Monthly Archives: December 2013

Spiced Almonds

Spiced Almonds From The Healthy Heart

Almonds are very healthy nuts and a handful a day should be included in your diet for heart health. This recipe takes the almond to less healthy places and is therefore not to be considered a part of your daily diet. It is, however, divine for a special occasion. I must warn you that they are slightly addictive and you will be hard pushed to restrict yourself to a handful. I find it quite impossible.

I tend to make a large quantity – it stores well in the fridge.

750g roasted almonds – my local Turkish shop sells these in large bags. They are lightly roasted and lightly salted.
Maple syrup – about 3 – 4 large glugs
Olive oil – about 3 – 4 large glugs
Fennel seeds – about 2 tablespoons
Dried chilli flakes – a good few shakes – depends on how strong you like your nuts
1 tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika

Mix all the ingredients in a large roasting tin and spread out so the nuts lie in one layer. Place in oven heated to 180 C/ 350 F for about 10 – 15 minutes. I remove them when they start to smell nutty.

Allow to cool and then store in an airtight container in the fridge.

Another fabulous roasted goodie is for a salad topping – although I pick at it all day. Use the same spices but instead of almonds use pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. These stick together along with the fennel seeds. Experiment a bit with the spicing to see how you like it to taste. You want a balance of sweet and hot.

Merry Christmas – 25 December 2013

The theme this Christmas day must surely be: Do as I say and not as I do. For by the time you read this blog I will be tucking in to my cream of chestnut, mushroom and parsnip soup followed by roast goose with prune and Armagnac stuffing accompanied by crispy potatoes roasted in goose fat; a pavlova filled with Cointreau cream and cranberries, a cheese board with stilton biscuits and assorted crackers, a chocolate salami and other sweet goodies. On Boxing Day I will be at it all again, this time with a glazed ham followed by marmalade and panettone bread and butter pudding. Probably with cream.

Despite my recent raised cholesterol level I am taking off a few days to eat, drink and be merry with friends and family before hauling myself back to reality. Having cooked myself to a standstill I am certainly not going to resist. In any case not one dish can be said to be suitable for low cholesterol purposes, so in for a penny in for a pound, I reckon. Well quite a few pounds probably. In fairness to myself I have been somewhat restrained as the build up to Christmas has developed. I have refused the chocolate box going round at various events, shunned all manner of biscuits and cakes and only got going on the mince pies last night. It reminded me of the first year my husband and I left a mince pie, a carrot and a glass of sherry on the hearth for Santa. The next morning my very young sons inspected the icing sugar footsteps and the carrot end and wondered about whether Father Christmas was real. These days the last mince pie would be scoffed by my teenage boys without a thought of Santa’s nocturnal need for nosh.

Christmas is a difficult time for those looking after their health. It is even a worse time for turkeys, geese, game birds, salmon and many other creatures. But before I come over all vegetarian, I only have to think about the alternative of nut roast. Where did that tradition begin and why does it continue?

Christmas is also a challenging time for hearts, stomachs and livers – no, I am not talking about the giblets with which I have made my gravy. It is yours and mine I have in mind. Our arteries too. Yet a little bit of celebrating does us good. So kick back, relax and eat well, sleep well, try not to argue too much with the rellies. Enjoy the leftovers in a sandwich on Boxing Day night while you protest that you couldn’t possibly eat another thing. Then get back on track.

I make the mistake each year of waiting until after New Year’s Eve – after all it is so soon after Christmas that it doesn’t make sense to go back to the muesli just for a few days. Hot on the heels of the New Year blowout comes my son’s birthday so surely that must pass before I can make a new start? Especially since I will be baking cakes and celebrating with a special birthday dinner and that is before I have got through the leftover crisps and chocolate from his party. By this time it is mid January and I am still eating as if it is Christmas. This year I will try harder.

In the meantime, I am off to collapse on the sofa with that box of assorted chocolates I have been keeping just for this occasion. Peace and goodwill to all.

Pistachio and Cranberry Biscotti

Pistachio and Cranberry Biscotti

I found this recipe in the November edition of Waitrose Kitchen magazine. It’s byline was ‘homemade treats that come from the heart’. Who can resist that calling card especially when each biscuit is low fat. No butter you see. Don’t mistake that for low sugar or low cal if you eat too many. They are rather lovely though so you may find it difficult to stop reaching for more. At least I did. As with all biscotti, they are best dunked in a glass of vin santo, but not having any to hand I made do with a cup of tea.

