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Garlic-Orange Tofu and Peanut Cucumbers with Rice

When I glance out the window this morning, it looks like it’s raining. But I look again and it’s still ash. We’ve been raining ash for the last couple days as the air quality went from clear blue skies over Labor Day weekend to a dramatic sweep of heavy smoke on Monday evening as several fast-moving forest fires have been burning in the cascade mountains and now closer near the edge of town to our east. Our hens have been out foraging as usual but I worry about their little lungs. Our teenage kitten, a truly needed and lovely new addition this summer, has been upset at the eery light the last couple of days.

I’ve been back to morning meditation lately first thing before I get out of bed or turn on the light, and this morning’s had me expressing gratitude for our air purifiers, those ‘noise machines’ that I have routinely tsk-tsked since William insisted on them in the last couple years. And also gratitude for a safe home. The alarm of LEVEL 3–GET OUT NOW evacuation alerts going off on my phone throughout yesterday afternoon for the northeast edge of the city, truly a ways off from us but too close for comfort, brought that gratitude home.

Today at least we got a sunrise, smoky as it was. Yesterday was just a dark red Apocalyptic haze, which is becoming the norm in Western Oregon in the last 36 hours.

We can still smell the smoke inside even with a couple good air purifiers so I’ve been adding turmeric to all my meals, taking or eating extra vitamin C and vitamin E-rich foods (hazelnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, leafy greens), and adding tulsi / holy basil, and licorice and marshmallow roots to my tea blend. The first three are taken with the idea of combatting the oxidative stress that comes with particularly toxic wildfire smoke particles. If I had a particularly vitamin-C rich food or herb on hand such as amla fruit powder, camu camu powder, or rose hips, I’d use that instead of just plain supplemental vitamin C. The last two roots of marshmallow and licorice are for soothing irritated internal tissues, such as the lungs and digestive lining. Even though I’m staying inside and out of the terrible air, this stuff is incredibly potent. Turmeric particularly helps my smoke headaches.

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While I’ve been meaning to share more about digestive health in this space over the next few days—since this is an area that my previous survey indicated is definitely a need. But first, I think we can all use a really good meal that’s refreshing, comforting, and enjoyable while summer is still here.

I know many individuals avoid tofu because they’re unsure of how to prepare it, or when they’ve tried to in the past the texture is all wrong. I was there for a long time (probably 10 years since I first attempted tofu until I was comfortable cooking / eating it). So I’ve outlined a little more detailed way to prepare it. This is my go-to method and yields the texture we prefer.

Then the tofu is paired with finely chopped cucumbers tossed and marinated in the same dressing as the tofu is marinated and cooked in, and enjoyed with simple brown rice. The result is a simple concept but the taste is truly rich and incredible. Hope you’re staying safe in whatever way where you are, and if you tend to avoid tofu because you’re unsure how to cook it, give this recipe a try.

Garlic-Orange Tofu and Cucumbers with Rice, serves 4
inspired by Anna Jones in the The Modern Cook’s Year

16 oz. / 453 grams firm tofu, drained

dressing:
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 Tbs. reduced-sodium tamari
2 Tbs. brown rice vinegar or raw apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbs. honey or maple syrup
a pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
¼ tsp. ground coriander
the zest and juice of 1 unwaxed/organic orange

1 cup / 190 grams brown rice
2 cups / 470 ml water
1 ¼ lb. / 600 grams / ~4 cucumbers
a few pinches of salt
¼ cup /35 grams peanuts, toasted
a small handful of fresh basil, minced

  • Slice the block of tofu in half lengthwise, wrap in paper towels like a birthday gift, and then stack the wrapped tofu between two cutting boards. If you have something heavy in your kitchen, put it on top of your cutting board as a weight. (I use my giant Shakespeare textbook). Leave to press out the liquid for about 30 minutes.
  • While the tofu is pressing, whisk together the dressing ingredients.
  • When the 30 minutes is up, unwrap the tofu and slice it into equal size cubes (I get about 48), and combine it with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the dressing in a container with a leak-proof lid. With the lid on, give it a few shakes to immerse in the dressing and then chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to a day. More time will allow for more flavor to develop.
  • Once the tofu has marinated, turn it and its dressing onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees F for about 40 minutes, flipping it over halfway through.
  • After the tofu goes in the oven, cook the rice in a medium pot on the stovetop. Add 2 cups of water, 1 cup of brown rice (ideally pre-soaked but simply rinsed and drained if not), and bring the pot to a boil. Once it boils, turn down to a simmer, cover, and cook undisturbed for 40 minutes.
  • While the rice and tofu are cooking away, dice the cucumbers into small (~1-cm) pieces. Place the slices in a colander that’s over a sink or another bowl, and sprinkle and toss through a few pinches of salt. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to release some of their liquid.
  • Then take your (clean) hands or a clean kitchen towel and press the cucumbers to remove any extra liquid that may have been released. Put the cucumber in a bowl and add ¼ to 1/3 cup of the remaining dressing. Add more to taste. Scatter over and stir through the toasted peanuts.
  • Once the tofu and rice timers are done, remove them both from the heat and serve with the marinated cucumbers. Sprinkle atop some fresh minced basil leaves if desired.  

chamomile + dried plum nut butter bars

Last week I shared about the connection between the gut and the nervous system. After hearing from several that it was helpful, I’ve been thinking about the use of herbs in particular for nervous system and gut support.

Herbs in the category called nervines really shine here. They are the herbs that specifically affect the nervous system. While there is a giant list of herbs that can be used for nervous system support depending on where and what type of symptoms are showing up for an individual as well as the person’s energetics, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, holy basil / tulsi, lemon balm, and California poppy are some of my personal favorites. When we get to the point of really using herbs medicinally to promote balance, we often need them in larger amounts such as at least three cups of tea daily for several weeks, or an herbal tincture, large amounts of herbal powders, etc. It becomes like taking medicine, only with no side effects, nutritional interactions or depletions (when administered correctly).

But before we get to that stage where it’s best to have either more personal experience or guidance by a trained professional to take herbs at a medicinal level, many of us can benefit from incorporating more herbs into our everyday foods. This is what a lot of our ancestors did by collecting herbs that grew nearby and incorporating them into household remedies and cooking. And that’s what I’ve done here.

This is a base recipe for a nut/seed butter and dried fruit bar that I routinely make to enjoy as a snack. In this particular version, I added chamomile flowers and dried plums, two foods with a particular affinity for gut health. Many individuals enjoy chamomile as an evening wind-down tea but if you steep it long enough or bite into a whole chamomile flower, you’ll notice a definite bitter taste. That bitter component is important for gut health! We need bitter flavors to help the digestive system function properly, since the bitter taste stimulates the digestive system by activating gastric juices and the liver so we can break down and absorb our food.

Additionally, you might have noticed the strong, fragrant smell of chamomile in freshly brewed tea. The volatile oils in herbs which have an intense smell gives them an action that is called carminative, giving them the ability to promote a healthy digestive system by soothing inflamed tissues, giving relief from GI cramps and spasms, and helping relieve indigestion, bloating, gas, and nervous/anxious tummys. A couple other of my favorite carminative herbs/spices are fennel seeds, cardamom, and lemon balm, which can all be added to these bars instead of and/or in addition to the chamomile (amounts would need to be adjusted for taste, however).

A couple other ways to incorporate more chamomile into your days is in chamomile tea with ginger and licorice, chamomile tea simply by itself, and chamomile added to morning oatmeal. This apple, walnut, chamomile version is pretty outstanding. Overall, I highly encourage you to incorporate more nervous and digestive system supporting herbs into your meals.

Chamomile + Dried Plum Nut Butter Bars, makes 4
This is a great base recipe to experiment with different flavor combinations and incorporate various herbs into your daily snacks. If you’d rather skip the protein powder, try an equal amount of hemp seeds instead since they’re high in protein compared to many other nuts and seeds. Remember, protein is important in small to medium amounts throughout the day, and helps to balance out the heavy sugar and fat that most snacks contain. These also work great both before and after athletic activity as a quick fueling option, as they’re balanced in their carbohydrate to protein ratio.

3 Tbs. / 50 grams nut butter of choice (cashew or coconut work great here)
1/4 cup / 45 grams dried plums
1/3 cup / 45 grams dates, pitted
3 Tbs. / 30 grams hemp protein (or similar unflavored protein powder, such as plain pea protein)
3 Tbs. loose chamomile flowers
1 cup / 30 grams crispy rice cereal (or 1/3 cup oatmeal)
1 tsp. honey or maple syrup
1/8 tsp. salt

  • In a food processor, combine all ingredients except for a small amount of the rice cereal or oatmeal. Puree all the ingredients until they come together and are slightly sticky to the touch. You might need to add up to 1 Tablespoon water.
  • Then add the final amount of cereal or oatmeal and pulse until it is incorporated but not finely pureed.
  • Turn out into a small rectangular dish and press in. Cut into bars and eat, or store in the fridge and cut and eat as needed. Otherwise, you can certainly make these into energy balls instead if you’d like a circular shape.
  • These keep well for at least a couple weeks.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

connecting the gut and the nervous system

I had an emotional couple of days last week. If you know anything about the Enneagram personality archetyping, I’m most definitely a type 4, so deep and vast emotions are a familiarity for me. That aside, I was emotional. I cried a fair bit and felt my own little volcano of melancholy come out in periodic waves. One such wave was on a run last Thursday morning. Most long-term runners know certain runs can be incredibly therapeutic and where we work through challenging emotions. This was one of those.

When I returned to the house after finishing and began my cool down stretch, I had a familiar mild, dull pain in my abdomen set in, and it continued throughout the day. As an old familiar, I knew exactly the cause of the pain when I first noticed it. As a sensitive child, I grew up with routine anxious ‘tummy aches,’ on Sundays before a new school week began, couldn’t eat before stressful events, and generally would feel knots in my middle when emotionally distraught.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason for this.

For anyone that likes to show up to an athletic race early in the morning, stand in line at the porta potty, and then hope to put your best foot forward in your event of choice, or perhaps engage in a similar nervous-inducing event in another area of life like a job interview, you know that when you’re anxious, nervous, or otherwise stressed, digestion is quite a bit off. That’s because the gut and the brain are intimately connected. The nervous system has several branches and one section, the enteric nervous system (ENS), is often called ‘the second brain.’ The ENS is the section that runs through our digestive system and is connected to the actual brain through a large nerve that runs through are central body and communicates in both directions. This is called the vagus nerve.  When we have a really emotional episode, like I did, our brain can send chemical messages to the gut that change our gut bacteria, leading to low-grade gut inflammation and possibly GI distress. Similarly, if we have a particular imbalance in the gut itself—through food that doesn’t sit well or isn’t best for us, or inflammation and excessive permeability to the gut lining for another reason, we often notice behavioral changes as well. For example, persons that have chronic GI distress often also experience one or several mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, brain fog, poor memory, migraines, and more.


When we have continued stress, whether in our body or in our mind, the nervous system slows down or impairs digestive function. This is why it’s best to not eat when we’re in a stressful mindset or running out the door in the morning before work or while rushing between meetings. And why one simple way to improve digestion is to single-task while we eat. That is, eat in a quiet, peaceful environment and do only that. Just eat, enjoy, and actually chew the meal. And its why major stressful life events often precede major health symptoms and then diagnoses. If you struggle with digestive conditions such as one of the Irritable Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, etc.), IBS, GERD, ulcers, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and any autoimmune disease, your condition will often respond favorably to stress-reduction techniques. For athletes with any of these conditions, we often argue that our physical activity is our source of stress reduction. That may be true—in theory—but often our activity load is contributing stress when our physical and mental systems are way out of balance.

True rest and relaxation, such as spending an hour or more per day doing absolutely nothing, deep breathing, meditation or prayer practices, spending quiet time in nature, gardening, yoga, painting, or other quiet activities without a screen are sometimes exactly what we need most to begin digestive healing – not a fancy, stressful, rigid new eating plan. (Gasp! I know; how dare I say that as someone that works with people on food!)

Otherwise, I love to work with herbs for the nervous system. In fact, nervines, the category of herbs that work on the nervous system, are by far the ones I work with and recommend the most. Lavender in this blueberry lavender smoothie bowl, and skullcap, tulsi / Holy Basil, lemon balm, and lavender in this stress-reduction tea or herbal latte are just a couple relax-inducing herbal ideas to consider.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.