Thursday, December 18, 2014

Italia : Venezia

Mainland, Venice

Now that I am on a roll I just want to finish this mini travelogue as fast as I can. Venice was the last stop on our Italian trip. Having seen the Venice of the East , you'd think there is not much of a surprise here. But Venice (Venezia, as the italians call it) was a whole different experience. Built on wooden platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground, this city on water has a very special ambience that is all at once charming and haunting. It is said that Venice is slowly sinking  and a lot of the people and offices are moving to the mainland. Let us hope this breathtakingly exotic floating city will not disappear that fast on us. One can feel the effect of deteriorating structures if one is able to pay any attention to such things amidst the resplendent glory.

Welcoming Duck at our Venetian rental place

Our train reached Venice around noon. The last station was at the edge of the mainland. From there we took a vaporetto or water bus to Venice. Here we changed our style a bit and all ten of us stayed in a townhouse charmingly named Ca' de l'Oca or the house of the duck. It is named after a board game of sorts like 'Ludo' or Candyland. There was a picture of it on the kitchen wall.

It was in a residential alley and so quintessentially venetian that we could feel like a resident even if for a few days. We bought groceries and gathered in the living room and went out and came back as we pleased as if in our own homes. Except for the plumbing going awry and causing a strong fishy smell it was the best way to stay at the end of the trip. HAunt even found the time to cook rice and chicken fry for us on the last day. Our first Indian food in ten days was a welcome change. She is a pediatrician but aren't we blessed that she also loves to cook?

St. Mark's Church
It rained constantly in Venice and since we were already armed with umbrellas and ponchos this couldn't stop us from going about. First in list of course was St.mark's church. It is believed that the church contains the relics of the apostle St.Mark. This apostolic connection appear to be more tenuous than the trail of St. Thomas the apostle in India. We managed to squeeze in through the valiant efforts of our cousins running ahead to find a place in the queue before the doors closed for the day. The inside was as magnificent as expected but we could see slow deterioration settling in on the edges of beauty. Culprit being the constantly seeping in salty winds. Managed to click a few pictures before we were told it is not allowed inside this church.

Piazza San Marco - St. Mark's Square

We spent time at St. Mark's square the next day which was rather sunny. Went up the green topped bell tower in the square to get an aerial view of Venice which was totally worth it. Got a few good pictures from up there too.

View from The Bell Tower

We also visited the famous glass blowers of Murano and watched the demo of a glass vase and horse being made in front of our eyes. For that horse to be made so fast before the hot glass sets and to be so stable, the glass maker needs to be an expert with a training of at least 5-6 years.

Murano glass
Glass can be so beautiful when made into jewelry and artifacts of brilliant colors and shapes! On the way to Murano, we passed  Isola di San Michele which I later learned to be a  cemetery for mostly famous people.

San Michele, Venice - seen through the rain

I was haunted by its silent brooding presence in the water with the waves constantly breaking on its fortified walls as the boat got closer. Of course there is a dome for the church even on that island which gives any architecture definition and grace.

What is a visit to Venice without a ride on the gondola? The gondolas are built narrow and long so as to navigate the narrow waterways between the buildings like in the picture here. Now it is mainly a tourist thing. They are very expensive to own, around $50,000.00 or so. Our gondolier inherited his gondola from his grandfather. We were extremely lucky to have one rain-free evening so we could actually enjoy the ride.

Grand Canal, Venice
The ride took us to the Grand Canal where we saw many famous buildings overlooking the canal. There was one that was supposedly occupied by Napoleon. That venetians travel mostly on boats is a source of amazement to me. To not feel the ground under your feet all the time must be odd? One of the places I wanted to visit, was the Doge's Palace.

As we reached this last part of our trip I was slowly being besieged by the most villainous cough and accompanying flu. That I was almost down and out by the second day in Venice was sad but I did make the most of the time there. Who has time to fall ill when such excitement beckons? It was good that we were were in a home together so I could actually rest as if I am home while others were out and about. That this pest of a cough will blow into a full fledged nightmare once we got home and will put its chokehold on me for the next few weeks was not known at the time. I am grateful that the kids didn't get it while traveling.

Ciao, Italy!

On the last day we were all scampering to clean up the villa, catch the right vaporetto to mainland and to get on our planes on time etc. It was a great trip. While we enjoyed it to the hilt and speak of it fondly to this day, it was also great to be back home in our own cozy lair and just chill. Not to mention catching up with our gentle cat, Zeus.

Hello, Zeus!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Italia: Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Tuscany

Time really is a missing commodity these days. While most moms turned into soccer moms I was having a relatively peaceful life with piano classes, voice classes and some badminton on the side for the kids. But now my girl has joined Volleyball and my son is doing Cross Country at their schools and voila' there are games sprinkled all over the calendar with pickups and drop-offs galore. Not to mention those practice sessions that fall so cruelly on weekends! I am talking about the Saturday mornings you used to look forward to after a grueling week of activities and those quiet Sunday afternoons that were set aside to gather some calm before the next week's storm. Gone with the wind is all I can say. I am glad the sports activities have come to a halt for the moment. Who knows, maybe one day I will take to sports just like I have taken to vegetables.

Continuing with our Italia trip as you guessed from the title.

From Rome we took the evening train to Florence. Panoramic view is the word for it. Beautiful country side slipping by.  So what is new, those of us from Kerala -read panoramic- might say. But this countryside has its own inimitable beauty. The ten of us had the best seats at a really good rate. A ride to remember.

Il Duomo, Florence, Italy

We reached Florence at night and decided to walk to our hotel which was a few blocks away. Dragging luggage over cobblestones is not a fun walk but I am glad we did it. Florence is the one place I would like to go back to. It has a bit of everything. More amenities like in the US, Tuscan countryside at your beck and call, museums and churches galore. We stayed at Hotel Paris and since the night was still young, walked over to the Dome. Yes, Brunelleschi's Dome. Again like most Italian churches, adorned every inch with some artifact or sculpting and breathtaking as expected. At least from the outside since it was closed at night although well lighted. Then we all went to sleep after a customary dose of gelato.

Painting at the Uffizi

Some of us woke up early next morning to see the inside of the Duomo (the Dome) but some of us like me stayed and rested. Later on we visited the Uffizi Museum and guess what, more famous and awesome paintings, sculptures. Honestly one cannot do justice to the paintings by such a brief visit. The Uffizi shows off all the artwork acquired by the Medici. Medici literally ruled Florence although they started off as bankers. Became very wealthy and powerful and started patronizing art and architecture. Luckily for us, they gave many commissions to such stalwarts as Michael Angelo, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Caravaggio the list goes on. There were many Medici popes who continued the family tradition in Rome.

Then we went to Galleria dell' Accademia where the famous statue of David resides. As perfect and magnificent as The Pieta, this reminds us once again why Michael Angelo continues to live through centuries.
Looks like he was after perfection. Our hotel was close to Basilica of Santa Croce where Michael Angelo is buried. HAunt went to see it. Unfortunately we didn't make it. The Uffizi Museum by the way was the office building of the Medici where they had their accounting activities. The Uffizi means the office you see. Here is a picture of river Arno from the Uffizi.

River Arno, view from the Uffizi

Since Florence is very walkable like most places in Italy, we walked everywhere. No matter where we went we always ended up at the square in front of the Duomo. At night my kids played throwing some kind of lighted flying toy high up into the air, we had more gelatos and we walked more. The covered bridge with tiny gold jewelry shops was a novelty. Didn't notice that we were on a bridge while passing through!
Ponte Vecchio, ponte = bridge
When everyone opted for rice and pasta as usual for dinner, the kids and I decided to checkout the milkeria we had seen while passing by. We were rewarded with the best waffles, gelato and coffee. Score!

Replenished with a good night's rest we got up and got ready for a tour through the Tuscan countryside that included wine tasting, a visit to the fortified city of San Gimignano, the leaning tower of Pisa, Da Vinci's house among other things. Since it was a bus tour we were time limited. So we had to see Pisa in half an hour through drenching rain. Umbrella peddlers are a dime a dozen since sudden rain showers are a common occurrence. Three euros is the cheapest you can get an umbrella for.

