Thursday, August 27, 2020

Rediscovering Short Stories

Modeling clay Ganpati bappa made
by my sister and nephew! 

I started to write a post about my idli recipe- and it was getting so long-winded that I removed the book portion to post here separately. Idli post to come in a couple of days! Meanwhile let's talk about books.

* * * 

Image: Goodreads

Something that really brightened up my week was this book- Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due. Sinking your teeth into a well-written book is just so delicious. The Read Harder challenge continues to force me to read new authors and explore new genres and when I reluctantly do so, I am sometimes richly rewarded. The prompt was "Read a horror book published by an indie press" and I drew a blank. Horror is not really my favorite genre. And honestly, I wouldn't know an indie press from any other kind of press. On the community forums, this book kept popping up as a suggestion so I requested it from the library with a let's-check-this-box attitude. 

But Tananarive Due's book is SO GOOD! She knows how to tell a story and I am here for it. As a nice bonus, many of the stories are set right here in Georgia and Florida. The stories fall into 4 sections; "Gracetown" features three ghost stories set in Florida, the "Knowing" had 5 stories of uncanny events, 3 of which I loved; "Carriers" has 5 stories all with pandemic themes (!) and "Vanishings" ends the collection with two stories. I was blown away by several stories in this great little collection.

It has been a while since I read a book of short stories. They were my very favorite genre as a teenager and young adult. Several of the short stories that I loved and still remember decades later are available to read online in their entirety, like O. Henry's iconic The Gift of the Magi and his hilarious story of a kidnapping gone wrong, The Ransom of Red Chief. Roald Dahl is best known for his children's books but his short story Taste is outstanding. Edited to add: I just remembered another one of Dahl's classics- Lamb to the Slaughter. Other memorable short stories: the futuristic There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, the moralistic The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, the highly unsettling The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and Truman Capote's poignant A Christmas Memory

A few collections of short stories that I have enjoyed over the years- Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan, No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov and Tales of Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry. 

* * *

Two pieces of inspiration- a child of the slums becomes a food scientist, and this young ballet dancer from an unlikely dance academy

Tell me what you're reading, and what's inspiring you these days. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Impossible quiche

We're halfway into August and the pandemic summer goes on and on. It is Friday now and this week has been a routine and uneventful one. But last week felt very anxious and discombobulated. There was a COVID scare in our household, then one of our kids fell and dislodged a front tooth and needed urgent dental care. We heard from three people close to us who have all lost family members either to COVID or other illnesses. 

Most of the cooking since then has been in the form of soups, soft scrambled eggs, khichdi and smoothies because of the aforementioned dental misadventure. But one evening I took over some dinner to friends as a condolence offering- tortellini vegetable soup and quiche.  

To make the quiche, I adapted this recipe, looking through the pantry and freezer to come up with some ingredients. I found a box of frozen spinach and a container of fried onions and somehow that odd combination worked out really well. This is one of those "impossible" quiches which is crustless, but a small amount of flour in the mixture settles and magically forms a crust of sorts for the quiche. Instead of making a large quiche, I made two smaller ones, one for our family and the other, in a foil pan, to share. The quiche mixed up quickly and turned out beautifully- it sliced well and held its shape. I knew I had to jot down the recipe so I can make it again.

Impossible quiche

Preheat oven to 400F.

Lightly whisk 6 large eggs and set aside.

Grease 1 or 2 baking dishes. In the baking dish(es), divide 1 package chopped spinach (thawed in the microwave and squeezed somewhat dry), 1 scant cup shredded cheddar cheese and about a cup of fried onions

In a large bowl, mix together 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1 tsp. baking powder

Stir in 1.5 cups milk, 2 tsp. dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste, whisking to make sure there are no lumps. 

Pour the mixture in the prepped baking dishes. 

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the mixture is just cooked in the center (test with a knife tip). 

* * * 

What else have I been doing? I've surprised myself by keeping up with an exercise routine since my beloved gym classes and pools shut down in mid-March. The classes and the gym have always been a crutch for me as I maintained that I could not and would not exercise if left to my own devices. Well, now I have learned to do just that. Four or five mornings a week, I either go for a 30 minute run or do a 30 minute workout on YouTube- my favorites are Fitness Blender (there are dozens) and workouts by Lita Lewis (there are 3, and I have done each one many times over). My approach to exercise is to do it consistently and enjoy the process without any expectations. 

I've been watching a few movies that are leaving Netflix at the end of this month- Groundhog Day, which I highly recommend because it is funny and feels topical, and United 93, which tells the story of Flight 93 which was hijacked on 9/11- a hard-hitting and very well-crafted movie. 

And, tomorrow, Aug 15, 2020- Happy Independence Day, India. After many decades, I watched this video today- the original and superb Mile Sur Mera Tumhara.

How is August treating you?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Birthday pancake & cake, and an improv chutney for idlis

Our son turned 4 this month- our little guy with the big and boisterous personality. He loves water play, books and watching "scary and creepy" shows, can't recognize alphabets yet but knows the names of about 40 different Pokemon, insists of wearing only muscle shirts in summer, competes ferociously with his big sister and declares "I need something sugary" a couple of times a day. So he got two sweet treats for his big day.

We kicked off the birthday with an early morning pancake breakfast- the pancake in this case was a skillet pancake adapted from this recipe, with 3/4 of all-purpose flour replaced with whole grain atta, sugar reduced to a scant 1/4 cup, and a handful of chocolate chips instead of berries. The grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins all joined in on Zoom to sing happy birthday. Just don't be like me and place candles into a hot skillet pancake; I had to pull them out hastily after this picture was taken because they started to melt! 

Later in the day, his sister and I made an official birthday cake. When asked about the flavor and type of cake, the birthday boy had one singular request- he wanted sprinkles, lots of them, inside and out. Done! 

We made a sweet little funfetti cake using this recipe. I just realized that the recipe has been updated since I used it. I made the old recipe, which is in the notes in the linked recipe. My only changes were to use 1/4 cup granulated sugar instead of 3/4 cup, and to reduce sprinkles to 1/2 cup. Our cake baked up in about 22 minutes, much quicker than what the recipe says.

For the frosting, instead of the buttercream in the recipe, we made a chocolate ganache- warming 2/3 cup of heavy cream, then adding in 2/3 cup of chopped dark chocolate off the heat and letting the mixture cool before whisking to a smooth, thick paste. Big sissy laid on the frosting and the sprinkles. The amount of frosting was more than enough for this cake- and psst, leftover ganache frosting is basically chocolate mousse and can be eaten straight up with a spoon. 

I'm one for easy birthday cakes at the best of times, but at this particular time, there was something very endearing about a little cake with colorful sprinkles hiding in every slice, with a shiny chocolatey frosting and more sprinkles on top. It really captured the simple joys of life and buoyed my spirit, while making a little boy very happy. I never thought a funfetti cake (fake food colors yadda yadda) would be my thing, but I have to admit that a slice of this soft and tasty cake was perfectly delightful with a cup of chai. 

* * *

A favorite food of both of my kids is idlis. Those fluffy dumplings smeared with ghee, what's not to love? It took me years to nail down my idli protocol and I never, ever mess with the idli recipe now I have it working right. Idlis may be traditional but chutneys have plenty of room for improvisation. This time I had an over-ripe tomato to use up, and lots of onions in the pantry, so I made an onion tomato peanut chutney. To add to the improvisation, instead of regular red chillies, I used dried Mexican pasilla peppers, large wrinkly peppers that have a fruity and smoky taste and are not overly hot. 

Onion Tomato Peanut Chutney with Pasilla Peppers

  1. In a saucepan, heat 1-2 tsp. coconut oil.
  2. Add 2 diced onions and saute until lightly browned.
  3. Add 2-3 rinsed pasilla peppers, with stems discarded and each pepper cut into 3-4 pieces.
  4. Add a large diced tomato and salt to taste. 
  5. Stir fry the mixture until the tomato no longer smells raw.
  6. Let it cool a bit, then add 1/2 cup roasted peanuts and blend to a thick paste using some water as needed.
  7. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida, urad and chana dal and add it to the chutney. Mix together.
  8. Taste and adjust salt, adding lime juice if needed to bring out the flavor. 

* * * 
My reading these days is in fits and starts. I started a new job this month, one that is technical and challenging for me. At the end of the day I have very little mental bandwidth to take on demanding books and am usually grasping for an escape. The New Yorker issues arrive in the mail weekly but often I just can't bring myself to read yet another article about the pandemic or corrupt politicians or climate change. It all just weighs on the mind. (When I do pick up the magazine, I always find really interesting- if mostly depressing- articles to read, like this recent one about an online literature class reading the 1866 Russian novel Crime and Punishment and how its larger theme of societal decline resonates even today.)

One book did give a longed-for mental escape recently: The Satapur Moonstone- the second Parveen Mistry novel by Sujata Massey. I picked it up for the Read Harder Task #7: Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. The year is 1922 and we are in British India. Parveen Mistry is Bombay's first lady lawyer, young and plucky. In this atmospheric novel, I joined Parveen in her long journey on a palanquin through dense woods to the rural heart of a princely state, to a circuit house and a palace. A most enjoyable read. 

My daughter worked her way through the whole Harry Potter series this summer. While I never was a big Harry Potter fan, I did read the books when they came out back in the day. I remember reading the last book when it came out and thinking that it was really dark; the scenes with Harry and friends hiding out in a tent, fighting in isolation, stayed with me. I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my daughter- not reading aloud, but reading in parallel with her. I enjoyed the book much more the second time around. Again, it was a good escape into another world and one in which terrible things are happening but everything works out in the end. 

For Read Harder's Task #13: Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before, I read a book of food essays, You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another. It fit the theme because it had an essay about the cuisine of Anatolia, which is something I can confidently say I have never tried before. But there are a dozen really interesting essays in this book. There's one titled, "There is no such thing as a non ethnic restaurant" which about says it all. There's one about how everywhere you go, you can find meat (and other things) wrapped in flatbread, and another about how everywhere you go, you can find food steamed in leaves. A few essays profile immigrants starting restaurants- "Curry grows wherever it goes". The last essay was fascinating, about coffee bean production by small farmers in Rwanda. 

What are you cooking and eating and reading? I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Blueberries, Chanterelles and Noodle bowls

To state the obvious, the summer of 2020 is not like any other summer ever. The present feels dystopian. The future feels ominous. In all honesty, I find myself very dejected and anxious these days while also acknowledging that my family and I are OK and luckier than so many.

I haven't felt like blogging for weeks even though the kitchen has been extra busy. Working at home on my laptop all day long is draining and makes me less inclined to pick up the laptop again to blog after work. But this weekend I felt like posting so here I am.

* * *
"Mountains and Fountains rain down on me,"
"Buried in Berries, what a Jam Jamboree !"
- Jamberry by Bruce Degan (a beloved board book of both of my kids)

Early one Sunday morning we headed out to a farm about 20 minutes away from town for some blueberry picking. I found out about this You-Pick farm where else but on Instagram and jumped at the chance for some socially distanced family fun. The place operated on the honor system. Buckets were stacked on the fence posts of the gate. You grab a bucket or two, walk in and pick all the blueberries you wanted, and slip the payment into the slot of a lock box.

It was such a beautiful morning and a lovely respite- we could marvel at the beauty of nature while looking at gorgeous Georgia skies and rows of blueberry bushes laden with fresh fruit.

Blueberry muffins

When we got home I froze down most of the blueberry haul- freezing them in a single layer on baking sheets for a few hours, then pouring the frozen berries into bags and back into the freezer- this keeps the berries from freezing into a big clump. I eat blueberries most mornings with my steel cut oatmeal so it is nice to have this stash.

Of course my daughter and I also made a batch of jammy blueberry muffins that very afternoon and they were a treat. 

A couple of weeks later, I used some of the frozen berries to make a blueberry almond crisp, using this recipe and dividing the recipe into two baking pans, one for our home and one for friends. It was fantastic. 

The finished crisp

* * * 
Hot, damp weather and frequent thunderstorms and downpours- this is the recipe for chanterelle mushrooms popping up around here. Our daughter is an expert mushroom hunter and now her brother is learning from her. They will happily walk on nearby trails for hours as long as there are mushrooms to be foraged. There is some prep work required to get the dirt and grit off of the mushrooms but it is so worth it for that exquisite wild mushroom taste. I love that our city-bred kids get this small taste of what it is like to forage for food and enjoy it straight from the earth.

Our biggest haul- several pounds

Pan fried chanterelles with garlic and pepper

* * *
For a long while, I've wanted to do a pantry/fridge/freezer series on this blog, listing out the workhorse ingredients that help me produce meals day after day. Over years of family cooking, I have my favorites and buy them over and over again rather than experimenting too much. I'll do a mega post at some point sharing my idea of a well-stocked kitchen but here's a spotlight on one ingredient for now.

Noodles are definitely a pantry staple- we enjoy them in Asian ways or Italian ways or with countless inauthentic derivations thereof. After trying several different varieties of whole wheat noodles and soybean noodles and lentil/chickpea noodles, I found a noodle brand and variety that my family loves the best- Barilla Protein+ or Plus or something- I recognize the yellow box- and that's what I have been stocking up on. (As always, when I mention particular products, it is because I like them and not because the company is paying me!) I cook a whole box of these noodles and work them into 2-3 meals. 

One of the big mushroom hauls was too big to fit into even our biggest pan, so I roasted the shrooms with a bunch of broccoli. Cooked spaghetti and the roasted broccoli-mushrooms went into two quite different meals- 

1. Loaded peanut noodles

a. I tossed the noodles with teriyaki sauce, rice wine vinegar and peanut butter to make quick peanut noodles
b. The bowl had a crunchy salad layer of lettuce, cucumbers and red peppers. 
c. Then came the peanut noodles.
d. Then some thinly sliced baked tofu and the roasted broccoli and mushrooms.

2. Faux Chikn Parmesan

Eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan (breaded, fried, eggplant or chicken smothered in red sauce and cheese and baked into a casserole) are staples of Italian-American comfort food. This was my low-maintenance, semi-homemade version of the same. Unlike the original, it does NOT sit in your stomach like a brick. 

1. Meatless chikn patties (there are several brands that I like and I usually stash a box or two in the freezer)- thawed in the microwave, then sliced.
2. Layer the chikn strips with jarred pasta sauce and shredded mozzarella in a baking dish.
3. If you are short on time, cover the dish and warm in the microwave until heated through and melty. If you have a little extra time, do the same in the oven until bubbly and browned. 
4. Serve with what else but your favorite noodles and roasted broccoli and mushrooms! 

* * * 

If you enjoy medical dramas, I highly recommend the Lenox Hill on Netflix- a documentary/ reality TV series that follows four doctors- two neurosurgeons, an OB/GYN and an emergency doc- their lives and their patients. I just finished watching it and gave me all the feels.

How is July going for you? I hope you are all safe and in good health, friends. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Book Summary: The End of Overeating

A couple times every year, there are big book sales in our town. Great heaps of gently used books are sold for a dollar or two each and the proceeds benefit good causes like childhood literacy organizations and special programming at the public library. I shop these book sales with the wild-eyed enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, trying not to throw myself at the long tables filled with books. It is a win-win-win situation because you get to clear books out of your house and into new hands, find fresh books at rock bottom prices, and raise money for community good. Every time I hit one of these book sales, I buy a few books that look interesting and squirrel them away. But then I usually end up reading library books and these books are always saved for later.

By this time in lockdown, I have burned through my library books, "later" is here, and I have started to read through my rainy day book collection. My attention span isn't very good these days. I started on two novels of the family drama genre- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and neither of me was able to hold my attention. They went into the donation pile and will end up at one of these book sales in the future. The circle of life; used book edition.

This week I grabbed a nonfiction book from the "later" bookshelf and ended up devouring it (no pun intended)- The end of overating: Taking control of the insatiable American appetite by David Kessler, MD. This book was published in 2009- 11 years ago at this point- but everything it says remains relevant. I read lots of books about food and nutrition every year and there wasn't anything in this book that was particularly new but it was a good read all the same. The food industry parts of the book were fascinating in a horrifying, train-wrecky way and the food rehab parts of the books were a good reminder of the urgent need for change in food culture in the US, and increasingly all over the world.

The book is written in easily digestible, bite-sized chapters. While it mentions the research early and often, it is not science-heavy. For more of the neuroscience behind many of the concepts mentioned in this book, I highly recommend Hungry Brain by Stephan Guyenet.

The central question asked in this book is: What drives us to overeat? I would guess that this is a relatable question to most of us. For instance, those bowls of snacks like roasted nuts, chaklis and kettle cooked chips that we might set out for visitors. My dad calls this "veda khaana" in Marathi, which translates into "mad food" or rather, mindless food, which most people will eat almost automatically regardless of whether they are actually hungry or not. And often will keep eating until the bowl is empty.

Many people who are smart, self-aware, disciplined and successful in other parts of their lives are nevertheless frustrated by their loss of control around food. The author blames it on conditioned hypereating- we eat too much (more than what our bodies need) because we have too much tasty food around. Humans are biologically wired to respond to stimuli like nicotine, alcohol, illegal drugs, gambling. "..for most of us, food is the most readily available and socially acceptable stimulus."

Part 1 of the book is titled Sugar, Fat, Salt.

Human body weight stayed remarkably stable for most of human history, but in the last 40 years or so, something has changed and humans are getting heavier. Weight gain is primarily due to overeating; factors like genetics, metabolism and diet composition play a minor role.

More food is available, portion sizes are bigger- true- but just having food available does not mean we have to eat it. What is driving the out-of-control eating?

