One thing especially impressed itself upon my mind during this, my second day of eating gluten-free (for day one and the reason behind this gluten-free challenge, click here). That is:how incredibly hard it is to find food on the go that doesn't contain gluten. It seems that the pesky thing lurks everywhere, in the most unexpected and surprising places. Nor is its presence particularly well-labelled. To be on a truly gluten-free diet is exhausting, especially when it comes to grabbing a 'quick' lunch from a supermarket; it requires the constant checking of labels and analysing of ingredients, plus the inevitable and tragic disappointment of finding that basically everything you want to eat is cruelly denied you.
For breakfast today, I had a bowl of gluten-free porridge with some rhubarb compote and fresh blackberries. It was delicious; I love the combination of comforting, creamy porridge laced with the potent tang of stewed rhubarb, and the juicy burst of sweet blackberries.
I didn't have much time between doing various errands and starting work in the early afternoon. I definitely didn't have time to make something gluten-free for lunch, mainly because I wanted something a bit healthier than a gluten-free bread roll filled with whatever was in the fridge, which consisted of mostly cheese. So, naturally, I went to M&S on the way to work, my destination of choice for packaged salads, sandwiches and the like because they generally seem much more inviting than cheap and horrible Tesco varieties. Yeah, that's my excuse. Actually it's just because I'm painfully middle class, and never more so than when it comes to food.
My gaze hovered over all the attractive options, and I came pretty close to picking a few up before I realised: couscous, bulgur wheat, pasta salads were all out of the equation. Never mind, I thought, there are a couple of nice-looking quinoa salads, and I know quinoa is gluten-free. One check of the label, however, boldly informed me 'Contains: Wheat, Gluten'. Where this could possibly be in a salad of quinoa, feta and vegetables, I'm not quite sure.
I went for sushi, one of my favourites. The components of sushi are normally pretty basic: rice, sugar, salt, vinegar, fish. So how on earth could the label tell me that there was gluten involved? I assume because of the soy sauce; perhaps you didn't know this, but soy sauce contains wheat.
I was even more shocked, though, when I picked up a salad of edamame beans and sugar snap peas to discover that it contained gluten. Where was the gluten hiding?! Seriously? It was just vegetables! I can only assume that the little pot of dressing provided contained soy sauce or something, but I didn't want to eat a pot of vegetables without anything to season them. The same went for various other salads: mixed bean, Greek...all of them innocently concealing gluten.
I genuinely found this quite surprising, and it also gave me a great deal of sympathy for coeliacs and those wildly allergic to wheat or gluten. There was nothing on the M&S shelf proclaiming itself to be gluten-free; I imagine for such sufferers, finding lunch on the go is a tiresome and frequently fruitless guessing game.
Fortunately - and this was a real stroke of luck - it happened that my favourite M&S salad, one I discovered recently and can't get enough of - didn't contain gluten.
It's a salad of wild rice, lentils, aubergine, peppers and celery with a garlicky dressing. Doesn't sound that great, and definitely doesn't look particularly appetising, being mostly beige and slimy-looking, but it tastes fantastic - sharp and garlicky, creamy from the roasted aubergine and nutty from the lentils and rice. It probably made my day discovering that I was allowed to eat this. I sat outside in the sun and devoured it with a plastic spoon, then had a delicious ripe white nectarine afterwards.
Ripe nectarines are a rare thing, to be treasured when one can get their hands upon them.
The M&S salad was not very filling, however. Especially not when one has been undertaking the tiring job of teaching fourteen rowdy 16-18 year olds for the afternoon. I had a banana and a medjool date (the fattest, stickiest, most toffee-like dates you'll ever eat, which is why I only had one - they're very satisfying) with a cup of tea (these dates have to be consumed with a hot beverage, to melt the sugar off your teeth!), before I went for a pretty gruelling run in the sweltering heat.
Can I tell you a secret? It wasn't as good as the run I went for two weeks ago, which was fuelled by a substantial afternoon tea featuring scones, jam, clotted cream and a huge amount of caffeinated tea. In that respect, I don't think the gluten-free diet has given me a manic burst of energy all of a sudden, but the kind of energy one gets from floury scones is probably the bad kind that will give you a huge sugar low an hour or so later...I was just clever enough to go for a run before that low hit, while I was still high as a kite. I imagine the gluten-free kind of energy is more sustainable and keeps you going for a longer period of time. I still ran seven kilometres, so am not doing too badly without any gluten to sustain me.
Dinner this evening is an example of how - fortunately - some of the most delicious meals are naturally gluten-free. Instead of viewing a gluten-free diet as all about everything you can't have, it seems logical to me to embrace it, to find new and more exciting ways of filling yourself up than by simply gorging a vat of bread or pasta. To me, it seems about much more than simply swapping your bread or pasta for a gluten-free variety, which is a perfectly viable option but seems somewhat lazy and unimaginative.
Instead, I'm thinking about meals that are delicious, and coincidentally naturally lacking in any form of wheat whatsoever. These are the ones I'll be sharing over the next few days. You'll be amazed at how tasty some dishes are, despite the lack of a gluten factor. I tried a recipe from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty, for sea bream cooked Spanish-style. It's one that I've always skipped over before because it just looked too simple. I tend to shy away from simple recipes, favouring more unusual flavour combinations and ingredients. I'm now going to have to rethink my entire philosophy, because this was fantastic.
Sea beam, gutted and scaled (they were on offer in Tesco), baked in the oven under a thick blanket of breadcrumbs, smoked paprika, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. The olive oil and the paprika mingle to form a pungent, aromatic, shockingly scarlet oil that permeates and infuses the fish with its deliciously rich, smoky flavour - think chorizo but without the meat. The lemon juice adds tang, the garlic depth, while the breadcrumbs turn crispy in places and soggy in others, saturated with oily, smoky juices. The fish flesh remains deliciously moist, its creamy texture the perfect balance to the assertive bread topping.
I used gluten-free bread to make the crumbs, naturally. To be honest, I think that was all it was good for - the loaf had the texture of dry sponge. However, I did receive it in the post on Thursday, so it is probably just old, a result of my neglect. It would have been fine toasted, though, and I'm sure gluten-free loaves are much nicer when fresh.
I served this fish with boiled potatoes (yay for gluten-free carbs) and a lovely little salad of chargrilled courgettes, broad beans, green beans and basil, dressed with garlic olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. It was the perfect green and crunchy partner to soak up all the delicious sweet and smoky juices from the fish. Such a simple meal, but one that is much more than the sum of its parts, and is a perfect recipe for a balmy summer evening.
It's now late, and I'm probably heading to bed soon. I feel pretty good - nicely exhausted from running, and wonderfully nourished from my lovely vegetable-heavy dinner. Much better than if I'd eaten a giant bowl of pasta or similar, I'm sure.
Spanish-style sea bream (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Food From Plenty', by Diana Henry)
- 4 sea bream, gutted and scaled
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 50g breadcrumbs (gluten-free if necessary)
- 5 tsp smoked paprika
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Lightly oil a baking dish. Rub olive oil over the fish, inside and out, then season well. Lay in a single layer on the oven dish. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze over half the lemon.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, garlic and paprika, and season well. Spoon this over the top of the fish, then squeeze over the remaining lemon and drizzle over some more olive oil.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then sprinkle over the parsley. Bake for another 5 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily away from the bone at its thickest part.
Serve with a salad (perhaps some green and broad beans) and some boiled new potatoes.