A brown-tinted photograph of jars of grains and nuts with the article title above.
Embodied Heart

Old-Fashioned Cooking: Building Healthy Habits from Scratch

What is it about being handed a bag of fried food through my car window that sets off my taste buds, only to leave me in a heap of discomfort and disgust afterwards? After binge watching shows about addiction (my TV viewing is an issue for another day!), I started to conceptualize my eating habits as being, in part, location-driven. Specifically, where I choose to obtain food, rather than simply what I choose to eat, influences the quality of my diet. Over the last few years, I slowly began to go to fast food restaurants and convenience food stores on a regular basis, rather than to cook my own food. Last fall, this tipped into what I can only describe as eating junk food, by which I mean ultra-processed foods, as my primary source of nourishment.

This year, I’ve made a commitment to eating only natural, homemade foods as much as I possibly can. Rather than wax poetic about how much cheaper homemade food can be, which may not be the case for everyone, I wanted to share both how I look at homemade food as well as some outcomes of this change that I’m noticing that are affecting me not only physically but also mentally, socially and even spiritually.

Before noting the positive changes cooking from home have brought to me, I want to check in with my privilege in this area. I have the time, money, physical and mental capacity and access to fresh ingredients necessary for these adaptations. Food, diet and, by extension, cooking, have been fraught with disordered eating patterns for me for most of my life. I’ve benefited from both mental health therapy and formal education to a point where I feel more able to set intentions and follow through on them in relation to these topics while managing my guilt and anxiety; not everyone is at that place. So, to whatever extent you read through and consider what I’ve shared below, please hold a lot of space for compassion and care for yourself if you find yourself triggered by my discussion. Feel free to leave it as it is if it doesn’t speak to you and to take only what you find beneficial.

What’s Homemade?

Before I talk about why making homemade food a priority has been valuable to me, I want to share how I define it. This article includes a chart that breaks down the different levels of processing quite effectively. Basically, I am limiting myself to foods that are only unprocessed or minimally processed as much as I possibly can. For several years, almost all the foods I’ve bought at the store had “5 or fewer” ingredients, but I was still purchasing items like dried fruit, canned sauces and breads. I now buy fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat and nuts, eggs, and grains like uncooked rice, whole grain flour and rolled oats. The few moderately processed items on my menu include dairy products, 88% dark chocolate, and almond milk. One of my major goals for the year is to learn how to make my own pasta, right now, I do purchase whole grain versions. The most processed food I am still including is organic marshmallows, which I keep locked in a container that only opens every few days (yes, I have tried to break (unsuccessfully) into it!).*

I am also eating a set amount of foods in each macro category (protein, carbs, etc.) with specific limits on added fats and sugars. This works well because I rarely crave raw sugar or a tablespoon of oil, so the work in which I would have to engage to make a dessert helps me to limit my consumption of these foods. When the number of calories to which I limited myself (2000/day) leaves me hungry, I have an extra serving of fruit or another handful of nuts, instead of a snack made of refined foods.

What I’ve come to view for myself as genuinely addictive are ultra-processed foods, which are foods that have artificial ingredients added and which tend to contain large quantities of fats, salts and/or sugars. I am adopting the idea that I cannot have a small amount of these even occasionally and still maintain healthy eating behaviors, not because they are so horrible for my body in limited amounts, but because I cannot rein myself back in once I start. For instance, I was eating very healthy a few years ago. I started dating someone who ate poorly, copied her behaviors and, almost three years later, still have not been able to “get it together.” I’ve found myself driving past fast food places with a yearning I thought only those who crave substances like alcohol would feel. That’s why the idea that the location from which I procure my food matters just as much as what I eat hits home for me. With this understanding in mind, let’s discuss some positive aspects of traditional homemade meals.

Observed Benefits of Homemade Food

1.     Ability to customize meals for food intolerances/allergies

I have a sensitivity to foods in the allium family (garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, etc). which borders on a full-blown allergy. This means that nearly every savory dish I eat that is commercially prepared, as well as pre-packaged dishes, makes me ill. Preparing my own food from scratch enables me to adjust what I’m eating to my specific dietary needs. If you’ve dealt with any kind of specialized diet, you know how frequently food you are told won’t have any problematic ingredients in it actually ends up causing you issues because the base or sauce contains the triggering item.

