Pimping dinner with pumpkins Monday, Nov 4 2013 

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I LOVE pumpkins. Autumn food in general, in fact (parsnips, butternut squash…) but ESPECIALLY pumpkins. And Whole Foods Market caught my eye today with a genius healthy dinner idea, using pumpkin, that’s ready in minutes.

For ultimate speed, you need pumpkin purée. I’m able to buy mine in frozen cubes from Picard (the French equivalent of Iceland). Foodie website Sous Chef sells it at £2 a can – or you can make your own perhaps. The basic recipe is this: fry some onion in olive oil, followed by brown or tricolor rice (about 75g per person). Throw in vegetable stock (200ml per person) and about 75g pumpkin purée. Add a couple of bay leaves and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Cook for the rice’s cooking time as directed on the packet. Stay by the pan to make sure it doesn’t boil dry (add more water if necessary). Once it’s ready, there’s no need to drain it – just spoon straight into a bowl and enjoy!

As well as being tasty, it’s healthy too – a hard thing to come by as the days get shorter, the nights get colder and the food gets stodgier. As a vegetarian sympathiser, I’m thrilled to have found another easy, quick vegetarian meal to add to my repertoire. Here’s why it’s so good for you:

Brown or tricolor rice. Tricolor rice mixes tend to consist of white (or brown) rice, red rice, and wild rice. Red rice is known to retard plaque formation, and has high levels of iron and calcium (which help to strengthen the bones and blood). White rice is an excellent source of slow-burning energy and contains good levels of B vitamins (which, among other things, prevent anaemia and keep nerve and muscle tissue healthy). Brown rice contains all of this and more – particularly magnesium, which can prevent strokes and heart attacks. Wild rice, however, is perhaps the champion, providing all of this as well as promising levels of protein (to strengthen hair, nails, bones, metabolism and more) and zinc (to support a healthy immune system and quick healing times).

Onion. Perhaps the original superfood, onions are anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer and antioxidant thanks to the lovely range of flavanoids they contain.

Olive oil. This unsaturated fat is better for you than saturated fats – it can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and could even prevent Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and liver, bowel and pancreatic diseases.

Homemade vegetable stock. Don’t worry if you’ve only got a cube. I won’t tell anyone. But by using homemade vegetable stock, you’re getting the best benefits: not only are they lower in salt than many commercial stock cubes, but the vitamins and minerals in the vegetables you used to make it all stay in the stock, increasing your intake of vitamin A, iron, and calcium.

Pumpkin. Arguably the star of the show in this recipe, pumpkin is one of your five a day. It’s low-calorie (26 calories per 100g), extremely low in fat (0.1g per 100g), and high in vitamin A – specifically, in beta-carotene. This is essential for a healthy immune system, sharp vision, and good skin. All the more reason to keep chomping on it – even though Halloween is over.

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V for Vendetta Wednesday, Aug 21 2013 

at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

With the pace of our lives arguably becoming ever busier, those with business acumen in this domain have clearly seen the role that vending machines can play in terms of fulfilling our need to eat. Vending machines can be seen just about everywhere: stations, garage forecourts, hotels and theme parks are just a few of the locations where you’ll find them. They also take the moral low ground in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as schools, sports centres, and even at the Olympic Games.

This might be considered acceptable if the machines contained healthy foods, but they usually don’t, and while the occasional Mars Bar is not bad per se, the problem arises from the fact that vending machines give children and teenagers unbridled access to junk food at moments when responsible adults are not necessarily going to be there to guide them. I was going to shopping malls and cinemas (very vending-machine-heavy places) without an adult from the age of eleven, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. From about this age, too, especially in large cities, children make their own way to school (passing through vending-machine dominated railway stations), and while many schools have banned vending machines by now, the establishment I work at is just one school where they still reign supreme.

nicole pastry

Gail’s Pastries chef Nicole rolling gluten-free pastry

One could blame the adults for not supervising their children adequately, or for not steering them in the right direction from an early enough age so that they make good independent choices when older. But surely junk food should not be thrust into our faces at every turn? Even supposedly responsible adults have weaknesses and it seems unbelievable that the people working for these vast corporations should be more concerned about their profits than on the long-term effects of capitalising on our children’s pester power, or on our poorly-directed impulses and stressed moods. Strategically-placed displays of junk food at the ends of key supermarket aisles or at the checkout are just as reprehensible. So why not make our choices easier? I get that vending machine companies just want to make money (we all do, right?). But if people are really hungry or thirsty, then they will still eat and drink – so why not fill the machines with healthier temptations?

