Sunday, November 24, 2013

12 Tips for Simpler Entertaining

Does the word "entertaining" conjure up visions of pristine tablecloths and sparkling silverware, cocktails and canapes? Well, in our home we entertain almost every weekend, and you'll see none of those things, ever. The only thing we guarantee is a warm and welcoming home and plenty of food on the table.

When I was talking about cures for life's big and little ailments last week, Anu asked,

"Between working full time and managing a preschooler and a baby, I feel the last thing I want to do is cook for people on weekends. But, I want to have people over too, any tips on how to get over this mental block? Is there a book to cure this? :)"

While I can't think of a suitable book about the warm fuzzy feeling of cooking for friends (if you think of one, leave a comment, please), I do have a lot to say on the subject and thought of writing this post instead of writing the world's longest comment.

I have people over for meals because I like to feed people. Also, I'm a homebody and I'd rather have my fun at home than go out on weekends. Beyond the simple pleasure of sharing food, it is how casual acquaintances grow to become close friends, when the small talk continues to deeper conversations about our hopes and dreams and fears. This is especially important for expats who live far, far away from family. Our friends become the family we choose. Over the years, we have realized that formal entertaining is not our style, but that casual meals fit in well into our lifestyle. This beautiful meditation on formality echoes my thoughts on the matter.

I truly believe that entertaining is not just for socialites. However, with all the juggling that people are required to do- working full time, caring for kids and other family members- it also should not become one more thing that adds to your burdens. So here are my top 12 tips for simpler entertaining, a pep talk of sorts. There's nothing new here, but sometimes it helps to be reminded. It requires a mindset of being at peace with yourself and embracing your own entertaining style, never comparing yourself to anyone else, of knowing that your goal is not to impress anyone but to build a happy community around yourself and share your home and bounty with others. 

From a memorable lunch that I was
invited to
1. Think beyond "dinner" parties. Hosting a full-fledged dinner can seem daunting. A great way to start small is to invite friends over for tea, cocoa or lemonade in the afternoon. Serve some cake, sandwiches, or snacks and you have yourself a party. Other ideas for not-dinner parties could be an ice-cream social on a hot summer afternoon, a wine & cheese party for grown-ups and a cookie party during the holidays.

Choose the best time of day for your schedule and serve some meal that fits that time. My personal favorite is to have friends over for brunch at 10 or 11 AM- I'm a morning bird and it is easier for me to put together a meal in the morning than in the evening. Brunch dishes are easy to make and almost everyone I know enjoys them. Then, host and guests get to have the rest of the day to do whatever they please.

Part food with help from the store:
crackers, fruit, cheese
2. The whole menu does not have to be cooked at home. You could order in food from a favorite restaurant. You can get pizza delivered and make a salad to go with it. Dessert can be a favorite store-bought ice cream or pie or simply a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit. In short, there are countless ways of filling in a menu with favorite store-bought or restaurant-bought foods. Once I really wanted to throw a birthday party for Neighbor Girl but couldn't do any cooking because it was a busy weekday, so we invited a bunch of friends and ordered in Thai take-out from our favorite restaurant. I made a birthday ice cream instead of cake where the recipe consisted of mixing a few things and pouring the mix into the ice cream maker. It was so much fun and very little work.

3. Accept a dish if it is offered. If your guest asks to bring  a dish, accept graciously. It is a win-win situation. It gives them a chance to contribute to the meal and they don't have to go looking for another hostess gift like wine or flowers. And one thing on the menu is taken care of.

In the same way, when I'm invited as a guest, I always offer to bring a dish. The key is to make a fairly specific offer: "May I bring over an appetizer or the dessert?" to which it is easy for the host to respond, "Dessert would be lovely, thanks" rather than the vague, "Can I bring something?" which invariably compels the host to say, "No, you don't need to bring anything".

Part of a taco bar
4. Try a "build your own" food bar. One of our best parties recently was a grilled cheese bar (some details in this post), and taco bars always go over well. I once attended a holiday party with a chili bar- big pots of meat and vegetarian chili with a bunch of fixings: cornbread, spaghetti, cheese, lettuce etc. The prep for these meals is fairly quick and it is a great way to cater to people with different dietary needs. Think of ways to simplify the menu.

