Thursday, 22 May 2014

So what's the go with "superfoods"?

I keep hearing about the terms "superfoods" and whether we should be eating more of them. Just like many other people, I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me that I wasn't eating boatloads of kale, acai, chia, goji berries and whatnot at every meal. Apples, spinach, nuts, fish? Suddenly my diet all sounded a bit pedestrian and... well... common. And besides, how could I get "healthy" by shopping at the supermarket and the farmers' market, shouldn't I be buying things at the health food shop?

So I've been doing some reading and you know, there's a lot of hype out there but not much evidence. "Superfoods" are not just foods any more, but have morphed into a marketing tool for companies to use to convince us to buy one product over another.  This is not unlike the "superdiets" promoted by diet gurus and celebrities (you can read my previous rant post about the "one true diet" here). Lets take Goji berries for example -Australian consumer group Choice tested a range of "superfood" juices and found that you would need to drink about 300ml of Goji juice in order to obtain the same antioxidant benefit of eating one medium-sized Red Delicious apple. Goji juice is around $50 a bottle, apples around $5 a kilogram. Get the picture?

So what does "superfood" mean? Well, nothing. It's not a scientific term. It makes us think of foods that are full of nutrients, that are proven to have significant health benefits, that will make a big difference to your life if you eat them but interestingly most foods touted as "super" have none of those benefits proven. But there are foods that do exactly those things!  So what, in my humble opinion, are the real superfoods?  Well most fresh, unprocessed foods have great health properties and some of them especially so. The evidence is really strong for:

  • Fruits (especially berries and apples)
  • Vegetables (especially the dark green leafy kind)
  • Nuts and seeds 
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains (especially oats )
  • Olive oil
  • Fish
  • Green tea
  • Red wine (in safe amounts)
  • Dark chocolate (I hear you cheer!)

And you know what? You don't have to go to a specialist health food store, order online, mortgage your first born child or listen to a celebrity chef or supermodel infomercial to buy any of them. Oh and they don't need "activating" either ;)

It's pretty simple, really. To quote the wise and succinct Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants"

Lyndal @ Lean Green and Healthy

To learn more:

  1. Here's a great article on this issue by Australian chef Matt Preston - Real Life Superfoods
  2. And for a much more eloquent and amusing version of what I just said, sit back and enjoy 9 minutes of "The Checkout" a brilliant Australian consumer watchdog program - satirical and cutting investigative journalism. You're welcome!

Recipe - green pea and ham soup (and veggie option!)

Its a cool autumn evening and I was working from home so decided to put a pot of soup on to cook slowly over the course of the afternoon.  I made one of my favourites- pea and ham!  Split peas are low GI- with a glycemic index of 25 they are an excellent choice if you are diabetic or watching your weight as they give you slow sustained energy. According to the Glycemic Index Foundation "Like other legumes, dried peas are a nutritional storehouse because they are slowly digested, a little goes a long way"

So let's use them to make some soup! You can make this recipe rapidly in about 45 minutes, however the soup turns out much better if you take it low and slow and give it around 3-4 hours. Alternatively put it in a slow cooker for 6-8 hours while you're at work. Traditionally pea and ham soups use a whole ham bone or bacon hock. While this gives the soup a very rich flavour, it also makes them quite fatty and salty. Instead, I have chosen to basically make a vegetable and pea soup, and to add diced smoked ham towards the end. For a vegan or vegetarian option, or if you don't like pork, just leave it out for a lovely rich split pea soup.

You will need:
2 cups dried split green peas
3 large carrots
1 large onion
1/2 bunch (about 4 stalks) celery
2 tsp minced garlic or 2 cloves fresh garlic
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (salt reduced)
250g ham (I used smoked ham hock meat in a pack from the supermarket (got it at ALDI), but you could use any sliced ham or diced lean bacon if you prefer. Alternatively, buy a whole bacon or ham hock. All preserved meat like this can be salty, so don't use too much, make sure your stock is salt reduced and I doubt you will need any salt for seasoning)
2 tsp dried or fresh rosemary
black pepper
herbs for garnish

To prepare your peas, first check the pack for any instructions. Generally they need a quick wash.  Place your peas in a sieve or colander and check for any stray grains or discoloured peas and discard. Wash the peas with running water until the water runs clear- should only take 3 or 4 rinses. If gluten is an issue for you, you may want to be pretty careful with this step in case of stray grains in processing.  Set the peas to one side.

Dice your onion, carrots and celery finely and add them to a large, heavy based pot. I use a cast iron pot as it holds the heat well and spreads it evenly, but any large pot will do fine. 

To your pot of vegetables, add the garlic and a drizzle of olive oil, the rosemary and a little black pepper and cook for about 5-10 minutes until the onion is translucent.

