“Leon Fast & Free: Free-From Recipes for People Who Really Like Food.” By Jane Baxter and John Vincent, Octopus Books USA. 304 pages. $29.99.

The first time I ever tasted Eritrean food was at a little place in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. I lost my mind a little I loved it so much. The communal plates, the heady spices transforming the lentils and lamb and chicken falling apart in wraps of sour injera bread – it has been a favorite in the decades since I discovered the East African cuisine.

It never occurred to me to try it at home. But a red lentil stew and injera recipe were among the global recipes I found in “Leon: Fast & Free, Free-From Recipes for People Who Really Like Food.” It’s the latest of seven cookbooks from Jane Baxter and John Vincent, the pair behind the 45-plus Leon restaurants in the United Kingdom, specializing in healthy fast food, that have sprung up since 2004.

As they point out, this cookbook works for those “eating clean” in some fashion, or just interested in good food. The happy coincidence of good and healthy food isn’t rocket science – many of the recipes in this cookbook are naturally gluten-free or dairy-free, while others offer substitutions such as cashew creams and nut-based milks. All of the recipes are gluten-free, dairy-free and refined-sugar-free, and symbols indicate whether recipes are also low in glycemic load, low in saturated fat, Paleo, nut-free, vegetarian, vegan or contain added natural unrefined sugar.

Within a few minutes of flipping through the recipes, though, I’d completely forgotten about the “free-from” theme. The recipes simply looked delicious – spicy baked dal squares, butternut squash corn cakes, Brazilian feijoada soup. There’s nothing about “Fast & Free” that makes a cook think she’s skimping on anything.

As with the other Leon cookbooks, the quality of the cookbook itself was impressive. It has sturdy pages, helpful cooking tips that don’t overwhelm the recipe itself, and pictures that are both eye-catching and useful of nearly every dish. A quartet of photos accompany the recipe for prosciutto, porcini and leek lasagna, guiding the reader through prep, layering and presentation views of the dish. A helpful fold-out four-page guide suggests an ideal kitchen cupboard, broken down to explain the thinking behind each item. Almond milk, it notes, works well with sweet and savory dishes and can be heated for sauces, while chestnut flour is less well known than other gluten-free flours but is sweet, rich and intense. Everything in their “cupboard” can be purchased online, the authors note.


Hunting for the ingredients for the Eritrean/Ethiopian recipes was part of the adventure. The signature spice – berbere – isn’t to be found at any local grocery stores, according to the owner of Asmara, a local Eritrean restaurant, so she sold me about a cup of berbere out of the kitchen on a busy weekend night. Several recipes online teach how to make your own berbere, which includes a dozen-plus spices. For those who want to control the heat, by either leaving in chili seeds or not, a home blend might be a good way to go.

The teff flour for the flatbread, known as injera, was also a challenge. Full-grain teff sold by Bob’s Red Mill was available at Whole Foods, but not the flour. I switched gears to use whole wheat flour, and online sites recommend buckwheat or any number of other flours as a substitute.

The recipe for the injera isn’t traditional, dropping the fermenting process that traditionally takes days. Instead, it uses vinegar for tang, and while the final product looked and tasted OK, it didn’t have the distinct “sour” taste that comes from true fermentation. A bit of online digging found alternative injera recipes that called for yogurt, and since the red lentil stew turned out more fiery than expected, I just put a dollop of yogurt on injera along with the lentils.

Problem solved! A bit more sour, and a cooler mouth feel.

The red lentil stew filled my kitchen with wondrous smells as it bubbled along, but a warning – the recipe calls for cooking a cup of lentils in only 1/4 cup of water, which wasn’t nearly enough. I ended up using about 3 cups in the usual 1:3 ratio for cooking lentils. The consistency was perfect in the end.

This is probably one of those dishes that I’ll leave to the experts in the future, but I expect plenty of other choices in “Fast & Free” to keep me busy this summer.



Gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, low saturated fat, nut-free, vegetarian, vegan, no added sugar.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water

1 cup teff flour


1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar


1/2 cup cold water

Rice bran oil, for greasing

1. Blend the yeast with the warm water. Mix with the flour and set side for an hour. Whisk in the baking powder, vinegar, salt and cold water so you have a thin batter.


2. Heat a nonstick skillet or griddle. Grease the pan using a cloth or piece of paper towel dipped in the oil. Ladle a little of the batter onto the pan and spread out either by using the ladle or tilting the pan.

3. Cover the pan for a minute to steam, uncover, then cook for another 3 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the batter and serve.


Gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, low glycemic load, low saturated fat, nut-free, vegetarian, vegan, no added sugar.

Our reviewer found she needed to use 3 cups water, not the mere 1/4 cup called for here.

Serves 4


2 onions, chopped

2 tablespoons rice bran oil

1/4 cup berbere (Ethiopian spice mix)

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup red lentils, rinsed well


1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1. In a large pan, cook the onions in the oil for 10 minutes. Add the spice mixture, ginger and garlic and cook for another 3 minutes.

2. Add the lentils and stir well to combine. Pour in the water and bring to a simmer, then cook for 30 minutes, until the lentils have gone slightly mushy. Season with the salt and serve with the Ethiopian flat bread.

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