Tag Archives: Gluten-free

The Humble Cauliflower

allotment-harvest

Before this year, I’d never grown a cauliflower. It’s one of those vegetables that, rumour has it, is very tricky to grow – and consequently I’ve never tried! After my abortive attempt at Romanesco last year, though, I thought I’d give cauliflower a whirl – not least because I’d received a free packet of Cauliflower Snowball seeds with my pack of goodies accompanying the bumper Gardener’s World edition that comes out with the 2-for-1 garden visit card each spring. I sowed them at the end of May, as I do all the brassica tribe: a late May sowing gives them time to germinate in seed trays, before pricking out a month or so later, then planting in their final positions down at the allotment at the end of July/early August at the latest, when the broad beans/early potatoes come out of the ground and free up some beds.

This year, my brassicas included old stalwarts purple-sprouting broccoli and cavolo nero (kale), plus calabrese and the new kid on the block (to me at any rate), cauliflower. I always net my brassicas to protect them from the dastardly pigeons at the allotment – and if I can I use Enviromesh too in a bid to thwart the even more pervasive cabbage white butterflies. Inevitably some get through, so you always have to be on the lookout for caterpillars when you harvest homegrown calabrese and cauliflowers – added protein!

brassicas

After the failure of the Romanesco last year, I was amazed when I lifted a corner of the Enviromesh tunnel a few weeks ago to check on the plants and found sizeable heads of cauliflower and calabrese. Success! Unfortunately, as is often the way, they are all ready at once, so I’ve been giving them away to family and friends – and using them in my own kitchen, of course.

I’d heard of the cauliflower crust pizza in the wake of the gluten-free and healthy eating craze, but probably wouldn’t have been tempted to experiment had my foodie son not tried and enthused about it. With a couple of plump cauliflower heads in the fridge, now seemed like the ideal opportunity. I hunted around online for suitable recipes, as you do, and the BBC Good Food version seemed like a contender, so here it is, tweaked to the ingredients at hand as ever:

Cauliflower Crust Pizza – serves 2-3

cauliflower-crust-pizza_cropped

1 medium cauliflower
50g ground almonds
1 egg
1 tsp oregano
Seasoning

1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp tomato purée
Seasoning
1 large aubergine
125g grated Cheddar cheese

Blitz the cauliflower in a food processor until rice-like (you may need to do this in two batches) and microwave for 4 minutes, then tip onto a clean tea towel, cool slightly, then squeeze out all the water (I save the juice for stock – or for the soup below!). Mix with the ground almonds, 1 egg and the oregano and pat out on a greased baking tray. Cook for 15 minutes at 200°C.
Meanwhile make a tomato sauce by gently frying the onions and garlic until softened, add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato purée and basil and cook down for 15-30 minutes until a nice, thick consistency.
Slice the aubergine thinly and grill the slices in batches under a hot grill, brushed with olive oil, turning as the first side browns. Spoon the tomato sauce onto the cooked pizza base, add the grilled aubergine slices and top with grated Cheddar cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Return to the oven for a further 10-12 minutes.
Eat hot – and marvel at how the crust mimics a standard pizza base and really doesn’t taste like cauliflower – amazing! And delicious, needless to say!

The discovery of my cache of cauliflowers happened to coincide with a few chillier days, so making soup seemed like a good idea. I’d made Broccoli & Stilton Soup before, with great success, but never cauliflower, and my usual scouring of the recipe books and various online sources didn’t yield quite what I had in mind. The end result was a cobbled-together mix of various recipes, mainly Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. It certainly hits the spot.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup – serves 6-8
cauliflower-cheese-soup_cropped

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
1 small potato, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 litre vegetable stock
Milk to taste
Grated nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 generous tsp wholegrain mustard
Seasoning
100g Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the chopped onion, celery, carrot, potato and garlic in butter for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the cauliflower and continue to cook gently for a further 15 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, bay leaves, seasoning and grated nutmeg, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the mustard.
Allow to cool slightly, then whizz in a blender, in batches, until smooth, and transfer to a clean pan. At this stage you can add milk if the consistency is thicker than you’d like. Stir in the grated cheese and warm gently before serving with fresh bread.
Freezes beautifully, like most soups – if anything, the flavour is often even better after a spell in the freezer!

