Monthly Archives: September 2013

Apple and Plum Compote

Apple ad Plum Compote from The Healthy Heart

I make large pots of this compote which freezes well. It is delicious on muesli or even with a bowl of yoghurt (fat free of course). Quantities are determined by how many plums have come off our tree and need using up. The apples from our tree which are somewhere between tart and sweet. I therefore don’t need to add sugar. If you are using a less sweet apple you may want to sweeten your compote a bit. But taste it first before you do.

12 apples, peeled and roughly chopped
A  couple of  handfuls of plums, halved and stones removed
A stick of cinnamon
A couple of tablespoons of water

In a large pot – I use a stainless steel one which is non reactive – add your fruit, cinnamon stick and a few tablespoons of water to prevent the fruit sticking. Cover with a lid and allow to simmer on a low heat, stirring from time to time to prevent sticking and burning. The compote is ready when the apples are very soft. At this point you can puree the fruit mix. I prefer to keep it a bit chunky as it is a more interesting texture to eat.

If your plums are too soft to easily remove the stones – I often use plums that are a bit past their eating prime – you can just as well leave them in. Just remember that they are there when you eat the compote or you may need a visit to the dentist. Also, don’t puree the compote without first removing the stones or your blade may get damaged.

Keep in the fridge for a few days or freeze when cool.

Serve with no fat yoghurt for dessert or with some muesli for breakfast.

Apples Galore – 25 September 2013

At this time of year I feel particularly in touch with nature. Not that I am finding the time for rambling about the countryside, mind you, lovely as this seems what with the warm Autumnal weather this week and the trees just starting to show a hint of red and orange. I have to make do with more urban offerings such as my neighbour’s Virginia creeper which will soon start to wrap her house in russet red. Where I get into farmer mode, though, is in my own garden where the apple tree is groaning, boughs weighed low with red apples. Alongside this proud and beautiful tree stands a crab apple with its gorgeous fruit, ablaze with orange and red. Usually the birds get to the crab apples long before they ripen, but this year we have a glut.  A friend once suggested I collect them for crab apple jelly, but sadly this feels too far a foray into the unknown world of jam making.

I have long nurtured a fear of bottling anything. This arose many decades ago when I read a shocking story about a woman who had poisoned her family with a jar of pickled runner beans. Botulism I think it was. A nasty end. It was a salutary tale and, being of a neurotic disposition myself, I realised I would never have the nerve to make pickles, jams and chutneys – anything that involved sterilising jars, making wax seals and packing away the contents for months on end. No, I can only make food that is to be eaten within a few days or has a freezer life.

This year we have enjoyed an unusual offering from our own garden as my younger son has had a go at planting vegetables. He waited impatiently for a freezing April to give way to a very cold May. Just when it seemed that Spring was giving this year a miss, he and his father set off for the garden centre, determined to defy nature if that what was needed. They arrived home with seeds and some plantlings, pots were filled, enthusiasm was high, and we all sat back to wait. And wait.

Eventually patience was rewarded and we enjoyed lettuce and broad beans at least twice. In fact, having proudly harvested his beans, my son set about making us a broad bean and ricotta bruschetta starter one evening. These were the freshest beans ever eaten at our table and delicious they were too. Now we are watching the tiniest courgettes that don’t seem to want to grow any bigger. I wonder if they are the baby variety, as friends who grow their own assure me that you just turn your back on a courgette and it turns into a marrow. Well size isn’t everything and the flowers at least have added a little bit of Provence to our garden.

The apples continue to ripen at the rate of knots. There is only so much compote that one can eat,  however delicious. Last year I filled the freezer with cooked apple pieces until I ran out of bags. Now I plan to make a start on batches of apple cakes. The only problem is how to resist eating them myself. I have a big family event in a month, bought the dress early in the summer and went on holiday. As you can imagine, the dress fits rather differently now and if I do not stay off the cake, I will appear rather more round than I had hoped. Rather too much like an apple!

Sweet Potato and Apple Mash

Sweet Potato and Apple Mash

I am lucky to have a number of apple trees. At this time of year the apples are falling off the trees thick and furious and I hardly know what to do with them. I usually bake a lot of apple cakes, muffins and crumbles but sadly that is not so good for cholesterol purposes.  I thought I would see how they tasted in a mash and it got a thumbs up from my boys which is always a good indicator of a recipe to be repeated. I don’t add any sugar to the apples as their tartness is a great foil to the sweetness of the potato. Sweet potatoes are the healthiest of all the potato family as they have a low glycaemic index.

For 4 people:

4 sweet potatoes
2 – 3 apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

Boil or bake the sweet potatoes in their skins. Once they are very soft, remove the skins and mash the potato.

In the meantime, place the apples in a thick bottomed pot on a low heat. Add a tablespoon of water to prevent them sticking. Cook very gently with the lid on. Once the apples have broken down to a lovely mush you can add them to the mashed sweet potato.

I made this ahead of time and reheated it. You could spice it up if you like with a few chilli flakes or a shake or two of paprika. I might even try it with a hint of cinnamon. It rather depends what you are planning to eat it with. I served it alongside venison steak so the apple flavour peeking through went well with the meat. If I was going to serve it with a tagine I would spice it up. Have a go and experiment.


Not So Innocent – 18 September 2013

I love smoothies – so wholesome, so delicious, so easy to make and even easier to buy. Constantly on special offer at my supermarket too, so much so that I have realised it is a marketing ploy and the 2 for 1 or buy 3 for £5 is actually just what they cost. Keeps me putting them in my trolley though, so good PR. Always thought this was a healthy drink for my kids who adore them. Getting one of their 5-a-day (only one portion of fruit juice counts) and keeping hydrated.

I even loved the back story to Innocent smoothies – 3 young entrepreneurs who tried out their new product at festivals, found them popular, invited festival goers to vote on whether they should ditch their day jobs, got the thumbs up and set up Innocent.

The brand went from strength to strength, great PR, great taste, great success. They even gave 10% of their profits to charity, so good ethics too.

Then in 2010 the company sold 58% of its share to Coca Cola. Recently that has gone up to 90%. I wondered why.  After all, why would the largest drinks company on the planet be interested in healthy smoothies? A recent article in The Guardian provided some of the answer.

In an interview with a professor of nutrition from the University of North Carolina, it was revealed that Coke and Pepsi have bought ‘dozens’ of fruit juice companies around the world. In the UK this involved Innocent (owned now by Coke) and Tropicana (owned by Pepsi).

Ok, but surely we are better off drinking a glass of fruit juice every day rather than a glass of the fizzy stuff? I start my day with a glass of juice and tick off one of my five. Makes me feel virtuous. Now I discover that Professor Popkin doesn’t think much of my choice of breakfast beverage and is recommending that I change to drinking vegetable juice.  The reason for this is the vast amount of sugar contained in a glass of juice – who knew? A smoothie apparently contains the sugar of 4 – 6 oranges or – wait for it – a large glass of Coke!

The Prof points out that if we eat an orange or two we would feel quite full and eat less afterwards.  Clearly he hasn’t met my sons, but I get the point. Drinking a smoothie (the equivalent in sugar terms of up to half a dozen oranges) does not reduce how much we then go on to eat as it doesn’t fill us up in the same way. This I assume is due to the lack of fibre once the fruit has been juiced.

During the past decade Prof Popkin and colleagues have identified soft drinks that are sweetened with sugar as a major cause of the rapidly growing problem of obesity. Now they are turning their focus to fruit juice. It turns out that I have erroneously believed that naturally occurring sugars are healthier.  Prof Popkin argues that all sugars have an equally bad effect no matter where they originate. We are being lulled into a false sense of healthy behaviour by believing that the natural sweetener in fruit juice is good for us. One of the most commonly used sweeteners is apple concentrate made in China which circumvents the sugar quotas laid down by many countries and is being used all over the world.

A few weeks ago The British Medical Association published the results of a large study in which it was found that people who ate blueberries, grapes and apples were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, while those who drank fruit juice were at increased risk.

Time to change my trolley behaviour then. Since smoothies have as much sugar as Coke they will now have to move from daily to occasional. Everything in moderation.

