Cookbook author Heidi Swanson offers insight into building a natural-foods pantry and creating delicious, nutritious meals.
A quick walk down the grocery store aisle will show how ubiquitous the word natural is in today’s food-marketing vocabulary. As a mom of young kids, it’s hard not to quickly reach for foods that advertise “all natural” and “healthy” in big, bold letters. And while I want to believe that all of these packaged foods are in fact the best choice for my family, I know that in many cases (“all natural” fruit gummies?) the word natural is just another marketing ploy. But where to look for foods that are truly natural—and what does the word natural really mean?
While the topic has engendered heated debate, it seems that the most consistent characteristic is “minimally processed”—meaning whole foods that remain close to their original, natural state and do not contain additives or preservatives. Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2011), adds that natural foods “can also include those that are made from whole ingredients, for example, tomatoes crushed into tomato sauce, cream paddled into butter, olives pressed into olive oil, or wheat berries ground into flour. In general, seek out products with as little processing and as few added flavorings, stabilizers, and preservatives as possible.”
If you’re shopping your local grocery store with a natural-foods agenda, your best bet for finding this type of food is likely on the perimeter of the store: think the produce section for fresh fruit and veggies, organic meats in the meat department, dairy products, and the bulk section, where bins of nuts, whole grains, beans, dried fruits, and the like make good natural choices. Or seek out growers’ markets, roadside stands, and smaller specialty shops for the most fresh and natural foods in your area.
Once you’ve stocked your cupboards and your fridge, what to cook? Swanson, who in addition to authoring Super Natural Every Day is the creator of 101 Cookbooks, an award-winning culinary blog and recipe journal, says that cooks new to cooking with natural foods should not be intimidated by what might seem like an entirely new list of ingredients. In her own experience, the shift to choosing natural foods was gradual. “Over time,” Swanson says, “I would simply replace ingredients that ran out with less-processed alternatives—whole-grain flours, brown or black rice, and natural sweeteners.” As she slowly adjusted her pantry, her cooking reflected the shift. “Instead of making risotto with Arborio rice, I’d use barley or pearled barley,” she says. “Or I’d do pasta blends—half regular pasta and half whole-wheat or spinach pasta. I’d start playing about with whole-wheat pastry flour, rye flour, and ingredients like that in my baking. I loved all the flavors that came into play.”
Because it can take a while to learn how a new ingredient will work within any given recipe, Swanson recommends trying out one new ingredient at a time and says that it’s important to expect a period of experimentation as you get to know these new flavors and textures. As a place to start, consider some of Swanson’s pantry staples, which include whole-wheat pastry flour, farro, and real brown sugars along with beans, lentils, and the many colorful types of rice to be found in the bulk bins of most markets.
Swanson herself continues to incorporate new natural ingredients in her own cooking as she gleans inspiration from her daily life. “I get most of my inspiration through day-to-day things,” she says, “a market I visit, a new city I travel to, lunch with a friend who might order something I wouldn’t ordinarily order, something new at the farmers’ market, the weather, or a recipe I find in an old cookbook at a yard sale.” The many diverse influences and ingredients are evident in Super Natural Every Day, which provides a rich bounty of recipes based on natural foods along with the author’s own beautiful photographs, which offer a glimpse into not only her home kitchen but her life in Northern California. Her hope, Swanson says, is that readers will be inspired by the book on several fronts: “I want readers to be excited about cooking for their friends and family. I want them to be excited about using real, delicious, seasonal ingredients. I want them to feel like it’s doable.”
Whether you make a subtle switch or choose to revamp your whole pantry, Swanson’s recipes illustrate the way that embracing natural foods in your cooking can open up an entirely new world of taste, texture, and nutrition. Try a few of the dishes included here, or experiment on your own and enjoy the adventure!
2 cups rolled oats
½ cup walnut pieces, toasted and chopped
⅓cup natural cane sugar or maple syrup, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
Scant ½ 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 ½-inch pieces
1½ cups huckleberries, blueberries, or mixed berries
Preheat oven to 375° with a rack in the top third of the oven. Generously butter the inside of an 8-inch square baking dish.
In a bowl, mix together the oats, half the walnuts, the sugar (if using), and the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the maple syrup (if using), the milk, the egg, half 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 walnuts and berries across the top.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the oat mixture has set. Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes. Drizzle the remaining butter on the top and serve. Sprinkle with a bit more sugar or drizzle with maple syrup if you want it a bit sweeter.
Makes 6 generous servings or 12 as part of a larger brunch spread
Although I love this huckleberry version, feel free to substitute your favorite in-season berries—or any other fruit for that matter. Another version I love is made with plump, amaretto-soaked golden raisins in place of the berries and sliced almonds in place of the walnuts.
¾ cup spelt flour or whole-wheat pastry flour
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
½ cup rolled oats
½ cup natural cane sugar
½ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
⅓cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon all-natural cornstarch
⅓cup natural cane sugar or muscovado sugar
1½ cups raspberries
1½ cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
1½ cups sweet cherries, pitted
¼ cup dried currants
¼ cup Beaujolais wine
Preheat oven to 375° with a rack in the middle of the oven. Butter an 8-inch-square baking dish.
To make the crumble, mix together the flour, poppy seeds, oats, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Use a fork to stir in the melted butter. Divide the mixture into three portions and use your hands to form three patties. Place the patties in the bowl and freeze for at least 10 minutes or until you’re ready to bake.
Make the filling by whisking together the cornstarch and sugar in a large bowl. Add the raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and currants and toss until evenly coated. Wait 3 minutes, add the Beaujolais, and toss again.
Transfer the filling to the prepared baking dish. Remove the topping from the freezer and crumble it over the filling, making sure you have both big and small pieces.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the topping is deeply golden and the fruit juices are vigorously bubbling. Let cool a little before serving, 20 to 30 minutes.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Feel free to experiment with the amount of sugar in this filling, based on how sweet the berries are.
Fine-grain sea salt
1½ cups whole-wheat orzo
5 cups raw broccoli cut into small florets and stems
2 cloves garlic, peeled
⅔cup pine nuts, toasted
⅓cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup extravirgin olive oil
¼ cup crème fraîche
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and sliced
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt generously, add the orzo, and cook according to the package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain well again.
In the meantime, cook the broccoli. Bring ¾ cup water to a boil in a large pot. Add a big pinch of salt and stir in the broccoli. Cover and cook for 1 minute, just long enough to take off the raw edge. Quickly drain the broccoli in a strainer and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well and set aside.
To make the pesto, combine in a food processor 2 cups of the cooked broccoli, the garlic, most of the pine nuts, the Parmesan, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Drizzle in the olive oil and crème fraîche and pulse until smooth.
Just before serving, toss the orzo and the remaining broccoli florets with about two-thirds of the broccoli pesto and the lemon zest. Thin with a bit of warm water if you like, then taste and adjust if needed. You might want to add a bit more salt, an added drizzle of lemon juice, or more pesto. Gently fold in the avocado. Turn out into a bowl or onto a platter and top with the remaining pine nuts.
Makes 6 servings