Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Holiday Cooking and Baking

December is always a fun and chaotic month and this year was no different- I think of it as the month when my 9 x 13 baking dishes get a workout. What does feel different is the weather- strangely warm and summery for this time of year. Lemonade weather rather than the hot chocolate kind.

Our work Christmas potluck this year was a brunch. The person organizing it did a nice job of signing up people for different categories of brunch- beverages, sweets (donuts, pastries), breakfast casseroles and quiches, breads/biscuits, cheeses and fruits- so we had a very well-rounded brunch spread. I was in the casseroles group and brought my egg enchiladas, which disappeared quickly. Someone brought in the tasty, crusty homemade bread with garlic bread. Another favorite was a cinnamon roll star (something like this)- I'd love to make that sometime.

The quilt guild potluck is always a good Southern style feast complete with jello salads. I took my other tried and true favorite- spinach lasagna (recipe from Cook's Country) and it went over well. My favorite dishes there were a cabbage casserole and a wonderful silky flan.

* * *

For V's birthday this year, I invited his work team for dinner- we were about 15 people in all. They all love Indian food so the menu was completely predictable but well-loved: Paneer curry, Palak chana, Jeera rice, Raita, Vegetable patties. The birthday cake was a Black Forest cake. To keep things simple, I made it in a sheet cake format like so. To me, sheet cakes are much easier to put together than round layer cakes.

Black forest cake, of course, is a nostalgic favorite for both of us, and quite easy to assemble with chocolate cake, cherry syrup, cherries, whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings.

1. Make this recipe for chocolate cake in a 9 x 13 baking pan.

2. After the cake cools, flip it out of the pan and cut it in half horizontally with a long serrated knife.

3. Syrup: For the cherry portion, I used Trader Joe's dark morello cherries in light syrup which come in a glass jar. I drained the cherries, reserved half the syrup and stirred in some brandy and powdered sugar into the reserved syrup. Set aside.

4. Whip 2 cups heavy cream into soft peaks, stir in vanilla extract and powdered to lightly flavor the cream. Refrigerate.

5. Put half the cake back into the pan. Brush it liberally with the cherry syrup. Spread half the whipped cream on the cake, and spread half the drained cherries.

6. Place the other half of the cake back in the pan. Brush it liberally with syrup. Cover with the rest of the whipped cream and cherries. Decorate with chocolate shavings made by using a peeler on a dark chocolate bar.

7. Chill and serve. This is a crowd-pleasing cake as one might imagine; there was only a tiny piece left over at the end of the night.

* * *

Almond buttercrunch candy- made this
Cornflakes chivda- also made for Diwali

Exchanging small gifts is the other highlight of the month. The reliable food gift from my kitchen is this recipe for mandelbrot, a version of almond biscotti. For people who are OK eating gluten, nuts and eggs, this is my go-to gift. As plain and simple as they look, these cookies always get rave reviews. I made a batch for my gym instructors and ballet teacher.

Lila's teachers got a small box of biscotti, a gift card and a card with a very heartfelt thank you note for their wonderful care through the year. To give you an example of why I like Lila's class teacher: we took Lila to our town's Christmas parade and on the way there, she said, "One of my teachers is in the parade. She's super special and she helps me always- can you guess who it is? It's Mrs. M!" If that is how your students describe you, you're doing it right.

For some of my co-workers, I made hot chocolate mix packed in mason jars and wrapped with a festive tea towel- sort of a gift inside a gift.

I wanted to make cookies that were eggless for someone who is allergic to eggs. My favorite eggless cookies have got to be shortbread cookies, which usually have a very short ingredient list of flour, butter and sugar, and which simply melt in the mouth. They are very nankatai-like, for those of us who remember those bakery cookies from India.

I tried two new recipes for shortbread this year. One was this fig and maple shortbread, a recipe that I found in the Washington Post. It is a wonderful recipe, easy to pull together and with a rather gourmet taste.

The other was this back-of-the-box recipe for Canada cornstarch shortbread. I added a wee bit of salt, some cardamom and pistachios to the basic recipe. I tasted one and liked it- the rest were packaged up and mailed out.

And I was the lucky recipient of this generous cookie tray from one of my dear quilting buddies. She tells me that two are family favorites- the powdered sugar bow ties are Polish chruschiki and the powdered sugar folded ones with apricot preserves are Hungarian kiffels. And there were chocolate chip and chocolate-dipped peanut cookies, and some candy truffles. The kiffels were my absolute favorites.

I did get several other sweet gifts from friends and co-workers- nice soap, a mug with my initials, home-canned pickle relish, peanut butter truffles, bourbon balls...mmm.

Are you making any gifts this year? What are you cooking and baking? 

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings to All! 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving- which was celebrated a week ago in the US- is a cook's holiday and an eater's delight. The holiday is officially on the last Thursday of November but it is safe to say that between various feasts and the leftovers, you are well fed throughout the week.

Our festivities kicked off with a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Tuesday. I made the pumpkin roll (the same one from Halloween) again. My other contribution was a tray of my standard vegetable biryani, made Thanksgiving style with roasted sweet potatoes and green beans, and a generous garnish of dried cranberries and fried onions.

Wednesday was the Thanksgiving feast at Lila's preschool for all the kids and their teachers. Parents brought in various sides. I took mashed potatoes and roasted sweet potato cubes. The mashed potatoes were simply made with cream, salt and pepper to appeal to the littles. The roasted sweet potatoes were also seasoned very simply and designed to be picked up and eaten by toddler hands.

On Thanksgiving Thursdays I tend to spend all day in the kitchen. This time, a friend invited us to a "Friendsgiving" dinner at her home and insisted that I not bring a dish. Well, it was downright luxurious to spend the day puttering around the house, coloring with Lila, working on a quilt and having to cook nothing at all. We just took over a bottle of wine and enjoyed a feast in the evening. Our friend laid out a wonderful table with tofurkey, all the typical sides like salad, green bean casserole, potato gratin, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy. With pumpkin pie for dessert.

Friday was my annual celebration of "buy nothing day", and I joined my running group for a 3 mile post-Thanksgiving run in the morning.

When Saturday rolled around, I had a chance to cook and host a Thanksgiving feast (Part II) at my home. Close friends came over, and a family member drove in for the weekend, and it was the perfect gathering.

Here's what I made:

The main dish: Roasted Portobello Mushroom, Pecan and Chestnut Wellington. In the days before this holiday, all the blogs and food websites are buzzing with recipes to try, and this fancy-looking recipe on the Washington Post website caught my eye instantly. There's an accompanying video and it really did not look that difficult to make.

This dish was a huge success and the star of the meal- I followed the recipe very closely. We had a bundle of fresh herbs from our CSA veggie box and those really added a special flavor to it. Frozen puff pastry and cooked, peeled chestnuts came from Trader Joe's. This is a beautiful vegetarian centerpiece for a holiday meal and I'll be making it again and again. Next time I might add lentils to the filling instead of breadcrumbs.

We served the sliced wellington with some jarred rhubarb chutney and gravy made with nutritional yeast and mushroom stock.

The sides were pretty simple- a green salad, mashed sweet potatoes and roasted cauliflower.
Dessert was chocolate pecan pie, which is as close to a Thanksgiving tradition as we have in this family (you can find the recipe at the end of this post). Served with vanilla ice cream, of course.

Tell me what you did over Thanksgiving break! Or just what you're cooking and baking these days.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Books, Movies and a Seasonal Dal

A belated Happy Diwali to you all! We had a very quiet Diwali- lighting rows of twinkling tea lights, enjoying a nice family dinner, and feasting on homemade faraal- two types of chivda, anarse, shankarpale, chakli, shev- generously sent by my parents.

