Monday, September 30, 2013

"The List" September 2013

The first two "list" posts here and here were so much fun that I'm making this a monthly feature to recap the noteworthy moments of each month. You'll see that my definition of noteworthy covers everything from vacations to laundry detergent. What is life but a collage of moments big and trivial? Of course the very best part of these posts is when you, dear reader, chime in and tell me what's going on in your life so don't be shy.

So here goes, the list for September 2013.

Baking Lemonies= Brownies minus chocolate plus lemon. I followed this recipe. It is a drop dead easy recipe that comes together in minutes and boy, was it a success. I made a batch for Lila's teachers and one of them said to me that it was the best thing she had ever eaten- I'm not making this up. OK, she may have exaggerating a little bit but yeah, you can be sure I'll make lemonies again.

My only modifications to the recipe were to replace 1/8 cup of regular flour with almond flour- this small change added lots of texture and flavor to these melt-in-the-mouth treats. And I used lemon oil and fiori di sicilia (a citrus vanilla baking extract) which added a little something something.

Cooking pineapple relish. I bought some fresh pineapple for a party and forgot to cut and serve it. So a couple of days later, I cooked up this dish on the fly; it is something in between a pickle and a chutney. Does such a thing have a name?

The recipe for pineapple relish in short: Heat oil, temper with mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, methi seeds. Add fresh pineapple cubes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, a good bit of jaggery. Let it simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the pineapple is coated in a thick sweet-tangy syrup. Cool and store in the fridge for 3-4 days. This relish jazzed up several rice and dal meals for me.

Reading The World According to Bertie (44 Scotland Street #4). After a slow start, I'm finally sinking my teeth into this series by A. McCall Smith. Next on my list is Khalid Hosseini's And The Mountains Echoed. I feel a strange mixture of anticipation and dread about starting this book. Because he's a terrific story-teller but his stories tend to be haunting and, well, sad. Do you ever get this feeling?

Watching Craigslist Joe- a documentary about a guy who spends a month living only off free stuff found via Craigslist. Totally random, often touching and hilarious. October Sky- a feel-good inspirational movie (based on a true story) about a high school kid from a small mining town who decided to build a rocket. Is "You can achieve your dreams if you try hard enough" a trite theme for a  movie? No, it isn't. In fact, I like to be reminded of this as often as possible.

Oh, I finished the first season of Orange is the New Black- how can something be so funny and so disturbing at the same time? And for total time-pass watching, I've been enjoying Psych and 30 Rock.

Quilting: I made this quilt for Lila's little friend who also turned 2 this month. There's a town on the front, with houses and roads and buildings and such. He can snuggle under it at night and run cars on it during the day.

Experiment of the month: I made laundry detergent using this recipe. I grated the soap bar, then used an immersion blender to make the "laundry sauce". I've only used it for 2 or 3 loads of laundry but the results have been good so far.
Highlight of the month: We went to the Smoky Mountains for a weekend getaway and enjoyed some gorgeous views. And came back with a crisper's worth of North Carolina apples. Got any must-try apple recipes?

Low point of the month: Our poor puppy Duncan got attacked by another dog in the dog park. The other dog had him by the scuff of the neck and would not let go. I am perfectly useless in an emergency; I stood there and screamed in sheer panic. And when I bent down to do something about the situation, I got kicked in the head! Oy vey. Not to worry, everyone has survived and all is well. Duncan came away with only a small cut on his neck (nothing short of a miracle) that we promptly washed and dressed. On the positive side, he loved coming with us to the mountains. He is such a doll and we are just so thrilled that he is part of our family.

Supporting Asha for Education's Work an Hour 2013. The idea is to symbolically donate an hour's worth or more of your salary to fund education programs for kids in India.

What a month it was. Tell me, please, what have you been baking, cooking, reading, watching, making this past month? Did you try any strange experiments? What was the highlight of your month? And I truly hope you had no low points this month at all!

