Want to free yourself from the shackles of recipes, shopping lists, and the stress of figuring out what to make for dinner? Then turn to the world of intuitive cooking.
Intuitive cooking is an approach to food preparation developed by Melanie Albert, chef, author, speaker, educator, and nutrition guru for more than 15 years. Her approach to whole food cooking is wonderfully liberating. Albert emphasizes sight, touch, smell and taste over complicated recipes, long ingredient lists and exhaustive meal planning. Her methods are simple and stress-free.
Food as Medicine
Albert’s journey on the path of intuitive cooking began 20 years ago when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and given six months to live. She gave up her corporate job and moved to Florida to care for her mom during what she thought would be her final months.
“I was a runner and had already stopped eating meat. I was eating organic food because I didn’t want to eat pesticides, so intuitively I believed a plant-based diet and a positive mindset would help my mom,” she recalls. Happily, she was right. Her mother far surpassed her six-month cancer prognosis and is now 87 and enjoying a full life.
Indeed, Albert has pursued her passion for healthy nutrition since that time and never turned back to a corporate job. Ten years ago, she relocated to Phoenix to work with Dr. Andrew Weil, known as the father of integrative medicine. “Teaching people how to live their life happily, enjoy food and enjoy health is what this is all about,” she explains.
Today, Albert teaches whole foods cooking and conscious eating courses at the private college Southwest Institute of Healing Arts. She also hosts workshops, cooking classes and is on the speaking circuit for the business she founded, Experience Nutrition Group.
Intuitive Cooking Basics
The foundation of intuitive cooking is built on six simple philosophies:
- Eat real foods.
- Shop local and in season.
- Enjoy intuitive shopping.
- Cook with intuition
- Eat mindfully.
- Enjoy food and life.
With this in mind, an intuitive cooking experience is made from organic whole foods, shopping is done at local farmer’s markets, there are no structured recipes, sensory perception is key, and nothing is rushed. Just go with the flow and let the food experience unfold as nature intended.
Understanding real, whole foods is essential to intuitive cooking. Albert encourages us to build meals around whole vegetables and fruits; grains like brown rice; legumes like garbanzo beans or lentils; nuts and seeds; and wild, cold-water fish like salmon. This way of eating is closely aligned with Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory program or the Mediterranean Diet. All foods are gluten- and dairy-free.
Let’s start with a trip to the local farmer’s market. Alternatives include membership in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share program, farm stands, or even a backyard organic garden. Albert is a stickler for buying organic. However, when that’s not possible, she points to the Handy Shoppers Guide published by the non-profit Environmental Working Group [www.EWG.org], which ranks non-organic produce from most to least pesticide residue.
“We listen to our bodies when we go shopping,” Albert explains. “You go your garden or to the farmer’s market, and you choose what looks really good by taking in the colors and the textures of the food. You take in the entire visual experience and buy foods that are interesting to you.”
Getting your kitchen in order for intuitive cooking means having some essential tools at the ready. As Albert led a class, it was evident that a good chef’s knife, cutting board, wooden spoons, large soup pot, baking sheets, a bamboo steamer, parchment paper and glass jars for storing dry ingredients are at the top of the list.
Stock up the pantry with some key staples, as well. These include whole grains, beans and legumes, extra-virgin olive oil, herbs and spices, sea salt, natural sweeteners such as honey or dates, vinegars (balsamic, red wine, rice) and mustards. On this day, walnut oil lent a smooth flavor to dressings we made for salads and steamed veggies.
A tip on making your own dressings: Always use 1 part acidic ingredient (citrus juice/vinegars) to 2 parts oil. If the dressing is too tart or vinegary, balance with a little more oil. Season with sea salt, pepper, fresh herbs, etc.
Albert emphasizes that by mastering a handful of simple culinary techniques, intuitive cooking will come as naturally as waking up in the morning. “After you know the technique, you go to the farmer’s market to shop and you don’t have to even know what you’re going to cook. You simply enjoy it mindfully in a beautiful environment,” she says.
Intuitive cooking calls for six primary techniques: roasting, sautéing, steaming, broiling, baking, marinating and finishing. Very simple, and when you prep your ingredients and organize them along your countertop before you start cooking, any kitchen stress melts away.
