This summer I’m working my way through my most recent Ottolenghi cookbooks, Simple and Flavour, and finding quite a few classics to add to my repertoire. These sweet potato chips are a tasty, economical and quick to prepare and make a useful side dish or snack. Sweet potatoes store very well and are often cheaper per kilo than potatoes which is a bonus, especially during those months when only bland, tasteless potatoes are available. Sweet potatoes are not, however, a superfood, unless you need a huge injection of vitamin A. The superfood marketeers put this tuber in that mythical category. They are as healthy or unhealthy as a regular spud, depending on how you cook them. See the infographics pages here for more nutritional info.
Sweet Potato Chips, serves six to eight as a side.
Ihalved this recipe and still found we had rather too many. If you do cook the full amount, you may need more trays than suggested in this recipe, and two shelves, swapping half way through baking. The potatoes need to be placed in a single layer on the trays. Preheating the oven to 220º C guarantees successful baking in this short time frame. The potatoes can be prepared up to six hours ahead, up to the point of placing them in the oven.
sweet potatoes, 1.2 kg, peeled and sliced into 1½ cm thick chips. (see photos)
1 Tbsp sweet smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
30 g polenta
100 ml olive oil
1 Tbls sumac
flaked sea salt
Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
Mix the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the paprika, cayenne, polenta, oil and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt. Once combined, tip the sweet potatoes (and all the oil) on to two large parchment- lined baking trays and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the potatoes are cooked, crisp and golden brown.
Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once.
I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.
This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand.
Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
45 ml olive oil
1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp ground cumin
10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
480 g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
1 tsp soft brown sugar
400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
50 g baby spinach leaves
15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
1½ tsp za’atar
salt and pepper
Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.
A few notes on this dish.
Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.
There’s no shortage of good quality fresh fish and seafood in Melbourne, but getting your hands on it at a reasonable price is another thing. Under the State of Victoria’s present regulations for controlling the spread of Covid-19, there’s a 5 kilometre rule in place which limits the distance one may travel to do essential shopping. My nearest fresh seafood market is around 30 kilometres from my home; it has been 2 months since I’ve enjoyed good fish ( sounds like a confession opening) and I’m beginning to feel like a deprived fish junkie. There was one small window of opportunity back in late July, when my favourite fishmonger offered a fabulous home delivery service: I promptly formed a local group, placed a huge order, then shared the $20 delivery fee. Sadly this fishy opportunity came unstuck when my trustworthy fishmonger closed due to Covid issues. We all cried. In the meantime, I can honestly say that the fish and seafood offerings at my local major supermarket are disappointing. Here’s what’s on offer:- flabby farmed Barramundi, farmed Tasmanian salmon, with its bright pop of pink synthetically dyed flesh, chemically dyed and smoked imported cod, ordinary defrosted New Zealand ling and nastiest of all, Vietnamese Basa, white, bland tasting catfish farmed in suspect ponds around the Mekong river. If local fish turns up at all, it’s ridiculously expensive, grey and tired looking. Shopping for fish at a supermarket is a frustrating business. There are only two questions you may ask: has this fish been defrosted and what is the use by date. The staff behind that deli window display are not fishmongers. Most of the other seafood – prawns, scallops, etc- are thawed in trays daily, the stock trucked in from a national depot somewhere in Australia. None of the offerings reflect locality or season.
But there’s one option on a lucky day that warrants a quick sideways glance when scuttling past that fishy display – the vacuum packed bag of fresh mussels. ( Yes, I know, more plastic). Local black mussels are a sustainable choice. Farmed on long ropes in pristine seas around Victoria, mussels cannot be fed or fertilised; this means the whole production process is totally natural. The only important thing to check is the use by date on the bag when purchasing. Try to obtain mussels that have just been harvested- the longer they’ve been in the bag, the less appealing they become, even if they haven’t yet reached the magic use by date.
Mejillones a la Gallaga – Galician Style Mussels.
