Food Hero: Peanut Butter

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The pure stuff- 100% peanut butter from Myprotein.

Peanut butter is something I had to grow into as I remember despising it as a child mainly due to the cloying consistency over the roof of my mouth which somehow is one of the biggest appeals now. Definitely one to join coffee, onions, beer and sea vegetables as tastes worth acquiring and I’m not the only one to think so as sales have been steadily soaring in the UK since 2012, moreso with recent workout nutrition trends. Our American cousins put away on average a staggering 3lb of PB a year each but they also voted GWBII in twice so perhaps we will rely on other associations for this Food Hero status.

In its truest form, suspected to have been around since the time of the Aztecs, our beloved Peanut Butter is quite simply smooshed peanuts- roasted then ground into goo. Original patent holder Marcellus Edson added sugar to improve the consistency. I will take this mention of consistency to cast my vote for Crunchy rather than Smooth. Give it some time and technology and the glorious PB is now everywhere in spaceage and organic forms alike. In jars, in breakfasts, in sports supplements, in cheap chocolate bars and filthy desserts- google The Full Elvis from Duck & Waffle exec Chef Dan Doherty if you haven’t come across such things. It comes in protein bars for cyclists and readily mixed with jam or chocolate spread for the kids/childish. You can make cookies from it or add it to curries, it really is incredibly versatile stuff. But just because you can eat something in a million ways, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Does it?

The very same Mr Edson to copyright peanut butter was a chemist, able to spot the spanking nutritional profile which lead to PB becoming a medical supplement to those with little/no chewing ability. Pure peanut butter packs a good and reasonably clean hit of protein at 25% by weight plus 6% dietary fibre by weight. The protein profile in particular has made it popular as a sports supplement and recovery food for athletes and gains seekers everywhere. Vitamins E and B6, manganese, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous also occur in reasonable amounts per serving. Before you get too excited peanut butter is also around 50% by weight fat which should be viewed cautiously by the calorie conscious however certainly not avoided on this basis as that fat content includes arguable ‘good’ fats oleic and linoleic acids which are essential fatty acids- you need these in your diet.
The high nutrition and calorie wallop packed by peanut butter has lead to its use in military and astronaut foodstuff and, perhaps more importantly, in the development of low volume high goodness foodstuffs with a long shelf life suitable for transporting to famine stricken areas- a serious win in the food science backhistory.

So peanut butter is awesome, right? Weeeeell, yes and no. Like so many wonderful and pure things it is easily dirtied down. A measured tablespoon of organic NAS peanut butter is in a different universe to a half inch smear of Sunpat crunchy over your bagel. I recently came into possession of a tub of 100% peanut butter and it is weird, sticky, ultra nutty stuff very far removed from the jarred crunchy mass brand that I too am guilty of spreading half an inch thick over a bagel. 100% PB is much cleaner on the profile than more standard brands and as such less addictive on the palate. It is still great for cooking and sports nuts, though it may not yeild usual results if you use it in baking as average recipes will assume use of a bigger brand PB. Commercial peanut butter has all kinds of additions- most commonly salt, sugar and palm oil (I don’t have time to take a palm oil rant here please just try to avoid it if you or your offspring intend to enjoy this planet for any great amount of time). And this is just your ‘plain’ peanut butters. The ingredients list gets smaller and smaller in print when you start adding your swirls or flavours so please, please don’t kid yourself into thinking that anything with peanut butter in it is good for you. Read the ingredients list and portion it accordingly and as always seek out organic and lower sugar options if you can. Chances are if you need all the jam, sugar, sweetener, soy lethicin, palm oil, gums and stabilisers then you don’t actually like peanut butter at all. So why spend money on it?

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Ah my very bestest- crackers, crunchy and cucumber.

Hopefully we agree now that peanut butter has important stuff that your body needs in it and tastes good, so how best to eat it? I might argue the answer to this is in a dark corner of the kitchen, straight from the jar while no-one is looking. This is completely legitimate practice, however you might want to break out into other serving suggestions. Fitness site The Running Bug suggests a breakfast of wholemeal toast and PB is the perfect start to an active day for the health nuts and my own running bugger older male sibling votes for a bagel spread with peanut butter then topped with sliced banana as a weekend breakfast. It makes a good addition to cookies or fudge and is involved in my new favourite smoothie. You could add a dollop to your porridge or overnight oats or naughty it up in some peanut butter cups mixing the PB with white chocolate and a touch of vanilla to make the filling (Sweet Things by Annie Rigg has the best recipe I have used). Away from breakfast you could, and should, investigate the joys of mixing with lime and chilli for a simple satay sauce or  chuck some in a vegan curry or make no end of protein balls and granola bar things just head to google for a million options but my favourite and hotly debated serving has to be, quite simply, with cucumber.