Students at University College Birmingham have been trying to innovate in just this regard by joining forces with the Automatic Vending Association (AVA) as part of a special project to design new healthy vending machine snacks. The students’ ideas included Caulipockets (a gluten-free pasty-style snack with pastry made from cauliflower), AM 2 PM (a snack pack containing one sweet and one savoury mini-snack – one for the morning and one for the afternoon) and Noodlelicious (a low-calorie hot snack made with rice noodles, including a vegetarian option). The winner of the project, Gail Pastries, will have its wheat-free pastries sold in AVA vending machines – proving that if the big boys of the vending machine world are on board, then this can be done.

So what would I like to see in my new fantasy healthy vending machines? Apart from the excellent inventions from the students at UCB, here’s a handy list:

  • Water (fizzy and still…Definitely no flavoured waters allowed)
  • Smoothies and fruit juices
  • Tea (no milk, no sugar…I can’t believe a machine could screw up a tea bag and some hot water, so this can only go well)
  • Milk and soy milk (I don’t personally like it, but recognise it’s a healthy drink)
  • Raw food bars. The good ones are pressed, not baked, and don’t add sugar. I’m a NAKD bar fan myself.
  • Flapjacks. The oats keep you full, the fruit can be a cheeky one of your five-a-day, and they don’t have to be chock-full of sugar and fat. Honey or fructose can be used to sweeten instead, with a healthy oil being used as the ‘glue’ to keep it together.
  • Nuts. The best ones for your health are pistachios, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.
  • Dried fruits. The possibilities are pretty much endless, but my favourites are apple, mango, cherry, blueberry, raisin and pear.
  • Vegetable or bean chips. A great alternative to crisps, these are never going to be the same as eating fresh veg, but are healthier than potato crisps while still providing that satisfying crunch. I like Tyrells, but there are MANY brands out there. Lighter crisps, such as those by Popchips and TooGood, could also be used.
  • Plain popcorn. It’s what you put on it that makes it unhealthy. If flavourings are necessary, then vending machines could sell popcorn flavoured with chilli/paprika (for a savoury version) or an artificial sweetener, using low-fat cooking oil or similar to make the flavourings stick.
  • Rice cakes…preferably not the ones covered in caramel. The ones that come with a very thin layer of dark chocolate on one side could be OK though.

The best part is that in the meantime, it’s easy enough to prepare many of these snacks at home, or to buy them in places that are less expensive than vending machines – so voting with your feet is an option. Meanwhile, with baguettes being sold out of vending machines in France, fries out of Belgian machines, and pizza out of American machines, there’s scope worldwide too for this healthy vending revolution to occur. Now back to school for the new academic year to see if I can wean our little monsters off the vending machines in our school cafeteria…

Packed lunches: yay or nay? Saturday, Jul 13 2013 

Is this what’s being served at your child’s school? BLECH.

Headteachers across the UK have recently been urged by a government-commissioned school food review to ban children from bringing in their own lunches. Parents are already beginning to bemoan this for several valid reasons – among them the current cost and quality of school dinners, and the power of the nanny state over parental choice. Others, however, see that this could be a good thing, given that packed lunches don’t always encourage communal eating in schools, some parents are not sending their child to school with a balanced meal, and schools are supposed to be reinforcing the precepts of healthy eating taught in class (which is in their best interests – after all, children do concentrate better in school if they eat properly). So as a teacher in a secondary school, what’s my view of it?

I have some very driven, athletic students who pride themselves upon eating well, choosing to go to the nearby supermarket at lunchtime for a salad and an apple. I also have some students who can be found glued to the vending machines at any opportunity (including between lessons, when they shouldn’t be there – not just at lunchtime) and who take themselves off to fast food outlets every lunchtime. My colleagues in the science department try very hard, I’m sure, when teaching nutrition, to educate the students about healthy food choices, and balanced school meals are provided (usually consisting of a protein, a carbohydrate, 1-2 vegetables, and something for afters, which is sometimes fruit and sometimes dessert).

