Friday, July 22, 2011

Keep It Cool

The news of the east coast heatwave is making waves across the country. Every time I turn on the radio, I hear some doctor or the other lecturing on how to beat the heat that can cause dehydration and exhaustion. Drink lots of fluids, don't go out in the afternoon, have fruit juices and what not...

Growing up in India, dealing with heat was a way of life. Come May, the temperatures would soar to 3 digits making it impossible for most people to go out. Let's not even talk about the humidity. But we kids didn't care! We still wanted to make the most of our summer vacation and play to our hearts' content. After all, who wants to waste one precious month away from school cribbing about the weather! We just wore white cotton clothes, ate lots of mangoes and other juicy fruits and drank plenty of Mattha to keep us cool! Mattha - spiced buttermilk - is a popular drink in Maharashtra, especially during the summer. The drink reminds me of the numerous summers spent in my Grandma's town Paali, enjoying the cool waters of the river, climbing mango trees, picking the plummest fruits and berries, chasing cow and buffalo herds, hiking up and down the mountains and running back home to grandma, expecting a tall glass of mattha to quench our thirst!

The buttermilk was made by churning fresh home-made yogurt that produced dollops of creamy butter floating on top. Grandma would carefully separate the butter leaving just enough so the bits of solidified butter gave us a white mustache! She sometimes put up a stall at the local fair to sell this drink. Needless to say, it had the longest lines and ran out way before the closing time. My sister and I would sit at the 'cash register' feeling extremely important. I don't know if it was that, or getting to smuggle some of the mattha before getting over, made it more fun! We didn't know anything about "keeping hydrated" or "replenishing electrolytes" at the time; all we knew was, a glass of mattha made by grandma's loving hands felt really good! 

Mattha - Spicy-Savory Buttermilk

1lb Lowfat yogurt
1inch Fresh garlic
1 Small green chili or use 1/2 Serrano
3/4 Teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 Teaspoons sugar
Black salt/ regular salt to taste
Pinch of asafoetida if using regular salt
Handful of cilantro - chopped
Water as needed
  • Grind the garlic and green chili coarsely in the grinder/mixer. Add cumin seeds towards the end so they get barely broken instead of becoming fine powder. 
  • Mix a cup of water in the yogurt and churn it using a hand mixer or food processor. Add water depending on how thick you like the buttermilk. This actually tastes better a little thin.
  • Add the paste, sugar, black salt (use regular salt if you don't have black salt and add a pinch of asafoetida to give that slightly pungent taste of black salt), cilantro and stir well. Serve chilled. 

This drink is our version of savory Lassi! Buttermilk is really good for your health and the hints of spices balanced by the sweetness of buttermilk and sugar make a great combination. All of you affected by the heat wave, make yourself a glass of this spicy, savory, and slightly sweet drink and keep yourself cool. The fortunate ones to escape it, pull out your beach chair, sip on a glass of mattha and enjoy the sun!

Monday, July 18, 2011


I got back from vacation only to find myself under a pile of work. It's never fun to end a vacation; but the first bloom of intoxicatingly frangrant roses in our garden definitely gave us a lovely welcome :). I've been meaning to post some pictures of my garden and this seems just about the right time.

Growing up, I watched my grandparents take care of the beautiful garden they had so lovingly created. Lemon, chikoo, mango, banana and coconut trees stood proudly along side herbs and greens and colorful flowers. Later we moved to a typical urban apartment and had little space to plant anything. My grandma still continued growing some gourds, squash, Indian basil and curry leaves in large pots. I learned from them that a beautiful garden is labor of love!

Turns out, hubby knows about gardening way more than I do. Lucky me! We decided to take full advantage of the small space around our apartment this summer and planted a few flowers, some herbs, tomatoes, yellow zucchini and jalapenos. The rose plant was a surprise gift to me from hubby. He said, "A bouquet would've given you momentary happiness whereas this plant will keep blooming". His thoughtfulness is only one of many things I admire about him :).

Jalapeno, Golden Zucchini, Basil

I came across this post a couple of weeks back and knew I wanted to make it first thing once the tomatoes were ripe. I kept rest of the ingredients ready and came back to find a dozen bright red tomatoes and fragrant basil waiting to be used. I would've made the tomato-basil bread right away, but long work hours left me sleep deprived and I finally got the chance on Friday.

As usual, I wanted to incorporate atleast some amount of whole wheat into the bread. This was my first time making bread though, so I put in some research. That was a good move because as I learned, different flours have different gluten levels that affect the consistency and texture of the end product. Using 100% whole wheat could've made the bread too dense (lower gluten percentage) so I decided to go half-and-half on whole wheat and all purpose flour.

