For the last couple of years, I have struggled with the inextricable linking and opposition of my love for food with my health and exercise goals. Blogging and food often dominate my mind – the next meal, the next way to combine different flavours, what I could eat for dessert or the next blog post – and to be honest, my self control around butter, sugar and quality ice cream is almost non-existent. But growing up in an extremely active family (the sort where the week was based around who has sport where when, and it was normal, expected, that exercise is a daily kind of thing) has left me with an entrenched commitment to health and fitness. Studying medicine and seeing the impact of our obesogenic environment on our communities has enforced it.
And I do enjoy exercise! I love starting the day with a run or a swim, or heading to the gym for a workout. Bircher muesli remains my favourite breakfast, and I don’t shy from green vegetables. It’s just that it is in constant competition with the square of brownie that accompanies my morning coffee, the afternoon snacking on whatever baking is sitting in the pantry, and the feeling that dessert is not an option, but a necessity. Who else manages to gradually cut off slivers of cake until you’ve basically polished off two or three slices? I even have a freezer stash of individually wrapped balls of NYT chocolate chip cookie dough ready to bake up – resisting a warm, gooey cookie studded with dark chocolate chunks is near impossible.
I’m sure we all wish baking and health weren’t so conflicting. What would you give to be able to eat whatever you wanted, whenever?! It wasn’t an issue for me through school – swim training 16 hours a week will do that. It’s been the onset of long university days, a consequent decline in exercise, and a ramping up of my baking: weekend cookies has turned into over-the-top cakes, tarts, brownies and crumbles. And more often.
I turned to more drastic measures this month. I’ve never dieted or done this kind of thing before, but when I realised I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for sugar-ladden treats multiple times a day, I decided I’d have a go. This is the third week ‘refined sugar-free’. For me that means no brown, white, raw, coconut or any other obvious sugar, and no honey, maple syrup, agave or other sweetener. Though some ‘I Quit Sugar’ style diets also eliminate fruit, they’re also fibre and nutrient-rich – so I’m not taking that step (and, to be honest – I probably couldn’t do this without my morning strawberries and summer peaches for snacking!).
Side note: I’m not a dietician, my normal ethos is everything in moderation, including moderation, and I am not at all a proponent of elimination diets. Gluten, dairy and sugar make up the bulk of my favourite foods!
Thirty days seemed doable, and it has been a lesson in just how often sugar becomes a crutch during the day. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll be back to baking brownies as soon as February is up. I just hope that it teaches me a little about how to exercise my (flimsy) self-control, that I can survive days without dessert, and that not every meal needs to be followed by something sweet.
I couldn’t exactly follow this up with one of the decadent cakes I photographed over the holidays, so instead here is my current favourite summer meal – raw broccoli & pomegranate tabouli with harissa chicken skewers and tahini yogurt sauce. The broccoli is whizzed up to a crunchy crumble and combined with all the goods – ample parsley, mint, pomegranate, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, toasted pumpkin seeds and spring onion. Bulgur wheat bulks it up, and I love that it only takes a 10 minute soak to cook, compared to the long boil of quinoa or pearl barley. It also uses my favourite fast dressing – lemon juice, olive oil and a dollop of sticky pomegranate molasses for extra tanginess. Barbecued chicken skewers and a drizzle of zesty, garlicky tahini yogurt sauce tops it off. If you’re a bread lover like me, fresh pita or turkish bread makes an ideal accompaniment. AND it makes the best lunch leftovers.
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- ½ cup greek yogurt
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- juice ½ lemon
- coarsely ground salt and pepper
- water to thin ¼ cup
- heaped1/4 cup harissa,
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 chicken thighs, skinless and boneless, cut into chunks
- 10-12 skewers
- 1 head raw broccoli, florets and stem, roughly chopped (about 350-400g)
- 1 packed cup parsley, finely chopped
- 1 cup mint, finely chopped
- ½ cup uncooked bulgar wheat (soak according to packet instructions, makes about 1 cup when cooked)
- 1 lebanese cucumber, diced
- 1 punnet cherry tomatoes, halved
- ½ cup thinly sliced spring onion
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
- seeds from a pomegranate
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- juice of 2 lemons
- 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
- coarsely ground salt and pepper
- pita or turkish bread to to serve
- In a small bowl, combine the tahini, greek yogurt, minced garlic and lemon juice
- Season to taste with salt and generous ground pepper.
- Thin with water until desired consistency - I usually go for a thick pouring consistency, which takes about ¼ cup of water.
- Refrigerate until ready to use
- In a large bowl, combine the chicken, harissa and olive oil until chicken is thoroughly coated.
- Cover and marinate for at least an hour or up to overnight.
- Soak skewers in water for about 20 minutes or longer (to avoid burning on the barbecue).
- Skewer the harissa chicken chunks on the skewers.
- Cook on a barbecue or in a grill pan over medium heat until cooked through, about 8-10 minutes depending on the size of your chicken chunks
- Serve chicken skewers with the raw broccoli tabouli, tahini yogurt sauce and pita or turkish bread.
- Blitz the broccoli in a food process until it reaches small coarse pieces that are still crunchy (don’t blitz it so far that it turns into a puree / fine meal).
- Cook the bulgar wheat according to packet instructions (usually soak in boiled water for 10 minutes, then drain).
- In a large bowl, combine the blitzed broccoli, finely chopped parsley and mint, bulgar wheat, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, spring onion, pumpkin seeds and pomegranate seeds.
- In a small jar, combine the olive oil, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses - shake to emulsify. Season with generous salt and pepper.
- Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine
- Serve with the grilled chicken skewers, tahini yogurt sauce and warm pita or turkish bread.