5-Minute Low Calorie Lentil Soup

You can knock this up from the store cupboard in next to no time, yet it’s delicious – and filling too

Low calorie soupI must admit that this time of year I find lunch a real bore if I’m on a diet.  Sandwiches quickly become dull at the best of times but I really resent them when I’m dieting – for being so totally wasteful of calories. (The only way to eat a sandwich when you’re on a diet is to follow Ian Marber’s neat advice to throw away half the bread, and once the sandwich is re-formed with what you have left, you have the correct proportion of carbs to filling. Clever, huh?)

Anyway, of the alternatives, soup not salad, is the thing for me – and especially now I know that it really is true that soup is the best way of staving off hunger. I watched some science-y food show on telly the other night and apparently it’s all to do with the way the stomach empties as it digests food. Basically if your food is blended with water, the whole lot stays in the stomach, so you really do feel fuller for longer.  There’s a good write-up of how it works here.

A thick vegetable soup is best – but for me at any rate, lunch is the kind of thing decided on the spur of the moment – and who’s going to be bothered to make soup?

Which is where this pretty-much instant, low-calorie lentil soup comes in.  It’s a total cheat, taking only a few minutes to prepare but bizarrely it’s not only filling but damn good too. And at 150 calories a bowl, you can afford to have toast with it, and maybe even a sprinkling of low calorie feta, though I’d probably go with freshly-chopped coriander.


1 pickled onion
1/2 tin of lentils (about 130g drained weight)
Decent chicken stock - see note below
1 tsp tomato puree
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tbs flour
A good squeeze of lemon
1/2 tsp salt
Black pepper
Sprinkling of chopped coriander (optional)

You need 250ml’s worth of stock - that’s half a Knorr
Stock Pot or if you absolutely have to, 1 Oxo cube.

1. Blitz the pickled onion in the food processor then add the drained lentils, spices and flour and pulse until you reach a consistency of a rough paste.

2. Bring the stock to a boil with about 300ml of water

3. Whisk the lentil mixture into the stock (keep whisking until everything’s boiling nicely, so that the flour is incorporated properly). Add the lemon juice and tomato puree then boil furiously for a few minutes until reduced to a nice soupy consistency.

4. Adjust seasoning if necessary and serve. Don’t skimp on the salt!

Calorie Cheating Spaghetti Bolognese

An absolutely delicious bolognese sauce so low in calories, you can have a proper plate of spaghetti

low fat bologneseWell, here we go again.  I can’t be the only one who decided to cook ‘normally’ this Christmas – with the inevitable consequences…

But….so bloody inconvenient dieting in the New Year, when you’re crying out for sausages in gravy with a big pile of buttery mashed potato, not some scantily-dressed grilled chicken salad!

And as for spaghetti bolognese – well that’s clearly off the menu now you’re counting calories again – no point in trying to make that child’s starter portion of spaghetti go the distance!

On the other hand….

Here’s a really good low fat recipe for a ragu-style sauce that’s so low calorie that you can have a decent portion of pasta – and by that I mean about 85g dry weight – in other words, what normal people eat.

At less than 120 calories per serving – and it’s a generous serving – a proper plateful of spaghetti bolognese will come in at roughly 420, which should fit into your low calorie regime.  To put that in perspective for any calorie nubes out there, that’s significantly less than the average Tricolore Salad – without any bread.  Hey, you could even allow yourself a fine dusting of grated parmesan!

Incidentally, the cheat here is replacing the fatty lamb or beef mince with ultra-lean pork tenderloin, bulking that out with lentils but preserving the overall sense of meatiness with chopped chicken liver.   And before you say that sounds really really offal (sorry..!) I can tell you that I even got this past my kids without any complaints whatsoever.

low calorie bolognese

calorie cheating bolognese sauce recipe (Serves 6)

