“Healthy Indulgence” Is Not An Oxymoron: A Valentine’s Treat
I wish delicious food weren’t regularly described as “decadent,” “sinful,” “indulgent,” a “guilty pleasure” or even (generally in the context of chocolate) as “death-by [insert killer food name here].”
It’s as though a secret guild of puritanical spoil-sports had vowed to ruin Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day in one fell swoop by warning us that even the briefest moment of gustatory pleasure will send us straight to hell – or at least, to a well-deserved sick bed.
Of course, not all tasty foods are good for you, and when over-indulged in can damage your waistline and your health. These include most mass-produced (and even some artisanal) “treats” such as cookies, cupcakes, candies and the factory-made chocolate-flavored confections that line the “seasonal specials” aisle of our supermarkets in early February.
Nonetheless, I want to show you today how easy it is to revel in delicious food and still be a paragon of health and moral rectitude. Indeed, without enjoyment, what’s the point of eating? Nature has endowed us with taste buds so that we can select the most fragrant, flavorful and nutritious foods – so why not take her cues and enjoy the gifts she has bestowed on us? Darkly sensual chocolate. Succulent cherries. Spicy, crunchy hazelnuts. Nourishing eggs. Sweet vanilla.
It would be churlish, to say the least, for us to refuse Nature’s generosity, especially since the colors, aromas and flavors of each of these foods reflect their nutrient profiles, each supplying a unique array of chemicals that nourish our bodies and help keep disease at bay.
Chocolate-cherry clafoutis: Delicious and nutritious!
Cherries, for instance, are packed with anthocyanins, plant compounds whose antioxidant capabilities are 20 times more powerful than vitamin C and 50 times more potent than vitamin E. Cherry anthocyanins protect blood vessels and brain cells against oxidative stress, and thus may help prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaque and degenerative brain diseases. Cherry anthocyanins have also been found to slow the growth of human colon cancer cells. As if this weren’t enough, cherry consumption lowers various markers of inflammation – a key factor in cancer and heart disease.
Lastly, cherry consumption may help you sleep: tart cherries, in particular, are one of the few good food sources of melatonin, a hormone and antioxidant that regulates the sleep-wake cycle in the brain. (I can attest to tart cherries’ somniferous powers: my husband ate two handfuls of dried Montmorency cherries one evening and 20 minutes later he was snoring soundly on the couch next to me.)
Chocolate, meanwhile, boasts a wide variety of beneficial compounds, such as antioxidant polyphenols and catechins that neutralize free radicals and can reduce the risk of developing heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Chocolate also contains the little-known compound anandamide, named after the Sanscrit word for “bliss” (ananda), a chemical in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and anxiety. Two stimulant compounds in chocolate, caffeine and theobromine, produce higher levels of physical energy and mental alertness while, surprisingly, reducing blood pressure in women.
The darker the chocolate, the more of these compounds you will obtain, so avoid sugar-laden milk chocolate and instead, choose dark (ideally, raw) chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70%, ideally closer to 80-85%. You can train yourself to like very dark chocolate by gradually increasing the cocoa content of the chocolate you eat: start in the 60% range and work your way towards the 90s (and 100s, if you dare). The chocolate I used for the recipe below contains 88% cocoa; nonetheless, even my sweeter-tongued children liked it.
Hazelnuts are another exceptional source of anthocyanidins. They also contain heart-healthy fatty acids that help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase “good” HDL cholesterol, and are packed with B-vitamins, vitamin E, fiber and minerals, including copper and manganese, two minerals our bodies need in order to produce antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase. Two other minerals in hazelnuts, magnesium and phosphorus, are important for bone metabolism and heart health.
Lastly, eggs, long shunned for their high cholesterol content, are making a comeback. For while egg yolks do contain a lot of cholesterol (which may slightly affect your cholesterol levels), they also provide heart-protective nutrients, including high-quality protein, all the B-vitamins, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Pastured eggs, in particular, tend to have concentrations of these nutrients. In mass-produced battery eggs, on the other hand, inflammation-promoting omega-6 fatty acids vastly overshadow anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Wherever possible, choose eggs that are pastured, organic and/or omega-3 enriched.
I hope I have convinced you that sometimes, delicious dishes can procure guiltless pleasures that nourish body and soul. Without further ado, I invite you to step over into your kitchen, whip up this delicious, nutrient-packed, low-glycemic, gluten-free delicacy and offer it to someone you love. Starting with yourself!
Clafoutis is a French fruit pie; traditionally it involves sour cherries baked in a thick, pancake-y batter, but here I have replaced flour with ground nuts and added chocolate for a luxurious, romantic dessert. You can also make a savory version of clafoutis. For instance, my book, Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, features a recipe for a cherry-tomato clafoutis with basil and feta cheese and pine kernels. This recipe is gluten-free and can be lactose-free. Serves 4-6.
12 oz/350g cherries, pitted (frozen & defrosted or fresh)
¼ tsp natural almond extract (optional)
½ cup/45g finely ground hazelnuts or almonds
¼ cup/30g top-quality unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 tsp potato starch
a pinch of salt
3 pastured eggs
4 tbsp butter, plus a little more for buttering the pie dish or ramekins (for a lactose-free version, replace butter with 4 tbsp hazelnut oil)
1/3 cup/75ml maple syrup or honey
1 cup/250ml milk (can be almond or hazelnut milk)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1.5oz/45g dark chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate (minimum 75% cocoa content)
1 tsp icing sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 400ᵒF/200ᵒC. Grease a 10-inch/22-cm pie dish or 4-6 individual oven-proof ramekins with butter or hazelnut oil. (You can find heart-shaped ramekins here.)
Place the cherries in a shallow bowl, toss gently with the almond extract and set aside (this is optional – but the almond extract gives them a delicious “maraschino” kind of taste).
In a small saucepan on low heat, gently melt the butter and set aside.
Combine hazelnuts, cocoa powder, potato starch and salt in a mixing bowl and stir to mix. Make a well at the center of the bowl and put in the eggs, melted butter (or hazelnut oil), maple syrup, milk and vanilla extract. Mix with a wire whisk to obtain a smooth, thick batter.
Scatter berries and chocolate chips/chopped chocolate (whichever using) into the greased pie dish or ramekins. Ladle the batter on top, place on a baking sheet and carefully slide into the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until puffy and firm at the center. The batter will collapse once it cools, but this results in a delicious moist and pudding-y texture. Dust with a hint of icing sugar and serve hot or warm with half-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt.