AMBER Shea Crawley knows she is eating in a grey area.
While her cookbook Practically Raw (Vegan Heritage Press; $19.95) extols the virtues of eating a plant-based diet, she refuses to get wrapped up in the ethical, moral or political aspects of a strict raw vegan diet.
"Eating raw food is not a black-or-white decision, but rather a matter of proportions," Crawley states in the introductory chapter. "Every raw snack, side dish, or meal you add to your day will benefit your body."
A more relaxed approach is catching on as a growing number of raw vegans embrace an "80/20" diet — 80 per cent raw and 20 per cent cooked foods. "I kind of cheat on the whole idea of raw, but the point is you’re using unprocessed ingredients," Crawley says in an interview. "And I don’t see anything wrong with using a conventional oven."
While vegans avoid all animal by-products, including eggs and dairy, vegan raw foodists also avoid cooking their food.
That means consuming fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts in their unprocessed state with the goal of preserving maximum nutrition. There is disagreement as to whether foods that are not heated above 48 C (118 degrees F) contain more enzymes and are therefore healthier, but even mainstream nutrition experts agree that adding more whole foods to the North American diet is a good thing.
There’s a fair amount of rigidity over what constitutes a vegan diet. Crawley declares in her book that readers are entering a judgment-free zone with plenty of flexibility.
"Who am I to say that locally or organically raised meat is wrong if someone has gone about it in an ethical way?"
Crawley, 27, graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in linguistics. She started eating a raw diet when she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, a disorder that affects the thyroid. Since 2008, Crawley has been blogging about her culinary journey at almostveganchef.com. In 2010, she graduated from the Matthew Kenney Academy in Oklahoma City as a certified raw and vegan chef.
Today Crawley considers herself 99 percent vegan, but she doesn’t expect everyone to eat the way she eats, nor is she offended by people who occasionally eat meat, eggs or dairy.
She insists her flexible approach is attracting a more mainstream audience interested in eating for health and longevity. Still, eating more raw foods can be a time-consuming proposition that includes straining nut milks, mixing alternative flours and sprouting seeds to make bread. The 140-plus recipes in Practically Raw — everything from Flaxjacks With Miso-Maple Butter to Mushroom-Nut Burgers to Almond-Butter- Banana Ice Cream — are designed to be quicker, easier and more affordable in terms of time and money.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, used to "bake" or evaporate liquids from foods, look for recipes in her cookbook marked "CO," or made in a conventional oven.
If you’re in a rush to get food to the table in 30 minutes or less, choose a recipe marked "<30." Those recipes take shortcuts like using cooked whole grain noodles instead of "spiralized" zucchini, a type of faux noodle made by turning zucchini or other vegetables through an inexpensive gadget known as a spiralizer.
If you don’t have macadamia nuts on hand or can’t afford them, substitute cashews or another nut listed in the substitution list that follows each recipe.
Recently, Crawley walked me through a few introductory recipes, starting with Zucchini Hummus. Surprisingly, Crawley is not a big fan of the summer squash, which she describes as "slimy." But when she pulverizes it in a high-speed blender or food processor, the texture she finds off-putting is transformed into a creamy dip.
Instead of raw tahini, Crawley prefers the flavor of roasted sesame seed paste, even though it has been processed. The texture is creamy and smooth, but also lighter than traditional hummus made from chickpeas. Agave nectar is the only ingredient that might seem the least bit foreign to the average supermarket shopper. It can usually be found in the health food aisle.
Next Crawley spoons chia porridge that has been setting up in the refrigerator overnight into a bowl. The gray mixture resembles tapioca. Chia seeds are one of nature’s super foods, packed with protein, fiber, omega-3 essential fatty acids, protective antioxidants and phytonutritents.
A former marathon runner, Crawley first read about chia seeds in an article on the 2009 book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. McDougall researched and wrote about Aztec long-distance runners who relied on chia seeds for fuel.
"Somebody said something about it ... probably Dr. Oz," Crawley says. "It’s just funny how it started suddenly flying off the shelves, but there’s nothing else like it."
Chia seeds have taken over where flax seeds’ popularity left off. Flax seeds contain phytoestrogens, a compound that has been associated with breast cancer. When the chia seeds are mixed with water, they turn into a gel-like paste that can be used as an egg or fat substitute in baking.
Crawley combines almond milk, 2 tablespoons chia seeds ("it blows up when it gets in contact with liquid. A little goes a long way"), pitted dates, cinnamon and a pinch of sea salt in a high speed blender or food processor then places it in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day the porridge has a loose consistency, but it’s cold, not typically what I think of when I hear the word porridge. I can’t help but wonder aloud how it would taste hot. Crawley says the almond milk would probably break down and affect the overall flavor profile.
Crawley is working on a manuscript for her second book, Practically Raw Desserts, also by Vegan Heritage Press. "Sweets are one of my favorite things," she says.
She originally developed her Famous Five-Minute Blondies for a recipe video contest.
For her efforts, she won $5,000, and the recipe has become her most popular blog post ever, she says.
Traditional blondies are made from wheat flour, milk and eggs. But Crawley combines macadamia nuts, walnuts and coconut palm sugar in a food processor to create a coarsely ground mixture. She adds vanilla extract, salt and dates, pulsing until the mixture is sticky but well-incorporated. She transfers the mixture to an 8-inch square pan and packs it down tightly before storing in the freezer.
Before serving, Crawley garnishes the just-from-the freezer blondie squares with raw cocoa nibs and fresh raspberries.
Crawley is proud that Practically Raw has received 38 five-star reviews on amazon.com, but a month before her nuptials she is still looking for someone who can make the multi-tiered raw vegan wedding cake of her dreams.
"My fiancé is more vegan than me now," she says, "and he ate meat when we met."
Makes 2 ¼ cups
1 large or 1½ medium zucchini, peeled and chopped (2½ to 3 cups)
½ cup tahini
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon agave nectar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Combine all ingredients in a high-speed blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
Per cup serving: 86 calories (70 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 121 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Famous five-minute blondies
Makes 16 servings
1 cup dry macadamia nuts
1 cup dry walnuts
¼ cup coconut palm sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup pitted dates
Combine macadamia nuts, walnuts and sugar in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground. Add the vanilla and salt and pulse several more times, until combined. Add the dates, 2 to 3 at a time, pulsing between additions until each date is well incorporated. The mixture will be sticky.
Transfer the mixture to an 8-inch square pan (or similar-sized dish) and use your fingers or a spatula to pack it down tightly. Refrigerate or freeze for at least 1 hour before cutting.
Per serving: 143 calories (63 percent from fat), 11 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 11 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 15 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
- Macadamia nuts: cashews
- Walnuts: pecans
- Coconut palm sugar: brown sugar (not packed), Sucanat, date sugar or maple sugar
- Dates: golden raisins
Chia porridge with blueberries
Makes 2 small servings
1¼ cups almond milk
2 tablespoons chia seeds
4 pitted dates
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of sea salt
2 tablespoons pecans, chopped
½ cup fresh blueberries
The night before you plan to serve the porridge, combine the almond milk, chia seeds, dates, cinnamon and salt in a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a container, cover and refrigerate overnight to thicken.
The next morning, stir the nuts and blueberries into the porridge and serve chilled.
Per serving, based on 2: 210 calories (43 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 29 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 86 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
- Almond milk: coconut milk or other nondairy milk
- Dates: 2 tablespoons raisins; 1 tablespoon maple syrup, agave nectar, coconut nectar or any other liquid sweetener, or stevia to taste
- Pecans: walnuts or almonds
- Blueberries: any other berry or diced fruit
— The Kansas City Star