A Year to Live: January

by ACP on January 31, 2010

Egg Timer

TIME IS A TEASE. It leads you on in a rush—whoosh! Another year, gone?—yet once it slows down it seems it will never deliver the thing you’re waiting for. You’re always waiting for something, aren’t you? You are if you’re anything like me, head in the future a bit too much.

My days usually start like that, in a blur of activity, eating a cup of yogurt while standing in the kitchen, juggling the morning routine and planning the rest of my day. Too much going on. When I do have more time for breakfast, sometimes I boil an egg, and then of course I hover over the pot, scowling. I can hear someone (mother? grandmother?) reminding me: “A watched pot never boils.”

This year I’ve decided to shake up my sense of time, of its passing and its worth. The main catalyst for my decision was an email I received from the Village Zendo (a Buddhist meditation center) that I used to frequent but then drifted away from, due to the usual excuse: not enough time. Ha! The email announced a course called 365, based on a book by Stephen Levine called A Year to Live. The course meets twelve times—monthly, for a year—and its premise is what you can imagine: You have 365 days left to live. That is all. What does this mean to you? What does this change and what would you change? It’s a bit of a false question to answer, and yet—who knows? Most of us, as Levine points out in his book, cannot “afford to put this [inquiry] off any longer, because almost no one knows the day on which the last year begins.”

For me, the first day of the “last” year (hopefully I have at least a year left!) began the morning after the introductory meeting at the zendo. I pledged to make it begin the right way, with a meal at which I was fully present and aware. Forget the mindless shoveling of cereal into my gullet while multitasking. The beginning of Levine’s book (all of Zen, for that matter) focuses on staying present as an act of affirmation, being fully alive and conscious in the here-and-now, the one dimension of time that matters.

It was time to cook quinoa with savory condiments for breakfast.

Sliced Scallions

One of my favorite cookbooks is called Three Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery. (The monastery in question is Dai Bosatsu Zendo, in the Catskills; follow the link to their site, store, and books section for the cookbook.) I am not a vegetarian, nor am I Buddhist, despite my sometimes-practice of meditation, but this cookbook speaks to me in an important way. In addition to being a book with wonderful recipes, it’s also a gentle guide to matters of spirit. It’s the book I go to whenever I sense the need to slow things down in my cooking—”slow” being more of an attitude adjustment than anything related to the time it takes to make a dish. In the book’s foreword, Abbot Eido T. Shimano Roshi lists the three important minds a cook should have: Joyful Mind, Great Mind, and Mature Mind (from Instructions to a Tenzo, by 13th-century Zen master, Dogen Zenji). Roshi writes that cooking “is not only the preparation of food but a practice of spirituality. A practice of spirituality means not wasting even the stem of a vegetable. It involves economy of movement, punctuality, and beauty of presentation.” It’s a tall order, cooking that way.

One of the breakfast recipes in the book is for “Cream of Quinoa.” There’s no cream or milk in it, just the super-nutritious quinoa grains cooked with water until thick; a hearty porridge substitute for wheat or oats. As with a bowl of oatmeal, there is great flexibility in how you can season the quinoa. For breakfast, many people will prefer a drizzle of maple syrup or a sprinkling of cinnamon, a topping of raisins or other fruit. I decided to really “go Zen” with my breakfast bowl—that is, to select an assortment of savory condiments more in the style of a traditional Japanese meal. And to remind myself of the qualities of joy, greatness, and maturity, I decided to prepare: a boiled egg, sliced scallions, and a mixture of sesame seeds, salt, and nori.

salty condiments

The egg, for some reason, turned out to be the best boiled egg I ever made. I’m not kidding. Why was this? Was it because I made myself practice more patience than usual? Because I waited until the water had begun to boil to lower my from-the-fridge egg into the pot, instead of just putting it in at the start (and therefore being imprecise with the amount of time it actually cooked)? Perhaps it was because I did not decide that ten minutes on the timer was enough for me to run to my desk and get involved in something else, only to later forget the value of punctuality and let the timer scream until it burned itself out and I had completed my whatever-it-was-that-couldn’t-wait. No, this time, I stayed in the kitchen, protective of my breakfast, the first in a year of “lasts.” Whatever the reason (probably a combination), the end result was a tight and springy orbit of white around a fully cooked yet moist, perfectly colored yolk (no gray-green ring from negligent overcooking). The shell peeled away easily, and in my hand was a single perfect thing, warm and comforting. I crumbled it with my fingers instead of chopping it with a knife. Joy!

Scallions were to be my greatness. In a sense this was true, if you count the fact that I paid a great deal of attention to slicing my one scallion on a sharp diagonal, and at regular intervals. I was mindful—but forget economy of movement. What I realized while slicing was that my knife was way too dull, despite the fact that I had just sharpened it. Instead of a clean slice, I had to saw the ends a bit. Note to self: learn to properly sharpen the kitchen knives! I might have to review this post at Tea and Cookies (”The Joy of a Sharp Knife”).

