So listen, I know that I started this whole food challenge thing because I wanted to break out of a cooking rut.
However, sometimes a little comfort isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, the well-worn tread of the familiar is soothing in its predictability. Sometimes you just want to feel like you’re on home ground when you feel that everything else around you is adrift.
Much of the cooking that I’ve been doing lately has centred around a variation on a theme. Lots of roast chickens; bubbling pots of stock; stickily caramelised roast vegetables; and lentil salads, glistening with mustard and lemon juice. I’m not going to patronise you readers – I am sure you don’t need another roast chicken recipe or lecture on the joys of stock making.
However, what I will do is talk about two lentil things that I make quite frequently because they require little thought or planning. Honestly, this is genuine store cupboard stuff – none of that “I always keep nam pla and galangal in the pantry” nonsense. (I actually do but that’s besides the point…) What I love about these recipes is that you can make it with whatever you’ve got hanging about the kitchen. You can dress it up or go frugal; either will satisfy. Best of all, make it once and you won’t have to consult the recipe again. Make it again slightly differently every time, you’ll refine and improve it every time. Who knows, before long you might feel ready to venture out onto choppy waters again.
Lentil & tomato soup
This was the first soup I ever made and I was overjoyed at how easy it was to make. Since then, I’ve experimented with different variations: a sweet and spicy version studded with slices of chorizo; invigorating earthy spiciness with toasted cumin seeds undercut with cider vinegar; a version rich with red wine and lardons; and a straightforward, hearty version made with roasted tomatoes, homemade chicken stock and leftover roast chicken. Also, this freezes incredibly well – make twice the amount you want to eat, it won’t entail any extra effort on your part.
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
1 mug lentils (green, red or puy, take your pick – cooking time will vary according to what type you choose)
an onion, chopped
a few cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
vinegar (again any type will do – I have used sushi vinegar in a pinch before)
salt & pepper
Heat up a glug of olive oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the onion, garlic, cumin and chilli flakes until translucent and soft. Add in a generous mug of your lentil of choice and continue frying for another minute or so. Increase the heat and add in a large slug of vinegar, let it bubble and reduce down for about a minute before adding the can of tomatoes. Fill the empty can halfway with tap water and swoosh out the remains into the saucepan. Bring the soup to the boil and then immediately reduce the heat to the lowest simmer. Let it cook for as long as the lentils need (be careful with red lentils, you don’t want them to overcook into a mush. My preferred lentil is the green lentil, it will retain a nutty bite and provide nice texture to the soup). Season to taste before serving.
Try it with either bacon, lardons or chorizo (added in when frying the onions and garlic) or leftover roast chicken (added in to warm through before serving).
For a more luxe version, ditch the canned tomatoes. Try roasting tomatoes and garlic to intensify their sweetness and bolster with homemade chicken stock. This marries well with the substitution of finely chopped chilli, smoked paprika and ground coriander.
Roasted sweet potato and lentil salad
This recipe is actually a request for my Library Wife. She came to visit this weekend and knowing how much she likes my roast chicken, I decided to treat her to my new favourite salad. This salad works well with any roastable vegetables you have to hand but what makes it really sing is the vinaigrette which is an adaptation of the classic French vinaigrette.
a generous mugful of green lentils
1 large sweet potato
a few cloves of garlic
salad leaves, washed and torn
fine beans, lightly boiled
mustard (wholegrain, French or English – again your choice)
vinegar (I like cider but again, anything apart from malt will do)
extra virgin olive oil
salt & papper
Preheat your oven to 180c/gas mark 5.
Peel and dice your sweet potato into large chunks. Toss into a roasting tin with the cloves of garlic (skin still on), the lemon (halved), olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes or so – you want the sweet potato to be tender and starting to crisp on the corners and edges.
Meanwhile, cook your lentils in salted water for 25 minutes so that they retain some bite. Drain and place back in the saucepan.
For the dressing, combine a two tablespoons of mustard with the juice of the roasted lemon, the roasted garlic cloves, a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar and two tablespoons of vinegar. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust to your own preferences. Toss the roasted sweet potato and lentils with the dressing before serving atop a green salad.
The versions of this salad are dependent on the contents of my weekly vegetable box. I have made these with baby new potatoes, boiled until they are soft enough to crush with your thumb; leftover bits of aubergine and peppers hanging around in the fridge; or a butternut squash, roasted with plenty of cumin and chilli flakes.
If you want to make a more luxurious version, cubes of salty feta or rich goats cheese and a sprinkling of toasted seeds would not go amiss.
One final thing. This is the perfect lunchbox salad. I almost never make salad as a packed lunch thing. It inevitably gets soggy if you dress it and if you don’t dress it, well what’s the point of eating it? Make it with just the lentils and vegetables, add in your chicken or cheese and omit the leaves. It occurs to me that you could make a bastardised Nicoise version of this with baby new potatoes, flaked canned tuna, chopped black olives and a boiled egg.