Monday, February 24, 2014

Quilting 101

In my personal history, 2013 will go down as The Year of The Quilt.

Through quilting, I met many new people and started feeling right at home in this new town that we've moved to. Through quilting, I got over my fear of the sewing machine, learned a few new skills and got the chance to do a bit of volunteer work.

As a tribute to my new-found love for quilting, I put together this brief essay for anyone who is curious about this world of quilting. If you have wondered why so many people are fascinated with what are essentially blankets, read on.

What is a Quilt?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a quilt as "A bed coverlet of two layers of cloth filled with padding (as down or batting) held in place by ties or stitched designs".

True, true. In general, a quilt has three layers:

1. Quilt top: The fabric on top of the quilt, typically a woven fabric like cotton.

2. Batting: Middle layer. This is the fluffy filling in the quilt.

3. Backing: The fabric at the back of the quilt, and just like the front, it is typically a woven fabric like cotton.

These layers trap air and act as insulation, giving you that warm, snug-as-a-bug feeling when you wrap yourself in a quilt on a cold winter night.

The Pretty Face of  a Quilt

The quilt top is often decorative and colorful- what most people picture immediately when they think of a quilt. Two common techniques used to create a quilt top are piecing and applique.

Piecing: This is when pieces of fabric are sewn together into all kinds of interesting patterns like zig zag and jigsaw puzzle and simple stripes.

The first quilt I made was fabrics cut into large rectangles and pieced together in the simplest way in a brick pattern.

Pieced quilts are often based on traditional quilt blocks. These are geometric designs that look like rangoli; some examples of traditional quilt blocks are bear paw, maple leaf, school house, flower basket -and others have fanciful names, like a block with circular, swaying curves appropriately called drunkard's path.

My quilting teacher told me about a conversation she had with her husband. He asked, "So you buy all the fabric, then cut it into tiny-tiny pieces, and then spend months sewing the pieces back together?" Her response: "Yes".

Applique is another method for decorating the quilt top. Here, shapes of fabric are cut out and sewn on top of a larger fabric (similar to how one would do collage on paper). Some examples of applique: a colorful tree, US map and vegetable patch.

And then there is the combination of piecing and applique like this darling rainbow quilt where the colored strips are pieced and the clouds are appliqued on top. Or chubby chicks, a combination of pieced pinwheel blocks and appliqued chick blocks.

With panel quilts you start out with a printed panel, that is, the quilt top comes already decorated. The town quilt I made was a panel quilt where the town came pre-printed on the fabric.

The Quilt Comes Together

Once the quilt top is ready, you choose another fabric for the backing (something matching or complementary to the front) and then make a quilt sandwich with the top, batting and backing. Three different layers- how do you secure them together? 

The three layers are sewn together with needle and thread by hand or with a sewing machine- and this process is called quilting.

I used to think quilting was just a mundane but necessary step after the all-important work of making a pretty quilt top. Not so- quilting can be the star of the show. Take a look at this quilt. The front is just a plain brown fabric with a red heart appliqued on it. But the clever quilting makes it looks like initials carved on a tree trunk. And in this quilt, the quilting is done in swirls which give the look of curly wool on the sheep. Here's one where the quilting looks like rain.

One of my favorite forms of quilting is the kantha quilting of Eastern India and Bangladesh, where a simple hand-embroidered running stitch and a few old sarees are the basis of quilt making.

As an alternative to quilting, the three layers can also be tied together with bits of thread at regular intervals for a more informal quilt.

Binding is the final step, where you use strips of fabric to give the quilt a frame. The three layers are now together and you need to seal them in and give the quilt a finished look. Note to self: stripes and polka dots make very cute binding!

Fifty Shades of Quilts

Quilts are indeed works of art, often being one of a kind creations. Sometimes they are classified as traditional and modern. I don't know the exact definitions of these categories. It might be one of those "you know it when you see it" things.

Traditional quilts are often based on repeating patterns of traditional quilt blocks. Here are some examples of what I would call traditional, time-honored designs: Grandmother's flower garden, double wedding ring quilt, sampler quilt.

Modern quilts tend to be minimalist, abstract and improvised, fresh and simple. They often use color in incredible ways, like in this quilt. Here are some examples of what I could call modern quilts: tree quilt, landscape quilt, big love, wee animal quilt, modern sampler.

Quilts made for children are some of my favorite quilts for showcasing themes in imaginative ways. Just look at this solar system quilt and this batman quilt. The subject of quilts are diverse and whimsical and quilters pay homage to just about everything from flip-flops, baskets to books. Some people gather up their old T-shirts and convert them to a T shirt quilt- here's one that is a collection of souvenir T shirts from beach vacations.

