The warm smell of cooking as you get in from school is like a blanket covering you on the sofa in winter or a hot chocolate by the fire. My favourite, the one that always said something good was on the way, was — and still is — garlic and onions softly sautéeing in olive oil. That, for me, was when I knew there is some proper food coming, something prepared and cooked with care and attention, something that says “you are being nurtured”. You can’t smell a salad, can you?
I do quite often cook the children fish fingers and peas for supper; sometimes we’re all on the edge of sanity and even slicing an onion may just break me. And sometimes, I’ll work over a hot stove for hours, wiping my brow with the towel of martyrdom just for the children to decide on a whim they don’t like something they’ve wolfed down countless times before. They’ll never turn down a roast on Sunday though. Sometimes you can never win, and sometimes, they’ll surprise you by loving sparrow soufflé with chillies. But knowing there’s always a hot meal on its way, and the kitchen is a place of happiness is something we all need.
This recipe is perfect to fill the house with the kinds of smells to make you feel happy. The aromatic vegetables softening, the slight spice from the garam masala, the fresh bay leaves. And the simmering broth. It’s also quick, if you take into account that you can cheat by using tinned cooked green lentils. But even if you cook them from scratch, it still doesn’t take forever. I’ve made a courgette purée to go with it — lentils are quite filling — but if you feel like mashed potato instead, go for it.
200g cooked ham chunks. I had some in the freezer left over from Christmas
250g cooked green lentils
1 stick of celery, plus leaves
1 small onion
The white of a leek you’ve had hanging around for a few days
2 fresh bay leaves
Chicken stock to cover
1tbsp garam masala
Salt and white pepper to season
For the courgette:
1 largeish courgette
1 fat clove of garlic
A tablespoon or two of butter
Salt to season
Slice the carrots, celery, onion and leek into dice as small as you can manage.
Heat a saucepan with some olive oil and throw them in. Add the bay leaves, season and stir.
Cook gently for ten minutes until softened then add the ham, lentils, garam masala, seasoning and stock.
Bring to the boil for a few minutes then simmer for a further ten with a lid on.
Make the courgettes by heating a sauté pan with some olive oil then adding the garlic and shallot. Season well and cook for a few minutes, until starting to colour.
Turn the heat up and add the courgettes, toss around and cook until turning golden here and there.
Transfer to a blender or food processor, add the butter and blend to a purée. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It probably needs more salt. And butter.
Serve with the lentils and ham.