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It has been an exceedingly warm winter this year.  Well, it has been warm for the past week.  Before that it was -40 degrees Celsius.  I have the memory bank of a meerkat, apparently.  More importantly, I have reason to participate in the futile art of complaining about the weather: I had really been enjoying the deep freeze, which I know can be hard to imagine by some, but there is something rather magical about it – at those temperatures, the air gets really clear and crisp; it’s blindingly sunny, and I get to walk on the frozen river that winds through our city and enjoy the pristine cleanliness of the crunchy snow underfoot.  Now that it has warmed up to a balmy 0 degrees Celsius, things have turned a sloppy brown-grey, and my winterized body finds this turn of events rather difficult to reconcile.  However do you mean, Old Man Winter, to be raining in January?  To wear a coat or not wear a coat?  Why am I only wearing one pair of pants?  Oh, such deep life questions.  With my blood thickened to withstand the temperatures preferred by polar bears, this warm muck feels completely oppressive.  Moreover, since there are still plenty of winter months left in the calendar, and it is bound to grow cold again, I feel caught between two worlds: one arm in my parka’s sleeve and the other bare, pale, exposed to the damp winter air, and somehow, not goosebumped.

So, with our apartment windows thrown open, it’s only natural that I start to cook like I live in Los Angeles.

Last spring I was lucky enough to visit LA for a few days.  It was a pilgrimage of sorts, as I spent most of my time taking yoga classes and meandering through Whole Foods.  I washed my innards in cold-pressed juices, paid homage to my intestinal microbiome with sautéed kale and brown rice that had been blessed with gratitude, and otherwise revelled in a kingdom of fresh, bright fruits and vegetables that promised everlasting happiness through puritanical gut euphoria.  Exceeding though my efforts were, alas, the crux: my soul had been stained with the darkness of skepticism for too long to really be washed clean.  Still, I like to pretend it’s possible sometimes.

So with this unseasonably warm winter weather, I decided to try making a quinoa pizza crust.  Being the ultimate triptych of gluten-free, vegan (well, at least it was supposed to be), and made with LOCAL quinoa (oh my), it was to be the ultimate remembrance of the previous’ spring journey.

Sweet joy!

Also, I happened to have all the ingredients (or most of them) at home.

Also, it turned out decently well, luckily – because I used the recipe from Raw: Recipes for a modern vegetarian lifestyle, by Solla Eiríksdóttir, who also lives in a mostly wintry place (Iceland) and somehow manages the positively miraculous achievement of eating a plant-based diet in a country known for its fermented shark.

The original recipe was vegan, and asked for vegan cheese and cream cheese.  As I am not vegan, and prefer to use things I have on hand instead of buying more, I used dairy cheese and goat cheese mixed with a little sour cream to replace the vegan options, respectively.  

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Zucchini goat cheese pizza with a quinoa crust
(adapted from Raw: Recipes for a modern vegetarian lifestyle, by Solla Eiríksdóttir)

makes 1 pizza

For the crust:
¾ cup (115 g) quinoa, uncooked
½ tsp sea salt flakes
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp black pepper
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
¼ cup (20 g) grated cheddar cheese
1 tbsp olive oil

For the topping:
½ cup goat cheese
¼ cup sour cream
½ zucchini, very thinly sliced
Hemp seeds (for sprinkling)
Olive oil (for drizzling)

Soak the quinoa overnight in water, covered.  The next day, drain the quinoa and blend it with ¼ cup water, salt, garlic, pepper, and oregano, until it is smooth.  Pour the batter into a bowl and stir in the cheese and oil.

Put a 9” tart ring on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and pour the batter into the ring.  Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for about 20 minutes, and then remove.  Wearing oven mitts, cover the crust with another baking sheet, and flip the baking sheets over with the crust between them.  It is a daring maneuver; I recommend that one be even-tempered and emotionally stable for this.  Bake on the second sheet for another 5-10 minutes.

Remove the crust from the oven and lower the temperature to 350°F.  Mix together the goat cheese and sour cream, and spread it over the crust.  Lay out the zucchini slices, and bake for another 10 minutes.  Right before serving, sprinkle over some hemp seeds and olive oil.  Slice and eat while wearing shorts.

This makes one pizza, but I think if you double the recipe you could forgo the tart ring situation and have enough batter to spread across an entire baking sheet to make a rectangular pizza crust.  

The next time I make this, I think I’d like to make a dessert pizza!  Imagine: remove the oregano and garlic from the crust, bake as usual, and then top it with whipped cream, berries, and chocolate shavings.  With this pizza base, you could have a whole meal of pizzas!  I don’t see how this can be wrong.

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When I was little, I was obsessed with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and the romanticized life of a settler: learning how to live off the land, to make do with what you had, and to be self-sufficient.  It was a far cry from the concrete-laden cityscape that I traversed in my red-and-white Keds sneakers, whose only markings of a hard life were grass stains and the squished earwig that had crawled into the right shoe and met its demise under my pediatric phalanges (they had decided to infest our basement one year, a rather vexing period).

As an impressionable 8-year-old, one of Ingalls’ books, The Long Winter, really stuck with me.  In it she described the challenges of surviving one of the longest winters they experienced in Wisconsin, and eating only one potato a day.  I recall her talking about how she became sick of eating potatoes, and while this may be my memory playing tricks on me, I think she also found comfort in getting to eat at least something (because they did run out of food).  Well, I can say that I think I would find it comforting to get to eat something if there was almost nothing left to eat.

Luckily my situation has never been so dire, but the psychology of survival and coping and trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel has remained.  The thermometer might have read warmer temperatures this year, but it felt like a long winter anyhow.  Relationships, deaths, personal struggles…these things play a role in the climate of our lives, and it has been a difficult spell.

So as always, I turn to food.  Cooking and serving food to others has always been a great comfort – and it hasn’t failed me yet.  I particularly like the phrase “serving food” and the idea of serving, as opposed to helping.  In my food-addled brain, “serving” means helping others with no expectation of getting anything in return, whereas “helping” has a more egotistical tinge to it (“Look at me, I’m so great to be helping others” – that sort of thing).  So I like relating this idea of serving to cooking for others and sharing my table with them.

So: here we have some curry coconut dal soup.

Soup is one of the greatest comfort foods, a warm and nourishing poultice of sorts for the heart.  The way Ingalls described living off the land to feed and heal her family and friends has an earthy and wholesome quality to it, that I find present in every and all soups.  Make a big batch: some for you, and some to give away.

Curry coconut dal soup

makes 6-8 servings, or about 2 x 1 L Mason jars

1 yellow onion, finely diced
a large fistful of carrots, chopped
a slightly smaller fistful of celery stalks, chopped
about 1 cup of split mung beans (dal)
1 small handful of dried lime leaves
1-2″ knob of fresh ginger, sliced
a handful of button mushrooms, sliced
a small fistful of green beans, sliced into 0.5″-long pieces
1-2 tsp each of cumin, coriander, cardamom (all ground), garam masala, turmeric
1 can of coconut milk
salt and pepper
lemon juice

In a large stockpot, heat a good splosh of vegetable oil over medium-high heat.  Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until translucent and a little brown on the edges.  Stir in all the spices.  Add the carrots, celery, and split mung beans.  Stir for a minute or two, and then cover it all with water (about 1.5 L).  Stir in the lime leaves and ginger.  Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and cover.  Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the mung beans are cooked.  Remove the lime leaves and ginger (if you are handy with chopsticks, they are a most excellent tool for this job).  Remove the pot from the heat and use an immersion blender to slightly break down the vegetables to achieve a softer texture.  Return the pot to the heat.  Add the mushrooms and green beans, and continue to let it simmer until the vegetables are cooked (about 5 minutes).  Stir in the coconut milk and adjust the taste with the salt, pepper and lemon juice.

This soup is vegan and gluten-free.  Serve some soup for yourself, and give some away; best not to expect getting the jar back.

curry coconut dal soup

The winter is a time for heartier fare, but I also like to make these sorts of cooked salads – they are satisfying and nourishing, but digest easily.  This is a good example of something that I like to make – it’s also what I served to the students at a silent meditation a few weeks ago.  I like to make it with lots and lots of cilantro, as if the herbs were salad lettuce – it’s a nice way to add greenery and bright flavour to the winter dining table.  I also think it’s really worth using dried chickpeas over canned: they have a subtler, nuttier flavour than the canned stuff, and have a cheery yellow look instead of the grey slimy sad face that the canned chickpeas have.  Make this for a weekday office lunch, or as a side dish for a weekend smorgasbord.

