22 January 2010

Left at Home

I checked my bag this morning before heading out to work, and was sure I’d put everything in there. Charger for laptop, laptop, backup hard drive for laptop, ipod, headphones, keys, phone, everything. Everything except the cigarettes and lighter.

It’s weird. I haven’t taken a smoke break while at work in over a year. For one thing, it’s damned expensive. For another, my boss isn’t too thrilled with the smell either. Most of all though, there’s frankly no time for it. If I have five minutes to stop and do something relaxing, I’ll drink some water, or chat with someone.

However, just like a security blanket, having the pack in my bag (for me) means that I can reach for a cigarette in the off chance that I’m craving one in the middle of the day. And this is completely different from those times that I leave for work, go through the day, and come home, only to find that the cigarettes are still sitting on the desk. In those cases, I didn’t know that I’d forgotten them. In this case, I noticed when I opened my bag at work.

I don’t anticipate it being a problem, which means that if I can get through today without going to the store to buy a new pack, then I can just start leaving the cigarettes at home all together. It’s easy enough to switch out that security with something else entirely, like salted nuts or something. Those will certainly be a lot more satisfying!

15 January 2010

Turnip Soup (Corrected)

I had a long conversation with my mother about this, that and the other thing. She told me that she started reading my blog (everyone join me in saying hi to Amma: Hi Amma!) when she got back from Florida, as someone there told her about it. Hi to my friends in Florida too! OK, enough with the shout-outs.

She explained about the origin of turnip soup. I thought that it was a traditional South Indian soup. I was mistaken! In actuality, it was an invention of my mother’s, based on a Sri Lankan vegetable stew, made with potatoes, onions, and coconut. The reason she did the fenugreek in there was to make it healthier, as fenugreek is good for the stomach, the digestion, and life in general. It has alkalising qualities, which helps to balance out the environs of the stomach, and keeps things moving along smoothly.

The funny thing is that nobody ever thought twice of taking three, four, and five helpings of the soup, not caring about the traditional or not. The reason she did it her own way, is that she cooks the way I do: use what you have on hand, and make it work for your needs. It’s kind of why the turnip soup is such a good recipe to have on hand. Regardless of what you’re working with, you can make it tasty with just a few little tweaks here and there.

I think this is what makes cooking such a magical experience. Here you have me, who’s living in America, trying to hark back to my South Indian roots, and making food that my mother made for me. I make a modified version of what I grew up eating, because I’ve found ways and means that work for me. For example, in the original version of the turnip soup, my mother uses fresh grated coconut. I was able to do that for a bit while I lived in a Latino neighbourhood, and could have access to fresh coconut for about a dollar a piece. Once I moved to a better area, the coconuts suddenly became sub-par, and horribly expensive. For a while, I flirted with frozen and dessicated coconut, but it wasn’t quite the same thing.

Having your husband crack open the coconut, fiddle out the white part, and drink the juice from inside is an experience. Yes, the frozen coconut is technically the same as the stuff that I do from scratch, but it’s not quite as satisfying. The way Puppy does the coconut reminds me of how my father would do the coconut. He’d carefully strain out the water from inside the coconut, and offer it to either Amma or one of us kids first. He would certainly partake heartily and happily, but he’s still see to it that all of us got our share.

Then, he’d carefully remove the coconut itself from the shell, and leave it there waiting for my mother. When he taught Steve how to do that, it was his own way of welcoming Steve into the family. When Amma taught me how to make that soup, it was her way of passing on secrets from thousands of generations of talented cooks, all distilled into practical, easy to use knowledge.

Gives dinner a whole new edge, doesn’t it?

13 January 2010

Goldilocks Smoothie

I'd been craving something all morning, and couldn't put my finger on it. I'd already had a piece of toast, some fruit, and plenty of water. I wanted something a bit more substantial, but not too filling, but not skimpy, like a glass of juice. The smoothies at Chow are delicious and filling but a little sweet for my liking (I prefer salty to sweet anyway). They don't add any sugar at all ever for any reason, but they certainly use a bit of fruit, and those bananas and berries can get sweet real quick like. I wanted something a lot more muted, but that would still be filling.

