I was browsing the vegetables last weekend at a farmer’s market and I spotted a few bunches of cavolo nero – a vegetable whose loveliness I have written about before in a recipe for ribollita. As that is a somewhat wintery soup – although in my opinion it is never too hot for a thick soup – I thought I would make something more spring like with these delicious leaves, full of deep colour and flavour.
I steamed the leaves to use in a salad and then had a pile left over. Into the fridge they went until the next morning when I decided to teach my hungry boys to make a French omelette. Nothing to it really – a quick whisk, into a hot pan with a knob of butter – olive oil for me – and a brief swirl and onto the plate. As the egg was just looking creamy in went the wilted cavolo nero leaves and a grinding of black pepper. Simplicity tastes good!
Tip: use an omelette pan or, as I do, a small non-stick one.
For one person:
2 large eggs – I prefer to use organic
A knob of butter or a teaspoon of olive oil
A handful of cavolo nero leaves, steamed briefly
Heat the butter or oil in a small pan. In the meantime break the eggs into a bowl and whisk briefly just to loosely combine. Add a grinding of black pepper and a pinch of salt if you like.
Pour the eggs into the pan and swirl the eggs about, lifting the sides gently to allow the egg to run underneath the part that is setting. Now add the leaves and when the egg is nearly set, turn it out neatly onto a hot plate.
A slice of wholemeal toast would not go amiss. Not to mention a glass of wine, but maybe not for breakfast!
Getting back from holiday is always difficult – the return to work can be a shock after a week or so repose. All those emails stacked up, all the calls that need answering, just having to dress up rather than pull on jeans and t-shirt, grab the camera and head out into the street to explore. It’s enough to make me reach for the chocolate – in fact that is precisely what I have done. Well, it was Easter. Anyhow, the chocs are long finished and now it is time to get back to good habits and what a bore we all know those are.
Since back from vacation something else has been bothering me. It is not just about eating muesli rather than croissants for breakfast or a handful or almonds rather than an ice cream in the afternoons. It is about where I buy my food. Pushing a trolley around my soulless supermarket this week I felt an overwhelming sense of longing for a food market. One does not need to go abroad for this of course. I have access to a farmer’s market on Sundays and when I make the effort I am rewarded with an array of fruit and veg that my supermarket shelves have never seen. Yes it can be frustrating to have a reduced choice of goods in the winter, but there is something about buying seasonal food that takes us back in some primal way to a time when food was food and not fetish.
If only I shopped in this way more often I think it would help to keep me eating well. Not only is it fun to buy food from the people who produced it, but I find it inspires ideas about what to cook when you just happen upon a gorgeous bunch of cavolo nero, for example. But there is another reason why market shopping works for me and that is that you can only buy proper food. There are no aisles filled with products that could survive into the next century so packed full of preservatives are they. No rows of factory produced biscuits, crackers and crisps – all so easy to pop in the trolley and so difficult to resist later on when they take up residence in the kitchen cupboard.
At the market there are certainly delicious cakes and pastries to tempt even the most zealous health nut, not to mention hand-made chocolates, but at least these baked goods are eaten as a treat and then they are finished.
So now that the weather is much improved, I am making a Spring resolution to get out to my market more often and not reserve this pleasure for when I am travelling. Sometimes the things one enjoys most on holiday are available locally too. With fresh produce coming back into season right now, it is a good time to review one’s cooking routines and ring some changes. Happy eating!
I just have to share this recipe for the easiest jam ever! I am not someone who has ever made jam. This is because I have a fear of poisoning the family with anything I bottle and also because I lack the skills and perhaps the patience. There is also far too much sugar in most jam recipes. Last, but not least, I don’t really like jam terribly much and hardly ever eat it.
However, my children do like it – as did I when their age – so, when I came across this healthy and easy-peasy recipe in Green Kitchen Travels, I gave it a whirl and hey presto! It involves no cooking! At last I found something to do with the bag of Chia seeds in my fridge. Within minutes we were sitting down to a freshly baked batch of scones with the raspberry jam. I know that is not quite in the spirit of lowering cholesterol, so I only offer the recipe for jam and not scones.
Incidentally, Green Kitchen Travels is a very interesting new cookbook – vegetarian, mostly vegan and gluten free – with some ideas new to me and fun to cook. This recipe is from the book.
For one batch of jam:
250g fresh or frozen raspberries – make sure they are thawed if using frozen
2 tablespoon chia seeds – you can find these in a health food shop if your supermarket has none
2 teaspoons clear honey or maple syrup – I used honey
Put the raspberries in a mixing bowl and crush them with a fork. Add the Chia seeds and syrup or honey and whisk to combine. Leave to rest for 10 minutes giving a stir every now and again.
