Easy Christmas Spinach, mushroom and chickpea curry

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Butternut Squash and Spinach Christmas Curry

Ok, ok I exaggerate. There’s nothing remotely Christmas about these curries, apart from the fact that I love to eat them on Boxing Day, after the stodginess of Christmas day food has passed. The freshness of the garlic, ginger and spinach makes you feel glowy and healthy inside, while the butternut squash curry (coming soon) adds that little bit of decadence to what could otherwise be a bit of a nutritious and dull meal. 

Spinach, chickpea and mushroom curry – perfect with a dollop of tangy mango chutney

1. Throw an onion into a pan (with vegetable oil in) with some chopped up garlic and chilli. Add some mustard seeds, fenugreek (if you have it) a generous helping of turmeric, chilli powder, cumin and garam-masala. 

2. Add a few handfuls of frozen spinach (or fresh if you’re feeling rich), a can of chick-peas and some chopped up mushrooms, add a bit of water and a sprinkle of stock powder and put a lid on. 

3. It’s nice to add some chana dahl (some of the dried lentils) to the dish to, as they give it a little more crunch and more body. 

4. Leave to cook for about 30 minutes ideally, add some more water if it’s sticking. 

5. To finish, if you have it, sprinkle some fresh coriander and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

I love to put pumpkins seeds on the top of the curries as they can add a bit of texture to the meal, and also cut through with a healthy dose of saltiness. I do the pumpkin seeds by popping a good handful into a hot pan, pouring a healthy dash of soy sauce over the seeds and leaving the pan for around five minutes while I poke about with other things. 

They’re great to eat as a snack on their own too, sitting in front of a good film and dipping your hand into the bowl of sticky, salty seeds. 

The fussy eater’s Christmas dinner!

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A steamy Christmas dinner with very flat Yorkshires

This year, my mum and dad came round to the fact that I really was severely  intolerant to dairy and gluten, and went all out to ensure that I could enjoy the Christmas cheer. Normally, I hate Christmas food. As a vegetarian, I was always handed a cop-off dry nut roast from M&S while the rest of the family tucked into turkey and ham and all the trimmings. Even though my mum and dad are vegetarian too, before quite recently they still thought that overcooked vegetables were just great, so Christmas dinner usually descended into a soggy, water-logged affair where the sprouts, now light green, would ooze water over the plate soaking the roast potatoes and the nut roast. 

The last five years I have cooked my own Christmas dinner. While everyone else tucked into the turkey, I would cook an innovative veggie main for my mum, dad and I that made the rest of the family envious. Until this year, I really struggled to understand why people enjoyed Christmas dinner.

But then this year, we had a family meal with just my boyfriend, my mum and my dad on Christmas day. My dad encouraged me to try Christmas dinner again, so I conceded. He made everything dairy and gluten free including this amazing tomato, butter bean and lentil nut roast which was absolutely fabulous. 

The roast potatoes were flour-free and fondenty and delicious. The sprouts weren’t overcooked. Mum made some cranberry sauce which actually worked. And, best of all, he even made me some little Yorkshire Puddings that were dairy and gluten free. Which, considering that a Yorkie is basically flour and milk was an absolutely wonderful (if slightly flat) achievement. 

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Super out of focus

It has been the only meal in living memory where nothing was compromised and I was able to eat everything on the plate. And that, being able to join in with everybody else because there were so few of us, made the day pretty special. And, even though visiting extended family members over the last few days has meant that I’ve had to live off potatoes only for three days, the memory of the effort my mum and dad put into to making Christmas edible for me got me through!

But I’m interested in how other vegans and vegetarians celebrate Christmas. Do you go traditional and still have a nut-roast? Or do you just have the trimmings? Has anyone just cooked themselves a separate meal and brought it to the table? 

Itsu weird.

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Lunch.

Ok Wasabi Christmas special you have a contender! Welcome the Itsu “Eat beautiful Hummous flatbread”. This lunch choice is not excellent. In fact, the fact that I am now stuck with five pounds worth of regret on my desk saddens me.

