by Pauline Uchmanowicz
Drifting downward like confetti through dwindling Indian summer air, brown and yellow leaves reconcile us to harvest season’s grand finale – a bittersweet sendoff of hearty fruits, vegetables and greens. “As the leaves change, the palate changes,” nutrition counselor Holly Anne Shelowitz observed on a recent Monday evening, seated at a banquet table in the downstairs hall of Fair Street Reformed Church in Uptown Kingston for the start of her cooking class, “Summer into Autumn.” According to Shelowitz, a certified whole-foods educator, our bodies also “transition from one season to another.” And so the focus of her class: “how to slowly make that transition regarding food.”
The fourteen students-twelve women and two men, including two married couples and a mother-daughter pair-were soon to adjourn to the church kitchen to prepare a five-course meal, using original recipes culled from Shelowitz’s spiral-bound compilation Nourishing Ourselves Simply. At the end of class, students and instructor would share the meal, critiquing methods and outcomes. Readying the group for that challenge and reward, Shelowitz first delivered a dietary sermon.
“The return to this time of year – this turning of the clock – marked by back-to-school mode and including high holy days of the Jewish calendar, ignites our cellular memory of this shift, a momentum which accelerates and continues right up to the winter holidays,” she proposed. “As the light begins to change, it makes sense to shift our cooking and eating habits – to have ingredients close at hand. There’s nothing like stirring a pot of food to feel clear, centered and calm.” Well-suited for tossing in an autumn cauldron, “sweet and grounding” seasonal root vegetables have healthful attributes, Shelowitz said, identifying turnips, radishes and squash as good for kidneys, spleen and other organs. “Get root vegetables into soups if they are not familiar to you,” she advised.
Along with encouraging students to make dietary choices that accord with nature’s cycles, Shelowitz also acknowledged their “extremely busy” human lives. That people want to “cook quickly and eat really healthy” is central to the Certified Nutrition Counselor’s recipe design. For instance, her “Summer into Autumn” menu features one-hour preparation time and includes soup, vegetables, protein, whole grain and fruit-centered dessert. Trained at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as well as Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Heath (and currently a teacher at both institutions), Shelowitz is schooled in a variety of dietary theories, refusing to preach “one way that everyone should eat.” Her aim since establishing the Nourishing Wisdom Nutrition Program in 1999 has been to help clients develop their own intuition about food choices, achieved through private nutrition counseling as well as group cooking classes, which Shelowitz offers throughout the Hudson Valley.
The students made their way to the spacious oblong kitchen, armed with copies of the evening’s menu printed on pumpkin-orange sheets of paper for easy spotting amid cooking ingredients and utensils. Knives, measuring cups, wooden spoons, cutting boards and garlic presses were artfully spread before them, set in place by Shelowitz’s able assistant Sheena Heinitz. Fresh produce – all organic and most procured by their instructor earlier that day from local green grocers and producers – shimmered invitingly in stainless steel bowls.
Ranging from absolute beginners to respectably experienced cooks, participants reassembled around two long counters in teams of three or four, each unit charged with preparing its own version of Green Velvet Soup, Simply Divine Yam Puree, Kasha with Saut￩ed Onions and Mushrooms, Turkey Burgers and the whimsically named Autumn Apples, Plums and Pears – Oh My! Laying some basic ground rules, such as that they make decisions about preparation methods and recipe variations as a team, the instructor mainly left them to their own devices as students swung into action.
Called “happy chaos” by Shelowitz, an eager commotion abruptly erupted. “We need a cover,” a woman called to another, bent over a sink, scrubbing yams. “This our saut￩ pan,” an additional voice sounded. “Do we have a bowl or anything?” was heard across the room. “We should probably measure our water,” someone speculated. A slim woman with braids meanwhile divided up bunches of kale, distributing them to various groups like flower bouquets. The more experienced cooks seemed to hang back a bit, diplomatically raising questions to the relative newcomers while casting meaningful glances at ingredients and equipment.
Offering occasional basic cooking tips, Shelowitz unobtrusively monitored their progress. Having suggested they start by “making the thing that will take the longest: kasha,” Shelowitz explained that “kasha is the only grain that first you must boil water for and then add it or it comes out mushy.” The smell of the grain, followed by that of boiling yams, summarily began to warm the high-ceiling room. Progressing on schedule, the groups were soon shaping a mix of light and dark ground meat (procured from Jack’s Deli in New Paltz) into turkey burgers, introducing some personal twists, such as marrying chopped onions or pressed garlic to the patties. “Quick-fry them with a drizzle of tamari and that’s it,” Shelowitz directed.
Blenders whirled as individuals worked on the final stages of the soup. Others smashed golden yams or sliced apples and pears, sweet odors suddenly overpowering savory. The first group to complete all of their cooking tasks set the table for the communal meal.
Reconvened in their original places from the start of the session, a silence suddenly descended on the group. Shelowitz broke it, intoning, “May this food nourish you well and may you enjoy the fruits of your labors.” Delicious results were delivered as promised.