Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

If you read my previous post on Sabzeh, you might be interested in the history behind this celebration. A very detailed explanation of the celebration as experienced in Persia (Iran) is found in a great cookbook, entitled New Food Of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij. You can find this on pages 403-408 in the 2008 edition. This is a beautiful book with enticing photos of the prepared food AND ancient Persian art. The book jacket describes the book as “a treasure of 250 classical and regional Iranian recipes. 120 color photographs of food intertwined with Persian miniatures and illustrations together with descriptions of ancient and modern ceremonies make New Food of Life not just a collection of excellent recipes but also an introduction to Persian art and culture.”

The book is lovely and interesting enough to be a coffee table book, especially for foodies, travelers and art historians.

I didn’t buy the book for any of those reasons though. I bought it to explore a cuisine I could cook for my husband who is allergic to wheat. Very few of the recipes use wheat; there is much more use of rice. So if you or a family member have issues with wheat, you might explore Persian cuisine. I’m sure there are other good cookbooks out there. I’m just familiar with this one and it is available in Barnes and Noble  stores. The author does a good job of addressing the issue of specialty ingredients. Compared to Indian cuisine, I think the Persian recipes call for fewer exotic ingredients. Still, you will need access to a middle Eastern grocery store for some of the ingredients. Helpfully, the author includes a list of specialty stores by state and city in the back of the book. The one I explored in Houston, Phoenicia Supermarket on Westheimer, was a true delight to visit. They supply ingredients for many middle eastern cuisines as well as cooking supplies, books, carryout, and a dining area.  It’s a great place to explore.

Naw Ruz being March 21, I wish you Happy Naw Ruz!

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Authors’s note: This blog is being reissued to include a tip submitted by my neice, a tip that is just too good to not share with you. Read on for an alternative way to color the playdough. Thanks Megan for your wonderful comment.

It’s hot, summer is dragging on,  the younger children are so bored.  Invite a few of your children’s friends over for a playdough party. Their moms will be grateful and your kids will enjoy an afternoon making their very own playdouh, as well as the fun associated with playing with playdough after it’s made.

Homemade playdough has several different recipe variations. Some not cooked, and others like this one that are cooked. The cooked variety has more of the feel of the commercial playdough, but not the chemicals. There is nothing in the ingredients that would harm your child if ingested. To top it off, the ingredients are very inexpensive.

The recipe itself is very simple and requires no ingredients not commonly stocked in most kitchens. The most exotic ingredient is cream of tartar. Here is the ingredient list:


1 cup flour

1/2 cup salt

2 teaspoons cream of tartar  (if you’ve never heard of it, you’ll find it in the spice section of the grocery store. It is a white powder. Another use for it is in home-made meringue for pies.)

1 tablespoon salad oil (like Crisco, not canola)

1 cup water

Food color or koolaid package


This playdough is cooked, so depending on the age of the children, you will probably be doing the cooking yourself, but consider which parts of the measuring and assembling of the ingredients that you can engage the children in. When my boys were young, we had a children’s cooking set that included color coded measuring spoons as well as a cookbook that used pictures of the color coded measuring spoons as well as the words. Consequently, they could cook before they could read well.  My sons have turned out to be awesome cooks. Mentioning meringue, my oldest son can make a mean lemon meringue pie, completely from scratch, including the crust. So don’t shortchange your boys in the kitchen. Encourage them to learn to cook too.

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. A single batch would probably be best cooked in a 2 quart pan, not much bigger or smaller. Mix the ingredients and then cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You will be amazed at how easy it is to cook this playdough, and I warn you: it will be done instantaneously. As soon as it is the consistency we know so well for playdough, take the pan off the heat and turn the cooked mixture out onto some waxed paper. Temporarily it’s going to be pretty hot, so keep the children back from it for a bit.

Divide it into equal portions according to how many colors of playdough you want to create.

Now we are going to color the playdough. Of course, you could let the children do the next step with bare hands. There might be some staining from the food color you’ll be using to color the playdough. If you are concerned about this, put each portion of playdough into a ZipLoc  bag. Ask each child to pick his favorite color of food coloring and let him or her squeeze a few drops onto the playdough in the ZipLoc bag. Close up the bag, squeezing out most of the air right before you complete the seal. Hand each child the bag with their color and show them how to knead the dough inside the bag.

If you are not concerned about them coming into contact with the food coloring, give each child a square of wax paper, help him or her squeeze the food coloring onto the playdough and let him knead the dough on the wax paper. This can be a lesson in kneading bread dough. The technique is the same.

An alternate way to color to playdough is to mix in a package of koolaid, the dry mix, of course. We’re talking about the inexpensive $.10 packages that you have to add sugar to when making the koolaid. Not only will the powder color the playdough, it will also give it a nice fragrance.

When the dough is ready, continue the cooking lesson by teaching the children how to use a rolling pin to roll out the dough and to use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. When the kids have exhausted their imagination as to ways to play with the playdough, collect up each color, put it in the ZipLoc bag and send it home with the child who mixed that color.

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Did you watch the news story on TV or read the New York Times story about the dubbawallas in Mumbai India who deliver thousands of meals to business workers in tins called “tiffins.”  The dubbawallas pick up the lunches prepared by someone at home, transport the tiffins by train to downtown Mumbai, deliver the tiffins to the business person, and then pick up the tiffin and take the train again to return it to the person who prepared the food that morning. All without the Internet!dubbawallatiffin

The tin or tiffin carrier typically has 2 or 3 compartments with latches to keep everything closed and contained. It is made of steel. You can buy them online by searching for tiffin boxes or tiffin carriers. These would make a great substitute to the plastic containers people take their lunch to work in here.

Next time you are in the mood for some international cuisine, why not have a Tiffin Party. Have a tiffin ready for each guest to take home some of the leftovers and be prepared to have a sumptuous amount of food available. If you love to cook, then prepare it yourself, but if not, carryout will delight your guests just as well. Obviously Indian cuisine would be appropriate, as would Thai and Chinese. Your guests will remember the occasion every time they use their new eco-friendly lunch box, the tiffin!

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Nothing adds grace and beauty to your home more than fresh cut flowers. One way to expand the versatility of a glass vase  is  to camouflage the water reservoir with dry or organic materials, adding more color and texture to the display.   The two floral displays pictured here look very different and could be used with different motifs. Forsquare vase with beanssquare vase 003 example, the arrangement on the right, which adds  a sandy color to the vase, is actually filled with dried beans.  This look would coordinate well with a seashore motif, picking up the color of the sand, or a rock garden motif, with the beans taking on the look of pebbles. This look is also much lighter and more summery than the second arrangement where the fill material in the vase is fresh cranberries. The cranberries coordinate with the color of the flowers rather than contrast with it. This arrangement would obviously be very appropriate on a Thanksgiving dinner table, but would also work well any time your color scheme included pinks and purples.

Other filler ideas for the vase include:

1) jelly beans at Easter. Layer different colors of jelly beans inside the vase. (Thanks to Vi Quan for suggesting candy: how about M&Ms!)

2) colored sands, such as they use in sand art.

3) pebbles.

4) marbles.

5) buttons.

6) beads, sequins.

7) cornmeal, grits, rice.

The substances you could use are almost endless. They just have to be small enough to fill in the voids in the  vase. Please let me know of other ideas you have.

It may not be obvious from the photograph, but there is no water in the vase around the beans or the cranberries. Clearly there would be substances that you wouldn’t want to submerge in water, such as jellybeans. So how do we accomplish this look? Find a water tight cylinder that will fit within the vase. It’s diameter must be small enough to allow you to fill in around it with the fill material. It’s height should be tall enough to hold enough water for the flowers and tall enough that when the vase is full with the fill material, the fill material doesn’t spill over into the water receptacle. Look around your home for economical solutions for this, such as prescription bottles or spice jars. Larger vases can take larger water receptacles. Because the water receptacle will be small in comparison to the overall size of the vase, it will probably be necessary to refill the water more often.

Just a side note: notice the shape of this vase. The broad square base has a distinct advantage in that you can transport this arrangement on the floorboard of your car and not worry about it tipping over.   That’s a real plus if you like to take flower arrangements to meetings or friends’  homes.

This technique can also solve the problem of short flowers and a tall vase.  Fill the  bottom of the tall vase with the fill material. Set your water receptacle on top of the fill material. Fill in the rest of the way to the top of the vase. No one will be able to see that the stems of your flowers do not go all the way to the bottom of the base.

Finally, this technique can also be used to make individual place setting arrangements, using for example, canning jars as the vase, with pill bottles as the water receptacle.

Enjoy using novel fill materials to create floral arrangements that are sure to inspire and delight your guests.

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stenciled cakeDon’t most of us love cake? And the “icing on the cake” is truly the icing.  I admit I sometimes just eat the icing and leave the cake. Isn’t it true, though, that sometimes a cake with cream icing is just a  little  too  heavy or rich for the rest of the menu.  Maybe you’re afraid it’s going to make YOU too heavy! (2 tablespoons of commercial icing is over 100 calories.)  How would you like a slimmed down decorated cake that’s significantly lower in fat and calories, yet still good to look at? Give stenciling a try!

You need a cake mix and ingredients, something to use as a stencil, a fine-mesh sifter,  and either powdered sugar or cocoa powder.

What we’re going to do is bake a  cake mix or recipe in 2 round 9″  cake pans. You can either stencil both halves now or freeze one half for later. If you stencil  just one half, you’ve already cut your caloric intake in half!

Let’s decorate one half. If you prefer chocolate cake, we’ll use powdered sugar for the stencil. If you want a yellow or white cake, we’ll use cocoa powder for the stencil.

Step 1: Bake your cake in the round cake pan, and cool according to the directions on the box or in the recipe.  Very important:  if making a yellow or white cake, you can dust the greased cake pan with flour, but if you are baking a chocolate cake, dust the cake pan with cocoa powder.  If you used flour, you’d have white flour residue on your chocolate cake, which would interfere with the stenciling pattern you are trying to display on the cake.

Step 2. Cool the cake.  A too warm cake will cause condensation in the powdered sugar or cocoa. Further, the stencil itself may adhere to the cake if the cake is not cooled down.

Step 3. Decide on your stencil. You can either have a reverse image or a positive image. To explain, think of a heart shape. Draw a heart on a white sheet of paper. Cut the heart out. If you place the cut-out heart on the cake and sprinkle around it, that is a reverse image. If you take the sheet of paper with the heart cut out, place the sheet on the cake, and sprinkle into the cutout area with the heart shape, that is the positive image. You could do both, one on one of the cake halves and the other on the other cake half.

Where do you get stencils? Buy them. Make them. A very simple, inexpensive stencil is a paper doily. Another source is quilting templates, which is what I used on the chocolate cake pictured here. Quilting stencils work well because they are plastic and can be easily cleaned, and there are a wealth of designs. The fleur-de-lis pattern shown here would work nicely for an event for a Cub Scout or for the French Club.

Your child’s coloring books may be a good source of stencils. Choose simple images to cut out, again choosing either to do a positive or reverse image. Another possibility are paper dolls. Have the kids help you pick out the image.

Step 4. Position your cake on your serving piece, such as a cake stand, before you do the stenciling. Trying to move the cake after you’ve stenciled it will run the risk of the image distorting or smudging.

Step 5. Secure the stencil. If a large pattern, such as the heart shape, just lay the pattern on the cake gently. If the stencil is more intricate, use toothpicks to secure it to the cake.

Step 6. Using a fine wire mesh sifter, dust the powdered sugar or cocoa powder over the stencil.

Step 7. Carefully remove the stencil, taking care not to spill the excess powder onto the cake.

Enjoy a lighter but still pretty cake.

Ribbon platter and stand

And for a decorating tip, take your ribbon platter and use it as a way to communicate with your guests–greet them, write out the menu, announce the occasion, and so on. I know of some people who use a ribbon platter for each of their children, hang them on the wall, and write personal messages to each child.

If you have any suggestions for stencils, please share your ideas!

And for a decorating tip, use your ribbon platter on other occasions as a way to communicate with your guests or family. With a dry erase pen, write out your menu, or a greeting, or an announcement of the occasion. Some people hang on the wall a platter for each child and use it as an-upscale dry erase board, writing messages to each child.  When investing in better pieces for your home and entertaining, always go for pieces that can serve multiple functions. You want your pretty pieces out, beautifying your environment, not stored away in a box for only special occasions. Life is a special occasion!

Always your comments are welcome.

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