All of us who cook and eat are participating in a natural cycle that has nourished mankind for millennia. A stove is our link to the hearth, the chuck wagon, and the campfire. J Yet one day, about a decade ago, I found myself eating asparagus in the middle of a Northeastern snowstorm – something our ancestors would never have done, since asparagus only grows around here for a few short months in the spring. Around the same time, I was told I needed surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. It dawned on me that significant aspects of my life were out of joint. Since my symptoms were not life-threatening, I decided to postpone the operation for six months and work with experts on a healing program that centered around diet. My kitchen became my sanctuary and my laboratory, a springboard for reconnecting with the rhythms of nature.
In my approach to healing, I grounded my spiritual underpinnings in the practical day-to-day tasks of naturalizing my kitchen, first reorganizing it, then stocking the pantry so I could prepare wholesome meals with a sense of peace and ease.
Here’s how I went about it.
The Kitchen As Sacred Space
Nowadays, the distance from farm to table is so vast, it is easy to forget just what a miracle food is. Since I was living in Manhattan, I knew that to create a kitchen that felt in harmony with nature, I had to imbue it with a sense of sacredness.
I began thinking about seeds and their magical ability to transform into tomatoes and green peppers. I made it a habit to notice the magnificent crimson of beets and the melting texture of avocado and the comforting aroma of baking bread. In short, I consciously cultivated a sense of awe at the mystery of it all.
Without even realizing it, along the way I began experiencing the concept of “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I found myself wanting to keep the kitchen free of dirt and clutter. I did the dishes with dispatch and cleared the counters of all but the most basic appliances.
Then, I reorganized the cupboards for efficiency and gave away the equipment and dishes that I rarely used. Finally, I reduced my pot collection to the bare essentials: a pressure cooker, a cast-iron skillet, a wok, and a medium-sized saucepan.
By creating so much empty space, I found that my mind could be at peace when I entered the kitchen. In addition, when I began cooking, the ingredients took center stage and there were no distractions from the task at hand.
Setting Aside Time
Cooking takes time, and at some point i just surrendered to that fact. What a relief! It took the threat of surgery to finally understand that it makes no sense whatsoever to give short shrift to one of life’s most nourishing activities.
By making meal preparation a high priority on my daily “to do” list, it became easier to complete the job without resentment or rushing. This leisurely and peaceful approach gradually awakened a new respect for nature’s bounty and for the Earth itself. Expanded cooking time also inspired me to enlarge my repertoire well beyond pasta and quickly steamed vegetables. Since I was seeking physical health and wholesomeness, it began to feel more and more natural to gravitate toward whole foods.
Whenever possible, I opted for regional, seasonal produce. I began taking more time to seek out organic produce, not only because it was better for my health, but because I wanted to support farmers who were nurturing the soil as their food was nurturing me.
After a month or so, I found myself feeling undernourished on days that didn’t include a portion of brown rice, barley, or quinoa. With the help of the pressure cooker, I found that I could prepare wheat berries from scratch in thirty minutes and – on days when my schedule was a bit tight – could always fall back on a hearty soup of lentils. (This soup emerges from the pressure cooker in ten minutes, tasting as if it has been simmering on the back of the stove all afternoon.)
At the end of my six-month experiment, a sonogram revealed that the cyst had disappeared. Needless to say, I was very relieved to have escaped the surgeon’s knife. But the rewards of naturalizing my kitchen are still with me daily, for I continue to experience cooking and eating as the soul-satisfying pleasures they were meant to be.
Stocking the Pantry
A major aid in keeping myself on track in the kitchen was to have the ingredients for a healthy meal within arm’s reach. Since whole foods such as grains and beans last for months when properly stored, having a fully stocked larder requires only a single foray into a health food store. If you are a newcomer to whole foods, begin by purchasing the staples and then move into the specialty category as the spirit moves you. Here’s a list of the basics to have on hand, accompanied by storage suggestions:
WHOLE GRAINS: Refrigerate or freeze for up to four months. Staple: brown rice, quinoa, barley. Specialty: buckwheat, whole wheat couscous, millet, wheat berries, kamut
PASTA/NOODLES: Store in a cool, dry place. Staple: fettuccini and spirals, whole wheat or brown rice udon. Specialty: buckwheat soba
BEANS AND LEGUMES: Store in a cool, dry place away from light. Staple: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, navy beans, split peas. Specialty: pinto beans, red kidney beans, blackeyed peas, adzukis, black soybeans
FLOUR: Refrigerate or freeze for up to four months. Staple: whole wheat pastry, unbleached white. Specialty: triticale, brown rice, high-lysine cornmeal, soy, oat, barley
SEA VEGETABLES: Store at room temperature in a tightly sealed container. Staple: nori, arame, hijicki. Specialty: kombu, dulse, wakame
NUTS AND SEEDS: Freeze (preferably) or refrigerate for up to four months. Staple: sunflower seeds, unhulled sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds. Specialty: pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, raw cashews
OILS: Refrigerate for up to four months. For sauteing: safflower or canola. For salads: olive
CONDIMENTS: Store vinegar at room temperature; refrigerate all others after opening. Staple: sea salt, tamari soy sauce, miso, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, mustard. Specialty: brown rice vinegar, umeboshi, plum vinegar, soy mayonnaise, pickles
DRIED HERBS AND SPICES: Store in a cool place away from light in a tightly sealed container. Staple herbs: oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, dill, mint. Staple spices: black pepper, chili powder, curry powder, whole cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, ginger. Specialty herbs: sage, tarragon, chervil. Specialty spices: whole coriander seeds, cardamom, fennel seeds, paprika
SWEETENERS: Refrigerate after opening. Staple: maple syrup, barley malt syrup. Specialty: rice syrup
MISCELLANEOUS: Store at room temperature in tightly sealed containers. Staple: pure vanilla extract, dried shiitakes, dried chestnuts. Specialty: kuzu and/or arrowroot (for thickening sauces and making puddings), agar sea vegetable falkes (for gelling glazes).
A Few Practical Guidelines For Maintaining A Natural Kitchen
- Focus meals on whole grains,fruits, and vegetables.
- Eat organic food whenever possible.
- Favor regional, seasonal produce.
- Reduce garbage by buying in bulk and opting for minimally packaged goods.
- Eliminate waste by menu planning and creative recycling of leftovers.
- Use fuel-efficient cooking equipment such as the pressure cooker and wok.
- Find nontoxic solutions for kitchen cleaning and pest control.
My bible for homemade, Earth-friendly cleaning supplies is ANNIE BERTHOLD-BOND’S CLEAN & GREEN (Ceres Press, 1990). Not only do her preparations reduce the cost of such goods to pennies, but they put empty spray bottles to good use. Annie gives simple reliable recipes for cleaning pots, ovens, and glass.
I have been using her all-purpose spray cleaner recipe for years: 1 teaspoon borax, 1/2 teaspoon washing soda (to soften the water), 2 tablespoons vinegar, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil-based liquid soap. Combine the borax, washing soda, vinegar, and liquid soap in a spray bottle. Add 2 cups very hot tap water, shaking the bottle gently until the ingredients are dissolved. Spray onto the area to be cleaned and wipe off with a sponge or rag.