Monday, November 24, 2014

What I'm Reading, and a Few Book Giveaways

Thanksgiving Week has arrived in the US. There's a buzz of excitement in the air. Already this afternoon there was a mad rush at the grocery store and I had to fight my way through a crowd to triumphantly score a the butternut squash.

Next week, I'll tell you about my holiday cooking but today, here's a rundown of the books I've been reading lately. And scroll down for some book giveaways.

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes (Jana Bibi Adventures #1) by Betsy Woodman is the story of a Scottish woman who makes India her adopted homeland in the decade following independence. She inherits a large house on a hill station and moves there. The very existence of the town is threatened by a proposed dam, and the story revolves around Jana Bibi and the colorful town residents who rally around to save the town. This was an easy and pleasant read but not particularly memorable- I like books that "give me all the feelings" and this one did not emotionally resonate with me for whatever reason.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French is a taut psychological thriller. This one, just like all of Tana French's other books that I've read was emotionally wrought, riveting, memorable and a book I just couldn't put down. The premise of the book is not very plausible if you think about it, yet the writing and atmosphere pull you right into the story. If you're looking to lose yourself in a book over Thanksgiving weekend, this is one I would recommend.

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn. Horn goes into the Cold Case Squad of NYC, following along on four cold (as in unsolved) cases involving complex and brutal murders. Along the way, she studies the politics and bureaucracy of the department, the challenges they face and the personalities of the detectives involved. It is interesting stuff, except that Horn has the most fragmented and confusing narrative style. Despite my annoyance at the disjointed writing, I read the book in 2 days flat so it definitely kept up my interest. I read this book as part of a read-along for Nonfiction November; here are two other reviews of Restless Sleep by bloggers who read it this month.

And now for some book giveaways. I have three cookbooks that were sent by the publisher and one book of short stories that I won in the giveaway. I've enjoyed these books and would like to pass them on to someone else. You'll need a shipping address in the US to keep shipping costs affordable for me. I'll keep the giveaway open until the morning of Monday, December 1, 2014.

1. Rainbows in the Desert by Archna Pant is a book of short stories set in India. I won this book from Siri's blog (she has a short review there too). I read it and quite enjoyed it and am ready to pass it along for someone else to read over the holidays. To win this book, fill out this form.

2. Savory Pies by Greg Henry is a good cookbook for those of us who lack a sweet tooth but find a good savory pastry quite irresistible. There's a wonderful variety of recipes in this book- there's everything from pot pies to pizza variations, empanadas and calzones. There are savory (and to me, thus infinitely superior) versions of desserts, such as artichoke clafoutis, polenta cobbler and mushroom tart tatin. To win this book, fill out this form.

3. Homemade Condiments by Jessica Harlan. Many home cooks are adept making their own versions of condiments. I remember my mother making ketchup when tomatoes were in season, and making pickles and chhunda was the thing to do when we were drowning in raw mangoes from the backyard tree in early summer. In my kitchen, I often make salsas, chutneys and salad dressings (but so far, I've always bought mayo and mustard and ketchup). This book is a gem, covering all sorts of condiments from ketchup and barbecue sauces to pickles, relishes and dessert sauces. Some of the recipes that look really good to me include chipotle ketchup, avocado goddess dressing, sweet chili sauce and hoisin sauce. To win this book, fill out this form.

4. Classic Snacks Made from Scratch by Casey Barber. I remember reading this in one of Michael Pollan's books: Only eat junk food that you've made in your own kitchen. (Or something to that effect). Well, if you've ever dreamed of making homemade versions of snack foods, Casey Barber has the recipes for you. This is such a fun cookbook. There's everything from cookies (eg. graham crackers) to twinkies, cool ranch doritos, pudding pops, cheetos! Some of the recipes are pretty simple to make, like the pudding pops, while others are very involved. But full points to her for closely replicating these (in)famous and celebrated treats. To win this book, fill out this form.

What are you reading these days? 
Any big plans for Thanksgiving week?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Indian-Spiced Hash and Omelet

We had a week marred by coughs and colds. Random khichdis and soups dominated the dinner menu all week. With cough syrup for dessert. On Sunday I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and made some eggs and potatoes for breakfast. This is a standard breakfast on this continent, for sure, but with some help from the masala dabba to give it some sinus-clearing oomph.

Two Potato Hash

1. Heat 2 tbsp. oil/ghee in a cast iron pan.
2. Add 1 diced medium onion, a sprig of curry leaves, 3 cloves minced garlic, 1 tbsp. cumin-coriander powder, 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder and 1/2 tsp. red chili powder (or more to taste). Stir fry for a minute or two.
3. Add 2 medium potatoes and 1 sweet potato, all evenly diced (no need to peel unless the peel is too thick).
4. Stir to coat the potatoes with spices and cook on medium-low heat until potatoes are tender and browned.

Masala Omelet

When a friend visited last Christmas and offered to make breakfast for our crowd, she made one giant omelet instead of making several small ones. So clever. I've used her method here.

1. Beat 5 large eggs.
2. Add 2 tbsp. minced onion, 1/4 cup minced cilantro, salt and pepper to the beaten eggs. Add some minced green chilies if you like the heat.
3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil/butter in a 12 inch nonstick skillet.
4. When oil is hot, add egg mixture and swirl around to spread evenly.
5. Scatter with 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese.
6. Reduce heat to low and cover skillet.
7. Cook for a few minutes until the eggs are set.

Cut omelet into wedges and serve with the potato hash. There you go- a sunny breakfast for the perfectly lazy morning.

Last week, I got a few requests for the cabbage raita recipe; you'll see it updated at the end of this post.

What did you do this weekend? See you Monday week with some book reviews and a few book giveaways!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

For three days straight over this weekend, we did our favorite thing- we had friends over for a meal at our home. This is fun year round but especially enjoyable when the weather turns chilly, when it is too cold and dark to spend time outside. That's when the warm kitchen is the place to be.

The festivities started on Friday, Lila had a day off from school for Fall break (following a day of prancing around as a rainbow for Halloween). We invited her two best friends from school over for a play date followed by lunch. Kids fought, played, yelled, giggled, sometimes all at once, while I got a chance to get to know their parents who I normally just wave to in the school's parking lot. At Lila's request, lunch was mac and cheese and a tray of roasted broccoli and sweet potatoes. With apple and yellow pepper slices for snack and mixed berries for dessert. I used Martha Stewart's recipe for the mac and cheese (I had pinned it from this post some years ago) with a few modifications: I scaled down the recipe to a 12 oz box of "white fiber" spiral pasta, used less cheese- and used cheddar, pepper jack, Parmesan and cream cheese instead of the ones mentioned in the recipe. It is a wonderful recipe, makes a large batch and reheats beautifully.

On Saturday, my crafting buddies came over to sew and knit, and I made them a supper of broccoli cheese soup and caramalized onion- lentil pilaf. A friend got peanut butter bars for dessert.

Then on Sunday, I made a meal for friends of ours who love Indian food. I think they would burst into tears of disappointment if I ever served them mac and cheese. For them, I made some of our all-time favorites- chana masala, jeera rice, cabbage raita, egg kebab and one sort-of new recipe, stuffed eggplant curry.

This recipe started with some fresh and tender Japanese eggplants (the slender, long ones) from the Asian store. I have much better luck with this variety being sweet and tender, compared to globe (Italian) eggplants or the baby Indian ones. Then I was inspired by Meera's recipe and this one originally from Indira.

The idea was to make a thick paste for stuffing- with herbs, spices, nuts and contrasting flavors of jaggery and tamarind. Then to fill it into eggplant sections, and finally to pressure cook the eggplants with a bit of coconut milk (which forms the gravy) because pressure cooking gives evenly cooked eggplants reliably and effortlessly.

