Since travelling to Istanbul I have mezze on my mind. Sometimes the simplest ingredients make a very tasty nibble. Here I have used baby carrots that are available at this time of year. While you could as easily use larger carrots cut into batons, there is something particularly satisfying about eating these small specimens. Roast carrots are very good with caraway seeds whose taste is intensified with a light toasting.
For 4 people :
A bunch of baby carrots, preferably organic, peeled or just scrubbed.
1 tablespoon olive oil
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Heat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F.
Top and tail the carrots, peel or scrub. Toss in the olive oil in a small bowl and add a grinding of black pepper. Lay out the carrots in a single layer on an oven tray. Scatter over the thyme sprigs.
Place a handful of caraway seeds in a non stick pan and toast gently until the seeds release their aroma. Set aside.
Roast the carrots for 20 minutes.
Remove and allow to cool.
When ready to serve, lay out on a plate and sprinkle with caraway seeds.
I read an article over the weekend which really caught my fancy. It was written by a man who had organised a World Cup of chocolate bars on Twitter with the public voting on their favourites. He divided a range of bars into groups, the winner of each going forward to the semi-finals and so on. Eventually a winner was found – the most popular chocolate amongst the Twits. My favourite 70 % dark cocoa solids chocolate was noticeably absent from the list. In fact, I only recognised a few varieties, mostly those that have survived since my childhood and so can truly said to have stood the test of time!
I was so entertained by this well written race to the top of the chocolate world, that I asked my boys if I could read it to them. They looked up briefly from their computers and gave me a minute in which to amuse them. In no time they were voting their way up through the group stages, at points agreeing and at others diverging with the public vote. No doubt I was giving them much food for thought, food they would be buying at the newsagents later with their pocket money. But what really surprised me was that they seemed on familiar terms with almost every one of the chocolate bars on a rather long list. When I naively asked how come they knew so many of these chocolates, my son quipped ‘it’s because we take no notice of this low cholesterol obsession of yours’. Ask a silly question and all that …
Part of the reason I so related to this article is that I do admire a bit of benign obsessionality, the sort of dedication to his chocoholism that would have someone organise a Twitter vote . He also observed that most people prefer to talk about snack food – and eat it – than to read about fancier goods or, dare I suggest, healthy foods. To prove the point he said he wondered how many responses there would be to a World Cup of Watercress Soup. Point taken.
I once had my own tasting test on the dark stuff. I bought in a range of 70 % chocolate from different producers which were rated against one another and then against 80 and 90 % chocolate. Not all on the same night, mind you. My husband and I voted on each square until we found our favourite. Yes, we need to get out more. But why bother when such fun can be had at home?
In fairnesss, dark chocolate is supposed to be one of those healthy – in –small – amounts foods without which my evenings would be less enjoyable. Over many months of virtuous eating, I simply cannot give up dark chocolate for any length of time. It has antioxidants which are good news and is mostly good for one’s mood, releasing endorphins as it melts. Because it is so rich I find it difficult to eat more than a square or two so it is self limiting. I do find that one of the essentials for healthy eating is a small amount of unhealthy eating. A paradox perhaps, but I can eat a whole lot of broccoli if I know that at the end of the day, my favourite chocolate bar is waiting for me. Let the Twits keep the Twix.
While in Istanbul recently, we ate an array of mezze, amongst which was Moutabal. I watched with interest while my men tucked into it hungrily, scooping up the smoky aubergine with relish. This surprised me because I tried this dish at home years ago and no one would eat more than the first nibble. I was forced to eat the rest of the bowl myself. Such a hard life. On my return from Turkey I headed straight for the aubergines at my local Turkish grocers and returned home to make moutabal. To my delight,t the men scraped the bowl clean. Now I have to share.
For 4 people:
1 large aubergine
Juice of ½ lemon
4 tablespoons of water
Seeds of ½ pomegranate
Flat leaf parsley
What distinguishes moutabal from ordinary aubergine puree is that it has a wonderfully smoky taste. To achieve this without lighting your barbecue, simply place the aubergine on a lit gas ring for about 15 minutes. Turn it from time to time so that all sides are charred. Mind you don’t burn your fingers . I use my long tongs. You can grill the aubergine instead but you won’t get the same charred flavour.
