Oh boy, here I am welcoming another year thinking about starting a diet . . . again. I apologize if the “D” word has you ready to quit reading because I know exactly how you feel. I have a dear friend that is pretty much diet obsessed. She is always counting her points, weighing her tofu and looking at me from under her eyebrows every time I order dessert, basically throwing me into a state of food guilt. She just doesn’t understand that for me dessert eating (or pretty much eating in general) is job related, kind of an occupational necessity if you will. I mean she has to understand that I have to stay on the cutting edge of trends in foods, and if that means consuming silken sauces and sugary confections all washed down with bubbly libations well, all I can say is, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. Now, saying all this, I must make a confession, and please don’t tell her that I said so, but she’s right. I can no longer deny it; I’ve got to cut back. You know when your sweatpants are too snug it is time to make a change.
I think that the root of my problem goes way back. I was always the skinny kid in school. I could eat anything I wanted and lots of it without gaining an ounce, so I find myself a bit unprepared to make a serious lifestyle change. I always think of myself as that willowy school girl until I catch a glimpse of my real self in the escalator mirrors at one of my favorite department stores. How disheartening when you have spent an hour putting yourself together and patting yourself on the back for looking so ravishing, only to be contradicted by a lowly piece of reflective glass on your way up to the 1st floor café. If that doesn’t take the fun out of a cappuccino and slice of Victoria sponge I don’t know what will. I can only speak for myself here, but John Lewis if you have noticed a slump in your café sales, you might want to reconsider those brutal escalator mirrors and let me live in the land of denial that I love so much.
Well I guess I’ve finally come to the realization that my extra pounds aren’t going to just melt away and those mirrors aren’t going anywhere either, so I need a game plan. I’ve decided that I’m going to start power walking and I don’t just mean a brisk jog in my high heels across a rainy supermarket car park. I’m going to put on my trainers and actually break a sweat. I am also going to start eating off of tea plates so it looks like I’m eating more (I hear that’s an effective illusion). I’m going to skip the silken sauces (oh my) and pass on those tempting desserts (ouch) and consider quit buying butter (probably not). I’m also going to start taking the stairs. Personally I’ve never seen one, but I bet they don’t put mirrors in stairwells. The biggest change of all is going to be the way I eat and that is also the trickiest part. I don’t like recipes that substitute the really good ingredients for some substandard imitation product that was born in a laboratory, so I’m hitting the drawing board.
We’ve all heard the expression that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, well, I don’t know about that. Before that big mirror the aforementioned cappuccino and Victoria sponge made me feel pretty close to perfect. So here’s the hard bit, coming up with something creamy and delicious yet lower in fat and calories. I’m of the opinion that if you take the fun out of food, then you need to put something back in the way of flavor. After much deliberation with my in-house panel of food critics (my children), I’ve come up with a figure friendlier version of a couple of our favorites. I finally decided on cream of mushroom soup which is spiked with herbs and has tons of flavor. I’m pairing it here with tomato and artichoke bruschetta and some fun little truffles that are so satisfying you’ll only need one of them to calm your sweet tooth. Who says you have to deprive yourself of goodness and suffer to be beautiful?
Herbed Cream of Mushroom Soup
1 ounce (30g) dried Portobello mushrooms
4 cups (1 liter) hot chicken broth
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium size sweet yellow onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
8 ounces (227g) white or Crimini mushrooms, chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 large bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, plus a couple of sprigs for garnish
2 medium to large size fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves, crushed
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups (375ml) light evaporated milk
Pinch cayenne pepper
Place dried mushrooms in a medium size bowl and pour hot chicken broth over them; soak for approximately 15 – 20 minutes.
Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion, celery and fresh mushrooms and sauté for approximately 5 minutes before adding crushed garlic and sautéing for 1 minute longer.
Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid with a slotted spoon and transfer to a cutting board. Pour the soaking liquid into the stockpot with the vegetables. Add the bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley and marjoram; stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for approximately 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
While the mixture is simmering, coarsely chop the soaked dried mushrooms; set aside.
Remove the vegetables and liquid from the heat. Discard the bay leaf and remove and set aside 1/4 cup of the liquid from the pot. At this point if you have an emersion blender, puree the remaining contents of the pot. If using a countertop blender, cool the contents of the pot to warm before pureeing and returning to the stockpot. Add the chopped and soaked dried mushrooms to the pot before placing it back over medium heat and bring back up to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes before adding the condensed milk, cayenne and salt and pepper. Bring the contents back up to a simmer and continue cooking.
Whisk together the all-purpose flour and the 1/4 cup of reserved broth. Add this to the stockpot and stir as the liquid simmers and thickens for 5 minutes.
Divide the contents equally among four warm soup bowls. Garnish with small rosemary sprigs. Serve immediately.
Tomato Artichoke Bruscetta
5 ounces (150g) marinated artichoke quarters, chopped
1 medium size tomato, seeds removed and chopped
1 spring onion, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped green or black olives
12 – 1/2" inch thick slices of bread from a French baguette
Olive oil cooking spray
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees (200C).
In a medium size bowl toss together the artichokes, tomato, spring onion, basil, olives and a drizzling of the juice from the artichokes; set aside.
Spray both sides of the bread slices with the olive oil spray. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven. Bake until the bread is toasted and golden brown; turn over and toast lightly on the other side. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each piece of toast with 1 teaspoon of the Parmesan cheese; return to the oven for just a minute or so to melt the cheese. Remove from the oven and set aside until ready to use.
Top each piece of bread with a heaping teaspoon of the tomato mixture and serve immediately.
If you want to change this up a bit, I often toast sliced pita bread or flat bread and top it with hummus instead of the French bread and Parmesan.
Chocolate Cookie Truffles
18 ounces (540g) chocolate sandwich cookies (such as Oreo)
8 ounces (240g) light soft cheese (such as Philadelphia), softened to room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (125g) icing sugar or cocoa powder
Crush cookies to a fine powder. Food processors work great for this but you can also place them in a zipper seal bag and crush with a rolling pin.
In the bowl of a food processor or medium size bowl, blend in softened light cheese and vanilla extract.
Scoop out a heaping teaspoon of the dough at a time and roll it between your palms to form a ball.
Place truffles in refrigerator to set for approximately 1 hour.
Sprinkle icing sugar or cocoa onto a large plate. Roll balls one at a time in sugar or cocoa and place in a single layer on a covered plate. Store covered in refrigerator.
Makes approximately 48 – 1” truffles.
Even though plain chocolate is my family’s favorite, I sometimes add a few drops of orange or mint extract to make them just a bit extra special.
The original recipe calls for the truffles to be frozen and then dipped in melted chocolate instead of powdered sugar or cocoa powder which is delicious for those lucky people not dieting.