The latest installment in the “how restricted can my diet get?” chronicles…

I’ve had a lot of stomach pain lately.

It’s not as bad as it was back when I was eating dairy, and had to take anti-spasmodic tablets before every meal to stop my intestines tying themselves in knots. Sometimes I’d spend hours in the bathroom (sorry if that is TMI!) in agony, pain blotting out even my ability to form a coherent thought. I’ve never been in labour, but I’ve seen a lot of women giving birth and that’s the only time I’ve witnessed anything that resembled the pain I would sometimes feel in my pre-vegan days. It was pretty bad, and I do not want to go back to that.

So I’ve been having a think about what the issue might be this time, and I reckon it’s a toss-up between sugar, and gluten. In the past, I was fairly certain sugar was the issue. After all, lactose is a sugar and when I cut that out, things got significantly better. But then, there are lots of sugars that I’ve never had any problems with. Fructose, for instance. Perhaps I’m just looking for excuses not to give up my regular hot chocolate, but based on the repeated coincidence of days of pain following a weak-willed purchase of breakfast cereal (my nemesis: I can’t resist eating it, with my personal record for eating an entire box being just four hours), I am now looking askance at gluten.

My dad and stepmum have gone essentially gluten-free. They’ve actually eliminated pretty much everything I eat, except a few vegetables and nuts, and although their diet works well for them it would probably lead to me dying of rickets, or scurvy, or starvation, or all at once. Gluten-free, paleo, carb-free, none of those are going to work well with veganism and I don’t want to give up one food group and be forced to take back up another one with the same or worse side-effects.

Low-gluten, though? That, I can certainly try. A lot of my food staples are inherently low or entirely free from gluten, I just need to make a bit more effort to reach past the pasta and bread. They’re the default, they’re so easy, but it’s probably time to sacrifice easy for pain-free.

I’ll give this low-gluten thing a try, transitioning into it the same way as I became vegan: no more high-gluten purchases (pasta, bread, BREAKFAST CEREAL, biscuits) but I will finish off what I’ve got in the cupboards. I’m not going to worry about traces or cross-contamination, and if my vegetable stock powder contains gluten then I’ll live with it. I’ve been tested for coeliac’s disease and don’t have it so a trace probably won’t make all that much difference.

Things are complicated a little by the fact that in the next two months I’m going away for two separate weeks to places where I’ll have very little control over the catering. Next week I leave for my cruise (I am so excited about my cruise!) and there’s no guarantee the ship will even be able to provide vegan meals, never mind gluten-free vegan meals. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been on the same ship in the past, and they’ve assured me that I’ll be fine just grazing the buffet for vegetables and salads. The second week is at the end of May, by which point I’ll probably know whether or not this low-gluten free is making the blindest bit of difference. That bridge can be crossed later.

The only things I’m going to buy specially for this experiment are arrowroot flour, corn starch and cashew nuts. They’re all things I could use frequently anyway, and they’ll replace regular flour for things like white sauces. Ground almonds are already a food-cupboard staple for me, and I’ve decided oats are allowed to stay because without them I’m not quite sure what I’d eat for breakfast.

Ironically, lunch today will be leftover whole-wheat spaghetti. Once that’s gone, I think I’ve finished all the pasta, unless I still have a bit of couscous hiding somewhere. I’m currently well-stocked with fruit, veg and pulses. A new food adventure begins.


Rice Lentil Polou


Over on my other blog I wrote about how my new approach to getting boring jobs done was making me more productive in other areas too. A few evenings ago I had zipped through my daily jobs and was in the mood to carry on doing useful things, so I pulled out a stack of recipe books and sat down to figure out what I could cook using the ingredients in my cupboard and fridge.

The recipe books in question were my favourites: Another Dinner is Possible which I got from the Vegan Society last summer after the Vegan Venture course, Laurel’s Kitchen which I bought second-hand after flicking through it at both my parents’ houses, Jack Monroe’s first cookbook, and Vegan, a little book of 100 recipes that my friend from the running club gave me. From those four as well as one of my favourite vegan websites, Bunny Kitchen, I made a list of eight meals I could cook almost entirely from what was in the kitchen already, with a few additional fresh ingredients.

