Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Black bean stir fry

Though I like different types of beans, black beans have rarely been a staple. I do not remember it being popular in India and, despite my bold forays into different types of cuisines, usually without a recipe, I never really got around to black beans. I always thought of it as a burrito filler, and a really good filler at that. I rarely make burritos at home and, so, black beans were hardly purchased at home. The few times I did purchase black beans, I was disappointed by the output since I tried to use them as a replacement for chick peas or vatana. Grave error.

All that changed when we visited a friend's place for lunch a few months ago. He is a very limited cook, at least that is what we think. We were invited once and ended up with very little lasagna - it was almost like they had forgotten we'd visit them. We chalked it to their being (not so) new parents. This time, we were really worried since they had a second child. We were planning on hitting a neighboring restaurant after lunch at their place to soothe, what we anticipated would be, growling and empty stomachs.

We were in for a pleasant surprise. We still had only one dish but it was in good quantity. The dish was a black bean stir fry, to be eaten with tortillas (flame toasted). It was the finest black bean stir fry we had ever eaten until then. It was simple - canned black beans stir fried with some canned jalapenos and broccoli. Neither me nor my wife could believe that it was that simple. We didn't quite ask for a recipe - it was too simple to merit one. Along the way back home, interspersed with praise for the dramatic improvement in food, we deconstructed the dish. We realized that the key item was the jalapeno, and not just any jalapeno. It was good because it was from a can - the vinegar added great taste to the dish.

After a long time, I decided that chick peas, vatana, moong dal, chana dal, toor dal, and kala chana became a bit boring. I was making mostly Indian-ish stuff. So, I purchased a pound of black beans and let half of it soak for almost 24 hours (canned beans are usually much costlier than raw version). Then I pressure cooked them until it became soft, but it did not lose its identity and become one solid lump. About 12 hours before I was to cook, I soaked a few serrano peppers in vinegar. Instead of broccoli, I decided to use other vegetables. I wanted to use celery because it gives a nice crunch. I stir fried some onions in olive oil - nothing fancy. Wait until browning. To that I added the celery. And then, I grated two whole carrots into the pan. I added some salt and let them stir fry. After a few minutes, I added the serrano peppers, along with the vinegar. After a few more minutes, I added the black beans and let them cook on a low flame for about 10 to 15 minutes. That is it, you are done. This goes very well with any good plain yogurt you can lay your hands on.


Friday, April 25, 2014

A few things I've been cooking recently

I get my protein mainly through lentils and beans. Maybe only next to dairy. In any case, just a few simple recipes here for different types of Indian choles/dals. Since my son's first birthday, when we ordered Gujarati food from Raj Bhog (a small and nice restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens), I have fallen in love with Gujarati food. So, the first chole is my imagination of how a Gujarati chole would be.

For the beans, I prefer a mix of chickpeas and vatana (who, dried peas). It is best if you use the raw version (not from a can). Soak for 12 hours. Pressure cook with a little bit of water for a few whistles - around 2 whistles in my cooker. I find that soaking + pressure cooking yields a much better product than simply pressure cooking (which will also need a lot more water and whistles).

Cut a few tomatoes into halves/quarters. Not too fine. Cut as much ginger as you want. If you have some curry leaves, that will be a great addition to the dish. Break a stick of cinnamon into smaller pieces and toast it in a toaster with cardamom. There is a version called black cardamom that goes better with dishes, as opposed to the usual cardamom which goes better with tea. Dont use black cardamon with tea - I can't imagine it being any good. Grind the cinnamon and black cardamom into fine powder. Heat some oil in a vessel (into which the cooked chickpeas/vatana will go eventually) and fry the spices. Spices can include some mustard, jeera, some dried red chillies, but none of these things are really necessary. Add some asafoetida (I think this is necessary, but that is just me). Add the cinnamon + black cardamom powder. Once it has fried sufficiently, add the tomatoes. Add some salt and let it simmer for a while. Then add the cooked lentils. Add some turmeric and some water and let it cook on a low flame for some time. Make sure food does not burn at the bottom of the pan. Finally, add some tamarind and brown sugar. Better still, jaggery. Add the curry leaves. I like to let it cook for at least 30 minutes. Sometimes more - just on a very low flame. I also like to add a few green chillies. The key thing about Gujarati food, this is my opinion, is the nice mix of sweet and spice together. Anyway, this should go well with rice, tortillas, chappathis, nans, bread,....

