Thursday, August 02, 2012

Curry Mixes and Quick Fixes

In the last few weeks, I wrote over a dozen blog posts. But no one ever got to read them because they were all written in my head. There was that one little step - the actual sitting down and typing- which I never did find the time for, and hence those posts never saw the light of day, or the glow of your computer screen.

Well, August is here and it brings some big changes to my life. In preparation for our out-of-state move, I resigned from my job and Tuesday was my last day. Lila and I are adjusting to a new routine and I am trying to cross off things from a long and ever-growing to-do list.

Last month when life was more hectic than usual, I got to use every time-saving tool, trick and technique in the home cook's arsenal. One of these tricks is to use commercial spice pastes occasionally. I am passionate about cooking from scratch and equally passionate about not letting perfection get in the way of a good meal. So this post is a little nod of appreciation to good quality commercial spice pastes where you just add vegetables (lots and lots of them) and some pantry staples to make a wonderful meal.

I promise that I have no affiliation with any of the brand names I mention in this post. I'm a happy customer and that's about it.

The first is Parampara brand biryani paste which comes in a little packet. A dear friend (and ex-neighbor) was in town with her family, including her in-laws and I invited them all over for lunch. My friend's in-laws are from the deep Southern US and this was the very first time her mother in law was tasting Indian food. No pressure or anything! With only a couple of short hours to pull the meal together, I made a short-cut biryani as the main dish. To my intense relief, all the guests ate seconds, seemed to enjoy the meal and I believe we may have a couple of new fans of Indian food.

Vegetable Egg Biryani 
(using a packaged spice paste)


This recipe makes a 9 x 13 tray, enough for 6 to 8 servings.
1. Rice: Rinse and cook 2 cups Basmati rice in a rice cooker or on the stove top in salted water until it is just tender. Stir in 1 tbsp. ghee and spread the rice out to cool.
2. Vegetables: Saute 6 to 8 cups of mixed vegetables until tender. I used summer squash and mushrooms cut into hearty chunks. Any of these will also work: carrots, cauliflower, peas, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, peppers. To the vegetables, add 1 packet Parampara biryani paste. Stir well to get the paste uniformly mixed in (you may find it helpful to mix in the paste with some warm water first). Stir fry for a few minutes and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
3. Other additions (optional): Chop a handful each of fresh cilantro and mint. Shallow fry one sliced onion, or use a handful of store-bought fried onions. Boil 6 eggs, then peel and quarter them.
4. Assembly: Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish with some ghee. Layer half the rice evenly. Add the entire vegetable mixture and spread evenly. Scatter the eggs. Sprinkle with herbs. Add the other half of the cooked rice and spread evenly. Top with fried onions if using. Cover with foil or oven safe lid and bake for 45 minutes at 350 F. Alternatively, if you want to avoid firing up the oven, make the layers in a dutch oven or large pan and finish the biryani on the stove top, covered, on low heat.

Palak Chana (Spinach & Chickpeas) 
(using a packaged spice paste)

1. Soak 1.5 cups dried chickpeas overnight. Rinse and pressure cook them until tender.
2. Heat 2 tsp. oil.
3. Add 1 packet frozen chopped spinach or 1 lb. chopped fresh spinach and stir fry for a few minutes.
4. Add 1 packet Parampara chole paste and stir well.
5. Add the cooked chickpeas and enough water to make a curry (thick or thin, however you prefer it).
6. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.

Serve with rice or rotis or bread, lemon wedges and a tomato-onion salad.

Another quick weekday dinner in my home: With a can of Thai curry paste (I like Maesri) and a can of coconut milk (Chaokoh is a favorite), it is so easy to put together a delicious Thai-inspired curry that includes whatever fresh or frozen vegetables are on hand.

She Simmers is an excellent blog on Thai home cooking that I stumbled upon quite recently. In particular, this essay on Thai curry pastes is worth a read. The blogger explains why she uses commercial curry pastes, saying "unless you have all of the fresh herbs and spices required to make authentic and traditional Thai curry pastes, you're better off using commercial curry pastes than trying to make do with ill-advised substitutes." Now I feel much better about using canned Thai curry pastes. The green curry paste is a particular favorite but we enjoy most of them.

