All-purpose vegetarian bolognaise base

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vegetarian/gluten free/lactose free/can be made vegan

This is a really easy way to start lots of different recipes. It is basically a vegetarian bolognaise-plus, packed with flavour and good-for-you feelings. You can practically taste the vitamins. Use it as it is for spaghetti bolognaise or combine it with other stuff for dishes such as lasagne or chilli con carne.

I am not vegetarian myself but I much prefer to use this recipe rather than standard mince and many people I have served this to never even guess that it’s vegetarian. When I was growing up my Mum used to produce batches of this and freeze it for a handy quick-start to dinner on busy days. I normally just make slightly more than I need each time and freeze a portion or two.

Recipe Tips

  • The vegetables that you add to this can actually be really varied, it’s great for using up all of that old veg that accumulates in the back of the fridge. I like to swap out the celery for mushrooms when my mushroom-hating husband isn’t eating it and add some aubergine too. Just experiment and see what you prefer. If you cannot eat onion/garlic it is possible to omit the ingredients containing it from this recipe with no adverse effects – you might just want to add a bit more of the other flavoursome ingredients)
  • The Quorn mince that I use is not vegan as it contains egg however many supermarkets do their own brand of vegetarian mince that is vegan – I know Sainsburys do, you might just need to shop around. Or, if you’d rather omit the mince altogether it’s just as nice with extra veg added instead. Mushroom is good substitute I think.
  • At the time of writing, standard Marmite contains barley but not wheat, which is fine for me but not for the totally gluten-free. For bizarre reasons which I can’t quite fathom, their vegetarian version however does contain wheat. Again, supermarket own brands often have different ingredients so it might be worth double checking. If you really can’t find any that’s gluten free and/or vegan don’t worry – it’s totally optional. Try some vegan yeast flakes instead or just add another stock cube.
  • The cooking times on this can also vary depending on how much time you have. This recipe can be cooked pretty quickly (as given in the instructions) or left to gently simmer for longer. I prefer this option as I like my veg thoroughly cooked and I think it gives a better favour. I either use the slow cooker for this or fry everything up in a wok with a lid instead of a frying pan, pop the lid on, turn the temperature to the lowest setting and leave it for about half an hour or more, checking occasionally and stirring to prevent it sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Makes 5-6 portions

Basic Ingredients

  • A packet of Quorn mince
  • 1 large sweet pepper (I prefer red but whatever colour’s your preference)
  • A couple of sticks of celery
  • 1 medium courgette
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree
  • A tablespoon of Marmite or Vegemite
  • Salt and pepper
  • Italian herb mix

Optional Ingredients for added flavour

  • 1 small onion
  • A couple of cloves of garlic
  • A vegetable stock cube (most contain garlic)
  • Worcester Sauce (most brands contain garlic)
  • A splash of red wine
  • A pinch of paprika

 

Method

  1. Chop the vegetables into small cubes. Fry on a medium heat with a drizzle of veg oil until they start to brown and soften (usually about 5-10mins)

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    Colourful veg tastes better…

  2. Add the mince still frozen, straight from the packet. Stir in and cook for another couple of minutes.
  3. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, marmite, Worcester sauce, the stock cube, herbs and seasonings. Stir in.
  4. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for another 10-15 minutes.

Fun with Flapjacks

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(Yes, my life really is this exciting)

wheat free/gluten free/vegan

So, Monday sees me going back to work after a little holiday and I am standing in the kitchen again staring at my empty lunchbox wondering what on earth I’m going to do about it this time.

I hate lunch. It is my bête noir. I have never really enjoyed standard Western lunch foods and it’s even tricker now wheat and dairy are out of the picture. Lunch time at home usually sees my moodily crunching on some toast and fantasising about expensive sushi banquets. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to work at a place that has jacket potatoes in the cafeteria every day so at least I can bring in my own vegan cheese and have someting nutritious and filling for lunch at work.

But that still leaves me with the rest of the day…

I work fairly long hours so snacks are a necessity if I am not to swoon like some Victorian maiden in a Gothic novel. There are only so many bananas a girl can eat so I have been experimenting recently with alternatives to the expensive (and often sugar-loaded) gluten free vegan cereal bars that I had been relying on for my afternoon snack. What I didn’t want to do however was spend hours of my free time cooking food for work so I settled on flapjacks as a good start. I’m hoping that despite still being in the “naughty” category of food in my mind due to their calorie content, flapjacks will at least be partially healthy and a lot more filling. They are quick, cheap, easy and require very little washing up or prep time so they have at least delivered on that score. Having never made flapjacks before I looked for the most basic recipe I could find so that it could be easily modified. I found a good one on AllRecipes.co.uk (http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/34253/simple-honey-flapjacks.aspx) and so far I have made 4 batches, changing it slightly each time.

