Monthly Archives: January 2013

Savoy Lentils

Savoy Lentils

Peering into my fridge, I came across a Savoy cabbage that needed using up. I was suddenly transported back to my childhood when my grandmother made stuffed cabbage leaves. Hers were made with minced meat but I thought I would try to recreate the dish using lentils. When working towards lower cholesterol, lentils are one of the ‘must eat’ foods so I am always looking for new ways to prepare them. My favourites are Puy lentils, which are French in origin, but you can also use brown or green lentils. When I brought the dish to the table, my boys looked slightly sceptical, but when I heard the magic question ‘is there any more, mum?’, I knew that my grandmother would be looking down on me and smiling.

For 4 people:
150 – 200g Puy lentils
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped plus one clove peeled, whole
1 tablespoon olive oil
Vegetable stock
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato puree
½ teaspoon harissa
1 Savoy cabbage, tough outer leaves removed, pick off 8 large inner leaves
50g light feta

Start by boiling the lentils. I know you are supposed to check lentils for grit but to be honest I never do. Don’t let me stop you doing so though if the fancy takes you. Place the lentils and the peeled garlic clove in a pot with enough water to cover well and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the lentils are soft but still have a bite. Check occasionally that there is enough water in the pot or the lentils may burn. Drain and set aside.

While the lentils are cooking you can get on with making the tomato sauce. In a pot gently heat the olive oil (or you can sauté in water or a little stock) and sauté the onion, carrot and celery on a low heat. Place the lid on the pot so that the vegetables can sweat. Stir from time to time and if they look dry add a little bit of vegetable stock.

Once the veg is soft add the chopped garlic and continue to cook for a few minutes. Then add the tomatoes and the tomato puree. Now add the harissa. You will notice that the recipe calls for just a small amount of harissa. This is because I like to give just a hint of heat to this tomato sauce but not to turn it into a spicy dish. You can, of course, turn up the heat as much as you like but in this case I think the subtlety is good. Stir well and allow to simmer until the sauce thickens.

While this is all going on, bring some water to boil in a large pot or pan – sorry about all the washing up – and briefly blanch the cabbage leaves. Drain and leave to dry on a clean tea towel.

In a small bowl place a tablespoon of lentils for each cabbage leaf.
Pour over half the tomato sauce and mix well.
Put the other half of the tomato sauce in a food processor and puree briefly.
Pour the pureed tomato sauce into the bottom of an ovenproof dish.

Now you are ready to assemble the little parcels. Place a tablespoon of the lentil mix into the middle of each cabbage leaf and roll up neatly. Place the parcels on the tomato sauce. Crumble over the feta and bake at 180 C /350 F for about 20 minutes.

When you serve the parcels, spoon some of the tomato sauce over each one.

This goes very well with a simple dish of brown basmati rice.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Twenty Five

In the world of olive oil, there are grades of virginity. In the animal world you are either a virgin or not – imagine the ecclesiastical divisions that would result from debating whether Mary was the virgin or the extra-virgin!

Extra virgin olive oil means that the oil has been produced from a single pressing of the olives using only mechanical means not chemical additives. It also has to have an acidity level of less than 0.8%. Virgin olive oil comes from the second pressing, also without chemicals but can have a slightly higher acidity level. These two oils are cold pressed which means that no heat above 86 degrees has been used in pressing the olives and the oil therefore preserves more of its nutrients.

Further pressings of the olives results in correspondingly inferior grades of oil.

Refined olive oils are made by using chemicals to extract the oil from the waste pulp and stones. This oil is very different from the virgin oils in that it has lost its nutritional value and taste. It is not sold for cooking unless it has been blended with virgin oil in which case it is simply called simply olive oil. This is the olive oil most commonly found in shops and is sold under the names pure olive oil (actually a blend of refined and virgin olive oil), olive oil and light olive oil (light in flavour not in calories). Refined oil has a higher smoking point than unrefined oil. That is one of the reasons that the refining process is used and why olive oil is the better option for cooking with. Keep the virgin and extra virgin for salads, pouring over cooked vegetables, making mayonnaise and dips, drizzling on toast or bruschetta or for dipping.

If you want to be sure you are buying a quality product from a particular country there is an identification system in Europe with oils bearing the letters PDO on the bottle. For an olive oil to have a Protected Designation of Origin it has to have been produced, processed and prepared in a particular geographical area using agreed procedures. Unfortunately there have been a range of allegations that there is a very lax and corrupt regulation process especially in Italy and Spain. I recall reading reports about how certain virgin olive oils were found to be anything but.

As far as other options for cooking oils go, it seems that groundnut oil and canola oil are the best options. From the figures I have looked at, there is some discrepancy in the reported temperatures of the smoking points of all the oils including the range of olive oils. I suspect that each type of oil promotes itself as perfectly healthy at all levels and the research is varying – perhaps biased in places?

Bearing in mind that we should not be eating much fried food in any case, perhaps this is not an issue to become overly worked up about. I am planning to adapt my cooking oil regime and will now use olive oil to sauté (I still use oil when cooking for other family members) and for baking bread. The extra virgin will be kept for salads and drizzling over cooked vegetables – remember it adds good health to the food but just don’t use too much. I will now use up the special olive oils lurking in the back of the cupboard.

If all this seems very confusing and you are in the supermarket trying to remember what defines a virgin olive oil, you may paraphrase Madonna: ‘like a virgin, pressed for the very first time’.

Ten Bean Soup

Ten Bean Soup

I made this soup with a bag of ten bean mix I found in my supermarket. Not only did it taste delicious, but it also looked so colourful with beans in shades of red, brown, white and green. The soup is bursting with goodness as it contains many vegetables too.

For 6 people:

250g mixed beans, soaked overnight in cold water and rinsed
2 medium onions, chopped
3 leeks, washed and sliced
1 large carrot, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 large bag spinach
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 litre vegetable stock – I use salt-reduced Marigold bouillon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Black pepper

Using a large pot, gently heat the olive oil. Add the onions, leeks, carrots, celery and garlic and allow to sweat until the vegetables have softened a little – about 15 minutes. Now add the beans, the stock and the bay leaf and cook gently for about an hour. Now add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further ½ hour or until the beans are soft. Now add the spinach and allow it to wilt. Add the lemon juice and some ground black pepper and mix well.

I prefer to make soup the day before to allow the flavours to develop. In this case it was hungrily eaten almost immediately and bowls were scraped clean. I served it with toasted wholemeal pittas.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Twenty Four

I have several bottles of extra virgin olive oil on the go at any one time – a mid-priced one for cooking, a more expensive one or two for salads and very special oils bought from food boutiques which I tend to forget about in the back of the cupboard. Like leaving your special clothes for best and somehow that day never comes. From time to time I come across these couture oils during a rummage in the store cupboard and I wonder why I don’t just use them. After all, unlike a fine wine, olive oils do not get better with age. In fact, once opened, they should be used as quickly as possible and kept in a dark place at room temperature.It is better to buy oil in small quantities than large bottles that sit around for a long time. Good olive oils should ideally be used within a year of being made. Every time you open the bottle the oxygen affects the oil which is why olive oil bottles have narrow necks. Do not keep near the stove as the heat destroys the nutrients and can make the oil go rancid. Keep it well sealed. Ideally buy oil in a tinted bottle.

I have always thought that extra virgin olive oil was the best oil for all purposes. Turns out I was wrong, wrong, wrong about the use of extra virgin oil for cooking. Not only does heating this delicate oil spoil its health-promoting properties, but it seems that it can actually cause harm.

The first point to know is that all vegetable oils can be damaged by heat. Every oil has a different heat at which point it becomes damaged and the fat starts to break down. When oil breaks down it is doing so at a molecular level and this can produce carcinogens. The temperature at which this occurs is called the smoking point which is, as the name suggests, the point at which the oil starts to smoke when heated. Curiously, I have several recipes which explicitly instruct the cook to place the food in the pan when the oil is smoking!! I won’t be doing that again.

Although olive oil has a high level of monounsaturated fat (60 – 70%) which should stabilise the oil, these oils have a low smoking point. The range for extra virgin olive oil is 93-121 degrees centigrade. When you consider that the stove top frying heat ranges from 191-274 degrees centigrade, the problem becomes clear. Cooking in the oven usually starts at 180 degrees centigrade so that is no healthier.

The health benefits of olive oil are well documented and much research has been done on the central place of olive oil in the healthy Mediterranean diet. Some of these benefits include lowering of blood pressure, reducing inflammation in the body, prevention of blood clots, increased dilation of blood vessels, the lowering of LDL(the ‘bad’cholesterol) and the raising of HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol). In order to derive these benefits it seems that extra virgin olive oil needs to be consumed at a temperature less than 121 degrees centigrade.

Research I have read indicates that there is controversy about the smoking point of extra virgin olive oil with some studies indicating 160 degrees centigrade and another at 185 degrees centigrade But either way this heat is still lower that the cooking temperatures one generally uses.
To be continued tomorrow…

Teriyaki Salmon

Teriyaki Salmon

This is a delicious way to prepare salmon. Even people who don’t like salmon often enjoy this dish. You can prepare the fish ahead of time as it benefits from a 2 -4 hour marinade. You can then bake, grill or barbecue the fish. I like to serve it simply with brown basmati rice and steamed tender stem broccoli. Bear in mind that soy sauce is very salty so try to use a reduced salt variety. I don’t eat this weekly but it is a tasty change from time to time. As oily fish is supposed to be eaten at least twice a week it is important to have many recipes available if boredom is to be avoided.

For 4 fillets of salmon:
2 tablespoons reduced-salt soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin – you can buy this at a Japanese store or large supermarkets
1 pinch of brown sugar
A ½ thumb of fresh ginger, grated
Salmon fillets

Mix up the marinade and pour over the fish fillets that have been placed in a non-metallic dish.
Place in fridge for 2-4 hours – or less if you don’t have the time.

When you are ready to cook, heat the oven to 180 C? 350 F and bake the fish for about 20 minutes until just cooked through. Alternatively grill or barbecue.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Twenty Three

Walking home today – how easily that now slips off the tongue, whereas a few weeks ago I struggled to locate my walking shoes – I was having a think about cholesterol. OK I admit, I have become just a little bit obsessed about it. At least it gives me plenty to think about while I am out on my feet rather than lazily driving in my car listening to Radio 4.

I was musing about the cholesterol bus analogy from a few days ago. I thought about how the cholesterol goes out to work in the body by taking the LDL bus and gets home to the liver on the HDL bus. If there are not enough HDL busses on the job then some of the cholesterol gets stranded far from home. It has to check into an hotel for the night – your arteries – and there it meets up with some old friends it hasn’t seen for a while. These old friends have also been stranded. Since cholesterol is a waxy, sticky substance, it easily joins up with these other colleagues and forms a clique – otherwise known as plaque. These chums have a good old time in the arterial hotel (has a 5 star rating) and they are not keen to leave. In fact they just stick around together. Because there never seem to be enough HDL busses when cholesterol needs to get home to the liver, this clique gets bigger and bigger until the hotel is fit to burst. In fact its corridors are so packed that nothing can get through. The curious thing about this hotel is that the bill never seems to get presented. Years – sometimes decades can go by – and there seems to be no cost. So no more HDL busses are ever put on the job because it takes a lot of effort to get them up and running. But all good things come to an end and when the bill does finally arrive it is enormously expensive. In fact it is all too often paid for with a life – yours or mine.

So as transport managers, we need to make sure that there are just enough LDL busses to get the cholesterol to work and plenty of HDL busses every day to bring that cholesterol in from the day job so that it can be housed in the liver rather than take up residence in the arterial hotel. And to do that we need to hop off the bus more often and walk. Or zumba.

Another way to get those HDL busses running is to eat the right foods which provide the petrol to keep those busses going. Remember to eat a handful of nuts daily – almonds and walnuts are good, oats, apples and pears, pulses, soya, benecol products (if you have been advised to).

Cholestrol is playing a vital role in our bodies yet it gets such a bad press. Without it we could not function. What it needs is a well – functioning environment in which to get on with its job.

Scrambled Egg with Chives and Smoked Salmon

Scrambled egg with chives and smoked salmon

This is a lovely Sunday brunch dish. The chives really add a freshness to the eggs and compliment the smoked salmon. Don’t cook the eggs until everyone is seated and ready to eat. You should wait for scrambled egg, it should not wait for you. The secret of scrambled egg, in my view, is to cook it slowly and take it off the heat while it is not quite set. You want to get it on to the plate while it is creamy and eat immediately. An overcooked scrambled egg is rubbery and really not good to eat.

For four you need:

6 large eggs
½ cup semi-skimmed milk
1 tablespoon of chopped chives
½ teaspoon of groundnut oil
8 slices of smoked salmon
Black pepper
Salt (optional)

Break the eggs into a bowl and add the milk. Now beat them lightly with a small whisk. Add the chives, a pinch of salt (if using) and some ground black pepper. Heat the oil in a thick bottomed pot, add the egg and immediately turn down the heat. Once the egg has settled, use a wooden spoon to scramble the egg. Cook on a low heat and watch carefully so that you take it off the heat while it is not quite set. It will continue to cook in the heat of the pot. Serve it up while it is still creamy.

Have your plates ready with the smoked salmon slices.
Onto the plates immediately. Have your toast ready.

From The Healthy Heart: Twenty Two

Three weeks have now passed since I started this cholesterol lowering programme. That is ¼ of the way through. I would so like to have a snapshot of what is going on in my blood so that I could use that as a motivator. But since this isn’t going to happen, I must plod on in the hope that all this is making the difference I need.

Talking of plodding, the one improvement I have made this past week is an increase in my exercise level. Thanks to the encouragement of my husband, who has accompanied me on two weekend walks, I have for once managed the requisite 5 times a week. On three other occasions I walked home from work which takes just over half an hour if I walk briskly. Now I just need to try to keep it up. Perhaps the more I do it, the more I will enjoy it.

I can’t think of any new dietary changes I have introduced over the past week. But I do have a new best friend ingredient in my life. It’s a soft cheese with the very strange name of Quark. It is popular in Germany and Central Europe where it comes in varying degrees of fat content. The kind sold in UK supermarkets is very low in fat, calories, sugar and salt. And yet it is surprisingly good. I have been eating it for lunch on a slice or two of German rye – a very dense and dark bread – which makes for a tasty meal what with the sharp taste of the rye offset by the mild cheese. I have also used it in salads in place of feta or ricotta. It could certainly be used to make a sauce creamy if you need to. Just remember not to let the sauce boil after adding the Quark or it will curdle and become grainy. It is turning out to be very adaptable and I suggest you buy some. Its best use, sadly, is as one of the three types of cheese I use in my cheesecake but that recipe will not be appearing any time soon. Even thinking about it makes my mouth water so I know that restricting myself to just one small piece would be stretching my resolve to breaking point and beyond.

I have filled my freezer with soya beans and broad beans which are proving useful for bulking out grain-based salads and they are increasing my legume consumption. I would hazard a guess that most non-vegetarians do not eat pulse-based meals on a weekly basis. This is an area in which I have improved over the past few weeks. Apparently the best bean for cholesterol reduction is the kidney bean. I have to admit that I have never particularly taken to this red bean, finding its texture too mealy for my taste. I much prefer the chickpea or the different types of lentil. Still, I have bought a bag of dry kidney beans and will endeavour to find a pleasant way to prepare these some time soonish.

What has certainly improved is my knowledge of what cholesterol is and how it works. While that won’t in itself lower my levels, I do feel that I better understand what I am actually trying to achieve and that has to be a good thing.

Strawberries and Dark Chocolate

Strawberries and Dark Chocolate

Sometimes I just have to go over to the dark side – 70% chocolate that is. In the summer when the strawberries are plentiful there is little need to do anything more than fill a glass bowl with luscious berries and dessert is ready! Then I remember that dark chocolate – in small amounts – has health benefits in addition to providing lots of the feel good factor. Mixing a few antioxidants with some endorphins is a recipe I am happy to follow. This is simply a matter of melting some good quality dark chocolate and dipping the strawberries. Yummm.

For 4 people:
250g strawberries
50g 70% dark chocolate

Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a small bowl above a pot of simmering water. Leave to melt. Pour the melted chocolate into a bowl and serve immediately with the strawberries.

This is also lovely with pieces of banana or other fruits of your choice. One of my favourites is the physalis, or Cape Gooseberry, whose tart taste contrasts brilliantly with the chocolate.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Twenty One

I have been pondering the difference between dietary cholesterol and the cholesterol produced by the liver. Some 75% of our total cholesterol is produced by the body. The remaining 25 % comes from outside i.e. from what we eat. The problem is not cholesterol in itself, the problem is excessive cholesterol. While it is important to limit the amount of dietary cholesterol we eat, it is actually the types of fat we eat that most influence our cholesterol level. Yet we all know that some people can eat a diet high in fat and not increase their overall cholesterol level whereas others can land up with high cholesterol even though they eat a diet low in fat.


The cholesterol produced by the liver involves over two hundred combinations and chain reactions. In some people the liver produces too much cholesterol and this genetic mishap can be passed on from parents to children. Most of these genetic combinations have not yet been discovered, whereas some forms of rare genetic problems have serious effects on the cholesterol levels in childhood. It is through studying these rare disorders that researchers have understood the role that genetics plays in cholesterol regulation. Much is yet to be unravelled.

So what about the dietary cholesterol we eat – what role does it play? Well, the more cholesterol you eat, the less cholesterol your liver produces and the less you eat, the more the liver produces. Apparently this is why changing your eating habits only affects your cholesterol level to a certain extent. In other words, if you never ate another saturated fat then your liver would still produce all the cholesterol it needs. It also explains why vegans can have high cholesterol.

The contribution of dietary cholesterol to your cholesterol level seems somewhat controversial. Some studies suggest you can eat eggs and shellfish, for example, as they are low in saturated fat even though high in cholesterol. Others warn against eating these foods.

A report from one doctor, who claims to debunk myths about cholesterol, says that it is not the cholesterol in animal products that causes harm but the way it is cooked. Processed animal products and products exposed to high levels of heat can damage the cholesterol in the food. This produces free radicals which are what, he argues, causes problems in our circulation and results in heart attacks. The more LDL you have in your bloodstream, the more this damaged cholesterol is transported around the body. If your HDL is low then this damaged cholesterol will not be transported out of the bloodstream. He reminds us that LDL and HDL are not actually cholesterol in themselves. They are lipoproteins, in other words the transport system that takes cholesterol around the body and mops up the excess to return it to the liver. A bit like a bus – one takes you to work and the other brings you home. The bus doesn’t do the work, it just gets you there and back.

If this is true, then we need to think about how we cook the animal products we eat. We know that processed foods contain bad fats and that barbecued meat can be carcinogenic. I always thought that was because of the carbon on the meat caused by charring it. I didn’t know that the very high temperature could damage the cholesterol in the meat which results in free radicals in the bloodstream. Gosh this is getting complicated. What about griddle pan cooking then? Does that damage the cholesterol in a steak? I guess the answer is not to eat these foods too often and to base the diet on vegetables, legumes and grains with meat, chicken, fish and eggs playing less of a prominent role.