Thai-Inspired Vegetable Curry


1. Heat a couple of teaspoons of oil.
2. Saute 6 cups or so of mixed vegetables.
3. Add 1 can curry paste and 1 can coconut milk.
4. Add cubes of tofu (optional).
5. Simmer.
6. Taste and adjust flavor using salt, lemon juice and sugar.

Add herbs (cilantro/mint) if available and serve on rice or quinoa.

I would not be surprised at all if the local Thai restaurants that I like to frequent use these very same curry pastes. The taste is so similar and so good for something that comes out of a can. And that's my story of how sometimes using packaged ingredients can save dinner and be a excellent alterative to getting take-out.

Do you use any commercial spice pastes? What are your favorites?


On The Bookshelf

Our friends who also have a small baby recently asked me how on earth I find time to read. I don't know what to say except that I need to read. In busy periods, it can take me weeks to finish a book that would normally take a day. But I find time to read a few pages every day no matter what else is going on in my life- it is necessary for my mental health.

This is what I have been reading this past month. None of these books are light and fluffy (and my two sentence descriptions probably sound very bleak) but I really enjoyed each one.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke (translator): A slim, magical tale about teenage boys exiled to a remote and poor village during the Cultural Revolution. Their love for books and the need to keep it a secret leads them to adventures.

In The Woods by Tana French: A cozy mystery this is not. It is a richly written and quite unsettling psychological thriller about a detective who faced a horrific trauma in his childhood and is back in the same place to investigate another murder.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: A very engaging family drama that follows the lives of three siblings who are raised by a bitter and angry mother after their father deserts the family. Anna Tyler has a remarkable talent for describing ordinary people and inconsequential everyday things in a way to captivates the reader. I also enjoyed her book Breathing Lessons.

Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism by Joel Yanofsky: Yanofsky is brutally candid, angry, tender and loving as he describes the challenges of parenting a son with autism. A must read memoir.

And I continued reading my beloved Precious Ramotswe series with The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party and just borrowed the latest The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection from the library yesterday.

Are you reading anything fun this summer? See you very soon (I promise..)

52 comments:

  1. Hahahah.., I love your write up Nupur, you wrote a dozen posts, I was about to browse through and the next lines made me smile., how true, I do the same but I never have time to pen them down loads of other things take my time, with 3 teenage kids who laze around a lot with mum here with me.., completely spoilt :), Like loads of people I do wonder how you make time to read, long back one of the blogger friend said I should get back to reading to keep my mind off everything.., Now reading your post I feel I should definitely do something about this.., thanks for sharing all the titles will find out If I could get in our library here.
    I usually make my own curry pastes, I find that thai curry pastes have non-veg in them., The post I usually buy is pasta sauces so kids can make their own when I am not around and definitely for a quick fix, sometimes I use Nando's spice powder for burgers,

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    1. Not all the Thai curry pastes have non-veg ingredients like fish sauce or dried shrimp. The ones I buy don't; I've checked the label.

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    2. True, most curry pastes require you to add the fish sauce during cooking. Of the Parampara pastes that I use the butter chicken one is great for paneer and vegetables. I have used it to make a vegetarian dish actually more than for chicken. Sanjeev Kapoor's Pindi Chhole is good, and has that slight taste of anardana. My grilled vegetable kababs are usually made with a mix of Thai green curry paste, tamarind and coconut and fresh coriander finely chopped. I have yet to try a biriyani mix though. I will give the Parampara mix a try although people rave about Shaan's Bombay Biriyani mix. I have to confess to laziness when making Thai Soups, I use the mix. For Satay sauce though, I use peanut butter, red curry paste, coconut milk and simmer. Works a dream. I have also used an achari chicken mix, but I used it with stew vegetables and it was excellent. I can't remember the brand, a blue box I think. Happy move, good luck... we're stuck here for a year more... so perhaps next year you will hear my delighted moans especially if we move back to France :-))

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  2. OMG! new post!!! (I got so used to the punjabi bhaji stting atop that I thought I landed in the wrong blog :D)

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    1. Have you considered using a blog feed reader? Then you won't have to keep checking the blog, it will pop up in the reader when there is a new post.

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  3. Woah, you seem to be a "parampara" girl.. :P loved the post (as always), channa looks appetizing in particular.

