Inspired by Life

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Connie's Christmas Miracle - a short story

"YAH! Batman is about to land on a bad guy! Psshhh! Bam! Whoa! He wins!".

Connie looks down at the seat next to her. In it, is a blond-haired, big brown-eyed, energetic and expressive little boy, who could hardly contain himself in the airplane seat, while his mother tried to catch a few Z's. "The flight to Salt Lake City is going to be a remake of some Marvel comic characters mixed with oodles of 3-year old sound effects", she thinks to herself.

She is drawn back from her thoughts when she hears the little boy say, "We're going up to the sky!" and looks at him again, only to discover that he had the cutest dimples and he was talking to her. Shaking herself out of the thoughts that weighed her down, she allows herself to be drawn into this little boy's world. While she was thinking all these things to herself, the little boy had been jabbering away. At times, he was mimicking explosion sounds; at times, talking to Batman himself; and at times, explaining to her what his superhero was about to do next.

"What's your name?" she asks. He looks up at her with these gorgeous brown eyes, framed by very long eyelashes (not fair, she thinks) and says, "William". She notices that he is wearing a blue t-shirt with Spiderman on it. "Who's your favorite?", she says, pointing to both superheroes, curious to know which one he would pick. He seems to think about it for a minute, focused with eyebrows strained, and says, " Batman AND Spiderman!". "Ha. What did I expect? In William's world, he could have two superheros and they could both exist happily, even though one was on his t-shirt and the other was fairly beaten up from frequent use.", she thought to herself. In fact, it didn't seem to bother William, that his Batman's cape had a gaping hole in it, thereby rendering him aeronautically handicapped; neither did he seem to care that his Batman's black face mask had begun to show bits of grey, which was the color of his body.

His Batman could fly (when William would grab him in his fingers and making flying noises and moving the toy in all directions), make things explode, beat up bad guys and the whole time, William's focus was on this little toy Batman. Connie was fascinated by this devotion and childlike faith that good can overcome bad.

The plane flies over a body of water. William catches this out of the corner of his eye and nearly jumps out of his seat, screaming, "Look! Water down there!", repeatedly. Connie looks in the direction that he is pointing in and see the water. The ground is blanketed in light snow, and here and there, some white hilltops covered in snow. She realizes that it has been a long time since she just stopped and looked at nature around her. She marvels at the beauty she was missing, as if it is the first time she can see. She is amazed at how calm and serene it looks; how she seems to hover in place, suspended in time. Slowly, she exhales - breathing out in one long, silent breath, all the hurt and pain she had been feeling inside, and had carried with her for a very long time. It had created a wall around her heart, numbing her feelings. She inhales, as she is just beginning to breath, allowing the air (albeit the airplane cabin-pressured kind) to fill the cracks and crevices of her mind and soul.

It is exactly one year ago that she had lost her baby boy to leukemia. He had been the light of her life, and when he died, the light was turned off abruptly and Connie retreated into the darkness. No amount of coaxing and cajoling, pleading, encouraging or even threatening, drew her out of her dark hole. Her life was over. She is flying to Salt Lake City, to spend Christmas with her family. Why? She does not know. All she knows is that she has to do something. Her sister seemed to call her at the right time, and she surprised herself by saying yes to the invitation for Christmas.

Suddenly, she realizes that it has gotten really quiet in the seat next to her. Her airplane buddy, William, has tired both himself and his superhero, and they are both fast asleep, sprawled out across his seat holding a blue blanket tightly. As Connie looks down at William's peaceful face, a sweet feeling came over her and brought tears to her eyes. She turns away and looks out the window, thinking about another little boy, who was born in a manger, with all the animals around him, and his mother gazing at him, unable to believe what had just come to pass. This little boy was also animated about his superhero - his father in heaven, and wanted to tell everyone about him and all the great things he could do. This little baby boy brought peace and love into this world, and Connie realizes, if she lets him in, he could do the same for her.

Tears pouring down her face, she silently thanks God for opening her heart and releasing all her pain and anguish; for gathering her up in his warm embrace. She thanks God for caring enough about her to send a little boy to do what all the adults in her life had failed to do - to help her know of His love for her. With a smile in her eyes and a prayer of gratitude in her heart, she is thrilled to have her own little Christmas miracle.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

...my everyday cookbooks...

I love cookbooks... and that is an understatement. My husband knows that if we go to a bookstore (which he tries to avoid always), I will inevitably walk out of the store with a cookbook in my hand, and 10 other books in a bag : ) Over the past year, I have found a few of my favorite cookbooks, that I have used well - and I have the oil stains and colored food smudges to prove it. I want to share them with you, so that you can also derive the joy that I have from using these wonderful recipes...and after you try them, come back here and tell me what you think of them.


1. Anyone Can Cook by Better Homes and Gardens 


This is one of absolute favorite books! If you have never cooked before, this book will help you feel so at ease, you will feel like a pro when you are done! This 84-page visual intro to food is as easy as the slogan on the cover: see it, do it, nothing to it. With more than 550 recipes ranging from Indian curries to comfort food like mashed potatoes, this book will have you beaming with confidence in your ability to turn out some tasty meals.

2. Perfect Salads - a collection of over 100 essential recipes


If you ever thought that salads were dull and boring, this book will challenge you all the way! It actually helped me shrug off my bad attitude about salads, and get really excited about trying some new ways to do salad. Now I use it any chance I get, and everyone loves the way these salads turn out. With mouthwatering photographs and easy to read instructions, this book is a must-have for entertaining. 
3. Best Ever 400 Budget Recipes edited by Lucy Doncaster


I have dog-ears all over this book and can't seem to get excited every time I read a recipe here. I start off with one, then flip the page just to see if there is anything else I might like and 30 minutes later, I am still sitting in the middle of my living room floor, flipping through the more than 1800 beautiful photographs of food! This book tells you everything you need to know about low-cost cooking, and they are delicious meals, to boot! If you love tasty, home-cooked meals, you should have this book.


4. The Complete 15-Minute Gourmet by Paulette Mitchell


 Who doesn't want to be able to make meals in 15 minutes, and gourmet, at that??? This is a new addition to my collection, but I was immediately drawn toward the book just by its title. Then I opened it and knew I had to take it home with me :) Just because your life is hectic, you don't have to sacrifice flavor or nutrition in your meals. Whether you crave international cuisine one night or a new spin on a traditional favorite, you will be amazed at what you can create in just 15 minutes. I have said enough. Try the dessert section on this book - A-maz-ing!

5. Food Network Favorites by Food Network


Anyone who loves food or is even curious about it knows about Food Network. I would be lying if I did not say I had my favorite Food Network chefs, but this book combines recipes from their All-Star chefs and it was too hard to pass up. between Paula Deen's "stick-o-butter" and Emeril's "BAM!, this book has got you covered! Enjoy!!!!

I am always on the lookout for some great cookbooks to add my collection (hope my husband doesn't read this), so please comment and share some of your favorite cookbooks and/or recipes.

4 Blogs in 1 Day!!!

Yep, believe it! I actually posted 4 blogs in one day on my food blog. I really need to "beef" it up..haha.. silly food joke. This is the reason for the slow posting on this blog. If you people have some tried and tested recipes, that you would love to share, please email me with a picture and the recipe, and I would love to add it to my blog with your name on it... This would really help me fill up my blog fast!

Thanks and Happy Christmas (like we say in India).

Delicious Oatmeal - Breakfast of Champions

My husband is usually the one who makes breakfast, and he does an amazing job. In fact, I believe he makes the best smoothies ever! This morning, however, for a change, I decided that I would make him some breakfast. This was something I came up with by pure accident and there are several versions of this breakfast. But the reason I came upon this is because I really don't like oatmeal. It always reminded me of the soggy oatmeal porridge my mother would make us eat when we were little kids. After having it so much (oatmeal, milk and raisins), I was sick of it.

So one day, I wanted to try it since it was  healthy but I needed to find a way to swallow it :D So I started adding all these yummy things to it, and now it is a family favorite!


Ingredients:
2 cups of milk
1/2 cup quick oats
3 tbsp brown sugar (adjust the sugar according to your sweetness level)
1 handful white chocolate chips
1 handful almonds (you can use whole almonds or sliced almonds)
1 handful chopped walnuts
1 handful shredded coconut (the kind found in the baking aisle)
1 handful of dried cranberries
1 can of mandarin oranges
(These quantities are what I used this morning. You can adjust them to whatever you like and use more of something that you like more. This is YOUR breakfast!!)

Note: Other ingredients I have used in the past - fresh strawberries & cream, blueberries, raspberries, cinnamon sprinkled on top, etc. You can be really creative with this and you can't go wrong.

Method:
1. Pour the milk in a medium-sized pot. Add the oatmeal and the brown sugar. Bring to a boil and turn the flame/heat to medium and cook for 3-4 minutes.
2. Once the oatmeal has integrated well with the milk and takes on a thicker consistency, turn off the stove and let it sit for a minute.
3. Divide the oatmeal equally into two good-sized bowls. Divide the rest of the ingredients in half and add the white chocolate chips, walnuts, almonds, coconut, cranberries and mandarin oranges to each bowl.
4. Pour some extra milk into the bowls now filled with the good stuff, so that the oatmeal is not too thick.
5. Eat and Enjoy! It is such a hearty breakfast!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feta, Mint & Strawberry Salad with Green Beans & Pistachios

Growing up in India, we never really ate salad. If we did, it was more of a simple Moroccan salad - onions, tomatoes, cilantro, vinegar, salt, pepper, etc. But when I came to the US over 13 years ago, I started eating salads. I was not a fan of the iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing salad (sorry to those who are), so I would have very little just to be polite :)

A few years later, when I finally had my own apartment, I started experimenting with different things and salads were easy to create and experiment with. This is one of my favorite salads and I found this in a book called Perfect Salads - a collection of over 100 essential recipes. It is 'aromatique'!!



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Ingredients: 
1lb 2 oz fine green beans
1 lb 2 oz strawberries 
2-3 tbsp pistachios 
1 small bunch fresh mint leaves 
1lb 2 oz feta cheese (drained weight)
salt and pepper 

Dressing:
2 tbsp raspberry vinegar 
2 tsp superfine sugar 
1 tbsp Dijon Mustard 
pinch of salt 
1/2 cup olive 

Method:
1. To make the dressing, mix the vinegar, sugar, mustard and salt together in a bowl until smooth. Slowly pour  in the oil, whisking constantly until the mixture has emulsified. Cover and refrigerate until required. 
2. Blanch the beans in a large saucepan of salted boiling water for 1-2 minutes, so that they retain plenty of crunch. Drain and quickly toss in a large, cool bowl. Hull and halve the strawberries, then add tot he beans. Stir in the pistachios and mint leaves. Toss the salad with enough of the dressing to coat lightly. 
3. Break the feta cheese into chunks and scatter over salad. Add a good grinding of pepper and serve immediately. 

This salad serves 4-6 people and is delicious! Enjoy!

Working on a Food Blog

I have been incognito for the past few days, as I have dedicated my time to starting a food blog. Had no idea it was so time-consuming, but I am loving it so far! When it is a bit more robust, I will share it with all my friends and cyber-strangers out there. That is my update. Peace.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Classic Carrot Cake

If you are like me, I was not a huge fan of carrot cake. Every time I plucked up the courage to try a piece, it was always dense, too moist, waaaay too sweet. And I had decided that I was not missing out by completely swearing off carrot cake. Then I met my husband, whose favorite cake is - yeah, carrot cake. (In fact, on our wedding day, I surprised him by making one of the layers a carrot cake and having him cut that layer with me. He was sooo surprised and overwhelmed : D).

Being more of a cook than a baker, and not really having a sweet tooth, I never baked. I met my husband, who seemed to be content with an IV of sugar constantly dripping into his veins, and I thought it would be good for me to learn how to bake. When I received a Kitchen Aid Mixer as a wedding present, I knew that I could not shy away from trying my hand at baking. I found this recipe in the Williams-Sonoma  Cakes book and knew I had to try it.




It is the BEST carrot cake recipe I have ever tasted and I now love this carrot cake!!! I thought this would be a great recipe to share with all of you.  Go ahead and bake it and I dare you to not like it : D. Here is a photo of one of mine. (I tried to copy the book as much as I could.)




Ingredients:

Unsalted butter and flour for preparing the pans

For the cake:
2 cups (10 oz/315 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs
2 cups (1lb/500 g) granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup canola oil
2 cups finely grated carrots
1 can crushed pineapple in its own juice, well drained
1 cup of finely chopped walnuts

For the cream cheese frosting:
1/2 lb (250 g) cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup (6 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar (icing sugar)

For the topping:
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Makes one 9-in cake or 12 servings.

1. Preheat the oven and prepare the pans:
Position a rack in the lower middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees Farenheit (180 degrees C). Butter two 9-inch round layer cake pans. Line the pans with parchment paper. Butter the paper, sprinkle it lightly with flour and then tap out the excess flour. ( Note: I did not have parchment paper when I made then and I had no problems getting the cakes out of the pan.)

2. Mix the cake batter:
Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt through a fine-mesh sieve placed over a medium bowl. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs and granulated sugar. Fit a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a hand held mixer with twin beaters. Beat the mixture on medium-high speed until it thickens and the color lightens slightly, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the vanilla extract. Slowly pour in the oil, mixing just until blended, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and mixjust until no white streaks are visible. Add the carrots, pineapple, and finely chopped walnuts and mix until evenly distributed, 1-2 minutes.

3. Bake and cool the layers:
Pour the batter into the prepared pans, dividing it up evenly and lightly smoothing the tops. bake until the tops look evenly browned, feel firm to the touch, and a thin skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry, 30-35 minutes. Using pot holders, transfer the cakes to wire racks and let cool for 20 mins. Working with 1 pan at a time, run a thin knife along the inside of the pan. Invert a wire rack on the pan and invert together, Lift off the pan and peel off the parchment. Invert another wire rack on the cake and invert the racks together, so the cake is top side up. Lift off the top rack. Let the cake cool completely on the rack, about 45 mins. Do this for both cakes.

4. Frost and serve the cake:
Use the paddle attachment on a stand mixer or the twin beaters on a hand held mixer to mix the cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and mix in the confectioners' sugar until smooth. Transfer 1 cake layer to a plate. Using an icing spatula, spread about one half of the frosting evenly over the cake. Center the second layer on top. Wipe the spatula clean, then spread about one-fourth of the frosting in a thin layer over the top and sides of the cake. Wipe the spatula clean and spread the remaining frosting in a smooth layer over the top and sides of the cake. Top the cake with coarsely shopped walnuts. Cut the cake into 12 wedges and serve right away.

You will love it!

Beef Biryani - Mom's Style

When Mom starts making her beef biryani, it is time to welcome sudden guests. They all somehow seem to know that she is making her most popular and most delicious dish of all, and just drop in for a visit! But seriously, this dish smells great right from the time she starts frying the onions, and you have to keep your drool in check, till the whole thing is done. I have been away from home (India) for over 13 years, and of all the home-cooked meals, this is the one I miss the most.


So, I had Mom give me her recipe a few weeks ago, and I have been working on trying to get it to taste exactly like Mom's Beef Biryani.

Ingredients: 

5 cups  basmati (long grain) rice
2 lbs beef (Stew meat works just fine)
100 grams ginger
100 grams garlic
150 grams oil ( I use Olive, but if you have vegetable oil, that woks as well)
1tsp Chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs Biryani masala
5 green chillies     
1 lime
1/2 handful of freshly chopped mint 
1 handful of freshly chopped cilantro
1/2 kg onions (5 large) chopped
1/2 kg tomatoes (5 large) chopped
2 inch cinnamon stick
6 cloves
6 cardamoms
If you want food coloring ( orange or yellow), you can buy the powder kind found at any Indian store.

Prep: 

1. Pour the 5 cups of cooked rice into a large skillet and broil it on your stove, for about 3-4 mins. Put the broiled rice in a bowl of warm water and soak it for about 15 mins. It can soak longer if you take extra time doing the other prep work.
2. As the rice is soaking, you can prep the meat by putting it in a pressure cooker ( faster way to cook meats), along with HALF of the cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and salt to taste. Cook on high till you have about five whistles or whooshes of steam ( not a technical term, of course), then reduce the flame/heat to medium and cook for 10 mins. Turn it off and let it sit. Note: don't open the pressure cooker lid until all the steam has escaped from the cooker first.
3. Put the ginger and garlic in a blender and make a paste. Set aside. 

Cook:

1. You will need a big, flat-bottomed pot so that the heat can be evenly distributed. In India, we use big aluminum pots. It also needs to be big enough to hold 10 cups of cooked rice.
2. Heat oil in the pot and when the oil is nice and hot, put in the remainder of the spices, and then immediately add the onions and fry till golden.
3. Add the green chillies and tomatoes and fry for 3 mins.
4. Add the coriander and mint and fry for 3 mins.
5. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 3 mins.
6. Add the chilli powder and the biryani masala and fry well for about 4 mins.
7. With a slotted spoon, take out the cooked meat from the pressure cooker and place in the pot.
8. Using a cup, measure the soup remaining in the pressure cooker and add it to the pot. Stir all ingredients and cook for about 5 mins.
9. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the rice out of the bowl and into the pot. Once the rice is in, check to see the level of water that is needed to cook the rice, and add water appropriately. Once the water is in, add the salt to taste.
10. Turn up the heat to high, bring to a boil. Once it boils, turn down the heat, cover and simmer for about 30 mins. Note: Don't open it during the process and don't stir the rice. Just let it sit and cook in the steam.


Mix the juice of one lime and a pinch of food coloring. At about 25 mins into the cooking, take off the lid and sprinkle the food coloring juice over the top, replace the lid and cook for another 5 mins.

I guarantee once this starts cooking, your neighbors might suddenly drop by...the aroma is unbelievable!!

This biryani can be served with Raita. I will add a recipe for Raita in another post.

Enjoy!!!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The National Geographic Society

One of our friends in church works for the National Geographic Society, and was kind enough to invite us to tour the place. I have been a fan of the Nat Geo for as long as I can remember. So, I was very excited!

Needless to say, it was cold and windy on the day we went to DC for our tour. But we got there, and our friend treated us to lunch in the Nat Geo cafeteria, which was really quite amazing! They had different sections for grilled food, pizza, soups, turkey dinners and I had the Mongolian  BBQ with Shredded Beef. Yumm-O!

Our first stop was the exhibit titled: The President's Photographer. It was a series of 50 or so photographs of the different presidents, behind the scenes and some candid ones. Being one who loves photography, this was a fun exhibit.




After this exhibit, we toured the halls of Nat Geo, decked with the most stunning photographs I had ever seen! We also got the inside tour of Hubbard Hall, dedicated to the first President of The National Geographic Society and it held some very cool books, that I coveted and wanted for my own collection!

We had a great time and my photography spidey-senses were all tingling again! Time to start taking some pictures :D

Here comes Santa Claus....to our Christmas Breakfast

This morning was our ward Christmas Breakfast. What a fun idea! The activities group did a wonderful job in putting this together and it was well-attended. We had a wonderful spread of fruit, cinnamon rolls, croissants, scrambled eggs, sausages, hot chocolate and orange juice. It was a fun and boisterous crowd with all the children having fun :)

I had a part to read in the program and we had a sing along for the hymns and a special number by a few couples. The best part of all, was Santa Claus! The kids all lined up to take their place on Santa's lap. Some too eager that they launched themselves into his lap, others having the same effect as a clown does at a children's party - fear, and one little boy, who came prepared with a picture of what it was they wanted, just to make sure Santa would get it right. 



I knew there would be too many cute photo opps, so I took my camera with me to the breakfast. After I had read my part, I waited till Santa came and then I started clicking away. It was so much fun to see all the little ones enjoy being with Santa. One of them starts crying; another becomes speechless; another looks away and refuses to look at Santa; and the babies were really curious about all the white hair and beard that Santa was sporting.











It's the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year!

Catch Up

I realized that I am averaging about two posts a month. Pitiful, is an understatement! So I am going to start posting something every day.... let's see how that goes!

So, with regards to the catching up, Aaron and I are loving the East Coast! In November, we drove to the Theodore Roosevelt Island, had Thanksgiving dinner with some new friends, went to the National Geographic Society for a private tour, and have had a few dinners with some new friends in our ward ( church unit ). It has been a really great time and we are looking forward to many more fun times to write about!