All About Food: Raw food full of complex flavors

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The other day we dined on delicious "fried" avocado mini-tostados, tasty olive pizettas and scrumptious garden tahini veggie wraps. We adored the chocolate ganache with sea salt and coconut butter. What was amazing was that every bit of this excellent meal was completely raw!

These and a vast array of other raw foods are served at 118° Degrees, Jenny Ross' attractive restaurant at the Camp in Costa Mesa. What exactly is raw food? This is a movement advocating food that is heated to a temperature no higher than 118 degrees Fahrenheit, thereby preserving its natural chemical structure. Dehydration and freezing are acceptable. Proponents believe a raw food diet pre-dates history and assume humans were largely vegetarian with a digestive system configured to digest this food, although some raw food enthusiasts also eat raw meat and this is called the primal diet. 118° Degrees is strictly vegan.

We interviewed Jenny five years ago when she had a small shop in Laguna Beach, and she has come a long way since then. In addition to her restaurant, she has written two cookbooks, has a product line sold at many Whole Foods Markets and, in several of the larger branches, has a separate raw bar with her own staff preparing a selection of menu items to order. 118° Degrees also caters office luncheons, tapas parties, holiday functions and corporate mixers.

There are meal programs available for pick-up, including a seven-day detox as well as a one-week, 10-meal program. Being a pioneer in the raw food movement, Jenny is dedicated to teaching classes and coaching individuals. At the HomeSchool Campus of OC in Costa Mesa, she teaches a 16-week course for 9- to 13-year-olds about "living foods" so that kids can see where their food comes from besides the supermarket.

She uses Mike Saraylian's Harvest to Home self-maintaining planter boxes of vegetables, fruits and herbs so the children get to watch the progress of the plants from tiny buds to luscious produce. Jenny also uses Mike's boxes at the restaurant for fresh picked produce. These wonderful boxes are available for home delivery.

Jenny also offers a start-up package if you want to get really serious about eating living foods. It includes a dehydrator, a juicer, a ceramic knife and Jenny's first cookbook, "The Art of Raw Living Food." Her second cookbook is called "Raw Basics" and includes "easy beginning steps to add more fresh, vibrant living foods to your diet" rather than embarking on a complete lifestyle change. She even includes a chapter on transition foods, which has some cooked whole foods, such as quinoa, a high protein whole grain. If you are going to heat food more than 118 degrees Fahrenheit, steaming vegetables and grains is the preferred method for maintaining optimal nutritional value.

Raw food beginners will find delicious easy recipes such as coconut mango ceviche, a chili-flavored marinated appetizer. There are several recipes for "cheese" like pumpkin seed or "Parmesan cheese." These are combinations of nuts, tomatoes and seasonings, made into a pesto-like paste that adds richness and flavor to dishes. Sunshine pasta uses zucchini and squash julienned to make the pasta itself, then combined with corn, carrots and diced tomatoes and tossed with a fresh puree of tomatoes and bell peppers. Raw "Parmesan cheese" tops the dish. Frozen banana cream pie has a pecan honey crust with a filling that gets it smoothness from almond butter.

We went to visit this restaurant with trepidation. Although we knew Jenny to be a lovely and charming young woman, we had never eaten a living food meal. We had visions of mounds of bland vegetables and impossibly chewy dehydrated grains. What we found instead was beautifully presented, tasty food with complex flavors in harmonious combinations. We highly recommend that you treat yourself to lunch or dinner at 118° Degrees for a new dining adventure. Remember that wine is raw food, too, and there is a nice selection of organic wines to accompany your meal.

118° Degrees is at 2981 Bristol St., Suite B5, Costa Mesa. For more information, call (714) 754-0718. Harvest to Home Garden Boxes by Mike Saraylian can also be reached at (949) 873-5400.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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