1 kilo of fresh black mussels
1/4 cup white wine for opening the mussels
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
one onion, finely chopped
two garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 heaped teaspoon of Spanish smoked pimenton/paprika- hot or sweet
1/4- 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
one can diced tomatoes, including juice
In a wide, deep frying pan or non stick wok, heat the oil and add the onions. Cook on medium heat until they soften, about 6 minutes, than add the garlic, and cook for another minute.
Add the saffron threads and pimenton. Toss through the onions then add the can of tomatoes. Turn the heat down low and cook slowly to thicken.
Meanwhile in another large lidded pan or pot, open the mussels with the wine. They should all open within a minute or two so stand by with your tongs, ready to remove them as they open. Place the opened mussels in a bowl. Pour the remaining mussel juice through a muslin cloth lined strainer, over another small bowl to catch the juice.
Add one cup or so of the strained juice to the tomato mixture. Turn up the heat and bubble the tomato mixture/mussel juice to thicken. You my wish to add more juice as you go.
Remove the top shells of the reserved mussels. After cooking and reducing the tomato mixture for around 10 minutes, check it for seasoning. when its ready, add the mussels and turn through the sauce to heat them.
Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish and serve with crusty baguette, or cooked bomba rice or small shaped pasta.
If you like eating fish, support a fishmonger before they all disappear.
Sometimes it occurs to me that writing about food seems inconsequential, perhaps even pointless, when the world has become so dark. I’m also aware that blogging is a pastime for the well- off, those like me who have more time, money, food, and housing security than most people in the world. As our world staggers from one disaster to the next, the deep and underlying fissures in society are being exposed. Environmental disasters caused by climate inaction, the current pandemic which has not yet run its course, imbecilic, corrupt and dangerous national leadership in many countries, shifts in global trading patterns, a potential American civil war, ongoing structural and institutional racism, gender inequality and political manipulation in the elections in so called democracies- the list of modern ills seems infinite. The only safe place is in the kitchen, where the focus is directed towards family, nourishment, and the preservation of ancient food cultures.
Although I’m still reticent to venture out, especially for the time wasting amusement gained by shopping for more things I don’t need, whether they are new or pre-owned, I have enjoyed buying a few things online, including some kitchen ware, and may continue to shop this way in the future. I was also delighted when some social gathering restrictions were eased and I could see my family again. No hugs yet but at least we can eat and drink in the same room. We have also enjoyed one dinner away from home with friends. Sitting at distant ends of the table, the large vegetarian lasagne was a joy to behold and eat- at last something not made by me or Tranquillo.
My granddaughter, Daisy, has been a delightful presence in my kitchen. “Can I help?”or “What are you cooking?” are some of her words that I love to hear, as is the sound of her small cooking stool being dragged into place at the bench. She chops, crumbs, mixes, and tastes for correct seasoning and balance. She prefers anchovies to sweet things, and can wax lyrical about her favourite dish, a white bean and silver beet soup. From the age of two, her refined sense of smell has led her to the kitchen: she’s a natural chef with a strong desire to learn. Now that she is ‘allowed’ to come here for her home schooling, we’ve enjoyed more time together in the kitchen: this has been the up side of the pandemic for me. After we finish the set school tasks, we reward ourselves with some good cooking. Last week she made her own Kolokithopita, mastering the triangular shape, while I rabbited on about equilateral triangles, trying to slip in some math. Kolokithopita is a Greek pie stuffing using pumpkin. I simply substitute some oven baked pumpkin for the spinach in a spanakopita recipe, adding lots of fresh herbs and chopped spring onions. Daisy likes making these mainly because of the smell of the warm melted butter used to paint the pastry sheets. What a nose.
I’ve been baking sourdough bread for 7 years, with four loaves baked weekly along with three large tray pizzas which are delivered to my extended family each Wednesday. Storage of flour and baking equipment was becoming a huge problem, along with RSI in my arms caused by the unusually high kitchen benches. I’ve been longing for a kitchen renovation but am fearful of the expense involved. The solution came in the form of an online purchase of an Ikea stainless steel trolley and a large bread making board. The lot is now wheeled to my dining table where I can work at the right height for dough handling, which for me is around 75 cms.
