Tag Archives: Italian

Wonderful dinner, shame about the price

After a busier-than-originally-expected National Eosinophil Awareness Week, I took a much-needed sabbatical from my blog and concentrated my efforts on getting my day job and home life back in order to varying levels of success depending on which particular task you’ve decided to look at. With May half-term now behind us, it seemed an opportune moment to get back to the writing and catch up a little with our adventures over the last few weeks. Whilst there are lots of things to tell you about, I decided to start with one of my favourite things to share – the success story of a fantastic meal out.

Our household has been filled for months with the unbelievable stress of M’s SATS and by the time half-term hit, that particular challenge had been well and truly put behind us. Thanks to the unfailing support of M’s class teacher and school, we all came through the experience relatively unscathed and Mike and I wanted to do something to mark the end of that pressure and instead look forward to the rest of M’s final term in Junior school. The first weekend of half-term was the May bank holiday and we decided to surprise the children with a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to discover more about this beautiful Warwickshire town and its most famous forefather, William Shakespeare. We had lots planned for our 2 days there and the glorious May sunshine on the Sunday made for a fantastic day. However, as always, our skills in finding somewhere safe for the whole family to eat were stretched to the limits, though our final destination on the Saturday evening proved to be a great choice.

For those of you who have never been to Stratford-upon-Avon, it is not filled with a plethora of the chain restaurants we have somewhat come to rely on as a “safe bet” when we need to feed M somewhere new and sadly the few small independent eateries we explored were unable to prepare anything that he could eat. Finally, I spotted a Zizzi restaurant and whilst we haven’t eaten there for a long time, I had in the back of my mind a vague memory of a discussion within our EGID support group, where others had had great success with eating there. We headed inside and started questioning the manager about whether there was any chance of an M-friendly dinner or not. To our delight, he reassured us that they could manage a plain grilled chicken breast with cucumber and were happy for M to eat his own rice cakes at the table.

As G, Mike and I perused the menus to make our own dinner choices, I had a sudden flash of inspiration about something I was sure I had read and, upon checking once again with our extremely accommodating manager, was delighted to be able to tell M that he could also have some mozzarisella cheese added to the dish to add a little something extra that he hasn’t been able to have when eating out before. M couldn’t wait for his dinner to arrive and G was similarly excited about her pepperoni pizza. The plates looked fantastic when they finally reached our table and both children soon made quick work of clearing the dishes without any argument. Mike and I also enjoyed our meals and we would have been more than happy to call it a night there, but it turned out that the best bit was yet to come.

Whilst G had been studying the extensive allergy menu, she had identified a couple of gluten- and dairy-free puddings that she could have and my eagle eyes had already spotted the rare possibility of lemon sorbet as a dessert for M. Our waitress was happy to grab the lemon sorbet label for me to check and as soon as I gave the go-ahead, a double scoop of sorbet and a fantastic-looking Sticky Chocolate and Praline Torte with coconut and chocolate ice-cream arrived at our table for G and M. For the last couple of years or so, there has been a campaign called #fruitisnotapudding, which seeks to encourage allergy-friendly options for dessert, rather than the somewhat ubiquitous fresh fruit salad. Over the last few months, this campaign has really flourished on social media and it’s been great to see what restaurants can do when they really think about it. As a family we rarely eat pudding whilst we’re out because there is only very occasionally some tempting and tasty options that are both gluten- and dairy-free for G, without even beginning to think about preparing a safe alternative for M. Our discovery of this delicious Torte and ice-cream  for G was, for her, a dream come true and only goes to show that it absolutely can be done with some effort.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the dessert dishes were emptied just as quickly as their main course plates had been and we had 2 very happy children by the end of the meal. We thought nothing could spoil a great evening meal out for us all…until the bill arrived at our table. There is no rhyme or reason to how any restaurant charges us for the meal that they prepare for M; sometimes we have a double portion for the price of one, sometimes they just bill us for an extra or a side dish and very occasionally we have been fortunate to be gifted M’s meal for free. As is so often the case, M asked for a double portion of chicken and the plate of 2 grilled chicken breasts topped with some melted mozzarisella cheese and a healthy serving of cucumber was added to the bill at an eye-watering £27.90! Unfortunately, Zizzi’s approach to billing left us with a slightly bitter aftertaste and even though the duty manager did eventually concede to just charge us half of the original cost, we will have to think very carefully about when and if we choose to visit them again. It was a fantastic meal out for us all, but we ended up paying a lot for less than a handful of ingredients.