I recently completed a pretty mundane home improvement project and was surprised at how much it improved my life: it was simply putting up light blocking curtains on our bedroom windows. When drawn, they make the room pitch dark; I sleep so much more soundly in this cave-like darkness. I put the curtains on rings making it easy to pull them open with a flick of the wrist to let natural light stream in during the day. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that this has been life-changing. Because I sleep more restfully, I've been motivated to go to bed early (I mean super early, like 8:30 PM, I basically stuck to my usual bedtime even when the clocks turned back) in an attempt to make up for years of sleep deprivation.

Did I just gush over a pair of grey curtains? Yes! LOL!

This early bedtime means I'm not reading as much as I like to, and that's OK. Most days, I just flip through magazines and read an article or two. A couple of the magazines we subscribe to (New Yorker, Science) and the others- more delicious ones like Real Simple and Southern Living and Good Housekeeping- are borrowed from informal magazine exchange racks at my public library and the gym.

I did read two more books from the NPR book list and enjoyed them both: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson. And with that I'm totally done with romance novels for the next decade or so.

Right now, I am reading I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb as part of the read-along for Nonfiction November.

I did watch some good movies on Netflix. My favorite has to be Queen, a 2014 Hindi comedy-drama. A young woman from Delhi is shattered when her fiance calls off their wedding at the last minute, but decides to go on her European honeymoon on her own. This is such a sweet, funny and heart-warming movie. I'm not saying it is perfect- it could easily have been a good 45 shorter for one thing- but there's something about this movie that I really adored.

Another good one was Philomena, a more serious drama starring one of my favorite actors, Judi Dench. She was nominated for an Oscar for this one.

Today's Special is a sweet little foodie movie. I loved the cast of this movie more than the actual storyline. So many beloved actors here.

V and I did something that does not happen often for us- we went to an actual movie theater to see a new release, while our friends watched Lila. It was The Martian and we enjoyed it. Although the last movie we saw in the theater was Interstellar, which also featured Matt Damon stranded on a lonely planet. Deja vu?

As far as TV goes, I've been watching some episodes of Aziz Ansari's Master of None and also some old episodes of 30 Rock, one of my favorite sitcoms. Tina Fey is brilliant.

* * * 
Today's recipe came about serendipitously but the results were particularly enjoyable so I'm recording it here. I was making a simple masoor dal (pink/red lentils), and noticed that there was some mashed sweet potato in the fridge that needed to be eaten soon. On a whim, I added it to the dal and the result was creamy, comforting and perfect for the season. It is always nice to try small variations on everyday dals, and I hope you enjoy this one.

Sweet Potato Dal

1. Soak 1 cup masoor dal for a few hours, and rinse throughly.

2. In the body of a pressure cooker, heat 1 tbsp oil. Temper with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, 1 tsp. cumin seeds, a few curry leaves, a sprinkle of asafetida.

3. Add 1 small minced onion and fry for a couple of minutes. Season with salt to taste, 1 tsp. ginger paste, 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric and 1-2 tsp. of your favorite masala.

4. Add the soaked masoor dal and 1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato. Or if you don't have leftover sweet potato, then add small diced raw sweet potato.

5. Add about 3 cups water (or more or less depending on the consistency you like) and pressure cook.

6. Stir the creamy dal, drizzle with lemon juice, chopped cilantro and ghee and serve warm.

What have you been cooking, reading, watching? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Fall Baking is a Go, and Doggy Tales

The clocks turned back by an hour this past Sunday as we switched back to Eastern Standard Time. The time honored thing to do (no pun intended) is to use that extra hour to sleep in. Since that wasn't an option for me with my little early bird, I did the next best thing and used the extra hour to fire up the oven and get on with Fall baking.

Sunday was also the day when we turned a page on the calendar, and there really was no better way to start off the brand new month of November than to be elbow-deep in pumpkin puree and flour, in a warm kitchen scented with vanilla and cinnamon.

Baking had already started the day before, on Saturday. I did end up making that pumpkin cream cheese roll that I dreamed about for days after watching the Swiss roll episode of the Great British Baking Show and talked about last week. The recipe was from a reliable source, the King Arthur Flour blog. It needed a 10 x 15 inches baking pan which I did not have, but I found one in my supermarket for about 5 bucks.

The recipe was surprisingly easy to follow. I cut down the sugar in the cake to 3/4 cup. The filling of the cake is absolutely dreamy (and I'm usually not a fan of frosting). It came together quickly and easily; I did everything by hand with a bowl and a whisk. The cake cracked a little bit as I started to roll it but the cracks got hidden in the inside of the roll.

We took the pumpkin roll to our neighborhood Halloween potluck and costume party and it was well-received. Now, from the strictly critical view-point of, say, Paul and Mary, the cake was slightly sticky and the roll sank a little bit (it "sat" instead of being a perfect oval). But the taste was wonderful and I can see myself making this again and again. Hooray for finally making a Swiss roll!

Sunday baking started with an apple bundt cake and pumpkin chocolate chip bread; I had to bring in these treats to a work event on Monday morning.

The pumpkin chocolate chip bread was a quick way to use up the leftover canned pumpkin from making the roll.

The apple bundt cake came from this recipe on Epicurious. I love the bundt pan that my sister bought for me from the factory sale in Minneapolis, and super-sized bundt cakes are just the thing to feed a crowd. This recipe is definitely a keeper. My modifications were to cut the sugar down to 1 3/4 cups from 2.5 cups, I used milk instead of orange juice and did not peel the apples. I loved how the sugary apple pieces studded the cake throughout. Most apple cakes are crumbly and this one surprised me by being very easy to cut into neat slices with a serrated knife.

While the cakes were in the oven, I threw in a whole spaghetti squash to bake at the same time, and then made a gratin with the spaghetti squash and some collard greens. That took care of lunch.

The final bake of the day was my weekly big batch of granola, which is what V eats for breakfast day after week after year.

On the subject of baking, I should tell you about the impossible pumpkin pie  I made last weekend from Susan's recipe. We had guests who don't eggs, and I wanted to make something seasonal, so this vegan recipe for pumpkin pie was just the thing. Impossible pies are crustless, but with added flour, so that as they bake, the flour separates and magically forms a crust (of sorts) for the pie. I like them for how effortless they are to put together.

I used one whole can of pumpkin (not pie filling, just pure canned pumpkin) in this recipe, and some extra baking powder and baking soda in place of the commercial egg substitute. It came out well and tasted wonderful chilled and served with a side of whipped cream and toasted walnuts.

I did get my allotted extra hour of sleep that day, by exhausting myself completely and going to bed at 8 PM!

* * *
What's sweeter than apple cake and pumpkin bread put together? Definitely our almost-3 year old mutt, Duncan.

Duncan is a canine ambassador, a "gateway dog" who has helped many people get over their fear of dogs just by having the sweetest personality. Just last weekend, we had a visitor who screamed in fright when Duncan first came into the room. A couple of hours later, she was willingly petting him on the head as she said goodbye. Her husband could not believe his eyes.

This is funny because at almost 100 lbs, being big is his defining characteristic. And he has a resounding bark that can make you jump out of your skin. But the big dogs are the gentlest ones. One time, a tiny 5 pound kitten walked right up to Duncan and slapped a paw at his nose. Not very smart of the kitten, because Dunkie could have eaten her in one bite if he wanted to. But he just looked hurt/bewildered and backed off.

When Lila's little friends come over to play, I watch him closely, not because I'm afraid that he will hurt the kids (I have complete confidence that he won't), but I worry that the kids will be too rough with him. Duncan loves playing with the little ones; it is funny to see him towering over the doll house and trying to join in the game. But never try to play hide and seek with a dog- the dog will win every time.

A few weeks ago, lightning struck our neighbor's house down the road late on a stormy evening, and the house caught on fire- no one was hurt, luckily. It was a chaotic situation for the homeowner, a lady in her 80s, and we offered to take in her two dogs for the night and keep them safe while the family figured out what to do. And of course, Duncan being Duncan, welcomed the two strangers into his home, shared his food, toys and bed with them and did not complain when one of the dogs started bossing him around.

Which is not to say that Dunkie does not have his feisty side. He loves playing boisterously at the dog park and at doggie daycare, where we send him one or two days a week so he can play his little heart out. He's always well-behaved at daycare, except for one time when I went to pick him up and was told, "Duncan used his size to take away toys from other dogs". I didn't quite know how to respond to that- Umm, I'll have a chat with him about his behavior?

Lila asked me, "When Duncan was a puppy, was he a chihuahua?" Kids have impeccable logic!

What have you been baking and cooking? Tell me about the pets in your life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Collard Greens Wadi- a Savory Roll

I go through phases with my TV watching. For a number of years, food shows were the staple (hah) of my TV time and I hungrily watched everything from the gentle Saturday PBS line-up with the likes of Julia Child to the cupcake brawls on Food Network. Then we cut cable and I moved on to other genres, other shows.

In the last fortnight, foodie TV came back into my life in a delicious way with a show I found on Netflix streaming- Series 5 of The Great British Bake Off. The premise of the show is pretty standard- they find a dozen talented amateur bakers from around England, host a bake-off every weekend and eliminate one contestant at a time, and then crown a winner by the end of the season.

The competition is held in a tent on the picturesque grounds of a country manor. The demeanor of the contestants was utterly refreshing. They were good-humored, gracious and self-deprecating. The youngest baker in this series was only 17 years old. She is a high school student who lives with her parents. Her talent was mind-boggling. Then there were bakers in their 60s. I guess you're never too young and never too old to participate in life's big and little adventures. My favorite contestant was a guy from suburban London- a builder by profession who has a delicate touch with pastry. It is great when people are liberated from gender roles and allowed to pursue whatever the heck interests them.

The bakes were gorgeous and impressive, needing true talent and skill- the bakers had to make things like filo pastry from scratch. Each episode has an theme (say, cakes, or breads) and three parts: a signature bake (something that is a specialty of the baker), a technical (where bakers were given a rather vague recipe for a obscure baked good and had to bake it on the spot) and showstopper (making spectacular and elaborate bakes). This wiki page has an amazingly detailed write up of this series. While I myself don't much care for either baking or eating elaborate baked goodies, it is all very fun to watch.

The first challenge of the first episode involved making Swiss rolls. Watching those spongy cakes being rolled up with all sorts of interesting fillings made me want to run into the kitchen and bake a Swiss roll right away. Real life intervened and while I did end up making a roll this weekend, it was not quite the sweet and creamy type that I saw on the show. It was savory and there was no baking involved. This was a variation on the Maharashtrian snack/side dish called alu wadi or pathrode, in Gujarati these are called patra.

A thick paste of besan (chickpea flour) and spices is spread thinly on giant colocasia leaves and they are rolled up tightly, and then steamed. The cooked rolls are sliced to reveal pretty spirals, and then pan fried to golden crispy perfection.

I love this dish, so why have I never made it? Partly because it sounds like an elaborate and time-consuming process, and partly because colocasia leaves are not available where I live. But there is good news on both counts. Collard greens, widely available in supermarkets around here, are a wonderful substitute for colocasia leaves with their wide and sturdy leaves. In fact, I found a good recipe for collard greens wadi and followed it very closely.

Making the collard greens wadi was very straight-forward. The bunch of collard greens from the grocery store was massive- a bundle of about 25 leaves for three bucks.

1. Prep the leaves: Fold each collard leaf in half along the middle, then slice off the thick middle vein. You're left with leaves with a narrow wedge in the middle cut off.

2. Rinse the leaves well in water and pat dry.

3. Make the paste: Mix besan, rice flour, spices (turmeric, red chili powder, coriander cumin powder), flavorings (salt, jaggery, tamarind paste), and seeds (sesame seeds, poppy seeds). Add just enough water to make a thick paste. Next time I will add some oil to the paste.

4. Make the rolls: Lay down one leaf, spread some of the paste on it. Lay another leaf on it, alternating the direction, spread more paste. I built layers of about 5 leaves. Then roll the whole thing like a burrito- folding in the sides, then rolling tightly. I made 2 rolls. The rolling can be very imperfect- the whole process is quite forgiving and once steamed, the rolls look fine.

5. Next, steam the rolls for 15 minutes.

6. Cool the steamed rolls, cut into slices (a serrated knife works well) and pan fry in oil until golden brown.

We served the collard greens wadi as a side with bisibele bhaat for a weekend brunch. I still have half the leaves from the bunch left over and I'm thinking I might make, steam and slice some more rolls and stash them in the freezer, to the thawed and pan-fried over the next month or two.

If I manage to find some time, and a baking sheet of the right size, I might end up making a Swiss roll for Halloween- I have my eye on this pumpkin cream cheese roll.

Do you watch much food-themed TV? Have you seen The Great British Bake Off? I'd love to watch the other seasons of this show.

What have you been cooking and baking? 

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Birthday Brunch

On Christmas day 2014, Lila got a much-anticipated gift from a dear family friend, her American grandma- a DVD of the Disney movie Frozen. She watched it twice that day and has watched it almost every weekend since then. I will let you do the math. Yes, this little girl joined a substantial portion of the younger population of North America by being totally caught up with Frozen fever.

As a consequence, for eight months straight, Lila has begged us for an Elsa cake for her birthday. So when she turned four last month, at least this one aspect of the celebration was already decided on.

Lila's birthday party was a celebration at home, with 8 or so of her close friends in attendance (a few with their older and younger siblings in tow), along with their parents- so the guest list quickly grew to about 25 people. We decided on a 10 AM Saturday morning brunch birthday party, for several scheduling reasons. Around here, morning parties are not the norm but they are not unheard of either.

Incidentally, the time of the party was very appropriate because the birthday girl has been a morning person from day one. She was born in the wee hours of the morning and has committed herself to waking at the crack of dawn ever since- weekends, holidays, Mondays, you name it. We actually had to buy an alarm clock to make her stay in bed- it glows green at 5 AM and she knows that until the clock turns green, it is still night and she should try to sleep.

Anyway, back to the birthday cake. While I love baking, I am no good at decorating cakes. A friend of a friend opened a bakery in town only a couple of months ago, and I decided to outsource the cake to her expert hands. Lila specifically wanted "Elsa in blue standing on chocolate" so that's what she got: a three-layered vanilla sponge with strawberry filling and chocolate frosting, with blue candy ice crystals and Frozen figurines from Target.

The brunch buffet had three hot dishes. The first: soft fluffy idlis with cilantro coconut chutney.

I made idlis the weekend before the party and stored them neatly in the freezer in airtight boxes. It was a good idea because I wouldn't have had the time to do the grinding and steaming on the day before and day of the party. I thawed them overnight in the fridge and reheated them in the microwave just before serving- they were good as new. We had regular idlis and mini idlis, perfect for the little ones.

The next hot dish was a hash brown breakfast casserole was straight from Alanna's recipe. I doubled the recipe to make it in a 9x13 pan. I used spinach as the optional middle layer- two boxes of frozen chopped spinach that I thawed over 2 days in the fridge and then squeezed dry. This casserole is hearty and tasty and was a huge hit. 
The final hot dish was a kid favorite and requested by Lila: classic mac and cheese. I use a pretty standard recipe, much like this Martha Stewart one. I made the bechamel sauce the day before, and boiled macaroni and baked the mac and cheese on the morning of the party. 

