Simple food for the over-indulged
Over-indulged? Over-entertained? Do you have that post-holiday feeling when you cannot face another rich meal? The French, as you might expect, have a word for it – crise de foie.
When I taught at a boarding school in France, my colleagues regularly claimed to have a crise, usually on a Monday morning, and they would take a little weak infusion of camomile or linden flowers instead of the usual large bowl of milky coffee we were served for breakfast. And no butter with the baguette.
So perhaps it is time to think about food that is at the same time appetising but easy on the system. Soups, steamed dishes, food cooked en papillote and fruit desserts will fit the bill.
Consider serving vegetable-based dishes instead of protein, for example, warm salads, vegetable terrines, risotto and pasta, vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs rather than minced beef and new season’s vegetables in a well-flavoured broth. For fruit desserts, think of sorbets, fools (a 17th-century British dessert) made with thick yoghurt rather than cream or custard, compotes of dried fruit and nuts in fragrant tea, crumbles and jellies.
Think about cooking methods too. Steam or grill protein instead of roasting or frying. Braised meat dishes or casseroles need not be rich, and are just the sort of food we still want in winter. A favourite winter dish at home is my fish pie.
Very simply, a layer of cooked and drained spinach, a layer of fresh fish or seafood, or a mixture, a layer of béchamel sauce with chopped hard-boiled egg and finally a layer of mashed potatoes, baked for about 45 minutes at 180°C – very comforting.
This is the kind of dish we would eat in the evening, as we would rice and pasta dishes. They induce sleep, as anyone who eats pasta or a pile of sandwiches at lunchtime will all too easily recognise.
Save the fish and meat for lunchtime, and starch for the evening. Eating starch-based dishes induces the amino acid, tryptophan, to enter the brain more easily, where serotonin is produced, the ‘happy’ chemical which helps soothe and calm any anxiety, depression and irritability.
Within 90 minutes or so of eating a bowl of pasta, you can expect to feel a noticeable improvement in your mood. This will be most effective if the pasta is dressed with a non-fat or low-fat sauce, since fat slows down the digestion of carbohydrates.
Use a tomato or mushroom sauce rather than a cheese or meat sauce. A few vegetables, dropped into the pasta water at appropriate intervals, are, indeed, all you need to make a complete dish, exceedingly simple to prepare, and needing no more than one saucepan.
Fresh vegetable juices and raw fruit and vegetables are also excellent for the tired liver. At this time of year, a juicer is a really excellent piece of kit for the kitchen. A pile of raw and well-cleaned beetroot, carrots, broccoli stalks and red pepper, together with a little ginger makes an extraordinary pick-me-up.
But experiment with the juicer. Try a green juice with apples, celery, green peppers, spinach and rocket. Carrots and pineapple, together with yellow pepper, a small swede and some fresh ginger produce a power-packing zinger of a golden cocktail.
Vegetables are also excellent combined in rice and pasta dishes, of which I have included two very simple recipes, artichoke risotto and pasta primavera. That particular risotto developed from a broth I made after preparing a jug of green vegetable juice. Use a red broth for a beetroot risotto, an orange or yellow broth to make a carrot or pumpkin risotto.
Delicate and subtle in flavour, a simple vegetable risotto is every bit as good as a risotto full of rich ingredients such as truffle, shellfish, wild mushrooms. In Florence, once we ate the simplest of risottos: the rice was combined with nothing more than celery and carrot, very finely diced and flavoured with a little rosemary.
Despite its poor image, boiling is the best method for cooking certain vegetables. Forget images of waterlogged carrots and soggy cabbage. Walls of cellulose are what hold vegetables together and cooking breaks these down. Boiling is the fastest method for vegetables destined for mashing and purées, and it is one of the most efficient ways of cooking fibrous vegetables, such as cardoons and globe artichokes.
Artichokes can be turned into an excellent risotto, using simply a vegetable stock, and then finishing the dish off with Parmesan cheese. For this, the leaves and choke are removed, leaving only the rounded base, which is thinly sliced and needs no pre-cooking.
To make the stock, take the residue from making vegetable juice, put in a large saucepan, add two litres of water, and simmer for an hour or so. Strain into a jug, pressing to remove as much extract as possible. As well as soups and risotto, it is also very good for cooking pasta and poaching chicken or fish.
Root vegetables are perfect for roasting because they contain a good deal of starch, which in cooking turns to sugar, and most spectacularly, when a high heat is applied to cut surfaces which then turn brown, caramelise and seal to a crispness. Half an onion, browned and caramelised in the oven, or under the grill, gives an excellent dark colour to stock for casseroles, sauces and, above all, French onion soup.
I like to roast a combination of roots, perhaps celeriac, fennel, parsnips, thick carrots, potatoes, swedes, turnips and sweet potatoes. Apart from the potatoes, I peel the vegetables, and brush the baking dish with olive oil.
The vegetables should be cut into wedges to give a larger surface area to caramelise. Cook them for about an hour at 180°C to 200°C/350°F to 400°F, gas mark 4 to 6. Sweet potatoes should be added about half way through cooking, as they have a softer flesh.