Finger on the Pulse

After the crash weight-loss madness of January, it’s probably time to look at more sustainable ways to lose weight.  To help us lose weight, and keep us feeling fuller longer, a good intake of protein is essential.  However, a diet rich in animal protein can increase saturated fat intake to unhealthy levels, and cause the body to become too acidic (symptoms of an overly-acidic body include depression, fatigue, anxiety).  Pulses are a great provider of vegetable protein, and have an alkalising effect, helping to restore the pH balance of the body.
Pulses are the edible seeds of any legumes (such as beans, peas or lentils), and were among the first foods to be cultivated.  They are low in fat, low calorie, contain no cholesterol, and are high in protein and fibre.  They are cheap, and can be easily stored for prolonged periods of time.  Available in dried form requiring overnight soaking prior to cooking, in canned form or ready cooked (Ready to Eat Puy Lentils from Merchant Gourmet) for immediate use, they are the most versatile of products.
Increasing intake of pulses can help promote bowel regularity, build strong bones, protect the heart, lower cholesterol and help to regulate blood sugar levels.
Pulses include:-
  • chickpeas
  • kidney beans
  • butter beans
  • borlotti beans
  • aduki beans
  • cannellini beans
  • blackeyed beans
  • haricot beans
  • broad beans
  • black beans
  • mung beans
  • flageolet
  • marrowfat peas
  • pinto beans
  • split peas
  • lentils

Delicious and versatile in vegetarian dishes, pulses can also be used alongside meat to create a more satisfying meal.  One of my favourite weekday suppers is based on a Jamie Oliver recipe for a simple, oven-baked chicken dish cooked with sweet roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil and tinned cannellini beans.  It is a simple, one pot dish that takes minutes to prepare, and then bubbles away gently in the oven while you get on with all your other pre-dinner jobs.


Chicken with Cannellini Beans and Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 180C/350F.  Serves 4.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil (or coconut oil)
  • 4 chicken legs or 8 thighs
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 1 ripe red chilli
  • 250g cherry or vine tomatoes
  • 2 tins of cannellini beans
  • bunch of fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Season chicken with salt and pepper and put in casserole dish
  2. Pick basil, chopping stems finely.  Add to dish.
  3. Add tomatoes.
  4. Rinse cannellini beans well, and add to dish.
  5. Rinse and chop chilli finely, add to dish.
  6. Break garlic bulb into cloves (unpeeled) and add to dish.
  7. Place in oven and cook for 1 ½ hours, turning halfway through, until the skin is crisp and the meat falling off the bone.
  8. Serve with broccoli, or another dark green leafy vegetable.  Squash the soft, cooked garlic out of its skin and eat alongside.


A great vegetarian dish, perfect for Meat Free Monday, is a sort of lentil chilli.  I tore this recipe out of a Sunday paper a couple of years ago, and it is attributed to Alice Hart.    The good fat from the avocado and the pumpkin seeds and the fibre in the lentils make it really filling, and the addition of the chipotle paste, with the smokey paprika and cumin seeds,  gives it an amazing aromatic and fiery bite.  It is lovely warm, however, I often make extra to eat cold for lunch the following day (sadly this usually just means we eat more that night!).


Puy Lentils with Roasted Tomatoes and Chipotle Cream

Preheat oven to 160C/325F

  • 600g small vine tomatoes, halved
  • 3 large red onions, halved and thickly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 packet of ready cooked puy lentils (Merchant Gourmet)
  • 2 ripe avocadoes
  • large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
  • 50g pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • heaped tsp chipotle chilli paste
  • 4 tbsp creme fraiche
  1. Line baking tray with non-stick baking sheet
  2. Place tomatoes, cut-side up, on one end of baking tray
  3. Add chopped onions to other end, tossed with cumin seeds and half of the olive oil
  4. Roast for an hour and half or so, until onions are soft and tomatoes shrivelled.  Turn occasionally.
  5. Whisk together remaining oil with honey, paprika and lime juice.  Season.
  6. Add ready-cooked lentils to salad bowl and dress.
  7. Roughly spoon out avocado flesh into bite sized pieces and add to bowl.
  8. Add roasted tomatoes and onions, and toss gently.
  9. Top with chopped coriander and pumpkin seeds.
  10. Marble the chilli paste through the creme fraiche


Breaking Bread

Last weekend I was really looking forward to celebrating the end of austere January and welcoming in February with a bacon sandwich.  Not just any old sandwich, it had to have the best bacon (I love unsmoked streaky;  Duchy Originals and Denhay are both good, but try your local butcher’s own bacon if you can), and the bread had to be just right, especially since I really don’t eat bread that often.  The main reason for this is that I try to largely follow a Paleolithic diet, or whole food diet.  For those of you who haven’t heard of this popular food movement, the premise is that we should all aim to return to a more primitive, less complicated diet, containing ingredients that we recognise, and choosing the sort of foods our ancestors ate.  Hence, a Paleo diet is is high in protein, good fats and (non-starchy) carbohydrates.


Bread is forbidden in the Paleo diet (well, bread as we know it – there are many Paleo recipes for wheat-free Ezekiel, or sprouting breads but these are not made with wheat flour, and do not resemble bread as such), as are all white, processed foods such as pasta and rice, as well as potatoes, as these were not part of the diet of our hunter-gatherer forebears.

Paleo followers believe (and there is much evidence to support this) that food processing has led to the obesity epidemic in the West.  Starchy carbohydrates like bread have a high glycaemic index (GI)  which means they release their intrinsic sugar quickly, causing blood sugar levels to spike.  This in turn creates a rapid rise in the hormone insulin which is produced to escort sugar out of the bloodstream to where it is needed for energy (the liver and muscles) or for storage as fat if taken in excess.  Eating large quantities of high GI foods can lead to an increased production of insulin, blood sugar balancing issues (think mood swings, food cravings, headaches, etc.), central weight gain and ultimately insulin malfunction (Insulin Resistance or Pre-Diabetes and Diabetes).

Paleo Diet aside, the other reason I tend to avoid bread is that I find British bread on the whole pretty unpalatable.  Supermarket loaves for example – the texture is all wrong – there is no substance or structure to the bread.  When I go to France and eat a baguette, I do not have any of the uncomfortable symptoms that I suffer with British supermarket bread such as bloating or abdominal discomfort.  In France, bread is bought daily from the local boulangerie where it is made by artisinal bread makers who take pride in their industry.  The bread has a satisfying texture and goes stale the following day.  It is not pumped full of unrecognisable ingredients designed to increase yield and extend shelf life.

Here in the UK, most of us buy our bread from the the supermarket, and of these supermarket breads, most are in fact produced in the same factories in the same way.   Most contain twelve or more ingredients, often including sugar or caramel.  In fact, only 3 ingredients are actually needed to produce a delicious bread; flour, yeast and water.  The problem with these breads is the production; instead of allowing dough to prove and rest so that it properly ferments, a process called the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), established in the 1960s to increase yield, is used.  This process avoids lengthy fermentation and instead pumps air and water into the dough.  As a consequence twice the amount of yeast is required.  Chemicals are required to allow the gas to enter the mix and fat is added to give structure to the bread.  If you are interested in reading more about this topic, Felicity Lawrence’s fascinating book Not On the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate is really worth a read.

It can be a bit of a minefield deciding which is the best bread to buy, so I have included a list of the various qualities of different bread types to help you make your choice.

  • Granary/Multiseed/Brown.  Wholegrains are high in fibre and consequently slow to digest and release their energy.  Multiseed bread is often made with a variety of flour such as wheat and rye, with the seeds baked into the loaf.  The seeds are a good source of Omega-6, and give the bread a nutty flavour.
  • Spelt.  Spelt is an ancient type of wheat that has a lower gluten content than regular wheat, so may be more easily tolerated by people with wheat intolerance.  It is also higher in protein than regular wheat.  It is low in phytates (compounds than can inhibit the absorption of minerals), so if tolerable, it can be a better option than bread made with regular wheat.
  • Linseed.  This bread is usually made from wheat flour with added linseeds.  Linseeds contain lignans, oestrogenic compounds, that are high in Omega-3.  This bread should be eaten untoasted as heating will destroy the benefits of the oils.
  • Black/rye.  Rye does not rise like wheat when baked, so creates a denser, more fibrous bread.  It also contains less gluten, so is a great choice for wheat intolerant people.  The high fibre content means a longer sensation of satiety.
  • Gluten-free.  These are made from flours naturally free from gluten (a protein which is found in wheat, barley and rye) such as millet, corn, amaranth or oats.  These breads are often higher in fibre too.  The only bread option for sufferers of Coeliac’s Disease.
  • Wholemeal.  Wholemeal bread is made from wholemeal flour – ground wholegrain containing fibre and minerals.  The percentage of wholemeal flour will vary from loaf to loaf, and the higher the percentage, the greater the feeling of satiety.  Aim for 100% wholemeal to maximise energy levels.  Choose stone-ground if possible for high fibre content.