Once the aubergine is charred all over, remove it and allow to cool a bit. Now carefully pick off and discard all the charred skin to reveal the cooked flesh within. Mash the flesh with a fork and pour off any liquid. You can also do so by draining it in a colander.
Mix the tahini with the water and lemon juice until it forms a smooth paste. Add this to the mashed aubergine. Set aside.
Remove the seeds from the pomegranate taking care to remove the pith.
Chop a handful of flat leaf parsley.
Spread the aubergine puree on a dish and garnish with the pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.
Serve with flatbread or pitta – wholemeal preferably.
Driving to work this week I heard a discussion between a cardiologist and a chip shop owner. Not your average set of guests on the Today programme perhaps, but together they were lined up to talk about the obesity crisis; more specifically the decision by a local council to throw a cordon sanitaire around its school children by banning fast food outlets from selling takeaways before 5pm.
It’s not often that I support anything coming out of a chip shop, but the owner’s frustration at his product being implicated in the obesity crisis had me nodding in agreement. Yes 60 % of UK adults and 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese. But blaming fast food outlets for the nation’s ills struck me as mistaking the part for the whole. The chip shop owner summed up the problem by saying ‘it’s the whole society’. He pointed out that parental responsibility must surely shoulder some of the blame as well as the fact that children do not exercise enough, tending to spend their leisure time on the computer.
As a parent I have to agree. It is a drag to keep nagging at the kids to switch off the computers and play real sports rather than mindless hours of online football. It is a slog to actually take them to the park so that they can run around. And it is a serious commitment to cook for them from scratch – easier and cheaper to serve up ready meals.
Jamie Oliver had a go at this problem by trying to encourage healthy eating at school age by making the healthier food available. Then he tried to roll out healthy eating in the community by teaching people to cook. He identified some very basic issues which are that people will not eat more healthily if they don’t know how to prepare the stuff and aren’t used to eating it. But there remains a persistent problem for many people – how to afford it?
The supermarkets bang on about healthy eating while our waistlines expand as fast as their profits. It they really cared about the nation’s health, the price of fresh fruit and veg would drop to enable more people to actually afford to eat healthily.
Today I have exercise in mind as I am attending my son’s sports award evening at his school. He gets to play a fair amount of sport at school because he has an aptitude. But the vast majority of his peers do not get a chance because there is not enough funding to pay for coaches for more than a team or two. If you want your child to be able to play sport at school no matter how good they are at it, you had better be able to fork out for private school fees. This is not discussed in the debate about obesity. Let’s just shut the chip shops so that kids can’t eat junk food on their way home. If the kids had an opportunity to represent their school on the sports field in the afternoons they may have less time and inclination to be getting obese in the first place.
Children respond well to being given viable alternatives to bad behaviour rather than being punished. The nanny state would do better to put its money where its mouth is by funding sports in schools, making it possible for children to exercise. It would do better to pressure supermarkets into reducing the prices on healthy foods, making it possible for people to afford to eat well. All of this will cost it dear. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
This is a great dish to make if you can find brown short grain rice. I recently came across some in my local health food shop and snapped it up with a paella in mind. There are some dishes that just work better with the kinds of rice they were developed around. A risotto, for example, needs a short grain rice too, the difference being that one stirs it all the time to release the starch into the dish which gives it that wonderful creaminess. A paella, on the other hand, is not stirred at all once the rice is in and the stock has been added because it is not supposed to be a creamy dish. I have tried paella with brown basmati several times but it does not have anything like the texture that this one did.
In this dish I have rather mixed two types of paealla that are traditionally found in Spain. I have taken the chicken and rosemary from a Valenciana and mixed it with the prawns found in a seafood one. I have also mixed in some red peppers because they taste so good and add colour. I leave it to your conscience whether to add chorizo – definitely not on the list of ok foods. I do wonder how the cholesterolly challenged in Spain cope without chorizo. The carnivores I mean. If you are not using chorizo, or if you prefer a vegetarian paella, you can get the smoky taste by using a few teaspoons of Spanish smoked paprika. Also add a few more cloves of garlic. For vegetarians, add in some thin green beans and a tin of rinsed butter beans or even some broad beans.
