Saturday, January 14, 2017

Week 2: Back to Square One

The end of a year and the beginning of another is typically a time for contemplation and new beginnings. Two years ago, I wrote a long and heartfelt post about gestational diabetes being a wake up call for me, and resolved to make some positive changes in my life in 2015. And indeed, 2015 was a year of hard work and many lifestyle changes. I put many new habits into place and gratifyingly, becoming lighter, fitter, stronger as the months went by.

And then, things changed again. By the end of 2015, I was pregnant with my second baby and the first trimester fatigue was overwhelming. I had to take life one day at a time. My history of gestational diabetes flagged me for an early screening test, the one-hour glucose tolerance test. I failed the test by a small margin, with my blood glucose measuring at 144 mg/dL when the cut-off is 140 mg/dL. This meant that I had to go in for the three hour 100 gram glucose tolerance test. My glucose measured perfectly within-range for the longer test, so my OBs and I collectively breathed a sigh of relief and they advised me to keep doing what I was doing in terms of being active and moderating my carb intake.

Around 25 weeks is when most pregnant women in the US are tested for gestational diabetes, and when this time rolled around for me, it was recommended that I go in for yet another three hour glucose tolerance test. And I did something that I rarely do in the face of medical advice- I refused to take the test. Why? Because (a) I am "borderline" on these tests, either narrowly passing them or narrowly failing them more or less depending on the day, (b) I find this test to be extremely unpleasant what with drinking 100 grams pure glucose on a fasting stomach and then sitting around the lab for 4 hours for 4 separate needle sticks, and (c) most importantly, if I failed the test, the next step would simply be that I would be testing myself 4 times a day with finger-sticks and a glucose meter and controlling my blood glucose with diet and exercise.

So I chose to skip the test, and go straight to the self-monitoring. I had my glucose meter from 5 years ago; I bought fresh test strips and new batteries, re-calibrated the meter and was good to go- testing 4 times a day (fasting + an hour after breakfast, lunch and dinner) and meticulously recording the numbers. Interestingly, two of my OBs thought my approach was perfectly reasonable. The third OB was not happy- her argument was that without the test, I don't have a diagnosis of being either positive or negative for gestational diabetes- having the diagnosis flags a woman for further tests. I saw her point and worked out a negotiation- I would continue self-monitoring and let them know if the numbers were trending high (but still skip the darn glucose tolerance test). And she would send me for a late-term ultrasound, which they recommend for GD+ women to make sure the baby wasn't getting too big (etc.)

I find glucose self-monitoring is the most amazing tool for me. You get instant feedback on how you are doing and how different types, amounts and combinations of foods affect your blood glucose. For instance, my numbers would always run high after eating Chinese take-out, even when I skipped the rice. They would run high when I ate take-out pizza, even if I ate only 2 small slices and a big salad on the side. The finger-pricks honestly are not painful, especially once you learn how to do them right, but I still find them unpleasant to do. There are a few non-invasive glucose monitors being developed- skin patches, earlobe clips- and I hope they are commercially available soon because I want to buy and use one of these. Regular glucose monitoring is the best way to prevent and self-manage diabetes.

Anyway, I managed to keep the glucose numbers within range during the pregnancy. After a few weeks of within-range numbers, one of the OBs said I could calm the heck down and test only 1 day or so per week. Even though last spring and summer was a hectic time for our family and there was no time for carefully calibrating diet and exercise, I believe that the reason it went better this time was because I was in better health at baseline and knew what works for my body. I will be eternally grateful that the baby was born uneventfully and with an average birthweight.

With a new baby, all kinds of routines and habits go down the tubes. We have been in maintenance mode. Now with a nearly 6 month old baby, I feel as though I am back to square one in some ways. And that is OK. I just have to work out a new normal in terms of eating and exercising. In life, the only constant is change and you just keep adapting and tweaking the routine to keep up.

So when this past weekend, a dear friend brought up the idea of doing a sugar-free month, I jumped up and said I would do it with her. She was inspired by this NYTimes article. The sugar-free month is intended to reset taste buds that have been over-indulging in sweets over the holiday season. It is a way to become more aware of how much sugar we consume on a day to day basis without even realizing it.

