Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda

About a year ago near the solstice, I wrote the words grounded/focused on a bookmark. The back was painted with a small cross-section of watercolor tulips from a local artist; her cast-offs she’d cut into cards for an intention setting gathering. Grounded and focused were my intentions for how I wanted to feel by the end of this year. Little did we know then what 2020 would entail, but what I did know was that I struggle with being mentally cluttered and scattered, sometimes switching topics mid-sentence in conversation, and often letting my thoughts and ideas run away from me and having nothing to show for it minutes (and sometimes hours) later. I also knew that the internal atmosphere of being grounded and focused wasn’t so much an end goal for months away, but a daily, and sometimes minute by minute practice.

It’s safe to say I have succeeded and failed in my intention, multiple times a day.

But I’ve also been able to add a lot of tools and practices for how to gain a less scattered mind and actions over the years. One of which is continually learning from Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is the indigenous health system of India, and arguably the oldest health system (or one of the oldest) in the world. While I didn’t learn Ayurveda outright in nutrition graduate school, mine was a program that married traditional systems of health with the latest nutritional and medical sciences, and thus incorporating components of Ayurveda in my nutrition classes and clinic was widely accepted – and especially in my herbal classes. In the meantime, as if I didn’t need to study more, I was studying it on the side and incorporating increasingly more aspects of Ayurveda in my own life, helping to get closer to healing many of my GI and autoimmune struggles.

The cluttered and scattered mind is a common feature of imbalanced vata in the body, and like many people in our modern lifestyles, I struggle with this imbalance, a lot. As well as many other high-vata tendencies. Vata is one of the three energies or forces which can be observed in all things, and which are ideally in balance. Pitta and Kapha are the other two energies. Eating foods that support high vata or perhaps foods that support one of the other two doshas that make up our body and mind, is a primary way we can return our ailments to balance, but it’s certainly not the only practice.

So many years ago that I don’t remember, but around the time I first learned of Ayurveda, I discovered Claire’s blog with simple delicious Ayurvedic recipes. Claire has recently released her gorgeous book, Living Ayurveda, which is full of the kind of guidance that helps us achieve a little more balance in our lives. It encourages us to make the connection between time of year and patterns that afflict us (but don’t have to), incorporating building and lightening ingredients in the right ratios in our meals, and recipes that can be adapted depending on the season and our individual doshas or imbalances. Likewise, there are yoga sequences for each season too.

Some of the recipes that I’ve already tried and truly will make again and again include:
Pumpkin Empanadas with Cashew Crema
Shakti Chai
Simple Stewed Apples
and this Butternut Buckwheat Porridge

So many more are on my list – actually all of them really:
Warm Cinnamon Date Shake
Creamy Miso Tahini Dal
Delicata, Wild Rice & Pomegranate Salad
Kitchari Burgers
Fall Harvest Muffins
and most definitely the Yogi Bowl, a variation on something I could eat daily.

Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda, serves 2-4
To be completely transparent in portion sizes, I make this recipe as a half batch for one meal. That is a perfect amount for me, as a very active person, to go several hours between breakfast and the midday meal with excellent energy and ‘fuel’. Claire’s suggestions include adding an extra spoonful of ghee for vata support on very dry and cold days, reducing the cinnamon slightly for high pitta (cinnamon in large amounts is quite heating so good for some with high vata and kapha, but less so for others), and taking out the oats and doubling the buckwheat for high kapha. For a completely vegan and/or dairy-free version, I suggest using untoasted sesame oil, especially for vata/kapha, or coconut oil instead.

3 cups water
1/2 cup (untoasted) buckwheat groats or short-grain brown rice
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup peeled butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp. ghee
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
milk of choice and maple syrup, for serving (optional)

  • In a medium pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil on high heat. Cover with a lid, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes, until butternut squash is tender and the grains are fully cooked. You might need to stir once or twice during that time. Toward the end, add a splash of water if needed.
  • If using a pressure cooker, reduce the water to 2 1/2 cups and follow instructions for pressure-cooking porridge. Once done, remove from heat and serve hot with a splash of milk of choice and a drizzle of maple syrup on top. I found the milk and syrup is a preference, and I enjoy this without either.

Creamy Koginut Squash + Sage Pasta

When choosing new seed varieties late last winter for the  upcoming growing season, I somehow convinced William I needed another type of winter squash to grow. He hates winter squash. But somehow, I won him over and then our late season garden became a sea of squash. I chose the Robin’s Koginut variety from Row7 Seeds. It’s a variety that has gotten a lot of press in the last few years, for chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, who also wrote one of my favorite books, helped develop the variety in partnership with his local farmers and seed breeders. The result is a combination of a butternut and a kabocha squash variety, and I quite like it. But I also like nearly all winter squash.

Relatedly, over the course of the last few days, I’ve been taking a cooking class on using cooking techniques from Ayurveda. This means an emphasis on getting all six flavors in every dish, balancing the meal so that no flavor stands out over the rest, and that the end result is balancing to the body. One of the other tenets of Ayurveda is eating seasonally, i.e. what is in season, where you live.

One of the other person’s in the class asked about fruit, since I have virtually all types of fruit available to me where I live, she said. Our instructor reminded her that what’s at the store does not always represent what’s in season locally, as most well-stocked groceries carry fruit and other produce from all across the globe at all times. Unless a banana grows outside your door right now, it’s probably not in your best health interest to eat a banana, our instructor said, and advised the person to visit her farmers market instead.

I agree with my instructor wholeheartedly on a personal level. As many of you long-time readers know, I’m a big advocate of eating locally in season, getting to know your local farmers, supporting your community and economy, voting with your fork for sustainability and climate resilience, and of course, because what’s in season is often better for our health.

But for anyone that works with me with nutrition, I take a much more individualized approach. Not all of us come ready and able to make dietary changes that are so vastly different than what we’re currently doing. Not all of us live in a bounty of locally available all the time. Some of us need gentle guidance without judgement to get started where we are.

I have a book on healing with whole foods on my shelf that is nearly falling apart. When I first began really getting into holistic/integrative health, I read it from front to back, a little at a time, night after night. The pages are textbook size and there are nearly 800 of them. When I got done, I started reading again. Over years, yes years, I very slowly incorporated practices encouraged in the book. I tried meditation. I incorporated chlorella and spirulina (years before these would become more mainstream). I learned about types of oils and when and how to use different sweeteners. I learned about the effect of different foods on the body. It was an incredibly slow process and along the way, I slowly shed the way of eating that leaned heavier on the cheese, yogurt, ice cream, baked goods, convenience fast-food, and then all the “skinny” diet crap products, and more into trying new and then seasonal foods. Part of what really pushed me further was the second of three health crises, but I eventually figured out a way of eating that is intuitive and right for me. In the process it also helped heal the first, second, and third health crisis, the last of which I now believe to be both a reaction to a multi-year stint in a moldy apartment and emotionally related, leftover from the first.

This is all to say, for personal sustainability-sake, I don’t believe everyone needs to completely ditch their mainstream big-box grocery immediately and only shop at the farmers market from here on out. Or never again eat a banana. But I do think it can be life changing if you research a couple ways to seek local food where you live, and try a couple new in-season foods to start

If you come across the Koginut Squash, I encourage you to try it. Or if not, seek out a Butternut or Kabocha Squash instead. For learning about local farms and markets near you, try “Local Food Near Me” as a google search, or check out Local Farm Markets as a start. Or if you’re ready or in need of some extra food and nutrition guidance, please reach out to me for more personalized support.

Creamy Koginut Squash + Sage Pasta, serves about 4
1 medium koginut (or butternut) squash
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup water or vegetable broth (low/no sodium)
¼ cup nutritional yeast
1 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs. dried sage leaves, plus a few more to serve
salt and pepper to taste
12 oz. gluten-free pasta, preferably a bean/legume based pasta unless you’ll be adding chickpeas or other beans
3-4 medium handfuls dark leafy greens such as spinach or kale, optional

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper.
  • Halve the squash and take out the seeds. Then put the two halves, cut side down on a baking pan, along with a couple splashes of water. Cook for 40-45 minutes until tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and let it cool slightly.
  • While the squash is cooking, heat a large pan over medium heat. Add the oil and the onions. Cook until soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  • In an upright blender, combine the squash, onions, and garlic, water or broth, nutritional yeast, vinegar, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Blend on high speed until the ingredients become silky smooth. Transfer to a saucepan and keep warm over low heat until ready to use.
  • Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box. Drain it, and then combine it with the sauce. If you’d like some extra greens, tossing in a couple handfuls of spinach or another soft leafy green (such as kale or swiss chard), is ideal at this time.
  • After you’ve dished up each serving, sprinkle with a couple pinches of minced sage over the top.

Winter Tabbouleh and How Fiber Helps Support your Health — and Hunger

In the health, wellness, and fitness community, we often hear all about the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates). Yet, a nutrient that’s incredibly beneficial to our health is far less mentioned. That’s fiber.

Fiber is best known to keep you regular or prevent constipation, but there are many more benefits. In the athletic community, the one that comes to mind first is helping to relieve that ‘hungry all the time’ feeling that often comes with heavier training loads. Next is gut health, lowering disease risk, and helping to regulate the body’s use of sugars.

Dietary fiber consists of the non-digestible carbohydrates from components of plants. The human body does not make the types of enzymes needed to break the bonds in these fibers, so they pass through relatively intact.

