Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Getting Fresh

Gorgeous little peaches, just-picked from the tree.

For the past few months, I've been introducing food to my vegan baby. It's baby-led solids with bits of soft food (no conventional baby food), so he's able to choose what he wants and feed himself. Given the choice between fresh fruit and something else (grains, legumes, ice cream...pretty much anything), he chooses raw foods in their natural state every time. It's fascinating to watch.

Part of this is probably down to the fact that, while pregnant, I ate mostly raw food. But it's also because fresh, ripe food is inherently appealing to humans. From our color-identifying eyes, to our long digestive tracts, to our hands which grasp apples and bunches of grapes so perfectly, we are designed to seek out and enjoy fruit. (And my son hasn't shown any interest in "meat" in its natural state; there have been no attempts to eat our cats or other neighborhood animals!)

As much as I love to cook, I also love to keep food raw. I can't resist a handful of cherries or strawberries. Fresh oranges, reamed straight into a glass, are heaven. And could a papaya be any better than with the seeds scooped out, eaten with a spoon and a simple spritz of lime?

If you want to add more raw foods to your diet, it's easier than you think. Here are my favorite ways to do it:

Add, don't subtract. Thinking about how much coffee you drink, or loathing yourself for indulging in fried foods only leads to frustration and guilt. Instead, cram your diet full of the foods you ideally want to eat, and don't worry about the rest. The abundance of fresh foods will begin to crowd out unhealthy choices, and you'll find yourself effortlessly cutting less desirable stuff.

Skip the superfoods and focus on fresh. It's easy to get drawn into the world of raw superfoods: Dried goji berries! Maca! Hand-opened raw cashews! Many of these products make hefty health claims, and while they might be better than junk food, they're not as super as fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. Sure, a raw cashew cheesecake is probably healthier than it's dairy counterpart, but most people don't benefit from making cheesecake part of their diets. Add lucuma powder or cold pressed macadamia oil to your meals, and it might be slightly beneficial. Add a bunch of bananas for breakfast, or an afternoon green smoothie, and the benefits are tremendous.

I remember being at a raw potluck years ago, and a guy came in with a giant bag of ripe fruit. As he sat down and dug in, I looked proudly at my elaborate "raw" cake (filled with nuts that had been on the shelf for months and loads of agave, no doubt), and wondered why he would bring something so boring. I laugh at it now, because he really had the right idea.

Don't stress over whether your cashews or agave are really raw or what temperature your olive oil was pressed at; if we have to ask, it's obvious the food isn't completely fresh. Instead, focus on truly whole food: fruits and vegetables.

Buy the best. The surest way to be tempted by fresh foods is to purchase the best quality you can access and afford. Organic is important, but sometimes the ripest, most delicious produce is conventional. Look for luscious peaches and tomatoes that yield slightly under your thumb, plump berries that are even in color, and greens that are dark and crisp.

Blueberry picking at The Fruit and Berry Patch in Knoxville, Tennessee.

One way to get excellent quality--and get to know your food--is picking your own fruits and vegetables. One of my favorite parts of traveling is tasting the best produce each region has to offer, so I always seek it out. In Los Angeles, I recently spent the entire afternoon in a fig tree, devouring its sun-warmed fruit. In Tennessee, I walked through acres of fruit farms, plucking fresh blueberries and peaches. It was incredibly rewarding and delicious.

Farmers are usually delighted to talk to you about their produce and give advice on how to pick the best. And there are pick-your-own places everywhere. Check out pickyourown.org for a detailed listing of local farms near you.

Raw pepitas over cucumbers and raw dressing.

Switch to raw nuts and seeds. You can always toast them later or use them in cooked recipes, and having raw nuts and seeds on hand makes it easy to whip up a raw dressing or toss a handful onto your salad. Simple! Remember that the oils in raw nuts are more volatile than those in toasted and can go rancid more quickly, so store them in the refrigerator unless using immediately.

Add a green smoothie. Whether you drink it with breakfast or as an evening snack (instead of that third bowl of cereal), green smoothies hydrate and nourish while getting your greens in. In the afternoon, skip the coffee and pick yourself up with a smoothie instead; few things are more energizing and convenient!

A red and gold fruit plate, with pears, strawberries, pineapple, bananas, and pomegranate seeds.

Eat fruit first. Make a fruit plate, and serve it along with meals. No matter what other foods you're eating, starting with easily-digestible fruit is a healthy way to fill up on the good stuff. I like to keep fruit out all day so there's always raw food within reach; everyone grabs a bit as they walk past throughout the day. While someone might not spend the time to find and peel and orange, they'll gladly take one if it's sliced and ready on a plate.

And try fruit for breakfast. Beginning the day with morning fruit is quick, and won't weigh you down like heavier meals. Just be sure to eat enough of it to satiate you: think 6-10 bananas, a whole watermelon, or a smoothie with 15 dates and 5 oranges. It sounds like loads of food, but try it and see how you feel--it's an amazing difference.

Sea Cucumber salad with red peppers and carrots added in. Perfect with bowls of miso soup and Coconut Ice Cream sprinkled with matcha.

Add a salad with dinner, and pack in some fresh vegetables along with your usual supper. Need ideas? Try my Orange Rosemary Salad, Simple Kale Salad, Sea Cucumber Salad, Nicoise Salad, or My Favorite Salad to start.

Do you love eating foods in their raw, natural state? What are your favorite tips for getting fresh?