Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoughts of my Mother: Wanderlust and Palak Paneer

The recipe in this post will be rather long. It's not difficult, there are just several steps. If you want to try something new, try this.

Some people say my addiction to food is quite peculiar. My ability to remember exactly what I ate, and generally where I ate it, from years prior, I must say, is kind of weird. But food has always had a lasting impact on me. I think it's because so much of a culture is reflected in it's food. Indian, Moroccan, and Latin food with all of their spices conveys the spiciness and colorfulness of those cultures and regions, the eclectic mix of food you will find in America is the embodiment of the "melting pot," and the rich French food complements the culture where food can be the focal point of a person's day.

My baking style is me, but my cooking style is my mom: minimize the amount of dishes you need to clean, taste things and add a little more of this or that to make it just right, how to make meals for the week so you can eat well, but fast, how to make Indian food, Chinese food, American food, Mexican food, etc. My house was always filled with various spices, that to me were totally normal, but to most of my friends were completely foreign.

Some of the stories I remember most clearly from my childhood was when my mom and my Otti told me about food and food-experiences. They had the amazing opportunity, that a lot of people don't, to try new foods for the first time when they came to the United States. I would love to be able to remember the feeling I had when I first tried chocolate, or ate my first slice of pizza, or even what I thought of lettuce when I first chewed it. My mom can remember those things though: the first time she tried American chocolate (it's different!), saw and ate lettuce, ate at a Taco Bell...when she moved here, a totally different world of flavors opened up to her!

The story she told me, that will always stick with me, is when she cooked lettuce. She had moved to America recently, and was grocery shopping, and looking for cabbage to cook up, and saw lettuce. She wasn't really sure what it was (lettuce isn't all that common in India at the time), brought it home, and cooked it up. I remember her telling me about how confused she was...when she cut it, there was so much of it, but it cooked down to such a small, itty bitty amount. So of course she gave that to my father. Now he had been in the US longer, and knew it was lettuce. But he ate it anyways, without a word, because that's the kind of guy my dad is.

He took her to the store, and explain the different between lettuce and cabbage next time.

I am jealous that my parents had that experience. They were able to try new things, and remember them clearly. I want that, and I think that's why I have such a strong desire to travel, and see new things, and taste new things. It's hits your brain in a lasting way, and I want that experience my parents had, and could tell me about.

Today I felt inspired to cook because for the first time ever, I tried rhubarb. It's amazing...but that's a recipe for another time.

Anyways, I saw this recipe for Saag Paneer someone posted, and decided to make it the way I know how to, because it reminded me of being home. Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer are the same thing, literally translated, spinach cheese. It's basically creamed spinach and cheese cubes. It's fragrant, full of spices but not spicy, and filling. Quite easy to make too, and can last the week in a closed container in the fridge. If you've never had it, try it. You can find the spices at your local Whole Foods or if you live in Texas, Central Market.

Paneer (cheese)

You can either buy this frozen from outside or make your own, doesn't take that long.

0.5 gallon or 8 cups of whole milk
0.25 cup of lemon juice
0.5 cup warm water

Other stuff you'll need: cheese cloth or muslin cloth, fine mesh strainer, large pyrex bowl (optional)

In a heavy bottomed pot, bring the 8 cups of water to gentle boil, stirring occasionally to make sure the milk at the bottom doesn't burn. When it's boiling, add in lemon juice and warm water gradually, stirring all the while. You'll see the curds start to separate from the whey (liquid) right away. Turn off the heat, and continue stirring occasionally for about another minute or so.
Place the cheese cloth over the fine mesh strainer, and set that over the bowl. Slowly pour the curds and whey onto the cheese cloth, and you'll see the whey go through and catch in the bowl, and the cheese remain.
Once you pour it all through, lift the cheese cloth off the strainer, and twist it so the cheese in a ball, covered in cheese cloth (be careful, it'll be quite hot). Then just rinse the ball under cold water, to wash off any remaining lemon taste, and squeeze out any excess water. Place the whole thing under a heavy pot on a plate, and allow it to sit for about an hour to squeeze out the water.
When it's done, pull it out, cut it into cubes, and pan-fry the cubes in about 1 tablespoon of butter to brown them on the outside.

