A Simple Feast: Lentil Gratin

Lentil Gratin

I want to start this post with a great big Thank You to everyone who left a comment on this post last week. On Wednesday I flew home to Canada for my grandmother’s funeral, and spent the past week visiting with family and friends. Though I’m feeling okay and trying to present an upbeat front, dealing with death is never easy, and your words of support helped more than I can say.

Almost since I wrote that post, I’ve been thinking about how best to tackle this one. How to pay tribute to a woman like my Granny? A woman born during a time of horses and carriages, who lived through two world wars to adapt effortlessly to an era of fast cars, email and international travel. A woman who immigrated twice; first to England to escape Nazi persecution in her native Germany, and then to the wilds of rural Canada, to put down roots for her growing family. A woman who loved art, reading, conversation and above all, a good party. Also, and somewhat unfortunately, a woman whose culinary contributions included dishes like Stuffed Cucumbers and Tuna Noodle Casserole with Potato Chips.

Lentil Gratin

No, Granny wasn’t a great cook. This widely-acknowledged fact isn’t intended to be rude; she’d be the first to admit that the preparation of meals held little interest for her. I knew that whatever recipe I shared in this post, it wasn’t going to be one of hers. The only thing I ever looked forward to eating at her house was Lemon Meringue Pie or Jello, both of which came from a mix.

Still, mealtimes with Granny were special. When I was growing up, my family would travel five blocks east to my grandparents’ house, where whatever was served inevitably played second fiddle to conversation, love and laughter. In later years my parents would often have her to dinner at our house, usually on the first night I was home from university on a break. While those meals surely tasted better than the earlier ones, I can’t say I remember any of them, either. What I do recall of these evenings is Granny peppering me with questions about my classes, friends and hobbies- always interested in what I was up to, always happy to see me.

Lentil Gratin

The dinner my Mum made on Wednesday evening was similar in spirit to those meals, at least. My sister and I had just stepped off a (delayed) transatlantic flight, and what we needed most was sustenance, with a side of catching up. This lentil gratin comes from a cookbook published by UK charity Christian Aid, one which my Mum has been pushing me to review on Kitchlit for months, and I (in my modern, agnostic snobbery) have been stubbornly resisting.

I may have to eat my words if this recipe is anything to go by; rich, hearty and comforting, this was just what I needed that evening. Nothing fancy, just a simple background meal to some much-needed family time. Because sometimes, it’s not really the food that matters.

Lentil Gratin

Lentil Gratin
adapted from The Christian Aid Book of Simple Feasts by Sarah Stancliffe
serves 4 (with a salad side)

  • 150g Le Puy lentils
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 small yellow onion (or 1/2 a large one), finely chopped
  • 1 leek, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
  • 75ml single cream
  • 100g grated Gruyere cheese
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 20g chopped walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Lightly butter a medium-sized gratin dish and set aside.

2. Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the lentils. Cook according to package instructions, about 35 minutes at a low boil.

3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan that has a lid. Add the garlic, onion, leek and carrot and stir to coat. Cover, turn the heat very low and allow the vegetables to sweat for 20-25 minutes, until soft and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool slightly.

4. When the lentils are cooked, drain and add to the vegetables. Stir in two tablespoons of cream, about half of the cheese and the parsley. Season to taste and spread the mixture into the prepared gratin dish.

5. Mix the rest of the cream and cheese with the walnuts until you have a lumpy paste. Spread this over the top of the gratin and bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown on top.

A Small Victory: Potato, Swede and Leek Gratin

Potato, Swede and Leek Gratin

Lean in close, and I’ll let you in on a shameful little secret of mine: I’ve never successfully made a gratin before now. Absurd, right? The easy-peasy staple of French cooking, winter cooking and (let’s face it) 1950′s home cooking has never been my forté. Until now, that is.

It’s not as though I’ve been slaving away over a hot stove (er, oven) trying to make the perfect gratin or anything; I’ve only really tried once, and the dismal scalloped potatoes that resulted were enough to put me off the whole idea. Rather than the creamy, cheesy dish I’d tried at my sister’s, my effort- with the same, borrowed recipe, I might add- was strangely both watery and lumpy. If I’m honest, my pride was a little hurt- I’m meant to be the cook in the family, after all.

