Sunday, September 02, 2012

Vaal Khichdi

"How many lentils do you have in your pantry anyway?", asked my friend. She's originally from South America, from a culture which has great love and respect for beans, but the sheer variety of lentils and beans in Indian cuisine still confounds her. I showed her my collection of dozen or so legumes, grouped together in the pantry in their recycled-yogurt-container homes. "Do they really taste different from each other" is her next question. 

The short answer is- yes, yes they do. In some cases, the taste and texture is unmistakeable and they each have their culinary uses. The slippery, sticky texture of urad dal paste cannot be replicated with anything else. Kidney beans taste dark and earthy; chickpeas are rich and creamy; moong dal has a light and mild taste. My vocabulary is not adequate to really come up with the words, but even cooked dals that end up looking quite similar in a palette of yellows and browns can taste so different from each other. All I can say is that if you keep a variety of these legumes on hand and learn to use them in different ways that have been perfected in Indian cuisines, then you can feast for a lifetime on what others would simply call a humble meal of rice and beans. 

The really fun part is when I discover a new legume or a new avatar of an old favorite. Vaal or dalimbay (I think these are called hyacinth beans in English) are treasured in Maharashtrian cuisine and I can tell you for sure that these beans have a very unique flavor- a pleasant bitterness that can be contrasted with some tamarind for tang and jaggery for sweetness and all at once you have a dish with a wonderfully complex taste. I grew up eating sprouted vaal in dalimbay bhaat and vaalache bhirde. But peeling sprouted vaal is very labor intensive so it has been ages since I bought these particular beans. 

Then I saw Vaishali's post on sweet potato and vaal dal and went, "There's vaal dal??" and promptly bought some. All the taste of my beloved vaal without the peeling- what a lucky discovery for me. Vaishali's recipe is wonderful, by the way; the sweet potatoes are the perfect foil for the mildly bitter vaal. 

So following closely on the heels of the eggplant dal in my last post, here's another simple everyday Maharashtrian dish- vaalachi khichdi. I made it in a pressure cooker for a mashed-up khichdi that screams comfort food. If you're too posh for pasty khichdi that you eat with your hands, make a stove-top version and turn off the heat before the rice and vaal dal melt together.

Vaalachi Khichdi
(Rice with Vaal Dal; serves about 3)

1. Soak together 1 cup vaal dal and 1/2 cup rice for 30 minutes.
2. In a pressure cooker, heat 1 tbsp. ghee
3. Make the tempering: 1 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafoetida, a sprig of fresh curry leaves
4. Add 1 small sliced onion and saute it until translucent.
5. Add the drained vaal and rice, salt to taste, 1/2 tsp. each turmeric and red chili powder, 1 tbsp. coriander-cumin powder, 1/2 tsp. goda masala. Saute for a few minutes.
6. Add 3 to 4 cups water, 1 tsp. tamarind paste and 1 tsp. jaggery powder
7. Close the pressure cooker lid, cook, then eat as soon as possible. It does reheat beautifully. 

Vaal khichdi with a dollop of homemade ghee and some red pepper pickle on the side

Dale's Tales

A couple of you have been asking how Dale is doing, so here's an update. Dale is now about 13 years old and he is doing well, although his age is starting to show. When the ones you love (whether humans or canine or feline) start to age and become frail, you have to take on the role of caregiver.

V is very meticulous about taking Dalu to the vet for regular shots and a nose-to-tail check up. Overall, he is in good shape but his back legs are getting weaker. He sometimes slips and struggles to get back on his feet. We're told that aging leads to loss of muscle mass and hence the weakness. For the last few visits, the vet has been saying that Dale is overweight- tipping the scales at 84 lbs- and that he could stand to lose 10 lbs. To which my response is a shrug and a "Couldn't we all stand to lose 10 lbs"?

I'm not trying to be blase or anything. But Dale has a chronic condition called Addison's Disease  that was diagnosed 5 years ago and he needs regular steroid pills to keep him alive. Steroids cause weight gain, which is a side effect of steroids in humans too. And even as Dale's interest in other things is dwindling, he still loves food! He has access to dry food all day, plus we feed him dinner (porridge) at 4 PM and biscuits (Milkbone- far and away his favorite brand) after his last walk. Every afternoon, Dale perks up and comes to me at 2 PM and seems to ask, "Is it time yet? How about now? How about now?" Tell me how I am going to explain to this dog that he needs to go on a diet.

There are some other things. Dale's often reluctant to go on walks. He's losing confidence with climbing up and down steps. We moved 2 years ago into this first floor (ground level) apartment, just so it would be easier for Dale. There are a short 4 steps to get into our door but sometimes he struggles with those too. He's having more "accidents" at home, which is very hard with a crawling baby. I just wish he could talk and tell me if something hurts because this is a very stoic dog and we can only guess at what he's feeling.

This all probably sounds more bleak than it really is. Dale has more good days than bad days and we're grateful for that. Despite everything, he seems content and happy in his usual gruff way. Lila adores him to bits. Thanks to him, she adores all dogs in general. When we're out for a walk, every dog we pass on the street is greeted with a whoop of joy. Yesterday, she found a kibble of dog food on the floor, and just as I was rushing over to snatch it away from her, she turned around and offered it to Dale!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A week of vegetables, and eggplant dal

You know what I love even better than local food? Local food blogs. I read a long list of St. Louis based food blogs and always find interesting information on restaurants and stores, events and places that I would never hear of otherwise. This week, my penchant for reading St. Louis based blogs reaped me a large vegetable harvest. 

It started when Melissa of Her Green Life posted that she had too much of a good thing with an overflowing garden harvest that was keeping her tied to the kitchen. I proposed a swap: I would trade some of my home-cooked Indian food for her vegetables. Happily, she accepted and came over on Monday. I pictured her bringing over a grocery sack or two full of vegetables. Nope. There was a huge box of tomatoes. A huge sack of cucumbers and summer squash. A bucket (!) of eggplant. Plus arugula and okra and bags of peppers. I was blown away by Melissa's generosity and thus started the week of vegetables. I cooked and cooked and we (V and I and also many of our friends) enjoyed fresh, organically grown vegetables in so many different ways: curries and rice dishes and pestos and salads and pickles. The week went by in a blur of gorgeous, colorful vegetables. 

Tomatoes on their way to being slow roasted for 12 hours 

A jewel-like assortment of peppers of all kinds: mild, sweet and hot
Red pepper chutney and tomato pickle
In celebration of this summer vegetable fest, I thought I would post an eggplant recipe. This is one I made a few weeks ago. It is a humble staple of the everyday Maharashtrian meal- DalVangi or eggplant  dal. Just your simple pantry ingredients plus fresh, sweet seasonal eggplant will give you this savory dal. The goda masala (the quintessential Maharashtrian spice mix) is absolutely optional so if you don't have any, rest assured that you will get tasty results anyway (I often make it without goda masala). My favorite way to serve it is with fresh, steamed rice, a dollop of ghee and some mango pickle on the side. 

The recipe is adapted from the Marathi cookbook Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale. It is not just a cookbook but an encyclopedia of Maharashtrian cooking. I'll spend a lifetime exploring this cookbook (actually, a set of 2 books). 

Eggplant Dal 
(Adapted from Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale) 

  1. Soak, rinse and pressure cook 1 cup toor dal.
  2. While the dal is cooking, make a dry spice mix by toasting 1 tbsp. coriander seeds, 2 tsp. cumin seeds and 1/4 cup dry coconut flakes and then grinding them to a fine powder.
  3. Chop eggplant (any size, any variety) into cubes to yield 3 to 4 cups.
  4. To make the dal, heat 2 tsp. oil. Make a tempering with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafetida, a sprig of curry leaves and 1/2 tsp. turmeric.
  5. Immediately, add eggplant cubes and salt to taste and saute for several minutes. Cover and let the eggplant steam for a few minutes until par-cooked.
  6. Add cooked dal, 2 tsp. tamarind paste, 1 tbsp. jaggery powder and the dry spice mix made in step 2. You could also add 1 tsp. goda masala at this point.
  7. Add enough water to make a thick or thin consistency as desired and bring to a boil. Simmer until the eggplant is fully cooked.
  8. Add a handful of minced cilantro and serve. 

