Monday, December 10, 2012

On The Bookshelf: The Reading Challenge Edition

The end of the year is upon us, which means the predictable (and yet, very enjoyable) avalanche of "Best of 2012" lists. I've been going through 2012 book lists such as the NYT 100 notable books of 2012 and the NPR's picks for best books of 2012, and I noticed that I've barely read any of the books on those lists. Maybe those lists are too cerebral for someone who has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, or maybe I'm so far behind that I'm reading the bestsellers from 4 years ago as I spot them in the library. In any case, I hope to read some of the books from these lists in the next year or two. But isn't it nice to know that there is a never-ending supply of books to be read? That's a reason to bounce out of bed every morning.

The end of the year is also the time to sit down and do some delicious planning for 2013. A lot of the book bloggers do these annual reading challenges. Sometimes, the challenge is to read a certain number of books in a year. Other times, the challenges have themes and genres. I've never done reading challenges before but they sound like fun, and I'm signing up to do 3 of them in 2013. Go big or go home, right?

1. Color Coded Challenge 2013 hosted at My Reader's Block.
The rules are to read nine books in 2013, with the following colors in the title.  

1. "Blue" or any shade of Blue (Turquoise, Aquamarine, Navy, etc.)

2. "Red" or any shade of Red (Scarlet, Crimson, Burgundy, etc.)
Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall

3. "Yellow" or any shade of Yellow (Gold, Lemon, Maize, etc.)

4. "Green" or any shade of Green (Emerald, Lime, Jade, etc.)
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

5. "Brown" or any shade of Brown (Tan, Chocolate, Beige, etc.)

6. "Black" or any shade of Black (Jet, Ebony, Charcoal, etc.)
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley

7. "White" or any shade of White (Ivory, Eggshell, Cream, etc.)
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell 
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

8. Any other color in the title (Purple, Orange, Silver, Pink, Magenta, etc.)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

9. A word that implies color (Rainbow, Polka-dot, Plaid, Paisley, Stripe, etc.).

2.  What's In A Name 6 hosted at Beth Fish Reads.
 Between January 1 and December 31, 2013, read one book in each of the following categories:

1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

2. A book with something you'd find in your kitchen in the title

3. A book with a party or celebration in the title

4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title

5. A book with an emotion in the title

6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title

3. 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books - Reading Challenge 2013 hosted at Life As A Journey.
The challenge: to select and read seven books, each belonging to one of the following categories:
- one of the 7 countries with the most population
- one of the 7 highest countries in the world
- one of the 7 oldest countries of the world
- one of the 7 megacities of the world
- one of the 7 countries with the most immigrants
- one of the 7 richest (or poorest) countries
- one of the 7 most rainy (or dry) countries

If you have any suggestions at all for good reads that fit into these challenge categories, please do leave a comment! I hope to stumble upon some treasures as I try and find books for the categories. I'll keep updating this post with potential books.

Are you tempted to sign up for a reading challenge yourself? A lot of the challenges seem to be posted here on A Novel Challenge.

As for what I've been reading...

I finished Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier but I did not really enjoy the story. The brash and spoiled heroine who bossed around her servants, the "gentlemanly" pirate- the whole thing was too ludicrous for me.

On the other hand, Room by Emma Donoghue was a very satisfying read. The book was an easy read in the sense that the story, written in the voice of a 5 year old, moved quickly, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It was a tough read in the sense that the author describes a harrowing situation for a mother and child.

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear was another terrific read from last week. This time the mystery is much more complex and involved and the story is rich in character and history. I will happily read the rest of this series.

What are you reading? 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Birthday Cake

I love baking a cake for each of V's birthdays. Past birthdays have seen everything from a rich chocolate cake to a cheesecake to a Boston cream pie.

This time, it was a Tiramisu Cake, yellow cake drenched in a syrup of espresso and Marsala wine, then sandwiched and frosted with a luscious blend of mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. I used Dorie Greenspan's recipe as posted on Smitten Kitchen. It has all the flavors of traditional tiramisu but with fresh cake instead of the ladyfinger cookies.

I followed the recipe closely with some variations (intended and unintended!)-
1. I did not buy cake flour; instead I made my own cake flour using all purpose flour and cornstarch. One less ingredient in the pantry.
2. Instead of the liqueurs mentioned, I used Marsala wine. I'd lugged a half-full bottle of Marsala wine from my St. Louis pantry just for this.
3.  After reading the comments on that post about the cake needing more syrup, I doubled the amount of syrup. I did not quite end up using all of it, but the extra syrup was soaked up well by the cake.
4. I forgot to add the chocolate in between the layers- ah well. It would have made a good cake even better.
5. I used chocolate covered espresso beans to decorate the cake, instead of cocoa powder. It possibly looked a little childish but the espresso beans were a nice crunchy treat to eat alongside the cake.

The cake was wonderful- fun to make and even more fun to eat. With all that coffee and booze, this cake is a grown up dessert. I think I'll be making this again and again for special occasions.

I'm sending these pictures to Saturday Snapshot.

This weekend, we'll go shopping for V's birthday gift. In past years, I've given him such a spectrum of gifts from an experience gift (a skydive) to a handmade gift (knitted scarf and hat) to supporting his favorite cause (membership to the local public broadcasting station) to electronics (an iPhone). This year, it is furniture! I'm hoping to buy him one of those super comfortable recliners. This hard-working guy deserves to put his feet up in style. V ended up buying an original watercolor painting for his new office from an art fair instead!

Have a wonderful weekend, all! I'm hitting local craft holiday markets today looking for small gifts. We might also put up a little string of lights on the front porch. What are you doing this weekend?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hot Cocoa and Tasty Gift Ideas

This week, there seems to be a palpable excitement building in the air. An afternoon walk around the neighborhood yesterday revealed windows adorned with wreaths and neighbors perched on ladders stringing up lights. There is a steady stream of invitations to holiday parties. Store shelves are piled high with holiday confections and shiny baubles. And I'm sitting and thinking of holiday gifts that I want to give and wishes that I want to send, via e-mail or snail mail.

Giving a gift is fun and challenging in equal parts. I think gift-giving reveals how much you really know about a person. And sometimes the one thing you know about a person is that they already have two of everything.

As my darling friend Shoots said, "Turns out my family has enough shoes, hand bags, make-up, watches, wallets, perfumes and liquor to last them a life time so I was thinking of home-made food items as presents."

Excellent idea! The thing about consumable gifts is, you don't have to find a place to store the gift, dust it for eternity or remember to pull it out and display it when the gift-giver visits you. With an edible gift, you simply eat the treat and enjoy the moment.

There are still plenty of things to consider when giving homemade food gifts. Such as- Does the recipient have any dietary restrictions? How far is the gift being shipped and how long will it take to get there? Do they enjoy cooking or baking, in which case they would enjoy getting specialty ingredients like extracts and spices? Do they prefer sweet or savory foods?

A box of homemade cookies/nuts that I gave as a holiday gift a couple of years ago
Here are my top picks for gifts that are being mailed or taken long-distance. I would say that these food items have a shelf-life of at least a week or two.

1. Candy, such as nut brittle, caramels, and toffee. Candy can seem intimidating but it is amazing how easy it is- armed with just an inexpensive candy thermometer, you can whip up unbelievable confections.

2. Low-moisture cookies such as shortbread cookies and biscotti.

3. Boozy cakes such as fruitcake.

4. Mixtures such as chivda and granola.

5. Roasted and spiced nuts, like these spicy-sweet pecans (which should be accompanied by a warning about their addictive potential).

6. Spices, like a homemade garam masala or taco spice or sachets of mulling spices. 

7. Beverage mixes, such as hot cocoa or mocha mix.

One of the tastiest edible gifts I've ever received: dinkache laadu
If you're not shipping stuff but instead giving it to folks locally, there are even more options, because you can give goodies that are best stored under refrigeration, such as truffles and fudge.

A popular edible gift idea is the gift-in-a-jar. These can range from pancake and cookie mixes to lentil soup mix and its cousin, a dal mix. Also, there are the DIY gift baskets which can be endlessly customized, such as a "DIY sundae box" packed with cones, a couple of homemade ice cream sauces and candy toppings. The recipient simply buys ice cream and makes their own sundaes.

Packaging food gifts can be very fun and creative if you have the time. With ribbons, decorative paper and baskets and bows, you can come up with something that looks like it came out of the Harry and David catalog. By the way, I regularly read catalogs cover to cover not because I want to shop but because I'm looking for cute packaging ideas. Not that it matters- people will devour homemade food gifts regardless of whether they're dolled up or not.

Food gifts don't necessarily have to be homemade. If the recipient lives in another place, you can send them a food specialty from your city. My sister made me deliriously happy last year when she got me a huge supply of specialties from two famous food stores in Bangalore and Chennai- spice powders and pastes and snacks. This summer, my aunt visited the US and I gave her a large grocery bag stuffed with my favorite snacks from Trader Joe's- triple ginger cookies and Thai spiced cashews and some other things. She loved them so much that she bought more of those to take back to India for her friends. 

If the food gift is a hit with the recipient, you can send the same thing over and over again! After all, it gets consumed. One of my favorite childhood food memories comes from one of my aunts who visited us once or twice a year. Every time, she would get a big packet of fried banana chips from a shop in her neighborhood. These banana chips were crisp, salty and heavily seasoned with tons of black pepper. It was a double treat- hugging a favorite aunt and then snacking on the banana chips she got without fail.

When I visit my parents, I always take a big bag of roasted pistachios and some dark chocolate for my father. These two treats never fail to please him. A friend of mine has the sweet tradition of baking fig cookies for her father as his birthday present. This is a neat way to get around the question of "what new gift idea can I come up with every time" while keeping the other person perfectly happy.

I think over the years I'll figure out a short list of edible gifts that I am good at making and that are consistently well-received. And then that will be my tradition, to make those things year after year. For now, I tend to experiment and try different recipes every year. I made a hot chocolate mix last year and it was delicious, but when I needed hostess gifts this weekend, I couldn't resist trying a new recipe.

It is the hot chocolate mix originally from Cook's Country but I used malted milk powder instead of regular milk powder. The white chocolate chips melt into the beverage, making it creamy and irresistible. Make a batch of this and be sure to fill up a jar and decorate it with a ribbon just for yourself.

These are the proportions I used:

2 cups malted milk powder
1.5 cups cocoa powder
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1.5 cups white chocolate chips
1 tsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt

Mix together in a bowl, then process through food processor in 2 batches to make a fine powder.

To make a cup of cocoa, take 1/3 cup cocoa mix into a mug. Add 1 cup hot milk (dairy or non-dairy) and mix well. It helps to add a small amount of hot milk and then whisk all the powder in before adding the rest of the milk. Enjoy a steaming hot mug of cocoa!

Are you giving any edible gifts this year? Are you looking forward to receiving any? What are your greatest  hits? Do you have any fond memories of giving or receiving edible gifts?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Mushroom Barley Soup - NaBloPoMo Finale!

My dinner menu this evening was decided by a fictional detective from the 1930s. I was reading Birds Of A Feather by Jacqueline Winspear- the second book from the Maisie Dobbs series- when I came upon this description of the meal served to Maisie Dobbs at an abbey.

"Upon her return, her shoes clattering on the flagstone floors, a fresh tray awaited her, bearing a hearty bowl of barley-and-vegetable soup, a flask of cider with an upturned glass on top, and three slices of still-warm, crusty brown bread."

Barley-and-vegetable soup it is. I ended up making a mushroom barley soup that reminded me very much of a soup that I've eaten dozens of times in cafeterias and delis in NYC. Now why barley does not have a more prominent place in my pantry, I don't know. Time to rectify that. The only reason I even had half a box of barley in my kitchen today was because it was a pantry inheritance from Neighbor Girl. Anyway, the chewy, hearty barley made this soup a meal in itself.

Here's how I made the soup. I'm afraid I don't have a picture- I did not access to my camera this evening.

Mushroom Barley Soup

1. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil.
2. Saute 1 small onion, minced and 3 cloves of garlic until lightly browned and fragrant.
3. Saute 3 cups sliced mushrooms and 1 chopped canned tomato.
4. Add vegetable stock and 3/4 cup barley (I used pearled barley). Simmer for 45 minutes.
5. Garnish with lots of minced parsley.

And that's how we come to the end of this month-long blogging marathon, folks.

NaBloPoMo was much harder than I expected. I did end up missing one day and posting late on another. To make the time to write a new blog post every single day, to come up with something to say on top of that- it was not easy. But I got a tiny glimpse of the discipline and dedication that is needed to write consistently. I also learned that I enjoy thinking and writing about all sorts of different things and not just food. Now that NaBloPoMo is over, I'll continue to blog regularly. Not daily, I assure you. But One Hot Stove will stay active and bring you whatever is cooking in my life- food, of course, but also books and crafts and whatever else life teaches me.

Thank you for reading along- I couldn't have done it without you!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


NaBloPoMo is almost over. The caption in the logo says Type Your Heart Out and on most days, I did.

And what I want to say to you today is just that: write your heart out.

Writing is not just for professional writers. It is not just for bloggers. Not just for students cranking out a term paper.

Writing is incredibly therapeutic. There is tremendous healing power in letting your emotions flow out through your fingers. Writing clarifies your thoughts and. forces you to weigh the pros and cons of what you are saying. Our minds can be a cacophony of thoughts and writing forces you to organize them. Many of us love to read and we acknowledge that reading brings us knowledge but the funny thing is that writing can be even more illuminating.

When I started this food blog, I intended it only as a place to jot down recipes. I never realized that the blog gave me an excuse and a reason to write and that the writing would become the food and the recipes. It is taking me years to gather up the courage to really write my heart out. Writing (especially under my real name, as I do) makes you feel vulnerable. I'm opening myself up to strangers and their criticism, their judgement. But the rewards of connecting make it worth it; there are always more friends than critics. Because when writing resonates with the reader, the result is just magic. We know this every day when we come upon books, articles and blog posts that touch a chord.

So, really, I urge you to experience the power of writing. Most of us learned to write when we were just 5 or 6 years old, it a fundamental skill but one that most of us don't use when we're older. You can be your own therapist, your own mentor, your own best friend through the simple act of expressing yourself. Writing can be an safe outlet for negative emotions (we all know how good it feels to vent once in a while). It can be helpful when you're trying to find meaning in your life or struggling with a difficult situation. There are thousands of blogs written by people who are going through tough situations- infertility, loss, cancer- that symbolize the therapeutic power of writing.

It does not matter whether you write on a piece of paper and burn it, or write a letter and send it to someone who cares. Whether you write publicly on a blog, or create an anonymous blog, or simply type into a word doc and hit "don't save" when you come to the end. Write in whatever language comes naturally to you. Write without being self-conscious about your grammar or spelling. It does not matter whether your writing is polished. Just don't be a passive reader of other people's writing. Pick up a pen or keyboard and do some writing yourself.

Some suggestions for incorporating writing into your daily life:

Morning Pages. How can something this simple be so powerful? But it is.

