Monthly Archives: January 2014

Chicken and Sweet Potato Tagine with Prunes

Chicken and Sweet Potato Tagine with Prunes

Sometimes my supermarket sells packs of skinless thigh fillets. I always buy a few and cook them up, some to eat straight away and the rest to place in the freezer for a tasty, low fat meal just needing defrosting. When deciding what to do with a pack of chicken portions, my mind often strays to Moroccan cuisine as the tagine is very close to my heart and freezes well. I made this dish with sweet potatoes which are the healthiest potato to eat as they have a low glycaemic index and therefore slowly release their sugars and keep one feeling full for longer.

I love to add a bit of fruit to a tagine – be it dried apricots, prunes or olives. It adds a wonderful extra flavour and a contrast to the gentle spiciness. No tagine would be complete without a scattering of preserved lemons – even though I have yet to learn to make my own. I usually use the Belzau variety.

I tend to keep my tagines fragrant and always hand around a pot of harissa so that everyone can spice up the dish to their liking. Don’t be put off by the long list of spices. This melange is what gives a tagine its aromatic flavour. Try to buy spices in small amounts so that they don’t become stale. Alternatively use them frequently and your cooking will never become stale! Don’t worry if you don’t use every spice! Do try though to use as many as possible. If you are well organised, you can rub the spices into the chicken pieces the night before and leave in the fridge.
As with all tagines and casseroles, try to prepare the dish the day, or even two days, before and you will be rewarded with a deeper flavour.

For 4 – 6 people
500g skinned and boned chicken thighs
2 medium onions, sliced
Olive oil spray
3 large cloves garlic
Thumb sized piece of fresh ginger

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 – 2 preserved lemons, rinsed. Discard pulp and finely chop the peel
Harissa – I like the Belazu rose harissa. if you have a Moroccan store nearby you can buy fresh.
Chicken stock
4 small sweet potatoes – about 450g – peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks.
8 – 10 soft, pitted prunes, halved
A large handful of fresh coriander or mint
1 -2 more preserved lemons

Slice the onions fairly thinly and sauté on a low heat in a casserole that you have sprayed lightly with olive oil. Keep on the heat while the onions soften. When they start to stick – due to using just a spray of oil – add a bit of water from the kettle. I find this a useful way to slowly brown onions without using much fat.

Once the onions have softened you can add the aromatics.
Grate three large cloves of garlic and add to the onions. Peel and grate the ginger and add. Stir well.

Add all the spices and stir well. Cook gently for a minute.
Add the chicken pieces and stir well to coat in the onion spice mix.
Add the chunks of sweet potato.

Prepare a litre of chicken stock and mix in the tomato paste and the preserved lemon and a teaspoon of harissa. Pour over to cover the chicken. You want the chicken to be covered so you may need to add a bit more stock.

Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat so that the liquid is just simmering. Cover and cook for an hour. Add more water if needed. You want the chicken to be cooked through but not overcooked especially as there is no bone. The sweet potato should be soft by now.

Add the halved, pitted prunes.

When you are ready to serve, add a scattering of chopped coriander or chopped mint and some more chopped preserved lemon.

Serve with a bowl of couscous.
Hand around the harissa.

Deja Vu – 29 January 2014

There is a tedious sense of déjà vu when I attend a birthday party with a gift in one hand and my container of almonds and fruit in the other. I recall doing just the same thing a year ago. Then it felt zealous, this time around it just feels dull. Boring, really. It is even leading to having the same discussion with my husband and how can we hope to keep a relationship fresh if we have the same conversation twice in twenty years?

Watching me packing my own snacks, my long-suffering husband exclaimed ‘can’t you just not eat for two hours?’ Oh, he fell straight into that one. Any partner worth their salt knows never to comment on a woman’s eating habits. Never ask ‘should you eat all that chocolate?’ or ‘is that all for you?’ Nor ‘didn’t you say you were on a diet?’ or even ‘but you asked me to take away the biscuits’.

So what is the correct response to being asked if a couple of hours could pass without food entering one’s mouth? I must admit I was puzzled as much by the array of possible answers and hand gestures as by the implication that I might be some sort of glutton.

Yes, if stuck down a well I could probably manage not to eat for a couple of days, but put me in front of a table piled high with cakes, biscuits and other goodies, well then I had better have my own snacks to hand.

