One summer day I spent an afternoon going through some of the piles of books we have accumulated over the years. Somehow, the book The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (originally published in 1934), caught my attention. The book opened to the section titled, “Life of Service,” and the following words jumped out at me:
“To serve as a cook in the Zendo life means that the monk has attained some understanding about Zen, for it is one of the positions highly honored in the monastery, and may be filled only by one of those who have passed a number of years here. The work is quite an irksome one, and besides, a kind of underground service, which is not very much noticed by superficial observers. Just because of this, to be the cook in the monastery affords the monks a good opportunity ‘to accumulate merit,’ which is turned over to their own attainment of Sarvajnata as well as its universal realization.”
In each of our homes—our personal zendos—we often feel both honored and invisible in our daily cooking and cleaning activities. They afford us an opportunity to explore and create using our hands, while letting our heart and mind soar at the same time. It is an occasion to make something as simple as chopping vegetables a moment of joyous unfolding. And there are “apparent” results, too: we nourish ourselves and those around us with a feast. It’s so simple and plain—everyday stuff that gets transformed into something quite special and ordinary at the same time.
Since coming across the above quote, the fall/winter season crept in, bringing with it cooler days and nights—ideal opportunities for retreat, the following dish is especially warm and inviting.
Quite a few years ago, during the fall, a friend from Paris was visiting with us. She brought several gifts, among them chocolates and a package of Herbs de Provence. What made these herbs special was the fineness with which the herbal combination was ground. Our whole family had come down with the first flu of the season, so our friend (who arrived just in time) had to take care of us.
She prepared plenty of traditional ratatouille, which was placed on brown rice, a slice of bread or even on crackers. What a delight! But if you don’t have a friend to bring the herbs from France, you can buy them yourself and finely grind them in a mortar and pestle.
3 T olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t fresh ginger, minced
3 zucchini, chopped
1 eggplant. Remove skin and chop into chunks.
1 T dried herbs, consisting of: oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil, and parsley. Grind them finely together and store in a sealed jar.
1 T salt
½ t paprika
¼ t cayenne pepper
1 C tomatoes, deseeded and chopped. Plum tomatoes are a good choice.
1. Saute onion, pepper, garlic and ginger in olive oil for a few minutes.
2. Add vegetables, herbs and salt; stir fry with the cover on until tender.
3. Add tomatoes and fry, with the cover off, until all the liquid has evaporated.
Optional: Top with grated parmesan cheese.
Ginger is one of my all-time favorite herbs. I try to use it whenever possible. It is a perennial, which originated in the jungles of Tropical Asia, and is now cultivated in great quantities in Jamaica and the West Indies. The root of the ginger plant creeps and increases in tuberous joints underground. In the spring, a stalk peeks up from the root and usually grows about two feet high. The flowering stalk rises directly from the root, which gives way to a white or yellow bloom. But it is the root which is used in cooking and in the preparation of many medicinal herbs—from the Americas, to India and China.
It is important when peeling ginger root that it is done as thinly as possible since the volatile oil, just below the peel, is the richest part of the resin. Ginger is considered a stimulant and produces a warming effect on the body. It is especially helpful for flatulence or colic-type conditions, and aids digestion in general.
It is important to store ginger in a dry, cool location. I usually wrap the root in tinfoil and keep it in the cheese part of the refrigerator. When I need some, I break off a piece of the root and grate it directly into the dish I am preparing. I use a tiny grater which is kept right next to the stove. As long as the root is clean you need not peel it.