Cookbook Review: A double dose of raw

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I dig raw food. I used to be a skeptic, but I became a believer. I don’t worry myself about the sub-110 degree rules or the enzymes or any of that: I’m just impressed with it as a cuisine.

Two new raw cookbooks found their way into the Veg Blog PO Box, so I thought I’d give them both a look and compare and contrast them a bit.

Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen First up is Ani Phyo’s Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen. Over the last 15 years, Ani’s tried, shall we say, a variety of things. According to her friend, Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz, she’s designed video art for raves, written a well-respected book on information architecture, and then most recently, founded SmartMonkey Foods, a company that makes packaged raw convenience foods.

Ani’s book is attractively designed and filled with conversational discussion of raw foods. There’s plenty of attractive food photography as well as photos of the author out and about in Portland, buying vegetables, walking her dog, and eating fruits. The recipes themselves are generally quite reasonable, though like most raw authors, she recommends the Queen Mary of blenders, the expensive Vita-Mix. Recipes are VEFH and only occasionally require a dehydrator.

We’ve made a number of recipes from Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen thusfar with good results. The Ginger Almond Pate tasted wonderful as part of the Ginger Almond Nori Rolls, a simple dish where the pate is wrapped in nori sheets with spinach, burdock root (yeah, fat chance we had that around), and mung bean sprouts. A sharp knife is essential for this recipe. It’s really delicious and is one of those that will win over skeptics if they dig things like sushi.

The Sun Burger recipe was another success. Though we just ended up eating the burgers on regular bread (heresy!) and had to “dehydrate” them on our toaster’s “warm” setting rather than in a dehydrator (double heresy!), they were still delicious, with the celery, onion, bell pepper, sunflower seeds, and spices binding well with the flax seeds. These can be eaten right after they’re made or dehyrdrated for a more familiar burger texture.

We had slightly less success with the tasty-sounding Strawberry Kream Swirl, a cold dessert soup that would have been great except for the fact we couldn’t get the almonds “creamy” enough in our food processor. Maybe the Vita Mix would have done a better job.

There are two more recipes I’m really itching to try out soon: the Coco Kream Pie with Carob Fudge on Brownie Crust and the Fruit Parfait, which looks to be very similar to the one served at Blossoming Lotus in Portland.

The Raw 50Next up is World’s First Supermodel Carol Alt’s The Raw 50, co-authored with David Roth. Alt lends her name to the book, but all of the recipes come from others including familiar names like Dan Hoyt and Sarma Melngailis.

The Raw 50 is significantly different from other popular raw cookbooks in that it’s not vegan (or VEFH). It includes raw dairy, raw eggs (ick), and even fish. She includes proscuitto (cured pork) as an essential pantry item. Alt addresses this in a section titled “Vegan or Not?” She equates not being vegan with not being a 100% raw foodist, which of course requires completely avoiding the ethical issues. “I believe your body will tell you what it needs,” she writes, “Although you may want to be vegan, you may find that your body is genetically adapted to animal products; you may even need them.” She does add that if you are vegan, “my hat’s off to you,” but her casual coverage of veganism focuses only on the health issues and barely even touches the ethical side of things. If you’re not 100% raw, you’re only affecting yourself. If you’re not vegan, you’re also affecting other animals.

More frustrating, though, is the introduction by Nicholas J. Gonzalez, M.D. where he makes an awkward connection between vegetarianism and the low-fat diet trends of the 1990s. Gonzalez spends a liberal amount of time quoting the research of Weston A. Price. The name may sound familiar: the Weston A. Price Foundation spends a lot of time promoting raw milk while spreading somewhere between half-truths and outright mistruths about vegetarianism and soy. It reads like a New York Times op-ed piece by Nina Planck. A lot of time is spent in the opening pages telling readers why being vegan isn’t important to a raw foodist, which had me in a foul mood before I even got to the recipes.

I’m not being hypersensitive about that, am I?

So. The recipes.