Today I tackled one I had been a bit dubious about, from Laurel’s Kitchen: rice lentil polou. I was dubious because frankly I would never have thought of combining lentils, rice, raisins and vegetable stock but I suspended my disbelief mostly because it was the only recipe I had all the ingredients for, and made it with a couple of variations (ras el hanout instead of cinnamon, the vegetable stock the book listed rather than the chicken broth on the website, and no pine nuts). For the last five minutes I put some vegan mozzarella on top which melted beautifully.

It was delicious! Absolutely spectacular in fact: sweet, filling, a delicate blend of flavours, in fact so good that even though it claimed to serve four to six, I ate half for lunch with some petit pois. My scepticism about the seventies-ness of Laurel’s Kitchen is entirely gone and I’m looking forward to trying another recipe!

Cherry-Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

My local greengrocers sells bags of roughly a dozen bananas for a pound. They’re the strays that have fallen off other bunches, or the green ones that people have rejected, or the slightly smaller but still perfectly acceptable ones. I eat a lot of bananas, not particularly because I love the taste of bananas but because they are powerhouses of nutrition and lend themselves well to all kinds of things, like smoothies, vegan ice cream and baking.

The first time I made banana bread I followed this BBC Good Food recipe to the letter. I didn’t add the optional extras, and the end result was tasty enough that the loaf disappeared in two days (with the willing assistance of my brother), but I felt it was lacking something. My first thought was raisins, but when I browsed the shelves in my local Tesco Express I was put off by the cost of a big bag of raisins and instead plumped for a much smaller, more manageably-priced tub of glace cherries and a bag of dark chocolate chips.

ImageMaking the bread was so easy with my Kitchen Aid that I made another loaf a couple of days later, but this time I upped the banana count to four, left them slightly less well mashed, added in a handful of cherries and poured in chocolate chips until I thought it looked about right. There’s no science behind this step – but another time I think I’ll probably add more of both! I also reduced the cooking time and temperature: the first twenty minutes were as instructed, but then I turned the oven down to about 170 degrees, covered the loaf pan with foil and left it in for about another thirty minutes. Basically bake until a knife comes out clean, like any cake.

The end result was even nicer; the extra banana added moisture and additional flavour while the cherries and chocolate gave an interesting texture and more tastes. It isn’t exactly health food but it’s not a dreadfully unhealthy treat – 100g of sugar in the entire loaf, which I would say should do at least ten slices and probably more if you cut them small and manage to resist going back for more! It’s certainly better than eating an entire packet of ginger biscuits, which I have been known to do…

The Best Burgers Ever

No exaggeration, these are the best burgers I have ever eaten. I was blown away by how well they worked out, and thrilled that they made so many servings that I could have left overs three times. My friend KT, who helped me make and eat dinner with equal levels of enthusiasm, also agreed that they were spectacular. Bulgur wheat impulse buy, you were an excellent decision.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The story starts months ago, in the community shop which has since closed. I must have been swept away on a cloud of optimism about my culinary skills because I bought a large quantity of a product I had never used before, never eaten, never even heard of: bulgur wheat. I took it home, put it into a glass jar, stuck the jar in the cupboard and immediately forgot what it was.

ImageFast-forward to last week, and I found myself clearing out the cupboards in anticipation of my imminent move (for more details, see my life blog). The jar of mystery grain-like substance perplexed me for several minutes until my blundering around Wikipedia led me to an article on bulgur and a lightbulb went off in my brain. Like a good little child of the 90s I immediately googled for a recipe.

As regular readers (do I still have any of those?) will know, I don’t like recipes with extensive or exotic ingredient lists. In particular, when I’m about to move house, I don’t want to be buying things I won’t necessarily use again for months. So I was pleased to find this recipe on Epicurius. I had everything I needed to make the burgers – I decided not to bother with the lime mayonnaise – and it looked straightforward. Naturally I switched out some things; I used kidney beans instead of pinto, ditched the cilantro, used curry powder instead of cumin (I’d packed the cumin, for some reason) and didn’t add any salt as KT and I both felt the soy sauce was salty enough. We also threw in a couple of mushrooms, because mushroom burgers are probably the best thing ever.

