“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.” Craig Claiborne
If you don’t “cook” daily or often, cooking can often seem so laborious. Yet if you look at it as a way of creating nourishment for yourself and those you love, it becomes an act of mindfulness.
Here’s what I love about cooking.
It’s focused alchemy. You take a few ingredients, you add heat, or some other force, a lot of LOVE – and magic (usually) happens. And you know what, it’s grounding.
Especially when you have willing helpers who clean up. I manage to use a lot of pots – or so my husband says.
Stirring something on the stove is probably one of the simplest pleasures of life. A luxury really, because it takes time and time is such a precious commodity today. How much would you pay for more time?
Yet if I embrace even a few minutes of slowing down enough to focus on preparing a meal, the chaos of my day slowly sheds like a winter coat that I no longer need when I step into the house. It’s sensual and sustaining all at once. You smell the aromas of spices, of onion and zucchini metamorphosing into their glistening selves and you know in that instant, that everything will be ok. That life will continue to swirl around you, but here in this moment you are living presence.
We have a child so we keep things simple.
I focus on using lots and lots of fresh, local and seasonal vegetables in our food, whole grains and when we have meat, portions are small and the meat is always free range + pasture fed; while fish is always wild.
Since this Fall we have been in Santa Cruz, California – which may become home. Here, even in a drought, organic farms are as plentiful as coffee shops in Vancouver. As a true believer in organic farming – and someone who wants to grow my own food – I am in awe of this beautiful produce, fresh herbs and fruits and veggies that taste “more” like themselves than I’ve ever tasted them – except in France – but that is another story. It makes cooking easy.
Now the thing about Santa Cruz, is that even though it gets ridiculously hot and dry here during the midday – my skin feels like it burns a little – it also gets very cool at night. The climate is more desert-like than in the Pacific Northwest – and that extreme variation is in Ayurvedic terms is very “Vata” especially as we move into the winter. Vata is the wind or air element and when out of balance it can cause many issues, quickly.
To understand Vata, think about the effect of Fall on perennial trees, the leaves dry, rustle and fall down; while the wood literally dries out.
It’s exactly what happens to our skin when it is cold and dry, we lose moisture and juiciness physically and mentally and emotionally – if we have a tendency to a lot of the Vata element within us to begin with, we may start to feel agitated and anxious, signs that we have a Vata “imbalance.”
The goal of Ayurveda is to live in harmony with nature and it’s natural rhythms. Many Ayurvedic practices focus on how you can achieve this balance every day and you can see my post on daily habits for vitality and health here.
Seasonally, this means as we move into the cooler, drying months of the year (in most places in the Northern Hemisphere, barring the Pacific Northwest that is); we must start to take precautions against both drying out too much as well as losing heat. It’s not rocket science.
It’s about realising that everything in the external environment directly impacts our inner environment or our internal ecology.
A really easy way to understand this is that in the winter, when the sun’s energy is diminished, our outer world becomes much much colder. Similarly, says Ayurveda, internally, we also lose our inner “sun” heat, or digestive fire, Agni, which can also be diminished. Given this fact, we must start to shift the way we eat.
While raw, green salads and foods that are more taxing on the digestive system may be fine in the summer, in winter, what should we eat? If you follow your gut, you will mostly be fine. I usually notice that as soon as the weather turns, I crave soups and stews and more soups and stews. Do you?
Food in Ayurveda is the foundation of every other healing therapy.
We are truly what we eat, we become what we eat, physically, chemically and emotionally at the mind-body level. So much of health is learning to listen to our gut, to our true intuition.
Eating seasonally is also key. Why do squashes and pumpkins magically arrive in the fall and winter? They are dense and rich in nutrients, vitamin C and look like the sun. It’s no wonder they arrive when our skies darken and cool. And they are delicious in soups and stews, which enhance their sweet and unguent qualities, helping to warm us and lubricate us inside out so we can better acclimatise to the changing seasons.
One of my favourite, fall into winter comfort foods is khichadi. Also known as khichari, “kitcheree”, “kitchree”, Khichadi has been Indian peasant food for centuries.
