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Super Natural Cooking

Heidi Swanson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2007
Category: Food and Wine

The health food store has become as dizzying as the tech shop. Amaranth, spelt, kamut — quick, can you tell me the difference?  Which puts the well-meaning shopper in a terrible bind: You want to eat better, but first, it seems, you must take a crash course in some very unnatural-sounding natural foods.

Heidi Swanson feels your pain.

“Most people think cooking with ‘natural’ foods is about as exciting as buying a new pair of Birkenstocks,” she says. “It’s a grim frame of mind.”

Although no recipe is this book includes animal meat, Swanson is not writing for the hard core. Her target: “people who may never have cooked with any of these ingredients before.” So “Super Natural Cooking” is two books in one: a primer on natural foods and a collection of recipes that attempt to move good food from the heath-food ghetto into gourmet territory.

Swanson smartly stacks the deck. She started out as a blogger who collected recipes, so she’s a clear, concise, information-rich writer. But she’s also a photographer — and her book is a beaut. It’s printed on heavy paper. And it has a luxurious book jacket (on a paperback!). The effect lulls and reassures you, and makes you think, “This Amaranth — it just might be tasty.”

The book is organized around four large ideas:

Build a natural foods pantry. You know what this means: You’re going shopping. But first….out with anything containing high-fructose corn syrup, processed flour and sugar. And in with foodstuffs that come from Nature with as little human manipulation as possible: whole-grain flours (and, for pancakes, the more exotic wild rice flour), a range of oils (use flaxseed for omega-3 acids; avoid canola oil, as it gets damaged during refining), agave nectar instead of white sugar, naturally fermented soy sauce.

Explore a wide range of grains. Huge nutritional benefits here; even a one-ounce serving each day “can help reduce your risk of…heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, hypertension and obesity.” And, she writes, “the more whole grains you eat (to a reasonable extent), the more protection you get.” Key word to cherish here: Farro.

Cook by color. Vegetables rich in natural color are also rich in phytonnutrients (plant nutrients). You know the drill: The darker the color, the better for you. Tomatoes, watermelon and red peppers are the first foods you’ll want to want — bursting with lycopene, they may protect you against heart attacks, prostate or cervical cancer. And then Swanson moves on to berries, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes (the “beta-carotene champion”) and, surprisingly, green beans (for bone health).

Know your superfoods. Doctors like these; civilians don’t. So Swanson goes on a crusade to make the world safe for garlic, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collards, kale, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and sprouts.

Use natural sweeteners. Because heat affects how they blend with food, she lists the specific uses of each sweetener.

So far, so great. And you can see yourself serving Fig Spread with Black Pepper and Toasted Sesame Seeds, using just black mission figs, lemon juice, honey, black pepper and toasted, unhulled sesame seeds. I’m not a baker; I don’t see myself making Espresso Banana Muffins. Toasted wheat germ soup? I’m intrigued. Dairy-free chocolate mousse — looks great in the photo, requires just six ingredients.

Which recipe to feature? Let’s go for a universal staple: granola. On this subject, Swanson is eloquent: “Although we think of granola as health food, many of the versions currently available are made with highly processed oils and refined sweeteners. This granola, a favorite of mine, is a mix of honey- and citrus-kissed oats toasted until golden and then tossed with a colorful selection of dried tropical fruits. It keeps well stored in a glass jar and makes a great housewarming gift. Serve with creamy, cultured yogurt and fresh fruit for a perfect pairing.”

makes about 10 cups

4 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats
3/4 cup unsalted raw sunflower seeds
1 cup walnuts or macadamia nuts, chopped into halves or quarters
1 and 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1 and 1/2 cups assorted sulfur-free dried fruits (try tropical fruits like dried pineapple and dried papaya), chopped
Grated zest of 2 oranges
3/4 cup raw mild-flavored honey
1/4 cup coconut oil

Preheat the oven to 300°F and set aside 2 rimmed baking sheets.

Combine the oats, sunflower seeds, walnuts, coconut, dried fruits, and zest in a large bowl. Heat the honey and coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat, whisk to thoroughly combine, then pour over the oat mixture and stir until everything is well coated.

Divide the mixture between the baking sheets and spread into a thin layer. Bake, stirring every 10 minutes, for about 40 minutes, until toasty golden brown. Cool completely, then store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Calorie count? Swanson doesn’t provide this information. But I’ve never met anyone who didn’t feel better chowing down on foods like these — and didn’t lose a pound or two along the way.

To buy “Super Natural Cooking” from, click here.

To see Heidi Swanson’s photography, click here.

To visit Heidi Swanson’s web site, click here.