Scales tell it like it is – 14 September 2016

The problem with social life is that it gets in the way of trying to lower cholesterol – not to mention weight. If I lived in a cave – or at least led a hermit-like existence – I might have a decent shot at keeping to my resolve. However, the past couple of weeks have been anything but conducive to my plans to get back in shape, or to make a start at the least.

No sooner had I declared my intentions a fortnight ago than a very fancy scale arrived at my door for me to review. I was delighted by the synchronicity. I have never owned a scale larger than one that sits on the kitchen worktop and that only goes up to 4kg so not much use for weight control. I loathe the idea that I should feel up or down depending on what the scale says in the morning so I have never wanted a bathroom scale. I can tell whether or not I need to lose weight by the feel of my clothes. Sadly, that tells me nothing about my cholesterol level. The timely arrival of this new scale, however, felt like a good omen. It is very high tech, so much so that my teenagers had to help me set up an app on my phone. The idea is that you stand on the scale and the app works out your BMI as well as your percentage body fat and muscle mass. Frankly, this is more information that I care to know, but my lack of tech savvy has saved me from the worst. Standing on the scale I can see what I weigh and that is bad enough. When I complained to my son that the app did not give me any further information, he asked me whether I had my phone switched on to the app while I stood on the scale! As I said, too high tech for me. And in any case do I really need to know what percentage I am of body fat? Just looking at the tyre around my stomach tells me all I need to know.

Having the equipment to measure my progress is one thing. Making progress is quite another. And that is where life gets in the way. Deliciously perhaps, but still in the way. Last week I was invited to a diner at a Spitalfields restaurant called Taberna do Mercado where top Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes adds his inventive touch to the cuisine. (You can read about it here if you wish http://kitchenjourneys.net/2016/09/portuguese-cuisine-showcased-at-taberna-do-mercado/ ).

Later in the week I attended a book launch at Brindisa where the inimitable Monika Linton has written a long awaited cookbook. The tapas were plentiful and delicious. This evening I am eating a 10 course tasting menu at The Frog (once more to Spitalfields neck of the woods) and tomorrow I will be having afternoon tea at The Dorchester followed by dinner in a lovely restaurant with visiting cousins.

I don’t expect sympathy. Not from people at any rate. It would be nice though if my new fancy scale with its app could be a little kinder under the circumstances. That is the problem with a piece of equipment – it has no interest in excuses.

Orange Blossom Iced Tea

Orange Blossom iced Tea From The Healthy Heart

Since we are having such a warm September I have been making iced tea to enjoy in the garden before the trees start to drop their leaves. Iced tea is so easy to make and just feels that little bit special. I make mine with Redbush (Rooibos) Tea which is caffeine free but you could use an ordinary teabag or Chamomile if you prefer.

Whenever I feel a cold coming on I make a hot cup of Rooibos with honey and lemon. That always makes me feel better. I have used the same idea here – Rooibos, honey, and orange to replace the lemon. I also add a splash of orange blossom water to add a touch of the exotic.

Make the tea a good few hours before you plan to use it so that it can get really cold. In fact, I have found that it tastes even better the next day if left overnight in the fridge. I usually make a large jug and cut up a couple of oranges to steep in the tea.

For two glasses:

1 Rooibos teabag
1 teaspoon honey – I like to use a good quality honey as it adds extra flavour
2 orange slices
a splash of orange blossom water – taste to see how much you need. Rather add too little at first and add more. It has a strong scent so you don’t want to use too much.

Boil the kettle and pour boiling water over the teabag set in a medium sized bowl. You will need enough for two glasses or cups. If you are making a jugful then use 2 -3 teabags. Allow to steep for 10 minutes. Add the homey and stir well to combine. Remove the teabag and allow to cool.

Add the orange blossom water and the orange slices. A few sprigs of mint will not go amiss. Refrigerate until cool.

Serve well chilled and add a few ice cubes.

