Cucumber Noodles with Peas, Hemp Seeds & Creamy Avocado Dressing

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When the word cucumber is mentioned people often wrinkle their nose and mutter something about watery tastelessness. Pieces of chopped cucumber are one of the main elements of a classic flaccid ‘side salad’, sitting amongst sad shreds of iceberg lettuce and under-ripe tomatoes. But I feel that cucumbers are unfairly thought of and dismissed. They can actually be quite exciting, and what’s more they’re really amazing for a boost of natural hydration in the body (they’re 95% water!) as well as helping to eliminate toxins. In addition, they help to cool inflammation and are a great source of vitamins C and K and potassium.

So what’s not to love about cucumbers? Especially if you spice things up and get a bit creative, which is what I’ve done here. Everyone’s going a bit bonkers for courgetti/zoodles at the moment, but what about cucumber noodles? If you haven’t got a spiralizer then grab yourself one – they are so useful and somehow make vegetables taste better. The avocado dressing is oh-so-simple and gives the cucumber strands a zingy creaminess which complements each soft crunch of fresh cucumber. Hemp seeds add a great source of protein and a nutty flavour, and peas a delicate sweetness. Altogether, this creates a lovely light lunch which will refresh you for the afternoon.

Sadly the summer is coming to its end here in Britain, so we need to make the most of the last of its delicious fare. Peas are still just in season – try to find some in their pods as the taste is so much greater compared to those little frozen ones. And the cucumber season may not quite be at its height in September but go and grab one before the autumn chilliness sets in and the last of the summer sunshine dwindles.

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Serves 1

  • ½ a whole cucumber
  • 60g petit pois
  • 4 teaspoons hemp seeds

For the avocado dressing:

  • ½ an avocado
  • ½ a lime
  • 1 teaspoon tahini
  • 1 teaspoon avocado oil
  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • A pinch of sea salt

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Start by making the dressing. Squash the avocado with a fork until all lumps have disappeared and squeeze the juice out of the lime. Add both of these to a jug or cup along with the tahini, avocado oil, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, water and salt. Whisk this all up together until it’s combined into a creamy dressing.

At this point, put a small amount of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the petit pois (or garden peas) and simmer for approximately 4 minutes until tender. Spiralize the cucumber onto a plate. When the peas are cooked drain them and mix them up with the cucumber noodles. Sprinkle over the hemp seeds and then stir it all up with the dressing before serving and enjoying!

Foodie’s Paradise: Partridges Food Market

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Food markets are a wonderful, traditional and natural thing – something humanity has been doing for hundreds of years as a way of trading, exchanging and buying food. They create a physical and visual circumstance where consumers can see, smell and often taste (the most important aspect of anything we eat!) food before they buy it. We can literally ‘feast’ our eyes on an array of delicious fare.

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Markets are direct, personal and unambiguous presentations of fresh ingredients and real produce, usually handmade or cooked or baked on a small scale, by passionate people. They operate on an intimate level, and not only foster interaction between one person and another, but between producer and consumer, farmer and customer, maker and eater. Furthermore, they characteristically encourage the sale and consumption of local and seasonal food. That was why and how markets first began – a local farmer or baker would set up a stall for those who lived nearby to come and purchase locally grown vegetables, or bread kneaded and baked from local wheat or rye flour, or meat reared from cows or pigs living in neighbouring fields. Today, people all over Britain and the western world are doing the same thing; in a kind of revival of something we’d lost and forgotten about for a good fifty years.

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Everything about food markets is positive and nurturing – natural, sensual, personal, local. So different to the experience we as people have when buying food at supermarkets; pushing our trolley round aisles and aisles of plastic-wrapped food in a sterile, odourless and artificial atmosphere, as if food was made by machines and just appears on the shelves out of thin air, with no human being or plant or animal or particle of soil involved in its growth and production at all.

