Monthly Archives: February 2013

Vegetable Casserole

Vegetable Casserole From The Healthy Heart

I made this one evening when I needed to use up a lot of veg in my fridge. This was one of those occasions when putting together a little bit of this and that came up trumps; so do experiment with what you have. I particularly like to use an array of different colour veg as this ensures a wider range of nutrients. The list of ingredients looks long but if you get going early you can chop away slowly.

To serve 4:

2 -3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks
5 – 6 carrots, scrubbed and cut into chunks
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into chunks
1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into chunks
2 large courgettes, halved length ways and cut into rounds
1 bunch spring onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
250g spinach, rinsed well
125g chestnut mushrooms, halved
2 handfuls coriander, chopped
1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
A handful of dried apricots, chopped into small pieces
1 cup of stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon rose harissa

Wholemeal couscous
½ pomegranate, seeds removed

Place the olive oil in a thick bottomed casserole and heat gently. Tip in the sweet potatoes and stir well to coat them. After a couple of minutes add the carrots and stir again. Now add the ground spices and stir well. Cook on a medium heat for a few minutes.

Then add the peppers, courgettes, spring onion, mushrooms and garlic. Stir well and cover. Cook on a low to medium heat for about 10 minutes . Now add the stock into which you have stirred the harissa. Also add the dried apricots. Stir into the vegetables and then replace lid and cook until the potatoes and carrots are soft. Add the chickpeas.

Now add the spinach leaves and the coriander and cook until the spinach is just wilted.

Serve with wholemeal couscous to which you have added the seeds of half a pomegranate. You could also add some chopped coriander.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Fifty Three

Searching in my loft for an old dress I could not find, I came across our wedding photo album. Remember those days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and photos were stored in albums? I brought it downstairs to show my children how young their parents once were. They were incredulous. Yes, 15 years have sped by in a haze of happiness. Does being happy lower cholesterol? Clearly not. For all I know it raises it.

Paging through the old memories I came across the menu for our wedding lunch. This included deviled duck breast, dressed poached salmon, chicken in tarragon cream, mozzarella and tomato salad with black olives, spinach salad with Roquefort dressing and croutons as well as mushroom, avocado and lettuce salad with sour cream dressing For dessert we ate dark fruit sherry trifle, French apple tart and summer fruits with shortbread biscuits. And wedding cake. What strikes me most about this menu is not that 15 years later I would have chosen a somewhat different assortment of foods, but that there is almost nothing on this list that I could eat now. I could not attend my own wedding! Surprisingly I can still fit into my gorgeous dress, but that is due to its material being of the stretchy variety and it now stretches rather less fetchingly than it did at the time. But it is the internal workings of the body that have changed most as my increasingly creaky joints and raised lipid level attest.

I think back to the 15 years and more that my husband and I have shared and the thousands of meals we have eaten together. Oh the fun we have had with food. Those first tentative dates over a pizza – actually a homity pie I recall – the holidays abroad discovering new foods together and returning home to try to recreate the magic in our own kitchen. And then the arrival of little people whose taste buds were as yet unformed, and the pleasure of teaching them to broaden their palates and love food as much as we do.

I am grateful for the fact that I did not know about cholesterol in those days. It was not on my radar. I knew the basics of good nutrition but was not aware of fatty deposits on artery walls. I think about food and romance and how integral they have been over the past 15 years and I cannot imagine one without the other. My husband has cooked for me and I have cooked for him. On special occasions we have treated one another to fabulous foods which have reflected the erotic feelings we share. How sad it would have been to have constantly been refusing this and avoiding that.
As we age perhaps our priorities change and we focus more on living a long life together which means keeping fit and healthy. My son asked when old age begins. He said he thought at 60. I replied that 60 is late middle age. So when is old age then, he asked. I said it no longer exists. You just get to the end of the world and fall off – hopefully into a vast bowl of strawberries and cream.

Roast Carrot and Cumin Soup with Feta and Mint

Roast Carrot and Cumin Soup with Feta and Mint

I often roast vegetables to use in a soup as it intensifies the flavour. Here I give carrots the chance to shine against a backdrop of warm cumin and then top them with a salty hit of gently melting feta. This soup looks so colourful and is a great antidote to winter. As with all soups, I think this tastes better made the day before so that the flavours can develop.

For four people:

750g carrots, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 litre vegetable stock
100g light feta, cut into very small dice
A small bunch of mint, leaves finely shredded
Black pepper
Sea salt
Sumac (optional)

Heat the oven to 180 C/350 F.
Peel the carrots (or give them a good scrub if using unpeeled) and cut into rings. Tip into a roasting dish large enough to hold the carrots in one layer. Add one tablespoon of olive oil, a good grinding of black pepper and a pinch or two of sea salt. Mix well. Cover tray with foil and roast for about an hour. Check that the carrots are tender. You may need to roast a little longer depending on the size of your carrots.

