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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

10 pantry must have

The festive season is there, the public holidays vortex is about to suck me in. From then until Diwali there is pretty much one school holiday a week, and thanks to a few politicos, this year we are seeing a repeat of the extended Ganesh Utsav, which will be a whole 5 days long thanks to a weekend that falls in the line up. On top of it, a vast majority of Ishita's friends are born between July and September. So much so that until The end of the Diwali break, my life is a succession of social engagement, parties, meet ups, and plots to keep my little monster occupied on those days off.
This is the time of the year I try to simplify things even more than usual, especially in the kitchen. As you all know, I love to cook...and eat. However, cooking is an activity that should remain stress free, and hassle free. So, when I find myself on edge, running from A to B, I'd rather put something simpler and far less time consuming to pull on the table than exhaust myself cooking a multi course meal. I cut corner, find shortcuts, and save myself oodles of times and sanity with a few essentials my kitchen is never without :

1) Always have the ingredients to make a cake on hand and a recipe you can do by heart. I have a basic sponge recipe that need only 5 ingredients. I can from that base make any flavour, and even turn them into cup cakes. If you don't have an oven, find a cold microwave mug cake recipe. Why? because on a stressed out day, a cake can fix anything.

2) Maggi Noodles, or any ramen type noodles really. Do I need to say more?

3) Your favourite tea, or selection of favourite teas. Because a cup of tea and a few munchies makes for the perfect stress relieving snack.

4) A pack of pasta, because this has been a houshold staple in Switzerland for ages. You are always guaranteed to have enough veggies on hand to toss together into a healthy topping. You can toss pasta with just about anything...ANYTHING and a meal on the table in 15-20 minutes. Toss a salad on the side if you feel the need to and you are good to go...tension free.

5) A few bags of frozen things in the freezer. There always be days of chaos, frustration and hair tearing in your life, especially if you have children. These days it is actually simpler to just pull a few cutlets, nuggets, meatballs out of the freezer, cut a few tomatoes and steam some broccoli than attempt a complicated recipe. My favourites are the chicken meat balls from Venky's that just go with anything. I can make them in a creamy sauce, a desi tomato gravy, an oyster sauce, grill them to use I a wrap or sandwich, add them chopped to a soup.

6) Ready to use masala paste mix to pull an Indian dish in minutes. Don't give me the stink eye, or protest that those ready to eat packs are disgusting just yet...hear me out. There is no question that those MTR meal pouch are tasting bad. These, are NOT the one I am talking about here. I am talking about these new masala mix that just help you make your gravy faster. You still have to chop your veggies, paneer or chicken. I have tried a few of these, and they all end up pretty much cutting the prep time in half, freeing as much as 15 minutes of my time in the process. Always have a few handy, a paneer dish will then pretty much be about just buying the paneer from your kirana store.

7) Instant soup packages. It is the same idea as above, saves you time, and you can always garnish then with fresh add ons like chopped carrots, corn kernels, toasted bread cubes or prawns. Serve it with fresh toasted bread and you have a light minutes. This has been a favourite of Ishita's for dinner this monsoon.

8) Corn flour (known as corn starch by some). All it takes is one teaspoon diluted in a little water to give a new dimension to any gravy or sauce. ONE TEASPOON! You can turn a watery Chloe gravy to a thick velvety one with it, or pull a creamy sauce out of the cooking juice from your chicken if you are cooking continental.

9) An assortment of basic seasoning from all the cuisines you cook the most. I always have olive oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, barbecue sauce, oyster sauce, chicken and veggie stock cubes and fresh cream around. With all these I can pull any seasoning I need for the dishes I usually cook often.

10) Last but not least, a stack of take out menus. Yes! Because there are days that will be so hectic, that cooking will not be an all. Days it will be safer for all involved if you don't cook. And that is fine, don't feel guilty of that, we are all only human after all.

Cooking everything from scratch, at every single meal and on every single day is an idea that should die once and for all. Our lifestyle has envolved drastically over the decades, people in cities are living hectic lives. Taking a few shortcuts on occasion has never killed anybody, and if the worth of a woman was only measured by her excellence in the kitchen, she would have been a chef, not a homemaker.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Learning Center

