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« Quinces, the Lazy Way | Main | As American as... Toll House Pie »
Friday
Dec012006

Success is a Salad Best Served Warm

307159765_3ca49504bf.jpg 
Warm Spiced Pumpkin and Lentil Salad with Pears, Almonds and Goat Cheese

 

I have a confession to make. Those of you who do not maintain food blogs may find this hard to believe, but blogging is not all champagne and roses and sumptuous five-course meals whipped up at the drop of a hat. At least not for me. My problems are myriad, but tend to fall into three main categories: time (e.g. sometimes I barely have time to brush my teeth let alone cook something worthy of sticking on the internet), literary inspiration (such as when I cook something perfectly edible but can't for the life of me come up with a thing to say about it apart from 'it was delicious'), and of course, worst of all: failed recipes. These are particularly infuriating, since usually they have involved painstaking cookbook scrutiny, the forfeit of a considerable amount of my precious weekend, and the careful timing of their completion so that there is still enough daylight to photograph them (no small feat in late-November Edinburgh when the sun seems to set even before it has finished rising). When what I end up with is something I wouldn't even serve my pet, let alone my readers, it's enough to make a blogger want to throw in the proverbial towel.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened last weekend. Two promising new recipes failed me miserably, and in my state of shock I realized that not only did I now lack something to post about this week, but also (and perhaps worse) had nothing to eat for dinner apart from a very sad looking can of reduced-sodium Mediterranean vegetable soup (which we keep in the back of the cupboard for 'emergencies'). Now, this was not quite as tragic as it seemed, as Manuel was out for the evening dining with some of his colleagues, so I had only myself to feed, but while the soup might have filled the gaping hole in my belly it sure wasn't what I hankering for. A trip to the supermarket, though, was pretty much out of the question due to the gale-force wind and rain lashing at my windows, and the brilliant idea to get some take-out (or delivery, I should say) was quickly squashed by the realization that delivery minimums are not set with thrifty single eaters in mind. As I eyed the barren shelves of my fridge and cupboard and itemized the sparse contents within - the nearly-empty jar of Vegemite, a dried-out rind of parmesan, some vanilla beans quadruple-wrapped in plastic, remains of a log of goat cheese, one overripe pear, and a two-week old butternut squash - that can of soup started to look increasingly attractive. I could almost feel my stomach sighing in resignation.

But a few moments later, when I had one hand on the soup and the other in the drawer, rummaging around for the can opener, I swear a voice spoke to me from my subconscious.

"What kind of cook are you?" it said reproachfully. "The kind who lets perfectly good ingredients go to waste? The kind who  thinks resourcefulness is having once turned a loaf of stale bread into breadcrumbs which have languished in the freezer ever since? The kind who would starve to death on a desert island because fish and coconuts didn't sound all that appetizing for dinner?"

While I don't make a habit of listening to my subconscious, this time I had to admit that it had a point. After all, there was food in the house, and not just that reserved for emergencies. My cupboards were far from bare, and I had no doubt that someone truly resourceful probably could have fashioned a meal for a dozen people out of less than I had there to feed myself.

So I rummaged around and pulled out everything that looked halfway edible. Some things were obviously no-go - the parmesan, for example, was well-past its best-by date - but I had a squash, and that pear, and we know those go together beautifully, and then I found a quarter of a package of green lentils, and even some almonds I had forgotten I had. The vegemite and vanilla beans weren't looking too promising, but then a glance in the vegetable drawer revealed an opened package of mixed salad, most of which looked a bit the worse for wear aside from some remarkably perky watercress, which I dutifully fished out and added to the pile.

Laid out like that on my counter, there was no denying it - it was a veritable cornucopia. Even I had it within my powers to make a meal out of this. I plonked the soup back on its dusty spot in the cupboard, turned on the oven, got down the spice bowl, and started chopping. I didn't even have much of a plan, apart from trusting my instincts, and luckily that seemed to be exactly what was required. What emerged an hour later was one of the best salads I had eaten in months, warm and hearty, sweet and crunchy and spicy and fresh. Not only did it hit the spot better than any emergency soup or greasy take-out ever could, but unlike those doomed recipes it was also a meal I am more than happy to share.