The lime trees are still covered with fruit. This week I’ve begun an Indian style lime pickle. Below, a bowl of sliced and salted limes, waiting for the next step. Meanwhile, home grown lemons are preserved in salt. Ancient preservation traditions from India to the Middle East.
first step in lime pickle
One of my favourite pasta dishes in winter is Pantacce, bietola, gorgonzolaenoce. I found a small piece of blue cheese hiding in the fridge, which I melted into some cream, tossed in a handful of toasted walnuts, and cooked the chopped silver beet briefly in the same pot as the pasta. The components came together in a deep frying pan. A more precise recipe can be found on my post here.
I posted these Friday Night Indian potatoes last week here: they were popular, and can be whipped up in no time.
Some of you have returned to work, some of you never left, and some are still working from home. Despite the changing nature of work and the uncertainties that plague our lives, Friday night is knock off night, a call for simple food, perhaps fish and chips from the local take away, or the equivalent version cooked at home. I’ve always struggled with chip cooking, but can recommend these Indian fried potatoes as a quick and tasty substitute. These are irresistible on their own. Make a big pile and forget about the fish.
Indian style fried potatoes with 5 seeds. This recipe serves 3 as a snack or a side. Double the ingredients for a decent size, they will all be eaten in a flash, I promise.
500 gr potatoes. I used Desiree potatoes today.
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons panch phoran, ( a blend of 5 whole seeds including cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds)
3/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
salt to taste
dried chilli flakes to taste
a handful of chopped fresh coriander
Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in boiling salted water until just done.
Place the oil and seeds in a medium non stick frying pan and fry over a low heat for a minute or so, then add the turmeric, chilli and salt. Stir about, the add the potatoes, gently turning them so that they are coated in the spices. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes, turning gently, then turn up the heat so that they form a nice golden brown crust on both sides. when done to your satisfaction, serve, garnished with chopped coriander.
Note- if you don’t have panch phoron on hand, raid the seeds in your spice cupboard and create your own blend.
Recipe adapted from Indian Food made Easy, Anjum Anand. 2007 a very handy collection.
As promised, it’s curry recipe time. But first let me say a few words about that ubiquitous word ‘curry’. The word Curry is simply the anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi meaning ‘sauce’ or ‘relish for rice’. This makes sense as rice is central to all Indian meals, as it is in other parts of Asia, and the ‘curries’ are often presented in small bowls to add to your rice and not the other way around. If you order a large Thali in India, you will be offered unlimited rice along with little teacup sized scoops of spicy and bland accompaniments- perhaps some mild chickpeas flavoured with sour tamarind, a crunchy fried fingerling, some bland soupy dal, or a dry curry of spicy potato or cauliflower, along with some hot chutney and dahi (plain yoghurt). A good Indian curry recipe involves subtlety in spicing, variation in texture and balance. Some people associate the word curry with heat, but this is a misconception: there are more mildly spiced aromatic curries than hot versions. There are no prizes for choking on chilli, eyes weeping in pain. A good banquet of curries might include one hot dish such as a Madras or Vindaloo, alongside others that are medium or mildly spiced, with some wet and some dry dishes.
Unfortunately, there’s no chance for a banquet here any time soon, given the restrictions on social gathering. So it’s down to one curry at a time in this household of two, made with care, and served with all the sides- basmati jeera rice, naan, chutney and dahi. We have time on our side.
Muttar Paneer ( peas and curd) Serves 4 or more as part of a banquet
This is a two part recipe. The first step involves making the curd (paneer) which can made the day before, or anytime up to 3 hours before you make the curry. The recipe for paneer, including photos of the process, follows this main recipe.
4 Tables neutral flavoured oil, such as canola or a mixture of half oil and half ghee ( my preference for a richer sauce)
250 gr paneer, cut into 2.5cm cubes
6 or more cardamom pods, bruised
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp garlic puree*
2 tsp ginger puree*
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2- 1 tsp chilli powder
200 gr canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes with skins removed, finely chopped.
