As Jessica deciphered from my cryptic previous post, the verdant gulch I recently returned from is the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California. Green Gulch is one of three centers — together with City Center and Tassajara — comprising the San Francisco Zen Center, founded in 1969 by Shunryo Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist priest. About an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco, the center is reached via a steep and scenic descent from highway 1 along a winding (as in, every turn is a hairpin) road, a ride made especially exciting by a shuttle-bus driver playing cowboy behind the wheel.
A deeply peaceful energy runs through Green Gulch. The minute I arrived, I felt the sound of silence moving through me, instilling a grounded calmness that I can still sense after a week back at my urban routine. A community of about seventy Zen Buddhist priests, dharma teachers, and other practitioners live at the center year round, joined by an ever-evolving group of students and work-apprentices who stay anywhere from a week to a few months for practice periods and to work on the farm and in the kitchen.
My 5-day guest retreat included early-morning group meditation (zazen) in the meditation hall (zendo), a few hours of work each morning (to my delight I ended up in the kitchen), and free time in the afternoons and evenings. Additional periods of zazen are held before and after dinner, which guests are welcome to attend if the spirit moves them.
I stayed in the guest house, cozy and bright with a vaulted, skylit atrium and central fireplace. Beyond the farm, an easy 15-minute stroll along a dirt road leads to a quiet beach, perfect for listening to the surf and stretching legs in the sand. Hiking trails are nearby too, though I did not get around to exploring them this time around.
Each day I looked forward to the delicious and thoughtfully prepared vegetarian meals that emerged from the kitchen — hearty bean soups and stews, whole grains, lots of leafy greens, and incredible from-scratch breads and baked goods. Many of the ingredients are plucked from the earth right at Green Gulch or sourced from local farms, and all are organic. Working in the Zen kitchen was one of the highlights of my stay. The cooks observe noble silence while working (conversations are limited to the work-related, idle chatter is avoided); periodically the kitchen supervisor rings a mindfulness bell, and everyone takes a few moments to breathe and stretch before resuming their work.
The abundant fresh air and mindful silence that accompanied meals (silence was observed during breakfast and for the first 10 minutes of lunch and dinner) seemed to heighten the food’s flavors and textures — I recall a particularly transcendent bowl of toasted millet porridge one morning (I know I sound dramatic, but really – breakfast porridge never tasted so good!).
I had big plans for today (Free Friday number 4, I think?). Dreams of homemade chocolate almond butter and lemon-coconut energy bars have been blossoming in my mind. But I leave for a work trip to New Orleans (could there be more of a 180 from Green Gulch? Well, Vegas, I suppose…) at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and packing grew into a full-blown closet rummage as I searched for the few articles of clothing suitable for 80-degree weather that aren’t packed away in storage containers under my bed. Then I decided an apartment cleaning was in order, and before I knew it, the day was half over.
So instead of freshly ground almond butter and energy bars, today I’m sharing a recipe for one of the simplest condiments ever created – gomasio. A mixture of toasted sesame seeds and sea salt, it is commonly used in Japanese and macrobiotic cuisine and is a mainstay in the Green Gulch dining hall. I sprinkled gomasio on almost everything while I was there – from salads to soups and stews to that aforementioned toasted millet porridge. It’s incredibly versatile and a great way to add a touch of salty, nutty, toasty savoriness to just about anything. Eating a bowl of steamed short-grain brown rice with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of gomasio is an exercise in delicious simplicity. Very Zen.
gomasio (toasted sesame seeds and sea salt)
Traditionally, gomasio is ground in a suribachi, but I used my little mortar and pestle and it turned out just fine. Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium and magnesium and, according to traditional Chinese medicine, are warming in energy. You can make gomasio using oven-toasted sea vegetable, such as dulse or wakame, in place of the sea salt, for a version that is lower in sodium and higher in calcium and iodine. I’d like to try that for my next batch.
1 cup raw, hulled sesame seeds
1 Tbsp good-quality sea salt (moist, pale grey Celtic is nice)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Evenly spread out the sesame seeds on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven until golden brown and fragrant, about 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.
Remove seeds from the oven, transfer to a plate, and let cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes (if you grind them while they’re too warm you might end up with sesame butter, aka tahini).
Grind the seeds together with the sea salt using a suribachi or mortar and pestle until you have about a half of the seeds are ground and half remain whole. My mortar is quite small so I did this in batches, adding a portion of sea salt each time.
Store the gomasio in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Sprinkle on anything you like.