The brave new world of nutraceuticals

Relax gentleman, size doesn’t matter after all. Not when we’re talking about garden herbs it doesn’t, anyway. Indeed during these interminable winter months, what the punters wants is not something big, bulky and hard to swallow but something small and perfectly formed. I am, of course, talking about micro herbs.

For the last five years now, micro herbs, also known as micro leaves or micro greens, have been the vegetable of choice of many a leading London chef. Tom Aikens is a fan, Raymond Blanc grows them by the poly tunnel, and Gordon Ramsey, appropriately enough, swears by them.

If you’ve never heard of them, micro herbs are the shoots of standard salad plants, such as celery or coriander, that are harvested as soon as they have sprouted their first tiny leaves, as opposed to when they are mature. By being nipped in the bud – or just after anyway – these plants are believed to contain more nutrition than their older counterparts – and are considerably more tasty.

We’re not talking garnish here. We’re talking the brave new world of nutraceuticals – a world in which standard herbs and spices will look about as advanced in cuisine terms as an over-sized pepper pots in a pizza restaurant. Now shoots of fennel, broccoli, chard and red cabbage represent the fresh-tasting future. Rocket, celery, rhubarb and roots are all the rage.

Throw into the equation the fact that their Muji-like size makes them easy on the eye and handy to store and it’s impossible to ignore micro greens as the latest culinary must-have.

Now is a particularly good time of year to indulge in micro leaves, too, because they can be grown indoors at a time when there is not a lot on offer to pick outside. You can of course grow your own, but you need to tread carefully as parsnip seedlings, for example, are reputed to be harmful.

So this week why not think of the bigger picture, downsize and go micro green?

Chilli out

The first time I ever had a chilli was when I was 18 years old and working as a door-to-door salesman in Italy. In those days I could pretty much only afford one meal a day (which speaks volumes for my sales technique) but decided to chance the Pizza Atomica in a restaurant in Arezzo. After about two bites my mouth was hotter than Tahiti and tears were welling in my eyes – and not just because I knew I was going to go hungry again that night.

I vowed never to make the same mistake again, but in the 20-year interim I have in fact become a chilli addict. I am forever being told that I eat too much of it, the general consensus being that as I am vegetarian I need to spice up my boring meals with something hot and fiery. As a consequence, apparently I can’t even taste my food. Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

I’m not saying that I’m not liberal with the odd drizzle of chilli oil here and there, or a daub of sauce or oil from time to time to give my meal a cheeky kick, but any self-respecting chilli connoisseur will tell you that, generally speaking and when used in the right quantities, far from disguising the taste of your food, chilli enhances it.
Of course too many of our red and green friends and the taste buds will be blitzed, but gradually, like most things in life, the more accustomed to them you become, the greater your tolerance. So the seasoned chilli-fiend can still enjoy the flavour of most dishes while enjoying that chilli hit.

That is the beauty of chilli. The reason it is so addictive is because as soon as you eat it, the brain produces endorphin, a natural painkiller that gives a natural rush – a feeling of mild euphoria. And, no, I don’t get out much these days.
I’m not saying that chilli goes with everything – those chilli-flavoured chocolate bars that are all the rage on the Continent, for example, are just plain wrong. They ruin the sweet luxuriant aftertaste that is the whole point of eating chocolate in the first place.

An old friend of mine and fruit and vegetable vendor, Bruno Fulgoni, was forever on at me that chilli was no good for the guts and perhaps he was just trying to get me to use his downstairs toilet, but as it turns out he was wrong, because chillies are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Here’s ten reasons why.

1. Chillies contain seven times more vitamin C than an orange.

2. Chillies are a source of vitamin A, B and E and include minerals such as molybdenum, manganese, folate, potassium, thiamin, and copper.

3. Chillies help keep you slim because they burn calories more easily. Try the Dorset Naga chilli – the hottest in the world – and you’ll lose weight alright. You’ll be in the can before you can say ‘D-arse-t’.

4. The beta-carotenoids in the Vitamin A and C in chillies contain powerful antioxidants, which destroy free radical bodies, which when untracked can damage nerve and blood vessels, build up cholesterol, or lead to other diseases such as cataract, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

5. The Capsaicin in chillies has been found in laboratory tests to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells. In studies carried out on animals it was found that tumours got smaller when they were given doses of chilli. It appears that capsaicin causes cell death by attacking mitochondria – the respiratory centres of cells.

