One of my more vivid memories of breakfast in the 1970s was working with my brother to hide the wheat germ my mom was always trying to add to our pancakes, our hot cereal, yogurt, and even, I shudder to recall, our scrambled eggs. In addition to wheat germ, my family experimented with the whole 1970s panoply of “hippie” health foods.
Like what? Oh, let’s put aside years of therapy and let the memories wash in: carob chips instead of chocolate chips, tiger’s milk bars (whatever those were), “wheat balls” instead of meatballs. Heck, we even added grated carrots to the marinara sauce.
Needless to say, we kids were against it – as was my father – and eventually my mom’s best intentions were driven off the rails. And when I say they were driven off the rails, I am not kidding: While no gram of processed sugar passed across the lips of this precious oldest child until junior high, by the time my sister, who’s 11 years younger than me, hit kindergarten, she was breaking her morning fast with Cookie Crisp cereal and a side of Strawberry Quik.
Today, the cycle of life continues. I have my own baby, and, even over the phone, I can see my mom rolling her eyes when I describe my efforts to offer the foods that I think are best. “Dara, babies aren’t going to eat kale, no matter how many mangoes you add to the pot!” And so it goes.
All of which I tell you so you will know that when I say I understand the difficulties of conceiving and carrying out an integrated nutrition strategy for your family, I am not just whistling Dixie – I really do understand.
As far as I can tell, the crux of the matter is this: When it comes to food, delicious trumps all. Grown-ups, kids, invalids, astronauts, Olympians and babies are all alike in this; we all just want something delicious. Sure, we’ll eat something we know to be healthy that we think tastes yucky – for a little while. But after that, we hide the wheat germ and damn the torpedoes.
Young chef Heidi Swanson has been grappling with this dichotomy, understanding that there’s a whole realm of healthy ingredients that most people simply don’t cook with because no one has shown them how delicious these foods can be. Her new book, Super Natural Cooking (Celestial Arts, 2007), is the product of years of experimentation with what she calls the “underused palette” of healthful ingredients, also known as hippie foods – including grains like millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff and faro; sweeteners like brown-rice syrup and molasses; and every kind of nut, vegetable and fruit.
“When I started this book,” Swanson told me from her San Francisco home, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This is a healthier way of eating,’ which it is. I was thinking, ‘This palette of ingredients is completely overlooked by good cooks and is an amazing place to cook from.’ I never ever want to be involved in a kind of ‘hold your nose and eat your vegetables’ book. I wanted to say, ‘Here are some great recipes, here are some easy ways to make changes in your cooking that dovetail with what you’ve been reading about nutrition, food politics, and so on.'” In other words, she wanted to make healthy things delicious.
Some of my favorite recipes from Swanson’s book are the kid-friendly ones, like the clever finger-food Sprouted Garbanzo Burgers (see Web Extra!), in which you whip up patties made from ground chickpeas, slice them in half, and let the family fill them to their taste – they’re kind of like the English muffin pizzas of yore, but without the payload of processed flour. I also adore the Spiced Caramel Corn (below), which provides all the food fun of traditional caramel-corn treats, but delivers a substantial nutritional benefit as well.
“People at this point are getting the message from all sides,” Swanson explained. “Their doctors – everyone tells them: Eat more vegetables, more whole fruits, more whole grains, legumes and nuts. But then they find they’re really at a loss as to how to do that. Doctors don’t understand that you have to have buy-in from the whole family to succeed in changing your diet. If your family isn’t eating what you’re making, you won’t keep making it. But if their favorite new recipe just happens to be healthy, you won’t hold that against it.”
And unlike my brother and me, your kids won’t try to hide the ingredients.
All the instructions you need to make the other recipes!