As for Mature Mind, I think it will take a lot more meditation for me to understand how to apply this to my kitchen work, what is truly meant by that. But I did think about maturity in the sense of age and depth of character—or, in this case, flavor. To represent this quality, I chose to add a sesame-and-salt condiment called “gomasio,” plus some toasted nori flakes, to my breakfast bowl. The mysterious deep-sea taste, mixed with salt and earthy seeds . . . well, it was a hearty pleasure, mature or not.

For beauty of presentation, I’ll let you be the judge. What I will say in my defense is that I actually took the time to arrange the condiments on a plate instead of piling them up in a heap on the counter and then dumping them without ceremony on top of the completed dish. I always take extreme care with pastry, but usually not so much in a dish like this one. Maybe an A for effort?

I am not fooling myself into thinking that I will be able to prepare a breakfast like this for myself every day—or even if I were able, that I would always follow through on that ability. But bringing my entire attention to bear on this very simple breakfast made the meal taste so much better. It felt great to be focused only on the very instant unfolding. Stirring was only the movement of a spoon; slicing, that of a knife. The cooking process seemed magical again to me, in a way it often doesn’t (when I’m rushing or running through a mental list of errands at the same time), and with the morning sunlight and the finished breakfast bowl came a moment of authentic joy at what lay before me—not just on the table, but in my next and “last” 364 days. For me, that’s a worthy start.

morning quinoa

Quinoa Breakfast Bowl

Inspired by “Cream of Quinoa” in the book Three Bowls, from Dai Bosatsu Zendo

Yield: 1-2 Servings


1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed well and drained

2 cups water

1 generous pinch sea salt

1 boiled egg, crumbled by hand

1 scallion, thinly sliced on a sharp diagonal

1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds or “gomasio” condiment

1 teaspoon nori granules or flakes


In a saucepan, bring the water, quinoa, and salt to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook until thickened, about 30 minutes.

While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the boiled egg and sliced scallion; measure out the sesame seeds and nori. Do everything with deliberation. If you have prepared condiments in advance, use the cooking time to sit quietly if you can; think about the transformative nature of kitchen work, its benefits for the body and soul.

When ready to serve, take time to arrange the condiments nicely on individual dishes, in bowls, or on a single tray. Do this for yourself, even if there’s no one else around. Pause in a moment of gratitude that you have enough to eat, and then enjoy the rewards of your morning’s effort: dig in (chopsticks optional).

A Note on Condiments:

If the condiments listed here don’t entice you, invent your own—salty or sweet—to suit your taste. Some ideas include: soy sauce, cooked greens, shiitake mushrooms, umeboshi plums, kimchee for salt and spice; for a touch of sweet, try maple syrup, honey, cinnamon, dried fruit, chopped nuts, toasted wheat germ, toasted coconut.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

watersidemom January 31, 2010 at 10:59 pm

I love to eat, but as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a terrible cook! But I’m trying, and your recipes really inspire me. I think that even I can handle this one, especially since I have all the ingredients handy at any given time. As for presentation, it looks deliciously savory to me! I can’t wait to try it–thanks, Allison!


ACP February 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

Look, if you regularly have quinoa handy, then you can’t be that terrible of a cook! ;-)
Thanks for your comments. I’m glad this recipe is one you might try. Remember to take your time savoring it.


nakedbeet February 1, 2010 at 2:19 am

I made a resolution to slow down this year, too and I love the idea of savory, Japanese breakfasts. Black quinoa, check! Fresh eggs, check! Scallions, check! Breakfast tomorrow? Check! (The cut scallions are lovely, by the way.)


ACP February 1, 2010 at 11:37 am

Glad I’m not the only one who needs to slow down! Thanks for commenting, and enjoy breakfast tomorrow.


D Larue February 1, 2010 at 10:13 am

What a refreshing way to start this “new year” and how well expressed: fresh language, spirit, and feeling to go with fresh ingredients. My best wishes for a successful first last 365 of many, many more such years.


ACP February 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

Thank you!


watersidemom February 1, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Thanks for your vote of confidence, Allison! But in my case, having quinoa readily available just means that I got a little carried away at Costco, before I realized that I have no space to store…10 lbs of quinoa! At least I can look forward to some tasty and contemplative meals, even if they wind up being slow lunches…(with a nice hot cup of green tea).


molly February 3, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Yum! I love me some savory breakfast! Great idea – reminds me of congee, another great breakfast treat (I make mine with a healthy dose of wild rice).


jolie muller February 4, 2010 at 4:23 am

i am going to slow down this year too… oh wait … no i am not ! your breakie looks so my style, i much prefer a savory breakfast. i was thinking, i know you have a nice organic feeling wood theme going in your photos but i think if you photographed it in a dark or black bowl youd be happier with the photo. okay, time for me to speed up again.


ACP February 4, 2010 at 8:17 am

Jolie, Thanks for your comment. And for your suggestion for the photo… which I would happily take, but it means I have to run out and buy some new bowls. I have had on my list for a while to head down to Chinatown for some inexpensive props, little dishes and bowls… but haven’t had the chance yet. So, I work with what I’ve got for now, which (you noticed!) is a lot of woodgrain. Please, though, keep suggestions coming. Especially from a pro like you, I could use the advice to make things better on the site. Meanwhile, though you can’t really slow down (hmm, wonder why? ;-) still, I hope you have some sense of inner calm to your days.


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