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Cooking my way through Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking

So recently - and I swear this was not inspired by Julies or Julias in either film or book form - I decided to start cooking my way through this book. My reasons are many: primarily, that I live in an area with gorgeous local organic produce and equally gorgeous and well-stocked health food stores, and I don't really know what to do with either. I figured this was as good a way as any to educate myself. Also, the idea of cooking my way through a cookbook appeals to the OCD completist in me, and this one is a) vegetarian (neither of us are, but my husband doesn't eat red meat which leaves large sections of most cookbooks out) and b) kind of on the short side. I'm also using this as a way to force myself to do things that I've never bothered with before, like cooking my own beans or grinding my own spice mixtures.

I've posted about various recipes from this book a few times (I swear, every time I finish a recipe someone asks about a key ingredient mere days later!) and TheDairyQueen expressed some interest in a separate post on the project, so this is me, blushingly obliging. I don't have photos of the recipes I've done so far, but there are only half-dozen or so; I'll try to get them in the future.

Here are links to the recipes I've already mentioned. Hopefully they'll even work - never done this "permalink" thing before.

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7245...

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7273...

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7162...

If you're interested, read on! Thanks!

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  1. To expand on the Fig Spread with Black Pepper and Sesame, which I mentioned in another post today:

    Texturally and visually, this spread is gorgeous, but it suffered a little from both my expectations and my inattention. Someone I had the idea in my head that I love figs, which I think comes mostly from the fact that I associate them with my grandfather and his fig tree, but also from their excellence as a vehicle for goat cheese. I also tend to like combinations of sweet and savory in general and sweet and spicy in particular, so I had high hopes. It's sweetened with honey; I used honey from my neighbor's hives, so I was particularly excited to pass some along to them.

    Alas, my toasted sesame seeds were just on the verge of overdone, and it has a bit of an overcooked taste, so I'm not really comfortable with giving it away. The result is still tasty as a vehicle for goat cheese (I combined the two on a slice of bread with snipped chives), and I think it might be good as the "sauce" on an appetizer-style pizza of some sort - with, of course, more goat cheese. Or maybe blue. A little prosciutto. Sounds nice, right? I'm going to freeze some of it and hopefully find a use for it somewhere along the line. Mr. Glimmer said "You know, you don't have to keep it, just because you made it," but I hate wasting food.

    Maybe I can use it as the filling for cookies. I don't know. I'm having trouble mustering much enthusiasm. I think I'm realizing that I loved my grandfather, not his figs.

    1. Next up: Chocolate turtle bean tostadas with chile de arbol sauce.

      There were actually three recipes involved in this meal. The turtle beans were cooked with stock, stout, and a handful of spices -- chili powder, cinnamon, allspice, & cumin. Once done, they were salted and eight ounces of chili-infused chocolate got thrown into the mix. I was actually quite surprised by the mountain of chocolate called for; I've done mole-esque dishes before that had a hint of chocolate in them, but this was intense. Once it melted into the beans, they almost looked like they were swimming in Hershey's syrup. They tasted better than they sounded, but I think I once again suffered from high expectations. They weren't overwhelmingly sweet, but they were a little on the bitter side (possibly from the two tablespoons of chili powder, which I'm going to put up to my mediocre grocery-store chili powder, and not to the original recipe). Not bad, but there's a ton of them still in the fridge, and I'm not sure exactly what to do with them. I ate a few small bowls of beans and rice, but - as you can imagine - they have a very specific flavor, and it's not something I'm finding myself able to eat tons of. Still, this marked the second time in my entire life that I've ever cooked dried beans, so I was proud of that.

      Now the chile de arbol sauce: that one frustrated me and in fact left me feeling physically imperiled. Basically, you pan-fry dried chiles de arbol (8 of them) and then soak them while you do the same to cloves of garlic (20 of them). The chiles went okay, but the garlic cloves started to explode in fairly short order. Clapped a lid on those suckers right fast lest I be permanently scarred/blinded. In the future, I'd use bigger garlic cloves -- but, to be perfectly honest, in the future, I'd roast the darn things. The end result would be similar and I wouldn't feel quite so much like my kitchen was being strafed.

      So: chiles and garlic into the food processor with 2 cups of stock, to be pureed. I found myself wondering if chiles de arbol came in different sizes, because I don't think my result was what it was supposed to be. The mixture is supposed to go back into the pan you used for the chile and garlic, and the recipe states specifically that it should sizzle when it hits. Mine was soup-like, and it definitely didn't sizzle. It did sort of steam, but with that many chiles the steam was pretty fierce. On from artillery to chemical weapons, I guess. I didn't reduce it enough and it ended up thin.