5. Potlucks are popular for a good reason. They make it possible for large groups of people to get together while sharing the responsibility.

6. A quick tidying up is all you need. We live in a real home, not in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, and there's no sense in pretending otherwise. Not to mention that a toddler and a dog call it home too. We just put out fresh towels, scoop up scattered toys into bins and vacuum the floor. 10 minutes and we're ready for company.

My philosophy is that the kind of home I want for my family is the same kind of home I want for my guests- reasonably tidy and clean. So there's no special cleaning for company. I will say that it helps tremendously that we don't have a lot of stuff- there is minimal furniture and no knick knacks whatsoever. If you have too many things which results in clutter and makes it hard to do a quick cleaning, you may want to subtract but perhaps that's a discussion for another time.

If you have a friend who peeks under the sofa looking for dust bunnies, I would recommend getting rid of the friend even before you get rid of the dust bunnies. Seriously, we need to surround ourselves with warm, gracious and forgiving friends, not mean-minded people who are looking for ways to bring us down.

7. Organize get-togethers outside the home: If you're still feeling stressed about inviting people into your home, consider meeting outside, perhaps for a picnic in the park when the weather is nice.

8. Make it a movie night or a game night. Sometimes it can help to move the focus of the party away from the food. How about a movie evening where you serve popcorn and snacks? Or a game night where you play scrabble or cards or antakshari and serve some chaat to nibble on.

I forgot to put sugar in the muffins.
We survived.
9. Mistakes, missteps and mishaps are a learning opportunity. Sometimes, you make too little food, or the entree burns or gets over-salted. Or maybe two guests get into a heated argument about politics. None of this is a crisis. None of your guests are at risk of starving to death. Take a deep breath and try again. Of all the things that can go wrong in life, these are the most insignificant ones.

10. Communicate. If you're wondering if friends are expecting a full-blown home-cooked meal of korma and biryani while you're planning to order in pizza, don't sit and wonder and worry. E-mail them or call them and say, "We found this great pizza place- how about coming over for some  take-out pizza and salad and ice cream on Sunday night?" and see what they say. If you're worried about the reaction to something that you're planning, just ask ahead of time so friends know what to expect.

11. Relax. Think about the times you've been invited to someone's home and what you've enjoyed, then you know what your guests will enjoy. Me- I love it when my hosts are happy and relaxed and let me feel at home. I like when I'm offered seconds but don't like when I am forced to eat more than I want to. I feel anxious when the host hovers and fusses over me. It is not fun when the host apologizes for every little thing and you are compelled to protest again and again, "No, no, everything is great, really". Just kick back and enjoy the moment and the company. The food and the venue is secondary.

12. Being a good host comes with practice, practice and practice. Start small, take baby steps, see what works and do it again. Note the missteps and try to avoid them. Having friends over is a chance to be creative and show someone a good time and the friendship you get out of it is worth the extra dishes you have to wash!

I'll leave you with a recipe for your next party: my version of sev-puri.

Simplifying is all very good but I fear that my recipe for quick sev-puri is a bit too simple and quick. Because I can assemble a plate of sev-puri in under 3 minutes using stuff I have on hand and that can lead to some disastrous snacking. Consider yourself warned.

Things you need to stock up on:
1. A bag of tortilla chips, I use these in place of the traditional flour puris simply because they are easier to source.
2. Buy plain sev, sold in Indian stores.
3. Keep a boiled potato or two in the fridge.
4. Make a large batch of date tamarind chutney and store in jars, one in the fridge and the rest in the freezer.

To make sev-puri at a moment's notice:
1. Mix diced boiled potato, minced onion (a very small amount) and lots of minced cilantro.
2. Spread tortilla chips in a platter.
3. Scoop a bit of the potato mixture on each.
4. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
5.  Add dollops of the sweet chutney.
6. Top with sev and enjoy right away.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in the US- I hope you have a wonderful holiday! I'll be back next Monday with the list for November 2013.

Meanwhile, tell us in the comments: Do you enjoy having friends over in your home? Got any tips to share?

