26 November 2012

50% off my book (until 31 December 2012)

Buy it here.

So PM Press, the publisher for The Alternative Vegan, is offering 50% off all their books and E-Books, as long as you act before 31 December 2012. Just use the code "Holiday" at checkout. If you haven't been able to swing the cost of the book so far, because it was out of your price range, this would be the time to snag it for less than $10 USD (the list price on PM is $17.95). Since they're offering the deal for all their books, this would be a great time to check out some of their other titles if your so inclined.

15 November 2012

Make your food taste restaurant quality delicious.

The food you get in a restaurant tastes the way it is for various reasons. One is the seasoning. Another is the collaboration. Another is the presentation. I'll get into each, so that you all can dish out a very festive meal when the time comes for it.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seasoning your food. I'm not even talking about herbs, spices, or anything fancy or esoteric. Just plain salt will ensure that your food tastes right. When it comes to seasoning starchy foods (rice, pasta, potatoes, etc), season as they cook, so that they have a chance to get the salt into there. If it's vegetables and the like, feel free to season once it's done cooking, so that you don't end up with over-salted vegetables. In cases of soups and stews (and especially daal), I tend to wait until the last minute to salt my food, because I don't want to have to account for evaporation and the like throwing off the amount of salt that I've added. Unless you have a recipe that specifies an amount, wait until the end, add a bit of salt, see if that improves things, and keep adding in small amounts until you get to where you're comfortable.
Some people argue that it's better to leave the food unsalted, so that the folk who like more can add more, and those who don't like as much can leave it out. This is good in theory. Unfortunately, in practise, it makes it so that you have the person who's eating leaving things alone to be polite, and quietly choking it down, even though it's bland as hell. I don't know where the stigma behind salting at the table comes from, but it runs pretty strong. Even at home, when my husband and I are having something quick, under-salting is a problem. Rather than adding enough salt to his liking in a dish that's unsalted (which happens by mistake from time to time), he'll flat out avoid it all together until I add some salt to the dish. Then, once he's seen that it does taste good, he's able to adjust up if he wants more than that.
In other words, you need some salt to get the party started, so that people don't avoid the dish all together.
In a good kitchen, there is no space for ego. Yes, there is one person in charge of the whole meal. So what? Everyone can teach you something. No matter how new someone is to cooking, that person still has her/his own opinions on what tastes good. That's why, when we're in a restaurant kitchen, we don't work in a vacuum. Everyone, from the dish person, to the waitstaff, to the line cooks, and the management tastes a new dish. We all give feedback (more salt, too spicy, not enough pepper, not creamy enough, needs more fat, is a bit greasy, odd texture, needs crunch) based on what we like. The person making the dish will incorporate that into the recipe to improve it. It's why a restaurant is able to turn out delicious recipe after delicious recipe.
We're obsessed with food. We talk about it all the time. When we find a new method, or an interesting recipe, the first thing we do is share it with each other. Bossman likes to read magazines and newspapers. He's especially a fan of the food columns in the New York Times, because they provide such a varied set of people with different inspirations. Even if the recipe isn't vegan, we can easily make it vegan. I like YouTube. I like it a lot. My mother and I will watch those cooking channels made by individuals. They've frequently got recipes just as good (if not better) than cookery books. Because they're working in kitchens that are similar to mine (actually, their kitchens are much larger than mine; my home kitchen is tiny), with similar tools, and similar concerns, they'll often come up with neat ideas to do the same thing that I've done a million times. I also enjoy online cooking forums. They'll frequently have other food nerds around, who enjoy eating and cooking. It's a wonderful thing to bounce recipe ideas off a group of people you trust, who will then come back with suggestions to tweak or improve what you've started with.
The point is that even if you don't work in a restaurant kitchen, with multiple brains around you, you can still reach out to others to get that same feedback we get. If you have anyone at all who's interested in food who's helping you to cook, let them taste everything. This is especially good if you have children underfoot. They love to help out (if they're like the children I've met), and are usually thrilled to be asked their opinion on something that you're cooking for a large group. A simple "Hey, can you please check my food for salt", will often be greeted with enthusiasm.
More so than the recipe development or tasting collaboration, a restaurant kitchen has work collaboration. Rarely will I have to make a recipe all by myself, from start to finish, without someone helping me out. Whether it's our amazing dish person, who swoops in and clears off dirty dishes to be cleaned immediately, or my fabulous coworkers, who offer to knock out vegetable chopping tasks, it's a lot more enjoyable to cook when you have help.
Nobody who is helping you is doing an unimportant job. My job would be impossible without someone to help me clean up. I worry about the dish person if he's a little late, because it will bring our production to a screeching halt if we don't have someone who's around to enthusiastically keep the place sparkling clean. Similarly, at home, I really like it when there's someone who's there to keep the dishes from piling up (and pile up they do!), so that at the end of the night, it's a question of just washing the serving plates and the eating plates, rather than the myriad preparation bowls and cookware. If your guests offer to help you clear up, take them up on the offer! If someone offers to help you out in the kitchen, have them do something that will let you concentrate on other tasks that only you can do.
There are times when my boss and I will head into the kitchen together to make something. It's not that the other cooks don't know how to do the tasks I'm doing. It's not even necessarily that they're so busy that they can't lend a hand. Sometimes, the two of us just need some time by ourselves, to talk and get work done at the same time. This happens at home too. When I cook with someone, we tend to talk about things that won't come up in regular conversation. There's a bond that we form over that food preparation that isn't quite the same as any other bond. Something about working together to reach a specific goal just makes that task fun, and meaningful at the same time.
Either way, the point is that if you can get (or recruit) help when you're cooking, by all means, take it.
Finally, there is the point that in a restaurant kitchen, common tasks will be done en masse. If we need to have peeled onions (which we do), we'll peel a 50 pound bag at once, so that the next person going in to reach for onions has some already peeled. If we need chopped ginger and garlic, we'll make 5 pounds at once, so that we'll have chopped ginger or garlic ready and waiting (although here that 5 pounds will only last a day or two tops, you can keep about a couple of heads of chopped garlic, and a palm-sized knob of chopped ginger around for about five days in the fridge). We keep bunches of parsley already chopped, and waiting to go into things as a garnish. In other words, we do the boring bits during the slow times, so that when the crazy times hit, we aren't wasting needless steps on preparing the starting ingredients. It takes me just a few seconds to roughly chop an onion. Once that's done, and I already have chopped garlic and ginger, along with my salt, oil, and a pot, I can get pretty close to any recipe started with the sauteeing or sweating of the onions within a minute or so of prep time (especially since the onions are already peeled). Once those onions go into the pot, it's just a few more seconds of gathering additional ingredients to make my food.
In other words, if you're about to embark on a major holiday spread, have those recipe starters (onions, garlic, chopped celery and carrots, chopped ginger) ready and waiting for you. If you are doing the prep work just a day or two before, feel free to chop the onions, and put them into a zip top bag. Then chop your root vegetables, and soak them in cold water. That way, when the day of arrives, you just have assembly work to do.
Finally, at a restaurant, we pay attention to how your food looks. This isn't just about plating things beautifully. It's about the entire dish itself. For example, if you make a stew or soup, and everything is brown and dark coloured, we'll frequently put something in there to break up that colour monotony. If you have millet, sweet corn, and squash, you're going to end up with something that looks monochromatic. In cases like the millet example, I'll throw some kind of green vegetable into the mix (maybe some broccoli, or chopped kale). If I'm making something of any green, brown, or yellow, I'll generally throw some red in there. There's a reason that so many restaurants will have red peppers in the food: it really pops with red without bleeding onto anything else. When you have beets, or tomatoes, it tends to leak onto other foods. When you have bell peppers, however, you have a sharp blast of colour that's self-contained.
There are many things you can do at home to make your food look and taste as good as the food you get outside. For sure, some restaurants that you go to will bump up the fat content of any meal that they serve you. This is especially true of fast food or chain restaurants. There are diners where they bring in pre-made, mass-produced frozen meals, which they just heat up to serve you. However, people still cheerfully eat them. This is not the sort of "nicer tasting at restaurants" food I'm talking about. I'm talking about those places that make healthy, delicious food, consistently. That's why I didn't just tell you to throw fat at your cooking until it yields.
If you don't have local friends or family who are interested in food, find people online. They exist! If your children are uninterested in helping you cook, at the very least get them into the kitchen with you to taste the food as you cook, so that they get an idea of how a recipe can be tweaked to make it work for you. Especially in the case of massive parties and festivals, have multiple people give you feedback on your dish, until it's exactly where you'd like it to be.
And finally, know that even when you make mistakes, you learn something new. That in itself is a valuable enough reason to get into the kitchen and get to cooking. 

