Thursday, September 10, 2020

Dining in Dibrugarh: What is sauce for the scholar?

PhD scholars mostly live on campus in India and, though they are rarely saucy, as Indians, they love sauces - or gravies or curries. We all tend to name the liquid part of dishes differently. But what about Dibrugarh?   

We were at Dibrugarh University for a fortnight in February 2020 but, as it was for an intensive workshop, we remained on campus mostly with one meal off-campus. I did not take photos as meals were times of friendly bonding but the food served was healthy, nutritious and lovingly prepared. The fare was specific to the region. As you can see, in the picture below, the meals had two 'sauces': an egg curry and a dal.

We had banana flower with chicken and bamboo shoot dishes which were new to me though I've heard of such things. More familiar to me were the mashed potato and brinjal fry. 

The latter two are easy enough to make. For aloo pitika, boil, peel and mash potatoes. Season and add finely diced onion and green chili and coriander leaves. I think a dash of lime juice is also added but certainly there's some lovely raw mustard oil.

The begun bhaja is like a brinjal pakora. The round slices are crisp and go well with dal and rice.

On the day we went out to eat, we had an even bigger feast.

The boiled pork was exquisitely flavoursome and a dish that one could very well eat without rice or rotis for it had potatoes and a lot of other veggies as well.

That brief introduction to Assamese cuisine left me craving for more and I do hope I'll get to visit that side of India again when things settle down. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Fishing For Food under Lockdown

When lockdown hit us, we were grateful to find the three grocery shops in our neighbourhood functional. But, when it came to buying, we refused to think essentials and to hoard. We were more eager to discover snacks and beverages we'd tended to avoid. In the normal course of life, we're not fans of 'soft drinks' nor of biscuits and cakes.  

Among the discoveries were ginger biscuits. 

And a line of fruit drinks with pieces of real fruit in them. 

However, the best find was fish burgers. 

Before the pandemic, we sometimes delighted in Venky's chicken burgers for a burger lunch and a burger at home is much better than the ones we've eaten out.

Sometimes, when I'm in the mood I make the mayonnaise myself but if I don't feel like taking the trouble, it's easy to buy a jar. Still here's a video which more or less shows what I do:

During this time of panic and pandemic, somehow many foods seem fresher and taste better. Bakery products have been very fresh and the burger buns divine. 

As for salad vegetables for the burger, I stick to tomatoes and onions. Green chilies from the garden ... but you can go wild with veggies for a burger!

But what is a burger without ketchup? Here, the new kid on the block was Chitale Bandhu's ketchup. Excellent taste and value.

I hear that ice cream sales rose the world over in this time. It's true I've bought more ice cream than before. It was all because of Mother Dairy's Strawberry Crush. We've been through several tubs of it. 

Mango Marvel was a disappointment. 

Every cloud has silver linings and my sincere thanks to all the grocers, the vegetable sellers and all the mainstream and small enterprises for keeping us merry in grim times.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Three Easy Treats

I once attended a few sessions at a neighbourhood cooking class. I've forgotten most of what was taught but I learned some really tasty and impressive looking treats: a no-bake biscuit roll, a fruit pudding and some pretty and easy to make fancy idlis.

The biscuit powder roll is, perhaps, the easiest. I lost the recipe I had but there are several on the Net. Roller Coaster comes closest. So, basically, you powder biscuits - I think it was Marie. And you make a chocolate dough with that, moistened with some condensed milk. 

Then, you make a white dough with dried coconut or coconut powder and perhaps some condensed milk.

Roll out the two doughs separately on a sheet of plastic. The white one has to be smaller and you lay it on the brown one. Then, using the plastic sheet, roll the two into a cylinder. Cool it for a bit in the fridge. Then ease it out of the plastic sheath and cut it into rings.    

And here's a variation on the theme:

Though the biscuit roll looks good, the fruit pudding finds more favour with me. Here, too, biscuits are used. This time it's 'glucose' biscuits. First, moisten the biscuits by dipping them in sweetened lime juice or some other flavoured syrup. Then make some sweetened whipped cream. Peel and grate some golden apples and perhaps steam them? 

