It's strange how some foodstuffs are a totally normal, everyday part of the scenery in some countries, and then we come along, get our health-obsessed five-a-day superfood-crazy label-mad hands on them, slap on a massive price tag, and turn them into something chic, exclusive, expensive-because-healthy. When I was in Vietnam, there were smoothie bars perched on every street corner, churning out giant plastic cups of heady made-to-order mixtures; everything from fresh coconut to dragon fruit and durian fruit would be blended in front of your eyes into a sweet cupful of nourishing deliciousness. None of these ever cost more than around 80p. Come home, go to a smoothie bar (if you can find one, that is), and you'll pay at least £3 for the privilege of having some inferior fruit crushed into a cup.
The same goes for Japanese food. Nourishing noodle soups, slimming sushi and protein-rich tofu are staples of the Japanese diet, taken for granted, almost. Everyday food, they certainly don't cost nearly the amount they do over here, where you seem to pay for the privilege of ingesting something that isn't likely to give you a sumo wrestler physique overnight (and, of course, for the importing of certain ingredients).
The first time I tried goji berries was at a Chinese friend's house. She had made Chinese hot pot for me, and I had been avoiding the little red blobs floating around in the broth, thinking they might be some kind of super-spicy little dried chilli. Upon closer inspection, I realised they were goji berries, plump and swollen from their bath in the hot liquid. Later, she made me a cup of green tea, throwing in a handful of the berries for good measure. It was delicious, the berries imparting a sweet, slightly musky flavour to the tea.
I was amazed at the apparent careless abandon with which she put these berries into things. But then, I realized, I am used to the Western treatment of goji berries - a sort of awed and slightly confused reverence. As something bearing that elusive and exclusive 'superfood' label, goji berries are to be respected, to be treated with admiration, even if we are never likely to try them because they're often pretty expensive. In China, where the berries have been grown for hundreds of years (they're the biggest cultivators and exporters of goji berries in the world), they're probably a little more blasé about these little fruits, free from the ludicrous superfood-mania that has swept the UK in recent years.
Goji berries' superfood credentials stem from their large quantity of antioxidants and vitamin A. However, there's no real evidence to suggest they're any better for you than berries in general, which are also classed as 'superfoods'. Still, I find them a rather intriguing little fruit, with their beautiful dusky red colour and diminutive puckered appearance. You can get them in most health food shops and even some large supermarkets now, and, while they're not cheap, they're not much more expensive than your average dried berry.
Lucky enough to have a bag of goji berries in my cupboard, I decided to experiment with a new granola recipe. I figured that if more common dried berries - blueberries, cranberries, etc - work in granola, why not up the 'superfood' credentials by adding some goji berries too?
I've long been a fan of making my own granola, ever since my first attempt a year or so ago. There are several advantages to doing it yourself.
Firstly, commercial granola is astronomically high in fat and sugar. Not to bore you with my health-nerd neuroticism, but it is. If you're lucky enough not to need to worry about such things, then good for you, but it still can't hurt to cut back a bit on these ingredients. The reason shop-bought granola is so delicious and tastes like flapjacks is because it's drenched in oil and honey/sugar before baking. Tasty, but not the most nutritious breakfast. By making it yourself, you can drastically lower the amount of calorific rubbish that goes into it, while still having a delicious-tasting end product. The trick is to use apple puree and honey to coat the granola mix before baking. Yes, there's still sugar in the form of honey, but much, much less, and no fat - just apple.
I imagine a lot of you are wondering if it's less tasty for this reason. It is certainly less sweet and flapjack-esque, but I find that the dried fruit makes up for this, adding plenty of sweetness. The granola base mixture (oats, barley, etc) toasts wonderfully in its covering of apple puree and honey, turning deliciously golden, toasty and crunchy. It's the perfect base for the dried fruit and nuts, allowing them to really shine. I actually prefer it, now, to commercial granola, which just tastes overly sweet and buries the flavour of the fruit and nuts within.
Secondly, homemade granola is cheaper. You won't save yourself huge amounts of money, but you will save a bit. If you buy decent granola or muesli, you often spend around £3-4 for a 750g box. To get all the ingredients to make your own (depending on what you put in it) usually costs around £5, but it makes about 1.75 kg. Plus some of the ingredients you only need to buy once to make several batches - apple for the apple puree, honey, flaked almonds, and dried fruit like raisins.
Also, it really is wonderfully satisfying to make your own. I appreciate not everyone has the time, but this takes under an hour from start to finish, and there's barely any hands-on work involved - just mixing everything up, then stirring it from time to time in the oven so that it toasts evenly. The sweet, spicy, toasty smell of the grains cooking warms your kitchen and hovers around you for hours afterwards.
