The chef, the vulnerability box and the elder microbiome

The posts on my food blog and rant blog are the same this week, because I’m ranting about the relationship between diet and disease.

Another type of diversity conversation. And a call to action.

Alongside the wonderful Paul Loper, I’ll be heading back this time next year to the beautiful Mexican Pacific coast as guest faculty at the Modern Elder Academy. I’m looking forward to learning more than I teach (as always) and in particular to enjoying the work of the most important faculty member at MEA, the person whose contribution has the potential to make the greatest difference in the lives of those attending…yes, I’m talking about this guy: Tony Peralta. Chef.


But for now, I’m still in London Covid world, with stern warnings everywhere I turn that elders like me are more at risk than younger people of serious illness and even death if we become infected by the virus. The message is one designed to evoke passivity and fear; I’m being told what to avoid and what not to do.

It seems to me to be dangerously superficial as well as offensively ageist to throw all elders into the same box. I’m not alone. A paper in the international journal of the British Geriatrics Society states:

  • The public discourse during COVID-19 misrepresents and devalues older adults.
  • The ageist attitudes circulating during COVID-19 make some people think that the pandemic is an older person problem. (Ageist attitudes include the belief that ill health is inevitable, intervention ineffective, and improved outcomes inherently not valuable to society).

The same paper goes on to say that it doesn’t have to be this way; that there is substantial untapped potential to modify the relationship between chronological age and health, and to relieve the so-called burden of ageing on individuals, families and society.

One of the fundamental reasons why some older people can be badly affected by Covid is a lack of diversity in the gut microbiome. In case you didn’t know, your microbiome is made up of more bacteria and fungi than you have cells, and diversity in its composition protects us from disease, affects our metabolism and weight, our inflammatory response, cognition, appetite, mood….

Over the age of 40, the diversity of these bacteria in our gut tends to decline. The reasons for this are many and include diet (many people slide into habitual and unhealthy eating patterns), hormone levels, diabetes, use of antibiotics, painkillers, antidepressants, and drugs such as statins which are used to manage blood lipids.

At a time when we are being advised to wash our hands and stay away from other people, the risk of reducing the diversity of our gut bacteria is even greater – cutting down on opportunities for the virus to enter our system also means that we’re preventing bacteria getting in, so we need more than ever to protect and boost the ones already in there. In this necessarily disinfected environment, we need to do even more to sustain the diversity of our microbiome and thus protect ourselves from those dangerous inflammatory infections caused by Covid.

This is where our hero, Tony, comes in. One way to slow the age-related decline in microbiome diversity is by changing our eating habits to something more like a Mediterranean (or what I tend to think of as a Pacific Mexican) diet of the type served up by Tony and his team – plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables, grains, fresh fish, some fermented foods (and, yes, the occasional glass of excellent Baja California wine). It helps also to snack less, taking long pauses between meals to give your gut a break. Exercise has also been shown to support microbiome diversity.

To learn more about this, Prof. Tim Spector is definitely worth a follow, and this article of his on how to boost your gut microbiome is very helpful. I’m looking forward to his upcoming book, Spoonfed, on diet myths which I’ll feature here when it comes out in a couple of months time.

I’d love us to turn Covid19 from a reason to hide away into a reason to act. To take this opportunity to do 2 things:

  • as individuals, rather than allow ourselves to be wholly dominated by the vulnerability narrative, take action and start to re-build the diversity of our microbiome so that we improve our resistance. In short, “Cook like Tony.”
  • as a movement, start to draw attention to the fact that the medicine business and pharmaceutical trials have historically and shamefully under-represented older people, black people and women.[1] A paper by multiple academics from London, Shanghai and Mexico written in 2014 decried the under-representation of older people in research and healthcare thus, “effective (healthcare) intervention in older people is complicated by ageism, complex multimorbidity, and poor access to age-appropriate care…older people tend to be excluded from clinical trials that would generate specific evidence to inform their treatment, even for drugs that are mainly prescribed in older age.”

