I didn’t realize how much fun cooking could be until I had to. While I’ve always been interested in cooking, I tended to stick with very basic dishes: scrambled eggs, pasta with marinara sauce, grilled cheese, the occasional batch of chocolate chip cookies and the like. Once I had to start cooking every meal for myself, however, it opened the door to a world of dishes that I hadn’t even considered before. In the ups and downs of my digestive issues, there have been points where I was down to nine foods and, even so, I couldn’t fathom day after day of bland, flavorless meat and vegetables. So, when the foods that I could eat became restricted, I had no option but to start getting creative. Cooking turned from a rote, mechanical activity into a balance of science experiment and artistic pursuit. It has been a process of guess and check, trying out different flavor combinations and cooking techniques, and has led me to become something of a mad food scientist. Because my restrictions are so unique to my own body’s needs, I generally can’t follow recipes or even plan ahead too much. My body’s tastes can change daily, and my cooking process adapts as such. At this point, I have my staple foods in the fridge and the pantry, and when it comes time to cook my food I do so instinctually. Generally, just by looking at a food or smelling a spice, I can decide intuitively what my body is craving in that moment, for that meal. It has of course taken time to tune in to this ability, but the meals that have come out of it are very tasty and sometimes downright kooky!
The simplest of meals can be incredibly satisfying. The addition of just a couple herbs or spices can make all the difference between a boring meal and a scrumptious one. Oftentimes, flavors that you wouldn’t expect to actually complement each other perfectly. One of my first forays into unique flavor combinations was what I now lovingly dub “Anna’s Cinna-Meat.” One day a little over a year ago, I was frying up what felt like my thousandth grass-fed ground beef patty to go with breakfast. It was good quality meat from the butcher, but day in and day out of the same thing becomes monotonous even with the best quality of food. I looked in my spice cabinet and grabbed a jar of cinnamon. I figured that there wasn’t much to lose, so I sprinkled the frying patty with a thin layer of cinnamon and a pinch of sea salt. I could tell that it was going to taste good just from the aroma that began to emanate from the pan. And, lo and behold, the beef took on an entirely flavor palate! It tasted juicier as the cinnamon enhanced the flavor of the meat and brought out a slight sweetness. The edge of warmth from the cinnamon paired surprisingly well with the nutty, sweet flavors of my roasted cauli-rice. With this discovery, I started putting cinnamon on my meat regularly – beef, lamb, even the occasional piece of rotisserie chicken. “Cinna-Meat” even started to catch on with my friends after they would see how much I enjoyed my newest concoction. From here, my unique food combinations only expanded.
I’ve experimented with quite a few combinations and have found a good amount of success. And, generally, it is the addition of only one or two extra ingredients that rounds out a dish. I give my morning coffee a boost by spicing it with cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. My bowl of zoodles takes on a fettuccine alfredo-like essence with the addition of olive oil and a tablespoon of tahini. Or, if I want to give the zoodles more of a Thai twist, I add some cilantro and a tablespoon of peanut butter for a Pad Thai effect. If I’m in the mood for something astringent, I’ll add some chopped Kalamata olives to my homemade pumpkin seed pesto. When I want especially flavorful sautéed vegetables, I cook them in the leftover fat from a recently cooked beef or lamb burger. One of my proudest creations is the grilled Larabar. Larabars are a very tasty snack right out of the package, but when I need a decadent dessert, I grill the Larabar on low heat in a frying pan until the edges are slightly golden and crisp. The middle becomes gooey and fluffy, and topped with a schmear of nut butter, it holds a candle to the most delicious cookie out there. This Larabar delicacy actually caused quite a stir at my local Whole Foods. When I told my cashier about the cooking process, her eyes grew wide and she swore she would try it herself at home. Next time I was at Whole Foods, she informed me that it was catching on like wildfire with every customer she told! I would never have given my Larabar these adjustments if I could just grab a double chocolate chunk cookie off the shelf. Though my diet seems limited, my meals these days are much more satisfying. There are seemingly unlimited options for combining ingredients, and often it has a chain effect, influencing those around me to do the same.
My time in the kitchen is usually the best part of my day. Though cooking every meal for myself for the foreseeable future seemed daunting initially, it has turned out to be a wonderful stress reliever. It’s my time to innovate, to experiment, and to tune in to my body. I’m still in a place where I have to alter my dietary choices on a semi-regular basis, as I’m regularly discovering new information about my digestive condition, and the ability I’ve developed to listen to what my stomach wants instead of what my brain is craving has been invaluable. I love coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to satisfy my cravings and nourish myself, and I love it, even more, when I can share these ideas with family and friends.
So, my fellow companions with food restriction, next time you are about to sit down to a tedious plate of food, get creative! Try something. Add something. Take something out and replace it. Sitting down to a plate of steamed kale and baked chicken breast is boring! But, it doesn’t have to be. Imagine the kale sautéed in ghee or grapeseed oil, to the point that it is wilted but a little bit crispy on the outside. Add a couple tablespoons of sunflower seeds. Top with salt and pepper. Regarding the chicken, rub some rosemary and sage on it. Add a squeeze of lemon. Slightly brown the outside in a pan so it gets crispy. A very boring meal becomes a gourmet delight! The changes are small, they are simple, and yet, they make all the difference.
To read more about Anna’s story, please visit Anna’s Corner.