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


Okay, okra

This is it, the season of okra, the time when those strange-looking plants produce their strange-looking pods and we can partake of their succulence. If you are not fond of this vegetable, you really must give it another chance. There's a lot about it to love.

For instance, that slime it produces. Oh, you say that's exactly what you HATE about okra? I suggest you get hip to that stringy secretion and let it work for you. In a soup preparation, like gumbo, the okra slime is a very efficient little thickening agent. In a saute combining sliced okra with fresh corn kernels and chopped fresh tomatoes -- other harvest season specialties -- it creates a great consistency if you also throw in a handful of cornmeal to soak up the slime.

Yesterday I found beautiful okra at the market for a reasonable price. Tonight there was a decided chill in the air, so I decided on gumbo. I have heard that "gumbo" actually means "okra" in some African dialect, so naturally my culinary imagination traveled in that direction.

And yes, I mean vegetarian gumbo. If you are a true Cajun, you will think this idea very unappealing, but bear with me. Also, it's a lowfat gumbo, another strange thought if you hail from Louisiana. Of course, the key to controlling the fat is not to include meat (duh!) and to use a dry, rather than wet, roux.

Roux is the browned flour that helps thicken and flavor a pot of gumbo. Southern cooks brown the flour in lots and lots of vegetable oil until they have a dark and nasty-looking (but apparently quite tasty) sludge. I simply put a few tablespoons of regular all-purpose flour in a dry pan over medium heat and stir it around while it browns for a few minutes, turning a medium shade of tan. Simple and it really works. It adds a special depth of flavor to the broth as it -- along with the gumbo -- thickens things up.

I used tofu and garbanzos as the "meaty" elements in my gumbo tonight, and of course used the traditional file powder and Tabsaco sauce to season things up. See the photo for the aromatics (onion, celery, bell pepper, carrot) I sauteed in olive oil before adding the browned flour, file powder, and a good quantity of veggie broth. Then I put in some garlic and bay leaves and a small can of diced tomatoes, slightly drained, plus salt and pepper. Brought it to a simmer, then added the tofu cubes , garbanzos, and okra. Simmered for about 30 minutes, until everything was nice and thick and smelling really good, then added several dashes of Tabasco (you can always add more to the bowl, so if you're not big on spicy foods, be conservative).

Meanwhile, cook up a pot of brown or white rice. Put small amounts of rice in bowls and ladle on the steaming gumbo. Top with some chopped parsley or cilantro, if you like.

Apologies to those of you who have been cooking up a traditional gumbo for decades. I'm not saying this version is better than your spicy, oily, sausage- and chicken- and seafood-laden recipe. It's just different, and quite tasty in its own right. And just maybe a little better on the arteries. And I get to call it gumbo because it's all about okra.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Keen on quinoa

I've been eating more of the ancient Aztec grain called quinoa (keen-wah) lately, tossing it in soups, steaming it to go with stir-fries, and letting it star in salads. It makes a great alternative to brown rice, which is my long-standing whole grain of choice for various and sundry dishes.

Because the quinoa grains are so small, I finely chop up the veggies I'm combining with it -- going for a confetti effect with the shapes and colors. Then I toss it all together with a simple vinaigrette and serve it on a bed of greens. Today I added wedges of sweet and succulent just-picked garden tomatoes.

It does make for a beautiful meal, doesn't it?


Soup heals

I've blogged before about my soup lust. I crave it often, for its soothing and warming and comforting goodness. And especially when cold and flu season rolls around, because soup heals.

There is something absolutely curative about a steaming bowl of homemade soup. Many mothers know this, and when the little ones get a tickle in their throats, out comes the soup pot. Chicken soup is a mainstream favorite, but vegetarians can make just as potent a concoction with nothing but vegetables, water, and a few seasonings. It really helps if you include a good quantity of love and other immune-boosting ingredients.

My neighbor LJM, of peach pie fame, has come down with a nasty chest thing and feels rotten. So I decided to cook up a pot of soup, to cure what ails her and to prevent the super-spouse and me from coming down with it.

Fortunately, I had a fridge full of GREAT veggies, so I didn't have to make a run to the store. I just chopped up some onion, celery, yellow squash, green beans, broccoli, and garlic and put them in a stockpot with a pretty good quantity of veggie broth. Added coconut milk, some homemade curry powder, and some tamari and brought her to a simmer.

That's when I added the soba noodles. I usually use rice noodles in a soup like this, for a Southeast Asian touch, or some cooked brown or basmati rice. This time I wanted the earthy goodness of buckwheat, though, and found a half package of soba in my pasta basket. Perfect!

Bear with me now. When the soup had come back to a boil, I added some white fish fillets. LJM said she needed protein and she had some fresh fish on hand that needed to be used, and so I used it. (NOTE: This soup would have been just as good, and better by some standards, without it.) Just laid the whole fillets right on top of the steaming soup, and then mounded a bunch of chopped chard on top of the fish. Put on the lid and simmered for about five minutes.

When I lifted the lid, the chard had barely wilted. I stirred it gently into the soup, and in the process the fish broke up into perfect bite-size pieces.

The final touch: lots of fresh ginger. I used my trusty microplane zester and in a flash I had added a good tablespoon or so of ginger "paste" to the soup. Another gentle stir and it was done.

It was delicious. I know the three of us are much better for having eaten it, fish and all. And I'm already looking forward to my next soup, maybe spicy lentils with cauliflower and spinach. I still have some beautiful veggies on hand.


Peach pie perfection

Back from my summer vacation, it's time to put nose to grindstone and get back to the old routines. Well, that's not really how it feels in the cooking department. Being back in my home kitchen, with all my favorite cookware and serving ware and implements around me, feels like playtime!

And the produce in the market is so lovely right now. The best tomatoes and corn and beans and squash. Big fluffy bunches of basil so I can make up enough pesto to fill up the freezer so I can enjoy a taste of summer during the cold months.

And the fruit! OMG, the figs and berries and grapes and peaches! I could never decide which summer fruit is my favorite, but the peach is pretty near perfect. It's juicy and sweet and such a stunning color. And ephemeral. A peach can go from lovely to rotten in the matter of a few hours on a hot day. When you find a perfect peach, you must eat it immediately. I recommend standing in the yard taking big bites, with juice running down your chin, or baking succulent slices in a crust to make a pie.

My neighbor LJM did the latter recently and kindly shared it with the super-spouse and me. She used very little sugar, letting the peaches speak for themselves, and thickened the juice with a sprinkling of tapioca pearls. The pie tasted of sun and satisfied a deep hunger in us all.

It made me feel a bit wistful, though, because now I know summer is on the wane. Peach pie brings a message: Summer is passing and winter is not far off. Wake up! Savor the moment!

Not one to dwell on thoughts of the cold and the dark, though, I'm going to squeeze every dazzling drop out of summer. I'm dancing into the kitchen right now to play with my food!