This dish should ideally be made in a paella pan but if you don’t have one then use the largest pan you have.
To feed 6 or 4 hungry people:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 -2 large red peppers, seeds removed, cut into quarters lengthways and then cut each quarter in two
12 skinned, boneless chicken thighs
300g brown short grain rice
2 l chicken stock – made with boiling water
150g frozen peas
12 large tiger prawns – raw or ready cooked
Heat the olive oil in a paella pan and add the onions. Sauté for a couple of minutes. As the onion begins to soften, add the chicken pieces. You want to brown them nicely so turn them from time to time for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile add the red pepper and the garlic. When the chicken is brown – your onions should be too – add the rice and stir it in a bit. Now pour over the hot chicken stock. This is the one time you stir the rice into the stock. You now leave the rice to simmer away until it is cooked. This will take about half an hour. You need to keep an eye on the liquid level and add a bit more stock if it is drying out before the rice is ready.
When the rice is almost done, add the peas which will defrost in the hot liquid. Shortly before serving, add the prawns. If they are ready cooked you can add them once the dish is ready and just heat through quickly. If they are raw prawns, pop them on top of the rice and they will turn pink in a couple of minutes at which point they are done.
Serve with lemon wedges.
I used to believe that men thought about sex every 6 seconds, or so the women’s magazines always said. I once asked my husband whether this was true and he just laughed. So I was none the wiser. What the glossies also told us was that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. So how often was he thinking about food then?
Well I guess I am poorly placed to speak for men, but speaking for myself I can say that I have always found men who cook very sexy. I told my husband this when we met and boy did he turn out the roast chickens week after week. So the way to my heart (so to speak) is definitely via the kitchen.
This week I have been all fluffed up. About rice. Not such a racy topic you may think, not one to get hot and sweaty over. But spare a thought for a food obsessed woman who always has the next meal in mind and you will see that it has a certain cachet.
It all began while I was browsing in my local health food shop. Laden with boxes of flaxseed and bags of seeds and nuts, I paused at the brown rice section and noticed a newcomer I’d not met before. No it was not a tall, handsome stranger. Rather, a squat, dense bag of short grain rice. Brown short grain rice. Having only ever had access to the long grain, delicious as brown Basmati is and a staple of my weekly cooking to boot, the shorter cousin had me excited. For it is with short grain that certain dishes have to be made, dishes wherein long grain cannot happily be substituted. Dishes as yet out of reach for my cholesterol lowering purposes.
Which is how I found myself on Saturday evening preparing a paella. I know, we don’t get out enough. It is difficult to get a date with my husband these days as he tends to spend Saturday nights moonlighting as a taxi driver to my boys who have a rollicking social life. So I cook and hope that I retain a hotline to his heart while looking after mine.
On this occasion both my boys were present and did their faces light up when I brought my huge paella pan to the table! It is one of those pans that people drag home from summer holidays in Spain. Well, crazy people like me. Big enough to feed a crowd. A short while later they were scraping out those lovely sticky, caramelised bits of onion and rice that stick to the bottom, the best bits you might say. For once they were not hungry minutes after eating dinner. Perhaps it was the chocolate brownie dessert that occupied the last space in their stomachs. I’m not telling whether I ate any. All I will say is that when I looked up at my husband he gave me a rather saucy smile.
This delicious salad is adapted from a recipe by a South African chef, Reuben Riffel. His story is an inspiring one, a successful tale of post Apartheid life. The recipe contains so many health promoting foods it is positively virtuous. Pears and apples contain pectins which are very good for heart health. Beetroot cleanses the blood. Walnuts lower LDL, the bad cholesterol. Spinach is very high in antioxidants.
