Monthly Archives: May 2013


Paella From The Healthy Heart

This is a great dish to make if you can find brown short grain rice. I recently came across some in my local health food shop and snapped it up with a paella in mind. There are some dishes that just work better with the kinds of rice they were developed around. A risotto, for example, needs a short grain rice too, the difference being that one stirs it all the time to release the starch into the dish which gives it that wonderful creaminess. A paella, on the other hand, is not stirred at all once the rice is in and the stock has been added because it is not supposed to be a creamy dish. I have tried paella with brown basmati several times but it does not have anything like the texture that this one did.

In this dish I have rather mixed two types of paella that are traditionally found in Spain. I have taken the chicken and rosemary from a Valenciana and mixed it with the prawns found in a seafood one. I have also mixed in some red peppers because they taste so good and add colour. I leave it to your conscience whether to add chorizo – definitely not on the list of ok foods. I do wonder how the cholesterolly challenged in Spain cope without chorizo. The carnivores I mean. If you are not using chorizo, or if you prefer a vegetarian paella, you can get the smoky taste by using a few teaspoons of Spanish smoked paprika. Also add a few more cloves of garlic. For vegetarians, add in some thin green beans and a tin of rinsed butter beans or even some broad beans.

This dish should ideally be made in a paella pan but if you don’t have one then use the largest pan you have.

To feed 6 or 4 hungry people:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 -2 large red peppers, seeds removed, cut into quarters lengthways and then cut each quarter in two
12 skinned, boneless chicken thighs
300g brown short grain rice
2 l chicken stock – made with boiling water
150g frozen peas
12 large tiger prawns – raw or ready cooked

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan and add the onions. Sauté for a couple of minutes. As the onion begins to soften, add the chicken pieces. You want to brown them nicely so turn them from time to time for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile add the red pepper and the garlic. When the chicken is brown – your onions should be too – add the rice and stir it in a bit. Now pour over the hot chicken stock. This is the one time you stir the rice into the stock. You now leave the rice to simmer away until it is cooked. This will take about half an hour. You need to keep an eye on the liquid level and add a bit more stock if it is drying out before the rice is ready.

When the rice is almost done, add the peas which will defrost in the hot liquid. Shortly before serving, add the prawns. If they are ready cooked you can add them once the dish is ready and just heat through quickly. If they are raw prawns, pop them on top of the rice and they will turn pink in a couple of minutes at which point they are done.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Rice is Nice – 30 May 2013

I used to believe that men thought about sex every 6 seconds, or so the women’s magazines always said. I once asked my husband whether this was true and he just laughed. So I was none the wiser. What the glossies also told us was that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. So how often was he thinking about food then?

Well I guess I am poorly placed to speak for men, but speaking for myself I can say that I have always found men who cook very sexy. I told my husband this when we met and boy did he turn out the roast chickens week after week. So the way to my heart (so to speak) is definitely via the kitchen.

This week I have been all fluffed up. About rice. Not such a racy topic you may think, not one to get hot and sweaty over. But spare a thought for a food obsessed woman who always has the next meal in mind and you will see that it has a certain cachet.

It all began while I was browsing in my local health food shop. Laden with boxes of flaxseed and bags of seeds and nuts, I paused at the brown rice section and noticed a newcomer I’d not met before. No it was not a tall, handsome stranger. Rather, a squat, dense bag of short grain rice. Brown short grain rice. Having only ever had access to the long grain, delicious as brown Basmati is and a staple of my weekly cooking to boot, the shorter cousin had me excited. For it is with short grain that certain dishes have to be made, dishes wherein long grain cannot happily be substituted. Dishes as yet out of reach for my cholesterol lowering purposes.

Which is how I found myself on Saturday evening preparing a paella. I know, we don’t get out enough. It is difficult to get a date with my husband these days as he tends to spend Saturday nights moonlighting as a taxi driver to my boys who have a rollicking social life. So I cook and hope that I retain a hotline to his heart while looking after mine.

On this occasion both my boys were present and did their faces light up when I brought my huge paella pan to the table! It is one of those pans that people drag home from summer holidays in Spain. Well, crazy people like me. Big enough to feed a crowd. A short while later they were scraping out those lovely sticky, caramelised bits of onion and rice that stick to the bottom, the best bits you might say. For once they were not hungry minutes after eating dinner. Perhaps it was the chocolate brownie dessert that occupied the last space in their stomachs. I’m not telling whether I ate any. All I will say is that when I looked up at my husband he gave me a rather saucy smile.


Beetroot, Apple and Pear Salad

Beetroot, Apple and Pear Salad with Walnuts and Feta

This delicious salad is adapted from a recipe by a South African chef, Reuben Riffel. His story is an inspiring one, a successful tale of post Apartheid life. The recipe contains so many health promoting foods it is positively virtuous. Pears and apples contain pectins which are very good for heart health. Beetroot cleanses the blood. Walnuts lower LDL, the bad cholesterol. Spinach is very high in antioxidants.

For 4 people:

2 granny smith apples
2 pears
Juice of a lemon
A bag of baby spinach
2 beetroot
A couple of handfuls of walnut pieces
A block of feta light (optional)
2 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ clove garlic
Pinch of sugar

Thinly slice the unpeeled apples and pears and toss in the juice of a lemon to prevent them from discolouring. Now peel the beetroots – taking care not to stain your clothes. Cut into matchstick size pieces. Set aside separately from the fruit so as not to stain your fruit red.

Wash your spinach and dry well. Place spinach leaves on a salad bowl or on a large platter. Then add your fruit slices and carefully arrange your beetroot so that your fruit does not get too stained. (This is purely aesthetic and does not affect the taste). Now scatter your walnut pieces over the veg. At this point you can add a block of feta, but remember that you are trying to control your cholesterol and feta is not friendly. If you can find feta light then use this instead. Otherwise think about using only half a block so that you get the salty taste but not too much fat.

The dressing is made from combining 2 tablespoons of walnut oil, 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, half a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, chopped, half a clove of garlic, crushed and a pinch of sugar.

Dress the salad just before eating or the spinach leaves get soggy.


Future Investment – 23 May 2013

How far would you go to improve your long term health? This question has been much in the press this week with Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she has undergone a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of developing a genetic form of breast cancer. Now she is due to have her ovaries removed to head off ovarian cancer, linked to the gene she inherited from her mother who died of the disease some years ago.

Another article that caught my eye was written by a woman in her early 30s, pregnant with her first child and diagnosed with colon cancer. This story upset me so much that I could not bring myself to read the full article but did glean, from a quick scan of the text, that she has been told by her oncologist to exercise 40 minutes every day and to eat 10 daily portions of fruit and veg.

These deeply moving stories – all too familiar these days when cancer seems to be increasingly present in younger people – point to the genetic lottery for which we all have a ticket without knowing  when the draw will be held. So we live our lives in blissful ignorance – or constant worry, depending on your temperament – waiting for nature to take its course. In decades to come, I suspect that such lack of knowledge will become as outdated as the dinosaurs. Once the patents for genetic testing have been contested in courts and, assuming a positive outcome, the costs of these tests is reduced, we might have our genetic futures mapped out at birth or earlier. Hopefully treatments will have advanced accordingly by then.

When it comes to cholesterol, we do not have to wait for the future. We already know that cholesterol levels have a genetic component and we also know what to do if we fall into this category. Luckily no radical measures need to be taken by most of us, no decisions to mutilate our bodies in order to enhance our survival.

So it feels churlish to complain about the endless road ahead of exercise and healthy eating especially when others are having to do to treat far more serious conditions. Which raises the question of how serious a condition is raised cholesterol? Does it threaten one’s life now or in the future? There is much controversy about whether raised cholesterol is even implicated in heart disease or whether inflammation is the bigger culprit.