Worth reading:

[1] The burden of disease in older people and implications for health policy and practice
Martin J Prince, Fan Wu, Yanfei Guo, Luis M Gutierrez Robledo, Martin O’Donnell, Richard Sullivan, Salim Yusuf

Missing Microbes. How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. Martin J. Blaser.




Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 18. Hot smoked salmon fishcakes.

It can be hard to find hot smoked salmon fillet, unless of course you are lucky enough to have a proper fishmonger like Steve Hatt in the neighbourhood. Usually when I buy this I serve it cold with salad, or even mix it with smoked haddock for a slightly different take on kedgeree. Last week, for some reason, I decided to make hot smoked salmon fishcakes. Never made fishcakes from scratch in my life before… so glad I tried it!


Ingredients for 2 people (4 fishcakes):

1 hot smoked salmon fillet – skin removed, broken up into small pieces

1/2 cup chopped coriander leaf

1/2 medium onion, chopped very finely

1 garlic clove, chopped very finely

1 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp sumac

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

pinch of salt (not too much, hot smoked salmon is salty)

grated zest of 1/2 lemon

juice of 1/2 lemon

4 small or 2 medium potatoes, boiled and mashed with butter.


2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup breadcrumbs.

Olive oil to fry the fishcakes

What to do, roughly speaking.

In a bowl, mix the salmon, coriander, onion, garlic, oregano, sumac, black pepper, salt, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Add the mashed potato, mix it up with a fork, then divide it into 4.

Shape into….well….fishcake shapes!!

In a separate shallow bowl beat the eggs and add the breadcrumbs.

Pick up each fishcake carefully and coat each side with the eggy breadcrumbs.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan; enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.

When it’s hot but not smoking place the fishcakes in there. Gently, now..

Cook for about 3 minutes on one side, turn them over carefully with a fish slice and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on the other side

Serve with green veg (beans and tenderstem broccoli are both good at the moment) and a nice drop of Picpoul.

fish, herbs, onion, garlic, lemon – before adding mashed potato
before cooking….






Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 17. Spicy Squash Spaghetti Surprise.

I discovered Jamie Oliver’s spicy squash recipe in his first book, The Naked Chef, back in 1999. Along with Lord Krishna’s Cuisine (see last week’s recipe), it’s one of my more battered (geddit?!) cookery books. I have Jamie to thank for getting my then 8-year-old son interested in cooking some 20 years ago! This recipe is unashamedly stolen from Jamie Oliver. I’ve often made his spicy squash risotto recipe, but never thought of serving spaghetti with squash until today.  I really was not at all sure that this would work, but IMHO it is absolutely delicious!

When I make risotto with squash, there is always a great deal of cheese, butter and mascarpone involved, but for this I went totally dairy free.

Ingredients for 4 people:

1 medium butternut squash

seeds from the squash

2 tsp coriander seed

1 tsp fennel seed

2 tsp oregano

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black peppercorns

small red chili, chopped very finely

2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp olive oil

400 gm spaghetti (That’s for hungry people. 300 is enough if you’re not that hungry, or you’re serving something else as well).

What to do, roughly speaking.

Pre-heat oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas mark 6

Cut the squash in half lengthways

Scoop the seeds out of the centre of the squash, discard any stringy flesh that is sticking to them.

Cut each half of the squash into 4, again, lengthways. Now you have 8 strips of squash.

Using a pestle and mortar, smash up the coriander, fennel, salt, black peppercorns, oregano, garlic and chili.

Tip this mix into a roasting tray, add 2 tbsp olive oil and mix it around.

Place the squash slices in the roasting tray and smear the oil/herb/spice mix over both sides.

Tip the seeds into a pile on one side of the tray.

Place the squash and seeds in the oven for 30 minutes, turn off the heat and leave for another 10 minutes while you cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling water.

Drain the spaghetti and put it on your plates

Chop the squash slices into pieces about 2 cm thick.

Spoon the squash slices over the spaghetti and then sprinkle the seeds over the top of that.



Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 16. (Slightly too spicy) aubergine and lentil stew.

