Comforting Chickpea Stew

There is huge comfort and reassurance in the possession of a few cans in the cupboard, especially so in times like these. Many have been the time that I have wearily returned home, unhopeful of any good supper, and found relief in a can or two hiding at the back of the cupboard. Tinned tomatoes and pulses are the most common rescue, though coconut milk comes a close second. This stew is one such recipe that requires very little fresh ingredients – or rather, as little as you like, as many of the ingredients can be omitted depending how destitute your fridge is. It is a variation of Alison Roman’s infamous ‘The Stew’, which caused a stir all the way through New York when the recipe was first published in the New York Times. It’s very hard to know what exactly makes a recipe go ‘viral’, but there are certainly no bells and whistles here; I think the secret to this particular recipe lies in its simplicity, wholesomeness, and the comfort it brings in what Nigella has called ‘the solace of stirring’. I often make this is in a big batch and then freeze leftovers in portions, and it never fails to soothe the soul. It’s substantial enough to be eaten on it’s own, but I like it with brown rice and a dollop of yoghurt, though I’ve often served it with naan or roti to mop up the golden juices. This takes 30 minutes from start to finish, but if you’re short on time (or energy) you can always forgo the crispy chickpeas (although they do add a lovely crunch!).

IMG_0895

Ingredients

For the crispy chickpeas:

1 x 400g chickpeas, drained and rinsed

oil

2tsp paprika

1/2 tsp chilli flakes

1tsp fennel seeds

 

For the stew:

Oil, for frying

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped

a 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated

2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 tin of full-fat coconut milk

1 stock cube or stock pot (vegetable or chicken)

large bag of baby spinach

Handful of fresh chopped mint (optional)

 

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Tip one can of chickpeas into a medium roasting dish, drizzle with a glug of oil, spices and salt and pepper, then shake the dish to coat the chickpeas. Place the tray in the hot oven and cook for about 30 minutes until dark golden and crispy, and slightly shrunk in size. You will need to keep checking them every ten minutes or so and shaking the tray so that they cook evenly and don’t catch.

In a large pan, heat a good glug of oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Fry over a medium-low heat until the onions are soft and translucent, then add the ginger and spices and cook, stirring, until the pan smells fragrant. Add two cans of chickpeas and use a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon to partly crush the chickpeas so that they’re semi-broken down – this helps to thicken the stew. Once the chickpeas have been smooshed a bit, add the coconut milk, 250ml of boiling water, and the stock pot. Bring to a bubble and cook for about ten minutes, until the chickpeas are nice and soft and the stew has reduced very slightly. Stir through the fresh spinach to wilt, and then check the seasoning. Serve with rice or flatbreads, with mint and crunchy chickpeas sprinkled over.

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake

24AD034E-5251-4436-A630-AEBA16BFD163

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling anxious, worried and a bit frightened in these very uncertain times. Most of us have never lived through anything like this, and it’s sometimes difficult to know what or how to think about it all. However, if there’s one thing that I always turn to in times of sadness, anxiety, sleeplessness or loneliness, it’s baking.

So, here is my humble offering of consolation – a very easy but very delicious rhubarb cake. The crumb is moist yet dense, which makes this perfect with a cup of tea, or served warm with ice cream (or preferably custard). It’s an all-in-one method cake, so it really couldn’t be easier, and you can switch it up depending on what you have in your store cupboard – you could leave out the ginger, perhaps, or use any fruit (fresh, frozen, dried or tinned) in lieu of the rhubarb. I hope that you can find as much solace in stirring, measuring, mixing and smoothing as I do. 

 

Ingredients

  • 200g softened butter or margarine, plus extra for greasing
  • 200g caster sugar, plus 3 tbsp for the topping
  • 3 large free-range eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or paste (optional)
  • 200g ground almonds
  • 200g self-raising flour (if you don’t have any, use plain flour + 1 heaped tsp baking powder)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 heaped tsp ground ginger
  • 5 balls of stem ginger, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp milk
  • 300g/10½oz pink rhubarb, trimmed and cut into roughly 2cm pieces (or any fruit you have!)

Method

  1. Put on some nice music and make yourself a cup of tea.
  2. Preheat your oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4, then grease a 23cm/9in springform cake  and line the base with baking paper.