ImageMy goodness, they were delicious. I will definitely be making these again! The only thing I’ll do differently is chop things more finely, because my blender wasn’t really up to the challenge of pulsing walnuts and the chunks of mushroom and onion had a tendency to escape in the pan. But they held together really well, browned beautifully, were moist without feeling undercooked, were textured without being busy, and had a wonderful blend of flavours. Go and make them immediately, you won’t regret it.

Time for a Nooch Quest

Over the last few weeks I’ve been a bit fainty – it’s fairly standard for me, but obviously it’s not ideal in a midwife so I need to get it sorted out. To that end, I’ve upped my water intake, made several appointments at the GP surgery and had another think about my diet.

A must for all vegans!

A must for all vegans!

Today, I got my blood test results over the phone through a chat with my doctor (a marvellous idea, much less wasted time for both of us!). He alarmed me greatly by telling me that my iron levels were very low; considering that they were at 12.8 two weeks ago, the news that they were now under 6 seemed very bizarre. Eventually it was clarified that he was talking about ferritin, the long-term iron store which is usually fairly low in vegetarians and vegans and has always been an issue for me, and I was talking about haemoglobin, the day to day levels that I maintain fairly well (the tests gave a figure of 11.something, which isn’t too bad but lower than usual for me).

I’m not too worried about ferritin, although I will try the supplements he’s offered to prescribe in case that affects the fainting, because all I’ve read suggests that it’s less critical than haemoglobin for health and there’s no strong evidence that a large store is actually beneficial. I was, however, more concerned but still unsurprised by the fact that my vitamin B12 levels were slightly under. My only sources of B12 are my soya milk, and nutritional yeast (nooch) which I normally forget to add to things!

So today, for my weekly battery-recharging day of cooking, I am focusing my attention on things which use the magic powder. I only need about 2g of the stuff each day to meet the recommended allowance, so it shouldn’t be too hard to manage. However, the reality is that I don’t really like the taste of nutritional yeast. Maybe I’m not really an umami person – I’ve never eaten meat, so I’m not looking for a replacement for that meaty flavour in my diet. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t really taste like cheese. But I’ve found that I quite like it sprinkled on top of garlic-fried vegetables, my go-to fast pasta topping, and it’s actually pretty nice when cooked!

Recipe one was a simple cheese sauce which I’ll probably use for pasta, maybe even macaroni cheese. It’s so easy to make, and even without the onion powder and mustard (two things I keep meaning to buy but never seem to have on hand) it’s very tasty. In fact I keep finding myself eating spoonfuls of it as it cools on the countertop! Definitely a good way to get some of that pesky vitamin into my diet.

Recipe two had two things to recommend it: not only does it use nutritional yeast, it also was a very easy way to use up the cauliflower that has been sitting in my fridge for weeks in one of the marvellous Lakeland green bags. I didn’t bother roasting any garlic, it seemed wasteful to turn the oven on for two small cloves, but the end result is completely amazing – surprisingly so for someone who doesn’t particularly like either cauliflower or nutritional yeast. Or maybe I just never tried them in the right way before?

Chocolate… in a soup? And other delicious things

As planned, today I made Jack Monroe’s chocolate, chilli and black bean soup. It wasn’t a particularly labour-intensive process but anything involving dried beans takes a while to put together, so I used the various simmering times to whip up a batch of shortbread and put the leftover vegetable mince from yesterday’s recipes into some pastry to make a monster pasty which will probably end up being at least two meals. To keep my strength up while I cooked, I also made some of Jack’s peanut butter hot chocolate using some of the chocolate from the soup recipe (and of course carried out a bit of quality control on the rest of the bar, you can’t be too careful…).


