What can vegetarians eat to stay warm in winter? We hear so much about the warming qualities of animal foods, particularly in soups or stews made with bone broth. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for vegetarian eating, so what can a vegetarian do to support warmth without the easy yang qi of animal food?
To understand skillful vegetarian eating for winter we need to understand winter energetically and eat foods that match and support those qualities. Winter is, naturally speaking, a time when the sun rises late and sets early, temperatures drop, and depending upon the climate, the air is either damp and chilling or very cold and bone dry. It is a time for relative quiet, introspection, retreat, just as spring is a time when nature seems to renew itself and summer relaxes in its openness. Although we now have electric lights and indoor heating—historically recent luxuries that soften the contours of the seasons—for health it is still important to adjust to some degree to the hibernation instinct that underlies the experience of winter.
In Chinese Medicine, winter is seen as the time for the Kidneys, the taste is salty, the color is black or deepest blue, the characteristic movement (direction) is consolidating to the body's center. A little differentiation is useful here: the association for Stomach and Spleen/Pancreas is also ‘center’, but in the sense of central hub from which the nourishment of digestion is spread. For the Kidneys, in winter, the idea is that we are bundling up, hugging in, holding to our essential core. For many animals and insects it is the time for hibernation; for us it is a natural time for introspection, being content with our alone time, retreating to regroup, meditating deeply or simply having longer sleep and satisfying naps. The term used in Chinese Medicine for this retreat to center is consolidation. When practicing qigong, movements that consolidate to center are beneficial to the Kidneys and our deepest level of health that resides there, the source qi or yuan level.
There are times to express and times to restore. Winter is a time for restoration. Now we can understand cooking for winter: cooking that consolidates flavors will support Kidney energy and the energy that we need to be content during even a long, snowy winter. Roasting is the classic method of winter cooking. Baking is defined as covered dry cooking (the closed oven usually provides the ‘cover’ today). Roasting is uncovered dry cooking (until more modern ovens were developed, roasting was often done with the oven door slightly ajar). Roasted foods lose volume, they consolidate flavors into a smaller space (in contrast, baking tends to expand foods, for example baking bread). Roasting is the cooking equivalent to qigong movements that consolidate breath and mental focus into the lower belly. Although vegetables are usually cooling, moist and expansive, when roasted they are perfect for winter eating and supporting the special time of the Kidneys. Roasted vegetables consolidate their rich flavors to the center to support our deepest level of health. They are also delicious condensed nuggets of rich flavor. In spring we will be eating sprouts and shoots (asparagus, dandelion greens, snow peas, etc.) but until it’s truly time for Spring Cleaning, oven-roasted vegetables are some of the best eating we can do.
Oven Roasted Vegetables
Most compact vegetables roast well in the oven. Our favorites include beets (peel before roasting), brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, turnips, mushrooms, and various cooking pumpkins or squashes.
Preheat the oven to 400 - 425˚F.
As you cut the vegetables, think of whether the heat will reach them easily (broccoli or cauliflower floret) or if the vegetable is dense (beet, carrot, parsnip, brussels sprout). If dense, cut into slightly smaller pieces so the different vegetables can cook in the same amount of time. With brussels sprouts, trim each end and split the stalk a third of the way through to allow even cooking.
In a large bowl, toss the vegetables lightly with olive oil and season liberally with a good salt. Occasionally I will add spices such as cumin, turmeric, rosemary, dill, oregano… but most often I prefer to let the vegetables shine on their own with just enough support from the olive oil and salt. Energetically, spices tend to spread, open and uplift; that’s the opposite of what we need in winter to stay warm and feel comfortable with the season. Olive oil and salt, on the other hand, have specific purposes in roasting: a light coating of oil helps conduct heat into the vegetable while the salt draws out water, supporting the high heat as it consolidates the vegetables, developing and condensing their flavors.
Arrange on a baking pan with some care (parchment or baking paper on the pan quickens cleanup). Each vegetable should ‘see’ clearly to the heat source above. Turn after 15 minutes or when browned. Cook until nicely browned on both sides and still slightly resistant to a fork at the center, perhaps 30 minutes, or 45 if using less aggressive heat (for example, 375˚F).
Get to know your oven. Sometimes I will begin with the oven set to baking at 425, then brown the vegetables in the last 5-10” with the broil setting. Much depends on your oven, vegetable selection, how you have cut them and pan placement. Gradually a cook learns to personalize every step of the process for the moment and the produce on hand.
Pair with a grain and some lentils, or, if you like, with some fish or other animal food. Although spring feels imminent, there’s still enough chill to make oven roasted vegetables a most welcome dish, for vegetarians and others alike.
Red and golden beets, parsnip, cauliflower, carrot
Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cremini mushrooms, daikon