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


Come to umami (shiitakes again)

I probably wouldn’t be such a wild mushroom fanatic if it wasn’t for my good friend called Anna Morel. A biologist by training, she became interested in mushrooms a couple of decades ago and has been an avid forager ever since. At (somewhat) regular intervals, my fridge is replenished with freshly-plucked chanterelles, boletes, maitake, morels, and other delicious and health-enhancing forest fungi.

Many wild mushrooms have healing powers, but lots of people I know never eat them. Perhaps the fact that some species can kill you scares them off. They prefer to stick with those pale but exceedingly safe supermarket buttons, which are not without merit but can’t hold a candle to their intensely flavored country cousins.

Even if you don’t have a mushroom expert in your life, you can enjoy the exotic flavor and immune-boosting qualities of fungi by eating shiitake mushrooms often. The shiitakes we find in urban markets these days are domesticated specimens, not picked in the wild, but they’re potent nonetheless. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, by all means buy a shiitake-inoculated log sometime and grow your own. It’s a very cool science project if you have kids in the house.

The photo is of one of many Asian style sautes I've made recently. Simple, delicious, and beautiful to look at. Shiitakes, tofu, green beans, ginger, garlic -- and those are strips of roasted red pepper on top.

BTW,there's actually a good scientific basis for the wonderfully satisfying taste of shiitakes. They naturally contain two nutritive compounds, called glutamate and guanylate, that provide an intense umami flavor.

That is not a typo. Umami is the fifth taste, dontcha know. Our tongues are not restricted to tasting sweet, sour, salty, and bitter – as was believed for hundreds of years. We can also distinctly detect when a food is deeply savory, and that taste was named “umami” by one of the Japanese scientists who made this discovery.

Other umami foods include Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, certain shellfish, green tea, sweet potatoes, and soy. Monosodium glutamate is an umami-enhancing condiment, but because of its high concentration of the glutamate, many health experts consider it harmful.

Live long and prosper. Eat your (wild) mushrooms!


Un-Turkey Stock

This morning, I knew that all over the country, people were tossing turkey carcasses into stockpots, along with some aromatic veggies, to make a batch of stock for leftover-turkey soup. I watched my mother do it every day-after-Thanksgiving during my childhood, and used to do it myself.

Today I had no turkey carcass, of course, but I wanted soup. So the super-spouse and I cut up some potatoes and carrots and celery and onions and put them all together in a big pot. We added some shiitake and chantarelle mushrooms, chard leaves and stems, garlic cloves. Seasonings included allspice berries, fresh rosemary sprigs, peppercorns, and half a lemon.

All this was submerged in lots of filtered water, then brought to a boil. I turned down the heat and simmered the lot for about 45 minutes, then strained out the veggies, pressing out as much liquid as I could. The yield of our minimal labors: a few quarts of this deliciously rich and beautifully brown stock, some of which is stowed away in the freezer for future use.

For tonight's healthy and warming repast, I put some of the stock in a saucepan, added cooked brown rice and cubes of tofu, and simmered for a few minutes. Just before serving, I added 2 sheets of nori seaweed snipped into little squares and a tablespoon of miso diluted with a bit of water. That's coarsely ground cayenne pepper sprinkled on top.

Said super-spouse and I found this humble Japanese country soup as satisfying as any meat- and noodle-laden concoction our mamas might have made.

Now it's official, you know. The holiday season has begun. I vow to not go crazy with it all, to keep my life and my cooking simple and wholesome. Unless I consciously decide to go crazy and cook something truly extravagant now and then. Which is likely.

Blessings and bon appetit!


"Big Night" Thanksgiving

We've all been thinking about Thanksgiving, haven't we? -- pondering how to make a very special meal without succumbing to the national passion for roasting birds. Among the vegetarian cooks I know, hosting Thanksgiving dinner is an enjoyable challenge. It's a great time to pull out those complex recipes we've always wanted to try and pull off a fabulous non-traditional feast that will impress even die-hard carnivore uncle Hank (or aunt Louise or brother Bill -- doesn't every family have at least one member for whom meat is a must?).

I've been known to make autumn vegetable "lasagna" on Thanksgiving, using thin layers of polenta in place of noodles. One year I made a lovely veggie-filled roulade from Anna Thomas's classic, The Vegetarian Epicure. Anything labor-intensive, even downright difficult, will do.

This year I'm contemplating making my first giant timbale. I've made small ones in the past (a corn timbale with blackberry sauce comes to mind) but never the big Sicilian pasta-filled pastry traditionally stuffed with meatballs and diced salami and veggies, all bound together in a rich bechamel sauce before being wrapped in a piece of pastry dough and shoved in the oven. I'm thinking a vegetarian version could be very nice, with artichoke hearts, cubes of roasted eggplant, green beans, cauliflower, dried tomatoes, baby mozzarella balls, etc. Just thinking about it puts me in the cooking mood.

If you're having a hard time picturing such a thing, you must rent the movie Big Night, which is one of the best food movies ever made. The little photo (which I borrowed from lex culinaria) will give you the idea -- keep in mind that that beehive-shaped thing is the size of a large inverted salad bowl.

On the side, a spinach salad with dried cranberries, maybe, and toasted walnuts, and pears or persimmons -- like the one I made last night. It's wearing honey mustard vinaigrette. And I'll serve pumpkin pie for dessert. That's one part of the all-American menu I always include, because I love it so, but maybe for a little twist I'll make cinnamon and orange zest-laced whipped cream to go on top.

