It’s hard not to love “Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen.” Those of us who buy Heidi Swanson’s books (this is her third) and look forward to recipes on her award-winning website, from which most of these recipes originated, will find more of the same good food we’ve come to expect from this young author.
Swanson, who has written for NPR.com and Salon.com, provides healthy alternatives, recipes that are easy to prepare and delicious to eat. The fact that they’re vegetarian is almost an afterthought. She takes a wonderful array of ingredients and puts them together in new and satisfying ways without making the dishes look or taste like hippie food.
Like trailblazers Mollie Katzen and Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison, Swanson is a brilliant and original voice on the cookbook stage. Her recipes are meatless, but even if you were to serve a week’s worth of these meals to a devoted carnivore, I doubt that you would get much complaint.
Beautiful photos, smart design
Studded with gorgeous photos of her recipes as well as of wild Northern California landscapes (Swanson is also a designer and photographer), this cookbook is as easy on the eyes as the dishes are welcome on the palate. As she did with its 2007 predecessor,”Super Natural Cooking,” Swanson takes the reader-friendly idea a couple of steps further with a relaxed layout and intelligent design. For example, almost every recipe is on a single page, so you don’t have to worry about sticky fingerprints while you’re cooking. And both metric and American measurements are provided, something I wish more cookbook publishers would include.
Very few ingredients are required for most recipes. Some dishes are little more than simple compositions, such as her inspired Watermelon Salad, which pits cool balls of melon against slivers of Medjool dates and pistachios in a lime and rose water infusion. Easy? Yes. But also delicious and inventive.
Swanson lives in the center of San Francisco, and echoes of the City’s ethnic and farmers markets are found in just about every recipe. I got hunger pangs just looking at the recipe for Membrillo Cake, which has bits of quince paste in the batter along with sliced almonds and poppy seeds — a taste of Spain burrowing its way into your grandma’s pound cake. Sparkling Panakam is a gentle update of an Indian classic, turning the sweet beverage traditionally made with jaggery, ginger and cardamom into a gently tart and bubbly refreshment made with natural cane sugar, a dash of ginger, along with the cardamom and sparkling water.
Quinoa substitutes in Italian rice balls
Swanson also offers a tasty but healthy riff on an Italian favorite — arancini — that quickly became a staple around our house. She makes arancini with quinoa, a crunchy and flavorful substitute for the usual rice. We also ate our way through her easy muffin recipes, even though I always wound up with 16 muffins instead of her dozen, a problem that was easily remedied by getting out another tin.
If I have any suggestions, it would be that alternatives be provided for some of the more unusual ingredients, giving her readers a bit of guidance on substitutions. While more experienced readers will understand that, say, olive oil can be used in many places instead of melted butter, or buttermilk instead of yogurt, or white beans instead of garbanzos, new cooks may feel intimidated and not try a recipe simply because they’re missing one ingredient. That would be a pity.
Also, while she provides directions for cooking quinoa next to a recipe that calls for it, she doesn’t mention that two cups of the dried grains will quadruple in size, swelling into an alarming eight cups, when only 2½ cups are needed.
I have given many a young adult a copy of Swanson’s “Super Natural Cooking,” and it has proven a great aid for new cooks to learn basic skills and be rewarded with delicious dishes. Every bit as wonderful as its predecessor, “Super Natural Every Day” will most certainly be given again this coming Christmas.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Photo composite: “Super Natural Every Day” book jacket, Courtesy Ten Speed Press; Author: Heidi Swanson. Credit: Wayne Bremser