Neven Maguire's new healthy adventure
Motivated by his twins, the sweet-toothed chef has cut down on sugar and he trains every day. Here he shares some of his healthy recipes from his new book, and tells how even little changes to your diet can make a big difference
When I sit down with the Nicest Man in Irish Food at The Old Spot on Dublin's Bath Avenue, it becomes quickly apparent that not only has he done his homework, but he's brought it along with him. Before I've even pressed record on our conversation, this ever-boyish chef is enthusiastically leafing through a ring-bound draft of his latest cookbook (his 12th book in as many years).
With its focus on healthy eating, The Nation's Favourite Healthy Food is quite a departure for Neven Maguire, as he himself is quick to point out. "I have an awful sweet tooth," he admits, like a schoolboy who has been caught messing down the back of class, but who knows that the teacher is secretly in on the joke too. "I love desserts, sugar in my tea, I love all that." And anyone familiar with Neven's cooking style - which is most of us, given his enduringly popular TV and radio appearances - will know that he's as big a fan of butter and cream as the next flavour-obsessed chef.
So why the sudden turn-around with this new health-focussed direction? "You have to listen to your audience," he says earnestly, "and healthy is where it's at."
Neven certainly has plenty of opportunity to listen: at his regular demos around the country, at his newly opened cookery school and at his acclaimed MacNean House & Restaurant at Blacklion in Co Cavan where he has witnessed a dramatic rise in diners with disparate dietary requirements.
"The cookery school has taught me a lot about what people are eating and the way they're changing," he observes. "There's definitely a movement towards good, honest, wholesome food. It's about the food, but it's also about well-being and people feeling good about themselves." That's something the 40-year-old chef has come to relate to in recent years. "As you get older you want to feel good about yourself."
Neven is lucky to have found a training regime that he enjoys every day before heading into the kitchen for an evening's service. "I do circuit training, and fartlek (a Swedish running system) training, and boxing. Boxing is great - God you'd be wrecked after it!"
However, learning to curtail his enthusiasm for certain foods and to balance these with healthier options has been more of a struggle. "My diet is where I fall down, and that's where I have to focus."
Happily, becoming a father to twins Connor and Lucia three and a half years ago proved a good incentive to shift that focus. "It has been a challenge," he admits, but one with attractive rewards. "I suppose it's like a long-term investment: I want to see the twins growing up."
Some of those rewards are immediate too. Investing time in good eating habits that can be shared with all his family is clearly something that Neven relishes. "The twins have always eaten well from day one. If they see what you're eating they'll want it too. And when we go to the supermarket we have a bit of fun with it, asking them 'what's this?' and 'what's that?' They're like little sponges," he says, adding proudly, "They know their ingredients!"
But what of that most gratifying reward of all: uncompromising flavour? Fans of Neven's reliably delicious recipes needn't worry - this latest book is just as concerned with bigging up the flavour factor as his previous bestsellers. "This is not a diet book," he reassures us, "because I'm not into diets to be truthful with you." Instead, he says, "I wanted to create something that would bring people on a journey with me. Myself and Amelda and the twins, we're really enjoying using these recipes and eating healthier at home."
Indeed, Neven seems as surprised as he is delighted with how much he's enjoying the changes. "I only got into juices over the last year but we would make juices at home every single morning now. I absolutely love them."
As he flicks proudly through his handsome manuscript, Neven sips away on a frothy flat white coffee. These indulgences have their place in his new regime too, he tells me. "I used to be drinking six cups of coffee a day and now I've cut back to maybe two or three - and no sugar in my tea. They're the wee steps that I've had to take."
Those little steps take effort, says Neven, but it hasn't all been hard work, he assures me. "We've had a lot of fun with this book. We've reworked and retested some recipes, especially the desserts chapter," which sees refined sugar being replaced with natural syrups like honey, as in the indulgent Sticky Orange Upside Down Cake, or coconut sugar as in the Caramel Pear Tart. "A year ago I wouldn't have even heard about coconut sugar. It's absolutely fantastic! It is more expensive than regular sugar but wow is it flavoursome, so you can use less of it."
To prove the point of just how moreish some of these healthy treats can be, one particular page of the manuscript is notably dog-eared and smeared with dabs of something decadent. I'm guessing it's probably honey or peanut butter, both of which feature in Neven's favourite new snack, the Nutty Energy Bites.
The trick to a sustainable healthy lifestyle, Neven is now convinced, is in finding the small changes that can work for you, and introducing them gradually. And it's certainly not about denying yourself the things in life you love. "I mean butter isn't bad for you - it's only how much of it you eat! It's about getting the balance right. A lot of processed foods are full of salt and sugar, so if you cook at home you can control the amount that's going into your food."
With a little forward-planning, it's easy to replace that take-away curry with a home-made curry made with a lean cut of meat, such as the pork fillet used in Neven's Fragrant Pork and Sweet Potato Thai Red Curry. By cheating with an authentic curry paste from the likes of excellent Irish company Thai Gold, it's a cinch to prepare - but you still know exactly what has gone into it. Other dishes are ideal for entertaining, such as the Fragrant Duck Salad with mango and chilli, for which he recommends the readily available aromatic duck from Silver Hill.
So, will we be seeing big changes on the menu at MacNean House & Restaurant? "I've yet to talk to my chefs about it but it's something I've been thinking about," Neven divulges. "I was thinking of doing a Nation's Favourite Healthy Food tasting menu, to see what the feedback would be. Of course, you'd have to have the wow experience too. We'll certainly experiment with it anyway. You never know, this might be a new chapter in my career."
Neven's healthy food swaps
Swap coffee for juice
First thing in the morning, why not replace tea or coffee with a fresh juice like beetroot, orange, apple and pear juice. As well as a lovely bit of sweetness, you're getting your vitamins into your blood flow straight away, making it a great way to start the morning.
Swap pasta for quinoa
Replace refined carbs like pasta with a super grain like quinoa. Not only is quinoa delicious and quick to cook, it's full of amino acids and vitamins, it's also gluten-free and it contains more iron than other grains. Try the mixed grain quinoa for a lovely nutty flavour.
Swap deep-fried for baked
Next time you're reaching for the takeaway menu, why not do your own quick version of oven-baked fish and chips instead - it's quick, it's good value, and it's healthier because we use a panko crumb instead of a batter, and bake instead of deep-frying.
Swap sugar for protein
During the day, instead of reaching for a chocolate bar or something like that, protein bars like the Nutty Energy Bites are a great replacement - you're getting your hit of energy, you're getting lots of nuts into your diet and it's all natural with no refined sugar.
Swap your full Irish for an omelette
Sometimes you want the full breakfast experience, but try replacing the Full Irish with my Irish breakfast omelette using egg whites, pancetta and mushrooms: it's a lighter, healthier option but still filling and it's a one-pan dish, which I love.
One-pot wonder: Baked Chicken and Chorizo Rice with Artichokes
This dish gives maximum flavour with minimum effort and is guaranteed to wake up your taste buds. I like to serve it with sautéed spinach to make sure I'm getting plenty of greens. If you don't have a suitable casserole dish, just use a large sauté pan, then transfer to a roasting tin and cover loosely with foil. Make sure you buy the raw chorizo for this dish, which will impart lots of flavour into the rice as it cooks.
1 x 300g (11oz) jar of artichoke hearts preserved in olive oil
4 chicken breast fillets, skin on
100g (4oz) raw chorizo sausage, peeled and diced
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
350g (12oz) long-grain rice
150ml (¼ pint) dry white wine
600ml (1 pint) chicken stock
200g (7oz) baby spinach leaves
2 tbsp roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 4). Drain the oil from the jar of artichokes. Add 1 tablespoon of this oil to a casserole dish with a lid, then place on the hob over a medium to high heat. Season the chicken breasts and add them to the dish, skin side down. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn over and cook for another minute or so, until sealed. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of the drained artichoke oil to the dish, then tip in the chorizo, onion and garlic. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, until the onion has softened but not coloured. Add the rice and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring, until the chorizo has begun to release its oil and all the rice grains are well coated.
Pour the wine into the casserole dish, stirring to combine, then add the stock and fold in the artichokes. Arrange the chicken on top, pushing the breasts down into the rice. Cover and bake for 30-35 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the chicken and rice are cooked through and tender.
Remove the chicken breasts and stir in the spinach until it has just wilted. Return the chicken breasts to the dish, then scatter over the parsley and place directly on the table to serve.
Baked Fish and Chips
Who doesn't love fish and chips? This is a much healthier version that uses olive oil spray, which is now available in all supermarkets. It's a very clever way of using just a tiny amount of oil so that the breadcrumbs don't dry out but still turn a nice golden colour. Don't tell anyone how you've cooked this and see if they notice…
4 x 150g (5oz) hake fillets, pin-boned and skin removed
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
900g (2lb) Maris Piper potatoes
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
25g (1oz) plain flour
25g (1oz) panko (toasted dried breadcrumbs)
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp sesame seeds
About 1 tsp olive oil spray
Lemon wedges, to garnish
Lightly dressed green salad, to serve
2 gherkins, finely chopped
3 tbsp low-fat mayonnaise
3 tbsp thick Greek yoghurt
1 tbsp chopped rinsed capers
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the hake in a shallow dish, then sprinkle over the lemon juice and leave to marinate for 30 minutes covered with cling film in the fridge.
To make the tartare sauce, mix all the ingredients together and season with salt and pepper. Place in a small bowl and cover with cling film, then chill until needed.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/ gas mark 6). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the potatoes into thick chips. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the chips for 5 minutes. Drain and dry well on kitchen paper. Place the chips onto two baking sheets and toss in the rapeseed oil, then arrange in a single layer and season with a little salt.
Put the flour on a plate and season with salt and pepper. Lightly beat the egg and place in a shallow dish. Mix together the breadcrumbs, lemon rind, parsley and sesame seeds in a shallow dish. Dip each hake fillet into the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess, then dip in the egg.
Finally, coat each fillet evenly in the flavoured breadcrumbs and place on the lined baking sheet. Lightly spray with the olive oil.
Put the chips into the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Place the coated fish fillets in the oven and cook for another 15-20 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and golden brown and the chips are nicely golden.
Divide the fish and chips between four plates and add a small dish of the tartare sauce to each one along with a lemon wedge. Serve with separate bowls of green salad.
Spanish Meatball and Butter Bean Stew
These meatballs seem to taste even better when made a day ahead. Haricot or cannellini beans would also work well for this dish, as would minced turkey, or you could use a mixture. Butter beans are a large, creamy-coloured pulse that have a soft, floury texture and make for a very satisfying meal.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 red peppers, cored and sliced
1 red onion, sliced
1 tbsp water
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
2 x 400g (14oz) cans of chopped tomatoes
1 heaped tbsp tomato purée
1 x 400g (14oz) can of butter beans, drained and rinsed
450g (1lb) lean minced pork
1 small onion, grated
4 tbsp fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus extra to garnish
Sourdough bread, to serve (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium-high heat. Add the peppers and red onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until they are just beginning to soften. Sprinkle over a tablespoon of water to help them along. Stir in the garlic and paprika and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and tomato purée, then season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the meatballs. Place the minced pork in a bowl with the grated onion, breadcrumbs, tomato purée, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Mix until evenly combined, then shape into small, even-sized meatballs. Carefully add to the simmering tomato sauce along with the butter beans. Cover again, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for another 15 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through and tender.
Ladle into bowls and scatter over a little extra parsley to garnish. Serve with some sourdough bread, if liked.
Coconut Carrot Slices
If you're looking for a treat for afternoon tea, look no further than this crunchy-topped traybake that uses honey instead of sugar with excellent results. This will keep for up to three days if stored in an airtight container, so it's a good option for lunchboxes, particularly as it has no nuts in it.
MAKES ABOUT 15 SQUARES
250g (9oz) butter
150g (5oz) honey
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
200g (7oz) self-raising flour, sieved
50g (2oz) desiccated coconut
Good pinch of sea salt
225g (8oz) carrots, grated
2 tsp mixed spice
75g (3oz) desiccated coconut
3 tbsp honey
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 4). Line a 20cm x 30cm (8in x 12in) baking tin with parchment paper.
Gently melt the butter in a large pan and then leave to cool for 5 minutes. Add the honey, eggs and vanilla extract, then beat until smooth with a wooden spoon. Stir in the flour, coconut and salt. Finally, fold in the carrots and mixed spice. Transfer to the lined tin and bake for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, to make the topping, mix the coconut with the honey and smooth this over the cake. Return to the oven for another 10-12 minutes, until golden. It should have slightly shrunk away from the sides of the tin and be springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely, then cut into squares and use as required.