This past September has marked eight years of teaching yoga, and fifteen years since I started studying food science formally. Over the years, yoga has been a template to help figure out how to live well, and food has been an equally interesting medium for that too.

In the journey of navigating life (and deciding what to eat), I have always loved reading about all things food: cookbooks, memoirs of chefs, ethics regarding food production and agriculture, the history of cutlery, the science of flavour, and on and on. Recently I’ve been doing some thinking and reading on the evolution of food trends – and the dangers, contradictions, and benefits that can transpire. While I think I’ll always be intellectually intrigued by food trends, I don’t think many of them will end up on my dining table in a serious way. Perhaps I’m a little worn out (trying to live a good life can be tiring, ironically), but arriving at this conclusion is mostly due to seeing firsthand how trends are uplifted and prolonged due to the desire for market share and positive quarterly reports. While it’s depressing to consider the troubles we now have from mass-producing food (and it’s sexy to hate on big multinationals), I’ve been on that side and can understand that everyone has to make a living (even Employee #58260). The unfortunate part is that we seem to all have different ideas about how best to go about that. While people smarter than me work on that problem, what strikes my curiosity is the sanctimonious fervour in which a certain food or way of eating is uplifted as the universal remedy for all ailments (real or imagined), and how that feels somewhat unjustified, especially in the light of graceless commerce.

And, in the light of logic. In fact, there was one particular situation many years ago that really crystallized for me how food trends are so myopically temporal: I was asked at my job to formulate a trans-fat-free mayonnaise…that was going to be served on a piece of fried chicken. With a side of fries. I didn’t know if it could get more painfully absurd than that.

For all my research, I’m still unsure about how food trends start, but anyhow I’m more interested in what happens after. Moreover, science and its data seem to matter less and less. Outside of financial gain and scientific studies, it seems that right now, there is a large sect that subscribe to the notion that eating certain foods has become dirty and sinful, while other foods have become purifying and cleansing. The delineation seems based more on feeling than fact. Gluten-free foods will apparently cure you of everything from anxiety to cancer, while sourdough bread (with gluten, by the way) will put you in touch with Mother Nature, soil, and Getting Back to the Land.

Self-imposed dietary restriction has become an indicator of morality and self-worth via discipline, while at the same time indulgence has become a form of brazen self-care. And mostly among women. Fries before guys! Doughs before bros! With the caveat that you are already thin and fit-looking (and heterosexual, though I guess it is also about the rhyming)…

Can the act of eating really be a form of repentance? Are we truly better people if we don’t eat this, but eat that? While discipline is certainly a useful quality to cultivate, and we need some form in which to do that, I wonder if one takes it too far when deciding to cut out all carbs.

It seems to me that at the root of all this is a feeling that we are not enough. A sense of inadequacy seems to be the all-pervasive malaise of those afforded the luxury of too many food and dietary choices. Dissatisfaction, shame, insecurity, vulnerability – all of these states are so difficult to sit with and we can find a welcome distraction through the safety of food rules. This is allowed, this is not allowed. This will make me feel worthy. This will not make me feel worthy. It simplifies a nuanced, complicated world.

It’s all so sticky. But maybe sticky can end up being good, like local raw honey?! The practice of yoga teaches us that there is a way to navigate through all of this. Learning to sit with what arises, to hold space without pushing away or judging – through this we can have healthier relationships with ourselves, and moreover, the things we consume. Eating clean won’t make you feel like you are enough, because you are already enough. But it takes some work to truly believe that.

Navigating one’s way through life can be difficult at times, and the way each individual chooses to go about it is deeply personal. And it is incredible how we have so many unique ways of feeling about and treating food. So when I start to go cross-eyed about it all, I try to remind myself of the following to put it all in perspective, especially when it comes to eating and health: that everyone’s time runs out, and we can only delay the inevitable, but hopefully we can find some joy and pleasure in that journey.

So while we keep trying to figure it all out, here is a tea concoction that can hopefully contribute to some of that joy. This is a classic combination of spices found in Ayurveda, the healing modality that historically developed alongside yoga. Ayurveda means, “philosophy of living” – so you can see why I like studying it! – and offers an interesting way of viewing the world that emphasizes relationship, cause and effect, and interconnectedness.

One of the most important aspects of Ayurveda is digestion – not just of food but also thoughts, emotions and experiences. And if that seems to fall on the side of feel-goodery woo-woo, recent studies have shown how sleep is important for our brains to have the opportunity to “scrub” clean of toxins built up from thinking our thoughts over the course of the day – which is the same thing that happens when you meditate! – aka, mental digestion. Hooray!

According to Ayurveda, this particular blend of three spices are good for all body types, and is supposed to help with digestion by preventing bloating (and farts!) and promoting urine flow (pee pee!)

To be honest though, I love it because I love cardamom.

Cardamom is one of those enigmatic flavours that I can’t quite put my finger on. It is subtle, yet distinctive. It is a spice that embodies the question without worrying about finding the answer, and perhaps that is a good suggestion for how living well feels like – living that is grounded in a sense of wonder and playfulness.

And, maybe, a little logic.

Cardamom, coriander, fennel tea

2 tsp cardamom seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp fennel seeds

Lightly crush seeds with mortar and pestle. Use 3/4 tsp of the mixture to 2 cups of hot water. Steep for 5 minutes. Feel free to sweeten, but it’s pretty lovely as it is. Store the rest of the mixture in a jar for next time.

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“…when you’re really lonely, the peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth.” – Charlie Brown.

In grade 6, our class put on – or, more accurately, was told – to put on a production of, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I think I was a made-up character named “Adam” and had maybe one 10-word line in the entire play. If I had really committed to my character and channelled being lonely (if I communicated so little, I probably was) then peanut butter would have definitely stuck to the roof of my mouth, via my method acting techniques.

In real life though, I haven’t paid too much attention to whether peanut butter sticks to the roof of my mouth – I don’t think it ever has, but honestly, I’d rather not dwell on it.

Fast forward some years after my short-lived acting career, and peanut butter sandwiches had indeed become a mainstay in my life. For a solid two years, I had peanut butter and banana sandwiches everyday for breakfast. Looking back on it now it makes me gag a little, not because the type of sandwich is disgusting to me, but because I can’t help but feel that relationship between art and life, and that indeed, I was deeply lonely.

Before this becomes a typical confessional blog post-turned-first draft for a Ted talk-turned-phoenix rising out of the ashes-scenario, I have to emphasize that even in periods of life when I’ve been deeply lonely, I have had beautiful, kind, and giving souls around me, whom I was grateful to call friends. For instance, during the PB-banana sandwich era, I had a wonderful housemate whose capability at doing life was astounding. She had an incredible talent for living fully which I deeply admired, and with a seemingly endless supply of energy, most of the words that came out of her were zesty proclamations that stirred me out of my sleepy fog. One of my strongest memories of our conversations together is how she once stated, and to which I fervently agreed, that if we ever dated people who were allergic to peanut butter, it would be a “deal breaker.” (For better or worse, my short lived dating life resembled that of my Adam character, and I never got to have that “So because you’re allergic…” conversation.)

During that same period of life, I met Mary. She was an eighty-something lady that lived in our neighbourhood. To make extra cash, my housemate and I had posted flyers around saying we were available to clean houses, help with yard work, and give flute (her) and piano (me) lessons (we were really laying it all out). Mary called us. Living alone in a large house (her husband had passed away years ago, and it didn’t seem like she had any children to call upon), she wanted help raking leaves and washing her walls with a vinegar-water concoction. Sometimes both my housemate and I would go help Mary, or sometimes we would go alone. This happened regularly for about two years, and even when I moved back to my hometown about an hour away, whenever I happened to be in the neighbourhood I would stop by for a visit.

Helping Mary with housework usually consisted of 1-2 hours of actual work, and then 1-2 hours of sitting with her and having tea and cookies. We would drink Red Rose out of her delicate bone china tea cups, and talk about the neighbours, her friends (who were up to no good, spending all their time at Tim Hortons), the status of the garden, how she used to save money from every pay cheque to buy another piece of crystalware from the set she had chosen (a goblet used to cost ten cents). How some lady stranger walking by had stopped to chat with her about how beautiful her white bell flowers were in the front yard, and the next day they were stolen right out of the soil, and that it must have been that woman. How last week when there was a thunderstorm she got so scared that she went into the basement and cried and desperately missed her husband.

I always think about Mary when I see white bell flowers, and when I make peanut butter cookies.

Most days, she had peanut butter cookies in the freezer. When we would sit down for tea, she would bring them out and even if they weren’t completely thawed, we would eat them anyway because they were so delicious, so delightful, so generous. They were always made with the classic fork tine imprint, and in a delicate lady-appropriate size, which also meant that you could have two, or maybe three, if you were discreet.

I haven’t seen Mary in ages, and we never had a proper good bye, and thus I haven’t really had the will to make peanut butter cookies, until recently, mostly due to stumbling upon a wonderful recipe. While these cookies aren’t quite like hers, they are delectable in their own right. I’ve opted for a double fork tine imprint to make a criss-cross pattern, and the cookies are a bit larger to serve this younger generation that doesn’t seem overly concerned with being dainty. I’ve added a hint of ginger, since my digestive system isn’t as efficient as it used to be. Hopefully Mary would approve.

Peanut butter cookies, with a hint of ginger
(adapted from a recipe in Tara O’Brady’s cookbook, Seven Spoons)

3/4 cup (200 g) smooth natural peanut butter
1/2 cup (115 g) butter, room temperature
2/3 cup (140 g) brown sugar
1/3 cup (70 g) white sugar
2 tbsp (44 g) molasses
1 egg
1 cup plus 2 tbsp (140 g) bread flour
1/2 tsp dried ginger powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Beat the peanut butter, butter, sugars, and molasses together until smooth and fluffy. Stir in the egg, and then sprinkle over all the dried ingredients. Beat until homogenous.

Roll into 2 tbsp balls, or alternatively, use an ice cream scooper to make perfectly consistent portions. Place on a lined baking sheet and freeze for 10-15 minutes, spaced 2″ apart. Use fork tines to make a criss cross pattern and to press the dough balls down. Dipping the fork into warm water occasionally can help it from getting too sticky. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven, for about 15 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the sheet before removing.

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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

A few years ago during a road trip, a mouse got into our trunk and made a home for a few nights.  He slept in the instant oats, nibbled on the stump of a muffin, picked open a bag of corn chips but didn’t eat the chips themselves – and most interestingly, ate a whole Ziploc bag of popping corn kernels.  On one hand I was annoyed at the unwelcome intrusion, but on the other I had serious respect for the mouse’s choice of probably the healthiest, least processed food in the car.  No M&M’s, buddy?  (It appeared he licked but didn’t eat them).

Sometimes I don’t feel so different from our rodent companion, though I feel more squirrel-y than mouse-y, mostly because I can relate to a squirrel’s penchant for hiding food in places for later (we have a very well-stocked pantry).  And the bushy tail, I like the bushy tail.  But anyway, I feel like these almond millet chocolate bars pay homage to the four legged companions that flit in and out of our lives.  They are gluten-free, vegan, and made with recognizable things.  The chocolate topping is made with unsweetened chocolate so that the sweetness can be adjusted according to taste with the addition of icing sugar, making for a more wholesome, mouse-worthy snack.  Similarly, brown rice syrup has a relatively lower sweetness, so it can be exploited for its magical gooey powers of holding things together without going off the sweet charts – hence, these are the first snack bars I have ever made that didn’t crumble apart when I cut into them.  Less crumbs on the floor mean more crumbs in my tummy, which I feel is a good thing.

Almond millet chocolate bars

makes one 9×12″ pan

4 tbsp coconut oil
11 soft dates (if hard, soak in hot water for 10 minutes to rehydrate and plump)
250 g / 1 cup raw almonds
80 g / 1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
50 g / 2 cups puffed millet
2/3 cup brown rice syrup

100 g unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp icing sugar

In a high-speed blender or food processor, blend the crap out of the coconut oil, softened dates and almonds.  Scrape down occasionally to make sure everything gets obliterated by the blades.  Scrape out this mixture into a large bowl and mix in the pumpkin seeds and puffed millet.  Meanwhile, gently heat the brown rice syrup in a small saucepan until it becomes looser in consistency and the edges just start to bubble.  Pour this over the mixture and fold together to evenly distribute the syrup.  Scrape everything into a 9×12″ baking pan lined with parchment paper, and press down evenly and firmly.  Chill the pan in the freezer while you make the topping: in a double boiler, gently melt the bittersweet chocolate.  When it is completely melted, stir in the icing sugar until it melts as well.  Pour the chocolate over the bar and smooth out with a spatula.  Freeze for at least 30 minutes before attempting to slice.  Only attempt to slice when you are feeling calm and collected, lest the bar crumbles under unabated emotions, in which case, add more brown syrup next time and all will be well.

