Saturday, June 28, 2014

The List: June 2014

If I had to capture June in one phrase, I would say it went swimmingly for me. Quite literally. After swimming every summer as a child, and then not swimming at all for nearly 2 decades, I got back into the pool. It is such a relief to find some physical activity that I actually enjoy. The rest of the family has been enjoying water as well- Lila started toddler swim lessons and we discovered splash playgrounds close to home- these are playgrounds fitted with sprinklers and buckets pouring water and other such water play. A wonderful way to be outside and yet be able to cool off.

Eating the fruits (veggies/herbs etc.) of other people's labors! A friend gave a giant bunch of mustard greens from her garden; it went into saag paneer. Another gave me a huge bouquet of basil and it became walnut pesto. And yesterday someone gave me a bag of baby pattypan squash. Ah, the benefits of cultivating friends who cultivate gardens ;)

 This is the very best thing I ate all month: tomato sandwiches. These are a Southern thing. Soft sliced bread spread with mayo, slices of tomatoes and sweet Vidalia onions, a shower of salt and pepper. I can't believe that something so simple can taste this good. Actually, I can.

Another spectacular meal was a Shavuot celebration with our Israeli friends: savory pastries called bourekas, spinach pie, strawberry salad, carrot salad, and sangria to wash everything down.

Father's Day was celebrated with a big stack of blueberry pancakes!


Image: Goodreads

 Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin, she of Home Cooking fame. A talented storyteller who died too young. Family Happiness is a contemplative family drama, a personality profile of a dutiful and people-pleasing wife and mother whose world turns upside down when she slips into an extramarital affair. "Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom."


Image: Goodreads

 The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. This work of non fiction was the best book I read all month- dense and technical but very readable and insightful.

And the books Lila has enjoyed this month...

Fun Dog, Sun Dog by Deborah Heiligman. This one has the perfect seasonal combination of sun, beach, kid and dog- a sweet story with rhyming words.

 Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. A baby bird hatches from the egg while its mother is away looking for food; it embarks on an adventure, eager to find her and see her for the first time.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems. A whacky story about a pigeon who begs and wheedles to be allowed to drive an unattended bus. This one led to many questions as Lila looked at the expressive drawings. "Is the pigeon upsetted?", she wanted to know.

 The favorite book by far this month was Children Just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley. Lila got this book as a new baby when V's boss' wife came to see her. It sat on the shelf for nearly 3 years waiting for her to grow up just a little bit. Now she wants to read "kids book" for hours (!) every day.

The book is the result of an extraordinary journey sponsored by UNICEF where the authors traveled to dozens of countries and compiled this book depicting the everyday lives of children everywhere- what they wear, eat, where they go to school, what they call their mom and dad, how they write their name. It is rich is details, diverse and inclusive, touching and wonderful in every way. My only quibble is that the book was published in the mid-90s, and since 2 decades have passed, it is time for a new updated edition.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Children Just Like Me will be relevant for Lila for years to come because there are so many details to discover and discuss.

Making butterfly embellishment for plain store bought summer tops. The inspiration came from here.

Laughing at toddler conversations...

Lila: Daddy, I need to have a tantrum.
V: Can you wait till after we've brushed your teeth?
Lila: OK.

Lila (in a public restroom): It smells like Dunkie in here.
Dunkie is not amused.
I have feelings, you know
How was June for you- what have you been eating, reading, watching, playing, making? Tell me everything!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Standardized Biryani Recipe

Biryani was a Sunday Special in my parents' home. It was a labor of love- my mother spent hours putting together the layers of Basmati rice, curry, nuts and fried onions potatoes all bathed in aromatic, warm spices. Every pot and pan, every square inch of counter space in the kitchen seemed to be involved in the process. The result was something pretty special, I can tell you.

But no matter how much I love to cook, and how irresistible the result, elaborate recipes just aren't my thing. Instead, my own streamlined biryani recipe has been evolving over the years- three different versions have made their way to the blog.