05 November 2012

Quit Smoking

To actually manage to quit smoking, the most important technique is to actually want to stop smoking. No amount of smoking cessation is going to help if the will to do so isn't present. Once you've got that sorted, there's a couple of methods out there available to you. Please bear in mind that everything I'm saying here is strictly anecdotal. It's based on my own experiences and observations. Your results will vary, because addiction is a highly personal thing, and will work on different people in different ways, depending on your life situation, environment, encouragement from casual acquaintances and friends, and your support network.

For whatever reason (my reasons were financial, because the cigarette tax had gotten so burdensome that I was about to have to spend on my weekly cigarettes what I'd spend on food for a month), figure out what those reasons are, and genuinely reflect on what that all means. I wasn't much bothered about the social aspect of it, because my husband didn't mind the smoking. My friends would often join me if I had to step out for a smoke. A couple of them didn't even mind my smoking in their cars, as long as we could keep the windows down. However, once it got to the point where we were only earning one income, and that one income would have to stretch to make us both comfortable, I knew that I had to stop for good. I talked it over with my husband, and he agreed that my math was accurate. Once we both made that commitment, I called the New York City quits hotline, and asked them to send me nicotine patches. Once I made the final decision, I moved onto the next step.

Aside from desiring to quit, breaking my patterns really helped to prime me to put out my last cigarette. For example, I was never an all-day long smoker. Yes, I'd power through the cigarettes fairly quickly, but I never bothered smoking first thing in the morning. 

First thing in the morning, all I want is a tall glass of water, and a couple of minutes to wake up fully. I'll maybe read for a while. When I'd walk to the subway, however, I'd take the stop that runs express (rather than using the local stop across the street from my apartment and transferring to the express 3 stops later), which would give me a five minute walk in which to finish a cigarette. When I'd walk to work from the subway station downtown, I'd light up another. After a big meal, I'd always have a cigarette. If I was drinking, I'd have a cigarette. So far, we're up to maybe five or six. Then I'd get home, pour myself a drink, and light up a cigarette immediately. I'd either park myself in front of the TV, or pick up the phone to call my mother or a friend, and I'd relax that way. Throughout that time, because I wasn't focusing on the actual act of smoking, I'd idly burn through the remainder of the packet.
When I made my decision to stop smoking, I had to begin breaking my patterns. I started taking the local train across the street, so that I wouldn't have time to smoke through a cigarette. I stopped eating large meals (which I was never a fan of to begin with). I stopped watching TV. I stopped talking on the phone for more than a minute or two at a time. If I wanted a drink after coming home, I'd make sure that it was something that I would want to really enjoy, like a glass of wine or a nice cocktail, rather than something that was there to just get me drunk. (The difference being that I wouldn't dream of having a cigarette with a nice glass of wine, because I want to actually taste the wine.) I started reading a lot more than I already was doing. I hated smoking while reading a book, because I didn't want to get cigarette ash onto my book or the computer (depending on what I was reading on). 

My brother took the lighter attachment out of the cigarette lighter in his car. What's the typical ritual for a smoker who drives? Get into car, turn on car, press down on the cigarette lighter, buckle up, turn on radio, when the lighter pops, light the cigarette. If you're with another friend, let them light theirs too. It's another pattern that's easy enough to break. You maybe don't have a cigarette as soon as you pop into the car. Maybe you wait until you hit a long traffic light to allow yourself one. And if the light changes before the cigarette is lit, just delay it a bit longer. 

These weren't sudden changes. It was a process of genuinely sitting myself down, and asking myself when my cravings were at their worst, and trying to interrupt those habits with new habits.

Once I'd managed to break my patterns, I had it down to where a package of cigarettes would last me three days. This took about four or five days. It was work, but it was worth it. I would not have been able to make the leap from smoking a pack a day to smoking nothing at all immediately. For me, it would have been too jarring, and everything I did or was used to doing would make me want to smoke. Breaking the patterns really forced me to examine what it was about cigarettes that I enjoyed, and taking the time to enjoy them, rather than mindlessly pounding through them. That was when I was finally ready to try the patches. By the time I'd winnowed down to three or four cigarettes a day, I was ready to try the patch.

It does help to have a quitting buddy, to whom you can turn when the cravings get bad. Since s/he is also going through the same things, s/he can commiserate with you about it, and help you find something to distract you from lighting up another cigarette. My friend Dan did a combination of Chantix and self-help book. I'll get into both later on. Either way, around the time that I quit, about four of my friends (two of whom I knew in person, and the other two online) were quitting at the same time. We'd complain to each other when times got rough, and helped each other with techniques to get through the tougher cravings.
I started with the nicotine replacement patch.

Quitting Cold: For my brother, this was the most effective method. He'd decide that he didn't want to smoke anymore, and would stop smoking. And that would be it. However, my brother has an inherent stubbornness (OK, willpower, if you're being kind) that won't let him bow to someone else's pressure. If he has someone or something telling him that he has to do something, he'll find a way to not do that thing out of pure spite. If you've got that particular bent, and are willing to give it a shot that way, by all means give it a shot.

The Patch: This was, for me, the worst of all, next to quitting cold. I had horrible side effects, from shaking to nausea to dehydration. I felt horrible all the time. I got very violent, disturbing nightmares that I couldn't explain. I don't watch violent films, I don't watch violent TV, I don't read violent books, and I try to avoid violence as much as I can. Where were these disgusting, gory, horrible nightmares coming from? The box said that this is normal, and that I should just stop wearing it at night if I get nightmares. Should have thought of that first. Who the hell smokes while they're sleeping?

I did stop wearing it at night, but the symptoms never got any better. I was still having horrible shakes throughout the day. I couldn't hold my knife steady at work, so I had to go at a slower pace. I was drinking those sugar and salt mixtures to rehydrate myself, and it still wasn't working (it didn't help that I embarked on this journey in the summer, where I was sweating already, due to the heat). When I ran out of the patches, I decided to try something else instead.

Chantix: My friend and his wife were on Chantix to stop smoking. Essentially, it works by blocking the nicotine receptors in your brain, so that even if you have a cigarette, you don't get the pleasure from it. Any lingering nicotine in your system doesn't have any more effect on you. Initially, you take two a day, and then ratchet down to one a day.

If this were a birth control pill, I'd be pregnant with a large family by now. The problem for me is that I can't remember to take the thing every day. I would set an alarm, I would write myself notes, I would carry the thing in my bag so that I could take it in case I missed a dose at home. So a one month supply took me about three months to work through. It did help to get that last bit of cravings out of my system, however. For me, it was effective, as it was for my two friends who tried it. We were all quitting at the same time, and the Chantix helped us all to clear it out.

It's not for everyone, because it will interfere with other medications you're taking, so it's important to know what the complications are if you are on any kind of medication, to prevent drug interactions. Either way, it's prescription only, so talk to your doctor before you try the stuff.

Self Help Book: I hate self help books. They come off as smug and annoy me to no end. They're featured on certain talk shows who shall remain nameless, which are also filled with smug and annoying people. I'm sure there are some folk who are helped by self help books. Bully for them. I hate them.
It is with that in mind that I was bowled over by how useful this one self help book was. It's called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, by Allen Carr (ISBN: 0615482155). Like Chantix, the book works with you while you're still smoking. For me, it was mainly to understand the process of addiction and how to break it. Either way, it is highly effective.

Smoking is a weird addiction, in that the high, or the comfort, or the pleasurable feelings, only come from satisfying the withdrawals to the drug. The second you put out your last cigarette, your body starts screaming for the next one. It's not loud at first. Initially, it's just a whisper. Then it becomes more and more urgent as more time passes. Finally, when you're ready to break, you light up a cigarette, and feel this rush of pleasure. That's your body telling you that you've fulfilled its need for more nicotine. Allen Carr explains this a lot more eloquently, and it's what really helped me to break the hold that cigarettes had over me.

E-Cigarettes: I have a friend who's been on them for over a year. That's all I'll say about them.

Gum: Ew.

I'm sure there are other methods, but these are the ones that I've explored myself. There are other methods out there. If you've got your own stories, feel free to share them. Again, your results will likely be different from mine. Again, these are purely anecdotal, and are shaded by my own experiences and prejudices. Take it with a grain of salt.

