As the titles of last few posts about balance, goals, transitioning, and letting go may have suggested, I have been moving toward a new phase. It is with great excitement that I announce I am now beginning my clinical internship and am taking appointments for nutrition consultations in the Natural Care Center at Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute). I will continue to blog about food on my new website, where I’ll focus more on the nutritional value of my recipes.
If you are in the Baltimore, Maryland–Washington, D.C. area and are interested in making an appointment for a nutrition consultation, check out the new website for information about what to expect and how to make an appointment. As a clinical nutrition intern, I can help you learn to use food to support healing, have more energy, get better sleep, lose or gain weight, clean up your diet, and achieve many other goals you may have. Individuals with diabetes, autoimmune diseases, allergies, digestive disorders, depression, and other illnesses have found that nutritional support helps them feel better and helps their bodies function at a more optimal level. Others seek out nutritional consultations because they want to eat healthier and aren’t sure where to begin, especially those with families, young children, and busy lifestyles.
I hope you’ll join me on this new path!
When you perturb a system, the outcome cannot be controlled. –Tom Balles
This summer is one I’d like to hang onto. I saw Seattle in July and the South in September. I walked the circle and met the medicine. I fed my body what it needed and knew nature in a new way. I tried saying “yes” more and “no” less. For the last summer of my twenties, it was a good one. Now, I welcome autumn’s invitation to let it go.
As the trees drop their leaves, I ask myself what else I can let go of along with the waning season. It’s time to purge my closet, to weed the garden one last time before the frost, to give up coffee (again). Most of all, it is time to renew my efforts to give up control. With all the changes that have occurred this year, I’m not entirely in control of their consequences. Sure, we make choices in life with the intention that they will have certain effects. Truly, though, we can’t see around the bend in the path, no matter how well lit the path may be. During this season, I will honor and respect the unknown and stop trying to chase it down.
Autumn is also the time for seeking out warmth. Breads are baked, squashes are roasted, meats are braised, and everything gets a bit of added warming spices. These muffins acknowledge that I’m ready to turn on the heat of my oven again and with their summer berries are my last nod to a summer that I’m willing to let go of but won’t soon forget.
Blueberry Ricotta Muffins
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Yield: 12 muffins
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/2–2/3 cup sugar
zest of 1 lime, finely grated
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup fresh or frozen (unthawed) blueberries
Preheat oven to 400˚F. Butter or line with parchment a 12-mold standard-size muffin pan.
In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, and cooled melted butter.
In a larger bowl, use your hands to pinch the lime zest into the sugar until it is fragrant and begins to clump together slightly. Stir in the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Quickly incorporate the ricotta mixture and then the blueberries into the dry ingredients, taking care not to over-mix.
Fill each muffin mold about 3/4 full, using your fingers to spread the thick dough evenly. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, rotating halfway through if the uneven heat of your oven demands. Muffins are done when the tops are golden brown, with just a bit of crunch, and spring back when nudged lightly with a fingertip. Cool muffins on a rack.
Nearly six months have passed since I embarked on my nutrition studies, and I feel as though I’ve barely had time to blink. So much has changed this spring, both inside and around me. The education I’ve participated in this year has encompassed more aspects of life and healing than I ever expected. There is so much to question. So many paradoxes to embrace. In my first semester, one class considered how diets are similar to religions: sacred texts (The Bible/Eat Right 4 Your Type), prophets or founding saints (Moses/Dean Ornish), induction ceremonies (baptism/detoxifying cleanse), true believers (devout vegans eschewing honey and cochineal).
Part of this process was considering my own diet as a religion. Seventeen years ago, I declared my vegetarianism. At the age of 12, I just didn’t feel right about eating animals. As I trudged through adolescence, my vegetarianism held strong. I educated myself about the arguments for my dietary way of life, and everything from the resources wasted in large-scale animal husbandry to the criminally abhorrent practices of CAFOs to the health benefits of a plant-based diet rang true. The facts all lined up in agreement with my intuition, and vegetarianism was the closest thing to a religion I have ever known. I took my vegetarianism personally, favoring a one-on-one relationship with my diet-deity over congregating and evangelizing. I had a sense that no matter what else I did wrong in my life, because I was doing this one thing so perfectly, I would be saved.
And then I read The Vegetarian Myth.