2.     Greater variety of foods including fresh ingredients

When I go out to eat often or buy prepared meals, my diet becomes distilled into three food items over time: (fried) chicken, pizza, and nachos. I can go weeks eating a rotation of those three foods. When I’m cooking for myself, I am more able to plan out ingredients and to find new combinations that I enjoy. I also find myself eating more foods in season. Consuming a larger mix of flavors and textures also seems to decrease my food cravings.

3.     Potentially lower exposure to toxins that cause food-born illnesses

As I fell the whole way off any sort of healthy diet last year, I started to have intestinal distress and IBS symptoms on a regular basis. Some of it was due to my food intolerances, but I also suspect that I was getting sick at times from poor sanitation control. Often, when someone says they have the stomach flu, the cause is someone in the food processing chain not washing their hands fully and passing on fecal germs such as E. coli or the Norovirus, or food being contaminated by fecal matter from field or animals, as in the case of Salmonella. These issues aren’t fully corrected by cooking one’s own meals, but I think there could be less opportunity for contamination as long as you follow proper food preparation procedures.

4.     Social connections around shared creations

For me, food is a cultural and social tool that communicates on my behalf to others and which I receive as a gift from them. I get a weird self-consciousness about sharing food I’ve made with others; there is an intimacy established by doing so that it takes me some time to navigate. For example, I tend to bring pre-packaged foods to gatherings until I feel that I’ve built up sufficient trust to share something I’ve made from scratch. In part, this is due to the fact that I cook intuitively and rarely follow a set recipe. This typically works out fine but there have been some “interesting” dishes. On the flip side, it brings me immense joy when my chosen ingredients come together and enable my creativity to shine through. Making all my foods from scratch has forced me out of my comfort zone in this area and helped me be more willing to take culinary risks. In addition, knowing someone else has taken my diet into consideration and created dishes that I can enjoy without hesitation deepens my sense of trust and connection to that person.

5.     Deeper sensory experiences mediated by slow living

Thus far, my greatest source of pride in home-cooking has been that I learned how to bake sourdough grain products, including pancakes, wraps and a variety of breads, using a starter I originally purchased from King Arthur. Nothing smells better, in my opinion, than freshly baked bread, and I feel soothed through this change in my behavior. I’ve managed to slow down my pace of living in a way that compliments my desire to cook my own meals and which has let me appreciate the experience of both eating and cooking on a physical level. Instead of scarfing down meals in my car and spending my time wrangling wasteful food packaging, I enjoy the array of colorful items I get to add to my fridge after a grocery haul and the plating of entrees it may take me an hour or more to create. (Side note: In order to adjust my lifestyle, I’ve been working less and therefore bringing in less money. I am happy to report I’ve saved at least $200/month by making my own foods!).

As I write this reflection, I feel gratitude as much or more than I feel pride. Yes, I’ve made choices that have led me to be able to slow down, but I was also privileged to have this type of lifestyle within my range of options. I’m not trying to convince you to live this way if it is different than your current approach; I am only offering for you to consider, if you are interested, what is realistically within your range of options and to be kind to yourself if your options are limited. We’ve evolved for millions of years as a species to endure both feast and famine. Now most of us in the industrialized world face a different landscape—a feast of addictive junk food is readily in abundance and the fresh and healing foods to which our ancestors grew accustomed are out of reach at times. I don’t pretend to have big answers on how to rectify the situation, but I hope, with deep appreciation for the opportunity to do so, to bring joy to myself and those with whom I interact through my striving to make dishes I create rather than simply consume.

* I’ve linked to a few products in this post that I’ve really enjoyed using; I am not an affiliate of these companies and am not getting paid to promote them.

 

Naturally Mindful

Slow Cooking: A Sustainable and Mindful Food Preparation Ritual

Consider the last meal you ate. What were the ingredients used to prepare it? Where did they come from in the world? How did they make their way to you? To what extent did you engage your senses as you ate the meal? For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, we’ll be participating in a cooking ritual together. Some aspects of this practice conjure up for me the scene in the TV show Portlandia where the characters are trying to determine not only the specific farm from which the chicken originated, but also its life story. The point of the ritual, however, is not only to allow us to see where our food comes from, it is also designed to invite us to practice attention and to see the fullness of life behind even a simple behavior such as eating. It is a spiritually-centered practice, not a full-time lifestyle recommendation, as I think it could become yet another way we might begin to restrict and over-regulate our lives.

