Friday, September 25, 2015

Books, Movies, Ballet

V and I have very different audio preferences when we are driving. I like to bop along to the blast of the local hit music station (while crossing my fingers that my preschooler can't catch some of the more questionable lyrics); V insists on tuning into the hushed voices of National Public Radio. I tease him about NPR lulling me to sleep but the truth it I am a fan. I'm always surfing over to their website and listening to their podcasts. Every summer, NPR picks a genre and publishes a list of 100 must-read books in that genre. I love books and I love lists so I'm all over this.

This year, they published a list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances. (You have got to look at some of those covers. Gah.) I had not read a single one of them- somehow I've managed to overlook an entire genre in my reading life. That was it- this would be my summer of romance reading. Such luxurious fun to sit around and read a romance novel. Well, in the frenzy of summer guests and travel, it did not work out in quite that romantic fashion, but I read a few books off their list and plan to read some more.

The first was a YA romance, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Anna is in high school in Atlanta, GA when her father uproots her and sends her to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year. She is miserable until she meets a new group of friends including an irresistible French-English boy. This was a fluffy but sweet teenage romance. Recommended if you're in the mood for a bonbon.

The second book was from the romance suspense genre, more appealing to me for the suspense than the romance, I'll admit- Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This one reminded me strongly of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And oh, it was a good read. A young English governess, a remote French chateau, a sinister employer, his dashing son, an escape in the middle of the night...this book started slow but I thoroughly enjoyed it by the end. Recommended! (Psst...Arpita, you will like this one.)

I did check out a third book off the list from the library, A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev but just couldn't get past the first few pages. I'll have to try this book again another time.

Some books other than romances that crossed my path this summer:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This bestselling novel from a decade ago narrates the aftermath of a brutal crime and the afterlife of a teenage murder victim as she watches over her family. A strange and disturbing premise, and the plot was meandering. I don't know what else to say about this book.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. M*A*S*H is probably my favorite TV show ever, and Alan Alda makes M*A*S*H what it is. I was excited to read his memoir, and it was an engaging read. I wanted to read more behind the scenes stuff about M*A*S*H but this is a true memoir, the story of a boy who grew up with a father who was a burlesque actor and a mother who battled mental illness, his struggles as a young actor and father of three daughters, a man who's been married to the same woman for 50 years and who doesn't fit into any showbiz stereotypes. I adored Alan Alda already and this memoir made me love him even more.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. My dad, who was visiting for a few weeks in summer, is crazy about aviation. He spends all his free time building really complicated model airplanes. My aunt suggested that I get him this book that was published very recently. We got a copy from the public library and after my dad read the book (he loved it), I read it too. This is a work of incredibly detailed narrative non-fiction that tells the fascinating story of the Wright brothers and how they built a flying machine. Today, we take it so much for granted that we can take a flight to another continent and get there overnight, while eating a hot meal 40,000 feet in the air on the way there. It is amazing to think back to how this all started.

There has not been much screen entertainment in my life lately. We subscribed to Indian channels for a while for visiting family members, and so I watched a bit of Sony TV- specifically, the finals of Indian Idol Junior! It was fun to watch Indian TV after many years. And we watched a very off-beat and Piku, a very off-beat comedy-drama. I enjoyed this movie, it has a lot of heart and great non-filmy (you know what I mean) acting. I see Amitabh Bachan in a totally different light now.

After watching all three hundred thousand episodes of Midsomer Murders, I was missing British crime drama and turned to Broadchurch, a British detective mini-series on Netflix. The story involves a crime (what else) that rocks a small community (what else) apart, and follows two detectives, one a friendly local and the other a brusque outsider (what else). It is a well-written, sad and dark narrative but worth watching. It doesn't hurt that it is shot in a gorgeous seaside setting.

Oh and I watched First Position, a documentary on Netflix that follows six young ballet dancers as they prepare for an elite competition that may decide their professional fate. (The name of the documentary, first position, refers to the one of the 5 classical foot placements in ballet.) The dancers are so young, so ridiculously talented, so insanely hard-working. This is a well-made documentary that is totally worth watching.

I love dance SO MUCH- all forms of dance, classical, contemporary, you name it. Dance moves me to tears the way music moves some people to tears. I took Kathak lessons for nearly a decade as a child and have been missing dance in my life these days. Certainly there's no Kathak teacher for tens of miles around me. We do have a dance studio in our town, but classes are expensive, the times and locations are not convenient and it is just really hard to fit one more thing into my schedule right now. I've been satisfying my dance cravings with an hour of zumba every week.

You can imagine my joyful reaction when my regular old gym announced some new fitness classes for Fall, and one of them is a ballet class. I've been going for a few weeks now (swapped in this class for another fitness class I was attending). It is a low-maintenance class in terms of gear; we don't wear tutus and ballet slippers- just any workout clothes and socks/bare feet. The instructor has 40 years experience teaching ballet; she retired from running her own ballet school. She either doesn't notice or doesn't care that none of the students in this class are spring chickens; she just teaches us in the same intense way she probably taught her 10 year old students. "Ballet is a bit like being in the army", she said in the first class, which just about sums up her approach! Not complaining. I actually love teachers who expect a lot from their students.

We're learning basic ballet positions and moves. It is all about posture, balance, core strength, discipline, intentional and controlled movement, and learning a lot of French ballet terminology as we struggle to plié and relevé and dégagé. All while being commanded to "feel beautiful". LOL. I don't know how beautiful I feel as I pick myself off the floor and hobble home after class, but this class makes me so happy. It is a mental health boost as much as anything else, and sheer delight at being able to live out a fantasy and feel like a dancer for a few minutes. 

What are you reading and watching these days?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

In a Pickle: Making Kimchi

The early years of life are full of firsts. The first step, the first word, the first feel of sand and waves on the toes. Every day is new and exciting. The novel experiences tend to taper off as the decades roll by. This past week my routine and quite predictable life got a jolt with two new experiences- running my first 5K race and taking my first ballet class. Actually, make that three experiences- a friend taught me to make kimchi- the fermented Korean pickle.

The 5K was the culmination of 10 weeks of training. Our race was a fundraiser for a therapy program for kids with special needs. At 7:30 AM on a thankfully not-blazing-hot race day, we were at the registration counter, picking up our bibs and feeling like legitimate runners as we pinned them to our shirts. We stretched as a group, wished each other well and joined the throng at the start line. At that point, I realized that the race course was a series of rolling hills- not a flat patch in sight- and my heart sank to the soles of my running shoes. Running is bad enough and hills really kill me. No turning back now.

The start was called and the elite runners took off like a shot. Calm down, guys. It's not a race, you know? ;) The rest of us started trotting after them. Running is a very mental thing. It is hard and I want to stop right away. I have to keep talking to myself non-stop and coaxing myself to take one step and then another and another. During the race, I distracted myself by looking at everyone around me. It was marvelous to see that runners (and walkers, and run walkers) come in all shapes and sizes and all ages. Everyone's out there doing their best and cheering each other on.

The race course went through a nice neighborhood. We ran to the halfway point, then ran back. I can't tell you how relieved I was to see runners coming back on the opposite side of the road. It meant that the halfway point must be somewhere within reach. The organizers had placed signs at each mile (5K= 3.1 miles.) The first mile seemed ridiculously long as I huffed up the hills. The second mile went by faster as I passed a water station, saw several of my running buddies returning from the halfway point and gave them high-fives, then passed the halfway point myself.

The third mile was pure misery; I was very tired and cross, asking myself over and over why I was doing this stupid thing anyway. I wanted to sit by the side of the road and cry. Meanwhile, elementary school-aged kids were passing me. Seniors were passing me. Somehow I stumbled to the end of mile 3 and a course minder said the magic words, "You're almost there". Then my running coach spotted me and urged me up the last hill. One last dash to the finish line- V was standing there with Lila and that cheered me right up and I made it to the end with a smile on my face.

My goal was to run the 5K in under 36 minutes- my time ended up being 35:46 minutes so I made it with 14 whole seconds to spare. I did technically run the whole way; I say technically because much of it was laborious jogging as if through molasses. I am SO GLAD I did this. The sweat and tears are totally worth it. I got inspired by people at the race. I saw myself in a new light.

Someone asked me later if the race was fun. Well, it was fun before the race and really fun after (several of us went out for brunch, sweat-soaked, wearing race bibs and all) but the actually running is definitely not what I would describe as fun. It may get easier if I keep at it. I'm not in the running program any more but plan to run on my own 2 or 3 times a week and sign up for another 5K in November.

* * *
Speaking of novel experiences, cooking as a hobby lends itself to many firsts- there are always new things to try in the kitchen. Today, my dear friend generously invited a small group to her kitchen and we made kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented Korean pickle, often spicy and garlicky, made with cabbage or radish and such. It is a recipe that she learned from her Korean-American college roommate.

Five of us gathered in my friend's kitchen. We were each instructed to bring a bowl with the vegetable that we wanted to pickle. Two of us brought napa cabbage. One got cubed diakon (white) radish and carrots and the last person got shredded turnips and red radishes.

The method for kimchi making is easy enough, in 3 steps:
1. Salt the vegetable to draw out the water.
2. Add the seasoning- ginger, garlic, red chili powder (you can buy a special Korean variety) and green onions.
3. Pack it into a jar and let it ferment naturally for a few days.

For a delicate vegetable like napa cabbage, in step 2, instead of adding seasoning directly to the salted vegetable, my friend had us make a paste of the seasoning (with some water and flour) and then apply it.


1. Chop 1 head of napa cabbage.
2. Add kosher salt- about 3/4 to 1 tbsp. salt per pound of vegetables.
3. Stir the cabbage and salt together and let the salt do its thing and draw out water from the cabbage. The cabbage will shrink dramatically in volume.

4. Meanwhile, heat 1 cup water and 1 tbsp. flour (rice or all-purpose flour) and bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in 1 tsp. brown sugar. Turn off the heat and cool to room temperature.
6. To this flour-water mixture, add 1 tbsp. minced ginger, 1 tbsp. minced garlic and 2-3 green onions, chopped, and the all-important Korean chili powder, about 2-3 tbsp.

7. After an hour or two of the cabbage marinating in salt, drain away the salt water and rinse the cabbage. Return it to a bowl.
8. Stir in the spice paste and mix well.
9. Pack into very clean glass jars, pressing the kimchi down with a spoon to get all the air bubbles out and make sure the vegetables are submerged in the spicy brine. This recipe with 1 head of cabbage gave me 2 full jars.
10. Set the jars on a plate at room temperature for 3 days or so to let it ferment. Then refrigerate. Eat after a week.

I'll update this post to show you what the kimchi looks like as it ferments, and to report on the taste!

While salting out our veggies, we snacked on kimbap, Korean seaweed and rice rolls. So delicious. Positively addictive.

Roasted seaweed sheets
Seasoned sushi rice
Pickled diakon radish
Shredded carrots
Sautéed spinach

Roll, cut, eat.

Cooking with friends has got to be the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Tell me what's new and exciting in your life!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

On the Run, and a recipe for Carrot Raita Dip

I heard a whoosh and Summer 2015 sped by before I knew it. For our family, the last couple of months went by in a blur- the guest room was solidly booked with visits from parents and friends, we spent a week in Minneapolis to see my sister with the requisite afternoon at the Nickelodeon theme park (my kid is an adrenaline junkie, much like her daddy and totally unlike me). Then we went on a 1600 mile road trip (over just 5 days!) for a reunion with old friends. Plus I've had a pretty big change in my schedule when I switched back to working full time a month ago.