I didn’t think you could really go wrong with hummous and flatbread. Evidently, I was mistaken. They’ve added some salad on to the hummous. Awesome! Nice touch! Except salad really translates as very long pieces of stringy rocket, the type that when you eat them the hang out of the side of your mouth and you have to make that apologetic face to colleagues as you suck in the greens like you would spaghetti, flicking hummous and sauce all over the shop.

Initially I only logged onto my wordpress blog to make the point that this hummous wrap is impossible to eat and that it is the nemesis of any desk worker. Especially when trying to hack at lumps of the wrap with Itsu’s flimsy cutlery.

Then you dig a little deeper into the mound of hummous and there are edamame beans. Why? What do edamame beans have to do with hummous? I’m sorry, is this fusion lunch food?

Want to know what’s worse? Sure you do. Someone has to warn you. They’ve added a sauce. No, me neither. No idea why you need a sauce with a hummous flatbread unless you’ve got something to hide. In this case, the edamame beans and the weirdly inconvenient wrap that’s not a wrap but a class A hassle. The sauce is bright green. I didn’t notice this when I bought it, but as soon as I did I was hooked. You don’t give somebody a luminous green sauce with a hummous wrap and not experiment. It would be mint, obviously. Everybody pairs mint with hummous. It’s very middle eastern. Maybe this would be a sensible step to cover their edaame mistake. They were probably embarassed by adding the beans. “Oh it’s Phil’s idea. He’s been here for ages. He has a wife and kids to support. Oh, we’ll give him the edamame beans. I know sounds horrific but it’s the first idea he’s had in months and we can’t fire him before christmas. Ok then, well develop something to disguise the idea then. Ok, brilliant, bye!”

And so they designed a lurid green coconut coriander lemon sauce to drizzle over the hummous, the floppy rocket and the wrap that can’t be wrapped. It was an expensive mistake and I feel it is my duty to alert others. Stick with the Potsu.

To hell with the Wasabi christmas special sushi

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Take that sign down, buddy

Ok, enough. Anybody who knows me knows that I crave sushi most hours of the day. I could eat it for breakfast or supper. I crave the fiery wasabi paste and love the umami flavour from the soy sauce mixing with nori. The palate cleansing pickled ginger is equally good. The chains in London aren’t wonderful, but they do ok sushi. I wrote a post way back when about the top places to buy sushi in London, and this totally still stands: Wasabi, as a chain, are the best.

But their vegetarian Christmas special is beyond disgusting. With flabby pumpkin croquettes and a solitary pomegranate seed placed gingerly on top of the breadcrumb, it’s just a weird combination. Even more strange is the extremely generous helping of Thai Sweet Chilli sauce. What is this shit? Fusion Thai, Japanese, Middle-Eastern Christmas Sctick? It SUCKs-bin it.

Plus, you marketing apes at Wasabi, don’t think just because I’m vegetarian I want to eat this crap. Give me back the massive vegetarian platter for £5.45 and keep your arbitrary christmas themed sushi. Because nobody, nobody in the history of the world has ever gone: “Oh, it’s the 25th of Christmas. Bin the roast potatoes and pudding darling, we’re off to get some Christmas sushi! I hope they still have that single festive pomegranate seed on it! That would really bring some sparkle to my yuletide celebrations!”

So no. Stop it. No.

Strada: a guide for Vegans and Coeliacs

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I have a soft spot in my heart for this fancy chain Italian restaurant. I worked there on and off this year to save money for my Masters, and also before, up north in Sheffield after I resigned from KPMG and when I was saving up to move to Italy. Strada has struggled with it’s identity recently: is it still the posh Pizza Express, and what else can it offer to justify those expensive prices? Staff recently were given a missive to “act casual”: Strada, the home of anniversaries and reliable birthday meals became more like an Italian diner. Except, it didn’t really. The food stayed pretty good, and, like any good chain, it’s consistently tasty.

