Saturday, March 31, 2012

1 Oven, 350 Degrees, 3 Baking Dishes

...and that is how I cooked 2 meals + breakfast for a whole week in a couple of hours.

I don't generally do bulk cooking on the weekends, preferring to make a quick dinner every night and packing leftovers for lunch the next day. But we're going through a busy phase and the idea of having a couple of meals in the fridge is so appealing, to be reheated and eaten during the work week as required. Bulk cooking would mean spending most of a Sunday in the kitchen, and as much as I love to cook, that just sounds exhausting.

While I was mulling over this, I saw a couple of mentions of a cookbook called Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand (she blogs on The Kitchn) and requested it from the library, thinking perhaps I could try to make an extra casserole or two on the weekend.

Well, this cookbook, a simple publication with no photos apart from the cover, turned out to be incredibly inspiring. These casseroles recipes are designed with fresh ingredients and don't call for gummy "cream of XYZ" soups. I loved the chapters on vegetable casseroles and breakfast casseroles. From the book, I tried to decide on one recipe to try that weekend (this was a couple of weeks ago). The broccoli-stuffed pasta shells looked very good, and so did the baked oatmeal- which should I try first?

A minute later I realized that both these recipes were baked at the same temperature- 350 degrees F- and I could easily bake both at the same time. In fact, given that my kitchen range has the kind of spacious oven that is the norm in US homes, I could fit in a third baking dish in there. Which was a happy realization, because I had just bought a lovely big bunch of kale, and had bookmarked a simple recipe to use it in. A recipe that, conveniently enough, is also baked at 350F.

You see where I am going with this? My multi-baking (yes, it is a real word and you heard it here first) session was a success. I spent about an hour prepping and preheated the oven towards the end of that time. Then three baking dishes- a pie plate, a 9 x13 casserole dish and an 8 x 8 baking dish- went into the oven and I quickly cleaned the kitchen and relaxed. The dishes came out one by one and I had a good amount of delicious food ready for the days ahead.

Cooking multiple dishes in the oven simultaneously is a nice way to save yourself some time, and to lower your utility bills and carbon footprint while you are at it. It turns out that a great proportion of recipes are baked at 350 degrees F. There's not much mystery there- 350F is a moderate "Goldilocks" baking temperature, not too high and not too low.

I've compiled a list of 12 recipe categories- most of the recipes I've seen for these call for a 350F oven temperature. If you would like ideas for specific recipes for any of these, ask me in the comments and I'll gladly help. Imagine choosing 2 or 3 or 4 of these and baking them all at once. One could get a chunk of cooking done in a couple of hours.
  1. Breakfast egg casseroles & quiches: Savory combinations of eggs, vegetables, cheese, and sometimes grains and flours.
  2. Pasta casseroles: Macaroni and cheese and lasagna may be the best known but there are endless possibilities with pasta, vegetables, sauce and cheese.
  3. Other main dishes: Enchiladas, biryani, vegetarian shepherd's pie to name just a few.
  4. Baked oatmeal: Oats cooked in milk (dairy or non-dairy) with fruits and nuts.
  5. Granola: Another breakfast option with oats, seeds, dry fruits and nuts.
  6. Tofu: Baked tofu is a great snack or appetizer on its own, and can be tossed with fried rice and noodles or stirred into soup. 
  7. Bread: Several recipes for yeasted breads bake at 350F.
  8. Quick breads & muffins: E.g. banana bread, zucchini bread, and all sorts of muffins. These are nice to have on hand for tea-time snacking and for lunch boxes. 
  9. Whole vegetables: Winter squash, baking potatoes and sweet potatoes can be baked whole and then cut open with ease for use in various dishes.
  10. Vegetable bakes: For instance, gratins, stuffed vegetables and simple trays of cubed vegetables.
  11. Roasted nuts & snack mixes: Glazed nut mixtures are a wonderful snack and make for nice hostess or holiday gifts.
  12. Cakes & Cupcakes: If you have a celebration coming up in the next few days, make a quick cake or batch of cupcakes while cooking other meals. 

Coming back to the three dishes I baked together that weekend, here are the recipes. One was this quinoa and kale crustless quiche. I followed the recipe closely. My only addition was some cubed cooked sweet potato. Lila has started eating "people food" (in addition to her usual diet of food that comes from people) that week and her first food was sweet potato. I had some left over and added it here. It added another layer of sweetness to the dish, contrasting beautifully with the mildly bitter greens. This is a great dish to have on hand for picnics and lunch boxes, because it is tasty at room temperature. I enjoyed it with Sriracha sauce!

Next up, a pasta dish of jumbo shells stuffed with broccoli. This was my first time making jumbo shells.   They make for a lovely presentation, although this is a thick pasta (it has to be, to hold the filling) and I prefer a more delicate pasta in general. It is a slightly labor intensive dish but we enjoyed the results very much. I had some jarred marinara that I needed to use up so I included it in this casserole and I thought it was a wonderful addition.

Broccoli-Stuffed Shells(Adapted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand)
1. PASTA: Cook a box of jumbo shells. Drain the shells and set them on a clean dish towel. Choose the best 15-20 shells for the recipe and save the rest of the pasta for later use.
2. Preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9 x 13 metal baking dish.
3. FILLING: Roughly chop 2 large heads of broccoli and cook them until barely tender (I used the microwave oven). Pulse the cooked broccoli a few times in the food processor to yield finely chopped broccoli.
4. In a bowl, mix together the broccoli, 1 tbsp. minced garlic, 1 cup ricotta cheese, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, salt, red pepper flakes and pepper to taste. Set this filling aside. If you like, you can add a beaten egg to this mixture too.
5. WHITE SAUCE: Heat 1/4 cup of butter in a saucepan. Add 1/4 cup flour and cook it for a few minutes. Stir in 2 cups milk and cook, whisking often, until the sauce is thick. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
6. ASSEMBLY: Ladle half a cup of white sauce and spread it around in the bottom of the baking dish. Fill pasta shells with broccoli mixture and arrange them in the dish in a single layer. Pour a cup of marinara sauce over the shells. Top with the rest of the white sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Bake for an hour or so until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbling. 

The baked oatmeal recipe is a very simple one. In fact, it is the same thing you would make on a stove top but instead you cook it in a baking dish. This is a basic recipe that one could modify with different fresh and dry fruits, and nuts and spices.

Baked Oatmeal (Adapted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand)
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Lightly grease an 8 or 9 inch square baking dish.
3. In a bowl, stir together
  • 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats 
  • 1 cup milk 
  • 1.5 cups almond milk 
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup 
  • 1 or 2 chopped apples 
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts 
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 
4. Pour the oat mixture into baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or until liquid is fully absorbed.

On The Bookshelf

Here's the next parenting book I read: Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. The author has a good synopsis of these rules on his website so I won't list them all here.

Here are two interesting points I took away from this book: 

1. The author talks about the empathy reflex. If the other person has a strong emotion (anger, frustration, fear), your first reaction should be to demonstrate empathy by doing these 2 simple steps:
(a) Describe the emotion you think you see in the other person.
(b) Make a guess about where the emotion is coming from.
This is just so simple and powerful, for responding not just to children and spouses but with other people too.

2. The author describes the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a landmark longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being. Decades of research has led to this conclusion "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people".

And with that we say good-bye to March and hello to April. The first half of April looks like a very busy one for my family, so I'll be on a short blogging break. See you in the latter half of April!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Half the Birthday, All the Fun

The little Miss turned 6 months old and we celebrated her half-birthday this weekend. What is a half-birthday? Is this even a thing? Or is it simply an excuse for me to bake a cake? Yes and yes. I got to bake something sweet and we had a small party with a couple of our friends who have young ones.

Being a new parent can be a bit lonely, especially when you are caught in the Sisyphean tasks of feeds and diaper changes. Having social support makes all the difference by giving you someone to share the everyday joys and pains. When I was newly pregnant last year, we signed up a plot in the community garden near us. From that garden plot, we harvested a few pounds of okra...and one new friend, a fellow gardener. This neighbor and new friend was also pregnant with her first child. It was wonderful to have a friend living practically next door going through the same things I was. We waddled through the neighborhood on long walks. She had her son Nico a week before I gave birth to Lila. Since the babies were a few days old, we've been meeting up every few days, bringing each other food and advice and reassurance. The littles babble to each other on the play mat. We go on long walks through the neighborhood just like we did earlier, but with babies now strapped on the outside. To anyone who is about to be a new parent, I have this to say: instead of spending hours researching strollers online, go out and find yourself a community of friends.

To celebrate Lila and Nico's half-birthday, I made half-birthday cakes, of course. I made one cake, cut it in half and frosted each half separately. Then I used chocolate chips to make a "N" on one half-cake for Nico and an "L" on the other half-cake for Lila.

The cake recipe is from Ina Garten and I found it in this post from Alpineberry. This is the kind of easy, easy cake recipe that really makes me wish that more people left the boxed cake mix right there in the box where it belongs and try making cakes from scratch.
  • Dry ingredients in one bowl
  • Wet ingredients in another bowl
  • Mix the two
  • Add hot coffee
  • Pour the batter into prepared pans
You definitely don't need a stand mixer to make this recipe- a simple wooden spoon and mixing bowl does the trick. If you have a silicone spatula, it helps to scrape every last bit of the batter from the bowl. Note that this batter is pourable and thin and you need to butter and line the pans properly. But you will be rewarded with a beautifully moist cake.

Here is what I did differently from the recipe:
  • Using canola oil instead of vegetable oil because it is what I had on hand.
  • Using large eggs instead of extra large eggs because large is the only size I ever buy (I did not notice that the smaller quantity of eggs I used made any difference).
  • Making faux buttermilk at home: take 1 tbsp. white vinegar in a measuring cup and add milk to the 1 cup mark. Let it sit for 5 minutes and give it a stir- viola! buttermilk!
  • Reducing the quantity of sugar to 1.5 cups.
  • Instead of freshly brewed coffee, I added 2 tsp. instant espresso  powder to 1 cup hot water.
  • Using natural cocoa instead of Dutch processed. With natural cocoa, it almost looks like a red velvet cake with a rich mahogany color.
To fill and frost the cake, I used the peanut butter mousse from this recipe. The combination of chocolate and peanut butter is a particular favorite around here. My frosting skills are painfully lacking but there is something sweet and homely about a homemade cake so I never beat myself up about it. The cake made 12 generous servings.

To go with the cake, I made three finger foods:

Puffs with peas and sweet potato

Black eyed peas salsa served with tortilla chips
Paneer tikka with peppers and onions
Today is the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere- and I wish you all a season of glorious weather and long walks in the park. Today is also the start of my own personal Spring Cleaning Challenge. Starting this evening I will devote a little time- anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes- working on one small portion of my home. We've had very little time to clean and organize in this past year and I'm looking forward to clearing out some clutter and feeling rejuvenated inside and out.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Idli, Dosa, Chutney: Brunch Perfection

V and I enjoy having friends over for casual gatherings on the weekends. Typically, people tend to meet for dinner on the weekends, but dinner-time is not at all my favorite time for entertaining. I'm an early bird who is up and about at 5 AM (yes, even on the weekends; especially on the weekends when there are so many fun things to look forward to). By 6 in the evening, I am pretty tired and crabby and not much fun to be around.

Brunch or lunch is my preferred social hour. You do your cooking in the morning, enjoy your friends and still have many more hours left in the day to relax or do something else.

A couple of weekends ago we had just such a gathering scheduled and I made my favorite brunch trio of idli, sambar and chutney. Our friends offered to bring along a dish. I always say yes to this gracious offer- potluck style equals less work for any one person. And I never worry too much about what-goes-with-what. We might end up eating some strange combinations of dishes but everything is always delicious. This time our pals brought over sweet french toast with maple syrup and juicy strawberries.

