Cookbook author Mindy Toomay's blog about eating for health, cooking with spirit, and celebrating life in northern California. Here she dishes up food rants and raves, recipes, and plenty of kitchen wisdom.

By your own efforts, waken yourself, watch yourself, and live joyfully.
-- The Dhammapada

Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?
-- Peter Mayle


Brown rice redux #1

I was going to write about "slum- gullion" today, which is what my dear departed mother always called her catch-as-catch-can, clean-out-the-fridge, one-pot meals. It's my birthday (no gifts, please) so I'm thinking about what she and I experienced together exactly xxx years ago to the day -- and for 24 years thereafter. I got my artistic spirit and my love of cooking from her and appreciate those legacies a lot. Happy Birthday, Mom, wherever you are...

So anyway, I decided to look up the word in the dictionary and found out a slumgullion is a watery meat stew. Mom's slumgullion was never watery but probably always included ground beef or some other meat. That's not what I do, of course, and now slumgullion seems like the wrong moniker. Then again, "bits-and-pieces-of- whatever's-on-hand" doesn't quite roll off the tongue.

So never mind about the name. Whatever you call it, it's a process of combining various ingredients in a saute pan with seasonings of choice to create something yummy. Of course, that's what cooking is always about, but for yum-gullion you're deliberately using up odds and ends of still-fresh food that you only have a little bit of.

Yesterday I had some cooked brown rice that was a few days old and needed to be used up. I also had some steamed green beans left over from the previous day's salad. I had half an onion and a small hunk of feta cheese that wasn't going to last much longer. So I sauteed the onion with a few cloves of garlic and some chile flakes, added the rice and green beans and a good amount of dried oregano, poured in a little veggie stock, covered the pot, and cooked the concoction until it was nice and hot. Stirred in the crumbled feta and the last of the baby spinach and voila! Something akin to what mom used to make, and plenty delicious.

Who needs watery meat stew?



A good bowl of beans

I love beans for so many reasons. For instance:
1) They are hearty and satisfying
2) They are high in protein and fiber
3) They are low in fat
4) They provide a blank slate for my culinary imagination

The soybean is a super food, but we don't typically eat it in its whole food form. I sing the praises of tofu, tempeh, miso, etc. but here I am referring to dried beans, or legumes, which are available in a vast array of colors and sizes in the bulk bins at my natural food store (and at any supermarket).

Yesterday another storm blew in, bringing cold and rain, and I wanted something warming and hearty for dinner. Beans came immediately to mind, so I rummaged in my pantry and came up with a bag of aduki beans, small red-black beans that are particularly high in protein and low in gas-producing compounds (you'll notice they produce very little foam while cooking).

I started with an old nutrition-school trick of adding a big strip of kombu, a sea vegetable purchased at said natural food store, to the boiling water along with the beans. Kombu is dense with health-promoting minerals and is said to promote good digestion, minimizing the musical effect of legumes. Didn't add any salt at this point; many "old wives" believe it toughens the beans to salt them too early.

When the beans were almost tender (this took about an hour), I added other ingredients. For this stew, I called on the basics of Tex-mex cooking, chile and cumin powders. I also added plenty of garlic and some freshly grated ginger (for their warming and immune-boosting properties), some finely diced carrots and kale, canned tomatoes, red wine, salt and quite a bit of black pepper. Another 30 minutes or so of boiling and the beans were ready.

I served it forth, garnished with a dollop of sour cream (here blended 50/50 with plain nonfat yogurt), a scattering of fresh cilantro leaves, and a dusting of smoked paprika.

The stew was delicious and filling and chased away the chill. I'm already planning my next batch of beans...

Blessings and bon appetit!



Quinoa and curry

My initation to the pleasures of curry cuisine happened via the great Indian buffet joints in downtown Berkeley, where students swarm the streets near campus for cheap and hearty meals day in and day out. Also, for six years the super-spouse and I lived just two blocks from Ajanta, the award-winning Indian restaurant on Solano Avenue, where we came to know some traditional dishes we hadn't encountered before, such as biryani, a baked rice dish with spices, fruits, and nuts.

When it's cold outside, curry always comes to mind. It warms us up from the inside out and fills the house with great aromas. And since it's been raining practically every day for weeks in "sunny" California, I'm house-bound a lot and want it to be aromatic and cozy and tasty in here!

Here's a recipe from my latest book, 15-Minute Vegetarian. It makes delicious use of quinoa, that ancient protein-rich grain originally cultivated by the Aztecs. It's available at natural food stores and probably some regular supermarkets, too. If you haven't tried it, I hope this inspires you to buy some and experiment.

Keep in mind that spices lose their potency over time. If your curry powder has been in your cupboard for months, toss it out and get some fresh. Or better yet, make up a batch by mixing together some ground turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and cayenne, in proportions that suit your own taste. (The above mentioned book gives an actual recipe, or you can find one somewhere in the blogosphere, I imagine.)

Blessings and bon appetit!


1/2 cup uncooked quinoa
1/8 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup finely diced red onion
1 medium red bell pepper, finely diced
2 cups finely diced green cabbage
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup frozen shelled peas
1/2 cup vegetable broth or water

Place the quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly. Combine it in a saucepan with 1 cup of water and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat and add the onion, bell pepper, cabbage, curry powder, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir and saute for 3 minutes, then add the peas and broth, cover the pan tightly, and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the cooked quinoa to the vegetables, including any cooking liquid that remains in the saucepan. Stir to combine well and cover the pan. Turn off the heat and allow to stand for 1 or 2 minutes before serving, to infuse the quinoa with flavor.



Santa Cruz-ing

Went to Santa Cruz for a Saturday wedding. A lovely affair, and thankfully the clouds parted and the rain stopped just long enough for the brief outdoor ceremony, dinner by a fire indoors, and dancing under the stars to a VERY hot local band (never caught the name).

The food was beautiful, delicious, and healthy. The bride studied environmental science at UC Santa Cruz and now lives with her spouse on Maui, where the couple plans to create a healing center on land she inherited from her father. They are dedicated to the vision and inspired about life, and the energy of the day -- as well as the food -- was light and lovely. Shown here: the appetizer buffet, including lots of raw veggies and goat cheese crostini with dried tomato and walnuts or parsley and capers. Orchids graced the plates and the tables in the dining room, a beautiful symbol of the spirit of Aloha.

Sunday the super-spouse and I strolled around Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz, one of the great beach hangouts in all of California. Had lunch at Paradise Sushi, where lime and pine nuts and various kinds of veggies are as likely to show up in your nori rolls as fish. Then discovered, to our delight, that one of our favorite Sonoma County wineries, Armida, has a tasting room in the village. Sampled some wonderful wines and brought home a stellar Russian River zinfandel, a special treat to be enjoyed on my birthday, coming up next weekend.

After a stop at Light House Point in Santa Cruz to watch the tail end of the sea kayak competition taking place there, we headed north. Drove home along the coast, revisiting some favorite old haunts -- San Gregorio State Beach, the quaint seaside village of Half Moon Bay.

It was another beautiful and fun northern California road trip. Are we not blessed?



Roasted reds

Of course I know bell peppers are not in season, at last not in my hemisphere, but I just can't wait until late summer for my roasted reds. Those meaty slabs of sweet and smoky flavor are essential in my house for spiking up sandwiches and salads, and I frequently blend them into tomato sauce or puree them into pesto.

I have found that all peppers benefit from roasting. If you like to make salsa from scratch, try charring jalapenos in a cast iron skillet before peeling and mincing and adding them to the mix. Fantastico!

Every supermarket carries roasted red bell peppers packed in a jar with water, but I find them mushy in texture and, well, watery in flavor. Much better to buy fresh bells and roast them at home. It's simple and really fun, especially if you have a pyromaniacal streak in you.

Here's what I do. Instructions are for using an actual flame, but If you don't have a gas stove or grill, you can char the peppers under your broiler, turning until all sides are blackened.

1) Place whole red bell pepper directly over a flame, using a gas burner on your stovetop or a grill. Just set it down on the burner grate or the grill rack. It will start to sizzle and blister almost immediately. If you're working in the house, turn on your vent fan.
2) Using long-handled tongs, turn the pepper every so often until the entire skin is charred black. This will take only a few minutes. Needless to say, you don't want to walk away and forget about it. Stay close and pay attention until the job is done.
3) Transfer the blackened pepper to a paper or plastic bag and fold closed. The steam that builds up in the bag from the heat of the pepper will finish cooking it.
4) When cool, rub off the charred skin using a damp paper towel. It's fine for a few bits of black skin to stay on the peppers.
5) Cut into strips and use as desired.

Blessings and bon appetit!



What? Pear pizza?

