Having enjoyed a barley salad at a Café, a reader asked if I could create one for the blog. Being only too happy to respond to requests and suggestions, I began to think about mixing texture, colour and taste. Pearl barley is a wonderful ingredient, not used nearly often enough – at least not in my kitchen. I always have a jar of it in the cupboard but the lid is not opened as frequently as the ones which contain brown rice, lentils and wholemeal couscous. I like to add pearl barley to vegetable soups in the winter which creates a wholesome meal in a bowl.
Since I can never get enough of roast vegetables, I thought I would roast some carrots and butternut for their colour, vitamins and crunch (the carrots at least), lightly steam some thin green beans – ditto vitamins, colour and crunch, throw in a few kalamata olives and low fat feta and scatter over some finely chopped spring onion and a couple of handfuls of toasted pumpkin seeds.
To add some flavour to the barley I cooked it in a bit of vegetable bouillon and then added a tehina based dressing to add some extra nuttiness.
For 4 -6 people:
200g pearl barley
1 litre vegetable bouillon
2 tablespoons tahina
2 tablespoons no fat yoghurt
1 teaspoon honey
2 – 3 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1/4 butternut, peeled and chopped into small chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks
150g fine green beans
4 spring onions, finely sliced
6 Kalamata olives, stoned and quartered
100g light feta, cut into small chunks
25g pumpkin seeds, toasted
Small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
Heat the oven to 200 C. Place the chopped butternut and carrot in a roasting tin and spray a bit of olive oil on the vegetables. Add a few grinds of black pepper and mix well. Roast for ½ hour until the butternut is tender but not mushy.
Bring the pearl barley to the boil in the vegetable bouillon. Reduce heat and simmer for ½ hour until the barley is tender but still has a bite.
In the meanwhile make the dressing. Mix the ingredients and add the water to loosen it up. If it looks too thick, slowly add a bit of extra water.
When the barley is cooked, drain and add the dressing while the barley is still warm.
Lightly steam the green beans so that they retain their lovely green colour and are still crisp. Refresh under cold water to stop the beans cooking further and drain. Cut the beans into thirds.
Toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they start to pop.
Place the dressed barley in a serving dish. Add the butternut, carrots and beans.
Slice the spring onions finely and add to the salad. Now add the chopped olives and feta, the toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped parsley and a grinding of black pepper.
With Christmas fast approaching, I am reminded of the need to resist celebrating the big feast all month long. This is not so easy to avoid what with office parties, neighbourly get togethers and a general increase in social events during this month of long nights and cold days. Not to mention the supermarket shelves heaving with cakes, puddings, special offers on jars of goose fat, crisps, nuts, sweets and everything else that is high cal, high fat and highly desirable. It feels such an effort to resist, so much simpler to indulge all month and start again in January.
Since I am awaiting the results of my latest cholesterol test, however, I am in no mood for celebrating just yet. If my result if elevated I will need to put in more of an effort, not less. If I am in the normal range then I want to stay there. My way of coping with December last year was to keep on as normal until Xmas eve. Even then I tried not to go overboard on the nibbles before the meal and to ignore the dessert, cheese and chocolate that followed. I did manage to resist the cheese so that was something I suppose. On Christmas itself, I loaded up my plate with every trimming available, could not believe I could possibly eat so much, and polished off every last mouthful. It was a feast and I enjoyed it all. Reasonably soon I tried to get back on track although it is never easy after eating anything and everything for a few days. At least it is not easy for me.
Many years ago I worked across the road from a bakery called Bonne Bouche. It was a most apt name as almost everything there tasted good. They baked gorgeous breads from which my lunchtime sandwich would be prepared. This was in the days before decent bread was easily available in the UK. Nowadays most farmers markets have bread worth eating, not to mention a proliferation of French bakeries – at least in London – and artisinal loaves available more widely than ever even in supermarkets.
At the beginning of December, Bonne Bouche would begin to bake mince pies for the festive season. These were no ordinary mince pies. Devotees would queue patiently for their turn to purchase these fabulous creations. Even now I can recall the delicate pastry in which was encased a filling rich and generous. Not having previously been a fan of mince pies, I was converted. My colleagues and I took turns to buy boxes of the mince pies for our department, like standing your round at the bar. No one dared sneak out for a fix at Bonne Bouche without returning with a large box full.
Even when I moved jobs, I returned to the bakery at Christmas time to make sure that I was eating the best mince pies in town. Nowadays I live just a bit too far away to make such a journey, which is just as well, for if it were any closer I know that my ability to withstand the excesses of December would be found sorely lacking.
