When I started cooking for a living, my love affair with food attached itself firmly to my thighs. By the time I reached my early 20s, a steady diet of croissants and cocktails saw my weight spiral up to more than 91kg.
It wasn't until I took myself off to an intensive residential course on nutrition at the Culinary Institute in upstate New York, that I came to understand just why I had piled on the kilos. My lightbulb moment occurred at the start of the course, when we were shown a big table laid out with 100 plates, each containing 100 calories of food – 10 potato chips on one plate and a mountain of broccoli on another. Suddenly it was so obvious – all the fat in my diet, and the empty calories of alcohol and drink mixers, were delivering way more energy than my body was using.
Unless you suffer from some kind of metabolic condition, weight gain and weight loss is a simple equation of in and out – the energy you get from what you consume, versus the energy you expend.
Fat seduces our taste buds with an ability to carry flavours and gives foods a luxurious mouthfeel. Without fat, icecream would not be smooth, cakes would be dry, pastry would not flake, and butter would not melt in our mouths. But gram for gram, fat contains twice the energy of protein or carbohydrates – nine calories per gram to their four calories per gram.
Having this background information is useful, but if you want a long-term strategy for maintaining a healthy body weight, you need to make new habits. The knowledge from my nutrition course and the weight that I lost as a result have crafted my own eating approach and a diet built largely around vegetables and wholegrains – foods that are dense in fibre and nutrients. Often a little drizzle of fat (whether as oil, butter, cream or coconut cream) is all you need to give a dish a satisfying mouthfeel. I eat meat, fish and chicken in small quantities. Icecream, biscuits and cake figure as treats rather than a snacking habit.
If your trousers no longer fit after of festive indulgence, maybe these vegetable-based recipes will set you on the right track to a healthier new year.
Ready in 10 mins
Serves 10-12 as a side
200g halloumi, cut into 3cm x 3cm slices (optional)
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp basil pesto
2 Tbsp lemon juice
4 large zucchini
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 punnets (about 500g) cherry tomatoes, halved
1 large handful baby spinach leaves
¼ cup torn basil leaves
If using halloumi, heat 1 Tbsp of the oil in a large, heavy-based frypan and fry slices of haloumi until golden on both sides (2 minutes). Set aside.
Combine remaining oil, pesto and lemon juice in the base of a large serving bowl. Shred zucchini into ribbons with a spiral grater or shave into strips lengthways with a mandolin or vegetable peeler. Toss through the pesto dressing and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add halloumi, cherry tomatoes, spinach and basil and toss gently to combine.
Annabel says: A spiraliser makes fast work of transforming zucchini into long al dente noodles, but if you don't have one you can very finely julienne or shave them instead. For a different flavour profile try using 2 Tbsp red pepper pesto in place of the basil pesto.
Ready in 5 mins
Makes 2 big cups
2 cups cooked chickpeas or 2 x 310g cans of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 Tbsp lemon juice, or more to taste
2 Tbsp tahini
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp ground cumin
A pinch of chilli flakes or cayenne pepper
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup water, or more as needed
Place all ingredients except water in a food processor and whizz until smooth. Add water to thin, if needed. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 4-5 days or freeze. Delicious served with crusty bread.
Annabel says: High in protein and fibre, canned chickpeas are a terrific starting point for any kind of meal and their ability to blend up to a super-smooth creamy texture when you add water, yoghurt or lemon juice, makes them incredibly useful for dips like this one.
Beet and Carrot Bulghur Salad
Ready in 15 mins
½ cup each bulghur wheat and boiling water
1 beetroot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 spring onion, finely sliced on a diagonal
½ cup very finely chopped parsley leaves
¼ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
½ clove garlic crushed with ½ tsp salt
2 Tbsp each lemon juice and boutique extra virgin olive oil
Place bulghur wheat in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand for 10 minutes.
Combine grated beetroot and carrot in a bowl with spring onion, parsley and mint. Add soaked bulghur wheat. Mix garlic paste with lemon juice and olive oil, pour over salad and toss to combine. If not serving at once, cover and store in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Annabel says: This pretty salad travels well, so it's perfect for a picnic or pot-luck barbecue.