Sunday, March 22, 2015

Baked Ziti

It was a get-together with plenty of good friends and good food, and a surprise birthday girl. I decided to contribute something Italian, since it is hard to compete with all the authentic Indian, Bengali and Sri Lanka cooks. – Lasagna was first on my mind, but I switched to Baked Ziti since it is easier to serve buffet-style. It came out great, but next time I will add more sauce and cook it less long, since it starts to dry out during reheating. Tasty, nevertheless.

Baked ziti consists of precooked pasta, a meaty tomato sauce and a ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan mixture, ultimately all mixed, layered and baked until bubbly.

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I cooked a mixture of pasta, and added 2 bay leaves to give them extra flavor.

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The meat sauce with tomatoes.

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The mixture of ricotta, shredded mozzarella, parmesan and 1 egg, all mixed. Then add the pasta.

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Add most of the meat tomato sauce (but leave 4 cups for layering)>

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Prepare the dish.

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Bake until bubbly.

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Baked Ziti

  • 1 package of pasta (typically 1 pound)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 dash of sweet vermouth (optional)
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 ts dried thyme
  • 1 ts dried basil
  • 1 ts chili flakes (and a dash of cayenne if you like it hotter)
  • 1 large can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 small can of tomato sauce
  • 1 15oz container of part skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 packages of shredded mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup of shredded parmesan
  • 1 egg
  • fresh mint or parsley or basil

Cook pasta with salted water for about 9min (slightly undercook).

In a large pan, sautee the onion and garlic in the olive oil, and once softened add in the meat, and break it up with a large spatula. Brown it from all sides. Then add in the tomatoes and tomato sauce and the herbs and spices. Simmer for about 20min.

In a separate large bowl, mix up the ricotta cheese, 1 pouch of mozzarella and parmesan with the egg with a fork. Just mash it up. Add in the pasta, and mix through.

Once the sauce is done, reserve about 4 cups, and mix in the rest of the sauce to the pasta.

Layer half of the pasta mix in an 9x13 inch oven safe baking dish. Even out, and then layer half of the sauce on top, and half of the mozzarella from the second bag. Add the second half of pasta, even out and finish with the remaining sauce and mozzarella.

Preheat oven to 375F, and bake dish for about 25min. To get a brown crust, turn on the broiler for 1.5min at the end of baking. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Indian lunch

The sun is out, bright sunshine, blue sky and good sleep are such a bump in energy in the morning. Yesterday, I finished “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, there is just one season available after all, and I can only recommend to mono-task when watching it, because otherwise it is hard to follow the jokes and all the nuances. Or any jokes because they are said my New Yorkers with a rapid speedfire way of talking.

At least the sky feels like spring. The ground feels like winter.

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The weekend is near, there is another bump up of energy. The snow forecast has been downgraded to 2 inches from 7 inches, maybe the weekend is actually something to write off as ‘spring approaching’. And hope dies last.

But then, why complaining? It is a beautiful day, it is a day of my life that never comes back, if there is snow on the ground or not, if I can walk around in sandals or not, who much does it really matter? How much will it really impact anything that happens today? We can sometimes be so caught up in the things we want instead of the things we have, we miss out on a beautiful day/person/child/ourselves that is just in front of us. To appreciate what is giving to us today and find its beauty instead of desire something not in our grasps right now (but maybe some other time/day just arriving on its own when the time is right). It’s all a process and sometimes we want to rush it, with the eyes fixed on the result instead of enjoying the daily developmental steps, seeing the process that unfolds in front of us.

The sun shines, it is a beautiful day, one day spring will come, it is not clear when but it will, let’s be busy with the beautiful today and go skiing one more time, on a day I can fit in a lot more because it is long and bright and I can go sking after work not during lunch break. A beautiful, new, fresh day to be alive!

