Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Goodbye 2016 (with warm Almond Kheer Oatmeal)

Lila and her friends made this gingerbread
house- from a kit, easy peasy. Why the poor
dog is stuck on the roof, I can't say
After weeks of being in a blogging funk, I'm pulling myself up to share a warm breakfast recipe. Ah, breakfast- my favorite meal of the day.

All my life, I have been a morning person and I enjoy waking up early and tucking into breakfast.

These days, however, our baby boy is challenging my notions of how early is too early and does waking up at 3 AM constitute a really really early morning or a really really late night? Who has time to blog anyway when you have to read all 16 million baby sleep websites that Google throws up when you search for "baby wakes every two hours"?

Here's a recipe for bleary mornings: a warm and hearty breakfast. I'm not one for sweet breakfasts but I have been happily tucking into this barely-sweet almond kheer oatmeal.

Almond Kheer Oatmeal (makes 3 servings)

In a pot, combine 1 cup old fashioned oats, 1 cup almond milk (or any kind of dairy or non-dairy milk) and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Stir in the following:
2-3 tbsp. almond butter
Large pinch of salt
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. ground cardamom
Splash of cream

Scoop into bowls, scatter a few dried cranberries and enjoy.

* * *

2016 was a crazy year. Admittedly, the politics and world news of 2016 left me with a deep heartache and anxiety about our collective future. But on a personal level, 2016 was completely amazing as we welcomed our sweet new baby half-way into the year.

And we have so many kind people to thank for helping us during this joyful and exhausting time, starting with the friend who opened her home to Lila at 3 AM when we rushed to the hospital to have the baby. (The baby's coming NOW? said Lila in disbelief. I need my sleep!) This is the same 5 year old who gave an impromptu pep talk the night before our tiny 8 week baby started daycare: "Now baby brother, I know you're starting school tomorrow. You might wonder, will anyone be nice to me? But don't worry, your teacher will like you and you'll make friends".

Neighbors and friends stopped by, armed with food and onesies. Homemade quiches, cookies for the big sister, cheesy pastas for daddy, spicy guacamole for me. One neighbor brought us a lasagna that I swear weighed about 10 pounds and fed us for days, plus a pint of gelato. All this when she has a baby of her own to care for. Other neighbors dropped off a bottle of celebratory champagne and a note of congratulations at our back door.

We have been at the receiving end of so much generosity of every kind. A friend whisked Lila away to a movie so we could have a weekend afternoon to snuggle in with the week-old baby. One morning, I was in the supermarket in a hassled state in my yoga pants and a stained tee, and a stranger stopped me in the canned vegetables aisle to say "You and your baby make a beautiful picture". Friends all over the country took the time to send boxes of gifts and notes of congratulations.

To all these big-hearted people who make my world a better place- thank you thank you.

What were your highlights of 2016? See you in the new year! 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Orange and Black Quesadillas

A very (very!) belated but heartfelt Happy Diwali to all who celebrated it last week. Our Diwali was a quiet affair with a few glowing tea-lights and feasting on the abundant homemade Diwali faraal sent by my parents all the way from India- besan ladoo, rava ladoo, two types of chivda, spicy sev, bakarwadi, sweet shankarpale and savory shankarpale.

The other festival of last week was Halloween, the unofficial kick-off to the holiday season here in North America. This Fall, Lila moved from Montessori preschool to the pre-Kindergarten class of our local public elementary school- and in her new school, they celebrate Book Day instead of Halloween. Students come dressed as their favorite book characters and parade around the neighborhood. Parents and grandparents come to school as special guests to read stories to the kids and there are book-related activities all day. Lila wanted to go as queen Elsa and to counter my argument about this being a movie costume and decidedly not a book costume, she triumphantly found two Frozen themed Disney books in the library. Thank you, pervasive Disney merchandising. But I insisted that she look through her book collection for another costume idea and in the end she happily went dressed as the piglet Olivia.

I thought the book day celebrations were fun and a great way to promote the joys of reading. Lila's very interested in reading and writing these days and feels confident enough to teach the little one. I overheard her saying, "Baby brother, this is how you write 'apple'- A-P-O-L".

Halloween came with two costume parties- one at a friend's house and one at our neighborhood just before the kids went trick or treating. Miss Lila did get to wear her beloved princess costumes to these parties. One of the neighbors was passing out candy to the kids and wine to the parents ---- and this is how you know you live in an awesome neighborhood.

Both the Halloween parties were potlucks and I streamlined the shopping and prep by taking the same exact dish to both events- an appropriately orange and black food- sweet potato and black bean quesadillas. Both times the dish was polished off in minutes, so I am filing this one away for all future Halloween gatherings.

A few notes on the recipe- I was very short on time, so I reached into the pantry for canned beans. But of course, soaked and pressure cooked black beans would work well. The sweet potatoes can be cooked using any method- again I used the microwave oven for speed and ease. Cilantro would be wonderful in the filling but it is a polarizing ingredient, so I opted for green onions. Some of my friends eat a gluten-free diet, so I chose corn tortillas that were labeled gluten-free. Wheat tortillas would work just as well. But the compact size of corn tortillas is just perfect for a potluck table.

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Quesadillas

1. Wash 3-4 sweet potatoes and pierce them several times with a fork. Cut each in half and microwave until tender, turning once half-way through cooking. Let the sweet potatoes cool down, then peel them and cut into medium dice.

2. Drain and rinse 2 cans of black beans.

3. Grate 2-3 cups of cheese- I used a combination of pepper jack and sharp cheddar.

4. Finely chop 1 bunch of green onions.

5. Mix all these ingredients in a large bowl and season with salt, smoked paprika, chili powder, dried oregano and ground cumin.

6. Place 2-3 tablespoons of filling on one half of a corn tortilla, fold in half and cook the quesadilla, using a little oil, on a cast iron pan until browned.

The second time, I made a large batch of these quesadillas all at once by placing them on baking sheets, spraying oil on both sides and baking at 375 until toasty.

I made a quick dipping sauce by mixing together sour cream, jarred salsa and salt. But the quesadillas are tasty enough on their own.

What are you cooking these days?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Easier Way to Cook Pasta (and requesting your best Mumbai tips)

I've heard the newborn period being referred to quite accurately as the "best worst time" and the "longest shortest time". How true- the days stretched on endlessly in a series of feeds, naps and diaper changes but 7 weeks of maternity leave went by in a flash. I've transitioned into work and the schedule is suddenly very tight. V and I have very minimal ambitions these days, namely to do the least amount of housework required to keep all three kids (baby, preschooler, dog) well fed and relatively clean while leaving plenty of time for snuggling, story-time and walks respectively.

The one thing that the whole family looks forward to is a hot and hearty dinner every evening. The One Hot Stove kitchen is in maintenance mode, churning out no-recipe-needed basic but wholesome fare from fridge and pantry staples.

Pasta is frequently on the menu. To streamline the pantry, I keep only two shapes on hand, one short and one long- white fiber pasta shells and whole wheat thin spaghetti.

Cook pasta isn't exactly rocket science to begin with, but these days I make it even simpler by using a passive pasta cooking method. Read about it exhaustively here and here. But in a nutshell, I boil water not in a gigantic pasta pot but instead, a fraction of the amount of water in a medium pot, add salt, bring to boil, dump in pasta (either the shells or spaghetti broken in half), bring water to boil again (takes only a few seconds), stir and turn the heat OFF with the lid on. Leave it alone for several minutes, check to see that pasta is cooked, then drain. Done. Use in recipe.

