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.

Butternut and Harissa Dip

Butternut and Harissa Dip

I love using up leftover bits in the fridge and finding that they turn into something really tasty. Having half a roasted butternut hoping for a second presentation on the dinner table, I thought of making a dip. Pureeing it in the Magimix and adding a scoop of Greek yoghurt didn’t quite do the trick. A teaspoon of harissa brought it delightfully to life. It was delicious, and made a great accompaniment to a few spoons of cottage cheese. So good that I couldn’t stop eating it. Fortunately I managed to leave some for the hungry teenagers who spread it on wholemeal toast when they returned from school. ‘Tastes good, mum’ I was told. Thought so myself.

For 4 people:

1 medium butternut
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander

1 – 2 tablespoons 0 % Greek yoghurt
1 teaspoon harissa – I like to use Belazu rose harissa

Heat the oven to 200 C.

Cut the butternut in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds. Sprinkle over the spices and rub into the butternut. Place on a roasting tray and bake for 45 minutes. Check it is soft. You may need to leave it to bake a little longer, depending on the size of the butternut.

Keep one half of the butternut to serve as a side dish with your dinner and use the other half for the dip. Of course you can double up the other ingredients to make a larger dip. It keeps for a few days in the fridge.

Scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Puree until smooth in the food processor, then add the yoghurt. Add the harissa plus more if you want to make it spicier.

You can garnish with chopped coriander and a drizzle of harissa or even a handful of toasted pine nuts.

Serve with crackers or wholemeal pitta.

Going Nuts – 12 November 2014

The strangest thing happened this week. I had my morning tea and it tasted really strange. I checked the milk and it smelled fine. A few hours later I ate a banana and it tasted bitter. That was weird but I got on with my day. A handful of almonds tasted bitter with my afternoon snack. Dinner tasted awful. The next day was the same.

Some years ago I would have known I was pregnant, this particularly metallic taste being a very early announcement made by my body when I conceived my children. Being a woman of a certain age now, I knew that was the least likely possibility.

I began to wonder if I had been grinding my teeth thus causing my fillings to start ‘leaking’ into my mouth. I remembered that I was behind with my twice yearly dental appointment and made a mental note to sort it out. I wasn’t convinced that the problem was with my teeth.

By the third day I was hovering on the edge of feeling concerned. I made a large pot of vegetable soup to ward off the sudden arrival of wintery weather and to have a nutritious snack when the hungry teenagers came home in the pitch dark and rain. My bowl tasted ghastly although my sons assured me that theirs were ‘fine’.

I try to avoid googling physical symptoms because I am hypochondriachal in nature and don’t need any further confirmation of my worst fears. However, I was aware that strange taste experiences can result from a brain tumour. Even though I am easily frightened by such prospects, I reckoned that this bitter taste had come on rather too soon for such a diagnosis. Nevertheless I turned on my computer and sat down to read my future.

Searching ‘bitter taste in mouth’, I was treated to a long list of articles on Pine Mouth, a condition with all my symptoms that develops a couple of days after eating pine nuts from China. I remembered serving pine nuts as a garnish on a soup a couple of days before my taste buds turned against me. Although eight people had eaten the soup, I seemed to be the only one affected. Perhaps because I continued to eat leftover pine nuts the following day. I still had a few left in the original packet and when I checked the country of origin it was China.

I discovered a woman doing her PhD on Pine Nut Syndrome and emailed her. She kindly sent me a link to her completed research. This was handy when I told my incredulous men about my travails. Many people reported their problems following ingesting Chinese pine nuts. Some suffered for months, including chefs who thought their careers were over. I was lucky, my symptoms lasted a week. I sent an email to the upmarket supermarket where I bought the pine nuts but have received no response as yet.

When this condition first came to light some years ago most supermarkets denied any link to problematic pine nuts. My reading reveals that some years ago there was a very poor crop of pine nuts and supermarkets began to source in China. There are many types of pine nuts, not all suitable for human consumption and many of these were previously limited by the Chinese to the local market. More recently it seems that these nuts have found their way into the export market and are thought to be causing the problem – the species in question is called Pinus armandii.

Sadly, many people have a prolonged response and can end up under medical investigation for brain tumours, heart conditions, acid reflux and so on. Because getting Pine Mouth is so random and probably reasonably rare, and because the effects seem self-limiting, it is possibly not something GPs are familiar with.

I for one will no longer be buying pine nuts from China. I am tempted to eat the remaining pine nuts in my fridge just to see if I respond again but that seems foolhardy. Instead I will have to seek out Mediterranean ones which are, I understand, a long variety rather than the ones I ate which are roundish. I hope you do not encounter this problem but if you suddenly find everything tastes bitter, be assured you are not going nuts.

