Monthly Archives: April 2013

Put A Spring In Your Step – 1 May 2013

The blossoms are finally out, my neighbourhood ablaze with pinks, yellows and reds, a veritable catwalk of trees showing off their spring wardrobe. Blossoms so delicate and ethereal, they take my breath away – the little I have left while puffing my way around the local streets. Mind you, these days I don’t puff so much, unlike one of my walking companions who told me this week that she wasn’t enjoying herself. Not my company, she quickly reassured me. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind! Why would she not enjoy a brisk walk with yours truly pontificating on everything from margarine to menopause? It was the puffing she was not finding pleasant. Although I walk briskly, it is hardly the sort of power walking I observe some of my fellow exercisers engaging in.

The truth is, that to really start to enjoy walking you need to do it regularly. A year ago I hated it. Oh the struggle to get my trainers on, the burning in my chest as I walked up the gentle hill in the woods. Then, all of a sudden, it eased off and I began to feel less strain. Of course I should have then upped the pressure, got more of a workout, but I wisely (for me) kept to my half hour because I knew that if I did any longer, I would give it all up. I am no exercise junkie, someone who craves more and more. A small dose of endorphins is enough for me. I am more akin to the granny who likes one small sherry each evening than a boozer who requires increasing amounts of alcohol to feel the buzz.

I heard a programme on the radio this week about the ideal pulse rate one should aim for while exercising. It was all too scientific for me. I had a talking pedometer once. It began to malfunction and kept announcing how many steps I had taken that day. The more outlandish its claims became, the more I found myself arguing loudly with this device strapped to my arm. I was turning from care free to care in the community. So I binned it along with my concern for measuring my progress in beats per minute.

Now I judge my progress by how tired I feel on returning how and how tight my trousers are. For in truth, I want to exercise my heart muscle so that it feels encouraged to go on beating, not so that I end up running marathons. My ambition is not for sporting prowess but to live to see as many spring-time blossomings as my heart desires.

My 10 tips for keeping your walks regular:

1. Take a friend – chatting passes the time wonderfully quickly.
2. Take a partner – I do this on weekends which not only gives us some one-to-one time, but also encourages me out when I would rather be reading the weekend papers and eating biscuits.
3. Just do it – no deliberating.
4. Remind yourself how good you will feel afterwards.
5. Think about your health if you don’t go.
6. Think about the cup of tea you will enjoy on your return.
7. Download a programme to listen to while you walk.
8. ½ an hour passes quickly – it’s 15 minutes outbound and 15 minutes home.
9. Walk with a purpose – I find that walking home from work puts the wind behind me.
10. Think of all those ill people who would give anything to be well enough to walk – then put on your trainers and get out the door – just because you can.

Smoked Trout and Roasted Beetroot Salad with Tarragon Dressing

Smoked Trout and Roasted Beetroot Salad with Tarragon Dressing From The Healthy Heart

Having totally indulged in Parisian patisserie for two weeks, I needed to get straight back on track when I returned home. I set about making healthy lunches and made this quick salad with a leftover roasted beetroot and a smoked trout fillet that I found in my fridge. I know these are not the sort of ingredients that are usually just hanging about in the fridge so you may need to do a bit of shopping for this recipe. I really liked the combination of flavours – the earthy, sweet beetroot contrasted well with the smoky fish, the tart quark and the aniseedy flavour of the tarragon. Lovely layers of taste.

This is enough for one person. You can adjust the ingredients if you have more mouths to feed.

1 beetroot roasted
1 smoked trout fillet
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
2 tablespoons quark
Handful chopped tarragon leaves
Sumac

Roast the beetroot in its skin for about 45 – 60 minutes depending on the size of your beetroot. Allow to cool and peel off the skin. Cut into dice. Arrange on a plate. Add a trout fillet, flaked.

In a small bowl mix the quark and the tarragon leaves. Pour this dressing over the beetroot and trout. Now add a teaspoon of capers and a few pinches of sumac.

