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Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchenby Heidi Swanson
I LIVE IN A MODEST SIX-ROOM FLAT with twelve-foot ceilings on the second floor of a Victorian apartment in the middle of San Francisco. And by “middle” I mean that if you threw a dart at the center of a map of this city, you’d likely hit my house. My street dead-ends into an east-sloping neighborhood park, and when you stand at the front window you can watch a parade of pugs and pinschers, big kids on dirt bikes and small kids on scooters, dealers, joggers, and the occasional flute player go by. There are times when two girls set up a music stand in the shade and practice trombone.
San Francisco is a vibrant city that punctuates the top of a fist-shaped peninsula, contained on one side by the Pacific Ocean and flanked by its namesake bay on the other two. It is where the North American continent jets out of the sea in dramatic fashion before rumbling east. I’ve lived within a short drive of this coastline nearly all my life, and at the right moment, on the right day, in the right spot, there is no more inspiring place to explore.
Within reasonable walking distance of my front door, you’ll find plenty to eat and drink—paneer-stuffed kati rolls, freshly baked walnut levain, Neapolitan-inspired thin-crust pizzas, and egg sandwiches served on English muffins fresh from the oven. There is a teashop pouring silver needle, gyokuro, and monkey-picked oolong teas nearby. And as far as coffee goes, I often walk to one of the two coffee shops roasting beans on their premises. There is a boisterous bar worth braving just up the block with dozens of Belgian ales, IPAs, stouts, and hefeweizens on tap. And when I’m in the mood for something more low-key, the beer shop in the other direction has a similarly impressive selection in bottles I can take home.
There must be two dozen places to buy groceries. Some are chains; many are independently owned and small in scale. On any given afternoon I might stumble upon a box of purple rice grown by a workers’ co-op in Thailand on a shelf just a few feet from a jewel-toned jar of locally produced bergamot marmalade. Or, farm-fresh eggs a few hours old across the aisle from hand-harvested Mendocino nori. The farmers’ markets? There’s one nearly every day of the week, and choosing which to go to depends on how far I feel like walking.
But as exciting as urban living is, I often feel the pull of quieter realms. Drive an hour from where I am right now, and you might find yourself in the midst of a redwood grove, or standing on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or making snowballs at the summit of one of the neighboring peaks. There have been mornings in late spring when I’ve found myself traveling through wildflower-lined highways in west Marin County, poppies spilling from the ditches to flood the black asphalt. Farther inland, in the summertime, you’ll find endless stretches of golden hills punctuated by the craggy silhouettes of old oak trees. In these moments, there are few places I’d rather call home.
I live here with my boyfriend, Wayne, and it’s against this backdrop that I cook each day. The markets, shops, and restaurants define the palette of ingredients I reach for; they influence the flavors I crave. The hills and vistas, blooming flowers, and candy-colored houses—they shape my overall aesthetic sensibility and inspire me to highlight the natural essence of each of the ingredients I choose to use.
Super Natural Every Day
This book is a glimpse into my everyday cooking, with the hope that some of what inspires me will inspire you as well.
I resisted the urge to include over-the-top, special-occasion productions. I left out recipes requiring all day Saturday and on into Sunday to prepare, and skipped the ones with six different components. Instead, I kept a simple notebook over the past couple years of my favorite everyday preparations—ones I revisit often. The recipes are rooted in whole and natural foods, typically feature a handful of seasonal ingredients, offer some inkling of nutritional balance, and (broadly speaking) come together with minimal effort.
For those of you with Super Natural Cooking, consider this a companion volume. Many of the building blocks I outlined in that book are put into practice here. Simply put—here are real foods and good ingredients made into dishes that are nourishing and worth eating and sharing.
If you peek inside my kitchen cupboards you’ll probably notice I prefer my rice brown, red, purple, or black; and that I keep a spectrum of golden honeys close at hand. You’ll see soba noodles are allocated a good amount of real estate in the cabinets to the right of the stove, and heirloom beans have taken over 2 feet of shelf space on the left. You might (rightly) suspect my favorite section at the grocery store are the bins containing grains, dried beans, and flour.
