Let there be light

Mark Hix explains how to stick to those healthy New Year's resolutions - and still feast your senses
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It does drag on a bit, don't you think? And if you're like me you're becoming conscious of those extra few pounds you've put on. Working with food - tasting north-African menus one minute and Vietnamese the next - isn't normal and needs a certain discipline. But it's when I'm not working, and eating three meals a day plus snacks in between, that things can get out of control.

It does drag on a bit, don't you think? And if you're like me you're becoming conscious of those extra few pounds you've put on. Working with food - tasting north-African menus one minute and Vietnamese the next - isn't normal and needs a certain discipline. But it's when I'm not working, and eating three meals a day plus snacks in between, that things can get out of control.

Think about the typical Christmas lunch. A starter, meat, stuffing, potatoes, bread sauce, then bloody Christmas pudding and cream and mince pies, with a few glasses to help it all down. No wonder we are all feeling we should get a grip. And why many of us have probably resolved to start a super healthy diet, and stop drinking. That resolution usually lasts a couple of days. Until you realise you hate it - not drinking, that is - and try to strike a balance.

In a country where food is plentiful we need to make choices about what we eat and when we eat it. A healthy diet doesn't necessarily consist of nothing but veg and salads. Or going to the extreme of the Atkins or Hay. You can eat well and in balance if you just take an interest. That's the message put across by cookery writer Ruth Watson in her new book Fat Girl Slim (Quadrille, £14.99) - how to lose weight and really enjoy what you eat. If you genuinely relish good food you're well on the way. You'll appreciate a spicy chicken salad and some tempura soft-shell crab more than a pile of raw veg that leaves you so hungry you grab a doughnut later.

Some people eat to live, some live to eat and some live to eat lots without even seeming to enjoy it. The junk that is put away without a thought is shocking. But if you live to eat and appreciate what you eat, it shouldn't be too tricky to get through the day with something that's better for you. Here are some temporary, healthy ideas to make up for all that over-indulgence. Cook them, eat them, enjoy them, and get on with life.

Shallot soup with fromage frais

Serves 4

This is a dead simple and tasty soup to keep the chill out. Onions and garlic tend to scare off people, but when they are fully cooked, they take on a pleasant and completely different flavour. Not that the garlic and onion family are unpleasant raw, it's just that they aren't great socially.

500g shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1.2 litre vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
80g fromage frais

In a saucepan with the lid on gently cook the shallots in the olive oil for 8-10 minutes until soft, stirring every so often to prevent them browning. If they do begin to colour, add 2-3tbsp of water. Add the vegetable stock, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 30 minutes, then liquidise in a blender until smooth and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.

Transfer to a clean pan and re-season with salt and pepper if necessary. Serve with a spoonful of fromage frais.

Grilled vegetables with goat's cheese

Serves 4

It's become boring seeing grilled vegetables this, and grilled vegetables that, on menus. It's like, "What shall we garnish with grilled vegetables this week?" But these phases pass and the vegetables return as they should be, just simple and tasty. Grilling is healthy, too, and transforms the original flavours of the veg into something else.

2 red peppers, quartered and deseeded
2 courgettes cut into 1cm-thick slices on the angle
1 large aubergine, cut into 6 wedges
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
4 small fresh goat's cheeses, weighing about 40-50g each

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas mark 7.

Rub olive oil on to a ribbed griddle pan or barbecue (or pre-heat a grill) and season and cook the vegetables until soft, which will take 4-5 minutes on each side. Arrange them in an f ovenproof dish and drizzle with a little more olive oil and the thyme leaves. Put the goat's cheese in the middle and bake for 15 minutes.

Mexican chicken salad with guacamole

Serves 4

If you want something meaty, tasty but light, then this is the thing. Enjoy the flavours and textures but with no guilt. You could also try it as a small starter or wait until the summer is here and do the chicken on the barbecue.

8 large chicken thighs, boned, skinned and cut in half
1 crisp Cos lettuce, washed, dried and large leaves torn in half
8 whole pickled chillies (guiladillas), rinsed in cold water
4 piquillo peppers, cut into 4
A few sprigs of coriander
Vegetable oil

for the marinade

stalks from the coriander
1 small red chilli
4 cloves of garlic
2tsp tomato purée
1tsp pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
4tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

for the guacamole

3 avocados, peeled and stoned
A pinch of pimenton, as above
juice of 1¿2 lemon
80g sour cream or cream
Salt and pepper

for the dressing

150ml extra-virgin olive oil
15ml balsamic vinegar
25ml sweet chilli sauce
1¿2tsp pimenton

Process all the ingredients for the marinade in a blender, mix well with the chicken and leave for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

To make the guacamole, mash the avocado with a fork or in a food processor and mix it with the pimenton, lemon juice and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper and add a little more lemon juice and pimenton if you like.

Make the dressing by whisking, or using a bottle and shaking, all the ingredients together.

To cook the chicken, drain off any excess marinade, then sauté the pieces in a little vegetable oil in a hot thick-bottomed frying pan for 10-12 minutes to give the chicken a nice colour on both sides. Alternatively you can cook them under a pre-heated hot grill for the same amount of time, turning them after 5 minutes.

Arrange the Cos lettuce on plates with the chicken on top. Arrange the chillies and peppers on top and spoon over the dressing. Serve with a spoonful of guacamole and the coriander leaves. A light dusting of paprika gives a good finish over the guacamole.

Baked fennel and cavalo nero with anchovies, capers and Parmesan

Serves 4

When I first come across cavalo nero (Italian black cabbage) I was intrigued about the best way to cook it. Savoy cabbage can be briefly boiled and is tender, but cavalo nero, like lots of vegetables, lends itself to slow cooking with other flavourings. Soups and stews are the thing, then you get the best out of it. Don't worry about overcooking it.

1-2 heads of cavalo nero weighing about 500g
2 bulbs of fennel
150ml of extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tbsp capers
1 x 50g can of anchovies in olive oil, drained
2tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the fennel in a pan, cover with salted water, bring to the boil and simmer for 35-40 minutes until tender to the point of a knife, then remove from the heat and drain in a colander. Meanwhile, remove the stalks from the cavalo nero, chop the leaves into mouth-size pieces, wash in cold water and drain. Cook in boiling, salted water for 15-20 minutes until tender, then drain in a colander.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 5.

Mix the garlic and half the olive oil with the cavalo nero and season with salt and pepper and lay it in the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Cut each fennel bulb into 6 wedges and lay them on top of the cavalo nero. Season the fennel with salt and pepper and spoon over the rest of the olive oil.

Cover with a lid or foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the lid, arrange the anchovies over the fennel and scatter the capers on top. Sprinkle on the Parmesan and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.

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