If December is the month of extravagant indulgence, then January and February usually follow as the months of temperance. With record numbers of us joining the gym and taking part in Dry January, healthy living is often al la mode for this time of year, an attempt to battle the month long, post-Christmas food and bubbles hangover most of us are suffering with. And it’s not just about dropping a dress size and getting in shape either. As a dog owner, I spend a lot of time outdoors. My immune system is generally fairly strong, but the cold, wet, and windy weather has really got into my bones this year, and having a duvet day isn’t an option with a feisty not-quite-fully-grown-extremely-energetic-terrier begging for long walks in the park with his doggy friends, so I seem to have one cold after another! ‘Ooh, you don’t sound well, cold is it? There’s a lot of it about! I had the same, that cough goes on forever!’ seems to have replaced the usual pleasantries about the weather and the state of rush hour traffic or the price of milk, and I admit it; I’m not really feeling very motivated to keep up my healthy living and getting in shape resolutions!
I love winter for the food. Hearty pies, roast dinners with delicious, rich gravy, hot custard for pudding. I’m always a bit reluctant to give these things up when it’s cold outside and we rarely see a glimmer of sunshine, but this year, I’m struggling a bit more than usual. Salad? No thanks! That bikini can stay in the drawer for another summer… but actually, it’s not just about my waistline. I can eat as many tasty orange flavoured vitamin C tablets as I like, but really, it’s all about boosting my immune system the right way; through my diet.
Finding the right balance of hearty and comforting, and healthy eating is all about your ingredients, and how it’s cooked. Home cooked soups can be an excellent way to introduce all the right nutrients to your diet, and can be low fat enough to get you towards that all important drop a jeans size goal; never mind how cosy and comforting it can make you feel, particularly if you just can’t shake that lingering cold. So this winter, I’ve been trying out some of my favourite ingredients as soups, and I’m pretty pleased with the results; I’ve even managed to get my stodgy food loving partner to get involved too. These soups are really easy to make, and can be made in advance, so lunchtime is sorted too.
Harissa Spiced Butternut Squash Soup (4 servings)
This soup is a real cold buster. Butternut Squash is a great slow release energy source, so a small bowl of this soup can really keep you going. Harissa has a really high chilli content too which has been used for its decongestive properties since early Incan times in South America. It’s a great source of both vitamin A and vitamin C, so can really help boost that all important immune system to keep you going through the winter, and by using a healthier oil option, the fat content is taken care of too.
1 x large Butternut Squash
Harissa paste to taste
1 x onion
A good glug of sunflower oil, around 30ml. You can use any healthier oil if you prefer; groundnut can be a good option, but introduces a bit more flavour than sunflower oil, so be careful how much you use.
1 x Knorr vegetable stock pot. You can use any vegetable stock here, but I think the Knorr stock pots are the best; they’re rich in flavour and the salt content isn’t through the roof
0% fat natural yoghurt (optional)
Spring onions and pumpkin seeds to garnish
1. Peel and chop the squash into approximately 1 inch cubes and pop on a roasting tray. Give the squash a light drizzle of vegetable or sunflower oil and give the tray a good shake to ensure the squash is lightly coated- this will prevent it sticking to the tray. Pop the tray into the oven at around 190c for about 45 minutes to an hour until tender and the corners are slightly blackened.
2. While the squash is cooking, finely chop the onion, and place it into a heavy bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid. It’s important to use a heavy bottomed pot, otherwise the onion will likely burn. Add the Harissa paste to taste (I usually find 2 teaspoons is just about right, but you can add more or less depending on your spice tolerance), and a good glug of your preferred oil. Put the pot on the lowest possible heat with the lid firmly on to create a steam room, and gently heat through for a good 15-20 minutes until the onion is very soft. You’ll need to check the onion regularly and stir the mix to prevent burning and sticking, but always replace the lid to keep in that all important steam. Don’t be afraid to add a little more oil if you think the mixture is looking dry. Once the onion is soft, remove from the heat.
3. When the squash is ready, remove from the oven and add to the onions and harissa. Boil a kettle full of water, then pour over to completely cover the squash. Add the stock pot, and blitz the soup using a stick blender. You can use a regular blender, but you’ll probably need to do it in batches. You may like to add more water as you blend the soup, depending how thick you like it. I love really thick soups, so tend not to.
4. Once the soup is completely blended, add a swirl of 0% fat natural yoghurt and thoroughly combine. If I’m doing this soup for a dinner party, or just if I’m feeling indulgent, I use crème fraiche or double cream, but the natural yoghurt works extremely well if you want to stay low fat; it’s rich enough to give the soup a luxurious feel, whilst being low fat enough to keep the soup as healthy as you can. Or, if you’re feeling really good, you can leave out this step altogether; the soup is tasty enough to have by itself!
5. The finish, lightly toast some pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for a couple of minutes. Keep the pan moving so they don’t burn, you’ll know they’re done when they start popping. Sprinkle over the soup with some sliced spring onions to serve.
This soup has really seen me through this winter. Restorative enough to help me feel energetic and congestion free, but comforting and warm enough to get me through the dark depressing January weather, it’s become a real favourite in our house, and I really look forward to making it! You can also include sweet potatoes for a bit of variation; just roast them with the squash.
Chicken and vegetable broth
A real traditional dish, chicken broth has been used as a winter cold remedy for years. Rich in nutritious vegetables, and high in protein, a good chicken broth can really get you going again. This recipe is a big mix of my grandmother’s soup, a bit of Jamie Oliver, and a few of my own additions and alterations. The best thing about this soup is that it can be played with, so don’t be afraid to experiment and add your favourite vegetables. This method does take a little while to do, but the soup is mostly left alone to cook so you can get on with everything else whilst its cooking.
1 whole chicken
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 heart celery, sliced, yellow leaves reserved
a few sprigs fresh thyme
2 large handfuls peas
1 leek, washed and shredded
2 parsnips, diced
Half a finely shredded sweetheart cabbage
1 small bunch fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Wash your chicken in cold water and pat dry with kitchen paper. Place the chicken, carrots, celery, parsnips and thyme into a large, deep pan and pour in 3 litres of water or enough to cover the chicken.
2. Simmer on a medium heat for 1½ hours or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan and strain the broth. Save the veg for later. Put the broth back on a high heat and allow to reduce by about a third.
3. Strip and shred the chicken. Don’t worry about making it too fine, it’s nice to get some good chunks of chicken occasionally.
4. Once the broth has reduced, pop the vegetables back in the pan with the peas, leeks and chicken.
5. Simmer for a further 5 minutes, then remove the sprigs of thyme.
6. Serve in warm bowls sprinkled with chopped parsley.
Warm crusty rolls are a must, and as this recipe is devoid of starchy veg like potatoes, you can afford to enjoy it!