The more I read about this debate and the more confused I feel about the disagreement on whether low fat or low carb or high protein is the route to cardio vascular health , the more fed up I feel. Sometimes it makes me want to just eat chocolate. Lots of it.

My husband recently complimented me on keeping my walking going throughout the winter (for the most part). I told him I was now finding it more difficult than ever to keep motivated. I think this is because I have reached that medium term period. The walking is no longer a new hobby yet I still need to push myself to do it. He suggested we walk in the woods to see the bluebells. They were soul enhancing. I thought about how many future springtime walks I wanted to have, seeing the bluebells in their purple glory blazing for a few short weeks. I want to do so with as many of my bits in tact and with my loved ones by my side. Which is reason enough to get my trainers on yet again today and keep away from the cheese in the fridge.

Aubergine and Chickpea Tagine

Aubergine and Chickpea Tagine From The Healthy Heart

I created this recipe for a quick midweek dinner when I was in the mood for something spicy but not too hot. I used Ras-el-Hanout which is a wonderful Moroccan blend used in tagines. It contains a very long list of spices including ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, coriander, mace, nutmeg and cloves! Mine had dried rose petals in it which, to my mind, is the height of romance in a spice mix.  Many supermarkets now sell it or you can find it in Middle Eastern grocery shops.

Any tagine benefits from a night in the fridge before being eaten. In this case there was no time for such delayed gratification. I did, however, eat the cold leftovers as a side dish the following day and it tasted pretty good that way too.

For 4 people:

2 large aubergines, thickly sliced in rounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium sized onions, chopped
2 -3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 teaspoons Ras – el – Hanout
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
8 dried apricots, quartered
2 preserved lemons
A handful of roasted almonds, chopped
A handful of fresh mint, leaves picked off and thinly shredded

Start off by salting your aubergine slices and leave to ‘sweat for half an hour. Then rinse and pat dry with kitchen towel. I always salt my aubergines because I once read that it draws out any bitterness. More importantly, it apparently decreases the amount of oil the aubergine absorbs when cooking.

To reduce further any need for oil, I baked the aubergine slices first before adding them to the pot.

While your aubergine is being salted, heat your oven to 180C / 350F and roast your almonds. This really does concentrate the flavour and enhances the taste of the nuts enormously.  Simply place the almonds on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Keep a very careful eye on them so that they don’t burn.

When the aubergine is ready to cook, lay the slices in one layer on a baking tray lined with a non-stick mat. You can spray them very lightly with an olive oil spray or just put them straight into the oven. They should be ready in 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the slices. At this point they should be slightly brown and soft to the touch. Remove and set aside.

While the aubergine is baking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan. Gently sauté the onions. When they have softened add the garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Now add the Ras-el-Hanout and stir to combine.

Cut the aubergine slices in half or quarters and add to the pot. Stir to combine. Now add the chopped tomatoes and chickpeas as well as the stock. Finally, add the dried apricots. At this point you can leave the vegetables to simmer for half an hour.

Prepare the garnishes. Wash the preserved lemons well and discard the flesh. Chop up the skins and set aside. Roughly chop the cooled roasted almonds and set aside. Pick the mint leaves off their stalks and shred finely.

When you serve up the tagine, add a bit of each garnish to each helping.

Serve with wholemeal couscous. You can add the seeds of a pomegranate to the couscous along with some more chopped mint if you have.

Please Mum, Can We have Some More? – 15 May 2013

Having a ragingly hungry teenager in the house, along with a pre-teen who is fast heading in the same direction, I am finding myself at a bit of a loss as to how to keep them filled up. When I gave birth to two sons, I knew that at some stage my filling the freezer with ice cubes of pureed vegetables would seem like a distant memory. That one day I would be shopping several times a week to keep the fridge full and the cupboards stocked. That time has come. What I did not know was that I would also be trying to keep my cholesterol down and hence keep the stores low fat and healthy. Healthy food works for my boys but low fat does not. They prowl the kitchen day and night. The fridge door might not survive their adolescence so often is it opened and slammed shut in disappointment. Minutes later it is opened again, a triumph of hope over experience, as if somehow what they are looking for has magicked onto the shelves filled with no-fat yoghurt, bags of almonds, seeds and fruit. My kind of food, in other words.

The tired complaint ‘there is never anything to eat in this house’, followed by ‘I’m hungry and there is nothing to eat’, or ‘I don’t want another sandwich’ has led me to scratch my head in confusion. Having passed through adolescence as a girl, I have no recollection of this constant hunger. I do remember though that my brother took to frying fish fingers or burgers at odd times of the night to sate his nocturnal appetite. At one point he turned to popcorn and the house would smell like a cinema foyer before the late show.

In desperation I asked my sons to draw up a list of foods they wanted to eat since they seemed to take offence at what I had on offer. They began to argue about whether granola bars were worth eating and so the list was abandoned.

I know what I would like them to eat – lots of fruit, healthy sandwiches and so on. And they do. But then minutes later they are back for more and variety is called for. Clearly I need to visit some of the supermarket aisles I studiously avoid, but I am not prepared to start filling them up with crisps, biscuits and junk. What they eat now affects what their cholesterol level is going to look like when they are my age. I have already potentially given them my cholesterol genes, so the least I can do is to encourage healthy eating.

Having now done my shopping with the boys in mind, I have returned with crackers, a range of breads and bagels, fudge yoghurt – a very strange combo my boys love, chocolate brownies and more. The fridge is full of foods I am trying to avoid, the cupboards heaving with goodies no cholesterol lowering mother should eat. I have temptations in my kitchen which previously felt like a safe space. My own challenge just got harder. Let’s hope my arteries don’t.

Salmon, Shiitake and Freekeh Soup

Salmon, SHiitake and Freekeh Soup From The Healthy Heart

This recipe came about in one of those ‘what can I make for supper?’ moments. I had some salmon in the fridge but felt in need of a change. I also had some leftover soup I had made the day before which had tasted too lemony.  ‘What this needs is a bit of fish in it’ I thought and so I put the salmon into the left over soup and the whole was more than the sum of its parts as they say.

Freekeh is a product I have only recently begun to use. It is a green wheat used extensively in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. I have often noticed it in my local Turkish shop where I buy a lot of herbs and spices. It’s one of those amazing places that while small, seems to sell anything you could ever need. I finally bought a bag of freekeh and put it away, not really knowing what to do with it, although I recall that Ottolenghi uses it. Recently I was given a copy of The Gaza Kitchen cookbook and found a soup made with freekeh. I tried it, but the traditional way of making this soup is a bit of a lengthy process for a quick dinner, so I have adapted it and used it as a base for a salmon soup. I was surprised by the smoky flavour of the wheat which I had not tasted before. It is an interesting flavour so do try it.

If you like you can make the soup the day before and then poach the fish in the soup when you warm it up. This way dinner is on the table in no time at all. For a vegetarian version, you can omit the salmon. If you make a vegetarian version, add the lemon juice slowly and taste as you do so as it can otherwise taste a bit too lemony.

For 4 people:

1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large tomato, chopped
1 cup freekeh, rinsed
1.5 l vegetable stock – eg Marigold bouilllon
Juice of ½ lemon
Flat leaf Parsley, chopped
250g shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed, rest of mushroom thinly sliced
4 salmon fillets

In a medium sized pot heat the olive oil and gently sauté the onion, carrot and celery until the vegetables begin to soften.

In the meantime, rinse the freekeh in a bowl of cold water. Drain it and add it to the softening vegetables. Cook for a couple of minutes and then add the tomato and the vegetable stock. Bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to simmer for about 20 minutes. You want the freekeh to be al dente – a bit like brown rice which is good to eat with a bit of bite.  Keep a check on your liquid level as you may need to add a bit more stock to keep the consistency soupy. When the soup is ready add the lemon juice and a handful of chopped parsley.