Ricotta and Mint Omelette

Ricotta and Mint Omelette From The Healthy Heart

On a recent trip to Corsica I came across a cheese new to me. It is called Brocciu and is made from ewe’s milk. Unfortunately it is not available in the summer months as it is a fresh cheese and made with winter milk. In the summer months a replacement cheese is eaten called Brousse which is made with whey. It is similar to Ricotta in taste but slightly firmer I thought. I found it to be delicious, although I am told that it is not a patch on Brocciu – and it is very versatile. It is served in mini doughnuts, cheesecake, ravioli and even omelettes. Many restaurants serving traditional Corsican cuisine have an omelette with Brocciu and mint on the menu. In season of course. Out of season the omelette is made with Brousse I guess.

As soon as I returned home I bought ricotta and set about making my own version of this omelette. I would recommend that you try to get a fresh ricotta from an Italian deli rather than using the supermarket variety as the former has a better texture.

Some people still believe that eggs are not good for cholesterol control. This idea has been debunked and I eat eggs regularly as part of my lowering cholesterol plan. I don’t eat much butter – even though the debate about saturated fats suggests one can – but for making an omelette I do use a small amount of butter. You can use olive oil if you prefer. Using a non stick pan reduces the amount of fat needed.

I have not yet mastered the art of cooking two omelettes at the same time – perhaps I need to buy a second omelette pan – so I cook one after the other.

For 2 people:

4 eggs
1 ricotta
A handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
A knob of butter

Break the eggs into a small bowl and whisk lightly. Add a pinch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Mix in.

Break the ricotta into another bowl and add the chopped mint leaves and mix in.

Melt the butter in a small, nonstick pan and add the eggs. I cook my omelettes on a medium heat and gently lift the sides with a spatula while tilting the pan. This allows the uncooked egg to run underneath the egg that has already begun to set. When most of the egg is set, add half the ricotta mixture (the other half is for the second omelette) and cook for another minute. Now carefully fold over the top half of the omelette and slide onto a plate.

Now make the other omelette.

Serve with a simple green salad on the side.

Back to the Beginning

A confession: it is months since I last wrote a blog post and I have neglected From The Healthy Heart almost as much as I have been neglecting my health. No doubt the two neglects are related. The truth is that I have not been looking after my eating and therefore felt somewhat hypocritical writing about lowering cholesterol. The result of lack of exercise and constant eating of everything and anything is that I approach the end of summer many pounds heavier and feeling sluggish. Having taken a fortnight’s holiday in Corsica did not help either as the cuisine is rich with charcuterie and cheese. I ate a lot of it and tasty it was too.

So what is to be done? Well, I have been considering my options. I definitely need to shed the extra weight and I shudder to think what level my cholesterol has risen to while it has been left unattended. I also must get back to regular exercise. Promptly.

I could embark on the 5:2 diet as several of my foodie friends have done. They tell me that it is wonderful for people who are eating out a lot as they can plan around these events. Eat only 500 calories twice a week and what you like the rest of the time. Somehow this seems too good to be true even though I have seen the results in friends. But I am not a fan of calorie counting. While it might lead to weight loss, eating rich foods as I do when out on blogging events – especially afternoon teas – is not a good way to look after my arteries. For lowering cholesterol one cannot really just eat whatever you like 5 days a week.

All other diets are bound to rebound in even further weight gain as this is what diets do so I have no plans to go down this path. I guess that leaves the option of what has worked before – my own plan which began years ago when I first began to lower my cholesterol. It resulted in weight loss partly as I was exercising a fair amount and also due to eating a low fat diet devoid of all cakes, biscuits, sweets, charcuterie and the likes.

I am thinking about getting out the food diary I kept at the time – it took 3 months – when I documented everything I ate (call me obsessive) and simply following that. It makes perfect sense. The only sticking point is that I know that I have nothing like the steely determination I had back then. Still, even following 80 % of the plan might help. After all I can no longer fit into much of my wardrobe so action is needed. If that is what I look like from the outside what is my system looking like on the inside?

My other new plan is to eat more fermented foods. I have been researching this for an article I wrote and am taken with the idea that our gut bacteria is depleted and can benefit from the healthy bacteria in fermented foods.

I enclose the link to my article on fermentation for anyone interested to read it.
http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/travel/2016/08/26/appetite-for-fermented-food-grows

So if you too are in need of getting your cholesterol down and want to do it in a measured and healthy way, join me as the summer draws to a close and let’s eat well – stock up on salmon, almonds, oats and pulses and we can get started.

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.