Our body systems- temperature, blood pressure, etc.- are kept stable through elaborate homeostatic processes. There is also such a homeostatic system for energy balance, that is, weight regulation. But it is not the only system in charge of food intake. A different system called the reward system is also involved. The reward system is a powerful biological force, encouraging us to seek out pleasurable things like food because in the past our survival depended on it." America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning." 

Salt, sugar and fat make us eat more salt, sugar and fat because they are all highly palatable and we keep eating these foods because of the stimulation rather than genuine hunger. The biological system that is designed to maintain energy balance can go awry when animals (including humans) have easy access to a variety of foods that are highly palatable foods.

The restaurant industry creates highly stimulating foods. Sugar, salt and fat are either loaded onto a core ingredient, layered on top of it, or both. In typical restaurant spinach dip, the spinach only adds a bit of color and health appeal. A high-salt, high-fat dairy product is the main ingredient. Salads use a bit of lettuce as a carrier for ranch dressings and are loaded with cheese chunks, bacon bits and fried croutons. All foods are made more compelling and more hedonic.

There is substantial scientific evidence that rewarding high-fat, high-sugar foods tend to be reinforcing, meaning that they keep us going back for more. Our desire for more is also influenced by portion size (if more food is served, more will be eaten), the concentration of fat and sugar (up to a point) and variety- in the number of foods offered but also in contrasting textures and flavors.

Rewarding foods are becoming increasingly more complex and stimulating. Ice cream used to come in three flavors, then more and more flavors became available, followed by premium, higher-fat ice cream and then mix-ins of candy into ice cream. Similarly, other foods like bagels that once came in a single flavor are increasingly tricked-out with flavor combinations that are loaded with sugar on fat on salt.

Over time, sights and smells, times and locations become cues that lead us to eat rewarding foods. Particular foods become linked to nostalgia and emotion. The opioids produced by eating rewarding foods can relieve pain and stress and calm us down, making us feel better in the short run. We cannot control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains are rewired by eating these foods.

My thoughts on this part of the book: The term "layered and loaded" is going to stick in my brain. As a home cook, I try to cook food that is tasty. But it is oh so easy to overdo it with the sugar, salt and fat in the name of making a dish irresistible. The problem is then you succeed and the food is impossible to resist and you end up eating more than you want to.

The layered and loaded phrase also reminded me of chaat- those tempting Indian snack foods and some of my personal favorite things to eat. They are a good example of how deep fried dough (puris) and contrasting tastes (spicy chutney, sweet chutney) and textures (creamy yogurt, crunchy sev) are all layered and loaded and made completely irresistible. A lot of our favorite foods in every cuisine are fried, salt, spicy and/or sugary even when they start from wholesome ingredients or are made at home.

The next part of the book talks about The Food Industry.

The food industry has discovered what sells. Chain restaurant entrees are composed of chopped and ultrapalatable components that look appealing, need minimal chewing (refined food simply melts in the mouth) and are very high-pleasure, with very high calorie density. Very little in the appearance or flavor of chain restaurant food would point to just how much salt, sugar and fat it is loaded with, or how easily it goes down.

The development of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls is a great case study of how the industry creates products that are indulgent and irresistible with a combination of visual appeal, aroma, texture and consistency.

Purchasing indulgent food is an inexpensive form of entertainment, so the food industry increasingly behaves like the entertainment industry. Indulging in a premium snack is seen as a small moment of relaxation in a stressful life, a bit of 'me-time'.

Fats and sugars used to be scarce and therefore we developed the biological tools to seek out and appreciate them. Today oils and sugars are among the cheapest commodities because of rapid changes in agriculture and commerce. The food industry has enthusiastically embraced this business opportunity to use oils and sugars for a profit.

Where traditional cuisine is meant to satisfy, American industrial food is meant to stimulate. It is mostly composed of easy calories that need little chewing.

We are taking products of other cuisines- eg. Chinese, Vietnamese- and making the dishes distinctly American, usually by adding more sugar and more fat. And also taking American processed foods and sharing them with the rest of the world.

Sophisticated food technology- artificial flavorings- are often used in addition to salt, sugar and fat to make food hyperpalatable. Traditional Italian gelato is made with whole milk, eggs and sugar but most commercial gelato in the US begins with a processed base made with ingredients like milk solids, glucose solids and a gum and emulsifier combination, along with a host of artificial flavors. Flavor chemists can develop any type of flavor to transform a food. "A topping that covers tortilla chips can look like cheese but contains mostly oil and flavoring."

There is constant eating opportunity. "Call it the taco chip challenge- the challenge of controlled eating in the face of constant food availability". Every single day and everywhere you go, foods are available, plentiful and cheap.

My thoughts on this part of the book: It is interesting to get a sneak peek into the food industry but it left me feeling sad, angry and disgusted. Because for large swaths of the US population, processed food is the only food that's available and affordable. You might think you are eating a simple burrito in a chain restaurant, but it is a food-like substance designed to cater to your tastebuds rather than actual food served to fuel your body. It is devastating to think of the millions of people who are heavily overfed and facing chronic health consequences while simultaneously being completely undernourished.

It is SO SO tricky and hard to find wholesome foods in a standard supermarket setting. I'll give you an example of common items that most American families buy regularly- cereal, granola bars, peanut butter, canned fruit, applesauce, pasta sauce. For each of these items, what you will typically find in supermarkets is loaded with sugar and fat. Granola bars are just refined cereal and sweeteners, applesauce is spiked with sweeteners, canned fruit is packed in heavy syrup, peanut butter has added sugar and oils. The list goes on. If you want wholesome versions of these items, it takes careful label reading, and shelling out money for premium brands. Or having the time and expertise to make items from scratch at home without added sugar, salt and oils.

The rest of the book has chapters titled Conditioned Hypereating Emerges, The Theory of Treatment, Food Rehab and The End of Overeating. These chapters reiterate the issue of why we overeat and what we can do about it as individuals and as a society. Some of the stuff in these chapters could have been better organized. I'm pulling out some take-home points below.