Write a long heart-felt e-mail to a friend. I have a few close friends who live far far away but through long long e-mails, we pour our hearts to each other and stay close. Or write a handwritten letter to someone. 

If you read an article or blog post, write a sentence or two and share your thoughts on it. 

Do all of this without expectation. Just for the simple joy of writing. It will change your life in big and small ways. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

...OK, not quite. Few-Words Wednesday, perhaps.

Mr. Dale is bouncing back from his bad spell last week. He is eating and drinking, walking around looking as moody and bored as ever and doing typical Dale-like things like begging for his dinner starting at noon (the actual dinnertime is 4 PM). We're so relieved. Now the fact stands that he has this tumor and we don't know what the weeks and months ahead will be like, but for now he's back to his usual self.

I'm linking this post to Wordless Wednesday. Go visit and look at lots of pretty pictures.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

St. Louis A to Z

For several years, I had a page (those tabs at the top of the blog) for St. Louis related things, where I kept a list of restaurants that we liked and so on. Now that I've moved away from St. Louis, I decided to replace the page and put all my St. Louis recommendations into this post instead. You know, in case someone is visiting St. Louis one day or moving there and finds some of this useful. Just for fun, and to make it harder for myself (!) I made it into an A- Z list. All this information is current as of late 2012 but things like restaurants are ever-changing so please keep that in mind if you ever use this list.

A Arch. The Gateway Arch is without a doubt the most iconic and well-known thing about St. Louis. The gleaming, sleek silver monument is certainly a pretty sight and fun to visit once (or you know, seven times, as I did with various visitors). The classic tourist thing to do is to climb into a tiny pod and go to the top of the arch. Downtown St. Louis right by the arch also has other places worth visiting, such as the Old Courthouse and Citygarden.

B Blogs. St. Louis is home to some wonderful blogs. I enjoyed getting to know some of the food bloggers, including the authors of A Veggie Venture, Kitchen Parade, The Cupcake Project, Bruno's Dream and Her Green Life. Riverfront Times, a local paper, also has an often hilarious and irreverent food blog called Gut Check. Ann Pollock regularly reviews local restaurants in St. Louis Eats and Drinks. My favorite STL book blog is Joy's Book Blog

C Cinema. I'm not much of a movie-goer but I have to mention three favorite movie theaters. Tivoli is a historic theater on the Delmar loop and often plays independent films and hosts film festivals. Moolah theater is another historic landmark; it has couches and loveseats! And a bowling alley in the basement. Hi-Pointe theater often plays off-beat films and tickets are only 5 bucks during the week.

D Dance and Theater.
COCA was one of my favorite places in St. Louis. It has dance classes for all ages and all skill levels. I took hip hop classes there. Yes, I looked completely ridiculous. Yes, I had a blast. COCA has a few dance productions every year, including one of The Little Dancer every holiday season. For years, I went to every performance by the Saint Louis Ballet. Culture vultures should check out what's playing at the Touhill, Powell Symphony Hall, the Fabulous Fox theater and the Edison theater. The Fabulous Fox has an interior that is so ridiculously ornate that you have to go and see it for yourself. The best dance event of the year is the Spring to Dance festival on Memorial Day weekend, with 3 days of dance performances for just 10$ each night. In summer, we have enjoyed musicals at MUNY in the outdoor theater in Forest Park.

E Ethnic restaurants. "Ethnic restaurants" is often a pejorative term, but believe me, these are the places I loved best.

By cuisine: Mexican- Tortillaria is my top choice, with vegetarian-friendly food, a wonderful chile arbol salsa in their salsa bar, addictive cheesy chiles rellenos and garlic-mayo corn-on-the-cob. But Cherokee Street has the most authentic Mexican restaurants and grocery stores in the city.

Middle-Eastern- Ranoush has Syrian food and I love it all- the foul medames, hummus and baba ghanouj, Arabic fries, knafeh and the pickled eggplants. Al-Tarboush is a Middle Eastern deli and a great place to pick up freshly fried falafel, tubs of hummus, tabbouleh and a packet of crisp pitas for a light meal at home. I love the falafel platters and mezze at Cafe Natasha's Kabob International; they also serve their version of falooda. The Vine also has terrific falafel, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Aya Sofia has Turkish-Mediterranean cuisine and has many vegetarian options.

Thai- The food at Thai Gai Yang CafeThai Cafe is inexpensive and good. I like the drunken noodles at Basil Spice Thai Cuisine and the desserts: warm coconut custard with sticky rice, and banana crepes.

Vietnamese- Lemongrass has tasty Vietnamese food and we particularly love the vegetarian rice in hot pot. But by far, our favorite Vietnamese restaurant was Mai Lee in Brentwood. We tried two unusual entrees, batter-fried eggplant in a sweet and spicy sauce and water spinach with bean curd paste and taro root, we enjoyed them both. They have a vegetarian curry dish that is outstanding. Bahn Mi So is famous for its Vietnamese sandwiches. The food can be quite spicy but is very tasty.

Chinese- Lulu's on Olive Blvd. has good dim sum- fun to eat with friends on the weekend. Go early so you get all the varieties. The dim sum menu is heavy on meat and seafood, but these are the vegetarian dishes we enjoyed: vegetables (hot braised greens, cold pickled cucumber, edamame, seaweed), scallion pancakes, sweet and spicy tofu with mushrooms, spicy cold tofu, crispy noodles, and the sweet sesame balls filled with red bean paste. Mandarin House has wonderful Chinese food and is spacious, so it is great for dining out as a large group. I loved their ma po tofu and eggplant in spicy sauce. Chinese Noodle Cafe was a reliable Chinese take-out place.

Ethiopian- I love the vegetarian combination platter at Meskerem; Ethiopian food is something I crave every now and then and this restaurants has consistently good food.

Spanish- We went to BARcelona for tapas and sangria on my birthday. We enjoyed the fried artichoke hearts, empanadas and several other dishes. There are many vegetarian tapas options.

F Food & Drink. A few other random notes on food and drink. There are two free monthly magazines that are full of restaurant reviews, food news and recipes: Sauce magazine and the newcomer Feast; both can be found in many restaurants and grocery stores. I enjoyed teaching and learning at the cooking classes hosted at Kitchen Conservatory. They make for a great experience for yourself or as a gift. St. Louis is home to the largest brewery in the world- the Budweiser brand. They offer free brewery tours that are really fun even if you hate their beer or if you hate beer altogether- they're full of interesting history and architecture. Also in town are microbreweries and their tours are pretty fun too- like Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

G Grocery stores. Global Foods is a very well-stocked store for international ingredients and produce. Every aisle carries products from a different country/ region of the world. I often get my Indian supplies here, and other pantry staples like noodles, dried Mexican chillies, and sauces of all kinds. It is a really fun place. Jay International is another international market which is more accessible for those in St. Louis city, although it is a pretty cramped and chaotic place if you ask me. St. Louis has both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, both in multiple locations. Schnuck's is the local supermarket chain and some of their locations are better than others. I liked the one in Clayton the best.

H Hiking and biking (parks and recreation). St. Louis is home to incredible parks, the most prominent being Forest Park and there are dozens more. The Botanical Garden is beautiful. I'll update this particular entry later and list all my favorites.

I Indian Food. Spice 'n Grill is a mom and pop operation on Olive Blvd. with a tiny menu but very tasty food- I especially liked their weekend puri chole special. The Everest Cafe is unusual with Nepali, Indian and Korean food. Some of the popular lunch buffets are House of India ,  Saffron and my favorite of the lot is Priyaa where we gorged on puffy puris, South Indian kurma and a thick luscious raita. Seema Enterprises is the Indian grocery store that I liked the most. 

J Just for Babies and Toddlers. Lila really enjoyed Ms. Maria's Friday morning music group on Demun Avenue (15$ per session but the first session is free so you can try it once). We found Craigslist (online) and Kangaroo Kids (brick and mortar) to be great resources for buying and selling baby gear and clothing. We really liked Baby Care diaper service and used them for a whole year.

K Knitting and crafts. I miss my knitting group at Knitorious. St. Louis has a vibrant knitting community- you can find local groups on Ravelry.

L Libraries. Support your local library- I loved both public libraries that I went to- the St. Louis Public Library and the University City Public Library.

M Museums. Forest Park is an incredible urban oasis. It is home to the Art Museum, History Museum and Zoo.

N Neighborhoods. We always wanted to live in vibrant urban neighborhoods close to work and did just that. These three neighborhoods are very walking friendly and dotted with cafes and restaurants: Grand Avenue, Central West End and the Delmar Loop.

O Outdoor markets. Soulard Market is a farmers' market that operates all year round. Pappardelle's Pasta are also sold at a stall in this market- they are wonderful for making a special meal at home. Don't miss the mini-donut stall in Soulard, a treat after all that shopping. There are many others, like the Tower Grove Farmer's Market and the one in Maplewood, and small markets in many neighborhoods. There are several CSAs available.

P Pizza. St. Louis is home to Pi which is extremely popular for its cornmeal crust pizzas. We love the "Berkeley" deep dish pizza here. A'mis has decent New York style pizza but what I love is their fried mushrooms. The Good Pie makes authentic Neapolitan pizza. Dewey's Pizza is always crowded and you can watch the pizzas being made. I do like their calzones and pizzas but the crust is too soft and bready. La Pizza is my favorite pick for East Coast style pizzas for take-out. By the way, I love the pizza from Whole Foods, and we usually pair it with a salad topped with the bottled refrigerated ranch dressing.

Q Questions and Answers (trivia). Trivia nights are a very St. Louis thing to do, so form a team and hit the trivia circuit.

R Restaurants. (Other than the specific cuisines I already mentioned). For a special meal, we love going to Stellina Pasta Cafe for their fresh hand made pastas. Call ahead to see what vegetarian options they have that day. Black Bear Bakery and MoKaBe's have brunch buffets on the weekend. For yummy vegetarian sandwiches and cupcakes, we love Sweet Art. Southwest Diner is a relatively new restaurant and we loved their cornmeal pancakes and enchilada and poached eggs plates.

S St. Louis iconic food. I have to mention Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. We make it a point to take out-of-town visitors there. It is an old-fashioned stand on the historic route 66, and fun to visit. V loves the frozen custard; I don't (it tastes terribly eggy to me, and much too sweet). They also sell thick milkshakes called "concretes". Crown Candy Kitchen is an iconic St. Louis dessert store, a great place to buy classic sundaes, malts and shakes. Another local favorite is Gus's Pretzels. Their manufacturing unit is glassed in, and as you wait in line to get your pretzels (rest assured, there will be a line; this is a popular place), you can watch every step of the pretzel-making process.

T Transit. I'm a big fan of public transport. Metrolink may be a small system compared to other cities but very useful. You can go to touristy places like Busch Stadium and the Arch using Metro. And best of all, you can take the Metro right into the airport terminal. Getting to the airport in 30 minutes from downtown on a peaceful train- how great is that?

U Upcycle exchange and other one of a kind stores. St. Louis is home to many interesting stores. Upcycle Exchange on Grand Avenue sells donated/recycled art and craft supplies for a pittance. Home Eco has many eco-friendly products. There are several natural food stores like Golden Grocers. Plowsharing Crafts sells fair trade goods- my favorite source for gifts. City Sprouts has really cute gifts for kids.

V Volunteering. There are hundreds of ways to get involved with the local community, including Community gardens, Stray rescue, Humane Society, Campus Kitchen. I'll update this entry later with links and more information. 

W Weather. St. Louis seems to go from boiling to freezing and back again. Fall and Spring sometimes seem to last only a week each. But St. Louis weather is influenced by weather systems from both coasts- so it is ever-changing on a daily basis. Check the forecast!

X X is the wild card of this alphabetical journey. So I'll tell you about the most random thing I miss about St. Louis- the Deer Creek DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Really! They're efficient and super-nice in this office.

Y Young ones. City Museum is a uniquely St. Louis museum and perfect for older kids. Other kid friendly places that we never got around to visiting are the Butterfly House and Magic House.

Z Zero $ as in free! St. Louis is very affordable- the zoo, art museum, history museum have no entrance fee. In Summer and Spring, there are many free concerts around town. My favorite every year was the free outdoor symphony concert on Art Hill. 

This list is highly subjective and missing all those very St. Louis things like barbecue and baseball- but all I can say is that there's more to this city than one would think. I'm very glad I got to discover it. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

A few months ago, I made myself an account on Goodreads. I'm finding it an excellent way to keep tabs on the ever-growing list of books I want to read, as well as books I've read and liked. Plus, you can see what your friends are reading and whether they liked the books, and then pile those books on top of you to-read pile as well. I noticed that a couple of my friends had read and given high ratings to Room by Emma Donoghue so I picked up the book this morning at the library. I'm already halfway through it! It is a page-turner for sure.

I also brought home Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier. A couple of weeks ago, I really enjoyed Rebecca and several of you suggested this other book by the same author, so I'm looking forward to another good read.

I finished reading Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson; he has an interesting life story and the book is worth a read. There are many thought-provoking issues that come up in the book, and there are also luscious descriptions of the home cooking in his grandmother's kitchen. I don't know much about Swedish cooking at all (apart from meatballs and lingonberry sauce thanks to IKEA!) so that was fun to read.

I'm very appreciative of the reading suggestions that I get here in the comments. Several months ago, Anu recommended that I read this parenting book: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Since then, I've borrowed it twice and read it twice cover to cover. I don't agree with everything this author says, but that's not the point of reading books anyway. The important thing is that the book is very thought provoking and questions the very foundation of how we as parents think. I would recommend it to everyone who is raising a child.

I'm sending this post to the It's Monday! What Are You Reading? meme over at Book Journey.

So, what are you reading?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

After-School Snacks for All

Ruma asked for ideas for make-ahead snacks, saying, "We get back home at 6 but don't have dinner right away....that leads to major bad decisions ;) Anything that can be made in a batch, or quickly conjured up is appreciated."

Er, I might know a little something about those bad decisions. In a typical scenario, we're an hour or two away from dinner when hunger gets the better of me and then the rickety wall of willpower standing between me and a party-size bag of chips comes crumbling down. You don't have to go to school to need an after school snack.

So I've made it a habit to eat a hearty snack right around 4:30 PM. For me, this time is right because it is an hour before I start making dinner and two hours before we actually eat dinner. I'm not really eating 3 big meals a day, but more like 6 small meals, and this snack is one of those meals. These smaller frequent meals seem to keep my blood sugar on a more even keel, which makes for all sorts of better decisions and a sunnier disposition, believe me. 

My six rules for "after-school" snacking:
1. Eat before you get ravenously hungry. The hungrier you get, the poorer the decision about what to eat. So schedule the snack into your day.
2. Portion out the snack before you sit down to eat. This is for those of us who have problems with portion control. You know who you are.
3. Even if you're still hungry after eating your portioned out snack, don't go get seconds. Wait for 20 minutes after eating the snack- that's how long it can take for the brain to register satiety. Distract yourself with something else meanwhile.
4. Drink a couple of glasses of water. A lot of times what you think is hunger is really thirst.
5. On that same note, a hot drink can be wonderfully refreshing in the afternoon. I need a cup of caffeine in the form of chai at this hour or I'll be dragging all evening. If you're not one for caffeine, you might enjoy a warm cup of apple cider, or cocoa made from a homemade mix using skim milk or almond milk.
6. Plan ahead and have good snack foods handy. I've listed some of my favorite ideas below. 

Snacks that can be made ahead in a large batch, perhaps on the weekend:

1. Vegetable patties: I know I mention these puppies in every other post, but everyone really always loves them. You can mash all sorts of vegetables, form them into patties and fry them up (only a few drops of oil needed) into delectable snacks. I made a batch of the mix this long weekend and we enjoyed patties several times for snacks. This one had potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, onions and cilantro with plenty of zing from ginger and garlic. You can make the patties ahead of time too- they reheat beautifully in the skillet or microwave.

2. Chivda or trail mix: My personal snack craving is for crunchy, salty, spicy foods. This evening, I made this big batch of baked cereal chivda: In a large bowl, mix your favorite unsweetened cereal (I used cornflakes and chex) and all sorts of nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts). Heat some oil/butter and make a tempering with mustard seeds, fennel seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, chilli powder. Add the seasoning plus some lemon juice to the bowl and mix well. Pour into a baking sheet, spread out and bake at 250F for an hour. Add raisins/dried cherries/cranberries. Cool and store for snacking.

There are at least eleventy billion versions of chivda and chex mix on the internet or you can invent your own house mix. This can be made in a microwave, oven or stove top.

3. Dips and crudites. On the weekend, cut up a big container of veggie sticks- cucumber, carrot, celery, bell peppers, beets and place in the fridge. Some people like raw cauliflower and broccoli too- I don't particularly. Then, make a dip or two and stick it in the fridge. My three favorites dips are yogurt dip with herbs (drain yogurt to thicken it), sweet potato hummus, bean dip with Mexican flavors.

4. Boiled edamame or boiled peanuts. Make a big batch and store in the fridge.

5. Fruit salad: Fruits get eaten if they're nicely cut into bite size cubes and are ready to eat. Make a big fruit salad and enjoy a bowlful, sprinkled with chaat masala if you like.

6. Sprouts bhel: Make a big batch of moong or matki sprouts, steam them and mix with cubes of cucumber, tomato, boiled potato. This would be fine in the fridge for 3 days or so. I would add salt and chaat masala just before eating. Date chutney can also be stored in the fridge for weeks to be spooned over chaat.

7. I rarely crave sweet snacks, but for those who do, one idea would be to make a big batch of granola bars, or oatmeal cookies or peanut laddus.

For those who eat dinner late, here's an idea: Make a big batch of soup on the weekend, brimming with vegetables and beans. Eat a bowlful a couple of hours right when you get home, as a first course, then eat the rest of the meal at your usual dinner time.

Snacks that can be quickly conjured up:

Stock up your pantry/fridge with any or all of the following: nut butters, whole grain crackers, whole grain pita bread and tortillas, fruit (bananas, grapes, apples, pears, oranges), cheese, boiled eggs, jarred salsa, jarred pasta sauce, roasted nuts.

Then you can quickly mix and match to make snacks like apples with almond butter, grapes and cheese, mini pita pizzas. One of my favorite childhood snacks was peanuts with bits of jaggery. A sort of deconstructed laddu.

Got any brilliant snack ideas to share? Speak your heart out in the comments.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Another Half-Birthday Cake

My darling baby nephew celebrated his half birthday. My talented sister (who sews colorful bags and accessories under her own label Kala Koyree) was brainstorming simple 6 month birthday cake ideas. I love what she came up with.

She used 7 cupcake molds (5 silicone flower shaped ones and 1 paper cup, actually), to make this friendly little caterpillar who is nestling on a bed of cabbage leaves. Each cupcake is half vanilla and half chocolate. 6 segments to celebrate 6 months!

I'm sending this post to the Saturday Snapshot meme over at At Home With Books.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On Eating Out

We found a new vet and V took Dale in this afternoon. We were trying to convince ourselves that he's back to his usual self but of course we wanted medical advice. It is not good news. The poor mutt has multiple problems including an abdominal mass and a possible infection. The vet was compassionate and competent and prescribed medication. We're supposed to check in with her again on Monday. For now, Dale's quite comfortable, being fed extra biscuits and napping in his bed near a heating vent. Thanks to everyone who's sending him good wishes.

I went back and forth about whether to continue posting daily this last week of NaBloPoMo. But truly it gives me something to think about rather than watching the dog anxiously so I sat down to write this post. And writing is always therapeutic.

Archana asked, "How often do you eat out and what do you guys like to eat?
What's the fanciest meal you've had and would you be willing to shell out big dough for good food?"

V and I have very different personalities and interests. He loved sports, history and science fiction. You know what I love- reading, crafts and cooking. Our evenings are often spent doing things in parallel, enjoying each others company while doing different things: me knitting while he's watching a game and so on. But we share a love of good food and we both absolutely love eating out- it is our favorite shared interest. The thing about eating out is that it is only a special experience if you don't eat out every day.

We end up eating out once a week or so. In pre-Lila times, that was often a Friday night. We would cap off the work week and get the weekend off to a good start by going to a favorite restaurant or trying a new one. Or we'd meet friends for dinner someplace on Saturday night. Now with a little one in tow, we tend to eat out at brunch or lunch on the weekend.

While I wouldn't like to eat out all the time, we always have a couple of go-to places where we can eat out during the week. It is our back up plan for when we're too tired to cook or have to work late. Even if it takes only minutes to make khichdi or even cook a packet of Maggi, it is always nice to have the option of picking up a hot meal. Everyone has days when they feel like they just want to be taken care of. In NYC, our back ups were a taco place and a pizza place. In St. Louis, there was a Lebanese deli on the corner where we could get hot-from-the-fryer falafel and tubs of hummus and tabbouleh. Here, we have a lush food store nearby with a well-stocked hot and cold food bar.

As for where we tend to eat: We are both vegetarians and always choose places that have good vegetarian options. Some of our favorite cuisines are Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Mexican and all the Middle Eastern cuisines. I'd say that other than steakhouses and French restaurants (both of which typically have slim picking for vegetarians), we try just about everything. We're always looking for good pizza wherever we go! We do go to Indian restaurants but it is difficult to find Indian restaurants that have something to offer than I don't already make decently well in my own kitchen. My great joy in eating out is to enjoy something that I can't easily make at home. I'm thinking of experiences like the dozens of appetizers of Chinese dim sum or the tangy injera and irresistible curries of Ethiopian cuisine. I always keep a running list of new places that I want to try.

Eating out is very important for me. I'm usually the cook in our family and it gives me a break from the daily cooking. We tend to go to small, locally owned restaurants and I like supporting these businesses. Trying new flavors in restaurants is always an inspiration and I often go home trying to think of ways to recreate a favorite dish. Trying different cuisines is an affordable way to travel the world without getting on a plane. Trying new restaurants is a small way to add adventure to everyday life- you never know what gem you're going to discover. It also takes us to different neighborhoods in the city.

We don't tend to go to fancy restaurants at all. Most fancy restaurants have a meat-heavy menu and I have no desire to spend hard-earned money on some afterthought of a dish like the one pasta that's put on the menu for those pesky vegetarians. I definitely vote with my dollars, and anyone who can come up with inventive meatless dishes (served without a side of condescension) will get my business. There are very fancy vegetarian restaurants in the bigger cities but somehow I've never managed to go to those either. I think basically I love comfort and hate luxury. When something smacks of luxury and excess and opulence, I don't enjoy it. I've only seen those exquisitely plated meals on TV and read about them in the memoirs of chefs. And you know what? When I read about the tension and drama and wastefulness in fancy restaurant kitchens, I'm quite happy not to eat in those restaurants. Food should be cooked in an atmosphere of love and gratitude, right? Or am I just a hopeless philistine?

Tell me, what do you enjoy about eating out? Have you eaten in a fancy restaurant and was it worth it for you?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Mr. Dalu had us good and scared for a couple of days. He refused to eat, refused to walk and sat around looking mournful. Then today all of a sudden he's back to his usual self, as if nothing ever happened. I'm feeling exhausted though.

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving Thursday seemed to come out of nowhere. We're going over to a friend's home for a Thanksgiving gathering. I just pulled out two dishes from the oven, one with chocolate pecan pie and the other with a biryani.

The weather is in the 70s here and sunny! I remember we had snow in St. Louis on Thanksgiving two years ago.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends who celebrate it. I'm very thankful for this cozy corner on the web where we can gather and swap stories and share a bite every now and then.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chinese Omelet

It has been a long and chaotic day here at the world headquarters of One Hot Stove. We're getting some repairs done and the home is upside down for a few days. And poor Dale is having a bad day with his back legs giving him more trouble than usual. I've been struggling to help him stand up. Clearly, we have to find a vet soon and take him in- and this is a holiday week so almost everyone is on vacation...

So all I have today is a quick recipe idea. This one comes from my mother who is one for putting creative riffs on everyday meals. The last time she was visiting us, she made this "Chinese omelet". Basically all the vegetables that go into Indian Chinese food- carrots, cabbage, peppers, green onions, mushrooms- are sliced, sauteed and seasoned with soy sauce and lots of freshly ground black pepper and then stuffed into an omelet. You can make the omelet atop a tortilla or not.

This makes for a tasty and hearty breakfast or lunch that will keep you full for hours. Vegetables don't get attention at breakfast, I feel.

Good night and I'll see you tomorrow!

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading is a weekly meme hosted at the blog Book Journey. I've seen Joy (the author of one of my favorite St. Louis blogs) participating in this meme for many months and I decided to jump in myself. In this meme, bloggers are invited to share the books they're currently reading, books they recently finished and what's next on their reading list.

I wrote a post on books just 2 weeks ago and was thrilled to get so many more book recommendations from your all. So maybe I'll make this a regular feature for all those food-loving bibliophiles, or bookish foodies if you prefer, who visit this blog.

The book I'm currently reading:

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Image from Goodreads

This is one of those popular psychology books that I seem to feel compelled to read. Human behavior is a fascinating and complex thing and yes, if someone could explain to me how to change some of my more disastrous habits, it would do me a world of good. I've only read a few chapters so far and here's my opinion thus far: the anecdotes Duhigg describes are fascinating and entertaining; however the book feels simplistic on the whole. But it was interesting to learn about the habit loop and about keystone habits. Maybe next week I'll write a more detailed post about what I learned from reading this book.

Three books I recently read all fell into the mystery/suspense genre.

1. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was a terrific read, just as so many of you promised me it would be. Du Maurier creates a suspenseful atmosphere in a masterful way. There were certainly times when I wanted to shake the protagonist and tell her to grow a backbone already. If you're looking for a toothsome read that will take you to another place and time for a few hours, I highly recommend this classic.

2. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear was another worthwhile read. Radhika has written an excellent review of this book and I have to say that my feeling about Maisie Dobbs echoed what she said. The mystery was so weak that it was practically non-existent but the book is a feel-good, meaningful read in the manner of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series. I want to read more of Maisie Dobbs. On another note, I'm really glad to have found Radhika's book blog.

3. Defending Jacob by William Landay was a book I picked up because I kept hearing about it on various book blogs and bestseller lists. Now, unlike Maisie Dobbs where all the characters are good-hearted and likeable, I didn't like a single character in this book. They had no emotional resonance with me. But I really wanted to know what happened next, and so I kept reading and appreciated that the story kept me interested. It is a courtroom drama, quite different from the cozy mysteries that I usually enjoy. I'll give it a one thumbs up.

The books I'll be reading next

Memoirs are another popular genre for me, and the two books I plan on reading next are both memoirs.

1. Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

So, what are you reading?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Extra! Extra!

During NaBloPoMo month, I've been responding to requests for posts on specific topics, and Maya requested a post on getting creative with leftovers- and she was talking about leftover food, of course, but also leftover yarn from knitting and crochet projects.

Ideas for leftover food:

I actually had to sit and think about this for a little while, because do you know how we usually handle leftovers around here- we simply eat them! Leftover dinner gets packed into lunch boxes for the next day. If the quantity is too small for a full meal, leftovers go into a small box for a snack.

If the quantity is too large and we'd end up eating it for several days (never fun), I freeze the leftovers for a meal the next week. The key words are "next week" because leave them in any longer and they disappear into the back of the freezer, only to be tossed out a year or two later.

I think my basic rule is that when I'm cooking anything, I have a definite plan for the leftovers (both leftover cooked food and leftover ingredients). If I let them just sit there saying, I'll do something with them one of these days, you know they're likely to be wasted. I like using leftovers when they are relatively fresh rather than letting them languish in the fridge.

 So anyway, this was a very long-winded way of saying that generally I don't get very creative with leftovers at all. But when I do, they end up being recycled into one of these 3 dishes:

1. Quesadillas: Mix almost any raw or cooked vegetables/beans with a little cheese, spread on tortillas, fold into half and toast on a griddle. Of course, the same thing can be done with sliced bread instead of tortillas.

2. Egg hash: Saute the leftovers to warm them, then pat them down to make a bed and break eggs over them. Cover and cook for a most delicious breakfast.

3. And the mother of all recycled dishes- patties or croquettes. All sorts of vegetables and cooked grains and fresh herbs can be formed into tasty morsels and pan-fried. I add some mashed potato or sweet potato in there which helps to hold everything together. You'll be amazed at how fast these mystery croquettes will disappear.

Now of course these recycled dishes taste different each time you make them, based on what's on hand. It is a one of a kind treat. The funny thing is that these are often the best things I make, eaten with more gusto than more elaborate recipes.

Ideas for leftover yarn:

Ravelry is an incredible resource for all things yarn related, and registration is free. Ravelry has many threads on using up leftover yarn, for instance- this one. By the way, although Ravelry is intended for the knitting and crocheting community, there are intelligent discussion groups on everything from cloth diapering to books.

1. Wrap the yarn around something: Yarn wrapped around glass bottles (from wine or other beverages) makes a colorful vase. Yarn can be used for wrapping gifts instead of ribbon.

2. Toys: Small amounts of yarn can be used to make tiny knitted and crocheted toys, often called amigurumi from the Japanese word for this art. Use tiny yarn scraps (that are not big enough for other uses) to stuff the toys!

3. Yarn cards: Use ordinary white glue to paste yarn scraps in pretty patterns on cards. I often make gift tags this way.

4. Leftover yarn ends can be tied to each other and then this crazy multicolored yarn can be used to make a unique scarf or if you have enough yarn, even a throw or a blanket.

5. Make pompoms! String them into a garland if you like. 

Do you struggle with leftovers? Got any brilliant ideas for us? Share them in the comments- please and thank you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: The Woods

I went to undergrad college in Mumbai, in a lovely college in the heart of the city. At the center of the college (and at the center of college life) was a quadrangle with about four and a half trees in it. It was called "The Woods"- only half-jokingly, because in the urban jungle of Mumbai, a rag tag bunch of greenery qualified as the woods.

This picture is from our new backyard- and even though our house is located in town, it is packed with trees and I think I can legitimately call it "The Woods". We see deer walking through it once in a while- a totally novel experience for the city-dwellers that V and I are. There's a little tree house in the backyard, built by some previous owners. I hope Lila will have many happy adventures there in a few years.
The treehouse in the woods
I'm linking this picture to the Saturday Snapshot meme at At Home With Books.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pumpkin Mac 'n Cheese

Sometimes I find recipe inspiration in unexpected places.

We were visiting daycare centers and playschools last week- Lila will go back to daycare when I'm back at work in a few weeks, and we visited several school to find a place she will love. The schools have all their weekly lunch and snack menus posted prominently on the bulletin board and of course I'm always curious to see what's being served.

One school had the most delicious menu- I saw pumpkin mac 'n cheese on the menu for lunch that day and thought- mmm, that sounds so good.

Today, V had a Thanksgiving potluck lunch at his workplace and I thought pumpkin mac 'n cheese would be a good dish to send in- crowd-pleasing and simple enough to make, plus mac 'n cheese is a standard Thanksgiving side dish, with pumpkin adding some seasonal flair.

There are many recipes online and this one caught my eye. Embellished with savory notes from browned butter and caramelized onions, I just had to make it. I made a crunchy topping of breadcrumbs, sage (another flavor of the season), parmesan and french fried onions.

The favors of this dish are similar to this butternut squash onion lasagna I posted a few winters ago but this recipe is even easier to put together.

A couple of notes: The pumpkin bechamel sauce can be cooked a day ahead of time and stored in the fridge. I used canned pumpkin puree this time; if you do, make sure you buy pure pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie filling, which has sugar and spices. And although I would never endorse "hiding" vegetables in dishes, the pumpkin truly blends into the sauce, adding a richer orange color and sweet flavor that any kid would enjoy.

Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
(Adapted from this recipe on Brokeass Gourmet)

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Cook 1 box (14 oz or so) short pasta such as elbows or rotini. Save a cup of pasta cooking water.
3. To make the pumpkin bechamel sauce, heat 4 tbsp. butter and fry 1 sliced onion on low heat for 20-30 minutes or until the onion is caramelized and the butter is browned. Then stir in 1 tbsp. flour and cook until the flour is toasty.
4. Slowly whisk in 2 cups whole milk and 1 and 1/2 cups pumpkin puree and bring to a boil. Simmer for a couple of minutes. Turn off the heat.
5. Add 2 loosely packed cups shredded cheddar cheese. Make sure the saucepan is pulled off the heat before adding the cheese. And add cheese in small handfuls, stirring in as you go along. This way the sauce will be smooth and you won't have cheese stuck to the sides of the pan. 
6. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes (optional).
7. Mix the pasta and the sauce and pour into greased casserole. You don't want the sauce to be too thick (it will thicken upon baking and standing); thin it with pasta water if needed.
8. Topping: In a bowl, mix a handful each of panko (coarse Japanese breadcrumbs), grated parmesan cheese and French fried onions (a supermarket staple around Thanksgiving because it is used in those green bean casseroles) and a couple of tablespoons of minced fresh sage. Spread the topping evenly on the pasta.
9. Bake for 20 minutes or until the topping is browned and the sides of the casserole are bubbling. 

The potluck dish came back scraped clean so I'm guessing they enjoyed it. I hope you have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Halfway There

We're at the halfway point of the blogging marathon that is NaBloPoMo, so don't mind if I pause a little to catch my breath.

I'm going to spend some time today responding to your comments on previous posts. I so enjoy it when you take the time to share your thoughts, enlighten me, challenge what I'm saying, make me think some more. Seriously, I love you guys so much. And to keep this conversation going, I have to take some time to respond properly to comments.

Some of the blogs that I read regularly are also participating in NaBloPoMo- so here's a shout out to you. Arundati has been making dazzling Diwali treats day after day, and she has posted some lovely Diwali decor ideas too (someone was asking about that a few days ago).

Siri does something that I just love and admire- she is a supporter of Vaidehi Ashram, a refuge for girls in Hyderabad, India. Now blogs are wonderful because they give us a glimpse into lives other than our own, but bloggers usually fit into the privileged, middle class bracket. By writing about the girls in the ashram and photographing their lives, Siri is giving them a voice and making them visible. Recently, she did some fund-raising on her blog and sent the girls on a week-long vacation (their first ever). And that my friends is the true power of the internet.

One of the best things about NaBloPoMo is that you come upon some fresh new blogs, and my favorite find so far this month is Cheeky Chilli by Sharmila. I love the way Sharmila writes, in a voice that is quiet yet evocative. And- psst- she's giving away a sample of homemade dhansak masala, so go on and check out her blog if you haven't already found it.

If you're feeling lucky, you might also want to hop over and enter Bong Mom's giveaway- she'll reward one lucky winner and their favorite charity. 

P.S. A friend reported that she's unable to post comments on my posts. I wonder- anyone else having this problem? Is yes, e-mail me and I'll try and figure out what's going on.

See you in the other half of NaBloPoMo tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: Plastic Free

Plastic-Free: How I kicked the plastic habit and how you can too by Beth Terry is one of the books I've been reading this week.

Here are 5 things I love about this book:

1. Beth Terry talks in a friendly and non-judgmental voice, explaining how she went from living a lifestyle of consumption and convenience to completely changing the way she lives, one step at a time. It is a very interesting and inspiring story.
2. She is not afraid to laugh at herself, like when she explains her first failed attempts to make liquid soap.
3. The chapter titled Nine reasons our personal changes matter is excellent for anyone who wonders whether a small personal choice would make any difference at all in the big picture.
4. The book has clear action items and the author encourages readers to make, perhaps, one change a month (until it becomes a habit) to keep from being overwhelmed.
5. The book features blurbs on several other people who have used different strategies to avoid plastic.It is nice to see how each person takes a different approach to reducing plastic.

My personal viewpoint on plastic: It is a marvelous innovation that has brought us amazing things, including electronics and the internet which I'm using right now to talk to you. But the ridiculous overuse of plastic and the wasteful throw-away products made with plastic threaten to suffocate us, literally and figuratively. So there's much to be said for using plastic sparingly and wisely.

Beth Terry writes a blog called My Plastic-Free Life. Her Steps to a Plastic-Free Life contains dozens of tips for everyday life. She says that the top two ways to reduce plastic waste is to avoid plastic bags and bottled water.

