Monthly Archives: June 2014

Artichoke and Buffalo Mozzarella Crostini

Artichoke and Buffalo Mozzarella Crostini

I love making crostini in the summer. They are quick and easy, especially using the sweet tomatoes around at this time of year. I have made complicated toppings in the past, but these days I tend to use ingredients that speak for themselves and don’t need to be faffed with. Traditionally, crostini are made with white bread which is not such a healthy option. I see no reason not to use a wholemeal bread as I have done here. It tastes just as delicious – if not more so.

I like to prepare my slices of bread on my trusty griddle pan so that I get those lovely stripes that make any food look professional. Keep an eye that they don’t burn. If you don’t have a griddle pan you can either pop the bread slices in your toaster or under the grill. I like to toast them on both sides.

A lovely way to proceed is to rub one side of the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic and half a tomato which squishes in to the toast. Then all you need is a sprinkle of really good extra virgin olive oil and perhaps some chopped tomato – very ripe tomato – and a basil leaf or two,

Here, I have simply added a few bits to upgrade the crostini. I served them while we were waiting for the BBQ to get up to speed. Sitting in the sun, a plate of nibbles on the table and the smell of lunch sizzling away – why can’t it always be summer?

For 4 people:

8 slices of wholemeal baguette or crusty loaf
16 balls of buffalo mozzarella ‘cherries’
8 cherry tomatoes – I used pomadorino
A jar of grilled artichokes
Fresh basil
Black pepper

Prepare the bread by toasting on both sides on a griddle pan until it is nicely browned.

Cut each artichoke into quarters. Break the mozzarella balls in half. Cut the tomatoes in half.

Assemble the artichoke, mozzarella and tomatoes on the toasted bread. Drizzle over a little bit of the oil from the jar of artichokes. Finish with a few fresh basil leaves and a grinding of black pepper.

Anyone for Football? – 25 June 2014

Much as I love my children and wish only for their dreams to become reality, I have to confess that I was relieved when England went out of the World Cup. Not because any fewer games will be watched until the relentless and seemingly endless number of men chasing balls continues night after night. Nor because I lack any sympathy for the England football fan who seems to succumb to the triumph of hope over experience every four years.

My concerns are purely selfish and can be summed up in one word – snacks. With every game I am called on to provide sustenance, as if the crunching of popcorn and crisps can somehow mitigate the effects of watching your team being given the run around by a gang of men with fancier footwork.

My boys get together with their friends to watch at one another’s houses and the other night was our turn to host. I felt I needed to make a bit of an effort on the food front since I had scant interest in the game itself. My enthusiasm for sports extends only to watching the final set of the Wimbledon final or the penalty shootout that seals the fate of a football tournament. While others are shouting rudely at the ref, I am the provider of food, unhealthy food in this case. Yes, I dutifully cut up batons of celery and red pepper to dip into fresh tomato salsa and houmous. But what I really had my eye on was the bowl of crisps – an unusual offering in our household – and the puff pastry with feta and za’atar, baked in the oven, and so much more enticing than a stick of raw veg. By the time I got to serve the strawberries with double cream, I had lost the plot. I left my portion of yoghurt in the fridge and tucked in along with everyone else.

It is said that one should decide in advance to make healthy choices before eating. Wise words indeed, but ones which I find so difficult to put into practice. Especially when the eating is taking place at my own table. As I stocked up in the snack aisle of my supermarket, I chose all the off-limits junk food where salt, fat and E-numbers compete for most toxic substance. I knew that these would be irresistible to me once the bags were opened. On my way to the checkout I added to my trolley half priced England paper cups and napkins –even the retailers knew our chances were limited and were getting rid of merchandise emblazoned with St George’s Cross like yesterday’s bread. I consoled myself thinking that my night of falling off the wagon would be as short-lived as England’s shot at glory. Later, I sat quietly eating my way through a tube of Pringles while listening to a testosterone fueled tv room explode with rage at the ineptitude of Wayne Rooney while moments later the complainants hugged one another when the very same man scored a longed for goal. I marvelled at the emotions elicited by the whereabouts of a ball and, while our national team played on foreign fields, I thought about my little corner of England and felt at peace with the world.

Chicken and Orange Pepper Salad

Chicken and Orange Salad From The Healthy Heart

I so often have left over roast chicken on the weekends that I have to find as many creative ways as possible to use it up. I keep the carcasses for stock – but don’t always get around to making any, if truth be told. The flesh does always get eaten though. Recently I made a Moroccan-type chicken pie with filo and lots of butter. Having read the article in Time Magazine declaring butter to no longer be the enemy that causes cardiovascular disease, I felt better about eating it. However, it is not good for the waistline.

I often throw together a chicken salad when I am trying to make another meal of the leftovers. I particularly like the crunch of the peppers which contrasts well with the soft salad leaves and the moist chicken. Pomegranate seeds are ever-present in my kitchen and hardly a day goes by when they do not find their way into my food. High in antioxidants, brightening up any dish and juicy too. We are told to eat a rainbow of colours and this certainly provides a range of hues even though I haven’t yet found the pot of gold.

For 4 people:

Left over roast chicken cut into bite sized pieces. You could of course poach or roast a few chicken breasts or thighs if you don’t have any leftovers.
Enough salad leaves to cover the bottom of your serving platter – use a variety for added flavour
2 -3 vine ripened tomatoes
1 – 2 orange peppers, deseeded and cut into long strips
½ pomegranate, seeds removed
A couple of handfuls of new potatoes, steamed or boiled and thickly sliced. When I make this salad I had no potatoes so I toasted a bagel and tore it into small pieces to add another bit of crunch and some carbs to the meal.

1 -2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon good quality balsamic vinegar – I have recently started using a white balsamic which is useful when you don’t want the dark treacly trails of the dark vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Black pepper

Assemble the ingredients for the salad and toss with the dressing.

It’s Better With Butter – 19 June 2014

‘Eat Butter’ proclaims Time magazine this week. Below this directive sits a voluptuous swirl of butter back lit to look like a yellow gift from the gods. The gist of this cover story, written by Bryan Walsh, is that for decades fat has been labelled an enemy that causes heart disease and obesity. More recently, some scientists have been questioning the responsibility that saturated fats have played in cardiovascular disease and the tide may yet turn against such orthodoxy. The article sets out to explain why scientists were wrong to declare fat the enemy, with sights now set on carbohydrates and sugar.

In the late 70s Americans were strongly encouraged to eat less saturated fats – dairy, red meat and eggs – and to replace these with fruit, veg and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the American population did not fill their plates with their 5 a day, but did take to low fat products and carbs in a big way. So big in fact that 1 in every 3 people in the US is now obese and 1 in 10 has Type 2 diabetes. These are staggering figures. In an attempt to understand how this has happened, scientists have been studying why people on low fat diets have become so fat.

Although their supermarket aisles are jam packed with low fat versions of everything imaginable – as are our own – these products are sweetened to provide taste with the result that the sugar content of these products is often higher than the full fat varieties.

Although since 1970 Americans have reduced their calorie intake of refined white sugar by 35%, the calorie intake from high fructose corn syrup has increased by 8 853% – yes, eight thousand eight hundred and fifty three percent. Sugar is sugar no matter the source.

Where carbohydrates go, sugar follows. When simple carbs – like bread and corn – are digested, they turn to sugar in our system. The dean of nutritional science at Tufts University points out that ‘a bagel is no different than a bag of Skittles to your body’. When you eat sugars the body produces insulin which leads our fat cells to over store fats and there go our waistlines. Think about all the sugars we are consuming in low fat products and we begin to see why we may not be losing weight.

A study looking at the difference in weight loss of people on low fat, low carb and Mediterranean diets found that those on a low fat diet lost the least.

But putting weight aside – although bear in mind that carrying extra weight can affect your cholesterol level – is it not a fact that saturated fats affect our cholesterol level? What some scientists are now saying is that saturated fat does indeed increase our LDL (the bad cholesterol) but in ways that may be more complex than we have thought. This is because it has been found that saturated fat also raises our levels of HDL (the good cholesterol) which protects us from heart disease. As the HDL clears away LDL in our bloodstream perhaps the two raised levels cancel out the threat of increased cardiovascular disease from saturated fats.

In addition to this, increasing importance is being given to the fact that not all LDL particles are equally threatening to us. We have large particles which do not seem to be harmful to us. These are the particles most elevated by eating fat. The smaller, sticky particles appear to be the ones that are harmful. But if these particles are not affected by eating saturated fat then why has there been unquestionable acceptance of the fact that saturated fats cause cardiovascular disease? This is a question that is now being asked. Some cardiologists are now arguing that saturated fats are not the cause of heart disease and obesity and of course we already know that some fats – olive oil and oily fish, nuts, flaxseeds and so on – are actually good for our hearts. In other words, the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

None of this new thinking on saturated fats means that we should be stocking up on steaks and eating butter and cream on a daily basis. But it does mean that we should think about our consumption of foods promoted as ‘low-fat’ because lurking within those foods are sugars that seem to be more damaging to our health than the dairy fats we are trying to avoid.

So if we should not be eating lots of sugars or carbs – which convert to sugars – where should we be getting our calories from? I believe that the Mediterranean diet is a sensible one to follow. I have not read any research which seems to suggest other than that it is a healthy, balanced way to eat. Perhaps the ultra low-carb brigade would beg to differ, but eating some wholemeal grains does not seem to be to be unhealthy. Of course if you are watching your weight then it is advisable to not load your plate with carbs, but to fill it mainly with vegetables. But if you want to enjoy a steak now and then, you need not fear that it will kill you. This is the new thinking, at least among some scientists and cardiologists. You won’t be hearing this from the powers that be who have massive investments in the low fat food industry. Bear in mind that everything in moderation is the way forward. The Mediterranean diet is not big on red meat which is thought to be related to colon cancer. As for processed meats – sausages, burgers, bacon and the like – it is best to steer clear of these as much as possible as many studies are linking these to cancer and heart disease.

Is life better with butter? It certainly tastes good. Yet reading the research does not quite shake the convictions with which I have been raised. This is partly why, even if the voices advocating a new way of thinking about saturated fats become more vocal, it will take quite some time to convince our low fat generation to change our way of eating. But next time I feel like a scraping of fat on my toast I may feel less concerned. But hang on, toast is carbs right? If one thing doesn’t get you something else will!

Multigrain Salad with Spinach, Chickpeas and Pomegranate

Multigrain Salad with Spinach, Chickpeas and Pomegranate

I made this salad for a weekend lunch along with baked salmon. I prepared a large quantity thinking that it would keep well for the following day. It proved to be so moreish that my three hungry men managed to polish off the entire platter. I suppose that is the sign of a successful dish even if one has to get back into the kitchen sooner than expected.

I adore grains of all types and this dish uses three kinds. It is fun to experiment so use what grains you have – more or less depending on your favourites.

For 4 – 6 people

The quantities of grain depend on the appetites of your diners. You should try to use equal quantities of each grain so that no one kind dominates.

Giant couscous
Puy lentils

200g baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 – 2 tins chickpeas, drained and rinsed
75g sunflower seeds, toasted in a dry pan
A couple of handfuls of sultanas
½ pomegranate, seeds removed
2 handfuls mint leaves
2 handfuls basil leaves

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 dessertspoon sumac – I love sumac so I use loads, you may like a less lemony taste so add less first
Black pepper

Cook the couscous, quinoa and lentils separately as their cooking times differ. Be careful not to overcook as quinoa loses its lovely texture when overcooked (unless of course you are making quinoa porridge, which is another matter altogether).

When all are cooked place them all in a large mixing bowl and mix together gently.

Toast the sunflower seeds in a dry pan until they have taken on a bit of colour. Take care that they do not burn. Add to the mixing bowl.

Add the rinsed chickpeas, sultanas and pomegranate seeds.

Choose a serving platter and lay out a bed of spinach leaves. Now place the contents of the mixing bowl on top of the leaves and scatter the mint and basil leaves.

Finally mix the ingredients for the salad dressing and add. Toss gently.

Spring Madness – 11 June 2014

After a few weeks immersed in the Spring madness that is the exam season, I have come to the conclusion that it is yet another threat to cardiovascular health. Not that I mean that teenagers are threatened with long term damage to their health – although they are very tired – but it seems to me that it is the parents whose blood pressure is raised. There is something about wishing for the best outcome for your children, wanting them to experience success rather than disappointment, yet having no control over the outcome oneself, that renders parents quite helpless, worried and not sleeping well.

I recall so well the countless times my father beseeched, begged and threatened that I would end up packing shelves if I did not study harder. It made not the slightest difference to my inability to understand maths equations no matter how many hours I spent eyeballing them. I do remember endless hours spent staring out the window, lost in thought about boys. I could have written countless essays on this topic without an ounce of revision.

Yet as a parent, all I can do is police the iPad, encourage more time spent at study, provide tea and toast, cake and concern, and mark past papers. Somehow all this hanging about at home results in my eating more of all the wrong stuff and exercising less as if my half hour away from my post might result in a riot breaking out in my household.

I pondered on this while sitting through a very long prize giving ceremony at the weekend, It was a hot afternoon and I was surrounded by a sea of blue football outfits in which fidgeted row upon row of boys aged 6 and up. The end of season award presentation was an unusual place for me, but I was standing in for Football Dad who was away on family business.

I thought about the simple joy with which these children exercise, their exuberance for running around, their natural fitness, preferring to be active than sedentary. I recalled a time when I too loved being sporty and how little effort it had taken to be active, to go for a run, play a game of netball. Now time has to be scheduled and it feels medicinal and mundane rather than the best fun ever.

