The Sensitive Foodie Guide to Christmas Cooking

It's December, and I now feel it's ok to start talking about Christmas. I always love this time of year; I'm particularly fond of all the seasonal treats! However, when you're a sensitive eater, whether because of food intolerances or health problems, it can be difficult to fully indulge.

That's why last year I ran my Countdown to Christmas, an advent calendar of delicious seasonal recipes; all whole-food, plant-based and adaptable to be gluten-free and nut-free (except for the nut loaf - sorry!). It covered soups and salads, mains and sides. And of course lots of sweet treats!

As these recipes are scattered over the blog, I've collated them into this guide so you can easily find the one (or two) you're looking for. And to make life even easier, I'm pinning this to the top of the blog until 26th December so you don't have to go rummaging for it. Christmas sensitive eating made easy!

Oh, and if there's something you love to eat at Christmas that's not included, do let me know so I can include them in the future.

Christmas biscotti
Christmas biscotti
Roasted squash, red onion and Brussel sprouts
Roasted squash, red onion and Brussel sprouts
Mince pies
Mince pies
Stuffed nut loaf
Stuffed nut loaf
merry-christmas-2953721_1920

Nut butter pastry

It’s day 18 of my Sensitive Foodie Advent Calendar – only a week until Christmas! It’s also my son’s birthday, so I will be whipping a chocolate birthday cake for him – all plant-based of course.

Back on day 6, I shared my recipe for mincemeat. Full of unrefined sugars and no added fats, it still tastes, and works, like traditional mincemeat, just slightly healthier.

But of course, mincemeat by itself is no good. It can be used in various recipes, but the key one for this time of year just has to be mince pies. The challenge is what pastry to use?

If you are not managing a health problem, then it is easy – buy ready-made pastry! Brands like Just-rol are dairy-free, using various vegetable fats instead of butter (just make sure you don’t buy an all-butter pastry by mistake!). There are gluten-free alternatives available now too, including one by Just-rol which is also vegan. But they do use palm oil, so if you are trying to avoid that then this might not be the option for you.

You can make pastry at home using Trex, a vegetable fat with similar properties and looks like lard. Similar effects on your body too! This also contains palm oil. It does however make great pastry, so the choice is yours.

None of these options work for me. Following the OMS (Overcoming MS) programme means avoiding products containing saturated fats like palm oil and coconut oil. So I make my own pastry. In the past I’ve used olive oil; it works but it’s a little bland. Christmas is a time of rich, luxurious flavours; nut butter does the job really well, especially pecan nut butter.

You may not have seen pecan nut butter on the supermarket shelves. That’s probably because they are more expensive than other nuts. I bought a jar from an artisan market stall and hid it in the cupboard as it was too much for general usage! You can make your own by lightly toasting a few handfuls and popping them into a high-speed blender or food processor. It takes a little while as you have to keep stopping the machine and scrapping it off the sides to blend again, but once the oils are releases it all comes together beautifully.  

I use the minimal amount of pecan nut butter as a fat replacement as possible. Partly because of the expense, but mainly because it is super rich and I don’t want it to dominate as a flavour over the mince meat. It’s not essential to use pecan nut butter. It will work with almond or cashew nut; I would avoid peanut butter though. And if you are nut-free, then try it with sunflower seed butter instead. 

This pastry comes together as any pastry would, but it bakes a little firmer and is somewhat solid. So please don’t expect to get a light and fluffy casing for your mince pies. It does however taste delicious. Plus, when it’s hard to find a pastry to eat, it somehow tastes even better! It also works just as well with gluten free flour, just make sure there’s a little xanthum gum in the mix to help it stay together.

So if you are struggling to find a pastry to meet your needs, or just fancy trying something a little different, then why not give this a go? If you do, don’t forget to let me know how you get on.

Pecan nut butter pastry mince pies (makes 7-8)

  • 125g wholemeal or gluten free flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons coconut sugar (optional but good)
  • 2 tablespoons pecan nut butter (or chosen alternative)
  • 5 tablespoons cold water
  • mincemeat to fill

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the coconut sugar. Add the pecan nut butter and lightly rub in with your finger tips until it’s incorporated and has a bread-crumb like texture.

Pour in 4 1/2 tablespoons of the water and bring together with your hands to form a soft dough. Add the final drops of water if required. Knead gently to make sure everything is well combined, then place in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. Roll the dough out on a silicon mat or sheet of greaseproof paper and cut out circles to fit whatever baking tin you’re using to make your mince pies. Place in the baking tray inserts and fill with mincemeat. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut out enough lids to top. Brush with soya milk and place on top of each of the pie bases. Press gently to seal and repeat until everything is used up. Cut a small hole in the centre of the pastry lids to let the steam escape and brush with a little more soya milk. 

Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn the tray and bake for another 5 minutes or so until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool. 

Christmas preparations

It’s that time of year again where we shop until we drop, and eat until we burst! Now we’re actually into December, my mind is turning towards Christmas cooking. I love all the seasonal flavours with warming spices, sharp pickles, rich nut dishes and crunchy greens.

Christmas can be challenging if you are a sensitive eater, or are cooking for someone who is. This is not the time of year to miss out! With this in mind, I’m going to be doing a series of blog posts to help you out at this time of year. All recipes are plant based and can be easily adapted to gluten free too.

To start you off, here are some links to existing posts from the last couple of years:

1) A useful nut roast. This is my go-to basic nut roast recipe, simple to make and delicious eaten cold on Boxing Day too. You can jazz it up with some more herbs, or put slices of tomato or mushroom in the middle. A firm favourite with us.
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/planning-christmas-dinner/

2) Tasty tarts! I made these last Christmas for one of my supper clubs and they went down a storm. Worth making if you want something a little more innovative than nut roast. Use your pastry of choice – I now make one with minimal fat and will be adding the recipe soon
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/christmas-chestnut-tartlets/

3) The ultimate red cabbage. Perfect for Christmas Day, everyone can eat it and it can be made a couple of days in advance if needed. What more could you want!
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/comforting-cabbage/

4) A lighter dish. When you’ve eaten so much and are looking for something a bit lighter, this fennel stuffed pepper hits the spot. Sumptuous flavours without the need for a post-dinner snooze, unless you want one of course!
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/thanks-delia/

5) Rich paté without the meat. This lentil and walnut paté will hit the taste spot for a Boxing Day spread and no-one will guess how easy it is to make.
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/amazingly-tasty-lentil-and-walnut-pate/

Finally, if you have a sensitivity to egg, dairy or fish, don’t forget to check that your booze. Many beers, wines and ciders use animal proteins in filtering the yeasty gunk from their products which will then linger in the final product. Check out this old blog post to find out more and I’ll be doing a little update with some recommendations – it’s a hard life testing these things out for you!
http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/milk-in-wine-surely-not/
Let the Christmas countdown begin!

Aquafaba asparagus and pea savoury mousse

Sometimes I feel really sorry for my friends who come to dinner, as they end up being guinea pigs for new recipe ideas or dishes, although I try to be careful not to scare anyone too much! Having invited a couple over recently, I found my mind wandering off on a creative menu tangent as I know they are quite up for trying different things. So much so that when I apologised for experimenting on them, they replied they would be disappointed if I didn’t. Now that’s good friends!

One of the things that I had been thinking about was how to make a dairy free plant based savoury mousse for a starter that was light and fluffy but still satisfying and, of course, packed full of flavour. My process for devising dishes is to first check how it’s made traditionally. This means getting out my trusted copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book. An 18th birthday present from my parents, it’s well used and loved, as this is how I learnt to cook. I pretty much failed cookery at school as I tended not to follow rules or recipes and made a mess – not much changed on that side of things! This trusted tome contains a few savoury mousse recipes. All contain gelatine, milk, cream and egg whites. Not much whole food and plant based there.

Next research tool is of course the internet. There are so many amazing ideas and recipes out there, but despite some time spent on google, I couldn’t find one that hit the spot. I have used aquafaba before (the brine from a tin of chickpeas in case you haven’t heard of this amazing fluid) and knew this should work as an egg white substitute, but all the mousse recipes were chocolate or fruit. So it was back to the traditional recipe, with plant based dairy free substitutes.

I figured the three main items that needed substituting were cream, egg whites and gelatine. We had the aquafaba for the egg white. For the cream I made cashew cream, although I guess any dairy free cream would work (there’s a few different ones you can buy like Alpro soya cream or Oatly oat cream). And for the gelatine there’s agar agar which works really well but always makes me stressed as I never think it will.

As you can see from the ingredients list, there’s not much more apart from that – it’s all in the method. I was relieved when the mousse set perfectly and plopped onto the plate holding it’s shape. And even if I say so myself, it tastes delicious as the asparagus and peas are the key flavours, not anything else.

So did my friends mind being experimented on? Well, the echoes of ‘mmm’s’ and empty plates said it all. So if you’re up for it, give this a go. It takes a little time as there’s a few different elements to pull together, especially if you’re making your own cashew cream, but it’s really worth it.

Aquafaba pea and asparagus mousse

Asparagus and pea savoury mousse (serves 6)
60ml aquafaba
250g asparagus
100g frozen peas
handful fresh mint, chopped
salt and white pepper
300ml cashew or other non-dairy cream
1 heaped teaspoon agar agar powder
First wash the asparagus and trim any woody ends off. Separate the tips from the stems and roughly chop both. Heat a little olive oil or water in the bottom of a pan and sauté the asparagus stems for a few minutes. Add in the frozen peas and a little water and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the asparagus tips and cook until soft. Leave to cool then pop in a blender with the dairy free cream, chopped mint and some salt and pepper, then blend until smooth. Check the flavour and add more seasoning or mint if you want.
Pour this luscious green mix into a clean saucepan, sprinkle the agar agar over the top and heat gently. Do not stir until the mix starts to slowly bubble, even though you really want to! Once simmering, whisk the mix gently for 5 minutes or so on a low heat until it starts to thicken and stick to the side of the pan. The heat needs to be low otherwise the cashew cream may catch on the bottom of the saucepan and burn. When the mixture coats the back of a spoon, turn off the heat and pour into a large bowl to cool, stirring from time to time.
If you haven’t already, drain the brine from a tin of chickpeas into a bowl Measure out 60ml and place into a medium sized mixing bowl. Whisk with an electric hand blender until strong white peaks are formed (the first time you do this, it blows your mind!) – this can take between 5 and 10 minutes. Grab your bowl of asparagus mix. Hopefully it should be cooler – it doesn’t need to be cold, just not steaming. Spoon in a couple of heaped tablespoons of fluffy aquafaba and stir in very carefully and lightly as you want to keep the air in it. Your mix will get a little more fluid. Add more aquafaba as you think is needed – I left a tablespoon out as my mix felt quite loose.
Place six moulds onto a baking tray. Spoon the mousse mix into the moulds, give them a tap then place in the fridge for at least 5 hours to set.
To serve, gently run a knife around the edge of the mousse in the mould and tip onto your serving plate of choice.

Christmas chestnut tartlets

I don’t know about you, but this year seems to have gone by so quickly! Christmas is nearly upon us once again. By now, most people have the decorations up, the presents bought (or maybe not!) and know who’s cooking that amazing festive feast on Christmas Day.I usually cook up a flavour-packed nut roast as my plant based alternative to turkey (see http://foodiesensitive.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/planning-christmas-dinner.html for a good basic recipe). Some may say it’s not the same, but a special feast is what you make of it, not necessarily what tradition dictates! If you so desire, there are some tasty meat-alternatives out there such as the Vegusto rustic roast (made with wheat protein) or Tofurky (wheat and soy protein), but they’re not my kind if thing, even before I went gluten free. Eating plant based and wholefood is about packing in real food, not processed products infused with a variety of chemicals.

This year though, I wanted to create something slightly different, something sumptuous and packed with Christmas flavours. And what’s more Christmassy than chestnuts and cranberries? So I put together this gorgeous little tartlet for my December supper club, and have to say am rather pleased with the results.

Chestnuts are an underrated nut! Lower in fat and higher in starches than most nuts, they are popular with those who believe that low fat, high carb is the way to lose shedloads of weight (remember Rosemary Conley’s Hip and Thigh diet??). Although this approach is no longer de rigueur and despite their low fat content, they’re still good sources of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, but also fibre, manganese and vitamins B and C.

Cranberries are well known for being good for bladder health, and dried can be as good as fresh, although some of the vitamin C is lost. The problem is that sugar is often added to make them more palatable, but a small amount is fine. Just try not to nibble the rest of the packet whilst you’re cooking!

The filling is also gluten free, so as long as you use gluten free pastry as well, then you’ve got a fully free from dish (unless someone has a nut allergy!). I’m currently experimenting with gluten free flours – with this dish, I’ve found a pastry made with brown rice flour works the best, but that’s another blog post!

So why not give this a go? It does take a little time, but can be made in advance then reheated when you’re ready, giving you more time to open presents and drink bubbles! Merry Christmas!

Chestnuts, cranberry and mushroom Christmas tartlets (makes 6)
1 portion shortcrust pastry (homemade, Just-rol, gluten free)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
260g chestnuts (I used 1 ½ packs of Merchant Gourmet whole chestnuts)
3 medium carrots, grated
2 teaspoons thyme
1 pack parsley, stems separated from leaves and finely chopped
3 tablespoons dried cranberries
200g chestnut mushrooms, finely chopped
tamari
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons dairy free cream cheese or non-dairy cream
To make the filling Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté the onion and thyme until the onion is soft (if it starts to stick, add a little water. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the carrot and chopped stems of the parsley, mix well and cook for another minute. Stir in the chestnuts and mushrooms and cook until the fluid from the mushrooms has evaporated. Add the cranberries, a few dashes of tamari and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the cranberries then add the cream cheese/non dairy cream and chopped parsley leaves and cook for another few minutes until it all comes together. Taste and add additional seasoning and tamari as needed.Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. Roll out your pastry of choice to about 1/2 cm. Place a tartlet tin on to the pastry and cut around it with a 1 ½ cm extra rim. Remove the tartlet tin and carefully pick up the cutout piece and flip it over into the tin. Press the pastry into fit, pinching any breaks together and trim the edges. Brush with some dairy free milk or a chickpea flour wash (mix a tablespoon of chickpea flour with some water to get a milk-like consistency). Repeat the process until all the pastry is used (should be enough for 6).  Place the tartlet tins on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 6 minutes.

Remove the pastry from the oven then fill with the mixture. Put the tartlets back into the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or so until the pastry feels firm and the top of the tartlets starts to brown slightly. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly so you can remove the tartlets from the tin without burning yourself and serve with all the Christmas veg. This works well with onion gravy with some redcurrant jelly stirred in, although I used homemade rosemary jelly – yum!

A wee bit of vegan haggis

It’s this time of year that anyone you know who is Scottish, or has some Scottish heritage, or just fancies a mighty fine feast on a cold winters night, celebrates Burn’s night. Held in memory of the poet, Robbie Burns, the evening has many traditions, including piping in the diners (if you happen to know anyone who plays the bagpipes of course!), drinking lots of whiskey and eating haggis.

When I was young, I used to think that haggis was a small furry animal, but actually its a mix of sheep offal mixed with onion, oats and spices, then stuffed in a sheep stomach and simmered in a pot for 3 hours. I have eaten it a couple of times in the past and its rich and seriously filling.

These days, however, being a plant based eater, haggis is generally off the menu, although vegetarian ones are sometimes available in the supermarket. On a recent trip to Edinburgh, however, we stopped at a fabulous vegetarian restaurant called Henderson’s and my husband chose a delicious haggis dish. In fact it was so good, he decided to recreate it at home for a birthday dinner party the other week. Served with mashed tatties and neeps, it was our own little plant based Burns night supper, super tasty and super healthy.

Once made up, the haggis mix does look a little grey and unappealing, despite it’s amazing flavour, and not having any plant versions of sausage skins to hand (are there any?) we decided to wrap it up in some filo pastry to create a haggis parcel. The contrast of the thin, crisp pastry and the soft, slightly claggy texture of the haggis worked fabulously.

Update 2018 – to make this gluten free, it’s delicious baked as it is without the filo pastry. Just pack the mix into a lightly greased pyrex bowl, cover it with foil and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 20 minutes, then leave to cool for a couple of minutes before tipping out and serving in chunky slices.

The combination of lentils, kidney beans, mushrooms and oatmeal means this dish is packed with protein and fibre, as well as magnesium, manganese and folate amongst other minerals and vitamins. Serve with mashed potatoes and swede for a nearly authentic plant based Burns night supper.

Vegan haggis (Henderson’s of Edinburgh recipe)
75g chopped mushrooms
75g brown lentils
50g porridge oats
50g cooked kidney beans, chopped
25g non-dairy spread (Vitalite/Pure)
150g grated carrots
150g onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon tamari
1 tablespoon garam masala
salt and pepper
1 packet of filo pastry sheets.
First, soak the brown lentils for 2-3 hours to soften them and soak the oats for 1 hour before you start. When you’re ready, heat the oil in a pan and sauté the onion until soft, followed by the garlic, garam masala and tamari. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain the lentils and add to the pan along with the grated carrot. Simmer on a low heat until the lentils are soft, stirring regularly to prevent sticking. You may need to add a little water to stop the mix drying out. Next add the mushrooms and cook until soft, followed with the kidney beans, the non-dairy spread and some more black pepper. Stir well to combine.

Finally, rinse and drain the oats and stir into the mix. This gives body to the haggis. If you are going to wrap your haggis in filo pastry, leave to cool. Otherwise, you can eat as it is.

Once the mixture is ready, lay out a sheet of filo pastry, leaving the rest covered with a damp tea towel so it doesn’t dry out. Pop a couple of spoonfuls of the haggis mix at one of the short ends of the pastry, fold up the sides and roll into a parcel, sealing the end with a bit of water. You could make square parcels if you prefer – it will still taste delicious! Repeat the process until all the pastry sheets are used up, lay out on lightly greased baking trays and brush the top with some non-dairy milk to help them brown. Pop into a pre-heated oven at 180oC and bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden and crisp.

Serve with mashed potatoes and turnips or swede and enjoy a great imitation of “the great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”!