Peach with Vanilla Quark and Orange Flower Water

Peach, Vanilla Quark and Orange Flower Water

I found some huge peaches at a farm stall in Kent. They were so large they reminded me of the story of James and the Giant Peach. I served them very simply, cut into slices along with vanilla flavoured Quark and chopped mint. A sprinkle of orange flower water gave some extra fragrance. A scattering of chopped pistachios would add a bit of crunch if you have any to hand.

For 4 people:

4 peaches, ripe but firm
1 tub Vanilla Flavoured Quark
Orange Flower Water
Fresh mint
Pistachios (optional)

Slice the peach into segments while it is still on the pip. This way you can carefully remove each segment which will hold its shape. Lay the segments down on a serving platter. I like to serve my peaches slightly chilled on a hot day so I cut them just before I am going to serve.

Orange Flower Water is easily overdone. Less is more I always think with this ingredient. I therefore always pour it into a teaspoon first so that I can use just a few drops on the peaches.

Remove the mint leaves from their stalks and tear or chop roughly. Scatter over the peaches.

If you have pistachios to hand, chop these roughly and add these to the peaches for some added texture, colour and taste.

Decant the tub of Quark into a pretty bowl.

Something Saucy – 30 July 2014

When I first began to find edible ways to lower my cholesterol some years ago, I came across a product which quickly became my new best friend. It had a quirky name, Quark. I wrote about it fairly often and used it weekly as a cheese substitute on dark rye bread. It became a favourite lunch for some time and it appeared regularly in my shopping basket.

Somehow I have neglected this old friend of late, so I was pleased to be invited this week to a promotion of Quark-based sauces. The event was held in the London Underground Cookery School which I found down a flight of steps behind a vacant restaurant space near Old Street. A clean, white space with a long wooden table set for dinner, funky red chairs, and a dozen gleaming pasta machines clamped to stainless steel stands.

It felt like a setting for an art house film although movies were not on the agenda. Cooking and eating were. My favourite activities. I was interested to see how Quark, that low fat milk product, would be integrated into the evening as I have used it in many of my recipes on the blog and it even plays a starring role in my cheesecake which is sadly far from cholesterol friendly.
The evening took an unexpectedly instructive turn when we were each given a pair of surgical gloves and a whole chicken. With a few deft strokes of my very sharp knife, my chicken lay beautifully jointed. It’s easy when you know how. The carcasses were set to roast in an oven which had me fainting with desire. The chef showed me its features and functions which just proved why what we can create in our own home kitchens bears little resemblance to restaurant fare. In no time we were marinating chicken fillets in a Chicken Tikka Quark sauce.

Next we were led to our personal pasta machine. Mixing our flour and egg, we made pasta dough, kneaded it and rolled it out into lasagne sheets – more magic – which we cut out into large ravioli, filled with tomato and basil quark sauce.
Lastly we mixed lemon flavoured quark into a custard base which was popped into an ice cream machine.

The chefs got on with the rest of the dinner prep while the guests chatted and the Prosecco flowed. When dinner was served we ate ravioli in tomato and basil quark sauce – our ravioli were on the stodgy side due to our having made them ourselves, but I noticed many plates wiped clean of sauce.

Our chicken skewers were served with an okra salad – something new to me as I have only ever eaten stewed okra – with a vinaigrette made with garlic and herb quark sauce.

The lemon ice cream was delicious and was eaten with great enthusiasm by all. I will certainly be having a go at making a frozen Quark lemon ice in the weeks to come.

Although I prefer not to use pre-prepared sauces myself, I was impressed that these are low fat and can turn any number of ingredients into a quick meal. I would be a bit concerned about the amber rating for salt and sugar on some of the flavours although these are lower than many other sauces in the supermarket. I will certainly be looking out for the plain version of this British made product from the Lake District Dairy Co. as it is time that Quark and I renewed our friendship.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Pedro Ximenez

Vanilla ice cream with Pedro Ximenez

This is a dessert for grownups. The combination of good quality vanilla ice cream and the sweet alcoholic kick of Pedro Ximenez is a great way to impress your guests. PX, as it known, is a very sweet, dessert wine. Think treacle and molasses. This dish involves minimal effort – simply scoop the ice cream into pretty small cups or glasses and pour over a glug of alcohol. Sit back and accept the compliments graciously.

For 8 people:

500g tub of good quality vanilla ice cream
1 bottle Pedro Ximenez
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)

Place a scoop or two in each cup. Pour over a glug – or two – of PX.
Add a teaspoon of chocolate sprinkles if you like or even a glacé cherry.

Baked Fennel with Orange, Dill and Pistachio

Baked Fennel with Orange, Dill and Pistachio

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

For 4 people:

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

Preheat the oven to 180 C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anniversary Times – 23 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pea and Mint Spelt Risotto

Pea and Mint Spelt Risotto

A few weeks ago I came across a pea and mint risotto in a restaurant called The Brasserie which I reviewed on my Kitchen Journeys blog. http://kitchenjourneys.net/2014/07/the-brasserie-at-the-tower-hotel/

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

For 4 people:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past week there has been much in the news about a study that has indicated a link between high levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of breast cancer. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/279108.php

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/828084

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig and Feta Salad

Fig and Feta Salad

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

For 4 people:

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

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

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

Finish with a few grindings of black pepper.

Fat Is A Humanist Issue – 9 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Baby Peppers with Ricotta and Lemon

Sweet Baby Peppers with Ricotta and Lemon

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

For 4 people:

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

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

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

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

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