However, as Pizza Express and Pizza Hut make the move to Gluten Free pizza bases, how can Strada compete? Other than invest in some gluten-free pizza dough, I’m not sure I have the answer. However, to all you vegans out there, rest assured that Strada’s pizza dough is absolutely, 100% dairy and egg free-just wheat flour, rapeseed oil and yeast. 

Strada’s big draw is the Aglio: flatbread with garlic oil and rosemary. Ask for it with garlic oil, and remind your server not to let it even waft near butter and this is what you’ll levae Strada remembering. It smells divine, and waitressing pre GF and Vg, this was what I craved at the end of every long shift. 

The tricolore salad with the mozzarella, tomatoes and avocado can be made into a satisfying bicolore. Ask for extra avocado to make up for the protein deficit, or ask for an egg to be sliced up and added instead. If your server is good, they should be happy to offer you this alternative.

In terms of mains, vegans are well served with the Puttanesca, a cheese less pizza covered with capers, fresh basil and chilli flakes. Bear in mind this comes with anchovies, so ask for the anchovies to be switched with mushrooms to make a satisfying meal. Also, a drizzle of chilli oil and extra garlic comes in handy because without the Mozzarella it can be quite dry. Still pretty delicious though. 

For any dairy-free eaters out there, it’s good to note that every pizza can be altered. Tell your server that you’re allergic to dairy and they have a big fat button on the till that says “Dairy allergy.” If they’re super good (and Strada staff are trained within an inch of their life-trust me, they’ll even go up to the pass and have a quiet word with the chef letting him know that table 17 has an allergy). 

If you’re after risotto or pasta, make the point that you have allergies to your server again. The verdure is a fail-safe choice (remember to remind your server that you’d like it cheese free, just in case). If you crave the tang of cheese, I would suggest adding a hefty helping of balsamic vinegar and chilli oil to it and a squeeze of lemon. if it’s not busy, ask the bar to fetch you a slice. Mix it all together and you’ve got a pretty neat approximation of the tangy flavour Grana Padano. The addition of as many herbs as you can get helps to add more flavour (extra Basil was always appreciated) and a hefty grind of black-pepper makes the blandest Strada meal sing. 

Finally, the pasta. Penne Arrabiata is the obvious safe choice for vegans (not gluten free yet I’m afraid, although, like Pizza Express, if it’s very quiet if you bring you’re own pasta, the chefs will cook the sauce of your choice with it). Otherwise, ask for a vegetarian version of the strozzapreti luganega: no sausage, bacon, cheese or butter, but instead just the spinach, some big mushrooms, lemon and some garlic oil. Ok, so it’s not identical, but the chef’s work better if you alter the menu, than going crazily off-piste. Plus, your server will have to press fewer buttons on the till which is always appreciated. There’s nothing worse than having to find out where “extra, extra aubergine” is on the till for a children’s menu. 

So there you have it. How to do Strada, the vegan way. if you’re gluten free too, as I am, I’d give Strada a bit of a wide berth unless you really, really like risotto and olives, because that, I’m afraid is what you’re stuck with until they catch up with their competitors.

Buon appetito!

Vegan, gluten-free peanut butter and oat cookies

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I have a perpetual problem with making vegan and gluten free cookies. Rice flour, or the Doves GF flour that I normally use in cakes makes biscuits too dusty and crumbly, It’s difficult to achieve that gooey effect that’s so great with non-GF cookies. I found a recipe on a wonderful blog called Paint and Tofu for peanut butter, chocolate and oatmeal cookies but they weren’t gluten free. I’ve adapted the recipe a little, but full credit goes to this wonderful recipe on her blog. It really is a brilliant recipe, and all I’ve done is tweak it to make all you coeliacs out there happy too.

