Like so many blogs with recipes I’m starting out with several minutes of my musings and a hint of there being a recipe waiting for you at the very end. Skip the rant and scroll right to the recipe if you wish but you’ll miss some good material and me saying a bad word.
People ask me all the time: What is the most important step I can take to improve my health? They’re often shocked to find out that it’s not a fancy superfood or supplement, it has nothing to do with exercise or meditation, it doesn’t involve going gluten free or eating keto or even drinking more water or less wine or more/less coffee or juicing the vegetable du jour. My answer? Learn how to cook.
Hands down, being able to prepare appetizing, healthy meals from real, simple ingredients is the most important habit I see making a massive impact in the physical and mental health of my patients. When somebody lacks this super important adulting skill it’s a serious obstacle on their journey to overcoming illness and sets them up for a greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia as they get older.
Cooking?! Yes. You need to cook. Period.
It’s quite simple yet seems overly complicated and inconvenient in our increasingly busy lives. We are constantly inundated with options to cut corners, like the drive-thru, prepared foods you can pop in a microwave, big box restaurants catering to busy people on a budget, not to mention Uber eats. While an occasional treat is not going to derail most people, and is essential in my opinion (Pizza night, anyone?!) taking the easy way out on the regular is a recipe for disaster.
Unless you can afford to hire a personal chef or happen to be blessed with a creative, health conscious spouse who has claimed the cookery role, you’ve just got to get in the kitchen and get your hands dirty. Yep, that’s right – if you’re not Beyoncé or my father, a basic education in the culinary arts and regular trips to the grocery store/farmers’ market is exactly what this doctor is ordering.
If you’re starting to sweat – don’t panic. It’s never been easier to learn how to cook. We have the internet and more cookbooks than you can shake a spatula at. And Pinterest. And Youtube. And a world of foodies sharing stuff for free on their blogs. You just have to get curious and look.
Don’t know how to cook quinoa? Google it! Want to cook a vegetable you’ve never had before? Like Okra? There is a recipe for that. It’s called Gumbo. Want to make your own nut milk? There are, like, 50 million videos (this one is the best). I forget about cooking shows because I’ve lived without a TV since forever but I hear these are a thing. On Netflix, watch anything with Samin Nosrat or Michael Pollan if you want to be inspired. You don’t even need to take a cooking class – but that’s super fun. Ask a friend or family member if you can help them in the kitchen and then ask a lot of questions. Like at Thanksgiving. People who like to cook usually like to share their knowledge and are flattered if you ask. It’s part survival instinct, part raging ego. Humans gathering around fires since that first became a thing, figuring out by trial and error how to make food taste good.. and then someone discovered you could pull pork and serve it with sweet creamy cabbage and they told other people who were like, “Nom!”
Once you’ve gathered some kitchen skills you can try that shit out at home. Don’t expect to win any Michelin stars the first time out of the gate. Sometimes things go very wrong and you can only learn from and compost the mistakes. Set the bar reasonable low and be cautiously optimistic. Don’t do what I do, which is try and fail to reinvent the key lime pie when your in laws come to visit.. or try your luck and shaky hand at a complicated cake recipe when your friend with mad skills is over. That’s just asking for your almond pie crust to turn into a freaking rock or your multi layer cake to not rise one bit. Experiment on your partner and children. Remember: unless they assume the role of head chef in your household, they aren’t allowed to complain.
Now for day to day cooking of meals to elevate your health and fend off disease, you’ve got to plan ahead. Don’t wait until you’re hungry at 7pm on a Wednesday to realize you need to hit the grocery store in order to prepare something resembling baked eggplant parmigiana. That’s when you’re likely to opt for something fast and unhealthy but super delicious despite being deep fried in seed oils.. Would you like a side of inflammation with that?! Spend some time once or twice a week figuring out what you need to have on hand to cook what you feel like eating in the days ahead, and then spend a few minutes each morning asking yourself if you need to thaw anything, soak or marinade something, or grab a particular ingredient on your lunch break. If you live with other humans above a certain age you can often delegate some of these tasks. Ask someone to wash and prep ingredients to lighten your load.
Now it’s time to stock your pantry and fridge. I’m a fan of frequent trips to the farmers’ market and grocery store so I’ve got lots of fresh goodies, but some items can stick around a bit longer so keep these essentials on hand:
-Onions, carrots and celery – these can form the base for a soup, stir fry, braise, crock pot creation.. just about anything.
-Garlic – if you have to ask why, we need to talk. Eat it often.
-Extra virgin olive oil and a good balsamic vinegar – because making your own dressing is so fast and easy (I swear) and far healthier than what you’re buying ready made.
-Butter for cooking. If you’re cooking in a processed vegetable or seed oil, you’re doing it very, very wrong, regardless of the seemingly legit yet super misinformed label claims on your fake butter whose name rhymes with shmaycel.
-Frozen proteins: if you always have trout fillets, shrimp, grass-fed steak and ground beef, various cuts of chicken, bacon, you can pull a yummy meal together. (SIDE RANT: Over the last decade I’ve made the shift to enthusiastically purchase higher-welfare, naturally raised animal products from local farmers, avoiding factory farmed products as much as possible. The way animals were fed directly impacts how nutritious their products are. Pastured/grass-fed animals have more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats in their flesh/milk vs. grain fed animals which contain more inflammatory omega-6 fats. Shifting the balance of omega-3 vs. omega-6 fats in your diet will either fight or fuel inflammation in your body. And that’s a big deal!! More on where to find better animal products, below. And what about choosing healthier seafood? Well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.. perhaps material for another post.)
