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Stealth health

I’ve just spent two hours with my mother planning our menus for Christmas week. We’ll be en famille in the south of France (yes, life is tough). I think we’ve got all of the bases covered: duck, goose, rabbit, lamb, pig, oysters, scallops, salmon, prawns, chocolate, chestnut, trifle…to name but a few. It’s going to be a FEASTATHON.

I have the rest of this week off and am spending it with my parents, to catch up on some family time and to help mum prepare for next week. Now, two weeks of constant feasting would be too much, even for me. The challenge has been to find meals for this pre-Christmas staycation that will keep my carniverous, gourmand (and metabolically extremely sound) father happy and satisfied, whilst helping my mother lose her target few kgs before the feasts begin. She’s going on holiday to Costa Rica in January and doesn’t want to ‘waddle around the rainforest’. Quite. I too want to be gagging for the goose by the 25th, not gorged like the foie gras we’ll enjoy the next day (sorry, I know I shouldn’t. But it’s just so GOOD. And mother ensures me that the geese were happy).

I decided to plan a stealth attack, sneaking up on Papa Page little by little. He’d never suspect a thing.

A tangy chicken tagine seemed like a good option for day one. Softly softly catchy monkey. Would he notice if I replaced the cous cous with cauliflower rice? Considering the usual speed and zeal with which he devours things, I thought not. As it happens, he did notice, but was so impressed by my creativity (he thinks I’m the first person to think of cauliflower rice, wonder child that I am) that he at least pretended to like it. Mother was an easy and willing convert, especially for someone who claims not to like cauliflower.

A dark chocolate sorbet with poached pears was my nod-to-decadence dessert. Gluten and dairy free, with just a little bit of sugar, it made for a sumptuous but abstemious pud.

Stage two: could I convince my father that a vegetarian dish, can, in fact, be a meal in itself? Unlikely. But then there’s Borsch. If it’s hearty enough for the Russian subzero winter climate, I reasoned, it should keep dad (in the balmy south of France) happy till dinner. I gave him a potato-heavy portion and he seemed content enough. Phew.

My quinoa, kale, avocado and grapefruit salad was the real showdown. Dad took one look at it and said, ‘that looks very healthy’. Uh-oh. He’s figured me out. And yet….several hours after gobbling it down with relish he doesn’t appear to be fainting from starvation.

Mission accomplished.

Chicken, olive and fennel tagine with cauliflower rice

Serves 4, 30 minutes prep time, 2 hours cooking time

Main / quietly smug / easy peasy / party / gluten free / dairy free / date night / perennial / detox

The slow cooked, juicy chicken falls off the bone in this tangy and fragrant tagine. I served it here with cauliflower rice, a lovely, light alternative to cous cous or regular rice. It would also be perfect with a vegetable puree - try celeriac or cauliflower.

* Chicken - 4 organic legs

* Olive oil

* Onion - 1, peeled and diced

* Garlic - 3 large cloves, peeled and sliced

* Ginger - 2 thumb sized pieces, peeled and finely chopped

* Ground coriander - 1 tbsp

* Fresh coriander - 1 bunch

* Saffron - a pinch

* Salt - 2 tsps

* Fennel - 2 medium bulbs, quartered

* Preserved lemons - 2, quartered and any seeds removed

* Green pitted olives - 100g

* Cauliflower - 1 medium size

Begin by removing the skin from the chicken legs. This isn’t essential, but if you leave it on it’ll be soggy and the tagine will be a little fattier. To remove the skin, start by pulling or cutting it away from the flesh at the top part of the thigh, towards the drumstick. You should be able to pull it off in one piece so it turns itself inside out around the base of the drumstick. Then give an extra yank and it should come off. Trim off any excess fat from the leg. Discard the skin or keep it to make a wicked appetiser of crispy skin.

In a large, heavy based saucepan heat a tablespoon of olive oil on a medium high heat. Brown the chicken in the pan for a few minutes on each side, seasoning with salt. Once the meat is a nice golden colour, remove from the pan and set aside.

Add a little more olive oil and fry the onion, garlic, ginger and ground coriander for about 5 minutes. Add a splash of water if things start to stick.

Cut off the stalks from the bunch of coriander, roughly chop them and add them to the pan.

Next, return the chicken to the pan, and nestle in the fennel quarters. Put in enough freshly boiled water to just cover the chicken. Don’t worry if some of the fennel sticks out. Add the saffron and salt and stir to combine. Bring to a low simmer, cover the pan and cook for 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Add the preserved lemon, the olives and the chopped coriander leaves. Cover the pan and cook for a further 15 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the cauliflower. Cut off the outer leaves and the base of the stalk and discard. Chop the cauliflower roughly into chunks and then use the grating attachment on a blender to finely grate it. You can do this by hand but it takes patience!