Basically the pasta cooks in enough hot water to submerge it rather than in a large pot of actively boiling water.

Once the pasta is cooked, I combine it with plenty of vegetables and some kind of sauce. Some favorites:

1. Peppers, zucchini, eggplant, greens with a red sauce and a splash of cream and parmesan. Often I'll add mock sausage.

2. Peppers, red or green cabbage, sautéed tofu cubes and a peanut sauce.

3. Roasted broccoli and cauliflower with pesto and parmesan.

4. Winter squash with a garlicky cream sauce. Here's a quick recipe for this one:

  • Microwave an acorn squash for 5 minutes to soften it. 
  • When cool enough to handle, peel and cube squash. 
  • Saute onions and garlic, then add cubed squash and saute until squash is tender.
  • Season with freshly ground black pepper, smoked paprika and salt.
  • Add cream and some pasta cooking water and simmer the sauce for a few minutes.
  • Stir in cooked pasta and parmesan
As simple as this is, I swear it tastes like something from a fancy bistro. Not that I remember what food from a fancy bistro tastes like any more ;) 

***    ***    ***
One of my dearest friends is headed to Mumbai for a short vacation in mid-November and asked me for suggestions on where to go and what to do. Edited to add: She will be staying at a hotel in Cuffe Parade, South Mumbai.

I've been friends with her for 15 years and will never forget the times when this all-American girl made me sambar and rice when I was working crazy hours finishing up my dissertation. Clearly she likes to cook and loves to eat Indian food and Bombay/Mumbai being a foodie's paradise, I know she will love the food there (like me, she is a lacto ovo vegetarian.)

Some must-eat foods in Mumbai...what am I forgetting?
Pav bhaji
Paper dosa
Gujarati thali
Batata vada
Coconut water

Does anyone know of good food tours or walking tours?

When I lived in Mumbai (all my teenage and young adult years), what I liked to do the most was walk walk walk all over the city, stopping for snacks here and there and diving into second hand book stores. I was also a culture vulture to the max, taking in as many dance performances, art galleries and Marathi and English plays as I could. But Mumbai was home, and I didn't do much touristy stuff ever.

What am I missing? What's the latest and greatest in Mumbai these days? Please do chime in with your suggestions. Thank you!!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Pages and Screens

Life with a newborn takes on a somewhat surreal quality. You lose track of what day of the week it is. Odd meals (granola with a side of tortilla chips and salsa, anyone?) get eaten at odder hours. For a few weeks, days and nights seemed to blend together as I camped out on the couch and nursed my baby round the clock. V and Lila kept up with their work and school routine and I whiled away the hours with some books and TV.

I was looking for some unadulterated entertainment and found it in the Back to the Future trilogy on Netflix- you have Michael J. Fox, the 80s, a very cool DeLorean and The Power of Love. The second movie of the trilogy is fun because the time travel is from the 80s into 2015; we have already lived the future, people. If you're looking for pure fun, this is the one to watch.

More time-pass TV came in the form of Psych, the comic detective show- I like to watch an episode here and there- and Doc Martin, the British medical comedy drama set in a picturesque seaside village populated by all sorts of characters. I managed to watch all 7 seasons of Doc Martin, although I have seen many of them already when the series aired on PBS. It made for great background TV, the characters keeping me company as I went about my day.

I did watch one serious movie on Netflix, Spotlight (2015), the story of the Boston Globe's tenacious investigation of the scandal of priests abusing children. It won Best Picture at this year's Oscars- not the usual blockbuster Hollywood movie, it is a solid docu-drama made in a rather understated way.

The PBS streaming app made me a happy girl by featuring Series 6 of the Great British Baking Show. For this series, we suspended our rule of no TV during meals, and happily watched this show as a family while eating dinner- with Lila rooting for Nadiya all the way and offering her commentary on the various bakes.

Over on the print side, many of the books I've been reading reflect my deepest desire at this time- to get my baby to sleep so I can get some sleep! So I've blearily made my way through Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth and The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp. Sure, these books provide some helpful tips here and there. But mostly you read about all the grand things babies are supposed to do- like sleep longer after 6 weeks- and wonder why your offspring never got the memo.

For lighter reading, I turned to kid lit, and thoroughly enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. If you enjoyed Harry Potter and Roald Dahl, you have to look for this book (series, actually). It has the tried-and-true kid lit tropes of orphan children alone in the world banding together and fighting evil, but it works.

I had promised myself that given the stress of the newborn weeks, I wouldn't read anything very serious or depressing. Well, that plan was discarded quickly when I came upon a special issue of the New York Times Magazine titled Fractured Lands. The whole magazine issue is one long article, a brilliantly written mini-book. Scott Anderson describes the Middle East crisis from its origins all the way to the current exodus and refugee situation, through the lives of 6 individuals. It took me three solid weeks to read this issue, but I come away much better informed about the headlines that I glance at but don't really begin to understand. The whole issue is here online but I preferred reading it in hard copy.

In the kid section, Lila has been enjoying many library books lately and these two are recent favorites that we have read dozens of times before reluctantly returning them. I loved the gentle humor in Even Monsters Need Haircuts by Matthew McElligott. A barber's son takes over his dad's salon during the night to give "shamp-eews" and haircuts to monsters. What I loved best about The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale by Ying Chang Compestine were the adorable and cheerful illustrations by Sebastia Serra.

Speaking of kid lit, I was very saddened to read that Anna Dewdney of the much-loved Llama Llama books has died all too young of brain cancer, two weeks ago. We own a couple of her books and they are so much fun to read aloud.

What have you been reading and watching these days?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Birth Announcement

We have a new baby in the family! V and I welcomed our baby son into the world last week. His name is Niam (as in neeyam, the Sanskrit/ Hindi/ Marathi word for rules of the universe).

Lila is the most loving big sister we could have hoped for. She cracks us up by singing Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty (from The Big Bang Theory) to baby brother. Duncan has been cautiously sniffing around the baby but flees into another room as soon as he hears a wail.

One Hot Stove might be a bit quiet for a few weeks as we adjust to life as a family of five and savor that new baby smell. But I'll pop in whenever I get a chance. Enjoy your summer, friends!

Edited to add: Thank you all for the sweet wishes and warm welcome for baby Niam. I read each and every comment (multiple times) and am so touched, even though I probably can't respond to each one at the moment! 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Must-See TV, and DateTreats

The temperatures are hitting triple digits around here, and I'm inclined to hide out indoors. I'm even hitting the grocery store at 7 AM because any later than that and the heat gets oppressive. So what's the cure for escaping the sun during long weekend afternoons? If you have a Netflix account, I highly recommend some screen time with these two delightful Hindi TV series.

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore is a series of Tagore's acclaimed short stories adapted for the small screen by director Anurag Basu. The series starts with Chokher Bali told in 3 parts, and continues on to other stories, and Basu has an intriguing way of weaving the end of one story into the beginning of the next so the episodes sort of blend into each other. This was my first glimpse into Tagore's work- open ended, layered studies of human nature.

Some stories like Chokher Bali are complex narratives and you can almost physically feel the ache of what it must have been like to be the young widow Binodini a century ago, an intelligent and vibrant woman who is chafing against a society that bars her from doing anything worthwhile with her life. Other stories are lighter- Detective is a rather comical tale of a small town detective who rues the fact that his countrymen are too kind-hearted and refuse to engage in the kind of criminal conspiracy that would give him challenging cases to solve.

This series is so beautiful and fascinating- I am glad to finally be able to enjoy the work of the legendary Tagore, even if it is through translation both of language and medium. This blog has some interesting and detailed write-ups of this series if you want to know more.

Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan is a documentary series- the title can be translated as Kings, Kitchens and Other Stories. This one is all about regional Indian cuisine, which is something I have a deep and abiding love for. Each episode takes us into a region of India, and weaves a tale of historical influences and how it shaped the food and culture that you see there. I am loving this fast paced and well-narrated series which lets you chat with food writers and historians, peek into home kitchens and royal kitchens and wander around street food stalls and catering venues from weddings to langars. There is much fascinating history to learn- for instance, they talk about the Maratha invasion of Southern India and how it ultimately led to the words "chutney" and "sambar" being used for dishes that are now some of the most famous representatives of Tamilian food.  I will warn you that watching this series will set off immediate cravings for all sorts of regional Indian food. I do wish they featured more recipes.

Have you seen either of these? What are you watching these days?

I'll leave you with a couple of no-cook recipes, if you can even call these "recipes". Both involve soft syrupy-sweet dates, which I keep on hand to make date tamarind chutney for chaat, but they are great for use in these dessert-like treats.

This date and walnut smoothie takes only a couple of minutes to make and is such a refreshing dessert drink. These days we'll occasionally have a very light dinner and then blend up this smoothie to top it off.

Date & Walnut Smoothie

(For 3 servings)

1 cup whole milk
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
5-6 soft pitted dates
1/4 cup walnuts
1 ripe banana (frozen is best)
1 tsp. vanilla extract (change it up with cinnamon or cardamom)
Crushed ice

Simply blend these ingredients together in a high powered blender and serve right away.

Another little treat that we've been enjoying around here- fruit and nut snacks that don't need cooking and satisfy the sweet tooth in 2-3 bites. They're a knock-off of the popular Lara bars and such, and endlessly customizable. If you want to please a mithai-lover, call them laddus. If you want to be posh, roll them in powdered sugar or cocoa and call them raw truffles. If you're taking them on a trip or a hike, call them energy balls. They are good treats for picnics and lunch boxes. 

Fruit and Nut Treats

Adapted from this recipe

1 cup dates
1/3 cup cranberries
1/3 cup cashews
1/3 cup almonds
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Pulse in food processor until you get a chopped down mixture.
Form the mixture into bars or balls.
Store in fridge.

Enjoy the weekend, friends. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cream of Carrot & Tomato Soup

Image: Goodreads
June was a good reading month. For several weeks, I had not been able to find a book to really sink my teeth into. But then I found these two novels back to back, both engrossing family dramas but with very different settings. 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is set in Baltimore and tells the story of four generations of the Whitshank family- a rather ordinary family whose life revolves around a big, lovingly built house. I've read a few of Anne Tyler's novels- she's been writing for decades- and just like the others, this one has no strong linear plot. It is a study of characters and family dynamics, all the big and little incidents that shape the trajectory of a life. 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is set mainly in a small mission hospital in Ethiopian but follows the characters from India to Africa to North America. Verghese is a physician-novelist and tells the story of twin boys born to an Indian nun and a British doctor. This novel has intertwining themes of an unusual family story and gripping medical narratives against a roiling political backdrop. 

Speaking of Ethiopia, I haven't been accepting any cookbooks for review lately but made an exception for this one- Ethiopian Cookbook: Pinnacle of Traditional Cuisine by Konjit Zewge, a collection of recipes of an 89 year old Ethiopian home cook. These sort of cookbooks are special because they preserve recipes that may be otherwise lost to time. 

I was excited to flip through this book and cook from it but there are some major flaws with how this cookbook has been put together- the recipes call for many specialty ingredients (but of course) and they are not explained very well. Several spice mixtures are called for but there are no recipes or sources given. Trying the recipes is going to take a lot of deciphering! Meanwhile, I am glad we have a new (and first) Ethiopian restaurant here in town, a tiny place tucked away in a strip mall where a very sweet lady makes flavorful home-style Ethiopian food. 

I'll end this post with a quick soup recipe made with simple pantry ingredients- I made it a couple of times last week and wanted to jot down the proportions for the next time I make this. This soup is good hot or warm or at room temperature or even chilled. 

Cream of Carrot & Tomato Soup

1. In a pressure cooker, add:

  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 onion cut in large dice
  • 4 medium carrots cut into large chunks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cups water

2. Pressure cook. Let the mixture cool for 15 minutes or so. Add 3 tablespoons of cream cheese and 1/3 cup of cream or milk. Blend until smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste. Depending on the sweetness of the carrots and the acidity of the tomato, a few pinches of sugar may pull the flavors together. Serve.

Growing up, I always felt that the best part of a bowl of tomato soup were the oily, crisp croutons floating on it. A batch of croutons can be made in minutes on the stove top. I save bits of leftover baguette and other breads in the freezer just for this.

Heat a bit of butter and olive oil in a pan. I find that the mix of butter and olive oil is flavorful and does not burn easily. Saute cubes of bread until toasty and browned. Serve croutons with soup. Or just stand there and eat them by the handful- I won't judge.

What are you reading, cooking and eating this week? 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Little Chef- Thoughts on Cooking and Parenting

We had a beautiful, relaxing Father's Day yesterday and I hope you did too. V and Lila, with Duncan in tow, started the day with leisurely morning walk to our neighborhood bakery to share a chocolate croissant. Later, we met up with friends at a board game cafe and spent the afternoon playing everything from Scrabble to Hungry, Hungry Hippo and Candyland, a very enjoyable and novel way to celebrate the amazing dads in our life.

Lately, Lila has taken over as the new sous chef here at the One Hot Stove world headquarters. What her resume lacks in experience is compensated in her enthusiasm. Every afternoon, this child comes home from preschool, bursts through the kitchen door and demands to know what we're cooking for dinner. She wants to participate in every step of the process, to touch and taste and smell everything. Often she will end up eating handfuls of raw veggies, boiled noodles, nuts and other ingredients even before they get put into the meal, and then she's almost too full for dinner- and frankly, that's fine by me.

Some of her favorite kitchen activities at this age are peeling and slicing hard boiled eggs, slicing tomatoes and avocados (with a hard plastic knife), juicing lemons, making lemonade, stirring ingredients together for granola, spinning down salad greens and yes, stirring things on the stove even as I stand by watching a bit nervously. Making ghee is possibly her favorite activity ever, but that has everything to do with getting to eat the caramelized brown bits left over after straining the ghee.

We don't follow recipes unless we're making baked goodies- this is just everyday cooking, and it is fun to see her developing an instinct for cooking, like knowing how to season a salad correctly with pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, without having to measure anything, and learning how to put together a simple meal from whatever we have on hand in the pantry and fridge.

There are other kitchen tasks that Lila does too- setting the table with napkins (we use dish towels from IKEA as napkins), water glasses and utensils, and helping to unload the dishwasher. Kitchen tasks involve all sorts of learning- math skills, sorting, matching, motor skills, sensory stimulation- not to mention the confidence gained from contributing to family life and being responsible for a job.

