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.
The Australian meat pie is one food item that is deemed to be a truly local culinary meal. It is also an iconic snack that goes hand in hand with Aussie Rules Football. I like the idea of pies, they are such a comforting and traditional food, especially when well anointed in bottled sauce, but as I don’t eat meat, the native version is not for me. I’m also not a fan of football, but as the AFL Grand Final is today, I may watch a short segment of the match, perhaps the last 5 minutes, as I eat my very untraditional Australian scallop pie. Two Victorian teams will be battling it out, they tell me, the Cats and the Tigers: I may keep some earphones handy and listen to music as it’s the sound of football I dislike the most. I don’t mind a few close ups of the lads climbing all over each other in their attempt to get their hands on that leather ball. As the state of Victoria remains under strict lockdown, the finals match will be played in Brisbane, Queensland, a state that has managed to avoid the plague so far.
During this extraordinary year of the pandemic and consequent very strict lockdown, I’ve developed my pie making skills, thanks to the discovery of a base recipe by Australian chef Neil Perry. I’ve discovered that the success of a good pie, which in my case is either vegetarian or seafood, comes down to the flavour and texture of the glutinous sauce which binds the ingredients together. I’ve played with Neil Perry’s base sauce recipe many times now and have adapted it to the ingredients and herbs that grow in my garden. So far, I’ve made pumpkin and carrot pot pies, leek, potato and cheese pies, and these wonderful scallop pies. Once you master this sauce, you can add anything really. The pie filling can be placed in a ramekin dish and topped with puff pastry, or you can use pie molds for a complete top and bottom pastry lined traditional pie. It’s worth spending a little extra on very good commercial puff pastry, especially if you’re planning to fill them with expensive, seasonal Bass Straight scallops.
I’m breaking this recipe into a few parts. The first part deals with the binding thick gravy. I’ve adapted the original recipe from Perry and switched to stock for the liquid ( the original used milk). I’ve also added mild curry powder for these scallop pies, but use Dijon mustard for other vegetable versions.
Very adaptable thick pie gravy recipe, enough for 4 pies
80 gr butter
1 1/2 Tb EV olive oil
1 leek, white and pale green parts, finely sliced
2 Tb wild fennel herb finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
sea salt, freshly ground white pepper to taste
cayenne pepper, a pinch
1/2 cup plain ( AP) flour
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups stock, made from stock cubes or powder, warmed
1 heaped teaspoon of mild curry powder such as Keens
1/4 cup cream
zest of 1/2 lemon, optional
small handful of flat leafed parsley, finely chopped
To make the sauce, heat the butter and olive oil in saucepan over low heat. Add the leek, fennel herb, garlic, a pinch of salt, white pepper, cayenne and cook over low heat for 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the flour and curry powder and cook until the mixture bubbles and becomes grainy, stirring as you go.
Gradually pour in the wine, stirring well, then gradually add the warm stock. Continue stirring until the mixture bubbles. Add in lemon zest and parsley, the taste and check seasoning.
The filling and pastry for scallop pies, enough for 4.
300 grs fresh scallops, remove hard digestive tracts on side, cut large scallops in half
1 potato, around 120 gr or so, peeled, diced and cooked in water for 10 minutes
1 pkt of good quality butter puff pastry sheets. You’ll need four sheets for encased pies or two sheets for ramekin pastry topped pies.
1 egg mixed with 1 Tb milk, whisked together for the pastry glaze
Putting the pies together
After you’ve made the pie gravy, add the raw scallops and cooked diced potato to the mixture. Cool the mixture while defrosting the puff pastry sheets.
Grease some pie tins and line with pastry cut to shape. Fill the pies with cooled scallop mixture. Top with pastry lids cut to shape and crimp well, joining top to lining. Brush the egg glaze over the pastry. Pierce or fork the top of each pie to allow the steam to escape. Place the pies on a baking tray and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200c or 180 c FF. Bake the baking tray in the centre of the oven and bake for round 20 minutes or until pastry is golden.
If you make a version of these pies, using the special thick and flavoursome gravy recipe, let me know. I’m keen to collect more good versions.
Below is a collage of my week in Instagram pics. Instagram is a lot less demanding than blogging, especially now that WordPress has changed its editing programme. Am I the only one struggling to adapt to this new geeky block editor?
The search for a neighbourhood Seville orange tree began back in May. I’d just made a few batches of lime marmalade and had passed a jar on to a friend in our village. This inevitably led to a conversation via Messenger, ( aren’t all good conversations held this way during the pandemic? ) about the need to find some elusive Seville oranges to make the epitome of all marmalade, Seville Marmalade. I went as far as inquiring about Sevilles on our local community Facebook site. A respondent replied, an artist from the next village, who paints beautiful studio studies of seasonal fruit. In her walks, she had noticed some productive Seville orange trees and sent me monthly updates on the state of ripeness. Not only that, she picked 5 kilos, carried them to my daughter’s house, who then delivered them to my place. This season’s Seville Marmalade is now happily in jars, though plenty are walking out the front door.
The point of this simple little tale of two villages is that throughout this pandemic and months of lockdown, community consciousness has developed and now includes the sharing of major shopping trips, the cost of delivery services, spare garden produce, tools, and knowledge. Much of this is done through social media, which can be a tool for social change when used well. If there’s an up- side to the pandemic, it is this.
Seville Marmalade Cake
Ingredients • 100 gr coarse-cut orange Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup) • 175 gr butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan • 175 gr sugar • 2 teaspoons grated lime zest ( optional) • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest • 3 large eggs at room temperature • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice • 190 gr all-purpose flour • 7 gr baking powder • pinch fine sea salt
30 gr icing sugar
100 gr Seville marmalade ( approx 1/3 cup)
knob of butter
Preparation 1. Heat oven to 175º c. Grease a 23 cm by 13 cm loaf pan. Line with baking paper. 2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together softened butter, sugar, lime zest and orange zest for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Beat in the marmalade and orange juice. ( Tip: if the mixture looks like curdling when you beat in the eggs, add a little flour as you go) 3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Fold dry ingredients into wet until just combined. 4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until surface of cake is golden brown , about 50 to 55 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack. Cool for 10 minutes before glazing. then turn cake out of pan and place on rack right-side up. Glaze/icing. Heat the marmalade in a small pot over low heat until melted; whisk in icing sugar and butter until smooth. There are two approaches to adding the topping. EITHER invert cake onto a tray, turn right way up then add the jammy topping which will run down the sides OR add the glaze to cake in the pan, which will concentrate the flavour to the top, though some will sink through and down the sides. When completely cool, lift from pan right way up.
Keeps well for about 5 days
Use any orange marmalade if you don’t have Seville, though that sweet bitter taste will be missing. Omit lime zest if you don’t have limes on hand and add a little more orange zest. I’ve left the ancient non-measurement, knob, because I love the sound of it. A knob could be anything you wish it to be: it’s also a crude term of abuse in Australia- Don’t be a knob! A knob only applies to butter and is similar to that wonderful Italian cooking measurement qbor quanto basta, which means ‘as much as is enough’, or ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.
I love making birthday cakes for others. Often it’s an excuse to dig into my prized stash of good quality chocolate or ground nuts. Most of us will be celebrating our birthdays without fanfare this year and so a delivered cake becomes a small symbolic mark of recognition in lieu of a family gathering. During this pandemic, I’ve been nervously eagle eyeing my exotic ingredient stash. It’s easy enough to refill the dark cooking chocolate container, which is sometimes subject to a midnight raid, but my hazelnut and almond meal supplies are precious commodities, not so easily sourced. I’ve made two versions of this Italian style torta over the last year. One was a classic Torta di Nocciole, famous in Piedmonte, and light as a feather, with only four ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs and ground hazelnut. This version is much richer, with the addition of dark chocolate. It stays fresh under a glass dome and keeps well for a week. Unlike the classic Reine de Saba which tends to sink and crack a little, this cake is firmer and stands tall, so long as you use the recommended sized tin and just laid eggs. It’s very easy to make for that special person in your life and tastes a lot like Baci. xxx
Torta di Cioccolato e Nocciole (senza farina) Flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake.
200g dark chocolate, 70%, chopped
150g butter, chopped
6 eggs, separated
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 1/2 cups hazelnut meal
double cream, to serve
Preheat oven to 170°C/150°C fan-forced. Grease a 6cm-deep, 20cm round cake pan. Line base and sides with baking paper.
Combine chocolate and butter in a bowl and melt gently over a saucepan containing water. Cook over low heat, making sure the base of your bowl doesn’t touch the hot water. Stir until melted and set aside to cool slightly.
Place egg yolks and sugar in a bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until thick, pale and creamy. Add the chocolate mixture. Beat to combine. Add hazelnut meal. Beat to combine.