Recipe Notes

  • To make this 100% gluten free make sure that you use specific gluten free oats – normal oats are not guaranteed to be gluten free unless it says so on the packet.
  • When adding the extra ingredients, I found it easiest to mix any spices/essences with the melted honey and oil before adding the rest as it coated it all more evenly.
  • In terms of quantities, I just threw in handfuls until it looked about right – there wasn’t much method to it. If adding extra dry ingredients such as the desiccated coconut however, it’s best to add a little extra oil or remove some of the oats so that the mixture isn’t too dry.
  • I used a roasting tin (the kind you do roast potatoes in) lined with baking parchment to make my flapjacks in but you can use any kind of baking tray or tin really. The paper makes them a lot easier to lift out though.

Basic Ingredients

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Molten honey and “butter” – could there be a better smell?

  • 200g coconut oil
  • 300g oats
  • 7-8 tablespoons honey

Method

1. Melt the coconut oil in a saucepan.

2. Turn off the heat and stir in the honey and oats.

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Stage 2

3. Line a roasting pan with greaseproof paper and tip the mixture into it, flattening it down with the back of a spoon until it is as thick as you think a flapjack should be. Use a knife or a pizza cutter to cut it into squares.

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I like my flapjacks thin – here is a teaspoon for refernce.

 

 

4. Bake for approximately 20mins at 180C or until the top is toasted a nice golden colour.

1st attempt  

Basic recipe plus: raisins, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, linseeds, sesame seeds (my local health food shop does a great 4 seed pre-mix) and extra chia seeds.

These tasted great and sort of, well, mostly held together but it was a lot of seeds. Anyone with a delicate digestive system (like me) might want to reduce the amount slightly.

2nd attempt

Basic recipe plus: raisins, desiccated coconut, rum flavouring, lime juice, 4 seed mix

These were my least favourite and didn’t hold together so well. Bizarrely, they tasted better after 24hrs in the biscuit tin however.

3rd attempt

Basic recipe plus: half of the coconut oil substituted for vegan sunflower spread, raisins, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla essence, much less seed mix than before.

These taste quite bland but pleasant and hold together nicely.

4th attempt

Sunflower spread instead of coconut oil, 4 tbs honey, 250g oats, 50g desiccated coconut, a handful each of raisins, crystallised pineapple and papaya pieces, 1/3 tsp powdered ginger.

My favourite so far. The sugar in the crystalized fruit means that less honey is needed but the mixture still holds together very well. The ginger adds a warming note – next time I might even add a little more and the flavours work beautifully together. The vegan spread works much better than the coconut oil I think and gives it a more “buttery” flavour which is what I want in a flapjack.

I will be trying more of these variations as time goes on so will let you know of any good ones I come across. Or, if anyone has any good suggestions I will bake them and see.

Vegan Fondue

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vegan/gluten free

In honour of the UK’s Great Vegan Challenge month, (see http://www.govegan.org.uk/) may I present for your enjoyment, vegan fondue.

One of the things I miss most since going lactose-free is cheese. I love cheese. I especially love the really stinky, runny, disgusting kind. The kind that makes guests think something must’ve crawled into your fridge and died sometime in 1992 and has stayed there ever since. I used to buy one particular brand that my husband claimed he could smell when he came in through the front door, even though it was wrapped up in tin foil and sealed in a Tupperware box safely in the fridge. Sigh…

These days I have to be content with getting my fix from the many brands of vegan cheese out there. I’m lucky in that my local wholefoods shop stocks a very wide range. I haven’t tried them all yet but the one I’ve found most useful for cooking purposes has been Violife. They do several different varieties all of which are very nice and haven’t got that chalky, mushy texture a lot of vegan cheese seems to have. Their original flavour is the best for eating just as it is. It comes in a blue packet and tastes pleasantly like Edam. The green packet however is the exciting one. It’s melty pizza cheese and I love it. I love it more than real cheese on pizza. I recommend it to so many people that they should probably give me job, or at least some free cheese. This is the one that I used for the fondue.

