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.