Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

I love dahl. I love it I love it I love it. It’s the most comforting of all South Asian dishes. It has the ability to warm you on a cold evening and cool you after an abundance of chilli. It can be a robust main, a complimentary side or a spiced, thick soup. Heck, it can do anything it wants. It could be the school cricket captain and play lead guitar better than anyone else around. I even saw it get off with a girl I fancied after a disco once. And it will grow up to be an astronaut. I can’t find room in my heart for jealousy though, it’s just too charming.

Dāl (or dahl) is a derivative of the Sanskrit verbal root dal, which means ‘to split’ (*pushes glasses back up nose*). It basically means it is a dish made from pulses which have been husked and split so, theoretically, you can make it with pretty much any pulse you like (as opposed to what Christopher Woodhead told me). For me though (and to avoid an overnight soaking and hefty cooking time), I prefer red lentils. They have such a great texture and tend to look after themselves when cooking. I do find that they take on a fair amount of salt though, so be warned.

I was trying to think of something to serve with the dahl and decided I would like to try Pilau rice. I’d never cooked it before but had a reasonable idea what spices to use to get a good result. I did a small amount of research online and, needless to say, there seems to be around 100,000 different ways to go about it. Taking advice from Fleetwood Mac, I decided to go my own way with the rice and so, recipe drawn in my head, I headed home to make my spicy feast. Then I passed a market stall and I saw my first ever Globe Courgette.

Have you seen one? They’re hilarious! Small, perfectly spherical little squashes crying out to be stuffed and roasted. A beautifully testicular member of the courgette family. Indeed, if you were to sit two alongside a normal courgette it would probably be enough to tip me over the brink of gaiety into a useless, tearful collapse. Me and all the other ten-year old boys. Anyway, with all thoughts of testicles aside, I sliced them open and stuffed them.

This serves 4. Easily.


Pilau stuffed courgette with red lentil dahl

For the stuffed courgette:

4 globe courgettes, tops removed and centre scooped out (keep this!)

300g basmati rice, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

5 cloves

2 bay leaves

3 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

3 cardamom pods

2 tsp turmeric

For the dahl:

200g red lentils, well washed

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 thumb sized piece of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp cumin, toasted and crushed

1 tsp coriander seed, toasted and crushed

4 cardamom pods

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

1 tblsp tomato puree

650ml water

2 tomatoes, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful spinach, roughly chopped (optional)

Handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C. Make the rice first. Fry the onion in a little oil until softened. Add the cumin, cardamom, turmeric and cloves and mix well. Add the rice and mix so the rice is coated in the spices. Add the bay leaves and then around 600ml boiling water. Bring it to the boil then turn it down very low and cover with a lid. Simmer until cooked – around 15-20 mins or so. In the meantime roughly chop and then fry the leftover courgette with a pinch of salt until cooked through. When the rice is cooked remove from the heat, take of the lid and leave for a minute or two to let any excess moisture steam away. Mix in the courgette and then spoon into the prepared squashes. Put the lids back on and place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven. They’ll take about 35 – 40 mins.

For the dahl, fry the onion, garlic, chilli and ginger until softened then add all the spices at once. Mix in the tomato puree and then the lentils and mix to coat. Pour in the water, bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer. Stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick and cook until the lentils are tender and the dahl is thick and oozy – you may need to add a splash more water. At this point check for seasoning (can take salt!) and mix in the tomato, spinach and coriander leaves if using.

Your baked courgettes should be just about ready (test with the tip of a sharp knife or a skewer) so put a healthy portion of dahl on a plate, drizzle with yoghurt and top with a juicy squash! I want it again.


Homemade pasta with rocket, creme fraiche, basil and lemon

About once a month I get an obsessive impulse to clean out my food cupboard. It’s not the same as cleaning out your fridge; there’s no hygiene factor or risk of contamination, no mangy carrots or courgettes lurking at the back. It’s purely an exhibition of ‘anality’. I like it compartmentalised – tins and jars lower left, flours and sugars lower right, chocolate and treats upper left, etc, etc. Every time I embark on this fanatical cleaning venture, I always find a little something hidden away and forgotten about. Last time it was a bar of orange dark chocolate which I scoffed sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to the cricket on the radio. This time it was a bag of type ’00’ flour I had bought a couple of weeks ago with the intention of making pasta. So that’s what I did.

It’s been grey and rainy recently and I’ve been cooking a lot of hearty, ‘wintery’ meals designed to warm and soothe. The kinds of meals that are stuffed full of root vegetables, lentils and barley. Those dinners that sit on the hob long enough to steam up all the windows and make everyone unconsciously gravitate to the kitchen. Well, I’m sick of it. I wanted a taste of summer, something to trick myself into thinking of sun, sea and holidays, something fresh and relaxing. I wanted lemon and basil, basically.

