Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thosai and Dal and Folding

I have finally made thosai (dosa) batter with the right amount of tang. What did it take? A trip to Vik's Distributors for skinless urad dal and short-grain parboiled rice and one foldable proofer. Realizing that the thing holding me back the most from thosai nirvana was the temperature of my kitchen, which is about 30 degrees cooler than a Sri Lankan kitchen, I broke down and bought the foldable proofer I've had my eye on for over a year. 

Why didn't I buy this proofer ages ago?  It can be used for bread, kombucha, yogurt, and anything else that needs a higher temperature than what my cold kitchen can provide. 

For some reason, until I saw how thosais are made, it didn't click with me that they were a fermented food product. It makes sense, since the goods ones do have a slightly sour tang like the best breads, but I never thought about it. Fermentation helps to make my favorite foods and drinks.

What I didn't need was a nonstick skillet. My cast iron skillet does the job just fine, and the more I use it, the more nonstick it becomes. Since I've been subjecting the boy to daily thosai and dal, the cast iron skillet is working out great. Nonstick skillets skeeve me out since I'm sure using one will result in my cat and dogs dropping dead from the fumes. I know there are so-called environmentally friendly nonstick coatings out there, but I don't believe it!

Although he won't come out and say it, I think the boy is sick of eating thosai and dal. Heck, I'm getting sick of eating thosai and dal, but I am still crazy about making it. My new goal, now that I have the flavor right for the thosai, is to make it paper thin. That has been much, much trickier, but luckily the dogs are happy to eat the thicker thosai frisbees. I know that I've been feeding them too much thosai scraps because as soon as they see me heating up the cast iron skillet, they come running and they don't leave my side until the last of the batter is used up.

Another impediment to my Sri Lankan cooking attempts, besides the cold kitchen issue which is now solved, is that I don't have a source of young curry leaves. The curry leaves I bought from Vik's were older and not nearly as fragrant as the ones in Sri Lanka. If anyone has had any luck growing curry trees in the Bay Area, please let me know! I know that I can buy the trees locally, but will they produce in my foggy neck of the woods?

Thanks to a David Lebovitz post, I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book on how to declutter your environment. My takeaway from the book is that I have been purging all my clothes and then refolding my shirts and pants so they face out like book bindings. This way, not only do I have much more room in my drawers, but I can pull out one shirt and not worry about a stack of shirts tipping over. I started going through all the boy's clothes and refolding them, much to his annoyance, but he does admit that it's easier to see what you own when you can see everything all lined up.

My other takeaway from the book is that OCD is a serious issue. I would hate to be the author because, let's face it, most of us are slobs. How can she go anywhere and face the chaos without breaking out in hives?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cats and Dogs and Monkeys and an Elephant

Cat(s) on a Hot Tin Roof in Negombo

The worst part about traveling is that I miss my pets something fierce. Luckily, my cousin was keeping all of my beasts company, and he would periodically text me that everything was ok and they were having a ball without me.

Cute house dog on a coconut plantain near Negombo

The hard part about traveling to countries like Sri Lanka is being seeing so many stray dogs and cats in need of medical attention. Still, we did see many happy animals, and some of them were even cherished household pets.

Sri Lankan Sesame on the Negombo beach

I was on the lookout for the Sri Lankan version of Sesame, Mingus, and Greaseball. Thankfully, we didn't see any malamutes there. I think a malamute would die of heat stroke in Sri Lanka. We did spot a few GSDs and some GSD mixes, but not a lot.

Another cute house cat I bribed with chicken

In the city of Negombo, there is a spay and neuter clinic called The Hope Foundation. We stumbled into Lords restaurant (great food!), whose owners also run the clinic, and were handed brochures with their mission statement and the work they had done thus far to take care of the local animals. Negombo did have the nicest animals - at least by that restaurant. They looked well fed and clean.

A temple cat in Dambulla

Peaceful naps in the humid city of Tangalle

It's not like we don't have cats and dogs at home. You'd think by the amount of pictures dedicated to cats and dogs that I took during our trip that they were as exotic to me as elephants and monkeys.

This reminds me of the Australians (you know who you are!) being enchanted by chipmunks and squirrels in Sri Lanka. As I sit here typing, a squirrel is going past the telephone wires outside our house. They are no big deal to us! I consider them pests because they drop half-eaten apples on my dogs from at least 20-feet up in the trees.

A temple dog in Sigiriya
 Even when we ascended many stairs, there would be a dog or cat waiting at the top. They just hang out and enjoy the view.

Temple monkeys
Many of the templed also had monkeys who raided the garbage cans and the ate the offerings.

Fried fruit bat!
Fried bats were a disturbing sight along power lines. Poor, poor bats. The live bats gave me the creeps, but this is probably because they were larger than my cat. I was assured that they only ate fruit, but kept my distance and would involuntarily duck if one flew overhead.

If you squint hard, you can see an elephant

We did see one elephant in the wild in the Yala National Park. It made the post-park diesel headaches and the early morning trip worth it. This is the only elephant I've even seen that didn't have a chain around his foot or neck, and from what I could tell, he was relaxed.

On a totally different subject, I have a proofer box coming in a day! I'm hoping that my sad attempt at dosas can be remedied with this box, and I'm looking forward to better kombuchas and sourdough breads.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sri Lankan Family Dinners

Typical pot and stove set up. 

The most memorable part of my Sri Lankan vacation was cooking and eating in peoples' homes. Seeing how people operate in their kitchen was fascinating, especially when the kitchens were tiny. Mise en place is a given to keep everything neat and orderly. Watching more than one person cook in the kitchens (excluding us tourists) was fascinating because you could see how they flowed together - no bumping into each other, and oftentimes someone would know what to do without being told.

Mise en place is a necessity

For many of the family kitchens, smoke was the elusive ingredient that will be hard for me to recreate at home. Smoke permeated the curries and even some of the sweets, like the coconut treacle, since so many dishes were cooked in clay pots over wood fires.

Bright and cheery kitchen

Patterns start to emerge. Shallots and garlic are the base of most curries. Roasted curry powder is used for meat while unroasted curry powder is for vegetables. Eggplants and green beans are popular vegetables, and vegetables are usually stewed.

Giant machete blade used to slice the shallots. I passed on using it.

Since I had only had Sri Lankan food once prior to visiting the country, I thought the food would be like South Indian food, and some of it was, but there were differences that stood out: no basmati rice, no ghee (rarely any dairy used), red rice flour, string hoppers, coconut symbol, and coconut oil and milk for everything. Maybe these are all in Indian cuisine as well and I don't know enough about it to say one way or another.

String hoppers! We bought the press and steaming trays, so hopefully we'll have theses soon.

We've been trying to cook many of the foods we enjoyed in Sri Lanka, like the dal, pepper chicken, dosas (thoasai in Sinhalese), fried cookies, and curries. Although I really want to eat something else, I have a "use it or lose it" mentality, so we'll be eating at least a few Sri Lankan meals a week until we can nail some of the dishes we want to recreate.

Scraping coconut is a never-ending job. Grated coconut was used to make coconut milk.

The dosas have proven to be the hardest to make, but I had minor success with them two nights ago. Part of the problem is that it's too cold in our kitchen to get a rapid ferment, but I have a bread proofing box on its way to save the day (or dosas, if you will).

Our second feast

The closest Sri Lankan restaurant to me is 30-miles away, in a sleepy suburban town. I do want to check it out, and I shouldn't complain about the distance since it's in the same time zone as me. However, since the two of us are still cooking the food and we're armed with 3 new cookbooks we bought in Colombo, it will probably be awhile.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Dal, it's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (if you're lucky)

Ayubowan! ("Greetings!" in Sinhalese.) I'm freshly jet lagged from a long vacation in Sri Lanka, and having trouble deciding how to organize blog posts about our epic adventure. It was a food-centered tour, meaning that I ate and cooked my way through the country. Although I usually eat my way through new places I visit, I've never had a chance to cook in a foreign country, let alone in peoples' homes. "Epic adventure" doesn't even begin to cover this experience.

