Healthy Comfort Foods for the Winter Months

Its that time of year again when I start wanting to put cheese on everything I eat. In general, people crave richer, more-calorie dense foods when the thermometer starts to drop. During the long Maine winter, our instincts are not unlike those of a hibernating bear: we spend more time indoors staying warm, we need more sleep and we typically build up a few pounds of fat as insulation from the cold. In general, these are productive, survival-oriented instincts that help us get through the winter in a healthy state. However, when we spend too much time indoors, in bed and eat too much comfort food, we start to fall into Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka “The Winter Blues”. So, how does one walk this fine line between honoring the body’s need for more rest an nutrition and turning into a hibernating bear? Having a good nutrition strategy for the winter is key.

From the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, winter is a time when we need to consume more “warming” foods in order to keep our digestive function (and therefore the rest of our body) working efficiently. It is important to understand that the concepts of “warm” foods and “cold” foods don’t necessarily have to do with temperature, but rather the effect on the body. For instance, refined wheat and dairy, the most often craved comfort foods, are considered to be “cold” in that they slow the digestive function and therefore the rest of the body down. Spices like rosemary, sage, thyme, horseradish, cayenne, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, garlic, ginger (all of the spices traditionally used during the holiday season) are considered “warming” because they get the digestive fire going, enabling our bodies to function efficiently when challenged with cold temperatures.

In keeping with these TCM principles, below are lists of foods to incorporate and avoid this winter:

To incorporate:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Wild game
  • Organic meats
  • Shellfish
  • Brown rice, barley, amaranth, oats, buckwheat
  • Lightly cooked vegetables
  • Legumes like kidney beans, lentils and adzuki beans
  • Whole fruits and citrus
  • Chai tea, green tea
  • All spices, especially “hot” or “warming” spices like black pepper and cinnamon

To avoid (Note: while the first six items on this list are not off limits during the summer and spring, the last three should never be consumed):

  • Cold foods and drinks, especially “iced” drinks
  • Raw vegetables
  • Peanuts
  • Bananas
  • Avocados
  • Wheat/Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Deep fried foods
  • Refined sugar and sugar substitutes

Carrying these themes through to actual meals, here are some healthy “Comfort Food” meals to prepare for the winter (see recipes also below):

Curried Coconut Rice and Beans with Mango and Cashews

Ingredients:
1 cup rice
3/4 cup water (if using brown rice, add another 1/2 cup water)
4 ounces coconut milk (1/2 cup)
1 cup chicken or veggie stock
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 cup cashews, rough chopped
1 bunch cilantro, minced
1 fresh mango, peeled, cut into chunks away from seed and chopped
1 can red beans or kidney beans

Directions:

  1. Toast rice over medium heat before adding liquid
  2. Add water and coconut milk, stock and 1 tablespoon curry, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover (watch for boil overs)
  3. Cook rice until liquid is absorbed, fluff with a fork and then cool
  4. While rice is cooling, pan toast cashews with the other tablespoon of curry powder
  5. When rice is cooled and solid, toss it with cilantro, cashews, beans and mango

Pumpkin and Canallini Bean Soup

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 ribs celery with greens, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons thyme
6 cups veggie or chicken stock
1 28-oz can pumpkin, or the insides of an actual winter squash (minus the seeds)
2 16-oz cans canallini beans
2 cups almond milk
1/2 tsp nutmeg
(optional: 1/2 tsp – 1 tbls red pepper flakes)

Directions:

  1. Saute the celery onion and bay leaf in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and pepper- 6-7 minutes until tender
  2. Add thyme and hot sauce to taste
  3. Whisk in veggie broth and bring to a medium boil
  4. Whisk in pumpkin in large spoonfuls
  5. Simmer for about 10 min to thicken, then add 1 can of cannallinis and nutmeg
  6. Hunt down the bay leaf and remove
  7. Blend the soup in batches in a blender or even better buzz it with a stick blender
  8. Return to low heat, add the second can of beans and salt and pepper (and red pepper flakes if desired) to taste

Immune-boosting lentil Soup

Note: feel free to use whatever herbs you have in the kitchen at hand
Ingredients:
6 cups veggie or chicken stock and 2 cups water
1.5 cups lentils
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2-3 inch ginger root, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, leaves removed from branches
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 large carrot or 2 medium ones cut into small pieces
1 large stalk celery or 2 smaller ones cut into small pieces
1 leek, cut into small pieces (halve it longways and wash it before chopping- there’s
a ton of dirt in-between the layers)
4-5 shitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt or tamari
pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Bring water and stock to a boil in a large soup pot
  2. Add lentils, ginger, 3/4 of garlic, spices and reduce to a simmer
  3. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes to cook the lentils
  4. Meanwhile, saute the shitake mushrooms in the olive oil over medium heat with the remaining garlic for 5-6 minutes or until they are browned
  5. when the lentils are cooked add the remaining vegetables (may have to return to a boil and reduce to a simmer again)
  6. when the carrots are to your liking add the mushrooms and season to taste with salt/tamari and pepper