Baked Fennel with Orange, Dill and Pistachio

Baked Fennel with Orange, Dill and Pistachio

I recently ate a lovely fennel salad in a restaurant called Zest. I set about trying to recreate at least some of its deep flavour and served the dish alongside a roast chicken. The leftovers the next day were delicious too, if not even better for having had a night in the fridge, the ingredients getting well acquainted.

For 4 people:

3 large fennel bulbs
1 orange
Olive oil
10g fresh dill
50g pistachio kernels
50g light Feta cheese
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180 C.

Begin by slicing the fennel length ways into slices. You should be aiming to get 6 – 8 slices from each bulb. Lay these out on an oven tray in a single layer.

Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice into a small bowl. Add a ½ tablespoon of olive oil. Mix together and pour over the fennel slices. Cover the tray with foil so that the steam cannot escape and place in the preheated oven for about 45 – 60 minutes. You want the fennel to be very soft.

While the fennel is cooking, you can get on with the topping.
Wash and dry the dill fronds and place in a food processor along with the pistachio kernels. If you can only find pistachios with their shells on, remove each kernel from its shell and then weigh out 50g of the kernels.

Whizz in the processor until finely crushed. You are looking for the texture of breadcrumbs.

When the fennel is cooked, carefully lift out the soft slices and lay out on a serving platter. There should be a good quantity of cooking juices which you now pour over the fennel slices, a warm, citrus dressing.

Scatter over the dill and pistachio crumbs.
Finally, crumble the feta over the top.

A final sprinkle of a good quality extra virgin olive oil is optional.

Anniversary Times – 23 July 2014

The international news has been so appalling this week that I can hardly bear to turn on the radio while preparing dinner as what I hear rather spoils my appetite. Being in the fortunate position of living in a relatively peaceful part of the world, my concerns can be selfishly domestic rather than geopolitical.

Time is flying by in my household. Yet another academic year is about to come to an end, the UK is basking in heat alternating with thundery showers, and I have eaten my bodyweight in strawberries.

All of which means that it is time for my wedding anniversary, I realise that this is the third such occasion I will be reporting on, from a culinary point of view of course. Three years ago, when this blog was still new, I wrote about our overnight, anniversary trip to the Cotswolds where we had a booking for The Lamb Inn. Ours turned out to be the runt of the litter, there being more Lamb Inns in the Cotswolds than sheep. Booking on the Internet does throw up some surprises. Nevertheless, the weather was good and we ate a fine meal al fresco. In those days I was zealous about my cholesterol lowering, ordered with great care for my arteries and even eschewed the Full English the next morning.

Last year, a tad complacent about my lowered cholesterol, we had a gourmet anniversary weekend in Montreuil–sur- Mer in Northern France, the highlight being the fantabulous tasting menu at La Grenouillère. (review here if you are tempted We ate non-stop for two heady days and returned home invigorated if rather saturated in fat.

Thanks to the endless hospitality of a dear friend who takes my kids in for the night, we have once again been able to enjoy an aniversary overnight this year. At the weekend we tootled off to the coast, near Whitstable, to have lunch at a Michelin star restaurant I have long wanted to try. A French-style B&B, located a short drive from our luncheon spot, sealed the deal on a 24 hour sortie. To prepare for all this fun, I bought myself two dresses on the sales.

This year I have to admit to having had too few qualms indeed about tucking into lunch and had no intention whatsoever of missing breakfast the next morning. Overlooking a pretty English country garden, I was treated to the finest bacon I have ever tasted, eggs, a huge rosti and licked the bowl clean of creamed mushrooms. Well, I had worked up an appetite.

Now I have less than three weeks to eat as healthily as possible before leaving on the summer vacation which promises to be 21 days of food exploration. I remember once writing that lowering cholesterol is a lifelong commitment. Sometimes I feel I should just eat my words.

Pea and Mint Spelt Risotto

Pea and Mint Spelt Risotto

A few weeks ago I came across a pea and mint risotto in a restaurant called The Brasserie which I reviewed on my Kitchen Journeys blog.

I thought I would try to create something similarly fresh for summer but using a healthier grain than Arborio rice. Not that I don’t like this rice very much, but it is a refined rice that we should avoid for lowering cholesterol purposes. So I have substituted it with Spelt which I am increasingly using in my kitchen. I have made a few spelt risottos now over the past few months with good results.

For 4 people:

1 dessertspoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
250g spelt
1litre vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
250g frozen peas
4 large sprigs mint
Parmesan cheese (optional)
Black pepper

Start by sauteing the chopped onion in the olive oil. Let it cook slowly with a lid on so that you don’t need to add more oil while the onion softens.

Add the spelt and stir well to combine. Add half the stock and stir in and then slowly add the rest. Leave to simmer, covered, until tender but retaining a bite. You may need to add a bit more stock if it is looking dry before the spelt is cooked.

Cook the peas in boiling water into which you have added the mint sprigs. When the peas are ready, remove them and the mint with a slotted spoon and keep the water in which they were boiled.

Pull the mint leaves off their stalks and puree along with the peas in a food processor.
Add the pea mixture to the cooked spelt and stir well to combine.
Add a bit of the cooking liquid you have set aside to loosen up the risotto a little if needed.

Add a few grinds of black pepper and a few handfuls of grated parmesan.

Is raised cholesterol a risk factor for breast cancer? – 16 July 2014

Over the years that I have been writing this blog I have often bemoaned the fact that raised cholesterol seems to affect almost every aspect of our health from sleep to sexual performance. To make matters worse, everything seems to affect cholesterol from coffee to the menopause. And while the debate continues to rage as to whether cholesterol itself is the devil incarnate when it comes to causing cardiovascular disease, it certainly does seem to poke its nose into areas that don’t seem to be any of its business.

In the past week there has been much in the news about a study that has indicated a link between high levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of breast cancer.

Previous research suggested a link between obesity and breast cancer. The extent of a woman’s obesity was reported to affect the growth of breast cancer cells and the size of tumours.

The latest research, conducted by a team based in the UK, wanted to investigate the link between cholesterol and breast cancer. Since it was already known that cholesterol and obesity were linked and that obesity and breast cancer were linked, was there a link between cholesterol and breast cancer? Was it the raised cholesterol levels in obese women that was causing the increased risk of developing breast cancer?

The study conducted was retrospective and observational. It analysed the data of over 1 million women over a period of 13 years. Of these 22 938 had high cholesterol and 9 312 had breast cancer. 530 of the women with high cholesterol developed breast cancer. The research team estimated that women with high cholesterol were 1.64 times more likely to develop breast cancer.

While the research team was cautious about their findings, they hope to develop clinical trials within the next decade to investigate whether the use of statins could reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at higher risk due to their raised cholesterol.

A Canadian oncologist responded saying that more research was needed to prove a link between high cholesterol and breast cancer. She said that it could be that higher cholesterol was more likely to be found amongst obese women who may also be less physically active, both of which are risk factors for breast cancer.

Reading the responses from doctors to this preliminary finding, I came across one that reminded readers that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, just because a link has been found between cholesterol and breast cancer, it does not mean that high cholesterol causes breast cancer. The doctor pointed to research published in 2013 which indicated that long term statin use (over 10 years) in post-menopausal women doubled the risk of developing breast cancer.

So once again we have a situation where the use of statins will be controversial. Will statins be found to lower or increase the risk of breast cancer?

While we do not yet know how the research in this field will develop, one thing is clear. Keeping our weight and cholesterol levels under control continues be a good investment in our health.

Fig and Feta Salad

Fig and Feta Salad

The figs were purple and practically bursting from their skins at my Turkish grocer this week. I filled a bag, added a piece of feta fresh from its brine barrel and hurried home to make lunch. When I was a child, we had a huge fig tree and spent all summer climbing into its branches to gorge on ripe figs. Nowadays I have to buy them from a box, but needs must. The marriage of sweet and salty is always a treat (think melon and Parma ham) and makes a light lunch.

For 4 people:

A few handfuls of salad leaves
4 large and rip figs
100g low fat feta
A handful of basil leaves
Very good quality balsamic vinegar
Your best extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper

Start by covering your serving platter with washed and dried salad leaves.
Cut each fig into quarters and lay on top of the leaves.
Break the feta into chunks and scatter about the salad.
Arrange the basil leaves over the other ingredients.

Drizzle the balsamic vinegar and some olive oil over the salad. As the ingredients are so simple, it is important to use as best an oil and vinegar as you have. Their flavour really does determine the wonderful taste of the salad.

Finish with a few grindings of black pepper.

Fat Is A Humanist Issue – 9 July 2014

We are all too familiar with the constant news about the obesity epidemic and its link to cardiovascular disease. Yet the nations of the world continue to slide increasingly into obesity with little prospect, from what I can see, of reversing this trend. This alarming trend.

Not only is our sedentary lifestyle implicated, so are the foods we eat. I am not just referring to the obvious ones like fizzy drinks, desserts, cakes, chocolates or second helpings of cheesecake. I’m talking breakfast cereals, fruit juice and health bars, the sorts of foods we thought were ok to eat but now turn out to be piled high with sugar.

There is no sign that these sugar laden foods are heading off our tables any time soon. But even if they did, there is still the problem of actually losing the excess weight that so many people are carrying around. Losing it is in fact only step one. Keeping it off is the real challenge.