350 gr whey or water
1 tsp salt
125 gr frozen peas
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 Tblsp cream
2 Tblsp chopped coriander leaves
Heat half the oil and ghee in a medium sized heavy based saucepan over medium heat. Add the paneer, sprinkling with a few pinches of turmeric if you wish. Cook till golden brown, turning gently. Remove and drain.
Add the remaining oil to the same saucepan. Add the cardamom, stir about for a few seconds, then add the onion,and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes, lowering the heat if need be, till soft. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring frequently for 2 more minutes or until the onion is soft and a pale golden colour.
Add the ground coriander, turmeric and chilli powder and stir for 1 minute. Then add the chopped tomatoes and their juice, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4- 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of whey, (or water if you’ve used a commercial paneer ) stirring frequently until the oil separates from the spice paste. Then add the rest of the liquid, and salt. Bring to the boil, the reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 7-8 minutes.
Add the paneer and peas to simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the garam masala and cream and remove from heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander if you happen to have some. Mint works well too.
Serve with rice, naan and thin yoghurt or raita.
* the best way to produce ginger puree is grating it on a fine microplane, while garlic puree is best made bashed in a mortar and pestle. If I’m making a few different curries, I start with this step and make a bulk lot of each.
Making paneer is the one of the easiest and most satisfying things to do. Once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back to those tough blocks sealed in plastic found in the fridges of Indian Delis. You will also be able to use the whey in your curry, so nothing is wasted. The whey keeps well for over a week and can be used in all sorts of curries and soups.
Ingredients for paneer to yield around 250 gr
2 litres full cream milk
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
Boil the milk, making sure that it just reaches boiling point and doesn’t develop a skin or begin to froth. Stir occasionally while doing this. Turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and stir about until curds and whey separate. Leave it for 5 minutes, then tip into a muslin lined strainer over a bowl. The bowl will collect the whey. Wrap the curds tightly in the cloth, making a flattish shape, then place in the fridge on a plate with a heavy weight on top. Keep the whey and store in a bottle. The curd will be ready to use in 3 hours. Cut as required.
The pics below show the stages of paneer making. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes. The result is worth it.
The following chart gives an approximate guide of yield of paneer ( curd cheese) to milk. I used 1 litre of full cream milk for my most recent batch which produced 130 gr of paneer, enough for a large curry for two. The time before, my batch of 2 litres of milk produced a yield of 260 gr which is consistent, using full fat generic brand supermarket milk . UHT milk is not recommended.
For Maree Tink, who also enjoys making Muttar Paneer.
India has the most desirable array of street food and snacks. I love them all. Samosa, pakora, bhajii, bonda, aloo chat, and vada are just a few of the Indian treats whose names have become familiar to many Australians over the last 40 years. I enjoy going to the nearby Monday market ( or rather I did, back in the pre-Covid days when big junk markets were still operating ) just to visit the colourful Indian Sikh tent for a morning snack, usually a freshly made samosa, or even better, a plate of samosa chat, a plate brimming with hot chana masala, topped with a samosa, the pyramid draped with yoghurt, green and tamarind chutneys. Balancing the loaded paper plate while standing was always a fearful business. Samosa chat covers late breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in one go. Most suburban Indian restaurants offer a few standard snacks as starters on their menus but there’s a catch here. Start with a few tempting aloo bhaji, samosa orpakora and there’s not much room for mains.
Pakoras make the best afternoon tea or accompaniment to beer. I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t love them. When I make pakoras, the wolves appear from nowhere. Lust and greed overcome good manners. Just have pity on the poor cook chained to the stove, making more on demand. If you are that cook, I advise you to keep a saucer of dipping sauce handy, so that you can eat as you go and not miss out.