While the carrots are busy becoming even sweeter and more delicious than they are raw, get busy with the onion mixture. In a medium sized pot, sweat your onion in a little water or stock until it is tender. Add the garlic and cumin seeds and cook for a couple of minutes, taking care that the garlic and seeds do not burn.

Once the carrots are ready, add them to the onion mixture and stir well to combine. Now add the stock. You want the carrots to be covered so use some more stock if you need to. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Allow to cool and then pop into the food processor. At this stage it is up to you how thick you want the soup to be. I don’t want it the texture of carrot puree (although that is delicious) so I leave the processor running until the soup has thinned a bit. You may need to add more stock to get the consistency you like.

At this point cool the soup and refrigerate overnight. While it is heating up the next day, cut the feta into very small blocks (or you could just crumble it) and place it on top of the hot soup that has been ladled it into bowls. Then scatter over some finely chopped mint and finish off with a good sprinkling of sumac which adds a citrusy note. The feta starts to melt into the soup. Stir it in so that you get a bit of cheese with each mouthful. It’s good.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Fifty Two

We went for tea with my sons as planned. All three of my men tucked into slabs of carrot cake. ‘Not as good as yours, mum’ the youngest reassured me, wiping crumbs from his mouth. ‘I knew that,’ I replied, ‘because no carrot cake is ever as good as mine’. Please don’t think me conceited. I am not a fine baker. My temperament is not suited to baking – far too many rules, too much measuring, too much science. But I do make a good carrot cake – thanks to my mother who gave me her recipe and made it often enough during my childhood for me to fall in love with it. I only mention the yumminess of my carrot cake because I can safely say that I am never tempted to eat it away from home. Knowing that I will be disappointed is what keeps me safe. Same goes for cheese cake. As most tea rooms serve both, I am pretty damn safe in these temples of sugar and spice. If only.

I sat down to tea and withdrew from my handbag a small Tupperware filled with almonds and dried apricots. My husband took one withering look at this and informed me that I reminded him of an aunt who used to take her own food wherever she went. She was a vegetarian in the days before anyone knew quite what that was. ‘We thought she was bonkers’ he continued. There I was thinking I would eat some nuts. Now it turns out my family think I have turned into one.

Well perhaps I have. Is it out of order to take one’s own snacks along when you know you don’t want to eat what’s on offer? I recall once inviting a relative to join me for lunch in a restaurant. She had rather peculiar eating habits. She asked if she could bring her own food along with her. I assured her that she could not. She clearly didn’t get out much. I think I now know why.

So restaurants are out, but what about an informal tearoom if handled discreetly? Or have I totally lost the plot and think it’s ok, when it’s patently obvious to any other sane person that one’s behaviour is skating on the thin ice of acceptability?

Even I have my limits. I definitely draw the line at taking my own food to other people’s houses unless they accept my offer of bringing something to add to the meal. Many hosts decline such offers – more’s the pity for those of us on cholesterol control. The host might enquire about any food allergies but I can hardly email over the list of fat laden foods I have lately taken to avoiding. I certainly would not gladly invite such a person to my table again if I had to obey the rules of low fat cooking on their behalf. I have heard about people surreptitiously removing food off their plates and feeding the hosts’ dog that lies in wait under the table. The reverse – shuffling food out of one’s handbag onto the plate – is probably going to raise a few eyebrows if not menu envy from the other guests. You might find that on leaving the dinner, men in white coats are waiting to take you away.

Poached Salmon with Fennel and Dill

Poached Salmon with Fennel and Dill

I made this dish for lunch when I found a left over salmon fillet looking forlorn in the fridge. It had been baked the night before, but you could just as well bake or poach a salmon fillet for this dish and let it cool. You need to taste the mixture as you make it to decide whether you want more or less of the herbs according to your taste.

For 2 people:

Fillet of salmon poached or baked
1 teaspoon Hellmans light
2 tablespoons cottage cheese
2 tablespoons no fat yoghurt
¼ fennel bulb,very finely chopped
Small bunch chives, finely chopped
A handful of dill, finely chopped
A pinch of salt
Good grinding of black pepper
Squeeze of lemon juice

Flake the salmon fillet and set aside.
Mix the rest of the ingredients together and add the fish. Mix it in gently. Adjust the seasoning to your taste by adding extra herbs, more lemon juice, black pepper or salt,

Serve with a rocket salad with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Serve with a dark rye bread which adds just the right note as a contrast with the salmon.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Fifty One

I meet a friend for a walk and we talk about my eating dilemma this week. She gives short shrift to my concerns about whether to indulge or not and tells me that life is far too short to pass up on celebrating fully when opportunities arise. She is right. Why go to the trouble of arranging for the kids to stay over at friends, to take time off work, to book a welcoming hotel with a good restaurant if all I am going to do is pick at the parsley? Surely two days of eating freely won’t undo all the good work I have done over the past seven weeks? I couldn’t agree more.

Yet. And Yet. What then does it actually mean to change one’s lifestyle? If I can eat what I like whenever the opportunity presents itself then what does this change mean? I have always thought it meant changing the way one thinks about food. I have done that aeons ago. I eat my 5-a-day as a matter of course, I generally cook healthy, grain based meals. I don’t eat much meat and never buy ready meals, nor much by way of processed foods. I would have thought that was enough of a lifestyle adjustment. And yet my cholesterol is raised and more change is called for. I assume that this change is supposed to be long term. Permanent. Does that mean I have to follow this path every day for the rest of my life? Common sense tells me ‘no’ – that way lies fanaticism. Where then is the balance? Is it ok to have a balance or must the scale be weighted in the direction of doing the right thing most of the time. This is what I am thinking today. I should strive to eat like I am currently for as much of the time as possible. Then I can decide which events warrant breaking free of rules and regulations. All sounds good in theory, everything in moderation and all that. But I know so well from far too much past experience, that once on the slippery slope I go downhill fast.

So many people find themselves in this situation – eating sensibly, usually to lose weight, achieving their goal often based around a particular event they want to look their best for. No sooner is it over than the pounds start to pile back on. We all know that diets don’t work. Research has been done on the small minority who manage to keep their weight down over time. I wonder whether such research has been done on how well people manage who have to adjust their diets due to cholesterol or diabetes or such like? It should be easier to keep motivated when your long-term health is at risk rather than one’s vanity. I know from experience that this is not so. If it was I wouldn’t be on this programme at all. I would have kept my cholesterol low from the last time I got it down to 4.4. That took three months to achieve but how long to undo? Like the dieter who puts on more weight than they had before they started their diet, I find that my cholesterol just gets higher each time. A yo-yo approach can’t be the way forward. Lifestyle change – what an easy two words to string together. So hard to work out what it involves.

Raspberry and Blueberry Muesli

Raspberry and Blueberry Muesli From The Healthy Heart

Sometimes I just feel like jazzing up my morning muesli. These berries do the trick nicely. You can use my Top of the Morning Muesli recipe here. If you want to turn this into a dessert, you can add a glug of Crème de Cassis to each serving.

For 4 you need:

1 punnet raspberries
1 punnet blueberries
4 helpings of muesli
500g no fat yoghurt
Crème de cassis (optional)

Drop a few raspberries in the bottom of each bowl or glass. Pour over 1/2 a teaspoon of crème de cassis if using. Next add a spoon of yoghurt, then half a handful of muesli. Now another spoon or two of yoghurt followed by some raspberries and blueberries. Then another few drops of cassis. Repeat and top with berries.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Fifty

On Sunday morning my husband and I leave for The Cotswolds for our anniversary celebration. We will be staying in a village inn which has won the Conde Nast award for best inn of the year. The restaurant is apparently very fine too and we are booked in for dinner. It does not sound like a low-fat venue and is aptly named The Lamb.

En route to the small village in which we shall be housed, we will stop off in Oxford to see an exhibition. The artist in question, Jenny Saville, paints humungous canvasses on which are depicted enormous women. These are not Rubenesque ladies, reclining coyly amongst bunches of grapes and platters of fruit. They are no-holds barred close-ups of the body, huge folds of flesh and acres of cellulite. They are brilliant depictions of the female form, a complete counter to every image of women that we absorb daily like pictorial musak. Strong stuff.

Our arrival at The Lamb will probably coincide with tea time. Oh how my affections are stirred by the sight of a tea tray! When out of the metropolis, such trays require at least two large, but light, scones accompanied by local strawberry jam and clotted cream. Otherwise what’s the point of being in the countryside? The bucolic idyll is not comprised alone of long walks and sheep poo.

I plan to dress for dinner and hope to be undressed thereafter. What happens in between is what is bothering me. Do I say ‘sod it’ and indulge all my senses or tiptoe on the outskirts of the menu minding my manners? Heart health or heart’s desire? One of the ingredients of a happy marriage, I have found, is the mutual satisfaction of all one’s appetites. Some are low-fat options and even involve a bit of exercise. Others consist of trying, after 15 years of marriage, not to order the same dishes from the menu. For else, where’s the give and take, the bartering of a slice of this for a morsel of that; the slight envy that your partner may have ordered the superior dish yet you are happy for them? Not much fun when your dining partner has ordered grilled fish – hold the buttery sauce.

I have always thought that women who refuse to eat much of anything must make somewhat boring dinner partners. So much of the pleasure of food is in the sharing of the joy of it. When women lunch together there is often an unspoken understanding that certain menu items are off limits. But when out with one’s lover, surely there should be no holds barred? There is carnal in the carnivorous. A well hung steak is sex on a plate. A fish fillet can only flap about flaccidly.

The Lamb Inn understands these things and serves breakfast in bed for those who require it. I am one of those. I imagine a silver tray with hot buttered toast, marmalade and a full English breakfast. All in bed! Oh stop! Stop! Or should that be ‘don’t stop’? That is the question!

Griddled Chicken Salad

Griddled Chicken Salad From The Healthy Heart

This is a very tasty dish with its combination of griddled vegetables and chicken. I absolutely love my griddle pan and strongly suggest you treat yourself if you don’t have one already. Get a good quality pan and it will last forever. I have had mine for ages and use it constantly for fish, chicken, veg and even, occasionally, meat. I hardly use any oil at all so it helps to keep the fat content down. The taste of griddled food helps lift even simple ingredients.

For 4 people:

4 chicken breasts
2 red peppers,cut into wedges
2 courgettes, cut into thin strips
A few handfuls of assorted lettuce leaves
A few handfuls of rocket
Extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic Vinegar – a good quality one

The first thing to do is get your griddle pan really hot. Then toss your vegetables in a teaspoon of olive oil and griddle them in batches. You want the peppers to char slightly and the courgettes to be just cooked through. Set these aside.

The key to a juicy piece of chicken is not to overcook it. I find that when I buy chicken breasts at the supermarket, they come in different sizes in one packet. If you are cooking all 4 breasts at the same time, bear in mind that the smaller breasts will need less time on the pan. Otherwise the one who gets that portion is going to have an overcooked and chewy piece of chicken (not good) while the others cut into moist and tender mouthfuls. At the same time, chicken needs to be cooked through so that there is no pink meat remaining. So you need to keep a careful eye on the chicken and don’t go off and make a phone call while you are busy with this dish.

Before I place the chicken on the griddle I give both sides a good grinding of black pepper. Then it is a few minutes on each side – timing depending on size – and you will be rewarded with professional looking charred stripes.

Have ready your leaves on the plates – I like to serve this in individual portions – and share out the vegetables into 4 portions. As soon as the chicken is done, cut it into slices (or you can serve it whole) and place on top of the leaves and veg. A quick slick of good quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a last grinding of black pepper and all is ready.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Forty Nine

Day 49!! Where has the time gone? Seven weeks under the belt, so to speak, and five to go. In fact the belt is now a bit tighter thanks to 49 days of low fat eating and walking five times a week. That is 35 more walks than I would otherwise have done. Sobering thought.

So what has changed over the past weeks? Well, the most quantifiable change is to be found on the scale which reports a 4kg loss. It has felt effortless in that I did not set out to lose weight. Previously when I have been on diets, it has felt like an endless deprivation with not much to show by way of results. This has always confounded my husband who repeatedly told me that to lose weight all you do is eat less and exercise more. As he is genetically slim and walks an hour most days, I have always rolled my eyes when he trotted out his advice. What would a tall, thin and fit person know about keeping in shape?

Now I realise how accurate his advice has been. I have gone from no exercise to brisk walking for half an hour, five times a week. There is the odd walk that takes a bit longer but generally I feel that I have done my bit after 30 minutes. While initially I resented having to walk and welcomed any excuse to duck out of it, my attitude has changed. Now I feel that I am getting something out of walking. Not only do I feel a bit fitter – I am sure I spotted a bit of muscle emerging in my leg the other day – but I also find that the walking gives me time to think. Suddenly I can walk out of the front door and have two and a half hours a week all to myself. That’s a fair amount of thinking time.

Sometimes I don’t think much at all and enjoy noticing the neighbourhood gardens, a new ‘for sale’ sign, a tree fallen in the forest during a storm. Other days I rid myself of tension or stress. Yet other days I think about the endless tasks on my agenda and try to straighten them out in my mind. Often I think about what to write about and cook.

On the eating front, I am consuming less of certain foods – the obvious change is the amount of saturated fat, but I have also reduced my sugar intake and I keep an eye on the amount of carbohydrate on the plate. That leaves more space for vegetables and salads which I eat freely. I am more aware of what is considered a portion of fish, chicken and meat and realise that I have probably not previously been eating a normal portion size.

I have taken on board something that Deeprak Chopra advises which is not to eat until you feel hungry and to stop when you feel satisfied. That is not the same thing as stuffed. I do now feel hungry before my meals – partly because I am not grazing in between. I try to stop when my plate is empty rather than filling it up again. Sometimes of course something tastes so good I just have to eat some more, but I try now to make that happen less often.

Which brings me to the issue of variety. On hearing that day 49 has been reached, my son asked whether that meant we have eaten 49 different dishes since the programme began. Yes we have, I replied. That alone has kept me feeling well fed.