Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Let's Cook!

The aroma of a fresh baked cookie triggers memories of childhood. Memories that bring back the warmth of the care free summers when we cooked.  Last week's post of Mirror Mirror on the Wall also triggered some interesting conversations. One of them being that part of the problem in today's society is celebrating lack of time to cook and depend on either processed foods or restaurant carry outs. 

Let us go to the basics; Mother Nature designed our world so man would be a wanderer, walk for miles, hunt for his own food and survive in the most dire situations. But then nature itself took over and the natural curiosity of man led him to explore, discover and invent.  With every invention the world became a more comfortable and smaller place. Inventions were not limited to a certain aspect of life, but affected every aspect, from the clothes we wore, the homes we built to the food we ate.  

Modification of food was called a necessity at a point. Increasing population numbers, lack of adequate harvest led the scientists to discover newer ways to increase the harvest from the same farm acreage, and  they did. They found "Genetically Modified Food." We changed nature by making the anti-biotic resistant tobacco to the herbicide immune soya bean plants.  The curiosity of man did not stop there, we then found ways of adding more nutrition to the plants and fortified them.  There is something to be said about disturbing a natural balance. Just as we disturbed the atmospheric balance and are now debating on the pros and cons and finding ways to combat global warming. Some where in our quest for more food for the increasing population we happily took a bite of the forbidden fruit. 

The forbidden fruit was so enticing, not for its nutrition but for its appearance.  Anything that looks pretty triggers a happy signal in the brain. Again I am not a subject expert, but I am sure you have read articles of how a well presented plate makes the average meal taste good. It's true, good food is all about presentation.  

Let's face it, we all love good food. So the question is why don't we make it ourselves? 

A cooking rainbow
An explosion of colors and
flavors alike
Cooking is hard and a chore; this is a modern life myth. It's quite the contrary. Cooking is actually therapeutic, relaxing and a lot of fun. All it takes is an open mind and an effort. Human beings have thrived on their capability to create something out of nothing. That's exactly what cooking is. To take nature in its most raw form and transforming it into a plate of delicacy is nothing short of an art form.  The thrill of combining colors and sometimes even contrasting them so the plate looks like an artist's palette.  I am not exaggerating here, take a look at these pictures and you will agree, I hope. 

Don't be afraid of cooking, its one of the easiest things to do and the most rewarding too, for the reward is good health for your family and self.   

We have all heard, anything that tastes good cannot be healthy. I beg to disagree with that. Today, Man is reaching the end of the circle and we are starting all over again. We are discovering ancient grains, Dandelion is the new gourmet favorite and eat more greens is the mantra every where. That's how nature meant it to be. We were not designed to eat processed foods. I agree today in some ways process foods are a necessity, but with a little effort we can change it. There are simple ways of replacing the unhealthy and it all starts at home.  

Home made Chipotle Bowl with red kidney beans
I am not a fan of fads. I love to cook, but keep the basics in tact when I cook. I love fusion food as long as it does not take away from the ethnic flavors of its origin. My family has varied taste buds. I have learnt to take one thing and transform it into four different meals to satisfy everyone. Lets take Red Kidney Beans. A simple bean filled with good carbs and protein. I make them the traditional Indian way, serve it with rice to one person. The second person likes it as a Chipotle Bowl and the third takes it as a soup.  I only made one thing, but was able to turn it into three unique meals. Okay, I accept.. I love cooking and it is never tiring for me. On the worst days, send me into the kitchen and I am like a child in a candy shop. I enjoy experimenting with flavors, trying out new herbs and spcies and blending them to discover new flavors. My favorite, on a spinach salad, try using a Thousand Island with spicy Indian Tomato Chutney, its a killer combination.  

There is another benefit to cooking, a sort of side benefit. When we cook something with tons of butter in it, we know its bad and you will be surprised, you won't feel like eating it. Try it! Similarly when you make something healthy that tastes and looks good, the motivation to do more comes naturally. 

In our lives today, we have got so busy that we don't have time for the basics and that is intrinsically wrong.  Why work so hard, when it leaves no time to sit down and enjoy a simple home cooked meal.  