Stuffed Eggplant Curry

1. Wash 4 Japanese eggplants. Remove and discard stem. Cut each eggplant into 3 or 4 sections. Make a deep lengthwise slit in each eggplant piece.

2. To make the stuffing, grind together (adding a little water or coconut milk as required)
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup fried onions (from a can, or saute them yourself)
2 tbsp. sesame seeds
1 tbsp. cumin coriander powder
1/2 tbsp. garam masala/koli masala/ goda masala/your favorite masala
1 bunch cilantro stems and leaves
1 tbsp. jaggery
1 tbsp. tamarind paste
Salt to taste

The stuffing should be a thick paste- taste it and make sure it has a good balance of flavors. Fill it into the eggplant sections using a tablespoon.

3. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a pressure cooker. Temper it with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, asafetida and turmeric.

4. Stack the stuffed eggplant neatly in the cooker. If you have a wide pressure pan, that would be ideal. I only have a handi-shaped cooker and it worked fine.

5. Pour 1/2 cup coconut milk + 1/2 cup water over the eggplants. Close the pressure cooker and let it cook.
I barely let the cooker come up to full pressure before turning off the heat. Eggplants cook quickly and I did not want them to collapse into an overcooked paste.

6. Remove the eggplants into a serving dish. Top them with the thick gravy. Serve!

Edited to add: A few readers requested the recipe for the cabbage raita. Here it is, easy as can be.

2 cups finely shredded red or green cabbage
1 grated carrot (optional)
1 finely diced cucumber (optional)
1 diced tomato (optional)
1 tbsp. minced onion
2 tsp. cumin-coriander powder
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Salt to taste

Mix together and serve!

What have you been cooking these days?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Mindless Eating

Knitters like to talk about the many benefits of their hobby- knitting keeps your brain active, you can make adorable hats for the babies in your life and it is cheaper than therapy, even if you go in for the pricey yarn. I'll add one more benefit to the list: knitting can help you eat better. I had a long-standing habit of mindlessly eating my way through mountains of chips and chivda while watching TV. Instead, I now knit my way through scarves and sweaters while watching TV, and have to scramble to fit in my chips and chivda consumption during some other time of the day (Don't worry, I somehow manage to do it. I'm talented like that.)

Anyway, this whole thing about how our food consumption is largely controlled not by our hunger, but by habits and hidden factors in our environment is at the heart of a book I just read: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

Image: Goodreads
Wansink has a background in communication research and consumer behavior. He designs clever studies to understand food psychology- many of the studies from his lab and from other research groups are described in Mindless Eating. For instance, think of days-old, stale, rancid popcorn. Not appetizing, right? Not something you would eat even if it was given to you free. In a study, people were offered free (but very stale) popcorn when they went to see a movie right after they had eaten lunch. The movie goers ate it anyway. We are so powerfully conditioned by the smell of popcorn, the sound of others eating popcorn and the association of movie theaters with popcorn-eating that we are compelled to eat even stale popcorn that does not taste good, even when we are not hungry.

Another classic experiment is the bottomless soup bowl, where a bowl of tomato soup is rigged under the table and connected to a large pot which keeps refilling the bowl even as the diner eats from it. We expect that after we've had a bowlful of so of soup, we'll stop eating because we simply won't be hungry any more. Not so. People kept eating as the level of soup in the bowl stayed the same. Our eyes decide how much we eat (I can see that the bowl is empty, so I've obviously eaten enough soup) and not our stomach.

Our expectations of how a food should taste affects the way we feel it tastes. A group of people were told they were tasting strawberry yogurt. Then the lights were turned off and they were give chocolate yogurt to taste. Over half rated it as having a "good strawberry taste". They couldn't see the yogurt, but were expecting strawberry yogurt so that's what they tasted.

This book came out a decade ago. Food psychology findings are of great human interest and they regularly make their way to mainstream media, so I can't say that there was anything in this book that was absolutely novel for me. But Wansink has a friendly, chatty and slightly goofy style which was fun to read. He points out the pitfalls that cause people to eat more than they intend to, and offers suggestions for tweaking our lives to make it easier to eat the way we want to eat.

I love food, enjoy food and am deeply grateful for having food. Under no circumstances do I want to trick my body into starving itself. But if I can set up my environment and build small habits to avoid consuming food that I don't particularly want or need, that would certainly be helpful. And that's where this books gives a few pointers.

Whatever fills the plate/bowl looks like the proper serving size to us. It is well documented that the size of dinnerware has grown over the decades, to the point where we're mindlessly overeating simply when we serve ourselves food for a meal. I remember buying a set of dinnerware from Crate and Barrel some years ago, and the bowls were so huge that I use them as serving bowls and not to eat from! This is a very easy problem to fix. Buy smaller bowls and plates and you'll eat more reasonable portions.

For a while now, I've been serving dessert in stainless steel vatis/katoris (small bowls) that I bought in India. They are perfect for a satisfying sweet finish to the meal, in a dainty portion. I try to be a good host and don't want to trick anyone into eating less. Anyone who wants seconds is welcome to take them but people rarely do. As the book says, the best part of dessert is the first two bites.

There is plenty of other advice in this book that's sensible enough: See how much you're eating- don't eat straight from the package. Aim to eat until you are no longer hungry; not until you're full (there's a big difference between those two). If you don't want to eat something, put it out of sight and inconvenient to reach (no candy dishes on the desk if you're trying to avoid sweets). If you want to eat more of something, make it convenient (cut up veggie sticks front and center in the fridge for snacking).

There's a lot of stuff in this book that's just good fun. Things that seem pretty obvious when you think about it, but are backed by studies and statistics. There's a whole chapter on how food with an alluring name tastes better to us. Traditional Cajun Beans and Rice is more appealing than Beans and Rice. Belgian black forest double chocolate cake sounds dreamier than plain old chocolate cake. Think about this next time you're cooking for company, or naming a recipe on your food blog!

Wansink talks about the Nutritional Gatekeeper of the family, the person who does most of the food shopping and cooking. They are a powerful influence on how each member of the family eats. He does very interesting studies on what he calls "the curse of the warehouse club" which shows that buying supersized containers leads people to over-consume. The bigger the shampoo bottle, the more you pour out, and so on.

There was one or two things in the book that I found jarring, such as when Wansink talks about ideal body weight for women based on a rule of thumb used by modeling and acting coaches. Um, no. That kind of obsession with thinness is unhelpful; healthy people come in all sizes and being thin does not equate being fit.

But this quibble aside, I found Mindless Eating to be a quick, helpful and enjoyable read. If you can better understand where you're over-eating, you can do something to fix it. Next time I'm parked next to the chips and dip at a party, I sure hope the book cover will flash in front of my eyes. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

Soup and sweater weather has arrived in the South East US this week. Tomatoes and sweet onions are giving way to root vegetables- sweet potatoes being a special favorite of mine for the way their sweetness complements savory dishes. We love them roasted as sweet potato fries, and mashed into vegetable cutlets. The combination of sweet potatoes and legumes is wonderful- some of our favorites include black beans and sweet potato quesadillas and burritos, sweet potato and vaal dal and sweet potato hummus.

Yesterday, I was in the mood for soup but not so much in the mood to spend time making it. The oven came to the rescue for hands-free cooking, as it often does. I thought of the roasted onion and garlic soup that I make once in a while. You roast vegetables, then puree them with stock. Ta da. You have soup.

I used the same principle to make this easy sweet potato soup. I was out of vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, bouillon and all such soup basics. A pantry restocking is in order, clearly. Anyway, I went ahead with only milk and water as the base of the soup, with some smoked paprika to add flavor. It worked just fine. You can tell that this is a flexible recipe.

Roasted Sweet Potato Soup

1. Pre heat oven to 425F. If you have a convection setting on the oven, you'll want to use it- it will cut roasting time significantly.

