Want something fast, fresh and fabulous for supper tonight? This vegetarian cheesy gratin ticks all the boxes - comforting, healthy, delicious and on the table in under 45 minutes.
Although today’s recipe includes full-fat crème fraîche, cheese and sweet potatoes, let’s be clear - a Primal, low-carbohydrate / high fat diet (LCHF) does not mean eliminating carbohydrates completely or that it’s okay to gorge yourself on fatty food. In my view, Dr. Atkins was much maligned and misrepresented in this respect. It does mean that oftentimes you’ll find Primal Plate recipes are contrarian to decades of public health advice which has hoodwinked most people into believing that saturated fat - fatty meat, milk, butter and cheese - is the root cause of clogged-up arteries, high cholesterol, heart attacks and obesity. Truth is, there’s never been a shred of reliable scientific evidence that can demonstrate saturated fat is harmful to human health. In fact, numerous scientific studies show the opposite to be true. The real culprit for the type 2 diabetes epidemic and obesity crisis (which are themselves a risk factor for heart disease and stroke) is a fat-phobic society indoctrinated into believing that a healthy diet is one low in fat and high in carbohydrates (LFHC).
This myth has been perpetuated for the past fifty years or so and it’s time we turned things around. In a nutshell: It’s not fat that makes you fat and sick, it’s sugar.
In layman’s terms, all the carbohydrates we eat are converted by the body into a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose is fuel for the cells and is transported around the body in the bloodstream. In response to glucose in the bloodstream the pancreas secretes insulin. Without insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream - it’s insulin that allows glucose to enter the cells (of the brain, heart, liver and muscles) to provide the energy for them to work. Or, if it’s not required for immediate use, to be converted into glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles for later.
However, once the cells are full to the gunnels with excess glucose they become increasingly resistant to the call of insulin to open up their cell doors and let more in. When there’s nowhere for glucose to go it stays in the bloodstream and blood sugar levels stay high - a toxic situation. What follows is pancreatic panic! In a frantic attempt to get rid of excess glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas makes even more insulin. Unfortunately excess insulin is also toxic so then the cells become even more insulin resistant. Catch 22!
Eventually the over-production of insulin will help convert the excess glucose into fat but in the meantime the glucose in the bloodstream forms a sort of sludge that blocks arteries and causes systemic inflammation - the underlying cause of multiple degenerative diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, an excess of insulin stops the fat-burning enzyme lipase from working efficiently inside the cells, so you don’t even burn off the fat that’s been stored!
Most human beings are genetically predisposed to insulin resistance, which worsens with age and inactivity. The solution is to stop feeding the problem with high carbohydrate food - no grains, no potato, no sugar - and to exercise more. When you’re not constantly topping-up the body with sugar and starches it can start burning fat for energy instead. Without high carb foods spiking your blood sugar, natural, healthy fat becomes your new best friend. It satiates your appetite, you feel full for longer, it stops sugar cravings and it helps make all food look and taste yummy.
As for the shoddy science and scaremongering that aims to convince you otherwise, I’ve been on the frontline of a randomised double-blind controlled study (the ‘gold-standard’ of scientific research) when I taught a group of asthmatics the Buteyko Method in the first UK Clinical Trial funded by the National Asthma Campaign. Unfortunately, several participants reported back to me that the study was biased against Buteyko because during their reviews with research staff they had been actively encouraged to continue using their asthma medication. According to our carefully compiled records, over ninety per cent of the Buteyko group either significantly reduced or gave up their bronchodilators completely during the study. However, when the scientific paper was finally published these remarkable results were buried. True, there was much scientific gobbledygook that I wasn’t familiar with, but suffice to say it took several more years before the method was given any credence whatsoever by the NHS. Why did I expect otherwise? Like most people I never imagined that highly respected academics would stoop so low. In reality, too many vested interests - years of study potentially wasted, livelihoods at risk, research funding cut, pharma greed and charity donations threatened - is a massive incentive to keep schtum or worse, go on the offensive to protect the status quo. It’s just how egos rock n’ roll. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been complicit in giving health advice that actually destroys tens of thousands of peoples’ lives but the truth is, there’s safety in numbers and the powers that be are far more interested in self-preservation than your health and well-being.
