Eating farm fresh

Oregon is one of the few states in mainland USA that enjoys the best of both worlds. It is situated in the scenic Pacific North West, surrounded by immense natural beauty in the form of ocens, snow-capped mountains, rivers, volcanoes, gorges, rock formations and even a high desert. It enjoys mild albeit wet weather dominated by the Pacific Ocean, is close to big-populous states of California and Washington and is unknown for its unbelievably friendly, dog-loving, outdoorsy population. It has had its own share of controversies, with events such as banning African-Americans owning land to more recently, the siege in a National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. But for recent settlers like me, the city is paradise indeed.

Oregon also has the largest settlement of a semiconductor behemoth which brings a large educated work-force here. Portland, boasts of a large Indian-origin population (like many cities in the USA) and hence is dotted with plenty of eateries, grocery shops and entertainment venues (movie theaters, temple halls etc) serving the south-Asian population. The sprawling Patel-brother empire, synonymous with stocking Indian food items all around the USA is nowhere in the vicinity, but the local population is enthusiastic about global cuisines and surprisingly embrace vegetarianism more fervently than Indians themselves. The gastronomic scene, the friendly people and the plethora of some amazing vegetarian or vegan restaurants is nothing like anywhere else in the USA.

The suburbs of Portland where a majority of the Asian population (like me) live, have a couple of small Indian grocery shops which stock almost all required items – paneer, atta, varieties of rice and dal and some Indian vegetable staples – lauki, karela, okra, curry leaves and the like. There are even larger Asian food centers which carry an amazing variety of fruits, greens (hello, bok choys, napa cabbage and arugula), fresh noodles, dim sum wraps and aisles of all varieties of tofu, tea, hot and soy sauce. Portland is a city where you’d find every global ingredient in its authentic form from brands native to the respective country – gulkund from Armenia, less-popular and local Turkish coffee brands or preserved haloumi cheese from small cheesemakers in Cyprus. But what I love is that you can find almost all these items in the local grocers like Market of Choice or New Seasons. These grocery shops carry local, fresh, seasonal produce and also stock up on paneer from local dairy farms (yes, local farms make paneer here!) or local brands of basmati rice. Restaurant choices for vegetarians and vegans abound, with every restaurant and I mean it, every, single restaurant carries vegetarian options eliminating the dilemma of ordering food for vegetarians when you step out with a diverse group. Even Killer Burgers makes some killer in-house black-bean gourmet burgers!

Milk and eggs are where Portland really surpasses everything else. The semi-rural borders of these urban settlements are dotted with farms which stock farm-fresh milk and eggs. You can drive in and pickup a freshly bottled, pasteurized galleon of milk and lift your spirits by venturing into the barn and petting the young calves. You see the cows grazing in unending lush grasslands and chicken coops scattered around with horses and goats in extremely idyllic settings. The baby cows and goats are friendly, love pets and greet you with a mischievous twinkle in their eye, making you forget that you are actually just a 15 minute drive from a huge metropolitan area and not in rural farmland. The Portland farmers market is one of the most famous nationally, and every summer hordes of people throng the lawns of Portland State University weekly, converted into a large market with stalls of salvadorean tamales (with plenty veggie options), taiwanese buns, fresh coffee, cherries and apples, berries, hazelnuts (national export of the state), lavender, pizza and even Indian food! Really, being here spoils you.

The coffee, craft-beer and food scene overall is one of the best in the country and there are plenty of blogs/videos/lists listing these amazing spots. The availability of such fresh food suiting all palettes due to the farmland surrounding the area and the importance of growing and eating local embodies the spirit of Portland. Often branded as too “twee”, people overlook the gigantic positives of this amazing city focusing only on the overly-liberal borderline-hippie culture of the city which is a topic for another time.

I had hardly known much about this city or state before moving here and discovering the food and local culture was a pleasant surprise. It is one of the only cities in the country where you can eat globally in a very local way.

