Thursday, March 5, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 3

If you missed parts 1 and 2 of this series of posts, you can check them out here and here. For this post, I've gathered some travel tips.  If you ever find yourself preparing for a trip to India, here's some advice:
  • Pack toilet paper and carry it with you everywhere. While western hotels, airports, and fancy restaurants might supply a roll, they are the exception, not the norm. If you'll miss it, bring it. Might as well pack some hand sanitizer and put it in a zip lock with the TP while you're at it. If you're a germaphobe, you might go so far as to throw a travel-size bottle of lysol in that bag for good measure. 
  • Bring breathable scarves/pashminas or purchase one upon landing. I got this advice from my dear friend and yoga teacher, Wendy, when I asked her what to pack and it was such a great tip! Sometimes, you don't want to breathe in or smell the air around you and wearing one helped me make little adjustments to my appearance and comfort throughout the day.
  • Be prepared for all kinds of weather and bring practical shoes that are easy on/easy off.
    • Sun screen
    • bug spray
    • sneakers and/or strappy and supportive sandals that you don't mind exposing to "the elements"
    • a poncho (I really wish I had packed this, but it wasn't the rainy season when I was caught in 2 days of torrential downpours)
  • It's a conservative place. Sun dresses and tank tops and shorts might draw unwanted attention.
  • Realize that your plans and schedules are all tentative and be flexible.
  • Don't lose your boarding pass! 
  • Don't lose your cell phone! Or your other cell phone! (more on this in the post about Kerala.)
  • Pack some neutral tasting food that you can eat on the go. Granola bars, trail mix, etc. 
  • Don't drink the water. Get your drinks without ice. Be careful when it comes to fresh produce.
  • Drink lots of chai masala.
  • Eat all the dosas you can. I promise to post more about food once I get my pictures uploaded!
  • Go with a strong idea of what you might want to bring home as a souvenir and seek out a reputable seller (lonely planet and trip advisor were helpful on this front). Don't let your drivers/guides (even the good ones) derail your plans by dropping you off at a "demonstration." I was taken to see special jewels, handcrafted marble tables with jeweled inlays, rugs, pashminas, spices, you name it. And I thought I was being pretty firm. Apparently not firm enough. Just say no! 
  • Prepare your immune system
    • I had to go to the travel clinic to get a typhoid fever vaccine and malaria meds.
    • I amped up my vitamin routine a few weeks before travel and packed one of those crazy huge pill cases full of my supplements and malaria meds so I didn't have to pack a bunch of bottles. This helped me keep with my regimen, which is a challenge at home, let alone on the road! 
    • I also doubled my probiotic dosage a few weeks prior to departure to help me ward off bugs. I didn't get the slightest touch of "delhi belly" and give partial credit to all those friendly microbes. 
  • Don't miss Delhi. I'll tell you all about it in another post, but of all the places I went and things I saw, Delhi was my favorite. I was in awe of so much of what I saw and I covered a lot of ground in a single day. That said, I felt less safe here than I did in other cities. Keep your personal belongings very close. 
  • If you can afford to, spring for a driver. He'll take you where you need to go, wait for you, and be a great resource. Just know what you want to see/do and try to discuss your optimal route if possible. It will be relatively inexpensive and you might find it a worthwhile use of your money if it means you can cover more ground, feel safe, and have peace of mind.
  • Ignore panhandlers. THIS WILL BE HARD! They are so persistent and your heart aches for them. You will see their awful living conditions up close because they survive on the street. Mothers with babies on their hips will ask you for money to feed their children. Children will try to sell you all sorts of trinkets and the look in their eyes will break you down. But as soon as you engage with them, they won't let you go. They will walk with you to wherever you are going, even if you completely ignore them. I made the decision at the beginning of my trip to pick specific occasions/reasons to be generous/charitable and made selective donations and tipped generously. But I tagged along with a fellow American for a half a day (we met on a bike tour of Mumbai) and he didn't ignore the locals who approached him. He wasn't able to shake them once they clung on and it was so uncomfortable. 
  • Talk to people. The drivers and other people I met along my journey often asked me about my family. The first question was always if I was married and then they wanted to know all about my husband and if it was an arranged marriage or a love marriage. This served as a great reminder that Americans are not the center of the universe! India is the largest democracy in the world and so many of their customs are foreign to us so it stands to reason that your customs are just as foreign to them.
OK, I think that sums up most of my tips. I'll have a posts on Kerala, Delhi, and Agra live soon! And then at least a post or two on Natural Products Expo West, where I am now! 

