“A powerful thing, destiny. You can’t run from it. Not in the end.”

A little while ago I went to see The Fault In Our Stars. I read the book months ago, fell in love, and was very pleased by how true the film stayed to the dialogue and characters and how well it captured the book’s raw humor and innocence. The novel made me cry–which is rare, only a few have–so I knew the film would be worse. I warned Justin, but I think he was expecting a few drops or some glistening eye-lids and not the open faucet that was my eyes (and nose, if we’re being honest…I’m not a pretty crier). While some people hate them, I love movie previews. Sometimes they drag on a little too long, but I love the sneak peaks of what is coming soon and always make a mental check-list of upcoming films I want to see. There were several that night that looked interesting, but from the moment this trailer started, I was hooked.  

 

 

As a general principle I like to read the book before I watch the movie and since I knew I had 8+ hours in the car ahead of me the following weekend…

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset   …I bought it. The prude spender inside my head made me feel guilty about buying ANOTHER book, but my ever rational heart justified the purchase after looking for it in every surrounding library and coming up empty. It is a delicately crafted story about change, food, family, destiny, and how greatness can be both a blessing and a curse. The Haji family–famous in Mumbai for their restaurant–moves from India to a tiny town in the French Alps to escape the ethnic violence. Son Hassan the is the secret behind the family’s culinary success. Even the pure-bred French chef Madame Mallory across the way cannot deny Hassan’s natural gift.

‘Talent,’ she said through the muffled clutch of her napkin. ‘Talent that cannot be learned. That skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along in a chef once a generation. Don’t you understand? He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born. He is an artist. A great artist.

Art is the most accurate way to interpret the way the book describes food; from the thin layers and subtle flavors that can transform a pastry and the grander ways time and migration shape culinary trends. Unfortunately the character development that was so rich at the beginning petered off much earlier than it should have and the book made leaps and bounds in time when I feel it should have focused more on the smaller stories, the in-between days and years. But perhaps the speed with which the story moved illustrated the nature of destiny and time. How there are some moments so monumental or fortuitous that time slows down to allow you to appreciate them just as how some obstacles are so daunting and frustrating that overcoming them can seemingly take eons. Then comes the moment when what you have always wanted–always dreamed of–finally happens and it is both everything you imagined it would be and yet disappointing in the sense that life continues to rush by. Like how most of life–even when you are pursuing your passion–can feel like a blur from which you wake up, look around, and wonder how you arrived. Because Hassan’s talent is so innate, I was glad that the book very explicitly emphasized the role that others play in success. Even when something may be your destiny, the role of relationships (whether the influence is direct or indirect, with both friends and mentors) is invaluable. Multiple characters, not just Hassan, are touched in very profound ways by the others in the book.

I am not very good with words, but I would like to tell you that somewhere in life I lost my way, and I believe you were sent to me…so that I could be restored to the world.

Lastly I loved that in so many ways the author described the essence of things–unsurprisingly–with food.

Papa says he first fell in love with her smell. His head was down in a library book when he caught the most intoxicating whiff of chapatis and rose water. That, he said, was my mother.

….

‘Merci, madame,’ she said, in a voice that, as it wafted down to me with the wind, seemed redolent of fresh red berries and cream.

….

When we arrived, the sun was setting, like a mango sorbet dripping over the horizon.

The Hundred Foot Journey is both a physical journey across lands and an emotional one, into adulthood and away from family. As someone who is about to bridge a great precipice, I can relate to the momentousness of that first step. Naturally I was in the mood for Indian food after I read it (let’s be honest, I am always excited for Indian food because it is amazing and I can’t wait for India), so Justin and I went to a (free!) cooking class at Whole Foods.  

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset  I knew these events existed, but I didn’t know that they were free, nor did I know what the classes were actually like. We didn’t get to try our hands at the cooking, but we did watch as he instructed us–step by step–through the process of how to assemble and prepare the ingredients (with little tips and tidbits along the way). I love hearing chefs talk about food. Normally I–and I feel like most people–don’t think of food as a science and an art form. It is something you study, a skill you hone…but there is also just a feel for food that some people have and others don’t. I certainly don’t have it and envy those that do. Sure I can follow a recipe, but things almost always go wrong (especially when I try and improvise, so I’ve tried to stop doing that).

Along the way we got to sample each dish he made: the carrot and cucumber salad with at least 7 different colors, the juicy mango puree, and the curry chicken wraps that were crunchy and spicy and dripping with gold.