For Punjabi dal, I'd fry some onions before adding the tomatoes. Instead of the cinnamon + black cardamom powder, I'd add some garam masala. You can make some garam masala yourself but it is easy enough to buy it. Ditch the jaggery in this case. Garam masala does not go well with sweet. In this case the mustard and jeera are absolutely necessary. Finally, you should add some chopped cilantro.

You can also make a pretty good imitation of a mofongo with some lentils and some raw plantains (not the stuff you have for breakfast). Soak and cook your lentils (not chick peas this time but masoor dal or toor dal are ideal). Fry some garlic and ginger in some oil. Then add the pressure cooked dal. Finally mash the plantain and add it to the simmering dal. You can mash it easily if it is slightly ripe. If not steam/pressure cook it before mashing. Let this whole thing cook for a while. Add as much salt as you want. If you like it hot, add chillies.

 Try it out. But for salt, you cant really go too wrong with any of these items. Good eats!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

William Phillips - engineer and economist extraordinaire

Very few scientists/academicians will have as interesting a background as William Phillips. He is the Phillips of the famous or infamous Phillips curve, which illustrates an inverse relation between the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation. While the Phillips curve may be considered too simplistic, it was a popular macroeconomic tool, possibly because of the work of Samuelson and Solow. In any case, it is Phillips who is the focus of this blog post, not the curve. The best source to learn about William Phillips is a talk by Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist) at the Cato Institute. If you want further details, read on.

Alan Bollard of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has written beautifully on the life and works of William Phillips. This is an article from the journal "Economica." I hope you have free access to this article. If not, I have a few excerpts from the article here:
Bill Phillips was born in 1914 into a pioneering, hard-working and unusually innovative farming family in Te Rehunga (Arvind: Here is where Te Rehunga is on a map) in the Hawke's Bay region of New Zealand. His father had won a block of land in a ballot at the turn of the century, which by hard labour he converted from rough bush to a productive dairy farm.

Phillips' father was particularly important to him. ...he was an unusual inventor: he built the farmhouse and outbuildings himself. He followed this with a water wheel which was used to generate electricity from a stream. The Phillips farm was the first in the district to have mechanical milking machines.

School was a long bike, train and walking trip away. Despite arriving home late each day, the young Bill Phillips was expected to help with milking and other farm work. Bill soon showed his own technical precocity: building a book rack onto his bike so he could read while cycling, and later rebuilding a neighbour's broken-down truck so that he could (illegally) drive to school

But in 1929, world depression hit the remote hamlet of Te Rehunga. Dairy prices fell by a third....any dreams of a university education were abandoned....But rural New Zealand was not enough. Phillips wanted to sample the world....Here he spent a couple of years travelling the outback, hitching rides on freight trains and working in mining camps. Money came from a range of jobs: picking bananas, working on building sites, mining gold, running a cinema, and even crocodile hunting....He enrolled in a correspondence course in electrical engineering and remembers learning his first differential equations under a harsh Australian sun at an outback mining camp.
Arvind: How cool is that!
Bill Phillips then went gallivanting all across the China, Russia, and Eastern Europe and eventually ended up in England just a little before the breakout of WWII. Then, he enlisted with the RAF and was promptly transported back to the far east to protect Singapore from the Japanese. He was captured by the Japanese and, as even a POW, showed uncommon character. Dr. Bollard writes:
He helped to organize language classes teaching Mandarin and Russian. He secretly built electrical immersion heaters to help the troops make cups of tea. He was involved in a dangerous mission to steal parts, and build several clandestine radios.
After the war, he returned to London on a scholarship to pursue a degree in sociology, possibly because he wanted to rationalize WWII. However, he was disenchanted with sociology and got interested in economics because he noticed many similarities between what he had done in electrical engineering and what he was noticing in his economics lectures. Thus began his interest in economics which would lead him to develop hydraulic machines that mimic macroeconomics (sometimes called Hydraulic Keynesianism).

I will write a some more about William Phillips in a few days. In the mean time, you should listen to the first part of Tim Harford's talk at Cato to get a lively account of William Phillips' life, including his economics contributions. He (Harford) is a story-teller par excellence. He does justice to Phillips' colorful life like no written account can.

A little of digging reveals that Dr. Alan Bollard is quite actively involved in a topic I often blog about - free trade. He is the chairperson of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), which is quite actively involved with the TPP partnership. He was a governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (Fed Chairperson's equivalent). In any case, Dr. Bollard is not just an economist. By night, he is also a novelist. In fact, the main character in his novel (The Rough Mechanical: The Man Who Could) is based on William Phillips. I wonder whether Bernanke has also written any potboilers during his tenure!