Tower of Pisa on the right, taken by Hcousin in the moment rain cleared a little
If it wasn't for my Hcousin's organizational skills, things would not have gone so smooth for us. She, along with her husband did a splendid job in keeping us together, leading us and making the most of the trip without wasting too much time without the hassles of being on a tour all the time.

View from San Gimignano's town square
San Gimignano was surprise. A beautiful quaint little town on the hill with fourteen towers still standing. We enjoyed every minute. I didn't know that it had a famous ( but of course) little church that housed the remains of a little saint called St. Fina!

On the way we had visited the house where Leonardo Da Vinci grew up. I guess to this date there is no man who has done as much work as he has in so many fields. There were many displays of the prototypes made from the pictures in his codex.

This is a view from the top floor of his house. If you look closely through the rain, you can see the vitruvian man standing up inside the circle. Leonardo helped solve that puzzle among the many other things that he used that always buzzing brain for. Our wine tasting stop was combined with pasta lunch and tasty pieces of meats. Italians know how to make food tasty. The pepperoni and salami that we tasted there even from the  Italian grocery stores were eons away from their counterparts available in the grocery stores here. Full of flavor and great to eat with fresh bread and oils. Yum! The winery was in the middle of Tuscany and the young Italian owner regaled us with many stories. We loved the one about real Chianti wine. If the bottle has a black rooster on it then we can presume that it is the 'real' Chianti wine. OK!

The Duomo, Siena, Italy
Our last stop was at Siena. This is a find! Located so close to Florence, Siena does not get as much publicity as its historic rival. I was taken away by the  beauty of the church, another one called The Duomo. Superlatives are beginning to sound pedestrian when it comes to describing the architectural beauty of italian anything. After viewing the church we walked around a bit before getting back to the bus. My girl had walked off with HAunt. As we returned to where the bus was parked, I was jolted out of my reverie when aunt asked if we had seen my girl. Apparently she had walked off again while our aunt was in a shop. So we retraced our steps, got slightly lost in the process and finally began walking back with a heavy heart to recoup and plan what to do. I made a decision in my mind to stay and comb every inch of Italy till I find my girl. Luckily, as we came closer to the bus, who do we see but the little truant who had walked off safely with the cousins! I burst out in tears but she was not happy being lost when she was not:-) The cousins didn't even know about her being lost because she was with them! Poor aunt, bless her heart was really miserable but I told it would have happened even if she was with me. I think other than me and my husband, my kids are the closest to her and I have no problem sending them with her anywhere because where there is love, nothing else matters. Anyway it ended up happily but I still remember the ominous, high walled, damp streets of Siena that filled my heart with the darkness even if for a moment. After we got back, the cousins went out to see the streets of Florence one last time while the rest of us including our aunt and uncle took some well earned rest.

Next day morning we all packed up, said bye to Firenze as they say in Italy and did the cobblestone luggage drag walk back to the train station. After some wait we got on the train to our next stop, Venice. More of that in the next post.

A painting inside the church in Siena

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thanksgiving Menu Board

If I wait for a more convenient time to write something to go along with the picture, it will be too late since Christmas spirit is taking over the nation as winter is progressing along with pervading cold. By the way, it's been raining cats and dogs the last few days. There was even a thunderstorm not too far from us. Californians are taking it all in their stride thinking of snow piling up on the Sierra snow packs and the leveling of groundwater to get out of the draught. Apparently 4-5 days of rain will not cut it. We need more of the same for a month or two to set us up for next summer's water needs. Let us hope it remains so. Umbrellas are coming out the woodworks and getting damaged left and right. They were built for the slow drizzling rain and mild winds that this region is used to. We need those ultra resilient St. George umbrellas that can battle the might of monsoons let alone what we call "thunderstorms" here in Cali.

