Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tis the Season of Heart Health

Hey! Want a brand-spanking-new KitchenAid Food Processor just in time for holiday gift-giving? Enter my holiday giveaway here! Hurry, ends soon!

This time of year (pretty much from our (read: Canadian) Thanksgiving until the New Year's resolutions have worn off) is both a time of excess and a period of reflection and appreciation for those around you. For me and my family, we're thankful every day for my grandfather's continuing presence with us. After a triple-bypass surgery, working in a chemical paint production plant, smoking every day since his teens, bouts of cancer, high blood pressure and most recently Type II diabetes, it seems that every little roadblock that could have stepped into his path has. But he was still lucky enough to have the chance to choose to improve his lifestyle and diet along the way - and now at the ripe old age of 79, he can easily run circles around me (literally and figuratively!). His levels are beginning to normalize, as much as they possibly can given his other medications, and he still has the wit, humour and mobility of a man half his age.

Unfortunately, 27.4 million people in the US are still diagnosed with heart disease every year - shortening the years of holidays spent with whole families and changing lives forever - sometimes in the blink of an eye. Developing Type II diabetes, having high cholesterol, hypertension, or a history of smoking, and of course being part of the overweight and obesity epidemic in the Western world spike your risk of becoming one of these statistics. But this high number of heart patients doesn't have to exist. 80%, possibly more, of the cases of heart disease are fully preventable. Staying active, getting regular checkups and eating a healthy diet will loosen the grip this condition has on your life, even if you're genetically predisposed to it like me.


One of the strong players in this battle against heart disease (not to mention a myriad of other things) is a classic favourite of the season: the cranberry. Cranberries have more potassium than sodium (72 times more!) which keeps blood pressure down. They help reduce your (bad and total) cholesterol too, and protect your cell walls from free radical damage (huzzah for beauty inside and out!). Of course, most of the goodness the tart, bouncing balls contains gets overloaded by a bucketful of sugar, since they only have 4 grams of it in a half-cup. I've never been one for either of the canned varieties of cranberry sauce that are on every supermarket shelf over the holidays for precisely that reason. If you go for the (creepy, IMHO) jellied "log", you're taking in 11 grams of sugar for a paltry two tablespoons, and not much else. On the other hand, spooning into the more "normal" whole-berry sauce, you're still getting 11 grams of sugar. Not to mention that the "sugar" in question is actually a blend of HFCS and "standard" corn syrups. Yummy!

So this is my contribution to the holiday table this year. Relying on rich, oven-caramelized onions, fresh orange juice, balsamic vinegar and just a handful of sweetened, dried cranberries for the bulk of it's sweet notes, it only needs the barest hint of raw sugar to seal the deal. It's not your conventional blend, of course, but it makes for a decadent topping for roasted meats, or even mixed into mashed or sweet potatoes, or your plain ol' boiled carrots or green beans.

Cranberry - Ginger Relish
Makes about 3 1/2 cups, 28 2-tbsp servings
1 large Spanish onion, diced
2 tsp olive oil
12 oz (1 bag) fresh cranberries, washed and dried
1 orange, zested and juiced
¼ cup dried cranberries
3 tbsp raw sugar or Sucanat
1 tbsp fresh-grated ginger
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
¼ tsp salt
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Toss onion in the oil and pour into a shallow baking dish.
  3. Bake, uncovered, 1 ½ - 2 hours – until the onions begin to turn a rich brown. Stir every 15 minutes.
  4. Scrape the onions into a saucepan and add cranberries, orange juice and zest, dried cranberries, raw sugar, ginger, vinegar and salt.
  5. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the cranberries are tender and the mixture is thickened, 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool.
Amount in 2 Tbsp
Calories: 20.9
Total Fat: 0.4 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 19.4 mg
Total Carbohydrate: 4.7 g
Dietary Fiber: 0.8 g
Sugars: 2.9 g
Protein: 0.2 g

Of course, one of the other culinary darlings of the heart health community, especially at holiday time, is the humble walnut. In 2009 a series of investigations into the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids (including the ALA which is concentrated in walnuts) and found that walnuts dropped total and “bad” cholesterol levels, boosted antioxidant intake and behaviour and lowered inflammation. The hearty benefits continue when you delve a bit deeper - walnuts are also rich in the "gamma" form of vitamin E, which is actually more beneficial for the cardiac system than the "alpha" variety, and also help prevent blood clots, inflammation and high blood pressure.

When I was approached by the California Walnut Commission to toss my hat into their "search for the best walnut recipes" ring with it's Holiday Blogger Challenge, I jumped at the chance. Almost everyone I know who likes baked goods (especially banana bread!) loves the flavour and texture that they bring to pretty much any application. Since the entries are being judged on the originality, creativity, flavour profile, ease of preparation and the use of California Walnuts, I didn't really want to go down the banana bread road again. But I did have in mind something just as easy, just as fruity, and perfect to serve no matter what the occasion. Whether it's on the dessert table at holiday gatherings, tucked into lunches or nibbled on mid mall-crawl, I think you'll find a use for this tender, moist quickbread!

Apple-Walnut Loaf
Makes 1 loaf, 10 slices
1 egg
3 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
1/3 cup spelt flakes (or Kamut flakes or large-flake rolled oats)
2/3 cup Demerara (or dark brown) sugar
1 tbsp vanilla
2/3 cup spelt flour
2/3 cup flour
3/4 cup ground California Walnuts
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp pumpkin spice
3 unpeeled, diced apples
1/2 cup chopped California Walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F, grease a loaf pan.
  2. In a large bowl, beat egg with yogurt.
  3. Stir in the flaxseed and spelt flakes. Let stand 10 minutes.
  4. Add the brown sugar and vanilla to the yogurt mixture and blend in well.
  5. Whisk together flours, ground walnuts, baking soda, and spice in a medium bowl.
  6. Add the dry mixture to the yogurt mixture and mix to blend, then fold in apple pieces and chopped walnuts.
  7. Bake on the lowest rack of the oven for 55-60 minutes, until it tests done.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 214.7
Total Fat: 9.2 g
Cholesterol: 18.5 mg
Sodium: 16.2 mg
Total Carbs: 35.6 g
Dietary Fiber: 3.1 g
Protein: 4.6 g