A favorite weeknight dinner: Mexican Tortilla Casserole

Weekdays get busy and hectic with little time to cook. Over the years and with plenty of experience, eating at home at night has topped takeouts and meals at expensive restaurants (it adds up real fast!). I came across this recipe from one of my favorite blogs and have been making it regularly to some amazing reactions and results. It is easy to make, healthy (if you control the cheese) and full of protein. I like trying out the different types of beans – black, pinto, refried and also playing around with the greens – spinach or tart arugula. You can make it easier with store bought good quality salsa (no xantham gum or crazy additives) and some delish shredded cheese.

In fact, this is what I’ll be making tonight.

You can check out the recipe here.

PS: It also comes out looking EXACTLY like this making it perfect for an oven-to-table dish for guests or a small dinner party!

Image from one of my favorite blogs Savory Simple

OTG – my miracle oven

I recently purchased an OTG – Oven Toaster Grill or as they call it nowadays, a toaster oven. It ain’t anything fancy, just a regular Cuisinart with your typical features. I had to justify the purchase owing to limited counter space and the presence of our big bulky oven. But thanks to my mom’s baked vegetables in white sauce which she made in the OTG and which remains my fav (recipe here), numerous cakes and other baked goodies – eggplant, tomato among others, I went ahead and bought it. It has been nothing short of a miracle!

So what do I use it for, you ask? Everything. From reheating frozen patties to toasting bread perfectly (on a weekend, though) for 10 minutes to making more of the vegetables in white sauce and increasing my vegetable consumption dramatically, my OTG is my go-to. Recently, I watched Samin Nosrat perfectly roast vegetables and lo and behold, my OTG did it perfectly for me! No more waiting for the big oven to preheat, then juggling carefully with the trays to get it out/ put it in and all the uneven heating and spatial browning is a thing of the past. No longer is the oven off-limits in summer and I don’t have to feel like walking by a bonfire everytime I cross the kitchen. It is much quicker, cleaner, more efficient and has opened doors to baking everything in ways I did not imagine.

This isn’t a plug from Cuisinart and it comes from a place of genuine love and appreciation of baked (healthy) food. To anyone who found the oven too big for quick dinners, reheats or roasting, go ahead and welcome your new friend – a toaster oven.

The Gift of the Mag(g)i

It is the ultimate symbol of the Indian student life rather, single life. Any trip to the Indian grocery shop would not be complete without picking up the delectable, branded as junk food of the highest order (competing closely with the big Mac),easiest meal in the world and bliss to the hungry stomachs abused by lowest grade-brown goo garnished liberally with glass pieces – tiny yellow packets. Yes, to the experienced I needn’t say more – Maggi.
I am not a regular consumer of these noodles. All the lure to eat this was drained out during my childhood when my mom steadfastly refused to make any of this at home and forbade us from eating any of this. She used to make awesomely tasty Hakka noodles and satiate my hunger for all things noodley. The only exceptions were those cup ramen noodles that my sister and I used to eat on train journeys after long walks, wobbling and rattling through bogeys after bogeys to make our way to the pantry car. I wonder why the hawkers never sold them in person. ( Now you know why I loved train journeys. It was the best way to pig out and eat all sorts of junk and delicacies – cutlets, chikkis, samosa, omlettes (the best one ever in Itarsi station), vada pav, kachoris etc. within a span of 30 hours) Okay enough of digressing from the main topic. All this resolve not to touch Maggi ended when I came to college and in the second year Nescafe made its way into all our pocket money and finances.
Exhorbitantly priced at 12 rupees, that small aluminium tray filled with yellow noodles cooked so slowly that one would wonder if they are just harvesting the wheat crop, became my dinner every single day of college. Of course, my health took a beating since I was getting the nutritional equivalent of butter. So in my fourth year when the health conscious conscience in me arose, I gave up all things Maggi. After eating it continuously for three semesters I could bring my taste buds to believe anything I was eating was maggi. The other factor being the seemingly healthier, cheaper and tastier option of oily omelettes and pav with cheap tea rose to popularity. To the uninitiated – J or Jhopdi was the hot spot to bust exam stress and all the tension about future plans. (Usually in a cloud of passive smoke).
Aah, I realize I havent really got down to what I was about to say. So ever since I came to the US, I have seen countless crates of maggi being bought and consumed, never giving in to the temptation to eat it myself. But yesterday was different. Insane work-load and unbearable anxiousness restricted my entry into the kitchen and I was left hungry and craving for something which would soothe me. Lo and behold! The answer lay in that small yellow packet lying at the very back of my pantry ( the section I call emergency purposes). I marvelled at how my brain automatically remembered where maggi was after so many months but doesnt remember the location of everyday spices. There is something about Maggi that no other dish can provide!
So when you are in a mood to tell your body ” Hell yea! You think you can brainwash me into feeding you everything healthy, now take this for revenge” Maggi serves the purpose. It left me feeling full, was finger-lickin’ good and was made in 10 minutes. (I really really really want to find out who can make perfect maggi in 2 minutes). It brought back memories of when folks roamed dark hostel corridors past 2 am shouting “MAGGI HAI?”, all the dirty kettles in the hostel sink with maggi stuck to the bottom or usual demands “Hey get me 2 packets from the supermarket no?”. No explanation for the packets was ever necessary. I also remember maggi trades happening and diligently noted. “Last week you took my maggi no, now that makes it 2 you owe me total. But I owe Shalini three so you can buy her one directly instead.” It is a way of life I tell you.
No matter what Pad-thai, Lo-Mein, Chopsuey, Garlic noodles at P.F Changs or Udon noodles you name, Maggi is ingrained in the psyche of every Indian student. Soul food indeed!

