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The raw and the hooked

The movement toward uncooked food appears to be here to stay. Local workshops and menus that mimic mainstream meals can feed the curious.

Published April 6, 2005

CLEARWATER - A mere taste of a well-prepared uncooked pizza may have you reconsidering the notion that the raw food diet is a wacky trend on its way out.

Okay, it is a bit extreme and does require more equipment than a can opener, but that doesn't mean the food isn't fabulous. Especially when raw food mimics favorite foods such as pad Thai, pancakes and pies.

Using fresh fruits and vegetables; raw, soaked or sprouted nuts, seeds, grains and legumes; and an abundance of fresh herbs assures that raw food dishes are intensely flavorful. Those who eat mainly raw foods report increased energy, better overall health and weight loss.

Rather than cooking food with heat - which can kill natural enzymes that aid digestion - dishes are prepared using dehydrators, heavy-duty blenders and food processors. No food is heated more than 118 degrees and, besides being raw, the ingredients usually are organic and vegan (no fish, meat, eggs or dairy products).

Nutrition experts have expressed concern about the diet because some adherents have low bone mass, usually a sign of osteoporosis and increased fracture risk. However, a study released last week by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that while the bones of raw food vegetarians may be lighter, they are still healthy.

While nutrition experts have debated raw food diets, many celebrities have become devotees. Model Carol Alt has written several books on the topic including the latest Eating in the Raw: A Beginner's Guide to Getting Slimmer, Feeling Healthier, and Looking Younger the Raw-Food Way (Clarkson Potter, $16). Actors Demi Moore and Alicia Silverstone are also raw food dieters.

Those new to the raw food concept are likely to need help learning how to prepare meals.

* Chef Joseph Custer gives free demonstrations at Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater. He has doubled the number of sessions since he started a year ago. Custer also does raw food workshops, consulting, in-home catering, private parties and has made two demonstration videos.

* Southern Botanicals, also in Clearwater, offers a monthly raw food dinner and morning hands-on classes. Preordered takeout meals are also for sale.

Owner Ron Radstrom says he would rather teach people how to make the food than sell them premade meals. "Most people agree they need to increase fruit and vegetables in their diet," he says. "We help them answer the question of, "What do I eat that is as interesting and satisfying as cooked food.' "

At a recent hands-on class, Radstrom and friend Frank Fasano, who specializes in "creating raw food that tastes mainstream," did just that, preparing a menu of raw borscht with sour cream, romaine lettuce with corn-mango salsa, raw refried beans, taco nut loaf, flax seed crackers and raw Mexican flan.

Three students were on hand to learn and assist. Marcia Fogel of Lutz, who has been attending classes once a week for three months, says eating raw has lessened her fibromyalgia symptoms. Her husband, who is not much of a vegetable eater, enjoys the dishes she's mastered. Her immersion into raw food led her to buy a food processor, juicer and hydrator. She already had a heavy-duty blender.

"Did I need all that?" she says. "No, but it helps."

Fogel's friend, Laura Kirk, also from Lutz, had sampled raw foods, but never made any. She was enthusiastic about the class, especially because she and her husband are committed to eating healthy and avoiding processed foods.

The completed meal was visually appetizing, aromatic, flavorful and satisfying in a way that fast-food Mexican food could never be. The meal contained no meat, cheese, eggs, sour cream, nacho chips or beans, but was made of raw foods whose tastes resembled these popular foods.

The flan, for instance, had a bottom layer of sunflower seeds, lemon juice, vanilla and dates blended till creamy. It was topped with a layer of coconut, cinnamon, water, dates and a bit of cayenne. It was delicious enough to make eaters forget the traditional high-fat, sugar-laden version. Similarly, the taco nut loaf resembled ground beef. This nut loaf recipe can also form the base for other meatlike dishes. A sampled "meat" ball was delicious, resembling the ground beef version in texture and shape.

Various "cheeses" are made from nuts, seeds and herbs that are finely blended. Pizza crusts, crackers, pancakes and other "baked items" also are made from seed and nut bases that have been blended and then dehydrated.

Seem like too much work? Too time intensive? Not to Custer, who rails against fast food, which raw food dishes definitely aren't, and who would like to get people back in the kitchen. He also suggests simplifying when you have to, getting the family involved in preparation and planning.

A typical day's menu for Custer includes: fruit for breakfast; a large salad for lunch with a variety of greens and other vegetables, seeds or nuts and healthy homemade dressing. Dinner may include a full raw meal, such as his signature raw pizza or a raw burrito. Or he may just have another large salad.

Custer has not eaten cooked food since health concerns lead him to a diet change in 2001. His goals for others are more realistic. He just wants to teach them how to get more raw foods into their diets.

"It's easier than you think," he said.

Information from www.medicalnewstoday.com was included in this report. Jill Ann Perrino is a freelance writer based in Clearwater.


Chef Joseph Custer hosts free workshops at Nature's Food Patch, 1225 Cleveland St., Clearwater. His next workshop will be at 11 a.m. April 16. For more information, call (727) 443-6703.

Southern Botanicals, 611 S Myrtle Ave., Suite D, Clearwater, offers workshops in which participants create and eat a raw food dinner at 6:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month. Cost is $7. Hands-on classes are 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday. Cost is $5, lunch included. Call (727) 443-7711 for more information or to reserve a spot.

There are many Web sites devoted to the raw food movement, among them, www.rawfoodnetwork.com and www.rawfoods.com

[Last modified April 5, 2005, 10:04:04]

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