Monthly Archives: May 2015

Quinoa with Griddled Courgettes, Mozzarella and Preserved Lemon

Quinoa with Griddled Courgettes, Mozzarella and Preserved Lemon

I am always thinking about ways to jazz up the grains I love to eat which are healthy and filling too. Quinoa is one of my favourites and is particularly good to incorporate into the diet as it is a complete protein and hence really good for vegetarians. And those looking to lower cholesterol, of course. Quinoa is such a versatile grain – last week I had a quinoa ice cream in a Peruvian restaurant in London called Coya. No I could not extract the recipe from the chef, but my friend and I thought that the quinoa must have been boiled in milk which was then strained and used to make the ice cream. Not that we should be talking ice cream here – sadly it is not part of the programme for lowering cholesterol except for the occasional treat.

As I have said before when writing about quinoa, the mistake many people make is overcooking it. Once it has been in boiling water for too long it turns to mush (in my opinion) which may be great if you are making quinoa porridge but not so tasty otherwise.

This recipe can either be served as a light lunch with a green salad on the side or you could serve it alongside a piece of grilled or baked fish.

For 4 people:

250g quinoa
2 -3 courgettes
Olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon oil
1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1 teaspoon sumac
Black pepper
2 balls low fat mozzarella
1 preserved lemon

Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the quinoa. I start tasting after 10 minutes – I always set the timer or else I forget. I like my quinoa with a bite but you should decide how you like it. It may need a couple more minutes but definitely not the 20 minutes written on the back of the pack I buy at my supermarket.

Once the quinoa is done, drain it well, tip into a mixing bowl and add 1 tablespoon of lemon oil. I have a fab lemon oil a friend gave me – one of those great quality products that just adds such good flavour to a dish that it is worth spending money on if you can. If you don’t have lemon oil you can substitute with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice. Add the tamari or soy sauce, the sumac and a good grinding of black pepper. Mix well.

While the quinoa is cooking you can get started on the courgettes. Top and tail them and then, using a potato peeler, cut thin slices down the length of the courgette. You will have quite a pile of slices by the end but they griddle very quickly. Put on the radio and relax while you prepare them.

Heat a griddle pan on a high heat, brush the pan with a little olive oil and lay out a single layer of courgette slices. They will start to colour very quickly, getting those lovely stripes. You can turn them if you like but as the strips are so thin I usually take them off the pan once the stripes appear. Continue to lay out single layers of courgette slices until all are used up.

When you are ready to serve, take a lightly oiled ramekin or a scone mould and fill it with quinoa. Remove the mould carefully and the quinoa should retain the shape. Line it with strips of courgette.

Cut thin rounds of mozzarella and lay on top of the quinoa mould.
Wash a preserved lemon and remove the pulp. Cut thin strips of peel and lay a few on top of each mould. Finish with a final grinding of black pepper and a drizzle of lemon oil.

Strokes in Younger Folks – 27 May 2015

As is so often the case with research about health, there is good news and bad news. So it is with figures relating to strokes in the UK. While the number of people suffering a stroke aged over 65 has reduced, stroke is on the rise amongst a younger cohort. Depending on your age, this will be welcome news or not.

Research by the Stroke Association was based on hospital admission figures for stroke in people aged 40 – 54 in the years 2000 and 2014. It has revealed over 1000 extra stroked in women (a 30% increase), while for men the figure was close to 2000 extra cases – a 46% increase.

Some of the likely causes for this increase are lifestyle based and give rise to increased risk of developing blood clots. These include poor diet, lack of exercise and increasing levels of obesity. Smoking and excessive alcohol are also implicated. Obesity raises the risk of a blood-clot related stroke by 64%.

People with diabetes or irregular heartbeat are also more at risk as are those with high blood pressure and raised cholesterol levels.

A stroke is essentially a disturbance to the blood supply to the brain. This can happen in two ways. Most common is the ischaemic stroke which is a blood clot narrowing or blocking blood vessels, thus blocking the flow of oxygen to the brain. This results in the death of brain cells.

A haemorrhagic stroke takes place when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. The damage to the brain is caused by bleeding.

A third type of stroke is known as a mini-stroke. Its medical term is transient ischaemic attack. Although the signs of a mini stroke are the same as in a major stroke, the symptoms tend to improve within 24 hours. While that obviously comes as a great relief, it is important that it is correctly diagnosed as these mini strokes can be the warning signs of a major stroke in the future. Proper diagnosis and treatment can prevent the major brain attack which often results in devastating brain damage and lifelong disability if not death.

The message to younger people is that strokes should not be considered an illness of old age. Not only should health checks be provided to those over the age of 40, but people in this age group should monitor their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Possible signs of stroke like dizziness, changes in the face and difficulty with speech should not be ignored.

The need to act quickly if someone has a stroke is essential to the chances of survival. A useful acronym is used by stroke campaigners – FAST. F for face – can the person smile or has one side of the face begun to droop. A for arms – can the person raise both arms and keep them elevated. S for speech – is the speech slurred. T for time – if any one of the three symptoms is present, call an ambulance immediately.

While we cannot prevent strokes, we can reduce our risk. Get moving, eat more healthily, cut out the cigarettes. But most importantly, have your blood pressure checked. It is the biggest risk factor.

Greek Yoghurt with Roasted Fruits

Greek Yoghurt with Roasted Fruits

Now that the summer fruits are beginning to appear in the shops and markets it is a perfect time to make tasty desserts that are low in fat and packed with vitamins. Roasting vegetables is well known to many, but roasting fruit may not be. Yet the roasting process intensifies the flavour of both fruit and veg and let’s face it, some of those strawberries sitting on supermarket shelves can do with a bit of flavour enhancing. If you don’t want to be adding sugar, a few minutes in a hot oven can work wonders.

This week I filled my basket with strawberries, blueberries and apricots. The strawberries and apricots got a roasting while the blueberries were tipped into a pot and simmered until they popped open. Then the fruits got a quick squash with a fork to make rough purées. Since I had a very ripe mango in the bowl that got a quick whizz in the food processor. Next time I will roast that too. I served the roasted purées along with a tub of 0% Greek yoghurt and everyone helped themselves to toppings. You could serve some toasted, slivered almonds as an extra topping.

For 4 people:

200g strawberries
A drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar
10 – 12 apricots
200g blueberries
1 very ripe mango
1 large tub 0% Greek Yoghurt – I like the Total brand
A couple of handfuls of slivered almonds (optional)

Wash the fruit and dry with kitchen towel.

Place the strawberries in a baking dish lined with baking paper. The fruit will give off juices so a dish works better than a baking sheet. Drizzle over some very good quality balsamic vinegar.

Halve and stone the apricots and place in a baking dish lined with baking paper.

Place the apricots in a preheated oven (180 C) for 5 minutes and then add the strawberry dish and roast for a further 5 minutes. You want the fruit soft enough to squash with a fork.

In the meantime place the blueberries in a small pot on low heat and allow to simmer gently for about 5 minutes until they burst open and their juices are released.

Cut the mango into chunks and whizz briefly in a food processor. My mango was so soft that it just turned to pulp as I cut it off the stone.

Put a dollop of thick yoghurt in each bowl and let guests help themselves to fruit toppings. Swirl into the yoghurt with a spoon and finish with a flourish of toasted almonds if using.

Get a Grip – 20 May 2015

A news item had my ears pricking up over the past week. It reported that the strength of one’s handshake is an indicator of cardiovascular risk. Somehow I just knew that the weaker the shake the higher the risk and Yep that is the case. Why, you may ask? And how would anyone come up with the idea for such a piece of research?

The research, published this month in the medical journal The Lancet, was a collaboration between researchers from 23 hospitals and universities who drew on subjects from 17 countries that ranged from high to low income. 142 861 people took part in the study which measured their muscle strength by assessing their grip. The subjects were then followed up over a four year period.

The findings of the research suggested that a weak grip indicated a higher chance of death from any cause (including cardiovascular disease) and was a better predictor of dying than systolic blood pressure. However, blood pressure tests remained a better indicator of the person suffering a heart attack or stroke.

I don’t think that the GP will be assessing cardiovascular risk by shaking hands anytime soon. Pity the poor doctor who has to have their hand gripped as hard as possible by hundreds of patients a week. In fact the grip test is carried out with a dynamometer, a contraption that measures strength of hand and forearm.

Taking blood pressure, measuring cholesterol, having an ECG and other tests to look at heart function remain the prognostic tools of choice for cardiovascular disease. What the research points out, though, is that the grip test is useful in countries where access to medical resources is limited.

What remains unclear from the research is the chicken and egg question. Does ill health result in a weak grip or does muscle weakness cause illness? What was clearer was that those with weak grip were more likely to die prematurely. But the reasons for this are unclear. Is it because the participants who had a weak grip were already ill, or did their muscle weakness make them more vulnerable to future illness and less able to survive if they did become ill?

What the research can also not comment on is whether increasing muscle strength can reduce the chances of dying from disease, whether cardiovascular or other illness. By my thinking, exercise strengthens the body and is said over and over again to be good for our health so it makes sense to keep at it. Walking 5 times a week is never going to strengthen my grip, but I have hopes that Pilates might go some way to maintaining muscle strength into the future. If only because I have to grip the floor in order to prevent myself from toppling off the equipment that everyone else seems to balance on so serenely.

Aubergine and Mushroom Ragu

Aubergine and Mushroom Ragu

This is a very comforting and simple dish, slow cooked to intensify its flavour. It can be served with a dish of quinoa or wholemeal couscous. All you need alongside is a crunchy green salad. Hand around a small bowl of harissa so everyone can add as much heat as they like.

For 4 people:

1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
A splash of olive oil
3 anchovy fillets (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 aubergines, chopped into small pieces
250g chestnut mushrooms, chopped
Small bunch flat leaf parsley or coriander, roughly chopped

Warm a splash of olive oil in a thick bottomed pot and add the onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Cover with a lid and allow to sweat very slowly until the vegetables are soft. If you are using the anchovies, add them to the pot along with the garlic.

Add the tomato paste and chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Now add the aubergines and mushrooms and continue to cook very slowly until they are soft.
Garnish with chopped parsley or coriander.

Stick To Salmon – 13 May 2015

It is a funny time of year, May. One minute the blossoms are blooming, the next day they are gone – in more ways than one in my case. I took my new camera out onto the streets of my neighbourhood to capture the magnificent display Mother Nature put on this Spring. I snapped away happily – oh the joy of the digital camera – trying out new lenses and feeling oh so pro. My hubris was repaid later when I managed to delete every photo from my camera while attempting to upload the images onto my computer. My children shook their heads and rolled their eyes while I attempted unsuccessfully to find my photos in the recycle bin. Oh the horror of the digital camera – bring back the old days of taking film in to Snappy Snaps and coming home with something to show for oneself rather than a Bermuda Triangle which has taken up residence in my PC – or perhaps in my brain!

All of which points to the need for more salmon. I recall reading an article many years ago when my children were a decade off GCSEs. I made a mental note to remind myself that when the time came I should feed them loads of salmon – good brain food to boost their results in Maths, apparently. Well, that time has come and the first Maths paper will be written today. Having been useless at Maths myself as a teenager I wish now that my parents had fed me loads of salmon. Instead they got me a tutor which was as unhelpful as overloading me with Omega 3 might have been.

So have I filled the fridge with salmon and sardines? Of course not. When he comes foraging for snacks, my hungry teenager is not looking for fish. When he complains that there is nothing to eat in this house he overlooks the glistening organic salmon awaiting dinner time. A friend recently showed me her snack cupboards. That gave me some idea of what children mean by ‘food’. Another friend reminisced about her exam writing days when her mother would serve her a sweet offering every day while she studied.

I realised that I would have to abandon – temporarily – my wholegrain approach to the exam period and not come over all Gwyneth Paltrow at this stressful time. I might add that my teenager is very relaxed so it is my stress I refer to.

So I reached a compromise with myself and bought in a batch of oat biscuits. They were large squares of sweet loveliness, dotted with dried fruits and saturated with honey. They were meant for my son but when my husband completed cutting our hedges – a task that lasts hours – I thought he looked in need of a pick-me-up. I set out a tea tray with a couple of these generously sized cookies. He gobbled one up leaving the other, I assumed for me. Well of course I could not publicly admit that I was about to scoff the entire thing, although having eaten two scones and jam for tea the day before I was just getting into my stride. So I did what people who are trying to lose weight/lower cholesterol/be healthy do – I began to break off small pieces on which to nibble. Of course one knows that one will eventually eat the whole thing but it turns out that my husband has no patience for such pretence. When half the biscuit remained tantalizingly on the plate he reached out and popped it in his mouth.

Oh the gall! I was too ashamed of my own lack of discipline to protest that he had just eaten the biscuit that I was trying not to eat but would of course, given time, finish off and what right did he have to suppose it was going spare just because I hadn’t eaten it yet, and while I was trying to pretend I wasn’t going to eat it, of course I had every intention of eating it and any woman would understand that and why don’t men get it?

No one ever takes salmon off my plate. Maybe I should just stick to that.

Raspberry and Oat Morning Glory

Raspberry and Oat Morning Glory

Eating a portion of oats every day is one very good way to help lower cholesterol. I think of it as a broom that sweeps the arteries clean. If you are going to add one food in to your diet to control cholesterol then this is an excellent choice.

I eat my homemade muesli for breakfast most mornings but every now and again it feels a bit boring. When I saw the raspberries piled up in the supermarket this week I felt in the mood for a change. I soaked my oats overnight in milk so that they became creamy and then added a dollop of thick and creamy Greek yoghurt and a handful of raspberries.

You could eat this as a dessert in which case add a teaspoon of Crème de Cassis liqueur over the top.

For each person:

2 – 3 tablespoons rolled oats
Semi skimmed or skimmed milk
1 heaped tablespoon 0% Total Greek Yoghurt
1 handful raspberries

Place the oats in a bowl and cover with milk. Cover the bowl and leave for a few hours or overnight in the fridge.

To serve simply place the oats in a glass, pile in the raspberries and top with yoghurt. Pour over the Crème de Cassis if using.

Taking Heart – 6 May 2015

A recent survey has reported that 68% of British people worry more about their looks than about their heart health. When I first read this report, commissioned by DSM, an organisation that supplies Omega 3 products, I did not feel in the least bit surprised. After all, we live in a culture obsessed with image, form over substance. Looking at the figures another way could suggest that 32% may have some concerns about their cardiovascular wellbeing over and above what they look like. That is almost one in every three people.

The research findings further inform us that while cardiovascular disease causes more than 25 % of all deaths in the UK, only 7% of people say that heart health is their main health concern. I would hazard a guess that cancer is a more pressing concern or anxiety. It does surprise many people that cardiovascular disease is such a big killer despite figures having dropped as smoking has become less popular.

The good news of course about heart health is that it is an area of our wellbeing that can be addressed. Forewarned is forearmed. That is why it is important to know your levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, weight – some of the controllable variables that make up one’s cardiovascular risk.

I was interested to read that while heart health becomes more of a concern as people age, more than 50% of people don’t take steps to improve hearth health. Furthermore, of those who do take steps to improve their cardiovascular health, only half make positive changes to their diet. Obviously they are not reading this blog! Ha – if only I practised what I preach more of the time.

One of the aspects of dietary change that people find difficult is getting the correct nutrients into their daily eating habits. 42% find it difficult to incorporate 5 portions of fruit and veg or the 2-3 portions of fish each week. Even I don’t eat 3 portions of fish a week and I am one of those who make an effort to be fish aware.
Interestingly, 58% of British people who responded to the survey said that they take supplements including multivitamins and Omega 3s. As I have written previously, I do think that we should try to take in nutrients through what we eat but there is a role for supplements if we are consistently falling short of a balanced diet.

High levels of Omega 3 from eating oily fish is considered to be a contributing factor to the lower risk of cardiovascular disease in the Mediterranean, Japan and Greenland. I do believe I would find it so much easier to regularly eat my oily fish if I was living in the South of France but as that is not going to happen anytime soon, adapting eating habits is the way to go. Mind you, a few slices of sashimi several times a week would also help if you have a reputable Japanese eaterie nearby and the wallet to support such an approach. I am very wary of raw fish in the wrong hands so I am rather picky about where I will eat sushi.

As for Omega 3s, they have been found to help lower blood pressure and reduce fat building up in our arteries and keeping triglyceride levels in a normal range. That is an incentive to eat more fish – but if you can’t or don’t, talk to your GP about a supplement if you are concerned about maintaining heart health. Don’t be one of the 68% who put their appearance above their existence.