go-to coconut curry

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For the past month or more, I’ve been collecting a few snippets of news I’ve read or articles meant to be shared, but rather than actually share, I’ve stashed them away in a folder and time has marched on.

Looking back, so much of what I had accumulated was news that was frustrating, negative, and political, in congruence with the season, even as it was about the state of our food system and climate. Those are indeed important things and I think we should all be informed about what we are eating and the nature and consequences of its production.

 

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But for whatever reason I was reminded recently of my high school riding instructor/coach, who always encouraged me to remember and focus on what’s going well, and to forget about the rest. I more often get in the mindset that if I only look through the world with rosy-hued lenses, then nothing gets done, and no real change to the status quo can occur.

But that’s not actually true. We grow better when we are happier, when we are living in joy, when our systems are not stressed with what-ifs and fear.

 

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I encouraged a nutrition client recently to start small, taking one day at a time, and to focus on only one thing each day that helps her to take care of herself. Taking a dose of my own advice, it’s early morning as I write this, and I’m unexpectedly home at my mom’s farmhouse kitchen table, sitting in what I deem the sunroom, given for it’s dusty lemon hues and big windows letting in the new day. My week has been fraught with grief, many tears, and saying one last goodbye to a truly dear grandfather, and related to that and my own internal fears and anxieties, my thoughts have been incredibly bent toward the negative of late.

Today I’ve decided to focus on the good, and to look for what is going well.

Today it’s that I did make it home to see Papa in his last hours, and it was almost as if he waited for me, the last and furthest grandchild to visit, and for his room to fill with family as he spoke his last words and slipped quietly from us.

 

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Too, the country is quiet, and I get to spend my day (and yesterday) looking out any window onto wide open pastures and birds singing and dancing their dance.

What this has to do with curry, I don’t for sure know, other than a simple and easily adaptable curry such as this has been my long time go-to for comfort, for taste, for turning whatever I have into something special and pleasing to everyone. It’s the food version of eternally positive, and a dish no matter the vegetable or bean adaptations, seems one can never mess up.

 

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Go-To Coconut Curry, serves 4-5
I used cooked mung beans, broccoli, white “spring” turnips, and frozen peas in this version, and I encourage you to use whatever you have, is in season, or are particularly enjoying just now. 

1 Tbs. coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 hot green chili pepper, diced
4 cups chopped seasonal vegetables
1/8-1/4 tsp. cayenne powder (adjust according to taste)
3/4 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. chili powder
3/4 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, finely grated
1 can full fat coconut milk
1-2 cups water, as needed to thin
2 cups cooked beans
2 cups dark greens, chopped
1/4 cup raisins
2 Tbs. lemon juice
fresh cilantro, to serve
cooked long grain brown rice or buckwheat, to serve

  • In a large deep pan over medium heat, warm oil, moving around the pan to coat the bottom evenly. Toss in the chopped onions, garlic, and chili pepper. Stir and let cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the onion and pepper are soft.
  • Then stir in the other vegetables and cook until they are tender.
  • Add the spices. Give them a minute or so to toast and then pour in the coconut milk, water, beans, greens, and raisins. Stir everything together and let the flavors meld for 5-10 minutes more.
  • Pour in the lemon juice, adjust seasonings to taste, and enjoy with rice or buckwheat and cilantro.
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a primer on cooking with fats and oils + quick-sautéed greens

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One of my goals for this space this year is to share a nutrition tip each month which can guide us towards preparing and enjoying better meals. I’ve been sitting on this first topic for the better part of the last year, and it’s one that has been increasingly on my mind.

Let’s talk about cooking with different types of fats and oils.

For quite some time, I’ve tended to use olive or coconut oil for a lot of recipes. Up until a few years ago, I almost exclusively used extra virgin olive oil for all purposes outside baking sweets, at all temperatures. While I was familiar with the term “smoke point,” I never thought much of it, because I never saw smoke. What I didn’t realize was that I was wrong.

While there are many different kinds of fats and oils, some are more delicate than others, meaning their beneficial compounds break down or oxidize easily, creating harmful chemicals in the process. Those chemicals damage cells, promote widespread internal (and invisible) inflammation, and lead to a vast number of health concerns now considered common such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The three factors that cause fats and oils to oxidize and create harmful chemicals include exposure to heat, light, and oxygen, and the more unsaturated a fat is, and thus a lower smoke point, the more easily one of these factors will cause it to become highly inflammatory to our system.