Pears, with their subtle sweetness and succulent texture, are suitable for use in savory as well as sweet dishes. So in addition to using pears in muffins, crisp, pudding, and Megan's amazing vegan chocolate pear cake (recipe another time) -- I sometimes make salads, soups, and -- yes -- pizza with them. It's not all that unusual in the annals of California cuisine, where innovative ingredient pairings (or, in this case, pearings) are de riguer on restaurant menus.

As for the crust, I'm very picky in this area, as readers of my Bread Lament (2/2/06) will remember. But there are actually some pretty good pre-cooked crusts out there. For the pizza in the picture, I used one made by Alvarado Street Bakery in Sonoma County. You can buy pizza dough at some grocery stores, fresh or frozen, to be shaped by your very own hands before baking. Best of all, of course, is to make the dough from scratch. It is not difficult and you don't need any fancy ingredients. There are thousands of dough recipes in the blogosphere, so I won't include one here. But try it. Practice by making pizza dough several times over the course of a few weeks and it will become second nature.

Whatever crust you decide to use, you must try this pear pizza with caramelized leeks and blue cheese. It's delicious and intriguing enough for company.

Blessings and bon appetit!

Yield: 4 main-dish servings

This pizza bring together a delicious -- and surprising -- mélange of flavors. A vinaigrette-dressed arugula salad makes a fresh and peppery side dish.

2 large leeks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
one-fourth teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 pre-cooked 12-inch pizza crust
1 medium Bosc pear
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1. Trim off and discard the root ends and the dark green portion of the leeks. Cut them in half lengthwise and discard the toughest outer layers. Rinse thoroughly between the layers to remove any grit. Pat the leeks dry and slice them crosswise into thin shreds.
2. Preheat the broiler.
3. Melt the butter in a heavy sauté pan and add the leeks, rosemary, and salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, until tender and nicely browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the sherry and stir until there is no more runny liquid in the pan.
4. Meanwhile, slice the pear in half lengthwise and cut out the core section. Slice each half thinly and gently toss the slices with the lemon juice
5. Transfer the leeks to the pizza crust and spread them out eventy, leaving about a 1-inch border all around the outside free of topping.
5. Arrange the sliced pears in a single layer on top of the leeks. Evenly distribute the blue cheese over the pears. Sprinkle on the paprika.
6. Bake the pizza 4 inches from the heat source until the cheese is bubbly and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.



Suisun Valley wine run

Wooden Valley Winery, just a few miles north of Interestate 80 on Suisun Valley Road, is worth a visit, even on a rainy day in March. In fact, maybe especially on a rainy day in March. Its outdoor facilities aren't much to speak of -- no match, at least, for the fabulous-view picnic spots many wineries in Napa and Sonoma and Lake and Mendocino counties have to offer. But the large tasting room, with its rich dark woods and friendly staff, is warm and welcoming. And there are some good wines here, at VERY good prices.

On our recent visit, we bought Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet, and Viognier -- plus a few bottles of the winery's proprietary blend, Suisun Valley Red. It's quite a decent quaffing wine, fruity up front with well-rounded flavors on the way down. At $6/bottle it's a fine choice for your daily glass of red. Strictly for medicinal purposes? No way. It's got to taste good on it's own and do a good job of complementing food to earn a place in my cellar.

Suisun Valley is a fun destination in the summer, too, when farm stands are bursting with produce. There is one other tasting room I know of in the vicinity, at Ledgewood Creek Winery, which is the new kid on the block. It opened about 3 years ago, while Wooden Valley has been there for decades.

There are restaurants in the valley, too, that the super-spouse and I have yet to try. We always pack a gourmet picnic for our wine touring days. I recently read the menu for an Italian restaurant called The Vintage Caffe that is very tempting, though. Several types of ravioli are offered, featuring traditional fillings such as ricotta and spinach and more innovative combinations. There's plenty for vegetarians to choose from.

It's a pleasant and easy drive for Bay Area folks (travel about 20 miles east of Berkeley on I-80 to Suisun Valley Road, then go north). Be forwarned, however, that it will be neither pleasant nor easy if you try to cross the Carquinez Bridge on Friday afternoon after about 2:00. (Then you would be crazy to make the trip, as we were last week, and will never be again.) My other caveat applies only in the summer months. The area can be scorching, so dress accordingly -- wide-brimmed straw hats and sandals were invented for just such times and places.)



Saffron rice

Every vegetarian I know eats rice frequently. Usually brown rice, which provides complex carbohydrates, fiber, and important trace minerals. But now and then I want to cook a rice dish fast (brown rice takes a good 50 minutes or so to cook from scratch), or I'm just in the mood for a change.

At those times, basmati rice with saffron and cumin is my usual pick. It's super easy, beautiful on the plate, and very versatile. I make a lot of "mindy-anese" cuisine, as my friend Elizabeth calls it -- soups and sautes that draw on the foods and flavors of the Far East, or Near East, or a fusion of the two. And Saffron Rice is the perfect accompaniment to these dishes.

Leftovers can be stirred into soup, tossed in a salad, or added to a stir-fry, as shown here in another Mindy-anese concoction, with sea veggies, shiitakes, tofu, fermented black beans, etc. It's Saffron Rice, The Sequel.

Here's the simple recipe for great saffron rice. 1) Put 2 cups of water on to boil, with 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, and a small pinch of saffron threads. 2) Put 1 cup white basmati rice in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse under running water for a about 30 seconds, to wash off some of the surface starch. This will help the finished rice have a nice loose, not sticky, texture. Drain off any excess water. 3) When the saffrom water just comes to a boil, add the rice and stir. Put on a lid, reduce the heat to very low, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice stand without disturbing the lid for 5 minutes, then transfer to a serving bowl. Serve with your favorite curry or Asian-inspired saute.

Blessings and bon appetit!



Bay Area Bests #2

Monterey Market, on the corner of Hopkins and Monterey in north Berkeley.

Okay, maybe it would be more fair to give the nod to Bay Area produce, in general, because we are constantly swimming in fantastic fresh and seasonal produce (and bread -- as I've mentioned before -- and cheese and seafood and other animal products for those who eat those things).

But the folks at Monterey Market (MM) are my favorite produce purveyors for a lot of reasons. They display their wares half inside, half outside, creating the atmosphere of an exotic third-world mercado. They have an incredibly wide range of veggies and fruits to choose from (remember my #1 Bay Area Best, diversity?). And their prices are the lowest around.

This place is a wonderland for adventuresome cooks. True, you have to be comfortable with the occasional untidy bin, where perhaps the key limes or sweet Mauai onions have gone a bit soft. But this is no problem for a veteran forager like me. I love searching for treasures amidst the ordinary, and MM gives me this experience time and time again. They have all the usual stuff, but so much more besides. I might never have bought chickpeas still in their pods on the drying vine, if not for Monterey Market. I would surely have missed fresh turmeric root.

So here's one little story in my MM chronicles. They have a bargain bin, where they put bags of over-ripe stuff they've pulled from the bins that needs to sell fast. On my last visit, I noticed a large bag of avocados sitting there, with .99 price grease-penciled on. They were smallish, and I could tell some of them were hopelessly soft. But there were a LOT of them in there, and I figured at least some would be usable.

The super-spouse was with me and agreed that when life gives one an abundance of cheap avocados, it's guacamole time. So even though they were certainly not seasonal, local, or organic, I took my dollar's worth of avocados home -- turned out to be 14 avocados, only two of which were useless -- and made a BIG batch of great guac. (Did you know guacamole freezes well, as long as you don't include any dairy products in the mix?)

Here's an overview of my guacamole process: 1) Squeeze a couple of juicy limes into a large bowl. 2) Cut several medium avocados (somewhat over-ripe is fine) in half, discard the seeds, and scoop the avo into the same bowl. 3) Toss the avo around with the lime juice to prevent oxidation. 4) Add a splash of tamari soy sauce,some chile powder, and a couple of cloves of garlic, mash to a paste with some salt. Mix well to make it chunky and well blended, but not totally runny. 5) Stir in anything else you like, such as minced serrano chiles, chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, and cilanto leaves. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. 6) Use as a topping for tacos or tostados, wrap up with beans and rice to make burritos, spread on good chewy bread, or use as a dip with your favorite chips. This time out, we chose some fantastic Native brand fresh-cut blue tortilla chips, thick, from Kjalii Foods of San Francisco.

Blessings and bon appetit!



Craving polenta

Sometimes I get a strong craving for polenta. It's one of my comfort foods and there are days when I simply have to have it. Maybe it evokes the sun-drenched hills of Sicily and helps keep the winter chill from taking hold of my mind and heart.

