Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What I'm Reading in the Winter Break

I want to thank everyone who wrote me messages of encouragement and shared their own stories on my last post. I am so touched and grateful that you joined in the conversation. In talking about my fears of diabetes openly, I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Clearly, a lot of us are in this together. I do believe that 2015 is going to be a big year of small changes for the better. 

It is cold and dreary here and I've spent most evenings this month reading or quilting. I took up a rather challenging (for me) quilt this year, making a couple of squares each month of 2014 and shocked myself by finishing it before year end!

As for reading, my three favorite books this month were all about questions and answers. 

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of xkcd comics fame) is the most delightful book I've read all year. Munroe is a physicist. Readers of his website posed absurd questions to him and he answered them as thoroughly and seriously as he could, using principles of science, math and logic.

If you have a curious nature, if you've ever wondered, "How much physical space does the Internet take up?", or "What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?" or "How many unique English tweets are possible?", you'll find this book hilarious, entertaining, illuminating and very very clever.

I disagreed with a couple of his answers to biological questions. I would have answered them a completely different way. But that is the point of absurd hypothetical questions- they make you think and there is rarely one right answer, just a range of plausible ones. If science was taught this way, more kids would find themselves in STEM fields.

Big Questions from Little People: And Simple Answers from Great Minds compiled by Gemma Elwin Harris. Kids ask the most baffling questions from morning to night, and this book collects some such questions posed by kids ages 4-12 and gets experts to actually answer them. The questions range from "Why is space so sparkly?" to "Why do wars happen?" to "What should you do when you can't think what to draw or paint?" to "Who is God?". The resulting collection is a delightful collection of quirky wisdom and some very profound thoughts. I think any grown-up would enjoy leafing through this book, and if you have a child ages 5-12 (or so), it would be really fun to read some of the questions and answers with them. 

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. This is an unusual sort of book. Strayed used to be an anonymous advice columnist on a website. Readers would submit questions on love and life and the answers are compiled in this book. Reading a bunch of advice to strangers seems like a weird thing but this book is a powerful compilation of authentic and raw human emotion. This book made me "feel all the feelings and think all the things"- my litmus test for a worthwhile book. I'm very glad I read this masterpiece of heartache and hope. 

On to some fiction...

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. I have to thank Arpita for introducing me to this author. Pym has a knack for commenting on the tiny details of everyday life with wit and humor. This is a book about two men and two women who share an office and who are all approaching retirement age. This is not a plot-driven novel but a character-driven one. It is a quiet book, sad and funny in its way, as it comments on human nature. 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is a gentle, sad yet ultimately uplifting story. This is a story both literal and metaphorical about the journey that we humans undertake. Harold Fry is recently retired, living with his wife in a tense and bitter marriage in their home at the Southern-most tip of England. He gets a good-bye letter from an old colleague who is dying in a hospice at the Northern tip of England. Harold sets out to the corner mailbox to post a reply, then somehow, without planning or preparation, keeps walking for weeks (!) to see her in the hospice. “The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time.” 

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was on my to-read list for a long time. When I finally picked it up this month, I did not "get" the story at all. It was tedious, not fun and I returned it without finishing the book. Oh well.

Meanwhile, here's what we have been reading with Miss Lila...

Otis by Loren Long. Lila borrowed this book from her school library and she can't get enough of it. It is the sweet story about friendship between a calf and an old tractor. Lila loves to say "putt putt puddety chuff" and those sort of tractor noises from the book.

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle is so hilarious and endearing. The ill-tempered ladybug doesn't want to share a breakfast of aphids with the friendly ladybug and looks to pick a fight. When the friendly ladybug agrees to the fight, the grouchy ladybug says "Oh you're not big enough" and goes off to find progressively bigger animals to fight with.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond. Boy, we've read this one so many times that Lila and I both know the words by heart. This is completely ridiculous story about a young boy who offers a muffin to a visiting moose. One thing leads to another as the easily distracted moose jumps from activity to activity making a complete mess in the process.

All by Myself by Aliki. Nothing exceptional about this book except that since the title is Lila's all-time favorite phrase, I could not resist picking it up at the library. The book goes through a busy day in a child's life, highlighting the everyday actions he learns to do by themselves, such as buttoning his shirt and brushing his teeth. 

What are you reading these days? 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Towards a Healthier 2015

In the blink of an eye, we're counting down to the end of 2014. At this time of year, I always find myself reflecting on the year that was. As with most years, Twenty Fourteen had highs and lows for our family. We had many wonderful and memorable moments with our loved ones. The lowest low was V's father passing away. Indeed, all the sad and bad moments this year had to do with serious illness and deteriorating health among some of our close friends and family. Health is wealth, the old cliche says, but how often we take it for granted.

And that's what this post is- a long and rambling contemplation on food and wellness and where my life is headed. There's no recipe in this post but there is some food for thought- for myself and perhaps for some of you reading it. I guess I've been writing this post in my head for over 3 years and this week, I finally decided to type it and hit the publish button.

In the summer of 2011 in St. Louis, I was about two thirds of the way through a fairly uneventful pregnancy. We were happy and excited to welcome our baby daughter. My OB ordered a routine glucose tolerance test- and I failed it. I had gestational diabetes. I was surprised and not surprised at the same time. Surprised because I had the hallmarks of being healthy and low-risk with a normal BMI. Not surprised because I have a woefully strong history of diabetes on one side of my family and I knew very well how the genetic dice was loaded.

Things happened rapidly after I was flagged as having gestational diabetes. The very next day I saw a diabetes counsellor who taught me to finger-prick and test my blood glucose 4 times a day- upon waking (the fasting number) and an hour after breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was torture enough for me- I hate hate hate needles. It was all too much- I burst into tears in the counsellor's office but she was as kind and reassuring as can be. I also met with a nutritionist who taught me the basics of carb counting. The strategy was this: make sure I restrict carbs to 200 grams a day (budgeted over meals and snacks), do some brisk walking for exercise, test blood glucose, record my numbers and make sure they stayed within the acceptable range. If I could manage to control my blood sugar with diet and exercise, fine. If not, they'd dose me with insulin.

My baby's health was at stake. There was nothing I would not do for her. I pulled my act together and I was meticulous. I did everything I was told- counted carbs and walked for 10 minutes after every single meal. Working full time and trying to get stuff done before I went on maternity leave, I set alarms and did finger pricks at my desk. The numbers were always within range. My OB remarked that if all her patients were so compliant, she would see many fewer complications.

I had nine(!) friends and acquaintances who were pregnant at the same time as me. Everyone else was indulging in their favorite foods, eating for two, giving in to cravings. My life looked quite different. But at the end of my pregnancy, at a time when most women are feeling distinctly heavy and encumbered, I was feeling lighter and fitter than I'd ever felt. This whole torture of finger pricks, carb counting and brisk walks in the St. Louis August heat- it was working. Lila's birth was uneventful- although she was a smaller-than-expected baby and my OB and I realized that in my zeal, I had probably been stricter with my diet than I should have been. Two weeks after giving birth, I was back at my pre-pregnancy weight.