Though for some reason, cooking au gratin was on my mind last week. Maybe it was the dawn of winter, or the delicious-looking Swiss Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin that Deb posted, or (and this is more likely) maybe it was the two potatoes and half a swede, left over from my Root Vegetable Korma, that were burning a hole in my crisper.

Potato, Swede and Leek Gratin

Somewhat imprudently for someone with acknowledged gratin performance issues, I didn’t follow any specific recipe for this dish. Instead I glanced in a couple of my favourite go-to cookbooks for a quick refresher on technique, and jumped in head first. I was unsure whether to pre-cook the vegetables (some recipes call for it, some don’t) but decided to err on the safe side. For cheese I chose a nutty Emmental, which I thought would be a nice change from my standby cheddar.

My “throw caution to the wind” approach worked, in this case. Hitting the nail on the head in both flavour and texture, the gratin was rich and creamy but delicately flavoured. Quite the coup- especially considering that I was only holding out for something edible.

Potato, Swede and Leek Gratin

Potato, Swede and Leek Gratin
serves 4

  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ rounds
  • 1/2 a swede, peeled, halved and sliced into 1/4″ slices
  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced into 1/4″ rounds
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 2 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 1 cup grated cheese (Emmental, Gruyère or Cheddar)
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 cup single cream

1. Preheat your oven to 175°C/350°F, and lightly butter a 8 x 10″ gratin dish.

2. Combine the potatoes, swede, leeks and crushed garlic cloves in a deep frying pan that has a lid. Pour over the milk, add the bay leaf and season gently (you can always add more later).

3. Simmer, partially covered, over low heat for 15 minutes- until potatoes and swede are tender to the point of a knife. Remove from heat to cool slightly, then find and discard the bay leaf and garlic cloves.

4. Using a slotted spoon, remove half the mixture to the prepared gratin dish, trying to get an even mix of potatoes, swede and leeks. Cover with half of the grated cheese, then repeat with the rest of the vegetables/cheese.

5. Return the remaining simmering liquid to a low heat, and add the butter and cream. Whisk until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of liquid, which will be the consistency of light cream.

6. Pour the liquid over the vegetables and cheese- it should come 3/4 of the way up the dish, but not cover it completely. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until bubbly and browned on top. Serve immediately.

In broad daylight: Cauliflower and Broccoli Cake

It’s no surprise that I take a lot of inspiration from the food bloggers around me. Given that there are so many of us, and their recipes are right at my fingertips (rather than all the way on the other side of the room, where my cookbooks live), it’s completely understandable that I turn to fellow bloggers when looking for new content. But in order to avoid the dreaded “recipe thief” label, I try to be a little clever when doing so. If I’m going to post a blogger’s recipe on Seasons of Home, it’s usually one that I’ve adapted heavily, and either from an obscure or niche blog, or simply from an older, long-forgotten post. I’m hardly likely to go over to the world’s best-known blog and grab a recipe right from the front page, am I?

Except that’s what I’m doing today. As soon as I saw the Cauliflower and Parmesan Cake posted by Smitten Kitchen just two days ago, I knew I’d have to make it, and fast. Not only did I have a head of romanescu cauliflower sitting the crisper begging to be used, but come on; it’s a cauliflower cake, and you know I like that idea. So yes, I stole this post from Deb in broad daylight and you know what? I’m not sorry.

Of course, if I hadn’t just admitted that, you’d never know. Not only does my spin on this baked omelette-like cake look completely different from its inspiration, but I’m sure it tastes different, too. The original recipe (adapted in turn from Yotam Ottolenghi), is made in a deep-dish Springform pan, and feeds a load of people. I a) do not have a Springform pan, and b) only have one other person to cook for, so I cut this recipe way back. The result is that it’s not quite as pretty as it could be, and definitely leans a leans more toward omelette than cake.

But looks aren’t everything, and I venture to boast that my version is more than a match for any other in the taste department. A mix of romanescu cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli adds some veg variation, while sautéed leeks and a good amount of cheddar and parmesan finish the flavour perfectly. Because of its egginess, this would make an impressive brunch dish, but it equally suitable for lunch or dinner, too. Just, er- don’t serve it for dessert.

Cauliflower and Broccoli Cake
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
serves 4-5

  • butter, for greasing
  • 2 Tbs. cornmeal or polenta
  • 2 cups small cauliflower florets (Romanescu or regular)
  • 1 cup purple sprouting broccoli florets (1″ lengths”
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large leek, sliced
  • 5 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. paprika
  • 1/8 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 3/4 cup grated cheddar
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. Preheat the oven to 275°C/350°F and grease the inside of an 8″ loose-bottomed cake tin with butter. Through in the cornmeal and shake until the bottom and sides of the tin are covered. Set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt it well. Add the cauliflower florets and boil for 2 minutes; add the broccoli and continue cooking for another 90 seconds. Drain and rinse the vegetables well in cold water.

3. Head the butter and olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Sauté the leeks for 8-10 minutes until very soft but not yet browned. Set aside to cool.

4. Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl until well beaten. Add the flour, baking powder, spices, salt and lots of black pepper, and whisk well. Add the cheeses and cooled leeks, and whisk again. Stir in the cauliflower and broccoli florets until well coated; feel free to break up any too-large florets with a wooden spoon.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes until puffy and golden on top. Cake will feel firm to the touch when done. Let cool at least 10 minutes before gently un-moulding and  slicing.

Challenging Misconceptions: Potato Pizza

Potato Pizza

Brace yourselves, friends. As promised on Sunday, I’ve got a strange one for you today. I recently took a chance on an intriguing (some might say bizarre) new dish. A pizza that isn’t a pizza, a summer dish that seems utterly unsuited to hot weather, this meal had me second-guessing all kinds of preconceived notions.

The recipe in question comes from Recipes from an Italian Summer, a new cookbook from the same people who gave us that bible of Italian cooking, The Silver Spoon. There’s little I like more than the idea of summer in Italy, so of course I was thrilled with this addition to my cookbook collection. Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t the fresh salate or creamy semifreddo that first caught my eye, but this Pizza di patate. I was drawn to it immediately, as I tend to be to things that make me go “huh?”.

Because this isn’t your usual potato pizza, that delicious carb-fest in which thinly sliced potato gets put atop pizza dough with rosemary and olive oil and baked into crispy submission. No, the potato here is in the dough- or rather, batter. See, the base of this “pizza” is something akin to mashed potoato; you mash some potatoes, mix in some flour, butter and egg, spread it all in a roasting tin, top and bake.

Potato Pizza

You’re probably thinking that this hardly sounds summery, and you might even be thinking that it hardly sounds good. Let me assure you that on baking, something wonderful happens to that potato: the edges become crisp and chewy, just strong enough to hold together a “slice” of this pizza. It’s not a finger food – you’ll have to use a fork here – but it is delicious.

As for being summery, well- that’s all down to the toppings. I stayed true to original recipe, and opted for a mixture of fresh tomatoes, anchovies, mozzarella and basil, and this classic combination did much to lighten and brighten the dish. In cooler weather, I can see caramelized onions, goat’s cheese and sage working well.

So the next time you’re flipping though a new cookbook (or magazine, or blog) and come across something that stops you in your tracks for its utter absurdity, try to keep an open mind. You might just be in for a delicious surprise.

Potato Pizza

Potato Pizza
adapted from Recipes from an Italian Summer
serves 4

  • 500g floury potatoes, peeled
  • 100g plain flour
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 3 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 125g mozzarella cheese, torn into small pieces
  • 4-5 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
  • 10-15 leaves basil, torn
  • 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil (plus extra for brushing)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F and brush a medium-sized roasting tin with olive oil. (The exact size doesn’t really matter; a larger tray will give a flatter, crisper pizza, a smaller pan a deeper, creamier one.) Set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, and cook the potatoes until tender. Allow to cool slightly before putting the potatoes through a ricer (or sieve) into a large bowl. Add the flour, butter and egg and mix until you have a uniform “batter”. Spread this into the roasting tin.

3. Cover the potato mixure with the tomatoes, mozzarella, anchovies and basil. Sprinkle with the oregano and drizzle over the olive oil before baking for 20 minutes, until crisp and golden at the edges. Serve immediately, slicing with a knife and serving the slices with a flipper/spatula.

An unEasterlike Dinner: Squash and Onion Tart

squash and onion tart

I’m sitting here, having a slice of leftover tart for lunch, and thinking about how entirely inappropriate this meal was for an Easter dinner. I wanted to bring something to my sister’s celebration on Sunday, both to contribute to the table and so I’d have something “special” to eat myself. (She was cooking a ham, and I’m loathe to make a vegetarian meal out of side dishes alone. As good as the boiled buttered cabbage and scalloped potatoes were, they weren’t going to do me for such a festive occasion.) But the vegetables in the tart I made were so completely unspringlike– much more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for Easter.

I ask you, why does Easter have to be so early in the year? Obviously we can’t just go moving holidays around to suit our culinary inclinations, but it does seem to me that a holiday with such hopeful, joyous connotations deserves produce that evokes similar feelings. (Well, I think the connotations of Easter are hopeful and joyous- you’ll have to ask my sister to be sure. I used to read novels in church, tucked in between the pages of a Bible.)

But such isn’t the case, and looking in the market on Sunday for inspiring Spring vegetables, I was mightily disappointed. Too early for asparagus, too early for peas and beans, I settled on an old favourite, the butternut squash. In the past I’ve roasted cubes of this for a quiche, adding caramelized onion and chopped sage for a autumnal weekend lunch. This time I wanted to try something different, having seen an intriguing recipe in my fabulous French Bakery cookbook Breakfast, Lunch, Tea.

This recipe differs from that more standard quiche in several key ways. It’s not overly eggy, only containing one whole egg and one yolk, and instead of roasting cubes of squash and mixing them into a cream mixture, you puree all the ingredients together before filling the pie shell. The end result is creamy but light, more like a savory pumpkin pie than a traditional vegetable tart. The whole wheat crust and high veggie content make this a tart you can actually feel quite virtuous eating. So perhaps suitable for Easter after all, then?

unroasted squash

roasted squash

tart case unfilled

squash tart unbaked

Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Tart with Sage and Pinenuts
Adapted from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini

  • makes one 10″ tart
  • 350g plain white flour
  • 150g whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • 250g unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 small-medium onions
  • 2 Tsp. butter
  • 2 Tsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 5-6 sage leaves
  • 1 medium butternut squash
  • 1/2 cup single cream
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
  • 1 egg yolk
  • pinch of grated nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup pinenuts, toasted
  • 4-6 sage leaves

1. Mix the flours, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or your fingers, until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.2. Make a well in the middle of the flour, and add the egg yolk and half the water. Mix quickly with a fork until the mixture comes together. (If it is very cold out, you may need to add a bit more cold water, a teaspoon at a time.) Use your hands to quickly mold the dough into a ball. There is no kneading involved, you just want to work quickly, and make sure the dough is neither sticky or too crumbly. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F. Grease a 10″ tart tin, quiche pan, or loose-bottom cake pan with butter. Take the dough out of the fridge and divide into three even pieces. Two of these pieces can be wrapped in clingfilm and frozen for another day.

4. Flour a work surface and a rolling pin, and roll out the remaining piece of dough to about 1/8″ thick. Lift it gently into your greased pan, making sure that you don’t stretch it to fit. Press it into the pan gently and trim away the tops. Return to the fridge for another 30 minutes.

5. Bake the tart cases blind with whatever weighs you have inside (uncooked rice or beans in foil, or ceramic baking weights) for about 25-30 minutes, removing the weights after 20. The pastry should be dry and just beginning to turn golden.

6. Slice the onions thinly, and place in a heavy pan (with a lid!) over medium heat. When they begin to dry out and stick to the pan (after about 5 minutes), add the butter, olive oil and sage leaves, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn the heat down to low, cover again, and cook for 30-50 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need to add a bit more olive oil if they begin to stick. The onions are done when they’re deep brown, barely holding their shape and taste sweet. Set aside to cool.

7. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Quarter the butternut squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the pieces in a baking dish and brush with olive oil. Roast gently for 30-40 minutes, until browning in parts and soft. When you take the squash out of the oven, turn the heat down to 180°C/350°F.8. When the squash is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin (use a sharp knife if you find it difficult) and break up the squash. Place the chunks in a large bowl or jug, and add the cream, egg, egg yolk and nutmeg. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture until smooth. (If you don’t have an immersion blender,this step can also be done in a food processor.)

9. Gently fold the caramelized onions into the squash mixture, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into the cooled tart case and shake gently to settle. Arrange the remaining sage leaves on top of the tart, and sprinkle over the toasted pinenuts. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the top is shiny, set and just turning golden.