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Free-form lunchtime delights

19 Aug

A friend commented on the food I’d produced for a sunny summer lunch a couple of weeks ago, that her mother would never have eaten the salad, as it contained raw peas and weeds. My friends, however, were more daring, and ate the lot with gusto.

salad, wildflowers, Carpathian Mountains, free food, foraging, nutrition

Weedy salad, full of vitamins, minerals and Carpathian sunshine

Salads are free-form food. Brought up in boring British kitchens of the 1960s and 1970s, where ‘salad’ was limp lettuce, soggy tomato slices, bits of cucumber and (in liberal circles) some grated carrot, I gradually realised that a salad could incorporate almost anything edible, from leaves to nuts, fish to fruit, spices, herbs and flowers. I went through a knickerbocker-glory phase of salad making, with layer upon layer of exciting ingredients in a huge bowl, delighting in the planning of it. But these concoctions took forever to produce, so these days I’ve scaled back a bit.

However, I now live amongst organic wildflower meadows, 1,000 metres up in the mountains, and my lawn is full of free and delicious greenery which gives me more nutrition than any shop-bought veg (including curly kale). What many call ‘weeds’, I call lunch. These are plants common to British gardens, so frustrated gardeners fed up of the unwanted leafy squatters in the veg patch: embrace them. Eat them. Ribwort and broad-leaved plantain, Fat Hen, wild carrot, Good King Henry, dandelion, chicory, caraway, chickweed, purslane, ox-eye daisy, smooth sow thistle, nettles, and the bane of gardeners, ground elder: all add texture and flavour to mild lettuce leaves or wilted spinach. Raw or steamed for 30 seconds, these are tasty, healthy and free-of-charge additions to your menu.

Back to salads. We know now that the more colourful the food we eat, the greater the health gains. Fruit, salads and veg come in the full spectrum of hues, and every colour brings different benefits. Raw is almost always healthier than cooked, so salads are the optimum eats.

So be bold. Experiment with different combinations. These bowls contain little heaps of: red cabbage (vivid purple when grated), tomatoes, crushed peanuts, peas (raw) from my garden, toasted sesame seeds, wild leaves (see list above), and spring onions. Topped with a wild carrot flower, and dressed with olive oil and a choice of lime juice or balsamic vinegar, they are filling, satisfying, pretty and delicious. Cheap, too, and easy – nothing clever required. Have a go.

Stirring things up with spice, girls

14 Mar
Vegan, vegetable, spicy, spices, colour, flavour, cheap easy delicious

A colourful plate of goodness

Another colourful plateful, inspired by my veggie guests Katie and Suzie. Tonight it was a spicy stir fry that was really flavoursome and satisfying, full of scrumptious spices and textures, crunchy greens and melting noodles, nuts and seeds for protein and plenty of fibre.

Health in a plate, but more delicious than such a virtuous dish deserves to be. This recipe should serve six.

What

1 pack of wok noodles

2 medium aubergines (eggplants)

1 large red (bell) pepper

1 head of broccoli

1 large onion

4 cloves of garlic

1 large carrot

1 thick slice of green cabbage, finely chopped

2 tbsps sesame seeds

2 tbsps flaked almonds

1 small bowl of red-skin peanuts, soaked for an hour

big pinch of mixed herbs

soy sauce

dollop of your favourite Asian spices (Thai 7 spice, mild curry powder and a good shake of cayenne for me)

How

Chop the aubergine and roast in oil for 30 mins on high heat.

Chop all veg except the broccoli and cabbage, and sizzle in wok over low heat with spices, herbs and seasoning, and the nuts and seeds.

When veg is soft, glossy and aromatic, turn the roasted aubergine into the wok and let it absorb the spices. Add the broccoli and cabbage and sizzle of high heat, adding the noodles (prepared as per packet instructions) for the last five minutes.

Serve and eat immediately.

 

 

Mushrooms to kill for

12 Mar

Wow. Some dishes are just knock-out. Our supper tonight was one of those. Knock-out delicious, and knock-out for any passing vampires – the garlic content must be driving every vampire out of Romania, and every flu bug out of existence. Vegetarians, say huzzah – this is a dish worthy of a celebration.

Mushrooms, cauliflower, garlic, vampires, healthy food, veggie gourmet, vegan option, breadcrumbs, super supper, Transylania food

Mushroom crumble with a cheese lattice, served with cauliflower in white sauce

I had a box of field mushrooms (half a kilo @ 12 lei per kilo) demanding to be eaten, and a fat bulb of garlic sitting by a tub of sour cream. What was I to do? Could I neglect a whining mushroom any longer? Was the garlic to be denied? Not to mention a bag of crumbs made this morning from a belly of crusty brown bread and four lebanese flatbreads whose hey-day was past.