For 4 people:
2 granny smith apples
Juice of a lemon
A bag of baby spinach
A couple of handfuls of walnut pieces
A block of feta light (optional)
2 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ clove garlic
Pinch of sugar
Thinly slice the unpeeled apples and pears and toss in the juice of a lemon to prevent them from discolouring. Now peel the beetroots – taking care not to stain your clothes. Cut into matchstick size pieces. Set aside separately from the fruit so as not to stain your fruit red.
Wash your spinach and dry well. Place spinach leaves on a salad bowl or on a large platter. Then add your fruit slices and carefully arrange your beetroot so that your fruit does not get too stained. (This is purely aesthetic and does not affect the taste). Now scatter your walnut pieces over the veg. At this point you can add a block of feta, but remember that you are trying to control your cholesterol and feta is not friendly. If you can find feta light then use this instead. Otherwise think about using only half a block so that you get the salty taste but not too much fat.
The dressing is made from combining 2 tablespoons of walnut oil, 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, half a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, chopped, half a clove of garlic, crushed and a pinch of sugar.
Dress the salad just before eating or the spinach leaves get soggy.
How far would you go to improve your long term health? This question has been much in the press this week with Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she has undergone a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of developing a genetic form of breast cancer. Now she is due to have her ovaries removed to head off ovarian cancer, linked to the gene she inherited from her mother who died of the disease some years ago.
Another article that caught my eye was written by a woman in her early 30s, pregnant with her first child and diagnosed with colon cancer. This story upset me so much that I could not bring myself to read the full article but did glean, from a quick scan of the text, that she has been told by her oncologist to exercise 40 minutes every day and to eat 10 daily portions of fruit and veg.
These deeply moving stories – all too familiar these days when cancer seems to be increasingly present in younger people – point to the genetic lottery for which we all have a ticket without knowing when the draw will be held. So we live our lives in blissful ignorance – or constant worry, depending on your temperament – waiting for nature to take its course. In decades to come, I suspect that such lack of knowledge will become as outdated as the dinosaurs. Once the patents for genetic testing have been contested in courts and, assuming a positive outcome, the costs of these tests is reduced, we might have our genetic futures mapped out at birth or earlier. Hopefully treatments will have advanced accordingly by then.
When it comes to cholesterol, we do not have to wait for the future. We already know that cholesterol levels have a genetic component and we also know what to do if we fall into this category. Luckily no radical measures need to be taken by most of us, no decisions to mutilate our bodies in order to enhance our survival.
So it feels churlish to complain about the endless road ahead of exercise and healthy eating especially when others are having to do to treat far more serious conditions. Which raises the question of how serious a condition is raised cholesterol? Does it threaten one’s life now or in the future? There is much controversy about whether raised cholesterol is even implicated in heart disease or whether inflammation is the bigger culprit.
The more I read about this debate and the more confused I feel about the disagreement on whether low fat or low carb or high protein is the route to cardio vascular health , the more fed up I feel. Sometimes it makes me want to just eat chocolate. Lots of it.
My husband recently complimented me on keeping my walking going throughout the winter (for the most part). I told him I was now finding it more difficult than ever to keep motivated. I think this is because I have reached that medium term period. The walking is no longer a new hobby yet I still need to push myself to do it. He suggested we walk in the woods to see the bluebells. They were soul enhancing. I thought about how many future springtime walks I wanted to have, seeing the bluebells in their purple glory blazing for a few short weeks. I want to do so with as many of my bits in tact and with my loved ones by my side. Which is reason enough to get my trainers on yet again today and keep away from the cheese in the fridge.
I created this recipe for a quick midweek dinner when I was in the mood for something spicy but not too hot. I used Ras-el-Hanout which is a wonderful Moroccan blend used in tagines. It contains a very long list of spices including ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, coriander, mace, nutmeg and cloves! Mine had dried rose petals in it which, to my mind, is the height of romance in a spice mix. Many supermarkets now sell it or you can find it in Middle Eastern grocery shops.
Any tagine benefits from a night in the fridge before being eaten. In this case there was no time for such delayed gratification. I did, however, eat the cold leftovers as a side dish the following day and it tasted pretty good that way too.