  3. Put all of the ingredients except the rhubarb into a large bowl and beat with an electric hand whisk until everything is smooth and well-incorporated (you can also use a food processor). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula to ensure everything is mixed in.

  4. Spoon the cake mix into the prepared tin and top with the rhubarb . You can scatter the fruit randomly or arrange it in a concentric-circle type pattern – it’s up to you!. There is no need to push the rhubarb into the batter as it will sink a little as it cooks.

  5. Sprinkle with the reserved 3 tablespoons of sugar and bake for 45 minutes.

  6. After 45 minutes, cover the tin loosely with foil and cook for a further 20-25 minutes, or until a knife or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

  7. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. It’s lovely served warm, but equally nice cold, too!

Apricot Frangipane Tart

IMG_3536Although apricots are at their most abundant at this time of year, I am beginning to think that they are one of those rare fruits that are almost always better eaten cooked rather than when fresh. Admittedly, there is something rather affecting about a perfectly ripe, plump, honey-sweet apricot, firm yet yielding, with its velvet-soft skin. However, the window between flesh that is hard, crunchy and sharp and that which is too soft and powdery is one, I suspect, of a matter of hours.

This particular tart came about in part for this very reason, although its conception was also down to my efforts to clear out our chest freezer before moving house – I recently found some homemade gluten free pastry from last Christmas that needed using up (the recipe for which can be found here). This tart would work well with any seasonal stone fruit to hand – plums, peaches or cherries, perhaps – though it is also excellent with raspberries or blackberries.

 

For the tart

300g sweet shortcrust pastry, chilled

3-5 apricots, depending on size

2 tbsp apricot jam

2 tbsp flaked almonds

Honey, for glazing

 

For the frangipane filling

100g unsalted butter, softened

50g caster sugar

50g honey (I use lavender honey, but any floral honey is great)

2 large free-range eggs, at room temperature

100g ground almonds

1 level tablespoon plain flour

1 tbsp amaretto or sweet sherry (optional)

 

You will also need: 8-inch fluted tart tin

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and put a large metal tray into the oven to heat up (this will help prevent a dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ as this tart is not blind baked).
  2. Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the pastry to a thickness of a £1 coin, slightly larger than the tin. Line the base and sides of the tin (you can use a small ball of pastry to help coax the pastry in to the fluted sides of the tin to give a smooth finish). Note: gluten free pastry can be very tricky to work with. I tend to press the pastry into the tin (much like shortbread) rather than rolling it out and transferring it all in one piece (which is virtually impossible with gluten-free pastry due to the lack of elasticity).
  3. Chill the pastry case in the fridge whilst you make the frangipane.
  4. To make the frangipane, cream together the butter, sugar and honey in a large bowl using an electric hand whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix to combine – don’t worry if the mixture looks curdled at this stage. Add the ground almonds, flour and alcohol (if using) and mix to combine.
  5. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and spread the base with apricot jam. Spoon the frangipane mixture on top of the jam and carefully smooth it. Halve the apricots and arrange them prettily in the tart case, cut-side facing down, lightly pressing them into the frangipane so that they’re still visible. Sprinkle the tart with flaked almonds and then put it into the preheated oven, directly onto the heated tray. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and the frangipane feels firm yet springy to touch.
  6. Cool the tart on a wire baking rack. Once cool, place the tin on top of a can or jar, then remove the outer ring by pushing it down. Then, carefully slide a palette knife underneath to remove the base of the tin and transfer the tart to the serving plate.
  7. Heat a little honey in a pan to melt slightly, then use a pastry brush to glaze the tart with the honey. It is lovely served with cream, ice cream, or clotted cream for a special treat.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

0658BF9D-6C8D-4C45-8E4D-8E2659F69679Sometimes, I just need something sweet. Others, I just fancy half an hour or so in the kitchen to wind down and heal the soul after a long day. In either case, this is always my go-to recipe, day or night, rain or shine. I remember when I first encountered these cookies in Nigella’s Simply Nigella, and being bewildered by the recipe – these cookies are naturally gluten free and contain no flour at all. I’d come across flourless cakes hundreds of times, but flourless cookies seemed almost like a paradox. Indeed, to this day – having made these cookies more times than I care to count – it never ceases to amaze me how a flourless cookie dough can be so, well, dough-y. As you beat the egg into the sugar and peanut-butter mix, something magical happens and all of a sudden the mixture transforms from being wet and smooth to starchy and thick. It doesn’t matter how or why it happens, all that matters is how damn good the cookies are.

