Food Philosophy


I’m recovering from an episode of Pain (intentional capitalization) in my sacrum. It started as a dull ache but grew to the shooting variety (the I-can-no-longer-ignore-it proportion) 2 weeks ago. With a combination of treatments from an excellent team, including acupuncture, activator-method chiropractic, and massage, as well as much soul searching, posture work, ergonomic improvements and dietary changes I’m healthier, and in better physical alignment than I have been in for six months.

I’ve experienced the same type of thing before, but not for many years. Illness has always been, for me, a search for meaning. My body was reacting to several stressors, one of which was related to my spending more time at the computer since I started blogging at the beginning of 2008. It was winter when I started, I was indoors more than I would have liked, my snowshoes were left to lean forlornly against the front porch. I lugged my laptop around, from office to home and back again as if it were an appendage or a pet in need of frequent feeding. Sometimes late at night I perched my beloved aluminum mac on my lap while stretched out on the oldest couch still in use today (which lives in my living room). It’s mod 1970s orange velour, however warm and cozy, was no protection against the structural collapse that is our couch. Shopping for new couch begins now. As does shopping for computer for the office, so that laptop no longer has to make the commute, like a child of divorced parents, to two part-time domiciles.

Despite the structural issues that may have resulted from said deplorable posture my muscles were doing things that were highly suspicious of the dreaded food allergy. Any time I see (or experience) unexplained muscle spasms severe enough to misalign the structure of the spine I have to think of the gut. This is true especially if:

  • spasms wander to diverse muscles in proximity to the gut and attaching to the spine–such as psoas and hamstrings.
  • when (despite the picture of me lolling on evil comfy couch), the individual with such spasms is not a total couch potato but had been exercising well and often until onset of the debilitating-ouch.
  • when there is a family history of gut and back issues: in my family almost everyone has or has had “a bad back,” and there is IBS, Crohns and Diverticulitis up the, yes, the whazoo. Most recently a cousin a few years older than me was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Yes, you read that right. Type 1. In the latter stages of the 4th decade of her life.

Oh, the gut. I gave up dairy in my thirties, gave up gluten at 40, rice at 41 or 42 (after massive rice consumption following elimination of gluten), and was heading towards 50 with just a twinge of awareness here, a flash of intuition there. Would I slide into that decade free of an irritated gut? No. Last Saturday I became certain without a doubt that soy is no longer my friend.

It has been only 4 days since my last bite of anything soy (a piece of my son’s gluten-free/dairy-free chocolate birthday cake), and the last vestiges of irritation to gut, muscle and bone are disappearing. I’ll be experimenting in the kitchen again soon to see what flours and what milk I can use to make my excellent birthday cake special a soy-free special next time. In the meantime, this change brings me increased awareness of that balance between lightness and heaviness which food literally embodies (and embeds within us). Soy was tipping me too heavily in the direction of that which is heavy, damp and overfull.

I enjoy cooking.  I don’t enjoy following recipes (although I read them often enough).  Instead I like to start with a basic recipe and experiment.

My Food Philosophy 101:

  • Wash your hands, then be willing to get ’em dirty.
  • Be willing to make mistakes.
  • Follow your own palette.
  • Alter Recipes: Make what you cook your own.
  • Whenever possible, include foods of different colors.

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Potato Vegetable Pancakes

Today I took a well known basic recipe for potato pancakes, and added some colorful and flavorful vegetables.  My changes suited me because I had what I wanted on hand, and I knew I liked the flavors these veggies would add.  It turned out to be wonderful, not just because the cakes tasted great but because it was fun from start to finish.  I love the open-hearted expectation I feel when I open up the fridge and look at what I have inside; I love the vision that follows of how I’ll put these things together, and I love the satisfaction of tasting a new creation.  For me, this manner of cooking requires me to be creatively engaged in the moment, responsive to the nuance of texture, aroma, and consistency, and alert to new learning in every moment. I highly recommend it.  These pancakes were full of flavor, and provided plenty of healthy oil to lubricate our crackly winter joints.  Everyone needs healthy oils.  My personal preference for oil is no meat, lots of olive oil, some nuts and avocado and sesame tahini.  It works for me.

So the basic recipe for latkes (not just for Hanukkah!) is

  • 5 medium potatoes, grated
  • 1 small-medium onion, grated

You put this grated mash into a colander and push out as much liquid as you can get.  You can put a clean cotton cloth on the top of the mash, and just push, push, push.  It’s not childbirth, “just use a little elbow grease,” as my Grandmother used to say.

