Sweet treat – raw and dairy free!

Last month, I disappear off with a friend for a few days to visit Auroville, an alternative community nestled in the countryside near to Pondicherry on the Tamil Nadu coast. Auroville is a fascinating experiment in human unity and focuses on sustainable living as well as the environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind. We spent a lovely few days relaxing under immense banyan trees, participating in yoga, pottery and a lot of chatting! The food was amazing, much of it organic and locally grown, and of course they had a wide choice which included dairy-free and vegan options, so I, and my stomach, were happy!

One evening, we found ourselves at a farm house within the settlement, in a group gathered around a big bonfire singing ‘mindful’ songs – it was a truly hippy experience! We arrived a little late, and the vegan spread provided must have been delicious, as the only thing left were a few small dark balls scattered on a plate, covered in white flecks. Someone said they were pudding; unconvinced, I tried one as I was so hungry and discovered much to my surprise and delight that they were little balls of sweet heaven! Looks were very deceiving! The host told me they were raw date and nut balls – that was it!  How can that taste of chocolate though?

I know that many people believe that we should be eating mostly or all of our food raw. There is a great film called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead about a guy juicing his way to health, which is really worth watching, if only for the people watching experience. Check out http://www.jointhereboot.com to find out more.

But I digress! So I do include lots of raw veggies in my diet, but I’m not a complete raw foodie, so hadn’t come across these raw date balls before.  Doing some research on the internet, I found a guideline recipe on Yummly.com, but then changed it a little to suit what we have available here in Bangalore. If you’re a committed calorie counter, then all these nuts and dried fruits might freak you out a little, but do note there is no added sugar. A handful of nuts is the same amount of fat as a teaspoon of refined oil, plus you get all the extra nutritious goodies such as vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and fibre, but that’s a whole posting in itself. My husband and son love these balls and they’re difficult to binge on; they are really filling!

Vegan choco-nutty-fruity balls
1 cup/120g of nuts, raw and unsalted – I used almonds, walnuts and cashews
1/2 cup/120g organic pitted dates, chopped
1/2 cup/ 120g dried cranberries or apricots
1/2 cup raisins
2 tbspns cocoa powder
1 tbspoon fresh orange juice
few drops almond essence
for coating:
1/2 tspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup/30g fresh or dessicated coconut
Place nuts, dates and rest of dried fruit in a food processor along with cocoa powder and almond essence. Blitz until everything is ground together – add orange juice a few drops at a time until the mixture binds together – you probably won’t need all of it. On a plate, combine the cinnamon and coconut. Roll small portions of the mix into balls, then roll them in the coconut mix until covered. Once all done, place in a container and refrigerate. Then enjoy over a relaxing cup of tea, after a workout or at any time you fancy a sweet nibble!


Dal or lentil – it’s a name thing

Before I came to India, I thought lentils were either red, puy and occasionally green, and that dal was a soupy kind of spicy dish. Then I went shopping in the local supermarket and discovered a whole array of “dal” with different names, some of those being the same product but hailing from a different part of India and called by the local name.

Just to make it even more confusing, whole lentils tend to be called “gram”, a generic name for pulses, so includes chickpeas and other dried peas I hadn’t come across before – cow pea and horse gram, both of which are really tasty (I have a great little easy cow pea dish I’ll share with you soon). Once the pulse is split, and it’s outer coating shed, the gram becomes a dal, or a lentil, in the right form for cooking dal. Confused? Me too!

I’ve worked out there are four main ‘dals’:
yellow dal: or yellow split peas as I knew them in the UK, or toor/tuvar dal in Hindi. This is split pigeon pea and used most commonly for your standard dal

mung dal which comes from the mung bean, a pale green lentil that has a real earthy look to it. Mung beans are a deep green when whole but paler and flecked with white when split

masoor dal, or red split lentils, the one I am most familiar with

urad dal, which comes from black gram, but is white when split. This is most common in South India and usually soaked and ground to make dosas and idlis, iconic breakfast items.

Whatever the name or colour, dals are really healthy, a tiny powerhouse of nutritious goodies, packed with protein, fibre, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and a whole array of B vitamins. Dal is made up of 20-30% protein, better than most meat products but without the saturated fat and cholesterol. It is not, however, a complete protein in the same way as meat. Pulses are low in the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) methionine and cysteine. So they should be eaten with another food which is high in these missing amino acids. Traditionally, dal is eaten with rice or some form of bread – chapati, roti etc. Whole rice and whole wheat are high in both methionine and cysteine, but low in lysine, another essential amino acid. Pulses just happen to be teaming with lysine and so dal and rice or chapati is the perfect dish!

Due to their high dietary fibre content, dal/lentils are very good for your bowels, but do have a reputation for creating rather a lot of wind – urad dal is the worst offender apparently, and mung the least and is often given to convalescents as it’s easy on the digestion.  I always buy organic dals which are really widely available here, and only a few rupees more than the non-organic version.

The key to a good tasty dal is the tempering – the seeds and spices that are fried separately and then added at the end. If you want a low fat dish, go easy on the oil otherwise it will become loaded with fat. Ghee is often used for the tempering, which gives it a distinctive flavour but is pretty high in fat. Theoretically, ghee is non-dairy, but I’m not convinced so avoid using it at home. I’ve tried various different recipes since I’ve been in India, some more successful than others (dal and the pressure cooker just don’t seem to work for me!). This is my favourite – big fat juicy tomatoes are the key to this dish!

Dal fry/Tarka Dal
1 cup of red split lentils, rinsed well and drained
1 finely chopped onion
2 x juicy tomatoes
1 -2 cloves minced garlic
1/4 tsp tumeric
(lemon juice)
For the tempering:
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1-2 dried red chilli or 1 fresh green chilli
2 inch piece ginger, julienned
pinch of hing (asafoetida)
handful curry leaves
fresh coriander for garnishing
First, heat a couple of tablespoons of water in a pan and fry the onion and salt for a few minutes then add the garlic and keep stirring until it’s lightly brown. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lentils and turmeric, heat through and add 3 cups (ish) of water – if you want a thicker dal, add less than 3. Cook on a low heat for 20-25 minutes until the lentils are soft and mushy. In a separate pan, heat the cumin and mustard seeds. Once they start to pop, add all the other ingredients except the coriander and cook for a few minutes. Tip the tempering into the cooked lentils, mix together and simmer for a couple of minutes, adding a squeeze of lemon juice to help make the proteins more available, garnish with the coriander and serve with cooked brown rice or some whole wheat chapatis.

Yummy dairy free chocolate brownies

There’s not many people who don’t love a chocolate brownie every now and then, but most of the ones you can buy in the shops have some sort of dairy content, either butter or milk. Most traditional recipes for homemade brownies have the same issue. Of course, if you have some 100% dairy free spread to hand, you can easily substitute this for butter, use a non dairy milk and voila! But when there’s no spread available, there’s a brownie gap in my cake tin!

The other challenge over in India is finding cocoa powder. There is a local brand, but it doesn’t taste very good and tends to be grainy. Cadbury’s cocoa is my favourite, and should be a staple in any dairy free cupboard! Unfortunately, it’s been a good 4 months since I’ve last seen it in the shops, so I was really excited the other day to find a tin and smiled all the way to the checkout, getting a few odd looks from the locals on the way!

This recipe uses oil rather than spread, and still produces delicious, gooey brownies although they can be a little greasy. I’ve tried different oils for baking – coconut oil is supposed to be excellent and does give a great texture but changes the flavour of the brownie. I bought some lovely delicious organic coconut oil recently, made a batch of brownies only to realise the oil had gone rancid really quickly (the downside of coconut oil) and they really tasted revolting. It was very sad to see the brownies in the bottom of the bin! So I now use organic canola oil, but rapeseed or any non-aromatic vegetable oil will do. The raisins enhance the texture, and increase the gooiness inside.

