Our food should be our medicine

Regular readers of this column will be aware that over the years I have become increasingly concerned about the quality of much of the food we eat, and the deterioration in the diet overall. Many people just look at food as fodder and do not connect it in any way with their health and well-being. They shovel any kind of rubbish into themselves and then wonder why they are feeling sluggish or lacking in energy.

Despite my best efforts the reality is - people are spending less time cooking . 

The average time it takes to prepare the main meal of the day nowadays is 20 minutes, compared to 60 minutes twenty years ago and the average preparation time for all meals at home (including breakfast, evening meals, children’s tea etc.) is a mere 13 minutes per meal and one third of meals are prepared in 5 minutes or less. http://www.geest.co.uk  

More people are ‘cash rich’ and ‘time poor’. Is it not ironic that we are convinced that we don’t have time to cook, yet at no time in history have we had so many ‘modern conveniences’, gizmos and gadgets to speed up preparation. Could it be that wholesome food is no longer considered a priority – the reality is we always make time for what we consider to be important.

I have long suspected that the food we eat affects not only our physical but also our mental well-being and new research appears to validate this ‘gut feeling’.

At the Conference for the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids in Brighton recently, scientists warned that changes in our diet will lead to an epidemic of mental health problems in the future.

According to keynote speaker, Professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University “We are facing a health crisis more serious and more dangerous than that posed by obesity in the West”. Two key forms of fatty acids are involved in human diet. One set are the omega-3s, which are found in the meat of animals and fowl, such as cattle and chicken, which graze on grass, and in vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. The second version are known as omega -6’s, found in cereals and in the meat of animals fed on cereals.

In the past, diets contained balanced amounts of these chemicals. However, omega-6’s have increasingly come to dominate the shelves of food shops, as farmers have fed more and more cattle on grain, and food manufacturers have turned to the use of sunflower and other similar oils. As a result, Western nations now have serious – and worrying – dietary imbalances. 

New studies have shown that modern diets are deficient in omega-3’s. Intensive farming methods, increased use of sugary breakfast cereals and the widespread use of sunflower oils have led to a dangerous change in our diets.

Deficiences in omega-3, a vital substance, critical to brain development, are linked to behavioural and attention disorders in children, and depression among adults.

In the brain, omega - 3’s and omega -6’s act as building blocks for the membrane that surround our neurones, However, omega-3 lipids are considered particularly vital for this task.

‘Individuals that are omega-3 rich end up with neurones that run very fast – like Pentium 3 microprocessors,’ said Professor Tom Sanders, of the Nutrition, Foods and Health Centre at King’s College London. ‘Those that have too much omega-6 are slow and sluggish, like a 20 year old silicon chip.’

Omega-3 rich cells also make more complex links with other neurones, scientists have found, and this lattice of nerve connections forms the basis of our intelligence. The last 3 months of pregnancy and the first six weeks after birth are particularly critical for laying down these brain cell lattices.

‘Omega-3 fats are therefore essential in the diets of pregnant women for the healthy development of brain, retina and nervous tissue in the unborn child’, according to Dr. Ray Rice, of the ISSL.

This point is underlined by a newly completed analysis of the replies of 14,500 families who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. This study has found that pregnant women who had diets low in omega-3’s which are also found in high levels in fish – and high in omega 6’s had an increased risk of depression. Their children were more likely to suffer problems with coordination and behaviour and come in the bottom quarter of their class n verbal IQ tests.

Other studies have produced similar results, Dr Christine Albert of Harvard Medical school found the risk of heart attack is greatest in individuals whose omega -3 drops below 4% of the fatty acids found in the red blood cells. Omega 3 is found in fish, particularly oily fish and ‘green’ foods such as cabbage, due to the photosynthesis process.

Professor Crawford explained that omega -3 levels were higher because of traditional farming practices where cows and lambs were fed on grass.

Consumption of fish has decreased and intensive farming has meant that fewer cows and poultry are allowed to graze on grass and are instead fed on cereals high in omega -6’s. These fatty acids are also essential but an imbalance has now been created – studies suggest that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be between equality and four to one, a pattern typified by those who live on Mediterranean diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil and garlic, and low in meat. By contrast, normal Western diets with their high cereal content, now have ratios of between 11to one and 40 to one.

So this research is yet another good reason to seek out good grass fed Irish beef and lamb, free-range chickens and eggs, delicious fresh fish (feast on the mackerel now in season) and lots of green vegetables and fruit.

Scientists are pressing for omega-3 additives to be introduced into many staple foods, although this will no doubt pose ethical and practical problems for vegetarians, if fish extracts are added to foods.

