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


Peculiar Produce

Here is a reprint from last year, by special request. It utilizes a fruit and a vegetable most abundant this time of year. Use an extra special olive oil for best results. There are many small-production organic brands to choose from. They cost more than the olive oil you're used to cooking with, but the flavor and high-quality monounsaturated fatty acids make them well worth the splurge. Keep a bottle on hand for raw uses, such as the one described here.

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 enjoying it for years, since I ate a mind-blowing version one Spring afternoon at the birthplace of "California cuisine," Berkeley's Chez Panisse, which is now an all-organic (though not all-vegetarian) restaurant. [Speaking of splurges, this one is a must for serious foodies.]

The dish is based on very simple Mediterranean flavors and is light and refreshing, yet somehow deeply satisfying. I use an Asian mandoline to slice the fennel very thinly. It is made out of hard plastic and comes with various metal blades for cutting different shapes. 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 onion-y 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 other end, 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.


Ramen Revisited

I go way back with ramen, those dried noodles sold in little celophane packages in every supermarket in the world (it seems). When I was about 11, my mom started taking occasional nights off from the bother of cooking for her less than appreciative husband and three kids, and told us to make ramen for dinner.

So I'd boil some water, drop in the noodles and the contents of the "flavor packet," and wait for everything to be done, about 4 minutes. It was easy, it was quick, and it was pretty darn tasty to my as yet undiscriminating taste buds.

We'd serve Mom a steaming bowl and then sit down to slurp our own, and all was well

Today I don't want to go anywhere near that little foil packet of chemicals. I avoid MSG whenever possible and am suspicious of any flavors that don't come from recognizable foods. But the noodle part I still love.

Give me pasta for lunch or dinner any day of the week -- actually I limit myself to only a few pasta-based meals per week from sheer force of will. I love Italian pasta (pesto or pomodoro or con funghi or a dozen other sauces), Thai pasta (pad thai), and Chinese pasta (chow mein). Then there's Vietnamese pasta (pho), steaming bowls of rice noodles served in fragrant broth with any combination of yummy morsels on top.

Beef pho is traditional, but I am lucky enough to live in the vicinity of a restaurant run by Vietnamese Buddhists who serve up incredible rice noodle bowls and dozens of other traditional foods, sans the meat.

I still eat ramen, too, dried Chinese egg noodles I cook in vegetable broth with my favorite Asian ingredients. Today it was tofu, broccoli, thinly sliced onions, fresh shiitake mushrooms, and lots of grated ginger. Spiked with soy sauce and sprinkled with togarashi -- a Japanese table condiment made of ground peppers, sesame seeds, and sea vegetables -- it's a delicious and nutritious meal in a bowl.

I keep organic Asian noodles in the pantry these days, buckwheat and rice varieties as well as wheat, and enjoy my ramen nights even more now that I did as a kid. Wish mom was still around to share them.

Blessings and bon appetit!


More Vegan Apps

Do you feel stuck when it comes to vegan appetizers, perhaps because your parents' coffee table was always laden with cheese and crackers and clam dip and chips whenever guests arrived?

Well, there are a LOT of yummy spreads to serve with raw veggies and bread/chips/crackers to start a vegan dinner party with panache. For instance:

#1. Most everybody loves hummus. I like to lighten and liven up the classic version by adding well steamed carrots to the food processor along with the garbanzo beans, lemon juice, tahini, garlic, parsley, and salt. A little cumin and cayenne are always welcome, too.

#2. Dried tomatoes in a jar are delicious mushed up with garlic and green herbs. Parsley works fine, but I love using mint, rosemary and a small amount of chile flakes. The result is a little bit tangy, a little bit sweet, and a little bit spicy.

Serve the two together for a nice color and flavor contrast.

You may come to love these two spreads so much that now and then graduate from appetizer status to become lunch or dinner unto themselves.

Blessings and bon appetit!