There are actually more than 50 of ’em, split between breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks, and snacks. While I won’t be touching Tuna Ceviche or Raw Egg Mayonnaise with a ten foot pole, there are some interesting vegan inclusions worth mentioning. For instance, we enjoyed Muriel’s Sticky Granola, a simple, yummy blend of agave (subbed for that damned honey), ground cinnamon, dates, and raisins. The recipe calls for 12 hours of dehydration, but at the time we didn’t have a dehydrator on hand, so we just heated it at 200 degrees for a few hours.

We did have a dehydrator on hand for the deliciously-simple sounding Almond Coconut Cookies from Chef Dan Hoyt. We made the variation, which processes raw almonds and dried coconut flakes into a dry powder, then mixes them with salt (is it pretentious that it calls for specifically Himalayan salt? Yeah, kind of.), vanilla extract, and agave. It’s then dehydrated for 15-18 hours. No one ever said raw food was for those who needed instant gratification!

Unfortunately, while the cookies were a good consistency and had nice hints of almond and coconut, the saltiness was overpowering. Perhaps using sea salt instead of the Himalayan salt was a mistake after all.

In summary…

Ani Phyo’s book is a pleasure. Its recipes are reasonable, don’t generally call for bizarre ingredients, and are things you might actually serve to guests. Unlike Raw Food, Real World (which I love, but, seriously, there’s no way I’m buying a machete to hack open coconuts), this is a raw food book the average vegan could use on a regular basis. Ani’s personality comes across in the book, so it really does feel like a friend that’s sharing something she’s passionate about.

On the other hand, Carol Alt’s The Raw 50 made me more frustrated than inspired. There are some good recipes from a wide variety of raw chefs, but the almost anti-vegan sentiment is very off-putting and the inclusion of recipes with raw eggs, dairy, and fish alongside the promotion of raw meats keeps me from recommending this book.

Find out more about Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen and view video demos of some recipes. The book is available for $19.95 from Marlowe & Company. Carol Alt’s The Raw 50 is available for $17 from The Crown Publishing Group.

Restaurant Review: Pure Food and Wine

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Raw foodism stresses that for the most benefit from food, it should not be heated above a certain temperature (usually about 110 degrees) because that kills off nutrients and beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion. Whether that’s all true or not, I’m skeptical, but I’ve never had any real interest in raw foodism because it doesn’t provide any ethical benefits over veganism. That said, though, I’ve always been curious about raw food from a culinary perspective. Five years ago “raw food” meant crunchy broccoli to me. But now, I see restaurants and cookbooks sprouting up (har!) and I’ve gotten curious about what an experienced raw chef can do armed with only a dehydrator and food processor.

When we were in New York last week, we decided to go to one of New York’s several raw restaurants to get the full raw experience. Our attempt to visit one of Quintessence’s branches was foiled when we saw it had closed. The next night we were in the Union Square area and decided to stop by Pure Food and Wine, a raw food restaurant started by two formerly omnivorous chefs who were inspired after a visit to the aforementioned Quintessence. When we walked in, we felt a bit out of place… it feels like a very trendy restaurant (definitely not our normal scene). But, we figured, screw it… there were people there more dressed-down than us, so we were seated without any stares from fellow patrons.

Because Pure Food and Wine isn’t exactly a “cheap” restaurant, Huyen and I decided to split an appetizer, get separate entrees, split a dessert, and forego wine. It was a tough choice because the menu had some really outstanding sounding dishes. We settled on:

  • Appetizer: Creamy Cauliflower Samosas with Banana Tamarind Sauce, mango chutney, Asian water spinach, and sake
  • Entrees: Biryani and Coconut Curried Vegetables with cardamom and coriander spiced “rice” and hunza raisins and Zucchini and Golden Tomato Lasagna with Basil-Pistachio Pesto, sun-dried tomato sauce, and pignoli ricotta
  • Dessert: Dark Chocolate Ganache Tart with black mint ice cream

The cauliflower samosas were made with an almost rice-paper-like wrapper that was just the right consistency (not too hard, not too most). The filling was absolutely delicious, with complex flavors rivaling the tastiest samosas I’ve ever eaten. Huyen’s eyes almost popped out of her head. She went from “notably skeptical” to “amazed” in one course. We couldn’t wait to try the rest.

