P is the letter of Winter: Patsara, Polenta, Pie. Perfect.

You don’t need to bring out the thermometer to know it’s winter (Northern Hemisphere peeps, go back to enjoying your sunshine)- if the abundance of beanies and scarfs haven’t hinted the weather’s turned, the lack of salad lunches in your work fridge will.

Dietitian hat off- winter is the perfect excuse for pilled-high dishes of creamy pastas and snuggling on the couch with a hot chocolate. This makes perfect sense: the temperature of the environment affects the body’s basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy needed to keep the body working in a way that allows all systems to run normally, whilst resting). If the temperature is very low or very high, the body has to work harder to maintain it’s normal temperature. When it’s very hot, we tend to laze about and do less physical activity to preserve energy stores to feed these increased requirements. When it’s very cold, we tend to look for more food to feed this requirement, so to speak. But in a world where we have thermostats in our home, our office, our car, it does go a little beyond this.

Another example of the body changing with the seasons is in melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone which anticipates darkness and allows the body to prepare for sleep. The body’s levels of melatonin are higher during darkness, therefore, during winter we have higher levels of melatonin in the body for longer. This not only makes us feel sleepy and lazy (incase the cold alone was enough of a barrier for going for a run), but evidence is growing that melatonin is part of the the complex network of signals that regulate food intake and appetite, another explanation for hunger changes during winter.

Thirdly, in winter our moods often become low. Blame it on the cold, miserable weather that makes it harder to get out and socialise and easier to stay home on the couch. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. When feeling low, sad, or depressed, many people turn to food for comfort. Fat, in particular, has been shown to increase mood, which is why we go for chocolate when sad, not an apple. Or a cheesy pasta bake when we get home, not grilled fish and salad.

So, there are lots of scientific explanations behind it, but we all know the basics: winter= couch= more energy dense foods= weight gain. The big question is, how can I prevent it? There are basic strategies that can help, such as starting a meal with a big bowl of soup. Research has found that by eating a bowl of soup prior to a meal, you eat less during the meal as you end up feeling fuller earlier. A similar effect could be achieved by having a big glass of water prior to a meal, but in winter, who wants to do that? 

But I have found that if you can’t beat it, join it. But have one up on it. What I mean by this is to have your comfort foods, but choose nourishing, healthier versions of the traditionally heavy foods. Simple strategies include: using skim milk, evaporated milk and low fat cheese in creamy pasta dishes, adding a tin of lentils into the spa bol, use fruit in your puddings at dessert instead of chocolate or oozy caramel, or use a flavoured coconut evaporated milk instead of coconut milk in your laksa. To make things a little easier, here is a savoury recipe that provides a healthier alternatives to a comforting winter pie, without taking away the comfort. It uses one of my favourite winter ingredients, polenta. Polenta is a staple in northern Italy, where it is considered a peasant food. It is essentially a porridge, made from 100% ground corn (AKA ground yellow maize). Being 100% corn, it is also 100% gluten free, perfect for those with coeliac disease. As you can see from a basic comparison to other carbohydrate containing foods, it is not remarkably different in terms of energy, protein or carbohydrate content. So no, it’s not a “superfood”. It is a “bloody good food” though. It can be cooked up like a porridge and consumed immediately (similar to mashed potatoes) or then baked, fried or grilled into more or a bread. It can be eaten alone, or added to dishes, substituted for flour. And that’s what I’ve done here.

 

Patsara is a Greek dish special to a small region of Greece- so special in fact, many Greeks haven’t heard of it themselves. It is essentially a pie or quiche, but is much lower in fat compared to a bakery bought pie or quiche. Patsara uses polenta as the base and is sprinkled on top with flour and milk. There are many reasons I like it. 1. The base is made from polenta, water and a little olive oil, making it SIGNIFICANTLY lower in total and saturated fat compared to a pastry made with copious amounts of vegetable oil, butter or margarine. 2. It is filled with vegetable, not off cuts of meat. 3. Using half feta (giving flavour) and half ricotta (lower in fat and salt), it is a smart way to have a cheesy dish that isn’t going straight to the hips. 4. Sprinkling milk and flour on top before it bakes gives it a lovely crust on top, without adding extra kilojoules from the base. 5. Being lined with polenta, filled with spinach, and topped with egg, cheese and milk, we have the winning combination of a balanced meal- carbohydrates, veggies and protein. Five reasons, or, you could go with the fact it’s winter and it’s a pie- perfect. 

Take me to the recipe- Patsara (Polenta, spinach and cheese pie