So my girl made this board before the Thanksgiving party to put up our menu. H built this board for the kitchen but the surface is too rough to use it on a daily basis. I do bug him on it on a daily basis too:-) But we found some nice bright pens that can conquer the roughest of them and while erasing is still a pain we can at least do some fun stuff like this once in a while. She tried a few things on the board and finally settled on a menu. Us along with many of the guests thought it looked neat. We had of course all those items and some. Ok we are done with TH till next year. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Post:Mashed Potatoes

When I sat down to start this post, my son wanted to add his two cents on the thanksgiving food, especially the potatoes. So I'll just let him have his say instead of writing a full post today. Here it is:

In all my experience dealing with the fluffy goodness known as mashed potatoes, none compare to what was prepared in my household this fiscal year. Now, I do not know what tomfoolery my mother did to create such a delectable taste, but something went right, and I'm very happy to eat these potatoes. IN FACT, they were so good, we had to make another batch just to last out the thanksgiving leftovers, as the originals were gobbled down by us and the rest of the guests. If I were to describe the taste, it would seem to be quite smooth. But what really made the potatoes pop was the gravy, and boy, this year it turned out better than expected.
-my son, the high school freshman and food network enthusiast

He has gone off happily, having finished what he set out to do. I don't have any mashed potato pictures, but I am adding a one of the roasted bird here.

It was a 22 lbs bird and took about 4 hours to roast including the half hour at 500F step from Alton Brown.

I used PW's brine and substituted the vegetable stock with apple juice since I didn't have enough veggie stock. I added 1 more quartz of water and a quarter cup more of salt and brown sugar for the heavier turkey. It is important that the turkey is fully immersed in the brine. Canola oil worked out fine after all. Just used enough to cover the turkey once. Too much can cause more smoke at the 500 degree step. All went smooth this time especially with close to 30 people over and I am really happy and relieved.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope those of you who are celebrating had their birds and getting ready for the busiest shopping day of the year. Though I had to login to work today, I managed to do some preparations for the one day late Thanksgiving lunch at our home tomorrow. Will add pictures once I have them. These are the berries I saw on a tree on one of my walks at work. Picked some out for the Thanksgiving decorations. Hope the tree and the owners didn't mind. They looked so awesome and colorful that I just couldn't resist...

Sunday, November 2, 2014


What is it about a rainy day that tugs at your heart strings so gently, yet with persistence? Yes, if you grew up in Kerala you cannot escape this feeling of comfort when you hear the familiar
pitter patter of rain drops. Suddenly you wish you were home instead of at work, with a warm cup of coffee in hand and looking outside through the open patio door at falling streams of rain. So it was that I awoke to a rain drenched Saturday morning in drought stricken California and saw these droplets on my recently planted flower bed. Er.. this is the old veggie bed now turned conveniently into a flower bed since we are Ok however they turn out to be. It is great to see the plants growing and thriving this close to winter days. I know we have some marigolds in there but I have forgotten what other seeds my girl and I planted one fine sunny day a few weeks back. Will put up a picture if they manage to blossom and fill our eyes with beauty.

Work is a wild horse that gallops at full speed despite genuine needs of our lives. So what is one to do other than to get on and try to tame it with your legs since you don't have the reins? I was happy to get a mildly peaceful weekend where I could actually smell the roses instead of rushing to the next planned activity or sitting down to login to work. Took some pictures and then I wanted to show them off. Hey, that is why you have a blog. Right? Enjoy! I will be back with the rest of Italia when time finally decides to listen to me.

I noticed that lately none of my comments are displayed even after I try a few times. Not even in my own blogs! So till I figure out the mystery, know that I do read your blogs, posts, comments.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Italia: Vaticano, Roma

St. Peter's Square
Yup, it's been a while since we finished that much relaxing trip despite the mother-load of a whooping cough that I managed to get shackled to at the end! More of that later. Suffice it to say that the cough was the reason for being quiet this long even when I wanted to write about it before it all vanished from memory. You know fresh memories are one of a kind.