The pudding is then set up as follows: a layer of biscuits is pressed into a mould. A layer of cream follows. Some nuts and raisins are sprinkled on this and then a layer of the fruit puree (maybe also a biscuit layer?) and so on. Sadly, I can find no such recipe online. 

The final treat is savoury - fancy semolina idlis.

1/2 cup carrot juliennes and green peas
1 cup semolina/suji/rawa
1 tbsp chickpea flour/besan
1 level tsp salt
A pinch of turmeric powder/haldi
Juice of 1/2 lime
3/4 cup dahi/Indian yogurt
1 tsp Eno

To Temper:
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 or 2 green chillies
A few curry leaves
A few drops of lime juice

Set the pressure cooker or idli steamer or any other steamer on the fire with enough water to steam the idlis - usually about a glass or two?

Also heat another glass of water separately with a tablespoon of sugar. When the sugar dissolves, switch off the flame. Heat a tablespoon of ghee and splutter some ( a tsp) mustard seeds. Add a couple of slit green chillies. And some curry leaves. Switch off the flame. When cool, add some lime juice to taste.

Meanwhile, grease the idlis plates. Make some carrot juliennes and arrange these and some peas in the idlis cups. Mix the dry ingredients (except the Eno) well. Add the lime juice and dahi and blend. When most of the liquid is absorbed, quickly add the Eno mixed with a little water and fold gently to combine. 

Without further ado, ladle this batter onto the pea-carrot arrangements.

Put in steamer and steam for some 15 minutes. Switch off the fire and let the steamer rest for five minutes. Open and gently wet the underside of the idli plates before scooping the idlis onto a plate - use a big plate and keep the idlis apart as they will swell with the next step. Pour the prepared and tempered water over the lot and watch your pretty idlis puff up. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

An Appetising Airbnb - Cooking in Carmona

Every year I surf the Net for where to stay on annual self-imposed Goa retreats. While I do use airbnb, I've not yet booked a stay on it. This November I was in for a delightful surprise. 

Su's Coconut Grove
 is luxury on budget for a family holiday in a prime spot in the area. And this is where a kind soul booked us a stay.

But this is a food blog! What is an account of a holiday stay doing here? 

Well, this is where you find out what to do on holiday when some members of the party do not want to eat out. And that's often us! 

Train picnic dinner: Sambar rice, a dry potato-radish-carrot fry with papads and pickle. Second AC on Goa Express is a great way to get to Goa.

Of course, many places provide some sort of kitchen. However, at Su's Coconut Grove, all the essentials for cooking were graciously ready to use.

At Su's Coconut Grove, you can hear the pao man honk as early as six in the morning. While I did know about this seller of local breads, this is the first time I got to use the blessing. Generally, he has about three or four types of local 'buns' - the pao that might be familiar to those from Maharashtra, a flat ring-type bread and 'hard bread'. The latter reminded me of rolls one could buy in Pondicherry, when it was still called that way back in the Seventies. While folks say it goes well with curries (gravy), I find it excellent with good hot coffee. Slather some butter and it's a real oh la la lah di dah moment.

And later there's the fresh fish seller - at about 11 am. By that time you're back from a walk on the beach which is some ten minutes away. You've showered and had breakfast. The fish seller has some 3-4 types of fish - or more. And they look and taste very fresh. Some four mackerel-type fish mostly cost Rs. 100, if I remember right. What is even more charming is that you're likely to have seen the fishermen at their work on the morning walk.

There are enough places to buy fish from - local markets as well as well-stocked supermarkets. I wonder if one could also ask the fishermen on the beach for some of their catch?

Groceries and feni are available at nearby shops - some five minutes away. 

The dining space, at this airbnb, is where we had some very tasty breakfasts, lunches and dinners. And teas and coffees and sundowners... Just right for gentle relaxation. 

And now for the crowning glory of this review: the kitchen!

Right to left: a microwave that's not only clean but also works; a four burner gas stove that works - there's a lighter handy too in the big spoon holder to the left of the stove; various trays hold tea, coffee, sugar, salt, pepper and a few other condiments. At the bend, an electric kettle and toaster. Then a tray to dry dishes next to the sink. There's a fully functional geyser to get hot water in the sink - makes cleaning up such pleasure. Some hand wash and some dishwash and scrubbers also cheerfully await use.