Here's another fun experience that came to me this week via another local blog called St. Louis Eats and Drinks. Ann Lemons Pollack wrote a restaurant review with an interesting nugget at the end about a halwa poori brunch special at a restaurant near our home. Within 12 hours of reading the review, V and I were in Spice -n- Grill (owned by a couple where the wife is the chef and the husband is at the front of the house), tucking into this meal. Ah, the joy of puffy fried bread dipped into two spicy curries, and a contrasting sweet halwa to top things off. Don't miss this if you live in St. Louis.

I'll definitely go back for this meal, even though the lady who owns the place spotted Lila, then told me in no uncertain terms that she looks too small for her age, and proceeded to tell me what I should be feeding her to fatten her up. Yeah, brunch was inexpensive and the advice- totally free!

Do you seek out food blogs local to you? I will miss my favorite STL food blogs very much when I move. Athens, GA (our new home) does not have any food blogs that I know of. 

On The Bookshelf

Apart from vegetables, I've been devouring books this week. Lila likes to nap on my lap, and while she naps, I read. After she goes to bed, I read. And lately, all the books have been outstanding and ones that I highly want to recommend to anyone who cares to listen.

The first two fall into the category of Mama Goes to Parenting School and will be of special interest to those with kids.

What's Eating Your Child by Kelly Dorfman is written by a nutritionist and explores the link between nutrition and common (and uncommon) childhood ailments. My two favorite things about this book:
1. It is written without judgement in a sensible tone with practical advice.
2. It is highly readable, presented in the form of case studies where the readers get to play along as "nutrition detectives". It is not every day that a book on this subject is such a page-turner. It will be interesting even for those who don't usually enjoy reading non-fiction.
Some interesting concepts that I took away from this book:

1. Nutrition problems fall into two categories: either something that the child is eating is bothering the body, or the child is not getting enough of something. Sometimes both these things can occur at the same time.
2. Kids act badly when they are not feeling well. They are often unable to express discomfort or pain and instead they act out and misbehave. Instead of punishment, parents may need to dig deeper and find out if something in the diet is making the child act out.
3. Many children are picky eaters (often eating only plain "white" foods like bread, rice, pasta, milk and little else). Consider that the child might have a zinc deficiency which causes loss of sense of smell and taste making food unappetizing or even revolting. This problem can be easily corrected with a zinc supplement. The author also provides a simple program for trying new foods one bite at a time to expand a picky eater's food repertoire.
4. Individuals have very different reactions to common foods. Many kids are intolerant of dairy or gluten. If the child has a mysterious illness which has not been helped by conventional medicine, it is worthwhile to look for nutritional causes.
5. This book is about children's nutrition but many of the same concepts apply to adults.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish is one of the most beloved and famous parenting books, and for VERY good reason. 
Faber and Mazlish are very down-to-earth and respectful of both parents and children. In an easy to understand workbook style, with very specific examples and tips, they lay out ways to better communicate with children. If you find yourself struggling to make your kids do something (or stop doing something), and it seems like all parents are caught in this struggle, this book is absolutely worth a read. How many times do you see a child and a parent together, and soon enough, you hear cajoling, arguing, then perhaps a voice raised, then threats and tears? I will be buying this book and essentially memorizing it. And while it covers communication with kids, the principles apply to communication with just about everybody. So much of the stress in life comes from being frustrated with the people in our life, and learning better ways to communicate is so worth the time.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi
Neighbor girl was surprised to see me reading this book. I didn't know you liked tennis, she said. And I didn't know you liked Andre Agassi. Well, long story. I am no sports fan but tennis does have a special place in my heart. My sister played competitive tennis in the junior (Under 12 and Under 14) category at the district and state level and while I've never held a racket in my life, tennis was a big part of my life at one point. We watched matches incessantly and followed the careers of all the pros. I took her to tennis tournaments occasionally. At the junior level, the chaperones (parents, other relatives) of the kids would double up as umpires (also as ball boys) so I knew the rules of tennis enough to be able to call matches. Anyway, we had our favorite players and I loved Steffi Graf (such a dignified and no-nonsense player) and hated Andre Agassi (full of every kind of nonsense). 
Now those two are married to each other- go figure. Anyway, this book is an EXCELLENT read. I recommend that you read it whether you care about tennis or not. This book is about parenting. It is about life and the crazy journey it can be. It was very hard to read about Agassi's cruel and violent father, endearing to read about his romance with Graf, and overall the book is just a funny and a rollicking good read. Seriously. And Andre Agassi has a new fan in me.