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Popular Curry, and Much Bookishness

Matar paneer- peas and cheese in a rich sauce of tomatoes and onions- has a proven reputation as a crowd-pleaser. It is a darling of Indian buffets in the India Palaces and Spice Huts of the world, and a popular choice for feeding guests in Indian homes from coast to coast. Everyone knows how to make matar paneer, right?

Just in case you feel like the world wide web needs another version of this popular curry, here's my recipe, as adapted to the ingredients and tools in my kitchen. Some Indian curries use nuts (usually cashew nuts pulverized into a powder or a paste) to add thickness and richness to gravies. Almond flour is a staple in my kitchen because I use it sometimes in baking, and I thought of using it in this curry, with excellent results. Also, I use an immersion blender to grind the sauteed onions and tomatoes into a smooth sauce, and that means there is no blender/food processor bowl to wash.

Curries that need grinding and blending are generally considered a hassle to make (in Marathi we use a pithy phrase for this: vaatan ghaatan) but these two short-cuts make this a quick curry. If you'd rather not use paneer, tofu or potatoes would work well instead.

Edited on Sept. 26: When I posted this recipe, I forgot to include one important ingredient- the kasuri methi which gives this curry that much sought after "restaurant taste". Sorry for the omission- and it is now corrected.

Matar Paneer My Way 
Peas and Paneer (Indian cheese) in a Tomato Onion Nut Sauce; serves about 4
Matar paneer with jeera rice to sop up the sauce
 Make the sauce:
1. Heat 2 tbsp oil/butter/ghee.
2. Roughly chop 2 large onions and saute them until lightly browned.
3. Add salt to taste, 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric, 1 tsp. red chili powder (or to taste), 1 tbsp. kasuri methi (dried fenugreek) and 1/2 tbsp. ginger garlic paste. Saute for a few seconds.
4. Add 1 cup tomato puree and 1/4 cup almond flour and stir fry for several minutes until the sauce thickens.
5. Add a cup of water. Using an immersion blender, carefully puree the mixture to a smooth sauce.
Add the peas:
6. Add 2 cups green peas (I use frozen peas, thawed) to the sauce, bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add some more water if required to make the curry as thick or thin as you like.
Add the paneer:
7. Saute about 2 cups bite-sized paneer cubes in a bit of oil in a separate pan until golden brown and add them to the curry.
Finish the curry:
8. Turn off the heat. Finish the curry by stirring in a handful of minced cilantro, the juice of half a lemon and 1/2 tsp of your best garam masala. These final touches "make" the curry so don't skip them.

* * *

For some Monday time-pass, I'm following in Trish's footsteps and taking the A to Z Bookish Survey started by The Perpetual Page Turner.

Author you’ve read the most books from: Jhumpa Lahiri, P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith...

Best Sequel Ever: Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

Currently Reading: Love Over Scotland (44 Scotland Street #3) by Alexander McCall Smith

Drink of Choice While Reading: Chai- always and forever.

E-reader or Physical Book? Physical books. I don't even own an e-reader.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Umm...Bertie Wooster? LOL

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Hidden Gem Book: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Important Moment in your Reading Life: Arundathi Roy's The God of Small Things came out when I was a teenager in small town India, hungry for books but without any real access to them. By some miracle, the tiny neighborhood library got a copy right away. I read The God of Small Things in a day or two and was dazzled by it (still am). This was an important moment in my reading life because for the first time, I read a "grown up" book the same week it came out and formed my own opinion of it- saying this is an amazing book for these reasons, and only later read the critical acclaim for the book in major newspapers and magazines. It made me feel like a mature reader.

Just Finished: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. I'll write a review and synopsis of this book in a couple of weeks.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: Pulpy romances and all that vampire stuff. Actually, there's a lot of stuff I don't read.

Longest Book You’ve Read: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Although last month I read Stephen King's 11/22/63 and that was a very long book as well.

Major book hangover because of: Hmm- it has been several weeks/months since a book really rocked my world.