Gestational diabetes is situational; it resolves when the baby is born. Or more precisely, when you deliver the placenta, which is what produces the hormones that lead to insulin resistance. But a graduate of gestational diabetes learns some important things about her body's ability (or the lack thereof) to process carbohydrates and sees a big red flag that there is type II diabetes in her future if she's not careful. So in getting that warning sign, I will say that gestational diabetes was the best bad thing that has happened to me.

You'd think this episode would have changed my life immediately and forever. It did not. Humans can be exceedingly resistant to change. There's always an excuse and usually a laundry list of excuses not to change our habits. There was a new baby to care for and the next year went by in a blur. There was no mental space or physical energy to make any lifestyle changes. The year after that we moved to a new state and life just went on as usual.

Earlier this year, we went to visit our families in India for a month. Seeing older relatives is a form of time travel because you can see your future self reflected in them. I was seeing my extended family after 5 long years. Almost everyone I know has diabetes and its painful complications. I'm not just talking about those who are affluent and have unlimited access to food. The nice lady who cleans my aunt's house and who struggles to make a living as a maid also has diabetes. Everyone is on medication and many take insulin shots. Almost no one seems to have received any rigorous counseling about nutrition and exercise. Many have had perilous cardiac surgeries. I saw people with vibrant minds who are trapped in a body that is too heavy, with joints that are literally unable to take the weight. One close relative is losing her eyesight because of diabetic complications. In a nutshell- I was scared straight.

It is not like I haven't been trying to do better all along. I read books and try to nudge my eating habits in the right direction. I've been struggling for years to get into an exercise habit. Part of my resistance to real change has been the feeling that things are not so bad the way they are- after all, I'm not overweight, and I have tons of energy and no debilitating symptoms per se.

But the logical part of my brain knows the evidence is mounting. My energy is more mental than physical and frequently a mind-over-matter thing. Climbing a couple of flights of stairs leaves me panting- this is pitiful for my age. When my toddler wanted me to jump with her, my sister overheard and commented that she hasn't seen me jump since the 1980s. I've been labeled a bookworm and a couch potato since the days of primary school and I fully embraced that label. My BMI may fall within the normal range, but I have no muscle tone. I participated in a research study last year (it was to study the effect of walking on body composition) and the scan showed that I have a very high proportion of body fat. This is called being "skinny fat", where even a person of normal weight has fat deposits coating their organs- a very high-risk situation for a variety of diseases.

Disease is a complicated thing, a subtle interplay of genes, environment and lifestyle factors. But you have to do what's in your hands even if there are no guarantees of dodging major illness. A friend of mine was athletic and robust and healthy as the proverbial horse, that is, until she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She told me that her underlying strong health helped her survive the harrowing treatment and now she's thriving again.

All these things have been running in my head for the last few months, and I sat down and identified two goals. My experience with gestational diabetes was hard at the time, but in reality, it showed that a modest increase in exercise (just brisk walks!) and a modest decrease in carb intake gave me good results in a matter of weeks. So those are my two goals at this time.

Already, I've been exercising more this year than I did before- walking and swimming. I'm gingerly getting into the exercise habit and will talk more about this in a future post if anyone is interested.

As for eating, what constitutes a "healthy" diet is a very loaded question. I'm interested in answering the question for myself, for my own body and its challenges. I don't know or care what the universally best diet is. Humans being omnivores, I highly doubt there is one ideal diet. There are likely many different ways to get to the goal of having a favorable body composition with good blood sugar control.

I eat a mainly plant based diet along with eggs and dairy and that's what I intend to keep eating. What will change is the proportions of foods in my everyday meals. In my case, I've identified the problem as eating excess carbs and for the last couple of weeks, I've started to replace some of the carbs with lots of vegetables. My goal is not to eliminate carbs or even to drastically cut them but just not to eat more than my body capable of handling. Beans, sweet potatoes, lentils are very nutritious and will be a big part of my diet. But I will find ways on cutting down on rice, tortillas, pasta and noodles at least for my everyday meals, while replacing them with a lot more cooked and raw vegetables. There's reason for me to be optimistic because I have several things going for me- I already cook in a "veggie-centric" style and know how to prep vegetables- I just have to ramp it up. I don't have a sweet tooth and rarely eat desserts anyway.

To change my habits, I have to know myself and work with myself, and not fight against my basic nature. I don't like drastic changes. However, subtle nudges in the right direction quickly become habits and stick with me for life. I am a moderator rather than an abstainer.

Publicly stating nutrition goals often attracts criticism. There will be people who think I'm going too far ("Just eat less and you will be OK, why vilify carbs?") and others who will think I'm not going far enough ("You won't be in the fat burning zone unless you cut out all beans and starchy vegetables"). But the reason I'm putting it out there is because making a public commitment is a strong motivator for changing habits. Because I was so sad to see diabetes and other metabolic disorders eroding the people I care about, and would like to talk about it. Because this discussion might strike a chord with someone else who is thinking about these issues.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all, and I will see you in the new year! We'll continue to eat well on this blog, I promise you. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving is a food lover's holiday and around here it has certainly been a week of good eats. The festivities started with a potluck lunch at work on Tuesday. I contributed a main dish- harvest pilaf and a dessert- pumpkin flan.

Harvest pilaf was nothing but my standard biryani recipe. I reduced the amount of rice, and instead loaded up the dish with all the vegetables that to me are the real stars of Thanksgiving. So in went a tray of roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and another tray of roasted cauliflower, beans and zucchini.

I've made pumpkin flan a few years ago and we had enjoyed it- pumpkin flan has all the flavor of pumpkin pie but in a cool and light custard. This time, I used this recipe from Lucinda Scala Quinn. It uses pantry ingredients (and at this time of year, I count canned pumpkin as a pantry ingredient) and makes a nice 9 inch flan. The minor changes I made to the recipe: (1) I used only 1/2 cup of sugar in the flan mixture instead of 3/4 cup, (2) I used regular granulated sugar and used a dollop of molasses to make it "brown" and (3) I made the caramel in a small saucepan instead of in the oven. For the bain marie (water bath that keeps the flan smooth and tender), I used a huge foil roasting pan from the supermarket. You only have to buy it once and then you can keep using it any time you need a bain marie.

We had a wonderful spread, including deviled eggs, spinach quiche with a puff pastry crust, a salad with kale, shredded brussels sprouts and dried cranberries, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, cranberry sauce with orange zest.

The salad was my favorite dish, a crunchy and fresh counterpoint to all the other heavy dishes. I loved it so much that I made something like it to take to our Thanksgiving dinner- which was another potluck at a friend's home. My starting point for the salad was this recipe from The Kitchn.

Here's how I made my version of Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad.

  • Lop the stem ends off 1 lb of fresh brussels sprouts. Using the slicing disk of the food processor, shred the sprouts. Also shred a cup or so of red cabbage. Core a crisp apple (like honeycrisp or gala or fuji) and make thin slices with a mandoline. 
  • In a small saucepan, melt 4 tbsp. butter and cook it until browned and nutty. In a large bowl, whisk the brown butter with 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp. dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste, until the dressing is emulsified. Stir in the chopped veggies and apple slices. (This salad can be made in advance). Top with roasted pecans and serve. 

