Worried that following a 'diet' specifically to help rein in those long and unruly cycles would be, well, shit, then you are not alone. I have tried a fair few food regimes in my attempt to tackle my PCOS, including the Whole30 diet, GAPS diet, Sarah Wilson's sugar free diet, no gluten, no dairy, no grains, no cold foods, no raw foods and the latest endeavour, low glycemic load. If there is a food fad out there, I've chased it, run it down, got bored and moved on. Do you want to know the truth? They work. Yes Sir, they do.
Everyone reacts differently to a change in food. Maybe not all aspects of each of the diets I tried was necessary for me and I seem to give each one the attention span of a goldfish (the longest was the GAPS diet for 3 months), but they all had one thing in common: they required me to eat natural whole foods cooked from scratch myself. They achieved this in part by making it so blooming difficult to buy any ready-made shop bought food that was compliant. Browsing the isles of the Sainsbury's lunch options to find a GAPS conforming meal is about as difficult as finding a Sainsbury's Wheel of Death (where all the categories on the food's traffic light labelling show as red (total sugars, calories, fat, saturated fat and salt). If anyone ever finds a Wheel of Death, please email me a photo!).
There are some fantastic fertility friendly cookbooks on the market and not enough space to do them all credit here. Below I outline my top 5 go-to weekly staples, the recipe books with cracked spines from over use, pages painted with brightly coloured cooking splatters and riddled with post-it markers reminding me to cook it again. Despite constantly cycling through crazy food regimes over the past 2 years, I have eaten some of the most delicious food of my life (I was quite a poor cook at the start of this process so the only way was up) due almost entirely to these 5 cookbooks. These top 5 recipes books have taken me from 50 day crazy PCOS cycles to regular 30 days cycles and to keep me there, which is not to be sniffed at and remains a struggle to this day.
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What's so good about this cookbook?
Obsessed would be a fair word to describe my relationship with the Hemsley sisters' recipes. They are delicious, easy to cook and on the whole turn out looking like the pictures in the book, which is a rare occurrence for me.
You can actually find all the ingredients needed in Waitrose or a large Sainsbury's with no requirement to go hunting for a foreign food supermarket or googling an ingredient with the words 'what is a...' written in front of it, just to see what you're dealing with.
Good and Simple contains recipes for drinks, smoothies, soups and salads, veggie dinners, meat lover dinners, sauces, dressings and puddings (of the natural sugars, no gluten, yada yada yada.... all the stuff I love, variety).
It is a great option if you are gluten free, on the GAPS diet, doing the Whole30 and if you don't each much dairy (there are some recipes with dairy and loads require eggs. I am aware that cows don't lay eggs. Just letting you know because some some dairy-free converts are sensitive to eggs).
Chia pudding 2 ways - Page 39
Contained in the breakfast section but I make the berry and coconut version as a pudding. Even my husband doesn't complain about this one and he is a sceptical customer, referring to my 'healthier' post dinner treats as 'bullshit puddings'.
Bone Broth - Pages 60 to 63
This book first inspired me to try bone broth and I haven't turned back since. Yes, it makes your house smell like farts, and yes, it is a greasy weird hot drink, but it is oh so good for you. I use my own recipe but there are three pages devoted to it in this cookbook, including descriptions of how to make it and illustrative photos.
Super-charged store cupboard spinach soup - Page 83
The best spinach soup you will ever taste because it in no way tastes of spinach. Instead, the dominant flavours are chilli, ginger, coconut and lime, for which I am grateful.
Salty cajun-roasted cauliflower - Page 122
Cauliflower? As a snack for film night? Really? That was my original reaction but trust me, you don't want to miss out on trying these. It doesn't taste like popcorn (that would be ridiculous, it's cauliflower) but it is nibble sized bites of spicy crunchy goodness just perfect in a bowl between you whilst snuggled on the sofa watching a film with the lights off.
Lentil bake - Page 230
Sounds dreadful doesn't it. When I told my husband I was making us a lentil bake for dinner there was an audible groan, and I can understand why. But this recipe surprised us both. It is wonderfully tasty, and a great lunch to take in to work.
Cauliflower rice 3 ways - Pages 240 to 243
Three ways with cauliflower rice? Three ways? Don't you just attack a cauliflower with a food processor and then boil the butchered remains? Apparently not. Instead there is a recipe for basic cauliflower rice (similar process to the one I just described), spiced cauliflower rice with halloumi and a tahini dressing (for when you have posh guests coming over), coconut lime cauliflower rice (why have I not tried this one, it sounds amazing) and egg-fried cauliflower rice. Isn't that 4 ways? The basic one must be discounted, which is a shame as it is the only one I have currently tried (and it's great). Although rice does not contain gluten it is often not allowed on the diets I've been trying. It is not low GI/GL, prohibited on GAPS or when doing the Whole30, so the discovery of cauli-rice has been a life saver.
