This recipe comes from cheesemonger Lydia, and features two cheeses which are tasting especially delicious now, St Tola (a goat’s cheese log from Co. Clare in Ireland) and Sparkenhoe Blue, (a raw milk Stilton-inspired cheese).
At this time of year, two things are in the forefront of my mind when it comes to cooking: comfort and ease. January is hard enough to get through without adding any extra challenges. Meals need to be of the “hug in a bowl” variety, something flavoursome that makes you feel good, whether that’s a deliciously crunchy winter salad thrown together for lunch or a warming bowl of soup or stew to be enjoyed as reheats over a few days. After the high energy of a Neal’ Yard Dairy Christmas rush, followed by the hours spent in the kitchen over Christmas and the New Year celebrations, come January I’m quite happy to make a big pot of something sustaining and let that be the base for meals for part of the week, adding variety with side dishes or garnishes.
This is the idea with this recipe. Taking inspiration from recipes such as this one from Rachel Roddy, and this one from Yotam Ottolenghi, our base is a big pot of earthy, hearty puy lentils, tossed in a bright vinegary-sweet dressing and I give suggestions for topping with a choice of roast vegetables, fruits and cheeses which bring heaps of flavour and that warming bear hug we could all do with right now.
Serves 4 as a main, so you may want to do a double batch of lentils.
For the lentils
400g puy lentils
2 bay leaves
A stick or two of celery, sliced
For the sauce
Three or four shallots, diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 level tbsp soft brown sugar
2 tbsp dried sour cherries or cranberries
Black pepper and salt to taste
St Tola, about a quarter, at room temperature
3 or 4 fresh beetroot, scrubbed and cut into wedges for roasting
A sprig of fresh rosemary
Seedless black grapes, rinsed and off the stalk
Sparkenhoe Blue, about 200g at room temperature
A small butternut squash, cut into wedges for roasting (I leave the skin on for extra fibre/time saving, but if it's tough do of course peel before chopping).
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
A few handfuls of spinach, washed and shredded, or washed baby spinach
1. Give the lentils a good rinse in running water, drain and transfer to a saucepan. Add the celery, bay leaves and enough water to cover the lentils by about 3 times their depth in the pan. Bring to the boil and simmer, lid on for about 20 minutes until they are cooked but still have a little bite.
2. Get your veggies in the oven:
For Option One you want to drizzle your beetroots liberally with olive oil and a little honey, season and toss them in a roasting tray with the rosemary at 180 degrees for about 30 minutes until tender. 20 minutes in, add the grapes, rolling them in the pan juices before returning to the oven. The skins of the grapes will pop and your pan will be a joyful sea of purply-pink sweet, oily juices.
For Option Two you want to coat your wedges of butternut squash with oil, sprinkle over the thyme leaves and roast at 180 degrees for about 20 minutes until tender.
If I am being especially forward thinking, I’ll do both lots of roast veg at once, setting one variation aside for the next day.
3. To make the sauce, add the oil to the pan and cook the onions without colour. Add the garlic and fry for another few minutes, then add all the remaining ingredients except the seasoning, plus 4 tbsp of water. Simmer on a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, until it becomes syrupy and the dried fruit soak in some liquid and become juicy.
4. Drain the lentils, return to the saucepan and pour over the sauce. Stir through and taste, then season. Go easy on the salt, remembering that the cheese will bring lots of saltiness when added.
5. If you are going for Option Two, at this point stir through the spinach too. It will cook lightly in the residual heat, retaining its colour and nutrients.
6. To serve, pour the lentils into a warmed serving dish (setting half aside if you plan to use for another meal down the line), dot over the roast vegetables, being sure to pour over any of the delicious pan juices as an extra dressing. Crumble on your cheese:
with the St Tola, I cut it into about 3 or 4 thin rounds before breaking these roughly in four over the top, so that the chunks are manageable and attractive.
with the Sparkenhoe Blue, simply remove the rind if it is not to your taste (it is technically edible but can be too earthy for many people. I personally only enjoy it if it is from a pink, juicy-rinded batch, anything brown or dusty textured is out for me). Break into generous crumbles, bigger is better as the cheese begins to melt on contact with the lentils.
7. When reheating your lentils for a later meal, add a splash of water and a generous knob of butter or glug of olive oil and heat on a low heat. The water stops them from sticking and the butter/oil returns them to their lustrous state.