Friday, January 03, 2020

Winter break in Dallas, and 2019 in Books

Happy 2020, friends!
May it be a good one!

Black eyed peas and greens curry
for a lucky New Years' Day lunch
Christmas idlis!

We spent our winter break with my sister in Dallas. Our flight landed on the afternoon of December 25 to balmy temperatures in the 70s- that's Christmas in Texas! (Temperatures did drop later in the week.) 

My sister thoroughly spoiled us with loads of presents, drove us all over town for outings and treated us to great food. When I jotted down all the things we did over 5 and a half days, I'm amazed by how much she managed to pack into this trip. 

Winter break with 3 active kids ages 8, 7 and 3 meant hitting a lot of kid-friendly places in town- along with local trails and playgrounds and a visit to the town library, we visited the Dallas arboretum, crayola experience theme park, an arcade game room and a trampoline park. The kids' absolute favorite was the Epic Waters indoor water park; our kids are all water loving creatures who are most at home in their bathing suits. 

At home, the kids watched TV (Scooby Doo, other cartoons, British Baking show) and the older two played some video games, we played Uno and discovered a board game that my doodle-loving daughter loved, called Rapidoodle, and made gingerbread houses.

The trip was a food festival from start to finish. We ate out at Avila's for Tex-Mex and I enjoyed my enchiladas mexicanas, three cheese enchiladas in red sauce, with two sides- roasted veggies and a bright lettuce salad. Dallas has incredible Indian food; the authentic South Indian Sunday breakfast buffet at Adyar Ananda Bhavan was a treat. Another favorite meal was the Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet with loads of salads, crispy falafel and a dozen dips and sauces. 

My sister is a great cook and also made us meal after meal of dishes like chana masala and aamras (bottled from the mango tree in our parents' backyard in Southern Maharashtra), Christmas idlis (all-naturally dyed with beet and spinach pastes), paneer bhurji, sabudana khichdi, and potato theplas. We had chaat- sev puri and pani puri- for 2 dinners in a row. Such is vacation eating! 

Now it is back to normal life and back to reality.

* * * Book Report * * * 

Goodreads compiled these 2019 reading stats for me
I've completed Book Riot's Read Harder challenge for about three years now, and again in 2019, it rewarded me with some amazing reads, books that I might not have picked up if it were not for the challenge. 

Here are the 24 books I ended up reading for Read Harder 2019, listed by genre. The task is given in parentheses. 

Non-fiction- The first three in this list are must-reads and the others were really good too. 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (journalism)- A work of  investigative journalism about the dystopian economy we live in. Many older Americans find themselves unable to find jobs, and with menial jobs find themselves having to make hard choices, such as between housing and healthcare. 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (nonviolent true crime)- the story of Theranos, the blood diagnostics tech start-up that perpetuated corporate fraud.

Couldn't Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (prison)- this was an amazing read- women inmates write short memoirs of their early lives. Writing as therapy. 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (book by women/AOC that won a literary award in 2018)- a raw and thought-provoking memoir.

The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More - More or Less (fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads)-  philosophical but highly readable meditation on frugality and simple living.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise (business)- this was a fun read about the movie and franchising business. Lots of great tidbits for Star Wars fans, of which I am moderately one. 

Children's/ YA- the first two are well worth reading.

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (diversity children's book)- a true picture book biography- touching and inspiring. 

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (animal POV character)- a wholesome story with sci fi features.

Hidden Figures (by AOC set in space)- the story of black women mathematicians helping to win the space race. Great story but not told in the most interesting way. 

George (trans author)- it was a good book, if a little boring.

Novels- The first 6 in this list were the ones I enjoyed the most.

Rubbernecker (neurodiverse)- this was a murder mystery that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Definitely one of the books I doubt I would have picked up but for this challenge. Highly recommended for mystery lovers. 

The Martian (self-published)- smart, science-forward, realistic sci-fi book. 

Convenience Store Woman (translated book- women author/translator)- a quirky and enjoyable novella about a women who does not fit into societal norms. 

The Nature of the Beast (cozy mystery)- a satisfying read, cozy but quite intense.

Daddy-Long-Legs (novel written in letters)- a gentle, heart-warming novel. 

The Wild Book (OwnVoices Mexico) - a middle grade fantasy novel. The concept of this book is irresistible for book lovers.

The Twentieth Wife (AOC historical romance)- It is beautifully written but the relentless zenana drama was not fun.

The Man in the High Castle (alternate history)- great concept but the plot line was confusing. 

Graphic works- All the ones on this list are great reads.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York (humor)- I am officially a Roz Chast fangirl.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (LGBTQIA comic) - an honest memoir of the author's relationship with her distant father. 

Myth Atlas: Maps and Monsters, Heroes and Gods from Twelve Mythological Worlds (mythology)- this coffee table style book is entertaining, informative and quite simply eye candy. 

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story (manga)- a good refresher on tidying! Something that I am constantly doing, it seems. 

The Dharma Punks (OwnVoices Oceania)- a graphic novel about a single night in the life of a young rebel.


American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (poetry)- poetry isn't my thing but this slim volume had some poems that gave me all the feels.

The 2020 Read Harder Challenge has several interesting prompts and I'm excited to work my way through it. (Your recommendations for any of the tasks are most welcome, and if you're doing the challenge then I'd be happy to share my recommendations for some of the tasks.)

Of course, I read books other than the ones for this challenge. A couple of months ago, someone I know gave birth to a sweet little baby boy, and this child was born with hemophilia. The news reminded me of my undergrad genetics classes and what we learned about hemophilia, the royal disease, as it was historically referred to. This led to me checking out Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra's son Alexis had hemophilia and it indirectly led to some of the biggest turning points in Russian history. This history book is a doorstopper at 640 pages but I just blew right through it. It was my favorite book of 2019 in terms of how interesting and informative it was. Massie was a historian (an American specializing in Russian history) and a master storyteller- he died earlier this month. 


Many kids are content to sit and play quietly by themselves. My two, on the other hand, are the type that need constant engagement and/or company and/or attention and rarely play by themselves. Happily, this year the 8 year old has taken off as a reader. For the first time in her life, there are blocks of time when she is not to be seen or heard, happy to be on her own reading. I hope this is the start of a lifelong infection with the reading bug. Her recent favorites have been a number of chapter book series including Ramona Quimby, Ivy + Bean, Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, Zoey and Sassafras, A to Z mysteries, Amelia Bedelia, and so on. Her other passion is for reading non-fiction books that are collections of animal facts and "500 amazing things" and such. 

For Christmas, one of her aunts sent her a few of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books! We're reading Five on a Treasure Island together now. It makes me nostalgic- let's see how reading this book now will compare to my memories of reading it decades ago. 

Meanwhile, the 3 year old can't read yet but is becoming equally fond of books. It is practically the only time you can get him to sit still for a minute. His current favorites to read over and over again are books about Pete the Cat, Maisy, and Mo Willems' Pigeon series. 

What are you reading these days?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Holiday Crafts and Goodies

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! It is winter break over here and the "making" is in full swing. Here is a quick round up of all the baking and crafting going on over at casa One Hot Stove.

The elementary school hosts a holiday market each year in early December, putting tables in the hallways and letting kids, teachers and parents sell homemade stuff to each other. My 8 year old was very enthusiastic about earning a few bucks for her piggy bank and worked for weeks getting her inventory ready. She had 4 items this year.

Being in prime chapter-book reading age, bookmarks are a much used item. We made two types, one with paper and the other with yarn.

Paper bookmarks with holiday lights,
made with acrylic paint and fingerprints.
She learned to make pom poms recently, with scrap yarn and a pom pom maker- those little plastic doodads make it easy and fun to make uniform sized pom poms.

Pom poms tied to a large paper clip
make for cute and colorful bookmarks.
 Over Thanksgiving, we took a beach trip to Amelia Island, Florida. The beach was full of the most beautiful shells. Most interestingly, we discovered that many of the shells had perfect holes in them. A web search revealed that some creatures such as moon snails drill holes in clams to eat them, leaving behind shells with perfect little holes. We threaded yarn through these nature-made holes to make shell necklaces.

Finally, this was our bestseller from last year and was very popular this year too: Melting snowman cookies

Store bought large cookies, with frosting dabbed on. Marshmallows
with candy googly eyes, pretzel sticks for arms, m&ms for buttons.
V celebrated his birthday- every year, I like to make him a special cake. Well, this year, time got away and I hastily made a batch of birthday brownies instead, with sprinkles.

My holiday baking this year:

Pear and banana mini loaves

A new recipe I tried this year was cardamom shortbread. Shortbread are my favorite type of cookies, and cardamom arguably my favorite spice. The recipe is originally from the amazing Alice Medrich that I found via Smitten Kitchen. The only fiddly part is cutting the shortbread after the first bake, when it is quite crumbly. I added cardamom to the batter. Easily the best shortbread I've ever eaten.

This one is a keeper.

A holiday recipe I make every year, almond biscotti
or more accurately, mandelbrot.

 Here is a recipe that needs no cooking or baking. You let a food processor do all the work. 
Just nuts and dried fruits blitzed together and rolled in sparkling sugar.

Another holiday recipe that is made on repeat- my version of sugarplums.

A holiday tray for friends

Another small holiday sampler tray

Other little handmade gifts:

I wrapped some co-worker gifts in fabric instead of paper,
inspired by the Japanese art of furoshiki.

A tiny knitting basket ornament (a couple of inches high)
for my son's teacher who is a new knitter. 
I paired the knitting basket ornament with a gift card to a yarn store.

Matching owl hats for my kids and my nephew.
The pattern is Who?

Happy 2020! I'll see you in the new year! Tell me what you're making for the holiday season. Any favorite gifts?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

How Not To Die, and other food for thought

I recently read a book called How Not To Die by Michael Greger. Right off the bat, I thought the title was irksome- after all, which one of us is going to survive this crazy train called life? While there are people who dream of prolonging human life and go to extreme lengths to hack longevity, but I have no desire to live into my 90s and 100s. But I know this provocative book title is more along the lines of how not to die of diseases that you could prevent.

The book starts by saying that diet and lifestyle have been known for years to reverse heart disease. Why are doctors still prescribing drugs and surgery? Because there are other forces at work in medicine besides science. The US health system runs on a fee for service model where doctors get paid for pills and procedures prescribed. There is little profit motive for promoting whole foods.

The first part of How Not To Die examines the risk factors associated with a bunch of diseases that are some of the leading causes of death today, including heart disease, several cancers, Type 2 diabetes and infections. I was not a fan of these chapters because the author appears to cherry-pick studies (including some clearly poor quality studies, such as ones with tiny sample sizes) that fit what he believes, rather than looking at the overall body of evidence.

The second part of the book promotes a whole foods, plant-based diet as being the healthiest one. Greger uses a traffic light system:
Unprocessed plant foods get the green light;
Processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods get the yellow light;
ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods are red light foods.

Unprocessed in this case means nothing bad added and nothing good taken away. Greger's suggested diet is free from all meat and dairy and eggs, and also from all added oils and fats.

He has a list of the daily dozen- 12 foods that should be consumed daily in appropriate serving sizes-
1. Beans and legumes
2. Berries
3. Other fruits
4. Greens
5. Cruciferous vegetables
6. Other vegetables
7. Flaxseeds
8. Nuts and seeds
9. Herbs and spices
10. Whole grains
11. Beverages- water, tea, coffee
12. Exercise

The minute I read through Greger's daily dozen foods, a mental picture popped up- a typical Maharashtrian taat or platter. A sample taat would have on it neatly arranged bowls of dal or amti made with lentils, sprouted beans usal, cooked greens, other stir-fried vegetables, a raw salad or koshimbir, a chutney with some combination of nuts, herbs, seeds and spices, chapatis made with whole wheat flour or bhakris made with jowar. A single meal would tick off most of these boxes.

 In fact most vegetarian meals in several Indian regional cuisines would look pretty similar to this. Even among the non-vegetarians, meat and fish is usually an occasional food eaten once or twice a week, and eaten in modest portions.

All in all, I'm on board with Greger's list of foods to eat on a daily basis for optimal health. We all would do so much better if we focused on eating more of these foods. I don't agree that this is the only diet that can be healthy. I particularly object to Greger's implication that a whole foods plant based diet is a panacea and can prevent all disease- that's just terribly misleading.

I've always wondered why India has such a massive Type 2 diabetes problem when most people eat simple, plant-based foods. One factor, of course, is genetics. It is said that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. There are so many great things about the everyday Indian diet (see above) but there are some things that are not so good- white rice is eaten on a daily basis. Many people consume several cups of tea a day, each with spoonfuls of sugar. Oil is used plentifully in Indian cooking. Worse, dalda or hydrogenated vegetable oil is often used. Fried snacks and sweets are very popular. As is the case everywhere, affluent people have access to plentiful food and often simply eat too much. There are probably many other note-worthy risk factors not related to diet, such as stress caused by crowded city-dwelling and polluted air, and the lack of a cultural emphasis on exercise.

Even during the two decades when I was living in India, I saw some cultural shifts- the increased popularity and availability of foods such as bread made with refined flour, cookies, pastries, puffs and instant noodles. The eating-out culture took off in a big way. Weddings moved from traditional sit-down lunches (pangat) to lavish buffets.

(Greger, incidentally, talks about how great traditional Indian diets are and explains away the high prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by blaming it on ghee used in Indian cooking!)

All in all, this is a good book to read and think about. 2019 was a very positive year for me in terms of diet and exercise. I have slowly changed many of my eating and cooking habits, and learned more about strategies to keep myself and my family nourished and satisfied. This book made me think of a couple more changes I want to make- to buy and cook more greens, to use less oil in my cooking (it is so easy to go overboard) and to find ways to cut down even more on the fried snacks that are my kryptonite.

To give a real-life example, when I was making steel-cut oats kheer, I wanted to toast the oats in ghee to make the kheer even more flavorful. On second thought, I didn't. I skipped that added fat and the kheer was wonderful anyway. The point is not that all fats are bad, or that I am personally going to cut out all added oils and fats, but that it is incredibly easy to add fats and oils into dishes that don't need them.

A good quote from How Not To Die:
 “Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and returning your brain’s dopamine sensitivity to its healthy, normal levels can help you live life to the fullest and allow you to experience greater joy, satisfaction, and pleasure from all the things you do- not just what you eat.”
The premise of How Not To Die is that most diseases that people die from are preventable and that we as individuals have the power to choose an optimal diet that will keep us healthy. Funny enough, right after reading this book, I read another book called Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health by Sandro Galea, and this book has a very different perspective.

Galea says that much of our conversation about health has to do with lifestyle and making choices for better health. And that this is wrong. The range of choices depends on context, factors beyond our immediate control or even awareness. There are inherent limits to personal choice. Our health is shaped by things that are much larger than any individual- things like policies, and the places that we end up living in, and sheer luck.

Where does the truth lie? Somewhere in the middle, I believe. There are many things we can't control and many that we can. There are those (me included) who, through a large dose of luck, have education and privilege and a comfortable paycheck, which gives us a pretty wide range of choices. People like us can and should exercise (no pun intended) good lifestyle choices.

Here's to a healthy 2020 for us all! 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Steel Cut Oats: A Revival

For about 5 days in November, I was trapped in a dome in Washington DC- a 19 story, glassed-in dome, resplendent in holiday decorations and glitzy as all get out. It was a convention center and I was there with some colleagues for a conference. 

For all that opulence, the food choices in this place were pretty dismal. Between talks and sessions, when we had the time (and decent weather- this was DC in November, after all) to step outside this place, there were some good meals to be had nearby. Thai restaurants are usually good bets and we found one that had warming curries and bright, crunchy fresh spring rolls. Another evening I got to try a Beyond Burger for the first time. I'm not sure if I liked it or not. One evening I gave up the hunt for local restaurants and slipped into a Chipotle franchise, got myself a big bowl of lettuce, roasted veggies and black beans with lashings of hot salsa and ate it up sitting on my fluffy hotel bed, watching reruns of Forensic Files

Over in the convention center, the hunt for breakfast was proving difficult. The breakfast sandwiches either had meat or the wrong type of cheese (I'm weird about cheese) and the sugary breakfast pastries had no appeal. There in the warming cabinet were little cardboard cups of plain cooked steel cut oats. It seemed like the best option. To the bland oatmeal I added a few pinches of salt, and a spoonful of grape jelly from one of those single serving packs. That little cup was so warming and delicious. The nutty and nubby texture of the oatmeal was quite simply delightful. How had I forgotten about this wholesome and humble ingredient for years? I enjoyed that oatmeal breakfast four days in a row and it kept me full and happy until lunchtime. 

Back home I bought a canister of steel cut oats as soon as I could get to the grocery store. Steel cut oats are the least processed form of oats- they can take a lot of time to cook on the stove, which is why I haven't bothered much with them in all these years- but the electric pressure cooker makes them a hands-off, easy-cook option. 

For weekday breakfasts, I have been making plain steel cut oats and then adding some toppings right before I eat it. 

Basic steel cut oats

(About 4 servings)

1 cup steel-cut oats
3 cups water
1/4  tsp. salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release.

Scoop cooked oats into a bowl. Add a handful of berries (I use frozen ones) and a tablespoon of peanut butter or other nut butter. Stir and enjoy. 

This weekend, we had new neighbors over for brunch and decided to dress the oats with cardamom and nuts for a kheer-like porridge. 

Oats Kheer

1 cup steel cut oats
6-8 pitted dates, chopped
3 cups water
1/4 tsp. of salt

Place all ingredients in the Instant Pot.
Pressure cook on HIGH for 4 minutes. 
Natural pressure release.
Stir in 1 cup (or more) of almond milk and a tsp. of ground cardamom.

(Any kind of milk will do. I imagine thin coconut milk would make this taste like a payasam.)

To serve, top the oats kheer with chopped dried fruits and nuts. I used pistachios, walnuts, cranberries and golden raisins. The dates and dry fruits make the kheer gently sweet. I did not feel the need to add sugar. 

Leftover oats kheer
for breakfast today
THE TOP THREE SECRET TRICKS- OK, not so secret and not really tricks but I find that I enjoy steel cut oats immensely if they are not cold, thick and gummy but are instead (a) soupy, which means they might need additional liquid (milk or water) after cooking because oats absorb a lot of water. (b) Oats are best warm, and a stint in the microwave gets this done quickly. Steel cut oats reheat beautifully so they can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge. (c) A little bit of salt goes a long way in making oatmeal tasty, even in a sweet context as with the kheer.

Some of my new-found enthusiasm for steel cut oats is certainly tied to a book I read recently called How Not To Die by Dr. Michael Greger. (Weird title, I know.) More on that book next week.

* * * On The Screen * * * 

This weekend V and I did something that we rarely get to do these days- we got a babysitter and went to the movies. The movie was Knives Out, a very entertaining ensemble murder mystery with a twist. Not the sort of movie that you necessarily need to watch on a big screen or anything, but it was a fun night out. Maybe it will come out on one of the streaming services once it is done in the theaters.

NOVA on PBS has some interesting documentaries. The best one I've seen recently is called Look Who's Driving, about recent advances in self-driving cars. This was informative and very scary in parts- such as when they showed people who own semi-autonomous cars but act as though they are fully autonomous ones, taking actual naps at the wheel of a car that is not yet self-driving. Cars are getting pretty smart but what can be done about humans?

Speaking of technology and scary stuff, I happened to see a video of a "robot dog" made by the company Boston Dynamics- and it was unbelievable to see the smoothness, speed and agility of this mechanical animal. That same day, I saw Metalhead (series 4, episode 5 of the Black Mirror series) and it was literally terrifying. I really love this series but have to be in a certain mood to watch it. 

Right now, V and I are enjoying Jeopardy episodes on Netflix and sporadically watching Grantchester on Amazon Prime. 

* * *Doggie Drama* * *

Draped in his favorite security blanket
Duncan is now 2 months past his surgery and is recovering well. He seems to be his old self again and is able to use his leg without limping. The main problem right now is that he is bored right out of his skull. Overall, he is being such a good boy but every now and often there is some moaning and whining as he begs us to let him run free. But we are being pretty strict with the confinement and doctor's orders are being taken seriously. 

The vet surgeon will X-ray his leg in early Jan and if she is happy with how it looks, he will get to resume his normal life. Fingers tightly crossed!! 

Tell me what you're doing as we count down to 2020- 22 days to go.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Chinese Takeout at Home, a Rainbow Birthday Cake and Duncan's Recovery

It has been a busy and rather stressful month over here. Some of it was routine (V traveling for work), some was fun (a birthday) and a bunch of it was awful (doggy surgery), and all of it meant that our meals were basic and simple affairs.

On the weather front, northeast Georgia has been mind-boggling. The autumnal equinox came and went on September 23 while we sizzled on and on in the 90s. Records were set. Come October 4, the high was 98F, enough to make you faint right there on the curb. The next day and ever since, the temperatures have dropped like a stone and are now considerably cooler. In the kitchen, it has meant a transition from salads and sandwiches to soups and casseroles.

I checked out the Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook by Nisha Vora from the library and found a half dozen recipes to try. I ended up trying just one and it was a hit- the Chinese take-out style tofu and broccoli. The complete recipe is in the link, but here's what I did, in short. I changed up the sauce and marinade ingredients.

1. Cut extra firm tofu into bite sized cubes and marinate it (in a bowl, no plastic bag required) in olive oil, nutritional yeast, soy sauce, ginger garlic, a touch of maple syrup.
2. Saute the marinated tofu in the IP.
3. Add a sauce made with the same ingredients as the marinade, plus some rice vinegar and toasted sesame oil. Cook under high pressure for 3 minutes. Quick release.
4. Open the IP and stir in broccoli florets. Cook under low pressure for 1 minute. Quick release.
5. Stir in a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce.

I served the broccoli tofu with a bit of steamed rice and a generous dose of spicy chili crisp sauce. This dish was perfect- tender broccoli and a glossy sauce- and will be going into our regular dinner rotation.

If broccoli and tofu is my favorite Chinese takeout entree, then eggplant in garlic sauce comes in a very close second.

I tried this too, in the instant pot, and it was fantastic. Saute batons of Japanese eggplant, then add a sauce (soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and so on), pressure cook for 3 minutes, then add a cornstarch slurry to make a glossy sauce. I served it with some steamed Jasmine rice and roasted green beans and tofu (the latter two made simultaneously on a sheet pan).

* * * 
Our daughter turned eight in September. What a milestone 8 is, the start of middle childhood, the last four years or so before puberty hits and life is never the same for child or parents. To celebrate, I organized an ice cream social and invited 8 of her little gal pals for an afternoon party. We made a brownie cake using my long-time favorite brownie recipe- Alice Medrich's best cocoa brownies- baking it in a round tin instead of a square brownie tin.

I made a quick from-scratch chocolate sauce using a recipe from Smitten Kitchen and put it into a squeeze bottle. The birthday girl decorated the brownie cake herself, making a simple rainbow design with colorful M&Ms and mini marshmallows for clouds. She used dots of chocolate sauce to hold the decorations in place.