Before you try any method, however, give yourself permission to be human. I had managed to stop smoking for about three or four days before lighting up a cigarette again. This happened more than once. Clearly, for me, quitting cold was not an option. However, I didn't let myself get discouraged. It's an addiction. That means that there are physical and psychological ramifications to it. If you don't genuinely allow yourself the permission to be a human being, and try again if you don't meet your expectations on the first try. Notice how I didn't say "when you fail". Failure is giving up.

Failure is never trying in the first place.

01 November 2012

Curry leaves & ginger adai

It's so green because of the amount of curry leaves and the skin on the moong beans. I used moong beans, split peas, Tuvar daal, urad daal, masoor daal, and a few spoons of sprouted brown rice. I ground the batter with as much ginger as I could get my hands on. It's almost spicy from the ginger. Very tasty.

Edit: The first image shows how brown the back of the adai should be. Do not try to cook adai or dosa over high heat. Use medium heat at the most.
Serve with cabbage curry.

Lunch time!

Puri, chana masala, raita.

05 September 2012

Wash your beans!

I've always been pretty careful about washing veg, rice, and other things before using them. However, I never gave beans a second thought. Why? Because I soak them (for the most part) and then discard the soaking liquid. Until someone mentioned to me all the lovely places that beans sit around in before getting to you, and how most of those places are dirty or dusty. It's not a problem of the plant being unsanitary, but just a function of how beans get packaged and the rest. It's nobody's fault.

But it's plenty disgusting.

This morning, I was about to put a few cups of pinto beans to soak for a chili. I gave them a thorough rinse. I scooped out the beans, and found a layer of dirt along the bottom of the container I'd used to hold the beans while running them under water. I was absolutely disgusted. I gave the beans a few more rinses, and only put them to soak when the water ran clear.

I'd assume that this goes double for hulled or split daals, like urad daal, red lentils, chana daal, etc. I never gave it a second thought, but I think I will from now on. I really don't want that stuff in my food.

31 August 2012

Sprouted Corn & Brown Rice Blinis

EDIT: I thought that my mother would be horrified, but it looks like she's proud! 
another version of adai. but definitely different. kudo MY SON. i keep doing stuff like this to traditional recipes. go dinu.
love you
I love you too, Amma! 

I learnt about blinis while watching this English cooking show called The Two Fat Ladies. Anyone who's lived with me for any length of time will tell you that I obsessively watched cooking shows, and between Julia Child and The Two Fat Ladies, I was fairly happy to while away hours upon hours of time in front of the television. Fortunately, my mother classed cooking shows under "Educational TV", so she didn't really bother much while I would spend all that time watching those shows.

You see, I was always more fond of reading than watching TV, and what TV I did enjoy watching generally involved nature documentaries on PBS, cooking shows on PBS (both Julia Child and Lydia Bastianich were favourites), and when we finally got cable, cooking shows on the food channel. I loved watching the Discovery channel, and looking at all those exotic places that the crews would go to, and watch the narrator quietly explaining what was going on.

So, while we were limited to 2 TV shows per day, there was no limit to the amount of educational TV we were allowed to watch. And, of course, no limit to how much reading we were allowed to do. Even while grounded, my mother would never curtail my watching of documentaries. There's a reason why my mother rarely resorted to grounding. She found that assigning extra chores was a much stronger deterrent.

But I digress (as usual)! On the episode where they were doing this cocktail party for the Brazilian ambassador to England, Clarissa did blinis. She had these darling little miniature pans that she fried them up in, and at the end, served them with sour cream and caviar. I never did get around to making them on my own, because they involved buckwheat flour, which I couldn't easily get my hands on at the time. Fast forward to a few years later, and I'm in New York, living as a vegan, working in a vegan restaurant. I thought back to that episode, and watched it again, thinking to make something interesting and vegan for a special.

It involved large quantities of butter (melted, so I could easily use oil), then milk (soymilk), then eggs with whipped egg whites. I stopped myself, because it was getting to the point where half the recipe was being substituted, and just watched the show, and let the matter drop. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I started seriously thinking things over. What is a blini, in essence? It's a slightly fermented batter, made of buckwheat and all purpose flour, combined with some kind of fat, and pan-fried. Easy, right? So what makes the eggs and such necessary? Buckwheat flour and wheat flour will have a tendency to not form a firm cake on its own. It should have bubbles in, because it's fermented overnight, but it wouldn't have enough structure and body to stand up on its own.

What does have enough structure, that is also fermented, and doesn't require binder to stay together? DOSA. The South Indians have been making fermented batters since time immemorial. In fact, they even make unfermented (but sprouted or soaked) bean batters to make various pancakes. Why couldn't I just use a base of a fermented bean and rice batter, stir in cornmeal for structure, let that all ferment for a very short time (enough to rehydrate the cornmeal), and then fry it off? It should work, right?

Off I went.

6 cups brown rice
2 cups urad daal
3 cups chickpeas
2 TB fenugreek seeds (WHOLE)

In one bowl, soak the chickpeas in 12 cups of cold water. In another, soak the brown rice in 9 cups of cold water. To the rice bowl, add the fenugreek seeds. Soak the rice and chickpeas overnight. The next day, soak the urad daal for 2 hours in cold water. While the urad daal soaks, drain the chickpeas and rice, and let them hang out in a bowl, drained. Two hours later, when the urad daal is soaked, drain it as well, and let it sit as well. You'll want your beans and rice to hang out for four or five hours so that they can sprout. That evening, grind SEPARATELY the chickpeas, urad daal, and rice, with enough water to get them down to a fine paste.

Don't worry about how much water you're adding. The batter will not end up watery at the end, because you're going to add other stuff to this as well. Once the three pastes have been formed, mix them together thoroughly with a few pinches of salt. Then, in a warm draft-free place, let the batter ferment (covered with a towel) overnight. If your oven is empty, and turned off, just leave it in there. Make sure to put it into a container large enough that if the mixture expands, it has plenty of room to expand. You want a container at least double the size of your batter.

On hot days, you'll only need about four hours to ferment the batter. On colder days, like in the winter, you'll need overnight at the very least. This is OK. If it IS a hot day, and you won't have time to get to the batter by the time it's done fermenting, feel free to refrigerate it, and ferment it for a day. It'll take longer, but you won't harm the taste any.

Then, when it's all fermented and bubbling away, you'll want to add your additional ingredients, based on what you have. For this particular recipe, I had some good quality stone ground cornmeal. I added that, along with ginger, garlic, salt, black pepper, and sweet corn kernels. I mixed everything together until it was a the consistency of a loose dough. Then, I thinned it out with water enough to get it to pancake batter thickness. You want it thin enough that the batter will spread when it hits the griddle, but not so thin that it becomes a crepe.

This is the most important step, after the fermentation of the initial batter. Because you've added fresh ingredients, you need to give the batter a second ferment, and a chance for the cornmeal to rehydrate in the batter. This way, when you cook it, you won't wind up with overly crunchy bits of cornmeal. It's not pleasant, trust me.

Let the batter ferment and rehydrate for at least four hours. This will get the cornmeal completely hydrated and make the eventual product have a light and fluffy inside. Finally, you're ready to go. Unlike blinis, which will spread on you (and therefore require a small pan in which to fry them) this batter will stay coherent. Heat up your largest griddle to about 400°F, and add some fat of your choice (I used Canola oil). Spoon the batter onto the griddle, spacing them about 2 finger's width apart. You want them a little spread out so that they have a chance to cook up on their own, and not meld into one giant mess. When you see the bubbles forming on the top of the cake, and popping, you'll notice the colour change from a milky white to a pale yellow. That's about when you're ready to flip. Carefully flip the cakes over (stabilising them with your hands, as necessary), and cook on the other side.

Much like a traditional blini, you'll see little holes forming on the cakes, and you'll have a very crispy inside with a light and slightly sourdough tasting inside. They will get more and more crisp as you fry them longer and longer.

If you want a thinner blini, with a more crepe like taste, feel free to grind the feremented batter (containing the corn kernels) in the blender until it's smooth, and spread the batter down with your spoon so that it's thinner.

I feel like the combination of the corn, with the corn kernels, and the ginger and garlic, and the black pepper and salt just have an amazing taste. You bite in, and you get a little hint of sweetness from the corn, a bit of sourness from the fermented batter, and that wonderful garlic and ginger.

You could, if you have it, use chives, parsley, chopped leafy greens, or whatever other vegetables you like. I just used corn, because summer is almost gone, and I want to enjoy corn while I can. Instead of cornmeal, grits work just as well, as does semolina. It's really important to use the brown rice, because it actually does sprout, and gets improved with the long fermenting. And chickpeas give structure very well, without resorting to weird egg replacers and the like. The fenugreek seeds help the batter to ferment, as does the urad daal. After that, the cornmeal gives the texture a really nice boost, and keeps the cakes high enough.