2. Peel 3-4 sweet potatoes and chop them into chunks. Peel and chop 1 large onion into chunks. Take a head of garlic, separate into cloves (no need to peel the garlic cloves now).

3. Place all the vegetables together on a sheet pan. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until the vegetables are browned and soft.

4. Pop the garlic cloves out of their peels. Place all roasted veggies in a pot.

5. Add 1 tsp. smoked paprika, 4 cups water and 1/2 cup milk (or cream or a combination) to the vegetables and blend them into a smooth puree. Add more water if required. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

6. Taste and add more seasoning if required. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of yogurt/sour cream and a sprinkle of paprika.

Are you fond of sweet potatoes? What's your favorite way to cook them? 

Oh, and do you have a must-try soup recipe to recommend? 

Monday, October 06, 2014

DIY Instant Oatmeal: My Toddler's Favorite Breakfast

Our friends here were quite alarmed when they heard that our recent travels to India would involve two nearly 10-hour flights each way. How would a toddler handle it, they wondered? We wondered too, with not a little apprehension. It is not a simple trip. Before we left, we had to get Lila a typhoid vaccine and bitter anti-malaria tablets to take every day as a precaution. The air travel is just the first of many parental concerns.

But flying does not seem to bother our girl. During the long haul flights, she was allowed more or less unlimited access to juice and in-flight videos. As a result, she thinks air travel is the greatest thing ever. And bitty thing that she is, she could curl up in her seat and took long naps on the airplane as well. As with many things related to kids, you get what you get. We got a kid who enjoys flights. But who has slept through the night only like 8 times in 3 years. Others may have a child who screams for 8 hours of the 9.5 hour flight but who sleeps 12 hours at a stretch at home. Like I said, you get what you get.

While we were in India, Lila ate whatever we ate. The only food we packed for the trip for her was a container of oat mix for her favorite breakfast of warm oatmeal with apricots and raisins. From the time she could barely walk, she learnt to carry the boxes of oats and dried fruit out of the pantry, pry them open and fling handfuls into a bowl. This will go down in her personal history as the very first food she learned to "cook".

This oat mix has the same just-add-hot-water convenience of that instant oatmeal that you buy in sachets but you get to decide what goes in and what stays out. Oh, and it takes 30 seconds to put together. This is our basic raisin oatmeal recipe, but you can make all different flavors by just changing up dried fruits and nuts and adding spices or flavorings.

DIY Instant Oatmeal

To make instant oatmeal, I simply stir together the following ingredients in a bowl.

Instant oats: 3 cups
Dried apricots, chopped: 1/2 cup
Raisins: 1/2 cup
Cinnamon: 3 tsp.
Salt: 1/2 tsp.
Jaggery powder: 2 tsbp.

Store the instant oatmeal in an air-tight container at room temperature.

How you cook it depends on whether you have access to a microwave oven or a kettle. Measure some oatmeal mix in a bowl, add equal parts water and cook in microwave oven for 30-60 seconds. Alternatively, add boiling hot water to the oat mix, cover it and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. Either way, you have mushy, comforting oatmeal pretty much instantly.

Speaking of water, several friends told me that they only drink bottled water when they visit India. I did buy a case of bottled water when we first got there, to get through the first few days. My heart sank as we collected a pile of empty water bottles, destined to sit in a landfill for most of eternity. I just couldn't deal with it. For the rest of the trip, all three of us drank home-filtered water. Most of our relatives seem to have some UV filter like Aquaguard installed in their kitchens. And it was just fine. None of us had any tummy troubles. Not even the one who (I won't name names) tends to drop food and then nonchalantly eat it off the floor. Bottled water or no bottled water, any travel anywhere can be ruined by infections and illness and I'm so grateful that we got lucky this time.

Lila has turned three and she entertains and exasperates me in roughly equal measures with her toddler antics. This morning, I made her cocoa in a ceramic mug and she wanted me to pour it into a steel tumbler. What's wrong with the mug, I asked. "It's too glassy, mama", she explained. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Summer Reading 2014

A parade of eclectic books came through my life in the last two months.

Before a long trip, most reasonable people will be seen shopping for the trip and packing their bags. Me? I was in a reading frenzy, trying to finish all my library books so I could safely return them before I went away.

The last of my pile was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. This is a novelist's memoir written with deep feeling and a talent for articulating things that are very hard to articulate. Winterson was adopted as a 6 week old baby. Her mother cruelly told her that she "picked the wrong crib" implying that the adoption was a mistake. The mother's religious fanaticism and depression made for a horrible home life. Books were not allowed in the house. But Winterson found them anyway and against all odds, went on to go to Oxford and earn a degree in literature, writing an award-winning novel at the age of 24. “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” 

This Spring, I won a giveaway on Goodreads, an advance copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin. What a title! This might be the most interesting book I've read in a while, and the hardest to read- partly because of the dense writing but mostly because economics is not at all my field of expertise. I read it as I would a textbook, over a semester, digesting a chapter at a time and taking copious notes. 

In a nutshell, what Rifkin is proposing is that the current capitalist system is on the decline. It will soon be replaced by the collaborative commons which is an economic system based on social entrepreneurs, shared economy and crowdfunding. We're already seeing more of that- think couchsurfing, kickstarter, zip cars etc. My notes on the book are here. I really wish the writing was tighter and more accessible, and that the book was better edited but if you like cerebral books, it is completely worth your time.

Just before we left for India, our library had their annual fund-raising book sale. Gently used, donated books were being sold for a couple of dollars so I rummaged around and bought a few. Over the two long-haul flights to India, I read an old but goodie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie. I think I read this collection once every decade or so and they are always fun.

In India, from within the depths of a junk drawer in a parental home, I rescued a yellowing paperback, The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter. It is the 10th Inspector Morse novel. I'm an ardent watcher of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV (we've watched it on PBS and Netflix) but this was the first time I read one of the novels that the series is based on. I give the novel 2 thumbs up for the literary references and for bringing the irritable, intellectual Morse to life.

Over at my parents' home, I read Myth = Mithya A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik. I've read and heard and seen stories from Hindu mythology- Ramayana, Mahabharata- all my life, but this fascinating little book was full of aha moments for the ancient Indian interpretation of everything from cosmology to cultural mores. 

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar was a fluffy and quick read. The book is written in the form of a fictional memoir of a Rajput princess. She talks about her life in her childhood home (a palace) and life in her married household (another palace), cloistered in a women's compound (zenana). The princess describes rituals related to health and beauty, providing several recipes for everything from a masoor (lentil) face mask to pancakes that aid lactation. Descriptions of the hours-long elaborate baths left me exhausted and thankful for my 5 minute showers and single bottle of shampoo+ conditioner! Obviously, most of us don't have the luxury, time or even the inclination to make a career out of pampering ourselves. But the book is a nice reminder of relaxing beauty rituals that take no more than a few pantry ingredients. The book is worth looking at for the sumptuous historic photographs alone.

In India, there was another novelty- daily newspapers delivered to the door. We don't subscribe to newspapers here, preferring to read online news if and when we feel like it. But I got a daily dose of the Times of India and Mumbai Mirror and Bombay Times, with its unsettling mix of brutal rape reports and inane celebrity gossip. I got to read comics and do sudoku and crosswords every day (I'm good at the former but frustratingly bad at the latter.)

Since my return home, I've been catching up on the New Yorker magazines from the last 2 months. This article about Vandana Shiva was very illuminating and it is published online in its entirety: Seeds of DoubtAn activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops by Michael Specter. 

And I started reading another book sale find, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This book won rave reviews but personally I'm not enjoying the writing and the story is not very engaging either. I'm donating this book back for next year's sale. 

The next book on the pile is Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.

What are you reading these days?