Creamy leek and mushrooms bakes

One of the things I really missed when I changed to a dairy-free, whole food way of eating was creamy sauces, especially the type used for pie. At first, I didn’t know how to create that sumptuous richness and depth without using a whole load of dairy or fats.

After lots of trial and error, I have to say this is my favourite – a delicious leek and mushroom creamy sauce made with a combination of soaked cashew nuts and silken tofu that gives the right balance of lightness and creaminess. And the white wine helps as well!

One of the difficulties with food intolerances is that one recipe doesn’t always work for everyone. I strive to make my recipes flexible for everyone, so if you’re nut-free, just use all tofu, if you are soy-free, just use all nut but add more water. If you are yeast-free, then I’m sorry the wine is out – replace the fluid with a good quality vegetable stock instead. If you are nightshade free, try celeriac slices on top instead. And if you don’t like mushroom, or leek, then use your veggies of choice. Sorted!

This may seem like there’s lots to do, but time-wise this will take you about 40 minutes in total, so why not give it a go and indulge in some super-tasty creaminess for dinner this week? Enjoy.

Creamy leek and mushroom bakes (serves 3-4)
3 medim sized potatoes, washed, skin on
2 good sized leeks, washed and sliced
250g mushrooms, washed and sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
100ml white wine (make sure it’s vegan if you are dairy/egg/fish free)
100g tofu
50g cashew nuts, soaked for a couple of hours
salt and pepper

First cut the potatoes in half, place in a pan of boiling water and cook until you can just about put a knife through them. Drain and leave to cool. Once cool enough to handle, cut into thin slices.

Whilst the potatoes are cooking, pre-heat the oven to 180ºC, then heat a couple of tablespoons of water or a teaspoon of olive oil in the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan and sauté the leeks for 3-4 minutes until they start to soften and brown slightly. Add the mushrooms and garlic, and cook for a few minutes until the juices flow out the mushrooms. Stir in the thyme and pour over the wine. Let this simmer for a couple of minutes.

Drain the soaked cashew nuts and place in a blender with just enough water to cover and the tofu. Blend to smooth then pour into the pan and stir to combine. The sauce will thicken as it heats through. Season with salt and pepper.

Once the sauce starts the stick to the side of the pan, turn off the heat and pour into one large serving dish or 3 individual ones. Cover with the potato slices, making a pattern if you so wish. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned on top. Serve with a selection of green vegetables.


Top tips for a healthy start to the year

It’s day two of the New Year. How are your resolutions going? You may be of the opinion it’s not worth making any as they are doomed to fail, right? Wrong! Apparently, new research suggests that 44% of people manage to stick with their resolutions six months into the year. That may not seem a lot, but as the previously generally accepted statistic is that only 8% stick to their good intentions, with many failing within the first 24 hours, that’s a major breakthrough!

A top New Year’s resolution is to eat more healthily, whether to lose weight or for a health problem. Membership for slimming groups and gyms rocket at this time of the year – great for their business plans, maybe not so good for their clientele in the long term. According to one research programme, 84% of dieters with a well known dieting club were return customers over a 5 year period (ie only 16% successfully kept their weight off over 5 years).

Diets for weight loss tend to be viewed as a short-term venture; many people slip back into their old ways of eating, only to pile the pounds back on at a scarily rapid rate. Real success comes from changing life-long habits, and (I believe most importantly) from eating delicious food that satisfies and cares for the body.

Before I discovered my food intolerances and changed to a whole-food plant-based way of eating, I was forever ‘on a diet’. Now I don’t have to be, as it turns out that the foods I used to love and crave, were also the ones that contributed to my weight gain. Dairy and yeast turn up in so many different food products; once I cut them out and started eating more fresh produce and wholegrains, the weight just naturally came off, and whilst there is a little fluctuation now and then, I generally stay the same. It’s a great side effect to have – along with reducing my risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health problems! And plant-based eating is also a positive way to manage my autoimmune condition.

