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Italian Lentil Soup

18 Feb
© Jess Bruce 2016

© Jess Bruce 2016

I think this may be my favourite soup ever. And for a girl who loves a big bowl of steaming soup, that is a big call.

Creamy aubergine, hearty lentils, meaty mushrooms and fresh tomato, all topped with a generous spoonful of delicious basil pesto – perfect. It may not look that pretty but it tastes soooo good. Looks can be deceiving!

When I made this soup for Mr B and I last weekend, we spent much of the meal discussing whether it was actually a soup – yes our meal time chatter is highly entertaining 😉

Is it a soup or is it in fact a stew?

It is chunky and hearty enough to be a stew I think but it is cooked on the stove top in a broth so technically it is probably a soup.

To settle the debate, we turned to almighty Google and looked up definitions of soup v stew – really entertaining dinner chat!

Here are our findings:

Soup: a liquid dish, typically savoury and made by boiling meat, fish, or vegetables etc. in stock or water.

Stew: a dish of meat and/or vegetables cooked slowly in liquid in a closed dish or pan.

So our Italian ‘Soup’ is made by boiling vegetables and pulses in vegetable stock meaning it is a soup?

But our Italian ‘Soup’ is made of vegetables which are slowly cooked in liquid in a closed pan…so maybe it is a stew?

Clear as mud.

Wikipedia had the last word:

“Generally, stews have less liquid than soups, are much thicker and require longer cooking over low heat. While soups are almost always served in a bowl, stews may be thick enough to be served on a plate with the gravy as a sauce over the solid ingredients”

Given my recipe is not thickened in any way, definitely needs to be served in a bowl and does not require hours of long cooking, I’ll stick with it being a soup I think.

But to be frank, who cares. Stew or soup. Semantic shenanigans aside, it is a hearty, filling, healthy and downright delicious meal. I was just pleased to get a plant based meat free meal passed Mr B’s lips and to receive compliments as a result! High praise indeed, you gotta try this one!

© Jess Bruce 2016

© Jess Bruce 2016

Let’s turn to the crowning glory of this meal, the pesto. Homemade fresh basil pesto is always best but use your favourite store bought if you prefer. I admit I did not make my own this time. Instead we added giant dollops of a jar of green pesto that I had picked up in Wholefoods – Seggiano Raw Basil Pesto Genovese. I had to sneak it into the basket past Mr B’s astonished gaze because, shall we say, it wasn’t the cheapest option on the pesto shelf. Ahem. But it was worth every penny. Vegan, gluten free and raw. Nothing but extra virgin olive oil, cashew nuts, fresh basil, sea salt and pine nuts. As clean eating as homemade. Delicious.

I served the soup with paleo flatbreads, recipe from the excellent new book, River Cottage Gluten Free by Naomi Devlin.

Now for the ‘soup’ recipe to which you add that giant dollop of basil pesto joy.

Italian Lentil Soup

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 10 mins prep + 40 mins cooking
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Gluten, dairy and soya free, Vegan (using dairy free pesto as I did)

Ingredients

  • 15g dried mushrooms (+ boiling water)
  • Splash of rapeseed oil
  • 1 potato (I used Maris Piper)
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 leek
  • 1 aubergine
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 x 400g can of green lentils, (265g drained weight)
  • 850 ml hot vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp tamari
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Basil pesto to serve

Steps

  1. Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with boiling water, set aside for 10 minutes.
  2. Dice the potato (no need to peel) carrot, aubergine and tomatoes and thinly slice the leek.
  3. Heat the oil in a large pot over a medium  heat on the stove.
  4. Add the potato, carrot and leek and saute for a few minutes
  5. Add the lentils, mix well and then add the aubergine and tomato.
  6. Add the stock to the pan to cover the vegetables (reserve the rest to add later if more liquid is needed), cover the pan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
  7. After 20 minutes, add the dried mushrooms, their soaking liquid, the tamari and the dried basil. Add more stock if you think necessary.
  8. Cover the pan again and allow to continue to cook until the vegetables are tender, approximately 30 – 40 minutes total cooking time.
  9. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  10. Serve in bowls, topping each with a generous spoonful of basil pesto.

If you use traditional pesto, i.e. one containing parmesan cheese, then this recipe is no longer vegan and dairy free. Adapt to your own dietary requirements.

So do you think it’s a soup or a stew?!

A Healthy Hot Chocolate

26 Jan
© Jess Bruce 2016

© Jess Bruce 2016

Winter has finally hit in the UK. Last week was absolutely freezing. Okay so perhaps not cold compared to Alaska or the Antarctic (or most of North America at present for that matter) but temperatures close to freezing are incredibly chilly, and came as quite the shock, compared to the balmy December we enjoyed (and moaned about at the time, daffodils blooming by the roadside in December? What has the world come to!).

What’s all this weather talk about? Well cold weather means only one thing in my mind…..hot chocolate baby!

I spent most of last week with the heating on max but still cold, wearing a scarf, quilt over my lap and fingerless gloves encasing my hands in order to sit and type. Yes really. It was VERY cold!