M’s marks:             10/10                                                                                                                               G’s  marks:             9.5/10                                                                                                                               Parents’ marks:    9/10 for food, but a disappointing 2/10 for approach to billing

Don’t be afraid to ASK

ask-boltonNot too many months ago, we happened to find ourselves near the beautiful town of Great Malvern and in need of a late Sunday lunch. Much to my surprise, given how small I’d assumed this town was, I discovered through a hurried internet search that Great Malvern itself hosts an ASK restaurant and quick glance at their online menu suggested that we’d be able to feed our dynamic duo there without too much hassle. It doesn’t fail to amaze me that we consistently find ourselves enjoying the food at Italian restaurants given their regular gluten-laden fare of pasta and pizza, but I suppose it should really come as no surprise given how many allergy-friendly foods we found on our recent trip to Italy. They almost always serve a chicken dish in one form or another, so whilst it is near impossible to get M a portion of plain rice to accompany his meal, risotto being their main rice offering, we are happy to eat there and I often recommend them on to others in the allergy community.

img_06291As always the children ordered their perennial favourites when we eat anywhere that has Italian food on offer. G opted for a gluten- and dairy-free pepperoni pizza with extra goats cheese, whilst M had his usual dish of grilled chicken breast and cucumber. Our waiter made sure he fully understood our allergy requirements as well as making a note for the kitchen and checked their allergen menu to make sure that everything we had ordered could be safely prepared for G and M. img_06261We’ve taken to ordering adult-sized portions of meals for both children these days and the generous amounts that arrived were more than enough to satisfy my ravenous pair, with both clearing their plates in impressive fashion.

As ever the allergy-offerings for dessert were poor and G was disappointed that they didn’t serve a gluten-free garlic bread or dough balls for a starter, something she’s become addicted to whenever we visit Pizza Express. We enjoyed our first meal at ASK and it’s always great to have another safe restaurant in our back pocket for future meals out. The Great Malvern restaurant is set in a beautiful location and we had a table looking out over the fantastic view from the upstairs windows.

G’s marks: 7/10              M’s marks: 7.5/10

A Tale of Two Restaurants

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…we had everything before us…”

    – Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities”

Recently we spent a busy weekend in the town of Portishead, just outside of Bristol and naturally found ourselves needing to eat out in a couple of the restaurants dotted around the Marina there. The two restaurants we chose were a stone’s throw away from each other and yet our experiences of their allergy-friendly services were worlds apart.

The first was Bottelinos, an independent small Italian chain in the South West, who were confident that they could cater for M’s food needs and had gluten-free options clearly marked on their menus. The first hiccup came when G asked for the “Pasta Maximus”, a bolognese sauce with a meatball, and was disappointed to be told that she couldn’t have it as the sauce wasn’t gluten-free. LOGOWe had already had to discount a large proportion of the other pasta dishes because they weren’t dairy-free, so my disgruntled girl moodily requested steak and chips instead – and that’s when the fun and games really began.

Our waitress nipped back to the serving counter and spoke to the chef, before coming back to tell us that the chips weren’t gluten-free either and G’s choices were rapidly disappearing. Feeling somewhat concerned about what we could order for our increasingly hungry pair, I asked for the allergens listing so that I could see exactly what was on offer for G and started flicking through the pages with my fingers tightly crossed that I would find something she would enjoy. The first problem quickly became evident when every pasta dish on the menu was marked as containing gluten, which I assumed was because of the pasta itself rather than the base ingredients in the sauces and there was no easy way to distinguish which sauces actually contained gluten and which were really gluten-free. This type of wholescale approach to allergens may seem sensible, but makes it extremely difficult for an allergy-sufferer to work out what they can or can’t choose without extensive help and detailed knowledge from waiting, kitchen and managerial staff.

Then came the next whammy. As I ran my experienced eye over the rest of the allergen menu, I spotted that the chips were marked as being gluten-free, despite the advice we’d already been given to the contrary. It was far too late for us to up-sticks and search out somewhere else to eat dinner, so I asked to speak to the manager, a request that was met without delay. My first question was about the Maximus sauce, the only one that G was prepared to even consider for her supper, and we were told that whilst the bolognese sauce was gluten-free, the meatball wasn’t and so, having dismissed pasta as an option, we quickly moved on to the matter of the chips. The explanation given here left me stunned and unlikely to rush back for another meal with the children in tow. The manager explained that they had a dedicated gluten-free fryer, so the chips usually would be safe; however (and this is the important bit), on a Friday night they use that fryer to cook everything because of how busy they get and the need to keep up with orders. IMG_0605[1]Not only was I extremely disappointed that they didn’t consider being able to cook gluten-free foods a priority on a busy evening, but I have serious concerns as to whether they are really able to thoroughly clean the fryer and change the oil before Saturday’s service begins; or indeed if they even do.

Eventually we were able to compromise with the manager and the chef cooked G’s chips in a separate pan to ensure the cross-contamination risk was reduced, something we were able to watch from our table. M was given a plate of grilled chicken and sliced cucumber, though he did find a small piece of lettuce when he was half-way through, which again suggested that their approach IMG_0604[1]to allergy-friendly catering wasn’t good enough. In fact, both children did suffer some delayed symptoms in the 24 hours following our meal, which supported our concerns that the cross-contamination risks hadn’t been as well-managed as we’ve experienced elsewhere.

 

In stark contrast, the second restaurant and our location for Sunday lunch with old friends, impressed us from the very start. Mike had popped in to Aqua beforehand to ensure that a repeat of Friday’s disaster was avoided and their response couldn’t have been more different. Not only was he given a copy of their allergy menu to show G, but both the chef and the manager came to talk to him about everything we needed.thumb.php The chef painstakingly went through every item on the menu, explaining which could be made both gluten- and dairy-free for G and made some suggestions of other tweaks that could be made to suit her tastes. As for M, the only cucumber to be found in the restaurant is behind the bar, so the chef made a note to ensure that one would be available for M’s Sunday lunch and again reassured Mike that they could make a tasty dish to meet his complex diet. It was already sounding like a much more promising meal and we couldn’t wait to actually try it out on the day itself.

When we arrived on the Sunday, our booking had been well-annotated to indicate M’s dietary needs and the waitress was aware of what he could eat and how the food was going to be prepared. G chose steak and chips again with the added extra of some goats cheese to replace their standard sauces and M was served a beautifully presented dish of grilled chicken on an apple, pear and cucumber salad. IMG_0610[1]What made the meal even better for M was the lemon sorbet he was able to enjoy for pudding. I had seen it on the dessert menu and asked the waitress if I could see the tub itself to check the list of ingredients. She brought the container to the table and we were thrilled to see that it was indeed safe. The options for G were not so good given she doesn’t like sorbet, but she was able to enjoy a plate of apple, walnuts and sheep’s cheese, which kept her, and me, happy.

IMG_0609[1]Our Sunday lunch was a truly fantastic affair and so different to the problematic experience we endured on the Friday night. It shows what turns a good restaurant into a great restaurant and somewhere that people will visit time and time again. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Aqua to anyone looking for allergy-friendly restaurants and have passed their details on to the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards as somewhere worth knowing about and deserving of recognition. Bottelinos, it would appear, could learn a lot from their nearest neighbour in Portishead and the weekend really was a tale of two restaurants.

