Spicy Vegetable Soup

Spicy Vegetable Soup From The Healthy Heart

I love a soup that keeps on giving. Make a large pot and its flavour will just improve as the days go by. It makes a healthy and light lunch or a first course for dinner. Add a slice of wholemeal bread and perhaps a slice of cheese and it is a meal in itself.

This is one of those soups that you can and should play around with. It can use up what is lurking in the bottom of the vegetable tray (within reason) and even uses up those old rinds of Parmesan in the back of the fridge. These add an extra bit of flavour to the broth.

The Harissa adds a warm note which is a little shot of heat on a cold night.

For a large pot:

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 -4 large carrots, chopped
4 sticks of celery, trimmed and chopped
1 large swede, peeled and chopped
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 large courgettes, chopped
A couple of handfuls of mushrooms, quartered
1 tin black eye beans – haricots would be good too – drained and rinsed
Vegetable stock – I use Marigold Bouillon
1 rind Parmesan (optional)
Harissa – I like the Belazu rose harissa but any kind will do

In a large, thick bottomed pot gently heat the olive oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery and swede and allow to sweat gently (with lid on) for 15 – 20 minutes. Stir from time to time to prevent the vegetables from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Add the garlic and cook gently for a couple of minutes. Add the courgettes, mushrooms and beans. Stir to combine. Now add enough vegetable stock to cover and throw in the Parmesan rind if using.

Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes. I tend to leave mine on a low heat for 45 minutes but check how your is coming along as the vegetables cook at a different rate depending on the size of the chunks you have chopped them into.

Make the soup the day before as it will taste better the next day. When dishing up, add ½ teaspoon harissa into each bowl.

The Fat Debate Continues – 4 March 2015

Last week I wrote about the confusion that I am experiencing due to the conflicting research and dietary advice about fats and the effects on cardiovascular disease. This week I have been reading more on the topic and thought I would share some responses.

To sum up the most recent findings: research has suggested that the dietary advice we have been following since the 1980s is not supported by the evidence. Apparently the way in which the research was originally conducted and reported was flawed. As a result, the advice we have had about avoiding fats needs to have a rethink.

Some nutritional experts are very cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They point out that cholesterol levels have fallen over the past 30 years which indicates that there has been some success in the reduced fat dietary advice. They do acknowledge that having replaced fat with sugar – as we see in the low-fat products many of us have been eating – needs an alternative. If you are not yet convinced of this, check the sugar content of low and no-fat yoghurt next time you are in the supermarket and compare this level with the yoghurts that have a higher fat content. As sugar is increasingly considered to be causing inflammation in the body, which in turn is implicated in cardio-vascular disease, it makes little sense to me to cut out fat only to replace it with sugar.

Others point out that we should not get too caught up on the suggestion that a direct link has not been found between high intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease. Heart disease is not simply caused by high cholesterol (which does seem to be linked to intake of saturated fats). In fact, about half of those who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels (more on this next week). Heart disease is multifactorial – genetics, exercise levels, smoking, high blood pressure, weight, diabetes, smoking being a few of the other important factors.

The principal dietician at St Georges Hospital, Catherine Collins, makes a very useful point. She argues that dietary advice has moved on since the 1980s when a single nutrient became the villain – fat as it was in those days, sugar more recently. She suggests that we stop looking at one food as the source of all our health problems and rather think about a ‘whole diet’ approach. Citing the Mediterranean diet she reminds us that this approach to eating involves a lot of fruit and veg, wholegrains (not refined, white carbs), healthy fats (olive and other unsaturated oils) plus smaller amounts of saturated fats from dairy and meat. Also moderate amounts of alcohol. Following such an approach means that the nutrients from all these foods and food groups can act together to protect the body from disease.

I find this to be a very helpful way to make sense of all this latest research. Don’t get hung up on fat vs sugar vs carbs. Follow the Mediterranean diet as a general eating plan. Nothing new there – this has been dietary advice for decades.

Venison and Blood Orange Salad

Venison and Blood Orange Salad

This healthy salad is seasonal as blood oranges have a frustratingly short time on the shelves. Venison is seasonal too and both ingredients just so happen to be available at the moment. Venison is a great way to up the iron stores in a low fat way and is even better with citrus as the Vitamin C enables the body to absorb iron more efficiently. As it tastes really good too, it’s a win-win salad.

If you want to serve the venison warm you will need to assemble the rest of the salad before you cook the meat. I served it at room temperature and it was lovely.

For 4 people:

2 venison steaks
2 blood oranges
1 cooked beetroot – boiled or roasted
100 g mix of spinach, watercress and rocket
Handful of walnuts, chopped
Olive oil
Few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
Black pepper
Sea salt

Prepare the venison by taking it out of the fridge ½ hour before you cook. Spray a little olive oil on each steak.
Heat a thick bottomed pan until it is hot and cook the venison for 2 minutes on each side. This will leave it moist and pink – it gets tough if you overcook it. While the venison is cooking, grind over some black pepper and sprinkle a pinch of sea salt.

