Today’s post is a bit different for me and, consequently, for you. Normally food to glow is centred round my recipes, what I’m doing, my opinions. Basically it’s me, me, me, as most blogs are. I know I’m not bad at citing other sites and dabbling in others’ recipes, but I’m not really one for contests and round-ups, and some of the fun, interactive things that make visiting such inclusive blogs a pleasure. This is partly due to my lack of technical nous with such things (much more complicated than you would think), but also because I wished to not alienate the very folk for whom I initially started writing – people with cancer and their loved ones. But I think perhaps this has been a bit wrong-headed. And so with this post I am set to change my ways, at least a little. Not only am I making someone else’s recipe, I am reviewing their book, AND having a giveaway. I might have to go for a lie down now.
And, what a book. Zest for Life: the Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, by nutritionist and health writer Conner Middelman-Whitney, may well be life-changing for those who read it. Not only is it a brilliant, accessibly written reference book for those wanting to know more about how the foods we eat can influence health, she also has some inventive, yet easy (!) recipes that beautifully illustrate her powerful message: that what you eat can and does influence your health. Although the book hones in on cancer, much of what she writes about applies just as much to other ‘lifestyle’ illnesses and diseases – heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, arthritis. This book is aimed at anyone wanting to reduce their risk of cancer as well as those who have been diagnosed with cancer. But its usefulness and, dare I say, appeal, will be to anyone concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones. I think that covers most of us, doesn’t it?
The first part of the book – The Food-Cancer Connection – is informational, but also personal, charting Conner’s journey from stressed out financial journalist to full-time nutritionist, with diagnosis and treatment for cervical cancer along the way. She doesn’t dwell on her cancer experience. Instead she gives an honest and recognisable account of transforming her diet from a typical Western one of takeaways, grabbed pastries and coffees, to the abundant and plant-filled Mediterranean diet she and her family of five thrive on today.
Conner’s highly personal and very charming style continues with her well-referenced chapters on the principles of the Mediterranean diet itself (which, despite what many chain Italian restaurants would have us believe, is definitely not based on pizza!), cancer and its connection with the food – the good and the bad, and what she calls ‘Let’s Get Cooking’. The latter is a motivating and tip-filled chapter that I can hardly read now for all the notes I made. I will certainly go back to this chapter again and again. Although she gives us some quite stark and damning information about the food many of us eat, this is more than balanced by her positive and completely do-able approach to a Mediterranean way of eating.
For me, the Eating for Life section was hugely motivating. My family and I already eat a largely Mediterranean diet by default (with a Scottish twist of course), and this chapter inspires me further by skilfully weaving information on the chemo-preventive and therapeutic features of this style of eating, with practical ways of putting it all into practice. She also gives advice on, among other things, cooked versus raw foods, frozen versus fresh, guidance for portion sizes, whether we should eat completely organically and eating healthily on a budget (I’ve got highlighter pen all over this bit). Hers is a balanced approach, with sensible advice peppered conversationally throughout the book. Those looking for a firm template of the ‘you should be eating this, this and this everyday and in this order’ may be disappointed not to see such a plan, but the majority will agree with her that a self-selected, wide-ranging and mainly plant-filled way of eating is not only the healthiest, but also hugely pleasurable.
When you flick through the recipes you will see just how pleasurable – and simple – a Mediterranean diet can be: Garlic-crusted Baked Cod, Cherry Tomato Clafoutis, Coconut Lentil Stew & Avocado Relish (gorgeous dish), Rabbit in Mustard Sauce, Swiss Chard au Gratin, Raspberry Semifreddo (using thick Greek yogurt instead of cream). Or how about Chicken and Prune Tagine, Express Bouillabaisse, Tofu Dijonnaise, or Cauliflower ‘Couscous’ – using what she calls the “substitutionist’s conjuring trick” of replacing a grain with a lookalike vegetable? I could go on and on. The only negative thing I can say about the book is the lack of photos, but perhaps that leaves us free to present a dish how we like, without the styled and perfect images that make us think ours is somehow imperfect by comparison. And because the 160 recipes are uncomplicated and well-written, photos would be a pretty addition, not a vital requirement.
As it is a Mediterranean cookbook, albeit one prefaced by anti-cancer information and advice, expect to see omnivorous, whole-food recipes from all of these sun-drenched countries: France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, with a foray into the Middle East too. Conner emphasises the Mediterranean Diet’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of variety, quality and conviviality in her colourful, simply made recipes. If you already like to eat healthily, you will want to make each one. And if you are still a bit reticent or concerned how to make eating well an everyday occurence, Conner’s recipes make it easy and delicious. As a fairly recent convert to sardines I am especially looking forward to trying her six (!) such piscine recipes.
Although Conner is based in the south of France, her recipes use American food terminology and both metric and American measures. Appendices give measurement conversions (although you shouldn’t you need them), a glossary of culinary terms, a template for weekly meal planning, shopping and pantry staples, and resources on cancer – organisations, further reading and Mediterranean cook books (old and new). Conner rounds out her book by giving excellent notes and references to follow up should you be interested in knowing more about the cancer and food connection. This is a truly fantastic reference and cookbook rolled into one. Although not a ‘coffee table’ cookbook a la any celebrity chef you can name, Zest for Life will be the book you use again and again. I know I will.
