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.

Tomato and Pomegranate Salad

Tomato and Pomegranate Salad

Having had a review published this week of Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Plenty More – http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/travel/2014/10/17/restaurateurs-reprise – I couldn’t resist sharing this very refreshing salad. In order to make it look as good as possible I spent ages chopping a range of tomatoes and red pepper into tiny pieces. I am sure it would taste as good if the pieces were less exact but I leave that to your own level of obsessionality.

The recipe calls for 4 types of tomato including yellow cherry as well as tiger tomatoes which I could not get at my supermarket. I did later locate them at Marks and Spencer if you have one handy. Instead I used red cherry, baby plum and vine tomatoes and made up the required weight in the recipe. This recipe supposedly feeds 4 people but my group of 4 ate it for days and days.

For 4 people:

200g each of red and yellow cherry tomatoes, tiger or plum tomatoes and 500g vine tomatoes all cut into 0.5cm dice
1 red pepper cut into 0.5cm dice
1 small red onion finely diced

For the dressing:
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons pomegranate molasses
60ml olive oil ( I used less for cholesterol purposes)

1 large pomegranate, seeds removed
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
Salt (I always consider salt optional and usually don’t use it)

Mix all the chopped vegetables in a bowl.
In another bowl whisk together the ingredients for the dressing

Pour the dressing over the tomatoes, pepper and onion and mix together carefully.
This looks good on a well proportioned platter . Spread out the salad and finish with the pomegranate seeds and oregano leaves. A last drizzle of good quality olive oil won’t go amiss.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward – 22 October 2014

This week has been a real case of two steps forward and a couple backward. The kids were on school holiday and I took a day off work to take them out. We had a great time together, visiting a show they wanted to see. Spoilt for choice, they asked me to pick a place to eat lunch as I know the area reasonably well. Of course I could have chosen a café serving healthy salads. But I didn’t. I suggested we head for the salt beef bar where – vegetarians turn away now – the hot beef, marbled with glistening fat was just making its way from the oven. I watched while the woman behind the bar sliced the meat thickly before stuffing it into bagels or between slices of rye. With a pickle. And mustard.

Oh how blissfully wonderful it tasted. My mouth full of meat with just the right amount of fat dangling at the end, I thought how this could never compare to my usual lunch of cottage cheese salad. My boys watched me groan with happiness and commented on this cholesterol laden meal. I said ‘if this meal kills me it will have been worth it’ or words to that effect. How effortlessly one tempts fate when feeling full of life.

So a good day of mothering but a terrible day of eating.

Later in the week I went for a brisk walk. The weather was sunny and reasonably warm. The rain held off for once and I felt so pleased with myself that I walked around the fields a couple of times instead of once. My extended walk brought me to cross a road en route home just as a friend drove past. Having not seen one another for a while, she drew up and suggested we meet up. This means lunch. One of my favourite meals. Once again, being social means eating. To my mind this is a win-win situation but for my attempt to get myself back in shape, the less socialising the better.

Come to think of it, when I first embarked on lowering my cholesterol and losing weight two years ago, I managed my social life and eating out without too much effort. In those days I was a zealot, intensely motivated. Nowadays, I am a pushover. I see a cake and I want some and eat it. That is all very well occasionally but I know full well that these occasions have become almost daily occurrences.

This weekend we have a family birthday and a couple of dozen teenage boys will be descending expecting food. My son has decided that an assortment of goods suitable for mid-afternoon should be served. That means – cake, muffins, scones and jam, sandwiches, and those divine ice cream and cookie excitements we ate in New York and I can’t wait to replicate. Today I went to the supermarket to stock up on sugar, butter, flour, cream and eggs. It feels like the Great British Bake Off is being filmed in my kitchen. Another opportunity to be a good mum and wreck my arteries.

Fig Salad

Ottolenghi Fig Salad

The past few weeks I have been cooking non-stop from Plenty More, Ottolenghi’s new cookbook. It is the sequel to Plenty, his first vegetarian cookbook which has also been well used over the past years. As figs are at their most luscious at the moment I could not resist this salad which appears in the chapter entitled ‘Tossed’. It made a lovely lunch dish, colourful and very tasty too. I have adapted it slightly here.

For 4 people:

A large red onion, cut in half and then into wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
50g hazelnuts
A handful or two of red lettuce – the recipe calls for radicchio but it wasn’t available
A handful or two of watercress
40g basil leaves
6 large, ripe figs, quartered
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar – use a good one
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Fresh black pepper

Preheat the oven to 220 C

Prepare the onions, mix gently with ½ tablespoon of olive oil and a grinding of black pepper, place in an ovenproof dish and roast for about ½ hour. Turn a couple of times – I forgot to turn mine and no harm was done. Remove and allow to cool before separating the onion layers into smaller pieces if you like

Reduce the oven to 160 C and roast the hazelnuts on an oven tray for 20 minutes. Remove, allow to cool and then chop roughly.