What?

Yes, with cucumber. Wholemeal base of choice, crunchy peanut butter, thick slices of cucumber. I think the freshness of the cucumber cuts through the fatty cloy quite nicely and makes for a filling snack or breakfast without activating your sweet tooth. In my current diet efforts I will often have a big wedge of cucumber with a modest spreading of peanut butter as a snack when I’m overly hungry or approaching the end of my carb allowance for the day. It could be worse.

So dig in to some peanut butter, it’s not just for vegans or bad American sandwich ideas.

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Skinny Thing Food Hero- Fennel

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Fennel- member of the carrot family that doubles as a pretty, bee friendly garden addition and yummy culinary additive. As expected for a bulbous vegetable, fennel is low calorie and fat negligible packing roughly 40% dietary fibre by weight. A 100g serving will get you about a third of your vitamin B requirements for the day and over your calcium quota- worth remembering for vegans or dairy intolerant types. Also noteworthy phosphorus, magnesium and iron content.

On from the science bit, fennel is really nice, even for this foodie who is generally against anise or liquoricey dominant flavours. I actually hate liquorice but find the similar tones in fennel a gentler, cleaner version of the taste that makes a fine addition to soups or stews and a magnificent dimension to green salads. I probably wouldn’t sit and eat a whole one though. The chunky texture adds crunchy substance to low calorie/fat plates that so many a dieter despairs over so give it a go if you are watching your waistline in a non-lettuce-enthusiast kind of way.

In cooking you can use a fennel bulb much the same as you would an onion as a sauce base or to chunk out soups and stews. It works well with lemon or basic Mediterranean flavours and seafood. I particularly enjoy a bulb chopped and fried off with carrots then briefly boiled in some stock before adding some meaty white fish for a quick, light fish soup. Make sure you include the feathery herb ends from the top.

Weight for weight it is maybe not the cheapest veg going so I prefer to enjoy it fresh, raw and in season for maximum taste and nutritional pay off. Simply wash, cut the end off and thinly slice for salad or coleslaw bulk or even lightly pickled to top fish cakes, burgers or hotdogs. You can use the feathery herby ends in dressings or to make tea if that’s your thing.
Below is the dish that got me on to fennel some years ago, a summer staple from the repertoire of my lovely Step Mother* so thank you Helen for this one.

Fennel Step Salad

Serves 8 as a side

3 heads of fennel
1 large cucumber

50ml lemon juice
50ml good quality olive oil
2 big handfuls fresh parsley, well chopped
2tbspns caster sugar

Wash and slice the fennel. Peel the cucumber if you prefer then deseed it (stick the seeds in a smoothie later!) and chop.
Combine all other ingredients in an empty jar or bottle and shake roughly to mix until the sugar dissolves. Dress the cucumber and fennel well then chill before serving with BBQ meats, cold cuts, quiche etc.

* advance apologies to multiple other individuals now likely to claim violent rights to either this recipe or my enjoyment of fennel

Food Hero- Celeriac

cccCeleriac, or if you prefer (and who wouldn’t) Knob Celery. *insert gales of childish giggling here*. A hefty root vegetable from the celery family which yields a bulbous root structure or ‘hypocotyl’ which looks marvellously like a dirt encrusted brain and tastes pretty good too. Celeriac grows pretty much anywhere but is thought to have originated in the Mediteranean basin somewhere. But why should you care?

The Science Bit: Celeriac is rich in fibre, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, B Complex constituents and dietary iron, copper, phosphorous and calcium- all of which sums up to healthy bones and boosted immunity. It has been suggested (still under study) that the high level of scary sounding poly-acetylene anti-oxidant compounds found in natural abundance in celeriac are cancer fighting and potentially very effective in preventing colon cancer and different types of leukemia.  As well as being nutritionally sound, celeriac is one hardy bulbous dude, with a shelf life of a couple of months if you keep it right (not too hot, cold or dry) and dieters love its low calorie and low starch levels. Some nutritionists also sing of its ability to stave off hunger pangs, but that is true of most veg with a high water content.

I love celeriac, despite how popular it is in puree form by trendy wannabe masterchef types. I’m a big fan of celery, particularly cooked up but celeriac has a slightly milder peppery kick and and a really lovely texture when cooked down without the odd stringy bit that is hard to avoid in bog standard celery. And lets be honest, sometimes celery is a bit of a chore, probably because it’s touted so much as heath food and served by our Aunties alongside our favourite dips in the space where the kettle chips should be. Celeriac is more pleasing, comforting, a huggy round ball of creamy loveliness opposing the stiff, woody moral highground of celery. Plus, it looks like a brain!!!!
If vitamin content and butt-shrinking possibilities aren’t your thing and you care more about the eating experience, then look no further than this little beauty. Versatility doesn’t quite cover it- in simple terms you can eat it cooked or raw so no great surprise there but the texture and unique flavour of celeriac lends it to so many culinary opportunities. Yes, you can be a trendy wannabe masterchef type and make some kind of puree to smear on a plate if you wish, but why not bake it, boil it for mash, sautee with butter and load of black pepper, chunk out your curry or smooth out a soup. Make it into a chutney with onions and ginger or keep it raw and add to coleslaws, salads or even be really trendy and knock up a ‘celeriac tartare‘. Having a peppery base flavour it goes well with the more mustardy accompaniments including watercress, onions, black pepper and, er, mustard. But it is also highly complimented by your sharper sweet notes, like apples and fennel. And, it looks just like a brain!!!!!!

Like most produce you will get celeriac year round now but it’s natural season is early autumn up to November and that is when you will find this wunderveg at it’s best. I shall leave you with my favourite celeriac outing, comforting in the colder months and also very friendly to the dieters out there at roughly 250 cals a serving by my calculations.

Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains.

Boom Boom Celeriac Soup

Celeriac Soup. Not my finest photograhic moment, but I was hungry! Yes, I know there is a chip in my bowl :-(

Celeriac Soup. Not my finest photograhic moment, but I was hungry! Yes, I know there is a chip in my bowl 😦

Serves 4

1 celeriac bulb, roughly 800g
4 carrots
2 white onions
One head of celery, leaves included
Six cloves of garlic
Sunflower oil for frying
1-2tsp White pepper
3-4 tsp Curry powder
Sea salt
Stock (chicken or vegetable)

Start off scrubbing and peeling your celeriac- you’ll probably want a small knife rather than a conventional peeler as this skin is quite thick. Some of the little crevices and nobbly bits (it looks like a brain) are hard to get the dirt out of so you might want to cut these out and discard.
Heat your oil then add the white pepper and curry powder. I tend to be heavy handed with the pepper and use a medium hot curry powder, but then I like it warm so if you’re a sensitive type maybe use lower quantities. Add in your chopped  onion and garlic and fry off for a few minutes until the onion is just starting to soften, then add the carrots and celeriac. Continue to heat through for another five minutes then add the celery, give it a good stir then cover in the stock- I like Kallo organic vegetable stock but chicken works well too. Bring to the boil, then cover and leave to simmer for about 15 minutes until the carrots are tender.
Leave it to cool for at least ten minutes, then blend together either with a food processor or hand blender. Taste, season to your liking with more pepper and a touch of sea salt (Maldon sea salt is best!!!) then reheat and serve. Enjoy!

Variations- You could add some apples or pear rather than the carrots and onions and swap the spices for some freshly ground nutmeg for a sweeter finish. To go indulgent cook off some lardons or good smoked bacon in your pan before starting then use the rendered bacon fat to fry your veg in, adding the bacon pieces back just before serving. Delicious!

thanks as ever to http://www.wikipedia.org/ for some fun facts.

Food Hero: Watercress

Unless you live in the southern hemisphere or in some kind of fantastic underground super villain lair, you may have noticed that the winter is almost upon us. It’s freezing outside, and with a million cold bugs attempting to force their germy feet in the door it’s time to review your nutrition if you want to ward off those seasonal sniffles.
Enter the perennial flowering angiosperm of the cabbage family that is Watercress. It’s leafy, it’s peppery, it’s a lovely colour and as well as packing a fairly serious flavour punch, it is massively good for you. So good for you infact that ancient Greek Hippocrates, oft touted as the father of modern medicine, built his first hospital on a river bank to ensure he always had a plentiful supply of the stuff.
Weight for weight, watercress will give you more vitamin c than oranges and more calcium than milk, plus 15 other assorted essential vitamins and minerals that your humble body needs to make it through these short, dark days. Watercress is so nutrient dense that many a pouting celeb has been known to endorse a diet made of a week of very little but watercress and vegetable stock. You will lose weight from this diet, unsurprisingly because it’s a green leaf so it is very low calorie. I wouldn’t recommend living on nothing but this shiny green wonder plant but you should definitely be getting some into your diet. Queen Victoria was a big fan apparently, and she lived to a ripe old age.

Super indeed.

