Amber Shea Crawley knows she is eating in a gray area.
While her cookbook "Practically Raw" (Vegan Heritage Press, $19.95, 256 pages) extols the virtues of eating a plant-based diet, she refuses to get wrapped up in the ethical, moral or political aspects of a strict raw vegan diet.
"Eating raw food is not a black-or-white decision, but rather a matter of proportions," Crawley states in the introductory chapter. "Every raw snack, side dish, or meal you add to your day will benefit your body."
A more relaxed approach is catching on as a growing number of raw vegans embrace the "80/20" diet 80 percent raw and 20 percent cooked foods.
"I kind of cheat on the whole idea of raw, but the point is you're using unprocessed ingredients," Crawley said in an interview. "And I don't see anything wrong with using a conventional oven."
While vegans avoid all animal byproducts, including eggs and dairy, vegan raw foodists also avoid cooking their food. That means consuming fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts in their unprocessed state with the goal of preserving maximum nutrition.
There is disagreement as to whether foods that are not heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit contain more enzymes and are therefore healthier, but even mainstream nutrition experts agree that adding more whole foods to the American diet is a good thing.
There's a fair amount of rigidity over what constitutes a vegan diet. Crawley declares in her book that readers are entering a judgment-free zone with plenty of flexibility.
"Who am I to say that locally or organically raised meat is wrong if someone has gone about it in an ethical way?"
Crawley, 27, graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in linguistics. She started eating a raw diet when she was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, a disorder that affects the thyroid. Since 2008, she has been blogging about her culinary journey at almostveganchef.com. In 2010, she graduated from the Matthew Kenney Academy in Oklahoma City as a certified raw and vegan chef.
Today Crawley considers herself 99 percent vegan, but she doesn't expect everyone to eat the way she eats, nor is she offended by people who occasionally eat meat, eggs or dairy. She insists her flexible approach is attracting a more mainstream audience interested in eating for health and longevity.
Still, eating more raw foods can be a time-consuming proposition that includes straining nut milks, mixing alternative flours and sprouting seeds to make bread. The 140-plus recipes in "Practically Raw" dishes such as flaxjacks with miso-maple butter, mushroom-nut burgers and almond-butter-banana ice cream are designed to be quicker, easier and more affordable in terms of time and money.
If you don't have a dehydrator, which is used to "bake" or evaporate liquids from foods, there are recipes in her cookbook marked "CO," or made in a conventional oven.
If you're in a rush to get food to the table in 30 minutes or less, there are recipes marked "30." Those recipes take shortcuts like using cooked whole-grain noodles instead of "spiralized" zucchini, a type of faux noodle made by turning zucchini or other vegetables through an inexpensive gadget known as a spiralizer.
No macadamia nuts on hand or can't afford them? Substitute cashews or another nut listed in the substitution list that follows each recipe.
Recently, Crawley walked me through a few introductory recipes, starting with zucchini hummus. Surprisingly, she is not a big fan of the summer squash. But when she pulverizes it in a high-speed blender or food processor, the texture is transformed into a creamy dip.
Instead of raw tahini, Crawley prefers the flavor of roasted sesame seed paste, even though it has been processed. The texture is creamy and smooth, but also lighter than traditional hummus made from chickpeas. Agave nectar, an increasingly popular natural sweetener, also is used.
Next Crawley spoons chia porridge that has been setting up in the refrigerator overnight into a bowl. The gray mixture resembles tapioca. Chia seeds are one of nature's super foods, packed with protein, fiber, omega-3 essential fatty acids, protective antioxidants and phytonutritents.
A former marathon runner, Crawley first read about chia seeds in an article on the 2009 book "Born To Run" by Christopher McDougall. McDougall researched and wrote about Aztec long-distance runners who relied on chia seeds for fuel.
"Somebody said something about it probably Dr. Oz," Crawley said. "It's just funny how it started suddenly flying off the shelves, but there's nothing else like it."
When the chia seeds are mixed with water, they turn into a gel-like paste that can be used as an egg or fat substitute in baking.
Crawley is working on a manuscript for her second book, "Practically Raw Desserts," also by Vegan Heritage Press. "Sweets are one of my favorite things," she said.
She originally developed her famous five-minute blondies for a recipe video contest. For her efforts, she won $5,000, and the recipe has become her most popular blog post, she said.
Traditional blondies are made from wheat flour, milk and eggs. Crawley combines macadamia nuts, walnuts and coconut palm sugar in a food processor to create a coarsely ground mixture. She adds vanilla extract, salt and dates, pulsing until the mixture is sticky but well-incorporated. She transfers the mixture to an 8-inch square pan and packs it down tightly before storing in the freezer.
Before serving, Crawley garnishes the just-from-the freezer blondie squares with raw cocoa nibs and fresh raspberries.
Crawley is proud that "Practically Raw" has received 43 five-star reviews on amazon.com, but a month before her nuptials she was still looking for someone who can make the multitiered raw vegan wedding cake of her dreams.
"My fiancé is more vegan than me now," she said, "and he ate meat when we met."