Ones to avoid
Butternut and almond butter porridge - Page 34
It looks bright and vibrant, healthy and virtuous, just how I like my breakfast. Except it just tasted of mashed butternut squash, with a slight texture of vomit. I tired, and I was desperate to like it, but it just was not meant to be. I'm giving this one a pass from now on.
What are the negatives?
You are never going to look like the Hemsley sisters. No matter how many Caroby Fruit and nut balls you eat or Tahini applejacks you scoff, the honest truth is that their wonderful good looks and glowing skin are likely genetic. Alas, eating the recipes in their cookbooks has not converted me in to a model, but it has resulted in dramatic improvements in the digestive department, so I will settle for no longer being Amber Pooey Pants.
The Hemsley sisters like doing things '2-ways' or '3-ways', which occurs 18 times in this cook book (yep, I counted). What is clear is that it's a helpful way to provide various options depending on what is in your cupboard, or what you fancy making. What's far from clear is why this gets on my tits.
What's so good about this cookbook?
As one could guess from the title, The Gut Health Diet Plan is great for people dealing with digestive complaints. I have been a tummy-trouble-warrior for many years, although thanks to this cookbook and others, those days are thankfully behind me. It is fantastic for food sensitivities and the symbols for each recipe tell the reader whether it is dairy-free, Low FODMAP, gluten-free, grain-free, paleo, no added sugar, specific carbohydrate diet, suitable for vegetarians or for vegans. For people, like me, who just feel icky but don't know why, the book provides a five step programme for a healthy, happy gut which includes a five week food plan taking you through each stage.
Contained within this cookbook are juices, smoothies, breakfasts, lunches, main meals, desserts, treats and snacks. Due to trying to reduce the amount of sugar I consume (I'm the type of person who would stick their head into a bee hive because one lick of the honey would be worth the stings) I haven't tried many of the puddings. But oh my, they look good. In an ideal world, in which malfunctioning insulin wasn't my arch nemesis, I would spend my days trying the mint and chocolate superfood ice, the mocha swirl cheesecake, the apple and plum crisp (crumble), the raw orange brownie slices, the lemon cream sandwich cookies and the paleo carrot and ginger cake. And those are just the ones I'd start with first, there are plenty more.
Light digestive lemon aid - Page 60
I know that fennel is said to be a fantastic detoxifier, but if you told me I'd like a juice containing raw fennel, I'd think you were nuts. Even with the fennel, this digestive lemon aid is sharp, refreshing and healthy. Oh so healthy. The chocolate maca cream and the antioxidant blast, both on page 63, are also yummy.
Pan fried Indian-spiced liver - Page 77
How to get liver into your diet without gagging is a worthy of a blog post in itself. In this recipe the taste of the liver (which, let's be honest, is gross) is well hidden by the generous spices. It isn't as nice as a meal that doesn't involve liver, obviously, but it is bearable, which makes it a triumph in my view.
Poached eggs with wilted kale, tomato and dukka - Page 83
A breakfast of champions would be how I'd describe this dish. My kale quota completed just as the day is beginning and fresh nutritious eggs to see me through until lunch. Dukka is a herb and spice mix which the recipe provides instructions on how to make. Again, unless you've been trapped on the infertility treadmill for some time you may not have all of these 'worthy' ingredients in your cupboard.
Beef and liver burgers with wasabi mayo - Page 126
Another great recipe for hiding liver from liver haters. Why not stick it in a burger? Eating a burger always feels like a naughty treat and this recipe is no exception. I've never actually tried it with the wasabi mayo, partly because I cannot find the wasabi paste in our supermarket (the white lie I tell my husband) and because I hate the taste of wasabi (the truth).
Ones to avoid
Smoked salmon with sweet potato apple rostis - Page 79
It sounds delicious, but when I made it the rostis were too wet to hold their shape and it turned into a bit of a mush on the plate. It may have been my cooking, in fact it probably was my cooking, but unfortunately I had decided to go cocky and make it as the starter for some dinner guests, having never attempted it before. That'll teach me. I've haven't attempted it since.
What are the negatives?
Sometimes the ingredients used in this book can be a little far from the norm. For someone like me who has been in the infertility game for years, has researched gut health and positively embraces the weird and the wonderful when it comes to food stuffs, it isn't too much of a problem because my pantry is full of 'the crazy'. But I can imagine that for most 'normal' people, not all the ingredients used in this book would have ever graced the shelves of your cupboards. Let me provide an example:
Creamy Turmeric Kefir
- Turmeric root - the bright orange root that looks like witches fingers, often sold near the fresh ginger and once prompted our check out to once ask 'what on earth is that? I've never seen that before in my life!' which was odd given she works in a shop that sells it.
- Pineapple with core - at least everyone knows what a pineapple looks like, even if your kitchen is devoid of them.
- Coconut oil - surely everyone these days has this ingredient, or am I just too intertwined in the whole foods faddy crowd and most people don't?
- Shelled hemp seeds - a sure sign that I've been battling with infertility for a long old while is that I have a bag of this to hand.
- Lemon juice - get in! Mini fist pump. Everyone has lemons in their kitchen.
- Milk kefir - 'Milk what?' you may ask. It's milk that has been fermented using kefir grains and is supposedly very good for your microbiome. Not only did I have some in the fridge when making this smoothie, but mine was a ridiculously hipster (or should that read hippy) variety of raw goats milk kefir sourced from a farm in Wales. I've totally become THAT person.
What's so good about this cook book?
Ready Steady Glow wins in my category of Best-All Rounder. The recipes provide a different and refreshing take on ordinary ingredients. No ingredient is hard to find, the meals turn out like the photos and I want to cook absolutely everything contained in this cookbook, without exception (there are no mung bean recipes lurking in here). If you told me I had to cook from only this book for a month, I wouldn't bat an eyelid as there is so much variety.
Keeping with the theme of healthy living, there are plenty of dishes that are perfect for fussy food fads and exclusion diets. All the recipes are wheat and refined sugar free and there is an abundance that are dairy and grain free too. They are wholesome. You feel wholesome. Madeleine looks wholesome. It is a whole world of wholesomeness.
One final good thing, the author's smile. It's a biggie, displayed on every photo in which she is features, and it makes me happy. Just like her food.
Courgetti prawn soup - Page 78
Basically it is carrot, courgette and prawns in thai green curry style soup. It is simple and quick to make, which is essential for any lunch in our household, and it packs bags of flavour (as Greg Wallis would say on Masterchef). If you have a cold this will clear the airways within minutes.
Goan chicken curry - Page 130
In our house, Sunday night is traditionally curry night. We used to get a takeaway, before being declared barren and doing everything within our power to reverse it (rest assured, no doctor has actually used the B-word on us, that would a) not be very medically accurate and b) make them an a-hole). This coconut, chicken, ginger and garlicky goodness is mild curry that is thankfully easy to make and totally delicious. It is served with sugar snap peas and cauliflower rice.
Crispy mackerel with green bean, pea and coconut salad - Page 145
Oily fish is supposed to be extremely good for health, and there is no more flavoursome than mackerel. The recipe adds curry and chilli flavours to the mackerel, giving your pallet a kick up the bum which is then soothed by the green beans and peas. Everyone needs a go-to-fish-dish and this one is mine.
Lamb and spinach curry - Page 199
Whenever we go to a curry house with my in-laws, my father in law always orders a lamb and spinach curry. Using those exact words. It drives my husband nuts. "It's called a Saag Gosht. That's what the menu says" he pleads. The response from my father-in-law is always "Aye, lamb and spinach. Say it as it is, they know what I mean". Imagine our delight at discovering the title of this recipe, something we make each time the in-laws visit. Partly because it amuses me, but mainly because it tastes delicious. And it says it like it is - lamb and spinach curry.
Slow-roast beef cheeks with celeriac mash - Page 201
The first time I made this recipe it resulted in a rather confusing incident at the butchers, where the man thought he had heard me ask for 'beef cheese'. After a few moments looking perplexed and examining the contents of their fridge (aww, bless) he reaffirmed what he thought he'd heard "Cheese? With beef in it?". "No cheeks, CHEEKS" I said, pointing at my own like a strange game of charades. One of the other assistants mumbled a joke about buffalo mozzarella as I exited the shop with beef cheeks in hand. It is a meat that requires about 6 hours of cooking in a slow cooker, and smells horribly meaty when it is being seared in the pan, but it melts in the mouth in its final form. It tastes even better reheated the next day.
