The raw-food movement begins to heat up

"You won't find any ovens – or stoves, for that matter – in the kitchen of the Organic Garden Café and Juice Bar.

Instead, chef and owner Robert Reid relies on dehydrators, food processors, and blenders to create such delicacies as falafel wraps, lasagna, and pad Thai.

Despite the familiar names, nothing in this restaurant is cooked. The falafel has a cauliflower and sesame-seed base. The pad Thai noodles are actually julienned summer squash. And the lasagna is made from zucchini "noodles," almond "ricotta," and a marinara sauce that relies entirely on raw vegetables and oils.

These dishes may not sound particularly appetizing. But the food's strong, vibrant flavors are surprising, and the restaurant's success is testament to the growing momentum of the "raw food" movement, whose adherents eat no meat or dairy foods and contend that heating food over 115 degrees F. destroys valuable enzymes.

While stalwart advocates of the diet have been eating raw for years, only recently has the fad gained steam, with celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone and Woody Harrelson championing it, and restaurants whose menus go well beyond salads and smoothies popping up across the country. Now some gourmets tout the food for its flavor as well as its intact enzymes.

Charlie Trotter occasionally serves a 10-course raw tasting menu at his acclaimed Chicago restaurant, and Roxanne Klein recently opened an upscale all-raw restaurant in Larkspur, Calif., to rave reviews. The two chefs are collaborating on a raw-food cookbook due out early next year. Quintessence, a raw-food restaurant in New York, is about to open a third location on the Upper East Side, while other raw eateries have sprung up in places as varied as Key West, Fla., and Anchorage, Alaska.

All the buzz has left some mainstream food lovers less than enthused. "Life's not a crudité," says Clark Wolf, a New York food consultant who considers raw food a passing fad. "Man has evolved as a creature partly because we learned to cook."

But on a recent Wednesday, the Organic Garden, a small, brightly colored restaurant about 30 miles north of Boston, was packed with people eager to learn about "life-food preparation" from chef Chad Sarno, visiting from southern Arizona.

Soft-spoken and charismatic, Mr. Sarno preaches the delights of raw food with a New Age zeal, tossing around words such as "harmony," "balance," and "intention" as he whacks coconuts, pulses flax seeds, and discusses the intricacies of soaking nuts and sprouting rice.

"I'm Sicilian," he tells his rapt audience. "I was raised to love greasy, oily, fried, dairy-rich foods – and I still do." His approach, he explains, is to make raw food taste as cooked as possible. Pine nuts, for example, release oils when dehydrated – a process that gives his olive-paste cannelloni (wrapped in paper-thin zucchini slices) a fried, oily texture. In addition to the cannelloni, the menu he's creating includes Wild-Rice Minestrone, Portabello-and-Olive Pizza, Caesar Salad With Rosemary and Garlic Croutons, and Apple Spice Cake.

No cooking is involved, but few of the recipes are simple, and nearly all involve hours in the dehydrator. (An oven on low, with the door left open, can substitute.)

To make the croutons for his salad, for instance, Sarno first soaks flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds in water for six hours. Then he blends them in a food processor with diced vegetables, rosemary, garlic, cayenne, and other spices. Finally, he rolls out the moist dough on a dehydrator sheet and scores it into crouton-sized squares – which need to be dehydrated 12 to 16 hours before they're crunchy enough to eat.

Not surprisingly, most raw-foodists rely on simpler dishes, such as salads, carrots, fruit, and smoothies for their day-to-day meals, says Mr. Reid, the cafe's owner. And few are 100 percent devout. Indeed, Reid, who says his restaurant was initially a destination point for New England vegans, is most happy about the growing number of locals who stop by.

"It's explosively flavorful," Reid says of his food. " 'Raw' is such a deceiving word. I'm always worried people will think cold, hard, and bland. It's not necessarily any of those things.... Anybody can come in here and enjoy something."

Reid began experimenting with raw food about eight years ago and stayed with the diet for health reasons. After going "all raw" for months at a time, "I'll get to a point where I have more energy," he says. "My sense of smell awakens; I require less sleep."

As Sarno continues his presentation, some things come as a surprise: Celery is a good thickener for dressings; most "raw" cashews have actually been cooked; soy milk and rice milk are both off-limits (their processing involves radiation). Instead, Sarno makes nut milk by puréeing soaked nuts, coconut water, mesquite flour, and cinnamon in a blender, and then straining the mix through a cheesecloth.

Once his demonstration is over, the feast begins. Initially skeptical – I'm a committed omnivore – I'm now curious to taste the results. And they're surprisingly good.

Though some of the dishes do have a slight bitter aftertaste, their flavors are vivid and layered; nothing here is bland. The croutons are nutty and crunchy, and the cannelloni really do taste almost cooked. (It must be those pine nuts.) The dough on the pizza is disappointing, but the olives, peppers, and portabello mushrooms – more intense after dehydration – are delicious. My favorite is the minestrone. It is slightly spicy, chock-full of fresh herbs, and the sprouted wild rice adds texture.

I'm not quite ready to forsake fresh bread and real tomato sauce – or to plunk down $100 for a food dehydrator – but it is clear that heat isn't always necessary to make complex dishes. And the next time I'm in Beverly, I just might drop by for some lasagna.

Spicy Red Pepper Marinara Sauce

2 cups red bell pepper, chopped

1 cup fresh tomato, chopped

1/2 cup sun-dried tomato, soaked in water for 2 to 3 hours

1/2 cup apple, cored and chopped

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

In a food processor or blender, mix the red pepper, fresh tomato, sun-dried tomato, apple, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne until smooth. Pulse in the fresh thyme, basil, and chives, making sure not to overblend. (Leave small pieces of herbs in the sauce.) Serve as a pizza topping or over pasta. If not using right away, freeze in airtight containers until needed. Serves 4.

Herb Pesto

1-1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped

3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

1-1/2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped

3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped

3/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

In a food processor or blender, mix all ingredients until herbs are coarsely minced. Serve as a topping on pizza or over pasta, or stuff into portabello mushrooms. If not using right away, freeze in airtight containers until needed. Makes 2 cups.

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