Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer Reading (Board Book Edition) and Summer Eating

Pasta with raw tomato sauce, and our favorite board books for toddlers.

Today is Memorial Day here in the US, a day of remembrance and also the unofficial start of Summer- my favorite season. Something just feels different about Summer, and I don't mean the sweat trickling down my back in too-hot Georgia.. Summer is lazy and laid back, a pause between semesters. A time for casual meals featuring fresh produce and juicy watermelon, preferably while reclining on a picnic blanket under a shady tree.

The other fun thing about this season- summer reading. Our public library hosts a summer reading program every year. We enjoy books all year round but I get excited about this anyway. I'm going to sign up Lila for the children's reading program. She's almost 3 years old this summer; the program is open for kids aged newborn to 11 years- emphasizing that it is never too early or too late to discover the magic of books. The goal is to read 10 books (or multiples of 10 books) over summer and you get your name on their wall of fame and a little sticker and stuff like that. You can read anything- it does not matter if the books are from the public library or just the books you already own.

In preparation for summer reading, I spent a few minutes organizing Lila's books and decided to chronicle some of her current favorites here. These are just the board books I'm talking about today- we prefer them because they don't tear easily and can stand up to handling by a toddler.

I counted about 50 board books in Lila's library ("liberry").  Most of these are gifts from generous friends and relatives. Several are finds from yard sales and thrift stores. And of course we buy her books now and then.

Baby Talk. When Lila was only a few hours old, and she and I were still in the maternity suite of the hospital, a volunteer stopped by from an organization that promotes reading to kids. She gave newborn Lila this book and gave me a little card that explained how reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. So this was the first book that Lila was given in person. "This little baby is hiding. Peek a boo" This sweet and simple book is a favorite and almost falling apart from years of over use.

We've come to love some authors/illustrators.

Sandra Boynton's characters are hilarious and the books are whimsical. In Blue Hat, Green Hat, different animals wear the same article of clothing, except the silly turkey who wears socks on his arms and pants on his head. You may or may not chuckle at this but it is downright ROTFL stuff for the toddler set.

Eric Carle's vibrant and textured collage art is beloved and unmistakeable. From Head to Toe is a book that gets a child moving (and identifying body parts) as they mimic different animals: "I am a gorilla and I thump my chest". In The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the caterpillar eats chocolate cake, ice cream, pickle, cheese, cupcake, cherry pie, sausage and watermelon all in one Saturday. Don't tell me you've never fantasized about doing this yourself. Spoiler Alert: The caterpillar got a stomach ache.

Lois Ehlert's illustrations have saturated color and often depict nature. We love identifying fruits/veggies and flowers in Eating the Alphabet and Planting a Rainbow. She has also illustrated the classic alphabet rhyme Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault where the alphabets gather at the top of the coconut tree.

Another favorite illustrator is Lucy Cousins, the creator of adorable Maisy mouse. In Maisy Plays, we see Maisy painting, splashing and hugging panda.

We are one of the millions of Dr. Seuss fans. A couple of favorites are Oh, The Thinks you can Think ("Oh, the Thinks you can think up if only you try.”), Hop on Pop (V likes this line, "STOP You must not hop on Pop."), and Mr. Brown Can Moo, a book of wonderful noises.

I found a cute idea online: Get a copy of Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You'll Go and have all your child's teachers write a note in it (secretly) when the child moves to the next class. Then give them the book when they graduate high school, with messages from all their teachers over the years. I've started one such book for my little girl.

Some yard sale treasures that have become favorites: 

How do Dinosaurs Count to Ten by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. "Now that he's counted from one to ten, how does a dinosaur count again?"

Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow was the very first book that fully engaged Lila. When she couldn't talk yet, she was wagging her finger and cooing on cue at "No more monkeys jumping on the bed". The repetitive, rhyming story is very effective.

Jamberry by Bruce Degen is a rollicking berry picking romp. "Under the bridge, And over the dam, Looking for berries, Berries for jam".

Lift-the-flap books provide interactive fun for little hands. Where's Spot by Eric Hill is a favorite. Spot's late for his meal and his mom goes looking all over for him."Is he in the piano?"

I call this set the lovey dovey books. They are excuses to snuggle and cuddle your child. In The Runaway Bunny, baby bunny makes plans to run away from home and mama bunny finds a way to reach him wherever he is. Won't you be my Kissaroo chronicles the day's kisses from morning to night.

Books about sleep and bedtime are quite useful in nudging a reluctant toddler to get ready for bed. They provide a nice way to wind down for the night. In the zen-like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, a little bunny prepares for bed by saying good night to everything in his room and outside his window: "Good night, stars. Good night, air. Good night, noises everywhere."

