters could have been better organized. I'm pulling out some take-home points below.

Food-related reward learning becomes highly automated and below the level of conscious awareness. The weight loss drug phen-fen worked effectively because it lessened the drive for reward and stopped people from being obsessed with food. It has serious side-effects and is not in use any more but taught us a lot about the biology of overeating.

Why can't we just say no to food that we don't want to eat? The short answer is that high-reward foods engage fundamental neural mechanisms that can interfere with how we rationally want to act.

Conditioned overeating is a biological challenge in our current food environment. Overeating is not a character flaw or a lack of willpower.

The food industry has cracked the code of conditioned hypereating and knows how to manipulate people's eating behavior and get us to pursue the foods it wants to sell. The challenge is knowing how to respond. It is possible to learn to eat the food you want in a planned and controlled way as individuals.

Some specific tips gleaned from this book-

  1. Avoid risky situations (but that may be difficult in a world of omnipresent food cues.) 
  2. Be aware of how food reward works. 
  3. Look at food and see it for what it is- real food or something loaded with sugar, salt and fat? 
  4. Change behaviors: eg. taking different route that doesn't go past your favorite bakery, taking a list to the grocery store and sticking to it. 
  5. Formulate new thoughts to replace old ones: "I'll just take one bite" to "I can't eat just one bite; it always leads to twenty."
  6. Think differently about food, as nourishment rather than reward. 
  7. See hyperpalatable foods as enemies, not friends. Stop thinking, "I deserve this"or "I'll only eat a little". 
  8. Planned eating: Instead of eating whatever, whenever in a chaotic way, have a predictable structure for eating- what foods you will eat, how much will you eat, and when you will eat. 
  9. Just-right eating: Learning to eat the right amount of foods to satisfy until the next meal. 
  10. Choose satisfying, fiber-rich whole foods.
  11. For emotional eaters, choose a different response to negative emotions and stress. 
  12. Know your trigger foods and avoid them.
  13. Purchase high-reward foods in reasonable quantities and eat them in the right settings.
  14. Food can be an occasional reward but when all eating becomes rewarding it is a problem. 
  15. Find alternative rewards. 
  16. Find food that provides emotional reward without driving overeating.
  17. Understand yourself and become your own food coach. 

As a society, we need to rethink our ideas about the right time and place to eat in the home, in a social and in business settings. Redefine norms. Smoking is a great example of how the norms have changed completely. Smoking used to be considered cool and glamorous and widely accepted. Today, smoking is known to be deadly and it is rarely accepted in public spaces.

Some suggestions for policy changes that would help:

  1. List calorie counts of food in restaurants.
  2. Better labeling to see added sugars, fats and refined carbs.
  3. Educate people about "big food" and the way they push food layered and loaded with salt, sugar and fat.
  4. Regulate marketing of food.

The food industry says it is only giving people what they want and that individuals have responsibility for what they put in their mouths. They are designing highly stimulating products that hijack our brain circuitry.  What is industry's responsibility?

My thoughts on this last part of the book: All of these are good and valid questions. This was not mentioned in the book, but I think the government subsidies on corn sweeteners and refined oil are a big part of the problem.

A big reason why this book resonated with me at this time is because I have been consciously changing my eating habits in small ways for the past two years. I have learned first hand that changing habits is hard but very rewarding. Unlike short-term diets, changing my attitude and habits around food is slowly making me more confident about being able to stick to a sustainable and quietly enjoyable way of eating for the rest of my life.

I wish you all a safe and healthy June. How was the month of May for you? 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sweetening social isolation, and books we're reading

I posted lots of savory meals in my last post. Over the last couple of months, we've made some sweet treats too and I'm rounding them up here.

On Easter weekend, my British Baking Show- loving daughter was in a baking mood. We decided to make something seasonal, like carrot cake, and in order to fancy it up a little, made a carrot cake roll instead. It was an easy recipe to follow and came together nicely, and most importantly, we could do it peacefully from start to finish during little bro's afternoon nap.

V and the kids teamed up to make me a cake for my birthday. It was V's first time ever making a cake, in his memory. I could see them poring over recipes for weeks beforehand and they finally ended up choosing the tried and tested lemon bliss cake. At one point, I overheard someone say, "Baking soda and baking powder are the same, right?" and felt the need to step in (NO, no they are not), but other than that, they made the whole cake all by themselves while I lounged around and put my feet up. The lemon bundt cake was topped with a candle, the birthday song was sung with gusto and the lemon cake was perfect with a cup of tea.

(Buoyed by the success of their first bake, the three of them got together this morning and baked me a Mother's Day treat- doughnut muffins. Lucky me! I could get used to this.)

Later in the week there was more tea and citrus-flavored cake to be had as my sister mailed me a birthday box including homemade orange cake and a couple of cozy pajamas, all the better for lounging around at home. Her cake was fantastic, and this is the recipe she used, sans glaze.

While I try to emphasize meals and "proper khaana", there's certainly a big market for snacks around here. Once I made a dabba of fruit and nut ladoos as a treat. These were made in minutes by whirring the following in a food processor- pitted soft dates, cranberries, flaxseed meal, sesame seeds, cashews, almonds, walnuts, a sprinkle of salt and cardamom. Process until the crumbly mixture holds when pinched together. Form lime-sized balls. Store in the fridge.

In an effort to try other easy treats, I made these no bake chocolate nut bars. They were pretty good although the oat base was a little bland and too crumbly. This blogger has a very active Instagram account with many neat ideas for small-scale and low-sugar baking, like this apple galette for two, and these oat bars.

Here's one dessert that did not turn out right. It is a pandan custard, made in the instant pot using a recipe from a cookbook. I bought some pandan (screw-pine) extract from the Asian store specially for this. The recipe was easy enough, with eggs, coconut milk, sugar and pandan extract, but the result was too eggy and not to our taste at all.

I'll have to find other uses for the pandan extract, which does have a very unique (in a good way), hard to describe fragrance and flavor.

* * * 
I posted a picture of the stack of books that I managed to hoard before the library closed. I've read and enjoyed most of those by now.

Image: Goodreads
The Night Diary by Hiranandani is an epistolary middle grade novel. Twelve year old Nisha writes in her diary every night (the book title is a pun because the name Nisha means night) to her late mother. The diary covers the tumultuous three month period around the time of the partition of pre-Independence India. Nisha is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, and her family is fleeing from now-Pakistan to now-India. It is a fundamentally sad book because it describes a sad and scary time in a child's life, but it is a such an important story. “Sometimes the world as you know it just decides to become something else. This is our destiny now.” Also, this book has a gorgeous cover illustration.

The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15) by Jacqueline Winspear was a terrific read.  Maisie Dobbs is living through the London Blitz in WWII. She volunteers to drive an ambulance at night, and investigates a murder by day. The book paints a vivid picture of people trying to live their lives even as bombs falls night after night. A well-written book with lots of great historical details. And another absolutely stunning cover.

It was interesting to read these two books while we're sheltering in place during the COVID-19 emergency. Sort of puts our situation into perspective. It reminded me that the world goes through crises and upheavals on a regular basis. There is much suffering in this world and those of us with access to shelter and food are the lucky ones.

My daughter is reading the Harry Potter series- she's on book 4 at this time. We have been letting her finish a book and then watch the movie. She's also devouring her dad's collection of Calvin and Hobbes.

* * * 
A few links and recommendations-

Even experienced cooks will get some good tips from this back-to-basics article on how to read a recipe.

I was mesmerized by this 2 minute video of my friend Bala's henna-style painting.

If you're looking for a light and heartwarming show to watch, I highly recommend The Durrells on Prime. Set in Corfu, Greece, in the 1930s, it is the screen adaptation of Gerald Durrell's books, including My Family and Other Animals, which I read and loved many decades ago.

Tell me about your life- how are you doing, what are you eating, reading and watching? 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Food in the Time of Lockdown- 38 days and counting

It has been about six weeks since our family has been sheltering in place at home, like most of the rest of humanity. As non-essential workers, our only mandate at the minute is to stay home and be out of the way. There is much to be grateful for- we have food and a comfortable home, a yard where we can enjoy nice Spring weather, and a neighborhood that is safe and very quiet, where we can go for walks and jogs while social distancing.

My husband and I are working from home, caring from our kids and sharing housework- all of this keeps us on our toes and the days go flying by. Our daughter is busy with schoolwork, much of it online. The rest of the time she enjoys reading for fun, writing poems and letters, doing crafts and playing some video games. The biggest challenge is to keep the toddler boy engaged- he is too young to do much on his own, and while he's happy most of the time and plays with his sister a lot, we have noticed an uptick in temper tantrums out of sheer frustration at missing school, outings and friends. His sleep patterns have gotten worse so V and I are in the baffling situation of being home 24 a day and still not getting enough sleep. On the whole the kids definitely have a lot more screen time than they ever did before, and we have made our peace with it at this unusual time in our lives.