We were visiting the home of a relative with grown kids, and she remarked that her kids never learned to cook because their evenings were too busy with activities like soccer, piano and martial arts. "But what activity could be more important than cooking", I said, and she chuckled thinking I was being facetious. But I was dead serious. We all have to eat every day and it is really hard to eat in a way that's both tasty and nourishing (and budget-friendly, especially when you're starting out in life as a young person on your own) if you don't know how to cook.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I can't remember at all where I first heard or read this quote but it has resonated strongly with me for several months. (I just looked up the quote and it is from Peggy O'Mara.) This is a powerful way to repeat "mantras" that you believe in, and that you want your child to internalize as guidelines through life. The everyday routine of cooking and eating dinner provides so many opportunities for talking about values, priorities, manners, habits, attitude, gratitude. Here are some of the things I find myself saying over and over again. (And truthfully, these are helpful reminders for myself and not just for the kid.)

"Eat until your tummy is happy" is a way to get Lila to listen to her body's cues of when she is no longer hungry, when her hunger is satisfied.

"In our family, we don't waste food" is a general, gentle reminder to treat food with care, to serve yourself a reasonable portion, to not fling food around. We don't believe in the clean plate club. There's no guilt for not finishing the food on a plate- but it does not end up in the trash either. It just goes into a container to be eaten at a later time.

"You can say 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you'"- this is a reminder that when we are offered any food at any time by anybody, we can say yes or no politely, no questions asked. Responses such as "eww", "yucky", "it smells gross" or "I hate that" are not OK. There's no need for tiresome explanations of why you won't or can't eat something. Eat it or don't eat it, but always respect the food and just move on.

"The kitchen is closed" is a reminder to not leave the dinner table too early and then keep asking for snacks as bedtime nears.

"What's mama's number 1 job? My number 1 job is to keep you safe and healthy"- this is my usual reason for saying no to any number of requests- mostly about putting reasonable limits on sweet treats in a sugar-saturated culture.

Did you hang around the kitchen as a kid? Do your kids like to cook with you? 

Tomorrow is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and I hope you have a good one! And warm and cozy winter wishes to my friends in the Southern half of the planet.  

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Freezer Cooking Session

While I greatly enjoy cooking quick and simple dinners on an everyday basis, having a few meals stashed away in the freezer is like having money in the bank.

I have a week-long conference at work starting tomorrow, which will mean long and tiring days, so I wanted to get ahead of the game and stock the freezer with a few meals. A dear friend happily agreed to cook with me and split the loot- so we had a freezer cooking date last weekend. This was the first time I cooked specifically to stock the freezer. A surprising array of recipes are good freezer candidates so there's a lot to choose from. A few years ago, I wrote this post and got many helpful suggestions in the comments. This time, we made these 4 recipes. Before meeting up in my kitchen, we each gathered containers for freezing, and rounded up ingredients for two recipes each.

Mac and cheese- We doubled Martha Stewart's recipe and followed the recipe quite closely, while cutting down quite a bit on the quantity of cheese. The food processor made it a snap to grate all of that cheese in seconds. The rest of the recipe came together quickly and boy, did it make a huge pot of mac and cheese. We did not bake it- simply divided the pasta and sauce mixture into several baking dishes, topped with the breadcrumbs and covered the dishes with foil, to be baked just before eating.

Already this week I cooked up one of the pans of frozen mac and cheese. It went straight from freezer to preheated oven, the broiler got the top nice and browned once the baking was done, and the mac and cheese was pretty much perfect. I'll definitely be doing this again.

Madras lentils: We made a double batch of this recipe. Because the pressure cooker was going to be in heavy use for our cooking session (and I only have one pressure cooker), I did soak and cook kidney beans and lentils and have them ready the day before. So this recipe consisted of simply sautéing and grinding the tomato-onion masala and simmering it with the cooked beans/lentils, then cooling the curry and portioning into containers. I plan to pull this out from freezer to fridge a day before we plan to eat it, then reheat in the microwave in a glass container.

Potstickers: Again, we made a double batch (two packages of wrappers), and my friend took the lead on this one. I have to say that potstickers were by far the most labor-intensive of the recipes we made. We froze the potstickers on sheet pans, then transferred into bags for freezer storage. The idea was to make sure the potstickers didn't stick to each other in a giant lump- well, clearly I didn't freeze them long enough on the sheet pans because they have stuck together in the bags after all! We shall see how it works out when I cook these...

Mexican style Rice & Beans- No recipe here, and it would probably be a stretch to call this Mexican anyway. I made about 3 cups of yellow rice- sautéing the rice in olive oil on the stove top until toasty, with some salt, garlic and turmeric for flavor and color, then cooking in the rice cooker. The bean stew was simply soaked pinto beans cooked in the pressure cooker with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices.

All in all, it took us about 2 and a half hours for cooking and clean up. This included the time needed to deal with the kids' shenanigans. My friend's daughter and Lila are great friends and play well together. Well, that morning they raced around the house, knocking over and shattering a lamp (thankfully, no one was hurt except the lamp), and found a container of baby talc and liberally sprinkled it all over every square inch of Lila's room. At crucial cooking moments, like when I was stirring the roux and trying not to burn it, I would hear a shriek and a crash. All in a day's play, I guess!

The cooking session was hard work but we did have several tasty meals to show for it, neatly portioned and labeled and stacked in the freezer. I don't see myself ever doing the once a month freezer cooking thing (where you cook 30 days worth of meals in one day and freeze them away) but it certainly makes sense to stash away freezer meals when you're anticipating a busy time.

Last year, when I was away working in Kenya for a few weeks, I stocked the freezer with many meals for V and Lila and they appreciated it very much- they requested everything from broccoli cheese soup to pav bhaji, rajma and I forget what else.

Certainly the most painless way to stock the freezer with prepared meals is to double recipes on a regular basis (when you're cooking something anyway) and freeze away one half for another time- cook once, eat twice. I should try and do more of that.

Do you rely on the freezer for quick meals? What are your favorite freezer-friendly recipes?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Big Batch Vegetable Hash & Masala Omelets

For a few weeks, I couldn't seem to choose any books or TV shows or movies that I could really sink my teeth into. I flipped through magazines and half-heartedly watched some reruns of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote.

Then this week, a really good book and two great documentaries came my way.

The book was a graphic memoir, Blankets by Craig Thompson. As always, I am in awe of a talented artist who can bring emotions to life with detailed brushstrokes and not too many words. This is a honest and often painful story of growing up and of first love. This particular panel on the left resonated strongly with me!

I watched two memorable documentaries on Netflix streaming.

Waking up in the morning and going to school is a rather routine part of a dozen years of a kid's life- several of our neighbor kids here take the iconic yellow school bus, while Lila like many other kids gets dropped off to school in a parent's car. Going down memory lane, V's school was next door to the building that they lived in and he tells of hearing the 15-minute warning bell, and using that as his alarm to hop out of bed, brush his teeth and race to school. Apparently he slept in his school uniform to save time in the morning! I remember taking an autorickshaw to primary school- believe it or not, 12 little kids and their heavy school satchels would be crammed into one autorickshaw for the ride to school and back, fitting into that impossibly tiny space like clowns in a car. In secondary school, I rode my bike (red BSA-SLR) to school clear on the opposite end of town. It seemed grueling at times, riding a bike over hilly and potholed roads while dodging chaotic traffic and trying not to gag next to trucks belching exhaust. The school uniform was a thick navy blue pinafore seemingly designed to absorb every burning ray from the tropical sun.

