Cavolo Nero, Cannellini Beans and Chipotle

cavolo nero, cannellini bean and chipotle

I first encountered cavolo nero in Tuscany over 30 years ago. It was part of a bowl of ribollita, adding a silky texture to that wonderfully thick soup made with cannellini beans, cavolo nero and stale bread amongst other ingredients put to nutritious use. I was bowled over by the flavour of that simple dish and packed into my suitcase bags of dried cannellini beans with which to make the soup in my own kitchen. The problem, decades ago, was that cavolo nero was not easy to come by. Nowadays my supermarket stocks it from time to time and whenever I spot those long, dark green leaves just bursting with vitamins, I pop a few bags full in my basket. To my mind it is the best of the green leafy vegetables. It has a far better taste and texture than kale, is more versatile than spinach due to its thicker leaves and is a deeply attractive colour when cooked.

In this recipe I have retained the Tuscan pairing of cannellini beans with cavolo nero and have hopped continents to add in a chipotle chilli. This magical chilli provides just a touch of heat and a whole lot of smoky flavour which has guests guessing. It is well worth experimenting with if it is not yet part of your culinary repertoire.Pulses are an important part of the diet when lowering cholesterol and this quick and tasty dish will help you feel full of beans.

For 4 people:

1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
250g chestnut mushrooms, chopped
1 tin cannellini beans, drained
1 bunch cavolo nero – about 10 stalks
250g vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
1 chipotle chilli

Heat the olive oil gently and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes so that the aroma is released but the garlic does not burn. Add the mushrooms and stir. Continue to cook on a medium heat until the mushrooms release their juice. Add the stock and the chipotle chilli as well as the drained cannellini beans. Continue to cook for 5 minutes.

In the meantime wash and shake dry the cavolo nero and tear the leaves off the stalks. Add the torn leaves to the pot, cover and steam for a further 5 minutes or until the leaves have wilted. I like the leaves to retain some texture.

I like to serve this dish with a bulgur wheat risotto but you could also serve it with a pile of brown Basmati rice.

Teach Your Children Well – 29 June 2016

This week I am feeling so downcast by the political situation in the UK that it is hard to concentrate on the pesky issue of lowering cholesterol. I feel more concerned about the political turmoil and the future opportunities for my children’s generation than I do about the future of my cardiovascular health. But maybe the two are not mutually exclusive.

Talking of the future of the next generation, the weekends these days are filled with university open day visits. I have been surprised to discover that self-catering facilities have the sort of kitchens that would not look out of place in an IKEA catalogue – spacious, bright, funky chairs at large kitchen tables, multiple hobs and fridges. Viewing several of these on Saturday, I was just itching to get cooking. I wondered how much real food is prepared in these kitchens in any academic year. One of the tour guides opened a freezer to show prospective students (or the parents) how the space is divided up. As I suspected the freezer was packed tight with boxes of pizza and oven chips. In the corner of the kitchen there was a pile of empty bottles presumably awaiting recycling. The pile was sizeable and composed mainly of alcohol empties. Perhaps the less parents see of these kitchens the better.

This experience set me to thinking about preparing my son for a self-catering life that is not composed of endless dinners of pizza and oven chips. Eighteen years of eating lots of fruit and veg, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, loads of grains, fish and fowl and a small amount of red meat, homemade bread – all this is but a distant memory if he does not learn to cook. He makes a good cheese omelette and a mean toastie, can put together a simple pasta sauce and recently roasted a chicken under instruction. So the bones are there.

How many students are ready for a future in which they will have to take care of their own nutrition? Our schools do little to prepare our children for an independent life – oftentimes they are not even prepared for being independent thinkers. Cooking should be as much part of the curriculum as PE. Nutrition and eating well is every bit as important as exercise.

Back in my student days I learnt to make pasta and not much else. No one had taught me to cook before I left home. On campus I ate the cheapest meal deal in the lunch canteen – usually large slabs of macaroni cheese. Along with my peers I ate at late night greasy spoons. I did no exercise aside from running to lectures that I was usually late for. I put on a whole lot of weight in the three years that ensued. It took another three years to get back to my normal size.

This morning I paged through a Student Cookbook to see if it might offer inspiration to my son but in fact it was far too complex for a student. Who takes an electric mixer to university? Some of the recipes were time consuming with ingredients unlikely to be available in the campus grocery shop. I assured my son that I will teach him to cook a few dishes that are quick and easy – one fish, chicken, egg, veggie, and of course, pasta dish– macaroni cheese probably as it is a favourite. After all it takes the same time to put fish fingers on an oven tray as it does to put a fresh fish fillet on an oven tray. A squeeze of lemon and a grinding of black pepper and supper is almost ready. I feel a new cookbook coming on.