However, is it really a school’s role to teach students about healthy eating, and to uphold this principle throughout the school day? This is where Britain and France diverge. Britain is the land where vending machines have been mostly banned in schools by now, and where students have the precepts of healthy eating drummed into them, not just in science lessons but also in personal and social education classes (PSE). The argument that schools should continue to do this by having students eat healthy lunches provided by the school therefore follows logically. In France, however, the choices and rights of the individual are highly prized (this is practically enshrined in their constitution). This seems to cover the students and their parents separately, therefore leaving no place for schools to tell students what they should or shouldn’t be eating, or to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t be feeding their children. It therefore makes logical sense in the light of this to allow students to eat what they want at lunchtime, whether it’s an apple or an apple pie. This is also a reason why you won’t find any PSE lessons in French schools, and why students in France are unlikely to be punished by their school for their behaviour outside of the premises, even if they happen to be wearing a school uniform at the time.

A school meal from Grenoble

The French view of it also assumes that parents are already teaching children to eat correctly, so for schools to do so would be redundant. This is perhaps not unfounded given that France hardly has a problem with obesity (go over a UK size 12 here and you’re practically considered plus-size). School dinners are also a matter of convenience, not health, and if children (or their parents) don’t want these, packed lunches are still practically unheard of, as children not taking school dinners tend to go home for lunch (hence the idea of school dinners being more to do with convenience). Plus, let’s be honest, there’s perhaps less of an issue in France with children refusing to eat something that resembles vulcanized lizard rocks from the moon (thanks, Dylan Moran!). Take this sample menu, for instance, from the secondary school nearest to where I live (NB not the one I work at):

STARTER: Soup, salami, or a white cabbage salad; MAIN: Roast veal with tomato and basil or tuna quiche, served with parsley potatoes or leek fondue; DAIRY: yoghurt or cheese; DESSERT: homemade fruit crumble or fresh fruit.

All ingredients are seasonal and they even recommend which options students should choose if they’re trying to watch their weight. Not a Turkey Twizzler or even a chip in sight. The cost? €220 a term, or €3,46 a meal (assuming they’ll be in school for 64 days the term commencing September 2013). That’s £2.99 at today’s exchange rate. There’s even a cheaper tariff available if you don’t want them to have all the meals each week. Costs also go down if you go to a cheaper area of France (living costs in the south of France, where the above picture came from, are far likelier to be lower than here, just outside of Paris). AND THIS IS A STATE SCHOOL WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. What’s the French for “blimey!”?

It’s therefore easy to see why this may be more of a problem in the UK – particularly if it’s really true that British parents are not sending their kids to school with a healthy lunch (not necessarily saying this has to rival the above, people). For some people this raises an ethical question: if significant numbers of parents are not doing this, then is it the school’s moral duty to do so?

Among all of those saying “hands off my children, nanny state!” there are people like me who feel that since schools and teachers are often considered in loco parentis, we are obliged to fulfil these duties where the parents fail. This comes from someone like me who works in a school which at times actively facilitates poor eating: even though (as mentioned above) the establishment I work at does provide balanced meals for students at lunchtime, it resembles airline food more than anything else and is probably of limited nutritional value even if they aren’t serving the kids Mars Bars for dessert. Takeup is consequently very low as the meals are widely thought by the students to be disgusting, and word of mouth is a powerful thing. It’s also worth noting that I work in a private school that’s crammed to the rafters with the children of diplomats, oil magnates, film-makers, and so on. Money is not an issue for the vast majority, so having to pay a little bit more for their children to eat outside the premises typically doesn’t bother the parents. On top of this, students are permitted unfettered access to vending machines within the school building, virtually regardless of age or time of day. This would be fine if the machines contained cereal bars, dried fruit, and water. But they don’t, which means kids can often be seen strolling the corridors at 9.00 in the morning cradling a can of full-fat Coke or chomping on a Twix for breakfast (yes, really, often our students’ excuse for this is that they didn’t eat breakfast this morning). It’s perhaps easy to see, then, why I feel that some schools overstep the mark.

Perhaps that’s where the difficulty lies. SOME schools overstep the mark. SOME parents don’t send their children to school with a healthy lunch. NOT ALL of them do. So how can you legislate against those who aren’t up to scratch without victimizing those who are? Parents in Britain particularly resent their children’s meals being policed in this way. So the best approach is probably a multi-pronged attack, as suggested elsewhere in the School Food Plan report. Firstly, tackle the cost: state schools’ meals at the very least should be heavily subsidised to ensure that they are healthy and affordable in the hope of increasing uptake. Perhaps a day where parents and children can come and sample the food for free will also persuade them to sign up for the meals long-term. As more children choose school meals, other children may not want to feel left out and to have the chance to eat similar food, meaning that peer pressure can play a positive role. The report strongly recommends continuing the free school meals scheme for disadvantaged families too.

Secondly, schools should be continuing to set a good example, even if this is not through making school dinners compulsory for all pupils. Nutrition is already covered in science lessons and should be covered in PSE as well. Only healthy foods – such as carefully chosen brands of smoothies, cereal bars, and dried fruit – should be sold in school vending machines. Equally, positive food-based activities can be encouraged through events such as after-school cookery classes, international food days, and cooking in school with fruits and vegetables the students have grown themselves (OK, so this is more easily facilitated in the countryside, but plenty of vegetables can be grown indoors, including tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms. And don’t forget the fresh herbs!). If all students have a chance to partake in activities like these then it could help the principles of healthy eating to become something applicable to their own lives. There’s also little to stop schools from involving parents in these activities, in the hope that some may lead by example.

Finally, schools will hopefully take this opportunity to implement rules that fit their establishment. Our school lets students over the age of 13 out at lunchtime due to a lack of on-site outdoor space for them to eat, socialize and get fresh air – but some schools may consider that they can do away with letting students out to feast on the delights of fast food if they improve their school meals. Equally, some schools may feel that they can monitor parents and students more closely, by watching what children eat at lunchtime in person (thanks to school supervisors) and via technology (students can already ‘touch in’ to the school canteen or ‘pay’ for their purchases using a swipe card or even a fingerprint – so the notion that their ‘purchases’ could also be recorded and relayed to parents as a written or e-report is perhaps not outside the realms of possibility). However, this would be up to individual schools to decide, and is perhaps not something that can be legislated by government as a blanket policy for all schools, whose students come from very different backgrounds and have different needs.

In short, an overall ban on packed lunches is probably not the way forward. Improvement of school meals is imperative in terms of both cost and quality, and if schools focus on this, as well as their approach to food in general and the impression that this gives to students, they may well find that they get the result that they want without the outright ban. As for me, this has even made me look more seriously at my own lunches (hey, you didn’t think that teachers always managed to make it into school with a healthier lunch than the kids, did you? More often than not I end up with instant soup or noodles…) – you’ll find me planning some seriously luxurious (and don’t forget healthy!) lunches for September.

Battle of the bars Sunday, Jun 24 2012 

When I’m not Graze-ing, I have to find other portable, affordable, healthy snacks to keep me going while on French soil. Cereal bars here are typically the full-of-sugar type made by major cereal companies, with little available in the way of genuine alternatives. Of course I have tried plenty of these myself and often been left dissatisfied, even with products from brands whose normal cereals I usually enjoy.

So some of the bars below were recommended to me by friends, while others have been sussed out by me while trying to ignore the tunnel of love (a.k.a. the biscuit aisle*) in the supermarket. But which ones are the best? How much do they really cost, and more importantly, how much fat and sugar do they contain? Are you really getting a healthy alternative? (FYI, the percentages below refer to a woman’s guideline daily amount, or GDA, of sugar and saturated fat.) And even more importantly, do the healthiest actually taste nice?

Allow me to take you through a selection of my faves.

9 bars

How many varieties does it come in? 5: original, organic, pumpkin seed, nutty, and flax

How much fat and sugar? The original bar contains 5g of saturated fat (25%) and 13.1g (14.5%) sugar. These amounts obviously vary for the other bars.

Where can I buy them and how much do they cost? 9 Bars are stocked at a wide variety of UK supermarkets (including Waitrose, Asda and Tesco), but your best bet is to try Morrison’s or Holland and Barrett, who each stock 3 varieties out of the 5. On average, a bar costs about 99p (but you can get them as low as 87p a bar if you shop online).

How do they taste? Maybe not all of the seeds are individually detectable in their flavours, but their flavours combine to make a pleasing ‘whole’. The layer of carob is great for chocoholics who need a fix while on their diet! Slightly sticky (but not inconveniently so). Possibly too sweet for some.

NAKD bars

How many varieties does it come in? The ‘Nudie’ bars (i.e. their most basic line; see left) come in around 9 flavours (some places stock discontinued flavours): Banana Bread, Apple Pie, Berry Delight, Cocoa Mint, Cocoa Delight, Cocoa Orange, Pecan Pie, Ginger Bread, and Cashew Cookie.