Place the grated cauliflower in a large saucepan with about 75ml water. Heat on a medium-high heat, covered, for about five minutes. This should be enough time to steam the ‘rice’.

Serve the tagine over the ‘rice’ in a bowl.

If serving to a little babe, plate up without the olives and preserved lemon.

Chocolate sorbet with poached pears

Serves 4, takes 15 minutes prep, 2.5 hours chilling time

dessert / show off / not too tricky / gluten free / dairy free / date night / on a budget / perennial / party

Chocolate sorbet is an almost guilt-free treat. It's lovely on its own, with coffee, with berries or with a soufflé, if you're feeling fancy. The combination of hot and cold in this dessert is mega. Enjoy.

* 85% chocolate - 150g

* Caster sugar - 100g

* Cardamom - 4 pods

* Pears - 4, peeled

* Star anise, cinnamon stick, vanilla pod...

Start by making the sorbet. Finely chop the chocolate and place it in a freezer-proof bowl.

Bring 250ml of water to the boil with the sugar and cardamom in a small saucepan. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring often, until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Set aside and leave to infuse for about 10 minutes.

Remove and set aside the cardamom, then pour the syrup over the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has almost entirely dissolved. It’s lovely if you can keep small flecks of solid chocolate within the mixture to give a 'chocolate chip' texture when frozen.

Leave to cool for half an hour and then place in the freezer. Every half an hour, take out the sorbet and whisk well with a fork, making sure you scrape off all the crystals from the around the edge. After a couple of hours, you should have a thick, sorbet texture.

Place the peeled pears in a pan with enough water to just cover them. Add the remaining spices and the rinsed cardamom pods. Boil the pears for about 15 minutes, or until tender. Serve immediately with a scoop of sorbet.


Makes six generous servings, takes about an hour

main / vegetarian / vegan / dairy free / gluten free / nothing fancy / easy peasy / winter / autumn / on a budget / detox

This recipe is an adaptation of mama Marina's traditional Russian borsch, cutting out the tomatoes and peppers for those of us who weren't organised enough to marinade our own for the winter. Ideally enjoyed with a glass of chilled vodka. Nazdarovie!

* Onion - 1, peeled and diced

* Carrot - 2 large, peeled and finely sliced

* Celery - 1 stick, sliced

* Ground caraway - 1 heaped tsp

* Olive oil

* Beetroot - 4 large, peeled and grated

* Beef stock - 1L (you can use vegetable stock if you prefer)

* Sugar - 1 tsp

* Salt - 2 tsp

* New potatoes - a large handful, cut in half

* Apple - 1, peeled, cored and grated

* Lemon - juice of 1/4

* Garlic - 3 cloves, peeled and crushed

* Dill - a few sprigs, to serve

Fry the onion, carrot, celery and caraway in a glug of olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Place the lid on the pan and leave to sizzle for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a couple of splashes of water if things start to stick.

Once the vegetables are nicely softened, add the grated beetroot and mix well. Next add the stock, sugar and salt, bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes.

Next add the potatoes, apple, lemon and garlic. Continue simmering for another 15 minutes. Add extra water at this stage if the soup looks too dense.

Once the potatoes are tender, the soup is done. Serve with a sprig of dill and a scoop of creme fraiche.

Kale, quinoa, avocado and grapefruit salad with tahini dressing

Serves 4, takes 20 minutes

salad / ready in a jiffy / vegetarian / vegan / gluten free / dairy free / winter / autumn / hands free / party / detox

This is oh so virtuous but delicious. The tahini and avocado add plenty of happy fats, and the quinoa is an excellent source of slow release energy. Add a little crumbled feta if you want an extra protein hit.

* Quinoa - 1 cup (about 200g)

* Vegetable stock cube - 1

* Kale - a bunch, leaves removed from stalks and chopped

* Grapefruit - 2

* Avocado - 2

* Tahini - 4 tsp

* Lemon - juice of 1/4

* Olive oil

Boil the quinoa with the stock cube in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes. All the liquid should have evaporated by the end and the grains will be al dente.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, boil the kale stalks in plenty of salted water. After a few minutes, add the leaves and cover the pan for a minute or two. Drain, return to the pan and set aside.

To prepare the grapefruit, cut the skin from the fruit using a sharp knife, working around in vertical strips. Gently chop the flesh into chunks, removing any pips and extra pith.

Peel the avocados, remove and discard the stones. Roughly chop.

To make the sauce, whisk the tahini with a couple of teaspoons of water. Keep whisking and adding water until the sauce is the texture of double cream. Add the lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Whisk again to combine.

To serve, toss the kale and quinoa together and stir in about 2/3 of the sauce. Divide between four bowls and then evenly distribute the avocado and grapefruit between the bowls. Drizzle the rest of the sauce over the top and serve with plenty of black pepper.


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