Vegan fondue is dead easy to make as you really just              substitute the dairy ingredients for their vegan equivalents. There’s no tricky alteration required. Having said that, I did make some changes to the recipe I used to suit my own personal tastes. I adapted Nigella’s fondue recipe from her “Nigella Express” book (online version found here: https://www.nigella.com/recipes/cheese-fondue). I served this to guests on Halloween and it went down very well. (It’s even better with red food colouring in and served in a cauldron) This recipe does make a tonne though. We had enough to feed 7 people and then there was plenty left over so you might want to halve the quantities if you don’t want to find yourself swimming in molten cheese. Or maybe you do. In which case go for it.

Recipe Tips

  • The original recipe includes a clove of garlic however as I can’t eat much garlic I left it out and just sprinkled in a small pinch of garlic powder instead. It tasted just fine.
  • The wine really is necessary if you’re using vegan cheese. It gives it a tang that helps to mimic the taste of real cheese and stops it being too sweet or sickly.
  • Traditionally a fondue should be made with kirsch as well as wine but I use gin as don’t want the expense of buying a whole bottle of kirsch for the sake of 3 tablespoons. The sharpness of the gin also helps to offset the mildness of the vegan cheese.
  • I added a splash of soya cream to my fondue as I wanted it to be a little runnier and creamier, and also some salt as I find vegan cheese I use to be less salty than real cheese.

Ingredients

  • 600g vegan “melty” cheese (grated)
  • 300ml white wine
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour
  • 3 tablespoons kirsch or gin
  • A pinch of garlic powder
  • A splash of soya cream (optional)
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper.

 

Method

Put the cheese, wine, cream, nutmeg and garlic into a saucepan or a fondue bowl if you have one. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes until the cheese has melted. Mix the cornflour with the gin in a small glass and add to the cheese. Stir everything well and season it to taste.

Serve with accompaniments of your choice. We like a combination of the following:

  • Toasted bread (gluten free)
  • Bread sticks (gluten free)
  • Vegetarian sausages cut up and skewered on cocktail sticks
  • Carrot, cucumber and celery sticks
  • Slices of sweet pepper

Purple Vegetables

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Sometimes I am captivated by the beauty of vegetables. No, wait, hear me out. I know that isn’t the sort of sentence you expect to hear (or say) every day but it really is true. My Mum took me to a farm shop near her when I went to visit this weekend and I walked away with, amongst other things, a purple sweet potato. I have never seen or heard of a purple sweet potato before so naturally I bought it immediately. I have a bit of a thing for unusual purple vegetables. I get unreasonably excited every time purple carrots come into my local supermarket for Halloween, (rebranded as “witches’ noses” of course) and tried one year to grow lilac peppers. (It wasn’t a success – I only managed to grow one and then it was dry and tasteless due to my general neglect and ineptitude) I also can’t seem to shake the bizarre notion that purple vegetables somehow must taste better and be healthier than their more familiar counterparts. When I cut the sweet potato, the swirl of colours was undeniably lovely. I caught myself just staring at it in fascination for several minutes.

I had decided to make chips from it in exactly the same way I do with ordinary potato and sweet potato; namely, cut it into chips, coat with oil, salt, pepper and paprika and bake for half an hour(ish).

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I had hoped that they would taste like a similar, more interesting version of their orange cousins, however I can confirm that this was sadly not the case. They tasted ok but much less sweet than the traditional sweet potato; the dry, earthy taste reminded me more of roasted beetroot than anything. I probably wouldn’t do this recipe again but it was a fun experiment nonetheless. Maybe I can find a better use for them in the future.

Home Comforts (macaroni cheese)

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(Wheat and lactose free/vegan)

At first I felt hesitant about starting with this recipe or even posting it on here at all because it’s not very exciting. There are a hundred recipes out there for macaroni cheese, why on earth do we need another one? It’s not even a healthy dish for goodness sake. It’s hardly the kind of ground-breaking, inspirational extravaganza of awesomeness I was hoping to impress you with on my first post. But then, one of the major hurdles that I encountered at the start of all this was the lack of familiar recipes. Wonderful though the bulger wheat salads and triple-cooked celeriac quinoa cakes sounded, the thought of suddenly having to change my entire shopping list and culinary skill-set overnight was incredibly daunting.* And sometimes I don’t want to be healthy damn it. New to dairy-free, wheat-free cooking, all I really wanted at that moment was a nice big bowl of macaroni cheese. So here it is, the first recipe on this blog and my version of the meal I grew up with.

*If, in fact, you are the sort of person who did grow up with bulgar wheat salads as part of your regular meal rotation, do feel free to read this introduction in reverse: here is my recipe for the amazing and exotic delight that is macaroni cheese.

