In any field we're really not smitten by what we suspect is going to be good for us. The contrived is so much more alluring. Think what designers do with Polar Fleece versus their designs for wool sweaters. It took the efforts of several Paris and Milan couturiers, over the course of several collections, to lift linen from its association with Birkenstock wearers and make it sexy enough to go with stiletto heels.
Same problem with natural food.
But that may be due for a change. At last a cookbook is coming that makes natural food appear glamorous and desirable. The pages look like the spreads in a glossy shelter magazine, laid out with the kind of glowing photographs that zoom in on the smallest detail and are cropped really tight.
Ignore the title -- it's a bit of a spoil if you're following my line of argument. But what's inside "Super Natural Cooking" by Heidi Swanson ($20, Ten Speed Press) should persuade you that eating pure, not processed food, is seductive even before you flick through the recipes.
"Super Natural Cooking" looks so good because Swanson is a photographer, and her pictures are saturated with so much color you can't help but drool.
But the beguiling packaging reveals a useful primer into the benefits of what have become familiar but often poorly explained words in food writing. The book is divided into five sections that describe the benefits of grains, natural sweeteners, vibrant colored vegetables and what she calls superfoods that are packed with all the current buzzwords like vitamins, minerals and nutrients believed to fight diseases like cancer.
The chapter devoted to cooking with color is prefaced with an explanation of phytonutrients -- the compounds that give vegetables like beets their striking hue -- and their value in healthy eating.
She also throws light on the harmful elements of ingredients that have become commonplace in processed foods. The opening chapter, "Build a Natural Food Pantry," divides staples into those to seek out and those to avoid. For example, she gives reasons why black strap molasses is one of the "Sweeteners to Seek Out" and clarifies why high-fructose corn syrup falls into the section "Sweeteners to Avoid."
The high fat content of nuts -- a valuable source of micronutrients -- can make them go rancid. Swanson tells us that commercial walnuts are often treated with powerful chemicals to extend their shelf life. Who knew?
Her style is splendidly straightforward: "Stop thinking of millet as something only birds eat," she instructs -- and follows the exhortation with a recipe for "Millet Fried 'Rice'" that sounds perfectly palatable.
You won't find any mention of meat or fish in the book. But although tofu takes high billing in the index, there's plenty to eat that doesn't depend upon it, and enough recipes that put you more in mind of a Mediterranean or an Oriental diet than a vegetarian one with all the dreary undertones that go with that description.
Swanson is the woman behind one Web site that picks out recipes from her massive cookbook collection and another about natural and organic foods, fair-trade products and all the issues associated with responsible eating and farming. Called "Mighty Foods," that would have made a better title.
Here is a soup elegant enough for a dinner party
-- Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Brazil Nut Pesto
-- Serves 4-6
Brazil Nut Pesto
-- ½ cup Brazil nuts, toasted
-- 2 handfuls spinach leaves, stemmed
-- 4 cloves garlic
-- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
-- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
-- generous pinch fine-grain sea salt
-- 3 tablespoons clarified butter or extra-virgin olive oil
-- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
-- 1 large onion, chopped
-- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
-- 1 large potato, peeled and chopped
-- 1½ pounds cauliflower, coarsely chopped
-- 5 cups vegetable stock or water
-- 1/3 cup heavy cream
-- fine-grain sea salt
-- To make the pesto, purée all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste and add more salt if needed to make the rest of the flavors come forward.
-- Heat the butter in a soup pot over medium-high heat, add the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes, until translucent.
-- Stir in the potato and cauliflower and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the stock, bring to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are tender.
-- Remove from the heat and purée thoroughly (cool till tepid if you use a lidded blender so the steam doesn't force the soup to erupt).
-- Stir in the cream and season to taste, then pour into individual bowls and finish with a big swirl of the pesto.