June 22, 2020
Healthy eating with plant-based chef
Most of us know by now that the food we consume has a major effect on our health, mood and quality of life. Poor diet, processed food and high levels of refined sugar can cause a range of serious health issues, negatively affect our mood, and even shorten our lifespan.
During the midst of the lockdown, food became a huge comfort for many of us—while some were indulged in making homemade brownies with extra sugar, others put on our apron, taking on the role of a Michelin chef and putting our cooking skills to the test.
With the lockdown easing, many of us might be baffled as to what a healthy and balanced diet actually consists of. We caught up with plant-based chef Nicky Elliot to discuss nutritional plant-based food, which ingredients can help to boost our mood, and how to adopt a plant-based diet.
Nicky Elliot continuously strives to find healthier alternatives to traditional ingredients. After working as a Cordon Bleu chef for many years, she decided to launch The Conscientious Cook and explore the concept of how new ingredients can result in a healthier diet.
What made you decide to become a plant-based chef?
I am 80% plant-based and I decided to eat less meat and dairy products a few years ago to help reduce my impact on the environment and also to improve my health. Whilst I believe that animal products can fit well into a healthy lifestyle I no longer feel that using them as our default is the right thing to do. I definitely feel more energetic eating a more plant-based diet and wherever possible I buy organic, seasonal vegetables and produce that is ideally British grown.
Which ingredients can’t you live without?
I have so many essential ingredients that I love to use in my cooking. I always have fresh herbs in my fridge like coriander, basil, parsley, and mint, as they bring another dimension to any dish you create. You can make delicious dressings and sauces quickly, such as Salsa Verde.
I have every spice under the sun in my store cupboard! My favourites are smoked paprika, turmeric, cardamom, star anise, coriander and cumin, but I also have more unusual mixes such as Berbere (an Ethiopian and Eritrean spice mix for making wholesome stews) and dried black limes for Middle Eastern dishes.
I always make sure I have chickpeas and other pulses in the cupboard, along with coconut products i.e. oil, milk, cream, yoghurt and desiccated. I use these regularly when making soups and curries, as well as my vegan cheesecake and breakfast smoothies.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a plant-based diet?
Switching overnight to a plant-based or vegan diet can be quite difficult and stressful initially, and consequently much harder to stick to. I would take time in the transition period and start by substituting one or two meals a day to plant-based, as this is less overwhelming. You do need to be more conscious on a vegan diet that you are eating enough protein and the right vitamins, although this will vary from person to person. Eat whole foods rather than processed foods, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything labelled as vegan is healthy because it isn’t. I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible.
Make sure you are prepared and have all the herbs and spices you need to make your dishes exciting. Ensure your store cupboard is full of cans of beans (black beans, aduki, cannellini, butter), chickpeas and lentils so that you can easily add them in to casseroles, stir-fries ensuring you get enough protein.
I always find cooking in bulk helpful so you can freeze what you don’t eat and then when you’re feeling less inspired to cook you have a meal already prepared.
What is your favourite ingredient that boosts your mood?
This is tricky as there are so many ingredients that I feel boost my mood. I love a high cacao chocolate, one that is 80% or more—you don’t need much to make you feel good. I also love walnuts; they are great because they contain essential fatty acids that have been shown to improve ones mood and behaviour. I love making my own fresh walnut milk and then adding some Ancient & Brave Raw Cacao & Collagen Powder, plus a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s an incredibly creamy, rich and wholesome hot chocolate.
If you could only make one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I think it would be my Mung Bean Curry as it is packed full of ingredients that really nourish your body such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, tomatoes and coconut. I find all these spices incredibly comforting and they also really lift your mood. I have included the recipe for you to try.
What dish do you always crave?
I don’t really crave any one thing but the one dish our family enjoys the most is Black Bean Chilli with Soft Corn Tortillas. It’s a meal that we all enjoy and getting involved in, it causes much amusement between us all. We share the preparation, with the boys helping to make and press the corn tortillas. My husband loves to make the chilli with a mixture of black beans and marinated bbq tempeh, while I make the guacamole, tomato salsa and help on the sidelines! It is slightly chaotic with ingredients everywhere, but when we sit down to eat it we really enjoy every mouthful because we’ve all put in the effort!
In terms of a snack, I love a crisp apple with a tbsp of Manilife crunchy peanut butter!