Back to School

As I was doing my laundry today, I suddenly remembered the old ad jingle..Action ka school time. I must’ve been in primary school myself…all excited with new books, bag, crisp new uniform, new notebooks, brand new textbooks all covered and labeled, pencil box and waterbottle..and all raring to go to school, meet up friends, wonder who I’ll be sitting next to or who’z grown taller and think about clubs, games and wonder about my new classteacher and new students. Its so different now. A decade or more later, I’m still in school. Grad school and for the first time ever, I dont want classes to begin.
Last year was just fine. I was new in the US, all excited to meet new friends, learn from these Godlike professors and experience grad life. A year and three dreadful semesters later (ok wait..the summer was rather nice), I dont want classes to begin. I’m all settled in now and somehow the thought of assignments, homeworks and finals makes me cringe. I want the summer to go on and on and on. Empty campus, no lines in any cafeteria, leisurely schedules, funtastic weekends, no classes made the last three months so blissful. The thought that tomorrow morning, I have a class and Ive to plan my day around it makes it so dreary. Gah, I’m excited about the course though. It is something I’ve been wanting to learn and the professor seems like the authority on it. So here’s wishing me luck for the semester.
Fall tales apart, today was Onam. I didnt realize it till I saw Shashi Tharoor -Sunanda Pushkar wedding news and pics on the website. There it was written that today was indeed onam. A few mid-morning wishes and lazy plans later, we were in the car to an amazing restaurant that seemed almost in another continent. But was totally worth it. Droolworthy Indian buffet , correction – Kerala buffet lay in front of us. Appams, Stew, Idiyappams, Puttu, Chana, Paruppu Payasam, coconut milk, coconut rice, korma, barota and so many other kerala dishes were on offer today. We ate and ate and ate. I relished the fact that a couple of hours ago, I never dreamt that I would get a chance to eat authentic mallu food in Atlanta. But I did. Thats life I guess. And yea, happy Onam everybody.
Nothing else noteworthy happening here, except I’m excited about tomorrow. (No, its not for the classes). 😀

