Burning Down the House: Naturally Ella

This month J.K., 14, decided to focus on the vegetarian website and blog, Naturally Ella (naturallyella.com). While I was initially reluctant for her to focus on a website rather than an actual hold-it-in-your-hands cookbook, the recipes she made were so good and so distinctive I saw her point.

Also, “spoiler alert!” Stay tuned for an action-packed sequence in which J.K.’s mom learns a valuable lesson about food safety.

Now, back to Naturally Ella and J.K. Basically, J.K. found Naturally Ella to be “fun, because everything’s pretty healthy and everything’s pretty easy.” She also liked the photos, the vegetarianism, and how the recipes were “trying things in a new way.” She also liked that the site is “well-organized in how it’s laid out”—that you can search for recipes by meal or ingredient or season or special diet.

Our family loved every dish J.K. made from this website: Curried Eggs with Spinach, African Curry with Cauliflower, Spinach Enchiladas with Lentils, Quick Red Lentil Curry with Spinach, Black Bean Salad with Toasted Sweet Potatoes, Sesame Soba Noodle Bowl with Edamame, and Sweet Potato Salad with Lentils and Fried Egg. All were healthy and flavorful and colorful and surprising and good.

Indeed, each one seemed to have something unusual and interesting about it. While it’s true that the recipes J.K. chose all seemed to use curry and/or eggs, sweet potatoes, lentils, and spinach, a quick glance at the Naturally Ella website itself reveals a wide range of ingredients.

Still, despite a certain commonality of J.K.’s choices, each time she said she was making a recipe from this site, I was filled with excited anticipation, which was always born out.

Nonetheless, I had to get to the bottom of the sameness issue.

“What’s up with all the curries?” I asked.

“They’re easy and they’re good,” J.K. said.

What about the eggs?

“Eggs are good because I never really thought about having eggs for dinner before.”

And the sweet potatoes?

“They’re okay,” J.K. said. I already knew that sweet potatoes are good in everything, so I left it at that.

Another thing J.K. liked about the Naturally Ella site is that it’s “less pretentious than some other websites.”

I had to agree. Scrolling around on naturallyella.com, the first thing one notices, of course, is the beautiful photos. But after looking a while longer, I noticed something else—the food did look healthy, yes, but maybe some of it looked a little too healthy. In other words, I started to find that not all the photos were gorgeous, not all the food looked incredibly appealing, and I found this a relief, as compared to sites and cookbooks where every element—food and human—seems gorgeous, perfect, staged.

About the dish shown here in J.K.’s photo, Sweet Potato Salad with Lentils and Fried Egg, which we ate outside accompanied by the dulcet tones of buzzing wasps, Naturally Ella’s author notes, “This sweet potato salad is less of a recipe and a sort of guide for a grain based salad that I eat nearly every week.” To that end she includes several ideas for variations along with the recipe (found here: http://naturallyella.com/sweet-potato-salad/).

J.K. noted that next time (and I hope there are many next times) she could make this recipe faster by cooking the quinoa and the lentils together rather than separately.

Which brings us to the moment some of us (or maybe only me?) have been waiting for, wherein J.K.’s mom learns a valuable lesson about the benefits of refrigeration. One might think that after writing food columns for eight or so years she would have picked up a tip or two along the way, but one might be wrong.

J.K. had made the delicious Sweet Potato Salad with Lentils and Fried Egga few nights before we left on a camping trip. The leftover quinoa and lentils were calling to the departing family in their plaintive little voices. We’ll be old when you get back! they seemed to wail. I grabbed the two containers and off we went.

We ate the leftover quinoa that night, but I was starting to feel sorry for the lentils, as yet unspoken for. Our third morning (the coolness of the cooler no longer cool), I thought I’d contribute to the family by eating the leftover lentils. Oh, how virtuous I felt! After a couple of bites I felt something else—the lentils tasted off, almost vinegary—so I stopped. But I had already swallowed a few bites, and a few hours later, I had the opportunity to reassess the wisdom of my decision and revisit the lentils in detail. (T.M.I., I know, but this is journalism!)

Upon hearing that I actually planned to recount this untoward episode in this very article—for the public, on the world wide Internet—Ollie, our bearded dragon, rolled her eyes and said it was time to return our focus to the website itself. She had a point. Then she tweeted that the recipes on Naturally Ella contained a “disturbing lack of trans fat.”

One surprise about the site is that the creator/author seems to be a woman named not Ella, but Erin Anderson. We didn’t find evidence of an actual Ella, or the story of an Ella who inspired the site’s name.

At the mention of this, Ollie stopped tweeting long enough to comment that she likes a good mystery. Worldly lizard that she is, she suggested that “ella” might be Spanish for “her,” and that the website’s title thus might be interpreted as “naturally her.” She then offered to tutor readers in the language of their choice for a fee.

Thanks, Ollie. Moving right along. Erin Anderson writes movingly about her history and how she came to be interested in healthy food in the “About” section of the website. Until her father had a major heart attack, she says she and her family members ate like average Americans: “Fast food at least once a day, more soda than water, and hardly any quality produce.” It took her years to “make a major lifestyle change,” which eventually led her to start her blog and website. She writes, “When I stopped dieting and began cooking whole, unprocessed foods, everything changed. When I gave up focusing on appearance and started listening to my body, everything felt right.”