There is a wealth of evidence about the beneficial role that our intestinal bacteria play in keeping us healthy.
Not only do they play a vital role in digestion, they also produce essential enzymes and vitamins, help us to fight infections, they can even create chemicals like serotonin which support our mental wellbeing.
Some studies have suggested that the increased prevalence of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, irritable bowl syndrome, cardiovascular disease and various allergies is related to the make up of the bacterial organisms in our gut.
Factors such as an overdependence on antibiotics, and an obsession with sanitisation could well be key reasons why many of us have less diverse internal populations of bacteria than our ancestors did.
Another factor in reduced “gut flora” is surely our relationship with food itself. The modern diet consists of – for many – highly processed foods, especially refined sugar and animal fats.
Our ancestors had a radically different diet to ours, with a far greater proportion of unprocessed plant foods, much of it grown or foraged by themselves. They would have had far greater contact with the soil than we do now, exposing them to microbes in the soil, which in turn would have led to greater microbial variety in their guts (recent research has highlighted a clear correlation between soil health and human gut health).
In contrast, over the past several decades, as intensive farming has removed us more and more from direct contact with the soil (as well as introducing pesticides and other agrochemicals into our food chain), our gut bacteria has become depleted. Arguably, this provides an explanation for the current prevalence of food allergies, digestive disorders and other “modern” illnesses.
A change towards sustainable agricultural practices, based on growing food using healthy soils instead of chemicals, would help restore balance to our collective health. Similarly, a personal decision to change towards a healthier diet, in which the food we eat is as unprocessed and close to source as possible, can only be of long-term benefit to our individual health.
This is the time of year when those of us who grow our own vegetables tend to find ourselves with lots of courgettes on our hands.
This lovely dish is a great way to enjoy them.
The stuffing in the courgettes is based loosely on samfaina, a Catalan specialty similar to the French ratatouille, which here I’ve tweaked into a rich, smoky filling. The recipe serves two as a main course or four as a starter.
For a vegan version of the dish, either omit the cheese or use a vegan Cheddar substitute.
Catalan-style stuffed courgettes
1 red peppers
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sea salt
10 g fresh basil, chopped
10 g fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
25 g vegetarian or vegan Cheddar, grated
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F, gas mark 4). Place the pepper and aubergine in a roasting dish and roast in the oven for 50-55 minutes, or until the aubergine and pepper have collapsed and started to blister and blacken. Remove from the oven. Place the pepper and aubergine in a large bowl and cover with clingfilm and leave to cool.
2. While the aubergine and pepper are in the oven, slice the courgettes in half lengthways. Brush the cut side with olive oil and roast cut side up in the same pre-heated oven for 20 minutes, or until the flesh is soft. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
3. Once the courgettes halves are cool enough to handle, carefully use a teaspoon or melon baller to scoop out the flesh. Put the shells of the courgettes to one side. Chop the flesh and place in a bowl. When the aubergines are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin carefully and remove the flesh with a spoon. Remove the skin and seeds from the peppers. Chop the aubergine and pepper flesh and place in the bowl with the roasted courgette flesh
4. Pour the olive oil into a frying pan or skillet and place over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the shallot and cook for 5 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for a minute before adding the courgette, aubergine and pepper flesh along with the sea salt, cumin and smoked paprika. Cook, stirring for a further five minutes, or until the mixture has turned into a rich, thick sauce. Stir in the basil and parsley then remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool.
5. Carefully fill the courgette shells with the sauce. Top with the grated cheese, if using, and return to the oven for ten minutes, or until the topping has a light golden colour. Serve hot accompanied by a crisp green salad.