There was one thing he said that resonated with me the most: “In the world of spices, cardamom is the queen.” I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I may have been a little more liberal about the heaping scoop I added to these mango lassi popsicles. Succulent, sweet, and packing a punch. And, yes, they were rocket ship shaped.

StarsI can’t wait to see the film in early August and have also been on a bit of an Indian film kick lately. Monsoon Wedding, Ram-Leela, and I haven’t seen this one, but it looks heartwarming.

 

 

I think those are my favorite films–the ones that celebrate ordinary individuals and their relationships. Although, I was completely sold when I saw the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer when there was a gorilla…riding a horse…holding a gun…surrounded by fire. Some things you just can’t beat.

Summer.

This week is my first official week of summer. It’s been hot and muggy in D.C. for sometime now, but real summer–my summer–began not with the weather, but with the end of (most) obligations. Much like it did when we were kids. 06162014_016 As I child I remember not understanding why all people didn’t get summer vacation. One time I asked my mom why dad still had to go to work once I was out of school and when she explained that only students (and teachers) get summer vacation, I remember thinking that the concept of no summer seemed alien and cruel. How else do you get to celebrate the end of a hard-earned year? How are you supposed to get excited for work/school again when you don’t have a few months off to read all day and swim? 06162014_021 My 9-5 hasn’t ended yet, but grown-up summer still means no more tutoring, no more Hindi homework, no more grammar homework, and no more studying for the GRE (which was Saturday afternoon…didn’t go so well, but that’s ok). 06162014_026 Last summer (post-graduation summer) was about freedom, friends, and exploration. There were no limits, no deadlines, no obligations. This summer is a little different. It’s constrained to evenings and weekends because I am still working (no more late mornings with brownies for breakfast and afternoons spent reading on the roof), and, unlike last year, it is focused on one place. Well, really two. I spend enough time in Virginia to consider it a place well worth investing my summer hours in. A place that feels just as much like home as D.C. does. 06162014_024 Last summer was about how much ground I could cover in 6 weeks (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington state, New Orleans, Texas…) and this summer is about exploring the places in D.C. I haven’t yet, spending time with the friends I’ve made because I don’t know when I will see them again, and embracing the time I have to myself. And so far summer is starting with a book list, a bucket list, a new camera, and tortilla española.    

(photos courtesy of Justin Rotundo)

In Review: Spring Cleaning ‘No-Wheat-Sugar-Dairy’ Challenge

30 Days

While road-tripping across the Western United States a little over a year ago, my friends and I passed the hours in the car (whose name was Dumbledore) by asking each other questions. We covered a range of topics, but always came back to food because the four of us really love to eat. When asked what three foods I would eat for the rest of my life if I had to choose (regardless of nutrition), I said, without a doubt in my mind: bread, cheese, and raspberries. I surprised myself by not picking chocolate, but the images that popped into my head all had a theme: baked brie with a tart, pink compote; flaky croissants with a gooey cream cheese, fruit swirled filling; bruschetta with whipped chevre and chutney.

Even though both bread and a dairy product made it on my imaginary list of unsacrificeable foods, I made it through 30 days of no sugar, wheat, or dairy. The beginning wasn’t actually that difficult. I had to give up my eggos, but I barely buy sliced bread to begin with. I already drink nut milk and only indulge in cheese on occasion because it’s expensive. Sugar, on the other hand, was certainly present in my pantry and I was sad to finish off the last of my ‘Despicable Me’ minion-shaped graham crackers and thin mints.

Sure, I drooled a little bit when Kate brought cupcakes to lunch and my stomach sobbed every time someone would make toast in the morning and the perfect smell of warmed bread wafted in from the office kitchen. But I was fine. No ‘detox’ symptoms. No headaches or any of the other things I read about that people typically experience when they eliminate these things from their diet. I also felt a strange sense of personal satisfaction from being able to exercise such will power.

Things took a turn for the worst the second weekend in April when my mom came to visit. I had already broken the 30 day vow by the time she got here on Friday because I made cupcakes for my co-worker Wyatt’s birthday and there was no way I was going to make something and not try it (both because I need to make sure what I make is edible and because I made it so…I earned some). But then we went to dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill (the oldest restaurant in D.C.) and had warm, crispy baguette with butter. Chocolate chip bread pudding. Key lime pie. Creme brulee. We went to Kafe Leopold (my favorite breakfast spot) and had lemon souffle  pancakes, goat cheese crepes, and a pastry basket. Her last night we had three different kinds of cheesecake.