Freekeh, Butternut and Feta Salad

Freekeh, Butternut and Feta Salad

I am so taken with Freekeh that I seem to be finding new ways to eat it each week. I can’t seem to get enough of that smoky flavour. While this dish can be made with a wide range of grains including bulgar, quinoa, barley or even brown rice, I find that the very distinctive taste of freekeh gives the dish an added note of complexity. You could serve this as a warm salad which is always a good idea on a cold winter’s day. I served it at room temperature as part of a three salad lunch along with a bowl of olives, a dish of houmous and a pile of warm, wholemeal pittas.

For 4 people with big appetites:

1 large butternut, peeled and chopped into cubes
Black pepper
250g freekeh
6 – 8 spring onions
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 bunch mint, leaves picked, chopped
½ pomegranate, seeds removed
50g low fat feta

Dressing:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 small clove garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Heat the oven to 200 C.
Prepare the butternut chunks and place them in a roasting tray in a single layer. Give a good grinding of black pepper. Roast for ½ hour and then check if the butternut is soft. If need be, allow to cook until soft. Remove and set aside.

While the butternut is roasting, cook the freekeh. Place it in a pot of cold water, 3 times the volume of water to grain. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer until soft but retaining some bite. Drain and place in a large mixing bowl.

Slice the spring onion and add to the freekeh. Add the butternut and the chopped herbs.
Whisk the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and pour over the freekeh. Stir gently to combine.

Plate the salad in a large dish and sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds. Crumble over the feta cheese and finish with a final grinding of black pepper.

Bonfire Night – 5 November 2014

Today is Guy Fawkes – plenty of opportunity for sausages, marshmallows in hot chocolate or even toffee apples if you are reconnecting with your inner child and haven’t seen your dentist in a while. Not really a day for salads and steamed fish, not if you arrive home half frozen from the neighbourhood bonfire and fireworks display. Although if you plan ahead, a bubbling cauldron of spicy butternut soup could result in better food choices tonight.

Not that I am one to preach. The past week has been one event after another, and at every turn my cholesterol lowering food choices have pretty much disappeared. The exception was unexpected. A friend came for lunch bearing a box of sweet tamarind. Never having eaten fresh tamarind I was intrigued to taste these rather ugly looking fruits which appear to be something you excrete not eat. Having long ago learned not to judge food by its appearance, I set to cracking open the shells, peeling off the stringy bits and avoiding the large pips. The sticky fruit was itself both sweet and slightly sour – like a sour date, my son suggested. Very moreish. I wondered if it might perhaps be cholesterol friendly and indeed, there has been some research done on the LDL-lowering properties of tamarind. I doubt that means that I should scoff the box.

A couple of days later another friend came for dinner – yes, it has been a sociable week – bearing a large box of nougat. I did not need to research the cholesterol lowering properties of these delights – if only! I got stuck in while we had our coffee and mistakenly asked where the nougat had been purchased as it had a very attractive box and tasted fabulous. In my local Iranian shop. Oh dear, far too close to resist. All weekend I dipped in to that box while my sugar levels soared.

A neighbour invited us to tea at the weekend, too. I knew cake would be served and so it was, along with scones and jam. I had missed lunch and so that was my excuse. I had none later that evening when my husband and I ate a whole tub of Madagascan Vanilla with the leftover salted caramel sauce I made for my son’s birthday cake last weekend.

All of this disastrous eating was in addition to the umpteen slices of leftover birthday cake and cheesecake I ate in order to get rid of the birthday party leftovers. In fact, I seem to have existed entirely on fat and sugar for the past week. I have become trapped in that cycle of sugar intake leading to craving more and more. I must get a grip as I tell myself so very often. I am finding it really difficult to reign in and to make matters worse, it is suddenly dark by 5 pm and it feels like dinner time half way through the afternoon. HELP !!!

Ribollita

Ribollita

I first ate ribollita in Montelpuciano. Sat in a trattoria I noticed that the locals were tucking into bowls of something I could not identify but smelled so wonderful that I ordered some myself. So excited was I about this simple dish, one of the great Tuscan bean soups, that I brought home bags of dried cannellini beans (small haricots) with which to recreate it. At that time – decades ago – I discovered that I could not source one of the other essential ingredients, cavolo nero – a large leaved black cabbage with a distinctive appearance, having a very dark colour, hence the ‘nero’ in its name. I had to substitute with a savoy cabbage which is not quite the same thing.

This week I was nosing around a local organic butcher who rather oddly, perhaps, sells a small range of organic veg. My eye was drawn to bags of large, dark leaves which could only be cavolo nero. Suddenly I hungered for ribolitta. Returning home with my stash of leaves, I rooted around in the back of my grocery cupboard searching for the bags of specialist dried beans I bring home from my travels and never get to cook. Having no cannellini beans I decided to open a large pack of Haricot Tarbais which have been patiently waiting for me to make the cassoulet I have been planning since my last trip to France where the beans are grown near the Spanish border. I decided the beans would not feel too insulted in being made into an Italian soup – this is the European Union after all. While they were a bit large for an authentic ribollita which uses cannellini beans (small haricots), they were delicious.