Next add the peas, 4 cups of stock and 2 cups of water.
If you are using a whole hock, remove the rind and underlying fat and put it in the pot. 
Keep the pot on medium heat until the liquid starts to simmer.
Turn the heat down as low as you can (I move mine onto the smallest gas ring) and put the lid on.

Leave the soup to cook slowly like this for the next two hours, stirring every half an hour or so to check it is not sticking on the bottom. The liquid level was just right for me, but if your stove is hotter you may need to top up the water.

After around 2 hours your soup should be cloudy with partially disintegrated peas and very soft vegetables.  At this point if you are using a whole hock, take it out of pot now. Either use your stick blender or put the soup into a blender / food processor and whizz until it reaches the desired consistency. 

I made mine reasonably smooth, but not completely - I still like a few bits of peas and carrots for texture.

Put your soup back on the low heat on the stove. 

If you like pea and ham soup, dice around 250g of ham and add to the soup at this point. Or, if using the bacon hock, remove the meat from the bone, dice it and return to the pot.  If you are making the veggie option, leave out this step. Either way your soup needs about another 30-45 mins or so on low heat and it is done and ready to serve. 

Serve hot with some fresh herbs and black pepper for garnish. This pot serves 6-8 people and is filling, tasty, nutritious and cheap ! 

To make this in a slow cooker, do the first step on the stove (cooking onions, celery carrots and garlic for a few minutes) then put it in the slow cooker and continue the rest, just double your cooking time.   Bon appetit!

Lyndal @ Lean Green and Healthy 

Recipe - eggplant parmigiana

This is a delicious recipe that I love to make, it tastes light and fresh and filling and is actually quite easy.  Great if you are trying to cut down your meat consumption, and you can always add a little bacon if you wish for added flavour, but it is positively great without.

You will need:
1 large eggplant (aubergine)
a bunch of fresh basil
6 whole fresh tomatoes
a jar of good quality pasta sauce or if you wish to make your own, more tomatoes & tomato paste
a tub of ricotta cheese
Shaved parmesan cheese
1-2 rashers of bacon (optional)
some dried herbs to taste
a big fresh green salad to serve

You will need to start by preparing your ingredients. Cut the stalk off your eggplant and then slice it lengthways in about 1cm thick slices. Slice three of your tomatoes into slices and dice the other three finely. Pull the basil leaves off the stalks but don't chop them, set the whole lot aside for later.

Next step is to start grilling the eggplant. You can do this in several ways. Firstly, you can pop it under a hot griller, secondly in a flat frypan. But the third option that I think works
best is if you have one of those griddle pans with the ridges. You will need to work in batches. I brush the eggplant slices with a little olive oil, pop them on a hot grill pan, turn them as they brown and set them aside on a plate with a piece of kitchen paper as I work through my slices.

While this is happening, I usually start making my sauce. You have some choices here. If you wish to, you can make the sauce yourself using fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, onions, garlic etc and cook it down to the consistency required. This will take a little longer. Alternatively, if you have a good
quality pasta sauce you are happy with, you can use that here. Always remember to read your labels to check sugar and salt content and any added nasties. I usually take the middle ground - I start with a large bottle of pasta sauce, add the three diced fresh tomatoes, some dried or fresh herbs (oregano, parsley, thyme), a slop of red wine and cook it while the eggplant was grilling. This gives you a fresher flavour, but doesn't take so long. 

If you are planning on using bacon in your parmigiana, trim off the rind and fat, cut into thin strips and pop it on your hot grill pan when the eggplant has finished cooking. 

Now its time for assembly. Preheat your oven to around 200 degrees C now so it will be ready.

Depending on how deep a pot you have you can either make this a low flat stack in a baking dish or pile it high in a smaller casserole type pot. I find the smaller deeper pot works fine and the flavours mix better, but it can look a little messy if you're not careful when serving it up (if that worries you!)

Start by adding a spoonful of sauce to the bottom of your dish, add a layer of eggplant, a layer of sliced fresh tomato, a handful of whole basil leaves and top by adding a few tablespoons of ricotta cheese. If you are using bacon, add your strips of bacon in these layers somewhere.

If you are using a baking dish you may only get one layer, in a deep casserole pot I get two, so I repeat this process - more sauce, then eggplant, tomatoes, basil and ricotta. Top the whole lot with the remaining sauce to cover any ingredients. Top your whole pot with a handful of shaved parmesan cheese, you can also add a little mozzarella if you like it stringy. Avoid the high fat cheeses like cheddar or tasty cheese as they will make everything very oily. I sprinkle with a little paprika for colour before it goes into the hot oven.

As all your ingredients are cooked, it should only take 15 minutes or so in the oven for everything to soften and the cheese to melt. When the topping is golden, remove from the oven and serve immediately with a big fresh green salad, a small glass of red wine and perhaps a little crusty grain bread. Bon appetit!

Lyndal @ Lean Green and Healthy