Monday, June 11, 2012

Summertime, and the livin' is easy

Three out of four food bloggers agree that time speeds up in summer. OK, I just made that up, but really, right on cue starting Memorial Day weekend (the unofficial start of summer in the US), life in the One Hot Stove household has been a happy whirlwind of barbecues and brunches and visits to and from out of town family and friends. In our case, there's also that minor matter of preparing for a move and buying a home while living three states away.

Instead of a real proper post, what I have for you today is a (very) random chat about 10 life highlights and food highlights from the past month.

1. Baby boom: Our extended clan celebrated a baby boom in May with the birth of three new babies in one week. My sister has a baby boy and my cousin and his wife have twin baby girls. I promptly knitted/crocheted a hat for each of them- every baby deserves a hand knit, after all.

2. Tres leches cake: I like learning how to cook and bake signature dishes from different cuisines. They are always beloved and crowd-pleasing. My friend Claudia made tres leches (three milks) cake which is a classic celebration dessert in many South American cuisines. We oohed and aahed over each bite. A few weeks ago, I made it myself using primarily this recipe but with some tips from a secret family recipe from Claudia's late aunt (I promised I would keep it a secret). Tres leches cake is eggy (in a good way), rich and sweet and deeply infused with vanilla. It is drenched in milk making it moist and tender as can be. I'll be making this again.

3. Spinach dip: This is one of those omnipresent appetizers but I made it for the first time only a few weeks ago. I found this recipe and it looked promising for several reasons. For one thing, it has the word "best" in the title and I will fall for that every single time. For another, it is a no-cook recipe which can be whirred together in a couple of minutes in a food processor. I liked the method of wringing out thawed spinach in a clean dish towel to remove excess liquid (I was alarmed at how much liquid was wrung out). This is a good recipe to have on hand for summer potlucks and picnics. I would use it as a sandwich spread too.

4. Marinated mushrooms: One of my biggest splurges is the olive bar at Whole Foods. Apart from all kinds of olives, they have marinated peppers and mushrooms- I pile them into the little container and the $$ add up. Imagine my delight when I found this recipe for marinated mushrooms. It is so easy and so so tasty. You just boil mushrooms in salted water, then marinate them in oil, vinegar, herbs and spices. I used red wine vinegar, minced garlic and a dried herb mix instead of fresh herbs and the stuff was still completely delicious. These mushrooms are wonderful to nibble on, and equally at home in green salads and pasta salad or atop pizzas. I'll be making them again and again all summer.

5. Doctoring photos: For some years, I used a free photo-editing website called Picnik to crop and resize photos for the blog and add text to them and so on. It worked so well. Then Picnik closed down (edit: not closed down but moved to Google's picasa and is no longer a stand alone website, as a couple of readers pointed out) and that was sad-making to say the least. But that was for the best (isn't it always this way) because I found PicMonkey. Can I just say that I love this website? It is unbelievably easy to do basic edits (cropping, resizing), to add text and to add several cool special effects. They have a new collage functionality that I love playing with. And no, they're not paying me to say any of this. I just wanted to share the link with anyone who is a strictly OK photographer (like me) but would like use some easy tricks to make their photos look cool(er).

6. A summer photography project: It is Lila's first summer and her days are full of all sorts of new experiences. Unfortunately, V and I are not very good at recording every minute of our child's life. She doesn't have one of those baby books to record her first word or the date her first tooth erupted. And I hate taking videos. But I'm doing a little photography project where I try and take more pictures this summer and write little captions for them that start with "Summer is...".

7. Baby food: At nearly 9 months, Baby Lila is eating quite a variety of foods. I keep a few jars of baby food handy for travel and emergencies but otherwise, we fix all her meals at home. She enjoys sweet potatoes, green beans, peas, carrots, banana, applesauce, pears, yogurt, moong dal and many other foods. Recently we discovered that she loved mango. I got home a bag of frozen mango chunks from Trader Joe's. I partially thaw the chunks by letting them sit on the counter for 20 minutes, then puree them into a "mango sorbet". The kid loves it. If she loves this fairly watery and unremarkable mango so much, she's going to flip out when she (someday) tastes the mangoes fresh from her grandparents' tree.

Lila's first taste of mango
I know I broke my own rule about posting family pictures online, but I just couldn't resist sharing this one. And yes, this little collage was made using PicMonkey. And yes, this photograph is one from Lila's summer series.

8. Father's Day is coming up this Sunday. V's all "Father's Day is just an excuse to sell Hallmark cards and razors". That cracked me up. Why, yes, this whole holiday is nothing but a conspiracy to sell more hair removal products. As a small gift, I made these Father's Day chocolate bars wrappers using this tutorial. All you need is an envelope, scissors, and a scrap of colorful paper or fabric. Instead of downloading the template, I simply cut the ties out freehand from some fabric scraps.

A quick gift to whip up for Father's Day

9. Summer reading- long lazy hours in the company of a book- is such a juicy concept. So what if I have no summer vacation and not even a remote chance of bumming on a beach? Reading is like breathing and I've got to make time for it somehow. This evening, I got home this pile of books to sink my teeth into- have you read any of them?

10. Dale's Tales: We had family from India visiting this weekend- aunt and uncle, cousin and niece. My 13 year old niece was delighted to meet Dalu. At night, she was impressed that he methodically ate his food, then lapped at his water bowl, then made a round of the home to check on everyone and finally settled into his bed for the night. "But how does he know that this is his bed?", she wondered. What can I say? Dogs are smart. They know where their beds are and a LOT more besides.

With food, books, babies, dogs, summer projects and crafts, this post pretty much captures everything I love about my life. Your turn- tell me what you're up to these days!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bisibelebhath: A Big Bowl of Comfort

This weekend I decided to tackle a classic Indian regional dish: bisibelebhath. An iconic dish from the Southern Indian state of Karnataka, bisibelebhath (BBB to those who know and love it) is a medley of lentils, rice and vegetables that is designed to nourish body and soul.

Suma of Veggie Platter recently wrote a must-read post describing many nuances of BBB and explaining that this mouthful of a word bisibelebhath literally translates into "hot rice lentil mixture".

Bisibele powder (the spice mix used to make BBB) has been a pantry staple in my kitchen for many years. MTR is a well-known and widely available brand and I have always thought their BBB powder was tasty and authentic. I use this bisibele powder to make a BBB-inspired quick pressure-cooker khichdi, my go-to dinner that is still quicker to make than picking up the phone and asking for take-out.

A few weeks ago, I was the lucky winner of a giveaway at Mysoorean and Vani sent me a bunch of wonderful goodies from the famous Subbamma Stores in Bangalore. Included was a big packet of the most aromatic bisibele powder. Now here was a chance to revisit the making of BBB. My memory is poor on the whole but highly selective- things related to food and recipes I can remember even years after reading them.  That's how I remembered that Nandita of Saffron Trail had mentioned that her favorite BBB recipe was this one from Healthy Home Cooking, a blog that seems to be dormant now.

The recipe breaks down BBB making into a few simple steps. Read the original recipe for the details (and if you want to make the spice mix from scratch); below I have my version of it. Once the spice mix is ready (or you have a store bought one on hand), making BBB is much easier than I had ever imagined.

I doubled the recipe given below to make an enormous pot of BBB. The idea was to share a large portion with some friends. They have given us mountains of their daughter's outgrown clothing and gear for baby Lila and sending them homemade Indian food once in a while is my small way of saying thank you. We ate the rest over two days of lunches and finally yesterday I had a small portion that I had squirreled away for breakfast.