A fun shopping trip on my travels: Nordic Ware, the baking ware manufacturers, have their factory right in the middle of Minneapolis. Last year, I spotted it but we couldn't get off the highway right then and missed going there. This time I dragged my mom and sister to the Nordic Ware factory store and we lucked out. They were having a giant tent sale- their first in a decade. Oh, the excitement of being surrounded by stacks of baking pans in every shape and size. Like being a kid in a candy store, only better. I restrained myself and only bought two pans: their classic bundt pan and a rose-shaped muffin pan.

At home, the kitchen was constantly busy but I never paused to try anything new or different- it was easier to trot out old favorites. I do have a recipe to blog about, though. We met up with friends for a potluck with the theme of "salads"- which seemed appropriate for August but in fact it turned out to be a rainy and cool evening. I was asked to bring an appetizer and made something very familiar but in a newish avatar- carrot raita served as a dip with chips.

I used tender curry leaves and minced them, so you don't have to pick out the leaves from the dip. A touch of chillies would be a nice addition for those who can handle the heat. Cucumber, beet or radish, even greens like spinach or kale would work well in place of the carrots.

Carrot Raita Dip

1. Heat 2 tsp. oil in a small pan.
2. Temper it with 2 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafetida, a few minced curry leaves.
3. Stir in 1 cup shredded carrots and salt to taste, cook them for a minute.
4. Cool the carrot mixture, then stir it into 1.5 cups Greek yogurt.
5. Add a handful of minced cilantro.
6. Chill and serve.

Serve with vegetable sticks or potato/lentil chips. 

* * * 
Summer 2015 will be memorable for another reason- it is my summer of running. In a moment of misguided enthusiasm, I signed up for a 5K race and have been training for it since July as part of a running group. We're a motley bunch of about 15 people and most of us are very new to running. We meet one morning and one evening every week. Our running coach is unrelentingly cheerful and supportive; she smiles sweetly while kicking our collective behinds. 

So far, it is been exciting, hard, painful, amazing- all of the above. And kind of hilarious. The very first time we met, the coach walked us down to the Olympic-size athletic track and announced that she's going to measure the baseline mile time for each of us. And I asked her- this shows you how stupidly unprepared I was for all this- how much of the track is a mile? Turns out it is FOUR TIMES around the track and I was like, NOOOOO in total disbelief. Is it too late to switch to the 100 meter training? That evening, I did run (or rather, run-walked) the mile, with a baseline time of 12:52 minutes. I thought I was going to die. My legs felt like lead the next day. 

Over time, we've built up a routine. The coach is a stickler about warming up, then running with good form, then cooling down and stretching. Each session focuses on something different- running up and down hills, keeping a steady pace, trail running, doing drills, trying to go slightly longer distances each time. 

Running sounds simple enough (you just put one leg in front of the other), but it is the hardest thing I have ever done. It takes cardiovascular fitness and stamina that I just don't have. Learning to run in 95-100 degree F heat and high humidity of Georgia has been interesting to say the least. As one of my teammates said, some days it feels like we're running on the surface of the sun.

Running with a group is what keeps us going. There is a sense of commitment and positive peer pressure. No matter the reason for not wanting to run- it is raining, you slept badly- you just show up and you run. Our progress is modest- we've gone from barely being able to run a mile to running 3 miles. Still, it feels scary and rewarding to step out of one's comfort zone and do something that you did not think you could do.

I've been working as steadily as I can, trying to keep up with my training through all the visitors and trips. I did short runs around the lake promenade next to my sister's home in Minneapolis, on a leafy urban trail in Virginia and in a nice hilly neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A Kenyan colleague stayed with us for 10 days in July and I dragged him out to run with me- "You're Kenyan, so you can run, right?" Yes, he could run. He protested about not being in shape, then casually ran 2 miles in 16 minutes.

The 5K is just a few days away. My goal is to run the whole race (not walk any portion of it, I mean) and to finish the race in 36 minutes or under. But it doesn't really matter what happens- just showing up, training and running with determination is enough. 

How was your summer? Tell me everything! I've missed being here.