Book review: “Super Natural Cooking” by Heidi Swanson

Photo of Super Natural Cooking book by Heidi SwansonThe mass media’s coverage of food is a cacophony of quick fixes ("Eat a handful of goji berries and wipe out the effects of those two fast-food burgers you ate for lunch!") and hype ("Do cranberries cure cancer? Stay tuned for a shocking new report").

Heidi Swanson — creator of the 101 Cookbooks website — has created a clear and concise refuge from the noise in "Super Natural Cooking." This vegetarian cookbook and reference book, subtitled "Five Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking," is an invitation to explore unprocessed grains and sweeteners, to discover new flavors, and to eat a healthier diet.

Culinary explorations

The book’s five "ways" are "Build a Natural Foods Pantry," "Explore a Wide Range of Grains," "Cook by Color," "Know Your Superfoods," and "Use Natural Sweeteners." Each chapter begins by describing the benefits of that particular approach, then provides a short glossary of some of the most common ingredients. The natural sweeteners chapter, for example, gives tips on how each sweetener can be used to replace white sugar in terms of sweetness, moisture content, and baking temperature.

"Super Natural Cooking" is about ingredients, not technique. And that makes sense because most whole foods or superfoods don’t require special pots or cooking methods. If you can cook rice, you can cook quinoa. If you can make biscuits, you can make them with amaranth flour. There are often significant differences, of course, such as the low gluten content of flours like amaranth and teff, and so tested recipes like the ones in this book provide a foundation for future experimentation.

The recipes span a wide range, from salads to soups to drinks to desserts. Many are relatively simple, requiring just a few ingredients and little prep time. Others are more involved, like an Asian noodle dish called "Otsu" that requires you to pan-fry some tofu, make a dressing, boil noodles and prepare garnishes. Or a barley-based ‘risotto’ that needs frequent stirring during its 40 minutes of cooking.

In the several months since I bought a copy of the book, I have made the quinoa with cheese and sauteed mushrooms (the recipe appears below), biscuits with amaranth flour (delicious, but be careful if you top them with nigella seeds, as they can overwhelm the other flavors), quinoa walnut cookies, an amaranth souffle, the barley ‘risotto,’ the do-it-yourself power bars (almost once a week — they are now one of my standard snacks), and a vegetable-millet dish. The recipes have introduced me to some new flavors like amaranth and new ways to incorporate whole grains into my normal diet.

Most of the ingredients are available in natural food stores, often in the bulk foods section or sold by vendors such as Bob’s Red Mill. There are a few exceptions, however, like mesquite flour. This intriguing ingredient is made from the pods of mesquite trees that grow wild in the deserts of the American Southwest without irrigation. Even in the natural foods mecca of the Bay Area there is only one place that I know of that carries it (Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco).

The pages of the book have a humble and organic beauty. Interspersed with the text are photographs alternating between atmospheric shots of the recipes, snapshots from around the world, and ingredients. The paper is slightly glossy and roughly polished, a treatment that is easy on the eyes and also in harmony with Swanson’s photographic style.

Diversity as an Ethicurean value

One of the underemphasized tenets of Ethicurean eating is diversity. From old varieties of tomatoes to heritage hogs to ancient grains, diversity is important in terms of flavor and sustainability. A diverse food system is more resilient to stress, less subject to being wiped out by a single pest, and more adaptable to a changing climate. Quinoa, for example, is a plant that provides a high yield of nutritious seed and is also drought tolerant (it evolved on the high arid plains of South America). An article at the Quinoa Corporation website gives the example of a 1983 drought in Bolivia that cause massive losses of potatoes and barley but almost no impact on quinoa production. There is a trade-off with some of these ingredients, however, in that they come from far away — I think that much of the quinoa sold in the U.S. comes from South America. (I would love to see some actual statistics. The USDA website didn’t yield any.) These trade-offs can be explored another day.

Final thoughts and a recipe from the book

This is a cookbook that makes me want to spend more time in the kitchen, both with the recipes in the book and with my own experiments. I remember that in the days after I bought this book, I was excited to try many of the recipes so I could discover what this or that ingredient tasted like, or how to prepare an unfamiliar grain. In the ensuing weeks, some of the recipes became household standards (like the recipe below and the DIY "powerbars"), and others await the right season or enough time to organize a shopping list. If you’re looking to add more un- or less-refined ingredients to your cooking, to find new flavors, or to demystify some of the sections of the natural food store, give "Super Natural Cooking" a try.

Quinoa & Crescenza with Sauteed Mushrooms

Any flavorful, melty cheese will work well in this recipe. If you can’t find Crescenza you can try Gruyere, Tallegio, or Brie

6 tablespoons clarified butter or extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cups quinoa, rinsed
1 cup good-quality dry white wine
1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt plus more as needed
2 cups water
2 big pinches red pepper flakes
1 pound mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 ounces Crescenza cheese

Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, then add the garlic and onion and saute for 5 minutes, or until the onion starts to soften and get translucent. Add the quinoa, wine, and 1 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, and continue boiling for 3 to 4 minutes, until the liquid has reduced a bit.

Add the water, return to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the quinoa opens up, revealing a little spiral, and is soft and pleasant to chew.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, along with the red-pepper flakes and a few pinches of salt. Stir in the mushrooms and cook without stirring for a few minutes, until they’ve begun to brown and release their juices. Then shake the skillet every few minutes until the mushrooms are evenly browned, about 4 more minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Once the quinoa is perfectly tender yet textured, drain off any excess liquid and stir in the cheese. Ladle into big bowls and top with the mushrooms.

Serves: 4 – 6 .

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Heidi Swanson, "Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking," published by Ten Speed Press.




6 Responsesto “Book review: “Super Natural Cooking” by Heidi Swanson”

  1. Nicole says:

    I would second Marc’s comments about this book. I saw it reviewed (in Salon) about a year ago and ordered it asap. It’s nicely produced with lovely images and interesting ideas. The biggest thing this book did for me was introduce grains I hadn’t normally cooked with. Farro and quinoa are now a regular part of our rotation. And the recipes are creative: a pot of black beans is really kicked up a notch with beer and chocolate (which seems obvious in retrospect). For those wanting to cooking more naturally, the list of “must-haves” for the kitchen cupboard is very useful. The only caveat: getting acai berries or teff flour can be a challenge, but substituting has worked for me so far in those cases where the goose chase isn’t quite worth it.

  2. jen maiser says:

    I was just writing about this book on another blog. I really believe that it was a life changer for me … I have learned so much from it. The recipe you published is one of my favorites.

  3. Rachelle says:

    You are so right. Heidi’s photography, coupled with the inspired recipes are such a great combination. While I have always been a bit of an adventurer when it comes to cooking, I found that reading this book really enlightened me to so many ingredients that I have passed by b/c of not knowing what to do with them. It really made trying many new ingredients much less intimidating. I am not vegetarian, and I think that this book is a must-have for anyone who enjoys food (vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike).

  4. Jocelyn says:

    Well, this peaked my interest. It’s now on my Chistmas wish list. :)

  5. Sophie says:

    I have really been enjoying this book! Particular favourites are the chunky lentil soup, the asparagus puree (divine) and the sushi bowl with nori, avocado and brown rice.

    I love it that the book encourages people to try lots of different (healthy) ingredients, but I agree with what you say about the trade-offs that this entails. It is a bit too easy to blindly assume that because something is wholefood in nature that it is also going to be environmentally sound. I’ve been cooking quinoa quite a bit recently (including the marvellous Quinoa and Grilled Zucchini Recipe on Heidi’s site) and it took me a while to check the packet and realise that the only brand that is widely available in the UK is grown in Bolivia. Agave nectar is the same – as a nutritionist I can see it has great potential (low GI) but it has to come such a long way when we can buy great local honey!

    I’ve been looking for a good source of information about what types of plant-based foods are produced where but it sounds like you guys haven’t found one either (will let you know if I beat you to it!)

  6. Steve Sando says:

    Heidi is a friend of mine but I’m still impressed with this book and how much it inspires people to get into the kitchen without being patronizing. Rachel Ray could learn a lot.