Why do we cook?
Anthropologists tell us that cooking is what ultimately makes us human, differentiating us from other species in that cooking created community. We gathered around the fire…cooking and eating together.
They also tell us that cooking helped us to pre-digest food, fueling our brains more efficiently, allowing us to evolve into having larger brains with a capacity for creativity and smaller guts since we could spend less time (actual hours) chewing. Once our brains evolved, we became the community of humans we are today, for better or for worse.
All of this is very insightful thinking and theorizing (the result of big, well-nourished brains) that helps us to understand the very wide and diverse ramifications of cooking.
Cooking is so much more than abstract theory. I have cooked for most of my life, since discovering the joys of the kitchen as a young child. The impact of cooking on my life is without measure, from working side by side with my mother at the stove, learning the art of cooperation to literally saving my own life in my tiny apartment kitchen with what I cooked when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 26.
My connection to food (some say obsession with…) drives my every waking breath…but not in the way you might think. Food is primal and visceral. I know, in my soul that the food we choose creates the people that we are and the planet we live on.
There is so much more to food than what’s on your plate.
Growing up, there was no question about the food we ate. My mother cooked it. There was no question where we would eat dinner. We gathered around the table daily to eat, talk about our days and stay connected as a family, creating our own personal micro-community.
Research tells us that about two-thirds of American families say they eat most dinners together, but what does that mean? But according to Mark Hyman, MD, research released in 2010 showed that 50% of our meals were eaten outside the home; most family meals take place about three times a week, last about 20 minutes and consist of packaged, microwaved dinners eaten while we watch television, text, work on computers…or drive in cars.
Hardly the stuff of hearth and home that many of us grew up with...
We say we don’t have time to cook. We’re too busy and stressed to create meals from scratch in the same manner as our mothers. Yet, we seem to find the time to watch other people cook. Cooking has become a Coliseum sport, a spectator event, rather than a nourishing act of comfort and love.
Dinner has been hijacked by the food industry, openly and consciously, as they worked to convince women everywhere that they had no moral imperative to cook. ‘Let us do it for you’ was the seductive call. And we followed, glad to pass on the drudgery of the kitchen (cooking is work, after all…) to someone who could, by virtue of chemicals and flavor enhancement make cherry products that taste more like cherries than cherries…and can make anything taste like chicken.
We left the dinner table for dinner in a bucket.
The result is that after millennia of surviving by knowing what and how to eat, we now need experts to tell us how to be healthy, communal humans. What foods to choose, how to prepare them and why we share them as a family and a community have been part of our hardwiring since the dawn of human society and yet, our modern life has left us unable to feed ourselves without the advice and counsel of a nutritionist.
As recently as one hundred years ago, we ate locally-produced, natural foods…what we now call organic. There was no junk food, no drive-through windows, no frozen food. There was only what your mother or grandmother cooked. We gathered around the fire, socializing as meals filled the house with the perfumes of nourishment.
No one gathers around the microwave watching our frozen dinner heat.
So for me, the most important tool we have to change our health…and change the world is cooking and eating real food…together. We have the collective ability to create social change that will rock this world. It’s time to reclaim the hearth fire that drew us together and created civilization. It’s time to rebuild our human family, one meal at a time.
It all begins in the kitchen and it’s why we cook.
TUSCAN BREAD SOUP
This splendid soup is more than just a starter. Practically a meal in itself, this thick, rich stew is laden with vegetables and beans, delicately seasoned--just perfection in a bowl. The hearty nature of this soup makes it ideal in cool weather, when you need to keep your internal fires blazing. Use any veggies you like to create many variations on this winning recipe.
MAKES 8-10 SERVINGS
1 bay leaf
1 cup dried white navy or cannellini beans, rinsed well, soaked 1 hour
8 cups spring or filtered water
3 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced
1 small leek, split lengthwise, rinsed well, diced
generous pinch dried basil
2-3 carrots, diced
2-3 small fingerling potatoes, diced
1 cup diced winter squash, do not peel
1-2 stalks celery, diced
1/4-1/2 small green head cabbage, diced
3-4 teaspoons white miso
1-2 yellow summer squash, diced
1 bunch dark leafy greens, such as kale or broccoli rabe, rinsed, thinly sliced
several slices whole grain, sourdough bread
small handful fresh parsley, minced, for garnish
Place bay leaf on the bottom of a heavy pot. Top with beans and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. Boil beans for 5 minutes, before covering, reducing heat to low and simmering until just tender, about 45 minutes. Transfer beans and remaining cooking liquid to a bowl and mash beans until about half broken. Set aside.
Place oil, onion and leek in a soup pot over medium heat and begin sautéing onion and leek with a pinch of salt. Add basil and sauté for 1 minute, until onions are limp. Add carrots, squash and potatoes, a pinch of salt and sauté 1 minute more.
Add celery and cabbage, a pinch of salt and sauté until cabbage is limp. Add the balance of water, plus the pureed beans, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until vegetables are tender and beans are quite soft, about 35-40 minutes. Remove a small amount of hot broth and puree miso. Stir in dissolved miso, summer squash and greens. Simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 minutes to activate the enzyme activity of the miso.