Place the red lettuce – or radicchio if to hand – on a large platter and mix in the basil and watercress leaves. Place the fig quarters and the roasted onion on top.

Whisk together the remaining olive oil with the balsamic, the cinnamon and some fresh black pepper. Dress the salad and scatter over the hazelnuts.

Seeing Is Believing – 15 October 2014

For months I have been imploring my teenager to take a bit of exercise. Although most of our health problems set in around middle age, establishing good practice early on in life pays good dividends later on. Mind you, I was a keen jogger and played lots of sport when I was a teenager and yet I now face raised cholesterol and a constant battle to get my weight into shape. But perhaps the situation might have been worse had I not had those years of good cardiovascular workouts. In truth, I think the rot set in once I went to university and ate my body weight in macaroni cheese which was all I could afford in the canteen and all any of my housemates knew how to cook in the evenings. That and dodgy genes.

My exercise suggestions have fallen on deaf teenage ears as most requests to this age group tend to do. So imagine my surprise when I was informed that regular jogging would be taking place from my front door. What had inspired this sudden change of heart? An out of shape friend had visited, bemoaned his struggle with his weight and high cholesterol, and reminisced about his teenage years when he could eat anything he liked and retain a normal weight. The penny suddenly dropped. My teenager, not wanting to end up looking like a middle aged man, got his trainers on and went for a run. And another the following day.

It struck me that while my months of moaning bore no fruit, one look at the outcome of lack of exercise provided immediate incentive. I was reminded of a tv programme I watched recently in which a recovered heroin addict was working in the slums of Mumbai to encourage drug-addled teenagers to find their way to a rehab facility he worked in. I am sure that coming into daily contact with the ravages of drug addiction strengthened the resolve of the erstwhile addict to live his life without succumbing to any residual cravings he may have.

I know that trying to frighten people into healthier habits is unlikely to achieve long term change, yet there is something to be said for it. Taking smokers to meet emphysema patients might deter some from lighting up. I guess one has to have some level of motivation to begin with, a level of motivation that needs constant encouragement. That is certainly how I feel about myself.

This week I came across a photograph of Andrew Marr at a celebrity do of one sort or another. He was flanked by the great and the good and stood, smiling at the camera, with a glass of bubbly in hand. What leapt out at me was the walking stick dangling from his champagne-holding arm, the other arm, disabled by his stroke, tucked discreetly into his trouser pocket. It was just the reminder I needed. I got my shoes on and went for a brisk walk.

Freekeh, Puy Lentils and Preserved Lemon

Freekeh, Puy Lentils and Preserved Lemon

For months I have been pestering my Turkish grocer to restock his shelf with freekeh, a grain I adore. If you haven’t tried it before please do so – even if you need to pester someone to get hold of it. Freekeh is a green wheat that has a smoky flavour from the husks being burned off over wood fires. It is used extensively in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. This week my regular reminders paid off and I found bags of freekeh on the shelf. I was so obviously delighted that the grocer smiled. A happy customer!

Although this dish is not a looker, it is very tasty and so comforting. The only problem is trying not to eat the whole panful.

If you can’t get hold of freekeh you could use another grain and add a chipotle chilli to the stock which will add some smokiness to the dish.

For 4 people:

1 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Olive oil spray
200g freekeh
900 ml vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
100g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 tablespoon sumac
3 preserved lemons, flesh discarded, peel chopped
3 tablespoons 0% Greek yoghurt
1 tablespoon low fat milk
1 small clove garlic, crushed

Begin by cooking the lentils. Place in a pot and cover with three times the volume of water. Add a garlic clove to the cooking water. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce heat. After about ½ hour the lentils should be cooked. Drain and set aside.

Chop the red onion and sauté in a few sprays of olive oil. Cover the pan with a lid and allow to cook slowly on a low heat. After 10 – 15 minutes add the chopped garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Add the freekeh and stir well to combine with the onions and garlic. Then add the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil and then cover the pan and reduce heat to a simmer. The freekeh should be cooked within 30 -40 minutes. I prefer it to retain a bite as you would expect with a risotto.

Add the drained lentils and stir gently to combine. Add the sumac and 2 of the chopped preserved lemons, followed by the thyme leaves.

In a small bowl, mix the yoghurt and the milk until smooth and then add the crushed garlic.

To serve, garnish with dollops of the garlic yoghurt, a final sprinkle of sumac and the third preserved lemon peel.

A fresh green salad would be a good accompaniment.

Pilates? Please! – 8 October 2014

The warm dry autumn has suddenly given way to pouring rain. Good for gardens but decidedly dodgy for those trying to re-enthuse themselves about those 5 times a week walks. In fairness, I did manage to get the walks done last week but if this rain continues my exercise will not.

Talking of exercise, I have had to face my Pilates instructor with the shamefaced truth that I did not manage to swivel my pelvis even once this week. I did intend to practice, practice, practice but my instructions to self fell on ears as deaf as my children’s when I beseech them to practice – their music, I mean. I wonder if Elvis had to practice his pelvic swivels or whether he could spontaneously locate his whatever-it’s-called muscle while breathing out and rolling his knee slowly outwards.

I am clearly not a natural at this whole malarkey and am feeling decidedly uninspired. Having paid up a considerable amount for a series of one-to-one sessions, I feel obliged to turn up. There is nowhere to hide when it is just me and the trim, fit and encouraging instructor. My problem is one of personality rather than lack of enthusiasm for my posture and core. I am one of those big picture types, with little patience for small print and detail. It is why I love to cook but don’t have the temperament for baking. In the act of cooking I can get the gist of a recipe and then make it my own, creating something new along the way if the mood takes me. With baking, one has to follow the rules, carefully measuring ingredients in particular order. It reminds me of science classes at school – a subject I was sadly poor at. My hand always shot up when the teacher asked ‘does anyone not understand?’

Rules of any sort have always rather annoyed me, rebel without a pause. Listening to tales of my adolescence, my teenager remarked that I sounded quite immature when I was his age. It made me laugh but no doubt he is quite correct. Such immaturity is clearly coming back to haunt me now when having been advised to practise my exercises I find myself resisting such instruction. The whole notion of ‘the core’ makes me want to ask annoying questions. Core values? Core assets? Apple core?

Such an attitude to life is clearly unproductive.

A friend has been doing Pilates for 18 months and swears by its value. I envy the time she has already put in and the benefit derived. I should be inspired to follow suit. So I must drag myself out today to face the music – or the silence of the Pilates studio – and mend my wayward ways. Even if it is pouring with rain.

Watercress, Lentil and Avocado Salad

Watercress, Lentil and Avocado Salad

This simple salad is so tasty that I ate it two days in a row this week. The cinnamon in the dressing may seem a strange addition but it lifts the flavour very well. Do give it a try.

For 4 people:

100g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
4 handfuls watercress, washed and dried
4 handfuls baby spinach leaves
2 handfuls rocket leaves
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 ripe avocado, sliced
4 tablespoons cottage cheese
Fresh black pepper

Begin by boiling the lentils. Add a garlic clove and bay leaf to the cooking water. The lentils should be cooked within ½ hour depending on their age. Drain and set aside.

Put the watercress, spinach and rocket leaves into a roomy bowl and pour over the olive oil and lemon juice. Sprinkle over the ground cinnamon and mix well.

Divide the leaves between 4 plates. Add two spoons of lentils to each plate. Next add a tablespoon of cottage cheese and ¼ of the avocado slices to each plate.

Finish with a good grinding of black pepper.

Eat with a slice of crusty wholemeal bread for a light and healthy lunch.

Core Blimey – 1 October 2014

This week I began Pilates. Already I am hurting in places I never knew I had, that have names I cannot recall. My friendly instructor talked me through an hour of making tiny movements with my pelvis, naming muscles I need to google translate. So tiny and hidden are some of these muscles that I have only now become acquainted with them, despite the fact that they have been hard at work for over 50 years.

The point of Pilates is to strengthen my core to quote my doctor who recommended this form of self improvement some months ago. Having been too busy over the summer with undoing all of the effects of any previous self improvement, I am only getting round to this now. It is quite the opposite of putting on my walking shoes, striding out at as fast a pace I can manage while clearing my mind of all thoughts. This tends to bring on a sense of wellbeing, partly endorphin driven and in part due to the knowledge that I am doing something good for my heart health.

Pilates seems quite the opposite. I take off my shoes, lie down indoors making small movements that require a great deal of concentration. The instructor sits alongside with her hands gently rotating my pelvic bones and her fingers searching out that band of muscles that is supposed to be engaged while I rock slowly from side to side. It sounds more pleasurable than it is!

I have returned home tasked with practising these movements daily. Somehow it seems counter intuitive to build up one’s strength by making such small muscular movements but I must trust that in time I will feel some benefit. After the freebie that is walking outdoors – once the orthotics and shoes are paid for – it is sobering to hand over wads of dosh for learning to locate places I seem to have got by without well enough.

I guess it is all part of the ageing process, having to look after the body with a different mindset. My back is stiff every morning, my muscles ache more easily and who knows what state my arteries are in. Trying to stave off osteoporosis – for which I am genetically primed – requires some action now. So soon my Pilates workout will advance to some strange looking equipment involving straps and pulleys as well as dumbbells. Hopefully I will begin to notice an improvement before my enthusiasm for this new skill wears thin.

The warm autumnal weather has been a boost to getting back into my stride exercise wise. I reckon I should get as many walks done while the temperature is good and the sun is out. One habit to break is returning home to a sunny afternoon garden, pulling up a chair, brewing a pot of tea and cutting a slice or two of cake. That’s the problem with autumn – so many apples and plums to use up, it would be silly not to make something lovely to eat. Making hay while the sun shines as they say.