Set the meat aside to cool and then slice it thickly.

Divide one and a half blood oranges into segments – carefully remove the membranes. Peel and cut the beetroot into batons.

Make a dressing with 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon blood orange juice and a grinding of black pepper.

Place the spinach, watercress and rocket leaves on a serving platter followed by the beetroot and blood orange. Now place the venison slices and sprinkle over the walnuts and the thyme leaves.

Dress the salad and grind over some black pepper.

Fat is a Contentious Issue – 25 February 2015

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling rather confused by the headlines about fat. Not about how most of us eat too much fat, although those articles keep coming. No, what is confusing me is the changing attitudes towards saturated fats. The newspaper headlines trumpet that they are ok now when they have been considered not to be for decades. I wrote about this last year when Time magazine had a lovely curl of butter on its cover and an investigative article on the latest research into the effects of saturated fats on our health.

A couple of weeks ago another research project was reported on, the latest in a growing body of findings on saturated fats. Research from the University of the West of Scotland reported that the basis on which the advice was based to avoid butter and saturated fats was flawed. In other words for 30 or more years we may have been following advice based on research that was not conclusive. From what I could make out from reports it seems that women may have been left out of the study on the effects of saturated fats on cardiovascular disease. Just a couple of weeks ago I reported on the effects of women having been left out of research on cardiovascular disease and here is another example!

The researcher expressed ‘incomprehension’ that this allegedly flawed research had resulted in dietary advice for 220 million Americans and 56 million people in the UK who had been told for the past 30 years to reduce intake of saturated fats in order to reduce the chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

The NHS Choices website takes this issue very seriously and has issued a detailed response to the new research. The response points out, amongst other things, that the lead author has a commercial interest in a diet plan that encourages the eating of dairy products. This is one of the problems with research into cardiovascular disease and what we should and should not eat. It is hard to trust any of it as much of the research is backed by commercial interests of one sort or another.

What the NHS Choices article concludes is that it is ok to eat an occasional buttered scone, but that it would be potentially dangerous to think that one can eat as much saturated fat as one likes without any ill effects. In other words, moderation.

As far as I am concerned – I simply do not know what to believe or what advice to follow. What I do know is that keeping one’s weight down is one of the important ways to keep your heart healthy. I don’t see any research suggesting that saturated fats don’t add on the pounds and that is enough reason in my case to keep avoiding them on the whole.

The question is what does one replace them with? Some of the emerging research blames the obesity crisis on the advice that saturated fats be replaced with carbohydrates and low fat foods which are loaded with added sugars. Clearly eating refined carbs and added sugars is not good for us and this is not the way to replace saturated fats. The Mediterranean diet still seems to be the way to eat.

The British Heart Foundation suggests caution and continues to advise against intake of too much saturated fat – no more than 10% of daily energy intake. They point out that heart health does not begin and end with fats. Moreover, cardiovascular disease is multifactorial and what we eat is but one of those factors.

I am keeping my walking shoes on regularly and working to keep that weight down even though an occasional slice of cake will find its way onto my plate. Moderation.

Venison Casserole

Venison Casserole From The Healthy Heart

On Valentine’s night I sat down to a candlelit dinner with my three hungry men who wondered what the loving woman in the kitchen had rustled up for their delectation. I eschewed all manner of dishes that fill magazines at this time of year and chose to remain true to my heart’s desire for a low fat meal.

Venison is a wonderful meat for those trying to lower cholesterol as it is very lean but also very flavoursome. It is also in season at the moment. Although venison steaks need to be cooked very quickly, other cuts benefit from slow braising. The smell in the kitchen was captivating and enticing. What more can one ask from a dish for Valentines?

For 4 people with some left over:

1 large onion, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and sliced
2 -3 fat cloves garlic, chopped 5 sprigs thyme
½ tablespoon olive oil plus 1 extra tablespoon
600 g diced venison
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 L chicken stock
A few glugs of red wine (optional)

Sweat the veg with the olive oil on a low heat in a thick bottomed casserole for about half an hour, lid on, until the veg is soft.

Remove the veg to a bowl and set aside. In the same casserole, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and brown the meat in two batches. Now return the veg to the casserole. Add the juniper berries and chicken stock plus a few glugs of red wine if you have any to hand.

Bring to the boil and then cover and place in a preheated oven at 150 C for an hour.

I served this with butternut mash but it would also go well with a dish of brown Basmati rice or wholemeal couscous to soak up the lovely juices.