I tend to cook with whole, natural foods—whole grains, whole grain flours, minimally processed sweeteners, and fresh produce—ingredients that are as seasonal and nutritionally intact as possible. I’d be misleading you if I said I don’t look forward to moments when I happen upon something new and special: a raw, vanilla-scented Fair Trade Certified cane sugar from the Philippines, or giant, golden salt grains from the Menai Strait in Wales. Those sorts of ingredients aside, a good portion of the food I buy is grown or produced locally. I find local ingredients taste better and often have a glow and vitality you don’t see in ingredients that have traveled long distances, particularly when you are talking about produce or perishables. And while I run the risk of sounding a bit preachy, supporting good ingredients grown or produced by people who care about our health and the health of our environment is something about which I feel strongly.
Some of you might be confused by the term “natural foods.” It is used in many different contexts, and it means different things to different people. By “natural foods,” I mean ingredients that are straight from the plant or animal. Or that are made with as little processing and as few added flavorings, stabilizers, and preservatives as possible, keeping nutrients and original flavors intact. For example, wheat berries ground into flour, grated coconut pressed into coconut milk, cream paddled into butter, or chopped tomatoes simmered into tomato sauce. For me, focusing on natural ingredients also means doing my best to avoid genetically modified and chemically fertilized crops, as well as dairy products that come from cows treated with growth hormones. I want each meal I eat to deliver as much nutritional punch as possible, and focusing on a range of real, minimally processed foods is the way I go about it.
I occasionally use unbleached all-purpose flour or white sugar, usually in baked goods, when using 100 percent whole grain flours (or less refined sugars) doesn’t quite deliver the results I want. For those of you who bake strictly with whole grain flours, I try to make note of what you can expect from using 100 percent whole grain flours in those recipes.
This is as good a place as any to mention that I’m vegetarian, and have been for a long time now. I’m happy to do what I can to leave a lighter environmental footprint on our planet, and I have enjoyed the challenge of shifting my way of cooking and eating to be lower on the food chain. For me, this means being vegetarian, buying a good percentage of my ingredients from local producers, and seeking out sustainably produced ingredients. That being said, it’s each individual’s own personal journey to work toward a way of eating that works for them. Many people seem to be looking for ways to incorporate more meatless meals into their repertoire for a whole host of reasons, and I’m happy to try to provide a bit of inspiration. Many of the recipes in this book, particularly the main dishes, welcome substitutions, and I encourage you to use some of the ideas as starting points. Go from there based on what is available in your area, or what your family likes to eat.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that while I try to shop, cook, and eat mindfully, I also do my best to remember why I was drawn into the kitchen in the first place—the punch of garlic hitting me in the face after being dropped into a hot pan, the perfume of chocolate wafting from room to room when a cake is in the oven, the explosion of color I discover every time I slice into a blood orange, or the pleasure of sharing a simple meal I’ve prepared with a group of friends or family. These are the sorts of things that get me excited to cook each day, and I do my best to let them inspire my time in the kitchen before all else.
My Everyday Pantry
While my everyday cooking is most often dictated by seasonal produce, I need to keep a supporting cast of ingredients on hand so I can put that produce to work in a variety of ways. I went into a lot of detail about the minutiae of individual ingredients (and some of their nutritional benefits) in Super Natural Cooking—specifically, how to build a natural foods pantry. Instead of repeating that here, I thought I’d open my cupboards, look to my shelves and fridge, and tell you about what you are likely to find in my kitchen on a day like today.
