Have you got your romantic meal planned? Asparagus? Oysters? Caviar? Perhaps Spaghetti Bolognese a la Lady and the Tramp? Or, are you being whisked off for a slap up meal, after having sipped Champagne in a rose petal bath? Well, if you are like me and not particularly romantic, forward planning, or fond of lolling in baths, this quick and easy recipe is a cheat’s way of getting in the spirit of Valentine’s Day. Continue reading
It’s el scorchio here at casa foodtoglow. Hens are lolling and cats are snoozing -and it’s only 10 am. But someone has to work around here so quick wee post and off to Maggies Centre for green tea and a good chat. My night-time eyeshades (sad, I know) were no match for today’s retina-searing dawn, so the green tea will have to steep a good five minutes to reach the requisite caffeine quotient. I hate having thin eyelids… Continue reading
UK television and radio news and programmes are dominated by tomorrow’s planned nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Hard news journalists and gossip columnists alike are united in their desire to wring every scintilla of Royal press office-fed ‘news’ in the hope of a new twist on the Big Day. Syrian ambassador to the UK is invited. Then disinvited. Are the bridesmaids wearing fascinators? A weird blend of the newsworthy and the out and out frothy. Everything I’ve heard makes me think William and Kate are as beautiful inside as out. But enough already with the 24/7 coverage. We don’t need yet another vox pop interview outside of Westminster Abbey featuring a man wearing a knitted Union Jack teacosy for a hat, clothed in a t-shirt stating ‘Diana Would Be Proud’ (I’m not making that up). It’s hardly the happy couple’s fault but it’s got to the point where I am at this moment listening to an obscure station featuring 80s rock classics. So, with Bon Jovi angsting in the background I am elbow deep in flour, butter and leaves making a cake – for Kate. Couldn’t resist. The wedding coverage is so saturating that it has taken over the decision making section of my brain and commanded me to make a delicate, fragrant cake in honour of our equally delicate and fragrant soon-to-be princess. So, temporarily abandoning my healthy eating perch, I have a rather nice cake recipe fit for a future queen. Continue reading
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).
For years I have had a not-so-secret crush on cardamom. Although I enjoy savouring the superlative pearl sugar-topped cardamom buns served at Edinburgh’s Peter’s Yard coffee house, I usually settle for a low-effort swirl of ground cardamom in my morning porridge. It’s not only me who rates this underused (at least in the UK and US) flavouring. In countries as polar opposite as Sweden and India, cardamom is a favoured spice. For those of you who haven’t tasted or smelled cardamom it can best be described as having a distinct sweet, perfumed fragrance that once sniffed is never forgotten. If you’ve ever visited markets in southern India or the Middle East you will no doubt have seen baskets of both the black and green pods nestled among bowls of cumin seeds, turmeric root and myriad forms of ginger. Its uses are surprisingly varied: flavouring Arabic style coffee (pop a whole pod into coffee grounds before brewing), in Scandinavian breads and cakes and as a staple ingredient in traditional curries. I am so taken with this wrinkly pod that I feature it as the star of a pepper blend: 4 tbsp black peppercorns, 1 tbsp coriander seeds and the seeds from 10 green cardamom pods – and store it in a refillable pepper grinder. I have perhaps taken my cardamom obsession a bit far: for my birthday I received a bottle of Voyages d’Hermes which, when it’s been on the skin awhile, takes on cardamom and green tea notes. Delish!
The Science Bit: Medicinally, practitioners of Chinese medicine prescribe cardamom for a plethora of digestive complaints, some of which are common while on chemotherapy – constipation, flatulence, gas and general stomach cramping. In Ayurvedic medicine it is seen as an important spice for balancing the three doshas (especially kapha), as well as being a warming digestive and lung stimulant. Reading in “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson, I found out that Indian animal studies have demonstrated cardamom’s capacity to reduce inflammation, as well as protect against the growth of colon cancer cells.
Rhubarb, oats and apples are of course no slouches when it comes to health-giving assets. Anti-bacterial rhubarb is used in Chinese medicine for a variety of ailments, many to do with detoxification and ‘draining heat from the body’. In Western medicine it is perhaps best known for its high concentration of infection-fighting Vitamin C, for its capacity to reduce cholesterol and its action as a natural laxative. Those with gout or rheumatoid arthritis should perhaps not indulge in rhubarb as unfortunately it can aggravate these conditions. The health profile of oats is perhaps even higher as it is literally crammed with disease-checking nutrients, including avenanthramides (breaks down cholesterol and may help prevent colon cancer), blood sugar- and cholesterol-lowering beta glucan, many stress-busting B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc and filling fibre. All that and it makes a great breakfast.
Apples too are very cleansing; their pectin binds with cholesterol, toxins and heavy metals, escorting them out of the body. In the lab, apples inhibit cancer cell proliferation, decrease lipid oxidation, and lower cholesterol. They also contain a variety of phytochemicals, including quercetin, catechin, phloridzin and chlorogenic acid, all of which are strong antioxidants. Studies have shown that apples protect and optimise lung function. While storage doesn’t affect their anti-oxidant capacity it is thought that heat may diminish it. As apples are so commonly eaten they are potentially very beneficial to us. To find out more, click here. So, although this crumble is hopefully scrummy, eat raw apples to get the most from them. That said, all-important fibre remains helpfully intact.
Enough science, let’s get on with the (healthy) stodge!
Cardamom-scented Rhubarb and Apple Crumble
We are smack in the middle of forced rhubarb season just now so I’ve been transforming the pink leggy beauties into crumble, chutney and jam. The crumble disappears in a trice but chutney and jam can of course be enjoyed for months to come. I’ll give an easy rhubarb and date chutney recipe later.