We all know about the obesity epidemic and might feel powerless to do anything about it. Teaching our children to cook is one way to ensure that they are able to feed themselves healthily once they are no longer eating their meals in our kitchens.

Roasted Butternut and Beetroot with Balsamic Glaze

Roasted Butternut and Beetroot with Balsamic Glaze From The Healthy Heart

I am a huge fan of roasting vegetables. Winter and summer sees me chopping up veg and popping trays full in the oven. Roasting adds such intensity to vegetables and is so simple too. For this recipe I kept colours bold. Butternut and beetroot are both sweet as is the red onion so a bit of a sharp note is needed so that the taste is not more like dessert than a side dish. A slug of balsamic vinegar usually does the trick for me.

This week I was sent a box of goodies from a company called Odysea that imports products from Greece. One of the many lovely items was a bottle of balsamic glaze. I have noticed this product in the shops for some time but never thought about buying it, preferring to use a really good quality balsamic vinegar for my salads and cooking. When I looked at the list of ingredients on the side of the bottle I discovered that the glaze mixes balsamic vinegar with concentrated grape juice. On tasting the glaze the intense flavour of grape was a pleasant surprise and sets the glaze apart from the usual vinegar. It is good enough to drink from a spoon.

For 4 people:

1 butternut – peeled, deseeded and sliced into lengths.
4 – 5 beetroot – peeled and halved, then sliced into lengths
1 large red onion – peeled, halved and cut into wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
A good grinding of black pepper
Balsamic glaze – if you can’t get hold of this then you can substitute with a very good quality balsamic vinegar.

Heat the oven to 200 C.

Prepare the vegetables and place in a large roasting dish. Arrange the veg in one layer as far as possible. Pour over the olive oil and mix well. Give a good grinding of black pepper.

Place the tray in the hot oven and roast for about an hour and a half. You want the vegetables to be soft and beginning to caramelise.

Remove the vegetables, place them on a serving platter and drizzle over as much balsamic glaze as suits your taste. I like to ‘draw’ lines up and down the vegetables with the glaze.

Food of the Greek Gods

Low fat, no fat, full fat, healthy fat, eat fat, don’t eat fat – if you are as fed up as I am with all these contradictory messages then you can hardly bear to read another word about it. Yet, I suspect that we are going to be hearing more and more about the topic as the ‘facts’ continue to trickle down to the public from research new and some old but only recently revealed. I have written several times recently about this confusing argument in the nutrition world. How is it translating into action in my daily diet?

The biggest change is that I am feeling more relaxed about eating full fat products. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I am now avoiding eating low or no fat dairy. I have had enough of eating 0% yoghurts, for example, that only push more sugars into my bowl. Instead I have begun to buy full fat yoghurt and I must say that I have not yet noticed any weight gain. Perhaps this is because I have cut back in general on how much I am eating in the run up to summer. It would be nice to fit back into my summer trousers. I tried on a favourite pair the other day – lightweight, a neutral shade and not prone to creasing. What more can one ask of a pair of trousers? My side of the bargain is to be able to close the zip. I also have my annual cholesterol test in mind. As usual it is overdue – every year I seem to postpone it while I have a mad dash to knock off a few pounds and to get more lower cholesterol eating onto my plate.

I was recently invited to lunch at The Greek Larder in Kings Cross where my colleagues and I were treated to a tasting of some top quality Greek products imported by Odysea. While we ate our way through plates of mezze we were given a fascinating talk about Greek olives, honeys and details about how Greek strained yoghurt is made. This is the real Greek yoghurt, the full fat variety not the Greek styled low fat stuff. It was deliciously creamy and utterly lovely with a spoon of Pine and Fir Tree Honey which is unique to Greece and the Turkish coast and available in an upmarket supermarket.

This week I decided to buy some full fat Greek Strained Yoghurt. Having spent the past years eating 0% fat Greek Yoghurt I was a bit shocked to realised that my new purchase contained 10% fat. But I was even more surprised to discover, when reading the small print, that the 10% yoghurt only contained 2g sugar while the low fat one had 5.6g sugar. So you either eat the fat and less sugar or less fat but more sugar. I leave it to you to decide. For now I have decided to eat the full fat variety in smaller quantities as it tastes so creamy that one needs less to feel satisfied. Of course adding honey only brings the sugar back into the bowl so I put the jar aside and added a handful of juicy blackberries instead. Food of the Greek gods!

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.