Ingredients

Half a cup of crunchy peanut butter

One cup of GF (Red Mill) rolled oats

One cup of GF Doves plain flour

Half a cup of soya or almond milk

Half a cup of muscavdo sugar (this makes them a little chewier with a slightly more caramelly flavour

Half a cup of vegetarian granulated sugar

A third of a cup of sunflower oil

A pinch of salt

You can add some grated dark chocolate to this, or, if you have them dark chocolate chips. I chopped up 1.2 a bar of chunks of Morissons cooking chocolate (87p) and whacked them in, but it’s made it a little rich. Chunks of fresh apple would lighten this.

Method

First, mix all the wet ingredients together including the peanut butter.

Add in the flour, oats and chocolate. If the mixture is still too wet, add a little more flour.

Grease a baking sheet, turn the oven’s temperature to 180 degrees and roll into balls. Flatten balls with the back of a fork. They don’t grow so you can fit them snugly next to each other.

Bake for 8-10 minutes. Don’t cook for any longer. You want a cookie, not a crisp. They’ll be gooey on the inside, and, best of all, there’s no egg so you don’t need to cook them through to ensure edibility.

Leave on the tray for a minute or two after you’ve got them out or they’ll collapse and then stack up on a plate and serve.

Brixton’s super Franco Manca

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Cheese not included

Gluten makes me die inside. But there are some days, such as this one, when I just decide to eat it. My run was cancelled because of the rain (each time I stepped outside a deluge started) so I had to go and work out indoors in the gym, and I didn’t have a phone so I missed my friend who I was meant to be having coffee with, and my plot was stagnating in my book. It was one of those days when I wanted to eat something really unhealthy to make me feel better. Normally, I head to the taco place in Brixton village for a double helping of corn (gf free) tacos, guacamole, super spicy sauce and stewed spicy mushrooms. But en route today I went past Franco Manca’s and noticed that there wasn’t a queue. I did a double take. 

Franco Manca sells the best pizza in London. Or so I’ve heard, because I can’t eat pizza. I can’t eat the dough and i can’t eat cheese. But every time I’ve walked past it, I’ve stared at people’s plates salivating. When I didn’t have allergies I stayed for a while in Naples and got used to picking up a slice of cheeseless pizza the size of my head wrapped in paper for lunch and letting it sustain me for the rest of the day. This pizza indeed looked excellent.

I noticed the menu offered a true Neopolitan option: just a great tomato sauce with garlic and oregano. Screw my stupid allergy I though and took a seat inside with my boyfriend. I placed my order, asked for extra olives, and waited for my pizza to come. As soon as it came, I cut the crust off and handed a halo of dough over to Sam whose eyes lit up. At least that was some of the gluten taken care of. 

But then I dived in. It was a big pizza, and for £4.95 it was glorious. Truly, the best pizza I have ever eaten in England. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was the first non-GF pizza I had eaten in 18 months, but the garlic and the tomato were just tangy, sweet and wonderful all in one. What made it brilliant of course, was the sourdough base. The sourdough that is currently causing severe cramping. But it was worth it and I don’t regret a bite. 

The pizzas are simple, but there is a generous bottle of garlic oil and another of chilli oil on the table which added extra heat to the plainness of the pizza. But really, these were unnecessary. The slightly bitter sourdough with pockets of burnt dough from the pizza oven complemented the piquant, fresh tomato. It was a match made in perfect, unadulterated heaven and I was sad when I finished it all.

It’s not a bad location either. It’s in the arcades closest to the tube, which is one of the reasons the queues are so vast. Everyone in the restaurant other than me seemed to be on a gay first date, and the man behind me was boasting about how he was dating Eddie Izzard, which seemed unlikely seeing as Izzard claims to be a “lesbian trapped in a man’s body.”

Nevertheless, anybody who took me to Franco Manca’s to eat pizza would certainly get a second date. Super. And for a budget conscious vegan, a fiver for a gigantic pizza was just wonderful and so worth the stomach agony brought on by the sourdough. 

Oops.