Broccoli Rice Bake

and a tip for taking care of digestion during the holidays and beyond

Before I get to the recipe below, there’s one little nutrition tip I want to share today that just about every one of us can use, especially during the holiday season. It’s simple – but can go a long way in terms of improving negative digestion symptoms, in addition to energy, having a steady appetite, clear skin, and focused thinking.

It’s that we should leave out habitually grazing or snacking throughout the day.

When we’re in a pattern of habitual grazing all day, or feeling constantly hungry or snacky, it’s often because we haven’t eaten enough at a previous meal. Or we’re eating for emotional comfort, or simply skipped a previous meal altogether. Or we’re doing those holiday gatherings that involve no real meal but constant “finger foods.”

In any of these cases, eating when the last meal hasn’t fully digested can put the body in a stressed state and leave us with indigestion, bloating, fluctuating energy levels, and a whole host of other symptoms. When we snack on the go or while distracted during our busy days, the same uncomfortable symptoms often occur.

But what about for athletes? I know many of you, like me, move your body a lot and need more food to be getting enough for your needs.

As endurance athletes doing daily workouts or training for an event, having a snack or two during the day is reasonable. But we should not feel constantly hungry, or hungry every hour or two.

Eating again before the last meal has finished digesting puts a lot of stress on the digestive system and it can’t do either job of processing the new food or assimilating the last meal effectively. This goes for everyone, regardless of whether you notice negative symptoms or not.

Aim to have snacks about four to six hours after your last meal has been eaten, and two to three hours before your next meal. This is the length of time it takes to fully digest your meals. For a person that is active less than an hour per day, three meals is usually plenty. For those who are more active, an eating schedule with a snack built in to get enough food might look like having breakfast at 7am, lunch between 11-12:00 pm, a snack around 3-4pm, and dinner between 6-7pm.

Do you feel worse when you constantly snack or graze throughout the day? I know I do. Try cutting all snacks or sticking to the above schedule for a week or two, and see how much better you feel.

Now, for something nourishing to eat during your actual meals. At least during one holiday of every year while growing up, there was my mom’s Broccoli Rice Casserole, which we all craved. Likely a holiday meal because it involved ingredients we didn’t eat any other time of the year (processed cheez whiz and instant rice), I have no idea when the tradition began, or when/if it ended, but we all enjoyed it.

Several years in to a dairy-free lifestyle, I tried upgrading the recipe to be based around whole foods and be dairy-free as a final project for one of my grad school cooking labs. Like most vegan / dairy-free recipes trying to mimic a cheesy taste, the result I got was trying too hard to stimulate all the taste buds with the nutritional yeast, miso, garlic, etc. combination of flavors, and I never really landed on a finished recipe that I wanted to remake year after year.

Then I stumbled upon the flavor/spice combination below while having a little creative session in the kitchen earlier this year. Without intending to, the result ended up being exactly what I was going for in the failed recipe revamp. And here we have it! A whole foods remake of the Broccoli Rice Casserole I loved from youth.

Broccoli Rice Bake

This is a far cry from, yet extremely reminiscent of the cheezy Broccoli Rice Casserole I grew up eating around the holidays. The combination of the spices, tahini and coconut milk seem like they’d yield a curry rice bake – but the result is actually far more subtle and more in line with the cheez whiz, instant rice, and cream of mushroom soup combination of childhood. It’s creamy, comforting, and a perfect addition to either a holiday or an everyday winter’s meal. 

Prep:  4-8 hours soaking (optional but recommended)   | Cook: 1.25-1.5 hours  | Serves: about 4

3 ½ cups (320 gr) chopped broccoli
1 cup (185 gr) brown rice (soaked for at least 4 hrs)
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground fenugreek seed
¼ tsp. ground fennel seed
1 ½ tsp. grounding masala spice blend or curry powder
2 tsp. minced fresh ginger root
3 Tbs. (45 gr) tahini
1 cup (240 ml) coconut milk*
2 1/2 cups (600 ml) water

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C ).
  2. Spread the broccoli out in a 9×9″ baking dish along with the soaked (and drained) rice. Set aside.
  3. Stir together the spices, fresh minced ginger, salt, and tahini into the coconut milk and  water. Pour over the vegetables and rice and mix. Then spread the mixture evenly, making sure that the broccoli and rice are submerged in the liquid. Cover with kitchen foil and bake for 45 minutes.
  4. Now discard the foil and increase the oven temperature to 430°F (220°C). Bake for a further 25-30 minutes, or until the broccoli and rice are cooked and the sauce starts to form a slight crust around the edges of the pan. It might look a bit softer than steamed rice consistency at this point, but will set up after removing from the oven.
  5. Let cool for about 10 minutes out of the oven before serving as a side dish.