Love Struck in Paris – 24 April 2013

Returning home from a walk this week I noticed a home-made poster attached to a tree in my street. Usually these notices contain a fuzzy picture of a cat accompanied by a forlorn message about a much-loved and missing feline. These tales of woe, sad children separated from their pets probably don’t have a happy ending judging by how long those notices stay up, their print running down the page from the rain that gets inside the flimsy plastic covers. Once I saw one with a photograph of a dog that had been stolen from a vehicle. Aren’t we always warned not to leave our valuables in our cars?

This notice was rather more upbeat and invited the neighbourhood to a street party. I had a distinct sense of déjà vu for was it not almost exactly a year to the day that I attended the Jubilee street party and struggled to avoid the jellies, the cupcakes and the hotdogs?

I realised that 12 months have passed during which I have been mending my ways and I recalled how hard it had all felt back then. A year on, I am not quite as militant. I no longer decline foods left, right and centre and have perhaps mellowed into someone who is on good eating behaviour enough of the time. Or so I like to think.

I am recently back from a two week trip to Paris where I eased into my new decade in style. For 14 days I tried out a variety of pastries from three different patisseries in the street below our apartment. One is the oldest patisserie in Paris so it would have been churlish to turn my back on the shop that created the rhum baba. I fell in love – or perhaps it was lust – with a creation called Opera which was a sort of tiramisu and so addictive that I couldn’t bear to pass the store window without purchasing one.

Not wanting the other patisseries to feel I was displaying any favouritism, I had to sample their wares too. That was my undoing as I fell hard for the finanaciers In Kaysers. These little (ok not so little) moist almond cakes came in four flavours – chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and raspberry. Unable to decide which I liked most, I fell into the habit of buying one of each so that I could adjudicate. All I need say is that by the time I left Paris I had not yet made up my mind, but my arteries were creaking.

I do not care to calculate just how many pastries I consumed over my two week sojourn but, if I want to make it through this decade and out the other side, it is just as well that I returned home. As luck would have it I opened a weekend magazine and out fell a supplement on French patisserie. One of the recipes was for raspberry financiers. Instantly I realised that this had always been my favourite and I was transported back to Paris on wings of desire. So far I have resisted getting out my baking trays.

This morning one of the street party organisers knocked on my door to ask if we were planning to attend. Yes indeed, I replied and congratulated him on keeping the community spirit alive in our neighbourhood. Will you be bringing anything to add to the tea table, he enquired? How about some raspberry financiers, I suggested. I felt my heart skip a beat. Is it love or arrhythmia?

Soda Bread

Soda Bread From The Healthy Heart

This recipe is the one used by my son to create a delicious bread we like to eat with lunch. It goes well with a bowl of soup or a piece of cheese (not that we should be eating too much cheese but your guests might). I found the recipe years ago in a weekend magazine and it is written by Matthew Fort, a food writer I greatly admire.

For one good sized loaf:

2 x 284ml pots of buttermilk
420g wholemeal flour – I use the strong wholemeal flour designed for bread making
4 tablespoons sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons linseed
150g oats – I use rolled oats
1 teaspoon muscovado sugar – I use this kind but imagine most sugars will do the trick
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Heat your oven to 190 C/ 375 F.

Using a large mixing bowl, pour in one pot of buttermilk. Now add 250g of the flour and all the seeds. Now add the second pot of buttermilk and then the remaining flour as well as the oats, salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda.

Now get stuck in with a wooden spoon. I find that the mixture needs a fair amount of mixing in order to incorporate all the wholemeal flour into the buttermilk. I usually give a few initial stirs with the spoon and then, when the mixture is beginning to come together, I use my hands to integrate all the flour and to bring the dough into a ball.

The original recipe calls for a loaf tin to be used but I prefer to make the loaf into a round shape with the traditional cross on top. Take a baking sheet and line it with baking paper. Take your ball of dough and place it in the centre of the baking sheet and neaten it up so that it has a nice round dome. Now using a knife, cut a cross into the top about 2cm down.

