Salmon with Mustard Crust, Lentils and Kale

Salmon with Mustard Crust, Lentils and Kale

This is a simple fish dish which not only contains the Omegas and healthy fats required to help lower cholesterol, but has the addition of lentils which is another of the foods which help to keep cholesterol in check. Accompanied by kale from the brassica family, this is one seriously healthy meal.

For 4 people:

4 salmon fillets – or you can use one large fillet and slice it after cooking
Wholegrain mustard
150g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 handfuls of kale, leaves stripped

Begin by boiling the Puy lentils in plenty of water in which you have dropped the garlic clove. This gives the lentils some extra flavour. Check the lentils after 20 – 30 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

Place the salmon on a baking tray lined with foil or greaseproof paper.
Spread a layer of mustard over the fish – not too thin a layer but don’t lay it on with a trowel either.

Bake in a preheated oven (200 C) for 20 minutes.

While the fish is cooking, steam the kale gently so that it retains its dark green colour – I only cook it for a few minutes otherwise I find its taste can become unpleasant.

Mix the wilted kale into the lentils.

Serve the fish on a bed of the lentil and kale mixture.

Christmas Time Is Here Again – 17 December 2014

December is half way through and we are hurtling towards Christmas. I for one am not ready for this time of year, when there is both food to eat and food for thought. Time for reviewing the year past and planning for the next. All those new year resolutions to plan for, most of which will be discarded by the end of January.

Usually at this time of year, I am starting to stock the freezer and cupboards with all sorts of foods we don’t eat at any other time. I try to avoid eating much of it until Christmas Eve following which I enjoy a couple of weeks of full fat feasting. Sometimes it feels more like endurance than enjoyment.

What I recall from last year’s festivities was how I felt on Boxing Day. We had a house guest over Christmas and we had been eating and drinking wholeheartedly since Christmas Eve. As I served Boxing Day lunch I began to feel an overwhelming sense of nausea. I managed a bit of soup but by the time I carved the baked ham into thick slices I knew I was defeated. So much so that I had to abandon my family and guest and adopt the supine position on the sofa. My day was spoilt, my plate untouched, teatime cake abandoned. All I was capable of was groaning and regretting all I had eaten the day before. I resolved not to do the same next year.

And next year is now here. I have found an excellent way to prevent myself from repeating past mistakes. I will not be eating Christmas lunch at all. On Christmas Day I will likely be eating a sandwich in a museum café. Travelling to Berlin over Christmas, where shops are closed but museums are open sounds the perfect destination.

The result of my forthcoming travels is that I am eyeing up the gloves, hats and thermals in the shops rather than the mince pies, panettones and special deals on Baileys Irish Cream. My fridge is not preparing itself for the annual onslaught of Grande Marnier clotted cream, vol au vents and assorted canapés, wheels of camembert, dolcelatte and stilton not to mention goose fat for the potatoes. No bags of nuts for snacking and boxes of chocolates for no reason other than gluttony and watching reruns of films that were not even so great on the first viewing.

Lest you think me virtuous, please know that while Christmas day may be more culture than cuisine, I have plans for hot chocolate with rum and thick slices of strudel in cafes, warm cups of glühwein with sausages at the Christmas markets, plates of roast goose with red cabbage, stolen, lebkuchen and other seasonal treats. With temperatures below freezing I reckon I will need all the calories I can get.

Wishing you a very happy Christmas. Enjoy the day and try to get back on track soon after.

Winter Vegetable Soup with Harissa

Winter Vegetable Soup with Harissa

In the winter months I try to make a large pot of soup each week. As the days go by the soup gets increasingly tasty and coming home to a hot bowl of broth is just the way to make the winter more bearable. Most of the time my soups are quick and easy to prepare, no faffing or garnishing. Vegetable soup is a staple but sometimes can feel a little bland. I tried adding some flavour with a teaspoon of harissa in each bowl as I dished up. Wow! This is certainly one to be repeated.

For a large pot of soup:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 leeks, washed well, trimmed and sliced
3 large carrots, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
2 – 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small swede, peeled and chopped
1 -2 l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
Large handful flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 jar of harissa – I like the Belazu rose harissa

Gently heat the olive oil in a large, thick bottomed pot.
Add the vegetables – aside from the parsley – and sweat gently with the lid on. When the vegetables are soft – you may need to add a little bit of water to prevent sticking, so stir from time to time – add the vegetable stock. You want the vegetables to be covered.