Before we get started, just a few notes. I’m not going to call out “organic” in every instance throughout this book. I suspect that would get tedious and turn off some of you. What I will say is that I care about supporting producers and farmers who are using sustainable farming methods. Many of those are certified organic; some of them aren’t certified, but are farming using organic practices. I read a report that over 160 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed in California in 2008, a statistic I find heartbreaking. I know we can do better, and I try to vote for that change with my grocery dollars. I buy dairy products from farmers who pasture-graze their growth hormone–free cows and I purchase eggs from farmers who keep small flocks of pastured hens. This is in part because I want to support the people providing these ingredients, and in part because I don’t want to be in a supermarket at some point without a choice in the matter.
OILS AND FATS I cook with a variety of oils and fats, and pick and choose which to use after considering a few things. Each fat and oil has its own flavor, scent, and mouthfeel—I think about how each of those elements might affect what I’m cooking. I look for cooking oils and fats made from good ingredients, which have been naturally pressed or produced without stripping them of their personality. Avoiding oils that have been processed with solvents, deodorizers, or heated to damaging temperatures is important. Then, once in my kitchen, I think about how each cooking oil stands up to heat differently, and take that into consideration, too.
I keep a few extra-virgin olive oils on hand. Of those, I typically have one that could be considered my day-to-day olive oil. I use this to sauté, roast, make sauces, and form the base of a variety of dressings and vinaigrettes. The other extra-virgin olive oils are more special (and costly), and I think about them as finishing oils. Some are spicy, some are grassy, but they’re all better enjoyed drizzled over soups, stews, or salads just before serving.
I like to cook and bake with butter, sometimes clarified, sometimes browned. You can make clarified butter yourself (see page 224) or buy it. Making it yourself is more economical. It has full, rich flavor and a substantially higher smoke point than olive oil. Certain curries really come to life when you use it to start things off, and you can combine it in a pan alongside olive oil to give the olive oil more range. I like to use brown butter (see page 225) in baking or for drizzling, as well as plain butter, both salted and unsalted.
Extra-virgin coconut oil is fun to experiment with, although its assertive coconut scent limits what I use it for. It’s great for baking, and you can sometimes replace all, or a portion, of the butter in a recipe with coconut oil. I use it in the early stages of some Thai-style curries, and in just about any cooking that has coconut milk in it.
I use little whispers of toasted sesame oil in my cooking, but it can be devastatingly overpowering. To say I’m judicious with it is an understatement.
Cold-pressed nut oils are nice to have on hand, particularly in the fall and winter when the weather cools and heartier meals are in order. I look for cold-pressed, artisan pistachio oils, toasted pumpkin seed oils, hazelnut oils, as well as walnut oils. They should smell like an intense version of the nut or seed from which they were pressed. I don’t cook with the nut oils per se, but use them in various nut-based purees, dressings, and picadas. Gentle heat helps to release their scent, and they shine drizzled over dishes like warm farro salads and just-out-of-the oven casseroles. Buy nut oils in small containers when you can, and store them in the refrigerator if they aren’t in high rotation in the kitchen. They tend to go rancid in a flash and are expensive to replace.
QUICK-COOKING GRAINS Quinoa, bulgur wheat, millet, and rolled oats are popular around here. There are other quick-cooking grains, but these are the ones I use most often. Whole-wheat couscous, a tiny grain-shaped pasta, is great for quick salads and for stuffing vegetables like tomatoes or zucchini. You can find many of these, in organic versions, in the bin section of natural foods stores, and they tend to be very inexpensive.
LONGER-COOKING GRAINS I keep a range of whole grain rices on hand, as well as farro, barley, wheat berries, and rye berries. I think many people miss out on cooking with the larger grains because of the perception that they take forever to cook. This is only partly true. If you plan ahead a bit, it’s nearly effortless. So, for example, I’ll cook up a pot of farro on a Sunday afternoon, use it in that night’s dinner, reserve some for use throughout the week, and freeze the rest. If you were to glance in my freezer, you’d find bags of frozen brown rice, farro, and wheat berries. I might use the wheat berries in a soup tonight, the brown rice in a stir-fry tomorrow, and the farro in a tart filling sometime later in the week. Again, most of these are available, in organic
versions, in the bin section for just a couple dollars a pound. Farro tends to be pricier, but well worth it.
FLOURS I counted twenty-two different flours at the natural food store the other day—a number that is both exciting and overwhelming. I use a small subset of those flours in my day-to-day cooking. I use a lot of whole wheat pastry flour and spelt flour for baking. Both are capable of creating beautiful, tender baked goods. I do keep a bit of unbleached all-purpose flour around because, as I’ve mentioned before, there are times, particularly in certain baked goods, when I’ve found that using a percentage of all-purpose flour makes for a much better end result. If I need a bit more structure and less tenderness from a dough, I use white whole wheat flour, which is higher in gluten-forming protein—good for pizza dough and certain breads. Beyond that, I rotate through a number of what I consider supporting flours. I love rye flour for it’s rustic color and subtle sweetness and quinoa flour for its nutritional profile and grassiness. I love to experiment with homemade multigrain flour blends. For example, I use oat flour, rye flour, and whole wheat pastry flour in my Multigrain Pancakes (page 31).
SWEETENERS I’ve come across dozens of sweeteners produced by small producers over the past few years. The thing I find striking is how no two are alike. The Japanese rock sugar I found in Tokyo couldn’t be more different from the golden-hued natural cane sugar I use regularly, which is moist with heavy notes of vanilla and molasses. The Pohutukawa honey I tasted in New Zealand is an entirely different beast from the dark, smoky mango blossom honey Big Tree Farms harvests in Java. I keep a rotation of various sugars, honeys, and syrups on hand, preferring the ones that are minimally refined. Compared to white sugar, their flavor profiles are more interesting, and they can impart a depth and complexity to a recipe you can’t get otherwise. In my sweetener collection right now is a number of honeys, brown rice syrup, a few bottles of maple syrup, numerous natural cane sugars, and unsulphured molasses.
There is a huge variety of granulated sugars available. They cover the color spectrum from blinding white to deep coffee brown. Broadly speaking, white sugars are more processed than dark—although there are certainly highly processed “false” brown sugars out there. Because there isn’t much standardization with regard to labeling, finding a whole sugar can be confusing. Look for words like unrefined, raw, natural, and whole; seek out a fine grain (comparable to standard white or brown sugar); and opt for dark over light when it comes to color. I’ve listed a few of my favorite brands in the Sources section (page 235).
The least processed and most whole granulated cane sugar available is dehydrated cane juice, but it often has an irregular consistency and dryness that keeps me from using it more often. My favorite substitute for white sugar is fine-grain natural cane sugar, a minimally processed, fragrant, “real” brown sugar that tastes of vanilla with a deep kiss of molasses. I call for it in a number of the recipes in this book.
If you are having a hard time finding a comparable dark brown sugar, you can substitute any light brown sugar or light muscovado sugar in these recipes. Just be sure to buy a fine-grain sugar and sift out any lumps. There are also lots of fine-grain white sugars available that are labeled as natural cane sugar. These won’t break the recipes, but they won’t give you the exact results you are after, either. If you buy white sugar, look for a sustainably produced organic variety; there are a number that are widely distributed now.
NOODLES AND PASTA I pick up a variety of dried noodles when I’m out and about. I use buckwheat-based soba noodles quite often, and beyond that, a variety of Italian pastas. Tiny, rice-shaped whole wheat orzo is fun. If you don’t think using 100 percent whole wheat pasta is going to fly with your family, try a 50/50 blend of regular and whole grain pasta for starters. It takes a bit of experimenting to find brands of whole grain noodles that aren’t overly heavy or texturally “off.” Despite labeling, some noodles are made with 100 percent whole grain flours; others are blends of whole grain flours and wheat flour (not whole wheat flour). Make a note of the ones you like, and then taste your way through that family of noodles. You’ll get a sense over time of where on the whole grain noodle spectrum you like to be.
LENTILS, SPLIT PEAS, AND THE LITTLEST BEANS I keep my pantry well stocked with a variety of lentils and split peas. They are relatively quick cooking, nutritious, protein-packed, and perfect for use in soups, stews, veggie burgers, dips, and salads. I have a particular fondness for yellow split peas, tiny black Beluga lentils, lentils du Puy, and green split peas. All of these are pretty good about holding their shape as long as you don’t overcook them. I’m also going to throw mung beans in here. I use them quite a lot; and unlike the heirloom beans I talk about on page 11, there is no need to soak them before cooking. Affordable, filling, bulging with protein, they provide a great backbone to any number of meals.
I store each type of dried pulse or bean in a separate large glass Weck jar so I can see when I need to replenish the supply. Be sure to carefully pick over any lentils, beans, or grains before using them—little pebbles and dirt clots often can be found.
DRIED BEANS A quick glance in the cupboard directly to the right of my stove reveals bags of dried beans—lots of them: baby garbanzos, Christmas limas, flageolets, Sangre de Toro, Rosa de Castilla, and runner cannellini to name a few. Roughly once a week I’ll put a pound of them in a large water-filled pot to soak overnight. When I have time the following day, I cook them while I’m doing other things around the house. The specifics are outlined on page 215. It couldn’t be simpler.
I like to get to know each individual type of bean, and when I’m trying a new one, I prepare it simply so I can acquaint myself with its unique flavor, texture, and personality. This helps me develop a sense of what I might do the next time to highlight the uniqueness of the bean. Some beans are thin-skinned, some are thick, some lend themselves to a pureed soup, while some are better whole. Or, as I mentioned in Super Natural Cooking, one bean might pair with an assertive broth or sauce, while another might be perfect on its own with a drizzling of olive oil and a dusting of grated cheese. I drain and freeze leftover beans, flat, in a plastic freezer bag once they’ve cooled. They can go straight from the freezer into a hot pan on a whim.
NUTS AND SEEDS A peek into the nuts and seed drawer in my refrigerator uncovers walnuts, hazelnuts, pepitas, sunflower seeds, pecans, poppy seeds, Marcona and regular almonds, pine nuts, and both white and black sesame seeds. The flavors, the crunch factor, the uses are endless. I like to use them whole, chopped, pureed with other ingredients into sauces, or ground into nut flours for baking.
SPICES, SPICE BLENDS, AND MUSTARDS My spice drawer is the one section of my kitchen I’m powerless to keep under control. I keep a mad collection of curry powders and spice blends from various travels, as well as little jars of single herbs and spices. People always ask me if I have a favorite curry powder or brand, and the short answer is, there are many I like, but I’m loyal to none. Part of the fun is tasting through spices and various spice combinations, making note of what you like best.
While I like to make curry pastes from scratch on occasion, I also keep a variety of curry pastes in the refrigerator. They come in handy not only for on-the-fly curry pots, but also for boosts of flavor in everything from frittatas and scrambled eggs to asparagus or potato soup.
Edging out the curry pastes are the mustards, mainly Dijon-style mustards—some I make (see page 209), others I buy. You’ll see both smooth and grainy mustards get a lot of play in the recipes in this book.
SALT AND PEPPER You’ll likely notice I don’t automatically season every one of my recipes with salt and pepper. Occasionally, the black pepper is missing. I like black pepper in some preparations, particularly in egg dishes or as a way to counterbalance a savory-sweet sauce—for example in the Black Pepper Tempeh (page 141). But other times I find it can be overpowering, and sometimes even harsh. I tend to prefer red pepper flakes or red chile powders in much, but not all, of my cooking. When you do use black pepper, be sure to freshly grind it.
SOY SAUCE, SHOYU, TAMARI Each of these ingredients brings rich, salty depth and umami to food. While much of the soy sauce you find in the United States is Chinese, I’ve come to enjoy Japanese variations of soy sauces, also known as shoyu. Shoyu is often more full-bodied than its Chinese counterparts, with a hint of sweetness. Tamari, another type of Japanese soy sauce worth seeking out, is more similar to Chinese soy sauce than shoyu. And wheat-free versions of tamari are available for people with wheat allergies.
