It used to be that incorporating quinoa, agave syrup, and amaranth into your diet was a clear sign of latent hippie-ness, and maybe moral questionability. After all, a good diet consisted mostly of meat and potatoes, perhaps with a side of cooked frozen vegetables; unfamiliar foods with funny names were suspicious.
My mother—apparently way ahead of her time—fed us millet and raw honey, carrot juice, black beans and brown basmati rice, spelt noodles, rice milk, carob, homemade bread made from freshly ground whole grains, and an alarming quantity of tofu-based "desserts." At home, that was normal food—it was just what we ate. But when I pulled out my almond-butter-on-whole-wheat-bread sandwich and blue corn chips for lunch at school, the other kids sometimes looked at me a little quizzically over their ham-and-cheese-on-white-bread and Fruit Roll-Ups.
Sometime in the last decade, that dynamic has shifted, and none too soon. It seems that every town has a natural foods store within driving distance, and in some places there's a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's on every corner. The reports on skyrocketing obesity levels, plummeting food quality, and myriad illnesses (both physical and mental) that blight the health news headlines should be enough to convince those of us who care about our health to take a second look at what we're eating. However, constructing meals around foods we've never learned to cook, no matter how good we know they are for our well-being, seems daunting at best and impossible at worst, and the results can seem less than appealing.
Into this confusing landscape steps Heidi Swanson, a photographer, blogger, and designer from San Francisco. Swanson began the celebrated 101 Cookbooks blog in early 2003, after she looked up at her extensive cookbook collection and realized she'd been cooking the same things over and over again. Since then, 101 Cookbooks has evolved into a site championing delectable, nourishing foods made with whole, natural ingredients, and her book, Super Natural Cooking, carries over the same sensibility.
Super Natural Cooking is stuffed full of simple, reasonable recipes with ingredients that seem neither scary nor obscure and which have gourmet-looking results. Beginning with a primer on building a natural foods pantry, Swanson instructs the reader in whole grains and their uses, "cooking by color" (fruits and vegetables), "knowing your superfoods" (particularly nutritious ingredients), and using alternative sweeteners to make desserts, drinks, and other low-glycemic goodies.
Its contents alone are enough reason to love the book, but Super Natural Cooking's construction, layout, and photography will delight any lover of good design. This is a book you want to hold in your hand and carefully read. Swanson writes with enthusiasm and optimism about the wealth of nutrition and taste to be found in these foods. All the recipes are vegetarian—most are vegan—but none use anything that couldn't be found in your local natural foods store.
And the food presented here is truly beautiful. I made the granola recently, which not only tastes amazing but is actually pretty, costs a fraction of what I pay for store-brand granola, and earned major husband kudos. There's an Indian carrot soup, millet "fried rice," curried tofu, guacamole, barley risotto, espresso banana muffins, and decadent desserts sweetened only with honey, bananas, or agave syrup. There's nothing bland or strange-tasting here; these recipes represent "upgrades" to your current menu, not deprivations. And they won't empty your wallet with strange, expensive ingredients.
Why is a book like Super Natural Cooking important in our time? First, the book presents a success story for writers, cooks, and bloggers looking to publish a book. Swanson works hard at 101 Cookbooks, skillfully photographing the results of her labors in the kitchen and building what is undoubtedly one of the loveliest cooking sites on the web. By establishing a reputation in this way she landed her book deal. Her imagination and perseverance is an excellent example for aspiring writers.
Swanson also presents healthful eating, not as a negative stop-gap to avoid disease, but as a toothsome celebration of the age we live in, where we can make food from all different cultures with the ingredients from our grocery shelves—food that is aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and good to serve to friends, family, and guests. This is not a book filled with "healthy" versions of old standbys, but creative foods that take advantage of their ingredients' natural properties to create something new, beautiful, and altogether good.