For a main dish to take along to the potluck, I started out with the idea of making a butternut squash lasagna. Then I remembered that I had a box of jumbo pasta shells in the pantry and this seemed as good a time as any to finally cook those. Here's what I came up with, a mash up of various online recipes- and it was a resounding success.

Jumbo Shells stuffed with Butternut Squash and Spinach

Make the filling (I did this a few hours ahead of time):

  • Peel and cube a butternut squash (there are videos online that teach how to do this safely). On a large baking sheet, toss the butternut squash cubes with 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 425F until tender. 
  • Cool and peel the garlic. Place roasted garlic and squash (I used 2/3 of the whole large squash here and saved the rest for another dish) in a large bowl. Mash it up coarsely with a fork.
  • Thaw a box of frozen chopped spinach in the microwave, squeeze to remove excess liquid and add to the cooked squash.
  • Add 1 cup ricotta, 1 cup diced mozzarella
  • Add 1 tsp. poultry seasoning, 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste
  • Mix everything together and refrigerate until you're ready to assemble the pasta.

Cook the jumbo pasta shells according to the directions on the box. Here's what the cooked shells looked like- adorable and surprisingly sturdy. Lila was delighted and munched on a couple.

Make the sauce
I made 2 cups of basic white sauce for this dish. You could use a tomato sauce or no sauce at all.

Assemble and bake
Scoop about 2 tbsp. filling into each shell. In a 9 x 13 baking dish, pour the white sauce. Arrange the shells on top. Scatter with 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 30 minutes, then uncover and place under broiler for a minute or two to get the cheese browned. Ta da.

This pasta dish was full of flavor and had a pretty nice presentation (which is rare for me). Each person could conveniently serve themselves a shell or two.

I had enough cooked shells left over to make another (smaller) tray of shells the next day.

So, tell me, what's cooking in your world? 

Monday, November 24, 2014

What I'm Reading, and a Few Book Giveaways

Thanksgiving Week has arrived in the US. There's a buzz of excitement in the air. Already this afternoon there was a mad rush at the grocery store and I had to fight my way through a crowd to triumphantly score a the butternut squash.

Next week, I'll tell you about my holiday cooking but today, here's a rundown of the books I've been reading lately. And scroll down for some book giveaways.

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes (Jana Bibi Adventures #1) by Betsy Woodman is the story of a Scottish woman who makes India her adopted homeland in the decade following independence. She inherits a large house on a hill station and moves there. The very existence of the town is threatened by a proposed dam, and the story revolves around Jana Bibi and the colorful town residents who rally around to save the town. This was an easy and pleasant read but not particularly memorable- I like books that "give me all the feelings" and this one did not emotionally resonate with me for whatever reason.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French is a taut psychological thriller. This one, just like all of Tana French's other books that I've read was emotionally wrought, riveting, memorable and a book I just couldn't put down. The premise of the book is not very plausible if you think about it, yet the writing and atmosphere pull you right into the story. If you're looking to lose yourself in a book over Thanksgiving weekend, this is one I would recommend.

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn. Horn goes into the Cold Case Squad of NYC, following along on four cold (as in unsolved) cases involving complex and brutal murders. Along the way, she studies the politics and bureaucracy of the department, the challenges they face and the personalities of the detectives involved. It is interesting stuff, except that Horn has the most fragmented and confusing narrative style. Despite my annoyance at the disjointed writing, I read the book in 2 days flat so it definitely kept up my interest. I read this book as part of a read-along for Nonfiction November; here are two other reviews of Restless Sleep by bloggers who read it this month.

And now for some book giveaways. I have three cookbooks that were sent by the publisher and one book of short stories that I won in the giveaway. I've enjoyed these books and would like to pass them on to someone else. You'll need a shipping address in the US to keep shipping costs affordable for me. I'll keep the giveaway open until the morning of Monday, December 1, 2014.

1. Rainbows in the Desert by Archna Pant is a book of short stories set in India. I won this book from Siri's blog (she has a short review there too). I read it and quite enjoyed it and am ready to pass it along for someone else to read over the holidays. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Leena.

2. Savory Pies by Greg Henry is a good cookbook for those of us who lack a sweet tooth but find a good savory pastry quite irresistible. There's a wonderful variety of recipes in this book- there's everything from pot pies to pizza variations, empanadas and calzones. There are savory (and to me, thus infinitely superior) versions of desserts, such as artichoke clafoutis, polenta cobbler and mushroom tart tatin. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Jane.

3. Homemade Condiments by Jessica Harlan. Many home cooks are adept making their own versions of condiments. I remember my mother making ketchup when tomatoes were in season, and making pickles and chhunda was the thing to do when we were drowning in raw mangoes from the backyard tree in early summer. In my kitchen, I often make salsas, chutneys and salad dressings (but so far, I've always bought mayo and mustard and ketchup). This book is a gem, covering all sorts of condiments from ketchup and barbecue sauces to pickles, relishes and dessert sauces. Some of the recipes that look really good to me include chipotle ketchup, avocado goddess dressing, sweet chili sauce and hoisin sauce. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Prachi.

4. Classic Snacks Made from Scratch by Casey Barber. I remember reading this in one of Michael Pollan's books: Only eat junk food that you've made in your own kitchen. (Or something to that effect). Well, if you've ever dreamed of making homemade versions of snack foods, Casey Barber has the recipes for you. This is such a fun cookbook. There's everything from cookies (eg. graham crackers) to twinkies, cool ranch doritos, pudding pops, cheetos! Some of the recipes are pretty simple to make, like the pudding pops, while others are very involved. But full points to her for closely replicating these (in)famous and celebrated treats. To win this book, fill out this form. This giveaway is now closed and the winner is Divya who said her favorite snack is fruit and nut biscuits!

What are you reading these days? 
Any big plans for Thanksgiving week?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Indian-Spiced Hash and Omelet

We had a week marred by coughs and colds. Random khichdis and soups dominated the dinner menu all week. With cough syrup for dessert. On Sunday I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and made some eggs and potatoes for breakfast. This is a standard breakfast on this continent, for sure, but with some help from the masala dabba to give it some sinus-clearing oomph.

Two Potato Hash

1. Heat 2 tbsp. oil/ghee in a cast iron pan.
2. Add 1 diced medium onion, a sprig of curry leaves, 3 cloves minced garlic, 1 tbsp. cumin-coriander powder, 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder and 1/2 tsp. red chili powder (or more to taste). Stir fry for a minute or two.
3. Add 2 medium potatoes and 1 sweet potato, all evenly diced (no need to peel unless the peel is too thick).
4. Stir to coat the potatoes with spices and cook on medium-low heat until potatoes are tender and browned.

Masala Omelet

When a friend visited last Christmas and offered to make breakfast for our crowd, she made one giant omelet instead of making several small ones. So clever. I've used her method here.

1. Beat 5 large eggs.
2. Add 2 tbsp. minced onion, 1/4 cup minced cilantro, salt and pepper to the beaten eggs. Add some minced green chilies if you like the heat.
3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil/butter in a 12 inch nonstick skillet.
4. When oil is hot, add egg mixture and swirl around to spread evenly.
5. Scatter with 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese.
6. Reduce heat to low and cover skillet.
7. Cook for a few minutes until the eggs are set.