For 4 people:
2 large aubergines, thickly sliced in rounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium sized onions, chopped
2 -3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 teaspoons Ras – el – Hanout
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
8 dried apricots, quartered
2 preserved lemons
A handful of roasted almonds, chopped
A handful of fresh mint, leaves picked off and thinly shredded
Start off by salting your aubergine slices and leave to ‘sweat for half an hour. Then rinse and pat dry with kitchen towel. I always salt my aubergines because I once read that it draws out any bitterness. More importantly, it apparently decreases the amount of oil the aubergine absorbs when cooking.
To reduce further any need for oil, I baked the aubergine slices first before adding them to the pot.
While your aubergine is being salted, heat your oven to 180C / 350F and roast your almonds. This really does concentrate the flavour and enhances the taste of the nuts enormously. Simply place the almonds on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Keep a very careful eye on them so that they don’t burn.
When the aubergine is ready to cook, lay the slices in one layer on a baking tray lined with a non-stick mat. You can spray them very lightly with an olive oil spray or just put them straight into the oven. They should be ready in 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the slices. At this point they should be slightly brown and soft to the touch. Remove and set aside.
While the aubergine is baking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan. Gently sauté the onions. When they have softened add the garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Now add the Ras-el-Hanout and stir to combine.
Cut the aubergine slices in half or quarters and add to the pot. Stir to combine. Now add the chopped tomatoes and chickpeas as well as the stock. Finally, add the dried apricots. At this point you can leave the vegetables to simmer for half an hour.
Prepare the garnishes. Wash the preserved lemons well and discard the flesh. Chop up the skins and set aside. Roughly chop the cooled roasted almonds and set aside. Pick the mint leaves off their stalks and shred finely.
When you serve up the tagine, add a bit of each garnish to each helping.
Serve with wholemeal couscous. You can add the seeds of a pomegranate to the couscous along with some more chopped mint if you have.
Having a ragingly hungry teenager in the house, along with a pre-teen who is fast heading in the same direction, I am finding myself at a bit of a loss as to how to keep them filled up. When I gave birth to two sons, I knew that at some stage my filling the freezer with ice cubes of pureed vegetables would seem like a distant memory. That one day I would be shopping several times a week to keep the fridge full and the cupboards stocked. That time has come. What I did not know was that I would also be trying to keep my cholesterol down and hence keep the stores low fat and healthy. Healthy food works for my boys but low fat does not. They prowl the kitchen day and night. The fridge door might not survive their adolescence so often is it opened and slammed shut in disappointment. Minutes later it is opened again, a triumph of hope over experience, as if somehow what they are looking for has magicked onto the shelves filled with no-fat yoghurt, bags of almonds, seeds and fruit. My kind of food, in other words.
The tired complaint ‘there is never anything to eat in this house’, followed by ‘I’m hungry and there is nothing to eat’, or ‘I don’t want another sandwich’ has led me to scratch my head in confusion. Having passed through adolescence as a girl, I have no recollection of this constant hunger. I do remember though that my brother took to frying fish fingers or burgers at odd times of the night to sate his nocturnal appetite. At one point he turned to popcorn and the house would smell like a cinema foyer before the late show.
In desperation I asked my sons to draw up a list of foods they wanted to eat since they seemed to take offence at what I had on offer. They began to argue about whether granola bars were worth eating and so the list was abandoned.
I know what I would like them to eat – lots of fruit, healthy sandwiches and so on. And they do. But then minutes later they are back for more and variety is called for. Clearly I need to visit some of the supermarket aisles I studiously avoid, but I am not prepared to start filling them up with crisps, biscuits and junk. What they eat now affects what their cholesterol level is going to look like when they are my age. I have already potentially given them my cholesterol genes, so the least I can do is to encourage healthy eating.
Having now done my shopping with the boys in mind, I have returned with crackers, a range of breads and bagels, fudge yoghurt – a very strange combo my boys love, chocolate brownies and more. The fridge is full of foods I am trying to avoid, the cupboards heaving with goodies no cholesterol lowering mother should eat. I have temptations in my kitchen which previously felt like a safe space. My own challenge just got harder. Let’s hope my arteries don’t.