There are only so many cups of green tea one girl can drink in a day (and I definitely push it to the limit) in order to keep warm. And so enters hot chocolate.

Sometimes you need a sweet hit and you don’t have any cake or biscuits to hand – damn that January resolution of no cake for a month….(definitely not stuck to that one). Hello hot chocolate.

And sometimes you want a sweet treat without totally blowing your blood sugar; craving a hint of sweetness without endangering your health kick. Is this you? Well say hello to this little miss healthy hot chocolate.

She will satisfy your sweet tooth, warm you up and sate your appetite. All without blowing off your new years resolution to be more healthy.

The recipe below is for an au natural version. Simple, clean, pure hot chocolate. However, you could take things to the next level and pimp your delicious hot drink. Though I think if you go for the ‘enhanced’ version using some of the following suggestions (brandy, chocolate and marshmallows I’m looking at you…), we should perhaps tack the qualifier ‘ish‘ onto the title healthy – healthy-ish hot chocolate. But why not. It’s the last week of January, you deserve it.

So if you want to ‘enhance’ your drink, you could try:

  • Melting a handful – this isn’t an exact science, so much the better if you have big hands 🙂 – of 70% cocoa chocolate chips into the saucepan.
  • Top your drink with some coconut whip (I use this method to make whipped cream from coconut milk) and marshmallows and some chocolate shavings….oh boy that sounds good!
  • Toss a chai tea bag into the saucepan and allow to infuse with the milk for a hit of aromatics. Maybe throw in a cinnamon stick for extra measure.
  • Add some finely grated orange zest (that’s healthy… vitamin C anyone?) for a drink reminiscent of the ubiquitous orange shaped and flavoured chocolate.
  • Add a few drops of mint extract for an after dinner digestive aid (see healthy…maybe a stretch?)
  • If you like things chilli hot, then a sprinkling of cayenne pepper would spice things up nicely.
  • For an adult version, you could add some brandy or whiskey to taste (and blow dry January out of the water).
  • For a ‘Snickers’ inspired drink, sub the almond butter for peanut butter, adjusting the quantity to taste.

That said, simple is satisfying to me. I enjoyed the natural beauty of the hot chocolate recipe as set out below greatly and didn’t need any additions (though perhaps that’s because I hadn’t thought of them yet and didn’t have any marshmallows in the house….)

Here’s the recipe, hope it warms you up. Let me know if and how you enhance it, healthy or otherwise!

A Healthy Hot Chocolate

  • Servings: 1
  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Gluten and dairy free, Vegan

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of gluten free oat milk (or other plant based milk of choice)
  • 2 rounded tsps of cacao powder
  • 2 scant tbsp brown rice syrup
  • 1 tsp almond butter
  • 1 tbsp coconut milk yoghurt

Steps

  1. Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Whisk well to dissolve the almond butter and yoghurt.
  3. Allow to simmer until just boiling (about 5 minutes) whisking every so often.
  4. Pour into a mug and enjoy.

Gold Leaf Afternoon Tea

3 Nov
My gluten and dairy free afternoon tea at the Lanesborough Hotel London © Jess Bruce 2015

My gluten and dairy free afternoon tea at the Lanesborough Hotel London © Jess Bruce 2015

Recently Mr B and I went for afternoon tea with his family at the Lanesborough Hotel in London. It was nice getting dressed up and living a decadent luxurious life for an afternoon. And of course consuming our weight in finger sandwiches, delicious and delicate pastries and a never ending supply of freshly brewed tea of any type you could imagine.

Afternoon tea is a beloved tradition in England, and especially in London with all the big hotels offering it. We chose the Lanesborough because it offers a gluten and dairy free afternoon tea option. Many of the other hotels, such as the Ritz and Claridges, offer gluten free but are slightly behind on the dairy free front (in my experience at least). So I was thrilled to discover the Lanesborough is super allergen aware and will happily accommodate gluten and dairy free diners with advance notice.

Celeste Winter Garden at the Lanesborough, venue for the afternoon tea © Jess Bruce 2015

Celeste Winter Garden at the Lanesborough, venue for the afternoon tea © Jess Bruce 2015

The tea was held in the Celeste Winter Garden, a gloriously rich room decorated in deep gold, creams, turquoise and pale blue. Crisp white linens, glistening chandeliers, china plates and weighty silver cutlery abound as you sink down into plump velvet chairs, of course pulled out for you by a smiling, ever so helpful waiter. No detail is overlooked from handbag rests (I mean who would put their bag on the floor?!) to thick padded hand protectors on the silver teapot handles.

A pianist plays a baby grand in one corner with the lilting music providing the perfect backdrop. What I liked most about the Lanesborough (after the food of course) was that the atmosphere was beautifully relaxed. I’ve had afternoon tea at a few of the big name London hotels and sometimes found them almost frantic with the amount of guests, verging on a factory production line like feeling to the dining room; not what you want when you’ve paid £50+ for an experience that is, by it’s very nature, meant to be relaxed and lingering.

