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


Pears... yes, again!

I love pears, and I especially love pears in salad. I believe I blogged about a spinach salad with pears once already, but this one was so pretty and delicious that I just can't help myself from doing it again.

This time I made a classic vinaigrette, spiked with Dijon mustard and lemon juice. I dotted the salad with Point Reyes Original blue cheese, which is another thing I've already blogged about, but it bears repeating because it's such a wonderful cheese and such a great local company.

Our weather has been balmy and beautiful the last few days, with just enough breeze to blow out any hint of smog. It's a lovely time of year in my part of the world, and I plan to celebrate it with many, many salads. I'll be chronicling my salad days here. And I hope to be less busy soon so I can get back to regular postings...


South-of-the-border salad

The taco thing got me craving my favorite Mexican-inspired salad. Just had to have it. It is so much more than ordinary: tart with lime juice, rich with avocado, crunchy with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and spiked with a bit of chile powder and oregano.

Toasting pumpkin seeds (the green hulled kind, not the white ones that still have the shell on) turns them into an addictive crunchy snack. A cast iron skillet is the perfect pan to use, if you have one, or any heavy-bottomed skillet. It needs to like getting very, very hot.

Put some raw green pumpkin seeds in a dry pan and crank up the heat to medium-high. As the pan heats up, you'll hear a little bit of sizzle from the seeds. Stir them or shake the pan every so often to make sure they don't get too browned. Within a couple of minutes they'll begin to pop as the air inside each seed heats up. Keep shaking the pan and toasting the seeds until they are almost all puffed up and have some nice toasty color on them. Then use them as a condiment on a salad, as shown here, or season them up with a touch of salt, some chile powder, and garlic powder and nibble away. Delicious!

Essentials for the salad include cabbage, red or green, shredded; red bell pepper bits, roasted or not; minced red onion or sliced green onions; cubes of perfect avocado. Add tomatoes if it's summer and they're irresistably ripe on the vine. Baby spinach or your favorite lettuce mix can also be added.

For the dressing: Whisk together some fresh-squeezed lime juice (or apple cider vinegar), a dash of tomato paste, pinch of chile powder, teaspoon of dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Now whisk in some olive (or flax) oil until emulsified. Drizzle dressing over salad, toss, and garnish with pumpkin seeds. For a main course, just add cooked black beans.

I know versions of this are going to be showing up a lot on my table this Spring-Summer, cuz I'm in a south-of-the-border state of mind. Alas, my Mexico travel plans have been shelved, due to a recently increased workload, but I can always dream, and eat, my way there.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Taco talk

Warm weather makes mealtimes at my house even more casual. I don't want to be inside much when the garden is beckoning, plus my appetite decreases as the days get warmer, so my cooking gets simpler. One of my favorite simple entrees when it's beautiful outside is vegetarian tacos.

There are so many great veg fillings; really they're limited only by our imaginations. I've made winter squash and caramelized onion tacos, blue cheese and roasted red bell pepper and black bean tacos, and tofu chorrizo tacos with potato -- to name a few. I often include mushrooms in the filling because they have such depth of flavor and a satisfying texture. I usually offer shredded lettuce or cabbage as condiments, along with chopped tomatoes (only if great organic ones are available out of the garden or from the farmer's market), diced raw onion of one type or another, and whatever salsa I happen to have on hand. I almost always include avocados, cut into chunks and tossed with lime juice, as an optional addition. You could offer cheese and sour cream, too, of course. A plate of raw peeled jicama sticks, dusted with chile powder and sprinkled with lime juice, makes a wonderful crunchy "side."

Here's a really fun party idea: 1) make up several taco fillings ahead of time; 2) just before serving, warm them up and place in serving bowls on your table; 3) prep and present your condiments in festive serving dishes; 4) steam or griddle a large quantity of fresh corn tortillas (a local Hispanic grocery store is where you'll find the best tortillas); 5) pour some beer or sparkling water, or even blend up a batch of margaritas, and invite your best friends over to feast and frolic. Salsa on the CD player, por favor.

I co-authored a vegetarian Mexican cookbook several years ago, which is out of print at the moment. I keep thinking it should be revived in a new edition, because don't we all love those Latin flavors? And really innovative veg latino recipes aren't easy to find. Let me know what you think of that idea and I'll use your comments to help sell it to a publisher!

Blessings and bon appetit!


Oil the rage...

Yes, boutique olive oil is all the rage. In California, where the weather in many regions mimics the growing conditions of the Mediterranean, the golden elixer has become big business. I couldn't be happier, because I prefer to use foods grown near where I live. They're bound to be fresher, and it makes me happy that untold amounts of fossil fuel haven't been burned in getting them to my market.