The kitchen is busy in a cycle of cooking and cleaning as I churn out three meals a day, plus some snacks for the kids. My style of cooking lends itself very well to what's being called "quarantine cooking"- simple fuss-free meals, made with fairly basic mostly whole foods, with ingredients being swapped out easily based on what's on hand, and with the very minimum of waste.

For breakfast, I tend to eat steel cut oats with nut butter and fruit- generally frozen blueberries and sometimes apples. On occasion, I'll eat avocado toast with a fried egg. V eats homemade granola with non-dairy milk every single morning. The kids choose from what we're eating, or cereal or toast, and pancakes on the weekends.

Lunch and dinner are simple meals- dal, khichdi, idli and dosas, tacos, soups and tofu stir fries are always on the rotation. I start with whatever vegetables I have on hand, and then craft a meal around that, adding beans or tofu or eggs, and some grains.

Here's a sampling of recent meals that I thought to take pictures of, with shorthand recipes.

Impromptu Misal: Start with sprouted moong beans. Make a Maharashtrian usal-like curry. I did this in the instant pot by tempering with mustard seeds and turmeric, sauteeing onion, a bit of tomato and goda masala, adding salt and water, and then cooking at high pressure for 4 minutes. We topped this stew with shredded carrots, cilantro and onion, a swirl of yogurt and crunchy roasted peanuts. 
Edamame bowl with Thai flavors: A sheet pan of mixed roasted vegetable is the starting point for many, many of our meals. This time I had some cabbage and broccoli, red pepper and a bag of shelled frozen edamame- all roasted together at the convection setting at 400F for 12 minutes. In the fridge, I had half of a can of yellow Thai curry paste, and a third of a can of coconut milk. I simply mixed these together and warmed the mixture in a saucepan to make a sauce. We drizzled the sauce on a base of some rice and a big helping of the roasted veg-edamame mix. 

Congee: This recipe was adapted from the book The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook for your Instant Pot by Kathy Hester. My daughter loves the mushroom bok choy soup from a local Chinese restaurant. This brown rice congee had the same flavors in a heartier version. In an instant pot, add together half cup brown rice, 4 cups water, baby bok choy chopped, baby Bella and shiitake mushrooms sliced (used two small boxes total). Season with better than bouillon (or other stock concentrate) and some ginger-garlic. Cook on high pressure 40 minutes, natural pressure release. Taste and add some soy sauce and vegan chicken seasoning (new spice blend from Trader Joe’s that I am liking very much). I served this with oven baked marinated tofu slices and a dollop of my favorite condiment- spicy chilly crisp. 

Sheet pan sausages: On a sheet pan, toss together potato cubes, sliced cabbage, and other veggies (broccoli, peppers, carrot) with some salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast at 400F on convection setting. Add sliced veggie "sausages" in the last few minutes of roasting. I served this with a fried egg. 

Chili and cornbread: This was a bid to finish up the last cup of cornmeal that had been lingering in the pantry. I tried a recipe for cheddar kale cornbread and served it on a black bean and sweet potato chili.

Tortellini stew: This was an easy Instant Pot stew of canned crushed tomatoes, a pack of refrigerated tortellini, a few meatless meatballs, a minced carrot and about 3 cups stock, all cooked under high pressure for a minute, then natural release after 4 minutes. I stirred in a can of white beans at the end.

Lasagna: My kids love lasagna and now I have standardized a version that is heavy on vegetables and relatively light on cheese. This time I only had one box of frozen spinach so I used some frozen green beans in addition and the combination worked well. A large tray of lasagna lasts us for meals over 3-4 days. 

* * *
In little bits of stolen time- an hour here and there- I decluttered and organized our spare room which doubles as our storage room and my sewing space. It was a rewarding activity, and mentally therapeutic. I folded all my fabric neatly into bins, keeping only what I like and can reasonably use. The rest got bagged up and donated to a local group that is making face masks. I found a few half-done projects, dusted off my long-neglected sewing machine and finished them. Now when I look around the tidy space, I feel inspired again.