For this practice, I suggest choosing a simple meal with bold ingredients that can be cooked in 30 minutes or less (my title references the internal practice, not the cook time)! You will be eating the dish very slowly, so either find one that will taste palatable even if it comes closer to room temperature, or one that you can serve yourself from repeatedly in small portions. If it suits you, consider choosing a dish that you’ve “invented” or one that has been passed down to you. You can conduct this ritual on your own or invite others who are willing to participate to cook and/or dine with you.

Supplies

Food items (the first part of the practice includes some internet research, so make a list of every ingredient as well to use while the food is properly stored).

Recipe

Paper or electronic map of the world with pins/tag capacity

Bowl/plate and eating utensils for which you know the origins

Step 1:

Using your list of food items, research the origin of each ingredient. Try to determine not only the place of origin of your food item, but also the journey it had to take to reach you. How long ago was it last in “nature?” In what type of vehicles was it carried from its point of origin to your house? Who grew, picked and processed it? Where and how did you buy it? Take careful notes.

Step 2:

Using your notes, pin each place of origin on your map. How much of the world was involved in creating your dish? What is your reaction to this knowledge? Use your imagination to recreate each item’s travels to your location. Connect with the people, places, smells and sights that existed along the way.

Step 3:

Before you begin to cook the dish, spend some time with the recipe. Where did you get it? If you created it yourself, what inspired you? If it was passed down to you, what is its history? Who were the people that made it for you in the past? In what context did you enjoy it? What memories does it evoke?

Step 4:

Set up your cook station and lay out your ingredients. Prep each ingredient individually—for instance, cut up veggies separately. Focus on your breathing and on the physical experience of interacting with each item. Next, prepare the recipe according to the directions. If there is any sort of a wait time during cooking, use the time to focus your senses—what are you hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching as you prepare the food? Cooking is an incredibly stimulating experience that taps into all of our senses! Breathe into the experience and see how your body reacts to each aspect of cooking the meal.

Step 5:

When the food has been prepared, set a place for yourself and anyone who will be joining you. Take a moment to note the origins of the eating utensils and plates/bowls you’ll be using. Serve yourself whatever portion of food you can eat very slowly without it losing flavor as it cools or warms up to room temperature. When everything is ready, start by closing your eyes and smelling the food. What is the first scent to hit you? What small notes are hiding out, taking their time to make themselves known? Sit in appreciation of the scent-bath the food is providing, noting any reaction your body has to the sensations you are experiencing. Next, move on to hearing. Are there any sounds emanating from the dish? Listen, and listen again. Where in your body do you notice sensation? Now, move on to sight. Open your eyes and drink in the full array of colors, shapes, textures and gradients that present themselves in the dish. Where is it smooth? Where is it rough? What colors stand out? What colors do you see when you look again? Which shapes predominate? Where is the form ill-defined? Where may steam be rising? Liquid pooling? Note each aspect of the dish piece by piece, and then take in the experience as a whole, noting your physical reactions. Move now to taste, preparing one small bite. Before you eat it, take another moment to smell, listen and look at how the food has changed in form now that it is on your utensil. Slowly eat the first bite, pausing to note both the flavors the food imparts as well as the sensation of touch as it enters your mouth and you chew it. Continue to eat the dish, chewing each bit at least 20 times and pausing after each bite to examine how your body is responding to the experience. As you eat the dish, honor your body’s sensation of hunger as well as your possible fullness. When you feel satiated, discontinue your eating and take some time to reflect on the experience as a whole.

bowl free
Banana-oat bowl!

Reflections

I engaged in the mindfulness practice I created with a banana-oat dish I love. This dish brings back memories from my undergraduate experience. Our cafeteria occasionally had visiting chefs, one of whom introduced me to the deliciousness of Bananas Foster. My spinoff is missing the rum and the sugar, but has the buttery sweetness in a wholesome, protein-rich package.

In researching the ingredients, which include Greek yogurt, dates, butter, rolled oats, and bananas, I was surprised to learn that the butter I’d purchased had a longer trip to me than everything else, save the banana. The banana was the only ingredient that originated outside of the U.S.; it was grown in Guatemala. Bananas are Guatemala’s top export. In reading about the history of banana imports to the U.S., I felt sadness at the exploitation that has occurred for the workers who produce the crop. After a cursory search, I was not successful in locating a local place where I could buy fair-trade bananas. This exercise was worth it to me if for no other reason that it caused me to realize the foods I’ve been eating for decades without any sense of concern (e.g., non-animal products), are also susceptible to forces which I’d rather resist. Tropical fruits are my favorite, so I have more work to do to try to find a way to source them as ethically as I can (suggestions welcome!). The oats I used seemed to be at least distributed the closest to me, but the origin of the product itself was a bit murkier; they may be grown in Canada. I was happy to learn that oat production uses less fertilizer and weed killer than other grains and may have less of a negative impact on the soil as well.

When I added all my pins to the map to represent each place from which my ingredients originated, I thought about the many miles traveled and fossil fuel energy it took to get the food to my house. I’ve been frequenting a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm this summer for my vegetables. It takes a while to drive to it, but it is nothing compared to the thousands of collective miles over which my food had to pass in order to unite in my simple dish. The bowl I used to plate my dish is sustainable and is hand-made from coconut in Hawaii.

In cooking the food, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to remain present with what I was doing. My mind kept racing ahead and on to other topics: I suspect I lose out on a lot of the sensory experience food provides every day by my actions. I observed myself using smell as my primary sense, checking to see if the oats and dates had finished toasting in the butter when they started to hint at burning. I microwaved(!) the banana; when I’ve made this recipe before, I’ve used a frozen banana. A fresh banana in the microwave smells to me like a wet gym sock; the flavor was semi-palatable but I will definitely go with the frozen variety in the future.

Eating the dish was an exercise in centering and re-centering. I sat down and took a bite, completely forgetting my own purpose. As I re-centered on my breath, used my senses to connect to what I was doing, and ate it very slowly, I found myself experiencing texture in a new way. Part of the appeal of this dessert is the chew of the oats in contrast with the silkiness of the dates and yogurt. I also enjoyed the different temperatures—the yogurt was cold, the bananas were steaming, and the oats/dates were closer to room temperature. It had never fully occurred to me that food is more than smell, taste and visual appeal (except for the few textures like sea urchin that I simply cannot bear). I struggle to eat vegetables on a regular basis, so perhaps concentrating on these sensory touch-points will help to widen my palate.

On the whole, my meal sat differently in me as I thought about its origins, travels and the impact each piece of it had on my being. I wondered how the sorrowful path of the banana, at least if its story was untold, would impact my body as compared to one that was sustainably grown and harvested. I was filled with a fuller understanding of myth and story; the beauty of sitting together and hearing one’s elders speak in sacred terms about how the various indigenous plants and animals came to populate our region and make their way to our bellies has been obliterated by modern agricultural practices. The mechanization and digitization of our lives stripped from us first our connection to the land and has now, with convenience foods, taken even our knowledge of how to prepare food for ourselves. In addition, there is privilege today in having the time, money and resources to examine from where our food comes and to prepare it and perhaps grow and harvest it by hand; many people struggle obtain nourishment in the first place. Movements like permaculture and fair trade may assist us to address these concerns as a society; on the small scale, as we adjust our lifestyles to whatever extent possible, we can partake in small, sacred moments of passing a plate around the hearth, recounting the story of each ingredient and mindfully savoring each spoonful.

To what extent do you attend to the origins of the foods you eat? How far or near are their points of origin to you? How fresh are they when they arrive at your home? To what extent are you attentive and mindful during the process of cooking? Eating? Lastly, if you try any part of the ritual, please share your experience!

 

Inspiration Fanatic

Chocolate Brownie Soufflé

For today’s #InspirationFanatic Friday, I wanted to share a recipe I created on a whim while craving chocolate. It turned out with so much volume and flavor, despite being gluten-free and having no added sugar, that I decided it had to be shared!

~280 calories, 7.5 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein per serving.

Makes 4 servings.

4 ripe bananas mashed

4 eggs

4 TBS cocoa powder

4 tsp. Clabber Girl baking powder

½ cup (8 TBS) almond flour

1 tsp. vanilla

I have a hard time with portion control with dessert-type foods, so I originally made a single serving of this. Just divide everything by 4 if you wish to do this. The serving size is quite large, use smaller cups and divide into 8 if you want a lower calorie count.

Instructions:

Combine all ingredients in a bowl.

