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


Al fresco at last

Last evening we launched the season of outdoor dining with two new friends (Chris and Sylvia), some lovely wine, and a kind of Moroccan lasagna I made using fresh sheets of spinach pasta from The Pasta Shop. In the last week, roses and wisteria have burst into bloom in the garden, nourished by a long season of rain and finally coaxed into blossoming by several consecutive days of sun. Glorious!

In case you're wondering what Moroccan lasagna might be, it's something I concocted on a whim. For some reason, I didn't want to go the traditional Italian route with my seasoning, so I used both sweet and smoked paprikas, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon in the mix. Instead of using the usual mozzarella and ricotta, I blended part-skim ricotta with some crumbled feta cheese. The sauteed vegetable filling (eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper -- in celebration of the sun) was a beautiful golden color.

The finished dish had a rich and pungent quality, with an unexpected, exotic layer of flavor. I went easy on the cayenne, even though Moroccan food can be quite fiery, because I wasn't sure of our guests' preferences. Turns out they have traveled extensively in Mexico and adore hot food. No matter; the milder version was perfectly delicious.

On the side: 1) steamed artichokes with a yogurt/pesto/paprika dipping sauce and 2) a romaine and red cabbage salad with balsamic cumin vinaigrette.

There were oohs and aahs all around, then silence for a while as we all dug in. Soon and conversation resumed and we had a perfectly lovely evening swapping travel stories and getting better acquainted. After dinner, the super-spouse pulled out his guitar and was joined in strumming and singing by Chris. We women chimed in occasionally to sing backup. Big fun.

Here's a simple recipe for the sauce I invented, which would be great on pasta, pizza, eggs, or as the base of a scrumptious tomato soup.
1) Empty 1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes (with juice) into a blender
2) Add 1/2 cup oil-packed dried tomatoes
3) Add 3 minced cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon dried red chile flakes.
4) Puree and taste. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
5) Heat in a saute pan and use as desired.


Peculiar produce

Over the years, I have learned to cook many strange fruits and vegetables. Strange to me, that is. In some parts of the world, such things as starfruit and lotus root are perfectly ordinary. Anyhow, being a rather fanatical foodie, I'm interested in all members of the vegetable kingdom and forage for the unusual at my favorite produce market.

It has expanded my culinary horizons to invite peculiar produce into my kitchen and see what I can make of it. My inspiration might come from cookbooks, TV chefs, the Internet, or restaurant meals I have relished. My experiments aren't always successful, but sometimes they're stellar.

Case in point: blood orange and fresh fennel salad. I've been making it for years, since I ate a mind-blowing version at Chez Panisse one Spring afternoon. It is based on very simple Mediterranean flavors and is light and refreshing, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

I use a mandoline to slice the fennel very thinly. You don't need the complicated and expensive stainless steel kind; I bought one made out of plastic (with a metal blade, of course) at an Asian grocery store for about $15. If you don't have such a tool, simply use a sharp knife and slice the fennel as thinly as you can.

If you can't find blood oranges, you can use tangerines or naval oranges instead. The salad will still be very, very good to eat. The one shown here includes no oniony flavor note, but you can snip on some chives or sprinkle on some minced shallots, if you so desire. Sometimes I arrange a handful of Nicoise olives on the plate, as Chez Panisse did, which provides another delicious layer of flavor. Some shavings of Parmesan or a bit of crumbled blue or feta cheese are other great additions. Play around and see what you like.

Here is the process:
1. Trim off the base of a fennel bulb and discard the outer layer, which is usually discolored and rather tough. At the othe rend, trim off the leafy stalks. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, slice the remaining bulb crosswise into very thin shreds. Make a bed of the fennel on a large serving plate or platter.
2. Slice off both ends of 2 or 3 (depending on their size) blood oranges . Using a very sharp paring knife, cut off the peel of the oranges, along with the white layer and the membrane that covers the orange segments. Slice the blood oranges into about 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange them in concentric circles atop the bed of fennel.
3. Sprinkle on a bit of salt and grind on some black pepper. Drizzle a really good olive oil evenly over the oranges and fennel. You don't want a big puddle of it on the plate, but don't skimp.
4. Scatter some whole leaves of flat-leaf parsley over the salad and serve at room temperature.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Loving Lake County

Clear Lake, in northern California, is big, beautiful, and ancient. It's the largest lake in California (not counting Tahoe, which straddles the state line between CA and Nevada) and some experts believe it's the oldest lake in North America. Needless to say, it's a very important watershed ecosystem and a magnet for millions upon millions of birds.

The soil around the lake is volcanic and rocky, with lots of red dirt, and the big valleys are extraordinarily fertile. Pears have been Lake County's claim to fame in recent decades, but it once was, and is becoming again, a booming vineyard region. Since it's situated just north of Napa County and just east of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, this isn't surprising.

One of the new pioneers of Lake County wine is Jim Fetzer. The Fetzer wine you buy these days isn't made by the Fetzer family -- they sold off the brand several years ago. Reportedly, each of the children of the clan walked away with tens of millions of dollars. Jim, the youngest and most visionary, ventured east from the family's homestead in Hopland, bought a few hundred acres of land on the northeast shoreline between the villages of Nice and Lucerne, and began to manifest his dream. To his great credit, he used "green" building methods and mostly recycled materials to create a stunning hacienda-style facility that puts a fabulous new face on Lake County wine.

Today you can visit the Ceago Vinegarden bio-dynamic demonstration farm and organic vineyards and take home some really great California wines. (Bio-dynamic farming goes several steps beyond organic, taking into account the phases of the moon and some pretty interesting spiritual aspects. To learn more about it, visit the ceago website.) If you arrive by boat, you can moor at the pier that juts far out into the lake. Soon you'll be able to stay overnight, get a spa treatment, and eat at a restaurant that is sure to have a local, seasonal, and organic emphasis.

On a recent visit, we bought organic cheese and crackers at the on-site deli (still in its infancy) and carried it out to the beautiful veranda, along with a bottle of the 2005 Sauvignon Blance. Lake County is famous for its SB grapes and this wine has beautiful floral and fruity notes, but a crisp and dry finish. Perfect for a sunny afternoon as we sat listening to the piped-in Afro-Latin music and gazing at the spring-green mountains and the gentle waves on the lake.

The super-spouse and I came away inspired, as we always do after being in the presence of such incredible natural and human-made beauty. We were knocked out by Jim Fetzer's vision and dedication to promoting sustainable living.

Planning a trip to Napa or Sonoma or Mendocino sometime soon? Be sure to include a visit to Lake County in your plans. Ceago is 2.5 hours north of San Francisco (about 30 minutes east of Ukiah on Hwy 20). If you make a weekend of it, you can include a few other Lake County wineries in your travels. Tulip Hill is just across the road from Ceago, and on the other side of the lake, in downtown Kelseyville, the Wildhurst tasting room is well worth a visit. They consistently produce award-winning wines. Steele Wines is also situated in Kelseyville, and if you're traveling up from Napa on Hwy 29, you can take a side road and visit Guenoc, on land once owned by famed frontier actress and singer, Miss Lilly Langtree.

It makes a great getaway for Bay Area folks and may just inspire you to sink some roots in Lake County, as we did. Our little lakeview house is a haven from the hustle and bustle of the big city. My inner country girl comes out to play when I'm there and I get really happy digging in the dirt and sailing on the big water in our little hand-made boat (thanks, Ted).

This kind of joy isn't optional if you really want to live the good life. Get out of town!


Tofu travels south

When people tell me vegetarian cooking sounds too limited, I tell them it's actually a liberation, an expansion into a wider world of foods and flavors. Vegetarian cooking isn't at all bland and boring, I say, and it goes way beyond brown rice and tofu.

All true, but that doesn't mean tofu is banished from my kitchen. It's a high-quality protein source and has lots of other nutritional benefits, including a lot of isoflavones, which have antioxidant and hormone-balancing powers.

What's more, tofu is infinitely versatile, happily wearing whatever seasoning disguise you dress it up in. The tofu possibilities are practically infinite. You can grill it, bake it, stir-fry it, or blend it up to make a creamy dip. And it can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Now what meat product can make that claim?

I usually go in an Asian direction when I cook with tofu, in keeping with its roots in the Far East -- and my love for Japanese and Chinese cuisines. But sometimes I mix up the "other white meat" with nontraditional seasonings. This dish, for instance, is a south-of-the-border concoction.

I simply diced some onion, zucchini and potatoes (tiny dice on the latter) and sauteed them in olive oil for a few minutes with chile powder, oregano, and salt. Then I added some canned diced tomatoes (with juice), a minced clove of garlic, some finely chopped pickled jalapeno pepper, and a splash of water. Then I put on a lid and let it cook for about 5 minutes to form a nice saucy texture. Then I added the diced tofu, covered the pan again, and cooked for 5 minutes longer. Voila! A kind of Tofu Rancheros.

It was delicious and satisfying. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Chai bella

We are in the grips of another heavy storm, the last of the season -- or so the weather wonks tell us. It's another weekend for cozying up on the couch with cat, cookbooks, and the super-spouse close at hand. I love this kind of quiet, sequestered time, but I've had enough rain to last me a long while. We are ready for many consecutive days of sun now, oh great divine provider. Enough with the deluge already!

When it's warm-and-cozy I'm after, I think of chai, the spicy East Indian tea that is now a staple in American cafes. That storebought kind is horribly sweet to my taste, though, and not quite spicy enough. I have a friend who always grates and squeezes a knob of ginger before heading off to S*a*b*c*s so he can add an ounce of the juice to his chai. I'd rather just make up a batch at home.

Here's a chai recipe from my latest cookbook, 15-Minute Vegetarian. You can find all the spices at an ethnic market, herb specialty store, or the bulk section of your natural food market). You can even order them over the Internet. I use rice milk for this vegan version, which doesn't separate when boiled, as soymilk tends to do.

Make up a double batch and enjoy it over the course of a few stormy days. Blessings and bon appetit!

Peppermint Chai
Yield: 4 servings

1 stick (about 4 inches, or 10 cm) cinnamon
8 large black or green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 piece (about 4 inches, or 10 cm) fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
2 cups rice milk
2 green or black tea bags (decaffeinated if preferred)
2 peppermint tea bags
1 tablespoon (15 g) granulated sugar (or more, to taste)

Wrap the cinnamon stick in a cloth napkin and use a heavy object, such as a rolling pin, to break it into a few pieces. Place the cinnamon, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, allspice berries, and peppercorns in a saucepan with the ginger, milk, and 3 cups (710 ml) water. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Turn off the heat, add the tea bags, and steep for 5 minutes. Strain the chai into a teapot or coffee thermos. Add the sugar and stir well to dissolve. Serve hot on a stormy afternoon.


So-ba it!

Sticking with the pasta theme, I want to write about the Japanese noodles called soba. My dear, old friends Ricky and Cathy Tokubo first introduced me to them. They served the buckwheat noodles cold in small bowls with assorted Japanese condiments on the side, including grated ginger and a light sesame oil dressing. I found them supple, succulent, absolutely seductive. And I immediately went shopping at my local Asian grocery store to try out all the various sizes and types of soba available. Ever since, I have adored soba noodles in the Japanese style. This can mean cold noodles with dipping sauce, as I first had them, or in soup or tossed with sauteed veggies and tofu, as shown here -- in this case seasoned with grated ginger and fermented black beans.

This is also a post about asparagus, that brief and beautiful vegetable. Plump, vibrant, locally-grown spears have finally showed up at my market, and I know they won't be there for long, not in this perfect state. So I intend to glory in asparagus and in April, even though the sun continues to elude us. I've decided that Spring is not just a time of year, but also a state of mind.

