Friday, December 01, 2017

Thanksgiving, and book review, The Opposite of Spoiled

Last week in the US was Thanksgiving. To me it is quite simply (a) a time to be grateful for all I have*, (b) a cook's holiday, therefore a time to bake and cook my little heart out and (c) a week-long break from school in which to entertain restless children.

This year we hosted a "friendsgiving" celebration at home with three families coming together for a feast - six adults and six kids ages 1 to 10. I didn't get around to taking pics of the meal but here's what we ate.

The afternoon started with drinks and a big appetizer spread. V's dabbling with mixing cocktails these days and he made a delicious Thanksgiving cocktail for the grownups with fresh apple cider and gin. I made faux samosas with puff pastry and veggie sticks with a herb-flecked dip, one friend brought over pimento cheese (the official appetizer of Southern gatherings) and another friend made brie wrapped in puff pastry.

After gorging on appetizers we all laced up our sneakers and trooped out for an hour long walk through the wooded areas of the neighborhood, then came back for the main meal as it was getting dark.

Lila very much wanted a turkey or something like it, so I bought two vegan turkey-less roasts from Trader Joe's and did not bother to make a main dish. To go with the mock turkey, I made mushroom gravy and orange cranberry sauce.

The sides were: mashed potatoes, mac and cheese (both made by my friends), green bean casserole (yes, the "traditional" kind with canned soup- My friend Bek sent me a link to this article about the woman who invented green bean casserole) and Thanksgiving slaw. My friend made a gorgeous challah (braided enriched bread) to go with the meal.

Dessert was a double crust apple pie (made by my friend- her first attempt at pie!) and chocolate pecan pie bars, with vanilla ice cream. It was a proper feast and a good time was had by all.

The rest of the weekend we spent taking the kids to the park to enjoy the sparkling sunny and crisp weather and I celebrated my annual "buy nothing" day on Black Friday.

*And "all I have" includes this little blog where I get to chat away and make friends. The medium might be virtual but the friendships are very real, so thank you. 

* * *
Here's a book I read recently that fits in quite well into this Thanksgiving post.

Image: Goodreads
The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber (2015)

As the title says, this is a parenting book exhorting parents not to make money a taboo but to teach kids all about money from a young age. I don't need any convincing here; I want my kids to know the basic of budgeting and personal finance before I send them out into the world.  It is a book written for relatively affluent families who are not struggling with money or living paycheck to paycheck, for the families where kids can grow up with a "money grows on trees" attitude if not taught otherwise. In parts, this book gets a little rambling and not everything resonated with me, but in general, it is full of engaging anecdotes and I took away many helpful tips that I have listed here by chapter.

1. Why we need to talk about money:  My favorite point in this chapter was this: "...every conversation about money is also about values". Allowance teaches patience, giving teaches generosity, work is about perseverance. Be grateful for what you have, share it generously with others and spend it wisely on things that make you happiest.

2. How to start the money conversations: The best response when asked a money question by a kid is "Why do you ask?" so you know where they are coming from (how that issue crossed their mind), and how to steer the conversation.

3. The allowance debates. Chores should be done without payment, simply as part of family life. The allowance should stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool. Start by first grade at the earliest. Around 0.5-1$ per year of age per week is appropriate. Make 3 containers- Save, Spend and Share to teach budgeting. Let children understand the difference between wants and needs. While not paying money for basic chores, do let children think in an entrepreneurial fashion and come up with ideas for doing tasks to solve problems and earn money for doing them. 

4. The smartest ways for kids to spend. Ask kids to estimate the hours of fun per dollar that something they want will provide. Teach thrift- coupons, thrift store shopping. 

5. Are we raising materialistic kids? 

6. How to talk about giving. Explain why and how we give. Let kids support local organizations in person. 

7. Why kids should work. Better chores, more of them and sooner. Facilitate paid work (help kids get jobs from an early age), and let kids contribute to their college funds. 

8. The luckiest. Foster a culture of family gratitude. Gain perspective by seeing the lives of others. 

9. How much is enough? Talk about trade-offs, because we can't have or do everything we want. Trade offs can be about not buying stuff in order to save for something bigger, or donating a toy for every new one that comes into the house. Try to have enough conversations about money and the values behind our spending choices.

I think I read this book at just the right time, because Lila is now 6 years old and able to understand a lot of these concepts. Our toddler's daycare does a "angel tree" event where they display wishlists from local children in need. The tags note the name, age and clothing/shoe sizes of the child and the wishlist has a few items that the child would like this holiday season- typically a toy or two, and often necessities like shoes, socks and underwear. This year, Lila and I went and picked out a tag for a 5 year old girl whose wishlist included a "princess toy"- Lila knew right away that she wanted to go shopping for this child. She was excited for days and we finally went one morning, hit 2 or 3 stores and bought a princess toy, crayons and art books, a party dress and shoes and socks and underwear for our friend, then packaged it and dropped it off at the school.

I had been brainstorming ways for Lila and I to volunteer together in the community on occasional weekends. Meanwhile, now that we have a daughter and a son and a dog, Lila has been pestering me that we should complete the family by adopting a cat. "I'm a girl and I have a baby brother, Dunkie is a boy dog and he should have a baby sister cat so we can be 3 boys and 3 girls", that's family planning, Lila style. I had an idea. We could go once or twice a month to the local animal shelter and help out with the cats there so she could get her kitty fix. Lila said she had an even better idea- let's just go to the shelter and spend a couple of hours picking out a cat that Dunkie will like and bring her home. But yesterday she told me she likes my idea and we are looking forward to volunteering at the cat shelter together. (Please pray for me that I don't fall in love with a kitten and bring it home.)

If you are in the US, how did you celebrate Thanksgiving? 

Do you talk about money with your kids? Do you volunteer with your kids and what are the experiences like? 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Catching Up, and a Quick Vietnamese Curry

There's been a lull on One Hot Stove for almost two months. Too much fun in real life; not enough time for blog-land. Some highlights from the last couple of months-

Kids: Our toddler is about 16 months old now and what an age this is- utterly adorable and exhausting. If you can imagine a cross between a monkey and a puppy, that's what our Niam is like. He loved playing with his big sister and chasing our hapless and very patient Duncan. There's never a dull moment with these three around.

Halloween: Lila decided months ago that she wanted to dress up as a bumblebee. We found bumblebee costumes for both her and her toddler brother. V dressed up as a beekeeper- wearing painter's overalls bought at the hardware store and a real beekeeper's hat (borrowed from a neighbor) on which I sewed plastic bee buttons. I made two giant flowers made from tissue paper and carried them as a prop. It was a really fun family costume.

Fall break: We took the kids to Chattanooga, Tennessee for Fall break- and what a scenic city it is. The Tennessee river runs right through the city and is criss crossed by several bridges, including a very cool pedestrian bridge. There are parks and play fountains and an old-fashioned carousel. There's a children's museum and a well-designed aquarium that does not have captive whales and performing dolphins. This is just a lovely city to visit with young kids.

Fabric baskets: My sewing machine has been entirely neglected since Mr. Baby came along. I dusted it off and took a Saturday morning workshop to learn how to make fabric baskets. You start with cotton clothesline, wrap fabric strips around it and then coil and sew the clothesline in a basket shape using the zigzag stitch on the sewing machine. It was very enjoyable to learn a new project that was surprisingly doable without the typical beginner frustration, and even meditative to make.

Working on working out: I think the last post I wrote finally motivated me to take some action. I renewed my gym membership and started going to ballet classes again, twice a week. It is making me so happy to be doing ballet again- I love the challenge, the grace and the technical rigor of ballet. I'm trying out all sorts of things- running a little, walking a lot, swimming a bit, looking into strength training classes- brainstorming ways to get a good fitness routine into place. I hope 2018 will be the year when I hit my stride. Also last month, my friend who is a physical therapist conducted a workshop- a series of 3 sessions on postnatal physical therapy to improve core stability. It was a great learning experience although the take home message was that core stability is not an easy fix.

* * *
Our dinner last night was a quick Vietnamese curry.  I love the mellow, yellow, creamy coconut based curries in Vietnamese restaurants. Most of the ones I've eaten have thick chunks of potato, carrot and tofu. I started making these at home after I tried a recipe from Veggie Belly.

