Friday, February 26, 2010

Whole Ragi (millet) Idli and Khichdi (Rice cooked with lentils)

"Ten Acres Enough: The Small Farm Dream is Possible" - by Edmund Morris, a book written in 1864 by a desk worker turned farmer. Here are a few lines from the preface.

"I write more particularly for those who have not been brought up as farmers-for that numerous body of patient toilers in city, town and village, who, like myself, have struggled on from year to year, anxious to break away from the bondage of the desk, the counter, or the workshop, to realize in the country even a moderate income, so that it be a sure one."

If that does not a strike a chord for a lot of people I will be very surprised. It might be 2010, but what Edmund Morris so eloquently expressed in 1864 is still very much true. The book is out of print but can be read electronically from the link provided above.

A life of a farmer and a farming for someone stuck in the drudgery of a desk job might seem very appealing, peaceful almost. But there is no dearth of people warning about the hard life of a farmer and they are to be taken seriously.

It has been giving me great pleasure reading this book. I'd sure love to chuck my desk job once for all :)

I have for today 2 recipes that are simple but down home and comforting. One is ragi idli and the other is khichidi. If you want a bit of variation from the regular rice idlis try using whole ragi for a colorful, fluffy and soft idlis. As opposed to the dosai batter which does not require fermentation, the idli batter has to be fermented.

As for khichidi it is a variation on the Kongu version of arisim paruppu saatham and the South Indian favorite ven pongal. Amazing how the very same main ingredients but a change in the spices can give totally different but equally tasty results. I had this khichidi as prasadam after out Sunday Geeta classes and could not wait to recreate them at home.

Whole Ragi idli
For the batter
1. 2 Cups Whole Ragi
2. 1 1/2 cups of Rice
3. 1 cup of Urad dal [if you are using a ratio of 4:1 rice:urad dal, stick to that while using ragi + rice]
4. 1 tbsp methi seeds

1. Soak the above overnight. [I will explain why soaking overnight is a good idea]
2. Grind the ragi first remove to a container, followed by the urad and methi seeds and finally the rice. Add water as required to get the grinder/blender moving.
3. Add salt and mix it to a consistency of pancake batter, pourable but not watery.
4. Let it ferment overnight.

To make idlis
1. Grease the idli mould with sesame oil or ghee and fill with batter.
2. Put in a pressure cooker (without weight) or a idli steamer and steam for 10-12 minutes.
3. Let the steam abate, remove and serve with a chutney of choice.

1. Soaking overnight: Soaking overnight especially in the cold winter months helps the batter to ferment relatively easily. Grind the batter in the morning and let it ferment till the next morning. Summer months the batter should ferment by evening.

2. Fermentation: If you have a conventional oven or microwave over with a light, turn on the light and leave the batter inside for 8-24 hours and the batter will rise. If it does not, remove the batter container outside warm the oven, turn off heat, put the batter back inside and leave for another 2-3 hours.

Khichidi is mixture of rice and dal seasoned with pepper, cumin, ginger,green chilies and curry leaves. The rice is not cooked mushy like arisim paruppu saatham or ven pongal but in a such way that the rice and dal still retain their shape. The khichidi had that texture and that is the way I attempted to recreate. Split moong dal is generally used I used a combination of split moong and split cow peas. I am in a swoon over the taste. Use only ghee that is not an option but a requirement.

Khichidi - Rice with lentils
1. 1 1/2 Cups or rice (Ponni Raw Rice) - 4 Cups of water
2. 1/2 Cup split moong dal with skin
3. 1/2 cup split cow peas (thatta payar)
4. 4 green chilies slit and deseeded if needed
5. 10-15 curry leaves
6. 1 tbsp pepper-cumin powder + turmeric powder
7. 3 tsp ghee
8. 2 tsp cumin seeds
9. Salt to taste

1. In a pressure cooker heat the ghee and season with cumin seeds
2. Add the slit green chilies and curry leaves and saute for a few seconds
3. Add the pepper - cumin - turmeric powders and let it sizzle
4. Add the water and let it come to a boil, add the salt.
5. Add the rice, dals and let it come to a boil
6. Close the lid and let it cook for 8 -10 minutes (do not have to wait for the whistle to come, depending on the rice being used determine the optimum time to cook before it becomes mushy)

Serve with beetroot raita.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chocolate pound cake with dried currants and nuts

Trade and Food - Part I
When you walk into the grocery store you are likely to pick up something grown several thousand miles away than one grown in a local farm - a banana from Costa Rica, a pomegranate from Afghanistan or a cantaloupe melon from Peru. What is the thought that goes through your mind? Are you thinking "in my own small way I am helping a farmer in a far away land"?

I have read and heard enough to finally know that the farmer who tends his land and works in the soil sees very little benefit from your purchases. The farmer has to abide by standards of the country to which his food produce is exported and the multinational who is his customer. Using chemicals for high yields not only hurts his land and affects his health. The huge beneficiaries are by far the agro big business who do business with the farmer and you the customer through several intermediaries. The farmer is lucky if he sees even fractions of a cent on the dollar. Once the farmer is not able to abide by the standards set by the multinational company his livelihood and his lifeline the farm is literally in ruins unless he markets his produce through fair trade organizations.

While we enjoy out of season and non local fruits and vegetables the struggles of the farmer will be unseen as is the intrusion of these global agro big business into our food cycles.

Free Trade - NAFTA
NAFTA - North American Free Trade Agreement: On the face of it there is nothing that can be better "NAFTA created the world's largest free trade area, which now links 444 million people producing $17 trillion worth of goods and services." If you go by the prevailing sentiment, trade is a good thing and this should be a boon for most producers, sellers and buyers. But nothing can be further from the truth for small farmers here in the US, Canada and in Mexico.

On one side US small farmers have been hurt extensively, with imports from Canada and Mexico far exceeding exports from the US. This has led to massive losses and bankruptcies among small US farmers forcing them to sell off their farms to huge multinational companies. NAFTA held the promise of cheaper products for the consumer, profitability for the US farmers and prosperity all around. But it was just that an empty promise and in reality has done far greater damage to the common man and the environment. The bulk of the benefits and profits have gone to big business who are fighting against modifications to NAFTA. Link

Fewer and fewer people have direct association with the farmer who grows food and the relationship with the soil that is essential to grow. Kids growing up today have very tiny knowledge of the food growing process and thereby hindering their ability to make sound and sustainable choices. It also make us that much more unaware of the effects of food prices and what should be considered fair.

Changes have been slowly happening. The organic and local food movement have helped revive the small farmers. Increasingly consumers looking to be more connected to their food and food sources. This along with general awareness has helped with the resurgence of small farms. Ultimately to the consumer price is a big factor. The slightly higher price we pay today for produce that use sustainable farming practices that preserve land and soil should be considered as fair.

The effect of NAFTA on small farmers in Mexico has been even more devastating. With the barrier to entry broken by NAFTA subsidized low cost grains from the US flooded Mexican markets making it impossible for small time farmers to compete in their own market. A large number have abandoned their farms and are crossing north to work as farm laborers in the US. The same is true of farmers in Haiti.

As for the Canada its problems due to NAFTA are borne by exploitation of its natural resources. Canada largest trading partner is US and this is added pressure on their natural resources and their ability to make laws to protect their environment. Some of the concerns of Canada due to NAFTA are listed here

NAFTA has hurt the common man and the benefits seem to all go the big corporations. It is easy to site cost and move production from the US to Mexico where costs are lower.

As consumers we do have a lot of power in our hands and as citizens we also have the ability to pressure our governments to do the right thing.

We can start by not grudging the local or organic farmer the slightly higher cost than produce that has been shipped in from foreign lands. 99 out of 100 time the faraway farmer has not benefited either.

... to be continued.

On to today's recipe, chocolate pound cake. There is a very fixed recipe I have for baking cakes and follow it without much alteration. Over the snow break I was itching to make some changes and and see how that worked out. It did turn out pretty good and the constant call for chocolate cake was satisfied in the process.

cake slices with ice cream - the best way to eat them!

Chocolate pound cake with dried currants and nuts
1. 1 3/4 cups flour ( I used unbleached all purpose flour) (1 1/2 cups of flour if using whole wheat)
2. 4 Eggs
3. 2 sticks butter at room temperature
4. 1 tbsp cocoa powder
5. 1 1/2 cups of sugar
6. 1 tsp baking powder
7. a pinch of salt
8. 1/2 cup of red currants
9. 3 tbsp of pistachios chopped
10. 1/2 cup of milk

1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Using an electric beater, beat the eggs till fluffy and set aside.
2.In a separate bowl, beat the butter and combine the sugar into the butter.
3. Sift ingredients 4-7 together - flour mixture.
4. Incorporate the flour mixture into the butter-sugar mixture using the beater and adding a bit of eggs as you add the flour when it starts to get dry. Add the currants and mix it in.
5. If the mixture is dry after all the egg has been added add milk to get a pourable batter. (the amount of liquid needed varies depending on the type of flour used)
6. Grease the cake pans and pour the batter and sprinkle the nuts on top.
7. Bake for 25 -30 minutes till a tooth pick inserted comes out clean.

Serve with a scoop of ice cream.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The oil conundrum and a pulikulambu (tamarind relish with brinjals and ginger) for ven pongal grandma style

Every country we know of has an oil problem either too much of it or too little of it. Wars have been fought over it, uneasy partnerships have been forged, governments have been brought down but with nary an easy solution is in sight. Every conceivable form of sustenance as we know it would grind to a halt without this unending supply of oil.

Let's replace countries with kitchens and oil with cooking oil and the problems would still be the same. Too many options but none the perfect choice. Mountains have to be moved, perceptions had to swallowed to get on with life.

I am beginning to think that living life like an ostrich maybe a good thing else a conundrum of some kind is sure to visit you, it seems pretty frequently these days especially if it relates to food. The more you know learn about food and how it is sourced the more you want to avoid very many of them, some ubiquitous that it proves to be all the more difficult.

I started reading about GMO and I knew almost immediately I had to make some pretty big changes. The three most common GMO crops are soybean, corn and canola. Soybean and corn seem almost impossible to avoid if you buy processed foods of any kind. Even seemingly health foods(?!) like breakfast cereals have them in large doses. If you follow 'Pollan's grandma shopping rule' you just might be able to avoid them. The one other GMO matter that my kitchen had in abundant quantities in unadulterated pure form was the Canola oil. I am still struggling to get rid of it completely because the alternatives don't seem like perfect solutions.

When I first came here I hadn't cooked a proper meal by myself once. I had some general ideas having watched food being cooked and some tried and trusted cook books. I also knew one of the first things I needed to have was cooking oil. With an array of shiny bottles available to be picked up ranging from corn,vegetable, canola to olive oil I picked one not for its calorific or fat content but by which one had the most pleasing yellowish sheen. The choice mostly worked well, if you want to know it was vegetable oil that I first picked I think.

Then came the canola craze in the 90s which the purported claim that it was the best oil in the market, I switched to it and have never looked back until now having been hit with an insurmountable road block..

I had this unnecessary perception that cooking Indian food with olive oil was somehow violating the sacrosanct tenents of the ancient cooking methods. When a few of my friends tried to impress upon me the benefits of olive oil I simply failed to listen to them. I wish I hadn't been an ass and listened to them. PJ, reminded me of why I was reluctant, like she mentioned problems with heating the oil to a high temperature. Wiki Smoke Point. I have used olive oils to cook pasta sauces, stir fries etc and they taste just fine. So here I am in this late date trying to decide which oils to cook with.

By the way if you haven't head over to this excellent comprehensive post on Jugalbandi about oils and you would save yourselves a ton of time.

I have eliminated corn oil and vegetable oil, the other readily available supermarket alternatives and you know why. I am left with using sesame oil (nallennai), olive oil or peanut oil. I am leaning more towards olive oil more for convenience than anything else. The organic and all other forms are readily available in almost all grocery stores. I will be using peanut oil for deep frying because that is what my grandmother uses. Don't ask me why I forgot this in the first place. Sra's comment is a good reminder to use a variety of oils than stick to any particular one. No more bulk oil buying for me which means Costco is out.

