Saturday, March 22, 2014

Matthews' Lentils

There are two Matthews involved in the making of these lentils. One, the Matthew my sister brought over from Newcastle, who very kindly made vegetarian shepherd's pie and also very kindly left behind half a bag of lentils in my kitchen.

The second Matthew is Matthew Fort - whose cookbook "Cooking by Numbers" mysteriously turned up at my house one day. I seized it with both hands and, out of courtesy and guilt, I did ask random family members about its origin and ownership but nobody seemed to know anything.

Well! Finders keepers then.

So, due to the serendipity of having of lentils and a cookbook(!) turn up at my doorstep, I cooked lentils.

Lentils with Poached Egg

I made this with the last container of my home-made stock which I have written about before. They are perfect as a simple and delicious meal for a weekend night when you have some time but don't necessarily want to bother with a big show in the kitchen.

The lentils freeze well and form the perfect base for many other weeknight meals so don't be shy about making an enormous batch. The only drawback I find to making a bigger batch is that I tend to overeat - so perhaps just making a smaller batch is a good idea if you're greedy like me! Also if you've just had a week of particularly indulgent eating, this is a virtuous finish to the week that is still tasty and quite hearty.

Oh and I don't really bother poaching the eggs. I just fry them and leave the yolk runny because that's just how I like eggs or soft boil them.

1 carrot
1 onion
1 stick celery
1 leek
2 rashers of bacon (I know the temptation is to add more but be careful as it can make the dish quite salty)
about 3 tablespoons or so of olive oil
125g of green lentils (red/brown ones will not do)
350 ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp Vietnamese fish sauce (optional)
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
salt/pepper to taste
2 eggs

1. Chop all the vegetables finely. Slice the bacon into strips.

2. Heat the olive oil and fry the bacon. When bacon is brown around the edges and crisping, add the chopped vegetables and stir to coat with oil.

3. Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes until vegetables are wilted and onion is transparent.

4. Rinse the lentils in cold water then add to the pan, stirring it around.

5. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 25 minutes, until the lentils are tender but have not disintegrated.

(Try the lentils along the way. Matthew Fort recommended 15-25 minutes but I find that mine take a full 25-30 minutes)

6. Cool slightly and add the flavourings of your choice. Serve topped with the egg.

Note on the flavourings: The first time I made this, I didn't have any of the flavourings so I just went with salt and pepper. It was pretty good but not utterly fantastic. The second time I made them, I added Thai fish sauce, some whole grain mustard and some balsamic vinegar and it was delicious so I would recommend that you try it out with whatever flavourings happen to be in your kitchen.

Note on the leek and also the eggs: I almost never have leeks lying around so I usually omit the leek and just add 1 extra stick of celery because I love celery. It doesn't seem to have made a great deal of difference - this recipe is pretty flexible. But I'll update this if I do try it with the leek eventually.

With the eggs, you're supposed to break it up and have the yolk run into the lentils - Fort describes it as "unctuous" and it is - the yolk coats the lentils and gives the whole dish this richness.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Megan's oatmeal

Well it was a pretty ordinary Saturday in my household - ordinary and extraordinary because we've had a non-stop streak of saturday weddings and so we were hopelessly out of the most basic groceries, even my instant oatmeal (!) and muesli. 

Mr Grey promptly decided to eat last night's leftovers for breakfast, I poked around, considered my options and then decided that today would The Day. 

Let me explain. 

Somewhere up in my head there is a vague list of foods that I mean to one day get around to actually making From Scratch. The list changes pretty much all the time and unfortunately, it usually gets added to without my having the time to cross anything off it. Today however, was the Day I managed to finally FINALLY cross off one of the most basic items: real deal oatmeal From Scratch. 

There's nothing special about oatmeal in particular except that I learnt to eat it and like it in Australia.  Only I kept making the instant kind because - who makes oatmeal from scratch anymore? But then I kept reading and hearing that instant oatmeal is nothing like the real deal From Scratch kind. The kind you make with oats, water and milk on a stove instead of instant oats in the microwave. 

Anyway, I don't know if it's because I picked an especially good recipe - the review on Orangette was breathless with enthusiasm - or because oatmeal from scratch really tastes better but the result was incredible

People, anybody reading this, if you decide to make it, please please don't skip the step where you toast the oats. It is delicious and adds this faint butter-y fragrance to oatmeal and quite changes its character from the kind of healthy breakfast you try to endure to a luxurious one that you look forward to making (and eating) again and again. 

