Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let's do it one more time, nice and slow.

The excuse that I have come up with now is:  I am a writer. I operate at a level deeper than physical beauty and I need not worry about how I (should) look or how much weight I should lose. Before this, it was: I just had a baby and the baby needs me. I cannot leave her and go to the gym to exercise -it worked for almost three years. The most reliable one, my favorite has been: I work full time, I am too tired during the week and I have so many things to do on the weekend. There is no time for exercise.

I do not have a problem coming up with an excuse to not go to the gym. But that has not stopped me from contributing financially to the $25 billion fitness industry. Whenever I move to a new town, I dutifully visit the local gyms, right after the local library and park district and have, over the years, had the honor of being a fully paid member at most of the nation-wide chains. They promise I will lose all the weight I wish, be the person that I truly am and realize all my dreams if only I keep walking in though their door regularly (3-5 times a week). I believe their claims and my enthusiasm drives me for a few months (or weeks) but eventually, I let the membership elapse and go back into the shell of self-loathing, feeling appalled  about my lack of determination in doing  what I absolutely must so as not to have another depressing shopping trip.
                This time, I vowed it would be different. This time it was not just about losing weight. I was getting older and having seen family members suffer health problems, I decided I would take care of my body while there was still time. I discovered the chicest health club in town, three stories and a gazillion square feet of sleek, well-designed space with amenities to help you take care of your body (and mind). In addition to the workout equipment, they had a spa (the little voice in my head warning me that this is not the real reason I should enroll), two indoor heated pools and an outdoor water park (finally, I can learn how to swim), a health food cafe and best of all, the third floor was dedicated to a state-of-the-art child care center, complete with a jungle gym, computer stations and even a rock climbing wall. This was perfect as I did not have to worry about my child being away from me (separation anxiety was enjoying an extended stay in her little psyche) and it would give her a chance to socialize with children her own age. The facility was very impressive and the dormant enthusiasm woke up and shook away its lethargy. Once again, I signed on the dotted line as I  decided that this time that I will go all the way..
               I arrived for my "free fitness assessment” and after being stared at, pinched and measured all over my body, I was told by a girl in her late twenties who broke the scale probably at 100 lbs, dripping wet that I had the body age of a 46 year old, but the potential to be a 29 year old! My real age didn't seem to matter, but then, it was just a number. She walked me through all the options I had, treadmills and stair-masters to lose weight, lumbering machines that will isolate and tone any muscle in my body, the soothingly lit yoga and Pilate studios and the room where thirty stationary bikes were waiting for eager bottoms to spin away to sculpted good looks. That is when I noticed the people inhabiting this land, the sub-species of humans that has always amazed me, the Regulars - the women (and some men) who used this equipment for joy, with such ease that you would think they were strolling down the path in the prairie. It seemed to me that the people exercising were precisely the ones who did not need to be here. These were bodies with proportions that evolution wanted the human body to have. These were clothes off the display racks into which the bodies had been poured. When they exercised, they even sweat in the right places. Where were the other bodies, those dressed in black sweatpants and comfortable t-shirts, trying hard to complete the first 25 minutes on the elliptical, calling up the last reserves of energy and determination, spiking them with memories of the way they used to be and pushing themselves to finish the workout for the sake of that red dress hanging in the closet, or to stop those knees from creaking as they climbed the stairs? 
              As I started going to the gym frequently, I saw more of them, determined faces willing their bodies to complete one more round, finish one more set and relishing the pain in their muscles as reward for their decision to take care of themselves. Observing the Regulars made me realize that they were not an alien sub-species, but normal people who spent their free time hiking, biking, running and walking and when the weather turned dull and cold, took refuge in this stylish and pristine ecosystem to keep their bodies going. I have joined their ranks, hoping my determination and resolve last long enough to turn this passing fancy into a way of life, to enjoy a   lifetime of benefits of an active lifestyle. It is too early to declare myself a winner but I am on my way. And yes, my daughter has started playing with the neighbors and is having fun, socializing. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Travel by Stomach - Saudi Arabia

The cuisine of Saudi Arabia concentrates heavily on meat dishes. The meal is centered around the main meat dish with rice and salad as accompaniments. Al-Kabsa is a signature dish in this cuisine, similar to Biryani made in the Indian subcontinent. The meat ( chicken, lamb or beef) is cooked in a flavorful broth which is then used to cook the rice. The spices used here are similar to the garam masala, but this dish does not use any chillies. It is incredibly aromatic and the key is in not letting the aroma (steam) escape during the cooking process.The fragrance of saffron and cardamom infuses the rice. The sauce, Shattah,is not for the faint of heart! It is fiery yet tasteful and lends itself to variation.


¼ cup butter
3 lbs chicken, boneless skinless breast and thigh, cut into med sized pieces
1 large white onion, finely chopped
6 large garlic cloves, minced
½ c tomato puree
2 med tomatoes, finely chopped
3 med carrots, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups hot water
1 chicken stock cube
2 ¼ cups basmati rice (Do not rinse or soak)
¼ cups raisins
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

2 whole cloves
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch ground coriander
1 pinch ground cumin
½ tsp saffron
¼ tsp ground green cardamom
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp pepper
½ tsp ground dried limes or lemon zest

Melt butter in a large stock pot. Add chicken pieces, onion, garlic and sauté until onion is tender. Stir in tomato puree and simmer over a low heat for 4 minutes.
Add tomatoes, carrots, all the spices, salt and pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes. Add the water and chicken stock cube.
Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer covered over low heat for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces and set aside. Add the rice, cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes. Add the raisins and continue cooking another 10 minutes till rice is tender.
Place the rice on a large serving dish, topped with the chicken and garnish with the almonds. Serve with a fresh mixed salad with lime vinaigrette. Serve with hot sauce called Shattah.