The only specialty ingredient you need here is Ca Ri Ni An Do, the mild and bright yellow (turmeric-heavy) Vietnamese curry powder you see here which I found quite easily in my local Asian store. It is called Madras Curry Powder, because what could be more Vietnamese than a Madras curry? Food knows no boundaries.

My curry is not authentic or anything; I did not have lemongrass and I just used whatever veggies I had on hand. It turned out very tasty and satisfying for Sunday supper on a chilly Fall evening though.

Vietnamese Veggie Tofu Curry

1. Cut a block of extra firm tofu into bite sized cubes. Pan fry them with salt and pepper until golden. Set aside.

2. Heat some oil and saute some onion, then stir fry whatever vegetables you have on hand. I used half a head of cabbage, a red bell pepper and a box of sliced mushrooms.

3. When veggies are nearly tender, add 2 heaped tbsp. Ca Ri Ni An Do curry powder (or more to taste), a splash of soy sauce and saute for a couple of minutes.

4. Add a can of coconut milk and simmer for a few minutes.

5. Taste the curry and adjust flavors with more soy sauce if needed, and some sugar and lime juice.

6. Add the fried tofu and plenty of minced cilantro. The curry is done.

Your turn- tell me what you've been up to the last couple of months! 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Raita Dip and "The Weight Loss Trap"

Happy Fall, y'all. And hopefully, goodbye to hurricane season. We in Northern Georgia were predicted to be in the path of Hurricane Irma last week as it moved inland. As it turns out, the storm deflected West and we were just outside the path. Even being outside the path, and even with Irma being downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it got near here, we got winds, torrential rains, massive trees were felled and power lines were down. Schools were closed for 3 days. Traffic lights weren't working. By some miracle, we didn't lose power, but most of my neighbors were without power for up to 4 days. I can't begin to imagine how hard life must be for people who were directly hit by the hurricanes.

The weather is slowly cooling down in these parts. Today's recipe is an uncomplicated dressing/dip inspired by Indian raitas or yogurt-based salads. You simply stir together a few basic ingredients, and then pair the dressing with any cooked or raw vegetables of your choice.

Raita Dip

1 cup yogurt (I used a combination of Greek yogurt and homemade dahi)
2-3 tbsp. crushed roasted peanuts
1 tsp. cumin-coriander powder
Salt to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Plenty of minced cilantro

Stir together and store in a covered container for 2-3 days. Use as a dip or a salad dressing.

While making golden adais, I impulsively grabbed some of this raita dip and a box of salad greens from the fridge. The combination turned out to be fantastic. Spread a tablespoon or two of the dip on the adai and add a handful of salad greens. Roll up and enjoy right away. Especially in summer, this was a cool, light and refreshing meal.
* * *

Back in February, I wrote about being back to square one in terms of eating and exercising habits. Summer rolled by and we had a very happy and busy time with friends and family visiting for four solid months. And this week, at the start of Fall, I find myself...drum roll, please...still at square one!

So much of my daily well-being and happiness is linked to one factor: my energy level. On days when I am full of energy, life is easy and good- I can run around with my kids, I take pleasure in getting chores done, and I can do everything I need and want to, for myself and others. On days when my energy flags, even the ordinary routine feels like climbing a mountain.

Thinking of how to keep up my energy level consistently has me thinking about the trifecta of diet, exercise and sleep. We're slowly getting better at this whole sleeping thing, and I'm doing what is in my hands- which is to get to bed early, ready and eager to grab what sleep I can. As for exercise, I'm walking as much as I can- with some combination of the toddler in a stroller, the dog on a leash, and the kindergartner tagging along, since all 3 of them love being outside. But I know that I need to sit with my calendar and pencil in some formal exercise time- swimming laps, and classes at the gym. I need that kind of structured exercise; it did me a world of good the last time I fit it into my life. As far as diet goes, I know what works for me and I just have to get back into the routine of doing it.

Time Magazine had an interesting article this summer titled The Weight Loss Trap. I read it because I'm interested in the topic in general, and also because I have about 15 lbs of pregnancy weight gain that's clinging on and weighing me down, quite literally. I'm jotting down some of my notes from this article:

-Exercise is critical to good health but studies show that it is not an especially reliable way to keep off body fat.

-Individual responses to diets vary enormously. The key to weight loss is to personalize it and to find your own way there. No two people lost weight in quite the same way.

-Among people who lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off, the one commonality was that they made changes to their everyday behaviors.

-A person quoted in the article said, "Ultimately, I fell in love with taking care of myself". This resonated with me- my own life improved dramatically once I stopped thinking of diet and exercise as this awful thing, and instead started experimenting for ways to make it enjoyable and effective.

-The same person said, "My advice is to focus on each day...weight loss is a journey, not a sprint". Again, solid advice and a plea against doing anything drastic and unsustainable.

-When you lose weight, your resting metabolism slows down- so there is a biological obstacle to losing weight, and it is easy to gain back the weight that is lost. This is a sobering fact.

-We don't fully understand weight loss and gain. Weight gain could be influenced by environmental factors and by our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies.

-Most people don't need to lose massive amounts of weight, to become "skinny" or fit some perfect size, to be healthy. For most people, a 10% weight loss (eg. a 150 lbs person losing 15 lbs) is enough to produce noticeable improvements in health, such as blood sugar control and blood pressure.

Have a wonderful weekend, friends!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Whole Masoor Amti

Have you ever watched those "Where are they now?" TV specials where they track down the cast of some popular show from a bygone era and catch up on what the actors are doing decades later? I've been playing the "Where are they now?" game with about 40 of my high school friends. A couple of months ago, we had a virtual reunion on a group text messaging app. Before then, I had only been in touch with about 4 of them. So to suddenly hear dozens of old friends chattering away now on a daily basis, after a passage of over two decades, is wonderful and disorienting. With every photo, I gasp and marvel at pictures of smiling, confident women (yes, all women, I went to an all-girls' school), often posing with partners and kids, and remember them vividly all the way from the cute early grades to the gawky teenage years. Now some of us are mothers to teenagers- how is this even possible?! Where does the time go? And are you officially middle aged when you start saying things like where does the time go? 

From our graduating class in a small town, we now find ourselves living very diverse lives across the globe. In this unsettling world we live in, it is truly a blessing to know that old friends are only a text away and I am waiting to see them all in person as we cross paths during our travels. Groups chats are a funny thing- there are the constant streams of good morning messages (with requisite pictures of baskets of flowers and landscape scenes) and birthday and anniversary greetings (with requisite emojis of bouquets, cakes and confetti) plus random inspirational videos, quotations and forwarded jokes that I would rather do without. But we always welcome enticing pictures of food accompanied by recipes. One friend posted a video titled 15 most loved dishes in Kolhapur and it set off mad cravings in the group for some assal (true blue) Kolhapuri food. 7 of them are mutton dishes- that's nearly 50%! But what can I say? That percentage is an accurate reflection of the truth. Vegetarians like me are regarded with pity in Kolhapur.

Right after watching the video, one of my friends (now a Mumbai resident) changed her dinner menu and immediately made #14 on the list in the video- akkha masoor or whole lentil curry. She shared her recipe and several of us in the group made it in the days following- a tasty meme, so to speak.

My classmate's recipe is interesting, in that it is very heavy on onions, indeed, it has very little but onions and masoor. Her lovingly hand-written recipe (see the picture) calls for 7-8 onions which sounds like rather a lot, but these are the smaller, typical shallot-like onions found in India. A classmate in California piped up and said that the onions she buys are 2-3 inches wide, so should she be using that many? Which immediately led other classmates to rib her, "You never even brought a ruler to school, and now you're taking one to the market?" This is what you get with old friends.

Here is the recipe, adapted to my kitchen. There are many ways of making this dish, and this onion-heavy, tomato-less, no-coconut variation is new to me. We enjoyed it very much.

Whole Masoor Amti (Niki's recipe)

Soak 2 cups masoor (whole brown lentils) for a few hours.

Heat 3-4 tbsp. oil in a pressure cooker. Fry 2-3 finely chopped onions in the oil until browned and caramelized. Add the soaked masoor, salt, turmeric, red chili powder, cumin and coriander powder, all to taste. Add 2-3 cups of water and pressure cook until masoor is tender.

Tempering: In a small pan, heat 2 tbsp. oil and 2 tbsp. ghee. Add 1 tbsp. cumin seeds, 2 finely chopped onions and 2 finely chopped green chilies (or to taste). Saute until the onions are browned, then add this mixture to the cooked masoor and simmer for 10 minutes.

Are you in touch with your school friends? 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Summer Eating and Summer Reading

Our most exciting edible find of summer 2017 was not discovered in the produce section or even the Farmers' Market. It was foraged from rather damp and dank spaces in our own wooded neighborhood.

It was a very rainy summer here in North East Georgia, and conditions were just right for thousands of golden chanterelle mushrooms to pop up in wooded clearings. Lila and V foraged chantarelles by the armful on their morning walks, filling the stroller basket with their bounty. Back home, V cleaned and cooked them very simply in butter and garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper. We ate them straight out of the pan, on toast with brie, and tossed with pasta. Chanterelles taste earthy and woodsy and very gourmet- a thrilling treat straight from nature.

Other memorable summer treats-

Very Southern tomato sandwiches. This is a slab of focaccia spread with mayo, fresh tomato slices and a shower of salt and pepper.

Watermelon limeade- cubes of watermelon, lime juice and some crushed ice blended together for a few seconds in the Vitamix. It tastes exactly like fresh sugarcane juice if you can believe it.

Fresh figs shared by a coworker from her backyard fig tree, and briny boiled peanuts.

Our drink of the season: whole fruit margaritas made in the Vitamix. This might be my favorite cocktail of all time- cheers!

* * *

The Mother Daughter Love Fun Club

Over summer, I realized with some dismay that between never-ending household tasks and tending to baby, I couldn't carve out enough one-on-one time with Lila on a daily basis. She's getting to the age where she would enjoy a parent reading "big kid" chapter books to her so I suggested that we start a mother daughter book club and snuggle and read a few chapters every day. Lila loved the idea but wanted to call it the Mother Daughter Love Fun Club so we could do more than just read- we could include art, board games and other activities in our super exclusive, invitation-only club.

I've really enjoyed the chapter books we've read so far. Some were sweet and touching with plenty of opportunities to talk about the ups and downs of life, such as The Chalk Box Kid by Clyde Robert Bulla and My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz. Others are just plain hilarious, such as Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo and Jasper John Dooley: Star of the Week by Caroline Adderson. Andrew Lost: In the Kitchen by J C Greenburg has enough grossness to satisfy a giggling 5 year old. All of these books are new to me; as a kid, I could only dream of libraries stuffed with books. What fun it is to discover these books with my little girl.

Another summer favorite in the South-
saucer sized Magnolia flowers with their heady scent

* * *

The bedtime reading habit

Without really planning to, I have slipped into the habit of reading for 20-30 minutes before bed every night. It is one of the simple joys in life to be propped up in bed reading by the warm glow of a bedside lamp, often with Dunkie the pup resting against me. It also provides a much needed screen-free buffer before bedtime. I read from my stack of library books, or a recent issue of The New Yorker or another less weighty magazine plucked from the informal magazine exchange at the public library.

I describe the blissful start to the night's rest; however, things rapidly go downhill around the midnight mark and most of our nights could not be described as blissful. The culprit is the baby boy who wakes up complaining several times at night- the number of night wakings and the timing of night wakings all vary from night to night, keeping us stumbling around on our bleary toes. So it is only fitting that on the top of my stack is Precious Little Sleep: The Complete Baby Sleep Guide for Modern Parents by Alexis Dubief (2017- I literally bought it the day it was published). I do like the book- it is comprehensive and full of practical advice, written with intelligence and humor, however, whether it magically solves our sleep issues, only time will tell.

When I wrote this post, someone suggested that I read the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne (2009). I did and I enjoyed reading it. The author acknowledges that "Simplification is for those of us whose lives are characterized less by need than by want" and offers plenty of advice on simplifying various aspects of a child's life: decluttering their rooms and rotating toys so kids can engage in deep play, maintaining daily and weekly rhythms and routines to keep a child feeling secure, limiting scheduled activities and giving kids plenty of down time, and shielding children from the relentless anxieties and pressures of the adult world. 

My favorite fiction summer reading: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017). Anthony Horowitz is the brilliant screenwriter for two of my favorite TV mysteries- Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders. Magpie Murders is a delicious read- two mysteries in one- and I highly recommend it for all fans of the cozy mystery genre. 

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2004) is a well-crafted psychological thriller and a rollercoaster of a read- very enjoyable indeed.

I also read a memoir, Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014), enjoyed her take on the Hollywood biz, loved reading about her childhood and how she got started in comedy, and the essay on motherhood was beautiful. Amy Poehler is so fearless and talented and at least once a day I mimic her SNL weekend update sketch and say, "Really???"

Every summer, NPR comes out with a "best 100 books" list focusing on a different genre every year. This year, it was 100 best comics and graphic novels. I am a fairly new but very enthusiastic reader of graphic novels and plan to read most of these in the coming months. So far, I've read Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods by Jeff Lemire (2010)- a fascinating, disturbing post-apocalyptic tale. 

What have you been reading? 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Malai Gobi: A Restaurant Style Recipe

Over the last couple of months, we have had short and long visits from several family members and the kitchen has been bustling. Planning everyday meals for an ever changing cast of people of different ages and tastes is a bit of a challenge- a balancing act between making something new and different and "interesting" but making it with familiar and well-liked ingredients.

Cauliflower is a staple of my vegetable bin and I hunted around in my Pinterest folder for a new way to cook it. I found just what I was looking for- an easy to make but luxurious curry, and dinner that evening was a hit. The credit for this recipe goes straight to Vaishali of Holy Cow. Check out her blog for often Indian, always vegan, always fresh and accessible recipes.

I tweaked Vaishali's recipe for malai gobi a little bit. I don't have a picture but I do want to record my version of the recipe so here it is. This is one of those restaurant style recipes that you can pull off quite effortlessly. The rich, sweet, nutty sauce is finger-licking good.

Malai Gobi- a creamy cauliflower curry

1. Soak 1/2 cup raw cashew pieces for 30 minutes or so.

2. Saute 2 diced medium onions in oil.

3. Blend together to a thick smooth paste:
Sauteed onions from step 2
Soaked cashews from step 1 (with soaking water)
1 heaped tbsp. white poppy seeds (khus khus)
1-2 green chilies
1/2 cup milk (any unsweetened milk will do- dairy/ coconut/ almond)

4. Heat oil in a large saucepan and saute cauliflower florets from 1 medium head of cauliflower. Add salt to taste.

5. When florets are half cooked, add the onion-nut paste and 1 tbsp. kasuri methi. Simmer until the cauliflower is tender, stirring occasionally.

6. Turn off the heat and garnish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of garam masala*.

*The masala I often use for such curries is what my mother calls "Punjabi masala", a very simple yet flavorful blend of just 3 spices: cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

What new and interesting recipes have you been cooking lately? :) 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Zucchini Chutney for Idlis

Among gardening types (sadly, I am not a member of that club), it is well known that come summertime, zucchini is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it grows in such abundance with relatively little effort, and a curse because you have to come up with ways to use up the abundant zucchini. The zucchini bumper crop is apparently such a phenomenon that August 8 is designated as National Sneak Some Zucchini Into Your Neighbor’s Porch Day. Mark your calendars!

I kind of had zucchini snuck into my porch by my neighbor already in July- she was leaving on a long overseas vacation and texted me to say would I please use up her crisper vegetables so they won't be wasted. Of course I gratefully accepted, and next thing I know, her kid is hoisting a bucketload of zucchini onto my back porch- harvested from neighbor's mother's garden in Southern Georgia.

So zucchini found itself in everything from dal to tacos that week. Certain dishes lend themselves to endless adaptation and chutney is prime among them. That's how four specimens found themselves being given the Southern treatment of a different kind.

Zucchini Chutney- South Indian Style

Chop 4 large zucchini into large pieces. I peeled mine and removed the seeds because my zucchini were tough mature ones but you don't need to do this if the zucchini are tender.

Chop a small onion into large pieces.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a saucepan. Saute the onion and zucchini with salt until the veggies are tender. Let them cool slightly.

Grind the following to a smooth chutney in a powerful blender or food processor:
Cooked onion and zucchini
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
2-3 tbsp. sesame seeds
1-2 tbsp. tamarind concentrate
1 tsp. jaggery
1 tsp. red chili powder
Salt to taste.

