Thursday, January 27, 2011

Infusing Foods with Magic and Love

I've just finished reading a novel combining the sensuality of cooking with romance, called The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. In the book, Jess (a vegan) pores over a collection of centuries-old cookbooks while falling in love with the curmudgeonly book dealer. Those ancient cookbooks relied on description and hand-drawn illustration, pre-dating mathematical measurements. Interspersed with the recipes, Jess found love poems using the words from the recipes written by the original owner. This book reminded me of the magical realism in 1989's Like Water for Chocolate. In that story, Tita sickened an entire wedding party when her tears of sadness over her lost love fell into the wedding soup. What do they have in common? Magic and love.

As a vegan cook, I am frequently asked what I use to substitute for animal products in my dishes. My usual half-joking response is "magic and love." As I think more about it, I discover that magic and love are the additives that turn all combinations of ingredients into meals. The alchemy that turns flour, oil and sugar into a fluffy, light cupcake is magical. But that is only one half of the equation. The best, most delicious foods are infused with love. I know it sounds new-agey hippy dippy, but I have anecdotal evidence that this works.

Last summer at Camp Common Ground, a vegetarian family camp in Starksboro, Vermont, I experienced this principle first hand working in the kitchen. Every afternoon at 4:30, I arrived to help cook and serve dinner for the other 130 campers. The rest of the kitchen staff, Karyl Kent, the coordinator, and Naomi, the head dinner cook, had been hard at work for hours. The instant I arrived, I was greeted with enormous smiles, hugs, and kisses. The vibe in that kitchen was all love. Some days, music poured from an ipod in the corner and there was singing. Some days, no music played but there was still singing.

Every night's meals began with whole grains and the freshest, most colorful locally-grown vegetables . Our bread was baked daily in camp's outdoor brick oven by Isaiah, a student of Qi Gong and truly loving person. Even campers who eschew carbohydrates in their daily lives could not resist Isaiah's hand-crafted sourdough loaves.

Naomi's expertise was preparing raw bright, crisp greens. She crafted healthy, delicious salads that were so tasty, people filled their plates again and again. Her secret was to massage the greens, infusing them with her positive energy and love.

Inspired by the vibe in Camp Common Ground's kitchen and Naomi's techniques, here is a simple kale salad that I make at home. I have purposely left off the measurements because in this recipe, intention and technique are more important than amounts. (Also, it feeds much fewer than 130 people.) Feel free to toy around with the dressing amounts until you are satisfied with the salad.

Asian Massaged Kale Salad
2 bunches crisp raw kale, washed
fresh ginger, diced fine
sesame oil
apple cider vinegar with mother
soy sauce
maple syrup
cayenne pepper
(raw almonds, raisins) optional

Whisk ginger, oil, vinegar, soy sauce and maple syrup and pepper together. Taste, adjust accordingly. With clean hands, pour dressing over kale. Massage well, until kale looks darker and slightly wilted. Add optional almonds and raisins. Allow to sit and marinate for at least 30 minutes before eating.
Serve alongside your favorite tofu recipe or a bowl of miso soup.