Monthly Archives: February 2014

Kale and Giant Couscous Tabouleh

Kale and Giant Couscous Tabouleh

I have taken a few liberties with the traditional tabouleh here to make a fabulously fresh tasting salad.The best tabouleh has more greens than grain and I have kept the faith while replacing the parsley with kale. I was inspired by the baskets of purple kale at my farmers market this week – as deep in colour as ripe aubergines. I bought a pile of purple and green kale for some colour contrast and rushed home to get cooking. Looking over the kale in my kitchen it seemed to be begging to be made into a salad. Perhaps it is all the early spring weather we are having. The deal was sealed when I came across a half-eaten bag of giant couscous in the back of my cupboard. You could of course make this with bulgar wheat as in the traditional tabouleh, but it is always fun to ring the changes.

For 4 – 6 people:

100g giant couscous
250g kale – preferably purple and green for colour contrast
2 ripe tomatoes
1 lemon
1 tablespoon very good extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
Black pepper
1 tablespoon sumac
1 garlic clove, crushed

Bring a pot of water to the boil and cook the couscous for 8 – 10 minutes. You don’t want it to get soggy so keep checking for the point at which it still has some bite. When it is ready, drain and set aside in a bowl.

Make the dressing by mixing the juice of the lemon with the olive oil. Add the garlic clove and the spices. Mix well and dress the couscous while it is still warm.

Wash the kale and dry it well with kitchen towel. Now strip the leaves off the stems and chop finely . You could probably due this in the food processor buy I gave my chopping arm a workout and gratifying it was too. If chopping by hand you will need to do it in batches.

Mix the finely chopped kale into the couscous.

Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds. Chop the flesh into small pieces and add to the salad.

Finish off with a grinding of black pepper, another sprinkle of sumac and a further slick of olive oil.

Cravings – 26 February 2014

Do you ever find that you are getting through your day, minding your own business, when suddenly you start to crave a particular food for no discernible reason? This week it happened to me. There I was, driving in my car, when suddenly I had a very strong desire for something I don’t normally think about or even particularly like. Not chocolate, which I don’t deny myself for long enough to even develop a hint of a craving. I have decided that the only way to deal with chocolate is to eat it and I now treat myself each evening to a certain amount of the dark stuff. I figure that a slab of 100g should last me 10 days if I restrict myself to 10g a day – one large block from those bars divided conveniently into 10 squares, or a row of 3 small pieces in bars divided into 10 rows. Who said maths has no practical application in real life? Of course the stash does not last anything like 10 days as I have to share with others in my household who adopt a more laissez faire attitude to their consumption. But credit where it is due, I do manage to restrict myself to my portion when I put the rest in the cupboard immediately or leave the room.

My latest craving is savoury, crisp then yielding, salty and fully saturated fat of the highest order. It is a sausage roll. Believe me when I confess to never having been attracted to the sausage roll albeit that it was a canapé with cache when I was in the flush of youth. Only in my recent past have I realised what stellar heights a sausage roll could reach. I was visiting The Goods Shed in Canterbury – a wonderful covered market on the outskirts of town – where all manner of artisanal foods are prepared and arrayed for your pleasure. At one stall a man was rolling his own pastry which he cut carefully into long strips and then filled with a sausage mixture he had minced and spiced. I was transfixed by his patience with the pastry, the delicacy of his filling, and the simple joy of a chef in love with his work. I needed no convincing that this was the King of Sausage Rolls. Sadly they were not yet baked nor would be that day.

Sometime later I discovered that the organic butcher a mere 15 minute walk from my front door also created a sausage roll of beauty. Crispy pastry puffed up to conceal an organic sausage. Occasionally I buy them as a treat for my boys who adore them. Sadly I don’t indulge, as my concerns about my cholesterol prevent me from enjoying such an unhealthy item. Now, out of the blue, I find myself thinking daily about this very product. What does it mean?

I mentioned my affliction to my son who laughed and said ‘why don’t you just buy one, mum?’ Oh the innocence of youth. How little he realises how many foods must be resisted on the road to health, the endless passing over nibbles and nuggets as I meander down middle aged lane and its annoying (and sudden) spread. There are times when I feel my resolve is strong, but right now it feels as crumbly as puff pastry.

Carrot, Butternut and Ginger Soup

Carrot, Butternut and Ginger Soup

A lovely bowl of hot soup always cheers me up even when the rain is pelting down outside. Putting my hands around the warm bowl, face steaming slightly and a spoon full of goodness – it’s a recipe for wellbeing. When I tuck into an orange soup I know it is going to be sweet and flavoursome. Adding fresh ginger adds a back note of heat that adds a subtle taste. This makes a delicious lunch on a cold day.

For 4 people:

½ tablespoon of olive oil
1.5 kg carrots, chopped
2 leeks, sliced
1 small butternut, peeled and chopped
1 l vegetable bouillon – I use Marigold
Thumb length of fresh ginger, peeled
Handful fresh coriander
No fat yoghurt (optional)

Gently sweat the leeks in the olive oil. Leeks prefer a gentle heat or they burn and become bitter. I keep the pot on a low heat and cover it while the leeks soften and caramelise slightly.

Meanwhile chop the carrots and butternut into small pieces and add to the pot when the leeks are ready. Grate the ginger over the vegetables in the pot. I use a microplane grater for this task.
Stir and then leave to soften on a low heat, covered for up to an hour, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft.

Add the vegetable bouillon and bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Cool and blend in food processor or blender.

Keep in fridge for a day or two as the flavour keeps improving.
Serve hot with a handful of chopped coriander.
Add a teaspoon of no fat yoghurt to your bowl of soup if you like.

Lowering the Threshold – 19 February 2014

There is a saying that when America catches a cold the UK sneezes. I was reminded of this last week when I read that NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has published draft guidelines that GPs are now to prescribe statins for patients with a calculated 10 year risk of cardiovascular disease of 10% . Until last week the threshold was 20%. In a trice the numbers of patients potentially taking statins in the UK rises and the age range of such patients drops too.

What has this to do with the US of A? A few months ago I wrote about new guidelines that had been published in the US regarding the prescribing of statins. At the time I wondered about how long it would take for these same guidelines to wash up on our shores. Now the answer has arrived.

The assessment to be made by GPs is by using a risk assessment tool called QRISK2 which involves calculations based on the following: age, gender, BMI (body mass index), ethnicity, family history of heart disease, whether you suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation or rheumatoid arthritis. Your blood pressure and cholesterol level will also be factored in.

One of the problems I have with this turn of events – one you will no doubt be hearing more about when visiting your GP – is that it assumes that statins are proven to be effective in actually preventing cardiovascular disease. Research into the efficacy of statins is controversial to say the least. My understanding of it is that people who have already had a heart attack should be on statins. In other words, research does show that they are effective in preventing further attack. Where the debate rages is on their ability to prevent heart attacks that have not yet taken place. Especially for women where some research suggests a limited benefit. Now even people at low risk of cardiovascular disease should take these pills. After all, a 10% risk over 10 years means a one in ten chance that in the next ten years you will have a cardiovascular attack.

What the reduced threshold also does not make explicit is that statins are not free of side effects – mainly muscle pain and weakness, but also less often liver and kidney damage and even an increased risk of diabetes. In other words, before embarking on a career as a statins user, each person should carefully consider the research – both sides of the debate – and weigh up their cardio-vascular risks versus the potential side effects of the drugs. The problem with the shifting of the goalposts is that a fortnight ago the GP would not have been saying that a 10% risk was a problem that needed medicating. Now it is. That puts a patient into a very different mindset, having to question the Doctor’s advice and becoming a ‘difficult patient’. In addition, the statins which are now being recommended for treatment are a medium intensity statin (atorvastatin) rather than a low intensity one as the medium intensity statins more effectively lower LDL cholesterol. Reading the NHS website I am told that the NICE draft guidelines have changed the statins to be prescribed due to ‘cost-effectiveness’. Call me a cynic, but I get twitchy when health decisions are made to cut costs.

Dr John Briffa takes an interesting look at the statistics bandied about by some researchers supporting the new guidelines. He questions the way in which the statistics are presented and concludes that for those at low risk, many people would have to be treated unnecessarily for one person to benefit.

‘We’re told by the authors this meta-analysis that treating with statins prevented 11 major vascular events for every 1000 people treated for a period of 5 years. Put another way, 91 people would need to be treated for 5 years to prevent one major vascular event. Or in other words, only about 1 per cent of people treated with statins for 5 years will benefit (and about 99 per cent won’t).’