Lila's oldest cousin (who is in her 20s) gave her a pile of books that were her own childhood favorites. These are timeless classics and we enjoy them so much. Go Dog Go by PD Eastman has dogs headed for a party on scooters, skis and cars. "Stop, dogs. Stop! The light is red". Lila loves chanting the words when we're at a stop light. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins has a cast of monkeys and drums: "One hand Two hands Drumming on a drum".

I am always blown away by the wisdom and depth of some children's books. This is one: Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. The message is that it is OK to make mistakes, in fact, mistakes are an opportunity to be creative.

Most of our board books only have a few words or a line or two of rhymes. This is one of the first which features an actual story: Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick by Kevin Henkes, about two sisters and one peppermint stick- will they share it?

Nursery rhymes are ever-popular- they bring classic rhymes to life with pleasing illustrations.

And while illustrations are lovely, young children also like looking at real-life photos of objects and people. We have one favorite book about trucks and several about words and alphabets.

Zoe and her Zebra by Clare Beaton was a birthday gift and I love it so much. It is a unique book with art work stitched with felt and embroidery, embellished with beads and buttons. And the characters are multicultural.

My favorite source for book resources for children is the Saffron Tree blog- here are their 10 beloved board books. Playing by the Book is a blog of children's book reviews and clever and fun activities to do when you read the book. And via Niranjana, I heard about Open Library. No matter where in the world you live, you can sign up with your e-mail address and borrow tens of thousands of e-books to read.

So far, Lila has only been reading books from her own library. I was too apprehensive about library books being chewed on or messed up with sticky fingers. But now I am confident that (a) she is able to be careful with books and (b) she likes reading new books and not just the same ones over and over, and this week I checked out three board books to kick off summer reading. Do you have any board books/ toddler books to recommend? 

From reading to eating: here's a summery pasta with a raw pasta sauce, very similar to this recipe I've posted before. It takes minutes to make and is just perfect for hot weather.

For about 4 servings:

Bring water to boil and cook 1/2 package (about 1/2 lb, 4 servings) pasta. I used whole wheat angel hair. Cook until just tender.

In a large bowl, mix and marinate while the pasta is cooking-
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 1/4 cup (or so) olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup cashew powder
  • 1/4 cup chopped olives
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Basil (paste or minced leaves)
  • Sprinkle of oregano
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
 Drain the pasta and add it to the raw pasta sauce. Toss, add some grated parmesan cheese if you like and serve.

Do you have anything fun planned this summer?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Waffles with the Works

Last year for my birthday my husband bought himself a waffle iron. True story. He then used it to make me waffles for a celebratory birthday breakfast, and it was a weekday and all, so that took some planning and recipe-googling. It actually was a really nice way to start the day. After I had eaten my waffles, I did narrow my eyes and say, "Well played, Sir, well played" because while I have a take it or leave it relationship with waffles (and thus have never cared enough to buy a waffle iron myself), V loves them.

I can't say we've ever made weekday waffles since that birthday morning. But we regularly pull out the waffle iron when friends come over for brunch and set out a build-your-own-waffle bar. It has high crowd pleasing potential for not a lot of effort.

If you ask me, the perfect waffle should be crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and light as a feather. We tried out a few recipes before we found the perfect one in Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. It is a overnight waffle which makes early morning entertaining that much easier because you do most of the work the night before. Not that I'd call mixing a bunch of things "work". The trick is that these waffles are yeasted. The yeast works overnight to make light and tender waffles scented with the aroma of fresh bread. I changed the recipe a little to add some cornmeal and it makes them even more crispy and flavorful.

Yeasted Overnight Waffles
(Recipe adapted from Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything)

1. In a large bowl, mix
  • 1 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup coarse cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
2. To the dry ingredients, add in this order and mix
  • 2 cups milk (I use whole milk)
  • 1 stick (8 tbsp.) butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
3. The batter will be loose. Cover (not airtight) and let the batter rise at room temperature overnight.

4. When you are ready to make waffles, separate two eggs. Stir in the yolks into the batter. Whisk the whites to soft peaks and fold them gently into the batter.

5. Make waffles using some oil on the waffle batter. We get better results when we let the waffles for bit longer to let them get crispy and golden.

1. By the way, once when we had guests who wanted to avoid eggs, we used ground flaxseed in place of the eggs and the substitution worked quite nicely.
2. These waffles freeze well too.

