The kitchen has always been a place of meditation for me. The chopping, the stirring, all of it are moments of pure engagement, where the rest of the world melts away. Even in the bustle of a restaurant kitchen, mid service, I find that still point where it feels that all of our movements have blended into seamless oneness. A ballet of sorts.
When a language barrier exists between two people, another sort of peace can arise. When there are no - or few - common words between you, there is no attempt to talk. With no means of chit chat, silence loses its awkwardness. I love silence.
So I had the pleasure of cooking with a Tibetan Buddhist monk in our test kitchen the other day. It was an honor because I have never had the opportunity to be in such close company with a monk, and honestly, they’ve always held an intrigue.
Sonam speaks little English, and he was there to teach me how to make his country’s traditional dumplings, called Momo.
As he set himself to work, he was, as I would have imagined, calm and steady in his approach. There were 500 dumplings to be stuffed and pinched that day, and me hovering over with camera and notebook. But he went about the project with the confidence of someone who had been doing this since 7 or 8 years of age. I would guess he is in his 30s now.
The sun was perfect in the test kitchen that day, hitting the stainless steel in exactly the way that thrills me, and makes documenting a recipe feel like a collaboration with god. It was perfect, because as Sonam chopped a field of chives, and then rolled the dough into little balls and flattened them with a broomstick handle cut into a dough pin, the sun danced with him. And I watched, in silence.
I am not suggesting that Sonam did not talk much because he is a Buddhist monk. That is only a fantasy that I, as a practitioner of meditation and admirer of Buddhism, might like to project onto him. On the contrary, I believe if we shared a common language, he might have filled my head with all kinds of stories while he worked. His constant smile and occasional attempts to explain something indicated he might have liked to talk. A lot.
And some language would have come in handy when he finally finished the dough - nothing more than water and flour - and started trying to teach me how to stuff and shape the little dumplings the way he did. The way his mother taught him back in Tibet. And the way he has done in every monastery he’s lived in since leaving her kitchen.
The chives were the hardest. Slippery with oil, it was hard to wrestle them into the pocket while at the same time pinching the dough in just the right way. When we moved on to crab with grated potato and carrot, it was easier. But it was never easy and I only managed to get it right twice all day.
I’ve learned to roll grape leaves and make empanadas and some other little foods shaped by hand, but the Momo was hard. Despite the fact that Sonam would take the time, over and over, to slow down and let me watch his method closely. His patience was boundless. But I learned that mine was not. I learned that there can be a point where I will give up.
Meanwhile, he swiftly continued to stuff and pinch the rest of them himself into perfect little scalloped purses. We were lucky for my mistakes though. We steamed and ate those at the end, saving his beautiful ones for our customers at Ramsi’s Cafe on the World.
My eyes have always passed over those huge displays of assorted pumpkins and squashes in the fall, piled on top of bales of hay at the farmers' market. They bore me. I have never found them beautiful. But one day, a Red Kuri stood out from the heap. In a world of prickly, bumpy, funky shaped squashes, the Red Kuri is a graceful lady, with elegant curves and smooth skin. Her color is the warmest shade of orange, that specific hue that always captures me no matter the medium. In her most perfect form, she is the shape of a teardrop.
And her beauty is deep. When roasted, the flesh of the Red Kuri maintains its rich depth of color. It’s mellow and sweet. Butter. The brief availability of this variety just adds to her mystique. Now when I come across the Red Kuri, I buy as many as I can without embarrassing myself. And the roasting starts.
It’s a simple act, roasting a squash. Just cut in half and place on an oiled baking sheet. Don’t even bother to wrestle out the seeds beforehand. Once cooked, they will easily yield to the spoon for discarding. If you’re a gardner, by all means, take the seeds out before roasting and save them for planting, or clean and roast them for a snack.
Certainly there are other techniques for cooking a squash. You can spend time cutting away the tough skin and then dicing and boiling or steaming or grilling. I have done it.