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It’s been a while.

My hollow legs have been busy.  Somewhat.  Mostly going between the fridge-stove-counter.  But also scrambling up mountains, squatting to look at worms committing suicide on sidewalks, crossing in various patterns while sitting on coffee shop chairs.   The brain sitting somewhere above the hollow legs has been busy too, reading cookbooks, imagining dinner parties with various peoples, and somewhat suffering under an inferiority complex that sharing what I ate for lunch is rather banal and who really cares.  But then an image of Miss Piggy declaring, “I am Woman!” springs to mind and then, reassessment.

Anyway, here: an energy bar recipe that’s so easy it’ll make your head feel empty (sometimes desirable).  Also it’s a good thing to pack in your bag when you are out and about.  Helps propel you up a mountain, whether it be a figurative or literal one.

Ginger date cashew lemon bars

150 g / 1 cup raw cashews
12 soft fresh dates, pitted
5-7 round pieces of candied ginger
50 g / 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup lemon juice

Process the cashews in a high-speed blender or food processor until it resembles a coarse flour.  Dump into a bowl.  Then process the dates, ginger, coconut and lemon juice until it gets sticky and homogenous.  Scoop out into the bowl with the cashew meal.  Work it all together with your hands until it becomes a thick, slightly sticky mass.  Press it into a rectangle that’s about 1/2″ thick.  Cover with plastic wrap and let it set in the fridge for at least one hour, preferably longer.  Cut into bars and hubba hubba.

I imagine these bars would be excellent reworked as a gluten-free pie crust, say with a pumpkin or cream cheese filling.  Next level!

ginger date lemon coconut bars

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.

Over the weekend I baked a large carrot cake for my friend’s birthday.  It was served at a party with lots of our friends, and our friends are nice people, so they congratulated me on how delicious and beautiful the cake was.  My outward response was, “Thanks!” but inside I thought, “Well I guess they didn’t notice the lumps in the icing.  Or that the cake had cracked apart on the inside.  Or that a corner of the cake had fallen off and had been patched together again with icing and luck.”  They obviously didn’t notice my vacant stare as I had this inner monologue.

I think we don’t give each other enough credit for being kind-hearted souls that want to support and wish each other well.

I also think we don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Many years ago I made a cake of similar size (chocolate sponge, white chocolate icing) for a friend’s grandma’s 80th birthday.  She asked me to make it because she thought I’d have fun doing it.  When she saw I was so upset at how the cake wasn’t holding together and that there were crumbs in the icing, she said quietly, “I thought this was supposed to be fun.”

Her gentle reminder brought it all home for me, and I realized how awfully dramatic I had been about the whole matter.  It is supposed to be fun – or at the very least, not terrible and tragic.  Making food for others is one of the best ways to show you care, and eating is one of life’s greatest joys.  (I secretly believe that those people who just pick at their food and say blankly, “Oh I’m full” go home and decadently dip apple slices right into the peanut butter jar and chase it with vanilla ice cream and chocolate cookies).  However, being human, things don’t always turn out (it gets a little burnt, it’s too soft, too thick, whatever), so what you make doesn’t always look like it belongs on the cover of a magazine.  But I think that’s okay, because the point was to say, “Hey, I like you enough to make you a cake/cookies/stew/falafel.  Let’s continue to like eachother.”  And the person receiving it will say, “I’m hungry, so ditto” or something like that.  They won’t see the imperfections, they will see the effort and love.  And then you should tell yourself, “I made an effort, I’m an all right human being.”  And then divvy out some portions of what you made so you can enjoy it together.

So, as MFK Fisher says, “Serve it forth.”  And heap on the love.

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