A Fruity Breakfast and a Vegetable and Tomato Bake
I’ve been asked to provide some healthy meal ideas as an antidote to the post-Christmas binge. We’re probably all a bit sluggish and jaded at this time of year, with our waistlines bulging a bit as we return to work after the break. For many of us, though, this is a cold time, and we still need something warming, filling and comforting, so the temptation is to turn to yet more stodge for the winter fuel.
I too, will be looking to the rib-sticking stews, the casseroles with dumplings, the creamy pasta dishes, and I will post up some recipes for those here in the coming weeks. But I also yearn for something equally comforting and tasty that will not leave me feeling like I’ve just eaten a bucket of cement. And that’s when I turn to the fruit and vegetables.
There is no easier way of eating healthy meals, and to get healthy meal ideas, than to focus on the vegetables. Those of us who eat meat often just see the veg as a side dish, a mere support player to the main event, and are missing a trick. Put the fruit and vegetables at centre stage, for a change.
I also think there is a certain amount of sense in the increasingly popular Paleo, low carb and low G.I. diet ideas. The scientific jury is still out, despite the vociferous supporters of such eating plans, but there is a logic to the idea that we are physically no different to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and therefore we should eat pretty much what they ate, and avoid what they didn’t. Most of the heavy, starchy carbs simply were not available to our forebears: either such crops were not yet developed and cultivated, or they needed processing and cooking techniques that were not developed before the Neolithic. So, out go the flour and corn based foods such as pasta and bread, no rice, no potatoes etc.
Now, I am never going to completely avoid those last items, but there is no doubt that I lose weight, have more energy and a bit more zing in my step when I cut back on them.
So, rather than the cereal or the toast and marmalade, try this as a healthy breakfast that will reboot your sluggish system, and give you loads of energy and goodness for the morning.
A Fruity Breakfast
Various fruits, your choice, such as banana, apple, pear, kiwi, grapes, melon, orange/satsuma/clementine. Whatever you like, whatever good that’s available. Peel and cut into bite sized chunks as necessary. Put into a bowl with a little thick, live plain yoghurt. Enjoy. Simple, easy and a great start to any day.
Vegetable and Tomato Bake
Now for a supper dish, focusing as promised on the vegetables. You can keep this completely vegetarian, or use it as a side dish to a meat meal; if you do use it as a side, though, put as much love, care and attention into it as you would the meat. I have given a couple of alternative toppings, one with meat, one with breadcrumbs, one with cheese, which again you can use or not for pure veggie/low carb/low fat or whatever you like.
As ever, vary the quantities depending on how many you have eating, and by all means substitute other veg if you prefer them, or if something I suggest below is not available.
Any leftovers keep well for a few days in the fridge (or a few months in the freezer) and, if anything, will taste even better when reheated.
Two large aubergines, unpeeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into the shape and size of large lemon wedges (or any shape you like, as long as all the chunks are roughly the same size)
Two large courgettes, ends cut off, unpeeled and cut to a similar size as the aubergine
One or two large onions, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths, or a couple of handfuls of button onions, peeled and left whole (drop for a few seconds into boiling water to make the peeling easier)
Three or four cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
About a pound/450g of ripe, peeled chopped tomatoes (as always, avoid the supermarket hothouse varieties, and use a can or two from the storecupboard if really good fresh ones are not available)
A pinch or two of sugar if your tomatoes are more sharp than sweet (taste to find out)
About half a pound/225g mushrooms, any type, with the button ones left whole, and the larger ones cut into large chunks or slices.
The juice and zest of a lemon (or two)
A sprig or two of good, robust herbs such as thyme or rosemary, and two or three bayleaves. A handful or so of fresh basil leaves, if available, to stir in at the end of the cooking – don’t use dried if fresh is not available, just do without.
One or two fresh chillies, finely chopped, or a good dash or two of chilli sauce (optional – if you don’t want the heat, leave out)
A little olive oil for the initial frying
Plenty of salt and pepper
The Toppings: use alone, in combination, or leave out completely.
Two or three rashers of bacon, fried or grilled until crisp, then chopped or crumbled
A handful or two of breadcrumbs
A handful or two of grated cheese of your choice, such as a good cheddar – about half the amount if using a very strong cheese such as parmesan or grana padano
It used to be common to salt aubergines before use to draw out any bitter flavours. Modern varieties tend not to be bitter (although you can still get the odd rogue one) but the salting process does help to draw out some of the excess liquid. So, place your cut aubergine and courgette chunks in a sieve or colander over a bowl or in the sink, sprinkle with a good quantity of salt, and leave to drain for half an hour or so. Rinse off the salt, and pat dry with a suitable cloth.
If you have a pot that can be used on the hob and in the oven, you’ve saved on the washing up – I have an old, cast iron pot that is ideal for this. If not, start the cooking in a large frying pan or saucepan, and tip into a suitable oven dish to finish.
Gently sweat the onion, mushrooms, aubergine and courgette in the olive oil Keep cooking for about ten minutes or so until they start to take on a little colour and any watery juices exuded by the veg have evaporated. Add the chillies, if using, and the garlic, and stir around for another couple of minutes – don’t let the garlic burn. Now add the tomatoes, with the sugar if needed, the herbs except the basil, the lemon juice and zest (or, if you are going to top with breadcrumbs, mix the zest in with them for later), and season with salt and pepper.
If necessary, transfer the whole lot into an oven dish or casserole, or use your stove top pot if oven proof, and bake in a medium oven (gas mark 4/180C/350F) for around forty minutes, until the veg is cooked but not in a state of collapse. This is a well-mannered dish, and you can easily turn down the oven and let it tick away more slowly if you like.
Remove from the oven and taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary. Add the shredded basil leaves now, if using, and stir in well.
If you have decided not to use a topping, serve immediately. If you are using the toppings, turn the oven up to gas mark 7/220C/425F, or turn on your grill to full. Sprinkle on the topping(s) of your choice and either return to the oven or pop under the grill: it will only take a few minutes for the bacon to heat through, the cheese to melt, and the breadcrumbs (with lemon zest) to develop a golden crust, so go carefully – don’t turn your back.