Ones to avoid
Raw ginger crunch - Page 239
I wasn't sure whether to include this here, or as one of my favourites, that is how divided I am on this recipe. Ginger is a wonderful flavour and there are parts of this pud that I love. But it is too sickly sweet for me. After three mouthfuls I'm done. Maybe that is the ideal dessert? This isn't one to avoid. Instead it is one to trial, play around with, see what you think. The ginger flavours are fabulous, I just prefer my sweets less sweet.
What are the negatives?
The title. It actually put me off buying it for a while because I thought the reference to glowing was a little too 'yoga yummy mummy' for me, even though I absolutely am that type of person. My husband takes the piss, despite loving the dishes made from it. He'll ask "what are we having for dinner? Are we about to glow?". If the title puts you off, don't let it! This is a brilliant cookbook and all I wish is that I had added it to my kitchen shelf earlier.
What's so good about this cookbook?
Here we are again, back on the Hemsleys with The Art of Eating Well. I did warn you that I may have a small obsession with these two. If you have seen them on their Channel 4 cooking show and written off this perfect pair as the Smug Sisters, you would not be alone. But despite my jealously, which rears its head as bitter sarcasm and meanness (something I am working on in life in general), I have to admit that these two can really cook. If you wanted to try out some of their recipes they have plenty of free ones on their website http://www.hemsleyandhemsley.com.
Quicker-than-toast courgette salad - Page 84
We are forever receiving courgettes in our Riverford veg box and apart from bog standard courgetti, I'm never sure what to do with them. This recipe, that pairs courgette with pumpkin seeds, olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a great little salad to accompany practically anything. And because I am still learning about how to pair foods properly, I will put it with anything (complimentary or not).
Lamb meatballs and cauliflower tabbouleh - Page 144
This delicious dish is a treat I look forward to. I'm not going to lie, the tabbouleh takes a lot of chopping of different things and is made a hell of a lot easier by a food processor. When you are dicing up your fifth ingredient you begin to question 'Is this worth it?', but it is. It so is. This recipe is on the Hemsley and Hemsley website here: http://www.hemsleyandhemsley.com/recipe/meatballs-cauliflower-tabbouleh/
Pablo's chicken - Page 166
The most food splattered page in any of my cookbooks, this is my favourite all time dinner. A healthier take on a southern fried chicken. I use deboned chicken thighs rather than on the bone, as I think it cooks better and I don't like the bone faff. I frequently pair this with chopped avocado and tomatoes in olive oil, along with the leek and kale salad on page 146. This recipe is also available on the Hemsley and Hemsley website here: http://www.hemsleyandhemsley.com/recipe/pablos-chicken/
Smoky baked beans - Page 208
Never have I felt more of a hipster than making my own baked beans to accompany a Sunday morning fried breakfast. Shop bought baked beans usually contain gluten (for reasons I can't understand) and sugar, so making your own is a great alternative. And these smokey bad boys taste better too.
Sticky Toffee Pudding - Page 246
No refined sugar (the sweetness comes entirely from dates) and gluten-free, this dessert is an absolute gem. It is my favourite 'healthy bullshit pudding'. My husband helpfully suggested to me that I should cease calling it sticky toffee pudding to avoid dashing expectations. So instead I now refer it as a date sponge with date-me sauce. What's in a name, hey?
Ones to avoid
Mung dhal - Page 186
Mung beans are extremely good for you, as is the bone broth and other ingredients, but I just can't get on board with the mung. It is the best mung recipe I've tried (I stopped after 3 attempts and admitted that mung beans are just not my thing) but it is still gets a miss from me.
What are the negatives?
Their interest in '2-ways' and '3-ways' (as it were) continues in this cookbook, as does my irrational hatred of this. In fact, the apple rings on page 128 have 5 ways! Goodness. That's a versatile little snack, isn't it. The jury is still out as to why this bothers me.
What's so good about this cookbook?
If I were to describe The Detox Kitchen Bible in one word it would be 'fresh'. Nearly every recipe contains a bright, multicoloured array of natural ingredients. Probably more of a summer eats than wintery comfort food. The photos are beautiful, encouraging the reader to make each dish as soon as humanly possible. And there are an abundance of recipes to try. I haven't counted (as life is too short for that nonsense) but I would bet my hat (as well as mixing my metaphors) that there are far more recipes in this book than any of the others, by a long way.
There is a chapter at the back of book, of almost 100 pages, covering nutritional basics. Within this are discussions and meal suggestions for many different aliments, including immunity issues, PCOS, PMS, fatigue and a section on detoxing for women, bearing in mind the female cycle and hormonal changes.