We're trying to get some of our friends and co-workers to join in on the "fun". The whole month of February will be our sugar-free month so we have a couple of weeks to prepare for it. When I say sugar-free, it is more of a "free of added sugars", meaning that sugars naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and dairy are fine. But really, each person doing the challenge gets to make their own rules about what foods they want to cut out and what habits they want to change.

Do you have any interest in joining our Sugar-Free February challenge? Let me know and I will post updates on the blog so we can all do it together. 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Week 1: Vacation Cooking and Board Games

Week 1 of 2017 saw us wrapping up the festivities of winter break and settling back into the work and school routine.

Christmas weekend kicked off with a visit by our friends Bala and Shankar and their two dogs. Bala and I met as fellow food bloggers in St. Louis (and fellow dog-lovers) and have been friends ever since.

Bala is an artist by profession and I've always been a fan of her intricate, graphic, henna-inspired designs. The life of an artist seems like it would be an idyllic one, painting the day away in a color-filled studio. Chatting with Bala, it was interesting to learn how busy and varied the work is- applying to get into the big art shows, driving to art shows almost every weekend, the sheer physical labor of setting up tents and displaying one's work, being on social media and connecting with patrons, all while painting and dreaming up new designs. It is fascinating to learn of a working life so different from one's own.
More of Bala's work:
Art by Bala and on Facebook

Board games were a major theme of this winter break. Bala and Shankar introduced us to one of their favorite games- Settlers of Catan. This is a wildly popular game and I was glad to finally get a chance to play it, but it is a strategy, role-playing type of game and not really my thing.

Right after their visit, we packed up the car and the kids and headed out to Tybee island on the Georgia coast for our first family vacation since Mr. Baby's arrival. Close friends of ours drove down all the way from Boston and Philly, and so we were 3 families- 6 adults and 5 kids-  getting together for several days of sandy fun.

On Tybee, we climbed the lighthouse at the North end of the island. The kids- ages 3, 4, 5, 8 surprised me by climbing up and down all 198 steps of the steep circular wrought iron staircase quite enthusiastically. We walked the beach, dared each other to run into the frigid Atlantic and collected shells.

We took a day trip into picture-perfect Savannah where the kids loved the artzeum and the iconic Leopold's ice cream- I tasted the eggnog and lemon custard flavors and they were indeed outstanding. The lemon custard flavor has been sold in this shop since 1919.

But the stand-out highlight of our vacation was the adorable cottage that we rented for the week. The cottage had a cabana in the backyard, a heated salt-water pool, and a big screen TV, so it really was a self-contained place to hang out and connect with friends.

A vacation with this gang is all about the food. Tybee island has seafood galore (which the rest of our group enjoyed) but no vegetarian food to be found for miles and miles, so in the interest of self-preservation, I carried along a car-load of groceries. Other than two restaurant meals and pizza take-out once, we cooked and ate our meals in the well-equipped kitchen at the cottage. 10 people eating 3 meals a day, for 5 and a half days. That certainly involved a bunch of food and a bunch of planning.

5 vacation cooking tips that worked on this trip:

1. Pack a cooler: Our first meal on arrival was a dinner, and everyone would be tired and hungry after driving long distances, so in the days before we left, I made egg curry (the base sans eggs) and dal fry and packed them in containers and froze them solid. I carried these frozen containers in the cooler (where they doubled as ice packs) along with blocks of cheese and paneer, butter and cream cheese. At the destination (5 hours drive away), all I had to do was re-heat the curries, make fresh rice and boil some eggs, and a hot dinner was good to go.

2. Buy some refrigerated stuff on arrival: Right after arriving on the island, we stopped for milk, plain yogurt, eggs, flavored yogurt cups for the kids.

3. Take all the breakfast things: People sleep in, wake up at different times, and can help themselves to their breakfast of choice. Accordingly I packed bread, pancake mix, cheerios, home-made granola, almond butter, jam, maple syrup, fruit, hot chocolate mix. And there were the aforementioned eggs, milk, yogurt cups, butter and cream cheese. We even took some pesto for V's favorite breakfast pesto-egg-cream cheese sandwiches. So that covered all the breakfast bases and then some! As a plus, many of these ingredients also doubled as snacks, and on the last day, we could all pack sandwiches and snacks for the road trip back home.

