Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Garden to plate - Spinach corn pasta

Hubby dear is extremely fond of gardening in our little terrace garden space. Over the years, we have tried different flowering plants, croton varieties etc. But I get the maximum joy from the fresh veggies and greens that I can pluck and use for cooking. We don't use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers. So getting organic and fresh produce right from our little garden is a humbling and grateful experience. Battling the pests and ants is a huge challenge. Our plants are surviving, thanks to hubby's constant nurturing and attention.

There were times when we had continuous harvest of beans and tomatoes that we ended up not buying them from vegetable shop for a couple of months. We also tried few other veggies - the long bottlegourd from a tender creeper plant, loads of violet brinjals, green chillies, fresh sprigs of mint and bunches of Italian basil (that got transformed into pesto). In the last couple of months, our garden has blessed us with fresh herbs (parsley, celery, basil) and greens (spinach, fenugreek).  I'm also eagerly awaiting to harvest beetroot (hoping the ants don't take a bite this time!).

Spinach / Palak finds a place in my weekly veggie shopping bag. Sometimes, the bunch I buy looks good in the shop but as soon as I bring it home, it gives a wilted look. I would immediately rustle up a palak paneer the same evening or the next day.

As I was admiring the size of the spinach leaves last evening in my garden, I wanted to try something different this time. Hubby had been asking for pasta and I wanted to incorporate more veggies. A quick google search landed me to this recipe of spinach corn pasta. I modified it a little bit and the end result was a yummy, healthy dinner. We plucked the spinach leaves just before making the pasta. Oh boy! the look and feel of the fresh leaves was just amazing :-)

1 cup of macaroni pasta
1/2 onion finely chopped
4-5 garlic cloves finely chopped
1/2 carrot finely chopped
handful of sweet corn
8-9 big spinach leaves cleaned and finely chopped (add more if you like it)
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
dry herbs - oregano, thyme
1 tsp of wheat flour
2 cups of milk
2 tsp Olive oil

Steam carrots and corn in a pressure cooker for 5 minutes.

Boil fresh milk and cool it.
Mix wheat flour with 1 cup of milk nicely without any lumps.

Boil a pot of water. Add 1.5 tsp of salt.
Once it starts to boil nicely, add pasta and give it a quick mix. Let it cook for the time mentioned in your pack.

Meanwhile, heat a pan. Add 2 tsp of olive oil.
Lightly saute garlic and onion till it turns translucent.
Add chopped spinach and sauté it for a min.
Add steamed carrot and corn.
Reduce the flame to low and add milk mixed with wheat flour.
Add 1 more cup of milk. Stir continuously till you see a shiny texture and it starts to thicken.
Add pepper powder, 1/2 tsp salt, dried herbs.
Mix well.

By this time, your pasta would have got cooked. Add the pasta to the mixture and mix together. Switch off the stove.
Serve with grated cheese on top.

I usually don't add oil while cooking the pasta nor do I rinse with cold water. I plan the cooking time in such a way that as soon as the pasta gets cooked, it is ready to be dunked into the sauce. I read about this tip from Madhu Menon long time back and it works well for me.

Pasta lovers, give it a try and let me know how you like it! :-)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Weekend in Yercaud

Except for Yercaud, I had visited all hill stations in Tamilnadu and Kerala earlier. Thanks to Holi weekend, we quickly planned for a trip to Yercaud. It is around 230 kms from Bangalore that took us a little over 4 hours. The drive was pleasant and smooth. We took a breakfast break at A2B in Krishnagiri and drove straight towards Salem. The directions from Salem were very clear and navigating the 20 hairpin bends were exciting. One could feel the gradual shift in temperature as we climbed up the hills. I was pleasantly surprised to experience a cool weather at Yercaud, given that around the same time in Ooty it was extremely hot last year.

We checked-in to our room in Hotel Shevaroys. We had booked a rose room which was clean, hygienic and comfortable. After resting for some time, we headed out to lunch at their multi-cuisine restaurant. Opted for a sumptuous South Indian thali which thankfully, my 3 year old also liked it. We came back to our room and slept like logs for 3 hours. It's been a long time since all three of us (hubby, daughter D and myself) took an afternoon nap together.

In the evening, we took a walk around the hotel which has a sprawling campus. D was more excited about the play area (the maintenance could have been better though). She was also excited to spot some birds - ducks, turkey and cock in the cages.

Thanks to the heavy lunch, we weren't feeling hungry and grabbed some chai from a nearby restaurant. We took a walk and realized the little town is almost completely shut by 7 PM. So we returned, had dinner, watched TV (more enjoyable to watch TV on rare occasions) and slept.

The next morning, we freshened up and had a good breakfast at the hotel. The buffet had a sumptuous spread, offering both continental and Indian options. We spent some time walking inside their catering college campus. The customer service manager showed us around their bakery and commercial ovens they use.

We then headed out to roam around Yercaud. Most of the sight-seeing places are within 4-5 kms distance, so we were able to cover most of them. We went to Rajarajeswari temple, Sevarayon temple, Lady's seat, Gent's seat and Iynthinai park. Thanks to the pleasant weather, it was a nice drive. We had a quick lunch at Hotel Saravana Bhavan near the lake. The dosas are decent here. We went to Anna Park where D was having a ball, playing on the slides and swings. It started to drizzle a bit but she was in no mood to leave the park. After more than an hour, we went to the boat house and took a pedal boat ride. It costs 90 bucks for a 2 seater. D didn't enjoy much as she was insisting that she wants to get into the water and play. No amount of explaining or coaxing would make her stop crying. Challenges of traveling with a toddler, you see! :-)

We came back to our room, ordered some snacks and relaxed for some time. The hotel guys had arranged for a campfire late in the evening. We sat there for some time while D was happily dancing with no inhibitions. Clear night sky, lots of stars and a cool breeze made the evening even more beautiful.

The next morning, after breakfast we checked out around 12 PM and headed to "Deer Park". D was more attracted towards the play area than the deers. After spending an hour there, we headed towards Salem and had lunch. The sun was its peak on the way back, announcing that summer is already here. We took a tea break at A2B and then reached home around 6 PM.

It was a good relaxing break after a long time. And I'm glad that D also had lots of fun. One of the many reasons why I love Bangalore is the proximity to these weekend getaways. Hoping to cover few more of them this year.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Why I like Olacabs and where they can improve?

In the past 3-4 months, I have become a regular user of Olacabs. Though I work from home, I do need to travel to meet customers in Bangalore as well as my colleagues in Pune. In the past, if I had to travel on my own, I would choose BMTC buses if I know the exact location where I'm supposed to go and there were well-connected bus stops. Or I would end up haggling with a reluctant auto-driver who never agrees to go anywhere (Seriously, how do these guys make money if they don't want to move at all?). Sorry, no self-driving for me - neither skilled in that department nor motivated to learn either.

Ever since I started to take Olacabs, I'm not too worried about traveling to different parts of the city. I usually travel during day time and I also ensure I share the SMS of the driver details with my husband. Glad they have also implemented a SOS feature to alert your emergency contact in case of any issue.

I recharge my Ola Money now and then, so there's no need to deal with cash while you are traveling. The invoices are sent by email and so you don't have to worry about paper bills.

The rates are reasonable (compared to auto-rickshaws) and they also run promotional offers where you get some good discounts.

I haven't faced any issues with availability of cabs (except once), which many in my social circle feel, is a big problem with Olacabs.

Yes, Olacabs has made my life a lot easier.  "Thank you all! Keep up the good work!"

The experience of a "tech product powered service" doesn't start and end with the mobile app alone. There are multiple important factors beyond the app that can hinder the overall user experience. That's where I believe Olacabs can improve further.

