Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Fast Food for Baby

Swapna requested a post on homemade Indian foods for baby, so here's a quick post listing some of the foods that Lila has enjoyed since she started eating solids. A few are specific to Indian cuisine and others are not. This post comes with a giant disclaimer. I have no expertise in children's nutrition and write this only as a parent with limited experience (sample size = 1). So consider your child's needs, your doctor's recommendations and your own instincts when using this information.

Lila started eating solids little by little at 6.5 months of age, and now at 13 months, she eats almost everything we do, including 3 sit down meals a day. We've fed her using a combination of purees (spoon-feeding) and offering her chunks of soft food to eat with her own hands, which is often termed baby-led weaning.

Banana pieces: Fast Food for baby
1. Two instant foods that need no work other than cubing or mashing are banana and avocado. I was always leery of buying avocados because more than half the time, I'd end up with one that was brown and yucky inside and cringe at the waste. Then  I started following this tip when shopping for avocados and I've enjoyed perfect avocados since.

2. Whole-milk yogurt, whether homemade or store-bought is another instant food. It can be mixed with cereal. It can be eaten by itself. Best of all, it can be stirred into any ripe fruit puree (peach, banana, berries) to make a delicious fruit yogurt.

3. Sweet potato can be cooked in the microwave in 3 minutes or so. It can also be steamed or pressure-cooked while you're cooking something else.

4. Home-made applesauce: Peel and chop apples, cook with a small amount of water until tender. Break down using an immersion blender for a smooth puree or a masher (the kind we use to make pav bhaji) for a chunky puree. Season with a little cinnamon or apple pie spice if you want. I also make pear sauce and a pear-apple sauce the exact same way.

5. Breakfast Oatmeal: I cook apples like above, then add old-fashioned oats in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Mash to make a delicious breakfast. I make 3 or 4 portions at once and refrigerate. If a little fiber is needed in the diet, add a chopped dried prune- you'll get quick results every time if you know what I mean.

6. Khichdi: I cook rice and moong dal together with lots of vegetables. Lila has always enjoyed tasty food and I season the khichdi with some combination of the following: curry leaves, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin. Using different combinations of vegetables and spices, you can make a hundred different khichdis using the same basic method. I serve this with a generous dollop of homemade ghee.

7. Vegetable soup: Another family favorite and can be made a hundred different ways using different vegetables and flavorings. My standard combo is {carrots, onion, potato, tomato}.

8. Upma and idlis are two other Indian dishes that can be shared by the baby and the rest of the family.

9. By now, Lila is eating everything that we are. In fact, most of the time she wants to eat it directly off of my plate. I am not making separate meals for her. Instead, I make our regular food but make sure I go easy on the salt and chilli powder. We grown-ups can always add more salt to our portions and eat some pickle or hot chutney on the side to amp up the flavor if necessary (in my case, always). Here's an example of what I made last night: chickpea curry with sweet potato. I scooped out chickpeas and sweet potato pieces onto Lila's plate and she fed herself.

Recently, I came across these guidelines by a nutritionist: Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding Children. They nicely articulated what I think is my general philosophy for feeding my child. Children change all the time so I'm taking it one day at a time and offering Lila what I believe are tasty, wholesome foods and hoping she enjoys them.

I was a very poor eater as a child and I remember a fair amount of scolding, blame and tension at the dinner table until I finally grew out of it as a teenager and now it is quite obvious that I am the exact opposite of a poor eater. So if you have a picky eater at home, take a deep breath and know that it is entirely possible that he/she will grow up to enjoy every vegetable that grows on this green earth and maybe write a food blog as well.

If you have meal ideas that your babies have enjoyed, please add them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

What are you reading?

One of the first things I did when I arrived here in our new town was to get myself a public library card. It is a nice library and I particularly like their children's programming. But they don't allow magazines to be checked out- bummer. Flipping through yummy magazines is my favorite way to kill an hour here and there.

Here's what I am reading. I just started Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. It is a bestselling classic written in 1938. Now, I generally prefer reading contemporary works, and this one is supposed to be in the romantic suspense genre, whatever that means. But I suppose romantic suspense is still more entertaining than the particularly unromantic suspense of election night.

Other books in my stack are-

Lidia's Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich: This is the companion cookbook to the PBS series that I've watched quite a bit. I'm enjoying the essays on various Little Italy neighborhoods in the US, and I plan to try a recipe from this book before this month is out.

Plastic Free by Beth Terry: A very interesting and informative book by a woman who took on the challenge of banishing plastic from her life. I'll need to devote a whole post to this one.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear: I haven't started this one yet but I am so excited, because if it is good, then I have a whole new cozy mystery series to read!

What are you reading these days? 

Monday, November 05, 2012

Taking Stock

Priti asked me how (and how often) I keep track of everything in my pantry. It has been mere days since I moved into this new kitchen so it is a question that's very much on my mind.

Some people are very organized by nature and others struggle with it. Like most people, I'm somewhere in the middle. But I'm always looking to become better organized, especially in the kitchen, because if you cook on a regular basis, you save precious minutes every time if you're not working in near-chaos. Investing a little bit of time in organizing the kitchen yields good returns. You'll end up with more time to do meaningful things. Or in my case to watch more reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Whichever.

In the kitchen, stuff falls into two categories: the hardware (appliances, gadgets, tools, cookware) and the consumables (the edible stuff: everything in the fridge, freezer, pantry, spice racks etc.) Here's my approach to keeping track of the consumables. The principle is the oldie-but-goodie: A place for everything and everything in its place.

1. List all the places where the consumables will be stored. In my new kitchen, the list looks like this:

Main areas
  • Fridge
  • Freezer
  • Pantry (cabinet)
Smaller areas
  • Corner cabinet with built in Lazy Susan
  • Tiny shelf
  • Shelf in a closet outside the kitchen
For the average person, it is unlikely that you can keep track of more than 6-8 areas so don't spread out the consumables more than you need to. These areas will contain all the edible items in your home.

2. Designate what food goes in each area. Within each area, create zones where things are grouped together in a logical way. This way you know where everything is while you're cooking and also when something is running low or used up.

Main areas
  • Fridge: Here, I group milk, yogurt, beverages together. All the cooked (ready to eat) food is in one spot and all the ingredients (say, half an onion, or a half-used jar of pasta sauce or container of tomato puree) are all together. All the cheeses are together etc.
  • Freezer: Ditto- the prepared foods are all together and frozen veg are in one spot etc.
  • Pantry: This has zones for flours, lentils and beans, oils, noodles and pasta, canned goods, baking supplies (powder sugar, cocoa) and so on. 
Smaller areas
  • Corner cabinet with built in Lazy Susan: This has all my spices, plus cans of curry paste and the smaller baking supplies like vanilla extract and baking powder.
  • Tiny shelf: This has tea, coffee, salt and sugar.
  • Shelf in a closet outside the kitchen: Here I keep all the stuff I buy in bulk (like big bags of toor dal) from which I replenish the containers in the kitchen.
I'm describing all this just as an example. You'll want to group foods according to what's convenient and logical for you- for instance, by cuisine. But take a look at each and every consumable you own and make a conscious decision about where its home should be.

3. Know that you can only store as much food as can fit comfortably in the space available. The key word is "comfortably". If things are piling on top of each other, if you reach for one thing and other things come crashing down, if you have to remove 20 things to reach the last thing in the back, these are clear signs that you're crowding your space. Be honest with yourself. If you don't use something, use it up, give it away or toss it. It is simply leading to more waste by being there and cluttering your space. Consumables should be easily accessible or else they will never be used.

4. Keep pen and paper handy in the kitchen. Any time you're using the last bit of something, jot it down. This running shopping list will make sure you're stocking your kitchen on a continuous basis.

5. Before you go shopping every week, take a look at what you have on hand. Come up with meal ideas to use up anything that's been sitting around for a while (a big jar of tahini, in my case).

6. Twice a year (I typically do this in Spring and Fall), do a pantry eat-down where you try to consume a lot of the food on hand and do a thorough cleaning.

This post probably sounds very OCD but it is a system that works- it has worked for me for many years in different kitchens. How do you keep stock of things in your kitchen?

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Noodles and Tofu

It's day 4 of NaBloPoMo and I'm putting the food back into the food blog. Jui requested quick and simple weeknight dinners and I think our dinner from last night fits the criteria.

Noodles and tofu are on my dinner menu when I'm craving Asian take-out, which is all too often. This dinner comes together very quickly but you do have 3 pots and pans to use: one to boil the noodles, another to fry the tofu and the third to saute the vegetables.

I have certain recipes that unabashedly use short-cuts for an otherwise made-from-scratch meal. This meal uses one such short-cut- Trader Joe's Soyaki sauce (soyaki is a word they made up. You know Trader Joe's and their dorky sense of humor). It is a vegan sauce with an ingredient list that is something like this: soy sauce, sugar, crushed garlic, sesame seeds, soybean oil, ginger puree, white vinegar, soy powder, sesame oil, garlic granules, minced onion, onion powder, ginger powder. Clearly it would be very easy to either make this sauce at home or to add the ingredients to the recipe as I go along. But like I said, I keep a bottle of this stuff handy. It is tasty, I don't have to think and we can have a good meal even when time and patience is in short supply. So feel free to use this or another brand of teriyaki sauce, or make your own (there are dozens of recipes on the internet).

1. Marinate the tofu: A couple of hours ahead of dinner time, drain the water from a package of extra firm tofu. Cut the tofu into bite sized slabs and pat them dry with a clean dish towel. Douse the tofu slabs liberally with the teriyaki sauce (1/4 cup or so). Let them marinate for an hour or two.

2. Boil noodles: About 30 minutes before dinner, put up some water to boil and cook noodles (any kind- Asian or Italian; this time I used whole wheat spaghetti). If you don't want to use noodles, have some cooked rice or quinoa handy.

3. Saute vegetables: In a wok or cast iron saute pan, heat some oil and saute lots of vegetables. Shredded cabbage, sliced peppers, mushrooms, onions, green beans, carrots all work well here. When the vegetables are crisp-tender, add some teriyaki sauce and peanut butter. Stir to make a nice creamy sauce coating the vegetables. Toss in the cooked noodles and a handful of chopped cilantro or green onions.

4. Finally, pan fry the tofu: Dust 2 tbsp. cornstarch into the bowl in which the tofu is marinating. Mix it in gently so the sauce-cornstarch mixture coats the tofu slabs. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a large non-stick pan. Add the tofu in a single layer and fry it on both sides until golden brown. The cornstarch will form a wonderful crispy coating on the tofu.

Serve at once. Add some sriracha sauce to taste. Dig in!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Playing with Food: Felt Pizza Costume

Suparna requested a tutorial for the pizza costume that Lila wore on Halloween, so here it is!

When I started toying with ideas for a costume for Lila, the requirements were (1) it should be quick and easy to make, using mostly materials that I already have on hand and (2) it should be very easy to put on and not be too cumbersome or she wouldn't want to wear it at all. 

The material I had on hand was lots of felt in an off-white color. It had been purchased for another project a few months ago which I never ended up doing. I also had sheets of colorful felt. The inspiration came from this post. I thought the costume looked adorable and simple to make. Also, it is food themed which is always a plus as far as I am concerned. And who doesn't love pizza? I much prefer these cute costumes to the scary ghoulish ones.

One way to make this costume is to have a front and back with a head opening, so the kid is sandwiched between the front and back of the pizza. Mine is a bib style which simply ties around the neck. This costume is very easy to make even for someone who is completely new to sewing, and really fun because you get to customize the toppings!

{Please click on pictures to see the larger versions}

My pizza slice had three layers. One was the back (plain felt), the top was the one you see with the toppings and to give some "body" to the costume, I added a layer of sturdy interfacing in the middle. In a pinch, you could use a piece of cardstock for the middle too. 
  • Measure across the child's shoulders. 
  • Sketch out a pizza-slice shaped triangle on a paper using this length as the base of the triangle. 
  • Cut the pizza triangle from the paper to make a template. 
  • Cut out one piece of felt and one piece of interfacing using this template. 
  • For the third piece, the topping, cut a strip of brown felt, a wavy strip of red felt and the rest of the triangle from off-white felt and sew those together (machine or simple running stitch) as shown.

  • Now the really fun part- make the toppings. The toppings can all be cut out of felt and glued to the pizza. Just for fun, I made some of them (tomatoes and onions) using crochet just to give it a more three dimensional look. I pasted the felt toppings using ordinary white glue (you might need to weigh it down and leave to dry overnight). A glue gun could also be used. The crocheted toppings were sewn on.

  • Now the top layer is done. Sew the three layers together using blanket stitch on the edges. I used this video tutorial to teach myself blanket stitch- very easy and fun to do. If you don't want to sew, the layers could also be glued together. I personally love the finished look from the blanket stitch.
  • Finally, sew on pieces of ribbon to be used as ties.
Wear your pizza proudly!

Another cute and simple felt costume: chocolate chip cookie.

And that concludes day 3 of NaBloPoMo. What are you doing this weekend?

Friday, November 02, 2012

How to Win Friends and Be Influenced by People

Yesterday's post seems to have touched a chord for a reader who commented about how hard it can be to make new friends and form a community. Friendship for us humans is a very powerful and fundamental concept. It is not simply a matter of having someone to hang out with on a Friday night. Close friendships and social interactions are downright essential for health.

Making friends is not a trivial task. I read a post a couple of months ago that generated a lot of discussion in the comments. In real life too, this comes up often in conversation, about how we made friends quickly in school and college but now it seems to be harder for some reason.

The post title is written in humor; I'm certainly no expert at the art of making friends. But I have a good track record or perhaps a very lucky streak and have ended up with the loveliest friends you can imagine, and some of these friendships have lasted for decades across continents. Like falling in love, finding a best friend is not something you can really plan or predict, but you can certainly create conditions that attract good people into your life. For what it's worth, here are some things I've noticed about forming friendships. Some of these lessons came the hard way, by making mistakes and losing some friends along the way. You live and learn, right? 

How strangers and acquaintances become friends:

1. Be interested in people. Not in a nosy way, but in a way where you want to hear their story and know what their life is like. Some people have such a talent for this. I remember a former neighbor (50-something woman in St. Louis) telling me that she was on the phone with a computer tech person in a call center in India. While they were on the phone waiting for her computer to reboot, she starts chatting with this guy, asking him about how he likes his job and about his life and what he dreams of doing. Instead of fretting and fuming about her computer problem and about having to be on the phone with tech support for an hour, she ended up with a very friendly cross-cultural conversation! The guy told her about the job he really wanted and the girl he liked. And he successfully fixed her computer too.

2. Be a good listener: My BFF Neighbor Girl is the best listener I know. Because, you know, she actually listens instead of using that time to think of the next thing to say (which is what I'm guilty of doing). We can have an hour long chat where I casually mention that I have a meeting with my boss on Wednesday, and the following week, you can bet she'll ask me, so how did your meeting go?

3. Be a cheerleader: To make a friend, you have to be a friend. This means cheering on your friends, celebrating their big and small achievements, supporting their dreams. Competition and jealousy kills friendships instantly. You have to be genuinely happy for your friends' joys, and genuinely sad when things go wrong. Success is not a zero sum game.

4. Know yourself: Once I realized that I get uncomfortable and uncharacteristically shy in large groups, I sought out smaller gatherings. Putting myself in an environment that brings out the best in me is more conducive to forming friendships. Personally, I'm at my very best in one-on-one conversations.

5. Be a good person: I don't know how else to say this but the world likes people who are kind and genial and who have a big heart. That's why my husband makes friends easily- because people like him.

6. Open your home: V and I have always kept an open door policy. We don't care that our home often has dog hair everywhere, we never got around to decorating and the furniture doesn't match. People know they can knock on the door and be invited in and offered tea or a hot meal. There's always room at our table and we always have time to sit and talk with a friend. I remember V had a new colleague joining his workplace years ago. The colleague and his wife and baby were coming to St. Louis to look for an apartment- he asked them to stay with us. We had no guest room, just a couch with a very uncomfortable pull out bed. But they came and stayed and we became the best of friends. When Lila came along a few years later, we did not have to buy any baby clothes or toys or even a bassinet- these kind people handed down tons of great stuff from their daughter. My last night in St. Louis, Lila and I stayed at their home. How things come full circle.
      With Neighbor Girl too, she was my downstairs neighbor and we ran into each other walking our dogs and in the elevator etc. But one day we were having a conversation in the elevator, and instead of saying "bye now" when the elevator reached her floor, I said, "want to come in for a cup of tea?". Imagine what I would have missed if I had ended the conversation and gone on to my very important (and completely forgettable) chores for the day.

7. Be responsive: Choose a mode of communication- e-mail, phone, texts- and make sure your friends can reach you and communicate easily with you. When you communicate, mean what you say and say what you mean.

8. Connect through common interests: Some of my closest friends I've met through blogging and knitting and community gardening. Join a group, take classes, start a club, show up at a community event and you'll find like-minded people and friendships will blossom. Also, these are often friendships with people who are of very different backgrounds or ages than yourself, which is such an enriching experience. Of course, pets and kids are the common thread for forming deep friendships that go beyond doing stuff with the kids or the dogs. So get a dog! From a shelter for extra good karma! Walk it around the neighborhood and make some friends. No, seriously, we've made so many friends through Dale.

9. Volunteer: Again, choose a cause that you love. While you're stuffing envelopes for a political cause, or grooming shelter animals or cooking in a community kitchen (as I was when I met my friend Bek), you'll meet nice people that are worth knowing.

10. Don't put up with bullshit: You have to be your own best friend. If ever you find a friendship getting toxic, sucking more out of you than you put in, walk away. You should know how to set down boundaries and no one will ever be able to mess with you. 

11. Don't be a drama llama: Forget the gossip and back-biting. Drama is for books and TV. There's usually enough drama through relatives (whom you don't get to choose, alas) and in the workplace. Friendships should be about support and joy. These are people you get to choose, for crying out loud.

12. Cook! Forget what I said above, THIS is the real secret to making friends. Learn to cook and they will adore you for life. They'll put with all your personality faults. And then you can distribute love in the form of soup, chana masala and pans of brownies. 

Now, your turn: tell me your best stories about making friends.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Starting from Scratch

Lila as a slice of veggie lover's pizza: Halloween 2012
A few weeks ago, I left St. Louis with a heavy heart. We called it home for nearly 6 years (2006-2012) and they were some wonderful years. The funny thing is that I arrived in St. Louis with no intention of liking it at all. I left with a little more humility and a good life lesson in giving everything a chance and not making too many assumptions.

Six years ago, V beat me to the graduate school finish line by a few months and got dibs on choosing the next place we would move to. He found this job that he really really wanted to take in St. Louis. He had job offers in Seattle and Chicago too, and I was appalled that he wanted to move to St. Louis. I knew nothing about the place. Most of our New York City friends has a low opinion of the Midwest in general. A cousin of mine had attended a year of college and St. Louis and told me, "Oh, it's a wonderful sports town- great baseball". "But I hate sports", I bawled. In the end, I agreed to move to St. Louis knowing that it would only be for a few years. I made up my mind to tolerate it and get out of there as soon as possible. All this was before I had even set foot in the place.

My very first connection to St. Louis was Alanna of A Veggie Venture. Back then, there were not as many food bloggers and we all seemed to know each other quite well. I reached out tentatively to Alanna and mentioned that I was moving to her town. From then on, things started looking up rapidly. When we flew to St. Louis for a weekend to look for a rental apartment, Alanna invited us home to dinner. This is fairly typical among food bloggers and other close virtual communities. You've never met this person before, but they invite you into their home and feed you. Then it is like you've known them all your life. That same visit, V's future boss and his family took us out for dinner too. Sensing the genuine warmth of those connections was an auspicious start. I suddenly got a feeling that everything was going to be just fine and of course, it was more than fine.

The first time we met, Alanna told me these words of wisdom that she heard from her friends who've lived in a dozen different places: When you move to a new town, invest in the place as if you're only going to be there for 6 months but invest in the people as if you'll be there for a lifetime.

We definitely tried to follow this advice. Over the years we built ourselves such a vibrant community in St. Louis; I'll have to tell you about my interesting friends in another post. And we went out and did lots of fun stuff- saw all sights and attended all the events we could.

I have absolutely and without a doubt loved my years living in the megacities of Mumbai and New York City but there are many not-so-great things about living in a big city. Often, the cost of living is so expensive that you have to work ridiculous hours and have little time to relax. The traffic and distances can keep you from going places within the city. The congestion and the noise can be mind-numbing. I would say that St. Louis is a "Goldilocks" city: not too big, not too small; just right. Big enough that you have plenty of things to do, restaurants to try but small enough that you can actually find time to do these things. Small enough that you can afford to live near work and not have to battle traffic on a daily basis. Big enough to support useful businesses like a cloth diaper service. Small enough that you can barely enter a grocery store without running into someone you know.

When the time came to leave and move to yet another unknown town, I can assure you that I did so with a more optimistic and happy heart. We have to build a community from scratch but I think we'll manage. Well, we don't even really have to start from scratch. When V was being recruited for this job, we were blown away by the warmth and generosity of his future colleagues. They became our first local friends. Then a friend in St. Louis introduced us to his good friends who live here, and now this couple and their two little girls have become our friends. One of my best friends from high school lives only 45 minutes away and I'll get to see her on occasional weekends. And V's niece lives an hour away- she's in her early twenties and Lila adores her just as we do. That's a solid community already. 

Yesterday was Halloween- a day when it is socially sanctioned to visit the neighbors, at least, the ones who welcome trick or treaters by keeping their porch lights on. So we took Lila (in her costume as you can see at the start of this post) and went over and met a couple of our neighbors, who warmly welcomed us to the neighborhood and told us they love it here. And so the community hopefully grows.

By the way, this was my first post for National Blog Posting Month. See everyone who's participating here. There will be a new post on One Hot Stove every day this month. Leave a comment if you have a post topic to suggest.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pinterest Challenge- The Fall Edition

Hello from (mostly) sunny Georgia! The huge storm Sandy battered the North East US this week- we in the South East were spared and got only high winds and cold temperatures because of the storm system. My best wishes to everyone in the North East- I hope you stay safe and warm and dry.

Our family moved this month and all in all, it was a smooth ride. V and I divided up our precious creatures for the move. He drove down with Dale sprawled in the back seat and our curry leaf plant strapped in the passenger seat; a 12 hour drive over 2 days. I took a flight with Lila. I'm happy to say that dog, plant, baby all arrived happy and intact. We're settling into our new home and exploring our new town.

I wanted to pick up the blogging thread where I left off and the Fall Pinterest Challenge on Young House Love (YHL) gave me the perfect excuse to make something and post about it. In case you don't already read it, YHL is an endlessly fun blog written with humor and grace, full of design inspiration and craft ideas. As we transform this house into a home, this is a blog I'll turn to this blog often.

As you might expect, the Pinterest challenge is to stop pinning and start doing. I chose one craft and one recipe.

The Craft Pin: Pumpkins are the dominant decor in this season of Fall, Halloween and Thanksgiving. I had pinned an easy paper craft- making paper pumpkins from strips of patterned paper. I loved the simple, modern look of these pumpkins and thought it would be fun to make a few. The tutorial on It's Always Autumn is very well written. All I needed was some wire and patterned paper from the craft store. I did not find very cool patterned paper so I made the best of the limited selection I found- one black and white damask design, a textured orange and a metallic paper. I eyeballed the width of the strips and one fun evening of cutting and wiring later, I got this.

I would call this pin a moderate success- I enjoyed making these pumpkins and arranged on a cake plate, they add a pop of DIY festive fun to my otherwise-bare dining room. But it is challenging to make the pumpkins keep their shape; the strips keep sliding off to one side.

The Recipe Pin: When I moved from St. Louis, I tried to eat down the pantry as much as possible. In the last week, I still had a few things left that I did not want to move and gave them to friends to use up. The big bag of idli rava eluded all my attempts to get rid of it. I haven't been using idli rava since I switched to using idli rice for idlis. That was the only thing I ever made with idli rava so the stuff just sat there. None of my friends wanted it and I can't throw away food, so the idli rava joined the husband, dog and curry leaf plant on the long trip to its new pantry!

I resolved to use it up- can't have the idli rava still sitting there until we move to some other place. And that's how I pinned Nandita's recipe for Arisi Upma. In her post, she does a nice job of describing all the selling points of this recipe: made in minutes, no need to roast the rava and no chopping!

I had made ghee and the pot in which I make ghee always had a nice amount left on the sides once I pour the ghee into a jar. I don't wash the pot; instead I use it right away to cook something else, and that dish turns out more appetizing than ever with all the burnt on bits from ghee-making. That's the pot I made this upma in.

Arisi Upma
(adapted from this recipe on Saffron Trail)

1. Heat 1 tbsp coconut oil or ghee in a pan.
2. Make the tempering: mustard seeds, asafetida, curry leaves, urad dal, chana dal, bits of dried red chillies.
3. Add 3 cups water, handful of frozen peas, salt to taste and a tsp. of jaggery or sugar. Let the water come to a rolling boil.
4. Add 1 cup idli rava while stirring constantly.
5. Cover the pan and let the upma cook for 3-4 minutes. The water will be completely absorbed.
6. Turn off the heat. Add a handful of chopped cilantro.

Just as advertised, this was a quick and easy recipe. I have no doubt that the idli rava will be put to good use after all. But if you have any other ideas for using idli rava, I'm all ears.

I'm linking this post to the round-up on Young House Love, where you'll see hundreds of pins being tried and tested. 
In a fit of ambition, I have decided to participate in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), traditionally held in November of each year. The idea of NaBloPoMo is to exercise one's writing muscles by posting every single day. So November will be one long buffet of posts here on One Hot Stove. Not every post will contain a recipe. There might be crafts and photos and ideas and lists and book reviews and random musings. I'll just go with the flow and see what happens. Consider it a fair warning, dear readers (LOL). If you'd like to see a post on any particular topic, now is your chance to request it.

See you tomorrow- wheeee!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A Birthday Picnic

Lila turned ONE just a few weeks ago, as did her little buddy Nico, the son of our friends just a few doors down. The two babies have been friends since even before they were born; Nico's mama and I went on post-dinner walks together when we were pregnant. The babies were born only a week apart and we all thought it would be fun to have a joint first birthday party for them. That way we could share the fun while splitting the work.