4. Plan for favorite meals: I really wanted to make pav bhaji one night, and on new year's eve, I wanted a "snacky" dinner of sev puri and paneer tikka, and I had to write up ingredient lists for these meals. For Mexican night, I took along stacks of tortillas, canned beans, peppers and onions, a jar of salsa and a packet of taco spice.

In addition, I took along a box of pasta and some dry rice and dal and we ended up using it all.

5. Make a spreadsheet. It was the only way to make lists and keep things straight. I'll save this spreadsheet for future vacations.

We ate very well, and in a relaxed way, and most importantly there was no food waste. Whatever did not get used up on vacation came home with us to be eaten here.

This vacation worked because everyone was loving and cooperative. A couple of us did most of the cooking, and one friend was great about doing dishes and kitchen clean-up promptly. Others kept the kids busy in the pool and at the playground. Everyone pitched in and everyone got some time to themselves to go for a beach run, enjoy some quiet reading time and so on.

My favorite part was the board games we played over the week. A couple of them were old favorites- Taboo and Pictionary. Two of the games were new to me and I can't wait to play again- Apples to Apples and Codenames.

While sitting around the campfire and toasting marshmallows, someone started playing a game called "I went to the market" and that was lots of fun too- although I was pretty terrible at playing it. It is a hidden-rule game very similar to this going on a picnic game and this camping trip game. I love discovering new games like these which can be played anytime, anywhere, to pass the time.

This year I want to play more board games and card games- how's that for a new year resolution that I might actually keep?

Lila is at the age where she is learning to play board games as well. Memory games (with matching pairs of cards) are great at this age. Lila's favorite is a fairy memory game where she has memorized the backs of the cards. Playing with her is like playing in Vegas- the house always wins.

Go Fish is the first game that she understood the rules for and is able to play properly. Chutes and Ladders (what I knew as Snakes and Ladders) and Candyland are top favorites right now. They are not the most exciting but they do work on turn-taking and counting skills. Perhaps the most important thing to learn at this age is that it is only a game and not to fall apart when one loses! She also has Sequence for Kids, SET junior and Very Silly Sentences and we'll soon learn how to play those.

Do you like cooking on vacation? Tell me about your favorite board games! 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Goodbye 2016 (with warm Almond Kheer Oatmeal)

Lila and her friends made this gingerbread
house- from a kit, easy peasy. Why the poor
dog is stuck on the roof, I can't say
After weeks of being in a blogging funk, I'm pulling myself up to share a warm breakfast recipe. Ah, breakfast- my favorite meal of the day.

All my life, I have been a morning person and I enjoy waking up early and tucking into breakfast.

These days, however, our baby boy is challenging my notions of how early is too early and does waking up at 3 AM constitute a really really early morning or a really really late night? Who has time to blog anyway when you have to read all 16 million baby sleep websites that Google throws up when you search for "baby wakes every two hours"?

Here's a recipe for bleary mornings: a warm and hearty breakfast. I'm not one for sweet breakfasts but I have been happily tucking into this barely-sweet almond kheer oatmeal.

Almond Kheer Oatmeal (makes 3 servings)

In a pot, combine 1 cup old fashioned oats, 1 cup almond milk (or any kind of dairy or non-dairy milk) and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Stir in the following:
2-3 tbsp. almond butter
Large pinch of salt
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. ground cardamom
Splash of cream

Scoop into bowls, scatter a few dried cranberries and enjoy.

* * *

2016 was a crazy year. Admittedly, the politics and world news of 2016 left me with a deep heartache and anxiety about our collective future. But on a personal level, 2016 was completely amazing as we welcomed our sweet new baby half-way into the year.