A very happy Diwali indeed…

Pleasant surprises are always welcome. After spending most of the gloomy, wet thursday studying for the Kinetics mid-term and then finally writing it in the evening, I wanted a break from the monotonous and tedious routine of preparing for exams and studying my ass off. Someone up there did hear my wishes and voila! what followed were two successive days of amazing parties culminating in Diwali celebrations.
After the mid-term, our research group headed to Uncle Julio’s, a mexican grill located quite some distance away. We were celebrating a birthday and two successful PhD thesis defenses. The group was multicultural and multi-ethnic with Turkish, Greek, Korean, American, Indian(me) and Puerto-rican representation. It was so much fun! We(myself and one other member only) started off by hunting for the only vegetarian dishes in a menu full of beef,pork,frog legs and baby octopuses. Photographs were taken, dares were given, new drinks were tried, tubs of nachos were emptied and the conversation just freely flowed. There was exchange of cuisine details ( Paneer Butter Masala, Naans and Butter Chicken are total favourites of everyone around the globe, I discovered). We tested the spice-tolerance of everyone thanks to an awfully spicy pepper included generously in all our dishes. I ate a vegetable Fajita and maybe close to a kilo of nachos. I am never able to do justice to any of the restaurant serving portions here so invariably I packed up half my dinner (which will be my dinner today) and we continued the photo-sessions, the leg pulling, the hand-symbol games and the teasing till the food kinda settled down inside. We then headed to the Italian pastry shop to celebrate a birthday. The pastry shop was one I had seen only in movies. Dimly lit, it had a very pretty and crowded bar and little cute tables with small candles on them. I guess our group of ten was the only non-couple party out there and we headed out to the covered patio which had a fire-grate and logs of wood burning and settled down cosily. There was turkish tea, cinnamon coffee, white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake, peanut butter and chocolate cake and so many other varieties ordered by the others. I was asked questions about the caste system of our country, the religion and the festivals and other things which are second nature to us but they look at it with so much curiosity. It was amusing trying to explain the origins of Diwali to everyone. Then there was the whole topic about turkish coffee and the tea-leaves reading which those people are so good at apparently. I tasted it, it was horrid to say the least. No sugar, no milk and the coffee powder is not drained off from the liquid. My facial expressions on drinking that, got everyone rolling in their seats. It was a memorable evening, given many of these people are graduating to take up different professions in different parts of the globe. It was fun,food and frolic at its peak.
The next evening (the day was so sleepy thanks to the sudden chill in all of US with temperatures well in single digits -thankfully positive here) got even better. A couple of guys organized a potluck party on Diwali eve. A friend of mine and I made pulao to contribute to it. The others got curd rice, homemade snacks, gulab jamuns, sabji and the hosts had the drinks, nachos and chips. We had a ball! (Literally all of us kept taking turns bouncing on their gym ball). Jokes apart, it was amazing fun. We played a plethora of games, ranging from a warped version of cricket with a tennis raquet and ball which had rules like if you hit the wall directly, it is out and strict under-shoulder bowling to card games which were so much fun ( all were new to me but I am now in love with them) like Bluff and 5 Carder. We played Uno, Clue and the hosts had a dart board in their living room which we enjoyed playing and distracting the members of the opposite team. I am no good at it since my aim is horribly pathetic. I was happy to even touch the board with my dart! 😛 Food was in plenty, so were the desserts and so was the teasing,leg pulling and laughing. A very very memorable diwali party. For once, we all forgot everything about academics or exams and just had fun.
(Long post I know, but this is for me to read later -when I’m old and jobless perhaps! :P). Sometimes, no-plans become amazing plans. We all woke up late (the other roomies were in other parties themselves) and there was an impromptu enthusiasm to cook in all of us. We split up the dishes ( I made pulao – Ok, I know I’m becoming some expert in making it or something; Ramya and Pallavi made the Shira barfi and raita ; Richa made chole and Priyanka made kheer) We did a small Lakshmi Puja after my elaborate oil bath and then dug into the food! Awesome it was! A sweet and warm, homely Diwali!
It is freezing outside, close to 4 degrees and the windchill making it 0 and cloudy and windy. I have a midterm on tuesday (sigh!) and one more the week after. Somehow, I’m recharged and raring to go. Festivals do recharge you emotionally!
On that note ( to all those to stuck with me and actually read the entire thing and to everyone else as well)
PS: Some pics are here, more will be added later!