Cooking maybe an art, but anyone can cook a meal that tastes better than frozen food.   Don't worry about following recipes, and buying expensive utensils and spices. Just go for it. Open your refrigerator, look at what you have, take out one vegetable of every color and let them talk to you. The end result will be nothing short of magic. 

Remember, if the pot is cooking, the home will naturally be warm. 

P.S: Some day (soon) I hope to have a blog that will teach how to cook without the boundaries of following a recipe. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mirror Mirror on the Wall...

Mirror Mirror on the Wall .. is a phrase that goes through every woman's mind at some point with a stark difference though; the question is not to judge the fairest maiden in the kingdom, but a self assessment of her curves. 

See this movie, and you will never look
at your dinner the same way again. 
As a society the world is becoming obese. The countries, the so called third world countries which have high poverty rates are also now beginning to show signs of obesity related health issues in children and adult alike. The United States, unfortunately has been fighting this for a while and research has shown that US spends 147 Billion annually on obesity.  US as a country also has some of the best athletes in the world.  Its a paradox society that we live in.

Why and how is the world becoming so obese? 

I am no fitness expert. In fact, am miles away from it. My definition of fitness, like most other things is in moderation. While I would love to have a medically approved BMI, I focus my efforts on making sure there are no joints aching. As long as I can achieve that, its mission accomplished for me. 

Weight loss today a 20 Billion dollar industry with more than 100 million folks on diet.  What is a diet?  In the olden days, it was the food that the nutritionist told you to eat, today it is the food you cannot eat.   What has always amazed me is how different all of us are. Some of us can eat a brick of butter, not move a finger and not gain a pound.  Don't you just hate those folks :) Okay, I say that lightly for I do have friends who have been blessed with the perfect metabolism.  And then there are others who just need to smell butter, they gain two pounds, and they can exercise all they want but those darn pounds don't come off.   

The more I read on exercise and obesity, I realize that we all know the simple formula, calories in < calories out. We need to eat less and burn more,  we all know this formula then why is it that obesity is still on the rise?

Could this be a society genetics? You know how the scientists have a theory for every race and what conditions they are pre disposed to. To some extent that could be true.  Weather and climate influence our food choices. Weather and climate also influence our metabolism.   

I have a theory on this, and tell me if you think I am wrong. 

Here goes, US as a country is unique since most of us live in perfectly temperature controlled conditions. Irrespective of whether you stay in Florida or Seattle, chances are you are in a comfortable 70F most of the day. Now consider this, premature babies are kept in temperature controlled conditions too, they say it slows the metabolism and helps the babies gain weight, which in some cases is very important. I think that's one of the main problems in the US.  Our metabolism slows down due to the temperature controlled conditions that we live in and to make it active, one has to sweat it out in the gym. 

If this argument is correct, then the Indian sub continent should be weight loss heaven. Unfortunately no. Countries such as India are seeing a wave of prosperity, with prosperity comes disposable income that the younger generation is spending on restaurants and bars.  People have more cars and are walking less, thus adding to their health issues. Gyms have sprung up in the most remote areas of India too.   Kids are busy taking tuitions and the like and have no time to just play outside.  All those problems that started in decades ago in the US, the Asian continent is experiencing today.

Brings me back to the eternal circular cycle of things. India today is experiencing what US experienced many years ago. The economic boom! When Henry Ford made the first car, no one in the United States thought that the same country that heralded cars will be celebrating bike to work days. 

The government tackles the situation by making it mandatory for restaurants to post calorie counts of every dish, so consumers can make more informed choices. Has this helped? Personally, yes it has. Until they posted, little did I know that one slice of pound cake in Starbucks has 490cal. Its true, unless they have changed their recipe. I do look at the calorie count when I order, but quite honestly that takes the fun out of eating.