My man muttered about his relative who used to take her own food to gatherings. His family all thought she was nuts and I described this very exchange a year ago in this blog, so now we can all share the sense of déjà vu. And yes, my husband and I had this illuminating trip down memory lane once before in the days that I still felt bright and bushy tailed about cholesterol reduction. Now I fell less of a zealot and more of an idiot.

But what is the option for those of us with cholesterol to reduce, weight to lose and a social life to maintain? Not a week goes by without some sort of gathering involving food and drink. Unless one is signing up for a hermitage, life must go on and we need to adapt. Would it be more acceptable to arrive, almonds in hand, if I was diabetic or had coeliac? Was gluten intolerant?

Yes, I could just drink my tea and watch everyone else eating the cake, but my resolve is not as cast iron as it felt last year when I first set out to reduce my cholesterol. It feels like a steep slope this year as my level has crept up again and needs ongoing attention and restraint.

Not that I expect my husband to understand and feel my pain. He had his cholesterol tested this week and his level is on the nursery slopes. Which just goes to prove the role of genetics as we mostly eat the same food. I received the news of his cholesterol result with good cheer. At least our sons may inherit his genes. In the meantime, I will stick with my nuts. Please just don’t comment on my chocolate consumption.

Pear and Grape Salad with Cottage Cheese and Chives

Pear and Grape Salad

If you are watching your weight or lowering your cholesterol then salads are going to be a big part of your day. I like to have a fruit based salad for lunch as it gives me a sweet hit and helps clock up my 5-a-day. I often add a scoop or two of cottage cheese for taste, texture and calcium. I love the combination of the sweet fruit and the creamy cheese. Pears and red grapes are particularly good fruits for lowering cholesterol due to the pectin in pears and the resveratrol in the grapes. Eat with a piece of wholemeal bread or a few wholemeal crackers.

In this salad I have dry fried the pears in a non-stick pan so that they slightly caramelise. Make sure you use a firm pear or it might get too mushy.

For 4 people:

4 firm pears, cored and cut into quarters
A small bunch of red grapes, each grape halved
A handful of salad leaves for each person
200g cottage cheese
A small bunch of chives, finely chopped
Half a pomegranate, seeds removed
Lemon juice
Black pepper

Begin by dry frying the pear quarters on a low heat in a non-stick pan. You want the wedges to caramelise gently. You could also do this on a griddle pan if you prefer.

Lay the salad leaves on a platter.
Arrange the pear quarters and halved grapes on the leaves.
Now arrange small scoops of cottage cheese around the fruit.
Scatter over the chopped chives and the pomegranate seeds.
Squeeze over some lemon juice to taste.
Finish off with a few grindings of black pepper.

January Blues – 22 January 2014

Monday 20 January,renamed Blue Monday, is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. But according to whom? I think I will decide for myself which day of the year qualifies for such dubious status, thank you very much. Yes it can be tough getting back to work after the holidays; getting back to healthy eating after weeks of gorging; settling back to the cold, dark nights if you have had an escape to sunnier climes or, if not, just plodding on through the cold, dark nights and wet days. And of course no one likes Mondays do they? But what is so pernicious about this particular Monday?

It is based on a bit of pseudoscience that was commissioned by a travel company and based on weather conditions, debt level, time lapsed since Xmas, state of our new year resolutions, low motivation level and feeling the need to take action. While that just about sums up this time of year, this advertising ploy was no doubt aimed at getting us to part with our cash – just in case we have any left after Xmas. This time we are supposed to be cheering ourselves up with a little more retail therapy – the previous round having worn off as quickly as this form of self-help tends to do. We can beat the blues by planning ahead and buying our summer holiday. Wonderful for the airline and hospitality industries but does it really do anything to improve our mood?

These collective shopping days seem to be infecting my household. Having never even heard of Black Friday – the day the US goes consumer crazy with their credit cards and stocks up on gifts in advance of Xmas – I was reliably informed by my kids that this was the day to buy that iPad I had promised them. Who could resist such a bargain, the only day of the year when Apple has a sale? There was a time when American shopping habits had nothing to do with me. No longer. If it’s for sale on the web then it is in my home too. And my kids are keen online shoppers. I do have my concern about a generation of children growing up with no experience of going into a shop and actually having to count out the cash for anything. Most of their purchases are online which is strangely disconnected from reality. Particularly when they are using my credit card.

Despite the nonsense of Blue Monday, our summer holiday has already been booked while the Xmas tree is still sitting on the pavement awaiting recycling. Is this a fit of post –seasonal depression? Apparently not, just the last 4 seats to New York on the British Airways sale. For flights in August for goodness sake. Has such premature booking cheered up the household? Not really. A few smiles and grunts from the youngest members of the family and the sound of money leaking out of our account into that of a large corporation where it can earn them interest.

My family as always is already talking about the food. My sons are very keen to see with their own eyes the size of the portions they have heard are served across the pond. I think they are planning to see whether their eyes or their stomachs are bigger and are intent of pitting their appetites against the largest salt beef on rye in the city. Having tried this in my youth (and lost) I know I am no contender. But I do intend to get back in shape before hitting the US shores so that I can eat my lesser body weight in grub. Donut anyone?

Roast Beetroot, Orange and Mint Salad

Roast Beetroot, Orange and Mint Salad

In this month of detoxing, a blood cleansing helping of beetroot can only be a good thing. This is a vegetable that is endlessly versatile, its earthy and sweet flavours getting along very well with ingredients as diverse as lentils or feta. In this recipe I have kept it all as simple as can be. The result is a richly satisfying mouthful. Roasting vegetables always intensifies their sweetness and I have added a citrus note with some fresh orange juice. All it needs to finish it off is a drizzle of good olive oil and a handful of fresh mint. I served mine warm as a side dish with roast chicken and the next day finished off the leftovers as a cold dish which, if anything, was even more delicious. I might try to liquidise some along with a bit of vegetable stock as I think it would make a terrific soup. As I said, this is one versatile vegetable.

For 4 people:

3 – 4 large beetroot
1 large orange
A small bunch of mint
Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 C.
Peel the beetroot and chop into bite sized chunks.
Place in a roasting dish and splash over a tablespoon of olive oil.
Roast for an hour or until the beetroot is tender enough to eat.

Remove from the oven and squeeze over the juice from an orange. Mix well.

Pick the mint leaves off the stalks and cut into thin ribbons. Scatter over the beetroot. You can add a splash of good quality extra virgin olive oil over the salad if you like, but it is good just as it is.

My Year So Far – 15 January 2014

How is your year going so far? Are you still keeping to your new year resolutions? It has taken me so long to polish off the surfeit of fabulous chocolates we were given over the festive season that resolving not to eat any after January 1 seemed an exercise in futility.

So far the weather has been lousy and I have not been for a walk since Boxing Day. Naturally I have my excuses. First up is a belated xmas gift from my husband who gave me his rotten cold with which he had suffered for a fortnight before the festivities. Mine arrived after Boxing Day and just kept giving and giving. It has accompanied me into the New Year and beyond.

Last week, preparing for 20 teenagers to take over my home for the evening, I was in the kitchen preparing to feed the hungry. I reached down into my pan drawer and, lifting out my largest and heaviest pot, I felt something go ‘pop’ in my back. I sank to the floor making squealing sounds of distress. My husband looked quizzical. ‘I’ve done something to my back’ I whimpered. He began to laugh – such devotion! – and informed me that I should keep moving. Gosh he does a good routine in sympathy. At least my son offered me a hand to lift myself off my knees so that I could continue cooking his birthday party dinner.

I groaned my way upstairs in search of medicinal assistance, my husband kindly sprayed my back with Deep Heat and donated one of his extra strong sciatica pills to my cause. It looked large enough to provide a horse with relief. Within a half hour I was practically pain free, reminded of the epidural I had many years ago when I floated away from the waves of pain that had been washing over me every few minutes. On that occasion I played scrabble with my husband, beat him into second place with a 7 letter word while eating shortbread and drinking tea, and still managed to find the time to give birth to a bouncing boy. Gosh what a multi-tasker I was back then!

Fast forward many years and I was at the coal face of my kitchen with a bad cold and a bad back, feeling my age. I thought about how long it might take before I would be able to resume my regular walks, having totally lost the plot since Xmas – too much food, too much rain, now too much pain.

