Smoky Bonfire night baked beans

It’s Bonfire Night tomorrow, an evening of fireworks, sparkles, chilly feet and warming comfort food. Thinking about it, it seems a strange event to mark each year in our increasingly secular multicultural society – a day to commemorate the failure to blow up Parliament, a plot devised by Catholics against Protestants. Remarkably, it was actually illegal NOT to celebrate Bonfire Night up until 1959!

No matter what the historical background is, many of us still celebrate the events of 5th November in our own way. Now that my kids are pretty much independent, there’s no real excuse to set off our own fireworks, but I do love watching everyone’s displays. Although, after having been in India during Diwali, our fireworks are more damp squibs than the thunderous assault of noise and colour you experience there!

Bonfire night makes me think of food – thick comforting soup and piping hot baked potatoes always spring to mind, as do Boston beans. Traditionally made with fatty pork rind and thick molasses, my husband’s best friend made these beans for a couple of Bonfire nights we celebrated together in our early 20’s (along with lots of alcohol I seem to remember!). Deep smoky, rich flavours mixed with hearty beans, they were perfect for a cold winters night spent in the garden with colourful explosives.

Beans are of course a fantastic source of protein, fibre and micronutrients, and a staple in any diet, plant based or otherwise. Research has found they can help reduce the onset of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and that if more were included in everyone’s diet it would have a big impact on long term health.

So as it’s that time of year, I’ve made my own smoky baked beans, similar to Boston beans but of course plant based and animal free. Packed full of deep smoky flavours, you can make this on the cooker top, in the oven or in a slow cooker if you have one to hand. And if you have time, make it the day before so the flavours have a chance to develop. Serve on top of a crunchy skin baked potato with a good dollop of dairy free sour cream, this will keep you so warm and snuggly whilst you partake in our slightly odd historical celebration and enjoy the fireworks

Smoky beans stuffed potato
Smoky baked beans
400g tin of beans (flageolet are good)
1 small onion
1 large clove of garlic
500g carton of passata
1 heaped teaspoon smoked paprika
1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon red chilli powder
2 tablespoons coconut sugar
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
salt and pepper
coconut amines or tamari
If you are baking in the oven, pre-heat to 150ºC and use an oven proof pan like Le Crueset if you have it. If you are using a slow cooker, prepare in a saucepan and transfer to the pot at the oven stage of the recipe.
Finely dice the onion and garlic clove. Heat the pan and add a little water. Sauté the onion until it starts to soften. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour in the passata and stir in the spices, coconut sugar and vinegar and stir well to combine. Fill the passata carton with water and add to the pan. Stir in the beans then add salt and pepper plus tamari or coconut amines to taste (this provides a deep, umami flavour). Put the lid on the pan.
If you are using a slow cooker, pour the mix into the bowl, put on the lid and leave to cook for 6 -8 hours.
If you are cooking in the oven, now is the time to pop it in. If you are cooking on the hob, turn down the heat and simmer. For both the oven and hob, stir after an hour and add more water if it’s drying out. Do the same after 2 hours and check the flavour – your beans will be ready after about 2 1/2 hours. If you are making in advance, leave to cool then reheat gently.
Serve on pipping hot baked potatoes. Enjoy!

Original kedgeree

Every now and then my husband gets the urge to have a session in the kitchen. Apart from the inevitable mess, I love it when he’s inspired to try out something different – not only does it give me the night off, but it’s usually something he’s been thinking about for a while and researched within an inch of it’s life. Big contrast to my sudden inspiration, throwing things together to see what happens approach!

He’s been mainly plant based for over a year and a half now which is quite a surprise to both of us! Having gone for it, he’s quite happy not to go back eating to meat and dairy for now as it stops him from pigging out on pastries and burgers. There are a few things he misses though (thankfully beer is plant based). Oddly, one is kedgeree, something we rarely ate but obviously on his list of ‘foods I love’. So he decided to get researching to make a completely plant based version.

It didn’t take him long to discover the original version of kedgeree – kichiri, a simple Indian comfort food, traditionally given to those under the weather. Legend has it that kedgeree, which includes milk, fish and egg, was devised by Colonial Brits in India, then brought back to England, although according to Wikipedia, there is some contention that it appeared in Scotland in the 1700’s; the India connection remains intact though. When exactly a fish, rice and egg combo became a breakfast dish, I’m not so sure.

Kichiri is the perfectly balanced plant based dish. A mixture of rice, lentils and some super spices, it’s tasty, satisfying and remarkably moreish despite the simplicity. The lentils give it a little bit of texture and it’s aromatic rather than spiciness, so gentler on the palate.

Rice and lentils create the perfect plant based protein – both these lovelies contain the full range of essential amino acids. Even though it’s one of the top arguments detractors will come up with when you decide to go plant based, there’s no fear about missing out on protein as long as you eat a wide range of products. And of course wholegrain is best as more nutrients are retained. And lentils give you much more than just protein – they also have a wonderful dollop of fibre, manganese, iron and B vitamins amongst others.

A cucumber raita completes this dish perfectly – using dairy free yoghurt of course! You could get flashy and add make a little spicy tempering to go on the top – toasted cumin and mustard seeds with a couple of dried red chillis and some fresh curry leaves to finish. Lovely.

So why not give this a go and see what you think – is definitely different to kedgeree but still comfortably familiar!

Kichiri (serves 4)
160g green lentils
270g wholegrain basmati rice
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 onion, diced
1 inch piece fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
pinch of salt
1 litre water
couple of handfuls fresh coriander
Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pan and sauté the cumin and black mustard seeds until they start to pop. Add the onion and ginger and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring so it doesn’t burn. Add the carrot and red pepper and cook for another minute or so, then add the garlic, rice and lentils as well as the ground coriander, turmeric and salt and cook on a low heat stirring all the time. After a minute or so, carefully pour in the water, bring to the boil and pop on the lid. Turn the heat down low and cook for 15-20 minutes until the water has been absorbed and the lentils are tender. Turn off the heat, and leave to steam for a couple of minutes.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle fresh coriander over the top to serve. Enjoy!

Beautiful broad beans with olive tapenade

In my mind, broad beans are forever connected with my dad. When I was very young, the house we lived in had a big garden. We had the obligatory swing and slide, a cute little wooden wendy house for us to play in and a purpose built sand pit that the local cats just loved to use as their toilet of choice!

Dad claimed the top right hand corner for himself, and create three large strips for growing vegetables. I’m sure he grew many different types of produce, but the only one I remember is broad beans. His beans grew in abundance, and it seemed we had them as a vegetable every day. The problem was, I hated them! I tried to like them – after all, they were fresh and my dad had put a lot of effort into growing them, but they were just too bitter and unpalatable to an unappreciative six year old. So I chased them round the plate, tried to hide them in my lap and generally just whinged and moaned so much, my parents gave up. We moved the following year to a house with a smaller garden, so no more vegetable patch for dad, and no more broad beans for us.

It took years before I would eat the dreaded broad beans again. When I realised how beautiful and sweet they tasted once the tough outer layer was removed, I felt sad that we missed out enjoying the fruits of dad’s labour. And now I grow a few of my own veg, I also realise how much our moaning and complaining must have annoyed him!

Broad beans (otherwise known as fava beans) are packed full of flavour and fabulous nutrients, so they really are worth a try. For a start, they have loads of fibre that will keep your gut happy and healthy. They are also full of B vitamins, including folate which is an essential vitamin for cell growth and development, so perfect if you are pregnant, or planning to be. Along with the B’s, broad beans also have good amounts of minerals such as manganese, iron and magnesium and a fabulous dose of potassium. Broad beans are a good source of plant based protein too, so will help keep you full for longer.

Whilst you can buy them frozen, fresh beans are best, and although they are a little time consuming to prepare, it’s worth it. Buy juicy pods that are not too large and break them open to release the beans inside. Tiny ones don’t need the next layer removing, but in general pop your beans into a pan of boiling water to blanche for a minute or two, then drain and leave for a couple of minutes until they have cooled enough to be handled. Pinch off the outer skin to reveal the brilliant green pod within.

We had guests recently, and I served broad beans with olive tapenade as part of a tapas style meal. The strong, sharp flavours of the tapenade complements the gorgeous fragrant beans. It’s incredibly moreish, but unlike normal tapenade, this one has no added oil so is super healthy and guilt free, so you can eat it until your heart, and stomach, is content.

Why not give this a go one summer’s evening, along with some crunchy flat bread and a glass of something crisp and fresh? Cheers, dad!

Broad bean and olive tapenade (serves 4)
400g broad beans (shelled weight)
3 tablespoons pitted black olives
1 tablespoon capers
handful of chopped flat leafed parsley
handful of mint leaves, chopped
a few chives, chopped
1 small clove garlic, crushed
juice and zest of a lemon
Prepare the broad beans as mentioned above. Pop all the tapenade ingredients into a small blender and blitz for about 30 seconds – don’t over blend as you want texture, not mush. Season with some black pepper if required. Drop tapenade over the broad beans whilst they’re still warm to infuse the flavour. Can be served still warm, or cold.

Stew or soup – beans and kale do the job.

Having spent the last three autumns away from the UK in India, I had forgotten how suddenly the weather can change – even in the same day! We’ve had some beautiful sunny days recently, the low sunlight magnifying the stunning autumn hues. Vivid red, yellow and deep orange leaves have created a spectacular view. But now the temperature has suddenly dropped, and so have the leaves, almost overnight, the last few clinging on to stripped branches battling the bitter northern wind.

When it’s cold outside, it seems only natural to turn to comforting food to warm us up on the inside. This kale and bean soup is perfect for a cold November day; warm and tasty, it’s packed full of nutrients that really do feed the soul!

Kale is being hailed as the latest wonder food, and with good reason. Yet another one of those miracle-working cruciferous vegetables, it’s packed full of vitamin A and C, provides good amounts of calcium, iron, manganese and potassium, has a wide range of phyto-nutrients such as carotenoids, flavonoids and lutein, and a hefty dose of fibre. So basically, it’s really good for you! All these anti-oxidants help protect the body from a range of health problems. Kale also contains excellent amounts of tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids. Tryptophan is essential for the formation of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters in the brain that affects mood – so kale can make you feel good on so many fronts, and help battle those winter blues.

However, kale is not perfect for everyone and some people need to exercise caution. Kale also contain whopping amounts of vitamin K – this is involved in clotting and potentially could cause problems for people who take anti-coagulants such as warfrin. Kale also contains oxalates. Some people with kidney or gall bladder problems may have difficulty breaking it down and may lead to other health problems. But I guess it’s a question of how much you eat of it!

Kale does have pretty tough cell walls, so it needs a good chopping to get the nutrients going.
The other star in this dish – cannellini (or navy if you’re in the States) beans – are also wonderfully good for you, and brilliant for this kind of dish as they hold their form even when cooked for a long time and don’t go really mushy, although they do mash easily if you want a creamy texture. Low in fat, high in fibre, magnesium and B vitamins, these wholesome white beans are a brilliant ingredient to have in your store cupboard.

I first made this dish as a soup, adding in some cooked black rice afterwards to make it a mega hearty lunch. This worked so well, I realised dropping the fluid content would also make a wonderful creamy stew. I love finding a dairy free alternative for creaminess! The tomatoes give a fabulous contrasting texture, so don’t miss them out. The squeeze of lemon juice at the end it to help make the iron content more absorbable, but leave it out if it’s not your thing.

I served this as a stew on a bed of wholegrain rice, but a couple of chunks of beautifully crusty wholemeal bread would mop up the juices a treat! Maybe I need to make some soda bread to get a yeast free bread accompaniment…..
Autumn was made for dishes like this!!!

Cannellini bean and kale soup/stew
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
150g raw kale, washed and well chopped
1 courgette chopped
up to 500mls vegetable stock
1 400g tin of cannellini beans, well rinsed
2 fresh tomatoes cut into 8’s
1 teaspoon Italian herb seasoning
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and sauté the onion until its soft. Add the garlic and fry for a minute or so but don’t let it brown. Add the kale and sauté until it’s wilted slightly – a few minutes. Add the courgette and sauté for a minute. Now add 2/3rd of the beans, the tomatoes, herbs and seasoning and stir well.  This is the point you need to decide if you are having a soup or stew. For soup, pour in 350mls of the stock, for stew about 200 mls – enough to nearly cover the veg and beans. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Place the remaining cannellini beans and a good dash of the stock in a blender and blitz until smooth. Stir this mixture into the simmering pan – this thickens the sauce and gives it a creamy texture. Continue to simmer for another 15 minutes, adding in more stock if you need it.
Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice if you are using it, then ladle into a large bowl and feel hugged and warm from the inside!

Quinoa – being celebrated all year!

Did you know that quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-waa’ although I still think ‘quin-noah’ in my head!) is such a superfood that it even has it’s own year? The United Nations has decided that 2013 is the International Year of Quinoa, a celebration of the Andean people who have preserved traditional ways of cultivating this nutritious grain as well as it’s potential for alleviating poverty and food insecurity – not bad for such a tiny grain!

Quinoa has been the ‘in’ grain with the dieting fashionista for some time now, often used for gourmet markets only. But as more becomes known about the great nutritional properties of this unusual grain, it’s popularity is increasing and becoming more mainstream.

Although I’m calling it a grain, Quinoa is not actually a true cereal but more related to beets and spinach; the ‘grain’ is the plants seed. The leaves can also be eaten as a green, although these are not readily available on the international market. Nutritionally, quinoa really is a powerhouse of goodies, with fantastic levels of manganese, magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium. It’s high in fibre and low in fat and cholesterol. But what makes quinoa even better is that is the protein content; it is one of the few plant-based sources of complete amino acids as well as being gluten free.

As well as eating as a whole seed, quinoa can be ground into a flour and used to make bread, cakes, pasta, dumplings – the list continues. It’s great as a salad base, added to stews and soups and apparently can be used to brew beer!

Being suitable for practically any type of diet (it’s even considered kosher) or allergy, demand has been increasing, and therefore so has the price. This means that indigenous populations are finding it hard to buy (the price has tripled since 2006!), but equally farmers are able to make livable income which has a knock on effect, expanding the economy as a whole. Trials are underway elsewhere in the world to see if quinoa can be grown in different climates; after all, potatoes were once the staple of the Andean population, maybe quinoa can be too.

In my opinion, quinoa definitely has a place in a plant based wholefood diet. There are of course ecological aspects to take into consideration – air miles, farmer welfare etc – but when compared to the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry, they just don’t equate.
I love quinoa as a salad base; this one is called Sarah’s salad, after my lovely friend who first introduced it to me. It’s simple to make and packed with nutritional goodies. This recipe makes a big bowl – it stays fresh in the fridge for a few days but it’s easy to half if you don’t want to eat it every night. Enjoy!

Sarah’s Quinoa Salad
200g quinoa
4 grated carrots
couple of handfuls of chopped fresh herbs – parsley, mint or coriander
2 tbspns mixed seeds
2 tbspns flaked almonds
2 tbspns raisins or sultanas, soaked in boiling water
50mls of fresh orange juice
good glug of extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
First, cook the quinoa according to the packet instructions – I tend to do 3x weight of quinoa i.e.: 600mls in this case. Simmer for 15 minutes or so until the water has been absorbed and the grain soft but with a little ‘bite’. Drain any remaining cooking liquid and leave in the pan with the lid on to steam for a few minutes. Empty out into your serving bowl to cool off.
Meanwhile, grate the carrots, lightly toast the seeds, and soak the raisins or sultana for a few minutes so they plump up all fat and juicy. Once the seeds and quinoa are cool, drain the raisins and mix all the ingredients together, adding olive oil and seasoning to taste.

Eat your greens – they really are so good for you!

Remember growing up and being told to eat your greens? That they would make you grow big and strong? Well, it’s true! In fact, there’s been some research that shows that cruciferous vegetables contain unique sulphur containing compounds that convert to isothiocyanates (thankfully shortened to ITC!!), phytochemicals that have immune boosting, anti-cancer effects.

Cruciferous vegetables, so called because their flowers have 4 equally spaced petals that form a cross shape, include kale, cabbage, collard or spring greens, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, turnips, broccoli and watercress. The sulphur containing compounds are kept in the cell walls – this is what gives these veg a slightly pungent, bitter flavour. Clever scientists have discovered a complex chemical process which is triggered when these veg are chopped or chewed; the sulphurous compounds are released and mix with an enzyme forming the wonderfully dynamic ITCs.

So what do ITC’s do? Apparently there are 120, all different with different actions; combined together they have been found to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune boosting and anti-cancer, removing carcinogens and killing cancer cells. Broccoli, for example, can stop cancerous changes that occur within the cell, protecting it from DNA damage. Cruciferous veg fuels the bodies natural protective processes, turning on its internal defences. One study found that a 20% increase in green veg lead to a 40% decrease in cancer rates* – pretty good stuff!

Apart from fighting against cancer, these veg stimulate the immune system to help protect against viruses and bacterial infections, helps the cells to process toxins and waste, help prevent heart disease and generally reduces the general effects of ageing. No wonder we are told they are good for us!!
The enzyme that’s required to form ITCs is destroyed by heat, but ITCs themselves are not, so cruciferous vegetables are best chopped and blended first and either eaten raw (in a juice for example) or added chopped or pureed into stews, soups etc. Alternatively, veg like cabbage or broccoli  can be lightly steamed to keep as many goodies active as possible.

Of course, the veg also contain an array of other nutrients such as vitamin B, C, magnesium, iron, calcium, fibre – the list goes on! So they really are an amazing powerhouse of goodness. All these goodies aid the body to detox and heal, so great for overcoming food intolerances and allergies as well as other chronic diseases. When I was in India I had massive cravings for green vegetables, and even stir fried cauliflower leaves to satisfy them. Eating a minimum of 2 portions of cruciferous veg a day is recommended which is pretty easy if you have access to a wide variety of produce, not so easy if it means eating cabbage every day!! Mind you, there are lots of ways to eat cabbage….. And in the days things that shouldn’t be eaten, isn’t it great to have something we can eat more of!

A bag of Swiss Chard turned up in my veg box last week, one type of cruciferous veg. Chard has a deep, earthy flavour and works well with garlic, tomato and lemon. So I threw together this dish and it tasted rather wonderful – a hearty, warming weekday supper.

Swiss Chard and white bean stew(ish)
300g (or so) swiss chard, wash and roughly chopped
1 onion sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil or veg stock
2-3 cloves garlic chopped
1 tomato sliced
1 400g tin cannelloni or flageolet beans rinsed and drained
lemon juice
salt and pepper
Heat the oil or veg stock (if you’re wanting a fat free dish) in a pan and fry the onion on a low heat until it’s soft. Add the garlic for a minute, stirring so it doesn’t burn. Throw in the swiss chard, adding a little more veg stock if necessary, and cook for a few minutes until it starts to soften. Add the tomato and then the beans, and cook for a couple more minutes. Turn off the heat, add lemon juice and seasoning to taste and serve with mash or warm bread (or toasted flat bread if you’re yeast intolerant). Simple, healthy and delicious, all in one!!

* Michaud, D et al (1999). Fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of bladder cancer in a male prospective cohort. J Nat. Cancer Institute 91(7).

No dairy, no calcium?

We are taught from an early age that milk is an essential part of our diet. If we drink lots of it, we grow up big and strong. Without it, we will have weak bones and teeth. Milk and dairy products are the best source of dietary calcium, as well as other essential nutrients – this is the message put out by dairy producers and successive governments.

So being dairy intolerant, how do I get enough calcium? This was a big concern form me when I first cut dairy from my diet. What I’ve come to realise is that eating a wholefood plant based diet, it’s easy to consume fantastic amounts of easily absorbed calcium to keep my bones and teeth healthy and strong, maybe even better than dairy.

Although the marketing says otherwise, cow’s milk is not the best dietary source of calcium. For example, it has about a 10th of the calcium levels as sesame seeds and only 30% of the calcium in milk is absorbed by the human gut, whereas with seeds and nuts it’s much higher.

So where do I get my dietary calcium from? Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are the best source. 100g of watercress contains 151mg of calcium, compared to 120mg in the equivalent of milk. Oats, beans, chickpeas (there they are again!) and tofu also all have good amounts, so it’s really not too hard to reach the recommended daily intake of calcium of 800mg. A large green salad has as much calcium as a glass of milk, plus it’s well absorbed (as long as there’s not too much spinach in it, as this can block calcium absorption). A bowl of porridge made with rolled oats has 100mg of calcium – add some fortified soya milk and some dried figs, and it’s getting up to half your daily dose, just in one bowl!

As a relatively fit and healthy woman in her mid 40’s, I don’t have to worry too much at the moment about my bone health, but in 10 years time or so, once the menopause has hit big stylie, then calcium becomes more of an issue. Osteoporosis is a massive problem in the western world, and dairy is promoted as a necessity to keep bones healthy. However, it seems that maybe dairy might be part of the problem. Countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest number of people with osteoporosis – something to discuss another day.

Sesame seeds really are an incredible source of calcium – there is a fabulous 975mg in just 100g. However, being so tiny, that’s a lot of seeds to consume in one day! By incorporating them into a wholefood diet, it’s pretty easy. Being a hummus addict, I get a good dollop of sesame in the tahini, one of the key hummus ingredients. They can be added to cereals, baking, salads, stews and used in lots of Asian dishes. Sesame can be an allergen for some though, so it’s not for everyone which is a shame, as it’s also an amazing source of iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc. Quite something for such a tiny seed.
I have found an amazing ‘bread’ stick for dipping that not only tastes amazing (almost cheesy without the cheese) but is gluten free and contains calcium boosting sesame and chickpea all in one. Use it to dip in some hummus or other tahini containing dip, and your bones will be just zinging with strength and happiness!

Chickpea and sesame dipper sticks
1 cup chickpea flour (gram/besan/garbanzo)
3 tbspoon sesame seeds
1/2 tspoon salt
2 tbspoon fresh lemon thyme
1 tspoon olive/sesame oil
up to 1/4 cup water
Heat the oven to 180oC. You can toast your sesame seeds if you like to bring out the flavour, but the sticks work just as well untoasted.
Place the flour, sesame seeds, salt and thyme into a bowl and mix together. Stir in the oil then add the water a little at a time, stirring all the time, until you get a good supple dough. Knead for a couple of minutes until all the ingredients are incorporated, adding a little more flour if it gets a bit sticky. Flatten the dough into a disk, then place on a sheet of baking paper. Place another sheet on top and roll out until the dough is really thin – 3-5 mm if possible. Carefully peel off the top layer, leaving the dough on the bottom layer, and slice the dough into sticks with a knife. Prick each stick with a fork a few times so it doesn’t puff up when cooking. Place the dough and the baking paper underneath onto a baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or so but check after 10 –  you want a golden brown top. Too light and the sticks are not crispy, too browned and they’re a bit hard on your teeth! Once ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool. Then break up the sticks where you have previously cut them and they’re ready to eat. Happy dipping!
NB: these sticks soften after a few hours, so are best eaten soon after cooking. If you have any left over, leave out in the kitchen, not in a plastic tub, or they will sadly go soft.


TGIF – totally great information on food and an Estofado recipe

Life is just so busy at the moment, it’s hard to find time to blog. Our shipping still hasn’t arrived back either, so I’m missing the computer as well as all my cookery books and paraphanalia.

Although I’ve not been writing as much, I have been cooking! Being back in the UK, I feel like I’m discovering a whole new range of products again. It’s amazing how things have changed in just under three years. And how much things cost!

One of the great things I’ve noticed is how much awareness of food allergies and sensitivities has increased, as well as recognition of different diet choices. The range of products on a menu may still be limited (unless it’s a vegan restaurant!) but it seems much easier to order food that’s not going to create problems a few hours later. For example, I visited TGI Friday’s yesterday with the kids, and they have a special menu for people with allergies, mainly gluten and lactose. Our waitress was so helpful, and not only told us about this menu (you need to ask for it) but got the kitchen to serve our nachos in a way that it was half with cheese and sour cream, and half plain near to the guocomole. And they happily swapped bits around so we had a meal we could all enjoy without worrying what was in it. And there’s more information on their website too that takes the guess work out of  how to avoid intolerances.

The recession, and the general need for people to reduce their household expenditure has also increased the popularity of vegetarian food, with food magazines and programmes jumping on the bandwagon. Generally, vegetarian food is cheaper than  meat based, as long as it’s made from scratch rather than just another ready meal, over processed and full of sugar and salt..And campaigns like Meat Free Monday, which promotes the environmental benefits of a plant based diet, not just the financial, is gaining more support.

This is good news for those who eat a wholefood plant based diet, or have to avoid certain foods like dairy. I love reading food magazines and articles, but so often the recipes are packed full of items that are a no no. One of my favourites is the Obeserver Food Monthly; a couple of weeks ago I excitedly bought my first issue for some time. The theme was cooking on a budget. One article challenged top chefs to come up with a family meal for under £5.00. There were some interesting suggestions in there, including a mouthwatering dahl, but the one that caught my eye was this vegetarian estofado.

Estofado is Spanish for stew (so the internet tells me!), or slow cooked food. This dish doesn’t really take much time to cook and the flavour develops well. The outstanding surprise was the amount of garlic – a whole bulb! I have to say that it does give you serious garlic breath, but it’s what gives this stew a deep, rustic flavour.

Nutritionally, it has just about everything you could ask for – protein in the chickpeas, beta carotene and vitamin C in the pumpkin, folates and other B vitamins in the spinach and omega 3 fats in the walnuts, as well as the healthy heart properties of the garlic. Unless you have a nut allergy, there’s not much in there to upset any sensitive eaters, and it passed the kids test with flying colours (I did cut down on the garlic a bit!!). Serve this with some rustic wholemeal crusty bread, or wholegrain rice, and you have a fabulous tasty and cheap dinner.

Chickpea, pumpkin, spinach and walnut estofado (recipe by Jose Pizarro) 1 small onion
1 bulb garlic
1 tbspoon olive oil
400g tin chopped tomatoes
800g of pumpkin or squash flesh, chopped into 2.5cm pieces
800mls vegetable stock
400g tin chickpeas, drained
1 bag baby spinach
50g walnuts roughly chopped
Chop the onion and garlic. Heat the oil in the base of a large pan and sizzle the onion and garlic for a few minutes, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn. Add the tinned tomatoes and fry off the excess juice gently. Once reduced, add the pumpkin and vegetable stock, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender. Add the chickpeas and seasoning, and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Most of the fluid should have evaporated by now. Just before serving, stir in the spinach and heat through for a couple of minutes until it’s wilted. Serve out into dishes and scatter the walnuts over the top. Enjoy!

Fabulous Falafels

I may have mentioned it before – I love chickpeas! An amazingly versatile pulse, chickpeas can be used in so many different dishes, starring in it’s own right or as a replacement for something less healthy. They can be served whole, mashed, blended or ground, absorb other flavours or stand out with their own deep, rustic taste. Dairy free and free from most things people tend to be allergic or intolerant to, chickpeas are packed with nutrients, protein and fibre.

Also known a garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a great protein source for people eating a plant based wholefood diet, or just trying to cut down on their meat intake. Low in fat (and cholesterol free), chickpeas are 23% protein, that’s better than many meat products. It is however, not a complete protein, low in one of the essential amino acids. To counterbalance this, however, they can be combined with whole wheat or rice to create a complete protein packed meal, without all the added extras found with meat – saturated fat, cholesterol, antibiotics etc.

Falafels are one off my favourite chickpea dishes. So simple to make, these small patties are a taste sensation, packed with flavour and healthy goodies. My kids love them too, and they make a great mid week meal combined with wholewheat pitta breads (or flatbread) and salad. Before we moved to India, I always used to buy ready made falafels. Once in India, there were no falafels to be seen so I made my own. And once I realised quite how easy they are, ready made ones just don’t quite seem the same any more!

Flavouring is the key to a good falafel – the spices should be tasted but not overpowering and they really do need salt. If you have a gluten intolerance, then chickpea flour works brilliantly instead of wholewheat flour, if you can find it. Called gram or besan flour in India it’s supposed to be quite easy to make by grinding dried chickpeas in food processer. I’ve not tried it yet myself as it was available in every grocery store in India; I’m hoping to find it in an Asian grocery store now we’re back in the UK. The falafel mix needs to be quite dry, so you may need to add a little more flour during processing. I use fresh coriander as well as dried, but you can use parsley if it’s easier to find, but it gives it a different flavour.

My falafels always end up a bit flat as I shallow fry them in a small amount of oil. Round falafels have to be deep fried, and so of course end up with a higher fat content.

Fabulous falafels
350g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight or a 410g tin.
1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of fresh coriander, including stems roughly chopped
1 tspoon ground cumin
1 tspoon ground coriander
1/2 tspoon chilli powder
2 tablespoon wholewheat flour
salt to taste
2 tablespoons of oil
If you have soaked chickpeas, cook them in a pressure cooker for about 4 whistles. Leave to cool.
Drain chickpeas (cooked or tinned) and dry off with kitchen roll. Place in a food processor with all the other ingredients except for the oil and blend until smooth(ish) – if you like texture, or more rustic falafels, don’t over blend. Coat hands with flour, take out a spoonful of mixture and form into a round, flatish pattie. Put on a plate. This amount makes around 12 balls. Cover the plate with clingfilm and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or so, or until you’re ready to cook them.
To cook, heat the oil in a large frying pan or skillet and fry the falafels on both sides until brown. I tend to cook on a higher heat to start, then lower the flame to allow the falafel to cook all the way through. Serve straight away in warmed pitta bread with mayo and salad. Enjoy!