How much fat and sugar? Obviously the cocoa ones are likely to contain more. The Berry Delight bar, for instance, though, contains 16g sugar (18%) and 1g of saturated fat (5%). I was surprised by the higher sugar level, but that (I hope) comes from the natural sugars present in the fruit used.

Where can I buy them and how much do they cost? They’re available in all major supermarkets, plus at Jonathan Graves and Holland & Barrett. At supermarkets you’re more likely to find the multipacks, but a narrower range of flavours, whereas the health food stores tend to sell single bars only, with no offers on them – but you get a wider variety. Prices start at 49p online, but rise to 75p as a minimum in shops. Multipacks start from £2.29 for a packet of 4.

How do they taste? Surprisingly, not as sweet as the 9 Bars, despite the higher levels of sugar. Packed with natural flavour. A slightly strange but pleasing texture somewhere between a jelly sweet and a biscuit.

Trek Bars

How many varieties does it come in? 3 – cocoa brownie, peanut and oat, and mixed berry.

How much fat and sugar? As these bars are made by the same guys as NAKD, let’s compare like with like, taking the stats from Trek’s mixed berry bar. This contains 30g sugar per bar (33%), and no saturated fat whatsoever. However, these weigh 68g compared to NAKD’s slightly-meagre-by-comparison 35g. In the end, there isn’t much in it – per 100g, NAKD’s Berry Delight bars contain 47g of sugar, whereas the Trek bars contain 44.

Where can I buy them and how much do they cost? The stockists are the same as above, but you’re more likely to find them at Holland and Barrett than anywhere else, where they’re £1.49 a bar.

How do they taste? The only one I’ve tried – the peanut and oat – carried both flavours through distinctively and successfully. Tasted natural and not too heavy or greasy. Sweet, but not overly so. A hint of an almost ‘caramelized’ flavour is present.

Original Crunchy Bars (Honey and Almond)

How many varieties does it come in?
Just the one you see here – although coconut and even butterscotch versions are rumoured to exist.

How much fat and sugar? Each bar contains 1.3g saturated fat (so 6.5%) and 8.8g sugar (9.7%). So these come in lower on the saturated fat scale than the other bars, but typically higher on the sugar content.

Where can I buy them and how much do they cost? They are occasionally available as single bars for around 45p. However, they are mostly available in multipack form, costing from £1.98 for 9 bars. Available at most major supermarkets, including Tesco.

How do they taste? The honey and almond flavours come through nice and clearly (although the former perhaps more than the latter). My only complaint is regarding the texture – these are very hard indeed, so don’t give them to any tiny people who might be on the cusp of losing a tooth.

Frusli

How many varieties do they come in? This Jordans creation is available in more variants than its crunchier brother: the six types consist of cranberry and apple, raisin and hazelnut, red berries, blueberry, tropical, and apple/cinnamon/sultana.

How much fat and sugar? At 8.9g sugar per bar, this contains nearly 10% of a woman’s daily sugar requirement. With 0.5g saturated fat, this amounts to 2.5% of a woman’s GDA.

How much do they cost and where can I buy them? These can start at a mere 40p for a single bar online, but again they’re most commonly spotted as part of a multipack – which starts at £1.50 for a box of six in most major supermarkets.

How do they taste? Fruity, but not too sweet. However, you don’t get the feeling of a really satisfying snack – it feels like they have a lot of air in them and the odds of going back for a second one are high.

So which ones are “the best”?

The more mainstream bars by Jordan’s cost less than the others, but this is probably to be expected when you pit a major cereal brand against smaller independent companies. In saturated fat terms, the Trek bar is the winner, with none whatsoever for its peanut and oat variety. I was surprised to see how much saturated fat the 9 bars had in them! The Jordan’s Crunchy bars contain the least sugar, which again surprised me. The Trek bar, which had the least saturated fat, also contained the most sugar, so I wouldn’t let these figures necessarily get in the way too much, as it’s likely to be swings and roundabouts. But for a combined total of GDA, it’s the Frusli bars that come out on top – their combined GDA of sugar and saturated fat is a mere 12.5% compared with the “worst” bar, the 9 bar, which has a combined GDA of 39.5%! Even if you eat 2 Frusli bars (which, as mentioned above, is likely), that’s still the equivalent of 1 NAKD bar in terms of combined GDA. So it looks like you’re best off going for Jordans or NAKD as an everyday snack, leaving Trek bars and 9 bars as more occasional treats.

