Kale, how did I miss you?

Kale with Pasta Chilli and GarlicThere are some ingredients that I genuinely get excited about cooking and eating. When I considered the packet of kale I had bought earlier on Friday and pondered how I might prepare it I was clear that this was not one of them.

My introduction to kale as a child was not a good one. In fact, you could liken it to a head-on collision as an appetiser to the thrills of car travel. It was not at home (my Mum bears no blame whatsoever) and to this day I’m not quite sure what had taken place between the point it left the greengrocers and when it arrived on my plate. What I can be sure of is that I did not enjoy the result.

You may well be asking why on earth did I go and buy some now? I was asking myself much the same question right up to the point we sat down to eat. But, what I tasted was nothing like my memories of childhood. The bitter taste was replaced by something quite sweet, the khaki hue replaced with vibrant green. How on earth had I spent the last 25 years missing one of the very best vegetables I’ve ever tasted?

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that kale and I have some catching up to do, and the combining it with pasta and some spice is a really quick and easy way to do it. This recipe for kale with pasta, garlic and chilli is incredibly versatile and can be adjusted to taste and whatever you have to hand. We used penne, but I reckon it would work just as well with tagliatelle or even gnocchi. Adding the kale to the pasta water for the last couple of minutes of cooking saves on washing up, but we will probably steam it above, or in a separate pan next time we cook the dish as it preserves the nutrients better.

Ingredients (serves 4)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion finely sliced
300g dried penne pasta
200g kale, shredded and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp chilli flakes
Parmesan cheese and black pepper to serve

Method
1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onion on a low heat until it’s soft and translucent. Then add the garlic and chilli flakes and cook for a while longer so the onion starts to caramelise.
2. Meanwhile cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Either add the kale for the last couple of minutes (we liked it with some bite but you could give it longer) or steam it for 3-4 mins.
3. When the pasta and kale have finished cooking, take the pan with the onions off the heat then stir in the pasta and kale to spread the flavours evenly. Season to taste if it needs it.
4. Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese (or an equivalent) and black pepper to serve.

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Eat your greens!

kale

Yesterday morning brought a long overdue visit to the doctors. For ages I’ve not felt like I’ve been firing on all cylinders, so following some strong encouragement from my better half (or as the kids put it “Dad, you just got told!”) I made an appointment.

I’d really felt like this before doing meat from my diet, and in many ways I’ve actually felt more healthy. Nonetheless I’m also well aware of the need to ensure that protein, minerals and vitamins normally gained through eating meat are found elsewhere.

The Doctor was completely unphased about my choice to go vegetarian, but quizzed me about what I was actually eating. Amongst my pride at mastering a wide range of dishes knew I was vulnerable and it wasn’t long before the question was posed ‘and what about greens?’.

There was no escape.

I knew full well, but had avoided the fact that greens (i.e. spring greens, kale, spinach and broccoli) are very high in vitamin A and crucially Iron so are really essential components of a vegetarian diet.

My creativity in the kitchen has its limits. How to take the dark leaves of spring greens and particularly kale and make them edible, let alone enjoyable, I thought was simply beyond me. Kale was the biggest mountain to climb, since my only memory of it was as a bitter mound that had been boiled to oblivion.

I tried to dodge the question, responding weakly ‘I eat plenty of beans and lentils (which have some iron)’. The doctor was unmoved. ‘No, greens!’.

I was defeated, and knew I had to do something about it as the return visit to collect my blood test results would require a progress report. So I decided to face my fear, and went to buy a pack of kale.

Poor diets and killer sausages

It’s nsausagesot been a good year for meat, or meat eaters. Hot on the heels of the horse meat crisis, newly published research has suggested a link between the regular consumption of processed meat, including bacon and sausages, and a greater risk of premature mortality through heart disease or cancer.

To some this is old news, or perhaps confirms what they had already feared. The Weston A. Price foundation has long spoken out against the dangers of processed food in general, and the latest research makes for some uncomfortable reading. This is also not some half baked study, it is a major piece of global research involving a statistical population of over 400,000 participants over a number of years.

There is already plenty of comment on the findings, what the key risks are and whether a grilled sausage with a high meat content is ‘safe’, so I’m going to leave that to the dieticians and health professionals as I’m only going to repeat what others are saying. However, the fact that is not so widely reported, and bothers me greatly, is the impact on the poor, and particularly their children.