Not everyone has to commit to making bed-sized quilts either. There are many ways to enjoy quilting on a smaller scale. One can make smaller quilts for babies and children, or to use as throws in the living room. Mug rugs are the tiniest and sweetest quilts- designed to hold a mug and a snack and to cheer up the dullest cubicle. Pillows are another way to use techniques of piecing and applique on a small scale. The principles of quilting can be used for cute little projects like ornaments and to make pretty and functional gifts, like e-reader covers and this fabric baskets.

Sometimes quilt blocks are not made in fabric at all- they are painted on the sides of barns and buildings and are called barn quilts.

As for me, I'm so in love with textile art that it is featured in almost every room in my home. Fabrics add color and texture to a home and are usually very affordable.

Ocean life quilt in Lila's playroom/ our family room,
made by my mother and sister

In our hallway is this panel of pipli work from Orissa,
an intricate hand-stitched piece of folk art
Quilts are functional art. There are many things I like to do- knitting, cooking/baking, reading, even sewing- but quilting is what forces me to think of composition and color and...arty stuff. I look at the world with more observant eyes, looking for beauty and inspiration for my next quilting project.

Too little time, too many quilts. There are far too many items on my quilting bucket list, but thinking of the immediate future- what's next on my quilting agenda? I want to make a quilted pet portrait of Duncan, and I'm participating in the Vice Versa block of the month club where we make 2 blocks every month and the goal is to have a finished quilt by the end of this year.

If you're eager for more quilty fun...

...browse some quilting eye candy online. There are dozens of beautiful quilt blogs out there, and if you have a couple of hundred hours to kill, you could search for "quilts" on Pinterest. this book- America's glorious quilts by Dennis Duke. It has hundreds of gorgeous photographs illustrating the history of quilting in the United States.

...find a quilt show near you. Many areas in the US have quilt guilds- a guild is a group of artists who get together to promote the craft, host workshops and lectures etc. Most quilt guilds host a show for the public every year or two to showcase their best work. Do a web search for a show near you and mark your calendar. As lovely as it is to see pictures of quilts, seeing them in person will take your breath away.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tried and Tested Dosas, With a New Onion Chutney

Dosas- those crisp and airy crepes of rice and lentils, a staple of Southern Indian breakfasts. I've often said that I could eat dosas at every meal, and yesterday this wish came true, with dosas for Sunday brunch and then again for dinner because I ran out of time to make something else and then again for breakfast this morning because, well, because I just love them that much.

We had friends yesterday for brunch, and we do this so often that I'm getting lots of practice with putting brunches together and anticipating what dishes will be well-received. Dosas, without a doubt, have been a hit every time I've served them. Sambar for some reason isn't as popular so I serve the dosas with potato masala and cilantro coconut chutney, both of which are always popular as well.And we always make ginger chai for our guests and amaze them with the fact that chai does not, indeed should not contain 15 different spices.

Dosa with cilantro coconut chutney and onion chutney
After making dosa batter week after week, I've landed on the formula that works for me. The two typical ingredients in a dosa batter are rice (which can be raw or parboiled) and urad dal. Different recipes call for different proportions of the rice and urad dal and add other ingredients for taste and texture- everything from chana dal to rava.

My current favorite way of making dosa is based on Vaishali's recipe. And here's my formula:
  • 2 cups raw rice
  • 2 cups parboiled rice
  • 1 cup gota urad dal
  • 1/4 cup chana dal
  • 1 tsp. methi seeds
  • 2 tbsp. poha
This formula is flexible. For the raw rice, I'll often use brown rice, or then a cup each of brown rice and sona masoori rice. I've also used a combination of brown rice and barley. And for the parboiled rice, I'll sometimes use rosematta rice which is pretty and pink, or then just the usual parboiled rice which is sold as idli/dosa rice.

After the soaking and grinding and fermenting, the batter is ready to use. Sometimes, I add some ragi flour before making dosas. Dosa batter freezes beautifully so it makes sense for me to make a large batch. But the formula can be easily halved for a smaller batch. What I love is that the dosa made with this batter is beautifully brown and crisp, but also has a toothsome, substantial texture- it is not too thin and papery.

And every good dosa deserves a tasty chutney to accompany it. Along with the regular coconut chutney, I tried a new recipe last night for onion chutney from Cooking at Home with Pedatha by Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain. The authors call it a must-try recipe and it looked tempting enough so I did not need much convincing. It goes well with idli, dosa or steamed rice.

