Dried pulses, and especially lentils, are an essential part of my store cupboard and really come into their own in the winter months, when fresh vegetables aren’t quite as vibrant or plentiful. I love lentil soups, such as Tomato & Lentil, or Carrot & Lentil, and often throw a handful of lentils into chicken broth or good old vegetable soup for extra body and protein. They’re pretty cheap too – a pack of dried red lentils or beans lasts for ages and is very reasonably-priced. The more exotic Puy lentils are even more delicious, holding their shape better when cooked to a slurry with herbs and lemony flavourings as an accompaniment to smoked fish or as part of a rich and wholesome sausage casserole – perfect winter comfort food! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s take on Sausage and Puy lentil casserole is particularly scrumptious, although I prefer it with dried apricots rather than prunes (shades of school dinners…).
One of my favourites is a lentil curry I came across in my first ever (Tower) slow cooker manual, over 30 years ago now. I still have the book (taped together!), but I’ve adapted the recipe to suit our growing taste for spices and added extra vegetables over the years. I still make it in my slow cooker (not quite the same one; I managed to drop the earthenware bowl and ended up buying a whole new slow cooker), but it must be 25 years old now and still going strong – and as useful as ever! Such a lovely feeling to put it on in the morning when you know you’re going out all day, then return home to a lovely hot meal and the knowledge that you don’t have to cook (much as I love it usually!). Brilliant for chilli con carne, sublime for brisket of beef or a slow-braised ham joint with cider, apples and celery…. or equally good for mulled wine, steamed puddings (especially Christmas pudding!) and crème caramel! And of course, I always use it to make my stock with the cooked chicken carcass, onion, celery, chilli, herbs, vegetable cooking water and seasoning, left over night – perfect! A friend says she pre-cooks her pulses in the slow cooker after soaking them – I haven’t tried that, I must admit, but it sounds like a great idea.
Anyway, about that lentil curry. You can adjust the chilli content to suit your own taste: the first time I served this to one of my sons’ schoolfriends when he came to dinner soon after we moved south, he maintained it was REALLY hot, yet we find it quite mild using 3 or 4 home-grown Apache chillis (seeds included). If you know you’re averse to hot spices, or you think your chillis may be very hot, adjust accordingly. It’s hard to take them out after the event!
Lentil Curry – serves 6-8
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-4 red chillis, chopped, removing seeds if you prefer (or to taste!)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
8-10 cardamom pods, seed removed and crushed
4 carrots, diced
3 sticks celery, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 large apple, peeled and chopped
1 leek, sliced
12oz red lentils
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 litre vegetable stock (either homemade or use a stock cube or bouillon powder in water)
1 handful sultanas
Heat a good glug of oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for about 10 mins until softened. Add chopped carrots, celery, pepper, apple and leek, then add chopped chilli, spices and stir for a few mins until well coated. Add lentils and cook for another few minutes. Add tomato purée and stock, then season well. Bring back to the boil and cook for 10 minutes before adding a handful of sultanas. Transfer to the slow cooker for 7-10 hours on Auto/Low (3-4 hours on High). Serve with chopped coriander If you have it! Otherwise parsley or baby spinach work well…) and natural yogurt with rice or Naan. Freezes beautifully!