Pictured above is my lunch --- in a glass container, Indian spices spinach (with butter, onion, nutmeg and cardamom, and salt), vegetable biryani, and sauteed mushroom with butter and onion, salt and pepper.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Unbreakable on a late March snow day

After a whole day of snowflakes for St. Patrick’s Day but fortunately hardly any new accumulations it is cold and windy and the 10 days forecast does not promise any significant changes in temperatures or that there would be any break from more snow showers. It’s almost April.

We had our first plowable snow on November 2, this starts to feel like a really long winter. The days are long now but it just more daylight hours to see it snowing.

After coming home from work, I browsed through my Netflix instant movie list, watched a little bit of “Ready to wear”, a mildy funny 1990s movie about the fashion industry. After I lost interest after 10min, I moved on to the Isaac Mizrahi movie “Unzipped” also did not hold my attention for long. The next one promised “Adventures of Kimmy Schmidt after 15 years living with a cult”. Sounded mildly promising, and with a sigh I start to watch it. It reminded me of Escaping the Amish and inspired by the Duggars, then it became wonderful crazy and funny and by the end of the first episode, I was in love.

Immediately, I clicked on the second episode. Whatever this show was, of which I had never heard before, it was hilarious and reminded me of the belly laugh when watching Friends, just better and more kooky. I held my abs in pain laughing so hard that after a long day of more snow and a visit to the dentist things were finally looking up.


At the beginning of the second show, I saw a screen flickering by that said “Created by Tina Fey”. Now, it made sense. This was no accidental funny show. Tina! The Katy Perry of acting. The SNL writer, Sarah Palin improviser, 30Rock writer and actress, and not to forget author of Bossy Pants, Mean Girls and Baby Mama (I wondered what she had been up to after 30Rock ended, besides having a 2nd child and making us all sniff dryer sheets when we deal with writer’s block).

I watched 4 more episodes and the day was saved. “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’', a Netflix original series. If you loved “Orange is the new Black”, and “House of Cards” this is for you. Netflix, you are starting to have the best content around.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Butternut Squash Indian Style

Old Man Winter looks like a blushing new bride on her wedding morning. It is winter wonderland outside, a beauty that always makes up for the cold temperatures and the rest of winter. I spent all weekend hunkered down, the snow was coming and seemed not to stop. As my friend V. commented “The whole country has sunshine and spring temperature, only we and NH have snow. Argh!” The joys of living in Maine. Plenty of winter wonderland, as pretty as in Switzerland.

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Lunch looks good. German dumplings and butternut squash with peas Indian style (with popped black mustard seeds and curry leaves).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Vegetable Biryani

Old man winter decided to put on a layer of fresh make-up before he was ready to leave the party. Oh, boy. Another 10-14 inches today after he looked a bit haggard after loosing about 1-2 feet of snow last week.
One of my favorite dishes lately is the Indian vegetable biryani. A biryani is an Indian equivalent of ‘mexican rice’ or an Italian risotto, a layered, and flavored rice dish with spices and vegetables (there are also meat varieties). For me, the vegetable biryani is the best option. It is a great side during the week, or a main dish, right out of the oven.
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A biryani is cooked in a layered way. The basmati rice is pre-cooked separately but not fully cooked, and the vegetables are seared and flavored, and then both parts are finished off together so that the flavors melt.

It can be made with any kind of vegetables, but carrots, cauliflower, beans, even potatoes are a traditional Indian version. A biryani also has plenty of fresh herbs such as mint and cilantro, and a hint of saffron for a nice color and flavor. Cardamon, tumeric and garam massala round out the flavors.

First, the basmati rice is washed several times until the water runs clear and then soaked for 30min (a must for fluffy basmati rice!). It is then cooked with a very salty water that is also flavored with cumin seeds and a bay leaf. However, it is undercooked (!) and done in about 10min.

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The next step includes preparing the vegetables: sauteing them in flavored ghee and mixed with herbs, and rounded out with yogurt. Once prepared the rice is layered over it.

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There are 2 layers of rice, each one is sprinkled with more herbs spices and a fried onions. The last layer of hot, steamy rice gets an additional drizzle of saffron steeped in hot milk.

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The dish is covered with a tight-fitting lid, and steamed for about 15min until the rice is fluffy and the vegetables fully cooked.  For serving, a section from top to bottom is best to serve both vegetables and rice.

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Vegetable Biryani (makes about 6 servings)
Rice:
  • 1 cup good basmati rice, rinsed several times, and soaked for at least 20min
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 TB salt
Bring 1-2 quart of water to a boil, and add the bay leaves, caraway seeds and salt. Add soaked rice and cooked until about 3/4 done (about 12-14min).
Also steep a few strands of saffron with a half cup of the hot, salty water in a separate cup.
Vegetables:
  • 2-3 TB (GMO free) canola oil or ghee
  • 1 TB whole black pepper corns
  • 1 ts cumin seeds
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cubed
  • 1 small cauliflower, cut into florets (or 1 bag frozen)
  • 1 cup fresh fenugreek leaves (if available, otherwise omit)
  • 1 TB fresh dill leaves
  • 2 TB jarred ginger and garlic paste
In a heavy bottomed large pot (that will contain the entire dish) with a tight fitting lid, heat the ghee or oil, and add the spices and the vegetables from above and cooked for 5 min until softened. Now, add
  • 2 small green chili, diced (you can also use jalapenos)
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, julienned (cut into very thin long stripes)
  • 1/2 ts cayenne powder
  • 1 ts tumeric powder
  • 1 ts salt
Add these ingredients, mix well and cook for another 3 minutes. Now, turn down the heat. Add
  • 1/2 cup of frozen or fresh green peas
  • 1 cup long, skinny French beans
  • 1 cup of plain cow milk yogurt
  • 1 ts garam masala
  • 1 ts green cardamom powder
  • 1 TB melted ghee
  • mint leaves of 2 springs
  • handful fried onions (home-made or store-bought)
Mix all these ingredients. Using a perforated large spoon laddle the pre-cooked rice on the vegetables (a bit of liquid is good because it is the only liquid added to finish off the dish). Layer on about half of the rice. Add to the rice layer
  • 2-3 TB chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 ts ground coriander
  • 1 ts garam masala powder,
  • 1 ts green cardamom powder
  • a few fresh mint leaves (chopped)
  • fried onions
Now layer rest of rice – and a last layer brown onions, garam masala, cardamom powder, the saffron soak in water, and 1-2 Ts melted ghee, drizzled over the biryani.

Seal the pot – and cook on stovetop on medium high for 2-3min (until steam comes out). Lower flame and cook another 10-12min. (Don’t cook on high heat for too long, because the biryani will burn quickly since it does not contain much liquid).  

Serve.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Out and about–Spring break in Maine

We passed the middle of spring break, the temperatures are milder, but the snow has not disappeared in any significant ways. Daylight savings time + a coconut milk non-decaf latte at 5pm on a Sunday set me back a whole week to adjust and I was still tossing and turning at 4:30am. Otherwise, it was a fun weekend – the New Balance factory store in Skowhegan had a 40% off sale (on the factory seconds) and it seemed like too good to pass up and detour on the way to Portland.

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This is the New Balance factory and, like with LLBean, much is still hand-made right here in the USA.

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Unfortunately I came on the second day of the sale, rookie mistake, and the “middle of the road” sizes of the nice shoes were already gone. A lot of 6s and 11s in this blue beauty.

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It is no surprise that plenty of people trek to Skowhegan for the sale. 40% off 39.98? Not bad, not  bad. I could not really find any signs of ‘seconds’, the merchandise looked perfect.

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Available in my size, but a bit too Florida colored for me.

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I finally settled on these, of course, they had to be the most expensive ones in the store, but they are amazing, the fresh foam model. They are a little too tight for running shoes on my regular running shoe size (in the toe box) but otherwise a firmer fit than a half size up.

Love.

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Even more love for these cuties. The adorableness.