My favorite fabric collection- block printed
cottons from India

I made a bunch of face masks, mostly to
share with neighbors and friends

A half-finished project that finally got done.
Darling little hanging baskets- free pattern from
Jennifer Jangles.

Hats for my dear friend's twin boys. I can't imagine
being socially isolated with twin newborns in the
middle of a pandemic!

* * *
Only 6 months after our sweet dog Duncan had major knee surgery on his left leg, he had to have the same procedure on his right knee. He had been recovering really well from his first surgery, but then last month we started to notice that he was limping again. The vet surgeon had warned us that most dogs who have the procedure on one leg eventually need it on the other leg, and that the time between when the two surgeries are needed  is unpredictable- it can range from weeks to years.

Ten days ago, things got really bad all of a sudden and to make a long story short, we had a miserable night of him not being able to get up off the ground, followed immediately by two nights in the hospital and TTA surgery on his right knee. We are thankful that vets are operating at this time- the whole thing was done with strict social distancing. You drop off your pet in the vet's parking lot and they take him in and do the exam and call you to talk about the findings and next steps.

The good news is that he's doing really well post-surgery. We are home to watch over him and give him company 24/7. It has been a rough year for this sweet dog. The hope is that with two brand new knee implants, our bionic pup will have many more healthy years ahead.

Duncan enjoys spring sunshine in the yard.
You can see the bandaged right hind leg.
Duncan's plight last week prompted
our daughter to write this poem.

Tell me how you're doing and what the COVID-19 situation is looking like in your part of the world. Best wishes to all!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

One-Pot Rajma Chawal, Pizza and Quarantine Reading

We are sheltering in place, like broad swaths of the globe. I have started my new role as a second grade homeschool teacher. My daughter's public school has been superb- earlier this week, the principal and assistant principal stood outside the school for 3 hours as parents came by to pick up packets of worksheets and home lessons. Every morning, teachers post a cheerful message and mini assignments for the day. The class teacher called each family to check on the children. Everyone is trying to do what they can under the circumstances.

Our 8 year old does a few worksheets (language and math) every day and then has plenty of time left over to play with her brother, spend hours coloring, play board games with me, arrange and rearrange Pokemon cards, read and watch some TV. Honestly, for an 8 year old there is no dearth of ways to fill time. It is such a great age. There are so many things I haven't even suggested yet, like podcasts, craft kits, jigsaw puzzles and sudoku. I'm trying to do something new every day with her. Yesterday, we watched a Khan academy video together- an introduction to multiplication. It was great! I am so grateful for people like Sal Khan and so many other artists and educators that put out valuable content online for free.

Three year olds are a different story. Our toddler has the attention span of a fruit fly and it is harder to engage him in activities for any period of time. He hopefully asks me every morning if school is open yet. Clearly he misses his buddies and teachers and the full schedule of his wonderful Montessori school.

User error
I was looking for a baking project that we could do together and decided to make overnight pizza dough for a pizza lunch the following day. I have all-purpose flour in the pantry but no bread flour. There was some active dry yeast in the freezer but no instant yeast. So I looked around for a recipe that used the ingredients I had on hand and ended up using this recipe. It resulted in a wonderful workable dough in minutes. The kids used a bowl and a dough whisk- no mixer or food processor needed.

 I plopped the dough in a plastic box in the fridge. It has been a while since I made any kind of yeasted bread from scratch and apparently I've completely forgotten how much dough rises, even in the fridge. The next morning, I found this overflowing box in the fridge. (Insert facepalm here.) It was easy enough to cut out the dried-out bits and salvage most of the dough.

When lunch time was about an hour away, I oiled a heavy half-sheet pan with some olive oil and plopped the dough into it. In hindsight, I should have used 2/3 of the dough and saved the rest. Using all that dough on one pan resulted in a thicker pizza than I wanted. Yes, mistakes were made. I covered the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes. Then the kids patted it down to cover the bottom of the pan edge to edge.

They topped the dough with a few spoonfuls of pizza sauce (made on the fly by mixing jarred marinara sauce with some pesto) and handfuls of shredded mozzarella.

I baked the pan pizza in a 450F oven. Yet another mistake- I should have cranked up the oven to 500F. The top of the pizza browned before the bottom did. Another improvement would be to bake on the lowest rack of the oven instead of the top rack like I did.

After this absolute litany of mistakes, guess what, though? It was still the best pizza I've ever made at home. It was like a thick crust focaccia pizza, but the texture and taste were just so good. I'm going to try this again next week with fewer missteps, hopefully.

