Monthly Archives: March 2013

Griddled Nectarines with Blueberries

Griddled Nectarines with Blueberries From The Healthy Heart

This dessert is easy to prepare and provides a sweet note at the end of the meal. You can serve it with no fat yoghurt for those on cholesterol watch and vanilla ice cream for those who are not.

For 4 people:

4 nectarines, halved
250g blueberries
No fat yoghurt

Heat a griddle pan until very hot. Place the nectarines into the pan, cut side down. Allow to soften a while and you will be rewarded with a lovely striped effect. Turn them carefully and allow to cook a few minutes on their backs.

Serve with a scattering of blueberries and a dollop of yoghurt.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Eighty Four

Now that we are at the coast my exercise routine has re-established, albeit at a leisurely pace. We fall out of bed into the sea for a mid-morning swim, walk 5 metres from the sea to the garden gate for breakfast, then back into the sea. So the days pass with lots of bobbing about on the Med. Although this hardly counts as half an hour of brisk walking five days a week, there is a bit of cardio vascular involved in keeping afloat while admiring the bay, n’est-ce-pas?

A five minute walk gets us to the daily vegetable market on the main square where the fish shop is also located. This poissonerie carries a rather modest variety of creatures piscatorial, but we are managing. The moules mariniere last evening were delicious. I had three helpings (gulp) and three glasses of Sancerre (triple gulp). In my defence it was a most convivial evening but I don’t suppose my arteries care much about that. Still, if my way of life is to be a happy one, then I must be allowed to be a bon vivant from time to time. It’s knowing where to draw the line between a way of life and becoming larger than life that counts.

Before dinner I proposed a walk along the seashore to the port. A lot of rock scrambling was involved and the route took the good part of an hour. Although the pace was slow, the heat was high and I worked up quite a sweat. I took that to be an indication of a good workout. When we finally arrived, parched, we flopped down onto outdoor sofas at the beach bar – I know, someone has to do it – and ordered well-deserved drinks. There are times when life calls for something other than water and I pushed that boat right out and had a diet-Coke. Mmm, sometimes the simple things taste so good.

On the way home, with 5kg of moules still to cook, we took the main road back. Passing a bus shelter, I noticed a billboard advertising some sort of monstrosity that calls itself food. I think it was an offering from McDonalds poultry department. What caught my eye was the small writing beneath the image of the chicken nugget artfully draped over a shred of lettuce. It translated as ‘doing regular exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle.’ I wondered if this was the equivalent of the health warning on packs of cigarettes. As if exercising will mitigate the effects of eating this saturate laden, over-processed and salted item. Is this law in France, that fast food chains have to append a health message to their advertising? I somehow doubt its efficacy. Surely a more persuasive message would be ‘eating this regularly could shorten your life’. Strange how naturally healthy foods never carry health warnings, in fact are rarely advertised. Ever seen chickpeas on a billboard? Lentils up in lights?

For all the paradoxical health message placing, the truth is that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. I think I might just move to the Cote d’Azur where I can take my daily half hour treading water or climbing over rocks, walking to the market for my fish and vegetables, and working up a sweat in the hot sun. That’s a way of life I think I could sustain long term.

Pan Fried Venison

Pan Fried Venison From The Healthy Heart

Venison is a low fat meat with a gamey taste that makes a great alternative to beef which has a higher fat content. Although I don’t eat red meat very often, every now and then I do feel in the mood for a hearty piece of meat without a big hit to my cholesterol. I like to prepare venison steaks served rare or medium rare.

For 4 people:

4 venison steaks
Olive oil
Sea salt
Black pepper

This is really simple. Get a large, thick bottomed pan or griddle pan hot. While it is heating, brush the steaks on both sides with a little bit of olive oil followed by a good grinding of black pepper. Place the steaks in the hot pan for 2 minutes. Just before you turn them, sprinkle over some sea salt. Now turn and cook for a further 2 -3 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat. You will need to cut into a piece to see how it is cooking. I like my meat on the rare side so for medium rare you may want to cook for 3 minutes on each side. Because venison has so little fat it can become tough and unpleasant if overcooked, so do be careful.

I like to serve venison with beetroot as the gamey meat is well balanced by the sweetness of the beetroot. You can use the beetroot salad with walnuts (see Recipes). A few new potatoes go well with this dish or a few spoons of brown basmati mixed with wild rice. A handful of rocket leaves adds value too.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Eighty Three

When our house guests arrived, they came bearing bags of crisps, large tubs of pretzels, fatty saucissons, olives and five varieties of cheese. When time came for an aperitif, my husband opened the champagne and I brought out all the snacks. My children’s eyes lit up as they surveyed these full-fat, salty goods. I enjoyed a glass of bubbly – champagne is a drink that should never be refused in my view – and nibbled a few olives. Only later did I realise that I had not even had the slightest temptation to dip my hands into the other bowls. Some months ago this would have taken quite an effort of will as my savoury tooth adores salty snacks. Now I can genuinely say that I have no interest. I feel like an addict whose poison has lost its hold. This may be a temporary reprieve, though, as French crisps are nothing special. The real test comes when I am confronted with a tube of Pringles or a large bag of Kettle fried crisps. Especially if I am alone. No one to have to share with. No one snooping on my inability to stop half way through. Is there anyone out there who can eat only half a tube of cream cheese and chive flavoured Pringles? What other crisp has been so artfully crafted that the Olympics Velodrome was designed to look just like it? Talk about product placement!

I experienced a similar lack of interest over the cheese board. I had eaten my fill of dinner and had no need of a fatty dessert. I watched the Reblochon oozing its way off the plate and thought about it coating my arteries. It was a slightly sickening image. Not that I am advocating food phobias, but there is something about visualising what particular foods do to one’s insides that makes them less palatable.

In all fairness, I have never been a cheese addict and can happily go weeks without eating any. I know others can’t get through the day without a fix and my sympathies go out to all who are so afflicted. But even so, I am finding it strange that whereas previously I found certain foods irresistible, now I find them a bit of a turn off. Is this the new way of life or just a path I will tire of and find I have wandered off in time to come? Because that is what has happened time and again. I am a zealous convert until I lose the faith and stumble back into my old habits. Eventually I realise that I am no longer asking questions and making conscious decisions. I no longer hesitate when offered a biscuit or second slice of cake, no longer think about the fat value of my daily intake. I no longer exercise, no longer think about my cholesterol at all except as something I should keep an eye on but don’t. Eventually I remember to go for a cholesterol test and start the whole ball rolling again. I guess that is also a way of life. Is it possible this time to find a balance or am I destined to living out the rest of my days stuck on the see-saw?

Moules Mariniere

Moules Mariniere From The Healthy Heart

Ok so we know that mussels are low in fat but high in cholesterol. Yet eaten once in a while I think that’s ok. As long as you don’t eat them in creamy sauces. This dish is usually made with butter and oil but I omitted the butter and couldn’t taste any difference. So here is a lower fat version of Moules Mariniere. If you like mussels but don’t usually cook them yourself, don’t be intimidated. They are very easy to prepare and cheap to buy too. I can say with all modesty that those prepared at home are almost always – in our experience – superior to those found in those endless tourist restaurants that ply the visitor with moules frites. I have often marvelled at how these establishments manage to remove the flavour! Try this recipe and you will be licking your fingers.

For 4 people:

500 – 600g of fresh mussels per person. I don’t think it’s worth making if you can’t find fresh mussels.
2 – 3 shallots, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 -3 wineglasses of dry white wine – I use what we are about to drink
A bunch of parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil

I take great care in cleaning and checking over the mussels to make sure that none of my guests has a nasty experience after dinner. There is a very simple rule – if a mussel is open or broken before you cook it must be discarded. If a mussel has not opened after cooking it must be discarded.

Some fishmongers sell mussels already cleaned. If yours are not cleaned, give them a rinse in cold water. You will notice a small stringy bit hanging out the side. This is called the beard and can be removed by giving a gentle tug. If any of your mussels are open, give them a sharp tap on the side of your bowl or worktop and they should shut tight. If not you must discard that mussel.

Once your mussels are clean you can begin.

In the largest pot you have, heat the olive oil and sauté the chopped shallots until they soften. Now add the garlic and cook gently so that it doesn’t burn. After a few minutes add the white wine and turn up the heat. When it comes to the boil tip in the mussels and put on the lid. You want the mussels to steam in the heat at which point they pop open and release their liquor which mingles with the shallots, garlic and wine to make the most delicious sauce. Leave for about 5 minutes, giving the odd shake and peek to see if they have opened. Once the mussels are open, sprinkle over the chopped parsley and give a gentle stir. Ladle into soup bowls so that each person gets some of the broth as well as mussels.

Pass round wholemeal baguette to mop up the juices. Bon appetit!

From The Healthy Heart: Day Eighty Two

‘How many more days have you got of your diet, mum?’ my son asked me today, probably in hope that I might return from the shops with more enticing foodstuffs than seed bread and peaches. ‘It’s not a diet,’ I informed him, ‘it’s a way of life’. ‘Ok, then how many more days have you got of your way of life?’ he persisted.