05 August 2012

QUICK Pickled Daikon

Yesterday was Steve's birthday luncheon. I made obscene amounts of food. I might be compelled to share the recipes for all the food some day, but there are no pictures to go with any of them, because we ate everything by the time I thought to take a picture. One dish that requires no picture (because it's so simple and no-fuss) was a daikon pickle that I made. It takes minutes to throw together.

The reason I wanted it is because I was making spicy food. I didn't want to cook the daikon, because it was so fresh and tasty. I couldn't serve it outright raw, because it's still got that radish-y sharpness to it. So I salted it. It was so delicious! People kept asking me what I did to it to get it to taste like that. I smiled, and said, "Salt!" They were all amazed, and kept munching on it as a snack.

My friend Frances said that it was (to her) like a healthier version of potato chips, because you get the saltiness, and mild starchiness, but none of the fat. And, since it was in little pieces, it was easy enough to pick up, and munch on.

1/2 daikon radish (about 500 g of daikon in total)
1 tsp salt

Take the daikon, and peel off the skin. Stand it upright, and take off one thin slice (vertically). This will help you have a stable base for the rest of your slices. Lay the daikon on its side, cut-side-down, and make thin (as thin as you can get it) rounds. Stack 5 - 10 of the rounds atop one another, and make thin slices to make little strips. Throw the strips into a bowl, and sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to combine, and let sit for 10 - 15 minutes in the fridge. Serve as a side dish to spicy food. It makes a very refreshing counterpoint to your spicy food, or a delicious low calorie snack.

28 July 2012

Flowers for Algernon

I just finished reading Flowers for Algernon, a book written back in the 1960s by Daniel Keyes. It is not for people who don't like an emotional (as well as intelligent) story. In it, we meet Charlie Gordon, a man in his 30s who works as a janitor at a factory. He has an IQ of 68, and struggles with reading and writing. In that struggle, however, he strives to better himself by attending reading and writing classes for adults. He is chosen as the subject of an experimental procedure designed to tripe the IQ of the person through brain surgery. The story doesn't get into the specifics of the operation, because it's not important, and because it's written as Charlie's diary.

Essentially, the operation is a success, and you see Charlie's diary getting more introspective, and the grammar, punctuation, and diction improving exponentially. You see him realise that all those people who were joking around and laughing with him at the factory were actually laughing at him. When he comes to that realisation, it hurts, and he talks about his feelings, now that he can look back on his former life.

At one point in the story, you realise that as rapid as his progress was, his decline on the other side happens as well. It almost feels like the author suggested that the accelerated learning happened at the expense of "using up" your brain's lifetime, which means that because you progress much faster, your eventual demise comes rushing at you equally quickly.

In a heartbreaking turn of events, you see Charlie losing things that he has grown to love. He loses languages he understood fluently. He no longer understands scientific papers he's written himself. His own progress reports become indecipherable to him. What's even more heartbreaking is that he thrashes around (mentally), desperately trying to hold on to those memories, those experiences, those joys he had.

It was all the more sad, because I myself do enjoy my intellectual pursuits. I love to read. In books, I find escape, I learn things, I dream, I become. Above and beyond that, however, I love learning new things. Whether it be about food, or science, literature, or minor trivia, I take pleasure in absorbing new knowledge. I can so identify with Charlie, as he struggles to grasp things that seem just out of his reach. Even though he finds it difficult, he keeps trying, because he has this inner drive to push himself to become better.

More than that, I enjoy writing. I love being able to get my thoughts down into words, and get them out of my head. It means that I don't have to sit around with those thoughts. They can be committed to paper (frequently) or the Internet (less frequently, but still enjoyable), and I no longer need to hold on to them. When I write for myself (in my personal diaries), or for myself and others (like on my blog), or for my husband (in the goofy little love notes I leave hidden in his bag, or his wallet, or other random places he will get surprised with), it's like I'm reaching out to a part of myself that would otherwise languish without the attention. It's almost like writing is healing.

Without those pursuits, I feel like my mind would be a dismal place.

What are some of the things that you hold dear?

27 July 2012


I had a teacher in 10th grade, who taught English. She was one of my favourite teachers of all times. She not only loved reading, but also writing, and obscure words. She loved going to England every year, and would show us pictures of her travels. She frequently asked us to read, and  to encourage it, she would offer extra credit to anyone who chose a book from her personal bookshelf (kept behind her desk), and come back and discuss it with her. The beauty of the deal is that she didn't make more work for herself by having you write a report on it. Instead, it was more like an informal discussion that you'd have with your friend about a book that she enjoyed, and that you enjoyed.

I remember being in her class, and having the infinite pleasure of meeting another book addict. I took her up on her offer. When my 2 books per semester ran out I asked if she didn't mind if I just kept reading, just for the hell of it. She had an extensive collection of Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Ken Follet, and a bunch of other contemporary writers. They weren't High Literature, because she knew she was dealing with high school kids. Instead, they were just fun reads.

During this time, when I was enrolled in honours and AP classes, after school activities (AKA, drama club, track, and weekly prayer meetings with my parents), I still managed to read through one novel every day. The best part was her delight in giving me a book, having me read it, and discussing it with her the very next day. It's like instant gratification, because often when I reccommend a book to a friend, it takes them however long to read it, and we don't discuss it until weeks or months later. So to have another book addict to chat with was amazing.

She kept giving me thicker and more complex books. Jeffery Archer's As the Crow Flies, and Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth were two such examples. I knocked out As the Crow Flies in a day and a half, and Pillars of the Earth in three.

There was this lady, intelligent, talented, and lots of fun to hang out with, teaching a class of honours English to students who frequently didn't appreciate reading. year after year. I remember asking her one day how she could keep up. "Aside from finding other book addicts like you, I find that every year, I learn more from my students."

I was floored. Here was this woman, who was so intelligent and varied in her interests (and books), who said that she was learning from her high school students! Ever since then, I have made it my personal mission to see to it that I strive to learn from everyone I meet, even when it's me who's the teacher in that situation. One of my cooking students, Ari, mentioned that she hates to wrestle with a butternut squash, because she's not got the arm strength for it. So, she just throws the whole thing into the oven like that, and roasts it until it's tender. This is something she  taught me after I'd spent day after day in the restaurant kitchen, wrestling enormous piles of butternut squash, and cursing every minute of it (they really are stubborn). Here's someone who was asking me to teach her to cook, teaching me a new technique to use in my own life!

Never discount the lessons that you learn from others. Even those who are younger, or less experienced, or less talented. All of them have something to teach you.

Thank you, Mrs. Deshong. You are a wonderful teacher, and I hope that wherever you are today, you're enjoying a good book.

24 July 2012

How to land that job.

1) Don't use a generic "Objective" statement. We're all well aware that you're trying to get this job to use your skills that you've learned. Instead, tailor the objective statement on your resume to suit the job you're seeking. For example, if you're looking for a job in a store, as a cashier, you might say something like, "To ensure that every customer who walks past my cash register feels important, and cared for." In other words, tailor each resume to the job you're looking for, based specifically on each company you send it to. If you're sending a generic resume to everyone, you haven't spent any time on it, aside from the initial writing of said resume.

If you're not going to spend any time on writing the resume, why should I spend any time reading it?

2) Proofread any written communications with your future employer. Yes, even if you send it from your phone. Glaring grammar or spelling errors make you look careless.

3) Show up on time. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing short of the second coming of Jesus should delay you on your interview date. Leave your home two hours earlier than you think you'll need to get there. Why? Traffic delays happen. Spills happen. Rips and tears to your clothes happen. Subways get held up for train traffic, or lost power, or idiots holding open the door. You show up to the area that your job is going to be at very early, and you now have a bit of time to chill out, and relax. If you're late, someone else who wants the job badly enough to show up on time will win out over you. Even if your excuse sounds valid, the employer will still be thinking, "Well, how many other excuses will they come up with if I hire that person?"

4) Even if you get another job before your interview date, send a communication to that person who arranged it. It's a bad idea to burn bridges. No job is ever 100% certain. If you leave a good impression on the person in charge of hiring and firing, you have a chance of getting that job later on, should the one you got right now not pan out.

5) Know about the company you're applying to. I'm not saying that you need to go spend money there, but it helps to do some homework on the place you want to work at.


