The raw with the smooth

Nicola Brown makes a green smoothie at Taste Nature on High Street. Photo by ODT.
Nicola Brown makes a green smoothie at Taste Nature on High Street. Photo by ODT.
Photos by Nicola Brown.
Photos by Nicola Brown.

There's no point in having healthy food if it's not delicious, according to Nicola Brown. Charmian Smith talks to her about her raw ''cooking'' classes.

When Nicola Brown started adding more plant-based foods to her family's diet people noticed they looked healthier and asked what they were doing.

''I'd say we're eating a lot more plant-based food and people would say: 'I can't do that. I don't like salad','' she said.

But it's not just salads. There's so much you can do with plants when you think more flexibly, she explains.

She demonstrates this in her raw food workshops at Taste Nature in High St, Dunedin.

Growing up in Dunedin she has always been a foodie and has a sweet tooth, she says. But recently several things happened in her life that made her think about health and diet: seven people she knew died either of illness or tragically; she and her partner put in a permaculture garden so instead of weeds had a lot of produce to use; her son, now 6, had asthma and caught every bug going, she would catch them from him and take a long time to recover; and her partner had a knee replacement and wanted to recover quickly, she said.

''We've always been pretty healthy in what we eat but I thought we could up our game a bit.

"Messages about nutrition are quite confusing but the one thing that's really consistent, that comes through all the time, is that we can eat more plants, more variety, more fresh produce, more local, seasonal, organic, if possible.''

She wanted to use the produce from their garden in other ways than just salads and attending a yoga and raw food workshop taken by an old school friend, Renee McCready who now lives in Melbourne proved a turning point.

''It was amazing. I know it's a cliche but it changed my life. We started eating quite differently, using a whole lot more plant-based ingredients,'' she said.

When she changed her family's eating, they noticed they felt more energetic, didn't have a mid-morning or mid-afternoon slump, their concentration was better and, because their food was nutritionally more dense, they were eating less.

Her son, who had been a picky eater since he was a baby, was now willing to try anything, including a lot of things other children wouldn't be prepared to try, she said.

After attending a three-day workshop with raw-food chef René Archner in Auckland, she decided to develop Nibl (nature's ingredients brought to life), a website and blog, and raw food workshops. At first they were private for small groups but now she runs public ones.

''I'm careful not to present myself as something I'm not. I'm not a nutritionist. I'm not a dietitian. I'm not a trained chef, but what I'm offering is summarising what I've learnt over time.''

• She believes that we can all look after our own health and that of our families by being conscious of what we eat and where it comes from.

Preparing raw food can be faster than cooking, but you have to be organised and think ahead, as sometimes you need to soak things, such as nuts, overnight.

''I don't think I spend more time in the kitchen than I used to. In fact, some of these meals are incredibly quick because so many of the processes you use instead of cooking are marinating.''

Raw, plant-based recipes can use a lot of nuts and seeds which are expensive, but your health is better and you spend less going to the doctor and pharmacist, she says.

However, there are ways of being frugal, such as growing your own vegetables or even just a few herbs, soaking and cooking pulses from scratch, making smoothies with vegetables, or instant ice cream with ''baking'' bananas, she said.

''We don't eat anywhere near as much meat as we used to. I guess we are getting more protein from other sources because we eat a lot more seeds and nuts now; the amount we spend on meat is a lot less than it used to be and when we do, we tend to make it good quality meat and I'm careful where it comes from.''

Because more people are becoming dairy or gluten-free for health reasons or vegan for ethical or health reasons, all the recipes she demonstrates are dairy and gluten-free as well as raw.

She can also offer a nut-free workshop.

The recipes can seem strange initially.

''I had that experience myself in the first workshop I went to. [The teacher] was making a green smoothie but I absolutely loved it when I tried it.''

Green smoothies are dairy-free and are a good way of getting all the goodness and fibre of green vegetables in one hit, and if you use a lot of fruit you don't taste the greens, she said.

She loves playing in the kitchen, trying things out and if she's not happy with the results she figures out, like a scientist, how to improve the consistency or flavour, she says.

''I'm not hard-core about any of this. I really do think it's about adding goodness in. I'm not talking about being prescriptive or restrictive and I don't think cooked food is bad.

"My philosophy is about helping people learn more about how to use plants to make food that is really delicious. It's all about adding goodness in rather than taking things out unless people have to for health reasons,'' she said.


Green smoothie
serves 2


1½ cups filtered water
large handful of greens (lettuce, baby spinach, kale, cucumber or a combination of these)
small handful of herbs (parsley, mint, basil or coriander)
1 stem celery
½ avocado
1 banana (fresh or frozen)
2 pieces of other fruit, chopped (apple, orange, pineapple, mango or peach)
1 Tbsp flaxseed/hemp seed oil (optional)



Wash and roughly chop green vegetables, herbs and fruits. Place in blender with water and blend until smooth. Add oil right at end and mix briefly again.

Can be stored in fridge (in screw-top jar) for up to 24 hours. May separate over time - shake well before serving.

Other possible additions: aloe vera juice, wheatgrass, spirulina powder, chia seeds, or LSA (linseed, sunflower and almond) powder.


Chocolate mousse
Serves 4-6


⅓ cup fresh medjool dates (about 5), pitted and chopped
1 orange, juiced and zested
1 large or 2 small ripe avocados
2 Tbsp nut butter (i.e. almond butter) or tahini
¼ cup cacao powder (or good quality cocoa powder)
½ tsp vanilla extract
dash of cinnamon
¼ cup pure maple syrup
¼-½ cup nut milk (or milk of choice)



Soak the dates in the orange juice for at least an hour.

Place all ingredients (besides half of the milk) in a food processor or blender. Blend until creamy, adding extra milk if necessary to reach desired consistency. Store covered in refrigerator; this will keep for two days (if you can leave it alone that long!). Serve garnished with fresh fruit and chopped nuts or cashew cream (see for recipe).

NB: Fresh medjool dates and a range of nut butters can be purchased from many supermarkets.

Three-seed crackers
Makes approximately 30 crackers


½ cup chia seeds
½ cup flaxseed (linseed)
1 cup cold water
½ cup sesame seeds
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
½ tsp turmeric
black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1½ Tbsp olive oil
small amounts of chia seeds, black sesame seeds or poppy seeds (to garnish)



Grind the chia seeds and flaxseed in a coffee grinder or food processor, Place the ground seeds in a jug with the water. Stir well and leave for 10 minutes to form a gel. Place all other ingredients (besides the garnish options) in a bowl. Stir in the chia/flaxseed gel and mix well.

Preheat oven to 180degC. Line a large oven tray with baking paper. Tip the mixture on to the tray and spread thinly across the paper, using an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon to smooth out as evenly as possible. Sprinkle with the additional chia/sesame/poppy seeds.

Bake in oven for approximately 10 minutes. Remove tray from oven and score lines across the mixture, to create crackers of the desired shape and size. Return to oven for another 10-15 minutes. Once mixture is firm, switch off oven and leave tray in oven until completely cold. If necessary, separate crackers with a sharp knife and place back in oven on a cooling rack (to make them crisper - those in the middle of the tray may not be as crisp as those on the outside).

Store at room temperature in an airtight container. Best eaten within three days.

If they soften, place in a warm oven for a short time.

Variation: for crackers with a grainier texture, omit the step of grinding the seeds before adding the water; simply add whole chia and flaxseeds to water and wait for gel to form.


Christmas chocolates
Makes approximately 10 large or 20 small chocolates


1 cup cocoa butter, grated or 1 cup coconut oil
⅓ cup maple syrup
1 cup cacao or good quality cocoa powder (sifted to remove lumps)
dash of cinnamon
2 Tbsp nut butter


1 Tbsp macadamias or cashew nuts, finely chopped
1 Tbsp pistachios or pumpkin seeds, finely chopped
1 Tbsp dried cranberries or goji berries, finely chopped



Set out mini muffin cases or silicone moulds on a tray.

Gently melt cocoa butter/coconut oil and maple syrup together in a double boiler. Add cacao/cocoa powder and cinnamon and mix in a blender on low speed or with a whisk until well combined. Half-fill cases and place in fridge or freezer for a few minutes. Mix nut butter with some of the chopped extras, reserving a few nuts and fruits to sprinkle on top.

Remove chocolates from fridge/freezer and place a small dollop of nut butter in centre of each one. Pour remainder of chocolate over top. Allow to set in fridge for a few more minutes. Gently sprinkle extra chopped nuts and dried fruit on top and return to fridge/freezer to set completely.

NB: Cocoa butter, coconut oil and cacao powder can be purchased from Taste Nature.

If made with coconut oil, the finished products must be kept refrigerated, as they may melt at room temperature. You can replace the coconut oil with cocoa butter, which will result in chocolates which are less prone to melting and more luxurious (although they are more expensive to make).



• You can make instant ice cream by whizzing frozen, free-flow banana slices in a processor with other fruit, such as frozen berries or vanilla flavouring and some milk (dairy, nut or soy).

• Growing a few vegetables and herbs means they are there whenever you want them and you get the maximum nutrition.

• Soaking and cooking dried pulses such as chickpeas and beans instead of using tinned ones helps the budget.

• Buy just the quantity you need for a recipe from bulk bins so there is no waste.

• Raw food doesn't last very long as it has no preservatives.

• When soaked in water, chia and flax seeds form a gel which can be used as a binder in baking instead of eggs.

• Raw vegetable noodles made with firm vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, pumpkin and beetroot, using a spiral slicer (or a peeler) is easier on digestion than pasta, she says.

What to know more?

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