Thursday, February 4, 2010
Breakfast in the Winter: Cold vs. Warm
Since returning from warm and sunny Thailand where having a plate of cool papaya or juicy pomelo for breakfast made sense, I began to flounder on what to nosh on in the (incredibly) cold mornings here in Chicago. It's not that the cold weather is news to me at this point, nor is what to have for breakfast when it's chilly outside. However, my desire for warm oatmeal, warm toast drizzled with raw honey, or warm scrambled eggs has waned (using warm as an adjective three times in a row has significance here). Okay, breakfast can be much more exciting that those three things, but I'm talking about the basics, not a leisurely weekend brunch. In any event, in Chinese medicine if there is one cardinal rule it is NEVER eat a cold breakfast in the winter. In fact, this may be the case overall whatever the weather may be, but it is especially so in the winter when the cold outside is just going to make that cold inside (you) worst.
You may wonder why this is as you crunch on that sugary cereal drenched in cold milk, while you slurp with one hand and throw on your coat with the other, or you may not...but I'll share the answer if you want to hear it. Imagine your stomach (and digestion in general) is a furnace, it requires warmth to cook the food you put in it, and to then transform that food into the energy your body requires for all it's daily functions: kick starting your engine for the day, working, moving, breathing, thinking, the health of your skin, your (ahem) bowel movements, and so on and so forth (I know that last one got you thinking!). In fact, I've been wondering how to pose this topic for some time here, whether to be tactful or not, and well, there is no way around it - if you have less than well formed stools or are quite frankly on the runny side of the river, avoid cold foods at ALL costs. Often (and you can test this yourself), cold foods will instigate or aggravate such a situation even if it's already happening due to some other root cause. People, your bowel movements speak miles about what is going on inside you.
So back to breakfast and winter. When I lived in China having congee was not a bad way to go, though I much prefer the Thai khao tom soup. Both are rice porridges/soups commonly eaten in the morning but also at other times in the day or when you are ill. While I love these two options, I decided recently to cook polenta (or grits for some) for my morning meal. There is nothing quite like a slow cooked polenta (about 30 minutes if you forgo the hardcore 3 hour endeavour of perfection it can be as well) with a little butter, some grated cheese, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and you have yourself a sweet and savory nourishing warm breakfast.
Cornmeal (aka. polenta, grits, hominy grits - there are sometimes differences between them but for these purposes they all come from corn and are then ground into varying grain sizes) is incredibly healing for the digestion, as well as helping to improve appetite (if you're suffering from a chronic illness), strengthening the heart, and promoting healthy teeth and gums. It is also an excellent way to get your corn in when it is not in season, which it clearly isn't in February. You may recall I wrote about the medicinal properties of corn silk some time ago as well, being a wonderful diuretic and anti-hypertensive medicinal food. Corn (especially the non-genetically modified kind when you can find it here in the U.S.!) is very healing overall.
All I did for this recent polenta breakfast was pour approximately the amount of water I wanted the cornmeal to transform into (about 3 cups), brought it to a boil with salt and some butter, and slowly added in the cornmeal (I would say the measurement is 1 to 6, cornmeal to water, but it depends on whether you want it soupy or thick). You can keep stirring initially but if you have good cornmeal you can also just stir occasionally and let it sit on a slow simmer. The leftover polenta can go into the fridge and be seared in the evening and topped with a lovely ragu or some other such sauce. There are much more nuanced and elegant versions of polenta or grits or whatever you want to call your cornmeal decoctions, and you can find them here if you want to go the way of the Italians, or here if you want to go the way of the Southern Americans and cook grits or hominy grits!
I'm going to admit something here, I didn't just have the lovely aforementioned warm grits/polenta alone, I ended up crisping up a slice of bacon, chopping it into bits, and throwing it in. Medicinal properties of bacon you ask? Well, if it's from a well raised pig it's really not all that bad, in moderation. Everything in moderation.