For those of you with egg allergies, try using an egg substitute, and reduce the cooking time as the brownies are drier.

Dairy free yummy chocolate brownie
2 medium eggs
1 cup caster sugar
5-6 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/3 cup oil
3/4 cup self raising flour
pinch salt
3 oz raisins
handful of chopped walnuts (optional)
Place the eggs and sugar in a bowl and mix together well. Add the cocoa powder and oil, and stir well. Add remaining ingredients – use a little non-dairy milk if it’s too dry.

Place in a greased square 8 inch baking tin and bake at 180oC for 20 minutes or so until firm on top but soft to the touch. Take out of the oven and leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares, remove carefully with spatula and enjoy!

Reversing diabetes seminar

Unfortunately no time today for a long posting – off on another Indian adventure with the family to Hampi.
Just wanted to post about an upcoming seminar in Bangalore on 24th November – Reversing Diabetes with Dr Nandita Shah, all about how this ‘incurable’ but ‘manageable’ disease can be halted and reversed through modifying dietary intake. I have met people who have managed to do this and their stories are incredible. So if you are in Bangalore and interested, or even sceptical, it’s worth going as one day could make all the difference to your life!
For more information see http://www.facebook.com/events/282676285185963

Coconut water

I wrote an article earlier this year about tender coconut water, the fluid found in the immature green coconuts sold by the roadside, for our local expat associations magazine. The virtues of coconut water are being discovered in the West and there is much discussion about its value as a post-workout drink, so I thought I’d write about it again here.

Coconut sellers are dotted all round the city, and next to any road in South India; vibrant green, occasionally mottled, nuts either piled up high forming a little stall, displayed on a hand cart or hanging off the side of  an old, rusty bicycle.  Normal tap water is not really potable, so these coconuts provide a safer option to assuage the thirst of the passing traveller – the fluid inside the green coconut is sterile as long as the nut is not damaged and there are reports that it has been used as an intravenous fluid in cases of severe dehydration when sterile normal saline is not available. Not one to try at home though!

Harvested from trees in clusters when they are between 5-7 months old, these immature nuts contain between 200mls-1 litre of sweet, unctuous water that is highly refreshing on a hot summers day and incredibly nutritious and healthy, and possibly the secret to youthful skin!! The water is contained within a gel like flesh on the inner lining of the nut and tastes very different to the milk taken from the coconut meat (see Cocoloco). This is the endosperm of the nut and contains simple sugars fructose and glucose. These sugars change and become more complex as the nut matures, as does the flavour. Once fully matured, 90% of the sugar content is sucrose which gives it a much sweeter flavour and higher calorie content.

Coconut water though is very low in calories – only 19 calories per 100ml – and contains excellent amounts of potassium and good amounts of calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins along with an impressive array of amino acids, cytokines and other antioxidants. This is what makes coconut water such a great medium for rehydration, specifically the potassium content which helps the body to revitalise at cellular level. And probably why the sports and health foods industry are beginning to promote this as a wonder product – with a wonder price! Seeing a bottle of coconut water on sale in the UK back in the summer, I was stunned to see it carrying a price tag of £2.50 – they cost Rs 15 here (equal to 17p).

Coconut water is a fantastic fluid replacement drink post diarrhoea, and much tastier than those revolting rehydration salts. My poor husband has been so sick the last few days with a nasty case of ‘Bangalore belly’ and has managed to recover drinking glass after glass of chilled coconut water. Lemon juice can be added to increase the flavour – I have a friend who added fanta, but not sure that’s such a good thing (you know who you are!!).
Along with hydration, tender coconut water aids digestion (in Ayurveda it promotes Agni, digestive fire), its antiseptic properties kill intestinal worms, helps clear urinary tract problems, increases mental concentration, helps cleanse the liver and reduce jaundice and, apparently, is an aphrodisiac! So even with a hefty price tag, you can’t really lose!

