Chicken with Cilantro Pesto and Striking a Balance

All weekend I had this nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. I was relaxed, cuddling with Jahan all day, shopping with the family, cooking and cleaning the kitchen. The sudden calm was strange because I have been so wound up lately. I have had a mental list of things that are overdue, trying desperately to cross items off, and this weekend, quite surprisingly, the list disappeared, and I didn't know what to do with myself. Have you ever felt this way? You become so used to completing tasks that you forget how to live in their absence.

I have struggled for a long time to balance the different "categories" of my life. It's more than work-life balance - it's an effort to stand on a narrow platform that perches precariously between sanity and insanity. It is impossible to function entirely in the Sanity Meadow and a nightmare to imagine doing so in the Insanity Jungle. People like me, therefore, who are often zigzagging into and out of each realm prefer to strike a balance and exist in the narrow border between the two. I am not always successful at this endeavor, but it is worth striving for.

Having a temporary reprieve from the pestering task list that is bound to multiply its contents rapidly, I felt a pull towards the kitchen. I wore my mother's clothes that she had left in my closet, because I was missing her. Wearing them, I felt closer to her and told her so over Skype. I regretted the days I wasted when she was here in my house, and I was too busy crossing off items on my task list to sit down with her over hot cups of chai and talk about whatever was on her mind. There were too many "should-haves" on the tip of my tongue and dwelling over them in any detail would disintegrate my composure, so I strayed away from that topic altogether. I was talking to her after a long time. Calling my mother, I am ashamed to admit, had not been checked off on my to-do list, but mothers have superhuman abilities to forgive.

I promised myself to consciously make an effort to strike a balance. I want to never let the things that matter to me lapse again because there is too much to do. The fact is, there will always be too much to do. I don't want these days, months, and years to pass me by because I was too busy looking the other way. I want to live, really live. To me, that translates into doing things I love with the people I love. I will love more, give more, and write more. I will call my mother and tell her, you know what, Mom? You're pretty damn cool, and I am proud to be your little girl. I hope one day you can be proud of me, too. I will cook and bake and write and tell the whole world about the things that matter to me

Happily fueled by my resolutions, I was all set to get back into the kitchen and resume my collaboration with Rebecca, in which I cook and she photographs. I adapted a Bon Appetit recipe for this occasion. I used pine nuts instead of pistachio, added more garlic, used dark meat instead of chicken breast, and added red chili flakes to the chicken in addition to salt and pepper. It was fitting, then, that I chose this recipe for my inaugural day in the kitchen after a long hiatus. It was like I had created a dish to seal my promise of striking a balance in my life. The nuttiness in the pesto was perfectly complemented by the garlic. The red chili flakes gave the chicken a slight dimension in flavor while not taking away from the mildness in the sauce. Perfectly balanced, I thought. The dish turned out to be terrific. I made a small salad on the side with Ceasar dressing. For dessert, we watched Jahan devour a chocolate chip cookie.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Simple Transformations - Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa

In one of the episodes of short Sesame Street videos titled Food for Thought, Elmo looks at a fuzzy round thing lying on a table outside Hooper's Store and wonders what it is. A group of Super Foods, "foods, who are also heroes" comes to enlighten him. "It's a kiwi!" says a Banana. They encourage Elmo to try it. "You want Elmo to try this kiwi?" Elmo asks plaintively. "But it's so fuzzy!" The yellow Cheese Wedge laughs and her red cape shivers a little. "That's only the outside peel. Inside, the kiwi is a juicy and delicious fruit!" One wave of her cape and the fuzzy kiwi transforms into wonderful green slices of one of my favorite fruits. In the background, Grover exclaims with a mixture of awe and envy, "They have got some serious superpowers!"

I agree with Grover. It takes serious superpowers to transform something so completely, render it inside out, succulent and sweet instead of hard and fuzzy. This is a reality. But it is also a reality that you simply need a knife, a little skill, and some time to achieve the same transformation. Both are true - one is more likely to happen than the other. Do people transform, like foods? Can we slice through someone's nature and turn them over, discard their abrasive exterior and somehow touch the tenderness within, because I refuse to believe that they are entirely devoid of any vulnerability at all? I refuse to believe that I am only hard and fuzzy, all angles, rough edges, sandpaper-like frictional, grating. Can I, too, take a knife to this exterior (or acquire a magic cape) in order to transform? Do I wish to? Sometimes, I do. Sometimes I wish to have a happier disposition, more optimistic, less exhausted, more attached, less distant - because I remember being that way. I remember expressing love - and I still do in my own way - but that old way was different.  Sometimes I covet it.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to clean out the garage. In one of my old boxes with term papers and blue books, I found my journal dated 2006-2008. That notebook bound with faux-leather, bought in bulk from a sale at Borders, was privy to so much of me that has changed. Pages upon pages of ramblings. Two pages on the image of a flower. Another on strangers in the bus. Five pages on the idea of a story, dialogue, uncomfortable exchanges between characters, because I was holding honesty back. I was trying to hold on to things back then, things I have since let go. Several pages on planning a wedding that never happened. The sketch of a dress. Music. Food. Invitations. I felt bitterness seep into my body from the dank air around me as if by osmosis. It swelled inside me until I could feel it thrumming into the tips of my fingers. I tore up the pages and receded - shook myself away from that girl with plans and her ability to see happiness even on a mid-day bus among strangers. If I were to take that bus today, would I see the same things and think the same things, or would I roll my eyes and look away, stare at the landscape running past my vision, time flying, places, too?

So, no, it is not easy to transform people like that kiwi. There is no superhero to put a salve on old hurts. Nevertheless, people do transform at their own pace. My contrast from the girl who lived in the pages of that journal is, in itself, a transformation. It took years, but it happened. A transformation towards more honesty, the willingness to remain steadfast in what I want rather than what others want for me, and new loves - this blog, cooking, my baby, meaningful relationships, little matters, nothing more. 

And it pleases me to see this transformation, simple, yet profound, agreeable - it gives me a certain kind of peace, almost. So, that lingering sense of coveting what is lost diminishes further. It pleases me to transform things, too, particularly food. On Monday afternoons, even if I am bone-tired, I go into my kitchen and start lining up ingredients for my weekly forays into the world of Bon Appetit recipes. Rebecca arrives and starts setting up her camera equipment. She photographs ingredients whole, like each part of the Bon Appetit Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa above, and then transformed, combined together for a wonderful and refreshing snack. No superpowers here, I do not possess any - just a knife and a cutting board, some skill taught me by a wonderful woman who loves me far more than I deserve, and time invested with care and concentration. Does this transformation please me, too? Well, the pictures speak for themselves.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chocolate Sponge Cake

I am still keeping up with my planned 1 recipe per week from Bon Appetit, but did not blog about it last week. I cook every Monday night, so I hope to have the associated entry up the following week. 

Two weeks ago, I baked Chocolate Sponge Cake, which turned out great! I took it to work and asked people to give feedback. "Is there anything I should change?" I asked. One of my co-workers said "No, just keep bringing it in!"

This cake was more challenging than Fallen Chocolate Cake. One little hiccup was that I didn't have a 9x13 baking pan, so I ended up using two 9'' round pans and layered them. The icing was rich and glossy. I served the cake at room temperature. 

I am having a wonderful experience with all these Bon Appetit recipes. We will be taking a break from dessert for a while, though, and the next couple of food-related entries will be savory. 

The reality of the BA 1-recipe/week entries is that they are more visually appealing because of the pictures rather than intellectually stimulating because of the content. Enjoy Rebecca's amazing photography of my successful Chocolate Sponge Cake. Try the Bon Appetit recipe, and don't forget to let me know how much you love the cake once you polish off a few slices. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Secret Banana Bread

I have always maintained that I am not a baker. 

I enjoy the intuition that accompanies cooking. I love the vibrant colors of my spices, the flourish of a spatula as it scrapes the bottom of a pan when I stir - a smooth stroke, the smell of onions caramelizing, garlic roasting, chilies sizzling, the crunch of seeds and sticks of spices grinding underneath my marble pestle, the feel of dough between my fingers as I knead it, and the sight of roti swelling with steam as I put it on the open flame. 

I do not enjoy the clutter of measuring cups, the tedious tasks of lining and buttering baking pans, preparing ingredients separately (wet and dry), and sitting idly while the oven does its magic. I know baking is therapeutic for some people, but it has always been an annoying task for me. This is why I have never served homemade dessert when I entertain (and I do a lot of that). Dessert always comes as an afterthought to me. I plead with my husband to run to the store and buy some ice-cream. For birthdays, I order expansive (and expensive) custom cakes because they are gorgeous and I can never pull off anything even close to what they look and taste like. Plus, I don't have a sweet tooth. Yes, I know I am very, very strange. 

Almost two years ago, our youngest sister came to visit us for the first time. And boy, does she love sweets. And so, for her, I decided to revive an old recipe of banana bread I had tried years ago with marginally good results. Little did I know that trying this recipe would actually lead to a mission to make the best banana bread possible. After much experimentation, some of it fun, some of it bordering on unpleasant, I have now come up with a foolproof recipe with two secret ingredients that I am about to reveal. This banana bread is loved and devoured by all, including the baby.

I hope you'll try it and give me your feedback!

All purpose flour - 2 cups
Dark brown sugar - 1 cup
Large eggs - 2
Ripe bananas - 3 to 4
Unsalted butter - 1 stick
Ground cinnamon - 1 teaspoon
 Salt - 1 teaspoon
Baking soda - 1 teaspoon
Baking powder - 1 teaspoon
Half and half (or milk) - 1 tablespoon
Chocolate chips - half a small packet (I just eyeball them)

Secret ingredients (obviously no longer a secret now that they are on this blog):
Vanilla essence - 1 teaspoon
Ground nutmeg - 1 teaspoon

Pre-heat oven to 325 F and prepare a loaf pan for baking.
Mix the brown sugar with butter to make a creamy mixture
Mash in the bananas.
Add two eggs, one at a time, and mix in.
Add milk and vanilla and mix
In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
Mix the dry and wet ingredients together. 
Add chocolate chips and mix. This will be a thick creamy mixture. 
Transfer it into the loaf pan and bake for 60 to 65 minutes.
Cool for at least an hour before slicing.   

Enjoy with a cup of cardamom chai.