Make a tempering (tadka/ phodni) by heating oil and spluttering:
Mustard seeds
Asafetida (hing)
Chana dal
Urad dal
Curry leaves.

Stir the hot tempering into the chutney. Serve with idlis or dosas.

We loved this impromptu chutney! Now if zucchini was a rare, exotic and expensive vegetable as it is in some places, I wouldn't blitz it into a chutney. But when it is abundant and needs to be used up, this is an excellent way to do it.

What vegetables and fruits are in season in your neck of the woods? The kids are loving watermelon and peaches. My parents are visiting and enjoying fresh cherries. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Five-Layer Sev Puri Dip

Chaat-- that whole family of spicy, sweet, tangy Indian street food- is hard to describe but easy to love. I am going through a sev puri phase of some kind; almost every time we host a gathering or when friends or neighbors stop by, the snack that I am most likely to rustle up for them is a plate of sev puri. It never fails to delight. "What's in this?", folks ask incredulously- and that is precisely the magic of chaat. Chaat dishes have many components- a bit of this and a bit of that- that all add up to more than the sum of the parts.

My version of last-minute sev puri starts with a jar of thick sweet-tangy date and tamarind chutney that I make ahead of time and pull out from the fridge or freezer as needed. So let's take a step back and make the chutney.

I've posted date tamarind chutney before in this post but here's another version, slightly updated. Dates are a staple in my fridge- I usually buy the soft pitted mejdool or deglet varieties. I use them for this chutney, and to make smoothies and fruit-and-nut treats.

Date and Tamarind Chutney

Place 1 cup packed pitted soft dates in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover the dates. Add 1 tsp salt, 1/4 cup jaggery and 1/4 cup tamarind concentrate.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
Cool a bit, then place mixture in blender and blend to a smooth paste.
Stir in 1 tsp. cumin-coriander powder and 1/2 tsp. red chilli powder (optional).

I store this mixture in jars in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for 2-3 months. With this chutney ready, a plate of sev puri is only a few minutes away. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I shall let you decide ;)

To store the date chutney, I often reuse sturdy screw-top Talenti gelato containers. If certain ice cream thieves come snooping into the freezer late at night and dip a spoon into a frozen pint that says "dark chocolate" on the front, they will find themselves tasting dates and tamarind instead. Mmm :)

Regular(ish) Sev Puri

Sev puri topping can be made a few hours ahead of time. My twist to the traditional toppings is to use another pantry staple- a can of chickpeas in addition to the usual potatoes and onions.

To make the topping, start by boiling 2 medium potatoes (Yukon gold potatoes are the preferred variety in my kitchen).

Mix together 2 peeled and mashed boiled potatoes, a drained can of chickpeas (or 1 cup or two of home-cooked chickpeas), also roughly mashed, 1 small minced onion, a large handful of minced cilantro, salt and red chili powder to taste. This topping mix can be stored in the fridge for a few hours.

When you're ready to serve sev puri...

1. Set out round tortilla chips in a platter. I use tortilla chips because I can access them easily but use regular sev puri puris if you can find them and prefer them.

2. Top each chip with a half tablespoon or so of the topping.

3. Add a dollop of the date and tamarind chutney.

4. Finish with a shower of sev (fried chickpea noodles), sold in Indian stores.

Five-Layer Sev Puri Dip

We hosted a large gathering recently, and it wasn't practical to make platter after platter of sev puris for 25 guests. I remembered Mints' Indian dabeli dip from several years ago and adapted it to make a sev puri dip- same taste as sev puri but a different format to feed a crowd.

I made the date tamarind chutney a few days ahead of time. The day before the party, I sprouted and cooked a couple of cups of moth beans (matki)- other sprouts such as moong would work as well. I also boiled a few potatoes. Then I made the layers as follows in a glass baking dish:

Layer 1: Boiled mashed salted potatoes
Layer 2: Date tamarind chutney
Layer 3: Cooked sprouts
Layer 4: Minced onion and cilantro
Layer 5: Sev (add at the last possible minute to keep it crunchy)

Serve with tortilla chips. This dip was a hit!

I usually don't make the "teekha chutney"- the spicy mint cilantro green chili chutney but it would be a nice addition to this dip, especially if your friends enjoy spicy food.

Do you have any go-to party snacks? Share your ideas in the comments!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why Do You Bake?

"Why do you bake"- This was the question posed to me by my high school friend's nine year old son. He was scarfing down brownies and lemon bars at my kitchen counter and had just informed me that I should open a bakery. Did I mention that he's a great kid? ;)

I bake because it is fun- like an experiment, and then you get to eat the results, is what I told him. Baking and cooking certainly is fun, but it is much more than that. It is a simple way to spread some cheer, contribute to the community, nourish relationships and share the love.

Recently, baking triggered a big wave of nostalgia. Over Memorial Day weekend, I hosted a mini reunion with two of my best high school buddies and their families. Some of our most vivid high school memories are of getting together in my parents' kitchen and baking a cake, specifically, a marble cake with swirls of vanilla and chocolate cake which was our family go-to cake recipe. It was a "true pound cake", as in, the recipe was similar to the original way pound cakes were made, using a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.

Baking certainly wasn't a traditional activity in Indian home kitchens at the time we were growing up. But my parents loved baking cakes now and then, using a big plug-in countertop oven which had been a wedding gift and an electric hand mixer which my grandparents brought back from a trip to Singapore.

I described the making of the cake in this blog post nearly a decade ago: "Equal weights of eggs, butter (usually home-churned), sugar (powdered in the mixie) and flour (sifted with baking powder) were set out. Ritually, butter and sugar were creamed together with some vanilla essence. Beaten eggs and flour were added in tandem, a little at a time, until a thick and creamy batter emerged. The batter would get divided into two parts. One part got tutti frutti and chopped walnuts stirred into it, and the other got a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. The two batters were dropped in random clumps into a cake pan lined with newspaper, and after a hour of baking, a random marbled cake emerged, with swirls of pale yellow and dark brown. Occasionally, the birthday girl would request a more colorful cake, and then the batter would get divided into four, and two portions would get pink or green food coloring to result in a beautifully ribboned cake with swirls of pastel colors."

Well, this was the marble cake that we would make as teenagers. I use the term "we" loosely. The gal pals would sit around and yak steadily while I hustled to make the cake, then they gamely ate up half the batter in the name of tasting it even before it went into the oven. The resulting cake would be demolished in minutes in the way that only teenagers can devour food.

So when my girlfriends showed up, it made perfect sense to welcome them with a freshly baked marbled cake, for old times' sake. While I loved the "true pound cake" recipe back then, I no longer use those proportions to make cake- the equal weights of ingredients is way sweeter and greasier than it needs to be. Instead I used this recipe for marble cake from The Kitchn. A few notes on the recipe: I skipped the ganache frosting- it just isn't necessary. And I made the cake by hand- an electric mixer isn't needed. Instead of the buttermilk, it is fine to use a mixture of yogurt and milk.

The marbled cake turned out beautifully. The vanilla part was soft and vanilla-scented and the chocolate part was nice and chocolatey. In keeping with historic tradition, we polished off the entire cake in one evening; the last crumbs were eaten as we played poker late into the night...

That memorable Memorial day weekend marked the beginning of summer 2017, and the end of Lila's first year of public school; it was a busy and wonderful one and she seemed to thrive in her school. Some of her favorite times in school involved what they call the "specials"- Art, Music and Physical Education. Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." Yes, well, until that great day arrives, parents in our school have to work very hard to raise funds for these specials, for field trips, enrichment activities and teacher appreciation events that aren't covered by the regular school budget.

I rarely attended PTA meetings this year, but I tried to be a good worker bee and signed up to do simple, tangible tasks- like serving salad at the spaghetti dinner and reading a book aloud in the classroom on Dr. Seuss day. My interest in cooking came in handy when we were asked to contribute items to a silent auction fundraiser. I offered a three hour Indian cooking class- and to my relief someone bought it. It was great fun and something I would certainly offer again.

For the end of school teacher luncheon, I signed up to bring dessert and made these lemon bars. The recipe is a keeper- really easy and really fun to make. It makes a large batch and the bars freeze beautifully. A couple of notes on the recipe: you can cut down the sugar if you wish. And by far the best way to cut butter into flour for the shortbread crust is to freeze the sticks of butter and grate them into the flour.