Monday, November 18, 2013

No-Knead Naan and the Need to Read

I'm been doing my part to popularize Indian food lately. We made new friends in the dog park and invited them over for an Indian brunch of dosa and egg burji and such. They enjoyed the food and asked if I would teach them to cook a few Indian dishes. Nothing would make me happier, of course, and our first lesson consisted of rajma, pulao with lots of vegetables and some hard-boiled eggs, and koshimbir. They practiced that meal a few times (texting me pictures- they got an A+ each time) and then they wanted another lesson.

So we got together yesterday and made a big pot of matar paneer. Normally, I'd have put up some jeera rice to serve the curry with, but then I thought I'd try out a recipe for naan from a new bread book I'd been sent to review. I'm notoriously bad at making flatbreads and I've already shocked many readers by revealing in this post that I buy tortillas rather than rolling my own rotis. So this whole naan exercise was an experiment to say the least.

The book in which I found the naan recipe is the latest one by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François- they specialize in artisan bread in five minutes a day. The general idea is this: you mix the usual suspects- flour, water, yeast and salt without any kneading (just a quick mixing) and let the dough ferment for only a couple of hours or so on the counter top. Then cover the dough and stick it in the fridge. Later that day or over the next several days, you lop off a chunk of dough, let it rise again for a while and bake a fresh loaf. The process can be seen in this video.

This method making bread making accessible because there's very little effort involved in making the dough and when you have the dough ready, fresh bread can be made even on a weeknight, say. Hertzberg and François have adapted this general method to all sorts of doughs that in turn make a mind-boggling variety of breads. For instance, there is an olive oil dough that is perfect for pizza and focaccia, a rich eggy brioche dough for breakfast pastries and a 100% whole wheat dough for sandwich bread. I think I'm going to be baking my way through most of this book over the next few months!

The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book starts with a detailed description of the method and all sorts of tips for trouble-shooting. There is the basic master recipe which can be shaped into all kinds of artisan breads like baguette and ciabatta. Then there are chapters on flatbreads and pizza and enriched breads and pastries and a whole section devoted to gluten-free breads.

Let's circle back to the naan, which in my understanding is a flat bread that is usually made with white flour, leavened with yeast and cooked in a blazing tandoor oven, giving it puffy blistery spots and a smoky taste. In this recipe, I used the light wheat dough from The New Artisan Bread, which has a bit of whole wheat but still mostly white flour, and the naan is cooked on a hot cast iron tava, which is a very convenient way for a home cook to make it. I'm noting down the recipe as I made it, but the book has lots of details that I can't possibly cover in this post.

No-Knead Naan 
(Adapted from THE NEW ARTISAN BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, makes about 8 naan, serves 4-6)

1. Make the dough by mixing the following in a large bowl until the flour is incorporated:
  • 1.5 cups lukewarm water
  • 1/2 tbsp. granulated yeast
  • 1/2 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2. The dough will be very wet and sticky- that is OK. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours or until it rises and collapses.

3. Cover the bowl with a lid (not an airtight one) and store in the fridge. From this point, you can use the dough any time within a week. I left it in the fridge for only 6 hours or so.

4. Later when you want to make the naan, heat a cast iron griddle. Divide the dough into 8 portions, roll each one with floured hands into a round, and pan-fry with ghee. My addition was to press poppy seeds into the rolled-out naan- it makes them even tastier...and reminds me of naans served in restaurants.

The recipe suggests covering the pan to cook the inside of the naan, but I left it uncovered.

I clearly still need practice to roll out dough but the naan-making was a success. The fresh puffy naan was simply a delight to dunk into curry and savor while still hot. If you're scared of working with yeast, would be a simple recipe to dip your toes into the world of bread-making.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of  THE NEW ARTISAN BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking at no charge. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.

* * *
This next part of the post may result in lots of additions to your (probably already teetering) to-be-read pile, I'm just warning you.

Two book blogs- Regular Rumination and Sophisticated Dorkiness are hosting Nonfiction November, a month devoted to non-fiction books. I've been observing from the sidelines as several bloggers shared their favorite non-fiction reads in Week 1. Week 2 was "Be the Expert" as bloggers shared lists of books related to particular topics that interest them.

Week 3's assignment is a fairly challenging one: to pair a fiction book with a non-fiction book. As in, if you like this fiction book, then you should go and read this non-fiction book. I am recommending this pairing:

If you like Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, or any other
comics/graphic novels at all, you should read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It is an absolutely brilliant look at the history of comics and the art of cartooning. I don't even like comics that much but McCloud's book is just so fascinating that I will be reading many more.

Also this week, I've been reading a book about books; a non-fiction book about fiction. It is called The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by help a reader deal with the particular situation that they're facing. I can't for the life of me tell if this is an actual profession but it well could be- maybe there is a licensing exam and everything. 

The premise of the book is that while there are self-help manuals for all of life's problems, sometimes the pages of a novel can offer help in the form of a literary character facing a similar situation, or by simply transporting you to a different setting for a welcome respite. As gimmicky as the book is, I spent several hours flipping through it in delight.

Among their prescriptions, I found some books that I've read and liked and I agreed with their application, so to speak. In parentheses are quotes from the book.

Ailment- Resistance to change
Cure- Empire Falls by Richard Russo: "If..."surviving not thriving" is pretty much your MO, let Empire Falls suffuse you with a rueful understanding of the perils of inertia".

Ailment- Aging parents
Cure- Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry: "Family Matters is a wonderful example of how to look after one's aging parents with compassion- and how not to".

Ailment: Under pressure to have children
Cure- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: "If you are sick of justifying your childlessness...send them this novel for Christmas. They won't ask you about it again".

Ailment- Being different
Cure- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: "Eugenides's generous expression of Cal's character shows how full and uncontainable the human personality is, how much it exceeds commonly assumed boundaries".

Ailment- Inability to express emotions
Cure- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: "If you, too, find it difficult to say, "I love you", try saying it with food".

Ailment- Hypochondria
Cure- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: "Let this novel lure you from your bed to find your own secret garden".

There are 751 novels listed in this book, the vast majority of which I have not read, but the weird thing is that most of the descriptions sounded depressing, or just not very inviting for some reason or other and only a few novels made it onto my TBR list.

"The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna tackles head-on the varied nature of childbirth through four interweaving stories". This book is prescribed as a cure for childbirth. And here I thought there was only one cure for childbirth and that is to birth the child!

Prescribed as a cure for despair: "...Alone in Berlin teaches us that sticking tenaciously, proudly, defiantly to our sense of what is right and true is enough- and the only fail-safe cure for despair that there is". This book is written by Hans Fallada.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is prescribed as a cure for dread. " are hooked. You have to know". Although Bradbury has a reputation for intensifying dread rather than alleviating it, but now I really have to read this book.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is recommended as a cure for writer's block. I will read it and see if this cure works for me.

The book has a list of ten best novels for thirtysomethings, and I felt like I had to choose one to read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.

Do you read much non-fiction? Got any favorites to share? 

Monday, November 04, 2013

Festive Menus

Happy Diwali, friends!
From the One Hot Stove family, we wish you a year shining with joy.
This month marks one year since we moved to our new home, but I feel like we've been in Georgia for much longer. That means I feel very much at home here and feel accepted into the community and that is something to be very grateful for.

There's no doubt that cooking is a big part of how I cement friendships- I've noticed that lots of people are willing to put up with me because they like to eat home-cooked food!

A few days ago, Ruma left me a comment asking for menu ideas for the American celebration of Thanksgiving which falls on the 28th of this month. Thanksgiving- an entire holiday devoted to cooking and eating with family and friends, kicking off a 4 day relaxing weekend in which to cook and eat some more- is indeed a cook's dream come true. Over the years, I've hosted and attended several memorable Thanksgiving meals. Ruma's question got me reminiscing about Thanksgiving meals since I've started writing this blog over 8 years ago...

 Thanksgiving 2005 was cooked on a tiny range in New York City (the range with a single solitary hard-working burner which led me to name this blog One Hot Stove)- we had over a dozen guests and a distinctly non-traditional seating arrangement: one guest had to sit on the dog bed next to a very miffed Dale. Thanksgiving 2006 was not documented on the blog because at that time, I was writing my dissertation 14 hours a day. I do distinctly remember visiting V in St. Louis that week- spending the day at my laptop in an overheated apartment and then cooking a wild rice pilaf for Thanksgiving supper.

Thanksgiving 2007 had a simple yet enjoyable menu and was the first of many times that I made chocolate pecan pie. I probably spent Thanksgiving 2008 knitting! I started knitting and crocheting that year and was so obsessed that I stopped blogging for several months. Thanksgiving 2009 saw me making a traditional dish- green bean casserole and one non-traditional but very seasonally appropriate one- pumpkin flan. On Thanksgiving 2010 I tried something new- I live-blogged the day of cooking and the menu was a mix of Indian and American dishes.

Thanksgiving 2011 was special because we had a brand new baby daughter- and we spent the holiday with our friends down the street who had a brand new son. The menu was simple enough and a mix of Indian and American favorites- broccoli cheddar soup, vegetable biryani, raita, sweet potato fries and chocolate pecan pie for dessert. I remember that we four new parents enjoyed dinner over several hours in the living room, taking turns holding the babies and digging into the food.

Thanksgiving 2012 was our first in Georgia and we were invited to a friend's home for a large Thanksgiving potluck party- I took what-else-but chocolate pecan pie and vegetable biryani. We have been invited to a colleague's Thanksgiving gathering this year too, so I will only be contributing a couple of appetizers and a dessert to Thanksgiving 2013.

After that jaunt down memory lane, let me get back on track to Thanksgiving menu ideas. I enjoy cooking for this holiday because the dishes are oriented towards (a) Hearty food and (b) Vegetable-centric dishes and (c) Earthy flavors. All of which are practically hallmarks of how I like to cook. Pumpkin and winter squashes, green beans, potato, sweet potato, broccoli, corn, pecans, cranberries, mushrooms, maple syrup are some typical ingredients seen on Thanksgiving menus.

I try to make sure that there is variety in any party menu so that one ingredient is not over-represented and that there is a mix of heavier and lighter dishes. Party menus are a great way to showcase one's best dishes, for sure, but I for one can never resist experimenting on my friends with a new recipe. I never have a problem mixing dishes from different cuisines- and there's always one or more Indian dishes on the menu because that's my culinary background. It works seamlessly- I've never heard anyone complain that the menu is not matchy-matchy enough.

I'd pick one dish from each of these categories to make a Thanksgiving menu that I would enjoy both cooking and eating:

1. Appetizer

  • Hot spinach dip
  • Samosa puffs
  • Sweet and spicy mixed nuts
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Crostini with mushrooms

2. Soup

  • Mushroom soup
  • Broccoli cheese soup
  • Lentil butternut squash soup

 3. Main dish

  • Roasted vegetable biryani
  • Butternut squash lasagna
  • Pumpkin mac and cheese
  • Cauliflower gratin
  • Caramelized onion quiche

4. Side dish: cooked vegetable

  • Sweet potato fries
  • Maple roasted brussels sprouts
  • Chipotle mashed sweet potatoes
  • Green bean casserole 

5. Side dish: raw vegetable

  • Spinach pecan salad
  • Raw shredded beet salad
  • Crudites

6. Dessert

  • Chocolate pecan pie with vanilla ice cream
  • Pumpkin flan
  • Apple crisp

For some years, I've been toying with the idea of cooking an Indian-American fusion Thanksgiving menu. Who knows if or when this will actually happen, but here's my fantasy of what such a menu might look like.

Green bean patties/cutlets with cranberry chutney (an homage to mashed potatoes and green bean casserole)
Curried lentil butternut squash soup

Whole roasted tandoori cauliflower (to be carved at the table!)
Vegetable kofta biryani

Warm carrot halwa served with pumpkin ice cream or alternatively,
Warm pumpkin halwa served with pecan kulfi

What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes? What are your favorite tips for cooking for festive meals? Got a fantasy Thanksgiving menu to share? Tell us in the comments!