The waffles themselves are not sweet. We tend to set out some of these toppings:
  • Peanut butter and other nut butters
  • Jam or preserves
  • Maple syrup or honey or agave nectar
  • Salted caramel sauce
  • Chocolate sauce
  • Whipped cream
  • Berries and other fresh seasonal fruit
  • Butter
  • Ice cream (in which case the waffles are officially the dessert course)
V's favorite waffle combination: crunchy peanut butter, honey and sliced bananas.

I'd really like to try a savory waffle sometime. I've even seen waffles with idli batter. Do you make pancakes or waffles on weekends? 

For this birthday, V did not get a kitchen appliance, either for himself or for me! He got me an iphone so I can retire my 7 year old flip phone, and hence join the 21st century, I suppose.

Have a great week, friends.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Kale Pesto Pasta Salad, and How to Make Time

This blog is mostly about food and sometimes about books and crafts. I often get e-mails from readers, and the funny thing is that these e-mails are rarely about recipes or books or crafts. (Although I do get asked all the time what brand/model food processor I use). People want to know how I find the time to cook and read and indulge in my hobbies and blog. And it is a question that I never have a good answer for.

Image: Goodreads
I just read a book that talks about this: Laura Vanderkam's 168 hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Vanderkam thinks of a person's life in terms of weeks. Each week has 7 days times 24 hours equals 168 hours. That sounds like quite an impressive number of hours. So when weeks fly by in a blur, where exactly does the time go? Why is it that different people do dramatically different things with their lives even though everyone has the same 168 hours each week? Is there a way to fit everything that you want to do into these 168 hours? Here is what I took away from this book:

Chapter 1: The Myth of the Time Crunch. Vanderkam points out that we live in a culture with a strong narrative of overwork and time starvation. I agree with this. It is a mark of success to be harried and exhausted and over-scheduled. We vie with each other to say that we worked the most number of hours per week and that we have 5 meetings back to back. When I chat with a friend, the first thing we say to each other is, "How are you? Oh, super busy, you know. Things have been pretty crazy". But sociological data shows that we overestimate time spent on work and housework and underestimate time spent watching television. Vanderkam suggests that we start with a blank slate of 168 hours and very honestly and meticulously fill in how we spend our time.

Here's what she says about not doing something that you want to be doing. " is a choice, and not a matter of lacking time. When you say, "I don't have time," this puts the responsibility on someone else: a boss, a client, your family. Or else it puts the responsibility on some nebulous force: capitalism, society...regardless, the power slips out of your hands". Bottom line: there is plenty of time if you make good choices about how to spend it.

Chapter 2: Your Core Competencies. Know what you are good at and what you can do better than almost anyone else. Those are your core competencies and you are likely to do well in life if you spend more time focusing on them. Study your time logs and figure out exactly where you are spending your time and whether you're spending enough time on your core competencies.

Try lots of different things that you think you might enjoy to help you identify what you are actually good at. She gives an example of someone who told herself that she would love to sew if only she had the time. One day she took the plunge and took a sewing class and did not enjoy it at all. At least now she knows to cross that dream off her list and devote her mental energy to other things. Instead of just dreaming of doing something, try it in a small way and see if it actually feels enjoyable or not. "There is extraordinary power in knowing what you want to be doing with your time. When companies execute with this clarity of strategic intent, they thrive. When people do, they thrive too".

Chapter 3: The Right Job. "We spend a lot of our waking hours working...Like choosing the right spouse, being in the right job can give you amazing energy for the entirety of your 168 hours".

Chapter 4: Controlling your Calendar, Chapter 5: Anatomy of a Breakthrough. These chapters are about working smarter and in a more focused, results-oriented way rather than filling time with pointless meetings and conference calls, say. "Do not mistake things that look like work for actual work". Most of the advice is geared towards people who want to climb the corporate chain, make business breakthroughs, gain that coveted corner office. But it is adaptable to other situations as well.

Chapter 6: The New Home Economics and Chapter 7: Don't Do Your Own Laundry. The circumstances and realities of each person's life are different. The author's background is very affluent and there were things in this book that were very jarring for me. You see, Vanderkam's strong advice is to outsource housework. Laundry, cooking, cleaning and other "unnecessary domestic burdens" "take time away from activities that are among your core competencies" and should be avoided by hiring someone else to do them. Her solutions are breezy and one-dimensional- Spending too much time cooking? Hire a personal chef. Vanderkam's idea for those who don't like to wash dishes made me cringe: "...use paper plates and utensils, and then write a check to your favorite enviromental charity as atonement".

To be fair, I grew up in middle class India where having maids, cooks and gardeners was and is quite normal. The system works if we have two classes of people- the ones who make the big bucks and the one who earn small bucks doing menial chores. My own choice in this matter is to do my own damn housework my own damn self, thank you very much. (Well, we're two adults in the house so we split the housework.) How about living simply and mindfully, taking care of yourself and your home and teaching your children to do the same?

