THE SKINNY: If you’re looking for a cookbook with a focus on whole foods, eating seasonally and an anti-inflammatory approach to eating, check out True Food Kitchen cookbook, and expect higher grocery bills.
Dining as Phenomenon
If you’re lucky enough to live in Santa Monica (or Denver or Phoenix), you might already know about the dining phenomenon that is True Food Kitchen. Phenomenon might feel like a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s exactly the right word. Let’s talk supply and demand. The cookbook states that Kale Salad is their most ordered menu item, which affects supply. They cite being partly responsible for kale’s popularity in the U.S. and because of the demand, more farmers are growing kale to keep up with their orders. It’s interesting to take a macro perspective on a single ingredient, isn’t it? Yet what makes True Food Kitchen, the restaurant, a phenomenon is what Sam Fox mentioned of “people eating here three, four, five nights a week (p.5).” To snare that kind of loyalty and frequency is unheard of at a singular restaurant.
Clean Eaters Anonymous
My interest in the True Food Kitchen cookbook springs from my keen delight in dining at the restaurant. And this is where I started my cookbook journey with True Food Kitchen. It certainly helps to read Dr. Andy Weil’s sidenote that his “own cooking evolved toward simpler dishes with bold flavors” (p. 2), something I share. Executive chef Michael Stebner described their approach of having “an almost fanatical respect for the quality of ingredients and the integrity of traditional, simple dishes (p. 4).” He, Sam Fox and Michael Stebner all take turns sharing anecdotes and recipes throughout the cookbook. One detail I particularly appreciate is that each section features one or two articles told through the lens of defining terms, like “True Whole Grains” on page 21 looking at whole grains and intact whole grains or addressing food and health cooking implications like “Avoiding Sugar, Fat, and Salt Crutches” on page 30.
Proximity to a True Food Kitchen restaurant necessitates a visit and in this case, cajoling the rental car driver to join me in a sumptuous feast of cold-pressed juice and sustainable seafood. Eating clean foods while traveling is a developed skill and outright necessity, albeit often challenging. Recently, while attending Expo West, I relished the idea of a meal at True Food Kitchen in Newport Beach and bided my time. Two personal goals seemed within reach while at the food show: empty my water bottle each day and get a daily ration of kale to undo the damage done by the “all natural” foods at Expo. True Food Kitchen helped me achieve one of those goals.
The evening we drove to Newport Beach, certain menu items leapt out, familiar from cooking through the cookbook. I selected the Umami Burger, intrigued by the inclusion of bison meat. Sides of savory kale and sweet potato hash played to the earthy flavors of the burger. The umami sauce complemented parmesan, sautéed mushrooms and mellow bison meat. That same umami sauce slathered on brussels sprouts during a meal at home had practically caused felicitation.
Stebner comments about tailoring their menu to address a number of food avoidances and allergies, also remarking on sodium in restaurant food, “You have to be continually ready to discard an ingredient, or practice, that’s been central to your craft for decades when something better comes along (p. 32).”
Why Be SAD?
In 2012, City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco hosted a conversation between Dr. Andy Weil and Mollie Katzen. Dr. Weil spoke a bit about his reinterpretation of the FDA My Plate / food pyramid configuring it into an anti-inflammation diet pyramid, “using the Mediterranean diet as a template.” (p. 47).” SAD (the standard American diet) is actually increasing inflammation through the foods most Americans regularly eat. Here, he made me think twice about foods we do eat often, and rethinking how they might exacerbate inflammation. In the darkened room, my pen attempted to scratch copious notes onto the pages of a red moleskine. Luckily, much of what Weil discussed with Katzen was printed in the cookbook- things like the difference between intact whole grains and pulverized or the need to cook certain mushrooms to draw out their health benefits. I found their camaraderie charming and the conversation engaging, a perfect introduction to finally dive into the cookbook after the holiday mayhem subsided.
On the whole, my assessment of the cookbook is that even if you are not looking for recipes for healthier cuisine, you’ll find the flavors and textures of the recipes you create from True Food Kitchen to be enticing. I did find myself griping a few times as I turned its pages though. After reading the Avoiding Sugar, Fat, and Salt Crutches” article, it surprised me to see sugar as an ingredient in unexpected places like the Curried Cauliflower Soup on page 102 or the Salmon Kasu entrée on page 122. I also found that as much as I was taken in by eating on an anti-inflammatory diet, I questioned whether this would be sustainable long term monetarily or be within reach of people who don’t have high quality ingredient dispensable income. I abide by the idea that if you don’t pay for it in the grocery store, then you will at the doctor’s office, but when considering food deserts and access to real food, much of the beautiful food in this cookbook would be out of reach of most Americans.