allotment-cloches

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Autumn Glory

ratatouille-ingredients

I can barely believe that September has flown past and here we are in October, summer definitely over, yet the gardens are still overflowing with beautiful produce. The weather is still being kind to us, at least down here in the South-East, so my (late) sweet peas are still going strong, as are the dahlias, and the courgettes are still producing chunky fruit every couple of days! There’s definitely a chill in the air, though, certainly in the morning and evening, and the leaves on my scarlet Euonymus alatus are just starting to turn – a sure sign that autumn has arrived.

euonymus-alatus

The late start to the growing season this year has meant that some crops haven’t done as well as usual: my squashes are very small, for instance, and the runner beans have been sketchy, although the French beans have been magnificent! My two plum trees were cut back hard last year and tend to be biennial in any event, so I haven’t had vast amounts of fruit, but the later Marjorie variety has come up trumps with a few bowls’ worth of sweet and juicy plums.

With all the ingredients for ratatouille to hand, it seemed sacrilege not to make some for the freezer – something you really appreciate in the dank. dark days of winter. In recent years I’ve been oven-roasting the standard veg for a baked ratatouille, but this time I’ve reverted to the traditional method of cooking slowly on the hob – delightfully simple, yet delicious. I used courgettes, aubergine (two types), tomatoes, basil, red and green pepper, red onions and garlic, but the specific vegetables are not set in stone. In fact, I actually used a couple of tins of tomatoes, and a squirt of tomato purée, as my own tomatoes are not particularly prolific this year – that late Spring again! The Sungold and Gardener’s Delight have done well, as usual, but you never get enough to cook with on a large scale as they are cherry tomatoes, after all. The Black Russian, though extremely tasty and fleshy, have fruited very sparsely and I won’t be growing those outside again. Back to the drawing board next year for a larger outdoor tomato…

ratatouille_prep

Starting with the sliced onions, garlic and pepper, I gradually add the remaining veg as I prepare them by chopping roughly, then simmer for an hour or so. The taste of summer… Freezes beautifully, of course.

ratatouille

After the last couple of chillier nights, I removed all the remaining tomatoes from my outdoor plants this morning and have left them in baskets to ripen on the conservatory windowsill. I’ve done the same with some of my triffid-like chilli plants too. This year’s variety, the jalapeno-like Summer Heat, has been very tasty (if pretty hot!), but with very large fruit and leggy plants – not necessarily ideal on the conservatory window ledge!

Fortunately, the allotment is still full of veg for the coming months: leeks, brassicas, beetroot and parsnips are all yet to come – the joys of growing your own! My new autumn raspberries have taken well in their new bed and I’m picking a handful every couple of days – perfect with my breakfast muesli and yogurt. Apples are looking plentiful too and one of this weekend’s tasks should certainly be to harvest as many as I can for storage in the garage before the first frosts. Such a lovely time of year….

Oh, and those plums? Delicious eaten straight from the tree, of course, but this is one of my favourite recipes for a plum-based dessert/cake:

Plum and Almond Cake

plum-and-almond-cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
10-12 plums, halved, stones removed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
4 fl oz milk

Grease an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.
Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heart and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the plum halves on top, cut side down.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients, alternating with the milk.
Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. If any plums stick to the tin, just gently transfer them to their position on the cake.
Sprinkle with toasted flaked almonds if you like.
Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way!

Incidentally, I’ve also made this with gluten-free self-raising flour (Dove’s Farm) and it worked a treat – worth remembering!

Baking with courgettes…

The recent unexpected late summer heat has meant that the courgettes are still going great guns. Blink, or miss a day or two of harvesting, and you have marrows to contend with! Fortunately, I love courgettes, so courgette pasta, courgette & feta pancakes and grated courgette & beetroot salad have all been on the menu this week – hardly any wonder that I turn virtually vegetarian in the summer months.

Another way of using up courgette gluts is to use them in baking. Bread and cakes with added courgette seem incredibly light and airy – and decidedly virtuous: green AND making inroads into the courgette mountain!

I first made courgette bread  a few years ago when I stumbled across a delicious-sounding recipe on Jack Monroe’s website, then called “A Girl called Jack”. The website has now been rebranded “Cooking on a bootstrap“, but the recipe remains the same – along with the intention of providing tasty food on a shoestring. I’ve adapted it slightly for use in a breadmaker, but it is fundamentally based on Jack’s original idea – and a really nice way of using up some of those courgettes. (See the original website if you want to make it the old-fashioned way.)