Blessings and bon appetit!



Where tomato is king

Could I live and cook and be happy without tomatoes? Probably. But I'm glad I don't have to try.

My very first job for money was picking tomatoes in the fields west of Sacramento, dubbed Sack-o-tomatoes by the locals because of its perfect climate for growing the ruby fruits. For a couple of years, my older brother and I walked from our apartment complex out to the main road and caught a bracero bus at the crack of dawn on late summer mornings. We rode silently and comfortably in the company of immigrant adults to the fields, then worked together to fill crates with ripe tomatoes and send them off to be weighed so we could get paid for our efforts. We were hard workers and made enough money to pay for our own back-to-school clothes when our parents sometimes couldn't.

So I was introduced to vine-ripened, just-picked tomatoes early on in life and fell in love forever. When I got thirsty or hungry in the fields, I would eat a ripe tomato out of my hand, as you would an apple, and be refreshed by its juicy sweetness. To this day I can pick up the aroma of a tomato field from a long way off , and a plate of sliced tomatoes dressed up with olive oil, minced garlic, salt, pepper, and fresh basil is one of my favorite feasts on a hot August day.

Except in the summer, though, I don't eat fresh tomatoes. I just can't stand the insipid winter specimens. When I want tomatoes in the cold months, I almost always use the canned or dried variety.

Tonight I made a pesto-like sauce for pasta using both canned and dried. Here's the procedural. 1) Saute a diced onion and a few cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil with chili flakes until beginning to brown. 2) Add a good slosh of red or white wine and can of tomatoes, with juice. 3) Bring to a simmer and cook for several minutes, than add a good quantity of minced parsley. 4) Simmer for another 5 minutes, then transfer to a blender. 5) Add a few oil-packed dried tomatoes and puree. 6) Thin out with a small amount of pasta cooking water and toss with cooked pasta, including some Parmesan cheese if you like.

As you can see, the super-spouse liked it a lot. And in case you think it looks like a dainty portion for a big, strapping guy -- never fear, it's his second helping.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Kicharee time

Wintry day today, even though we're two weeks into spring. Heavy rain this morning, then overcast -- and COLD. It's a soup day, for sure, and probably a "kicharee" day. In the ancient "science of life" called Ayurveda, practiced in India for ages, kicharee is highly therapeutic, just what we need when we're fighting off or recovering from an illness.

I'm feeling a bit under said weather, I must admit. Our local news station announced last night that Seattle, which is in the Northwestern American rainforest, had 2.5 inches of rain in March. The San Francisco Bay Area, my beloved home in the temperate zone, had 9 inches! It's upside down. Today I heard from a friend that the state of Virginia had one of its driest months on record in March. Maybe it's not a new global weather pattern, just an extreme year, to be expected every once in a while. But after the record-breaking hurricane season, you can't help but wonder...

Anyway, kicheree. It can include any number of vegetables and spices, and always includes some kind of "dal" (split legume), basmati rice, and "ghee" (clarified butter). The spices are heated in the ghee, then the vegetables are added and sauteed for a few minutes. Then you add vegetable stock or water and when it comes to a boil, in goes the dal (split mung beans, available at natural food stores, is a traditional choice, but you can use red lentils instead). After about 10 minutes of boiling, the rice goes in, then all is gently simmered (stirring the pot occasionally) until it turns into a lovely, aromatic stew.

Ayurveda teaches that ghee is one of the great healing foods. It warms and lubricates our bodies and is considered deeply nourishing for all. According to my Ayurveda-wise friend, Ronda, all the cholesterol is removed from the butter during the clarifying process. So though ghee is all fat, it isn't the kind that's going to clog our arteries. I make my own ghee from organic sweet butter and use it occasionally. Strict vegan cooks can substitute canola or olive oil.