That’s not to say the journey has been easy – my transition to a whole food plant-based diet took some time. You only have to look back on some of my earlier blog posts to see how my recipes have changed! There’s also been some major changes over the last five years in the acceptability and availability of plant-based food, which is amazing and makes life much easier. But these changes also include an increase in vegan processed food; junk food is not going to get you healthy, no matter where it’s sourced.

So if you’re starting out on making some healthy choices for the new year, here’s a few questions to ask yourself so you can succeed and keep your resolution intact. Tomorrow, I will post my top 5 tips for eating well and helping you reach your goal. If you want to know more, or think I can help you keep your resolutions this year, then why not comment below or send me a message on the contact page here.

Questions to think about:

  1. Is this the right time of year to make major changes? The beginning of January is not always the best time to ‘go on a diet’. It’s cold, wet and dark for a start, not ideal particularly if you are planning to try juice or raw food plan (not that I’m keen on them any time of the year!). Personally, my New Years resolutions start on 6th January as it’s my birthday on 5th and am more than likely to eat out and enjoy a glass of something bubbly! So there’s no point in starting something before then. Recognise challenges and limitations and be ready for them. That’s not an excuse not to take action at all, though. It’s about being aware and making constructive choices. One of the benefits of eating a whole-food plant-based diet is that you are eating amazingly healthy food all year round, so there’s no real need for a new healthy regime anyway!
  2. Are you an all or nothing person? Know yourself. Some people can only set out with strict parameters and an all-in attitude, whilst others think they should be that way but are more suited to gradual changes. Be honest with yourself and find what works for you. This is a new way of eating and living, not a short-term project. Recognise your personality tendencies and work with them, not against them.
  3. What’s your ‘why’? This is most important. Whether you are making changes to deal with a food intolerance, a health or weight problem, to help the environment or animal welfare, or just because ‘going vegan’ is the in thing to do, you need to know your goal to get you through the tricky times. It doesn’t have to be high brow – my initial aim for going plant-based was to deal with my yeast intolerance so I could drink wine again! It may seem superficial, but it helped when temptation loomed.
  4. What support do you need to achieve your goal? If you’re diving in to a plant-based way, campaigns like Veganuary may be your inspiration, or you may find a favourite blog or cookery book, follow a Youtuber or Instagrammer. Then there’s courses and groups you can join (like my Eat Well course!). Most importantly, you need the support from the people around you, your family and friends. That’s why you need to know your why, so you can explain it to them and get them behind you.
  5. Are you prepared for obstacles? This links back to your why, but it’s also a practical issue. Despite the increase in interest in a more plant-based way of eating, it is still seen as being a fad, unsustainable or even dangerous to health (depending on which commercial interest is being challenged). It can be hard to find something quick to snack on when you’re out and about. Medical professionals may not be aware of the benefits. Family members may see it as a slight on them if you won’t eat the meal they’ve prepared for you, even if you’ve told them it will make you ill. Food is a contentious issue! Then theres your own internal obstacles, negative self-talk or deep-seated cravings that nag and tell you that just one cream bun won’t hurt. Obstacles will appear, particularly when you don’t expect them, and sometimes you may lapse. Don’t give yourself a hard time if you do. Just notice what happened and try to act differently next time. You may even find that eating something you’re trying to avoid doesn’t actually feel so good – that’s your body telling you it prefers the good stuff. It knows best, trust me.


Learning and teaching enthusiastically

When I started eating a dairy and yeast free diet 7 years ago, it was really tough! For a start, trying to get my family and friends to stop fretting about my food choices was hard, and cooking food that kept everyone happy was a challenge. I was starting from scratch with many recipes, trying to work out how to adapt them successfully (there were more than a few failures, that’s for sure!). And as for eating out, well that was like being in an episode of Fawlty Towers at time, without the canned laughter and funny bits.

