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Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 11.01.24 AM.pngFebruary is not Irish heart month {September is*}, but with the visual cue of hearts literally everywhere we go, it seems the perfect month to reassess how best to care for the hearts of my sweet family.

Up first…exercising more. The Irish Heart Foundation recommends thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity fives times a week. In our Irish home even that miniscule amount of exercise can be hard to achieve, which is why I’ve started making physical activity a part of our family “talk-time”. Whether it’s my husband and me, one of us with one of our daughters, or the whole family together, we’re walking, biking, hiking and even dancing to the Wii while we are talking…laughing…and sometimes arguing and crying.  The upside of combining talking and exercise is obvious…we’re hardly aware that we’re being physical.

Next…stressing less. As my husband and I have moved into parenting teens, our lives have become more stress filled. What’s worse, as our kids have moved into their teen years…their lives have become more stressful too. Multiple studies have shown that extreme emotional distress is bad for the heart, no matter what your age. Stress triggers the “flight or flight” response, which in turn causes a surge of adrenaline in the body and makes your heart pump faster and harder. Not good…unless of course you’re running away from a man-eating tiger! To counteract stress we’re all doing some simple heart healthy activities, including sharing worries and woes with friends, journaling, listening to music, and allowing time to do absolutely nothing.

Finally…eating better. Over the past ten years, we’ve steadily reduced our intake of trans fats, saturated fats, sugar, salt and alcohol and increased our uptake of water, fruits, vegetables, healthy oils, and whole grains. Some of our perennial favourites include water with mint, 70% dark chocolate (Aine Irish hand made chocolate is the bomb), omega rich salmon, roasted broccoli, and porridge.

Porridge, also known as oatmeal, is not just for breakfast any more. Last September my friend Marguerite invited me over for an afternoon cuppa and a catch up at her beautiful home in Donnybrook. Instead of the usual side of biscuits {cookies}, Marguerite served Irish Porridge Bread. I’d never had porridge bread before and was delighted to give it a try. Truth be told, it was really good.

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Oats are high in beta-glucans**, a soluble fibre, which can lower cholesterol by soaking it up before it gets absorbed into the bloodstream. Oats are also a rich source of magnesium, which is important in preventing heart attacks and strokes by relaxing blood vessels and regulating blood pressure. What’s more, for someone like my brother-in-law who lives with coeliac disease, porridge is, for the most part, considered a safe, gluten free, food***.

From our Irish home to yours, we wish you a happy heart month. What are you doing in February to take care of your heart?

Irish Porridge Bread

Makes One Large Loaf

Ingredients:

500ml/16oz/2cups natural yogurt

1 beaten egg

1 tbsp. treacle or maple syrup

300g/11oz/3cups porridge oats, plus 2 tbsp. more for topping

2 tsp. bread soda/baking soda

1/2 tsp. Salt

Method:

1 Place yogurt, beaten egg and treacle/maple syrup in a mixing bowl and stir well.

2. Mix the oats, bread soda, and salt in a separate bowl, add to the yogurt mixture and stir well.

3. Place in a greased or parchment lined 2lb. loaf tin, sprinkle with extra oats and bake at 180°C/350°F for 30 minutes.

4. Lower the oven temperature to 150°C/300°F and cook for another 30 minutes.

5. Lift bread out of loaf tin and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Additional Notes, Related Articles & Credits:

* Irish heart month coincides with the World Heart Federation’s World Heart Day, which is held in September.

** Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism

*** Anyone suffering with coeliac disease should proceed with caution when eating oats. Research suggests that for many coeliacs, oats are fine but for individuals who are particularly sensitive, they may be toxic.

**** For more research on the health benefits of eating porridge please see these articles (1, 2, and 3) from Harvard Medical School.

 

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When life gives you lemons…you make lemonade, right? But what about when life gives you elderberries?

Such was my thought a few weeks ago, as I stood staring up at the enormous elderberry shrub in our back garden. In the summertime I make a delicious elderflower cordial from the tiny fragrant flowers our elder gives us: from the cordial we enjoy homemade spritzers, sweet curd, popsicles…even pavlovas…for months on end. But as I eyed the tiny black berries that had grown from the unused summer blossoms, I wondered what to do.

Irish chefs and scratch cooks have been using elderberries for many years to make wine, jam, chutneys, tinctures, sauces, tarts, and fizzy drinks. One of Ireland’s most famous chefs, Richard Corrigan, uses them to make Elderberry Jelly. Imen McDonnell, blogger and cookbook author, throws a handful of elderberries into her autumn-inspired Irish Hedgerow Martini. And Michelan-star chef J.P. McMahon uses elderberries to make vinegar and sauces for his wild game dishes.

But what could I do?

As I stood there thinking about the possibilities, I remembered that my good friend Susan once suggested our family take a daily spoonful of elderberry syrup to boost our immune systems. Susan was giving Sambucol, a black elderberry extract, to her family and was finding that they were coming down with fewer colds and healing faster when they did catch something. So, a bottle of Sambucol was bought for our home and we took a spoonful every morning from autumn to spring as an ounce of prevention for a number of years.

I don’t know when we stopped taking Sambucol or why. Perhaps I got lazy…maybe just forgetful? Last winter, however, when I was knocked for six with a cough that lasted weeks, it sure would have been helpful {not to mention “healthful”} to have some on hand.

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As I stood there looking up at the clusters of tiny black berries hanging heavy on our elder shrub, that’s when it struck me. I could make my own elderberry syrup with very little effort and use it as a winter tonic for our Irish family.

Recipes for homemade elderberry syrup are readily found on Pinterest. Darina Allen has one in her Forgotten Skills of Cooking cookbook. Biddy White Lennon and Evan Doyle have a whole chapter dedicated to elderberries in their Wild Food book, too. Being my first time to make elderberry syrup, I followed Darina’s recipe and, within a few hours of picking the berries in my back garden, I had my very own seasonal elderberry syrup bottled and ready to be used.

From our Irish home to yours, I wish you good cooking and very good health!

Elderberry Syrup

Makes about 600ml

Ingredients

1 lb. elderberries

1 lb./450g sugar to every 600ml (1 pint) of juice

1 organic lemon

Directions

1. Strip the fruit from the stems, put into a stainless steel saucepan, and cover with cold water.

2. Using a swivel-top peeler, remove thin strips of zest from the lemon and add {to the saucepan}.

3. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the elderberries are soft.

4. Strain through a jelly bag or a piece of muslin.

5. Measure the juice and put it back in the saucepan. Add 450g/1 lb. sugar for each 600ml of juice and the juice of the lemon {previously zested}.

6. Bring back to the boil for about 10 minutes, allow to cool before pouring into sterilised bottles. Seal with a screw cap and store in a cool, dry place.

Additional Notes, Related Articles & Credits:

* Scientifically there is evidence to suggest that elderberries may reduce swelling in mucous membranes, help relieve nasal congestion, lower cholesterol, improve vision and improve heart health. Elderberries contain Vitamins A, B and C with large quantities of vitamin C, dietary fiber, carotenoids, flavonoids including quercetin and anthocyanins, organic pigments, tannins, amino acids, viburnic acids, minerals like potassium among others. All these make elderberry a powerful antioxidant. In addition to anti-oxidation properties, elderberries have anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. They also have mild diuretic, laxative and diaphoretic properties. For more information, read studies from University of Maryland, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Department of Virology, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, Israel, and one from Yale University.

** The elder is native to Ireland. In Irish folklore, the Elder is thought of as an unlucky plant; often connected with the fairy folk and their mischievous tricks. It was once said that to make a child’s cradle from the wood of the elder was to invite the fairies to steal away a child. According to an old Irish saying there are three signs of a cursed place: the elder, the nettle and the lonesome calling corncrake.

***Read J.P. McMahon’s article on elderberry in the Irish Times here.

****Some fun recipes for elderberries from around the web are Elderberry Ice Cream over at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, Elderberry/Blackberry/Crab Apple Jam over at The Irish Catholic, Mulled Elderberry Gin over at Wild Irish Foragers, Elderberry Tea at Fresh Bites Daily blog, and the most beautiful Gluten-free Elderberry, Pear, Hazelnut Cake at Our Food Stories.

***** Some elderberries are poisonous and the leaves of all elderberries, especially, should never be eaten. For more information, Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture has guidelines, noting the fruits are used in “…pies, jellies and jams.” If you’re unsure if your elderberries are edible, please consult your local plant professionals/experts before consuming.

And two more articles on the benefits of elderberries may be found at the Irish Examiner and The Irish Times.

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Last Tuesday evening was just another night for most people but in our home it was “Spaghetti, S’mores, Sleepover” night. For hours I listened to five girls sing pop songs, laugh, share secrets, play dolls, jump on the trampoline, dine al fresco on the back patio and roast marshmallows (more like burn them to an eternal crisp) outdoors before they passed out with exhaustion in their respective beds. It was lovely, really.

Watching my youngest daughter and her “B.F.E.” (best friend ever) was probably the most fun. While they sat at our little red café table on the side patio, I watched them . At first they were talking and then laughing. Next, one of them snorted and the two of them started laughing so hard they nearly fell off their chairs. I thought to myself “I gotta get me some of that”.

And by “that” I mean “joy”. Life has gotten too damned serious lately. The simple pleasures of fresh air, music, laughter, pasta, a roaring fire and a good night’s sleep are being overshadowed by all the “debt”, “bailouts”, “foreclosures” and “loss” swirling around us. We need to reclaim our joy…remember how to throw our heads back and snort and laugh with abandon. “Spaghetti, S’mores, Sleepover” night may have been organized for the benefit of my daughters but, in the end, I had fun too.  Where do you find your happiness?

Spaghetti Sauce

(Serves 6)

4 tablespoon good olive oil

1 onion, chopped finely (1/2 cup)

garlic, minced, to taste (1 tablespoon)

1 kg of tinned tomato pieces in their liquid

handful of fresh basil

salt and pepper to taste

sugar to taste

Directions

1.Put all the ingredients into a big pot.

2.Simmer uncovered for about half an hour to an hour until it is reduced and concentrated by about one-third.

S’Mores

(Serves 5)

15 Marshmallows

One Packet of Rich’s Tea biscuit or Graham Crackers

Chocolate bars cut broken into small squares

Directions

1.Roast a marshmallow on a long stick over hot coals or a fire.

2. Place a chocolate square on top of one Rich’s Tea biscuit.

3. Next put the roasted marshmallow on top of the chocolate square.

4. Cover with a second Rich’s Tea biscuit and gently press the two biscuits together.

5. Wait a minute for the marshmallow to melt the chocolate and then eat.

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