Monday, April 22, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Since my parents' arrival, our trips to the library are more frequent than ever. We're sampling genres as varied as crafts, physics, nutrition, aviation and classic mysteries, and books are being borrowed by the bagful. Here are some highlights from my reading list over the last few weeks:

Image: Goodreads
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (fiction, mystery): This is the first book in the Amelia Peabody series. I can't remember for the life of me how it got on my reading list or where I heard of it, but I can say that this cozy, gently humorous mystery was a rather enjoyable read. Amelia Peabody, a 30-something independent-minded woman in Victorian England gets a substantial inheritance and sets out to travel in Egypt. The book recounts her adventures as she sails down the Nile and ends up as an Egyptologist. As Amelia says, "I embroider very badly. I think I would excavate rather well.

The story is colorful with historic details and has a satisfying, tidy ending. The book is set in the late 19th century so the wording on "native servants" can be startling (but is true to the era). With a crocodile lurking in the title, this book fits the first category in my Criminal Plots reading challenge: Novel with an Animal in the Title.

Image: Goodreads
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. I really enjoyed Stead's previous middle-school-reading-level book When You Reach Me so I looked for this one. Happily, this was a light and engaging read too. There's nothing complicated or deep about the plot at all, and that's perfectly OK. Ordinary lives and everyday circumstances can contain a lot of meaning. I had every sympathy for Georges (the s is silent) as he copes with changes in family life, with a new friend, with bullies at school. I think the overall message of this book is "Just Be Yourself" and that's a good message no matter what age you are.

Image: Goodreads
Easy Cut-up Cakes for Kids by Melissa Barlow (non-fiction, culinary/craft). Homemade birthday cakes have a very special place in my heart. The ones with custom shapes and fanciful decorations are the most memorable of them all, because they can be tied to the interests of the birthday girl/boy, to the season or occasion or party theme. Shaped cakes can be made with special molds but personally I prefer not to buy those because how many times would you make a cake of the same shape?

Barlow's book is very clever because she shows how you can use standard cake pans- square, circular, rectangular pans, bowls, bundt pans, muffin tins that most of us amateur bakers already have on hand- and  transform the basic shape into a novelty cake with a couple of simple cuts and rearrangement of the pieces, and with strategically placed decorations. Now, the book relies 100% on two things that I absolutely dread, boxed cake mixes and buttercream frosting, but one could make cakes from scratch and use other frosting recipes and still use all of the ideas.

Here are a couple of Barlow's cake ideas that I found online- cut off the 4 corners from a 9 x 13 rectangular cake and make a football cake, a round cake + 3 cupcakes makes a teddy bear. The book has a few others that I really liked, including a sail boat, rocket ship, dragon fly and clown fish. Some of the ideas are time-honored ones that I had seen before, like making a heart cake from one square and one round cake (example here) and making a bowtie-wearing bunny from two circular cakes (example here). What I love about these ideas is that they are doable for the average baker because, let's be honest, slapping on a little frosting and candy decorations is more my style and I'm not likely to be making elaborate fondant creations like these two.

Image: Goodreads
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan; illustrations by Maira Kalman (non-fiction, culinary). Pollan is well-known for his dictum: Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much. Here, he has collected several dozen pithy food rules, many of them are crowd-sourced. I truly enjoyed flipping through this whimsically illustrated book. Most of the rules are common sense advice but clearly when it comes to food (and many other things), common sense rarely prevails so these things are worth repeating. Many are witty- e.g. Rule #21 about avoiding factory-made food: If It Came from a Plant, Eat It; If It was Made in a Plant, Don't. Some are very wise, like #53: Pay More, Eat Less. I certainly practice this one, which explains why I spend a fortune on fresh produce while buying furniture from Craigslist. Several rules are reminders that we live in a food culture that is dominated by companies rather than growers, such as #8: Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims. Others are gentle nudges to eat mindfully, such as #76: Place a Bouquet of Flowers on the Table and Everything Will Taste Twice as Good.

I'm guessing that we all have food rules, whether or not we actively think of them as rules per se. While I don't have clever phrasings, some of my own food rules might be:
1. Dessert is for sharing (I never make dessert unless there's an occasion and there are plenty of people to share in the sweetness.)
2. Don't drink your calories (Water and tea are my beverages of choices and I don't understand why people are so fond of juicing- they throw away all that good fiber?)
3. Be grateful that you even get to have food rules (The most important of my food rules. Only lucky people get to worry about carbs and calories and the benefits of this diet and the other diet. The rest have nothing to eat.)

I'm linking this to the It's Monday... meme over on Book Journey.