I have an innate terror about feeling hungry. Call it childhood trauma (NOT from my mother, for the record; she made sure that the house was perpetually stocked with good things to eat) or what have you, but that feeling of knowing that there is nothing for me to eat gives me severe anxiety. I make sure to eat well before leaving my home.
Anyone who's watched me eat knows that I generally eat very frequently. I could have just eaten a very short time ago, but we pass another bit of food I want later, and I've got to stop and refuel. It's like that initial anxiety you get when you first have your new mobile phone. You're not comfortable with its battery life yet, so you charge it too frequently for that first month. You hate knowing that you'll be without charge at a critical moment. In reality, it's probably not that huge a deal. If the thing is running low, you can really just turn it off and turn it back on when you need it. But until you learn that, you're still in dread of the battery running out.
I guess that because I'm a vegan, my lack of food anxiety tends to be pronounced. I have been places where the only option is a cup of black coffee with some sugar. And no, there isn't bread that I can trust. You see, it's been such a while since I've had dairy, that even a small amount in my food (even when I don't know it's there) sends my digestive system into a violent protest. Eggs can sneak by without my notice. Honey doesn't actually do anything. But dairy, when I accidentally ingest it, has me wrapped around the porcelain overlord, sweating profusely, and blasting from every orifice. Not a pleasant feeling.
So it's especially a nerve-wracking experience to leave my little vegan bubble. You see, I work at a vegan restaurant, am married to a committed vegan, and keep a vegan house. The friends that I socialise with on a regular basis are at the very least vegetarian. Those who aren't generally tend to be respectful omnivores, and are happy to wait until leaving my presence before settling down to animal flesh and the rest. Pretty much every restaurant in my city (including the steak houses, I found out on one particularly annoying night) can and is often happy to serve me something not only filling, but delicious. If I call ahead, I even sometimes get a fairly excited chef, who'd like to try out something experimental to see if I like it. At the local Chinese food delivery place, they have a selection of veggie meats to go with all their dishes. And they know what I mean when I ask for vegan.
When I leave my bubble, however, it's not so easy. These are often places with no mass transit, and I don't drive, and everything is spaced out really far apart. On those occasions, I'll end up at a convenience store or pharmacy, and grab some cashews, or crackers. But frankly, after a few hours, crackers and cashews don't really feel satisfying, dense in calories though they be.
All of this has done nothing at all to relieve my anxiety around hunger. I hate feeling hungry. It's one of those things that I've had to experience so rarely that to actively get myself into a situation where such is the case infuriates me.
But if I stop to think about it, I realise that I'm really being silly. Being hungry is not the worst thing in the world, especially considering that I live in a country where food is readily available to me when I want it. So what if I do have to skip a meal once in a while? More will be waiting later. And maybe letting myself get hungry once in a great while will make the meal at the other end of the experience taste all the more delicious.
It's something I'm working on, and I know I can get through it if I try.
I'm still going to carry a bottle of water though. 

13 July 2012


When I started working at the restaurant, I began noticing that in nearly every item on the menu, there were little symbols, like "gf", or "ns", or "sf". Bossman and I talked about it, and I mentioned how amazing I thought that the convention of marking clearly on the menu what is and isn't safe for the big allergens was. It's the same reason that we get the restaurant Kosher. Same reason that we try to aim for making specials that are safe for as many people as possible: it's just good hospitality.

My mother has been cooking for years. She's been cooking for so long that she does little things without even realising that she does it. For example, when it's a new person coming to her house, she quickly assesses who they are, where they're from, what kinds of things they may enjoy, and their level of spice tolerance. She'll still make one or two things suited to the rest of the family. However, for the guest, she'll make sure that the food is accessible to as many people as possible. She won't use the weird, bitter, or strangely textured vegetables. She'll avoid anything too spicy, or too difficult to wrangle. She'll stick with things that have excellent flavour, but don't have loads of hot peppers or black pepper.

Then, once the person has come over a few times, she'll adjust as necessary. However, for large groups of people, such as when she makes food for the temple potlucks, or for large gatherings of friends, she'll still stick to those basic rules: no major allergens (dairy, gluten, soy), no challenging flavours (very bitter, or very hot and spicy), and lots of flavour.

So when I came to Chow, it was like coming home. When I have guests coming over, I do the same thing. I'll ensure that I make something that everyone can enjoy. If a friend of mine is gluten intolerant, I don't make just one thing for that person. I'll try to make the whole meal gluten free. Why? Because to see that look of happiness when they can eat (almost) everything on the very well-filled table is gratifying. You feel good, knowing that you've made that person feel special. Meanwhile, the people who aren't gluten intolerant can still enjoy gluten free food! Everyone wins!

When you do have a friend with a* diet issue, please just challenge yourself to do everything in your power to cater to that person, and have the whole meal follow that plan. At the end of the day, what does it hurt to just try it out for a bit, and see where it leads you?

*Notice the "a" diet issue. I'm not asking you to turn into a hospital, where folks who are deathly allergic to soy, gluten, nuts, grains, raw vegetables, coconut, spices, oil, and herbs ALL AT THE SAME TIME feel like they need to have you jumping through hoops. There comes a point where someone just starts making stuff up, or where you're just not able to accommodate them. If your body hates you that much, I can't really help you. I'm willing to learn, of course. So if you are one of these folks, let me know what you eat, and I'll see what I can do.

10 July 2012


2 parts toor daal
1 part barley
1 part brown rice
1 part mung beans
1 part masoor daal
3 dried mulato chiles
3 dried ancho chiles
3 dried pasilla chiles
2 dried chile de arbol
1 TB fenugreek seed
1/3 part urad daal

Soak overnight. Using the soaking liquid, grind to an absolute paste along with 1 part grated ginger, a generous sprinkle of salt, and 1 part curry leaves loosely measured. Fry off in your favorite pancake skillet and eat with great gusto.

Happy Birthday, Amma

Amma (mother, in Tamil) and I have had a long-standing tradition that on my birthday, we celebrate both the person who's been alive another year (the birthday boy), and the person who got him there in the first place (the mother). It's a good tradition, and one that the ravages of distance and time have not managed to kill off. Now that my mother is on the other side of the country (and for anyone who's familiar with the sheer size of the USA, will know that it might as well be the other side of the planet), we continue the tradition over the phone, which is just as nice, because there are fewer distractions.

That being said, I'm preemptively making this post, because I know Amma reads this thing, so that in case the unthinkable happens, and I manage to astoundingly bungle what really is my favourite part of my birthday celebration (due to being too tired after work, or not charging the phone, or something else equally annoying and dumb), I will have at the very least made it clear that the first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning at 5:30 (after the initial thoughts of "ACK! BATHROOM!") was indeed my mother. However, because she's like three hours behind, I'm not about to wake up the entire house to call her at that ungodly hour. Especially not when my nephew is likely sleeping, and getting woken up by the phone is Not To Be Considered.

It's strange. I've had an inexplicable dread of hitting this particular milestone for a while now. I'm 30. Ugh. Even writing it makes me uneasy. But here it is, and I might as well admit to the old age that I've been cultivating since the age of 5. One of my aunts mentioned (in an amused tone, for the record), ages ago, that I was in equal turns an unabashed young child, and a 75 year old man at the same time. So. Here I am. 30 years old.

I've met (and married and stayed together with) the sort of man who I used to think only existed in sappy romance novels. I've written and had published my first book. I'm working at a place where I enjoy the fruits of my labour, and the challenges excite rather than drag down. I've got some pretty close friends who enjoy spending time with me. I've got a comfortable little home in a city I love dearly. I've managed to get rid of most of my major vices, and have reeled in any that I haven't given up completely (I'm not trying out for sainthood).

There are definitely things that I still want to do, that I still look forward to being able to do. But I've got plenty of time for those. It's not like I'm 30 or something.

Oh wait.

If I'm being perfectly honest with myself, the outpouring of love and good wishes from family (my sister called and left a voicemail at 12:30 AM last night, while I slept, and thereby managed to be the first to wish me, which she promptly followed with an email; her husband emailed shortly after that) really is life-affirming. I love that I inspire good feelings towards me, and that people want me to be happy. I've also gotten some lovely emails from fans who've been around since day one, from the before time when I was just a voice on a podcast, or a few words on the screen.

Thanks to Amma for my birthday, as always. Thanks to all my friends and family and fans who have sent over their lovely words of support and love. Thanks to my angel husband who still somehow enjoys my company. It's a good time to be 30. 

29 June 2012

Veganacious Interview

A few weeks ago, the lovely Barbara Degrande asked me to be on her show, Veganacious. We didn't strictly talk about food (although there was gratuitous food chat going on). She had to spend a fair bit of time editing the thing, because we both got so caught up in having our conversation, that we lost track of time, and the thing ended up rambling and roaming a lot.
Download here!