All of this paled to nothingness when I watched the 4 kids in the documentary On The Way to School. The documentary follows 4 kids (11 and 12 year olds- middle schoolers) as they make their way from home to school. A Kenyan boy and his sister walk 10 miles over the Savannah dotted by wildlife, carrying jerrycans of precious water dug up from the ground. An Argentinian boy and his sister ride a horse through desolate plains. A Moroccan girl hikes with her friends over winding mountain roads for hours, then has to hitch a ride to school when she gets into town. An Indian boy in a ramshackle wheelchair is pushed to school by his two little brothers. We just watch these 4 journeys (there's no commentary or lecturing whatsoever) that are everyday life for these small, beautiful children but are in reality heroic journeys that they undertake to get what every child deserves by right- a chance to go to school and learn. The NYTimes review is here.

Attacking the Devil is a very different style of documentary but just as heart-piercing. Thalidomide is a drug that I remember first learning about in an undergraduate developmental biology class as a classic teratogen- it causes severe birth defects in fetuses. The full story of thalidomide, covered in this documentary, is shocking and tragic- from how it was developed in Nazi labs, how war and other factors came together to make it a very poorly tested drug that was given willy-nilly to pregnant women as a harmless remedy for morning sickness for a few years, until it was realized with deep horror that it caused malformed limbs in the babies and worse. The company marketing the drug (a distillery, of all things) refused to accept responsibility, while the British government of the day sided with corporate interests. Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times in London, ran a brave, prolonged and unstinting campaign to gain recognition and compensation for the families affected by thalidomide. This is an amazing story of history, medicine, journalism and the best and worst of the human spirit. The Guardian's review is here.

What are you reading and watching these days?

Today, I'm sharing a rather simple recipe, one I've made for about three weekends in a row when we had friends over for brunch. A favorite morning dish in our home is vegetable hash with masala omelets. For just our family, this vegetable hash is easy enough to make in a cast iron skillet on the stove. For a bigger batch, it is nice to pull out a baking sheet or two and make a whole lot at once.

Big Batch Vegetable Hash

1. Preheat oven to 400F (use convection bake/roast setting if your oven has it)

2. Cut into bite size, any mixture of these veggies:
Sweet Potatoes
Bell peppers (green or any colors)
Brussels sprouts

3. Drizzle with oil (olive, canola or any other) and sprinkle with any combination of spices
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Cumin powder
Dried oregano
Mexican chili powder
Salt and pepper
all to taste

4. Mix the veggies thoroughly with oil and spices, then spread in a single layer on baking sheet(s). Roast until veggies are tender with crispy browned bits.

For the masala omelet, whisk together large eggs (I use two eggs per adult diner) with minced onion, cilantro, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. I use a small ladle to scoop beaten eggs into a hot oiled nonstick pan, making small fluffy folded omelets that cook quickly and are easy to serve to a crowd.

If you're in the US, hope you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday tomorrow and get the summer off to a great start! I have a big freezer cooking date with a friend- we want to make a variety of recipes to stock both of our freezers, and will report back on how that goes. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Chocolate Pudding Pops

Summer weather had arrived here in the South. A girl from the tropics, I love this change of seasons and don't mind the heat and humidity one bit. This evening was typical- the three of us gathered in the kitchen after school/work, and of course Duncan is always underfoot. Lila was in the mood to make popsicles so the two of us made chocolate pudding pops.

Meanwhile, V whisked up one of our favorite salad dressings and diced up avocado. We dined on big salads out on the porch, with fresh watermelon for dessert. Then, in an act of great optimism, V and Lila planted two avocado seeds in the yard, showering the seeds with dark rich compost from our bin. Fingers crossed that the seeds sprout!

Since the weather got warmer, I've been making popsicles on a regular basis. These chocolate pudding pops are a recent favorite- they are creamy and decadent and the perfect portion-controlled treat. As a plus, they use pantry ingredients that you (or your mini-helper) can whisk in seconds and cook in minutes.

Chocolate Pudding Pops
(Adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6-8 popsicles depending on the size of your molds (I get 7 pops in mine)

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, mix dry ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • A pinch of salt

2. Whisk in and stir well:

  • 2 cups whole milk (can also use a bit of cream in place of the milk)
3. Microwave the mixture 2 minutes at a time, whisking well in between until the mixture is cooked and thick (takes me 5-6 minutes).

4. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Let the pudding cool a little. You could easily stop at this point and just gobble up the warm pudding. However, if you can restrain yourself...

5. Scoop into popsicle molds (it is too thick to pour) and freeze for several hours.

Other than the pudding pops, simple orange juice poured into the popsicle molds makes for a most refreshing treat. What are your favorite homemade popsicles? It would be fun to make kesar pista kulfi sometime...

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Golden Adai

I am the biggest fan of Southern Indian cuisine, and following right after the Kerala stew post is this recipe for adai, a member of the dosa family. Adai is made with a mixture of various lentils and rice and not fermented.

This recipe was my starting point.

Soak: In the morning around 8 AM, right before I left for work, I rinsed thoroughly and soaked

  • 1/2 cup rice (I used sona masoori)
  • 3/4 cup whole skinned (white) urad dal
  • 3/4 cup chana dal
  • 3/4 cup toor dal

Grind: Around 5 PM, I blended the soaked ingredients in the Vitamix in two batches. Any powerful blender or mixie or wet grinder will work to make this batter. The Vitamix did the job effortlessly in seconds, resulting in a thick and smooth batter. While grinding, I added a few curry leaves to add flavor, and in the spirit of using up every bit of food, I added some pickled mangoes (the ones left behind in the jar when all the pickle juice was used up). They added an interesting tangy flavor too. Finally, I stirred some salt into the batter.

Make adai: Heat a griddle and use some oil to make adai; the batter can be spread as thin or thick as you like.

These proportions of rice and lentils made a substantial amount of batter, it lasted us a couple of meals and then I had it a few more times for breakfast.

The adai is good plain, made just with the batter alone. The next day I added a chopped bunch of beet greens to the batter, which worked beautifully. Ginger, onions, shredded veggies and greens, spices like cumin seeds would all be wonderful additions to the basic batter.

I'm completely pleased at how easy is to make adai, particularly on a day when I'm short on dinner ideas or low on groceries. As long as I can pull out a few dals and soak them in the morning, a good dinner is guaranteed.

A couple more additions to the Vitamix page: nut butter and nut butter chocolate chia pudding.

What are you cooking this week? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kerala-Style Stew

A major highlight of this month was a week-long visit by my sister and nephew. The little guy is only a few months younger than Lila and they had a great time playing, squabbling, snacking and napping together and making the rounds of every playground in town.

One afternoon my sister cooked ishtu (stew), a recipe she learned from her Malayali friend. You simply cook vegetables, add coconut milk and finish off with a fragrant tempering.