So when fighting off flu bugs -- or just culinary blahs -- cook up a pot of kicheree. Use plenty of grated fresh ginger and garlic, as I do, and plenty of cayenne pepper. It will certainly cure what ails you.

If only it could chase away this rain.



Coconut loves curry

I am quite fond of curry (previous visitors will have figured this out already). The spices of India show up frequently in my soups and sautes, and occasionally in my salad dressing and tea cup. One perfect partner for curry flavors in almost any dish is coconut milk, as Indian and Southeast Asian cooks have known forever.

Coconut milk has a bad rep with some people, I guess because it's high in fat. But the fat it delivers to our bloodstreams is not the evil kind and there are "light" versions out there. Plus, it doesn't take a lot of the wonderful stuff to add a slightly sweet flavor note and velvety texture to a sauce or soup.

Did you know you can freeze coconut milk? I generally cook for just the super-spouse and myself, and often don't use a whole can of coconut milk at one go. I discovered that it freezes just fine and can be added to a dish either frozen solid or thawed out so it returns to its liquid state.

The saute I made last night was another yum-gullion (for a definition of this silly term, see my post of 3/31, Brown Rice Redux #1). I had some tofu, a partial bunch of kale, half a red onion, half a bell pepper, and one last carrot in the fridge. Also some coconut milk in the freezer. So I just put all these things together (after dicing the tofu and veggies, of course) in a saute pan with a couple minced cloves of garlic and a hefty tablespoon of my homemade curry blend (you can use any commercial curry powder that suits your taste re: heat level). I added a little veggie broth to extend the coconut milk and a quarter teaspoon of salt. Would have added shiitake mushrooms if I'd had any on hand, but in the yum-gullion world we make do with what's there.

After about 10 minutes of simmering with lid on, the mixture had thickened and melded into a lovely, creamy, stew-like thing that went wonderfully well with the saffron rice I had cooked up. We liked it, a lot. Maybe you would, too.



Pasta + Broccoli = Italy

This is one of the classic combinations in the world of pasta -- originating in Sicily, I would guess. I've made it a lot over the years, and every time, when I take my first bite, I think, "This is Italy on a plate." It tastes earthy and a little bit spicy, and the texture is somewhat creamy but also substantial. I love it. And it's one more delicious way to use the good old crucifers (cauliflower could stand in for the broccoli). Keep in mind that you don't want the broccoli to be at all crunchy in this dish. You want it thoroughly cooked and softened for the authentic experience.

I've never written down a precise recipe, so I'll just spell out the process here:

1) Put several quarts of water on to boil for the pasta, salted.
2) To serve about 4 (depending on appetites), use 3/4 pound of pasta and 4 cups of broccoli, florets and peeled and diced stems. Get your broccoli cut up and set it aside so it's ready when you need it.
3) In a large saute pan, heat some olive olive and saute an onion and a few minced garlic cloves for a couple of minutes with a quarter teaspoon of dried chile flakes and some fresh or dried rosemary (a heaping teaspoon if dried, a tablespoon if fresh; you want the rosemary flavor to be pronounced in the finished dish).
4) Add a can of diced tomatoes, with juice, to the pan, along with a slosh of red or white wine, and a small amount of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for at least 10 minutes so the flavors can meld. Don't put the pasta in the pot until the sauce is simmering and your timing will work out fine.
5) Add the pasta (linguine is a good choice) to the boiling water and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the broccoli and let it cook along with the pasta for another 3 or 4 or 5 minutes. When the pasta is al dente (you know that one, right, where the pasta is still a bit chewy but not hard in the center?), reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta and broccoli.
6) Add the pasta and broccoli to the sauce and cook all together for a minute or two, turning and stirring to get everything well-combined. You can add some of the reserved pasta-cooking water, if need be, to keep the mixture smooth and not gummy.
7) If you eat dairy products, add some crumbled feta and/or grated Parmesan just before serving, and pass more Parm at the table.

Blessings and bon appetit!