Dr. Andy Weil describes the perplexing mindset of many Americans “that food that tastes good and food that promotes health are in opposition- it’s either/or, but it can’t be both/and (p. 6).” I would posit that at True Food Kitchen and via the cookbook they accomplish the goal of promoting good food that is good for you, accomplishing both/and, which is something worth extolling.
Cooking through the Book
So, now, let’s explore the cookbook a bit, shall we?
BARBECUED SHRIMP WITH MUSHROOMS AND SOBA NOODLES (p. 61)
We varied the recipe, using the ingredient substitutions available like swapping in shaved Brussels sprouts for cabbage and adding in coconut oil and cilantro as well as Bella mushrooms. This would make a wonderful addition to a picnic or potluck.
QUINOA TABBOULEH (p. 85)
If you gauged the outcome of this recipe by its photograph in the cookbook, you might think something had gone terribly wrong. Either they used golden beets in the photo or your fuchsia version had made a misstep. Rest assured, this salad is quite filling with a lovely interplay between mint and marcona almonds, quinoa and beets. Make a batch on Sunday and you’ve got lunch for the week.
MOROCCAN CHICKEN SALAD (p. 87)
Don’t be fooled if you think every recipe in this cookbook is “healthy;” there’s a good chance you haven’t made it over to this chicken salad yet. Creamy with the right amount of lime, curry and sultanas, this is a balanced salad of savory and sweet flavors great smeared on toast or lettuce leaves.
SWEET POTATO-POBLANO SOUP (p.95)
This soup convinced me to make a big pot of soup once a week. The TFK approach, noted in several of their soup preparations consists of tossing veggies in a scant amount of oil and then roasting them together to create the base of the soup was genius. This soup’s bold personality resulted from roasted peppers, crunch of corn and mild sweetness of carrots and sweet potatoes.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH-APPLE SOUP (p. 97)
Using the same fashion of oil tossing and then roasting as the soup above, this one is a keeper. Since I only had three apples available, I substituted in a pear and let me tell you it gave a floral quality to this soup that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Serve during a fall dinner party.
IMMUNITY SOUP (p. 98)
A nasty cold had struck the entire 7×7 of San Francisco late winter. Armed with my True Foods Kitchen cookbook, I took action and sought out astralagus root. It only took three store employees and two stores, but I located these herbs purported to have immune-boosting properties. We found the soup to be delicious in its own right, and will add more broccoli and carrots in future batches.
CURRIED CAULIFLOWER SOUP (p. 102)
The cookbook photo and ingredients had me jazzed to try it, but after making it, somehow it felt lacking. I hadn’t been heavy-handed with the spices and we kept looking for ways to spruce it up.
TURKEY BOLOGNESE (p. 144)
I had high hopes for this Bolognese, but found, in the end, I prefer my own version of the classic sauce with carrots. The cooked shiitake mushrooms were distracting and chewy.
CHICKEN, CORN AND BLACK BEAN ENCHILADAS WITH TOMATILLO SALSA (p. 145)
Enchiladas in our home are sacrosanct. The surprising crunch of jicama and corn in this version, paired with diced chicken, manchego and fresh salsa gave a healthier hearty twist on a family favorite. This was a popular evening for dinner. Make extra fresh tomatillo salsa.
STIR-FRIED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH UMAMI SAUCE (p.179)
If you can get your hands on Brussels sprouts, make this tonight. This vegetable side dish comes together with a delectable umami sauce that complements the slightly charred sprouts. The method used to cook them is one I will employ again soon.
MUSHROOM STOCK (p. 238)
When making the Immunity Soup, you have to make the mushroom stock, a helpful exercise to show how easy it is to DIY. Make extra and freeze in an extra ice cube tray. Then store in a sealed container for when you need a bit of umami oomph.
CHOCOLATE PUDDING (p.211)
Chocolate pudding fail. First, my batch that I made at home never set and ended up a thin soupy mess. Then, when at TFK in Newport Beach, I made a point to order it and see how it should have looked and tasted. I found it both times to surprise me as cloyingly sweet.
The verdict on a cookbook is usually a measure of how I can’t keep myself from trying out more recipes after I’ve tested a few out to give the book a thorough review. True Food Kitchen has a few winners we will revisit and more recipes left to explore in my home kitchen like the Tomato-Braised Tuna (p. 136) or the Pistachio Dream (p. 213). Already, we made the Kale Salad this week, and though I found the version in the restaurant to be pepped up with more pepper, it almost takes me back to an evening with a friendly waitress handing us cards on the anti-inflammation diet and describing the philosophy of a restaurant that pulls me in with its colorful clean eating.