Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings

by Edward Espe Brown

Riverhead Books, 1997. 293 pages, 126 + recipes.

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"I encourage you to study these foods, to see, smell, taste, and touch these foods, enjoying their characteristics. Enough talk! Let's eat."

Cauliflower Tomato Soup with Herbes de Provence

Potatoes Baked with Wine and Cream

Corn Salad with Zucchini and Roasted Red Pepper


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Slightly Off The Subject

I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but I find Buddhism's compassionate common sense to be helpful whether I'm battling against the current of life or floating along with it. The writing of Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, is accessible and down to earth, and helpful in a real way. Her two books are organized like informal talks followed by discussions with students. I recommend them both: Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living.

This book travels between my kitchen counter and my living room couch. Sometimes I cook with it. Sometimes I read it. Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings is a cookbook, autobiography, a spiritual guidebook all in one.

The author Ed Brown is a Zen priest, veteran cook and cooking teacher, and cookbook writer (TheGreens Cookbook, co-authored with Deborah Madison and hisTassajara Bread Book are the most well-known). In Tomato Blessings he intertwines recipes and recollections of his life in Buddhism and cooking. He shares some of the lessons he's learned along the way: from taming his anger to sharpening knives; from confronting his greed to composing a salad.

You know the kind of recipe that makes your brow furrow and your body tense as you're trying to master its intricate demands? Well, there aren't any recipes like that in here. Brown makes it clear up front: "Enjoyable everyday cuisine is the theme of the recipes collected here". I recently made his pizza recipe with my 14-year-old daughter to reassure her that cooking can be relaxed, fun, and no big deal. Another easy-going recipe is the Potatoes with Wine and Cream- a dish of earthy, creamy bliss. There's not much more to it than baking those three ingredients, plus garlic. (One glitch: it was done 45 minutes before his designated minimum cooking time.) Even the most complicated recipe, Mushroom Filo Pastry with Spinach and Goat Cheese, is laid out with a calming clarity.

My guess is that Brown would rather be guide than guru in the kitchen, instructing us to "feel your way along", urging us to pay attention to the food we're working with and the tastes we're experiencing. He does this with a sense of fun (witness his eating meditation: the mindful eating of a single potato chip). He has a great section of exercises designed to wake up our senses to different categories of taste.

Brown offers common sense wisdom every cook should keep in mind. About fiascoes: they're inevitable and more instructive than successes (he tells of his massive and comic potato disaster when he was head cook at the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara). About perfectionism: it's okay to simply enjoy cooking that's "fairly simple and good"; he wants to "remove the pressure people feel to produce masterpieces or 'don't bother'" (a balm for our performance-anxious psyches!). Of course these lessons will stand you in good stead outside of the kitchen as well. (As I write this piece, I'm keeping in mind his take on perfectionism.) If they sound a little Mary Poppin-ish the way I describe them, I assure you they are totally compelling when they arise from Brown's life stories. (The only time he loses me is when his philosophizing isn't tied directly to a story....then it seems abstract and new age-y.) The fact is, Ed Brown's story isn't much different from mine...or yours. We may not be Zen priests like Brown, but we have the pretty much the same demons, yearnings, vulnerabilities, and crystalline moments of grace.

If you want a greater ratio of recipes to pages, you'll get more from one of his previous cookbooks (his Tassajara Recipe Book is a good old cooking companion of mine). And if you'd rather keep the spiritual element out of your kitchen, you won't be drawn to this book. Me, I like that Brown offers food... and food for thought.