This is natural food?

IT wasn't so very long ago that eating ``natural'' foods meant sitting down in front of a plate of brown and gray food that often tasted brown and gray as well. These foods, says Judith Hurley, culinary arts supervisor at Rodale Farms, usually consisted of ``stringy, overcooked greens and mushy grains sprinkled all over with brown wheat germ.

``Today,''she says, ``we consider visual appeal. We emphasize good taste, flavor, texture, and mouth feel.''

What Rodale Farms emphasizes means a lot to everyone interested in natural foods, from health-food specialists to people casually affected by the ``whole foods'' movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Rodale's organic farms and research community here -- where the philosophy is to eat only natural foods, to limit fat and eliminate salt, sugar, chocolate, liquor, and white flour -- sends its natural-foods message out to 12 million readers of Organic Gardening and other publications by way of the Rodale Press.

The organization's ecological philosophy of natural eating, as well as natural farming, has long been the message of the publishing house, a family-owned company founded back in the 1930s by J. I. Rodale.

Considered out of the mainstream in its early days, the Rodale way of eating dictates cooking with different ingredients than those in your everyday cookbook, and many home cooks want good food without having to spend three hours a day simmering beans.

But many of the Rodale principles have caught on in spite of such hurdles as having to use carob instead of chocolate or honey rather than sugar in baking a cake, or finding a way to thicken a white sauce without using white flour.

More than that, recipes that appear in the Rodale publications seem to be as good as, if not better than, most other recipes around today.

Not that the basic guidelines have changed. The emphasis is still the same.

In spite of ``no-nos'' for what an ordinary cook would consider basic ingredients, ``four full-time home economists in the test kitchens develop and test more than 2,500 recipes each year,'' according to Tom Ney, director of the Rodale Food Center and a chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

``Our rules and guidelines may seem confining, but actually they give us lots of room for creativity,'' adds Ms. Hurley, Rodale's culinary arts supervisor.

``We use soy flour or oat flour sometimes rather than white. Instead of salt we work out new combinations of herbs, spices, and condiments, or we might use interesting foreign seasonings,'' she explains.

``And we cook using the current and classic techniques,'' observes nutritionist Anita Hirsch, who does much of the food testing for the magazines. ``We poach fish, steam vegetables, and bake apples and other fruits.''

``We cook on mesquite or grapevines or apple wood,'' says Ms. Hurley, who takes food trips to Asian and other countries as well as to different regions of the United States. ``We check the markets all over to see what's new and fresh and interesting. Then we test the new vegetables or fruits and develop new ways to prepare things that will fit our requirements.''

At a visit to Rodale's Food Center in April, a tasting session was going on for some newly developed herb recipes scheduled for December publication.

Biscuits with sage and with basil and tomato were among the labeled items lined up on the buffet.

There were two soups, one with carrot and thyme, the other floating sprigs of fresh coriander. Fresh fruit was colorful in a dessert.

Susan Milius, senior editor of Organic Gardening, was asking questions and making notes around the table as nutritionists, home economists, writers, and photography and art staff sampled and sniffed and commented.

``Is the carrot soup the right color for photography?'' Ms. Milius asked.

``I think we might add more thyme,'' said Tom Ney. ``Could we try lemon thyme?''

``Should we add garlic?'' someone asked.

Everything was delicious, and the tasting and evaluating continued until the group took off for lunch.

This was not a ``free'' lunch, of course. Ongoing tasting is an important part of the Food Center work.

Lunch at one of the several cafeterias includes food prepared under the supervision of Mr. Ney and according to Rodale rules. You will, however, find salt on the tables (although not in the food).

There is also an ``executive dining room'' restaurant, located in a building by itself and open to all employees.

The Food Center is in one of 13 renovated buildings around the town of Emmaus that houses the ever-growing Rodale company. The test kitchen staff here also tests products for manufacturers interested in guidelines similar to those at Rodale.

``Six or seven projects may be in process at one time,'' says Ney.

Another valuable part of the test kitchen is the staff's evaluation of the taste and kitchen adaptability of new varieties of foods as they are harvested in the organic fields, such as fresh soy beans, perennial grains, and amaranth.

In 1971 the company was taken over by J. I. Rodale's son, Robert, who added new twists to the company's focus -- a consulting operation to assist large-scale commercial food product lines, and an organic research farm. New magazines were added: Bicycle, New Shelter, and the New Farm Newsletter.

Of more than 350 books from the publishing house, on subjects ranging from farming in Tanzania to how to make your own toys or a log-cabin home, there are many books on gardening and 30 or more natural-food cookbooks.

The cookbooks cover topics such as backyard fruits and berries, salad gardening, home freezing, desserts, snacks, breads, grains, pasta, seafood, and more.

Although refined sugar is taboo, one new cookbook, ``Rodale's Sensational Desserts'' ($21.95), by Joan Bingham and Dolores Riccio, focuses on sweets. In it there are dozens of ideas and techniques for using natural ingredients in making colorful, delicious, show-off desserts.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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