Now, I completely agree that it is all too easy to spend endless hours doing housework inefficiently. But chores can be minimized and streamlined and we try to find ways to do that. We buy easy-care clothing. We have a minimum of furniture and possessions and no knick-knacks that have to be dusted constantly. (A very good essay: the true cost of stuff). I make quick and simple meals that don''t dirty every pot and pan in the kitchen. We eat leftovers for lunch. Errands are grouped together. Shopping lists help to avoid frequent trips to the grocery store. To say that there are only two choices: (a) be stuck doing endless housework or (b) hire someone is incorrect.

Chapter 8: A Full Life. "...time is too precious for us to be totally leisurely about leisure". When we do get some time away from work and chores, we tend to fritter it away in the ways that are easy but meaningless- like watching TV shows that aren't even that enjoyable. Planned TV watching is different from aimless channel surfing. Instead, Vanderkam has concrete suggestions for making leisure time both enjoyable and meaningful:

1. Think of things you've always dreamed of doing and choose one or two or three activities or hobbies. Devote your leisure time to your chosen activities.

2. One of the activities you choose for your leisure time has to involve physical activity, because exercise is non-negotiable for good health. This one, by the way, was my biggest take home message/reminder from this book. I think I'm doing a fairly good job of using my time to create the life I want except that I'm consistently failing at exercising regularly. I really need to cut out my excuses in this department.

3. Align your time: Multitasking does not work, period. But Vanderkam talks about alignment where certain activities can be combined fruitfully, for instance, catching up with a friend at a playground while your kids play together or volunteering as a family. I definitely align my TV time and crafting time and enjoy both simultaneously.

4. "Use bits of time for bits of joy". Have a few enjoyable activities for small (10-30 minute) chunks of time, like keeping a book in your car to read while you're waiting to pick up your child at school, or writing poems or letters while commuting in the subway.

Chapter 9: The Hard Work of Having it All. The author does a couple of "time makeovers" here and has tips to do this at home by logging one's time, creating a list of dreams, identifying one's competencies and devoting time to them, ignoring and minimizing things that you identify as time-wasters, and checking in with yourself regularly to see if your weeks are looking the way you hoped they would.

All in all, this book has quite a bit of interesting content. It makes me very sad when people tell me they would like to do something but they just can't find time for it. Life is too short, time does go by and it is indeed a pity if we just dream of doing things (big and little) and never get around to doing them.

I recently had a sort-of milestone birthday. The kind where even though I know that age is just a number and yadda yadda, I couldn't help feeling a teeny bit shocked- I'm HOW old?- and more importantly, I had to ask yourself: What am I doing with my life? I'm raising a child and caring for a family and while I hardly have a high-profile career, I have a humble but very rewarding part-time job. But look at the world around us- there's so much injustice and inequality. We cannot just be thinking of our own families and our career moves. I have the benefit of being educated and financially secure and I want to be doing much more with my time and with my life. (I sincerely hope the previous sentence does not end up as an empty sentiment on my blog.)

I'll leave you with this quick recipe that I tried yesterday- a pasta salad much like this one I've posted before, but with a fresh kale pesto. There's some controlled multi-tasking in this recipe!

Kale Pesto Pasta Salad

1. Roast the veggies. Preheat oven to 400F (convection setting if your oven has one). Cut assorted vegetables into bite size chunks (I used 2 zucchini, 2 red/orange bell peppers, 1 box of mushrooms). Toss with salt, pepper and olive oil and roast until tender and slightly charred on the edges.

2. Boil and drain the pasta while the veggies are roasting. I used 3/4 of a box of whole wheat shells.

3. Make the pesto while the pasta and veggies are cooking.
a) Boil a small pot of water. Add roughly chopped kale (1 bunch) to the boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain.
b) Roast 1/2 cup walnuts for a minute or two in the microwave.
c) Blend the blanched kale, walnuts, 1 tbsp. nutritional yeast, basil (fresh/paste/dried), 2 glugs olive oil, 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste in the blender to a smooth paste.

4. Toss the roasted veggies, cooked pasta, pesto together. Optionally, add jarred olives or artichokes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.

This dish is wonderful hot, cold or at room temperature. Perfect for lunch boxes and picnics. Happens to be vegan. Rice or quinoa would work well in place of the pasta. Or simply skip the pasta and use the pesto-veggie mixture as a sandwich stuffing. Possibilities!

Is this time management stuff giving you a massive headache? Do you feel like you have time to do the things you love doing?