By the way, I have a question for my Kannadiga friends: Do you make anything other than BBB with BBB powder?

(Adapted from this recipe)

Step 1: Dal 
Soak 1 cup of toor dal for 30-60 minutes. Rinse several times. In a large pot, combine the rinsed toor dal with 6 cups water, a drizzle of oil, pinch of turmeric, salt. Cook until the dal is barely tender.

Step 2: Rice and Veggies 
To the cooking dal, add 1/2 cup sona masoori rice (rinsed and soaked if possible) and 4-6 cups diced mixed vegetables. Carrots, cauliflower, green beans, bell peppers, peas are all good. Frozen pearl onions and Lima beans (sold in all US supermarkets) are freezer staples in my home and taste great in BBB. Cook the mixture until rice and vegetables are about halfway cooked. Add water if needed to keep the mixture soupy (remember that it will thicken as it cools and you want the final result to be more like a stew than a dense paste).

Step 3: Spices and Seasoning 
In a small bowl, mix 1 tbsp. bisi bele spice powder (or more or less to taste), salt and 2 tsp. tamarind paste with a bit of water to make a paste. Add this to the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer until the rice and vegetables are cooked. Turn off the heat. Taste the BBB and add more salt/tamarind/BBB powder as required.

Step 4: Tempering 
Make a tempering with mustard seeds, asafetida, cashews/peanuts and curry leaves. Pour the sizzling tempering onto the BBB. Stir in plenty of ghee and minced cilantro.

Step 5: Serve 
BBB should be served piping hot (it does reheat beautifully if stored in the fridge). I like it with yogurt or raita and with something crunchy on the side- like papad or potato chips.
* * *

These days, as I go about my daily routine, my thoughts keep turning to a brave little six year old boy named Fred. He is the son of our dear friends Mark and Joanne Drew who lived here in St. Louis when Fred was little. The reason I'm thinking of Fred all the time is because he entered Seattle Children's Hospital yesterday for a life saving bone marrow transplant.

Fred's mother is writing a blog which allow friends and well-wishers to go along with the family on this tough transplant journey. Joanne has a way with words- just listen to her speech at the Make a Wish Foundation gala (Fred is a space travel buff and wannabe astronaut and was granted the wish of watching the last NASA space shuttle launch).

I thought to myself- wouldn't it be fun if Fred could get cheerful mail from all over the world to open in the hospital? He's going to be there for several weeks. If you have a few minutes to spare, please consider sending a happy card or postcard to little Fred with your good wishes. If you have kids, maybe they would like to make a little card for him. Here's the address:

Fred Drew
c/o Seattle Children’s Hospital,
4800 Sand Point Way,
Seattle WA 98105

Thank you, dear friends!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Challenge: Clean Those Fridge Door Shelves

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been trying to organize and declutter my home bit by bit, 15 minutes at a time. Right now, it is the turn of the fridge door; a small space consisting of a few shelves that have become a catch-all for jars and bottles of every description: sauces, condiments and preserves.

Why am I posting a silly thing like this on the blog? Because it is one of those small things that I never get around to, but it makes grit my teeth several times a week when I rummage through the jars. Making this public will motivate me to get the job done. And maybe you'll peek into your own fridge and discover that you want to do this with me. Social support is a powerful help for the big and little things in life.

From now until the evening of Monday, May 14, the mini-challenge is to clean and declutter the shelves in your fridge door.

If you want to take the challenge, it is simple:
1. Leave a comment on this post saying you're in.
2. Go clean your fridge door :)
3. Come back and leave a comment on this post by Monday night saying you did it!

If you want to send me before-after pictures or write a post on your blog, feel free to do so, but really you just need to clean and that's IT.

Don't get distracted and start cleaning the rest of the fridge, or the whole of your kitchen (that just leads to being overwhelmed and frustrated). Just do this small thing and give yourself a pat on the back. Babysteps, as FlyLady says (By the way, that website is a great resource if you feel overwhelmed by clutter).

By Monday evening, I plan to
1. Remove all contents.
2. Wipe down the shelves of the fridge door.
3. Examine everything that I have removed from the shelves of the fridge door.
4. Discard all bottles that won't be used.
5. Group the rest in some fashion- all jams together and all Asian stir fry ingredients together, for instance.

I will also try and come up with some recipe ideas to use up ingredients from the fridge door shelves.

Who's with me? Watch this space for updates.

Saturday, May 12: I'm all done! After putting this off for weeks, this chore took all of 20 minutes max.

Here are the highlights-
Biggest rediscovery: A bottle of the fancy extract fiori di Sicilia which was an impulse purchase several years ago.
Most over-represented: Pickled peppers. I have 4 different kinds (Indian green chilli pickle, pickled jalapenos, pepperoncini, and some bright red ones from Trader Joe's), and will need to think of ways to use them up in chutneys and pestos.
Unlikeliest fridge door resident: A bottle of instant coffee. Neither V nor I drink this stuff. But I remembered that we bought it for my parents last year. I'll have to use it up in some iced coffee drinks.
Sadly wasted: Another impulse purchase- a bottle of Manchurian sauce from the Indian store. It was horrid and I felt guilty about wasting it so there it sat, taking up space. Today it finally was dumped and the bottle recycled.

The shelves are now tidy and there's plenty of free space in there. The fridge door shelves, if well-stocked with sauces and curry pastes and that sort of thing, can be a wonderful resource for quick meals.

As promised, I came up with a recipe to use up some of the jars. I used the remnants of a jar of roasted almond butter with flaxseeds, and the remainder of a bottle of giardiniera (Italian brined vegetables- don't ask me why I collect all this stuff) to make a big and completely delicious noodle salad in a nutty sauce.

Noodle Salad in a Nutty Sauce
1. Cook some noodles. Any kind will do- today I used thin whole-wheat spaghetti.
2. In a glass microwave-safe bowl, mix some almond butter, peanut butter (I used chunky), teriyaki sauce and sambal oelek. Microwave until the nut butters melt and whisk everything together, adding water as required to make a thick yummy sauce.
3. Dice some cucumber and slice yellow/red bell peppers. Today I added some of those Italian pickled vegetables.
4. Toss the vegetables and cooked noodles with the sauce. Garnish with plenty of minced cilantro

So simple and so utterly tasty. Cabbage and carrot would be wonderful in this salad too. Mint or green onions would be an excellent garnish. Top with some toasted sesame seeds or crushed nuts for a nice crunch. This noodle salad is perfect for lunch boxes, picnics and potlucks in the summer days that will be here soon.

Now do entertain me with tales of what's hiding in your fridge door shelves.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Nachos with the Works

My bestie Neighbor Girl and I are practically the same age- but I should note that I'm a full 14 days older (and therefore proportionately wiser) than her. We're celebrating our birthdays right around this time of year, and when I say celebrating, I really do mean that we're thrilled about reaching another birthday. None of that moping around about how we're getting older and how we no longer get carded while buying beer at the grocery store. No lying about our age and perpetually saying we're 29. Neighbor Girl and I agree that we're happier with each passing year. We're more comfortable in our own skin and not feeling any pressure to impress anyone. We make it a priority to surround ourselves with kind and loving people. We know for sure that diamonds are not a girl's best friend. Best friends are a girl's best friend.

This weekend we threw each other a birthday bash. A fun little party with cupcakes and a build-your-own-nachos bar in keeping with the post- Cinco Di Mayo mood. Setting up a nachos bar is a good option because depending on how much time you have, you can use all store bought ingredients, or make several of them at home.