10 ways I'm reducing plastic waste from my life:

1. Not using plastic shopping bags. I've completely embraced this habit and it has been years since I've taken a plastic bag from the store. I carry my rag tag collection of cloth bags proudly. And if I make an unplanned stop at the grocery store, I carry out groceries in my hands.
My favorite cloth grocery bag; a gift from my friend Chaitanya.
She stamped it with apple halves using fabric paint. 
2. Not using plastic produce bags. For some time, I was reusing those flimsy plastic produce bags; then I decided it was worth it to invest a bit of cash cash and buy a nice set of reusable bags. I bought a set of mesh bags from this Etsy shop and boy, I'm a happy customer. Years later, they're as good as new and I always get compliments from check-out clerks who want to know where I got those cool produce bags.
Reusable mesh produce bags
3. Not using bottled water. I've used filter pitchers and faucet filters at various times in the past, but now we drink straight out of the tap. Tap water in the US is as clean and often cleaner than bottled water. Although our fridge also has a filter in the door. So there's no need to buy bottled water ever. At work, I had a reusable bottle that I refilled at the water fountain. When I travel, I take an empty water bottle through security and then fill it up once I am in the terminal. V occasionally buys soda but always in cans (the easiest thing to recycle).
Clean, free tap water: a beautiful thing
4. Switching to a glass lunch box. Our lunches are always dinner leftovers, and they generally need heating up. I still use plastic boxes for food storage but never heat food in plastic. I bought glass lunch boxes a few years ago and they're working great. They're heavy but they don't leak. Of course, if you're carrying a lunch that doesn't need heating, a good old stainless steel dabba would be ideal.
Glass dabba for hot lunches at work or at home
5. Not buying new plastic toys. I pledged to myself that I would not buy plastic toys either for Lila or for other kids. Instead, I've been buying wooden toys or books or games as gifts. We gratefully accept hand-me-downs from friends which is how Lila has the usual plastic baby toys- piano, stacking rings, oversize lego type stuff etc. Lila does get plastic toys as gifts and I allow that; it would be harsh not to. When I want a particular toy that might be plastic, I look for it in garage sales or on Craigslist. The most important thing is that we use the toys with care so that after they're outgrown, they can be cleaned and passed on to another child. Plastic is practically indestructible so we might as well take advantage of that. 
Ride-on toy: 101% plastic BUT it has a police siren!
Bought it off Craigslist for 10 bucks.
6. Choosing glass jars where possible. With many things, for instance, baby food and peanut butter and many other products, you have the choice of buying a glass or plastic container. In my book, glass wins every time because I wash out the jars and reuse them in many ways. Those plastic tubes of baby food especially make me cuh-RAZY. One tablespoon of food inside this thick junky plastic tube.

7. Using as few plastic baggies as possible. Snacks can be easily placed in a small container instead of a throw away baggie. Ditto for stuff that needs to be put in the freezer. We gave reusable sandwich/snack bags as birthday party favors:

8. Making most of our meals at home. Frozen meals and fast food creates an incredible amount of trash.  Making things like yogurt at home also saves quite a bit of plastic.

9. Cloth diapers. Anu asked me about our cloth diapering experience. We cloth diapered Lila the whole time we were living in St. Louis (her first year), and we used a cloth diaper service. It worked beautifully for us because we didn't have to wash the cloth diapers. With our work situation, we couldn't have. These diapers were rectangular cloths that you folded and used with a velcro-closed wrap on top. So this is the only kind of cloth diaper I have experience with. Using these was just as easy as using disposables. After leaving STL, I've been using disposable diapers while I try and figure out what to do.

10. BYO doggie bag. When we go out to eat, I usually bring a container from home to use as my "doggie bag" for bringing leftovers home. This weekend, we went out to brunch. I didn't eat the buttermilk biscuits and wanted to bring them home for a snack, but I'd forgotten to take a container. Luckily, I stopped myself just before I asked for a take out box (usually styrofoam or plastic) and wrapped them in a paper napkin to bring home instead. Every little bit helps. When I just take a minute to think, I can make better decisions.

Three things I want to work on:

1. Doggie poop bags: We buy plastic bags for picking up after Mr. Dale. I'm reading up on a good alternative to this.

2. Eating utensils while on the go: Once in a while, we'll be out and about and stop at some fast foodish place- say, a burrito place- for a meal. Then I use plastic forks and spoons and cringe at the waste. Carrying eating utensils in my purse would be such an easy thing and I need to start doing that.

3. Buying from bulk bins: There are a couple of good stores in town with wonderful bulk bins. I can cut down on packaging waste by using those instead of pulling packets off the shelf.

Sometimes, there are tricky choices around the risk-benefit ratio of plastic. One of the first things I did in the new home was to look for a backyard composter- now that I don't have access to the lovely community garden in STL and am responsible for my own composting. After thinking of different options, we ended up buying this plastic composter which is sold at subsidized rates by our county.

I don't love that it is made of plastic, but it is rodent-proof (also keeping out such pests as kids and dogs) and hopefully will last a lifetime and the benefits of composting over years definitely outweigh the cost of this plastic thingamajig.

I also noticed that this particular book has a plastic cover- kinda ironic given the title. But again, this is a copy from the public library. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people will read this book, and the protective plastic cover is probably a small price to pay for keeping this copy stain free and clean.

When it comes to making these kinds of changes in our lives, there's always the temptation to say, "I don't have time for this". I can't remember to carry bags around, and who's going to wash out snack bags every day? We pride ourselves on being busy, busy, busy. But this is when I ask myself what kind of person I want to be, and the choice is easy. I don't want to be wasteful. I want to be mindful. And most of all, I want to set a good example. These changes are worth working towards and making time for. I have a LONG way to go but at least the intention is there.

Easiest idea for those who eat lunch at work
Keep a mug, glass, plate, napkin and eating utensils in a desk drawer. BOOM- over time, countless plastic/paper plates, plastic forks and spoons, paper napkins will be saved from the landfill.

Snehal shared the link for another blog with great tips: Zero Waste Home.

Your turn: what plastic-reducing strategies are working for you? What are you struggling with?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Making Time: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

Since I started this blogging spree, I've been surprised at how many people say something on the lines of "How do you make time for all the things you want to do"? It seems that many of us struggle with how to juggle the demands of our lives. I know I certainly do. 'd love to discuss this over several posts.

The thing about time management is that each person's schedule is so different- it is dictated by a multitude of factors like the nature of our jobs, the composition of our families and our location and lifestyle. I'm posing these three questions as a thought exercise. Feel free to grab a pencil and paper and see if they help to clarify your thinking about how you spend your time and how you want to spend it.

1. What do you want to make time for?  

If you had more time, what would you do? What do you want to include in your life? What's missing in your life right now?

These should be things that are meaningful to you, and only you know what those are. There's absolutely no point in wanting to do something just because it is trendy or because someone else thinks it is fun.

Maybe you want to make time for a new hobby or to practice an existing one. Maybe you're just tired of always being late for everything. Maybe you know that your health is suffering from a lack of exercise and you want to make time for it. Answering this question will help to identify 2 or 3 things that you want to work on making time for.

2. Where are you currently spending your time?

This may require quiet reflection, or it may require keeping a diary for a couple of days. The point of answering this question is to identify problem areas in time management. Maybe you're spending too much time idly surfing the internet (ahem) or checking e-mail 25 times a day. Maybe your kid dawdles and stretches bed time over 90 minutes. Maybe you're making 4 times to the grocery store each week. Know your time-sucks.

3. How can you make time?

Once you identify a couple of problem areas, you can work on them by trying a different approach to doing that task. Writing them down methodically gives you something concrete to work with.

 Here are three small ways I've streamlined my routine.

a) Learn to say no. If you find you don't enjoy something, you don't have to do it. I politely decline invitations to large gatherings but always make time for smaller get-togethers because I know what setting I enjoy. 

b) Combine things you have to do with things you want to do. I enjoy watching TV and doing so while folding laundry, washing dishes and putting away toys is the perfect way to get chores done while giving myself a mental break.

c) Simplify. I can get ready in the morning in no time at all because I only own a handful of clothes, the only jewelry I wear is earrings and the only make up I use is lipstick. No one has ever praised my fashion sense and no one ever will but it sure makes my life easier and allows me to focus on other things that interest me more.

Feel free to use the comments in this post if you want to discuss your time management challenges. Let's put our heads together and come up with some solutions to kill those time-sucks and make way for something fun.