Live & Uncooked: Raw foodists stay on the edge of freshness

Terry Stiers is a certified food instructor, but she never cooks at a stove. On YouTube, the St. Charles resident whips up a cottage pie using a high-speed blender, a food processor … and that’s it. No browning anything in a skillet, no boiling anything in a pot, no baking everything in an oven.

In 2004, Stiers switched to a raw food diet. Raw, pure, living – there’s more than one way to say something hasn’t been warmed over 118 degrees. Why not turn up the heat? Raw foodists say it depletes food’s vitamins, minerals and digestive enzymes. Plus, fresh foods make great meals.

Hot and cold

“I’ve never been a fan of gazpacho,” said Karrie Johnson of Rock Hill, who has raw meals twice daily. Now she eats all kinds of soups after warming them to the touch in a blender. “Raw doesn’t always mean it’s cold,” she said.

Johnson uses raw ingredients to make everything from chile-hot tacos to brownies crowned with ice cream. Sitting on a plate, these dishes look all but identical to their cooked counterparts.

“You tend to make recipes that remind you of the foods you used to eat,” Stiers said. “I was a big potato chips freak. That’s why I figured out how to make chips in my dehydrator.”

Spaghetti look-alike

You know you’re a raw foodist when you own at least one food processor, a Vita-Mix blender and an Excalibur dehydrator. Food can be eaten as-is, of course – although most recipes call for puréeing, chopping, blending and/or dehydrating. Removing the moisture from vegetables changes their texture – creates the “crispies” Stiers craves – while increasing their shelf life. The same goes for fruits. Dehydrating seeds allows raw foodists to make comfort foods such as bagels, biscotti, pizza crusts and crackers.

Johnson turns flax seeds into Asian-flavored crackers by combining shiitake mushrooms, carrots, green onions and nama shoyu (unpasteurized soy sauce) instead of salt. Crackers flavored with tomato, cilantro and corn say, “¡Viva México!”

Getting a taste of Italy just takes a few zucchinis. Another ubiquitous gadget in the raw food kitchen, the spiralizer, creates long, coiling ribbons that stand in well for spaghetti noodles. To make the illusion of pasta more complete, Stiers said to peel off the zucchini’s green skin before spiralizing. Fixing marinara sauce is easy: Mix chopped tomatoes with, say, olives, garlic, red onion, parsley and a dollop of extra-virgin olive oil. When the summer ends, Johnson likes to make pumpkin “pasta” and starts playing around with ingredients such as sage, corn, cranberries and currants.

The other raw diet

Jeff Slay of Chesterfield typically sticks to much simpler fare, though his diet definitely has a twist: fermented meat.

“I wouldn’t say it tastes good; I would say it’s very tender,” said Slay, who eats a few marble-sized bites of up to 10-days-old raw meat – aka high meat – throughout the week.

Slay adopted a 100 percent raw omnivorous, or primal, diet after battling chronic fatigue and extreme weight loss for three years. (Five feet 9 inches tall, Slay had dropped from 170 to 78 pounds.) A doctor in Chicago recommended the primal diet more or less as a last resort. “After looking for an answer for three years, he knew I was willing to try anything,” Slay said. “‘This won’t seem too weird to you,’ he told me.”

In the nearly five years since Slay went raw, he has strayed from his diet rarely. The only so-called temptress he could remember was a little rice casserole – hardly worth mentioning, really. Having reached a normal weight and regained his energy, Slay is as committed as it gets. Still, he isn’t evangelistic. “I don’t want to get preachy with anybody,” he said.

Healthy, wealthy and raw

Dr. Luigi Fontana is a research instructor in medicine at the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science at Washington University. Three years ago, he conducted a study of the raw food diet. Fontana said that eating uncooked foods for a limited time can help people decrease their blood cholesterol level, lower their blood pressure and lose weight.

Stiers, a pentagenarian, said she weighs as much as she did in her early 20s – though she initially went raw in order to bounce back from radiation therapy. A lot of raw foodists talk about having big energy boosts. “Before, I always had the highs and the lows of the day. I didn’t have that steady energy distribution,” said Tim Williamson of St. Louis, a raw vegan since 2000.

Five years ago, Williamson set up Raw Living Nutrition, a Yahoo group that lets raw foodists swap tips. Where can you buy raw cacao powder? How do you go about sprouting microgreens? What comestibles should you pack along for a road trip? At some point, there’s also bound to be a question or two about using an Excalibur.

The art of not cooking

“When you really get into it with the dehydrating, the hard thing is figuring out the timing,” said Johnson, adding that some dishes have to be planned 12 to 24 hours in advance. Earlier in the year, Johnson learned some new dehydration techniques (including a few for making thicker breads) at a raw food workshop in southern Arizona. She also discovered marinades that can perk up leafy greens like bok choy and kale. “They’re hard to incorporate into a salad. You can juice them, but when you marinate the salads, you do a vinaigrette and spices and let that sit overnight,” she said.

When it comes to seasoning vegetables, Johnson gravitates toward a combination of ginger and garlic. She makes fruits’ flavors burst with star anise powder and vanilla bean. And in her book, all fresh produce shines with lemon and lime.

Like Stiers, Johnson frequents the Raw Living Nutrition group’s monthly “rawluck” get-together. Dishes on a recent spread included Pink Lady applesauce seasoned with raw honey, lemon juice, ginger and cinnamon; sunflower seed pâté served with thick carrot sticks; broccoli slaw accented by mango, banana and coconut milk; cucumber and avocado soup flavored with dill; and for dessert, an apple pie sporting a date-nut crust.

“There are more raw recipes out there than you could eat in a lifetime,” Stiers said.