There are so many possibilities for a build-your-own-nachos bar:
1. Tortilla chips: 2 to 3 options with different textures, flavors and shapes. You could add soft flour tortillas and hard taco shells for taco options to make it more of a meal.
2. Beans, in the form of chili, cooked beans or refried beans.
3. Vegetable toppings, like minced green onions, cilantro, sliced colorful bell peppers, onions, lettuce, olives, corn kernels, pickled jalapenos, avocados.
4. Dairy toppings, like sour cream and shredded cheese.
5. Salsas: There are endless possibilities for different flavors of salsa. I made a salsa verde with tomatillos and an easy blender salsa with fire roasted tomatoes. I also bought a bottle of good old Tostitos brand salsa con queso. What? Don't look at me like that.

In addition, Neighbor Girl made a giant 7 layer dip. Her motto is "more is more" so it was more of a 17 layer dip, all said. We also had tasty chocolate peanut butter cupcakes. That's a flavor that is utterly predictable but utterly beloved in this home.

Neighbor Girl and I always exchange birthday presents. This year, she's taking me shopping for some summer clothes to celebrate the reappearance of my waist (last year at this time I was too pregnant for my usual summer wardrobe). I was wondering what to get for her when she mentioned that she's looking for a good pancake pan. So I'm putting together a "pancake kit" for her, with a cast iron griddle, pancake spatula, homemade pancake mix, a jar of chocolate almond spread to use as topping for the pancakes, and a crisp red dishcloth folded into the shape of a heart. On my birthday, Neighbor Girl showed up on the doorstep at 6:30 AM with balloons and lilies and a full breakfast- eggs with spinach and mushrooms, mini berry muffins, juice. Now that was the sweetest gift of all.

I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking. If you'd like to know more about the recipes for anything you see here, feel free to ask me in the comments.

On The Bookshelf

I was looking for some lighter reading recently and picked up these two books at the library. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is the unlikely love story between a retired British army officer and a Pakistani woman, set in an English village. It was delightful in parts and a good read overall but there were some parts that bored me and a few that had me gritting my teeth. 

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth is the latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series by one of my favorite authors in the light-yet-meaningful genre, Alexander McCall Smith. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher and brings her musings to the mundane ups and downs of everyday life. These books always make me smile quietly. You know, I just noticed that both these books have garments illustrating the cover. 

My friend Cathy told me about this website What Should I Read Next? where you can plug in the name of a favorite book and author and get recommendations for similar titles. I'm hoping to find some more light and uplifting books to read this summer. Have you read anything good lately?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Busy Happy Times

Here I am, at the tail end of April. This post is just to chat and say hello- I don't have a recipe to share but do have some food related tidbits.

Two mini vacations: We went on two trips, baby in tow. Five plane rides in all, and I was worried that Lila would be stressed out by the traveling. Not so. She made friends with the flight attendants and gave a wide gummy grin to fellow passengers. We were asking for a lot from a 7 month old- dining in busy restaurants, living in unfamiliar hotel rooms, being shuttled about all day without a break, but she was a trouper all the way. The first trip was to Georgia and the foodie highlight was my first taste of cheesy grits (with a dash of hot sauce) at Mama's Boy. Our second trip was to Texas and we enjoyed a very fancy meal at Indika- progressive Indian cuisine.

Moving Soon!! Guess what? We're moving to Georgia, y'all! V has an amazing job opportunity there and I'm thrilled for our family to move so he can take the job. The plan is to move in October, so we have 6 months left to enjoy St. Louis and all our friends here. It will be very very hard to leave...

Breakfast with a blogger:  Here's another really fun thing that happened just this weekend. Shilpa of Aayi's Recipes fame dropped in to visit us, along with her family. It was our second meeting. It was fun to have breakfast together and chat away. Yet another instance of how this food blog has led to a valuable "real life" friendship for me.

You must make this! I haven't been trying many new recipes these days- but this weekend I baked a date cake and I have to tell you about it. When I was growing up, my mother entertained often; one of her favorite party desserts was a slice of homemade date and walnut cake served with thick vanilla custard. I'd forgotten all about this cake until I saw eggless date cake posted on two of my favorite blogs- Aayi's Recipes (there she is again) and Bong Mom's Cookbook. Both posts are worth reading- Shilpa talks about the "cake fever" triggered by this cake, and Bong Mom talks about her disbelief at how a cake without eggs or butter can be so light and airy. Both bloggers got the recipe from friends who seem to have gotten it from the same source.

And yes, this cake/quick bread is wonderful. Full of the sweet (and fiber-rich) goodness of dates, I have been lopping off thick slices to take to work every day this week, to enjoy with my 3 PM cup of tea. I reduced the sugar dramatically and increased the amount of nuts (I used pecans), baking the quick bread in a loaf pan. If you are new to baking, this easy and fool proof cake recipe is perfect for you.

Bake Sale! This Saturday, April 28,  is the 2012 Food Blogger Bake Sale. Bake sales will be happening all over the US so check this list to see if there's one in your area. All proceeds will go towards fighting childhood hunger in the US.

If you are in St. Louis, the bake sale is from 10 AM to 2 PM at the Sappington Farmers' Market. If you regularly drool over bakes goods posted on food blogs, here's your chance to taste them for yourself. Many food bloggers and home bakers will be donating goodies to be sold there.

I am baking my two biggest hits from recent months: samosa puffs and jammy thumbprint cookies. Both recipes have been tasted and given two thumbs up by my friends. Head on over this Saturday to critique them for yourself (and support a good cause at the same time).
Savory Samosa Puffs: Crisp flaky pastry enclosing a tasty vegetable filling
"I can't believe these are vegan" Jammy Thumbprint Cookies

Dale's Tales
It has been so long since Dale made an appearance on these pages. Our sweet dog is getting older. He has mostly good days with long walks in the morning and afternoons spent napping in the sun room.  He occasionally has bad days when his old bones seem to creak more than usual and the walk takes three times as long.

In the past 4 months, V has gone on about 8 work-related trips, 3-4 days at a time. It was difficult for me to walk dog and baby together in winter, so Dale was taken to a dog boarding place (they call it a canine enrichment center- no really, you can't make this stuff up) while V was out of town. He likes it there and they are very good to him- they don't crate him at night because he does not like to be confined, he gets to play outside all day, and they let him nap in the office areas. The staff seems to be very fond of him- most people who meet Dale become very fond of him in a particular "poor Dale, such a sweet guy" kind of way.

For our part, we really try not to change Dale's routine except for when V travels. I remember even the morning Lila was born at 4 AM, V left the hospital at 8 AM and went home for a few hours so Dale could get his morning walk on time. Even with a new baby, Dale got his walks, treats, dinners like clockwork.

Baby Lila loves her Dalu dada. She has started calling out to him ("hai hai hai") and reaches out to touch him. Dalu ignores the poor kid completely. When she starts eating regular meals and dropping food on the floor for him to scavenge, they might become friends.

I'll see you in a few days. It looks like life will only get busier in the next few months but I promise to post whenever I get a chance, and whenever I have some "you must cook/bake this" recipe to share with you.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

1 Oven, 350 Degrees, 3 Baking Dishes

...and that is how I cooked 2 meals + breakfast for a whole week in a couple of hours.

I don't generally do bulk cooking on the weekends, preferring to make a quick dinner every night and packing leftovers for lunch the next day. But we're going through a busy phase and the idea of having a couple of meals in the fridge is so appealing, to be reheated and eaten during the work week as required. Bulk cooking would mean spending most of a Sunday in the kitchen, and as much as I love to cook, that just sounds exhausting.

While I was mulling over this, I saw a couple of mentions of a cookbook called Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand (she blogs on The Kitchn) and requested it from the library, thinking perhaps I could try to make an extra casserole or two on the weekend.

Well, this cookbook, a simple publication with no photos apart from the cover, turned out to be incredibly inspiring. These casseroles recipes are designed with fresh ingredients and don't call for gummy "cream of XYZ" soups. I loved the chapters on vegetable casseroles and breakfast casseroles. From the book, I tried to decide on one recipe to try that weekend (this was a couple of weeks ago). The broccoli-stuffed pasta shells looked very good, and so did the baked oatmeal- which should I try first?

A minute later I realized that both these recipes were baked at the same temperature- 350 degrees F- and I could easily bake both at the same time. In fact, given that my kitchen range has the kind of spacious oven that is the norm in US homes, I could fit in a third baking dish in there. Which was a happy realization, because I had just bought a lovely big bunch of kale, and had bookmarked a simple recipe to use it in. A recipe that, conveniently enough, is also baked at 350F.

You see where I am going with this? My multi-baking (yes, it is a real word and you heard it here first) session was a success. I spent about an hour prepping and preheated the oven towards the end of that time. Then three baking dishes- a pie plate, a 9 x13 casserole dish and an 8 x 8 baking dish- went into the oven and I quickly cleaned the kitchen and relaxed. The dishes came out one by one and I had a good amount of delicious food ready for the days ahead.

Cooking multiple dishes in the oven simultaneously is a nice way to save yourself some time, and to lower your utility bills and carbon footprint while you are at it. It turns out that a great proportion of recipes are baked at 350 degrees F. There's not much mystery there- 350F is a moderate "Goldilocks" baking temperature, not too high and not too low.

I've compiled a list of 12 recipe categories- most of the recipes I've seen for these call for a 350F oven temperature. If you would like ideas for specific recipes for any of these, ask me in the comments and I'll gladly help. Imagine choosing 2 or 3 or 4 of these and baking them all at once. One could get a chunk of cooking done in a couple of hours.
  1. Breakfast egg casseroles & quiches: Savory combinations of eggs, vegetables, cheese, and sometimes grains and flours.
  2. Pasta casseroles: Macaroni and cheese and lasagna may be the best known but there are endless possibilities with pasta, vegetables, sauce and cheese.
  3. Other main dishes: Enchiladas, biryani, vegetarian shepherd's pie to name just a few.
  4. Baked oatmeal: Oats cooked in milk (dairy or non-dairy) with fruits and nuts.
  5. Granola: Another breakfast option with oats, seeds, dry fruits and nuts.
  6. Tofu: Baked tofu is a great snack or appetizer on its own, and can be tossed with fried rice and noodles or stirred into soup. 
  7. Bread: Several recipes for yeasted breads bake at 350F.
  8. Quick breads & muffins: E.g. banana bread, zucchini bread, and all sorts of muffins. These are nice to have on hand for tea-time snacking and for lunch boxes. 
  9. Whole vegetables: Winter squash, baking potatoes and sweet potatoes can be baked whole and then cut open with ease for use in various dishes.
  10. Vegetable bakes: For instance, gratins, stuffed vegetables and simple trays of cubed vegetables.
  11. Roasted nuts & snack mixes: Glazed nut mixtures are a wonderful snack and make for nice hostess or holiday gifts.
  12. Cakes & Cupcakes: If you have a celebration coming up in the next few days, make a quick cake or batch of cupcakes while cooking other meals. 

Coming back to the three dishes I baked together that weekend, here are the recipes. One was this quinoa and kale crustless quiche. I followed the recipe closely. My only addition was some cubed cooked sweet potato. Lila has started eating "people food" (in addition to her usual diet of food that comes from people) that week and her first food was sweet potato. I had some left over and added it here. It added another layer of sweetness to the dish, contrasting beautifully with the mildly bitter greens. This is a great dish to have on hand for picnics and lunch boxes, because it is tasty at room temperature. I enjoyed it with Sriracha sauce!

Next up, a pasta dish of jumbo shells stuffed with broccoli. This was my first time making jumbo shells.   They make for a lovely presentation, although this is a thick pasta (it has to be, to hold the filling) and I prefer a more delicate pasta in general. It is a slightly labor intensive dish but we enjoyed the results very much. I had some jarred marinara that I needed to use up so I included it in this casserole and I thought it was a wonderful addition.

Broccoli-Stuffed Shells(Adapted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand)
1. PASTA: Cook a box of jumbo shells. Drain the shells and set them on a clean dish towel. Choose the best 15-20 shells for the recipe and save the rest of the pasta for later use.
2. Preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9 x 13 metal baking dish.
3. FILLING: Roughly chop 2 large heads of broccoli and cook them until barely tender (I used the microwave oven). Pulse the cooked broccoli a few times in the food processor to yield finely chopped broccoli.
4. In a bowl, mix together the broccoli, 1 tbsp. minced garlic, 1 cup ricotta cheese, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, salt, red pepper flakes and pepper to taste. Set this filling aside. If you like, you can add a beaten egg to this mixture too.
5. WHITE SAUCE: Heat 1/4 cup of butter in a saucepan. Add 1/4 cup flour and cook it for a few minutes. Stir in 2 cups milk and cook, whisking often, until the sauce is thick. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
6. ASSEMBLY: Ladle half a cup of white sauce and spread it around in the bottom of the baking dish. Fill pasta shells with broccoli mixture and arrange them in the dish in a single layer. Pour a cup of marinara sauce over the shells. Top with the rest of the white sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Bake for an hour or so until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbling. 

The baked oatmeal recipe is a very simple one. In fact, it is the same thing you would make on a stove top but instead you cook it in a baking dish. This is a basic recipe that one could modify with different fresh and dry fruits, and nuts and spices.

Baked Oatmeal (Adapted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand)
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Lightly grease an 8 or 9 inch square baking dish.
3. In a bowl, stir together
  • 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats 
  • 1 cup milk 
  • 1.5 cups almond milk 
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup 
  • 1 or 2 chopped apples 
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts 
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 
4. Pour the oat mixture into baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or until liquid is fully absorbed.

On The Bookshelf

Here's the next parenting book I read: Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. The author has a good synopsis of these rules on his website so I won't list them all here.

Here are two interesting points I took away from this book: 

1. The author talks about the empathy reflex. If the other person has a strong emotion (anger, frustration, fear), your first reaction should be to demonstrate empathy by doing these 2 simple steps:
(a) Describe the emotion you think you see in the other person.
(b) Make a guess about where the emotion is coming from.
This is just so simple and powerful, for responding not just to children and spouses but with other people too.

2. The author describes the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a landmark longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being. Decades of research has led to this conclusion "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people".

And with that we say good-bye to March and hello to April. The first half of April looks like a very busy one for my family, so I'll be on a short blogging break. See you in the latter half of April!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Half the Birthday, All the Fun

The little Miss turned 6 months old and we celebrated her half-birthday this weekend. What is a half-birthday? Is this even a thing? Or is it simply an excuse for me to bake a cake? Yes and yes. I got to bake something sweet and we had a small party with a couple of our friends who have young ones.

Being a new parent can be a bit lonely, especially when you are caught in the Sisyphean tasks of feeds and diaper changes. Having social support makes all the difference by giving you someone to share the everyday joys and pains. When I was newly pregnant last year, we signed up a plot in the community garden near us. From that garden plot, we harvested a few pounds of okra...and one new friend, a fellow gardener. This neighbor and new friend was also pregnant with her first child. It was wonderful to have a friend living practically next door going through the same things I was. We waddled through the neighborhood on long walks. She had her son Nico a week before I gave birth to Lila. Since the babies were a few days old, we've been meeting up every few days, bringing each other food and advice and reassurance. The littles babble to each other on the play mat. We go on long walks through the neighborhood just like we did earlier, but with babies now strapped on the outside. To anyone who is about to be a new parent, I have this to say: instead of spending hours researching strollers online, go out and find yourself a community of friends.

To celebrate Lila and Nico's half-birthday, I made half-birthday cakes, of course. I made one cake, cut it in half and frosted each half separately. Then I used chocolate chips to make a "N" on one half-cake for Nico and an "L" on the other half-cake for Lila.

The cake recipe is from Ina Garten and I found it in this post from Alpineberry. This is the kind of easy, easy cake recipe that really makes me wish that more people left the boxed cake mix right there in the box where it belongs and try making cakes from scratch.
  • Dry ingredients in one bowl
  • Wet ingredients in another bowl
  • Mix the two
  • Add hot coffee
  • Pour the batter into prepared pans
You definitely don't need a stand mixer to make this recipe- a simple wooden spoon and mixing bowl does the trick. If you have a silicone spatula, it helps to scrape every last bit of the batter from the bowl. Note that this batter is pourable and thin and you need to butter and line the pans properly. But you will be rewarded with a beautifully moist cake.

Here is what I did differently from the recipe:
  • Using canola oil instead of vegetable oil because it is what I had on hand.
  • Using large eggs instead of extra large eggs because large is the only size I ever buy (I did not notice that the smaller quantity of eggs I used made any difference).
  • Making faux buttermilk at home: take 1 tbsp. white vinegar in a measuring cup and add milk to the 1 cup mark. Let it sit for 5 minutes and give it a stir- viola! buttermilk!
  • Reducing the quantity of sugar to 1.5 cups.
  • Instead of freshly brewed coffee, I added 2 tsp. instant espresso  powder to 1 cup hot water.
  • Using natural cocoa instead of Dutch processed. With natural cocoa, it almost looks like a red velvet cake with a rich mahogany color.
To fill and frost the cake, I used the peanut butter mousse from this recipe. The combination of chocolate and peanut butter is a particular favorite around here. My frosting skills are painfully lacking but there is something sweet and homely about a homemade cake so I never beat myself up about it. The cake made 12 generous servings.

To go with the cake, I made three finger foods:

Puffs with peas and sweet potato

Black eyed peas salsa served with tortilla chips
Paneer tikka with peppers and onions
Today is the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere- and I wish you all a season of glorious weather and long walks in the park. Today is also the start of my own personal Spring Cleaning Challenge. Starting this evening I will devote a little time- anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes- working on one small portion of my home. We've had very little time to clean and organize in this past year and I'm looking forward to clearing out some clutter and feeling rejuvenated inside and out.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Idli, Dosa, Chutney: Brunch Perfection

V and I enjoy having friends over for casual gatherings on the weekends. Typically, people tend to meet for dinner on the weekends, but dinner-time is not at all my favorite time for entertaining. I'm an early bird who is up and about at 5 AM (yes, even on the weekends; especially on the weekends when there are so many fun things to look forward to). By 6 in the evening, I am pretty tired and crabby and not much fun to be around.

Brunch or lunch is my preferred social hour. You do your cooking in the morning, enjoy your friends and still have many more hours left in the day to relax or do something else.

A couple of weekends ago we had just such a gathering scheduled and I made my favorite brunch trio of idli, sambar and chutney. Our friends offered to bring along a dish. I always say yes to this gracious offer- potluck style equals less work for any one person. And I never worry too much about what-goes-with-what. We might end up eating some strange combinations of dishes but everything is always delicious. This time our pals brought over sweet french toast with maple syrup and juicy strawberries.

The camera candidly captured the table laid out with brunch- idlis, chutney and sambar. And a platter of cookies in the background for dunking into tea.
Pillowy challah french toast with sliced strawberries- brought over by our friends.
Idli, sambar and chutney is a trio that I have made so many times before (and posted so many times I've lost count), but never the same way twice! I keep tweaking the idli recipe to make them fluffier, fiddling with the sambar recipe to make it more like the kind from Udipi restaurants and varying the chutneys because there are so many to choose from.

1. The Idlis

For several years, I made idlis using recipes that call for idli rava. But there is such a difference between a good idli and a fantastic one- once you have eaten the latter you get spoiled for life. In my hands (meaning, there are surely ways to make the perfect idli with idli rava but I don't know what they are), the fluffiest idlis come about when you use a special variety of rice sold as idli rice- this rice is parboiled. My idli "aha" moment came last summer when V's aunt visited and I watched her make idlis with parboiled rice. Busy with baby and all, it was only now that I got to try my hand at it. If you have an electric stone grinder and if you have access to parboiled rice, you need to read these two posts from the The Yum Blog. I followed their proportion 1 (adding a fistful of poha for better fermentation), and followed all their excellent tips for grinding the batter. Even on that cold weekend, the batter rose gratifying well and the resulting buttery, fluffy idlis made me weep with joy. No exaggeration.

Update on March 18, 2012: In a comment on this post, Arch suggested that I try Vani's soft idlis. This weekend, I did and yes, this is an incredible recipe! The only difference is that I soaked the parboiled rice, ural dal and poha all together and ground them all together too. The idlis turned out soft and wonderful. So all in all, I think parboiled rice and poha make for successful idlis in my hands.

Idli stand- with molds to make 16 idlis at a time

2. Udipi Sambar

This time around I tried the Udipi Sambar recipe from Peppermill. A recipe from sweet beloved Miri; she is no longer with us but continues to be part of my life. Read her post for a lovely description of why this sweetish, coconut-laced version of sambar is beloved among those of us who ate at Udipi restaurants in Bombay. Here is my adaptation of Miri's recipe.
Udipi Sambar
1. Pressure cook 1/2 cup toor dal. Mash it well and set aside.
2. Heat a little oil in small pan. Add the following ingredients in this order and fry them, then cool and grind to a thick paste (in my case it was more like a wet powder).
  • 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tsp. urad dal
  • 2 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • Few curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup fresh/frozen coconut
3. You're ready to make sambar. In a large pan, heat 2 tsp. oil. Temper it with
  • 1 tsp. mustard seeds 
  • 1 tsp. urad dal
  • Pinch of asafetida
  • Sprig of curry leaves
4. Add vegetables- I used chunks of red onion this time. Batons of drumsticks, carrot, baby onions, cubes of eggplant, pumpkin all work well. Stir fry for a few minutes. Add salt, red chili powder, turmeric, tamarind paste and jaggery to taste. Add a cup of water, cover and cook for a few minutes.
5. Now stir in the masala paste and toor dal from step 1 and 2. Simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavors and consistency before serving.

3. A fresh verdant chutney
I use a coffee grinder as my "mixie" and it works for the most part but the coconut chutney made with fresh frozen coconut never seems to be quite as silky smooth as I would like. The idea for using coconut milk instead of fresh/frozen shredded coconut came from Vaishali's post from many years ago. This recipe will give you beautifully smooth chutney in any old blender.

