11/08/2010 08:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: The Season of Diwali

Last week, a chef friend told me humans are hardwired to eat seasonally, and sure enough, I woke up the next day wanting the taste of cauliflower and date curry in my mouth. I pretty much always want the rich, warming spices of an Indian curry, but the cauliflower date one I associate especially with this time of the year -- Diwali.

The Hindu festival of light, Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. The holiday which began on Friday, is observed by lighting candles and oil lamps and ends tomorrow in a show of dazzling fireworks. Sweets are also a big part of Diwali, celebrated with ornate little Indian pastries, but dates impart an intense, natural sweetness. They're fab dried, but in northwest India, they're fresh and in season right now.

Closer to home, now is also the season for cauliflower, that ubiquitous (and often tasteless) white hunk of crucifer you're used to getting throughout the year. When it's allowed to ripen in season, you can taste the difference -- it has a vegetal flavor with its own hint of sweetness. A trip to your local farmers market shows there's more to life than white cauliflower, there's a rainbow of varietals from yellow to purple, each with its own delight.

Yeah, delight. We factor in nutrition, cost, preparation time, seasonality, locality, organic versus commercial, but we sometimes forget that part. Tasting food harvested fresh and made with love always offers pleasure, and each month of the year offers its own. Eating seasonally is natural, as my chef friend and my own palate remind me. Before we became used to eating anything we want any time we want it (at considerable cost to the environment), we were conditioned to eat seasonally, craving comforting cauliflower in November, summer-bright eggplant in August, sweet tender berries in early spring. We craved that connection to the seasons. We can get it back, and now's the time.

In addition to bright lights and sweet eats, Diwali is about connection. It's a time when Indians contemplate and honor their relationship to others -- friends, family, but also their relationship with the world and all the creatures in it.

You don't have to be Hindu to celebrate Diwali, and you don't have to be plant-based. But it helps. And it's not a new concept. Going meatless has long been an integral part of Hindu practice. It's encouraged in the Vedic poem the Mahabharata, written sometime around 4 BC. This cornerstone of Hinduism says, "Those who desire to possess good memory, beauty, long life with perfect health, and physical, moral and spiritual strength, should abstain from animal food."

More recently, Universal Society of Hinduism leader Rajan Zed came out in favor of Meatless Monday for all the reasons the Mahabharata advocated a meatless diet a few millennia ago. It all ties in to one of Hinduism's core values -- ahimsa -- Sanscrit for nonviolence, or doing no harm. A meatless diet promotes a compassionate, ahimsa approach to the environment and to animals, but also to ourselves and each other, and if you do it right, leads you to divine, universal love.

I do not automatically bound out of bed each morning feeling all full of ahimsa. Diwali reminds me how important it is, and how easy to achieve. A plant-based diet brings the sacred into everyday life. It doesn't stint on pleasure, either. Eating what's fresh and ripe and local encourages me to savor the moment. It reminds me to appreciate and be grateful for the planet that's the source of both nourishment, light, joy and great eats.

Diwali Caulifower and Date Curry

Curries often call for a handful of raisins or a teaspoon of sugar to balance the flavors. Four dried dates is all it takes in this seasonal dish.

2 tablespoons oil (canola or coconut)
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 chili, seeded and minced
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 tablespoon cumin
1 cauliflower, broken into florets
1 tomato, diced (or 1 cup chopped tomatoes)
1/3 cup water or vegetable broth
4 dried dates, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
sea salt to taste

In a large pot or skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium-high heat.
Add minced ginger, garlic and chili, stirring until vegetables soften, about 3 minutes. Add the turmeric and cumin and sir another minute.

Add cauliflower and stir to coat in the spiced oil, cooking for about 3 minutes.

Add diced tomato, water or broth and chopped dates. Stir to combine.

Cover and reduce heat to low. Let the mixture simmer until cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes.

Add chopped cilantro and sea salt and serve with basmati rice.

Serves 4.