The last two books fall into the category of children's literature or kid lit. Many adults enjoy kid lit books. The good ones are every bit as deep and memorable and touching as the best literature for grown ups. I picked up these two at the suggestion of bloggers that I like and admire and sure enough, they were very good reads.

The first recommendation came from Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She is crazy about kid lit and in the first installment of her book club, mentioned The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars, calling it "a perfect book". This book moved me to tears, made me laugh and had a happy ending. Perfect indeed.

The second recommendation came from my favorite book blog, Niranjana's Brown Paper in an author interview. Vanished by Sheela Chari took me straight back to my childhood summers and reading mysteries while munching on salty snacks. Read this book and escape from your grown up worries for a few hours.

Did you have a good week? What was the highlight of your week? See you in a few!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Processors, Pesto and Pins

A few times a week, someone will e-mail me with a cooking-related question. Some questions are recurring, like the one about food processors. What food processor do I use and do I recommend it? Are food processors worth it in the first place? What do I use my food processor for? That sort of thing.

So for anyone who is curious, I bought my food processor in 2007 (using wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle. Thank you, Terry kaku and Prasad kaka...I think of you every time I use the food processor which is several times a week). Mine is a KitchenAid 9 cup KFP740. I have not checked whether this model is still available. Companies tend to keep retiring models and coming up with new and hopefully improved ones. All these years later, I am very happy with my purchase. 

The two best known food processor brands are KitchenAid and Cuisinart and they are very comparable. The standard full sized food processors have a 12 cup or 14 cup capacity, and they have powerful motors. A smaller capacity food processor takes less space but has a concomitantly less powerful motor. With a 9 cup processor, I feel like I have the best of both worlds- compact but powerful. I would really suggest not going smaller than that, because the processor is just not going to be heavy-duty enough. The 9 cup size is just right for my needs with a small family. If you cook larger quantities, a 12 or 14 cup may be more appropriate. Magazines like Consumer Reports and Cook's Illustrated often do independent tests comparing food processors and it might be a good idea to look there for recommendations of particular models.

In an Indian kitchen, grinding is a BIG DEAL. Between the dry masalas and the wet masalas and the batters, there's much pulverizing going on. I don't own an Indian style mixie which is the usual workhorse for that kind of thing so my food processor gets used for grinding everything except idli/dosa batter (the stone grinder does that) and dry spices (I have a coffee grinder for that) and soups and smoothies (that's the job for the immersion blender). By the way, I make liberal off-label use of my coffee grinder as a mini wet grinder too. Much of Lila's baby food gets made in there. But if you decide to follow my bad example, do so at your own risk.

Yes, if you're counting, that makes it several different gadgets but each one is loved and used a great deal. I'm a use-it-or-lose-it kinda gal. In this case, it means that any thing that I own and don't use regularly gets tossed out (which is to say donated to the thrift store or sold on Craigslist) ruthlessly.

What do I use my food processor for? 
1. Kneading dough: the food processor makes excellent roti/paratha dough (like this one for rajma parathas) and pizza dough. I have used it in the past to make pie dough but these days I make pie dough by hand and it is better with less clean up. 
2. Chopping nuts and making dry nut chutneys like this peanut chutney
3. Shredding vegetables: You can make a huge and tasty koshimbir (mixed Indian salad) in a couple of minutes flat with the shredder disc. Or shred the veggies for kheer instead. This is especially true when shredding hard vegetables like raw beets and carrots. I'm wimpy and my wrists ache after the second carrot. I regularly shred potatoes for potato par eeda
4. Shredding cheese: Vast amounts can be shredded with a flick of the button for casseroles, enchiladas etc. 
5. Purees and Dips such as hummus, spinach dip and salsas.
7. Wet masalas, especially onion-tomato purees for rajma and other curries.
8. Finally, some miscellaneous recipes use the food processor such as this vegan thumbprint cookie recipe that many of my friends are just. crazy. about.

