Monthly Archives: March 2014

Chard, Pak Choi and Shiitake Mushrooms with Soba Noodles

Chard, Pak Choi and Shiitake

In addition to eating our 5-a-day, we are advised to eat a rainbow of fruit and veg, benefiting from the nutrients and vitamins that the colour spectrum provides. Finding rainbow chard at my Farmer’s Market, I thought that it looked so pretty and would easily create the rainbow I like to see on my plate.

Simple stir fries are a mainstay of my weekly meal planning, sometimes reserved for special veg, but most times put together from what is in the fridge when cooking time is in short supply. This particular combination is gingery, garlicky and very colourful.

For 4 people:

Olive oil spray
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
Dried chilli flakes or 1 red chilli, finely sliced
250g rainbow chard – ordinary chard will do just fine too – washed well
250g pak choi, leaves separated and washed
250g shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed and dirt brushed off or washed lightly
Salt reduced soy sauce
4 skeins of soba noodles

Put a pot of water on to boil so that your noodles are cooking while you cook the stir fry. When the water is boiling add the soba noodles and boil for a few minutes until tender. You need to taste and drain as soon as they are ready. Soba noodles usually come in packets in which they are divided into skeins, each wrapped in a paper collar. I use one skein of noodles for each person, just remove the paper before placing in the boiling water.

Heat a wok – or large frying pan – add a few sprays of olive oil along with the garlic, ginger and chilli flakes or fresh chilli.

Add the chard, pak choi and mushrooms and keep moving the veg about in the wok until the leaves are wilted and the mushrooms have become silky. This won’t take more than a few minutes.
Add a few shakes of soy sauce.

You can add the drained noodles to the wok and mix in with the vegetables or place the noodles on plates and add the vegetables on top.

Mother’s Day – 26 March 2014

As both my birthday and Mother’s Day fall in March, I not only receive too many gifts at once and then nothing until Christmas, but it also tests the ingenuity of my three hungry men to the limit. Last year, it being my big 50, they went to town – well Paris, actually – and celebrated my birthday with an array of original, creative and beautiful gifts, all of which I continue to wear, use and admire. However, when Mother’s Day arrived, they were clearly maxed out in the imagination department. I awoke to find that no one had planned to cook lunch, nor booked a restaurant for a lazy brunch; there was no dinner shopped for nor breakfast in bed. I was presented with a gift to which I responded with unseasonal, unusual and reprehensible ire. Not in front of the kids, I hasten to add in mitigation.

What thoughtless gift could unleash such a tirade of emotion you might well be wondering? Strangely enough, it was one which, under other circumstances, I would have been delighted to acquire. The Le Creuset casserole dish matched the others in my collection and was the one size I did not yet own.

I blame my outburst on the stress of turning 50 with its accompanying hormonal roller coaster, but it felt more than that. Kitchenware on Mother’s Day is the equivalent of a tool set for fathers or socks for Xmas. It says ‘know your place’ loud and clear – or at least that was the message I mistakenly interpreted. This was a gift deeply mired in the translation.

For weeks it sat accusatively on the sofa while I deliberated about whether to return it or to stop sulking and use the damn thing. My poor husband was simultaneously upset by my feeling wounded, puzzled by my misinterpretation of his motives and downright annoyed by my lack of grace and gratefulness.

‘But you love cooking’ he reminded me.

I tried to explain that on Mother’s Day I want to be valued for more than being the resident chef. I spend most of my non-working time on shopping, cooking, taxiing, planning, thinking and providing. (My husband does the cleaning). I did not want to be presented with a pot, albeit one that cost a bomb and looked so lovely in burnt orange.

Perusing the magazines I notice that Mother’s Day gifts are full of kitchen gadgets or household appliances, or worst of all for the cholesterolly challenged – food hampers and chocolates. No, No, NO.

This year my long-suffering man has wisely asked for any suggestions I might have. I have pointed him in the direction of several new books I have my eye on. Top of my list is a cookbook I am excitedly awaiting. Fortunately for us all it is yet to be published. I doubt he would have been brave enough to buy it on this occasion and who knows how I might have responded if he hadn’t.

Rainbow Carrots with Caraway

Rainbow Carrot Salad with Caraway

I came across a selection of purple, yellow and orange carrots at the Farmers Market. Who could resist such an offering? Roasting carrots intensifies their flavour and this is further enhanced with a splash of citrus, an aniseed note of caraway and finally, the fresh taste of mint.

This makes an easy and colourful side dish to a main course or goes well as part of a mezze selection.

For 4 people:

5 -6 large carrots – preferably a mixture of colours but you can use ordinary ones if need be
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
Olive oil spray
½ orange
Orange Blossom Water
A small bunch of fresh mint

Heat your oven to 180 C.

Scrub your carrots well – or peel – and cut lengthways into thin strips.
Lay these out in one layer in a roasting pan.
Add a few sprays of olive oil and mix with your hands.
Place in oven and roast for ½ hour.

Remove the roasted carrots and place on a serving platter. Dress with the juice of ½ orange and a few drops of orange blossom water.

Pick the mint leaves off their stalks and roughly chop before adding to the carrots.

Here Comes The Sun – 19 March 2014

Emerging into the sunlight after months of rain makes me feel like Mole in Wind in the Willows, burrowing his way out of a dark and gloomy place. I sit blinking in the brightness, smelling the earth that is still damp and if I had whiskers, they would certainly be twitching. Let’s not discuss those few that have emerged of late on my chin as they have been dispatched and surely won’t ever reappear – oh the suffering of the woman of a certain age!

All this sunshine puts me in mind of Vitamin D, levels of which are often deficient at this time of year in many of us who inhabit the northern hemisphere. This particular vitamin is not easily absorbed through what we eat, but rather through our exposure to sunlight. Our friend cholesterol plays a crucial role in helping to turn sunlight into Vitamin D. This is but one of many crucial roles cholesterol plays in keeping us healthy, a point that is easily forgotten in all the bad press it receives.

80 – 90 % of the Vitamin D we need is supplied by the sun, specifically the UVB rays. The sunlight interacts with the cholesterol in our skin and is transformed into Vitamin D. In order to get enough sunlight we need about ½ hour of midday sunlight to fall directly on our skin. Of course too much sun – especially in the summer months – is inadvisable so don’t throw away the sunscreen. As someone who never ventures into the sun without a wide brimmed hat, I have taken to rolling up my sleeves while out for my ½ hour of brisk walking. This way I get my allocated exposure without burning. Any additional sun time is spent under a high factor protection cream or in the shade. Weighing up the risks of skin cancer and the dangers of vitamin D deficiency is one of those balancing acts.

As with most health related advice, sun exposure time for optimal vitamin D absorption is not a simple matter. The Vitamin D Council recommends exposing a wide area of skin at midday for about half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink and start to burn. Each of us will differ in how much time that involves. Fair skinned people require less time in the sun than their darker skinned peers while older people need more exposure time than the young. So as not to become too obsessive-compulsive about it all, I think ½ hour sounds an average worth working towards. This is especially important in climates where we spend most of the year indoors.

If you are wondering what foods do contain vitamin D, it is mostly the oily fish family which we should be eating 2 – 3 portions of a week in order to consume the good fats that help with cholesterol control. Of course they also contain omega 3s about which I will be writing shortly. In addition to these fish, some cereals, juice and margarines are fortified with vitamin D but I don’t eat these as margarine is unhealthy (in my view) and the cereals and juices are packed full of sugar. Please note though, that you cannot eat your way to good levels of Vitamin D as the foods that do contain it, have very little in them. If you are deficient you may need to take a supplement. Best to discuss with your doctor.

Vitamin D deficiency is very common – especially in the over 65s – and has potentially harmful effects. In women, it increases the risk of osteoporosis which is itself correlated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Treating women with calcium supplements without regard to their vitamin D level can reduce the efficacy of the calcium on bone strength, with vitamin D having more effect on increasing bone density than calcium.

A growing body of research suggests that vitamin D deficiency could be one of the contributing factors in cardiovascular disease. This seems due to its association with high blood pressure, diabetes and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

How do we know if we are deficient in Vitamin D? Only a blood test can reveal our levels of stored vitamin D. You can ask your GP to arrange this if you are having blood tests for cholesterol or other things or you can order a home testing kit online if you are so inclined.

I am going to use the sunshine to boost my wintery levels, get outdoors most days, keep walking with the sleeves up while recalling that old adage ‘ may hay while the sun shines’.

You can follow this link for an extensive article on Vitamin D creation, supplements and everything you didn’t realise you needed to know on the subject.

Aubergine, Chickpea and Walnut Salad with Pomegranate Yoghurt

Aubergine, Chickpea and Walnut Salad with Pomegranate Yoghurt

A few hours of spring sunshine provided the impetus to dust off the barbecue for an impromptu alfresco lunch. I served this salad alongside a pile of venison burgers but it could easily satisfy as a main course dish. It contains many goodies for cholesterol lowering purposes such as chickpeas – your weekly pulse portion – and walnuts which contain the right kind of fat. Pomegranate seeds are great on the antioxidants and delicious too. I adore pomegranate molasses with its perfect balance of sweet and sour flavour. Mixed with no fat yoghurt and Quark, it makes a light and tasty dressing.

For 4 – 6 people:

3 medium aubergines
Olive oil spray
1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
¼ pomegranate, seeds removed
Handful or two of walnut pieces
Small bunch of mint
Black Pepper
2 tablespoons no fat yoghurt
2 tablespoons Quark
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses

Heat your oven to 180 C.

Cut the aubergines in half lengthways and then cut each half into 3 slices lengthways.
At this point I would usually salt the aubergines for ½ hour but as I was a bit pushed for time I popped them straight into the oven. When I tasted later there was no bitterness, but I leave the salting decision up to you. If you do salt yours, remember to rinse them off well and pat dry with kitchen towel.
Place aubergine slices in a large roasting tin and spritz your olive oil spray 3 -4 times. Then mix the aubergines around a bit.

Put the roasting tin in the oven for half an hour by which time the aubergines should be tender and have taken on a bit of colour.

Remove and place on a serving dish.

In the meantime make the dressing by whisking together the yoghurt, Quark and pomegranate molasses. Set aside.

Once the aubergines are waiting on the serving dish, scatter over the rinsed chickpeas and the pomegranate seeds.
If you are using a packet of walnut pieces you can scatter them over now. If you have walnut halves, roughly chop them and then add to the salad.

Wash and dry a large handful of mint, pick off the leaves and roughly chop. Add to the salad.
Give the salad a good grinding of black pepper.

At this point your dish will be looking very appetising indeed. It seems a shame to cover it up with the dressing so I served it on the side in a bowl which I passed around for everyone to add a dollop to their portion.

A Spring in my Step – 12 March 2014

My neighbourhood is awash with blossom. In the woods a few trees are sporting the tiniest green leaves. Soon the other trees will shrug off their winter grey and too don their new spring wardrobe. Such is the wonder of the season, which never fails to evoke in me a seasonal sense of wonder at the annual renewal and rebirth. No matter that awful events have been unfolding all over the world or that parts of the UK have been under water, nature just keeps on going. I particularly like spring, not only for the display of breath takeingly beautiful blossoms, but also for the sense of promise that winter will end and summer is on its way. In fact the winter has been so mild this year that it doesn’t feel that we quite deserve spring just yet. Still, I am not complaining. This is surely a time to redouble one’s efforts to get the walking shoes on and go outdoors for that 30 minute, 5 times a week bit of exercise. If you have been finding it difficult to do so of late, let nature be your incentive this week. You will be richly rewarded.

Returning from my walk on Sunday, I stopped in at my local Iranian shop for a bunch of mint. A large table was piled high with boxes containing dainty, multicoloured biscuits, arranged into 3D flowers or fish. Iced in greens, yellows and pinks these sweetmeats resembled the very blossoms I had so admired minutes before. The store owner told me that these delicacies were for the Iranian new year later this month. I recalled that fish and eggs are also given as gifts at this time of year. It was then I noticed a large tank filled with tiny goldfish darting about. The sun shone into their tank, illuminating their orange outfits as they frolicked through the water. Alongside were shelves of intricately decorated eggs. How wonderful is the human spirit, the ingenuity with which cultures celebrate the renewal of the season, and the feasting that accompanies such ritual.