A bona fide Super Food- watercress is touted by clever science types as a stimulant, antioxidant  diuretic, expectorant, cancer fighting digestive aid. Did I mention that it’s also very tasty? It’s characteristic hot, peppery taste comes from the mustard oils released when the leaves are crushed by chewing and compliments a number of other foodstuffs. In a shameless plug, you might want to try it in some savoury muffins with Stilton or cheddar cheese or add a handful to a give some kick to a sandwich. Add it to soups or stews the same way you would fresh herbs- in plentiful amounts right at the end of cooking. You’ll lose the flavour and some of the nutrients with long cooking periods (more evidence against the alleged benefits of the Watercress Soup Diet) so don’t over do it, infact I like to chop watercress raw into a bowl then pour in the cooked soup or whatever on the top- the heat will cook it through without losing the crunchy texture.
My favourite watercress recipe is easy to make and perfect to serve at this time of year. Peel and cut some white potatoes and put into a pan with three or four roughly chopped garlic cloves. Add a pinch of salt and cover with water, boil until the potatoes are cooked enough to mash. Drain, season heavily with sea salt and black pepper then mash with a big knob of butter and a slug of milk. When it’s smooth and ready to go, stir in several handfuls of chopped watercress then serve alongside some sausages or roast chicken. Deeee-lish.

And if you’re in the UK, watercress is grown in abundance here since being introduced a few hundred years ago by the Germans via France so get your patriotic bit on and support some home grown edibles as well as your immune system. Enjoy. Hurrah. Right that’s enough I’m off.

Farmer Brown, Food Hero

I love a good food festival. Food, festivities, what’s not to love? And my home town certainly isn’t short of a culinary celebration in the summer months. Or any other kind of celebration being held in lower castle park with a bit of room for some grub stands.  I wont lie to you, they aren’t always stuff to write home about. Just last weekend there was some kind of, well, I think it was about the Philippines. Or Filipinos, but the route of the cause was lost in a sparse and non specific scattering of little gazebos either flogging insurance, flights to Manilla or some kind of non specific meat BBQ dish. All in all something of a non starter.
But in contrast there was this year’s Co-Op sponsored food fayre which yielded some marvellous finds including previously penned about Tess’s Cakes and my first taste of Kangaroo. There was also an oppressive amount of people and some very bad sangria, but let us not dwell on these minor asides.

Pedlar of oils in the co-op tent

I’d have to say I would have missed Farmer Brown and his omega 3 and 6 rich wares as they were in the Co-Op tent which to me appeared to be a startlingly cynical marketing opportunity for the bloody co-operative food people who’s logo was already banded across something highly visible approximately every 20 yards. I’m not against them or anything, but I wouldn’t have bothered going inside as there was new and live foodie action everywhere else. However, two out of three companions were Co-op employees, eager to, well, go in and have a look, so we did. And here we had an unenthusiastic and kind of grumpy man doing his best to get people to buy rapeseed oil. Hmm. Poor salesmanship really isn’t enough to put me off of a free food sample- a wee bit of cracker and a free dip.
Here’s the dietary science bit quickly- rapeseed oil (or canola if you’re on the wrong side of the Atlantic) is plugged as being heart healthy as it’s the lowest saturated fat cooking oil going and trans fat free. It’s a good source of vitamin E and omega oils for people who aren’t big on oily fish, it’s lighter in taste than olive oil and it has a high flash point, making it good for a really crispy frying result. All interesting stuff but nothing ground breaking here or even particularly tempting. Except that Farmer Brown’s do a smoked variation. Ooooh. Smoked stuff is becoming increasingly tempting these days and I have to say I’m a fan. And the FB smoked oil is yummy, and despite the best efforts of Mr Grump I was happy to part with my cash for a bottle. It was about a fiver I think.

A couple of months on, and I’m sold on this wonderful stuff and elevating it to food hero status not just because of the aforementioned debatable health benefits but because it’s yummy, and it makes making smokey tasting stuff easy.  You see, what with being so trendy, smoked stuff isn’t necessarily cheap to buy and you’ll never know until you get home if it’s any good. Asda smoked mackerel pate is a great example- it’s minging. The majority of supermarket smoked cheeses are plastic and unpleasant too, and if you don’t have an enormous garden and a lot of spare time it’s not so practical to smoke-your-own at home. This stuff takes away all the effort and fore-planning. Its light but definite smoky finish means you don’t need a lot to add some depth to whatever you’re cooking, and I do mean whatever. It’s great for your fry up mushrooms, adds a really lovely kick to a pasta sauce and a tiny drizzle to dips or salad dressings gives a tasty but subtle difference. I’m not going to roast my potatoes in it, but you can’t beat it for thrifty treat value.