Chocolate Galore – 18 February 2015

Valentine’s Day was my undoing. For my beloved I chose an elegantly large box of chocolates containing 35 beauties, each one’s design corresponding to a list of names and personalities provided for entertainment, I suppose, on a card. It proved amusing indeed as the men and I tried to work out why Senorita Adams should have a filling of raspberry compote while Monsieur Nash was a crunchy salted macadamia nut. It was a bit like the chocolate box version of Cluedo – or perhaps it just seemed so in my sugar-induced haze. Once we got into the swing of it there was no stopping us and all my resolve to let well alone disappeared.

The following day I added insult to injury at a food market. I was about to be served at the wholefood stall selling smoked courgette dip, tabbouleh and lentil salad. Suddenly I was overcome by the desire for a grilled sausage almost as long as the queue of punters wanting one too. I felt resentful about always having the healthy option while my men tucked into belly pork wraps from the Korean stall. And so away I ran to the end of that queue wondering whether the roast potatoes with dill were any worse for my health than the long baguettes that provided a bed for those enormous sausages topped with coleslaw and pickles. Rebellion in full force I bought squidgy brownies for dessert. Later in the evening I ate a few more personalities, after all I had not yet tasted Captain Jasper’s chocolate ganache nor Signora Hannigan’s caramel coulis.

Monday dawned with its usual February gloom and I stared sadly at the overhang hanging over the top of my jeans. It rained most of the day so I could not go for a walk but I did stand firm in the face of provocation from Lady Loxton, Countess Judd and Mademoiselle Suddes. I will never know their coconut milk, coffee truffle or fruity Alphoso mango flavoured caramel with a hint of passion fruit. Who needs literature when such chocolate boxes exist?

Just when I needed salvation the post arrived and I was informed that the British Heart Foundation is organizing the UK’s first ever chocolate detox. The idea is to give up chocolate for the month of March, get sponsorship to do so and raise much needed funds. A win-win one might say. Called Dechox, it is aimed at chocolate lovers who love too much. Apparently the average UK chocolate eater consumes 3 chocolate bars each week and would find it more difficult to give up than alcohol, caffeine or sex. Since I don’t drink alcohol or coffee and have just shared the 20th Valentine’s Day with the same man, I suspect this is true. Still, I don’t plan to join Dechox because my man and I share a couple of squares of dark chocolate every night, which I am sure is good for our relationship. But I do know that Miss Parker with her hazlenuts and crunchy feuilletine will have to go!

Smoked Salmon with Quark and Dill

Smoked Salmon with Quark and Dill

When I first began to lower my cholesterol some years ago, I discovered Quark and it quickly became my new best friend. A dairy product with very low fat content, a creamy consistency and a good taste, I started to use it as a cream substitute to add richness to a sauce, I ate it with fruit salad and I even started to use it as a sandwich filler.

I have recently revived my interest in Quark and several tubs are waiting in my fridge to be turned into something interesting. A quick lunch found a place for some of my stash. I often eat an open sandwich for lunch make with a dark, German rye sold in supermarkets. This also makes a healthy canapé.

For 4 people:

1 tub Quark
150 – 200 g smoked salmon
A small bunch of dill
Black pepper
4 slices dark rye

Cut the smoked salmon into small strips and place in a bowl. Add as much Quark as you like to get a creamy texture but not to lose the salmon in too much mixture. Chop up a good handful of dill and stir in gently.

Spread the mixture on to the rye bread and finish with a grinding of black pepper.

Love Your Heart – 11 February 2015

It is that time of year again when our thoughts turn to our loved ones. Much as one is aware of the detrimental effects of the commercialization of love, who can withstand the pressure to buy an awfully cheesy card that supposedly expresses our feelings towards the object of one’s affections? Not me. I draw the line at chocolate gifts though, preferring to cook a special dinner as testament to my amorous emotions. Yet, this week I found myself dropping a hint that my favourite perfume was about to run out. Ok, replied my husband. I assumed that meant he got the message loud and clear. I will know for sure on the 14th.

Since Valentine’s Day is the season of the heart, let’s take a moment to think about the real heart that beats inside us all. There are some simple steps that we need to take in order to prolong heart health. Simple to understand, perhaps, but not always easy to carry through consistently. There is nothing revolutionary or new on this list which I have written about here many times. Yet, it bears saying again.

The most important change to make is to give up smoking if cigarettes are still pretending to be your good friend. This is a very difficult step to achieve – and one which I am fortunate to never have faced – but I do know that with the correct support it can be done. The NHS offers smoking cessation courses, for example, which can help with keeping motivation going.