  • Start with about 8 cups of mixed vegetables. We raided the kitchen and fridge and used diced potato, cauliflower, summer squash, carrots, and also used two veggies from the freezer- peas and cut Italian beans (these are larger and flatter than regular green beans).
  • Add enough water to cover the vegetables, add minced ginger, cut green chillies and salt to taste, and boil until the veggies are just tender. We used a pressure cooker without the weight- simply using it as a tightly closed pot to get the vegetables to cook evenly and faster. 
  • Drain out excess water from the tender veggies- and store it for use in another soup or dal or curry.
  • To the cooked vegetables, add a can of coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer for a few minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat 1 tbsp. coconut oil. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves and add it to the curry. You're done! 
This stew is a great example of the cuisine of the Southern Indian state of Kerala- simple, fresh and flavorful. We served it with some freshly steamed rice and pickle on the side. I ate it in a big bowl as a stew with just a bit of rice, and a handful of potato chips to add crunch. An excellent meal! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Vitamix Diaries

With a milestone anniversary and my birthday both coming up in April, V sweetly asked me if I had anything in particular on my wish list. Before I realized it, I heard myself blurting out "Vitamix". And so for the last couple of weeks, I have on the kitchen counter the blender of my dreams. One doesn't think of a blender as a particularly romantic gift, but in this case, money did in fact buy happiness (and many great meals.)

A Vitamix is one of those heavy-duty, high-performance, expensive blenders- a biggie as far as kitchen upgrades go. My tools and gadgets are well-loved and cared for, and they certainly get a workout in my busy kitchen. As years go by, they pay for themselves many times over. I'm still using the Braun immersion blender that I bought with my first grad student paycheck 15 years ago, ditto the food processor I bought with wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle a decade ago. I wear thrift store clothes and drive a cranky old car but save my pennies for top of the line cookware and get emotionally attached to my kitchen appliances. Priorities :)

There are many brands of high-powered blenders out there, but I didn't do much research and headed straight for the Vitamix simply because I've used it a few times when I taught cooking classes and was familiar with it. I did buy a certified refurbished blender to bring down the cost a little- and am glad I did. It looks and feels brand new.

Of course I've been busy playing with my new toy. The very first evening it was delivered, I gave it a rinse and made an apple pie smoothie for dessert- just a blend of almond milk, a handful of oats, apple (skin on and all), a dash of maple syrup and cinnamon, and ice.

Since then, I've used the blender almost every single day. With the days getting warmer, we love making iced coffee frappe in the afternoons. For two servings, I use about 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup almond milk, 3 tsp. sugar (or other sweetener; adjust to taste), 1 tbsp. instant coffee (adjust to taste) and a cup or so of crushed ice.

It blends into an amazingly refreshing drink in a few seconds. V is a big coffee snob with his shade grown Honduran coffee beans that he grinds fresh every morning and all that jazz, but he also admits to loving this frappe made with apna good old freeze-dried Nescafe.

Soups are probably the biggest reason I bought this blender- it makes them smooth as silk, as luxurious as what you find in fancy restaurants.

My standard no-recipe formula for vegetable soups-

  • saute onions and garlic in olive oil or butter
  • add a bit of flour to make a roux
  • add some milk/cream for richness
  • then lots of vegetables and water/stock, salt and pepper
  • simmer until tender
  • blend until silky smooth
This works for (a) corn and mixed veggies, (b) tomato-carrot, (c) broccoli, (d) spinach, (e) mushroom, (f) zucchini, among others. Inexpensive frozen broccoli and spinach work just as well as fresh vegetables. For broccoli, spinach, mushroom and zucchini, I use nutritional yeast to add a wonderful umami taste to the soup. This blender can actually cook soup as it blends- but I haven't tried doing that yet.

I've also used the Vitamix in some Indian cooking- it made a very smooth cilantro-coconut chutney and tomato-coconut-onion curry paste.

The blender came with a manual- called, with gravitas, "Introduction to High-Performance Blending". There are a great many things in there to try, and I've come to love the wet-chopping method, in which you add great big chunks of vegetables (say, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots) to the blender along with water and pulse it, then drain the water away to be left with finely chopped veggies in seconds. Pretty nifty. I used it to grate cauliflower and carrots to make these savory samosa-like tarts.

As I keep testing recipes with the Vitamix, I'll keep updating this post- that way, folks who have access to high powered blenders can refer to it if interested. And if you own one of these powerful beasts, I'd love to know what you like using it for.

May 4, 2015
Nut butter: I blended (pressing down with the tamper) 1 cup roasted cashews, 1 cup roasted almonds with a bit of salt and a couple of tablespoons of canola oil- it made a wonderful nut butter. V enjoyed it on good bread with a drizzle of nice honey. Can't wait to try more customized nut butters.

It is hard to scrape every bit of nut butter from the blender so it is a good idea to use it immediately for another recipe that needs nuts or nut butter (like a smoothie, or curry paste).

Instead of cleaning out the blender, I left a bit of the nut butter in and tried this recipe for chocolate nut chia pudding- it was very easy to blend, I poured it into small stemless wine glasses and chilled it for dessert, then served it with some sliced strawberries. I thought it tasted OK- very filling, not too sweet, a tad gummy. Not sure I'll be making this again.

May 5, 2016: Golden Adai, a cousin of the dosa

May 15, 2016: Creamy cilantro dressing- made from this recipe. I put in a whole bunch of cilantro, stems and all, and cut down on the olive oil (a couple of glugs as opposed to 1/2 cup)- it was thick, creamy and flavorful. We used it on a taco salad- bed of lettuce/shredded carrots/yellow peppers, topped with sauteed onions, peppers, zucchini, fresh corn, black beans, then the dressing, a sprinkle of cheese and crushed tortilla chips. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cauliflower "Rice" Pulao

When you eat a vegetarian diet with a carb-conscious slant, vegetables become your very best friends. I can continue to eat my beloved rice, noodle and pasta based dishes by bulking them out with vegetables.

Pulaos are a regular part of the meal rotation around here- both for quick weeknight meals and as a crowd-pleasing side dish when friends come over for supper. The difference is that these days rice has to share the spotlight in pulao and fried rice. In every case, I've found that tweaking the rice-based recipe with extra vegetables does in no way spoil the experience of eating that quintessential comfort food. The spices and seasonings make it taste just the way I've always loved it.

Cauliflower florets have always been a delicious addition to many rice dishes like masale bhaat and vegetable biryani, but lately I've also been using cauliflower in its trendy avatar of cauliflower "rice" which is nothing but cauliflower florets that are finely grated to a fluffy, rice-like (or maybe cous-cous like) texture. Trendy or not, it is certainly a simple, practical and tasty way to fill out rice dishes.

This weekend, I found large, beautiful heads of cauliflower on sale and bought three to convert to "rice" and freeze away- yes, raw cauliflower "rice" freezes beautifully and it is very convenient to process it all at once and have a stack of boxes in the freezer ready to be cooked.

The food processor does a quick and tidy job of turning cauliflower florets to "rice".
  • Cut cauliflower into chunky florets.
  • Rinse them well and drain/spin/pat them dry.
  • Place a few florets in food processor bowl fitted with a metal chopping blade.
  • Process until most of the florets turn to rice- be careful not to over-process to mush.
  • Remove the unprocessed chunks- they can be chopped again with the next batch. 
  • Repeat until all florets are riced.
  • The "rice" can be cooked right away or stored in airtight boxes or bags in the freezer.