I wasn’t sure what would result, although I was confident of the ingredients – just wondered how it would all emerge from the burning fiery furnace of my oven.

By the way, I’ve swallowed half a litre of  organic pear cider (we used to call it perry), hence the purple prose. I shan’t apologise, but shall get on with the recipe.

This serves between 4 and 6 people, depending on their level of hunger. I served the mushrooms with barely-boiled cauliflower in a white sauce made with the stalks of the mushrooms.

What

500g large (field or Portobello) mushrooms

4 or 5 big cloves of garlic

1 heaped teaspoon of sour cream per mushroom

lots of breadcrumbs

fresh black pepper, mixed herbs, salt

50-100g grated cheese, for topping

How

Pull the stalks out of the mushrooms. Give the mushrooms a wipe and put them gills up in an oiled gratin dish, and wedge the stalks in amongst them. Two or three mushrooms per person is more than enough (depending on the size of fungi and appetites).

Crush or chop the garlic and put a bit in each mushroom; add the herbs and seasoning, then the dollop of sour cream.

Scatter the breadcrumbs liberally over the mushrooms till they’re well covered, then grate the cheese over the top.

Hurl it into a medium-hot oven for 30-40 minutes until the cheese melts into a lattice and the breadcrumbs are dark gold.

Serve with caufliflower in white sauce. (I chopped the four remaining mushroom stalks into the white sauce.)

This is a seriously good supper dish, and if presented with more care than I bothered with this evening, it would make a stunning meal for the most exacting of veggie gourmets. With the cauli, it is a triumph.

Vegans – substitute hummus or nut butter for the sour cream.

Cheap – yes. Easy – certainly. Delicious – unutterably.

 

 

Ratatouille and barley

11 Mar
ratatouille, sour cream, vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean recipe, colourful food, barley

Suzie’s first taste of ratatouille

An extravagant dish for winter, when all the ingredients come in from Turkey, but there are days wen you just can’t resist the lure of summer, still four months away. In summer, all these delicious Mediterranean veg are very cheap here in Romania.

What:

2 large aubergines (eggplants)

3 courgettes (zucchini)

1 enormous red (bell) pepper (or several small ones)

1 large onion

4 big cloves of garlic

4 tbps tomato paste

basil leaves

cayenne pepper, salt & black pepper

big pinch of mixed dried herbs (or handful of fresh ones)

How:

Chop the aubergines, turn them in oil and mixed herbs and roast on high heat for half an hour.

Chop onion, garlic and red pepper and sizzle gently in oil (separate pan) until soft and smelling delicious. Mix in the tomato paste (I’d use fresh tomatoes in summer) and a bit of water to make a sauce.

Chop the courgette into inch-square chunks and add to the tomato pan, with some basil leaves. Mix everything together and turn the heat down to the minimum (or turn it off) until the aubergine is done (browned or slightly charred, soft and aromatic).

Tip the aubergines into the main pan, mix, season to taste, and simmer slowly for another 20 minutes.

Serve with boiled barley (preferably whole grain, not pearl barley), or brown rice.

Vegan at this point, but a dollop of soured cream on top will render it veggie.

(Carnivores can eat this with a bit of grilled pork or chicken, or lamb cutlets.)

Spicy greens stir-fry

8 Mar
brassicas, broccoli, cabbage, spicy, spices, sesame, vegan, vegetarian, cheap easy delicious, vegetables

Intriguing, zingy, fresh, crunchy and full of character

Here’s a zingy vegan recipe that – if you’re dubious about brassicas – will transform your feelings about cabbage and broccoli. If you’re already a fan, this is another way with the greens.

Lots of people hate the idea of broccoli and cabbage, probably because as children they were fed them cooked to the point of disintegration.

Such a shame – not only are they incredibly good for you, full of nutrients and health-promoting goodies, but when properly cooked are delicious, fresh, crunchy, lively veg; and in this form, all the supper you can eat.

For four people (or three greedy ones) as a supper dish. As ever, this is how I did it, but you can improvise as you please:

What:

Two good broccoli stems (heads 6-8cm across)

Quarter of a cabbage (I used winter green cabbage, but choose your favourite leafy green)

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

2 tbsps of fresh ginger, finely chopped

2 tbsps sesame seeds

2 tbsps flaked almonds

1 tsp cayenne pepper or chilli flakes

1 tsp of Thai 7-spice powder

A good pinch of mixed herbs

Salt to taste

How:

Chuck everything except the green veg into a wok or a big saucepan, with a slug of oil (by preference, toasted sesame oil, but whatever you like to cook with).

Stir it thoroughly and let it all sizzle gently until the sesame and almonds are starting to colour, and the spicy aroma is getting heady (about 10 mins).

