Monday, January 29, 2024

A homestyle bell pepper stir-fry

In over two decades of cooking, and even more decades of eating, so many recipes have come in and out of my life. Sometimes I will forget about a dish for months and years, and when I make it again, it is a joyful little reunion. That's what happened with a three-pack of green bell peppers this weekend that I rescued from the clearance produce rack of the supermarket. 

I do buy green bell peppers routinely, usually using them in supporting roles in fajita-style and Chinese-style stir-fries. This time I was reminded of the Maharashtrian homestyle dish called "peeth perun bhaji", which translates roughly as "sowing flour into a vegetable dish". It is a classic Marathi way to make a quick side-dish, where you stir fry vegetables- which could be something like cabbage or capsicum/ bell pepper, or a green leafy veg, or even green onions- and you add a bit of chickpea flour/ besan, to add some body and heft to the dish. 

We ate this simple dish with rice and homemade yogurt and a Swiss chard dal, and I can honestly say it is a best thing I ate all week. Here's a brief recipe with annotations.

Bell Pepper Peeth Perun Bhaji

  1. Heat 1-2 tsp. oil in a pan and temper it with mustard seeds, asafetida and turmeric powder. This is the classic first step of Maharashtrian cooking, with a phodni/tadka/tempering of the trio- halad (turmeric), hing (asafetida), mohri (mustard seeds)
  2. Now in go 3 diced bell peppers and salt
  3. Add other spices- red chili powder and cumin-coriander powder. Dhana-jeera powder or cumin coriander powder is another classic addition- it adds plenty of flavor without heat. The red chili powder (or minced fresh green chilies) bring the heat.
  4. Stir fry for a few minutes. 
  5. Now add 3 tbsp. chickpea flour or besan and 2 tbsp. crushed roasted peanuts. The peanut powder or danyacha koot is another Marathi pantry staple and adds flavor, texture and nuttiness to many simple dishes.
  6. Cover and cook on low-medium heat for 10 minutes or more, until peppers are soft and the dish is cooked through.
  7. Finally, add 1-2 tsp. sugar or jaggery, and a generous handful of minced fresh cilantro. I'm a fan of the Maharastrian goda jevan which is typified by a hint of sweetness in savory dishes. It brings out and rounds out the flavors.

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It has been a busy couple of weeks due to hosting various groups of friends/ colleagues on weekends, and running to the kids' after-school activities on weekdays. I don't get as much time to read as I'd like, but manage to read a few pages before bed. The current bedside book is Dandelion Wine, a 1957 novel by Ray Bradbury, the acclaimed author probably best known for writing Fahrenheit 451. I love his short story, There Will Come Soft Rains

Dandelion Wine is a semi-autographical work based on Bradbury's boyhood, set in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois. As I'm reading this, I don't find a major plot line here. It is a series of vignettes or short stories/anecdotes about 12-year old Douglas and the simple joys of summer. “Sandwich outdoors isn’t a sandwich anymore. Tastes different than indoors, notice? Got more spice. Tastes like mint and pinesap. Does wonders for the appetite.” This book is prose but reads like poetry. I'm lost in the beauty of the words and couldn't tell you the story if there is one. 

The reason I picked up this book was because of a prompt in the POPSugar reading challenge, #2: A bildungsroman. What a great word (one of those German combo words.) A bildungsroman is a genre that includes books about growing up or "coming of age", or more strictly, psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. I must say my very favorite bildungsroman is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the 1943 semi-autobiographical novel by Betty Smith. If you haven't already read it I highly recommend it. 

Also reading- a fun interactive NYTimes article on menu trends (full gift article here). I love perusing restaurant menus for home cooking inspiration. 

And Kamini's evocative travel article- it transported me to the mangroves. 

Tell me the highlights of your January! 

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Lentil Pasta Sauce, and my First 10K Race

We're almost halfway through January and baby, it is cold outside. Easy comfort food is on the dinner menu these days. I have 47 pasta recipes pinned in my Pasta and Italian-ish recipes Pinterest folder, and decided to try one of them- the lentil bolognese from the beautiful vegan food blog, Rainbow Plant Life

The recipe uses pantry ingredients, and is fun to make. I followed the recipe closely, but skipped the wine. I did enjoy the resulting bolognese on some whole wheat spaghetti, but it does have a slight dal-on-pasta vibe for me. The rest of the family wasn't a big fan so I likely won't make it again. But it was refreshing to try something new for dinner, and I hope to keep working through my bookmarked recipes this year to find some keepers.

Lentil bolognese

My family's favorite three pasta dishes that I keep making on repeat:

  1. Spinach lasagna
  2. Stovetop mac and cheese (with tomato, like my grandma made and my mom makes)
  3. Roasted vegetable pesto pasta salad
* * *

Watching: Project Runway season 17 (2019) on Netflix with my daughter. It is my first time watching this show and I must say it is very entertaining. My daughter is a mature 12 year old and while this isn't strictly a tween show at all, it has been fun watching it together. It is the starting point for many interesting conversations, which are difficult enough to have at this age. Yesterday's episode sparked conversations about body size and interpersonal drama, and what "kitschy" means, and when you call something kitschy, are you saying it is good or bad?  

(Mild spoilers ahead) This is the 2019 season, filmed right before the pandemic hit, and interestingly one of the contestants is named Kovid Kapoor. My husband and daughter were gobsmacked with this contestant's name. The fact is (a) Kovid (pronounced correctly with a soft D) is a beautiful name and not a common one, meaning intelligent (or similar?) in Sanskrit and (b) this show was filmed pre-pandemic and this guy was given this name 2-3 decades ago. With COVID-19, this name is sadly ruined. Also, interestingly, Kovid Kapoor had a fabric face mask as an accessory for one of his outfits- and face masks were almost unheard of in the US before the pandemic. Anyway, this all lead to some lively conversations about names and coincidences! 

Reading: My son, 7.5 years old, has always loved being read to, but has not wanted to read independently for fun. This changed recently when he got into the Dog Man and Cat Kid comic books by Dav Pilkey. I hope he will widen his reading horizons but for now I'm thankful for Pilkey's contribution to childhood literacy! We have started "snuggle reading" in the evenings- it means snuggling on the couch next to each other under fluffy throw blankets and reading together, him with his book and me with mine. I highly recommend this activity. He has also discovered the joys of snacking while reading and often brings along a little after-dinner snack like apple slices, a cheese stick or a handful of pretzels. 

In terms of blog reading, I'm doing some armchair travel and reading this epic Australian travel post by Johanna of Green Gourmet Giraffe- so vibrant and full of memories and anecdotes transporting me to beautiful places. 

And also this Marginalian post on sentimentality and mortality: The opening sentence got me in the feels- "How beautiful and unbearable that only one of each exists — each lover, each child, each dog; that this particular chance-constellation of atoms has never before existed and will never again recur in the history of the universe."

This year I'm doing some of the prompts from the POPSugar Reading Challenge for 2024. They often lead me to seek out interesting books that I would miss otherwise. Prompt #7 is A book about women's sports and/or by a woman athleteI looked for a book about running and found this one at the library: Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor (published in 2018). It is a memoir of a professional runner, written simply and from the heart. Full of details of runs and races, I don't know that I would loved this book if I read it before my current interest in running, but it is the perfect book for me right now. I enjoyed the glimpse into a fascinating world of professional running and elite athletes- how their talent is discovered, how they train and live, how their careers unfold. Kastor spends a lot time talking about how raw talent can only take you so far and how mental training takes you much further. The subtitle of the book- "thinking my way into victory"- overstates it in my opinion, but clearly, mindset matters a lot. 

The message of this book really came home to me yesterday when I ran my first 10K race in a neighboring town. It was only the third(!) time in my life running 10 kilometers all at once, and the first two times were easy training runs in the last month. 

Subjectively, the race was kind of miserable. It was a crystal clear, sparkling, sunny morning, but extremely cold, with a sharp wind that stung my face and made my eyes tear up and my nose run constantly. I started too fast, quickly ran out of gas, and at mile 4.6 I was about ready to give up. I stumbled my way through the rest of the course, mentally berating myself for wanting to do this in the first place. But I made it somehow to the finish line where my running buddy K was waiting with a big smile and hug. 

Objectively, the race was fantastic, because after all that drama, negative thoughts, sniffling and crying, I finished it in under 1 hour 10 minutes with my best pace ever. Longest run, best pace (granted, the course was a pretty flat one which helped my time). My legs are toast but I am surprised and elated. 

I have a mild (and invisible) handicap when it comes to aerobic exercise like running- a genetic hemoglobin defect called beta thalassemia minor. It results in life-long chronic anemia that is unrelated to iron-deficiency anemia (which I also occasionally have as many women do.) This becomes a psychological barrier of sorts and I need to work on my mental training as much as my physical stamina. Anyway, I'm glad I read Deena Kastor's book and got the message that I clearly needed. 

Enjoy your week, and stay warm if you're in the severe winter weather blanketing the US!

Monday, January 01, 2024

Happy 2024, and a book summary- Four Thousand Weeks

Happy 2024! I started the last year by sharing my personal word of the year and listing a few things I hoped to do. It was a very helpful exercise and I do believe it guided me through the year. 

So here I am doing it again. My word for 2024 is STRETCH. It is an overarching theme that I hope will guide me all year and coax me to be slightly braver and a little more comfortable with discomfort. The graphic below shows a few tangible areas in which I would like to stretch a little- a homebody with a slightly adventurous travel plan, a couch potato running a slightly long race, a distracted human stretching to understand her mind a little better. 

* * *

One of the last books I read in 2023 was Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (published in 2021). It seems like a good book to discuss on this day, when we're marking the passage of time. The four thousand weeks in the title refers to the number of weeks in an average human lifespan of about 80 years. The premise of the book is that standard productivity advice is a trap and that becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, trying to clear the decks just makes them fill up again. 

There's quite a bit I did not agree with, but this book has some gems. Some of my favorite passages discuss the relationship between human life and time. 
  • German philosopher Heidegger: The most fundamental thing we fail to appreciate about the world is how astonishing it is that it is there at all- the fact that there is anything rather than nothing.
    • It is amazing that “a world is worlding all around us”.
    • We tend to speak about having a limited amount of time. It makes more sense to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us. We don’t get or have time; instead, we are time.
  • Argentinian writer Borges: "Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river."
  • A life spent focused on achieving security with respect to time can only end up feeling provisional.
    • Each day can feel like something we have to get through, en route to a calmer and more fulfilling time in the future, which never actually arrives.
    • Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz: "There is a strange attitude and feeling that one is not yet in real life." (This one really hit home for me- the feeling that this is a dress rehearsal and real life will start at some point in the future.)
    • Life is not a dress rehearsal. You may never feel like you know what you’re doing, in work, parenting or anything else. It is liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.
A lot of this book also reiterated the philosophy that I have been encountering in several places lately, about paying attention to the present moment.
  • Understand that you are guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer. Focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you do actually have time for. 
  • What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.
    • Attention IS life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing more than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.
  • We are eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what we’re doing in order to escape how disagreeable it feels.
    • The inner urge toward distraction is the ultimate interrupter.
    • We do not feel like doing most of the things that we genuinely desire to accomplish. (Painfully relatable, y'all)
  • The past is uncontrollable and the future is unknowable. Confine your attention to the only portion of time that really is our business- the one in the present.
    • Start by noticing that you are in fact living in the moment whether you like it or not.
    • Living more fully in the present may simply be a matter of finally realizing that you never had any option but to be here now.
  • Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti: “I don’t mind what happens”- live without the inner demand to know that the future will conform to your desires for it. (What a powerful mantra, and one I will be repeating to myself to fight against my impulse to control, orchestrate and "will" all the big and small things in life: I don't mind what happens.)
This book also had these reminders:
  • Develop a taste for having problems: problems are simply demands that need addressing and the substance of life, not an impediment. You will never reach the state of not having problems. 
  • A blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much- and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time- the universe absolutely couldn't care less.
    • Human history has unfolded in the blink of an eye, our own lives are a minuscule flicker.
    • The realization of your insignificance frees you to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time.
    • You are also free to consider that many of the things you’re already doing are more meaningful than you supposed.
  • Get the hang of hopelessness. The world is already broken. Our 4 thousand weeks are already running out. The world is already filled with uncertainty and tragedy. You cannot do everything that needs doing but you can focus on a few things that count.
    • Are you holding yourself to impossible standards of productivity or performance? Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Pick up a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.
Finally, one of my favorite quotes in this book is by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: "One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way. Quietly do the next and most necessary thing."

If you want to read the review for this book in the NYTimes- I'm linking the full gift article here

I hope we all have a good year ahead of us. Do you have a word for the year, or any new year's resolutions?