Four top tips for the festive season

The Christmas season is nearly here. This time of year is significant in many ways with different religious and non-religious celebrations, but one thing that everyone tends to have in common is seasonal eating. It’s hard to avoid, with cakes, pastries and the odd stuffed turkey at every turn. So how to carry on eating a whole food plant-based diet and still enjoy those festive treats? Here’s four top tips to keep you keep feeling well.

1. Plan ahead. Thinking forward is essential if you want to ensure you have an enjoyable and stress-free celebration

For the Christmas work do – check out the menu in advance to see if there’s something suitable for you. If 
you’re not sure, have a look at the venue’s website as many publish an allergen menu to help you out. Still not clear? Then give the venue a ring and ask to speak to the chef to clarify. There may not be something on their standard menu, but most places will ensure there is a suitable dish available for you. Make sure you ask what that will be, otherwise you may end up with just a plate of vegetables, which can be very disappointing (unless that’s what you want!). If they can’t cater for you, it’s good to know so you can go somewhere else.

  • Christmas meals away from home – whether it’s your parents, the in-laws or friends, catering for your dietary needs on top of everything else can become rather stressful for the host if you’ve not discussed it in advance. If it’s easier, just take your own main dish and let them know how to make dishes dairy or gluten free and still delicious. Same goes for a party – offer to take something that’s you-friendly, or give them a simple recipe they could cook for you.
  • Christmas meals at home – easiest to do if you’re the cook. Adapt other standard dishes so you don’t end up cooking two of everything (as that’s no fun). For example, use dairy-free milk or cream and/or gluten free breadcrumbs if you’re making bread sauce. And add a glug of pressed flaxseed oil to the veggies instead of butter – not only delicious but healthy too!

2. Enjoying the odd tipple but take care with what you’re drinking – and keep it moderate, as an excess of alcohol can undo a lot of your hard work!

  • Wine – make sure the wine is vegan. Milk protein, egg white, fish guts are all used in the fining process and residues are left behind. If you have a yeast intolerance it’s best to avoid wine altogether, although generally champagne is OK as it’s double fermented. No cheap fizzy wine for you, only the best! And wine may include some healthy antioxidants, but consume by the glass rather than the bottle!
  • Beer – similar issues to wine. There are some fantastic organic local beers that are traditionally brewed, worth checking out.
  • Spirts – generally easier to avoid allergens but do keep an eye out for unexpected animal flavourings! Good news for Bailey’s lovers – Bailey’s Almonde, their dairy-free product, is now available in the UK but only at Wholefoods (ok if you live in London!) or on-line here I’ve not taste-tested it as yet (but will be getting a bottle to do so!). It’s also easy to make your own version – recipe out soon.

3. Eat those sprouts! Love them or hate them, Brussel sprouts are amazing bullets of nutrients that give you a much needed supply of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals.

  • Cooking method is key when it comes to sprouts. I love them steamed, but roasting them is even more delicious as the natural sugars caramelise and enhance the flavour.
  • Eat other colourful seasonal vegetables as well all over the festive season – nature always provides the nutrients we need at any time of the year. Oranges for vitamin C, pomegranates and red cabbage, all colourful rainbow foods that help us look and feel great.

4. Snack well so you don’t feel hungry, deprived or left out. Essential for feeling good and enjoying an evening out.

  • Chocolate – a small amount of quality chocolate delivers some magical phytonutrients and anti-oxidants. Make sure it’s dairy free and gluten free, plus keep an eye out for soya if you are sensitive to it. Booja-Booja and Plamils are two great sources of chocolate suitable for the sensitive eater. Or you can always make your own!
  • Nuts and other coated nibbles. If you’re at a party it’s hard to avoid nibbly snacks, but be careful as many flavoured snacks have milk, egg or gluten added, not to mention altered oils and refined sugar. Keep with what you know like plain nuts, crudite vegetables and hummus dips. I’ve had many evenings ruined by the wrong nibble!

The key to this time of year is enjoy yourself! If you slip and eat something you have banished from your diet, you’ll soon know. Hopefully it won’t make you feel too ill, but also it might make you realise how far you’ve come. Eating well with a whole food plant-based diet, the positive changes are gradual and sometimes unnoticed – it’s only when you slip back in to feeling how you used to that you realise how good you now feel. It’s a great incentive not to go that way again – now that is something to celebrate!