I walked home with the smell of fresh mint in the air, marvelling at the beauty of biscuits and blossoms. I recalled the words of the writer Dennis Potter who, experiencing the spring for the last time before he died, described ‘the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it’. He spoke about the need to live in the present (as he knew he was soon to die) and to really experience the moment. Nowadays we call this Mindfulness.

I returned home invigorated by how much I had enjoyed my neighbourhood on this magnificent spring day and moved by the beauty of the blossoms which will bloom long after each of us has ceased doing so. Do dust off your walking shoes, for not only might exercise prolong your life, but it will make your day feel so much more vital.

Golden Beetroot and Apple Soup

Golden Beetroot and Apple Soup

Now that I have discovered the golden beetroot I can’t seem to get enough of this glorious vegetable. It makes a gorgeous soup mixed with apple. The sweetness of the soup is balanced with the tart flavour of the yoghurt and the fresh mint.

For 4 people:

3 large golden beetroot
Olive oil spray
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large eating apple, peeled and chopped
1l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
No fat yoghurt
Small bunch of mint, leaves chopped

Preheat the oven to 200 C.
Scrub the beetroot and place in a roasting dish. Cover with foil and roast until tender. Timing will depend on the size of your beetroot but you are looking at 45 – 60 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit. Peel while still warm and chop roughly.

In the meantime roughly chop the onion and the garlic and sweat gently in a few sprays of olive oil. Add the chopped beetroot and apple. Stir well.

Add 1l of vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for ½ hour.

Allow to cool and then blend.

Serve warm with a spoon of no fat yoghurt and a generous helping of fresh mint.

All Resistance Crumbles – 5 March 2014

I have been getting a wonderful response to last week’s post on Cravings. So many people have written in, letting me know what their cravings are, mostly savoury as are my own. Apologies to those who now have a sausage roll craving where previously they had none. While I have not yet given in to this particular depravity, I have not been able to resist much else this week.

On Friday I attended a restaurant dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I tried to avoid the bubbly by amusing myself with an elderflower cordial. Usually I don’t drink any alcohol but eventually I decided that one flute of champagne couldn’t harm. This being the kind of posh place where the waiters circulate while the guests mingle, I soon found my glass being refilled. Half way through this second glass of delicious bubbly, I felt something wet on my chin. Middle aged woman with champagne trickling down her face is not a good look. This was surely a sign to desist from further inebriation as my fine motor movements were becoming confused after one drink.

When we sat down for dinner and I managed to order three courses of the highest fat laden dishes – hare terrine, duck confit and rhubarb crumble. Or was it resistance crumble? The sommelier came around holding bottles of red and white. He approached me first and I indicated that I would not be drinking. He circulated round the room, pouring and filling glasses. Eventually he wound up back at the beginning by which stage I had come to regret my erstwhile discipline. Once again the waiters hovered with wine bottles held aloft and who knows how often they filled my glass. Dessert was accompanied by a gorgeous Muscadel. Half way through a glass of this golden nectar I realised I was way beyond my sensible limit of fat and alcohol and must bring the evening to a close – or at least attempt to keep my mouth closed.

Having missed the last tube by hours, and in no state to negotiate the night bus, I poured myself into a cab for the long ride home. The fare was the only sobering moment of the evening.

Awoke on Saturday feeling strangely whoozy from the boozy and had to wait until late in the day before gingerly putting on my walking shoes and having more of a stroll than a cardio vascular workout. To make matters worse I decided to make pancakes for my son before he set off to play a football game, hoping that the maple syrup would ensure his team success. They drew. I ate the remains of the pancakes with a generous glug of syrup – goodness but it is gorgeous – and realised I could quite easily start up a sweetness craving. How easily things unravel when you are having fun.