But that’s not all! Tender coconut water is reported to be wonderful for the skin (as are other coconut products). It can help prevent prickly heat and reduces and soothes rashes from chicken pox, measles, sunburn and just general random itching. It’s light, cooling properties soothes and calms. This is particularly useful in general skin care. If you have oily skin, tender coconut water can be used as a skin cleanser. For all skin types, it can also be dabbed on the delicate skin areas underneath the eyes – it soothes puffiness and hydrates the skin thereby reducing wrinkles. I must say, I’ve not tested this yet, but will soon and eagerly await good results!

So if you ever get the chance to stop at a roadside coconut seller, you can either drink it there and then (watch out how clean the straw is though!) or get the vendor to prepare the nut for easy opening at home, unless you happen to have your own machete in the kitchen drawer that is! Once opened, coconut water starts losing it’s beneficial properties and if left more than 48 hours could turn bitter and unpalatable. I don’t know how the coconut water that ends up on the shelves far away from their origins is prepared and stored, but it probably has lost a fair amount of goodies and maybe flavour. When I finally return to the UK at the end of the year, I’ll give it a go and see how it compares. Maybe it will bring back some amazing memories!

Humdinging hummus

Thank goodness for hummus! Not the usual thing to say, but for me it’s a lunch time saviour. Finding healthy, easy dairy free snacks can be a bit challenging at times, especially when all you want to eat is cheese, but hummus is just perfect. Back in the UK, it was easy to pick up a pot from the supermarket, but over here in India, it’s not available, so I had to learn how to make it myself. Finding tinned chickpeas is not so easy either and cooking them from scratch takes a long time. Then I discovered the joys of a pressure cooker!

There are many noises that I will always associate with India – horns, mopeds, random men shouting “hoy” and the ubiquitous pressure cooker. Early in the morning, and at odd times throughout the day, a symphony of pressure cooker whistles can be heard all around the compound I live in as various breakfast and lunch dishes are prepared. I soon realised that pressure cookers are used so much to save time – Indian cooking involves a lot of preparing from the basics. Boiling items not only takes time, but also energy, and when your gas supply comes from canisters which are rationed, you want to use as little as possible. Two hours of boiling beans until they are tender is out.

Soaking chickpeas overnight for pressure cooking the next morning has become a way of life. For hummus, not only is this so much cheaper, even for organic goods, but healthier as the tinned version soaks in fluid containing added sugar and salt. The carbohydrates in chickpeas are complex, and so take longer to digest by the body, releasing a smooth flow of energy that lasts some time. Added sugar is refined and is rapidly released, giving your body extra work to do and adding stress.  I use the cooking water in the hummus as it contains extra flavour and any vitamins and minerals that may have leeched out from the pulses during cooking, whereas the tinned version I throw it away and so that extra flavour.

If you’ve never used a pressure cooker before, it’s really easy but a bit scary!! Simply place your bean or pulse in the bottom of the pan, add water until their covered plus a little more. You don’t want too much excess fluid in the pan, but equally you need enough so it doesn’t burn dry. Attach the lid until it’s secure, and turn on the heat to a medium level. Once the pressure has built up, it it suddenly whistle and releases a load of steam – don’t stand too close when this happens. Apart from anything else, it’s really loud, but you could get burnt. I usually cook my chickpeas for 10 minutes after the first whistle, then turn off the heat and leave until it’s cooled down. It’s really important not to remove the lid until all the built up steam has dissipated otherwise you will get a nasty burn.

Once the chickpeas are ready, it’s time to whip up your hummus.  Packed with goodies, it combines the excellent protein source of chickpeas and the nutritional powerhouse of sesame seeds, the main ingredient of tahini. There’s so much to say about both of these and not room here but be sure to know that both will have their own feature on the blog soon!

