I realise that some of you may be reclining on the sofa digesting a rather large meal. Feet up, hand on distended belly, telly at full volume (to drown out the clattering of a million dishes being cleaned in the kitchen). You may be kicking back waiting for a second wind; after all, Auntie Jean’s famous sweet potato meringue pie isn’t going to eat itself. *must find a clean plate* Continue reading
After the excesses of last week’s ingredient-fest that is gado-gado, we are down to earth. Quite literally. You can’t more down to earth than beetroot, can you? Continue reading
I probably really shouldn’t call this a hummus, but dip just sounded so tentative, so boring. And this faux hummus is anything but boring. How can anything this colour be boring? I ask you. It would be boring if I blathered on about how ridiculously healthy it is (although it is). Or how well it goes with any dipper, from lowly tortilla chips to freshly cut market veggies (it does). But it is not at all boring to hide in the kitchen and surreptitiously eat a saved back bit with a teaspoon, while simultaneously plating up a meal for 6 people (I have). Never-mind the telltale purple moustache. Hides the real one. Continue reading
Beetroot. Beta vulgaris. Hmm. And borscht. Are you picturing what I am picturing? A weathered babushka – with a babushka – ladling steaming red soup into a tin bowl?
I have that image from actual memory. Not a Grimm’s fairy tale story read to me by my mother on a howling night, but a real live babushka: brown walnut face shyly smiling as she proudly served her national soup to me, a dangerous visitor from the land of Ronald Reagan and Mickey Mouse. Continue reading
Owing to the inherent compatibility of salmon and beetroot there are probably lots of versions of this recipe kicking around. I mean, we are talking of a Rogers and Astaire-type partnership; each making the other look fabulous. I haven’t dared to do a Google search, as I am sure to find the exact duplicate, only prettier and better lit (but not dancing backwards, in heels). The ingredients and method are just too simple for me not to have been beaten to the punch/keyboard. Maybe after I press ‘send’, and this is fired out there into the Internet whateverosphere, I may just have a wee poke around. And have a little cry at my unoriginality.
What do you hope to get this Valentine’s Day? A box of exquisitely-packaged chocolates, the kind with epicurean flavours (definitely not procured from the petrol station)? Or, how about red rose petals, strewn in your filled bath, with a flute of pink champagne delicately balanced within stretching distance? I’ll take a bit of that, thank you very much!
Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine.” – Geronimo Piperni, quoted by Antonio Lavedán, Spanish army surgeon,1796
Chocolate is medicine for many people – mender of broken hearts, healer of disappointment, drug of choice. But its universality makes it right for all occasions and situations. Whether it’s a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut nibbled in front of the telly or a few squares of finest 85% single estate to round off a dinner party, chocolate is the everyman of foodstuffs. Or should that be ‘everywoman’?
It is undoubtedly women who have the closest relationship with chocolate. And the most fraught. For those of us females who enjoy at least the occasional square, or bar, chocolate is a prime source of guilty pleasure. More than the half bottle of red wine on a weekday evening, or the cadged cigarette at a girls’ night out, eating chocolate is something over which many feel at least a modicum of regret. A chap would just stand in the kitchen, peel away the wrapper and start chomping away. And, good for him. But many of us cannot adopt this healthily insouciant attitude. We may run companies, have our own bank accounts, do what we please, but eat an entire Galaxy bar without the slightest twinge? I think not.
When women are under emotional stress many reach for food. It soothes away internal tension and makes us feel safe. And what is the number one comfort food for Western women? Chocolate, of course. American research shows that men, on the other hand, tend to reach for comfort foods when they are happy (?!). So, women eat chocolate when they are upset and men eat it when they are happy. Because men don’t eat nearly as much chocolate as women, does that mean that both sexes are miserable most of the time? There is a flaw in this logic. I think women eat chocolate for both negative (stress) and positive reasons (pleasure), possibly even rebellious reasons, too.
Our twisted relationship with this most pleasurable of substances probably has much to do with the Victorians. I know it is quite a leap from chocolate eating to our famously piano leg-covering antecedents, but bear with me. In the upper echelons of Victorian society women enjoying food was frowned upon. Like their seen and not heard children Victorian women lived in an era of seen, but not eating. Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo writes that, “women eating and demonstrating sensuous surrender to rich, exciting food was taboo”. It was socially unacceptable for any monied woman to show a desire for food or actively indulge in it. I suppose this was the beginning of the dangerous notion that you can never be too rich or too thin – the more you have the less you should be seen to desire it. This notion filtered though the classes and has yet to fade.