To assemble soup, place a layer of bread slices on the bottom of a soup tureen. Ladle a generous amount of soup over bread. Repeat with another layer of bread and then soup. Continue layering until the tureen is full. Make sure the top layer is bread. Cover the tureen and allow soup to stand for 5-7 minutes before serving. Serve soup and bread by ladles into individual serving bowls. Garnish with fresh, minced parsley.
COOK’S TIP: You can use canned organic beans to save on cooking time but this recipe is designed to be slow-cooking so it keeps us warm in cold weather.
ORECCHIETTE ALLA PUGILIESE
I learned this recipe when I was traveling in Puglia. Loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients like folate, this dish will be on your table all the time and you’ll rest easy knowing everyone is well-fed…and they will love every bite.
MAKES 4–5 SERVINGS
Extra virgin olive oil
1 long hot pepper, minced
2–3 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
2 small Italian eggplants, diced
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
4 ounces pitted black olives
5–6 sprigs fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
5–6 sprigs fresh basil, coarsely chopped
Cracked black pepper
1 pound whole-wheat or semolina orecchiette, cooked al dente, about 8–9 minutes
Start a large pot of water boiling, with a generous pinch of salt and a drizzle of oil.
Place about ¼ cup oil, pepper, and garlic in a deep skillet over medium heat. Sauté until garlic is lightly golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in eggplant, and a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. (You may need to add a touch of oil, as the eggplant soaks it up). Stir in tomatoes, olives, parsley, basil (reserving about 1 teaspoon of each for garnish), and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for about 8 minutes.
While the sauce simmers, cook pasta al dente, about 8–9 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pasta to the skillet with the sauce and stir gently to combine. Serve hot, garnished with a bit more fresh parsley and basil.
ARTICHOKE STEW WITH PEAS
Is there anything more delicious and comforting…in a totally elegant way that artichokes stewed with saffron and fresh peas? I think not.
MAKES 5 SERVINGS
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
1 small leek, split lengthwise, cut into 1-inch pieces, rinsed free of dirt
Generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Generous pinch crushed saffron
2 stalks celery, cut into thin oblong slices
1 medium carrot, cut into thin oblong slices
2 cups halved canned artichoke hearts (in water, not oil) (you may also use frozen)
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
¼ cup spring or filtered water
4 to 5 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed, left whole
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
Place oil, garlic and leek in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. When the leek begins to sizzle, add a pinch of salt, red pepper flakes and saffron and sauté until leek is quite limp, about 2 minutes. Stir in celery and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in carrot and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in artichoke hearts and tomatoes and add water. Bring to a boil. Cover; reduce heat to low and cook until carrots are tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Add 2/3 teaspoon salt and cook for 5 minutes more. Stir in basil leaves and peas and cook for 1 minute. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve hot.
ROASTED WINTER SQUASH WITH BASIL
There is nothing quite like roasted squash. Sweet, savory and deeply satisfying, this is one of my favorite cool weather dishes. The basil lightens things up and enhances the sweet taste of the squash.
MAKES 5-6 SERVINGS
3 cups ½-inch cubes winter squash (Hokkaido, butternut, buttercup, delicata)
1 yellow onion, cut into ½-inch dice
2 teaspoons avocado oil
2 teaspoons organic soy sauce
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
4 to 5 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed, shredded
Preheat oven to 375o.
Place squash and onion in a mixing bowl. Whisk together oil, soy sauce, orange zest and rice syrup in a small bowl until smooth. Toss with vegetables to coat. Arrange vegetables in a shallow baking dish, avoiding overlap. Cover tightly and bake for 45 minutes. Remove cover and return vegetables to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned on the edges. Remove from oven and toss shredded basil gently into the vegetables, taking care not to break them too much. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve hot.
There’s nothing quite like the paradox of macaroons--rich and decadent, with a decided light feel to them. And therein lay the art of this special treat. Each moist gem is unique, like a snowflake, light on the tongue, but so sensual--how can something that tastes so sinful feel so light? The very thought of them makes you more beautiful, as you get that dreamy look in your eye, imagining the luxury of coconut and chocolate.
MAKES ABOUT 3 DOZEN COOKIES
2 ½ cups unsweetened, shredded coconut
1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
½ teaspoon almond extract
2/3 cup almond milk
½ cup non-dairy, dark chocolate chips
2-3 tablespoons unsweetened organic almond or soy milk
2 teaspoons brown rice syrup
Preheat oven to 400o and line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
Combine all the ingredients for the cookies, mixing well. Set aside so the coconut can saturate itself, about 5 minutes. You should have a thick batter, but it will not be very cohesive. Drop by teaspoon onto baking sheets, forming into peaked cookies with your fingers. Bake until the coconut begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
To make the glaze, simply place the chocolate chips in a heat-resistant bowl. Combine almond milk and rice syrup in a small sauce pan and bring to a high boil. Pour over chocolate and whisk to form a smooth, satin-like ganache. Transfer to a plastic squeeze bottle.
Slip a piece of parchment under the wire rack. Moving in a zig-zag direction, drizzle the cookies with chocolate glaze. Allow to stand for a few minutes to set the glaze.
All recipes courtesy of Christina’s new e-book, ‘Christina Pirello’s Wellness 1000’