Team efforts of our apartment
Team efforts of our apartment

The great gastronomic shift

Ghar ka Khaana
That, is the single biggest craving for all the hostelers and the entire group of people living outside their homes. I am no different. But it is only once when you are even out of the security and comfort of having a mess (which you can keep cursing for want of better things to do) that you truly relish those daal-chawals and bhindi sabjis your mom used to make.
I was just like any other pre-teen and teen, wishing for the McMeals, the McDonalds burger and fries, the occasional Wimpy or Nirula burgers, the Sundaes or any possible chance to eat out. ‘We are having dinner outside’ used to be the most awaited phrase and the entire process of going out to a restaurant, getting a chance to order any favourite and hogging like there is no tomorrow (to the extent of making your mom comment “It is as though we don’t feed you at all!”) was the biggest treat one could hope for. The excuses were innumerable, exams over(the most common), I-got-a-centum-in-math-once-again, I came-third-in-the-school-relay, birthdays, anniversaries, just about anything. Today as I told my cook to pack lunch for me since I was going out, refusing the option of eating out, these thoughts flooded my mind.
I repeatedly tell my mom these days “Even if you give me kaccha (raw)sabji, I’ll eat”. Even if she claims the curry isnt as good as she expected (thats rare) I think it is the most delicious thing ever. The charm of eating out has somehow ended. Maybe it is because of the frequent eating out trips or the nuances and flip sides you discover when you begin to depend on hotel food for months on end. I just long to eat home-food. This stay in chennai I hardly ate out save for a couple of meals with friends. Any shopping trip saw me equipped with my lunch in the car which I ate with sheer delight. The healthy side is just an added bonus.
I’ve come a long way today. I’m all set to start cooking now. (I dont know how it’ll turn out to be, all the best to my four guinea pigs! 😛 )

Girl Talk: Weight loss

Warning 1 : Girl rant. Boys feel free to skip the post.
Warning 2: The ones-who-can-eat-all-they-want-and-remain-skinny or the fit-naturally types, DON’T READ THIS. This is not for you folks!

I recently took up this whole new project of getting back into shape. In fact, that is the only thing Ive been upto for the last three odd months spent in Pune. The tons of free time, the availability of good, non-greasy food and the most important motivating factor being the absolutely skinny people (girls mostly) in the whole of Pune drove me to doing something about myself. Shopping in India is a torture for not-skinny people especially if you are fond of dressing up! I was frankly sick of searching for the L sizes or the 30+ jean sizes where you never get choices, just the one colour and cut. It was almost like a punishment for eating food!

This is not a new project. In fact, those who have seen me in my 11th and 12th (the two very crucial, terrible and hectic years of my life.) would definitely gasp at the oodles of flab I’ve already lost. But its been a slow process. It took me 3 odd years to cut the flab I already have removed from my body. Those years I spent in Kota ( Oh yes…let me not go into further details of that horrid concentration camp), I ate very oily junkie unhealthy food and had almost nil physical activity. Sounds like the perfect recipe to obtain that rotund figure and I did! In college, the return of physical activity and some slight moderation in eating..(though events like opening of Monginis and Nescafe did nothing to help) did bring me down a bit. But it is nowhere close to what I was (fit as a fiddle, swimmer and tennis player) but it definitely was a start.

But losing weight has seldom been easy for food-lovers like me. All through my days in college, I was surrounded by people who either never put on weight after eating all they wanted. (I realized that I was not of this variety) or people who managed to fast themselves onto death and look skinny. ( I know a girl who survived on a single bread-pakoda for three days!). I never quite understood how people claimed to be full after eating half a roti or just plain tomatoes for the entire day! Although this is absolutely non-healthy, it did show effects. I know girls who live on mugs of black coffee or endless chai and eat morsels of food just to look hot in that size 26 or 24 jean. But everyone has a different body composition and requirements. It would be unfair to compare two individuals on any basis (the body especially) but that’s what we Indians love to do! Compare!

