Synonymous with new beginnings and self improvement, there could hardly be a better time than the New Year to investigate a book like Clean Start, by Terry Walters. A sequel to the original Clean Food, Clean Start might be more accurately be considered the prequel to the series, as it attempts to break down the basics in terms simple enough for the most uninitiated of cooks. Organized seasonally, the emphasis is placed on beginning with quality ingredients, and then doing your best not to ruin their natural flavor and vigor in the process of cooking. Terry would never state such a mission outright, though; Guiding readers with gentle, non-judgmental words, it’s all about doing the best you can with your time and skills, to ultimately arrive at a healthier destination. Peppered with glorious color photos throughout, the images really bring the recipes to life, making them seem appear much greater than the sum of their ingredients.
Skipping ahead to the “fall” section, I couldn’t resist the Carrot Cashew Miso Spread (page 90). A popular pick, this is a recipe I had been hearing raves about since before I owned a copy of the book. Combining a mere four ingredients, I had to see what all the hype could be about. Surprisingly sweet, owing to the natural sugars of the carrots, for lack of a better description, it has an undeniably “clean” flavor. Even more satisfying than the usual hummus, the cashews add heft that give it real staying power; an ideal snack for a demanding day. With an excellent hit of salt from the miso, this humble spread really does live up to expectations.
Flipping back a few pages to summer, the Cucumber Mint Salad (page 64) was calling my name. Despite feeling odd chopping up a big bowl of cucumbers mid-January, I can easily see how this would be the ideal dish at a warm, sunny picnic a few months down the road. Cool, light, and refreshing, it’s so simple that it’s more of an idea than a recipe, but that’s also the beauty of the dish. Allowing the cucumbers to shine, accented with complimentary dill and mint, this preparation would make for a fantastic pairing to any heavier main dish.
Returning to autumnal ideas, Ginger Shiitake Soup with Cabbage and Edamame Beans (page 98), hardly takes all of 15 minutes to pull together, but bursts with complex flavor in every spoonful. Admittedly, I reduced the amount of water significantly (down to 5 cups rather than 8) which would undoubtedly concentrate flavors, but I prefer a soup packed with goodies, and certainly nothing watery. Shiitake mushrooms take the stage, lending powerfully rich, savory undertones throughout. Every component is remarkably well balanced – A theme repeated throughout each recipe on trial. Move over “chicken” noodle soup: This newcomer might be the new go-to sick day soup around here.
Buttercup Squash with Quinoa, Apricot and Sage Stuffing (page 152) may be a mouthful of a title, but it’s hardly more complex than preheating on the oven while simultaneously bringing water to a boil. A celebratory dish if I ever saw one, one of these golden squashes would be right at home as part of any holiday spread. Though buttercup squashes evaded my grasp, acorn filled the void quite nicely, and next time I’ll have to take Terry’s suggestion of a delicata substitution. Working to reduce food prejudices, I embraced the addition of dried apricots in this savory application- Diced very, very finely, of course. Happily, the cheerful orange fruits melded in seamlessly, indiscernible from the rest of the stuffing. Tasting instantly like the holidays thanks to the sage, I only wish there was a bit more texture throughout. Almonds add delightful crunch on top, but it becomes a bit of a mushy drudge to eat through all of the center stuffing. An easy issue to remedy with nuts mixed into all of the quinoa instead, I would have no quibbles serving this at a festive gathering, or a quiet night at home.
Some of the “recipes” in Clean Start struck me more as just common sense, such concepts make this a perfectly approachable entry to the newbie cook, seeking healthy options. Lest that sounds like criticism, it bears repeating that every recipe I sampled reveled in that simplicity, carefully calibrated to keep all components in balance. In other words, don’t expect haute cuisine, innovative techniques, or unconventional flavor pairings to leap forth from these pages. Simplicity rules, especially for the home cook seeking painless recipes to add to their everyday repertoire.