I thought of those mainstream smoothies from Odwalla. You know the type. They have oats and almonds and soy milk and bananas, and a bit of sugar and some other added vitamins and the rest. It's delicious, but also a bit on the sweet side for my liking. OK, it's a lot on the sweet side. Either way, that's what I was craving.

Fortunately, we've got one of those monster blenders at Chow, so a smoothie is fairly easy to crank out. In went some ice, a piece or two of frozen banana, a fairly large handful of almonds, a good hefty handful of oats, and finally a tiny splash of soy milk to get the whole mess going quickly. Off the blender went, chomping down all the ingredients into a smooth, creamy beverage. I didn't want it to be thick and ice-creamy like the Sacred Chow smoothies (seriously; you have to eat it with a spoon at first!), but rather a little more liquidy, so I could chug that thing down, and get on with my work.

For some reason, the oats got ground down to this neat consistency that was very much like using those store bought soy milks where they add the emulsifiers and the like. I didn't cook the oats, I just ground them up raw. The almonds were toasted, but I'd imagine it'd work just as well with soaked or raw almonds. The bananas were there to keep everything suspended. I feel like this would have been equally delicious with rice milk, almond milk, hemp milk, or even water! The almonds and the oats make their own kind of milk when you're grinding it up, and they just need some sort of liquid to be suspended in.

It's delicious.

Cliff said it reminded him of the porridge from Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Goldilocks Shake.


Audio of Dino explaining the whole smoothie thing.

Subscribe to Dino's show in iTunes: here.

EDIT: Here's a note from a friend of mine who tried this in his blender:

Back again. So I made this and it tastes great! My wife likes it a little sweeter so I threw in some pitted dates. Thanks again for the recipe!

ps. Make sure the ice goes in the bottom and you give it enough liquid at the beginning. Dont't do what I did and throw in half a carafe of oats with a tiny bit of liquid and then watch your (Blendtec!) blender start smoking because the oats get compacted under the blades. Follow the recipe and dont go crazy with the oats.

In other words, when you make a smoothie, ALWAYS put the ice at the bottom of the blender, so that you don't glom up the blades with all the products, and end up nuking your blender.

Minor whine

I had to install a couple of fonts on my work machine. On my mac, of course, there's the FontBook software that comes standard on OSX. You tell it to find the fonts on your media, install them, and get on with your life. I went to the Windows boxes (one was Vista, one was XP), and this is the screen I got on both of them.

Really? Is that the best they could do? Also, it didn't like the folders. I had to go back to the mac, search out all the .otf file, put them in a folder on a jump drive, go back to the PC, and have it done with. Why didn't I search on the PC? Mainly because I wanted to be done with the search some time this week. The biggest annoyance I have on the OSX system is that it searches in the full hard drive by default. This is fixed by clicking on "this folder" rather than "my computer" or whatever. That takes seconds.

The biggest whine I have about the PC search interface is that it can't decide what exactly to look like, and stay that way. On the XP box, it opens up that stupid dog, which is of no help. I know exactly what I'm searching for, and can do without the help. On the vista machine ...

Well, the less said, the better.

Come on, Microsoft. I know you're creating serious business machines, but can't you at least try to make the experience less painful? What is so terrible about the font software recognising the folders, and using them? It's sensible, and keeps things organised. And really, is that the absolute best you could come up with for an installing new fonts dialog? I've seen what you've done with the new Add/Remove Programs dialog. It looks damn nice, what with the hiding of the system updates, and other ugly things that get in the way. It's also sensible with how it all works out, because you click a few buttons, and everything works out in the end.

This is just a mess.

09 January 2010

Turnip Soup

Turnips are relatively cheap in the winter, and are easy to find at any bodega or grocery store. So are potatoes, coconut milk, salt, and pepper. I'd made a turnip soup a couple of weeks back, and it finished almost as soon as we set it out. I think it lasted about a day or so, and I had made a fairly large batch of the stuff. Since it did finish so quickly, and we got a few requests for the recipe, I thought I'd share.

The secret ingredient is the fenugreek seeds. Those are absolutely required for the soup to work, because when boiled, they form the stock. The boiling seeds release this rich stock, which is packed with flavour and texture. People have been using the seed for thousands of years, and its health claims are wide and varied. I don't know or care about such claims. I just like that it tastes so good.