I found intuitive cooking added confidence to my culinary skills, which I would describe as minimalistic, at best. Albert made it so darned simple, that I shook my head and thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?’ There is absolutely no recipe pressure, no performance anxiety. It’s all about simply tuning into the fun of food for a change. Hallelujah!
Here are a few recipes that I have thoroughly enjoyed – mindfully and intuitively – from Albert’s new book, A New View of Healthy Eating – Simple, Intuitive Cooking With Real Whole Foods. You can order her book directly from her website.
SWEET POTATO AND CHICKPEA BURGERS WITH ROASTED PEPPERS
- 2 large sweet potatoes, baked whole, 2 cups cooked
- ½ cup Kalamata olives, sliced
- 1 cup chickpeas, cooked and coarsely mashed
- ½ cup roasted red peppers
- ½ cup rolled oats, ground into meal
- 6 tbsp. red onion, minced
- 2 tbsp. onion powder
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 6 tbsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. cumin seeds, ground into powder
- ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Gather your mise en place (French for “putting in place” or getting your ingredients and tools set up)
- Bake sweet potato. Once baked, peel off skin.
- To prepare burger mixture, toss together all ingredients except the oats, pressing until the mixture begins to bind. If the mixture is too moist, mix in the oats.
- Form the mixture into burger-size patties or bite-size appetizers and place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet
- Bake for 15 minutes, flip, and bake for another 5-8 minutes until both sides are golden.
- Serve on a raw cracker, in a wrap with roasted veggies, or on a collard green leaf with sprouted mung beans. Steam the collard greens for a few minutes in a bamboo steamer.
- Store cooked leftover sweet potato chickpea burgers, separated by parchment paper, in the freezer. Reheat in an oven at 325 degrees until defrosted and warm.
EXPERIENCE NUTRITION LENTIL SOUP WITH SWEET ROOTS AND GREENS
We made a variation of this soup during our class, and it was delicious and filling!
- 1 cup lentils
- 3-4 carrots and/or sweet potatoes, chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 onion or 5-6 green onions, minced
- 3-4 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 tbsp. organic extra virgin olive oil
- 5-inch strip of kombu seaweed
- 1 cup brown rice or quinoa
- 4-6 cups water
- ½ tsp. cumin seeds, ground
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- ½ bunch kale, torn or chopped into bite-size pieces
- Gather your mise en place.
- Pre-heat soup pot over low-medium heat.
- Add olive oil and onions to the pot.
- Sweat onions for about 10 minutes, until translucent.
- Add garlic and cook for about a minute.
- Add carrots, sweet potatoes, and celery.
- Increase heat to medium and sauté for about 5 minutes.
- Add about 4-6 cups of water.
- Mix in lentils and whole grain (brown rice or quinoa) to pot.
- Add ground cumin and black pepper
- Increase heat and bring to a boil.
- Skim off foam that rises to the top.
- Simmer at low-medium heat for about 30-45 minutes.
- Sprinkle kale over top of soup and cook 5 more minutes.
CHOCOLATE SWEET POTATO BROWNIE
Vegan, gluten-free, chocolate yumminess!
- 2 medium to large sweet potatoes
- 12 Medjool dates, pitted
- 2/3 cup raw almonds, ground
- ½ cup brown rice flour
- 4 tbsp. raw cacao
- 3 tbsp. maple sugar
- Pinch sea salt
- Pre-heat oven to 350 F.
- Peel sweet potatoes, cut into chunks, and steam in a bamboo steamer for about 20 minutes until they become really soft.
- Once they are soft and beginning to fall apart, remove them from the steamer.
- Mix sweet potatoes and pitted dates in food processor.
- Put remaining ingredients into a large bowl and stir to combine.
- Add sweet potato/date mixture to other ingredients and stir well.
- Place mixture into 8-inch by 8-inch parchment-lined baking dish
- Test doneness by pushing a toothpick into the brownie. The brownie is ready when a toothpick comes out dry.
- Allow baking dish to cool for about 10 minutes.
- Remove brownies and let cool for a few minutes.
- Cut into pieces and enjoy!