Combined GDA (saturated fat + sugar) ranking table

9 bar                      39.5%

Trek bar                33%

NAKD bar              23%

Jordans crunchy   16.2%

Jordans Frusli       12.5%

But these findings don’t necessarily mean that this investigation is over. Oh no. I recently put in orders at both The Health Bay and Healthy Supplies to replenish my cereal bar stock, and these are the ones I’m looking forward to trying:

Tropical Wholefoods Apricot and Raisin bar (you’ll remember that they already won me over with their delicious and affordable dried mango pieces)

Beond Raw Acai Berry Bar

Oskri Sesame Bar with Date Syrup

O Bar Pomegranate and Raspberry

Fruitus Apricot and Oat

So it’s very possible that you’ll be seeing Battle of the Bars: Part 2 commencing within the next few months (depending on how fast I can eat them…), which all hopefully helps you to make more informed snacktime choices. YAY 😀

*Lamentably I cannot take credit for this little gem; for that, I point you in stand-up comedian Bill Bailey’s direction.

Grazing while you work Tuesday, May 15 2012 

Image

Recently my sister joked on Facebook about starting a chocolate home delivery service if her medical career went belly up. Many of her friends agreed, and I volunteered to start the French branch if the concept took off. But the wonderful fact is that some snack delivery services do already exist, with the main player arguably being Graze, who make a big song and dance over the internet about their offer of a free box of snacks.

I was keen to give the service a try, but as Graze don’t deliver to France (or indeed have a French branch – boo hiss), I had to hang on until I was next visiting England and time the deliveries to arrive at my parents’ UK address while I was staying there. And this is one of the very good things about Graze: you can specify on what day and date you would like the snack box to be delivered. They deliver six days a week and are very precise in their calculations so as to avoid you being disappointed.

But according to the saying, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or, in this case, snack). So what obligations are you tied to when you sign up to Graze? You have to enter your payment details from the outset and choose a weekly delivery day (Monday-Saturday inclusive), with one delivery per week as a minimum (and this can be to any address – home, work, you name it). Your first box is free, and your next box is half price, with you being charged the full cost per box thereafter (£3.79). However, on the up side, it’s very easy to cancel or delay deliveries thanks to the control panel, which keeps things simple and accessible. You can also order one-off boxes (rather than weekly ones) and schedule holidays so that they know to suspend deliveries during this time, and the holidays can be quite long (my current ‘holiday’ is between my last visit to Britain in mid-April and my next visit at the end of May – so about 6 weeks). So there’s no worry about needing to wade through oodles of red tape in order to cancel (of course, there is the option to unsubscribe completely as well, even if you just take the free box and nothing else).

Boxes are letterbox-sized, meaning that you don’t get any of those annoying “Sorry, you were out” delivery slips. The box is of course recyclable, but the snack boxes themselves are less easy to get rid of in an eco-friendly way (they are made of plastic). You get four snack boxes per cardboard box, which are small but perfectly formed and come with a peel-back lid for convenient on-the-go snacking. The snack boxes are see-through and also come with white pencil-effect illustrations, in addition to the snack title, ingredients, and (in some cases) calorie counts and any extra benefits (such as indications of snacks that are high in fibre or omega 3).

Choosing the snacks you receive is an easy and pleasurable experience. Your user control panel on the Graze site lists all their available snacks (although you can always choose the ‘nutrition’ box – as opposed to the ‘nibble’ box – at the start to filter out their less healthy options), of which most are healthy alternatives to what we usually go for. Of the snacks, you can choose what you’d like to try, what you’d like them to send soon, and what you’d like to bin in an easy prioritization system (it’s just as simple to change your preferences later). I ditched most of the less healthy snacks (as that wasn’t really what I’d wanted to achieve in signing up) but clicked ‘try’ for most of the rest – except for those containing dried banana pieces, which as far as I’m concerned are akin to Satan himself.

So what did I actually end up choosing, and most importantly, how did it all taste? I ordered two boxes, which amounted to 8 different snacks, and, nicely enough, a good mixture of sweet and savoury options. The Pear Tatin (dried pear pieces, raspberry-infused cranberries, and yoghurt-coated seeds and almonds) went very well with a cup of tea, while the sweet-and-sour Sour Mango Tangtastic (blackcurrants, sour mango and cherry-infused sultanas) just went very well with itself. In these, as well as in the Shangri-La (lingonberries, pineapple, almond slices, pumpkin seeds) and the Fennel and Honey Peanuts, original flavours mingle in an intense, flavourful way to create a frankly joyful snack that’s healthy yet still great for satisfying a sweet tooth. Some carob options would also be a great way to expand on their dessert-style choices: even as a chocoholic I find carob surprisingly nice.

