Cookbook road test: Leon Fast & Free
Leon’s Fast & Free cookbook was launched in January, the month when bookshops traditionally break out in a rash of health and hardiness.
The shelves are laden with tomes exhorting shoppers to change the world, change their lives, get lean, eat clean, turn Paleo and shed those pounds.
The sense of eager salubriousness is near palpable – it’s enough to have the wellness-wary seeking shelter in the nearest pub…
But the subtitle of this book, ‘Free-from recipes for people who actually like food’, was appealing enough to make us give in and give it a go. Written by chef Jane Baxter and Leon co-founder John Vincent, it’s the latest in a series of cookbooks from the team behind ‘healthy’ fast-food brand Leon. All the recipes are free from gluten, dairy and refined sugar and many are vegetarian, vegan, nut-free and what the authors call ‘Paleon’ – their version of the Paleo diet, defined in the introduction.
It’s ‘a free-from book that doesn’t compromise on flavour, foodiness or joy’, Vincent writes. Many of the recipes have an Asian influence, inspired by Baxter’s travels east, as well as ingredients and flavours from southern Europe and northern Africa – places where ‘free-from’ ingredients such as rice flour, teff flour, gram flour and the like are used without making a big song and dance about it. There’s also a ‘treat yourself’ chapter for gluten-free cakes, puds and sweet treats.
Quality of the recipes:
The ingredients and recipes are refreshingly broad-ranging, including poha (Indian flattened rice), Korean bindaeduk (mung bean pancakes) and Sri Lankan hoppers (rice and coconut pancakes). I earmarked the latter two for a day when I have a bit more time – both need to be started a day in advance – and settled on two quick dishes: southern Indian spiced fish and Indonesian-style cauliflower and tempeh sambal.
The fish curry was made with the Keralan holy trinity of spices (mustard seeds, curry leaves and fresh chilli) along with coconut milk, cardamom, turmeric and ginger. The recipe worked a treat and reminded me of curries I’d enjoyed on holidays in Goa. The portion size was generous. It was also mind-blowingly hot.
Chilli heat was a feature in the tempeh dish too – but the verdict on this one wasn’t quite so positive. I love tempeh cooked the Indonesian way, sliced and fried (sometimes with spices) to give the fermented soybean cake additional flavour and texture. However, my finished dish was unpleasantly claggy, the flavour a monotone of searing heat. I added more tamarind paste, seasoned it heavily with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy, not called for in the recipe) and finally resorted to adding some fish sauce to give it the complexity I wanted. Oddly, the sambal paste called for capers, not something you find often in Indonesian food, with no explanation why…
Keen to try more, I made spiced chicken liver salad with mustard seed vinaigrette, intriguingly flavoured with garam masala and served with puy lentils, cherry toms and artichokes. It took longer to pull together than the 15 minutes promised, but the flavours worked brilliantly – although I was left wondering what to do with the artichokes that appeared in the ingredients list but not in the method (yes, I figured it out in the end…).
Tamin Jones’ images are suitably clean and fresh and make the food look appealing in a sunny way.
Who is it suitable for?
Vegetarians and those avoiding gluten and dairy are obvious targets, but meat eaters aren’t left out as long as they’re adventurous eaters who like to experiment with unusual ingredients – and enjoy a bit of chilli heat.
The book isn’t without flaws but these are outweighed by its positive attributes and ambition.
Leon Fast & Free by Jane Baxter & John Vincent (£25; Octopus, out 12 January)