India Travel Journal Part 2

If you missed Part 1, you can catch up on the first leg of my journey here. I'll be adding pictures to all posts next week, so be sure to come back for those.

The middle part of my trip was all work. I didn't do much sightseeing, but did get to spend lots of time with my colleagues in India and with students, researchers, librarians, and university administrators. It was great to get entrenched with the locals and hear about some of the cultural and academic norms from people who live here. My conversations with friends and colleagues who had been to India, my Lonely Planet, and the various podcasts and TV shows I read, listened to, and watched prior to departing for my trip prepared me well for India, but arriving here raised so many more questions. I also got some great travel tips from my colleagues who also helped address some of my natural curiosities. I had, for example, been wondering why all the business names, signs, and advertisements (billboards, etc), were in English. I knew English was spoken by many and that there were lots of local languages in India, but I guess I didn't connect the dots. Because Indians often don't understand each other's local languages, they fall back on English. This seems to be especially true for those who have attended university and/or work in tourism. Check out this language map on wikipedia to get a sense of the many languages and dialects spoken throughout India.

The author workshops I delivered took me to universities in Pune, Mumbai, and Kochi (aka Cochin) and to an engineering firm in Pune. So once in India, I found myself on four more flights. I always find airports interesting, regardless of where they are and that was absolutely the case in India. They featured prayer rooms and gender-specific security lines. They had decent food and clean well-stocked bathrooms (more on this later). They did not have wifi. But perhaps the most notable observation was the security practices. I am not exaggerating when I say that they checked my boarding pass at least a half dozen times at each airport. Before you enter the airport, you have to show your photo ID and flight confirmation (the email reservation on your phone is acceptable). Then you get ticketed and have to have your boarding pass stamped at security. Then you have to show it twice at the gate (to two people back to back). Then again when you board the plane. And AGAIN when you deboard the plane! What the heck?! I guess since language is an issue, they want to make sure you're getting on the right plane? You also have to get tags for each of your carry-on bags and have those tags stamped. It's crazy!

The hotels I stayed at also had pretty rigorous screening. They inspected each car on entry and made guests walk through metal detectors then get wanded by a gender-specific security officer. And bags went through an x-ray scanner, too. My colleague said that this was all to provide the appearance of security but that it wasn't really doing anything meaningful. It did make me wonder about security spending in general. I mean each hotel had several visible people to manage security. Once I was in the hotel, I received some of the best hospitality I've ever received. Actually, that hospitality started from the moment I landed at the airport since there were drivers there from the hotel to pick me up. In Delhi (next post will be devoted entirely to Delhi), I was driven home in a super fancy audi with massage features built into my seat. I could get used to this whole private driver thing if it weren't for the insane traffic.

Oh that's right, the traffic. How have I not mentioned that yet? Indians must be born with superior spatial reasoning, hand eye coordination, and response times because all of the above are requisite to drive anywhere. There is an insane amount of traffic and I was shocked that I didn’t witness a single accident because cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedicabs, buses, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, scooter and all kinds of animals share the same congested lanes. They seem to communicate presence and passing with frequent honking, as if they're all having a conversation with each other through car horns. Some trucks even say "Horn Please" on their tailgates. Getting anywhere can be scary and I might have had an anxiety attack if I didn't just trust that my drivers were highly skilled and would get me to my destination without killing me. Somehow, I managed to convince myself of this pretty early on and I made a conscious effort to NOT look at the road in front of me any time I got in a car.