I don’t exaggerate when I say the dough takes literally 5 minutes to make, and you don’t need any fancy equipment at all – literally a bowl and a wooden spoon. After that, it’s just 10 minutes in the oven and you’ve got a batch of the most perfect cookies imaginable – soft yet chewy, with a perfect harmony of sweet, salty peanut and bitter dark chocolate. I’ve taken the liberty of doubling the prescribed quantity of chocolate here from 50g to 100g – sorry, Nigella.

Makes about 12.

Ingredients:

100g soft light brown sugar.

225g smooth peanut butter (needs to be something cheap, like SunPat – organic just does not work here).

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda.

A pinch of salt.

1tsp vanilla extract.

1 large egg.

100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped.

 

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, peanut butter, bicarb and salt with a wooden spoon. Once nicely combined, gently beat in the egg and vanilla. When the mixture has formed a dough, mix in the chocolate.

Form the dough into golf-ball sized balls, and arrange on two large baking sheets lined with baking parchment, leaving plenty of space for the cookies to spread. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes until golden brown – the sheet on the bottom layer will need a little longer than the one on top. As soon as you have taken the tray out of the oven, give it a sharp tap against the side to spread and flatten the cookies. Leave to cool completely on the trays (they will firm up as they cool). Store in an airtight container.

 

Leftovers Tart

IMG_7153I’m sure I’m not alone in my consciousness of food waste (I’ve written about it more extensively in the past here) and my desire to revert back to the mentality of ‘waste not, want not’ of the past. This tart was born out of this same hatred for food waste; my mum had a couple of jars of homemade mincemeat left over from Christmas which needed to be used up lest they go off.

In fact, I actively enjoy the challenge of finding ways to use up leftover or over-abundant food. In our culture of richness and choice in food, it’s quite refreshing to be presented with just one ingredient and the task of creating something delicious from it. Yes, mincemeat is traditionally a Christmas delicacy, but it can perhaps be short-sighted to write off a foodstuff entirely based on the time of year. The richly fruited and spiced preserve mix has as much, if not more, value in bitter January and February as it does in December.

This tart is an extremely versatile one – it can be made throughout the year with varying fillings depending what is in season. Whilst mincemeat is wonderful in mid-winter, poached rhubarb may be used as spring begins to creep in, and fresh berries and stone fruits in the summer. Alternatively, a layer of good jam nested beneath the frangipane would also be equally delicious.

This is my absolute favourite gluten free pastry recipe, courtesy of Pearl and Groove bakery. It is wonderfully easy to make, and, once chilled, easy to handle. The pastry is so tender and just melts in the mouth – my non-coeliac family love it as much as I do. You will have some leftover pastry, here, but it freezes very well (although I like to use the off cuts to make jam tarts).

 

For the pastry:

250g gluten-free plain flour, plus extra to dust

65g caster sugar

50g ground almonds

Finely grated zest ½ orange

Pinch salt

175g unsalted butter, cubed

1 free-range egg

2-3 tbsp sherry (rum or brandy also works well)

 

For the frangipane:

200g unsalted butter, softened

200g caster sugar
4 large eggs
200g ground almonds
2 level tablespoons plain flour
2 tbsp sweet sherry

 

About 500g mincemeat

Handful of flaked almonds

 