If you don’t eat it all at once, store in the fridge in an airtight glass jar for up to 5 days. I doubt it will hang about as long as all that.
The results are back and I am pleased. Having exercised and eaten carefully over the past months, I have been rewarded with a cholesterol figure of 5.1. Up to 5 is the normal range so I am satisfied with being pretty close to that. Last year it was 5.5. Despite a year of travelling and eating very badly indeed for periods of time, it seems that getting back on the job of lowering cholesterol (and weight) as soon as possible after the good times is a worthwhile idea.
Just as well because I am about to put my arteries to the test over the next week. Asked recently what I was planning to do in Lyon, where we will be for a short break, I replied ‘eat’. And that is pretty much it. For once I have little desire to pack in as many museums as there are daylight hours. No, this trip is for relaxation, eating and practising our French. Even my husband has downloaded an app and can be heard every night repeating a motley collection of sentences. The other day the learning topic seemed to be clothes shopping. He was dutifully learning how to buy a skirt and boots. I could not help remarking that I didn’t expect he would ever be using these sentences in real life. Of course he should be learning how to order some obscure vegetable or cut of meat, asking farmers about the provenance of their artichokes and useful stuff like that.
Talking of produce, I came across a study the other week that really had me rolling my eyes. It was reported that strawberries can lower cholesterol. Now I love a juicy strawberry as much as the next person, but I wondered just how many one would need to eat in order to have the desired effect. Reading up on the research it turned out that participants ate 500g of strawberries a day! That is a lot. When one considers the fructose content of 500g of strawberries a day – in addition to the rest of one’s diet – the increase in sugar must surely undermine some of the benefits of cholesterol lowering? Honestly, sometimes I think that some of these research projects do more to promote the purchasing of the subject of the study than anything else.
In my view, in order to be considered a useful way to lower cholesterol, the advice needs to be something that is reasonably easy to follow. For example, a handful of unsalted almonds each day is perfectly possible and I have been doing so for years. The downside is the cost and the fact that I often cannot stop at one handful. But 500g of strawberries is never going to find its way into my daily habits.
Over the next week I will be foregoing many of my daily habits and just enjoying myself. I will also be taking a break from the blog next week as I will be far too busy with my knife and fork. I wish you all a very happy Spring break and leave you with the good news that eggs are no longer considered a problem for those watching their cholesterol. Whether that includes Easter eggs I leave you to decide.
No apologies for another recipe with blood oranges – this season I have not been able to get enough of this gorgeous fruit. I made this salad as a main course lunch dish but it would, of course, do well as a side dish too.
For 4 people:
Red and white quinoa mix – about 150 – 200g
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Bunch of flat leaf parsley
150g mix of watercress, spinach and rocket
12 spears purple sprouting broccoli
Handful of walnut pieces, chopped
½ blood orange
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Boil the quinoa until soft but still retaining a bite. I start to check after about 10 minutes so that I can take it off to drain as soon as it has the texture I like. Once it has been drained, place in a mixing bowl and add the juice of ½ lemon, 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil and a medium bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped. Finally a grind of black pepper. Mix in gently and set aside.
Steam the spears of purple sprouting broccoli. I think they are best when tender but retaining a bite. Overcooked broccoli is not very appetising and loses vitamins so do keep an eye as they are cooking.
Using a large serving dish, arrange the mix of watercress, spinach and rocket leaves. Now scatter the quinoa over the leaves. Next lay out the broccoli spears. Lastly, the handful of chopped walnuts can be strewn over the salad.
Mix the ingredients for the salad and dress.
I await my cholesterol result this week which has given me a pause to think about how to proceed. Whether it is raised or reasonable, it shouldn’t make any difference to how I eat going forward because this is a lifestyle not a short term diet, right? Yet for many of us, the minute we get the result we worked towards, a bit of loosening up of the discipline ensues. At least that is the case with me, which is why my cholesterol and weight are so familiar with the term ‘yo-yo’.
My problem is not so much a lack of discipline, as I can usually turn down cake, biscuits, fried foods and other things best avoided. The challenge is to maintain a modicum of a social life and to continue to explore the culinary world which I love. I mean really love. Put me in a food market and my pulse rate races, I feel a rush of excitement and desire, I want to taste everything, to ask questions of stall owners, to buy exotic ingredients and cook them. All of this leaves my three hungry men in a state of confusion. Do they rush me on or indulge my whimsy, knowing that they will benefit from a meal at the end of it all?
My son has taken to gently pushing me forwards if he feels I have spent enough time photographing gnarled root vegetables or chatting for too long to a stall holder whose honey was made by fairies in candlelight. He and his brother have spent more time in food markets during their childhood than they probably care to remember. I am in trouble if there are not enough of those little taster portions food stalls often offer.
Having slowly been spreading my food writing wings, I find myself invited more often to review eateries. So it is that within a fortnight I have enjoyed two champagne afternoon teas in smart hotels I would not normally frequent. Add to that three visits to Indian restaurants in as many weeks – a social life must also be sustained – and the challenge begins to become apparent. Not that I am complaining, I am just saying.
At the end of the month I am whisking my men off to Lyon for a long weekend of eating. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, has close to 20 Michelin starred restaurants in addition to superb food markets. I have never visited and am not planning to leave without having tasted as much as possible. As we are travelling by train I can also bring home as many foodie treats as my heart desires. Which of course is the last thing my heart actually needs. My new advice to self is to indulge where necessary (or possible) and then get straight back on track before the weight settles and the blood fat gathers. That’s the theory at any rate.
This is a very quick dish to put together for a light lunch. Usually I like to cook my own prawns but this time I used a punnet of ready cooked. If you prefer you can throw some raw prawns in a pan and cook them just until they turn pink. Then they are done. If you overcook them they lose their juiciness. I love the combination of mango and chilli as one gets a simultaneous hit of sweet and spicy, cool and hot. Add in the sour note of lime and the slight saltiness of the prawns and you have a perfect mouthful.
For 2 people as a main or 4 as a starter or part of a salad selection:
200g cooked prawns – I like to use the larger ones as they are meatier
Zest of ½ lime
¼ large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
½ ripe mango, thinly sliced
4 chives, finely chopped
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lime
Rinse the prawns if using a punnet of cooked prawns. Pat dry with kitchen towel.
Mix together the lime zest, chilli and chives.
Place the prawns and mango slices in a bowl and tip over the chilli mixture. Mix carefully together.
Mix together the dressing ingredients – adding a good grinding of black pepper – and mix in to the prawn and mango melange.
Place on a serving platter and serve.
I like to eat this with a slice of dark rye bread to bulk out the meal and to add an extra layer of flavour.
Today I am visiting my GP to discuss my annual cholesterol test which I plan to take very soon. I have been pretty good on the whole – eating my oily fish twice a week, pulses weekly, Benecol drink daily along with a handful (or two) of almonds. I haven’t eaten red meat or cheese for some time, am exercising regularly and my weight has been inching down since the excesses of last summer and Xmas. Amazing how easily the pounds pile on and how so very difficult they are to get rid of.
Unfortunately, from a cholesterol point of view, I also have been invited out to a host of restaurant dinners and afternoon teas all of which have no doubt slowed down my efforts no matter how much fun they have been.
Still I am hoping for a reasonable cholesterol level this time round. Last year my result of 5.5 had my GP on the phone telling me not to be complacent. I assured her I would not be. Yet over the summer and the winter I was not so much complacent as purposefully rebellious as I just can’t see the point of travelling without eating everything in sight.
If you have your cholesterol test coming up – or should have one if you have never done so – remember that there are a variety of figures to take into account. Ask your GP for a printout of the blood test report as the total cholesterol figure is only one of several to bear in mind. In fact, at least half of those who have heart attacks in the UK have normal cholesterol levels. So other factors are clearly important.
The cholesterol test results give an overall cholesterol figure – total cholesterol – and this should ideally be less than 5. Then there are figures for HDL (so called ‘good’ cholesterol) and LDL (so called ‘bad’cholesterol). The HDL total should ideally be over 1mmol/L for men and 1.2mmol/L for women.. If it is less you may have an increased risk of heart attack. Your LDL should ideally be 3mmol/L or less.
If both HDL and LDL are low or both are high then your cardiovascular risk is also increased. So when you get your results make sure that your GP looks at the ratio between HDL and TC (total cholesterol) as this ratio is very important. The figure should be as low as possible, anything over 6 is considered high risk.
The other figure to check is your triglyceride (blood fat) level which will also be reported in the blood test. It measures how effectively your body can clear up the fat after a meal. Ideally the figure should be less than 2mmol/L when you are having a fasting blood test.
Increasingly, attention is being paid not only to these figures but also to the size of the LDL particles which is considered important. Unfortunately testing for the size of particles is unlikely to be on offer as it is expensive. It is possible to have normal cholesterol yet still be at risk because of your particle size. Some research suggests that high numbers of small dense LDL particles are associated with increased cardiovascular risk than large LDL particles. Others suggest that the number of LDL particles may be more important the particle size.
Add to this other important markers for cardiovascular disease and we begin to get a sense of the complicated interaction in the body which is significant. These include homocysteine levels, Coenzyme Q10 stores, levels of platelet-activating factor and thromboxane AZ and levels of C-reactive protein.
Take all of this to your GP to be tested and you may be shown the door. But it is important to realise that the cholesterol test is not in itself an accurate picture of your cardiovascular health, only one of several variables.
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.
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.