And you can buy it in your local co-op food store! For considerably less than I paid at that bloody stall, but I’ll know for next time.

Food Hero: The Baked Potato

A lovely baked potato. Perfect.

You know, there was a day a very long time ago that I was under the impression that I didn’t like potatoes. Unthinkable, obviously, it turns out I just really don’t like boiled potatoes (sorry Mum). I mean, what a bloody waste of a perfectly good vegetable! Or tuber or complex carb, whatever, your options are plentiful, why just boil it? Roast, chipped, mashed, boulangere, dauphinoise, wedges, skins, skinny fries, bombay, hotpot, love it! Chopped and boiled and that’s it? Non.

If forced to pick a personal favourite way to serve the humble pomme de terre, well I’d struggle, but who doesn’t enjoy a baked potato? I certainly do, and frequently do at that. It covers so many bases. Need a comfort dinner? Baked potato and chilli. Cheap and simple? Baked potato, cheese n beans. Diet friendly? Salad, spud, tuna. It goes with a steak or a sauce, eggs or fish or cheese. Filling, high fibre, lots of vitamin C, and if you cook it right it’s like a hug on a plate. And how do you do that? I mean cook it right, not hug a plate. Well it’s simple enough really, get a grown up size spud, stab it a bit and cook it, you can’t go wrong. Well actually you can, you can go very wrong and that is a tragedy indeed and said tragedy is easily avoided with one careful consideration. Just think about it. Baked. A baked potato does not come from a microwave. A nuked mutliation of a soggy shrunken calorie bundle comes from a microwave. From the oven however, now that’s a different matter.

Oven. Bake. Yes! What microwave?

It’s not hard. About 200 degrees C, about an hour. Prick in a couple of holes in it to avoid explosive tendencies, and let it be until a knife or skewer passes easily into the middle. If you can spare another eight seconds of your precious time, maybe rub a little olive oil and a sprinkling of salt over the skin before it goes in. Then just wait. Think of all the things you can do with that hour! Saintly things like the ironing or ringing your mother or going for a run, all with the perfect excuse not to over do it, because the dinner is on. Or be more self indulgent. Have a bath, watch an episode of whatever guilty pleasure DVD box set you’d never admit to owning, have a trawl through ebay and buy a load of comedy crap you don’t need. Have some you time. It’s only an hour.

Then low and behold, it is there. Crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, hot and yummy throughout and just begging to be given a bit of butter and plenty of black pepper and enjoyed. Remember those horrid shrivels that used to come out of the microwave? No, neither do I.

Now eat up and shut up, because I’m trying to watch Prison Break.

Food Hero: M&S New York Coffee

If only we had smell-o-blogging

We all have our little rituals on our days off, and of a Saturday morning I like nothing better than a slow start with a ton of coffee and a catch up with my on-line life.  I’ll happily confess to being something of a coffee tosser, and I’m subjected to diabolical machine swill at work all week so I’ll go all out on the weekend when the option presents itself.   I’m not talking about a super skinny-latte-macchiato-bingo-bango with vanilla syrup and hard biscuit from Starbucks (insert evil theme tune here). I’m talking ground, aromatic, proper coffee, lovingly (and noisily) bubbled through my faithful old filter machine before serving in a proper china mug which more than likely has some kind of superhero on it that I can savour in my PJ’s while I wait for Saturday Kitchen to start.

I do insist on fair trade, and tend to opt for organic where possible/affordable. Italian, Mexican, Ethiopian for a real treat but not always readily available. Just where is a girl to start? And moreover, where is a girl to stop as the options are plentiful and sometimes confusing.

Enter Marks and Sparks with their lovely, reasonably priced coffee in your expected spectrum of flavours, strengths and shiny labels. Most tick the fair trade guilt reducing box and come in at a couple of quid- look out for the more or less constant ‘Two for Not Much Money’ promotions in your local store.

The New York variety as pictured beats it’s beany brothers to become Food Hero of today for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it smells so wonderful and my whole flat is floaty with wake up yumminess before my brain has caught up with my body and realised it is out of bed.  Secondly it’s roughly half your average caffeine. Yeah, yeah, I hear you die hard barristas and student types and some years ago I would have shared your horrors on this reduction but these days AM Buzz turns to headache and grumpiness much faster than it used to. Plus, it stops my health conscious Male Of Choice from panicking about the negative effects of over caffeinating oneself. 

And now in perfect time, the percolation is complete, and I’m off for a cuppa.