There's an inherent assumption by the cab drivers that the passenger knows the EXACT location and the EXACT route to take. I might know the location to a certain extent, thanks to living in the city for many years and Google maps. But assuming that I would also know the route is incorrect. There are many who may not have a data plan on their phones. Even if they do, there are frequent disconnections from 3G. 

A weird incident happened when I asked the cab driver to take a certain route. This road was full of potholes, which I was aware of. After some time, he turned to me and said "22 bumps so far". And then I realized he is counting them one by one, shaking his head and showing frustration on drivers who were driving slowly in front of our cab. I don't know what is worse - knowing the route or not? :-)

Recently, I had booked a cab to pick me up from Electronic City. I had given the exact address while making the booking ("Ride Later" option). For nearly 30 minutes, the cab driver was trying to reach my pick-up point. Multiple calls were made, couple of landmarks given but he couldn't figure out my exact location. After finally boarding the cab, the driver cribs that I need to provide him more landmarks and he had wasted nearly 16 km roaming around. What if a person new to the city wants to take a cab? Are they expected to know the location and landmarks in detail? The driver also mentioned that he doesn't get the pick-up address in his mobile app. This should be easy to fix.

If the driver cannot check Maps when he is not aware of the route, there should be a way to key in the destination and the app can narrate the route, in the language the driver understands.

The other area that Ola can do better is share the languages that the driver is comfortable with. In a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore, this info would be very helpful, especially if we need to communicate our exact location and landmark. We can even choose Language as an optional parameter while booking a cab.

The important feedback which I have also raised to Ola separately in an email is that of unnecessary talking and questioning by the cab driver. This is even more uncomfortable, if you are a woman traveling alone. Why does the cab driver need to know where I'm going, where I'm working and when I'm planning to return? I usually don't respond if such questions come up. But I seriously believe Ola should educate drivers not to ask such questions.

Hoping to see these nagging issues being fixed and we get an excellent overall experience.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Baking Basics for Beginners

It's been a year since I got into baking and it has become one of my hobbies that I look forward to every weekend. I bake something atleast once a week, which my family really appreciates and enjoys the end results. Some say baking is therapeutic and brings joy. I totally agree!

This post is an attempt to help others who want to get into baking but don't know how. What's the first step? Buying an oven, ofcourse? Not really, some use pressure cooker to bake cakes but I haven't tried that method yet. I have a LG 28 litres convection microwave oven. There have been many debates on OTG v/s convection but for a small scale home requirement, I find convection oven to be perfect. It occupies less space and cakes/muffins come out good. The only regret is that I could have purchased a slightly bigger one, to make a bigger batch of cookies/muffins. For a family of 3 (2 adults + 1 child), 28 litres is adequate but for a bigger family, I would recommend you invest in a 30 ltrs+ model.

Next comes the accessories. Most MW ovens come with a baking pan/tava that you could use for baking pizza, cookies etc. For baking cakes, I have 3 pans - a 4" square pan, a 8" round pan and a medium loaf pan. I also have a muffin tin that can hold upto 6 muffins. All are made of aluminum and you can get them easily from any supermarket.

Apart from these, you need a mixing bowl, a hand whisk, a sifting plate and measuring cups. Any broad steel vessel/frying pan would be perfect as a mixing bowl. You don't have to invest in a delicate glass bowl. Measuring cups and spoons are a must and they are easily available too.

Now comes the basic baking ingredients to stock in the pantry - flour, sweetener and fat.

Before I ventured into baking, all-purpose flour (maida) never found a place in my grocery list. But it has become a regular now. I usually try to tweak the flour proportion with 50:50 wholewheat flour : maida so it's relatively healthier.

For sweetener, I usually substitute either sulphur-free brown sugar or organic powdered jaggery in place of white sugar. But I would suggest you to start off with regular sugar and once you try out a few recipes, then experiment with these substitutions ;-)

For the fat, I use either sunflower oil or rice bran oil for cakes and unsalted butter for cookies.