In the end, we need to constantly remind ourselves that ultimately ‘our food should be our medicine’. So the reality is that we need to expend a bit more time and energy sourcing good quality fresh naturally produced seasonal food for ourselves, our family and our friends, it will be time and money very well spent.

Carpaccio of Zucchini with slivers of Parmesan

A simple dish which depends totally on the quality of your ingredients, use the very best Extra Virgin olive oil you can afford, small crisp zucchini, and a sweet nutty parmesan.
Serves 6

675g (1-1½lbs) freshly picked yellow and green zucchini, not more than 5 inches in length
225g (8oz) rocket leaves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6oz (100-175g) Parmesan, (Parmigiano Reggiano) in the piece, sliced into slivers
Zucchini flowers (optional)

Trim the ends off the zucchini and slice at an angle into thin rounds. Place in a bowl. Wash and dry the rocket leaves thoroughly. Mix, then leave to marinate for 5 minutes. Taste and season. Divide the rocket leaves and a few zucchini petals between the serving plates. Put the zucchini on top, and then the Parmesan slivers. Sprinkle with a little freshly ground black pepper, and serve.

Fettucini with Salmon, Roast Peppers and Scallions

We have just another couple of weeks left to enjoy delicious wild Irish salmon, so seek it out immediately.
Serves 4-6

12 ozs (340 g) fettucini 
8 ozs (225 g) wild Irish salmon, skinned
3 shallots, chopped
2 tablesp. freshly chopped parsley
5 tablesp. olive oil
1 lemon
4 red peppers, roasted, seeded and peeled
12 fresh basil leaves
4-6 scallions
2 ozs (50 g) fresh white breadcrumbs toasted until dry
3 tablesp. Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large pot of water to the boil – 6 pints (3.4L) water to 1 tablespoon 
salt. Add fettucini and stir well. Cook the fettucini until ‘al dente’ and strain well. 
Cut the salmon into ½ inch dice. Combine the chopped shallots, parsley and olive oil in a bowl. Add the freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon and then stir in the salmon. Allow to marinate.

Meanwhile roast, peel and seed the peppers. Cut the flesh into thin strips, season with sea salt, freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and a few torn basil leaves. 

Cut the scallions into 1½ inch julienne. Heat the olive oil and cook the scallions for 2-3 minutes or until softened slightly, add the pepper and salmon and toss once or twice just to heat through. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and another squeeze of lemon juice. 

Drain the fettucini, put into the hot pasta bowl, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Pour the salmon mixture on top, toss gently. Sprinkle with crunchy crumbs and a few more torn basil leaves and snipped parsley. Serve immediately on hot plates.

Penne with Wild Salmon and Garden Peas

Serves 4
Sanford Allen, a charismatic American violinist and friend gave me this fresh tasting pasta recipe.

8 ozs (225g) Penne
8 ozs (225g) wild salmon
1 tablesp. Extra Virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 ozs (225g) peas, preferably fresh from the garden, but good quality frozen peas also work quite well.
1-2 tablesp. parsley or dill, chopped
2 tablesp. Extra Virgin olive oil 
2 oz (15g) butter
Freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemon
1-2 tablespoons approx. chopped parsley

Garnish
Extra chopped parsley

Cook the penne in boiling salted water, using 2 tablespoons of salt to 4 pints (2.3L) water, for about 15-20 minutes. Blanch the peas.

Skin the salmon and cut into 2 inch (1cm) cubes. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan, add in the garlic, cook on a medium heat for a minute or so, then add the salmon and toss gently until it changes colour. Add the blanched peas. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar.

Drain the penne and toss in the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and melted butter, add the salmon mixture, the parsley and freshly squeezed lemon juice, toss gently, taste and correct the seasoning. Put into a hot serving dish, sprinkle with a little extra chopped parsley and eat immediately.

Sugared Peaches or Nectarines with fresh raspberry sauce

Serves 6
A truly delicious combination even more irresistible with a scoop of home-made vanilla icecream. 

6 perfect ripe peaches or nectarines
castor sugar
freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fresh Raspberry Sauce
: lb (340g) raspberries
freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon
22-3 ozs (70-85g) castor sugar
Garnish
sprigs of mint or lemon balm

First make the Raspberry sauce - purée the raspberries, sugar and lemon juice. Push through a nylon sieve to remove the pips. Taste and chill.