I just returned from a long weekend in Santa Barbara, feasting and feting my wonderful ma-in-law, along with my super-spouse and his (our) sister. There were many highlights: great sights (like the living "Toad House" at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden), sounds (authentic salsa at the Saturday farmer's market), and great tastes (including a fine olive oil, also discovered at the Saturday market).

The health benefits of olive oil are due to its mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which help reduce levels of "bad" cholesterol and deliver a good dose of vitamin E, a potent antioxidant. Many nutrition experts believe that the healthy longevity enjoyed by people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet is due, in large part, to a high consumption of extra-virgin olive oil.

I buy olive oil from small producers to give the "underdog" a bit of a boost. It's hard to compete with well-known brands, and the little guy deserves a break. Especially if his product is as yummy as the Joelle extra-virgin late harvest manzanillo oil I brought home.

If there are local olive pressers in your area, check out their products and give them your support. Your health and your conscience will be better for it...

And finally, here is the fresh chard and mascarpone omelet I was served at Stella Mare's, where the mom's day brunch crowd oohed and aahed over the beautiful fare.

Blessed again.


Lavender Lemonade

This post has nothing to do with roses, but since my lavender's not yet in flower, I thought I'd take a shot of my favorite blooming beauties. Is there any doubt that we live in an earthly paradise?

Needless to say, the Spring weather and beautiful flowers are luring me outside, even when I should be inside, focused on my monitor and keyboard or whipping up good things to eat. I can't help myself; the garden is so lovely and I'm dreaming of al fresco meals with friends and long, lingering evenings outdoors.

The Meyer lemons are thick on the trees in my part of the world, so it's a great time to pick and squeeze them. The fresh juice can be frozen so it's available for lemonade all summer long. To me, lemonade is a nearly perfect refreshment in hot weather. I am careful to not sweeten it too much, because I like to taste those sour notes -- it adds to the cooling effect, somehow.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try making lavender lemonade. I thought the combination of flavors would be interesting. What I found out, however, is that the addition of lavender doesn't change the taste that much. Where it really makes a different is in the color of the beverage. You make the lavender tea first, which is light bronze in color, then add fresh lemon juice and sugar. And voila! It turns a really lovely shade of pink.

Here's the recipe, from my most recent book, 15-Minute Vegetarian. As you can see, it's really simple. Try to make it ahead so it can chill in the refrigerator. If you pour it over ice while it's still warm, the flavor will be pretty watered down.


3 tablespoons (15 g) dried lavender flowers
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons (25 g) organic granulated sugar

Put the lavender flowers in a teapot or glass or ceramic bowl and cover with 4 cups (.95 L) of boiling water. Set aside to steep for 20 minutes, then strain into a pitcher and add the lemon juice and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves, and then refrigerate. When cool, serve over ice in 4 tall glasses. You can garnish each glass with a fresh sprig of lavender if you have some growing in the garden.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Sesame Beans

I use Asian foods and seasonings so often that some of my friends call my cooking style "mindyonese cuisine."

Because I loved Japanese food, I made a point of learning early on to incorporate sesame oil, rice vinegar, tamari (soy sauce), sake (rice wine), mirin (sweet rice wine), sea vegetables, wasabi (incendiary horseradish), shiitake mushrooms, and ginger into my cooking. These are just a few of the ingredients that make Japanese cuisine so special, but they gave me a good foundation to build on.

To this day, one of my favorite ways to season vegetables is Japanese-inspired and extremely simple. Broccoli, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, and all kinds of leafy greens are wonderful prepared this way.
1) Place hot veggies in a bowl.
2) Add a little sesame oil, rice vinegar or lemon juice, soy sauce, and freshly ground black pepper (include some freshly grated ginger, if you like).
3) Toss and transfer to a serving dish.
4) Garnish in some pretty fashion, like with black sesame seeds as shown above. Do as the Japanese chefs do and put some thought into the presentation.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Shiitake 4ever

In my research over the last several years about longevity-enhancing foods, certain kinds of mushrooms are frequently mentioned. This is because people who live in Japan, and specificallly on the Japanese island of Okanawa, have a great life expectancy and eat those mushrooms on a regular basis. Maitake, reishi, and shiitake top the list.

I don't know much about the first two, because they don't show up often in produce markets. But I keep both fresh and dried shiitake on hand most of the time. In addition to their youth-promoting reputation, their intense depth of flavor, "meaty" texture, and affinity for strong seasonings makes them terrific ingredients for the health-conscious creative cook.

Here are two short articles that explain some of the shiitake's benefits, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from Whole Foods . Add shiitake mushrooms to your diet and be well for a long time to come. Organically grown shiitakes are readily available (at least in California) and you can even grow them in your back yard or kitchen, on a specially inoculated log.