Dr Aseem Malhotra says it best: “In my opinion a perfect storm of biased research funding, biased reporting in the media and commercial conflicts of interest have contributed to an epidemic of misinformed doctors and misinformed patients. The result is a nation of over-medicated sugar addicts who are eating and pill-popping their way to years of misery with chronic debilitating diseases and an early grave.”
After years of trial and error, I found my way through the lies, confusion, chronic illness and creeping weight gain to discover that the exact opposite of ‘conventional wisdom’ is the truth. It convinced me that eating LFHC is tantamount to death, disease and obesity by the Food Pyramid and that switching to LCHF diet stops the rot. However, if you’re overweight or unwell please don’t ‘wait and see’ how the continuing debate about fat plays out between the warring scientific community - and please don’t take my word for who’s right either. For a few short weeks, simply test out the LCHF hypothesis yourself - using Primal Plate recipes for your inspiration - to see if it works for you.
Primal Plate is proud to play its part by translating unbiased scientific evidence into a pleasurable eating plan for life. If you want to join in, I think the quick and easy-to-make cheesy deliciousness of today’s vegetable gratin might be a very good place to start.
Although a LCHF diet avoids white potatoes, we still eat orange-fleshed sweet potatoes because of their versatility in recipes and powerful nutritional punch. In spite of them being sweet-tasting, they have more fibre, fewer calories and less carbohydrates than white potatoes and their natural sugars are slowly released into the bloodstream, which helps ensure a balanced and regular source of energy, without the blood sugar spikes associated with fatigue and weight gain. They’re also a beautiful complementary colour to the Red Fox Leicester cheese I’ve used in the recipe!
It’s really important not to stint on the quality of crème fraîche you use for making the cheese sauce. Unlike most cheese sauces, this one isn’t thickened with flour so its success relies on the crème fraîche not breaking down during the cooking process. For a really silky-smooth, cheese sauce finish, I always recommend Rodda’s crème fraîche (available from Waitrose) because it doesn’t curdle or turn into a thin liquid when heated - this is what usually happens with lesser varieties. If you can’t find Rodda’s, Longley Farm’s crème fraîche is also a good bet.
Cheesy Sweet Potato, Cauliflower & Spinach Gratin (Serves 4)
280g Leicester cheese (I use Red Fox), coarsely grated
250g crème fraîche (I use Roddas)
1 dsp Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 medium orange-fleshed organic sweet potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 1-2inch chunky ‘chips’
1 medium organic cauliflower, broken into largish florets
235g organic spinach, washed
2 tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
Fill the bottom of a steamer with boiling water from the kettle and butter a large gratin dish.
Pre-heat the oven to 190℃ / 375℉ / Gas mark 5
Steam the sweet potatoes in the top of the steamer, covered, for 10-12 minutes.
Whilst the sweet potatoes are steaming, make a cheese sauce by whisking the crème fraîche, Dijon mustard and three quarters of the grated cheese together in a medium-sized saucepan set over medium heat. Keep whisking everything together until the cheese has fully melted in to a silky smooth, hot cheese sauce. Don’t let it boil. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper then take the pan off the heat, cover and set aside.
Using a large metal draining spoon scoop the cooked sweet potato wedges out of the top of the steamer and lay them flat in the bottom of the gratin dish. Cover and keep warm.
Add the cauliflower florets to the steamer basket and steam them, with the pan lid on, for 5-6 minutes. They need to be just cooked through, so don’t let them get too soft or soggy.
Arrange the cooked cauliflower, placing it evenly between the potato wedges in the gratin dish.
Now pile the spinach into the steamer basket, put the lid back on and steam for 1-2 minutes until the leaves have just collapsed. Drain well then add to the sweet potatoes and cauliflower in the gratin dish spreading it out evenly. Sprinkle the chopped chives on top.
Whilst stirring constantly, re-heat the cheese sauce to just below boiling point. Spoon over the vegetables making sure they’re all nicely coated. Finally, sprinkle over the remaining cheese and bake the gratin in a hot oven for 15 minutes.
At the end of the cooking time switch the overhead oven grill to hot and continue to cook the gratin a little longer under the direct heat until the top is gorgeously crisp and golden.
Serve immediately with a fresh green salad, if liked.
Carbohydrate 43g Protein 26g - per serving