I was recently invited to participate in the 'Making Sense of Sensitivity' Blogger Challenge, in order to help raise awareness of the newly recognised condition of gluten sensitivity. Unlike coeliac disease, there is no formal test for diagnosing gluten sensitivity, yet it is six times more prevalent than coeliac disease, affecting up to 6% of the population and causing unpleasant physical symptoms which are related to a heightened sensitivity to gluten in food. (For more information on the condition, click here).
As part of the challenge, I will be living gluten-free for five days, blogging about my experience and recommending delicious things to eat while on a gluten-free diet, while highlighting the potential pitfalls of cutting out such a prevalent food group.
I agreed to the challenge mainly out of curiosity; it does seem to be generally accepted nowadays that a huge amount of gluten in the diet is not particularly good for you, and I was keen to see if cutting it out completely would have any drastic effects on me. Eating toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner has never left me feeling at my slimmest and healthiest, so while I generally try not to eat too much gluten anyway, I think I rarely go for days at a time without consuming any.
I was sent a booklet of recipes as part of the challenge, along with some gluten-free products (mainly bread and pasta, but also cornflakes, which I'm intrigued about). I'll be trying out a couple of these as well as suggesting my own recipes for a gluten-free diet, in an attempt to prove that living without gluten can be pretty painless.
I've also been sent a pretty stylish little video camera to record my experience, so expect Nutmegs, seven to be branching out into the world of video blogging!
In my head, most of the meals for these five days are sorted. I eat a lot of salads for dinner at the moment, which are naturally gluten-free anyway (unless, of course, I add a large pile of crispy, garlic-scented sourdough croutons, which has been a regular feature lately. Out with those, I guess). Lunchtime is slightly more tricky, in that my usual lunchtime staples, while healthier than bread, turn out also to contain gluten. No more bulgur wheat, pearl barley or couscous salads for me. However, I luckily recently discovered buckwheat and quinoa, both of which I love and work in a similar way to couscous, so that should be fine, and I have lots of lovely plans for those. Yes, I'm a bit of a health freak. But I promise you, they actually taste really good.
No, the real difficulty is breakfast. I'm not really a fan of bread for breakfast, because it doesn't fill me up and I end up starving mid-morning, so it's not quite as simple as just buying gluten-free bread for my toast. Normally I make myself a giant bowl of porridge or muesli, with lots of fruit. You might be surprised to learn, though, that oats are not gluten-free. This is because they're often contaminated with wheat in the milling process. My yummy homemade granola, then, which contains not only oats but barley and wheat flakes, is out of the question.
Fortunately, you can buy gluten-free oats. They're prohibitively expensive (£3 for 450g, as opposed to under £1 a kilo for my normal oats), but you can get them. Given that I use 100g of oats per bowl of porridge, I'd be spending a fortune on these if I were to live gluten-free in the long term. It's going to be gluten-free porridge for breakfast for these five days, though.
Except for today, which is Sunday. Sunday means special brunch, something more exciting than a bowl of porridge (although, tragically, to me even the most humble bowl of porridge is still exciting). Armed with gluten free oats, and some of the finest summer fruit in season at the moment, you can make this utterly delicious cherry, vanilla and apricot baked oatmeal.
It's a summery adaptation of my hugely successful rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal, an irresistible cross between breakfast and dessert, rather like a fruit crisp but healthy. A layer of sliced marigold apricots bakes to a fragrant, jammy tangle of sweetness, while tart sweet cherries ooze their subtle perfume and scarlet juice into the mix. The milky layer of oats, bound with an egg and peppered with cinnamon, vanilla and a little sugar, bakes to a tender, chewy crust, crispy round the edges where the fruit juices have permeated it stickily. A scattering of almonds and some more cherries finishes it off, adding crunch and juiciness.
Incidentally, I call it 'oatmeal' because it's adapted from an American recipe, but it is basically baked porridge. Scroll down for the recipe, if you're interested.
I stumbled across another pitfall while making this - baking powder. It's incredible how many products that we take for granted contain traces of gluten; I realise I'm going to have to think very carefully about this over the next five days. Baking powder often contains corn starch, which means it isn't gluten free. However, you can buy a lot of gluten-free brands of baking powder. Even better, though, I discovered (via Google) that Tesco and Waitrose own brands don't contain gluten, and the former (which uses rice flour as its bulking agent) is what I happened to have in the cupboard.
I decided to experiment a little with the new video camera, so here's a delightful little 'how-to' video of me making this baked oatmeal for breakfast. I think Stephen Spielberg can feel pretty safe, however.
After tucking into a pretty generous portion of this for brunch, my lunch consisted simply of a nectarine and a pear. I think if fruit weren't gluten free, I'd be totally unable to do this challenge, as I eat a huge amount of the stuff every day.
If you need proof that a gluten-free diet needn't mean deprivation, look no further than my dinner this evening. Because, for the first time in approximately three months, the sun had actually come out, it seemed only fitting to celebrate by turning on the barbecue. We had some delicious barbecued sausages - I like them when they're black and crispy on the outside, because those carcinogens are just so damn tasty - along with a sweet, colourful tangle of roasted vegetables, a mound of salad, and jacket potatoes with a generous helping of cheese.
Not quite haute cuisine, but probably the most satisfying meal I've had in a long time. Just make sure, though, that if you're eating sausages on a gluten-free diet, they are suitable - sausages often contain rusk to pad them out, which contains wheat flour. Check the label, and if you can't get the gluten-free variety, choose some less processed cut of meat instead - a lovely steak, for example.
I didn't really notice any difference in how I felt today, probably because it's only day one and, as I mentioned above, it's not like I'm a gluten addict suddenly forced to go cold turkey. But I did feel pretty good after that barbecue! Who needs spongy, tasteless, processed burger buns when you can have a lovely crispy-skinned jacket potato instead? No gluten in those bad boys!
Rhubarb, blueberry and almond baked oatmeal (serves 4-6):
(Adapted from 'Super Natural Every Day', by Heidi Swanson)
- 7-8 large ripe apricots, sliced
- 300g cherries, halved and stoned (or 200g blueberries if you prefer)
- 200g gluten free oats (try and get the whole or 'jumbo' oats if possible)
- 40g flaked almonds, toasted
- 60g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp gluten-free baking powder
- 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 475ml milk
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Butter an 8in x 8in baking dish, or a similar-sized dish (I use a small Le Creuset one). Scatter the apricots over the bottom and add half the cherries.
Mix together the oats, half the flaked almonds, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
In a large jug, whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and vanilla/almond extract.
Sprinkle the oat mixture on top of the cherries and apricots and spread out so it forms a fairly even layer. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the oats, and give the dish a couple of bashes on the worktop to make sure the milk is evenly distributed. Sprinkle over the rest of the cherries and the flaked almonds.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the oat mixture has set and turned crunchy on top. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving.