Like many other eaters, weathering these days of transfat bans, E. coli outbreaks and agriculture exposés has prompted me to think more critically about the vittles I let pass my lips. Now, when I have a cold and crave chicken soup, I’ll walk a few blocks farther, and spend a few dollars more, for an organic bird to stock my pot. At the market, I skim the ingredients in the stuff I toss into my shopping cart and avoid anything I can’t pronounce or that appears to have been manufactured entirely from corn syrup. But though most of the time eating well makes me feel good (yes, inside and out) I’m hardly a nutrition scold — and in moments of weakness I still succumb to the temptation of a big box of Mallomars (before you judge: at least they’re “seasonal”).
But my fears couldn’t have been more outmoded, or unfounded. In “Super Natural Cooking,” Swanson not only goes a long way toward helping “whole” foods shed their stale, hippie stigma but also makes a strong case for putting natural foods at the center of an emerging, modern, global cuisine. Her seductive recipes, like lime-bathed peanut salad and an updated (almost guilt-free) take on the classic Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie, reach out to cooks who want to eat smart but still do it in style. Without preaching, Swanson playfully shows readers five simple steps — including building a natural pantry, embracing grains, and cooking with an eye on color and super-foods — that should form the foundation of healthy habits. The result is enough to make any closet Cheetos muncher think we’re lucky to be living in times when food that is good for you can actually taste good too.
Salon spoke with Swanson from her San Francisco home about quinoa cookies, speaking up at the supermarket and the challenge of making “natural” food sexy.
What inspired you to take on this project?
The farmers markets here [in the Bay Area] are incredibly inspiring. You see farm-fresh produce being delivered to individuals from CSAs [community supported agriculture groups] throughout the city, and you run into an endless stream of amazing chefs at the markets on weekends. And people here seem to understand the positive impact that a food community can have on culture.
But the problem I started to notice was that often, beyond the fruits and vegetables and artisan meats I’d see customers buying, the foundation ingredients that people used to cook or support their farmers market finds were still heavily processed — like nutritionally barren flours and grains, highly refined sugars, jams and jellies, or nut butters made from heavily sprayed crops, and industrially produced cooking oils.
So in a way, the cookbook grew naturally out of what I was doing in my own kitchen. I’d decided that I wanted the supporting players in my recipes to be of the same standard as the produce I brought home from the market on Saturday mornings. I started by overhauling my pantry. And that immediately opened my eyes to a whole world of exciting and completely underutilized ingredients. Trashing my white all-purpose flour, I made way for a new spectrum of whole-grain flours, everything from whole-wheat pastry flour, oat, quinoa and mesquite to wild rice flour. I made pancakes, quick breads and cookies and traded standard pasta for a new cast of noodles made from buckwheat, spelt and spinach. The book is the result of that journey. It’s all the information and recipes I wish I had a few years back, compiled into one volume.
What are some of the misconceptions you think people have about “natural” food?
Most people think cooking with “natural” foods is about as exciting as buying a new pair of Birkenstocks. Broadly speaking, they know it is a more nutritious way of cooking but are convinced that if they commit to it, they’ll be destined for a life of lentil loaves, brown rice and sprouts on everything. It’s a grim frame of mind, especially when really there is an incredibly rich palette of bright, flavorful, nutritious and readily available ingredients out there for people to explore. And when we start cooking with those ingredients and looking at them through a contemporary lens, a whole new world of amazing flavors, textures and preparations opens up.
Living in San Francisco, you have access to an incredible array of fresh-food markets and ethnic groceries that carry alternative flours, grains and sweeteners — but some people might have more trouble tracking such a variety of food down at their Stop & Shop. What’s your advice to them?
First of all, you are voting with your dollars. If your local store is carrying only processed foods, ask for alternatives. While there are a few recipes in my book that highlight more esoteric components, like teff grain or mesquite flour (because they are so amazing), the majority of the ingredients can be found at any Whole Foods Market or independent natural-food grocery store. Even the “ethnic” or international food aisles in many chain grocers can be a place to start — or better, look in the organic [sections] some of them have now.
Is part of incorporating whole ingredients into our diets about looking beyond our borders and eating more globally?
I think it is more about looking to global traditional cuisines for inspiration. International cuisines are more often rooted in local, minimally processed ingredients. In fact, there are many theories that eating that way, in addition to other lifestyle factors, is what has kept some more traditional cultures nearly exempt from the epidemic of Western diseases. We’ve all heard of the Mediterranean diet and the Okinawa diet. And there was a fascinating article by Christopher McDougall in Men’s Health recently on the Tarahumara Indians called “The Men Who Live Forever.”
I try to eat locally — it doesn’t always happen to the extent that I’d like, but I’m mindful of it. I was recently in Puglia, Italy, where they cook with an amazing spectrum of local ingredients: olive oil made from the endless carpet of olive trees, grapes for local wines, and pasta flour made from durum wheat. Now, when I want to use my experience from Puglia as inspiration, I’m likely to use my region’s local olive oil, greens from the farmers market and whatever else I can get here, as opposed to buying “all Italian.”
You’re also a photographer and a graphic designer — and your cookbooks and blogs are uniformly gorgeous. Are the aesthetics of food important to you, and if so, why?
I’m not shy about leveraging my design and photography skills. Honestly, it has been particularly important because I’m trying to get people excited about things like barley, beans, quinoa, chard and tofu. And I’m aiming for an audience of people who may never have cooked with any of these ingredients before. That’s no easy task, I assure you. But I’m excited by the challenge and the subject, so I feel justified in using every tool I have to help communicate my enthusiasm.
I’ve found that photography can be particularly powerful. Pictures make the recipes seem more accessible to people, especially because I cook and photograph “real food” and ingredients. All of what you see on my site or in my book is the food just before I serve it or eat it — typically fresh off the burner or from the stove. My “styling,” if that is what you want to call it, takes less than a minute.
A lot of people e-mail me about how to better photograph food or how to make their food look better. I tell them to try to cook whatever it is they are making with a lot of care and attention, using great ingredients. If you don’t cook a recipe with those skills, no amount of styling in the world is going to help.
Do you see natural foods as a matter of taste, health, food politics — or all three?
All three. But food culture in general has always been a tumultuous intersection. It’s certainly an interesting time: Americans are becoming more and more aware of where their food comes from and the long-term impact their food choices can have on their health. That’s a testament, in part, to the work of writers like Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle. But I think that while Americans are starting to be convinced that big changes are in order, they still need to be sold on the idea that the alternative can be as delicious, economic and inspiring as the standbys they’re used to.
Navigating the political spectrum of local vs. global, organic vs. nonorganic vs. beyond organic, is for individuals to explore themselves, or not. I try not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed by it all and just steadily educate myself and make better decisions this week than I did last week.