Tonight I used shiitakes in the simplest of dishes. Over medium heat, I lightly sauteed some finely diced tofu with sliced fresh shiitake in a touch of roasted sesame oil for a couple of minutes, then added a thinly sliced clove of garlic, a sprinkle of tamari, and some curry powder and sauteed for a couple of minutes longer. I then added about 1/4 cup of water and covered the pan. When it started to sizzle, I knew the water was almost gone and removed the lid, added some pre-steamed baby string beans, and gently stirred until the pan was pretty much dry. After transferring the mixture to a serving dish, I squeezed on a little fresh lime juice and added some strips of roasted red bell pepper. And it was good.


Martha popcorn

I found my camera (it was hiding in plain sight on the backseat of my car) and now that I'm back in full photograph mode my new post is about... ta-da... popcorn??! Okay, so popcorn is not exactly a beautiful food, inspiring to food stylists and photographers around the globe. It is kind of cute, though, and it is one of the things the super-spouse is great at making. And we got home late from a day in Sacramento. So popcorn it is.

The super-spouse is named Tad, not Martha. His recipe is called Martha's popcorn because he learned from the queen of all TV homemakers that you can make almost-instant popcorn using nothing more than popcorn kernels, a brown paper bag, and a microwave oven. Then you season it up however you like. So who needs that microwave popcorn from the video store or supermarket -- adulterated with artificial flavors, trans-fats, and other bad stuff?

Does the mention of a microwave oven give you the willies? I own one but never cook anything in it, because it's no fun to stick some food in a closed box and wait for it to get hot. That's not what I call cooking. I like to see and smell what's in the pot, and stir and taste and generally get all involved with it. Plus I have some concerns about nutrient loss caused by microwaves.

I've read up on the subject and the radiation doesn't scare me, any more than the electromagnetic field emitted by any other of my household appliances. I know a lot of health-conscious people don't like 'em, but they're not on my personal list of major bugaboos. There is one important thing to keep in mind: There may be health consequences associated with using plastics in the microwave, including styrofoam and plastic wrap. For more on that subject, read this. Despite the title, the guy does say some chemical transfer from plastic to food can occur in the microwave.

In any case, my microwave oven gets used pretty much only for instant reheating in a pinch, like when the aforementioned spouse is running late for work and wants hot coffee to go. And he uses it to make Martha's popcorn about once a week.

What make's Martha's popcorn really yummy doesn't have anything to do with the woman it's named after. The seasoning inspiration is all Tad's. Here's what he does:

1) Pour 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels into a medium-sized paper bag; 2) Fold the bag closed and microwave for 2.5 minutes; 3) Transfer popped corn to a LARGE bowl so there's plenty of room for mixing; 4) Squirt or drizzle the corn with flax oil (take it easy, it's pretty strong-tasting stuff; olive oil is also a good choice); 5) Sprinkle on a liberal amount of granulated garlic and nutritional yeast flakes, and a small amount of salt; 6) In his wilder moments, he also adds some crushed dried oregano; 7) Toss well and eat with gusto using your preferred method -- one kernel at a time, a dainty few, or by the massive handful.

Does this sound delicious to you, or just plain weird? Well, it may be the latter, but it is DEFINITELY the former. And if you put it in a pretty bowl, it's even kind of photogenic.

Blessings and bon appetit!


World's healthiest foods?

A couple of weeks ago, Health Magazine announced its list of the 5 healthiest foods in the world. I'm here to tell you that avocados, blueberries, walnuts, oatmeal, and garlic (some of my personal faves) aren't on it, nor are broccoli, green tea, or brown rice. Each of these foods has its advocates, and most nutritionists would agree that they're all good things to include in our diets on a regular basis. They're just not the healthy foods Health Magazine picked.

Curious about what did make the cut? Here you go: 1) olive oil; 2) soy; 3) lentils; 4) yogurt; and 5) kimchee (Korea's pickled spicy cabbage). You can read the article here to find out why.

I approved of the list because is validated my existence -- or at least my food choices. I happened to have every one of the listed foods on hand. Yes, even the kimchee.

A huge Asian market four blocks from my house carries an organic brand that's less expensive than anything I've found at the natural grocery stores. I like to keep kimchee on hand as a condiment for Indian and Southeast Asian meals, or just to snack on. No kidding, right out of the jar--sometimes it hits the spot like you wouldn't believe.

If you don't have access to or a taste for kimchee, you could eat naturally fermented saurkraut or dill pickles for the same benefit, which is plenty of live bacteria in your digestive tract -- the good kind, of course.

As I said, I liked Health Magazine's picks, but we all have our own opinions on the subject. I've been wondering what ordinary health-conscious people like you and me would put on our own personal top-5 lists.

If you'd like to share your picks, with or without explanation, leave me a comment or email me at I'll post what you send me in the next week or so...