Lila felt bad that the teachers got lemon bars but the bus driver didn't get any, so she talked me into making treats for the bus driver. Together we made another batch of the lemon bars, and while we were at it, also made a double batch of brownies. My go-to brownie recipe is the one for Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies, featured here on Smitten Kitchen. A double recipe fits nicely in a 9 x 13 pan. Half the lemon bars and brownies were packaged up with a thank you note for our very nice bus driver, and the other half went into the freezer for the aforementioned Memorial weekend reunion.

So there you have it- three baked goodies- marble cake, lemon bars and brownies- that are all easy to make, made with simple pantry ingredients, all freezer-friendly and great to share as treats. Happy baking, friends!

Tell me- why do you bake? :)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Quinoa Dosa with Quirky Fillings

Every few weekends, I haul out my biggest mixing bowls and drag the jumbo stone grinder to the center of the counter- it is time to do the ritualized measuring, soaking, grinding, washing up, fermenting, all in anticipation of the moment when the kitchen steams up with the aroma of idlis and the sizzle of dosas on the cast iron pan. I enjoy the process very much (and the product even more!) but it requires a certain amount of planning and blocking off time to do the grinding in between weekend chores and baby naps.

When the craving for dosa strikes in the middle of a week, I have been making something distinctly less authentic but just as tasty and satisfying- a quinoa dosa paired with all sorts of interesting non-traditional fillings.

I do soak the ingredients for a few hours and I do ferment the batter for a few hours as well, but the grinding (which seems to be the most time consuming and tiring part for me) is done in only a couple of minutes in a heavy-duty blender.

Quinoa dosa may sound like something with a health halo- a better-for-you but worse-tasting alternative to the original. And I'll admit that when I first made this, I thought I would be compromising on the taste of real proper dosa. With the first taste, I cheered aloud- quinoa dosa is full of flavor, crispy and wonderful. Both of my kids love it. We make a thicker dosa, smear it with ghee and tear it into bits for the baby to eat as a finger food. His big sister likes a crispy version of the dosa, rolled up with some filling inside, with plain yogurt as a dipping sauce.

Quinoa Dosa

SOAK: In a big bowl, soak together:
2 measures quinoa (I used tricolor quinoa because that's what I had on hand). By measure, I mean the rice cup measure, which is about 3/4 cup.
1 measure ural dal (I use skinned whole- gota- ural dal)
2 tbsp. chana dal
2 tbsp. raw rice

BLEND: After a few hours, use a heavy duty blender like the Vitamix to make a smooth batter, using water as necessary.

FERMENT: Ferment the batter in a warm spot for a few hours.

COOK: Make dosas on a cast iron skillet.

The traditional potato masala (filling) for dosa is marvelous, and I love riffing on the recipe to make all sorts of variations. One is the kale and butternut squash twist that I've posted before. Pictured above is a version made similarly, with a box of frozen chopped spinach (a pantry staple chez One Hot Stove) and a potato. Other vegetables that have worked spectacularly well as dosa filling: eggplant, cauliflower, and believe it or not, mushrooms.

I've seen off-beat dosas made with barley and oats and those would be nice to try.
What are your favorite variations of dosa?

* * * TV Land * * *

Our Friday night family movie nights continue to be an enjoyable kick-off to the weekend. Last Friday we watched Hotel Transylvania 2 and it was pretty entertaining with Adam Sandler as the voice of Dracula. The week before that we watched The BFG, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's book- a heartwarming and enjoyable movie. We also watched Finding Dory, which was a bit depressing for me with the story line of animals in captivity- I absolutely cannot stand zoos and aquariums.

By far my favorite thing to watch lately with Lila is StoryBots Super Songs- they are so clever and funny and absolutely entertaining even for people of a certain age, shall we say, who are not particularly enamored of dinosaurs, vehicles and such. My favorite storybot songs: colors, dinosaurs, solar system and barn animals.

I'm always partial to British shows and with home remodeling/ decluttering/ design on my mind, I have been watching Grand Designs (about people's ambitious projects to build off-beat homes) and Escape to The Country (pretty self-explanatory: about people leaving behind city life to buy homes in the country). The latter is almost a travel show illuminating the geography, history and culture of the British countryside. Sticking with the British theme, I am enjoying the Father Brown mysteries featuring the intelligent and compassionate amateur detective Father Brown, although I haven't yet read the G. K. Chesterton books that the character is based on.

In a mood to watch something uplifting that celebrates the awe-inspiring side of humanity, I found two documentaries and highly recommend them. Cave of Forgotten Dreams has footage of some of humanity's earliest paintings, found in the Chauvet cave of France. It blew my mind that these 30,000 year old paintings looked so fluid, so modern, so skillful.

Man on Wire is the almost unbelievable story of a young Frenchman Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who took the help of a few loyal friends to illegally rig a wire across the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked/danced between the towers, a hundred stories above the ground, for over 30 minutes. Watching this documentary brought back a flood of memories. I was living in New York City on 9/11 and the weekend right before the towers were destroyed, I was sitting with my friends in their shadow eating bagels. The towers were office buildings, practically deserted on the weekend. We just stopped there for a snack before going on to other places around town, not knowing that something was about to happen there in 3 days that would change the world. Anyway, this tightrope walk happened in 1974, decades before that fateful day.

As for movies, I enjoyed these two very much: O Brother Where Art Thou has George Clooney AND an amazing soundtrack. Something's Gotta Give is a fun romantic comedy with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

What are you watching these days? Got any movies to recommend? 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Magic of Spring Cleaning

This month, in keeping with the season, I'm in the middle of a whole house Spring cleaning project. Actually, let me correct myself- it is Spring tidying and not Spring cleaning. What I am doing is clearing out clutter and getting our home organized.

The tail end of March threw me a bit of a curve ball in the form of minor surgery on my big toe- minor surgery with some pretty major discomfort which kept me off my feet for a while. A couple of weeks ago I was finally feeling energetic and closer to my usual self, ready to tackle this project. The renovation of part of our home was completed in mid-April which was great timing to be getting the house in order, quite literally. And we have friends and family visiting all the way from Memorial Day to beyond Labor day, so being streamlined is going to be sanity-saving.

Image: Goodreads
To properly psych myself up for this task, I went straight to the library and borrowed a bestseller- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I could not have chosen a more motivating book. Who would have thought that a book about home organization would be so polarizing? But KonMari as the author is called is beloved by some and criticized by others. KonMari is very quirky. She is single-minded in her insistence that the exacting KonMari method is the one and only way to get lasting results as far as life-long tidiness goes. But there were so many points in this book that resonated with me. To quote a few:

1. "A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming."

2. On gifts: "The true purpose of a present is to be received". The purpose of a gift is simply to convey feelings. Once the gift has been accepted with joy and gratitude, its job is done. If you can use it, great, if not, donate or discard it without any guilty feelings. Thinking about this also reminded me to give gifts that are functional or consumable or "experience gifts"- and less likely to end up as clutter.

3. "Start by discarding". Don't organize clutter, just get rid of it. No need to rush out and buy containers and storage furniture. Only keep enough stuff that can reasonably live in the space you have.

4. "Does it spark joy?" This is the ultimate KonMari catchphrase. I take this to mean that an object must add some value to your life by being useful or by making you happy in some way. Choose what you want to keep in your life.

5. "Appreciate your possessions". I've heard it being said that KonMari's obsession with ruthless decluttering is wasteful but in fact I thought that this is a book that is remarkably eco-friendly. She talks about cherishing your possessions and expressing gratitude towards them. It means you own only things you love and take good care of them.

6. "Designate a place for each thing". Tidying is a simple concept, where every object should have a home and be returned to that home when you are done using it.

7. On a more practical note: "Store things standing up rather than laid flat." Piling things one of top of another means that stuff gets buried and you can't see what you have.

8. "Before you start, visualize the destination". When I look at design blogs, the spaces I'm drawn to are full of natural light and color, functional, welcoming and free of clutter. That's the "happy modern cottage" look that I would like my home to have.

9. Finally, this gem: "The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life".

One of my biggest motivations for this Spring tidying marathon is to create spaces that my kids can thrive in. We have a baby who is on the cusp of being mobile and needs space to explore his world safely and freely.