Chickpea potato salad

makes 4-6 servings

1 cup dried chickpeas
2 small red potatoes
a few tbsp olive oil
a large handful fresh cilantro
1-2 tsp ground cumin
1-2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 lemon’s zest and juice
salt and pepper to taste
a drizzle of maple syrup (optional)

Soak the dried chickpeas in lots of water overnight.  Drain the soaking water, and cook the chickpeas in a pot of new water.  It’ll take about 30 minutes until they are cooked through.  Drain the chickpeas of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, cut the red potatoes into small chunks and toss in a tablespoon of olive oil.  Roast in a 425 F oven until brown and roasty.  Toss into a big bowl with the chickpeas.  Roughly chop the cilantro, and toss with everything else.  A little drizzle of maple syrup can help balance out the flavours if the salad is too tangy from the lemon juice.

chickpea potato salad

The key to successfully cooking for other people while they are on a meditation retreat is to think thoughts of love and compassion, so as to channel those same qualities into the food you make, hence providing nourishment that dares to delve into a world beyond physical.  With this intention in mind, I like to think of unicorns and bunnies to facilitate this work.  If I find myself getting caught up thinking whether my imagined unicorn should have a pink mane or a purple one, I resort to softly humming, “Kumbaya” or “My Favourite Things” from the Sound of Music (bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens are da bomb).

Ultimately, retreat-worthy food is nourishing, but easy to digest; tasty, but leaves the palate clean so to avoid distractedly licking one’s chops while trying to meditate.  Here is a vegan salad made of pickled beets and black rice that I served this past weekend at a day of silent meditation – I think it would be an enjoyable lunch, eaten in silence or not.

Beet and black rice salad

serves 4

1 cup uncooked black rice
1-750 ml jar of sliced pickled beets
1 orange
1/4 cup white sesame seeds
1/4 cup nigella seeds
1/2 cup zereshk or chopped dried cranberries
1 heaping handful of fresh parsley
1/4 cup sesame oil
salt and pepper

making beet salad

Cook the black rice in a spacious pot so that it can simmer in excess water (start with adding 3 cups).  By cooking the rice in a loose, dance-y way, it will clump less in the salad.  When the rice is cooked (about 30 minutes), drain in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse with cold water.  Tip the rice into a big bowl.  Now drain the jar of beets and rinse the beets with water – just a little bit is fine, you want the beets to still retain some of their vinegaryness.  Add the beets to the rice.  Grate over the zest of the orange, and squeeze over its juice.  Add the remaining ingredients and toss toss toss.  If it still tastes too sour for your liking, add a tablespoon of sugar or maple syrup to balance out the flavour.

vegan beet black rice salad

A note about sourcing ingredients: black rice can be found at an Asian supermarket, or substitute wild rice if that’s easier to find.  Nigella seeds are little, dusty-looking black seeds that have a spicy, onion-y taste – they can be found at a Middle Eastern supermarket.  Zereshk is the dried fruit of beriberis, and look like smaller versions of a raisin, but have a sour taste.  They can be found in a Persian or Middle Eastern supermarket as well.  If you happen to live in Winnipeg, both nigella seeds and zereshk can be found at Dino’s Supermarket on Notre Dame.

The Internet is rife with hyperbole, but the other day I finally, finally, made a lentil loaf.  Seriously.  I have a page ripped out from a magazine with a recipe for a Curried-Lentil Quinoa Loaf stuck in my food journal (because I’m cool like that), and the footer on the page says, “October 2010.”  Four years.  2014 has been a year of breakthroughs, apparently.  Of course, I did not use that recipe (because following through completely would be just too perfect) and instead I used the Lentil-Walnut Loaf recipe from Angela Liddon’s The Oh She Glows Cookbook.  I know I’m late to the party, but her cookbook and blog are so beautiful and inspiring: you can really feel her passion and dedication to good food.  This loaf did not disappoint!

What I made is a slight variation from the original, simply because I was trying to use what I had.  It was so good that I forgot to take a photo of it until it was half gone.  Also I don’t have a full-size loaf pan; I have only mini loaf pans, which probably sounds ridiculous for someone who bakes so much bread, but the loaf turned out wonderfully in a shallow 9×13″ baking pan.

lentil walnut loaf

A slight variation of Angela Liddon’s Lentil Walnut Loaf

serves 4-8

1 cup uncooked green lentils
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, grated
1/3 cup raisins
1 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup oat flour
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs (next time I’m going to try all oat flour)
1 tsp dried oregano
salt and pepper

for the balsamic-apple glaze:
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tbsp apple butter
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp maple syrup

Soak the lentils overnight in plenty of water.  The next day, simmer the lentils in fresh water until they are tender.  Drain most of the cooking water, and pulse the lentils in a food processor or blender until it resembles a coarse paste.

Meanwhile, saute the onions in vegetable oil until they soften and take on some light colour.  Add the celery and carrots, and continue cooking until the veggies soften.  Throw in the raisins and walnuts to heat them through.

Stir everything together, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Line your loaf pan with parchment paper, and press the mixture into the pan evenly and firmly.  Whisk together the ingredients for the glaze and spread over the entire surface of the loaf.  Bake in a preheated 325 F oven for 30-40 minutes, so that the loaf dries out and the edges turn a little brown.  Let it cool before slicing so that it can firm up a little bit.  We ate it with coleslaw and wild rice for dinner.  Little slices of the leftovers are an excellent snack, stolen right out of the fridge, eaten cold.

shiitake mushroom soup

Another soup, just in time for the cold weather!  This recipe is derived from the version in Amrita Sondhi’s The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook.  My mom used to cook with dried shiitake mushrooms all the time, and I hadn’t until now – turns out it’s really simple!  You just let them soak in room temperature water for at least an hour (she would suggest overnight) so they hydrate and soften for cooking.  Fresh shiitake mushrooms are an option too, but they are harder to find.  I usually buy mine at an Asian grocery store, though a big chain store probably has them as well.

This recipe is vegan, gluten-free (if you use gluten-free tamari), and worthy of being eaten any day, retreat or not.

Shiitake mushroom and vegetable soup

makes 6-8 servings

12 (58 g) dried shiitake mushrooms
6 c. water for soaking
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 c. onions, finely diced (about 1/4 large onion)
1 cup carrots, chopped into half moons (about 2 carrots)
2 cups sweet potatoes or 1/2 acorn squash, peeled, chopped into small chunks
1 large handful Chinese cabbage, finely sliced, or baby bok choy (I prefer the bok choy, it’s just so pretty, and also delicious)
2 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1/3 cup tamari (gluten-free if possible)
1/4 cup brown miso paste
1/4 cup green onions, finely sliced (garnish)

Let the mushrooms soak in the water for at least an hour, or perhaps overnight.  Save the soaking water for making the soup, and slice the mushrooms.

In a large stockpot, gently saute the onions in the vegetable oil over medium-high heat.  When they start to soften, add the carrots and sweet potatoes (or acorn squash).  Stir occasionally, letting the vegetables grow bright in colour.  Add the sliced mushrooms and soaking water.  Top off with additional water if required to just cover the vegetables, and bring to a boil.  Cover, and reduce heat to a simmer until the vegetables are just cooked through.  Stir in the Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy, and let cook for 5-10 minutes longer until the greens are tender.  (I tend to leave the bok choy whole; they shrink a lot when they are cooked, and their slender shape is beautiful to behold.)  Just before you are ready to serve, stir in the ginger, tamari, and miso paste.  Scatter over the green onions and soak up the nourishing flavours of this light but satisfying soup.

Next up: Moroccan-inspired couscous, or to be more exact, Ottolenghi-inspired couscous.  Besides having written several truly gorgeous and inspiring cookbooks, Yotam Ottolenghi runs several restaurants in London, UK, that venerate vegetables and tastes that reflect his Middle Eastern upbringing.  This recipe is based off of the “Ultimate Winter Couscous” in his book, Plenty.  It was part of our first dinner at the retreat, and is transport-friendly, in that it can be made ahead of time and is delicious served warm or at room temperature.

Ottolenghi couscous

makes 6-8 servings

1/2 of a whole acorn squash
2 zucchini or 3 beets (my original plan was zucchini, but there wasn’t any in the store at the crucial moment, so beets it was)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup (174 g) couscous
1 cup water, boiling
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch mint
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lemon
3/4 tsp salt

Cut the squash in half, and roast cut-side-down at 400 F in a baking dish that has a little pool of water poured into it.  It’ll take about 30 minutes until it becomes tender and a knife can pierce the skin easily.  Since you will only need half of a squash for this recipe, save the other half for later, perhaps as a mash beside veggies or stirred into a muffin batter.  If you are using the beets, roast them with the skin on, wrapped in foil.  This will take longer, probably 1 hour.

When the squash and beets have been cooked and cool enough to handle, peel the skin off and cut into cubes.  If you are using the zucchini, cut into cubes and pan-fry in vegetable oil until golden brown.  Once the zucchini is cooked, throw in the cubed squash and spices.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, pour the boiling water over the couscous and cover.  Let it sit for about 5 minutes, and then fluff the couscous with a fork.  Toss it with the cooked vegetables, and add the remaining ingredients: raisins, roughly chopped herbs, olive oil, the zest and juice of one lemon, and salt.  I really like how this dish leaves you feeling satisfied, but not heavy – and it’s a great way to enjoy the produce of the fall season!  And, if you are so inclined, this would be so delicious with some feta crumbled on top.  Yeah.

moroccan couscous

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