Why Sri Lanka? Why not? Because I didn't know much about the country, and because it was so far away, were huge reasons why I wanted to go. My main motivation for traveling is to be put out of my comfort zone and to experience things I'd never have a chance to do at home, like submerging myself into the Indian Ocean or eating/cooking with a Tamil family.

Typical example of a fancy Sinhalese meal. There were over 8 dishes!

Every day, I had some thing more delicious or exotic than the day before. I gained a new appreciation for dal, a humble dish that is sure to become a fast, after-work meal, and now I get the hype over fresh curry leaves. Before, I thought curry leaves were like bay leaves: they add a certain something although it's hard to pinpoint it's flavor. But now, my dal is distinctly lacking curry leaves! I've been reading up on growing a curry plant in our climate, and the results are promising.

I'm also missing all the fresh pineapple and papaya for breakfast. Usually, I'm all about the dark, leafy greens. I rarely eat fruit, but tropical fruit that at its peak is an exception. Papayas can be especially disgusting if not consumed when ripe, so I never eat them at home. Since I've been so good about eating fruit, I tried to continue the trend with an apple once home, but although it was a good apple, it still did nothing for me. Meh. Who wants to eat apples when the memories of tropical fruit still linger?

How to arrange your plate - rice in the middle, other dishes radiating out from the rice, and space in the 6 o'clock position for mixing and scooping the food up with your hands.

Eating with my hands is still something I struggle with, but this is from a gal who will eat chips with chopsticks if no one else is watching. I still hate touching my food in order to eat it, although, curiously, I enjoy touching food when I'm preparing it.

The boy and my father-in-law accompanied me on the journey, as well as 5 Aussies who make a trip to Australia very tempting indeed. So far, we've made dal, kokis (cookies that I'll post about later), and a very sad attempt at dosas, or thosai in Sinhalese. Seeing the foods prepared, and helping with the preparation, has made it pretty easy to jump into our kitchen and start recreating our favorite dishes. Why haven't I taken cooking classes abroad before? It's so much better than visiting a place, bookmarking my favorite foods, and then trying to recreate them purely from text and videos.

I miss swimming in the Indian Ocean.

If you'd like to see more pictures from the trip, I posted many of them on Instagram. I don't suggest following me on Instagram unless you want photos of my cat, my dogs, and food. You've been warned.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Smoked Californian Paprika

Inspired by Foodycat's smoked paprika post, some friends and I decided to try our hand at Californian smoked paprika in September, a time when peppers are cheap and plentiful. How hard could it be? 

The most time consuming part was slicing and seeding the peppers. Three of us had a station with a knife, cutting board, and a bowl. This was the most time consuming part.

The peppers were on smoked with dried rosemary branches, leftover from yard work, for about an hour.

Afterwards, I dried them in the dehydrator for half a day.

Post dehydrator, they went into the Vitamix. The end result is delicious! Some of the peppers we added must have been fiery hot because my lips go numb (and smokey) when I taste the paprika.

So far, I used the smoked Californian paprika in a moussaka - not quite traditional, I know, but it turned out fantastic despite me ruining the béchamel sauce. Did you know that the béchamel sauce for moussaka has eggs in it? In that case, is it even a béchamel?

I estimate that I have a year's worth of smoked paprika, which was exactly the plan. I split the 5-lbs of peppers with my friends, and it came to about $7 for my half. Not bad for organic smoked paprika! I should weigh the end results so we can do a real price comparison against the Spanish smoked paprika, but if you want a visual, I was able to fill a 1/2 pint jar.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fifty-Fifty, You Were a Good Cat

It's never easy to say goodbye, even when you know it's the right decision. Sadly, my little orange ninja  kitty, only 13-years young, left us a couple of weeks ago. I went to the vet because she suddenly wasn't walking right, and I left the vet 2 hours later, alone, sad, and stunned.

Orange kitties leave the biggest holes in your heart. I'm sure of it. Thank you, Fifty-Fifty, for schooling 3 dogs, for being a good sister to Greaseball (who we all know is a butt), for grooming the boy and me regularly at 2 AM, and for having the cutest, loudest purr.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Graduation Day!