Fig, Mozzarella and Parma Ham

Fig, Mozzarella and parma Ham

The figs in Sardinia were quite beautiful. Ripe, jammy, small enough to pop whole into your mouth and moreish beyond belief. The classic combination of sweet fig, milky mozzarella  and salty Parma ham is most successful when the ingredients are top notch. My boys voted this one of the best dishes they ate all holiday. Considering that it takes a minute to assemble, that is quite a result. This dish is not worth putting together unless your figs are really ripe. You can make it into a vegetarian dish by leaving out the ham and adding a few handfuls of rocket or salad leaves. Parma ham is not an ingredient for daily use, but one slice is ok as a treat. Remove the fat on the side of your slice.

For 4 people:

8 ripe figs, torn in half
2 balls low fat mozzarella
4 slices Parma ham
A handful of fresh basil leaves
Black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil – preferably a spray

Place the figs on a plate, drape the Parma ham over the figs. Tear the mozzarella into rough chunks and scatter about the figs and ham. Scatter over the basil leaves, roughly torn if large. Now give the whole dish a grinding of black pepper. Finish off with a few spritzes of olive oil.

Eat in the sun.

What’s wrong with the veg? – 11 September 2013

‘What’s wrong with these vegetables, mum?’ asked my son as I unpacked my brown paper bags from the fruit and veg shop. I tried to explain that what was ‘wrong’ was actually what was ‘right’ but this paradox was lost on him and he said ‘well, they look weird’. The proof is in the pudding as the saying goes, and when we sat down to eat roasted peppers for antipasti and large portions of  melanzane parmigiana with our pasta, nobody questioned why the veg looked so unusual.

I must admit that I too was slightly sceptical about the aubergines. These were not those glistening, unblemished specimens that you can practically see your reflection in. They were slightly gnarled and misshapen, but boy did they taste good. The same for the peppers which were gargantuan, some so flat and elongated they were almost two dimensional. Their colour was a very deep red, different from the perfectly formed peppers sold like sets of traffic lights in cellophane back home. These had such a deep taste, no hot housing here. Same with the tomatoes, the peaches, plums, nectarines and the figs – oh the figs!!

It will not surprise you to know that we were holidaying in the Mediterranean, Sardinia to be precise. A cook’s orchard where the veg and fruit taste sweet, where the fish is fresh, the mussels plump and the cheese ranges from the milkiest mozzarella to pungent pecorino.

Yet despite all these delights, what I missed more than anything was my muesli.  In Italy, the day starts with a coffee and a pastry – a pasta dolci as I was informed by my new friend at the bakery, not 50 paces from our house. Not being a coffee drinker, nor a pastry eater first thing in the morning, this way of easing into the day was rather lost on me. My men happily took to doughnuts for breakfast, my boys perfectly happy to wake up to a sugar high. They ended most days with another sugar hit – a double scoop of gelato on our nightly passeggiata.

Then there was the quantity of salt, especially in the bread and pizza, hams and cheese. It made me wonder about the Mediterranean diet and who is eating it. I found a partial answer in an article in the Sunday paper which commented on the difference between the local diet, as espoused by Jamie Oliver’s Italian cookbook, and the reality on the ground. Apparently, the Mediterranean diet is being abandoned in Italy and Spain for foods heavy with sugar, salt and saturated fats. Obesity is on the rise as people abandon healthy eating habits for convenience foods.

What I enjoyed most about cooking in Italy was the daily shop for the ingredients we would be using that day, visiting the fish shop, the fruit and veg lady, the bakery and the weekly market. All this is labour intensive and time consuming. A great way to pass the morning on holiday when the rest of the day is going to be spent on the beach and dinner will not be eaten until late in the evening ahead of countless rounds of gin rummy.  I did notice that most of my fellow shoppers were elderly, presumably younger people are working and stock up in supermarkets as do I when I am back home.

It is a sad irony that we are encouraged to follow the Mediterranean way of eating when this itself is losing a foothold in the very countries that have benefited from this healthy diet. Add to this the extensive cigarette smoking we observed, a health time bomb is being created, the results of which we are only too aware of in a country where salt, sugar and saturated fat has long been a way of life. As for me, it is always sad to return from holiday, the tan fading as fast as one’s sense of relaxation. But there is a lining to the grey clouds overhead – for breakfast I now have my muesli with a good few handfuls of blueberries. Blissful way to start the day, even if I am off to work rather than the beach.