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.
See also The Lost Photos
Dear Reader, do you have any amusing lentil anecdotes from the past? Do lentils symbolise hard times for you?