Cut omelet into wedges and serve with the potato hash. There you go- a sunny breakfast for the perfectly lazy morning.

Last week, I got a few requests for the cabbage raita recipe; you'll see it updated at the end of this post.

What did you do this weekend? See you Monday week with some book reviews and a few book giveaways!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

For three days straight over this weekend, we did our favorite thing- we had friends over for a meal at our home. This is fun year round but especially enjoyable when the weather turns chilly, when it is too cold and dark to spend time outside. That's when the warm kitchen is the place to be.

The festivities started on Friday, Lila had a day off from school for Fall break (following a day of prancing around as a rainbow for Halloween). We invited her two best friends from school over for a play date followed by lunch. Kids fought, played, yelled, giggled, sometimes all at once, while I got a chance to get to know their parents who I normally just wave to in the school's parking lot. At Lila's request, lunch was mac and cheese and a tray of roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes. With apple and yellow pepper slices for snack and mixed berries for dessert. I used Martha Stewart's recipe for the mac and cheese (I had pinned it from this post some years ago) with a few modifications: I scaled down the recipe to a 12 oz box of "white fiber" spiral pasta, used less cheese- and used cheddar, pepper jack, Parmesan and cream cheese instead of the ones mentioned in the recipe. It is a wonderful recipe, makes a large batch and reheats beautifully.

On Saturday, my crafting buddies came over to sew and knit, and I made them a supper of broccoli cheese soup and caramalized onion- lentil pilaf. A friend got peanut butter bars for dessert.

Then on Sunday, I made a meal for friends of ours who love Indian food. I think they would burst into tears of disappointment if I ever served them mac and cheese. For them, I made some of our all-time favorites- chana masala, jeera rice, cabbage raita, egg kebab and one sort-of new recipe, stuffed eggplant curry.

This recipe started with some fresh and tender Japanese eggplants (the slender, long ones) from the Asian store. I have much better luck with this variety being sweet and tender, compared to globe (Italian) eggplants or the baby Indian ones. Then I was inspired by Meera's recipe and this one originally from Indira.

The idea was to make a thick paste for stuffing- with herbs, spices, nuts and contrasting flavors of jaggery and tamarind. Then to fill it into eggplant sections, and finally to pressure cook the eggplants with a bit of coconut milk (which forms the gravy) because pressure cooking gives evenly cooked eggplants reliably and effortlessly.

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

1. Wash 4 Japanese eggplants. Remove and discard stem. Cut each eggplant into 3 or 4 sections. Make a deep lengthwise slit in each eggplant piece.

2. To make the stuffing, grind together (adding a little water or coconut milk as required)
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup fried onions (from a can, or saute them yourself)
2 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tbsp. cumin coriander powder
1/2 tbsp. garam masala/koli masala/ goda masala/your favorite masala
1 bunch cilantro stems and leaves
1 tbsp. jaggery
1 tbsp. tamarind paste
Salt to taste

The stuffing should be a thick paste- taste it and make sure it has a good balance of flavors. Fill it into the eggplant sections using a tablespoon.

3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pressure cooker. Temper it with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, asafetida and turmeric.

4. Stack the stuffed eggplant neatly in the cooker. If you have a wide pressure pan, that would be ideal. I only have a handi-shaped cooker and it worked fine.

5. Pour 1/2 cup coconut milk + 1/2 cup water over the eggplants. Close the pressure cooker and let it cook.
I barely let the cooker come up to full pressure before turning off the heat. Eggplants cook quickly and I did not want them to collapse into an overcooked paste.

6. Remove the eggplants into a serving dish. Top them with the thick gravy. Serve!

Edited to add: A few readers requested the recipe for the cabbage raita. Here it is, easy as can be.

2 cups finely shredded red or green cabbage
1 grated carrot (optional)
1 finely diced cucumber (optional)
1 diced tomato (optional)
1 tbsp. minced onion
2 tsp. cumin-coriander powder
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt to taste

Mix together and serve!

What have you been cooking these days?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Mindless Eating

Knitters like to talk about the many benefits of their hobby- knitting keeps your brain active, you can make adorable hats for the babies in your life and it is cheaper than therapy, even if you go in for the pricey yarn. I'll add one more benefit to the list: knitting can help you eat better. I had a long-standing habit of mindlessly eating my way through mountains of chips and chivda while watching TV. Instead, I now knit my way through scarves and sweaters while watching TV, and have to scramble to fit in my chips and chivda consumption during some other time of the day (Don't worry, I somehow manage to do it. I'm talented like that.)

Anyway, this whole thing about how our food consumption is largely controlled not by our hunger, but by habits and hidden factors in our environment is at the heart of a book I just read: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

Image: Goodreads
Wansink has a background in communication research and consumer behavior. He designs clever studies to understand food psychology- many of the studies from his lab and from other research groups are described in Mindless Eating. For instance, think of days-old, stale, rancid popcorn. Not appetizing, right? Not something you would eat even if it was given to you free. In a study, people were offered free (but very stale) popcorn when they went to see a movie right after they had eaten lunch. The movie goers ate it anyway. We are so powerfully conditioned by the smell of popcorn, the sound of others eating popcorn and the association of movie theaters with popcorn-eating that we are compelled to eat even stale popcorn that does not taste good, even when we are not hungry.

Another classic experiment is the bottomless soup bowl, where a bowl of tomato soup is rigged under the table and connected to a large pot which keeps refilling the bowl even as the diner eats from it. We expect that after we've had a bowlful of so of soup, we'll stop eating because we simply won't be hungry any more. Not so. People kept eating as the level of soup in the bowl stayed the same. Our eyes decide how much we eat (I can see that the bowl is empty, so I've obviously eaten enough soup) and not our stomach.

Our expectations of how a food should taste affects the way we feel it tastes. A group of people were told they were tasting strawberry yogurt. Then the lights were turned off and they were give chocolate yogurt to taste. Over half rated it as having a "good strawberry taste". They couldn't see the yogurt, but were expecting strawberry yogurt so that's what they tasted.

This book came out a decade ago. Food psychology findings are of great human interest and they regularly make their way to mainstream media, so I can't say that there was anything in this book that was absolutely novel for me. But Wansink has a friendly, chatty and slightly goofy style which was fun to read. He points out the pitfalls that cause people to eat more than they intend to, and offers suggestions for tweaking our lives to make it easier to eat the way we want to eat.

I love food, enjoy food and am deeply grateful for having food. Under no circumstances do I want to trick my body into starving itself. But if I can set up my environment and build small habits to avoid consuming food that I don't particularly want or need, that would certainly be helpful. And that's where this books gives a few pointers.

Whatever fills the plate/bowl looks like the proper serving size to us. It is well documented that the size of dinnerware has grown over the decades, to the point where we're mindlessly overeating simply when we serve ourselves food for a meal. I remember buying a set of dinnerware from Crate and Barrel some years ago, and the bowls were so huge that I use them as serving bowls and not to eat from! This is a very easy problem to fix. Buy smaller bowls and plates and you'll eat more reasonable portions.

