The Virtuous Tart: Susan Jane White

Susan Jane White

10 years ago, serious illness forced Susan Jane White to radically overhaul her diet. Now a mother of two, she says she has never felt better and her original, decadent take on healthy cooking has taken her native Ireland by storm. The self-confessed ‘health geek’ talks to us about coconut oil, supermarkets and feeding two hungry boys.

Tell us a bit about your story. What led you to being wheat, dairy and sugar free?

Sounds extreme, right? But avoiding wheat, sugar and dairy hasn’t been restrictive at all. Quite the opposite. It’s incredibly liberating.

This is what I did ten years ago, to tackle a debilitating immune disorder. My body was very ill and my digestive system wheezed like an asthmatic snail. I chose to nourish my body through simple food choices. And it worked.

I’m not saying wheat and dairy are unhealthy. The quantity we consume is definitely unhealthy, even pathological (breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, snacks all seem to have wheat, sugar and dairy, right?) Giving these foods a break will open up your eyes to a fabulous fleet of wholesome grains, beans, flours and multicoloured rice that we would not otherwise be exposed to. That’s what my books do – open up this world of exciting new ingredients.

This is not a fad for me. It’s a way of life, and doesn’t demand rigid principles. I’m not telling people to give up wheat, sugar and dairy altogether. That would be bonkers. But replacing bread, pasta, croissants and junk with super-nutritious suppers will pay dividends. Huge dividends. Healthy food should never tax your taste buds.

How has changing your diet made a difference to your life?

I stopped counting calories, and started counting nutrients. At 34, I feel I have more energy than ever. This is super important as a mother of two teeny tots. I’m calmer, and sleep deeper. Problems with bloating have disappeared. My hair and skin are glossier than in my twenties, and my dandruff has vanished for good. Healthy food is like fertiliser for the body. Cleaning up your diet does not have to be boring or penitential.

What do your kids make of it?

My children are totally on board. Why wouldn’t they be when it tastes this good? This morning I made them wholegrain buckwheat pancakes and smothered them in hazelnut butter and maple syrup. A modern take on a classic childhood treat, except with a fleet of nutrients to nourish their little bodies.

There is so much conflicting nutritional advice out there and new ‘trends’ in healthy eating crop up every day. Where should parents look for sound nutritional advice?

Their heart. Their own antennae. If it has a marketing department, then start asking questions!

‘If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t’ – this is my mantra when I have to enter supermarkets. Michael Pollan’s sage words. I try to shop every weekend at a large farmer’s market or wholegrain co-op, to help me avoid all the useless shit larger markets try to sell me. I find it works, and is immeasurably more enjoyable.

A lot of parents want to feed their families more healthily but often fall into old habits when they are busy (and tired). What simple recipes or ingredient switches would you recommend for busy families starting out on the healthy path?

The Tomato and Banana Bean Curry from my first book, which only takes 20 minutes to make. It’s like an RDA curry (with more than your recommended 5-a-day) and is radically fabulous with sticky rice and natural yoghurt. I make a big pot, and freeze it for busy days. (Get the recipe here)

Susan Jane White Tomato Banana Bean Curry

I also swear by my 8-in-1 Tefal rice cooker (this is not a plug. It’s an honest recommendation that has changed my life). Just plug in, and press a button. Your rice will never burn or over cook. Not bad for fifty quid. This is the only rice cooker on the market that cooks 14 different types of wholegrains including quinoa. Bizarrely, the manufacturers don’t even realise this! I did the maths with every grain I could find. The results are on my blog.

Gluten gets a bad rap these days. Should we all be switching to gluten-free flour?  

Gluten is not a poison – let’s get that straight. Gluten is not unhealthy either. For most people, gluten is more than tolerable. Gluten is what makes baguettes fluffy and donuts spongy. So what’s the problem?

Grains are not the problem – in fact, they are part of the solution to a healthy varied diet. I think our modern processed diet has bastardised grains, chiefly wheat, into a nutritionally void substance that is consumed several times a day by most of us. Nearly one third of the foods found on our supermarket shelves contain some component of nutritionally stripped wheat – usually gluten, starch or both.

So perhaps it’s fair to conclude that wheat has turned into a bland industrial commodity? Could this be the problem? The physical distress some people experience with commercial bread, for example, is less to do with grains or gluten than with the way large commercial bakeries operate.

Instead of spending 48 hours making traditional bread, loaves are belched out on conveyor belts within a few minutes, and designed to last weeks on supermarket shelves. Many commercial white flours are bleached, particularly in the U.S. using chemicals like acetone peroxide, chlorine, and benzoyl peroxide. This is not real bread. Is it any wonder our bodies reject this stuff?

Given that our diet is obsessed with wheat (cereals, bread, pasta, cake, biscuits, even sauces) it does make sense to diversify. Worst-case scenario, your taste buds will flirt with new flavours, and your mother-in-law will be engrossed in your brilliance. My cookbooks help you do just that. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maybe it’s time to make friends with new grains.

Tell us about coconut oil. Is it really great or is it going to be another agave syrup – brilliant now and bad for us by Christmas?

Right! I share you skepticism. But look – I’m with Mother N. Extra virgin coconut oil is a natural, pure unadulterated source of fat. Yes, it’s another form of saturated fat, but it turns out that all saturated fats are not equal.

Each saturated fat has its own structure, and their individual differences influence the way they work in your body. (Scientists, look away while I mutilate your language). Several saturated fats, called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) appear to be metabolized more like carbohydrates than fats, and quickly used for energy. Coconut oil seems to be the best example, favoured by sporting icons, have you noticed?

But watch out. New-fangled fads attract trouble like a pedigree Chihuahua in heat. Consume in moderation I’d say, alongside good quality butter, ghee and extra virgin olive oil. That’s what I do.

Susan Jane White The Virtuous Tart

Sugar is a minefield for parents and there is a lot of misinformation about ‘healthy’ sugar alternatives. Agave, for example, was hailed as a miracle but now we’re told it probably isn’t good for us at all.  Which alternative sweeteners do you prefer?

There’s no such thing a a healthy sugar. There are only less evil varieties! Children are always going to ask for treats, so having a batch of chia bon bons or energy grenades made from good, wholesome ingredients will ninja kick their craving away. And at the same time, deliver some extra nutrition from the seeds, nuts, and other stealthy ingredients I have alchemised into treats. This simple change can initiate a transformation in your children’s cravings and concentration levels.

As with all sugars, you can pack on the pounds if you’re using them with glorious abandon. I’m trying to help parents take the hell out of healthy by providing kickass recipes that children actually eat. Hopefully no one is going to replace their dinner with them!

I love using Medjool dates – they are fudgy, sticky, licky. Look out for 1kg bags in your local halal store or Asian market, which works out at a fraction of the price you’ll pay at a health store. All the energy balls and kid’s treats in my book use Medjools as the main source of sweetness. Unadulterated, pure, wholesome medjools – just the way Mother N. intended. Medjools are alkalising, and carry useful amounts of minerals for out little ones.

But isn’t it all just sugar ultimately, whether it’s from a banana, a date or a teaspoon of the white stuff?

No. Not in my experience, at all. The energy I derive from a banana, or say dried fruit, delivers a fleet of minerals and fibre to my body’s battery. A bottle of soda pop just can’t boast the same. Of course, Big Industry would have you thinking otherwise as it suits their agenda to equate all sugars.

You’ll also notice a massive change to your sugar cravings, once you make the switch from refined white sugar to natural sugars. Sugar does not own me anymore. It used to, like a pair of handcuffs around my wrists. But I’m more satisfied by the natural sweet treats I make now, and crave less and less. It’s incredibly liberating, and tasty to boot.

Your new book, The Virtuous Tart, is full of healthy snacks and treats. What are your go-to snacks for your sons to keep their energy levels up?

They hoover up my pomegranate halva (from my first book). I can’t recommend this recipe enough to tired parents. It only takes 60 seconds to make, but the benefits last all week. Loads of protective plant lignans, energy-igniting B vitamins and bone-building calcium. You can sneak anything you fancy into it – hemp seeds, linseed, goji berries. (Get the recipe here)

The peppermint-laced energy balls in the book are The Snazzle. My lad’s school friends race through our front door and beg me to make them. Medjool dates give them sweetness, the walnuts and almonds give them omega 3 and good fats, while the spirulina (greens and protein) is successfully masked by the hint of cocoa and peppermint. Winner!

Now the second book is out, what’s next on the horizon for you?

A good night’s sleep!

 Virtuous TartSusan Jane White is is a specialist cook, a food and health columnist with Ireland’s Sunday Independent and former president of Oxford University’s Gastronomy Society. Her first book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen, debuted at No 1 on the Irish bestseller list, gained a cult following and received a nomination for an Irish Book Award. Her second book, The Virtuous Tart is out now. Susan Jane lives in Dublin with her husband and two little vandals. Visit her blog at www.susanjanewhite.com.

Look out for more recipes from Susan Jane on Mr Fox this autumn.