If you own a food processor, what are your favorite ways of using it? 

Last week, I used the food processor to make a quick and tasty roasted red pepper pesto. I found large sweet red peppers on sale and roasted them myself on the flame (the way we roast globe eggplants to make bharta). That's a bit more time consuming and messier than buying jarred red peppers but it was the weekend and I had a few extra minutes. The smoky taste was well worth it.

Roasted Red Pepper Nut Pesto 
In a food processor, add the following and process until smooth, drizzling extra virgin olive oil as required:
  • 3 roasted and peeled large red bell peppers (remove seeds and stem)
  • 1 roasted and peeled jalapeno pepper (or red pepper flakes to taste)
  • 1 large fresh tomato
  • 1/2 cup roasted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup raw cashews (that have been soaked for 15 minutes in warm water)
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • Salt to taste

While making the pesto, I also sauteed some zucchini, onions, corn etc. The mixed vegetables and pesto were used in two different dishes. The first night I made a big pasta salad with whole wheat spirals, pesto, vegetables and parmesan cheese. The second night we made wraps using the pesto as a spread and the vegetables as a filling.

Trish, the blogger over at Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity took on the challenge of using her food processor in several different ways and came up with this fun post. Check it out for many more ideas on making the best use of your food processor.

This blogger is also hosting an event on her blog called Pin It and Do It: A Pinteresting challenge. Are any of you on Pinterest? It is a website that allows you to "pin" images onto virtual pinboards so you can collect your ideas and inspiration in one spot. I have been using Pinterest to bookmark all sorts of recipes that I want to make, books that I want to read and clever craft ideas that I want to try. The Pin It and Do It challenge is fairly straightforward: don't just collect pins, use them and try the ideas for yourself.

I am a fan of Pinterest as long as everyone follows basic rules of etiquette by (a) crediting the source of the pin, (b) verifying the original source before pinning (eg. not just pinning an image from Google Images) and (c) not lifting sections of the source's text into the pin's textbox (eg. copying the recipe into the pin). I promise to use these rules while pinning images from other blogs/websites and would appreciate it very much if others used them when pinning images from this blog. As long as you play by the rules, pin away from One Hot Stove if you want to.

My first entry for the Pinteresting Challenge: Last week, Lila had her last day at the daycare that looked after her lovingly 5 days a week since she was a bitty 3 month old. I wanted to give a small gift to her teachers and my favorite way of showing love and gratitude is with handmade gifts, so I bought plain cotton bags online and decorated them with each teacher's monogram.

My original pin is here and the tutorial is here from the blog Under the Sycamore. It is such an easy and clever idea, using paper doilies as stencils and some fabric paint to make these personalized gifts. I used freezer paper stencils for the letters.

I'm adding this post to the Pin It and Do It link-up. If you are on Pinterest, will you share your user name in the comments? I'd love to see what you're pinning! 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Curry Mixes and Quick Fixes

In the last few weeks, I wrote over a dozen blog posts. But no one ever got to read them because they were all written in my head. There was that one little step - the actual sitting down and typing- which I never did find the time for, and hence those posts never saw the light of day, or the glow of your computer screen.

Well, August is here and it brings some big changes to my life. In preparation for our out-of-state move, I resigned from my job and Tuesday was my last day. Lila and I are adjusting to a new routine and I am trying to cross off things from a long and ever-growing to-do list.

Last month when life was more hectic than usual, I got to use every time-saving tool, trick and technique in the home cook's arsenal. One of these tricks is to use commercial spice pastes occasionally. I am passionate about cooking from scratch and equally passionate about not letting perfection get in the way of a good meal. So this post is a little nod of appreciation to good quality commercial spice pastes where you just add vegetables (lots and lots of them) and some pantry staples to make a wonderful meal.

I promise that I have no affiliation with any of the brand names I mention in this post. I'm a happy customer and that's about it.

