Healthy-ish Dinner Idea #1 Aubergine Bake

Crispy topped aubergine bake with homemade tomato sauce...
Crispy topped aubergine bake with homemade tomato sauce…

I love carbs. There I’ve said it. In the world today many people seem to be obsessed with Atkins or Paleo diets, many a time have I seen on forums, websites etc. “Oh but I’m Paleo, how can you make the recipe Paleo…?”. You can be regarded as some kind of food-criminal if you suggest that you enjoy nothing more than a large bowl of steaming spaghetti carbonara. Made with white pasta, natch.

This recipe did not stem from a desire to have a carb-free tea or to avoid the sluggish, bloated feeling you get from eating pasta. Rather, I wanted to approach it with the meat-free attitude in exploration of alternatives to our staple dinner ingredient: chicken. I found the recipe online and tweaked and meddled with it to suit the cupboard, local supermarket and refined foodie palates(!) it was going to be serving.

It is at heart a vegetable bake, mere mention of this to my partner would normally lead to him sprinting to the butchers or supermarket or stuffing handfuls of ham in his mouth. Quite often, we’ve tried vegetarian meals only to find ourselves commenting, “that would have been nice with a bit of beef.” This one was different though.

You essentially make a spinach and ricotta filling, stuff it inside thin slices of pre-grilled aubergine, roll the whole thing up and shove it a bakeware dish with a smothering of tomato sauce before baking. For the people out there who need a more defined recipe, see below:

1 large aubergine

1 pot of ricotta cheese

1 large bag spinach

nutmeg

1 can chopped tomatoes

1 small white onion, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic (I’m a huge fan, 1 would probably suffice), finely chopped or crushed

1 tbsp tomato puree

2 tbsps balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp oregano

1 tsp mixed herbs

1 handful breadcrumbs

3 tbsp Parmesan cheese (or veggie alternative)

Preheat your oven, it will need to be on a medium-high heat. Slice your aubergine reasonably thinly lengthways and drizzle with olive oil and seasoning before grilling. Turn over when lightly coloured on one side. Lightly steam the spinach and when cooked, squeeze as much of the excess water out of it as possible. Mix this with ricotta cheese and a sprinkling of nutmeg and seasoning. Drizzle some olive oil into a saucepan and sweat the onions and garlic until cooked but not brown and crunchy. When translucent and soft, tip in the chopped tomatoes and add the puree, vinegar and dried herbs. Let this simmer together for about 5 minutes – or longer if you want an extra-rich sauce. I find that balsamic vinegar is an excellent addition to tomato-based sauces and now never leave it out. Whilst your sauce is simmering, take a piece of aubergine and plop a generous spoonful of ricotta in the middle, roll it up and place seal side down in an ovenproof dish. Cover with your homemade tomato sauce and top with a handful of fresh breadcrumbs and the Parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven until heated through, approximately 20 minutes.

Serve with a side salad and if you want to be extra-naughty some pasta or crusty bread. We both found the side salad to be sufficient as the bake is deceptively filling. Enjoy!

Healthy Lunch Idea #2 Avocado and Eggs

Add crispy, oven-baked Parma ham for a crispy, crunchy side...
Add crispy, oven-baked Parma ham for a crispy, crunchy side…

I’ve read a lot about the many health benefits of eggs and avocado and had, to my surprise, seen them combined together in recipes and dishes. Eh? Surely the texture of both together would be slimy, wet and somewhat lacking in a crisp crunch from somewhere? I decided to combine the healthy, nutritious elements from both in my more healthy way and added wholegrain toast and oven-baked Parma ham for that much needed crispy element.

Avocados have long been lauded as the holy grail of nutritious choices – good fats to help rid your body of cholesterol, potassium and a range of B vitamins, as well as contributing well to your daily dose of fibre with a protein kick to boot. I have to say it was a long time before I was a fan. I couldn’t stand the slimy, creamy texture and despite several attempts, I eventually relegated them to the bottom of my loves list. The thing that turned it around? Guacamole. Guacamole smothered on salty tortilla chips, guacamole stuffed into chicken fajitas and guacamole on its own with a teaspoon. Then I branched out. I found a recipe for pan-fried, parmesan-crusted chicken breast, which came with a salad of avocado, cherry tomatoes and red onions with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. I don’t even particularly enjoy raw red onion but thinly sliced in this salad…yum. It transformed me from someone who desperately wanted to love avocados and the multiple health benefits from eating one – who doesn’t want beautiful, glowing skin? – to someone who could actually enjoy them.

Back to today’s recipe: the combination of crisp grilled toast, soft ripe avocado and boiled eggs with a just soft centre was deliciously offset with a salty kick from the Parma ham. It would be a perfect breakfast for the weekend and I would have liked to have added some oven roasted, or grilled, vine tomatoes but a trip to the dentist had resulted in needing a quick-fix lunch.

Give it a try, here’s the recipe:

2 slices wholemeal bread

1 ripe avocado

1 egg

2 slices Parma ham

chilli flakes and pepper to season

Preheat your oven to a high heat.Place a pan of water on the stove to boil and when at a gentle, rolling boil drop in your egg and boil for 6 minutes (if you want a just soft centre, less time if you want a runny yolk). Whilst this is boiling, pop your Parma ham in the oven on a baking tray (it only takes about 5minutes to crisp up), get the toast on and slice your avocado. When the egg is ready, peel the shell. To assemble, place your avocado slices on the toast (ok, ok, I used a thin spread of butter too but with hindsight could probably omit this!) and chop the egg into four and place on top. Put your crisped up Parma on the side and sprinkle with chilli flakes and pepper. No salt required on account of the ham. Enjoy!

Let me know if you make this recipe and whether you make any changes.

Healthy Snack Ideas #1

I believe the jury is still out on whether snacking between meals is actually beneficial for weight loss but there are times when you just need to stave off the hunger demons in-between meals. There’s nothing worse than feeling a little peckish and being faced with sugar-laden flapjacks masquerading as the ‘healthy option’, or the office biscuit tin, brimming with fatty, buttery biscuits or worse: the chocolate bar. Oh the guilt when you give in and satiate your starvation with unhealthy, nutritionally-decrepit foods! You might as well just have takeaway tonight and a fry-up tomorrow for breakfast: those are the thoughts that soon swim into your head as soon as you have banquished hunger pangs with bad foods.

I have found an answer. Not the answer but an answer. The holy grail of healthy but satisfying snacks destined to fuel the engine for a few more hours until your next meal. The banana muffin. This is not a banana muffin as we know it with butter and refined sugar and white flour. This is that banana muffin’s slightly healthier cousin.

These have gone down to roaring applause at school – ok not quite but they were well-received- and were even enjoyed by my cake-loving partner. Of course, it’s not like a delicate slice of Victoria sponge with afternoon tea (fresh leaves not bagged), but this is a snack you could enjoy everyday without being consumed with food guilt.

Here goes:

3 large ripe bananas (lovely burst of natural sugar and easy to digest)

1/4 cup of honey or maple syrup or agave syrup

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 and 3/4 cup of wholemeal flour

1/2 cup light olive oil

1 tbsp milk

1 large egg beaten

Mash the bananas until smooth and relatively lump-free. Mix in the beaten egg. In a separate bowl, lightly mix the flour and bicarb and baking powder and add the banana-egg mixture. To this, add the olive oil, milk and honey and mix all ingredients together. Do be careful not to over mix.

Bake in the oven Gas Mark 5 or 175C for approximately 25 minutes – to be honest, I always just check with a toothpick – if it comes out clean when inserted in to the centre of a muffin, then you’re good to go.

This is a very forgiving recipe. I have mixed in dark chocolate chips when needing to knock chocolate cravings on the head and also added a tbsp of chia and/or mixed seeds to the recipe for extra nutritional benefits. You could always experiment with blueberries, raspberries or other fruit, dried or fresh. Please feel free to leave comments about your cooking endeavours on my blog.

The top of the muffin on my image looks a little darker than it did in real-life but hey-ho, I love a good crunchy muffin top.

Hot cup of tea and warm banana muffin...the perfect afternoon snack
Hot cup of tea and warm banana muffin…the perfect afternoon snack

Healthy Porridge Idea #1

We all know the health benefits of porridge made from oats. Complex carbohydrate to keep you fuller for longer; iron to help transport oxygen around your body; beta-glucan which can help reduce cholesterol; and fibre, you know, because…

Porridge makes up my breakfast for approximately six months of the year. It is with some excitement that I buy a new box of oats just as the new school year starts – well going back to work is tough, so who’s to say a little comfort breakfast does any harm? Only in the warm summer months do I reject it in favour of its cold neighbour: muesli. If I’m tired, run down or just in need of a pick me up, I forgo both in favour of local white honey spread thickly on wholemeal toast (with butter of course!). But that is for very dark and difficult days, or weekends when I need something comforting to soothe away a mild hangover from too many Sauvignon Blancs the night before.

I suppose my love of porridge dawns from the days when, as a child, I used to enjoy Ready Brek by the bowlful. I loved the smooth, milky goodness and finding a lump was like finding hidden treasure on a deserted island, as well as the transport required to get you home of course. With a sticky spoonful of golden syrup stirred in to the mix, it was heaven. As a fussy child, who used to eat dinner from side plates, it was one of the few things that I ate and actually enjoyed.

Over the years I have had many breakfasts and I even tried that fad a few years ago where two bowls of cereal were meant to substitute two of your meals in a day. I even tried no breakfasts and found that by mid-morning I’d either be swaying in some kind of starvation-induced haze or reaching for the biscuits. When breakfast was back on the menu, one of the things that I learned quickly was that porridge was very filling. It was the only thing that could keep me going through the morning and subsequently it has been staple for some time now through my early adult years. Gone are the days when the child used to eat from a side plate…

However, there are times when I find porridge a little bit boring. What? Yes. I can almost hear health-food fanatics recoiling in horror at such a bold statement claiming that there are many ways to invite a little pep to my porridge. I’ve tried lots of them and, yes, sometimes it is just boring. Bring me the bacon sandwich dripping in grease and butter and ketchup! Bring me a bowlful of suger-laden cereal topped with full-fat milk! Bring me white bread toast with butter you can slice through and swirls of jam! But I can’t succumb to those kinds of breakfasts everyday. And I’ve found with a bit of exercise, a few more healthy choices, I actually prefer a good-start-to-the-day kind of breakfast.

My current favourite porridge is made up of three tablespoons oats, a tablespoon of chia seeds slowly boiled with semi-skimmed milk and a drop of water. The chia seeds slowly become almost like tapioca, a taste that I’m not ashamed to say I enjoy. And they add a beautiful thickness to the warm gloops of oaty porridge. I add a few blueberries to the mix, which pop open as they cook and release beautiful swirls of antioxidant goodness to the mix. I then finish with raspberries – yes, yes, I know they’re not in season yet but we sometimes need the promise that summer IS coming – and a sprinkle of mixed seeds. Now I find that I don’t need any extra sugars with this, natural or refined, but I suppose if you needed a treat to help make the long day seem more bearable then I suggest a little dribble of maple syrup, honey or agave syrup. Yum.

P.S. My heartfelt apologies to my partner who makes me my porridge every morning and washes the pan (I refuse to use a microwave!).

Raspberries and blueberries give natural sugars to this seedy porridge!
Raspberries and blueberries give natural sugars to this seedy porridge!

Healthy Lunch Idea #1

So, in my week off – I’m a teacher by day and want-to-be food blogger by night – I decided to whip up a warm salad to stave off the cravings for all things naughty. Sometimes it actually feels like the biscuits are calling me from the cupboard and I’ve often found that in my plight to be “healthy” I’ve eaten a small lunch, only to be undone by an afternoon cuppa and several digestives. Then once the taste of refined sugars and buttery fats has taken hold, I’ve found myself delving in to chocolates (still leftover from Christmas!) and anything else that’s calorific and lurking in the back of my cupboards. Rocky road, anyone? With guilt washing over me, I consider the soggy salad, or tasteless egg white omlette I had for lunch and just wish I’d had a bacon sandwich instead.

I digress.

I found this recipe online and tweaked it slightly to suit my needs and what was in my cupboard and supermarket at the time. With nourishing, vitamin-filled pearl barley and a healthy kick of smoked paprika (containing capsaicin which helps lower blood pressure) and all the benefits of onions, olives and hit of protein from the feta cheese, it felt quite naughty but on reflection is much better for you and helps to keep cravings at bay. If, like me, you don’t mind eating cold leftovers, I see no reason why you can’t increase the quantities and take some for lunch the next day. It would also taste good with grilled chicken and gently panfried chorizo, if you really wanted to up the naughtiness – perhaps on a workout day? You could also add some beans – I think butter beans would absorb the flavours of the paprika and also provide an extra protein hit.

Here’s my recipe – for one.

50g pearl barley

1/4 White onion sliced

1 large garlic clove (I’m a big fan) crushed

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tbsp tomato puree

small handfull black olives chopped

small handful sunblush or sundries tomatoes chopped

feta cheese (as much – or as little – as you like)

parsely to serve

Place the pearl barley in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil for approximately 25 minutes. Gently pan fry the onions and garlic in olive oil and when softened, but not coloured, add the smoked paprika. At this point, I added a little water with the tomato puree to make a slightly wetter sauce. Keep adding water as needed, a few splashes at a time, while the flavours mingle together. When cooked through for a few minutes, add the olives and sunblush tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil. When the barley is cooked, tip into a bowl and smother with your sauce and crumble some chunks of feta over the top before finishing with some torn, or finely chopped, parsely.

There we have it. Not the least calorific lunch on the block but healthy and satisfying all the same. A bowl yesterday saw me through until dinner time in the evening and because I’d been “good” and avoided sweet, sugary snacks, I was more inclined to enjoy a healthy, nourishing dinner too.

Warm wintry salad with a hit of the Med...
Warm wintry salad with a hit of the Med…

Enjoy!