While that’s doing, chopped the broccoli into bite-sized bits, and the cabbage into fine slivers. Dump them into the wok and stir everything together for two minutes to coat the veg in spices, then turn up the heat and fry, turning and stirring continuously to avoid burning. It’ll take about 10 minutes to cook the veg till they’re bright green and al dente – still with a bit of crunch and character.

Serve with rice or noodles and eat immediately, while good and hot.

You can turn it into a meaty treat just by adding some chicken, pork or fine-cut beef, but I think it’s utterly scrummptious as it is.

California shrimping

31 Jan
shrimp, California, lime, garlic, chilli, cheap easy delicious, cheapeasydelicious

fresh, succulent Pacific shrimp

Six weeks in San Diego, Malibu and Los Angeles, and I’ve made a mission of shrimp.

Living up in the mountains of Central Europe, shrimp is hard to come by, except as ice-coated lumps with next to no flavour. So almost as soon as I landed at Lindberg Field, there was a beeline made to the nearest cantina.  Rocky’s, at Oceanside harbour, delivered a plate of shrimps in a lime, chilli and garlic sauce that – as a combination of four of my favourite flavors – was simple, perfect heaven.

I had shrimp with avocado, shrimp tacos, Chinese chilli shrimp and all manner of pink crustacean delights. But nothing came close to that first, exquisite, succulent mouthful of spicy, zingy, fresh, aromatic shrimp at Rocky’s. Thanks, guys.

Tocana – a Transylvanian autumn treat

20 Oct
Gogosar is the Romanian word for rounded peppers, compared to the long, pointed ones known as ardei

Gogosar, the sweet capsicum you find in their natural shape and colours in Transylvanian markets

This is a fabulous foodie treat that hasn’t yet escaped its home cuisine in Transylvania (Romania). Tocana is a relish of the last summer vegetables, for sale in the market for buttons in October as the autumn takes hold and winter beckons. [Zacusca is a close relative, made by roasting the vegetables rather than cooking in oil like a confit.]

Housewives buy 20 kilo sacks of peppers and aubergines to cook and put in jars for a reminder of summer in the depths of a harsh winter, with smaller sacks of onions and carrots grown in the smallholdings of rural Transylvania.

Sweet with a hint of smoky bitterness, full of flavour and colour, the autumn peppers (ardei and gogosar) from the south of Romania and imported from Turkey are a far cry from the pretty but tasteless peppers you find in British supermarkets, grown in Dutch polytunnels without benefit of mineral-rich soils and southern summers. These aren’t perfectly shaped, uniformly coloured things, but organic vine fruit folded and twisted and coloured by the sun, grown without the synthetic encouragement of agrotechnology; the difference in taste is so marked that they might be different species altogether.

Tocana, the Transylvanian foodie secret that is one of the treats of the year

Tocana, organic, simple, naturally colourful and bursting with late summer flavour

So – tocana. A simple recipe, but cleaning and chopping takes time, so it’s best done as a family, or with a group of friends; if you’re on your own put some music on and surrender yourself to an annual ritual of aroma and maturing textures. Then you have the delicious reward of warm tocana for supper, and the looking forward to helping yourself to a jar of tocana from time to time through the long, frozen winter.

This is a dish of such rich summery colour and flavour that I’m amazed it hasn’t been swiped by savvy chefs in Britain, or exported by canny Transylvanians. An opportunity for you to make a coup, and worth every minute of preparation.

Ingredients

5kg red peppers

1kg carrots

1kg onions

800g tin of tomato paste

1 litre oil (sunflower or another mild-flavoured oil)

seasoning to taste

NB You’ll need a big pan for this amount, and several large jamjars. If you live in a northern climate, peppers might be prohibitively expensive in these quantities, but the 5:1:1:1 ratio of ingredients is easy to scale down for an occasional dish.

How to do it

Clean and deseed the peppers, skin the onions and peel the carrots. Chop the veg to a fine dice in a food processor (stop short of a paste) and put in a large pan (a jam pan is ideal) with the tomato paste, oil, salt, black pepper and/or cayenne, and if you like, a little sweet paprika. (Better to add a little seasoning and add a little more if needed, rather than overdoing it all at once.)

Cook over a high heat until the mixture is bubbling. The veg release plenty of water, so once boiling, turn the heat down and leave to cook (stirring often to stop burning) for a good couple of hours, until the water has evaporated, and the mixture is a thick, rich, glossy red conserve. Adjust the seasoning if you need to, then let it cool to blood temperature.

While still warm, put into sterilised jars and seal thoroughly. It should last for weeks, if not several months, in a dark place. Eat with a spoon straight from the jar, or if you want to be a bit more civilised, serve with toast or oatcakes. You can use it as a sauce for pasta, or as a relish with cold meat or cheese.