According to Bordo, modern females go against this taboo by seeking emotional satisfaction from what they eat. To my mind this clashes head on with the near-innate negativity we feel when we enjoy our food ‘too much’. For many women the line connecting so-called taboo foods with comfort is suffused with self-loathing. With its enjoyably high-fat, high-sugar content chocolate is top of the list of taboo foods, and presumably why it is seen as off-limits or subject to self-restriction. When you deny yourself chocolate you are a ‘good girl’. But ours is a very natural desire: we are hard-wired to seek energy dense foods. It has only come about recently in our species’ history that we don’t actually need such foods to live. Some may argue against this last sentence: Man cannot live by chocolate alone – but women sure can. – Anonymous.
The Science Bit: I don’t understand why so many “so called” chocolate lovers complain about the calories in chocolate, when all true chocoholics know that it is a vegetable. It comes from the cocoa bean, beans are veggies, ’nuff said. – Author Unknown
We now know that chocolate – at least the dark stuff – is actually very good for us. The way it used to be prepared was undoubtedly even more so. The cacao tree was first cultivated by the Mayans at least 3000 years ago although it was around earlier as a wild plant. The Mayans, and their successors the Toltec and the Aztecs, not only drank cocoa as a bitter ‘tea’ but also used the pods as currency and saw it as a gift from their God, Quetzacoatl. Can’t see beetroot getting the same treatment…Xocoatl, as drunk by the ancient peoples of Central America, was made by adding water, pepper and cinnamon to roasted and ground cacao beans. This mixture was heated and the resulting ‘butter’ that rose to the top was whipped up to a foamy liquid, which was drunk cold. In fact, the word chocolate actually refers to the sound made by the whisking: xoco, “noise” and atl, “water”. The conquering Spanish kept this same technique but replaced the aromatic spices with sugar. Through this europeanisation chocolate attained the “divine” taste that we appreciate today, at least in Europe. In 1753, the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, named the cacao tree Theobromoa cacao, which is Latin for “food of the gods”. Who would argue with that?
Cacao beans themselves are a scary 50+ per cent fat. Although much of it is saturated, a goodly proportion (35%) is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid found namely in olive oil and known to be beneficial to the heart. Saturated stearic acid is only half-heartedly absorbed by the body, where it is partially transformed in the liver into more oleic acid. So, the potential downside is actually not too bad: the oleic acid has a neutralizing effect insofar as cholesterol is concerned. The fact that sugar is almost always added to dark chocolate somewhat dilutes the goodness but it still has a relatively low glycemic index score of 22 (under 50 is okay), compared to 115 for frozen tofu dessert and 88 for boiled potatoes. Hmm, which would you rather eat? And even though dark chocolate is always going to be a better bet than milk chocolate (because of milk fats, added vegetable fats and usually much more sugar per gram) both should only be eaten in moderation.
I am wanting to get on with sharing my recipe but the nutrition facts for chocolate are too interesting and important to ignore. I know I am not having to convince anyone to eat chocolate as I might a cauliflower or some lentils, but it is still reassuring to know that good quality chocolate doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Far from it.
The health benefits of this bitter pod boil down to their polyphenol content. Unbelievably a small square of dark chocolate has twice the amount of heart-protecting and cancer fighting polyphenols as a glass of finest cabernet sauvignon, and about as much as in a mug of properly brewed leaf green tea. Even well-made milk chocolate, derided as a poor relation, has some. Although there are numerous polyphenols in chocolate it is the catechins that are of most interest. This makes them actually quite similar to the very virtuous green tea. In fact, as recounted in the book Foods To Fight Cancer, the antioxidant activity of a cup of quality hot chocolate is five times greater than in black tea, three times that of green and twice as much as a glass of red wine.
What does all of this antioxidant activity do for us? Well, it helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by relaxing blood vessels, lowering blood cholesterol and blocking the formation of arterial plaques. And, to which many can attest, it is confirmed that chocolate actively reduces stress – by lowering cortisol levels. Interestingly, high levels of cortisol are linked with abdominal weight gain. Dark chocolate is good for your waistline: go figure.
Chocolate’s cancer-fighting credentials are only just being studied but are almost universally positive. What is known, at least in test tube and animal studies, is that the proanthocyanadins in cocoa can slow the development of certain cancers by cutting off tumour blood supply. It is also likely that these and other compounds may contribute on numerous levels to preventing cancer initiation – the stage when cells are exposed to a carcinogenic substance, triggering irreversible damage to cell DNA that is then copied. How amazing is it that there are foods such as chocolate that contribute not only to helping slow a tumour’s growth, but may actively nip it in the bud before it has an opportunity to grow. The power of food never ceases to amaze me.
Now to the recipe, also starring the potent cancer fighter, beetroot. See my “Beetroot Zinger” post for everything you wanted to know about beetroot but were afraid to ask.
Chocolate Beetroot Cake with Chocolate Icing
Probably the favourite food that I bring into the Maggie’s Centre on my Nutrition Workshop days is this, chocolate beetroot cake. Everyone seems to like it, and I guess get a weird kick out of finding out there is a heck of a lot of beetroot in something that tastes very much of chocolate. I usually make the participants try and guess the mystery ingredient: they never do. The beetroot makes the cake so incredibly moist and deepens the colour, but doesn’t add any particular flavour, just some extra nutrients and phytochemicals. Provoke a furious debate by trying this at home.
100g/3.5 oz cocoa powder
200g/7 oz refined spelt flour OR unbleached plain flour (or a combination)
2 tsps baking powder
150g/5 oz muscovado sugar
300g/11 oz home-cooked beetroot* (or use vacuum-sealed)
150 ml/5 oz rapeseed oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp dairy or soya milk
50g/1.8 oz dark chocolate, chopped (OR quality chocolate chips OR cocoa nibs)
Icing: 150g/5 oz dark chocolate and a few drops rosewater (optional, but makes it like a Turkish Delight!)
*If using raw beetroot: In a large pan of boiling water, boil the beetroots in their skins until tender when pierced with a knife, 40 minutes usually but older, larger beets may take longer. Let cool and rub away the skins with your fingers or the back of a teaspoon.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter and base-line a medium (20cm) cake tin. Sift the cocoa powder, flour and baking powder into a bowl; add the sugar and set aside. Puree or finely grate the beetroot (whether vacuum-sealed or cooked at home). The picture shows raw grated beetroot, but I usually use whizzed up cooked beetroot. In a large bowl, whisk together the beetroot, eggs, vanilla and oil. Fold in the remaining cake ingredients to just combine. You can do all of this in a food processor but it might not be as light. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool 20 minutes in the pan, then remove to a wire rack. To make the icing, heat the chocolate gently in a double boiler or microwave, mix and cool until spreadable. It makes enough to thinly cover the cake to within a centimetre or so from the edge: use more chocolate if you want a thicker or wider spread of chocolate. I often sprinkle over sugared rose petals (bought) if using the rosewater, otherwise I shave chocolate over the top and serve with berries.
Note 1.You can use grated raw beetroot if you like (it tastes very good), but add about 50 ml of milk.
Note 2. I usually make this as muffins, in which case oil muffin tin holes, and fill ¾ with batter (see bottom photo). Bake for 20 minutes until well-risen and starting to pull away from the tin. Makes 16 muffins (which freeze well without the icing).
I am a real advocate of what I call the ‘meal salad’; multi-sensory, bold salads that are platters of amazing colour, clear tastes, contrasting textures and even a hint of fragrance. I crave salads that invariably cause you to leave the restaurant with a little dribble on your chin because you were enjoying your food and not minding your manners. In short, I want to know I’ve had a proper feed, and not just been fobbed off with lowest common denominator assembling skills. Just because it’s a salad doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting and taste sublime. Being a greedy sort I don’t think that some frilly-pants collection of lettuces, scattering of delicately sliced vegetables and thimble of dressing constitutes a meal. Yet, if you go out and don’t fancy the meat-heavy or sleep-inducing carb options, this is usually what is left. If you are lucky someone might offer it with a miniscule piece of anemic-looking chicken (which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole) or trio of king prawns (yawn), but the equation ‘woman+salad=dieter’ seems to be behind menu planning at many eateries. And I resent this. The notion (as I imagine it) that salad-eaters are just looking for something to move around the plate so don’t bother making it interesting or filling is insulting and, in my opinion, wrong. Just because I mainly prefer eating plants to animals doesn’t mean my tastebuds and appetite are dead. Sure, if you go up a notch or two you will undoubtedly find something more adventurous, but probably still not filling enough to see you through to supper, or keep you from later devouring that carefully-squirreled away Valentine’s leftover (am I revealing too much?). Are you weary as well of shelling out good money at places where they spend more time planning the wine list than they do the menu? I don’t even bother now. And that’s a bit sad because eating out should expose you to tastes and ideas that inspire and excite.
I’ve really had quite a wee rant to myself, and involved you who may be perfectly happy with your paid-for salady nosh. Sorry. I’m miffed probably because the UK restaurant and catering industry has upped their game almost unrecognisably in the past 20 years, but this is one area that is still a bit ‘Betamax’. I don’t know how we can get more interesting plant-based fare into mainstream restaurants but here is the kind of ‘meal salad’ I would be happy to pay money for. Let me know what you would pay good money for – keep it decent, Miss R reads this…
Warm Beetroot, Lentil and Pepper Salad
I am a big fan of Sarah Raven – she of UK gardening fame but also an inventive cook – and the au courant London chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Although neither is vegetarian they both display cunning and creative flair to bring out the best in what could be quite pedestrian ingredients. I find that plant-only cooks and cookery writers can be a bit worthy for my tastes, and so I tend to be drawn to omnivores who speak vegetarian as a second language. This earthy, punchy salad takes inspiration from the writings and recipes of my two favourite ‘bi-lingual’ cook-chefs.
4 small or 2 medium beetroots, scrubbed and roots trimmed a little (the smaller the beetroot, the sweeter)
2 red onions, peeled and cut into eighths (with some root attached if possible)
2 red peppers, deseeded and cut into chunks
Extra virgin olive oil
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods + 1 tbsp coriander seeds, + 1/2 tbsp black peppercorns + 1 tsp flaky sea salt – coarsely ground in pestle and mortar or clean coffee grinder
150g/5.3 oz Puy or Puy-type lentils
300ml/10 oz vegetable stock + 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, and a little extra for later
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Leaves from two sprigs fresh thyme (lemon thyme if you can get it)
1-2 red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
Juice and grated zest of 1/2 large unwaxed lemon
Rocket/arugula leaves, chervil and flat-leaf/Italian parsley – as much as you like
1/2 pack of halloumi cheese (about 100 grams), sliced into 1/2 cm depth slices
What To Do: Toss the beetroot, onion and peppers in 1 tbsp of olive oil and almost all of the ground spices. Put the beetroots in a small roasting tin and bake at 190C for 45 minutes – 1 hour. When the beetroots have twenty minutes to go pop the onions and peppers onto the tray. If you are a beetroot fan, you might want to bake a couple of bunches of beetroot for use in other dishes, or for pickling. Anyway, when the beets are tender when pierced with a knife, let them cool and then rub the fragile skins away and slice the juicy beets into big bite-sized pieces.
While things are roasting get on with the body of the salad – the lentils. You could very easily use one of the precooked packs of Puy lentils available in many UK supermarkets but they are really easy to sort from scratch and the suggested flavourings really lift the lentils. Pop the raw lentils into a medium saucepan with the bay leaves and cover with the stock and vinegar. Bring to the boil and then cook on a fast simmer (medium heat) for between 20 and 30 minutes. It is hard to give exact timings but check to make sure the liquid hasn’t evaporated at 20 minutes and give them a little taste as well. They should be tender but still quite firm: if your dental work is threatened, give it another 10 minutes. Drain as needed then pour the lentils into a wide pretty bowl to cool a bit.
Heat a griddle pan or saute pan to high and slap on the halloumi pieces. Griddle or cook until starting to colour or get griddle marks, then flip and do this again. I sometimes use the ‘light’ halloumi in other recipes but it gets bit dry if you do more than heat it through. Use the full-fat stuff for this one. Remember my rant; this isn’t a diet salad.
Add to the lentils the roasted, warm vegetables, chopped garlic, thyme leaves, chillies, lemon juice and zest, whatever amount of leaves you are using, then finally toss together with some extra olive oil and balsamic to taste. Sprinkle in the remaining ground spices if you like, and serve with griddled halloumi or hunks of broken feta cheese, and maybe some flatbreads. Enjoy!