Monthly Archives: August 2010

Magnolia, beige and brown: all new shades of green?

Perhaps last week’s “beige” meal wasn’t the one-off I had so  much hoped it was?   

Chicken fricassee anyone? On a brown tray on a brown table.   

A shades of brown + magnolia meal

Date syrup and the glycaemic index

When Southwark PCT invited me to attend a MEND programme reunion for 80 of its graduates and their parents, I offered to host a potted version of the “healthy shopping MOT” which had been such a hit at The Big Treat in July.

It goes beyond the scope of this particular post to share with you all my observations from the event and what I learned about what stops people from adopting healthier shopping, cooking + eating behaviours, but one ingredient from the “cupboard” that caught many people’s eye was a jar of date syrup.

I use this sometimes as an alternative sweetener when making flapjack- type treats and have also used it as a marinade or salad dressing mixed with tahini, spices and olive oil.

For those of you reading this who are yet to be converted to this natural sweetener, here goes.

Date syrup is high in vitamins A, B and D as well as calcium, magnesium and potassium, and has a low GI. You can use it as a sweetener in the same way to honey, and I think it is particularly useful for binding ingredients together in a recipe.

I cannot find date syrup in any of the GI data bases, but because it’s made from pure fruit (which is a source of fructose which is low GI) and dates are low GI, date syrup is bound to be low GI too.

Not a very scientific approach I agree, but I hope that you follow my train of thought.

The glycaemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating.

Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and have proven benefits for health.

Seesawing bloodsugar levels affect your energy levels, behaviour, concentration and IQ (and not in a good way!). And a diet high in sugar is probably the biggest cause of obesity and overweight in children. Fast releasing high GI carbohydrates – on other words refined starchy foods and sugar – cause dramatic rises in blood sugar levels and this excess sugar is then stored as fat.

Back to our dates which is what prompted this blog post in the first place!

There’s been some debate about dates being low GI, or not, between scientists.

Campbell J. Miller and his associates at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences of the United Arab Emirates University (dates are one of the UAE’s main exports) reported on the glycemic index of 3 varieties of dates.

One type of date, the bahri variety, is readily available and is smaller, sweeter and a bit firmer and darker than medjool dates. Dr. Miller and his associates determined that they have a GI of 50.

Jennie Brand-Miller (no relative of the other Miller!) and her associates at the University of Sydney in Australia were the ones who originally determined that the GI of dates was 103.

So when asked about this new study she replied:

“I always had my doubts about the high value we got when we tested them. It never made sense for dates to be so high when they contain a lot of fibre as well as sugars in the form of fructose and sucrose as well as glucose. I even wondered if those dates had been steeped in glucose syrup.

“I have a feeling that the values (in the new study) may be correct because they say they tested the carbohydrate content themselves. When we tested them, we relied on the information on the package label. If the product had dried out considerably since packaging, then we would have overestimated the amount need to provide the 50 g carbohydrate portion. Hence we might have fed twice the weight really needed and therefore 100 g instead of 50 g of carbohydrate. Problems such as this come up now and again with GI testing but it is not common.”

So, dates (bahri, deglet noor, medjool and hayani) can have their place in a low GI diet which is good news.

I have always been keen on them, fresh ones still on the stalk in particular which are plentiful right now in Turkish food shops. Avoid the sticky ones, drenched in glucose, which are abundant at Christmas time, in rectangular boxes with a plastic ersatz “stalk”!

The (raw) chef Russell James writes about making date sugar on his blog.

Worth having a go?

Or try your hand at the date, walnut + sesame bars – the recipe for which I posted yesterday. Really easy, child’s play, and a nutritious treat!



Dinner menu w/c 30th of August


Fragrant beef tagine with rose harissa, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, served with bulghur wheat


Honey roast chicken, lemon + rosemary potatoes, cavolo nero with horseradish


Oven-baked butternut squash and sage risotto, poached duck egg and Parmesan


Jerk chicken skewers served with courgettes and basmati rice


Italian baked fish with potatoes and olives, served with green stringless beans


Stir-fried chilli tofu, sugar snap peas and waterchestnuts in coconut noodle broth


Spiced lamb meatballs served with rice ‘n beans and pilli-pilli sauce

Is beige the new green?

What was the hospital chef/nutritionist thinking when planning this meal? 

If you were not unwell before you clapped eyes on this meal tray the sight of us would make you so. 

Is beige the new green?


Beige meal anyone? 

Surely, this is not necessary – and must be a one-off? 

What are your thoughts? 


Date, walnut & sesame bars

These bars are delicious, nutritious as well as really easy to make – child’s play!