It was heavenly and I don’t regret a single mouthwatering bite…but the next day I resumed my sugar-wheat-dairy free diet and began my week long crash/detox. I felt lightheaded, ravenous, and bloated. My stomach was one big cramp and nothing digested the way it was supposed to. My head pounded and half the time all I could do was lie down to keep from feeling nauseous. The symptoms tapered off a bit and then disappeared after a week.

So that was pretty miserable. Overall, though, I liked having a challenge. It forced me to plan (sometimes not enough) and be mindful. A key, however, was that I rejected the all-or-nothing mindset. I understand that the essence of these challenges is to stick with something for 30 days because 30 days is–in the long run–not that long. But if the intention behind your challenge is that you are trying something you’d like to incorporate into your life permanently, I don’t think this is the right approach. Personally, I feel I succeeded only because I knew going in that there would be exceptions and that there would be slip-ups that should not be considered irreparable set-backs.

I didn’t ‘fail’ at my challenge because I ate a hot-dog (let’s be honest, I ate four hot-dogs and cracker jacks and some spiked soda…not my best, but I got free tickets to a baseball game and it was dollar dog night). Before I started, I knew that all bets were off when my mother was in town and that the weekend of birthday parties and baby showers in the valley was likely going to result in some rule breaking (which happened to be in the form of wine). But I didn’t drink at other parties I went to. I had a salad instead of pasta at dinner the first night my mom was here. I ate my burger sans bun at the farm when we bbq-ed. For 24 of the 30 days of April I kept to my challenge and even during those 6 days, I did my best to eat and drink mindfully. And I did not feel the least bit guilty when I joined a lovely family for an Easter brunch of freshly made waffles or spread heaping knife-fulls of apricot jelly on an almond croissant at brunch with my mom.

So what did I get out of all of this? Did 30 days actually change anything?

  • I no longer cringe at black coffee. In fact, I like the taste. I may always be a creamy coffee girl at heart, but the thought of a cup of sugary flavored joe does not hold the same appeal it once it did and is certainly no longer a necessity.
  • I have no processed foods in my home. And I’d like to keep it that way.
  • I managed to resist the cookies, bagels, and doughnuts that regularly make the rounds through the office. 30 days of resisting these things certainly hasn’t changed my physical appearance or my overall energy levels, but many months of turning them down might.

My one piece of advice for anyone considering changing the way they eat so drastically: Be prepared. Plan ahead. If the purpose behind eating differently is to find balance in your diet, then eating handfuls of nuts (an ‘approved’ food) because your newly adjusted carb deprived body won’t get full is not the answer. To truly achieve balance and effectively combat the hunger that you will inevitably feel, it’ll take more time and effort than I was willing to put in (hence the handfuls of pistachios…I bought un-shelled ones too, so there was nothing slowing me down). But if the objective is being thoughtful about what you are putting into your body, then that’s what you have to do. Do your research about what kinds of food are fiber rich, prep your meals ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to pack lunch in the morning, and make sure you have an abundance of wholesome snacks ready to go. And when all else fails, make sure you know what pizza places make gluten free pies.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

The bottom line for me, however, is that I have no food allergies. I have no medical reason to eliminate anything completely from my diet. And the truth is, while I may be able to live without cheese and sugar…I am a bread person. I recently finished the book Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (more delectable quotes and recipes soon) and she puts it best:

I’m a bread person–crusty, golden baguette; hearty, grainy, seeded bread; thin, crispy pizza crust–all of it. Flaky, buttery croissants; chewy pita; tortillas, warm and fragrant, blistered by the heat. Whenever my jeans are too tight, I’m reminded that I know better to love bread the way I do, but love is blind, and certainly beyond reason.

She also summarized my feelings about this whole experiment perfectly when she described her own experience cutting out gluten, dairy, caffeine (crazy talk), alcohol, and sugar.

I felt like I wasn’t living in the same world as everyone else was living in. It was like choosing to live with the volume turned all the way down, or going to the beach but not being to put my feet in the ocean. My senses were starving. Eating such a restricted diet on an ongoing basis wasn’t going to work for me. It worked through the fall, but began to fall apart in advance of Christmas, predictably, and unraveled completely on vacation — conch fritters, rum punch. To not eat and drink those things that were so connected to that place I’d come to love over the years felt counter to the way I wanted to live. There has to be a way to live with health and maturity and intention while still honoring the part of me that loves to eat, that sees food as a way to nurture and nourish both my body an my spirit.