Pan pizza slices; notice how the top is perfect but the
crust (upturned slice) could have used more browning.
*  *  *

Apart from occasional experiments as with the pizza, I have been cooking simple, nourishing meals for the family. One recipe in our regular meal rotation is the brown rice and black bean instant pot recipe that I have posted before. On a whim, I made an Indian riff on the recipe by using kidney beans instead of black beans and subbing in Indian spices. It made a wonderful and easy one pot rajma chawal- served here with green beans subzi

Soak 1.5 cups dry (raw) kidney beans, then rinse thoroughly.

Mix the following in the instant pot-
  • Soaked kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup dry (raw) brown rice, rinsed
  • 7 cups water
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
Seasoning- all to taste
  • Kasuri methi
  • Cumin-coriander powder
  • Paprika/ cayenne
  • Kitchen king masala
  • Salt
Cook on high pressure for 22 minutes.
Natural pressure release.

* * * 

When the public library announced last weekend that they would be closed for at least 2 weeks, I ran over there in haste. This is my version of panic buying- panic checking out of an armload of books.

Much of my quarantine bookshelf consists of books that were picked up strictly for their soothing and distracting qualities. Wodehouse on crime by P. G. Wodehouse is on my living room table right now, a dozen short stories each based on some sort of misdemeanor or deception. 28 Barbary lane is a book I've wanted to read for a while and this seems like a good time for gossipy, soapy stories about the inhabitants of a block of San Francisco. I also added a McCall Smith for good measure and the latest Maisie Dobbs novel.

Some of the books are intended for particular tasks in the Read Harder 2020 challenge- Bomb is YA historic non-fiction about the race to build the bomb, Village School by Miss Read is for the task- book that takes place in a rural setting, The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is for the task about a middle grade book not set in the US or UK- it is set during the India-Pakistan partition.

For the Read Harder 2020's task on graphic memoirs, I read a trio of middle grade graphic memoirs by Raina Telgemeier and enjoyed all three. Guts is the candid story of Raina aged 9-10 dealing with mysterious GI issues and anxiety, and using therapy to help. Smile is the mind-boggling memoir of how one mishap (falling and breaking two front teeth) led to a couple of years of painful and complicated dental procedures. Sisters is the relatable story of sibling drama during a two week family road trip.

My daughter is reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. An interesting title and a dose of dark humor for the times! As you can probably tell from the picture, she's on book 9 now. She loves the fast-paced adventures in this series. A friend generously handed down the whole series to us a couple of years ago and it is great to have these in our little home library.

How is your week going? How are things in your neck of the woods?

Spring equinox 2020: Fresh air on the porch

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sipping Soup for Viral Times

This big blue planet seems like a small place now, as everyone around the globe is huddling from and struggling against the novel virus COVID-19. Around here last week was relatively normal (we were on Spring break and even took the kids to the High Museum in Atlanta), but now schools are closed for the next week and quite possibly longer. All around us is a ghost town as people seek to isolate and contain the virus, even as a few cases have been confirmed around us.

Amid all this uncertainly, one thing is for sure- we are among the lucky ones. V and I are able to work from home. We have each other's support to take turns caring for the kids and pulling out our laptops to catch up on work. We'll get our salaries no matter what the next few weeks look like. We are fortunate to have cash on hand to be able to stock our kitchen and pantry to a reasonable extent with essential goods- and no, I have done absolutely no panic buying and hoarding. The dry rice, beans and lentils in my pantry will see us through many months if it comes to that.

I'm crushed to think of so many who are not as lucky. All the parents who lack childcare and aren't allowed/able to work from home. The lost jobs. The shuttered small businesses. The rich will sail through this while the poor will get poorer. The health implications of a pandemic are bad enough and then the economic devastation will be unbelievable. I hope we can all come together and get through it in one piece.

While the local kids are home and parents are collectively gearing up to entertain youngsters who are too used to a busy week of school, extra-curricular classes, play-dates and outings, here's one more factor that's not working in our favor: the weather forecast for the next 10 days. There's rain followed by more rain.

I'm trying to be creative and come up with fresh ideas for the kids. Not being a particularly fun and playful person by nature (!), this is going to need some work and an attitude shift from my end. We can't treat this as an extended weekend. There needs to be some structure and routine and purpose to our days.

No matter what else we do, one priority is to find ways for myself and the kids to be physically active, rain or no rain. This morning I suggested that we learn how to do yoga surya namaskars or sun salutations. I have wanted to learn this for a while. We found a video online and followed along in our living room. My toddler would have none of it but my daughter loved it. It felt good! We'll try to do these every morning as a wake-up exercise.

In the afternoon, I looked out at the grimy-from-winter screened porch and asked the kids if they would like to clean the porch so they can eat lunch out there even on rainy days. They shocked me by enthusiastically working together to sweep the floor and wipe down everything and then calling us out for a "grand reopening". Amid the sibling squabbles and bored whining, I LIVE for moments like these! Clearly, I have to find more projects for them to do together.

* * * 

Here's a recipe that's often featured in my home when the forecast looks like this- a basic vegetable soup. I call it a sipping soup because I love making a thinner version and sipping it straight from a mug- it is very therapeutic for scratchy throats. I find usual broccoli cheese soup recipes to be too heavy with all that cheddar and heavy cream. This is my fairly minimalist recipe; it uses a little bit of cream cheese to add thickness and no other milk, cream or cheese.

Broccoli Sipping Soup

1. In an electric cooker insert (instant pot or such; although it could also be done in a regular pot on the stove), combine roughly chopped florets and stems from 2 heads of broccoli, and 1 roughly chopped medium carrot.

2. Add 4 cups water, 1 tbsp. nutritional yeast and seasoning. The seasoning can be salt, pepper and herbs of choice. Or your favorite seasoning blend. Or what I most often use is 1 tbsp. of better than bouillon seasoning- the roasted garlic flavor this time.

3. Pressure cook on HIGH for 3 minutes. Quick release pressure.

4. Add 2-3 tbsp. cream cheese (I buy the bar kind) to the cooked mixture. Then blend everything until smooth.

5. Add juice of 1/2 lemon; taste and adjust the seasoning.

Here's a note specially for these stocking-up times. While I buy fresh vegetables regularly and they are what I use most, I also keep a reliable stock of frozen vegetables on hand.

This (on the right) is a frozen veg blend that comes in very handy to make this sipping soup, a standard supermarket "California medley" of broc, cauli and carrots. A bag of these veggies cooked in the same way makes a hearty pot of soup.

Hope everyone stays safe and healthy out there. Tell me what's happening in your corner of the world. (I really do miss this blog when weeks go by and I don't/can't post. I keep trying to get into the groove of posting more regularly...) 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Neapolitan ice cream cake, and unexpected snow

I am a heavy user of the local weather app. Out of sheer necessity. In January and February in these parts, you never know if it will be 40F or 70F on any given day, and you need some predictive guidance on what to wear.

Last weekend, though, I wasn't paying attention to the weather app on a lazy Saturday morning and something magical happened. We looked out of the window and saw fat snowflakes drifting down. Oh, we have ice storms every now and then, but the last time I remember actual white fluffy snow falling in our town was over 6 years ago. The kids whooped with delight. Our toddler was seeing snow for the first time and could not believe his eyes. The magical winter wonderland lasted for a few hours, then the snow melted as rapidly as it fell.

* * *
Ice cream might be more of a summer treat than something one craves in winter, but we were celebrating at work in January and my coworkers dropped not-too-subtle hints for ice cream cake. I was only too happy to oblige because with ice cream cake, you can produce crowd-pleasing results with the very minimum of work and sit back and accept compliments. It can be assembled ahead of time, which helps for mid-week things.

I made a simple Neapolitan ice cream cake for the work lunch with three flavors of ice cream and some crushed cookies in between the layers for added crunch and texture.

  1. Buy 3 pints of ice cream- I chose the three classic flavors of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, but any compatible flavors will do. Non-dairy frozen desserts will work just as well as conventional dairy ice cream.
  2. Set out the ice cream on the counter to soften.
  3. Crush a few oreo cookies in a bowl. I used gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies (one of my coworkers is gluten-intolerant) and the advantage of using gluten-free cookies is they are very crumbly. Bad for eating out of hand but good for crushing into crumbs with your bare hands. 
  4. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. Let it overhang.
  5. As the vanilla ice cream softens, tip it into a bowl, mash it into a soft serve and layer in the pan. Top with a layer of cookie crumbs. Set in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
  6. Repeat the ice cream and cookie crumb layering with the other two flavors. 
  7. Freeze until needed, then turn out into a platter and slice. 
  8. Serves 10 or so.
Another favorite ice cream cake recipe is here, Indian cassata ice cream.

* * * 

My bundt pan, purchased straight from the Nordicware factory in Minneapolis, is one of my prized kitchen possessions but I rarely need cakes that serve 16 people so it isn't often pressed into use.

Our daughter's school hosted an art show- every student chose one piece of work to display. Desserts were passed around at the show. I took the opportunity to use the pan and contributed a lemon bliss bundt cake. The recipe from King Arthur flour is a keeper and one I've made many times before. It yielded a beautiful big cake that my daughter lovingly glazed with lemon-sugar. Because of the sturdy and tight crumb, I was able to cut about 26 neat and skinny slices from this chonker of a cake.

* * *

One rainy evening, some of our son's friends and their parents came over for an impromptu play date. We picked up some pies from our favorite pizzeria to feed the crowd. There was lots of pizza left over and that is how I discovered so late in life that store-bought pizza freezes beautifully. The following week, I was able to thaw it out and reheat it in the oven to crispy perfection, and then eat it in a favorite way, as pizza croutons in a big arugula salad.

* * *

In early January our Duncan got post-surgery X-rays and got the all-clear from his surgeon to break free from his living room confinement and resume some of his old life again, going on walks and such. The mad running in the dog park is still contraindicated and he'll likely never get to do that kind of thing again, sadly. He has clear signs of arthritis and we are managing it with medications and TLC.

These pictures were taken on an unusually warm and sunny day when he flopped down in the front yard after a walk and just wanted to sit there amid a big pillow of fallen leaves and soak up the sun rays.

Tell me how February is turning out for you!

Friday, January 03, 2020

Winter break in Dallas, and 2019 in Books

Happy 2020, friends!
May it be a good one!

Black eyed peas and greens curry
for a lucky New Years' Day lunch
Christmas idlis!

We spent our winter break with my sister in Dallas. Our flight landed on the afternoon of December 25 to balmy temperatures in the 70s- that's Christmas in Texas! (Temperatures did drop later in the week.) 

My sister thoroughly spoiled us with loads of presents, drove us all over town for outings and treated us to great food. When I jotted down all the things we did over 5 and a half days, I'm amazed by how much she managed to pack into this trip. 

Winter break with 3 active kids ages 8, 7 and 3 meant hitting a lot of kid-friendly places in town- along with local trails and playgrounds and a visit to the town library, we visited the Dallas arboretum, crayola experience theme park, an arcade game room and a trampoline park. The kids' absolute favorite was the Epic Waters indoor water park; our kids are all water loving creatures who are most at home in their bathing suits. 

At home, the kids watched TV (Scooby Doo, other cartoons, British Baking show) and the older two played some video games, we played Uno and discovered a board game that my doodle-loving daughter loved, called Rapidoodle, and made gingerbread houses.

The trip was a food festival from start to finish. We ate out at Avila's for Tex-Mex and I enjoyed my enchiladas mexicanas, three cheese enchiladas in red sauce, with two sides- roasted veggies and a bright lettuce salad. Dallas has incredible Indian food; the authentic South Indian Sunday breakfast buffet at Adyar Ananda Bhavan was a treat. Another favorite meal was the Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet with loads of salads, crispy falafel and a dozen dips and sauces. 

My sister is a great cook and also made us meal after meal of dishes like chana masala and aamras (bottled from the mango tree in our parents' backyard in Southern Maharashtra), Christmas idlis (all-naturally dyed with beet and spinach pastes), paneer bhurji, sabudana khichdi, and potato theplas. We had chaat- sev puri and pani puri- for 2 dinners in a row. Such is vacation eating! 

Now it is back to normal life and back to reality.

* * * Book Report * * * 

Goodreads compiled these 2019 reading stats for me
I've completed Book Riot's Read Harder challenge for about three years now, and again in 2019, it rewarded me with some amazing reads, books that I might not have picked up if it were not for the challenge. 

Here are the 24 books I ended up reading for Read Harder 2019, listed by genre. The task is given in parentheses. 

Non-fiction- The first three in this list are must-reads and the others were really good too. 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (journalism)- A work of  investigative journalism about the dystopian economy we live in. Many older Americans find themselves unable to find jobs, and with menial jobs find themselves having to make hard choices, such as between housing and healthcare. 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (nonviolent true crime)- the story of Theranos, the blood diagnostics tech start-up that perpetuated corporate fraud.