Bring to the boil and then reduce heat to simmer for half an hour. Add the chopped parsley.

I always make soup the day before as the flavour is better the next day.
When ready to serve add a teaspoon of harissa to each bowl and stir to combine.

You can add a variety of things to this soup such as a tin of chickpeas or haricots, a handful of pearl barley, a range of other veg – mushrooms, small pieces of broccoli, chopped courgette – it is great way to add to your 5 –a – day.

Relaxing with Broccoli – 10 December 2014

Broccoli is one of the healthiest vegetables. It has superfood status, the supermodel of the vegetable world, especially the sprouting broccoli with its unreasonably long legs – ok stalks. But it doesn’t behave like a diva needing makeup and hairdo. It is ready in minutes and needs very little dressing up although it does taste fabulous with a mix of tahini, honey and garlic or another of chilli, garlic and anchovies. Yet, it is just lovely on its own too, just requiring a gentle steam so that it retains some crunch. I often toss the steamed florets into a simple salad of leaves and baby spinach plus a handful of pomegranate seeds for colour and crunch. Dressed with a drizzle of really good balsamic vinegar and a vegetable side dish in done in a trice.

I serve broccoli at least twice a week – often more – and made sure my kids took to it from a young age. Back in the days of encouraging toddlers to eat their food not just play with it, my boys loved the story of Benny the Bushy Bearded Broccoli. A significant quantity of this cruciferous crusader was eaten thanks to his escapades. Sometimes Benny Broccoli had a playdate with its cousin Curly Cauliflower. Other days he played cricket with the carrot sticks and peas. A fun vegetable if ever there was one.

Years later I came across the Romanesco broccoli in a French market. Looking like a pointed, green cauliflower, or a bonsai forest, I took one home to try. It was as tasty as all the other broccoli varieties we had tried before but this one had the added advantage of looking like it might have arrived from outer space.

I don’t come across the Romanesco often in the UK so I was delighted this week to read an article about it in the Waitrose Weekend paper. Hopefully this means we will be seeing more of this sculptural vegetable. Not only was its health-promoting properties extolled, it was also said to be an aid to relaxation. I have given much thought to the subject of vegetables over the years but never found them relaxing.

It turns out that the Romanesco broccoli has a fractal pattern which refers to its repeated pattern which gets smaller and smaller (hence the appearance of a bonsai forest) and that pattern makes us feel relaxed. Researchers in Agricultural Science in Sweden have observed the brain scans of people watching fractal patterns and discovered that they produce a higher level of alpha waves which indicates a relaxed state.

Who would have thought that a vegetable could nourish the mind and the body all at once? Without even being cooked. So next time you want to enjoy the full health-giving properties of the Romanesco broccoli, remember to sit down and observe it for a while. Wait until you feel fully relaxed and then get someone else to cook it. That way the benefits will be longer lasting.

Salmon Pate

Salmon Pate From The Healthy Heart

As Christmas approaches we all need a few healthy nibbles on hand as an alternative to vol au vents, canapes and sticky BBQ sausages on sticks. This salmon pate is quick to make and full of healthy fats.

2 small fillets of salmon
A tub of O% Total Greek Yoghurt
½ lemon
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper

Prepare the salmon by baking it at 180 C for 15 – 20 minute depending on the thickness of the fish. Set aside to cool.

Place the fish in a food processor along with about 6 tablespoons of the yoghurt and whizz until smooth. You may want to add some more yoghurt to loosen it up if the mixture seems too thick.

Add the juice of half a lemon as well as a few grinds of black pepper and a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. If you like you can sprinkle over a teaspoon of chopped capers.

Serve in a pretty bowl with a few crackers. I like to use original Ryvita as I love the combination of salmon and rye. You could also prepare a plate of crudités to dip into the pate or you could serve it as a starter on a slice of toasted rye or wholemeal bread.

Eat More Veg – 3 December 2014

This week I spotted a small article in the press which cited a Bird’s Eye survey of the British intake of vegetables. It was reported that 3.5 million British people had not eaten any vegetables in the past week. Presumably Bird’s Eye would like us to eat more frozen petit pois, and I cannot vouch for the validity of the research methods, yet I was interested enough in the reported research to find out more.

Unsurprisingly men were found to eat fewer portions of their 5 a day than women, but both groups ate only half of the recommended amount. There were regional variations too. People in Northern Ireland ate the most (2.9 portions) while in the northwest of England 12 % of those surveyed said that they had not eaten a single vegetable in the past month. Not one!