Thirdly, you can customise home-made granola however you like. I've never found a muesli or granola in the shops that quite fits my specifications - I love brazil nuts, chopped dates, and tropical fruit, but this combo has never been found to my knowledge on the supermarket shelves. Now that I make my own, I can put in my favourite things. Until now I have made two versions: one, a tropical granola with brazil nuts, flaked almonds, dried papaya and dried pineapple (sometimes adding banana chips or coconut flakes); two, a delicious cinnamony version with chopped apricots, chopped dates, raisins, flaked almonds and brazil nuts again. Both are utterly delicious, but it was time to experiment with a new version.
Enter this 'superfood' berry granola, featuring goji berries, other dried berries (I used a mixture of cherries, blueberries and cranberries), sunflower seeds and toasted pecan nuts. I've wanted to try pecans in granola for ages, because they're my favourite nuts after brazil nuts, and I can't get enough of their toasty, caramel flavour. Sunflower seeds add crunch and also healthy nutrients, while the granola base is enriched with cinnamon and a good dose of vanilla. After a spell of baking in the oven, the sweet, spiced granola is mixed with jewel-like dried berries.
I haven't added too many goji berries here, because they're quite an acquired taste. Instead, their pleasant, earthy flavour combines with the more assertive sweetness of dried cherries, cranberries and blueberries. The result is a joyous medley of colours, the bright and muted reds of the berries contrasting beautifully with the nut-brown blanket of toasted oats and pecans.
I actually wrote all of the above post, up until this point, having not yet tried the result of this granola experiment. I figured it would be good enough to share with you all, though. This morning I poured my first bowl (and took the photos). I made a mug of green tea. I chopped up some blood orange and put it into the bowl with some ginger- and brown sugar-stewed plums left over from dessert last night. The dark juice of the blood oranges mingled with the magenta syrup from the plums, soaking into the granola. The tea sent wisps of grassy, fragrant smoke into the air. The dried berries and pecans winked invitingly up at me from the bowl, a glorious mass of syrupy red.
Ignoring all the blood orange and plum madness going on (which just lifted breakfast to dizzying heights of incredible deliciousness), this granola was incredible. So much better than I had expected, even though I expected good things. I think the key lies in the sunflower seeds and the pecans - the seeds contribute an amazing nutty toastiness that underlies the whole thing, combining wonderfully with the sweet, caramel notes of the pecans and then the sugary berries. Heavily attached to my brazil nut and tropical fruit version, I hadn't expected this to be quite as good. Instead, I think it's a new favourite. It allows me to indulge my borderline indecent love of pecan nuts and dried cranberries. It looks gorgeous. I can claim it's vaguely healthy, both because of its lack of oil and refined sugar and because it has some goji berries in (tenuous yes, but every little helps). As well as sunflower seeds and pecans, which are full of nutritious good fats.
I promise, this will surprise you. Both because it's incredibly easy, and because it's so much better than granola from the shops. The combination of ingredients just makes for the best ever breakfast bowlful. Even better if you add some segmented orange and stewed plums, although I think serving it with some fresh berries would also be a great idea, or some sliced banana (or both).
You may, like me, be sceptical of the superfood label. But this granola is both super and food, so I think it deserves the accolade. Get your hands on those crazy goji berries and get this granola in your life.
'Superfood' berry granola (makes around 10-12 servings):
(I'd like to add that the serving estimate here is strictly that - an estimate. I eat a lot of granola in a single portion, and this is so good that you might want to rethink your normal cereal serving size...)
- 320g apple puree*
- 110g runny honey
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- Seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1kg muesli base mix
- 200g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
- 90g sunflower seeds
- 50g goji berries
- 150g mixed dried berries (e.g. blueberries, cranberries and cherries - or just one type)
Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
In a large bowl, whisk together the apple puree, honey, salt, cinnamon and vanilla. Add the muesli base and stir well to combine. Spread this mixture out evenly between two large baking sheets.
Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the trays from the oven give the mixture a good stir around. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes, then stir again. Finally, bake for another 10 minutes, then add the pecan nuts and sunflower seeds. Bake for 10 minutes more, then remove from the oven and leave to cool.
When cool, stir in the berries. Store the granola in an airtight jar or box.
* To make apple puree, simmer peeled, chopped cooking apples in a lidded pan with a splash of water until they turn to mush, then roughly crush with a potato masher or fork. It's worth making a big batch of this then freezing it in individual 320g portions, so you can easily make a batch of granola whenever the whim takes you!