Your turn: What are you reading? Care to share your own "food rules"?

Monday, April 08, 2013

In My Kitchen: April 2013

This morning I spotted Johanna's In My Kitchen post while sipping my chai and thought it was a fun idea for a post- and so timely because, ahem, it was Monday and I had no clue what I was going to write about today. In My Kitchen is a monthly meme hosted over on the blog Fig Jam and Lime Cordial. Read their post here and look at other posts on their side-bar. and maybe you'll be inspired to write a In My Kitchen post yourself.

Armed with this idea, I went around my kitchen for a couple of minutes, snapping a few pics of whatever caught my eye.

In my kitchen is a nice view of the outdoors. It makes washing dishes almost a pleasure when you can see the seasons change as you scrub pots and pans. Right now the view shows oak trees sprouting new leaves. And I see festive marigolds that we have planted in the window box.

In my kitchen, avocados are ripening. My parents are visiting us for a few weeks. They are adventurous foodies and enjoy whatever new ingredients I care to cook for them. Creamy avocados are a particular favorite these days, smashed into a quick guacamole. They're also enjoying quinoa in the form of corn and quinoa soup and snacking on clementines. I hope we can try some other seasonal produce, like asparagus.

In my kitchen is a set of stainless steel dishes- gift from an aunt. I think food tastes better in compartmentalized plates. These are breakfast sized deep plates designed for serving trios like idlis-sambar-chutney or upma-sev-chutney, or pancakes-fruit-syrup, I'm sure. Now, does anyone have a trick for scrubbing off that gummy label residue? 

In my kitchen are mason jars of all shapes and sizes. Maybe it is the Southern influence, but I'm smitten with them lately. In my kitchen, they hold chutneys and spices, and as a crock to hold serving spoons, and one of these days I'll start drinking sweet iced tea out of them!

In my kitchen, and specifically, on my fridge, is original art made by my toddler. 

In my kitchen is a sweet gift from my talented sister- a wall clock made of fabric on an embroidery hoop, with buttons representing the hours. It makes me smile every time I look at it. And yes, the clock mechanism works and it keeps perfect time.

In my kitchen, hanging on the back door, is a bunch of seven chillies and a lemon. In India, a string of chillies and lemon is a good luck charm that you'll often find dangling at the entrance of businesses and homes; it is supposed to ward off "the evil eye". This was a gift from my dear friend Chinu who spotted this metal-and-wood version in a gift shop and said she couldn't resist buying it for me, knowing that I just moved into a new home. Banishing evil spirits? Yes, please! Isn't it adorable?

In my kitchen, there's usually something simmering on the stove. The kitchen is working overtime while my parents are here, and there are lots of special meals on the menu. But while enchiladas and gobi manchurian are terrific, we crave some version of dal and rice now and then.

So I made a simple okra sambar, shown here with tamarind rice, although it is sensational with ghee and rice, or just plain steamed rice. When I mentioned okra sambar in a previous post, I had a few people asking me for the recipe, and also whether it has that dreaded okra attribute- namely, is it slimy? Because fresh okra is only available here during a few short weeks in summer, I usually make this dish with frozen okra. My method is to saute the okra well before adding salt and cooked toor dal to it. This reduced the sliminess considerably but I would have to say that this dish is for okra lovers. The end result does have a particular texture, shall we say? But I love this sambar and if you're a bhindi enthusiast, chances are, you will like it too. I've posted other frozen okra tips in this post. Around here, a store sells large bags of locally grown frozen veggies  (a nice way for farmers to make the best of their surplus summer produce) so this is a pantry supper for us.

If you want to try for yourself, here's the recipe. The first I heard of okra sambar was on Mahanandi, all those years ago and since then it is part of my regular dinner rotation.

Okra Sambar

1 cup toor dal, rinsed, soaked, cooked and mashed
1 lb frozen chopped (or fresh) okra
1 tsp. tamarind paste (or to taste)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
Pinch of asafetida
1 sprig fresh curry leaves
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tbsp. sambar powder (or to taste)

1. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pan. Temper it with the ingredients listed.
2. Add okra and saute it on medium heat, stirring every few minutes, until the okra is browned and not so slimy. This takes a little time and patience.
3. Now add everything listed under spices. Saute for a minute more, then add cooked toor dal and tamarind paste. Add water if required to make the desired consistency. Simmer for a few minutes and you're done.

That's it for this week, friends. Like I said, my folks are visiting and so posting may be sporadic in the coming month. If you don't see a post on Monday, it just means I'm busy having fun and will be back ASAP.