It's probably worth stating at this point that I was pretty sheltered and pampered during my trip. If I had been travelling for leisure, I'm not sure I would have sprung for the 40 minute flights, the super classy hotels, or the car service everywhere. I had planned on taking trains and public transit, but my colleagues insisted that I take cars everywhere. As a result, I do feel like I didn't get to see as much of the real India as I would have liked, but it was probably for the best. I want to go back. And maybe when I return, I'll see more of the grit and I'll force myself to experience more of the crowds up real close.

More on the food, Kerala, Delhi, Agra, and packing and travelling tips in the next posts in this series... I promise! And I will add pictures soon, I swear!

Monday, February 23, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 1

I'm in India for work and arrived a few days early to get acclimated and absorb my surroundings a bit before I start a week of speaking engagements at universities here. I'll be conducting author workshops to help Indian researchers navigate scholarly publishing. Should be interesting! 

Mumbai. 2/22/15

They call this city the New York City of India. That seems like an understatement to me. 20 million people. 7 million ride the subway here every day and of those, roughly 10 die trying. Everyone warned me that it would be loud. I expected it to bother me, but I’m one with the din. Everyone said it would smell. Parts do. The fish market stunk so bad and I felt awful as I sat down for a cup of tea at the Taj later wearing the same shoes I had worn on the docks because every once in a while, a waft of dead fish assaulted my nose. People warned of the water and the food and so far, the bottled water’s been plentiful and the food has been filling, delicious, and my stomach’s been fine. Maybe it’s too early to judge. I’ve been here less than 48 hours, but it’s been a splendid 2 days so far. Did I mention I scored an exit row aisle seat with an empty seat next to me for the long flight to Dubai?!

I landed in Mumbai (AKA Bombay BTW) around 1:00 am. There were multiple check points to get out of the airport that were a little disorganized, but otherwise, the Mumbai airport was impressive. I walked out to a sea of drivers holding placards and couldn’t find mine. I walked down the line several times before spotting the “Courtyard Marriott” folio. He said he’d been waiting a while. I’m grateful he didn’t give up on me! That set the tone and everything’s worked out fine since. I passed out after my 16-hour (I think) journey from Boston through Dubai and didn’t wake up until mid-afternoon Saturday. Famished, I had a hotel car take me to get something to eat and to see some sights while there was still some daylight. He brought me to a Chinese restaurant. I tried to go with the flow, but the place was dead and the menu was duplicative of every other Chinese food menu I’d ever seen, so I went back to the car, searched Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, pulled Google maps up, and directed him to a Punjabi restaurant in Bandra that had solid reviews. I devoured the Chicken Dhaba, dal, and rice and or 260 rupee, I got an amazing meal for less than $5 USD. (I'll add a picture ASAP!)

From there, I headed to a church on a hill. I’m not big on churches, but the spirituality of this place had me curious to go inside. Nearly everyone identifies as a believer in something and there’s an unusual respect for the beliefs of others that is palpable. There were worshipers filling almost every pew and the faces that depicted the station of the cross looked markedly different from those back home or throughout Europe. Down the hill, I found the sun just as it was about to set in the Arabian sea. I headed down some stairs through a slum to rocks that jutted out into the ocean. There were others there to watch the sun set. Couples. Families. Children playing. I shot a time lapse video and hoped to capture the giant sun disappear under the horizon of the water, but instead it sank heavily behind the haze. Before it got too dark, I worked my way toward Band Stand and walked around there for a bit. This was probably the first time I got a feel for the size of Mumbai because I could see so much of the sprawling city from this lookout point. I could have kept going, but needed to work on my presentation some more, so I returned to the hotel for a deliciously filling buffet dinner and some PowerPoint fun.

Today, I woke at 5 am to take an early morning bike tour of the city with Reality Tours and Travel. We rode past the beautiful High Court and University of Mumbai. We visited CST Station, the gorgeous train station made famous in the film Slumdog Millionaire. From there, we checked out one of the largest produce markets in Mumbai, though it wasn’t very busy since it was early on a Sunday morning. I also walked around the meat market, which was pretty gross. I’m all for getting in touch with your meat and am OK watching an animal be butchered, but the heat, visibly decaying flesh, and the piles of guts… well it wasn't a pleasant combination. I fed some holy cows at what can only be described as part petting zoo + part place of worship and from there, we went to Sassoon Dock, Mumbai’s largest fishing pier. It was pretty foul. We walked past Mumbadevi Temple, which was very busy since most Indian’s are off on Sundays. While they don’t have a dedicated day of worship like many other faiths, they bring offerings to their gods often, so the line was too long for us to wait in. We ended the tour with a ride down Marine Drive and ate a delicious breakfast together following our tour.

