Monday, April 28, 2014

The List: April 2014

April was a glorious month- yes, it was my personal worst allergy season of all time (I discovered for the first time how scary it is to be so congested that one is gasping for breath; let's just say I have much empathy for people with asthma) but all that was outweighed by the fact that my sister and her family came to visit. Two little cousins met for the first time and spend 10 days playing, singing, dancing, squabbling over toys, splashing in a little wading pool (best 15 bucks I ever spent), and visiting every playground in a 10 mile radius.

Cooking and Baking

Farmer's Market season is on and we went one sunny Saturday morning. I was thrilled to find Spring garlic- do you know what that is? It is just like Spring onions, but the shoots come from garlic rather than onion. The taste is subtle and garlicky- sounds like a contradiction but really that's how I can best describe it. In India, we'd get this every once in a blue moon and my aunt and I made scrambled eggs with it. This time I used it in a veggie and omelet noodle stir fry. I still think scrambled eggs are the simplest and best way to showcase this seasonal specialty.

This was a long-bookmarked recipe- brussels sprout fried rice from Post Punk Kitchen. I added heaps of vegetables and only a modest amount of rice. And crushed peanuts instead of cashews. So delicious! The coconut oil really does add a nice touch to this dish.

A friend e-mailed me a recipe for no-bake energy bites. Well, basically these are mini ladoos made with raw oats, peanut butter, honey, coconut, flaxseed, chocolate. You just mix a bunch of ingredients and form small balls. I tested the recipe on my colleagues at a work meeting and they gave it two thumbs up. Lila also gave it a metaphorical thumbs up- her fingers and thumbs were busy stuffing two ladoos in her mouth simultaneously! Here's the recipe.

And carrot cake. It was not too sweet, moist and just about perfect. Instead of a 9 x 13 sheet cake, I made 2 circular 9 inch cakes and froze one for another occasion a couple weeks later; it thawed beautifully. I'm always happy to find freezer-friendly recipes.

Image: Goodreads
I read an exceptional book this month- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author is a cancer physician-scientist who happens to also be a gifted storyteller- a rare and wonderful combination. He narrates the story of cancer from the very beginning, weaving in history and biology, medicine and politics into a masterpiece.

This is a work of non-fiction with more twists and turns than your average detective story- I breathlessly read it in three or four evenings. Parts of the book are dense with biomedical jargon which might not be a breeze if you don't work in biology/medicine (I do and I thought he handled complex concepts very well) but truly, this book is worth a read. Because I'm betting that this terrible disease has affected most of us in one way or another and it is worth learning more about where we are and where we came from, vis-a-vis cancer.

Also, I read this thoughtful piece of reporting: India's Golden Chance.


Breaking Bad. This show is- how should I put this- a wee bit addictive. I'm watching 2 episodes every night. Thanks, R. ;)

Jim Gaffigan's Mr. Universe stand-up hour on Netflix. My sister and I were looking for something genuinely funny to watch one evening and this was it.


Some months ago, I made a laundry detergent concentrate ("laundry sauce") using an online recipe and was pleased with it for the most part. Last week when I ran out, I made detergent again, this time liquid- well, it is more of a gel- laundry detergent using this recipe. It made 5 gallons- enough to fill one of those orange pails from Home Depot!

My bag-sewing skills got a boost with a pattern that I bought from my local quilt shop: It is called the two hour tulip purse from the designers at Anything but Boring. A gratifyingly well-written pattern and it makes a cute lunch bag/ around town purse. I made one in a cheerful Springy print for a dear friend.

I have to show you a couple of cute things sewed by my sister- unlike me, she doesn't need no stinkin' patterns. Her designs are all original.

A kitty backpack for Lila- it is adorably toddler sized.

A placemat for Duncan- because no dog should be without a personalized placemat.

What have you been eating, cooking, reading, watching, making this month? Anyone else doped out on anti-histamines? You have my sympathies. Happy May!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Creamy Tomato Soup with Croutons

Do you use your cookbooks much? I've come into several interesting cookbooks in the last few months- some are gifts and some are review copies. I read them like novels from cover to cover as soon as they fall into my hands, but somehow never get around to cooking from them. When it comes to looking for a recipe, I seem to reflexively start typing search terms into a web browser rather than hitting up the cookbooks.

So I went through my recently acquired cookbooks and bookmarked (I mean, actually bookmarked with little bits of paper- imagine that) a few interesting recipes to try. The hits will find their way to the blog, of course.

Today's recipe comes from a book called's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2: More Recipes for the Most Delicious Dishes from America's Most Popular Restaurants by Stephanie Manley.

