Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Fancy breakfast trifle

"Everything in moderation."
Grandmothers' most oft-repeated lifestyle advice

It was a principle that worked well for the petitely proportioned women of our grandmothers' generation. In the 1950s, when "everything in moderation" was the only dietary advice widely dispensed, the average dress size was a 6. By 2003, it was 14 and rising.

There has never been so much dietary advice so readily available and yet America has never been so fat. Could the solution be as simple as tuning out a multi-billion dollar industry's messages and taking Nana's advice?

In this day and age, not quite. Back when "everything in moderation" was helping Nana cut a foxy figure in her skin-tight clam diggers "everything" did not include 42-ounce sodas, French fries served in paper grocery bags, doughnuts that pack 20 per cent of one's daily calorie requirement and bacon-cheeseburgers served on said doughnuts (a specialty at a St Louis ballpark).

In Nana's era, a girl looking to indulge might have enjoyed a little pie or a strawberry milkshake. And that milkshake would have been served in a glass. Back then it would have been impossible to buy food by the bucket unless it was for livestock. Now, buckets frequently constitute a single serving and ordering the smallest bucket is considered moderation.

Move upscape beyond the outrageously unhealthy end of America's foodchain and it's still very easy to be immoderate by Nana's standards. Compare, for instance, the dessert plates currently made by the even the finest porcelain houses with pudding bowls from the 1950s. I inadvertently did that this week.

In the market for new dessert plates, I'd been coveting a number of them in a kitchenware store. But during an unexpected trip to the outer suburbs I was drawn to a glass pudding bowl at a local thrift store. It reminded me of a set of such bowls my grandmother used to own and just how daintily proportioned they were. I suspect if Nana were to encounter dessert plates circa 2006 she would believe them to be serving platters.

I christened my new thrift-store pudding bowl by making a modern, morning-friendly take on trifle, a dish that was fashionable in Nana's era. The breakfast version combines thick, skim-milk yoghurt with wholegrains, ground almonds and an ingredient far more fashionable in years gone by than now - stewed prunes. (I make mine using Orangette's stewed prune recipe.)

Despite their reputation for being largely the domain of the elderly or those with a digestive disorder, prunes are absolutely delicious. And, health-wise they've got way more going for them than just being high in fibre, coming in at number nine on the United States Department of Agriculture's list of the 20 foods with the highest concentration of antioxidants.

Of course, if one is not a prune fancier some other variety of stewed, poached or even canned fruit could be substituted. The breakfast trifle concept works with whatever fruits, nut meal and rolled grains or granola you may have on hand. One of the great things about it is that it's best prepared the night before - perfect for people who are in a hurry most mornings. And it can even be made in a plastic tumbler with snap-on lid for a busy-day power breakfast at your office or health club.

Filled to capacity, my new old-school pudding bowl accommodated only about half the quantity of fancy breakfast trifle I'd usually make. I guess that's one of the reasons women's average dress size in the 1950s was about half what it is today.

Fancy breakfast trifle

Plain, thick skim-milk yoghurt
Rolled oats (or mixture of oats and other rolled grains such as rye, barley and spelt; or granola)
Ground almonds (or another ground nut or seed, such as hazelnut, walnut, flaxseed)
Stewed prunes (or any other stewed, poached or canned fruit)

Layer the yoghurt, wholegrains, ground nuts and fruit in a glass or a glass bowl, finishing with some fruit on top. Cover the trifle tightly with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge overnight. The grains and nut meal will absorb liquid from the fruit and yoghurt, softening them and making the yoghurt even thicker and creamier.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pasta a la Sofia

"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti."
Veteran sex symbol Sofia Loren reveals how she maintains her spectacular figure

Is pasta a food for the health conscious?

In the red corner we have anti-carbohydrate campaigner Dr Robert Atkins whose best-selling books claim those who forsake pasta for deep-fried pork rinds will be favoured with glowing good health and slender thighs. Atkins also recommends using the rinds to scoop up caviar and as a substitute for toast, dinner rolls and pie crust.

In the blue corner we have pro-pasta Sofia Loren: Italian-born movie star; talented, charismatic, witty and wise; and still the bomb after more than a half century in the limelight.

Let me play referee. Atkins died aged 72. A report by the New York City medical examiner noted he had suffered from a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. At the time of his death he weighed 258 pounds. Sofia Loren is to turn 72 this Septmeber, a milestone she's celebrating by posing wearing naught but a pair of diamond earrings for the Pirelli calendar (the tyre company's annual tribute to the world's most desirable women) .

I'll have what she's having, thank you very much.

Clearly, there's nothing like pasta to properly prepare one for posing nude or, in the Italian national soccer team's case, alluringly close to it. Five members of the World Cup-winning Azzurri did their country proud when they stripped to their Dolce & Gabbana smalls for the designers' 2006 underwear advertising campaign.

What do the boys eat to get themselves into such great shape? Suffice to say, if Italy had a national food emblem, it would be pasta not pork rinds. Many Italians eat pasta every day. Italy's obesity rate: 8.5 per cent. In the United States it's 31 per cent.

One of the world's leading nutrition researchers, Sydney University's Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, who's been at the forefront of glycemic index research for 25 years, is pro-pasta. But her support is conditional: "A pasta meal is very healthy if it uses vegetable or tomato sauce and/or accompaniments such as olive oil, fish and lean meat and small amounts of cheese. It is healthy because the fats are good -unsaturated - and the carbs are good - low GI - and you are getting lots of micronutrients from the accompaniments."

Glycemic index founder, University of Toronto's Professor David Jenkins, is also a pasta fan: "Pasta, with its dense compact structure, is a low-glycemic-index food. And it's even lower if it's eaten with beans, chick peas and other low-glycemic-index vegetables."

In accordance with the learned professors' guidelines, Pasta a la Sofia - fresh, light and incredibly satisfying - marries a modest portion of penne (2oz/60g uncooked is the recommended serving size) with green peas, arugula, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and a little pecorino. (If you're wondering what arugula is, you're probably in the United Kingdom or Australia, where it is often referred to as rocket or, in fancier establishments, roquette.)

I use fresh peas when they're available but frozen peas are a worthy substitute when they're not - or when I'm short on time and patience. If arugula's not your thing, baby spinach leaves work well. And, in the event you can't source pecorino cheese in your area it can be replaced with Parmesan.

To keep the glycemic index low, don't cook the pasta beyond al dente - that is, firm at the centre and slightly chewy. When overcooked, pasta's glycemic index value starts heading in the wrong direction.

A handy tip for preparing any cooked dish that, like this one, includes garlic: crush or finely chop the garlic before you do anything else. Garlic contains compounds that reduce the effects of carcinogens but heat can destroy its anti-cancer activity, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University. But they also found if garlic is crushed and allowed to stand for 10 minutes before being cooked, its anti-cancer activity is preserved.

Pasta a la Sofia

2oz/60g penne
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Zest of 1 small or 1/2 large lemon
1/2 cup frozen baby peas or freshly podded peas
Few generous handfuls arugula, roughly chopped
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1/2oz/15g pecorino cheese, freshly shaved or grated

In a large saucepan, bring lightly salted water to a rapid boil and add penne. Cook as per directions on the packet. It typically requires 8 to 9 minutes. Add peas to the saucepan about 2 minutes before pasta is done.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, warm over a low-to-medium heat enough extra virgin olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan. Add chopped or crushed garlic and cook until the garlic turns slightly translucent, adding lemon zest just before removing the pan from heat.

When the pasta is cooked to al dente (and the peas piping hot), drain in a large colander, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Return pasta and peas to the saucepan, add the roughly chopped arugula and enough cooking water to moisten. Put the pan back over high heat and toss gently as the arugula wilts. Add the hot extra virgin olive oil, garlic and lemon zest mixture, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and briefly stir to combine.

Serve in a warm bowl garnished with shaved or grated pecorino.

Makes 1 portion.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Buonissimo bean soup

"I will... eat more pulses."
Chick lit heroine Bridget Jones makes a New Year's resolution

She ended up devouring dishy Daniel Cleaver instead, And why wouldn't you, given a choice between, say, chickpeas, and illicit hanky-panky with Hugh Grant (who played Bridget's handsome, charming and shamelessly trampy boss in the screen adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary)? Of course, nothing good can come of sleeping with a cad. Well, not in the long-term anyway. Pulses, on the other hand, will never leave you saying to yourself over and over "What the f*** was I thinking?"

If Bridget had made good on her pledge eat more pulses she'd have found keeping another of her resolutions - "reduce circumference of thighs by 3 inches" - a whole lot easier. Reams of scientific evidence attest to pulses being a power food, not only for maintaining a healthy weight but also for such things as boosting energy levels, helping prevent debilitating diseases and promoting longevity.

Pulses came out on top in a 2004 study seeking a dietary link between cultures with high life expectancy. Food Habits in Later Life analysed what people aged 70-plus ate in Japan, Greece, Sweden and Australia and found pulses, or legumes, were the common longevity-enhancing factor. Researchers concluded there was a reduction in risk of death by up to 8 per cent for every 20-gram increase in legume intake.

In a world of instant gratification something seen as bringing future benefits can be a hard sell. To their credit, pulses start working their magic almost immediately. Eating a bowl of hearty lentil- or bean-based soup as a work-day lunch, for instance, is an effective pre-emptive strike against the “Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!” mania wont to strike at 4pm, leaving one overwhelmed by a desire to consume multiple items from the office vending machine or, to stave off such gluttony, the strapping 19-year-old intern.

Even more importantly, pulses are tasty - just as long as they're not bastardised by a recipe mired in 1960s vegetarian culture. There are some things pulses just should not be used for and faux pot roast is one of them. Any Mediterranean-style dish, on the other hand, is always a winner. For inspiration, I turn first and foremost to the food-obsessed Italians, who seem incapable of making anything that doesn't taste absolutely glorious.

This soup is a case in point. The recipe takes a lot of short cuts but with the most delicious result. You basically just simmer canned beans, packaged chicken stock and a few veggies for little more than a half hour. Purists would take issue with the taking of short cuts and, yes, an Italian nona would cook the beans from scratch and not only make her own stock but also stoically murder the chicken required. She can do that. She doesn't have a job.

The dish is inspired by a recipe in Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, written by English women Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Their shared passion for Italy inspired them to open London's acclaimed River Cafe. The restaurant has spawned a number of cookbooks including two dedicated to easy recipes, which are perfectly suited to cooks who are busy and health-conscious but nevertheless committed to maintaining certain standards. Think of the Gray-Rogers combo as the thinking man or woman's Rachael Ray.

I use more and a wider variety of vegetables than their Italian Easy soup recipe calls for. And while the recipe specifies white beans I typically use red kidney beans, which taste just as good and up the antioxidant power. The beans come in at number three on the United States Department of Agriculture's list of the 20 foods with the highest concentration of antioxidants. Only azuki beans and wild blueberries are rated more potent. And, FYI in the event you're keen to supercharge your diet, pinto beans, cultivated blueberries, cranberries, artichokes, blackberries, prunes and raspberries rounded out the top 10.

Buonissimo bean soup

Extra virgin olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 sticks of celery, trimmed and chopped
Half small cauliflower, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
Dried chilli flakes
16oz/425g can whole tomatoes, juice drained off
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
16oz/425g can red kidney beans, drained and well rinsed
4 cups good quality chicken or vegetable stock
4 slices sourdough bread, preferably wholewheat or grainy
2 additional garlic cloves, peeled and halved

In a large saucepan, warm over low to medium heat a generous splash of olive oil - enough to liberally cover the bottom of the pan. Add onion, carrot, celery, cauliflower and fennel and sweat, with pan covered, until the vegetables soften.

Add the chilli flakes, finely sliced garlic and whole tomatoes. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes, crushing the whole tomatoes as they cook.

Add the stock and beans, bring to the boil and simmer for a further 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, grill or toast the sourdough bread - one slice for each person you're cooking for. Because the soup is poured over the bread immediately before serving, you needn't prepare bread now for any portions you'll saving for later.

Rub a halved garlic clove over each slice of toast and drizzle with olive oil. Tear the toast into rough pieces, place in your serving bowls and ladle soup over the top. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Makes 4 hearty portions