So as you know the four of us set out to see the fabled land of Italia in the midst of last July. The fact that we enjoyed it so much tells me that it is better to take such trips when the stars align somewhat. Trips may not happen at all if we wait for full alignment. No company stocks went down even though we both had much pressing issues at work. Might as well enjoy. After being royally swindled by a mobile plan vendor right at the airport, it was a relief to be met with relatives who had reached the hotel the previous day. Suddenly it felt like we were home. Vodafone is what worked the best for cellphone usage based on the many users we had in our 10 strong family group. We stayed at Orange Hotel in Rome almost right across the street from St. Peters's Basilica. The girl at the front desk was a gem and the free umbrellas offered in anticipation of flash rains that happen in the midst of sweltering heat, cinched the deal for me. I'd stay there again in a heartbeat. Rooms though small were very clean and updated. But we can see such hotels anywhere, what about the history that waits to be admired there? As Roald Dahl would say, just plain marvelous!  Truth be told the initial impression on landing in Rome was not that great. Nothing to write home about with the airport and the drive to the hotel. But once we started the tour all bets were off. Just plain a.m.a.z.i.n.g.

See the maroon flag down the 2nd window, top right?
That white spec in the window? Yup, you have seen the Pope!
I know every single stone in these places have been photographed, video taped and written about all over the net but still can't help talking about it. Take St.Peter's Basilica for example. No matter how many times you have seen the images, nothing compares to actually standing in the middle of that vast square, built with the full splendor of Rome. To top it off we managed to get the smallest glimpse of the  Pope (a personal favorite of mine) when he appeared as a small white spec at the top window of the Basilica. Then when you enter the Basilica and encounter every pixel of the church adorned with some image or structure of infinite value, you realize that you stand not in a simple church but in the sanctum sanctorum of what wealth and power brought to the Catholic Church in its prime. Admission to the Basilica is free but not the Vatican Museum which includes the.... wait for it.... Sistine Chapel! You can even attend one of the many masses being held in the morning if you care to wake up early and beat the crowds like me and H did. The museums are managed very similar to the museums in the National mall. There is such similarity between the US politics and the Roman Republic that it is hard to miss!

Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo (pronounced mikkelangelo by the Italians) and his art looms large all over Italy. I had read Irving Stone's Agony and Ecstacy, yet nothing prepares you for the absolute perfection of 'The Pieta' displayed inside the Basilica. Michelangelo did a few more Pieta's in his life and each reflects the age at which he sculpted it. The Pieta that we all know was done when he was young and so both Mother Mary and Jesus are youthful and perfect in every feature. That alone is enough to immortalize this artist. But then you haven't even seen the David and the lively frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
The Pieta

It is said that Michelangelo loved to sculpt more than he liked to paint, but his most lucrative commissions all were for paintings. This is why he ended up painting people as if they were sculptures. Stone's book talk about how he visited cemeteries at night and dug up tombs to study the human body and paid to get dead bodies for the same purpose. This iconoclast deserves every praise that he is getting. He was also the final architect of St.Peter's Basilica in his old age. The end result of what we see now especially the dome was his vision. He was fortunate to live long enough to leave such grand foot prints on history. Another name that came up while visiting Vatican was that of Bernini. You will know why when you see the pure magnificence of St.Peters Square. Really a 'semicircular' marvel where one can meet to see the Pope if he is free and in Rome to make his little Sunday window appearances at noon.

Roman Forum
Moving onto other other Roman structures, the Pantheon is first among equals. Built during first century AD, this well preserved majestic building holds the tombs of Raphael and Victor Emmanuel, the ruler who unified all of Italy. I never thought I'd care to give another look at the Colosseum, that most splattered of all Roman images. Call me wrong because this is another awe inspiring structure of architectural ingenuity and shows what cheap labor (through slavery), power and wealth accumulated from numerous wars, and absence of direct invaders can do. The National Mall, er... I mean the Roman Forum for example is full of monumental structures, all built to venerate one victor or another. The writings proclaiming various triumphs still visible on their remaining facades. I was intrigued by the remnants of the Temple Of Vesta. The order of white clad virgins that were revered in Rome. The only man who could enter those closed walls was the Pontifex Maximus. Gives you a leeway into how Old Rome influenced the very foundations of the Catholic Church. Pope is also called the Roman Pontiff and the order of nuns follow a theme similar to that of the vestal virgins.

Being steeped in history does not mean we forgot to eat. Enter Gelatos! Gelatarias are sprinkled into the soul of Italy's famous cities and the kids thanked them wholeheartedly for that. Euro being almost time and half of a dollar, we randomized meals between cheap and somewhat upscale places. The most memorable of all roman meals was at a little roadside pasta shop on one of Rome's cobbled alleys. Homemade pasta at its best and cheapest. Each of us got to order a pasta of our preferred flavor and it was all polished off in a jiffy!

Top it off with Gelato from a gelataria on the way and you are all set for a night of peaceful sleep. I am not forgetting the outrageously priced €7,00 (~$12) gelato per person. Wish we had looked up the reviews before settling down to the shocking sitting fee for the tiny bowls of gelato we each had. Rain was a nuisance but having encountered blistering heat the first day, they were a welcome relief and made the day much more manageable. The walking can be almost handled by  10 year olds and above as we witnessed. My girl and boy were patience personified with all the walks and tours we went through. I am sure occasional injections of gelato had something to do with it:-) I'll stop here for now and will come back later with our Florence leg. I leave you with the bust of Raphael found next to his tomb in the Pantheon.

Note: Most photos are courtsey Hcousin with a good eye for pics and a real camera she lugged around which got us super trip pictures. Some are from H's S3 and my good old iphone4 which seems to be finally giving up the ghost. Hello iphone6? 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Orange Magic!

My original title was just 'carrots'. But it felt so weak up there I changed it to 'orange magic' because that is what they are. This all time favorite veggie (only veggie that is acceptable to all)  in our household is magic indeed I say. I suspect its natural sweetness has something to do with the popularity:-)

I had despaired of ever growing carrots because they just only grew so much last time after taking care of the 6 plants that we had bought.. But this year I took the advice of a colleague who grew up in a Panjabi farm and had seen carrots grown all his life. Bought seeds in a packet and strew the seeds on my prepared veggie bed where there is mostly sunlight and some shade. Didn't replant to give them space. That could be why some of them were small but still there was only so much effort and the yield was so good! Preparing a soil bed that was loose and well fertilized helped a lot too. This way the carrot root can grow downwards without obstacles. Like I had suspected, the ones that had flowered yielded tough carrots with roots growing all over. Those had moved on to the seed producing stage. Apparently the weird  hot-one-week cold-one-week weather made some of them think winter is already here or something like that. Luckily only a few got confused and the rest of them yielded fine. Celery was just ok. See the pic below. They could be used to boil in soups but were not tender enough for snacking. Knowing when to harvest is the trick. Onions didn't grow as well but there is always a second time.  Tomatoes are the one surefire thing here in sunny California.

BTW, Happy 4th of July to all! My littlest nephew is also celebrating a birthday back home on July 4th. Happy Birthday kunjunni! 

We were all set to go camping on this 3-day weekend but cold, cough and throw-ups dictated otherwise. So I am chastely staying home looking up home remedies for cough as most over-the-counter medicines only tend to make the kiddos suffer more. Looks like green or regular tea with honey, lemon honey hot water (I knew this one!) and essential oil rubs are way better than the worthless medicines I keep buying in hopes of faster turnarounds. The cough symphony between the kiddos had reached a crescendo but is slowly subsiding and the home is quietening much to our relief. Each cough had felt like a stab at times esp when that is all you hear in the dark. I hate it when those little bodies rack up with coughs and I feel so helpless. What works for one may not work for the other. Steam inhalation works wonders and while my boy thrived on honey lemon water, my girl got relief only after having her pillows elevated at night. So much for the sick news. Hope it will be all over by the time we are setting sail (er.. flying) to Italy. Yup, we are visiting Rome, Florence and Venice this month. It is HAunt's 60th birthday this year and bless her heart she wanted that trip to Italy in lieu of celebrations. I took straight to that idea as it was so appealing:-) This is also the last summer that my son will be free for a while as he is going into high school and summers get very busy from what I know. It is just unfortunate that a project milestone decided to land right smack in the middle of the vacation. But hey I am not going to care (I hope) and will be enjoying Michael Angelo's Rome, Da Vinci's Florence and Vivaldi's Venice to the fullest. So what if it is sweltering hot in Italy this month? The ancient edifices, mesmerizing paintings and just plain history sleeping on those streets will make up for all that. Italia qui veniamo! 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

My, My, How Have They Grown!

Herbs, celery, onions, tomatoes, carrots, they are all growing and adding green to our backyard!

Checking in because if I don't June too will disappear before I know it and I do like to post a thing or two in this favorite place of mine. Just like the garden, the kids are also growing up. And so is our cat, Zeus. My 8th grader graduated from his current school and is going into high school next year which starts this August. He was given the student of the year award much to our happiness and now it is summer holidays for the kiddos. My girl will be going into 5th grade next year. This is the first year when cheta will not be in the same school with her. To pickup from two different places before 6PM when working full time means the circus of balancing life and work just got a bit more hectic. Molu is doing her first dance performance next week. I am excited. When she negotiated to quit piano and start Indian classical dance, she had promised she will not drop the ball and I am glad to see that she does a rather good job of it. Just that the paraphernalia associated with dancing and performing is not my cup-a-tea. Guess I will have to get used to it since she seems to be taking to it.

Back to the veggie garden. We get lettuce for my son's sandwich from the garden, rosemary and lemon thyme add flavor to my cooking and I can't wait for the onions and carrots to be ready for harvesting. Looks like the carrots are ready! This year's carrots are coming along nicely. Look!

Have you seen a carrot flower? Probably means it is going over the harvest time. Molu and I need to start digging them out.

How about an onion flower? Isn't that a beauty?

Maybe a bud instead?

And chilies of course. That staple of curries far and wide.

For his part, H is experimenting with a self watering system this year and it seems to be going well. Look at the tomatoes! See the little white pipe inserted into the pot? That does the job.

With all that green is it any wonder that we spend more time outside these days. That is, only when it is not blazing hot. What IS with the weather these days? Hot one day and cold another. Ciao until next time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter Ruminations

Not really ruminations but isn't that a wistful title? I knew that would get your attention and I was right eh? :-) My Hcousin sent me this catchy picture of eggs they decorated in the most innovative way. Loved it and had to put it up. Hope she will not be unhappy that I have it here. She used natural leaves and natural food colors like turmeric following some suggestions from the net. She is a very creative kid. Now, how did we celebrate Easter? Like all good christians we invited some friends over, cooked a nice spread that included ribs, appam, stew, biriyani, raita and semiya payasam in that order. What? Did we go to church? Oh yes. We somehow managed to find some time to fit that in even though we were very busy with all these other activities, you know:-) At least this time we managed! This most important part gets pushed back a lot of the times if we are inviting people over since it is precious cooking time...  No food pictures could be taken as we barely managed to finish things before the guests arrived. End Result : Happy guests and happy hosts.

Work is getting busier and busier as usual with projects mingled with some heavy politics and I was really happy to take this time out to relax. 'Cos if Relax won't come to me I go to Relax:-) Ok I could be a little too relaxed because kids are off all this week and so there is no last minute race against time to cover the measly 5 minutes between home and school. 

In case you haven't noticed, the biriyani recipe link in the first paragraph is not from cheenachatti. It is from a blog that I admire much. Malabar Spices was closed for a while and I was happy to find it open again. Every single recipe I have tried from there has come out well. The flavors are always great and so was this malabar chicken biriyani . Thanks malluspice! I am reproducing it here with slight changes so I won't lose it again. Hope malluspice will approve.

In The Mix
chicken - 5 lbs (I got drumsticks, thighs and breast packages to make up the chicken since we love more meat in the biriyani)

onion – 6 medium sized
tomato - 3 medium sized 

fennel seeds - 2 tsp
poppy seeds  - 2 tsp
grated coconut - 1 tsp
cashew nuts - 4 to 5
small hot green chilies – 25 diced once
ginger - 4 inch piece peeled and diced
garlic pods – 15 large cloves peeled and diced
pepper Powder – 2 tsp
turmeric Powder - 1 tsp