Food-related reward learning becomes highly automated and below the level of conscious awareness. The weight loss drug phen-fen worked effectively because it lessened the drive for reward and stopped people from being obsessed with food. It has serious side-effects and is not in use any more but taught us a lot about the biology of overeating.

Why can't we just say no to food that we don't want to eat? The short answer is that high-reward foods engage fundamental neural mechanisms that can interfere with how we rationally want to act.

Conditioned overeating is a biological challenge in our current food environment. Overeating is not a character flaw or a lack of willpower.

The food industry has cracked the code of conditioned hypereating and knows how to manipulate people's eating behavior and get us to pursue the foods it wants to sell. The challenge is knowing how to respond. It is possible to learn to eat the food you want in a planned and controlled way as individuals.

Some specific tips gleaned from this book-

  1. Avoid risky situations (but that may be difficult in a world of omnipresent food cues.) 
  2. Be aware of how food reward works. 
  3. Look at food and see it for what it is- real food or something loaded with sugar, salt and fat? 
  4. Change behaviors: eg. taking different route that doesn't go past your favorite bakery, taking a list to the grocery store and sticking to it. 
  5. Formulate new thoughts to replace old ones: "I'll just take one bite" to "I can't eat just one bite; it always leads to twenty."
  6. Think differently about food, as nourishment rather than reward. 
  7. See hyperpalatable foods as enemies, not friends. Stop thinking, "I deserve this"or "I'll only eat a little". 
  8. Planned eating: Instead of eating whatever, whenever in a chaotic way, have a predictable structure for eating- what foods you will eat, how much will you eat, and when you will eat. 
  9. Just-right eating: Learning to eat the right amount of foods to satisfy until the next meal. 
  10. Choose satisfying, fiber-rich whole foods.
  11. For emotional eaters, choose a different response to negative emotions and stress. 
  12. Know your trigger foods and avoid them.
  13. Purchase high-reward foods in reasonable quantities and eat them in the right settings.
  14. Food can be an occasional reward but when all eating becomes rewarding it is a problem. 
  15. Find alternative rewards. 
  16. Find food that provides emotional reward without driving overeating.
  17. Understand yourself and become your own food coach. 

As a society, we need to rethink our ideas about the right time and place to eat in the home, in a social and in business settings. Redefine norms. Smoking is a great example of how the norms have changed completely. Smoking used to be considered cool and glamorous and widely accepted. Today, smoking is known to be deadly and it is rarely accepted in public spaces.

Some suggestions for policy changes that would help:

  1. List calorie counts of food in restaurants.
  2. Better labeling to see added sugars, fats and refined carbs.
  3. Educate people about "big food" and the way they push food layered and loaded with salt, sugar and fat.
  4. Regulate marketing of food.

The food industry says it is only giving people what they want and that individuals have responsibility for what they put in their mouths. They are designing highly stimulating products that hijack our brain circuitry.  What is industry's responsibility?

My thoughts on this last part of the book: All of these are good and valid questions. This was not mentioned in the book, but I think the government subsidies on corn sweeteners and refined oil are a big part of the problem.

A big reason why this book resonated with me at this time is because I have been consciously changing my eating habits in small ways for the past two years. I have learned first hand that changing habits is hard but very rewarding. Unlike short-term diets, changing my attitude and habits around food is slowly making me more confident about being able to stick to a sustainable and quietly enjoyable way of eating for the rest of my life.

I wish you all a safe and healthy June. How was the month of May for you? 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sweetening social isolation, and books we're reading

I posted lots of savory meals in my last post. Over the last couple of months, we've made some sweet treats too and I'm rounding them up here.

On Easter weekend, my British Baking Show- loving daughter was in a baking mood. We decided to make something seasonal, like carrot cake, and in order to fancy it up a little, made a carrot cake roll instead. It was an easy recipe to follow and came together nicely, and most importantly, we could do it peacefully from start to finish during little bro's afternoon nap.

V and the kids teamed up to make me a cake for my birthday. It was V's first time ever making a cake, in his memory. I could see them poring over recipes for weeks beforehand and they finally ended up choosing the tried and tested lemon bliss cake. At one point, I overheard someone say, "Baking soda and baking powder are the same, right?" and felt the need to step in (NO, no they are not), but other than that, they made the whole cake all by themselves while I lounged around and put my feet up. The lemon bundt cake was topped with a candle, the birthday song was sung with gusto and the lemon cake was perfect with a cup of tea.

(Buoyed by the success of their first bake, the three of them got together this morning and baked me a Mother's Day treat- doughnut muffins. Lucky me! I could get used to this.)

Later in the week there was more tea and citrus-flavored cake to be had as my sister mailed me a birthday box including homemade orange cake and a couple of cozy pajamas, all the better for lounging around at home. Her cake was fantastic, and this is the recipe she used, sans glaze.

While I try to emphasize meals and "proper khaana", there's certainly a big market for snacks around here. Once I made a dabba of fruit and nut ladoos as a treat. These were made in minutes by whirring the following in a food processor- pitted soft dates, cranberries, flaxseed meal, sesame seeds, cashews, almonds, walnuts, a sprinkle of salt and cardamom. Process until the crumbly mixture holds when pinched together. Form lime-sized balls. Store in the fridge.

In an effort to try other easy treats, I made these no bake chocolate nut bars. They were pretty good although the oat base was a little bland and too crumbly. This blogger has a very active Instagram account with many neat ideas for small-scale and low-sugar baking, like this apple galette for two, and these oat bars.

Here's one dessert that did not turn out right. It is a pandan custard, made in the instant pot using a recipe from a cookbook. I bought some pandan (screw-pine) extract from the Asian store specially for this. The recipe was easy enough, with eggs, coconut milk, sugar and pandan extract, but the result was too eggy and not to our taste at all.

I'll have to find other uses for the pandan extract, which does have a very unique (in a good way), hard to describe fragrance and flavor.

* * * 
I posted a picture of the stack of books that I managed to hoard before the library closed. I've read and enjoyed most of those by now.

Image: Goodreads
The Night Diary by Hiranandani is an epistolary middle grade novel. Twelve year old Nisha writes in her diary every night (the book title is a pun because the name Nisha means night) to her late mother. The diary covers the tumultuous three month period around the time of the partition of pre-Independence India. Nisha is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, and her family is fleeing from now-Pakistan to now-India. It is a fundamentally sad book because it describes a sad and scary time in a child's life, but it is a such an important story. “Sometimes the world as you know it just decides to become something else. This is our destiny now.” Also, this book has a gorgeous cover illustration.

The American Agent (Maisie Dobbs #15) by Jacqueline Winspear was a terrific read.  Maisie Dobbs is living through the London Blitz in WWII. She volunteers to drive an ambulance at night, and investigates a murder by day. The book paints a vivid picture of people trying to live their lives even as bombs falls night after night. A well-written book with lots of great historical details. And another absolutely stunning cover.

It was interesting to read these two books while we're sheltering in place during the COVID-19 emergency. Sort of puts our situation into perspective. It reminded me that the world goes through crises and upheavals on a regular basis. There is much suffering in this world and those of us with access to shelter and food are the lucky ones.

My daughter is reading the Harry Potter series- she's on book 4 at this time. We have been letting her finish a book and then watch the movie. She's also devouring her dad's collection of Calvin and Hobbes.

* * * 
A few links and recommendations-

Even experienced cooks will get some good tips from this back-to-basics article on how to read a recipe.

I was mesmerized by this 2 minute video of my friend Bala's henna-style painting.

If you're looking for a light and heartwarming show to watch, I highly recommend The Durrells on Prime. Set in Corfu, Greece, in the 1930s, it is the screen adaptation of Gerald Durrell's books, including My Family and Other Animals, which I read and loved many decades ago.

Tell me about your life- how are you doing, what are you eating, reading and watching? 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Food in the Time of Lockdown- 38 days and counting

It has been about six weeks since our family has been sheltering in place at home, like most of the rest of humanity. As non-essential workers, our only mandate at the minute is to stay home and be out of the way. There is much to be grateful for- we have food and a comfortable home, a yard where we can enjoy nice Spring weather, and a neighborhood that is safe and very quiet, where we can go for walks and jogs while social distancing.

My husband and I are working from home, caring from our kids and sharing housework- all of this keeps us on our toes and the days go flying by. Our daughter is busy with schoolwork, much of it online. The rest of the time she enjoys reading for fun, writing poems and letters, doing crafts and playing some video games. The biggest challenge is to keep the toddler boy engaged- he is too young to do much on his own, and while he's happy most of the time and plays with his sister a lot, we have noticed an uptick in temper tantrums out of sheer frustration at missing school, outings and friends. His sleep patterns have gotten worse so V and I are in the baffling situation of being home 24 a day and still not getting enough sleep. On the whole the kids definitely have a lot more screen time than they ever did before, and we have made our peace with it at this unusual time in our lives.

The kitchen is busy in a cycle of cooking and cleaning as I churn out three meals a day, plus some snacks for the kids. My style of cooking lends itself very well to what's being called "quarantine cooking"- simple fuss-free meals, made with fairly basic mostly whole foods, with ingredients being swapped out easily based on what's on hand, and with the very minimum of waste.

For breakfast, I tend to eat steel cut oats with nut butter and fruit- generally frozen blueberries and sometimes apples. On occasion, I'll eat avocado toast with a fried egg. V eats homemade granola with non-dairy milk every single morning. The kids choose from what we're eating, or cereal or toast, and pancakes on the weekends.

Lunch and dinner are simple meals- dal, khichdi, idli and dosas, tacos, soups and tofu stir fries are always on the rotation. I start with whatever vegetables I have on hand, and then craft a meal around that, adding beans or tofu or eggs, and some grains.

Here's a sampling of recent meals that I thought to take pictures of, with shorthand recipes.

Impromptu Misal: Start with sprouted moong beans. Make a Maharashtrian usal-like curry. I did this in the instant pot by tempering with mustard seeds and turmeric, sauteeing onion, a bit of tomato and goda masala, adding salt and water, and then cooking at high pressure for 4 minutes. We topped this stew with shredded carrots, cilantro and onion, a swirl of yogurt and crunchy roasted peanuts. 
Edamame bowl with Thai flavors: A sheet pan of mixed roasted vegetable is the starting point for many, many of our meals. This time I had some cabbage and broccoli, red pepper and a bag of shelled frozen edamame- all roasted together at the convection setting at 400F for 12 minutes. In the fridge, I had half of a can of yellow Thai curry paste, and a third of a can of coconut milk. I simply mixed these together and warmed the mixture in a saucepan to make a sauce. We drizzled the sauce on a base of some rice and a big helping of the roasted veg-edamame mix. 

Congee: This recipe was adapted from the book The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook for your Instant Pot by Kathy Hester. My daughter loves the mushroom bok choy soup from a local Chinese restaurant. This brown rice congee had the same flavors in a heartier version. In an instant pot, add together half cup brown rice, 4 cups water, baby bok choy chopped, baby Bella and shiitake mushrooms sliced (used two small boxes total). Season with better than bouillon (or other stock concentrate) and some ginger-garlic. Cook on high pressure 40 minutes, natural pressure release. Taste and add some soy sauce and vegan chicken seasoning (new spice blend from Trader Joe’s that I am liking very much). I served this with oven baked marinated tofu slices and a dollop of my favorite condiment- spicy chilly crisp. 

Sheet pan sausages: On a sheet pan, toss together potato cubes, sliced cabbage, and other veggies (broccoli, peppers, carrot) with some salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast at 400F on convection setting. Add sliced veggie "sausages" in the last few minutes of roasting. I served this with a fried egg. 

Chili and cornbread: This was a bid to finish up the last cup of cornmeal that had been lingering in the pantry. I tried a recipe for cheddar kale cornbread and served it on a black bean and sweet potato chili.

Tortellini stew: This was an easy Instant Pot stew of canned crushed tomatoes, a pack of refrigerated tortellini, a few meatless meatballs, a minced carrot and about 3 cups stock, all cooked under high pressure for a minute, then natural release after 4 minutes. I stirred in a can of white beans at the end.