Whatever you personally conclude about being offered statins when your risk is low or even being on statins if your risk is not so low, NICE does emphasise what we already know which is that lifestyle change is an essential part of reducing risk. This includes reducing saturated fats in our diets, losing weight if overweight, exercising more, drinking moderately and ceasing smoking. This is something we can all agree on.

You can read Dr John Briffa’s article at http://www.drbriffa.com/2014/02/14/its-about-time-some-people-were-straight-with-the-statistics-on-statins/
The NHS website is at http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/02February/Pages/NICE-publishes-new-draft-guidelines-on-statins-use.aspx
The NICE website on statins is at http://www.nice.org.uk/newsroom/pressreleases/NICEAdvisesMuchWiderUseOfStatinsInDdraftGuidance.jsp

Butterbean, Butternut and Chickpea Curry

Butterbean, butternut and Chickpea Curry

This is one of those store cupboard meals that is very useful when it is raining and you have not had time to get to the shops. Fortunately it tastes good too.

For 4 people:
½ butternut
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin

Olive oil spray
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons medium curry powder

1 x 400g tin butterbeans, rinsed
1 x 400g tin chickpeas, rinsed
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
500ml vegetable stock – I like to use Marigold bouillon
Fresh coriander

Preheat your oven to 200 C .
Using a sharp knife,cut a diamond pattern into your halved butternut. Place it cut side up on a baking tray.
Mix the ground spices together and rub the mix into the cuts – use your hands to do this.
Roast the butternut for 30 – 45 minutes until tender.

I usually roast the other half at the same time to use for another dish or you could double up the other ingredients and make this dish for 8.

While the butternut is roasting, lightly spray a large non stick pan with olive oil. Gently sauté the onion and garlic for 10 minutes or until translucent and softening. I like to add the garlic towards the end of this process as it tends to burn if using very little oil as we are doing here. Add a bit of water from the kettle if it is starting to stick.

Add the tumeric and curry powder and continue to cook on a low heat for a minute.
Add the butterbeans and chickpeas and stir gently to coat with the spices.
Add the tinned tomatoes and the tomato paste. Stir to combine.

When the butternut is tender, remove from oven and cut into bite sized chunks. Add this to the butterbean and chickpea mix.

Add the stock, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and simmer for ½ hour until some of the liquid has reduced and the sauce has thickened a bit.

Garnish with chopped coriander.

I like to serve this dish with a mix of brown basmati and wild rice to which I add toasted pumpkin seeds.

All You Need Is Love – 12 February 2014

On Sunday morning, close to lunchtime, I hopped into the car alongside my husband. My younger son stayed home to read, but was probably playing FIFA 14, while the older was whiling away his adolescence, asleep. ‘How lovely to have a bit of time to ourselves’ I sighed. ‘Oh yes,’ replied my husband. And in this spirit of agreement, off we drove – to IKEA.

We returned from that soulless shrine to Scandinavian uniformity without having had a cross word between us – testament to the fact that romance need not take the form of Valentine’s hearts, although the store was festooned with all manner of candles and red and pink trinkets. Nor was our matrimonial harmony spoiled by my husband snoozing on the sofa while I assembled the bookshelf. Not even when the expensive castors we bought turned out to be the wrong kind and having torn open the now unreturnable packaging and given the wheels a perplexed look, my husband suggested I return them the following day. Perhaps I should wrap them in red paper with a red ribbon and a loving card and present them to him on Valentine’s Day.

On this international day of affection we cook at home. No overpriced restaurants offering dinner a deux surrounded by couples staring into their salads, rather like a gathering of Moonies with their mass celebrations of romantic intent.
We do have a candlelit dinner, it must be said. The kids eat early and leave us to it. Once my son serenaded us on his violin. It may be mushy, but at least I draw the line at the heart-shaped cheeseboard I noticed in the supermarket this week, in case your Camembert tastes better with a side order of lurve. Oh the happy marriage between romance and commerce!

This year, I am thinking about the Valentine symbol, the heart. That clichéd fount of romance, immortalised by poets and song writers across the centuries. So much lovelier in euphemistic portrayal on the cover of millions of cards than a picture of a real-life one filled with blood pumping through arteries. From heart ache through heart break, there seems to be no end to the nonsense that has been attributed to our hearts. Yet perhaps it has been afforded such a central place in our concept of love because it is the organ without which our very lives cease to exist. And surely it sounds more romantic to whisper ‘I love you with all my heart’ than ‘my limbic system trembles at the thought of you’. Would Sting have sung ‘be still my beating cardio vascular muscle’? I think not.

So in this season of enforced romance let us spare a thought for the heart, yours and mine, tick tocking the years away. That heart that does beat so much faster when we fall in love – ok, I know it is just adrenalin but where’s the poetry in that? Keep it beating faster with exercise not stress, with love not conflict, with lean rather than fat.

Let us remember what Valentine’s Day is really about – the heart. Gift it well and it will repay you with many years of good loving.

Swiss Chard and Golden Beetroot with Feta

Swiss Chard and Golden Beetroot with Feta

This dish resulted from a visit to my local farmer’s market where I was able to find beautifully fresh organic veg including golden beetroot. Being a massive fan of beetroot, but never having encountered the golden variety, I could not wait to roast it.

I have combined it with gently sweated leeks and Swiss chard – another vegetable I never seem to find in my supermarket. The sweetness of the beetroot is offset well by the sharp saltiness of the feta.

For 4 people:

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 leeks, thinly sliced
250g Swiss chard
3 large golden beetroot
100g low fat feta
Lemon juice
Extra virgin olive oil – use the best one you have
Flat leaf parsley or mint
Black pepper

Preheat your oven to 200 C while you peel your beetroot and cut it into bite sized chunks. Place in a roasting dish, cover with foil and roast for ½ hour or until easily pierced with a knife.

While the beetroot is roasting, slowly sweat the sliced leeks in the teaspoon of olive oil. I do this in a heavy bottomed pot with a lid so that all the steam keeps the leeks from sticking. Add a little water if you need to. I always cook leeks on a low heat because they burn easily and taste bitter. Once the leeks are soft add the chard and allow to wilt. Don’t overcook.

Combine the leek and chard mixture with the roasted beetroot and dress with a few squeezes of lemon juice and a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. As this is such a simple salad it is worth using your best oil here as it really enhances the flavour.

Crumble the feta over the salad.
Finish off with a few grinds of black pepper and a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley or mint.

Weight on my Mind – 5 February 2014

This week I have weighty matters on my mind or should I say my hips. I have spent the week surrounded by people who are losing weight or have emerged from a former shape to reveal another within, like stepping out of a Russian doll and discovering that while one has the same face, the body has shrunk. Knowing what total dedication – nay, obsession – such a result requires, I can only give credit where it is due. It has also caused me to reflect on just how flabby my own resolve seems to be. I feel stuck in a lift that I hoped was going down only to discover that it just keeps going up.

Hosting house guests is always a pleasure for the soul and often a disaster for the body. Not only do my kids insist on the full English breakfast when we have friends staying over, but we also try to get out of our neighbourhood and explore the city. This sortie is invariably food-focused for what is the point of leaving the safety of one’s own kitchen if not to enjoy what is produced in one across town?

Last weekend’s offering was one of those meals so laden with saturated fat that my arteries were pleading with me not to indulge, to eschew the deliciously thick slices of hot salt beef on rye with pickle and mustard. This being the best of its kind in the city, with an endless queue snaking down Brick Lane, I was hardly going to say ‘not for me’ when my turn came. Stomachs fit to bursting, we staggered out laden with bags of warm beigels and loaves of rye for later, in case we were ever hungry again. A few doors down we came across a café window filled with indecently voluptuous cakes shamelessly displaying their delicate crumb and glossy coats of icing. Our group let out a collective groan which expressed desire thwarted by lack of room in our bellies.

We took a short walk to meet up with additional members of our party and in no time were headed back for the café. One of our group was having a ‘one day off a week to eat whatever I fancy’ and tucked in to a hearty slice of cake. I wondered if I could follow this programme as successfully. Another refused all temptation, having had an alarming cholesterol result. No that was not me. I took a good look at the cakes, thought briefly about the lunch I had consumed not an hour earlier, and decided to share a slice with my husband. He took my self-sacrifice on his behalf with good humour and contented himself by polishing off the mammoth wedge of chocolate cake that had defeated my son. As I had my cake and ate it, I wondered whatever happened to the me that always said no to cake. Going on in this direction will certainly result in getting the next sized Russian doll out and expanding into it.

This morning I had news about a young person who has had a serious stroke. I feel as if this is a polite reminder. A personal message.