The camera candidly captured the table laid out with brunch- idlis, chutney and sambar. And a platter of cookies in the background for dunking into tea.
Pillowy challah french toast with sliced strawberries- brought over by our friends.
Idli, sambar and chutney is a trio that I have made so many times before (and posted so many times I've lost count), but never the same way twice! I keep tweaking the idli recipe to make them fluffier, fiddling with the sambar recipe to make it more like the kind from Udipi restaurants and varying the chutneys because there are so many to choose from.

1. The Idlis

For several years, I made idlis using recipes that call for idli rava. But there is such a difference between a good idli and a fantastic one- once you have eaten the latter you get spoiled for life. In my hands (meaning, there are surely ways to make the perfect idli with idli rava but I don't know what they are), the fluffiest idlis come about when you use a special variety of rice sold as idli rice- this rice is parboiled. My idli "aha" moment came last summer when V's aunt visited and I watched her make idlis with parboiled rice. Busy with baby and all, it was only now that I got to try my hand at it. If you have an electric stone grinder and if you have access to parboiled rice, you need to read these two posts from the The Yum Blog. I followed their proportion 1 (adding a fistful of poha for better fermentation), and followed all their excellent tips for grinding the batter. Even on that cold weekend, the batter rose gratifying well and the resulting buttery, fluffy idlis made me weep with joy. No exaggeration.

Update on March 18, 2012: In a comment on this post, Arch suggested that I try Vani's soft idlis. This weekend, I did and yes, this is an incredible recipe! The only difference is that I soaked the parboiled rice, ural dal and poha all together and ground them all together too. The idlis turned out soft and wonderful. So all in all, I think parboiled rice and poha make for successful idlis in my hands.

Idli stand- with molds to make 16 idlis at a time

2. Udipi Sambar

This time around I tried the Udipi Sambar recipe from Peppermill. A recipe from the sweet and beloved blogger Miri; she passed away of a chronic illness but continues to be part of my life through her recipes. Read her post for a lovely description of why this sweetish, coconut-laced version of sambar is beloved among those of us who ate at Udipi restaurants in Bombay. Here is my adaptation of Miri's recipe.
Udipi Sambar
1. Pressure cook 1/2 cup toor dal. Mash it well and set aside.
2. Heat a little oil in small pan. Add the following ingredients in this order and fry them, then cool and grind to a thick paste (in my case it was more like a wet powder).
  • 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp. urad dal
  • 2 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • Few curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh/frozen coconut
3. You're ready to make sambar. In a large pan, heat 2 tsp. oil. Temper it with
  • 1 tsp. mustard seeds 
  • 1 tsp. urad dal
  • Pinch of asafetida
  • Sprig of curry leaves
4. Add vegetables- I used chunks of red onion this time. Batons of drumsticks, carrot, baby onions, cubes of eggplant, pumpkin all work well. Stir fry for a few minutes. Add salt, red chili powder, turmeric, tamarind paste and jaggery to taste. Add a cup of water, cover and cook for a few minutes.
5. Now stir in the masala paste and toor dal from step 1 and 2. Simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavors and consistency before serving.

3. A fresh verdant chutney
I use a coffee grinder as my "mixie" and it works for the most part but the coconut chutney made with fresh frozen coconut never seems to be quite as silky smooth as I would like. The idea for using coconut milk instead of fresh/frozen shredded coconut came from Vaishali's post from many years ago. This recipe will give you beautifully smooth chutney in any old blender.

Cilantro Coconut Chutney
1. Blend together and scrape into a serving bowl:
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 chopped hot green chili (or green chili paste to taste)
  • 1/2 cup dalia or roasted chana dal (phutane in Marathi)
  • 1 mini can coconut milk (5.6 oz. or 2/3 cup)
2. Make a tadka or "tempering" with:
  • 2 tsp. oil
  • 2 tsp. mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp. urad dal
  • 1 tsp. chana dal
  • Pinch of asafetida
  • Sprig of curry leaves
3. Stir in:
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh lemon juice
Anyway, this brunch was a labor of love and so utterly rewarding. Our friends had never tasted idli before and looked quizzically at these snow-white steamed cakes but a few bites later, I heard things like, "Why can't I stop eating these?".

That weekend was special for another reason. It was the first time Lila rolled over, leaving us speechless with delight. So that makes it two milestones- Lila taking the first step towards mobility and me making idlis that I am proud to share. That Monday, when co-workers asked the perfunctory question, "How was your weekend?", I could say with absolute sincerity that my weekend had been just perfect.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Quick Weeknight Curry (And Mama Goes To Parenting School)

This week has been a milestone of sorts. Our darling 5 month old started falling asleep (!) in her crib (!!) at 7 PM (!!!), allowing V and I to actually sit down and enjoy a meal together. Eating dinner together at a reasonable hour is a rare and novel concept for parents of young babies. I am knocking loudly on wood as I type this, for fear of jinxing this whole thing.

Last night I celebrated the new routine by making a luscious curry. The recipe is pretty generic but it was quick and tasty so here it is. The leftover curry made for a tasty lunch this afternoon (that's my lunchbox in the picture). I made the curry in a deep wok instead of a shallow saucepan, making it easy to dip in the immersion blender and puree the ingredients to a smooth sauce.

Luscious Curry with a Few Variations

  1. Heat 2-3 tsp. of oil.
  2. Peel and dice 2 large onions. Fry the onions until soft and golden brown.
  3. Add 1 tbsp. ginger garlic paste, 1 heaped tsp. Kitchen King masala, turmeric, red chili powder and salt to taste and fry for a minute.
  4. Add 1 cup tomatoes (fresh or canned) and fry for 5 minutes.
  5. Add 2/3 cup coconut milk (1 mini can) and 1 cup water (or more or less, depending on the consistency you like). Simmer for 10 minutes, then puree to a smooth sauce using an immersion blender, (or cool down the mixture and use a regular blender or food processor).
  6. To the sauce, add any of the following ingredients to customize the curry, and garnish with lots of chopped cilantro and a dash of garam masala.
  • Meatless meatballs (this is the version I made last night)
  • Halved hard-boiled eggs
  • Sauteed or boiled mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower)
  • Roasted butternut squash
  • Vegetable koftas 

On The Bookshelf
(Mama Goes To School)

V and I live our life together in a rather practical, low-key manner. When we were expecting Lila, we knew we wanted to give her a secure and modest upbringing without obsessively making parenting the be-all and end-all of our existence. We joked that we have raised a dog together and he turned out OK (...I think, on most days!) and we would raise the baby the same way, with rules and routines and an abundance of love. I declared to my friends that I was going to raise Lila using a novel parenting technique called common sense. The point is that I don't think for a moment that you need to read parenting books or adhere to some idealized parenting style in order to be a good parent.

But the fact is that I like to read, and the other fact is that parenting is a whole lot more fun that I ever imagined. I really do want to read more on the subject and perhaps learn some tips on how to raise a kind and well-adjusted child who will be an asset to her community.

I often forget what I read, and my blog is my reference book of sorts, so starting with this post, I will occasionally write a mini synopsis of parenting (and other) books that I read. I'm jotting down what I see as the take-home message of the book, points that I want to remember. This is all very subjective, of course. But if you are interested, I invite you to read along and chime in with your thoughts.

The first book I chose is Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.  They take 10 parenting topics and discuss child development research which has surprising findings that go against popular notions about these topics.

Chapter 1. The Inverse Power of Praise
Praise effort instead of praising smartness. To be effective, praise needs to be specific and sincere (no distracted and generic "good job" and "you're so smart"). Let kids develop accurate awareness of how well they are doing instead of automatically giving them a gold star for every small thing, effectively making them praise junkies. The information in this chapter is available as a magazine article here.

Chapter 2. The Lost Hour
Lack of sleep is taking a toll on kids in many more ways than we ever imagined (physically, intellectually, emotionally) so make sure kids are not over-scheduled. School start times are scheduled very early in the morning for adult convenience. If you can't change the school timing, then get kids to sleep early and be extremely committed to protecting sleep time. The relevant article is here.

Chapter 3. Why White Parents Don't talk About Race
Children are inherently prone to categorization so they notice external differences such as differences in skin color. It is important to have explicit discussions about race, especially when the child is 5 to 6 years old. Read the article here.

Chapter 4. Why Kids Lie
Children learn to lie from an extremely early age, and in fact intelligent kids are better liars. Young kids lie to keep parents happy, because they see the parents' displeasure when they admit to using crayons on the walls (or whatever). To reduce lying, explain to kids that telling the truth will not result in punishment but telling lies will result in punishment:  "I will not be upset with you if you (did the bad thing) and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy". Another point is that kids learn to lie from us, because even the most honest adult tells plenty of lies (white lies, like "I love the gift" when you don't). Kids learn that lies are an easy way to prevent conflict. Read the article here.

Chapter 5. The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten.
Intelligence is very fluid in young children and it is better to wait until third grade to test children for being placed in gifted programs in school. Testing before then misses the mark in many cases.

Chapter 6. The Sibling Effect. 
The theory that "only" children lack social skills has never been proven. Kids have no incentives to be nice to their siblings because the sibling will always be there, whereas you lose friends if you can't get along with them. So don't feel guilty if you decide to have an only child, and if you have more than one child, work to create opportunities for them to have fun together.

Chapter 7. The Science of Teen Rebellion
Teenagers lie a lot to their parents, especially to avoid arguments. To reduce lying, set consistent rules for your teenager but be open to discussing them and making exceptions when necessary. Whatever- I'll re-read this chapter in 10 years.

Chapter 8. Can Self-Control be Taught? 
This chapter discusses a particular preschool and kindergarten program called Tools of the Mind.  Even at that young age, kids learn to think critically about what they are doing instead of completing assignments mechanically. For instance, practicing writing the letter "A" over and over again is a common activity for this crowd. Make the child circle the best example of the letter on every line to see the difference between a good attempt and a better one. Another good idea is "buddy reading" where kids take turns reading to each other. There are complex play scenarios and plenty of room for imagination. There is more of this concept in this NYT article.

Chapter 9. Plays Well With Others
This chapter asks the question: Why are kids aggressive? For me, the take-home points for raising a kinder kid are (1) Realize that some TV shows for kids are clearly violent but even the ones that qualify as educational television are full of relational aggression (gossip, rumor-spreading, merciless teasing, etc.) and verbal aggression (name-calling etc.). (2) Children are very sensitive to the relationship between their parents. Since some amount of bickering and arguing is bound to happen in most relationships, you can protect the child by letting her witness not just the argument but the happy resolution of the argument. (3) Make sure kids get social time with people of all ages and not just peers of the same age. (4) "Progressive" dads are much more involved in child care than "traditional" dads but paradoxically, progressive dads have kids who are more aggressive because they typically fail to discipline effectively and consistently. V is a progressive dad in every sense and has a long history of playing "good cop" with Dalu (guess who plays "bad cop" every single time?) so we'll have to work on this one as Lila gets older.

Chapter 10. Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't
This chapter was immediately relevant to me because it discusses how infants develop verbal skills. Babies benefit when you talk to them often, but make it a mock conversation and respond to their sounds instead of simply chattering non-stop to the baby. Seven practical tips from this chapter are listed here.

(1) We need to understand that things don't necessarily work the same way in children as they do in adults. (2) Children seem to be walking contradictions- we tend to categorize things as either good for kids or bad for kids but child psychology is often more complicated than that.

This blog has discussions on all the chapters in this book.

Enjoy the weekend!