I saw a vintage cookery show the other week. It was rubbish. Two old ladies cooking very old fashioned food in derelict houses in France. They did, however, make one thing that I liked the look of. They blended olive oil, double cream and wild rocket together to create a bright green sauce for pasta. I didn’t see any reason why lemon, basil and a bit of chilli wouldn’t work in there too…

Rocket and creme fraiche pasta with basil and lemon

400g type ’00’ pasta flour

4 large eggs

70g bag wild rocket, roughly chopped

300ml creme fraiche

Zest and juice of half a lemon

Good handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

Pinch of dried chilli

1 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Salt and Pepper

Olive oil

I just made a very simple pasta dough. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Whisk with a fork, slowly going from the centre outward until fully combined. Once you have a sticky dough, flour your hands and knead until a bit firmer. Add more flour if it’s still too sticky. Turn out onto a floured surface and flatten it with your hands. Set your pasta machine on the lowest setting (1) and run the pasta through. Move up to 2 and run it through again. Keep running it through at these settings (1 then 2, 1 then 2…) until the dough becomes springy and elastic – about 5 or 6 times. At this point you can start moving up through the settings. I was making linguine so I stopped at setting ‘8’ because I didn’t want it too thin. I have a linguine and tagliatelle attachment for my pasta machine, so I ran it through the thinner of the two. Voila.

The sauce was easy. Put 3/4 of the rocket, the basil, creme fraiche, lemon zest and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Turn on at a low setting and drizzle in some of the olive oil until the mixture loosens and then stop. Fry the onion and garlic in a pan until cooked and translucent. Add the chilli and then the sauce, check the seasoning and allow to heat through. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water for 2 or 3 minutes and drain. Wilt the remaining rocket in the sauce and serve together with the pasta.

I served it with some roasted cherry tomatoes and a dusting of Parmesan, which went with it very well.


Fennel and leek soup

When I’m poorly I tend to fall back on childhood favourites in an attempt to make myself feel better, almost using memories as a placebo. I think everyone has their traditional sickness staples they can rely on to make themselves more comfortable; mine always included a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream, a bottle of Lucozade and a pile of Iron Man comics. And of course soup.

If I felt nauseous, my mum would make me drink a pint of milk. It took me many years to realise that it just made me almost instantly sick; a pretty old-school remedy with a slightly cruel edge but better out than in I suppose. It’s this harking back to my youth that makes me always crave soup when ill.

Cream of chicken soup to be exact. I’m certainly not the only one to go down this route. The Spartans pretty much only ate ‘black soup’ (pig’s legs, blood, salt and vinegar) and they were pretty healthy. Steinbeck mentions its healing reputation in East Of Eden. Even Gandhi’s son was prescribed chicken soup when diagnosed with pneumonia. Couldn’t eat it though – vegetarian.

Managing to crawl to the fridge (like a slug) I found a potato, a couple of leeks, some old dill and a bulb of fennel. Is that right? A bulb? Or is it a head? Anyway, a pretty good haul for some healthy, re-energising soup to clear the head and vitalise the soul. Or something.

Not much needed for this one. Let the ingredients do the talking.

Fennel and leek soup.

1 bulb/head fennel, sliced

2 medium leeks, sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 medium potato

A handful of dill, chopped

1 tsp oregano

1 litre vegetable stock

Ground black pepper

Melt a bit of butter in a pan and add the leek, garlic and fennel. Simmer until softened. Add the potato and oregano and mix well. Pour in the stock and then simmer for around 20 minutes until the potato is cooked through. Blend the mixture until smooth.

Quick aside here – at this point my blender broke. When I tried to detach the top, the bottom snapped off pouring soup all over the worktop. It was so frustrating I nearly cried.

Pour the mixture into a clean pan and bring back to temperature. Taste and season – I found that it didn’t need any salt – and stir in the dill. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or a drizzle of cream and garnish with a bit of that fluffy stuff from the top of the fennel or a sprig of dill.


Marinated tofu with satay sauce

My brother bought me a sack of Monkey Nuts for Christmas. They were a confusing addition to a very nice hamper and I didn’t really know what to do with them. The rest of the gifts are much simpler to use –  the cheese, crackers and chutney will make a nice snack, the olives and jalapenos will top a pizza and the Christmas cake can have its disgusting icing thrown away and the lovely fruitcake eaten with coffee.

Monkey nuts though? I forgot they even existed. I thought they were awesome when I was 8 until I’d spent twenty minutes ripping 3 or 4 of them apart. The reward for all your hard work was pathetically unsatisfying and you ended up with that weird flaky skin stuff stuck to the roof of your mouth. And it’s messy. Don’t they come unshelled in bags now?

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – the hamper was great and will all get used lovingly in various recipes (Zenf? Nice one!). It also turns out they were perfect for a recipe I wanted to try. It took me about an hour to peel them though…

I reckon you can use normal salted peanuts. Maybe lose the soy sauce in the satay though?

Marinated tofu with satay sauce.

For the tofu;

400g firm tofu, cubed

1 red chilli, deseeded and roughly chopped

1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped

2 tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 tbsp soy sauce

Pinch of coriander leaves

For the peanut sauce;

150g peanuts, toasted

1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 thumb-size piece ginger, peeled and chopped

2 shallots, roughly chopped

Juice of 1 lime

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

For the tofu marinade put the chilli, lemongrass, coriander, oil and soy sauce in a food processor and blitz. Put the tofu in a dish and pour over the mixture. Cover and put in the fridge for an hour or so.

Put the peanuts in the food processor and blitz, leaving a bit of texture. Remove and then put in all the rest of the ingredients, apart from the coconut milk. Blend into a rough paste. Heat some oil in a saucepan and add the paste. Cook until it’s fragrant – the smells completely dominate your kitchen! Add the peanuts and the coconut milk, stir and simmer until it thickens.

Meanwhile, fry the tofu pieces in a very hot, non-stick frying pan until nicely coloured on all sides. Pour the sauce over the tofu. I served it with toasted garlic noodles, sliced spring onion and some alfalfa I got reduced at Sainsbury’s.