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By Olivia Boler
There's a new book on the shelves of stores that's turning heads with its cover depiction of a unisex restroom sign. The male figure in the graphic has a chef's hat, and the female a spatula, begging the question: Is it a cookbook, a humor book, or a health book? (Answer: All three.) And then there's the title, which should win a prize for being the catchiest of the year: The Un-Constipated Gourmet: Secrets to a Moveable Feast (Sourcebooks, July 2009).
But the book's main attraction, believes author Danielle Svetcov, is its practicality: the guide has 125 recipes--including four emergency ones--created especially for "the regularity challenged."
Svetcov, a 36-year-old Douglass Street resident, has often considered herself in that category. She admits to being aware of her proximity to a bathroom at all times.
"The book is my answer to a lifelong question: how do we keep our guts functioning in a sound, regular way, if they tend to misbehave and we don't want to use drugs, sprinkle Metamucil on top of our salmon fillet, and drink 50 gallons of water a day?"
To find out, Svetcov began researching the history of food and how it affects one's gastrointestinal tract. She also started gathering recipes from around the world--from the U.S. to Asia to Africa. She emailed friends, and friends of friends, asking them to divulge their favorite dishes for "uncorking" the digestive system.
Once she determined the tastiest, she had the book she always wanted: The Un-Constipated Gourmet.
Svetcov tested all the recipes herself, and her foodie background certainly helped. For years she had been a freelance journalist, with restaurant reviewing a specialty. Her articles appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Real Simple, and Forbes, and in the '90s, she wrote restaurant reviews for the website Sidewalk.com (which morphed into Citysearch.com).
In 1998, she attended a four-month "culinary camp" at Boston University. Each week, a different celebrity chef, including Julia Childs and Jacques Pepin, would impart their wisdom to the campers, many of whom aspired to work in commercial kitchens.
"It gave me incredible knife skills," recalls Svetcov. "And you wouldn't believe the amount of salt and butter they used."
In the end, though, she decided that cooking in a restaurant was not for her. She likens it to "coal-mining indoors. I don't like to move that fast."
For the past seven years, she has been working as an agent at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency--when not experimenting in her home kitchen.
In her book, fiber is the big hero, of course, and the more unrefined the better. But the recipe ingredients are not meant to be "scary," Svetcov says. "I didn't want recipes that push the book into the world of the sandy grains and groats you find in the dark bins of Rainbow Grocery."
In trying out the recipes on her husband and 20-month-old daughter, Svetcov discovered some creative food substitutions. "Everything in the book is mainstream, but reminds people of what works. So, for example, when you're putting together dinner, instead of pasta with tomatoes, have soba noodles with grains. Swap in Swiss chard for lettuce. Or if you're having a hamburger, eat it with polenta instead of that white roll. Instead of a white flour and sugar muffin, make it with not just bran flakes, but something interesting like sweet potatoes."
Taste is important to Svetcov, too. You'll find mouth-watering dishes like hot-corn papaya salsa, butternut squash soup, chard with miso and sesame, and poached pears with caramel. Recipes are grouped in sections, such as soups, salads, entrees, desserts, and the intriguingly labeled "special elixirs."
The book also includes some helpful advice ("Eat slower, and chew more") and a list of "key foods" one can usually count on for action. The list has the familiar prunes and cabbage, but a few surprises, like hot water, chocolate, and "booze."
There's also a list called "The Ten Plagues of the Gut," and it's no wonder it is topped with low-fiber foods like bagels, doughnuts, and white rice. The book doesn't rule out these foods, but warns that "if you are prone to stuck guts, they will almost certainly cause you trouble. Imagine a snake swallowing a boulder, and you get the idea."
Wherever she can, Svetcov sprinkles in a little humor--to make the sometimes awkward topic of constipation easy to digest.
"Most of the books out there addressing this issue were grave, serious tomes. I thought some humor was required, as well as taking an approach through the food, rather than through the medicine."
If you'd like to chat with Danielle Svetcov about fiber, or just about food, she'll have a booth at the Noe Valley Farmers' Market on Saturday, Sept. 19, from 10 a.m. to noon (24th and Vicksburg). At the event, Cover to Cover will provide copies of The Un-Constipated Gourmet for sale ($15.99).
Here's a recipe from Danielle Svetcov's cookbook, The Un-Constipated Gourmet: Secrets to a Moveable Feast (Sourcebooks, July 2009). For more information, check out Svetcov's blog: www.theunconstipatedgourmet.com.
1 tablespoon butter
4 ounces of bacon or salt pork or ham, chopped roughly
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup chopped carrot
1/3 cup chopped celery
2-1/2 cups chicken broth
1-1/2 cup diced potato
1 bay leaf
1 cup whole milk
3 ears sweet corn, kernels removed, cobs discarded
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the bacon, salt pork, or ham. After a few minutes, the fat will start to pool. Turn off heat and pour out half the fat (into a compost bucket).
Return to medium heat and add the onion, carrot, and celery. Sauté for 4 minutes. Add the broth, potatoes, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn heat to a simmer. When the potatoes are soft (about 15 minutes), add corn. Simmer another 2 minutes. Stir in milk and reheat thoroughly, but do not boil. Add salt and cayenne, to taste. Add thyme. Remove bay leaf.
For a smoother consistency, this soup can be pureed (right before serving) with an immersion blender.
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a starter.