Yesterday another big storm blew through (we've had an awful lot of them this winter) and I knew it was a polenta day. Had a bit of Point Reyes original blue cheese in the fridge and cornmeal in the pantry, so the basics were on hand.

I almost always make a tomato-based veggie stew to go with polenta. This one used onion, zucchini, carrot, garbanzo beans, Nicoise olives, canned tomatoes and plenty of garlic. Spices: oregano, cayenne, and -- surprise! -- cinnamon. Used in extreme moderation, cinnamon adds a subtle sweetness that enhances the tomatoes and balances the heat of the cayenne. This isn't some strange new innovation on my part. The cooks of Rome have been utilizing cinnamon in tomato dishes for a very long time.

The super-spouse and I ate our dinner feeling safe from the storm and content with our lot. That's the gift every good cook gives herself, her friends, her family through her efforts in the kitchen.

Blessings and bon appetit!

Polenta is really a process, more than a specific recipe. Make it a few times in the next month and you'll get the hang of it.
1) Put 4 cups of water on to boil.
2) Add to the water: 1 teaspoon of granulated garlic, 1 teaspoon of dried Italian herbs (crushed in the palm of your hand), 1/2 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper.
3) When the water is boiling, pour in 1 cup of medium-grind cornmeal in a gentle stream, whisking so it doesn't form lumps.
4) Turn the heat down to medium and cook until the grains are perfectly soft, about 15 minutes, whisking vigorously and frequently to prevent sticking. Add more water a tablespoon or two at a time if the polenta gets too thick to whisk before the grains are cooked.
5) When the polenta is done, the mixture should be smooth and creamy, NOT thick and mounded like mashed potatoes.
6) Add a bit of butter and some cheese, if you wish. Serve with a thick veggie stew or marinara sauce.
7) Pour leftovers into a flat baking dish (traditionally it was poured out onto a large board). It will firm up as it cools and can be cut into wedges or squares and grilled, or cubed to add to a salad.



Bean Curd Lessons

Here's a little poem I wrote while pondering all the metaphors for life we cooks encounter in the kitchen.


This block of bean curd
doesn't envy anyone.
It does its job of nourishing
without complaint.
Pliant and plain, it trusts the cook
to add some zesty seasoning
and mind the flame.

The lump of tofu doesn't fret
about its fate. It waits,
surrendered to the cooking process,
lets the scorch and sizzle
do their work of transformation,
eagerly anticipates
becoming something new.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

And here's what I made of the humble bean curd for dinner last night. 1) Saute diced onion and curry powder in a slick of olive oil. 2) Stir in tofu cubes, zucchini dice, oyster mushrooms, whole green soybeans (edamame), and cooked wild rice (available vacuum-packed at some supermarkets). 3) Add veggie broth (or water, or coconut milk) and a splash of soy sauce. 4) Put on lid and cook about 7 minutes. 5) Add cilantro if desired. Enjoy!


Rumi in the kitchen

I usually start my day by reading something penned by a spiritual master, to nourish my heart and establish a generous and joyful attitude for the day. Often it's the 13th-century Sufi mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi, especially as translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi has for sometime now been the best-selling poet in the world, and I give Coleman Barks much of the credit for that. He has used his great wisdom and skill to help make the ancient poems accessible to modern Americans.

I'm not fixed on any exclusive religious tradition in my readings, though after decades of "seeking," it is Buddhism and the mystical strains in all the world's religions that have the greatest draw for me. They all share the belief that the Divine is everywhere, within and outside us; that our lives are steeped in Spirit; that all stories about who or what god may be are just fairy tales we tell ourselves. God is Mystery itself, beyond our powers to know and describe, and we are alive within it. That very idea makes me feel excited about life and grateful for another day.

This morning I read (for the hundredth time) one of Rumi's great cooking metaphors -- a poem about life as a boiling soup, god/mystery as the cook, and human beings as chickpeas. I trust that Coleman Barks and his publishers would forgive my excerpting it without their written permission (I know Rumi would approve).

Here's the question this poem planted in my mind this morning: How would things be different if we believed that the difficult things we experience actually had a great purpose, to transform us into ever more lovely and vital human beings?


A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

"Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

Remember when you drank rain in the garden?
That was for this."

... Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
"Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can't do this by myself..."



