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The plant-based diet has come a long way since the 1970s, when the emerging health food movement experimented with dishes that were mostly brown, bland and boring.

Nowadays, people are boosting the flavor of vegan fare with fresh herbs and spices, avocados and nuts, mushrooms and dates to create a wide range of dishes that are tasty, comforting and familiar.

“People eat this food and are always surprised at how delicious it is,” said Cathy Fisher, author of a new cookbook, ““Straight Up Food,” that features nearly 100, plant-based recipes that are free of salt, oil and sugar. “Salt is just a super cheap, easy way to get flavor.”

With the decadent holidays behind us and a few months of winter still ahead, it’s a great time to reboot your palate and cut back on all that extra salt, sugar and oil as a way to lower blood pressure and blood sugar, lose weight and get back into the healthy eating groove.

“For most people, the weight comes off naturally when you eat this way,” said the 49-year-old cooking teacher, who started her own blog (straightupfood.com) in 2010. “Plants are low in calories ... and instead of using oil, you sauté in water or vegetable broth.”

One of the hardest things for people to kick, she said, is the flavor-boosting salt that has become ubiquitous in many processed foods and in restaurant meals.

“At first, people often miss the salt, but generally they just want flavor,” Fisher said. “Salt, sugar and dairy, especially cheese, can be very addictive. That’s because they are unnaturally concentrated. Our brain gets the salt-oil-sugar (message), and it wants more.”

But those serious about changing their diets, she added, must learn to develop patience when trying to adapt to life without the flavor boost of “SOS” (salt, oil, sugar.) It takes a few weeks for your body to readjust.

“My recipes rely on subtler but naturally delicious sources of sodium, fat, and sweetness,” she said. “The goal is not to give up flavor, but to eat great tasting food without sacrificing health.”

A long-time Sonoma Valley resident and Sonoma County native, Fisher has worked for plant-based nutrition expert Dr. John McDougall of the McDougall Program of Santa Rosa (drmcdougall.com.) She also teaches cooking classes at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa (healthpromoting.com), which specializes in medically supervised, water-only fasting and promotes a plant-based diet free of added salt, oil and sugar.

“The book came about because students always ask, ‘Do you have a cookbook?’” she said. “The look and the content are created to make it easy for people who are just jumping in and may be nervous about cooking this way.”

Most of the recipes in the book call for user-friendly ingredients that are easily accessible to home cooks. That means no “fake meat” or other exotic fare.

“My recipes are all-American, familiar recipes,” she said. “I’ve just given them a makeover. If people recognize it, it makes it easier to try it and serve it to others.”

Some are dishes in the cookbook are ones that are normally linked to oil, such as hash browns and French fries.

Instead, Fisher cooks her hash browns in a good -quality, non-stick pan and bakes her French fries in the oven.

Auction Napa Valley Totals by Year

The annual auction raises money to benefit local nonprofits focusing on community health and children’s education.

2018 $13.4 million (projected)

2017: $15.7 million

2016: $14.3 million

2015: $15.8 million

2014: $18.7 million

2013: $16.9 million

“I also make pancakes in a non-stick pan,” she said. “And the granola is made with dates and water instead of oil.”

The book includes a Curried Sweet Potato Salad made with spinach and green onions smothered in a perky ginger, garlic and orange juice dressing. “It’s a great potluck dish because it’s pretty,” she said of the salad.

A fan of simplicity and ease, Fisher extols the virtues of one-pot cooking and using just a few, high-quality ingredients. Her recipe for Beefless Stew, an ideal dinner for a cold, winter night, showcases portabella mushrooms as a replacement for the usual chunks of y beef.

A chapter on homemade sauces and dips includes a Better Ketchup recipe (without the sugar and the salt); a Spicy Black Bean Salsa; and a Creamy Mushroom Gravy. If you make a few of these flavor-boosters ahead of time, you can throw together weeknight dinners with a lot less time and effort.

“Nobody likes to do planning,” she said. “But it really helps to have a couple of menus made up in advance.”

For the dessert recipes, Fishers uses dates, applesauce and bananas to provide sweetness and moisture in place of sugar and oil. One of her most popular desserts is a classic Carrot Cake.

“It’s a solid, no-fail recipe,” she said. “The icing is made with cashews, dates, vanilla and water.”

When she was younger, Fisher would get stomachaches after eating any kind of dairy food. Eventually, her intolerance to dairy led her down the path of eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet.

“Since my mid-20s, I’ve been searching for something else,” she said. “I was healthy-minded at heart, and a co-worker suggested I read a book by McDougall. He said, ‘You don’t have to eat dairy foods or animals to be healthy’” ... and I got on the bandwagon.”

Fisher has a BA in psychology and a teaching credential from Sonoma State University. She also graduated from a 10-month nutrition program at Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition + Culinary Arts in Penngrove. She has worked as a magazine writer and editor for magazines and currently serves as an editor for Health Science Magazine, a publication for members of the nonprofit National Health Association.

It wasn’t until she started teaching plant-based cooking at TrueNorth, however, that she really embraced cooking as a way to get out of her own eating rut.

“I’m a home cook, and I wear an apron instead of a chef’s coat when I teach,” she said. “It makes it more relatable.”