In my mind's eye, it's a beautiful spread and delicious repast. HOWEVER, let's not lose perspective during this time of feasting. Eating very simply when the rest of the country is gorging would be a fine Thanksgiving tradition. We could even try not eating at all -- taking a healthy break from our patterns of over-consumption.

Whatever we eat or don't eat this Thanksgiving, let's take a long moment to really be quiet and consider how interdependent we are with all the plants and animals (including, of course, people) that share this planet. Are we not blessed to have plenty of nourishment in our lives -- especially that heart food called love?

Blessings and bon appetit!


Frozen curd

Almost always, I have a package of tofu in my freezer -- never opened, just as it came from the store. That's because I love what happens to it when it's been frozen and then thawed. What was once a lump of smooth and succulent soybean curd becomes chewy and spongelike. Can you see the difference in the photo? And even more so than with fresh tofu, it soaks up flavorings and adds a very satisfying texture to a saute or soup.

There's nothing to it, really! Take the package out of the freezer and let it stand at room temperature for a few hours before you plan to use it. Then remove it from its packaging and very gently squeeze it over the sink to remove most of the water. Then dice or cut into thin strips and use anywhere you'd use regular tofu.

This time out, I sauteed some onion and oyster mushrooms in roasted sesame oil with strips of thawed bean curd, splashed in some soy sauce, then added garlic and ginger. Sauteed for a time, adding water as needed to keep the mixture barely moist. When the mushrooms were almost done, I added some cooked brown rice and cilantro (at which point I took the accompanying pic), then piled on some chopped choy sum, which is a close relative to bok choy, the more common Chinese green. Put on a lid and let cook for another 5 minutes or so. Delicious!

If you're a vegetarian and eat a lot of tofu, as I do, variations on the bean curd theme are always welcome. I encourage you to try the frozen/thawed version, if you haven't already. It may open up a new window of inspiration.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Working late

In the writing and editing business, deadlines rule the day (and week and month...). Though I most enjoy lingering with loved ones over a long, luxurious supper, many times I make due with a quick and simple one-dish wonder and then go back to work.

And then there are times when I don't even stop working to eat.

Last night was such a night. I knew I needed to work another couple of hours on the editing job at hand, but my energy was slipping and I knew I couldn't put off eating that long. Frozen gyoza to the rescue! I have made gyoza -- the Japanese version of potstickers -- from scratch, and they're the most delicious little morsels. But of course that is a labor of love, not to be undertaken when other love-labors are pressing.

Luckily, I live just a few blocks from a massive Asian grocery store that stocks many different varieties of gyoza in the freezer case. Pork and chicken and shrimp are most popular, apparently, but they also sell varieties filled with mushroom and spinach and chives and tofu. Trader Joe's sells a perfectly good vegetable gyoza, in case you don't have an Asian market nearby.

For an added flavor kick, make up a little dipping sauce to go alongside. Mine starts with equal parts tamari soy sauce, rice vinegar, and the Japanese rice wine called mirin. Then I add about a teaspoon of roasted sesame oil and a short squirt of that bright red Asian chili sauce. It's a quick and really delicious condiment.

I love those same Asian flavors in salad, too, so I tossed together some shredded red cabbage, thin coins of carrot, red onion bits, and fresh arugula. For dressing: a splash of tamari, another of rice vinegar, and a few grinds of black pepper. Scattered some toasted sesame seeds over the top, and done!

It came together in about 10 minutes and I ate it ravenously, accompanied by a tiny cup of warm rice wine. Did the trick, and good thing... I ended up working until almost midnight!

I don't recommend the latter, but I do suggest you try whatever frozen veggie gyoza you can find. It sure comes in handy when time is short. Then someday, when it isn't, maybe you'll be inspired to make your own.

Blessings and bon appetit!


Gourmet gruel?

The word gruel doesn’t conjure up images of fine food for most people, and for good reason. Historically, it’s what poor people ate because they had nothing more appetizing in their cupboards. But this peasant food can be a very pleasant food if you use your culinary imagination, and it’s a great way to ground and balance ourselves during the change of seasons.

Porridge is another word for grains cooked in liquid to a thick soup consistency. Oats and wheat and corn porridges are enjoyed around the world for their hearty substance, if not their outstanding flavor. Probably buckwheat makes that list somewhere in Eastern Europe, but it’s generally an under-used grain in the U.S.

Now I love to experiment with under-used foodstuffs. So in honor of the change of weather in my corner of California (last night we had our first rain), here’s a buckwheat soup that just might change your ideas about porridge.

It’s a recipe from my latest cookbook-in-progress, Longevity Cuisine. For the actual recipe, and for regular postings from that project, please bookmark For the foreseeable future, I'll be food blogging there more regularly than here.

And speaking of my other blogs, I’ve just launched a new one, where I’ll be posting regular (daily?) excerpts from a young adult fantasy novel I helped my friend Barbara Leal finish before she died a few years ago. Now it is fully edited and ready to be shared with the online world. My hope is that soon some wonderful print publisher will discover its magic and give it a home…

So, see? Even though I’ve been AWOL from this site for a while, I’ve been keeping busy. Hope you enjoy my latest offerings.

Blessings and bon appetit!