Cilantro Coconut Chutney
1. Blend together and scrape into a serving bowl:
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 chopped hot green chili (or green chili paste to taste)
  • 1/2 cup dalia or roasted chana dal (phutane in Marathi)
  • 1 mini can coconut milk (5.6 oz. or 2/3 cup)
2. Make a tadka or "tempering" with:
  • 2 tsp. oil
  • 2 tsp. mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp. urad dal
  • 1 tsp. chana dal
  • Pinch of asafetida
  • Sprig of curry leaves
3. Stir in:
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh lemon juice
Anyway, this brunch was a labor of love and so utterly rewarding. Our friends had never tasted idli before and looked quizzically at these snow-white steamed cakes but a few bites later, I heard things like, "Why can't I stop eating these?".

That weekend was special for another reason. It was the first time Lila rolled over, leaving us speechless with delight. So that makes it two milestones- Lila taking the first step towards mobility and me making idlis that I am proud to share. That Monday, when co-workers asked the perfunctory question, "How was your weekend?", I could say with absolute sincerity that my weekend had been just perfect.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Quick Weeknight Curry (And Mama Goes To Parenting School)

This week has been a milestone of sorts. Our darling 5 month old started falling asleep (!) in her crib (!!) at 7 PM (!!!), allowing V and I to actually sit down and enjoy a meal together. Eating dinner together at a reasonable hour is a rare and novel concept for parents of young babies. I am knocking loudly on wood as I type this, for fear of jinxing this whole thing.

Last night I celebrated the new routine by making a luscious curry. The recipe is pretty generic but it was quick and tasty so here it is. The leftover curry made for a tasty lunch this afternoon (that's my lunchbox in the picture). I made the curry in a deep wok instead of a shallow saucepan, making it easy to dip in the immersion blender and puree the ingredients to a smooth sauce.

Luscious Curry with a Few Variations

  1. Heat 2-3 tsp. of oil.
  2. Peel and dice 2 large onions. Fry the onions until soft and golden brown.
  3. Add 1 tbsp. ginger garlic paste, 1 heaped tsp. Kitchen King masala, turmeric, red chili powder and salt to taste and fry for a minute.
  4. Add 1 cup tomatoes (fresh or canned) and fry for 5 minutes.
  5. Add 2/3 cup coconut milk (1 mini can) and 1 cup water (or more or less, depending on the consistency you like). Simmer for 10 minutes, then puree to a smooth sauce using an immersion blender, (or cool down the mixture and use a regular blender or food processor).
  6. To the sauce, add any of the following ingredients to customize the curry, and garnish with lots of chopped cilantro and a dash of garam masala.
  • Meatless meatballs (this is the version I made last night)
  • Halved hard-boiled eggs
  • Sauteed or boiled mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower)
  • Roasted butternut squash
  • Vegetable koftas 

On The Bookshelf
(Mama Goes To School)

V and I live our life together in a rather practical, low-key manner. When we were expecting Lila, we knew we wanted to give her a secure and modest upbringing without obsessively making parenting the be-all and end-all of our existence. We joked that we have raised a dog together and he turned out OK (...I think, on most days!) and we would raise the baby the same way, with rules and routines and an abundance of love. I declared to my friends that I was going to raise Lila using a novel parenting technique called common sense. The point is that I don't think for a moment that you need to read parenting books or adhere to some idealized parenting style in order to be a good parent.

But the fact is that I like to read, and the other fact is that parenting is a whole lot more fun that I ever imagined. I really do want to read more on the subject and perhaps learn some tips on how to raise a kind and well-adjusted child who will be an asset to her community.

I often forget what I read, and my blog is my reference book of sorts, so starting with this post, I will occasionally write a mini synopsis of parenting (and other) books that I read. I'm jotting down what I see as the take-home message of the book, points that I want to remember. This is all very subjective, of course. But if you are interested, I invite you to read along and chime in with your thoughts.

The first book I chose is Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.  They take 10 parenting topics and discuss child development research which has surprising findings that go against popular notions about these topics.

Chapter 1. The Inverse Power of Praise
Praise effort instead of praising smartness. To be effective, praise needs to be specific and sincere (no distracted and generic "good job" and "you're so smart"). Let kids develop accurate awareness of how well they are doing instead of automatically giving them a gold star for every small thing, effectively making them praise junkies. The information in this chapter is available as a magazine article here.

Chapter 2. The Lost Hour
Lack of sleep is taking a toll on kids in many more ways than we ever imagined (physically, intellectually, emotionally) so make sure kids are not over-scheduled. School start times are scheduled very early in the morning for adult convenience. If you can't change the school timing, then get kids to sleep early and be extremely committed to protecting sleep time. The relevant article is here.

Chapter 3. Why White Parents Don't talk About Race
Children are inherently prone to categorization so they notice external differences such as differences in skin color. It is important to have explicit discussions about race, especially when the child is 5 to 6 years old. Read the article here.

Chapter 4. Why Kids Lie
Children learn to lie from an extremely early age, and in fact intelligent kids are better liars. Young kids lie to keep parents happy, because they see the parents' displeasure when they admit to using crayons on the walls (or whatever). To reduce lying, explain to kids that telling the truth will not result in punishment but telling lies will result in punishment:  "I will not be upset with you if you (did the bad thing) and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy". Another point is that kids learn to lie from us, because even the most honest adult tells plenty of lies (white lies, like "I love the gift" when you don't). Kids learn that lies are an easy way to prevent conflict. Read the article here.

Chapter 5. The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten.
Intelligence is very fluid in young children and it is better to wait until third grade to test children for being placed in gifted programs in school. Testing before then misses the mark in many cases.

Chapter 6. The Sibling Effect. 
The theory that "only" children lack social skills has never been proven. Kids have no incentives to be nice to their siblings because the sibling will always be there, whereas you lose friends if you can't get along with them. So don't feel guilty if you decide to have an only child, and if you have more than one child, work to create opportunities for them to have fun together.

Chapter 7. The Science of Teen Rebellion
Teenagers lie a lot to their parents, especially to avoid arguments. To reduce lying, set consistent rules for your teenager but be open to discussing them and making exceptions when necessary. Whatever- I'll re-read this chapter in 10 years.

Chapter 8. Can Self-Control be Taught? 
This chapter discusses a particular preschool and kindergarten program called Tools of the Mind.  Even at that young age, kids learn to think critically about what they are doing instead of completing assignments mechanically. For instance, practicing writing the letter "A" over and over again is a common activity for this crowd. Make the child circle the best example of the letter on every line to see the difference between a good attempt and a better one. Another good idea is "buddy reading" where kids take turns reading to each other. There are complex play scenarios and plenty of room for imagination. There is more of this concept in this NYT article.

Chapter 9. Plays Well With Others
This chapter asks the question: Why are kids aggressive? For me, the take-home points for raising a kinder kid are (1) Realize that some TV shows for kids are clearly violent but even the ones that qualify as educational television are full of relational aggression (gossip, rumor-spreading, merciless teasing, etc.) and verbal aggression (name-calling etc.). (2) Children are very sensitive to the relationship between their parents. Since some amount of bickering and arguing is bound to happen in most relationships, you can protect the child by letting her witness not just the argument but the happy resolution of the argument. (3) Make sure kids get social time with people of all ages and not just peers of the same age. (4) "Progressive" dads are much more involved in child care than "traditional" dads but paradoxically, progressive dads have kids who are more aggressive because they typically fail to discipline effectively and consistently. V is a progressive dad in every sense and has a long history of playing "good cop" with Dalu (guess who plays "bad cop" every single time?) so we'll have to work on this one as Lila gets older.