I have used half honey and half date syrup which has a lower GI (glycemic index) than sugar and contains some valuable nutrients. You could use only date syrup or only honey – your call.

Dried dates are a good source of potassium, calcium and iron as well as fibre. They contain both insoluble fibre (helping to keep the digestive system healthy and regular) and soluble fibre (helping to control levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood).

Walnuts are rich in protein and contain several antioxidant nutrients including selenium, zinc, copper and vitamins E.

Oats are also an excellent source of soluble fibre. This can help reduce high blood cholesterol levels. It also slows the absorption of sugar in the body which in turn helps to keep blood sugar levels stable.

These bars are nicest when quite thin, so make sure that you spread the mixture out evenly in a large enough baking tin.

Makes 24 bars

This is what you need

100ml sunflower oil

125g date syrup and 125g clear honey (or 250g date syrup or clear honey)

300g porridge oats

75g sesame seeds (toast for a couple of minutes in a dry frying pan – careful, they burn quickly!)

150g ready-to-eat dates, chopped

100g walnuts, chopped

30x23cm rectangular baking tin, lined with baking parchment so it stands proud of the tin on the 2 long sides.

 This is what you do

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 150C, fan 130C or gas 2
  2. Place the syrup, honey and oil in a small saucepan over low heat
  3. Stir until the syrup + honey have dissolved and the ingredients are well combined
  4. Tip the dry ingredients into a large bowl
  5. Pour the warm honey mixture and stir until well combined
  6. Using a plastic spatula, pour and then press the mixture firmly into the baking tin
  7. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown.
  8. Cool completely, then cut into bars.

 Per serving

169kcals, 10g fat of which1.3g saturated fat, 19g carbohydrates, 8g added sugar, no salt, 1.3g fibre





More savvy shopping: tactics for buying right

At the butcher


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how to be a savvy shopper and I included shopping lists and tips on how to make food shopping (and cooking) easier and more enjoyable.  

How to be a savvy shopper  

Today, I am revisiting some of this, with particular emphasis on what to look out for when choosing food.  

Let’s face it, what you want for yourself and your family and what the food manufacturers and marketeers want are invariably two different things!  

This means that you have to plan food shoppingscrutinize food labels, read between the lines and take most health claims with a pinch of salt.  

Here’s brief guide to the most commonly used marketing slogans and “emotives” – and what they really mean.  

Get label savvy  

The good news is that there is plenty of choice, even in supermarkets. If you add in what  independent food shops (such as bakers, fishmongers, butchers and green grocers), (farmers) markets, specialist food shops and health food stores have to offer. it really is not that difficult, with a little knowledge and planning, to fill your kitchen cupboards with delicious, nutritious foods.  

Off the back of a van ...


Here are my savvy tips for navigating the aisles …  

1. Make a list and stick to it  

For fruit and veg and other fresh produce, use generic terms so you don’t limit yourself and you can buy what looks good. Don’t put anything in your trolley or basket that was not on the list, unless of course you genuinely forgot to add it. If you are shopping with your child you could write the list together. Don’t give in to tantrums for sweets, biscuits etc.: it shows your child that this is the way to get what it wants. Not a good thing in life!  

2.  Avoid foods that contain added sugar  

Read the label: this includes honey, syrup, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose and other “-oses”. Sugars that won’t play havoc with your blood sugar levels include fructose and blue agave syrup, but only choose products where these sugars make up a very small proportion of the ingredients.  

3. Avoid foods that contain additives, preservatives and other chemicals  

To make this easier, carry a list of good E numbers:  

colours: E101 = vit B2, E106 = vit A  

antioxidants: E300-304 = vit C, E306-309 = vit E  

emulsifier: E322 = lecithin  

stabilisers: E375 = niacin, E440 – pectin  

As a rule of thumb, natural, wholefoods have a very short list of ingredients. More importantly, if you don’t recognise an ingredient as “food” or you feel you need a chemistry degree to understand the food label, than give this product a wide berth!  

3. Avoid processed juice and fruit juice drinks  

Don’t be fooled by the manufacturers’ claims that the drink has been “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. These products are in essence no more than sugary water and have little or no nutritional value. If you buy fruit juice, stick to freshly squeezed products in the chilled cabinet with a short shelf life.  

4. Choose wholefoods over refined and processed  

This means brown rice, wholegrain bread, whole vegetables not ready prepared, a lettuce instead of ready-washed salad leaves. This is not only cheaper, no vital nutrients will have been lost in preparation.  

Don’t be fooled into thinking organic processed foods are fine; the ingredients used may be better quality, from certified origin and E number free but organic squash, pizza, crisps or cake are still squash, pizza, crisps and cake – and probably laden with fat and sugar which add nothing to a healthy diet.  

5. Watch out for 95% fat free!  

Fat phobia is misguided, it is the type of fat that counts. These low fat products invariably have sugar, + other things, added to make tem “tasty”. Also, avoid reduced fat products where the real thing is naturally high in fat. For example butter: check to see what’s been added instead.  

6. Variety is the spice of life!  

And the key to good nutrition … and it makes meal times more interesting. Have you tried bulghur wheat, quinoa, beetroot or sprouted seeds?  

What steps can you take this week to make lasting changes to the way you shop for food?  

Do you want some help? Or share with me one thing you would like to change in your environment to enable you to shop more healthily?  

Leave a comment or contact me at  or  

Happy shopping!  


Hedgerow baking: “Limburgse bramen vlaai” or blackberry flan

I’ve got a thing for yeast baking at the moment … and blackberries. This time of year, blackberries are a serious distraction!    

Just can’t resist picking a small bag full of berries every time I go to the park with the hounds.  I have even been known to make a special trip and come home with 1kg or more.    

When I look at my bramble-scratched arms I feel a glow of pride and it does surprise me that not more people descend on this free, nutritious food.Over the years I have become a more discerning picker though, and as the blackberry season gets into full swing I head for the older bushes with larger, sweeter berries and go for the easy to reach branches.  

Full of vitamin C and anti-oxidants, seasonal and delicious, blackberries are plentiful and accessible: they are an urbanite’s easy link with the foraging world and the seasons.What’s not to like?  

I am quite aware that the hedgerow variety is a different species to the blackberries sold in small plastic punnets in the supermarkets, but this does not bother me. The “wild” ones may be slightly smaller and less sweet than their supermarket cousins, but this does not matter that much especially when you cook them.   

Now on to the interesting bit, hedgerow baking. The concept of the “vlaai” , or flan, is about 400 years old and originates in German convents, just across the border from Limburg which is Holland’s southernmost province.   

The early flans were Easter offerings made with dried fruit from the convent’s garden. The sweet flans were a welcome end to the period of fasting which precedes Easter.   

The tradition was then extended to other celebrations, including weddings and carnival and these days “vlaai” is still a very popular treat, particularly, in the Southern provinces where it is considered not much more than “slice of bread with jam”.  

So go on, spend a pleasant 2o minutes or so picking blackberries this week and then indulge in a bit of easy yeast baking.    

Blackberry flan


  This is what you need:     

for the dough     

200g plain flour     

pinch of salt     

20g fresh yeast + 5 tbsp milk     

or 10g dried yeast     

15g butter, at room temperature     

2tbsp muscovado sugar     

2 tbsp olive oil     

2 tbsp whipping cream     

1 egg yolk     


1kg blackberries     

50g demerara sugar     

2 tbsp dried breadcrumbs     

icing sugar for dusting     

This is what you do:     

  1. if using fresh yeast, sift the salt + flour in a bowl
  2. add the butter, sugar, oil, egg yolk and cream
  3. warm the milk up in a small saucepan or the microwave and add + dissolve the fresh yeast
  4. don’t overheat the milk or it will affect the dough-rising qualities of the yeast!
  5. add the mixture to the flour and mix thoroughly using a handheld mixer with its dough attachment
  6. when using dry yeast, add the grains after step 2 above and follow the instruction from step 5 onwards
  7. if the dough is too dry add a little milk, if it is too wet add a little four
  8. use your hands to shape the dough into a ball and knead on a floured surface for a couple of minutes
  9. leave to rest for 30 minutes
  10. pre-heat the oven to 180C
  11. in the meantime, grease a flan tin with butter
  12. wash , drain and dry the blackberries
  13. knead the dough once more and, with a rolling pin (or glass bottle filled with cold water), roll it out into a circle large enough to cover the bottom and side of the baking tin
  14. prick the dough all over with a fork
  15. sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and divide the blackberries over the dough in an even layer
  16. bake for 30 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown
  17. let the flan cool off a little and sprinkle with sugar
  18. just before serving, dust the edges of the flan with icing sugar
  19. delicious as it is, but even better with a dollop of whipped cream or spoonful of creme fraiche

Savvy tip: add a small oven proof dish with water to the oven – this prevents the dough crust from drying out.     

Delicious with some single or sour cream


Wishing you an hour of relaxing blackberrying (of a different kind) + baking!     

Monique x