I started reading Lierre Keith’s book with the same kind of open mind that a devout but scholarly follower of Judaism might crack open a loaned copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A certain amount of respect for another’s religious devotion was tempered by a measure of pity in the knowledge that their way was not the true one. Such an undertaking might also serve to strengthen my faith, like a rumspringa, or to allow opposing ideas to be better argued against. I fully expected that if I opened this text with an intellectual open-mindedness, I would close it a more faithful and devout vegetarian.
As I began to get a sense of the author’s personality and tone, I was certain that if anyone was going to convince me that I should eat meat, Keith would not be the one to do it. I found the organizational structure of her book lacking. An 80-page chapter rebutting the moral arguments for vegetarianism was broken into smaller sections only by line-drawn illustrations of cows, which Keith seemed to think could substitute for transitions and cohesion. I wasn’t sure whether these glib drawings were more offensive to my respect for animals or for the art of writing. Her sweeping generalizations about vegetarians were combative and ignorant. We do not all want the world to subsist on rice, wheat, and corn, and though I find it hard to believe that Keith never knew a vegetarian with a pet cat, we do not all equate domestication with exploitation. Her references fall short of acceptable academic standards, so her research comes across as lazy and incomplete. Very few peer-reviewed articles are cited, while Wikipedia is a go-to source. In the end, her logic is full of holes and boundless leaps, and the data she cites are unreliable. I declared her a false prophet.
But because a prophet is false, does that mean the word they seek to spread necessarily is as well? Despite my criticisms, my interest was piqued. My faith in vegetarianism was founded on the belief that it didn’t feel right to kill other animals for my nourishment, and it was bolstered by my well-researched understanding that I could achieve not only good but superior health on this diet. As I read Keith’s arguments about the death and destruction inherent in our agricultural systems, along with the health benefits of eating naturally raised meat, I started feeling uneasy. Her own experience of converting from a vegan to an omnivore resonated with me. That thing in my “gut” that had always told me not to eat meat was becoming unsettled.
I set out to do some additional research on Keith’s claims. I dipped my toe into temptation, considered taking a bite out of the serpent rather than the apple. I started mentally picturing myself eating meat and trying to predict my reaction. There would undoubtedly be tears and guilt, but I also imagined a sense of gratitude for and oneness with all the food on my plate. I fervently researched local farms to see how possible it would be to acquire meat that I would feel okay about eating. My body seemed to be sending me signals spurring me on—the same part of my body (my soul?) that had sent me the messages about vegetarianism almost two decades ago. I worried that I was allowing myself to be manipulated, that my faith wasn’t as strong as it used to be, that I was no longer a true believer, that I had lost my way. Surely, this was some kind of test.
Like the lamb sent to Abraham for slaughter in Isaac’s stead, if I sat down to a plate of steak, would the sky rain down soybeans as a sign? I began identifying with many of the stories I read about the health effects of eliminating meat and including soy in one’s diet. The yogic tradition of ashtanga includes ahimsa, the idea of non-violence and avoiding harm, including self-harm. If my goal was to respect all creatures, and the food I was eating was harming my body, then the creature I am most responsible for respecting and protecting—myself—was being overlooked.
I became a seeker. I read gospels from various prophets, the self-described “recovering vegetarians” who had experienced their own conversions. I meditated on the quandary and wondered where my identity would be without vegetarianism. I looked inward to that intuition that had led me to vegetarianism in the first place, and I asked it what it was hungry for. I bought it a steak.
While cooking the meal, I still wasn’t sure if I’d actually go through with it. My impression of Keith’s radicalism was that she merely traded the cult of veganism for the cult of paleo. Apocalyptic fear seemed to be the main driving force behind her dogma. I worried that fear was driving me too.
Mike sliced the cow’s meat thinly, describing the technique, the characteristics of the fat, the gristle. As part of my induction, he encouraged me to lift the slices into my bowl before pouring the boiling phở broth over them. I felt the tears well in my eyes, and I was also excited. I was leaving something behind, a part of my identity that had been central to my entire sense of morality. I was embracing something new that I felt would better serve that morality—that would better serve myself and the world around me that I so deeply strived to honor. I took a deep breath, and I took a moment alone with the beef. I brought my hands to my heart in the shape of anjali mudra and bowed my head. I offered gratitude for all the lives that had gone into the meal I was about to enjoy, asked the universe to accept me back into the cycle of life and death from which I had distanced myself, and honored the promise inherent in my body that one day my death too would feed life. With that prayer, I felt at peace, and I feasted.
I know we’re more than two weeks into January, and you’re all probably well into your resolutions, or maybe you’ve already broken them. But I have to confess that I am still in holiday mode. Since my birthday comes a few days before Christmas, I could say I started there, but really the entire month of December is an excuse to blow off responsibilities for such emergencies as last-minute gift and/or party outfit shopping and naked eaves begging for strings of pretty white lights. Then the standard Christmas and New Year’s Eve tag team of festivities comes along. Most of you probably got back to your normal routines shortly thereafter. Not me. Last week, Mike and I celebrated our third anniversary by cozying ourselves into an inn for a few days in Charlottesville, Virginia. You know, because we thought all that relaxation had earned us some…relaxation. So there—it’s been a gluttonous, self-indulgent few weeks, and I don’t have a crumb of guilt about it.
See, one of my most valuable skills is that I can find a way to justify pretty much anything, from buying yet another pair of shoes to going out for ice cream. In the case of this bender, it got a pass because in just a few days, I’m starting graduate school. The next two years will be full of continuing to work full time, with freelance work and blogging happening on the side, while taking classes as I pursue an M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health at Tai Sophia Institute. My path to this course of study has been a long and circuitous one, but I’m so relieved to have found a program that feels perfectly suited to my interests at a school whose mindset feels so well aligned with my own.
As I wind down from this month of building up my energy stores, I’ll also be returning to cooking on a more regular basis. I expect my studies will encourage even more adventurous culinary undertakings, and I’m excited to bring that new perspective to my kitchen, life, and blog!
This preparation of lentils and rice represents the transitions that are happening for me now. The tarragon and fennel fronds were left over from Christmas dinner, and as I move out of holiday mode, I hope to remember to continue valuing relaxation and the occasional indulgence. Lentils with rice are a familiar and comforting meal, but these flavors aren’t ones I regularly combine with them. As I embark on this new undertaking, I will keep one foot rooted in the earth from which I’ve grown. The leeks were added after picking them up at a new co-op that Mike and I explored one day, and they are one of his favorites. As my days fill up with work and study, I will remember to take breaks to explore new nooks in my own neighborhood and beyond, as well as to nourish my relationship. I don’t usually make resolutions at the new year, but I will carry these intentions with me as I step forward along my path.
Lentils & Leeks with Tarragon over Fennel Frond Rice
Yield: 4 large servings
1 tbsp. butter [use all olive oil for a vegan option]
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 large leeks, ends discarded, halved lengthwise, sliced, rinsed, dried
2 large shallots, peeled, sliced
1/4 cup white wine, room temperature
2/3 cup lentils (I recommend French or beluga)
2 2/3 cups water or stock
2 tbsp. tarragon leaves, chopped
half a lemon, juiced
half a lemon, sliced paper thin, the circles quartered
¼ cup fennel fronds, chopped
1 cup brown jasmine rice, cooked
salt & pepper to taste
Put the butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat. When hot, add the sliced leeks and a big pinch of salt. When the leeks begin to soften, after about 7 minutes, add the sliced shallots to the pot. Continue cooking over medium to medium-low heat until the leeks and shallots are soft and translucent but not brown.
Stir in the wine, and continue cooking for just a few minutes until it is absorbed. Add the lentils and the water or stock, turn the heat up to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the lentils simmer, and cover the pot with an askew lid to allow some steam to escape. Simmer until the lentils are done to taste, about 20 minutes (cooking time may be more or less depending on what kind of lentils you use). When the lentils are almost done, remove the lid to allow the moisture to cook off, or add more liquid if you find your pot has gone dry before the lentils have cooked.
Remove from the heat, and stir in the tarragon and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir the chopped fennel fronds into the cooked rice, along with a glug of olive oil.
Serve the lentils over the rice, and top with the lemon pieces, which may be eaten rind and all. (It’s best to add the lemons fresh, because they tend to make any leftovers somewhat bitter.)
I’m not much of a formal goal-setter. I’m usually too fickle and impulsive. But I set a few goals that I want to accomplish before the end of the year. Nothing too serious. One involves beer, the other wine, and the third I accomplished last weekend when Mike and I went apple picking at Larriland Farm. It was a perfect autumn day, fragrant with fallen apples fermenting on the orchard’s floor. Mike ate a bratwurst, I saw some goats, and we came home with almost ten pound of apples and a fifteen-pound pumpkin.