13 June 2012

Beans & Rice: Switching it up

I saw a complaint from someone who was trying to eat cheaply, while eating healthy, so s/he was going heavy on the beans and rice thing, and starting to get bored. It's a fair enough critique of eating very cheaply: things can sometimes get repetitive or tedious, and you don't know quite how to break out of your rut. There are a couple of things you can get started doing, so that you can add interest to your beans and rice meals, while still keeping on a tight budget. This person said that they'd been able to get enough money to add a couple of spices to their beans and rice, and were able to splurge on adding animal products (which, frankly, are way more expensive than vegetables that will give more bulk and interest to the meal), so I'm allowing myself the addition of a few vegetables into this mix, to keep things interesting.

First, you really need to familiarise yourself with a basic daal tarka. I don't mean the complex ones involving multiple layers of spices, and all kind of vegetables. I'm talking your basic, starter edition.

2 cups of dried beans, soaked and cooked (buying dried beans will drop down the cost considerably from the cost of tinned; if you don't have the time for soaking and boiling, use red lentils, split peas, or brown lentils, which will cook up just as quickly.)
1 TB canola or other vegetable oil (don't substitute olive oil; its smoke point is way too small to allow the popping of spices)
1/2 tsp cumin seed (do not substitute powdered)
1/2 tsp coriander seed, lightly crushed  (do not substitute powdered)
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (if you can't find turmeric powder, use 1 tsp of curry powder)
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups water (either the cooking liquid from the beans, or fresh water if you threw them out already)

In a pot, add the oil, and heat it over highest heat. When the oil is hot enough that a bit of smoke escapes the surface, you're ready to add the spices. Add the coriander seed, wait about 30 seconds, and add the cumin seeds. These seeds will pop like mad. This is OK. When the popping has subsided, add the onion, and stir well to combine in the fat and spices. Add the turmeric powder after the onion cooks for about two minutes (still on highest heat). Once the onions are softened (not browned), add the cooked beans, the water, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary.

Why did I start in on this? I wanted to start somewhere, so that we're all on the same page when I discuss the variations. Because, you see, the variations are endless.

If you're not able to afford a lot of different things, buy one or two of each veg at the store, which won't amount to much money, and do some of the following.

- When you add the onions, augment it with one carrot, one chopped jalapeno (or other chile) of your choice. I remember when I was really broke one time, and wanted some chile peppers in my daal, and I went to the store. I bought 3. They cost about $1.50/lb, because they were out of season. The 3 chiles came to a few cents. I just needed one or two for each day, and I couldn't afford a full pound at the time. The cashier gave me an odd look, but let me get what I wanted.

- Instead of the chile pepper, substitute a red, green, or yellow pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. It'll give the lovely spiciness of a chile peppers while adding a fair bit more bulk and colour.

- If you see it on sale, add a couple of ears of corn to the pot after you add the beans.

- If you have it, add 2 chopped plantains (skin and all) to the cooked onions, right after the onions are tender. All of a sudden, you'll have a potato-like vegetable added in, while still giving you a lot more nutrition than a plain white potato will give you. The plantain skin, when stove-roasted, gives a very interesting and tasty texture that I really hope you'll try.

- If you can find it, add 3 chopped chayotes to the cooked onions, and sautee them until they're soft.

- Before adding the cumin and coriander seed, add about 1 tsp of black or white mustard seeds to the hot fat, and slam on the lid. The mustard seeds will pop like mad, smell amazing, and add a whole different dimension to the dish.

- After popping the cumin and coriander, add 1 tsp of either white or black sesame seeds. Again, you'll boost the iron content, and add lots of taste. This is such a family favourite that my mother adds sesame seeds to her popping spices quite frequently.

- Add any kind of dark leafy green that you can find at the store, from spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, radish greens, escarole, endive, watercress, etc.

- If you're using large beans (kidney, black turtle, white, adzuki, chickpeas, etc), drain them after cooking, and dry roast them. There's a recipe in the book, but the basic concept is to just pop the spices, add some cooked and drained beans, add turmeric, salt, and chiles, then toss them around in the pan until they're roasted on the outside, and creamy on the inside. The beans get a completely different texture and flavour. Everything takes on a much different feeling.

- If you're using the large beans, and brown rice, try a brown rice & beans salad. Add chopped raw onions, some canned, frozen, or fresh corn, a diced tomato, diced cucumber, diced bell pepper, some shredded carrot, the juice of one lime, some salt, cumin powder, cilantro, and some salt and pepper. The beauty of the salad is that during those hot summer months, you can eat it cold, and add pretty close to whatever vegetable you like in the mix, and still keep things interesting. In fact, you could even toss that salad with a bunch of lettuce leaves to bulk it out a bit, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and you're ready to eat!

- Mash cooked beans and rice together, along with sauteed onion, garlic, a bit of carrot, and seasoning of your choice, then press into flat patties to bake at 350 for like 20 minutes or so. Eat over a green salad.

The sky is the limit when it comes to beans and rice, especially when you start pulling from other cultures, like Jamaican Rice & Peas, or Costa Rican Gallopinto, or North Indian daals, or Louisiana Red Beans & Rice. There are hundreds of other varieties, especially when you expand your budget to include different spices, spice blends, etc, different kinds of interesting vegetables (just buy one or two if you're broke), different beans, and different rice.

01 June 2012

Chickpea flour pancakes

This morning was a little rushed, so I did a batch of mini Besan Puda. The recipe from Manjula's Kitchen is what I used as inspiration. I added lots of garlic (chickpeas love garlic), grated potato, and grated carrot. I used the smallest holes on the grater so that the veggies cook quickly.

31 May 2012

Leftover pilaf

I'm home, and looking to get dinner knocked out fast. In with some onions and garlic, some frozen peas, frozen corn, leftover chickpeas I had from earlier this week, some cashews, leftover coconut rice, some steamed quinoa I had use somewhere else, extra hot chili powder, some curry powder, and a dash of gingelly oil. It very good, for being a bunch of odds and ends I had lying around.

Leftovers pancake

Last night, as I put away the results of a shopping trip to the Indian store, I was left with tiny amounts of each daal I had bought. I like to store my daal in glass bottles so that they don't get bigs. It means that I always have a tiny bit that will not fit into the bottle.

Instead of finding a bunch of tiny jars, I decided to soak them all overnight and make a batch of adai. This batch has toor daal, urad daal, mung beans, cracked barley, brown rice, poha, and masoor daal (red lentil) soaked overnight in cold water. The next morning, I ground it in the blender with salt, red pepper flakes, coconut, curry leaf, and some water.

They taste amazing.

08 May 2012


Puri and red lentil daal.

03 May 2012


I was having a discussion with my friend Kate when she was over here enjoying some food I had just cooked. She mentioned that even though she is vegan, she still has a soft spot for those things that she enjoyed eating when she was growing up. Food has powerful connections to it, above and beyond nourishment. Those foods you ate as a child that gave you comfort will hold a powerful connection for you. However, as Kate mentioned so eloquently, "Just because I want to still enjoy that food doesn't mean that someone else should have to suffer for it." Well put, Kate. So she, in her home, tends to actively seek out omni subs all the time, and is on a quest to recreate those memories, textures, tastes, and feelings while still holding true to her moral convictions.

Mind you, Kate isn't "one of those". Her spice cabinet is very well stocked. Her mind (and mouth) are both open to new experiences. When she was here, I was cranking out random weird South Indian dishes that most people hadn't heard of before (because most Indian restaurants focus on North Indian dishes), and she was cheerfully eating them. She absolutely loves vegetables of every shape and size. She takes genuine pleasure in all foods, be they the memories of yesterday, or experiments of the present and future. 

I said all that to share this story with you. My friend Joanna's husband Mark comes from a very large family in upstate New York. They're a rather close-knit family, headed by one of the sweetest matriarchs you could ever hope to meet. I would like to introduce you to the gentle, the kind, the ever-patient Suzanne. She sent me a message on 25 March. I'll let her say it in her own words. 

Hi, Dino. Mark's mom here. I have a vegan cooking question, and thought you might be able to help me. For years I have made a pineapple torte for our Easter dinner. The recipe uses gelatin, but now that we have several vegan/vegetarian family members, I'm trying to find an alternative that will still set nicely while not compromising the convictions of my loved ones. Any suggestions? Thanks so much in advance for any assistance you can give me. I hope we'll able to meet both you and Stephen on one of our next visits to Mark and Joanna.