Ok, enough waffle, time to get down to the important stuff, what did I eat?

Being gluten and dairy free I got my own stand filled with sandwiches, pastries, desserts and cakes. Having my own separate stand emphasized the hotel’s allergen awareness and specifically the risk of cross contamination and meant I didn’t have to share!

My sandwich selection © Jess Bruce 2015

My sandwich selection © Jess Bruce 2015

First up, delicate little finger sandwiches; crust free (naturally), all perfectly identical in shape and size with an exciting array of fillings (from left to right in the photo): tomato chutney and roast chicken, ham with aubergine pâté, smoked salmon with avocado, celeriac and apple and finally cucumber and olive tapenade. My favourite? The chicken and tomato and the cucumber and olive tapenade. The gluten free bread was soft, perhaps ever so slightly dry, and tasted good. As with everything on my special stand, you would barely have known it was lacking the twin pillars of modern cuisine, namely gluten and dairy.  The Lanesborough chefs did good.

The waiters replenish the selection as soon as you finish, but after two rounds of sandwiches it was time to move onto the sweeter treats.

Gluten and dairy free desserts and pastries © Jess Bruce 2015

Gluten and dairy free desserts and pastries © Jess Bruce 2015

Next up desserts and pastries. This was my favourite tier. I was blown away by the clever creations, attention to detail and delicious flavours. There was a pineapple panacotta made using almond milk and topped with perfectly tiny dice of fresh pineapple, a dark chocolate soup (AMAZING), a strawberry mousse, a blueberry macaroon, a pistachio macaroon and a chocolate raspberry cream sponge slice. They were all good, but boy the pistachio macaroon literally melted on my tongue. It was superb; as was the chocolate raspberry little ditty. I just wish that had been bigger! (Yes my name is Jess. Yes I am a cake-aholic).

Raspberry chocolate cream slice naturally topped with the ubiquitous gold leaf of course © Jess Bruce 2015

Raspberry chocolate cream slice naturally topped with the ubiquitous gold leaf of course © Jess Bruce 2015

Finally came the cakes. These were the least inventive but still incredibly tasty. A chocolate muffin and a lemon drizzle cake were the two offerings. I preferred the lemon, it was lighter. The chocolate muffin was a little dense.

Decorating all of the cakes, pastries and desserts were slivers of gold leaf. This was such a nice touch and summed up the decadent nature of the whole of experience. It was the icing on the cake so to speak.

My sorbet selection © Jess Bruce 2015

My sorbet selection © Jess Bruce 2015

The only slight criticism I have is that they do not provide scones with the gluten and dairy free afternoon tea. Instead I was given two scoops of sorbet; one mango and passion-fruit, the second raspberry. As delightful as the sorbet was, and it did taste delicious with a deep fruity flavour, I feel this is a bit of a let down, scones piled high with clotted cream and jam are after all the quintessential element to a traditional English afternoon tea.

When asked why they do not provide gluten and dairy free scones, the staff told me that it is too difficult to make a good scone without butter. The omission of gluten they said is not the problem. It is that without butter they can not replicate the rich buttery flavour they want. Agreed, a scone without a high butter content is not perfect, but they made an almond milk panacotta for goodness sake, surely they can master a scone using a dairy free olive oil spread or coconut oil as the fat? We have made both at home and whilst they will never exactly echo the flavours and texture of a ‘normal’ scone, they are delicious and moreish. Perhaps I can get a gig as a gluten and dairy free scone consultant…

To be honest though, I did not really miss the scone from my afternoon tea. It was not like I was lacking in mouthwatering food and I definitely didn’t go home hungry. I even felt quite virtuous tucking into my sorbet as my fellow diners piled super fattening clotted cream onto carbohydrate heavy scones!

To wash down the copious amounts of food, the Lanesborough offers a highly extensive tea menu with a vast choice of black, green, red, white and herbal teas; as well as coffee and hot chocolate for non tea lovers (crazy people). I had a very enjoyable apricot white tea followed by a jasmine green tea. In addition you can add a glass of champagne to your afternoon tea to truly celebrate a special occasion.

At £65 a head, it is not a cheap afternoon out. One best to be treasured and saved for a special occasion I think – we went on Mr B’s birthday. But I do think it’s decent value for money. Overall with such ingenuity in their gluten and dairy free offerings with the chocolate soup and almond milk panacotta, originality of sandwich fillings and mile long tea menu, I was very impressed. They refill your cake stands and tea pots as often as you like (within reason I guess) and our leftovers were boxed up and went home with us. So it genuinely is fairly good value, all things being relative of course.

I was too busy stuffing my face  delicately sampling the divine offerings of the gluten and dairy free afternoon tea to pay much attention to the ‘normal’ teas around me. Suffice to say, Mr B was very impressed and went home stuffed. And that is coming from a savoury, ‘don’t do cake’ kinda guy. High praise indeed.

Would I go again? You bet! Just perhaps need to leave it until a time when I’m not meant to be on my pre-honeymoon diet!

You can check out the full Lanesborough afternoon tea menu here.

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