Tomato and roasted aubergine baked gnocchi

It’s been unseasonably wet and cold here in the UK – summer seems to have gone elsewhere and we’ve been fast forwarded to autumn. Fighting the urge to put the heating on, it seemed a good idea to turn to some comfort food, using one of my favourite seasonal veggies, aubergine (eggplant).

I am a big fan of aubergine for both flavour (or rather it’s ability to absorb it) and texture – I love how the flesh goes all gooey and soft when cooked but the skin stays firm. It’s packed full of nutritional goodies like  B vitamins and manganese, but more importantly it’s purple! That means glorious phytonutrients that act as anti-oxidants and support cell processes to keep us healthy. One specific one, nasunin, is thought to help protect the fats found in cell membranes from being damaged; this is particularly important in the brain, so aubergine really is brain food!

Two fat bulbous aubergines arrived in the veg box this week; my daughter is also finally home for the summer, so of course I’m smothering her in mummy-love via her stomach! So this dish is perfect as it contains many of her favourite things – gnocchi, aubergine and cashew cheese.

If you’ve not made cashew cheese sauce before, then it’s really worth it! We have given up buying dairy free cheese as, to be honest, they generally taste unpleasant and are packed full of altered fats and flavourings – not good for anyone with food intolerances as you just can’t tell what is in there! This recipe does contain nutritional yeast, although it can be omitted if you cannot tolerate it. As yeast is one of my food intolerances, this is quite a new (and welcome) introduction to my diet. Even though it contains inactive yeast, I can only tolerate a little from time to time, but that is progress! It adds a lovely cheesy flavour and acts as a source of vitamin B12 which can be lacking at times in a plant based diet. If you do omit it, just add a bit more salt to enhance the flavour.

This dish really hit the spot; it’s rich, it has depth and just ticks all the boxes for comfort. It also contains surprising few ingredients for the flavour – the richness comes from roasting the aubergine and garlic, as well as adding a little tamari (use coconut amines if you cannot tolerate soy). I confess I am yet to perfect the art of making home made gnocchi – mine turns into tough, heavy lumps – so I used shop bought. Make sure you check that it’s dairy free, as many brands add in milk powder, and doesn’t contain a huge long list of additives. There are some good gluten free ones around too in the supermarket, but again make sure they are completely plant based.

This is definitely a multi-tasking recipe – the gnocchi, roasting and sauce making can all go on at the same time so it doesn’t take all day to make! The recipe serves 3 good portions, just double if you’re cooking for more, or want left-overs – and you will because it’s just so tasty! Enjoy – and don’t forget to let me know how you get on!

Tomato and roasted aubergine gnocchi with cashew cheese sauce (serves 3)

1 large aubergine, cut into small chunks
1 clove of garlic
dash of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried Italian herbs
1 tablespoon tamari (or coconut amines)
500g gnocchi
For the cashew cheese sauce
80g/1/2 cup cashew nuts, soaked for minimum 1 hour
125ml/1/2 cup water
2 heaped tablespoon nutritional yeast
Himalayan salt
white pepper

Bring a large saucepan full of water to the boil, add the gnocchi and bring back to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes until it’s bobbing at the top of the pan, then drain well and transfer to a baking dish.

Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4. Cut the top off the bulb of garlic and peel off some, but not all of the outer layers. Place the chopped aubergine into a baking tin with the garlic bulb in the middle. Drizzle over a dash of olive oil, or water if preferred, and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until the aubergine is soft and gooey. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

Whilst the aubergine is cooking, heat a few tablespoons of water in the bottom of a saucepan and sauté the onion for a few minutes until it starts to soften – do not let it burn. Add more water if needed. Pour in the tomatoes, herbs, tamari and tomato puree, bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer with the lid off (this allows some of the fluid to evaporate and concentrates the flavour). Once the aubergine is roasted, add it to the pan. Careful cut the roasted bulb of garlic open and squeeze a few of the squidgy cloves into the sauce – I used four cloves to really enrich the flavour. Save any left over in the fridge for another recipe. Leave the sauce to simmer for a few more minutes whilst you prepare the cheese sauce.

Drain the soaked cashew nuts and place them in the bowl of a small blender. Add the remaining ingredients and blitz until smooth. Add more seasoning, nutritional yeast or water as need to get the flavour and a good pouring consistency.

Pour the tomato sauce over the gnocchi and stir carefully to combine. Spoon the cashew cheese sauce over the top and bake in the oven for 15 minutes until everything is piping hot and the sauce starts to brown. Serve with a green salad and a big smile!