      The final aspect to all of this - and the most successful - was a cashew cream, added to the chile de arbol sauce to temper it a bit. The recipe called for either heavy cream or cashew cream; I'm not vegan, but the whole point of this project is to do new things. So back to the food processor I went: raw cashews, water, nutritional yeast and salt. Whirred that around for two or three minutes and the result was . . . tasty! Not exactly cream-like, but kind of a nice thing in and of itself. Sort of like a thick-and-creamy-but-still-liquid cashew butter. There's lots of this in the fridge, too, but unlike the beans, I'm actually looking forward to figuring out how to use it. After my daughter was born we signed up for a vegan meal delivery service (the only meal delivery service in our area; it's that kind of place) and the chef there did a casserole with what I believe was cashew cream, so I thought I might try something like that: pasta, some mushrooms, bell peppers.

      One last thing: in the Tex-Mex restaurants of my youth, a tostada was a corn tortilla, fried until crispy and stable enough to pile a bunch of stuff on top of it. This recipe just said it was to be "served with fresh corn tortillas;" I'm still unclear whether it was supposed to be knife-and-fork food or more like soft tacos. Maybe the word "tostada" has a different meaning in San Francisco.

      1. I have this cookbook and I love it. Glad to see you are taking on this challenge.
        I am usually drawn to the Asian inspired dishes, but I did make a batch of her chili with grains earlier this year and loved it. It was a mixture of farro, bulgur and lentils, IIRC.
        I also get her newsletter and am a fan on Facebook, where she posts new recipes. This reminds me to reach for her book.

        1 Reply
        1. re: rabaja

          Yeah, I think maybe the asian-inspired dishes are the way to go. Have you tried her "otsu?" I think that or the big pot of curry noodles are the recipes calling to me next, and I just found the soba noodles at Ye Olde Natural Foods Store, so I'm leaning that way.

        2. I'm glad you are enjoying the book, but this was one of my biggest cookbook disappointments. I'd looked forward to it and finally purchased it. The photography is stunning and it certainly is earnest (though the writing suffers from too much preciousness). However, I find the recipes are rather uninspired. I guess I was expecting more "wow" from them. It's not that they are bad, just that I find them quite pedestrian, certainly stuff I can (and have) come up with on my own. Maybe it's because I was already fairly well versed in natural cooking. It would be a good book for a beginner.

          I'll be following your posts, though, because after a few recipes I gave up on this. Maybe you'll cook something that will inspire me to pick it up again.

          2 Replies
          1. re: nofunlatte

            Well, the garlic scape soup was killer. Unfortunately the primary ingredient is available for all of about fifteen minutes once a year, and at my local farmer's market costs $7/lb. I think I might try it again substituting green onions, as Swanson suggests. And I will say that I like some of the individual ingredients that I've found, like the cashew cream and virgin coconut oil. But it's true that I'm not exactly batting a thousand so far.

            To be honest, I love food, but find most food writing a bit precious. There's a tendency toward a humorless sort of we-are-all-wrapped-in-the-ecstasy-of-the-sublime tone that makes my eyes roll a bit. Maybe I'm a cynic, but I feel like the more adjectives are attached to the cuisine in question, the more sublime things get. YMMV though. :)

            1. re: darklyglimmer

              darklyglimmer, thank you for starting this thread! I'm sorry I didn't see it right away, but I will follow along for sure now that you've started. Heck, maybe I'll even be inspired to join in should my work schedule ever ease up!

              I'm always looking for things to do with my CSA garlic scapes early in the season, and my CSA green onions later in the season. So, thank you for highlighting this one.

              ~TDQ

          2. I made the "Otsu" a few nights ago, which is a Japanese-ish noodle dish - and in fact, the Japanese-ish noodle dish I posted about here:

            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7314...

            Basically: soba noodles with cucumber, green onions, cilantro and tofu, in a shoyu/honey/ginger/cayenne sauce. It was quite good! I think Rabaja might be on to something with Swanson's Asian-style dishes.

            The revelation here for me was the tofu, which is cut into "thumb-sized" (whose thumb??) pieces and fried in a dry nonstick ("or well-seasoned cast iron") until golden. No way, no day I thought that would work, but it did: gave the tofu a nice crust, and didn't burn, smoke, or stick. I must admit that putting my organic tofu in my decidedly non-organic nonstick pan did give me the slightest pause, but in the end that was what I had, so onward and upward.

            In the interest of completion, I also made her Peach Nectar Iced Tea, which is . . . peach nectar mixed with iced tea, equal parts of each. So more of an idea than a recipe. She suggested garnishing with peaches and mint, but I'm unenthusiastic about mint and the peaches I have right now are too good to be relegated to mere garnish, so I've just been drinking it plain. It's yummy, but I must admit, it kind of tastes like Snapple Peach Iced Tea. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I guess.