Meanwhile, I have been observing our preschooler for 5 and a half years and have a good understanding of what kind of play she engages in and what environment suits her best. It turns out that she ignores most of her toys. She would rather engage in pretend play using objects around the house and stuff retrieved from the recycling bin. She ignored her play kitchen set and instead took away my set of measuring cups to play with. Don't worry, mama, she told me magnanimously, you can borrow these measuring cups any time you need them.

These days, she's also spending a lot of time playing board games and making arts and crafts. In December, V was out of the country for ten excruciatingly long days and I had to come up with strategies to keep Lila busy after school while I was occupied with a demanding young baby. What worked best is that I spread a waterproof sheet on the dining table and converted it to an "art studio". We spread out sheets of paper, blank cards, stickers, crayons, markers, paints and let everything stay out there on the table as we made holiday cards and random artwork day after day. Having materials accessible at arm's reach is excellent for sparking creativity at a moment's notice. 

All these things were on my mind when I listened to this podcast and they talked about embracing simplicity and editing their children's toys. It reminded me of a post I read a long time ago about a mother who took all her kids' toys away in an extreme parenting moment and discovered that less is indeed more.

So I KonMaried the children's books and toys. I did it on a day that I had taken off from work while the kids were conveniently at school- it was my birthday, actually. If it seems loopy to spend one's rare and precious day off doing this, well, all I can say is that it brought me a great deal of mental satisfaction. It took hours and the work continued this weekend.

Two big bags of toys have been donated to the thrift store, there is a folding table permanently set up as an art space, board games and books are neatly arranged vertically and everything is visible and available for playing, reading, creating.

V warned me that Lila would not be happy to see the changes. He got me worried and I smiled nervously as I greeted Lila off the bus that day. To my astonishment she noticed NOTHING. Strolled over and started playing with the wombat stuffie that I had unearthed.

It takes a lot of privilege to have so much stuff that you even have to worry about decluttering and simplifying. But this is the best way to not take that privilege for granted- by having fewer things, taking care of them and enjoying them actively rather than looking to acquire more and more. This whole exercise has been just wonderful. Maybe life-changing, even ;)

Tell me- what does "stuff" mean to you? Oh, and Happy May!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Dinner Talk Game

Today, I'm sharing a simple conversation game that has made mealtimes much more enjoyable for our family.

Weekday evenings around 5:30 PM is dinnertime in the One Hot Stove household- and it is peak chaos. We enjoy gathering together in the kitchen but it is a race against time as V and I tag-team to get everyone fed, bathed and tucked safely into bed. Amid the many distractions, we try to keep a dinnertime conversation going with Lila.  But everyone tends to be worn out by this time and a tired question like, "How was school?" gets equally tired answers like "Fine" or "OK" or just a wordless shrug.

Somewhere along the way, we started playing the Mad-Sad-Glad game- I forget where I came across this idea. You go around the table, and each person shares something that made them mad that day, something that made them sad and something that made them glad. It is a simple yet powerful prompt to think about the happenings of the day and share some of the ups and downs, and gives an opening to talk about things that may be worrying or upsetting you (the sad and mad bits) and find something to be excited, happy or grateful about (the glad bit).

With the success of Mad-Sad-Glad, I spent some time collecting other conversation prompts from various websites and typed up about 50 questions and printed them out- a handful of strips of paper that became our "dinner talk game". At dinner, we take turns picking questions and go around the table answering them. The questions are light-hearted, with the intention of learning more about each other's preferences, dreams, wishes and personality. I chose them to be engaging to preschoolers, but fun for any age. We have many hilarious and warm conversations based off these random questions.

For instance, for the question, "What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited", Lila surprised me by saying it was her best friend's room. Why? "Because she has so many pink toys."

For the question, "What would you rename yourself", the answer was "Unicorna" LOL LOL LOL

Some of the questions are pretty deep- like "What is the hardest thing about being ___ years old" as in, what is the hardest thing about being your age? Because there is something wonderful and something challenging about being every age, from 1 to 101.

In this end, this simple game is all about prompting each person to be curious about themselves- their likes and dislikes- and to interested in others.

For the question, "If you were the mom/dad, what rules would you make?", Lila said that she would have more family traditions, such as a family movie night. Good idea- we implemented that one right away. Since December, Friday nights are movie nights at our house, a special night when you get to eat dinner in the living room. On weekend mornings, we let Lila watch some TV, and those are the times when we are using it as an electronic babysitter to keep her occupied while we relax and do something else. Movie night is different because we actually sit down, put away the phones and laptops and watch the movie with her, and laugh together and talk about what is happening. So far, we have enjoyed many movies, including recent animated like Home and Zootopia, classics like ET and random children's movies I find on Netflix, like Paddington. Last Friday, a couple of friends joined our movie night for the ridiculous Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.

If you would like to play the Dinner Talk Game with your own family, e-mail me (onehotstove AT gmail DOT com) and I will send you a copy of the questions within a day or two.

Simply print out the 2 pages of questions. Card stock would be sturdier but any paper will do. Then cut the sheets down the middle, then across so each question is on a separate strip of paper. Place the question strips in a bowl or jar on the dinner table. Take turns drawing questions and go around the table answering them.

What does dinner time look like in your family?

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Dinner that Practically Cooks Itself

February may be the shortest month of the year, but for me it seemed to last forever and a day. The days were full of wide-ranging everyday dramas pulling me in different directions- respiratory viruses, ear infections, V traveling for work, my colleagues visiting from Africa, the start of our basement remodel, our biennial quilt show- and finally here I am in March, feeling a bit winded.

And let's not forget that Feb was the much-touted sugar free month. Well, my sugar free status lasted all of 24 days. On February 25, with my willpower at an all time low thanks to a nasty virus, what did me in was a box of Girl Scout cookies! There are a couple of adorable Girl Scouts in my life and hence the abundance of cookies this time of year. I bought several boxes of trefoils (shortbreads), the only kind of Girl Scout cookies that I like. I am not a fan of the thin mints that everyone seems to love. The trefoils are so good dunked in chai.

My sugar free month may not have been perfect but it was perfectly worthwhile. I am no longer reaching for sweet treats and desserts without thinking- just a moment's pause is enough to decide whether I really want to be eating something or not. And my taste buds are positively more sensitive to sweetness. So it was a good exercise and I am glad I did it- and many thanks to all of you who played along! Tell me how it went for you.

Almost every day of this past week, this is the scene in my kitchen. I start making dinner (precariously close to dinner time) by turning on the oven to 400F (convection roast) and pulling out a sheet pan. While the oven is preheating, I make a trip to the crisper to pull out any vegetables that are on hand, which I chop quickly and toss with olive oil and some seasoning. Then they go into the oven until tender and a little charred at the edges. It takes all of 15 minutes in my oven.

The roasted vegetables can be part of all kinds of quick dinners- they can be the subzi served with khichdi, or tossed with canned beans to make a taco filling or stuffed into grilled cheese or tossed with cooked noodles and some sauce- say, Thai-style peanut sauce or pesto.

Here are short "recipes" for my two favorite sheet pan suppers of last week.

1. Roasted cabbage and broccoli, seasoned with a little cumin and garlic. While the veggies were roasting, I made a quick khichdi in the pressure cooker- 1.5 cups masoor dal (soaked for a few hours), scant quarter cup rice, cumin seeds, a sprig of curry leaves, salt, a little pulao masala, water. For almost no effort at all, we had a piping hot supper that was perfect with a drizzle of ghee and a dollop of pickle.

2. Mexican style hash: Roasted cauliflower, green bell pepper, onion- seasoned with garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano. I tossed the roasted veggies with a cup of leftover cooked rice and a can of black beans, then stuck it back in the hot oven for a few minutes to warm the rice and beans. With some shredded cheese and bottled salsa, this supper hit the spot.

Sheet pan dinners are actually really trendy right now- and possibly the first time in my life that I am doing something trendy, purely by accident! But truly, when your goal is to eat a large amount of tasty and well-seasoned vegetables, cooked as quickly and easily as possible, then the sheet pan is your friend.

What have you been cooking this week? 

Monday, February 06, 2017

Velvety Cauliflower Soup

Cough and cold viruses seem to have taken over our community for the last week or so; everyone in our family has had their share of runny noses and mild fevers and disrupted routines. I've been making pretty simple everyday meals to keep us going, and soup is often on the menu- this cauliflower soup has been a particular favorite lately.

