It’s a fair cop – I have to put my hands up and confess that I’ve been taken in by the Instagram generation of healthy new foods hook, line and sinker. As a long-term foodie I’m a sucker for “gastroporn” and have on my shelves a library of beautiful cook books. Yet social media has opened up a world even more visually stunning that I’d seen before -see right for a great example – I wanted in.
Yet I have one immutable rule: I have to like what I eat. Several years ago I was tempted by propaganda to try raw carob powder. It was so vile that even had it proved to be a eupeptic elixir conferring Casanova-like qualities it would never again have crossed my digestive threshold. However, some of the ingredients really ARE good whether in terms of pure taste or culinary utility.
Chia seeds – I have a rather perverse pride (in an “overheard in Waitrose” / first-world-problem wa) that my 3-year-old Zoe recognises and loves chia seeds. Sometimes maligned by the po-faced anti-Instagram brigade they do however compare well in nutrient stakes. They are not especially tasty on their own but combined with other ingredients can create some wonderful textures and tastes. When combined with liquids they swell and form a gel-like substance which is often called chia pudding. This can be used in combination with fruits to form a delicious jam (without the need for gelatine). I often use in porridges as a bulking agent. They have very high levels of anti-inflammatory EFA Omega-3 although conversion to DHA is far lower than in fish.
Flax seeds – also called linseeds I first encountered these in oil form which I used to apply to my first cricket bat! These are often compared to chia seeds and have a similar – in some instances better – nutritional profile. Like Chia seeds they are very high in Omega-3 EFAs and alleged health benefits include healthier skin and hair. They are very easy to add to foods – I like them scattered into salads and stirred into porridge or granola but because they are so small they are hard to chew and they need crushing or grinding to allow proper absorption.
Maple syrup – I don’t subscribe to simplistic “natural fallacy” logic that something is automatically better for you because it is natural. Similarly just because maple syrup is a natural tree-derived product it is automatically a miracle food; even if we allow that it does have increased polyphenols and other goodies it is still basically sugar. Replace refined sugar or HFCS in fizzy drinks (sodas) with maple syrup and you’d not avoid most of the metabolic issues associated with high levels of dietary sugar. It is, however, delicious – sweet, heady, complex, roasted are all notes readily used to describe high quality, Grade A maple syrup. It is unlike any other sweetener. Used sparingly, whether as a drizzle or baking ingredient, it can be a magical treat.
Red lentils – a slightly banal choice but an ingredient that up until recently I rarely ever used. They are remarkably high in dietary fibre and certain minerals and are very cheap especially if you can source them in bulk at Indian or generic Asia grocers. The red lentil is known as “masoor dal” and you are only ever a short google away from an array of stunning recipes. Dals are one of the most common dishes in India, which has a majority vegetarian population, and adding a blend of spices and other ingredients (e.g. garlic, onions) during cooking can transform a rather bland bowl of boiled lentils into something sublime. Lentils deserve a blog in their own right but for now here’s all the red lentil inspiration you could wish for.
Raw cacao powder & cacao nibs – although these are sold as separate ingredients and have their own separate uses I have lumped both together here. What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa? Essentially the former is cold-pressed and retains higher nutrients whereas the latter is roasted at extremely high temperatures. A fuller description can be found here on Sarah Wilson’s Iquitsugar.com website. I use these for different things: cacao powder is great in smoothies and various healthy chocolate treats whereas I use cacao nibs as a topping to porridges and granolas. Both are used in Sarah Britton’s mind-blowingly awesome Raw Chocolate Night Sky recipe. (Tip – buy her “My New Roots” book as she’s hands down the best new fangled healthy chef out there).
Goji berries – another Zoe favourite! Great sprinkled on porridge, yoghurt or used in food bars. Also known as Wolfberries these are originally from China and are sold in the UK in dried form. They are a great (and tasty) source of macro- and micronutrients, particularly Vitamin A and C.
Bee pollen – this is the food of the young bee and it is approximately 40% protein. It is considered one of nature’s most completely nourishing foods. It contains nearly all nutrients required by humans. About half of its protein is in the form of free amino acids that are ready to be used directly by the body. Its taste is sometimes described as “bitter sweet” and is hard to compare to anything else. Personally I love it and when sprinkled on top of, and stirred into, yoghurt it produces the most amazing golden swirls. This is generally how I use it.
Coconut oil – perhaps the poster food of the “clean eating” Instagram generation. It’s not cheap (on a weigh basis it’s about 3x the cost of butter) but it is a lovely ingredient. A lot of people use in lieu of margarine or butter for baking. I like using a little bit as an alternative to butter (which I also love btw) on sweet potatoes or with veg; I love the subtle coconut flavour that comes through. It’s also wonderful stirred into a porridge to add a bit of fat into breakfast. I’m not yet into brand endorsements but my favourite that I have tried by far is Lucy Bee’s (see picture above) to the point where I ignore half-price and BOGOF deals on other brands; it’s that good.
Matcha powder – this is a Japanese green tea … off-the-charts antioxidant levels. However, revisiting my golden rule whilst it’s no carob powder, it’s not exactly delicious and the jury is definitely out! It can look fantastic scattered on raw chocolate bars but is often used to make a tea. However, it’s this that tastes like grass clippings and benefits from – requires even – the addition of ginger and lemon. I was fortunate enough to be sent a free sample by Slim Zest but this is definitely one ingredient that is on review.
Fresh turmeric – I’ve used powdered turmeric for years in curries (primarily for colour as the powdered flavour can be a little bland) but the fresh ingredient is a revelation. It’s far more flavoursome – aromatic with greater depth but less pow pow pngency than ginger – and can be used in pickles and as part of a tea (with ginger and lemon). I’d only ever seen this in Chinese supermarkets but recently this has appeared in Waitrose and, I’m told, Sainsburys who are clearly ranging based on the recent popularity and purported health benefits of this wonderful rhizome.
Kimchi – essentially the national dish of South Korean. This is the closest Asian equivalent to Sauerkraut but more ubiquitous and far more delicious. It’s main ingredient is Chinese leaf cabbage and you do need a couple of specialist Korean ingredients. I am absolutely hooked and make my own because it is far, far better. You can buy Kimchi at Asia grocers (Chogga is the no.1 brand) but it really is a pale imitation of what you can make at home. It IS quite fiery so if you don’t like spice I’d recommend sticking with sauerkraut if you are looking for a probiotic. I’d also advise that you make it in serious batch quantities. It keeps for a long time but is very moreish so I go through it very quickly! Don’t be tempted to substitute Chinese leaf for other cabbages – I’ve never had anything like the same result.
Kombucha – another fermented food that I am constantly making myself at home. You do need to buy a “starter” which is a somewhat foul looking thing called a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), readily available online and you also need tea and sugar. Once you have these it’s a doddle – 5-10 days and you have a wonderful, slightly fizzy drink ready to go. I drink mine diluted with sparkling water and it is very refreshing. The alleged health benefits are numerous: improved digestion; better gut health; fighting candida (harmful yeast) overgrowth; mental clarity; mood stability and more.
Not all superfoods are palatable or something that I will use in my kitchen but I am always open to trying new things and will even share some disasters! I will certainly be blogging more about some of these foods and they will feature in my recipes – I am really keen to hear your comments and own experiences!