Recipe Tips

  • I have had real problems finding gluten-free macaroni, and even bigger problems finding some that does not immediately stick together to form an evil gelatinous lump the minute you introduce it to boiling water. The corn-based ones seem to be the worst for this. I have taken to using penne instead as it’s basically just bigger tubes and the advantage is you can pretend that you are a child eating giant macaroni. If you can eat spelt pasta this really is best as it doesn’t stick and the white kind tastes just like normal pasta.
  • If you do have to use gluten free pasta I’ve found that heating the water up with the pasta from cold as opposed to pouring boiling water onto it can stop some of the sticking, or at least slow it down so that you have the chance to get in there with a wooden spoon and stir it. Then don’t stop stirring it. Really. I mean it. Your life is now the saucepan for the next 10 minutes. I actually hold a book with one hand and stir with the other. I also give it a quick rinse under the tap after draining it when cooked to get rid of any remaining starch.
  • To speed life up a bit, I time things so that both the carrot and the pasta can be on the hob cooking at the same time. I then use the carrot pan to make the sauce in to minimise washing up.
  • The sauce I use is what I have heard referred to as “the cheat version” of Mornay sauce, which I think is silly because I certainly can’t taste the difference and this one is so much easier than the classic roux method (more on that another time). It also uses cornflour which is a bonus for the gluten-free.
  • Yeast flakes are a vegan dietary supplement that can be found in most health food shops. They look and smell exactly like fish food but they add great flavour to all kinds of dishes and taste much better than they smell, trust me.

 

Essential basic ingredients – serves 2 greedy people (my husband and I) or 3 normal people

  • Pasta – macaroni if you can find it. Gluten-free or otherwise. Approx. 200g
  • ½ pint milk or milk substitute (Soya milk works well, as does Lactofree)
  • ½ pint boiling water (plus extra for cooking the pasta)
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 heaped tablespoons of cornflour
  • 4oz cheddar cheese (melty vegan or Lactofree extra mature work fine)
  • Salt and pepper
  • A pinch of Herbes de Provence
  • 1 teaspoon English mustard

Optional ingredients

  • A pinch of vegan yeast flakes
  • 1 gluten-free vegetable stock cube (I highly recommend adding this but if you can’t eat the onion just add a dash more seasoning instead
  • ½ courgette
  • A packet of smoky bacon crisps
  • Vegan hot dogs or a couple of strips of bacon
  • Breadcrumbs (2-3 slices of stale bread should do it. Brown or white, gluten free or not – it’s all good)

Method

Cook the pasta.

Follow the guidelines on the back of the packet for cooking times as they do vary. Drain when cooked.

Prepare the vegetables

  1. Chop the carrot and courgette into discs.
  2. Pop the carrot into a pan with ½ pint boiling water and a vegetable stock cube. Cook for 5-10 mins (depending on how crunchy you like your carrots). Scoop the carrots out of the water with a slotted spoon (or spear them with a fork) and pop them on a plate out of the way (Washing-up tip – I use the one that I am planning on eating off later).
  3. Put the courgette discs in a bowl with a tiny splash of water. Cover with microwavable clingfilm and microwave on full power for about 1 ½ mins. Normally I would never recommend microwaving courgette as it will make it taste watery and strange but in this case it works perfectly.

Make the sauce

  1. Mix the cornflour with a little of the milk in a glass until it dissolves.
  2. Add the milk to the carrot water (if a lot has boiled off you might need to top it up – you should have roughly 1 pint of liquid in total)
  3. Add the salt, pepper and herbs.
  4. Heat until it starts to simmer then remove from the heat.
  5. Tip in the cornflour and stir like crazy. I actually use a silicone balloon whisk for this bit.
  6. Return the pan to the heat and keep stirring until the sauce thickens to the consistency of, well, a sauce rather than watery milk.
  7. Grate and add the cheese. Stir until it melts.
  8. Add the mustard and a generous pinch of yeast flakes.
  9. Add the carrot, courgette and pasta and stir until heated through.

And there you go. At this point my Mum would serve it to us kids like it is, and certainly you can eat it this way, however these days I like to bake it for extra gloopiness and a crunchy top. So, if you have the time to spare, continue on to….

… the extras.

Baked

Put the macaroni cheese in an ovenproof dish. I then place it onto a baking tray to catch any drips when I inevitably over-fill it and the sauce bubbles over. Bake on 180C for roughly half an hour (depending how crispy you like it)

A crispy top.

Pulverise some stale bread in a food processor to make breadcrumbs. Or just rub it with your fingers. Or buy them; do what you like. Add a little more grated cheese, salt and pepper and add to the top of your macaroni before you bake it.