Beautiful soup

For weeks I've been developing recipes with pears as my main inspiration. One winner was this curried butternut squash and pear soup. Scrumptious (if I do say so myself). The pear adds a subtle flavor note and velvety texture. Thought I'd post a picture to capture how lovely it was in the bowl, all dressed up with yogurt and mint. If you decide to cook it, be sure to use a mild curry powder, or the heat of cayenne will overpower the soup.

I posted a pear and spinach salad recipe a few days ago. I hope you'll check out the Fall issue of Veggie Life magazine and try the rest of my recent pear creations. Blessings and bon appetit!

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cups peeled and diced butternut squash (1.75 lbs. whole squash)
2 large pears, peeled, cored, and chopped (2 cups; 1 lb. whole pears)
1.5 tablespoons mild curry powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup unsweetened pear juice or pear "nectar"
1/2 cup plain lowfat yogurt
1/4 cup mint chiffonade

1. Heat the oil in a heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and saute, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the squash, pears, curry powder, and remaining salt and stir and saute for 10 minutes.
3. Add the stock and pear juice, cover, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the squash is very soft, about 10 minutes.
4. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or transfer it in small batches to a standard blender and puree. Return the puree to the pot and heat over low until barely simmering.
5. Serve hot, garnishing each serving with a dollop of yogurt and a portion of the mint chiffonade.

Local or organic?

The latest issue of Yes! magazine discusses an issue I've often considered. If I'm concerned about planetary as well as personal health, and I can't find food that is both local AND organic, which one should I choose?

Eating organic is important, of course. Organic food doesn't contain pesticide residues, artificial hormones, or genetically modified organisms. But the Yes! research says that local is always best, even if it isn't organic. Buying organic produce that is not from your own locale takes food out of the mouths (so to speak) of local farmers and burns huge amounts of fossil fuels in transport to your hometown market. Local food is, by definition, seasonal food -- and living in harmony with the seasons is a healthy practice for body, mind, and spirit. And local food is almost always fresher, especially if you buy at the farmers market, which means better nutrition and better taste.

Also, keep in mind that lots of growers who don't use synthetic chemicals and are committed to sustainable agriculture aren't necessarily certified as organic. Certification is an expensive and time-consuming process that smaller producers don't always have the resources to pursue. When I'm shopping for food, I talk with growers and producers if possible (another plus of the farmers market). Ask them about their growing practices and what kinds of chemicals that spray on their crops. Or at least read labels to see where a food was grown and choose the locally grown version of a particular food whenever possible.

Because I live in super-abundant California, I can usually buy food that is both locally grown AND organic. It increases my sense of well-being to know I'm supporting conscientious local growers and getting the highest quality food available.

Visit the Local Harvest website to learn about farmers markets near you, and to explore other ways to eat consciously, sustainably, and well.

Blessings and bon appetit!



I'm writing an article about pears for a great vegetarian cooking magazine called Veggie Life, so I have pears on the brain today. Not just on the brain, but all over my house. I have dozens of pears in bowls and baskets and arranged on plates. They are scattered here and there, in various stages of ripeness, so I'll always have some perfect pears to use in my recipe testing.

They come in so many colors and sizes, and their textures range from buttery soft to slightly crunchy. They are really gorgeous fruits, so I don't mind decorating my kitchen and dining room with them on a regular basis.

My super-spouse loves pears, so even when I'm not writing about them, they're often hanging around. They sit within easy reach ripening to perfection and eventually get grabbed and gobbled up without any adornment. But I like to cook with them, too. They're extremely versatile, lending their loveliness to savory dishes, not just desserts.

Here's one example, a pear and spinach salad (have I mentioned that I really like spinach salad) with the crunch of toasted walnuts and the spicy zip of cumin vinaigrette. It's a great way to use those tender baby spinach leaves you can buy pre-washed in a bag.

Blessings and bon appetit!

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons pear cider
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
Several grinds black pepper
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 medium pear, unpeeled
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
6 cups washed and dried baby spinach leaves, lightly packed
1/4 cup toasted walnuts pieces

Whisk together the cider, vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, cumin, salt, and pepper until emulsified, about 1 minute. Stir in the minced shallot and set aside.

Wash and dry the pear and cut in in half from base to tip. Cut each half in half again lengthwise anbd slice out the core sections. Cut the pear wedges lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices and toss the slices with the lemon juice,

Toss the spinach with the dressing, reserving 2 tablespoons. Arrange the dressed greens on 4 individual serving dishes. Fan out one-quarter of the pear slices on each bed of greens. Drizzle evenly with the remaining dressing, scatter some tasted walnuts on each serving, and garnish with calendula or nasturtium petals if available.

