Though I wouldn't describe myself as skinny, some people do think I'm a little too slim to be credible as a cook, particularly in a country whose people are known for slathering butter on everything from baguette to radishes.
"Never trust a skinny cook" goes an old saying. Though I wouldn't describe myself as skinny, some people do think I'm a little too slim to be credible as a cook, particularly in a country whose people are known for slathering butter on everything from baguette to radishes. The truth is that I never deprive myself of anything I want to eat. However, in that "anything" you won't find most of the foods (and drinks) that are responsible for the obesity epidemic in North America and Britain. Anyone who gets as excited as I do over a head of purple cauliflower is unlikely to end up in the doctor's office asking about liposuction. Not that I am completely virtuous: regular readers of this blog will know that I have a serious cake habit.
I'm aware that the way I shop and eat - walking to the farmers' market three or four times a week, lugging that produce up four long flights of stairs and preparing all my meals from fresh ingredients - has little to do with the typical North American lifestyle, although things seem to be changing with the proliferation of farmers' markets and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs in most cities. Even if local ingredients are increasingly available, it's not always easy to make the switch from a diet consisting largely of processed or convenience foods to one that relies on fresh produce and a few basic cooking skills. That's why I've compiled my own list of tips, inspired by the reading I've done on nutrition (a subject that increasingly fascinates me) and the way I naturally eat. I hope you'll find them useful whether or not you're already a natural food convert.Replace packaged cereals with natural cereals or porridge. Try Grape Nuts, Red River cereal (sold in Canada) or unsweetened muesli with milk or yoghurt and maple syrup. To me, the muesli sold in organic shops often tastes stale. You can make your own quick muesli by combining raw oats, chopped hazelnuts or almonds (toasted or not) and raisins. Porridge can be served with bananas, berries or grated apple (stirred in while it cooks) and sweetened with brown sugar, maple syrup or honey. If you get bored with oatmeal porridge, try cornmeal porridge: cook 1/4 cup quick polenta in 1 cup boiling water with a pinch of salt for five minutes, stirring in a little butter at the end. I love cornmeal porridge with stewed blueberries, which I make with frozen blueberries and a little sugar and keep in the refrigerator. To make your porridge even healthier, sprinkle it with sunflower, pumpkin or flax seeds, or a mix of all three.
Stock up on healthy snacks. If you have candy, packaged cakes or other junk in the house, eventually you will turn to it to satisfy sugar cravings. Instead, buy dried fruits (raisins, medjoul dates, prunes, apricots, cherries, cranberries) and unsalted nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, brazil nuts) to snack on. You can make a mix and keep it near your desk if you're prone to snacking. Good quality dark chocolate with at least 65 percent cocoa solids also puts a quick end to cravings. Yoghurt is another favorite snack of mine: look for the full fat kind, which is more satisfying and less likely to contain scary additives than anything labelled "low fat".
Subscribe to an organic box. This will take you out of your shopping comfort zone and force you to eat a variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit. Because organic fruit and vegetables taste better (trust me, it’s true) than produce that has been sprayed with poisons or bred to produce its own poisons, you can prepare them simply by steaming, baking, roasting and even simply boiling. Finish with olive oil or good quality fresh butter and sea salt. Just about every city now has an organic box delivery service, which you should be able to track down with a quick Google search.
Ditch the bottled salad dressings. Nothing good can come of eating these cocktails of additives and preservatives, and it’s positively silly to buy them ready-made when you can whip up one of the following dressings so easily. Balsamic dressing: 1 tbsp good balsamic vinegar lightly whisked with salt, pepper and 2 tbsp of your best olive oil. Classic vinaigrette: 1 tbsp red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar, salt and pepper, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 4 tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp maple syrup, brown sugar or honey. Whisk to emulsify. Citrus vinaigrette: 1 tbsp lemon juice, salt and pepper, 3 tbsp of your best olive oil, whisked together. For subtle garlic flavor, rub your salad bowl with half a clove of garlic.
Use sea salt and freshly ground pepper, not iodized salt or powdered pepper. No other small change will make such a difference to all your food. Buy coarse sea salt (I use grey sea salt from Guérande, which has a high mineral content) for slow cooking and pasta water, and fine sea salt for sprinkling on your food. French fleur de sel is the perfect finishing salt.