Greek ambassador Seleucus Nicator wrote about this dish of rice and pulses in 350 BC.
A stew of split mung dal along with basmati rice, khichadi is said to have all 6 tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. According to Ayurveda, if we have all 6 tastes present in every meal, we will balance our system and have good health. Basmati rice and mung dal both have the qualities of being sweet and cooling with a sweet aftertaste, but the warming spices help to moderate the sweet, coolness of the rice and dal, which makes khichadi easy to digest for almost everyone, even those with low digestive fire in a fortifying combination of protein and grains that is easily absorbable by our cells. In texture it is gooey and stewy, similar to Chinese Congee; and every region of India has a local variation with the addition of a few vegetables and different spices. I tend to use whatever vegetables are in season while my blend of spices is always a little bit fluid.
For something as simple as a combination of rice and lentils, it has a lot going for it and when you make some at home, I think you’ll taste exactly why. Here is a step by step tutorial followed by a fool proof recipe to make khichadi at home. It’s endlessly customisable – I’ve asked my mother for recipes for years and all I get is a pinch of this and a pinch of that – but that is exactly how recipes were passed down by the women in my family and I encourage you to play with different vegetable combinations and come up with a few of your favourites. Needless to say, please do use organic ingredients and savour every mouthful.
Warming Winter Khichadi: A Step by Step tutorial
Begin by soaking the rice and mung beans in filtered water for a few hours, ideally the whole night before you start cooking. The soaking helps to soften the rice and beans so they cook with less effort. It also pre-digests them slightly allowing for better enzymatic absorption.
For vegetables, I used onions, zucchini and a little bit of cauliflower that I bought at the Wednesday night farmer’s market.
Finely dice the onion + the zucchini – I prefer dicing to putting it in a food processor as that can make the onions mushy, but if you are super quick they turn out ok in a food processor as well, you just have to watch them!
Delicate fresh zucchini. You could use carrots, squashes, green beans…
Grate some ginger. To peel, use a small spoon, not a peeler and the ginger skin will come of in a thin shaving. Save the peel for ginger tea or ginger water, (hot water poured over the peels). Keep all your veggies prepped and ready for when you start to cook.
Where would khichadi be without it’s alchemical spices? Here’s what I used: bay leaves, fenugreek seeds, cumin powder, cumin whole seeds, black mustard seeds, turmeric and cardamom. For their healing properties, look at the recipe.
Finally, it’s time to begin cooking. Before you add the spices to the khichadi, toast the spice mixture in a pan. watch this step very carefully as you do not want the spices to burn. this stove got hot really fast, so i only had the pan on the stove for a few minutes.
Warming Winter Khichadi
- Ghee: 1 – 2 tbsp.
- 1/8 – 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 bay leaf warming and tonifying
- 1 tsp mustard seeds warming, increases digestive fire
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek warming + bitter, increases digestive fire
- 1 tsp cumin seeds digestive, anti-inflammatory
- 2 – 3 pods cardamom tonifying and astringent
- 1 pinch asafoetida powder allows us to digest lentils ease fully, i.e. eases gas or bloating
- 1 inch grated fresh ginger warming
- 1/2 onion diced
- 1 – 2 cupfuls of chopped fresh vegetables. Use whatever is seasonal and needless to say organic.
- 1 cup basmati rice
- 1/2 cup mung beans shelled, split-yellow colour
- 6 cups of boiling water
- A few cilantro leaves finely chopped to garnish
- Dry roast the spices, except for the fresh ginger in a pan for a few minutes until toasted.
- In a large pot, warm on medium high heat, 1 – 2 tbsp of ghee. Add the spices.
- Wait until the cumin and mustard seeds pop, then quickly add fresh ginger + onions if you are using and sauté.
- Add soaked rice and lentil mixture, stir for a few minutes, then add the water.
- Cook over medium heat uncovered until the water is absorbed. Then add 1 additional cup water.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. At this point you can add the chopped vegetables and let the entire stew cook until moist and soft. It could take another 1/2 hour to an hour. You can stir it occasionally, but you don’t need to. Just be sure it doesn’t burn.