Makes 1 1/2 cups
- 1 pound unsalted butter
Gently heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. The butter will separate into three layers. Foam will appear on the surface of the butter, the milk solids will migrate to the bottom of the pan, and the clarified butter will float between the two. This should only take a few minutes. Skim the foamy layer off with a spoon and discard. Next, carefully pour the golden middle layer into a jar, leaving the milk solids at the bottom. (Discard the solids, too.)
Clarified butter will keep for a month or two at room temperature and a month or so longer when refrigerated.
Toasting Nuts and Seeds
In a skillet (flatter nuts and seed, such as pine nuts, sesame seeds and those that have been chopped):
Place nuts and seeds in a single layer in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Toss them around every few minutes until fragrant and toasty. Don’t walk away, or if you must, set a timer for just a couple of minutes so you don’t forget.
In the oven (rounder nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts and peanuts):
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet so they don’t roll off, and toast until they start to darken and get fragrant. Toasting time varies depending on the nut, but this usually takes just a few minutes. The nuts toward the edges tend to brown faster, so stir the nuts or the pan a shake a time or two during baking.
Day-or-two-old whole-grain bread, crusts removed
Pulse the bread (in batches if necessary) in a food processor until you have a textured crumb. Sift out the fine, sandy crumbs that collect at the bottom of the processor, which leaves just the good stuff, but this is an extra step you don’t have to take.
Recipe excerpted from Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, 2007).
Do-It-Yourself Power Bars
Makes 16 to 24 bars
1 tbs. coconut oil
1 1/4 cups rolled oats
1 1/4 cups chopped toasted walnuts (see “Recipe Add-Ons” Web Extra!)
1/2 cup oat bran
1 1/2 cups unsweetened crisp brown rice cereal
1 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
3 tbs. finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. fine-grain sea salt
Grease the baking pan with the coconut oil. If you like thick power bars, opt for an 8-by-8-inch pan; for thinner bars, use a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Mix the oats, walnuts, oat bran, cereal, cranberries and ginger together in a large bowl and set aside. Combine the rice syrup, sugar, vanilla and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat, and stir constantly as it comes to a boil and thickens just a bit, about four minutes. Pour over the oat mixture and stir until the syrup is evenly incorporated.
Spread into the prepared pan and cool to room temperature before cutting into whatever size bars you desire.
Sprouted Garbanzo Burgers
Makes 12 mini burgers
2 1/2 cups sprouted garbanzo beans (chickpeas) or canned garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp. fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 onion, chopped
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
1 cup micro sprouts (try broccoli, onion or alfalfa sprouts), chopped
1 cup toasted, whole-grain bread crumbs (see “Recipe Add-Ons” Web Extra!)
1 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil or clarified butter
If you are using sprouted garbanzos, steam them until tender, about 10 minutes. If you are using canned beans, jump right in. Combine the garbanzos, eggs and salt in a food processor and purée until the mixture is the consistency of a very thick, slightly chunky hummus. Pour into a mixing bowl and stir in the cilantro, onion, zest and sprouts. Add the breadcrumbs, stir, and let sit for a couple of minutes so the crumbs can absorb some of the moisture. At this point, you should have a moist mixture that you can easily form into twelve 1 1/2-inch-think patties. Err on the moist side here, because it makes for a nicely textured burger. You can always add more breadcrumbs a bit at a time to firm up the dough if need be. Conversely, a bit of water or more egg can be used to moisten the batter.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat, add four patties, cover, and cook for seven to 10 minutes, until the bottoms begin to brown. Turn up the heat if there is no browning after 10 minutes. Flip the patties and cook the second side for seven minutes, or until golden. Remove from the skillet and cool on a wire rack while you cook the remaining patties. Carefully cut each patty in half, insert your favorite fillings, and enjoy immediately.
Filling ideas: more sprouts, avocado slices, Cipollini onions (sweet and just the right size), sliced Roma tomatoes, a sprinkling of smoked paprika or a drizzle of Chile de Árbol sauce.
Recipes excerpted from Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Ingredients into Your Cooking by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, 2007).