Megan's Oatmeal via Orangette

The recipe itself is pretty simple. What it takes unfortunately, is that precious resource I don't often have much of - time. Most days, my breakfast needs to get on the table in something like 5 minutes flat and oatmeal takes at least half an hour. 

But I discovered that it's an excellent way to spend your saturday morning because it doesn't actually take a whole lot of work. Only the first five minutes when you're toasting your oats requires your full attention. The rest of the time, you can leave it on the stove over medium low heat simmering and only give it a stir every couple of minutes. 

1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (175 grams) steel-cut oats
3 ¼ cups (780 ml) water
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (12 grams) natural cane sugar (I used muscovado)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey for serving

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oats, and cook, stirring occasionally, until quite fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

In a 2 ½- to 3-quart saucepan, bring the water, milk, sugar, and salt to a simmer. (Be careful: I find that this mixture goes quickly from zero to boiling and has a tendency to boil over.) Stir in the toasted oats. Adjust the heat to maintain a slow simmer, and partially cover the saucepan.  Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent clumping and scorching, until the mixture has thickened and the oats are soft, 25 to 30 minutes. The cereal will still be quite loose at this point, but don’t worry; it will continue to thicken. Remove the pan from the heat, allow it to rest for a few minutes (still partially covered), and then serve hot, with maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey
.(I had mine with maple syrup but will try it with honey next time)

Serving size note: It says on Orangette that the recipe serves four but um, I think I'm either an enormous eater or it serves four very tiny people. I halved the recipe for myself and expected leftovers but ... to my surprise, it cooked down to just about one serving of oatmeal. Which was fine (see above for Mr Grey's breakfast choices) but next time I'm making the full recipe just so I can have leftovers ... or you know, should Mr Grey decide to eat oatmeal with me.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cooking and life

I came across a 2001 NYT article on cooking yesterday that managed to really put the finger on the pulse of why and how it is cooking can be such a life affirming, comforting hobby. 

Some passages from the article below:

"Anyone who cooks even casually knows the feeling. Cooking is almost always a mood-altering experience, for good or for bad, and at its best it is do-it-yourself therapy: more calming than yoga, less risky than drugs.
The food is not really the thing. It's the making of it that gets you through a bad time.On Thursday, I was motivated to make stew, and not because I had any real craving for meat. I needed to go through the slow process of rendering salt pork, sautéing onions and shallots, browning the beef and simmering it for hours with Cognac and stock and two kinds of mustard. Nothing about the recipe, one I have made every winter since learning it in cooking school 18 years ago, could be rushed, which was exactly what I wanted. Sometimes cooking is its own reward.
And the reason you do it is very simple: cooking is the most sensual activity a human being can engage in, in polite company. My stew involved smell (onions softening, Cognac reducing), touch (the chopping, the stirring), sound (that sizzle of beef cubes hitting hot fat), sight (carrot orange against the gold-brown of mustard and beef stock) and especially taste. Making it was a way to feel alive and engaged.
Whoever said cooking should be entered into with abandon or not at all had it wrong. Going into it when you have no hope is sometimes just what you need to get to a better place."
I woke up today with the date of the article nagging at the edges of my consciousness. I looked it up again today - and of course, it was published less than 10 days after 911. For the writer, her kitchen held comfort and life in the midst of grief. 
This article and Banana Yoshimoto's novella - Kitchen - are the only two pieces of writing I've ever read that managed to elucidate the idea of how cooking - and food - can be a return from death. Food - its preparation and consumption - are so intimately linked with life itself. 
It is no secret that I learned to cook during one of the lowest and saddest seasons of my life. Cooking, constantly cooking, was one of the ways that I clung on to life; it was a reason to go on. Grasping a bag of mushrooms at the market was a way to grasp at life. 
I am not sure that it is only the making of the food that is the thing. The food itself means something. I ate well during that time and understood for the first time that good food, healthy, well prepared food, is as revivifying as the process of making it. When eventually, I emerged from the season of sadness, it was as a healthier and more stable person - thanks in no small part to the great produce I had been consuming. 
Looking back at that season of long sad days, I began to glimpse at why people fast during the season of Lent.  Perhaps it is to to remind themselves that a season of drought and weary cold ends with Christ, who is living water and the bread of life. 
Note: If you follow the link, it brings you to the NYT article which also includes a recipe for Maple Shortbread Bars and Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew.