Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Holiday Crafts and Goodies

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! It is winter break over here and the "making" is in full swing. Here is a quick round up of all the baking and crafting going on over at casa One Hot Stove.

The elementary school hosts a holiday market each year in early December, putting tables in the hallways and letting kids, teachers and parents sell homemade stuff to each other. My 8 year old was very enthusiastic about earning a few bucks for her piggy bank and worked for weeks getting her inventory ready. She had 4 items this year.

Being in prime chapter-book reading age, bookmarks are a much used item. We made two types, one with paper and the other with yarn.

Paper bookmarks with holiday lights,
made with acrylic paint and fingerprints.
She learned to make pom poms recently, with scrap yarn and a pom pom maker- those little plastic doodads make it easy and fun to make uniform sized pom poms.

Pom poms tied to a large paper clip
make for cute and colorful bookmarks.
 Over Thanksgiving, we took a beach trip to Amelia Island, Florida. The beach was full of the most beautiful shells. Most interestingly, we discovered that many of the shells had perfect holes in them. A web search revealed that some creatures such as moon snails drill holes in clams to eat them, leaving behind shells with perfect little holes. We threaded yarn through these nature-made holes to make shell necklaces.

Finally, this was our bestseller from last year and was very popular this year too: Melting snowman cookies

Store bought large cookies, with frosting dabbed on. Marshmallows
with candy googly eyes, pretzel sticks for arms, m&ms for buttons.
V celebrated his birthday- every year, I like to make him a special cake. Well, this year, time got away and I hastily made a batch of birthday brownies instead, with sprinkles.

My holiday baking this year:

Pear and banana mini loaves

A new recipe I tried this year was cardamom shortbread. Shortbread are my favorite type of cookies, and cardamom arguably my favorite spice. The recipe is originally from the amazing Alice Medrich that I found via Smitten Kitchen. The only fiddly part is cutting the shortbread after the first bake, when it is quite crumbly. I added cardamom to the batter. Easily the best shortbread I've ever eaten.

This one is a keeper.

A holiday recipe I make every year, almond biscotti
or more accurately, mandelbrot.

 Here is a recipe that needs no cooking or baking. You let a food processor do all the work. 
Just nuts and dried fruits blitzed together and rolled in sparkling sugar.

Another holiday recipe that is made on repeat- my version of sugarplums.

A holiday tray for friends

Another small holiday sampler tray

Other little handmade gifts:

I wrapped some co-worker gifts in fabric instead of paper,
inspired by the Japanese art of furoshiki.

A tiny knitting basket ornament (a couple of inches high)
for my son's teacher who is a new knitter. 
I paired the knitting basket ornament with a gift card to a yarn store.

Matching owl hats for my kids and my nephew.
The pattern is Who?

Happy 2020! I'll see you in the new year! Tell me what you're making for the holiday season. Any favorite gifts?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

How Not To Die, and other food for thought

I recently read a book called How Not To Die by Michael Greger. Right off the bat, I thought the title was irksome- after all, which one of us is going to survive this crazy train called life? While there are people who dream of prolonging human life and go to extreme lengths to hack longevity, but I have no desire to live into my 90s and 100s. But I know this provocative book title is more along the lines of how not to die of diseases that you could prevent.

The book starts by saying that diet and lifestyle have been known for years to reverse heart disease. Why are doctors still prescribing drugs and surgery? Because there are other forces at work in medicine besides science. The US health system runs on a fee for service model where doctors get paid for pills and procedures prescribed. There is little profit motive for promoting whole foods.

The first part of How Not To Die examines the risk factors associated with a bunch of diseases that are some of the leading causes of death today, including heart disease, several cancers, Type 2 diabetes and infections. I was not a fan of these chapters because the author appears to cherry-pick studies (including some clearly poor quality studies, such as ones with tiny sample sizes) that fit what he believes, rather than looking at the overall body of evidence.

The second part of the book promotes a whole foods, plant-based diet as being the healthiest one. Greger uses a traffic light system:
Unprocessed plant foods get the green light;
Processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods get the yellow light;
ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods are red light foods.

Unprocessed in this case means nothing bad added and nothing good taken away. Greger's suggested diet is free from all meat and dairy and eggs, and also from all added oils and fats.

He has a list of the daily dozen- 12 foods that should be consumed daily in appropriate serving sizes-
1. Beans and legumes
2. Berries
3. Other fruits
4. Greens
5. Cruciferous vegetables
6. Other vegetables
7. Flaxseeds
8. Nuts and seeds
9. Herbs and spices
10. Whole grains
11. Beverages- water, tea, coffee
12. Exercise

The minute I read through Greger's daily dozen foods, a mental picture popped up- a typical Maharashtrian taat or platter. A sample taat would have on it neatly arranged bowls of dal or amti made with lentils, sprouted beans usal, cooked greens, other stir-fried vegetables, a raw salad or koshimbir, a chutney with some combination of nuts, herbs, seeds and spices, chapatis made with whole wheat flour or bhakris made with jowar. A single meal would tick off most of these boxes.

 In fact most vegetarian meals in several Indian regional cuisines would look pretty similar to this. Even among the non-vegetarians, meat and fish is usually an occasional food eaten once or twice a week, and eaten in modest portions.

All in all, I'm on board with Greger's list of foods to eat on a daily basis for optimal health. We all would do so much better if we focused on eating more of these foods. I don't agree that this is the only diet that can be healthy. I particularly object to Greger's implication that a whole foods plant based diet is a panacea and can prevent all disease- that's just terribly misleading.

I've always wondered why India has such a massive Type 2 diabetes problem when most people eat simple, plant-based foods. One factor, of course, is genetics. It is said that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. There are so many great things about the everyday Indian diet (see above) but there are some things that are not so good- white rice is eaten on a daily basis. Many people consume several cups of tea a day, each with spoonfuls of sugar. Oil is used plentifully in Indian cooking. Worse, dalda or hydrogenated vegetable oil is often used. Fried snacks and sweets are very popular. As is the case everywhere, affluent people have access to plentiful food and often simply eat too much. There are probably many other note-worthy risk factors not related to diet, such as stress caused by crowded city-dwelling and polluted air, and the lack of a cultural emphasis on exercise.

Even during the two decades when I was living in India, I saw some cultural shifts- the increased popularity and availability of foods such as bread made with refined flour, cookies, pastries, puffs and instant noodles. The eating-out culture took off in a big way. Weddings moved from traditional sit-down lunches (pangat) to lavish buffets.

(Greger, incidentally, talks about how great traditional Indian diets are and explains away the high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by blaming it on ghee used in Indian cooking!)

All in all, this is a good book to read and think about. 2019 was a very positive year for me in terms of diet and exercise. I have slowly changed many of my eating and cooking habits, and learned more about strategies to keep myself and my family nourished and satisfied. This book made me think of a couple more changes I want to make- to buy and cook more greens, to use less oil in my cooking (it is so easy to go overboard) and to find ways to cut down even more on the fried snacks that are my kryptonite.

To give a real-life example, when I was making steel-cut oats kheer, I wanted to toast the oats in ghee to make the kheer even more flavorful. On second thought, I didn't. I skipped that added fat and the kheer was wonderful anyway. The point is not that all fats are bad, or that I am personally going to cut out all added oils and fats, but that it is incredibly easy to add fats and oils into dishes that don't need them.

A good quote from How Not To Die:
 “Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and returning your brain’s dopamine sensitivity to its healthy, normal levels can help you live life to the fullest and allow you to experience greater joy, satisfaction, and pleasure from all the things you do- not just what you eat.”
The premise of How Not To Die is that most diseases that people die from are preventable and that we as individuals have the power to choose an optimal diet that will keep us healthy. Funny enough, right after reading this book, I read another book called Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health by Sandro Galea, and this book has a very different perspective.

Galea says that much of our conversation about health has to do with lifestyle and making choices for better health. And that this is wrong. The range of choices depends on context, factors beyond our immediate control or even awareness. There are inherent limits to personal choice. Our health is shaped by things that are much larger than any individual- things like policies, and the places that we end up living in, and sheer luck.

Where does the truth lie? Somewhere in the middle, I believe. There are many things we can't control and many that we can. There are those (me included) who, through a large dose of luck, have education and privilege and a comfortable paycheck, which gives us a pretty wide range of choices. People like us can and should exercise (no pun intended) good lifestyle choices.

Here's to a healthy 2020 for us all! 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Steel Cut Oats: A Revival

For about 5 days in November, I was trapped in a dome in Washington DC- a 19 story, glassed-in dome, resplendent in holiday decorations and glitzy as all get out. It was a convention center and I was there with some colleagues for a conference. 

For all that opulence, the food choices in this place were pretty dismal. Between talks and sessions, when we had the time (and decent weather- this was DC in November, after all) to step outside this place, there were some good meals to be had nearby. Thai restaurants are usually good bets and we found one that had warming curries and bright, crunchy fresh spring rolls. Another evening I got to try a Beyond Burger for the first time. I'm not sure if I liked it or not. One evening I gave up the hunt for local restaurants and slipped into a Chipotle franchise, got myself a big bowl of lettuce, roasted veggies and black beans with lashings of hot salsa and ate it up sitting on my fluffy hotel bed, watching reruns of Forensic Files

Over in the convention center, the hunt for breakfast was proving difficult. The breakfast sandwiches either had meat or the wrong type of cheese (I'm weird about cheese) and the sugary breakfast pastries had no appeal. There in the warming cabinet were little cardboard cups of plain cooked steel cut oats. It seemed like the best option. To the bland oatmeal I added a few pinches of salt, and a spoonful of grape jelly from one of those single serving packs. That little cup was so warming and delicious. The nutty and nubby texture of the oatmeal was quite simply delightful. How had I forgotten about this wholesome and humble ingredient for years? I enjoyed that oatmeal breakfast four days in a row and it kept me full and happy until lunchtime. 

Back home I bought a canister of steel cut oats as soon as I could get to the grocery store. Steel cut oats are the least processed form of oats- they can take a lot of time to cook on the stove, which is why I haven't bothered much with them in all these years- but the electric pressure cooker (instant pot) makes them a hands-off, easy-cook option. The natural pressure release is important- it keeps the cooked oats from sticking to the pressure cooker insert.

For weekday breakfasts, I have been making plain steel cut oats and then adding some toppings right before I eat it. 

Basic steel cut oats

(About 4 servings)

1 cup steel-cut oats
4 cups water
1/4  tsp. salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release. 

Scoop cooked oats into a bowl. Add a handful of berries (I use frozen ones) and a tablespoon of peanut butter or other nut butter. Stir and enjoy. 

This weekend, we had new neighbors over for brunch and decided to dress the oats with cardamom and nuts for a kheer-like porridge. 

Oats Kheer

1 cup steel cut oats
6-8 pitted dates, chopped
4 cups water
1/4 tsp. of salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release.
Stir in 1 cup (or more) of almond milk and a tsp. of ground cardamom.

(Any kind of milk will do. I imagine thin coconut milk would make this taste like a payasam.)

To serve, top the oats kheer with chopped dried fruits and nuts. I used pistachios, walnuts, cranberries and golden raisins. The dates and dry fruits make the kheer gently sweet. I did not feel the need to add sugar. 

Leftover oats kheer
for breakfast today
THE TOP THREE SECRET TRICKS- OK, not so secret and not really tricks but I find that I enjoy steel cut oats immensely if they are not cold, thick and gummy but are instead 
(a) soupy, which means they might need additional liquid (milk or water) after cooking because oats absorb a lot of water. 
(b) Oats are best warm, and a stint in the microwave gets this done quickly. Steel cut oats reheat beautifully so they can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge. 
(c) A little bit of salt goes a long way in making oatmeal tasty, even in a sweet context as with the kheer.

Some of my new-found enthusiasm for steel cut oats is certainly tied to a book I read recently called How Not To Die by Dr. Michael Greger. (Weird title, I know.) More on that book next week.

* * * On The Screen * * * 

This weekend V and I did something that we rarely get to do these days- we got a babysitter and went to the movies. The movie was Knives Out, a very entertaining ensemble murder mystery with a twist. Not the sort of movie that you necessarily need to watch on a big screen or anything, but it was a fun night out. Maybe it will come out on one of the streaming services once it is done in the theaters.

NOVA on PBS has some interesting documentaries. The best one I've seen recently is called Look Who's Driving, about recent advances in self-driving cars. This was informative and very scary in parts- such as when they showed people who own semi-autonomous cars but act as though they are fully autonomous ones, taking actual naps at the wheel of a car that is not yet self-driving. Cars are getting pretty smart but what can be done about humans?

Speaking of technology and scary stuff, I happened to see a video of a "robot dog" made by the company Boston Dynamics- and it was unbelievable to see the smoothness, speed and agility of this mechanical animal. That same day, I saw Metalhead (series 4, episode 5 of the Black Mirror series) and it was literally terrifying. I really love this series but have to be in a certain mood to watch it. 

Right now, V and I are enjoying Jeopardy episodes on Netflix and sporadically watching Grantchester on Amazon Prime. 

* * *Doggie Drama* * *

Draped in his favorite security blanket
Duncan is now 2 months past his surgery and is recovering well. He seems to be his old self again and is able to use his leg without limping. The main problem right now is that he is bored right out of his skull. Overall, he is being such a good boy but every now and often there is some moaning and whining as he begs us to let him run free. But we are being pretty strict with the confinement and doctor's orders are being taken seriously. 

The vet surgeon will X-ray his leg in early Jan and if she is happy with how it looks, he will get to resume his normal life. Fingers tightly crossed!! 

Tell me what you're doing as we count down to 2020- 22 days to go.