As I was writing this post, I realized that there are numerous onion chutneys already on this blog: I've posted a very similar onion chutney from another cookbook, and a very minimalist onion chutney made with just three ingredients, and I distinctly remember trying an onion peanut chutney from another blog but can't find where I've mentioned it! Well, here's one more...and it's worth making.

One More Onion Chutney
(Adapted from Cooking at Home with Pedatha by Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain)

1. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pan.

2. Temper the hot oil with 1 tbsp. urad dal, 1 tsp. mustard seeds, 4-5 methi seeds, 1 sprig curry leaves, a pinch of asafetida, a handful of chopped cilantro leaves and 1 tsp. red chilli powder (or to taste).

3. Add 3 coarsely chopped onions and fry them for several minutes until soft and translucent.

4. Blend the mixture (don't add any water) with 2 tbsp. tamarind paste and salt to taste to a thick chutney.

I enjoyed leafing through and cooking from Cooking at Home with Pedatha. The cookbook is a collection of a lifetime of recipes from Subhadra Krishna Rau Parigi, fondly known as Pedatha. Imagine a traditional festive spread at an affluent home- dozens of dishes arrayed around a thali- and the cookbook will teach you how to make just that. Vegetable dishes, flavorful chutneys and pachadis, sweets, all at their home-style best with recipes from a lady who clearly loved to cook. The pictures are luscious and the design is elegant. Many of the recipes call for vegetables that are common in India but not in the US but there are notes indicating substitutes. This is helpful for someone like me who has little or no access to things like such as raw banana, melon cucumbers and drumsticks.

I wish the book had a recipe index, so I could quickly look up recipes that use a particular ingredient. And I wish the book did not refer to lentils by their English names- I still get confused with split red gram and green gram. Calling them toor dal and moong dal is easier for me. But there is a pictorial ingredient list in the back of the book where I can look up for the hundredth time what split black gram means.

Apart from the onion chutney, I tried two other recipes from the book. 

Cucumber sweet and sour chutney is made with cucumbers that I use in salads every other day but rarely use in cooking per se. The cucumbers are lightly sauteed in a sweet and sour sauce made with tamarind, jaggery and sesame seeds. We ate this cucumber chutney with some dal and rice and it transformed the humble meal. Pavani has posted the recipe for cucumber sweet and sour chutney if anyone wants to try it.

I also made majjiga pulusu (a gravy with yogurt)- a version of what I know as kadhi. Interestingly, instead of the besan (chickpea flour) that is added to yogurt to make kadhi- it adds thickness and also keeps the yogurt from curdling- this recipe uses a paste of soaked chana dal.

Several other recipes from Pedatha's book can be found in blog-land; here's a short list: sweet rasam, brinjal pasty vegetablebrinjal roastraw banana with mustard and rava ladoo.

Everyone who enjoys simple home-style Indian cooking will find some recipe gems in this cookbook and I'm glad I finally got to cook from it.

What have you been cooking and eating this weekend? Any dosa binges you'd like to talk about? No, just me?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Snow Days, and a Couple of Updates

I want to thank everyone who stopped by with warm birthday wishes for One Hot Stove last week. I also appreciate all the suggestions for making this blog more useful. And I am serious about working on these suggestions as soon as possible; in fact, I've completed one of them this week. 1 down, ~17 to go!

Several people have been asking me to collect all my sewing projects in one place because they tend to get lost among the recipe posts. Well, last night I made this Fiber & Fabric page while watching figure skating in the Winter Olympics. You'll see all my sewing and quilting projects listed there for easy access.

Another good suggestion for blog improvement was to go back to the old posts and update some of them (some of the oldest recipes don't even have pictures any more)- and in fact, I had been thinking of doing just that. After all, apart from being a diary of sorts and a weekly writing exercise, this blog is my recipe book. So often, I'll start cooking/baking by first opening the laptop and looking up the recipe on my blog. And over time, recipes need to be updated and refreshed as I tweak them.

This whole past week, we had an Israeli friend staying with us, and I busted out all our favorite hearty dinner recipes- tortilla soup, spinach lasagna, matar paneer. He appreciated everything and ate with gusto. Last night, I made Sri Lankan egg curry and he stopped short after one spoonful and declared quite definitely that THIS was his favorite thing I've made.

Sri Lankan egg curry was one of the first recipes I posted back in March 2005 and now I've updated it a bit with fresh pictures. See the new and improved recipe here. 9 years later, it still tastes "like the beach" and that's a welcome feeling this week.