plain yogurt- 1 cup
lemon juice-  juice of 1 lemon (not lime)
salt - as needed

mint leaves - 1 cup chopped
cilantro leaves - 1 cup chopped
curry leaves- a handful

garam masala- 5 heaped tsp. I add a lot of this as we like how it adds richness to the meat 

clarified butter (ghee) -  1/2 cup 
coconut oil - 1/2 cup
cashew nuts – as needed
raisins-  as needed

for the rice:
basmati rice - 4 1/2 cups
cinnamon - 1 stick of 3 inch
cloves  - 4 
cardamom  - 4 
bay leaf - 1
lemon juice- juice of 1/2 lemon
coconut oil - 1 1/2 tbsp
salt to taste

garam masala:
I didn't have the recipe ingredients. So I turned to my trusty garam masala mix as always.
Take equal parts of cardamom powder, cloves powder and cinnamon powders and mix together. Add 1/4 tsp of nutmeg powder if you have it. My HMom sends these in freshly powdered packs and I appreciate the taste it adds to all my curries.

How To Do

Clean the chicken and cut into medium sized pieces. Wash and drain well. 

Soak the fennel seeds and poppy seeds in a bowl with water for an hour at least. 

Dice the tomatoes and slice the onions. One onion should be sliced extra fine. This one is for the garnish.

Add grated coconut and cashew nuts to the soaked seeds and grind it with an immersion blender for a few minutes. Add the ginger, garlic and green chilies to this and grind all to a very coarse paste.
Marinate the chicken with the ground mixture, pepper powder, turmeric, yogurt, lemon juice and salt.

If you have to marinate overnight, omit the salt, lemon juice and yogurt and add that 1 hour before cooking. This is a very important tip from malluspice. Seems to keep chicken tender and in the right texture when heated up.

Heat 1/2 the ghee in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the garnish portion of the sliced onions and fry, till they turn golden brown and crisp. Add a sprinkling of sugar to speed up the process. This should take about 10 minutes on medium low heat. This was the least fun part I think. Remove the onions and stir fry the cashew nuts on medium heat till it turns brown on all sides. Drain and remove. Add the raisins now and stir till they plump up. Remove all  garnish onto paper towels and set aside.

Heat up the remaining  ghee and half the oil and saute the rest of the sliced onions till it becomes translucent. Add the diced tomatoes and saute till tomato almost blends in. Add the rest of the marinade and the biryani masala and the coriander, mint and curry leaves and mix thoroughly.

Take a flat bottomed pan and heat the remaining oil. Add just the marinated chicken, and gently fry it on all sides for 3-4 minutes on high heat.  Lift out of the oil and add this to the sautéed mix and combine well. Cook uncovered on medium high heat for 6-8 minutes.  Then keep it covered and cook on low heat for about 20 minutes. Add water only if there is no liquid for the chicken to cook.  Check frequently to prevent burning and wait till the oil starts to separate. There should be some gravy left and the chicken should be almost cooked, not-coming-apart cooked. Check taste and add more salt or lime, pepper etc as needed.

 Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. 

 Clean and soak rice for 10 minutes. Keep aside. Heat 1 1/2 tbsp of oil and add the whole spices- cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and bay leaves. Sauté for a second and add the drained rice. Stir fry the rice till it turns opaque and add 6 cups water. When the water-rice mix comes to a boil, cover and cook on slow heat till all the water is absorbed. This would take about 6-8 minutes. Add salt to taste and mix gently. 

In an oven proof dish, spread half of the chicken masala and place half of rice over it. Sprinkle some lemon juice to prevent the rice from sticking. Spread the remaining masala and top it with rice followed by lemon juice. 

Close it with a layer of aluminum foil , crimp it along the sides and put it in the oven for 20 -25 minutes. Cooking time can be less than this if chicken or rice got cooked more than intended. Remove and let rest for another 5-10 minutes before opening. 

Since kids don't like the onion,nuts, raisin garnish I add/sprinkle them while serving.

Serve with Raita and Papadam. I thought I had posted a raita recipe earlier but I cannot find it. Will be posting one soon. H makes a mean one and everyone loves it. The biriyani came out so well that I couldn't stop eating it!