Lasagna: My kids love lasagna and now I have standardized a version that is heavy on vegetables and relatively light on cheese. This time I only had one box of frozen spinach so I used some frozen green beans in addition and the combination worked well. A large tray of lasagna lasts us for meals over 3-4 days. 

* * *
In little bits of stolen time- an hour here and there- I decluttered and organized our spare room which doubles as our storage room and my sewing space. It was a rewarding activity, and mentally therapeutic. I folded all my fabric neatly into bins, keeping only what I like and can reasonably use. The rest got bagged up and donated to a local group that is making face masks. I found a few half-done projects, dusted off my long-neglected sewing machine and finished them. Now when I look around the tidy space, I feel inspired again.

My favorite fabric collection- block printed
cottons from India

I made a bunch of face masks, mostly to
share with neighbors and friends

A half-finished project that finally got done.
Darling little hanging baskets- free pattern from
Jennifer Jangles.

Hats for my dear friend's twin boys. I can't imagine
being socially isolated with twin newborns in the
middle of a pandemic!

* * *
Only 6 months after our sweet dog Duncan had major knee surgery on his left leg, he had to have the same procedure on his right knee. He had been recovering really well from his first surgery, but then last month we started to notice that he was limping again. The vet surgeon had warned us that most dogs who have the procedure on one leg eventually need it on the other leg, and that the time between when the two surgeries are needed  is unpredictable- it can range from weeks to years.

Ten days ago, things got really bad all of a sudden and to make a long story short, we had a miserable night of him not being able to get up off the ground, followed immediately by two nights in the hospital and TTA surgery on his right knee. We are thankful that vets are operating at this time- the whole thing was done with strict social distancing. You drop off your pet in the vet's parking lot and they take him in and do the exam and call you to talk about the findings and next steps.

The good news is that he's doing really well post-surgery. We are home to watch over him and give him company 24/7. It has been a rough year for this sweet dog. The hope is that with two brand new knee implants, our bionic pup will have many more healthy years ahead.

Duncan enjoys spring sunshine in the yard.
You can see the bandaged right hind leg.
Duncan's plight last week prompted
our daughter to write this poem.

Tell me how you're doing and what the COVID-19 situation is looking like in your part of the world. Best wishes to all!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

One-Pot Rajma Chawal, Pizza and Quarantine Reading

We are sheltering in place, like broad swaths of the globe. I have started my new role as a second grade homeschool teacher. My daughter's public school has been superb- earlier this week, the principal and assistant principal stood outside the school for 3 hours as parents came by to pick up packets of worksheets and home lessons. Every morning, teachers post a cheerful message and mini assignments for the day. The class teacher called each family to check on the children. Everyone is trying to do what they can under the circumstances.

Our 8 year old does a few worksheets (language and math) every day and then has plenty of time left over to play with her brother, spend hours coloring, play board games with me, arrange and rearrange Pokemon cards, read and watch some TV. Honestly, for an 8 year old there is no dearth of ways to fill time. It is such a great age. There are so many things I haven't even suggested yet, like podcasts, craft kits, jigsaw puzzles and sudoku. I'm trying to do something new every day with her. Yesterday, we watched a Khan academy video together- an introduction to multiplication. It was great! I am so grateful for people like Sal Khan and so many other artists and educators that put out valuable content online for free.

Three year olds are a different story. Our toddler has the attention span of a fruit fly and it is harder to engage him in activities for any period of time. He hopefully asks me every morning if school is open yet. Clearly he misses his buddies and teachers and the full schedule of his wonderful Montessori school.

User error
I was looking for a baking project that we could do together and decided to make overnight pizza dough for a pizza lunch the following day. I have all-purpose flour in the pantry but no bread flour. There was some active dry yeast in the freezer but no instant yeast. So I looked around for a recipe that used the ingredients I had on hand and ended up using this recipe. It resulted in a wonderful workable dough in minutes. The kids used a bowl and a dough whisk- no mixer or food processor needed.

 I plopped the dough in a plastic box in the fridge. It has been a while since I made any kind of yeasted bread from scratch and apparently I've completely forgotten how much dough rises, even in the fridge. The next morning, I found this overflowing box in the fridge. (Insert facepalm here.) It was easy enough to cut out the dried-out bits and salvage most of the dough.

When lunch time was about an hour away, I oiled a heavy half-sheet pan with some olive oil and plopped the dough into it. In hindsight, I should have used 2/3 of the dough and saved the rest. Using all that dough on one pan resulted in a thicker pizza than I wanted. Yes, mistakes were made. I covered the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes. Then the kids patted it down to cover the bottom of the pan edge to edge.

They topped the dough with a few spoonfuls of pizza sauce (made on the fly by mixing jarred marinara sauce with some pesto) and handfuls of shredded mozzarella.

I baked the pan pizza in a 450F oven. Yet another mistake- I should have cranked up the oven to 500F. The top of the pizza browned before the bottom did. Another improvement would be to bake on the lowest rack of the oven instead of the top rack like I did.

After this absolute litany of mistakes, guess what, though? It was still the best pizza I've ever made at home. It was like a thick crust focaccia pizza, but the texture and taste were just so good. I'm going to try this again next week with fewer missteps, hopefully.

Pan pizza slices; notice how the top is perfect but the
crust (upturned slice) could have used more browning.
*  *  *

Apart from occasional experiments as with the pizza, I have been cooking simple, nourishing meals for the family. One recipe in our regular meal rotation is the brown rice and black bean instant pot recipe that I have posted before. On a whim, I made an Indian riff on the recipe by using kidney beans instead of black beans and subbing in Indian spices. It made a wonderful and easy one pot rajma chawal- served here with green beans subzi

Soak 1.5 cups dry (raw) kidney beans, then rinse thoroughly.