Wouldn't it have made more sense for the government to tell the restaurants to do potion control? Why is it that one entree' in Cheesecake factory can feed minimum 2 adults, if not more?  Why is it that kids in school are still given canned and processed food? If fresh is better, then shouldn't schools be the first place to start. The simple answer, fresh food is more expensive than processed food. Another paradox! For a family of four, it costs much more to buy fresh vegetables and fruits than getting four burgers from McDonalds.  This facet needs to change. 

Garcinia Cambogia _ The magical fruit that melts fat or not?
Do you know its common English name?
Not to mention the health industry. Every so months we come across these fads for weight loss. Magic pills that just melt it away and give you a figure that Barbie and Ken would be jealous of. From the medicinal Aloe to Rasberries in a capsule and the most latest being the magical fruit Garcinia Cambogia.  It's bewildering to see how intelligent minds fall to such gimmicks. Such is the lure of the perfectly toned image.

What really works is pure common sense. Eat in moderation and exercise daily, even 10 minutes every day helps. Courtesy Dr. Oz, here are some common sense tips to get you started; Dr Oz's 100 weight loss tips

Maybe its late, but its better late than never. We have woken up from the slumber and the society globally is more health conscious. In the US, interestingly most soda ads are talking about obesity, companies are giving free membership to gyms, schools are increasing PE times, and last but not the least, Facebook is helping us loose weight too. Yes Facebook. Maybe its just me, but haven't you noticed a sudden increase in those perfect pictures your friends have. With perfect pictures comes the need to have those well proportioned bodies.  They say "nothing succeeds like success," the same is true for weight loss, when we see a success story, the motivation happens. And that's where Facebook comes in, with its groups and graph search it allows us to connect to like minded people who motivate and make it happen for each other.  

As far as the maiden who stands in front of the mirror, I would like to tell her to celebrate herself. Barbie is a doll and not a human being, so please do not dream to be her. The mantra should be good health so you can shoot hoops with your older kids and sit criss cross apple sauce with your daughter and her dolls to enjoy the tea party. 

I read this recently on a friends wall on Facebook "To fall in love with yourself is the beginning of a life long romance." So true.   

Love your image, the rest will follow. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Thought for the day.

A thought, a simple innocent thought, think about it, where does it come from? Did you create it or did the world around you create it? Isn't it amazing how we think all day and yet the very origin of thoughts remains a mystery.

What do you think? Chemical reactions or not? 

What is a thought? This question came about in one of the recent conversations with my dad.  Some of you might say "let me think,"or "its an idea" and the english majors will say "its past tense of think." I have even been told they are just random "hallucinations"that cross our mind.  And if you research it, you will be surprised to find that all of these definitions hold their merit. 

The word "thought" as we know it is typically an idea, a notion or maybe it is the process of reasoning and imagining. Either way, the question still remains and more importantly where do they come from?  

Quite a bit research has and will continue to be done on this topic. The human brain continues to mystify the most brilliant scientists. The more we discover, the more we realize its just the tip of the ice berg.  Its actually quite interesting, a scientist asks the question "what is a thought?" The same person creates an experiment to understand this process, as he does this, he gets another thought and another that generates more questions and experiments to answer them.

It's almost as if the more stimuli the brain gets the smarter it gets and the more confused it leaves us.  

The advent of the simple telegraph in 1844 was a huge leap for humanity. The notion that messages could travel through a wire was an idea as new as a freshly minted coin.  Little did they know that this invention will trigger thoughts in the minds of scientists and create experiments to understand how the human brain processed stimuli. German scientist Hermann Von Helmholtz experimented on dead frogs to assess the speed at which the electric signal travelled. This led to more thoughts and more research and today the common theory that emerges is that thoughts are nothing but simple chemical reactions. 

Now put all this in perspective, we have a brain and billions of nerve cells. When you break these down it's all organic material that is stimulated with the charged ions that float around it. Yes, its true the uniqueness of YOU, all that creativity, the brilliance you shine with is nothing but a series of chemical reactions that your brain processes swiftly and efficiently.

As I read more on this topic, It made sense. I can fathom the fact that thoughts are chemical reactions. But then how does one explain the more complex emotions of love, anger, jealousy and the like? How does one explain the the brilliance of Mozart or Picasso?  Why were they so different than the ordinary man?  And how would you explain sixth sense?