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It was then off to Freeport which was quite deserted. I don’t think anyone comes to Maine for spring break, and even the Mainers are gone.

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In the old days, maybe it was different.

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Fell in love with the new flatbreads at Panera bread. Soooo good!

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Repurposed an inexpensive bulky bag at Forever XXI as camera bag.

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Only batted my eyelashes at this bag.

And now I try to be patient for spring to come, in the next weeks, months.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Interesting article why processed food can lead to weight gain

In my experience, I lost a significant amount of ‘the last ten pounds’ when I started to prepare my own food from scratch with fresh (raw) natural ingredients at home: vegetables, fresh or frozen, rarely canned (besides tomatoes), dried beans and legumes cooked in the slow or pressure or rice cooker, quinoa, sometimes dried pasta, Indian basmati rice (for lower levels of arsenic), olive oils, fresh fruit, and raw nuts. That is about 90% of what I eat. Occasionally, I will add some parmesan cheese or goat cheese, bread is mostly home-made without preservatives, rarely animal products. Yes, the occasional frozen yogurt and gummy bears and chocolates. I guess at some point people called this ‘clean eating’, i.e. no processed food. So, what is processed food anyway?

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  • food that was prepared in a factory a long time ago
  • food that waits on a shelf to be bought and eaten, and therefore contains many chemical food additives to keep it shelf stable
  • food that contains ingredients that were partially prepared in a factory (think pasta sauce in a home-made pasta dish)
  • factory prepared bread that never goes bad
  • food that has a wrapper
  • food that comes with a plastic tray and is heated in the microwave
  • fast food and many chain restaurants foods (they get it shipped from the mother ship).
  • food that no longer has any enzymes or vitamins because it was cooked eons- ago.
‘Processed’ food has been around for a very long time --- bread and cheese are technically ‘processed foods’. Canned food is processed food but it was and is used to be a way to preserve food. However, the problem started to escalate in the last 50 years, when the food industry was influence by the chemical industry and mass production has become common place. More and more chemicals were added to processed food that were either labeled or would remain unlabeled, when problems with obesity and gut inflammation started. The crux is really in all the chemical additives that have nothing to do with the food, but enhance taste and shelf life and reduce the cost of food production and enable mass production (more profits for the food industry!)

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This is an interesting article that links two common food additives, i.e. emulsifiers, to weight, immune system and digestive health. The simple story is that the emulsifiers mess with the gut bacteria and the mucus that protects the gut, so that the bacteria can get to the gut and chronic inflammation (aka colitis) can start for people who are predisposed. The emulsifiers also reduce the ‘good bacteria’ diversity in the gut. The variety of good bacteria exploit all the nutrients in the food for the body; if the body does not some of them, it will signal “give me something to eat, I need those nutrients’. This can lead to feeling hungry when you do not need the calories, but the nutrients….. They tested heir hypothesis with mice, and tests with humans will start. Even in very low concentrations, the food additives can lead to metabolic problems, meaning they gained weight and get colitis.

Here is a link to the original article in Nature.

So, there we go. Scientific proof that the earth is round and food additives lead to medical consequences for humans (and pets). There are so many things that the food industry conveniently does not want us to know about convenience food. We also sometimes think it is more convenient to ignore it. But, it is up to you.

Monday, March 2, 2015

March inspiration under piles of snow

March! Hopefully, this will be the month with rising temperatures and sinking snow coverage here in Maine. Because, there is a lot of snow that has to go before we will see green again. But today, today it is snowing again.

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At least, some make the best out of it. Who needs a snow man when you can make a snow pug.

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I am inspired by summer clothes collections, and covet this handbag. The rest I probably find in my closet. With the levels of snow and the temperatures, it will be April before I can really wear anything like that.

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Neat idea to re-purpose the food props for organizing perfume bottles.

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I am not into the 50 shades of grey thing, although the main male character almost enticed me to watch it since he does such a great job as serial killer on The Fall with Gillian Anderson.

Links of interest: