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


Risotto Rules

It's been WAY long since my last post, due to my usual excuse: "So little time, so much to do," as the Mad Hatter says.

Cooking is a refuge, and whenever I make time for it I come back into balance, right here in the present moment. And yet... some days (and weeks) I am convinced I don't have time to prepare anything more than a salad or sandwich here and there, or I survive on burritos from the local taqueria.

"Too much," sings Dave Matthews, and I know that refrain. Still, part of me believes, it's all good. Life catches me up sometimes in a cycle of activity that challenges me to be more, do more. And without those challenges, I might just stagnate.

Then there's the voice in my other ear, constantly crooning, "Peace, peace. Slow down and breathe. All else is illusion."

Does this see-saw of feelings sound familiar?

Anyway, tonight, at long last, I TOOK the time to COOK. And I had risotto on my mind -- pure comfort food for anyone who loves rice. Although I haven't made risotto for at least a year, the process was absolutely clear in my mind. If you're new to this dish, just cook it a few times and you, too, will forever have the technique.

Risotto has four essential elements: 1) Riso: A special type of medium-grain, high-starch rise. Arborio is a traditional Italian choice, available at specialty stores and regular supermarkets in my neck of the woods. 2) Brodo: The broth that you use to cook the risotto; it's added in stages as you stir the grains around to get them to release their starch, which makes the finished dish nice and creamy. I like to use homemade stock, but sometimes settle for broth powders or "boxes." 3) Soffrito: The ingredients that you saute at the beginning to add depth of flavor to the rice. 4) Condimento: The ingredients you add at the last moment to heighten the flavors and bring it all together. (More information on risotto here.)

Tonight's version included red onion and garlic, dried basil, veggie stock. I added slightly defrosted peas, baby spinach leaves, and lemon zest toward the end. (Traditionalists would also add Parmesan cheese at this stage, along with a pat of butter. Vegans wouldn't, of course.)

I roasted some asparagus spears to go along side. The roasted red bell pepper garnish was a last-minute thought, because I wanted something red to liven things up. And there you go.

Risotto is incredibly versatile, just like pasta, so feel free to combine herbs and veggies in whatever combinations appeal to you.

I appreciate more than ever that with certain classic dishes, cooking is a ritual experience, one that anchors us in real life and generates meaning. Risotto is such a dish. Try it and see if you don't agree.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Pass the pasta

All the salads I've been eating lately left me feeling hungry today for something more substantial. I was craving pasta and had some broccoli and lovely cherry tomatoes on hand. Here's what I made of them. The tomatoes plumped and burst in the pan and added a slightly sweet note, not to mention a gorgeous color contrast.

I must have been Italian in a previous lifetime, because I've also been craving polenta lately. And I've been thinking about making a bread salad (panzanella) from the rest of the Suburban Bread I told you about. All Italian dishes, of course, are just convenient ways to get plenty of garlic and olive oil onto my taste buds. And that brings me to my favorite olive oil.

I've been buying Bariani for years. The olives are grown and crushed outside of Sacramento, which makes it very much a local product, and the Bariani family actually show up at farmers markets rather than sending employees. I've had delighteful conversations with the sons and mom of the clan, who love to talk food and cooking almost as much as I do.

Once again I'm feeling very blessed to be living in the foodie paradise that is northern California.


Salad days

Last week was so busy that I didn't have time for cooking, much less blogging about cooking. So I made salads, lots and lots of salads.

Here's one: spinach, radicchio, cucumber, green onions. That jar is in the photo because I made the dressing by adding some apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper to an almost empty jar of pomegranate jelly. It's a great way to "rinse" the last bit of flavor out of the jar and adds sweet and fruity notes to the salad. Apricot and blackberry jams and orange marmalade are other preserves I've used to flavor salad dressing.

On the side: a slab of Suburban Bread generously smeared with herbed local goat cheese -- both items from The Cheeseboard, a genuine worker-owned collected in Berkeley. This is one of the very best foodie destinations in an exceedingly foodie city. Alice Waters' famous Chez Panisse, a world-class all-organic restaurant, is right across the street.

I'm hoping the coming week won't be so hectic, because I have a real cooking itch I'd like to scratch. Meanwhile...

Blessings and bon appetit!

Ice cream Sunday

This was one of those spur-of-the-moment inspirations that turned out really, really well and took about 5 minutes to prepare. I discovered green tea soy ice cream at my local natural food store and brought it home. I really, really love green tea ice cream but just don't let myself indulge in frozen dairy desserts (or much dairy at all). Not just the fat, not just the cholesterol, not just the calories -- but the whole dairy/cattle industry and the havoc it wreaks on the environment and animal welfare, etc.

So I was excited to find this frozen soy dessert in my favorite flavor and thought the super-spouse and I would just sit on the patio in the evening and have a few spoonfuls.

Then out of the blue I had an idea: Why not add some other traditional Asian flavors? So I scooped the green tea soy stuff into glasses, drizzled some light coconut milk over each serving. I would have added some chopped candied ginger, but didn't have any on hand. No matter. It was delicious.

Had another brainstorm while eating the first one: adding green tea soy dream to ginger ale would make one of the best floats ever. So that's next. I like Reed's Premium Ginger Brew, by the way, which is made with real ginger and sweetened with honey and pineapple juice, not high-fructose corn syrup, which is another scourge on the planet. Also, it contains no "natural flavors," which are not natural at all. But you knew that.

So now I have some great new desserty things to serve my friends all summer.

Come to think of it, a ginger or coconut cookie (or two) would be a great companion to either the float or the sundae.

Blessings and bon appetit!


A personal fava-rite

One of the special treats of spring is fava (fah-vah) beans, yet I don't know too many people who eat them. In fact, when I stopped to fill a bag with the large, furry pods at Monterey Market, a friend of mine who is pretty food savvy blurted out in horror, "What's that?"

Well, it's part of the pea family and a very ancient vegetable. Evidence of favas has actually been found in Egyptian tombs. The plants make a great cover crop, infusing nutrients into the soil, but many farmers don't even bother harvesting them for the table.

My friends, Cathy and Rick, grow them as a cover crop but DO eat them and that's how I came to know and love them. I have fond memories of shelling huge piles of favas so we could enjoy them with soy sauce and shiso leaves as part of a Japanese feast at their lovely home in Sonoma County.

Cooks in the Mediterranean region use both fresh and dried favas, and have done so for a very long time. So long that some people of Med. descent have a genetic allergy to the vegetable and can be poisoned by the beans.

So let's recap. The fava is a funny-looking veggie that most people don't bother eating, and it can be poisonous. Oh, and did I mention it's kind of labor-intensive (more on method later)?

But here are the fava's good points: it has a buttery texture and subtle earthy flavor that is absolutely unique and delicious. It is plenty nutritious, too. (A compound in favas is the same one used in certain medications developed for Parkinson's patients. So they must be especially good for the nervous system.)

In the interests of expanding your culinary horizons, I suggest you bring home a big bag of favas the next time you're at a well-stocked produce market. Then here's what to do:

1) Remove the beans from the pithy pods, discarding the latter.
2) Drop the beans in boiling water and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on their size; rinse with cold water, drain, and cool.
3) When cool enough to handle, peel the beans. Yes, one at a time (this is the labor-intensive part). You'll find each pale green bean is wrapped in a touch, milky skin. Just pinch a loose area and tear to open the skin and pop out the bean.
4) Dress the beans with hot or cold sauce, or use them in pasta or risotto. They are already fully cooked and are delicate in texture, so don't add them to a dish until the last few moments of cooking time.

The favas pictured above are dressed in a lemon and fresh parsley pesto, laced with ground fennel seed. Fresh basil would also work beautifully in this kind of preparation. I added bits of roasted red bell pepper for their smoky flavor and a nice color contrast.

Hope you'll make friends soon with this somewhat odd but completely endearing veggie.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Smile and error

When we're beginning cooks, we almost always work from recipes, carefully following instructions, measuring every ingredient. But as our skills and confidence grow, we want to break out of that box, to take some culinary risks, to wing it now and then. And so we become creative cooks, true artists in the kitchen.

The art of cooking is a fantastic practice, and we get to eat the results. But of course we're not always at our most brilliant. Occasionally our creative efforts fall a little bit short. This is the story of one such occasion.

Last night had to be a "whatever's in the fridge" night. There were bits and pieces of various things in there that I wanted to use up. And I thought I was up to the task. Why not make a saute using half an onion, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, kale, a bit of leftover veggie stock, and a half-can of garbanzo beans? Throw in some curry powder and freshly grated ginger, salt and pepper of course, and let it simmer a while.

So far, so good. But then I had a bad idea. The veggies were all cooked, but there was quite a bit of liquid left in the pan. I hadn't cooked any kind of starch, because I was going to serve sweet potatoes on the side. But seeing that liquid made me think of couscous, those little pearls of pasta that are sponges for any kind of liquid and cook in about 5 minutes. Sounded like a good idea at the time.

In the pantry, I found some very fine couscous. I bought it at an Indian market a while back, wanting to experiment with the tiny variety. So I sprinkled a few tablespoons into the liquid in the pan, without removing the veggies first, put the lid on, and turned off the heat. This is the usual couscous method. The couscous soaks up the liquid while the steam in the covered pan plumps up the little pearls and keeps things nice and hot.

And it worked, from a technical point of view. The couscous did it's job of soaking up the hot liquid and the hot liquid did its job of cooking the couscous. But when I took off the lid, it was "uh-oh." The couscous was so fine that when cooked it looked exactly like cream of wheat or some other "mush" coating the vegetables in clumps. Not a very pretty sight (it looks better to me in the photo than it did "live"). The flavor wasn't great, either. Somehow, the wonderful curry-infused vegetable and couscous melange I'd imagined hadn't materialized.

We ate it anyway, of course, and it was FINE. It was PASSABLE. I'm sure we got lots of good nutrients into our bodies in the process. But it wasn't a pinnacle moment in my life as a cook. The super-spouse, who almost always makes lots of yummy noises when eating the food I put before him, was silent. Today he said that, well, it wasn't quite up to my usual standards.

Another reminder that cooking is a life-long learning process, and perfection isn't possible -- or even desirable. Who needs that kind of pressure?

Blessings and bon appetit!


Tostada, o nada

Almost a week since my last post. Shame! But I have a good excuse. I've had a million and one non-cooking things to do. You know how life goes sometimes -- no matter how many things you get done, the to-do list keeps getting longer.

To top off the madness, I bought a new computer system while the Memorial Day sales were on and it took me a almost a week to find time to set it all up, get connected to the wireless network, etc. Now that the busyness has slowed down just a bit, I'm back in business and loving the new set-up!

In the midst of all this, my eating plan got very simple. Didn't want to further complicate my life with elaborate cooking -- too many ingredients or too many steps in a recipe would have made me feel just that much busier.

So here's an example of the kinds of meals I create when I'm super-busy, and the kind of cooking that led to my latest book, 15-Minute Vegetarian. Grab a few things out of the fridge, spend a few minutes putting them together, and get out of the kitchen -- fast.

Did you know that plain corn tortillas become deliciously crispy tostada shells when baked at about 375 degrees for 10 to 20 minutes? (Exact time will depend on your particular oven.) Lay them out in a single layer and, not touching each other, on a baking sheet(s). You can spritz them with oil if you like, they it isn't necessary. Of course, you could also deep fry the tortillas, which is the traditional way to make them crisp. Delicious but not ideal, for obvious reasons. (Okay, in case it's not obvious: not to mention more calories, frying is a trans-fatty thing to do, and trans fats are a no-no for heart health.) You can bake up a dozen tortillas and store them in a tightly closed plastic bag at room temperature for a few days.

Once the tortillas are ready, it's just a matter of spreading on some refried beans (any color, canned or homemade), then putting on any other ingredients you like. I love the sweetness of cabbage with Mexican flavors, but shredded lettuce is fine. My version, pictured, also has some feta cheese, chile sauce, and toasted pumpkin seeds. If I'd had an avocado in the house, I would have used it. Ditto tomato. Ditto radishes. Anything you like in a salad can go on a tostada.

I bet many people consider a squeeze of lime optional, but I don't. That fresh, tart flavor note brings it all together somehow.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Curry calamity, averted

Tonight I looked at everything in the fridge I wanted to use up -- partial can of diced tomatoes, same of chickpeas, half a head of cauliflower -- and came up with a curry dish. Included coconut milk (yum!) and actual flaked coconut (unsweetened), along with the usual curry spice blend (homemade) and a lot of grated fresh ginger. Salt and cayenne added. Peas rinsed and ready, cilantro chopped.

Then, uh-oh. No basmati rice in the house. Amazing oversight on my part, because I almost never run out of such staples. Plenty of brown rice and arborio, but nothing that cooks up as fast as basmati. What to do?

In the pantry, I found a package of green tea soba from Trader Joe's. Never tried it before and my review is -- pretty good. I'm more used to the taste and texture of buckwhat soba. This version includes wheat and buckwheat flours, but the predominant flavor is actually green tea when you taste the noodles on their own. And the flavor of green tea is so subtle it got lot under the spicy curried veggies. (They were sturdy and made a great holder for the sauce, so no complaints on that score.)

So next time I'll try the green tea soba with the subtle flavors of Japan, in miso soup for instance, or with a light soy/peanut sauce. Hmmm... that sounds pretty good. I think I have my inspiration for one of my weekend meals. Maybe with Pressed Tofu with Savory Seasonings from my latest cookbook.

I also have a bag of fresh fava beans in the fridge, and can't wait to do some Provencal dish with those. I think I feel a cooking binge coming on. All will be revealed in due time...

Meanwhile, blessings and bon appetit!