Place eggwhites in another bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until soft peaks form. Using a metal spoon, stir one-third of eggwhites into chocolate mixture. Gently fold remaining eggwhite through chocolate mixture.
Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out cleanly. Stand in pan for 10 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
Same Same but Different is a wonderful Balinese-English expression that was devised many years ago by a streetwise Balinese salesperson. It spread quickly among the shopkeepers and Mr T still wears his 10 year old Same Same But Different T shirt which always cracks me up. Same same on the front, But Different on the back. I love this expression: it captures the humour and inventiveness of the Balinese people and their ingenuity at devising new ways to lure a few dollars from the mindless tourist.
I often think about this crazy expression when imagining ways to use eggplants. Our usual standby dish is eggplant parmigiana, that well loved classic with an interesting culinary history. ¹ Involtini di Melanzane, or eggplant rolls, require very similar ingredients to the former classic, and yet the dish seems much lighter and more interesting. Same same but different.
The following recipe is by Karen Martini. The quick process of flouring and egging the eggplant slices before frying prevents them from absorbing too much olive oil, resulting in a much lighter dish. The original recipe uses a simple tomato passata for the sauce. I found this too bland. A more flavoursome dish results from making a garlic and oregano laced tomato ragù, but if you are in a hurry, go for the bottled passata.
Melanzane Involtini. – eggplant rolls ( serves 4 as a main, 6 as a starter)
2 large eggplants
75g plain flour
olive oil, for frying
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons currants, soaked in red-wine vinegar for 5 minutes, then drained
40g grated parmesan
200g mozzarella, cut into 1cm thick sticks ( or grated)
extra virgin olive oil
500ml tomato passata ( 2 cups) ( see notes above)
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
50g pine nuts
3 tablespoons chunky fresh breadcrumbs
In a small bowl, lightly beat 2 large eggs with 1 tablespoon of water. Peel the eggplants to create a striped effect, then cut lengthways into 1 cm thick slices. Dust the eggplant slices with flour, then dip into egg wash. Heat olive oil in a large heavy based frying pan over high heat. Cook eggplant slices for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden. Drain well on kitchen paper.
In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta with remaining egg. Season with salt and pepper. add the drained currants and half the parmesan and stir to combine. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of this mixture onto each eggplant slice. Add a little mozzarella and roll up tightly.
Preheat oven to 170ºC. Brush the base of a large ovenproof dish with 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil. Spread half the tomato passata or ragù in base of dish. Place the eggplant rolls on the sauce, seam side down, so they don’t unroll. Drizzle with remaining oil, spoon over the remaining sauce and sprinkle with parmesan.
Combine the chopped parsley, pine nuts and breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for a further 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. and top golden.
Thanks to the abundant rainfall over the first few months of summer and autumn this year, most fruit crops were plentiful, with much larger sized fruit than previous years. Our district received more rain in the first four months of 2020 than the total rainfall for the entire year of 2019. I am thankful that the drought is over. I’m still picking unripe figs and tomatoes on the last day of autumn. Meanwhile my spare fridge is laden with large quinces and frozen plums. Although I made plenty of quince concoctions during the picking season, the stored fruit are wonderful to use during winter in cakes and puddings.
I first made this cake in May 2016 and it has evolved a little over the years. It’s a large cake to share on a Sunday for breakfast after a family walk or for elevenses. If you want to alter the ratio of almond meal to SR flour, by all means do so, bearing in mind that you may need to add a little bi- carb soda to your mix if you remove too much of the SR flour.
Sunday Quince and Almond Cake. Serves 10
250 g butter, room temperature
275 gr caster sugar
1 teaspoon finely zested lemon rind
90 gr almond meal
250 ml cup of milk
300 gr SR flour
2 + poached quinces, drained and cut into slices, liquid reserved.
Poach your quinces the day before baking. Poached quinces last well in a covered container for a few weeks submerged under the poaching liquid. They take around 6 hours to turn ruby red. Consider making more than you need for this recipe.
Preheat oven to 180°C or 160°C fan forced. Grease base and sides of a 22-24 cm springform pan and line with baking paper.
Use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to beat butter, sugar and lemon rind in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in the almond meal. Then stir in milk and flour, alternating. Spoon 2/3 of batter into prepared pan. Top with half of quince. Top with remaining batter. Top with remaining quince. Bake for 1 hr 20 mins or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Stand in pan for 10 mins, then remove sides of pan.
Serve cake warm or at room temperature with cream and reduced, thickened quince syrup or more simply with sifted icing sugar. It keeps well for a few days.
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.
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.