WELLBEING PURSUITS: Crave hearty foods? Nourish yourself with vegetarian cold-weather comforts
On a cold and dreary evening last fall, I desperately craved the hearty carnivore foods my mind and body associated with cold weather comfort and sustenance. “How will I get through the winter?” I asked myself as I summoned my willpower to resist mouthwatering images of succulent Moroccan lamb stew and steaming chicken soup. The harder I fought, the more stubbornly they tempted my taste buds, arising at the back of my mind. It was easy being a vegetarian in the summer and early fall. The bounty of my urban back porch garden, supplemented by visits to the nearby farmers’ market, provided endless inspiration for many delicious, nutritious meals. But the arrival of cold weather unexpectedly brought old cravings to the surface, threatening my two-month-old commitment to vegetarian eating, and leaving me hungry and at a loss for what to do next.
A quick call to a friend, an Indian vegetarian from birth, quickly solved my problem. “Be right there,” he said. To my surprise, he arrived two hours later with the most delectable lentil vegetable stew. “Lentils, really?” − I asked, barely hiding my skepticism. “These are your new best friends.” he joked, finishing the stew with an Indian tarka, made of spices and red chili peppers gently toasted in sesame oil. The hearty aroma of the delicately spiced stew was inviting and irresistible. It was steaming and comforting, nourishing in ways I never anticipated. Its deep flavors more than satisfied my cravings for meat, and washed away my hunger and my skeptical look.
As cold weather arrives, it is not unusual for new vegetarians, near-vegetarians, and those of us who make frequent vegetarian choices during the summer to crave meat. As we deconstruct our cravings, we learn what causes them. The insights we glean from this knowledge empower us to experiment with new ingredients, new cuisines, new tastes, and new ways of cooking. Through my own exploration, I have come to rely on three strategies to help me thrive through the winter, while enjoying vegetarian comfort food and satisfying my craving for hearty meals. While each strategy is helpful on its own, I find they truly shine when used together.
Recreate the comfort food experience. Frequently, when we crave meat, we may be craving the experience we had eating hearty, familiar comfort foods that for many years warmed and nourished us during cold weather. Vivid images of those foods arise in our minds − we can almost taste them as our brains take us on a trip down the memory lane.
As we transition from warm weather to cold, we may continue to rely on salads, stir fries, and grilled cheese or veggie sandwiches as our vegetarian meal options. But, most likely, they will not do the trick on a cold fall or winter day − no matter how delicious. They tend to leave a feeling of dissatisfaction and a craving for more comfort and heartiness. Adding lentil, bean, and vegetable soups or stews to our daily meals, experimenting with nourishing whole grain and vegetable dishes, and gently infusing our food with a variety of warming spices are a few ways to recreate the comfort-food experience.
Boost flavors with umami. Remember the rich, full taste of slowly braised short ribs? That’s umami, the fifth basic taste, discovered by the Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1909. That’s what we crave when we think of the deep, savory taste, characteristic of seared, roasted, and grilled meats or chicken broth. In her book Taste What You are Missing, professional food developer Barb Stuckey explains the taste of umami, “It’s something we can clearly detect on our tongue. It’s distinct from the other four Basic Tastes. We have a receptor for it. And it adds crave-ability to the foods in a way that other things can’t.” (Stuckey, 2012)
There are many ways to add umami to vegetarian dishes. Here are a few ideas:
According to the Umami Information Center, “Of the many plant foods that provide umami in western tradition, the tomato is foremost.” (Umami-Rich Food: Vegetables). Ripe fresh tomatoes are rich in umami but hard to find during the winter. Drying, roasting, or cooking tomatoes further intensifies their umami taste. This makes sun-dried, roasted, or cooked tomatoes a very flavorful addition to any soup, stew, pasta or whole grain dish. I even put roasted tomatoes on sandwiches to some yummy results.
- Mushrooms, garlic, and onions are all umami-rich (Cooking with Umami³). When combined in a mushroom sauté, they create an umami symphony and a base for many delectable dishes. Sautéed mushrooms on top of ricotta cheese and whole wheat bread make a great sandwich. Try putting them on top of cooked buckwheat or herbed quinoa for a nourishing whole-grain dinner, or use them as a base for a hearty mushroom soup.
- Another way to add umami is through the use of condiments or spices. A splash of aged balsamic vinegar or soy sauce; a shave of parmesan cheese; or some toasted cumin seeds infused in olive oil adds umami flavor to vegetarian dishes.
- Pack nutrients into your meals. Meat cravings can also be signals from our bodies that we need to add more protein or iron to our diets. Here are a few things I do that you may like to try.
- Homemade chickpea broth makes for a delicious and nutrient-packed alternative to chicken broth, and goes well in winter vegetable soups. It enriches them with protein, iron, folate, and a unique supply of antioxidants (4). In pureed soups, add some chickpeas to the broth. This gives soups substance, a luscious creaminess, added fiber, and increases their overall nutritional content.
- Adding fresh chopped or baby spinach or swiss chard to a vegetable, lentil, or bean stew in the last few minutes of cooking turns it into a nutritional powerhouse, and enhances its visual appeal with an attractive bright green color. This works equally well with cooked whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa. Spinach and swiss chard are rich in many vitamins and minerals, including iron, as well as magnesium; and vitamins B2 and B6. They also offer powerful antioxidant protection and anti-inflammatory benefits (Spinach) (Swiss Chard).
So, what was the magic of my friend’s lentil vegetable stew that satisfied my meat cravings? It incorporated all three approaches. Hearty, warming, and chock full of nutrients, it was prepared with sautéed tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, onions, and infused with roasted cumin and hing, also called asafoetida, an Indian spice that deepens umami flavor and aids digestion (Asafoetida). For me, that lentil stew was the onset of discovery, the beginning of a tasty journey towards healthy, happy eating. No matter who we are, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, let’s experiment this fall and winter. Let’s fill our kitchens with intoxicating aromas, and give our bodies the nourishment they need and crave. These three strategies for healthy eating are simple to use and provide limitless possibilities. Here’s to cold weather comfort food, healthy living, wellness, and happy cooking!
2. Cooking with Umami. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015 21-October from The City Cook: https://www.thecitycook.com/articles/2011-01-20-cooking-with-umami
3. Garbanzo beans/chickpeas. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015 21-October from The World’s Healthiest Foods: https://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=58
4. Spinach. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015 21-October from The World’s Healthiest Foods: https://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=43
5. Stuckey, B. (2012). Taste What You’re Missing. New York, N.Y.: Free Press.
6. Swiss Chard. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015 22-October from The World’s Healthiest Foods: https://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=16
7. Umami-Rich Food: Vegetables. (n.d.). Retrieved 2015 21-October from Umami Information Center: https://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/03/umami-rich-food-vegetables.php/#tomato