Buy good quality soups or make your own. Homemade is cheapest and best. You can make creamed soup from just about any vegetable by sweating some onions in olive oil or butter with a little salt over medium heat, then adding the chopped vegetables and sweating them for a few minutes. Add stock and/or milk to cover, bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are soft. When I don’t have homemade stock on hand, I use organic vegetable stock powder, since ordinary bouillon cubes are made with dubious ingredients. Blend the soup and serve with homemade croutons and/or crumbled bacon (cooked yourself, not bacon bits) and/or parmesan shavings. If you buy soup, read the labels carefully. The more low fat claims a soup makes, the worse it probably is for you.
Avoid all processed foods. The manufacturers do not have your best interests at heart in their quest for greater and greater profit. Only you are in a position to look out for your own health. Do not believe any health claims made on packets of processed food. As the writer Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Replace processed seasonings with their natural equivalents. Good herbs and spices to have in your cupboard are thyme, oregano, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika and chilli pepper. Always keep organic lemons around since their zest and juice livens up almost anything.
Treat fast food with the same suspicion as processed food. A French artist recently photographed the same McDonalds Happy Meal every day for three months. Aside from drying out a little, the food did not spoil. Do you want something this unnatural in your body? (Author's note: It seems that I was talking nonsense when I wrote this. Rather than delete the tip, I thought I would share the link to an interesting article. Despite this, I think there are plenty of reasons to treat fast food with suspicion.)
Think about where your meat and fish come from. Most of us are aware that conditions on factory farms do not make for happy or healthy animals. If we are what we eat (which I strongly believe), eating diseased and traumatized animals cannot be good for us. Seek out a local shop or delivery service that provides high quality meat from conscientious local farmers, and help put those cruel, polluting factory farms out of business. The same goes for eggs, milk and fish.
Spend money on food. Real food will sometimes, but not always, cost more than processed food. You can compensate for this by eating more vegetables and less (but higher quality) meat. Keep in mind that high quality food is more satisfying and you will therefore need less of it. Two squares of dark chocolate are worth a full sized candy bar!
Stock up on whole grain/unrefined foods. White flour and sugar have little or no nutritional value. Fill your cupboards with brown rice (if this seems too hippie-ish, buy Indian basmati rice, red rice or Thai rice), whole wheat pasta, quinoa (a nutty-tasting seed that cooks in 15 minutes), whole wheat couscous (which plumps up in 5 minutes) and lentils (red and green). Instead of white sugar, buy unrefined cane sugar, honey and maple syrup. At any given time, I have at least three honeys in my cupboard, which I buy for their distinctive flavors and health properties.
Practice portion control. This goes a long way to explaining why the French can eat so many high-calorie foods without gaining weight. Small portions and beautiful presentation make it less likely that you will go back for more. The muffin above - photographed at a tea room in Rome - looked so exquisite that I couldn't help but savor it slowly and feel perfectly satisfied.
Eat for energy. In the mornings, eat foods that give off energy slowly (porridge, whole wheat bread or natural cereal), plus some vitamin C (citrus fruit, kiwi or berries in season). At lunch, try to have some protein (fish, meat or cheese) with steamed vegetables and potatoes, plus a salad or other raw veggies if you can. Evenings are the best time for high-carb meals (pasta, rice and lentils) that make you feel sleepy. Whole grains combined with pulses (lentils, chick peas or beans) provide a complete protein – no need for meat. For dessert, try baked fruit, yoghurt that you sweeten yourself (fruit yoghurts are full of sugar and additives), fresh or dried fruit, and/or a couple of squares of dark chocolate.
Drink water, adding lemon or lime juice to give it more zing. “Hunger” pangs are often a signal that your body is dehydrated. Also drink as much green tea as you like and enjoy a glass or two of wine from time to time. I buy organic or “natural” wines from small French producers, which I’m convinced have a purer taste than conventional wines. If you live in France, these should be fairly easy to find.
Believe that you are worth it. Yes, making these changes requires a bit of an effort, though probably not as much as you fear. But the rewards are huge: more energy almost instantly, fewer illnesses, far more pleasure at mealtimes and perhaps an extra 15 or 20 years to enjoy life. Oh, and everyone will ask how you can eat so much and stay so slim.