How cooking and eating simply prepares us to celebrate Christmas with gusto.
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“The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”
I love these words from St. Charles Borromeo. This season that prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation—Advent—is so beautiful, but it can be a struggle to slow down and prepare our hearts during what can be the most frantic time of the year.
Because we’re human—soul and body, what we do with our physical bodies has a spiritual dimension. The practice of kneeling can help us focus our minds on prayer. Tuning into our five senses helps us enter into the season as we notice the purple vestments on priests and hear the sounds of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We also prepare our hearts by being intentional about how and what we eat during these weeks before Christmas.
By slowing down our evenings to cook and eat simple meals together, we allow ourselves to distinguish Advent from the celebratory season of Christmastide (Christmas Day to Epiphany) which is prime feasting time. It takes some planning (and some willpower to avoid jumping into all that delicious Christmas baking!), but the discipline of simple meals during Advent helps us be ready to rejoice on December 25th.
Winter weather allows us to focus on one-pot meals like soups and stews, which feel natural and appropriate on chilly nights. The ease of having a soup on the stove or in the slow cooker can reduce the stress so many of us feel during the holidays—stress that can distract us from living Advent. It’s easy to become so busy that we lose focus on the whole point of the season: Getting ready for Jesus.
But beyond reducing stress, choosing simple meals also points us to the truth that we aren’t partying quite yet—we’re waiting in expectation. An intentional commitment to family mealtimes helps us connect with our loved ones so that our Advent preparation is carried out in community. Add to it the practice of eating a simple meal by candlelight and we’re also presented with the visible cue that we’re waiting for the Light of the World.
Here are some meal ideas to consider this season before the eggnog and chocolates start flowing: Black beans and rice (recipe below), split pea soup, easy stews (like the beef and orange stew recipe below), and slow cooker recipes. So grab a big pot, turn on some Advent music, and get ready for Christmas!
Simple Black Beans and Rice
(From Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year by Daniel and Haley Stewart)
Because it’s such an easy and frugal dish, we eat this often—especially during Advent and Lent. It’s vegetarian and simple, without being bland, and our kids love it. These directions call for a slow cooker, but if you don’t have one, you can easily cook the beans in a pot on the stove. We had great luck with bell peppers and banana peppers in our garden this year, so that’s usually what we add, but feel free to use whatever vegetables are in season where ever you are.
Serves 4 (large servings)
2 cups black beans (dry)
5 cups water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 bell peppers, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 tsp cumin
6 tomatoes or 1 can (14.5 oz, undrained)
Salt & pepper – to taste
Directions: Add the dry black beans, water, and tomatoes to the slow cooker. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. Check beans to see if they are almost done (every slow cooker is different). When the beans are almost ready, add the other ingredients and cook for an additional hour. (A note about dry beans: They will cook faster if you soak them overnight. I’m just a poor planner and usually cook them the day of.)
Serve with rice or corn chips and garnish with sour cream and cilantro. (We always add Sriracha sauce to ours for a little extra kick!)
Orange Beef Stew
(Adapted from the cookbook,From Your Freezer to Your Family by Stephanie Brandt Cornais)
Beef stew is such a comfort food for cold weather months and I love the scent it gives my kitchen as it simmers on the stove top. This recipe has a little extra flavor because of the orange juice and soy sauce. This stew and many of the recipes in Stephanie Cornais’ cookbook are staples in our home during busy seasons when time to prepare meals is limited but we still want to enjoy home-cooked meals together.
1-2 pounds of beef stew meat or flank steak
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 green onions, chopped
1 onion, chopped
Salt & pepper (to taste)
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cloves
2 Tbsp soy sauce (or coconut aminos)
1/2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp flour (or 1 Tbsp arrowroot powder if cooking for gluten allergies/sensitivity)
1 cup orange juice
1 cup water
Directions: Season the meat with salt and pepper and brown for about 4 minutes each side. Remove browned meat. Heat 2 TBSP olive oil in the pot. Add the carrots, green onion, onion, and garlic and cook until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, coriander, cloves, salt, pepper, and flour and stir. Then add soy sauce, sugar, orange juice, and water. Add beef back in, cover with lid, and bring to a high, rolling boil, then turn to low. Make sure liquid is covering the meat and veggies so that it doesn’t dry out. Add more water if needed. Simmer on low for about 1.5 to 2 hours, checking occasionally to add water if necessary.
Haley Stewart is a writer, speaker, Catholic convert, and mother of three. She’s a homeschooling, bacon-eating, coffee-drinking southern girl with a flair for liturgical feasts and a penchant for bright red lipstick. Haley muses about faith, motherhood, and books at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas. She is also the author of Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year, and podcasts at Fountains of Carrots.