My longtime go-to, extra virgin olive oil, is similar to most vegetable/plant oils, and is not particularly stable at temperatures above 320 degrees F (its smoke point). This means it is not suitable for stir-frying, sautéing, baking or roasting, or other high-heat cooking methods. What’s more, unsaturated oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, and others which we’ve heard can stand up to high heat have instead been found to break down extremely easily at high temperature. In research, these were found to be some of the worst types of oil to cook with.

 

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So the question remains: what type of fat or oil can you use (safely) for high temperature cooking, such as roasting, baking, sautéing, and stir-frying?

Essentially, I no longer recommend cooking much above 350 degrees using any type of fat or oil unless it’s a special occasion. But when those high-heat-necessary meals are prepared, using fats that are more stable (and thus more saturated), hold up the best. This means coconut oil, butter and ghee (if you’re not sensitive to or actively avoiding dairy) are best. The other option is to choose a lesser quality (non virgin) olive, unrefined avocado or sesame oil, and possibly small amounts of non-gmo canola oil for baking. These oils are rich in monounsaturated fats, which tend to be slightly more stable at temperatures up to 350 degrees. And because they’re less refined and ideally cold-pressed, that fatty acid oxidation won’t be happening as much during the processing/pressing, since we’re aiming to avoid oxidized and rancid oils, especially before they even makes it home to cook with!

This also leaves the really-good-for-you extra virgin olive oil, as well as omega-3 rich flax and walnut, for drizzling on dishes after they’re off the heat. And if you really want to get right down to it, using less oil of all types and more fat-rich whole foods (like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados) can never be a bad way to go.

 

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Quick Sautéed Greens, serves 1-2
Early in the new year might be the time when some of us are actively adding more greens to our routines, but a cold kale or green salad is often not the best when it’s cold outside and we’re bundled in layers. This is my favorite way to eat greens in the winter. The cooking process takes but a minute and the result is garlic-y, lightly spiced, and delectable. They’re a great addition to almost any meal. 

1 tsp. unrefined coconut oil
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
1 bunch winter greens (Collards, Kale, Swiss chard, etc.), stems chopped, leaves sliced
1 tsp. grounding masala, optional
salt and pepper to taste

  • In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high. Add stems from the greens and allow to cook until beginning to soften.
  • Then add in the garlic, sliced leaves, and masala and heat just until the leaves begin to wilt. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

 

RESOURCES:
Malhotra, A. (2016). The toxic truth about vegetable oil: Cooking with ‘healthy’ fats increases the risk of disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3574810/The-toxic-truth-vegetable-oil-Cooking-healthy-fats-increases-risk-heart-disease-type-2-diabetes-cancer.html?utm_sq=fjjqojxgyn.

Peng, C.Y., Lan, C.H., Lin, P.C., and Kuo, Y.C. (2017). Effects of cooking method, cooking oil, and food type on aldehyde emissions in cooking oil fumes. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 324(Pt B), 160-167. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2016.10.045.

Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Uribarri, J., Woodruff, S., Goodman, S., Cai, W., Chen, X.,…and Vlassara, H. (2010). Advanced glycation end products in food and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(6), 911-16.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018.

 

vibrant winter dal with roasted cauliflower + toasted seeds

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I took a real slow down in the days after Christmas and into the first part of the new year and in that time I gave this space a little update. With it, I also set the intention to align the content a little more towards what has been calling to me these last few months.

Like the couple years before it, 2017 was a particularly challenging year. Even as I was in it, I knew it was a year of lessons and great strides were being made, even as it was difficult to see through the moment. Out of it, or out of those years I should say, I’ve developed a fairly different relationship with myself, one where the person before writing this blog post is like a long-ago friend I no longer know well. I spent a lot of the past couple years delving into the silence, watching the chaos in my brain, going far back into memories of my childhood, seeking to understand what and where I lost myself. I wouldn’t say I’m done with all that necessarily, (because are we ever?), but I do believe I’ve forgiven, learned about, and let go of the events and traumas that were keeping me stuck between being the person I am and the one I thought others wanted me to be.

I feel a lot more like me these days. And more free.