You see, I have to run and get ready for a winter storm that's headed our way, the second one in two weeks. North America is in the middle of one of the harshest winters in recent memory. So severe is this winter that we're feeling the effects even here in the deep South, where even an inch or two of snow is enough to bring life to a screeching halt.

Our Duncan was mesmerized when he saw snow for the first time. He was first puzzled by it, then ran around madly in it, then he tried to eat it.

After 10 minutes of this, he decided that it made more sense to go take a nap on the couch. Smart dog.

Have a great week, friends. What's today's weather like where you are?

Monday, February 03, 2014

Eclair Cake to Celebrate 9 Years of One Hot Stove

One Hot Stove turns 9 years old today. 9 as in one less than 10, as in almost a decade, so unbelievable. So much has changed over these nine years both in my life and in food blog land. The latter has exploded from a constellation of blogs whose writers all had at least a nodding acquaintance with each other to a glittering megacity where the bar for writing and photography is set ever higher and where new food trends are born and nurtured every day.

But you know what? Some things haven't changed at all. I still manage to take surprisingly crappy pictures with a perfectly good camera (scroll down for Exhibit A). I still don't have my own domain (Internet-speak for a posh address). My blog still lives in the sleepy outskirts of blog land. I still clumsily pour out my words straight from the heart. And I still marvel that some nice people show up and visit me regularly.

Once in a while, someone who doesn't read or care about food blogs will hear that I write a food blog and they're like, "You write about recipes? That's so...interesting" very incredulous that someone would waste time this way. And I'll babble something like, "It is more than recipes, food is about connection, blogs are virtual communities" and then I trail off and change the subject because this whole thing is so hard to describe. You see, every now and then I will get an e-mail from a reader telling me that my words touched them somehow, and I stop in my tracks and tear up. I am so amazed and grateful. This gig that pays me nothing at all may be the most positive thing I do with my life.

All of this is my rambling way of saying that even though the world clearly has thousands of blogs that are way more polished and professional, I still love this little blog as much as ever and will continue to write it as long as I can because you never know when it will connect with someone.

So, gentle reader, please join me for a big serving of blog birthday cake. This one isn't a traditional cake at all but a layered concoction of graham crackers and custard and whipped cream called eclair cake. I was looking for a dessert that would feed a crowd at a friend's party and both her family and mine are crazy about vanilla custard so a dessert involving custard seemed like a good bet. It was during the holidays when I was all baked-out and wanted something different. This is a good recipe to file away for the summer months when you don't want to turn on the oven because you don't bake this cake at all.

The "traditional" eclair cake recipe contains several supermarket marvels such as cool whip, instant pudding and canned frosting. This version has many more homemade components, but you'll still have to hit up the cookie aisle to buy a box of graham crackers. If you're feeling ambitious, you can make those yourself- there are recipes out there in (where else but) food blog land.

This is one of those desserts that is totally simple and comforting. There's nothing sophisticated or trendy about it and that's OK. A bit like me and my blog.

Eclair Cake
(Adapted from this recipe on Cajun Delights)

Part 1: The Base. Go to the supermarket and buy 1 box honey graham crackers.

Part 2: The Filling. It has two components, custard and cream.

1. Make 1 recipe vanilla custard. Let it cool.

2. Take 1 small container (half pint) whipping cream. Whip the cream and 1/3 cup sugar to soft peaks. Fold in 1 tsp. vanilla.

3. Fold the whipped cream gently into the cool custard. That's your filling. 

Part 3: The Frosting
 (I used this recipe on CDKitchen)

Heat together in a small saucepan and simmer for a minute:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Let the frosting cool for a few minutes.

Part 4: Assembly
In a 9 x 13 pan, put down a layer of graham crackers (you may have to break some to fit). Layer with 1/2 the filling. Repeat: graham crackers, remaining filling. Finally, a layer of graham crackers. Then pour the frosting over it. Chill for several hours. Serve it in shaggy, messy slices. Assure friends it tastes better than it looks. 

This eclair cake is a nice make-ahead dessert. You can make it a few hours ahead of time or even the night before. In fact, you have to make it a few hours ahead of time to have the graham crackers soften.

In year 10 of One Hot Stove, I promise to bring you slick editing and stunning photography. Just kidding! You will see nothing of the sort. There will be the usual home-style khichdi of recipes and books and crafts thrown in for good measure. But I do have modest plans of updating the recipe index and things of that sort to improve your blog experience a little bit. If you have any suggestions for what you'd like to see more of, I'm all ears. Thank you.