Chapter 10. Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't
This chapter was immediately relevant to me because it discusses how infants develop verbal skills. Babies benefit when you talk to them often, but make it a mock conversation and respond to their sounds instead of simply chattering non-stop to the baby. Seven practical tips from this chapter are listed here.

(1) We need to understand that things don't necessarily work the same way in children as they do in adults. (2) Children seem to be walking contradictions- we tend to categorize things as either good for kids or bad for kids but child psychology is often more complicated than that.

This blog has discussions on all the chapters in this book.

Enjoy the weekend! 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cast Iron Cooking: Tips, Recipe Ideas, a Giant Cookie and a Cookbook Review

The right tool for the right job makes cooking a rewarding experience. I've gone back and forth so many times on the ideal cookware to stock my kitchen with. These days I find myself reaching for one skillet on a daily basis, sometimes washing out the skillet and using it twice for the same meal. I'm talking about my cast iron skillet.

There's much to love about cast iron cookware. For me, the number one thing is the fact that cast iron can withstand very high heat, making it possible to cook restaurant-tasting meals at home. You know what I am talking about- food with a flavorful brown sear on the outside and juicy on the inside. We seem to live in times where products last a year or so before they are made obsolete by the next version. Cast iron cookware lasts a lifetime and more. Long after my nonstick pan surface is chipping, and after the steel skillet handles are coming loose, the cast iron pan will be working as hard as ever. You only have to be a little patient and learn to care for it properly.

With my growing love for cast iron cookware, when I was offered a review copy of The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook: A Treasury of Timeless, Delicious Recipes, I was happy to accept. I had a feeling that this cookbook would give me a few new ideas to use my cast iron cookware (it just so happens that both of my cast iron pans are from Lodge and I'm officially a fan), and it definitely did not disappoint.

Here are 5 things I loved about this cookbook:

1. I like reading cookbooks the way other people read novels, and this one is full of mini essays by different cooks about their cast iron memories. And I enjoyed reading this little nugget- many pieces of Lodge cookware made in 1896 are still in use today. Now that's the kind of antique I would not mind collecting.

2. The book is rich in vegetarian recipes and they sound oh-so-good, just to name a few- seasonal breakfast frittata, pimiento cheese panini sandwich, summer squash casserole, roasted corn pudding; there's even a recipe for rajma.

3. I always thought it was a bad idea to cook tomato-based dishes in cast iron, because acidic foods leach the iron and make the food taste too metallic. Many of the recipes were tomato based so it is indeed fine to cook acidic foods in cast iron, only perhaps I wouldn't leave the food in the pan too long after cooking. This opens up even more possibilities of using my cast iron cookware.

4. There is a whole section on cornbread recipes, all grand prize winners of the National Cornbread Cook-Off held annually in Tennessee. I really enjoying looking through the innovative variations on cornbread, like upside-down salsa cornbread and festive good luck cornbread skillet (yes, it calls for black-eyed peas).

5. I never thought to use my cast iron skillet for pizza and desserts. The cookbook has wonderful recipes for both. I then looked at food blogs and found many more, like this nice pictorial recipe for cast iron pizza and another one from King Arthur. Pineapple upside down cake is the classic recipe for dessert in a cast iron skillet, but I also can't wait to make these brownies, and Siri has a wonderful recipe for banana bread.

All in all, paired with a piece or two of cast iron cookware, The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook cookbook would be a wonderful wedding or housewarming gift.

One of the recipes from this cookbook that jumped out at me was for a giant chocolate chip cookie. A simple chocolate chip cookie dough patted into a cast iron skillet and baked into a giant cookie that can be cut and served like a pie- what fun!

Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie-in-a-Pan
(Heavily adapted from a recipe in The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, melt and cool 1.5 sticks butter (3/4 cup).
3. Stir in 1 cup sugar and a dollop of molasses and beat well.
4. Add 1 large egg, 1 egg yolk and 2 tsp. vanilla extract and beat well.
5. Gently stir in 1 and 3/4 cup flour, 1 tsp. baking soda and 1 tsp. salt.
6. Fold in 2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips and 1 cup toasted chopped walnuts.
7. Scrape batter into a 10-inch cast iron skillet sprayed well with baking spray. Pat down into an even layer.
8. Sprinkle batter with coarse sea salt.
9. Bake until the edges are lightly browned, 30-35 minutes.

Cut into wedges and serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. With the bittersweet chocolate and the hit of sea salt, this was a grown up version of a childhood classic. For a special occasion, it would be fun to use an icing tube and decorate this "cookie cake" the way they do it at the mall cookie stalls.

Here is a list of top 10 ways that I use my two cast iron pans. There are many brands out there but like I said, both of mine are Lodge, from their seasoned line, and I love them. I cook a lot of Indian food so it is not surprising that I have adapted my cast iron pans for some of my favorite Indian dishes.

My first cast iron pan was this seasoned 10 inch griddle.

1. Dosa. This is the reason I bought this griddle in the first place. When we moved to St. Louis from NYC, I tearfully bid farewell to the wonderful dosa restaurants near 28th street and Lexington Avenue and thought my days of eating authentic dosas were over. Not so- we acquired a wet grinder and I bought this wonderful cast iron tava, and we're making our own almost-as-good-as-the-local-Udipi-joint dosas, baby.

Here are some of my kitchen notes for making dosas in a cast iron pan:
  • I always smear the cast iron pan with a tsp. of oil before starting to use it, and drizzle a few drops of oil or ghee around every dosa edge. For a new cast iron pan, you may need a little extra oil to begin with.
  • Get the pan nice and hot before pouring the first dosa. Cast iron takes longer to heat up compared to metal or non stick pans (however, once it heats up it retains heat remarkably well). Hover the palm of your hand a couple inches above the pan's surface- you should feel the high heat. 
  • Make sure the dosa batter is at room temperature. Batter straight from the fridge tends to stick to the pan.
  • Let the bottom get completely cooked and crispy before attempting to flip the dosa or pry it up (many dosas are cooked only on one side). Once the dosa cooks, it will come off the surface. Half cooked batter sticks to the griddle surface so be patient.
  • By the way, my dosa formula is adapted from Vaishali's recipe. I use 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup dosa/idli rice (parboiled rice), 1/2 cup urad dal, 1/3 cup poha, 2 tbsp chana dal, and 1 tsp. methi seeds.
2. Rotis etc. All of our tava-cooked Indian breads, including chapatis and rotis and stuffed parathas turn out beautifully on the cast iron tava, with nice brown spots on the outside and soft insides- and this works for both cooking them and reheating them.

3. Patties: Vegetable patties are my favorite crisper-cleaning snacks and a tasty way of eating assorted vegetables. I use the griddle for shallow frying patties, such as these, and patties for ragda patties.

4. Kaap: These are pan-fried slices of vegetables that make for irresistible side dishes to a simple Indian meal. In general, I make a mixture of rice flour, rava, chili powder, turmeric and salt, then dredge thick slices of vegetables (potato, sweet potato, plantain, eggplant, pumpkin, butternut squash) in it and pan fry on this griddle. Much more than any other pan I have used, the result is a crispy spicy coating enclosing soft, melt-in-the-mouth vegetables.