Oh, the small joys of relaxing lockdown! I drove out to Essex last weekend to visit the fab Lolli of Thaxted Yoga and bought some veg from the pop-up stall in her local pub car park, including an aubergine (US friends, that’s an eggplant to you!). We had a bit of a laugh about aubergine being one of those vegetables that seems like a good idea at the time, then you keep it in the fridge until it’s wrinkled and squishy and finally throw it away!!

Not for me, though. I love the way that aubergine soaks up the flavours of whatever I cook it with, yet keeps its own textural personality; a bit squeaky and definitely squishy.

I cooked it this evening using a recipe largely stolen from one of my favourite cooks; the late, great Yamuna Devi, author of “Lord Krishna’s Cuisine – The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking”. (You can see how much I love it from the state of my copy!) fullsizeoutput_2aa7

I had some scotch bonnet peppers in the fridge which I would normally not use when cooking Indian food, but since they were all I had, I used a piece of one and must confess that I rather overdid it. Hence my recommendation to use a little finely chopped green chili instead.


1 medium aubergine chopped into cubes and marinated for an hour or so in a paste made from:

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 11/2 teaspoons garam masala
  • a pinch of salt
  • about 50 ml water


  • 200 g red split lentils
  • a chunk of ginger about the size of a small person’s thumb
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons chopped green chilis
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • a small shake of asafetida powder (can do without this if you don’t have it or don’t like it)

For the finishing touches:

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • a squeeze of lemon juice
  • a handful of chopped coriander leaf.

What to do:


While the aubergine is soaking up those flavours, begin cooking the lentils. First, place the dry lentils in the bottom of a large saucepan (big enough to take all your ingredients) and roast them on a low heat. Keep them moving and enjoy the smell. Once they have started to brown, rinse them with cold water in a sieve and return them to the pan. Add enough water to cover them – probably about 750 ml. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, place a tight lid on the pan, turn down the heat and cook for about 20 minutes. Keep topping up the water if the lentils have soaked it all up.

While the lentils are boiling, fry the aubergine. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan, add the cumin seeds and chopped chilis and fry until the cumin seeds begin to turn brown. Add the asafetida powder (if you’re using it) for a minute, and then add the marinated aubergine – it soaks up a lot of oil, so use plenty, and add a bit more if things begin to dry out. Fry the aubergine pieces in the spice mix, moving them around all the time, for about 7 minutes.

Once the lentils have cooked for 25-30 minutes, add the fried aubergine to the saucepan. Rinse out the frying pan with a little hot water and add that to the lentils and aubergine mix so that you don’t lose any of the spicy flavours.


Keep simmering the lentils and aubergine on a low heat for another 20 minutes. Just before it’s ready to serve add the teaspoon of ground coriander, a squeeze of lemon and chopped coriander leaf. (Cilantro to you, US friends!). Taste the stew and add a little more salt at this stage if you think it needs it.

Serve with rice and/or naan bread.



Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 15. Mindful asparagus risotto.

d0XQRRTjRoSuwT86Xd2fuQ3 people to thank for today’s recipe; Barbara Vance for her observations on cooking for one, and Rick and Su (once again!) for the delicious, ridiculously tall asparagus from their garden.

I love cooking alone. Even when I’m cooking for 8 or 10 (which is not an uncommon thing for me to do in normal times) I love to do as much of the prep as I can before they arrive. Sometimes I play music, but it has to be instrumental, words distract me. Preparing and cooking food for me is like a meditation. I like to be really focused on my senses. The stronger the smell of something, the tastier it’s likely to be. I like to mix up, contrast and complement the colours. Most of all, though, I love to feel the range of textures as my knife cuts through… every carrot, every potato has a different density and that affects how I chop it. Harder, more solid vegetables take longer to cook so need to be in smaller pieces than the slightly softer ones. Even vegetables from the same plot and batch can vary.

The asparagus from Rick and Su’s garden was a fine example of this. It wasn’t just about the thickness of the stems – in fact some of the skinny ones were quite tough and the thick ones surprisingly soft.  I decided to make this an exclusively asparagus risotto (normally I would fry up some celery with the onion and garlic, and use vegetable stock to cook the rice) so chopped the stems into 3 batches. After removing and discarding the earthy, really tough base (only a couple of cm) I chopped the woody bottom part into very small slices, the middle into approx 2cm chunks and left the tips quite long. Each stem was different, some with more of the tough stalk and some with a higher proportion of tender tip. This is where the joy comes in for me. Focusing on nothing but the texture of asparagus stems for several minutes.

Yes, I know, I’m weird. But harmless.

Here are the 3 batches:

IMG_5909 2
More solid bottom part of the stem chopped very finely, middle section about 2cm.

Add the thinly chopped, tougher pieces in step 1, the medium bits in step 2 and the tips in step 3.


1 medium onion

About 9 or 10 asparagus spears (more if you’re using shorter shop-bought asparagus)

2 garlic cloves

500 ml hot water (or vegetable stock if you want more than the taste of asparagus)

200 g (1 cup) risotto rice

a glass of white wine

50 g grana padano or parmesan cheese. Grana padano is less salty and a little creamier.

1 dessertspoon mascarpone cheese

salt and pepper

What to do. …roughly speaking

Stage 1.

Chop the onion, garlic and the woody bottom part of the asparagus stems very finely.

Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan until smoking, and add the chopped veg. Stir it all around quickly for a few seconds and then turn down the heat, put a lid on the pan and sweat the veg for about 6-8 minutes. If you taste a tiny piece of the asparagus at this point you will notice how it has softened and picked up the garlic and onion flavour, but still maintained its own character.

Stage 2.

Take off the lid, turn up the heat a bit and add the rice. Keep stirring. Add the wine. Keep stirring. When the rice has absorbed the wine, add the second batch of asparagus (the middle of the stems) and stir it around.

Start to add the water – a little at a time. Wait until the rice has absorbed the liquid before you add any more. Taste the rice from time to time to see how you’re doing. (I’m always fascinated by the way that flavour as well as texture changes during the cooking process). When the rice is almost cooked (after about 20 minutes) you’re ready for…

Step 3

Add the tender ends of the asparagus and salt and pepper. Keep cooking until the rice and tender tips are cooked (when the rice is no longer gritty in the middle, its done).This will probably be approximately 5 more minutes.

Step 4.

Turn off the heat and add the parmesan and mascarpone – mix it all around thoroughly.

Taste it and add a little more salt and pepper if you like.

parmesan and mascarpone

Serve immediately.

This is enough for 2 large portions or 3 small ones, but back to Barbara’s point about cooking for one… I must confess that most of the time I just eat way too much, but the options for the rest of it are:

a) Eat 1/3, put the other 2 portions into freezer bags. Risotto freezes surprisingly well but make sure that you de-frost it really thoroughly, and then I like to re-heat it in a shallow dish covered in foil in a low oven for about 20 minutes. Of course, you can use a microwave or place it in a pan on the hob on a low heat with a little more white wine to stop it from sticking. If you re-heat it this way, make sure you keep it moving all the time.

b) Call a neighbour and ask if they’d like some.

Unfortunately, you probably can’t donate it to your local food bank as most of them only take unopened, packaged food for security reasons.

Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 14. The poshest dinner for one in the history of lockdown.

Life is good: I have friends who grow asparagus in their garden. Not just any asparagus, the t-a-l-l-e-s-t asparagus I have ever seen. These in the photo are as long as my forearm. Thank you, Su and Rick!

Life is good: I live around the corner from Steve Hatt the fishmonger in North London.

Life is good : I’ve been spending so little money during lockdown that I didn’t think twice about buying myself 6, yes SIX tiger prawns this morning.

The tiger prawn recipe is already on the blog from a couple of years ago. You can find it here.

For the asparagus, I simply chopped the woody end off the stem, boiled it for 6 minutes, drained it, melted a little butter over it.

Next up, asparagus risotto recipe. Yes, they gave me LOADS!! Watch this space.