Number of Bookcases You Own: People who visit my home like peeking at the bookcases- because looking at a person's book collection is a good way to learn more about them. Except in my case, it won't tell you much at all. 99% of the books I read are borrowed from the library and promptly returned.

Having said that, I do have a couple of bookshelves for my cookbooks and knitting/quilting books, and for V's Calvin and Hobbes collection.

The bookcase on the left is the most beloved and well-used bookcase in our home and it belongs to Miss Lila. It is pint sized just like her and all of her favorite books live there. She knows a couple dozen books by sight, brings them over to read and can put them back. She knows that if she brings a book over, I will drop everything that I am doing and read it to her.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: How To Talk So Kids Will Faber and Mazlish. I'll trying to memorize this book before my kid grows up!

Preferred Place To Read: I read in bed most nights before I drift off. We have an oversized couch in the living room and I like to fold myself into a corner of this couch and read.

And I love reading here on the porch to the soundtrack of chirping birds and rustling branches.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: 
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Yup, what she said.

Reading Regret: That I give up on books too easily- I probably miss out on some good books because if they don't engage me within 20 pages, I put them away.

Series You Started And Need To Finish: I need to catch up with several detectives, including Maisie Dobbs, Inspector Gamache and Flavia de Luce.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: Where to begin? I'll cheat and tell you three books that my two year old can't get enough of- From Head to Toe by Eric Carle, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Mr. Brown can Moo! Can you? by Dr. Seuss .

Unapologetic Fangirl For: I'm not the fangirl type, frankly. I either like books or I don't; I don't worship any authors.

Very Excited For This Release: I rarely know what the new releases are- I'm still catching up with books that are years or decades old- but I'm looking forward to reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowlands. I liked the excerpt in The New Yorker.

Worst Bookish Habit: I never use my cookbooks! Every time I'm looking for a recipe, I run to my computer. Poor neglected cookbooks.

X Marks The Spot (Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book): I looked at my shelf of cookbooks and the 27th book was Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day by Hertzberg and Francois. And umm, I haven't baked anything from it yet.

Your latest book purchase: I bought  Ed Emberley's Complete Funprint Drawing Book for a friend's child last month. This is one of my favorite books to give as gifts to the preschool set.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): I covet my sleep too much. Books can wait!

If you feel like doing some bookish time-pass yourself (and who doesn't?), please take the survey in the comments, even answering just a few questions if you like!

Edited to add: My darling friend Shoots took the bookish survey and I had to include it in this post so here it is!! She's read Anna Karenina and she reads books in English, German and Bengali. Overachiever, much? Plus, she's super cute. 

Author you’ve read the most books from: Enid Blyton. Agatha Christie, Satyajit Ray, Ruskin Bond, Jeffery Archer, Arthur Conan Doyle  are a close second (err...there are some more, but I'll stop now)

Best Sequel Ever: All Things Wise and Wonderful (James Herriot). Harry Potter is a very very close second

Currently Reading: The best reading-lion school stories (My translation of the German Die schoensten Leseloewen Schulgeschicten) and an old Durga-Puja edition of my favourite Bengali children's magazine (Anandamela)

Drink of Choice While Reading: Usually nothing because I either read in bed or on the train but I'd love me a cup of hot tea if I were to read on the sofa

E-reader or Physical Book? Physical books, every time. 

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Errr... Dick from Famous Five (I know, groan!) 

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: The Immortals of Meluha by Amish

Hidden Gem Book: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka. I found it in a second hand bookstore and I love it (It's nothing about tractors ;))

Important Moment in your Reading Life: Starting to enjoy Bengali literature

Just Finished: Living Free by Joy Adamson

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: Soppy romantic stories, weird Sci-fi and horror flicks

Longest Book You’ve Read: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Major book hangover because of: Two Lives by Vikram Seth. I found it very powerful without being pushy. Ditto for A Thousand Splendid Suns. But I wouldn't quite describe them as being a hangover... A Rainbow Nation and Freedom at Midnight (both by Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre) made me sit up and take a long hard look at modern civilization. 

