The lovely blog Mele Cotte is hosting a blog event called Cooking to Combat Cancer, asking food bloggers to “utilize recipes that include ingredients that help the body fight cancer.” Cancer is something I had never really given much of a thought to until my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago. Then everything shifted into high gear in terms of education and research as we sought to put together the best resources for her, both allopathic and “complementary.” A lot of my knowledge and interest in alternative medicine and health in general stems from this time.
The year my mom was undergoing treatment was probably the single most formative year of my cooking life, as well. Her integrative (as in integrating “traditional” and “alternative” cancer treatments) oncologist had a whole program that was heavily based in diet and supplementation, so when we were presented with the huge twin lists of “food to eat more of” (mountains of cruciferous vegetables, seaweed, miso, some weird thing called quinoa) and “food to avoid” (all meat, all dairy, all sugar, wheat, refined grains, tofu, basically anything easy to make, it seemed) it was clear the learning curve was going to be steep. My mom was so exhausted from her treatment, and the new diet was so labor-intensive, and I already loved to cook, so I basically became a macrobiotic chef for a year for the two of us. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so my mom would drive us to the health food store and then sleep with her head on the steering wheel while I combed the aisles for kombu and buckwheat and some kind of treats that wouldn’t be harmful but would make life still feel worth eating.
So when I saw the Cooking to Combat Cancer event, I was immediately flooded with all these memories of the time when cooking to combat cancer – and to boost the immune system – was nearly my full-time job. Many of the bright points in my memories of that time are the dear friends who really came through for my family when my mom was sick, and one of the dearest new friends we made during that year was the amazing Rebecca Katz. Rebecca is a professional chef for whom cooking delicious, nourishing food for people with cancer actually is a full time job! She has such tenderness, such creativity, such sensitivity to the balance of nutrition and taste – she takes the twin lists of terror I wrote about above and turns them into yummy, yummy recipes. All her recipes are based on her genius principles of FASS (balancing the fat, acid, salty, and sweet).
Since we can’t all have Rebecca cooking for us all the time, luckily she’s written a wonderful book called One Bite at a Time. More than a cookbook, the book includes alongside its delicious cancer-treatment-accomodating, immune boosting recipes chapters on how friends and family can help and how to sustain the effort of cooking nourishing meals over the long haul. It’s a real resource for the whole food-related world of living with cancer, one which is sorely needed since food is one of the largest parts of our physical and emotional lives but it’s often one of the lowest priorities for the doctors who are trying to keep us alive.
When my mom was first diagnosed, we picked up a little brochure at the hospital called something like “What to eat during cancer treatment.” I guess the focus of the pamphlet was to replace protein lost during chemotheraphy – all the recipes were for things like eggs benedict with canadian bacon and hollandaise sauce. It was insane! Not only do I find it highly unlikely that someone on chemo could tolerate a mountain of creamy fat on a plate, this is the opposite of the veggies and fruits and whole grains and sea vegetables we now know fight cancer and support immune strength. It is really important to make sure you get enough protein during chemotherapy, though, as we discovered to my mom’s detriment (you may notice that nearly every heavy-hitting source of protein is on the “avoid” list up there…), so don’t just eat veggies and fruits and grains.
For this event I decided to make a recipe from One Bite at a Time that I’d been eying – a kind of warm-weather variation on my adored rice bowl. The recipe in the book is Asian Japonica Salad with Edamame, but I made my own variation (using Rebecca’s delicious and perfectly FASS-balanced dressing) with what I had left in my box.
Bhutanese Red Rice Salad with Asparagus, Sugar Snap Peas, and Cashews (adapted from Rebecca Katz’s One Bite at a Time)
Beware: This recipe makes a HUGE amount of salad – serves 6 to 8. Also, the original recipe used edamame, which would have been great for protein. But I’m pretty sure when the book was published in 2004 we didn’t know yet about the sketchiness of unfermented soy, so to be on the safe side I think it’s best to stay away from all forms of soy that haven’t been fermented (soy sauce, tempeh and miso have been fermented) if you are immune compromised.)
2 t. sea salt
2 C. Bhutanese red rice, or other nutty rice
3 C. crunchy, crispy, colorful vegetables, grated, chopped, or chunked (I used 1 C. grated carrot, some finely sliced red cabbage, chopped steamed asparagus, and chopped sugar snap peas)
1/2 C. scallions/green onions, sliced thinly diagonally, green and white parts
2 T. brown rice vinegar
3 T. tamari
1 T. minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 t. cayenne
1/4 C. sesame oil (NOT the dark toasted kind, the light clear kind – I used olive oil)
1 t. toasted sesame oil
3 T. fresh lime juice (I used lemon)
1/8 t. sea salt
1/2 t. Grade B maple syrup
1 C. toasted cashews (I toasted mine in the oven)
1 T. fresh cilantro (I omitted)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (I used arugula)
1 T. lightly toasted sesame seeds (these I toast in a dry pan)
2 t. fresh lime juice (I used lemon)
All the different nutty rices have slightly different cooking ratios and times, so cook your rice accordingly, with the 2 t. of sea salt. When rice is cooked, pour onto a sheet pan and fluff with a fork to separate grains until cool.
In a bowl combine the rice, crunchy veggies, and scallions. Prepare the dressing by whisking the vinegar, tamari, ginger, cayenne, garlic, sesame oil, toasted sesame oil, lime juice, salt, and maple syrup together. Toss the rice mixture with the dressing. Stir in the cashews (reserve a few for garnish), cilantro and basil. Top with the sesame seeds and a squeeze of lime. Serve in a salad bowl, garnished with cashews.