Sesame and I completed Canine Circus School 1, and we're on to the next set of classes! My friends and co-workers have all been plied with cute pictures of my dog in circus school, and I'm sure they are keeping a lot of comments to themselves as they look at picture after picture of my dog doing tricks. Most people think I'm joking about the school until I show them pictures. Post pictures, the non-dog people probably think I'm crazy, but they don't know Sesame. When we don't train, play ball, or walk her, she drives us (Mingus and the cats included) batty with her demands for attention.

I think Mingus is starting to get jealous, so I've been trying to convince the boy that Mingus needs an education, too. Mingus has been auditing our practice sessions, and he knows a lot of the tricks now himself: circle, sit pretty, and stand.

So, in summary, I am a crazy dog (and cat) person who doesn't think she is crazy, and Mingus is homeschooled.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

DIY Sriracha Sauce

Rooster sauce? That's the gateway drug, but once you get sick of it, you'll find that there are other sriracha sauces worth seeking out. I made the switch from Huy Fong's sriracha sauce to Grand Mountain last year after trying it at Hawker Fare, so there was no panic in my household when the now averted sriracha crisis of 2014 started to make headlines. Since the only ingredients in Grand Mountain are chiles, sugar, vinegar, garlic, and salt, it couldn't be too hard to make, right? 

Chiles are in season now, hence cheap, so I sauntered over to my market and picked up some beautiful chiles still on the stem (2 pounds for $4 - what a deal). Using this recipe as the base, I cut the stems off a pound of chiles but left their green caps on.

I pulsed the chiles in the food processor until they were roughly chopped, then added 2 tablespoons of palm sugar, another tablespoon of evaporated cane sugar, two small cloves of garlic, and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. I pulsed the mixture until it was wet and the chile skin was about the same size as the seeds.

The mixture was put into a canning jar, and I left it out to ferment for 5 days, tasting each day after the 3rd day until I detected a slight sour tang. There was a bit of white fuzzy mold at the top, but it was easy to discard with a spoon.

I added 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar, and then boiled the mixture for 5 minutes. When I tasted it after the mixture cooled down to room temperature, it needed some more vinegar, so I ended up adding an extra 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar.

After blending the sauce for a few minutes with a splash of water, enough water to get the mixture moving, I pressed it through a fine-mesh sieve. This step took the longest!

The result is a complex sriracha sauce that is hotter (and dare I say better?) than Grand Mountain Strong. It's terrific, and now I want to try this with different chiles and can it so I can have enough around until next year.

Have you made fermented chile sauces? If so, please leave me a comment because I'd love to compare notes and hear about your experiences. I have some green chiles I bought at the same time and I want to make another fermented hot sauce.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Hot Dogs Are Evil

My hands reek of hot dogs on dog school day. Eager to get Sesame back into a training program, I signed up for Canine Circus School, appropriately dubbed "art school for dogs." It has been years, DECADES, since I've purchased hot dogs, and all I can think of is pink slime when I purchase those things as training treats per the recommendation of the instructor. I buy them covertly, ashamed, at places where no one who knows I'm an Alice Water disciple will recognize me.  But of course, the first time I had my cart loaded with hot dogs, I ran into a coworker who glanced at my hand basket (Meyers hand soap, Seventh Generation dish wash tabs, and 4 packages of cheap ass hot dogs - 4 of theses are not like the other).  Then, he proceeded to keep me there to talk about work stuff, while sneaking multiple glances at the hot dogs. Busted! I thought about telling him that they were for my dog, but he's no nonsense guy who probably doesn't know of Alice Waters and who would think it frivolous to buy human food (and I use this term loosely) for a dog, so that would make it worse. 

Still, Sesame works her butt off for a nibble of hot dog, more so then she would if I offered her my homemade, dolphin-free tuna, pastured eggs, and Parmesan cheese treats.  For the first class, I bought organic beef hot dogs, but when the instructor came by and offered her the crap hot dogs, she did back bends for him despite her "stranger! danger!" issues. I was sold. Pink slime hot dogs it is! I bought my second round of hot dogs at Ranch 99, where a cart filled with 3-liters of peanut oil, 4 packages of hot dogs, a carton of fermented rice, and salted turnips doesn't make anyone raise an eyebrow.

