Healthy For The Holidays

Cold Season Is Coming

As winter arrives, so do a seeming host of unpleasant and communicable afflictions. This year has already spawned some particularly nasty colds as well as virulent flu, and indoor allergies abound. Staying healthy through the holidays can be challenging, but happily we can look to both traditional and brand new remedies for prevention and relief. When sniffles and sneezes make you reach for over-the-counter cold remedies, think twice; some can actually make symptoms worse when we stop using them.

Instead, stick to tried and true home remedies; extra vitamin C can indeed shorten or ward off colds, while hot, brothy soup relieves chest congestion. A spoonful of honey and a splash of lemon juice in tea or hot water can ease a sore throat, as will gargling several times a day with warm water with a pinch of sea salt added. For a stuffy nose, try daily nasal irrigation, again with warm, salted water (1/4 teaspoon sea salt/cup distilled or filtered water) and a neti pot or even a small bulb syringe (a child-sized ear syringe works best).

An Uncommon Cure For A Hacking Cough

Best of all, recent research shows that dark chocolate’s theobromines can sooth persistent coughs better than opiates. Most commercial or prescriptive cough suppressants are based on some form of codeine or similar narcotics, which in Britain and the EU are not recommended for anyone under the age of 18. The good news is that rather than suppressing a hacking cough, dark chocolate can actually stop it at the source. We cough when our throats are irritated, and conditions such as post-nasal drip can trigger the vagus nerve almost constantly, resulting in persistent coughing that just won’t quit.

When dark chocolate coats the throat, the thick, sticky theobromines soothe the vagus nerve and the crazy-making coughing stops. (Milk chocolate or hot chocolate don’t work, only dark chocolate has the power.) This research is fairly recent, but already, chocolate-based cough drops can sometimes be found locally (I found them at Rite-Aid) and more theobromine-rich medications are under development. In the meantime, try letting some dark chocolate melt very slowly in your mouth, one small piece at a time. You may need to be persistent, and you may need to try several kinds of dark chocolate to find the one that works best for you, but know that your experiment is founded on solid and replicated research. Onward!

The Wholesome, Healing Power Of Alliums

When cold winter winds bring colds and sniffles in their wake, we can look to the onion family for relief. And here’s some good news for vegetarians; when researchers learned that Mom was right and chicken soup actually can help help cure a cold, the benefit turned out to be largely due to the combination of steam and onions. From onions and garlic to shallots and leeks, the allium family offers phytonutrient compounds that boost the immune system and help fight infection naturally. Since they also add savor and warmth to almost anything, why not plant some extra garlic? Though October may be a more common time, many folks prefer to garlic plant in December, so go for it!

A Lighter, Fresher Onion Soup

French onion soup is lush and rich, but can be almost cloyingly sweet. This garlic-based Italian version has a similarly silky quality but packs a far more powerful punch. It tastes and smells heavenly, and is as good as Mom’s chicken soup for chasing away a cold or flu. A last minute addition of oil infused with raw garlic and parsley makes this soup especially lively; if it tastes too vivid, wait a minute or two to let the heat mellow the spicy garlic flavor before serving.

Zesty Garlic Soup

2 quarts vegetable broth (or any)
1/4 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 whole heads garlic, cloves peeled and lightly crushed
1 cup chopped Italian parsley (with stems)
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 bunch spinach (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
1 thick slice crusty rosemary- or herb-bread, toasted and cubed
1/4 cup Asiago or Romano cheese, coarsely grated

In a soup pot, bring broth, hot pepper flakes, onion, salt, and all but 2 cloves of garlic to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, In a blender or food processor, puree remaining garlic with parsley and olive oil, set aside. Add spinach to soup and cook until barely limp (2-3 minutes). With an immersion blender, puree soup, then add olive oil mixture. Serve hot, garnished with toast and cheese. Serves 4.

Allium Soup Broth

To make a light, fresh tasting broth for your soup, combine the ends and loose skins and peels of the vegetables the recipe calls for in a pot with a pinch of salt and water to cover. Onions, garlic, leeks, celery, carrots, and potatoes are the classics; if you stick to these, your broth will be gently savory with a touch of sweetness. (Loose brown onion skins give the broth a lovely golden color as well.) Use cabbage and pepper family scraps with caution if at all, as they tend to be unpleasantly dominant. Simmer gently for 30-40 minutes; simmered broth stays clear but turns cloudy if allowed to boil.  Strain into a bowl and adjust seasoning to taste. Makes 1-2 quarts that last up to a week in the fridge or for several month if frozen.

Leek And Onion Soup

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 large onion, chopped
2 large leeks, thinly sliced (white and palest green parts only)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 cups thinly sliced kale (any kind)
1 quart fresh vegetable broth (or any)
1/2 teaspoon shoyu or soy sauce

In a soup pot, heat oil, garlic, and lemon rind over medium high heat to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add onion, leeks, salt, paprika and celery and cook for 5 minutes. Add 2 cups water, cover pan and simmer over low heat until vegetables are soft (10 minutes). Add kale, cover pan and cook until barely tender (5-7 minutes). Add broth and bring to a simmer, then stir in shoyu and fresh lemon juice to taste and serve. Serves 4.

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Savory Salty Seasonings

Salts Of Land And Sea

I’m mildly fascinated by the seeming conflict between health-inspired foods that offer reduced salt and the proliferation of salt-sparkled edibles. Even staid brands of canned beans offer versions containing trendy sea salt or none at all, and everything from dressings and rubs to chocolates and ice cream come in salt-free or salt-inspired flavors. If some of us fear salt, most of us love the stuff, and rightly so, since we literally can’t live without salt. True, around 27% of black folks and about 15% of white folks are salt-sensitive and really do need to monitor intake in order to keep their blood pressure levels stable. That said, the critical need for salt in the human diet is well established, though most health experts suggest keeping sodium intake to around 2,000 milligrams each day. Salt ferries nutrients into cells and regulates blood pressure and body fluid volumes, among other things. Salt is what butterflies are seeking when they land on roadkill and why sweat bees follow hard working people around.

Though there are dozens of kinds of salt in today’s markets, all salt is not created equal. Least healthful is common table salt (refined sodium chloride), found in almost every processed food on the grocery shelf. Chemically treated for appearance and pour-ability, concentrated sodium chloride is blended with aluminum, sugar, and calcium silicate to prevent clumping. Refined salt lacks the treasury of minerals found in unrefined sea salt, which contains a complex of over 80 components, including iodine, minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, and a multitude of trace minerals.

Salt Of The Sea

Sea salts are increasingly popular, probably because unrefined salts have a soft, complex taste that enhances natural flavors without overwhelming them. Around here, true locavores use only locally sourced salt from Oregon (Jacobsen Salt Company) and Washington (San Juan Island Sea Salt), but many cooks prefer fast-dissolving kosher salt in hot foods, saving flavorful sea salts for last minute use. Each kind of salt has its own particular qualities, which is why lots of cooks keep around a dozen kinds on hand. For everyday cooking use, medium coarse sea salt and kosher salt are excellent, inexpensive and widely available. Flaked sea salts melt fast, providing more salty zing with less sodium. Natural “finishing” salts offer a specific, unique flavor, from black or red Hawaiian lava salt and Indian black sanchal salt to slightly sweet French grey sea salt.

Naturally occurring fleur de sel, delicate “sea flower” salt, is considered by lots of chefs to be the very choicest table salt (if they believe in table salt at all). Maldon and fleur de sel are prized finishing salts, as is flake salt from New Zealand, which has a particularly bright, sparking quality. Indian sanchal or black salt (actually a pinkish tan) has an unusual, distinctive flavor that adds authenticity to Indian food. Use fragrant black sea salt from Pakistan sparingly on salads, steamed vegetables, rice and pasta for a powerful taste experience. Smoked sea salt adds a delicious, tangy savor to grilled fish or roasted vegetables. Coarse, chunky Hawaiian red salt is colored by volcanically heated red clay, with a mild, subtle flavor. Coarse sea salt is perfect for crusting baked fish or blending with fragrant herbs for bath salts.

Making Salt Blends

Salty seasoning blends have been around forever (ask your mom), but it’s super easy and very rewarding to make your own. As a rule, you’ll need about a tablespoon of seasonings for each cup of salt. When experimenting, make smaller batches, using about a teaspoon of flavorings for a quarter cup of salt (in case the experiment bombs). For the most uniform results, the herbs, garlic, citrus rinds, peppercorns and so forth should be finely chopped, grated, or pounded in a mortar and pestle before blending with salt. Chunky, coarse sea salt is cheap, but melts unevenly both in food and in the mouth. A medium sized coarse or flaked salt is traditional for blends and looks most attractive (nice if you’re making gifts). Table salt can overwhelm seasonings with a flat, metallic tang, and very fine textured sea salts may need an extra boost of flavorings.

