Last Updated on January 27, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
Health, Food and Happiness – in a book!
That what we eat affects our physical health is old news, but a growing body of research is revealing that it also has a direct link to the state of our mental health. Happy Food For Life (Bloomsbury) sets out to present some of the latest findings on the gut-brain axis and how it is determined by our gut flora. It provides cutting edge research, much of it from the past couple of years, subsequent to their first book, Happy Food, which was published in Sweden in 2017. Authors, Niklas Ekstedt and Henrik Ennart are respectively one of Sweden’s star chefs and a science journalist at Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, an author who writes about food, health and ageing.
Happy Food For Life argues that a fibre-rich diet can improve our gut flora which in turn promotes the ability of our immune system to protect us from illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and forms of cancer. It is estimated that 70 – 80% of our immunity is situated in the gut. In addition to protecting our physical health, our gut flora can promote good sleep, reduce stress and protect from anxiety and depression. Low-grade chronic inflammation can result in ongoing mood and sleep disturbances. The link between depression and chronic inflammation is a burgeoning area of study. In order to understand and manage our mood and mental health, we need to look beyond the brain, to the stomach (known as the second brain) and the microbes in our immune system that play a central role.
Happy Food For Life is part cookbook but moreover an exposition of research. 50 recipes with photographs by David Loftus are distributed across its 234 pages. The rest of the content is divided into chapters on research about gut flora, food and well-being, emotional eating, the link between what we eat and our emotions, Nordic food, especially grains and plants, which are part of the food history of the region. There is a great deal of information packed into this book, some of it is easy to engage with while other parts require more studious attention to scientific details. Many readers may want to simply attend to the recipes, but that would be a shame as there is much to learn and understand. For those who wish to read further on these topics, there are six pages of densely packed type which lists the research papers cited in the pages of the book.
Our gut is an ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites and single-cell micro-organisms called archaea. These make up a dynamic gut flora which our Western diet – processed and junk food in particular – tends to leave depleted. By the age of three years, each of us has developed a gut flora that is unique to us, like our personal fingerprint. One way to enrich our gut flora, thereby boosting our immunity, is to increase the variety of vegetables and fruits that we eat. The authors suggest thinking about moving towards a selection of 20 – 30 different types of fruit and veg in your shopping basket to be eaten over the course of a week. I found this to be a very helpful suggestion and immediately made a list of fruit and veg. I easily listed 30 vegetables alone and now have an accessible resource from which to plan weekly menus. They further suggest eating plenty of legumes, wholegrains, seeds and nuts. They advise against exceeding one or two glasses of wine per day and recommend getting around 7 hours of sleep at fixed times. Those doing regular exercise may want to note that all exercise produces pro-inflammatory stress for the body. Therefore it is particularly important to eat well so as to avoid illness.
Happy Food For Life contains a wide range of recipes mostly, but not exclusively, vegetarian. Many have ingredients that are Nordic – like weed salad and certain grains – but, that said, some like Icelandic Skyr are now available in our supermarkets. I tried out a variety of dishes from starters to dessert. Each one was good and I have a list of those I still plan to cook once I get my next food delivery where I am stocking up on venison and blood oranges.
Spicy tomato soup with lentils is a super quick soup, bursting with healthy alliums and tomatoes whose lycopene is good for prostrates which is good news if you have men at your table. The soup is colourful and I enjoyed the taste of the fennel and coriander seeds – a tablespoon of each goes into the mix. I love the crunch of coriander seeds but if you do not, you could always toast the seeds first and grind them up in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. The addition of green lentils ensured that the dish had plenty of protein. I used a carton of ready-cooked lentils which could not have been easier. This is a soup one can make during one’s lunch hour and still have time to eat it.
Gnocchi with sunflower seed pesto is not a great looker but tasted good. The traditional pine nuts are replaced with toasted sunflower seeds, a great idea. I used shop-bought gnocchi so the whole dish took mere minutes to prepare. The pesto tasted so good that I used the leftover sauce as a topping for a baked cod dish and it was delicious.
I went on to make not one, but two roast chicken dishes. This was just so clever. You roast one chicken and from it you make three meals. I roast a chicken every weekend but this one was standout tender and so very moist. The method used is to whack the heat up really high for 20 minutes and then reduce it for 30 minutes. During this time it part steams in water which is added to the roasting dish and which creates a thin, tasty gravy along with the halved oranges also placed in the roasting dish. I have never eaten roasted oranges and these are utterly delicious, heading in a marmalade flavour direction.
Once the chicken is cooked, the legs are removed for the first dish and served with spelt, tomatoes and herbs. The nutty spelt had a good chewy texture and lovely colour, the taste lifted further with a splash of sherry vinegar. A very healthy dish.
The second dish is made with the breasts which are sliced off the roasted carcass and served with the fabulous gravy from the roasting tin, mixed into a pan of sauteed, tiny cubes of crunchy shallot which gives wonderful texture. The sliced breasts are served with griddled, halved gem lettuces. This is so simple and so very good. I usually find breast meat a bit on the dry side but this was gorgeously moist.
The third chicken dish is made from the wings and carcass which are made into a chicken soup. I fell at this hurdle as the soup contains cream which I try to avoid. I did, however, use the wings and carcass to make a chicken stock so nothing went to waste.
As if all this good eating was not enough, I made a side dish of roasted carrots with rocket, goat’s cheese, pumpkin seeds and orange. Once again, fresh flavours, lots of colours and the crunch of the toasted seeds. You could leave out the cheese if you are vegan but it does add an extra layer of flavour and calcium. I recently read that cooking carrot with oil enables more Vitamin A to be absorbed by the body and this dish does just that. It is such a useful side dish to have up your sleeve and certainly will join my list of must-repeat vegetable recipes.
After this veritable feast, I was delighted to find the most simple dessert. Skyr with Nordic berries and seeds took under a minute to prep and could as well be eaten for breakfast. I did not have access to blackcurrants but did have a punnet of tart blueberries and the sweetest blackberries. This was added to the Skyr and then topped with sunflower seeds and honey. I had a gorgeous, organic wildflower honey which was so lovely with this dessert, but you can use whatever you have.
Happy Food For Life is a book that literally gives readers food for thought. There is a great deal to chew over and digest – I will be rereading it carefully – as well as a selection of creative and colourful recipes which are super healthy. They will encourage your gut flora to diversify and activate your happy hormones.
Moist roast chicken with shallot gravy and griddled lettuce
- 1 chicken I use organic chicken
- 2 tbsp salt
- 2 lemons or oranges cut in half
- 2 Bay leaves
- 2 shallots chopped
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 4 small gem lettuce cut in half
- 1 bunch rapeseed stalks I did not have access to these. I think they are used as a garnish.
- 300 ml water
Preheat oven to 230 C
Rub the chicken with salt
Place chicken and the lemons - or oranges - in a roasting tin. Roast for 20 minutes.
Reduce temperature to 170 C.
Pour the water over the chicken and continue to roast for 30 minutes or until juices run clear. Baste the chicken every 5 minutes with the juices in the bottom of the roasting tin.
Remove the chicken and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
Pour the juice from the roasting tin into a saucepan and squeeze in the juice from the lemons or oranges.
Put the bay leaves and shallots into the saucepan with the liquid and allow to boil until reduced by half.
Remove from the heat and add the olive oil.
Grill the lettuce halves on a high heat for 2-3 minutes. Alternatively, fry them in a hot pan with a little oil.
Carve the breast portions off the chicken and serve with the lemon or orange sauce and the grilled lettuce.
Happy Food for Life is available from Amazon and other good booksellers.
Looking for something different? I’ve been reviewing a number of the latest cookery books and can highly recommend The Food Almanac by Miranda York if like me you enjoy reading about food as much as discovering new recipes to try. Or Simply by Sabrina Ghayour is another recent release that is already well-thumbed in my household. And, Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage has given me a great new set of recipes to try too.