Both entrees matched the samosas in terms of quality. The biryani was flavorful and a tad spicy without being hot. The balance of spices was just perfect and the textures were much more varied than the phrase “raw food” would have you expect. I savored every bite of the lasagna dish. The thinly sliced zucchini was a nice replacement for the standard pasta slices. The tomatoes were wonderfully fresh and flavorful, even in spring, and the pignoli (pine nut) ricotta was creamy, only slightly nutty, and a perfect compliment to the sun-dried tomato sauce. Needless to say that the pesto (a food that’s traditionally served raw) was flawless, given a nice twist by the use of pistachios.

At this point, we decided that if we lived in New York, we might go broke from going to Pure Food and Wine too frequently, since we’d surely bring every out-of-town friend there during their visit. But to be fully convinced, we had to try their dessert. After all, how could one make a chocolate ganache tart and a raw ice cream that were anywhere near as good as their gourmet baked counterparts?

Our minds were blown once again. The tart, made using Rapunzel cocoa, was rich and delicious. The small dollop of mint ice cream made from coconut beans and cashews had only a slight nutty flavor and was better than most processed vegan ice creams I’ve tried, let alone raw ice creams. A perfect finish to a perfect meal.

Seriously, this meal was wonderful from beginning to end. While our hostess scared us with her supermodel appearance and attire, our waitress couldn’t have been friendlier or more responsive to our questions. Huyen and I both left absolutely satiated and believers that raw food can be every bit the culinary experience any other gourmet cuisine can be.

Now, Pure Food and Wine ain’t exactly cheap. But, we cited this restaurant as the reason that we got an inexpensive hotel room: money’s better spent on food than on where you spend your unconscious hours. For the one appetizer, two entrees, and dessert, the total came to $94 after tip. We agreed as we headed out the door, it was worth every cent.

One criticism must be leveled, though: Pure Food and Wine isn’t 100% raw. Huyen complained that their bathroom sink’s cold water faucet didn’t work, so she had to deal with scorching hot water to wash her hands… water that was clearly above raw food’s upper-limit of 110 degrees. (Ba-dum-dum… I’ll be here all week, folks! Try the Brazil Nut Crusted Mushrooms!)

Snakker and Goodbaker updates

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My new computer has arrived and the transition has begun, so posts here should start picking up again.

One thing I’ve been meaning to do is write a follow-up to my Snakker bar review a few weeks ago. Ibrahim sent me a sample of his modified Snakker bar that features more cocoa, even though it’s at a greater cost to him. The new bar is an improvement on the original, which was already a tasty and unique treat. The sweetness of the dates is still evident, but it’s more subdued and blends even more nicely with the cocoa and peanuts. Good stuff.

He also sent along one of the Raw Bakery’s raw brownies. As with the Snakker bar, the sweetness comes from medjool dates (ingredient #1). This one’s a favorite of Carol Alt. What surprised me most about the brownie was its moistness… you’d think raw = dry, but even after being open for a week or two (I like to savor my brownies, so sue me), it still retained all its original flavor and moistness. The chocolate flavor isn’t heavy, so if you’re used to super-sugary brownies made from a mix, this is going to be a bit of a shock. But, in a good way… I mean, really, when was the last time you can say you had a brownie that tasted great and was actually good for you.

Worth noting: their new Coco Joy bar.

I also wanted to add a quick comment to my Goodbaker post. I made their brownie mix a few weeks ago. Wow oh wow. That’s all I can say. Great stuff.

Hey, why not have the best of both worlds… grab a raw brownie from the Raw Bakery and then bake some with the Goodbaker mix. Have your brownie and eat it too…

Review of Raw Bakery’s Snakker Bar

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I’m familiar with raw foodism. I’ve mentioned on the Veg Blog numerous times over the years. I’m planning on visiting one of the several raw restaurants in New York the next time I visit. However, one thing exists I would never have ever thought of: a raw bakery.