For a while now, I've been serving dessert in stainless steel vatis/katoris (small bowls) that I bought in India. They are perfect for a satisfying sweet finish to the meal, in a dainty portion. I try to be a good host and don't want to trick anyone into eating less. Anyone who wants seconds is welcome to take them but people rarely do. As the book says, the best part of dessert is the first two bites.

There is plenty of other advice in this book that's sensible enough: See how much you're eating- don't eat straight from the package. Aim to eat until you are no longer hungry; not until you're full (there's a big difference between those two). If you don't want to eat something, put it out of sight and inconvenient to reach (no candy dishes on the desk if you're trying to avoid sweets). If you want to eat more of something, make it convenient (cut up veggie sticks front and center in the fridge for snacking).

There's a lot of stuff in this book that's just good fun. Things that seem pretty obvious when you think about it, but are backed by studies and statistics. There's a whole chapter on how food with an alluring name tastes better to us. Traditional Cajun Beans and Rice is more appealing than Beans and Rice. Belgian black forest double chocolate cake sounds dreamier than plain old chocolate cake. Think about this next time you're cooking for company, or naming a recipe on your food blog!

Wansink talks about the Nutritional Gatekeeper of the family, the person who does most of the food shopping and cooking. They are a powerful influence on how each member of the family eats. He does very interesting studies on what he calls "the curse of the warehouse club" which shows that buying supersized containers leads people to over-consume. The bigger the shampoo bottle, the more you pour out, and so on.

There was one or two things in the book that I found jarring, such as when Wansink talks about ideal body weight for women based on a rule of thumb used by modeling and acting coaches. Um, no. That kind of obsession with thinness is unhelpful; healthy people come in all sizes and being thin does not equate being fit.

But this quibble aside, I found Mindless Eating to be a quick, helpful and enjoyable read. If you can better understand where you're over-eating, you can do something to fix it. Next time I'm parked next to the chips and dip at a party, I sure hope the book cover will flash in front of my eyes. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

Soup and sweater weather has arrived in the South East US this week. Tomatoes and sweet onions are giving way to root vegetables- sweet potatoes being a special favorite of mine for the way their sweetness complements savory dishes. We love them roasted as sweet potato fries, and mashed into vegetable cutlets. The combination of sweet potatoes and legumes is wonderful- some of our favorites include black beans and sweet potato quesadillas and burritos, sweet potato and vaal dal and sweet potato hummus.

Yesterday, I was in the mood for soup but not so much in the mood to spend time making it. The oven came to the rescue for hands-free cooking, as it often does. I thought of the roasted onion and garlic soup that I make once in a while. You roast vegetables, then puree them with stock. Ta da. You have soup.

I used the same principle to make this easy sweet potato soup. I was out of vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, bouillon and all such soup basics. A pantry restocking is in order, clearly. Anyway, I went ahead with only milk and water as the base of the soup, with some smoked paprika to add flavor. It worked just fine. You can tell that this is a flexible recipe.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

1. Pre heat oven to 425F. If you have a convection setting on the oven, you'll want to use it- it will cut roasting time significantly.

2. Peel 3-4 sweet potatoes and chop them into chunks. Peel and chop 1 large onion into chunks. Take a head of garlic, separate into cloves (no need to peel the garlic cloves now).

3. Place all the vegetables together on a sheet pan. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until the vegetables are browned and soft.

4. Pop the garlic cloves out of their peels. Place all roasted veggies in a pot.

5. Add 1 tsp. smoked paprika, 4 cups water and 1/2 cup milk (or cream or a combination) to the vegetables and blend them into a smooth puree. Add more water if required. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

6. Taste and add more seasoning if required. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of yogurt/sour cream and a sprinkle of paprika.

Are you fond of sweet potatoes? What's your favorite way to cook them? 

Oh, and do you have a must-try soup recipe to recommend? 

* * * 
Edited on Feb 2, 2018 to add another version of a roasted sweet potato soup. This one is vegan, with warm curry spices and coconut milk.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup 
with curry spices and coconut milk

1. Pre-heat oven to 400F. If you have a convection setting on the oven, you'll want to use it- it will cut roasting time significantly.

2. Peel 2-3 sweet potatoes and chop them into chunks. Toss on a sheet pan with olive oilsalt and pepper. Roast until the sweet potatoes are tender and slightly browned.

3. In a small skillet, heat 1 tbsp. oil. Saute the following until browned and aromatic:
1 small onion, diced
2 tsp. ginger garlic paste
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. Kitchen King masala (or your favorite masala)
Salt to taste

4. Add 1 cup coconut milk to the masala and simmer for a few minutes.

5. Then in a blender, blend the roasted sweet potatoes, masala with coconut milk smoothly with enough water to make a soup of your desired consistency. Warm the soup and enjoy!

Monday, October 06, 2014

DIY Instant Oatmeal: My Toddler's Favorite Breakfast

Our friends here were quite alarmed when they heard that our recent travels to India would involve two nearly 10-hour flights each way. How would a toddler handle it, they wondered? We wondered too, with not a little apprehension. It is not a simple trip. Before we left, we had to get Lila a typhoid vaccine and bitter anti-malaria tablets to take every day as a precaution. The air travel is just the first of many parental concerns.

But flying does not seem to bother our girl. During the long haul flights, she was allowed more or less unlimited access to juice and in-flight videos. As a result, she thinks air travel is the greatest thing ever. And bitty thing that she is, she could curl up in her seat and took long naps on the airplane as well. As with many things related to kids, you get what you get. We got a kid who enjoys flights. But who has slept through the night only like 8 times in 3 years. Others may have a child who screams for 8 hours of the 9.5 hour flight but who sleeps 12 hours at a stretch at home. Like I said, you get what you get.

While we were in India, Lila ate whatever we ate. The only food we packed for the trip for her was a container of oat mix for her favorite breakfast of warm oatmeal with apricots and raisins. From the time she could barely walk, she learnt to carry the boxes of oats and dried fruit out of the pantry, pry them open and fling handfuls into a bowl. This will go down in her personal history as the very first food she learned to "cook".

This oat mix has the same just-add-hot-water convenience of that instant oatmeal that you buy in sachets but you get to decide what goes in and what stays out. Oh, and it takes 30 seconds to put together. This is our basic raisin oatmeal recipe, but you can make all different flavors by just changing up dried fruits and nuts and adding spices or flavorings.

DIY Instant Oatmeal

To make instant oatmeal, I simply stir together the following ingredients in a bowl.

Instant oats: 3 cups
Dried apricots, chopped: 1/2 cup
Raisins: 1/2 cup
Cinnamon: 3 tsp.
Salt: 1/2 tsp.
Jaggery powder: 2 tsbp.

Store the instant oatmeal in an air-tight container at room temperature.

How you cook it depends on whether you have access to a microwave oven or a kettle. Measure some oatmeal mix in a bowl, add equal parts water and cook in microwave oven for 30-60 seconds. Alternatively, add boiling hot water to the oat mix, cover it and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. Either way, you have mushy, comforting oatmeal pretty much instantly.