Ribollita is one of those soups that is more like a stew, one bowl full satisfied my ever hungry teenagers. It is even better as the days go by. Ribollita means reboiled and this dish benefits from being prepared ahead of time.
I soaked the beans overnight and while recipes I consulted suggested they would be cooked within an hour of boiling, mine took a good 90 minutes before they lost their chalky texture. Mixed into onion, carrot, celery and a good quantity of garlic, the soup simmers away with shreds of cavolo nero. ‘What smells so good?’ asked my son on arriving home from school.

The addition of a glug of extra virgin olive oil on serving is a very tasty last flourish. Use a good one.
Part of controlling cholesterol involves increasing one’s intake of pulses. This soup is a marvellous way to get beans on the menu.

For 4 people (with leftovers):

300g dried cannellini beans or haricots (if need be)
1 bayleaf
2 cloves garlic

Begin by soaking the beans in plenty of cold water overnight. The following day, drain the beans, place in a pot covered with cold water. Add the bayleaf and garlic cloves, bring to the boil and then reduce heat and cook for at least an hour. Taste to see if the beans have softened. If not carry on cooking until they have lost their chalky texture. Drain the beans and reserve the cooking liquid.

2 leeks, sliced
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
2 celery sticks, chopped to a similar size as the carrots
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped if tomatoes are in season or alternatively use a tin of good quality chopped tomatoes.
A pinch of crushed dried chilli (optional)
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
300g cavolo nero, leaves washed well and chopped. You can use savoy cabbage as an alternative
4 pieces of stale bread
A good slug of good quality extra virgin olive oil

In a good sized pot, gently sauté the leeks, carrot and celery. Place the lid on so that the veg can sweat until they are soft. When they begin to soften add the garlic and continue to cook on a low heat.

Add the tomatoes and a small pinch of crushed chilli. Although this is not entirely authentic, it is a tip I picked up from a Jamie Oliver recipe and it does add a lovely warm backnote. Add the thyme leaves, the beans and the cavolo nero. Now add the reserved bean cooking liquid. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and cook for about 15 minutes. Add a bit more water if needed. You are looking for a texture between a soup and a stew.

At this point the soup is cooked. I don’t add salt when I cook but do add a little if you feel your soup needs it. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to eat, heat the soup, place a piece of stale bread in each bowl and ladle the soup over the bread. Finish off with a glug of olive oil – worth using your best here.

Know Your beans – 29 October 2014

Hardly a week goes by without a new article on the emerging support for the claim that saturated fats are not the devil incarnate as we have been led to believe over the past 40 years. It is hard to know quite what to make of this idea which seems to go against the very basis of cardio-vascular protection. It feels as if someone is suggesting that maybe the world is flat after all. It is especially difficult to work out what to believe – and hence what to eat – because there are hugely invested interests behind the research and its rebuttal. Imagine what the low fat food industry must be worth? What if we all went back to eating butter?

An article I read this week claims that while saturated fats increase ‘bad’ cholesterol they also may increase ‘good ‘ cholesterol. I think we are only seeing the beginning of this debate which draws a very heated response on the internet.

I continue to follow a low fat diet because I am also constantly challenged with keeping my weight in check. It may well turn out that saturated fats do not cause cardio-vascular disease, but too much saturated fat does make you, well, fat. I have begun to question the low fat products we are sold, such as low fat yoghurt which does turn out to often have more sugar than the full fat varieties. Sugar is the new enemy as far as cardio health is concerned and of course it is fattening so best avoided as much as possible.

It is good to find a food about which there is no controversy – although it may be a matter of time. I am talking about pulses. These are a food group that we should be including in our weekly meals as pulses can contribute to lowering cholesterol thanks to the fibre contained. It is all very well to remove certain foods from our diet in order to control cholesterol but we also need to add in certain foods on a regular basis.

While I have a natural connection with lentils, beans have never been my first love. Chickpeas excluded. Beans are a bit of a hassle if you are going to use the dried ones which do taste better than their tinned friends. This involves a bit of forethought – soaking overnight, boiling for what seems like an age and only then being ready to cook with them. And what reward for all this effort ? Unpleasant wind. And it’s not as if they even taste that fantastic. Still, I persevere.

This week I was reminded of one of my favourite bean-based dishes. Ribollita – a Tuscan bean soup which translates as ‘re-boiled’ which is, in my opinion, what should be done with all soups ie made the day before. This soup is a great dish for the winter months ahead and I have included the recipe this week.