As we saw in the recent discovery of horse meat in cheap burgers and ready meals it was food products targeted at those on lower incomes that carried the greatest risk. This is also (although not exclusively) the sector that is dominated by processed red meat products. Sausages, burgers, frankfurters, meatballs, ham, luncheon meat etc. are also  staples of the diets of families with children.

As a parent I am well aware of the challenge of picking family meals that are healthy and that children will want to eat. My wife and I have been eating a mostly vegetarian diet for the past few months, but my son is a hardened carnivore and beans and lentils don’t have wide appeal. On a restricted budget sausages and meatballs make a little money go a long way, and are universally liked, so we have something of a problem if there is a genuine risk to their health through regular consumption.

The problem is further compounded for those forced to use food banks. Many food banks cannot accept fresh food or perishables since demand is unpredictable and this restricts donations to canned, bottled and dried goods. Buying food for a local food bank I’ve noticed that many of the canned meals involve things like hot dogs, ham, sausages and meatballs etc. and so these are often the kind of things that are given (for all the right reasons) and then distributed.

So where does this leave us?

We could choose to ignore it: After all, there have been many, often contradictory,  food ‘scares’ in recent years and you could reasonably arrive at a diet of ‘cake and biscuits’ if you take note of everything as a friend of mine put it. But there is growing evidence that processed food is not great for us, and certainly not as nature intended. According to American nutricianist, Sally Fallon, “heart disease was quite rare before 1920—so rare that the electrocardiograph (which performs the test now commonly known as an electrocardiogram [ECG]), developed to diagnose coronary heart disease, was considered a waste of time and quickly rejected. Apparently, no one suffered from clogged arteries at that time.”  (quote from Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing Inc ISBN: 978-0967089737).

We could cut out meat completely: This goes further than the recommendations of the research, but for some it has been an understandable response to the scandals of recent weeks. Supermarkets are reporting an upsurge in the sale of vegetarian ready-meals and alternatives like Quorn® as people have lost confidence in meat products. Dropping meat is difficult for families like ours with children who’ve grown up on the stuff and are not keen on vegetables as a side-portion. However, as we’ve started to cook more vegetarian food, some of our children have taken an interest – one actually prefers it. So just because veg doesn’t feature so much in our family diets right now, we shouldn’t rule it out and we could be surprised.

Reduce our intake of processed red meats: Switching to non-processed and/or white meats (chicken and turkey) or reducing the proportion of meat in a dish is the response proposed by the report and it can be achievable, but depending on your reliance on or enjoyment of sausages and the like it will come at a cost. For some, it’s going to be a simple case of paying more for cuts of meat, provided of course your family can live with the change. For others, whose budgets are already cut to the bone, the choice is far more difficult.

With some good ideas and confidence in the kitchen, preparing tasty and nutricious meat-based alternatives on a budget is possible, but even then they are unlikely to be as cheap as your budget banger. I’m blessed with parents who taught me the basics of cooking when I was a child, for which I’m grateful. In these days of microwaves, ready meals and frantic lives, the closest many come to home cooking is what they see on TV. When you’re under pressure day after day to balance likes, dislikes, food allergies and a diminishing budget then the collateral damage is creativity. Ironically it’s that creativity, together with confidence and good ideas that can help to make the difference. The ability to make use of some simple, nutricious and cheap ingredients should be absolutely within anybody’s grasp, but unfortunately these days that’s far from the case.

I’m really concerned that, yet again in our society, the biggest losers here will be the poor. This issue may not have the immediate impact of cuts in benefits, but if a change in diet can lead to longer and healthier lives for a a very large section of our society then it has to be taken seriously.

What next?

I started this blog just before the horse meat scandal broke, and I was stunned how timely it was. I’m now more convinced than ever that some inspiration, and a little time spent in the kitchen can feed a family healthily on the tightest of budgets. The crunch point is confidence, and for some this will need the encouragement of others and a commitment to teach the simple culinary skills that they somehow missed out on.

How can we help to bridge that gap? Is there someone we can come alongside as individuals or a community group and help them and their families towards a healthier life?

 

pic copyright (c) Artizone, Dallas. Used under terms of a Creative Commons License

Courgette stuffed with camargue rice

stuffed courgetteLast night’s dinner was something of an experiment that turned out surprisingly well. I was using a new ingredient, Camargue rice, which I’ve never tried before but had caught my eye in a wholefood shop earlier in the day. Camargue rice is a reddish coloured grain with a firm, nutty texture similar to wild rice. I liked the idea of the texture and also the interest the colour would bring (I’m not normally that poncy about the look of a dish) so I thought I would give it a try.

Most recipes I can find that use Camargue rice are for rice salads, where I guess it’s robust texture and flavour holds well when served cold. But we had a couple of large courgettes that I wanted to use, and fancied stuffing them with something a little different.

We had some leeks in the fridge to use, and food writer Nigel Slater suggests that courgette and Parmesan cheese (or in our case Grana Padan0) go together well. So we had our main ingredients – all that was needed was to figure out how to put them together.

Hollowing out raw courgettes in order to stuff them takes some care and some patience. I use a round-ended sharp knife so that I’m less likely to puncture the skin if I go too far. Start by cutting the courgette in half lengthways. Then run the knife round the edge of the inside of each half. Don’t cut too close to the skin as you’ll run the risk of going through it (although it’s not the end of the world if you do) and too thinner shell will lose all shape. Holding the knife at a diagonal towards the base of the courgette will enable you to get as close to the bottom as possible. Continuing to work on the ‘inside’ of the courgette, make several cuts across the surface at a diagonal to the edge, then turn and make another set of cuts to make a set of small diamond shapes in the exposed flesh. Now you should be able to scoop the seeds and flesh out with a spoon taking care not to split it. Continue to use a knife if you need to. You should end up with a hollowed out ‘boat’ shape and some roughly broken up courgette flesh that can be combined with the other stuffing ingredients.

Ingredients
100ml Camargue rice
200ml cold vegetable stock (if using a cube, just use half. Don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve straight way, it will as the rice cooks)
2 large courgettes
1½ tbsp olive oil
1 leek
1 clove of garlic
1/2 tsp mace
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp finely grated Parmesan cheese (or Grana Padano, as we used)
salt & pepper to taste

Method
1. Rinse the rice thoroughly then tip into a smallish pan with the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for around 30-35 minutes, or until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice and it’s ‘al dente’ (has a slight ‘bite’ to it). Stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the base of the pan, and add a little more water if it needs it before being cooked.
2. Preheat the oven to 190c (Gas mark 5).
3. Halve and hollow out the courgettes, chopping the flesh finely then setting aside.
4. Place the courgettes into a foil-lined oven-proof dish face-down. Drizzle with 1 tbsp of the olive oil then bake for around 15 minutes or until the courgette skins have softened. I find that using a dish where the skins snugly fit the width helps them to hold their shape.
5. Top and tail then slice the leek finely and rinse well to remove any grit that may be lurking between the layers.
6. Pour the remaining olive oil into a large frying pan and bring to a medium heat. Add the courgette flesh, chopped leek, crushed garlic and mace to the pan and cook gently for around 10-15 minutes. The goal is to cook off the water in the courgette flesh and leek so it’s soft but not browned.
7. Drain any remaining fluid from the rice and stir it into the pan with the courgette flesh and leek then remove from the heat.Stir in the grated Parmesan and season with salt and pepper to taste. The amount of cheese is approximate – so you can adjust it to taste.
8. When the courgette skins are done turn them over hollow-side up, keeping them on the foil, and divide the courgette, leek, rice and cheese mix evenly between them. Don’t worry if there’s a bit too much and it spills over, this isn’t Masterchef!
9. Sprinkle with some more grated cheese then put the stuffed courgette skins back into the oven for another 15 minutes until the edge of the skins are beginning to colour. We prefer ours to have a bit of ‘crunch’ – bake for longer if you want a softer result.

Very lazy evening – jazzing up a supermarket margherita

You’ve probably guessed that if you’re looking for gourmet cuisine you’re unlikely to find it here. This was the product of a late night in the office and the poor choice of  vegetarian options. I just didn’t  want to cook and couldn’t afford a take-away, but still wanted to be a bit creative.

supermarket pizzaSo I bought a couple of margherita pizzas and a jar of cheap green pesto (yes, I could of made it but I really couldn’t be bothered). I had some cherry tomatoes and a red onion so I halved thee tomatoes and chopped then onion finely. To ‘assemble’ the dish I spooned a few dollops of pesto over the pizza then scattered the onion and tomato across the top. I then lightly drizzled some extra virgin olive oil onto it and bunged it in a preheated oven using the time and temperature from the packet.

The result was that the basic cheese and tomato pizza was a whole load more interesting and packed with flavour – definitely worth the few pennies more it cost and the extra five minutes or so it took to prepare.

 

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