Cooling down
We enjoyed the bread toasted with some butter and mom's garlic chutney!
Tomato-Basil Bread

3/4 Cup warm water
2 1/2 Teaspoon active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 Cups all purpose flour
1 1/2  + 1 Cups whole wheat flour
3/4 Cup diced red tomatoes
Handful of basil leaves
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Teaspoons salt

  • Add a packet of active dry yeast and 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar to warm water. Mix well and let it sit for 5-6 minutes until you see bubbles. 
  • Add 3 cups of flour (half and half of all purpose and whole wheat), diced tomatoes, remaining sugar, olive oil and salt and form a dough. Knead this dough well, adding julienne basil, whole wheat flour if and as needed, until it comes together without sticking to the bowl or hands. Brush some olive oil on the dough, cover and let it sit for an hour to rise. 
  • The dough will almost double in an hour or so and seem almost hollow. Punch the dough, knead again and form two rounds of the dough. Brush these with some olive oil again, let them sit for 45 minutes. DO NOT disturb the dough at this point!
  • Preheat over to 375F degrees on the side.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes until the crust is brown. Slice the bread once cooled down. 
Is it a lot of love and care that make home grown veggies taste much better??

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Switch Off Your Cell Phone

I've been absconding from the blogging world for the past 10 days or so. It may not seem like a long gap, but I feel like I'm back from being transported to a whole different world! Last 10 day were some of the most adventurous yet tranquil, exciting yet peaceful, getting away yet coming to myself days of my life. A complete wilderness experience exploring the great land of Alaska! I don't have enough adjectives in my repertoire to describe the enormity of this place and how insignificant of a being I felt in the presence of nature at its purest. Imposing mountains, roaring and rumbling glaciers, winding rivers, swelling ocean, towering trees, magnificent animals, stretches of colorful wild flowers and the disorienting midnight sun make you lose sense of time, distance or direction almost making you one with the nature.

In this time and age, we can seldom afford the luxury of completely switching off our cell-phones, e-mails and other forms of communication. While the world is coming closer with technology, we are getting farther from ourselves. In the hustle and bustle of our fast paced lives, there's no room for taking a pause and meditating. I'm not talking about leaving worldly pleasures and sitting in the Himalayas. But where's the time to enjoy peace, savor nothingness, or just be! Getting 10 days of quality time with husband in a peaceful natural setting made me realize how much we need the occasional replenishment. We spent most of the time just being in awe of the spectacular views and the serenity than talking to each other. Yet, I felt much closer to him and myself being in what seemed like paradise! The entire trip was almost a spiritual experience as I completely shut off from the civilization and soaked in the beauty - relaxing, reflecting and rejuvenating.

As I realize, words really do fall short when trying to describe something as prestine. Some things should be experienced and I won't attempt to create a picture that won't come close to reality. After deliberating for a long time, typing and deleting, staring at the screen for a while, I've decided to share just a few highlights of the trip.

1. Meeting some of the fuzziest, furriest, softest animals ever:

We landed in Anchorage with the idea of spending a couple of days there. The city had little charm or character to its merit and we knew there was much more to Alaska than highways and supermarkets. We took the opportunity to explore some hidden lakes and valleys off the highway and visited a couple of animal farms working to preserve the wild life of Alaska. Say hello to Safety, the adorable baby muskox, Santa's favorite kind of deer and furry nose moose! Hubby was so in love with the muskox, he decided he wanted it for a pet!

Bottom right - Eagle river trail
2. Drive to Denali:

Like everything else, the weather in Alaska is quite unpredictable. The rains dampened our trip to Denali hiding Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America, behind clouds. Yet, close encounters with moose, caribou and momma grizzly with baby saved the trip. The disappointment didn't last long though. The next morning in Talkeetna, where we took a hault on the way back, the skies cleared up casting a beautiful glow on Mt. McKinley. We were struck by awe looking at the majesty of it. Capturing as much as we could with eyes and cameras, we left the town to visit yet another beautiful place.

3. See what's in my backyard!

They ain't kidding about the 'wildlife in backyard' thing in Alaska. Just as we were getting ready to take a walk outside the beautiful wooden B&B in Girdwood, another guest rushed towards the yard saying, "There's a bear!". Sure enough, a black bear and her two cubs were taking a stroll in the yard about 50ft away from us! I guess the bear heard the clamor and rushed away before we got our camera out. We skipped the idea of a walk at that point not wanting to mess with a fierce mother bear. Apart from the excitemet of seeing a bear, the stay in Girdwood turned out great going on top of Mt. Alyeska. A tram with a steep rope carried us on top of the mountain having a beautiful view of the town surrounded by mountains and the ocean. After spending some time on the mountain peak and having lunch, we visited the wild life center and took off to Whittier.