There seems to be a trend with birthday parties having a theme- jungle, princess, cowboy and so on. When the subject of the birthday party would come up, people (even my mother) asked me what the theme would be- and I was flummoxed. The theme is "birthday", I told them. Balloons, cake- isn't there already a theme to a birthday party? Now, I have to acknowledge that some parents go to great lengths to throw fabulous themed parties. I took Lila to a "Very Hungry Caterpillar" birthday party recently and it was super cute. But it is all too much work for me.

In the end, we figured Lila and Nico would each have about 20 guests, and there's no way 40+ people could be jammed into either of our apartments even with creative rearrangement of furniture, so we rented a pavilion in a local park and hosted the party outdoors. So our party ended up having a theme after all: PICNIC!

The Venue
Having a late September birthday at a park was very exciting. When we were planning this, I was worried about the weather and kept asking Nico's mum to discuss a rain plan. She waved me away saying "You're such a pessimist. Think positive- we're going to have great weather". Later, her husband told me that they had an outdoor wedding and she didn't have a rain plan even then! Well, I don't know what to say except that our party day turned out to be simply fantastic- it was a Goldilocks day- not too hot, not too cool, not too sunny, not too cloudy.

A beautiful park in St. Louis called Tower Grove Park has several historic pavilions; we rented one of them for our party.

The South Humboldt Pavilion, built in 1871.
Having a picnic takes care of the entertainment. We were surrounded by lush lawns. A few blankets were spread out so the crawling babies could have a safe place to play. The older kids ran around. Some of the grown ups played impromptu football games. We had beach balls and frisbees so everyone could run around and enjoy the park.

The Food
The menu was a diverse one. A portion of the food came from local restaurants- a large tray of samosas and a 5-foot Italian hero sandwich. The rest of the food was home made.

For appetizers, we served chips and vegetable sticks and several types of dips: creamy ranch dressing, sweet potato hummus, pimento cheese and a 3 layer dip with sour cream, refried pinto beans and guacamole. Of these, the sweet potato hummus was the biggest hit. Several people told me they loved it. I used this simple recipe, only sauteeing the sweet potato in a cast iron skillet instead of roasting it. It makes a huge batch!

Then there were the salads- pesto pasta salad overflowing with vegetables, Asian-inspired noodle salad with raw vegetables and a peanut almond dressing, a rice salad with corn and avocado, a potato and egg salad and a raw zucchini salad with parmesan shavings. Here are links to some of the salad recipes: pesto pasta salad, noodle salad, zucchini salad.

We had several types of cakes- tres leches cake, a chocolate sheet cake, lemon bliss cake and no-added-sugar date cupcakes. These were the cupcakes that the babies got to devour (and devour they did).

On one side, we set out some kid-friendly food in the form of cut up fruit, cheese cubes and mini crackers.

That was a lot of food and I'm happy to say that all of it was enjoyed and none wasted. When guests left, we invited them to take home food if they liked. We brought home leftovers to enjoy over the next few days. V's coworkers got lots of cake!

Party Favors 
We wanted guests to have a little something to take back home, and ended up making reusable sandwich bags (slight modification of the pattern in this tutorial) stuffed with sugar cookies. I started sewing the sandwich bags and it was so hard to get sewing done with Lila underfoot. Nico's maternal grandma rescued us- she came into town, took over the project and expertly hammered out 20+ bags in 2 days! This nice lady saved me from many hours of midnight sewing. The adorable cookies were made by Nico's aunt, a baker in Florida- butterflies for Lila and guitars for Nico.



All in all, it was a wonderful way to celebrate the babies and marvel at their first year, in the company of friends who we will miss dearly when we move away from this city in a couple of weeks. Both Lila and Nico enjoyed tumbling on the lawn, being passed around from guest to guest and at one point, they each snuck in a power nap too!

Since this was an afternoon celebration with food and friends, I'm sending it to Anita's Mad Tea Party. And since the deadline went by several days ago, at this point you can safely picture me as a dapperly dressed white rabbit rushing by with a pocket watch muttering, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"...

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..)