Number of Bookcases You Own:  Two big ones here and about 2 large ones back at home ;) 

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee 

Preferred Place To Read: I usually read in bed and on the subway but that's more out of necessity. I would love to have more reading time in the Englischer Garten (Central Park to Munich)

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: 
A quote that inspires me (my crude translation from Bengali): "I ask, not for you to protect me from adversity, but for the strength to face adversity with courage..." Tagore's Gitanjali

A quote that gives me all the feels, so to say: "I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination." Jhumpa Lahiri, The Third and Final continent (Interpretor of Maladies)

Reading Regret: I read too fast. I really need to slow down and savour the books

Series You Started And Need To Finish: 44 Scotland Street, though it didn't quite catch on as much as The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The other would be the Lord of the Rings. I didn't make it past The Hobbit. 

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: To kill a mocking bird, The Namesake, A collection of Satyajit Ray's works called Shera Satyajit (translated that would be the best of Satyajit)

Unapologetic Fangirl For: I don't know if this would qualify me as a fan but I do find myself defending J.K. Rowling everytime someone trashes the Harry Potter series ;)

Very Excited For This Release: I don't follow new releases really but I am looking forward to the new works from Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri

Worst Bookish Habit: I sometimes buy a book on a whim and then don't finish it because it didn't engage me within the first 15 minutes. I know, that's what libraries are there for ;)

X Marks The Spot (Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book): I looked at my shelf of "children's books" and the 27th is The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton. The Great India Novel by Shashi Tharoor is the 27th on my "books for grownups" shelf.

Your latest book purchase: I bought  several books on the same trip - Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies, Living Free and Hullaballo in the Guava Orchard being a few of them

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): I do this far too often for my own good. I think the last one might have been an Agatha Christie (Parker Pyne investigates, this despite the fact that it is a collection of short stories!!!)

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Second Birthday Celebration

V and I can hardly believe this is true, but our little girl is turning TWO. Lila is growing into a little person with a very definite mind of her own. We celebrated this weekend with a simple party at home, with a few close family and friends. This year, time just got away from me, V was traveling, we were juggling too many things, and the party was put together with the minimum of time and fuss. I just wanted to get a few basic things right: (a) plenty of food, (b) a tasty cake and (c) sew some party favors.

The Menu was a light dinner and completely mismatched as you can see! I was hoping there was something for everyone. We had watermelon cubes, blueberries, red pepper hummus with pita chips, veggies with ranch dressing, Thai inspired quinoa salad, bow tie pasta tossed in a white sauce, tortilla roll-ups, matar paneer and jeera rice. No cuisine left behind, that's what I say. Next week (or sometime in the next few weeks), I'll post my recipe for the matar paneer.

I'm no fan of disposable party ware so we bought sets of reusable plates, cups, utensils earlier this year and will use them for picnics and birthday parties for years to come. I don't have a problem with washing a pile of dishes after a party at all, and it saves a ton of waste.

The Cake: On the hunt for a cute and easy to assemble cake, I found this cute fishie made with a 6 inch cake and a dozen cupcakes. So sweet and clever. And easy to serve.

I had invited several of Lila's daycare teachers, not know how many would actually be able to come, and wanted to have plenty of cake to go around. It seemed like the right occasion to try this recipe which makes a whopping 36 chocolate cupcakes. The recipe title says "far-from-disaster cake"- at first glance, this doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement. In reality the cake was an unqualified success- the exact opposite of a disaster.

All you need is a very large mixing bowl, the one I used should almost be called a basin rather than a bowl. I followed the recipe closely and my only modifications were:

1. Instead of buying a pint of buttermilk (and wondering what to do with leftover buttermilk), I added 1 tbsp. white vinegar to milk to make "clabbered milk" and used that in place of buttermilk.

2. I did not buy any fancy chocolate, instead using Trader Joe's semi-sweet chocolate, the kind that comes in 1 lb bars.

3. Because kids would be eating these cupcakes, I skipped the hot coffee and used hot water instead.

The batter came together quickly and I poured it into a 6 inch cake pan (not a very common pan size but I found one at Michael's), 30 cupcake liners and still had enough left over for a bit in a loaf pan. The oven was simply crammed with chocolate cake.