The pomegranates are stacked up in crates outside my local Iranian store. It reminds me of travelling in Istanbul where pomegranate sellers can be found on street corners ready to juice a pomegranate for a thirst quenching drink. Sometimes they add a freshly squeezed orange.
As the month of drinks parties approaches it can be helpful to have a few non-alcoholic options up your sleeve. This pomegranate drink has the added virtue of being a glass brimming with antioxidants. A super drink, if you like. It certainly tastes great. You could, of course, top it up with cava or something bubbly if you want it alcoholic.
For four people:
1 large pomegranate, seeds removed
1 large orange
Soda water or cava
Start by removing the seeds from the pomegranate. Cut the fruit in half over a large bowl – have some kitchen towel ready as the juice tends to spray everywhere – and then in quarters. Now bend back the skin and the seeds will start to fall into the bowl. Pick the rest out, discarding the white membrane that you will find between the seeds.
Place the seeds in a food processor and give it a whizz. Then tip the pulp and juice into a sieve. Using the back of a spoon, press out as much juice as you can.
Cut the orange in half and squeeze out as much juice as you can.
Combine the orange and pomegranate juices and divide between 4 glasses. Top up with soda water or cava if you prefer.
Sorting through a precipitously high pile of paperwork on my bedside table this week, I came across a measuring tape sent to me by the British Heart Foundation. It forms part of a pack aimed at helping people establish their risk of cardiovascular disease. This is no ordinary measuring tape, although it could no doubt be used to measure the usual sorts of domestic things like hemming trousers and the like. Mind you, I no longer hem trousers, having been tipped off by a friend about how to sticky tape a hem. Thanks to her, I now rustle slightly as I walk, my trousers all hemmed beautifully with selloptape which I remove when they are in the washing machine, only to apply another strip once dry. If only everything in life was so simple.
But I digress. This measuring tape captured my attention as not only did it have the usual metric and imperial measurements, it was also divided into bands of colour – white, pink and red – and had on one side the word Asian and on the other European. Fortunately it was accompanied by a set of instructions for use. Having found the mid-point between my lowest rib and my hip, I was to measure the circumference of my belly. This proved more difficult than anticipated. Each time I tried to get the tape around my middle, it seemed to be on the Asian side. I knew I needed to get to the European side but the tape kept twisting and slipping. The last time I had to think about getting from the Asian to the European side was in Istanbul. At least there was a ferry. Here I only had my own two hands which were having difficulty co-ordinating. Eventually I succeeded and was somewhat aghast at what I found.
If the circumference of your belly falls into the white area then your weight is in a healthy range and you are at low risk of cardiovascular disease from a weight point of view. If you fall into the pink area you are at increasing risk and if in the red area you are at high risk. I was shocked to find that although I have kept most of my weight loss off – bar a few kgs – I am on the border between pink and red. I have noticed that I am carrying more weight around my belly lately– a result of middle age I think – but this redistribution of fat to the central area increases risk of cardiovascular disease.
You can do this test yourself with an ordinary tape measure. For European women, the low risk category is anything below 31.5 inches, the increasing health risk category falls between 31.5 inches and 34.6 inches. Anything above that is high risk – seek advice to lose weight. Strangely, for Asian women, the tape does not have an intermediate category and goes from low risk – anything below 31.5 inches – straight on to high risk – anything above 31.5 inches.
The measurements for men are in centimetres. For European men, the low risk category is anything below 94cm, the increasing health risk between 94cm and 102cm, with the high risk being above 102cm. For Asian men anything below 90cm is low risk and anything above 90cm is high risk.
Although I was disappointed and disheartened by my increasing girth, I was relieved at least to have measured myself before going out for dinner at a friend’s house. On my return home, my middle distended from having helped myself to portions beyond my needs, I would have been straight into the high risk category. The instructions do not suggest what time of day you measure, they only say ‘avoid breathing in’. As if anyone aside from me would dream of cheating!
I have always felt a bit iffy about kale, which is a shame as it is packed to bursting with nutrients. It is a member of the brassica family – one of those families we all do well to invite often into our homes. They come bearing gifts of vitamins, beta carotene and are part of the group of super nutrients that are supposed to help ward off cancer. The only thing to bear in mind with those brassicas is that they go from delicious to inedible in quite a short time. Overcooked, a cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower is not a pleasant prospect. Same with kale. It tastes like stewed tea leaves if cooked too long. This also leads to a depletion of its health giving properties. All of which is why I tried it this week in a salad – raw. All of a sudden, my children, who previously resisted kale, said ‘can we have some please?’ when I made it for my lunch. I was surprised to find myself making more salad and it was finished in no time at all. Now I plan to buy it more often. It even has a cute name – curly kale!
Sumac is a plant the flowers of which are dried and ground into a powder. It has a wonderful lemony flavour and adds both a shot of citrus plus a lovely crimson colour to the salad. It is not essential though so just leave it out if you cannot find any. I usually get mine in a local Iranian or Turkish shop.
For 4 people:
150g bag kale, washed and dried, leaves stripped off stalks and chopped into strips
75g baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
3 – 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
50g pumpkin seeds, toasted in a dry pan until they pop
150g low fat cottage cheese
½ pomegranate, seeds removed
1 ripe avocado pear, halved, stoned, peeled and cut into slices
Sumac to sprinkle
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon good quality extra virgin olive oil
Half a lemon
Combine the kale and spinach leaves and place in your salad bowl. Carefully place the avocado slices on the leaves. Using a teaspoon, scoop small balls of cottage cheese and place around the salad leaves. Now scatter over the spring onions, pumpkin seeds and the pomegranate seeds.
Give your pepper mill a few grinds over the salad and sprinkle a few pinches of sumac over the salad.
Finally drizzle over a tablespoon of good quality oil – salads are where those more expensive oils really have a chance to shine – and also lemon juice to taste.
You could eat this as a light lunch with a slice of wholemeal bread or pita or use as a side dish with a piece of grilled fish or chicken.
I was sent an article this week by one of my readers who came across it on the CNN website. Entitled Not on Cholesterol Meds? New Guidelines May Change That, the article reports a ‘tectonic shift’ in how high cholesterol is to be treated. This is an article based on new guidelines in the US but as is often the case, what starts across the pond sometimes finds its way over here.
So what are these new guidelines released by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology? Essentially they are suggesting that when considering a prescription for statins, doctors focus on a patient’s risk factors for cardiovascular disease rather than only on their cholesterol level. The outcome of this new approach could double the number of people in the US with a statin prescription. That will total some 72 million people.
Good news for the drug companies, I thought. Yet the article suggests that because most statins are now generic, there is very little money in statins these days as they are so cheap to produce and buy.
So if statin prescription will no longer be advised simply on the result of your blood test, how will doctors know who should get them? There are 4 questions that will be asked of patients. These are:
1. Does the patient have heart disease.
2. Does the patient have Type 1 or 2 diabetes.
3. Does the patient have a cholesterol level higher than 190 – equivalent to 4.9 in the UK
4. Is the patient’s 10 year risk of heart attack greater than 7.5%
If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative you will leave the surgery with a statin prescription. If you do not tick any of these boxes then you will be advised to make lifestyle changes to manage high cholesterol.
How will the patient’s risk be evaluated? With an online calculator. I have had this done at my GP surgery. The nurse asked me a load of questions to do with family history of cardiovascular disease, my own personal history, blood pressure, behavioural habits like smoking and alcohol consumption, and then factored in my age. The computer put my percentage risk at a figure that I cannot now recall – I am sure I wrote it down, but where ? – but that I know did not cause concern.
I am a bit confused about question 3 because a cholesterol level below 5 is considered normal. So if you have anything from 5 and above you are now a statin candidate? My last elevated test result was 6.5. At that point my GP wisely gave me 3 months to sort myself out – lose weight, get exercising and changing my diet – before a retest. I assume that if my level had remained elevated we would have engaged in the statin conversation, but lifestyle change was tried first as it should be in my opinion.
I am all for doctors motivating their patients to make healthy heart lifestyle changes – to exercise 4 times a week for ½ hour, to keep their weight within healthy range, to stop smoking and limit alcohol intake and to eat healthily. In other words, to prevent patients from getting any of the boxes ticked. Lifestyle changes are key to reducing risk for cardiovascular disease.
What confused me is that some statin research suggests that statins are not effective in reducing heart attack rates in women who have not yet had one. When you consider that statins have been implicated in the developing of Type 2 diabetes it seems strange to me that they should also be considered part of the solution. It seems to me that the bar for prescribing statins has been lowered somewhat which will make it harder for patients to resist statins if they feel they are not necessary or desirable. Once the bar is lowered it becomes the new normal. This happened before in the US when in 2004 the guidelines for who should be on statins was changed and the numbers of patients on statins tripled. Previously they had only been given to those who had already had heart attacks but the new regulations made it necessary to prescribe statins to everyone who had raised cholesterol. Once this was already in place, the National Institute of Health acknowledged that eight out of the nine experts involved in drafting the new cholesterol treatment guidelines had substantial financial ties to the drug companies manufacturing statins.
I am particularly aware of the complexity of this issue this week as I am visiting my GP to get a referral for my annual cholesterol check. I would hate to think that if my level is raised again, my GP will zap me on statins as per the new guidelines without letting me try to bring the levels down first. Even if my level turns out in a few weeks time to be elevated I will still want to have a full and frank discussion about the efficacy – or rather lack of efficacy – in statin use for women who have not had a heart attack. And I will also want to carefully consider the implications of statins as regards their potential side effects. We are not talking Smarties here.
This is the season for pumpkins and squash. I am a great admirer of the butternut squash and always return to it even if I occasionally stray to other gourds. Continuing with my desire to get some colour on my plate, I have prepared an orange tagine with a bit of extra colour and flavour added by the preserved lemon and the olives and coriander. As always with a tagine, this dish is best made a day, or even two, before you want to eat it. Aside from the flavours growing more intense, I love coming in from work to find a tasty meal just waiting to be warmed up.
Ras-el-hanout which translates as ‘head of the shop’ is a Moroccan spice mix which you can now buy in many supermarkets. It consists of a wide variety of spices – some brands claim to have 100 different spices – and even rose petals. Basic ingredients include nutmeg, mace, ginger,turmeric,paprika,black pepper, cardamom,cinnamon, ash bay and maniguette (a Saharan nutmeg). It gives a very distinctive taste to the tagine. It is quite spicy so I find that 2 tablespoons is sufficient, but do add more if you like. Taste first though.
To feed 4 – 6 people:
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks
1 butternut, peeled, seeded and chopped into bite sized chunks
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks
Thumb size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
2 tablespoons ras-el-hanout
Vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
2 -3 preserved lemons, washed, pulp removed and skin thinly sliced
½ cup pitted green olives
2 handfuls fresh coriander, roughly chopped
A cupful of roasted almonds, roughly chopped
Heat the olive oil gently in a large casserole. Saute the onions until they are softening, add the garlic and the ras-el-hanout, and then the chopped vegetables. Stir to combine the vegetables and the onion and spice mix. Cook gently for 5 minutes and then add vegetable stock to cover.
Bring to the boil and then lower the heat and simmer for 30 – 40 minute or until the vegetables are soft but still holding their shape. You don’t want the veg to become mushy.
Add the preserved lemon, olives and coriander. Stir to combine.
If you are going to serve this the next day then allow to cool and refrigerate. Heat gently when you are ready to eat. Garnish with extra preserved lemon and chopped coriander and a sprinkle of chopped almonds.
If your guests like their tagine extra spicy, hand round a jar of harissa.
Serve with a bowl of couscous garnished with the seeds of half a pomegranate and some freshly chopped mint.
This week a friend gave me a wonderful gift – her time. She asked if she could have my kids overnight so that my husband and I could have ‘a romantic evening together’. Well, who can refuse such an offer? I thought about booking a table at a restaurant or last minute tickets to the theatre. But then I realised that the biggest treat of all would be to have the house to ourselves for a few hours. Of course I dread the day when we permanently have the house back to ourselves – at first during university term time and then, eventually, forever. But for now, it is unusual to have a whole evening together with no-one to nag about bedtime, homework, cello practice, endless hours playing computer games. My kids would be only too happy if I would just stop nagging about these things any night of the week, but despite my resolve not to do so, I find it almost impossible to let all these issues go uncommented on. After all, what is parenting about if not providing children with a constant stream of instructions to resist, ridicule or ignore?
It is therefore a relief to be absolved of such responsibilities for a short time. Of course my husband and I spoke about the kids most of the evening, but then they are an endlessly fascinating topic of conversation, at least to us. But I did discover some forgotten pleasures like having a candlelit bath at 6pm. No-one needed a lift anywhere or paced the kitchen in search of pre-dinner snacks or wondered repeatedly when supper would be served.
In fact I had taken the precaution of pre-cooking most of the dinner so that it could be eaten at any time of night – another long forgotten freedom. When my son saw me preparing the meal earlier in the day he said that he thought Valentine’s Day was in February. Romance should be on the menu whenever one gets the chance I informed him. A lesson I hope he will recall one day.
Talking of menus I was supposed to be getting back to basics this week and did not do too badly with the romantic menu – griddled scallops with basil and dill, partridge in a white wine sauce, meringues with no fat yoghurt and pomegranate seeds. That is not to mention the box of leftover cheese straws about to pass their sell by date and therefore needing to be eaten by me. Nor the chocolate that was on offer at Sainsbury’s and therefore needing to be eaten by me too. Plus the biscuits I baked for my friend to thank her for her kindness which had to be taste tested by me – several of them as a matter of fact.
There is something wonderful about spending an evening out in one’s own home. You don’t have to dress up, search for parking and decide who the designated driver will be. Your house is cosy, the fridge is full and you have your favourite pillow at bedtime. Best of all you get tea in bed in the morning. Kids, on the other hand, seem to have a better time in other peoples’ homes and mine returned happy, even having had waffles for breakfast. It’s what I call a win-win situation.
What with the skies darkening earlier and the cold starting to settle in, it feels like time for a bit of sunshine in my kitchen. What better way to add colour than a vibrant salad of orange and red, plenty beta-carotene to improve eyesight on these dark nights and antioxidants to ward off colds? The preserved lemon and orange blossom water add bite and fragrance in equal measure and ring the changes on the traditional carrot salad which I remember from my childhood.
For 4 people:
6 large carrots, grated
Juice of 1 large orange
A few drops of orange blossom water
1 preserved lemon, peel chopped
A handful of mint leaves
Seeds of ½ pomegranate
Peel and grate the carrots into a mixing bowl. Add the orange juice and just a couple of drops of orange blossom water. While the orange blossom adds an exotic, North African taste to the salad, this is a case of less is more. You can always add an extra drop or two if you like.
Now add the peel of the preserved lemon. Wash the lemon under running water as you remove the pulp. These lemons are salty so they need a wash while you pull off the peel. Dry the peel with kitchen towel and chop into fine strips. Add these to the salad along with the seeds from the pomegranate. You can remove the seeds by cutting the pomegranate in half – beware of your clothes as juice flies everywhere – and then cut in half again. Take the quarters, bend the skin back a bit so that the seeds begin to fall out. You will have to pick out the rest and remove all the papery skin that separates the pockets of seeds. I tend to eat half of them as I go as they are so delicious.
Finish off with a handful of mint leaves, chopped into thin strips. Mix in well.
I think the flavours intensify if you leave the salad in the fridge if you are going to serve it a while later. Remove it a bit before you serve it so it is not too cold. It has a lovely fresh taste.
If it is November then Christmas must be around the next corner. Between now and then – the ‘then’ being a time to put my feet up, relax and eat a lot – I must arrange my annual cholesterol test. The problem is in the timing. To go now would be to court failure as I have spent the past couple of weeks doing nothing but eat every full fat food I can get my hands on. Sadly most of these have been in my own kitchen, leftovers from the catering job a few weekends back. How could I have known that the paella man would cook such vast quantities, that no matter how many helpings our guests enjoyed, there would be enough left in the fridge to feed the family for a week? It became a running joke with my boys. ‘What’s for supper, mum? No let me guess – paella?’ Eventually I despaired of ever reaching the bottom of this mound of carbohydrates and had to give it a hefty hand by eating spoonfuls each time I opened the fridge.
Same story with the chocolate cake which turned out to feed many more mouths than I had intended. Despite giving away chunks of the stuff, we were still eating it 5 days later when it tasted as moist and deeply chocolaty as on its first outing. I lost count of how many pieces I personally ate – far too many to recall. At last the final bits were eaten by my son and his friend. No sooner had they cleared their plates than my husband arrived home saying he had been looking forward to a piece of the chocolate cake all day. I missed you too, dear. I managed to scoop together the last crumbs which he picked at sadly. Not that I am unsympathetic. I hate arriving home anticipating a handful of almonds only to discover that someone has scoffed the lot.
Suffice it to say that the chocolate cake is partly the reason that I cannot go for my cholesterol test just yet and that I will not be baking another until at least Christmas. Which brings me back to the matter of timing. I need to get back in my walking shoes pronto – having not been out much for 2 weeks – and back on track with the eating malarkey. This has to be kept up earnestly for about a month, then get the test in before making plans for those Christmas meals. Hopefully my levels will be ok, at least low enough to keep me cheerfully indulgent over the festive season.
Some years ago I began to prepare goose for Christmas lunch. The goose fat makes the most divine roast potatoes and is so thick that you could coat yourself in it and happily dance outdoors naked without feeling the cold. As geese do if they are turned down for the starring role in the Christmas pageant. Of course I could avoid phoning the coronary care unit and the goose farm – yes they deliver to the door a few days before the feast – and set about poaching a salmon. But imagine the disbelieving faces of my men at that lunch table even if I make the champagne and cream sauce I came across this morning in a magazine.
So that’s all set then. Pity there is no liposuction equivalent for removing excess cholesterol from the bloodstream. I could do with a little short cut right now. In the meantime I am nipping into the kitchen to make some hot chocolate – did I mention how much icing I have left over? Melted into a pot of hot milk and cream …