Darina Allen on The Psychobiotic Revolution and this weekend's recipes

A growing body of research confirms that our food should be our medicine.

Darina Allen on The Psychobiotic Revolution and this weekend's recipes

A GROWING body of research confirms that our food should be our medicine. So making time to shop well and cook for one’s family becomes an even greater priority at a time when so many people are stressed and stretched to the limit trying to keep more balls in the air than is even remotely possible. Something has to give but it mustn’t be nourishing wholesome food — too much depends on dinner.

Recent clinical research by professors John Cryan and Ted Dinan has confirmed and highlighted the fundamental link between our gut biome and our physical and mental health. Turns out that the lively community of bacteria, yeasts and viruses that can weigh up to 1.5kg influence our mood and behaviour far more than was originally acknowledged.

According to their new book The Psychobiotic Revolution, gut inflammation has such a strong link to depression that we “ignore it at our peril”. So how do we cultivate a healthy happy gut flora which has been christened the ‘second brain’?

Eat real foods and mostly leafy green plants and root vegetables, fruit and whole-grains preferably organic. Fermented foods are also rich in probiotics, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha and real natural yoghurt, all stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Our gut biome thrives on a wide range of natural foods. Lots of biodiversity fibre is also important. Highly processed foods ‘sugar up’ our gut in every sense of the word and are now known to induce depression, possibly by boosting pathogenic bacteria.

There are other reasons to eliminate junk food from our diets. Emulsifiers frequently used in ice-cream and bought cakes have been shown to thin out our body’s protective layer of mucus which prevents pathogenic bacteria embedding themselves in the gut lining and thus protecting us from inflammatory diseases linked with depression.

Professors Cryan and Dinan are also convinced that breast milk, tailor-made for baby, gives the best start and contains among many other things, oligosaccharides. These are complex sugars which are indigestible to the baby but are designed to help establish beneficial bacteria in the gut to boost the baby’s immune system and to reduce the risk of allergies in later life.

This subject concerns all of us. There was standing room only at the recent East Cork Slow Food event where Ted Dinan spoke about “Feeding melancholic microbes: how gut microbes influence our mood”.

- The Psychobiotic Revolution co-authored by Scott C Anderson, John F Cryan and Ted Dinan

- www.cookingisfun.ie, darinaallen.blogspot.ie

Watercress, Blood Orange and Macroom Mozzarella Salad with Pistachio Nuts

The rich West Cork pasture that the buffalos feed on gives the Macroom mozzarella its quintessentially Irish taste. A few beautiful fresh ingredients put together simply make an irresistible starter.

Serves 4

2-3 balls of fresh Macroom Mozzarella

2 blood oranges

A bunch of fresh watercress

2-3 tablespoons Irish honey

A good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Some coarsely ground black pepper

50g (2oz) pistachio nuts, roughly chopped

Just before serving, scatter a few watercress leaves over the base of each plate, slice or tear some mozzarella over the top.

With a sharp knife remove the peel and pith from the blood oranges, cut into 5mm thick slices, tuck a few here and there in between the watercress and mozzarella.

Drizzle with honey and really good extra virgin olive oil. Scatter with pistachio nuts.

Finally, add a little coarsely ground fresh black pepper and serve.

Ballymaloe Cookery School Homemade Yoghurt

Yoghurt can be made from fresh milk but it must be thoroughly boiled first, and allowed to cool to lukewarm before use. Boiling destroys unwanted bacteria in the milk which could interfere with the bacterial action of the yoghurt bacillus.

We use organic ingredients where possible.

600ml (1 pint) fresh milk

2-3 teaspoons plain yoghurt

Heat the milk to 90C in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Allow to cool to 42C. Stir in the yoghurt. Leave in the saucepan or pour into a deep terracotta bowl, cover and put into a warm draught-free place until set. This usually takes about 14 hours. The cooler the temperature, the longer the yogurt will take to set, but too high a temperature will kill the bacillus and the yogurt will not form (over 50C).

Yoghurt can be set in a warm airing cupboard or boiler room, a vacuum flask with a wide neck or an insulated ice bucket (35C-40C is optimum temperature).

To keep the yoghurt warm, an earthenware pot with a lid, wrapped up in a warm blanket, put close to a radiator will also do the job. The simple aim is to provide steady even warmth to allow the bacillus to grow. Remember to keep back two tablespoons of your bowl of yoghurt as the starter of the next lot.

Yoghurt with Honey and Dates

Unsweetened natural yoghurt, very cold

Runny honey

Best dates, fresh or dried

Thick cream

Almonds (shelled but with the inner brown skin left on, ie, unblanched)

For each person, half-fill a pudding bowl or glass with yoghurt.

Stone dates and chop them roughly. Put a few on the top of each helping of yogurt. Spoon a good dollop of thick cream over the top, then trickle over 1 teaspoon of runny honey.

If using the almonds, scatter a few more on now. (They may be used as well as, or instead of, the dates.)

Ayran

On a recent trip to Turkey, I came across Ayran — a drinking yoghurt which is not only brilliantly healthy, but becomes addictive. It’s almost a national drink in Turkey and is an excellent way to build up a healthy gut flora. Simply dilute best quality natural yoghurt with cold iced water, approximately 1/3 water to yoghurt depending on quality and thickness of the original — should have a frothy top — best to whisk in the water.

Nordic Kale Salad with Lemon and Cream

This is reminiscent of my grandmother’s dressing for lettuce, sounds a bit shocking but you are not going to eat the whole bowl yourself. Half natural yoghurt could be substituted for full cream.

Serves 10 - 12

450g (1lb) curly kale (225g (8oz) when destalked

Lemon, finely grated zest and juice of one lemon

25g (1oz) sugar

250ml (9oz) cream

Sea salt — scant teaspoon or to taste

Strip the kale off the stalks, chop the leaves very finely and massage well to release the juices. Toss in a bowl. Grate the zest of the lemon directly onto the salad. Add the freshly squeezed juice, a good sprinkling of sugar and sea salt. Toss, pour over the cream and toss again.

Taste and add a little more seasoning if necessary, needs to be a balance of zesty and sweet. Totally delicious.

Penny’s Fermented Jerusalem Artichokes

My daughter-in-law Penny Porteous-Allen is passionate about the importance of fermented food in our diet. She has developed many superb recipes of which this is one. Penny tells me it’s particularly delicious with lamb and redcurrant jelly. Use organic ingredients where possible.

Serves 8-12

900g Jerusalem artichokes

5 level teaspoons sea salt

1 medium red onion

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon winter savory, rosemary or thyme

A few wild garlic leaves

Gorse flowers optional

250ml brine (made with 250ml filtered water bad 1 level teaspoon sea salt (optional)

Equipment

1 1.5 litre kilner jar, sterilised

Put the Jerusalem artichokes in a large mixing bowl. Add the sea salt and mix well. While you prepare the remaining ingredients, the salt will begin to draw moisture out of the artichokes.

Thinly slice the red onion; finely chop the garlic and herb of your choice. Roughly chop the wild garlic, then add all these to the Jerusalem artichokes and mix well.

Take handfuls of the mixture and pack it into a 1.5 litre sterilised Kilner jar, pushing down with your fist every time. Once all the vegetables are in the jar, push down again. You need the liquid (brine) to come up and over the mixture; I usually find a jamjar that fits snugly inside the bigger jar to use as a weight on top of the vegetables to keep them submerged. If needs be, add some or all of the extra brine. Successful fermentation takes place if all the ingredients are submerged under the liquid. Leave on a work surface to ferment for 10 days. The resulting taste should be deliciously sweet, sour and savoury with great crunch.

Hot Tips

Bee Keeping for beginners with Shane Lehane. Shane Lehane’s enthusiasm will spark your curiosity and show how urban and rural dwellers can have a beehive and produce their own nutrient-dense honey. This comprehensive course offers a highly informative insight into the vernacular craft of beekeeping and the production of quality honey. It is ideally suited for anyone who has an interest in good food, nature, traditional craft, and who has a positive approach to healthy and positive living.

Delivered with verve and imagination by Shane Lehane, it incorporates an interactive talk supported by a stimulating slideshow. Shane will also introduce the practical side of beekeeping and participants will have a chance to learn about the beekeeping equipment, bee-suits, beehives, smokers and the full spectrum of beekeeping paraphernalia. In addition, there will be a chance to taste different honeys and bee pollen, while participants will be able to appreciate the properties of beeswax and lesser-known bee products such as propolis. March 14, at 2.30pm www.cookingisfun.ie or 021 464 6785.

Fermentation Workshop with Penny Allen on March 15, at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Learn how to make sauerkraut, kombucha and water kefir. You will leave with a jar of your own sauerkraut and starter cultures for kombucha and kefir. www.cookingisfun.ie or 021 464 6785.

Wild Garlic or allium ursinum is springing up once again in the woodlands. The leaves are spear-shaped, smell distinctly of garlic and make a gorgeous pesto, the flowers don’t come until much later but the snowbell allium triquertrum, which prefer to grow along the roadside verges, is already in flower so scatter these over salads and stews.

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