Genuinely healthy brownies

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Jon’s got a thing about mustard seeds at the moment. It’s getting really weird in our house now – they are cropping up in EVERYTHING. The effect ranges from the totally pointless – mustard seeds on popcorn (they don’t stick), to the frankly bizarre – mustard seeds in challah (you can’t really taste them but they look weird). There are mustard seeds in my rice, in my mashed potato, on my fish, really in anything where he is given the freedom to express himself through the spice cupboard. Perhaps when he reads this he’ll think again about how odd it is, but right now he just can’t think of any food that isn’t improved by the addition of mustard seeds.

Fortunately, he wasn’t in charge of planning the food for Joe’s second birthday party. He was a fantastic cake decorator – post coming soon on the birthday cake – but he didn’t decide on the recipes for the other food at the party, which all therefore remained mustard seed free. It’s a good thing too, because Joe isn’t shy about telling us what he thinks of our food. Joe saw the brownies I made here, uniced, in the kitchen a few hours before his birthday tea and asked for one. I gave him one, then another, and then another – they were a huge success. When we sat down to tea he was very excited to see them again with coloured icing to look like lego, and he asked for one in every colour. I’d especially made a creamcheese icing with minimal sugar which I had imagined he would like, since he likes creamcheese and it would be sweeter than normal, but he put it in his mouth and then spat it out with a look of disgust. “It’s not very tasty,” he explained with a serious face, not in a complaining way, just wanting me to understand why he’d been forced to expel it from his mouth. Luckily, with the icing then scraped off, they turned out to be just as “super yummy” as the brownies he had earlier.

From my point of view, the only problem with these brownies is that they aren’t chocolate. I know, if they’re not chocolate then they’re not brownies. But “blondies” sounds stupid and anyway, they are brown, not blonde. They are also vegan and sugar-free, and so I don’t expect you to believe me when I say that they are delicious, but they genuinely are, and they are perfect for babies and anyone else in your life with weird dietary requirements.

I found the recipe online here when searching for a brownie-type thing to use as the base of the lego cakes I wanted to make for the birthday tea. Since I was planning to make him a hugely elaborate birthday cake (which I couldn’t do in a sugar-free, healthy version), I wanted to make one cake thing that I would actually be happy for him to eat, and I thought these seemed perfect.

Makes around 20 mini brownies

  • 150g plain flour
  • 225g whole dates
  • 1 ripe banana (the riper the better)
  • 1 large tablespoon of peanut butter (or other nut butter)
  • 1 tablespoon of applesauce (you can make this amount from 1 apple)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinammon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Prepare a baking tin of around 8×8 inches – grease it and line it, or use a silicon one where you don’t have to do any of that.
  2. Take the stones out of the dates and put them in a bowl of hot water for at least 15 minutes to soak.
  3. Put the dates with two or three tablespoons of the soaking water into a food processor and blend to make a paste.
  4. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, and then add the applesauce, peanut butter and vanilla extract.
  5. Mash the banana, either by hand or in the food processor after you have removed the date paste.
  6. Combine the dates and banana with the rest of the mix.
  7. Put the mix into the tin, and bake on your usual oven baking temperature for about 40 minutes, or until a fork comes out clean.

As Joe told us, these brownies are good on their own. However, if you want to make the coloured creamcheese icing to turn these into lego cakes, then I used the recipe below, and coloured the icing using Wiltons Gel Colours (gel colours give a much stronger, brighter colour than liquid colouring and a tiny bit goes a long way). I then put smarties on the top to look like the bobbly bits on lego. This was actually really annoying, because I bought 4 tubes of smarties, imagining that this would easily provide enough of the right colours, and it really didn’t. Plus, since I was a child, the colouring in smarties has obviously got more natural and vegetable-based, which is a good thing for parents of hyper children, but means that the colours are much blander than I remember.

  • 200g Philadelphia or similar creamcheese
  • 70g butter
  • 100g icing sugar (the recipe actually called for 400g, but I was doing a low sugar version!)
  1. The butter needs to be softened and not fridge-hard when you start. The creamcheese should be in the fridge until needed.
  2. Cream the butter with an electric mixer until it has a whipped consistency. Beat in the cheese, but be careful not to overbeat, as the cheese can start to re-liquefy if you do.
  3. Sift the icing sugar and beat it in gradually.
  4. Put a small amount into another bowl and add a tiny bit of colouring (as in, the size of a mustard seed to start with, and then you can always add more as needed). Mix it in with a spoon and spread it onto your brownies.
  5. If you are doing lots of different colours, it’s easiest to do all of one colour, then wash up that small bowl and start again with another colour.
  6. Put the smarties on top and refridgerate until serving.

*Approximate nutritional values (1 brownie, no icing)*

  • Calories – 80.2 kcal
  • Carbs – 28.3g
  • Fat – 0.9g
  • Protein – 1.5g
  • Sodium – 11.4mg
  • Sugar – 9.1g

*Approximate nutritional values (1 brownie, with icing and smarties)*

  • Calories – 136.8 kcal
  • Carbs – 34.6g
  • Fat – 4.1g
  • Protein – 2g
  • Sodium – 23mg
  • Sugar – 11.8g

 

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Vegetable spring rolls

A few years ago, Gordon Ramsay brought out a cookbook called 3 Star Chef. It contains lots of his recipes and secrets from his Hospital Road restaurant and when I saw it I thought, “What? Why would he bring out a book giving away all his secrets? What if people decide not to go to the restaurant anymore because they can just make it themselves?” Then I read this so-called “cookbook” and I realised why he had nothing to fear. Yes, this book has recipes and techniques for cooking, and actually some of them aren’t that difficult. But there’s no way that anyone would ever make any of them in full. Most of them have at least 3 different elements just within one part of a dish. Even if you literally had nothing to do and could devote a whole day to this, you still wouldn’t because after spending the whole day making them you wouldn’t have any energy left to entertain guests to eat them.

In a very small way (really very very small), I felt a little bit the same about starting my own food blog. If I give away all my secrets, will people still want to eat my cooking? Will people think, “nah, can’t be bothered to go to Katie and Jon’s tonight, I’ll just go on her blog and do it myself”? I don’t really think there’s much chance of this happening, but just in case, I thought I’d put a recipe up here that looks really complicated, so you’ll go, “what a complete FAFF. I’ll go to Katie’s and have it there instead.”

I absolutely love these vegetable spring rolls, and one of the best things about them is that you can make loads and shove them in the freezer, and they are actually even better when crisped up in the oven. Pre-Joe, when my mum and I were stocking my freezer with good hearty meals that we could eat in the weeks after he was born, I also made a massive bag of these to freeze. Not exactly an essential, but really nice, on those rare occasions when I could sit down to eat a whole meal without being interrupted, to have such a delicious snack or starter.

The best thing to use for these is a bag of those stir fry vegetables which you can buy ready-prepared from the supermarket. The reason they work well, apart from the convenience, is that they give a good mix of vegetables, and if you prepared all the vegetables yourself then you would have to make hundreds of spring rolls, as 1 carrot, 1 pepper, 1 bag of beansprouts, etc, would make a lot of filling.

I find that one bag weighing about 300g will make between 8 and 10 spring rolls, depending on how full you like them, and of course how big your spring roll wrappers are. I use wrappers which are around 20cm square (I think they are actually 215mm) – you can buy bigger and smaller, but these are the ones that I think work best. When I am making these, I tend to buy 3 or 4 bags of vegetables, and do a whole load in one go.

All you do is stir fry the vegetables, using a very little bit of oil. I also add a lot of grated ginger, because I like it, and plenty of soy sauce. You can add any seasoning you like, but the two important things to remember are (1) that by the time you are finished you don’t want to have any liquid remaining in the pan with the vegetables, as this could make your spring rolls go soggy, and (2) all the flavours that you want your spring roll to have need to go in to the vegetables. Obviously  you can dip your spring roll in any sauce you like, but the wrapper itself doesn’t add any flavour, so if your vegetables are under seasoned and tasteless then the spring roll will be the same.

I like to fry these in a very little bit of oil, turning all the time so that they crisp up evenly and on all sides. Jon always wants to experiment – “why don’t we BAKE them? Why don’t we try DEEP frying them?” but I’m like, “can we please just not ruin these spring rolls that I’ve spent ages folding, and do it the way we know?” So I haven’t tried either just baking or deep frying. Obviously deep frying would work, but I don’t want to do anything as unhealthy as that (and then what do you do with the oil, anyway? Yuk.) Baking, after brushing with oil, may work but I’m not sure if it would be as tasty. If you’re planning to do either of those things, please invite Jon over to try it with you.

Once you have stirfried the vegetables and made sure that no liquid remains, put them in a bowl and let them cool.

Crack an egg and put the white into a small flat dish – you will use this to seal the spring rolls.

Then take one spring roll wrapper, and put a small heap of vegetables in the corner of the pastry:

Then start rolling:

Then fold one side in to the middle:

Then fold the other side and continue to roll, until you just have a small flap remaining:

Then dab a little egg white on that flap, and roll it up and stick it down.

Fry, then eat or freeze.

(Shhhh… it’s really easy)

*Approximate nutritional values (1 spring roll)*

  • Calories: 99kcal
  • Carbs: 11g
  • Fat: 6g
  • Protein: 0g
  • Sugar: 1g
  • Sodium: 305mg

*Baby-friendly version*

These are perfect for babies (you can fill them with anything) but can be a little crispy if, like Joe, your baby doesn’t have many teeth. You could use Vietnamese wrappers instead, which are soft and don’t require cooking.

Spinach dal

Since Jon and I got together, our tastes have merged somewhat. There are still things we will never agree on, for example, I have always been a believer in that bit from the Simpsons, that one where Homer is dead and Dr. Hibbert pulls broccoli from his corpse. “Yet another broccoli related death,” says Dr. Hibbert. “But I thought broccoli was healthy,” says Marge. “Oh no,” says Dr. Hibbert, “one of the deadliest plants on earth. Why, it tries to warn you with its terrible taste.” Yet despite the obvious truth of everything in the Simpsons, Jon calls broccoli “the king of vegetables”.

Other than this and a few others, we generally agree on most things, food-wise. I’ve mentioned before about my incredibly fussy eating, particularly as a child but to some extent continued today. Jon was never as fussy as me, but he did have some peculiar dislikes (we’ll save the discussion of his cherry phobia for another day) which, in my opinion, were not so much dislikes of the actual food but of the way he had encountered them. He now devours peas like they are going to be rationed, and as he eats, happily says, “I love peas! Didn’t used to!” Similarly, with the various different apple pies and tarts that I make, he wolfs them all down but he still maintains that he doesn’t like apple pie BUT he makes an exception for mine. This is because the apple pie he has in mind, the benchmark apple pie, is one from a bakery in north London called Sharon’s. It’s horrible – an overly sweet crust, with the apples inside in a claggy goo. It sullies the good name of apple pie.

Actually, we once had a whole ridiculous conversation about Sharon’s apple pie. Jon was maintaining that he doesn’t like apple pie, as a general rule. My point, which got slightly obscured in the heat of the argument, was that he does like apple pie, he just doesn’t like Sharon’s apple pie, and any other rubbish apple pies. I was trying to say that, if he’s going to have a general rule about apple pie, it should be, “I like apple pie” and then he could have exceptions to the rule, which would be the various bad apple pies that he doesn’t like. The discussion got more and more heated until I said, “but what if you were sitting here, eating my apple pie, and Sharon came in and said, “but you said you didn’t like apple pie!” THEN what would you say? Huh? Huh? What’s your answer to THAT?”

Yes, I accept that Sharon is unlikely to come over and say anything about apple pie, even if Sharon is an actual person and not just a brand name. Sharon sells hundreds of these inferior pies every day and she won’t care at all if Jon doesn’t want to eat one. But my real point here is that often people think they don’t like things, but they do. It could be that they refuse to eat all apple pies because they’ve had one horrible one, or it could be that they think they don’t like courgettes but when you call a yellow courgette a squash then actually courgettes are pretty nice.

Or it could be lentils. Lots of people (men, mostly, I think) say that they won’t eat a meal of lentils. Jon is now a big fan of the recipe I’m about to share with you, but he admits that a few years ago if you’d suggested that he would eat a plate of lentils and call it dinner, he’d ask what the main course was. My dad is the same, although I’m not convinced that even now he accepts that lentils can make up a nutritious, satisfying meal.

This recipe, though, is really one to try, even if you are unsure about lentils. From a nutritional perspective it is a bit of a super-meal, it is really tasty and, very importantly, really quick and easy and perfect for a mid-week supper.

I adapted this recipe from Tarla Dalal, who is apparently the Delia Smith of India.

Makes 4 or 5 adult portions

  • 3/4 cup of red lentils (I use an ordinary kitchen mug for this recipe, and it works just fine)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 green chillies
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 large knob of ginger (equivalent in size to about 3 garlic cloves)
  • 250g spinach
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp amchur powder (this (dried unripe mango powder) is available from Indian stores. If you can’t find it, you could use the juice of half a lemon to achieve the sour element, or a teaspoon or two of tamarind paste)
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
  1. Put the lentils and water into a saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. When I make this it nearly always bubbles over, so watch it carefully, and use a bigger saucepan than you really need.
  2. If you have a food processor, de-seed the chillies, and put them in the food processor with the ginger and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor, then finely dice the chillies, grate the ginger and crush the garlic. Set them aside.
  3. Finely dice the onion.
  4. Heat the oil in a second, large saucepan. When it is hot, throw in the cumin seeds and a few seconds later add the onion. Fry on a medium heat until the onion is translucent. Then add the chilli, ginger and garlic, and stir and fry for a few more minutes.
  5. The lentils should be soft and cooked now. If they are not, turn down the heat in the onion saucepan and wait, then tip the lentils and their remaining liquid into the saucepan with the onion.
  6. Stir and add the tomato puree, amchur powder, turmeric and salt.
  7. Roughly chop the spinach and add to the saucepan. Stir and cook until it is all wilted and mixed in. Taste, and add more salt, amchur or tomato puree as needed.
  8. Depending on the consistency of the dal and what you prefer, you could keep cooking to reduce it a little more, or you can serve straight away. It’s good with rice or chapattis.

Baby-friendly version

At 2, do not add the chillies, but chop or process and keep aside.
At 6, do not add the salt.
After 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add the chillies and salt to the remainder, and cook for another 10 minutes to make sure that the flavours blend together.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 169 kcal
  • Carbs: 24g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 11g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 736mg