As part of the brunch spread, I made two kinds of sandwiches. One was the ever-popular PB&J except that two of the little guests were allergic to peanuts so I chose sunflower butter instead of peanut butter. 
The other sandwiches were cream cheese-cucumber. Because this was a special occasion, I cut the crusts off (save them in the freezer to make breadcrumbs or use in vegetable patties) and cut them into small triangles to make two-three bite sandwiches. 

Also on the table: a tub of hummus with baby carrots and pita chips. All store bought. 

The yogurt bar was store-bought vanilla yogurt served with several toppings: (a) cut fresh fruits- apples, strawberries, pineapples, (b) homemade granola, (c) cheerios, (d) dried fruit- raisins and cranberries. I set out bowls and let everyone assemble their own yogurt parfaits.

The menu worked well and everyone seemed to find something that they liked to eat. We made plenty of fresh coffee for the grown-ups. Much of the food was store-bought (yogurt, hummus, pita chips, cheerios), easy to prep (fruits, sandwiches) and easy to make ahead (idlis, mac and cheese). This was very important because Friday was a working day and the guests started pouring in quite early on Saturday so there was not a lot of prep time.

The party was noisy, chaotic and lots of fun. I wanted to organize a few party games like pinning a candle on a cupcake/passing the parcel but never got around to it, and anyway the kids were busy running around and doing their own thing. It was all over by noon, and the birthday girl went to take a nap. After cleaning up and devouring the leftovers, we had the rest of the day to relax and watch her enjoy her presents- including a book, a memory game, an art kit, a play tent. And so started the fifth year of my little girl's life, in the company of friends, family and the Elsa cake of her dreams. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Books, Movies, Ballet

V and I have very different audio preferences when we are driving. I like to bop along to the blast of the local hit music station (while crossing my fingers that my preschooler can't catch some of the more questionable lyrics); V insists on tuning into the hushed voices of National Public Radio. I tease him about NPR lulling me to sleep but the truth it I am a fan. I'm always surfing over to their website and listening to their podcasts. Every summer, NPR picks a genre and publishes a list of 100 must-read books in that genre. I love books and I love lists so I'm all over this.

This year, they published a list of 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances. (You have got to look at some of those covers. Gah.) I had not read a single one of them- somehow I've managed to overlook an entire genre in my reading life. That was it- this would be my summer of romance reading. Such luxurious fun to sit around and read a romance novel. Well, in the frenzy of summer guests and travel, it did not work out in quite that romantic fashion, but I read a few books off their list and plan to read some more.

The first was a YA romance, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Anna is in high school in Atlanta, GA when her father uproots her and sends her to a boarding school in Paris for her senior year. She is miserable until she meets a new group of friends including an irresistible French-English boy. This was a fluffy but sweet teenage romance. Recommended if you're in the mood for a bonbon.

The second book was from the romance suspense genre, more appealing to me for the suspense than the romance, I'll admit- Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This one reminded me strongly of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And oh, it was a good read. A young English governess, a remote French chateau, a sinister employer, his dashing son, an escape in the middle of the night...this book started slow but I thoroughly enjoyed it by the end. Recommended! (Psst...Arpita, you will like this one.)

I did check out a third book off the list from the library, A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev but just couldn't get past the first few pages. I'll have to try this book again another time.

Some books other than romances that crossed my path this summer:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This bestselling novel from a decade ago narrates the aftermath of a brutal crime and the afterlife of a teenage murder victim as she watches over her family. A strange and disturbing premise, and the plot was meandering. I don't know what else to say about this book.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. M*A*S*H is probably my favorite TV show ever, and Alan Alda makes M*A*S*H what it is. I was excited to read his memoir, and it was an engaging read. I wanted to read more behind the scenes stuff about M*A*S*H but this is a true memoir, the story of a boy who grew up with a father who was a burlesque actor and a mother who battled mental illness, his struggles as a young actor and father of three daughters, a man who's been married to the same woman for 50 years and who doesn't fit into any showbiz stereotypes. I adored Alan Alda already and this memoir made me love him even more.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. My dad, who was visiting for a few weeks in summer, is crazy about aviation. He spends all his free time building really complicated model airplanes. My aunt suggested that I get him this book that was published very recently. We got a copy from the public library and after my dad read the book (he loved it), I read it too. This is a work of incredibly detailed narrative non-fiction that tells the fascinating story of the Wright brothers and how they built a flying machine. Today, we take it so much for granted that we can take a flight to another continent and get there overnight, while eating a hot meal 40,000 feet in the air on the way there. It is amazing to think back to how this all started.

There has not been much screen entertainment in my life lately. We subscribed to Indian channels for a while for visiting family members, and so I watched a bit of Sony TV- specifically, the finals of Indian Idol Junior! It was fun to watch Indian TV after many years. And we watched a very off-beat and Piku, a very off-beat comedy-drama. I enjoyed this movie, it has a lot of heart and great non-filmy (you know what I mean) acting. I see Amitabh Bachan in a totally different light now.

After watching all three hundred thousand episodes of Midsomer Murders, I was missing British crime drama and turned to Broadchurch, a British detective mini-series on Netflix. The story involves a crime (what else) that rocks a small community (what else) apart, and follows two detectives, one a friendly local and the other a brusque outsider (what else). It is a well-written, sad and dark narrative but worth watching. It doesn't hurt that it is shot in a gorgeous seaside setting.

Oh and I watched First Position, a documentary on Netflix that follows six young ballet dancers as they prepare for an elite competition that may decide their professional fate. (The name of the documentary, first position, refers to the one of the 5 classical foot placements in ballet.) The dancers are so young, so ridiculously talented, so insanely hard-working. This is a well-made documentary that is totally worth watching.

I love dance SO MUCH- all forms of dance, classical, contemporary, you name it. Dance moves me to tears the way music moves some people to tears. I took Kathak lessons for nearly a decade as a child and have been missing dance in my life these days. Certainly there's no Kathak teacher for tens of miles around me. We do have a dance studio in our town, but classes are expensive, the times and locations are not convenient and it is just really hard to fit one more thing into my schedule right now. I've been satisfying my dance cravings with an hour of zumba every week.

You can imagine my joyful reaction when my regular old gym announced some new fitness classes for Fall, and one of them is a ballet class. I've been going for a few weeks now (swapped in this class for another fitness class I was attending). It is a low-maintenance class in terms of gear; we don't wear tutus and ballet slippers- just any workout clothes and socks/bare feet. The instructor has 40 years experience teaching ballet; she retired from running her own ballet school. She either doesn't notice or doesn't care that none of the students in this class are spring chickens; she just teaches us in the same intense way she probably taught her 10 year old students. "Ballet is a bit like being in the army", she said in the first class, which just about sums up her approach! Not complaining. I actually love teachers who expect a lot from their students.

We're learning basic ballet positions and moves. It is all about posture, balance, core strength, discipline, intentional and controlled movement, and learning a lot of French ballet terminology as we struggle to plié and relevé and dégagé. All while being commanded to "feel beautiful". LOL. I don't know how beautiful I feel as I pick myself off the floor and hobble home after class, but this class makes me so happy. It is a mental health boost as much as anything else, and sheer delight at being able to live out a fantasy and feel like a dancer for a few minutes. 

What are you reading and watching these days?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

In a Pickle: Making Kimchi

The early years of life are full of firsts. The first step, the first word, the first feel of sand and waves on the toes. Every day is new and exciting. The novel experiences tend to taper off as the decades roll by. This past week my routine and quite predictable life got a jolt with two new experiences- running my first 5K race and taking my first ballet class. Actually, make that three experiences- a friend taught me to make kimchi- the fermented Korean pickle.