Then just to make it even more complicated, we moved to India, where many of the ‘free from’ itemswe relied on were not available, and finally going mainly plant based, which really freaked some people out. Never knowingly normal!

I’ve learnt a lot on my food journey, and continue to learn all the time, and indeed still making changes – you may have noticed more gluten free recipes appearing recently. There’s been a few mistakes, some frustration and the odd tantrum (whose, I’m not saying!). But I don’t regret it, and I don’t even miss my old favourite foods any more, as I have loads of new favourites instead, that don’t leave me unwell or in pain. Plus there’s so many ‘side-benefits’ to eating a whole food plant based diet, like glowing skin and hair, and effortless weight loss. There’s continual discovery and experimentation going on in my kitchen, less cookery rules to follow and a budding array of new restaurants and cafes to visit, as suddenly eating plant based is ‘in’.

One of the things I love about my journey, is sharing the benefits with other people so they can start their own healthy food adventure, only with less hiccups – that is why I created my Eat Well, Live Well course. Packed full of the valuable information, short cuts and tips I have learnt over the last few years, I just love seeing others become enthused and enjoying the changes in their own lives, or someone close to them. And because it’s not just about learning information, but enjoyment too, Ialways include a full lunch (or supper) as part of each session, and provide a full recipe folder of over 60 dishes to follow. In fact, one recent participant only cooks from my folder, which is quite a compliment.

Covering diverse subjects like nutrition 101, social norms, how to bake amazing cakes and gut bacteria, the Eat Well, Live Well course is a 5 week spring board into never looking at food the same way again. The next cohort starts this week in Hove on Thursday 9th June, so time is short to get on board before the summer break – email me if you want to join us If you can’t come along and join the fun this time, there’ll be other opportunities, including an on-line version that should be available from September. Exciting times!

What to do when craving a toasted teacake!

I’ve been eating a plant based whole food diet for a few years now; before that I was dairy and yeast free. It was challenging at first, especially when my mind kept telling me I really needed to eat cakes and cheese, or anything processed and refined!

Refined sugars and fat are pretty addictive, particularly when put together. Think sugar and cream. If you eat them separately, you can only manage a small amount – the sugar sticks to your mouth, the cream is bland but sickly. Put together and chilled, you get ice cream. Eating loads of that is no problem! Our bodies are programmed to want sugar and fat as in the distant past, they were hard to come by and humans had to stock up to get through long, hard winters.

These days, we have an over abundance of food, so there’s no need for our bodies to stockpile. But we still do; the explosion in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health problems in the last few decades is the consequence. Evolution of our brain and body has not caught up with the revolution in the food industry. And refined foods such as ready meals or junk food are packed full of fat and sugar, so your brain tells you to go back for more (clever food scientists!).

Over time, my body has detoxed itself from the junk and the cravings have pretty much subsided. I no longer sigh heavily if someone makes a cheese sandwich, or have to sniff a gorgeously cream laden chocolate pudding. I do, of course, indulge on occasion, enjoying a beautifully light dairy free cake or two from time to time, but I don’t get that urge to keep eating it, which is a relief for my waistline and my health!

Occasionally, though, a random craving does appear out of the blue. Recently, it was for toasted teacakes.

I have no idea what triggered it, but one day I suddenly recalled eating delicious hot buttered toasted teacakes at my in-laws hotel in Devon. We had been out for a brisk walk on the coast and came back freezing cold. Sneaking into the kitchen for a hot chocolate, we found a new pack of teacakes so popped one into the toaster. The aroma soon spread through into the bar, and suddenly guests started to order them too. The pack was soon empty. That gorgeous cinnamon and raisin aroma was just too good to resist.

Once this memory had popped in my mind, all I could think about was toasted teacakes, but being dairy and yeast free, there’s none I can buy. So after searching for a recipe, I made an alternative – a cinnamon and raisin loaf. Each slice can be toasted and covered in non-dairy spread (if desired) and tastes rather marvellous. Of course, I’ve made it as healthy as possible, with wholewheat flour and only a small amount of unrefined coconut sugar. And when toasting, those gorgeous aromas are released, so be warned, others will want some too!

Cinnamon and raisin loaf (adapted from ‘A Bit of the Good Stuff’ recipe)
400g light wholemeal self raising flour (I used Marriages Organic Light Wholemeal)
or gluten free self raising
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
300mls dairy free milk
squeeze lemon juice
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
good pinch nutmeg
150g raisins
4 tablespoons of coconut sugar
Preheat the oven to 200oC. Lightly grease a 2lb loaf tin. Pour the non-dairy milk into a bowl and squeeze in the lemon. Put to one side (this helps it curdle slightly).
Place the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg into a bowl and mix together. Add the coconut sugar and raisins and mix again. Pour in most of the milk and stir to create a sticky dough. Add the remaining milk if needed. Place the dough into the tin, and tap on the work top to release the air bubbles. Smooth the top level and place in the oven. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes, then check to see if it is cooked by inserting a cocktail stick into the cake – if it come out clean, it’s done. If not, cook for a few more minutes until it’s done (it could take up to 45 minutes in total, depending on your oven). Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes. Tip out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.
When you are ready, cut slices and pop in the toaster. Let those enticing aromas hit your nostrils and enjoy it piping hot and delicious!

Gorgeous Dairy Free “Boursin”

I keep searching the ‘free from’ and health food shop shelves for a decent ready made cheese alternative, and as yet have failed to find one that works on both taste and texture. So many have a dodgy after tang or a seemingly never ending list of ingredients that I just don’t want to try. There really isn’t any point in trying to eat a healthy free from diet if a product is loaded with additives and preservatives. And since I found out about citric acid and how natural flavours and colours are created there really isn’t anything on the market that I can actually eat!

Recently, I had some friends round for dinner and wanted to give them an inspiring, flavourful plant-based, whole food meal. Whilst in India I attended a number of cooking demonstrations with Dr Nandita Shah from SHARAN; browsing through some of my notes, I came across a vegan boursin recipe that I had forgotten about with “delicious” scribbled next to it. My mouth started to water at the memory so I just had to make it – and I’m so glad I did, as my guests appeared to enjoy it just as much as I did!

Although there is a little soaking time, this is really easy to make and is really adaptable. It’s gorgeous raw and can be used as a dip, dressing or baked potato filling. It works equally well cooked and even browns a little so you get that crispy crunch that I really miss from baked cheese (the crunchy bits on macaroni cheese are always the best!). So either use it stirred in to pasta, as a pizza cheese topping or a savoury sauce. The key is the flavour balance – you want enough garlic to give flavour without overwhelming it, and a nice selection of herbs to complement each other. And it needs quite a lot of salt, certainly more than I would use normally in cooking, to bring it alive, so it’s important to taste as you go.

This dairy free ‘boursin’ is gorgeous stuffed into some button mushrooms and baked in the oven – the mushroom juices and texture complement the salty filling; the flavours just make your mouth sing! Much better than any alternatives I’ve found on a supermarket shelf.

Dairy free ‘Boursin’
200g silken tofu
200g cashew nuts, soaked for a minimum of 2 hours
1 tsp finely minced garlic
1 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chives, tarragon, basil etc)
1 – 2 tsps salt
freshly ground pepper
1 tsp fresh lemon/lime juice
First, drain the cashew nuts and discard the soaking water. Place cashews in a food processor or grinder and blitz to get a smooth paste – you may need to add up to 1/3 cup of water, but don’t add too much otherwise your boursin will be too runny. Once your cashew nut paste is smooth, add the tofu, salt and garlic and blend until well mixed and smooth. Transfer the mixture into a bowl and carefully stir in your fresh herbs, juice and season with black pepper. Check your flavours and add in more salt or pepper as needed.
To make the boursin baked mushrooms, simply wash a handful of button mushrooms and remove the stems. Place a teaspoon of the mixture in the centre and bake in the oven for 15 minutes or so until the mushroom has softened and the boursin has browned on the top. Gorgeous!!