The second challenge is to get one’s weight into a healthy range, especially if you are carrying fat around your middle. The more apple shaped you are, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease. Dr Kuller, Prof of epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh explains that fat deposited on the stomach – as opposed to the thighs and buttocks – behaves differently. The abdominal fat breaks down into fatty acids which drain into the liver, triggering a chain reaction which increases LDL cholesterol – that is the one to lower – and triglycerides. At this point the blood sugar becomes unstable and fat and clots can find their way into the bloodstream, setting the scene for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

One of the best ways to combat stomach fat is to exercise. This is the third way in which we can take care of our cardiovascular health. A minimum of 150 minutes each week of exercise that gets the heart rate up will also help burn stomach fat. This is particularly important for post-menopausal women whose fat deposits begin to settle around the middle. I have certainly noticed this happening, not that the thighs and buttock deposits have swopped places, mind you. Nowadays there seems to be enough fat to settle everywhere!

The fourth step is to eat more fruit and veg – how many people eat their full quotient every day? Concentrate on healthy fats – avocados, unsalted nuts, olive oil, oily fish (twice a week) – although in moderation if you need to get your weight down.

The fifth step is to have a good think about your stress level. We tend to pay a lot of lip service to this and it is a challenge to find time and energy for regular destressing. Once again, exercise is a great way to get rid of excess stress by clearing the mind and ushering in endorphins rather than stress hormones.

The sixth step is to have an honest look at your alcohol intake. Keep within the recommended limits and remember that while red wine is said to be good for heart health – one small glass a day is the amount suggested.

Even if all the above steps are far too much to take on at once, each of us can make at least one change to spring clean our heart health. Which one will you choose?

Baby Aubergines with Harissa

Baby Aubergine with Harissa

I adore baby aubergines but don’t usually find them in the supermarket. I first cooked them in Avignon where I encountered a huge pile of these beauties in the local market. I cooked them with tomatoes, garlic and loads of basil – all very Provencal as the location suggested.

The other day I came across a box of baby aubergines at my Turkish grocer. I fell upon them instantly. Only my feeling ashamed of selfishly taking home the whole box and leaving none for anyone else persuaded me to buy only half the quantity on offer. Still, it was enough to provide for a side dish for one family meal plus left overs for lunch for one person – me, of course.

This time I decided to ring the changes by moving continents and cooking them with harissa. Delicious they were too.

It is important to cook these slowly on a really low heat – for about an hour – so that the tomatoes collapse and form a sweetish sauce.

For 4 people:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
16 baby aubergines
4 large and ripe plum tomatoes, cut into quarters and then halved
1 -2 teaspoons harissa
Small bunch of fresh coriander

Gently heat the olive oil in a thick bottomed pot that has a lid. Add the onion and cook gently for a few minutes until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and aubergines, cover with the lid and allow to stew very gently until the tomatoes have collapsed and the aubergines are very soft.

Add the harissa according to how much heat you prefer. Garnish with chopped coriander.

I served this as a side dish with a platter of lamb chops and also with a green salad and brown rice. It is very versatile as it tastes good both warm and at room temperature. It would also do well as part of a mezze selection.

Take Heart – 4 February 2015

Did you know that women in the UK are three times more likely to die of a heart attack than from breast cancer? No, me neither.

I was listening to the radio last week when a health programme I like – every hypochondriac needs a regular dose of medical advice – had an interview with cardiologist Dr Laura Corr on the Troponium blood test. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. Troponion is a protein that is released into the bloodstream when one has a heart attack. The test has been very useful because only large heart attacks show up on an ECG. Sometimes people suffer small heart attacks and if this is identified in time and treated, further attacks may be avoided.

So far so good, at least if you are a man. Research published two weeks ago in the British Medical Journal and funded by the British Heart foundation, reports that the test was not accurately picking up heart attacks in women. This is mainly due to the fact that the amount of Troponium released by men and women differs. The accepted threshold was correct for men but too high for women. As a result, many women were sent home from hospital even though they presented themselves having chest pain.

Another problem has been the misconception by the public and even by doctors that fewer women have heart attacks than do men. The figures speak for themselves. Each year 82 000 women in the UK have a heart attack compared to in the 70 000s for men. Yet the misunderstanding about female heart attack levels has persisted and therefore far fewer women are diagnosed or treated for heart attack. Therefore the prognosis for women is worse than for men. Often women do not think they are having a heart attack and nor do the doctors. Most early heart studies were carried out on men so there has been far less understanding of the process in women.

Thankfully, the problem has now been identified and a more sophisticated Troponium test is to be used in the health service.

I have written previously about how women have fewer heart attacks while their oestrogen levels are offering protection which ends at the menopause. I have also written about the question mark hanging over the efficacy of statins in protecting women who have not yet had a heart attack but have raised cholesterol.

Now it seems there is a new piece of information to take on board – if you are having the symptoms of a heart attack don’t think it can’t be happening because you are a woman.

For more info about symptoms of a heart attack click on this link to the British Heart Foundation.

https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/conditions/heart-attack