Buy good quality baking powder and baking soda. Store them in air-tight containers.
Buy good quality unsweetened cocoa powder. I use Cadbury. I have heard Hersheys is good too.
Also have vanilla extract handy. I usually buy a small bottle of Bush vanilla essence.
I prefer to bake eggless recipes. But if you don't mind eggs in your cakes, make sure you have some fresh eggs stocked up in your pantry.

Now, you are all set to bake.

There are loads of recipes available but figuring out which one to bake when you have the urge to bake something is the tricky part. Many days, I would happily browse one recipe after another, without realizing 30 minutes has whizzed past by then :-)

Here are some of the recipes (eggless) which I have tried many times and have worked out very well.

Banana muffins
Apple cinnamon muffins
Chocolate muffins
Lemon cupcakes

Carrot cake
Chocolate cake
Gingerbread spiced cake
Strawberry yoghurt cake
Chocolate nuts cake

Oatmeal raisin cookies
Ragi cookies
Cumin cookies
Chocochip oatmeal cookies

Other minor aspects to keep in mind:
  • Ensure you have undistracted time of atleast 20 minutes before you get into baking. I usually bake when my little one takes her nap in the afternoons.
  • Baking requires multiple dishes/pans/cups/spoons etc. So if your maid/househelp has informed you of leave the next day, postpone the baking plan :-)
  • I usually don't ice or frost my cakes. The amount of oil and sugar that goes into the base of the cake in itself makes me feel a little worried on the health factor. But do try out icing your cake once in a while. It looks pretty and tastes yummy too.
  • Plan for power fluctuations if they occur in your home in a predictable manner. I have heard eggless cakes are unforgiving if power goes off in the middle of baking. So far, I have faced this problem only once (touchwood!) and the power came back in 10 minutes.
  • You can easily substitute with other flours and sugar substitutes to make healthier cakes. In any case, Home-baked ones are way better as compared to the ones available in the bakery.
Do share your comments if you have any questions. I'll continue to write about how my baking adventure is progressing!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The growling hunger pangs

I'm a stickler for timings when it comes to my meals. I prefer to eat on time (mostly!). If someone takes up my time while my stomach is growling, I get extremely irritated. The Sneakers ad must have been based on my reactions, I suppose. Due to a certain miscommunication, I had to wait at my daughter's pediatrician clinic today for nearly an hour during lunch time. My temper was at its peak and D was her "naughtiest" self during the wait time. Though I ensured she ate her lunch, it didn't occur to me that I should have atleast grabbed a banana before stepping out. Thankfully, I kept my temper under control and it wasn't lashed out on anyone close (*hubby* dear!).

While eating my lunch at 3 PM today, I couldn't help but remember one of my ex-bosses who had this habit of scheduling meetings between 12 and 2 PM. He is one of the best bosses, mind you. But I didn't have the guts to tell him that the timings weren't working for me. Those were the days when eating healthy wasn't one of my priorities. After the meeting, I would rush to the nearest Darshini and gobble up rawa idlis or a South Indian thali.

Last week, I had a customer meeting at 2 PM. I happily ate an early lunch at home and reached on time. My colleague who traveled from a different city with back-to-back meetings came rushing for this meeting. I asked him "Did you have lunch?". He replied "No, I haven't had my breakfast too. Just ate a few biscuits". I was shocked and saddened. Felt a little guilty too, thinking I should have brought something.

People who are in business development or sales had to travel so much that their eating habits go for a toss. 1 or 2 days is somewhat okay but regularly skipping meals or eating very late is unhealthy and can cause serious health issues like acidity, heart burn, ulcer etc.

It's the responsibility of the individual as well as the organization to ensure *eating on time* is given a priority. There is no point in having fancy cafeterias, exotic menus and salad counters, unless the employee gets enough time to sit down and eat.

Been a while since I ranted anything in my blog. Purpose achieved :-) Do share if you have been in similar situations. Does your hunger bring out the best or worst in you?