Or IS it winter? It’s supposed to be, but the dogwoods are already starting to bloom and the crazy spring storms have arrived at least a month early. I just emerged from the basement where I was huddled with shivering doggers as sirens blared and tornadoes swept across the state. I’ve been thinking about sunshine and stress- or rather, craving sunshine and wanting to abolish stress! Many friends and family seem to be in the midst of lots of stress lately. This got me thinking. What is stress? Good ol’ Wikipedia difines it as, “a negative concept that can have an impact on one’s mental and physical well-being.” I definitely believe illness can be caused or worsened by stress. What I’ve really noticed about stress is that it seems to be different for everyone. Or, really, how we each choose to deal with it in our lives is different. The severity of the issue, event, or idea that makes me stressed out is not always relative to how severe my stress is- meaning sometimes the tiniest idea will have me completely stressed out to the point of a panic attack yet, in the midst of a major life event, I can sometimes be calm and controlled. Stress isn’t something that happens to us, but rather it seems to be a result of how we allow our body or brains to react to something. Of course all this thinking made me hungry and lead me to consider how food plays into all this. Many of us turn to rich, fattening, comfort foods in times of stress. I began to research calming and mood-altering foods and got excited about figuring out ways to make those into new comfort foods, without all the fat.
I suddenly found myself cooking with foods that are all the colors of the sun and it was fun! I came up with this Sweet Potato Lentil Stew after my co-worker kept talking about her love of lentils and realizing that I never, ever want to eat lentils (except in the form of a Family Wash Shepherd’s Pie!). I wanted to find some yummy ways to eat lentils that I was excited about. I got it in my head to put red lentils and dried apricots together. I first envisioned this as a salad but then after some googling, realized there were quite a few recipes for soup with lentils and apricots. Combining several recipes and ideas I stumbled upon with what I had in my kitchen, I finally came up with this recipe below, which we really enjoyed.
Lentils offer all sorts of nutritional benefits, too. They contain many of the B vitamins which are calming and they are loaded with fiber. They also contain magnesium which helps relax the veins and arteries, apparently allowing blood to flow more freely in the body and thus reducing stress in the cardiovascular system. Sweet Potatoes are loaded with vitamins A and C which have been known to help reduce stress.
Sweet Potato Lentil Stew
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Onion, finely chopped
5 cloves Garlic
2 Sweet Potatoes, diced (I used one orange and one purple)
1 ½ cup Red Lentils
1 ½ tsp ground Cumin (I toasted seeds and then ground them.)
3 tsp Garam Masala
1 tsp Smokey Paprika
1 tsp Turmeric
1 tsp fresh Ginger, finely grated
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 cup Dried Apricots, finely diced
½ cup Tomatoes (I used whole canned. Chop them or crush with your hand.)
4 cups stock
Sea Salt & Black Pepper to taste
Over medium heat, add oil to a Dutch oven or soup pot. Add onion. Stir. Once it is soft, add garlic and sweet potatoes. Stir. Add lentils and stir. Add in all the spices and stir. Add apricots, tomatoes, and stock. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Not only was the weather odd last week but we also had an extra day- Leap Day- which wasn’t a usual day. We had a writer, Jennifer Justus, from the Tennessean and her photographer, George, visit us at our house to interview me. Weird.
Jennifer does stories on Nashville home cooks and wanted to feature me. I felt so honored. She is so sweet and friendly and she showed up in a beautiful yellow sweater which, coincidentally, went with the theme of the meal. Our friend and pr guru Amanda joined us. Grant was an amazing assistant, by the way. We cooked them up a big meal! Jennifer’s account of this afternoon is here.
This risotto idea (which Amanda helped me name) came to me the other day as I was craving saffron which, incidentally (I found out) is known as a mood altering spice! Adding tomatoes and lemon zest made me think of warm sunshine the whole time I stirred! I served this risotto with sauteed carrots and parsnips- also loaded with vitamins A and C. I used a little bit of butter and lots of oregano. Also on the side was some kale which contains folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin C- all great for reducing stress- sauteed with currants and almonds (another stress reducer). It was a very colorful meal!
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbsp unsalted Butter
1 Onion, finely chopped
3-5 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
1-2 pinches Saffron threads, ground with a mortar & pestle (about ¼ tsp+/-)
2 cups Arborio Rice
1 cup dry White Wine
5-6 cups Vegetable Stock
1 cup Canned Whole Tomatoes, chopped
Zest of 1 Lemon
1 cup Parmesan Reggiano, finely grated
small handful fresh Italian Parsley, chopped
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
The key to cooking risotto is to stir constantly so be sure to have all ingredients prepped ahead of time. Heat stock in medium sauce pan. (If not making your own stock, I like to add chopped onion, garlic, and the juice from the tomatoes to spice it up some.) Once it comes to a boil, lower temperature to simmer. Heat oil in large flat pan on medium heat. Add onion and saute. Add garlic. Stir. Cook for a couple minutes. Add saffron and lemon zest. Stir. Add rice. Stir. Add wine and stir until wine is absorbed. Gradually begin to add stock in, about half a cup at a time and continue to stir. Add another addition of stock and stir until most of the liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process until the mixture is creamy and a bit loose; the rice should still have some chew to it. The process will take about 20-30 minutes. Right when you think you are getting close, add the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Stir. Add chopped parsley and parmesan to risotto and stir. (Lots of stirring!!!)
Don’t forget that left over risotto makes yummy risotto cakes!!! Leftovers are also yummy cooked with eggs for breakfast!
Know what else helps reduce stress (at least for me)? LIVE MUSIC! We had a quintessential Nashville music evening last week at the Belcourt Theatre for Chuck Mead’s cd release party! Chuck Mead is an all-around awesome guy and a hell of a musician. I first heard him when we were still living in Seattle as his band, BR-549, used to play shows out there.
His solo band, Chuck Mead & The Grassy Knoll Boys, is made up of some of my favorite local sidemen- Carco Clave on mando and pedal steel, Martin Lynds on drums, and Mark Miller on bass. For this album, a classic country record featuring some of his old favorite tunes, he pulled in an amazing group of A-listers to join them. His show featured many of these special guests with Chris Scruggs on guitar and steel, Harold Bradley on baritone tic-tac guitar, Buddy Spicher on fiddle, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Moore on upright bass. They also showed the movie of making the cd at the famed Quonset Hut studio that Harold Bradley and his brother started long ago. It was a very sweet film and an awesome night of music. I love this new cd! Y’all go get a copy now.