Try It Today: Raw Food

by in Healthy Tips, August 7, 2009

Sesame Noodles
This week, we focused on a bunch of no-cook ideas. What better way to go oven-free than trying out some raw cuisine? Raw food is a new(ish) culinary trend, in which enthusiasts ditch cooked foods (and often dairy) for creative, fresh vegan cuisine.

New to it, I decided to swing by Pure Food & Wine, a popular raw food restaurant in New York City, and speak with Sarma Melingailis, the restaurant’s owner and author of Living Raw Food, to learn more and get some recipe ideas.

The Basics
Raw food is just that — raw. Nothing is cooked above 116 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep the food’s enzymes in tact. So what’s off the menu? Foods like pasta, rice, bread, legumes, meat, eggs…basically, anything you have to cook (you get the picture).

As for what you can eat, fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs and miso are the basics. This list seems a little limiting, but raw chefs think outside the oven and often come up with unusual substitutes — maybe a cheese made from nuts or squash turned into noodles.

My Experience
Last week, I went with my Healthy Eats gal Kristine to Pure Food & Wine to sample their spread; we were pleasantly surprised. We started with asparagus sushi rolls filled with mushrooms (shredded jicama replaced the traditional rice), a plate of assorted “cheeses” (made from tree nuts and blue-green algae) and zucchini sliced into fettuccini-sized strips and drizzled with a creamy basil sauce.

If that sampling sounds interesting, the mains were more inventive. My favorite was the white corn tamales with salsa verde, and Kristine and I fought over the mouthwatering hothouse tomatoes tucked into the layers of the zucchini-noodle lasagna (one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes). But we both agreed that tiramisu dessert was the best item all night.

Now you’re probably wondering: Am I a convert? No, not necessarily. I like my cooked foods, but eating raw was a nice change of pace.

More From Sarma Melingailis
In preparation of my raw food experience, I picked the brain of Pure Food’s visionary, Sarma Melingailis. Here is what she told me about what inspires her interest in this super-fresh cuisine.

Q: How did you first discover raw food?
A: In 2003, I ended up in a small raw food café in Manhattan that I’d never heard of. The food was really good, much better than I’d expected, and I noticed how good I felt versus the heavy, lethargic feeling I was used to after a regular restaurant dinner. I was completely intrigued. The full story of how I went raw with my then-partner is in [my book] Raw Food Real World, but basically, we decided to go all raw for 2 weeks, just as an experiment. I felt so amazing that after only a few days I realized the experiment had become a permanent shift.

Q: Are you a raw food purist or do you mix some cooked food in, too?
A: I was much more rigid about staying raw during the first year. Over the years, I’ve become more flexible, and I make exceptions when I’m at other restaurants or when traveling. But only if it’s really good quality food. Staying organic and natural is very important. I usually just say I am mostly raw. Operating a raw food restaurant, juice bar and online snack business certainly makes it easier to maintain, and when traveling, I can always bring lots of One Lucky Duck snacks with me so I know I won’t go hungry. I’d rather go hungry than eat airplane or airport food!

Q: What’s your most favorite dish, simple or complicated, to make on your own?
A: I don’t have a lot of time and I have a tiny New York City apartment kitchen, so I don’t prepare much myself anymore. When I moved into this place, I gave away boxes and boxes of cooking equipment — pastry tools, mixers, pots and pans in every shape and size. I still miss my chrome Kitchen-Aid. I had a special bond with that machine. I use my oven and microwave for storage now. My favorite thing is to come back from the farmers’ market with loads of fresh produce and make a really nice salad, full of fresh herbs and dressed with macadamia nut oil, lime juice and sea salt. Or argan oil — I love argan oil and nutty flavors.

Q: Do the folks reading your cookbooks or coming to the restaurant adopt a totally raw food diet or is this more of a dabbling?
A: I think most people who come to the restaurant and most readers of the cookbooks are not exclusively raw or vegan. We have loads of regulars that come often just because they like the food and they like how it makes them feel. Some people are inspired to go all raw, which is great, and some people are just inspired to eat healthier, more natural foods. Either way, it makes me feel really good!

Q: What’s one reason why someone should test out going raw?
A: Eating fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh, clean food keeps you clean inside, full of energy and your immune system strong. A lot of people nowadays are realizing that they’re sensitive to gluten and/or casein. In general, it’s sad to see so many people walking around feeling tired, bloated, heavy and/or constipated. Once you see how good you feel eating much more fresh foods, it’s hard to go back.

Q: If someone wanted to start making raw dishes at home, are there basics they should know? What few foods would you suggest going raw with first?
A: Eating raw is much easier than people think. It just helps if you have access to really good quality fresh produce. I think people underestimate how appealing otherwise unappealing vegetables can be when shredded or shaved very thin. Zucchini, asparagus, fennel and even mushrooms are great when sliced super thin on a mandoline slicer, which takes only a minute or two. Then you can toss those with a flavorful sauce.

Here is one recipe that does just that…

Sesame Mixed Vegetable “Noodles” with Herbs
(shown above)
Serves 8 to 10

Equipment: Japanese mandoline

Sesame Dressing
1 cup sesame tahini
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup mellow red miso
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons filtered water
1/4 cup black sesame seeds

In a large bowl, whisk together the tahini, sesame oil, lemon juice, miso and 1/2 cup of the water. Add the remaining water a bit at a time and continue whisking until smooth. Stir in the sesame seeds and set aside.

4 cups daikon radish, julienned on a mandoline
2 red bell peppers, cored and julienned
3 medium zucchini, julienned on a mandoline
3 medium carrots, peeled and julienned on a mandoline
6 baby bok choy, leaves thinly sliced on a bias
3 scallions, whites and about 1 inch of green, thinly sliced
1 big handful cilantro leaves
Sea salt

In a large bowl, toss all the prepared vegetables and the sesame dressing until evenly coated. Season to taste with sea salt.

*Note: This recipe contains a bit more fat than our Healthy Eats guidelines typically allow.

TELL US: Would you consider adding more raw food to your regular routine?

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