8 cloves garlic
3 jalapeno peppers
2 green chillies
1 c chopped parsley
1 c chopped cilantro
½ tsp white vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin ground
Tomato paste
1 c water

Blend all ingredients . Add salt to taste.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Travel by Stomach - Greece

One of my favorite cuisines, Greek food is characterized by abundant use of lemon, garlic,butter,olives and cheese. Various vegetables like peppers, eggplant, onions, potatoes are used along with seafood and meat. The ingredients are readily available and the dishes are intensely flavorful, like sunshine on your palate.

Chicken with olives and red peppers – Kotopoulo me elies ke kokines piperies

2 lbs boneless chicken (breast and thigh )
1 red pepper, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 cup olives, rough chopped
2 small yellow onions, diced
2 med roma tomatoes diced
2 cups dry red wine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

In a dutch oven , heat the oil and add the chicken pieces. Cook for about 10 mins, turning the pieces to brown evenly on all sides. Add the onions, peppers and olives. Cook for about 5 mins, then add the wine. As soon as it comes to a boil, add the tomatoes and just enough water to bring it together. Add the thyme, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 15-20 mins till the chicken is cooked and most of the water has been soaked up. Serve with steaming white rice, topped with butter and a side of tomato sauce and sauteed mushrooms and peas.

Shredded lettuce and carrot salad

1 head red leaf or romaine lettuce shredded
2 carrots, shredded        
Mint – 6-7 leaves, julienned

Vinaigrette : Lemon juice and extravirgin olive oil with salt and pepper.

Pour the dressing at the last minute and toss before serving.

Fish soup with egg and lemon sauce – Psarossoupa avgolemono

1 lb white fish – fresh or frozen –eg: cod cut into big pieces
½ cup olive oil
1 med onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 rib celery, sliced
2 bay leafs
Salt and pepper to taste.

For the sauce:

2 eggs
Juice of 2 lemons

Clean and wash the fish, cut into bite size pieces. Place 6 cups of water in a stock pot and bring to a boil. Then add the vegetables, bay leaf, olive oil. Cook for 20 mins. Add the fish and simmer for another 15 mins. Then with a slotted spoon take the fish out along with the bayleaves. Strain the broth and return the cooked vegetables to the the broth. Add salt and pepper and warm it up. Add the fish pieces and heat through. Remove the pot from the fire.

Make sauce by beating the eggs and lemon juice.  Add the mixture slowly, 1 tablespoon at a  time to the broth while stirring constantly. The consistency of the broth will thicken as you add more and more of the egg sauce and it goes from clear to a milky white. Garnish with chopped parsley and mint and serve hot.

The instruction for this recipe seemed daunting, but it is easier than it sounds! When adding the sauce to the strained broth, do it very slowly, one tablespoonful at a time. The transformation of the clear liquid to the final milky white soup is phenomenal! The lemony citrus taste is subtle, more of a scent than taste and the overall taste is really creamy. 


This is an easy recipe to make warm and fresh pita bread at home. The baking time will vary depending on your oven and watch the pita dough as it is cooking in the oven. If it stays in the oven for too long, it will get brittle and you will end up with pita chips instead.

1 package of active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
 3 cups all purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 cup luke warm water

Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup warm water. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes until water is frothy. (Your kitchen will soon start smelling heavenly - of fresh bread and beer!)
Combine flour and salt in large bowl.
Make a small depression in the middle of the flour and pour the yeast water in the depression.
Slowly add 1 cup of warm water and stir with wooden spoon till elastic.
Place dough on floured surface and knead for 10-15 minutes. When the dough is no longer sticky and is smooth and elastic, the dough is ready.
Coat large bowl with vegetable oil and place dough in bowl. Turn dough upside down so all the dough is coated.
Allow to sit in a warm place for about 3 hours or until doubled in size. Once doubled, roll out in a rope and pinch off 10-12 small pieces. Place balls on floured surface. Let sit covered for 10minutes. Prehat oven to 500 deg F. and make sure rack is at the very bottom of the oven. Be sure to also preheat the baking sheet. Roll out each ball of dough with a rolling pin into circles, about 5-6 inches across and ½ inch thick.
Bake each circle 2- 3minutes till the bread puffs up. Turn over and bake for 2 minutes. Remove each pita with a spatula from the baking sheet. Gently push puff down and store immediately in storage bag.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Travel By Stomach

        The first time I ate a burrito, I finished it for the love of my newly-wed husband, not its taste. It was my first meal in the United States and my husband was excited to share the new cuisines he had discovered.To me,  the dish was a mixture of really bland chicken and rice inside a roti made of flour. It was an abomination! No Indian worth her masala would ever eat a roti and rice in the same bite. They are the yin and yang of the Indian cuisine,to be savored separately, each with its set of specific accompaniments. It wasn't entirely my fault. Till then, I  had not tasted any food other than the vast offering of Indian cuisine and Chinese food, Indian-style!

    We have come a long way. Living in this cliched melting pot, we have been able to enjoy food from all over the world. Since then, two new companions, our children, have joined us. Together we have embarked on a project - to cook our way around the world, highlighting one country every week. The countries are selected randomly by our son, who also came up with the title of this project - Travel by Stomach. I have tried to select recipes that are representative of the country's cuisine and can be replicated by the home cook. This is the guidebook of our voyage and we would like to take you with us as we travel, by stomach.