The best seasonal braised cabbage, kitchen morning mindfulness, and connecting to our food’s story.

When I wake in the morning, my tendency is to go towards some distraction immediately, whether it be reading emails on my phone, putting on a podcast to hear others talk at me, or perhaps even social media, though that’s much less my go-to than it was. When I am in the kitchen a little later cycling the dishes and making breakfast, my tendency is to reach for a distraction again.

Last year, I listened to a really impactful series of short podcast episodes on BBC’s Slow Radio about Benedictine Monks meditating on the nature of silence. One of the monks spoke about listening to the pauses in the everyday noise of our life, not filling it, but letting it be there, for it’s in the pauses that we hear guidance about our life (whether you’re religious or not, I’m guessing you have experienced this). So instead of filling the early hours with someone else talking, I’ve taken to letting my attention go to the moment and what I’m doing, walking this stack of bowls from the dishwasher to the cupboard, tracking back to the dishwasher, stacking the plates and walking them across the kitchen to the cupboard, pouring the boiling water over my first cup of tea, asking Alexa for a three minute timer, turning to the other counter, picking up the pear and knife, cutting the pear into haphazard pieces and scraping them into my oatmeal pot. Making my experience of the everyday morning hours, still technically dark outside, a fits and starts routine with less distractions from the outside world.

This kitchen meditation is important because it sets my whole day. My mind has a tendency to jump around, jump ahead, form conversations that will never happen, and turn unimportant moments and experiences into catastrophes, dreams and goals into hopeless pursuits. I’m not consistently mindful in the mornings, not able to have this presence always, nor do I carry it through for the rest of the day. But the daily practice lately is helpful. When I stack days on days of this practice, I notice I become more present for longer stretches elsewhere and thus my go-to mind chatter and on-too-much stress cascade is triggered less or bounces back a little quicker.

I have this Ayurvedic Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell, which I love for its easy meal inspiration and adaptability, but even more I love the introductory section, which makes up a good chunk of the book. Part of Kate’s introduction has a story about her yoga practice. She asks a long-time practitioner about the myth of mental calm through yoga and he tells her, “Do less physical monkey business and more concentration. Count your breaths.” She tells of not being particularly impressed with this advice, but then says, “When I practiced counting my breaths, I began to wonder – who is that counting and observing, and who is that telling me that I should be doing something else? So often, we identify with only the turbulent aspects of our minds, because they tend to be the loudest, and we are in the habit of joining their conversation. It takes patience and focus to stay tuned to the calm center, but it is possible. With practice, I stopped listening to the person arguing and began truly concentrating. It was in this state of focus that I finally found calm.”

Beyond this practice of paying attention, not engaging with the chattering, turbulent mind, is food, nutrition, and lifestyle. We have consistent research now backing up what the yogis and buddhas have known for centuries –that the mind and gut are connected. That there are energetic frequencies between the foods we consume and their effects on our mind and body. That the state of mind we prepare our food in has an affect on how we process it. That the symptoms we continually fall into, anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and on –they are symptoms, not problems, but symptoms of the body trying to get our attention.

As I’m writing this, it is the beginning of NEDA week –National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and as such it has been fairly routine for me to reflect on my own place in recovery annually. This week, it’s become apparent through my morning kitchen mindfulness practice that I’ve been connecting a little more into the beginning of my recovery, which began haphazardly about 13 years ago. What worked for me then, what really was my life raft out of my mental control and self-sabotage through food restriction was really connecting to my food community. I grew up on a ranch and our family had a garden growing up. Local food was really a way of life even if it was far from the romanticized version of farm life we all think of. As I found my way into nourishing instead of punishing my body, I needed that connection again, not to awareness of my mind’s tendencies–I wasn’t that far along and mindfulness wasn’t a thing that was ever brought up in therapy–but connection to my food. Who grew my carrot? What were the steps involved in getting that _____________(name that ingredient) to my store or farm stand and then to me?


Lately, I’ve been putting more emphasis on getting to my local Saturday market. It’s inconvenient to do so, I have to drive across town on a busy weekend at an inconvenient time of day, find a place to park, walk a few blocks, get cash ahead of time, deal with traffic back home, build the extra trip into my schedule, etc. But each time I do this, I’m reminded of the faces that feed us. The farmers themselves –often the farmer’s employees but still farmers—standing for hours on concrete in the middle of winter on cold, blistery, rainy days selling what we think of as ‘expensive food for the elite’ for mere dollars, and at the end of the day and year only making the farming business work because of a spouse or partner’s off-farm job or health insurance. If that sounds totally unglamorous, it was meant to—being aware of the reality of our thoughts or situations is rarely glamourous.

But when I see the hands that feed me and stay more connected to the origins of my food, I stay on the right side of my relationship to food in the recovery process. My relationship with my body is better, I care more for the livelihood of those that grew my food, I have more gratitude for our extremely happy and spoiled ‘ladies’ (hens) who provide the best eggs I’ve ever eaten, I translate that energy of good vibes into my presence in the kitchen and my emphasis on being in a state of calm and clear-mindedness, rather than cluttered, flustered, or not caring for myself well. Again–mostly. This takes practice. It’s certainly not my go-to mindset.

So much of each of our trajectories in this lifetime are like hiking up a slippery, icy mountain. We take a step towards improvement in whatever regard and then we slip back, sometimes giving up for a while before starting anew. As eating disorders and other mental health conditions become a little less stigmatized, or at least acknowledged, it’s important to remember that the glamorous recovery stories we read or hear, of healing through this or that process or someone else staying on the straight and narrow while we slip and slide up and down the same stretch of mountain, are not actually glamorous like they may appear. William’s ladies might lay golden, delicious, nourishing eggs, but there’s a lot of chicken manure in the process. The same goes for the beautiful food brought to the town square – freezing fingers and toes, big waterproof coveralls to wash off all the winter mud before it gets there are more the reality.  And have you ever picked vegetables for at least a day? I have. Once. For a day in the middle of a hot and humid July in Virginia as a community service project. It was back-breaking work. Truly uncomfortable and challenging. And there were giant spiders.

Connecting to the story of your food has a real way of anchoring in gratitude and mindfulness, whichever way that background story goes.

This National Eating Disorders Awareness week, if you’re inclined, I encourage you to try some sort of mindful connection, to the source of your food, or to the process of preparing it for yourself and/or family. Count your breaths. Tune into the process of preparing your food. Thank a farmer. And most especially, give yourself a big hug.

The Best Simple Braised Cabbage, serves about 4, if you’re lucky. ;)

Cabbage is one of my all-time favorite foods this time of year. I crave it every winter before all the new colorful fruits and vegetables start to appear again. Truthfully, I enjoy it just about every way, steamed simply with some salt and pepper is at the top of my list, then braised, roasted, boiled in a flavorful broth, or lastly shredded into some sort of raw salad creation–they’re all good. Cabbage cooked simply has a subtle natural sweetness that comes through and it’s just one of those still wintery-filling foods that walks the line between the green leaves of spring. At my local farmers market, all the different types of cabbage have been catching my eye lately. Use any type here, from bright red/purple, crinkly savoy, or your standard green variety.

a little splash of olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 medium cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup water

  • Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for about 8-10 minutes, or until tender and starting to turn golden brown.
  • Turn up the heat slightly and stir in the salt, apple cider vinegar, and sliced cabbage, along with the water. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender. Check and stir the cabbage a few times while cooking and add a little more water if begins to dry out or starts to stick.
  • Season with pepper, additional salt as needed, and then enjoy as a simple, tasty side dish.

Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing from Eat This Poem

Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing from Eat This Poem

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Both the cook and the poet are makers.
One holds a knife, the other a pen.
– Nicole Gulotta from Eat This Poem

 

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Years ago, I began this blog as a recent college graduate with an abundance of quiet determination and no real idea what to do with it. I had a degree in agriculture and a minor in English, it was 2009 and the jobs for recent graduates with very generalized degrees were particularly non-existent. I was headed towards a teaching program in the fall, mostly because I had said I was going to years before, and every time I brought up my doubt, mentors and loved ones said try it and then decide. 

Words, whether mine or another’s, have always been a big part of my life, hence the reason I opted to keep pursuing literature courses long after deciding I did not want to specialize in the subject. So too has food, and the ability to create and celebrate a community about it, been particularly important. This space took its beginnings with that idea, of merging these two interests of words and meals because I didn’t know then of another way to combine the two. And so that first post back in June 2009 was about picking cherries high in a tree in a dress on the curb outside my last college house. And then making pie afterwards, a gift for my dad.