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 190° Place a large baking tray in the oven.
  2. For the pastry, briefly whizz the flour, sugar, ground almonds, orange zest and salt in a food processor. Add the butter and use the pulse button to combine until the mixture looks like large breadcrumbs. Work swiftly and be careful not to overwork, which would make the pastry tough. Add the egg and 2 tbsp of the sherry, whizz briefly, then bring the pastry together with your hands. (If you don’t have a food processor, put the same ingredients in a mixing bowl and rub the butter into the dry ingredients using your fingertips, then work in the egg and rum with your hands until it comes together.) If the pastry is too dry add just enough extra rum to bring it together; it shouldn’t be wet. Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill until ready to use.
  3. Now make the frangipane. If you’ve used a food processor for the pastry, you can use it again for the frangipane – no need to wash it (alternatively, you can use a hand-held electric whisk). Add the butter and sugar to the food processor bowl, and whizz them until they look smooth and creamy. Then add the eggs, almonds, flour and sherry and process until combined, occasionally scraping down the side of the processor to incorporate all the mixture.
  4. Take the pastry out of the fridge, and roll it out on a surface that has been lightly dusted with flour. Try to be as swift and gentle as you roll it out – ideally to a 3mm thickness. Use the pastry to line a 25cm fluted tart tin – don’t panic if the pastry cracks, just patch it up with the off-cuts.
  5. Spoon the mincemeat into the tart case, and spread evenly. Spoon the frangipane on top of the mincemeat and smooth neatly. Scatter with flaked almonds.
  6. Place the tart in the oven on top of the hot tray (this helps to prevent the dreaded soggy bottom). Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the frangipane is puffed, light and golden brown all over.
  7. This can be served either warm or cold. Excellent with thick cream, vanilla ice cream, or even brandy butter.

Bonfire Night Gingerbread

IMG_5044There is something about this time of year which is, for me at least, synonymous with gingerbread. It is unquestionably a deeply seasonal cake – it would seem almost morally wrong to eat it in the height of summer –  and one which brings back fond memories of my childhood, when my mum would make it every year for Bonfire Night. There is something about the warm, fragrant depth of gingerbread that is a perfect companion to the orange hues of autumn, and with it the rustle of fallen leaves and sweet scent of wood smoke.

As recipes go, gingerbread is a particularly rewarding bake; not only is it enchantingly easy (you won’t need any electric whisk here; just a wooden spoon and a swift arm), but it will make your kitchen smell like heaven. Unlike most cakes, it actually improves with time – if you can bear it, once cooled, leave the cake in a storage tin for 24 hours before tucking in, as it really is better the day after.

This gingerbread is lovely in thick slices spread with butter alongside a strong cup of tea, but is also equally delicious served warm as a pudding, with vanilla ice cream and poached pears (or, if you’re lucky enough to find them, quinces). I also don’t see any reason why you couldn’t ice this with a simple lemon juice icing, and perhaps decorate with more crystallised ginger. It is much easier to measure out the treacle and golden syrup if you’ve left the tins in a warm place for an hour or so; alternatively, place the tins in a saucepan of just-boiled water for a few minutes to warm through.

I made the gingerbread gluten free without any trouble at all using Doves Farm gluten free plain flour, along with ½ teaspoon of xanthum gum, which improves the crumb structure to give the mouth-feel of a normal cake.

 

Ingredients

175g plain flour

1 ½ tbsp ground ginger

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground nutmeg

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbsp milk

75g black treacle

75g golden syrup

75g dark brown soft sugar

75g unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature

75ml water

1 large egg, lightly beaten and at room temperature

100g crystallized ginger, chopped into 1cm cubes and tossed in 2 tsp plain flour

 

1 classic 2lb loaf tin, greased and base-lined with greaseproof paper

 

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C, gas mark 3.

Place the flour (and xanthum gum, if using) and spices in a large bowl and whisk to combine.

In another small bowl, mix the bicarbonate of soda with the milk and set aside.

Now measure the black treacle, golden syrup, sugar, butter and water into a medium saucepan. Put the saucepan on a medium heat and gently stir until thoroughly melted and blended – stay with it and don’t let it come anywhere near the boil.

Next, add the syrup mixture to the flour and spices, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon – and when the mixture is smooth, beat in the egg a little at a time, followed by the bicarbonate of soda and milk. Fold in the crystallized ginger pieces.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for 1¼–1½ hours until it’s well-risen and firm to the touch. Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before turning out.

 

Based on a recipe by Delia Smith.

The Problem with British Chicken

 

It hardly comes as a surprise that chicken is Britain’s favourite meat; it’s versatile, rich in protein and much lower in saturated and calories than red meat. Chicken amounts for half of all meat eaten in the UK, and as a nation we eat a staggering 900 million chickens per year. Despite this, the majority of Britons are ignorant as to where their meat comes from, and the truth behind mass chicken farming. Equally, many are simply reluctant to scratch the surface and continue to turn a blind eye in a bid to enjoy their chicken guilt-free.

I admit that the issue of farming standards is something I became much more aware of after my family rescued three lovely battery chickens two summers ago. Whilst chicken had previously been something exclusive to my plate, having chickens wandering around in the garden taught me that they are far more social, intelligent and inquisitive than I thought. To our surprise, my family and I really quite grew to love them. When they first arrived from the battery warehouse, the three girls were stressed, scrawny, quivering and, in places, featherless. Over a matter of weeks, though, we saw them develop into plump, energetic and glossy birds, with real personalities and the ability to recognise different individuals.

In fairness, misleading marketing and advertising of chicken has a huge part to play in the public’s perception of chicken farming. The primary source of this miscommunication comes from a number of labels incorrectly marketing said chicken to be humanely farmed and of good quality; these include the terms ‘farm assured’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘British’ and ‘corn fed’ commonly pasted on chicken packaging. The fact that a bird is British is not an assurance of quality, and simply indicates that it is a ‘greener’ choice due to lower amassed air miles. Similarly, corn-fed chicken is not necessarily a high welfare choice; though a corn-based diet affects the colour, texture and taste of the meat, it is not indicative of a humane upbringing. In fact, these commonly used labels guarantee next to nothing; the vast majority of chickens that are eaten in the UK are intensively farmed in very poor conditions. Whilst the ‘Red Tractor’ label is often seen as an assurance of quality (Nando’s, for instance, proudly advertise that they only use ‘British Red Tractor birds’), in reality, Red Tractor operates under the absolute minimum EU welfare standards. Shockingly, this allows up to 19 birds per square metre, which are housed in barren barns, with no access to natural light. After only six weeks – which is just half the natural time – the birds are taken to slaughter, and as a result many are too weak to even stand. Even though the use of antibiotics has been reduced, chickens are still often given doses to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them. Therefore, increased human antibiotic resistance could be being worsened by eating birds farmed in this way. Not only this, but recent research has shown that as much as 92% of chicken for sale is actually contaminated with faecal matter, contributing to the 250,000 Britons that fall ill from poultry food poisoning each year. Rather than being of a decent welfare standard, these practises seem barbaric and it’s bewildering to me that it is even legal to treat animals like this on such a huge scale.

To ensure that high welfare farming methods have been used, look for the terms ‘free range’, ‘organic’ and ‘RSPCA-assured’. A free-range bird will have grown for longer than one that has been intensively farmed, and will have had access to natural light and green spaces for at least half of their lives. Naturally, you’ll pay much more for an organic bird, but this chicken will have benefitted from the highest welfare standards possible, with more outside space than a free-range bird, having the freedom to move between green, outdoor spaces and light, spacious barns. The birds are given the time to grow at their natural pace, and a foraged diet and more active lifestyle results in a chicken that is ultimately much more flavoursome. Not only this, but an organic bird will be higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fat.

At this stage, I’m sure that there are some of you are thinking that organic meat is all very well for those who can afford it, but for most people on a budget it’s not a realistic or sustainable option. However, if one makes the decision to eat and enjoy meat – because, really, it is a decision rather than human assumption that we have to eat it – then it seems fair to take the responsibility for where that meat has come from and the process it has undertaken to get to your plate. It almost seems patronising to say that anyone on a tighter budget can’t afford to care about these welfare issues; ethical and economic issues are independent of one another, and ethical issues cannot be overlooked on the grounds of economics. If it does nothing else of merit, perhaps Brexit will help secure better welfare standards for meat in the UK – earlier this year Michael Gove stated that farmers would be granted larger public subsidies for taking better care of their livestock under new Government plans for a ‘green Brexit’. Perhaps the key is for us to adopt an attitude whereby all meat, including chicken, is viewed as more of a treat than an everyday staple, so that when we do have it, we’re happier to pay that bit extra to ensure the animal has been treated with respect and dignity.

Pink Grapefruit Loaf Cake

One of my go-to bakes will always be a classic lemon loaf, either with a lemon syrup, crunchy sugar topping or zesty lemon icing – I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like it. Therefore, being such a grapefruit fanatic, I was keen to experiment and see whether the cake lends itself to the bittersweet qualities of pink grapefruit. Fundamentally, cake is a sweet thing, and so it’s interesting to eat something that is bittersweet, or rather initially sweet, but with a slightly bitter aftertaste. From experience, I find that red grapefruit is more pungent and flavoursome than the pink variety, or though it can be slightly harder to come by. The lemon zest used here helps to bring out the zestiness of the grapefruit.

