Tuesday 25 March 2014

Low-Carb Pea, Spinach and Parsley Soup with Bacon Bows

Sequinned with olive oil, swirled with cream and flourished with a bacon bow, this fresh-flavoured soup is quick to make and tastes as lovely as a spring morning. The bacon bow is twee, I admit, but I added it to my soup as a personal reminder a) to have fun with food and b) that a bit o' bacon is SO allowed on my new diabetic regime.

Low-Carb Pea, Spinach and Parsley Soup with a Bacon Bow

What I love about this soup is that a fast cooking time allows its individual flavours - leeks, peas, baby spinach leaves and curly parsley - to sing in clean voices. I hesitated to use frozen peas as a thickener for this soup, believing them to be rather starchy (and thus verboten along with potatoes and cornflour), but was pleased to discover that they are not to be feared, having an average glycaemic index value of 48. All three of the South African frozen-pea brands I checked contain fewer than 6g of carbohydrate per 100 g, which is a piffling amount in the broader scheme of things.  However, as I'm not (yet) an expert on these matters, I advise you to read the nutrition labels on your pack of frozen peas if you're on a low-carb or diabetic diet.  

A dribble of fruity olive oil brings all the flavours to life.

In this recipe I've asked you to use proper chicken or veggie stock, but if you don't have a home-made stash in your freezer, you can feel no shame in using a good-quality jellied stockpot or fond (see my Cook's Notes at the end of the recipe). 

A dobbling of extra-virgin olive oil just before serving takes this soup to a new level, because the residual heat in the bowl releases lovely fruity aromas.  (But you need not stick to olive oil.  I don't want to own up to this for fear of sounding piggy, but today I stirred a big blob of Hellmann's mayonnaise into my mug of left-over soup, and it tasted like Christmas.)

Low-Carb Pea, Spinach and Parsley Soup with Bacon Bows

3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive or sunflower oil
2 large leeks, white parts only, finely sliced
1 plump clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock (see Cook's Notes, below)
4 cups (250 ml x 4) frozen baby peas
1 x 400 g pack baby spinach leaves
a large bunch of curly parsley, de-stalked, well rinsed and coarsely chopped (about 3 cups, loosely packed)
a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
5 Tbsp (75 ml) cream
fruity extra-virgin olive oil, for sprinkling
salt and milled black pepper

For the bacon bows: 
8 rashers streaky bacon

Heat the oil in a large pot and fry the sliced leeks over a medium heat for 5 minutes, or until they are translucent.  Don't allow them to brown or catch.  Stir in the garlic, fry gently for one more minute, then pour in the stock.  Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil.  

Add the frozen peas, all in one go. Stir to break up any frozen lumps, and cover the pot with a lid. Turn down the heat and cook at a gentle burble for five minutes, or until all ice crystals have disappeared. Now add the baby spinach leaves and chopped parsley to the pot, pressing them down with a spoon so they're submerged in liquid. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 5-7 minutes, or until the spinach and parsley are tender, but still a lively bright green.

Bacon bows!
Whip the pot off the stove and blitz it to a fairly fine purée, using a stick blender or liquidiser.  Return the soup to the heat, stir in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Now stir in the cream.  Serve hot, with bacon bows or crisp-fried crumbled bacon.

For the bacon bows: heat the oven to 200 ºC. Trim the bacon rashers so each one is perfectly straight and neat.  Cut off one quarter, crossways, of each rasher, and set aside: these will be the centres of the bows. Place the long strips of bacon on a baking sheet and fold them into bowtie-shapes by bringing their short edges together on the underside. Wrap the reserved short pieces around their middles to form neat bowties, and press out the bow ends using your fingertips.  Place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until crisp.  Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm. 

Serves 8 as a starter or snack; 6 as a main course.   

Cook's Notes

An excellent chicken stock will add fine depth of flavour to this soup.  If you're in a hurry, you can use good boxed chicken stock, or boiling water plus a few teaspoonsful of a Nomu fond or a jellied Knorr Stock Pot.

If you can't find baby spinach leaves, you can use well-rinsed, finely chopped fresh chard instead.

Flat-leaf parsley will do for this dish, but I find that old-fashioned curly parsley has a distinctive perky flavour quite lacking in modern parsley hybrids.

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Friday 21 March 2014

Hello diabetes, and how I have had to adjust my cooking style

In January this year I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. I was dismayed and shocked, but mostly childishly infuriated. After all, AFTER ALL, I whinged to myself, I've never had a sweet tooth, and haven't eaten a slice of cake, a bun, a biccie or a pudding for at least five years. What's more: I was maddened with my own mulishness in ignoring signals from my body that something was very wrong.

In October 2013, a spectacularly stressful time career-wise, I embarked on a punishing low-carb regime, after a slow transition over the course of two years to an eating plan that cut out most processed carbs.  The weight peeled off, and after a few weeks my appetite had all but disappeared. Excellent, I thought!

A month later, I had the confidence to hoist myself onto a scale, and I was extremely pleased to find I'd lost 8 kilograms.  By that time, I was on a diet so low in calories that it bordered it on starvation, and I was exhausted and demotivated.  By December 2013, I'd shed 15 kg, and I was mildly interested to note that I'd lost a fair amount of muscle mass on my thighs and arms.  But, hey ho! Who's complaining?

It was only in January 2014, after a dramatic weight-loss of another 5 kg, that I finally went to see my doctor, and then only because I noticed my hair was thinning. When I mentioned to her  that my vision was a bit blurry, my tongue was crisscrossed by deep cracks, and my toes, feet and shins were feeling tingly and numb, she insisted on a fasting glucose test, and that came back with very bad news.  A few weeks later I was hospitalised for a few days, on the advice of a thorough and caring endocrinologist, and I came home with a panoply of drugs, including slow-release insulin that I have to inject into tummy rolls every night.

I have to admit that I'm feeling downhearted about this.  But there is also much to be grateful for - my blood sugar has stabilised thanks to medication, a stringent diet and a brutal fitness regime. I'm 22 kg lighter than I was five months ago, I've lost four dress sizes and I'm as fit as a fiddle thanks to daily workouts. I've had great support from a nutritionist, a specialist diabetic nurse and kind friends who are also diabetics.

The biggest challenge of all has been working out what to eat. You can't cut out all carbs when you're a diabetic. It's tempting to do so, when in a panic, but then you run the risk of depriving your body and brain of essential fuel.  So you have to figure out just how many carbs your body can tolerate.

Another big shock - perhaps the biggest fright of all - has been learning to read labels on food packaging, and discovering that almost everything is packed with sugar.  I didn't realise how pervasive sugar was before I came down with diabetes, but I have to tell you that my jaw is on the floor. You will find gazillions of low-fat foods out there, but virtually no sugar-free options.

So how does this pertain to my blog?  From now on, I'll be featuring many more low-carb and diabetic-friendly recipes, and I hope you will enjoy my suggestions. But, because my family needs puddings and sweet things occasionally, I won't deprive you of these treats.

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Monday 17 March 2014

Low-Carb Cucumber, Dill & Yoghurt Salad with Capers and Anchovies

I can't get enough of this light, flavour-packed cucumber salad, and luckily I get plenty of it, because my kids think it's vile. They just don't understand my love affair with Scandinavian flavours such as dill, capers, lemon, salmon, boiled eggs and anchovies, possibly because their Norwegian DNA - courtesy of my Great-Grandma - has been diluted to the point that it makes up just one pitiful eighth of their gene profiles.

Cucumber, Dill & Yoghurt Salad with Capers and Anchovies

This low-carb salad is quick and easy to make, and gorgeous eaten on its own, or as an accompaniment to grilled salmon or tuna, or smoked salmon, or a platter of tenderly boiled eggs. You can leave out the bottled anchovies if their fishiness doesn't appeal to you, but I encourage you to include them, because they add an intense, salty punch to the salad.

Fresh dill is an essential ingredient, because it's that delicate aniseed taste that brings all the flavours together.

I use my easy home-made Greek-style yoghurt in this dish, but you can use any thick and luscious store-bought natural yoghurt in its place.

Cucumber, Dill & Yoghurt Salad with Capers and Anchovies

1 large English cucumber
1 Tbsp (15 ml) fine salt
1 cup (250 ml) thick Greek-style yoghurt
3 Tbsp (45 ml) finely chopped fresh dill
4 Tbsp (60 ml) capers, drained of brine
the juice of a small lemon
white pepper
6 anchovy fillets, drained of any oil
a little olive oil, for sprinkling

Trim the ends of the cucumber and remove the skin, using a light touch and a sharp potato peeler. Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, and use a teaspoon to scrape out the soft pulp and seeds. (Alternatively, and for a neater result, you can cut the peeled cucumber crossways into three sections, bore out the softy pulpy centre using an apple corer, and then cut each section in half lengthways.)

Neatly slice the peeled, de-seeded cucumber into fine crescents.  I use a mandolin for this.  Place the slices in a colander set over your sink and sprinkle over the salt. Toss well, using your hands, and set aside for 20-30 minutes.   During this time, the salt will draw the excess liquid from the cucumber.

Rinse the cucumber slices under cold running water to remove excess salt and pat them dry on a few sheets of kitchen paper, or a clean towel.

Place in a bowl and stir in the yoghurt, dill, capers and lemon juice.  Season to taste with salt and white pepper.  Tip the salad onto a platter - or individual bowls - and top with anchovy fillets.  (You can chop these into small pieces, or drape them in pairs over the top of each serving, as shown in the picture above.)

Sprinkle with a little olive oil and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a starter or side dish. 

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Friday 14 March 2014

How to Make Thick & Creamy Greek-Style Yoghurt

Take a litre of milk, plus half a cup each of cream and milk powder, and in six hours you can create this gorgeously thick snowy-white yoghurt, which has a voluptuous texture and a creamy, tangy taste. I haven't bought a single tub of supermarket yoghurt since I nailed this method five months ago, and my family devours it in such great quantities that I make a batch almost every day. This is astonishingly easy to make, and foolproof if you follow my instructions to the letter.

My home-made Greek-style yoghurt with Turkish apricots,
raw almonds and honey.

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I'm smitten by Greek yoghurt because it's such a versatile and interesting ingredient. It's a good substitute for cream, a brilliant tenderising agent, and packed with protein, calcium and gut-friendly probiotics. I use this yoghurt in marinades, dips, salad dressings, sauces, stews, soups and ice creams.

If you're following a low-carb or diabetic regime, you can use this ingredient with confidence in your kitchen.

This recipe makes three to four jars of thick natural yoghurt.

You can make this with ordinary homogenised supermarket milk alone, but you will end up with a rather thin and meek yoghurt. Please trust me when I recommend that you add instant milk powder to thicken and enrich the yoghurt, plus a modest half-cup of cream for taste and a silky texture.

In the recipe below, I've given instructions for heating the milk in a microwave oven. I do this to save on washing up, because this method uses just one big plastic or glass bowl.  If you don't fancy microwaving, you can heat the milk in a pan and then transfer it to a bowl.

I've tested this recipe umpteen times using a variety of starter cultures. Any natural Greek-style yoghurt from your supermarket will do for your first batch; I suggest you experiment with different cultures (mixing and matching them if necessary) until you are satisfied with the taste and texture. I have had the best results from Woolies Double Cream Greek Yoghurt and Buffalo Ridge's yoghurt, and I have mixed them up over the months to create my own culture.

I make this in my amazing Wonderbag, but I've also thoroughly tested the recipe using a dense woollen blanket, and detected no difference in the final product.

This recipe is quite forgiving as regards its temperature when you add the culture. I've added the culture when the milk is just above blood temperature, and I've added it when it's still quite hot, and there has been no discernible change in the outcome.

Although this is an easy recipe, I've written detailed instructions below so your yoghurt turns out perfectly every time.

Thick & Creamy Greek-Style Yoghurt 

1 litre full-cream milk
½ cup (125 ml) dried instant skim-milk powder
½ cup (125 ml) cream
5 Tbsp (75 ml) Greek-style yoghurt (this is the starter culture)

Place the milk, milk powder and cream in a microwave-safe plastic or glass bowl, whisk lightly to combine and microwave on high for about 8-10 minutes, or until the milk is just below scalding point. (Alternatively, gently heat the mixture in a pan: when it's seething and just below the boil, remove it from the heat. Now pour the milk into a plastic or glass bowl. )

Set the mixture aside to cool for about 25 minutes. To help prevent a skin forming, cover it tightly with clingfilm, or press a sheet of clingfilm to its surface.

When the mixture has cooled to the right temperature, it's time to add the culture. Here's my method of judging when the temperature is right: stick your index finger into the milk. Count slowly up to six: if you can bearably hold your finger in the milk to that count, without it burning, it's ready. Scoop out about half a cup of hot milk, place it in a little bowl and whisk in the Greek yoghurt starter culture. Gently trickle this mixture back into the bowl and give it one more very gentle stir.

Replace the clingfilm and wrap the bowl in a thick woolly blanket that you've folded in half or into quarters.

Set aside for six hours -  or overnight if you like - without unwrapping, shaking or disturbing the yoghurt. When you open and remove the blanket, the yoghurt will have set to a beautiful wobbliness. Give it a light stir with a balloon whisk, replace the clingfilm and leave the bowl on your kitchen counter to cool to room temperature. Decant the yoghurt into glass jars - or lidded plastic containers - and refrigerate.

Keeps for up to ten days in the fridge.

Makes 4 x 250 ml jars. 

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Monday 3 March 2014

Low-Carb Parchment-Baked Feta with Thyme & Chilli

A puffed-up parcel of melty feta, hot and rustling from the oven, makes a splendid snack when you're entertaining friends and family.  Part of the fun of food baked in paper is tearing open the parcels and inhaling the gorgeous aromatic steam, so bring this straight to the table and open it in front of your guests.

A slab of flavoured feta cheese resting on fresh vine leaves and
 baking paper, ready for wrapping and baking.

Mild, creamy feta cheese is perfect for baking en papillote because it so eagerly accepts other punchy flavours.  In this dish, I've flavoured the feta with a simple combination of fresh thyme, black pepper and chilli flakes, but you can add any other ingredients you fancy - garlic, rosemary, lemon zest, chopped olives, sundried tomatoes, preserved lemons, and so on.

I make two or three of these when I'm expecting a crowd, and I accompany the dish with crisp cubes of watermelon or prickly pear, or ripe baby figs (see picture below).

Served with slim iced celery sticks, this is a great choice of starter if you or any of your guests are on a low-carb or diabetic regime.

In the picture above, I've lined the baking paper with some fresh leaves from my grapevine, but you can omit these, or use baby spinach leaves.  

Wrap the feta in baking paper, and secure the parcel
with raffia or kitchen string.

Serve the hot feta parcels with ripe baby figs or crisp watermelon cubes, or with chilled
celery sticks if you're on a low-carb eating plan. Plate by David Walters

Parchment-Baked Feta with Thyme & Chilli 

1 x 250 g slab of feta cheese
5 fresh vine leaves or baby spinach leaves [optional]
1 tsp (5 ml) dried chilli flakes, or more, to taste
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
milled black pepper
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fruity olive oil

Heat the oven to 190 ºC.  Place a rectangle of baking paper on your countertop and arrange the grapevine or baby spinach leaves in the centre. Position the slab of feta cheese on top of the leaves and sprinkle over the chilli flakes, thyme and pepper. 

Trickle the olive oil all over the cheese, then fold the paper up to create a parcel, as if you are wrapping a birthday present.  Don't wrap it too tightly - there needs to be some leeway so the parcel will puff up in the oven.  Secure the parcel with a length of raffia or kitchen string. 

Slide the parcel onto a baking sheet (or place it in a ceramic dish) and bake at 190 ºC for 12-15 minutes, or until it is piping hot and puffed. 

Serve immediately.

Serves 4 - 6 as a snack. 

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