In terms of better health and wellness, the next big thing in cooking may be not cooking at all. “Living foods” (more commonly known as raw foods) have enjoyed a gigantic popularity boost of late. This is thanks, in part, to the advent of a growing number of successful raw-themed restaurants and cookbooks and the glowing endorsements of celebrities, such as Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson. But at heart, living foods is less a food trend than it is a common-sense approach to enjoying and appreciating foods as near as possible to their original, vibrant living state.
The living-foods lifestyle, in its strictest incarnation, is a form of vegetarianism that relies purely on the use of raw, vegan (no animal products or byproducts) and organic ingredients. The living foods menu consists entirely of fresh raw fruits, vegetables and herbs, sprouted nuts and grains, and cold-pressed oils. (Some living-food proponents also include whole, unpasteurized organic milk products.) This means nothing that’s canned, boxed, vacuum-packed or otherwise processed.
Most living-foods preparation is done with knives, graters, blenders, juicers and dehydrators, but light cooking techniques, such as air-drying and low-temp roasting (never past 116 degrees Fahrenheit) are sometimes also employed. The living-foods philosophy is that raw foods contain the most valuable and vital enzymes, phytonutrients and vitamins – all of which are essential for proper digestion, absorption, immunity and overall health – and that these crucial elements are damaged or destroyed once food is heated beyond 116 degrees (as is the case with most commercial processing).
Living-food enthusiasts believe that living foods digest faster and easier than processed foods, thus conserving the body’s resources for energy production and immune function, leading to greater vitality. Raw-foodists also tout a variety of other health benefits, such as increased mental alertness, brighter moods, improved athleticism and clearer, more radiant skin, just to name a few.
Some raw-food recipes are simply healthy replications of standard fare. For example, in place of pasta you might serve a sauce over thinly shaved vegetables; in place of crepes you might serve delicate cakes made from sprouted buckwheat and flaxseeds; in place of a traditional pizza crust, you might substitute a crust made from seed paste that’s been rendered crunchy by sitting in a dehydrator for a few hours. But other recipes are totally unique creations that masterfully pair the textures, flavors, aromas and colors of raw foods in innovative new ways, fusing their intensity and subtlety for maximum effect.
Out of the Frying Pan
If emphasizing living foods does have a drawback, though, it’s that relying entirely on raw foods may keep you from getting your fair share of other valuable nutrients, especially protein. Plus, in some cases (as with the lycopene in tomatoes), nutrients are actually more bioavailable when cooked. The fiber in some vegetables isn’t easily broken down in its raw state, and this can cause some folks to have digestive challenges with raw foods, particularly until their bodies adapt.
The other thing is, except for basic salads, properly prepared raw foods are still hard to find in most restaurants and (beyond your basic whole piece of fruit or handful of nuts) challenging to grab on the go. But you don’t have to choose 100 percent raw or radically alter your eating habits to reap the rewards of living foods. There are easy ways to gradually incorporate more raw foods into your daily diet (most experts suggest aiming for about 50 percent). It’s just a matter of increasing your intake of certain fruits and vegetables, and being more creative about how you do so. Here are some suggestions …
- KEEP IT FRESH: Opt for fresh vegetables instead of frozen or canned; homemade salsas instead of processed brands; spinach salad instead of steamed.
- EAT FOR COLOR: From blueberries to carrots and kale to radishes, the best fruits and vegetables in terms of nutrients tend to be the brightest. For example, green leafy vegetables are rich with phytochemicals. Orange squash is high in vitamin A. Green and red peppers, and fresh, ripe tomatoes are high in vitamin C.
- FRUIT FIRST: Start your day with a little fresh fruit. The natural sugars and nutrients can jump-start your metabolism like a cup of joe. Follow up with your regular breakfast a half hour or so later, if you like.
- ENJOY THE VIEW: Keep your fruits (like peaches, pears and plums) and soft-skinned vegetables (such as tomatoes and avocados) in plain sight in a bowl on the counter. This way you’ll be more likely to reach for them when you need a snack.
- START FRESH: Get into the habit of beginning each meal with a living-food appetizer. Some people find that this improves digestion, causes them to eat less throughout the rest of the meal and to enjoy their meals more.
- BE SAUCY: Expand your horizons beyond the butter, cream, cheese and cooked sauces that you typically use to flavor meals. Instead, purée fresh tomatoes with garlic, lime and cilantro to create an easy salsa for snacking or as a sauce on fish or poultry. Or take dehydrated or natural sun-dried tomatoes and purée them with herbs, fresh tomatoes, cold-pressed olive oil and sea salt to make a fresh, all-around tomato sauce.
- JUST DESSERTS: Experiment with creating raw versions of desserts. Berries and raw cream are always divine, of course. But you can also make simple cookies and crusts from ground nuts, sprouted grains and dried fruits (like dates). Try this take on a tart: Use the nuts/fruit combo to make a paste, then press it into a cake pan. Fill the pan with a purée of your favorite fruits and chill.
- GO UNBREADED: Make your own raw crackers: Use ground beans, sprouted buckwheat or flaxseed as the basis for a raw dough that can be cut or hand shaped into flat squares or discs. Then dehydrate them into crisp wafers.
There are seemingly endless ways to “cook up” more living foods (see Web Resources below for sites that offer specific raw-foods recipes). But regardless of how deep into raw foods you want to get, developing your taste and appreciation for live foods can help you eat smarter and healthier. The summertime bonus: A lot less slaving over a hot stove.
Preparing raw foods can be a challenge if you rely on conventional cookware. It’s a good idea to invest in an immersion wand (blender stick), dehydrator, high-quality blender (like a Vita-Mix), as well as some good knives and a juicer, grater and zester. You might also look into acquiring a simple mandoline (slicer). The right tools for the right jobs make all the difference when it comes to ease and efficiency in the kitchen.
Daikon “Lo Mein”
Adapted and inspired from Raw by Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein
- Two 8-inch pieces of daikon radish
- 2 tbs. lime juice
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 16 French or Romano green beans, thinly cut on the diagonal
- 1 tsp. red-wine vinegar
- 2 tbs. cold-pressed sesame oil
- 2 cups spinach leaves
- 1/2 cup tarragon leaves
- 1 1/2 cups watercress
- 1 garlic clove
- 8 tbs. filtered water
- 6 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries or cherries, soaked for 5 hours in 1 cup of filtered water
- 1 each, red and orange Thai chilies, finely julienned
- 1/3 cup cilantro or radish sprouts
- 3 white scallions, thinly sliced on an angle
- Peel the daikon, cut into 1-inch-wide rectangles and, using the peeler, cut into paper-thin strips roughly 1 inch wide. Toss in the lime and season with the salt and pepper. Reserve.
- Combine the green beans, sesame oil and vinegar, then season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
- In a high-speed blender, purée the spinach, tarragon, cress, water, garlic and olive oil until smooth. Season with the salt and pepper and reserve.
- Spoon a ring of herb sauce on each plate in an oval. Arrange a pile of daikon inside each sauce ring. Decorate the daikon with the berries, bean salad, sprouts, scallions and chilies. Drizzle a few droplets of the water used to rehydrate the berries around each portion.
- Serve immediately.