For her blog and cookbook, she chose the title, “Straight Up Food,” because she liked the simple, honest sound of it. She published the cookbook with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and readers of her blog, who voluntarily tested the recipes.

The cookbook’s format is user-friendly, with a concealed spiral binding that allows the book to lay flat; tips on how to eat on the road and at restaurants; advice for menu planning and grocery shopping; an explanation of food labels and recipe nutritional data; plus an index based on ingredients as well as recipe titles.

“It’s healthy eating you can live with,” she said. “It’s practical, easy stuff that can make you live longer.”

The cookbook costs $35 and is available at straightupfood.com and TrueNorth Health Center, 1551 Pacific Ave., Santa Rosa, where she teaches a cooking class at 10 a.m. every Thursday. Cost is $25 and includes lunch. No RSVP required.

Curried Sweet Potato Salad

Makes 6 to cup 8 servings

Creamy Curry Dressing:

1 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 cup water

2 ounces raw, unsalted cashews (about 1/2 cup)

1/4 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon curry powder

For the salad:

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks (about 6 cups)

2 cups coarsely chopped fresh spinach leaves

2 ribs celery, sliced or chopped (about 2/3 cup)

1/2 cup raisins (brown or golden)

1/2 cup sliced almonds (plus extra for garnish, optional)

4 green onions, white and green parts, sliced

1 medium clove garlic

For dressing: Zest the orange first before juicing it. Set the zest aside.

Place all of the dressing ingredients, except the orange zest, into a blender and set aside for at least 15 minutes (so cashews can soften).

To make the salad: Place the sweet potatoes into a soup pot and cover them with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, uncovered. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart when pierced with a knife, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water, and set aside.

Once the potatoes have thoroughly drained, place them into a large bowl, along with the rest of the salad ingredients spinach, celery, raisins, almonds and green onions.

Blend the dressing ingredients until smooth. Stir the orange zest into the blended dressing with a fork (but don’t blend it). Then stir the dressing into the salad. Serve warm or chilled, plain or topped with sliced almonds.

Beefless Stew

Makes 6 to 8 servings

11/2 large yellow or white onions, chopped into 3/4-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

3 medium carrots, sliced lengthwise and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 2 1/4 cups)\

3 ribs celery, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 1 cup)

2 medium portabella mushrooms, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 4 cups)

11/2 tablespoons garlic, chopped finely (about 6 medium cloves)

5 cups water

2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks (about 6 cups)

1/3 cup tomato paste (half of a 6-ounce can)

1 tablespoon dried Italian herb seasoning

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

11/2 cups cooked peas (if frozen, rinse under warm water)

1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Heat 1 tablespoons of water in a soup pot over medium-high heat.

When the water starts to sputter, add the onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, adding water, as needed.

Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and continue to cook while stirring for 5 minutes more, adding water as needed.

Add the water, potatoes, tomato paste, Italian seasoning and paprika, and bring to a boil, uncovered.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the rosemary.

Cover and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the carrots and potatoes are very tender. Add the peas and cook for 5 minutes more.

Place 2 cups of the stew (broth and vegetables) into a blender, and blend just briefly. Stir the mixture back into the pot to thicken the stew. Stir in the parsley.

Carrot Cake

Makes 8 to 10 servings

11/2 cups unsweetened nondairy milk

4 ounces pitted dates (7 to 8 Medjool or 14 to 16 Deglet Noor), chopped

1/2 very ripe banana, sliced

1/4 cup raisins

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or seeds from 1 vanilla bean)

13/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

11/2 cups grated carrots (2 to 3 medium)

1/2 cup raisins

2 ounces walnuts, chopped (about 1/2 cup, optional)

— Vanilla or Lemon Frosting, optional (see below)

Place the nondairy milk, dates, banana, 1/4 cup raisins and vanilla into a small bowl, and set aside for at least 15 minutes (so the dates can soften).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-x8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

Grind the oats into flour with a blender. Transfer to a medium bowl, and whisk in the cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and cloves.

Place the milk, dates, banana, raisins and vanilla into the blender and blend until smooth.

Stir the date mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients. Fold in the grated carrots, 1/2 cup raisins and walnuts (if using.)

Spoon the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is medium brown. Let cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pan and placing on a cooling rack. Cool completely before serving plain or with frosting.

Note:; If you’d like 12 cupcakes or muffins, bake in a muffin pan with parchment paper liners at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. To bake a standard loaf, decrease the milk by 1/2 cup, line a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan with parchment paper and bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes, or until the top is medium brown. Let cool completely.

Vanilla or Lemon Frosting

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

5 ounces pitted dates (8 to 9 Medjool or 16 to 18 Deglet Noor), chopped

3 ounces raw, unsalted cashews (about 3/4 cup)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or seeds from 1 vanilla bean)

3/4-1 cup water

Place the dates, cashews and vanilla into a blender. Add 3/4 cup water. If the water doesn’t completely cover the dates and nuts, add more just until it does. Set aside for at least 45 minutes (so the dates and nuts can thoroughly soften)

Blend until very smooth, scraping down the sides a couple times. (Add a little more water if the mixture becomes too thick to blend.) For lemon frosting: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.On Twitter @dianepete56.

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