Whether you are using shoyu, tamari, or soy sauce, look for naturally fermented versions made from whole ingredients using traditional methods. Chemically processed, fast-tracked soy sauce, often produced in a single day, is a harsh-tasting distant relative to the real thing.
INGREDIENTS IN CANS I always have cans of coconut milk on hand—rich, luscious, full-bodied, and flavorful. It’s an incredibly versatile ingredient I use when I want all those aforementioned qualities to carry over into a soup, curry, or something I’m baking. It’s also a great ingredient to explore if you (or those you’re cooking for) follow a vegan or dairy-free diet. The other canned good I keep close at hand is crushed tomatoes. It’s good in certain curries, Italian sauces, tart fillings, and quick soups.
DAIRY I keep plenty of plain, unsweetened, full-fat yogurt in the refrigerator—both regular and Greek style. I cook, bake, and make toppings with it. There is typically a small container of milk around, some homemade crème fraîche (see page 226), my favorite locally produced cottage cheese, and a rotating cast of hard cheeses like Parmesan or pecorino.
TEMPEH, TOFU, AND SEITAN Not that these three ingredients are the same thing, but I actually group them together in my mind. They all pack a generous protein punch, have the ability to bulk out a meal, and can help turn a side dish into a main dish when appropriate. Each has rich cultural significance and has long been part of the foodways of various Asian cultures. I try not to think of them as meat substitutes, and instead attempt to understand each as an ingredient on its own terms. All three can be cooked using a variety of techniques—sautéing, grilling, baking, steaming. And by experimenting with the form of the ingredient—crumbled, sliced, cubed, diced, grated—you have a broad palette to explore. Both tempeh and tofu take well to assertive marinades.
As far as purchasing goes, I look for the simplest versions—those produced with organic ingredients, without added flavorings and GMOs, that aren’t fried, etc. It’s worth noting, many tempehs are sold steamed now, cutting out the extra step called for in many older tempeh recipes.
EGGS I eat an egg or two most days and am happy to pay a premium for good ones.
I love to use eggs from local farmers who allow their hens to roam around. The yolks are electric yellow, the flavor richer, and they’re known to be more nutritious and lower in cholesterol. The drawback? Fresh eggs are difficult to peel. Any eggs I know I’m going to use for egg salad, I set aside for a few days—I shoot for a week, but they rarely last that long.
VEGETABLE BROTH Truth be told, I rarely make my own broth anymore. I will make it for certain broth-centric soups, or for those times when I’m after a very specific flavor profile, but I don’t often make big pots of broth to freeze for later use. My guess is that many of you don’t either. Instead, I keep a few boxes of all-natural vegetable bouillon cubes on hand, and unapologetically love them. I’m quite partial to the Rapunzel brand vegetable bouillon with sea salt—it dissolves into a clean, bright, herby green vegetable broth that complements many of the other ingredients I use. I use the salted version at about half strength—one cube to 4 or 5 cups / 1 to 1.2 liters of water—to control the salt levels in my recipes. There is also a version without salt, which allows you to completely control how much salt you’re using.
You may not be able to get that particular brand where you live, but I’d encourage you to seek out one you do like. The other option, beyond making your own broth or using bouillon, is buying broth that comes in a can or carton. I have yet to find one that I like, and much prefer to use water. Water is completely fine in many cases, and it gives you the latitude to season a dish to your liking later in the cooking process. If you use a bad-tasting broth, you are going to have a hard time getting rid of any off flavors.
CHOCOLATE I rarely purchase chocolate chips anymore; I much prefer to hand-chop or shave bars of chocolate for use in cookies and cakes. I also use a good amount of nonalkalized cacao powder and good-quality semisweet and bittersweet chocolates when baking.
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