Step 1. Butterfly your prawns

Step 2. Marinate in lime juice and vanilla essence



Step 3. Fry some garlic and chilli flakes in oil, then add the prawns flesh side down.


Step 4. Gently turn them over and fry the shell side til it’s nice and crunchy


Step 5. Yum


Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No 13. Kedgeree/khichri

kedgereeI had never heard of kedgeree until I went to boarding school, where a particularly disgusting version would occasionally be served for breakfast. (All food at my boarding school was disgusting, which probably explains why I was so skinny then, and why I’m obsessed with cooking good, tasty food now).

The original Indian version, khichri, is a rice and lentil dish, colonised by the Brits who replaced the lentils with fish and eggs and changed the spelling.

When I arrived at Steve Hatt fishmonger this morning (5th May 2020 – day thirteen thousand six bazillion of Covid lockdown) I was early enough to catch some hilarious banter about a bay tree (check their Facebook page), and to spot the lovely smoked haddock fillets in the window. Proper smoked haddock is pale yellow and not too salty, not like the bright yellow stuff you might find sweating in a sealed plastic bag in a supermarket.

For some reason, I thought of kedgeree, a dish I haven’t cooked or eaten in years. While it’s traditionally a breakfast dish, I had it for dinner this evening because who knows what day it is, much less cares what time of day……

Here’s how I made it. This is enough for 2. (Well, probably enough for 4, but I’m greedy these days).


2 smoked haddock fillets (there will probably be a few tiny bones in there, so watch out for those)

120 g basmati rice

1 tbsp oil and a knob of butter

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ground coriander

¼ tsp cinnamon

1 small onion, finely chopped

500 ml mild vegetable stock or water

2 eggs, hard boiled (about 7 minutes).

1/2 cup chopped parsley or coriander leaf (US friends – cilantro to you.)

What to do, roughly speaking:

Boil the eggs. Let them cool. Remove shells and chop very finely

Place the haddock fillets in a frying pan with enough water to just cover them, bring to the boil, cover the pan and cook for 4 – 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool, remove the skin and chop the flesh into small pieces.

Heat the oil and butter in a saucepan. When it’s hot but not smoking, add the finely chopped onion, fry for a minute then turn down the heat, cover the pan and keep cooking the onion until it’s soft (3 or 4 minutes)

Add the powdered spices. Mix well and keep frying for a couple of minutes.

Add the rice and mix it around until it’s coated with the oil/spice/onion mix.

Add stock or water, bring to the boil.

Cover the pan, turn down the heat and simmer for about 10-12 minutes stirring occasionally. If the rice is drying out, just add a little more water. Taste the rice to see if it’s cooked.

Gently stir in the fish pieces and then the egg, mix it all up well and keep cooking on a very low heat for about 5 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste along with the chopped green herb (parsley or coriander/cilantro).


Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No.12. Swordfish isn’t very photogenic.

Appearances aren’t everything. This swordfish steak, for example, is no oil painting (totally overshadowed by that primadonna of a salad) but tasted absolutely delicious.

I simply squeezed the juice of half a lemon into a bowl, added about a teaspoon of mixed, smashed up coriander seeds and black peppercorns, a finely chopped clove of garlic and a little salt. Dipped the swordfish steak in the juicy, spicy mix and grilled it under a very hot grill for about 4 minutes each side.

That’s it. Yummy.

Steve Hatt the fishmongers like us to post pictures of our fish dishes on their Facebook page, but they might not thank me for this one!


Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No.11. Missing El Pescadero, so next best thing is Essex Road Fish Tacos.

El Pescadero Sunset…

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the seaside village of El Pescadero, Baja California Sur, Mexico, there are *several wonderful restaurants for you to visit. Each one of them serving the tastiest of fresh local fish and produce, with generous helpings of local charm and banter. The other day one of these, Barracuda Cantina, shared a sweet little video of the opening of a bottle of Pacifico, which gave me that happy+sad feeling that I get so much in these strange times. Happy to know these wonderful places and people, happy that I have learned to cook food from all over the world, sad because I miss my amig@s Mexican@s and my comadres and compadres at Modern Elder Academy, and sad because I won’t be going to visit them as I had planned to do in a couple of months time.

I’ve also been in conversation this week with a few medics and dieticians about the importance of a good diet in maintaining an efficient immune system, and have been reminded of how colourful a healthy diet is.

Inspired by all this, I made myself some fish tacos and washed them down with a bottle of Corona. (Yes, of COURSE I prefer Pacifico, but it’s hard to get here in London, and Corona is soooo cheap these days!!)

Steve Hatt have some very good cod fillet at the moment, which is very good for this recipe, and they have some very tasty swordfish if you’re feeling extravagant.


150 g filleted white fish cut into bite-sized pieces

A squeeze of lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 medium onion – sliced

1 red pepper seeded and sliced

1 yellow pepper, seeded and sliced

1 smoked chilli finely chopped (optional)

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons of tomato sauce (no, not ketchup!! If you don’t want to make the tomato sauce use passata di pomodoro or some puree slightly diluted with red wine)

Salt and pepper

(These are the ingredients for 1 person. If cooking for 2, double the amount of fish but keep the rest the same. For 4, 4x the fish and double everything else.)

What to do. …roughly speaking:

Squeeze a little lemon juice over the fish pieces in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle the smoked paprika over the fish and mix it around gently. Leave to stand for about 30 minutes

Heat some oil in a saucepan and fry the garlic and onion for a couple of minutes, then add the sliced peppers and chopped smoked chilli if you want a little more bite. Fry for another 5 minutes.  Add the fish for about 5 minutes, turning gently all the time. then add the tomato sauce or passata. Stir it together gently so not to break up the fish.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place a lid on the pan and keep cooking for 5 minutes until the fish is cooked through (test by tasting).

Serve in warm corn or flour tortillas with sides of guacamole, tomato salsa, mango salsa.


*Other favourite places to eat in El Pescadero are Hierbabuena (fabulously fresh garden to table food), Baja Beans for the best coffee and Carlito’s Place for Mexican/Asian fusion including some of the best sushi you will eat anywhere.

Kay’s Covid Cookery Class No.10. Breaded haddock pieces

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3c89In lockdown, and missing fish and chips, I decided to invent a fried fish dinner for myself. Not battered, but breaded, so, (guess what?) you’ll need breadcrumbs. If you’re lucky enough to live near Essex Road, Raab’s the Bakers sometimes sell bags of fresh breadcrumbs, or you can dry a couple of slices of bread in the oven on a low heat, and then blitz in a blender.

I used haddock, but if Steve Hatt (other independent fishmongers are available!) don’t have any, then any meaty white fish will do.

Ingredients per person:

200g haddock fillet chopped into small pieces.

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

2 tsp smoked paprika powder

generous pinch of salt and pepper

squeeze of lemon

Place the chopped haddock in a bowl and squeeze some lemon juice over the fish. Leave to stand for about 15 minutes. The lemon juice helps the crumb to stick to the fish as well as giving a little zest to the flavour.

Mix together the breadcrumbs, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Sprinkle the seasoned breadcrumb mix over the fish pieces, gently moving them around so that they become coated in breadcrumbs. Alternatively, put the seasoned breadcrumbs in a freezer bag, add the fish pieces and gently shake to coat the fish.

Cover the bottom of a frying pan with cooking oil (I used olive oil) and heat until smoking. Turn down very slightly and add the coated fish. Move and turn the fish pieces very gently with a fish slice or spatula as it cooks. It will take about 5 minutes. You can lift out a piece and try it to make sure that it’s hot all the way through.

The more observant among you see from the photo that I treated myself to a glass of wine with this; a lovely Rosa Bianca Pinot Grigio that I bought from the Alpaca pub which is right next door to Steve Hatt the fishmonger and open for off sales of beer, wine and some food from 12 noon til 6 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.

Wherever you are, stay safe, eat well and please support your local, independent food shops.