Since then, it’s fair to say I’ve often questioned whether I want to continue here, what the content should be, and whether anyone other than me cares for the words (or meals) that are shared.

 

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Though there are so many blogs now, I am still drawn to the ones that do as I started to all those years ago, capturing an otherwise forgotten moment or memory with the meal that accompanied it, in a way that is not often practiced in writing online. That is, with a real voice. Nicole Gulotta’s Eat This Poem, is one of those sites. And Nicole just wrote a whole cookbook merging the two! I’m so glad I get to share about it here.

Eat This Poem is at once a poetry anthology and a cookbook, as Nicole believes food and poetry are two of life’s essential ingredients. In the same way salt seasons ingredients to bring out their flavor, poetry seasons our lives; when celebrated together, our everyday moments and meals are richer and more meaningful. Each of the twenty-five inspiring poems—from such poets as Marge Piercy, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield—are accompanied by seventy-five recipes that bring the richness of words to life in our kitchen, on our plate, and through our palate. Eat This Poem opens us up to fresh ways of accessing poetry and lends new meaning to the foods we cook.

With poems simple and complex and recipes that mirror them, Eat This Poem nudges us to be thoughtful, to slow down, to pause and consider, and to cook and eat in the same way. I chose to make and share this particular recipe because it did exactly that, and after pausing and reflecting, I wanted to literally eat the poem, letting the meaning of the words fill me completely.

 

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After a life spent doing other people’s taxes, this writer has purchased a new pen; dusted off an old desk; and written a single, fresh word on his blank piece of paper. Cabbage. That wrinkled, heavy, winter globe of a vegetable can be intimidating, but with a few slices of a knife and a bit of heat under its leaves, cabbage transforms into something tender and approachable. 

For writers, the blank page can be just as intimidating. Fearing rejection, they talk themselves out of doing the very thing they must do, burying their work in drawers for years. One day, they buy a new pen in hopes that it will fuel inspiration. They press on. Let this poem be a reminder to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to raise our heads, to do the difficult work, whatever it may be. Whatever struggle a writer endures, it is fuel for the page. The good news, always, is that what challenges us also changes us, usually for the better if we recognize its potential. 

What I love above all are Nicole’s reflections on each poem, like this one above about writing the word cabbage, in Determination. What I love too, is that poetry has the power to mean so many things, far beyond perhaps its literal meaning. So when I read Determination, it hits me where I’m at in life for reasons completely beyond the “simple” task of putting words to a page. And those words were more impactful when I ate them, mindfully and with intention, in this beautiful and tasty Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing which they were presented with.

I hope you pick up a copy of Eat This Poem when you get a chance, for it is filled with many more beautiful and moving poems from prominent and less known authors, along with recipes that fill us, in the way that only well spoken or written words and lovingly prepared meals can.

 

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Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing, serves 4

2 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
One 1-inch knob of ginger, finely grated
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 medium head cabbage, halved, core removed and thinly sliced (6-8 cups)
¾ cup water
Salt
8 ounces soba noodles (gluten-free if necessary or try adzuki spaghetti noodles)
1 bunch green onions, green parts only, thinly sliced
½ cup lightly packed cilantro, minced
1 red chile pepper, optional
2 Tbs. sesame seeds

For the Dressing:
1/3 cup tahini
¼ cup water
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. honey
1 small garlic clove, peeled

  1. Set a large sauté pan over low heat and add the sesame and olive oils. Add in the ginger and garlic; cook for 1 minute or until they begin to dissolve and become fragrant. Add the cabbage and water, then season with 1 teaspoon salt. Increase the heat to medium, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Check on it halfway through and toss the cabbage.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While you’re waiting, make the dressing. Combine all the ingredients in a blender and pulse to combine. If you make the dressing in advance, put it in the refrigerator until this point. Take it out and thin with a bit of water if needed; it will have thickened when chilled.
  3. Cook the soba or other noodles according to package directions, roughly 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain, and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking, then pour into a large bowl. Pour the dressing over the top and work it together with tongs or a large spoon. It may need an additional sprinkle of salt. Mix in the cabbage along with the green onions, cilantro, minced chile pepper (if using), and sesame seeds; toss. Serve with additional sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

NOTE: For this dressing, you want just a whisper of garlic. A good clove would be one pulled from the interior of the bulb.

 

Adapted from Eat This Poem A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta, © 2017 by Nicole Gulotta. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com