The apples are perfect just as they are. But I promised Mike a pie and made good with this free-form tart instead. I wanted to make a caramel topping but went ahead and made the recipe’s simple glaze too. It felt redundant to put a dulce de leche on top of a glaze but somehow less so to stir them together first, so that’s just what I did. The result is a dulce de leche that tastes like a caramel apple all on its own. It’s even better if you dip into it with slices of a crisp granny smith straight from the orchard and would be a welcome drizzle atop ice cream (vanilla or cardamom), angel food, or pound cake.
Apple Dulce de Leche
Inspired by this glaze
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup sugar
peels and cores from 3 large apples
~1 1/2 cups water
Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a small pot. Heat on low for approximately 30 minutes, whisking frequently, until it has thickened and become caramel colored. Stir in a pinch of sea salt.
Meanwhile, put the apple peels and cores and the sugar in a medium pot, and add enough water to just cover. Simmer over medium-low heat for 25 minutes. Strain the syrup through a sieve, and discard the peels and cores.
Whisk the syrup one half cup at a time into the caramel, until the mixture reaches the desired consistency. Serve warm. Stored in a jar in the refrigerator, it will keep for several days.
Balance is one of those words that’s become overused and overmarketed to the point of virtual meaninglessness. Much like natural. I bet there’s a magazine, probably holding court in the Whole Foods checkout line, called Natural Balance. (Actually, that’s a brand of pet food.) Balance is something we know we want, but what exactly is it, and how do we know when we attain it? In yoga, we feel balance while holding an asana and not falling over. But eventually, no matter how much we feel that balance is ours, muscles get tired, and falling over is inevitable. Does that mean we can no longer claim to have balance?
Yesterday morning, descending the stairs from my bedroom, I lost my balance, dropped my water glass, and landed with what felt like all of my body weight on my forearm. Starting my day with this momentary physical loss of balance threw me off for the rest of it. I dropped an egg yolk into the grate of my stove (and later found my cat licking up the bits I failed to clean). I watched Eat Pray Love, a bad and looong Julia Roberts movie whose only saving grace was an Eddie Vedder song during the credits (oh, and Javier Bardem), and cried. Something was obviously wrong. (Although, for the record, I enjoyed the book.) While trying to fall asleep, I found my mind racing through what I’ve come to identify as its Worry Inventory. What tasks are awaiting me at work the next day? What else did I fail to clean up off the kitchen counters that the cats will get into while I’m sleeping? How can I patch up relationships that have soured? Is home-brewed kombucha safe? Trust me when I tell you that these questions do not pave the path toward restful slumber.
Food, though, is an aspect of life where I’ve got balance pretty well down. I’m no nutrition expert, but I let my body and my intuition guide my diet. If I have a craving, I indulge it, because a craving is my body’s way of signaling to me that it needs something. Sure, sometimes my body wants ice cream, and sometimes that’s what I give it, but I might indulge it with yogurt instead. Really, it probably needed dairy for some reason, so there are no complaints. If a meal is not colorful or is missing protein, carbs, or fat, the missing components are added. Variety is also an important component of balance. Over the past few weeks, though, this aspect has been challenged.
How does one eat a balanced diet full of variety with ten pounds each of cucumbers and zucchini crowding out any vegetable that doesn’t belong to their clique of the green and oblong? I have made jars and jars of pickles. Squash is sautéed near daily for lunch. But, of course, I’m not the first to find myself surrounded by stacks and stacks of zucchini clubs, and someone long ago came up with the elegant solution of grating them into moist breads. I have found that the typical spiced or chocolate varieties of zucchini breads may be initially enjoyed but soon find themselves stacked on counters alongside their origins or pressed into the protesting hands of anyone without a garden of their own. In order to prevent my zucchini bread suffering the same fate as the burdensome zucchini themselves (i.e. the compost bin), I had to make one I actually wanted to eat. This version is a subtly sweet take on lemon poppy seed bread. While you may want to eat it at every meal, I suggest going for a bit more balance. Luckily, the loaves freeze well and can be defrosted in winter when you finally find yourself wanting zucchini around again.
Lemon Poppy Zucchini Bread
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Yield: 2 loaves
2 cups AP flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, slightly cooled
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon zest
3 cups zucchini, grated
1/3 cup poppy seeds
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Lightly butter two loaf pans.
Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Beat the eggs until foamy. Beat in the sugar, butter, lemon juice, and lemon zest until well combined. Stir in the olive oil, poppy seeds, and zucchini.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and stir until just combined.
Pour half the batter into each of the prepared loaf pans. Bake at 350˚F for 40–50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.