The 5K was the culmination of 10 weeks of training. Our race was a fundraiser for a therapy program for kids with special needs. At 7:30 AM on a thankfully not-blazing-hot race day, we were at the registration counter, picking up our bibs and feeling like legitimate runners as we pinned them to our shirts. We stretched as a group, wished each other well and joined the throng at the start line. At that point, I realized that the race course was a series of rolling hills- not a flat patch in sight- and my heart sank to the soles of my running shoes. Running is bad enough and hills really kill me. No turning back now.

The start was called and the elite runners took off like a shot. Calm down, guys. It's not a race, you know? ;) The rest of us started trotting after them. Running is a very mental thing. It is hard and I want to stop right away. I have to keep talking to myself non-stop and coaxing myself to take one step and then another and another. During the race, I distracted myself by looking at everyone around me. It was marvelous to see that runners (and walkers, and run walkers) come in all shapes and sizes and all ages. Everyone's out there doing their best and cheering each other on.

The race course went through a nice neighborhood. We ran to the halfway point, then ran back. I can't tell you how relieved I was to see runners coming back on the opposite side of the road. It meant that the halfway point must be somewhere within reach. The organizers had placed signs at each mile (5K= 3.1 miles.) The first mile seemed ridiculously long as I huffed up the hills. The second mile went by faster as I passed a water station, saw several of my running buddies returning from the halfway point and gave them high-fives, then passed the halfway point myself.

The third mile was pure misery; I was very tired and cross, asking myself over and over why I was doing this stupid thing anyway. I wanted to sit by the side of the road and cry. Meanwhile, elementary school-aged kids were passing me. Seniors were passing me. Somehow I stumbled to the end of mile 3 and a course minder said the magic words, "You're almost there". Then my running coach spotted me and urged me up the last hill. One last dash to the finish line- V was standing there with Lila and that cheered me right up and I made it to the end with a smile on my face.

My goal was to run the 5K in under 36 minutes- my time ended up being 35:46 minutes so I made it with 14 whole seconds to spare. I did technically run the whole way; I say technically because much of it was laborious jogging as if through molasses. I am SO GLAD I did this. The sweat and tears are totally worth it. I got inspired by people at the race. I saw myself in a new light.

Someone asked me later if the race was fun. Well, it was fun before the race and really fun after (several of us went out for brunch, sweat-soaked, wearing race bibs and all) but the actually running is definitely not what I would describe as fun. It may get easier if I keep at it. I'm not in the running program any more but plan to run on my own 2 or 3 times a week and sign up for another 5K in November.

* * *
Speaking of novel experiences, cooking as a hobby lends itself to many firsts- there are always new things to try in the kitchen. Today, my dear friend generously invited a small group to her kitchen and we made kimchi. Kimchi is a fermented Korean pickle, often spicy and garlicky, made with cabbage or radish and such. It is a recipe that she learned from her Korean-American college roommate.

Five of us gathered in my friend's kitchen. We were each instructed to bring a bowl with the vegetable that we wanted to pickle. Two of us brought napa cabbage. One got cubed diakon (white) radish and carrots and the last person got shredded turnips and red radishes.

The method for kimchi making is easy enough, in 3 steps:
1. Salt the vegetable to draw out the water.
2. Add the seasoning- ginger, garlic, red chili powder (you can buy a special Korean variety) and green onions.
3. Pack it into a jar and let it ferment naturally for a few days.

For a delicate vegetable like napa cabbage, in step 2, instead of adding seasoning directly to the salted vegetable, my friend had us make a paste of the seasoning (with some water and flour) and then apply it.


1. Chop 1 head of napa cabbage.
2. Add kosher salt- about 3/4 to 1 tbsp. salt per pound of vegetables.
3. Stir the cabbage and salt together and let the salt do its thing and draw out water from the cabbage. The cabbage will shrink dramatically in volume.

4. Meanwhile, heat 1 cup water and 1 tbsp. flour (rice or all-purpose flour) and bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in 1 tsp. brown sugar. Turn off the heat and cool to room temperature.
6. To this flour-water mixture, add 1 tbsp. minced ginger, 1 tbsp. minced garlic and 2-3 green onions, chopped, and the all-important Korean chili powder, about 2-3 tbsp.

7. After an hour or two of the cabbage marinating in salt, drain away the salt water and rinse the cabbage. Return it to a bowl.
8. Stir in the spice paste and mix well.
9. Pack into very clean glass jars, pressing the kimchi down with a spoon to get all the air bubbles out and make sure the vegetables are submerged in the spicy brine. This recipe with 1 head of cabbage gave me 2 full jars.
10. Set the jars on a plate at room temperature for 3 days or so to let it ferment. Then refrigerate. Eat after a week.

I'll update this post to show you what the kimchi looks like as it ferments, and to report on the taste!

While salting out our veggies, we snacked on kimbap, Korean seaweed and rice rolls. So delicious. Positively addictive.

Roasted seaweed sheets
Seasoned sushi rice
Pickled diakon radish
Shredded carrots
Sautéed spinach

Roll, cut, eat.

Cooking with friends has got to be the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Tell me what's new and exciting in your life!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

On the Run, and a recipe for Carrot Raita Dip

I heard a whoosh and Summer 2015 sped by before I knew it. For our family, the last couple of months went by in a blur- the guest room was solidly booked with visits from parents and friends, we spent a week in Minneapolis to see my sister with the requisite afternoon at the Nickelodeon theme park (my kid is an adrenaline junkie, much like her daddy and totally unlike me). Then we went on a 1600 mile road trip (over just 5 days!) for a reunion with old friends. Plus I've had a pretty big change in my schedule when I switched back to working full time a month ago.

A fun shopping trip on my travels: Nordic Ware, the baking ware manufacturers, have their factory right in the middle of Minneapolis. Last year, I spotted it but we couldn't get off the highway right then and missed going there. This time I dragged my mom and sister to the Nordic Ware factory store and we lucked out. They were having a giant tent sale- their first in a decade. Oh, the excitement of being surrounded by stacks of baking pans in every shape and size. Like being a kid in a candy store, only better. I restrained myself and only bought two pans: their classic bundt pan and a rose-shaped muffin pan.

At home, the kitchen was constantly busy but I never paused to try anything new or different- it was easier to trot out old favorites. I do have a recipe to blog about, though. We met up with friends for a potluck with the theme of "salads"- which seemed appropriate for August but in fact it turned out to be a rainy and cool evening. I was asked to bring an appetizer and made something very familiar but in a newish avatar- carrot raita served as a dip with chips.

I used tender curry leaves and minced them, so you don't have to pick out the leaves from the dip. A touch of chillies would be a nice addition for those who can handle the heat. Cucumber, beet or radish, even greens like spinach or kale would work well in place of the carrots.

Carrot Raita Dip

1. Heat 2 tsp. oil in a small pan.
2. Temper it with 2 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafetida, a few minced curry leaves.
3. Stir in 1 cup shredded carrots and salt to taste, cook them for a minute.
4. Cool the carrot mixture, then stir it into 1.5 cups Greek yogurt.
5. Add a handful of minced cilantro.
6. Chill and serve.

Serve with vegetable sticks or potato/lentil chips. 

* * * 
Summer 2015 will be memorable for another reason- it is my summer of running. In a moment of misguided enthusiasm, I signed up for a 5K race and have been training for it since July as part of a running group. We're a motley bunch of about 15 people and most of us are very new to running. We meet one morning and one evening every week. Our running coach is unrelentingly cheerful and supportive; she smiles sweetly while kicking our collective behinds. 

So far, it is been exciting, hard, painful, amazing- all of the above. And kind of hilarious. The very first time we met, the coach walked us down to the Olympic-size athletic track and announced that she's going to measure the baseline mile time for each of us. And I asked her- this shows you how stupidly unprepared I was for all this- how much of the track is a mile? Turns out it is FOUR TIMES around the track and I was like, NOOOOO in total disbelief. Is it too late to switch to the 100 meter training? That evening, I did run (or rather, run-walked) the mile, with a baseline time of 12:52 minutes. I thought I was going to die. My legs felt like lead the next day. 

Over time, we've built up a routine. The coach is a stickler about warming up, then running with good form, then cooling down and stretching. Each session focuses on something different- running up and down hills, keeping a steady pace, trail running, doing drills, trying to go slightly longer distances each time. 

Running sounds simple enough (you just put one leg in front of the other), but it is the hardest thing I have ever done. It takes cardiovascular fitness and stamina that I just don't have. Learning to run in 95-100 degree F heat and high humidity of Georgia has been interesting to say the least. As one of my teammates said, some days it feels like we're running on the surface of the sun.

Running with a group is what keeps us going. There is a sense of commitment and positive peer pressure. No matter the reason for not wanting to run- it is raining, you slept badly- you just show up and you run. Our progress is modest- we've gone from barely being able to run a mile to running 3 miles. Still, it feels scary and rewarding to step out of one's comfort zone and do something that you did not think you could do.

I've been working as steadily as I can, trying to keep up with my training through all the visitors and trips. I did short runs around the lake promenade next to my sister's home in Minneapolis, on a leafy urban trail in Virginia and in a nice hilly neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A Kenyan colleague stayed with us for 10 days in July and I dragged him out to run with me- "You're Kenyan, so you can run, right?" Yes, he could run. He protested about not being in shape, then casually ran 2 miles in 16 minutes.

The 5K is just a few days away. My goal is to run the whole race (not walk any portion of it, I mean) and to finish the race in 36 minutes or under. But it doesn't really matter what happens- just showing up, training and running with determination is enough. 

How was your summer? Tell me everything! I've missed being here. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tofu (or Paneer) Tikka Salad

On our way to drive a dear friend to the airport, we stopped for dinner at a popular Atlanta restaurant called Chai Pani which serves an eclectic selection of Indian street food. Restaurant menus are prime inspiration for the aspiring home cook and that day, I came away wanting to replicate the grilled paneer salad that we enjoyed there. The menu describes it as organic spring mix with pickled beets, red onions, cucumber & tomatoes topped with grilled house-made paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese). Served with cumin-lime dressing.

This evening, I made my own version of this salad for a quick weekday dinner.

The first component: The greens or the salad base. I find that eating fresh greens is all a matter of convenience- if the greens are prepped and chopped and sitting in a transparent box in the fridge where you can see them, they get eaten quickly. But if a head of lettuce is hidden in a bag in the crisper, it is likely to languish there and end up in the compost heap.

The game-changer has been to prep the greens as soon as I get home from the store, before the greens get a chance to be shoved into the bottom drawer. I shred the lettuce or chop it into bite size pieces, then rinse it thoroughly in cold water and use a salad spinner to dry it as much as possible. Then I line a large plastic box with either paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and put in the chopped greens. I'll often top the greens with other salad components, like shredded carrots and strips of bell peppers. Then the lid goes on tight and the box of greens is ready- it lasts for several days in the fridge and I can pull out handfuls at a time to make all kinds of salads.

The second component: The grilled tikka. Tofu or paneer would work equally well here- in my home, paneer tends to be something we make when we have company and tofu is more of an everyday ingredient. This morning, I made a quick marinade similar to this one, whisking yogurt, besan, tandoori masala, ginger garlic paste and salt together. I drained the tofu, patted it dry, cut it into cubes, mixed them into the marinade, and refrigerated it for the day. Right before dinner, I heated a non stick pan with a bit of oil and pan-fried the marinated tofu until it was golden brown and crispy. Of course, a real grill or broiler would work great for this step as well.

The third component: The dressing. We got some mint in the last veggie box. I pulsed together chopped cilantro and mint to a paste, then stirred in yogurt, cumin powder, salt and lemon juice to make a quick sauce.

The final component: Thinly sliced onions marinated with lemon juice and a bit of salt. The lemon juice quickly pickles the onions and takes the harsh raw edge off.

Finally, just assemble the salad: a bed of the salad mix, topped with warm tofu cubes, a garnish of onions and a generous dollop of dressing. We loved every bite. I can't wait to make this for all my family and friends- it has all the makings of a crowd-pleaser.

*** *** ***

Summer 2015's reading has been extremely rewarding so far....

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. A beautiful, articulate and thought-provoking book on aging, elder care and preserving a person's quality of life at the end of their life instead of simply prolonging it at all costs.

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg. Another very vivid and thoughtfully written book that took me deep into Afghan culture and into the lives of Afghan women.

Burnt toast makes you sing good : a memoir of food and love from an American Midwest family by Kathleen Flinn. This one is more light-hearted than the first two books. Flinn was raised as the youngest child of parents who were broke more often than not but who adored each other and embraced all sorts of whacky adventures. The book is full of her vivid, happy memories of family life.

I read some wonderful graphic novels:

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi. Through bold and graceful black and white sketches, Satrapi narrates the story of growing up as a precocious child of liberal parents in Tehran as it was rocked by the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq.

In American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang brings together three seemingly unrelated story lines into a funny and creative story, fable and memoir all rolled in one. I am astonished at the talent of these artists. You can read graphic novels so quickly, but each and every panel is drawn so painstakingly and is a work of art in itself.

Right now, I'm reading Think Like a Freak (Freakonomics #3) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and it promises to be interesting. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Giant Pancake, and Everyday Habits

My summers seem to come in two flavors. Either they are long and lazy months when I peacefully chew through piles of books.  Or they are dizzy months with a near-constant stream of visiting family/friends interspersed with short stints of travel. Summer 2015 definitely falls into the latter category and I'm enjoying every bit of it. The way I eat has changed quite a bit this year, but when friends and relatives come to stay, I pull out all the stops and make the treats that I know they're looking forward to.

The first dessert of summer came with Father's Day last weekend. We got together with a couple of families and hosted a potluck for the daddies. For appetizers, we had sev puri, bruschetta with grilled peaches and blue cheese and fried eggplant rolls stuffed with goat cheese. Then we had falafel, spaghetti squash enchiladas and vegetable tian (a kind of deconstructed ratatouille). Everything was delicious but the hit of the evening was the dessert. I made no-bake Boston cream pie strata, a no-brainer for Father's Day knowing Lila's daddy's love for custard. I followed the recipe exactly as written, and it was fantastic. The pudding is cooked on the stove top and layered with store-bought graham crackers- an "icebox dessert" with no baking required. It is a messy, homely sort of dessert perfect for a casual gathering in summer. It is the sort of comforting dessert that takes people back to their childhood. I say this because one of our friends actually said, "You remind me of my mother" which left me speechless until he explained that his mother made something just like this!

Pudding has lately become the dessert of choice in our home as a way to use up extra egg yolks. Lila's gotten into the habit of eating a fried egg in the morning, but does not like the taste of yolk and insists that I separate the eggs. Miffed as I am (yolks are very nutritious and if you're choosing to eat eggs, it makes no sense to leave out the yolk), I pick my battles and keep the egg yolks aside. When friends from St. Louis visited us this weekend, I made chocolate pudding, and just as the recipe promises, it tasted perfect- just like a dreamy mousse.

Summer fruits are the highlight at this time of year in Georgia- watermelon, peaches and blueberries. The watermelon we simply cut into chunks and store in the fridge, as a refreshing snack to take to a picnic or to eat when you step into the house from the sweltering heat.

The local blueberries are tiny and perfectly sweet and delicately perfumed. The peaches, likewise, smell as sweet as they taste. We've been serving sliced peaches and blueberries with a scoop of good quality vanilla ice-cream for a no-fuss summer dessert. I happen to love Trader Joe's French vanilla ice cream. Sometimes I saute the peach slices in a bit of butter and rum, and sometimes not. Either way the taste is divine.

