Pros: In-depth guide to ultra-natural foods; wonderful recipes; detailed tips
Cons: Some of this stuff will be tough to find, and more expensive than commercial counterparts
Rating: 5 out of 5
Review copy courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Celestial Arts
I was excited to try out Heidi Swanson’s “Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking.” I want to eat more healthfully and naturally, including a greater preponderance of whole grains and vegetables in my diet, but the results of such recipes often don’t entirely wow me. There are plenty of new products coming out to meet the demand of folks now eager to try the natural food movement, but it’s hard to know how to use them well. Amaranth flour, buckwheat flour, brown rice syrup? Simply trying to substitute them into your favorite recipes rarely works–you need to know how to use them to their own best advantage, and that takes time, effort, and plenty of practice to work out.
Luckily, Heidi Swanson decided to start that process for us.
It took us a little time to get around to testing out this cookbook, because we needed a weekend when we could spend some quality time at our local Whole Foods Market. We chose a few recipes we thought we could find the ingredients for and–well, to be honest, we went a tad crazy in the grocery aisles. It was easy to pick out what to buy, however, because I read through this entire book before-hand. It’s packed with information on how to best store, handle, and use all of the wonderful ingredients you’ll find. You’ll find out which all-natural sweeteners have a surprisingly low glycemic index, making them appropriate for diabetics and those worried about their blood sugar or carbohydrate intake. You’ll learn how much of those exotic flours you can substitute, which recipe-types they work best in, and how to make sure their different characteristics don’t cause your recipes to fail.
Ms. Swanson’s writing is moving and evocative, her words encouraging you to taste each nuance of flavor she describes:
If I can convince you to track down just one esoteric flour, mesquite flour would be it, even though it can be hard to find. Also known as mesquite meal, this flour is made from the ground pods of the mesquite tree. It has a scent that is warm and comforting, but without the edge of warm spices, such as cinnamon or even cinnamon’s mellower Mexican cousin, canela. When heated, mesquite flour permeates the kitchen with a mellow, sweet fragrance. … Because of its distinct, slightly sweet, malty, smoky flavor, it also works beautifully as an everyday seasoning. Sprinkle it over oatmeal, add it to banana-based smoothies, or dust it over piping-hot corn bread.
The recipes from this book more than prove Ms. Swanson’s skill in the creative kitchen. One of the surest signs I’ve found of a brilliant cook over the years is the ability to take a few, often mild ingredients and turn them into something that is more than the sum of its parts–a wholly new and complex flavor. This she does easily with such recipes as a luscious fig spread that includes a bit of honey, lemon juice and black pepper. Then there’s a curry noodle pot that yields new tastes in every delicious bite. I feared the seed-topped amaranth biscuits would be unduly heavy after feeling the texture of the dough, but they came out tender and wonderful, with an elusively delicious flavor I can only attribute to the amaranth flour. Each recipe came out perfectly without any alteration on our part; the directions were simple, clear, and without error.
The book even makes a beautiful gift, as it’s filled with Ms. Swanson’s own food photography–and believe me, these photographs will make you hungry!
My only reservation–and this is hardly a quibble with the cookbook itself–is that many of these ingredients will be hard to find and definitely more expensive than their commercialized counterparts. It does help that Ms. Swanson included a list of mail-order sources in the back, and hopefully as more people get in on the trend of all-natural foods, the demand for these products will increase their availability even further than it already has.
Heidi Swanson is a fantastic cook and a brilliant writer, and I highly recommend this cookbook to anyone interested in making use of the more exotic natural foods on the market today. If you aren’t sure yet whether this book is for you, you can take a look at some of Ms. Swanson’s work on the web: