Thursday 30 November 2017

Food for the blood

Winter is definitely time for hibernation - well at least it’s what I would love to do, under my cosy duvet, especially on those cold early mornings, until I get a cheerful wake-up call from Spring. Autumn/Winter is the season of the year when we should slow down and store every inch of energy possible. But instead we are as busy as any other time of the year.

At the moment, I blame my low energy levels on the cold and early darkness, and also on a mild anaemia. Although I have a very balanced diet, I have to constantly keep an eye on my iron levels. Being a woman doesn’t help, especially when the hormones tend to create havoc once a month. That’s why I increase my intake of foods rich in iron, folic acid, B12 and vitamin C, as often as possible, to keep my red blood cells in check.

This week, amongst other heart-warming veggie and fruit, there were some beautiful beetroots and very majestic spinach in my organic farm box. A perfect combination for a meal I love making. I decided to revisit a recipe I posted here about 6 years ago. It still has a special place on our table. At first, both my husband and daughter disliked beetroot, but since I made this risotto, the red roots have become a lot more welcomed in our household. Besides being flavoursome and warming, this dish helps to keep the blood in good order and the reserve of energy high – for the whole family. 

The main ingredients
Roasting the diced beetroot.
The beetroot juice added to the veggie stock.
Let the wine evaporate...
...then add the stock, laddle by laddle, until cooked.
Time to sautée the spinach ...
... until wilted.
When risotto is cooked, add the beetroot and butter...
Then finalise with lemon zest and juice.
My beetroot, goat's cheese and spinach risotto.
Beetroot risotto with goat’s cheese and greens

This dish is so beautifully red that only looking at it makes your red blood cells increase ;)

I also like to use the beet leaves when they come with them. But you can substitute them by any greens of your preference.


400g beetroot, peeled and cut in small cubes
2 Tablespoons organic extra virgin olive oil
1.1 litres of vegetable stock
250g Arborio, Carnaroli or any other risotto rice
1 big onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, sliced
125ml red wine
30g organic butter

Zest of 1 lemon, juice of half lemon
a big bunch of organic Spinach
120g fresh goat's cheese, crumbled
Sea salt and black pepper


Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Chop the beetroots into 1cm size pieces and toss them with the olive oil and salt. Place them in an oven dish and roast for 15 minutes.

Keeping the oven on, remove half of the beets and put them in a blender or food processor with about 400ml of the vegetable stock. Blend until it looks like a smooth liquid. Now, add it to the rest of the stock. Bring it to the boil and hold it at a low simmer.

Return the rest of the beetroots to the oven until they start to caramelise. It will take about 15-20 minutes more. Reserve.

In a wide, heavy pan over medium heat, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and sautée the onions and half of the garlic for 5 minutes. Lower the heat, add the rice and toast it for seven to eight minutes, stirring often. Add the red wine and simmer, stirring, until it has been absorbed. Add a ladleful or two of the hot beetroot broth. Stirring often, let this simmer until it is absorbed, then add more broth. Continue in this way until the rice is just tender and almost dry. It will take about 15-20 minutes.

In the meantime, heat some olive oil in a big frying pan, sautée the rest of the garlic for 2 minutes and add the spinach until it wilts. Reserve.

Now, add the roasted beetroots and butter to the risotto, folding gently. Add the lemon zest and the juice of half lemon. Stir and season to taste.

Serve the risotto adding the crumbled goat’s cheese over and placing some spinach on top of each plate. Enjoy!

A healthy note: Beetroot (Beta vulgaris): Contains betain, a nutrient that increases digestion and prevents heart and liver diseases. The red purple pigment betacyanin is a powerful cancer-fighting agent. It provides lots of fibre and that’s probably why it has shown to improve bowel function - it moistens the intestines, relieving constipation and regulating digestion. Studies have shown that beetroot strengthens the heart, regulates cholesterol levels, lowers blood pressure, benefits the liver and purifies the blood. Beetroot colours can show up even in your urine or faeces, which is a harmless condition called beeturia.

The juice of beetroot with carrot is a perfect combination to regulate hormones and relieve the symptoms of menopause.

Beetroot is a great source of betacarotene, vitamin B6, folic acid, manganese, silicon and potassium. It is also a good source of iron, which can prevent anaemia especially for people who follow a vegetarian diet.