Mix the following in the instant pot-
  • Soaked kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup dry (raw) brown rice, rinsed
  • 7 cups water
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
Seasoning- all to taste
  • Kasuri methi
  • Cumin-coriander powder
  • Paprika/ cayenne
  • Kitchen king masala
  • Salt
Cook on high pressure for 22 minutes.
Natural pressure release.

* * * 

When the public library announced last weekend that they would be closed for at least 2 weeks, I ran over there in haste. This is my version of panic buying- panic checking out of an armload of books.

Much of my quarantine bookshelf consists of books that were picked up strictly for their soothing and distracting qualities. Wodehouse on crime by P. G. Wodehouse is on my living room table right now, a dozen short stories each based on some sort of misdemeanor or deception. 28 Barbary lane is a book I've wanted to read for a while and this seems like a good time for gossipy, soapy stories about the inhabitants of a block of San Francisco. I also added a McCall Smith for good measure and the latest Maisie Dobbs novel.

Some of the books are intended for particular tasks in the Read Harder 2020 challenge- Bomb is YA historic non-fiction about the race to build the bomb, Village School by Miss Read is for the task- book that takes place in a rural setting, The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is for the task about a middle grade book not set in the US or UK- it is set during the India-Pakistan partition.

For the Read Harder 2020's task on graphic memoirs, I read a trio of middle grade graphic memoirs by Raina Telgemeier and enjoyed all three. Guts is the candid story of Raina aged 9-10 dealing with mysterious GI issues and anxiety, and using therapy to help. Smile is the mind-boggling memoir of how one mishap (falling and breaking two front teeth) led to a couple of years of painful and complicated dental procedures. Sisters is the relatable story of sibling drama during a two week family road trip.

My daughter is reading Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. An interesting title and a dose of dark humor for the times! As you can probably tell from the picture, she's on book 9 now. She loves the fast-paced adventures in this series. A friend generously handed down the whole series to us a couple of years ago and it is great to have these in our little home library.

How is your week going? How are things in your neck of the woods?

Spring equinox 2020: Fresh air on the porch

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sipping Soup for Viral Times

This big blue planet seems like a small place now, as everyone around the globe is huddling from and struggling against the novel virus COVID-19. Around here last week was relatively normal (we were on Spring break and even took the kids to the High Museum in Atlanta), but now schools are closed for the next week and quite possibly longer. All around us is a ghost town as people seek to isolate and contain the virus, even as a few cases have been confirmed around us.

Amid all this uncertainly, one thing is for sure- we are among the lucky ones. V and I are able to work from home. We have each other's support to take turns caring for the kids and pulling out our laptops to catch up on work. We'll get our salaries no matter what the next few weeks look like. We are fortunate to have cash on hand to be able to stock our kitchen and pantry to a reasonable extent with essential goods- and no, I have done absolutely no panic buying and hoarding. The dry rice, beans and lentils in my pantry will see us through many months if it comes to that.

I'm crushed to think of so many who are not as lucky. All the parents who lack childcare and aren't allowed/able to work from home. The lost jobs. The shuttered small businesses. The rich will sail through this while the poor will get poorer. The health implications of a pandemic are bad enough and then the economic devastation will be unbelievable. I hope we can all come together and get through it in one piece.

While the local kids are home and parents are collectively gearing up to entertain youngsters who are too used to a busy week of school, extra-curricular classes, play-dates and outings, here's one more factor that's not working in our favor: the weather forecast for the next 10 days. There's rain followed by more rain.

I'm trying to be creative and come up with fresh ideas for the kids. Not being a particularly fun and playful person by nature (!), this is going to need some work and an attitude shift from my end. We can't treat this as an extended weekend. There needs to be some structure and routine and purpose to our days.

No matter what else we do, one priority is to find ways for myself and the kids to be physically active, rain or no rain. This morning I suggested that we learn how to do yoga surya namaskars or sun salutations. I have wanted to learn this for a while. We found a video online and followed along in our living room. My toddler would have none of it but my daughter loved it. It felt good! We'll try to do these every morning as a wake-up exercise.

In the afternoon, I looked out at the grimy-from-winter screened porch and asked the kids if they would like to clean the porch so they can eat lunch out there even on rainy days. They shocked me by enthusiastically working together to sweep the floor and wipe down everything and then calling us out for a "grand reopening". Amid the sibling squabbles and bored whining, I LIVE for moments like these! Clearly, I have to find more projects for them to do together.

* * * 

Here's a recipe that's often featured in my home when the forecast looks like this- a basic vegetable soup. I call it a sipping soup because I love making a thinner version and sipping it straight from a mug- it is very therapeutic for scratchy throats. I find usual broccoli cheese soup recipes to be too heavy with all that cheddar and heavy cream. This is my fairly minimalist recipe; it uses a little bit of cream cheese to add thickness and no other milk, cream or cheese.

Broccoli Sipping Soup

1. In an electric cooker insert (instant pot or such; although it could also be done in a regular pot on the stove), combine roughly chopped florets and stems from 2 heads of broccoli, and 1 roughly chopped medium carrot.

2. Add 4 cups water, 1 tbsp. nutritional yeast and seasoning. The seasoning can be salt, pepper and herbs of choice. Or your favorite seasoning blend. Or what I most often use is 1 tbsp. of better than bouillon seasoning- the roasted garlic flavor this time.

3. Pressure cook on HIGH for 3 minutes. Quick release pressure.

4. Add 2-3 tbsp. cream cheese (I buy the bar kind) to the cooked mixture. Then blend everything until smooth.

5. Add juice of 1/2 lemon; taste and adjust the seasoning.

Here's a note specially for these stocking-up times. While I buy fresh vegetables regularly and they are what I use most, I also keep a reliable stock of frozen vegetables on hand.

This (on the right) is a frozen veg blend that comes in very handy to make this sipping soup, a standard supermarket "California medley" of broc, cauli and carrots. A bag of these veggies cooked in the same way makes a hearty pot of soup.

Hope everyone stays safe and healthy out there. Tell me what's happening in your corner of the world. (I really do miss this blog when weeks go by and I don't/can't post. I keep trying to get into the groove of posting more regularly...)