There is a time and a place for the creaming method, but here I find the all in one method to be delightfully quick and easy and produces an exceedingly light crumb.

This is delicious eaten with coffee, though for something a bit stronger, I see no harm in making a gin-spiced grapefruit syrup to soak the cake in lieu of the icing.IMG_1019

For the cake:

125g margarine, at room temperature

175g caster sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

175g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla extract

pinch of salt

4 tbsp milk

zest of 1 lemon

zest of 2 pink or red grapefruit

(+ 1/2 tsp xantham gum if making gluten free)

 For the icing

200g icing sugar, sieved

Juice 1/2 red grapefruit

Few drops natural pink food colouring (optional)

Fresh grapefruit, to decorate (optional)

23 x 13 x 7cm loaf tin, buttered and lined/ 2lb loaf tin

IMG_1025

Preheat the oven to 180 °C. Butter and line a 23 x 13 x 7cm (or 2lb) loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

Put all of the ingredients into a large bowl and beat well using an electric hand whisk (or else in a freestanding mixer) for at least two minutes until smooth and well combined. Transfer the mix into the prepared loaf tin, smoothing with a spatula.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes, or until golden brown and risen in the middle. You will probably need to cover the loaf with foil and bake for a further 5-10 minutes to ensure the cake is cooked all the way through – the cake should feel springy to touch and a skewer should come out more or less clean. Once out of the oven, run a knife around the cake and then leave in the tin for 5 minutes to cool a little before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cake cools, make the icing. In a bowl, add the grapefruit juice little by little to the sugar until the icing comes together – you want it to be quite a thick consistency so that it opaquely covers the cake and slowly drips down the sides of the loaf. The grapefruit juice gives a very subtle pink hue to the icing, but if liked, you can add 4-5 drops of pink food colouring for a more pronounced baby pink colour.

Once cool, gently pour the icing evenly over the cake and allow it to work its way down the sides of the loaf. You can leave the cake as it is, or decorate with some slices or fresh or dried grapefruit.

 

Note: omitting the citrus zest, this is a brilliant basic loaf cake recipe that lends itself well to a number of variations.

Lemon loaf – zest of two lemons in the cake batter, plus icing made with 200g icing sugar and the juice of 1/2 lemon

Lemon and blueberry loaf – as above but with 150g of flour-coated blueberries gently folded in before baking

Orange loaf – zest of one orange in the cake batter, plus a syrup made with 100g icing sugar, the juice of one orange and a dash of cointreau

Chocolate chip loaf cake – 150g dark chocolate chips folded into the batter before baking

The Problem With Gluten Free Diets

Bread 3This post marks the advent of a new feature on my blog for 2018; a series of posts titled ‘The Problem with…’ which aim to analyse and potentially pick apart current food trends. Before I say anything, I feel it is necessary to tell you that I have coeliac disease myself, a serious auto-immune disease which means I cannot eat gluten, and if I do, I will become very ill. It is thought that coeliac disease affects about 1 in 100 people in the UK, although huge amounts of people remain undiagnosed.

This therefore makes it a source of personal frustration that a diet that I have to religiously maintain for medical reasons has become a fashionable and ‘healthy’ lifestyle choice for the masses. A gluten free diet is necessary for my long-term health but it is not something that that I enjoy. I miss gluten – desperately. I may have been only three when I was diagnosed, but I had already encountered the joys of hot crusty rolls, yeasty, soft doughnuts, buttery croissants and pastries, warm char siu buns…the list of now tragically forbidden foods goes on and on. And so why has it become popular to voluntarily prohibit something that is so delicious?

Perhaps a desire to lose weight may answer the above question. Ultimately, cutting out gluten does not lead to weight loss. This false link was probably born out of fad carb-free diet crazes from the 90s such as the Atkins diet, but clearly carbohydrates and gluten are not the same thing. In fact, many gluten free branded products such as bread, biscuits and cakes are actually more calorific that the original product, as they’re pumped with additional sugar, fats and stabilisers in a bid to mimic the properties and textures of gluten. On a practical level, gluten free products are also far more expensive; whilst a regular sliced loaf would cost around 80p, a gluten free loaf will cost around £3.00 (the NHS consequently offers GF bread, pasta and flour on subscription for those with coeliac disease).