That, as they say, is the question. Officially only just over a week to go. But a way of life does not have a finish line. Like infinity, it is a direction rather than a destination. Having almost completed the short-term goal, I now have to set my sights on the long view. This involves an on-going awareness and evaluation, a daily reckoning. At the moment it is proving relatively easy because I have an achievement in mind, a test to pass. After the results are in, the hard work actually begins.

We left the mountains yesterday and drove through endless vineyards down to the coast where we are installed in a house that opens onto a small beach. We fall out of bed into the sea, the Mediterranean lapping at the garden gate. Seafood heaven and cholesterol danger zone. Or so I thought. For once global warming is on my side albeit for rather bad reasons. My beloved oysters, to which I am devoted, are suffering. At the fishmongers this morning I discussed the problem with the owner who told me that French oysters are affected by the twin problems of polluted seas and raised water temperature. His oysters were imported from Japan. I found this shocking news as we eat oysters by the bucket load up on the Atlantic coast where we buy them straight from the oyster farms and they are cheaper than chips. Three weeks of this each summer does environmental damage to my cholesterol level. Now that we are finally at the coast – the wrong one it turns out – the oysters are six times the price and not readily available. On the one hand I am very sad and on the other relieved.

As I have reasoned all through this programme, some foods are worth breaking ranks for and oysters are top of my list. Since my favourite bivalves were not turning up on tonight’s menu, I had to settle for a smaller relative, the mussel. These are enormously popular at the chez nous restaurant, and I returned home lugging a huge bag, trying to calculate how long it would take me to clean them all. Usually I would buy several bags of chips as my kids love their moules with frites. It is my one nod to convenience, the McCain oven ready chip, only on holiday, mind. Today I cruelly came home without them because I may be all self-congratulatory about my new way of life, but we all know that I cannot resist a chip. I suspect I am in trouble come dinner time. There will be mutterings and disappointed faces. I may still nip out to the superette – after all, a way of life is only a direction, right?

Sweet Potato with Avocado and Tahini Dressing

Sweet Potato with Avocado and Tahini Dressing From The Healthy Heart

This is a lovely combination of healthy sweet potato with the good fats from the avocado and the sesame in the tahini. This salad dresses up the sweet potato in a lovely green swirl which makes it rather moreish.

For 4 people:

3 -4 sweet potatoes, baked in their skins
1 ripe avocado pear
1 teaspoon tahini
1 tablespoon Quark
½ clove garlic crushed
Black pepper
Za’atar

Bake the sweet potatoes at 180 C/350 F until soft. Timing depends on the size of the potatoes but you can expect at least ½ hour. When they are cool, carefully peel off the skins and slice into rounds of medium thickness – too thin and they will fall apart and too thick and they will appear too chunky.

To make the dressing, mash the avo with a fork and then add the tahini and the quark. Add the crushed garlic and a good grinding of black pepper and mix well.

Lay the potatoes out on a plate and spoon over the avo dressing.
Finish off with a scattering of za’atar.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Eighty One

A week in to our holiday and I am doing pretty well on the food front, all considered. As I have previously observed, this is partly due to the lack of outlets in the village that would usually tempt me. Previously we have holidayed in villages and towns that have specialist shops for cheese, shellfish, local wines, boulangeries with every sweet temptation, gelateria with irresistible ice creams and, if all that were not enough, a daily market at least in cycling distance. St Croix du Verdon has none of the above. And yet we are perfectly happy. I have to admit being a bit relieved because I would be buying all the above for the family to eat and struggling to keep my head. In any case, we move to the coast tomorrow and then the eating will begin in earnest. At least I can reassure myself that for half the trip I was true to the cause of my cholesterol.

There is one area in which I have fallen off my heady perch – exercise. It is not for any particular reason except that it is far too hot. The terrain is also extremely steep. This combination makes even the few minute walk up to the superette in the morning a bit of a puff. Yes, I could walk in the evening when it cools down around 9pm but that is the time we are usually eating dinner and relaxing after a hectic day of, well, relaxing. It seems churlish to break up the party to go for a walk on my own. We do sometimes stroll around the village after dinner, watching the sky turn pink above the lake and marvelling, once again, at the sheer beauty of this place.

Tonight was one such evening. We set out for a post-prandial passageita and came across a band limbering up on the church square. It is a national religious holiday today and many villages have festivities. There was a communal lunch next to the boules pitch earlier in the day which sadly my family did not wish to partake in. The beach was far more appealing to them than a mass aioli. Talk about priorities!

