Scenario 1: It’s Thursday night. The Child, who has previously been relaxing on the couch, sits bolt upright and says “Wait! Mum! There’s something I have to show you”. Much rummaging in the school bag follows until a note approximately the size of a matchbox and soggy with kiwi fruit stains is produced. It says something like this: “All parents of prep 1 & 2 parents please remember to bring a contribution to the Year 9 Camp Fundraiser Cake Stall on Friday.” Horror, followed by anger: “Another cake stall? I have approximately 3 jobs and a matching number of volunteer commitments and I was actually planning on spending an hour to myself this evening sitting in front of my computer with a glass of wine writing about food. You know, actually doing something for myself. You know what? They can get stuffed. I’m not sending anything. I’ll give them $10.00 instead”. Followed again by horror: “It’ll all be on. The competitive baking bonanza is about to occur. Plates of miraculous cakes will be produced by the good mothers, the mothers who miraculously know what’s going on at school well in advance. Mothers who are prepared. If I don’t send something the school is going to know I’m not a good mother”. And to be honest, between my failure to make The Child do his homework, or keep on top of the school uniform laundry, or provide a rubbish-free lunch box, I can’t afford to make matters any worse.
And so I bake up a debacle. Last time it was butterfly cakes. It seemed like a good idea – little wings of cake nestled in a pile of cream, glace cherry on top. Premium product, right? The cakes were fine. I was pleased with myself. They had chocolate chips. I had decided to use dairy whip instead of cream. I told myself that this was because it would save me time and mess but really I just wanted an excuse to hide behind the fridge door squirting tinned cream product down my throat. The cakes were duly creamed and taken to school. We literally live across the road from this marvellous institution but by the time the cakes had been delivered the “cream”, which is of course 99% air, had subsided and was flowing across the surface of the cakes in a greasy slurry. Cherries slumped forlornly on the plate. I placed my cakes on the communal table, comfortable in the company of a stack of nuggety offerings that had been crammed into old cereal boxes and strapped up with masking tape. The only person who purchased a fairy cake that day was The Child, bless him.
Scenario 2: I find out at the eleven and half-th hour that the kinder is having a working bee. A BBQ and beer will be provided (yipee!) but a salad is requested. I never know what is happening at the kinder because my husband is the President of the Kinder Committee. This makes me assume that he will tell me the information I need to know in a timely and helpful fashion and so I don’t bother paying attention to anything the Kinder actually tells me. Therefore, between our mutual failures, I never know anything. But salads? Salads I can do, even at frighteningly late notice. Salads I understand. Salads I can not only happily provide but can actually use to impress and provide subtle indications that maybe, just maybe, I am one of the good mums. This lentil salad is a miracle of cooking, able to be conjured up out of next to nothing from stuff I nearly always have to hand, easy to prepare and so startlingly delicious that every time I make it I am inundated with requests for the recipe for weeks afterwards. Plus, despite being completely free of animal products, it has the remarkable quality of tasting like bacon.
Brown lentil salad
This recipe comes from Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion where she describes it as a classic French dish. As such, it should ideally be made with Puy lentils (and they are much better, being nuttier in both texture and flavour). You can now get Puy lentils from major supermarkets but the readily available green or brown lentils (just different names for the same thing) are just fine and I use them 99% of the time. The trick is in the soaking time – they need 2 hours. Less than that and the skins won’t soften, more than that and the salad goes soggy. It is very important to soften the skins so that when salt is added at the beginning of the cooking time, they don’t toughen.
- 375g brown lentils
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
- 1 tbsp red-wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (extra)
- Black pepper
Wash the lentils and soak them in plenty of water for 2 hours. Before you drain the water off, reserve a cup of the water – you will need it for cooking. Heat the oil over a moderate heat in a heavy based pan (not non-stick!). I use an enamelled cast iron frying pan and it’s perfect for the job. Add the onions and fry gently until golden. This may take several minutes. Add the garlic and continue to fry for 1 minute. Then add the lentils, reserved soaking water (or tap water, if you forgot) and salt. Cook the lentils for about 25 minutes until the water has evaporated and the lentils are cooked. If the water evaporates too quickly, turn down the heat and add a little more. Don’t let them get mushy – they should still be a bit crunchy. Tip the lentils out of the pan into a bowl and stir in the the remaining ingredients. It’s best to do this while the lentils are still warm to take the edge off the vinegar and allow the flavours to infuse.