Zen and the Art of Seaweed Salad

Chris has been in Germany for four weeks, and I really thought I was going to get more work done. Alas, with a full time work schedule and a giant chunk of my day devoured by my commute, I get home with two hours to myself before bedtime. My weekends are booked with laundry, grocery shopping and housekeeping duties. I miss having a partner to help out around the house.

I’ve begun to realize that I spend most of my time running around, worrying about what needs to get done. I think that can be said for most Americans. The very American concept of “efficiency” demands more of people for less in return. I don’t consider myself a “spiritual” person, but throughout my life I have found comfort in Buddhist philosophy and thought. I find particularly poignant the Buddhist emphasis on “mindfulness,” or the importance of awareness in the present moment. How often do we stop and really think about our existence, or our place in the world?

My most meditative moments tend to happen when I’m cooking. There’s something to be said for that. Food is more than nourishment, it is an intrinsic part of being. Which is why I prefer foods that are close to their origins, prepared simply and true to their being. Obviously that doesn’t mean that I limit myself to raw vegetables, or eliminate all flavor enhancing seasonings, but I aim for simplicity. And I’m finding that when I pay attention to the nature of the food I’m preparing, my meals are healthier. When I eat vegetables with the intention of tasting the vegetables and not dousing them in butter or cheese or salt, the outcome is a healthful, meaningful meal.

I personally think it would serve our best interest to meditate over our meals and really think about what we put in our bodies. We live in a culture where everything needs to be done faster, where a meal comes from a box or a microwave, where cheaper is considered better. What would happen if we all took five or ten minutes to sit in front of our dinner and ask, “How will this meal nurture me?” People work to own a bigger home, a bigger car, a lifestyle of more. What would happen if we said, “I want less?”

Mindful Seaweed Salad
1-2 cups dried Arame seaweed
1 small carrot, peeled and grated
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp ginger (powdered or fresh)
1/2 tsp ume plume vinegar
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
Sesame seeds to taste

Arame has a wonderfully mild flavor, it tastes of the sea without being strongly flavored like nori. It also has a firm texture, almost
like al dente pasta. Like all sea vegetables, arame is naturally high in iodine, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamin A. It is a truly nurturing food.
To make this salad, boil the arame for 10mins. Drain and set aside to cool, or plunge into an ice bath.
Toss the arame with the remaining ingredients. Ume plum vinegar is not a true vinegar, its the brine from umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum). Umeboshi are a common
Japanese snack food, they are extremely high in sodium but are a good source of probiotics.

I recommend eating this with a hot cup of green tea while reading the Lotus Sutra.

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Conjuring Spring

Cold and Rainy. That’s Chicago in April and it’s so not fair. I read that my old hometown Phoenix, Arizona was approaching its first 100 degree temp. I’m kind of jealous. Six months of unrelenting cold weather has practically broken my spirit. I just want a little bit of sunshine, the teeniest bit of warmth. It doesn’t help that my Chris is studying abroad in Germany for the next two months and will miss the season completely. Spring is on its way and I’ll just have to enjoy it by my lonesome.

There’s something about spring, isn’t there? It’s a time for return, a resurrection from the agonizingly long winter. Everything sparkles with the glow of new life as trees begin to bud and blossom and baby birds chirp from their nests. I’m bursting with excitement for the warm days ahead. I can’t wait for the fresh produce and farmers’ markets waiting around the corner. Until the sun starts shining, I’m going to have to settle for a little spring in the kitchen.

Citrus always reminds me warm weather. Just close your eyes and think about lemonade, sweet navel oranges, bright green limes. Oh, can’t you just feel the summer sun bristling against your skin? I am trying, really trying to get there in one piece. So here’s a pasta salad I made the other day, because pasta salad reminds me of picnics and picnics remind me of summer. I’m always amazed at the wonderful things that can be done with a single lemon, some olive oil and fresh herbs. I used orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, but really any pasta will do.

Lemon Basil Orzo Salad
1 cup of orzo pasta
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½-1 tsp sea salt
1 large clove garlic
2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
1 small tomato
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
3-4 stalks of asparagus

In a quart size pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the orzo, it should be slightly al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Cut the asparagus into quarters and blanch in boiling water for 1 min. You don’t want to boil the asparagus. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. This will make the asparagus nice and crisp.

For the dressing: crush the garlic clove with the sea salt until there is a fine pulp. You can do this with the back of the knife, or use a mortar and pestle. In a small dish or bowl, add the lemon juice and continue crushing. Slowly add the olive oil while mixing.

Slice the fresh basil into strips and add to the dressing.

Chop the tomato into large chunks.

Mix all the ingredients and top with pepper. Serve on a bed of fresh spinach. (You can double the dressing recipe and dress the spinach for extra zing.)

I am convinced that by making this dish I am effectively expunging all traces of winter from my kitchen. This pasta salad will make the seasons finally change, the cold winds will blow far out over the sea, the heat will settle over my tiny corner of the city, and I will finally have a sunny day.
Let’s hope it works.