Courgette, Lemon & Sultana Bread

courgette, lemon and sultana bread

1 medium courgette
300g strong bread flour, plus extra to knead the dough
1 tsp dried yeast (I like Dove’s Farm)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
50g sultanas
zest and juice of 1⁄2 a lemon
1 tsp caraway seeds (optional)
Water
Poppy seeds to sprinkle

Grate the courgette finely into a large mixing bowl and set aside in a colander to allow some of the liquid to drain off – especially important if using juicy homegrown courgettes! Put 1 tsp dried yeast, 300g strong bread flour, salt and sugar into the breadmaker, then add the drained courgette, sultanas, lemon zest and caraway seeds if using. Add the water to the lemon juice and make up to 100-120 ml – I would tend to add the lesser amount if using homegrown veg. as they are very juicy. Set the breadmaker to dough mode – this takes 2 hrs 20 minutes in my Panasonic machine, but every machine will be different.

When the dough is ready, turn out onto a floured surface and knock down. You may need to add quite a lot of extra flour at this stage, depending on the juiciness of the courgettes. When the dough is soft, but able to be moulded without sticky fingers, pat out an oval on a greased baking sheet and leave in a warm place to prove for 30 mins – 1 hour. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if using.

Set oven to 180°C/gas 4 to preheat, then cook the proved loaf for 30 minutes. It should be golden and crisp on top, feel lightweight and sound hollow on the bottom when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then serve with butter and hunks of cheese – this is also surprisingly good toasted with jam!

My second bread recipe came about when I realised I hadn’t left myself enough time to make a yeasted dough and had people coming for lunch. A quick internet search (I find myself doing this more and more nowadays despite my many recipe books!) brought up this BBC recipe, which is amazingly good considering how quick it is – and yes, it uses up yet more courgettes! I adapted it to what I had in the fridge, as ever, but honey aficionados might like to check out the original recipe.

Courgette & Cheddar Soda Bread

Courgette and Cheddar soda bread

400g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
2 medium courgettes
50g rolled oats
1 tsp salt
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g mature cheddar, grated
few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
285ml natural yogurt
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 egg, beaten or milk, to glaze

Heat oven to 180°C fan/gas 6 and grease, then dust a baking sheet with a little flour. Coarsely grate the courgettes, then place in a clean tea towel and  squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Put the flour, oats, bicarb and 1 tsp salt in a large bowl. Add most of the cheddar (save a little for the top), thyme leaves and grated courgettes. Mix the yogurt and maple syrup, then pour into the flour mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to clump together, then tip onto a work surface and knead briefly to bring all the loose bits together – try not to overwork the dough or the bread will be heavy.

Shape into a round loaf and place on the baking sheet. Brush with egg or milk and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Use a sharp knife to score a deep cross on top of the loaf, then bake for 30-40 mins until deep golden brown. Best served warm, but leftovers will keep for 1-2 days. Delicious with soup, cheese or hummus – and makes delicious toast!

My final baking suggestion is a courgette cake. Inspired by Bake Off’s drizzle challenge this week, I fancied a courgette drizzle cake – and sure enough, my internet searches brought up a few promising candidates. I plumped for a gluten-free option (always worth experimenting before you’re expecting guests) from the Waitrose recipe site, and was amazed by the results: you would never guess this was a GF cake – sublime!

Courgette Lemon Drizzle Cake

Courgette drizzle cakethe

250g courgettes, coarsely grated
175g butter, softened
175g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g ricotta
125g Doves Farm self-raising flour
85g polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Finely grated juice and zest 2 lemons
Handful thyme sprigs
6-8 tbsp icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4. Grease and base-line 2 loaf tins (or one if you prefer a larger cake for a crowd – bear in mind that cakes made with fresh vegetables don’t keep as long, especially in the warm summer months. I made one to eat and one to freeze.). Put the grated courgettes into a clean tea towel and squeeze out excess juice.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until creamy. Gradually beat in the eggs, adding a spoonful of flour if it looks as though it is starting to curdle, followed by the vanilla and ricotta. Fold in the flour, polenta, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Finally fold in the lemon zest, grated courgettes and thyme leaves, reserving some for decoration.

Spoon the mixture into the loaf tin/s and bake for 1 hour (large tin) or 35 mins (two tins) until risen, golden and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out onto a wire rack.

Mix the lemon juice with the icing sugar and a sprinkling of thyme leaves. Spoon the drizzle over the cooled cake and leave to set. Slice and serve with a cup of tea for a delectable afternoon treat.

Courgette drizzle cake_closeup

Peas, courgettes and beetroot…

Peas

This has been a week of hefty pickings from the allotment – and with only me here to eat it all, my cooking has been very much variations on a theme! Hard to believe that just six weeks ago, I was worried whether the plants would survive the cold/slugs/pigeon attacks. I needn’t have fretted; the peas, mangetout and sugarsnap, have been amazing, outgrowing their net protection frame so much that I had to put in extension poles to raise the height (and stop those plump allotment pigeons pecking out the tips). The courgettes, sown and brought on in the warmth of the conservatory, have loved the freshly-manured bed and plentiful rain followed by sun, and almost growing before my eyes. I sowed two varieties this year, my old stalwart, the dark green Defender, and a pale green Italian variety from seed producers Franchi Sementi, called simply Genovese – which is delicious and very prolific. I wasn’t sure that seed from a hot country would do as well here, but so far I’m very impressed.

I try and walk down to the allotment every other evening in the harvesting season – or every evening if it’s very hot, especially if I have new plantings I need to keep watered. Even with such a short time interval between harvests, I am still returning with four or five courgettes and a punnet full of peas, to say nothing of soft fruit. I’ve given some away to friends and neighbours, of course, and my son and his fiancée visited briefly this weekend and went back after dinner with a vegetable box worth of fruit and veg from me and my son’s future in-laws. With tomatoes, lettuce and round courgettes from their smallholding, and sugarsnaps, straight courgettes, dill, jostaberries and dahlias from me, they can cancel this week’s Abel&Cole box without any qualms at all!

Baba ghanoush for lunch

It’s been surprisingly easy to come up with different combinations each night for dinner. I love eating the sugarsnaps raw with my simple lunch, but I’ve also had them in pasta sauce with fresh pesto and courgettes, as a quick & easy stir-fry with mushrooms and a hint of bacon, in a cream sauce with dill and smoked salmon to top linguine, and in a delicious pea orzotto inspired by Bake Off’s John Whaite via Twitter. I suspect this would also work with pearled spelt, although I haven’t tried it yet – or of course you could use rice, but cooking for a much shorter time as for a standard risotto.

Sugarsnap Orzotto with Tangy Feta & Mint – serves 2

Sugarsnap orzotto

1 litre vegetable stock, preferably homemade
300g sugarsnaps and/or mangetout peas
1 lemon, grated zest and juice
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Olive oil
1 onion, chopped
125 – 150g pearl barley, rinsed and drained
Small glass white wine
Handful fresh dill, roughly chopped
Handful fresh mint, roughly chopped
100g feta cheese
Salt and pepper

Put the vegetable stock, 200g peas, half the lemon zest and the crushed garlic into a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes until the sugarsnaps are tender (mangetouts will need less time), then allow to cool. Blitz in a blender to a smooth liquid and sieve to remove strings – essential, even with fresh-picked sugarsnaps!
In a large, shallow casserole, heat a generous amount of olive oil over a medium heat, and add the chopped onions. Cook for 5 minutes or until transparent, then add the pearl barley and white wine. Bubble for a few minutes, than add some of the blended pea stock, half the lemon juice, seasoning and half the chopped dill and mint. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 hour – 1 hour 15 minutes, topping up with more stock as it is absorbed by the barley. Chop the remaining sugarsnaps/mangetouts into bite-sized pieces and add after half an hour. You may not need all the stock, so keep an eye on it, and keep testing the barley for tenderness. Meanwhile, chop the feta cheese into small chunks and add the remaining lemon zest and juice, chopped mint and dill and a splash of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Leave to marinate while the risotto cooks. Once the pearl barley is tender, it is ready. Serve topped with the minty feta cheese, and garnish with extra raw sugarsnaps if you have any!

Earlier in the week, I also served both peas and courgettes raw in a sublime beetroot “rice” and feta salad adapted from a recipe suggestion in Olive magazine. I’ve grown two varieties this year, my favourite Cylindra for deliciously sweet, cylindrical beets that peel easily after roasting, and Chioggia, an usual and very pretty pink and white-striped beetroot. So far, I’ve found the taste of the Chioggia a little insipid when cooked, and the stripes/colour tend to fade to a muddy pink, which is disappointing – but grated raw in this salad, they were a revelation!

Beetroot “Rice” Salad with Feta, Sugarsnaps & Courgettes
– serves 2

Beetroot rice salad

4 raw beetroot (I used Chioggia), peeled and roughly chopped
Handful of dill, chopped
100g feta, chopped
100g sugarsnap peas, trimmed and roughly chopped
100g fresh courgettes, sliced very thinly into discs
2 tbsp sunflower seeds, toasted
1 heaped tsp cumin seeds, roasted
Lettuce to serve

Tangy lemon dressing
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Handful dill, chopped (and/or mint)
Salt and pepper

Put the chopped beetroot into a food processor and process until it resembles grains of rice. Tip into a serving bowl. Make the dressing by blending all the ingredients together in a jar and shaking until emulsified. Pour half the dressing over the beetroot – you won’t need it all, but see how you go. Any left over will keep well in the fridge for a week. Mix in the toasted sunflower and cumin seeds, sugarsnaps and courgettes and finally sprinkle over the feta. Serve on a bed of lettuce and enjoy! It’s hard to believe something so healthy and raw can taste so good.

 

Chocolate Indulgence

Thalia II

There are times when only chocolate hits the spot. Despite the sunny weather we’ve experienced this week, it’s still pretty cold here on the Kent/Sussex border. After a mild start to the year in which some of the early daffodils bloomed in January, my beautiful Thalia daffodils are still flowering away, yet the tulips are still for the most part in bud – apart from down at the allotment, where they’re flowering away in the middle of my asparagus bed, strangely! I can’t think it’s warmer at the allotment site, as it’s on an exposed (but sunny) hillside, but perhaps they’re planted less deeply than the bulbs at home. These are the bulbs emptied from last year’s tubs, so I’m delighted they’ve flowered again – but can’t bring myself to pick them as they look so pretty!

Tulips in asparagus bed

My seedlings, sown before my recent skiing holiday, are doing well in the conservatory, but the soil is far too cold to sow straight into the ground, so I’m going to have to hold fire this weekend and hope for warmer weather by the end of the month. Tomorrow’s tasks will include pricking out and potting on the seedlings – and hoping that the conservatory window ledges are big enough to hold the many resulting individual pots! My second-early potatoes can go into the ground, though, as they’re planted sufficiently deeply to avoid any lingering cold or frost.

The house is pleasantly heated by the warmth of the sun from the conservatory during the day, but I still have the heating set to come on morning and evening to take the chill off. Even so, comfort food is definitely the order of the day and that nip in the air means that only chocolate will do! This is one of my favourite indulgent recipes, from Nigella Lawson, and probably amazingly calorific, but absolutely delicious at the same time. Think Marathon bars (or Snickers, if you insist!), only ten times nicer, and you’ll get the picture. To be made once in a while, when you’re in need of a pick-me-up, salty yet sweet at the same time. Just make sure you have plenty of guests to share it with, as it’s far too tempting to sit in a tin and ration….

Nigella’s Chocolate & Peanut Crunchie Bars

Choc and peanut bars

200g milk chocolate
100g dark chocolate
(or any combination, all dark, all milk, etc – I prefer all dark, personally)
125g butter
3 x 15ml golden syrup
250g salted peanuts (yes, salted!)
4 x 40g Crunchie bars

 1 x 25cm round cake tin or 1 baking tray approx 30 x 20 x 5cm

Line tin with foil.
Break chocolate into pieces and put in a saucepan with the butter and syrup.
Melt gently over a low heat, stirring as you go.
Tip the peanuts into a bowl and crush the Crunchie bars in their packets, then add the pieces to the bowl.
Take the melted chocolate off the heat and stir in the nuts and crushed Crunchie bars.
Mix together and tip into your lined tin, pressing down with a spatula.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, then cut into slices, either 24 skinny wedges if using a round tin, or 20-24 large rectangles if using a baking tray.
Enjoy!

