After having a lifelong obsession with dairy-based foods I never imagined that at somepoint I would have to turn my back on slices of hot toast dripping with butter, artisan cheeses, actually cheeses on everything, homemade ice-cream, milk chocolate – the list goes on (and on and on).
I have to be honest going dairy free did not come easy to me at all, but when my eldest daughter started to suffer from persistent eczema I learnt that one of the possible causes could be a food intolerance or allergy, and that it was most likely to be dairy products that were to blame.
I (reluctantly) removed all traces of dairy products from our diet for a month, to see if it made a difference to her skin. Remarkably and very surprisingly, her eczema improved considerably over the next few weeks. I wasn’t expecting it to have any real effect on myself, as I said I only did it for her, but I began to experience relief from some long-standing digestive problems which improved my quality of life immensely.
To check that it was definitely dairy that was the culprit we went back to our previous dairy-laden diet after the planned month of abstinence. My daughter’s eczema returned along with my digestive discomfort so my daughter and I decided to give a dairy-free life a go fulltime.
One of the widespread concerns around dairy-free diets, and one which many people have asked me about since, is whether we are able to get enough calcium in our diets – especially with young and growing children.
As a rule we don’t take any extra supplements but we do eat a wide variety of vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds which contain plenty of natural calcium. Generally, green vegetables, nuts and any white pulses such as haricots or chickpeas contain large quantities of calcium, comparing favourably with levels found in other dairy products such as milk and yoghurts.
I’m the kind of person that makes everything from scratch and I refuse to eat processed foods enhanced with artificial nutrients or additives to enrich or preserve them. As a passionate environmentalist I refuse to support the widespread cultivation of soy and palm oil (the mass production and untraceability of these products, now added to almost every processed food on the supermarket shelves, contributes significantly to the deforestation of many of the world’s rainforests).
With this in mind, I was a little stuck as to how I could healthily and sustainably fulfil our creamy dairy addiction without turning to soy-based milks, yogurts and cheeses or palm oil-based spreads. So after a little research and lots of experimentation here’s some of my most commonly used dairy free alternatives:
For buttery toast – we love a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, with some crunchy Maldon Sea Salt Flakes on the top.
For anything with a cheesy flavour – I add a tablespoon of nutritional yeast, usually mixing it with some ground nuts or seeds and adding a little salt.
For milk – we like oat milk, the kids enjoy drinking it as it has a rather sweet and malty taste but I only use it in cooking.
For anything creamy – I soak some cashews for a couple of hours, then drain and wizz them up in a high speed blender with an equal amount of water – the result is cream-like and satisfying, and I can then add savoury or sweet flavours depending on what I’m using it for.
For baking – I generally use a mix of organic coconut oil and sunflower oil at a ratio of 80/20.
For pastry – I mostly use organic coconut oil but have found the results to be quite hard and crumbly, which is fine for a shortcrust type pastry but for buttery puff pastry it doesn’t work so well. However, I’ve recently found Naturli Organic Vegan Block – a wonderful, natural (no additives or palm oil) vegan butter and it gives amazing results.
I’ve used some of these suggestions in the following recipe for a vegetable gratin which is easy, creamy, cheesy, satisfying, loaded with calcium and totally dairy free.
Vegetable gratin with wild garlic herb crumb
For the wild garlic herb crumb
- 1 handful of wild garlic leaves or a bunch of soft herbs like parsley, chives or basil
- ½ lemon zest
- 100g breadcrumbs – dry
- 25g almonds
- 10g sunflower oil
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ head of broccoli – chopped into florets
- or 1 large handful of sprouting broccoli
- ½ head of cauliflower – chopped into florets
- 200g dried butterbeans/haricot beans – soaked and cooked according to the instructions on the packet or 2 x 400g tins – drained
For the cheesy cashew cream
- 75g cashews
- 1 small clove of garlic, finely minced
- 1 heaped tbsp nutritional yeast
- ½ tsp salt
- 75ml water
- ½ lemon – juiced
For the white sauce
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 40g coconut oil/sunflower oil
- 40g flour – wholemeal/plain white/gluten free – whichever you prefer
- 400ml oat milk or other plant milk
- salt and black pepper to taste
- finely grated nutmeg
- 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard seeds
- 2 tsp thyme leaves
- 2 bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f gas mark 4
Wild garlic/herb crumb
Wizz-up the almonds and breadcrumbs in a food processor, when finely ground add the wild garlic or herbs, lemon zest and seasoning and blend until combined. Add the sunflower oil and continue to blend until crumbly and bright green. Set aside whilst you prepare the rest of the dish.
Cheesy cashew cream
Soak the cashews in cold water for 2 hours (or boiling water for 20 minutes if you forget like I do). Drain, and then add all the ingredients to a high powered blender and wizz until silky smooth.
Steam the cauliflower and broccoli for a few minutes, until only just tender and drain. Transfer the vegetables to a large oven-proof casserole dish, along with the cooked beans.
Melt the oil in a pan and soften the onions and garlic slowly, until they’re super sticky and caramelised. Add the flour and stir to form a paste. Pour in the oat milk a little at a time, whisking continuously until you have a smooth sauce, add the seasoning, nutmeg, mustard and herbs and cook for a few minutes until thick and creamy. Stir in the cashew cream and pour it over the vegetables.
Top with the wild garlic/herb crumb and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until bubbly and golden.
At this time of year we love to serve this with some new potatoes and our favourite salad, but in the colder months we like to bulk up the sauce and throw in some pasta for a hearty pasta bake.