Did you know that the cheap, pink hot dogs are made from chicken now? I was shocked! I thought they were pork, because that's what I thought they were when I was a kid, but when I checked out the $2 hot dogs at the store, they were either chicken or chicken/turkey mixes. My childhood memories of hot dogs are fond, and I remember that, as a kid, a special treat was the hot dogs filled with a nacho cheese sauce. I could nuke it myself for an after-school snack, along with Spaghetti-Os and canned beef raviolis. They tasted good, and I'd probably still eat those things today if I didn't worry about things like type 2 diabetes which, unfortunately, is a disease both of my parents now deal with on a daily basis.

The boy hates melon as much as I hate hot dogs, so since it's melon season and our CSA is giving us one a week (one too many according to him), I have had to come up with ways for the melon to be useful. Enter infused vodka. I still have a lot of lemon zest infused vodka and some other bottles of plain vodka, so I mixed the vodkas together and added half a chopped melon. Perhaps I've made the most disgusting vodka in the world? Or, just maybe, I'll have a good ingredient for cocktails. I already have some black cardamon infused vodka and a bottle of Thai chile tequila, and those have proven to be good cocktail mixers.

My CSA and my modest garden are providing us with loads of tomatoes, so I've been saucing them, roasting them, and stuffing them. Tonight's dinner is tomatoes stuffed with quinoa, brown basmati rice, fennel, dill, pine nuts, and tomatoes. Currently, it's sunny and hot during the day, but the fog rolls in by dinner time, so it's a good time to have the oven on. Stuffed tomatoes and peppers have become an end of summer tradition here. Any other tomato ideas are appreciated!

The boys like hanging out on the couch, and I've given up on making the couch forbidden. I slays me how each of them has to have their head on the pillow. Spoiled! Totally our fault, though, so I can't harp on them too much. Often, I wish I could join them on that couch instead of working/cleaning/exercising. Someone has to pay for their loafing, though!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Photo Tuesday

Mingus knows that the first rule about being a model is to work it, work it, work it! He can work it with a sleeping person in the background. I have a collection of photos taken with the boy sleeping and various pets draped across him, proof again that the boy can sleep through anything, even suffocation.

Sesame, as always, is more demure when she hams it up for the camera. That squeaky toy lays dormant until 5:30 AM on Saturdays and Sundays. What was I thinking when I bought it for her? It's like buying your kid a drum set!

Greaseball, as always, is boss. What you don't see in this pictures are two large dogs laying off to the side because they don't want to disturb him.

What is this? Why, it's a Soulritto: mac & cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, and yams all wrapped up in a flour tortilla. This is American food at its finest and fattiest, but boy was it good (especially when consumed with hot sauce and Arnold Palmers).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Roasted Tahini

Tahini is one of those ingredients that either camps out in my pantry for months, or I use it up in a matter of weeks. Since I'm going through the later phase, paying $11 for a small jar of roasted, organic tahini instigated a DIY project. 

1.5-lbs of organic, hulled sesame seeds set me back $6. Since I prefer the deep, nutty flavor of roasted  tahini, I opted to toast the seeds. In retrospect, I could have turned on the oven, but turning on the oven for such a small amount of seeds seemed wasteful.

After 20 minutes on medium heat, the seeds were toasted, albeit unevenly, and ready to blend.

If you do this at home, let the seeds cool. I didn't do this, so I ended up taking 2 sessions to blend the seeds because the container was hot to the touch.

The sesame seeds started off dry and I wondered if I needed to add oil. However, as I continued to blend and scrape down the sides, more oils came out and the mixture became cohesive.

After a few more minutes, the tahini was a smooth butter. Success!

Using 1.5-lbs of raw sesame seeds resulted in roughly 24-ounces (3 cups) of tahini, 50% more than the the jars of tahini I had been buying at the store. So, if I were to buy this, it would cost me $16.50 versus the $6 I paid at Berkeley Bowl West. I love it when a little experimentation leads to a better, cheaper solution!


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