Green goodies and a couscous salad for tea

There’s a lovely little organic grocery store close to home. Buying fresh organic produce is quite a challenge here in Bangalore, partly because demand hasn’t been particularly high and I think because a lot of the farms have been replaced by concrete as the city rapidly expands at the edges. The weather also plays a massive role in the quality and quantity of goods available; the summer months were too hot and the produce suffered greatly.

Delivery day is Friday afternoon and I have finally sussed the time to go; yesterday the baskets were stacked high with glorious green leaves, herbs, fresh brightly blushing tomatoes, massive fresh carrots and even bunches of perky celery. So often, celery, if available at all, lies on the shelf sad and stringy, wilted from lack of water and impossible to eat. I packed my basket high with fresh goodies, and returned home, mouth watering and mind overflowing with ideas for tea.

Out of all the food items that are difficult to come by here, the one thing I crave more than anything else  (including chocolate!) is greens. It must be my body telling me it needs more B vitamins! So last night, the green veg won and I knocked up a incredibly easy couscous salad heaped with greens and herbs.

On the scale of healthy wholefoods, couscous doesn’t rate too well. Actually a form of semolina derived from wheat, it’s steamed and then dried, forming little granules. No good for those who are gluten-free. It only takes 5 minutes to prepare, so it must be pretty well processed; this removes much of the beneficial vitamins and minerals available in the wheat germ, but it is still a good source of selenium (43mcg) and potassium and pretty low in fat, so not bad really. Quinoa or brown rice would be healthier options.

So what went in to the salad? First, I prepared the couscous according to the packet instructions – added boiling water, a pinch of salt, covered the bowl and left it alone for 5 minutes. Once cooled, it needed fluffing up with a fork then combined with lightly steamed broccoli and green beans, mint, coriander, beetroot leaves, cucumber and spring onions for the greens. For a little sweetness, I added some dried apricots and finished it off with some sliced almonds for an extra crunch and a dash of extra virgin olive oil. Seriously yummy! Oh, by the way, beetroot leaves are one of the best sources of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A and so excellent for eye health.

Dried fruit can be a problem for some people with a food allergy or intolerance, due to the sulphites added as a preservative – it’s not used in organic products which is why they tend to be a darker brown/orange colour, and not so appealing. Dried apricots tend to have the highest levels of sulphites and can give rise to asthma or other respiratory problems.

The apricots and almonds I used come from Kashmir; I bought them from a market stall on a trip to Srinigar back in June and they are incredible. The fruit in Kashmir is amazing – deeply flavour apricots, peaches, cherries; tree fruits you just can’t buy down in Southern India. The intensity and sweetness just burst onto the tongue and I was like a little kid in a sweet shop so excited to find these natural goodies. The dried apricots are equally intense in flavour and sweetness, and are dried naturally out in the sun, no additive required. Eating them in the salad brought back great memories of an amazing trip, so feeding my soul as well as my body!

Cocoloco – cucumber salad with coconut and peanuts

I love coconut. My love affair with that wonderful deep, sweet flavour started with my first Bounty bar and has continued ever since. In the days when I consumed milk, I would always chose coconut ice cream or frappe, or anything coconut flavoured, unless strawberry was on offer. Living in South India is ideal for me as coconuts are everywhere! It’s a key ingredient in local dishes, and of course it’s dairy free.

Coconut, and coconut trees, have so many different uses. According to The Coconut Research Centre, about one third of the world’s population rely on coconut to some extent for food or income. The insides of coconuts are used in cooking, for health and skincare, but the shell, leaves and wood from the tree all have different uses too. The compound I live in has a whole area dotted with trees which provide lovely shady areas and a batch of highly sought after nuts. Some even grow in peoples garden, which can actually be quite hazardous as if the nuts fall before they can be harvested, they will damage your roof and certainly your head if one lands on you. There are many internet claims that falling coconuts kill 10 times more people a year than sharks (150) but I don’t think there are any solid statistics.

According to legend, coconuts, or coco nucifera, were given their name by 15th century explorers. The brown fibrous outer shell with three indentations were said to remind them of a monkey’s face (coco). Nucifera means “milk bearing”.  The mature nut is protected by a dense fibrous husk, 2-3 cms thick, which can be quite challenging to open up. There are machines which will open your nut and remove the meat inside, but I prefer to use the unusual kitchen tools of hammer and screwdriver or smash them outside onto the paving – great stress remover!

In India, coconut is consumed at two different stages of maturity – tender coconuts, young green nuts that are sold by street vendors for the water inside, and the mature, brown husk covered nut that are more familiar in Western countries, often found on the coconut shy at a summer fete. It’s the meat from the mature nut that is used to make coconut milk – the milk doesn’t come from the fluid inside but the flesh, or meat, which is scraped out, ground and then strained to extract the white fluid. Due to its fat content, when put in the fridge, the milk separates with a thinner milk lying underneath and a top layer of cream. 

If you can’t get your hands on a tin of coconut milk, or prefer to make your own fresh, it’s really easy. All you need break open a coconut and remove the flesh with a sharp knife – a thin brown layer of husk will come out too but that’s ok. Grind some of the meat – fill the grinder about half full. When all finely chopped up, add half a cup of warm water and grind again until the coconut is all mixed up with the water. Pass this through a fine sieve or muslin cloth (or fine weave tea towel) and squeeze out as much milk as you can. Put the fibre back into the grinder and add a bit more water and repeat the process, just to get as much milk out as possible. Once fully squeezed, discard the fibre – you could use it for a facial scrub I guess (not tried that out tho’).

Coconut meat, and therefore the milk, does have quite a high fat content (27g per 100g), but it’s a mixture of saturated, mono-unsaturated and omega 6 fatty acids. There is no cholesterol though, as this is only found in animal fats. Fat in coconut is in the form of medium chain fatty acids; these are easier to break down and can actually help reduce cholesterol levels. Lauric acid is the main fatty acid in the chain, a fantastic immune booster and an anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent.
Coconut meat is also great for the digestion as it’s high in fibre and can help reduce constipation, flatulence and stomach ulcers and can help stabilise blood sugar levels. It’s also a natural source of iodine and therefore can help support thyroid function as well as protect the body against cancer, osteoporosis and pancreatic disorders.

You can buy dried coconut milk powder but beware if you have a milk allergy as most of the brands I have seen also contain dried dairy milk. The freeze drying process would also knock out most of the nutritional benefits as well, so I would avoid those if at all possible. Wholefood and raw food diets advocate using fresh ground coconut as a fat or oil replacement as you can all the benefits, including the fibre, without needing to add extra oil. Try this South East Asian style salad and see what you think, although not if you have a peanut allergy!

Cucumber salad with peanuts and coconut (serves 4 big portions)
1 -2 cucumbers, depending where you live – one long English style or 2 shorter Indian style
3-4 tablespoons fresh grated coconut
3-4 tablespoons roasted peanuts (unsalted) crushed
juice 1/2 lime
salt to taste
finely chopped green chillis – depending on how hot you like it
dash of jaggery, or raw brown sugar
chopped fresh corianderMix all the ingredients except coriander together, adjusting the sugar, lime and salt to taste and garnish with the coriander.