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    1. Not sure if I am a parampara girl but I like two of their products, yes :D

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  4. I use store-bought Thai curry pastes all the time. Without them, I'd probably never take the time to cook Thai food. Maesri is a favorite brand of mine, too. Next time I go to the local Indian market, I'll look for these spice packets you're suggesting. Good luck with the move -- hope everything goes smoothly!

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    1. Thanks Lydia- we're not moving for a couple more months so there is this feeling that I have time (which in reality I don't)! Glad to know that Maesri has your endorsement too!

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  5. You must be super busy with the packing and will be getting even busier. Good luck there! And some store bought help in cooking when you need it is never a bad thing. Coincidentally, I posted an egg pulao using a pre-made Pakistani biryani masala powder. Have you tried any Pakistani masalas? I'm so hooked to those these days.

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    1. I read your post and went, "same pinch"!!! I have tried the Pakistani biryani masalas and loved them. But last time I was facing a wall of dozens of Shaan masalas and could not remember at all which particular one I had tried and liked.

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  6. I was so happy to see a new post from you. I tend to pick up packaged dry spice blends with ease but hesitate to buy spice pastes (other than for thai cooking) maybe I should give these a try.

    The only shortcut or make-ahead tip that really helps me to put a meal on the table every weeknight is the jar of caramalized onions in my fridge. They go in all kinds of curries, pulaos/biryanis, bean or legume preparation, soups and sandwiches or toppings for pizzas or tarts. I used to think I dont use onion much but having them handy really makes a lot of difference! If you think about it, it is the foundation of all these ready to use pastes for Indian cooking. So every weekend (or every other weekend, as required) I chop 6-7 big white onions which makes little less than 2 cups of caramalized onions. I use very little peanut oil and salt to make these. The salt, the natural sugars released from onions and the oil all act as preservatives.

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    1. I don't tend to buy Indian spice pastes either and was so pleasantly surprised by these two that I wrote a post about them!
      The jar of caramelized onions is an excellent tip. Thanks for describing your method. In fact, I was thinking of reverse engineering the spice pastes so I can make my own to keep on hand, and caramelized onions is certainly the base I'll use.

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  7. Thanks for the quick recipes. Do these spice pastes have preservatives and artificial ingredients? I am concerned about this type of things and since my kids were born, I have stopped using readymade pastes. Also stopped using canned food (their lining has BPA). I end up cooking from scratch (also end up giving up some of my sleep, since there are only so many hours in a day and taking care of young kids itself is hard plus every additional task that I undertake, such as cooking from scratch takes time!!). I'd rather sleep than read at this point:-) Heard recently that 'rasoi magic' spice mix is all natural and preservative free. Havent tried it yet though.
    Siri

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    1. Siri- I've not noticed any artificial ingredients in the Parampara paste ingredient list. I suppose the spices and salt are preservative enough. The decision about whether to use canned products or not is certainly something to think about. For myself, I've weighed the risks and benefits and decided I am fine with using a few selected canned goods.

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  8. Good luck with all the changes..Lots of changes here too- just finished defending..now new place, new job and few more changes..I really need to get caught up with my McCall Smith reading- I didn't realize there were so many new ones..yay! they are the perfect light read..

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    1. Congratulations and three cheers for all the good things in your life!! You definitely deserve to celebrate by curling up and reading the two latest McCall Smith offerings!

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  9. Thrilled to see your post Nupur. Have a great time away from work. Good luck in house search !

    Speaking of Parampara masala, I think it was introduced in Pune before Bombay. I remember getting the masala from Pune whenever we visited. Another variation is adding a little ground coconut to the curries (specially egg curry) - it gives the dish thickness and great flavor.

    Keep writing Nupur!
    -- Rehana

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    1. Thanks Rehana! Good tip to doctor the curries with a little extra coconut.

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  10. I've started using Rasoi Magic masalas recently. I almost always have Thai curry pastes in my fridge for quick curries. One of my Malaysian friend brought back some Vegetarian Malay masalas from home that I have yet to try.
    Good luck with the move. You must also be getting ready for Lila's 1st b'day. Any big plans?? Just wanted to ask, didn't know when your next post would be!!!!!