Because I’m drawn to the concept of food as medicine, slightly shifting my eating habits, not just the food but the way in which I try to eat it, has been a big component of the shift. I’ve taken to noticing how I feel, whether it’s cold, anxious or ungrounded, hot and fiery-tempered, or calm and assured, and then adjusting my meals to accommodate. I learned this method of tuning in and then adjusting from Ayurveda, and though to explain it, the idea sounds trite, I’ve noticed improvements in my digestion and mental health from the subtle change in how I season foods, the mindset I prepare them in, and how much attention I give while eating. Ayurveda, like other ancient medical systems, puts digestion as the foundation of health since what and how we eat, so we become.

The biggest difference? There’s rarely mind chatter in the line of “diet culture” thinking, i.e. too much, guilt about eating this or that, wanting a different body or trying to control the one I have, etc. If food is medicine and food is fuel, it’s also nourishment, and nourishment for more than just the physical self.

So to get me through the cold and dark of winter, I’ve been making routine bowls of creamy dal, sometimes simple with a few random root vegetables and greens thrown in, and sometimes fancied up with a quick puree, roasted cauliflower and toasted seeds. Either way, after trying a couple dozen different versions of dal these past few years, I’ve come to this recipe. I’ve taken many concepts from Divya Alter’s What to Eat for How You Feel in making it, and compared to many dal recipes, this one tones down the spices and keeps them to those that gently warm and ground “airy” mind and digestion in this cold season.

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Part of the process in making this is preparing your own grounding spice blend to season the roasted cauliflower and dal. It’s a quick extra step but definitely worth it–I tend to add the blend as a quick sprinkle to many meals that need a little extra something, or on days I feel particularly all over the place. My spice grinder is a favored and frequently used kitchen implement, but if you’re without one or prefer to skip this step, using your favorite curry powder will work as a substitute–however, I tend to think a lot of the magic here is in using tailored spices.

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The spices in this blend are ones that particularly help with digestion and tend to be warming and pungent without being outright hot (like cayenne or chili). This results in open circulatory channels and the ability to warm up and eliminate toxins and congestion. It is especially helpful in the cold season or for the cold person. Specifically,

Coriander improves digestion, calms the mind, and binds toxins in the blood.
Fennel regulates and improves digestion, and is a cooling spice in smaller amounts. It balances the warming spices in this blend.
Cumin stimulates digestion, eliminates toxins, and helps with the absorption of nutrients.
Cloves improves digestion, reduces toxins, and opens circulatory channels.
Black pepper improves digestion, opens circulatory channels, eliminates toxins, and enhances oxygenation in the brain.
Turmeric cleanses the liver and helps break down fats, improves digestion, and is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

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Vibrant Winter Dal, serves 4
1 cup split mung dal (split mung beans) or red lentils, or a combination of both
1 Tbs. coconut oil
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 Tbs. minced ginger
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. grounding masala (see recipe below) or ground coriander
3-4 cups water
1 cup frozen peas
a couple large handfuls diced greens (spinach, kale, etc.)
1 tsp. sea salt, plus more as needed
cilantro and fresh lime slices, to serve

  • Soak the mung dal or red lentils for 30 minutes. Then drain and rinse well.
  • Heat the coconut oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add in the turmeric and toast for about 10 seconds. Then add in the minced ginger and bay leaves. Cook for about 30 seconds more and then add in the masala or coriander and mung dal. Stir and cook until the beans are almost dry.
  • Add 3 cups of water and bring the soup to a boil. Then cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the beans have become tender and begin to disintegrate. Stir in the frozen peas and greens and cook a few minutes more, just until they are warm and wilted. Add the salt and more water as needed.
  • Then, transfer the dal to a blender and puree, working in batches. Add back to the saucepan and gently warm. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  • Serve bowls of dal topped with roasted cauliflower, toasted seeds, cilantro and freshly squeezed lime, as desired.


Roasted Cauliflower
1 large cauliflower, outer leaves removed and cut into small florets
coconut oil, as needed
1 Tbs. grounding masala
sea salt and black pepper

  • Line a large baking pan with parchment and toss the cauliflower, spices, and oil to coat. Roast in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, or until fork tender.
  • Remove from the oven and spoon atop individual bowls of dal.


Toasted Seeds
1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup hemp seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

  • Heat the oil in a small pan over medium-low heat and add in the hemp and cumin seeds. Toast them until they begin to turn golden brown and release their aroma.
  • Divide among bowls to top finished soup.


Grounding Masala Spice Blend
, adapted from What to Eat for How you Feel
2 Tbs. coriander seeds
2 Tbs. fennel seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole cloves
3/4 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. ground turmeric

  • Add all the spices to a coffee or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Put into a labeled container and store away from light.

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