Sixth sense and thoughts is a rather interesting combination. If thoughts are chemical reactions and sixth sense is essentially predicting an event that is yet to happen, then does that mean that those who do have a strong sixth sense is their brain in over drive?  Trusted Google came to the rescue and I came across this very interesting series Through the Worm Hole that talks about the fact that thoughts can cross a room. And its true, thoughts can go across. A happy person makes others happy. A grumpy colleague can ruin the work atmosphere by just being there. Scientists believe that sixth sense works in a similar way. It is the collective assimilation of thoughts that goes across the globe and results in sixth sense for those of us who are more sensitive and emotional. Very rarely will you see an extremely logical and pragmatic person believing in sixth sense. It is usually those of us who are sensitive to the softer sides that experience sixth sense and deja vu. Takes me back to the fact that Juggling the Quotients is all so important.

To further confuse us, we have all heard the statement "you can control your thoughts, think positive" or something similar. Well if that is the case, then we can create thoughts too. Right? actually not quite. If it was so easy to create and control thoughts, we wouldn't be struggling to learn the "art of meditation." The premise of meditation is to teach us how to control and separate our conscious from the subconscious and thus control our thoughts.

It's amazing, the more I read, the more I realize how little is in our control. 

Questions raised above and more continue to stay a mystery. I have complete confidence in the human race. Its collective brain is always thinking. We dreamt of flying, we did it. We wanted to reach the moon, we did that too. We wanted to clone ourselves, we cloned humans and more. We are successfully Erasing Death, so it should be no surprise that we will soon unravel the mysteries of the brain too.

Soon, we won't have to move a finger.
Today we have games that challenge us to use our mind to control the ball, tomorrow we will use our thoughts to type, day after tomorrow we will be able to communicate with our thoughts. No need to talk anymore.  If years ago, they could predict teleporting in Star Trek, then today telepathy should be an easy feet.

It all sounds very exciting and yet there is a scary side. If communicating with thoughts does become a reality; I am afraid the world will become extremely quiet.

Coming back to the fundamental question, What are thoughts? I am going to accept the fact that they are chemical reactions, though quite honestly I would prefer saying that all the thought that went into writing this blog post was my creativity and hard work :).

Thinking is something we take for granted. I hope you will put more thought into it now. Thoughts are powerful and if the scientists are correct than your thought can and will span the globe, try and make it a good one.

Until we meet again... Ciao!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

First Camping Experience.

Camping; it's a sport rediscovered by the modern man. Remember Lewis and Clark, they went camping too, and you can only imagine what an amazing camping trip that must have been.  

Today, camping is mostly recreational. An activity for the modern man to reconnect with nature and thyself.  The circle of life that I have often mentioned in my blogposts and otherwise. Its one of those circles. We, the descendants of Adam and Eve started as wanderers went to the moon and beyond and then we felt the need to come back to nature. 

The idea of camping was alien for me until last week.  Many things about camping were big question marks. For instance, sleeping with the bugs, why? Making reservations a year ahead of time so I can spend two nights and 3 days bonding with friends and family unplugged. Why can't we do that sans camping too,? was my unpopular argument.  Last week all these questions were answered and here's the first camping experience. 

There are as many camping styles as individuals. The spectrum ranges from those who like to camp out in a fancy air-conditioned RV to those who like to rough it out with one backpack and dehydrated food.  Most of us fall some where in between. We carry our tents, sleeping bags, camp lights, regular food to enjoy a few days away from the daily rut and hope to connect with nature like our ancestors did  many many years ago, only they didn't have flush toilets and hot water showers.   Our initiation to camping is courtesy a friend. Her family camps every summer and  are seasoned campers.  She took the initiative to find a site that worked for beginners like us, which meant it had to be close to home and had restrooms and showers close by.  She  then made the bookings at Reserve America for the Glory Hole Camp Grounds and we were set. Then started the process of understanding what all was needed. She has a pretty exhaustive patented list, but basically its your tent, sleeping bags and or comforters, clothes, favorite blanky, flashlights, camp lanterns, first aid, tons of water and all the cooking stuff. 