150g Pork Tenderloin 
200g Chicken Liver
150g Tinned Lentils
1 large Onion
3 cloves Garlic
100g Carrots
1 stalk Celery
300g Mushrooms
2 tins Tomatoes
1 tbs Tomato Puree
175ml Red wine
Beef stock cube
10ml Olive oil
1 tsp Dried herbs
1-2 tsp coarse salt
Pinch Stevia-based sweetener 
1 tbs Mushroom Ketchup OR
  Worcester Sauce (optional)
  1. Blitz or really finely chop all the vegetables.
  2. Gently fry off the onion and garlic in the olive oil and don’t rush it – it will take about 15 minutes on a lowish heat and be careful not to burn anything.
  3. Meanwhile mince the pork or blitz in the food processor. Finely chop the liver.
  4. After about 10-15 minutes, add the carrot and celery. Fry it off for a while, adding the herbs.
  5. Then turn the heat up and brown the pork and then the liver, keeping everything moving.
  6. Add the lentils, tomatoes, stock, red wine and seasonings – 1tsp of salt at this point, whether you need more later will partly depend on how salty your stock cube turns out to be
  7. Get everything cooking nicely and then chop the mushrooms finely and add – then simmer for about an hour.
  8. Add some water where needed to keep things moving. You want to keep this sauce quite loose.
  9. It’s ready when it looks delicious and tastes meaty. Check the seasoning – if there’s not enough flavour, carefully add more salt.

low fat spag bol

Just a couple of other things to mention:

Yes, it’s a real pain frying vegetables off using minimal oil and a lower than usual temperature, but remember, it’s this process that brings out flavour

You don’t need to use the sweetener, but I always think a tomato based sauce needs it. Stevia-based products such as Truvia in the UK are perfect for cooking with no calorific impact but without affecting flavour.

Don’t skimp on the salt!

And be sure to use a nice thin spaghetti so you get as many strands as possible for the weight. Barilla No. 5 (from Tesco) is very good; my favourite, if you can get hold of it, is Panzani.

If you want a little Parmesan with it, a 5g dusting (which is plenty so long as you use a really fine grater, like a microplane) will add just under 20 calories – a 125ml glass of Chianti will add another 90 or so.

Buon Appetito!

Calorie Cheating Chicken Curry

A magnificent, authentic-tasting curry recipe with just 390 calories per portion (about the same as a supermarket diet range chicken tikka sandwich).

calorie cheating chicken curryOne of my most vivid food memories is of eating a curry in London’s Golders Green back in my student days. It was a very basic – though nicely cooked – prawn vindaloo, but it very quickly turned into one of those epic battles between Man and Curry – as I heroically fought to carry on eating forkfuls of tiny sweet prawns while tears streamed down my face, and my tongue and lips went completely numb.  It was agony – and ecstasy – a bloody fantastic food experience that to date hasn’t been bettered.

I do love a curry and over the years, like everyone who uses local takeaways and Indian restaurants I suppose, I’ve eaten some good ones – and some which were pretty dire.  So my real love affair with curry started a couple of years ago, when I taught myself how to cook it properly.   I must say this was entirely down to coming across a copy of Pat Chapman’s Curry Bible which may not sound like the most authentic book in the world, but it’s become as important in my kitchen today as Delia’s Complete Cookery Course was in those student years.  With my jar of homemade curry masala always at the ready, I simply wouldn’t think of ordering a curry – and I haven’t for about 3 or 4 years now

Which is a good thing because it turns out the average Indian takeaway contains a staggering 1400 calories – and more saturated fat than a woman should eat in an entire day. So can it really be possible to enjoy a truly decent curry while counting calories?

DIY Masala

Well first off, you need to grind your own spice mix (masala).  Now if that sounds like a bit of a bore, bear in mind that using an all-purpose spice mix is pretty much a cheat anyway.  Once you’ve ground all the ingredients they can sit in an airtight jar for up to 3 months, which if you like curry as much as I do, won’t be a problem.  In any case, it’s a very satisfying procedure – and all you need is a coffee grinder, a large glass of wine, and a dustpan and brush.

Curry masala comes in all shapes in sizes but basically we’re talking a mix of ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and chilli – and other spices to taste. There are some really good recipes out there online – I’ve always used Pat Chapman’s blend of 25 spices which you can find here – or another reliable recipe which is much quicker to put together is here.

But please don’t think you can ignore this step and busk it with some insipid shop-bought factory-made curry powder….you can’t.  Please don’t even try it.  You’re on a diet – you need to spoil yourself with some big flavours… what’s the matter with you?

Keeping the Calories Low

Here’s an important thing about making curry.  It is essential to start the cooking process by gently frying off the masala in oil to release its natural oils and aromatics – and this step, and the onion and minced garlic frying which follows – is the reason why takeaway curries often come floating in a pool of oil.  Fact is, you need quite a lot of it to keep things from burning, and if you use ghee, which I always have, that’s an awful lot of calories.

Nevertheless, I have discovered that it is perfectly possible to reduce the oil significantly so long as you have a really good non-stick pan/wok, keep an eye on the heat, and are prepared to give the process loads of TLC. And as with ratatouille, you mustn’t reduce the oil level beyond a certain point anyway, or it simply won’t have the right mouthfeel.

In this recipe I’ve bulked out the chicken by adding cauliflower and french beans.  Cauliflower – as all Gobi Bhaji fans know – is wonderful in curry,  giving it texture, and really adding fillingness, if that’s a word.

Which brings me to rice.  Forget it.  At 350 calories per 100g rice is to be completely avoided if you’re counting calories. (If you insist on having it – with this curry a 40g portion (dry weight) equating to 140 calories will just about do the job.) But here’s the thing – and I know you won’t believe me, but please give it a try –  curry tastes so much better without having to compete with a huge slop of blandness.  Far far better to eat it with bread – a Patak’s chapati, which comes in at 120 calories does the job perfectly and compared to rice, you get much more bang for your buck. Even better – make your own roti with a mix of chapati flour and gram flour – which made from chickpeas has both lower calories and a low GI. The recipe I use is here – along with rather entertaining video…


One final thing – heat.  This is something you’ll have to get a feel for and depends very much on your taste and the taste of those you’re feeding.  For my money, both the spice mixes above need up to 2 teaspoons of chilli powder per 4 servings added to the masala at the frying stage, or a couple of hot Indian green chillies.  Don’t overdo it to start with – you can always add more heat at the end of cooking, but never by shoving in a load of chilli powder –   that’s how you end up with one of those disgusting powdery vindaloos you come across every now and then.  The best way to add heat at the end of cooking is to have a jar of hot chilli pickle in the fridge – Dalla Pickle which you can get from Asian stores is a good one (but be warned, it’s mindblowing stuff) – failing that, add very finely chopped green chilli, or as a last resort Tabasco (though personally I don’t like the flavour it gives the curry).  Oh, and don’t forget salt.  About 1 – 2 teaspoons for this recipe – not only does it bring out the flavour – but the heat too.


Contrary to popular belief, wine goes well with curry.  Basically you need a slightly sweet white or rose – about 140 calories for a decent 175ml glass. Lager, the traditional booze of choice in a UK curry house, will set you back a lot more…

diet chicken curry recipeCalorie Cheating Chicken Curry Recipe

4 big portions 

20 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs curry masala, prepared as above
1-2 tsp chilli powder or 2-3 hot Indian green chillies, to taste
50g garlic (about 1 bulb) minced or chopped very finely
250g onion, finely chopped
1 can tinned tomatoes
80g green peppers roughly chopped
480g chicken breast
100g French beans
200g cauliflower florets
200ml stock         
Fresh coriander, chopped
1 - 2 teaspoons salt
  1. Mix the curry masala (and extra chilli powder if using) with just enough water to make a fairly thick paste.
  2. Get a good non-stick pan hot and fry the curry paste in the olive oil for about a  minute, keeping it moving around so that it doesn’t burn.
  3. Add the onion and garlic, get it covered in spices and oil, then lower the heat and cook until really soft – about 15 mins or so.
  4. Add the green pepper and soften for a few minutes – then add the tomatoes and stock.  Partially cover and cook for about 40 minutes until the curry has darkened and thickened, adding more water if necessary.
  5. Meanwhile, blanch the cauliflower florets and beans in a pan of salted water for no more than 4 minutes, and cut the chicken breast into bite sized chunks and season.
  6. When the curry is ready it should really look the part but will taste slightly bland until you salt it. Don’t be shy  – 1 to 2 teaspoons until it tastes big and complex – and hot.
  7. Add  the chicken and beans. Cover and turn up the heat in order to bring it back to the boil as quickly as possible, then lower the heat and cook for about 10 mins.  A couple of minutes before the end, add the cauliflower.
  8. Beware – you have to be very careful not to overcook the chicken breast, and once it’s white in the middle, its cooked. Or if you’re a gadget fan like me, stick a meat thermometer into the biggest piece – at 160°F it’s ready
  9. Remove immediately from the heat, stir in the chopped coriander, and check the salt.