-Frozen berries. Nature’s candy, thaw and enjoy or pop into smoothies.
-Rice and quinoa. My favourite fillers. And I’m not going to lie, some quality, imported or organic wheat pasta because Italy is my weakness and I need a good pasta fix every once in a while. Other great options are Chickapea pasta, which is made from chickpeas and lentils, so it’s gluten free and high in fibre and protein.
-Dijon mustard – for adding to dressings and marinades. Or eating with whatever seems appropriate 🙂
-Canned or jarred tomatoes, whole, diced, or crushed – suddenly you have a soup, chili or sauce. Look for BPA free cans or buy in glass.
-Canned lentils, black beans, chickpeas – for a high fibre protein in a pinch. Throw in a crock pot with a few other ingredients and you have chili for days. Buy them dried if you’ve got more time to soak and cook in advance and you’ll save $$$.
-Canned seafood – sardines, smoked oysters, mussels, and my favourite… anchovies. Don’t say ew!! They’re high in protein and omega-3 fats and consumed by the healthiest people on earth (Mediterraneans). Get some wild salmon and lower mercury skipjack tuna if you’re less adventurous.
-Squash – they don’t go bad quickly so stock up now! You can enjoy them so many different ways. My favourite is roasting for soups and adding to salads.
-Quality, unrefined sea salt. It shouldn’t be white and ultra processed. And no, it’s actually not harmful to cook with real salt. In fact, salt restriction can be harmful.
-Black peppercorns and a grinder, because freshly ground elevates everything.
It may not seem convenient but it’s way healthier to make more frequent trips to the supermarket to restock fresh items. In Canada and the US, our massive refrigerators, huge grocery carts and front-and-centre processed, preserved food choices make it seem totally normal to stock up on food that won’t spoil quickly so we can shop infrequently. I challenge this and opt for a more European approach so that I can enjoy food that is as fresh as possible, replenishing items like these throughout the week:
-Various salad greens like arugula, lettuces, and young kale, chard and beet greens. Don’t settle for bland, pale lettuce in your salads. Life is too short. Your greens should be interesting, peppery and pretty and make you want to eat them often.
-Vegetables and fruit, ideally what’s in season, and lots of them. This is your anti-aging, disease-proofing, not-so-secret weapon.
-Fresh herbs. Full of antioxidants and so many health promoting properties, and they make your food taste so good.
-Olives. Full of healthy fat. I cannot get enough.
-Eggs. Opt for cage-free. And yes, omega-3 enriched are a good option.
-Cheeses like feta and bleu for making salads and omelettes more interesting. Parmesan so you can put it on everything, because, why wouldn’t you?!
-Fresh cuts of meat, poultry, seafood.
-Full fat Greek yogurt and kefir to send your gut some love.
Where to shop locally:
Eat Local Grey Bruce – a wonderful online co-op sourcing local produce and higher-welfare animal products. This is where I’ve been buying beef, chicken, pork, bison, trout, butter, eggs, grass fed butter, sheep dairy, pickles and bulk nuts. Did I mention they deliver?!
Farmers’ Markets are a must. Make friends with farmers. Buy directly from them. When food is fresh and raised with love near where you live, it is healthier and tastes better. Local shops like Currie’s Market and The Wild Stand in Collingwood help you buy closer to home, too.
If you need some practice and inspiration with cooking I recommend ordering from HelloFresh. Select different meals to be delivered weekly, they send you the ingredients and recipes and you take it from there. It’s great for busy families who are out of practice but want to prepare healthy, tasty meals. In the past I found it super helpful to have a few nights of meal planning taken care of and found it made me more organized and creative the rest of the week. Message me for a discount code if you want to try them out!
Here’s a random recipe I threw together with only what I had on hand. As you fine tune stocking your pantry and fridge, you, too, can enjoy the magic of turning a few simple ingredients into something that will make you salivate.
Zucchini and Shrimp in Sage Butter with Saffron Rice
3 Tbsp butter, ideally grass fed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
12 fresh sage leaves
zest of 1 lemon, ideally organic
3 small zucchini, different colours
300g shrimp, peeled
1 cup Basmati rice, ideally organic
a couple pinches of saffron
- Add 1 cup rice, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 Tbsp butter, a couple pinches of saffron, and about 1/2 tsp of salt to a rice cooker or instant pot and turn it on to cook while you prepare the rest of the meal separately.
- In a medium pot with lid heat 2 Tbsp of butter. Add minced garlic and stir for 1 minute. Be careful not to burn it. Now add sage leaves and let them cook with the butter and garlic for 1-2 minutes. I added lemon zest and a few pinches of salt at this step.
- Add zucchini to the pot with garlic and sage and stir to combine, letting it cook while stirring for 3-4 minutes or until starting to soften. Add a splash of water if the bottom of the pot becomes dry to prevent the garlic from burning and to help steam the veggies and shrimp in the next step.
- Add shrimp to pot with zucchini and stir to combine. Put the lid on the pot to steam the shrimp in the vegetables, taking the lid off to stir occasionally until the shrimp have just become opaque. I didn’t time this step – just don’t overcook your shrimp or they will become rubbery.
- When the shrimp seems just about cooked, hopefully your rice cooker will ding to tell you it’s done. (Mine did! Winning!!) Dump the cooked rice into the pot with shrimp and veggies and fold it in to combine. The hot rice will finish cooking the shrimp if they weren’t quite ready and it will soak up any remaining butter/garlic residue from the bottom of the pot, which tastes so flippin good.
- Serve immediately. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
- Post a photo to Instagram and tag me so we can compare notes.