Seasonal, vegetarian, farmer’s market–driven cooking lessons taught by a personal chef in Riomaggore, one of the picturesque towns of Cinque Terre, Italy, overlooking a never–ending clear blue ocean? Si, grazie! Tim McDiarmid led myself and a few other eager “mangionas” (Italian for “eaters”) in an unbelievable culinary class last week. The finished meal and the landscape came together in what can only be described as la dolce vita. Salute to the good life! Read on for a peek at this delicious class, and some tips from Tim on putting together a marvelous meal.

Tim McDiarmid, or Tim the Girl, as she is known, has cooked in an intentionally seasonal and local manner since she was a child growing up in remote Canada. She learned from her mother who cooked from the garden out of necessity, before it was relentlessly hip to live on a farm and grow your own food.

After twenty years in New York City, Tim now lives in San Antonio, Texas cooking for private clients, parties, and pop-up dinners and leading cooking classes. Every summer she and an old friend pair up to lead food and walking/culinary focused tours in Cinque Terre, Italy, one of the most stunning places on Earth. Tim’s philosophy of letting the season and the market dictate the menu is particularly harmonious with the early summer, bursting-with-flavor produce grown in the area.

There is nothing like a cooking class to bring a diverse group of people together. We tasted, gabbed, giggled and learned it’s more about technique and peak-ripeness produce, and locally made ingredients such as bread and cheese, than it is fancy, intensive recipes. This is my style of cooking—accessible, colorful, vegetarian and satisfying.

Tim begins each class with a trip to the market to see what’s fresh. She toys around with various techniques and ideas before arriving and sees what catches her eye. It’s quickly decided we will make a meal of two crostini, one sweet iteration topped with the freshest ricotta, flash cooked strawberries, fresh thyme and three local honeys to sample on each bite, and a savory toast with mashed garlic white beans, sauteed greens, garnished with fresh and dried figs. These two creative toasts were accompanied by shaved zucchini salad tossed with local spelt, lemon, fresh mint roasted almonds.

Each component complemented the the next in flavor, texture and spice. Do you like sweet, salty, crunchy, salty, and a balance of lightness and richness in each bite? I do. These crostini embodied all the flavors in a unique, effortless style. The entire meal could be prepared in advance and assembled last moment at the table. So these dishes are both elegant and practical, a winning combination for easy entertaining!

4 Questions for Tim the Girl

1. What’s your process of putting together a meal?
The process of putting a meal together starts with a call to my local farmers to see what they will be bringing to market at the time the meal is going to be prepared. From there I cruise through my mind thinking of things I’ve made before, dishes that have inspired me from around the world, pictures I’ve seen, and memories I have. I come up with ideas and then think through the flavor profiles, the textures and the colors. Most meals heavily feature fresh produce, so I really take the time to figure out how to best showcase each particular vegetable. I don’t like to drown them in complicated sauces and preparations.

I love to serve meals in courses as I do with the pop-up restaurant/design/art/music series I do The Special Projects Social. When serving this way I really love to see the whole meal as a sort of album of music, with each song carefully placed so the entirety is enjoyable. With clients, of course, I also take their desires and preferences into consideration while holding true to my own style.

2. How has your stay in Italy affected the way you cook or think about a multi–layered meal?
Italy has just validated how I have always felt about meals— that people need to take more time to enjoy food, family, friends and the world around them. Americans are so rushed that even if they are eating healthy food their bodies can’t process it properly. It’s good for me that people don’t know how to cook or don’t have the time because it keeps me employed, ha, but I still think it is important to sit still with enjoyable company and breath between bites. The Italians definitely have this down.

3. How does being a cooking instructor feel?
Teaching people how to make real food is definitely fulfilling. I really enjoy teaching clients about style and feel rather than specific complex techniques. The cooking class I give in Italy on the trips that I co–host with Bianca Gignac of Italian Fix are by far my favorite. It’s really nice to have such an eclectic group of people all learning how easy it is to make a beautiful meal when you start with beautiful product. We spend a week wandering through the Cinque Terre and Genova and each new town we go to I take them to the local market and we pick up a few pretty things, be it a small jar of local honey, freshly made cheese or picking a few springs of thyme by the seaside. A “meal” isn’t always on my mind but of all the things we collect along the way we wind up with a really fabulous feast.

4. Can you describe your cooking style in 3 words?
That’s tough. I usually say upscale urban hippie but I know that can have strange connotations for some.

Originally published in “The Kitchin”, by Leela Cyd, June 20, 2012