On Christmas night I ate in a very fine restaurant in Berlin and ordered my favourite game dish, haunch of venison. It was served on a quince purée which was the most wonderful sweet foil for the gamey meat. On returning home I made straight for my Turkish grocers where boxes of quince are available in season. Oh how I love the aroma of a quince! Making this puree was so simple it is embarrassing to even write about it as a recipe. Yet it tastes so good that I want to share it. I made it as an accompaniment to a roast guinea fowl. Having some left over I then served it with a roast chicken and it was as good. I am planning to make another batch to use as a dessert.
For 4 people:
2 -3 large quince, peeled and roughly chopped
In a thick bottomed pot, place the chopped quince in a cup of water. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Keep an eye on the water level as you don’t want the quince to boil dry. After half an hour check with a sharp knife to see if the quince is soft. It may need ore time depending on the size of your chunks.
Drain the quince and reserve the liquid which you can mix into yoghurt. Purée the quince in a food processor until it is very smooth.
When goalposts keep moving I get confused. First it was the 5-a-day advice which became 10 -12 a day instead. While this increased daily intake of fruit and veg may well improve our health, I find it very difficult to eat quite so much in any one day. Yes, there are occasions when I may have time to prepare that amount of food, but most days my intake is more in line with the original 5. This is especially true since I have stopped drinking a daily glass of juice. Recently, reports have suggested that a glass of juice be removed from the list of items that can be counted towards our 5-a-day. This is due to the healthiest part of the fruit having been left behind in the juice-making process as well as the finding that fruit juices often have as much sugar as a glass of Coke. As fruits have more sugar than most veg, any increased intake should err on the side of the vegetables. In other words, eating 10 fruits a day is overdoing the sugar. A handful of dried fruit has traditionally been another way I would sneak in a portion of fruit, but the sugar content of dried fruit also has to be borne in mind.
As if all this was not enough to make me feel so fed up with health advice that a slice of cake seems irresistible, now my walking regime is also up for review. When I first began to walk to lower cholesterol two years ago, the general advice was 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 times a week. The pace obviously differs from person to person but the idea was to get your heart rate up and to work up a sweat. No strolling or window shopping. I arranged my weekly programme around work and began to walk to particular events, to the shops, and to use the car less. I didn’t always manage 5 walks a week but I certainly tried.
Last week it was announced that in order to prolong our lives we should be walking 20 minutes every day. What perplexes me is whether what matters is the daily exercise or the overall time spent exercising each week. To be pedantic, 20 minutes a day = 140 minutes per week whereas 30 minutes 5 times a week = 150 minutes. Not much difference. So why can’t we just stick to the old advice and not complicate matters?
Reading up on the research it emerges that in fact it is the 150 minutes a week that counts – at least 10 minutes at a time being required. This of course is the basic level required for being classified as ‘moderately inactive’ (!!!) and we should be aiming for more exercise if possible. Needless to say weight is also important although it seems that if one is going to choose to lose weight or to exercise, the latter has more health benefits in terms of longevity. As far as weight is concerned, the most important consideration is our waist measurement. I have written about this several times before and you can check out the recommended measurements at http://fromthehealthyheart.com/?s=measuring+up
As I move further into middle age all I can say is that keeping my midriff in any shape whatsoever has become increasingly difficult. Just as well that walking turns out to be equally important.
Lowering cholesterol is as much as what you add in to your diet as what you avoid eating. Lentils and pulses are important and should be eaten regularly. Finding different ways to eat them makes it more likely to keep up this healthy habit. I particularly like Puy lentils as they have a lovely nutty taste and hold their shape. You can use brown or green lentils instead.
After getting caught in the rain I just had to make soup. This one is so tasty that it is difficult to stop after one bowl!
For 4 – 6 people:
1 onion, chopped
4 leeks, thinly sliced
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
300g Puy lentils
2l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
400g tin chopped tomatoes
Gently heat the olive oil in a thick bottomed pot. Add the onion, leeks, carrots and garlic and sweat slowly until the vegetables are tender. I think soup tastes better when you take your time over this stage.
Add 300g Puy lentils along with 2l vegetable stock. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue to cook until the lentils are soft.
Blend half the soup mixture and then mix it back into the unblended mixture. This creates an interesting texture with the whole lentils providing a delightful ‘bite’.
I realised how far I had fallen from grace when I suggested to my Saturday walking partner that we swop our walk for a cup of tea. In mitigation, the wind was driving the drizzle into our faces and the tearoom we were passing looked warm and cosy. I fancied putting the world to rights (or at least our kids) over slices of lemon drizzle cake. My friend, having put our need to get fit ahead of our appetites and my laziness, wisely suggested ‘just a short walk then’ and in no time we had covered our usual route. Her years of experience of cajoling children were turned to good use with her middle aged companion who, ever errant, later went on to eat three scones, a slice of carrot cake and a heap of chocolate.
A few days later I decided enough was enough. I put on my walking shoes and strode out despite the thick grey clouds overhead. I felt a glimmer of determination. My thoughts turned to healthy meals of glistening fillets of salmon, fragrant lentil soup and cottage cheese salad with pomegranate seeds.
As I entered the park I passed a woman of extensive girth walking her dog. My determination to reverse – not increase – my weight gain stepped up a rung. Near the tennis courts I spotted a woman sitting in a big coat smoking a cigarette. Still further along, I came across an elderly lady in a wheelchair.
I felt my psychic inbox filling up with messages. I began to get into my stride, feeling my heart beating, my lungs expanding, my muscles doing what muscles should do. I began to experience that sense of wellbeing that comes from a rush of endorphins and the privilege of being alive and well.
Suddenly I decided that it was time to really get a grip. As my birthday looms on the horizon a couple of months off, I resolved to arrange a healthy gift to myself – I will lose the excess weight I am carrying and get my cholesterol level down enough to face going for my delayed cholesterol test.
Just as I turned for home, it began to rain. I was damp but my spirit was not. I noticed some green shoots emerging from the ground followed shortly by the first cherry blossom on a solitary tree. I tuned in to these messages from Mother Nature and felt happy to be walking in the rain. A lithe woman ran past me as it began to pour, the pompom on her hat bobbing cheerfully.
Then the heavens opened and it began to pour. A storm broke, the thunder boomed and I got soaked. As I neared home the hail began to pelt down. I returned battered but not beaten.
I made this dish with a homemade ricotta which was especially delicious and fresh. However, I have served this many times in the past with a shop bought cheese and it was tasty too. I like to eat this with toasted walnut bread.
For 4 people:
1 tub ricotta
250g cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon olive oil
Good quality balsamic vinegar – the type that tastes so good you can drink it
A few handfuls of fresh basil leaves
Heat a punnet of cherry tomatoes in a teaspoon of olive oil. Leave them to gently cook on a moderate heat for about 10 minutes until they are beginning to burst open.
Drizzle some balsamic vinegar over the tomatoes which will become sticky and glossy.
Serve immediately alongside the ricotta and a pile of peppery basil leaves.
A grinding of black pepper will complete the dish.
‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ declared the cheese making kit that arrived in the post a few weeks ago. Yet there was nothing Monty Python-ish about making my own Ricotta. In fact it was a doddle.
The Sheffield based company, Cheeky Monkey Cream Chargers (www.creamchargers.org.uk), is encouraging home cheese making. I opted to try the Mozzarella and Ricotta kit and was sent a small box in which were three sachets : citric acid, vegetarian rennet and cheese salt. Unfortunately I could not attempt the mozzarella as it required use of a microwave – a gadget I do not possess. It also required a thermometer which I am afraid I also do not have. Clearly my kitchen is under-supplied.
Although the ricotta also required a thermometer I reckoned that I could roughly tell when the milk had reached 90 degrees – after all that is just below boiling point, right? Yes, there was another measurement required at 75 degrees but I thought that would be a moderately hot temperature. After all, ricotta has been made in Italy for a very long time, preceding, I am sure, the advent of the kitchen thermometer.
I am pleased to report that my lack of kit did not affect the outcome of the cheese. I started out slightly incredulous that a large pot of milk could turn into a ricotta simply with the addition of diluted citric acid, salt and the application of heat.
I followed the instructions very carefully – aside from measuring the exact temperature – and in less than an hour I was scooping out the curds to drain in my cheesecloth – lined colander. For the first time I truly understood what it was that Little Miss Muffet was eating when the spider came along to keep her company while she was eating her curds and whey. I must confess that the ricotta was so rich and fresh that no spider could have parted me from it.
I ate some alongside a simple salad of green leaves and chunks of avocado. The following day I shared the rest with my three hungry men. This time I heated a punnet of cherry tomatoes in a teaspoon of olive oil. I left them in the pan on a moderate heat for about 10 minutes until they were beginning to burst open. I opened my very best balsamic vinegar and drizzled some over the tomatoes which became sticky and glossy. They made a sweetly acidic foil for the rich and delicate cheese, while a pile of freshly picked basil added a peppery note.
Would I recommend this product or use it again myself? Yes and yes. Next time I am having guests for brunch I plan to show off and present my own ricotta. In the meantime, perhaps I should put a thermometer on my birthday wish list.
On holiday over Christmas I had menu envy when my husband ordered a bowl of curried swede soup. Never having thought of swede as the main attraction in a soup before, I couldn’t wait to get back home to my kitchen to rustle up my own version. The rocket pesto isn’t essential but it does add a few extra notes of flavour and colour as well as another dose of vitamins which is always handy at this time of year.
For 4 people with leftovers:
3 large swedes, peeled and chopped into chunks
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
½ tablespoon medium curry powder
Pinch of turmeric
2l stock – vegetable or chicken
2 -3 handfuls of rocket – try to get the wild rocket which is more peppery
1 small clove garlic
A pinch of sea salt
½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tub quark
Heat oven to 200 C.
Place chopped swede in a roasting tray ad pour over ½ tablespoon of olive oil. Mix together. Roast for 45 minutes or until soft. The swede will turn a lovely deep yellow.
In a non-stick pan, toast the cumin seeds on a low heat until they become fragrant and are lightly toasted. Pour them into a mortar and pestle and grind them to a powder.
In the meantime, gently sweat the onion, leek and carrot in ½ tablespoon olive oil until the vegetables are soft. Add the ground cumin, turmeric and curry powder plus the ginger to the onion and carrot mixture and cook gently for a few minutes.
When the swede is cooked, add to the onions and carrot mixture. Add the vegetable or chicken stock, stir to combine with the vegetables and simmer for ½ hour.
Allow to cool a bit and then blend.
To make the rocket pesto, place a pinch of sea salt in a mortar and pestle along with a small clove of garlic. Pound to a paste and then add the rocket – you may need to add the rocket in batches. Pound the rocket into a paste along with the garlic – this will take a minute or so.
Soups benefit from being made the day before so that the flavours can develop. When ready to serve, reheat the soup and add a swirl of quark and a swirl of rocket pesto to each bowl.
One of the positive aspects of growing older is that the pressure to constantly reinvent myself every new year starts to fade. Having set decades worth of resolutions which have almost all failed to materialise, I am now less inclined to try to impress with something amusing/creative/meaningful when that old question pops up over Prosecco and nibbles on New Year’s Eve.
One resolution that has stood the test of time – well, two years at least – is the decision to write this blog. On 7 January 2013 I posted my first recipe (muesli) and my first 500 word report on my attempt to lower my cholesterol level. Since then, each week I have written about my thoughts and got into the kitchen to produce a dish that is low fat and tasty. Aside from the odd week off for a summer and Xmas holiday – mostly because my three hungry men find my tapping away at my laptop intrusive when I am supposed to be on the beach, in a museum, cooking up something to eat – I have kept my resolve to continue the blog even though some weeks I might not have felt in the mood. It is probably the only discipline I have managed to keep.
I say the only discipline for why else would I be mostly in the same place as I was two years ago? I am overdue for my annual cholesterol test as I know my level is up, I am not far off the weight I was when the GP practice nurse told me to lose weight, and I am about as enthusiastic about walking as I was when I first began to exercise, albeit that I now own a better pair of trainers and a rather flattering pair of Lycra walking trousers.
I know a lot more about cholesterol that I did two years ago but knowledge is one thing and putting it into practice is quite another. Knowing a bit about a subject often has the effect of making one realise how little one knows. So it is with cholesterol, healthy eating and cardiovascular disease. The more I have read, the more confused I have become over the years. The field has become very contested with cardiologists and researchers disagreeing about the fundamentals of the role of cholesterol in causing cardiovascular disease and whether saturated fat is the big bad wolf it has been made out to be over the past decades. I have shared some of my confusion on the blog and hope to continue to report on research – much of it conflicting – over the next year.
A few things I have realised include that I will always find it hard to keep my weight in check, that my cholesterol level will always be up and down – it will continue to go up and then I will have to redouble my efforts to bring it down – and that I will never love exercise although I hope to continue to do it. I will never be able to leave an open box of biscuits uneaten nor resist a bowl of Kettle Fried Crisps. I will always want to feast on festivals and travel as much to eat as to sight-see.
On new year’s day I heard a radio programme in which an oncologist opined that our bodies are only designed to live until 40 and we begin to fall apart after that. Being well on from that milestone, I have reached the age when good health is more important than good cheekbones.
I wish you all a healthy 2015 and the reminder that if you look after your heart, your heart will look after you.
This is a simple fish dish which not only contains the Omegas and healthy fats required to help lower cholesterol, but has the addition of lentils which is another of the foods which help to keep cholesterol in check. Accompanied by kale from the brassica family, this is one seriously healthy meal.
For 4 people:
4 salmon fillets – or you can use one large fillet and slice it after cooking
150g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 handfuls of kale, leaves stripped
Begin by boiling the Puy lentils in plenty of water in which you have dropped the garlic clove. This gives the lentils some extra flavour. Check the lentils after 20 – 30 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
Place the salmon on a baking tray lined with foil or greaseproof paper.
Spread a layer of mustard over the fish – not too thin a layer but don’t lay it on with a trowel either.
Bake in a preheated oven (200 C) for 20 minutes.
While the fish is cooking, steam the kale gently so that it retains its dark green colour – I only cook it for a few minutes otherwise I find its taste can become unpleasant.
Mix the wilted kale into the lentils.
Serve the fish on a bed of the lentil and kale mixture.
December is half way through and we are hurtling towards Christmas. I for one am not ready for this time of year, when there is both food to eat and food for thought. Time for reviewing the year past and planning for the next. All those new year resolutions to plan for, most of which will be discarded by the end of January.
Usually at this time of year, I am starting to stock the freezer and cupboards with all sorts of foods we don’t eat at any other time. I try to avoid eating much of it until Christmas Eve following which I enjoy a couple of weeks of full fat feasting. Sometimes it feels more like endurance than enjoyment.
What I recall from last year’s festivities was how I felt on Boxing Day. We had a house guest over Christmas and we had been eating and drinking wholeheartedly since Christmas Eve. As I served Boxing Day lunch I began to feel an overwhelming sense of nausea. I managed a bit of soup but by the time I carved the baked ham into thick slices I knew I was defeated. So much so that I had to abandon my family and guest and adopt the supine position on the sofa. My day was spoilt, my plate untouched, teatime cake abandoned. All I was capable of was groaning and regretting all I had eaten the day before. I resolved not to do the same next year.
And next year is now here. I have found an excellent way to prevent myself from repeating past mistakes. I will not be eating Christmas lunch at all. On Christmas Day I will likely be eating a sandwich in a museum café. Travelling to Berlin over Christmas, where shops are closed but museums are open sounds the perfect destination.
The result of my forthcoming travels is that I am eyeing up the gloves, hats and thermals in the shops rather than the mince pies, panettones and special deals on Baileys Irish Cream. My fridge is not preparing itself for the annual onslaught of Grande Marnier clotted cream, vol au vents and assorted canapés, wheels of camembert, dolcelatte and stilton not to mention goose fat for the potatoes. No bags of nuts for snacking and boxes of chocolates for no reason other than gluttony and watching reruns of films that were not even so great on the first viewing.
Lest you think me virtuous, please know that while Christmas day may be more culture than cuisine, I have plans for hot chocolate with rum and thick slices of strudel in cafes, warm cups of glühwein with sausages at the Christmas markets, plates of roast goose with red cabbage, stolen, lebkuchen and other seasonal treats. With temperatures below freezing I reckon I will need all the calories I can get.
Wishing you a very happy Christmas. Enjoy the day and try to get back on track soon after.