Beet greens have a higher concentration of calcium, iron and vitamins A and C than beetroots.  They are high in sodium, so little salt is required.  Caution: Those who suffer from kidney problems should avoid eating too much beet greens due to an organic compound called oxalic acid, which if eaten in excess can inhibit calcium metabolism

Spinach (Spinacea oleracea) is rich in iron, has abundant vitamin A, folate and magnesium. It is also an excellent source of vitamin K, which helps to maintain bone health. Spinach also helps cleanse the blood of toxins, facilitates bowel movements aiding the treatment for constipation. It contains sulphur, which is beneficial for relieving herpes irritations. CautionAs with beetroot greens, people who suffer from kidney stones should eat raw spinach in moderation due to its high oxalic content, as it inhibits calcium metabolism. Also avoid it if you have loose stools or urinary incontinence.

Till next week!

Thursday 23 November 2017

Soup for Syria for a quick recovery

Sometimes we are reminded of how much we take things for granted in our everyday lives. Simple things like having a bite on a crunchy sourdough toast with melting butter and cheese make my salivary glands open up wide, as I am recovering from a dental surgery. 

I thought I would be ready to chomp around again in less than three days after the op, but it took longer than I thought. So, my lovely husband and my ever so helpful sister cooked lovely soups to nourish me and make my recovery quicker.

Then, I was reminded again that we do take things for granted. Feeling sorry for myself, I looked for recipes to inspire my helpers and reached for the book “Soup for Syria”. It hit me then why that book was published (by Barbara Abdeni Massaad – Pavilion books) in the first place: the intention was to help raise money to alleviate the awful conditions in which the Syrian refugees were living. This was two years ago. Since then, things got even worse for the population in that region.

In “Soup for Syria”, you will find recipes from famous chefs and food writers from around the world - like Claudia Roden, Yotam Ottolenghi, Alice Waters, Greg Malouf etc - who joined force to “Celebrate Our Shared Humanity”, as it says in the subtitle.

I remembered that another charitable effort followed: “Cook for Syria” (published by Suitcase Magazine). This book was born after a group of friends decided to run Syrian cuisine supper clubs to help raise money for Unicef in aid of Syrian children. It became a global fundraising movement, curated by the Instagram influencer @Clerkenwellboy. These books are nice initiatives and yet there’s still so much that can and should be done to stop the suffering of Syrian children and civilians.

In a flash, it all made me think how lucky I am to be able to enjoy a warm bowl of soup every day. Here, I share a recipe from “Soup for Syria”, to celebrate our shared humanity.

The main ingredients.
Adding spices and verjuice...
...before finalizing with the light sauteed garlic.
My red lentil soup with verjuice and garlic.

Aleppo Red Lentil Soup with Verjuice

By Aziz Hallaj 
(Serves 4-6)

Very simple but full of flavours, and with anti-inflammatory properties from the spices, this soup is a great choice for when you are recovering from an illness or just want to have something nourishing during the cold season. Yoghurt makes a pleasant accompaniment too.


400g split red lentils

2 teaspoons Lebanese seven spice (or Baharat)

2 teaspoons ground cumin
 (I didn't use it)
Pinch of salt

*250ml verjuice (unripe grape juice; or substitute for lemon juice)

*250ml extra-virgin olive oil
10 small garlic cloves
Toasted croutons (optional)

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or paprika)

* It seems that there was a typo error in the publication as the amount of verjuice and olive oil is way too much. So, I used 25ml of verjuice and 25ml of olive oil instead.


Cover the lentils with 1.5l of water in a large pot and let it boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are very tender, skimming off any foam and stirring to prevent burning. Add the spice mix, cumin, salt and verjuice, and cook for 10 minutes, until the lentils have broken down.
In a separate pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic until golden brown. Pour into the soup, mix well and cook for two minutes. Garnish with croutons, if using, and pepper.

A healthy note: Red lentils (Lens culinaris) contains protein, iron, magnesium, folate, and anti-oxidants. Lentils contains high levels of dietary fibre which promotes healthy bowel movements. Lentils are also a source of prebiotics that act like food for our existing gut bacteria. It also contains very important nutrients for the heart health protecting against heart disease by lowering high levels of homocysteine in the blood.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of nature’s first known medicines. It is also a good source of prebiotics. It helps to prevent the common cold due to its antiviral properties. It is packed with antioxidants and contains antibacterial properties.   

Till next week!

Thursday 9 November 2017

Savoury cake with a nod to Kosovo

                                          Alketa and Luli      photo by Mark Stonebanks
The thing I love most about my neighbourhood, apart from my friendly neighbours and the weekend farmer’s market, are the local shops. There are lots of them around me that have been in business for years - like the old convenience store where I find the most unusual produce, or the international delis, of various nationalities, where I get to buy things I tried during my travels. Then, a nice new one pops up, once in a while. Not the omnipresent chains, but independent and creative businesses that I really like and always hope will survive.

One such place is the now well established Curled Leaf, a tea house in Mill Lane, a little haven in West Hampstead. It opened about 5 years ago and went from strength to strength. The first time I went there I was welcomed by the beautiful, smiley and friendly face of Alketa Xhafa, one half of Curled Leaf. Apart from running the tea house, Alketa is a high-profile artist and also a brilliant yoga teacher. Her husband Luli, the other half, who also runs the place, is an accomplished acupuncturist and

herbalist. They were both born in Kosovo.

Their place is tastefully decorated, and you have a sense of being at home. In the beginning the idea was for it to be exclusively a tea house but over the years - under the pressure of the customers - Luli gave in and bought a state-of-the-art coffee machine. Now, on top of serving 52 types of tea they also have artisan Ethiopian coffee. Plus juices and smoothies.

The vegetarian and seasonal menu is small but perfectly formed: a selection of salads, pastries, savoury pies, soups and veggie stews. All prepared daily in the downstairs kitchen. For dessert, or an afternoon tea, you can have cakes such as carrot or apple and apricot, with gluten and dairy-free options. One of their specialities is the corn and spelt bread-like pie with mushroom and spinach. It’s a savoury dish very popular in Kosovo, called leqenik (pronounced “lecheneek”). It’s so yum that I couldn’t resist trying to recreate it myself, adding my own little twist.

I am so happy that Curled Leaf is growing stronger and still maintains the same quality and lovely ambience they’ve had from day one. It’s all thanks to Luli and Alketa who are the beautiful souls of the place.
I love Curled Leaf and I will sip my tea to that!

52 types of teas on the wall and beautiful flowers to welcome you.                                                                            photo by Dean Northcott
                     The best spinach and feta borekas in the area.                        
The selection of salads and cakes.    
                                                                                                   photo by Dean Northcott
Their aubergine dish is one of the most popular dishes.
Harmonizing herbal tea.
Ethiopian coffee.
Curled Leaf's savoury bread take-away.

Back in my kitchen

As I didn't have the recipe, I tried to mix and match some of the ingredients they use there. My savoury cake turned out to be delicious too. But if you want to try the real thing you must go to Curled Leaf.

Some of the ingredients.
My savoury corn and spelt bread with mushroom, goat's cheese and pesto.

Spelt and corn bread with Portobello mushrooms


200g cornmeal or polenta
140g spelt flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coconut sugar
1 ½ teaspoon salt
2 large free-range eggs
450 ml yogurt
118g butter
125 g fresh spinach, chopped
140 g feta cheese
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and chopped

6 Portobello mushrooms
Soft goat’s cheese, crumbled
Pesto (optional)


Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Line a baking tin (I used a 31cm x 20 cm deep).

In a large bowl mix the cornmeal flour, salt, baking powder and coconut sugar.

In a separate bowl, beat the yoghurt and eggs then add the melted butter and mix.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Fold in the chopped chilli, feta cheese and spinach.

Pour mixture into prepared baking dish. Place the mushroom on top of the dough and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle the crumbled goat’s cheese on top of the mushrooms, return to the oven and bake for 5-10 more minutes until golden and cooked through. 

Serve it with a nice salad or have it with some dip or spread as a snack. 

A healthy note: cornbread is a good source of fibre (to help regulate bowel movements), calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It also contains vitamins A and B12.

Spinach (Spinacea oleracea) is rich in iron, has abundant vitamin A and calcium. It helps cleanse the blood of toxins and facilitates bowel movements, helping in the treatment of constipation. It contains sulphur, which is beneficial for relieving herpes irritations. Caution: People who suffer from kidney stones should eat raw spinach in moderation due to an organic compound called oxalic acid, which if eaten in excess can inhibit calcium metabolism. Also avoid it if you have loose stools or urinary incontinence.
Portobello mushroom is a good source of B vitamins such as B2, B3 and B5. It contains the minerals selenium, copper and potassium. 

Till next week!

Thursday 2 November 2017

Big onion soup - best in show

Last week was school half-term, and my family and I went to spend a long weekend at my sister-in-law’s place in the beautiful countryside of Somerset. She lives in a small village near Cheddar. Every time we come around to visit, her neighbour, Gerald Dally, brings us some of the produce he grows in his garden. The ones that always amaze me are the extra-large onions – the kind we never find in our markets or supermarkets. Gerald is even news in the Draycott area, where his vegetables get prizes annually for “Best in Show”. I’m not surprised because his veggies look amazing.

Another gift that I always get when I go to the area is Cheddar cheese.  Needless to say it comes from down the road, near where my sister-in-law lives.

Luckily for me, I love onions and I love cheese, and a recipe came straight to mind: onion soup with cheesy toast! Thanks, Gerald, the super-onion you gave us made my soup extra especial. Best in show!

The kind Gerald Dally and his famous onions.
My gifts from Cheddar.
The big sliced onion.
Cook the onions in olive oil and butter until tender and caramelized.
The beef and mushroom stock have been added.
Preparing the bread to toast.
At last, grilling the toast and cheese.
My onion soup.

Onion soup with cheesy toast

The French onion soup is traditionally made with beef stock, but as I had some leftover mushroom stock in the freezer I mixed them both.


5-6 big onions (or one of Gerald’s, if you happen to be a friend), peeled and thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon organic butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon coconut sugar
Maldon sea-salt
1500ml grass-fed beef stock, 400ml mushroom stock (shiitake and reishi). You can use just the beef stock or the mushroom stock if you like.
½ cup of white wine (dry wine works really well)
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
6-8 slices of sourdough baguette or ciabatta
Grated cheese of your choice. I chose mature cheddar and parmesan. You can use gruyère and parmesan if you like.


Preheat the oven to 180

In a medium to large size heavy pot, heat the oil on a medium heat and add the onions. Toss to coat. Cook the onions, stirring often until they are tender. Approximately 15-20 minutes.

Add the butter and garlic, stirring often, until the onions start to brown. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the sugar to help the onions to caramelize. Season with salt, turn the heat to low and let the onions cook for 15 more minutes. 

Once caramelized, add the wine and deglaze the pot scraping up all the browned bits.
Add the stock, thyme and bay leaves and simmer for 30 minutes. Check the soup for seasoning. 

To make the toasted bread, line a baking tray with parchment paper,  brush each slice with some extra-virgin olive oil.

Put the slices in the oven and toast until lightly brown. Remove from oven.

Back to the soup. Remove the bay leaf. Pour the soup into a casserole or small individual oven-proof bowls. Place the toast on top of the soup and sprinkle with cheese. Put the casserole or bowls under the grill for 10 minutes, until the cheese bubbles and gets a nice golden colour.

Serve as a starter, light lunch or dinner.

A healthy note: Onion (Allium cepa): belongs to the allium family (leeks, garlic and shallots). It contains powerful antioxidants and has antiviral properties. It’s also anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, providing relief to an upset stomach. Onion contains the compound quercetin, which supports the immune system and acts as an anti-allergenic. People who suffer from hay-fever are often recommended a therapeutic supplementation of quercetin. That may help alleviate their symptoms. Quercetin also improves prostate health.

Research has shown that onions help build strong bones and keep serum cholesterol and blood pressure low, preventing heart disease. They are rich in vitamins A, B and C, in minerals like iron, chromium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. The chromium content in onions is very beneficial to bring levels of insulin down, which makes this vegetable very helpful for diabetic patients.

Beef stock: From the animal’s bones used for the stock, you get plenty of calcium, and the components of cartilage can give you healthy cartilage and bones.

Mushroom stock or broth is a great source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals such as selenium, vitamins B2 and B3 and potassium. Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes) is a symbol of longevity in Asia. It fights flu and has anticancer properties. Studies have shown that mushrooms like Shiitake, Reihi, Maitake amongst others help to boost the immune system. 

Till next week!
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