Unfortunately, it seems that there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to gluten. I feel sure that if you asked those who followed a gluten free diet what gluten actually is, the majority wouldn’t be able to tell you (for those interested, it’s a protein form found in wheat, barley and rye). Indeed, most people who claim to be on a gluten free diet actually aren’t, either through ignorance and hypocrisy. On a personal level, I have become hugely frustrated in the past when people who claim to be following a gluten free diet continue to consume things such as beer, whisky, soy sauce, fruit squash and flavoured crisps, all foods which would be ruinous for a coeliac.

Contrary to what we’re told by the media, a gluten-free diet is not healthy. As Dr Michael Greger writes ‘Just because some people have a peanut allergy doesn’t mean everyone should avoid peanuts’. It is not recommended for the general public to follow a gluten free diet unless absolutely necessary, and anyone who does take this decision should consult a doctor before eliminating gluten from their diet. In fact, cutting gluten out of your diet will most often have an adverse effect on your health; without gluten, an individual can very easily become significantly deficient in both fibre and iron (I myself have suffered from anaemia in the past). Indeed, some studies have tentatively suggested that there are higher rates of heart disease in people who eat a gluten free diet. Perhaps most significant is the effect that a gluten free diet has on your microbiome and immune system. A recent Spanish study found that a month on a gluten-free diet impairs our gut flora, potentially setting those on gluten-free diets up for an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their intestines. Gluten itself may also boost immune function; after less than a week on added gluten protein, subjects experienced notably increased natural killer cell activity, which could even improve our body’s ability to fight viral infections and cancer. In a different study, bread with high gluten content was found to improve triglyceride levels better than regular gluten bread. This anti-gluten epidemic is particularly concerning given that most people in the UK aren’t eating enough fibre anyway. Gluten-filled whole grains – such as wheat, spelt, barley and rye – are rich in fiber, providing diversity for microbes in the gut. Not only this, but they are also linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Furthermore, the upsurge of the gluten-free trend seems to have undermined the seriousness of coeliac disease. Now that the phrase ‘Gluten Free’ is thrown around fairly flippantly – hundreds of products (even shampoo) are now branded ‘Gluten Free’ to boost their selling power – it doesn’t always guarantee that there is no risk of cross contamination, especially in restaurants. Given that even 20 parts per million can be toxic to a coeliac, it’s all too easy for food to become contaminated and subsequently hugely harmful for a coeliac. The phrase ‘Gluten free’ now has connotations of wellbeing and weight loss, rather than as a medical indicator. Whilst some restaurant chains – such as Pizza Express and Cote Brasserie – are markedly aware and cautious when it comes to cross contamination and serving safe food to coeliacs (thus earning them official Coeliac UK accreditation), the majority don’t take the necessary precautions to ensure food is actually gluten-free, rather than just safe for those with ‘intolerances’.

Having said all of this, there is a recognised condition called ‘gluten sensitivity’, although it’s medical credibility is still sketchy, and little is understood of it. Although 15% of people believe that they have a mild version of this, interestingly, a study that tested and retested a number of these ‘sufferers’ with dummy foods found that the majority of those who were ‘intolerant’ were not found to have any difficulty eating or digesting gluten. I do understand that there are people who genuinely do feel sluggish and bloated after consuming gluten. Whilst many doctors have conceded that more research is to be done on this sector, to me, the main problem seems to be not the gluten itself, but the highly-processed gluten-containing foods that people are eating.

It’s not hard to see that excessively processed ‘plastic’ supermarket white, sliced bread or shop-bought cakes are damaging for the digestive system and will leave many feeling bloated and lethargic. Alternatively, as I mentioned before, unprocessed, whole and unrefined grains such as spelt and rye, along with things like oats and sourdough bread, have a high glycaemic index and are actively beneficial for gut health, blood pressure, weight control.

Exclusion diets are never healthy but ultimately there will always be fad diets and new ‘toxic’ foods to avoid (in the 1980s it was MSG, and salt in the 00s). I can only hope that with a better understanding of gluten and what it does, people will begin to recognise that health reports from the media are often misinformed and distorted. Gluten is not the enemy; it is not ‘dirty’ and cutting it out will not make your diet ‘clean’.