I was smart to keep away from the "you won't know it is not butter" stuff because love of ghee is in my gene. We had containers of freshly made ghee sent by my grandmother and the taste is something that you never forget. But it is not feasible to cook everything in ghee, so ghee will continue to be used in the same quantities it has always been that is in dishes that it is meant to be.

Sadly I never developed a taste for coconut oil and it is hard to miss the smell of foods cooked in coconut oil so for now I won't be cooking with coconut oil.

From what I read sunflower oil is good to use as well. Atleast it is made from sunflower seeds which cannot be said of canola (canada oil?).

I do not use more than a couple of tsps of oil in cooking anyway. Just enough to season with mustard and cumin, so any oil used should not be a big deal right?

It is very easy to be carried by the recent fads and health claims. The health claims proportionally increases with the acreage of the same under cultivation. soy bean for example. Moreover the old world foods and for that matter oil and fats that do not have the muscle of the food industry behind it gets the short shrift.

Now that I have a plan for dealing with my cooking oil conundrum we shall move on to tasty matters like this brinjal pulikulambu for instance. This particular pulikulambu is made specially as a side for ven pongal. There are many a time I have tolerated ven pongal just for this reason. One important ingredient is to have small onions or shallots while making this. I wouldn't use big onions for this but if that is all you have no worries. A good amount of ginger is what makes this pulikulambu special so don't leave it out. Mine turned out a bit on the thicker side but it is best when the kulambu is runny so adjust water accordingly.

Brinjal pulikulambu
1. 6-8 brinjals chopped into small pieces and drop them in water
2. 4 medium sized shallots or a handful of small onions chopped
3. 2 inch size knob of ginger minced or grated
4. 3 garlic cloves chopped
5. 5 -6 green chilies chopped
[all of the above should be chopped to more or less the same size with the exception of ginger which can be grated if you don't like biting into them]
6. tamarind pulp for a small lemon sized ball [about 2 cups liquid]
7. 2 tsp sambhar powder or chili powder
8. 1/2 - 1 tbsp jaggery or unprocessed cane sugar (karumbu sarkarai]
9. salt to taste
10. seasonings - mustard seeds, curry leaves
11. 1 tsp oil

To powder
1. 1 tsp rice
2. few methi seeds
3. tiny piece of asfoetida
roast the above and make a powder

1. In a pan heat oil and add the mustard seeds and when they pop add the curry leaves followed by the onions, saute till they start to turn color.
2. Add the garlic, green chilies and ginger and saute for a minute or two
3. Add the chopped brinjals and saute for a few more minutes. Add the sambhar powder and give a good mix.
4. Pour in the tamarind pulp [extracted to 2 cups] and 1 cup of water, salt and let it cook for 10-12 minutes till the brinjals are soft.
5. Add the roasted powder and the jaggery, let boil for a minute more.

This is best paired with Ven Pongal.

Updated: Sra's and PJ's comments

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Whole wheat muffins with raisins and dried cranberries

I have never particularly had an opinion one way or the other about parties, only that people who extend an invitation have to be respected. By parties I mean potlucks, birthdays, get-togethers or anywhere a small group gathers to celebrate or complain or whatever the case maybe. To some I go out of a sense of duty, some out of necessity and some of out of real interest. But none that I have looked forward to as much as the 'bon voyage' party our neighbor had for her son last week. Amidst the snow and being stuck inside, it provided an opportunity to get outside even if it were just a few steps walk over to the next door. The party was postponed a day to give time to dig ourselves out first and gave all the more reasons to look forward to it. I am building up the climax more than necessary but you get my point. Well anyway the guest of honor who is going away on a job to Spain could not make it to the party because he was snowed in, another family who are also our neighbors 2 houses over and the daughter of the house made it, giving enough people for a celebration. We sang 'bon voyage' to the tune of Kumbaya over the phone, ate some delicious cake and lunch.

