I am excited. In fact, that is an understatement. I am elated. Finally, we are waking up to the importance of being educated about what we eat and how it affects our general health. Food has probably never been a more hotly debated topic than it is right now.
Proof, if any were needed, lies in the fact that Deliciously Ella, a healthy new food bible written by 23-year-old Ella Woodward, has just become the fastest selling debut cookbook in history, having been reprinted an astonishing six times since its launch at the end of January.
Ella, a Londoner who was left bedbound four years ago after contracting Postural Tachycardia Syndrome - a disorder of the nervous system - cured herself through changing her diet and giving up gluten, refined sugar, meat and dairy. Having experienced the virtually overnight success of her new regime, she decided to share her story and recipes through her blog, which led to the cookbook.
It’s a path I chose too, almost four years ago, when a cancer diagnosis made me question and delve deeper into my so-called healthy Mediterranean diet. It was not as bad as Ella’s, who comically confessed in a recent interview to living off ‘a delicious mix of Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream, mountains of Cadbury’s caramel chocolate, fizzy pick n mix, peanut butter and strawberry jam eaten with a spoon.’
I already avoided most processed, fried and fast foods as well as red meat although I did have a particular weakness for buttery shortbread and salt & vinegar crisps. But there’s nothing like The Big C to kick your butt into action. Overnight, like Ella, I gave up gluten, refined sugar, dairy and all meat on the advice of a nutritionist and today, my health has never been better.
Nobody wants to be a killjoy or live a life with no treats or naughtiness. The trick is finding healthy substitutes and alternatives that give you the impression, and tasty high, of being a rebel but that are in reality, one of your five, or better still, 10 a day.
Take pasta, for example. Most supermarkets stock gluten free versions of your favourite penne, tagliatelle and spaghetti but sometimes they can be quite starchy and not as melt in the mouth as traditionally made pasta. Did you know that courgettes make the perfect alternative? It sounds batty I know, but peel some raw courgettes, put them through the spaghetti setting on a spiraliser (I have the Lurch, which costs around £35), et voila….perfect strands of courgette spaghetti that, when tossed into a warm pesto sauce or thrown together with Pad Thai dressing, will fool even the most tetchy and fussy teenager (or husband, for that matter.) My 15 year-old daughter ate a whole bowl thinking they were noodles.
Do you find yourself craving sugar and dreaming greedily of a slab of carrot cake or a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut mid-afternoon? Bake your own treats, using fresh natural ingredients and replacing sugar with Xylitol, Stevia or agave syrup and regular flour with spelt flour which originates back to Roman times and hey presto, you have your bespoke sugar-free sweet treat with zero guilt. A couple of squares of dark chocolate, high in cocoa solids, is a brilliant alternative to milk chocolate.
I must admit that the thought of giving up dairy completely did not appeal given that I live in the land of cheese and wine but I was advised to swap cow dairy for goat’s or sheep’s dairy instead, as these animals are closer to the size of humans and therefore our systems are more efficient at breaking down their produce than that of a cow. Who knew? It was a workable compromise.
I start the day with a large glass of hot water with freshly squeezed lemon and a dash of cayenne followed by a sheep’s yoghurt (yaourt de brebis in France, which tastes just like Greek yoghurt), a smattering of pomegranate seeds, kiwi, raspberries and blueberries, a tiny drizzle of local organic honey (great for allergies) and a scattering of walnuts, flaxseeds, linseeds and sesame seeds (proven to alleviate constipation.) Delicious and nutritious. Fortuitously, my favourite cheeses have always been mozzarella di buffalo, feta, halloumi, goat’s cheese and Ossau Iraty (a hard sheep’s cheese not unlike Gruyère) and all of these fit the criteria.
Sticking to a healthy food lifestyle is particularly challenging during the winter months when salads and crudités are the furthest thing from your mind but soup is the solution, ensuring that you still get your daily target of veggies. Experiment with different combinations - my favourites are Tomato and Garlic, Lettuce, Pea and Mint and Butternut Squash with Chilli and Ginger.
If you can’t grow your own fruit and vegetables (a lovely idea but who has the time), plant yourself a herb garden…you don’t need much room, a window box will do the trick. Fresh mint, parsley, chives, dill, rosemary and coriander have great health properties and liven up even the simplest recipes and sauces no end. The buzz from knowing you have a constant supply of fresh flavourings is unbeatable. I also add garlic, ginger, fresh chilli and turmeric to pretty much anything and everything.
For almost four years, I have been banging this gong to my friends, wary husband, beer guzzling brother and suspicious teenage daughters (‘where have all the biscuits gone, mum?’) To be honest, I’m not 100% there yet but the revelation that my hardest partying journalist friends, pub-loving brother, carb loving husband and 19-year-old university student daughter are all now taking super greens daily with no dangling carrot from me is the best result I could hope for. I’m still working on my mum and my 15-year-old but give me time.
My favourite way to spend a rainy Saturday is with the food processor and weighing scales, playing around with different combinations for a new dip, paté or healthy nut brittle bar. I have shared the recipes below with many friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers so don’t just take my word for it, give them a go and make today the first chapter in living your life well.
Healthy Nut Brittle Bars
80g flaked almonds
80g pecans or macadamia nuts
60g mixed linseeds, flaxseeds and sesame seeds
100g dried cranberries
40g organic almond butter
125 ml organic agave syrup
40 ml organic coconut oil
¼ tsp salt
Put the nuts, nut butter and salt into a food processor and blend until coarse but not too smooth. Add the agave syrup, cranberries and melted coconut oil and mix into a paste. Press down well in a small baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and chill in the fridge for an hour or two until set hard. Cut into small squares or bars and store in a container in the fridge.
Thai Red Prawn and Butternut Squash Curry
40 ml Thai red curry paste
400ml tin coconut milk
I mug hot water
I stick of lemon grass
Half a medium butternut squash, cubed
1 onion, sliced
400g shell on large prawns (shells removed)
Chopped coriander (optional)
Melt the curry paste in a mug of hot water. Lightly stir fry the onion and add the cubed squash, tossing for three or four minutes. Add the curry liquid and simmer slowly for half an hour until the squash is soft but still firm.
Add the coconut milk and lemongrass and simmer lightly for five minutes. Add the prawns and continue to simmer lightly for a further three or four minutes. You can also add chick peas or bamboo shoots, and omit the prawns for a vegan version. Garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve with Thai rice and Pak Choy and Broccoli stir fry (below.)
Pak Choy and Broccoli Stir Fry
Four bunches of pak choy
I small stem of broccoli, cut into individual small florets
I large garlic clove, finely chopped
2cm fresh ginger, finely chopped
I tablespoon sesame oil
1 red chilli, finely chopped
Dash of soy sauce
I teaspoon organic honey
Blanch the broccoli in boiling water and leave for five minutes covered with a plate before draining and setting aside. Heat the oil and lightly sizzle the garlic, chilli and ginger. Add the pak choy and wilt for a few minutes, before adding the broccoli. Pour in soy sauce to taste and add the honey, coating the vegetables well. Delicious on its own, with rice noodles or Thai curry.