Now add:

  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 TBS flour (I use non-gluten flours)
  • 2 beaten eggs (or egg substitute)
  • 1/2 tsp pepper (or to taste)

Now for the fun part; Add some more grated veggies, for instance:

  •  1 large carrot
  • 2 medium parsnips
  • a handful of fresh cilantro

All you have to do is adjust the wet/dry ratio, and maybe add a bit more salt and pepper.

How do you cook it?

Some traditional latke cooks will tell you not to use olive oil.

“What?” I say.  “Olive Oil?  What’s not to like?”

Put a generous amount of olive oil in your cast iron skillet, warm the oil on medium heat, and drop this yummy veggie mix by the 1/4 cup into a very hot pan, and cook your patties until each side is golden brown.  Avoid frequent flipping.  Wait for it, flip once, and remove when the second side is just right.  You can cook them all before hand, then put them on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven to reheat before eating.

We had these tonight as part of a celebration dinner to honor my mother on her 77th birthday.  We love you, Alice!

Notes on Variations: If you’re not serving these cakes to your spice-averse mother, add hot peppers, or curry.  If you want them to be a meal in themselves, add some protein, such as beans or ground cashews, or even a can of tuna fish or salmon.  If you’re in doubt about how it will fry up, try one on the skillet.  You can always make adjustments: Is it too wet?  Add more flour.  Too dry?  Add more eggs (or egg substitute).

P.S. These vegetable fritters are so flavorful they won’t need traditional latke sides of apple sauce and/or sour cream.

As an acupuncturist and a gluten-free mom raising a gluten-free child, I have wondered quite a bit about gluten from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Of course, Chinese medicine has no monolithic perspective on gluten intolerance. But I enjoy this sort of cross-cultural musings, and reflecting on commonalities among different aspects of my own experience.  Nothing much came of my musings, until…

…today, while riding a stationery bike at the YMCA, while simultaneously reading a book (I know! Terrible multitasking!), the point of connection occurred to me suddenly and without warning (and me on a bike without a pen): Wu, which translates as non-being is the point of connection between Chinese medicine and gluten intolerance.

If you haven’t snorted, rolled your eyes and left his post (post-haste), bear with me while I try to tease this little insight out into the light of (a now dwindling and snowy) day.

Gluten is a protein in certain foods that makes the food puff up, swell and become sticky.  It’s a primary ingredient in all mass-produced baked goods–breads, crackers, muffins, cookies, pies, etc. as well as an ingredient in many unexpected places:  vinegar, salad dressing, soy sauce, and others.   In metaphorical psychology it is kin to egotistical and arrogant thinking,  to a “puffed up” view of one’s own self-importance.

You have to have a little perspective on Wu (non-being), if you’re going to follow this strange correspondence all the way there. As I understand it non-being (Wu) is a fundamental underlying principle of Chinese ontology, which informs both Chinese philosophy and Chinese medicine.  Ontology is the study of being.  In the ancient text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says

All things in the world come into being from Being (Yu); and Being comes into being from Non-being (Wu).

(Chapter 40).  I read something quite funny the other day about the Neo-Taoists (many of whom thought Confucius a greater sage than Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu).   This is from “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” by Fung Yu-Lan, a book I bought back in 1978 or 1979 when my high school boyfriend, Jeffrey, and I used to go to Samuel Weiser’s bookstore in New York City.   Years later, after Jeffrey and I lost touch we simultaneously graduated from acupuncture schools on different coasts.  It was a number of years later when we learned of our similar paths.  Here Fung Yu-Lan is quoting the Shih-shuo Hsin-yu (Chapter 4):

Wang Pi [226-249], when young, once went to see P’ei Hui.  [P’ei] Hui asked him why, since Wu [Non-being] is fundamental for all things, Confucius did not speak about it, whereas Lao Tzu expounded this idea without stopping.  To this Wang Pi answered: “The sage [Confucius] identified himself with Wu [Non-being] and realized that it could not be made the subject of instruction, with the result that he felt compelled to deal only with Yu [Being].  But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu had not yet completely left the sphere of Yu [Being], with the result that they constantly spoke of their own deficiencies.

Fung Yu-Lan adds, “This explanation reflects the idea expressed by Lao Tzu that “he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” (Lao-tzu, ch. 56).”

But what does this have to do with gluten intolerance?  Gluten intolerance is growing like wildfire.  It’s almost as if this near epidemic is a canary in the coal mine, warning us of a major weakness in our microcosmic system (the body) and in our macrocosmic system (American culture).  We’re too full.  We need more space, more emptiness, less puffed-up-ness in our lives.  One of the basic healing principles of Taoist-informed acupuncture is that proper insertion of the right needles allows a person to recede from the complicated, often messed-up experience of being, and to journey, if only for a short time, into that realm of Being and Non-being.  Just as Lao Tzu said, “reversing is the movement of the Tao,” so too is going backwards to one’s source energy a movement which will heal.

Abstaining from gluten–that which fills, expands, makes sticky and full–can be a similar reverse movement towards an emptiness that is resonant with the deepest origins of being–Being, and deeper still with the origins of Being in Non-Being.  This is an idea that is also resonant with the school of thought in Chinese Medicine which arose sometime during the Jin/Yuan Dynasties (1115-1368 A.D.) with the Treatise of the Spleen and Stomach by Li Gong Yuan, in which the origin of disease is believed to lie in deficiencies of these organs.  It’s also resonant with current nutritional wisdom in which fruits and vegetables are the key to health, and with another fact established by Western medicine:  The single dietary feature proven to be linked with a long life is merely the low calorie diet; In other words, if you experience a little less fullness, you will live a little longer.

There is an acupuncture point a few inches from and on either side of the navel called Tianshu (translated as Celestial or Spiritual Pivot).  This name (and location of the point at the center of the body) reflects the cosmology underlying Chinese Medicine in which the person is the conduit or meeting point between heaven and earth. The relationship between person-heaven-earth is not just a theoretical construct but something that is embodied in the structure and functioning of the meridian system, of which Tianshu, the Celestial Pivot is a part.  The human body is a map not only of personal experiences and relationships but of cosmic ones as well.

Could the growing prevalence of gluten intolerance (including but not limited to celiac disease) be a symptom of something out of balance not only in the afflicted guts of so many individuals but also in the relationship of all humans with heaven and earth?  Is there a connection between gluten intolerance and global warming, massive pollution, depleted uranium and an overall lack of respect for the living planet on which we live?  If there is (and I believe so) then until we are comfortable as a society with reversing these deadly trends (reversing is the movement of tao), then what we eat and how our individual digestive systems react to what we eat, will be the least of our planetary survival concerns.

It’s well known that food is better for you than food products. People are advised to shop the perimeter of the grocery store where you’ll find, most notably, real fruits and vegetables. You’ll also find meat and fish on the perimeter, as well as eggs and dairy products. In the center aisles, for the most part, you’ll find food products: processed combinations designed to attract taste addictions rather than savvy nutritional shoppers: sweet things like candies and cookies and cake mixes, salty things like chips, crackers and pretzels, and greasy things like frozen chicken nuggets and frozen pepperoni pizzas.

What about supplements? Aren’t they, in a way, food products? Should they be given the same caution as other food products? While we should be able to get our daily dietary needs through the food we eat, there are some concerns. First among them is that most of us don’t. We make bad choices, and eat less nutritious foods, and foods even doctors are warning against these days. That aside, there is also concern that the quality of our soil is depleted (by pollution and over-farming) and the nutritional value of the plant foods we eat is decreased from what it was in times past. Thirdly, the chemical and hormonal pollution we consume with our food (because our food has been “treated” with it to maximize growth), could arguably put us in greater need of supplemental nutritional protection– just to neutralize the deleterious effects of what we have just eaten for breakfast (or lunch or dinner).

That being said, there are also some real concerns about supplements–quality, ingredients– including processing agents, side-effects, long-term effects, etc. In the logic of Chinese Medicine isolating parts (vitamins and minerals) which occur in complex, living foods necessarily lessens the potency of the isolated part–because part of anything’s potency is based on the synergistic quality of its wholeness. The fractional concept of isolating “active ingredients” in plants –which are then removed from the plant to create a pharmaceutical product (which can make the company that patents it millions if not trillions of dollars)– is a concept that makes no sense to an herbalist. It makes sense to an economist, of course.

So, what to do?

1. Eat Locally-Grown, Organic Foods. Find a local farmers market and/or a local farm with a community supported agriculture program allowing you to buy a share in the farm’s future harvest, which you collect, and eat, throughout the season. I’ve mentioned my farm of choice here in Midcoast Maine in previous posts: Goranson’s Farm in Dresden Maine. In this way, you know your plant food has been grown in the best possible soil, without contamination from chemicals, and your meat did not come from some sickly animal squeezed into a space half its size, nor fed a constant diet of antibiotics and hormones (can you tell I’m a vegetarian?).

2. (This isn’t meant to be as ridiculous as it sounds): The 2nd thing you can do is actually cook and eat the food you bring home from the Farm. I know how hard that is. We’ve let a few bags of brussel sprouts and more than a few potatoes sprout before we even noticed they were gone. I’m constantly trying to go through what I have and in the spirit of creative cookery I outlined in a previous post (Slow-cooked Lentils…) to find new ways of using what I have on hand at any given time–as that varies depending on the season and the crop yield at the Farm.

3. Know Your Weaknesses and Find Foods that Heal. If you’re concerned about bone density, infuse some mineral rich herbs such as oatstraw, red clover or nettle. Drink daily. A recent study in New Zealand found that postmenopausal women who took calcium supplements may have more cardiovascular events (heart attacks, strokes, transient ischemic attacks, angina) than women in the same age group who did not supplement with calcium. Further investigation along these lines may change the 3 billion dollar industry that is calcium supplementation (not all supplements–just calcium supplements!).

Need help finding whole foods to treat a particular weakness? There are plenty of resources out there. Don’t just find someone to sell you $600 worth of “pharmaceutical grade” supplements that will last a month, find someone who can tell you how to infuse oatstraw or how to cook collard greens and what makes quinoa such an outstanding grain (its high protein content).

Slow-Cooked White Beans and Beets

This is a delicious, sweet and savory dish, which I created because we get a lot of beets from the farm.

What you’ll need:

  • White Beans
  • Beets
  • Vegetable Broth
  • Tamari (I use Wheat-Free Tamari by San-J)
  • Thyme

Soak the beans overnight. Use between 1/2 and 1 Cup of beans. Quantities are all flexible here.

The next day, put your pre-soaked beans in the crock pot. Add 4-5 Cups of Organic Vegetable Broth. Chop your beets into larger than bite-size pieces (so they don’t completely break down during the long cooking time) and add them to the pot. Cover and cook on low for about 6 hours, or until the beans are soft. You’ll have a nice red broth, sweet of course, due to the beets. I wanted to temper the sweetness with something salty and something aromatic. I chose Tamari and thyme. Add these during the last half hour or so of cooking time. Quantities of these last items should be to your taste. Add a little at a time until it tastes just right–to you.

This recipe is great for women after menses as beets are very nourishing to the blood. Both beans and beets are high in potassium, making this a good recipe for people with high blood pressure, too. I hope you enjoy it.

Today I’m going to share the whole process of creating two new recipes based on what I have on hand. I love this process-oriented way of cooking. It’s creative, drawing me into a deep revelry of absorbed attention. It’s exciting, because I don’t know how it will turn out. And perhaps best of all, it trains me to enjoy learning from my mistakes. I’ll take the results of such a project and make notes on the outcome, which I’ll use to perfect a given dish.

These are the ingredients I first pulled off my kitchen shelves. Much of it came in our winter share from our friends Jan and Rob at Goranson’s Farm:

LENTIL LEEK STEW

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  • Red lentils
  • Pumpkin
  • Leeks
  • potatoes
  • garlic
  • organic vegetable broth
  • cumin
  • cinnamon stick
  • gray sea salt
  • cinnamon

After I pulled everything out and looked at it, I decided on a few changes. I wanted more green, because after all, green food is loaded with good vitamins. I ended up with this, instead:

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  • Green Lentils
  • Leeks
  • Pumpkin
  • Kale
  • Potatoes
  • Garlic
  • Jalapeño Peppers
  • cinnamon sticks
  • cinnamon
  • cumin
  • organic vegetable broth

I was ready to chop. I used:

  • 1 Cup Green Lentils
  • 1 Cup chopped pumpkin
  • 1 Cup chopped leeks
  • 2 Cups chopped kale
  • 4-5 (I lost count) peeled potatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 jalapeño pepper (I’d have used more but for my low-spice spouse), chopped
  • 10 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 4 Cups Vegetable broth (actually 3 3/4 plus 1/4 water)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp course sea salt
  • 1 cinnamon stick

I forgot the cinnamon. I probably would have added 1 tsp had I remembered.

This is what it looked like with everything chopped in the crock pot before adding the liquid and the spices.

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So Pretty!

I cooked it in the Crock Pot, on low for about 8 hours. When it was done,

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it looked like this.

Then I tasted it, and it was good, but not great. It needs something:

Phase Three of Cooking Creatively with Whatever You Have on Hand: Make it better before you serve it. I didn’t have time to make it better just then, so I’m adding this addendum one week later: We were having company, over the weekend so I froze the whole stew. I defrosted it, added

  • 4 and 1/2 cups of vegetable broth,
  • one pound of Maine shrimp,
  • 1 pound of (canned, deshelled) crab meat
  • and 1 tsp cumin.

Delicious! Perfect! A recipe you can enjoy. If you eat meat, a sausage would probably have been nice, too, or some pulled chicken.

PUMPKIN EGG CUSTARD

Since I only used a cup of the chopped pumpkin in the stew I had 6 cups of chopped pumpkin left! What to do. I considered freezing it, but we’re a little short of freezer space. We were heading to the Moms for dinner tonight (my mother moved in with my mother-in-law when her condo burned down in August this year. Our weekly dinners together have become an evening we all look forward to), and since Liz had offered to make the dinner, I figured I’d turn this 6 cups of chopped pumpkin into dessert…

  • 6 Cups fresh, peeled and chopped pumpkin
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cups of plain soy milk (could use your milk of choice)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

I put the whole think in a casserole dish, and preheated the oven to 350 degrees.

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This is what it looked like before it went in the oven. It baked for an hour but I neglected to put any binder in it, as you may have noticed, so it came out with a lot of soupy milk. I reached for a quick fix–I added

  • 4 beaten eggs

and put it back in the oven. It came out with a curdly-egg look, but it was delicious.

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My mother-in-law had some great suggestions: If I had mashed the pumpkin after an hour of cooking, I could have added some of the pumpkin, slowly, to the beaten eggs so that the eggs didn’t curdle, and then added the eggs to the larger dish of mashed pumpkin before putting it back into the oven for 30 more minutes. It would have been better looking.

I have a philosophical approach to food. What and how I eat is based on my values, which are: Health, Enjoyment and Creativity. In other words, I like my food to be healthy and delicious, and I prefer to be creative about my cooking rather than following recipes all the time.
Cooking by color is one way I like to approach an evening of improvisational cookery.

5-Color Squash

This picture is an example of a colorful meal made with the ingredients I had on hand. I made it last night. I call it 5-Color Squash because I aimed for (and included) all 5 colors of Chinese medical theory: Green, Red, Yellow, White and Blue. The ingredients were:

  • Quinoa, garlic and yellow onion (white)
  • Parsley, edamame and scallions (green)
  • Red onion and radish (red and white)
  • Purple Cabbage (blue and red makes purple)
  • Squash (yellow)
  • Side of carrots (red and white makes orange)
There is also some Organic Smart Balance (a non-hydrogenated butter substitute loaded with healthy Omega 3 oils) mixed in with the meat of the cooked squash, and some sea salt (good mix of minerals) and ground black pepper. The squash was baked for an hour in a 350 degree oven. The quinoa was cooked ahead of time. The rest was stir-fried in olive oil, and the cooked quinoa was added at the end.
I am lucky to live near a wonderful family-owned organic farm called Goranson’s Farm. It’s in Dresden Maine, and if you live near by you have to eat their food! I’ve had guests from out of state bite into one of their carrots and lapse into a state of exuberant reverence over its magnificent taste. Goranson’s has a community supported agriculture program that I support.The squash, carrots, cabbage, yellow onion and garlic in the above recipe came from my winter-share, a monthly box full of veggies from the farm.

Staying healthy in cold, Northern regions like Maine means most of us need extra heat to balance the naturally occurring external cold of our environment. One way to maximize a healthy internal warmth can be found right in your kitchen. The crock pot enhances the warming properties of food. The longer your food cooks the more heat it absorbs. When you eat slow-cooked food you ingest that energetic quality.

While most of us need that energetic push towards warmth in winter, some people do not. If you have a condition that a Chinese medical practitioner would describe as a “heat” condition, your internal thermostat won’t register the cold of winter as an extreme. You are the person in short sleeves while everyone else is wearing two layers of fleece, or the person who doesn’t wear any socks while the rest of us buy Smart Wool and Alpaca in bulk. If this describes you, slow cooking may not be ideal for you. But before you count your blessings in the winter, ask yourself if you’re miserable in the summer heat. If the answer is yes, than winter would be a good time to address the disregulation of your internal thermostat. Then, like the rest of us, you can use seasonal foods and cooking methods to handle the extremes of your natural environment. If slow-cooking and warm clothes isn’t enough to warm you up, specific foods could help as well. Your acupuncturist can point you in the right direction.

Here’s a great vegetarian crock pot recipe. It is based on a recipe that a friend sent me, but I altered it to my liking. I hope you like it too.

Red Lentil and Butternut Stew

What you’ll Need:

3/4 Cup Garbanzo Beans, soaked the previous night
1 medium Butternut Squash, peeled, seeded and cut in large pieces
3 large carrots cut into 1 inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
1 Cup Red Lentils
4 Cups Vegetable Broth
1-5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 and 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/2 to 1 tsp salt (to taste)

Directions: Put everything in the Crock pot, making sure to cut the squash and carrots in rather large pieces so they won’t completely break down during the long cooking time. Cook on low heat for 6-8 hours, until the garbanzo beans are tender and the lentils have begun to break down.

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