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    1. I've seen Rasoi Magic but never tried them. Any particular flavor you like?
      Funny you should ask- we just started thinking of Lila's first birthday. We will have a joint birthday party for her and her baby friend Nico. Probably at a local park with picnic food and homemade cakes. Will tell you all about it :)

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  11. Nupur, I am Arpita, Sujayita's friend. We met in NY. Congrats on the not so new baby, the move and ur lovely blog. We r proud parents too of a 7 mo old baby girl, Mehuli, and I must say that like you I still cherish the little things I used to to b4 she came along. However busy the day I read, listen to podcasts etc to preserve my sanity so I can be a better Mom. Wish u all the best. Btw reading ten diff books at once... Some of them are: House at Tyneford, Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights, re-reading Daddy Long-Legs and Anne of Green Gables and finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

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    1. Arpita- Hello!! I'm so glad to see this note from you. Congratulations on your baby girl. Mehuli is such a sweet name. You got it exactly right- we need to do the things we love, without guilt, because it makes us better mothers. I love your book list. Anne of Green Gables and Guernsey were wonderful. I'm going to look for the others!

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  12. Hey Nupur, good to see your post. I was wondering if you'd already moved ! I tried a biryani using 'Kitchens of India' ready masala, which turned out really good. I use Thai paste for the red Thai curry sometimes, think its called Blue Elephant, fab paste. Some of my south indian masalas come from a little store in Bangalore and its really really good. All the best with your move. Enjoy your time with little Lila...hugs to her

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    1. Thanks for all the wishes, Arch! The masalas from South Indian stores can be truly fantastic. I'm thinking of Subamma stores in Bangalore and Grand Sweets in Chennai. They have saved me countless times.

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  13. I use Parampara often Nupur. It's a great time-saver. I think the Maggi bhuna masala packets are also pretty good. Although making onion-tomato gravy is neither difficult nor time consuming, I think desperate times call for readymade pastes :)

    I read 2 books of the Shiva Trilogy - Immortals of Meluha and Secret of the Nagas. If you enjoy mythology, do read them. They won't disappoint.

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    1. You said it: desperate times! There are those days when life really gets overwhelming and then there's no shame in using some help even you know very well how to make the dish from scratch.
      I don't think I've read any mythology, actually, apart from Amar Chitra Katha comics decades ago. I'll have to look for the Shiva Trilogy. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  14. I use packaged Thai curry pastes a lot. Almost bought a can of coconut milk the other day. I also keep a couple of packages of ready-made curry (dal mankani, mutter paneer) for an emergency when a guest drops by unannounced, or if there is too much work pressure and no time to cook! Neither do I mind ordering pizza on such days!

    "Moderation in everything including moderation!"

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    1. That's a brilliant motto! Fresh coconuts are difficult to find where I live so it either canned coconut milk or do without it.

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  15. Since Miri had suggested I am hooked on to the Parampara Biryani masala. I would use Shan spices before now not so much except for one called Lahori Fish which makes a quick appetizer for guests.
    Thai Curry is widely used as is Sambal Olek
    Good Luck on the move Nupur.

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    1. Oh yes, sambal olek was a favorite of mine. These days sriracha (rooster brand) sauce seemed to have taken over in my world.

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  16. I always salivate when I read your posts, and they make me smile. So are you putting that biryani in the oven without a cover on the top?

    Best wishes for the move!

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    1. Hi Ann! Thanks for the wishes...my last few weeks in STL. Sob!
      You do need to cover the biryani in the oven or it will dry out. I'll edit the post to say that. Thanks for bringing it up.

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  17. Hi Nupur,

    It's amazing that you find time for blog posts even in busy times. Kudos to you. I've never used the ready made curry pastes before (except red curry paste for thai curry) but I believe that semi-home made food is always better than eating out. Will try your suggested ones sometime. Where do you buy Maesri paste from? I only see products from Thai Kitchen in our local grocery store.

    -Suchi

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    1. We love eating out too but it blows the budget (and your health) to do it too frequently. So that's when I embrace some of the semi-homemade-ness :)
      Maesri can be found in Asian groceries (or groceries that sell international foods). You're right, it is unlikely that you'll find this brand in the average supermarket.

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  18. Ive have a 16 month old baby and a currently stressful job, but it hasnt stopped me from taking on a reading list! Ive decided to read all the Pulitzer prize winning books and Ive started with "American Pastoral" by Phillip Roth. I read a few mins before falling off to sleep due to sheer exhaustion.. its slow but its necessary to get lost in some work of fiction to forget all the stressful realities of life.

