Monday, June 20, 2016

The Little Chef- Thoughts on Cooking and Parenting

We had a beautiful, relaxing Father's Day yesterday and I hope you did too. V and Lila, with Duncan in tow, started the day with leisurely morning walk to our neighborhood bakery to share a chocolate croissant. Later, we met up with friends at a board game cafe and spent the afternoon playing everything from Scrabble to Hungry, Hungry Hippo and Candyland, a very enjoyable and novel way to celebrate the amazing dads in our life.

Lately, Lila has taken over as the new sous chef here at the One Hot Stove world headquarters. What her resume lacks in experience is compensated in her enthusiasm. Every afternoon, this child comes home from preschool, bursts through the kitchen door and demands to know what we're cooking for dinner. She wants to participate in every step of the process, to touch and taste and smell everything. Often she will end up eating handfuls of raw veggies, boiled noodles, nuts and other ingredients even before they get put into the meal, and then she's almost too full for dinner- and frankly, that's fine by me.

Some of her favorite kitchen activities at this age are peeling and slicing hard boiled eggs, slicing tomatoes and avocados (with a hard plastic knife), juicing lemons, making lemonade, stirring ingredients together for granola, spinning down salad greens and yes, stirring things on the stove even as I stand by watching a bit nervously. Making ghee is possibly her favorite activity ever, but that has everything to do with getting to eat the caramelized brown bits left over after straining the ghee.

We don't follow recipes unless we're making baked goodies- this is just everyday cooking, and it is fun to see her developing an instinct for cooking, like knowing how to season a salad correctly with pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, without having to measure anything, and learning how to put together a simple meal from whatever we have on hand in the pantry and fridge.

There are other kitchen tasks that Lila does too- setting the table with napkins (we use dish towels from IKEA as napkins), water glasses and utensils, and helping to unload the dishwasher. Kitchen tasks involve all sorts of learning- math skills, sorting, matching, motor skills, sensory stimulation- not to mention the confidence gained from contributing to family life and being responsible for a job.

We were visiting the home of a relative with grown kids, and she remarked that her kids never learned to cook because their evenings were too busy with activities like soccer, piano and martial arts. "But what activity could be more important than cooking", I said, and she chuckled thinking I was being facetious. But I was dead serious. We all have to eat every day and it is really hard to eat in a way that's both tasty and nourishing (and budget-friendly, especially when you're starting out in life as a young person on your own) if you don't know how to cook.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I can't remember at all where I first heard or read this quote but it has resonated strongly with me for several months. (I just looked up the quote and it is from Peggy O'Mara.) This is a powerful way to repeat "mantras" that you believe in, and that you want your child to internalize as guidelines through life. The everyday routine of cooking and eating dinner provides so many opportunities for talking about values, priorities, manners, habits, attitude, gratitude. Here are some of the things I find myself saying over and over again. (And truthfully, these are helpful reminders for myself and not just for the kid.)

"Eat until your tummy is happy" is a way to get Lila to listen to her body's cues of when she is no longer hungry, when her hunger is satisfied.

"In our family, we don't waste food" is a general, gentle reminder to treat food with care, to serve yourself a reasonable portion, to not fling food around. We don't believe in the clean plate club. There's no guilt for not finishing the food on a plate- but it does not end up in the trash either. It just goes into a container to be eaten at a later time.

"You can say 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you'"- this is a reminder that when we are offered any food at any time by anybody, we can say yes or no politely, no questions asked. Responses such as "eww", "yucky", "it smells gross" or "I hate that" are not OK. There's no need for tiresome explanations of why you won't or can't eat something. Eat it or don't eat it, but always respect the food and just move on.

"The kitchen is closed" is a reminder to not leave the dinner table too early and then keep asking for snacks as bedtime nears.

"What's mama's number 1 job? My number 1 job is to keep you safe and healthy"- this is my usual reason for saying no to any number of requests- mostly about putting reasonable limits on sweet treats in a sugar-saturated culture.

Did you hang around the kitchen as a kid? Do your kids like to cook with you? 

Tomorrow is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and I hope you have a good one! And warm and cozy winter wishes to my friends in the Southern half of the planet.  

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Freezer Cooking Session

While I greatly enjoy cooking quick and simple dinners on an everyday basis, having a few meals stashed away in the freezer is like having money in the bank.

I have a week-long conference at work starting tomorrow, which will mean long and tiring days, so I wanted to get ahead of the game and stock the freezer with a few meals. A dear friend happily agreed to cook with me and split the loot- so we had a freezer cooking date last weekend. This was the first time I cooked specifically to stock the freezer. A surprising array of recipes are good freezer candidates so there's a lot to choose from. A few years ago, I wrote this post and got many helpful suggestions in the comments. This time, we made these 4 recipes. Before meeting up in my kitchen, we each gathered containers for freezing, and rounded up ingredients for two recipes each.

Mac and cheese- We doubled Martha Stewart's recipe and followed the recipe quite closely, while cutting down quite a bit on the quantity of cheese. The food processor made it a snap to grate all of that cheese in seconds. The rest of the recipe came together quickly and boy, did it make a huge pot of mac and cheese. We did not bake it- simply divided the pasta and sauce mixture into several baking dishes, topped with the breadcrumbs and covered the dishes with foil, to be baked just before eating.

Already this week I cooked up one of the pans of frozen mac and cheese. It went straight from freezer to preheated oven, the broiler got the top nice and browned once the baking was done, and the mac and cheese was pretty much perfect. I'll definitely be doing this again.

Madras lentils: We made a double batch of this recipe. Because the pressure cooker was going to be in heavy use for our cooking session (and I only have one pressure cooker), I did soak and cook kidney beans and lentils and have them ready the day before. So this recipe consisted of simply sautéing and grinding the tomato-onion masala and simmering it with the cooked beans/lentils, then cooling the curry and portioning into containers. I plan to pull this out from freezer to fridge a day before we plan to eat it, then reheat in the microwave in a glass container.

Potstickers: Again, we made a double batch (two packages of wrappers), and my friend took the lead on this one. I have to say that potstickers were by far the most labor-intensive of the recipes we made. We froze the potstickers on sheet pans, then transferred into bags for freezer storage. The idea was to make sure the potstickers didn't stick to each other in a giant lump- well, clearly I didn't freeze them long enough on the sheet pans because they have stuck together in the bags after all! We shall see how it works out when I cook these...

Mexican style Rice & Beans- No recipe here, and it would probably be a stretch to call this Mexican anyway. I made about 3 cups of yellow rice- sautéing the rice in olive oil on the stove top until toasty, with some salt, garlic and turmeric for flavor and color, then cooking in the rice cooker. The bean stew was simply soaked pinto beans cooked in the pressure cooker with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices.

All in all, it took us about 2 and a half hours for cooking and clean up. This included the time needed to deal with the kids' shenanigans. My friend's daughter and Lila are great friends and play well together. Well, that morning they raced around the house, knocking over and shattering a lamp (thankfully, no one was hurt except the lamp), and found a container of baby talc and liberally sprinkled it all over every square inch of Lila's room. At crucial cooking moments, like when I was stirring the roux and trying not to burn it, I would hear a shriek and a crash. All in a day's play, I guess!

The cooking session was hard work but we did have several tasty meals to show for it, neatly portioned and labeled and stacked in the freezer. I don't see myself ever doing the once a month freezer cooking thing (where you cook 30 days worth of meals in one day and freeze them away) but it certainly makes sense to stash away freezer meals when you're anticipating a busy time.

Last year, when I was away working in Kenya for a few weeks, I stocked the freezer with many meals for V and Lila and they appreciated it very much- they requested everything from broccoli cheese soup to pav bhaji, rajma and I forget what else.

Certainly the most painless way to stock the freezer with prepared meals is to double recipes on a regular basis (when you're cooking something anyway) and freeze away one half for another time- cook once, eat twice. I should try and do more of that.

Do you rely on the freezer for quick meals? What are your favorite freezer-friendly recipes?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Big Batch Vegetable Hash & Masala Omelets

For a few weeks, I couldn't seem to choose any books or TV shows or movies that I could really sink my teeth into. I flipped through magazines and half-heartedly watched some reruns of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote.

Then this week, a really good book and two great documentaries came my way.

The book was a graphic memoir, Blankets by Craig Thompson. As always, I am in awe of a talented artist who can bring emotions to life with detailed brushstrokes and not too many words. This is a honest and often painful story of growing up and of first love. This particular panel on the left resonated strongly with me!

I watched two memorable documentaries on Netflix streaming.

Waking up in the morning and going to school is a rather routine part of a dozen years of a kid's life- several of our neighbor kids here take the iconic yellow school bus, while Lila like many other kids gets dropped off to school in a parent's car. Going down memory lane, V's school was next door to the building that they lived in and he tells of hearing the 15-minute warning bell, and using that as his alarm to hop out of bed, brush his teeth and race to school. Apparently he slept in his school uniform to save time in the morning! I remember taking an autorickshaw to primary school- believe it or not, 12 little kids and their heavy school satchels would be crammed into one autorickshaw for the ride to school and back, fitting into that impossibly tiny space like clowns in a car. In secondary school, I rode my bike (red BSA-SLR) to school clear on the opposite end of town. It seemed grueling at times, riding a bike over hilly and potholed roads while dodging chaotic traffic and trying not to gag next to trucks belching exhaust. The school uniform was a thick navy blue pinafore seemingly designed to absorb every burning ray from the tropical sun.

All of this paled to nothingness when I watched the 4 kids in the documentary On The Way to School. The documentary follows 4 kids (11 and 12 year olds- middle schoolers) as they make their way from home to school. A Kenyan boy and his sister walk 10 miles over the Savannah dotted by wildlife, carrying jerrycans of precious water dug up from the ground. An Argentinian boy and his sister ride a horse through desolate plains. A Moroccan girl hikes with her friends over winding mountain roads for hours, then has to hitch a ride to school when she gets into town. An Indian boy in a ramshackle wheelchair is pushed to school by his two little brothers. We just watch these 4 journeys (there's no commentary or lecturing whatsoever) that are everyday life for these small, beautiful children but are in reality heroic journeys that they undertake to get what every child deserves by right- a chance to go to school and learn. The NYTimes review is here.

Attacking the Devil is a very different style of documentary but just as heart-piercing. Thalidomide is a drug that I remember first learning about in an undergraduate developmental biology class as a classic teratogen- it causes severe birth defects in fetuses. The full story of thalidomide, covered in this documentary, is shocking and tragic- from how it was developed in Nazi labs, how war and other factors came together to make it a very poorly tested drug that was given willy-nilly to pregnant women as a harmless remedy for morning sickness for a few years, until it was realized with deep horror that it caused malformed limbs in the babies and worse. The company marketing the drug (a distillery, of all things) refused to accept responsibility, while the British government of the day sided with corporate interests. Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times in London, ran a brave, prolonged and unstinting campaign to gain recognition and compensation for the families affected by thalidomide. This is an amazing story of history, medicine, journalism and the best and worst of the human spirit. The Guardian's review is here.

What are you reading and watching these days?

Today, I'm sharing a rather simple recipe, one I've made for about three weekends in a row when we had friends over for brunch. A favorite morning dish in our home is vegetable hash with masala omelets. For just our family, this vegetable hash is easy enough to make in a cast iron skillet on the stove. For a bigger batch, it is nice to pull out a baking sheet or two and make a whole lot at once.

Big Batch Vegetable Hash

1. Preheat oven to 400F (use convection bake/roast setting if your oven has it)

2. Cut into bite size, any mixture of these veggies:
Sweet Potatoes
Bell peppers (green or any colors)
Brussels sprouts

3. Drizzle with oil (olive, canola or any other) and sprinkle with any combination of spices
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Cumin powder
Dried oregano
Mexican chili powder
Salt and pepper
all to taste

4. Mix the veggies thoroughly with oil and spices, then spread in a single layer on baking sheet(s). Roast until veggies are tender with crispy browned bits.

For the masala omelet, whisk together large eggs (I use two eggs per adult diner) with minced onion, cilantro, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. I use a small ladle to scoop beaten eggs into a hot oiled nonstick pan, making small fluffy folded omelets that cook quickly and are easy to serve to a crowd.

If you're in the US, hope you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday tomorrow and get the summer off to a great start! I have a big freezer cooking date with a friend- we want to make a variety of recipes to stock both of our freezers, and will report back on how that goes. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Chocolate Pudding Pops

Summer weather had arrived here in the South. A girl from the tropics, I love this change of seasons and don't mind the heat and humidity one bit. This evening was typical- the three of us gathered in the kitchen after school/work, and of course Duncan is always underfoot. Lila was in the mood to make popsicles so the two of us made chocolate pudding pops.

Meanwhile, V whisked up one of our favorite salad dressings and diced up avocado. We dined on big salads out on the porch, with fresh watermelon for dessert. Then, in an act of great optimism, V and Lila planted two avocado seeds in the yard, showering the seeds with dark rich compost from our bin. Fingers crossed that the seeds sprout!

Since the weather got warmer, I've been making popsicles on a regular basis. These chocolate pudding pops are a recent favorite- they are creamy and decadent and the perfect portion-controlled treat. As a plus, they use pantry ingredients that you (or your mini-helper) can whisk in seconds and cook in minutes.

Chocolate Pudding Pops
(Adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6-8 popsicles depending on the size of your molds (I get 7 pops in mine)

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, mix dry ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • A pinch of salt

2. Whisk in and stir well:

  • 2 cups whole milk (can also use a bit of cream in place of the milk)
3. Microwave the mixture 2 minutes at a time, whisking well in between until the mixture is cooked and thick (takes me 5-6 minutes).

4. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Let the pudding cool a little. You could easily stop at this point and just gobble up the warm pudding. However, if you can restrain yourself...

5. Scoop into popsicle molds (it is too thick to pour) and freeze for several hours.

Other than the pudding pops, simple orange juice poured into the popsicle molds makes for a most refreshing treat. What are your favorite homemade popsicles? It would be fun to make kesar pista kulfi sometime...

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Golden Adai

I am the biggest fan of Southern Indian cuisine, and following right after the Kerala stew post is this recipe for adai, a member of the dosa family. Adai is made with a mixture of various lentils and rice and not fermented.

This recipe was my starting point.

Soak: In the morning around 8 AM, right before I left for work, I rinsed thoroughly and soaked

  • 1/2 cup rice (I used sona masoori)
  • 3/4 cup whole skinned (white) urad dal
  • 3/4 cup chana dal
  • 3/4 cup toor dal

Grind: Around 5 PM, I blended the soaked ingredients in the Vitamix in two batches. Any powerful blender or mixie or wet grinder will work to make this batter. The Vitamix did the job effortlessly in seconds, resulting in a thick and smooth batter. While grinding, I added a few curry leaves to add flavor, and in the spirit of using up every bit of food, I added some pickled mangoes (the ones left behind in the jar when all the pickle juice was used up). They added an interesting tangy flavor too. Finally, I stirred some salt into the batter.

Make adai: Heat a griddle and use some oil to make adai; the batter can be spread as thin or thick as you like.

These proportions of rice and lentils made a substantial amount of batter, it lasted us a couple of meals and then I had it a few more times for breakfast.

The adai is good plain, made just with the batter alone. The next day I added a chopped bunch of beet greens to the batter, which worked beautifully. Ginger, onions, shredded veggies and greens, spices like cumin seeds would all be wonderful additions to the basic batter.

I'm completely pleased at how easy is to make adai, particularly on a day when I'm short on dinner ideas or low on groceries. As long as I can pull out a few dals and soak them in the morning, a good dinner is guaranteed.

A couple more additions to the Vitamix page: nut butter and nut butter chocolate chia pudding.

What are you cooking this week? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kerala-Style Stew

A major highlight of this month was a week-long visit by my sister and nephew. The little guy is only a few months younger than Lila and they had a great time playing, squabbling, snacking and napping together and making the rounds of every playground in town.

One afternoon my sister cooked ishtu (stew), a recipe she learned from her Malayali friend. You simply cook vegetables, add coconut milk and finish off with a fragrant tempering.

  • Start with about 8 cups of mixed vegetables. We raided the kitchen and fridge and used diced potato, cauliflower, summer squash, carrots, and also used two veggies from the freezer- peas and cut Italian beans (these are larger and flatter than regular green beans).
  • Add enough water to cover the vegetables, add minced ginger, cut green chillies and salt to taste, and boil until the veggies are just tender. We used a pressure cooker without the weight- simply using it as a tightly closed pot to get the vegetables to cook evenly and faster. 
  • Drain out excess water from the tender veggies- and store it for use in another soup or dal or curry.
  • To the cooked vegetables, add a can of coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer for a few minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat 1 tbsp. coconut oil. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves and add it to the curry. You're done! 
This stew is a great example of the cuisine of the Southern Indian state of Kerala- simple, fresh and flavorful. We served it with some freshly steamed rice and pickle on the side. I ate it in a big bowl as a stew with just a bit of rice, and a handful of potato chips to add crunch. An excellent meal! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Vitamix Diaries

With a milestone anniversary and my birthday both coming up in April, V sweetly asked me if I had anything in particular on my wish list. Before I realized it, I heard myself blurting out "Vitamix". And so for the last couple of weeks, I have on the kitchen counter the blender of my dreams. One doesn't think of a blender as a particularly romantic gift, but in this case, money did in fact buy happiness (and many great meals.)

A Vitamix is one of those heavy-duty, high-performance, expensive blenders- a biggie as far as kitchen upgrades go. My tools and gadgets are well-loved and cared for, and they certainly get a workout in my busy kitchen. As years go by, they pay for themselves many times over. I'm still using the Braun immersion blender that I bought with my first grad student paycheck 15 years ago, ditto the food processor I bought with wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle a decade ago. I wear thrift store clothes and drive a cranky old car but save my pennies for top of the line cookware and get emotionally attached to my kitchen appliances. Priorities :)

There are many brands of high-powered blenders out there, but I didn't do much research and headed straight for the Vitamix simply because I've used it a few times when I taught cooking classes and was familiar with it. I did buy a certified refurbished blender to bring down the cost a little- and am glad I did. It looks and feels brand new.

Of course I've been busy playing with my new toy. The very first evening it was delivered, I gave it a rinse and made an apple pie smoothie for dessert- just a blend of almond milk, a handful of oats, apple (skin on and all), a dash of maple syrup and cinnamon, and ice.

Since then, I've used the blender almost every single day. With the days getting warmer, we love making iced coffee frappe in the afternoons. For two servings, I use about 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup almond milk, 3 tsp. sugar (or other sweetener; adjust to taste), 1 tbsp. instant coffee (adjust to taste) and a cup or so of crushed ice.

It blends into an amazingly refreshing drink in a few seconds. V is a big coffee snob with his shade grown Honduran coffee beans that he grinds fresh every morning and all that jazz, but he also admits to loving this frappe made with apna good old freeze-dried Nescafe.

Soups are probably the biggest reason I bought this blender- it makes them smooth as silk, as luxurious as what you find in fancy restaurants.

My standard no-recipe formula for vegetable soups-

  • saute onions and garlic in olive oil or butter
  • add a bit of flour to make a roux
  • add some milk/cream for richness
  • then lots of vegetables and water/stock, salt and pepper
  • simmer until tender
  • blend until silky smooth
This works for (a) corn and mixed veggies, (b) tomato-carrot, (c) broccoli, (d) spinach, (e) mushroom, (f) zucchini, among others. Inexpensive frozen broccoli and spinach work just as well as fresh vegetables. For broccoli, spinach, mushroom and zucchini, I use nutritional yeast to add a wonderful umami taste to the soup. This blender can actually cook soup as it blends- but I haven't tried doing that yet.

I've also used the Vitamix in some Indian cooking- it made a very smooth cilantro-coconut chutney and tomato-coconut-onion curry paste.

The blender came with a manual- called, with gravitas, "Introduction to High-Performance Blending". There are a great many things in there to try, and I've come to love the wet-chopping method, in which you add great big chunks of vegetables (say, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots) to the blender along with water and pulse it, then drain the water away to be left with finely chopped veggies in seconds. Pretty nifty. I used it to grate cauliflower and carrots to make these savory samosa-like tarts.

As I keep testing recipes with the Vitamix, I'll keep updating this post- that way, folks who have access to high powered blenders can refer to it if interested. And if you own one of these powerful beasts, I'd love to know what you like using it for.

May 4, 2015
Nut butter: I blended (pressing down with the tamper) 1 cup roasted cashews, 1 cup roasted almonds with a bit of salt and a couple of tablespoons of canola oil- it made a wonderful nut butter. V enjoyed it on good bread with a drizzle of nice honey. Can't wait to try more customized nut butters.

It is hard to scrape every bit of nut butter from the blender so it is a good idea to use it immediately for another recipe that needs nuts or nut butter (like a smoothie, or curry paste).

Instead of cleaning out the blender, I left a bit of the nut butter in and tried this recipe for chocolate nut chia pudding- it was very easy to blend, I poured it into small stemless wine glasses and chilled it for dessert, then served it with some sliced strawberries. I thought it tasted OK- very filling, not too sweet, a tad gummy. Not sure I'll be making this again.

May 5, 2016: Golden Adai, a cousin of the dosa

May 15, 2016: Creamy cilantro dressing- made from this recipe. I put in a whole bunch of cilantro, stems and all, and cut down on the olive oil (a couple of glugs as opposed to 1/2 cup)- it was thick, creamy and flavorful. We used it on a taco salad- bed of lettuce/shredded carrots/yellow peppers, topped with sauteed onions, peppers, zucchini, fresh corn, black beans, then the dressing, a sprinkle of cheese and crushed tortilla chips. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cauliflower "Rice" Pulao

When you eat a vegetarian diet with a carb-conscious slant, vegetables become your very best friends. I can continue to eat my beloved rice, noodle and pasta based dishes by bulking them out with vegetables.

Pulaos are a regular part of the meal rotation around here- both for quick weeknight meals and as a crowd-pleasing side dish when friends come over for supper. The difference is that these days rice has to share the spotlight in pulao and fried rice. In every case, I've found that tweaking the rice-based recipe with extra vegetables does in no way spoil the experience of eating that quintessential comfort food. The spices and seasonings make it taste just the way I've always loved it.

Cauliflower florets have always been a delicious addition to many rice dishes like masale bhaat and vegetable biryani, but lately I've also been using cauliflower in its trendy avatar of cauliflower "rice" which is nothing but cauliflower florets that are finely grated to a fluffy, rice-like (or maybe cous-cous like) texture. Trendy or not, it is certainly a simple, practical and tasty way to fill out rice dishes.

This weekend, I found large, beautiful heads of cauliflower on sale and bought three to convert to "rice" and freeze away- yes, raw cauliflower "rice" freezes beautifully and it is very convenient to process it all at once and have a stack of boxes in the freezer ready to be cooked.

The food processor does a quick and tidy job of turning cauliflower florets to "rice".
  • Cut cauliflower into chunky florets.
  • Rinse them well and drain/spin/pat them dry.
  • Place a few florets in food processor bowl fitted with a metal chopping blade.
  • Process until most of the florets turn to rice- be careful not to over-process to mush.
  • Remove the unprocessed chunks- they can be chopped again with the next batch. 
  • Repeat until all florets are riced.
  • The "rice" can be cooked right away or stored in airtight boxes or bags in the freezer.

Some people serve cauliflower rice raw in tabbouleh-like salads but I have yet to try that. And rather than make a dish of sautéed cauliflower "rice" by itself, I prefer mixing it with steamed Jasmine-or-other rice- it fits in with my general scheme of not cutting out grains altogether but just eating less of them at every meal. Because the cauliflower "rice" blends in so well with cooked rice, it will work in just about any rice dish from any cuisine.

This time, I made a simple pulao to serve with whole masoor amti and raita.
  • Heat oil in a pan.
  • Temper with cumin seeds.
  • Saute 1 medium thinly sliced onion until nicely browned.
  • Season with salt, turmeric powder and pulao masala (or other favorite spice mix).
  • Add cooked rice (about 1.5 cups) and cauliflower "rice" (about 3 cups) and stir fry for a minute. 
  • Cover and steam cook for 8-10 minutes.
  • Drizzle with ghee and lemon juice (optional) and serve!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring is Here

It has been a whirlwind month (and some) since my last post. We had a big meeting at work that just ended yesterday, and it took a lot of time and mental space. At the end of a long day, much as I want to update the blog, I just can't face flipping open the laptop- I need a break from the computer screen and the keyboard. Ironically, I tend to veg out in front of another screen- the TV- this month, my favorite show of all time, M*A*S*H, is leaving Netflix streaming so that's what I just finished (re-re)watching.

But Spring has sprung and the entire town is awash in delicate blossoms and tender leaves, which gladdens my heart even as it gives me itchy allergy eyes. The switch to Daylight Savings Time means that there's still light outside as I sit here after the dinner and dishes routine, and today it motivated me to flip open the laptop after all.

We took a long weekend off in early March and went to a beautiful state park. I won't call it "camping" though. Glamping is what it was. We shared a very well-equipped cottage in the park with friends. Each family toted some food and we took turns rustling up simple meals. We lit bonfires and fired up the charcoal grill. My favorite camping dish was the foil-wrapped potatoes that we cooked directly in the bonfire, then split open and dressed with salt, pepper and butter. Between the open air meals, hiking, and gorgeous waterfalls, this was a nice escape from the routine. Like the public libraries, the state parks in this country are precious gifts that I enjoy gratefully.

Spring cleaning and decluttering has been on my mind. For several weeks, I've been taking on mini-projects in the kitchen, going through every drawer and every shelf, 20 minutes at a time. I empty out the space, wipe it down and examine every object to see if it is useful and functional before putting things back. My goal is to know exactly what I have in my kitchen, and to use it well.

Two boxes of kitchen items ended up at the thrift store. The tongs that I found unwieldy, that aspirational baguette pan, the twee serving pieces that never got used- they will all have to find new homes.

It is not just a question of getting rid of things but in some cases, getting better versions of things that I use all the time. Like the two cheap plastic colanders that I bought 15 years ago- I replaced them with sturdy stainless steel ones that are much nicer to use.

My "big" kitchen project was a pantry remodel. We have a small closet in the family room (next to the kitchen) that I use as a pantry- but it was dingy and dark, with deep shelves where pantry items were never easy to organize and find. One of my neighbors retired from the construction business and takes on woodworking and other handy jobs to keep himself busy. I hired him to remodel the closet, changing the deep shelves to wrap around shelving like this blogger did. He was able to take the old shelves out, split them and paint them and reuse them as the new shelves. We had paint cans left behind by the previous homeowners, and found white paint for the shelves and pale grey paint for the closet walls. The whole project was finished over 2 days, using materials we already had on hand, with the only costs being labor costs that went straight to my nice neighbor. That worked out well.

I still don't have electrical wiring for a closet light, but we put in a motion-sensor battery-operated light, and now the pantry is a whole lot more functional. Having a well-stocked and organized pantry makes it easier to put together quick meals, and minimizes waste because food doesn't languish at the back of a shelf.

I'll leave you with a quick pic of our dinner tonight: tacos with asparagus (sautéed quickly in olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice) and a cucumber avocado salad- this was a recipe I saw here on Smitten Kitchen, and for something so simple, it is a surprisingly tasty and refreshing salad that we'll make often.

Happy Spring! How have you been?!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Dumpling Party

My Chinese American friend grew up celebrating the Lunar New Year in Queens, NY, and she misses those festivities in small town GA. This year she invited her family and friends to gather at her home for a potluck dumpling party to ring in the Year of the Monkey.

Of, the table simply overflowed with tasty dumplings from different cuisines.

The hosts made tofu-vegetable potstickers with a salty-sweet-gingery dipping sauce, and kimbap, Korean rice and seaweed rolls (brief recipe at the end of this post).

I wondered what to take. The various Indian cuisines have dozens of dishes that qualify as dumplings and I love them all- from karanjis to kachoris. In the end I went with two of my own favorites (that are also easy to make)- idli with cilantro- coconut chutney, and "faux-mosas" or samosa-style puffs made with frozen puff pastry.

I've been slowly working towards making the soft, melt-in-the-mouth idlis of my dreams and this batch turned out beautifully. You pick up tips here and there and get better every time, I feel. This time I used this tip for grinding soaked methi seeds on their own just before adding in the urad dal, and this tip for adding water to the batter- I realize now that I had not been adding enough water while making the batter. People dream of running ultramarathons and climbing Mt. Everest. Me, I dream of consistently making idlis that taste like clouds. With this batch, I feel like I turned a corner.

For the puffs, I wanted to make the standard filling of potato, cauliflower, peas and carrots seasoned with ginger and garlic, and then realized that I had no potatoes on hand. I cooked some cauliflower and mashed it and used that as the base of the filling, and it worked very well. The only thing to keep in mind is to not let the filling get soggy.

There was lots of filling left over and it made for great masala dosas over the next couple of days.

The other dishes at the party were- a piping hot vegetarian version of chicken and dumpling soup, filo dough dumplings with two different fillings- some with sweet potato and others with feta and spinach, and fusion "taco dumplings" with black beans and Mexican spices.

For dessert, cookies and candy were passed around, and the kids all got red envelopes with cash tucked inside, as per tradition. In the end, we were a bunch of happily stuffed people who not so secretly hope that our friend will make this party an annual tradition.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan Greens) and My Favorite Breakfast

When I had a chance to spend a few weeks in Kenya last May, one of the local foods that I really enjoyed eating was a dish of greens called sukuma wiki- I mentioned this dish several times in that post. 

Sukuma wiki uses the local greens (colewart) and it is in the spirit of the dish to adapt it to any greens that are locally and cheaply available. In my case, it was kale bought on sale at the supermarket. It is flavored quite simply- like all the everyday Kenyan food I tasted- with onions and tomatoes, and salt. Nothing more. 

Here is my not-really-a-recipe recipe for sukuma wiki. I use my cast iron skillet for this.

1. Wash, trim and shred or finely chop a heap of greens
2. Heat 1 tbsp. oil.

3. Saute 1 medium chopped onion and 1 medium chopped tomato for a few minutes. 
4. Season with salt and pepper
5. Add greens and stir fry.
6. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the greens are tender. 

I resist the temptation to add turmeric, chili powder, cumin and so on to this dish. Not that it would be a bad thing to turn this into a typical pale bhaji. But the simplest form brings back memories of being in the African market and buying big handfuls of shredded greens from the kanga-clad vegetable sellers, and of helping my colleague stir a pot of sukuma on the tiny stove in his bachelor kitchen. 

Sukuma wiki goes with everything. It is nice to make a batch and keep on hand in the fridge, then use it in different dishes and as a side-dish for various meals. Rice and lentils are the classic companions for this dish, but we've eaten it with everything from instant noodles to spaghetti sauce. 

My favorite way is to eat it for breakfast like this: Heat a small tortilla on a griddle (I like low-carb tortillas from Trader Joe's). Top with some mashed avocado, hot sauce, a heap of sukuma wiki and a fried egg. Fold over and enjoy the breakfast wrap. What a perfect way to start the day. 

I eat a lot of avocados. I used to get very frustrated buying avocados because half of them would turn out to to be brown and unusable on the inside. Then I discovered this life-changing tip. It really works. Now I peek under the stem of the avocado at the store and only buy the ones that look green under the stem, then a couple of days on the counter and they are ready to eat (and will last in the fridge for several days if you want to wait). Now I have near-perfect avocados; the one in the pic below had a tiny brown spot but the rest was creamy green avocado. 

* * *
Over winter break, I was looking to sink my teeth into a juicy new mystery series, and remembered that someone had mentioned Elizabeth George- the author of the Inspector Lynley novels. I vaguely recall seeing a few episodes of the televised series on PBS years ago but had not read the books. I read the first two novels in the series and the writing is terrific. A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley, #1) which was a suspenseful and engrossing read but the ending was very disturbing. Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley, #2) was a formula mystery- a theater production team in a remote castle is snowed in, there is a murder, one of them had to have done it and so on. I look forward to reading more of this series- have you read them?

Another interesting read was the very recently published Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. V and I are avid fans of the New Yorker magazine; Norris has worked for the magazine for decades as a copy editor. The book is part memoir, part rantings and ravings of a grammar stickler, with lots of meditation on the quirks of the English language. As a kid, I loved reading Wren and Martin (a high school English grammar textbook)- not that you would know that from reading this poorly-proofread blog. Word lovers and grammar nerds will enjoy this book.  My favorite quote from the book: "Job of copy editor is to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves".

My favorite book this month was a work of non-fiction- A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a large, highly engaging tome on the art and science of giving- on sharing money and time with local and global organizations to benefit our communities. Kristof and WuDunn present dozens of case studies of people and projects that help those in need- their successes, failures and challenges. They address complex issues- such as about overhead expenses and staff salaries in non-profits. Many of us are searching for a more meaningful life and this optimistic book provides encouragement and advice on how to make a difference. 

Oh and you must treat yourself to these two delightful, hilarious, warm and beautifully written essays-

Auld Lang Syne, Kamini Dandapani's memories of her paternal grandparents' home, featuring "the strangest cast of characters, a terrifying bathroom and a belligerent buffalo named Lakshmi". 

Saapaadu Ready, Janani Sreenivasan's memories of travels with her mother's South Indian kitchen. "Take the best from all cultures. That's the best way of living I've found".

What have you been reading, cooking and eating these days? Happy February!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hello 2016

Exactly a year ago, on Jan 3, 2015, I took a deep breath and wrote this post about my theme for the year- "Nupur 2.0", an attempt to upgrade my life by tweaking my diet and exercise habits.

The words "diet" and "exercise" are not exactly jolly ones, are they? They have a rather bleak connotation of deprivation versus joyfully indulging in life, of stern discipline and making yourself do and eat things you'd really rather not.

A year later, I can say this: It wasn't that bad, y'all. In fact, it was much easier than I anticipated and very rewarding. Once I stopped thinking of it as a diet and exercise program but instead as a choice to be nicer to myself by eating better and moving more, the whole thing became a fun project and one that I intend to embrace for the rest of my life.

I am at a high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and since diabetes is a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism, my dietary changes revolve around bringing down my carb intake to moderate levels. Vegetables, which I love anyway, took on a new importance as I used them to replace much of the bread, rice, rotis, noodles, pasta and tortillas in my meals.

Broccoli slaw makes a satisfying noodle replacement.
Pasta dishes can be bulked up with vegetables.
Tasty salad dressings like this one and this one make eating raw vegetables a treat. Favorite dishes can be reinvented as salads, like this paneer tikka salad.

We subscribed to a locally grown veggie box all year and it forced me to work with enormous quantities of green leafy vegetables- learning how to quickly strip the leaves, stack them and chop them methodically into ribbons.

This is what a recent box looked like. V jokes that they just hack down a few bushes and stuff them in the box- you get this huge lot of pala-pachola (leaves). It was daunting to tackle these massive amounts of greens and come up with ways of using them. We did eat lots of raw salads (see some of the links above) but many of the tougher greens are tastier when cooked, and they shrink dramatically when cooked, so the armful of greens becomes a more manageable bowlful.

Greens can be added to so many recipes- I would stir them willy nilly into pulaos, scrambled eggs, pasta sauce...

My favorite greens recipe this year was collard greens wadi. But what my family really loves is a version of saag- basically this recipe with a huge amount of greens cooked into it. The saag is tasty with any and all mystery greens that show up at the door. Greens are some of the best things we can eat, so this one change has really enriched our diet. I made sure to welcome the new year with a collard greens and black eyed peas curry for lunch on Jan 1, in keeping with the Southern US superstition that eating those foods brings luck in the new year!

After years of trying to find a form of exercise that I liked to do (and failing numerous times), something finally clicked. I now have a variety of things I like to do- brisk walking, running (slow pace, short distances- usually on the road and sometimes on the treadmill), swimming, fitness classes and dance (ballet, zumba) classes and choose from this menu 4-5 days a week.

What I do from day to day depends on the weather, gym schedules, meetings at work and various other factors. But it is nice to have several activities to choose from, and it is good to know that even a simple walk around the neighborhood with my neighbor or with the dog is a great way to stay active when I can't get around to doing anything else. Taking the stairs has become a habit and I alternate between sitting and standing at my desk.

V and I have accumulated a big sleep debt since we became parents. And every evening after Lila goes to bed, there's the temptation to stay up just a little bit to enjoy some TV or read a few more pages or check e-mail one last time. I think regular exercise and going back to a full-time workload together have made my days so busy and tiring that I'm now totally on board with going to bed very early.  Light blocking curtains in the bedroom have made a huge difference in my sleep quality and so has turning down the heat and keeping the home a little cooler at night.

I had so much support throughout the year- friends always had encouraging words, V and Lila were on board, and most of all, my fitness instructors met me where I was and treated me with the utmost kindness. And to everyone who left encouraging comments and advice and shared their own stories on blog posts- thank you.

My only wish for 2016 is to keep doing all this, because it is working well for me. I did come up with a theme for 2016 and my mantra for this year is STREAMLINE. What I learned this year was that cooking vegetable-heavy meals and being active are both things that need an investment of TIME. This is going to be a tough year for me with a challenging workload and keeping up with these changes will need better time management. I want to work on streamlining grocery shopping, maybe doing some weekly meal planning, and using the freezer more efficiently for making back-up meals. I'd like to get rid of time-killing habits like checking e-mail every 30 minutes and in general, want to simplify and organize my life. Fingers crossed for a good year.

Happy 2016! What are your hopes and dreams for this year?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Holiday Cooking and Baking

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thanksgiving Eats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what I made:

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Books, Movies and a Seasonal Dal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Potato Dal

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been cooking, reading, watching? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Fall Baking is a Go, and Doggy Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Collard Greens Wadi- a Savory Roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Next, steam the rolls for 15 minutes.

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

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

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

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

What have you been cooking and baking?