The Bomb – Lentil and Lamb Casserole

When the tough get tired, they make sure they put the slow cooker on before they go out to work.

It may not be true but hell, it should be! The slow cooker is one of the best ever timesavers. At 7am, you throw in whatever you feel like eating (it all gets churned up together in your belly anyway) and I swear it will be cooked and tasty at 6.30pm.
Perfect for those nightmarish days when you just can’t face cooking but you actually want some comfort.

Comfort food. Something to replenish your soul.

So, saute 1 large onion until transluscent. Add grated garlic. Add a handful of diced lamb and brown the meat. Pour in a couple of large handfuls of brown lentils,  a tin of chickpeas, chop up any old bits of chilli and/or peppers, quarter some mushrooms,  powder up a couple of bouillion cubes and throw in the lot. Stir in a few tablespoons of harissa and add plenty of water. About 1-1.5 litres.

Bring the slow cooker into play at this point.

5-9 hours later: butter some large wedges of french baguette and spoon the casserole into bowls. Depending on how much water you started with, and how long it cooked for, it could be a consistency similar to a chunky broth, or a gungy brown taste bomb. Either way, it’s brill.

Helpful Tip: Do not hover over your slow cooker, waiting for your casserole. 5 hours is a long, long time. I am unable to use my slow cooker unless I am out for the day. All I do is hang around the appliance.

Credit to my friend Angela Morritt for this idea.

Curry Night

The difference between cooking from a recipe book and working from your head is like being a busker who makes beautiful sounds in the street without sheet music and then puts on his tuxedo and plays precise, fast Mozart in a philharmonic orchestra. The skills are the same but the attitude’s different and you’re playing someone else’s beat.

There aren’t many days when I use a recipe to the letter, but when learning a style of cookery, it is essential to stick to the book. Curry isn’t curry unless you follow the rules. If you deviate before you are ready, all you have is a spicy stew.

Now most people will know that ‘curry’ was a watery stew invented for the sake of the delicate British palate, but the modern use of the word covers a vast array of dishes, from white chicken korma to Goa fish curry; egg curries, dried fruit curries and more besides. Far more than what you can find in a high street British Indian restaurant and way beyond the watery stew.

The book in question tonight is Carmellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India. It’s an unprepossessing book, but its pages dispense the magic of precise curry making with lovely pictures and if you are careful not to miss out any of the ingredients, it is possible to perfectly replicate the delicious concoctions inside.

A fast rundown of the recipe of the night: Panjabi’s Malabar Prawn Curry won’t do it justice, but it should give you the flavour of what you can expect if you part with £6 to obtain it for yourself from Amazon.

Malabar Prawn Curry, Magpie stylee

The smart curry learner gets the ingredients ready in groups, bowled-up like a TV cookery show. When you’re ready to get the show on the road, it will only take around 20 minutes to make.

100g creamed coconut melted into milk with 400ml water
1 tablespoon tamarind extract diluted in 100ml water

1/4 tsp mustard seeds
10 dried curry leaves

half a biggish onion, sliced thinly end to end

3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaped teaspoon grated ginger
4 green chillies, cut lengthways in half.

1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

200g (it will take 300g) prawns *preferably raw but needs must when the Devil drives.*

3 tablespoons of oil (yes, THREE).

Heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the curry leaves to allow the oil to become infused with the flavour. Add the sliced onion and fry for 5-7 minutes. Keep stirring, the onion wants to be slickly yellow and flavoursome; not edged with dark brown.

Add the ginger, chillies and garlic. Fry for 2 minutes and then add the dried chilli and the powders. Add 2 tablespoons of water and stir to prevent sticking. DON’T BURN THE SPICES.

Add the chopped tomatoes, 100ml water and tamarind extract. Simmer for 5-10 minutes while you put on the rice. 

Pour in the coconut milk, salt the curry, stir and let it rise to a simmer. Taste. Too hot? Tough. There are ways to reduce the heat, but this isn’t a curry to kill. The tamarind will have given it a warm, sour flavour; salt is not needed in as great a quantity as you might expect.

Add the prawns, bring to a brief simmer again and serve with lashings of raita. (Diced cucumber and onion in cooling plain yoghurt).

Strangely, it doesn’t even begin to resemble the glorious sunset red of the photograph in the book, but the taste is unusual and heady and despite the accidental over application of chilli flakes, is not as hot in the dish as it is in the pan.

Mackerel Days

Fish is fabulous food, easy to digest, full of flavour and simple to incorporate into everyday cooking. Because we’ve somehow become a nation of fish haters, suspicious fears of bones and skin creeping into our everyday psyche, we’ve forgotten how good it can taste when it isn’t battered within an inch of its life.

The good news is that tinned fish is about as nutritious as fresh. Mackerel is wonderful out of a tin. Mix the spicy tomato sauce type with mushrooms, onion, garlic and chilli and eat with pasta for a cheap and sapiditous meal. (About 88p a tin in some supermarkets).

Plain mackerel is also good.

Break up one portion of tinned mackerel fillets (in sunflower oil is better, but brine is fine) in a bowl. Dice a small piece of onion, as much as to taste and add to the bowl with a few pieces of finely chopped chilli, a squeeze of lime, a scraping of lime zest and a pinch of salt. Mix together, not too thoroughly; it isn’t mackerel mush on the menu.

Toast half a tablespoon of fennel seeds in a small dry frying pan until they begin to pop (keep shaking the pan until they do, burning is NOT your friend). Pound the toasted seeds in your mortar, smelling the warm, heady licquorice from the forming powder. A teaspoon of this is all you need in your mackerel salad to give it a different flavour. It enhances the smoky quality of tinned mackerel and evokes warm open campfires and incense.  (Alternatively, add a teaspoon of ready powdered fennel, but it doesn’t do the same job.)

It’s best scooped into the cavities of Cos lettuce leaves (and in the case below, accompanied by a bit of caulislaw).

Sweet Chilli Dipping in Eden’s Early Summer

Summertime brings lighter meals (lighter and more frequent in my lucky case) with high kicks of flavour, crunchy salads and gorgeous fish dishes. Here in the beautiful Eden Valley, as the blackbirds alternately sing to the gods and suck up juicy worms, Magpie’s latest craze is Japanese-style noodles dowsed in miso ramen with ginger and beef steak and dipped in slick homemade teriyaki sauce.

The benefit of this style of eating, in this bird’s not-so-humble opinion, is that if you don’t cram the dish with the entire serving size recommended by the noodle manufacturer, there is always room for more nibbles in an hour or so. Cunning, right?

56 Oriental on Wellington Street in Leeds was the restaurant where Magpie first discovered the taste bud prostrating sweet chilli dipping sauce. The pastel coloured prawn crackers (the pink ones were the prawniest) and putrid orange dip with a faint garlic undernote  lodged in her heart and still lingers now, years later.

In true Magpie fashion, the sauce has been copied at home many times and is far more satisfyingly real than the bottled stuff in the supermarket. Instead of no-pain tangerine viscosity made with glucose syrup and starch, homemade chilli jam has the hue of burnt sunset and the sting of a mouth scorpion. Its smoky depths are reminiscent of a still hot but smouldering camp fire.

Sweet Chilli Jam

Take 250g fresh red chillies and carefully mince with a mezzaluna.* Tip into a heavy bottomed pan**, add some finely chopped garlic, 200g sugar and 200ml water and bring to the boil.

Simmer for 10-20 minutes until it glistens and darkens and then pour into a container. It will keep approximately forever, but there is short chance of it being left that long.

*Wear glasses, goggles, or sunglasses to save your eyes and afterwards DO NOT VISIT THE BATHROOM except to wash your hands. Wear gloves if you can cut with them.
**The most sensible receptacle to use, for fear that the sugar will catch on the bottom.

NOTE: In our health and safety conscious hell, chillies may be considered to be a dangerous food with which to work. There is a safer way to make this sauce, which involves combining the whole, trimmed chillies with the sugar, water and garlic, cooking for 5 minutes, then blitzing in a blender and returning to the heat. However Magpie prefers process over safety and there is a wonderful satisfaction that can be felt as the knife cleaves crunchily through the peppers. Also she doesn’t own a blender.

Eat It With…
Sadly the pastel crackers are not to be found in the average supermarket. White ones just don’t cut it.

Luckily there are more foods that suit this sauce than just ubiquitous prawn crackers. Every noodle dish (said the Condiment Queen) of course, but more besides. Try it with soft or hard goats cheese on crackers and even bacon sandwiches. Runny, unctuous Brie is the best accompaniment, vile though that reads.

Beneficial Pain
Happily, chillies are beneficial to humans, despite the associated pain factor. They can lower blood sugar significantly, even in small quantities, so are a good choice for diabetics. They also reduce the chance of stroke and improve the situation for those who suffer from sinus congestion which is good news for hayfever sufferers.