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The great news is food and farmers markets are on the rise, becoming more and more popular, attractive, accessible and prevalent. They are quickly starting to be seen as valuable, exciting ways of purchasing and enjoying food, both in terms of buying ingredients for home cooking and as a delicious lunch or snack. Partridges Food Market is one such market, where every Saturday tens of growers, producers and companies set up their stalls in Duke of York Square for anyone in London to enjoy. It’s always heaving, and for a good reason – the array of food on offer is both amazing and mouth-watering.

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There’s raw honey from Spain; organic vegetables from Riverdale Organic Farm; cheeses from France, Wiltshire and Somerset; raw super foods by Detox Delivered; a hog roast; Chinese dumplings; paella; French crêpes and galettes; speciality curries and Indian dishes; haggis toasties; sushi made right in front of you at the stall; burgers with a range of toppings; a Brazilian pastelaria and deli; vegan cakes and biscuits; petit fours; organic sourdough breads; handmade ravioli and gnocchi… The list goes on!

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My absolute favourite stall is Rainforest Creations. Their spread of tropical-style raw salads, dips, flans, cakes and sweets is like a rainbow of vegan, plant-based, refined sugar free delight and goodness. It makes natural, healthy vegetables look like the food of the gods. And it all tastes incredible. Their salads range from tropical coleslaw and angel kale and avocado to mungbean-lentils and red quinoa. And their sprouted hummus is the best I’ve ever tasted, with subtle hints of spice, herbs and turmeric. You can get almost everything wrapped up in a corn and split lentil roti, or just a tub bursting with salad, an akashe ball and a good dollop of hummus.

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If you haven’t been to Partridges Food Market, Rainforest Creations alone is a reason to get yourself there. But it’s wonderful to just go and wander round; to see, smell and take in all the food and bustling people – to experience genuine food out in the open air and have your fill of fresh, delicious produce that’s natural, personal and real.

Warm Winter Sprout & Quinoa Salad

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Quinoa is a slightly contentious topic in the food world at the moment (as this article highlights), due to the west’s sudden love and demand for this little grain. There’s no doubt that quinoa is one of the world’s greatest foods, especially for vegetarians and vegans out there: it’s a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, it has almost twice as much fibre as most other grains and it’s packed with magnesium. In most ways, it trumps all other grains, but when poor Bolivians and Peruvians can no longer afford their staple food because of US and European demand raising prices, it’s not an easy or particularly acceptable thing to buy a packet of South American-grown quinoa and simply shrug and ignore this unethical fact.

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But here in Britain we have the perfect solution – Hodmedod’s British quinoa from the fields of Essex. A truly local grain grown in English soil which has only travelled a few miles and hasn’t cheated South American farmers and civilians out of their food – what can be better than that? And, pairing this with Brussel sprouts and a few swirls of carrot, which are both in season, this salad is a local and seasonal bowl of rainbow-coloured goodness. Sprouts receive an unfair nose-wrinkling bad name, but they can be so delicious if cooked in an imaginative way, rather than simply boiling all the taste and nutrients out of them. Infusing this warm winter salad with rosemary and chilli flakes gives both the quinoa and sprouts an aromatic flavour, and topping it off with lightly toasted sunflower seeds adds a crunch which makes every mouthful a protein-packed, plant-filled pleasure.

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Serves 3:

  • 2 cups/310g of Brussel sprouts
  • ½ cup of quinoa
  • 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup of sunflower seeds
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 3 teaspoons of chilli flakes
  • Sea salt

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Preheat your oven to 170°C. Start by chopping the bottom end off the Brussel sprouts and removing the outer leaves. Give them a good wash before cutting them in half. Then place them on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and toss until evenly coated. Roast them in the oven for approximately 20 minutes.

Whilst they’re baking, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the quinoa and apple cider vinegar. Give it a stir and reduce to a simmer, letting it cook for about 15 minutes, or however long your specific quinoa takes.