 

 

 

Pumpkin soup

IMG_8811

Every year when halloween comes back around, I can’t help but think what a shame it is that so many pumpkins are wasted for decoration, as it happens that pumpkin flesh makes the very best of soups.

Roasted by itself, pumpkin flesh – from seasonal varieties such as delica and blue hokkaido – can often be woolier and less sweet (although also much earthier) than their more popular cousin the butternut squash, which lends itself better to roasting, sautéing and pureeing due to its sweetness and less fibrous flesh. Consequently, varieties of pumpkins like these are perhaps best whizzed up, creating a earthy, velvety-rich soup.

Try to buy as many squash and pumpkins as you can whilst they’re still in season; winter squash have tough, thick skin (almost like a shell) which – whilst it is a pain to hack into – protects the sweet flesh within, making them perfect for storage. They’ll keep for weeks in a cool, dry place and provide a lovely standby supper on a cold night.

IMG_8810
Acorn Squash and Kent Pumpkin

This recipe was originally given to me last year by my boyfriend’s lovely mum, Penny. With it’s earthy warmth and golden-orange hue, it really does feel like autumn in a bowl; the sweet wood smoke of autumnal bonfires is somewhat echoed by the smokiness of the lardons, which is then further complimented by the subtle heat of the chilli. I’m sure cardiac specialists would hunt me down for writing this, but it really is necessary to use the fattiest bacon here, either from lardons or streaky bacon – it’s the fat that renders from the meat that gives this soup such a great depth of flavour. Admittedly, squashes can be very tough indeed to cut into, so try microwaving them for a minute, turning every twenty seconds or so, to soften ever so slightly – this makes chopping them a little less precarious! I also find it’s far easier to roast the squash in their skins and then scoop out the flesh rather than peeling them raw.

This is lovely served with a dollop of crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt; niche as it is, goats curd would also be an excellent accompaniment. For me, a bowl of this soup served with a hunk of warm, crusty bread is just about the best autumnal supper you could find.

 

Serves 4/5

1 small pumpkin (about 900g-1kg in weight)

Small glug of oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1/4 – 1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes, depending on your taste

80g smoked bacon lardons

2 apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

600ml hot chicken stock

Splash of double cream (optional)

Salt and pepper

To serve:

Pumpkin seeds (optional)

Crème fraiche (optional)

Preheat the oven to 220°C. Chop up your pumpkin into 4-6 rough chunks depending on its size, then scoop out the seeds (see below). Arrange the chunks on baking tray, drizzle with oil and season, then roast until tender and a knife drops through with little resistance – about 30-40 minutes.

[If you have the time and energy, you can reserve the pumpkin seeds to eat later or garnish the soup. Simply remove the seeds from the stringy squash, rinse and then scatter evenly onto a baking tray. Drizzle the seeds with a good glug of oil, then add any seasoning you like – sea salt is essential, but you could also try using chilli flakes, ground paprika or fennel seeds. Toss the seeds gently so they’re well coated in the oil and seasoning, then bake in an oven at 180°C for about ten minutes, until they’re golden brown. Delicious as added crunch to soups and salads, or warm with an aperitif!]

Place a large saucepan over a medium heat and gently fry the onions, garlic and chilli flakes in a little oil for a couple of minutes before adding the bacon lardons and frying for a further few minutes – you want to onions to be beginning to caramelise but not brown too much.

Once the pumpkin is ready, leave it to cool a little before scooping out the flesh from the skins and transferring it into the pan of onions. Add the apple and hot stock, place a lid on the pan, and bring up the boil. Boil for ten minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and using a stick blender (or similar) blitz the soup to a smooth amber liquid, then stir through the cream if using. Add a splash more of hot water if it’s too thick. Taste to check for seasoning – the bacon and the stock should make the soup salty enough.

This soup is perfect just as it is, but for a decorative flourish it feels very appropriate to garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds – put a handful of the seeds in a frying pan over a medium heat, tossing occasionally, until they smell nice and nutty or start popping. Toasted hazelnuts would also be good here.

The soup keeps well, covered, in the fridge for three days.