Tostadas bring me back to a bright, sunny kitchen in Alexandria where a standing order with Washington’s Green Grocer meant the basket hanging in the window was always overflowing with fresh produce. I loved how easy those deliveries made it to eat healthily, but it was always a struggle to get through so much produce before it went bad. Tostadas were one of my favorite ways to use up the odds and ends that needed to get eaten. (They’re also a great way to use up tortillas that have started to go stale.)
When I was approached about doing a review of Sally Bee’s The Secret Ingredient ($17.90 on Amazon), I was a little hesitant. The book was originally published in England, which isn’t exactly known for its amazing food. Plus, the recipes are heart-healthy and I was afraid that might mean that they would be bland. But her story had me intrigued, so I agreed to accept a copy.* Boy am I glad I did — this book has quickly become one of my favorites!
In 2004, Sally Bee was working as a writer and a British television personality when she suddenly suffered three major hart attacks in the span of one week. She had never smoked, didn’t drink, and was generally healthy and fit, but she found that she had been born with a heart defect that had gone undetected her whole life. To make a long story short, she wasn’t expected to survive, but she did! In order to keep her health up, she needed to pay very close attention to what she ate — but she didn’t want her kids to “grow up thinking a diet of mung beans and spinach was normal.” So she learned how to cook heart-healthy meals that were also enjoyable and “normal.”
The recipes in The Secret Ingredient focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and are bursting with flavors, thanks to the generous use of herbs and spices. The dishes in the book are fast and easy to make and don’t require any ingredients that you can’t find in your neighborhood grocery store. Since the recipes focus so heavily on fresh foods, you don’t have to worry about needing ingredients that are only available in England. I also really like that Sally Bee has a similar philosophy to me when it comes to not totally eliminating ingredients that have a reputation of being “unhealthy.” In moderation ingredients like butter, cheese, and red meat can add a ton of flavor to a dish without rendering the whole dish off-limits. Sally Bee includes small amounts of ingredients like these in her recipes; she also makes a note on each recipe to identify whether it’s an “everyday” dish or a “treat” that should be limited to once a week. The recipes are also accompanied by absolutely gorgeous full-color photos.
I tested out the recipes for the “Marvelous Moroccan Chicken” (Shared below), the “Spicy Couscous,” and the “Healthy Spring Vegetable Risotto” all three meals were fresh, delicious, and easy (and cheap!) to make. The risotto was packed full of vegetables and was very filling — it also had some pesto stirred in, which was wonderful and a trick that I’ll be using often! The flavors in the Moroccan Chicken were unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before, but we both loved it! The warm spices in it were amazing and the whole house smelled wonderful while it cooked.
Of course, there are a few negatives, but they’re really more mild annoyances that anything. The majority of the recipes require using the oven — which is fine most of the year, but not really an option in the current heat. I also felt that the dessert chapter was a little too long — some of the ideas in it looked nice, but if I’m going to have dessert, I don’t want fruit. I want dessert. So while it’s nice for the healthy options to be included, I doubt I’ll ever make anything from that chapter. There are also a few things that are weird just because the book was originally published in England: metric weights are listed first and some ingredients are referred as they are known over there (for example zucchini is “courgette” and cilantro is “coriander” — though the American English names are given in parentheses). Also, the risotto could have used a little salt (although that would have been pretty inappropriate for a heart-healthy cookbook!)
But, the most important question always is Would I Buy the Book? Absolutely. The recipes are easy enough to be followed by beginning cooks, but are full of inspiration for more advanced cooks who want to use them as a jumping off point for their own creations. The ingredients are healthy and real; the final dishes are simple but elegant. And the photos are stunning. Let me put it this way — for me, flipping through this book is like flipping through a “Healthy Delicious” cookbook… are at least its everything that I would want a cookbook like that to be. 😉