    Im told, after having kids, this cycle never ends. Im just adjusting to it then. ;)
    Take care,
    Archana

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    1. That's awesome! I read so many of the Pulitzer prize winning books a few years ago and discovered some gems. American Pastoral I did not finish :) but might give it another try sometime. I think our babies will probably see their mammas loving their books and reading every chance they get and will grow up to love books too.

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  19. Hi Nupur,

    Reading about readymade pastes, I want to try Patak's Rogan Josh paste. Jamie Oliver's new book, Meals in Minutes,he makes a very delicious looking cauliflower, butternut squash curry with the same paste. The book is full of interesting recipes. I have tried a few and ofcourse, as always, Jamie Oliver is great.

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    1. Sapna- That curry counds so delicious! I've never tried the Patak brand pastes but I think they are wildly popular in the UK.

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  20. Hi Nupur,
    Thanks for coming over... and just as I regaled over the fact that you are an STL blogger, here I am reading your post that you are leaving MO soon :( I just moved late last year and I'm beginning to "meet" STL bloggers. But I wish you well... Good luck on your move.
    Re: ready made paste, I use ready made paste for my Penang curry. They are really good too and brings authentic flavor.
    Great post.
    Malou

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    1. Hi Malou- yes, I have to leave STL soon and will do so with a heavy heart! I love the ready made Penang curry paste too. I'll have to learn more about Filipino cooking from your blog.

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  21. Hi Nupur,
    so far I have been a silent but an ardent reader of your blog. I absolutely love your narration. I have tried a few recipes from your blog and loved them all. I am eager to try this Thai Curry paste.
    Keep up the good work -:)
    Cheers,
    Uma

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    1. Thanks for saying hello, Uma! I am so glad you enjoy my blog.

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  22. I must admit to being a purist. But I do live in the SF Bay Area, so lots of access to proper ingredients. I make Thai pastes from scratch with mortar & pestle, but I DO also have a tub of Mae Ploy Green Curry paste for nights I am to tired to start from scratch. I make all my masalas for Indian cuisine from scratch.
    BUT - I don't have kids, and I work from home several days a week. So my time is more flexible than most people's. I also view cooking as my entertainment, so the time spent on it is for me decompression time.
    But I see nothing wrong with using commercial pastes. It lets you cook healthy, tasty meals at home fast - and what is wrong with that?

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    1. I agree 100%. I so enjoy cooking as therapy too, and nothing is more satisfying than taking on an elaborate recipe as a challenge. At times in life when time runs short, I am glad there are quality ready made ingredients around.

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  23. I tried Parampara many years ago and was very disappointed. I wonder if I use it wrong. My neighbour used it and I could smell it in my kitchen. But when I made use of it, it would be too strong and have no aroma.

    :-)

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    1. Individual tastes are so different! That's why I am glad there are several brands around and we can pick our favorites (or make our own if none satisfies).

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  24. I use Shan (BBQ Tikka and Tandoori Chicken) and they find regular place in non-veg cooking. A friend of mine moved to India and handed over all her groceries to me. So in came Sambal Olek, Sriracha, Hyderabadi Chicken curry paste (Sanjeev Kapoor's), Baja Chipotle and Ranch dressing. On days when I'm in no mood to cook, I use any of these and thank them for making my life easy.
    I used Maesri couple of years back and found the paste handy for Thai Red curry along with Jasmine Rice. I've heard so much about Parampara, but sadly my Indian grocery here does not sell the paste. I liked your idea of using Spinach with Chickpea (nice way of using greens). Good luck on the move Nupur! Love to Lila and bellyrubs for Dale.

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    1. Oh yeah, when friends move and you inherit their pantries, you can end up with all kinds of interesting stuff :)
      I'll send you a couple of Parampara packets to try next time I go buy them. Thanks so much for the wishes!

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  25. I struggle to find time to read though I sometimes think I should blame my blog more than my kid - though it is much harder to find time now that she is more active than when I just had to hold her and needed to read for something to do! But I try and read at bed time at least and sometimes find books that make me have to stop and read them - just finished Cleo by Helen Brown - amazing story of a cat who came into her life at the time of trauma - lovely writing about the cat and also an interesting life to follow

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  26. This post just reminded me I read a lot of Anne Tyler when pregnant with LS. I read the Breathing Lessons and the one where the couple's son is shot at a camp and then one more. Then I totally forgot about her until today. Will seek out again.

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