Some people serve cauliflower rice raw in tabbouleh-like salads but I have yet to try that. And rather than make a dish of sautéed cauliflower "rice" by itself, I prefer mixing it with steamed Jasmine-or-other rice- it fits in with my general scheme of not cutting out grains altogether but just eating less of them at every meal. Because the cauliflower "rice" blends in so well with cooked rice, it will work in just about any rice dish from any cuisine.

This time, I made a simple pulao to serve with whole masoor amti and raita.
  • Heat oil in a pan.
  • Temper with cumin seeds.
  • Saute 1 medium thinly sliced onion until nicely browned.
  • Season with salt, turmeric powder and pulao masala (or other favorite spice mix).
  • Add cooked rice (about 1.5 cups) and cauliflower "rice" (about 3 cups) and stir fry for a minute. 
  • Cover and steam cook for 8-10 minutes.
  • Drizzle with ghee and lemon juice (optional) and serve!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring is Here

It has been a whirlwind month (and some) since my last post. We had a big meeting at work that just ended yesterday, and it took a lot of time and mental space. At the end of a long day, much as I want to update the blog, I just can't face flipping open the laptop- I need a break from the computer screen and the keyboard. Ironically, I tend to veg out in front of another screen- the TV- this month, my favorite show of all time, M*A*S*H, is leaving Netflix streaming so that's what I just finished (re-re)watching.

But Spring has sprung and the entire town is awash in delicate blossoms and tender leaves, which gladdens my heart even as it gives me itchy allergy eyes. The switch to Daylight Savings Time means that there's still light outside as I sit here after the dinner and dishes routine, and today it motivated me to flip open the laptop after all.

We took a long weekend off in early March and went to a beautiful state park. I won't call it "camping" though. Glamping is what it was. We shared a very well-equipped cottage in the park with friends. Each family toted some food and we took turns rustling up simple meals. We lit bonfires and fired up the charcoal grill. My favorite camping dish was the foil-wrapped potatoes that we cooked directly in the bonfire, then split open and dressed with salt, pepper and butter. Between the open air meals, hiking, and gorgeous waterfalls, this was a nice escape from the routine. Like the public libraries, the state parks in this country are precious gifts that I enjoy gratefully.

Spring cleaning and decluttering has been on my mind. For several weeks, I've been taking on mini-projects in the kitchen, going through every drawer and every shelf, 20 minutes at a time. I empty out the space, wipe it down and examine every object to see if it is useful and functional before putting things back. My goal is to know exactly what I have in my kitchen, and to use it well.

Two boxes of kitchen items ended up at the thrift store. The tongs that I found unwieldy, that aspirational baguette pan, the twee serving pieces that never got used- they will all have to find new homes.

It is not just a question of getting rid of things but in some cases, getting better versions of things that I use all the time. Like the two cheap plastic colanders that I bought 15 years ago- I replaced them with sturdy stainless steel ones that are much nicer to use.

My "big" kitchen project was a pantry remodel. We have a small closet in the family room (next to the kitchen) that I use as a pantry- but it was dingy and dark, with deep shelves where pantry items were never easy to organize and find. One of my neighbors retired from the construction business and takes on woodworking and other handy jobs to keep himself busy. I hired him to remodel the closet, changing the deep shelves to wrap around shelving like this blogger did. He was able to take the old shelves out, split them and paint them and reuse them as the new shelves. We had paint cans left behind by the previous homeowners, and found white paint for the shelves and pale grey paint for the closet walls. The whole project was finished over 2 days, using materials we already had on hand, with the only costs being labor costs that went straight to my nice neighbor. That worked out well.

I still don't have electrical wiring for a closet light, but we put in a motion-sensor battery-operated light, and now the pantry is a whole lot more functional. Having a well-stocked and organized pantry makes it easier to put together quick meals, and minimizes waste because food doesn't languish at the back of a shelf.

I'll leave you with a quick pic of our dinner tonight: tacos with asparagus (sautéed quickly in olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice) and a cucumber avocado salad- this was a recipe I saw here on Smitten Kitchen, and for something so simple, it is a surprisingly tasty and refreshing salad that we'll make often.

Happy Spring! How have you been?!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Dumpling Party

My Chinese American friend grew up celebrating the Lunar New Year in Queens, NY, and she misses those festivities in small town GA. This year she invited her family and friends to gather at her home for a potluck dumpling party to ring in the Year of the Monkey.

Of, the table simply overflowed with tasty dumplings from different cuisines.

The hosts made tofu-vegetable potstickers with a salty-sweet-gingery dipping sauce, and kimbap, Korean rice and seaweed rolls (brief recipe at the end of this post).

I wondered what to take. The various Indian cuisines have dozens of dishes that qualify as dumplings and I love them all- from karanjis to kachoris. In the end I went with two of my own favorites (that are also easy to make)- idli with cilantro- coconut chutney, and "faux-mosas" or samosa-style puffs made with frozen puff pastry.

I've been slowly working towards making the soft, melt-in-the-mouth idlis of my dreams and this batch turned out beautifully. You pick up tips here and there and get better every time, I feel. This time I used this tip for grinding soaked methi seeds on their own just before adding in the urad dal, and this tip for adding water to the batter- I realize now that I had not been adding enough water while making the batter. People dream of running ultramarathons and climbing Mt. Everest. Me, I dream of consistently making idlis that taste like clouds. With this batch, I feel like I turned a corner.

For the puffs, I wanted to make the standard filling of potato, cauliflower, peas and carrots seasoned with ginger and garlic, and then realized that I had no potatoes on hand. I cooked some cauliflower and mashed it and used that as the base of the filling, and it worked very well. The only thing to keep in mind is to not let the filling get soggy.

There was lots of filling left over and it made for great masala dosas over the next couple of days.

The other dishes at the party were- a piping hot vegetarian version of chicken and dumpling soup, filo dough dumplings with two different fillings- some with sweet potato and others with feta and spinach, and fusion "taco dumplings" with black beans and Mexican spices.

For dessert, cookies and candy were passed around, and the kids all got red envelopes with cash tucked inside, as per tradition. In the end, we were a bunch of happily stuffed people who not so secretly hope that our friend will make this party an annual tradition.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan Greens) and My Favorite Breakfast

When I had a chance to spend a few weeks in Kenya last May, one of the local foods that I really enjoyed eating was a dish of greens called sukuma wiki- I mentioned this dish several times in that post. 

Sukuma wiki uses the local greens (colewart) and it is in the spirit of the dish to adapt it to any greens that are locally and cheaply available. In my case, it was kale bought on sale at the supermarket. It is flavored quite simply- like all the everyday Kenyan food I tasted- with onions and tomatoes, and salt. Nothing more. 

Here is my not-really-a-recipe recipe for sukuma wiki. I use my cast iron skillet for this.

1. Wash, trim and shred or finely chop a heap of greens
2. Heat 1 tbsp. oil.

3. Saute 1 medium chopped onion and 1 medium chopped tomato for a few minutes. 
4. Season with salt and pepper
5. Add greens and stir fry.
6. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the greens are tender. 

I resist the temptation to add turmeric, chili powder, cumin and so on to this dish. Not that it would be a bad thing to turn this into a typical pale bhaji. But the simplest form brings back memories of being in the African market and buying big handfuls of shredded greens from the kanga-clad vegetable sellers, and of helping my colleague stir a pot of sukuma on the tiny stove in his bachelor kitchen. 

Sukuma wiki goes with everything. It is nice to make a batch and keep on hand in the fridge, then use it in different dishes and as a side-dish for various meals. Rice and lentils are the classic companions for this dish, but we've eaten it with everything from instant noodles to spaghetti sauce. 

My favorite way is to eat it for breakfast like this: Heat a small tortilla on a griddle (I like low-carb tortillas from Trader Joe's). Top with some mashed avocado, hot sauce, a heap of sukuma wiki and a fried egg. Fold over and enjoy the breakfast wrap. What a perfect way to start the day. 

I eat a lot of avocados. I used to get very frustrated buying avocados because half of them would turn out to to be brown and unusable on the inside. Then I discovered this life-changing tip. It really works. Now I peek under the stem of the avocado at the store and only buy the ones that look green under the stem, then a couple of days on the counter and they are ready to eat (and will last in the fridge for several days if you want to wait). Now I have near-perfect avocados; the one in the pic below had a tiny brown spot but the rest was creamy green avocado. 

* * *
Over winter break, I was looking to sink my teeth into a juicy new mystery series, and remembered that someone had mentioned Elizabeth George- the author of the Inspector Lynley novels. I vaguely recall seeing a few episodes of the televised series on PBS years ago but had not read the books. I read the first two novels in the series and the writing is terrific. A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley, #1) which was a suspenseful and engrossing read but the ending was very disturbing. Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley, #2) was a formula mystery- a theater production team in a remote castle is snowed in, there is a murder, one of them had to have done it and so on. I look forward to reading more of this series- have you read them?

Another interesting read was the very recently published Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. V and I are avid fans of the New Yorker magazine; Norris has worked for the magazine for decades as a copy editor. The book is part memoir, part rantings and ravings of a grammar stickler, with lots of meditation on the quirks of the English language. As a kid, I loved reading Wren and Martin (a high school English grammar textbook)- not that you would know that from reading this poorly-proofread blog. Word lovers and grammar nerds will enjoy this book.  My favorite quote from the book: "Job of copy editor is to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves".

My favorite book this month was a work of non-fiction- A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a large, highly engaging tome on the art and science of giving- on sharing money and time with local and global organizations to benefit our communities. Kristof and WuDunn present dozens of case studies of people and projects that help those in need- their successes, failures and challenges. They address complex issues- such as about overhead expenses and staff salaries in non-profits. Many of us are searching for a more meaningful life and this optimistic book provides encouragement and advice on how to make a difference. 

Oh and you must treat yourself to these two delightful, hilarious, warm and beautifully written essays-

Auld Lang Syne, Kamini Dandapani's memories of her paternal grandparents' home, featuring "the strangest cast of characters, a terrifying bathroom and a belligerent buffalo named Lakshmi". 

Saapaadu Ready, Janani Sreenivasan's memories of travels with her mother's South Indian kitchen. "Take the best from all cultures. That's the best way of living I've found".

What have you been reading, cooking and eating these days? Happy February!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hello 2016

Exactly a year ago, on Jan 3, 2015, I took a deep breath and wrote this post about my theme for the year- "Nupur 2.0", an attempt to upgrade my life by tweaking my diet and exercise habits.

The words "diet" and "exercise" are not exactly jolly ones, are they? They have a rather bleak connotation of deprivation versus joyfully indulging in life, of stern discipline and making yourself do and eat things you'd really rather not.

A year later, I can say this: It wasn't that bad, y'all. In fact, it was much easier than I anticipated and very rewarding. Once I stopped thinking of it as a diet and exercise program but instead as a choice to be nicer to myself by eating better and moving more, the whole thing became a fun project and one that I intend to embrace for the rest of my life.

I am at a high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and since diabetes is a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism, my dietary changes revolve around bringing down my carb intake to moderate levels. Vegetables, which I love anyway, took on a new importance as I used them to replace much of the bread, rice, rotis, noodles, pasta and tortillas in my meals.

Broccoli slaw makes a satisfying noodle replacement.
Pasta dishes can be bulked up with vegetables.
Tasty salad dressings like this one and this one make eating raw vegetables a treat. Favorite dishes can be reinvented as salads, like this paneer tikka salad.

We subscribed to a locally grown veggie box all year and it forced me to work with enormous quantities of green leafy vegetables- learning how to quickly strip the leaves, stack them and chop them methodically into ribbons.

This is what a recent box looked like. V jokes that they just hack down a few bushes and stuff them in the box- you get this huge lot of pala-pachola (leaves). It was daunting to tackle these massive amounts of greens and come up with ways of using them. We did eat lots of raw salads (see some of the links above) but many of the tougher greens are tastier when cooked, and they shrink dramatically when cooked, so the armful of greens becomes a more manageable bowlful.

Greens can be added to so many recipes- I would stir them willy nilly into pulaos, scrambled eggs, pasta sauce...

My favorite greens recipe this year was collard greens wadi. But what my family really loves is a version of saag- basically this recipe with a huge amount of greens cooked into it. The saag is tasty with any and all mystery greens that show up at the door. Greens are some of the best things we can eat, so this one change has really enriched our diet. I made sure to welcome the new year with a collard greens and black eyed peas curry for lunch on Jan 1, in keeping with the Southern US superstition that eating those foods brings luck in the new year!

After years of trying to find a form of exercise that I liked to do (and failing numerous times), something finally clicked. I now have a variety of things I like to do- brisk walking, running (slow pace, short distances- usually on the road and sometimes on the treadmill), swimming, fitness classes and dance (ballet, zumba) classes and choose from this menu 4-5 days a week.

What I do from day to day depends on the weather, gym schedules, meetings at work and various other factors. But it is nice to have several activities to choose from, and it is good to know that even a simple walk around the neighborhood with my neighbor or with the dog is a great way to stay active when I can't get around to doing anything else. Taking the stairs has become a habit and I alternate between sitting and standing at my desk.

V and I have accumulated a big sleep debt since we became parents. And every evening after Lila goes to bed, there's the temptation to stay up just a little bit to enjoy some TV or read a few more pages or check e-mail one last time. I think regular exercise and going back to a full-time workload together have made my days so busy and tiring that I'm now totally on board with going to bed very early.  Light blocking curtains in the bedroom have made a huge difference in my sleep quality and so has turning down the heat and keeping the home a little cooler at night.

I had so much support throughout the year- friends always had encouraging words, V and Lila were on board, and most of all, my fitness instructors met me where I was and treated me with the utmost kindness. And to everyone who left encouraging comments and advice and shared their own stories on blog posts- thank you.

My only wish for 2016 is to keep doing all this, because it is working well for me. I did come up with a theme for 2016 and my mantra for this year is STREAMLINE. What I learned this year was that cooking vegetable-heavy meals and being active are both things that need an investment of TIME. This is going to be a tough year for me with a challenging workload and keeping up with these changes will need better time management. I want to work on streamlining grocery shopping, maybe doing some weekly meal planning, and using the freezer more efficiently for making back-up meals. I'd like to get rid of time-killing habits like checking e-mail every 30 minutes and in general, want to simplify and organize my life. Fingers crossed for a good year.

Happy 2016! What are your hopes and dreams for this year?