I set out an ice cream sundae bar-
Bowls and cones, chocolate wafer sticks
Brownies (cake shown above)
Three flavors of ice cream (not shown, set out at the last minute)- vanilla, chocolate, strawberry
Fruit- strawberries, mandarin oranges, pineapple bits
Sprinkles- we had 4 types
Candy- M&Ms and gummy bears
Chocolate sauce

The kids had a grand time assembling their own concoctions and the party set up could not have been easier. Ice cream socials are truly an easy and crowd-pleasing way to throw a low-key party.

* * * 
Our dogly lad Duncan has arguably had the worst month of his life. It started with a limp a few weeks ago. A trip to the vet led to some anti-inflammatory medication and some rest. There was no improvement- in fact the limp got worse- and the vet suspected that his knee ligament had ruptured, a common problem in both humans and dogs. There was a consultation with the vet surgeon; she confirmed the issue with the knee joint and recommended a surgery called the TTA procedure. 

I was in turmoil for a few days wondering if I should be putting my dog through this major surgery and also knowing that we had little choice; if we failed to fix the knee, his other leg would be overused and likely develop the same problem and he would have two failed back legs. No bueno. We liked and trusted the surgeon and decided to go ahead with the surgery last week. 

Duncan spent one night in the hospital and came home on Wednesday after an uneventful operation. The poor boy is confined to a single room for 3 months (with potty breaks 3-4 times a day of course); his recovery of normal leg function requires him to rest the joint as much as possible to allow the bone to grow and heal. For two weeks until the incision heals he has to wear the infamous cone of shame- Elizabethan collar- to keep him from licking and infecting his stitches. He's on a regimen of pills and it is a production to make him take the darn pills twice a day. Some of the pills are doggy opioids and thank goodness for those because he's napping a lot and not in pain. 

So that's the sad story of our sweet boy Dunkie. He can no longer run free, go to the dog park and on long walks, all of the things that made him so happy. But hopefully three months will pass by quickly and the story will have a happy ending when he gets to do all those things again. Please send him some love and good wishes! 

Tell me what you're cooking and eating this October! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

What's in the spice cabinet? A detailed inventory, and a spice giveaway

A corner cabinet in my kitchen is home to the spices. That motley collection of little jars and bottles does so much heavy lifting in the making of flavorful meals. Spices, unlike wine, don't improve with age. For weeks I have wanted to give this space a mini makeover, to clean it out and refresh it and look at what I really have on hand.

Last Friday evening, after dinner and kitchen clean-up, I suddenly decided that the time had come. Step one was to empty the entire contents of that little cabinet, plus some extra spices from the pantry- and here you see them littering the counter-top. Armed with a roll of adhesive tape and a sharpie, I was ready to channel my inner KonMari and sort out this mess.

The goal was to organize the spices for the life I have now. Not that fantasy life where I cook elaborate new recipes with exotic spices. I am in the family-centric, kid-centric season of life where favorite meals are made on repeat; dinners are simple because schedules are complicated. When I do try new recipes, they tend to be easy variations and extensions of what we already like.

I started by tossing out some things that needed to go. Food waste is terrible but once spices have deteriorated, there's no choice but to let them go. Among the spices that were discarded: pumpkin pie spice and poultry seasoning that were years old, pilau masala bought on a work trip to Kenya that has lost all flavor by this point, and powdered onion and garlic that I love using but they were caked into a block of concrete that I can't chip into any more.

The rest of the spices were organized, wiped down and labeled. Here's the detailed inventory:

Masala dabbas- squat round boxes with removable cups for spices- are a staple in the Indian kitchen. You get to keep your favorite spices handy so you only open one box instead of 7 jars. I own a stainless steel masala dabba that used to belong to my maternal grandmother. It is sturdy and the cups are tall so they hold a good volume of masala. My second masala dabba is a cheap little plastic one.

Metal masala dabba

1. Mustard seeds (rai or mohri)

2. Cumin seeds (jeera)

Mustard seeds and cumin seeds are mainstays of the tempering process that kicks off many Indian dishes, where you bloom spices in hot oil before adding the other ingredients. Cumin seeds are versatile; I often use them to make a quick jeera rice.

3. A mixture of two lentils- urad dal and chana dal
While lentils are used in large quantities as ingredients, small quantities are also used to add flavor and texture to dishes. This mixture is often used in tempering Southern Indian dishes like fresh chutneys for idli/dosa and simple vegetable sautes like cabbage thoran.

4. Turmeric- This is the bright yellow spice that adds the iconic color and flavor to so many Indian dishes. I also use it to make turmeric milk to soothe sore throats.

5. Red chilli powder- This spice also adds flavor and heat to an array of Indian dishes. My cooking is on the milder side so I stick to mild Kashmiri chili powder which provides a vibrant color without making food too spicy.

6. Goda masala- This is a traditional spice mix from Maharashtra. There's just nothing like it. I use it in simple usals (sprouted bean dishes), vegetable dishes and a rice dish called masala bhaat. (I have some goda masala to share- check the end of the post).