6. It has also been noted that vitamin C, beta-carotene and folic acid found in chilli – particularly the red pepper, which contains cartonoid lycopene, reduces the risk of colon cancer.

7. As well as helping remove waste product from our bodies chillies increase the supply of nutrients to the tissues.

8. Chillies act as an anti-biotic bringing fresh white blood cells and leukocytes to the site of infection, where they fight virusus.

9. The vitamin B6 and folic acid in chillies help fight against heart attacks and strokes. The vitamin B reduces high homocysteine level which has been shown to cause damage to blood vessels.

10. The Capsaicin in chillies also dilates the airway of the lungs which reduces asthma and wheezing and gives relief from nasal congestion by increasing the metabolism.

There are all myriad chillies out there on the market varying in type, flavour and heat, which is officially measured by Scoville heat units (SHU). The SHU scale normally ranges from 0-300,000. At the milder end of there are the Anaheim, poblanos (or anchos) and every day bell peppers, in the middle lie the jalapenos, cherry and Hungarian wax peppers and tipping the scale marked ‘hotter than Rosie Huntington Whiteley on a hen weekend’ are the fruity habaneros, piqu’ns (or bird peppers), Thai chillies and the aforementioned Dorset Naga – a chilli named after its county of provenance – is so hot that its growers, Joy and Michael Michaud, had to wear gloves to handle them. When measured the heat of the Dorset Naga was quite literally off the scale, measuring some 900,000 SHU. Stick that on your pizza and eat it.

Xmas dinner

With a week to go before Christmas most people have finally solved the riddle of where to actually spend it, although not without offending those family members who were spurned in their attempts to be hosts and are now feeling like Prince William and David Cameron, who foolishly thought they could land the 2018 World Cup without the traditional bung.

So if, like Mother Russia in eight years’ time, it is you who have bribed family members to make the journey through the driving snow to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at yours, what are you going to cook on the big day to meet their approval?

Now I may be vegetarian, but I know that some of you can’t contemplate a Christmas feast without sinking your jaws into some flesh. So against my better judgment I’ve done some research for you and recommend that this year you forget about turkey and go for the goose. Turkey is so last year. And the year before that. And the year before that come to think of it. Goose, meanwhile, is a departure from the norm and a richer, more succulent alternative. Furthermore, it serves less meat too. So does a nut roast, but even my veggie sensitivities wouldn’t stoop so low as to put you through that.

Anyway, the point is, when it comes to poultry, less is most definitely more. Due to its fattier flavour you don’t need eat so much goose as you do turkey and the bonus is that you won’t be bombarded with cold goose, goose sandwiches, goose soup or goose surprise for ever more afterwards either.

And any bright sparks who claim that goose is simply not traditional Christmas fare, can be put right too. Goose had always been the seasonal bird of choice on Christmas Day in England until Scrooge came along in A Christmas Carol (1843) and showed his new-found generosity by buying the Cratchits the biggest turkey in the butcher’s. Thereafter, every Englishman and his dog wanted a yuletide gobbler rather than a Christmas goose and Charles Dickens became the least popular person in the turkey community until Bernard Matthews came along.

Much like skinning a cat, there are many ways to cook a goose but should you wish to zing up your Christmas, why not give your goose some lemon zest? Once you’ve got your goose, get rid of the giblets and season it with lemon zest, parsley sprigs, thyme and sage (outside and in) and lightly score its skin and legs with a knife to help release the fat during roasting.

For a golden goose, heat your oven at 240C/fan 220C/gas 9 and brown your bird in a frying pan with two tablespoons of oil. Hold the legs, press firmly down on the breasts and try not to think of the good old days.

Next, glaze the goose in three tablespoons of honey, stick her in a roasting tin and let nature take its course, though you’ll need to reduce the heat to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5 after ten minutes or so. Also, keep checking in every 30 minutes or so, to baste the goose with pan juices, taking care to pour off the fat through a large sieve into a heatproof bowl. You can use this later for the potatoes and vegetables. And if you’re worried your bird is getting too brown, cover her in kitchen foil.

And then do the same with the goose…

An object of Desiree

It was with great pride that this Saturday afternoon my son Alex harvested his first potato crop. The story started some months earlier when I explained to my two-year-old how when a potato is placed in the ground at the right time of year a little bit later it produces lots of baby potatoes. I showed him how the red potato (Desiree) had started to shoot and even how to place it in the ground. I then continued to mow the lawn and left him digging happily in the mud.

I had completely forgotten about the potato until quite recently I noticed a new plant growing and flowering in the garden. My family’s many years’ involvement in the fruit and vegetable industry did not help me in the answer to the mystery plant until my son said two words in his ever-expanding vocabulary “DIG POTATO!”

How had I been so stupid? Of course he had planted the potato while I had been otherwise engaged and it had now grown and would soon be ready for harvesting. For the next few weeks we both watched the plant flower and then wilt waiting anxiously for the day when we would dig her up.Well this Saturday I took my garden fork and he took his hand spade and we dug up the plant. The excitement on his face as one by one we discovered potato after potato was a joy to behold. It truly was one of my happiest moments.

This has only encouraged us to attempt grander things next year, a tomato plant perhaps?

The great chip race

The chip parade

The chip parade

Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, golden in colour and chunky. We were agreed that these were the quintessential components of the great British chip. But which potato to use? This was the brain-teasing quandary put to me by London’s finest fruit and vegetable supplier last week. Eurofrutta needed answers and only I could provide them.

And so my Heston Blumenthal – style experiment began on Saturday morning, somewhat earlier than planned, as I was awoken by a loud ringing. At first I thought it was my Barbera – induced hangover (the wine had come from Marks and Spencer’s by the way and very nice it was too) but the noise was my doorbell, announcing my alarmingly punctual delivery of potatoes from Eurofrutta.

In my box of delights were seven varieties of potatoes all clearly labelled and beautifully presented. The time had come to learn the truth. And so the test began.

I chose seven different potato varieties and cut them into chunky sizes, placed them in a pan of hot oil one at a time, covered the pan and waited for them to do their thing. I should have probably tested the temperature of the oil first and given each chip the same amount of cooking time but you can’t be too precise about cooking. The important thing was to remember which potato had been used; which were the contenders for the great chip challenge. ESTIMA, MARFONA, KING EDWARD, MARIS PIPER, DESIREE, BINJI, and MARIS BARD all lined up, sizzled away and changed colour.

What surprised me was the difference in colour and texture of each variety. The darker a potato turns when fried the more sugar it contains; the softer it becomes the more water it comprises. Starch turns to sugar in a potato when kept in storage for too long or if held at too cold a temperature – so if the chip goes dark, it’s not suitable for chips.

And the winner was… the Maris Piper. It turned out to be crispy on the outside, soft in the centre and positively glistening gold.


This blog can get quite fruity

This blog can get quite fruity

As the wettest summer in living memory drizzles its way into autumn under a dark cloud of rising inflation, plummeting house prices, imminent recession and the distant rumble of gunfire from across the Caucuses, there are probably more important things to be writing about just now than food.

‘Balanced diet’
But it’s at times like these when we have to look on the bright side of life and take heart in the little things that make life worth living. And, apart from gambling, The Simpsons and female beach volleyball Olympians this blogger’s otherwise miserable existence is enhanced by food. And as Fran Liebowitz once said, “food is an important part of a balanced diet.”

This being the case, Danny from Eurofrutta has asked me to write a food blog for his website. Eurofrutta, which delivers fruit and vegetable to eateries, schools, offices and golf clubs all over London and the Home Counties, has launched a brand new website to keep its customers up to date with all the latest food news, information on which fruit and vegetables are in season and an easy way to place orders online.

Community spirit
The aim of my blog is to help build up a community of like-minded people, whether they are chefs and caterers, restaurateurs or just foodies who simply want to share their views on everything from their favourite caffe to the price of pasta.

Martyr to the cause
And in the name of investigative journalism I have even selflessly turned vegetarian so that I can keep you updated on whether or not the world of fruit and veg can possibly compensate for the lack of flesh in my diet. But don’t worry, I won’t just be talking fruit and nuts or use this column to vent my spleen about giving peas a chance.

Chinese sauce
Over the next few weeks I will be offering a continuous stream of ignorance about all things food-related, including the odd recipe, restaurant review, wine tip and thought-provoking intellectual debates such as, Is it just me or is BBC TV Chinese Food Made Easy presenter Ching-He Huang the sauciest Asian dish since drunken chicken? So watch this space.