For several years I lived with pounding headaches, aching joints, a runny nose, fatigue and digestive problems on a daily basis. I popped painkillers as though they were Smarties and had a stash of mentholated 4head sticks on the bedside table, in coat pockets, at the bottom of bags and at the back of desk drawers. The thing is, I didn’t really question what was causing all of this discomfort. I just assumed that the stresses of a long commute and a day of teaching secondary school pupils with learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties were grinding me down.  I left the job but the symptoms persisted. I would wake up in the morning, feeling absolutely fine but, half an hour after a wheat-packed breakfast, I would get that expanding, burning aching in my head which would start at my temples, spread to my throat and make me feel queasy. I would automatically reach for the co-codamol whilst furiously smearing my forehead with menthol. It wasn’t until I decided that it was time I lost the stone and a half of excess weight that I’d been carrying around for far too long and went on the South Beach Diet, which cuts out gluten-containing foods, amongst others, for the first fortnight, that I found out, quite by accident that I was gluten intolerant. On my doctor’s advice, I’ve recently decided to find out if I’m actually coeliac or not. The diagnosis will make little difference to my everyday life, however. I’ve eaten gluten-free for the past two years and haven’t looked back. I’ve never felt so well. And the only thing I now eat like Smarties are, well, Smarties.
Naturally gluten-free chicken pilaf with artichokes and preserved lemons
The taste of the cumin and the lemons take me back to a restaurant overlooking Jemaa El-Fna in Marrakech where I first had a chicken, olive and lemon tagine. Preserved lemons have a fairly strong, medicinal flavour which I love but which isn’t to everyone’s taste. The first time I cooked this recipe, I put in two lemons and the flavour was quite over-powering. The second time, I only used one. The flavour is now far more subtle. I would imagine that a fresher lemon flavour could be achieved through the substitution of preserved lemons for the juice of a fresh one and the zest of half of it.
Serves 2-3 (We usually manage to eat the whole thing between the two of us, but then we’re just plain greedy).
·         Handful flaked almonds
·         2 tsp cumin seeds
·         Medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
·         2 tbsp olive oil
·         2 skinless chicken breast fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces
·         200g basmati rice, rinsed under cold running water until the water runs clear
·         600ml chicken or vegetable stock or plain water
·         5 tinned artichoke hearts, quartered
·         1 small preserved lemon, chopped into small pieces
·         Handful fresh coriander, stalks removed and roughly chopped
·         Salt and pepper
Gently toast the flaked almonds in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until golden brown. This should take about 1-2 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside in a small bowl. Carefully wipe the hot pan with a piece of kitchen roll to remove any shards of almond and return to the heat. Now gently toast the cumin seeds in the dry pan, still over a medium heat, until they become fragrant. This should take about a minute. Remove from the pan and grind to a powder, using a pestle and mortar.
Return the pan to the heat and pour in the olive oil. When hot, add the onions and cook until soft but not coloured. This should take about 7-8 minutes. Add the cumin powder to the onions and stir. Allow to cook for another couple of minutes, stirring to avoid the onions and cumin sticking and catching.
Add the rice to the pan and stir until all the grains are coated and glistening with oil. Add about 580ml of the stock and bring the mixture up to a simmer. Add the preserved lemon to the pan and allow to gently bubble away for about 5 minutes.
Add the chicken pieces and the quartered artichoke hearts to the pan and continue to simmer until the rice is tender, the chicken is cooked through and all the liquid has been absorbed. If the rice absorbs all of the liquid before it’s cooked, add more stock, a ladle at a time, to keep the mixture moist. This should take about 10 minutes.
Check the seasoning, adding pepper, and salt if required (I find that the stock has plenty of salt in it and I never need to add more). Stir half the coriander into the rice and scatter the remainder over the top, along with the toasted flaked almonds. Serve with a green salad.