Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan Greens) and My Favorite Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hello 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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