Here's the latest version, standardized to my current kitchen and my current preferences. I don't care too much about what is authentic and what it is not- I just do what works for me. There are still several steps but with practice, I can trot out a pan of biryani quite efficiently, and every time it has been a hit, both with people who love Indian food and with those new to Indian food. Also, this is a very beginner- friendly recipe (believe it or not). I've tried to write down as many details as I can.

So take the plunge and make a pan of biryani with me! It is an excellent weekend project if you're attempting it for the first time.

My Biryani Formula

The Pan: This recipe is designed for my beloved 9 x 13 Pyrex baking dish (a very common and versatile baking pan size in US kitchens). It is nice to bake and serve in the same pan. The quantity is enough for 8 main servings. And it will serve many more people if it is one of several dishes being served.

Alternatively, if I am taking a dish to a potluck but also want to leave behind some biryani for the rest of the family's dinner, I split the ingredients between two smaller baking dishes: one 11 x 7 pan and one 8 x 8 pan.

Grease the baking dish(es) with some oil/ghee/butter and set aside.

The Layers:

1. Rice: Rinse 2.5 rice-cup measures Jasmine rice. (A rice cooker comes with a plastic measure which is about 3/4 cup of a standard American cup. So this comes to a little less than 2 standard cups of rice). Soak for 15 minutes, then add 2 tsp. salt and water to the 2-level mark and cook in the rice cooker (adding a little less water keeps the rice from getting too soggy). After the rice is cooked, stir in 1 tbsp. ghee and leave the rice uncovered to cool down.

Basmati rice is the most popular choice for biryani but I like Jasmine rice even better. Use brown rice if you prefer, or even another grain altogether- like quinoa. Cook the grains in a rice cooker or stove top. 

2. Roasted vegetables: Preheat the oven to 425F. On a standard baking sheet (18 x 13 inches), mix bite-size chopped vegetables (enough to fill the sheet in a single layer), 2 tbsp. olive oil and salt and pepper. Bake for 15-18 minutes (on convection setting) or 25-30 minutes (standard setting) or until the veggies are tender and lightly browned.  Set aside.

I use an entire baking sheet's worth of roasted veggies in this recipe resulting in a very high ratio of vegetables to rice, just the way I like it. What vegetables to use? I typically use 1/3 head of cauliflower, 2 carrots, 2 zucchini, 1 bell pepper. But I'll change it up and use anything that I have on hand or whatever's on sale/in season, like broccoli, summer squash, sweet potato, green beans etc. 

3. Curry: 

  1. In a pan, heat 1 tbsp. oil
  2. Saute 2 sliced onions until caramelized. 
  3. Add 1 heaped tbsp. ginger garlic paste, 1 tsp. turmeric, 1 tsp. salt, and biryani masala powder to taste. Stir for a few seconds.
  4. Add 1.5 cups tomato puree and 1/4 cup cashew/almond powder. Simmer for 5 minutes. 
  5. Turn off heat and stir in 1/2 tsp garam masala and a handful of minced cilantro and mint leaves if you like.

I like Shaan brand Memoni biryani masala powder and I use 1 tbsp for a mild spice and up to 3 tbsp to make it more spicy. Keep in mind that this is the only component of the dish that has spice. 

An alternative is to buy Parampara brand biryani masala paste (I have no affiliation with any of these brands; they are just what I have used and liked) and to use that in place of everything in step 3- an easy short-cut.

4. The "main" ingredient: This is another hearty ingredient. Choose from any one of these to make egg biryani/ paneer biryani/ chickpea biryani and so on.
Hard-boiled eggs: Boil 6 eggs, peel and quarter.
Paneer: Cut a block of paneer into bite size pieces and pan fry until lightly browned.
Chickpeas: Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas. Or soak and cook a cup of dried chickpeas.
Veggie meatballs: I like the meatless meatballs from Trader Joe's- thaw them first.
  Other options are to make your own koftas or to use tofu/seitan.

5. Finally, what gives the biryani its characteristic flavor is crispy fried onions. I buy cans of fried onions (the ones used for green bean casserole) at the grocery store. You can of course make your own at home.

Assembly and Baking

In the greased casserole, add ingredients and pat down in this order:

  • 2/3 of the cooked rice
  • All of the curry
  • All of the roasted vegetables
  • All of the main ingredient of choice
  • The rest of the rice
  • A generous handful of fried onions
Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 45 minutes. Enjoy!


  • If you don't own an oven, the biryani is easily assembled in a large pot/pan (or two) and finished on the stove-top. Saute the veggies instead of roasting them. 
  • Multi-tasking: I usually get the rice started first. Then I start the veggies in the oven. While both are cooking, I make the curry. While all three cool down, I prep the "main" ingredient. 
  • Make-ahead: The biryani can be assembled up to 24 hours ahead of time. Just bake and serve. 
  • Leftovers reheat beautifully and in fact the biryani tastes even better the next day. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

The List: May 2014

Goodbye May, Hello June! Here are a dozen or so snapshots that capture the month that was.

Cooking & Baking

Beet thoran. If you don't like beets, we can't be friends. Kidding, kidding. A friend directed me towards this recipe for beet thoran- thoran being the flavorful and minimalist way of cooking vegetables, Kerala style. And as I was saying, if you don't like beets, I think you'll start to like them the minute you taste this thoran.

I tried a long-pinned recipe and made these mini quiches. The recipe calls for a crust that is simply mixed and patted into the pan- no rolling required. I used a caramelized onion filling. The result was wonderful except for one thing- the filling cooks before the crust is well browned. Maybe I should try blind baking the crust next time?

A friend threw a cinco de mayo party (any excuse to drink margaritas at 3 PM, right?) and I finally had a chance to make the tres leches cake I saw on America's Test Kitchen. The cake was a hit- but alarmingly rich and sweet, so definitely a rare treat to be shared with many.

Image: Goodreads
The best book I read all month was a graphic memoir: Marbles by Ellen Forney. Forney is a cartoonist and she tells us her story of grappling with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. She worries about whether her illness is correlated with her creativity ("mad genius") and whether dosing herself with medication will kill her art. Her memoir is touching, illuminating (mental illness being as misunderstood as it is) and believe it or not, entertaining because of her personality and honesty. "My sufferings are a part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." 

Radhika's eloquent review made me pick up the book and I'm glad I did.


Strawberry ice cream made by a friend with berries that she picked with her daughters.

Magnolias- the iconic Southern trees are in bloom now. I love the big bold white flowers and the intoxicating fragrance that carries in the breeze.

Sun and sand!

A cool painting that we bought from a local artist. The restaurants here have art exhibits; we went to lunch with visiting relatives and couldn't take our eyes off this. It is huge (8 feet x 4 feet) and every time I look at it, I notice a new detail.


Tote bags as quick and functional gifts. I used the 40 minute tote bag pattern- the only change is that I made my own handles from fabric. They take 40 minutes to make if you don't have a toddler underfoot, otherwise all bets are off.

Quilt blocks for the quilt I'm working on. This one is called the bear paw.

A town quilt for my nephew's birthday. It is the same pre-printed panel I've used before to make a quilt, but I added some suburbs to make it bigger.

Our big milestone this month was that Lila is fully potty trained during the day time at least. She's super excited and a bit obsessed about the whole thing. We were out on a walk and a kindly older neighbor asked her, "How are you doing, Lila?" only to be told, "I am peeing in the potty!" To his credit, he kept a straight face and solemnly congratulated her.

I keep dreading that this kid is going to ask one of our proper-Southern-lady neighbors, "Are you wearing underwear"?! The book on the left is very funny and cute, by the way.

Ahem, on that note, what have you been cooking, eating, enjoying and making in May? Any milestones to report ;)? 

And with that I say
night night