And we have so many kind people to thank for helping us during this joyful and exhausting time, starting with the friend who opened her home to Lila at 3 AM when we rushed to the hospital to have the baby. (The baby's coming NOW? said Lila in disbelief. I need my sleep!) This is the same 5 year old who gave an impromptu pep talk the night before our tiny 8 week baby started daycare: "Now baby brother, I know you're starting school tomorrow. You might wonder, will anyone be nice to me? But don't worry, your teacher will like you and you'll make friends".

Neighbors and friends stopped by, armed with food and onesies. Homemade quiches, cookies for the big sister, cheesy pastas for daddy, spicy guacamole for me. One neighbor brought us a lasagna that I swear weighed about 10 pounds and fed us for days, plus a pint of gelato. All this when she has a baby of her own to care for. Other neighbors dropped off a bottle of celebratory champagne and a note of congratulations at our back door.

We have been at the receiving end of so much generosity of every kind. A friend whisked Lila away to a movie so we could have a weekend afternoon to snuggle in with the week-old baby. One morning, I was in the supermarket in a hassled state in my yoga pants and a stained tee, and a stranger stopped me in the canned vegetables aisle to say "You and your baby make a beautiful picture". Friends all over the country took the time to send boxes of gifts and notes of congratulations.

To all these big-hearted people who make my world a better place- thank you thank you.

What were your highlights of 2016? See you in the new year! 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Orange and Black Quesadillas

A very (very!) belated but heartfelt Happy Diwali to all who celebrated it last week. Our Diwali was a quiet affair with a few glowing tea-lights and feasting on the abundant homemade Diwali faraal sent by my parents all the way from India- besan ladoo, rava ladoo, two types of chivda, spicy sev, bakarwadi, sweet shankarpale and savory shankarpale.

The other festival of last week was Halloween, the unofficial kick-off to the holiday season here in North America. This Fall, Lila moved from Montessori preschool to the pre-Kindergarten class of our local public elementary school- and in her new school, they celebrate Book Day instead of Halloween. Students come dressed as their favorite book characters and parade around the neighborhood. Parents and grandparents come to school as special guests to read stories to the kids and there are book-related activities all day. Lila wanted to go as queen Elsa and to counter my argument about this being a movie costume and decidedly not a book costume, she triumphantly found two Frozen themed Disney books in the library. Thank you, pervasive Disney merchandising. But I insisted that she look through her book collection for another costume idea and in the end she happily went dressed as the piglet Olivia.

I thought the book day celebrations were fun and a great way to promote the joys of reading. Lila's very interested in reading and writing these days and feels confident enough to teach the little one. I overheard her saying, "Baby brother, this is how you write 'apple'- A-P-O-L".

Halloween came with two costume parties- one at a friend's house and one at our neighborhood just before the kids went trick or treating. Miss Lila did get to wear her beloved princess costumes to these parties. One of the neighbors was passing out candy to the kids and wine to the parents ---- and this is how you know you live in an awesome neighborhood.

Both the Halloween parties were potlucks and I streamlined the shopping and prep by taking the same exact dish to both events- an appropriately orange and black food- sweet potato and black bean quesadillas. Both times the dish was polished off in minutes, so I am filing this one away for all future Halloween gatherings.

A few notes on the recipe- I was very short on time, so I reached into the pantry for canned beans. But of course, soaked and pressure cooked black beans would work well. The sweet potatoes can be cooked using any method- again I used the microwave oven for speed and ease. Cilantro would be wonderful in the filling but it is a polarizing ingredient, so I opted for green onions. Some of my friends eat a gluten-free diet, so I chose corn tortillas that were labeled gluten-free. Wheat tortillas would work just as well. But the compact size of corn tortillas is just perfect for a potluck table.

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Quesadillas

1. Wash 3-4 sweet potatoes and pierce them several times with a fork. Cut each in half and microwave until tender, turning once half-way through cooking. Let the sweet potatoes cool down, then peel them and cut into medium dice.

2. Drain and rinse 2 cans of black beans.

3. Grate 2-3 cups of cheese- I used a combination of pepper jack and sharp cheddar.

4. Finely chop 1 bunch of green onions.

5. Mix all these ingredients in a large bowl and season with salt, smoked paprika, chili powder, dried oregano and ground cumin.

