We live in a world where choosing to eat healthily is becoming more and more of a challenge. Everywhere, it seems, we are surrounded by cheap, processed and unhealthy foods, many of which are causing our bodies harm – it is diet that is the principle cause of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Treating type 2 diabetes already costs the UK’s NHS a massive £9 billion per year, and the Chief Executive of NHS England recently warned that obesity will bankrupt the NHS unless we make a serious effort to tackle its causes.
Yet, oddly, successive governments have shied away from tackling the most obvious cause. Instead of confronting the powerful global companies which produce and market so many of these unhealthy processed food products, those same governments have chosen to divert billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money into treating the symptoms. It has even got to the stage that here in the UK we will soon be spending more on gastric band surgery for obese patients than on measures to help prevent people getting obese in the first place.
In five days time voters in the UK will elect a new government. Looking through the various parties’ manifestos, there is a woeful lack of proposals on food policy. Yet If we are to keep the NHS budget from spiralling out of control and if we want a more healthy population we desperately need a government that is prepared to make tough decisions to deal with the causes of preventable chronic illnesses.
We certainly need a government with more courage and imagination than the last one, which unbelievably included McDonalds’, KFC, Pepsico and Kelloggs on its Policy Group on Obesity, Alcohol and Diet-Related Diseases. A policy group consisting of so many of the main culprits is never going to come up with the one obvious proposal that would make the most difference – a hefty tax on sugary drinks and other unhealthy processed foods.
Such a measure would put pressure on food companies to produce healthier products, and taxes raised this way could be ring fenced for the NHS, to help it cope with the damaging health consequences of our junk food diet. The higher relative price of unhealthy food would also encourage us to make more healthy food choices.
In the longer term, this measure would not only help reduce the spiralling demand for diabetes, cardiovascular and other preventable health care demands on our struggling healthcare service, it would also lead to a healthier population.
But to make this happen we need a government with the courage to take on the multinational companies and, sadly, I can’t see that happening in the near, post-election, future.
This natural, healthy recipe is my sixth created for the Suma Bloggers Network. Under the arrangement with Suma, every two months I choose up to £20 worth of Suma’s products from their range of ethically sourced, organic and free range products, which Suma provides free of charge, and I then create a recipe using those ingredients.
The short but glorious asparagus season is upon us, and not only do I live close to the heart of the English asparagus growing region, I also grow my own wonderful asparagus on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden. These succulent beauties, freshly picked and transported just one mile in my bicycle basket, are superior on every level to the tawdry supermarket asparagus that gets flown in from Peru, some 6,500 miles away during the rest of the year.
In this dish, redolent of spring, asparagus is joined by the fresh, complementary flavours of peas, mint, basil and lemon.
You will need to put aside enough preparation time to make the pasta and to puree the mint and peas, but the recipe is easy to execute if you tackle it one step at a time. The result is a plate of pure seasonal celebration.
open ravioli of asparagus with pea purée
24 asparagus stalks
for the pea purée
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
150 g shallots, finely chopped
500 g fresh or frozen peas
150 ml vegetable stock
20 g fresh mint leaves
1/2 tsp sea salt
juice of half a lemon
for the pasta
for the basil and mint vinaigrette
200 ml extra virgin olive oil
juice of half lemon
1 tsp maple syrup
1 tbsp fresh mint leaves, very finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh basil leaves, very finely chopped
vegetarian Parmesan shavings
1. Place the flour, eggs, egg yolks and olive oil in a bowl and mix to a smooth dough. Knead the dough for around 10 minutes, until it is firm but slightly elastic in texture, like a large piece of playdough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour. This will make more pasta than is required for this recipe, but any excess pasta can be dried and stored (see step 2 below).
2. After it has rested, divide the pasta dough into six roughly equal pieces. Roll out each piece into a thin rectangle. Using a pasta roller, feed the pasta dough through the machine at its thickest setting (setting number “9” on most machines). Repeat this several times, gradually reducing the setting until you can put it through on the thinnest setting and the pasta sheet has a smooth sheen. Lightly dust a clean flat surface with a little semolina and lay the pasta sheets on top for 15 minutes to dry out a little, then use a pastry cutter to cut out shapes from the pasta dough. Place these on a baking tray, lightly dusted with the rest of the semolina to help prevent the individual pasta shapes sticking together. If you prefer, you can leave these pasta shapes to dry out completely by leaving for a further four hours, turning periodically. Once dried, the pasta can be stored for several weeks in an airtight container.
3. Now make the pea purée. Pour the olive oil into a pan and place over a medium heat. Add the shallots and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring, for 8-10 minutes, or until the shallots are very soft. Add the peas, salt and the vegetable stock. Cook, stirring, for a further 5 minutes, then add the mint leaves and stir them into the peas. After a further minute, remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then pour the contents of the pan, including any remaining stock, into a food processor. Pulse to break down the peas. In batches, place the pea and mint mixture into a fine sieve and rub through the sieve over a bowl, to create a smooth purée. Continue until you have pureed all of the peas. Set the purée to one side.
4. For the vinaigrette, whisk the lemon juice, maple syrup and olive oil until emulsified. Add the finely chopped mint and basil leaves and whisk again. Set to one side.
5. Remove any woody stems from the asparagus (do this by holding the asparagus spear in one hand about two thirds of the way down from the delicate tip. In the other hand hold it near the base. Gently bring your hands towards each other, bending the asparagus spear until it snaps. The lower portion is the woody stem and should be placed in your compost recycling).
6. Bring a large pan of salted water to a gentle boil over a medium heat. Carefully lower three pasta shapes per person into the water and cook until al dente, about 3 minutes for fresh pasta and about 8-10 for dried. When the pasta is nearly ready, bring a steamer or separate pan of water to the boil. Carefully place the asparagus spears base down into the water. Cook for 2-3 minutes until just cooked (the fresher the asparagus is, the less cooking time needed).
7. To assemble, put a teaspoon of the pea puree in the centre of each plate and use the back of the spoon to spread it out a little. This will help hold the ravioli in place on the plate. Place one cooked pasta sheet on top. Put a two teaspoons of pea purée in the centre of this sheet, followed by two spears of asparagus. Place a second pasta sheet on top. Again place two teaspoons of pea purée in the centre, followed by two spear of asparagus. Finally, top with a little more pea purée and a few Parmesan shavings. Drizzle lemon and mint oil over the open ravioli and around the outside and serve immediately.