I'm using the ratios here to make the measuring easy. If you'd like to scale up or down, feel free to. The onion is strictly optional, as is the cabbage. The potatoes give body to the soup. If you don't have turnips, daikon radish, red radish, rutabaga, celeriac, jicama, chayote, parsnip, kohlrabi, salsify, or sunchokes. It's a very forgiving recipe, so if you want something more brothy, feel free to add more water. If you want more of a stewy texture, feel free to cut back on the liquid.

When I make this stew, I tend to stick to boiling potatoes, although it's a personal preference, and not strictly required. I also make very large batches, and freeze them in 1 litre containers, so that I can come back to it later, if need be, and have a meal in a hurry. This is a complete meal in a bowl. The coconut milk provides fat and protein, the potatoes give starch, and the vegetables give fibre and the other essential nutrients you'll need.

This is also not just restricted to the few vegetables I've included here. You are welcome to add dark leafy greens, leftover steamed veggies (at the end, of course), or pretty much any other thing that catches your fancy. I tend to avoid using beans, but again, that's a personal preference.

Turnip Soup

2 TB fenugreek seeds
2 litres water
2 medium sized potatoes
2 medium sized turnips
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 small onions (optional)
2 cups coconut milk
2 big pinches of salt (or more, as you wish; this is also optional)

In a large stock pot, pour in 2 litres (about a half gallon, give or take) of cold water, and sprinkle in the fenugreek seeds. Place it over high heat, and cover the lid of the pot. While the water comes up to a boil, peel (optional) and dice (required) the potatoes and turnips. They don't need to be small. In fact, it's better if you chop them on the somewhat large size, so that they don't fall apart in the cooking process.

Peel and dice your onions relatively small. When the water has been at a full rushing boil for about 10 minutes, slide in the potatoes, turnips, and turmeric. Let the ingredients in the pot cook together, covered, at a fierce boil, for 10 minutes. Add in the diced onions, and cover the lid again. Let it continue to boil for 10 minutes more.

When the biggest piece of potato and the biggest piece of turnip you have in the pot have become tender, turn off the heat. Pour in the coconut milk, and stir through to combine. Add salt if you wish (although it doesn't strictly need it), stir through a couple more times. Serve piping hot, with some rice, bread, or just all by itself.


As I said, this works perfectly well with any other vegetables you'd like to add to it, but I like the simplicity of just a couple of vegetables, some spices, and a bit of coconut milk. There's something that's so honest and earthy about it.

However, there are times when I don't have *quite* enough of each ingredient to make this "properly" so I tend to improvise. That's when I'll slide in some shredded cabbage, some thinly sliced carrots, leftover peas, a bit of corn, and some of that kale that looks like it's seen better days. If I'm using the kale stems, I'll add them towards the beginning of cooking (along with the potato and turnip). If you have red cabbage, it'll add even more to the riot of colours going on in the pot.

Of course, if you're fortunate enough to have raw peanuts with their skins still on, I'd add them in with the potatoes and turnips and have such a mouth-watering stew. Peanuts aren't a nut, they're a legume. It's just that we're used to seeing them in their relatively fresh stage, unlike most legumes which we're used to seeing dried. This means that you don't have to soak them before you cook them.

If you've ever traveled through the American South, you'll know the pleasures of boiled peanuts. Now imagine that wonderful, savoury taste going through and infiltrating your stew! Yum.

The reason that I say that the salt is optional is because there are some foods that are so delicious on their own that they don't even need to have salt added. I'm a bit of a salt fiend, so I tend to salt anyway, but many of my friends try to watch their diets, and keep salt restricted or eliminated from their day-to-day lives. If you're one of those people, feel free to omit the salt all together.

Before I leave you, I'd like to mention that this is one of those South Indian peasant dishes that you don't get unless you're eating at the house of a South Indian. It's invented from the need to make your vegetables stretch a long way, and feed more people than they usually would. Even so, it's still so delicious that it doesn't matter if it's not high gourmet food. It's comforting, filling, and warms you up from the inside out (and I speak literally; it's the perfect winter soup!) from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.