6. Place 2-3 tablespoons of filling on one half of a corn tortilla, fold in half and cook the quesadilla, using a little oil, on a cast iron pan until browned.

The second time, I made a large batch of these quesadillas all at once by placing them on baking sheets, spraying oil on both sides and baking at 375 until toasty.

I made a quick dipping sauce by mixing together sour cream, jarred salsa and salt. But the quesadillas are tasty enough on their own.

What are you cooking these days?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Easier Way to Cook Pasta (and requesting your best Mumbai tips)

I've heard the newborn period being referred to quite accurately as the "best worst time" and the "longest shortest time". How true- the days stretched on endlessly in a series of feeds, naps and diaper changes but 7 weeks of maternity leave went by in a flash. I've transitioned into work and the schedule is suddenly very tight. V and I have very minimal ambitions these days, namely to do the least amount of housework required to keep all three kids (baby, preschooler, dog) well fed and relatively clean while leaving plenty of time for snuggling, story-time and walks respectively.

The one thing that the whole family looks forward to is a hot and hearty dinner every evening. The One Hot Stove kitchen is in maintenance mode, churning out no-recipe-needed basic but wholesome fare from fridge and pantry staples.

Pasta is frequently on the menu. To streamline the pantry, I keep only two shapes on hand, one short and one long- white fiber pasta shells and whole wheat thin spaghetti.

Cook pasta isn't exactly rocket science to begin with, but these days I make it even simpler by using a passive pasta cooking method. Read about it exhaustively here and here. But in a nutshell, I boil water not in a gigantic pasta pot but instead, a fraction of the amount of water in a medium pot, add salt, bring to boil, dump in pasta (either the shells or spaghetti broken in half), bring water to boil again (takes only a few seconds), stir and turn the heat OFF with the lid on. Leave it alone for several minutes, check to see that pasta is cooked, then drain. Done. Use in recipe.

Basically the pasta cooks in enough hot water to submerge it rather than in a large pot of actively boiling water.

Once the pasta is cooked, I combine it with plenty of vegetables and some kind of sauce. Some favorites:

1. Peppers, zucchini, eggplant, greens with a red sauce and a splash of cream and parmesan. Often I'll add mock sausage.

2. Peppers, red or green cabbage, sautéed tofu cubes and a peanut sauce.

3. Roasted broccoli and cauliflower with pesto and parmesan.

4. Winter squash with a garlicky cream sauce. Here's a quick recipe for this one:

  • Microwave an acorn squash for 5 minutes to soften it. 
  • When cool enough to handle, peel and cube squash. 
  • Saute onions and garlic, then add cubed squash and saute until squash is tender.
  • Season with freshly ground black pepper, smoked paprika and salt.
  • Add cream and some pasta cooking water and simmer the sauce for a few minutes.
  • Stir in cooked pasta and parmesan
As simple as this is, I swear it tastes like something from a fancy bistro. Not that I remember what food from a fancy bistro tastes like any more ;) 

***    ***    ***
One of my dearest friends is headed to Mumbai for a short vacation in mid-November and asked me for suggestions on where to go and what to do. Edited to add: She will be staying at a hotel in Cuffe Parade, South Mumbai.

I've been friends with her for 15 years and will never forget the times when this all-American girl made me sambar and rice when I was working crazy hours finishing up my dissertation. Clearly she likes to cook and loves to eat Indian food and Bombay/Mumbai being a foodie's paradise, I know she will love the food there (like me, she is a lacto ovo vegetarian.)

Some must-eat foods in Mumbai...what am I forgetting?
Pav bhaji
Paper dosa
Gujarati thali
Batata vada
Coconut water

Does anyone know of good food tours or walking tours?

When I lived in Mumbai (all my teenage and young adult years), what I liked to do the most was walk walk walk all over the city, stopping for snacks here and there and diving into second hand book stores. I was also a culture vulture to the max, taking in as many dance performances, art galleries and Marathi and English plays as I could. But Mumbai was home, and I didn't do much touristy stuff ever.

