Top | Kitchen Limbo

Super natural cooking

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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Tofu is one of those foods I throw out more than I eat. I buy it with the best of intentions, often with a recipe in mind, then stare at it like a defiant teenager — you can’t make me cook you — every time I open the fridge and see it sneering at me. 

OK, we all know that tofu doesn’t sneer, but it isn’t exactly irresistible either. 

After learning that a friend's girls love golden-fried tofu with peanut sauce, broccoli, and rice, I tried the same menu out on my clan. Let’s just say that there wasn’t enough positive reinforcement to do that again. 

One of the kids ate the peanut sauce over rice. They both polished off the broccoli, but the tofu languished on the plate. My husband said, “Mmmm, this sure is good,” in that overly enthusiastic tone, which I took to mean, “Never again, dear.”

I can’t say I really blame them. With a few exceptions at restaurants or friends’ houses, tofu rarely floats my boat. Which is why I was surprised, when flipping through the recently published Super Natural Cooking, to find myself drawn repeatedly to the picture and recipe of Otsu. 

Otsu, author Heidi Swanson writes, is a Japanese word that means “something strange, quaint, stylish, chic, spicy, witty, tasty, or romantic.” Her accompanying photograph shows soba noodles and fried tofu tossed — no, styled — on a dark plate with chopsticks. The recipe gives instructions for making a ginger-sesame dressing and frying the tofu in a dry skillet that sounds, well, delicious. Looking from one page to the next, recipe to photo, I find that my mouth is actually watering. Yes, watering. For tofu! 

It turns out that “otsu,” as defined by Swanson, is the perfect word to describe this book. Swanson’s photographs are fetching. Or, you might say, stylish, chic, and romantic. These photographs, combined with yoga-hip design elements, give whole foods a kind of sex appeal you don’t usually associate with whole foods, much less tofu.

[%image otsu float=left width=300 credit="Photo © Heidi Swanson" caption="Otsu mixes soba noodles with pan-seared tofu."]

Natural food in her book, Swanson writes, is food that is as close to its natural state as possible, with minimal processing or additives. Her litmus test for navigating the market is to answer “yes” to these two questions: “If pressed, could I make this in my own kitchen?” and “Can I explain how this is made to an eight-year-old?” 

“Build a Natural Foods Pantry,” the first chapter of the book, offers a clear and comprehensive overview of natural foods: how they are made, what they are made of, when to substitute them for other ingredients, how to store them, their nutritional profiles, and their taste. This section is a book in and of itself, to be read both before perusing the rest of the book and again as a reference guide.  

The pantry chapter is followed by “Explore a Wide Range of Grains,” “Cook by Color,” “Know Your Superfoods,” and “Use Natural Sweeteners” (i.e., desserts). There's also a basics chapter and a list of sources. Each section starts with an overview, followed by recipes, all accompanied by friendly notes and tips from the author. 

Swanson — you may recognize her name from her blogs, Mighty Foods and 101 Cookbooks (one of my favorites) — is a skilled writer who knows her subject well. The combination of lovely photos and good writing brings not only tofu to life, but also amaranth, quinoa, brown rice, garlic scapes, and whole-wheat pastry flour. Reading through Super Natural Cooking, my appetite surged to try out ingredients that I was either unfamiliar with or — how can I say this? — previously not attracted to. 

As for the recipes, most of them are straightforward and, if your pantry is well stocked, no big deal to cook. All of them feature whole grains and/or fresh ingredients, with natural-food variations on familiar dishes, such as Millet Fried “Rice,” Risotto-Style Barley, and Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies (made with mesquite flour). All of the recipes are vegetarian. 

If I have quibbles with the book they are few, but noteworthy. The first is with the cheap binding; the page signatures have already separated from the cover of my copy, which I’ve had only a couple of months. As for the sections, though they work well to talk about each “food group,” they create a bit of frustration if you’re looking for something in particular — say, salad, as salads fall into all of the categories except the last two. (Knowing this, you can use the index as a guide to find recipes by type or ingredient.) 

My only other criticism lies in the cost of some of the suggested ingredients, which often dwarf the price of mainstream and even other natural foods. As with organic food, this may be an issue of supply and demand, remedied or at least modified by creating more demand, which in turn will bring those prices down. 

To be fair, I believe Swanson’s intent is to expose the wide variety of natural foods and flavors, and to model a life committed to eating whole foods. Throughout the book, she encourages readers to substitute and play around with the ingredients and recipes.

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Given the many fresh ideas in this book for incorporating whole foods into an everyday diet, I know this is a book I'll continue to cook my way through. Already I’ve made a place for it on my bookshelf, sandwiched between old favorites, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Laurel’s Kitchen. 

As for the Otsu, it was absolutely delicious. The tofu, I admit, tasted exactly like what it was: a plain and chewy protein source. I couldn’t help thinking that grilled chicken would make a fine substitute, or even a handful of peanuts. But that’s another book, another review — The Flexitarian Table.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is the Culinate food editor.


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