Yes, some adults manage to maintain a child’s curiosity about the world, a sense of playfulness and a love or running around outdoors. Perhaps these gifts are as important to help our children preserve as becoming exam monkeys, performing for mark sheets that seem to stultify rather than encourage creative thinking. If only jumping through exam hoops was a form of exercise!

Asparagus and Mushroom Frittata

Asparagus and Mushroom Frittata

A Sunday evening dinner often calls for something very quick but tasty. Who wants to end the week on a dull note? This week I had a ridge full of asparagus and quite a number of mushrooms that needed using up. Along with a steaming bowl of new potatoes from my farmers market and a frilly red lettuce salad, we were well set for a light but satisfying dinner. I have also made variations of this dish for picnics in which case I serve it with crusty baguette.

For 4 people:

6 – 8 large eggs, depending on appetite of your guests
A splash or two of semi-skimmed milk
Black pepper
Pinch of salt (optional)
1 dessertspoon olive oil
250g chestnut mushrooms, thickly sliced
12 – 16 asparagus
Parmesan cheese (optional)

Begin by preparing the asparagus. Wash under cold tap and snap off the woody ends by bending each spear. It will snap off at the appropriate place. Bring a pot of water to the boil and either steam or boil the asparagus until tender.

In the meantime you can prepare the mushrooms. Wipe them clean with kitchen towel and slice thickly. In order to reduce the fat content of this dish I place the sliced mushrooms in a non-stick pan at a low heat and put a lid on. This way the mushrooms cook in their own juice and there is no need for butter.

While the mushrooms are cooking, break the eggs into a mixing bowl and add a splash or two of milk. Beat the eggs lightly, add a good grinding of black pepper and a pinch of salt if you want.

Once the mushrooms are ready you can add them to the beaten eggs.

Heat your grill while you continue with the next step.

Heat a large non-stick pan with a dessertspoon of olive oil. Add the egg mixture and keep the heat at medium temperature. You have a lot of egg and don’t want the bottom to burn while the rest is setting. Keep gently lifting the edges of the egg with a spatula so that the uncooked eggs can run underneath. When the egg looks half set add the asparagus. Now add a grating of parmesan cheese if you are using.

When the egg is nearly set, finish off under the grill for a couple of minutes or until the egg is set.

Serve immediately with a green salad and new potatoes.

If you prefer to eat this as part of a picnic, allow to cool and then wrap in greaseproof paper for transporting.


Sunshine and Sugar – 14 June 2014

With glorious sunshine at the weekend, I paid a visit to my local Farmer’s Market. Not having visited since the winter months, I was surprised to see the throng of people in attendance. I had to push my way through the crowds to reach the stalls, the most popular of which seemed to be one selling food from Guadeloupe.

The stall holders at Farmers Markets are usually very keen to chat about the provenance of their produce. At one stall I picked up a cauliflower and enquired whether it was organic. Yes, replied the young man, probably younger than his height suggested. Is everything here organic then? I persisted. Yes, he replied, but the hesitation in his voice made me question further. It was then I realised that he was possibly the son of the farmer, left to man the stall, and not quite out of adolescence. He seemed reluctant to engage in conversation about organic status, informing me that it is ‘complicated’. Being a mother of adolescents I know all about reluctance to elaborate. But I do happen to know a few things about organic certification and the Soil Association – who said being an avid fan of The Archers is a waste of time?

Having been assured that the veg was grown with no pesticides – although I doubt that as even organic farmers are allowed to use a few – I filled my basket with a rainbow of nutrients which will form the basis of some of our meal this week.

On returning home there was only one question from my adolescents : ’ What’s for dinner?’ My answer, ‘vegetables’ ,was not well received. What’s wrong with meat? I was asked. I took that to be a rhetorical question and busied myself preparing an asparagus and mushroom frittata. Along with new potatoes and a salad with gorgeous red, frilly leaves it made a tasty meal.  But even my men have limits to their patience with healthy eating so their faces lit up when the fruit salad for dessert was accompanied by thick slices of moist apple cake.

Cake has been far too present in my household this week. What with the exam season being in full swing, I have taken to presenting my son with baked goods as if somehow the sugar rush will translate into Spanish sentences or chemical equations. What is it about cake that is so expressive of  a mother’s love in a way that a bowl of crudités will never be? For much as I advocate not filling children with sugary goods, there seems to be a time and place for everything, Especially cheesecake. When I was a child my mother baked this heavenly cake only for special occasions. I have followed that example and it is cake of choice for birthdays. I made one this week for a friend’s homecoming and my kids were aghast that the cake would leave the house without a slice for them. Feeling guilty, I made another for them as a revision treat. Of course I ate half of it myself. The exams go on all through June. By that time I may have turned into a pudding myself. Perhaps all the sugar will improve my French!