Saturday, 5 January 2008 by kinakoJam
Does the above picture turn you on?
Healthy food seems to have a bad rap amongst serious eaters. The best restaurants are geared towards decadance and escapism; the most popular cookbooks tend to revolve around 'comfort food' presented with 'honest' English wit and oodles of butter and pastry. We like to eat fatty food in front of a fire, like, yeah, but what's so clever or new about that?
If it isn't trying to imitate full-fat/refined-carb dishes (I did recently try to make a wholegrain Roman-style carbonara - it wasn't good), food that is created with thoughts of health and environmental impact in mind can also be beautiful to look at and delicious.
Although my tastes were developed through working in cafes and restaurants as a teenager (delicious versions of classic kiwi tucker at Eva Dixon's Cafe, Italian food at Mondo Cucina, and then several different Japanese restaurants), my first ever cookbook was from the Moosewood restaurant series, so I guess I was indoctrinated early. Some of their dishes remain among my favourites, like black eyed peas sauted with garlic and balsamic and spinach. There is something very rewarding about triumphing over the nastier excesses of industrial food production, about choosing to vary your diet with meals based around non-meat protein sources, about working with unrefined grains: it makes you feel closer to the earth and less wasteful since you are eating more of the plant. And healthy food is, like, healthier for you ay.
Really good healthy cuisine (not sure what else to call it) - which shouldn't always be but tends to be vegan or vegetarian - makes simple flavourings like lemon and ginger do olympic feats of taste. It makes vegetables seem like precious and delightful creations (no small feat in itself) and it often involves a bit more preparation and marination. I guess that sense of care and connection to the kitchen and to the produce is what the slow-food movement is trying to trademark.
It's easy to write it off as a need to feel virtuous through food choices, but I actually think, in the same way that following a traditional Japanese recipe can bring a tactile and aesthetic enjoyment - and a sort of spiritual connection to the tradition of that meal - so too can the deployment of healthy recipes in a tradition going back to those early Californian hippies. Is it really a bad thing to get more of a buzz from making zucchini-date-honey muffins than from baking a sticky steamed pudding with flour rubbed in suet, where the buzz is derived from its being 'so English' and the taste so rich and decadent?
I would rather be pseudo-virtuous than an outright glutton.
And in the end, I'm left wondering, why do I feel like I have to justify myself for wanting to eat delicious food that's actually good for me? Why is being healthy so uncool?
I was very happy the other day when a box of books arrived which we posted back from Toronto. It contained two different editions of the signature cookbook of a Toronto chain of salad/juice/ rice-bowl restaurants named Fresh by Juice for Life.
The three branches of this restaurant are quite a phenomenon. The newer edition of the cookbook bears a recommendation on the cover from Jeffrey Steingarten-approved Toronto chef Susur Lee (something twee along the lines of "Feeds the mind body and soul. It's the future."). And, rather like the celebrity-named sandwiches at your local deli, Susur created a signature juice there. Something to do with beets and raspberries.
Like so many good spots in Toronto, it is done out in an easy-to-wash, pleasant but generic cafe style with plastic washable cups that doesn't exactly scream serious restaurant, and being voted Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Toronto numerous times wouldn't necessarily seem like a huge recommendation either. But along with the plastic cups they have smart wait staff and table service, and it's quite fascinating to see all three branches of a place that goes beyond basic fare like juices and vege burgers, to spicy Sri Lankan noodles and Peruvian-maca/sprouted-flax/hemp-seed shakes, so packed every single day, not just with yoga mums but suits and the occasional group of indie rock teens.
I guess the key factors in the success of Fresh are: the food really gets your taste buds tingling, it's stomach filling, and it's pretty affordable. And presented nicely, too.
The way the cookbook is written doesn't do much to mitigate the cliched image of vegetarians as narcissistic health-freaks: why does every such cookbook have a thousand photos of the chef in question grinning in an unnerving manner as if to say "read my healthiness in the glow of my teeth....aren't I puuuuuuurrty"? (I'm reminded of a raw food cookbook I once saw which had photos of this long-haired blonde guy jumping around in the surf)
And neurotic sounding paragraphs like this are rather amusing/unnerving, too:
"Whereas in the first book I managed to maintain healthy eating habits through the entire writing process, this time I munched on potato chips, sweets and chocolate soy ice cream and drank gallons of ginger ale and hot chocolate...I did however manage to resist the temptation to fuel my writing with caffeine for fear of causing irreparable harm to my marriage!"
However I must say that every single recipe in the two Fresh cookbooks have been a complete success so far, from a mango-tofu-peanut salad to a spicy citrus-infused Cuban chickpea soup. Our recent purchase of a nice Kitchen Aid blender allows us to replicate some of Fresh's great smoothies, like a coconut-chai thing and a warm date & oat infusion which really does have the promised calming effect.
And somewhat endearingly, there is a dish called Wrapper's Delight,
"named after Jennifer's favourite song from the 1970s", and a drink named after Iron Maiden.
The best thing about books like these is how dramatically you increase your salad repertoire, but the recipes for sweet potato pie, dosas and strawberry-lavendar muffins don't go astray either.
Here's an excellent light, creamy, garlicky dressing that's best served with salad leaves, roasted vegetables and a scoop of hummus.
CREAMY SUNFLOWER DRESSING
from ReFresh by Ruth Tal & Jennifer Hudson
2/3 cup raw sunflower seeds
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup grapefruit juice
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup filtered water
Combine ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until thick, frothy and smooth.
(This dressing should be good for 4 - 6 salads, and keeps well in the fridge for 4 or 5 days)
I really wish there was a branch of Fresh in Cologne. Right next door to the gourmet burger joint and yakitori bar which don't exist either. Once again, thank god for recipe books.
PS: the spinach in the picture below looks wilted because it was briefly blanched in hot water. Yessir.