The snow has brought things to notice that we might have forgotten and even kindled the non existent baking skills, muscles and bones in my upper and forearms that I never knew existed. You have got to read this short news article for some laughs. If you have a good technology to truck snow hundreds of miles without melting please do let me know, I would like to make some money selling it to Vancouver who are in a severe snow drought. I maybe joking but this is no laughing matter. More the evaporation, more severe the winter storms and hurricanes are going to get, what goes up eventually has to come down either in the form of rain or snow. Direct effects of a warming planet.

Baking is not one of my forte not that I have many fortes, the patience and precision required is not just my cup of tea. Sometimes it is the gazillion ingredients and instructions that makes my eyes glaze over even before I have read through the ingredients list while sometimes it is the warning to stick to the actual measurements which is very very hard. So I see this muffin recipe on Red Chillies and it sure sounded doable and it looked like it would lend itself quite nicely to modifications and additions. The first chance I got to make it out, made a beeline to the grocery store to buy some apple sauce.

Being cooped in the house has made a baker out of me and I have cranked up the oven more times in the last week than I have the entire last year.

We regularly buy bran muffins, it has a very dense texture and is not cakey. If you like your muffin to have a cakey texture, substitute with all purpose flour. I am not fond of cake like sweet muffins for breakfast, so went with stone ground whole wheat flour. The kids are also quite fond of the bran muffin and so this muffin was just perfect for us.

Serving: 12 muffins + a small 'cake' loaf
Whole wheat muffins with raisins and dried cranberries
1. 2 Cups whole wheat flour (stone ground)
2. 2/3 cups of sugar (turbinado sugar)
3. 2 1/2 cups of unsweetened apple sauce
4. 1 egg + 2 tbsp butter (substitute with oil or increase the apple sauce by a cup)
5. 1/2 tsp salt
6. 1/2 tsp baking powder
7. 1/2 cup raisins + dried cranberries
8. 1-2 tbsp broken pecans

1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Beat the egg till frothy.
2. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
3. Add the apple sauce into the dry ingredients and mix together, add the egg and the butter till well combined.
4. Mix in the raisins and cranberries.
5. Pour into lined muffing pans and the greased cake pan.
6. Top with the nuts
7. Bake for 25 minutes and a knife inserted comes out clean.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Spiced Yogurt with Adai (lentil pancakes)

Around here, weather is still the big news. Even after applying "flinty Chicago toughness" to DC for a year, the federal government had to close for 3 days in a row. The schools are out till the day after Presidents Day. Keeping high energy kids under house arrest is probably the toughest part of the deal. Thankfully we still have power and a warm place to stay which is not the case with a lot of residents in the area. Thanks all of you for checking up.

cleaned once a lot more left by the new one to be cleaned again

In a space of 2 days here we are in the midst of another snow storm, seriously Mother Nature is the boss if I ever I had any doubt. While the other one was orderly and well organized with the sun coming out the minute the snow stopped falling and making the landscape look absolutely magical when the sun reflected on the pristine snow (we will leave aside the shoveling part for now). This one on the other hand is one ugly storm, the difference is the blizzard conditions with snow blowing all over and the violently swaying trees laden with snow is scary to watch. Snowmeggadon, snowpocalypse all seem appropriate terms to describe the conditions we are under now.

Shoveling snow is a workout like no other. The high calorie foods we tend to consume while caught indoors were all burned pretty easily. Shoveling out a 800 sq feet area of driveway and walkway definitely gave the feeling of having run a marathon. The upper arm workout while throwing the snow over the ever growing mounds sure makes one sleep without a stir at night.

it is beautiful alright

From the next post on I promise to not bore you with any more snow talk but there is snow still falling and I can't think straight.

this new one which started yesterday, sure is messy with drifting blowing snow

Adai - it has come to this, family plays a guessing game trying to figure out what went into the mix when the adai got made. The composition changes and this time it had toor dal, moong dal, urad dal, steel cut oats and whole ragi. The ragi adds a good bit of nuttiness to the dosai. Avial - mixed vegetable in a yogurt coconut base is by far the best accompaniment for Adai.

The protein filled adai with the vegetable filled soothing yogurt is indeed a perfect match. With not enough time on hand and not enough vegetables, plain spiced yogurt is all I could come up with. Add a few sauteed shallots if you wish. Almost similar to this neer poosanikai thayir kuzhambu but with a lot of ginger and you know why.

Spiced Yogurt
1. 2 Cups Yogurt whisked
2. 1/2 tbsp coconut grated
3. 3-4 green chilies (control for heat)
4. 1 tbsp ginger grated
5. salt to taste
6. seasonings: cumin, mustard seeds, one whole red chili, curry leaves
7. 1/2 tsp ghee

1. Dry roast the coconut, ginger and green chilies and blend to a smooth paste
2. Whisk it into the yogurt.
3. In a small pan heat the ghee and the let the cumin and mustard splutter, add the red chili and curry leaves, cool and pour on the yogurt.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Baby Button Mushrooms with Cauliflower and Green Peas stir fry

Weather,specifically this potentially record breaking snow storm and Tai Shan - our beloved and very own baby panda bear lead the news this week. Well Tai Shan is on his way to becoming a sex slave a breeding program in China after a life of a pampered prince at the National Zoo. We will miss him and we got ourselves a bad deal.

our street early this morning

As for the weather we are in the midst of a 6th or maybe the 7th snow storm of the season for a region which gets one snow storm with an average of 17 inches or less for the whole season. With schools closing early and snow starting about 11.00AM on Friday, early Saturday morning we already have 25 inches on the ground with another 12 hours and an expected 4-8 inches of snow before it is all said and done. We are well past our average snow totals and on the way to a record breaking 50 inches already and there is still 6 more weeks of winter to go.

I am getting cabin fever and feeling claustrophobic but otherwise doing fine. We are having a good workout clearing out the snow, it is easy to shovel a few times than try to do them all in one go. It is back breaking job, a snow blower sure sounds great but I bet they have disappeared from most stores on the eastern seaboard.

In the last post I got a good deal of comments on books that will be good reads to be more informed of our food sources. Here is a compilation.

1. In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto By Michael Pollan
2. The Omnivores Dilemma By Michael Pollan
3. The Botany Of Desire By Michael Pollan
4. Animal, Vegetable Miracle A Year of Food Life By Barbara Kingslover
5. What to Eat By Marion Nestle
6. Food Matters By Mark Bittman
7. Fast Food Nation By Eric Schlosser
8. Real Food: What to eat and why By Nina Planck

1. Food Inc
2. King Corn
3. The Corporation
4. Fast Food Nation
5. Future of Food

Let me know if there are others and I can add them in.

I had gone shopping with a friend last week and we visited Traders Joe's, reminded me again why I like this place. Organic food by low cost. I got some baby button mushrooms, DD2 favorite vegetable or is it fungi? I had some fresh green peas and some cauliflower. This spur of the moment and a very simple stir fry but paired well with chapatis or rice. Nothing fancy just the basic, onion, garlic, tomato but medley of flavors proved just this side of exotic. Just make sure the cauliflower is not cooked to mushy.

Baby mushrooms, cauliflower and peas stir fry
1. 2 packs baby mushrooms washed thoroughly in water and wiped dry with a kitchen towel - about 3 cups
2. Cauliflower florets - approx 2 cups
3. Green Peas - 1 cup
4. 1 Cup onion chopped - use shallots if you have them
5. 4 garlic cloves sliced
6. 1/2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
7. 6 green chilies sliced
9. handful of chopped coriander leaves
10. 1/2 tbsp masala powder (optional)
11. 1/4 -1/2 cup tomatoes chopped fine
12. salt to taste
13. 2 tsp turmeric powder
14. seasonings: cumin, mustard, curry leaves - cloves and cinnamon sticks (optional)

1. In a wide mouthed pan, heat a tsp of oil and add the seasonings and when they turn color add the onions and garlic and saute till onions are soft.
2. Now add the ginger and mix it in.
3. Add the tomatoes and green chilies and saute till soft.
4. Add the cauliflower and turmeric powder and let it cook for a 3-4 minutes
5. Add the mushroom,salt and peas and saute for a few minutes, cover and let cook for 6-8 minutes till the mushrooms are cooked.
6. Now add the masala powder and coriander leaves mix it in, let cook for a minute or 2 till the water evaporates.

Serve with rice or chapatis.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Corn Muffins - Sweet and Savory

I started off the Food Talk series talking about different types of seeds, organic and conventional produce, organic fish and crop diversity. These are topics that we should all know about and be aware of. But for most us, the most tangible experience with food is at our local grocery stores. Even if we do have access to CSAs(community supported agriculture), food co-ops and farmer's markets but a great many of our foods is sourced from our local supermarkets which tend be chain grocery stores. The better informed we are the more easier it will be to navigate the aisles in the grocery store.

Like everything else food shopping is also influenced to a large extent by our perceptions and prejudices. What does that mean? Well for starters most of us who would differentiate and pick up the organic choice if it is available at the regular super markets would not think twice about picking up vegetables at the Indian grocery store. They come from the growers, growing the conventional way, packaged and shipped over long distance. Perception here is the culprit that anything associated with home is better. Unfortunately it is true. Till recently that was my attitude as well.

Even if you judge people by how they look, doing the same with fruits and vegetables is apparently not a good idea just as making an opinion about a person based on how they look. Most fruits and vegetables are bred more for their looks and packable qualities rather than taste and texture. Using eyes minimally and trusting more the hands and nose to pick out the best quality produce might be the way to go.

In response to RC's question, If you are concerned about GM fruits and vegetables most vegetables are not, from what I have read, most vegetables are hybrid with the exception of heirloom. Here is a list of Engineered Foods Allowed on the Market.

Thanks Mamatha for this information, All Price-LookUp codes (PLUs) that begin with 8 are GMO (those that begin with 9 are Organic, 4 conventional).

Read through the comments too, lot of information there.

Here is Sandeepa's comprehensive analysis of Local vs Organic. She captures beautifully the problems and difficulties in deciding what is right. I am sure each of us has had these debates in our heads and then settle on what works best.

corn batter in the muffin pan

Processed Foods
Most processed foods available today has some form of corn, soy or canola and most of these grains are GMO as well included in the mix. Don't get me wrong whole grain corn and soy are quite nutritious and by themselves probably good for you, unless of course you start thinking if they are GM or not. In case you are worried majority of the time it probably is. Most processed food products you have touched almost always have a corn by product. Click here to see the list and be totally freaked out. The list is compiled for people with corn allergy but also shows how ubiquitous corn is in our daily lives. The other highly subsidized crop the soy bean I bet has a list just as long or if not longer.

Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food says "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Living by that mantra will keep us more than healthy. Pollan's advice to stick to the peripheries of the grocery store (usually where real food is as opposed to food products) is another invaluable one.

the spicy one

Nutrients vs Ingredients
But in this world of super processed food all around us it is very difficult to live by that credence. So the next best thing is to follow a few rules when we buy those. The rule of thumb to follow while buying processed foods is to look at the ingredients list and not buy anything that has more than 5 ingredients in their list. If the list has ingredients that sounds like it belongs in a laboratory than in food product run as far away from it as possible. Easier said than done. This will eliminate 90% of processed foods including many of the sugary breakfast cereals which lot of people think is health food. Let us not forget the controversy involving the Danish government which banned Kellog's fortified cereals. The long list of vitamins and minerals in a cereal scares me stiff. Instead of getting those from whole foods, they are injected into processed foods! Isn't that scary? Steroids in professional sports is bad but injecting these supposedly good vitamins into food in the name of nutrition is good? Why don't food companies follow Haagen Daaz's lead as in their five ingredient ice creams.

Like Pollan says, reliance on nutrients rather than food has lead to a food industry that has perfected its art in making spurious health claims even making us think that low fat chicken nuggets is a healthy snack. With a gullible public ready to believe that there is nutritious benefits in a diet coke there is no dearth of food companies ready to fool us.

How important is labeling important in making your food decision?
Cynthia of Tastes Like Home had a 2 part series titled Anatomy of a Food Label does a great job of revealing what a food label is all about.

Do you use a food label as a crutch when making food choices? I mostly use the label to decipher the ingredients that go into the product. I don't so much care about the low fatness or fat freeness of the product. The fat free products makes up for itself in calories laden with sugar than its full fat counterpart to make up for the lack of fat. So you are not making that much of a better deal. The only fat free product I buy without skepticism is fat free milk.

A couple of years ago we were suddenly inundated with all this natural stuff in the food aisles. This especially hit me when I saw the dairy aisle. It is another marketing gimmick devised by the food industry to cheat its customers. Read It's Natural Vs. Organic and Organic is Losing. Many of you who thought Agave is a natural sweetener you will be disappointed to learn it is highly processed, unnatural substance. Sad eh?

Perception and food choices
Do you believe when a product made in China has an organic labeling is really organic? I don't. It has a lot do with my perception of China and its business practices. I am not willing to shell out a few bucks extra to buy a product labeled organic that is made in China. Is my perception correct? may be or may be not and the truth might be lot different. Europe takes a much stricter approach to food and food products, hence I buy products made in Europe without batting an eyelid and would not think of shelling a few extra bucks.

For a lot of us perception is the reality and we make bad food choices all the time. Anything home made is good, even if it laden with sugar and made with highly processed bleached flour and butter. If this done every other day I am not really sure if it is a good thing. Substitute the bleached flour with whole wheat flour and your perception of the baked good changes and it becomes a healthy choice. Again does that make it good enough to be eaten daily?

Can an active lifestyle be replaced with nutrition?
I am sure most of us believe in varying degrees that eating healthy and nutritious foods. I am not fond of both the words when they are used in conjunction with food and imply they can somehow replace being active. Our perception that a sedentary lifestyles can be excused with eating right then we have a long way to go. With the mass marketing of health foods and quick popping vitamin tablets to shore up our vitamin deficiency we have locked up our common sense and thrown the key.

Most of our ancestors wasted little time in deciding which food had the highest nutritious content. They ate fresh in season foods and lead a very active life style. Globalization has turned our food habits topsy turvy.

ready to eat

Well there is so much more to talk about. If you want to know and be enlightened about the food industry reading a book like In Defense of Food would be a great start. On the next Food Talk we will name books and DVDs that are a great read and dispel some of the myths about "good" food. Please share any books that you think has helped you.

So now to the recipe which is based on, you guessed it corn! Just like whole wheat flour is better than highly processed all purpose flour whole grain corn is better than the innumerable additives it lends itself to. A friend of mine brings corn bread whenever she visits and it is a big time kid favorite. Slathered with some butter it is a perfect meal by itself. Used the recipe on the package of the stone ground corn meal. The kids voted for the sweet kind and then they dug into our savory ones. Who can resist cheese?

a wedge of the spicy kind

Serving: 12 muffins and a 6" diameter pie shaped bread
Corn Muffins - Savory and Sweet
1. 1 1/2 cups of stone ground corn meal (preferably organic)
2. 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
3. 1/2 cup sugar ( i used turbinado sugar)
4. 4 tsp baking powder
5. 2 tsp salt
6. 1/2 cup oil
7 1 Cup milk
8. 3/4 cup yogurt
9. 2 eggs

For the savory muffin
1. 2 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, seeds removed and chopped
2. a handful of crumbled pepper jack cheese
finely chopped jalapenos or bell pepper, coriander leaves can all be used


Preheat oven to 425F

1. Line the muffin tins with the muffin paper cups and grease the pie pan.
2. Mix all the dry ingredients together 1-5.
3. Beat the egg till fluffy, mix the oil and milk inside.
4. Whisk the yogurt and add it to the dry ingredients along with the whisked eggs.
5. Mix in a few strokes to incorporate.
6. Pour into the muffin tins.

For Savory
7. Mix in the chipotle peppers and cheese.
8. Pour into the muffin cups and the rest into the pie pan.
9. Bake for 20 minutes, a tooth pick inserted should come out clean.
10. Let cool and serve with some butter on top.

We had them for breakfast on a snowy Saturday morning. It was enjoyed by one and all. I am not sure why I had not tried this before.