Winter comfort foods without the stodge

DANI VALENT
Last updated 12:40 03/06/2014
Porridge
Steven Siewert

WARMTH FROM THE INSIDE: Five-grain porridge topped with apple shards and rhubarb.

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When it gets cold, our bodies tend to crave fat and starch but there are ways to balance the stodge with healthier options.

I'm sceptical about special diets and so-called superfoods but I'm all for simple strategies that make it possible to spill with vim and vigour even when it's freezing.

A warning: I believe enjoying good food and drink is a health tonic in itself so some of my tips may not be dietitian-approved.

BAKE A FISH

Chef Fouad Kassab serves a comforting whole fish dish at his Sydney restaurant Chic Pea (order it ahead). Samke harra is a traditional Lebanese preparation that's easy to recreate at home.

Bake a whole fish (wild-caught if possible) then peel away the skin and top the flesh with tahini loosened with lemon juice, garlic, salt and olive oil, and a relish made with fresh coriander, chilli flakes, roasted walnuts, sumac-rubbed onion slices, lemon juice and olive oil. Search Kassab's blog for another version of the recipe.

FERMENT SOMETHING

Fermenting is the new kitchen gardening and it's easy to do at home.

Kombucha is sweet black tea that's fermented with a bacteria and yeast culture known as a scoby. The resulting drink is tart and fizzy and fans say it aids digestion and disease control.

You can buy kombucha in healthfood stores or make it at home.

Kimchi, a spicy Korean pickle usually made with cabbage, has the purported benefits of fermented foods and actually tastes good too. In fact, it's totally addictive.

Cider and apple cider vinegar are also fermented and some experts say that drinking a small amount of apple cider vinegar daily can help reduce appetite and therefore promote weight loss.

START A SOURDOUGH

Sourdough is another fermentation, this time of flour and water. The slow-rise process releases minerals and nutrients and makes the resulting bread more digestible (and delicious).

John Farnan from Zeally Bay Sourdough says making a sourdough starter is "pretty simple and do-able".

Make a 50-50 mix of stoneground organic flour and water in a straight-sided jar (Muji has great ones). Leave it covered with muslin cloth at room temperature for a few days stirring every so often, until it bubbles.

Discard half the quantity and refresh it with a fresh 50-50 flour and water mix. Continue that refreshment process each day for about six days and you'll have a starter, activated through wild yeasts and bacteria in the flour itself and the air around us.

Seal and refrigerate between uses and always refresh and allow time for the leaven to become nice and bubbly at room temperature before making a dough.

"Bread has been made like this for 6000 years," says Farnan. "Baker's yeast is a recent phenomenon geared to industrial production."

BEAUTIFUL BEETROOT

Beetroot is rich in vitamins and minerals and may also assist with blood flow and lowering blood pressure.

Eat it raw in a grated beetroot and green apple salad, slurp it in a juice, or wrap beetroot in foil with ground cumin, salt and olive oil and roast until soft.

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Toss roasted beetroot with rocket, goat's cheese and hazelnuts for a hearty salad. 

THINK ABOUT SUGAR

I can't imagine quitting sugar but I am glad to use alternatives too. I love coconut sugar in porridge, slices, and fruit crumbles, and I sometimes use ground dates when baking cakes and muffins. Jo Whitton's Quirky Cooking blog and book has heaps of ideas for sugar substitutes and allergy-friendly cooking.

A NICE RED AND DARK CHOCOLATE

I only read the reports that say wine and chocolate are good for you and I'm still standing.

DE-JUNK THE KIDS

Mandarins are the best food-to-go for kids. I've conducted my own unwitting experiments and can report that they'll survive a week in the black hole of a handbag.

Commercial squeeze pouches are tempting for those toting babies and toddlers but Little Mashies reusable pouches make it easy to carry around your own purees, soups and smoothies for mess-free mealtimes on the go.

GO GINGERLY

Ginger is said to boost immunity, treat cold and flu symptoms and help with digestion and pain. Luckily, it tastes good too, adding a sparky, zesty freshness to everything from hot toddies to stir-fries to whole-fruit juices and pumpkin soup.

If you really want to run with the detoxerati consider a ginger-infused bath too.

CRUMBLE

Fruit crumbles are a sustaining and warming dessert and you can rely on fruit sugars to keep the mixture sweet.

Cook apples, pear, rhubarb and quince in mandarin juice for something a little different. For a healthy crumble topping, rub a little butter, milk or nut oil into oats and toss with flaked coconut, chopped nuts, dates, cinnamon and maple syrup.

KALE TALES

As if I could write this story without mentioning kale, even though its newfound popularity has resulted in a worldwide shortage of kale seed.

I love throwing a handful of torn kale into soups and stews 10 minutes before serving, but my favourite way to eat the cult leaf is tossed with olive oil, chilli flakes and salt flakes, then roasted at 180C for 10 minutes until crisp but still green.

REBOOT YOUR KITCHEN

Brenda Janschek is a Sydney health coach who specialises in fridge, freezer and pantry makeovers. Janschek turfs the stuff she deems unhealthy, such as boxed cereals, white sugar, white flour, mainstream milk, vegetable oils, rancid nuts, stale spices and anything with lots of additives and preservatives.

"We work towards a wholefood pantry," she says. "I teach people to look for products that have five ingredients at most, and ingredients they recognise. We talk about storage, like storing nuts in the fridge. We introduce healthy fats and cooking oils, such as coconut oil, ghee and duck fat. A lot of my clients find they lose weight even though they have more fat in their diet."

WINTER SALAD

Make a salad with brown rice, barley or freekeh (or a mixture), steamed broccoli, toasted cashews, baby spinach, chopped spring onions, dill and crumbled feta.

Make a simple dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and toss through.

It's a meal on its own but you can also serve the salad with grilled tempeh or chicken, and have any leftovers for lunch the next day.

COOK WITH BUTTER

Steam vegetables in a heavy-based pot with a lid in a little water, then add a knob of butter when the water has almost evaporated and the vegetables are soft.

The butter makes the vegetables glossy and succulent. Try it with leeks, carrots, celery, cabbage, peas, broccoli and brussels sprouts.

BONE BROTH

Josh Pyne, creator of THR1VE paleo-inspired cafes in Melbourne and Sydney, has three tricks for staying healthy through winter. One, he's boosting his vitamin D intake by eating grassfed butter from New Zealand. Two, he's eating seasonal vegetables. And three, he's juicing up on bone broth, the gelatin-rich meat stocks created when slow-cooking meat on the bone.

"Gelatin energises and boosts the immune system," he says. "This is why grandma made chicken soup when you were sick. I actually use bone broth as a recovery drink after gym."

He also makes simple stews. "All you need is a $30 slow cooker from the Warehouse. I throw in meat on the bone, stock, water or brandy and lots of vegies - sweet potato, yams, greens, herbs. I buy whatever is cheap because that means it's seasonal."

OAT CUISINE

A hot breakfast full of low-GI goodness is a great way to hit a winter's day with energy and optimism.

Restaurateur Paul Mathis, soon to open Supercharger health-focused restaurant in Melbourne's Emporium, reckons porridge rules.

"I am Mr Porridge," he says. "I use steel-cut oats, half water and half milk, and make it on the stovetop from scratch. I simmer it slowly for at least 10 minutes. It's true and basic and I love it."

For a fancy oat-less porridge try the version chef Peter Gordon serves at London's the Providores: it's a mixture of brown rice, apple, maple syrup and white miso paste. Ancient grain fans can throw in quinoa too.

THE NEW BAKE

I swoon over cauliflower cheese and creamy potato gratin but I've been making a pumpkin smash that's just as delicious.

Peel pumpkin, chop it into chunks, toss with olive oil and flaked salt, then roast it until just soft. Smash it roughly in the roasting pan with the back of a spoon. Roughly chop natural almonds and mix them with breadcrumbs and shaved parmesan.

Sprinkle the pumpkin with the almond mixture and put it back in the oven (or under the grill) to crisp up. Eat your smash with grilled meats or make it the hero of a light meal with a green salad on the side. Try it with parsnip and hazelnuts too.

POWER UP ON POTATOES

Spuds get a bad rap because so many of them are made into chips but baked potatoes are a health food, full of fibre and nutrients.

Roast potatoes in their skins and top with grated carrot, avocado and a little grated cheese and sour cream for an easy meal.

What's your favourite winter warmer? Share your cockle-warming dish or recipe in the comments below.

- Good Food

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