Manley has been posting recipes on her website since 1995- that's positively historic in Internet years, isn't it? In the introduction to the cookbook, she says that the website started as a way to store family recipes and capture food memories, like the one of eating her grandmother's sauerkraut: "Her sauerkraut was homemade, meaning she made it from cabbage, salt and time".

Manley's "thing" is to replicate recipes from restaurants. I can so relate to this. I love eating out- always have. As a teenager I ate my way through all the iconic foodie addas of Bombay. Cooking for myself (and later for myself and my small family) in the US, eating out is a more or less weekly break from the routine. And restaurant meals are my biggest source of inspiration to try new ingredients, flavors and techniques in my home kitchen.

In all three states we've lived in, in the US, we tend to seek out small local places rather than the chain restaurants. This doesn't have a whole lot to do with snobbery. It is more that chain restaurants seem to have precious little in the way of meatless options. We have better luck with the family run "ethnic" restaurants- Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian- and some of the eclectic local ones like vegetarian diners. When I have the option of supporting a local business, I'll choose that any day. But I do realize that in vast swatches of the US, fast food and chain restaurants are sadly the only choices for eating out.

So it was astonishing to look through the restaurants covered in this cookbook and realize that after 15 years in this country, I haven't stepped foot even once at any of the "big" chains like Chili's, Dairy Queen, The Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden or T.G.I Friday's. I've never had a drink from Starbucks- surely the only person in North America not to have chugged a whatchamacallit. My experience with fast food and casual dining is woefully limited. When I am someplace with only fast food choices, I try to find one of two places. Either a Subway- they have a veggie patty which I load with veggies (lots of spinach, never lettuce), and smother in southwest dressing and it is OK. Or a Chipotle, where I get the crispy tacos and the hottest salsa they have, which is pretty hot. I've eaten a Taco Bell veggie burrito at some airport once. And on rare trips to the mall in St. Louis, we would grab lunch at California Pizza Kitchen- they had a decent white bean hummus. In St. Louis, we lived a few blocks away from a Qdoba and I liked their taco salad every now and then. It is served in a huge crispy shell, so what's not to love? And of course there was also a St. Louis Bread Company nearby. That's a chain that started in St. Louis and everywhere else, they're called Panera Bread but in STL, they kept the original name. Here in town, I took my parents to an IHOP once and can't say I was impressed by anything other than the massive portion sizes.

Chain restaurants are as popular as they are because they are quick and convenient. They use the power of salt, sugar and fat to make food as appealing to as many people as possible. And these menus often have eye-popping items that are just way over the top: there's a Katz's Deli cheesecake shake included in the book where you blend a slice of cheesecake and vanilla ice cream into a shake. Who comes up with this stuff? The point is, if you can find a way to make a restaurant favorite at home, using fresh and whole ingredients as much as possible, that can only be a good thing and a welcome addition to the meal rotation.

Manley's copykat cookbook is simply written- there are no pictures, only text recipes. Recipes are well-written and easy to follow. The format is tidy, covering all courses of the meal, and there are helpful icons to indicate recipes that are make-ahead, for instance, or good for game day. There's a section for favorites like Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay biscuits- even I've heard of those. Manley tries to use "real" ingredients as much as possible but she's a fan of these restaurants and she's replicating recipes as closely as possible, not judging them or making healthy versions of them.

Overall, this is a very fun cookbook. Among the recipes I've bookmarked to try: TGI Friday's Mediterranean hummus with a bruschetta topping, Benihana's fried rice, Olive Garden's salad dressing and a strawberry shortcake. The one I tried this afternoon is Creamy Tomato Soup, a copykat of the one at Panera Bread.

I distinctly remember eating this soup for a quick lunch at Panera Bread (well, it was called St. Louis Bread Company) while walking back from the library with infant Lila strapped to my chest, one of her first outings into the world. It is a very rich and comforting soup and Manley's fool-proof recipe got the flavor just right for me. If you've in the mood to make a thick and rich restaurant-style tomato soup at home, this one is worth a try. Last time Lila was too young to taste the soup; today she happily ate two bowls of it.

Creamy Tomato Soup
(In the style of the creamy tomato soup at Panera Bread; 
recipe adapted from's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2 by Stephanie Manley)

1. Heat 2 tbsp. butter in a large pot.
2. Saute 1 medium chopped onion and 3-4 cloves garlic, stirring so that garlic does not burn.
3. When the onion is translucent, add 2 tbsp. flour and stir for a couple of minutes.
4. Add 1/2 cup whole milk and stir until the mixture thickens.
5. Add 1/2 cup cream, a pinch of baking soda, 2 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste, 1/2 tsp. dried basil and 1/2 tsp. dried oregano.
6. Add 1 28-oz can of tomatoes (I used unsalted peeled whole tomatoes).
7. Use an immersion blender to blend the soup to a smooth consistency.
8. Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. 