Put the peaches into a deep bowl, cover them with boiling water, pour off the water and drop into iced water. Peel immediately and slice into 3 inch (5mm) slices removing the stone. Nectarines do not need to be peeled. Put into a bowl, sprinkle with castor sugar and lemon juice to taste. Serve chilled with Raspberry sauce and perhaps a blob of home-made vanilla ice-cream. Garnish with a sprig of mint or lemon balm if you have it to hand.
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Foolproof Food

Char-grilled Summer Vegetables

In July we feast on these char-grilled vegetables as a starter. We use many different combinations. You could serve with Tapenade Toasts or bruschetta or a few whole roast garlic. They are also marvellous with goat’s cheese, with pasta and variously with Pesto.

Serves 8 as a starter or 4 as a main course 

4 medium sized green courgettes (zucchini) sliced lengthways, (one-eight inch (3mm) thick
2-3 aubergines, sliced ¼ inch (5mm) thick
Sea salt
2-3 fleshy red peppers, Italian or Spanish if possible
2-3 fleshy yellow peppers, Italian or Spanish if possible 
4-6 pieces of green asparagus 
1 head of fennel, sliced one-eight inch (3mm) lengthways 
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Dressing
80ml (3 fl oz)very best Italian extra virgin olive oil 
Freshly squeezed juice of ¼ lemon approx. or 2 tablesps. Balsamic vinegar 
10-12 whole basil leaves (annual marjoram is also very good)
Sea salt and freshly cracked pepperSlice the aubergines and courgettes (zucchini) sprinkle with pure salt, leave to drain in a colander to get rid of excess liquid - half an hour at least. If the zucchini are small home grown and very fresh this step is scarcely necessary. 

Chargrill the peppers, turning them so they become completely charred on all sides. We do this in various ways, on a chargrill, over the gas jet, under the grill or in the oven. Remove and place in a bowl. Cover and leave for 5 or 10 minutes. They will be easier to peel. 

Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for no more than 30 seconds, then plunge into iced water to refresh. Drain. 

Lay out the aubergines and courgettes on clean cloths or kitchen paper to dry off all the excess liquid. Brush each piece sparingly with olive oil. Grill the aubergines first using a chargrill or hot grill pan - they should be soft when pressed and scorched by the grill but not blackened. Put each vegetable into a large bowl as you grill. Next chargrill or pangrill the courgettes and fennel slices just give them a few seconds sufficient time to brown the places where they touch the grill. Finally season the blanched asparagus with salt and pepper. Grill for about ½ minute on each side.

The peppers should now be cool. Peel off the charred skin, remove the stalk and seeds with your hands, divide the peppers into four (they will divide naturally) and add to the other chargrilled vegetables. Don't wash them or you'll loose some of their sweet flavour. Mix the extra virgin olive oil with freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Toss the vegetables in the dressing, taste and season with sea salt and freshly crushed black pepper (we crush ours in a pestle and mortar for this recipe). Arrange on a large white platter drizzle olive oil, scatter with basil or marjoram leaves and a few black olives.

Hot Tips

Green Cuisine Ltd, Penrhos Court, Kington, Herefordshire in UK – upcoming courses – Daphne Lambert, nutritionist and chef, shows you which foods to avoid and which to eat to help create balance and vibrant health in Seeds of Change Course –

5-8 September and other dates in October and November. Beating Candida with diet and lifestyle, 18-20 November, Women’s Health Course – 22-24th November. Details from Daphne 00 44 1544 230720, daphne@greencuisine.org  www.greencuisine.org  

The Apple Farm, Moorstown, Cahir, Co Tipperary. www.theapplefarm.com 
Now in their farm shop they have strawberries and raspberries and by August they will also have plums. They will still have raspberries right through August with new autumn-fruiting variety. They also have apple juice, apple jelly, strawberry and plum jam and farm-made cider vinegar and Baylough cheese from Clogheen.

Raspberries now in season – The first written mention of raspberries in English is in a book on herbal medicine dating back to 1548 and this delicious little fruit was attributed with many qualities. Modern science has highlighted the range and potency of antioxidants in the raspberry, they help prevent cell damage and the anti-biotic properties of the fruit aid against irritable bowel syndrome and other infections. Loganberries, Tayberries and Boysenberries also in season, are not so easy to source. Try Sunnyside Fruit Farm, Rathcormac, Co. Cork. Tel. 025-36253, Walsh’s Farm in Shanagarry, Tel 021- 4646836, or your nearest fruit farm. 

Glebe Gardens and Café, on Skibbereen to Baltimore Road near entrance to Baltimore Village 
Open daily from Easter till end September 10-6, Tel 028-20232 glebegardens@eircom.net  www.glebegardens.com