Palak (spinach)

1.5 lbs of fresh spinach, chopped (baby spinach is the easiest)
1 large red onion chopped finely
4 cloves of garlic (more or less depending on how much you like)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. ginger grated
0.75 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
dash of cream
splash of lemon juice

2 cardamon pods
3 cloves
1 tbsp. cumin powder
3 tsp. tumeric (the yellow powder)
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
0.5 tsp. red chili powder or red chili flakes
1 tsp. salt
a dash of cinnamon
**Note, all these spices can be altered for your liking, so I added more spice, more cumin, and more salt, because that's how I like it. I also used a small piece of cinnamon bark instead of actual cinnamon**

 In a large soup pan, heat the butter on medium-heat, and then toss in the onions and saute them for about 5 minutes until they're soft. Then add in the garlic, and spices. Saute until fragrant, about a minute more.

Then add in spinach, and mix in until it's wilted down. Add in the yogurt and dash of cream. Mix well, allow it to cook for about 3-4 minutes. If it's too dry, add in more cream or yogurt. Then add in the splash of lemon juice and mix. Try it, if it needs more salt, add it, or if it needs more spice, go for it. Go by taste. When it's done, toss in the pan-fried paneer (the cheese), and serve with roti, naan, or over rice.

Optional additions: you can add in a tbsp. of tomato paste to add extra flavor, or fresh tomatoes. You can also top with cilantro, and lime slices.
Odd picture, but quite good!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Raspberry Breakfast Bars

My perfect weekend usually involves a tasty dinner on Friday night. Saturday morning kind of early with coffee, a slow and tasty breakfast with the dog and the hubby, grocery shopping, reading a good book in a coffee shop, then walking the dog around our neighborhood. Lazy Sunday, more reading and coffee, some baking, some TV, and a little bit of work to remind myself of the upcoming week. 

See the theme? Lots of coffee and lots of reading. This is why I was so happy with the recent New York Times article about how fiction influences how our brain develops and how we view the world. Reading, for me, is a totally different experience than TV. It's engaging with a story on a whole new level. Being able to get into the minds of the characters, commiserating with their feelings, hating that you can see where they are coming from, slowly falling in love with a originally despicable character. It provides a totally different level of entertainment. 

More so, I wholeheartedly agree with school of thought that believe reading fiction to children at a young age, and allowing them to explore books, will help them learn how to navigate social situations in the future, and develop their empathy skills. When you read Ramona and Beezus, or a Wrinkle in Time, the evocative description allows you to enter the mind of people perhaps wholly unlike yourself, and see things from their perspective. 

Anyways, you can see what books I've read/am reading on my Chopdio page. My tastes usually run towards the young adult fantasy fiction (think Hunger Games, rather than Twilight). I'm currently reading Once a Witch, great book if you're into the Wiccan world!
Anyways, this schpeel on books and fiction was prompted by an amazing breakfast bar I made this past weekend: Raspberry Breakfast Bars!

These bars are are get the initial granola-brown sugar situation, then a burst of tart raspberries, then finished off with another layer of rolled oat goodness. Super simple, quite tasty, and healthful!

Raspberry Breakfast Bars
modified from smitten kitchen

Crust and Top Layer

1 cup all purpose flour (you can also do 1.5 cups all purpose flour)
0.5 cup whole wheat flour 
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1.25 cups rolled oats
0.75 tsp. salt
0.75 tsp. baking powder
0.5 tsp. baking soda
0.5 tsp. cinnamon
0.75 unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

0.25 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 lb. frozen or fresh raspberries
1 tsp. lemon zest
0.5 tsp. cinnamon 
0.25 cup lemon juice
2 tbsp. butter melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 350F

Line a 9x9 or 9x13 inch pan. In a bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients for the crust and mix together.
Add in the cubed butter, and get your hands in there and smoosh up the butter until you get pea-size pieces of butter mixed in with the flour, etc. Reserve 1-1.5 cups of the mixture for the topping, depending on how much you like. Now, take the rest of the mixture and dump it into the pan, and push it down into a crust. You can use the back of a spoon to make sure it's flat. 

Then in a separate bowl, mix together the filling ingredients. Mix well, and then toss that on top of the crust, and carefully, so as to not damage the crust, spread it evenly. 
Then top it off with the rest of the topping. Use the back of a spoon to flatten the whole bar situation.