What am I missing? What's the latest and greatest in Mumbai these days? Please do chime in with your suggestions. Thank you!!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Pages and Screens

Life with a newborn takes on a somewhat surreal quality. You lose track of what day of the week it is. Odd meals (granola with a side of tortilla chips and salsa, anyone?) get eaten at odder hours. For a few weeks, days and nights seemed to blend together as I camped out on the couch and nursed my baby round the clock. V and Lila kept up with their work and school routine and I whiled away the hours with some books and TV.

I was looking for some unadulterated entertainment and found it in the Back to the Future trilogy on Netflix- you have Michael J. Fox, the 80s, a very cool DeLorean and The Power of Love. The second movie of the trilogy is fun because the time travel is from the 80s into 2015; we have already lived the future, people. If you're looking for pure fun, this is the one to watch.

More time-pass TV came in the form of Psych, the comic detective show- I like to watch an episode here and there- and Doc Martin, the British medical comedy drama set in a picturesque seaside village populated by all sorts of characters. I managed to watch all 7 seasons of Doc Martin, although I have seen many of them already when the series aired on PBS. It made for great background TV, the characters keeping me company as I went about my day.

I did watch one serious movie on Netflix, Spotlight (2015), the story of the Boston Globe's tenacious investigation of the scandal of priests abusing children. It won Best Picture at this year's Oscars- not the usual blockbuster Hollywood movie, it is a solid docu-drama made in a rather understated way.

The PBS streaming app made me a happy girl by featuring Series 6 of the Great British Baking Show. For this series, we suspended our rule of no TV during meals, and happily watched this show as a family while eating dinner- with Lila rooting for Nadiya all the way and offering her commentary on the various bakes.

Over on the print side, many of the books I've been reading reflect my deepest desire at this time- to get my baby to sleep so I can get some sleep! So I've blearily made my way through Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth and The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp. Sure, these books provide some helpful tips here and there. But mostly you read about all the grand things babies are supposed to do- like sleep longer after 6 weeks- and wonder why your offspring never got the memo.

For lighter reading, I turned to kid lit, and thoroughly enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. If you enjoyed Harry Potter and Roald Dahl, you have to look for this book (series, actually). It has the tried-and-true kid lit tropes of orphan children alone in the world banding together and fighting evil, but it works.

I had promised myself that given the stress of the newborn weeks, I wouldn't read anything very serious or depressing. Well, that plan was discarded quickly when I came upon a special issue of the New York Times Magazine titled Fractured Lands. The whole magazine issue is one long article, a brilliantly written mini-book. Scott Anderson describes the Middle East crisis from its origins all the way to the current exodus and refugee situation, through the lives of 6 individuals. It took me three solid weeks to read this issue, but I come away much better informed about the headlines that I glance at but don't really begin to understand. The whole issue is here online but I preferred reading it in hard copy.

In the kid section, Lila has been enjoying many library books lately and these two are recent favorites that we have read dozens of times before reluctantly returning them. I loved the gentle humor in Even Monsters Need Haircuts by Matthew McElligott. A barber's son takes over his dad's salon during the night to give "shamp-eews" and haircuts to monsters. What I loved best about The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale by Ying Chang Compestine were the adorable and cheerful illustrations by Sebastia Serra.

Speaking of kid lit, I was very saddened to read that Anna Dewdney of the much-loved Llama Llama books has died all too young of brain cancer, two weeks ago. We own a couple of her books and they are so much fun to read aloud.

What have you been reading and watching these days?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Birth Announcement

We have a new baby in the family! V and I welcomed our baby son into the world last week. His name is Niam (as in neeyam, the Sanskrit/ Hindi/ Marathi word for rules of the universe).

Lila is the most loving big sister we could have hoped for. She cracks us up by singing Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty (from The Big Bang Theory) to baby brother. Duncan has been cautiously sniffing around the baby but flees into another room as soon as he hears a wail.

One Hot Stove might be a bit quiet for a few weeks as we adjust to life as a family of five and savor that new baby smell. But I'll pop in whenever I get a chance. Enjoy your summer, friends!

Edited to add: Thank you all for the sweet wishes and warm welcome for baby Niam. I read each and every comment (multiple times) and am so touched, even though I probably can't respond to each one at the moment!