My next indulgent recipe is a variation on a brownie that’s suitable for gluten-free visitors as it’s flourless – but definitely not for anyone looking to cut down on their sugar intake! Every now and again, though, you can surely bend the rules and treat yourself to these insanely good brownies? The recipe came from the Waitrose Kitchen magazine in the first place, along with a number of other scrumptious traybakes that I make again and again (see also Rocky Road Flapjack and Blackberry, Lime & Elderflower Drizzle Cake).

Chocolate Caramel Brownies

300g dark chocolate
250g butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
350g caster sugar
5 eggs, beaten
200g ground almonds
1 heaped tsp baking powder
1 397g can Carnation Caramel

Set oven to 160°C fan/Gas 4 and grease a 30 x 20 x 5 cm baking tin, then line with baking parchment.
Melt the dark chocolate with the butter in a large pan over a low heat.
Stir in the vanilla extract and caster sugar, then mix in the 5 beaten eggs, ground almonds and baking powder.
Tip into the prepared tin, then swirl the contents of the can of Carnation Caramel over the top with a knife.
Bake for 40-45 minutes until set on top, but still moist inside.
Leave to cool in the tin before slicing into portions – at least 16!

Here’s hoping the weather picks up soon, so we can get digging to work off all those chocolatey calories….

Nigella's choc and peanut bars with flowers

Sugar-free Treats – MUCH nicer than you’d think…

Crocus close-up

After the excesses of the Easter weekend and all that chocolate, cake and family get-togethers, maybe it’s time to think about getting back on the straight and narrow?!

Whilst I’m not specifically seeking to cut down on sugar or lose weight, there’s no way of avoiding the fact that sugar has become public enemy No. 1 in the dietary stakes, far outstripping butter and eggs as previous contenders for the title! It may well change again, but I’m only too well aware that eating too much refined sugar can play havoc with your digestive system, to say nothing of your teeth. Cooking most of my food from scratch, I don’t usually fall prey to the hidden sugars that are in much mass-produced food, but I have to confess that I do have a sweet tooth and I love my cakes and puddings.

With that in mind, I’ve recently been experimenting with a number of sugar-free recipes and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. It would certainly be no hardship to have to forego sugar if the alternative was to exist on these! Many sugar-free recipes are based on honey, which is a bit of a disadvantage for me as I can’t stand the stuff – but with a little adaptation, it’s possible to use agave nectar or maple syrup instead, I find. All three recipes are gluten-free too, which is an added boon if you regularly have gluten-intolerant visitors, as I do.

My food mantra is, as ever, everything in moderation – but if you fancy a change and are looking to cut back on your sugar intake, you might want to experiment with these very tempting treats:

The first is a recipe that appeared in a little healthy eating booklet that came free with the Telegraph in the austere month of January. It’s by the “Medicinal Chef”, Dale Pinnock, although I’ve adapted it slightly to suit what I had available. I guarantee that it not only looks pretty, but tastes divine – and not at all earnestly healthy!

FRIDGE FRUIT & NUT BARS

Fridge fruit & nut bars
8 tbsp mixed seeds (I used golden flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, pine nuts and poppy, but use any combination of whatever you have to hand!)
2 handfuls goji berries
1 handful pitted dates
1 tbsp chopped nuts (cashews, walnuts, brazils – your choice!)
1 tbsp dried fruit (I used dried cranberries or apricots)
4 tbsp cocoa powder (original recipe says cacao powder, but I didn’t have it, so cocoa worked fine)
1 tbsp desiccated coconut
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp coconut oil

Topping: 1 tbsp goji berries, 1 tbsp chopped nuts, 1 tbsp dried apricots, chopped

Place the seeds, goji berries, dates, nuts, dried fruit, cocoa/cacao powder, coconut and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse until you create a coarse mixture. Melt the coconut oil in a pan over a gentle heat – this will not take long! Pour over the seed and nut mixture in the food processor and process at full speed until combined to form a thick paste. Add more fruit here if you think it looks too runny – everyone’s hands are a different size! However, it will thicken as it sets…

Line a 7” square cake tin with foil and turn the mixture into the tin, pressing down evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle over the topping ingredients and press down firmly with the spatula.

Place in the fridge to set for at least three hours. Cut into 12 pieces and enjoy!

My second recipe was inspired by a colleague on the Foodie Translators Facebook group and is equally sublime: raspberries, dark chocolate and pistachios: what’s not to like? This one definitely does need to be kept in the fridge if you use frozen raspberries as opposed to freeze-dried, but is no less delicious for that and still keeps a fair time – if given the chance! The original recipe is from Fitter Foods, here: https://www.fitterfood.com/recipe/dark-chocolate-raspberry-pistachio-refrigerator-cake/

DARK CHOCOLATE, RASPBERRY AND PISTACHIO BARS

Chocolate, raspberry and pistachio bars

50g pistachios (shelled)
50g pecans, halved
50g desiccated coconut
300g 50-70% dark chocolate
100g butter
50g maple syrup
2 tbsp cacao nibs
75g frozen raspberries (or to taste – this is far more than the original recipe above says, but I can’t resist raspberries – and it was delicious too!)

Line a baking tray, 10” x 6” with foil.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C/gas 2.
Place the nuts and coconut on a baking tray in the oven to roast, keeping an eye on them. It should only take 10-15 minutes; remove from the oven when golden and allow to cool.
Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until both have melted. Stir in the maple syrup.

Add the frozen raspberries, nuts, coconut and cacao nibs.

Pour into the foil-lined tray and place in the fridge to set for at least 1 hour.
Slice into chunky bars to serve – I found it very crumbly, but this certainly doesn’t detract from the stupendous taste! Keep refrigerated.

My final recipe was based originally on a River Cottage recipe for an uncooked Fruity Fridge Flapjack: https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/fruity-fridge-flapjacks. I’d fancied the recipe for a while, but when I made it for the first time, I was rather disappointed: it didn’t set, for one thing, even after the specified 23 hours in the fridge (!) and a token spell in the oven, and tasted rather virtuous and bland, even over-sweet (I’d used an equivalent quantity of agave nectar to the honey suggested in the recipe). My younger son, a committed foodie, refused point-blank to eat it, saying he much preferred my normal flapjack and blow the sugar and butter content – which wasn’t quite the point….! However, I thought it had potential and determined to experiment with some added oomph in the form of toasted coconut and cinnamon – and less agave nectar. This is the result – which I really rather enjoyed – see what you think! I’m not saying it can compete with White Chocolate Rocky Road Flapjack in the decadence stakes, but if it’s a healthy treat you’re after, this may well fit the bill.

JENGA FLAPJACK

Flapjack Jenga

    50g pitted dates
50g dried figs
1 banana, peeled (as ripe as you like)
50 ml agave nectar
2 tbsp coconut oil
150g oats
30g desiccated coconut, toasted
50g sultanas
50g dried apricots, finely chopped
1 tbsp hemp seeds
1 tbsp golden flax seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp sunflower seeds (or use seeds of your choice)
1 tsp cinnamon

 Line a 7” square shallow baking tin with foil.
Put the dates, figs, banana, agave nectar, cinnamon, coconut oil, (melted in the microwave if necessary) and 1 tablespoon water in a food processor and blitz to a thick purée.
In a large bowl, combine the oats, toasted coconut, sultanas, chopped apricots and seeds.
Stir in the puréed fruit mixture and mix well. The mixture should be quite stiff at this stage.
Tip the fruity oat mixture into the prepared tin and gently press it out as evenly as possible.
Put the tin in the fridge overnight to allow the flapjack to set, then turn out onto a board and slice into 12-14 long bars.

The perfect healthy mid-morning snack!

After the storm – healthy ways with leftovers

Pre-Christmas walk at Bewl

These early days in January, after the social whirl of Christmas and the New Year festivities, can be a bit of an anticlimax, especially if the weather persists in being wet and miserable, as it has in this little corner of Sussex – and I suspect across the country. I’m full of a cold too, doubtless not helped by the constant walks in sodden clothing through waterlogged fields and woods. At least we haven’t been flooded here, unlike wide swathes of the UK, but it certainly hasn’t been a time for sorting out the allotment, as I’d hoped.

After the torrent of visitors and social activities, it’s actually quite nice to get back to normal. I’ve taken the Christmas tree down today, early, I know, but I wanted to start the first working week of the New Year with cleared decks tomorrow – and the house feels much less cluttered and calmer as a result. The fridge, too, is slowly returning to normal after all the festive richness, lovely as it was. I’ve been enjoying the remains of a beautiful gammon joint the last few days in a spicy tomato and ham pasta sauce, a mellow squash, leek and ham risotto, homemade pizza and a delicious vegetable and ham gratin with a gluten-free Béchamel sauce made with rice flour and with crumbled oatcakes as a crunchy topping. Oh and my son and his fiancée took a chunk of the huge joint (thanks, Mr Waitrose!) home with them too.

Other leftovers clamouring to be used included a bag of cranberries and some smoked salmon. The cranberries have been turned into Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes (yum!) for a late breakfast on New Year’s Day and Cranberry Eton Mess for dessert tonight. The last of the smoked salmon, however, went into a refreshingly different pasta dish for last night’s supper; I didn’t fancy a creamy sauce after the excesses of the previous week, and so concocted this brassica-based dish from the contents of my fridge / allotment as a healthy antidote to all the rich food of the season. See what you think!

Kale, Smoked Salmon & Pine Nut Linguine – serves 1 Kale and salmon pasta

150g cavolo nero or kale

1 red onion, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

Handful pine nuts

50g smoked salmon, chopped

Olive oil

1 tsp sesame seeds

Sesame oil to finish

50-75g linguine (or pasta of your choice)

Seasoning

Grated Parmesan to garnish

Cook the sliced onion and chopped garlic in a slug of olive oil until starting to soften. Meanwhile, put the linguine on to cook as usual. Remove and discard any hard central stems from the kale or cavolo nero and finely chop the rest. Add to the pan with the pine nuts and cook for a further few minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, sprinkle in the sesame seeds and chopped smoked salmon, then add a swirl of sesame oil if the mixture looks remotely dry – this will ensure it blends unctuously with the pasta.

Drain the pasta and add to the pan. Serve topped with grated Parmesan and enjoy!

After thoroughly relishing this, I went on to read in two separate articles, one in yesterday’s Times, and the other in the February edition of Good Housekeeping, that kale is one of a number of super “sirtfoods” that contain sirtuins, helping to promote the so-called skinny gene and encourage a healthy diet, encouraging natural weight loss if that’s what takes your fancy. Others include virgin olive oil and red onions, so I had unknowingly created a super-healthy supper – no wonder it tasted so good! Coffee, dark chocolate and red wine are also sirtfoods – fascinating! While it may well turn out to be yet another food fad, anything so delicious has to be worth a try.

Now on to my cranberry extravaganza (not on the list of sirtfoods, unfortunately, but cranberries are up there with blueberries for their antioxidant properties). I love dried cranberries in cookies, tray bakes and in salads, for a different dimension, but I rarely use the fresh variety for anything other than Cranberry Relish. A friend, before Christmas, added them to an apple crumble along with mincemeat, where they gave a lovely zingy tang. These pancakes, from a cutting unearthed in my ancient recipe scrapbook, are quite a revelation too:

Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes – makes 16 Bacon and cranberry pancakes

4 rashers streaky bacon (or chopped ham if you have leftovers!)

175g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 large eggs

150ml crème fraiche or soured cream

100ml milk

50-75g cranberries

Rapeseed oil to cook

Maple syrup or icing sugar to serve

Chop the bacon into small pieces (I use scissors) and fry in its own fat until golden and crispy.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs in another bowl with the crème fraiche or sour cream and milk, then stir into the dry ingredients and whisk with an electric whisk until you have a smooth batter. Stir the bacon and cranberries into the batter.

Heat the oil in the same frying pan and add small ladlefuls of the batter, four at a time, cooking for 2-3 mins each side until golden brown.

Keep warm whilst you make the rest.

Serve warm with maple syrup or butter and icing sugar.

Vegetarians can omit the bacon and just make cranberry pancakes, of course.

Any left-over (kept in the fridge if you use bacon or ham) are delicious toasted and served as above.

My final leftover recipe isn’t particularly healthy per se, because of the cream and sugar content, but my motto has always been “everything in moderation” – and this uses up the last of the cranberries nicely.

Cranberry Eton Mess cranberry eton mess

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

200g cranberries

1 orange, zest and juice

3-4 tbsp Demerara sugar

Crumbled meringues

Cook the cranberries gently in the orange juice, zest and sugar until tender – 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely. Whip the double cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly broken meringues – I use homemade (left-over from a Christmas Pavlova), so hard to specify a quantity: just until there’s a fair proportion of meringue rubble compared to cream and yogurt! Finally gently fold in the cranberry compote to create a rippled effect. Chill before serving.