An addendum to the post: On searching, I came across another good paper giving greater insights into his life. As usual, I hope you have access to this article. I will just quote the last two paragraphs because this seems to be exactly the opinion I have of this man after reading just a little. Remarkable human being.
Until 1994 economists knew only that Phillips had been a POW in Java. Because of Robert Leeson’s alertness and persistence we now know something of Phillips’ activities in captivity.....

The more one learns about Phillips the more astonishing he seems. Barr (2000, p. 112) captured the essence of the man when he wrote that Bill Phillips was, ‘adventurous, tenacious, insatiably curious, shy, and with a lovely sense of humour. He is one of those rare people memories of whom always bring a warm smile to those who knew him’.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reasonably priced food in Upper West Side, NYC.

Many journalists now-a-days are experimenting with living a week with the constraints of SNAP, at least the financial constraints. I saw one such report in WSJ, and another in Slate. The one in Slate, by Sarah Gray, was partly about buying/making/eating food within the budgetary constraints of SNAP, and partly about public policy.

Public policy aside, Ms. Gray's choice of foods for the week long experiment are poor. Says Sarah:
My final menu: a baked pasta dish with whole wheat rigatoni ($1.59), lean turkey sausage ($4.99), two cans diced tomatoes ($1.89 per can) and mozzarella cheese ($4.59); a stir fry with chicken ($6.10), brown rice ($2.59), Green Giant vegetable medley ($2.99) and a red bell pepper ($1.55).
And breakfast: Key Food instant oats ($1.99) and Tropicana OJ ($2.99), a splurge item that I purchased because it was on sale for about half off. I also purchased eight Yoplait Light yogurts as part of a “buy 4 get 4 free” promotion ($0.99 each), baby carrots ($2.00), organic chicken broth on sale ($2.99) for cooking, and a small bag of ground coffee ($1.99 on sale).
No wonder she was quite frustrated pretty soon. She used up her $40+ to purchase foods quite unwisely, as she herself realized. Says Sarah a little later in the article:
I realized I should have bought things like bananas (a purchase that I put back when I went far over my limit). They’re nutrient rich and keep you full. Canned soup should also have been a purchase — you can make it quickly, it keeps you full longer, and certain soups can be used in other recipes. 
I, fortunately, do not have the $41 per week constraint but I do try to minimize $$ spent on (reasonably high quality) fruits and vegetables.

I love eating, cooking, and shopping for food too. I live in the Upper West Side and used to shop at Fairway, which is not too far from where I live. When my parents visited us for a few months, I realized how costly it was to shop at Fairway. There are some really good quality stuff that you get there but it is a total rip off when it comes to dollars and cents. My father would go around all the grocery shops in the neighborhood (and not in the neighborhood) and compare the costs. So, Fairway went out of the window pretty soon.

So, where should you shop if you wanted pretty reasonable prices? Big caveat - I know only about vegetarian foods. West Side Market is a good choice for most fruits and vegetables. Especially during summers, this is the place to go for peaches, plums, nectarines, and any other such fruits you can think of. Most commonly used vegetables like carrots, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, leafy greens, green beans, etc are pretty reasonably priced. Large potato bags are usually pretty cheap. Since I don't buy them often, I am not sure of their prices. Usually, it is less than 75 cents per pound. Carrots also cost around 69 cents per pound. Reasonably priced peppers cost around 99 cents a pound.
The cheese collection at West Side Market is one of the best, rivaled only by Trader Joes, where I have started to buy from once again. In any case, the cheeses are pretty reasonably priced too.

What West Side Market is not cost effective for is any other food item. Dairy - no way. Run far away from this place. A gallon of milk costs $ 4.50 or $ 5. A standard container of yogurt (I think 2 pounds) is always higher than $ 3. Most other non-dairy items are pretty costly too. For that, I like the Met and C-Town, which are not too far from the Amsterdam/125th street intersection. In both places, you get some pretty good steals. For instance, I found a 32 pound tub of PollyO ricotta cheese on sale for $ 4 a few weeks ago! That is pretty cheap, especially for one who loves ricotta cheese. Usually around weekends, C-Town has tomatoes sold at 99 cents per pound. Sometimes, you get luckier and it is priced at 79 cents per pound! Bananas at 49 cents per pound is a total steal. In Trade Joes, they price bananas differently. Any price around 20 cents per banana is pretty reasonable.

Dairy at C-Town and/or Met is also very reasonable. Especially yogurt. Unlike Sarah from, one should never buy the small containers. Always go for the larger one. At least in these two grocery stores, you get 2 pound yogurt containers at $ 2.50 (sometimes $ 2). That is the lowest priced yogurt I've seen in the North East!

