How to do a family meal makeover

More and more families are choosing to cook at home due to health and cost factors. It is no surprise that home cooked food is comparatively healthier because you know exactly what you put in it (hopefully not preserved and canned items.) Also, it’s much cheaper than ordering in, especially for 2+ people households. The challenge families’ face is how to keep the same homemade recipes interesting and appealing to the entire family, young and old.

Here are some simple recommendations to make a typical family meal makeover –Duck and sour cherries pizza

1. Make it healthier by using substitutes like olive oil instead of butter or vegetable oil, wheat flour instead of white, low fat cheeses, etc. Always use fresh herbs, garlic and spices to make the dish more flavorful. Avoid recipes that are deep fried. You know what’s not food for you!

2. Create the interest by blending flavors across cuisines. Grab a starch from one country and add a sauce from another. Try a thai red curry with penne pasta, then add shrimp or chicken depending on what your family prefers. Top chicken tikka masala on a flat bread or pizza. Serve a gazpacho with shells or macaroni pasta for a delicious & healthy meal. Read more on fusion cooking.

3. Presentation is key. We tend to judge a book by its cover and perceive the flavor of the food by its looks. Try to plate the food like you would see in an expensive restaurant. It doesn’t take much, just a garnish of cheese or parsley for most dishes would do. You can also control the portions your family is eating by pre plating them.

The way you go about doing this each night is by being conscious and creative. Try to diversity with what you know rather than trying new complicated recipes. For example, you need not serve the same old spaghetti with marinara. Add some fresh tomatoes, green onions, olives, feta and make your own instant sauce. Have the kids pitch in while cooking and make something using some of the ingredients they prefer to eat. These are simple makeovers to do and the whole family can enjoy the process.

Sushi with Suchi

Making Sushi is actually not as complicated as one might think. I learned to make Sushi in the Dominical Republic, out of all places! One afternoon I signed up for the class along with a few global trotters who were vacationing at the beach and wanted to invigorate their desires for learning a new skill.

The chef at an Asian restaurant gave us a brief demonstration, then let us make our own Sushi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the essentials…

You need the right tools – A rolling mat, wooden bowl, stainless steel Sushi knife,

Stock your cabinet – Sushi rice, Wasabi, Black Sesame, Soy Sauce, Ponzu Sauce, Vinegar

Get the cut right – Fresh sushi grade fish, Avocado, Cucumbers – all should be cut finely

Roll it up – Nori sheets, A bowl of water

Prep Work…

Cook the sushi rice (always short grain) with water, rice vinegar, salt and sugar

Slice the fish finely

Chop the vegetables according to the recipe

Step by Step instructions…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to make Sushi in the Caribbean

1.    Lay the Nori on the rolling mat with the rough side facing upwards.

2.   Wet your hands and make about a handful of rice into a ball. It’s important to keep your hands wet while working with sushi rice because it is sticky. When you work with the nori though, you should keep them as dry as you can.

3.   Gently put the rice ball in the middle of the nori sheet, and start spreading it equally on the nori, creating a layer of rice covering almost the entire sheet except the upper margin of about 2 cm that should be kept uncovered. Be careful not to compress the rice, but merely spread it over the nori.

4.   Place a slice of fish on the edge of the nori, along with 1-3 pre-cut slices of vegetable.

5.   Using the closer edge of the rolling mat, close on the filling with the nori making a rectangular shaped hill and tighten it from above.

6.   Continue rolling in the rectangular hill steps, keeping it tight with every move until you reach the end of the nori. Put pressure on the roll from all three sides at all time, especially on stops to allow it to roll tightly.

7.   Use a wet, sharp knife to cut the roll in to little sushi 6-8 units per roll.

These are the basics of Sushi-making. Once you know the concept you can mix-and-match the fish with the vegetables to make any recipe.

Inspiring global humanitarians to travel

As mentioned in my earlier post about the Global Health & Humanitarin Summit, I presented a session on “Volunteering Abroad – from a writer’s perspective” at the summit. My 20 minutes session focused on trends in volunteer vacationing, my personal experiences from my volunteer trips to Morocco and Russia and a perspective on some things I learned.

Watch the video What I’ve learned from volunteering abroad

I also tried to include some resources and Q&A that people can take back.