In the kitchen there's a small room that houses a safe drinking water system.

Facing that is a small, clean fridge with bottles of cold water and filled ice trays in the freezer. And, on top, some instant noodle and biscuit packs. There was also a nice little carton of milk - very welcome for us as we'd arrived at about 6 in the morning and were eager for our morning coffee.  

Though there was ample instant coffee, I'd carried my filter coffee maker and some grounds for that one morning. For the rest of the stay, we easily got Bru Roast and Ground at a nearby supermarket.

Fruits and vegetables of all sorts can be had from roadside sellers who line the Orlim Road. Our mainstay for fruit were bananas but we also got onions, ginger, garlic, green chilies and such. Again, supermarkets would also stock some frozen produce. 

Dinner was often ordered in from J 6, the nearby eatery. And provided leftovers to use for the next meal. 

One day, it was butter chicken. A little jaunt to a nearby supermarket such as Magson's provided some frozen tikka which perfectly complemented the leftover gravy. However, the frozen methi parathas we bought were nothing to write home about - they just turned hard and unappetising upon heating.

You can basically whip up almost anything in that wonderful kitchen!

Enough kitchenware to cook up a feast! The contents of the pot are, in this case, a humble but flavourful and comforting khichdi.
There are quite a few general stores in the vicinity. The nearest one is around two minutes away but there are quite a few others too, within reasonable walking distance. And, if you hire a vehicle of some sort - bicycle, motorised two-wheeler or car - the area now has many well stocked supermarkets, especially along the Orlim Road. There's even a regular bus that goes to Madgaon from just down the road.

If you don't want to cook, there is J6, just outside the gated community in which Su's Coconut Grove nestles. 

And there are more than a couple of others within walking distance. 

All in all, even if you don't want to cook, Su's Coconut Grove will provide you with an enchanted stay that's well worth the booking. To end on a high food note, there's every chance that Sunil, from Sandra's first-class team, will offer you a complementary puri bhaji breakfast to make the holiday even more memorable. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scientist as Foodie - Physicist's Perspective

Puducherry-born Siva Shakthi works on nonlinear optics and microwave photonics. But how does food come in?

Lab snacks 
Scientists and food form a great combination, Siva exclaims, when asked for her spin.
When I talk science, I automatically switch to food-talk after a while – not even the science of food but food itself!
My family and I love cooking shows. Mom ardently follows healthy recipes and granny prepares mouth-watering traditional sweets.
Mom's millet and methi paratha
They are pros at what they do. But as I grew up, I also fell for street food.
Roti maker in action - Old Delhi

After school, Siva joined the Women’s Christian College, Chennai as undergraduate in Physics. Timid and shy, she didn't venture out much and was scared of posh restaurants.
But there were enough more modest eateries to amuse me. I particularly remember an omelette shop just outside the college.
 The college was very strict and we were allowed to go out only on Wednesdays and weekends. The weekend was reserved for visiting far away restaurants while Wednesday meant a bit of book hunting and an omelette. 
I love the bread omelette at the shop: two slices of bread, a mildly runny omelette, and a splash of mint chutney. Every Wednesday for three years, I ate at that shop. Yummy!
Her next big food adventure began when she came to IISER-TVM. In her final year now, she's been a hosteller until very recently.
For the first four years, the campus was close to an upcoming IT park and that meant more people and more new places to eat. I went out to eat almost every night unable to put up with the food in the mess.
We fell for the chai shops. Suleimani soon became everyone’s favourite: On a rooftop with yellow bulbs and a terrace filled with plants. It was the most sought out place since it was open till two in the morning!
I went there for their ginger tea, rich with aroma and flavorful. I don’t like tea made with milk - it's too thick. Suleimani offered it just right for me.
Working on a PhD involves travels – workshops, schools, and conferences. 
ICFO lab visit
Though these journeys are mainly academic, they involve culinary experiences too.
Besan pakoda chaat - Old Delhi
During the last five years, I travelled to different cities in India and fell head over heels in love with the street food. Oh, Delhi! Oh, the aloo tikkis and kebabs from Old Delhi. 
Old Delhi - Tikka getting ready
I have the habit of reading books about a place before visiting that place. Before visiting Delhi, I read Korma, Kheer, and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamella Timms.
Such a delicious read and I want to go to Delhi again, for the food!
Old Delhi - masala papad
Funny thing, I was interviewing a Nobel laureate and he said he has been eating too much since he landed in Delhi.
Old Delhi - street food
Another interesting food-related incident occurred when she went to Barcelona for a summer school.
Barcelona - fruit shop
I ordered paella, a special type of shrimp dish. The waiter who served us was German. He asked if we were Indians and what we did and why we were in Spain. Then he told us how he is an ardent fan of Shahrukh Khan. He said he and his friends in Germany love Bollywood movies and he has watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai multiple times.
When Siva travelled to Hong Kong she followed the path laid out by the legendary Anthony Bourdain.  
His shows inspired my explorations of Hong Kong's nooks and corners in search of good food. 
Hong Kong's Egg puff aka waffle
From egg momos to Korean rice rolls to flat rice noodles, Hong Kong buzzed with a myriad foods.
Hong Kong's rice noodles and fish balls
Siva Shakthi's Instagram page, Feasts and Fables, is her tribute to food and features foodie quotes from her favourite books. 
Feasts and Fables

She also volunteers at the Optical Society of America Student Chapter and at STEPS - Students Teach Experiential Physics in Schools.

In upcoming posts, we continue to explore the adventurous appetites of Indian scientists and it promises to be a very enchanting gastronomic journey. 

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Drinking Pineapple Skin

Pineapples are wickedly delicious as sweet juicy slices. When I was growing up canned pineapple was an almost unaffordable treat. But I do not remember my parents ever buying a pineapple. Tinned goods, even today, have not caught on in India making buying tins or cans of food quite unwise. Such goods rarely sell and can continue on warehouse shelves for unsafe periods of time. But, there's the prickly issue of the peel that will confront you should you buy a whole uncut pineapple!

27707, pixabay

And, in India, it would be very unwise to buy cut fruit. So the pineapple often lures but you rarely get a bite. Should you go buy a whole pineapple there's still the fact that the pineapple might be gratingly sour. However, there are several nice dishes to make with pineapple that's not so nice to eat as is. 

But there's still the problem of the skin. You pay for the fruit but what you can consume is very little of it. 

One very fine idea is pineapple skin wine. I discovered the recipe online and it came out yum. I followed the recipe in the link above but perhaps the video will also help. It has subtitles. 

For those who whine about wine there's always the spiced pineapple drink. 

Apparently, pineapple skin wine is popular for Christmas in India, served with cake. In any case, it's nice spiced wine for any celebration.
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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Salt - A Sprinkling of Thoughts

Preserving balance where salt is concerned is increasingly hard. It is best to take with a pinch of salt all media reports on how much is too much. Whatever the personal stand, salt is a spicy topic with tons of health conditions where salt is reported culprit.

Before throwing the salt out with the bathwater, it is wiser to see what authoritative sites have to say about it. But that can be hard as popular science articles often do more harm than good, festering as they are with the fads they foster.

The (Political) Science of Salt says:
Three decades of controversy over the putative blood pressure benefits from salt reduction are demonstrating how the demands of good science clash with the pressures of public health policy.
Yet what's food without salt? Here, again, there are many salty issues: which salt, for example. Rock, Himalayan, iodised? Pass me my smelling salts before I faint with all these thoughts simmering in my mind!

While 'smelling salts' are a remedy about which I have read but have never used, I find table salt helpful for a few medical conditions. Gargling with comfortably warm water to which some salt has been added soothes my sore throats and I find that it helps my voice. It makes my mouth and gums feel good as well. In fact, there is A taste for salt in the history of medicine.

While there's a lot science has to say about salt, superstition peppers salt use liberally. Salt is thrown over shoulders, tossed into the corners of rooms and even bought every Friday. It appears to chase away bad vibes and invite prosperity.

While those are all fairytales, the truth is that salt makes many foods taste good and helps preserve foods too.

The question that remains tormenting to each new cook and to many veterans is: How much salt does a dish require?

Recipe writers appear to take it for granted that the reader knows how much salt to add. So they write: Salt to taste. This can be a major puzzle to many and lead to dishes that are either undersalted or ones that are too salty.

There is a lot of information about what to do when a dish is too salty. However, when a dish is undersalted, adding salt somehow never brings to the dish the same flavour that adding salt during cooking does.

So here are some tips to try out:
For a meat marinade, try a couple of teaspoons per kilo. That sounds alright to me. Vegetables, it is said, would take about the same. Here I'm not too sure.

I look forwards to reading what you, my readers, think on this issue. Please share, as comments, your own thoughts on how much salt a dish needs.

DapurMelodi from Pexels
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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Three Easy Dishes for a Sweet Tooth

My mother's cooking was very straightforward and, for most of my conscious life with her, restrained by economic concerns. Yet she never failed to produce a sweet or savoury snack for us. Of these, three sweet dishes made by her continue to cheer my days: French toast, pancakes and caramel custard. 


My mother's recipe for French toast was very simple: one egg, a tablespoon of milk, sugar to taste, and slices of bread. It is claimed that stale bread is better but I use whatever's at home. As for the sugar, start with about a spoon - it depends on how sweet you want your toast. The milk is optional and I don't think the sky will fall on our heads if milk is not used.

Beat the egg and milk with the sugar till the sugar is mostly dissolved. 

Warm a skillet/tawa. Add some oil/butter to condition it. Dunk the slices of bread into the egg-milk-sugar mixture. If you soak the slices, they can turn too mushy to handle. 

When the oil bubbles a bit, gently slide in the slices. Watch out as the oil can splash on you. Keep the fire on low to medium and turn the slice over after a minute or so. The crisper the outside the tastier the French toast. 

A variation: instead of sugar, add a dash of salt and pepper.

Serve with ketchup in both cases, if you like ketchup.

Here is a video of another simple method - I'd go with the cinnamon or other spice powder but I refuse to add vanilla. At least as essence.

My mother's pancakes are neither like the French crepes nor like the fat American pancakes. Her recipe was: one egg, a glass of milk, and a cup of plain flour or maida.

Mix these up well to avoid lumps. Heat a skillet as we did for the toast above and pour a bit of the batter and swirl. It's something like a dosa and the batter is better when thin as for a rawa dosa.

I later learned to add a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of oil and a dash of some handy booze.

My mother served her pancakes with lime juice and sugar. You can use anything you fancy as filling.

This video might provide a different spin but it's basically the same thing:

And now for the best one: caramel pudding. As my Amma made it: one egg, a glass of milk and two tablespoons of sugar.

Mix the egg and milk with one tablespoon of sugar till the sugar dissolves.

Take a pan and put it to heat with a tablespoon of sugar. Keep the fire low and keep moving the pan around till the sugar dissolves and turns brown.

For the pan, I usually use something that has a tight lid. When the pan cools down, pour in the egg-milk mixture and steam with lid on for about fifteen minutes.

Let the container cool before opening it to serve.

This basic pudding can take on diversity - once you master the basics it's an easy dessert to serve and enjoy.

Here is a variation that I've tried:

With the monsoon, we Indians get cravings. And what is better than something sweet when it's drizzling outside? 

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Cabbage Soup - Please, Sir, may I have some more?

I've always loved cabbage. In fact, I was not even deterred by mentions of it being a staple for prisoners in Siberia. Anti-Soviet writings were popular when I was quite young. 

Shchi or Russian-style cabbage soup - Victoria Vasilieva, via Wikimedia Commons

The prisoners had to build their own camps, cut down trees and were fed just enough to survive, Simmeth said. "We were served one-quarter loaf of bread and cabbage soup," he said.

Mostly, my mother made a dry cabbage and potato dish and it was tasty. What is more, during my graduation years, I had a Gujarati friend who introduced me to a version from her region. Even so, it was much the same dish. Of course, the South Indian dry dish, featuring only cabbage, must surely have been there and continues to hold a dominant position in my cooking repertoire.

Cabbage, as coleslaw, came into my world with the then popular Nirulas in Delhi. Cabbage with channa dal and coconut was stirred into my life by marriage. And, all this time, the size of the cabbages I bought remained decent for a small family. Also, cabbage rapidly reduces in volume when cooked.