Notes: Use canned coconut milk, the type used for cooking. Either lite or full-fat can be used but full-fat is preferred, and will result in a creamier texture and richer flavor. 
I’ve tested this a couple times in a larger, flatter 13×9″ baking pan. It still works, but the rice really benefits from a smaller, deeper pan so it can fully immerse and steam-bake, rather than dry out without fully cooking.

Buttercup Squash + Creamy Black Bean Tacos

I frequently share with nutrition clients about the connection between mental and physical health, particularly between the gut and brain, but also just a reminder that it’s all connected. We’re all connected. Something that’s been labeled “all in your head” is also in your body, and vice versa.

That’s the paradigm I work out of.

In my own life, I’ve had a long journey with things in the realm of “mental health;” in the last few years mostly related to low grade anxiety that can simply be summarized as high vata dosha in Ayurveda. So I try to balance myself with daily habits that invite in slowing down (physically and as a result mentally), practices that sooth my nervous system, and a practice of breathing and meditation that’s begun to infuse into my days.

For the last few weeks, I’ve felt like I really hit a flow with presence and slowing down my brain’s looping and too-quick thoughts.

I’d cracked the code! (haha, right).

Then over the weekend, I set out on the longest run of my current marathon training cycle. As I settled into the last hour of running, when my body was tired and my pace/effort was meant to get higher, my brain kicked in.

My brain kicked in in all the ways I’ve been working to slow my thoughts down or just observe them rather than let them dictate my actions.

The run wasn’t a failure. Today, a few days beyond it, I mostly feel really good about how it went physically. But I’m disappointed with how I coped and let my mind decide to take it easier than planned in that last hour when I’d prepared for and practiced something else.

I guess that’s why we call it a practice. A running practice. A meditation practice. A breathing practice.

In fact, my last conversation with my long-time naturopath who sadly moved away was on this very topic. She told me that if I wanted to keep running marathons, I was going to have to balance the running out with yoga. And she didn’t mean the physical asasa of yoga poses–although that can be helpful too! She meant that if I was going to continue the going fast of running, I needed to balance it out with the slowing down of practicing breathing, presence, and eating slowly and mindfully, to digest food well.

It’s safe to say I’ve made progress from where I was then. But I have not cracked the code of always getting it right. Nor will I.

We’re all works in progress but as reminder to you, and to myself, we rarely make linear progress.

This recipe for creamy black bean tacos with lightly baked and seasoned winter squash, a simple sliced cabbage and creamy sauce to drizzle over the top, is one of those many-years-in-progress, mind and body are all connected recipes. It’s truly delicious for your fall and winter taco nights.

But I also wouldn’t have been eating it a couple months ago, when my gut health had temporarily returned to a compromised phase – I had to do a bit more healing and re-balancing first to return to eating a “more complicated meal.” That’s all to say, if you’re still in an iffy-digestion state, save this one for a little later. And let’s see about getting your system working optimally first.

And if you’re like me and tend toward too-fast, scattered thoughts, I encourage you to keep up the practice of breathing and returning to presence. I’ll be right there with you.

A true fall and winter favorite, these tacos have all the elements of a balanced meal with the six tastes, and are prepared in a way that makes them easier on digestion. The black beans are next level flavorful when cooked from scratch into a creamy, easier to digest consistency.
Any type of full-flavored winter squash works for this recipe. That includes basically all varieties of winter squash commonly used for eating except spaghetti squash and delicata. See what you have available from your local farmers and try a couple new varieties! I used a super tasty variety called Burgess Buttercup.
Nearly all components of this can be prepped ahead and gently reheated if you want to turn this into a weeknight meal. Additionally, I’ve shortened the preparation time with the way I slice and bake the squash.

Prep:  overnight   | Cook: 3-4 hours (for beans); 45  minutes to finish  | Serves: about 4

1 medium buttercup squash, or similar variety (butternut or any hubbard variety of squash)
Pinch of mineral salt
½ tsp. smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning (without preservatives/fillers added)

3-4 cups of red and/or green cabbage, thinly sliced
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
1-2 Tbs. lime juice

Cooked black beans, see below
Cashew crema, see below
12 small corn tortillas (6”)
Cilantro, minced

Black Beans
½ pound /  1 cup black beans, soaked overnight
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
Water to cover by 3-4 inches

Cashew Crema
1/2 cup cashews, soaked for 4-8 hours or overnight
¼ tsp. garlic salt
1-2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
a pinch of ground turmeric and dash pepper
a pinch of ground cayenne, optional
1 Tbs. nutritional yeast, optional
½ cup water or more

  1. For the Black Beans: A few hours before or in the morning, cook soaked black beans in a medium pot in the spices and water until very soft and flavorful and creamy, almost to a refried bean consistency.
    This is best done for at least 3-4 hours, adding water as needed.
  2. For the Baked Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
    Slice your squash in half, and remove the seeds and pith. Then rub the salt and smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning onto the flesh of the squash.
    Then place the two squash halves in a large, rimmed baking pan (like 13×9-inch), with cut side down/skin facing up. Add water to about ⅓ of the way up the side of the squash and bake until completely soft when pierced with a fork. This will take about 30-4o minutes.
    Remove from the oven and allow to cool before slicing. The water should all be absorbed and the spices infused into the flesh.
  3. For the Cashew Crema: Drain and rinse the cashews.Put all the crema ingredients, except the water, in a high-speed blender or food processor and blend, adding water a little at a time until the desired consistency is reached.
  4. While the squash is baking, prepare the sliced cabbage. If your digestion is strong, you can thinly slice and dice the cabbage, stir in the salt and lime juice, and allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes to soften.
    If digestion is compromised, gently steam the cabbage instead, just until lightly soft. Then remove to a bowl or dish, add the salt, and lime juice.
  5. Heat the tortillas over high heat, in a clean cast iron skillet.Do this by working in batches, two tortillas at a time and heat for 30-60 seconds per side of each tortilla.
  6. To serve, spoon the black beans into each taco, followed by sliced squash pieces, cabbage, a pinch of minced cilantro, and then a drizzle of crema. Enjoy!

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

A simple digestion tip for when you’re struggling

The last few weeks, I’ve dropped back into a pattern I always wish to avoid. Feeling those frequent low-grade, lower belly aches, and sometimes feeling simultaneously heavy and like a giant airy balloon resides in my midsection. It’s most noticeable two to three hours after a meal, when the food has left my stomach and reached my small intestine, and around the time I’m either about to begin or am in the first few miles of my daily run or workout. 

Not so enjoyable.

This used to be my norm. It used to be so much my norm that if it were just these mild symptoms, I wouldn’t have noticed it  or done anything about it at all. I wasn’t quite as in tune with my body then, you could say. But then it became chronic. And got a lot worse before I figured out, with help, how to make the sour, painful digestion situation better.

So when you come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” well, I know what you’re talking about and it’s not something that should be hush hush or shameful — at least not when you’re talking to a nutritionist. 

In the interest of providing some guidance before you start removing random foods, purchasing specialty digestive products or just holding your belly and whimpering / running to the bathroom, here’s one quick tip to improve digestion for you. 

Try One Simple Shift

It’s a shift that worked for me the last couple weeks as I switched from eating more cold/raw summer meals to putting those same foods in meals and gently cooking them.

That’s right. That’s the shift. 

Just switch to eating all your meals warm and gently cooked. 

It’s simple but especially in the end-of-summer warm days, you might have to remind yourself daily, if not with every meal, to just heat everything up. I don’t heat up some foods, and eat others raw, like including a side salad with a meal. Warm all of it up. Do a quick 30 second to 1 minute sauté of your salad ingredients in your vinaigrette in a sauté pan, if that’s easiest. Oh, and chew it all well.

Think of your digestive ability like a campfire. Too hot and everything burns up and gets singed too quickly, like that marshmallow or hot dog you’re roasting. Too cold and nothing really cooks at all. It just smolders along half-heartedly. That smoldering is what we’re trying to avoid here, since it’s most common when you struggle with symptoms of the lower GI.

If you’re interested in more simple digestion shifts, I wrote a mini-guide for improved digestion featuring no products, special foods, or diets which you can download. Or check out the last few blog articles on improving digestion for more ideas.