Advise for first timers : Go in a group and if you have friends who have done it before so much better.  

Portable Spice Box
The plan was to take the bikes for the kids, until my husband saw all the other stuff. He very calmly and patiently looked at me and said "you do realize we have a van and not a U haul." I looked at him and said, "it has to go, there is nothing extra here." Little did he know that in all this stuff, was my first camping invention.  The portable "Indian Spice Box." 

Full brownie points to my hubby as he tried his best and kept his smile. First try, took the wheels out of the bikes, fit them at an angle, but it would not fit. Then we tried laying them down, the danger all the weight and the lack of balance won't work. Finally, he very calmly again asked me "It's going to be 108 F there, do you really think bikes are needed. Let's just take their scooters for now." He was right as always. Bikes were not needed.  We managed to put everything in the van and off we were on our first camping trip. Super excited kids, super excited dad, super excited me on the face and internally praying earnestly that the sun gods mellow down.  108 F, seriously! 

The closest city is Angels Camp as we passed its downtown, I made a note to self, next camping trip to Glory Hole,  no need to carry the corn and snacks from home. It can all be bought there. The camp also has a Glory Hole Center right outside the camp grounds, the basic supplies, ice, firewood is easily available there.  We made it to Glory Hole in good time, it was a great campsite. And I say this with all honesty and no sarcasm, I was pleasantly surprised. It was super clean, super big spacious sites and despite the scorching temperatures the staff was extremely friendly and helpful.  

Advise Corner: Tent, buy a tent that does not require the threading process. I don't know what they are technically called, but there are tents that have this claw type of structure that fits from the outside and are so much easier to set up when compared to those that require the threading process. 

Our tent is super special too.. its what we have nicknamed  "The Punjabi Tent." Its huge. Its a ten person tent. Too much for a family of four, not really... honestly in that humid hot weather, sleeping with some space around all of us was a blessing. Its a really nice tent from Costco that allowed us to open all the covered screen and allow the air to flow through the netting.  The only negative, it takes a little extra effort and time to set up. 

Chicken - taking its own sweet time
The day made way for evening and we started the cooking process and soon the third family joined in too. While they rushed to set up their tents before it got dark, we decided to get the fire crackling.  The fire wood got ignited and the kids looked forward to the grilled chicken and sausages. Speaking of chicken, I had the task of marinating it. Not sure which one, either the engineer in me or the hyper cautious mom in me was a little concerned about keeping the chicken cold in these super hot temperatures so it wouldn't go bad. I thought really hard and said to myself,  well if I can marinate this chicken frozen, and considering how hot it is, the chicken will surely thaw out by dinner time in the 108F temperature, that way it will get to its destination without rotting in the heat. Logically correct, right?  I managed to cut frozen chicken, marinate it and it all looked good until I realized that the chicken that I took out of the freezer at 9.00am in the morning was still frozen at 8.00pm. How did that happen? It's supposed to thaw in this scorching weather. Well, now I know that my cooler works really well. This is where experienced campers come to the rescue. My friend relentlessly got the fire burning and the chicken took its own sweet time to slow cook. As she fanned the fire, I looked at the pit and thought, that would make an amazing tandoor :). Took about an hour and the chicken was cooked. Was it yummy? I have no idea, for I am a vegetarian. I can only cook it. Eating it is my family's task and they enjoyed it. I hope the other's in the group too, thought it was worth the wait.  The kids ended the day with Smores and we ended the day with some cold drinks under the starry sky.

The fire in the pit continued to kindle and give its warm glow.  I stared it for a few minutes thinking about the awe and amazement on the persons face who discovered it for the first time.  It's a pity no one really knows how and when fire was discovered, but just imagine the astonishment. There is something so dangerously magical about it. Even in the hottest weather, the fire has this soothing warmth.  

The largest Stalagmite in the West Coast
Yummy Breakfast
During the course of the day and the conversations under the stars, we all had decided secretly in our own minds that   tomorrow if the heat is unbearable, we either head back home or take the kids to the nearby Moaning Caverns and then take it by the hour. Interestingly convincing each other was very easy ;) 

Well, morning came early. The first ray of sun hit my eye at 5.00am. It was beautiful then, and then gradually the heat came and I decided to hit the showers early so the water was not boiling.  Had some scrumptious omelette's and chai made by friends and yes we ended up going to Moaning Caverns. Then came lunch. 

Another lesson and note to self.. no matter how hot it is, even if you think there is an odor to the bread, do not put the bread near any kind of ice packs or ice. Regardless of how good the ziplocs are water will creep in.  Besides until there is no green stuff on the bread it's okay to eat it. It's camping after all a little green wouldn't hurt either. Thank fully the heat had taken away some of the appetite and we barely managed to salvage lunch.

Then we took off to Murphy's a tiny town in the middle of no where but the proud destination of Lila and Sage Cupcakes.. The Cupcake Wars Winner 2012. I am not a huge cupcake person, but had to agree with my friend, that how many times does one end up in a town which has a cupcake war winner. So we had to go there and I decided to taste the winning lavender and orange cream cupcake. I have to agree the combination of flavors was heavenly. Interestingly, the cream by itself or the cake by itself was okay, but when one bites it together, the flavors just combine beautifully.  By this time, we all agreed to go back home early.

The younger kids were red like tomatoes and the adults were guzzling water. It just didn't make sense to sweat it out and take a risk of sun stroke or any other adventure.  

Packing at 2.00pm was no easy task either.  It was brutally hot and this is an understatement.  Hope you saw that up until now I had not cribbed or complained. I was enjoying myself. Ten minutes inside the tent while packing up and I could feel the dizziness coming in. Okay, I admit it, I had to go to the van, crank up the A/C and sit there for a few minutes to get my balance back.  At this point, I was glad we were going back.  It took time and yes I did complaint once, but we managed to pack and load up the van to come back home.

When we started the van, it read 128F. I wish I had taken a pic. But yes it was that hot and for my friends in Dubai and India, that's 50C.  Came home, cranked up the air conditioning and took an ice cold shower.  We all sat down near the A/C vent to cool off.   And then were treated to an amazing dinner by the third family who had dinner chores. They were gracious enough to invite us all to their place and treat us in the comfort of their home. Veggie Burritos at their best. 

Question I was asked again and again, Will I go camping again? My answer, absolutely yes. 

Now that I think about it, the human race has been camping since the very early days. From the cavemen to the missionaries to the native Indians to Lewis and Clark and the 49ers, they all camped. Some where in between we discovered fire, the wheel and the modernization of the human race started.  The curious mind did not stop after that. Man dared to challenge and ask the why's and what's to make the world we live in today.   We made this world to give ourselves comfort and create the economic efficiencies successfully. So, why do we go camping?, when it was the luxuries we wanted in the first place.  

Camping I think is intrinsic to the human nature. It appeals to us because it's at our core. A long forgotten core but the instinct is hidden some where in the human DNA.  For me it allowed me to test myself. I don't like hot temperatures. I am a winter person. I am happy when it is snowing and cold. So for me to be in those temperatures and not loose my cool was a HUGE achievement.

Growing up, being outdoor was a daily affair. Today its a forced affair.  Childhood today is different. Nature does not exist much in it, camping fills this gap. It teaches kids to survive without wi-fi. Ours did. We did not take any ipads or Kindle.  They re-discovered the joy of water balloon fights and dumping buckets of water on each other. Thank fully all moms had brought many extra pairs of clothes. 

What makes a successful camping trip? Well realistically if you come back with no injuries thats successful. But while you are there, what really matters is you. You could be by yourself or with a group of friends. Either way, what really makes camping fun, is you, yourself and you alone.  I enjoyed this trip, because I chose to ignore the heat or at least not let it get the best of me. My husband and friends kept their patience and made up for my lack of experience. My kids listened to me and called their experience Epic. 

The end result, the resistance to camping has been replaced with "looking forward to the next trip."