Calorie Cheating Ratatouille

low calorie ratatouille Sunshine on a plate, and a dish that always conjures up memories of Provence for me. Where actually I became a bit obsessed with it, making a point of trying it at every restaurant I visited, in some sort of pointless bid to find the ‘ultimate’ ratatouille. I absolutely love the stuff – served barely warm it’s the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat from the barbecue, it’s substantial enough to be a lunch in its own right with just some pitta bread or couscous on the side, and it’s absolutely delicious eaten straight from the fridge with a tablespoon.

But the problem with an authentic home-prepared ratatouille for the calorie counter is that all those lovely, healthy vegetables are supposed to be stewed in olive oil, and as we all know, oil of any kind sends the calorie count skyrocketing – whether it’s extra virgin olive oil, first cold pressed from a single estate, or supermarket lard.

Stewed in oil then – and that’s after you’ve fried each of the vegetables separately. And we haven’t even mentioned the aubergines…

Aubergines of course being basically sponges, with a Tardis-like ability to soak up positively bucketfuls of oil.  But fail to fry them off properly before combining with the other ingredients, and you’ll end up with the sadly all-too-familiar hallmark of a bad ratatouille – rubbery aubergines, an eating experience almost as disgusting as undercooked potato.

Now here’s a tip for frying-off aubergine when the diet’s over and you return to slightly more normal cooking. You’ll hear over and over again from TV chefs on Lorraine and whatnot that these days there’s no need to salt aubergines to remove their juices before cooking. This is nonsense. There is absolutely no doubt that salting them for 30 mins or so in a colander with a weighted plate on top turns those little sponges into something more akin to wet dishrags, with far less of a predilection for drinking neat oil.

But for now that’s irrelevant because much more radical measures are needed for a low calorie ratatouille.  So what I do is coat the bottom of a roasting tin with 1-calorie spray oil, preheat it in the oven, then lay the aubergine slices in and spray them over with an oil mister.  It’s important there’s only one layer so you might need to do a couple of tins or batches.low calorie aubergine  Then shove them in the oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes or so – as you can see from the picture, they’re going to come out looking pretty sorry for themselves, but you’d never know it once they’re combined with the other ratatouille ingredients. Perfectly cooked aubergines in fact – and virtually no oil used in the process.  Don’t salt them first though – or they’ll end up like crisps.

The rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward, not at all authentic in its method I suppose, but I assure you it results in absolutely gorgeous ratatouille.

One more thing. At the end you need to add back some olive oil to the mix in a controlled way. This might sound counter-intuitive but it’s very important – if you don’t do it, you’ll have a vegetable stew, but it won’t be ratatouille.  It’s down to what food scientists call the ‘mouthfeel’ –  and the mouthfeel of olive oil is simply so important to ratatouille that we’re going to have to take a calorie hit to get just enough of it for the recipe to work. Don’t worry, the whole thing still comes in at about 125 calories for a big, filling portion which actually might be too much for some people…… though not me…


4-5 big portions

2 decent sized onions, sliced
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
2 green peppers cut into strips
2 aubergines, sliced into rings about ¼" thick
250g courgettes, sliced
1½ 400g tins of tomatoes
100 ml white wine
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
Extra virgin olive oil
A small pack of fresh basil, chopped
1 – 1½ tsp salt, black pepper
  1. Prepare the aubergines as described above.
  2. Meanwhile gently fry off the onion until transparent in a teaspoon of olive oil, keeping the heat low. Add the garlic towards the end of the process.
  3. Add the green pepper and continue to cook until softened using extra spray oil if necessary.
  4. Transfer to a saucepan and combine with the tomatoes, wine, courgettes, aubergines and dried herbs, cover the pan and simmer for about 40 minutes until the courgettes are tender. Stir occasionally but gently – you don’t want to break things up – and be careful not to overcook.
  5. Finally, add the fresh basil and seasoning and remove from the heat.
  6. Check the seasoning – make sure there’s enough salt to really bring out the flavours – then stir in 10ml of olive oil.
  7. Serve à tiède – at room temperature – with a glass of rosé, preferably a beautiful amber-coloured Côtes de Provence (not, please, some horrible “blush” concoction)  – or a slightly chilled Bandol red. About 120 extra calories, if your allowance can take it.

A Big Plate of Calorie Cheating Shepherd’s Pie

Comfort food you can eat on a diet…

Diet Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is about as far removed as you can get from a mixed bean salad. And of course the whole point of it is having a great big satisfying plateful – with nothing more than a dollop of ketchup on the side.  Of course you could get the calories down by bulking up a small portion with some purple sprouting broccoli or some such side dish, but that’s not really the point of Shepherd’s Pie, is it?  And of course, this dish is a calorific car crash – the fat in the meat, the oil used for frying, the carbs in the potatoes, the butter in the mash.  I calculated the calories in the recipe I’ve always used and it came out at a wince-inducing 1100 calories per portion. No wonder I’m on a diet now. Of course the frying oil’s calories are easily disposed of by using an oil spray, but after that, we’re going to have to be more ingenious.

So first, I use a mixture of beef and pork rather than the traditional lamb, to help cut the fat content. And rather than hunt around in the supermarket for super-lean mince, still not really knowing what went into it, I grind my own.  You could get the butcher to do it for you, but you’re better off getting a mincer (or attachment for your food-processor) and doing it yourself – I don’t know why, but it just tastes better.

The cut of beef I’ve been using is Brisket – cheap, full of flavour and, when trimmed up, extremely lean. It makes lovely mince – and great burgers, incidentally, which I’ll return to in a later blog. To help get the numbers down I mix it with pork fillet, which is even leaner – and even cheaper. I did think about offsetting the calories even further by sneaking in some lentils but as I like my Shepherd’s Pie with celery and carrot in it, more veg didn’t seem what was wanted here.

So onto the topping – and mashed potato, even if you cut out the butter and milk, is always going to be a massive wad of calories.  After a bit of trial and error, I found the answer is to cut it fifty-fifty with celeriac.  This incredibly versatile root vegetable purees up a treat and yet has a cooked weight with about five times fewer calories than potato. And unlike something alien like swede, these two really work together, making a brilliant mash which complements the filling perfectly.

So here you go – Shepherd’s Pie you can eat on your diet – bloody delicious with a good slug of ketchup and a bottle of red Cotes Du Rhone or Shiraz – and just 390 calories per portion.


4 good portions 

400g Beef brisket, mince
200g Pork tenderloin / fillet, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped or grated
4 stalks of celery, finely chopped
3 tbs Tomato ketchup
1.5 tbs Mushroom ketchup (or Worcestershire sauce if necessary)
15g Flour
400ml stock – chicken or beef made up from a cube is fine
Salt and pepper
Dried mixed herbs - about a teaspoon
300g Potatoes
600g Celeriac
10g Flora Light

1.  ‘Fry’ off the onion using spray oil, bearing in mind that you’ll need to use considerably less heat than for normal frying. This is quite a slow process and it will feel ‘wrong’, but be reassured – it does actually work.

2.  Add the herbs, then the carrots until they soften, and finally the celery.

3.  When the whole thing’s sweated down nicely, remove from the pan, turn up the heat and seal the meat. You don’t need to add any more oil for this.

4.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir it in for a minute or two before adding back the vegetables, and season with the tomato and mushroom ketchup, salt and pepper. You need a good teaspoon of salt, and up to another half teaspoon when you adjust the seasoning later.

5. Pour in the stock, bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat, partially cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. You might have to add some water to keep things moving, but at the end the mixture should have a slightly pasty quality to the gravy and shouldn’t be too wet – so reduce down if necessary. Adjust the seasoning – too little salt means bland, unexciting food!

6. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes and celeriac in separate pans until soft; drain, combine and mash. Season and beat with a little margarine.

7. Pour the filling into a pie dish and fork over the topping.  Spray with oil and shove in the oven for about 30 minutes at 200C until golden brown.Diet recipes - low calorie Shepherd's Pie