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Rebecca Seal and Leon co-founder John Vincent share recipes from their new cookbook Leon Happy Guts, specifically designed to boost the digestive system.
Gut health isn’t the most fun subject to consider when planning your weekly meals, but the science speaks for itself. Thought to impact mental health, some auto-immune diseases and potentially linked to individual responses to Covid-19, the gastrointestinal tract is one of the hottest topics in the world of nutrition – with high-profile experts including Dr Megan Rossi, Dr Rupy Aujla and The Gut Stuff’s Lisa and Alana Mcfarlane putting terms such as ‘microbiome’ and ‘gut-brain axis’ firmly on our radars.
Golden rules of gut health include eating fibre-rich ingredients, reducing sugar and salt, and adding live microbes (like those in yoghurt and kimchi) to meals. And if you’re keen to keep your digestive system running smoothly, Leon’s latest cookbook is a one-stop shop for tasty dishes.
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Co-authored by food writer Rebecca Seal and Leon founder John Vincent, Leon Happy Guts is an anthology of delicious recipes – all precision-engineered for maximum bacteria-boosting benefits. (Otherwise known as symbiotic microbes, our gut bacteria are involved in digesting food, maintaining our immune system and fighting off pathogens – put simply, the more diverse forms we have, the better.)
Seal and Vincent are particularly evangelical about ‘eating the rainbow’. “Good gut bacteria not only feed off the polyphenols [plant-derived micronutrients] that we deliver them by eating colourful food, but also turn them into nutrients we need, and can’t get anywhere else,” they say.
Below, Seal and Vincent share five recipes, all designed to support a healthy gut microbiome. If pasta is your thing, firstly: same. Secondly: you’ll want to try Seal and Vincent’s Sicilian-inspired sardine dish. It’s full of omega 3, which Seal and Vincent swear by for increasing the diversity of bacteria in the gut and easing digestion.
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More into Asian-inspired flavours? Give the miso-crusted salmon a go. Tender fish is coated in a tangy marinade, then served with piquant cucumber, pickled in gut-loving raw apple cider vinegar. Or if you’re in need of a vegetarian recipe, cook a batch of the fibre-rich kale and broccoli fried rice.
To top it all off, go for Seal and Vincent’s chocolate cake – it contains three whole beetroots, so it’s full of polyphenols. Alternatively, make the pair’s wonderfully wobbly panna cotta, made using live Greek-style yoghurt. Deliciousness for you, digestion-friendly food for your gut: it’s a win-win.
Sicilian sardine pasta
Rebecca and John say: “Rebecca first tasted this amazing combination in Sicily, where it would usually be made with fresh sardines. It’s got the lot: omega-3 from the fish, prebiotics from the onion, fennel and dried fruit, and polyphenols from the oil. You can use any kind of pasta, but it goes beautifully with gram flour pasta.”
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, for cooking
- 1 slice of day-old bread, ideally sourdough, crusts removed and chopped or torn into crumbs
- 1 onion, very finely chopped
- ½ head of fennel, finely chopped, fronds separated and reserved
- a generous pinch of fennel seeds
- 3 anchovies
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 500g fresh egg tagliatelle or 400g dried tagliatelle, spaghetti or linguine
- 3 tbsp pine nuts
- a pinch of saffron threads
- 2 tbsp raisins or sultanas
- 2 × 128g cans sardines in oil, drained
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, to serve
- extra virgin olive oil, to serve
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide frying pan over a medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, until golden brown and crispy.
Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Ensure no crumbs remain in the pan.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, then add the onion and fennel. Gently cook for about 10 minutes until soft and translucent, but not brown (reduce the heat if necessary).
Add the fennel seeds, anchovies and garlic and cook, stirring, until the anchovies dissolve and the garlic no longer smells raw.
If you are cooking dried pasta, put it in a pan of salted boiling water while the anchovies are cooking and cook for 1 minute less than the packet instructions. If cooking fresh pasta, wait until after the pine nuts are cooked.
Heat the final tablespoon of oil in a small pan over a low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast until golden all over, then remove from the pan.
Stir the saffron and raisins/sultanas into the sauce. Just before serving, add the sardines and gently stir them in, breaking them up a little, but not mashing them.
Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the water. Toss the pasta, breadcrumbs, pine nuts and sauce together with a little black pepper. If it looks dry, add 1–2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water.
Serve sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with just a little extra virgin olive oil.
Fresh sardines can be used here too – add at the same time as for canned, but allow to cook through in the pan.
Miso-crusted salmon with black rice and cucumber pickle
Rebecca and John say: “This has so much going for it: omegas from the salmon and sesame oil and an explosion of fibre and polyphenols from the black rice and edamame. Also, it looks pretty and tastes fabulous.”
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
- 220g black rice
- 1 tsp mirin (or a pinch of sugar)
- 1 tbsp miso paste
- 1 tsp soy sauce/tamari (use gluten free if needed), plus extra to serve
- 4 salmon fillets (about 120g each, try to use wild rather than farmed salmon)
- 125g frozen edamame beans
- a pinch of black or white sesame seeds, or a mixture, to serve
- toasted sesame oil, to serve
For the cucumber pickle:
- 125g cucumber, sliced into long thin ribbons
- a really generous pinch of sugar
- a generous pinch of salt
- a pinch of black or white sesame seeds, or a mixture
- ½ tsp rice vinegar or raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar (with mother)
- 1 tsp very finely grated fresh ginger
Place the rice in a pan with a lid (use a pan that won’t stain), cover with cold water, and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Cook until tender, up to 35 minutes. Drain any excess water, fluff up with a fork and cover with the lid until ready to serve.
Meanwhile, thoroughly mix the mirin, miso paste and soy sauce/tamari together, then rub the mixture all over the salmon fillets. Set aside.
Mix all the cucumber pickle ingredients together in a small bowl, and set aside.
Once the rice is cooked, heat the grill to medium.
Place the beans in a pan of boiling water, bring back to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Drain and keep warm.
When the grill is hot, grill the salmon, skin-side up, for 2 minutes. Cook until dark but not scorched (the marinade can easily burn), then turn the salmon and cook the other side for 3–4 minutes, or until the salmon is just cooked through and beginning to flake. Don’t allow it to overcook and fall apart.
Serve in wide bowls, with the rice on the bottom, the edamame beans and salmon on top, and the cucumber pickle alongside.
Finish with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and extra soy sauce on the table.
Kale, pak choi and broccoli with garlic fried rice
Rebecca and John say: “Fried rice is a stir-fry standby that never fails to disappoint. This version uses crispy garlic and fries everything else in the garlic-infused oil. Intriguingly, the carbs in rice (and potatoes) change when they are cooked and cooled, turning into resistant starch – the kind our gut microbes love.
“Always cool cooked rice quickly, transferring it to the fridge as soon as possible, or less friendly microbes may colonize it.”
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
- 1 large head garlic, cloves peeled and finely chopped (pulse in a food processor to save time and garlicky fingers)
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 8–10 spring onions, light green and white parts thinly sliced, green parts thinly sliced and reserved to serve
- 100g kale, ribs removed, roughly chopped
- 100g tenderstem broccoli, sliced into even-sized batons
- 1 pak choi, thick stems removed, sliced the same size as the broccoli
- 800g chilled day-old rice (start with 265g uncooked rice)
- 1 tsp soy sauce/tamari (choose gluten free if needed)
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce/tamari (choose gluten free if needed)
- 1 tsp sugar
- sesame oil
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- sriracha (optional, but encouraged)
To make the crispy garlic, lightly season the chopped garlic with salt. In a small pan, heat the oil over a medium heat. Add the garlic and fry until very slightly browned and crispy, 2–3 minutes. The garlic should be gently bubbling, not spitting – reduce the heat if needed. Keep watch as the garlic can easily burn and turn bitter.
Once the garlic is crispy, drain immediately, reserving the oil. Transfer the garlic to a plate lined with kitchen paper, to cool.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the garlic oil in a large wok or frying pan over a high heat. When smoking hot, add the spring onions, kale, broccoli and pak choi.
Season lightly with salt. Stir fry, tossing constantly, until softened and fragrant, 2–3 minutes. Add more garlic oil as needed to prevent sticking. Transfer to a plate.
Add another tablespoon of garlic oil to the same pan. Add the rice and break up any clumps with a wooden spoon. Stir fry until the rice is broken up and softened, 1–2 minutes.