Speaking of water, several friends told me that they only drink bottled water when they visit India. I did buy a case of bottled water when we first got there, to get through the first few days. My heart sank as we collected a pile of empty water bottles, destined to sit in a landfill for most of eternity. I just couldn't deal with it. For the rest of the trip, all three of us drank home-filtered water. Most of our relatives seem to have some UV filter like Aquaguard installed in their kitchens. And it was just fine. None of us had any tummy troubles. Not even the one who (I won't name names) tends to drop food and then nonchalantly eat it off the floor. Bottled water or no bottled water, any travel anywhere can be ruined by infections and illness and I'm so grateful that we got lucky this time.

Lila has turned three and she entertains and exasperates me in roughly equal measures with her toddler antics. This morning, I made her cocoa in a ceramic mug and she wanted me to pour it into a steel tumbler. What's wrong with the mug, I asked. "It's too glassy, mama", she explained. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Summer Reading 2014

A parade of eclectic books came through my life in the last two months.

Before a long trip, most reasonable people will be seen shopping for the trip and packing their bags. Me? I was in a reading frenzy, trying to finish all my library books so I could safely return them before I went away.

The last of my pile was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. This is a novelist's memoir written with deep feeling and a talent for articulating things that are very hard to articulate. Winterson was adopted as a 6 week old baby. Her mother cruelly told her that she "picked the wrong crib" implying that the adoption was a mistake. The mother's religious fanaticism and depression made for a horrible home life. Books were not allowed in the house. But Winterson found them anyway and against all odds, went on to go to Oxford and earn a degree in literature, writing an award-winning novel at the age of 24. “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” 

This Spring, I won a giveaway on Goodreads, an advance copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin. What a title! This might be the most interesting book I've read in a while, and the hardest to read- partly because of the dense writing but mostly because economics is not at all my field of expertise. I read it as I would a textbook, over a semester, digesting a chapter at a time and taking copious notes. 

In a nutshell, what Rifkin is proposing is that the current capitalist system is on the decline. It will soon be replaced by the collaborative commons which is an economic system based on social entrepreneurs, shared economy and crowdfunding. We're already seeing more of that- think couchsurfing, kickstarter, zip cars etc. My notes on the book are here. I really wish the writing was tighter and more accessible, and that the book was better edited but if you like cerebral books, it is completely worth your time.

Just before we left for India, our library had their annual fund-raising book sale. Gently used, donated books were being sold for a couple of dollars so I rummaged around and bought a few. Over the two long-haul flights to India, I read an old but goodie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie. I think I read this collection once every decade or so and they are always fun.

In India, from within the depths of a junk drawer in a parental home, I rescued a yellowing paperback, The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter. It is the 10th Inspector Morse novel. I'm an ardent watcher of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV (we've watched it on PBS and Netflix) but this was the first time I read one of the novels that the series is based on. I give the novel 2 thumbs up for the literary references and for bringing the irritable, intellectual Morse to life.

Over at my parents' home, I read Myth = Mithya A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik. I've read and heard and seen stories from Hindu mythology- Ramayana, Mahabharata- all my life, but this fascinating little book was full of aha moments for the ancient Indian interpretation of everything from cosmology to cultural mores. 

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar was a fluffy and quick read. The book is written in the form of a fictional memoir of a Rajput princess. She talks about her life in her childhood home (a palace) and life in her married household (another palace), cloistered in a women's compound (zenana). The princess describes rituals related to health and beauty, providing several recipes for everything from a masoor (lentil) face mask to pancakes that aid lactation. Descriptions of the hours-long elaborate baths left me exhausted and thankful for my 5 minute showers and single bottle of shampoo+ conditioner! Obviously, most of us don't have the luxury, time or even the inclination to make a career out of pampering ourselves. But the book is a nice reminder of relaxing beauty rituals that take no more than a few pantry ingredients. The book is worth looking at for the sumptuous historic photographs alone.

In India, there was another novelty- daily newspapers delivered to the door. We don't subscribe to newspapers here, preferring to read online news if and when we feel like it. But I got a daily dose of the Times of India and Mumbai Mirror and Bombay Times, with its unsettling mix of brutal rape reports and inane celebrity gossip. I got to read comics and do sudoku and crosswords every day (I'm good at the former but frustratingly bad at the latter.)

Since my return home, I've been catching up on the New Yorker magazines from the last 2 months. This article about Vandana Shiva was very illuminating and it is published online in its entirety: Seeds of DoubtAn activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops by Michael Specter. 

And I started reading another book sale find, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This book won rave reviews but personally I'm not enjoying the writing and the story is not very engaging either. I'm donating this book back for next year's sale. 

The next book on the pile is Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.

What are you reading these days?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Koli Cooking Class, and my New Craft Blog

Hello, friends! I just got back from a long trip to India, and even in my foggy, bleary-eyed, jet-lagged state, I'm missing this little blog very much.

Our weeks in warm, rainy Mumbai were spent catching up with close family and friends. But I took one morning to treat myself to a rather special experience- a cooking class taught by Anjali of Anna Parabrahma. The Koli community are the native fisher folk of Mumbai and for years, Anjali has been blogging about her native Koli culture and food. She has now taken it a step further, organizing tours of seafood markets and teaching Koli cooking classes. For those who don't eat seafood, she has a special Koli yet Veg class that focuses on vegetarian specialties from her community. How could I resist?

And that's how I found myself in Anjali's bright, pleasant and immaculately tidy kitchen one Friday morning, cooking with her and her beautiful friend Gauri. The morning started with a cup of masala chai, snacks and a chat with Anjali and her wonderful Dad, who is himself a good cook.

Over three hours, we made five dishes. All the while, the conversation flowed easily and I was amazed at how knowledgeable and passionate Anjali is about regional Indian home cooking. And she has a natural instinct for how to create a well-balanced meal where the flavors and textures of the different dishes complement each other perfectly.

The main course for the meal was Vala che bhirda. Sprouted vaal (a variety of beans) are cooked in a coconut curry. My grandmother made this dish often and I make it myself but every family/community makes it a different way. The koli way is to skip the tadka (tempering) and use their savory, full-bodied koli masala (made with over two dozen ingredients) instead.

The second dish was kokum saar. Kokum is a tangy coastal tropical fruit, and saar is not quite a soup or beverage or curry but perhaps a hybrid of those three. Anjali talks about kokum saar in this touching post. I've used kokum quite a bit but never in the form of kokum agal (extract) which Anjali uses to make the saar conveniently. Later, I asked my parents about it and they bought me my own jug of kokum agal to bring back. The radish and jaggery in this saar make it irresistible and this dish was my favorite of the day.

The other two side dishes we made were a fiery potato onion bhaaji and a garlic chutney. Finally, Anjali kneaded fresh dough and expertly made rice rottis- flatbreads made with whole rice flour.

With some freshly steamed rice and papads that are not in the picture, the whole thaali came together. I savored every morsel in happiness and gratitude.

More pictures of my experience are on Anjali's blog. I blissfully left with a bag of goodies from Anjali- dried vaal, rice papads, chai masala, malvani masala and peanut paak.

And of course, I made sure I bought a bag of koli masala for my own use here. An expertly made masala is worth its weight in gold. By just adding a spoonful or two, you can turn everyday ingredients- vegetables, lentils- into a special meal with no hassle at all.

Taking a cooking class while on vacation was great fun in so many ways- I had a memorable experience, learned something new, made warm connections and got some edible souvenirs to bring back. I'm going to try and do this on every trip I take.

I was talking about vacation cooking classes with a dear American friend who will be living in Bangalore for a month next summer. Does anyone happen to know of good, informal cooking classes in Bangalore? She and her husband would love to take one.

Have you ever taken a cooking class, whether on vacation or not?

***     ***     ***

If you've been visiting this blog for any length of time, you know how knitting, crochet, sewing and quilting has been slowly but surely encroaching on this blog-formerly-known-as-a-food-blog? I never wanted to start another blog for the crafty stuff because keeping up with one blog is hard enough and keeping up with two would be sheer madness. But you know you should never say never.

My sister happens to be wonderfully creative and talented at sewing and other crafts, and also runs a small, independent sewing business. When I visited her a couple of months ago,  I started pestering her into starting a blog to chronicle her projects. She turned right around and talked me into joining her- so to make a long story short, we're now blogging together about our sewing and craft projects at our new blog, Cottons & Chai. If you're so inclined, I invite you to go take a look.

Our goal is to post twice a week, usually on Mondays and Thursdays. Of course the minute we started the blog, I promptly ran off on vacation and left poor sis to do most of the posting so far. Kashmira has posted free tutorials (like this one for a baby toy), craft ideas (potato stamps shaped like cute produce) sewing book reviews, upcycling ideas and original patterns for purchase (like this hair organizer; she made one for Lila and we loved it so much that I insisted she write a pattern).

A soft and crinkly toy for tiny, curious hands
This flower organizer hangs in the bathroom and helps to corral
Lila's umpteen hair bows and clips
I've posted a quilt I made and a quick birthday gift idea.

Going forward, I'll post my sewing and craft projects on Cottons & Chai and leave One Hot Stove to deal with food and books!

I'll see you next Monday as usual- no, it won't be a recipe post, but I'll tell you about lots of interesting books I've been reading. How have you all been? What's new in your world? 

Monday, August 04, 2014

The List: July 2014

July started on a high note with a week-long vacation and well, time seems to speed up in summer because here we are in August already.

Cooking & Baking

A big bowl of spinach dip got made two or three times this month for different gatherings. This is the recipe, and there's not much fuss involved: the spinach is the frozen kind, there's no cooking needed and the chipotle can be swapped out for something else like taco spice or hot sauce if needed. Served with veggie sticks or tortilla chips, this dip is a crowd pleaser; it makes a lot too.

We got together with friends to watch the World Cup and I made magic cake for dessert using this recipe. Magic cake gets its name from one cake batter that magically separates in the oven into a dense lower layer and a custard like upper layer. We loved it (so much that I forgot to take a picture) and if flans and custards are your thing, you'll probably love it too.

Reading several books, mostly from the kid lit and teen lit genre. These are all good and quick reads.

Image: Goodreads

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Eleven year old Margaret moves from New York City to a New Jersey suburb and meets a whole new group of friends. The book tells a sweet and genuine story of a girl grappling with lots of changes in her life, in her body and in trying to figure out the role of religion in her life. Blume published this book in 1970 and the subject matter was considered very bold and frank for its time- it still remains a rather controversial book. But it made me nostalgic for my own set of girlfriends from middle and high school!

Image: Goodreads

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie with illustrations by Ellen Forney (she of the graphic memoir Marbles). This is the dark and funny coming of age story of a Native American teen. Junior has survived childhood illness to become a bright budding cartoonist. He lives on an Indian reservation, plagued by poverty, despair and alcoholism, and rather bravely leaves the local school to start attending the all-white high school in the next town. “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,' I said. 'By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.” 

Image: Goodreads

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. This is a simple, powerful and rather heartbreaking story. Wanda wears the same faded blue dress to school but claims to have a hundred dresses at home; the other girls at school tease her mercilessly about it. Then Wanda unwittingly teaches them a lesson about friendship and about doing the right thing.

Image: Goodreads

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6) by Alan Bradley. I continued my indifferent reading of this series. Of all the books, this one has the weakest mystery but is full of emotional ups and downs as Flavia grapples with the return of her mother, the mother who went missing when she was just an infant.

Image: Goodreads

Among Lila's favorite books this month are Bear Wants More and Bear's New Friend, both by Karma Wilson with adorable illustrations by Jane Chapman. For the first time, Lila is enjoying books that are several pages long with a definite story line. The stories are written in rhyming, sing song fashion and fun to read.

We went to a gently-used book sale and found over a dozen classics for Lila. The one she's immediately in love with is Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney, about a Llama's first day at nursery school. This is such a darling book and you can't help feeling a pang of empathy for the dear little llama struggling with separation anxiety. Don't worry, it all works out in the end.

Lila's had a windfall of books this month. Just yesterday, a dear friend sent Lila a book gift that she bought in India- Mala's Silver Anklets by Annie Besant, from Tulika Publishers. Mala likes to sneak up and scare her grandma, her little brother and even the mailman. Until she gets silver anklets and that bells the cat, so to speak. A delightful story with adorable illustrations by Nancy Raj.

Watching the second season of Orange is the new Black.

And I took a break from my usual diet of murder mysteries (Midsomer Murders, Poirot etc.) and watched a very interesting documentary called Particle Fever. It chronicles the thrilling search for the Higgs Boson particle in the Large Hadron Collider. I watch murder mysteries as a mild form of escapism, to spend an hour in some quaint English village. But truthfully, the documentary about particle physics and the quest to understand the structure of the universe was the ultimate escape as I looked around my living room and pondered- what does all this mean, anyway?

What have you been eating, reading, watching this July? 

I have some unexpected travel coming up so posting will be sporadic over the next few 2 months. I may even be unable to post altogether but will be back soon enough. Enjoy the rest of your summer and the start of the school year!

Lila likes to put a purse around Duncan's neck and
declare that she's taking him shopping

Monday, July 28, 2014

Friends and Potstickers

There's an Asian market close to my home and I love poking around there and shopping for all kinds of ingredients. Some become instant favorites, such as jasmine rice, and others are more aspirational, like the packet of dumpling wrappers that ended up sitting in the freezer for several months.

I've made potstickers once before and blogged about it too- but I basically winged it with the filling. And I occasionally buy a bag of frozen vegetable dumplings to add to soup or to serve as an appetizer with a stir fry.

This time I got lucky- I mentioned the lonely dumpling wrappers in the freezer to my dear friend who happens to be Chinese American, born and raised in Queens, NY. She suggested that we get together and make dumplings together- and we got together yesterday for our dumpling party.

My friend showed up with her family and a large grocery sack of supplies. Then we got down to business- and here's the recipe she taught me. Her method is as simple as can be, the filling is raw and comes together in minutes.

The wrappers: I'm happy to make dumplings "from scratch" but I have no intentions of making the dumpling wrappers from scratch. We used 2 packs, each with 40 wrappers- one was Nasoya brand square wrappers (found next to the tofu in the refrigerated section of many supermarkets) and the other was Twin Dragon round wrappers that I found in the Asian store.

We used a large bowl to mix together the filling:

  • 1 package crumbled firm tofu (drain the tofu well before crumbling it)
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 3-4 green onions, minced
  • 4-5 shiitake mushrooms, minced (these are found in most grocery stores)
  • 1/2 cup (or so) minced preserved turnips. These are very salty on their own but add wonderful flavor to the filling. They can be found in Asian stores.

We seasoned the filling with

  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Wash your hands well, then get in there and mix the filling together well. 

Then it was time to make the dumplings. Set out a small bowl of water. Put a teaspoonful or two of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Dip a finger in the water, wet the edges of the wrapper and press them together firmly to make a semi-circle or triangle (depending on the shape of the wrapper). Keep making dumplings and setting them on a plate.

Cooking the potstickers: Then fire up the stove and heat up a wide and shallow saute pan. Add 2 tbsp. oil and place dumplings in a single layer in the hot pan. Once the bottom of the dumplings is browned, add 1/3 cup vegetable broth and cover the pan. 3-4 minutes later, the broth will have evaporated and the dumplings will be steamed through. Use a spatula or tongs to gently remove them.

Serve the potstickers right away with a dipping sauce:

  • Soy sauce
  • Honey
  • Ginger-garlic, minced
  • Scallions, minced

This was just so much fun- we were all crowded into the kitchen, I was making dumplings at a furious pace while my friend expertly cooked them, then as a new batch emerged, everyone grabbed them and gobbled them while trying not to burn their fingers. The potstickers were crisp and tender, and the taste was spot on.

We made 80 dumplings and managed to eat over 60 of them between 4 adults and 3 little girls. What a perfect way to spend the evening. I'll really glad to have learned my friend's family recipe and I have no doubt it will become a fun family tradition in our home too. 

Did you do anything fun this weekend?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Travel Diary and Nutty Cookies

The Fourth of July holiday was coming up and Lila had a whole week's summer break from daycare. I decided to take a few days off myself and we planned a week long mother-daughter vacation in Minneapolis with my sister and her family.

As we packed our bags, the excitement was mounting. It would be a vacation of many firsts.  The first trip where Lila would be really able to anticipate, understand and remember what was going on. The first time she would be visiting her aunt's home. A first visit to a theme park. The first time Lila would be away from her daddy and doggy for any length of time (those two stayed back to put in long hours at work and to catch up on sleep, respectively.)

And as simple as it was, flying out to see family for a week, every bit of the vacation was new and fresh and magical as I saw it through my toddler's eyes. Even the airport train zipping to our concourse through the massive and headache-inducing Atlanta airport made her squeal in delight. Weary travelers standing next to us could not help smiling at that.

The upper Midwest was cool and pleasant compared to Georgia at this time of year. Minneapolis in summer is dreamy- there's no trace of the (in)famous wintry shroud, the skies are blue, the lakes are bluer, there are fresh, green spaces everywhere you look.  Oh, and criss-crossing freeways everywhere too- I'm glad I don't have to drive in that city.

A wishing tree invites you to write a
wish and tie it onto a branch
Armed with a toddler each, my sister and I managed to squeeze in a lot of fun into one week. So here's my list of Top 6 things to do with a pair of toddlers in Minneapolis in summer!

The Diego Rescue Rider ride
at the Nick theme park
1. Go to the Nickelodeon Universe theme park inside the ridiculously huge Mall of America. Themes parks are so not my thing, Lila has no idea what Nickelodeon is, but this was a special experience and she thoroughly enjoyed it- even the fast and bumpy rides that left me queasy. They have a discount for toddlers on Tuesday.

2. Play in the sun and sand at Lake Calhoun's tiny beaches.

3. Go berry picking and later enjoy some fresh berries and ice cream.

4. Walk around the Centennial lake promenade, then rent a paddle boat and get up close to the ducklings.

5. Explore the huge indoor playground at Edinborough Park; this is a perfect rainy day activity.

Minnehaha Falls

6. Go see the spectacular Minneahaha Falls and dip your toes in the cold, gushing water of Minnehaha Creek.

Apart from these excursions, we enjoyed the things that are perpetually fun for the kids: walking to the local playgrounds, exploring the public library, coloring and painting, watching a few cartoons, swimming in the pool at the apartment complex, all while enjoying the excellent meals that my sister made.

Among all these child-centric activities, my sister and I did manage to make a trip to a huge fabric warehouse called SR Harris, packed floor to ceiling with fabrics and notions. I could have easily bankrupted myself there so it was a good thing Lila demanded that we leave after a couple of hours.

And we ate a hearty brunch at the French Meadow Cafe- their huevos rancheros were terrific.

I am such a homebody and loathe to travel, but I am so glad we went on this trip. It was a fantastic bonding experience all around.
A fountain overflowing with plants
at Minnehaha Falls
Before my trip, I gathered up some small gifts to take with me. I never know what to get my brother in law, so he got the food gift, which experience tells me is usually welcomed and relished. I'd already made biscotti, brownies and candy for them. At quite the last minute, I started looking for a recipe for something new to make and hit the jackpot with this cookie recipe from Alice Medrich. Her cookbook Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years- I won it in a giveaway in St. Louis.

The recipe I fortuitously found is called Right-Brain Nutty Butter Cookies. Medrich calls them right brain cookies because they are cookies for cooks, not bakers. You can get away with less-than-precise measurements and the recipe welcomes the tweaking and "little bit of this-and-that"ing that cooks tend to do. The basic recipe is for a shortbread and there are no eggs involved. The entire cookie dough comes together in a couple of minutes in a food processor. The cookie is dead easy to make and requires basic pantry ingredients.

But do plan ahead- Medrich notes that the cookies are significantly better if you make and refrigerate the dough 2 days prior to baking. And the cookies themselves taste better the day after they are baked, they last for a month in an airtight container. How perfect to take along on a trip!

I'll tell you exactly how I made this batch of cookies. Look for Medrich's excellent book for the detailed recipe and all the variations. She's a truly gifted dessert chef and I should use this book more.

Nutty Butter Cookies
(Adapted from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts)

1. Start with 1 box deluxe mixed nuts (8.75 oz). These have cashews, almonds, brazil nut, hazelnuts and pecans, they come roasted and salted in a small canister in the snack aisle of the supermarket.

2. Pulse the nuts (all the contents of the box) in a food processor to a coarse chop. Dump them out and set them aside.

3. To the now-empty processor bowl, add and pulse to mix:
1 cup + 1 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt (or not, if nuts were well-salted)

4. Add 1 stick (8 tbsp.) butter (cut in chunks and softened beforehand) and 2 tsp. vanilla extract. Process until a cookie dough forms.

5. Pulse in the chopped nuts.

6. Divide the dough onto two pieces of plastic wrap and pat into 2 logs. Wrap and refrigerate for 2 days.

7. Preheat oven to 350F. Slice the log into 1/4 inch thick cookies and bake on parchment lined sheets for 12-14 minutes. Cool on the sheet. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container.

These cookies were a hit. My brother in law said they reminded him of cookies from Karachi bakery, which is apparently a celebrated bakery in Hyderabad. In any case, they are rich, tender morsels, slightly sweet and pretty much guaranteed to please. I'm glad to have one more food gift in my repertoire.

Have you been traveling this summer?