Over the years, I’ve adapted my pakora batter recipe. In the 1980s, I used recipes by Charmaine Solomon and Jacki Passmore, my only Indian cookbooks at that time. Since then, my Indian collection has expanded, now numbering around 15 but who is counting. The variation on the pakora theme is enormous. Some recipes include a little self raising flour to the base of besan flour ( chick pea flour) providing more puff to the batter. Others add nigella seeds, ajwaiin seeds, garam masala, salt, sliced green chilli, chopped garlic, chilli powder. Everyone’s Indian grandmother has the most authentic recipe, I’m sure. I add a little rice flour to my mixture which gives the batter more crunch. Sometimes I play with a mixture of besan flour and very fine red lentil flour, especially when making onion bhaji, a close relative of the pakora. It’s easier to just wing it with additions so long as you start with around one cup of besan flour in your mixing bowl. The following recipe is a good version.
Pakora Batter Recipe
120 gr of besan flour ( or 100 gr besan plus 20 gr rice flour)
1 teaspoon ajwaiin seeds
1 teaspoon chilli powder
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix the ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and gradually add 275 ml of water to the batter while whisking. The batter should be thickish but loose enough to coat the back of the spoon and gently drip down.
Heat some canola oil in a wok, or heavy based saucepan. Don’t skimp on the depth of the oil- your pakhoras need to be deep fried and must be covered. Test the heat of the oil by adding a little batter to see if it’s ready. Coat individual vegetable pieces, such as eggplant, potato onion rings, cauliflower or broccoli with the batter and deep fry until cooked through and dark golden in colour. If you are making mixed vegetable pakora, as shown in the picture below, chop 250 gr vegetables and mix through the batter before frying spoonfuls. My last combination included diced eggplant, finely shredded silverbeet ( chard) and thinly sliced and halved onion rings.
Green Sauce Recipe
25 gr mint leaves, chopped
25 gr coriander leaves, chopped
2 green chillies, chopped
1 garlic chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 Tbls sugar
1 teas salt
125 g ( 1/2 cup) plain yoghurt
Place in a food processor and blend till smooth. Store in fridge for 30 minutes to allow the faavours to settle before use. Make the sauce before the pakora. If herbs are in short supply, serve with yoghurt or a commercial chutney, thinned down with yoghurt. My kids like pakora dipped in soy sauce, totally inauthentic but still good.
The batter makes and excellent coating for deep fried, battered fish. I often add some turmeric if using with fish.
The recipes are based on two found in Spice Kitchen, Ragini Dey, 2013.
A big loud applause to Melbourne’s Sikh Volunteers Australia, who make and deliver 650 meals each day to vulnerable people within the community. They are currently building a larger kitchen. They have a facebook page with details for donations and many happy photos.
It often seems like vegetarians miss out on all the fun when it comes to grabbing an instant treat from the local bakery. Here I’m talking about pies and pasties with lashings of sauce. Most bakeries display one or two meagre offerings – a vegetable pasty, invariably disappointing and bland, with too much pastry that ends up all over your clothes, or the ubiquitous spinach and fetta roll, dried out from spending too long in the pie warmer, a sad version of something that was once Greek. My local bakery produces a passable vegetable pie that comes with a reasonable amount of wet ‘gravy’. This is the one thing that is lacking from most vego bakery products- they are too dry and indigestible and lack that unctuous gravy that holds the filling together.
I tend to make pasties and pies in April, once the sky turns grey and the first fire crackles in the wood stove. Stay at home days, baking days. Pie making is more pleasurable with an assistant, as it’s not a bad idea to make a big stash for the freezer to tide you over the winter, or further months of isolation. One good standby iare these Lentil, Mushroom and Cheese Pasties. They freeze well too.
As is often the case, my recipe instructions are not precise. I don’t tend to weigh and take detailed notes of the things that I make, although I have a general notion of the quantities intuitively. If you end up with too many cooked lentils and feel that the ratio of lentil to mushroom is out, reserve some lentils and use to add to a soup. Cooked lentils keep very well in the fridge.
Lentil and Mushroom Pasties
Ingredients, Makes 6 large pasties or 12 mini pasties.