The frosting was a strawberries and cream frosting: I pureed about 10 ripe strawberries with a couple of tbsp. of jam in a blender and folded it into whipped heavy cream. Add some sugar if necessary and there you go. It makes for a light and very delicious frosting and the combination with chocolate cake is a match made in culinary heaven.

The frosting was slapped onto the cake and cupcakes and then I placed a blueberry as the fish eye and strawberry slices as the mouth. The poor fishie may look very imperfect (I've made my peace with my poor cake decorating skills) but this cake/frosting was a tasty mouthful. Definitely something I'd make again and again.

The Party Favors: Lila is an adventurous kid. Her mottos in life: Why walk when you can run? Why sit when you can climb? This results in a dozen bumps and small falls and boo-boos on any given day. Using this tutorial on Bubbles and Bobbins, I made Lila an owlie rice pack. Let me tell you, these rice packs are excellent TLC for those minor boo-boos when a child's feelings are hurt more than there being any physical injury. Now when Lila has a boo-boo, she'll start bawling and ask for owlie. Clutches the owlie, pats it on the hurt spot and there, she's all smiles again. With the success of owlie, I made a whole parliament of rice owls (that's really the collective noun; I didn't make it up) to give as party favors to her friends. I included the cute poem (also on the tutorial blog post) which explains that the owl can be used as a hot/cold pack.

We debated about whether to put a "no gifts" request in the invitations, but decided against it because gifts are a big part of the fun of childhood birthdays. Besides, I always feel disappointed when we are invited to birthday parties and asked not to get gifts, because I love picking out or making birthday gifts. So Miss Lila was showered with useful and thoughtful gifts, including a gorgeous board book, a doctor set, a giant sticker book, a metal water bottle and a Mrs. Potato Head (remember the potato head toys? I loved mine as a kid). She was also given a beautiful handmade quilt- I'll take a pic once I hang it up.

Lila ran around with her little friends and stuffed herself with cake. This is pretty much the best kind of celebration as far as I am concerned.

Did you have a fun weekend? And I would love to hear about how you like to celebrate birthdays. Have a wonderful week and I'll see you next Monday.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Corn Chowder

Yesterday Labor Day here in the US, a holiday for the worker bees. We had no plans so we gathered some friends together for a get-together, potluck style. I made some sandwiches with chutney and tomatoes and lots of soft butter. And a pineapple cream cake- by making this basic yellow cake in a 9 x 13 pan, then drizzling it with pineapple juice (drained from a can of diced pineapple in juice), and topping with vanilla whipped cream and chunks of pineapple (from the aforementioned can). It was very simple to assemble and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Here's another recipe I tried last week. Corn chowder- a thick, sometimes milky stew of corn- has been on my summer recipe bucket list for a while. Fresh corn is flooding the produce aisle these days and last week I finally bought some. Cutting kernels from ears of corn seems like a tedious task but only takes a couple of minutes when you get down to it. I use a sharp knife to cut the kernels, then run the back of the knife down the ears to squeeze out the "corn milk".

I looked up several recipes for corn chowder and ended up making my own recipe up as I went along, based on what I had on hand. This is one of those simple heart-warming soups with fresh vegetables in a creamy, savory broth.

Corn Chowder

1. Cut the kernels and corn milk from 3 ears of fresh corn and set aside.

2. In a pot, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil.

3. Saute 1 medium finely diced onion until translucent.

4. Add 3 chopped cloves of garlic, 1 medium chopped carrot, 2 medium diced potatoes and stir.

5. Add 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour, 2 tbsp. nutritional yeast and 1 tsp. herbes de Provence (or your choice of seasoning) and stir for a minute.

6. Add corn kernels, 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the veggies are tender.

7. Add 1 cup milk. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat.

8. Stir in 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy the week! I have a busy month coming up but hopefully I'll be back here next week.