However, somewhere along the way, the cabbage became gigantic. Where it was one of the easiest veggies to chop, even when the dish required mincing, cabbage now grew tough. At home, my partner and I often argue whether it is the region - Pune - or whether some tweaking has led to this unpleasant avatar. Whatever the reason, I struggle to use up cabbage now.

Yet cabbage is a valuable vegetable. It is also versatile and adds delightful crunch to salads and to Indo-Chinese  fusion dishes.

Even with such a range of things one can do with it and with all its health benefits, I struggled hard to use up the one cabbage I would pick up per week. I even tried cabbage juice and it's really not so bad at all!

Finally, being on a soup binge, I decided to go for this method. Only I can't quite imagine myself liking a clear soup with chunks or slices of cabbage. And so I chose the 'creamy' version.

Richard Lee - Chef Daniel's Kitchen: Cream of Cabbage Soup. 

My 'Cream of Cabbage Soup'

4 C chopped cabbage
1 green chili
1 small onion chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic to taste
A small bunch of coriander leaves
1 T coriander seeds
Stock or water

Saute the chopped veggies. Cool and blend. Boil with stock. Season.

Here is a more formal version: Cabbage Soup 

Cream of Cabbage Soup - With Meat

A Vegetarian Version

Cabbage offers a lot of versatility. Here are some recipes that I've bookmarked over the years:
Cabbage Manchurian
Cabbage Pakoda
Cabbage with Moong Dal

Cabbage juice, as I mentioned, is quite nice and when you make it and have it over the next day or two it sort of ferments and can be pleasantly but mildly fizzy. And the soup is soothing and sumptuous. Not at all like something served to prisoners! 

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Yellow Pumpkin Soup

My first powerful memory of this vegetable is as halwa. I've never eaten such a dish again but it remains delicious in recall. Yellow pumpkin was never cooked by my mother so far as I can remember. And it is only much later that I understood why. 

Indian pumpkins - Christopher J. Fynn, Wikimedia Commons

What's in a Name? 

In Delhi, I discovered that this gourd is called sitaphal there. For me, having grown up in South India, sitaphal was custard apple or sugar-apple as it appears to be called elsewhere. By now, I could see why my mother never cooked the vegetable. Shopkeepers were loathe to cut it, in those days, as once cut, the vegetable would rapidly degrade and spoil. And one gourd looks fit enough to feed a village as a whole!

Big and Bountiful

Somehow, I continue to be fond of this yellow fellow. It is reported that yellow pumpkin has many antioxidants and can be good for health. And yet it is a vegetable that is hard to use up as most recipes require but a few pieces. There are, indeed, a good many Indian recipes that call for a goodly amount but, in our family, for example, it is only I who am partial to the sweet and sour bhopla preparation that is popular in the Hindi belt and features mainly the bhopla. There are diverse recipes from all over India and all of them can be very delicious but few use more than a few pieces of the vegetable. Moreover, here, the focus is on soup.

I learned my technique from my sister who made it for me once. The recipe is not precise but it is easy and there's nothing like a bowl of this broth for a fine winter's day or night. Indeed, you can have it in any season.


1 C pumpkin, without seeds, peeled and chopped
1 small onion
A few cloves of garlic
1 green chili - optional
A small bunch of coriander leaves
1 T coriander seeds

Chops everything coarsely and saute in some oil or butter. Pressure cook or boil until cooked. Cool and blend. I didn't really need to sieve it. Add about two cups of stock or water. Season with salt, pepper. A dash of cinnamon or nutmeg powder is nice and you can add a bay leaf or tej patta if you like. Boil for a bit. Serve hot.  Now, that's my version but you can find many more ideas on the Net. 

A dash of lime juice or a bit of grated zest can make the soup fancy. These days one finds a huge variety of commercial soups in shops. They are great in a pinch but some contain chemicals that might not be so good for us. Also, it is a good habit to make things one eats from scratch. The engagement makes for more mindfulness.

If soup is not your cup of tea, here are some recipes that I found I'd bookmarked:
Pumpkin-oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Pumpkin Leaf and Vegetable Mish-Mash