The Joys of Pesto and a New Friend

The lovely, tranquil grounds of Trout Lake Abbey — Mount Hood is in the background but stayed immersed in clouds most of the weekend …

Once a term — ie., every three months — my Chinese Medicine program sends us all to retreat centers outside of Portland from Friday to Sunday for intensive gigong study.  For those unfamiliar, qigong is a Chinese technique for moving Qi or energy through the body. There are many lineages, some of which share a lot with some forms of yoga.  The practice can also have very specific medical applications, and a patient can receive a specialized qigong prescription to practice at home.  It is an integral part of our curriculum, a vehicle for all of us to understand and heal ourselves more fully, thereby expanding our capacities as human beings and healers.

There is a lot to be said simply for leaving the city and doing less.

I’ve learned a lot through the practice of qigong, but I always seem to find myself dreading these weekend retreats.  An entire weekend on a schedule with a group  — and then coming back to face tests, assignments, the full force of the week without time to prepare — it never feels like something I want to do.  I get increasingly grumpy in the days before, drag myself there as if I were reporting to the state penitentiary to serve a ten year sentence … and then … it’s not so bad.  In fact, I usually learn something important.  Sometimes it’s directly from the qi gong practice; others from walks I take on my own — and yet others just from the process of getting through something that’s difficult.

Ringing the little meditation huts for guests are dozens of deities.  One feels surrounded by peace.

I had resigned myself to not posting this week because of the retreat, but here I am, thanks to Sara Mains, the wonderful chef, who fed us all throughout the weekend.  Sara is the force behind Salt Rose Kitchen in White Salmon, Oregon, and her beautiful, delicious, nourishing meals got a 5 Star rating from the entire NCNM crew.  We all loved her food!  Light but filling, simply seasoned … everyone was loudly professing their delight.  And it’s not so easy to please a bunch of hungry students with a whole variety of food sensitivities, allergies, likes, dislikes … it’s a tough crowd 🙂  But Sara pulled it off.  In the first bite I could taste a kindred spirit, and during some free time on Saturday, I snuck into the kitchen for a chat with the creator of these marvelous meals.

Sara prepping for our final meal, a Mexican style lunch.

As she darted around the Trout Lake Abbey kitchen I wasn’t surprised to hear that her main passion is dance.  She teaches Five Rhythms dance and started Salt Rose Kitchen as a way to supplement her income with yet more creativity.  Her cooking has a Mediterranean focus with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs, and she loves using high quality salts.  She notes with a laugh that learning to cook as a kid in her Mom’s kitchen, the first special salt she encountered was Lawry’s Seasoning Salt.

Things have come a long way since then, and today her big dream is to land a gig as a personal chef.  In the meantime she caters a variety of events and particularly loves dinner parties because “everything is so special”.  The presentation of the food is important to her, and each dish contributes to the beautiful whole.  I particularly loved that the bowl of fresh chives on the buffet table held the chive flowers as well.  Eating Sara’s meals was a good reminder that the most simple foods can be exquisite, prepared with fresh ingredients and cooked well.  When my friend, Laura, popped into the kitchen to ask about the amazing sauteed green beans we had just eaten, Sara explained that the secret was simply in using a cast iron pan with plenty of olive oil that had been allowed to heat up, searing the outside of the beans, while keeping the insides fresh and crunchy.

Fresh herbs in the kitchen, ready for action …

Chef Sara clearly has a more than a bit of the kitchen witch in her and knows how to bring magic into her food.  One way was through all the little dishes of condiments for people to choose from.  I adore pesto, but basil is so expensive that I rarely make it.  A pesto made with nettles and just a touch of basil was one of my favorites of the weekend.  With tips from Sara I recreated it back here in the city … I was even more happy I did, when last night I was in one of the local co-ops and happened to see a little plastic tub of vegan arugula pesto selling for almost a dollar an ounce!

Saturday’s lunch: beets & quinoa with a dollop of pesto.  Now I have a whole container of that wonderful pesto in my own fridge to add to everything!


Quan Yin teaches us to have compassion — for others and, sometimes the hardest … ourselves.
  • 8 oz. tender greens (nettles if you can find them — today I used a bag of arugula  — the arugula lends a slight spicy flavor … you could use any bag of baby greens from the grocery store)
  • fresh basil, about 4 handfuls — just use what you have
  • 3/4 to 1 cup olive oil (start with 3/4 cup if you want a pastier consistency, say, for spreading on crackers — 1 cup will make a thinner pesto, but will thicken up in the fridge)
  • juice of one lemon
  • 2-5 cloves garlic, peeled
  •  salt to taste (I used a teaspoon)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup pine nuts or walnuts, optional
  • dulse flakes, optional  (If you can’t find nettles, adding a bit of seaweed helps get in some extra minerals.)

*NOTE* If you are using nettles (and by all means try to), you will need to prepare them.  Instructions for preparing nettles can be found a few posts back, right here:

If you’re using other greens, they’ll just stay raw — do remove any tough stems.  Okay, you will definitely need a food processor or powerful blender for this — just throw as many of the greens in as will fit, process, and put in more until you have room to add the basil, garlic and nuts if you’re using in, then add olive oil, and hit the on button, and let it go for a couple of minutes.  Depending on your machine, you may have to scrape the sides down several times to get everything nice and smooth.  Then add salt and lemon at the end, a bit at a time to taste.

An array of veggie dishes makes for happy, hungry qigongers!

Sara served the pesto as part of a simple salad of steamed beets and quinoa.  When I returned to Portland, faced with a packed week of school and work, a messy apartment, no laundry done, no studying done … I was tempted to grab something out of the Trader Joe’s freezer section that I’d later regret, but then remembered that simple meal of beets, pesto and quinoa.  Similar beets and quinoa had actually been featured in other posts right here!  (See posts on beets and sunny salad back in January.)

And since I wanted to make Sara’s pesto anyway … why not just make all three, each one simple and fast, and then combine them with little additions — a handful of chickpeas, extra veggies, sprinkle of nuts — for meals throughout the week?  That, in fact, is what I did, and I’m going to feel a whole lot better at the end of the week because of it.  (And maybe all that qigong is helping too.)  I hope Sara will share some recipes here in the future — In the meantime, you can check out her website:, and get inspired to bring your own “magic to the ordinary”… Have a great rest of the week, everyone 🙂

Green and simple … pesto makes everything it touches feels special.  Treat yourself like a queen (or king!) and make some …



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Beautiful! Absolutely gorgeous. I make a much simpler (fewer ingredients) vegan pesto, but am anxious to try this one. It’s true. pesto makes everything special. Thanks for such delights.


    1. Thank you for reading 🙂 Yes, it makes life feel decadent to have it in the fridge!


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