Bake for an hour and then switch off the oven and leave the bread to rest for 10 minutes.
In the photograph you will notice that the breads have been baked as mini loaves. My son did this for a lunch we were having, but in general he would keep things simple and make one large rustic loaf.

Our Daily Bread – 17 April 2013

Readers of my blog will know by now that my older son likes to bake. Although his preference is for cake – he recently tried his hand at a Victoria Sponge that was indecently buttery – he does occasionally also make bread. On request. My request usually. Years ago we came across a recipe for Irish Soda Bread that looked so easy that even a child could make it. And he did, several times, to general acclaim around the lunch table. The years have sped by during which the recipe has not had an airing.

This is possibly due to the bread machine that the boys gave to my husband for Father’s Day many years ago. Behind every great gift for Dad is a Mum with a mission. I was shocked to discover how much salt commercial bread contained and therefore how high was the sodium content of my children’s packed lunch (cheese sandwich). The bread machine was aimed at reducing the salt in their diet and my husband took to it as only a man can to a gadget. Little did I know how the thudding and clanking sounds it made would become part of the background noise of my household as it produced our daily loaf.

As long term relationships evolve, pillow talk tends to turn from the erotic to the banal. Many a night my closing question ‘ did you remember to make bread?’ is met with a groan, followed by light swearing, grunting and plodding downstairs to throw the ingredients into the machine. Then the clunking and thudding continues through the night while the dough goes through its 5 hour cycle. Being a light sleeper myself, I frequently wake to the faintly nauseating smell of yeast wafting through the house, getting me up to check whether we have a gas leak. My neurotic olfactory nerve confuses the two odours.

By morning we have freshly baked bread if we are lucky. While he is an enthusiastic baker, my husband is not a details man and sometimes omits one or other ingredient. The boys and I have learnt to expect the unexpected as the loaves can rise majestically or not at all, have a dry crumb or the consistency of clay. Occasionally not even we can eat it and the misshapen attempt has to be binned.

But on a good day this healthy bread is my go-to wholemeal loaf, the bread I eat for lunch with avocado, or cottage cheese and salad, or smoked salmon and low fat cream cheese – anything with some flavour that fills me up tastily while remaining low fat.

This week I put in a request for my son’s Irish soda bread which is somewhat fool proof. It contains so many good oils from the seeds – sesame, linseed and sunflower – has loads of wholemeal flour and just a little sugar and salt. It is very moreish which is perhaps its only drawback, as too much of a good thing has a habit of turning into a bad thing. Do give it a go.

From The Healthy Heart 10 April 2013

So. What Now?

Having reached the end of my 90 day programme to lower my cholesterol by changing my diet and exercising for 30 minutes, 5 times a week, what happens next with From The Healthy Heart? Having given this some thought, I propose to continue as I have been going on for the past three months. In my daily life I hope to keep up my recently found ways, to keep up with the walking and healthy eating. I also plan to continue writing. Not as often, mind you.

Yes, no longer will a daily email be finding its way into your inbox. But don’t despair (as if). The plan is for a weekly post plus a recipe. As my capacity for coming up with my own concoctions does have its limits – I think 90 days is about it for now – I will be using some of my favourite recipes written by others and adapting them for low cholesterol use. Sadly not everything can be adapted – no such thing as low fat roast lamb, pork belly, cream sauces – oh the length of the list. But there are thousands of dishes that can be eaten and enjoyed with a bit of tweaking.

I also plan to write about the wealth of research about cholesterol, statins, and related topics many of which are surprisingly controversial. I will provide links to articles or books I am reading on the topic which you can read at your leisure.

I hope to keep you mildly amused about living with the challenge of keeping low cholesterol in a household with three hungry men.

Please do contact me if you have any suggestions for areas you would like to see covered, topics that you might like to know more about. If you have anything that you like eating and would like a low fat version of, I am happy to give it a go. And of course, please do send me your own low cholesterol/low fat recipes which I am happy to post on the blog.

More than anything, thanks for participating in the blog by reading and commenting as it has gone along.

Asparagus

Asparagus From The Healthy Heart

I love asparagus and eat them as often as possible during their season. I know that you can now get them all year around and so the concept of a season is a bit spoiled. There is something special, is there not, about a vegetable or fruit having a particular time of year. Nowadays perhaps only those who grow their own really have this pleasure. Nevertheless, I try to keep in mind the natural season of locally grown vegetables and mostly eat asparagus in the spring and early summer. I don’t feel right eating them for Christmas. Perhaps I am old fashioned or concerned about vegetable air miles and global warming, but I am also nostalgic for the days when we ate according to the seasons and I waited impatiently for the figs to ripen on our tree.

There are so many ways to prepare asparagus. I enjoy them most very simply cooked – either steamed or griddled for a couple of minutes on either side. Then serve hot or at room temperature with a drizzle of very good balsamic vinegar and some shavings of parmesan.

You need:

Asparagus – how many depends on how much you want to eat. I usually use a bunch between two people. Before you cook them, snap off the woody bits at the bottom. If you hold an asparagus in one hand and snap near the bottom of it with the other hand, you will find that the woody bit snaps off easily. It’s not scientific, you don’t need to measure.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Ninety Three : Results

Ladies and Gentlemen I return triumphant!

‘Your cholesterol is fine’ my doctor replied when I told her the reason for my visit. She scrolled through my results while I waited anxiously for the number. And there it was: 4.8 !! I laughed with relief as the past three months of hard work and determination suddenly felt like a breeze. Down from 6.5 I pointed out. My HDL level is now 1.5 – a good level is anything above 1.2. The LDL (the bad guy) is hovering around the normal level at 3, down from 3.6. My triglyceride level is 0.73, well within the acceptable level of anything below 1.69. ‘Hop on the scale’ she said. I did so, having already weighed myself in the waiting room. Her scale showed a 1kg discrepancy, the quickest weight loss ever. Taking the average of the two measurements gives me an overall weight loss of 6 kg or 13.2 lbs.

I told her that I am a transformed woman who now walks 5 times a week and eats a bit differently too. ‘So exercise and diet do work?’ she suggested. Indeed, I replied.

Three months ago I set out to reduce my cholesterol by way of changing my diet and starting to exercise. Every member of my family has high cholesterol and several are on statins. I am therefore not genetically disposed to a normal cholesterol level and have to work actively to keep to a healthy regime. In the past I have brought my level down through good eating and increased exercise but it has crept up again when I have returned to my old ways. The challenge for me, and many others in a similar position, is to find a way to maintain the balance between having good heart health and having a good time.

Over the past months I have begun to enjoy my walks and have found that as long as I stick to my 30 minutes, 5 times a week regime, it feels manageable. If I tried to extend this to longer walks I think I might fall by the wayside, so to speak. I simply don’t have the time to set aside for more exercise on an almost daily basis and when the winter comes it will be more difficult still. Finding the time between working and mothering, daily meal cooking and some attempt at a creative and social life does not leave much time for anything else.

As for the food, this seems far less quantifiable than the exercise which is either done or not done. Eating well is a daily observation and commitment, decisions having to be made constantly. Over the next few weeks my diary is happily full of social arrangements, every one of which involves eating. Do I go forward constantly holding in mind the ‘I am watching my cholesterol’ thoughts? I suspect that the only way of avoiding a repeat of this programme next time I have a cholesterol test is to continue to keep a careful eye on what I eat. In general if not bite by bite.

I need to learn how to eat something delicious once and then leave it at that. The slippery slope is eating the leftovers for several days thereafter which has been my normal pattern. I need to return immediately to my improved behaviour after weekends away or days off. Usually this sets off months of eating anything and everything. It is very hard to motivate myself back onto the path of righteousness after months of bad behaviour.

I hope to feel less obsessed by cholesterol as I move forward yet always need to hold it in mind. A balance must be struck. New trousers must be bought. But first things first – I am off to bake a celebratory cheesecake! For what is the purpose of being alive if not to enjoy life’s finest moments?