I got a little misty-eyed, but was overall rather touched by her desire to respect the morals of her children. I thought that was a wonderful thought.

Hi Suzanne, Clearly, you are even more compassionate and kind than even your wonderful sons and daughter-in-law have mentioned! What a lovely way to continue traditions, but make everyone feel included! I have such an incredible amount of respect and warm feelings towards you and your family, because of the love that you all share with each other, and this is just one more example of that love. Thank you for reaching out to me. Mark and Joanna talk about you all the time, and about how what a pleasure it is to be in your presence. I hope to some day share in that too! 
I have found that agar tends to replace gelatine quite closely, though not exactly. It'll get very close, though. The Japanese have a long tradition of making vegan gelatine desserts, which they call Kanten. It seems like it's fairly pricey (and it is), but a little goes a long way. At work, we buy the stuff by the pound, and it lasts a long time. 
The beauty of agar is that if it ends up too firm (as it will do the first time you use it), you can melt it down and it sets right up again! I was so amazed by this that I thought that my boss was pulling a cheat on me somehow, but sure enough, it worked out when I tried it myself too! Who knew, right? As with anything where you're working with new ingredients, experiment with a little bit first, to see how the stuff behaves. 
Most of the Internet swears up and down that you can use it interchangeably with the amounts you'd use for gelatine, but I don't think that's the case, from how we've used it at work. I've found it especially effective in baking, when I want a bit of firming up, without adding cornstarch, and keeping the gel jewel-clear. For example, when making the cherry topping for the vegan cheesecakes we make at work, agar makes the fruit stay put. When you have finished setting up the agar (it sets up at room temperature, for the record, so no need to refrigerate unless you want to hurry it along), it'll stay solid for a long time. I remember using agar when I was running gel electrophoresis in genetics lab. It was endlessly amusing to see how the stuff held its shape no matter what you threw at it! Hope this helps a bit in your cooking adventures!

It had taken me a day or so to respond, because I had to double-check with my boss if pineapple would inhibit the setting up of agar, as it does when you put it into a cheesecake. Apparently, it doesn't.

Thanks, Dino, for your gracious reply. I really appreciate the time you gave to my question. Daniel located some agar in Rochester , and it will be a family experience making the torte together this year. (We live in a very rural area, and ingredient choices are not very broad here.) My husband has been very unwell, as you may know, and is facing his first of five surgeries this coming Monday. I'm so thankful that all of the children can cook, as I will be arriving very late the night before Easter. We'll all put the dessert together as soon as I arrive. Just gotta keep those traditions going! Thanks for helping us to do just that. Take care, Suzanne

I didn't realise what a rough time her family was going through. It was even more poignant that she was still thinking about everyone's comfort, in spite of having so much on her mind already.

So then, I rambled back, to maybe help take her mind off of things for a bit. Also, I kind of wanted to keep the correspondence going, because I wanted to know if the dessert worked out well for everyone.

Sounds good, Suzanne! Please let me know how it all turns out. Also, please have Daniel do a test run to make sure that the whole thing does set up. Few things are quite as disappointing as the grand finale being anything but. If it doesn't work, I can email Daniel something vegan that he can knock up quickly. I've had to do the same to gallop in and save dessert on more times than I care to remember. Seriously, there have been some nights.  
Like the one time that I had my dear friend Ricardo coming over for dinner, and he asked if he could bring a friend. No harm, no foul, right? I just add more water into the pasta pot, ready to feed both of 'em. About 20 minutes before arrival, Ricardo lets me know she's gluten free. D'oh! Thankfully, I had the rice pasta from Chinatown in my pantry, and I figured that today was the day to use the thing. 
Or the many times I've been to Joanna and Mark's house, and got a request for dessert. I'm not a baker, y'see. I just know a couple of recipes that're fool proof, that I keep in the back of my brain, in case of dessert emergencies. Like the apple lingonberry crisp I made for those two when I think Daniel and Andrew were visiting. That came out fantastic. Or the Lemon Poppyseed cake. Man, was that good! 
Funny story about the lemon poppyseed cake. I was flat on my back, having over-indulged the night before (in an effort to keep Mark at home, so that Joanna could go to the store to "get more beer" [when she was really going to pick up Daniel and Andrew]). I basically dictated the recipe, and the specific instructions to the gang, while running an online interview that I'd promised to do months before. It was the most hilarious thing (looking back), because there I am, hollering highly specific instructions to the kitchen, while trying to type to my interviewer at the same time. For the record, the cake was delicious. Thanks again for reaching out. I appreciate getting to know the families of my friends better. I wish your husband a speedy recovery. Dino

It took a while, because that was around when Easter hit, and things got crazy busy for everyone. However, I got back some very good news when the dust all settled on both sides.

So, Dino, the torte was perfect! Thanks so much for your assistance. I was sooo happy that everyone in the family could continue to enjoy one of our holiday traditions. You're the best! PS...Mark, Joanna, Drew, and Daniel have had amazing things to say about the food you've cooked for them, as well as good things to share about you and Steven. Seems like you have a knack for multitasking.

Score! The point is, to this whole long rambling tale, that we do still have those foods that mean more to us than the specific ingredients in them. There are traditions, there are memories, and there are all kinds of other things tied into those things. When you start on a vegan lifestyle, you sometimes have to tweak those traditions, and make them into new traditions, so that you still connect with your family and friends over those things, while still holding true to your moral convictions.

Again, to reiterate: it's not fair to judge everyone who tries a mock meat thing, or an omnisub thing as "one of those lazy vegans who just lives off of boxed food". Daniel and Drew were quite adventurous eaters too. When they were visiting Mark and Joanna, I made all kinds of varied things, which they eat with great gusto. They're both capable of cooking, and cooking well.

But sometimes, they just want a little taste of home, mom, and pineapple torte.

02 May 2012

Roti & subzi

I'm getting tired of this notion that breakfast food has to be some specific sort of thing. It doesn't. It can be leftovers from the previous day's lunch or dinner, remixed into something different.

This morning, I made 5 whole wheat roti, and reheated some daal and subzi from Monday night's dinner. It was quite filling and delicious.

Please don't let the big corporations dictate what you eat and when you eat it. If you have a hankering for oatmeal in the afternoon, go for it. If pasta in the morning sounds good, eat it! And in all seriousness, any time is a good time for adai or dosa.

The roti was 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, 1/3 cup all purpose flour, just about 1/2 cup~ish of water that I kneaded for a couple of minutes, rolled out, and cooked on my dosa pan.

30 April 2012


Watch that video on Youtube, where the ladies explain how to make slightly healthier Chakli. If you've ever eaten this highly addicting Indian snack, you know that it can frequently call for obscene amounts of fat. 

Their version involves like a TB of fat to give it a bit of crunch, and then the rest of it is made up with daal! I didn't have moong daal, so I used some red lentils I had lying around. I'm fairly certain that the recipe will work quite well with even split yellow peas or something. The bottom line is that murukku and things like that don't require very expensive ingredients or a special trip to the Indian store. I was able to pick up rice flour from the Chinese store for around $1 for a 1-lb bag. I made a small~ish batch for a party that Steve was going to. It came to about 1/2 cup of uncooked red lentils that I pressure cooked, along with 2 cups of rice flour. The spices I had at home already. The only mandatory ones are the salt, asafoetida, and cumin. The rest are just bonus.

I didn't want the dough to fall out of the press in lumps, so I ground the spices in my mortar and pestle, so as to get them more incorporated into the dough. The ladies don't do this, so I guess that step is optional. Whenever my brother makes them, however, he grinds his, so I do the same. 

Here's to hoping that your snacks come out crunchy and tasty! 

