Butter Bean and Za’atar Dip

Butter Bean and Za'atar Dip

Last week saw the publication of Sabrina Ghayour’s new cookbook, Sirocco. Anyone who has cooked from her first book, Persiana, will need no introduction to her flavour-filled, easy to prepare and totally moreish recipes. I have been cooking my way through the new volume and we have been eating very well indeed from it. When I made this dip my son said he thought it was better than houmous. This is praise indeed in my household. Do give this a try. Pulses are an important part of the diet when reducing cholesterol and it is good to ring the changes from the chickpea. There are many other beans to love.

I used a medium quality extra-virgin olive oil to make the dip and then drizzled over my best quality one when serving. I do think that getting out the really good stuff just adds the final flourish to a dish, especially one as simple as this. In my household we use za’atar as others might use salt. In fact I hardly ever cook with salt. Za’atar, that wonderful mix of sesame seeds, sumac and thyme, is used on everything from cheese toasties to roast veggies and all dishes in between.Most big supermarkets sell it now but I get mine at my local Iranian store. Sabrina uses garlic oil in this recipe but, as I don’t have any in my kitchen, I substituted extra virgin olive oil plus a small clove of garlic.

I served this dip with drinks as a nibble for vegetarian guests and it went down well. I loved the lemony flavour and the fact that it is so healthy.

For 4 people (with leftovers for lunch the next day)

1 can butter beans – buy the beans canned in unsalted water if possible. I like to rinse the beans as I don’t like the taste of the canning liquid even once it is drained.

2 tablespoons za’atar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small clove garlic, crushed
Juice of ½ large lemon
4 tablespoons Greek Yoghurt – I used 2% Total
2 pinches of sea salt flakes – I tend to use a little less and add more za’atar
Your best extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
 

Once the beans are drained and rinsed, put everything in the food processor and whizz away until smooth. If you like your dip to have a bit more body then don’t whizz too long. You can either place the dip into a bowl and sprinkle over some extra za’atar and your good oil or, as I did, toast some sliced baguette and pile the dip onto each slice with the za’atar and olive oil added. Serve with sprigs of thyme to echo the thyme in the za’atar.

National Vegetarian Week – 18 May 2016

It always seems to be some celebratory week or other and this week is the time for vegetarians. Yes, it’s National Vegetarian Week. Quite how these things are designated is anyone’s guess but everywhere you turn on social media there are vegetarian recipes. Which is good, of course, as we should all be eating as much veg as possible.

Two things have happened this week which rather sum up the life of the vegetable-loving carnivore. In fact these two events happened on the same day at the same time. I was invited to a press launch of a couple of vegetarian cookbooks and I gladly went along because I can never have enough cookbooks and it is fun to meet the cookbook authors – or should one call them chefs? This always arouses two conflicting emotions – firstly awe and secondly envy. I am in awe of anyone who is talented enough to be able to get an agent to look at their idea for a cookbook and then has the energy and determination to see the process through. I am envious that the person just described is not me. One lives in hope. Mostly, book launches of cookbooks make me hungry – no there were not nearly enough canapes – and I enjoy being excited about the recipe ideas in any new book. Just think about how many wonderful meals one could cook if starting on page one and cooking all the way through to the end. Instead, I rather suspect that most of us end up trying one or two dishes and then getting back to the few dishes we repeatedly cook each week.

While I was out and about sipping orange juice and meeting the most dynamic vegetarians I have ever encountered – a set of twins known as The Happy Pear – a parcel arrived at my front door which would have scared the vegetarian horses. It was a box full of meat! Steaks to be precise. Gammon, pork, sirloin, ribeye and flatiron. Not being much of a meat eater and never having cooked any of these cuts of meat – I usually cook lamb – I hastily put it all in the freezer, waiting for good weekend weather to do justice on the BBQ to some of these fabulous looking pieces of meat. My son informed me that he no longer eats beef, having watched a movie about the cattle industry’s contribution to the destruction of the planet. All the more for the rest of us.

I reflected on the enthusiasm with which I had embraced vegetarianism but an hour before returning home to find the meaty gift from a company called Market Porter. Suddenly I was planning a blowout feast for carnivores as soon as the sun came out. Funnily enough it has been raining all week since then. Is the universe telling me it is time to embrace my inner vegetarian? Perhaps, but first I must have my steak and eat it.

Venison Ragu with Garlic Courgette Noodles

Venison Ragu with Garlic Courgette Noodles From The Healthy Heart

My favourite red meat is undoubtedly venison. To my mind it is the tastiest meat – being both gamey and full bodied – and is lower in fat too. Browsing the supermarket shelves this week in search of inspiration for a family supper, I came across packs of venison mince. A ragu I thought would tick the teenage hunger box while also providing me with a cholesterol lowering meal. Although I often make ragu with a base of onions, garlic, celery and carrot, I kept this one very simple – mainly because I was in a bit of a hurry and had no celery. The red wine gave it a lovely extra flavour but you can leave it out if you prefer and add some chicken stock instead.

Although this was good on a bed of wholemeal couscous or brown rice, I tried both these options, it was also delicious with courgette noodles. Having bought a spiralizer months ago I do try to remember to take it out on occasion and am always pleased with the results. I added garlic to the noodles as I sometimes find these a trifle bland.

For 4 people:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely sliced
500g venison mince
200g chestnut mushrooms, chopped
A couple of splashes of red wine, full bodied if possible
400g tin chopped tomatoes
100 – 200 ml water

For noodles:
3 – 4 large courgettes
1 clove garlic, crushed

Warm the olive oil in a large pan. Add the onions and sauté slowly for about 15 minutes until they have softened and taken on a bit of colour. Now add the garlic and continue to cook for 2 -3 minutes while it softens.

Turn up the heat and add the venison. You may need to break it up with a spoon or a spatula as mince tends to clump together. Brown the meat until there is no pink remaining. Add the chopped mushrooms and mix them into the meat and onion mixture. Cook until the mushrooms soften – about 10 minutes.

Add a couple of good splashes of full bodied red wine and allow to boil for a couple of minutes. If you prefer to omit the wine you can substitute some chicken stock.

Add the tinned tomatoes and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for a further 30 minutes adding a bit of water if it looks dry.

In the meantime, make your courgette noodles with your spiralizer. I like to use the thinnest blade for courgette noodles. To cook the noodles, bring a pot of water to the boil and then add a crushed clove of garlic to the water. This will give the noodles some added flavour as they can be on the bland side. Drop in the courgette noodles and simply heat them in the water until they take on a dark green colour – a couple of minutes should do the trick. Drain and serve.

The Spring Clean Revolution

I have never given spring cleaning much attention to be honest. In fact I don’t clean much at all. I leave most of that up to my husband. So imagine his scepticism when I returned home from an afternoon spent with the representatives from Bissell learning about what bugs are sharing my bed.

There is something visceral about seeing dust mites crawling about under a microscope to get even the laziest householder a little bit riled. Add to that my ongoing post nasal drip and I began to wonder if my health might be affected by my slovenly ways.

The minute my new Bissell ProHeat Revolution was delivered to my door, I set about putting it together (easy) and by the time my husband returned home I had steam cleaned the living room rug. Unfortunately I had already thrown out the hideously filthy water that was sucked up from said rug so that I could not prove how ineffective his simple hoovering of the rug had been over the years. It being a dark brown shade, the rug that is, it did not exactly show off its new clean status. So I got going on the cream sofa.

PH2X Revolution_POP_1858_915 0116

As I steam cleaned the sofa I tried to recall why we had concluded, years ago, that such a shade would be suitable with two young children. Now they are teenagers. We have washed the removable cushion covers many times but had never been able to clean the arm rests and all the other bits that could not be removed for washing. Once again, the colour of the water being sucked out of the cleaned sofa was rather concerning. At the end of it all the sofa looked so much happier and that nasty stain left by a tea cup had disappeared. Magic!

Not being one of those women who derives satisfaction from a sparkling house – to be honest I prefer getting on with my life than waste precious time deep cleaning – even I felt a spark of pride. My husband said ‘it won’t last.’

But it has. I steam cleaned the rugs in the children’s rooms. They commented on how much softer the rugs felt – in adult speak, the pile had been restored. Now I am gearing up to getting stuck into steam cleaning the fitted carpets. That is a big job so I am revving up for it. I now realise that having the equipment to make quick work of this is part of the solution.

I am the least techy person imaginable so any gadget has to be easy to understand and to use. The Bissell ProHeat Revolution is doing just what it says on the tin – revolutionising my attitude to deep cleaning.

A Spoonful of Sugar – 4 May 2016

Those following the ongoing debate about whether saturated fat is the biggest killer will know that the new baddie is actually sugar. It turns out that this debate does not go back a mere eight or nine years. It goes back to the 1970s. So how come the fact that sugar is bad news for our health has only recently been given increasing media coverage?