I recall, half a lifetime ago, having put on a fair amount of weight – 1/3 of my body weight was added to my size. This occurred when I went to university and stopped playing sport several times a week as I had done throughout my school days. I was eating a lot of cheap stodge to refuel at lunchtime in the canteen. The evening meal usually consisted of more stodge as most of our cooking repertoire extended to making pasta.

Getting the weight off took a good 9 months of commitment to a diet, weekly attendance at a slimming group, plus aerobics classes several times each week. It was a long and boring process. At the time I was told that only 5% of dieters maintain their weight loss. I was determined to be part of this group. Over the 25 years that have since passed, I have gained and lost, gained and lost – never getting up to the size I had once grown into, but sometimes getting too close. Nowadays I hover a good half a stone about where I should ideally be and even that takes determination. If I were obese, would I have the iron will needed to slim down and reduce my likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke?

This question was much on my mind reading a gripping book this week. Written by Lionel Shriver, Big Brother tells the story of a woman who grapples not only with her own expanding waistline, but with whether a sibling has a responsibility to intervene when her morbidly obese brother appears to be eating himself to death. It is a book I found impossible to put down and I binge-read for 2 days until I finished it off.

I highly recommend this read as it deals with obesity on a personal, familial and societal level, never letting us readers off the hook for our own prejudices. Set in the US which has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, it is easy to think that the problem is over there. Sadly, it is over here too. In 2012 roughly 25% of the adults in the UK were classified as obese. 1 in every 4. This is bad news for the heart health of the nation’s future. When I finished the final page of Big Brother I didn’t feel too hopeful.

Sweet Baby Peppers with Ricotta and Lemon

Sweet Baby Peppers with Ricotta and Lemon

I came across these cute little peppers in my supermarket this week. They were too dinky to pass by so I brought them home and stuck them in the oven while I was preparing dinner. Being so small, they don’t need as long to roast as their larger cousins. About a half hour did the trick. Stuffed with a basil leaf and ricotta mixed with lemon zest and a grinding of black pepper, they made a colourful tapa while we waited for the rest of the meal to be cooked.

For 4 people:

8 baby peppers – sometimes I see bags of red, yellow and orange baby peppers which would be even more colourful
1 tub ricotta
1 unwaxed lemon – I always prefer unwaxed if using for zest unless you like eating wax
16 basil leaves
Black pepper

Heat the oven to 180 C. Place the peppers on a roasting tray and roast for ½ hour.
Remove and allow to cool.

Mix about a third of the tub of ricotta with the grated zest of ½ lemon. Add a few grindings of black pepper and mix gently.

Cut off the stalk of each pepper and carefully remove the seeds with the point of a knife. Try not to split open the peppers.

Place a basil leaf inside each pepper.
Using a very small teaspoon, stuff each pepper with the ricotta mix.
Finish off by placing a second basil leaf in each pepper so that it sticks out over the edge.

Eating Out – 2 July 2014

Healthy eating is difficult at the best of times. This week I am having an especially challenging time as I have been invited to no less than three restaurants. This means a lot of eating all the wrong foods. But it would take a much more disciplined person than me to refuse such offers.

Generally I tend to eat out infrequently, partly because I love to cook and usually prefer to head into my kitchen for a special occasion. As I grow older so I increasingly appreciate eating good food with friends at my own table – or their table for that matter. The lure of restaurants has decreased. In my youth I fantasised about one day running my own restaurant. Having once had a stint as a weekend sous- sous chef in just the kind of gaff I would have liked to have called my own, I realised just how difficult such a dream would be. So being a sensible sort, I went off and got myself a professional qualification which has supplied me with a day job and time left over to make food a hobby the whole family can enjoy.

I was reminded of my erstwhile reveries this week when I had the opportunity to hear the owner/chefs of Honey and Co. promoting their new cookbook. This small, 10 table restaurant in central London, has been in business just two years and in that time has developed a loyal following. The Israeli- born chefs, Itamar Srulowich and Sarit Packer, worked in Ottolenghi restaurants before making their dream a reality. I am glad they did as their eaterie is fun to visit – quirky with a very warm welcome – and the food is always interesting. The last time I ate there I tried the healthy option of cauliflower shwarma – not your average vegetarian dish. Although I made it through the starters and mains with my health credentials intact, I failed miserably when it came to dessert.

Honey and Co, make seriously wonderful desserts. Sarit was the pastry chef at Nopi (Ottolenghi’s newest restaurant) and knows a thing or two about baking. Her saffron and lemon cake is the sort of sweetmeat that I have not been able to stop thinking about since I ate it. When I returned to the restaurant for a second meal, I was more than a little distressed to find it was not on the menu that day.

The minute I bought the Honey and Co. cookbook, I paged straight to the cake section, my heart beating just a little faster than usual. Would the recipe be there? I sighed gratefully when I found it was and I shall be baking one in my own kitchen at the first opportunity.

How does this chime with my ongoing quest to keep my cholesterol – never mind the waist line – in check before the summer holiday foodfest across the pond begins? Not to mention all those restaurant meals lined up this week. Hmmm. Where did I stash those elasticated trousers?

Artichoke and Buffalo Mozzarella Crostini

Artichoke and Buffalo Mozzarella Crostini

I love making crostini in the summer. They are quick and easy, especially using the sweet tomatoes around at this time of year. I have made complicated toppings in the past, but these days I tend to use ingredients that speak for themselves and don’t need to be faffed with. Traditionally, crostini are made with white bread which is not such a healthy option. I see no reason not to use a wholemeal bread as I have done here. It tastes just as delicious – if not more so.

I like to prepare my slices of bread on my trusty griddle pan so that I get those lovely stripes that make any food look professional. Keep an eye that they don’t burn. If you don’t have a griddle pan you can either pop the bread slices in your toaster or under the grill. I like to toast them on both sides.

A lovely way to proceed is to rub one side of the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic and half a tomato which squishes in to the toast. Then all you need is a sprinkle of really good extra virgin olive oil and perhaps some chopped tomato – very ripe tomato – and a basil leaf or two,

Here, I have simply added a few bits to upgrade the crostini. I served them while we were waiting for the BBQ to get up to speed. Sitting in the sun, a plate of nibbles on the table and the smell of lunch sizzling away – why can’t it always be summer?

For 4 people:

8 slices of wholemeal baguette or crusty loaf
16 balls of buffalo mozzarella ‘cherries’
8 cherry tomatoes – I used pomadorino
A jar of grilled artichokes
Fresh basil
Black pepper

Prepare the bread by toasting on both sides on a griddle pan until it is nicely browned.

Cut each artichoke into quarters. Break the mozzarella balls in half. Cut the tomatoes in half.

Assemble the artichoke, mozzarella and tomatoes on the toasted bread. Drizzle over a little bit of the oil from the jar of artichokes. Finish with a few fresh basil leaves and a grinding of black pepper.

Anyone for Football? – 25 June 2014

Much as I love my children and wish only for their dreams to become reality, I have to confess that I was relieved when England went out of the World Cup. Not because any fewer games will be watched until the relentless and seemingly endless number of men chasing balls continues night after night. Nor because I lack any sympathy for the England football fan who seems to succumb to the triumph of hope over experience every four years.

My concerns are purely selfish and can be summed up in one word – snacks. With every game I am called on to provide sustenance, as if the crunching of popcorn and crisps can somehow mitigate the effects of watching your team being given the run around by a gang of men with fancier footwork.

My boys get together with their friends to watch at one another’s houses and the other night was our turn to host. I felt I needed to make a bit of an effort on the food front since I had scant interest in the game itself. My enthusiasm for sports extends only to watching the final set of the Wimbledon final or the penalty shootout that seals the fate of a football tournament. While others are shouting rudely at the ref, I am the provider of food, unhealthy food in this case. Yes, I dutifully cut up batons of celery and red pepper to dip into fresh tomato salsa and houmous. But what I really had my eye on was the bowl of crisps – an unusual offering in our household – and the puff pastry with feta and za’atar, baked in the oven, and so much more enticing than a stick of raw veg. By the time I got to serve the strawberries with double cream, I had lost the plot. I left my portion of yoghurt in the fridge and tucked in along with everyone else.

It is said that one should decide in advance to make healthy choices before eating. Wise words indeed, but ones which I find so difficult to put into practice. Especially when the eating is taking place at my own table. As I stocked up in the snack aisle of my supermarket, I chose all the off-limits junk food where salt, fat and E-numbers compete for most toxic substance. I knew that these would be irresistible to me once the bags were opened. On my way to the checkout I added to my trolley half priced England paper cups and napkins –even the retailers knew our chances were limited and were getting rid of merchandise emblazoned with St George’s Cross like yesterday’s bread. I consoled myself thinking that my night of falling off the wagon would be as short-lived as England’s shot at glory. Later, I sat quietly eating my way through a tube of Pringles while listening to a testosterone fueled tv room explode with rage at the ineptitude of Wayne Rooney while moments later the complainants hugged one another when the very same man scored a longed for goal. I marvelled at the emotions elicited by the whereabouts of a ball and, while our national team played on foreign fields, I thought about my little corner of England and felt at peace with the world.