Many years ago, I posted this spicy cauliflower soup recipe from Alice Waters. These days, I am making and loving this version that is much more plain and not spicy; when blended smoothly, I swear it tastes like liquid velvet!

1. Heat oil or butter in a large pot.
2. Saute a diced onion and plenty of garlic.
3. Add 3 tablespoons or so nutritional yeast (or a couple tablespoons all-purpose flour, or some combination of flour and nutritional yeast).
4. Add in a head of cauliflower, roughly chopped.
5. Season with salt and pepper and stir around for a couple of minutes.
6. Add a couple of cups of water or vegetable stock, cover the pot and simmer until the cauliflower is tender.
7. Blend the soup to a velvety smooth texture, adding some milk/ cream/ grated cheese/ cream cheese if desired. I add some of these ingredients variously depending on what I have on hand and depending on what I am serving with the soup.

Last week I made a thicker version of this soup and served it as an alfredo sauce with pasta shells- it was a hit!

Just this evening I made a similar soup with broccoli, with a little carrot sauteed along with the onions, and with some cream cheese blended in- the result is just like the broccoli cheese soup so beloved in restaurants.

Sugar-Free February continues to go well. Over the weekend, I took Lila to a little neighbor's donut themed birthday party- there were boxes and boxes of frosted donuts of every kind- but I managed to keep on walking right past the table, and enjoyed some black coffee and fresh fruit instead.

At work, there seems to be a plate of muffins or brownies or leftover donuts from some meeting in the kitchen area every other day or so, and instead of automatically reaching for a stale muffin just because it is there (and regretting it 5 minutes later), it is actually a relief to walk away.

How is your week coming along? What's the best thing you cooked or ate this week? 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Sugar Free February is here! (And Jam Jar Dressings)

To everyone who is participating in Sugar-Free February- the big day (?!) is finally here. How did Day 1 go for you?

Around here, it was a pretty routine weekday. I'm fairly used to my twice-a-day sugar-free chai by now. It is not particularly enjoyable but it is a hot beverage and it has caffeine, so at least it checks off two important boxes. Instead of (lightly) sweetening my almond butter oatmeal the usual way with maple syrup or jaggery, today I sliced half a banana into it and that tweak worked just fine. Eating lunch at my desk, I doused my roasted vegetable bowl with hot sauce, then did a double take and quickly checked the ingredients on the bottle- and whew, no sugar there ;)

If you are looking for inspiration, might I suggest reading this Washington Post article- Ellie Krieger writes about why it can be hard to cut back on sugar and suggests practical ways to do it. I particularly like the couple of paragraphs that talk about the addictive nature of sugar. She has good tips about giving yourself a small sugar allowance per day and spending it wisely. But I must say that I don't much agree with her assertion that most of us should be eating more fruits and dairy than we already are.

* * * 

One of my favorite habits that helps us eat better is my "house salad mix" that I have described in this post. I make a big box of it every few days and we enjoy it in several meals with different dressings.

I've never found a store bought dressing that I like (which may be just as well, since most seem to have added sugar...) but we usually make a quick jam jar dressing for the salad- where you add ingredients to a clean glass jar and get your favorite five year old to shake it up for you.

Our usual jam jar dressing is equal parts vinegar (either balsamic or apple cider), olive oil, a dab of dijon mustard, salt and pepper.

Meyer lemons are in season now- they are sweeter, less acidic and more fragrant than regular lemons. They make a fantastic salad dressing. Regular lemon juice will work  here as well.

To make garlic lemon dressing: Into a jam jar goes the juice of two meyer lemons, an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil (just eyeball it), some grated fresh garlic (use a microplane zester), salt and pepper to taste- then shake up the dressing until well emulsified.

More jam jar dressing inspiration here (check out the comments). See you in a couple of days! 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sugar-Free February: Planning and Prep

To everyone who is joining me for the Sugar-Free February challenge- welcome! We are 10 days away from February and this includes two weekends, which gives us all plenty of time to prepare. Diet is such a very personal thing, but I hope we can support each other in making whatever change, big or small, that we each choose to make.

Step 1: Prepare yourself mentally. Find a few minutes of quiet time and ask yourself-

What do I want to get out of this month-long challenge?

I want to reset my taste buds by cutting out added sugar for a month. I'm all about eating everything in moderation and not undertaking fad diets but the fact is that sugar is literally addictive, and sugar is literally everywhere, so I am trying this month of cutting back on it.

Step 2: Set the rules for yourself

These are mine:
  1. No foods with added sugar. This includes obvious foods like soda, cookies, candy, chocolate, cake, desserts, most baked goods and breakfast cereals. But it also includes other foods where sugar may be lurking- for instance, bread, pasta sauce and salad dressing. When reading ingredient lists, keep in mind that sugar is listed under many different names- for instance, there are 61 names for sugar listed in the right side-bar of this webpage.
  2. No artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners may have zero calories and zero carbs but their sweet taste leads to more cravings for sweet foods.
  3. Natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits and dairy are OK. 
Step 3: Prepare your kitchen

1. Get rid of the foods that you don't want to eat in February. Eat them up, give them away, throw them away, or wrap them in an opaque bag and hide them somewhere for the month.

2. Stock up on the foods that you do want to eat this month. Make a list of your go-to weeknight meals and stock up on the ingredients. Make a list of no-sugar-added snacks that you will want to eat. For your favorite pantry staples- which might be bread, pasta sauce, peanut butter or whatever- find good no-added-sugar brands.

Step 4: Start weaning yourself off sugar if you have to. I have a 2 cup a day chai habit, and I like it with milk and sugar. I have started to cut down on the amount of sugar I add- this week, I'm adding 1/4 tsp or nothing at all. This goes for any tea, coffee, soda or any other sugary drink that you might be in the habit of drinking.

Step 5: Think of some good distractions. Staying busy is a good way to ward off cravings. I have some big projects (home repairs, quilt show, a trip etc.) coming up in March and preparing for those will keep me busy, but I also plan to check out a few cozy books from the library.

Please use the comment section to share how you are preparing for sugar-free February! 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Week 2: Back to Square One

The end of a year and the beginning of another is typically a time for contemplation and new beginnings. Two years ago, I wrote a long and heartfelt post about gestational diabetes being a wake up call for me, and resolved to make some positive changes in my life in 2015. And indeed, 2015 was a year of hard work and many lifestyle changes. I put many new habits into place and gratifyingly, becoming lighter, fitter, stronger as the months went by.

And then, things changed again. By the end of 2015, I was pregnant with my second baby and the first trimester fatigue was overwhelming. I had to take life one day at a time. My history of gestational diabetes flagged me for an early screening test, the one-hour glucose tolerance test. I failed the test by a small margin, with my blood glucose measuring at 144 mg/dL when the cut-off is 140 mg/dL. This meant that I had to go in for the three hour 100 gram glucose tolerance test. My glucose measured perfectly within-range for the longer test, so my OBs and I collectively breathed a sigh of relief and they advised me to keep doing what I was doing in terms of being active and moderating my carb intake.

Around 25 weeks is when most pregnant women in the US are tested for gestational diabetes, and when this time rolled around for me, it was recommended that I go in for yet another three hour glucose tolerance test. And I did something that I rarely do in the face of medical advice- I refused to take the test. Why? Because (a) I am "borderline" on these tests, either narrowly passing them or narrowly failing them more or less depending on the day, (b) I find this test to be extremely unpleasant what with drinking 100 grams pure glucose on a fasting stomach and then sitting around the lab for 4 hours for 4 separate needle sticks, and (c) most importantly, if I failed the test, the next step would simply be that I would be testing myself 4 times a day with finger-sticks and a glucose meter and controlling my blood glucose with diet and exercise.

So I chose to skip the test, and go straight to the self-monitoring. I had my glucose meter from 5 years ago; I bought fresh test strips and new batteries, re-calibrated the meter and was good to go- testing 4 times a day (fasting + an hour after breakfast, lunch and dinner) and meticulously recording the numbers. Interestingly, two of my OBs thought my approach was perfectly reasonable. The third OB was not happy- her argument was that without the test, I don't have a diagnosis of being either positive or negative for gestational diabetes- having the diagnosis flags a woman for further tests. I saw her point and worked out a negotiation- I would continue self-monitoring and let them know if the numbers were trending high (but still skip the darn glucose tolerance test). And she would send me for a late-term ultrasound, which they recommend for GD+ women to make sure the baby wasn't getting too big (etc.)