Mix for 1 minute or less—do not over-mix.

Spoon into soufflé cups. Batter should be no more than 1 inch from the top. If your soufflé cups are on the smaller side, you will need more than 4 of them.

Bake at 450 for approximately 20 minutes. Souffle is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Great served warm!

Pagan Practice

Lemon Curd and Blueberry Crepes: Celebrating the Return of the Sun at Imbolc

For my Imbolc #PaganPractice blog, I created a cake out of crepes to represent the hope and anticipation present in this season. Even though it is barren and frigid outside, I hold on to the expectation that warmth and life will return to the barren and frigid earth, as well as a sense of confidence that our inner landscape can become equally fertile as we are poised to enter a time ripe with activity and action.

I used three recipes to make this cake:

Crepes

Lemon Curd

Stabilized Whipped Cream

A few tips for each recipe:

  • Crepes: I added about 1 TBS of sugar per batch of crepes, and made four times the amount of the original recipe. I also added 1 TBS of vanilla for each batch. I stored the crepes by putting a piece of waxed paper between each cooled crepe; this made it very fast to assemble the cake as they came apart easily.
  • Lemon Curd: This was the least successful of my recipes because I didn’t cook it long enough. I would err on the side of slightly overcooking if you make it, because the lemon curd does not play well with the whipped cream if it is too runny. For the cake, I doubled the recipe.
  • Stabilized Whipped Cream: Making this recipe feels like a trust fall to me. There is a point each time I make it where I am about to throw in the towel and declare it a failure because it seems it will never change from its liquid state. Then, suddenly, it becomes the most beautiful whipped topping I’ve ever seen. It is perfect for the crepe cake because it holds up well between the layers. I made four times what the original recipe called for in order to create my cake.

crepes slice

To assemble the cake, I first divided the stabilized whipped cream into two parts, and folded the lemon curd in to one of them. I then began the layers by putting down two crepes with no filling. I alternated layers of the whipped cream and the lemon curd whipped cream between crepes. I also added fresh blueberries in with some of the layers of lemon curd whipped cream—make sure any fruit you add is dried fully.

The crepes and lemon curd can be made ahead of time, but I would suggest making the stabilized whipped cream and assembling the cake the day of serving it. As you can see, I had some troubles with the lemon curd whipped cream running out, but I believe this was due to the lemon curd not being fully set when I mixed it in. Any of the components of the cake could be store-bought if you are short on time. You could also fill the crepes individually and serve that way. The taste was rich with a hint of sweetness. It brought home for me the feeling of the sluggishness of winter starting to lift just a little, with notes of light and fresh flavors peeking through. Happy Imbolc!

 

Inspiration Fanatic

Marzipan Moons

Today’s #InspirationFanatic Friday is a candy decorating venture in which you can create a moon made out of Marzipan to represent each moon phase. The candies are very easy and simple to make; it’s a great project for kids!

The brand of Marzipan I purchased from Amazon was Odense. I haven’t attempted to make my own Marzipan, in part because several of the recipes call for raw egg whites. Let me know if you have a go-to recipe that you recommend!

I used Wilton gel food coloring; make sure whichever kind you use is gel because the liquid in regular food coloring will soften the marzipan too much. If you use Wilton, use the Lemon Yellow for the moon; I started with the Golden Yellow and it ended up reminding me of Colby Cheese so I had to redo it. If you notice the color changing in my photos, that’s why.

Instructions

brand
1. Color about 5/6th of your Marzipan blue and 1/6th of it yellow. It’s up to you how thoroughly you want to mix it; I went easy on the blue so that it had a bit of a swirled appearance.

 

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2. Shape the blue dough into at least 8 balls to represent the sky. To make a rounded flattened circle, pat the dough between your hands to shape.

 

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3. Roll the yellow marzipan between a sheet of waxed paper to your desired thinness.
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4. Cut out the different moon shapes using a circle-shaped cookie cutter. I used a frosting tip because that was all I had that was small enough, but I then had to use a toothpick to help retrieve the pieces.
all
5. Place the moon shapes on the sky pieces. You’re done! Marzipan freezes very well if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. You could save it and have a piece at each phase of the moon during your ritual or ceremony.

This project could also be adapted for the upcoming solar eclipse and might be a fun treat to bring if you are having a potluck or gathering to celebrate.