The presentation was very well accepted and the audience was very engaged with my stories and pictures. They asked questions and wanted to know how to sign up for their next trip. I had several people come up to me after the event and tell me that I inpsired them to volunteer abroad.

Here are some comments I received by email…

“Thanks you for your EXCELLENT presentation.  It was inspirational and filled with practical tips as well.  Hope to see you next year or on one of our vacations!” – Susanne

“Thanks for your presentation, Sucheta. Your talk was very inspiring.” – Tom

“The Summit was amazing – and so glad that you were a part of it.  Your presentation was very insightful, thought-provoking and left me inspired to check out this opportunity for myself.  LOVE the Go Eat Give Movement!!” – Mitzi

 

Patch unites global humanitarians in Atlanta

This weekend, I attended the Global Health & Humanitarian Summit at Emory University in Atlanta. It was three days of speakers, networking, exhibits and activities. The organizers want to make it into a movement, similar to the Global Economic Summit and it was a great first event. There were hundreds of people from all over the world in attendance.

Speakers included nonprofit organizations, individual humanitarians from different field’s doctors and Emory University students.  There were simultaneous sessions going on throughout the day, so one could move around to specific areas of interest. Rollin McCraty spoke about Heartmath and the Global Coherence Project, which I am a member of already. Andrew Chung, a cardiologist taught us about fat and heart disease. Student groups talked on human rights conditions in North Korea and the Emory China Care group shared their events and activities. I also heard Celeste Koshida educate us about the Women’s Federation for World Peace. A renowned artist from Athens, Georgia, Stan Mullins has built sculptures in Rwanda and Australia. He is commissioned for the Respect project. I also enjoyed Ed Wolkis photographic display of Tibet when he was touring with doctors.

I presented a session on Volunteering Abroad – from a writer’s perspective, where I shared about my volunteer trips to Morocco and Russia.

The highlight of the event was the closing speech by the real Patch Adams (who was played by Robin Williams in the movie about his life). Patch has a larger than life personality and is engaged in many humanitarian efforts. Contrary to his clown act, he is actually very intellectual and well read. He has a deep understanding of spirituality, life and love. Patch shared his personal story of being beaten up as a kid, having his father die in the World War and trying to commit suicide three times as a teenager. After his third attempt, he decided that he would never be unhappy again. He started practicing reaching out to people by riding on the elevators, calling wrong numbers and showing up at events dressed as a clown. He said he has stopped thousands of violent acts by just appearing in his funny distracting outfit.

Patch pays his doctors less than $300/ month but they love working for him. He promotes communal living where expenses are much lower, people support each other and you always have friends. He also gave us some tips and pieces of advice to follow as humanitarians, such as take care of ourselves, not to be led down by disappointments, our job would never be over but we must take time out for ourselves, etc. He showed videos of himself engaging children in a Russian orphanage and in Peru, as part of his humanitarian clown trips. It reminded me of my time in Russia when I was trying really hard to play with this little girl who just wanted to be by herself. She was an adorable four-year old but never smiled or interacted with anyone.

As expected Patch was hilarious during the two-hours that he was on stage! He was dressed as a clown and performed his antics to make the audience (young and old) laugh to their heart’s content. Walking out, I felt invigorated, inspired and determined to make a difference in this world.

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Cooking with Herbs

Spring is around the corner and the garden will be in full bloom again. I grow my own herbs in my backyard. There is rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme, chive, parsley, cilantro and sage always at my disposal! It is a wonderful experience to cook with fresh herbs that have been plucked within a few minutes. The other great quality of herbs is that they are so diverse. Every country has it own herb of choice that is incorporated in the local cuisine. Like people, places, and cultures, herbs are also international.

Last year I was invited to speak at a garden party. I demonstrated how one can cook with fresh herbs and which herbs paired well with which recipes. We played a “guess the herb” game where you had to identify the name of the herb by seeing and smelling it. The person with the most right answers won a gift bag of gourmet goodies.

Basically, there are three ways in which you can use your herbs:

1. Cooking – If your recipe calls for a herb, chances are it needs to be added towards the end of cooking. You don’t want the herb to wilt and cook for too long or else it’s flavor would be lost. If you are using dry herb instead, the quantity used will be a lot less than if you were to use fresh sprigs.

2. Presentation – I like to take a few sprigs or leaves of fresh herbs for presentation. A parsley leaf adds color to a risotto or pasta marinara. A few sprigs of rosemary can be plated under a roast chicken. Fresh chives can be chopped and sprinkles over mashed or baked potatoes. Think mojitos!

3. Ambience – When I have too much fresh herbs and don’t know what to do with them, I put them in a vase with a little water. It gives the room a nice herby fragrance and makes a cheap arrangement.

Can you think of any other ways to use fresh herbs?

Here is a recipe for Salmon Satay. It is one of my favorite grilling recipes. The marinade is made entirely of herbs. Even if you don’t have these exact ones, you can mix and match whatever is available.

  • 2 teaspoons ginger , peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic , peeled and smashed
  • 1/2 jalapeno chile , seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup lightly packed cilantro
  • 1/4 cup lightly packed mint
  • 1/4 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (1 1/4-pound) skinless center-cut wild salmon fillet
  • Vegetable oil cooking spray

Combine all ingredients in a small food processor or blender; blend until smooth.

Lay salmon fillet on a cutting surface with a short end facing you. Cut fillet in half from top to bottom. Make 6 equal cuts across fillet, creating 12 pieces. Insert an 8-inch bamboo (or other wooden) skewer through the short ends of each piece. Arrange salmon in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Brush both sides evenly with pesto. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Spray a nonstick griddle or large skillet with cooking spray; heat over medium-high flame. Lightly coat salmon with cooking spray. Cook until browned on each side and just cooked through, carefully turning with spatula, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side.

Stepping back into history in Vienna

If you want to step back in time, go to Vienna in Austria.  I visited in summer of 2008 and was plesantly surprised. Surely there are many old cities around the world but what was special here is that the 18th century buildings looked brand new. They were so well maintained that you felt like they have just come up around you. Horse drawn carriages and cobblestone roads were still the norm here. There were cafes and bars at each corner where famous artists, writers and poets have created masterpieces. “Oh that’s where Mozart wrote his music ….and that’s where Rainer drew his painting” the guide would exclaim.vienna parliament

The gardens in front of the Parliament building were magnificent without any pretence. It was summer; the weather was perfect and the flowers in full bloom. As in most European cities, there were street artists, little galleries, fresh food stalls and tiny shops, that further added to the drama.

I did watch an orchestra perform at the same theatre where Mozart used to play. Nothing seemed to have changed with time here. The New Years Eve orchestra in Vienna is world famous and sold out months in advance. There are also tons of museums to choose from and most of them are free to enter.

Mozart theater ViennaThe best part was the festival that was taking place in front of the parliament building. Every night, a different concert or movie would take place. But there was a food pavilion set up to cater the attendees. There were about 20 stalls of vendors offering drinks and food that would put any food festival to shame! As someone who has this notion that Austrian food is mainly “meat and potatoes”, I was pleasantly surprised. There was fusion of Italian, German, Hungarian, Mediterranean, Spanish, Chinese and much more. I had some of the best mushroom dumplings with goulash for under $10.

Austria remains to be one of my favorite destinations in the world and I hope to return there someday soon.

CCS to Russia and Morocco

I went to Russia in May 2009 through Cross Cultural Solutions Insight aboard program. I picked Russia because I had heard about their large numbers of orphanages, in par with India where I saw the plight of orphans first hand at Mother Teresa’s homes. Since this was my first time and I was traveling alone, I decided to volunteer for 1 week and sightsee for another. After going for my second volunteer program to Morocco in 2010, I noticed that every experience with CCS tends to be very different. A lot of people have since approached me asking me about the differences in the programs and how I would rate one against the other. Both programs were very unique, and offered different perspectives on life, but here is a basic breakdown of my observations.

volunteering in Russia with cross cultural solutions

Location:

The base camp in Russia was in Yaroslavl, about four hours by car from Moscow. The city was relatively small, and everything closed by 5-6pm. The people there did not speak much English either. Even though there was daylight till 11pm (being summer), our evenings were quiet because we weren’t able to do much. Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and a bustling city any time of the day. There was a lot to do, from shopping, visiting medinas, malls, casbah, beach, museums, monuments, restaurants, etc. I never found any down time while I was in Morocco.

cross cultural solutions home base in Rabat MoroccoThe home base:

We were 22 people at the home base in Rabat, Morocco and only 5 volunteers in Russia, so that made a huge difference. I enjoyed the larger group better because you could always find someone who had common interests or was willing to do an activity at that time of the day. Pretty much any hour of the evening, you will find someone who is going shopping, wanting a Gelato, go running, smoking hookah, playing games, reading, or chatting.  On the other hand, having a full house in Rabat, we had bunk beds (for 2-8 people per room) and a few common toilets to share. In Russia, I had a room to myself and shared the toilet with only four other females. The house in Rabat was s stand alone, three-story home with gardens and open spaces. Our home in Russia was in a building. It had many floors but no outdoor space.

Placements:

In Russia, we went to a different placement each day and worked from 9am-4pm with lunch break at home in between. We went to boarding schools/orphanages, children’s hospital, women’s mental hospital and old person homes. Since we did not speak Russian, our interactions were mainly non-verbal through games, crafts and sports. We engaged the kids and adults in various activities that gave them a break from their daily routines.  It gave me an overall perspective on how life was in Russia. I learned a lot, especially from the old home and the women’s hospital. In Morocco, there was a fixed routine and I went to the same placement, a women’s empowerment center to teach English, every day. Other volunteers were placed at a children’s hospital, university, center for street kids and a refuge community college. We only worked during the morning hours and were free after lunch. I felt like I could make a bigger impact by working at the same place each day and was able to connect with the people better.

Cultural activities:

Both the countries had organized activities for us after work. I felt like there was a more organized schedule in Rabat, than in Yaroslavl. We had cooking lesson, Arabic lessons, talks on Islam, women and Morocco, excursion to the Casbah and pottery village during our stay in Rabat. In Yaroslavl, we had Russian lessons, a visit to the art museum, talk on history, a field trip to Kremlins, ceramic factory and city tours.

Food:volunteering in Rabat Morocco

Food is an important part of my experience when travelling abroad. Obviously, Russian and Moroccan food differ by night and day, so I can’t really compare. In terms of offerings by the CCS program, I felt that we were served more luxuriously at Yaroslavl as the group was small. Also, the chef had formerly been employed at an upscale restaurant so she prepared some gourmet meals and attended to each of our preferences (one of us was vegetarian). Eggs were made to order in the mornings and there was always a special dessert treat each day. We had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were expected to sit at the table, before meals were served. In Rabat, we were served buffet-style meals. There was a lot of variety to chose from (soup, salads, breads, lot of vegetables, one meat entrée and fruits was dessert).  A line would form instantly once the bell rang and the food was generally gone within 15 minutes. We dined at the traditional round tables with low stools ad couches around them.

Weekend travel:

In Russia, CCS offered a three-day weekend, so volunteers went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where there is a lot to see. Train was the best way to travel. I also went to neighboring countries, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark after my trip. In Morocco, I had gone with two friends, so it made weekend travels much more fun. We went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. One weekend, about 12 of the volunteers went for a dessert safari into the Sahara. It was very economical once we split the cost between ourselves and hired a small bus with a guide. My friends and I also did a day trip to Fes, which was a lot of fun. I found that people who didn’t know each other connected during their stay and went for weekend trips together.

Neighborhood fundraiser for Japan

The connection between people knows no geographic or cultural boundaries. An Indian couple, Durrain and Navaz Porbandarwala organized a fundraiser for victims of the Japan earthquake, in their neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. Durrain, who is a cooking instructor, prepared a scrumptious dinner with the help of her neighbors. They put out flyers, invited friends and held the event at their subdivision Clubhouse on a Saturday evening.  

50 people attended and over $800 was raised. All proceeds will go to American Red Cross towards Japan relief fund.

It is impressive to see how people come together for a greater cause. It’s a small drop in the bucket but we all have to do our part in order to make an impact in this world. Imagine if each neighborhood around the world was to organize a similar dinner fundraiser, how much aid we would generate for the unfortunate Tsunami victims. Even if you are unable to make a financial contribution, do take out a few minutes to send your prayers and loving thoughts to these families.