The Raw Bakery was started recently by a team of people that wanted to bring traditionally unhealthy old favorites like candy bars and cakes to the raw realm. They currently have variations on the Snickers bar (Snakker) as well as brownies and cakes.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I’m not interested in raw foods from a health perspective. As one amusing critical review of Quintessence that I recently read said: “There are many different factors to consider when evaluating a restaurant – taste, vegan-friendliness, ambiance, service, use of healthy/organic ingredients – for me, insurance that nothing I order will be heated above 118°ree; is just not one of them.” (I realize the issue goes deeper than that, but still). However, I am interested in raw foods from a culinary perspective. I’ve always been of the mindset that self-imposed restriction can result in some of the most creative creations (see my piece about The Grey Album for a musical take on the same issue). Essentially, I’m curious to see what raw chefs can do with the restrictions of raw ingredients and cooking under a certain temperature. There’s no reason that what raw chefs do in their exclusively raw restaurants isn’t something that could be integrated into one’s regular diet or a mainstream restaurant’s menu. I’m just as curious to see what can be done in the raw baking realm. It’s all about new experiences, right?

So, with that said, I was anxious to try out one of The Raw Bakery’s Snakker bars after seeing an advertisement in Satya. The Snakker bar is “the world’s first raw bar made with a filling.” Each bar is handmade with sun-dried organic cocoa beans, organic raw peanuts from New Mexico, and is sweetened with organic honey (beware honey-dodging vegans!) and organic dates. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Snakker bar and I was pleasantly surprised. The sweetness of the dates is readily apparent and gives the bar a nice earthiness that balances the subtle flavor of the soft chocolate covering. And hey, peanuts! Of course they’re good.

Executive Chef Ibrahim Gencay told me that since the bar I tasted, the flavor is more chocolatey because he’s added more cocoa beans to the bar. Excellent.

The criticisms that I have about the Snakker bar are not related to the flavor or ingredients (though I’d like to see another sweetener other than honey, even if it would be slightly more processed), but with the connection to the Snickers bar by name. No one’s going to mistake a raw candy bar for its heavily processed distant cousin, and I fear that that connection might scare some people if they try the raw bar on a whim. Gencay explained to me that this wasn’t the intention. Rather, the intended connection with a Snickers bar is more emotional; the idea is that the Snakker Bar will give you a similar emotional reaction that a Snickers Bar gave you in your less-healthy days (or childhood days) and will satisfy the desire you may have to return to your junk food habits. This, I can deal with.

The Snakker bar is $3.49 for a 1.6 oz. bar ($39.90 for a package of 12) and $5 for the 3 oz. Jumbo Size (the sizes offered, I am told, may change). A tad pricey considering a Jumbo Snickers will run you about $1, but with the quality of the ingredients and the care taken in the production of these special candy bars, you can’t really compare the two prices.

I found myself enjoying the Snakker bar more as time went on, really enjoying the sweetness of the dates and the texture of the finely chopped peanuts. And, yes, I am impressed that this was able to be done. The Raw Bakery has gotten some good press recently thanks to raves from the likes of Carol Alt and Sissy Spacek, so I suspect the business will be booming before you know it. Rightfully so.

I look forward to seeing what other products The Raw Bakery dreams up and wish them the best of luck in their quest to provide healthy raw sweets.

Raw, not for everyone

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Raw food diet: As a way of life, simply not so hot

This Chicago Tribune article takes a look at the raw food lifestyle. The author decides it’s not for her:

But raw, which is supposed to encourage a simple life and a return to nature, is just too complicated for its own good. It’s great in theory but has strayed seriously from its roots. Not only are pricey appliances like a juicer, dehydrator and blender helpful if you want to eat more than lettuce, but it’s also a labor- and time-intensive lifestyle that requires soaking and sprouting various foods and recognizing deadly herbs.

I think Charlie Trotter, author of Raw has it right:

“There’s nothing wrong with mixing a little raw and cooked food,” Trotter said during a cooking demonstration. “I just want great food. And by the way, I want to live to eat another day.”