Monday, July 29, 2019

A Donut Cake and a Book Update

Our little boy turned three years old. This is the first year that he really understood what birthdays are all about and he was duly excited about it. His primary wish was to have "fire on my cake", as in, candles to blow out. And he got to do that not once but twice.

On his actual birthday, I made a small raspberry cheesecake in the (wait for it) Instant Pot, using the recipe that came with the appliance booklet. It was delightfully easy to make, with no need for a water bath. The crust is crushed Oreo cookies and the cheesecake has some raspberry jam in it. The recipe called for a ganache topping- I thought that was over the top and skipped it in favor of some sprinkles. (Pro tip: Wait for the top to dry out before adding the sprinkles.)

After an overnight chilling, the cheesecake was rich and creamy but not too sweet. The recipe specified 8 servings but we got a good 12 servings out of it.

On the weekend we invited some of the birthday boy's little toddler friends and their families to a picnic brunch at the local splash park. Water play is the ideal entertainment for a July birthday. The "cake" this time was a trio of caterpillars (inspiration here and here).

My sister saw this picture and asked me if I made the donuts at home. Girl, no, Krispy Kreme made the donuts. Some things (especially ones involving vats of boiling oil) are best left to the experts. Also, donut cake is short for "You donut have to bake a cake".

Here's how you make one of these in 5 minutes flat. Take one dozen donuts- 6 plain glazed and 6 assorted (but not ones with fillings). Cut each in half. Push a skinny pretzel stick on either side of a halved donut- those are the legs. Arrange the donut halves as in the pic, alternating plain donuts and assorted ones for some interest. Add a couple of antennae on each head.

Mix a tablespoon of powdered sugar with a few drops of water to make a glue. Use a dab of this to stick candy googly eyes (found this in the baking aisle of the supermarket) to the first donut half. Done and done.

The picnic brunch menu was-

Idlis with peanut-onion chutney (the grown ups loved this)
Quinoa black bean salad
Bagels, mini croissants and cream cheese
Hummus and baby carrots
Corn puffs (this crunchy snack was the kids' favorite)
Lemonade (recipe in the last birthday post)


One of my favorite recent reads is The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible by Catherine Burns (Editor). The Moth is a non-profit that sends people before live audiences to tell their own stories, based on a theme. Earlier, around Valentine's Day, we had an event here in my town similar to The Moth; a handful of people came on stage to tell their stories based on the theme "Swipe Left", ie, stories of romances that went wrong somehow. I went with a friend and we loved it- the story tellers were charming and the stories were diverse, hilarious and touching.

This book takes some of the moth stories and puts them down in text format. Reading them was like reaching into a box of bon-bons. The stories made me laugh, cry, panic, sigh, think- each was a slice of a person's life and reminded me that all of us have interesting stories to tell.

On my bedside right now is this short story collection by Stephen King. So far my favorite one is “The Road Virus Heads North”, a gruesome story about a yard sale find. “Autopsy Room Four” is about a person mistaken for dead and builds up tension nicely, and “The Man in the Black Suit” is about a terrifying chance childhood encounter.

Two other interesting books of the last couple of months-

How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute by K.J. Dell'Antonia. My brief notes are here.

The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You by Sylvia Tara. My notes on this book are here.

The Read Harder challenge is a big part of my reading life and it usually rewards me with excellent reads that I may not have picked up otherwise. Here is a mid-year update on the 24 reading tasks- I have finished a third, have planned another third and have yet to plan the final third. I'm excited to get them all done by the time 2020 rolls around.

Tasks that I have finished (8/24)

Task #1. An epistolary novel or collection of letters: Daddy-Long-Legs. I enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming book very much. Other books that I can recommend for this task are these two.

Task #2. An alternate history novel: The Man in the High Castle. This book has a very intriguing concept (an alternate history where the US lost WWII and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan) but the plot lines were frustrating. I would recommend 11/22/63 by Stephen King for this task.

Task #3. A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. This book was raw and thought-provoking and worth reading. Roxane Gay has a way with words. It won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction.

Task #4. A humor book: Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York; this was pure fun. I am a Roz Chast fangirl. This task is an easy and rewarding one- anything by PG Wodehouse would fit in there, or something like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which I remember decades later as being a very funny book.

Task #14. A cozy mystery: I read The Nature of the Beast for this task. This was a satisfying read, cozy but quite intense. This is another easy task with so many good mysteries out there. This series has a special place in my heart and would be my top recommedndation.

