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!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Animal Duty




So we went to the farm once more. This time we could not avoid animal duty. Planting is a rewarding activity, but contrary to expectations we also loved cleaning up after those little guys and gals and feeding them! Look at the bunch of them all ready and hungry to be fed! It was such a motley assortment yet so beautiful that they had me at the first cluck.


There were goats, pigs, geese and chickens of course. Remember Em? Well she certainly has the attitude. The other geese we met were just your ordinary farm geese while Emily had this very human like possessiveness.


While the boys were off strutting their stuff, the girls were found commiserating together. Probably pondering why the guys are adorned in such glorious colors while they were dressed in leftovers. Even the common rooster seems to have more color to him than us they say!



Totally unconcerned with all the goings on in the farm are the bunnies. They eat, sleep, hop some, eat more, sleep more and hop more. Well, you get the idea.

















It was definitely fun being among the animals as opposed to just going there to observe. Hope to do more of this. Thanks are due to the last owner who so graciously donated her farmhouses and land to the city so we can still experience this life in the midst of all the urban growth and technology that pervades nowadays.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Not Sushi, Indo-California Shrimp Rolls!



I never knew H to be a Sushi fan and so was a little perplexed when he plunged wholeheartedly into making California rolls few weeks back. Granted, he was a little rushed with a new job which took up almost all his time and maybe was looking to de-stress. Whatever it was, we had two weeks of fast and furious sushi making. He has since joined a new company which has more of a normal pace and we may never see sushi anymore. He was apparently inspired by a sushi restaurant he frequented for lunch when working at the first place. I am not complaining since as a responsible spouse I feel it my sacred duty to gobble up any such rolls made by H. The fact that they are little pieces of heaven rolled in rice does not sway me one way or another:-)

Let us go into the nitty gritty of sushi making albeit with an Indian touch. There is one equipment you need for sushi making and it is the mat. This is what helps you to roll the rice and it can be found in Japanese grocery stores. H covered it with plastic wrap to stop it from sticking and to help when cleaning up.


In The Mix

japanese short grain rice - 1 cup ( this is the most important item that will make or break your sushi)
water - 1 1/4 cup water
nori (sea weed) - 1 pkg
fish stock powder (dashi) - 1/2 tsp or to taste)
rice wine vinegar - 1/4 cup - add more or less to taste
 - the above items can be found in japanese stores

fresh shrimp fry - any kerala recipe will do
dried roasted shrimp -  as needed from 1 pkg (you will get this from indian stores)
salt, sugar as needed

How To Do

Prepare fresh shrimp curry following any recipe. Coconut pieces in the shrimp adds to the overall flavor so it is preferred.


Soak the rice in water for 20 minutes.

Boil the vinegar and then add sugar, salt, dashi and mix well. Check and add more of each to your taste.  Over all flavoring should be subtle. Boil once and remove from heat. Stir and set aside to cool.

Prepare the sticky rice by carefully following the directions below:

Wash and drain the rice. Add the water to the rice and cook covered on high heat. When the first steam comes out turn to low and cook for about 20 minutes. Check to see if rice is sticking to the bottom. Rice is done once all the water is gone. Remove from heat right away. Start stirring the rice gently with spoon in one hand while fanning with the other hand to remove any remaining water and to cool down the rice. Add the vinegar mixture and gently stir all together. Result should be sticky but separated evenly flavored rice. Most of the hard work is done. Now for some fun.


Take one seaweed and cut into two. Place a half sheet on the mat and spread the rice evenly onto it.



Now turn this over carefully so the rice side is touching the mat.


Spoon out the shrimp fry in a row on the long side of the sheet close to one edge. Sprinkle some dried shrimp along for crunch factor.


Now start rolling the mat gently so the whole layer of stuff gets rolled. This is why we needed the mat. It helps to roll the rice side without much ado!


Once the inner roll has reached full circle, give an even squeeze along the top for good measure. Remove the mat by rolling the stuff out onto a plate.



Wet a non serrated knife to avoid rice sticking and cut out into small sushi like rolls. You can pop each one into your mouth as they are being cut or wait and try your patience. You will not realize how many you can eat in one sitting until much later!




Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pictures From The Farm



This gorgeous guy greeted us at the farm where we went volunteering this weekend. My daughter took this picture for me after painstakingly following him around wherever he went. Many of his buddies could be seen wandering around the farm along with the roosters and hens. The following picture gives us the root for the moniker 'peacock blue'. It is the same guy by the way.



 We reached there by 8AM and started planting seeds for the spring. There were these little plastic cells that we filled with potting soil, dampened with water, made little holes and placed one little seed in each and covered it all up. At the end we made tag posts for each of the seeds we planted and staked them inside the cells so we know what is coming up. There were different kinds of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. We will be going back next weekend too since my son needs a few more hours to fulfill his requirements. This time though I think it will be a little more involved as we will be cleaning up after the farm animals and feeding them. I can't says I am looking forward to the cleaning part of it. I was surprised to know that my son didn't have an issue. Must be all that litter clean up they are doing for our much loved kitty cat. A good side effect!

See these two guys living in the farm. One is exotic and so is kept in a cage and the other is not so exotic and therefore free to move around. I think both of them look great. Don't you?








 Here is the goose who seems to be the queen of the farm. She loves the farm person who was helping to set us up. Apparently if she sees anyone talking to him she will come and peck at them and generally want them to move away from him. Very possessive, this one! It was hilarious to watch. I didn't know geese can be like that.



 After an hour and a half of hard work (not!) the kids played on the play structure while we walked around the farm. Then we thought we deserve some breakfast and treated ourselves to a cafe nearby. Had to take a snap of the cool pattern that was on the latte.