The nice thing with Met and C-Town is that you get vegetables that you do not necessarily at other American supermarkets. For instance, you get plantains ($ 1.29 for a bag of 4 or 5), batatas, etc. Finally, my opinion of canned foods: avoid them. They are usually pretty costly per unit weight. I know it is convenient to use canned food sometimes but the costs mount pretty soon.

All in all, I think there is pretty good access to reasonably priced raw ingredients that can fit well into even a SNAP-ish constraint. Don't get me wrong. The SNAP constraint is not only on $$ but also on time, stress, and other intangibles thankfully I am not subject to. Still, if you love to cook, and can spare a bit of time to shop for what you cook, you can make some things a little better.

With so much, I dont think you will find it necessary to look for food anywhere else. Except, you'd miss out on a lot of good and reasonably priced food. More on that later. Happy food hunting and cooking.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why congress should not grant fast track authority

No, I'm not going to give my perspective. Rather, keeping in line with many of the other blog posts, I will rehash arguments from 1991 or 1992, from the heat of the NAFTA debate. Once again, I draw on words uttered by Craig Merrilees, from a testimony to the House Agriculture Committee (chaired by Rep. Kiki de la Garza, D-Texas). It was a fiery testimony, as evidenced by the very testy exchange with Rep. Thomas Coleman (R-Missouri). Mr. Merrilees outlined the following 6 points as to why Fast-track authority should not be granted to the executive branch:
  1. It is anti-democratic. Congress should not sit on the sidelines while the executive branch makes the deals.
  2. Scope for secret back-room deals. Lobbyists can influence policy more than what they can do in a more transparent process.
  3. Fast-track is not necessary to get a complex agreement. The doom and gloom scenario painted by the administration, if Fast-track is not passed, is scare tactics.
  4. Bush (Papa) and Salinas (then President of Mexico) make argument that things will fail without fast-track. Salinas needs the US market, with or without fast-track. You can replace Salinas with any other country engaged in TPP now, though I am not so sure that they need the US now like Mexico needed the US in the 90s.
  5. Fast-track gutted GATT discussions because of extremist positions of Carla Hills and government on agriculture, maybe because of the influence of agribusiness.
  6. Fast-track makes it impossible for Congress to vote up or down provisions of the trade deal that they find objectionable. The yes or no vote psychologically tilts everyone towards voting yes.
Finally, Mr. Merrilees makes a good and sarcastic comment: Finally, Richard Nixon argued for fast-track because he believed that we needed a stronger executive branch. If that is what you believe, you have a different version of history than I have. Touche!

I think many of the reasons hold true now too. Giving congress the responsibility of coming up with a trade deal on their own seems crazy, especially given the levels of cooperation we've seen over the last few years. I think, though, that on the issue of trade, there might be much better cooperation than on more politically charged issues. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Plotting Pundits - the image says it all.

The pretty inspirational Ms. Tanden(s)

I dont know how you react to leaders of think tanks and other policy makers talking about issues of poverty, when you have a feeling, which might be based in reality or on the ever-reliable gut, that the person might not have had a brush with poverty at any stage of his or her life. Actually, I know that feeling is wrong for many of the commentators and even politicians - many, surely, have had pretty tough childhoods. Still, it is easy to see why the "elitist" label can easily stick to them.

Though I have always been impressed by Neera Tanden when I've heard her talk, there is always that nagging question at the back of my head: does she know what she is talking about when she talks about minimum wage and poverty and so on. At the same time, I dont think that you need to have been on minimum wage yourself to appreciate the problems faced by those on minimum wage. If that were the criterion we placed on policy makers, we'd have a tough time making policy at all.

Coming back to Neera Tanden. Her childhood story is pretty inspirational. She recounted her childhood roots at an Atlantic Live event on women and poverty. Her parents migrated to America most likely in the 1960s. They lived in the town of Bedford, Massachusetts. I think her father worked (place of work unknown) and her mother was a homemaker then. After a few years after Neera was born, their parents got divorced and her father left them for good. Given a choice between returning to India, and facing the stigma of being a divorced woman, and living in the US and going on welfare, she chose the latter. She went on a succession of jobs (travel agent, etc), and with the aid of government support, earned enough to even purchase a house in the same neighborhood. Given where Neera is now, she must've, obviously, done an awesome job. In any case, Neera Tanden gives a much better account of her story here. Please read through it and you will understand her position on issues much better.

Clearly, it is not just Neera Tanden's story that is inspirational. Her mother's is far more.