Task #19. A book of nonviolent true crime: I read Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup and found it engrossing. The nonviolent true crime in this book is corporate fraud.

Task #21. A comic by an LGBTQIA creator: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. I highly recommend this graphic memoir of the author's relationship with her distant father. A reminder of how we cannot escape our childhood experiences.

Task #22. A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009: Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. A beautiful book. The diversity award is the Schneider Family book award in 2016, The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.

Tasks that I have books in mind for (8/24) (but still taking suggestions)

Task #8. An #ownvoices book set in Oceania: The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir 

Task #11. A book of manga: The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story by Marie Kondo. Read 2019. Quick and fun and a good way to do this task without reading proper manga ;)

Task #12. A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Task #15. A book of mythology or folklore: Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Task #17. A business book: Influence: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Task #18. A novel by a trans or nonbinary author: George

Task #23. A self-published book: The Martian by Andy Weir. Read Aug 2019. From Wikipedia: "Weir decided to put the book online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website." Then he self-published it as a 99 cent Kindle download. After it became a success, he sold the print rights to a publisher. This is a smart, science-y, engrossing survival saga. Realistic sci-fi and a highly recommended read with the caveat that you should enjoy reading about technical details.

Task #24. A collection of poetry published since 2014: American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time

Tasks waiting to be planned (8/24)

Task #5. A book by a journalist or about journalism: Leigh Sales - Any Ordinary Day

Task #6. A book by an AOC set in or about space

Task #7. An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America: The Wild Book
by Juan Villoro

Task #9. A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads

Task #10. A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman: Convenience store woman

Task #13. A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse

Task #16. An historical romance by an AOC

Task #20. A book written in prison

Tell me what you're cooking and reading this week!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Rice Recipes, Dog Pics and 7 Exercise Tips

Not that I intend to turn this into an Instant Pot blog or anything, but the fact is that I have been enjoying my new kitchen toy a lot. And by enjoying, I mean putting simple and tasty meals on the table day after day for my family- there's no bigger win.

My friend L from grad school e-mailed me a few links to her favorite IP recipes. She particularly raved about this one. It is a simple combo of brown rice and brown rice, and doesn't that sound like not-altogether-exciting hippie vegetarian food? I am SO glad I tried that recipe though, with some tweaks. It turned out to be the best thing I made all week.

(Edit on 7/24: I had larger quantities of black beans and rice in the recipe before; then I remembered that I used a 3/4 rice measure. The recipe is now corrected.)

Brown rice and Black beans

1.5 cups dry (raw) black beans, rinsed
3/4 cup dry (raw) brown rice, rinsed
7 cups water
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes

Season to taste with-
Dried oregano
Cumin powder

Mix everything in an Instant Pot.
Cook on high pressure for 28 minutes.
Natural pressure release.

You will end up with a stewed black bean and rice mix. We turned it into a bowl dinner by dressing it with lots of toppings-

Green onions
Pickled jalapenos (my current favorite are hot and sweet jalapenos from TJs)
Sour cream (for the kids)
Yogurt mixed with canned chipotles in adobo (for the adults)
Crushed corn chips

Other toppings could include tomatoes, salsa, roasted vegetables. This is a lovely, easy dinner that is going straight into our meal rotation.

* * 
Mushrooms and rice are a magical combination to me. This is a simple pilaf that I made in the IP a couple of times, once with mock chicken strips (pic on the left, before cooking) and once with a topping of sliced boiled eggs and fried onions (pic on the right).

Mushroom Pilaf

Saute mode in Instant Pot:
Saute onions until browned and ginger-garlic paste in a tbsp. of oil.
Season to taste with cumin-coriander, salt, chana masala or garam masala.
Add chopped mushrooms and saute for a couple of minutes.
Hit cancel.
Add 1 cup water.
Add 1 cup rinsed Jasmine rice.
Add a bag of mock chickn strips, thawed (optional).
Cook under high pressure for 4 minutes. Natural pressure for 10 minutes, then release.

* *

Thank you to the anonymous reader who recommended the blog twosleevers for IP recipes. I found two cookbooks written by the author of that blog, Urvashi Pitre, and found some great new recipes to try. One of my favorites from her Indian Instant Pot® Cookbook is a version of baingan bharta, made by simply layering chopped ingredients and spices and giving it a quick cook, then mashing it. Pure genius!