Serve immediately.


Pesto passion

Asked to name my top ten favorite things to eat, pasta al pesto would make the cut. It might even be among the top three. Blame it on my friend Kathryn's mother, a true Italian cook from the old country who introduced me to the olive oil and basil and pine nut and garlic concoction. Add pasta and Parmesan and you have a potent feast of flavor, a garlic fantasy, an addictive carbo load from the gods. I could eat it every day, but don't, for the sake of my girlish figure. Once a month is a must, however, and it will become a regular craving of yours, as well.

Pesto -- from the same root word as paste -- is actually a method, not a specific mixture of ingredients. I've come up with loads of exotic variations in my time, including one made with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, walnuts, and ginger. Roasted red bell pepper makes a great pesto, mixed with mint and almonds. You get the idea. Anything you can turn into a thick puree could be called "pesto" and just might be delicious mixed with pasta, stirred into soup, or used as a sandwich spread.

At the height of summer, when basil is abundant and cheap, you can make several big batches of pesto, leaving out the cheese, and freeze it in small jars. Then it's available to cheer you up in the dead of winter. Where I live in northern California, though, fresh basil is always available, so I just make up a batch whenever I get in a pesto frame of mind.

(BTW, if you ever make more pasta al pesto than you can eat in one meal, throw the leftovers in a cast iron frying pan with some olive oil the next morning, add some beaten eggs and some more Parmesan cheese, and cook until firm on the bottom, then place under the broiler until the eggs are set. A delicious pasta frittata!)

Here's a basic recipe for the classic basil "pesto alla genovese." The lemon isn't exactly traditional, but it sets the color nicely and I like the way a bit of acid cuts the heaviness of the olive oil. This makes enough for one pound of pasta, which will feed 4 to 6 people.

Blessings and bon appetit!

2 cups fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons raw pine nuts or chopped walnuts
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juuce
1/4 teaspoon salt

Using a blender or food processor, chop the basil leaves, then add the olive oil, cheese, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, and salt. Puree until fairly smooth.


Bay Area Bests #1

Diversity. The whole wide world right outside my door.

Drinking chai at the new Peet's in Emeryville, a nearby table occupied by happy Chinese speakers, eventually replaced by happy Italian speakers. Later that same day, eating lunch at Veggie Food, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in north Berkeley, people on one side speaking Spanish, and on the other side a trio of robed Buddhist monks not speaking at all.

So many different skin tones and languages and modes of dress and lifestyle variatioins -- almost everyone co-existing in peace and mutual respect. It's so enlivening to be a part of this rich and diverse and thoroughly progressive mix.


Jalisco Hummus

An excellent bean dip is a practically perfect food. High in fiber and protein, low in fat, and full of whatever spice you like -- it's great as a dip/spread for chips, crackers, and raw veggies, or stuffed in pita bread with a handful of salad greens. I've come up with dozens of variations on hummus, the traditional Middle Eastern garbanzo bean puree, over the years. Here's a lunch I ate recently, with such a hummus spread on crisp rye crackers -- and accompanying a spinach salad with roasted red bell peppers.

This was a delicious but ordinary hummus, made by pureeing garbanzos, lemon juice, sesame tahini, garlic, salt, and a good pinch of cayenne pepper. The recipe I'm posting here today, though, is one of my most successful off-the-beaten path hummus experiments. I call it Jalisco hummus, because it uses a number of traditional south-of-the-border foods. It's not overly spicy, but you could always use less of the pickled jalapenos for a milder version. (Pickled jalapenos, BTW, are available in cans and jars at your regular supermarket.)

Give this lovely green bean dip a try. Maybe it will inspire you to do some hummus experiments of your own...

Blessings and bon appetit!

Jalisco Hummus

1 can (15 ounces, or 420 g) garbanzo beans
1/4 cup (55 g) raw, unsalted, shelled pumpkin seeds
1 cup (60 g) chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons (28 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons (18 g) minced pickled jalapenos
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place the garbanzo beans in a colander, rinse, and drain thoroughly. Meanwhile, in a dry skillet, toast the pumpkin seeds over medium-high heat, stirring or shaking the pan frequently, until most of them have popped. Transfer them to a blender and add the garbanzos, cilantro, lime juice, pickled jalapenos, garlic, and salt. Puree and enjoy with tortilla chips!