12 April 2012

Rainy days and salad days

There are few things that give me as much joy as a giant bowl of salad on a cold, overcast day. I can mentally put myself away from the cold and blustery city, and pretend to be some kind of happy herbivore, stolidly munching through my day's rations. I can imagine the warmth of the sun, the cool of the shade, the peace and quiet. For someone who dislikes nature as much as I do, I imagine myself in it a surprising amount. I am currently working my way through an enormous bowl of red leaf lettuce, spinach, red cabbage, olives, black beans, red onions, lemon juice, olive oil, cucumber, and sunflower seeds. Munch, munch, munch. Granted, few happy herbivores in the jungle would have access to such delicious fare, but I can certainly pretend for a bit, and escape from the overcast, dark day that's surrounding me. It started off well enough. I bolted out of bed at the crack of dawn (OK, more like 7:30, but I can give myself a little license here), and made kale and urad daal fritters. I added so much kale, garlic, and ginger, that the urad daal wasn't quite holding together, so I threw in a bit of rice flour too. I made a fresh pot of brown rice, and used some leftover kale to make a kale red lentil daal. Y'know. To go with the brown rice. All this took no time at all, because the kale was already chopped, the red lentils already cooked, and it was just a question of grating up some more ginger to make the tarka. 20 minutes later, I'm triumphantly out of the kitchen, with a rather hearty breakfast ready to roll. Since I soaked the brown rice the night before, it only took about 20 minutes to cook. That's the secret to sorting out breakfast quickly: have most of the prep done the night before, so that the morning itself, you can look like a hero. Nobody wants to wait while the delicious smells of garlic and ginger waft through the air, so the sooner you can get food on the table, the better. By the time I finished eating my breakfast, I was exhausted, and managed to conk out for a long nap. This is generally a Very Bad Idea, but I didn't have much of a choice when I found myself nodding off. By 10:00, I conked right out, and slept deeply until noon~ish. By the time I was done with round two of my morning ablutions, I was already running late. I ran into the bedroom, changed, threw the computer and Kindle and phone into the bag, and dashed out the door. By the time I got into the train station, I made it in just enough time to watch the train roll away. D'oh! Fortunately, I get into work, and am immediately inspired to cook, which meant that I managed to get everything done in an hour and small change. Into the oven the roasting dish went. But then, I made the mistake of looking outside, and seeing how gloomy and overcast it all looked. So I'm sitting here, with my enormous pile of greens, working on the next pile of paperwork, and imagining the sunshine and pretty days coming in again.

22 March 2012

Sometimes low-tech works.

I was making an excel spreadsheet to track sales at work. Each day has two shifts. This means that I need to create a series of dates, duplicated. For example, there would be two entries for 3/1/2012, two for 3/2/2012, and so on. I was trying to figure out how to make the software do that for me.

I tried googling the issue, I tried searching the help files, I tried everything.

Then, someone suggested I try this. "Create the dates for the range that you need. Then duplicate the dates. Then put the dates in the same column. Then sort by date. Tada!"

It took a fraction of a second for it to sink in that something so obvious should have occurred to me in the beginning, but never did. I'm so used to the software making it happen for me that I'd forgotten the low-tech methods of doing things sometimes work just as well.

17 March 2012

The sun will come out! Tomorrow!

And today, too. It was so beautiful today that I got in a good two or three hours of basking in the gorgeous sun. I made adai for my friend who's staying with me until Monday, and a very fast curry of yucca, green beans, and tomato. We all ate until we were filled, and then finished it off with a bit of green oolong tea, from Sullivan Street Tea & Spices. They sell loose tea by the ounce, which means that I can buy just a little bit at a time, and use it up, and then go back for more.

I got some lovely messages of encouragement and hope, which really did help my mood tremendously. Also, I cooked for my friends yesterday night, which made it even nicer. It's such a nice day that I don't even mind opening the window and letting a bit of fresh air in.

I could certainly get used to this!

One of the ladies who came over for lunch took a picture of her plate of food so you could all see it too: http://instagr.am/p/ISL5sOk6f9/

Pretty, isn't it? The white stuff is my own coconut & soy milk yoghurt that I make. Isn't it so nice and thick? We ate the adai with the curried veg, the yoghurt, and some lime pickle that I'd made earlier last year. It's gotten this lovely tartness, mellowed out by a mild bitterness. It came out better than I expected. Thanks for teaching me how to make pickles, Amma. It's come in handy big time.

Here's a picture of two very happy vegans after eating all that food:

16 March 2012

Do you get thrown off balance by weather?

I know I do.

I remember going to these 3-day anti-bigotry camps (both as a participant and as a counsellor). The youths would arrive mostly with feelings of fear and mild annoyance at the lack of basic amenities (the water smelled horrific, the food was just passable, and we weren't allowed TV, radio, headphones, mobile phones, or any other electronic device), and would leave not wanting to go home. More times than I can count, the last day would be raining. It's almost like the overall sadness was bringing out the worst in the weather.

The obverse tends to happen to me, without my even realising it. If it's damp and drizzly, I tend to feel low and mopey as well. Today is one such day, and I'm fighting the urge to give in to the malaise. It's tough though.

When it's bright and the sun is out, I'm generally in a good mood, and filled with energy. Even on those days when it's hot and the sun is out, I can find deep stores of pep inside me, and keep going. Cold weather makes me want to hibernate. And overcast, slightly drizzly days make me feel dragged down, big time.

If it's a proper storm, however, like we used to get back in Florida, I don't seem to have that same problem. I love to throw open the windows, smell the fresh breezes coming in, and listen to the claps of thunder and watch the flashes of lighting. The sheer vigour with which a proper rainstorm plies its craft is energising.

But today is drizzly, and I shall try my best to stay positive. Somehow.

14 March 2012

Let's Make Pesarattu

This is what it looks like when it's cooked:
This is what it looks like when you first put it on the skillet. Notice how there are peaks that are still uncooked, like there were in the adai. When almost all of the peaks are turned to the cooked colour, you're ready to flip.

So you've mastered the dosa. You've knocked out a few adai. Now it's time to go outside of Tamil Nadu, and head over to Andhra Pradesh, where you will find Pesarattu. The recipe I used was loosely based on the #Vachef one, as well as a couple of others I saw.

Andhra is a beautiful state with a long and colourful history, replete with opposites. It's the nest of orthodox Muslims. It's quite a common sight to see a man walking along with a couple of women in full black burqa. It's also the home to very devout Hindus, one of whom built a temple completely out of white marble. Meanwhile, you've got the Charminar less than 10 km away from the Birla Mandir.

The Andhra taste for hot spicy food is legendary. They adore hot chilies in everything, and will generously share their blisteringly hot food with all who visit. There's also a bit of a sweet tooth, with dishes like bobbatulu (a sort of sweet roti), and kajjikayalu (a sweet stuffed with coconut and cardamom; there is nothing about this that sounds bad).

I guess I've always had a soft spot for Hyderebad, because my aunts who live there have an extensive book collection, which they had no problems sharing with me while I was there. You see, I was never a huge fanatic for TV the way some folks are. I'll watch it if there's a cooking show on, or if there's a particularly nice documentary, but TV overall doesn't interest me. Books, on the other hand, are a different story.

Unfortunately, books in India are prohibitively expensive. People with large book collections are rare in the extreme. Comics, on the other hand, are prevalent and plentiful. I remember an aunt of mine in Chennai who had stacks upon stacks of Amar Chitra Katha comics, ranging from the Bhagavad Gita (it was a large multi issue hard bound version) to a bunch of other ones that I can't recall.

It was pleasurable, but nothing quite scratched that reading itch for me like reading actual books. In Hyderebad, I found my oasis. I had read and re-read the books I'd brought with me (something like half my suitcase was crammed with books), and I was going a little out of my mind. My aunt's book collection at that time in my life when I was so hungry for more was exactly what I needed to make that trip pleasant.

But I digress. Onwards to the food!

This recipe makes 4 1/2 10-inch crepes. You may increase or decrease as needed. I made this batch in this manner, because I ran out of rice. Again. Ugh. I made these plain, without onion, because I ran out of onions too. I really need to go shopping.

3/4 cup mung beans, with the skin and everything still on
1/4 cup brown rice
3 TB rice flour
3 green chilies
3 stalks curry leaf
3 inches ginger, chopped roughly
Salt, to taste
2 cups Water, for soaking

In a high-sided container, combine the brown rice and mung beans, and cover with 2 cups of water for soaking. Leave it that way overnight. The next morning, your beans and rice should have absorbed all but about 1 inch of water. This is fine, because you'll be adding some rice flour to thicken anyway.

Using a stick blender (or regular blender), grind the beans, chilies, curry leaf, and ginger together to make a thick batter. Stir through the salt and rice flour. If the batter becomes too thick, add a bit more water, and stir through. Because of the high content of beans, the crepes cohere quite nicely, so don't worry if your batter is thick or thin. It'll be fine.

Just as you do for adai or dosa, spread the batter onto a hot griddle, and sprinkle a few drops of oil on the perimeter of the crepe. Cook on both sides until browned and crispy. Delicious!

Steve took one bite (even though he'd already eaten oatmeal this morning) and moaned in delight. The best part of this for me is that it was all things I had around the house. If you don't have curry leaves or green chiles, just leave it out. The ginger is essential, as the masses of beans in the dish will leave you a bit gassy. The ginger tends to combat that rather well.