From there, I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m staying in the north part of the city near the airport and it can be a nearly hour long drive to the south of Mumbai where most of the landmarks are. I was planning on doing a street food tour in the evening but never made reservations, so I decided to check out The Gateway of India and take the ferry over to Elephanta Island to see the ancient carvings of Shiva. It was hot, so being on a ferry moving through the water sounded more appealing than walking the city, especially given the post-op condition of my foot. The carvings were amazing and when we got to the top of our trek, I bought a snack. A few minutes later, I was being chased by a monkey for said snack. Down went the bag of whatever they were (I wouldn't know since the package was nondescript and I never even opened them). The monkey enjoyed them and I enjoyed reminiscing about the time a raccoon chased me down for my ice cream cone in Vancouver.

Side note: I’m not sure what you’re idea of tourists in India may or may not be, but I can tell you that I only saw a handful of white people all day. I learned that this would be the case a few days before departure, but it seemed shocking to some of the other tour-goers in the morning. Also, India reminds me a LOT of Brazil. Except Brazil was cleaner and less noisy and I could easily be mistaken for someone from Brazil… not so in India!

I went to the meeting point for the street food tour and called when 5:30 came and went and nobody showed for the tour. They told me they weren’t running the tour tonight. I doubt I’ll be able to attend Wednesday after my talk at Mumbai University, but you never know!

I retired back to the hotel where I bee-lined it for the shower. I even hand-washed most of my clothes because I was worried about the fish smell lingering and potentially rubbing off on the rest of the clothes in my luggage. Another delicious buffet dinner at the Courtyard Marriott before bed. Fingers crossed my clothes dry by 8 am, when I leave for Pune. My first talk is Tuesday. I should really be prepping for that now instead of writing this… 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

GIVEAWAY: Eat Clean Live Well by Terry Walters

If you're a regular reader of FSTS you know how much I adore Terry Walters and how much I love her cookbooks. I first met her in 2011 when I got to hang out with her at Kitchenwares on Newbury Street in Boston (blogged about it here). She was so warm and friendly and I loved how non-judgmental she was about clean food, which Terry often describes simply as "minimally processed."

Over the last few years, I've found my favorite Terry Walters recipe and have shared many of them here (Check out my step-by-step granola post with lots of visuals here and my bulk gift granola recipe here.) Terry lives in Connecticut and has some roots here in Beantown, so she comes for speaking engagements, cooking demos, and book signings, some of which I've helped organize and wrote about here. When I hosted my family for Thanksgiving a few years ago, we used Terry Walters' recipes to put a well-rounded vegetarian thanksgiving meal on the table (wrote about that here). And, when my sweet tooth is craving peanut butter and chocolate, I turn to one of the easiest recipes I know, Teff Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies. I made a double batch the night before my foot surgery a few weeks ago so that I'd have something quick and easy to nosh on in the days after when cooking wasn't really in the cards.  

Terry's latest book, Eat Clean Live Well combines seasonal recipes with healthy living tips to help you not only eat clean, but live in harmony with the seasons. The winter part of Eat Clean Live Well includes tips on maintaining balance like never show up hungry and ways to spend time outdoors), winter self care (great tips on skin care, exercise, and favorite teas and herbs), and giving (recipes for healthy homemade gifts). For the more ambitious among us, there are tips for planting seeds, sprouting, lacto-fermenting, composting, and homemade cleaning products. It's like a guide to healthy living and a cookbook in one...

And I want you to have a copy! Terry's publicist at Sterling Epicure was kind enough to send me a copy to give to one of you. To enter, click on the rafflecopter link below. You'll have to follow @FrSeed2Stomach (that's me!) on twitter to win and you can earn additional entries by leaving a comment and visiting my Facebook Page. I'll randomly select a winner on Feb 1 and that winner will be notified via email then. Good luck!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Slowcooker Chicken Cacciatore in the Vitaclay

Chicken Cacciatore is a magical meal. It's hard to screw up, well-balanced, and delicious. I prepared a batch a few weeks ago and was shocked to hear that out of the 4 of us enjoying the dish, I was the only one who had ever eaten it before! I remember my mom preparing this dish when I was young and I made it for my family when my mom started a full-time 9-5 job that came with a commute (I was 12, so if I could do it then, you can do it now!).

You don't need a VitaClay to cook this dish. It can simmer on the stove unattended or cook in your slowcooker all day. Like a good tomato sauce, the longer the flavors have to spend time with each other, the better.

This dish is often served over pasta, but I love it over mashed potatoes and this time, I mashed some celery root with the potatoes for extra flavor and nutrition and left the cheese and milk out to keep this very filling dish from being too heavy. Nobody missed the cheese or milk and I don't think anyone would have been aware of the celery root if I hadn't told them. If you're looking for a dish that gets more veggies into your family's diet, give this one a try!

Ingredients (in order of appearance):
1 package of organic, skinless, boneless chicken thighs (there were 6 in mine. get pastured local chicken if you can)
1/2 cup brown rice flour (optional) seasoned with a dash each of black pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning
2 tb extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
2 cloves minced garlic
Splash of red or white wine (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp Italian seasoning (or a pinch each of dried marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, basil, and parsley - if you're missing any one of these, no worries!)
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp (or more if you like it spicy) red pepper flakes
1 can or jar (14 oz) crushed roma tomatoes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1) Bring the chicken to room temp while prepping the rest of the ingredients. 

2) Coat the chicken in the flour (wheat flour is fine, too). Heat 2 tb extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken and brown, cooking for about 2 minutes per side. 
Step 2: Brown the Chicken
3) Remove chicken from pot and add the onion, pepper, dried herbs, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the oil. Add another tb of oil if pan is dry. Saute until onions are translucent and peppers soften. Add the garlic and the wine soon thereafter to deglaze the pan. You don't want the garlic to brown. 

Step 3: Saute the peppers and onions
4) In the slow cooker, put half the crushed tomatoes, then the chicken and everything you've sauteed, then the rest of the crushed tomatoes. Add some more salt and pepper to taste, set it, and forget it. 

Step 4: Set it and forget it!

Vitaclay: Stew for 2 hours. It'll be done in 1 and can probably go for the full 4, but 2 worked well. 

Crock-Pot/Slow-Cooker: Cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 8.

Stove-Top: Simmer for 1 - 3 hours. It's ready when a chicken thigh is no longer pink in the middle but will be better when the chicken falls apart when you try to cut it with a fork. 

Note: If you're pressed for time, you don't need to coat the chicken in flour, brown it, or saute the veggies. You can just dump all the raw ingredients into the slow cooker and be done with it. It won't be AS flavorful, but it will still be absolutely delicious! 

Enjoy over pasta, mashed potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, or your grain or starch of choice. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite Things, Part 2: Too Cool Not to Share

Hi there! This is Part 2 in a multi-part series on my favorite things of 2014. If you missed Part 1: Things You Plug In, check it out here.

Paderno World Cuisine A4982799 Tri-Blade Plastic Spiral Vegetable Slicer

$32.40 on Amazon

These things have been all the rage lately, but I haven't been compelled enough to spring for one myself. Well, I'm really grateful to my good friend Laura for this wonderful shower gift. We still have a lot of dishes to try out, but for steamed zucchini tossed in pesto and for a fun twist (get it?) on cucumber salad, this thing has been super. It is easy to assemble, use, and clean and I think it would be a great way to make preparing and eating veggies fun for kids and for adults who are kids at heart. ;-)

Bodum Columbia Four 6 Oz Cups Stainless Steel Thermal Vacuum Coffee Press, 0.5 l, 17-Ounce

