Spotlight: Super Natural Every Day

super-natural-every-day

Photo credit: Heidi Swanson © 2011

I don’t like diet food. This has been documented on this website before. Many times.

I do, however, like healthy food – food that makes me feel energized after eating it, food that fills me up (but not overly so), food made from the freshest ingredients I can find and centered around produce and whole grains and legumes. Sorry – I don’t mean to sound like a yuppie advertisement for Whole Foods. It’s just that in those special moments when I make a meal that is fulfilling on every level – emotionally, nutritiously, creatively, aesthetically, tastily – it’s just awesome. I feel like a functional adult instead of a poor college student cramming for finals and not calling her mom enough.

When I want I real confidence-boosting meal, more often than not my first stop is Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks, one of my favorite food blogs (both for recipes and photography – it takes a lot of talent to make a plate of lentils look beautiful).  So, as you can imagine, I was thrilled when I received a review copy of  Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day a few weeks ago. If you’ve ever read another food blog apart from this one, you’ve probably heard of this book – it’s been garnering praise from foodies across the spectrum since its publication for its unpreachy and generous approach to vegetarian cooking.

It’s easy to see why. The book is, first of all, beautiful and absorbing – I’ve spent hours with the book just reading about Swanson’s philosophy toward food, her little tips (whole wheat crepes are “too heavy and flabby”), her odder flavor pairings (peanut butter, tofu and tomato panzanella?). The photos conjure Californian countrysides, lazy days on the porch, strolls through the farmers’ market. It’s a lovely book to just have laying around on a coffee table- my boyfriend’s mother spent about twenty minutes oohing over it on a recent visit.

But how, you’re wondering, is the food? I’d give it a solid B+. See why – and get a recipe you absolutely need to try – after the jump.

The recipes aren’t perfect – too fussy in some parts and not fussy enough in others. For example, she has a good recipe for lemon-zested bulgur wheat – but why does she use coconut milk to make it when the milk’s sweet flavor is overshadowed by the lemon and poppy seeds? The second time I made the dish, I used cow’s milk and tasted no great difference. More pressingly, Swanson skips the crucial step of toasting the bulgur in a little butter or olive oil before simmering it – something that takes the light breakfast and turns it into something more satisfying and rounded, and which manages to turn her recipe into something of a humble masterpiece.

Maybe this speaks to the quality of my ingredients – which I’m sure are not as good as Swanson’s farmers’ market bounty – but some of the recipes seemed underseasoned. I was disappointed with her chickpea and dandelion green salad – the chickpeas were bland, the greens lackluster. Taking an idea from another of Swanson’s recipes, I added in some paprika and breadcrumbs, pan-frying both greens and chickpeas until tender, and found it more to my liking.

With these small criticisms in mind, however, the book is an amazing resource. Swanson’s great talent lies in pairing unexpected ingredients – the aforementioned peanut butter panzanella, for instance, or cookies with peanuts, popcorn and mashed bananas. Because of this, some of the simplest dishes in the book exceeded my expectations – I couldn’t believe how tasty her chanterelle tacos were, coming together with the weird and perfect clash of Parmesan and serrano chile. And the book’s soon-to-be-famous baked oatmeal was the best breakfast I’ve had in a while. Swanson uses mulberries, but she notes you can substitute almost any seasonal fruit. I used brandy-soaked plums (speaking of fussy!), and I think she’d approve of the results.

Baked Oatmeal

Reprinted with permission from Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen by Heidi Swanson, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Serves 6 generously, or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted and chopped
  • 1/3 cup natural cane sugar or maple syrup, plus more for seving
  • 1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 ripe bananas, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups huckleberries, blueberries, or mixed berries

Preheat the oven to 375 F with a rack in the top third of the oven. Generously butter the inside of an 8-inch square baking dish.

In a bowl, mixed together the oats, half the walnuts, the sugar, if using, the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.

In another bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, if using, the milk, egg, half of the butter, and the vanilla.

Arrange the bananas in a single layer in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle two-thirds of the berries over the top. Cover the fruit with the oat mixture. Slowly drizzle the milk mixture over the oats. Gently give the baking dish a couple thwacks on the countertop to make sure the milk moves through the oats. Scatter the remaining berries and remaining walnuts across the top.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the oat mixture has set. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Drizzle the remaining melted butter on the top and serve. Sprinkle with a bit more sugar or drizzle with maple syrup if you want it a bit sweeter.

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