I have a dear friend of many years called Bhavna. Bhavna is a foodie of the Asian vegetarian variety and keeping her happy when out for a bite to eat, can be tricky. I would bet my entire cookery book collection on the fact that she will ask for the pepper mill at the same time as placing her order. Rarely does she get it, which probably says more about where we eat than anything else.
Bhavna’s fiftieth birthday party was an evening full of fantasy, colour and memorable aromas. We were greeted by fire dancers on the lawn and served champagne by masked men on stilts. There was a room set up like an Indian market where we could fill little tin boxes of fresh spices; ‘pick and mix’ style Indian sweets and many delicacies I have never seen before or since. Ladies, beautifully dressed in traditional costumes, draped the men with silk shawls and the women with colourful bangles. I didn’t think I had particularly fat wrists, but clearly I do, as I had to wear my bangles around my ears to join in the spirit of the evening. We had our palms (and any other bare flesh) painted with Hindu symbols of the sun, using Mehndi or Henna paste, mixed with turmeric. There was also a lady with snakes around her neck and arms – that was a little creepy so I kept well away. The meal was amazing and went on for what seemed like hours, course after course of large dishes of spicy or sweet vegetables and meat for us carnivores, salads, nuts and fruits. It was altogether a remarkable and delectable occasion. Another world.
Bhavna has been very unwell. She was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour last autumn and is enduring frequent visits to, and stays in, hospital. Eighteen months ago I saw a beautiful pepper mill in an antique shop in Honiton. It was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and slip into your handbag. I thought of Bhavna at the time so went back in November in the hope it was unsold. It was so I used my honed negotiation skills to see what they could do about the price and – mission accomplished – it was mine. Bhavna can now spice up her hospital food, and hopefully take it with her when we eat out and avoid her constant call for the pepper mill.
Of course, you can’t give someone a pepper mill without some pepper. I was sent a link to an amazing spice shop called ‘the spicery’ (www.thespicery.com) where you can order spices, blends and recipe kits in very small quantities. I ordered two of their gift-boxes (one for me and one for Bhavna) which consist of six 5g packs of very fresh pepper. Enclosed was Cuber Pepper;,Grains of Paradise, the weird looking Long Pepper, Sichuan Pepper, Kampot Pepper and Green Peppercorns. I have mixed three of them in my own pepper mill.
So, with Bhavna in mind, this month I give you the wonderful dish, Mejadra, from Arabia. All spices are available at Ludwell Stores, which has a good selection, so why not have a clear out of your spice cupboard (cumin dated April 2007 will taste of dust) and buy some fresh spices for 2014 and make yourself this warming, comfort food dish to serve as a supper on its own or as a side dish. Enjoy eating with friends and savouring time together. All the best for a happy, healthy 2014.
Mejadra – Spiced rice and lentils with crispy fried onions
Serves 6 as a main course
Approx. £4.80 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores
The crunch of nuts or seeds, sweet oiliness of the onion and perfect balance of the spices makes Mejadra a ‘master’ dish. It really is a star, and something I think would be great for a picnic in summer with finely sliced fennel and cucumber, dried cranberries and a dollop of natural yoghurt. My hero Ottolenghi describes this dish as the very ‘best comfort food’. I have to agree.
200 g basmati rice
4 brown onions, sliced thinly
250 g brown or green lentils
350 ml water
2 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp coriander seeds
1½ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tsp ground allspice
1½ cinnamon stick
1 tsp sugar olive oil
75 g cashews (pine nuts or peanuts will do)
Handful of coriander leaves and natural yogurt for serving (see below)
1. Prepare your lentils by rinsing well first, then cook in a pan of boiling water for 12–15 minutes. They need to still have a ‘bite’ as you will be cooking them further with the rice mix.
2. Meanwhile, on high heat, in a large frying pan, brown off your sliced onions in olive oil in three or four separate batches. They must not sweat but rather fry until crispy. (Ottolenghi deep fries his with a coating of flour, but that uses a lot of oil). This can take 20 minutes and make your hair and clothes smell!
3. Wipe clean the frying pan then dry roast your cumin, coriander seeds and cinnamon. Remove from the heat when fragrant, then grind in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar (or bash them with a rolling pin).
4. Rinse your rice (to remove excess starch), then place in a pan on medium heat with your fresh ground spices, turmeric, allspice, sugar and cooked strained lentils. Add a generous glug of olive oil and stir.
5. Add the water, bring to the boil, place on a lid, then reduce to a simmer. Within 10 minutes, your rice should be ready. Allow to stand with the lid on for a further 10 minutes before seasoning to taste.
6. Fork half of the onions through the rice and lentil mix, then pile into a shallow dish and garnish with the remaining crispy onions and cashew nuts.
You can serve with coriander leaves, natural yogurt, cucumber and lemon wedges.
A truly, truly scrumptious and thrifty dish for a comforting winter evening.
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.