The first is Parampara brand biryani paste which comes in a little packet. A dear friend (and ex-neighbor) was in town with her family, including her in-laws and I invited them all over for lunch. My friend's in-laws are from the deep Southern US and this was the very first time her mother in law was tasting Indian food. No pressure or anything! With only a couple of short hours to pull the meal together, I made a short-cut biryani as the main dish. To my intense relief, all the guests ate seconds, seemed to enjoy the meal and I believe we may have a couple of new fans of Indian food.

Vegetable Egg Biryani 
(using a packaged spice paste)

This recipe makes a 9 x 13 tray, enough for 6 to 8 servings.
1. Rice: Rinse and cook 2 cups Basmati rice in a rice cooker or on the stove top in salted water until it is just tender. Stir in 1 tbsp. ghee and spread the rice out to cool.
2. Vegetables: Saute 6 to 8 cups of mixed vegetables until tender. I used summer squash and mushrooms cut into hearty chunks. Any of these will also work: carrots, cauliflower, peas, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, peppers. To the vegetables, add 1 packet Parampara biryani paste. Stir well to get the paste uniformly mixed in (you may find it helpful to mix in the paste with some warm water first). Stir fry for a few minutes and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
3. Other additions (optional): Chop a handful each of fresh cilantro and mint. Shallow fry one sliced onion, or use a handful of store-bought fried onions. Boil 6 eggs, then peel and quarter them.
4. Assembly: Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish with some ghee. Layer half the rice evenly. Add the entire vegetable mixture and spread evenly. Scatter the eggs. Sprinkle with herbs. Add the other half of the cooked rice and spread evenly. Top with fried onions if using. Cover with foil or oven safe lid and bake for 45 minutes at 350 F. Alternatively, if you want to avoid firing up the oven, make the layers in a dutch oven or large pan and finish the biryani on the stove top, covered, on low heat.

Palak Chana (Spinach & Chickpeas) 
(using a packaged spice paste)

1. Soak 1.5 cups dried chickpeas overnight. Rinse and pressure cook them until tender.
2. Heat 2 tsp. oil.
3. Add 1 packet frozen chopped spinach or 1 lb. chopped fresh spinach and stir fry for a few minutes.
4. Add 1 packet Parampara chole paste and stir well.
5. Add the cooked chickpeas and enough water to make a curry (thick or thin, however you prefer it).
6. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.

Serve with rice or rotis or bread, lemon wedges and a tomato-onion salad.

Another quick weekday dinner in my home: With a can of Thai curry paste (I like Maesri) and a can of coconut milk (Chaokoh is a favorite), it is so easy to put together a delicious Thai-inspired curry that includes whatever fresh or frozen vegetables are on hand.

She Simmers is an excellent blog on Thai home cooking that I stumbled upon quite recently. In particular, this essay on Thai curry pastes is worth a read. The blogger explains why she uses commercial curry pastes, saying "unless you have all of the fresh herbs and spices required to make authentic and traditional Thai curry pastes, you're better off using commercial curry pastes than trying to make do with ill-advised substitutes." Now I feel much better about using canned Thai curry pastes. The green curry paste is a particular favorite but we enjoy most of them.

Thai-Inspired Vegetable Curry

1. Heat a couple of teaspoons of oil.
2. Saute 6 cups or so of mixed vegetables.
3. Add 1 can curry paste and 1 can coconut milk.
4. Add cubes of tofu (optional).
5. Simmer.
6. Taste and adjust flavor using salt, lemon juice and sugar.

Add herbs (cilantro/mint) if available and serve on rice or quinoa.

I would not be surprised at all if the local Thai restaurants that I like to frequent use these very same curry pastes. The taste is so similar and so good for something that comes out of a can. And that's my story of how sometimes using packaged ingredients can save dinner and be a excellent alterative to getting take-out.

Do you use any commercial spice pastes? What are your favorites?

On The Bookshelf

Our friends who also have a small baby recently asked me how on earth I find time to read. I don't know what to say except that I need to read. In busy periods, it can take me weeks to finish a book that would normally take a day. But I find time to read a few pages every day no matter what else is going on in my life- it is necessary for my mental health.

This is what I have been reading this past month. None of these books are light and fluffy (and my two sentence descriptions probably sound very bleak) but I really enjoyed each one.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke (translator): A slim, magical tale about teenage boys exiled to a remote and poor village during the Cultural Revolution. Their love for books and the need to keep it a secret leads them to adventures.