Many spices will gain potency if lightly toasted before grinding. I use a dedicated coffee mill for grinding peppercorns, smoked paprika peppers, roasted cumin seed, garam masala, and so forth, but a good blender works well too. Most food processors don’t really work efficiently on small amounts, but if it’s all you’ve got, add a few tablespoons salt to the herbs and grind them together until you get the right consistency.

Lemon Pepper Salt

1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 cup kosher or medium coarse sea salt
finely grated zest of 2 organic lemons

In a dry frying pan, toast all peppercorns over medium heat to the fragrance point (about 1-2 minutes). In a blender, grind peppercorns with 2 tablespoons salt. Add remaining salt and process until evenly ground, then stir in grated lemon zest. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.

Italian Salt Blend

1 teaspoon toasted white peppercorns
1 cup kosher or medium coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons stemmed and chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

In a blender, grind peppercorns with 2 tablespoons salt. Add remaining ingredients and process until evenly ground. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.

French Finishing Salt

1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence *
1 cup sea salt

Blend well and store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.

If you don’t have Herbes de Provence, make some:

Though the blend is actually of relatively recent origin, making Herbes de Provence involves combining herbs traditionally used in Provencal cookery. Experiment freely to find combos that please your palate; leave out lavender if you don’t care for the flavor, or add other dried herbs. Some folks like to include oregano, parsley and savory, but I think too many ingredients muddle the mix.

Herbes de Provence

Combine 1 tablespoon each of dried lavender blossoms, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, basil, and fennel seed. Stir well to blend and store dry. Crumble with your fingers when adding to sauces, dressings, marinades, soups, etc. Makes about 1/3 cup.

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Celebrating & Remembering

Giving Thanks & Acknowledging Sorrow

This weekend, I met with a group of friends, all students of Pat Moffitt Cook, who gather more or less monthly to offer an hour or so of traditional sacred healing chants we learned through Pat’s Spiritual Health & Sound programs. During the chanting and later as we met around the table to share a meal, an empty chair sat waiting for whatever guest might come our way. In the Hebraic tradition, an empty chair is placed at the Seder table for the prophet Elijah. In some families, a chair is set at celebrations to honor those who have died, someone who might be estranged, or travelers who are far from home and family.

I’ve been swamped with feelings of deepest grief for the past two weeks, and realize that I feel the recent election results like a big, resonating death. Today marks the first anniversary of my mother’s death and I’m remembering watching her take her final breath, gently and peacefully and then simply stopping. It is not my mother’s death that grieves my heart, but what feels like the death of my country, land of liberty and justice for all. So this year, my celebration table will have an empty chair, and the empty plate will hold a candle. When we sit, we’ll extinguish all the lights, have a moment of recollection for all we have lost, then light the candle to remind us of what we still have in abundance, and what will remain when we ourselves are gone.

We Gather More Or Less Together

Thanks to complex schedules and multi-family events, my family often replaces traditional celebrations with several smaller reunions. It can be refreshing to allow change to reshape tradition as well as habit. Just as clearing out crammed closets lets us re-home a host of unneeded and unused things, renewing the way we celebrate holidays lets us keep whatever is most treasured, let go of stressful parts, and make space for pleasant new experiences. My own thanksgiving is really about sharing gratitude and celebrating belonging–to family, community, or the fellowship of humanity–not spending most of a day (or more) making a heavy, rich meal that will be over in the blink of an eye.

I still enjoy making the traditional foods (especially because the leftovers are so much fun to work with). However, my extended family now flows into others, presenting an interwoven net of connection and sometimes obligation. As my sons reached adulthood, I made a clear decision that I do not ever want being with me to be an obligation for my family or friends. That sometimes means that on the actual day of certain events, I am cooking for just one or two, which requires some imaginative adaptation.

Graceful Change

There is an art to changing up long standing patterns, and new ways to celebrate are best introduced as intriguing innovation, not some sorrowful second best. Though I can still enjoy the friendly chaos of large gatherings, I find myself increasingly more comfortable when there are just a few guests at our table. Though the huge dinners-for-dozens had their own crazy joy, this new holiday pattern lets conversations be relaxed, rich, and rewarding.

Most families have an established menu for each holiday, but these days, we are very apt to need to tweak some of those basics to accommodate various dietary needs and desires. The tweaks can seem the most difficult to manage, so here’s an array of vegetarian and vegan treats that complement each other beautifully, some rich, some tart and citrusy, some crunchy, some like edible velvet.

Sugar Free But Scrumptious

This sparkling, tart relish relies on super-sweet oranges for flavor balance, but if need be, add a tad of maple syrup to taste.

Sugar Free Orange Cranberry Relish

2 organic Cara Cara Oranges
1-1/3 cups organic cranberries
few grains sea salt
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup (optional)

In a food processor, grind oranges and cranberries, add salt and maple syrup to taste. Chill for 2-3 days before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

Vegan Happiness

Everybody loves mashed potatoes with gravy, so here’s a really delicious vegan version made with buttery-tasting avocado oil. Reserve some potato water (the cloudy stuff at the bottom of the pan) for the gravy, and recycle any leftovers as potato cakes.

Vegan Garlic Mashed Potatoes

4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
3-4 tablespoons avocado oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives

Peel and chop potatoes, cover with cold water, set aside. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, add drained potatoes, garlic, and half the salt and cook until tender (12-15 minutes). Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and mash or put through a ricer (it gives a lighter texture). Thin to desired thickness with avocado oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with mushroom gravy (see below).

Rich Vegan Gravy

To give plant-based gravy a fuller, richer flavor, use buttery avocado oil, and umami-rich mushrooms, adding a little nutritional yeast to round it out. Use your favorite mushrooms, or a mixture of white buttons (highest in antioxidants) and tasty brown field mushrooms, or chanterelles or shaggy manes, or whatever you like best.

Leek & Mushroom Vegan Gravy

1/4 cup avocado oil
1 large brown or yellow onion, chopped
4 medium leeks, chopped (white and palest green parts only)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2-4 cups fresh vegetable broth or red wine
2-3 teaspoons nutritional yeast

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, onion, leeks and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (10-15 minutes). Add mushrooms, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes to sweat mushrooms. Add broth or red wine and simmer until mushrooms are tender (20-30 minutes). Puree with an immersion blender to desired consistency and serve hot. Serves 4-8.

Winter Sparkle Salad

2 cups Savoy cabbage, finely chopped
2 cups Napa cabbage, finely shredded
1 bulb Florence fennel, finely shaved
2 clementines, sectioned and peeled
1 Honeycrisp or Opal apple, chopped
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped roasted hazelnuts
2-3 tablespoons flavored rice vinegar

Toss all ingredients and serve. Serves 6.

Roasted Cauliflower, Sweet Potatoes, & Cranberries

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced (1/4 inch)
2 tablespoons avocado or high temperature oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups raw cranberries, washed and picked over

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss vegetables with oil and spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet (or two). Sprinkle with salt and roast for 30 minutes. Stir with a spatula, add cranberries and roast until well caramelized (15-20 minutes). Serves 6.

Pilgrim Pumpkin Pie

This tastes rich and old fashioned, perhaps much like the early Thanksgiving pies made when sugar was scarce.

1/2 cup dark molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups (15-ounce can) cooked pumpkin pulp
1-1/2 cups plain almond or hazelnut milk
1 unbaked nut crust (see below)

In a large bowl, combine all but crust and blend well. Spoon into unbaked nut crust and bake at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake until set (40-50 minutes). Let stand for an hour or more before serving.

This vegan version is more like pudding than custard.

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

1/2 cup dark molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
12 ounces silken tofu
1-1/2 cups cooked pumpkin pulp
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 pre-baked nut crust (see below)

In a food processor, combine all but crust and blend well. Spoon into baked nut crust and chill for at least an hour before serving.

Vegan Nut Crust

1-1/2 cups almonds or walnuts
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
few grains sea salt

In a food processor, grind nuts coarsely. Add remaining ingredients and process briefly to blend. Pat into a pie dish. For chilled filling, prebake at 350 degrees F until golden (20-25 minutes), cool before filling.

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After The Fall

Love Rules

Autumn has always been my favorite season, yet over the years, it’s become a time of sorrow as well. Both my parents died in November, on the same day, though twelve years apart. Six years have passed since my husband died on Halloween eve. I still experience autumn as an enticing time of change, with warm chinook winds blowing toward new horizons, but I am increasingly aware of my own horizon drawing in. Perhaps because I qualified for Medicare on November first. Perhaps because the recent election results left me grieving for so many vulnerable populations. As much as anything, I grieve for the earth and all that inhabits it, animal, mineral, and vegetable. Whatever the reason, I feel more strongly than ever that both we who grieve and we who rejoice must choose something precious to protect.

I say “something”, because there are so many, many causes in dire need of protecting, yet if we flail about trying to do a bit here and a little there, we dilute our energy and strength. That’s not to say that what we do must be on the grand scale; we don’t all have the gifts required to sway opinions and move national and international programs forward. However, all of us have something we love passionately enough to protect, and that’s where our energy and our love must be directed now, every single day.

Discovering The Layers Of Love

We all have many loves, of course: family and friends, our own community, our larger loyalties to state and country and the world itself. Among those many loves, most of us can identify something that calls us out of complacency, even out of fear, commanding our attention and our service. If you already know where your heart lies, go out and do everything you know how to do, and be willing to add new skills to your tool kit. If you aren’t so sure, set aside time to ponder and meditate and listen for that deep heartfelt call. What can you bring to the world to promote peace, compassion, healing, justice, hope?

My heart weeps for the natural world, for the greed that drives environmental pillage and destruction, for blindness that sees value only in human use, for short sighted policies that prefer quick gratification over sustainability. I grieve for everyone on the gender spectrum who does not fit rigid rules of what’s acceptable. I grieve for refugees who are not made welcome, despite the fact that all of us but Native Americans come from refugee families. I grieve the ways we invaders have stripped this country’s original inhabitants of everything they had, breaking every treaty and promise with total impunity. I also grieve so deeply for educational systems that have left so many people behind, untrained in critical thinking skills, confused about the differences between reality and reality tv, swayed by hateful rhetoric, frightened, worried, and angry.

Balancing Hope And Heartbreak

To many of us, it has felt so hopeful and exciting to watch the world changing, to watch acceptance of differences grow, to watch new generations become more concerned with economic injustice and environmental destruction than the rapidly shifting social mores. I have been fascinated to be drawn into unknown territory when my first born announced that she is now a woman, and has been all along, but lacked the skills and abilities to make that transformation until this summer. I was amazed and grateful and intrigued again when my daughter-in-law patiently explained to me that instead of not very subtly wondering when my younger son would “wake up to his responsibilities” I might consider that he is an exceptional father, a highly talented coach, and a brilliant musician and that she herself is willing and eager to work full time as a teacher. On every front, changes offer us an opportunity to change ourselves as well, to learn, to grow, to strengthen and develop.

Knowing that changing ourselves can also be uncomfortable and even terrifying, I can find some compassion for those whose fear drives them to act in ways I find both horrifying and incomprehensible. I don’t understand how anyone can feel such blanket hatred for so many people and ideas and situations I find joyful and hopeful, but I do understand that this is so. Finding common ground is going to take a long time and a lot of work, yet it is the work before us. Still, I am in no hurry to let go of my grief, to push it aside and pretend it doesn’t flavor every breath of every day. It does and will and always has. The core of that grief is my inability to have pat answers for such complex questions: How can we be so different and still be the same people? How can we communicate cleanly and clearly with each other? How can we respect each other despite those differences?

Soulful Soup

I can’t yet answer those questions, but I can feed the hungry in my immediate circle. In my house, the soup pot is nearly always on the stove, and my fridge holds tall jars of this quintessential comfort food. Today, I’m dropping a few salty tears in the pot as I blend South American white beans with Tuscan Black kale and Asian Turban garlic. I’m also planting garlic into the sandy loam of my garden berms, where it will grow all through the cold, dark winter to come. As I cook and as I plant and as I eat and feed others, I will be offering intentions for courage and strength, for peace and good will, for neighborliness, for hope and healing. In my vocabulary, hope is not a word of weakness but of encouragement and endurance, of vision and inspiration. So, I continue to hope, to love, and to act with all my being to protect what I hold most dear. And that includes you.

World Of Love Soup

2 tablespoons avocado or olive oil
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons minced rosemary
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 large onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 large bunch kale, chopped (stems included)
2 cups cooked white beans
1 cup refried beans OR mashed beans
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup stemmed parsley

In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon oil, 1/3 of the garlic, half the rosemary, and a pinch of salt, set aside. In a soup pot, heat remaining oil with onion, remaining garlic, rosemary, salt and the onion over medium high heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add celery and kale, cover pan and let sweat until slightly wilted. Add water to cover, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add beans, stir in mashed or refried beans and return to a simmer. Season to taste with paprika and salt and serve, garnished with parsley and a swirl of the reserved garlic oil. Serves 4.

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