Yeast-free challenges

The best way to overcome food intolerances is to remove them from your diet for a period of time, then slowly reintroduce them one by one and monitor the effects. I have an intolerance to both dairy and yeast, and have tried to eradicate them from my diet.

Dairy appears in different forms in many processed foods, but there are good alternatives, and as a recognised allergen, food packaging is pretty helpful.  Yeast, however, is rarely highlighted. On the surface, it should be pretty easy to avoid – cut out bread and doughnuts, wine, beer and cider. Apart from cider, I used to enjoy all these things with great gusto, but I’ve learnt to manage without, although its so tempting at times, especially wine and bread when you’re on holiday in France!

Recently though, I realised I pay more attention to avoiding dairy than yeast, even though I know it’s a big issue. Dairy gives me terrible head and neck aches that easily develop into migraines if not caught early enough. Yeast has a more insidious effect, gradually building up producing a multitude of seemingly random effects including restless legs, fatigue, headaches (different ones), itchy skin, dry eyes and (to the family’s delight!) terrible bloating and wind! It’s not going to kill me but it makes me feel so grotty at times, it really does have a negative effect on my life.

We all have various yeasts and bacteria in our bodies; our guts are alive with its own little eco-system that helps to keep our bodies healthy and balanced. Problems start, though, if that balance is upset; the not so friendly bacteria can start taking over and yeast becomes overgrown, eventually working it’s way into the gut lining and allowing undigested food proteins and bacteria to seep through into the blood stream. This can lead to food allergies, amongst a long list of other problems. To get rampant yeast under control, it needs to be avoided food wise, the over growth eradicated and the gut eco-system restored to a healthy balance.

So step one, avoiding yeast, is easier said than done. It is more than just leaving out the bread and wine. For a start, yeast is a mould, so moulds in general need to be avoided. Not that I have a habit of eating mouldy food, or not obviously mouldy anyway, but it appears in many places, including anything fermented.

This includes ingredients such as soy sauce, over ripe or dried fruit, vinegars of all kinds, miso and malted anything.  Then there’s stock cubes, Marmite (yuck!), pickle, mayonnaise – the list goes on!
Now I’ve tried to avoid many of these for some time now; some of the nasty effects from yeast have subsided, but some have not and others just keep reappearing.

So I decided to look into yeast and moulds in food a little bit more, and it didn’t take long to make a huge, and rather disappointing discovery. Many of the ‘natural’ food flavourings and preservatives found in processed foods are made from cultured yeasts and moulds! The particular one that stood out to me was citric acid, a preservative and stabiliser that appears in hundreds of different food products, including simple items such as tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, tortilla wraps and flat breads – in fact many of the substitute foods I use!

I always thought that citric acid was a natural derivative of citrus fruits. A weak organic acid with a sour, acidic flavour, it is a natural preservative. Historically, Italy was the main producer of citric acid, formed from their huge citrus fruit harvests. Supplies were disrupted during the First World War but by this time a biochemist had discovered a yeast that grew on a sugary medium that produced citric acid, and so this replaced the natural fruit source. Citric acid is still a ‘natural’ preservative, but one that’s manufactured! Today, 1m tonnes of citric acid is produced this way every year, and demand is so high it wouldn’t be economical or practical to get citrus acid from fruit – there’s just not enough of it to meet demand.

Natural flavourings and other preservatives are created in similar ways, so we are all inadvertently eating yeasts and moulds, although for most people this is not a problem. However, for myself and many others, it is and I’m disappointed I didn’t realise this before. There’s so much to learn about food science! If I really want to get to the root of my yeast intolerance, it seems I have to make absolutely everything from scratch, including my flat breads and tomato sauce. Convenience foods are suddenly absolutely inconvenient!