Tempting tempura

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love being able to post new recipes on my blog once again.  Having a fourth safe food has really opened up some exciting opportunities for experimenting in the kitchen and I’ll be sharing the successes over the coming weeks as well as possibly lamenting the disasters.  Today’s recipe is actually one of the first I adapted when we started the process of food reintroductions and, just like my chicken liver pâté, is an old favourite harking back to the days when the children were small.  Arancini di riso, or Italian deep-fried savoury rice balls, have become a firm favourite for M’s tea and G, Mike and I all enjoy them occasionally too.

20150618_171855The key to their success lay in perfecting the tempura-style batter I wanted to use to coat them, as breadcrumbs won’t be seen in my kitchen for quite some time.  Tempura is a traditional Japanese light batter, which is typically made using flour and water, though some recipes include egg too.  I am very much a visual cook, rather than one to strictly follow a recipe and so my first few batches varied massively as I played with the quantities of rice flour and sparkling water used until I reached my idea of tempura batter perfection.  Using sparkling water makes the batter even lighter, but you can easily substitute it with cold tap water and will still end up with a delicious dish.  My final recipe has been carefully measured out and written down to share.

For me, the best bit about cooking Arancini di riso for M is that there are no rules.  Of course there’s a traditional Italian recipe, but you can add whatever you want to suit your dietary needs.  We have graduated far beyond the plain rice balls that I started with and now have numerous successes under my belt.  M’s current favourite is rice mixed with shredded chicken and cucumber and seasoned with salt, pepper and plenty of sage.  With my tempura batter recipe perfected, I have used it to cook M-friendly chicken “nuggets”, which have also been a big hit.  With the addition of apple, I’m planning to try a dessert version soon using stewed apple and some home-made and M-friendly caramel, but that, as they say, is a story for another day!

Gnocchi

With the end of the school year just around the corner and G preparing to start her final year of Juniors in September, I’ve recently been reminiscing about her baby years and in particular, when we first found out I was pregnant with her.  I had just qualified as an accountant, was about to move to my first job in industry and Mike and I were on holiday in Florida.  My main recollection, other than the overwhelming joy of discovering we were expecting our first child, is eating Gnocchi at the Via Napoli restaurant at Epcot.  For those not in the know, gnocchi are mouth-watering Italian potato dumplings and, quite obviously, this experience was in the days before my own potato intolerance was identified. Via Napoli

As I recalled the delicious flavours that literally melted in my mouth during that holiday, I wondered whether this was a food experience that I would ever be able to enjoy again or one that I could introduce to my multiple allergy-suffering children.  I did some research on-line and found two recipes that almost fit the bill.  Whilst neither was perfect by itself, I could combine and adapt them to create both M-friendly and G-friendly gnocchi.  Due to the pernickety nature of my eldest, who won’t touch sweet potato with a 10-foot barge-pole, I had to use this allergy-friendly recipe, whilst I needed the expertise of this sweet potato alternative for M.  I decided it would be worth the time and hard work required to cook both recipes if I could find a new meal that both would ultimately enjoy.

20140701_173743I will warn you now that this is not a recipe for the faint-hearted as it is relatively labour-intensive, but the delightful end result was, in my opinion, well worth the effort.  I invested in a potato ricer, which produced the most wonderfully smooth mashed potato I’ve ever seen.  I have since learned that you can achieve the same result using a bog standard food blender, but I’m thrilled with my shiny new kitchen gadget and wouldn’t swap it for the world.

20140701_182848

 

I almost come unstuck over the weighty decision of a sauce, but decided to err on the side of caution and prepare the one suggested with the sweet potato gnocchi recipe, keeping my fingers crossed it might pass muster with G and M alike.  I am astounded and delighted to announce that neither child turned their noses up at my home-made gnocchi and they were an unexpected resounding success.  Unbelievably both children cleared their plates and G was so enthusiastic about the dish that she asked if I could make it again the following day!

The batches of the gnocchi dough I had made with my adapted recipe were enough to not only feed the 4 of us a hearty dinner, but also allowed me to batch up 3 more dinners for G and M and pop them into the freezer for future occasions.  As the Italians would say, “molto delizioso!