The best thing about home made hummus is being able to customise it to how you like it. Shop bought versions can be quite high in fat and tend to contain preservatives and additives. The fat content can be controlled by using less olive oil and more cooking water, or home made tahini that has less added oil into it. The lemon not only added a beautiful sharp flavour but helps release the protein and B vitamins locked up in the pulse. There’s also variety, as mine seems to come out different every time I make it!! So have a play around – don’t be tied to measurements too much and experiment.

Homemade hummus
250 grams of dried chickpeas soaked over night or one tin, rinsed and drained
approx 1/4 cup cooking liquid or water
3-5 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons tahini
2 cloves of garlic crushed (or more if you like it strong)
salt to taste
2 tablespoons of olive oil – less or more depending on how much fat you want added
ground cumin to garnish
Put all the ingredients except the cumin and the liquid or water into a food processor. Add a little of the liquid and blitz until you get a smoothish paste. Add a little more liquid if the mix is too dry and blitz again. Stop and check, taste and add more of any of the ingredients (except chickpeas) to customise your flavour and texture. Once you’re happy, place in a serving dish and sprinkle ground cumin on the top. Enjoy with raw veggies, pita or in a wrap. Or just on the end of your finger if you can’t wait!

Up for a challenge?

Over the last few years I have been changing my diet to try to solve my dairy and yeast intolerance, but both have persisted. Mind you, the more I find out about milk and dairy products, the less I want it anyway, but that’s another post. Since August, I have been mainly eating a plant-based whole food diet in order to heal my gut, as I really want to be able to eat bread and drink wine again at some point in the future!

This has involved a change to the way I eat, but I have to say I feel great. Apart from clearer skin and less bloating, the chronic itching that I’ve suffered from for years has disappeared, which is amazing – and a relief!!! Certainly an unexpected bonus. I’ve managed a glass (actually it was 3!!) of wine one night with limited after effects but as yet haven’t been brave enough to try bread, even though I am longing for a thick chunky slice of a rustic seedy loaf. The last time I ate a roll, I had a migraine for three days afterwards, so it’s a risky business.

China Study

It’s not been too difficult changing to a plant based wholefood diet – it just needs some planning and the right frame of mind. It’s not what you’re missing out on, but what you’re gaining – a whole new way of eating that makes you feel great. The research is out there that people who eat this way have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cancer, asthma, stomach problems, skin problems, joint pains and psychological problems. I’ve just finished reading The China Study by Colin Campbell, an eminent scientist in the US; it’s packed full of research which shows that the western diet is responsible for so many chronic diseases which blight the lives of millions of people. It also shows how food can not only prevent these diseases from developing, but can also reverse the process and lead people back to good health – something nigh on unheard of when managed through orthodox treatments. I mean, once a diabetic, always, right?

Dr Neal Barnard, an American doctor has established a reversing diabetes programme. This same programme works for other chronic health problems, either to treat, or prevent. For those in India, there is a free 21 day kickstart programme starting on Monday 5th November. So if you’re up for the challenge and fancy seeing how your health can be changed purely eating a different way, check out this link and register – remember it’s free!!! http://www.21daykickstartindia.org. There are some cooking videos featuring Dr Nandita Shah. The cooking demo I wrote about recently was run by her and I was lucky enough to have dinner cooked by her a few weeks ago – it was delicious!!!
There is a non-Indian food programme you can follow too which would be easier if you’re living outside the country or prefer western style food – http://pcrm.org/kickstartHome/index.cfm.
Go on, give it a try – what have you got to lose?

Tomato power!

Natural food products are constantly under investigation by scientists – and often the large corporations that fund them – to find the next superfood, the key to health or a particular chemical that can be claimed to be discovered and then patented. One of the latest studies to hit the headlines is about tomatoes, or rather the lycopene found in them. Published in Neurology magazine this month (the abstract can be found at http://www.neurology.org/content/79/15/1540.abstract if you’re interested!), a group of scientists in Finland monitored over 1000 men for 12 years and found the risk of stroke was cut by 55% in those with the highest blood levels of lycopene.  That’s pretty impressive!
Lycopene has already been heralded as a hero with evidence that it can help prevent or slow the growth of certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. There are even tomatoes that have been bred to have double the amount of lycopene, and no doubt sold at a premium price! (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4896026.stm).

Lycopene is a carotenoid, a phytochemical that gives the red pigment to some fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon, red bell peppers and papaya, but sadly not strawberries or cherries! It’s a powerful antioxidant that soaks up free radicals roaming around the body. These great anti oxidant properties have been connected to improving conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and now stroke. Free radicals are also associated with the ageing process, so hopefully if they are mopped up by lycopene, youthful skin will follow (maybe!).

The percentage of lycopene in red fruit and vegetables increases as it ripens. In fact, the lycopene content of tomatoes has been shown to increase and become more bioavailable when processed. This includes tinned tomatoes and manufactured tomato products such as pasta sauce and ketchup. This is great for food companies, some of whom are sponsoring ongoing research into the beneficial effects of ketchup. Unfortunately, from a purely nutritional point of view, this causes some other problems; the tinning process increases the sodium content of tomatoes and most sauces and ketchups have lots of added sugar, salt and preservatives, so not so good for overall health. And of course the supplement industry has seen an opportunity and you can buy lycopene tablets, but are these really necessary?

Tomatoes as a whole food contain lots of other goodies including potassium and vitamin C which tend to be lost when processed and heated, along with B vitamins, beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and of course has fibre and no cholesterol, all good reasons to eat them in their natural form, a fantastic whole food in a healthy diet.

Personally, I love to roast tomatoes with onion, a little olive oil and some garlic, then when cooked blitz them all together and reheat either as a sauce or add some vegetable stock to make a delicious tomato soup. When we first came to India, it was quite hard to find tinned tomatoes or tomato sauces that were suitable for someone with food intolerance – milk turns up in the strangest of things! So I had to get used to using the real thing, and found this to be the best way – the roasting concentrates the flavour and the blitzing increases the bioavailability of the lycopene without adding lots of nasty extras.

Wonderful watermelon

Interestingly, watermelon contains more lycopene than tomatoes, but also a higher water content, so you would need to eat a larger amount. It’s not as easily available in the west as tomatoes though, although over here in India, it so easy to find – and cheap – and works great as a base for smoothies.
Of course, the real message in this latest research is that fruit and vegetables are good for us! Eating a full range of produce provides us with all the nutrients we need to stay healthy – as long as they are in their wholefood form. If we only ate red pigmented vegetables then not only would we miss out on all the other antioxidants and nutrients available, in the long run the pigment could become concentrated in our skin and as much as I love tomatoes, I don’t really want to look like one!

Interesting tomato fact (well I found it interesting!!)
Apparently, a whole tomato has no flavour; that only comes by biting, cutting or cooking it. Carefully extracted tomato liquid has no taste. Biting into the fruit releases an enzyme that breaks down larger molecules into smaller ones and gives it the flavour. This enzyme reacts differently when cut crossways, so they will have more flavour sliced.

Green gunge – but it’s good for you!!!

One of my dear friends recently lost loads of weight by following a juicing diet. I was sceptical at first –  how couldjust drinking juice be good for you. It may be full of vitamins and minerals, but what about the fibre and surely you get too hungry (I like my food fairly solid!) and end up bingeing? But she practically glowed with good health as she dropped 2 dress sizes, so there must be something to it.

Health, whether good or bad, comes from the food we put in to our bodies. Juicing provides extra shots of vital goodies to help our bodies deal with the constant stresses and toxins we are exposed to, both external and internal, although I believe in the long run it’s best to eat the whole food rather than just the juicy parts. But if you want to know more about juicing, including some great recipes and tips on when to drink them, check out this article on the Health Ambition website –https://www.healthambition.com/juicing-recipes-for-weight-loss/.

Our bodies know what we need if we learn to listen to it. Since living in India, I have craved green leaves which must mean I’m low in B vitamins, iron or calcium (not sure which) and have even been known to stir fry cauliflower leaves that are usually discarded just because green leaves are hard to come by. On my recent trip to Kashmir, I came across hak which is grown locally in Srinigar. It’s similar to kale and I couldn’t get enough of it and begged the hotel to serve it to me at every meal, it was so gorgeous. It was sautéed in water along with mustard oil, Kashmiri red chilli, salt and a little local masala, or seasoning. Occasionally a little spicy, it’s deep rich green flavours were just divine!

After attending a healthy eating cooking seminar a few months ago, I discovered green smoothies. Made up of 60% fruit and 40% green leaves, they really are quite delicious and leave you feeling revitalised and full of energy – that’s after you’ve managed to get your head around the fact that the green gunge in the glass is actually something you want to ingest! Spinach is pretty easy to come by here; the little organic grocers stocks some beautifully green bunches, leaves not too big. It tastes pretty strong, much more so than the lovely baby leaves you can by in the supermarkets in the UK, so it’s green hard core from the off. Called palak, it’s not traditionally eaten raw here – my maid was horrified to find out I ate uncooked leaves, and surprised to find out I lived to tell the tale!

Green smoothies can be made with any green leaf as it’s base – spinach, celery or beetroot tops even mint. The key is to vary your intake and not have them every day – raw green leaves contain oxalic acid. Consuming large amounts of oxalic acid can be toxic (you would need a lot of greens every day for this to happen). It binds to metals, such as iron, making it unavailable for absorption in to the body. This therefore means that spinach isn’t a great source of iron in the diet, despite what Popeye might say. However, vitamin C enhances iron absorption, so matching spinach with lemon for example counteracts the negative effects of oxalic acid. And green leaves are an amazing source of vitamin B, calcium and magnesium to name a few.

I’ve featured my favourite green smoothie combination, but you can make up whatever you like. Grind the green leaves in the blender first before adding the other ingredients as the cellulose in the cell walls takes some time to break down.

Spinach, watermelon and banana smoothie
Handful of spinach leaves, thoroughly washed
Big chunk of watermelon
2 small ripe bananas or 1 medium
juice of sweet lime
flaxseed powder (if you want an omega 3 shot).
Place the spinach in the blender and blast on full power until the leaves are broken and mushy. Add in the fruit and juice and blast again until everything is incorporated and fluid – this may take up to 2 minutes depending on the speed of your blender. Sprinkle in flaxseed powder if you are using it and whizz again for a moment. Poor into a glass, close your eyes and deceive your brain as you knock it back. I managed to get my son to try it despite his dubious face – he actually admitted it tasted good but preferred his fresh pineapple juice as it looked more normal!

Vegetable coconut stew

Living in South India is a food adventure; there are so many types of dishes, snacks, fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen or heard about before. In particular, there’s a whole array of breakfast dishes that I love and eat any time of the day, which may be frowned upon by my Indian friends, but I still struggle with the concept of curry for breakfast! It’s very different to coco pops or toast.

One of my favourites is a vegetable stew, a fantastic vegan dish, which hails from Kerala, so of course it contains my number one ingredient – coconut. It’s not spicy but has a wonderful subtle flavour that still warms the tummy and tempts the tongue. It’s also unusual to have such a white stew with the colours of the vegetable just coming through. I think it looks lovely although I have a friend who it just upsets – he thinks it looks all wrong!! Traditionally it’s served with appams, a type of pancake made from rice and coconut. Preparing the appam mixture is a long process that involves lots of soaking, grinding and fermenting – even the ready made mixture requires 10 hours of soaking so I’ve only ever eaten them in a restaurant, not made them at home. It’s a shame they’re so complicated though, as they are really delicious to taste. Cooked in a small pan, it’s shaped like a bowl which then holds the stew.

Instead of appams, I serve the stew with rice, which still tastes great but has a different texture/taste combination.  I used to cook white rice, just because it seemed quicker and there’s always more choice on the supermarket shelves. Brown rice has a bad image; historically only eaten by the poor and more recently by bowel obsessed hippies. But the thing is, the poor and hippies were definitely getting the better deal. Nutritionally, white rice has the same carbohydrate and calorie content, but that’s as far as the similarities go. Brown rice retains the bran and germ layers – these contain the minerals and vitamins which would be used by the starchy endosperm beneath if left to grow. White rice has both these layers removed and is then polished, which removes the bran oil. This is good at reducing LDL fats. Plus these layers contain most of the nutritious goodies such as vitamin B1, B3,B6,  iron, selenium and magnesium. White rice stores better than brown, but that really is it’s main advantage other than cooking quickly. Eating it actually uses up the body’s stores of vitamins and minerals rather than replenishing them.

I now buy organic brown basmati rice and soak it before I want to cook it. It takes a little more planning but cooking is then fairly easy.You need a minimum of 30 minutes soaking. This can leach out the nutritious goodies though, so the best thing to do is quickly rinse the rice under a running tap, then place in a bowl and add the water – one cup of rice, 2 cups of water. Once you’re ready to cook, pour the rice and water altogether into the saucepan, put on the lid and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. Most of the nutrients in the water will then be absorbed back in to the rice as it cooks. With the lid on, the water goes in to the rice rather than be evaporated and once it’s all absorbed, it should be ready to eat – slightly firm and nutty.

Vegetable coconut stew recipe – serves 4 (or 3 if there’s 2 hungry boys nearby!)1 tsp oil
2 – 4 green cardamom pods, depending on how much you like the flavour
cinnamon stick
1 sliced onion
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
Green chillies, sliced – this will determine your heat (see below)
2 potatoes
1 –  2 carrots
big handful green beans
peas or sweetcorn (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves
approx 200 mls coconut milk
ground pepper – white if you have it
To be super duper healthy, scrub the potato and carrot and boil them until nearly cooked. Steam the green beans. Retain the cooking water from both. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
Heat the oil and fry the cardamom pods and cinnamon until the aromas are released then add the onion, ginger and chilli and cook until softened. Add in the cooked vegetables and fry for a few more minutes so they absorb the flavours in the pan (you can put in raw veg at this point and fry, then cook, but I find the coconut milk splits and spoils, hence why I cook them first). Add peas and/or sweetcorn if you’re using them and pour in some of the retained vegetable water, curry leaves and stir in most of the coconut milk so you have a fairly fluid stew. Leave to simmer for 5 minutes or so, but watch it so the milk doesn’t split. Add in the pepper, a pinch of salt and finish with the last of the coconut milk so it’s lovely and white.

Interesting facts about green chillis:
I like a mild chilli flavour, but am not at all a fan of a strong, burn-the-lining-of-your-mouth sensation that you can get with some. The problem is you never know quite how strong a chilli is going to be. Obviously there are different types of chillis, and ones like the birds eye chilli is known to be a head blower. So it’s really down to taste and pot luck how much chilli you put in a dish. For this one, I used two as my son was eating and does not like a spicy flavour – just sliced down the middle and the seeds removed, leaving 4 halves to permeate their flavour through the stew.
Chillis are actually remarkably good for you, being high in beta carotene, vitamins B, C (six times more than an orange) and E as well as iron and potassium.  The active chemical, capsaicin, that gives chillis their heat has many health benefits including dissolving blood clots, treating wrinkles and facial twitching and can burn calories by increasing your metabolism. It also releases endorphins that can relieve pain and put you in a good mood – it’s an active ingredient of some arthritis treatments and creams.
So next time your mouth is on fire, your nose running and steam is coming out of your ears, remember it’s good for you and enjoy!!!