Last year, I came up with a tool to teach Ishita the days of the week and the notion of time passing which you can see here.
That tool has sailed, and while she still isn't remembering all the days of the week in order, it has helped a lot. The poor thing got so abused and distorted and discoloured I just hat to let it go. Beside, this year she has to learn sight words in school. Words that she needs to be able to read just by looking at them. The list of them is likely to grow as we progress into the academic year, so I decided to find a way to rotate them on my kitchen door. This is what I came up with:
I took a big sheet of craft paper I had left from a previous project, taped little plastic pockets I cut out of page protector sleeves and used pretty masking/Washi tape to make it look good. And, because we aren't yet quite done with the days of the week, I used some duplicate princess stickers from her Princess album to assign one Princess picture to each day of the week. I also added a pocket for the Months and pasted a little square of transparent plastic on which we can write the date with a white board marker.
I wrote the sight words given to us by the school on business card sized paper and keep them in a basket nearby, every other day, I change the sight words by placing a new card in each pocket for Ishita to see and learn.
So far it is working great, and she is learning her sight words quickly enough and can now help me read some of her story books already.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Coconut Attack

Another week, another picture of India. This week, again, I will share something else than just a other landscape. Coconut trees usually spell tropical vacations and relaxation to many of my friends and family in colder climate where the only thing that will fall from trees are pine cones, acorns or chest nuts.
What they don't know is that coconut trees can pose a real hazard. Above, is the picture of our car and its broken windshield.
In our apartment building, our allocated parking spot is near a coconut tree. We never had a problem before, and to be fair the car is not directly sitting under the tree. The society management hired guys before the monsoon to trim all the trees and remove the big coconuts to prevent such accidents during the monsoon. Sadly, they forgot to trim that tree and all it took was a strong wind last weekend to dislodge one single coconut and send it flying on our car...smash!
Fortunately, it was our car and not someone's head that took the blow. A car can be fixed, it is inconvenient, and a bit costly, but our car insurance took care of most of the cost and a week later our car is as good as new. If that bad boy fell on someone's head...well I think it would be safe to say that this someone would no longer be part of this world.
These trees need a lot of maintenance, and regular trimming because even if a palm leaf falls it could hurt someone. I have seen branches fall right behind me or in front of me a couple of time in the park, this is scary enough. It is kind of ironic that the fruit that has so many health benefits be it in flesh or in oil could as easily kill you don't you think?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Demolding Operation

The monsoon is gently reaching an end. August is always a much dryer month than July, and by the second half of it, there is more days without even a drizzle than there are with rain. This is usually the signal that one can start going through an in depth cleaning spree and wipe mold off a lot of things.
To be fair, we all do some damage control all monsoon long. It is just that there are things that catch mold, that are just too daunting to clean knowing it will catch mold again in a few days, or weeks.

I personally don't bother cleaning the window frames until I know we are done with the wet days, and I certainly won't wash clothes I rarely wear until there is plenty of sunshine to dry them. A regular batch of laundry can take days to dry during that time of the year, no need to add more to the burden.
And clothes WILL smell musty and mold a little, despite taking measure like this one :

Measure which consist of using dehumidifying packs in every wardrobes. They help tremendously, but the humidity is just plain insane in Mumbai during the monsoon.

So, every year, we engage ourselves into what would probably be called Spring Cleaning in Europe. Take out everything out of cabinets and wipe away the fungus. Do loads of laundry to wash the Winterwear we get to only really wear a couple of days during the cold season in this city. We rub every surface clean, let small madly trinkets soak up the sun, and wash the windows clean.
It usually takes days to get all of this done, so we usually start by doing one small bit at a time not to feel overwhelmed by the whole process. This is what I attempted to start doing on Monday, thinking one cabinet unit would not take much of my time and would be gratifying. I, of course, didn't factor in the termites that happily claimed the place and my belonging as their own. The job ended up being long and tiring, but fortunately still highly gratifying.

My plan for the weekend is hopefully less ambitious and void of surprises. My mission will be to wash the mold off wooden surfaces. I already started with our Jenga game (yes that catches mold, I bet you had no idea!), and I will move to bigger things like the underneath of our dinning table. The best way to get the mold off and make sure it sanitises and prevent the mold to come back to quickly is to use vinegar. Forget expensive cleaners, just wipe off the mold with a damp cloth, and then use another cloth soaked in vinegar to wipe right after it. Vinegar not only clean and sanitize the moldy area, it also neutralises musty odours instantly.

By the end of that weekend I should have mold free furnitures, doors, door frames and window frames. What are you plans for the weekend?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A bugging surprise

We had a long, very long weekend in India. With Independence Day falling on a Friday, and Janamastami the Monday right after it. Four days to occupy at home. I say home, because that is what we did, the fair percentage of people that decided to escape the city that weekend probably ended up in that six hour long traffic jam on the express highway the paper was talking about on Saturday. And those who stayed in town probably hit the Malls on Friday to get the best discounts possible (readers from US, in India 15th August is the equivalent of your Black Friday).
This Monday, I figured out I could at least be a tad productive after a few days of just lazing around and going out for coffees. So, I decided to tackle the mess in a dresser unit we have sitting in the living room. The one I talked about many times already. Yep, the one that started as a cheap storage solution for our kitchen essentials in Bangalore pre-2010. The one that got abused, bruised and repurposed with every move. The one I ended up painting with 3D gold paint and swore to throw one day...soon. That one!
I use it to store all our DVDs in the open shelves, and all my craft supplies in the cabinets storage space. This is the space that usually gets messy really fast, and I don't even bother to clean it all up as there is a lot of...well...junk in some of the shelves. The monsoon usually doesn't help the situation much and a lot of things get soggy and a bit moody in there.
I thought this would be an easy, 30 minutes job. It was just a matter of emptying the entire dresser unit, sorting everything out, dusting what needed to be dusted and trash what needed to be trashed before putting it all back in the dresser...EASY!
It was easy until I opened the bottom cabinet where I store old diaries, notebooks and odd ends of craft paper. At a glance, things in there looked waterlogged (or just saturated with dampness). I was preparing myself to throw a lot of that crap away to be frank. Imagine my surprise when I lifted the first spiral note book to see it disintegrate and fall back on a massive swarm of termites. YES TERMITES! As in white ants, wood eating bugs...these little guys indeed!
The termites presence was not a shock, in the past year I called the society manager 3 times to get pest control to treat spots in my flat. They already ate half a bathroom door frame, left dirt tubes in another corner of the living room and in Ishita's room. The entire building is infested, and each time pest control came to eradicate them they came back by another route. Last April, the new society management sacked the previous company for doing a sloppy job and hired a new one that drilled holes all around the building, and on every floors to inject gallons of pesticide into the foundation. At this point, I thought we were finally free of these parasites once and for all.
Turns out the colony in question is still kicking strong. I haven't moved that cabinet in over a year, and they clearly made themselves comfy building a big network of dirt tunnels between the wall and the back panel of my old rickety dresser unit, eating away the shelves and their papery content undisturbed and undetected.
So, what was to keep me busy for 30 minutes ended up keeping me sweating and scrubbing, and vacuuming, and cleaning for over 2 hours. I started by grabbing the shelf on which the notebooks were and threw it in a garbage bag with all its content and took said bag outside immediately. I then took the can of Hit spray we keep to kill mosquitoes to spray the infested area enough to at least numb the termites long enough for me to sweep them away. If you are interested to know, Hit will kill them. When I found it out, I pretty much emptied half of the can in the cabinet.
I then pulled the dresser away from the wall to assess the damage better. That is when I noticed they pretty much built a mud pie on the wall and glued the cabinet to said wall. I gassed them with some more Hit spray and swept what was loose already to throw it away. Then, I took a huge roll of paper towels, the kitchen cleaner, and scrubbed off what was stuck to the wall and floor. At one point I ended up needing a kitchen knife to scrap some of it off. Once the floor and wall were both clean, I ripped the cheap MDF back panel off the back of the unit (it was easy, it was so eaten it came off crumbling) and threw it away. I then used the vacuum cleaner to vacuum clean every last bit of termite crap I could find before washing the area with more kitchen cleaner. Once the area was as clean as it could get and all the damaged bits of MDF gone, I sprayed what was left of the Hit spray in the hole in the wall through which the termite came and saturated the area.
Once all that was done, I finally could put everything back in said dresser. Needless to say that I took some extra care to check every single inches of my belongings for any signs of termite tubes or traces they could have left. That dresser unit is now bumped to the top of the list of things we need to replace in our flat. We already found something we like to replace it, and in fact, found it a few weeks ago. We have been talking about getting rid of that eye sore of a unit for months, if not years already.
Said unit is a brilliant example as of why MDF laminate furnitures are not a cheapest option to go for. The good quality laminate comes at a price (which can be as steep as hardwood). The cheap road side store options will end up breaking apart too quickly, bloat during the monsoon and invite unwanted guests into your home. There are solid woods native to India that are naturally termite resistant and once treated even more so. Teak is the best known one. Sadly it is a costly option. Sheesham is another sturdy and relatively bug resistant option, that once treated and polished is as good as teak at at a more affordable price. If you plan to get furniture made out of rubber wood, make sure you ask the wood to be treated and waterproofed as well to prevent water logging and termites problems. I did so with all ours, and they haven't lost shape in years.
Finally, this morning I decided to look for termites repelling alternative to the one offered by lest control. While you need pros to rigorously treat the ground around your building and repeat until the infestation is gone, it seems people can use natural ways to keep them at bay. In India, the method of choice is to bruise fresh neem leaves and let them steep in a bucket of water for 24 hours before using said water to spray areas that are termite prone. Apparently neem sap contains substances that will alter the behaviour of termite, lock their jaw and prevent them to feed, and put an end to their reproductive health as well.
Needless to say that at this point, I am all for it.