No more Cool Whip

Plastic food, that which comes from a laboratory instead of a garden (or kitchen), is a sad and stupid fact of life. Supermarkets are full of the stuff. It's all technically edible but it certainly isn't what Mother Nature intended, and it doesn't nurture our health and well-being.

When the convenience craze made real whipped cream seem labor-intensive, some clever person who had no taste whatsoever decided that a new white dessert topping made of cheap chemicals could really capitalize on the trend. And, oh, did it ever! I have no idea how much Cool Whip gets sold every year, but I know kids who have never tasted actual whipped cream. They think Cool Whip is cool, which makes me want to weep.

My one caveat for real whipped cream is that you buy organic whipping cream. Logic tells me that an ordinary dairy cow that's been shot up with hormones and antibiotics and fed who-knows-what will produce milk that's tainted with chemical residues that I sure don't want on my strawberry shortcake. (Not to mention that whipped cream is high in saturated fat, so we shouldn't make a steady diet of it if we value our cardiovascular systems.)

If you want an alternative to whipped cream because you choose not to eat dairy products at all, that's different. Here's a yummy vegan dessert topping that has many uses.


Yield: 1 cup

5 ounces firm tofu
1/2 cup raw unsalted cashew pieces
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice, strained
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of salt

1. Dice the tofu into 1/2-inch pieces and wrap in a clean tea towel to absorb any excess moisture. Set aside until needed.
2. Finely chop the cashews in a blender or food processor, then add the orange juice in a thin stream while the motor is still running. Process for 30 seconds, then turn off the machine and scrape the sides and bottom of the blender to release the cashew "mud" back into the mixture.
3. Add the tofu, maple syrup, vanilla extract, lemon juice, and salt. Blend at high speed until the mixture is very smooth and as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 1 full minute.
4. Chill for an hour or so before serving, if desired.


Berry, berry good

Because I usually post about savory dishes that look like lunch or dinner, people have asked me if I ever cook breakfasts or dessert. Yes and yes. To prove it, I thought I'd offer my recipe for blueberry sauce, which will serve you well on both accounts. It's extremely simple, delicious, and oh so good for us. It originally appeared in The Complete Vegan Cookbook, which was published in 2001 and is still going strong.

Here's the scoop on blueberries. They provide lots of vitamin C, as well as potassium, iron, vitamin A, and fiber. Just like cranberries, they have an antibiotic effect so are great for keeping the kidneys healthy. They're also good for the eyes because they contain an anti-oxidant called anthocyanoside. Fresh blueberries will stay fresh for several days under wraps in the fridge. I keep some in the freezer year-round so I always have them on hand.

As you can see, I love this sauce on pancakes, but it's also good stirred into plain yogurt for breakfast or tapioca pudding for dessert (you can buy or make vegan versions of both if you don't eat dairy products). Here's another idea: Drizzle it over pound cake and top with whipped cream for a beautiful variation on strawberry shortcake. Yum. (Tomorrow I'll post my recipe for a vegan whipped cream alternative; no more time for blogging today.)

Blessings and bon appetit!


1 pound fresh or frozen blueberries
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the blueberries, maple syrup, orange juice concentrate, and allspice. Cover the pan and cook until reduced to a thin sauce consistency, about 10 minutes. If you want the sauce to be thicker, just cook it longer!


Life in the garden

No food photo today -- I've misplaced my camera (hope it's at my brother-in-law's house). So instead of writing about cooking, thought I'd do a different kind of post about what goes into keeping ourselves and our loved ones fed. The SF Chronicle ran a feature story in the magazine section yesterday about mushrooming and it got me thinking about Nature's bounty and how we all depend on it and how little most of us think about that.

So, in belated commemoration of Earth Day (April 22) and to usher in the lovely month of May, I'm reminding myself and anybody who happens to be reading this to pause and reflect on our interdependence with air and water and soil and sun and all the things that live in and grow from the Earth. Let's walk lightly on this precious planet -- using little, replenishing much (that means composting and keeping toxic chemicals out of our gardens). Let's be mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions so we sow seeds of joy in all we do.

Let's include all beings in our circle of compassion, sending out love in all directions. And, of course, let's celebrate life and deeply relish every meal and every moment, because it's a great privilege to be well fed and we better darn well be happy about it.

Okay, I'll get off my soapbox in a minute. But first, here's one final thought on the subject...

by Mindy Toomay

Using my hands to dig dark compost
into the sprawling strawberry beds,
I contemplate the multitude of forms
sifting through my fingers -
countless beings being born
and dying in this instant -
each reliant on the rest,
every one related,
my life no less dependent
than the worm's.

(P.S. The exuberant painting above is by Richard Earl Thompson.)