Heidi Swanson, natural foods super star, is a cookbook author, whose writing, projects, and photographs have been featured in dozens of magazines. Her first cookbook, Super Natural Cooking, was nominated for a James Beard Award and is widely lauded as the best introduction to natural foods cooking today. Swanson’s online recipe journal, 101Cookbooks, has been the recipient of many awards, and draws a huge audience every month. Her latest mouthwatering and artful book, Super Natural Every Day, is hot off the presses and is equally inspired by whole foods and natural ingredients. I spoke with Swanson recently about the evolution of her cooking, how living in San Francisco inspires her, and where she eats when she’s not busy in her own kitchen.
What inspired you to write Super Natural Every Day?
Super Natural Cooking was an exploration of how to set up a natural foods pantry, an overview of some of the ingredients, and then lots of recipes to put those ingredients to use. At the time I was starting to think about how I could take the spirit of my local farmers’ market and have that apply to more of the cooking and eating I was doing. Push out beyond the fruits and vegetables. It didn’t entirely make sense to me to use source amazing whole fruits and vegetables, and then limit myself to white sugar and white flour. I began exploring whole grains and whole grain flours, natural sweeteners and less processed sugars, and what I discovered was a whole range of delicious, underutilized ingredients and flavor profiles. Four years have passed since that book was published, and I feel like I’ve simplified my cooking style a bit. I wanted to share my day-to-day, go-to recipes. They tend to be approachable, not full of components, with manageable ingredient lists. My hope is that they’re the sorts of things that people can prep ahead of time and work into their routines, without groaning at the thought of getting one on the table.
What are some of your favorite recipes from your new book?
I was just mentioning to someone that I regret not shooting a photo of the Shaved Fennel Salad for the book. I make that salad constantly. The Rye Soda Bread is a favorite, Baked Oatmeal, Bran Muffins…the boozy Crumble, the Chanterelle Tacos, the Farro Soup, Harissa Ravioli…the Orzo Salad tossed with broccoli pesto and avocado.
How does living in San Francisco and the Bay Area inspire your cooking?
There’s no doubt that being from San Francisco has made me the cook I am. And I think it’s because of a whole hodge-podge of things that come together in my kitchen. It’s my friends, the produce, the inspiration from restaurants I eat at, and wandering the aisles at different natural food and ethnic markets. And the weather. For better or worse, you really can’t discount the weather.
Your photography that accompanies your book is visually stunning and very modern (while being slightly retro). Tell us about the style of photos you chose for this book.
I shot the photos as I was writing the book in my house. In real time, which is a bit atypical. So what you see in the book is likely what we had for breakfast or lunch that day. I tried to keep things simple and used natural light and plates and platters from my own cupboards. I also wanted the photos to be illustrative in a sense: Where you can see how ingredients should be cut, or shaped, or how dark you should let them get.
You mention where you shop in your new book but don’t cite any specific stores. Any intel on some of your local favorites?
I love the Sunday Marin Farmers’ Market and meet my sister there whenever possible. But there is a lovely neighborhood market each week just up the street from me. Being able to buy Shelley McMahon’s eggs or produce from Happy Boy or Serendipity Farms, practically in my front yard, makes me feel very fortunate. I walk to Bi-Rite Market often and hit the bins at Rainbow Grocery and/or Whole Foods regularly. I love seeing what ingredients they’re stocking at Boulette’s Larder as well as the Nijiya Market in Japan Town.
“Natural foods” means to you that your “ingredients are straight from the plant or animal” and you note that you do your best to avoid genetically modified and chemically fertilized crops. Can you elaborate on why that’s important to you and for all for us?
I just like to know what I’m eating and where it came from. I don’t want to eat food that has had the genes of another species spliced into it. And it’s no secret that food grown with all sorts of chemicals and pesticides is often harmful to the environment and harmful to the surrounding communities and field workers. So, I try to vote with my dollars and do my best to support the farms, producers, and products that are more sustainably and environmentally minded. And to that point, I think this is possible to cook and eat this way on a wide-range of budgets. Many of the organic ingredients I use are nutrient packed and very economically priced. I find many of them in the bulk sections of natural food stores or Whole Foods Markets: Whole grains, lentils, beans, and whole grain flours for just a couple dollars a pound in many cases.
Your loyal fans probably already know that you’re a vegetarian. Can you share with us how your food choices inform your cooking?
Constructing nicely balanced vegetarian meals is part of what I think about. But I also try to eat and cook with as much real, unprocessed food as possible. It all goes hand in hand for me. I happen to be vegetarian, but there are certainly a good number of other things that shape my culinary point of view: Natural foods, where I live, the seasons, etc. In my case, phasing meat out of my diet opened me up to an entirely new realm of exciting ingredients and cooking techniques. But really, anytime you phase something out of your diet—whether it is meat, or fish, or gluten, or something else—you can either look at it as losing something, or as an opportunity to explore new things to fill that void.
Your blockbuster Web site, 101Cookbooks had over a million visits last month alone. Tell us what you find the most surprising and/or interesting about having an ongoing, open dialogue with the public about food?
For me, the site has always been about sharing what I’m excited about, or what I’m inspired by. And although I eat and cook a certain way, I would never want to impose the way I go about things on others. And what I’ve found is that people pick and pull ideas, or techniques, or inspiration from my site in different ways, and then, often times, make those ideas work in their own homes. What I’m writing about just becomes a jumping-off point for other cooks. I might share a rye soda bread recipe, someone builds on that idea and tries an oat version, then another friend with celiac disease does a version that is gluten-free. The more I share, the more I learn.
Favorite current meal/snacks at some local restaurants that keep you coming back?
I like the pozolé at Gracias Madre—spicy, hot broth, shredded cabbage, avocado, thin tortilla strips. I can’t get enough sesame bread from Tartine. I get the pickled fennel, Fiore Sardo egg salad sandwich at Blue Bottle a lot. And the mung bean dumplings at Out the Door. Closer to home, Ragazza opened not far from us, and I love sampling from their antipasti menu, lots of good roasted greens, and seasonal vegetables.
Orzo Salad recipe from Super Natural Every Day
whole wheat orzo, broccoli pesto, lemon, avocado, crème fraîche
Fine-grained sea salt
1 1/2 cups / 9 oz / 255 g whole wheat orzo
5 cups / 11 oz / 310 g raw broccoli cut into small florets and stems
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 cup / 3.5 oz / 100 g pine nuts, toasted (see page 219)
1/3 cup / .5 oz / 15 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup / 60 ml extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup / 2 oz / 60 g crème fraîche (see page 226)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and sliced
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt generously, add the orzo, and cook according to the package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain well again.
In the meantime, cook the broccoli. Bring 3/4 cup / 180 ml water to a boil in a large pot. Add a big pinch of salt and stir in the broccoli. Cover and cook for 1 minute, just long enough to take off the raw edge. Quickly drain the broccoli in a strainer and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well and set aside.
To make the pesto, combine 2 cups / 7 oz / 200 g of the cooked broccoli, the garlic, most of the pine nuts, the Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice in a food processor. Drizzle in the olive oil and crème fraîche and pulse until smooth.
Just before serving, toss the orzo and remaining cooked broccoli florets with about two-thirds of the broccoli pesto and the lemon zest. Thin with a bit of warm water if you like, then taste and adjust if needed. You might want to add a bit more salt, or an added drizzle of lemon juice, or more pesto. Gently fold in the avocado. Turn out into a bowl or onto a platter and top with the remaining pine nuts.
Photo of Heidi Swanson: Wayne Bremser
Originally published on Inside Scoop