$84.99 on Amazon

I confess: I LOVE coffee. But not any old cup of Joe. Nope, I'm a coffee snob. The luke-warm cups from the keurig at work infuriate me. Dunkin Donuts coffee is no more than a carrier liquid for excessive amounts of cream and sugar. You get the idea. I also don't own a drip machine b/c frankly, it takes up a lot of counter space and I'm the only one who drinks it. So, I've been doing the pour-over thing since before that was a thing and making espresso on the stove with one of those cute Italian things my Grandma gave me. I buy good, freshly roasted beans and I grind them myself and well, both of my methods were falling short. The pour-overs are never dark enough and the stove-top stuff can burn pretty easily. I knew a french press would fill a void in my life. And oh, how it has! This pot is petite, so it's footprint is small and it makes just enough coffee for me to get my morning fix. Best part... it keeps it hot until I'm ready for my second cup and cleans up with a very quick rinse. Is it worth $85? Guess THAT depends on how much of a coffee snob you are. :-P

Joseph Joseph 9 Piece Compact Mixing Bowl, Food Prep and Measuring Set, Nest 9

$49.95 on Amazon

A colorful, space-saving set that includes measuring cups (we had a few from one set and a few from another, but were always searching for the right one for whatever we were measuring at the time), a large mixing bowl (you can never have enough), 2 strainers (the ones we still have hog way too much space in our cabinets!), and a small mixing bowl that's great for prep. 

Joseph Joseph Twist 2-in-1 Silicone Whisk, Multi-Colored

$10.16 on Amazon

The most annoying thing about a whisk is that it can take up so much space in a drawer! This one is great because it stores flat and the colors are super fun, too. It works, it's easy to clean, it won't damage cookware, and well, I love it.

Tervis 4-Pack Tumbler, 16-Ounce, Clear

$39.99 on Amazon

We had a good friend tell us we had to get these after staying with us for a few months and observing our drinkware patterns: Let's just say he was right. We also got the lids that pop on to make these to-go sip cups for coffee or straw cups for water. Best part? They're top-rack dishwasher safe and don't sweat. 

Progressive International GT-3468 Snap Fit Stainless Steel Measuring Spoons, Set of 5

$15.00 on Amazon

Another colorful space-saver that is super practical! I've had sets of measuring spoons over the years. They've come on rings that don't really hold them together and that ring of spoons can be pretty irritating because you have to decide if you should pop the 1 or 2 spoons off the ring or leave them all together. 

Silpat AE420295-07 Premium Non-Stick Silicone Baking Mat, Half Sheet Size, 11-5/8-Inch x 16-1/2-Inch

$13.29 on Amazon

Cookie season is here! I've wanted these for a while and love how easy they make baking and clean up. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Favorite Things, Part 1: Things You Plug In

This year has been amazing for SO many reasons and while material things certainly don't top the list, James and I had fun selecting stuff for our registry. There wasn't much we "needed," so I took special care to research every possible want and need before adding anything to our lists. We ended up selecting a handful of practical things that we would use regularly.

After a few months of use of some very generous gifts, I'm happy to share reviews of my favorites. Some of the "things" on the lists in this mult-part blog post series (!) weren't gifts, but were things that made their way into my life this year that I wholeheartedly recommend. Use this and the following lists for inspiration this gift-giving season or gift yourself with something you know you'll use every day. I've separated things into fun categories and included images that link to the items on Amazon for your convenience. ;-)

Part 1: Stuff You Plug In

I had my eye on most of these things for a while and I did a ton of research before I knew they were "the ones." I even subscribed to Consumer Reports to read expert reviews on a lot of the products I was eyeing. They also publish these great buyer guides that tell you what to look for when you're shopping for a particular item. Yeah, I'm a dork. What?

VitaClay VM7900-8 Smart Organic Multi-Cooker/Rice Cooker 

$129.99 on Amazon

I have a hand-me-down crock pot that works. But the only functions on it are high and low. There's no option to set a timer and the lightweight plastic lid lets a lot of liquid escape. It's also a bit small for the type of things I like to cook in it - soups! I also have a cheap rice cooker that works well, but is coated with a nonstick surface that probably leeches all kinds of chemicals into our otherwise healthy brown rice, quinoa, and other grains. I've had my eye on this since I saw it reviewed on another blog and well, I knew I wanted it. It's pretty amazing. It works for rice and other grains, roasts, soups, and stews. The clay pot means it gets really hot and actually reduces the time needed to "slow" cook from 6 - 8 hours to 2 - 4. It has a timer that lets you schedule when it starts cooking and it keeps food warm. The lid locks, so liquid is retained. And, the pot is easy to clean even though it's not painted or covered in "nonstick" stuff. If you don't have a slow cooker and/or a rice cooker, this is a no-brainer! Thank you Roseanne!

