Cooking in Silence

On a retreat at the Garrison Institute entitled “The Five Remembrances,” dealing with the issues of aging, illness, death, loss and personal actions (what joy!), there was, in fact, much joy in being mindful — of each moment of the day and of each day of our life. I often bring that idea to the kitchen as a daily practice (although not as often as I’d like.) I choose a recipe, and I get the kitchen (and myself) as quiet as possible. Then…I carefully lay out each of the recipes components — those ingredients that go directly into the dish (vegetables, herbs, spices, “disconnected” hunks of protein) — and those implements (pots, cutting board, wooden spoons, dish towel), that are necessary for its preparation. I carefully look at each; mindful of their individual task. I am aware of the colors and the wild variety of shapes — and I am mindful of the extraordinary offerings from nature. I am also aware of my willingness to honor the notion that humans are omnivores yet often disconnect myself from the source of the flesh — fish, chickens, pigs, and cows. I must make a note to be more mindful of that. When you cook in silence, and are “fully awake” in the process, you will hear the sounds of cooking (water boiling, oil sizzling, toast popping, knifes chopping against wood), and you will engage in the experience with a feeling of satisfaction far greater than merely completing a task. It adds great pleasure to also acknowledge those who will be eating this food — to honor those, one-by-one, who will sit at your table. And finally, but most importantly, to remember those, with a heartfelt nod, who brought us this food. As the Zen meal chant goes, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.”

So today I’ve selected a recipe that will help you quietly put together a nourishing meal. You can serve it with a simple soup to start, and add a salad and steamed vegetable. I thought about a dish involving several activities — peeling, chopping, repetitious stirring, careful heating, with deliberate yet forgiving movements. It is an orzo “risotto” with wild mushrooms — I was among the first to cook orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, using the same techniques as one would for arborio rice, by first sautéing the orzo in olive oil until golden and then slowly incorporating stock. The texture is velvety and it reheats well.

Orzo “Risotto” with Wild Mushrooms adapted from Little Meals (1993)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots

12 ounces uncooked orzo

2 tablespoons cognac

3–1/2 to 4 cups beef (or vegetable) broth

4 ounces shiitake or chanterelle mushrooms, thickly sliced

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tablespoons julienned flat-leaf parsley

Heat oil in a heavy, enameled pot. Add shallots and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add orzo and saute 5 minutes over medium-high heat until golden brown, stirring constantly. Add cognac and let liquid evaporate. Heat broth and add 1 cup to the pot. Cook over low heat until liquid is absorbed. Adjust heat as necessary and stir continuously with a wooden spoon. Add next cup of broth and continue stirring. Add mushrooms and remaining broth. Continue to cook until all broth is absorbed and orzo is tender. Add cream, stir until heated and stir in cheese, salt and pepper. Divide evening among 4 warm soup plates and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 4

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