I wanted to showcase the blueberries in a farewell pancake breakfast for our friends who were driving off, and remembered seeing recipes for pancake batter that is baked in the oven in a large pan. It is a great alternative to standing over a stove making individual pancakes for a crowd.

This recipe is inspired by various recipes I found on the Internet. It turned out beautifully and is something I'd definitely make again- there are all sorts of seasonal variations one could do.

Giant Blueberry Pancake

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Place a 10 inch (or 12 inch) cast iron skillet in the oven while it preheats.

2. In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup almond flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
Sprinkle of cinnamon

3. In a medium bowl, mix wet ingredients:
2 large eggs, whisked (at room temperature)
3 tbsp. melted butter
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

4. Stir the wet ingredients into dry ingredients gently- don't over mix the batter. Some lumps are fine.

5. Pull the skillet out of the hot oven and add 1 tbsp. butter, swirl it around to coat the bottom and sides of skillet.

6. Pour in the batter into the buttered hot skillet and scatter 1.5 cups fresh blueberries on it.

7. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until cooked through. Cut into wedges and serve with your favorite pancake toppings- we like butter and real maple syrup.

*** *** ***
Image: Goodreads
I read an interesting book last week- Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin. I have been reading Rubin's blog for several years and she liberally posts excerpts from her books on her blog, so I felt like I had read bits and pieces of the book already. Still, it was nice to read it all in one place.

(The words in italics that follow are quotes from the book.)

Rubin starts by explaining why habits are important in the first place.

For good or bad, habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. 
In many ways, our habits are our destiny. 

She does not have much to say on which specific habits are good or bad- that's for each person to decide for herself. But she does mention certain foundation habits: We do well to begin by tackling the habits that help us to:
1. sleep
2. move
3. eat and drink right
4. unclutter

Once you identify good habits that you would like to cultivate, or bad habits that you would like to outgrow, that's where the book really comes in: it identifies several strategies that we can use, in line with our own natures, to make the habit stick.

The take-home message of Better than Before is:
To shape our habits successfully, we must know ourselves.
We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature. 

A lot of the book is devoted to this figuring out what makes you tick. For instance, to see how a person responds to expectations from oneself and others, Rubin has developed the four tendencies framework. Just for fun, I made V take the quiz in the book- which he did with a bit of an eye-roll- I know he thinks such quizzes are a little woo-woo. I thought (and still think) of myself as an obliger, but V pointed to the upholder section and said, "That's you". He's more of a questioner. In any case, I know that I'm the sort of obliging, rule-following person who likes having habits, developing new habits and reading books about habits! 

I definitely use habits to get routine work done and out of the way, leaving me time and energy that I can put towards doing things that are either fun or meaningful or both. For instance, a few years ago, I would have a conversation/battle with myself every single evening about doing the dishes after dinner. Should I wash the dishes? Am I too tired- should I leave them for tomorrow? Can I go do something fun, then drag myself back to the kitchen to do the dishes? It was so tedious and a total waste of time- because dishes don't wash themselves no matter how much you dawdle and hope that they do. I finally got into a streamlined routine- we finish dinner, I do the dishes (it actually takes only a few minutes when you time it) while V gets Lila ready for bed. I've made a ritual out of it- after washing dishes, I wipe the counters, tidy the kitchen and put the dishwashing sponge in the microwave to sanitize it. That's my cue that the day's chores are done and I can enjoy the rest of the evening. The next morning, it is a pleasure to start the day in a clean kitchen. A banal habit, but one that's definitely made my life better. (I do want to extend this habit to giving the kitchen floor a quick sweep and mop too).

My other favorite habit- zero inbox. I either reply to e-mails right away, or archive them if I don't need to (or want to) answer them. I usually have zero e-mails in my inbox, and never more than 5. Checking e-mail too frequently- now that's a habit I am still working on. 

Rubin discusses how people often fall into one of two groups- whether a person thrives on competition or cooperation, likes to be active during the morning (lark) or evening (owl), likes to overbuy or underbuy, likes simplicity or abundance. It was fun to see where my own nature fits in: I don't like competition (except with myself), I thrive on cooperation, I am 100% a lark- a morning person, an underbuyer, a simplicity lover, a familiarity lover. The book urges you to ask yourself questions on how you like to spend your time, what you value and your current habits.

The pillars of habits are strategies that can be used to establish habits. I find that I'm already using many of these, and I agree that they are very effective. For instance, I use the strategy of scheduling (just putting an habit on the calendar) to go to my thrice-weekly fitness classes, and it works very well for me. I use the strategy of inconvenience to stop myself from over-eating salty fried snacks- I simply stopped buying potato chips, tortilla chips, chaklis on a regular basis- and if I don't have it in the house, I can't eat it. Sure, I can get in the car and drive to the store and buy some, but I'm way too lazy to do that.

Rubin has many interesting insights into habits.

We must all pay, but we can choose that for which we pay. 
For instance, I can go to bed early and miss out on watching TV, or I can stay up late watching TV but miss out on good sleep and feel groggy the next day. Either way, I pay a price, but I get to decide what is worth more to me. 

Habits multiply, for better or worse, within individuals.
So true. I started this year wanting to make just one small change, and it snowballed into something much bigger as the habits multiplied.

They also spread from one person to another. 
Again, this has been so true for me. Habits are truly contagious. I've caught the evening walk bug from my neighbor. Some friends have said that they've gotten into the habit of cooking vegetables from eating at my house. 

I can't make other people change, but when I change, others may change; and when others change, I may change. 

How are your habits working for you? Do tell! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Two Summer Soups and my Unlikely Summer Project

Soup may seem more of a Fall and Winter thing but we've been enjoying these two soups in this warm weather- one served hot and the other served cold. Both are very plain looking, but I promise that they taste better than they look. They are light and refreshing and I will be making them again and again.

Avocado Soup takes about 5 minutes to make, and no cooking needed.

Simply blend together:
  • 2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and diced
  • 3 small red radishes, chopped
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • Juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Serve chilled!

Leek and Zucchini Soup was a way to use up my CSA bounty. My German friend uses cream cheese to add body, richness and tang to soups and that's what I did here.

1. Heat 1 tbsp butter. Saute 3 leeks, prepped and chopped, and 3 zucchini, chopped, for a few minutes. Optionally, 1 chopped potato can also be added (and then omit flour from step 2).
2. Add salt and pepper, 3 tbsp. nutritional yeast and 1 tbsp. flour. Stir well for a couple of minutes.
3. Add 3-4 cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the vegetables are very tender.
4. Stir in 1 bunch chopped spinach and let it cook for a couple of minutes.
5. Add 3 tbsp. cream cheese, cut in cubes.
6. Use an immersion blender to blend everything into a smooth soup.
7. Add 1/2 cup milk or cream. Taste for salt and pepper, then serve hot.

*** *** ***
I was telling a friend about my exercise routine at the gym. He said to me- that sounds great, but you really should be running. I gave him a strange look- um, do I look like a runner from any angle? He proceeded to give me a lecture about all the benefits of running and how life-changing it is. Running is hard on the knees, I said, to which he quoted research that says it actually strengthens the joints (he's a physiotherapist and keeps up with the research on such things.) For every reason I gave him why running would be a terrible idea for me, he had several reasons why it would be a great idea. Later he started passing along copies of Runner's World magazine for me to read.

V overheard our conversation and decided to start running in the early mornings with Duncan. The thing about running with a dog is, after you do it once or twice, the dog expects to do it every day and you're obliged to take him for a run just to get him to stop whining. So man and dog have been jogging for a couple of months now.

It is my good fortune to have friends who care enough to badger me if necessary to try something that they truly believe will be good for me. After ignoring my friend's many lectures on the joys of running, I finally caved in and did something crazy. The local running store has a program where they train newbies for 10 weeks and then get them to run a 5K. I signed up and got fitted for running shoes. I was honest with the instructor about exactly where I stand. It might be just a 5K but for me it is the equivalent of running a marathon. I mean, the last time I ran, I was trying to catch a bus. And that was during the Bush administration!

The plan is to start my running program in July, train steadily over 2 months and run the 5K in September. I guess  This is going to be quite the adventure- learning to run in Georgia in summer. It is one hundred degrees out there, and summer only officially starts 5 days from today. If I don't collapse in the middle of the street somewhere, that will surely count as a success! But 2015 is my year of trying different ways of staying active and I am excited to give running a shot to see if it is something I will like.

In any case, it is good to have a few different exercise options to choose from. Swimming, which I love so much, has been on hold for a few weeks because I have a stubborn toe injury-  some sort of soft tissue infection which is requiring multiple rounds of antibiotics. I have to avoid swimming until that clears. Run when you can't swim, swim when you can't run- that would be a good thing.

Meanwhile, V is once again nominated for the Husband of the Year award. He gave me the sweetest birthday gift- a fitbit, one of those wristbands which tracks your activity and sleep. "As a data geek, you'll love this gadget"- he promised me, because in general I don't gravitate towards techy gadgets. I was very touched by his gesture of loving support and recognition of my efforts to get more exercise.

I do really enjoy wearing my fitbit. 10,000 steps per day is the arbitrary but commonly used target number for staying active. (This comes to about 5 miles a day for the average person, but only about 4 miles for me because I'm very short and have a small stride.) Turns out I walk 10,000 steps most days without too much effort. I've always felt like I run around all day long, and now I have hard proof of that. On days when I do a lot of cooking, I swear I get over 5000 steps just tracing the little triangle between my sink, stove and fridge. The tracker has been a good motivator to keep walking even in this heat, to and from work a few times a week, and in the evenings a couple of times of week in the company of my neighbor.

So...to make a very long story short, that's my unlikely summer project, to train for a 5K- wish me luck! All advice for a running newbie will be gratefully accepted :) 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Veggie Box Late May 2015 and Spring Roll Omelet

The late May CSA box was brimming with herbs, greens (including two that were new to me) and the start of the summer veggies. Here's how we enjoyed them. 

Zucchini, Summer squashMizuna: I had to look up mizuna, a peppery Japanese green leafy vegetable. Lila helped me unpack the CSA box and sort through the contents and taste-test the more interesting ones. I asked her what we should make for dinner, and she pointed out these three vegetables and said let's make pasta with these. Good idea. I sautéed up zucchini and summer squash half moons in olive oil and garlic, tossed in chopped mizuna at the end, then added a bit of ricotta for some creaminess. With some whole wheat penne, it was a good meal.

Kale: This one's an old friend by now, and I made kale dal with it. 

SpinachLeeks: These went into a soup. Recipe coming up next week! 

CilantroMintCucumbers: My friend and her friend requested an Indian cooking lesson and I was delighted to cook with them. We made egg curry (the basic sauce from this recipe with hard-boiled eggs), mint pulao and cucumber raita. 

Tatsoi: This was another mystery vegetable, and a bit of research showed that it is a tasty Asian green also known as spinach mustard. I used it in these spring roll omelets. Remember those tasty fried spring rolls in Indian Chinese restaurants? They have a filling of seasoned stir-fried vegetables. Here I made a similar filling and rolled it up in an omelet for a light dinner.

Any or all of the following vegetables would work in the filling: cabbage, carrots, greens, scallions, bell peppers, leeks, broccoli, mushrooms, snow peas, onions. I used what I found in the crisper.

Spring Roll Omelet

1. Saute vegetables in 1 tbsp oil until crisp tender: thinly sliced onion, shredded cabbage, chopped tatsoi.

2. Season the vegetables to taste with some of the following: nutritional yeast, black bean sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, pepper. Set the filling aside.

3. Beat 6 eggs with salt and pepper. Make thin omelets. Roll them up with the filling and serve.

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I'm not much of a movie watcher usually but lately I've watched a dozen of them. Movies are an efficient way to kill a few hours during sleepless cross-continental flights. And also to spend long summer evenings when I'm too beat to do much else- of course, I pretend that a movie is really 2 TV shows and watch half of it one evening and the other half the following evening.

Most of the movies I seek out are flat-out comedies or feel-good dramas. Hot Fuzz (2007) is a hilarious British parody of police dramas. An ambitious, highly competent police officer and his bumbling sidekick try to solve a series of mysterious murders in a cozy English village.

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002): This is the screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde's famous play of the same name. I haven't read the play but has assumed that being from the Victorian era, it would have some serious social message. It has nothing of the sort- it is just a silly comedy of mistaken identities. If you're the Downton Abbey type, you'll love this one- great cast, extravagant costumes and mansions and lots of butlers and maids everywhere.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012): A British feel-good comedy drama. A group of British seniors are looking for an affordable retirement destination and find themselves in exotic Jaipur, in a dilapidated old family mansion that the enthusiastic but clueless Sonny (Dev Patel) is marketing as a hotel for the elderly and beautiful.

Chef (2014): Another fluffy, feel-good comedy drama about a chef who quits his high-end job and starts a food truck. There's no heavy script here and not much a plot either, but there are many big-name actors, a peevish blogger, much tweeting, a road trip, dozens of Cuban sandwiches and a happy ending.

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010): I have a friend who watches TV and movies like his life depends on it. He has seen absolutely everything on Netflix. I asked him for recommendations and he texted me a list of 10 movies- all strange ones that I had never heard of. This one is a French language film, a social comedy set in 1960s Paris exploring the upstairs/downstairs life. An affluent prim and proper couple's life intersects with the more dramatic lives of a group of Spanish maids who live in the top floor of their apartment. It is a sweet and simple story- not even that much of a story really- but I really enjoyed watching it.

Not everything that I saw was silly and funny, and these were some of the more serious ones.

Still Alice (2014): An American drama based on the novel of the same name. Julianne Moore plays a 50 year old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. There's not much of a plot in this movie, just a heartfelt exploration of what it must be like for an intellectually powerful and active mind to start deteriorating rapidly. A very sensitively done movie.

Theory of Everything (2014): This is a story of the early relationship between the celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. Brilliant physics student falls in love with a pretty arts student, and right around then, at the age of 21, he is diagnosed with a fatal illness. Improbably, this man survived beyond the 2 year prognosis (and is still surviving and thriving in his 70s) with his wife was his steadfast advocate and caregiver and they had 3 kids together. Life has twists and turns, relationships are complicated but I thought this movie was so touching and so sweet in portraying them. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are adorable together.

The Imitation Game (2014): Another British film, another brilliant mind. This story is less romantic though, and actually quite tragic. In this historical thriller, Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician Alan Turing (regarded as the creator of modern computing) who is called upon by the military during WWII to break enemy codes. I wish Turing wasn't portrayed as quite so brusque and unlikeable and I wish there was more "history of the science" depicted.

Life Itself (2014): This is a biographical documentary of the film critic Roger Ebert. I watched Ebert and Roeper every week on ABC in the early 2000s. (I'd never watch the movies they featured, but I enjoyed watching the TV show about movies.) This is a fascinating and honest portrayal of Ebert's life, especially in his final years when he lost his jaw and his voice to salivary gland cancer but kept writing until the very end.

Have you seen any of these movies? I hear the next season of Orange is the New Black will start streaming next week so I guess that's coming up next next on my to-watch list. What have you been watching? I'd love your summer movie recommendations.