I am pleased as punch to have two copies of Zest for Life to give away. To be in the running to receive one all you need to do is leave a comment mentioning your favourite Mediterranean ingredient and, if you like, your favourite way to use it. I will pick two comments at random and let the winners know by email.
And I must declare an interest of sorts in Conner’s book: she kindly gives a portion of her royalties to Maggies’s Cancer Caring Centres. Although she has no connection with Maggie’s, Conner wanted to ‘give something back’ and Maggie’s met her criteria of looking after not only those with cancer, but also their families. She also wanted to support a charity that was not gender or cancer-type specific, provides a nutrition programme, and that takes a “positive, empowering approach to cancer and focuses on values like joy, hope and life”. In an email, Conner wrote: “In fact, I was struck by how Maggie’s slogan, “The Joy of Living,” mirrored the title of my book, “Zest for Life”. This upbeat, life-affirming ethos of Maggie’s Centres is particularly palpable when you find yourself inside these centres, which are not only architecturally stunning, but also very warm, welcoming, human places. I want to help Maggie’s build many more of these wonderful centres, which I think play an absolutely vital role for people facing cancer.”
And now to the recipe: I chose Conner’s fibre-rich take on an Italian classic, Lentil Bolognese with Spaghetti Squash. It is a fantastic recipe, and I can vaguely link it to Valentine’s Day by way of the Disney film, “The Lady and the Tramp”. You know, the famous spaghetti eating scene. In truth I am far too messy and unromantic to attempt to eat Conner’s Lentil Bolognese in this way, but you go right ahead.
Spaghetti squash are currently out of season so I did as Conner advises and used normal spaghetti. There is well enough healthy fibre in this recipe to go straight for the white stuff, but use wholemeal or gluten-free if you like. She herself sometimes has it over nearly-crunchy, finely minced cauliflower. All of the ingredients, save the unsweetened almond milk, are immediately recognisable and more or less pantry/vegetable bin staples. I must admit to not having the almond milk so I used organic skimmed milk, which worked just fine. I’ve never added a dairy element to my usual Bolognese (I know many people do), but I think it does mellow the acidity of the tomatoes and wine. We all thought this was a subtle but lovely addition. As you will see, her instructions are straightforward. If you make it you will see/taste that the result is absolutely scrummy. As my daughter said, “You wouldn’t know there wasn’t meat in this. Do we have to leave enough for leftovers?” The answer, of course, was “yes”. And it was even better the next day. My advice: make double.
Lentil Bolognese with Spaghetti Squash
This recipe, from Conner Middelman-Whitney’s book, Zest for Life: the Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, is beautifully flavoured and textured. If you are used to having a meat-based Bolognese you may be surprised how ‘meaty’ this dish tastes, in a good way. I made some substitutions to keep from making an extra trip to the shops, but it really is pretty much store-cupboard ingredients. I’ve made my own notations in squared brackets [ ].
See how to get your own copy by going to the zestforlife website and, of course, try and grab a free one from me by commenting on this post. Find out more about Conner and her first-of-its-kind cancer prevention cooking course by reading this review from the Telegraph newspaper.
1 spaghetti squash [or use pasta when the squash isn’t in season]
4 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 carrot, finely cubed
1 leek, sliced
1 rib celery, chopped
1 oz/25g dried mushrooms, rehydrated for 15 minutes in warm water and chopped [I also used 100g of fresh mushrooms]
15 oz/400g cooked French green lentils [Canadian are very similar]
½ tsp each thyme, oregano and basil [I used dried oregano and thyme and no basil]
1 bay leaf
2 fl oz/.25 cup/60 ml red wine
2 fl oz/.25 cup/60ml unsweetened almond milk [I used skimmed milk]
15 oz/400g tomatoes, chopped [I used a tin of Cirio tomatoes]
2 tbsp tomato paste
acacia honey (optional)
freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper
[I also added some chilli flakes onto each serving]
Cut the raw squash in two halves, scrape out the seeds and steam in a large pot, flesh facing upwards. Test for doneness after 30 minutes: the squash is ready when the flesh can be pulled out with a fork in spaghetti-like threads cooked al dente. Scrape flesh carefully into a warmed serving bowl, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil; toss gently, cover and keep warm.
While the squash is steaming, heat olive oil in a pot and cook onion and garlic until translucent. Add carrot, leek, celery and mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes. Add lentils, herbs, red wine and milk and reduce by half [I didn’t do this as it seemed plenty thick; I added chopped parsley because I had a huge bunch)
Add tomatoes and tomato paste, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; if the tomatoes are sour, add a little honey to round off the flavor (optional).
Serve squash on individual plates with a generous portion of sauce and sprinkled with grated cheese. Serves 4 [very, very generously]
Puy-type green lentils - use tinned or 'pouch' lentils for convenience