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At this point, peel the outer skin of the carrots off and then use the peeler to make thin strips, from one end to the other. Strip the rosemary leaves off their stems. Once the sprouts have been in the oven for 10 minutes take them out and sprinkle over the chilli flakes and rosemary leaves. Give them a stir to make sure they’re roasting evenly and return them to the oven for about 10 more minutes, or until they’re starting to go golden brown and slightly crispy.

Using a dry pan, turn it up to a medium heat and gently toast the sunflower seeds, tossing them about a bit to make sure all sides go lightly brown. Once your quinoa’s cooked, drain any excess water and remove the sprouts from the oven. Toss all the elements together and serve – I like mine sprinkled with a few extra chilli flakes for a mildly spicy tang.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Spinach and Toasted Pumpkin Seed Salad

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I always used to think of salads as a summer thing, but an autumn or winter salad can be so delicious and can easily be warming, especially with a good zesty dressing. The best thing about this salad is how easy it is to make. Purple sprouting broccoli is so tasty raw and by not cooking or heating it in any way it retains all 100% of possible nutrients available, meaning it’s packed with goodness. Not only is broccoli a rich source of vitamin C, it’s also full of iron, calcium, vitamin A and the phytochemical sulphoraphane which can help protect against diabetes, cancer and heart damage.

Even better, the little bunch of purple sprouting broccoli I used for this salad was grown in the UK, in a county just west of my home, so it’s the epitome of seasonal, local and fresh. Similarly, spinach is still just about in season in Britain, which is fantastic, so I just had to make something with it. And again, by eating raw spinach our bodies have the chance to soak up more vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which is always a good thing. The avocado adds a creamy dimension and the toasted pumpkin seeds are bursting with flavour – lightly crunchy and warm. They also give the salad an autumnal element, as now is the perfect time for pumpkins and squash. Drizzling all the ingredients with an olive oil, lime and tahini dressing really tops this salad off, making it scrummy and the complete opposite of what many people think of as salad. This is far from a boring and tasteless collection of flaccid iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber. It’s so healthy, packed with protein and is a seasonal feast which will fill you up without any stodge – perfect for a light autumn lunch. So whip it up and tuck in!

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Serves 1

For the salad:

  • 3 or 4 stems of purple sprouting broccoli (depending on their size)
  • A large handful of spinach leaves
  • ½ an avocado
  • A handful of pumpkin seeds

For the dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons of tahini
  • 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper

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Simply wash the broccoli, dry it and then slice into small pieces. Wash the spinach in a salad spinner and place in a bowl along with the broccoli pieces. Cut open your avocado into two halves then scoop out the flesh from one of the halves before slicing it into small cubes. Add them to the salad bowl as well and toss with the spinach and broccoli.

To make the dressing, cut the lime in half and squeeze out all its juice into a jug before adding all the other ingredients. Then stir with a fork to make sure it all combines nicely.

Next, place the pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan and turn the hob on to a medium heat. After a minute or two they’ll start to toast so make sure you turn them and shift them about so they cook evenly. Once they start going a little brown remove them from the heat. Sprinkle them over the salad, drizzle over the dressing and mix it all up before enjoying!

Yacon: Sweet Superfood

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Sugar is an issue – a big question at the moment. People have been muttering about how refined sugar isn’t very good for you for years, though they do it in a hush-hush, roundabout way that’s never clearly spoken about. The fact is it contains no nutritional benefits and in some ways it’s actually harmful for your body.

For example:

  • It’s full of calories but empty of nutrients (no protein, essential fats, vitamins or minerals).
  • It rots your teeth because the bad bacteria in your mouth just love to feed on it.
  • Eating too much sugar can cause insulin resistance, which means that cells stop letting blood sugar (glucose) leave the bloodstream and enter the cells so that they can burn the sugar for energy. Instead the glucose builds up in the bloodstream which can be toxic and a driver of diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.
  • What’s more insulin as a hormone plays a key part in regulating uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells, and eating sugar keeps insulin levels high, preventing it from doing its job properly – thus it can contribute towards cancer.
  • Sugar is highly addictive because when you eat it a hormone called dopamine is released in the brain, like a reward, giving us a good sensation that we want to happen again and again.
  • Sugar can raise your cholesterol levels and so plays a major part in developing heart disease because high amounts of fructose affect the body’s metabolism by raising triglycerides and LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) in the blood and increasing abdominal obesity, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.

Cue yacon.

Yacón plant at Lower Pertwood Farm

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The yacon plant originates from the Andean highlands and is grown in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. It’s actually a member of the sunflower family and has huge tubules or fleshy rhizomes underground, a bit like a root vegetable. What’s so great about this little plant is that 40-70% of the root dry matter consists of oligofructose (OF), a particular sugar with several health benefits. And, what’s even better is that Mr Mole, owner of Lower Pertwood Farm, is growing yacon in the soils of Wiltshire as a trial, at this very moment.

Mr Mole’s tasted yacon and he’s pretty excited about trying to grow the plant in the UK. “Yacon syrup has a sweet, malty taste that’s wonderful,” he says. “And what’s so great about it is that it’s not absorbed into the bloodstream – it truly is a healthy food. The problem with any food is taste – people would much rather be unhealthy than not enjoy it, and so most people chuck sugar on their cereal and mix teaspoonfuls into their tea. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could take a mouthful of cereal and think ‘wasn’t that delicious’ and you didn’t have to add anything to it?”

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Yacon plot at Lower Pertwood Farm in early July 2014

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I can’t help agreeing that it would be nice – in fact it would be brilliant. The fact is that as a human race we love sweet food. So instead of telling people they can’t eat anything sugary for the rest of their lives, Mr Mole is trying to go down a different route. The Pertwood Farm cereals brand is working together with Alara on a granola made with yacon, so that it has “all the nice crispiness” but none of the detrimental effects of added refined sugar. And, it would be even better for you than granola made with honey or agave nectar or any other of those kinds of sweeteners – in fact it would be good for you if you wanted to use it in baking, in your tea, or in anything else you can think of.

The OF content of yacon means that it contains very few calories (1.5 kcal/g) and does not elevate blood glucose levels like refined sugars such as sucrose, therefore yacon can be consumed not only by diabetics and weight-watchers but all of us as a sweetening alternative to sugar. OF is also a prebiotic which means that it helps to reconstitute intestinal microflora and stimulates the growth and activity of friendly bacteria in the large intestine. It’s a soluble fibre which helps prevent constipation, and OF can promote calcium absorption. Furthermore, it can help reduce cholesterol levels and reduce carcinogen lesions in the colon.

All of this suggests that yacon is something we should all be eating, and in Peru they’re certainly making use of it – supermarkets offer syrup, juice, marmalade and tea leaves made with yacon. But, as with any food, being grown in one part of the world and then flown to the other side of the planet is almost never a good thing. So the fact Mr Mole is trying to grow it right here in the UK is absolutely wonderful.

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Yacon plot at the beginning of September 2014

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“We were the people who applied for it to be added to the European Food Standards,” Mr Mole says, “which it is now so it’s legal.” Back at the beginning of July when I went to visit the farm, I asked him about growing something in the UK whose natural habitat is high in the Andean mountains and Mr Mole admitted that there’s not much that’s compatible here – climate wise, altitude wise, soil-type wise. “But it does seem to be fairly versatile, which is encouraging. I want to try growing it in South Africa too.” I take a few snaps on my camera and he proudly states: “this is one of the only places in Europe you can take photos of a yacon plant,” which is inspiring.

Lower Pertwood Farm bought the yacon tubers, or little bulbs, from a small nursery in Holland as well as fresh saplings from Alex Smith, co-founder of Alara Wholefoods. They were planted in pots, then transplanted to the ground, and after three weeks Mr Mole said that they’d had no casualties so far. “I’m chuffed actually,” he says, smiling behind his sunglasses. And so he should be – now, two months later, the yacon plants are thriving. This week he pulled one up to see how it was doing and the tubers are on their way to being the size of potatoes.