As someone who eats a lot of fruit and veg I find the thought of not eating a single vegetable for a month to be an impossible prospect. Unimaginable in fact. The research cited some of the reasons for a low intake of fruit and veg. People living in London blamed their commute. I thought that perhaps Londoners had no money left after paying exorbitant transport costs, but it turns out that low vegetable eaters find they lack the time to cook a proper meal. Next time I am on a bus stuck in traffic I will look around and think about all the vegetables that will not be cooked and eaten due to the gridlock.

Other reasons seem more plausible – some people did not know how to cook any vegetables, while others avoided them as they were unable to prepare them in an exciting way. Jamie Oliver did his bit to try to turn this around by setting up community cooking projects but there is a long way to go. Introducing food tech as a compulsory subject from Year 1 might help!

Childhood trauma and school meal misery were also cited as reasons for why vegetables were not being eaten. I am sure that if I had been subjected to school dinners instead of 12 years of jam sandwiches, I too might not be so keen on my greens. I don’t even want to think about what sort of childhood trauma might put one off eating veg – I assume this means being made to sit at the table for days on end until the last pea was eaten. Birds Eye has a lot to answer for!

A study at University College London reported earlier this year that the WHO guideline to eat 5 a day should in fact be increased to 10. As vegetables are 4 times healthier than fruit – I expect this is to due to containing less sugar and more fibre – more veg should be included in the daily intake. The recommendation coming from the study was that however much fruit and veg you are already eating, you should probably eat more.

I think that many of us believe that we are eating more fruit and veg than we actually are. I kept a note of my intake over a week and was certainly not getting above my 5 a day on average. Getting up to 10 a day will take some planning and lots of cooking. I may take this on as my new year resolution. Otherwise I will need to come up with an excuse of my own. Come to think of it, there was that time I was warned that if I didn’t eat my beetroot soup there would be no pudding …

Tomato Soup with Pomegranate

Tomato Soup with Pomegranate

I bought a large quantity of vine tomatoes with a vague plan to make a tomato soup. They sat waiting for over a week while I dithered about the task. Eventually I chopped the whole lot – about 1kg – and bunged them in a pot along with a roughly chopped onion. I let it all cook down until the tomatoes had collapsed and the onion was soft. I poured the whole lot into the Magimix and processed until it was reasonably smooth.

I then added about 300ml of vegetable stock to thin the soup a bit and loosen it up.

To make the soup silkier you can pour it into a sieve and push through with a wooden spoon. The pips and skins will be left behind. Of course, if you like to eat the tomato seeds you can leave out this step.

To ring the changes I added a handful of pomegranate seeds and a couple of basil leaves, a grinding of black pepper and a drop of good quality extra-virgin olive oil.

Lunch was ready with enough soup for two.

Learning From History – 26 November 2014

With Christmas and the festive season less than a month away, lowering my cholesterol (which I am sure is higher than it should be) and my weight (which I know is higher than it should be) are much on my mind. I have been trying to reduce both but I keep getting waylaid by slices of carrot cake (twice this week alone), Italian ice cream, roast dinners and the cold weather which makes salad eating a rather desultory affair.

My motivation continues to limp along at almost the same sluggish pace as my walking which has practically ground to a halt. I have even been demoted in my Pilates class for being the kind of annoying woman who doesn’t know whether ‘tilt your pelvis’ means moving it backwards or forwards. Strange to think that I have got through 17 years of marriage and two births without this knowledge and no one has complained. Now it seems there are new humiliations up ahead and once more I am the child in the class who always put her hand up when the science teacher asked if anyone did not yet understand the workings of the atom. Eventually I was demoted all the way out of the science class to protect the more intelligent kids who might never have finished the syllabus had I remained. I studied history instead. There I learned that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. There is certainly a message in there for me.

When I first began to lower my cholesterol I was so convinced that I would never again let it rise up through the ranks, never again have to work so hard to resist every biscuit, cake, fat laden food. Of course that is all in the past, a past I think about far too little and hence appear to be repeating. I should be going for my annual cholesterol test but am postponing doing so as I am not in the mood for dealing with the news.

