Today is Indian Independence Day. For most of my Indian friends, it’s just another day, unlike major holi or diwali celebrations in India. But several years ago, I said what better day than today to try to make a new indian dish. At the time, it was just an excuse to make some curious pistachio cookies called peda.

But now it’s my very own tradition that I look forward to each year. While trying to make an Indian dish might not seem like a big adventure, it most wholeheartedly is. First, the recipes are notoriously poorly written: often way off in proportions (my first attempt at poha consisted of twice the amount of flattened rice to seasoning) or simply vague quantities (such as “a bunch of raisins”). It’s also difficult to know what texture it is supposed to be for food I haven’t eaten (the peda above is very wet, not like a cookie at all). And then there’s always the issue that I’m very sensitive to heat (so much so that when I made mango-orange salad I was very glad we had guests…because I couldn’t eat it!)

This year I settled on chicken biryani. It’s a dish I have had several times and felt pretty comfortable trying to make. However, I was glad when M stepped in to help when I assumed that a standard recipe would use one pound of chicken (I had lazily done the conversions for the chicken, but not for the chili powder!)

Like so many indian recipes, this dish has 25,000 steps in it. It’s marinating, sautéing, sautéing, sautéing, cooking, browning, cooking down, draining, cooling, combining, sautéing, separating, sautéing, roasting, cooking down, sitting, combining, layering, layering, and steaming. And that doesn’t include all of the chopping, grinding, measuring, more chopping and washing of dishes throughout the process.

The end result should have been the elixir of life or at least a charm brewed in Macbeth. But it was DELICIOUS, especially combined with the raita that M suggested making.

I’ve been taking advantage of a lot of online tools as we begin thinking through the process of moving away from Dallas. There are some pretty fantastic free tools to enable researching all phases of moving (or traveling). Check some of these out:

Hipmunk allows you to easily sort through available options for flights (using even swaps idea) with great visuals.

Padmapper allows you to pull craigslist ads, apartment.com, and rent.com into an easily sortable map. And the best part is adding the heat map overlay of walkability and mass transit options. This is great for large cities that you aren’t familiar with (and you can even use the heat maps for booking hotels in good locations).

TaxiFareFinder calculates what you should expect to pay for taxis (making it easier to compare with Super Shuttle or a rental).

Zilok allows you to search for anything you might want to rent (great for people who don’t want to buy items seldom used). Need a ladder to take down drapes or wall hangings? A great alternative to Craigslist, which focuses on owning items.

Homestyler allows you to create a 2D and 3D visual layout of your home (or to-be home) based on dimensions, furniture, and colors. It misses a few elements (like good office chairs), but this is a great way to think through home design issues.

Add your favorites in the comments.

As I mentioned in my post about cleaning, I’m trying out a bunch of things that I read about last year while abroad. Since finding out that lentils really can taste good (thanks to a wonderful cook in Kabul), I have been trying to incorporate them into my diet. And as an apartment dweller, I’m often looking for easy ways to grow things, preferably things I can eat. When I learned that bean sprouts are substantially more nutritious and more easily digestible than seeds I wanted to see how easy it really is to produce them at home.

Here’s a quick video and a descriptive website about how to make bean sprouts.

It really is that easy. Watching the seed turn into food in a few days is pure instant gratification! This is what I produced after a mere 3 days!

Sprouts are great for salads, stir fry, and whipped in the blender for shakes and salad dressings. (Actually, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys eating peas (pod and all) fresh off the plant, you may enjoy eating sprouts as a snack.)

 

Once you get started with the basics, you can do more research (and experimenting) with other options like almonds and grains.

Note: my half cup of lentils turned into over 3 cups of sprouts so start small 🙂

Here are some general updates.

The stay discussed in Not a typical hotel went very well. The place looked just like the pictures, there were clean linens, etc. I even learned that our host worked for my company until a month ago (not exactly a small world because it is a large company, but still a neat connection). I hope to use the site again with a bit more advance planning when traveling to expensive cities.

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a Cirque du Soleil show. This one. It was a really great show. The acrobatics and music were stunning. But I couldn’t help but compare it to the experience of watching the same show on tv*. I’ve always been biased toward watching performances on a screen. The camera angles, focus, zoom, and speakers just create such a perfect combination that I’m so spoiled. I hate it when I can’t see and hear everything that is going on, in perfect clarity. This isn’t an issue with the seats; I could practically touch some of the performers. Click on the link above and watch the video. Even with the energy of the crowd and the newness of everything, when would you prefer a performance in person?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a restaurant pre-run, where they test all of the equipment, staff, food, experience, etc. It was really a lot of fun. The place buzzed with energy. Everyone was excited to be there, the staff were running around in every direction, and the food was, of course, delicious. In exchange for the free meal (if I remember correctly, it included everything for several courses except alcohol), we had to complete surveys about the food, staff, setting, experience, etc. What a deal!

So when my company invited me to a test of a new facility that will be opening soon I jumped at the chance to check it out (that was planned long before the trip above). Yesterday, I drove to the facility, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I was treated to a dizzying number of staff trying to help me. Did I need help with my bags? Do I know where I am going? Is there anything they can do for me? Would I like water? This was all said with extreme cheeriness (the way I assume Disney park employees are). Once I got beyond the hordes of people trying to help me, I checked out the facility. It was well worth the hype I had heard. The building and area were gorgeous, the food was delicious (oh, and there was so much that I just kept eating), the rooms were very nice (with lots of small touches to make them very comfortable), and there were interesting company features throughout the building (to make it both more functional and entertaining). I was so excited about everything that I couldn’t sleep until early this morning (although that might from the myriad of desserts I tried last night:)

Hopefully, there will be more interesting updates to my adventures in the near future. Keep your fingers crossed!

*I don’t actually have a tv, but this is easier than saying a wide-screen tv, computer monitor, or projector in each place.

If you want to travel, it’s easy to get fixated on finding cheap airfare, but as soon as you find a good deal you’re left wondering where to stay. One night at a typical hotel can easily cost more than your great airfare deal! (And don’t get me started on B&B prices!)

Luckily, there are tons of other options.

I’m a big fan of staying at hostels.  They are particularly great when you are traveling alone, want to swap stories about things to do, and/or are interested in meeting other people from around the world. However, some places don’t have good hostels (e.g. Spain). Many US cities have hostels (e.g. I stayed in the one in DC before I moved there for my job), but there can be a lot of exclusions (such as requiring that you live more than 100 miles away or that you meet certain age requirements). And you may simply want to stay somewhere with more than a bed.

Using an RV or camping have always been available for people willing to be off the beaten path. In the past 10 years, the marketplace has exploded with other options for whatever path you’re looking for.

Craigslist has more than one section to check for vacation housing. Just go to the city that you will be visiting and click through housing swaps, sublets/temporary, and vacation rentals. This is a great option if you’re going to be in town for a special event. For example, tons of people flooded into DC for the last presidential inauguration, while many residents were looking to get out of dodge (to avoid the traffic, road closures, security issues, and take advantage of the long weekend). That’s the perfect time to find a temporary residence or do a housing swap.

For an average vacation or weekend getaway, I think that sorting through Craigslist is time-consuming, especially when there are better options. If you’re just looking for a place to sleep, try Couchsurfing. This allows you to meet locals, who are likely to have quite a bit of knowledge about their area. While it may only be a bed, couch, or futon, you can select other features you want, and you have access to the kitchen and livingroom. The real advantage of this site is that you can read reviews from other travelers who have stayed at these homes.

Another site with similar options is airbnb. I really like the search options for this site, including a map to find places in just the right neighborhood, the type of room (shared, guest room, or entire home), etc.  There are pictures and a description (particularly helpful when they describe the parking situation, where the home is with respect to sites or public transportation, and even if there is a pet or if animals can visit). Some places even offered breakfast in the morning or toys for children to play with during your visit. Again, you can read reviews to find out if the place met other travelers’ expectations.

Last night I booked 3 nights at 2 different homes through airbnb. The prices varied quite a bit by location and amenities, but looking through the website was substantially easier than sorting various hotels on different webpages. Also, you can send the owners a message if you have any questions. The only drawback is that the system may say that a place is available, and then after you book it, you may get a message that it was just taken. This happened to me, but I’m not sure how often it happens.

So even though you may not have friends or family to crash with, you might stay in a reasonably priced home with some new people.

And who doesn’t feel good about their dollars going directly to another person/family (plus a fee to the website) rather than some corporate hq?!

I spent the July 4th weekend actually feeling like I am back in the United States, by enjoying our National Parks! I have to thank my desi friends for a great trip. While we had a few misadventures (like driving to the wrong place initially), the beautiful weather and amazing scenery couldn’t be beat. Unfortunately, 4 days were not enough time! I didn’t want to leave…

I learned one important thing on this trip. Look out for people who really know what is going on. There are often people around (besides park rangers) who can provide you with excellent information about what you are seeing or about to see. And the great thing is that most of these enthusiasts want to share what they know (and even their gear!). This is how we got to see the Grand Geyser erupt (the world’s tallest) and how we got to see a huge grizzly bear.

Other than that, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Grand Tetons

Pink and blue sky reflected in the Yellowstone Lake

Bison using the road as their trail

Prismatic Spring

Elk grazing

Perfect walkway for skipping stones on the lake

Perfect place for a kayak

Wishing this was my view everyday

When is the last time you visited your local library?

I’ve made use of them a lot through the years, including fun and educational reading, school research in the stacks, and work for 2 semesters of grad school. But even I forgot just how great they are. I finally ventured to the nearby library a few weeks ago. In addition to picking up a couple dvds and books, I learned that there are yoga and spanish classes offered!!

While a few traditional libraries focusing on books do still exist, the majority of libraries are becoming community centers.

Different libraries focus on different things, usually dependent on the people who live in the surrounding area. You may find that a library a little further away is better suited for you. Don’t assume that all libraries in your city are the same.

You are likely to find:

  • DVDs (tv shows, movies, documentaries, etc.)
  • CDs (music, books-on-CD, etc.)
  • Current books
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Interlibrary loan and borrowing privileges with other libraries
  • Classes (everything from languages, writing, finance, tax prep, yoga)
  • Book clubs
  • Lecture series
  • Children’s groups and story time
  • Youth groups
  • Computers and internet access
  • Movie showings
  • Artist exhibitions
  • Holiday programs and events
With all of these options, you may still want to simply borrow a book. Just before heading to Yellowstone, I picked up a guidebook, which came in very handy on the trip.

Note: For some of you, this post is under the heading of “Too Much Information,” but I think that it’s particularly important to work against our natural inclination to cherry-coat our lives for public consumption.

Thursday I woke up with a swollen right hand and a light rash on the sides of my abdomen. Both places itched terribly. By that evening, I had to take antihistamines to make it bearable.

Friday was worse. This is a picture of a fraction of the rash on one of my sides.

A nurse practitioner gave me a script for steroids and more antihistamines. While the itching was somewhat controlled, the rash continued to spread Saturday. I felt a bit like when Spiderman unlocks the black spider-suit and it covers him. Luckily, I was able to see a doctor Monday. Among other things, he ordered a huge dose of steroids to be administered just like in the movies!

It was the most painless experience I’ve had with needles, from blood draws to vaccinations. And more importantly, it seems to have worked. The rash on my legs still itches, but everything is slowly clearing up.

Despite the completely unknown cause, I’m thanking my lucky stars it happened when it did; a week later would have messed up my Yellowstone trip, which I leave for tomorrow!

It’s summer in Texas.

I had a long list of outdoor activities that I wanted to do when I returned to the U.S. Well, I’m here…and in past month, I haven’t done much beyond going inline skating twice and taking walks (just before going to sleep, which is the only point in the day that the temperature is below 97 degrees) several times a week.

This post might seem to be about how awfully hot and humid it is here.

I complain about how there is nothing to do here because it’s too hot. But the truth is that there is just not much to do here. Or at least not for someone like me, and by that I mean someone without extended family, children, school and sporting events, or a very settled life to keep them entertained.

Dallas is a great city…for people who want plenty of space near good schools to raise their children who are driven to practices and recitals. But for me, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I’ve visited the 2 museums downtown. I’ve been to the arboretum and the hour away Ft. Worth Botanic gardens (neither of which I would recommend in the over 100 degree heat we’re having). Twice, I’ve been to thenature reserve” that everyone raves about, although it leaves me wondering if those people know the meaning of “Arbor” or “Hills.”

But I continue to find myself frustrated with a lack of things to do here.

I don’t care for sports, professional, college, or little league. I don’t have children, nor all that their lives entail. I don’t like shopping, despite the malls and shopping centers lining the highways for tens of miles.

So this city leaves me (and any guests visiting me) wondering what there is to do. I have found that there are some tasty restaurants (beyond Tex-Mex & steak houses), and I quite enjoy the amazing thunderstorms and lightening shows.  See, this is a problem — if you ask me about Dallas, I can only recommend the ethnic food and the thunderstorms. Actually, there’s also a great Indian grocery store, and I have been known to take my guests there for a treat:)

I hope it’s clear to you now that this post is actually a plea for more ideas.

Suggestions? Recommendations?

I expect to be leaving this city soon, but first, I want to unearth some gems.

 

Before you start, let me say:

I haven’t been to Six Flags Over Texas since a High School band trip. (This is mostly because I don’t care to stand in line in the heat and sun, but don’t forget that without some serious coupons, the standard price is $75/person. Yikes!)

Also, I have only gone to 1 or 2 movies in the theater. (I’ve never been a big tv watcher, and after tons of bootlegged copies of movies and tv shows in Afghanistan, I prefer to take a break for awhile.)

 

I really enjoyed some of the Afghan dishes that I had while I lived there. Each of the cooks taught me how to make one of my favorite dishes.

This is Hussain showing me how to make eggplant. This dish was so good that if someone came to dinner a little late they often didn’t get any! However, once I learned how to make it, I wasn’t sure if I would actually do it. It has 3 major steps, making it time-consuming (although far from the most time-consuming Afghan recipes). While I enjoy cooking, that’s quite a commitment. But I finally attempted it last week, and I’m so pleased with it. Here’s the basic recipe, although quantities are eyeball estimates.

Eggplant with yogurt

Preparing eggplant

2 eggplant* (long, skinny “chinese” variety recommended”)

Salt

Vegetable oil

First, slice eggplant, sprinkle with salt, and set for 30 min. Next, rinse eggplant with water to remove salt and juices (I patted them dry after this). Heat oil in shallow pan and deep fry slices for 3-5 min on each side until lightly brown. (Note: this is the time consuming step because you can only cook so many at a time.)

Tomato sauce

6 tomatoes

4 garlic cloves

1 t. salt

1 t. pepper

Combine above ingredients. Cook on medium heat until tomatoes resemble a sauce. Layer cooked eggplant and tomato sauce in oven pan. Bake at around 350 degrees for 20 min.

Yogurt sauce

1-1.5 cups yogurt (sour or natural plain yogurt)

1-2 t. salt

2 cloves of garlic

Combine yogurt, salt, and garlic (I recommend doing this toward the beginning and letting it sit). Place yogurt sauce over the eggplant dish and serve.

The dish is blissful!

Note: I tried using canned tomatoes and the sauce was a little too watery, but I can adjust that. And now that I’ve made it successfully, I’m going to try some tweaks to see if I can find a quicker way to cook the eggplant, such as broiling the eggplant in the oven.

If you attempt to make this, you will be pleasantly surprised in just how good it tastes!

*I have to mention that until I went to Afghanistan I didn’t think I liked eggplant. I was completely surprised to eat it there and love it! I’ve since learned that eggplant varieties vary substantially in taste. The nice round ones are typical in the US, and the slender ones are found at specialty stores (and at your local grocery are often called chinese eggplant). If you haven’t tried different kinds, I highly recommend it.

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