Thursday, July 30, 2020

Birthday pancake & cake, and an improv chutney for idlis

Our son turned 4 this month- our little guy with the big and boisterous personality. He loves water play, books and watching "scary and creepy" shows, can't recognize alphabets yet but knows the names of about 40 different Pokemon, insists of wearing only muscle shirts in summer, competes ferociously with his big sister and declares "I need something sugary" a couple of times a day. So he got two sweet treats for his big day.

We kicked off the birthday with an early morning pancake breakfast- the pancake in this case was a skillet pancake adapted from this recipe, with 3/4 of all-purpose flour replaced with whole grain atta, sugar reduced to a scant 1/4 cup, and a handful of chocolate chips instead of berries. The grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins all joined in on Zoom to sing happy birthday. Just don't be like me and place candles into a hot skillet pancake; I had to pull them out hastily after this picture was taken because they started to melt! 

Later in the day, his sister and I made an official birthday cake. When asked about the flavor and type of cake, the birthday boy had one singular request- he wanted sprinkles, lots of them, inside and out. Done! 

We made a sweet little funfetti cake using this recipe. I just realized that the recipe has been updated since I used it. I made the old recipe, which is in the notes in the linked recipe. My only changes were to use 1/4 cup granulated sugar instead of 3/4 cup, and to reduce sprinkles to 1/2 cup. Our cake baked up in about 22 minutes, much quicker than what the recipe says.

For the frosting, instead of the buttercream in the recipe, we made a chocolate ganache- warming 2/3 cup of heavy cream, then adding in 2/3 cup of chopped dark chocolate off the heat and letting the mixture cool before whisking to a smooth, thick paste. Big sissy laid on the frosting and the sprinkles. The amount of frosting was more than enough for this cake- and psst, leftover ganache frosting is basically chocolate mousse and can be eaten straight up with a spoon. 

I'm one for easy birthday cakes at the best of times, but at this particular time, there was something very endearing about a little cake with colorful sprinkles hiding in every slice, with a shiny chocolatey frosting and more sprinkles on top. It really captured the simple joys of life and buoyed my spirit, while making a little boy very happy. I never thought a funfetti cake (fake food colors yadda yadda) would be my thing, but I have to admit that a slice of this soft and tasty cake was perfectly delightful with a cup of chai. 

* * *

A favorite food of both of my kids is idlis. Those fluffy dumplings smeared with ghee, what's not to love? It took me years to nail down my idli protocol and I never, ever mess with the idli recipe now I have it working right. Idlis may be traditional but chutneys have plenty of room for improvisation. This time I had an over-ripe tomato to use up, and lots of onions in the pantry, so I made an onion tomato peanut chutney. To add to the improvisation, instead of regular red chillies, I used dried Mexican pasilla peppers, large wrinkly peppers that have a fruity and smoky taste and are not overly hot. 

Onion Tomato Peanut Chutney with Pasilla Peppers

  1. In a saucepan, heat 1-2 tsp. coconut oil.
  2. Add 2 diced onions and saute until lightly browned.
  3. Add 2-3 rinsed pasilla peppers, with stems discarded and each pepper cut into 3-4 pieces.
  4. Add a large diced tomato and salt to taste. 
  5. Stir fry the mixture until the tomato no longer smells raw.
  6. Let it cool a bit, then add 1/2 cup roasted peanuts and blend to a thick paste using some water as needed.
  7. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, urad and chana dal and add it to the chutney. Mix together.
  8. Taste and adjust salt, adding lime juice if needed to bring out the flavor. 

* * * 
My reading these days is in fits and starts. I started a new job this month, one that is technical and challenging for me. At the end of the day I have very little mental bandwidth to take on demanding books and am usually grasping for an escape. The New Yorker issues arrive in the mail weekly but often I just can't bring myself to read yet another article about the pandemic or corrupt politicians or climate change. It all just weighs on the mind. (When I do pick up the magazine, I always find really interesting- if mostly depressing- articles to read, like this recent one about an online literature class reading the 1866 Russian novel Crime and Punishment and how its larger theme of societal decline resonates even today.)

One book did give a longed-for mental escape recently: The Satapur Moonstone- the second Parveen Mistry novel by Sujata Massey. I picked it up for the Read Harder Task #7: Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. The year is 1922 and we are in British India. Parveen Mistry is Bombay's first lady lawyer, young and plucky. In this atmospheric novel, I joined Parveen in her long journey on a palanquin through dense woods to the rural heart of a princely state, to a circuit house and a palace. A most enjoyable read. 

My daughter worked her way through the whole Harry Potter series this summer. While I never was a big Harry Potter fan, I did read the books when they came out back in the day. I remember reading the last book when it came out and thinking that it was really dark; the scenes with Harry and friends hiding out in a tent, fighting in isolation, stayed with me. I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my daughter- not reading aloud, but reading in parallel with her. I enjoyed the book much more the second time around. Again, it was a good escape into another world and one in which terrible things are happening but everything works out in the end. 

For Read Harder's Task #13: Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before, I read a book of food essays, You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another. It fit the theme because it had an essay about the cuisine of Anatolia, which is something I can confidently say I have never tried before. But there are a dozen really interesting essays in this book. There's one titled, "There is no such thing as a non ethnic restaurant" which about says it all. There's one about how everywhere you go, you can find meat (and other things) wrapped in flatbread, and another about how everywhere you go, you can find food steamed in leaves. A few essays profile immigrants starting restaurants- "Curry grows wherever it goes". The last essay was fascinating, about coffee bean production by small farmers in Rwanda. 

What are you cooking and eating and reading? I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Blueberries, Chanterelles and Noodle bowls

To state the obvious, the summer of 2020 is not like any other summer ever. The present feels dystopian. The future feels ominous. In all honesty, I find myself very dejected and anxious these days while also acknowledging that my family and I are OK and luckier than so many.

I haven't felt like blogging for weeks even though the kitchen has been extra busy. Working at home on my laptop all day long is draining and makes me less inclined to pick up the laptop again to blog after work. But this weekend I felt like posting so here I am.

* * *
"Mountains and Fountains rain down on me,"
"Buried in Berries, what a Jam Jamboree !"
- Jamberry by Bruce Degan (a beloved board book of both of my kids)

Early one Sunday morning we headed out to a farm about 20 minutes away from town for some blueberry picking. I found out about this You-Pick farm where else but on Instagram and jumped at the chance for some socially distanced family fun. The place operated on the honor system. Buckets were stacked on the fence posts of the gate. You grab a bucket or two, walk in and pick all the blueberries you wanted, and slip the payment into the slot of a lock box.

It was such a beautiful morning and a lovely respite- we could marvel at the beauty of nature while looking at gorgeous Georgia skies and rows of blueberry bushes laden with fresh fruit.

Blueberry muffins

When we got home I froze down most of the blueberry haul- freezing them in a single layer on baking sheets for a few hours, then pouring the frozen berries into bags and back into the freezer- this keeps the berries from freezing into a big clump. I eat blueberries most mornings with my steel cut oatmeal so it is nice to have this stash.

Of course my daughter and I also made a batch of jammy blueberry muffins that very afternoon and they were a treat. 

A couple of weeks later, I used some of the frozen berries to make a blueberry almond crisp, using this recipe and dividing the recipe into two baking pans, one for our home and one for friends. It was fantastic. 

The finished crisp

* * * 
Hot, damp weather and frequent thunderstorms and downpours- this is the recipe for chanterelle mushrooms popping up around here. Our daughter is an expert mushroom hunter and now her brother is learning from her. They will happily walk on nearby trails for hours as long as there are mushrooms to be foraged. There is some prep work required to get the dirt and grit off of the mushrooms but it is so worth it for that exquisite wild mushroom taste. I love that our city-bred kids get this small taste of what it is like to forage for food and enjoy it straight from the earth.

Our biggest haul- several pounds

Pan fried chanterelles with garlic and pepper

* * *
For a long while, I've wanted to do a pantry/fridge/freezer series on this blog, listing out the workhorse ingredients that help me produce meals day after day. Over years of family cooking, I have my favorites and buy them over and over again rather than experimenting too much. I'll do a mega post at some point sharing my idea of a well-stocked kitchen but here's a spotlight on one ingredient for now.

Noodles are definitely a pantry staple- we enjoy them in Asian ways or Italian ways or with countless inauthentic derivations thereof. After trying several different varieties of whole wheat noodles and soybean noodles and lentil/chickpea noodles, I found a noodle brand and variety that my family loves the best- Barilla Protein+ or Plus or something- I recognize the yellow box- and that's what I have been stocking up on. (As always, when I mention particular products, it is because I like them and not because the company is paying me!) I cook a whole box of these noodles and work them into 2-3 meals. 

One of the big mushroom hauls was too big to fit into even our biggest pan, so I roasted the shrooms with a bunch of broccoli. Cooked spaghetti and the roasted broccoli-mushrooms went into two quite different meals- 

1. Loaded peanut noodles

a. I tossed the noodles with teriyaki sauce, rice wine vinegar and peanut butter to make quick peanut noodles
b. The bowl had a crunchy salad layer of lettuce, cucumbers and red peppers. 
c. Then came the peanut noodles.
d. Then some thinly sliced baked tofu and the roasted broccoli and mushrooms.

2. Faux Chikn Parmesan

Eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan (breaded, fried, eggplant or chicken smothered in red sauce and cheese and baked into a casserole) are staples of Italian-American comfort food. This was my low-maintenance, semi-homemade version of the same. Unlike the original, it does NOT sit in your stomach like a brick. 

1. Meatless chikn patties (there are several brands that I like and I usually stash a box or two in the freezer)- thawed in the microwave, then sliced.
2. Layer the chikn strips with jarred pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella in a baking dish.
3. If you are short on time, cover the dish and warm in the microwave until heated through and melty. If you have a little extra time, do the same in the oven until bubbly and browned. 
4. Serve with what else but your favorite noodles and roasted broccoli and mushrooms! 

* * * 

If you enjoy medical dramas, I highly recommend the Lenox Hill on Netflix- a documentary/ reality TV series that follows four doctors- two neurosurgeons, an OB/GYN and an emergency doc- their lives and their patients. I just finished watching it and gave me all the feels.

How is July going for you? I hope you are all safe and in good health, friends.