3 squares of frozen Puff pastry
1 ½cups of Puy lentils. ( you can use any dark coloured lentils here, but puy lentils hold their shape and marry well with mushrooms)
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs Olive oil
1 Tbs butter
1 small onion chopped
1 -2 garlic chopped ( optional)
2 cups ( approx measurement) mushrooms, quartered ( I prefer those with dark gills as they add more juice and flavour)
dried herbs of choice or finely chopped fresh rosemary
salt, ground black pepper
one small beaten egg for pastry glaze.
other additions, such as include left over grated cheese
Preheat oven to 180c. Line two baking trays with cooking parchment, or grease well.
Cook the lentils in ample water, adding a by leaf, and cook till soft. Test them as some lentils, especially if old, take a while to soften. Drain the lentils completely, and reserve the juice for another use.
In a large frying pan, heat the oil with the butter and add the onions. Cook on gentle heat till softened, then add the garlic. Cook till soft and translucent.
Add the mushrooms and herbs to the onions. Cook until soft and cooked through, stirring around as you go.
Combine the lentils with the mushroom mixture in a bowl. The mixture should not be too runny, but you do want a little gravy. If you feel the mixture is too wet, cook down further. Season well. Consider adding some grated tasty cheese. Cool the mixture.
Defrost 3 sheets of puff pastry and halve these on the diagonal for 6 large pasties. Have more sheets on hand in case you end up with extra mixture.
Beat egg for pastry glaze.
Add the mixture to the centre of each triangle, spreading a little towards the corners. You want the pasties to be well filled but allow for ease of folding and joining. Wet the edges with a pastry brush and join the seams, pressing down as you go.
Place three pasties on each baking tray and cook until the pastry is golden. Cool them first if you intend to freeze them for later.
Serve with an old fashioned chutney and green salad. Or heat, wrap in foil, and take it on your travels, when you’re allowed out.
For Rachael P and her daughters. I’m singing that Tom Petty song, but substituting LOCKDOWN for the Breakdown chorus. Sing along with me while we bake: Lockdown, go ahead and give it to me…….
One of my friends enjoys telling the story about the night his parents came to dinner. It was during the late 1970s, at the height of the hippy era, when many young folk had a brief flirtation with vegetarianism, which for many, was embodied in the form of a lentil. Peter had just moved into his first share house. He proudly presented the main course, his signature dish at the time, a lentil curry. His parents were horrified, exclaiming loudly that they had not migrated all the way from Poland to Australia to eat lentils. Peter narrates this story like an episode from Seinfeld, and adds that his parents eat meat for every meal, with an occasional side vegetable in the form of either a pickle or sauerkraut. Underlying this humourous tale lies the strong historic association of lentils with poverty and hardship.
When I trawl through the food memories of my own childhood, there are no lentils. If pulses turned up at all, they took the form of split peas: a yellow or green split pea, married with a ham bone or two, made a thick, salty soup. Split peas were also mixed with barley, the iconic McKenzie’s soup mix, a pantry staple in many Australian homes in the past. It’s still a staple in mine today. My mother and grandmother always added a lamb shank, but I’m very happy using vegetable stock and/or stock cubes to flavour this old fashioned soup, which goes by the name ‘Nana’s soup’ regardless of the age or gender of the maker. It is the soup of everyone’s Nana.
My love of lentils became more pronounced after a trip to Nepal at the end of 1978. We trekked through the Annapurna range near Pokhara with two young children in tow. The meal along route was invariably Dal Bhat, a Nepalese dish consisting of a mild flavoured soupy dal of red lentils, with rice and one or two vegetables on the side. ‘Eat that kids because that’s all there is,’ and they did because they were hungry. Whenever I make Dal Bhat today, I return to that adventure in the mountains of the Himalayas. The key to Dal Bhat is to keep it plain and simple.
My lentil repertoire has become more sophisticated over the years though I return often to the classic Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. Everyone has a version, I’m sure. I don’t associate lentils with poverty or the hippy era. They are, for me, the most comforting food of all.
Lentil Shepherd’s Pie
On the surface, a lentil shepherd’s pie seems incredibly simple to make but many fail due to blandness or because they lack the traditional references. Modern versions might include the addition of sweet potato or parmesan in the mash. Other versions search for umami by adding miso or soy sauce to the lentil mixture. Play around if you like but I’m a bit of a stickler for tradition with this dish and prefer the old British flavours.
My recipe is a descriptive rather than prescriptive and gives only a rough approximation of quantities.
Boil up some brown lentils, about 1½ cups should make enough for a pie for 4-6 people. Cook the lentils in 3-4 cups of water with a bay leaf and one onion, peeled and halved. Keep an eye on the liquid and top up as required. When the lentils are soft, drain them, catching the cooking liquid in a bowl beneath.
Boil some peeled potatoes, enough for 4 people. Add a little salt to the cooking water. When ready, drain and mash with butter and milk.
Cut up one large onion and gently fry in a pan with a mixture of olive oil and butter. Then add two chopped garlic cloves, a non traditional addition but a habit I can’t break.
When the onion is soft and golden, add the drained lentils, Worcestershire sauce ( this is the key ingredient so add a fair bit- 2 tablespoons or more), some dried mixed herbs, a few slurps of tomato sauce, although tomato paste makes a good substitute, some of the thick reserved cooking water, salt and pepper. You are looking for a tasty dark gravy at the base of the lentils.
Put the lentil mixture into a buttered gratin dish, cover with the mash, and using a fork, make groovy patterns on top. Add small knobs of butter.
Bake in a moderate oven until the top is golden and the lentil mixture starts to bubble from underneath.
Serve with bottled tomato sauce or any other condiment you fancy. I quite like a home made tomato chilli jam with this, my only concession to modernity.
As part of my return to more regular blogging, I’ve decided to highlight a different pantry staple each month, since we’re all spending far more time in our kitchens. My concoctions are mostly vegetarian, except for the occasional addition of anchovy. You can find most of my recipes from the last six years by clicking on the word Recipe, found on the left hand side Index of this page. This may appear in a different spot if using a phone. The recipes are filed under different categories and most of them rely on seasonal food or frugal pantry staples. This month’s offerings will focus on pulses- which include all styles of lentils, split peas and dried beans. Today’s lentil dish is an Italian version of split green pea soup, a dish you would normally find in British or Portuguese/Spanish cuisines, laced with salty ham bones. I was keen to try Marcella Hazan’s version: it’s economical and nutritious. The recipe does ask for the addition of some parmesan cheese, making the dish quite Italian in style: remove the cheese and the soup resembles the old style split pea potage or caldo. I enjoyed this Italian version, it has a much finer texture than others of this genre, but I’m looking anxiously at my small wedge of remaining Parmigiano Reggiano, knowing that it might best be reserved for pasta and risotto dishes. To anyone out there who is still shopping, can you please bring me a very large wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grano Padano. First world problems.
Most recipes require a little tweaking and this was certainly the case for Marcella’s recipe here. She doesn’t suggest pre-soaking the split green peas overnight but I advise on the importance of this preliminary step to hasten the cooking. The following recipe includes my adaptations. It is easy to scale up the recipe for a larger group or to store for later.
Zuppa di Piselli Secchi e Patate ( split green pea and potato soup)
For 4 people.
220 g split green peas, washed, and then soaked overnight.
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped in cubes.
1.5 litres of fresh stock or made with a stock cube. ( you may need more )
1 chopped onion
3 Tbles extra virgin olive oil
40 gr butter
3 Tbles freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste.
Soak the peas overnight. Drain and cook with the potatoes at a moderate boil in 700 ml of stock ( or enough to cover well). Cook until both are tender, then puree the mixture with their cooking liquid in a mouli and reserve. ( don’t be tempted to blend this soup- the beauty comes from the light texture derived from the mouli )
Put the onion into a heavy based soup pot with the oil and butter and sauté over medium heat until soft and golden.
Add the puree to the onions, then add the remaining stock and bring to a moderate boil. Lower heat, and check on liquid- you may need more, depending on how thick/thin you like your soup. When ready, stir in the grated cheese, taste for salt. Serve with more parmesan and crostini.
This soup keeps well in the refrigerator for several days, but will need thinning with more water on reheating. As you thin it, you may need to add a little more stock powder or salt.