Fiber is found in most plant foods, primarily vegetables and whole grains, as well as nuts, seeds, and fruit. There are two types of fiber— soluble and insoluble.  Both are beneficial to our health.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel-like consistency that slows down digestion. Ever had chia pudding or chia in a smoothie and felt full and satisfied for hours? That’s the soluble fiber at work.
Soluble fiber also helps slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream so blood sugar levels remain more stable. Food sources include chia, psyllium, flax and other seeds and nuts, oats and oat bran, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body. It is helpful for clearing out the buildup of undigested food and environmental and metabolic toxins in the digestive system as it moves through. Insoluble fiber also helps get the digestive system moving and eliminate any constipation. (Side note: constipation is not just having difficulty having a bowel movement. That’s the extreme. It also refers to spending more than just a couple minutes on the toilet, passing hard, dry, small pieces, failing to eliminate daily, and transit time beyond 12-24 hours.) Now that we’ve got that cleared up, insoluble fiber can be found in whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, brown rice, farro wheat, beans, and fruits and vegetables.

Fiber Nourishes Your Gut

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiome. They live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with you. This means you and they both benefit from them being there. Just like you, the microbes need to eat to live and grow, so they obtain nourishment from the food you eat. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through your large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as Butyrate.

A healthy gut microbiome can protect you against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria compete for space in the intestines, literally out-populating the bad bugs from taking hold. It can also help you absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. What’s more, Butyrate has also been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrowth of bad bacteria, having ample and diverse beneficial bacteria is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 80% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes into play here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods that are in your normal routine. Prolonged problems here are part of the pathophysiology of autoimmune diseases. 

Fiber Keeps You Feeling Full Longer – Read this again during your next heavy training cycle!

Because fiber is so difficult for your body to break down, it stays in your gastrointestinal tract longer compared to simple carbohydrates like table sugar. Having food in your system helps you feel full longer. This is partly why eating an apple is better than 100% apple juice (stripped of fiber), which is then better than apple-flavored juice (stripped of all nutrients). We even have studies showing that diets rich in high-fiber whole foods help reduce the perception of hunger. This is good information if you experience the “hungry all the time” feeling during heavy training cycles when you’re actually eating enough.

How much do we need?

Research has found that hunter-gathers ate a large quantity of fiber compared to modern humans, upwards of 100g of fiber per day. The average American has around 10-15g per day, and the US Dietary Reference Intake is around 25-38g of dietary fiber per day – which is well above that of the average person –but easily achieved by gradually increasing plant-foods in the daily routine. Can we consume too much? Yes, that is possible. Too much fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea (which is also caused by many other factors).

Caveats

Some therapeutic diets eliminate fiber-rich carbohydrates temporarily with the aim of improving long-term health and shifting the microbial population. For example, this is the purpose of the low FODMAP diet for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and the candida protocol. Individuals who try an extreme low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet also do so with the intention of improving health –often by way of improving the body’s response to sugars. But what’s commonly left out of the conversation is that all of these diets are meant to be temporary, because they all come with long-term negative health consequences such as eliminating all those beneficial bacteria that feed on fiber.

One more thing, we often hear the advice to reduce fiber in the days before a big athletic race, or eat ‘quick sugars’ in the few hours before athletic activity. This advice largely depends on the person, since just like we can train our bodies, we can also train our gut. Some of my best marathons were run after eating my routine high-fiber dinner and breakfast. I’ll delve more into this topic soon! 😊

Summary: Dietary fiber is an essential nutrient required for proper digestion of foods, proper functioning of the digestive tract, and for helping you feel full. A deficiency of fiber can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids, and elevated levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. Conversely, an excess of fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea. Individuals who increase their intake of fiber should do so gradually since this internal adjustment is going to adjust the populations of beneficial (and not so beneficial) microbial species in the lower GI –and thus might initially come with uncomfortable symptoms.

Now that we’ve got our daily dose of nutrition wisdom, let’s eat! William labeled me the queen of grain salads the other night after presenting this dish. It’s a seasonal variation on a plethora of other fiber rich tabbouleh-like grain salads in the recipe archives of this space –and one I’m really favoring right now for the bright colors, balance of slightly sweet and savory, and all in one dish for dinner. I routinely use millet or quinoa, but used both in this version. We had a stockpile of pumpkins in our house from last season’s harvest which I’ve by now mostly used up, but I noticed at our local farmers market last weekend that winter squash and pumpkins are still going strong—locally we tend to have them until mid to late March. If they’re less available near you, swap them out for some other seasonal vegetable – or leave out completely.


Winter Tabbouleh, serves 4-6
1 small pumpkin or winter squash (about 2 cups cubed)
1 cup millet or quinoa or a combination of both
2 cups water or vegetable broth
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup cilantro
½ cup mint
3 green onions
¼ cup walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
¼ cup goji berries
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1-2 handfuls spinach or other greens, optional
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Cook millet by combining with 2 cups of water or broth, along with the cinnamon, in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook until the liquid is completely absorbed, 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Place the squash cubes on a baking sheet with a little water. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the squash is soft. Alternatively, you can bake the squash whole until soft, then peel off the skin and chunk into pieces. This is my preferred quick-prep-ahead method lately.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the garbanzos, cilantro and mint, gojis, toasted walnuts, cooked squash and green onions. Then add the millet and spinach greens and give it all a good stir. Finish it off with the apple cider vinegar, honey, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.