But what you get from the ease of roasting, you can take another step further: puree into a soup, mash into a casserole, dice into a salad. Or you can eat the squash straight out of the shell. My new favorite: spoon out the flesh with an ice cream scoop and serve on top of lentils, with grated raw parmesan. It’s a simple supper that feels like a treat.
The roasted squash in this recipe is the highlight of a gluten free, hearty winter green casserole. This is perfect winter comfort food. Every ingredient is health enhancing, from the super nutritious kale (swiss chard would be great too), the beta carotene and fiber of the squash, the unique fat composition of the coconut oil and the vitamin E and other phytonutrients in the walnuts. Full of the warm spices that our bodies naturally crave in winter. The blend here is just a suggestion; do you have your own favorite?
When you can’t get your hands on the Red Kuri, look instead for her almost as lovely cousin, the Kabocha. Otherwise, any small pumpkin or butternut or acorn squash will work. Even the sweet potato would stand in just fine here.
The gluten free flours in the recipe are almond and amaranth. Amaranth has a high amount of protein compared to other grain-like foods. You could definitely substitute teff or chic pea flour for the amaranth and change up the proportions of each if you like. And chopped almonds or pecans would substitute perfectly for the walnuts.
1 or 2 Red Kuri, Kabocha or Butternut squash or 2 acorn or sweet potatoes, cut in half vertically, a total of 2 to 3 pounds
1 bunch of kale, any variety
1 red onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, for roasting the squash
2 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Half teaspoon sea salt
Half teaspoon coriander
Half teaspoon cumin
Quarter teaspoon cinnamon
Quarter teaspoon turmeric
Quarter teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
For the topping:
Half cup almond flour
Quarter cup amaranth flour (or teff flour or chic pea flour)
Half cup raw walnuts, chopped fine
Quarter cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil, melted in a sauce pan on low heat
Half teaspoon sea salt
You can double this recipe if you like a thicker crust.
Brush the cut sides of the squash with the olive oil and place them cut side down on a baking sheet. Put them in the oven. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Check the squash with a butter knife. If it yields easily to the knife, it’s ready. If not, continue to check every 5 minutes until the squash is easy to cut. Remove from the oven.
While the squash is cooking, cut the red onion in half and slice it thinly. Melt 2 tablespoons of extra virgin coconut oil in a sauté pan or cast iron skillet on medium heat. Add the onions. Caramelizing an onion is an act of patience and requires careful supervision. Keep an eye on the skillet. And stir frequently. Watch the heat. Turn it down if things are getting too hot and the onions are burning before softening. You can add a couple of tablespoons of water if that happens.
NOTE: If you have a cast iron skillet, you can caramelize the onions, steam the kale, assemble the casserole, top it and bake the whole thing in one pan!
While the onions are caramelizing and the squash is roasting, wash and cut the kale. Nobody likes to eat the stems of kale. So cut them away. And then cut the kale leaves into small squares.
When the onions are caramelized, add the kale on top and stir together. Add 2 tablespoons of water, turn the heat up to high and cover. Steam the kale for 3 minutes or so and turn off the heat.
Melt the coconut oil in a sauce pan on low heat and stir quarter cup of coconut oil into the remaining dry ingredients. Reserve the other two tablespoons of melted oil for assembling the casserole. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
If you are using a cast iron skillet, assemble everything in it. If not, scrape the onions and kale into a shallow casserole dish. Add the spices, salt and maple syrup. Scoop out the seeds from the squash and with the back of a spoon, dice the flesh from inside the shell and add to the casserole. Gently stir the ingredients together.
Spread the topping onto the casserole, completely hiding the vegetables. Drizzle the remaining melted coconut oil evenly on top of the casserole. Into the oven it goes. Bake for 15 minutes or until the topping has browned thoroughly. Gluten free flours are delicate and will burn easily. So keep an eye on it.
NOTE: This is one of those dishes that you can prepare ahead of time and pull out of the refrigerator. If you do that, definitely start it in the oven covered with foil. When the vegetables are heated through, remove the foil to brown the crust.
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.