I find glucose self-monitoring is the most amazing tool for me. You get instant feedback on how you are doing and how different types, amounts and combinations of foods affect your blood glucose. For instance, my numbers would always run high after eating Chinese take-out, even when I skipped the rice. They would run high when I ate take-out pizza, even if I ate only 2 small slices and a big salad on the side. The finger-pricks honestly are not painful, especially once you learn how to do them right, but I still find them unpleasant to do. There are a few non-invasive glucose monitors being developed- skin patches, earlobe clips- and I hope they are commercially available soon because I want to buy and use one of these. Regular glucose monitoring is the best way to prevent and self-manage diabetes.

Anyway, I managed to keep the glucose numbers within range during the pregnancy. After a few weeks of within-range numbers, one of the OBs said I could calm the heck down and test only 1 day or so per week. Even though last spring and summer was a hectic time for our family and there was no time for carefully calibrating diet and exercise, I believe that the reason it went better this time was because I was in better health at baseline and knew what works for my body. I will be eternally grateful that the baby was born uneventfully and with an average birthweight.

With a new baby, all kinds of routines and habits go down the tubes. We have been in maintenance mode. Now with a nearly 6 month old baby, I feel as though I am back to square one in some ways. And that is OK. I just have to work out a new normal in terms of eating and exercising. In life, the only constant is change and you just keep adapting and tweaking the routine to keep up.

So when this past weekend, a dear friend brought up the idea of doing a sugar-free month, I jumped up and said I would do it with her. She was inspired by this NYTimes article. The sugar-free month is intended to reset taste buds that have been over-indulging in sweets over the holiday season. It is a way to become more aware of how much sugar we consume on a day to day basis without even realizing it.

We're trying to get some of our friends and co-workers to join in on the "fun". The whole month of February will be our sugar-free month so we have a couple of weeks to prepare for it. When I say sugar-free, it is more of a "free of added sugars", meaning that sugars naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and dairy are fine. But really, each person doing the challenge gets to make their own rules about what foods they want to cut out and what habits they want to change.

Do you have any interest in joining our Sugar-Free February challenge? Let me know and I will post updates on the blog so we can all do it together. 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Week 1: Vacation Cooking and Board Games

Week 1 of 2017 saw us wrapping up the festivities of winter break and settling back into the work and school routine.

Christmas weekend kicked off with a visit by our friends Bala and Shankar and their two dogs. Bala and I met as fellow food bloggers in St. Louis (and fellow dog-lovers) and have been friends ever since.

Bala is an artist by profession and I've always been a fan of her intricate, graphic, henna-inspired designs. The life of an artist seems like it would be an idyllic one, painting the day away in a color-filled studio. Chatting with Bala, it was interesting to learn how busy and varied the work is- applying to get into the big art shows, driving to art shows almost every weekend, the sheer physical labor of setting up tents and displaying one's work, being on social media and connecting with patrons, all while painting and dreaming up new designs. It is fascinating to learn of a working life so different from one's own.
More of Bala's work:
Art by Bala and on Facebook

Board games were a major theme of this winter break. Bala and Shankar introduced us to one of their favorite games- Settlers of Catan. This is a wildly popular game and I was glad to finally get a chance to play it, but it is a strategy, role-playing type of game and not really my thing.

Right after their visit, we packed up the car and the kids and headed out to Tybee island on the Georgia coast for our first family vacation since Mr. Baby's arrival. Close friends of ours drove down all the way from Boston and Philly, and so we were 3 families- 6 adults and 5 kids-  getting together for several days of sandy fun.

On Tybee, we climbed the lighthouse at the North end of the island. The kids- ages 3, 4, 5, 8 surprised me by climbing up and down all 198 steps of the steep circular wrought iron staircase quite enthusiastically. We walked the beach, dared each other to run into the frigid Atlantic and collected shells.

We took a day trip into picture-perfect Savannah where the kids loved the artzeum and the iconic Leopold's ice cream- I tasted the eggnog and lemon custard flavors and they were indeed outstanding. The lemon custard flavor has been sold in this shop since 1919.

But the stand-out highlight of our vacation was the adorable cottage that we rented for the week. The cottage had a cabana in the backyard, a heated salt-water pool, and a big screen TV, so it really was a self-contained place to hang out and connect with friends.

A vacation with this gang is all about the food. Tybee island has seafood galore (which the rest of our group enjoyed) but no vegetarian food to be found for miles and miles, so in the interest of self-preservation, I carried along a car-load of groceries. Other than two restaurant meals and pizza take-out once, we cooked and ate our meals in the well-equipped kitchen at the cottage. 10 people eating 3 meals a day, for 5 and a half days. That certainly involved a bunch of food and a bunch of planning.

5 vacation cooking tips that worked on this trip:

1. Pack a cooler: Our first meal on arrival was a dinner, and everyone would be tired and hungry after driving long distances, so in the days before we left, I made egg curry (the base sans eggs) and dal fry and packed them in containers and froze them solid. I carried these frozen containers in the cooler (where they doubled as ice packs) along with blocks of cheese and paneer, butter and cream cheese. At the destination (5 hours drive away), all I had to do was re-heat the curries, make fresh rice and boil some eggs, and a hot dinner was good to go.

2. Buy some refrigerated stuff on arrival: Right after arriving on the island, we stopped for milk, plain yogurt, eggs, flavored yogurt cups for the kids.

3. Take all the breakfast things: People sleep in, wake up at different times, and can help themselves to their breakfast of choice. Accordingly I packed bread, pancake mix, cheerios, home-made granola, almond butter, jam, maple syrup, fruit, hot chocolate mix. And there were the aforementioned eggs, milk, yogurt cups, butter and cream cheese. We even took some pesto for V's favorite breakfast pesto-egg-cream cheese sandwiches. So that covered all the breakfast bases and then some! As a plus, many of these ingredients also doubled as snacks, and on the last day, we could all pack sandwiches and snacks for the road trip back home.

4. Plan for favorite meals: I really wanted to make pav bhaji one night, and on new year's eve, I wanted a "snacky" dinner of sev puri and paneer tikka, and I had to write up ingredient lists for these meals. For Mexican night, I took along stacks of tortillas, canned beans, peppers and onions, a jar of salsa and a packet of taco spice.

In addition, I took along a box of pasta and some dry rice and dal and we ended up using it all.

5. Make a spreadsheet. It was the only way to make lists and keep things straight. I'll save this spreadsheet for future vacations.

We ate very well, and in a relaxed way, and most importantly there was no food waste. Whatever did not get used up on vacation came home with us to be eaten here.

This vacation worked because everyone was loving and cooperative. A couple of us did most of the cooking, and one friend was great about doing dishes and kitchen clean-up promptly. Others kept the kids busy in the pool and at the playground. Everyone pitched in and everyone got some time to themselves to go for a beach run, enjoy some quiet reading time and so on.

My favorite part was the board games we played over the week. A couple of them were old favorites- Taboo and Pictionary. Two of the games were new to me and I can't wait to play again- Apples to Apples and Codenames.

While sitting around the campfire and toasting marshmallows, someone started playing a game called "I went to the market" and that was lots of fun too- although I was pretty terrible at playing it. It is a hidden-rule game very similar to this going on a picnic game and this camping trip game. I love discovering new games like these which can be played anytime, anywhere, to pass the time.

This year I want to play more board games and card games- how's that for a new year resolution that I might actually keep?

Lila is at the age where she is learning to play board games as well. Memory games (with matching pairs of cards) are great at this age. Lila's favorite is a fairy memory game where she has memorized the backs of the cards. Playing with her is like playing in Vegas- the house always wins.

Go Fish is the first game that she understood the rules for and is able to play properly. Chutes and Ladders (what I knew as Snakes and Ladders) and Candyland are top favorites right now. They are not the most exciting but they do work on turn-taking and counting skills. Perhaps the most important thing to learn at this age is that it is only a game and not to fall apart when one loses! She also has Sequence for Kids, SET junior and Very Silly Sentences and we'll soon learn how to play those.

Do you like cooking on vacation? Tell me about your favorite board games!