Since I started writing about lowering cholesterol there has been a lot of controversy about its role in cardiovascular disease and the focus on fat veers now between those who continue to believe it is the biggest killer and those who have moved on to new ideas about the real source of danger to our health, like sugar. Has all this confusion affected my motivation? Perhaps. Yet what cannot be disputed is that eating fat makes me larger than I need to be for my health in general as a healthy weight and regular exercise is important for our longevity not just our arteries. Not to mention our wardrobes.

Porcini Mushroom Soup

Porcini Mushroom Soup From The Healthy Heart

I seem to be finding all manner of forgotten goodies in the recesses of my grocery cupboard. This week I came across a half-used bag of dried porcini mushrooms. I can’t even remember how long ago it was opened – or for what dish – and the use by date was no longer visible. I reckoned that a dried mushroom could probably last long past its sell by date so set about making lunch.

In the fridge I found a punnet of chestnut mushrooms definitely easing past their prime and so a soup was born.
Many soups use a bit of flour as a thickening agent but I wanted to avoid that. I added a tablespoon of brown basmati rice (the best rice to eat if you want a low GI) which thickens it while also adding creaminess, without using cream.

I made enough for two people but if you want to increase the volume without breaking the bank with too many porcinis, I am sure you could double the quantity of chestnut mushrooms and the milk and add a cup of vegetable stock.

For two hungry people:

30g dried porcini mushrooms
1 medium onion
Olive oil
250g chestnut mushrooms
1 sprig rosemary
1 cup semi-skimmed milk
1 dessertspoon brown basmati rice

Place the porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover with warm water. Set aside.

In a medium sized pot, gently heat 2 – 3 sprays of olive oil. Slice the onion very thinly and then chop. Add to the pot, cover and allow to sweat for about 10 minutes. Stir a few times so the onion doesn’t stick.

Meanwhile slice the chestnut mushrooms thinly and then chop. Add to the pot and stir to combine.

Drain the porcini mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Roughly chop the porcini and add to the pot. Carefully add the soaking liquid keeping back any grit that may have collected at the bottom. Raise the temperature and bring to a simmer.

In a small pot, gently heat the milk and add to the mushroom pot. Stir. Add the sprig of rosemary.

Add 1 dessertspoon brown basmati and cook until soft – around 15 minutes.

Process two thirds of the soup, reserving some of the mushrooms to add to each bowl of soup. This not only looks appetising, but adds textural interest.

Special Screening – 19 November 2014

A letter came through the post this week – one of those marketing letters that prints your name and address in a handwriting font, you know the type. I guess this is supposed to appeal more directly, to seem more personal. Often I bin these letters without a second glance, but I opened this one and then wished I hadn’t.

I was informed that I could reduce my risk of stroke and aneurysms with ‘quick, simple and painless screenings’. This would include a test of my carotid artery, arterial fibrillation to assess irregular heartbeat, a blood test (cholesterol and glucose), an ultrasound to detect risk of aortic aneurysm and a test to assess peripheral arterial disease (blood flow to the legs). For one day only all this was on offer at a greatly reduced price of £150.

What a bargain! Especially for a hypochondriacally inclined person trying to lower her cholesterol. The accompanying pamphlet included testimonials from satisfied customers whose lives had been saved through screening. Having thought they were healthy and fit, screening had revealed the dangerous state of furred up arteries and preventative surgery had prolonged their lives. The pamphlet went on to say that GPs will only refer patients for screening once they are symptomatic.

Why wait for symptoms? Surely forewarned is forearmed? The increasing availability of early screening for all sorts of diseases is on the rise. Recently I heard a radio debate on this very topic where a Consultant struck a cautious note. Aside from creating a high level of anxiety in the person being screened, what detracting factors could there be?

One of the arguments against breast screening is that many women are found to have pre-cancerous conditions which leads to surgery when in many cases the women would not have gone on to develop cancer. However, no-one can predict which women are having unnecessary surgery and which women are having life-saving surgery. I don’t find this to be a convincing argument against screening as a woman, although I can understand why a health service may beg to differ.

The offer of cardiovascular screening no doubt also leads to high levels of stress if problems are found – and whose arteries are going to be peachy clean by middle age anyway? But what if I am unknowingly months off from a blockage and now I have one day only to look inside myself at a reduced rate?

This is canny marketing which has unsettled me all week. Eventually I turned to my husband – a man devoid of health anxiety – and shared my dilemma. ‘There is nothing wrong with your arteries’ he declared. With a confident diagnosis like this, who needs screening? I only hope he is right.