The soup turned out rather browner than I had expected, oddly

My flat now smells delicious and is extremely warm! Once I’ve portioned out yesterday’s lasagne and pie along with today’s culinary efforts I think my freezer will be well and truly stocked for the next few weeks. I am going to freeze the shortbread in single-portion bags in an attempt to stop myself from eating them all in one go; they’re intended to be snacks for placement but that’s what last week’s flapjack was meant to be and I’d eaten it all after two days off.


The monster pasty – and there is still mince left over!

I’ve also made sure that I have all the ingredients for a loaf of banana bread and what the internet assures me is the Best Chocolate Cake Ever, which I’m planning on making on Tuesday or Wednesday. Doing all this baking in the same week might be a miscalculation given the aforementioned lack of self-control where baked goods are concerned, but it’s a lot cheaper than running to the hospital shop to buy snacks during my breaks, and I’m rapidly discovering that on a 14 hour shift I need a bit more than a Thermos of soup, a small tub of pasta and an apple to keep me going.

Incidentally, I was excited to discover today that I had misjudged Aldi – they do in fact sell soya milk, I had simply failed to find it last time I looked, and it’s also cheaper than in Sainsbury’s. And at the checkout today there was a box of flapjack with two varieties clearly labelled as “suitable for vegans”. To cap my delight, in the chocolate section I discovered an accidentally-vegan bar of dark chocolate-covered marzipan, possibly my favourite treat ever. It took great strength of mind to prevent myself from buying both just because I could. Soya milk was the only remaining thing I thought I needed to go to Sainsbury’s for; now that I know I can get it at Aldi more cheaply, my loyalty to the big orange megastore (bought many years ago by the simple expedient of their issuing me with a discount card and a monthly payslip) has been wholly transferred.

Soya Mince Extravaganza, or The Meal I Sacrificed My Fingertips For

A while ago, I bought a bag of dehydrated soya mince. It’s been sitting in the cupboard staring accusingly at me ever since. I have a habit of buying things because they look interesting and then forgetting to use them, but the upside of this habit is that when I find a new recipe I want to try, I often discover I already have all the ingredients.

This was one of those recipes! My favourite vegan cookbook, Another Dinner is Possible, has a recipe for lasagne that required dry soya mince, courgettes and a white sauce made from vegan margarine and soya milk. Once I’d restocked with margarine (having used the last of the previous tub on some delicious flapjack) I got to work.

Pumpkin seed vegan flapjack

The flapjack in question, perfect for a snack during a long shift!

Chopping onions is a lot easier since I bought some decent knives, but the sharpness of the blades also means that my fingertips are sometimes at risk. This was one of those times – I managed to slice a small chunk out of the end of my left middle finger, which nicely matches the chunk that my left thumb is missing after a similar mishap with garlic on Tuesday. Fortunately the finger chunk didn’t disappear into the sliced onion (is it still vegan if the “meat” is mine?) and the resulting lasagne was delicious, if a little overbrowned thanks to my distractability.

Vegetable lasagne

Overbrowned maybe, but delicious nonetheless!

I had a fair amount of vegetable mince left over, since I hadn’t got enough pasta sheets to make as large a lasagne as the recipe suggested, so I mashed up some of the myriad potatoes which have been colonising my cupboard for the last month and made a variation on shepherd’s pie. There’s still a bit of the mince left after that (it was a large bag of soya flakes) so I’ve dug some pastry out of the freezer and tomorrow I’ll be crafting some kind of vegetable pasty. Also on the menu for tomorrow is a delicious-sounding chocolate, chilli and black bean soup in celebration of the imminent release of a certain new recipe book – the beans are soaking as I type.

Vegan shepherd's pie

Shepherd’s pie with bonus kitchen details

At the moment I’m on placement, which means working very long shifts three times a week and packing in all the rest of my commitments on the other days (as well as catching up on sleep and trying to keep on top of the housework). The two years I spent perfecting the art of bulk cooking in advance to accommodate my choir schedule have served me well; my freezer stash is a perfect source of the two packed meals I need to take for each shift. And my days off are giving me plenty of time to cook my way through the list of recipes I’ve been meaning to try.