Mid-March feels like a good time to tidy up, clearing the decks before spring arrives in the kitchen. One of the narrow larder shelves is home to a collection of tightly stoppered jars of dry goods – the beige stuff that forms the base of hearty, cheap-as-chips dinners: couscous and mograbia, polenta and bulgur, both fine and coarse. There are dried chickpeas and butter beans, lentils and haricot, rice-like orzo and lentils of diminishing sizes.
The small amounts in each jar are frustrating – obviously I am grateful, but also annoyed that there isn’t really enough of any one of them to make a single dish. Experience tells me that you mix such ingredients at your peril, as they all take differing times to cook. (A mixed lentil soup once ended up with chewy green ones in an orange lentil sludge.) So I decide to make little cakes from a mixture of bulgur wheat and lentils. The bulgur is the fine variety and ready in minutes; the lentils are the tiny pale orange ones that fall quickly into a delicious purée.
I tinker with the timings, making sure they are both tender enough to press into a batch of soft, rissole-like cakes. I fry them briefly on either side to give a crisp crust, then bake them in an easy, sweet-sour, tomato-olive sauce. The cupboard is now minus two jars of “bits” and I start to tidy the little deep freeze, finding enough peas to make a soup whose bright green notes fill us with hope for the new season.
Lentil and bulgur wheat cakes, tomato and olive sauce
Make sure you use fine bulgur for this. Don’t ignore the resting time in the fridge. It is important for the texture of the balls. Serves 4
onions 2, medium
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 2 cloves
yellow mustard seeds 1½ tsp
cumin seeds 1½ tsp
curry powder 2 tsp
ground turmeric 1 tsp
vegetable stock 1 litre
lentils 250g, small and red
bulgur wheat 150g, fine
coriander leaves 10g
mint leaves 10, large
vegetable oil 3 tbsp for frying
For the sauce:
olive oil 2 tbsp
tomato purée 2 tsp
green olives 100g, stoned
pomegranate molasses 1 tbsp
Peel and finely chop the onions. Warm the olive oil in a deep pan with a lid, add the onions and let them cook for 15 minutes over a moderately high heat, until pale and translucent, stirring regularly. Peel and crush the garlic to a paste (I use a pestle and mortar) and stir into the onions. Add the yellow mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry powder and ground turmeric and continue cooking for a further 3 or 4 minutes until toasty and sticking to the pan. Pour in the vegetable stock, stirring, then bring to the boil and add the lentils.
Lower the heat a little, partially cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes (there will be very little water left), then stir in the bulgur wheat. Remove from the heat and season generously with salt and black pepper. Finely chop the herbs and stir into the lentils and bulgur wheat, then set aside, covered with the lid for 10 minutes.
Using your hands, roll the mixture into 12 large balls (you will get 12-14 balls at 75-80g a piece), placing them on a tray as you go. Set aside for at least a couple of hours in the fridge.
To make the sauce, roughly chop the tomatoes and put them in a saucepan with the olive oil. Cook over a moderate heat, partially covered with a lid, for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to collapse and give out their juices. Stir in the tomato purée. Roughly chop the olives. Crush the tomatoes with a fork, then stir in the olives, salt and a little pepper and the molasses. Continue cooking for 5 minutes, then transfer to a large baking dish. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Warm a thin pool of vegetable oil (about 3 tbsp) in a shallow pan over a moderate heat, then fry the balls for about 4 minutes on each side, watching them carefully, until golden, then transfer them to the baking dish, cover and place in the oven for 30 minutes.
Pea soup with ham hock and herbs
You will have more than enough ham for 4. Keep the remainder for the next day, for sandwiches, perhaps with English mustard, watercress and cucumber. The ham cooking liquor will have done its work, but you could keep the remainder for a soup risotto. Serves 4
ham hock 1 kg, bone in
bay leaves 3
black peppercorns 6
peas 450g, frozen
garlic 1 large clove
parsley leaves 10g
chives 1 tbsp, chopped
basil leaves 20
Put the ham hock in a deep pan with just enough water to cover, bring to the boil, skim off the froth that rises to the surface, then add the bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves. Turn the heat down so the liquid simmers. Partially cover the pan with a lid and leave, with the occasional turn, for 45-50 minutes or so, until the ham is cooked through to the bone.
Remove the ham from the liquor and remove the aromatics with a draining spoon. Transfer 1 litre of the liquor into another pan. Bring to the boil, add the peas and garlic, and cook for 5 minutes or so, until the peas are tender. Add half the parsley, chives and the basil leaves to the peas, cook for a minute or so longer, then process in small batches in a blender to give a thick, green soup. Grind in a little black pepper. The soup is unlikely to need salt, but taste to check.
Remove and discard the thick layer of fat from the ham and tear into generous, spoon-sized pieces. Roughly chop a few more herbs, then roll the ham in them. Press firmly so the herbs stick to the meat. Ladle the soup into bowls and add the ham.
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