When you are ready to eat, add the shiitakes to the soup as you heat it. Cut each salmon fillet into 4 pieces. Place the fish pieces on top of the soup and put on a lid. The fish will now steam/poach in the soup. After 5 minutes the fish should be cooked through.


What’s In A Name? 8 May 2013

Sometimes I feel sorry for my kids growing up in a household of wholemeal and wholesome foods. I know as well as anyone that occasionally one just craves a plate of chips or a Parisian patisserie or a tub of Green and Black’s chocolate ice cream. Without sharing. Or caring.

So when my youngest asked repeatedly for Toad In The Hole I bought two packs of pork and leek sausage, some eggs for the batter and left my health concerns aside for once. I told him what we were having for dinner and he punched the air triumphantly, whooped happily and rushed off to football training to spend an hour chasing a ball around a field. I mused about the simplicity of happiness where sport and sausages can make a man feel really content. No wonder women often feel misunderstood.

The aroma of caramelising sausages and onions filled my kitchen while I stirred my batter until it was smooth. I remembered how good it felt as a child to have one’s favourite dinner to look forward to and anticipated a happy face at the table. I even wondered whether I might forego my cholesterol –lowering grub for once and take part in the general bonhomie brought on by sausage and batter. Neither of which are my kinds of food I hasten to add, but I sometimes feel isolated eating something different from the rest of the family.

It was then that my attention was attracted to an interview on the radio playing in the background. A woman was talking about the effects on her life of her husband’s stroke. She spoke about how fit and healthy he had been, about how they had planned for their retirement when they would enjoy long haul travel and lots of hiking. She recommended seeing the funny side of things such as when she had nearly tipped her husband out of his wheelchair. She was amazingly upbeat. I suddenly felt miserable, thinking about a life cut down in an instant. I thought about the word ‘stroke’ and wondered how the term was coined. Certainly not a stroke of good luck. Or a stroke of genius. Nor a swimming stroke. It seemed inappropriate, even cruel, as if mocking the other uses of the term.

I realised, not for the first time, that my programme of eating well and exercising regularly needs to be long term. Yes the odd tub of gelato and two weeks of patisserie eating now and then must be permitted to make life fun, but toad in the hole may not be one of those moments.

When my son burst hungrily through the door, I proudly presented my Toad in the Hole which had risen to a puffy crispness. He looked at it closely and said ‘Mum, don’t you think it looks a bit like poo?’ Suddenly the sausages poking out of the batter did look rather suspect. It was just what I needed to help me resist, for Turd in the Hole is not what I fancied for my dinner.

Baby Leeks with Egg and Capers

Baby Leeks with Egg and Capers From The Healthy Heart

It being springtime, the shops are filled with baby vegetables.  This week I picked up a bunch of the thinnest, young leeks. I was instantly transported back to my student days when I was invited to a dinner party with some older friends. As a starter we had leeks vinaigrette, a dish I had not encountered before. I was most impressed. Up until that point vegetables were things that were either raw or overcooked, certainly not served cold with a piquant dressing.

In this recipe I poached the leeks gently in a vegetable stock and then grated over a hardboiled egg. This is a well-known recipe for asparagus but it tasted good with leeks too. I added a teaspoon of capers for some extra flavour.

For 4 people:

1 bunch baby leeks – about a dozen
Vegetable stock
1 egg, hardboiled
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
A pinch of sea salt
Ground black pepper

Bring the stock to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the leeks and poach for about 20 minutes. You want the leeks to be soft but not falling apart. At this stage they are so delicious it is hard not to just eat them from the pot. Try to resist and lay the leeks out on a platter.

Grate your hardboiled egg over the leeks and add the capers. A pinch of sea salt and a grinding of black pepper finish off nicely.

If you prefer to egg your leeks egg free, you could make a vinaigrette and spoon a couple of spoons over the leeks.