Return the vegetables to the pan and add the soy sauce/tamari, dark soy sauce/tamari and sugar. Toss to combine and fry for a further minute.
Divide between 4 bowls and top generously with crispy garlic and sliced spring onion greens. Serve with a drizzle of sesame oil, lime wedges and sriracha.
In season, make this more, well… rainbowy by using rainbow chard instead of the kale.
Chocolate beetroot cake
Rebecca and John say: “No one we tested this cake on realized it contained three whole (polyphenol-rich) beetroot, as well as gut-friendly dark chocolate. Because it has relatively little added sugar, it can taste a little austere without the ganache, which we make with live yoghurt instead of the usual cream.”
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
For the cake:
- 150g good-quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids): 100g melted; 50g roughly chopped
- 250g beetroot, peeled, cooked and roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp mild olive oil
- 125ml flavourless rapeseed or sunflower oil
- 125g caster sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- a pinch of salt
- 4 free-range eggs, separated
- 50g good-quality cocoa powder
- 150g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 3–4 tbsp fruit compote
For the ganache frosting:
- 75g good-quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), melted
- ¼ tsp vanilla bean paste
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp thick and creamy full-fat Greek-style live yoghurt
Heat the oven to 175°C/gas mark 4. Grease and line two 20cm springform cake tins.
Combine the melted chocolate, beetroot, oils, sugar, vanilla bean paste and salt in a food processor and blitz until smooth, scraping down the sides with a spatula once or twice. Add the egg yolks and blitz very briefly, just enough to mix.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites just until white and moussy.
Sift the cocoa, flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add the beetroot mixture and egg whites to the dry ingredients along with the chopped chocolate, and fold together until just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared tins and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins for 15 minutes before placing on a rack to cool completely.
When cooled, sandwich the cakes together with the fruit compote.
To make the ganache, beat all the ingredients together until completely smooth and uniform in colour. Working quickly, before it firms up, spread over the top of the cake. Set aside at least until the ganache is set, before serving.
For reasons we can’t entirely explain, beetroot cake is much better the day after it’s first cooked. Because the beetroot makes it quite fudgy, it keeps well, too.
Yoghurt panna cotta
Rebecca and John say: “Panna cotta are like little wobbly milky jellies – great for kids and adults alike – and suit being made with live yoghurt. Using vanilla bean paste rather than extract means the mixture is prettily flecked with vanilla seeds.”
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 10 mins, plus at least 4 hours chilling
- 3 gelatine leaves (or vegetarian alternative, such as vege-gel – follow the packet instructions)
- 100ml double or single cream
- 100ml milk of your choice
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 50g caster sugar
- 300g full-fat Greek yoghurt
- flavourless oil (such as vegetable or sunflower oil), for greasing (optional)
- fresh or frozen berries (whizzed into a sauce with a pinch of sugar – optional), to serve
Pour enough cold water over the gelatine leaves to cover. Set aside to soak.
Put the cream, milk, vanilla and sugar into a small pan and set over a low heat to warm through. Remove the pan from the heat.
Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze out any excess water, then add it to the cream mixture and stir until dissolved. Stir in the yoghurt.
If you want to turn out the puddings, grease the inside of your moulds very, very lightly with completely flavourless oil and add a circle of greaseproof paper to the bottom of each.
Divide the mixture between 4 moulds, ramekins or wine or cocktail glasses. Place in the fridge to set – this may happen in as little as a couple of hours, but allow about 4 hours, or overnight.
To turn out the puddings, fill a bowl with very hot water. Dip each mould into the water for a couple of seconds, making sure no water gets into the mould itself, then place a serving plate over the top of the mould.
Quickly invert the mould and plate, and the pudding should gently plop onto the plate. If not, repeat, leaving in the hot water slightly longer. Take care – if you leave it too long, the exterior of the pudding will melt and lose its shape.
Serve with fresh berries, or a berry sauce made with frozen fruit and a pinch of sugar.
You can make this dairy free or vegan by using a blend of dairy-free yoghurt and coconut milk (or experiment with other plant-based milks) and vegan gelatine alternatives, but follow the packet instructions carefully.
Leon Happy Guts: Recipes To Help You Live Better by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent (£16.99, Conran) is out 24 June
Photography: Steven Joyce