I do believe in the saying ‘eat to live, don’t live to eat’, but food is a fundamental, incredibly enjoyable part of life and integral to so many experiences. I love smells, I love tastes, and I love gathering among friends and loved ones to share food. Living without certain things when you know you have the physical capability to enjoy them healthily is like living behind a glass wall of temptation and disappointment. I guess in the end, if I am seeking balance, I should just make sure that I’m making thoughtful choices. Thankfully, her book–along with touching and honestly real stories about faith, food, and community–was full of wholesome, gluten-free recipes I couldn’t wait to try. Several are on the top of my to-make list, but the one I did attempt turned out to be quite the success.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

*Adapted every so slightly to replace walnuts with pistachios and to add cardamom because I put that in everything.

I think I will try to maintain this style of eating for the most part. Namely, continuing to employ a little more will power when it comes to sweet things and keeping my grocery shopping whole and wholesome. But, I am itching to sink my teeth into some nutty, multi-grain bread with butter and jam. Maybe I’ll get my hands on some of that soon.

Today, however, not only marks the ending of my culinary experiment….it begins a new month. I’m feeling motivated and in the spirit of taking this 30 day challenge thing in a different direction–one aimed at filling myself instead of cleansing myself–I am going to try to read every single day for at least 20 minutes. Not the news, not my thrilling GRE study books. Novels. The books that have been sitting on my shelf and next to my bed. At 20 minutes a day, I will likely only get through one or two, but it’s an accomplishment. May is already bringing so many wonderful changes and I am excited for this to be a part of it.

 


In case you’re interested, here are some more professional thoughts/tips on gluten free living:

  • http://www.thekitchn.com/give-up-gluten-why-and-what-it-136797
  • http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/howtocook/primers/glutenfreeingredients
  • http://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146872166/baking-without-flour-brings-sweet-results
  • http://www.thekitchn.com/glutenfree-baking-15-gf-baking-137249

Birthday Baking

Every year for my birthday my mom made me the exact same thing: simple yellow cake with chocolate icing. She’d make double deckers so there was always a layer of fudgy frosting in the middle. I’d eat a piece with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and for dessert–always accompanied with a tall glass of milk.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

I’m on the left (I wasn’t kidding when I said I have had this cake my entire life), my mom is on the right. Uncanny resemblance, huh?

She is a firm believer in the you-can-add-anything-to-a-boxed-recipe-and-make-it-special mentality, which I completely support. Making things from scratch is a very recent development for me and–while I really enjoy it–I’d say I fall into that same category of bakers. I love the novelty of strange recipes that you can only make by taking individual ingredients and mixing them together in a very specific way, but I’ve realized that this process is for me, the maker, more than it is for the eaters. Did the big boys I lived with senior year notice that the cakes I made them came from boxes (with a few extra ingredients added)? They certainly didn’t care–judging by the mumbly mouth-fulls of ‘thank you’ and ‘this is the best cake I’ve ever had’–and there are a few things I’d like to say to the people who would care (namely, get over yourself and give me back my cake).

Then I went away to school and experienced my first birthday where I wasn’t surrounded by the faces I’ve known my whole life. My parents sent me a box with candy and a new dress for spring. My freshman year roommate (who would become my every-year-of-college roommate and my best friend in the whole world) wrote me the best birthday song (I should probably ask her permission before I post that bad boy on here), made sure to tell everyone we passed on campus that it was my birthday, and tricked me into coming to the student center where there was cake and smiling friends waiting for me. Needless to say, it was a wonderful day.

Without any kind of formal agreement, my group of friends in college faithfully rallied together to make a cake for every single one of our birthdays. They weren’t fancy, slaving-away-with-a-mixer-getting-flour-in-your-hair affairs. Just a group of girls who liked to tell their friends that they loved them. And that really, really liked to eat cake.

It wasn’t yellow cake with chocolate frosting at my circular kitchen table, but it was 7 girls eating funfetti on the floor straight from the pan. It was everyone gathering in my tiny dorm room to surprise me with better-than-sex cake (good lord) on my 20th birthday and miraculously having enough for breakfast the next morning. And it was perfect.

I haven’t always loved birthdays this much and I have never been a baker, but college instilled in me the firm belief that people need two things on their birthday: to know that they are special and baked goods.

Birthdays are getting stranger now though. When you’re little, every year is a triumph and just one step closer to getting to that elusive point of ‘God I wish I could just be this age because then I would be taller and my life would be so much cooler because I can hang out with boys/watch R rated movies/drive/drink/whatever magical clarity and awesomeness you thought being older had’.

But now we are getting ‘older’ and when this happens birthdays become something to be feared. Several of my friends are reaching the ‘quarter of a century old’ age and are teetering on the balance of wanting to ‘live it up while you’re still young’ and accepting the fact that what they really want is to go to bed early and not be hungover. It seems like everywhere I turn there are lists of ’20 things you learn in 20s’ or ’30 reasons why being in your 30s is actually better than being in your 20s’. I understand why people are so obsessed with and somewhat fearful of ageing. It means endings, changes, and being faced with the reality that times just moves far too quickly.

In exactly one month I turn 23. On the one hand, it is really strange that I’m not a child anymore. Nor am I an adolescent. But am I really an adult when the thing I’m most sad about this birthday is that I won’t be able to sing Taylor Swift’s “22” anymore with the same conviction?

A devilishly charming Scottish man once told me that there was nothing more lovely than a 28 year old American woman–presumably because she has a grace about her that balances youth with wisdom, restlessness and contentedness, ambition and acceptance. I’m not sure where the American part plays in, but I am holding onto that image with an iron grip. Mostly because it comforts me to remember that the increments of five–25, 30, 35–are not the only years that matter. They are ones we think about because who fantasizes (or has nightmares) about being 28? That is just an in-between year where you are basically 30. But then I think about how quickly life throws changes at you, how drastically people can grow in such a short time, and just how much can happen in a year.

And, in the end, a birthday means just that: another year. Some years are disproportionately filled with heartbreak, some are ‘transition’ years, some are uneventful, and some are life changing. But every year is an accumulation of memories, skills, laughs, and moments. 365 days of being alive–that is something to celebrate. And I will never stop celebrating the day that the people I love came into the world and another year of them being in my life. No matter how many candles are on the cake, you are never too old to feel special.

And so why baking, you ask? Aside from the social custom of a birthday cake, I think food is special because it warms you from the inside and also makes people gather, which is the best way to ensure that the birthday girl or boy is surrounded by people who love them (or at least want a slice of cake). Making people food is already somewhat thoughtful because it requires time and more money than you always think it will, but I also like to think about what particular cupcake would make the birthday recipient’s mouth water the most. What recipe do you hear and think ‘Oh! Yes! They would love this!’.

Wyatt was the first one my D.C. friends to get really drunk around the rest of us (don’t worry–we’ve taken turns being the drunkest girl at the party, but he was the first). He loves Gin and Tonics, but I was told that G&T cakes are temperamental and can easily become gross if not made just so. I also heard that baking with guinness is the key to dense, heavenly cakes and know that Wyatt shares my love for rumchata. So was born:

Guinness Cupcakes with Rumchata Frosting

Boozy Cupcakes

The verdict? I am never making any chocolate baked good without guinness again and rumchata should be in everything. The recipe was slightly adapted from these Irish car bomb cupcakes. I nixed the whiskey ganache because I’m not that fancy yet and made the frosting with half as much butter and powdered sugar and twice as much cream liquor. It was boozy and wonderful.

A week later I had to make something where the recipe (or even the baking theme) was not so obvious. I want people to feel like their life is cherished regardless of how long I’ve known them and I had only met this particular birthday girl once (as it goes with your boyfriend’s roommate’s significant other). But she is a sweetheart and invited me to her birthday wine tasting that was to be followed by said roommate’s sister’s baby shower. So I knew I needed something that a lot of people could partake in–which meant lots of portions and a taste that was relatively generic. A certain cookie recipe had been on my to-make list for a while and, turns out, it worked perfectly.

Masala Chai Snickerdoodles

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

These little dudes are versatile and easy as can be. I did bake them for too long–I never learn with cookies–so one of the batches was a little burnt. I also added toffee bits to give them a little something extra. Since they are so small, I also had the idea to dress up a few for the birthday girl. I’m not one of those people who thinks a of craft, whips out the markers and twine and produces something effortlessly cute on command so I was REALLY excited when this turned out the way I wanted it too. Just a quick pit-stop to World Market for some wrapping paper, twine, and an inexpensive mug makes for a better-than-average cookie carrier. In my opinion.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Since I’ve made the majority of my work friends’ birthday baked goods (Kate is my cooking comrade and has made most of them with me and taken over when I haven’t been able to bake) they keep joking that when my birthday finally rolls around, I am going to have a buffet of baked goods to choose from. All I really want to do for my birthday is see the new X-Men movie, but being surrounded by friends and a smorgasbord of desserts also sounds like a dream. It won’t be yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but I’m sure it will be just as sweet.