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Heidi Swanson: The Interview

Heidi SwansonHeidi Swanson, creator of the beloved blog 101 Cookbooks, offers nearly 100 of her go-to recipes in Super Natural Every Day, the follow-up to her James Beard Award-nominated cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

With a focus on whole grains, minimally processed sweeteners, and fresh produce, Swanson's recipes are simple, nutritious, and delicious. We don't blame you if that combination of adjectives leaves you skeptical, but trust us on this one. The results are hearty and satisfying; many of these meals have already become some of our weeknight staples. As an added bonus, the recipes are paired with over 100 of Swanson's lovely photos and her own design work, making Super Natural Every Day a charming package you'll want not only for reference, but to curl up with for some quality time.

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Megan Zabel: What were your intentions when you started 101 Cookbooks in 2003, and at what point did you start to look at it as a career?

Heidi Swanson: I think at the time I was craving a creative outlet. My site is an ongoing recipe journal, eight years old now, and it's where I write about the recipes that intersect my life, travels, and everyday interests. Often the recipes are from my cookbook collection, sometimes not. They might come from a friend, or I might write about a recipe I created myself.

I don't really think of it as a career, it's just one of the things I do. I love keeping an ongoing recipe journal where I can write and share photos and exchange ideas with others. And it's something I hope to be doing for a long time, but I like to do other things too.

Megan: How did you get started as a cook? At what point did you realize it was important to you?

Swanson: I remember liking to bake from the time I was quite young. I was always allowed free reign in the kitchen as a kid — I don't remember it ever being a hands-off zone. My repertoire was limited though, mostly cakes, brownies, cookies. Oh, and quesadillas! But really, it wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I really started being interested in cooking as something creatively interesting, as something I wanted to explore more and moreit wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I really started being interested in cooking as something creatively interesting, as something I wanted to explore more and more. I was in-between projects, and cooking became one of the ways I liked to spend my time. I explored unfamiliar ingredients, cooked recipes from different books. I taught myself.

Megan: You write a beautiful passage in the introduction to Super Natural Every Day where you describe how living in San Francisco influences your cooking. Could you talk a bit about that?

Swanson: Thank you! I wanted the book to feel like it was rooted in a place. And so I tried to use both words and photography to help convey a sense of Northern California, which is where I've lived most of my life. There is something so special about living and cooking there: the ingredients, the light, the city, all the different influences. With the opening passage I wanted to set the stage a bit, tell people about the little details I see and notice in my day to day.

Megan: How have you seen the attitude towards natural foods change since your last cookbook, Super Natural Cooking, came out in 2007?

Swanson: Natural foods — whole grains, less-refined sweeteners, and the like — seem to be finding their way back into more and more kitchens because people like how they taste. For a long time, you'd rarely see baking recipes call for anything other than white sugar or white flour, but that has certainly changed over the past few years. I think everyone is excited by the exchange of ideas between cooks, chefs, and bakers playing around in this realm now.

At the end of the day people want delicious, satisfying food first. If that comes out of ingredients that happen to be considered "healthier" — great. Sometimes, people just need ideas related to what they might make with quinoa, or whole wheat pastry flour, or heirloom beans. And because people are out there exchanging ideas through their websites or books, you see more and more home cooks incorporating these sorts of ingredients into their day to day cooking. All exciting.

Megan: Along with cooking projects, your blog features your design work and photography, and in the process you've sort of created a Heidi Swanson lifestyle brand. What are the pros and cons of that overlap between what might be categorized as "work" and your private life?

Swanson: Before blogging platforms were available, it was just me filling up notebooks and folders with scraps and photos and notes. So, it was exciting when I started seeing powerful publishing tools emerge for individuals. I share as much as I'm comfortable with and maintain a level of privacy and distance in some aspects of my life. It all just depends on how I'm feeling at the time. At the end of the day, I just feel fortunate to be able to share a glimpse into what inspires me: recipes, a city, a book, a friend, or something else.

Megan: There are more and more cookbooks being published from avid home-cooks and bloggers who don't have formal chef training, but along with that, a bit of pushback from some folks who don't think that just anybody should be able to label themselves a culinary expert. (Poor Gwyneth comes to mind.) What has your experience been like?

Swanson: I think it's great that there is such a wide range of voices out there, this mix of professional chefs and home cooks telling their stories, sharing their recipes and techniques. I know my style of cooking isn't for everyone. That's cool. Hopefully that person will find inspiration from another writer or blog.I know my style of cooking isn't for everyone. That's cool. Hopefully that person will find inspiration from another writer or blog.

Personally, I never get hung up on the word expert. I'm self-taught. Cooking is one of those things where you're always learning; that's part of what is interesting about it. I'm happy to learn from an expert, a friend, a blog... I look for inspiring information or recipes first and work back from that.

Megan: What are some of your tried and true favorite cookbooks?

Swanson: I've cooked a lot from Moro East this year and can't get enough of it — lots of ingredients I always keep in my pantry put together in ways I wouldn't have thought of. There's one soup I love in particular: celery, caraway, tomatoes, and olive oil.

Megan: I am a fairly healthy eater but require a Cheeto every four months or so. Are there any rule-breaking foods that you have to give in to every now and again?

Swanson: I had part of a classic ice cream sandwich today, vanilla with chocolate. Bought it in a gift shop in the middle of the desert. One hundred plus degree heat. Totally hit the spot.

I corresponded with Heidi Swanson by email on May 9, 2011.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Super Natural Cooking: Five...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  2. Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved...
    Used Trade Paper $15.95

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