For about 25 biscotti:

3 eggs
150g caster sugar
250g plain flour
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of salt
75g pistachios, chopped
65g dried cranberries

Whisk two of the eggs together with the sugar until light and fluffy. I did this in my Kenwood chef and for some reason it did not become light or fluffy. In fact it rather resembled scrambled egg but this did not seem to affect the final outcome.

Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and then mix this into the whisked eggs. I used a wooden spoon for this bit and you will find it starts to form a dough.

Now mix in the pistachios and cranberries. Try not to eat all the nuts and berries left over from those 100g bags.

The dough must now rest in the fridge for about an hour. Wrap it in cling wrap first.

Now heat your oven to 200 C and line a baking tray with baking parchment. I don’t have a very large baking tray so I used two trays and swapped them round half way through baking time.

Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the dough into a rectangle about 30 cm long and 5cm wide. The dough is quite sticky so I found I needed to keep my rolling pin well floured. Place the log shape on the baking tray. Lightly beat the third egg and brush the dough log with it.

Bake for 20 minutes. Test if it is baked by inserting a skewer. If it comes out clean it is ready. If not, return to the oven and test again after a couple of minutes. Remove from the oven when ready and leave to cool. Don’t be alarmed that at this stage it looks as if you have baked a bread.

When it has cooled down, cut it into 1cm thick slices. Lay these down on the baking tray (or two). Reduce the oven to 180 C and bake for 15 minutes, turning them over halfway through. They should be golden brown. They firm up a lot while they cool, turning into those wonderfully crunchy biscotti that threaten to break a tooth.

Baking Mad – 18 December 2013

Having written about the health implications of waist size a few weeks back, I was interested to read an article on the very subject in The Observer at the weekend. Writing on the steady rise of obesity in the UK – forecast to be afflicting 50% of the population by 2050 if not sooner – it pointed out that waist size is an important indicator of future health prognosis. In the medium risk category (31 – 35 inches for women and 37 inches for men), your prognosis is ‘worrying’. If your waistline is over 37 inches for women and 40 inches for men, the prospects are ‘alarming’.

Since my prospects are only worrying, and I have a lifetime of experience in that department, I threw caution to the winds this weekend and baked. First were the biscuits for the Christmas tree, a seasonal tradition I enjoy with my sons, even if this year my eldest decided he had better ways to waste his time than mixing glace icing and sticking silver balls on biscuits. My younger managed to stick more in his mouth than on the biscuits. Eventually the mission was completed. The biscuits were threaded with ribbon and artfully hung in the tree alongside baubles collected over the years, getting their annual dust off for their few weeks in the limelight before being returned to obscurity in the loft.

Losing no time to continue the sugar rush, I busied myself making biscotti. In truth, I have never been much of a biscuit maker. I came across this recipe recently and since the biscotti are butter free, they are also low fat. That does not mean low cal or low sugar, but if you only eat one or two not much harm is done. If you can limit yourself to such a small number, you are in a league of discipline that I can never hope (or wish) to emulate. I include the recipe this week in the spirit of sharing and caring. And who doesn’t need a sweet treat at this time of year?

Being more of a savoury person, I could not resist the recipe I found for Stilton biscuits. The smell from the oven was gorgeous. I popped at least 5 in my mouth while they were still cooling and then, using all my willpower, packed the rest into a Tupperware and stuck them straight into the freezer. There they will relax for a week before being wheeled out and inflicted on my Christmas guests for whose cholesterol I am not responsible.

I have still to attempt the Chelsea buns which just look divine. I justify this by reminding myself that we have guests overnight for Christmas and can’t just serve up muesli for Boxing Day breakfast.

All of the above is of course a fit of madness, and I am not referring only to the time spent lightly flouring my rolling pin rather than reading my way through Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre like my erudite husband. No, I have in mind my recent cholesterol results, my doctor’s words ringing in my ears like tinnitus. Don’t be complacent. Too true. When I analysed the print out of my results I discovered that compared to a year ago, my good cholesterol (HDL) has risen a bit and unfortuantely the bad stuff (LDL) has also risen but just a titch. Overall, my ratio of good to bad has improved. This ratio is considered more important than the overall figure alone. So while my total cholesterol level is slightly raised, I could be said to be healthier than before. At least that’s the way I am spinning it to myself while I prepare for a week of festive eating. As for the worrying waistline – well, it will still be there once Christmas is over and the last mince pie has been eaten. Probably by me.

Pomegranate Pavlova

Pomegranate Pavlova

I love to make Pavlova and you can find a recipe for a large one on the blog Sometimes, though, I just want to put a dessert together without having to bake first. On these occasions I buy meringue nests from the supermarket. I particularly like the ones from Marks and Spencer but I don’t think it makes too much difference really.

This is a low fat dessert – most useful for the festive season as it has the jewel-like look that just feels right at this time of year. It also has a lovely mix of textures from the creamy yoghurt to the crunch of meringue and the popping of juicy pomegranate seeds.

You could dress it up even more with a few edible silver balls and chopped pistachio nuts if you really want to push the boat out. It looks particularly pretty in glass dishes.

For 4 people:

4 meringue nests
250ml no fat yoghurt
½ pomegranate, seeds removed

Optional extras:
Crème de cassis
Orange zest
Edible silver balls
Pistachios, finely chopped

Begin by pouring 2 -3 tablespoons of yoghurt into the base of each glass.
Crumble a meringue nest into each glass on top of the yoghurt.
Scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

If you want to add an alcoholic note, drizzle over a little crème de cassis before you serve.
Alternatively, you can use silver balls and pistachios or even a dusting of finely grated orange zest.

Results – 11 December 2013

To be honest, it feels churlish, trite and unnecessarily self-absorbed to be writing about anything other than the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. Since the news broke, I have been unusually glued to the tv news, read my way through piles of newspaper tributes and sat listening to every relevant programme on the radio. Like so many millions of people around the globe, Mandela’s life had an influence on me too – helping to set my course in my earlier life for many years. My mind and heart have been flooded with memories of my younger self this week, a time when my concerns scanned a broad horizon, a time when I turned my hand to changing more than my cholesterol level.

Some decades on my concerns have reduced to a rather more prosaic agenda. My focus now is on raising my family and leaving it to my children to think about how they may participate in changing the world. And so it was that before the earth tilted on its axis with the death of one of its most iconic men, my own petty concerns occupied centre stage.

The day following my cholesterol test I received an early, unwanted Christmas gift. Not the kind that can be recycled as a present for the piano teacher or, if irredeemable, passed on to the charity shop. No, this was a personal gift from the laboratory that processed my results in record time, all in the spirit of goodwill, no doubt.

I returned home late from work to find a cryptic message from my health centre. I was to call in for a message left for me on the computer system. Needless to say said message was irretrievable after office hours and I had to endure a night spent tossing and turning before having access to the unknown. My mind loves to roam the unknown, indulging in what my husband calls ‘medical catastrophising’ for which he has absolutely no patience whatsoever. I tried to reason with myself, but had to conclude that I had never had such a call in the past and that the lab must have been alarmed by something to contact my GP so promptly – aside from cholesterol I had also had tests for other vital functions.

First thing next morning, heart thumping, I called for my message. I was told that I needed to make an appointment with my GP. Well, I knew I could not wait days to hear my fate and squeaked a request to be given more information. ‘Dum dumdee dum’ mused the receptionist as she scrolled through my notes. ‘Oh here it is – your cholesterol is a bit raised’. And everything else? ‘Dum dumdee dum – everything else is fine’.

Oh happy turn of events! Never before have I been so relieved to receive news of raised cholesterol . My GP phoned me later in the day to tell me my total cholesterol level is 5.5 – the normal range is up to 5 – that I should not be complacent (as if!) and should continue with my exercise and diet. She did not want to retest me in 3 months as ‘it can drive one mad’. Indeed. 12 months is sufficient.

I mused on my poor genes which contribute to my having to work consistently at keeping my cholesterol level down, but that at least it is an aspect of health that can be dealt with through my own efforts. I decided that what I really want for Christmas is a new pair of walking shoes. I am still in a pair I bought over 10 years ago and since I have a lot of walking ahead, I would like to put a well clad foot forward.

Pearl Barley Salad with Roasted Butternut and Carrot

Pearl Barley Salad with Roasted Butternut and Carrot

Having enjoyed a barley salad at a Café, a reader asked if I could create one for the blog. Being only too happy to respond to requests and suggestions, I began to think about mixing texture, colour and taste. Pearl barley is a wonderful ingredient, not used nearly often enough – at least not in my kitchen. I always have a jar of it in the cupboard but the lid is not opened as frequently as the ones which contain brown rice, lentils and wholemeal couscous. I like to add pearl barley to vegetable soups in the winter which creates a wholesome meal in a bowl.

Since I can never get enough of roast vegetables, I thought I would roast some carrots and butternut for their colour, vitamins and crunch (the carrots at least), lightly steam some thin green beans – ditto vitamins, colour and crunch, throw in a few kalamata olives and low fat feta and scatter over some finely chopped spring onion and a couple of handfuls of toasted pumpkin seeds.
To add some flavour to the barley I cooked it in a bit of vegetable bouillon and then added a tehina based dressing to add some extra nuttiness.

For 4 -6 people:

200g pearl barley
1 litre vegetable bouillon

2 tablespoons tahina
2 tablespoons no fat yoghurt
1 teaspoon honey
2 – 3 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Olive oil
1/4 butternut, peeled and chopped into small chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks
150g fine green beans
4 spring onions, finely sliced
6 Kalamata olives, stoned and quartered
100g light feta, cut into small chunks
25g pumpkin seeds, toasted
Small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
Black pepper

Heat the oven to 200 C. Place the chopped butternut and carrot in a roasting tin and spray a bit of olive oil on the vegetables. Add a few grinds of black pepper and mix well. Roast for ½ hour until the butternut is tender but not mushy.

Bring the pearl barley to the boil in the vegetable bouillon. Reduce heat and simmer for ½ hour until the barley is tender but still has a bite.

In the meanwhile make the dressing. Mix the ingredients and add the water to loosen it up. If it looks too thick, slowly add a bit of extra water.

When the barley is cooked, drain and add the dressing while the barley is still warm.

Lightly steam the green beans so that they retain their lovely green colour and are still crisp. Refresh under cold water to stop the beans cooking further and drain. Cut the beans into thirds.

Toast the pumpkin seeds in a dry pan until they start to pop.

Place the dressed barley in a serving dish. Add the butternut, carrots and beans.

Slice the spring onions finely and add to the salad. Now add the chopped olives and feta, the toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped parsley and a grinding of black pepper.

Mince Pies – 4 December 2013

With Christmas fast approaching, I am reminded of the need to resist celebrating the big feast all month long. This is not so easy to avoid what with office parties, neighbourly get togethers and a general increase in social events during this month of long nights and cold days. Not to mention the supermarket shelves heaving with cakes, puddings, special offers on jars of goose fat, crisps, nuts, sweets and everything else that is high cal, high fat and highly desirable. It feels such an effort to resist, so much simpler to indulge all month and start again in January.

Since I am awaiting the results of my latest cholesterol test, however, I am in no mood for celebrating just yet. If my result if elevated I will need to put in more of an effort, not less. If I am in the normal range then I want to stay there. My way of coping with December last year was to keep on as normal until Xmas eve. Even then I tried not to go overboard on the nibbles before the meal and to ignore the dessert, cheese and chocolate that followed. I did manage to resist the cheese so that was something I suppose. On Christmas itself, I loaded up my plate with every trimming available, could not believe I could possibly eat so much, and polished off every last mouthful. It was a feast and I enjoyed it all. Reasonably soon I tried to get back on track although it is never easy after eating anything and everything for a few days. At least it is not easy for me.

Many years ago I worked across the road from a bakery called Bonne Bouche. It was a most apt name as almost everything there tasted good. They baked gorgeous breads from which my lunchtime sandwich would be prepared. This was in the days before decent bread was easily available in the UK. Nowadays most farmers markets have bread worth eating, not to mention a proliferation of French bakeries – at least in London – and artisinal loaves available more widely than ever even in supermarkets.

At the beginning of December, Bonne Bouche would begin to bake mince pies for the festive season. These were no ordinary mince pies. Devotees would queue patiently for their turn to purchase these fabulous creations. Even now I can recall the delicate pastry in which was encased a filling rich and generous. Not having previously been a fan of mince pies, I was converted. My colleagues and I took turns to buy boxes of the mince pies for our department, like standing your round at the bar. No one dared sneak out for a fix at Bonne Bouche without returning with a large box full.

Even when I moved jobs, I returned to the bakery at Christmas time to make sure that I was eating the best mince pies in town. Nowadays I live just a bit too far away to make such a journey, which is just as well, for if it were any closer I know that my ability to withstand the excesses of December would be found sorely lacking.