Couldn't Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (prison)- this was an amazing read- women inmates write short memoirs of their early lives. Writing as therapy. 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (book by women/AOC that won a literary award in 2018)- a raw and thought-provoking memoir.

The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More - More or Less (fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads)-  philosophical but highly readable meditation on frugality and simple living.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise (business)- this was a fun read about the movie and franchising business. Lots of great tidbits for Star Wars fans, of which I am moderately one. 

Children's/ YA- the first two are well worth reading.

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (diversity children's book)- a true picture book biography- touching and inspiring. 

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (animal POV character)- a wholesome story with sci fi features.

Hidden Figures (by AOC set in space)- the story of black women mathematicians helping to win the space race. Great story but not told in the most interesting way. 

George (trans author)- it was a good book, if a little boring.

Novels- The first 6 in this list were the ones I enjoyed the most.

Rubbernecker (neurodiverse)- this was a murder mystery that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Definitely one of the books I doubt I would have picked up but for this challenge. Highly recommended for mystery lovers. 

The Martian (self-published)- smart, science-forward, realistic sci-fi book. 

Convenience Store Woman (translated book- women author/translator)- a quirky and enjoyable novella about a women who does not fit into societal norms. 

The Nature of the Beast (cozy mystery)- a satisfying read, cozy but quite intense.

Daddy-Long-Legs (novel written in letters)- a gentle, heart-warming novel. 

The Wild Book (OwnVoices Mexico) - a middle grade fantasy novel. The concept of this book is irresistible for book lovers.

The Twentieth Wife (AOC historical romance)- It is beautifully written but the relentless zenana drama was not fun.

The Man in the High Castle (alternate history)- great concept but the plot line was confusing. 

Graphic works- All the ones on this list are great reads.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York (humor)- I am officially a Roz Chast fangirl.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (LGBTQIA comic) - an honest memoir of the author's relationship with her distant father. 

Myth Atlas: Maps and Monsters, Heroes and Gods from Twelve Mythological Worlds (mythology)- this coffee table style book is entertaining, informative and quite simply eye candy. 

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story (manga)- a good refresher on tidying! Something that I am constantly doing, it seems. 

The Dharma Punks (OwnVoices Oceania)- a graphic novel about a single night in the life of a young rebel.


American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (poetry)- poetry isn't my thing but this slim volume had some poems that gave me all the feels.

The 2020 Read Harder Challenge has several interesting prompts and I'm excited to work my way through it. (Your recommendations for any of the tasks are most welcome, and if you're doing the challenge then I'd be happy to share my recommendations for some of the tasks.)

Of course, I read books other than the ones for this challenge. A couple of months ago, someone I know gave birth to a sweet little baby boy, and this child was born with hemophilia. The news reminded me of my undergrad genetics classes and what we learned about hemophilia, the royal disease, as it was historically referred to. This led to me checking out Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra's son Alexis had hemophilia and it indirectly led to some of the biggest turning points in Russian history. This history book is a doorstopper at 640 pages but I just blew right through it. It was my favorite book of 2019 in terms of how interesting and informative it was. Massie was a historian (an American specializing in Russian history) and a master storyteller- he died earlier this month. 


Many kids are content to sit and play quietly by themselves. My two, on the other hand, are the type that need constant engagement and/or company and/or attention and rarely play by themselves. Happily, this year the 8 year old has taken off as a reader. For the first time in her life, there are blocks of time when she is not to be seen or heard, happy to be on her own reading. I hope this is the start of a lifelong infection with the reading bug. Her recent favorites have been a number of chapter book series including Ramona Quimby, Ivy + Bean, Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, Zoey and Sassafras, A to Z mysteries, Amelia Bedelia, and so on. Her other passion is for reading non-fiction books that are collections of animal facts and "500 amazing things" and such. 

For Christmas, one of her aunts sent her a few of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books! We're reading Five on a Treasure Island together now. It makes me nostalgic- let's see how reading this book now will compare to my memories of reading it decades ago. 

Meanwhile, the 3 year old can't read yet but is becoming equally fond of books. It is practically the only time you can get him to sit still for a minute. His current favorites to read over and over again are books about Pete the Cat, Maisy, and Mo Willems' Pigeon series. 

What are you reading these days?