In The Woods by Tana French: A cozy mystery this is not. It is a richly written and quite unsettling psychological thriller about a detective who faced a horrific trauma in his childhood and is back in the same place to investigate another murder.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: A very engaging family drama that follows the lives of three siblings who are raised by a bitter and angry mother after their father deserts the family. Anna Tyler has a remarkable talent for describing ordinary people and inconsequential everyday things in a way to captivates the reader. I also enjoyed her book Breathing Lessons.

Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism by Joel Yanofsky: Yanofsky is brutally candid, angry, tender and loving as he describes the challenges of parenting a son with autism. A must read memoir.

And I continued reading my beloved Precious Ramotswe series with The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party and just borrowed the latest The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection from the library yesterday.

Are you reading anything fun this summer? See you very soon (I promise..)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Daily Special: Punjabi Bhaaji

When my mother stayed with us last year when Lila was a newborn, she often made something that she termed "Punjabi bhaaji"- a most enjoyable medley of paneer cubes and mixed vegetables in a tomato sauce. Far from being anything with an actual Punjabi pedigree, this dish is simply a Maharashtrian home cook's homage to vegetables cooked in the style of popular Punjabi restaurants everywhere. 

Since then, I make my own version of Punjabi bhaaji almost every other week. This dish takes as much (which is to say, as little) time to make as any other quick vegetable stir fry. However, it feels like such a change from everyday meals, so much like take-out from your favorite Indian restaurants, and that's why I am calling this a "daily special". Unlike restaurants where they have to keep an eye on the bottom line and be sparing with the vegetables, making this dish at home allows you to splurge and add lots of juicy seasonal vegetables. This recipe is simple enough for anyone to make, so if you are new to Indian cooking or new to the kitchen altogether, I hope you'll give it a try. 

Simple Punjabi-Style Bhaaji (Subzi)

  1. Cut half a block of paneer (8 oz or 200 grams) into bite size chunks.
  2. Cut vegetables into chunky bite size pieces for a total of 6 cups or so: cauliflower, green beans, carrot, bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, peas. 
  3. Cut 1 onion into medium dice.
  4. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pan and fry the paneer until golden. Remove from pan and set aside.
  5. In the same pan, add 1 tsp. cumin seeds and let them sizzle for a few seconds.
  6. Add the chopped onion and let it cook on medium-high heat until the edges start browning.
  7. Stir in the spices: 2 tsp. kasuri methi (dried fenugreek), 1/2 tsp. red chili powder and 1/2 tsp. turmeric.
  8. Add the vegetables and stir fry them for a few minutes.
  9. Add 1 cup tomato puree and salt to taste. Cook uncovered, stirring once in a while, until the vegetables are just tender. Add the fried paneer cubes. Turn off the heat.
  10. Stir in a handful of minced cilantro and 1/2 tsp. garam masala.

This basic recipe can be modified in a few different ways with great results:

1. The Julienne Version: By simply changing the way you cut the vegetables, you can alter the taste quite a bit. The version I've given above calls for fat chunks of vegetables. Another way I make it is with long, thin strips of vegetables. In this version, I grate the paneer coarsely instead of cutting it into chunks, and add the raw paneer into Step 9.
2. Vegetables Only: The paneer is optional. You can certainly make the dish with vegetables alone.
3. The Curry Variation: To make a thick luscious curry, powder 1 tbsp. white poppy seeds with 1/4 cup roasted cashews and add this powder into Step 7. You will want to add some extra water in Step 9 and simmer the curry for a few minutes.
4. Sweet Sensation: If the tomatoes are a bit tangy, smooth out the taste by adding a dash of sugar in Step 9.
5. Flavor Max: Add 2 tsp. ginger garlic paste (or 1 tsp. each of minced ginger and garlic) to Step 7.
This was our lunch this Saturday in between looking at real estate websites and playing with the baby on the rug. I buy whole wheat tortillas and use them as rotis. With a little imagination, whole wheat tortillas heated on a naked gas flame (resulting in a few charred spots) can taste just like rotis right out of a dhaba's tandoor. Just close your eyes and savor the taste! 

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!