Saturday, May 10, 2008

Zen food

Years ago, I used to joke with one of the Geshes (teachers) at the Tibetan monastery in Bloomington--Dharmonia's teachers--that I would be a very bad monk but a very good tenzo. In Japanese Zen monasteries, the tenzo (head cook) was ranked third in the organization and was expected to manifest dharma-insight third only after the roshi ("old teacher") and the head monk, the latter of whom was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the community.

In part this is a practical recognition--in a cloistered community, issues of nutrition and of appealing food take on a heightened visibility and influence, able to materially advance or impede the community's work. But it's also a reflection of the very real--if less measurable--impact of bodily well-being in enhancing the ability to concentrate and reflect. Over the years, Dharmonia and I have had pretty extensive contact with several different cloistered communities: in addition our revered teachers and friends at DGTL, also the Sisters of Providence at St-Mary-of-the-Woods, a geriatric facility where the ancient nuns would creep around on their walkers so as not to ruin the takes as we recorded medieval music in their sanctuary; and the Franciscans of Chicago, the music of whose patron saint we recorded and for whom we raised money in the wake of the earthquakes at Assisi, and I can attest to the large role that good food played in their quality of life (plus, there's nothing like playing medieval music for people who get the Latin puns).

Similarly, some of the most extraordinary experiences of spiritual community I've ever encountered have been in the company of trusted friends and of food made with love. Years ago, we played the Taos Inn (not one of my favorite gigs--too full of the artsy rich and the scuffling servants for my taste), and then adjourned after the gig for an extraordinary Middle-Eastern after-hours feast cooked by Kathy Brown, a Zen practitioner and master cook. And there've been hundreds of others like that, down through the years, and I can attest to the powerful sympathetic magic and good mojo resulting from the combination of close friends and food consciously cooked with love. One basis for my dislike of most restaurant food is my conviction that, in most cases, it is not realistic to expect that somebody may $7.25 to cook at a Denny's or a Chili's should invest much positive energy in the food; why should they?

On the other hand, it is a fundamental reason why I like to cook for people I love or who need help. Every year at Thanksgiving, Dharmonia and I host what we think of as the "Orphan's Thanksgiving," when all the kids who are too broke or whose parents are too far are marooned in whatever town we teach in, and we invite them in and feed them. I do it with the Celtic Ensemble, with my grad students, and with band mates, and it nearly always positive energy.

It's also why I like to cook for myself and my wife.

Tonight was one of the more gratifying experiments. Dharmonia and I are back on the vegan tip (we're vegetarians for ethical reasons but at-home vegans for health), and that means a lot of beans, whole grains, raw food, and as much soy product (especially tofu) as the body can stand--for some people, not very much at all. For somebody who likes to cook world cuisines, it also means a lot of Central American, East Asian, and especially Mediterranean recipes, suitably adjusted with whole grains (brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, etc) and without dairy products or eggs. Some times it works better than others--shout-out to the Silk Road Cookbook right here--but tonight it was, dare I say it, top-notch.

Here's the run-down (I have no idea what to call any of these, as I made 'em up).

Ed Brown's perfect brown rice:
Wash 1.5 cups of brown rice until the water runs clear. Cover, in a lidded saucepan, with enough filtered water to cover the rice to about 1 thumb-joint's depth (don't ask why--just add enough water so that the rice is covered, and you can touch the tip of your thumb to the rice, with the water covering your thumbnail).
Bring to a boil (uncovered), cover, and reduce heat until the water is just simmering with the lid on tight.
Thereafter, do not mess with it: leave it alone, do not peek under the lid: simply let it cook until everything else is done. No matter how long it takes, the rice will only improve by being left alone.

Tuscan roasted green beans and tofu with slivered almonds:
Preheat oven to 400%
Sprinkle roasting pan with high-grade olive oil.
Cut 1 12-oz block of tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and arrange loosely in pan. Sprinkle with tamari and place in oven. Roast 15 minutes, until tofu is browned.
Meanwhile, wash and stem the beans. Combine olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, slivered almonds, garlic and basil, and toss beans in the mixture.
Add green beans to roasting tofu; sprinkle the remaining olive oil/lemon infusion over the combined beans and tofu.
Return to oven for another 10 minutes (do not overcook--beans should be bright green with touches of caramelized brown).

Mock-Moroccan (?) lentils with artichoke hearts:
Combine 3/4 cup dried green lentils (wash them first) and 1 cup water, with a splash of olive oil, in a tightly-lidded small pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer until lentils are soft (about 20 minutes).
Meanwhile, chop 1 small (10-oz) jar of pickled artichoke hearts reasonably small.
When lentils are soft, add chopped artichoke and about 3/4 cup tomato sauce, as well as basil and black pepper to taste, and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook down.

Don't ask me why these worked. But they did.

Departure: 8 days and counting.

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