Pop it in the oven for around 45 minutes. Every 15 minutes, rotate the pan. You'll know it's done when the sides are bubbling a bit. You can top it off with a sprinkle of brown sugar. Wait till it's cool, and cut them up into pretty bars!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring Break + Avocado Cream Pie

March 12th - March 16th, Spring Break 2012. Now, you may think this will be another post about a week on the beach in Galveston...but you'd only be partially correct! This year, the stars aligned, and all of my family had time off at the same time. This seems easy to accomplish, but with my brother and his wife in their medical fellowships, they basically never have time off. So we decided: Family Vacation!! 
The fam minus dad, on a hot air ballon ride
We packed our bags, including little Krinkle, left behind Jacques in the care of our awesome neighbor, and trekked over to San Diego! We spent 3 lovely days in a beach house, over looking the ocean, with a jacuzzi, and a grill! FYI, when vegetarians see a grill, we go CRAZY. I mean...crazy. I think it's the need to break the stereotype that vegetarians don't grill (we, my family, don't). So we immediately began thinking of stuff we could grill! (Shish-kebab Tofu anyone?) Actually, it was pretty amazing, we grilled asparagus, avocado, tomatoes, onions...well, I digress. 
Grilled Asparagus!!
More grilling!
Anyways, the last day of spring break is today. Last year, I went to Galveston with my BFF Sam and my not so hubby at the time, Tyler. This year, San Diego. I was very thankful to be able to spend time with my whole family. It's a completely different dynamic when everyone is there:

Sonali and I putzing around with food, and getting excited! Getting lost in a grocery shop...
Mom, me, Sonali, and Tyler going on a hot air balloon ride(!!)
Bhai, my father, and Tyler riding around on segways on the beach!
My mom and I reading on beach chairs over looking the ocean...
All of us in the jacuzzi, complaining how overly hot it is (it was turned up to max)
Grilling anything and everything we could get our hands on
Playing monopoly and me, as usual, getting overly competitive 
Watching True Lies and reciting almost every line
The view!!
The hot air balloon
Me and the ocean!
There are so many memories...and it just reminded me how thankful I am to be able to go back to Boston in a few months and have part of my family near by. One of the hardest things about living in Texas, or really any state besides California, Massachusetts, or Arizona, is that I don't have family nearby. I never really realized that until I moved to Texas, and it made me even more thankful that I had Tyler with me. Someone who knew me inside out, and loved me. Anyways, I know that in medical school I won't have a ton of time to spend with them, and most of my "free"time will be spent with Tyler or with myself, knowing that they are there, being able to see them once or twice a month, will make me incredibly happy. 

So! To commemorate spring break this year, I decided to try out a recipe of my own...Avocado Cream Pie...and boy was it good. With avocado season in full swing, I figured it would be a good idea. The crust is a take on the vanilla-scented crust, with whole wheat. The filling is made with avocado, greek yogurt, and cream cheese. The whole sha-bang is smooth, creamy, pretty, and with a subtle avocado flavor. I loved the color too, light green. It's a great introduction to spring. Be adventurous...try it!

Avocado Cream Pie

Vanilla-Scented Crust (part whole wheat)

0.67 cup all purpose flour
0.33 cup whole wheat flour
0.5 cups melted butter
0.25 cups powdered sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F
In a bowl, mix together butter, powdered sugar, and salt. Then mix in the vanilla and the flour. With a rubber spatula, mix the dough together. Press it into a tart pan or a spring form pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Pull it out and let it cool

Crust coming together
Avocado Cream Filling

1 ripe avocado
5 oz. cream cheese
0.25 cup white sugar
0.5 cup greek yogurt
2 eggs

Lower oven heat to 250F

In a stand mixer, blend together avocado and cream cheese until smooth.

Add in the sugar, and make sure it's well mixed. Add in the greek yogurt, mix in well. 
Then add in the eggs one by one, making sure to mix well after each addition. Pour the filling into the cooled crust. Make sure it's cooled, otherwise the eggs will cook as soon as it hits the tart crust, and you'll have a scrambled eggs in your pie...bleh. Bake the pie at 250F for 20-25 minutes, or until the pie is still jiggly, but more firm than liquid. Let it cool, and serve it with an avocado slice as a garnish!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Nigh Kayaking and Pecan Pina Colada Oats

So for the past few weeks, Tyler has been going kayaking/boating with our friend Raleigh. He'd always come back desperately tired, but full of smiles and stories of how many times he rolled over in his boat in the water, or how he went down a rapid upside thoughts were always...yes, fun. Upside down in water stuck in a boat? My idea of a good time.

Now, sarcasm is difficult to determine in writing, but that was definitely sarcasm. I was baffled by his general excitement about the boating situation. Until yesterday. Yes my friends, I did it, I went boating on the San Marcos River. And it was AWESOME.

Basically, you put on a swim suit, and then proceed to add on three layers of safety gear so that fools such as myself do not drown when they flip over multiple times. Oh...and flip over I did. Twice on purpose to get me used to the feeling of being upside down in the water, trapped in a boat, and confused. Banging on the side of my boat for someone (Raleigh) to flip me up. Oh the joys.

Then...about four times not one purpose.

Time 1: Going down a mini-rapid (which in my head was honestly a class 5 or 6, yes a new category of rapid for this monstrosity). This was fine, I got flipped up, and was only mildly disoriented.

Time 2: Trying to get my boat back into the water. I got it back in part way, proclaimed "VICTORY IS MI--" and flipped over.

Time 3: Once again getting my boat into the water. This time I had it for a solid 15 seconds, before I flipped. I believe Raleigh cursed and paddled towards me to flip my sorry butt up right again.

Time 4: The epic time. I was trying to get into a current and then back out successfully...but unfortunately, as soon as I managed to get into the current, I got excited like a small puppy and forgot to paddle out. Yes, I have now learned paddling is important. Instead, I went down another rapid, backwards mind you, and then flipped over. This time, I didn't have a moment to breath in, so I was out of breath and under water. Of course, the best thing to do when you're underwater right below a rapid is to open your mouth. Yep, I did that. Yep, 3-4 giant mouthfuls of water were shoved down my throat and trachea. When Raleigh came over to once again flip me over, I proceeded to cough up a good deal of water, and then a large amount of the spinach ravioli I had for dinner.

Food for fishies! Yeah, it was pleasant. But the amazing thing, was all the while, Raleigh was totally calm! She was like, "Okay, you're going to go down that rapid backwards" or "Okay, you threw up in the river" or "Okay, let's flip you up for the...fifth time..." It was awesome, and I felt totally comfortable going out there again with her and Tyler.

Moral of the story: If you haven't gone kayaking, do it! It's fun, you might throw up, but just look at it as giving back to the fishies, for using their home space to play/flip over in. And also, when someone asks you, "Do you want to learn to flip yourself upright?" Always say yes. Always.

On to food. Specifically breakfast. So I'm not a huge breakfast poster...or even a huge breakfast fan. Someone people love it, some people hate it, I'm ambivalent.

But, I do recognize that it's healthy and therefore compel myself to eat it. One thing I've found that I really love is steel cut oats.

What are steel-cut oats you ask?
Steel-cut oats are whole grain groats (the inner portion of the oat kernel) which have been cut into pieces. They are commonly used in Scotland and Ireland to make porridge, whereas rolled oats are used in England, other English-speaking countries, and Scandinavia. They are sometimes named after the grade of cut, e.g. pinhead oats; steel-cut oats from Ireland are sometimes called Irish oats.

Taken straight from Wikipedia. What I know about them is that they have quite a low glycemic index, so they are healthier for your since they don't spike your blood sugar as much. Also, they are super easy to make, and tasty. Also, they're gluten free!

I've made tons of variations on this, but Pecan Pina Colada is latest creation, and I like it! So I figured I'd share. They are pretty malleable, so you can change the amount of the ingredients depending on what you like (sour cherries fan? Sure, toss 'em in! Hate coconut? Omit it!)

You can make these oats at the beginning of the week, and have them for breakfast every day with some greek yogurt and lemon curd or jam, or even a small bit of nutella. That's what I do :-)

Pecan Pina Colada Oats

1:2 steel cut oats to water (1 cup oats, 2 cups water)
0.25 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (or sweetened if that's what you have)
1.5 handfuls of pecans, whole or coarsely chopped
2 dried, sweetened pineapple rings, coarsely chopped

Optional but tasty:
A few table spoons of brown sugar     OR
A big dollop of honey         OR
3-4 tbsp. coconut milk         OR
1 tbsp. Butter                    

Heat your oven to about 275F

In a 9x9 pan, mix all the ingredients together. Put it in the oven for 20 minutes. Check on it, if it needs more water, add it. Should be done after another 20 minutes depending on how crunchy you like your oats. Allow them to cool, cover with foil, and stick in the fridge for the week!