Note: You could add 1 cup half and half instead of 1/2 cup each of milk and cream.

I served the soup with croutons made simply by tossing cubes of stale bread in olive oil and oven-toasting for 10-15 minutes at 300F until crisp.

Are you a fan of chain restaurants? What restaurant recipes would you most like to replicate?

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2 by the publisher, Ulysses Press. I received no monetary compensation and all opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The List: March 2014

Whoa, where did March go? Marched right past me when I wasn't looking.

My very favorite project this month was a mini art gallery for my little one's artwork, brightening up a corner of our dining room. When I asked Lila one morning what she wanted to do in school that day, pat came the answer, "I want to do potty and painting with Miss K". Umm- OK. Toddlers are so hilarious and random. But she is in fact a prolific artist and like most toddlers, we are sent home with heaps of sheets covered in exuberant finger painting and paper pasting.

If your child comes home with artwork, what do you do with it all? I'm not one to reverently preserve every scrap of art that comes home. Dusty cartons filled with years of artwork- I don't want to collect that and then saddle my kid with it. My plan is to actively enjoy and use up the artwork: I'm saving a select few (very few) in a folder to keep. Some end up in the recycling bin. Most of the rest I use up- by cutting them up and making note cards, thank you cards and gift tags. With many paintings, I simply write a letter/note on the back and mail them off to relatives and friends: a get well soon note to a grandpa, a good luck letter to a cousin for her exams, a hello note to an friend. I figure it is fun to get cheerful toddler artwork in the mail among the usual pile of bills and catalogs.

And finally, I wanted very much to display some of Lila's paintings on our walls because that's what it is- a unique and original work of art. A child's creation is as legit to me as anything in an art gallery.

The idea for these frames came from here. Here's a quick run down on how I made these:
1. Buy wide frames. These are from yard sales and thrift stores (they cost like 25 cents each). Trash to treasure, baby.
2. Remove the backing, glass, any staples etc. from frames. You only need empty frames. Wipe them clean.
3. Spray paint them. I did this outside.
4. When the frames are dry, paste magnets to the back corners of the frame with double sticky tape. Sheet magnets did not work for me. I bought something called Darico super strong ceramic magnets from the craft store.
5. Use more magnets to hold down the artwork. This way it only takes a second to switch out the artwork when the kid comes home with new creations.

I have some spray paint left so I might make more frames to add to the gallery.

In Lila's school, parents are asked to bring in a dozen filled eggs for the Easter egg hunt and non-candy fillers are encouraged. Last year I put in stickers. This year, I used some felt that I had on hand and made chick finger puppets; the inspiration is from here.

A quick sewing project: I made an envelope pillow to coordinate with Lila's quilt.

Baking and Cooking
Sour cream banana bread. I used this recipe- and to quote the blogger: "Speaking of ripe bananas, you will have your best banana bread if you use dead black bananas. They should be entirely black, and maybe with a couple of little fruit flies lazily circling them." Good point!

Lentil shepherd's pie using this recipe, but I needed to use up potatoes so I subbed them for the sweet potatoes. Good but not all that special.

This was one of the best meals this month, and took me about 10 minutes to put together.

The khichdi- equal parts rice and vaal dal (yellow moong dal would work as well), rinse, add water and a generous dollop of bisibele masala paste, pressure cook.

The subzi: tiny cubes of potato and butternut squash with mustard seeds, cumin-coriander, salt, turmeric, chili powder, pan fry until tender, garnish with cilantro. And yes, that is a puddle of molten ghee in the picture.

Reading Neil Gaiman's Coraline, a quirky story about a child who wanders into a world that is a sinister mirror image of her own.

Apart from the books I already wrote about, my favorite book this month was Home Cooking, a collection of essays by Laurie Colwin. So warm and funny. This one is a must-read. And it contains some good recipes too: I want to try baking the gingerbread and black cake.

I also started reading Castle Waiting by Linda Medley and Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee but neither held my attention and they were abandoned. I figure life is too short to make myself read books that I don't find interesting.

Watching the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, a show I've watched on and off for many years. Also watching Midsomer Murders on Netflix. One Saturday afternoon this month I watched PBS for 5 hours straight and oh, it was glorious. First, there were a couple of food shows with some recipes that I will have to try soon, like a tres leches cake on Cook's Country, then Priceless Antiques Roadshow which is always so entertaining and that was followed by a documentary on British sitcoms.

What have you been cooking, eating, celebrating, making in March? Happy April! I have family visiting this week and there's much to look forward to.