Baby Aubergines with Tomatoes and Garlic

Baby Aubergines with Tomato and Garlic From The Healthy Heart

In the market at Avignon I came across tiny aubergines that were simply begging to be cooked. I bought a bag full and couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen. If you can’t find baby aubergines you can use large ones cut into chunks. What you lose, though, is the whole fruit softening and collapsing in on itself. If using the baby aubergines you may want to halve them lengthways to salt them as they can be a tiny bit bitter. I don’t actually mind this as using the aubergine whole makes this dish look so appetising.

Quantities are approximately for 4 people:

12 baby aubergines, trimmed or two large ones cut into chunks
A stalk or two of cherry tomatoes on the vine
4 large cloves of garlic, sliced
A tablespoon or two of olive oil
Fresh basil

Heat the olive oil gently in a thick bottomed pot. Cook garlic gently for a couple of minutes to soften. Don’t let it brown. Now add the aubergines and stir to coat with the oil. Next add the tomatoes. Cook on a low heat, covered, until the tomatoes have collapsed and the aubergines are very soft. The idea is to cook it for an hour or so, slowly, so that the tomatoes form a sweet sauce and the aubergines are soft with silky black skins. You shouldn’t need to add water, but if it is looking dry at any point, do pour in a little bit.

When the dish is ready, serve with some torn up basil leaves.

This goes well with a selection of salads or mezze as it can be served at room temperature or warm. You could also serve it as a side dish to a roast chicken or a piece of grilled meat.

From The Healthy Heart: Day Ninety Two

Being a family that celebrates any religion’s festival as long as there is feasting, we hosted a New Year’s dinner last night that consisted of four courses of traditional foods. Descended as we are from East European stock, our ancestors knew nothing of cholesterol friendly foods and happily clogged their arteries whenever the opportunity arose. They kept fit fleeing from murderous Cossacks.

The meal contained a litre of oil, 18 eggs, 3kg of fatty beef, 4kg of potatoes, 2kg of ice cream and those are just the super-high fat ingredients. I ate with relish despite having resolved to eat sparingly and felt surprisingly chipper this morning. Now my fridge is positively bursting with leftovers and I am digging deep into the reserve of my resolve to avoid tucking in. One night of blow out eating is not going to be followed by another. I hope. I have fed the kids a left overs dinner, eyeing their plates enviously. The fridge door has been opened countless times in the hope that something low fat will present itself temptingly. Aside from apples and carrots there is nothing else I can eat.

Part of my resistance, which I hope will last the night, is that I am visiting my doctor tomorrow for my cholesterol test result. I hope to weigh myself while there and do not want to spoil my efforts over the past months by scoffing the delicious contents of my fridge.

I am feeling somewhat nervous about getting my result, hoping for an A*. I am sure my level will have reduced but will it be enough to get me back into the normal range? What if it doesn’t? Will I carry on for a bit longer or will I find myself having an uncomfortable discussion with my doctor about why I do not want to take statins. A few days ago the newspapers reported that two eminent French doctors have reviewed the list of medications paid for by the French health service. It suggested that 50% of these medications were either useless or dangerous. Statins appeared on the list of medications considered useless. No doubt their findings will be strongly contested by the drug companies that profit massively from the proliferation of these medicines. It is very hard to know how much to trust research findings and how to interpret them. What I would prefer to avoid is a socio-economic argument about pharmaceuticals with my GP.

I wonder how often I can eat a meal like last night’s without doing too much damage. I count the upcoming events on my fingers – Christmas, my 50th birthday and so on – and realise these come round about every 2 -3 months. Fortunately the birthday is a once off. If I could eat like there is no tomorrow once a quarter that would be fine. Yet in 3 weeks we are off to Edinburgh for a long weekend. Scotland has 15 Michelin star restaurants. I have booked lunch in one of these and a further lunch in another fine dining room. In addition to these meals I hope to try haggis and my sons are on the hunt for a deep fried mars bar which, they tell me, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Too many such experiences tend to curtail one’s lifetime sadly.

But I am running ahead of myself. One day at a time. Tomorrow I must face the music.