It's perfect for the food fadders out there, like me, as all the recipes are free from wheat, dairy and refined sugar. Of course, I take it a step further with reduced starchy vegetables, limited gluten, low GI and GL foods, but I can easily pick and choose what suits my current regime from the vast array of recipes in this cookbook. It even has a recipe for apricot and ginger jam (yum) which contains no added sugar. It is a sad state of affairs when news of a jam recipe brings me genuine intrigue and delight.
It is my go to for savoury breakfasts, containing a multitude of recipes for this style of brekkie where most other cookbooks simply focus on sweet breakfasts. Although it has fabulous dinner recipes, this book really excels with the smoothies, soups and breakfasts in my view. For that alone it has been well worth the purchase (it was actually a Christmas present from my sister-in-law).
Soft-boiled eggs with avocado salad - Page 38
This is a signature dish from the Detox Kitchen when they cater for breakfast meetings and is an absolute must try. It combines all my favourite savoury breakfast ingredients (including eggs, avocado, lemon, pumpkin seeds as well as more) in a much more flavoursome manner than me throwing them onto a plate, which represented my previous efforts.
Broccoli and ginger soup - Page 84
Honestly, it mainly just tastes of ginger, and I have a lot of respect for that. If we are being honest, who wants to eat broccoli soup that tastes of... well, just broccoli? It's green, so it's healthy (or is that a rather simplistic view?), but having the burn of ginger on the palette certainly makes 'the green' a more enjoyable luncheon option.
Creamy cauliflower and roasted garlic soup - Page 90
Roasted garlic is a sweet and sticky business, something I never knew before trying this recipe. It contains a whole bulb of garlic between two portions. Because it is roasted, I honestly believe that my breath in the office following this soup bordered on acceptable. Well, as acceptable as my breath ever is.
Dal with roasted fennel - Page 163
There is no denying that I love a bit of dal. Who doesn't? The texture, the warmth, the ease. It's the porridge of the lunch hour. Every mouthful tastes the same and to me it is definitely comfort food.
Pinto bean chilli - Page 168
This bean only chilli was first approached with scepticism (a chilli is not a real chilli without beef in our household) but we are now converts, preaching its virtues to the masses. It is possibly the best chilli recipe we have ever eaten and resulted in both my husband and I declaring that we never need beef in a chilli again, ever. Why bother, hey, when beans are all you need.
Sweat potato frittata - Pages 196
When trying to get eggs into my diet, butjust can't face any more scrambled, a frittata is the way to go. This is the best recipe I've tasted, containing sweet potato, red onion and pumpkin seeds. Not having a functioning grill makes this dish a bit of a challenge, but meeting adversity head on (and frittatering regardless) makes me feel like a champion.
Cajun chicken with avocado salad and mango salsa - Page 202
This is a knock your socks off spicy little number that requires the avocado salad and mango salsa as a soothing retreat, a respite from the burn. If you like an element of challenge to eating a meal then this is a great one. Peppy.
Ones to avoid
Mung bean curry - Page 167
We are back on the mung beans again. Why? Why do that? I have nothing against this particular recipe other than the fact that mung beans don't taste nice, and nice tasting food is the name of the game. I eat a lot of horrible things in pursuit of fertility, including liver and algae, but mung beans need to prove their worth to me before they are added to my menu.
What are the negatives?
Each recipe contains a calorie count. This may be a huge positive for those who count calories, but I don't. I also don't really believe in it (I believe calories exist as a measurement, but you know what I mean). For a cookbook that focuses so heavily of fresh, real food of high nutritional value, I am surprised that it supports the ethos of calorie counting. Maybe it is just allowing itself to appeal to more groups, dieters included, and I concede that there is nothing wrong with that.
Should fruit be mixed with savoury meals? There are some that argue that it shouldn't and others that say that the timings make no difference. As usual, with claims that something is healthy one week, then that it is the fastest route to death the next, it is hard to know what to believe. If you are an adamant supporter of no fruit with a meal then you will find a negative in this cookbook. There are recipes aplenty that contain fruit as part of the main meal, usually necessary to add a variation on texture, sweetness or to soothe a burning tongue from a hot chilli element.
So there you have it, my top recipe books for home cooked meals. They all contain a recipe for chocolate avocado mousse, you can't swing a cat without knocking into an avocado mousse recipe these days, and there are quite a few beetroot brownie recipes lurking in these pages too. But each book has its own unique style and I can guarantee that all 5 are fabulous, completely fabulous.