So coming back to me, I love food. In fact, my loving food perhaps has had nothing to do with my weight. It was unfortunate that I put on weight because of eating trash(no other option there!) and not having any exercise but I never over-eat. I have never been choosy about any type of food (though I wished I was…not anymore!) and I love experimenting with cuisines. I love to eat Missal-Pav, Bebinca, the all-time idli-chutney, the chole-bhature and the naans and the tandooris and the pasta, the thai food, the crepes, the wraps, the pizzas, the paneer, the cheese varieties, the Chinese noodles, the pastries, EVERYTHING! So it was an uphill task for me to actually lose weight since extreme diets were never an option. So what do I finally do?

Well, I don’t want to sound like one of the millions of dieticians posting their columns and writing books all around the planet but there is great news for all those unsuccessful-at-dieting plump people like me! You can lose weight just by applying common sense. Now that I wasn’t restricted to eating just mess-food or insti-cafeteria food, I had the freedom and I needed to use it wisely. Most of the principles of dieting are known to all through the numerous interviews of bollywood actresses or health mags. Drink loads of water, eat fruits and sleep well. I just followed that with a little help from Rujuta Diwekar author of “Don’t lose your mind, Lose Weight”. (It’s a fab book, I tell you).

The only art I had to learn was to eat in sync with your body. To not eat while watchng tv, or reading the paper or listening to music. To eat the food as a task in itself. Trust me, if you start doing that you will end up eating less than half of what you ate previously. The second thing is to follow a strict disciplined life. Tough I say for college goers and youngsters like us, but it helps a long way man! I have it easy since I don’t have any distractions here or hangout spots. Fitness is not a short-term investment but a life-long one I realized. Sleep early, wake up early, exercise ( running is the easiest and best thing to do…nothing like watching a city wake-up in the morning) and eat on time and sensibly is my only recipe and it has worked!
By eating sensibly, I mean that we should listen to our bodies. Never starve and never deprive. A very important point I realized was to check the nutrition value and not just the calories. As Rujuta says, a hot aloo-parantha is way better than cheese pizza. She also trashes the concept of fat-free foods.
There is this excerpt in the book which asks a choice between fresh peanuts and calorie and sugar free biscuit and she asks to choose peanuts. Processed food is deadly. It is like raping a girl ( read stripping a food item of all the nutrition) and then marrying her to justify the rape (the excessive fat-free publicity). An eye-opener of sorts!

She does tell a lot of other things too. Firstly, to feel good about yourself no matter what you are! To eat everything, but fresh and if possible home-made.( I try to compensate for the home-made part by eating minimal hotel food…one meal a day is unavoidable but the others can be taken care of!) To sync your body with the season (like sleeping early in winters and relatively late in summers) since our digestive cycles and capacities are affected by it and to eat seasonal veggies. My favorite part is the one where she clearly shows how we actually treat our cars better than we treat our bodies!

Okay, this post was not to promote her book but it is something which I have done for myself this year and I wanted to share it with those who have grudgingly read this post till here thinking ive gone bonkers or something. But I feel great. Those who see me might feel I haven’t lost any drastic weight and don’t show too much reduction right now, but most importantly I feel great man! I feel energetic and in control of myself. Im no bollywood actress or a home-maker with all the time in the world just for this task, Im just like any of you who has discovered the wonders of eating scientifically and correctly (early or late I don’t know). I don’t deprive myself of any type of food, no dieting and yet I managed to do this to myself. Losing weight permanently is a slow process (it takes half a year or so) but it has happened!

It’s a pity, we have all learnt the basics in school and none of us apply it to ourselves. Even I needed so much motivation to do this fundamental thing for myself! This truthfully is my PS Project. As I am typing my mid-sem report in another window, I thought I might as well write my real mid-sem report!

PS: Ironical it is, but I have written an old post where I have described how the world has no place for people who eat and don’t diet, like me of course. Little did I know then that diets (as most of us know) are not starvation or deprivation but just sensible eating!