Potato

When I was growing up I was always jealous of my best friend whose Mum let her crumble ready salted crisps on top of her macaroni cheese. I think this is a genius idea and the contrasting textures are really interesting. Just don’t bake the crisps. Another good friend over at www.iwillliveoffcrisps.tumblr.com recommends smoky bacon flavour for this. (If you need to know anything about crisps, check out her blog. In fact, check it out even if you don’t think you need to know anything about crisps. It’s that good) She also recommends Nigella’s tip of adding 500g of mashed sweet potato to your sauce. I’ve not tried this yet but it sounds very exciting. I will post an update once I’ve tried it.

Meat

Another way of adding interest to your macaroni cheese is to add microwavable hot dogs (Quorn do great vegetarian ones), crispy bacon or ham. Come on now, this is a macaroni cheese recipe; it was never going to be healthy.

Introduction – Putting the “fun” into food intolerance…

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“Cooking without ingredients has never been so easy! Make your own alternatives for the free from lifestyle with no fuss, no calories and no hefty price tag! Buy pure, natural goodness without the natural ingredients! Who said food intolerance wasn’t fun?”

When I first investigated the world of “free from” cooking several years ago in an effort to mitigate the symptoms of chronic illness, little did I anticipate the rabbit hole I was blithely stepping into. I thought that making a few simple changes to my diet would be a piece of cake. (Or no cake at all, as it turned out)

I’ve always been a decent, if fairly homely, cook and I knew a little about wheat-free baking thanks to a housemate of mine so at first, I tried to go it alone. I would be a rebel! A lone wolf! A maverick kitchen crusader, bravely making things up as I went along! That worked for about as long as it takes for a slice of gluten free toast to burn so I did what anyone in my situation these days would do: I sought guidance from the collective knowledge pool.

Anyone consulting the internet for the first time on cooking without a specific ingredient would be forgiven for thinking that food intolerance is somehow an aspirational lifestyle choice. Recipes for free-from cooking are presented in much the same way that all of the other “healthy eating” recipes are; with lots of peppy alliteration, exotic sounding ingredients and beautiful macro photography in an effort to make it all seem ever so appealing.

Most of the websites and blogs I read online seemed either to be one of two distinct breeds. Some were blandly utilitarian; recipe databases or newspaper magazine articles, offering no real insight further than the basic recipe and some buzzy adjectives. The supposedly more personal websites seemed solely to be written by perky super-women who, in my state of frustration and hunger, I found it impossible to relate to. Their advice was generally very good but I was always left feeling wistful and slightly inadequate. Mostly because the recipes I attempted didn’t turn out anything like the beautiful creations in the (suspiciously professional) pictures. The recipe books I consulted were exactly the same. Universally, all of the books and websites chirped about how it was all so easy and simple. They never mentioned the particular kind of despair that comes from having yet another loaf of lovingly prepared organic spelt sourdough sink inexplicably to a flat, inedible brick in the nanosecond you take your eye off it, leaving you without lunch the next day because you cannot eat any of the food in the work cafeteria and the only shop that sells bread you can eat is miles away and it’s just closed for the day.

The essential problem is, most of us are not Superman/woman. Most of us are Clark Kent: tired, busy and on modest incomes. We have families to consider and work to be done. Those of us who need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons may also be feeling ill into the bargain. On a wet Monday morning in February most of us will not be rising at dawn to whip up a 20 ingredient power smoothie before our morning salute to the sun. Most of us would prefer to spend our Sundays relaxing on the sofa rather than batch cooking “energy balls” to take to work that week. What if we don’t enjoy cooking? What if we really just hate quinoa?

I aim to redress the balance. I cannot do anything about those last two questions but as I traverse the treacherous landscape of free from cooking I can log my successes, my failures and all the little tricks experience will teach me along the way. I can talk about what I cook and how I cook it with candour and detail. I can include all of my tips for making life that little bit easier. I can even add a little humour to the mix. I can promise poor quality photography or no photography at all. I can produce dishes that might not look all that great but will probably taste quite nice. I suspect I will annoy everyone by mostly using outdated Imperial measurements. I too will no doubt use more than my fair share of alliteration. I hope that in sharing my experience some stranger somewhere might learn from my mistakes, or simply be comforted by the fact that they are not alone. Oh, and I promise never, ever to be perky.

Note: In writing these recipes I will assume some prior knowledge on the part of the reader of kitchen basics but very little of free-from cooking. I will therefore go into a lot of detail on most recipes.