Monthly Archives: May 2014

Roasted Courgette Soup with Chipotle Chilli

Roasted Courgette Soup with Chipotle Chilli

This simple soup is a great way to get some extra veg into your day as well as using up the glut of courgettes that will be coming along in the summer. Some people are lucky enough to grow their own, but for the rest of us courgettes become much cheaper at this time of year.

Because I cook without salt on the whole, I am always looking for interesting ways to flavour my meals without reaching for the sodium. When I made this soup I felt it just needed a little something. It already had salt from the vegetable stock so I didn’t want to add more. I threw in a chipotle chilli and let it simmer in the soup for a half hour. It imparted its warm smokiness to the soup which was just what it needed.

For 4 people:

6 large courgettes – wash well and cut into large chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1l vegetable stock – I use Marigold Bouillon
1 chipotle chilli

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Place the chopped courgettes into a large roasting tin.

Add one tablespoon of olive oil and mix in well so that the courgettes have a bit of coating.Roast for one hour.

Remove the courgettes. They should now be very soft and have taken on a bit of colour. Allow to cool briefly and puree them in a food processor. You will be left with a thick puree.

Place the courgette puree in a pot and add the warm vegetable stock. Mix in well. Add a chipotle chilli to the pot, bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer for half an hour.

Remove the chilli and serve with wholemeal bread.


Bulk Buying – 28 May 2014

I was recently taken to an out of town, bulk buying warehouse. It was my first Costco experience. The most striking aspect of this retail outing was size. Size of the shop, size of the trolleys and most of all, the giant scale of the goods on sale.

As I passed by life size barrels of pretzels, I wondered about who actually buys this stuff. If you run a pub and have to keep refilling bar snack dishes then I understand the wisdom of buying  pretzels in bulk. But what concerned me was the thought that ordinary households are probably buying these items too. Considering that I was in the local equivalent of Walmart in the US, I think my hunch may be accurate. When I returned home and told my kids about the pretzel barrel, their response clearly indicated that they wished I had bought one.

All this outsized packaging must surely lead to overeating. The bags of crisps were enormous, the jar of honey I brought home is so large that I may never actually open it lest it crystalize before we have used even a 10th of it. The huge bag of biscuits I purchased was eaten up in two days although there were more biscuits contained in it than I would usually have bought in two months.

We know that the UK problem with obesity is following hot on the heels of the US. Fortunately there are not COSTCO stores on our doorsteps, but perhaps it is a matter of time. In 2013 the government published figures revealing that almost 62% of UK adults are overweight or obese,with the figure for children at 28%. That is roughly every 2 out of 3 adults and 1 out of every 3 kids. Until recently the biggest culprit has been thought to be eating too much fat. Now the focus has expanded to include sugar. We are simply eating way too much of it. A national study has revealed that children and adolescents are consuming 40% more added sugar than the recommended daily allowance.  The three main culprits in our shopping trolleys are breakfast cereals, fruit juice and fizzy drinks, and the supposedly healthy cereal bar. How many families start the day with a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice? Then another juice at some point in the day – after all it is healthier than fizzy drinks isn’t it? No not really. Nutritionists are now recommending a maximum of 150ml of juice per day. As for the cereal bar – how much nonsense have we been sold over the years about this being the healthy snack to put in the lunchbox or to provide as an alternative to a bag of crisps? Some ‘natural’ cereal bars have recently been found to contain between 4 – 5 teaspoons of sugar in each bar. That is double the amount in a 2 stick Kit Kat!  No wonder the kids in the UK are fighting a losing battle over their weight.

Nina Simone sang a wonderful song which went ‘I want some sugar in my bowl, I want a little sweetness down in my soul’. I’m surprised it has never been used by Kellogs in their advertising. Starting the day with a bowlful of sugar sets up us nicely to reach for more sugar laden products throughout the day, as the more sugar we eat the more of it we crave. Lovely profits for the food companies and another step towards type 2 diabetes for us. Perhaps one day governments will take on the huge food manufacturers the way in which the tobacco industry has eventually been tackled. But for now we have to think about what we put in our trolley and into our bowls.


Borscht From The Healthy Heart

I recently had a glut of beetroot not because I grow them, sadly, but due to over enthusiasm at the market.  My mind turned to memories of borscht.

I am not sure whether any Russian cooks would use balsamic vinegar in their national soup, but I so enjoyed preparing beetroot this way a few weeks ago when served it with quinoa, that I thought I would give it a go.

For 4 people:

4 beetroot
1 large red onion
2 teaspoons very good quality balsamic vinegar
750 ml vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon but feel free to make your own
A handful of tiny, new potatoes
A few spoons of no fat yoghurt or Quark

Heat your oven to 220 C.

Give the beetroot a rinse under the tap but do not peel. Place them on an oven tray. Place the red onion, unpeeled, alongside.

Roast the vegetables for an hour. At this stage remove the onion which should be pretty soft. It the beetroot feel a bit hard, leave them in the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes until they are soft when you pierce with a knife.

Peel off the first tough layers of the onion until you get to the really soft layers within. Roughly chop the flesh, place in a bowl and add a teaspoon of your best balsamic. If you use a cheap vinegar it will spoil the taste of the dish.

When the beetroot have cooled a bit, peel and roughly chop. Place in a food processor along with the onion and puree until smooth.

Put the puree in a pot along with the hot stock and simmer for a half an hour to combine well.

In the meantime boil or steam the tiny potatoes. Drain well.

Serve the borscht in cups – or bowls – and add a hot potato or two to each serving. It tastes good whether the soup is hot or served at room temperature.

Finish off with a dollop of yoghurt or Quark. Of course sour cream would be lovely too but it is not an ingredient that those of us watching our cholesterol should be using.


Mediterranean Magic – 21 May 2014

In this third and final post on Prof Lionel Opie’s informative book, Living Longer Living Better, I will attempt to summarize his views on what constitutes the healthiest diet. These days this seems to be a hotly contested issue with so much contradictory information. One day fat

is the devil incarnate and the next it is good for us. One nutritionist swears by complex carbohydrates while other diet plans eschew carbs as if a whole food group can be removed from one’s diet.

If we are thinking of diet meaning a way of losing weight then, to be honest, I don’t lose too much sleep over the matter. In my experience, any diet plan that has one eating less and exercising more is bound to work as long as one sticks to it. It is not that I don’t think that the 5:2 diet works – I am sure it does, as did the Atkins when it was all the rage. As so many of us experience a life- long yo-yoing of our weight, we are drawn to new diets to keep us hopeful and believing that this time we can crack the problem and keep the weight off once and for all. We seem to take on new diets like new prophets offering us a way out of the wilderness. But if my weight is anything to go by, it is only a firm willpower over a lifetime that keeps the weight off. Which is why mine has started to head in the wrong direction. Too many holidays, too many fabulous meals, too many days when I questioned whether I felt like walking and the answer was ‘no’. Nowadays my willpower is in pretty good shape until about lunchtime and then it is downhill until the next morning.

I digress. Prof Opie is referring to the best possible diet as an eating plan that will protect us from cardiovascular disease. He is also concerned about dementia so do read the book if you want to know more about his thoughts about the brain.

Having studied much research on food and health, Prof Opie concludes that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest. Not only do people in Mediterranean countries seem to live longer and suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes, but those who have already had heart attacks live longer if they follow a Mediterranean diet (than the standard post heart attack diet plan) even if living in the US. To some extent this is due to the use of olive oil, which although high fat is mostly unsaturated. The oleic acid in olive oil helps to reduce blood pressure by opening the arteries. Fresh nuts – unsalted and unroasted – are also useful in reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol and increasing ‘good’ cholesterol’. 75g of almonds, 4g of walnuts, 11g of pecans or 4g of peanuts are suggested as the optimal amounts. Bear in mind of course that nuts are very high in calories.

Because the Mediterranean diet results in a lower glycaemic index due in part to the interaction between the olive oil and vinegar so often used in combination, this diet plan also helps to reduce the development of diabetes. The other aspect of the Mediterranean diet that is important in preventing cardiovascular disease is fish – especially oily fish that are high in Omega 3.

Prof Opie sums up his dietary advice with the 5 H’s – high olive oil, high oily fish, high veg, high fruit and high nuts (ie one handful a day). He reminds us, though, that to lose weight we need to restrict our calorie intake.

Having followed a Mediterranean style of eating for many years, I am pleased to read this advice. What is absent unfortunately are pastries, cakes, chocolate and all the other things I also like to eat. Not to mention the absence of that life enhancing Mediterranean sunshine.


Asparagus, Jersey Royals and Poached Egg

Aparagus, Jersey Royals and Poached Egg

What could be lovelier on a warm Spring day than a brunch of those seasonal beauties that are British asparagus and Jersey Royals? I love to dip the asparagus tips into a runny egg yolk and a poached egg just fits the bill.

The asparagus season is short and the Jersey Royals are in the shops only briefly, so I only get to eat this dish in the springtime. That is what makes seasonal cooking something to look forward to and makes even such a simple meal seem a little bit special.

For 4 people:

16 – 20 asparagus spears
200g Jersey Royal potatoes, scrubbed
4 large, eggs – preferably organic
A pinch of za’atar
Black pepper
A pinch of sea salt  (optional)

Prepare the asparagus by snapping off the woody ends. They tend to bend and snap at the right point if you hold each spear in one hand and bend the end of it with your other hand.

You can boil, steam or griddle your asparagus depending on your preference. As mine were very thick spears I gave them a quick parboil and then finished them off on a hot griddle pan which give them a good appearance as well as an added level of flavour.

Boil or steam the potatoes until the edge of a knife offers little resistance.

Prepare the poached egg by breaking each egg into a cup. Bring a pot of water to the boil, create a little whirlpool by stirring vigorously with a fork and then pour in the egg. I do these one at a time. Set the timer for 2 minutes. Then remove the egg with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper to dry off.

Serve the egg with a pinch of za’atar, a grinding of black pepper and a pinch of sea salt if you like.

The Big Five – 14 May 2014

Last week I discussed  Professor Lionel Opie’s book Living Longer, Living Better. The importance of maintaining a healthy weight, eating plenty of fruit and veg, not smoking, drinking moderately and doing regular exercise was emphasised. Monitoring one’s blood pressure and reducing intake of salt was also stressed as important for preventing cardiovascular disease.

Referring to the Big Five – not smoking, 30 min exercise per day, ideal weight, ideal diet and modest alcohol intake – Prof Opie cites an American study which revealed that those who keep all five preventative factors have 79% less chance of having a stroke or a heart attack. Even just keeping the first three factors in hand offers a reduced rate of 59% of the total 79%. For those of us struggling with the ideal weight issue, this does offer some incentive to stay off the biscuits. When I first began my cholesterol lowering programme 2 years ago, I used to ask myself ‘is this biscuit/cake worth having a stroke for? ‘  In those days I found this to be a really helpful question because 99% of the time the answer was ‘no’. There were exceptions, of course, and when those cropped up I enjoyed the treat. Nowadays I seem to never ask the question and so, no surprise, my weight has crept up and once it starts heading in the wrong direction it is not easy to put on the brakes. Every day there seem to be ‘exceptional circumstances’.

As Prof Opie points out we do not have total control of our health. Many of us have a genetic link to our raised cholesterol, tendency to have high blood pressure or even diabetes. We are all ageing  and that makes it difficult to maintain an ideal weight as most of us in middle age can attest to. And let’s be honest, who can keep to an ideal diet day in and day out without missing out on some of the undoubted pleasures of life – FOOD!

So let’s think about these protective factors. Not smoking is simple and offers the most protection not only against heart disease and stroke but also cancer. Exercise is generally agreed to be 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 5 times a week. You should be sweating by the time you finish. Prof Opie says that one’s resting heart rate should be 60 or less if one is exercising enough. The normal rate is 70. Mine is 68 at night. Ideally it should be measured in the morning.  My son informed me that this is not as relevant as the rate at which the resting rate is achieved following exercise. This he learned in a science lesson. I must have missed that module.

Alcohol consumption should ideally be modest rather than non-existent as studies show that alcohol encourages the liver to produce ‘good ‘cholesterol (HDL) which is protective against cardiovascular disease. Red wine is the one to go for because of the resveratrol and a glass (250ml) is the ideal measure. For non-drinkers, purple grape juice is the drink of choice although one has to drink more than a glass to get the benefit and I have struggled to find one without added sugar, which surely reverses the benefit.

As we age we tend to put on more weight around our abdomens. This is the most dangerous place to be storing fat. As I have written previously, you can use a tape measure to find out your waist circumference. Keep the tape about half way between your belly button and your diaphragm. If you measure more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men you are in a dangerous zone.  If you want to read about this you can click on the link to my post from November 2013

There are two mains reason that abdominal fat increases the risk of heart disease. These are that obesity increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes both of which increase the risk of heart attack. So it is really important to get the weight down. As most overweight people have realised, this is no easy matter. It so often seems that the weight does not want to shift. Prof Opie explains some of why this is. It turns out that thin women have more mobile fat stores which means that the fat breaks down more quickly when they exercise. Not only do studies show that fat women exercise less than their thin peers, but even when they do, they break down and lose fat more slowly. How is that for incentive!

When it comes to the ideal diet we should be eating there is more disagreement than one can possibly comprehend! This is such a hotly debated area that I find myself bamboozled. I will share Prof Opie’s views on this next week.

To be continued …

Spatchcocked Roast Poussin with Lemon, Garlic and Chilli

Spatchcocked Roast Poussin with Lemon, Garlic and Chilli

I would probably not make this dish for a hot date on account of the garlic, nor for a dinner party as it is perhaps a bit rough and ready. However, for a kitchen dinner this is a perfect, no-fuss meal. I made it over the weekend, put it in the oven, relaxed a while in a bath with a magazine, and emerged to find dinner cooked. That is exactly the amount of time I sometimes like to spend in the kitchen – very little.

These birds would do very well overnight in the fridge marinating in their pungent spices, but I only had an hour to spare and they still tasted very good.

For 4 people:

3 – 4 poussin – depending on the appetite of your diners
2 – 3 large cloves garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
Juice of a lemon, reserve the lemon skins
1 teaspoon olive oil
Black pepper

Begin by preparing the poussin. Place the birds on a board, breast down and legs towards you. Using a kitchen scissors or poultry scissors, cut along each side of the parsons nose and up along the backbone. The aim is to remove the whole backbone. You will be cutting through the ribs as you go. I have never spatchcocked a bird before and was surprised at how easy it is. Once the backbone is removed, turn the bird breast side up and flatten it by pressing down firmly on the breast. You want to flatten it so that it cooks evenly. Of course you can just roast the whole bird if you prefer.

Place the poussins in a large, non-metallic dish or bowl and set aside.

To make the marinade, mix all the remaining ingredients in a bowl. Pour over the poussins and rub into the birds to ensure they are well coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight or for at least an hour.

When ready to cook, bring the birds to room temperature.
Heat your oven to 200 C. Place the birds in a roasting tin, pour over any marinade left in the marinading bowl and roast for about 50 minutes.

I added some boiled new potatoes to the roasting pan for the last 10 minutes.

Serve with a rocket and avocado salad or some green veggies.

Look After Your Heart – 7 May 2014

Last week I referred to a book by Prof Lionel Opie, a renowned cardiovascular scientist. Entitled Living Longer, Living Better, the book sets out to help readers, who wish to improve their health, to wade through the morass of health information in the public domain much of which is confusing and some of which is misleading.

This volume was brought to my attention by a reader of this blog and it has been sitting on my bedside table for quite some time. Having eventually read it recently, I thought I would share some of the points Prof Opie makes which are important for cardiovascular health.

Citing the Interheart study which studied 13 000 heart attack survivors across 52 countries, 5 lifestyle factors were found to be either protective from heart attack or to increase the risk. It will come as no surprise to know that these five factors are: not smoking, exercising regularly, keeping your weight within a normal range, eating lots of fruit and veg, and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol. Opie calls these ‘the big five’ after the animals everyone wants to see on safari. If you do all of these you can be pretty pleased with yourself. I manage the first and last with ease, the exercise and healthy eating is fine on a good day but I am struggling with both at the moment. Keeping to a healthy weight is an ongoing challenge. My genes just are not geared in the right direction and neither is my love of food. The enormous bag of cantuccini I bought today will not help either.

This study revealed that smoking and being overweight (abdominal fat) increased the risk of heart attack by two to three times, whereas high LDL (bad cholesterol) and low HDL (good cholesterol) increased the risk by four times.
One of the major causes of heart attacks is hypertension – or high blood pressure. In addition to medication prescribed to lower blood pressure, reducing salt intake, stress level and weight while increasing exercise and fruit and veg intake will all help. Getting used to less salt takes only a few weeks while your taste buds adjust. When my kids were young, I was shocked to read about the high level of sodium in an average cheese sandwich, something like half their daily quota and that was just their packed lunch! I bought a bread machine and we started to bake our daily loaf. The first time my boys tasted the salt reduced, home baked bread they disliked it. The difference in salt content between the home baked and the commercial bread was astonishing. After a few days they got used to it and have been eating it now for years. Of course we sometimes buy bread – who can live forever without a crusty baguette or a sourdough loaf from an artisanal baker – but if you can, try to bake your own regularly, cook without salt – use herbs and spices to flavour your food – and your sodium intake will reduce dramatically.

In addition to causing heart attacks, high blood pressure can also lead to strokes as well as kidney failure so it is certainly well worth taking seriously. Keep an eye on your blood pressure level – my GP surgery has a self-test machine that patients can use in the reception area. Particularly as it is so dangerous to health and so treatable, it should not be ignored. I have a family history of hypertension so should be keeping at least an annual check on it – like an annual MOT for the body. People who are overweight and diabetic are especially at risk. Prof Opie recommends regular self- monitoring. This crossed my mind today while I was shopping at one of those out of town Walmart-type warehouses. They sell all manner of things from Jacuzzis to tinned peaches. In one aisle I spotted a self-monitoring blood pressure kit. I thought briefly about buying one but decided against it as my trolley was dangerously overloaded with those biscuits.

Mind you I did buy myself a gym outfit – all this time I have been walking in jeans and a t-shirt. I now look like all the other middle aged ladies in my neighbourhood as my husband kindly pointed out. I strode out for a fast –paced walk and returned home an hour later with a blister. The Italian biscuits offered to comfort me and I was in no mood to resist.