Breville BOV650XL Compact Smart Oven 1800-Watt Toaster Oven with Element IQ

$179.95 on Amazon

The "oven" on my ancient Black-n-Decker toaster oven died a year or two ago and I swore I wouldn't buy another one. Instead, I'd put best one I could find on our registry and thanks to James' Godmother and her daughters, we now have a brand new top of the line amazing toaster oven that toasts, bakes, and broils. We've toasted english muffins, baked cookies, broiled fish, and even reheated chicken pot pies in this bad boy. And it's been good at all of them. The digital stuff took some more getting used to than I expected, but it counts preheating down and beeps when it's ready. We even got a coordinating cutting board that fits on top perfectly. I love it's small footprint, too. I wasn't looking for an oven to put on the counter, you know? We have an oven... but this thing will certainly help us get a hot dinner on the table in the summer without heating up the rest of the apartment. And, I love Breville. The designs are so sleek. Thank you Aunt Janet, Marie, and Nancy!

Breville BTM800XL One-Touch Tea Maker

$249.95 on Amazon

Splurge alert! If you're like us and make several POTS, not cups, of tea for like five months out of the year, this might be worth it. Otherwise, it's kind of hard to justify unless you've got $250 burning a hole in your pocket. I used a $15 electric kettle that I bought at Wal-mart for over a decade. I love electric kettles, counter footprint aside. They boil water faster than the stove and it's nice to have a device dedicated to only water. When I started "shopping" for a new electric kettle, all I wanted was one with an auto-off feature that I could customize the temperature on (I used to use a digital thermometer to achieve the ideal temperature for steeping green and other delicate teas). The more I researched, the more I wanted one with a detachable base so the kettle could go from counter to kitchen or coffee table without a cord. Things started to get pricey when I combined those features with a kettle that didn't have plastic and I hated the thought that I might be sipping BPA or other endocrine disruptors with my cup of antioxidants. When I saw a kettle with a list price of $300, I thought it was a joke. Until I watched the video and saw the Breville magic. There are pre-set buttons for green, white, black, and herbal teas and for mild, medium, and strong. There's a rather magical basket (that somehow doesn't let loose tea into the water) on a magnet that automatically enters the water at the exact moment the water reaches the perfect temperature and removes the basket from the water once it has steeped according to your preference. And yes, there are custom temperature and steep time settings, a keep warm button, an auto-off feature, and a detachable base. Heavens, you can even program it the night before to make your tea when your alarm goes off in the morning. People... what more do you need in life than the perfect cup of tea?! Thank you CarolMom!

Cuisinart GR-4N 5-in-1 Griddler

$64.99 on Amazon

OK, I full well know that I dissed nonstick surfaces like 2 sentences ago, but you have to pick your battles in life, right? Well, we have lodge cast iron pans and the grill/griddle thing has NOT been working for us. This thing has been life-changing. Eggs. Pancakes. Grilled veggies. Grilled chicken. Burgers. It does it all. But wait, there's more! Because James' one registry request was a waffle iron and well, I didn't want a separate appliance taking up precious space. There are WAFFLE plates for this bad boy! And they work perfectly fine for the (let's be honest here) 5 times a year we'll probably make waffles. ;-) The plates are pretty easy to change and clean up nicely in the dishwasher. Note: Cuisinart makes several versions of the "griddler." I compared and contrasted them all. Read all the reviews. This one won hands down, I promise. Thank you to the Sicuranzas!

In the next week, I'll post one or two more "favorite things" round-ups, but the above captures most of the big ticket items. Have you ever used any of the above products? If so, let us know in the comments!