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Healthy Comfort Food

A Contradiction in Terms?

Year on year it seems that the minute the nights start drawing in and the temperature drops by a notch or two most of us morph into emergency munching mode. An almost instinctive craving for carb heavy, dense foods grips all but the most stalwart and helps to add a few more pounds to those already gained over the festive period.

It’s not our fault of course, aren’t we genetically programmed to bulk ourselves up over the colder months to provide heat and energy, as our hunter gatherer ancestors would have done? The trouble is that we now live in centrally heated houses rather than caves or huts and simply don’t require the extra calories required to conserve heat.

In our defence several studies have shown that seasonal changes can alter the balance of the hormones which influence appetite. Then there’s SADS (seasonally affected disorder syndrome), research suggests that people may crave carbohydrates as a way to lift their spirits. It’s sunlight which triggers the hormone serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood.

So how can we satisfy our hedonic urges without piling on the pounds? It’s still eminently possible to eat warming, comforting foods that are satisfying but healthy too. Here’s some suggestions to get you started:-

Snacks

As a self – confessed crispaholic, salty savoury snacks have always been my nemesis. However I’ve recently discovered the joys of oven toasted seeds and now I’m a convert. Just mix any seeds you like (sunflower, pumpkin, butternut) with a little oil to coat and the seasonings of your choice- I like salt and a little smoked paprika. Pop the seeds on a baking tray and cook on a low oven gas mark 3/150c for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown- absolutely delicious and very moreish. Oven roasted chickpeas are equally good and super tasty when tossed through a little harissa paste. All of the flavour and none of the guilt.

soup

Soup

Homemade soups can be both delicious and comforting, winter veg like butternut squash imparts both a glorious colour and velvety texture and works well with a whole host of ingredients – try adding a teaspoon or two of harissa paste to the pot for a warming kick. Using lentils as a basis for soup also produces a wonderful texture and makes for a satisfying and sustaining lunch. Lentils are a superb ingredient as they are a great carrier of flavour and can withstand some really robust spicing.

stew

Stews and Casseroles

There’s nothing that smacks more of the winter months than a good old stew and they don’t need to be unhealthy. Try bulking them out with pulses- a chicken, black bean and jalapeno stew will blow the cobwebs away and will feel like a hearty meal without loading on the calories. How about trying channa masala, absolutely delicious, no chopping involved and ready from pan to plate in 20 minutes. Play about with side dishes too, as swapping ingredients out can make all the difference. Sweet potatoes are delicious and low on the glycaemic index, quinoa can be substituted for rice or cous cous and cauliflower rice makes for a great alternative to noodles or mash.

citrus fruit

Citrus Fruit

Fresh fruit may be scarce in winter but good old lemons, grapefruits, clementines and oranges are always available to tickle the taste buds. A squeeze of citrus can really lift a winter salad or help to make a sauce sparkle, grating lemon zest over pasta or fish helps the flavours to sing.

kale

Cruciferous Vegetables

Think kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and cauliflower and be creative to get the best out of them. Kale’s great when transformed into crunchy, salty chips or whizzed into a pesto. Brussels sprouts are a bit of a Marmite vegetable and I must admit I’ve never been a fan but do think I could be converted by a recipe I stumbled across recently for deep-fried sprouts with goat’s cheese and red chilli flakes.

Swiss chard is perfect for a cold winter’s evening when made into a delicious cheesy gratin. Last but not least comes the mighty cauliflower – such a versatile vegetable. Divine when roasted with spices and a drizzle of oil, stunning as Korean style popcorn cauliflower and silky smooth when puréed.

pear pudding

Desserts

We can definitely become more sedentary during the colder months and this lack of stimulation can trigger off food cravings particularly for sweet treats. Instead of denying yourself and feeling punished, look for healthier alternatives (see our recipe for chocolate pear pudding, rich and delicious yet not overloaded with naughties).

Rice pudding can be a tasty and satisfying dessert, just swap out the full fat milk and cream for semi-skimmed milk- the starch in the rice will still make for an unctuous pudding. Even crumble can be guilt free, cook the fruit and topping separately and include oats, seeds and preferably unrefined sugar, maple syrup, molasses or honey in the crumble. A comforting mug of hot chocolate is a good way to satisfy a sugar craving- make it using good quality dark chocolate and coconut milk for a touch of sweetness.

So it’s time to embrace the season, keep cosy and eat healthily- you won’t even notice the cold when you’re rattling those pots and pans in the kitchen!

 

Chocolate Pear Pudding

Ingredients

3 ripe pears

Juice ½ lemon

1 tbsp light muscovado sugar

4 tsp Poire William liqueur or cognac (optional)

For the topping

50g icing sugar

1 tbsp cocoa powder

25g ground almond

1 egg white

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Heat the oven to 160c/fan 140c/gas mark 3.
  2. Chop the pears into small pieces and put them in a small saucepan with the lemon juice and sugar. Bring to the boil, then put the lid on and cook for 10 mins.
  3. Take the lid off, then cook for 8-10 mins more until the juices thicken up. Spoon into 4 x 150ml ramekins and add a teaspoon of the liqueur to each, if using.
  4. For the topping, sift the icing sugar and cocoa into a bowl, then stir in the almonds. Whisk the egg white until it forms stiff peaks, then fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients.
  5. Spoon the chocolate mixture over the pears and shake the ramekins to level the mixture.
  6. Bake for 20-25 mins until the topping is firm to the touch. Serve warm or cold.

(A version of this recipe previously appeared in BBC Good Food)