Top Left - the yard where we saw black bears!
4. Ginormous glaciers:

I've visited Switzerland and lived in Utah for 3 years. Moutains with snow is not new sight to me. But everything is big in Alaska! We spent a day on a small cruise ship witnessing a part of the planet change right in front of our eyes. The ever changing glaciers formed thousands of years back crackling and calving into the ocean causing big waves and exposing new lands in the process were a sight to behold! The lack of any small object in the perspective plays ticks on your eyes making the glaciers seem much smaller than they really are. Wait till a 14ft wave rocks your boat and you'll know what a huge chunck of ice fell into the ocean! The 26 glacier cruise from Whittier was fantastic, and some playful porpoises jumping in front of our boat just added to the experience! 

Bottom Left - glacier calving
5. Wilderness lodge:

Saving the best for the last, we ended our trip in Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. How would you like to wake up in a cozy wooden cabin to a view of a beautiful lagoon at the foot of a glacier?! No roads - only a 3 hour boat ride and a 15 minute gravel road walk to get to this beautiful lodge set in Kenai Fjords National Park, overlooking Pedersen glacier. The adventure started right when we boarded the small boat carrying 11 passengers. As if riding along a humpback whale wasn't thrilling enough, we experienced the largest calving of Holgate glacier our boat captain had witnessed in 11 years of daily trips there!! The calving caused a HUGE wave making our boat rise and dip a great height while icebergs smashed against it. Within seconds, the radio went off and captains in the nearby area were eager to hear all about it. That, my friends, was historic!! 
The lodge was beautiful with some of the warmest staff members I've ever met! Absolutely gorgeous views all around, traces of bears every step of the way and forest exposed barely 50 years from a glacial activity made our stay quite special. We thoroughly enjoyed canoeing in the lagoon, hiking up the Pedersen glacier, kayaking in Aialik bay and coming back to hot, delicious meals shared with some incredible people with incredible stories! Aialik bay was extremely calm compared to my last kayaking experience - and so was I :). I felt so worry-free and totally disconnected from the rest of the world for those 3 days there. The pictures can give you a faint idea of what it was like, but they are completely devoid of any feelings or emotions. It was the best finish to our trip and I felt thoroughly satisfied at the end of it! The cherry on top - seeing dozens of orcas all around our boat on the way back =).

One look at my Outlook inbox yesterday, and I was shaken back to reality pretty hard. I've realized thought, that switching completely off from the craziness of daily life restocks your energy to tackle it all over again!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Mid Year Resolution

"No, Snehal"..says the little voice in my head..."you should not eat that..remember what you decided yesterday? Didn't you start dieting?? You did so well by having a salad for lunch..don't ruin it now!! Hmmm..okay, maybe one tiiiiny bite..juuust a little. That's it. You can have some today and get back to counting calories tomorrow...afterall, you did just have a salad for this should balance it out right? And you had a pretty hectic day at work...poor you...okay, gotta give this to you. You SO need to eat that to cheer yourself up! Have it..I PROMISE I wont let you eat it tomorrow." The voice in my head goes through the same ramble almost every day as I stare at that chocolate saved for a very rare self-pampering or the muffin at the deli in my office, finally giving in to the evil side. I have a sweet tooth and I've been a bad girl lately. It's been more than 6 months to the wedding and the 'love pounds' just keep building up.

This has been playing on my mind for the last couple of days after talking to my mom. I need to give up sweets. At least for some time before my body and mind come to terms with having desserts once in a while. My mom is diabetic and her recent health situation has taken a toll on all of us family members. Every time I talk to her, I make sure she's eating right and tell her repetitively to never think of eating unhealthy. "How can you, mom?? Don't you know it's really bad for you??". It's so easy for me to say, but I know she has a hard time following the rigid diet. I know it's tough! If I can't stop eating sweets even for one day, what right do I have to tell her not to even think about some of the everyday items?? If I talk the talk, I must walk the walk. So here's my mid-year resolution to give up sweet for one month! And I'm not talking about having pancakes with a little bit of syrup for breakfast, just mindless munching and unnecessary calories. I'm doing this for myself just as much as for my mom. I need to eat healthy and fit into the dress I bought last summer when I was working hard to keep in shape for the wedding. I hope this eases some of that feeling of helplessness that I can't be there to take care of my mom, hopefully giving a little bit of encouragement to her and sharing some of her pain on the way and fixing my own health! Not that I have any issues...but eating right never hurts anyone. I go to peek into the not-so-sweet side of life for the next 30 days. I know it's going to be very challenging, but I already started off by saying 'No' to a tempting cheesecake this morning. Hopefully I'll stay motivated throughout. This is for you, Mom!


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