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Discussing all the health benefits of yacon and the fact that he and Alex Smith are the first in Europe to be properly attempting to grow the plant, Mr Mole shakes his head at the western food industry. “It’s amazing to me – it just shows how under-motivated the food industry’s been to be healthy. It’s only people on the fringe like us who are saying this is a fantastic plant and we’re going to try to make it available in the mainstream eventually.”

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He also reveals that yacon roots can be a delicious addition to salads. “You can simply pull it out of the ground, peel it and eat it, like a carrot,” he says. “In this fresh form it’s pure and full of goodness. There’s a huge demand from top restaurants in London actually, because they’re recognising not only its benefits but its great taste too.”

Yacon sounds like one of the most extraordinary superfoods in the world. As well as South America, it’s also starting to be grown in Russia, Taiwan, Korea and some places in the USA. But I can’t get over how great it is that Mr Mole’s having a stab at it right here in southern England, just over an hour away from where I live – it’s going to be a real, organic, local food. Yacon is something everyone should be excited about.

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Peach, Pistachio & Watercress Salad

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Salads can be so simple, and, more often than not, can end up being a little boring, especially if you get stuck into the habit of always using traditional ‘salad’ ingredients like lettuce, tomato and cucumber – which I’m guilty of! I probably eat some form of salad almost every day of the year so it’s easy to fall into a routine. Not that I want to knock cucumber or tomato – they’re great and can be so delicious with a lot of things. There’s a reason why the Greeks gobble so much of them with feta and olives..! But you can be so much more adventurous with salads and create the most interesting and unusual combinations. Pistachios and peaches are far from traditional and they make such a refreshing and tasty salad.

Peaches are my favourite fruit, hands down. I sometimes waver about whether I prefer nectarines, but peaches usually win. They seem more ‘natural’ too, because nectarines are peaches with a recessive allele that makes their skin smooth, which humans have cultivated over the years. Peaches are rich in vitamin C which is a great antioxidant and can help fight against skin damage and improve overall skin texture. They are also a great source of potassium which helps support heart health. I also love peaches because they’re in season at the moment and they come from Spain, so they haven’t had to travel too far. Similarly, pistachios are grown abundantly in the Mediterranean which is pretty good for those of us living in Britain. It seems like pistachios are often forgotten about in favour of almonds, cashews or peanuts. But they’re a great source of protein, especially when eaten raw, and they are rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid as well as being a storehouse of minerals such as copper, iron, potassium and manganese – all of which are essential trace minerals.

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Watercress is amazing stuff and I’m so lucky that it’s grown locally in Hampshire about fifteen minutes away from home. It’s been grown near Winchester and Alresford for hundreds of years in the little chalk streams scattered around the Itchen Valley – proven by the fact that there’s an old steam train railway (which still operates and you can take rides on) called the Watercress Line (I can sometimes see the smoke from its funnel from the top of my garden!). Eating watercress is a great way of getting your daily amounts of vitamins K, A and B. In fact, in a recent study in the CDC Journal Preventing Chronic Disease watercress was named the top ‘powerhouse’ food in a table of fruit and vegetables, with the highest nutrient-dense score. So there are so many great reasons to eat watercress! It has such a delicious peppery taste, and its spiciness complements the sweet peach and subtle yet distinctive flavour of pistachios. I considered a dressing for this salad and have actually tried it with a balsamic-based one but it really doesn’t need it – the juiciness of the peaches and the flavours of these three simple ingredients are perfect on their own.

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Serves 1:

  • 1 peach
  • A handful of raw pistachios
  • A couple of handfuls of watercress

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Simply slice the peach into crescent-shaped pieces and mix together with the pistachios and watercress. Serve and enjoy with a cool glass of water!