4. Grilled cheese: Cast iron griddles make the most fabulous grilled cheese. Some of our favorite cheese sandwiches are here. These days, we often make "gourmet" grilled cheese with fancy bread, assorted cheeses and interesting combinations of fillings, like brie and apricot jam.

5. Quesadillas: This dish is a weekly favorite in my home. Just stuff a whole wheat tortilla with plenty of shredded cheese and a filling of beans and sauteed vegetables. Again, the high heat of cast iron contributes intense flavor to this simple dish.

In Spring of last year, I wanted to add to my collection and bought a 10 inch cast iron skillet. If you are new to using cast iron, then this is the pan I would recommend. It is incredibly versatile and the size is just right for a family of 2 to 4. Buying a seasoned pan makes it simple for a beginner to start using it right away. Here are my top 5 uses for this skillet:

1. Sauteed vegetables: I am convinced that most of the reason why some people hate vegetables is because they have not been cooked in a flavorful way. Roasting is one way to get vegetables browned and tasty and a quicker easier way is to cook the vegetables on fairly high heat in a cast iron skillet. I saute vegetables to serve as a quick side dish, to add to grilled cheese and quasadillas (see above) and to add to curries.

2. Bhaaji/Subzi: All of my favorite subzis (Indian stir-fried vegetables), like cabbage, cauliflower-peas and eggplant-lima beans, give me fabulous results with this skillet. I do find that potatoes tend to stick to the pan.

3. Caramelized onions: The easiest way to make a posh meal out of a humble vegetable. Caramelize a bunch of onions and make a dip, put them on pizza or grilled cheese or turn them into soup.

4. Skillet lasagna: After reading this cookbook and discovering that you can indeed cook tomato-based dishes in cast iron cookware, I made skillet lasagna with great results- simple saute vegetables like onion, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, add pasta sauce, broken lasagna noodles and cheese- ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan- and cover and cook for a tasty one dish meal.

5. Rice dishes turn out beautifully- I've already posted a mushroom pulao, had great results with this recipe for cheesy rice, and my all-time favorite breakfast dish, poha, is wonderful when made in the cast iron skillet.

If you have any more ideas for using these versatile pans, please chime in by leaving a comment.

This post is a tribute to Miri who wrote the popular food blog Peppermill. Miri passed away last week, leaving me (and so many of her blogger friends) reeling with shock and sorrow. I was a regular reader of Miri's blog and enjoyed her warm and and optimistic voice. She shared hundreds of recipes that had me in a bookmarking frenzy, from a recent favorite winter vegetable pickle made by her neighbor's mom to all the Tamil specialties. Diwali of last year, I was home with a newborn with no time to make traditional treats, but reading her 4-part Diwali bhakshanam series (she wrote with characteristic enthusiasm, "I decided to involve my 6 year old so that she gets a feel of all the traditional Tamil sweets and savories which she wouldn't get to see otherwise in Delhi") made the festive season come alive for me.

Re-reading Miri's post about baking muffins with her daughter was extremely painful this past week, knowing that this little 6 year old girl is left to face the biggest loss of all. I hope Miri's husband and daughter know that they have friends and well-wishers all over the world and that their darling wife/mother touched many lives. Read loving tributes to Miri by Arch, Bong Mom, Manisha and Nina.

During a brief e-mail correspondence, Miri told me her real-life name- Raji- but I will always think of her as Miri (the word means "pepper" in several Indian languages), peppering our blogs generously with her witty and warm comments. What makes it most poignant is that Miri who so loved cooking and baking succumbed to a rare digestive disorder. I laid aside my grief and tried to write this post with joy and enthusiasm because I think Miri would have liked that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Of Salad Days and Blog Birthdays

This past week, One Hot Stove turned 7 years ago. You'll agree that seven years is a ripe old age in Internet years. Now as to whether old qualifies as experienced or decrepit- that's for you to decide, gentle reader. Seven years after timidly starting this blog, I am in awe of (a) the power of words and (b) the power of community.

And by community, I mean YOU- so here's a tight virtual hug for ya (( )).

Speaking of community, there's a worthy blog event going on right this minute. Siri of Cooking with Siri, along with her family, often visits the Vaidehi Ashram, a refuge for little girls in Hyderabad in Southern India. Can you even imagine being a small child left all alone in the world? I sure cannot. The mere thought of a little girl (a little girl just like my daughter) being left to fend for herself on this harsh planet brings angry tears to my eyes. And makes me grateful for places like Vaidehi Ashram that provide a home and a family and an education to girl children who started life with such a disadvantage. Siri has written two posts talking about her visits to the Ashram and is hosting a fundraiser to raise money for food, clothing and schooling for the little girls. Get all details about the fundraiser/raffle by clicking here.

One Hot Stove is sponsoring one of the raffle prizes: An Ice Cream Package consisting of the Cuisinart ICE-21 Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker PLUS a copy of the book Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer. The ice cream maker is a new and improved version of the one I bought for myself a couple of summers ago. I've enjoyed using it week after week, especially in Spring and Summer, often using the very simplest of recipes (mix the ingredients and pour into the machine) to make tender coconut ice cream, kesar pista ice cream and strawberry ice cream. In fact, my baby shower was an ice cream social. The book is one that I borrowed from the library and renewed as many times as they would let me. The recipes in this book are eggless and Jeni's ice cream is close to the texture of kulfi. I chose this raffle prize knowing that I love both these products and I hope you'll buy a ticket and put your name in the hat for this prize!

If ice cream is not your thing, there are loads of other prizes, from kitchen tools like knives and kettles to cookbooks to gadgets like e-readers. Read Siri's post for all the details. We often worry about giving money to organizations where we are not sure of whether the money will actually do any good. I feel very good about giving to Vaidehi Ashram because of Siri's visits and her description of how the place is run. The money will be used for the kids and not on advertising or overhead expenses. You have until February 25th to participate in this fund-raiser and share a bit of your good fortune with a child in Hyderabad.

On to the recipe. I wanted to bake something sweet and lovely to celebrate the blog birthday. In the end, I decided to spend my precious weekend moments cuddling with Lila and I ended up making an antipasto salad. The salad was an accompaniment to the pizza that friends brought over when they came to watch the Super Bowl. It was so tasty and colorful that I instantly deemed it blog-worthy.

The inspiration came from this drop-dead gorgeous antipasto platter. It induced serious salad cravings for me. My antipasto platter was a simple one, with bagged baby spinach, goodies from the olive bar at Whole Foods (olives, marinated mushrooms, artichokes, roasted red peppers) and giardiniera, which are Italian pickles consisting of cauliflower, celery and carrots in a vinegary brine (I happened to have a bottle in the fridge- an impulse buy from many moons ago). We added some very fresh mild mozzarella and a few shavings of parmesan, along with a shower of freshly ground pepper.

I served Meyer lemon dressing on the side. I've heard so much about Meyer lemons in food blog land but tasted them for the first time when I found them being sold in Trader Joe's. I have to say, I can see what the hype is about- this lemon has a remarkable taste, very aromatic and lemony without the harshness. For the dressing, I simply whisked together Meyer lemon juice, mayonnaise, honey mustard and some coarse salt.

I can see myself putting together such a platter for many gatherings in the future. And I'll be making my own marinated mushrooms and giardiniera to make it more cost effective. Slices of bell pepper and red onion would be perfect additions to this platter.

I'll be back to continue year eight on One Hot Stove. I'm still finding my voice, still learning to express myself, still just a novice in the kitchen and I hope you'll stay with me as we cook our way through life.