7. Fennel seeds- Used occasionally for custom masala blends.

Plastic masala dabba

8. Fenugreek seeds (methi) used for custom spice blends and tempering in certain dishes, but I most often use these to make idli and dosa batter.

9. Coriander seeds (dhania or dhane)
10. Cloves (laung or lavang)
11. Peppercorns (miri)
12. White poppy seeds (khus khus)
13. Ajwain (carom)
14. Badi elaichi (black cardamom)

All of these are used occasionally in various dishes or to make custom fresh masalas.

Indian basics

15. Tamarind paste- Adds tangy flavor to a number of dishes from Western and Southern India. Typically used in sambar and rasam. I also make a very quick and easy date tamarind chutney for chaats.

16. Asafetida or hing- A unique flavor in Indian cooking. You'd recognize that LG hing jar anywhere.

17. Kasuri methi or dried fenugreek. It adds that restaurant flavor to any number of North Indian dishes.

18. Dhania jeera or ground cumin and coriander- I use it in such quantities that I grind my own by lightly toasting cumin and coriander seeds in a 1:2 proportion by volume. Adds wonderful flavor (and no heat) to simple everyday Indian food.

The most valuable players in the masala division

A well-made spice mix is a wonderful thing- with one spoonful, you can add the right flavor that just "makes" the dish. In addition to typical uses of masalas, I play fast and loose with these mixes and use them in off-label ways. Don't call the food police on me, but that is my secret to quick everyday meals that taste good.

Most of these are commercial mixes, and I'll try to note the brands when I can. Many people suggest storing masalas in the fridge or the freezer but I find that doing that kills the flavor. I prefer decanting the masalas into clean glass bottles and storing at room temp and, ahem, using them up in a few months.

19. Tandoori masala- Used to make a quick marinade for paneer, tofu and vegetables. Then I pan-fry and used the tasty morsels in a tikka salad. I think the brand is Badshah.

20. Omelet masala- My sister introduced me to this, and I love it in egg dishes like omelets, scrambles and hash brown casseroles. R-Pure (MDH) brand.

21. Rasam powder- I recklessly use this to make rasam, sambar and simple vegetable stir-fries of all types. MTR brand.

22. Kitchen King masala- A tried and true all purpose masala.

23. Chana masala- Used for chhole which I serve as a curry and often in the form of aloo tikki chana chaat. MDH brand.

24. Kolhapuri masala- This one is for usal and misal and wherever a nice pop of garlic is needed. (I am giving some away- check the end of the post for details).

25. Pav bhaji masala- Used for pav bhaji, which just happens to be the most popular recipe of all time on this blog. Everest brand.

26. Punjabi garam masala- A good finishing touch to many North Indian style curries.

Other favorite dried herbs and spices

27. Italian herbs- An all purpose herb mixture which adds a quick boost of flavor to homemade pastas and sauces.

28. Sweet paprika- Decorative purposes. This adds a nice color to food without ramping up the heat.

29. Smoked paprika- People are always raving about "bacon bacon bacon" which I've never understood. But I know that smoked paprika has a similar smoky and complex flavor which is very nice in certain dishes.

30. Dried oregano- This is definitely the dried herb that I used most, in Mexican and Italian dishes.

31. Ground cumin- Also widely used in taco fillings and such.

32. Crushed red pepper- Primarily used to add some heat to pizzas and pastas.

One big ingredient missing here is Mexican chili powder. I've run out and I want to try making my own with dried Mexican chilies.


33. Frankie masala- A tangy and spicy seasoning blend to sprinkle on sandwiches and wraps.

34. Tony Chachere's seasoning- General seasoning (includes salt) for fried eggs and roasted or sauteed vegetables.

35. Chile Lime blend- This tangy and spicy blend is irresistible on sliced cucumbers and steamed corn.

36. Tea masala- Makes a good masala chai.

Other masalas

I love these spice mixes just as much as the ones above but don't use them often, in most cases because they are quite spicy.

37. Schezwan spice- Indian Chinese is a cuisine dear to our hearts. This spice mix makes a stellar homemade version of Indian Chinese fried rice.

38. Pani puri masala- Good for sprinkling on chaat.

39. MTR Puliyogare powder- This is designed to be mixed with steamed rice to make instant tamarind rice. Very versatile and tasty stuff.

40. Shan Bombay biryani masala- Shan is a renowned Pakistani line of spice mixes, especially famous for their biryani masalas. I bought this on a whim and haven't used it yet.

