Condensation dribbles down the windows, noses drip, and morale is low. This dismal weather, punctuated only by brief spells of chilly sunshine, is what makes us long for home cooking, and the term ‘comfort food’ suddenly become ubiquitous. To me, comfort food means old staples to fall back on: dishes which aren’t invented, but remembered.
It’s often said that food memories are created in childhood, and whilst this claim may have some truth in it, I think that dishes can accumulate emotional significance much more rapidly than it suggests. I’ve only been making this lentil bolognese for a couple of years, but it has come to signify that small window of weekdays spent with family or friends. This time was a rarely acknowledged source of relief on evenings of early darkness after a long day, when, rather thanargue over what to cook (a perennial issue in a family containing both an enthusiastic vegetarian and a fussy, meat-loving younger brother), we would turn to this dish – hopefully having some of it already stashed in the freezer. The gentle sizzling of the softening vegetables (or sofrito, the only part of this which bears a resemblance to an authentic bolognese recipe – Italians look away) as they cook, and the almost instantly rich and meaty flavours of the tomatoes and brown lentils make this a warming, hearty,no-nonsense hug of a dish. Another factor which establishes its position firmly in the category of comfort food: the near impossibility of taking anything but enormous mouthfuls once you have loaded your fork with a nest of spaghetti, ragu, and – if you’re still unable to picture comfort food which doesn’t involve some sort of cheese – a blanket of parmesan.
It might be true that lentils have too many overtly nutritious connotations to be as instantly associated with comfort as, say, hot chocolate, or a hefty pie – but as winter steals in, lentils are a modestly brilliant, quietly reliable ingredient. Their satisfying texture and their mild nuttiness provide substance and warmth to any number of dishes. If not cooking them in a bolognese like this, they are wonderful slowly stirred into a dal until they fuse with the toasty spices; or, classically, as the basis for a generous soup.
I’m still lamenting my lack of kitchen access since moving to university (although it’s probably a good thing for the completion of my work…). This dish – one of those I miss most – has therefore become even more closely connected with home in my mind. But for those that do have the ability to cook for themselves, it’s perfectly accessible to the most meagre of student budgets and cooking abilities – whilst taking just long enough to make for some fairly good procrastination. It also freezes easily, and is excellent reheated and served with crusty bread the next day.
A useful dish for when energy (and money!) is spent.
(Credit for the recipe should go to Rose Elliot, from one of whose vegetarian cook- books I have pilfered it, as far as my memory allows).
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 onions, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tin or pouch puy or other brown lentils Spaghetti, to serve (does anyone ever know how much spaghetti to cook?)
1. Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a shallow saucepan over a low heat, then add the carrots, celery, and onions. (This is the sofrito which will form the basis of the sauce and generate a surprising amount of flavour). Cook gently for about ten minutes, adding the garlic after five, until the vegetables have softened and the onions are translucent and, maybe, just beginning to brown.
2. Add the tomato puree and the chopped tomatoes, stir, and season. Cook for another five minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced and beginning to come together as a thick sauce.
3. Meanwhile, bring as large a pan as possible of salted water to a rolling boil (the more the pasta can move around in the pan, the better), add the spaghetti, and simmer for approx. ten minutes until cooked but still slightly al dente (refer to packet instructions for different kinds of pasta).
4. Add the lentils, loosening with some water or vegetable stock if it seems necessary, then cook for another five minutes or so. Serve the spaghetti on plates, topped with a generous dollop of the ragu, and parmesan or fresh basil or thyme if you have them.