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Tipping on a budget

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In these financially demanding times, it can sometimes get difficult to pay for the services we normally would. Moreover, you want to compensate the service provider by tipping him/ her adequately. All of these costs add up quickly.

I want to share a story with you on tipping when on budget. When my grandparents first visited US from India in the 1960’s they were allowed to bring only $80 cash per person with them and credit cards did not exist at the time (at least not in India). My grandmother brought tons of souvenirs and gifts with her to give away as tips. She would leave a pair of earrings (artificial costing less than 25 cents) or a scarf for the waitress after a meal and the waitress would be so grateful. She would think that a queen has just left her a tip! Sometimes, my grandmother would take off the (inexpensive) jewels she was wearing and leave them behind…How classy! Her suitcase was full of goodies like these that she would use whenever a tipping need existed. America wasn’t exposed to ethnic wear back then so it they were much appreciated exotic gifts.

Fifty years later, I seem to carry some of her habits. Just the other day, I gave away two tickets to a comedy show (which I got for free) to my Barista at Starbucks. (I did ask him before if he would like them). Also, I brought back very unique key chains from Morocco during my last visit (with designs of good luck, ethnic shoes, blessings, etc.) which I have given as tips and thank you gestures too. During Christmas, it can get very expensive to give cash to service providers, so I usually go on a baking spree. I make biscotti, apricot breads and plum or fruit cakes for my hairdresser, manicurist, mail delivery lady, massage therapist, etc. They seem to appreciate it a lot. 

It’s a funny story but by no means am I propagating substituting cash for goods to your service providers. They work hard too and deserve to be paid for it. But if the cash value of your gift is more than what you can afford to pay then, I believe it’s ok to do once in a while. Just make sure you are genuinely thanking them.

Spring break staycation

Spring break is around the corner and you may be thinking of what to do for fun with your family. A lot of people are also tight on budgets this year, which is why before we put any plans in place, we decided to compare motorhome quotes first, as the idea of staying indoors sounded really good to all of us. There’s nothing wrong in switching things up a bit, especially if you can’t afford to take your family abroad this year. The economy is improving slowly, but not everyone has extra cash to go on a trip. Here’s an idea – Why not have a staycation? The term didn’t exist until 2009 so let me first explain to you what it means.

Wikipedia says – A staycation (also spelled stay-cation, stacation, or staykation; known in the United Kingdom as a stoliday or holistay) is a neologism for a period of time in which an individual or family stays and relaxes at home, or vacations in their own country, possibly taking day trips to area attractions. Staycations achieved popularity in the US during the financial crisis of 2007–2010. Staycations also became a popular phenomenon in the UK in 2009 as a weak pound made overseas holidays significantly more expensive.

While the usual activities during a staycation may include backyard camping, pool parties, visit to local festivals, I am urging you to think outside the box.

Be a tourist in your own city without breaking the budget – Go out and see those attractions that you don’t get to when caught in the everyday life. You can buy a city pass and cover the highlights without having to rent a hotel or car. Read reviews about your own city online (on sites such as TripAdvisor, Frommers, etc.) and find out where the tourists go to dine and view. A lot of museums offer discounts (or free) passed if you enter during the weekdays. You can also arrange for group discounts if you take a group of neighbors or friends. Now may also be the time to check out those nearby waterfalls you have been meaning to see someday.

Create a resort at your own home – Who says you need to spend thousands of dollars and fly a few hours to relax? You can create a resort-like environment in the comfort of your own home too! Pack the kids, the cooler, the beach ball and head out to the pool (river, lake or ocean) if you have one nearby. Put on your “vacation-only” bathing suit, an umbrella in your drink and the sun tan on.

A cruise on land – A cruising vacation involves non-stop fun all day long. But you can get the same experience on land if you plan it out in advance. Fill up the day with activities for the whole family. Go to a local Caribbean restaurant for lunch. Book a dance lesson or a cooking class, a massage at your local spa for the adults and a few hours at the game arcade or bowling alley for the kids. End the day with a family poker night where you have your very own casino.

Some rules of staycation are:

  • Plan ahead
  • Make a schedule
  • Avoid routine
  • Have fun!

Do you have any rules for your family staycation that you would like to share?