1 Bramley or similar cooking apple, peeled, cored and large diced/thick slice
2 dessert apples, peeled, cored and large diced/thick slice
900g/2 lb fresh rhubarb, washed and sliced into 4cm/1.5 in pieces
4 tbsp agave nectar OR 50g muscovado/dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom, divided (from approximately 10 whole green pods*)
75g/2.6oz skin-on almonds
75g/3oz chilled butter, cut into small pieces
100g/3.6oz wholemeal self-raising flour
75g/2.6oz rolled oats or flaked barley, two tablespoons held aside
50g/1.75oz muscovado or dark brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Equipment You Will Need: cutting board; sharp knife; food processor; large mixing bowl; deep-ish rectangular or oval baking dish
What To Do: Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. In the large bowl toss together the fruit, sugar or agave nectar and half of the cardamom. Pour the fruit into the baking dish and set aside.
Next, start the crumble topping by putting the butter, flour, all but 2 tbsp oats, sugar, cinnamon and remaining cardamom in the food processor; pulse until you get what looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Add in the nuts and pulse until you get a mixture of chunky and fine bits of nut. Add the remaining oats and pulse twice for two seconds to just mix in the oats.
Evenly sprinkle the crumble mixture over the fruit and press firmly down. You may be tempted to leave it all bumpy and rustic but it’s crisper if you take a firm hand to the crumble. Some of the nuts will stick up a bit anyway. Put the dish in the hot oven for about 40 minutes, or until the sticky pink rhubarb bubbles out from the sides. Leave it to cool for 15 minutes or so before serving up with vanilla-flecked custard or ice cream.
* Cardamom powder: Ground cardamom is quite expensive and hard to find in the UK. Make your own powder by purchasing a bottle or bag of green cardamom pods from your supermarket or specialty shop (those stocking Indian and Pakistani goods will be cheapest). Crack open the tough shells in a pestle and mortar or the end of a rolling pin, pick out the fragrant slightly sticky seeds and bash them fiercely in a pestle and mortar or in a clean coffee grinder. Use whole pods in Indian cooking (including spiced rice), removing them before serving.
Gluten-free note: You can easily make this gluten-free by either using gluten-free flour and gluten-free oats, or using barley flakes and blitzing to make flour and keeping the rest whole.
To be perfectly honest I’m not much of a sweet person (no comments please). Give me a bowl of hummus and some salty, herb-flecked flatbread crackers over a piece of cake any day – or a bowl of Doritoes and a glass of white wine when it’s been one of those days… But, I LOVE these biscuits. Anyone craving something sweet, crispy and delicate should find these lace thin ‘tortas de aceite’ an easily made treat. I have had similar biscuits from Spain but, although the flavour was amazing, they tended to be a bit drier and thicker, probably because they need to survive a ride in a delivery lorry. In Spain the sweet tortas are traditionally flavoured with anise seeds but as they are less available here in Scotland I’ve used complementary fennel seeds and ground seeds from star anise. This deficiency in my otherwise well-stocked, and frankly obscene, spice and herbs cupboard(s) is being rectified. As I write, I am hoping my online Steenberg purchase of anise seeds – along with dried rose petals and other oddments – is being packaged up for posting.
Most supermarket and bakery biscuits are a concoction of heavily refined flours, oils and sugars, things many of us are trying to avoid. Although by no means a diet option these tortas have a modest healthy streak, and contain almost no saturated fat. To wit, spelt flour gives 25% more protein than traditional wheat (more filling, good for controlling blood sugar, reduces cravings), and the healthy-in-moderation olive oil gives a wonderful crispness usually only achieved by using butter or butter and lard. These biscuits are so easy to make, and store so well, that you may find it just as easy to whip up a batch of these as to drive to the store when you need a hit of something sweet and, well, biscuity. The only trick is to roll the dough out as thinly as possible -shape doesn’t matter (well, at least not to me – I like the rustic/unskilled look). A walnut-sized ball of dough will give quite a large biscuit – tea plate sized – so you might want to go for a large marble-sized ball. I favour the big ‘uns. They taste brilliant with a cup of green tea or even lapsang souchong. A version of these are for sale in a well-known British supermarket that starts with a ‘W’ – 6 biscuits for £3.99!
Sugared Spelt and Olive Oil Biscuits – ‘Tortas de Aceite’
185g/1 & 1/2 c refined spelt flour OR all unbleached plain flour
4 tsps white sesame seeds
3 tbsp unrefined brown sugar (pinch out any lumps)
3/4 tsp whole fennel seeds – coarsely crushed
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
80 ml/4 and 1/2 tbsp best extra virgin olive oil
70 ml/ 4 tbsp ice cold water
To glaze: 1 small egg white, beaten till foamy + granulated or demerara sugar for sprinkling generously.
What You Do: Beat all the biscuit ingredients together until they come together in a shiny mass. Pinch walnut (or smaller) sized pieces and roll individually between cling film or baking paper (I prefer cling film so I can see what I’m doing) as thinly as possible.
Peel the top sheet from the biscuit and upend onto a lined baking sheet, carefully peeling away the bottom sheet once the topside is on the tray. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, promise. I usually get about five on each sheet so you will need to do a number of batches. Brush each uncooked biscuit with foamy egg white and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake in a 200C/400F oven for 6-8 minutes or until starting to get golden and crusty looking. You may need to turn your trays to get even browning. Allow the biscuits to cool for a minute before using a fish slice/spatula to transfer to a cooling rack. Continue with the rest of the dough. These keep well in an airtight container. Makes approximately 15, 15 cm/6 in tortas. ¡Buena suerta!