At first the church square resembled a high school prom with couples hugging the walls, seated on the benches under the plane trees. The band, along with requisite piano accordion, tried to entice dancers into action but their audience was reticent. Much to my sons’ embarrassment, their parents took to the floor. While we waltzed and twirled they shook their heads in disbelief and perhaps, just a jot of admiration that my husband and I can still strut our stuff! In no time Place Saint Sauveur was rocking and my sons, reluctantly at first, joined in. The atmosphere was infectious as half the village danced under the darkening sky, with the smell of lavender hanging heavy on the faintest breeze that cooled the heat of the day. I felt my triglycerides doing the tango while my cholesterol did the cha-cha. Now that’s what I call exercise!

Spinach and Chickpea Pasta

Spinach and Chickpea Pasta From The Healthy Heart

I love big, punchy flavours and this pasta sauce is just that. You can make the sauce ahead of time and warm it up as you cook your pasta. I like to serve it with malfada corta which has a very pretty frill at the edges. But of course you can use any pasta you like – just make it wholewheat.

For four people:

1 small tin of anchovy fillets in olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
A couple of shakes of dried chilli flakes or a fresh red chilli, seeds removed, chopped
2 handfuls cherry tomatoes
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, rinsed well and drained
250g baby spinach leaves, washed
Black pepper
A bag of wholewheat pasta
Parmesan (optional)

Place 4 anchovy fillets in a pot and add the crushed garlic. Gently heat the pot so that the anchovies melt and the garlic becomes aromatic. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat as the garlic will burn and that doesn’t taste good. Now add the chilli flakes. You could happily use a fresh red chilli instead but I had run out of chillies when I made this sauce.

Next throw in the cherry tomatoes – they will split and break down a bit as they cook – and the chopped tomatoes. I like the different textures of the whole and the chopped tomatoes. Turn up the heat to moderate and allow to bubble away until the sauce thickens. Now add the chickpeas and simmer for another few minutes. When your sauce is ready, place the spinach leaves on top and allow to wilt. I like to keep the spinach as green as possible, so just cook it lightly and then stir it in to the sauce.

When your pasta is ready drain it and mix into the sauce. A bit of grated Parmesan cheese finishes off the dish well but it is not essential if you are trying to avoid cheese.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Eighty

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another tomato sandwich, I wished that I had one. Let me explain. Today we set out early to travel to the Gorge du Verdon which is the largest canyon in Europe and second only in size to the Grand Canyon. We hired a boat to travel up the mouth of the gorge on the Verdon River. It is a scenic trip of some repute in these parts and we had a memorable time. Even with my dislike of all water-born craft I was a convert to our little boat that puttered along at 4km per hour. That’s my kind of speed. The river is emerald green, the rock formations spectacular and leaves mere mortals humbled in the face of nature’s true splendour.

All that beauty and boating makes one hungry for a spot of lunch as Mr Toad might have said. Having foreseen such tummy rumbling, I had packed a cooler bag full of baguettes with ham and cheese, fruit and biscuits for the men. And my trusty tomato on seed bread excitements. We drove into the mountains, found a lovely medieval village with a view and opened the car boot to retrieve the lunch bag. It was not there. We looked in the car. It was not there either. There is a particular moment when shock turns to realisation that lunch will not be magically making an appearance, that someone has left it at home. It seemed that person was me. Could this lapse of memory be put down to falling cholesterol levels, not enough going to the brain to replenish and repair? I tried to be cheerful and reminded us all that we could eat the lovely lunch for dinner, but that just then we should hasten to a restaurant tout de suite.

Minutes later we were sat on a shaded square alongside an ancient fountain that spouted water through the mouths of gargoyles. Suddenly the loss of our lunch seemed a good idea. The men put away plates of steak frites while I, more daintily, ate my soupe au pistou, a local minestrone with pesto. Although this soup would ordinarily be a vegetarian-friendly dish, it was served with a large piece of ham as the centerpiece. The French have an antipathy to non-carnivores bordering on incomprehension. And yes, I ate the ham.

We continued on our way, circling the gorge for the next 6 hours around vertiginous hairpin bends. The road was a kilometre up above the river, with sheer cliffs falling below us and no barrier. We were so high up that the vultures glided around not far above our heads. The scenery was so spectacular that we quickly ran out of words with which to express ourselves.

Wild water swimming, goats milk ice creams, knuckle biting descents, the hours sped by until we arrived home as the sun set. The front door opened and there in the hallway, waiting patiently and without recrimination, sat the bright green cooler bag. I never knew I could be so delighted to see a tomato sandwich.