41. Malvani masala- This is from Anjali of the Anna Parabrahma blog- fiery and very flavorful stuff.


42. Taco spice- Bought this for travel cooking and never used it.

43. Kolhapuri misal masala- Given by my friend in Boston and I had forgotten about it.

44. Aleppo pepper- Being hoarded and needs to be enjoyed.

45. Berbere spice blend- Bought on a trip to Savannah when I stumbled into a spice store (aka candy store for cooks).

46. Maggi noodles spice sachet

All of these are first in line to be used up!

Whole spices

47. Peppercorns in a grinder- black pepper is one spice that is best freshly ground.

48. Cinnamon bark

49. Dried red chillies

50. Tejpatta or Indian bay leaves

All of these are good for making custom spice blends, fresh wet masalas and also added whole in pilafs and such.

Somewhat exotic ingredients

51. Nigella seeds- I use this in tempering for kadhi; have used it for a topping for naan in the past.

52. Kokum- This is a fruit that grows in coastal parts of Western Indian. The dried fruit is used in cooking and has a wonderful tangy taste. I use it to make solkadhi with coconut milk.

53. Sumac- This was a gift from a friend who visited Turkey. I need to use it more often!

54. Basil seedssabja. Like chia seeds, these plump up in water and are refreshing in summer. I need to make some rose drinks while the weather is still hot here.

The oddballs

55. Kala namak- Black salt. I've had this for ever but minerals don't really spoil so I'm keeping it. I don't remember the last time I used it.

56. MSG- monosodium glutamate. In India this is sold as "ajinomoto". My mother cooks us Indian Chinese dishes whenever she visits and she insists that it just doesn't taste the same without this stuff. I personally don't actively avoid MSG nor do I add it to any food that I cook.

57. Citric acid- I probably bought this at one point to make paneer at home. We don't eat paneer often and I just buy blocks from the store rather than making it at home. But it doesn't spoil and is good to keep around. On occasion, I've run out of lemons and limes and have used a pinch of this to add tang to a dish.

Baking supplies

58. Baker's Joy spray- This is the formula with the flour and I use it especially for baking in molds with nooks and crannies, such as bundt pans.

59. Oil spray- Used for greasing baking sheets and dishes, and also for idli molds before the batter is added.

60. Baking soda

61. Baking powder (missing because I ran out- it is on the grocery list)

62. Powdered sugar- Most often used to shower over baked goods, and for frostings on birthday cakes.

63. Cocoa powder- Most often used in Alice Medrich's recipe for cocoa brownies which is my go-to all-occasion treat.

64. Ground cinnamon- I used this in pretty large quantities and just buy a large box from the store.

65. Ground cardamom- I buy green cardamom pods and grind them myself, mixed in with some sugar for bulk.

Ground cinnamon and cardamom are used in my kitchen in everything from granola and oatmeal to smoothies and desserts.

66. Vanilla extract- Used in practically all desserts, especially great in vanilla custard. One of the more expensive bottles in the spice cabinet.

67. Lemon oil- I don't use it often but this is wonderful used alongside lemon rind and lemon juice in citrus flavored desserts and bakes.

68. Saffron- Well known as the most expensive spice. I use it in kheer and shrikhand and some savory rice dishes.

Not pictured, right by the stove is #69, the queen of seasonings and downright essential for life, salt. I use kosher salt for all my cooking because it has a coarse texture (easy to gauge the amount you pinch) and a clean flavor.

It took me an hour on Friday night and an hour or two early Saturday morning to get this done. Back went the spices into the freshly cleaned cabinet. It feels good to have everything organized and ready for the next cooking session.

Spice giveaway

I discovered that I have too much of some spices and I would love to share them. There's one packet of MTR puliyogare powder which makes a wonderful tamarind rice and can be creatively used in other ways too. I also have homemade Kolhapuri masala (redolent with chillies and garlic) and Goda masala which is uniquely Maharashtrian. I can split up the two masalas into smaller packets for several folks to have.

I can ship anywhere within the continental US. Drop me an e-mail at onehotstove AT gmail DOT com if you'd like any of these. Spices are meant to be used and I will be glad to find them a new home.  The spices have found new homes!

* * * 
I promptly used the berbere spice (#44 in the list above) to make an Ethiopian-inspired stew on Sunday.

1. In Instant Pot, saute minced onion in ghee and oil.
2. Saute 1-2 tbsp. of berbere spice mix.
3. Add minced garlic, a box of baby spinach (this was one of my produce rescues at the supermarket that morning), some crushed tomatoes and rinsed, soaked red lentils (masoor dal).
4. Add water to cover the ingredients.
5. Pressure cook HIGH 4 minutes. Natural release.

While not authentic, this stew was very flavorful and very spicy, reminiscent of misir wot that I've eaten in Ethiopian restaurants. I served it with golden adai instead of injera.

Tell me about the spices in your kitchen. What are the ones you can't live without? What spices do you hoard? How many spices do you own- 7, 70 or 700?