* * *

Here are some recent pictures of our sweet boy Duncan. Dunkie is a people magnet- when we are out and about, people come by to pet him and ask us about him-

"He looks like a special breed" Actually, he's a mutt from the shelter but very special to us.
"What kind is he?" Our best guess is that he's a Plott hound- great Dane mix or a Plott hound- mastiff mix. 
(Plott hounds are dogs bred in the Southern US to be wild boar hunting dogs. Yikes! The worst thing Duncan has hunted is a stuffed animal bunny).
"How old is he?" Six and a half years old.
"How much does he weigh?" Hovers between 100-110 lbs.
"It must be so hard to walk him." He is very docile. Even my kids can walk him.
And my personal favorite: "Duncan, like Dunkin Donuts?"

Hanging out at home

Playing in the dog park is Duncan's favorite thing to do.
In the pic on the right, this tiny puppy kept jumping at his face and he
swung his muzzle around trying to dodge her.

My new niece! My sister adopted this sweet
English setter mix last month.

* * *
I had a big birthday this Spring- my entry into midlife. About eighteen months ago, I promised myself the gift of establishing an exercise habit by the time this birthday rolled around. With all credit to the support from my husband, gym coaches and friends, I got my much-desired gift and feel stronger and fitter today than I did twenty years ago.

Regular exercise has changed my life for the better. I've been a sedentary person for so long; it makes me giddy that this change is even possible. The word that comes to my mind is a Marathi one- "sutsutit" which translates as comfortable, perhaps, or carefree. I definitely have more energy for everyday life. While I can't claim to have seen any dramatic physical changes, I am clearly building some muscle and losing some fat, changing my body composition for the better.

Exercise is the closest thing we have right now to a magic pill in improving daily life. (It is not a magic pill for weight loss, though. That needs a diet fix.) Human bodies were made to move, but modern life does not involve much activity for the typical city dweller so we have to make an effort to create space in our lives for exercise.

If you too want to make room for exercise in your life, here are some tips that helped me-

1. It is never too late to start exercising, but I sure wish I started sooner. Don't be tempted to wait for some future point, like when your kids are grown up, to start exercising. You can tap into the benefits starting right here and now.

2. You don't have to love exercise but you certainly should not hate it and treat it as punishment. "Do you like to run?" I overheard someone asking my friend when she was talking about her running group. "What I like to do is to sit on a couch and read a book", she responded, "...but I am happy to run". We have one body and it makes sense to do our part in taking care of it.

3. Consider socializing in an active way. Recently a closer friend of mine moved into our neighborhood and once or twice a week, we take hour-long chatty walks post-dinner after the kids are in bed. It is a great way to catch up while enjoying some fresh air. Similarly, we often meet up with other families for a short hike, or to explore a new playground rather than always socializing over a meal.

4. Know yourself. I can't bring myself to exercise at home. It just never happens. But I adore group classes and the friends I make in those classes. I need instructors who tell me what to do. You have to think about whether you prefer exercising indoors or outdoors, solo or in a group, what sort of activity you like, and so on, and then go with your preferences.

5. Know your neighborhood and your town. Talk to local friends, neighbors and coworkers about where they exercise. Do web searches. Check local event listings. Often we don't even know what is out there. I didn't know there were affordable classes a mile from my house and I had been living here for years. Be willing to browse websites, walk in, pick up some pamphlets, ask for a tour of the place, ask for a trial class. Some gyms offer free childcare. Some workplaces offer free gym memberships. There are a mind-boggling variety of activities out there just waiting to be tried.

6. Stick to something for a few months before giving up on it. It takes time to see results and for the activity to grow on you. My strategy is to do some things long-term and switch up some other things seasonally. I started my women's weightlifting class last August so I have been doing it for almost a year- and I plan to continue. Strength training has been very empowering in simple life skills like easily lugging 50 lbs bags of dog food and opening jars. Ballet is a constant weekly class. In spring and summer, I like to swim. In winter, I like to run, or so I thought. I trained for a 5K this Jan, and did a 5K event in Feb which was miserable for many reasons- the weather was cold and rainy, the course was very hilly and I felt unprepared for that. I managed to finish the race, but with an abysmal time. This winter, I might try another activity like indoor biking or rowing.

7. There's no magic. Being fit is just a lifelong journey like any other with its ups and downs. The struggle, learning new things, reaching small goals all make you feel alive. I 11/10 would recommend it and am happy to chat with anyone who is looking for some support along the way.

How is July going for you?