This auspicious start to the year has made me realise once again how much I take the body for granted and how one bad move can wreck the best laid plans. So I will resolve now to bend my knees when lifting heavy objects and get back in my walking shoes ASAP.

Talking of footwear, I haven’t had much luck so far. On New Year’s Eve I made an effort and wore the most decent (i.e. expensive) pair of shoes I own to a friend’s dinner. Making merry with the dips and crudités, I suddenly noticed a large, green blob of guacamole on my shoe –a beautiful creation made of blue satin. Clearly I should stick to trainers. The shoes might look lovely but my feet hurt in heels, even low ones, and these aggravate my bunion. Still, you would think that at my ripe old age I should be able to transfer food to my mouth without spillage. Mind you, perhaps I am dipping in the direction of once again requiring a bib!

Top of the Morning Muesli

Muesli2 From The Healthy Heart

Eating oats every day is an essential part of lowering cholesterol due to the soluble fibre which reduces the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. I think of oats as being a broom that sweeps the cholesterol from my arteries. That’s a good way to start my day. So many commercial mueslis are sweetened and just not very tasty. Sadly those yummy granolas are not what we should be eating. So make your own muesli – it is very easy to do and it lasts for ages. I eat this muesli every morning.

500g bag of rolled oats
100g sunflower seeds
100g pumpkin seeds
100g sesame seeds
100g linseeds
100g ground almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
100g walnut pieces
A few handfuls of raisins

Mix all the ingredients together and spread in two oven trays. Bake at 180 C for 15 minutes – I put on the timer as I always forget it otherwise and it burns. Check after this time, you may need to swap the trays round, you want it to be lightly toasted. When all is done, remove the trays and add a small bag of walnut pieces and a few handfuls of raisins.

To improve the taste even further – if you have time – dry roast the seeds before adding to the oats. It intensifies the taste. Careful with the sesame seeds which burn easily.

Eat the muesli in a variety of ways: either with skimmed or semi skimmed milk or with soya or rice milk. Alternatively with a few spoons of fat free yoghurt into which you may want to cut up a bit of fruit. If you have time on the weekend you could make a simple fruit compote which is delicious mixed in with the yoghurt option. The idea is to keep your interest by changing what you eat it with.

Store the muesli in a Tupperware in the fridge because nuts and seeds go off quickly once exposed to air. You can easily double up this recipe and you will then have enough for weeks unless all your family eat it too as mine do.

If you also need to shed a few pounds – keeping a healthy body weight is very important for cholesterol control – mind how much muesli you put in your bowl. I used to put in far too much thinking that it is so healthy. You can get too much of a good thing.

First Birthday – 8 January 2014

The first birthday of any child is a milestone to celebrate with pride. It is not only an indication of the baby having survived the first year – admittedly less of a challenge now than a century ago, or at least in this part of the world. It is also a time for looking back on the first year of parenthood, that incredibly steep learning curve, and realising that one too has survived.

Much as I continue to enjoy my children’s birthdays, they are both long past having one candle on the cake. My role at their parties these days is to provide food, say as little as possible and hope that my house survives intact.

So I am delighted this week to once again have a first birthday to celebrate, for it is exactly a year since From The Healthy Heart was born. It had a gestation period of 7 months while I trialed it and set up the website and, despite its premature birth, it has continued to grow and provide pleasure to me at least. Having survived its first year, it is perhaps an appropriate time for a bit of reflection.

On a personal level, the blog has provided me with a continued focus for keeping my cholesterol in check. As regular readers know this has gone up and down a bit, is currently in ‘don’t be complacent’ mode – and post Xmas I think it is probably in special measures. I hope that it has also helped some of my readers to think about their cardiovascular challenges. I continue to meet people newly diagnosed with raised cholesterol who are requesting information about how to improve their health without resort to medication if possible. They are also seeking new ways to cook and eat as part of changing their lifestyle. I hope that From The Healthy Heart has gone some small way to be of assistance.

The blog has also provided me with a regular opportunity to write. This discipline has begun to bear fruit in other media outlets which is very gratifying and you can follow my witterings on other matters if you so choose on my Facebook page where I post my other articles when they are published (http://on.fb.me/19HzaVy ).

Cooking something new each week for the blog has been fun, sometimes a mad dash for the stove at the last minute, and has kept my family happy at least. I have had feedback from readers on some of the recipes which has been lovely to receive so do continue to let me know what you like and what you don’t. It is always good to hear about how a dish turns out in someone else’s kitchen. A number of people have suggested that I put the recipes together in a cookbook – a self published one is achievable by anyone these days – and this is something I muse about at times. Who knows what could happen in 2014? Any publishers out there?

From The Healthy Heart has become a permanent feature of my household, a regular part of my routine, and one which I hope to continue. I appreciate any feedback – positive or otherwise – and want to thank you all for reading along the way. This week I am reposting my very first recipe partly out of nostalgia, but also because oats are one of the most important ingredients for lowering cholesterol. If there is one change that you make on your journey to reduce cholesterol, make it a portion of oats every day. I think of oats as a broom that sweeps my arteries clean. I begin almost every day of the year with a bowl of this muesli ,so it is ever present in my kitchen and I hope it may become part of yours too.

Red Rice Pilaf

Red Rice Pilaf From The Healthy Heart

To bring in the new year I have made a pilaf filled with pulses, nuts and seeds. I have also used an ingredient that I do not use enough of which is red Camargue rice. It has a gorgeous colour and adds a special note to a pilaf. You can eat this at room temperature as a side salad or warm with a wide range of dishes. I served it with a dhal made with red lentils.

For 4 people:
200g brown basmati rice
200g red Camargue rice
1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
½ pomegranate, seeds removed
150g light feta, crumbled
50g pumpkin seeds, toasted
20g mint, leaves picked and chopped
20g flat leaf parsley, chopped
Sumac
Black pepper

Dressing:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Zest of a lemon, preferably unwaxed
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice

Boil the basmati and red rice in separate pots for 20 minutes until tender but still retaining a bite.
Drain and mix the basmati and red rice together. Cool a bit and then pour over the dressing and mix well.

Add the chickpeas, the pomegranate seeds, feta and pumpkin seeds. Mix together lightly.
Sprinkle over herbs, sumac and a grinding of black pepper. Add some salt to taste if preferred.

New Year – New You? – 1 January 2014

A new year! A new you? Time for those resolutions we keep making and breaking. As I grow older I feel less enthused about the whole resolutions process. It feels too much like exercising hope over experience with most promises of self-improvement fallen by the wayside within a few weeks. Then one is left with a feeling of having already failed at whatever it was that was supposed to change. I don’t like to set myself up to fail, so this year I will go forward in the spirit of making changes as the occur to me rather than doing a spring clean of my whole life just because the date has changed.

Talking of spring cleaning, my loft could do with a giant throw everything out and start again offensive. This one campaign – it could take weeks – would please my husband no end. I could please my children by resolving to no longer nag at them to practise their music, to put dirty crockery in the dishwasher after dinner, to stop playing football in the kitchen, to go to sleep at a reasonable (to me) time, to no longer repeat myself endlessly when they claim to have heard me the first fifteen times but chose to ignore my requests. Imagine how quiet the household could be if I just resisted commenting on all of the above?

As for me. I waddle into the new year stuffed as full as the goose we ate for Xmas. It took all week to finish the leftovers from the festivities. This week I am baking and cooking again for my son’s birthday party and who knows just how much to prepare for a horde of teenage boys? Being a household that is never knowingly under-catered, I suspect it may be a further week before the still to be cooked leftovers are eaten. I am following orders and providing chocolate cake, but this is definitely the last that I plan to make for the foreseeable future. At least I can convincingly make that one resolution I intend to keep.

In fact, I look forward to hauling myself back on track as I am feeling rather queasy from all that cream, butter, salt, sugar, cream, cheese, chocolate, cake, cream – single, double, added, stirred and whipped. My Xmas present to self is a new pair of trainers – not yet purchased – to walk myself into the new year.

As the year progresses, some changes from 2013 will continue. Regular walking has enhanced my life, improving both body and mind. My French conversation classes have provided two of the most entertaining hours of my week, so I will keep going even though my ability to speak seems as rusty as before. I hope to fret less and count my blessings more, to be rooted in the present rather than racing off into the future. Above all I hope to be gifted good health and many happy times and I wish you all much of the same.