On the savoury side, this mainly indulged my taste for traditional Asian and American flavours via the innovative Hickory Smoked Nuts and Seeds (almonds, cashews and mixed seeds), Yaki Soba (Soba peanuts, edamame beans, noodles, and chilli broad beans) and Peking Dynasty (Peking cashews, baked soy bites, and black beans). The spiciness in the case of the latter two choices was warm and intriguing without being overpowering, and the hickory-smoked nuts and seeds delivered exactly what was promised.

Even though I binned all of these choices so that I would get a different selection on my next order, I’ll be sure to bring them back at a later date. The only one of my 8 snacks that’s likely to stay in the ‘binned’ section is the box of Omega Booster Seeds (which contained golden linseeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds) – I frequently snack on seeds anyway so this didn’t seem in any way new or different (although this isn’t to say that they didn’t taste good).

In terms of value for money, Graze’s frequent offers and incentives mean that you don’t always need to pay full price for a box, so that makes the link between quality and price even more appealing. While it is a shame that they don’t offer overseas options yet, I suppose the expat population can’t win all the time. It’s clear that the company really cares about its ingredients and has thought hard about how to make healthy eating a convenient yet delicious concept for consumers. They go beyond what you can get in the shops at the moment and have your best interests at heart in providing a flexible and honest service. And, of course, if you still fancy a slice of cake from time to time, they offer this as well (carrot cake, anyone?) – which means it’s perhaps not such a leap from there to the chocolate delivery service that my sister is still dreaming of.

www.graze.com

and here’s your free box code! R4JD7B7

Product review: black garlic Friday, May 20 2011 

“Introducing a simple food with a wonderfully complex flavor. Black garlic is sweet meets savory, a perfect mix of molasses-like richness and tangy garlic undertones. It has a tender, almost jelly-like texture with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency similar to a soft dried fruit. Hard to believe, but true. It’s as delicious as it is unique. Imagine garlic without all of the annoying stuff. Bad breath? Nope. Pungent odor? Nope. Acrid bite? No sir. You know how a great wine gets better with age? That’s what we’re dealing with here. In Taoist mythology, black garlic was rumored to grant immortality. We can’t promise you that, but there’s no doubt that black garlic is great for your health—it’s loaded with nearly twice as many antioxidants as raw garlic. It also contains S-Allycysteine, which is fancy talk for a natural compound that has been proven to be a factor in cancer prevention.”

Thus runs the promotional material on BlackGarlic.com. As mentioned, it is hard to believe. The proverbial vampire repellent without its characteristic stench? Surely not. Retailing online and at Tesco (for UK buyers), and touted not only as an exciting new ingredient but also as an unusual healthy snack, it is supposedly set to take the culinary world by storm.

Testing out the claim that it can be eaten as a snack without making you want to hurl, Keeper and I both dutifully chomped away on a clove of the black stuff. It really is absolutely black, and leaves no stain on your teeth; the soft consistency is also as promised (it’s more like dried fruit, not being at all crunchy). The garlic flavour is evident, but is far more subtle than its better-known white counterpart, and there’s also an overriding flavour that is not dissimilar to balsamic vinegar. The molasses taste mentioned above is also detectable. While certainly pleasant, innovative and edible, I’m not sure I would take up nomming it as a snack as a permanent habit.

Cooking with it, interestingly, does not release a really strong flavour in the same way as white garlic, but rather serves to enhance the flavour of other ingredients to make new and intriguing combinations. I look forward to integrating it as part of the regular arsenal of my cooking ingredients, and seeing it with the white garlic, stem ginger and shallots in my kitchen. Available for purchase ‘as nature made it’ or ready peeled, there should be something about it to suit every buyer, whether they are part of the gastronomic gaggle of cooks wishing to go further than before, or just extreme snackers. Plenty of recipes can be found at BlackGarlic.com and BlackGarlic.co.uk.

And speaking of nature, it’s important to point out (just so you know) that black garlic is NOT a genetically modified food, but produced as part of a fermentation process. The finest white garlic is exposed to heat and humidity for three weeks before being cooled and dried out for one week. It’s hard to believe that such a relatively simple-sounding process (on paper, at least) can make such magic happen in the kitchen.