An article in The Guardian on 7 April 2106 tells the long story. Ian Leslie informs readers that a British professor of nutrition rang the alarm bells about sugar in 1972 in a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly. The author, John Yudkin, saw some success when the book was initially published but he was discredited thereafter by prominent nutritionists working alongside the food industry. Now, 40 years later, we finally see a sugar tax in the UK and a cap on sugar consumption recommended in the US. In the intervening years we have also seen an obesity epidemic in these countries. Might it have been avoided?

Leslie sets the historical context of the 1960s when a low fat diet was becoming the new ‘nutritional orthodoxy’. John Yudkin disagreed with this direction and argues that it was sugar, not fat, that was causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But by then he was a voice in the wilderness and his views were dismissed.

By the 1980s the US and UK governments had issued dietary guidelines to reduce intake of saturated fats and cholesterol. The food industry fell in line and we began to eat low fat foods. Doctors followed this advice too. Yet the two nations began to get fatter. In 1980 6% of people in the UK were obese. Now two thirds (66%) are obese or overweight. Now there is a frantic search for the culprit. Guess what gave all those low fat foods any taste? Sugar. And transfats.

In his paper, The Sugar Conspiracy, Leslie argues that nutritional scientists have buried the information – such as was published by John Yudkin . He cites another journalist, Nina Teicholz whose book The Big Fat Surprise traces the history of the argument that saturated fats cause heart disease. For decades this was the accepted truth. More recently it has come to be questioned. The UN published a paper in 2008 and the American Society for Nutrition in 2010 stating that there is no significant evidence for associating saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. An Oxford paper in 2008 showed an inverse correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease. In other words, those who ate more saturated fats suffered less cardiovascular disease. Teicholz argues that back in the 60s and 70s a few powerful personalities , including Ancel Keys, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, drove this idea from ‘controversial theory to accepted truth.’ She suggests that they exaggerated the cause of eating a low-fat diet while attacking those, like John Yudkin, who countered that argument. Yudkin found a correlation between heart disease and sugar consumption not with fat. He found that sugar is processed in the liver where it turns to fat before entering the bloodstream. He argued further that humans have been eating fat throughout our evolution (breast milk is high in saturated fats) whereas sugar only entered the human diet 300 years ago. He proposed that it was the newcomer to our diets that was making people ill.

Yudkin’s views were rubbished by those arguing the low fat corner and his career was destroyed. More recently, Nina Teicholz published an article in the British Medical Journal outlining the inadequacy of the scientific advice on which low fat dietary guidelines were based. She has received a similarly vitriolic response from the nutritional establishment.

As we read nowadays in the press, nutritionists are struggling to understand the obesity epidemic and having a serious rethink. Sugar is becoming a major focus. To read more about this fascinating and disturbing story which affects all our health I encourage you to read this article. It is too long to detail here but it should be read. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin). Leslie suggests that we get most of our nutritional advice from our doctors and from government guidelines. All well and good if those bodies are informed by good science he says. What if they are not?

Avocado, Smoked Salmon and Poached Egg on Sourdough

Avocado, Smoked Salmon and Poached Egg From The Healthy Heart

I woke up in the mood for brunch. It was the weekend after all. I had been sent a photo of a breakfast dish made by my niece and had it in mind for days. I happened to have the ingredients in the fridge. So it was a joy to plate it up in my kitchen and a fine meal it was too.

In addition to tasting really good, this dish is packed with good fats and the feelgood factor while lowering cholesterol.

Serve with a large pot of tea.

For 4 people:

2 ripe avocados, mashed
4 slices of smoked salmon
4 large eggs
4 thick slices of sourdough bread
Black Pepper

Begin by preparing the avocado. Mash lightly – add some freshly ground black pepper. I don’t think it calls for salt as the smoked salmon is salty but add some if you want to.

Cut four thick slices of sourdough and toast. Spread with the avocado and lay the smoked salmon on top.

Poach the eggs – I poach for a minute or two – remove with a slotted spoon and then drain on kitchen paper.

Pop an egg on top of each toast, avo and smoked salmon combo. Add a grinding of black pepper and eat.

A Lot More Fuss About Fats – 20 April 2016

When I first started writing about reducing cholesterol over three years ago, I realised that there was a lot to learn. What I didn’t know at the time was quite how difficult it would be to know what guidelines to follow. At first it seemed straight forward – reduce saturated fats, essentially – and replace with good, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, oily fish nuts, avocados and low fat dairy products. As regular readers of my blog know, I set about this project with zeal and, along with regular exercise, my cholesterol level dropped within three months.

Since those early and naïve days, I have discovered that the relationship between a raised cholesterol level and mortality is far less clear than I first understood. Many people who suffer heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels.  If this is so, then constantly trying to reduce cholesterol levels in order to extend our longevity might not be the simple solution I supposed it to be.

Over the past few years the notion of saturated fats being the devil incarnate has also come under scrutiny. Sugar is now in the spotlight as the number one killer and sad to say, low fat products are packed with the white stuff.

This week a very interesting article was published in the New York Times which had me scratching my head. It is an important addition to the ever increasingly muddled picture of what to believe, who to believe and what to do to preserve our cardiovascular health.

Entitled, A Study on Fats That Doesn’t Fit the Story Line, Aaron E. Carroll, professor of paediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, reports on an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on that controversial topic of how our diet affects our cardiovascular health.

The article in the NY Times points out that questions were being raised about saturated fats as far back as the late 1960s and 1970s. Guess what happened to this data? It wasn’t published. The study was called The Minnesota Coronary Experiment and was a well –designed study that collected data on the cholesterol levels of over 2 300 participants. They were put on a diet that reduced their saturated fat intake and increased their unsaturated fat intake. Over the course of the study their overall cholesterol levels dropped. No surprises here – many of us have found this to be the case when we replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.

However, the study showed that there was no decreased risk of death from this reduced cholesterol level. In fact, it showed an increased mortality especially in the group of participants who were 65 years and older. Most surprisingly, perhaps, was the finding that those whose cholesterol level had reduced the most, were also at the greatest risk of dying from any cause – ie not just from cardiovascular disease.

Since this time studies have proven and disproved these findings. The question is – why was the Minnesota study not published? Why was the Sydney Diet Heart Study (1966 – 1973) not published until three years ago? Could it be because it too found that eating a diet higher in unsaturated fats resulted in more deaths from heart disease? What might have happened to the health advice given over the past decades if all this research had been published? Where would the low fat food industry be then? Would we have grown fat on the sugars we have been eating as part of our low fat diets?

If this is sounding like a conspiracy, perhaps there has been one. The NY Times article suggests that perhaps these studies were not published because they contradicted the accepted wisdom of the time that saturated fats were the big bad wolf.

As Professor Carroll concludes “the state of nutrition research in general is shockingly flawed. It’s hard enough to debate the data we can see. Knowing there’s probably data out there that people haven’t shared makes everything much, much harder.”

So there we have the conundrum. No-one knows what to believe, which studies to follow, whose advice to take and what is being hidden from the public. Most of all, I don’t know whether to put butter on my toast and a steak in the pan or to just continue trying to get my cholesterol down. Who knows if that is more likely to extend or curtail life expectancy?

Next time: The Sugar Conspiracy

In the meantime you may like to read my fully saturated fat article published today in The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2016/04/18/what-like-eat-heston-blumenthal-hinds-head/8Z8utjEVDdnTECx2cYbXCN/story.html

Blood orange and Ruby Chard Salad

Blood Orange and Ruby Chard Salad from The Healthy Heart

I look forward to the blood orange season each year. They are one of the few fruits that are truly seasonal these days. Eating strawberries in winter is all very well if you don’t mind air miles or summer fruit when it is snowing. But there is something authentic about a fruit that only comes once a year and for a short season at that.

Having eaten a lot of blood oranges as nature intended, without adornment, I had a go at a little light cooking. First I cut the oranges into slices and then dry fried them in a nonstick pan until they took on a little bit of colour.

Wanting to keep the bright colours on the plate I added a bunchof ruby chard leaves and their colourful stalks.

I used a Lancashire cheese purely because I had a chunk in the fridge that needed using up. I could otherwise have used feta. I liked the Lancashire though because it had a pleasantly chalky texture which contrasted well with the juicy oranges and the chard.  As we are trying to lower cholesterol, keep a light hand on the cheese.The fresh mint added extra freshness to the salad

I ate this for lunch with a slice of wholemeal bread on the side.

For 4 people:

2 blood oranges, skins left on, sliced into rounds, then rounds cut in half

1 large bunch of ruby chard, washed and shaken dry

250g Lancashire cheese or Feta, sliced

A couple of teaspoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil

A handful of mint leaves, shredded

Dry fry the oranges in a nonstick pan until they take on a bit of colour. Set aside.

Steam  the ruby chard until they are just wilted.

Slice the cheese. Slice the mint leaves finely into shreds.

Lay out the oranges, chard and cheese on a platter. Scatter over the mint.

Finish off with a trickle of good quality extra-virgin olive oil and a grinding of black pepper.

Seasonal Reflections – 6 April 2016

I am supposed to be sitting at my computer writing a blog post on lowering cholesterol. But the truth is that I am simply passing the time until the evening episode of The Archers is broadcast.  Archers fans will understand that nothing much else matters this week. Of course it does. It is just that sometimes the real world is too filled with real pain. So we turn hungrily to the made up world which, ironically, can also reduce us to shaking with fear in our own kitchens. If non-Archers fans do not know what I am on about, Radio 4 has a particularly disturbing story line about domestic abuse right now that is gripping middle England.

But back to the real world. I was greatly moved last week –as were many others around the globe – by the announcement that the great Zaha Hadid had died. One of the world’s greatest architects, whose buildings I adore, she suffered a heart attack while in hospital in Miami where she was being treated for bronchitis. Now I know nothing about Ms Hadid’s health history but it struck me that even while in a hospital her heart attack turned out to be fatal. You would think that having a heart attack in a hospital would give one a better than normal chance of survival.

What disturbed me most about her passing away was not only that the world will not see any more magnificent buildings with her instantly recognizable style, but that so much talent is cut short by cardiovascular disease. Considering how much is known now about preventing this disease, it seems especially cruel.

Yet, how many of us really change our lifestyles to lower our own risks? I count myself as part of the group of people who know the right things to do but find it so hard to keep up. At the moment I feel in the doldrums health wise. I am struggling to shake off a nasty virus that is doing the rounds and leaves people feeling exhausted. But in truth it has been some time since I have attended in a meaningful way to lowering cholesterol and taking general care. My weight is up, my eating is pretty much free for all and my exercise is at a three year low. What I do keep up is a daily bowl of oats for breakfast and almonds as a snack. The only downside of this cholesterol lowering behaviour is that my helpings are too generous by far – probably enough for two. Each morning I remind myself of this but as I tip the oats and milk into my pot I resolve to start cutting back the next day. And the day after.

The positive news is that Spring seems to be here – on a very short walk this week, I marveled at the buds bursting out on trees in the woods. Which makes me think that nature knows what to do to keep replenishing life. If only we could keep in tune with it.

Roast Vegetable and Goat Cheese Tart

Roast Vegetable and Goat Cheese Tart From The Healthy Heart

I don’t think I have ever put a recipe with puff pastry on the blog before. This is because puff pastry is not good for cholesterol lowering purposes. So why now? Simply because I made it for dinner this week and it was so delicious that I just had to share it. Next time I will try it with phyllo pastry which has a lower fat content. I like to think that all the goodness from the vegetables counter balances the butter in the pastry – and after all, isn’t butter the new ‘good’ fat?

You may have some roast veg left over in which case put in the fridge and use the next day either reheated as a pasta sauce or as a side dish. It goes well with meat, fish or fowl. Often I eat cold roast veg mixed with lettuce leaves and a scoop of cottage cheese as a lunchtime salad.

Serve this tart with a large green salad for a tasty meal.

For 4 people:

1 roll of puff pastry – I use the kind that is already rolled rather than the block
3 – 4 beetroot, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 red onions, peeled and chopped into large wedges
3 courgettes, chopped into chunks
2 -3 peppers (a mix of red and yellow), seeded and chopped into chunks
1 large aubergine – chopped into chunks
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 log of goat cheese
A handful of basil leaves
Black pepper

Begin by roasting the vegetables. Heat the oven to 200 C.

Chop the vegetables into bite sized chunks and place in a roasting dish.

Crush the garlic and mix with the olive oil. Pour over the vegetables and place in oven to bake for about an hour. At this point the vegetables should all be soft to the point of a knife but not collapsed.

Roll out the puff pastry and place on a baking sheet. Cut thin strips off each end, score the pastry around the edges with a fork and then place the strips on top. You are making a border which will puff up and contain the vegetables as the tart bakes.

Heat the oven to 220 C .

Place the veg on the pastry. Then cut the log of goat cheese into rounds and place on top of the vegetables. Place in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye so that it does not begin to burn.

As you are about to serve the tart, tear up a handful of basil leaves and scatter over the tart.  A grinding of black pepper will complete the dish.