Best avoided:

  • White bread in general is a less healthy option, as it is produced from milled flour (wheatbran and wheatgerm removed).  It is consequently low in fibre and vitamins and minerals.  It can also produce an insulin spike due to its quick-release carbohydrates.  White flour is naturally yellow in colour, so is bleached before baking.
  • Bagels.  These are fat-free, however, due to the processed flour provide a short term energy boost.
  • Pitta Bread.  Like white bread, pitta bread has little nutritional value.  Wholewheat pitta is a better option.

Personally, I generally choose one of two breads to feed my family, and all my children prefer them toasted.  They love a good baguette for sandwiches, but I find it quite hard to buy a decent one unless I go to a specialist bread shop or to the Farmer’s Market. To find your own local producer of decent bread, try the Real Bread Campaign; you can put in your postcode and find your nearest supplier of proper bread.   I can, however, buy Crosta Mollica‘s Pane Pugliese Italian toasting bread in my local supermarket, and we all love it.  The children have it once or twice a week for breakfast with marmite or peanut butter, and it was my bread of choice for my celebratory end of January bacon sandwich.  The bread is a beautiful golden colour, has a lovely chewy crust and a great texture when toasted.  Better still, it has only four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt; and has a very short shelf life.

The other bread I love, unfortunately also not British, is Poilâne.  It doesn’t have quite the yielding texture of the Pane Pugliese, but is chewy with a hard crust, and  is delicious toasted and untoasted, and makes a great sandwich.  Like the Italian bread, it is only has four ingredients (the same ones) and maybe due to its longer fermentation, it has no adverse effect on my digestion.

2013-02-03 11.34.01

For my perfect sandwich, toast two slices of your choice of bread, spread liberally with good quality salted British butter, preferably organic (try Yeo Valley).  Top with three or four rashers of crisp, grilled bacon.  Add Brown Sauce (for me, it has to be HP Sauce.), if it’s a breakfast sandwich.

If it’s a Sunday night supper, I will top with sliced avocado, or, if I am feeling virtuous, or simply can’t get hold of my favourite bread (the pesky kids have eaten it all, usually!), then I will make a Nom Nom Paleo Bacon & Guacamole Sammies (or bacon and avocado sandwich, in English).  That is simply bacon grilled until crisp, used as the bread around a filling of mashed avocado.  Delicious, Paleo heaven.

Bacon & Guacamole Sammies Don’t these bacon and guacamole sammies look good? Fitbomb noshed on them while I slept…  The ingredients: 4 strips of thick-cut pastured bacon Guacamole It’s ridiculously easy to cook bacon in the microwave oven. (Clean-up is simple, too.) Just wrap a few slices between some sheets of paper towel, stick it all on a microwave-safe plate, and nuke away. I set my microwave at 70% power and zapped the bacon for about two-and-a-half minutes. If you find that your bacon’s not yet crisp, just nuke it a bit longer.    The filling for these “sandwiches”? Chunky homemade guacamole.  If you’re pressed for time, simply mash up the flesh of half an avocado, and cut up the other half into half-inch cubes. Then mix both halves together in a bowl to get a nice blend of chunky ‘n creamy. Flavor it with a squirt or two of lime juice and a generous pinch of Kosher salt. Done and done!

New Year, New You?

Warming Mushroom and Chicken Broth

I don’t know about you, but January for me is a time for new beginnings. After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, I like to take time out to reflect on the previous year and consider my goals for the coming one. After a Christmas in the French Alps consuming vast amounts of French breads and pastries, as well as the cheesy Savoyard specialities, like Tartiflette, washed down with copious amounts of local red wine, I enjoy a more ascetic approach to food in January.

Like many people, my husband and I give up alcohol during January. The first week is always difficult, but after that, we start to enjoy the new sensation of alertness and increased energy. Along with our alcoholic abstinence, we usually to do some sort of detox , or dietary regime, to cleanse our systems and help shed the Christmas pounds we gained over the holidays.   January is a dark and miserable month, so what can you choose to perk up your meals yet still keep them healthy?  Generally I am a great believer in eating seasonal and local, but I feel that the dreariness of January can occasionally be lightened by the addition of exotic ingredients.  The fiery heat of the chilli, for example, can compensate well for a lack of fat in a dish, and in addition triggers the release of endorphins in the body which help boost your mood too.  Fresh ginger root is also perfect for this time of year.  It has been used therapeutically for centuries for nausea, and helps aid digestion, as well as imparting a unique spicy, warming flavour to food.

During the week we often make broths as they make such an easy and quick post-work supper. If you have the time (or inclination), you can make your own chicken or vegetable stock using a carcass left over from Sunday lunch perhaps, but if not, Marigold bouillon or Kallo mushroom stock make a great alternative.  We are currently having two weeks oil-free  (more about this in a later post), so the broth is made without oil, but naturally this dish would taste nicer, and be cooked a little diffently with the addition of some fat.

Mushrooms make a great food choice at this time of year.  Rich in Beta-Glucans (for more information see What Are The Benefits Of Beta Glucans? | LIVESTRONG.COM), a type of carbohydrate that help to enhance the immune system, mushroom have an umami or savoury taste that is very satisfying.  Good fresh choices include Shitake or Chestnut, and to intensify the flavour, we add dried mushrooms to this broth as well.  Supermarket own brands are perfect; we use Waitrose’s Cooks Ingredients Dried Mushrooms.  This broth doesn’t really need the addition of meat – the mushroom flavour itself is intense and satisfying, almost meaty – so feel free to leave out the chicken if you like.

One of my most exciting discoveries of the year (thanks to the lovely Miguel of Naturopatica) is Glucomannan Noodles.  I used Zero Noodles, which I buy from Holland and Barrett, and they taste pretty bland, but the texture is just right, and they pick up the flavour of the ingredients they are cooked with.  They are made from Glucomannan flour, which is produced from the root of the Konjac, a starchy Japanese plant.  These noodles are gluten free, fat free, sugar free and salt free.  They are very low in calories and more importantly, high in fibre, so help the digestive processes of the body.  I tend to use them with Asian flavoured foods as they are so similar in texture to Asian noodles, and they make the perfect final addition to this broth.

Recipe (serves 2):

  • 2 small, skinless chicken breasts, sliced diagonally
  • 150g Chestnut or Shitake mushrooms
  • handful of dried mushrooms
  • Marigold bouillon or Kallo mushrooms stock cubes (to make up 1 litre)
  • thumb-sized piece of ginger root (grated)
  • lemongrass (bruised)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (grated)
  • 1 dried chilli
  • 4 or 5 spears of asparagus (or broccoli)
  • 1 carrot, sliced finely diagonally
  • 2 or 3 spring onions, trimmed
  • glucomannan noodles (Miracle Noodle or Zero Noodles), prepared according to the instructions
  • black sesame seeds, torn coriander and lime wedges to serve
  • Sriracha chilli sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 180C
  2. Soak dried mushrooms in freshly-boiled water for about 20 minutes as per instructions.
  3. Roast mushrooms (Shitake or Chestnut are good)  on baking tray at 180º until shrivelled (approx 15 minutes).
  4. Make around one litre of stock and bring to the boil adding a ginger, garlic, lemongrass and chilli.
  5. Split asparagus (or broccoli) in half and slice carrots into fine shards and reserve.
  6. Slice skinless chicken breasts diagonally.
  7. Add soaked Chinese mushrooms to stock.
  8. Add chicken to stock.
  9. After 2 minutes add carrots, asparagus, spring onions, roasted mushrooms and kelp noodles
  10. Stir and cook for further 3 minutes
  11. Test chicken to see if cooked through.
  12. Ladle into bowls and garnish with black sesame seeds, torn coriander and wedges of lime.
  13. If you like a good chilli kick, add a few shakes of Sriracha .