JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lentil salad with home-made cheese

At last, I've managed to take some photographs whilst preparing lunch! Johanna the passionate cook once took me to task (in a friendly way) for the lack of photos on my blog, and I've felt vaguely guilty about this ever since, even though my blog has always been mostly about helping me to remember what I've been cooking, and making it easy for friends to access specific recipes of things they've eaten here and liked.

I love lentils, all pulses really, but no-one else in the family shares this passion, so I have to choose lentil recipes with great care. Pulses are, of course, a particularly healthy heart food, the fibre helping to reduce cholesterol levels (that sounds SO like new age mumbo jumbo that I'm almost embarrassed to have written it - at the very least, the more beans you eat, the less room there is for meat, with its attendant dollops of saturated fat).

Lucius always looks vaguely disappointed whenever pulses are on the menu: not this time, though. And I know that cheese-making sounds like a time-consuming activity, but it's not, it's just one of those recipes you have to start early so that they can get on and do their thing all by themselves. This was a couple of minute's fiddling just after breakfast. Cooking the lentils was the most time-consuming (a minute or two for prep, then keeping an eye on them for the 20 minutes they took to cook). Out to the greenhouse for some salad leaves, and then a quick assembly job just before we ate. The result was lemon-scented salty lentils dressed in olive oil, their sharp savoury flavour set off by the soft sweetness of the barely-set curd cheese. One to make again and again.

First, the cheese. Put one litre of milk in a stainless steel saucepan and heat to blood temperature. In other words, put your finger in - if it feels hot, it's higher than blood temperature, if it feels cold, it's lower. The exact temperature is not critical, but it is important not to let it boil. Take it off the heat and put in two teaspoons of rennet. You may think rennet is impossible find, but it's not - I bought it (99p for a bottle which will last ages) in a medium-sized Waitrose, on the baking section. Leave this for fifteen minutes, at which point you will have what my grandmother called junket (and which we ate loads of during my childhood, those unimaginable days before yoghurt came in highly flavoured little pots). This is what Little Miss Muffet was eating - curds and whey.
To make the cheese, you need to drain off all the whey. You are supposed to do this by putting the curds into a muslin square which you then hang up. I had started before I realised there was no muslin in the house, and I didn't think a tea towel would do the trick. So I put some of the curds into my four little coeur a la creme pots, which have drain holes in the bottom, and the rest into a conical sieve. Drip drip drip until lunchtime. I'm afraid I let the whey go down the drain - the very particular flavour of Parma ham results from the pigs being fed on the whey made by makers of Parmesan cheese. But we don't have any pigs, and I didn't think the cats would like whey as much as the whole milk they normally drink.

Next, the lentils. 100g of Puy lentils will be enough for four people as a starter or side dish. Cook them in plenty of water with a sliced onion and some bay leaves. They'll be soft but not mushy within 20 minutes. Drain them, discard the bay, and dress them while they are still warm. I used the zest and juice of a lemon, lots of olive oil, with a little Maldon salt. When they were cool, I added half a tin of chopped anchovy fillets.

The rest was just an assembly job, using the strong flavours of the oriental mix salad leaves that are now growing strongly in the (unheated) greenhouse. It's a pity I didn't sow them in October rather than November, and then we would have had salad leaves all through the dark days of December and January.

My friend Susan, a very good cook, arrived for lunch towards the end of this process, and remarked that "real cooking" was in progress. True, but the sort that requires you to be a tiny bit organised (ie have decided what's for lunch three hours beforehand), rather than energetic. We ate it with home-made slow white bread, another recipe where time does all the work for you. Susan thought the blog should be decorated with me posing, chef-like, in front of my artfully arranged food. She took a couple of shots, but I'm not posting them because - as always - I look attrocious, laughing in one, talking in the other.

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