Warm Spiced Pumpkin and Lentil Salad with Pears, Almonds and Goat Cheese

Serves: about 4, depending on what else is served
Notes: I'm sure I don't need to say this, but it would totally be in keeping with the spirit of this recipe to make substitutions. Don't have pears? Leave them out. Have blue cheese or feta on hand instead of goat? Hazelnuts instead of almonds? Fresh spinach instead of salad? You know the drill. Not only will it still be good, your subconscious will thank you for being the thrifty, resourceful cook you always knew you could be.
p.s. Coriander and fennel may seem like a strange partner for pumpkin, but I urge you to try it - I found it once in one of Jamie Oliver's recipes and have been roasting pumpkin like this ever since. The combination tastes almost citrusy, strangely enough.

1 small pumpkin or sweet winter squash such as butternut, kabocha, acorn or onion
extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, whole
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, whole
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes or cayenne pepper
plenty of salt and freshly-ground pepper
2/3 cup (125g) green lentils (also called puy lentils)
1 clove garlic
2 cups (500ml) chicken or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
2 ripe pears, quartered, cored and thinly sliced
a few handfuls mixed salad greens, or anything green
1/2 cup (60g) almonds, toasted
5 oz (150g) mild goat cheese, crumbled

for vinaigrette:
1/2 cup (125ml) olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar or high quality red-wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, peeled and lightly smashed with the back of a knife
salt and pepper

 
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Peel and quarter the pumpkin or squash, scrape out the seeds and slice into 1/2-inch (1cm) thick slices. Toss these in a deep roasting pan with enough oil to coat. Combine the coriander and fennel seeds in a mortar and bash them up a bit before adding them to the pan with the chile flakes and plenty of salt and pepper, tossing the pumpkin to distribute. Roast uncovered in the oven, turning the pieces as necessary to ensure even browning, until soft and caramelized around the edges, about 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium pot combine the lentils with the garlic clove (leave it unpeeled), chicken stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the lentils are soft but still hold their shape, about 35 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking stir together all the ingredients for the vinaigrette (the garlic is left whole so that it just flavors everything slightly, but should be discarded before serving). When the lentils are cooked, remove them from the heat and drain (there won't be much liquid left), discarding the cooked garlic and bay leaf. Toss the hot lentils with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette, and additional salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

When the pumpkin is roasted, remove it from the oven and let cool slightly. While still warm, combine all the ingredients for the salad on individual plates, finishing with a drizzle of the vinaigrette. Pass more vinaigrette at the table.

 

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Reader Comments (27)

That photograph is just spectacular!
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterGluten-Free By The Bay
It would seem that listening to your subconscious is not such a bad idea at all. After all, that's where all your ideas and experiences go to mingle, for the benefit of your tastebuds and tummy. This looks and sounds lovely.

When I do this sort of cooking, I often forget to record what I do, and then I can't write about it, or reproduce it.I'm going to try to keep track of it all more, because it really is the most interesting kind of cooking to read about.
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlindy
Your first paragraph pretty much describes me, and my lack of posts this week, to a T! Hopefully, I'll have some success, like you certainly did, this weekend :-)

The salad looks so lovely!

-L
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterL
That is truly a breathtaking photo! Sometimes, you just have to trust yourself, and go with it.
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered Commenters'kat
Very resourceful, Melissa! You may be interested to know that I made a similar salad on Thanksgiving with roasted kabocha squash, pomegranates, almonds, garrotxa cheese, pomegranate vinaigrette, and a hint of toasted coriander -- a surprisingly tasty combo. The main difference is I actually planned for it ahead of time.
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrett
I have to admire your instincts--and your lovely photo. It sounds like a perfect fall supper.
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon
Hooray for a well-stocked pantry, and for the courage to toss together somewhat unlikely ingredients. Your salad looks spectacular. I'd probably have gone for a soup, which is how I deal with all kinds of odds and ends in the fridge.
December 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLydia
Well done - both the culinary and the literary improvisation. MANY years ago I briefly dated a young lady of Sicilian heritage who jokingly called this particular skill "Italian family style" cooking. She was also a musician and described it a bit like playing a Jazz standard. Lay it down on a familiar foundation (like pasta with olive-oil and garlic) and play with features ... anything fresh in the garden, and whatever you find in the pantry/fridge. Simple and straight up like Glenn Miller is safe; if you want to try some really complex notes ala Thelonius, expect to hit some klinkers from time to time no matter how good you are.

So far it's been good advice, both behind the drums, and when I'm stuck in that last minute panic, trying to figure out how to cook for the wife and kids on one of those typical hectic weeknights.

Cheers -
December 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commentercorey
love the photo and your resourcefulness! this salad sounds wonderful.
December 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKat
In view of such an inviting salad, it is hard to believe you went through this turmoil, but I am glad you managed to make it. I can relate to what you describe too, sometimes there is not much to say about some dishes.
so appetizing! if this is making do I need to better stock my cupboards!
December 3, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjeanne bee
Melissa, there's something about this sort of cooking that satisfies on both the culinary and the creative level -- and even more, gives one the triumphant sense of having made something out of "nothing". Thanks for this great post.
December 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJulie
This looks great! I love cooking with few ingredients. It's fun to put together something great out of a couple things in the fridge and pantry. That's when you get really creative, and that's when it tastes the best! Well done. Your blog is great!
December 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterA.
We should all have such beautiful results with the basics that linger in our refrigerator! So beautiful, Melissa. I had to laugh when I read the part about the lack of light to photograph food in. I understand completely as it seems here in Canada we've been reduced to about 3 hours of daylight!

A truly beautiful salad!
December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne
Melissa - this is one of my favorite posts of yours, I think. I know exactly that feeling you had... Have you read Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries yet? It's the kind of book that makes you want to cook every meal out of some dusty old packet in the back of your cupboard and a few inspired spice choices. Everything he makes sounds delicious. As does this salad of yours. I'm so impressed!
December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa
I feel your pain. Being a newbie food blogger, I constantly run into the 3 problems you mentioned and have had quite a few kitchen blunders and "wasted" all the efforts, money, and precious time. I also have the problem with beautiful and delicious dishes but don;t know what to write about them (alas, English is not even my second language!). But when everything just comes together, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is beyond any descriptions. ;)

December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRasa Malaysia
very impressed that you stock vegemite...very rare for a non Aussie.

love the salad...how good is it when things work out like that...most of my best ideas come from what happens to be in the fridge..

am also a fan of Jamie Olivers spice roast squash
December 4, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjules
Melissa, your salad looks fantastic--I love the play of colours. What a treasure you created from miscellaneous ingredients hiding in your kitchen! Being able to improvise like that is one of the best cooking skills you can have, in my opinion!
December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichele
I think the no-bloggin' is a British epidemic at the moment... Was in a similar situation tonight, what with the husband away on business, but all I managed was a runny omelet with soft onions and some truffle oil. Sounds decadent, tastes good, but I now wish I'd been a tad more ambitious... Thanks for this inspiring post!
December 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterASMO
You've perfectly described the frustation and panic that comes from a failed recipe! I've had my share of those as well, but I'm glad you pointed out that the importance of cooking is in feeding yourself and loved ones, not spending $$$ on exotic ingredients at the store or plating the dish just right. Of course, you managed to make your impromptu dish look just gorgeous anyway!
December 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnita
Glad you listened to your subconscious. Looks and sounds delicious! ;-)

Paz
December 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Oh my dear, what a triumphant salad and gorgeous photo. Nicely done.
December 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTea
going by this theme, I made myself this noon a stir-fry of whole grain rice with chopped dry figs, yemenite hawayaj soup spice (it's a blend conatining coriander seed, cumin, turmeric and other spices, reminiscent of Indian curry, just better IMO), cayenne pepper, lemon and tangerine juice, and some salt.
I'm still hungry... gotta go, I'll get a falafel downtown.
Thanks for the inspiration Melissa!
December 5, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom
Hi there,

lovely salad. Might have to go out and get some pumpkin to make it!

You probably know this already but you can save parmesan rinds in the freezer, well wrapped, to flavor soups such as minestrone, bean soups in general or anything soup, really that could do with that sort of flavor.

As I was reading your post I thought *Aha! Soup!!* She has pumpkin, lentils, a parm rind. The goat cheese I thought could be made into croutons. The watercress, simple salad on the side.

I was happy to note you went another, delicious way. Something for dinner, I think, this weekend.

Pritha

December 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPritha
Now I don't feel so alone! I wish more people were honest about how disappointing cooking is (sometimes). I've never been as inspired as you are, but now I have someone to look up to. Way to go! -- Shelley
December 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterShelley
For someone who was stuck in the house due to inclement weather, with not much in the pantry, you certainly did a great job AND the photograph looks as though it was a bright afternoon! Good one! Cheers!
December 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHeather
Gluten-Free - Thank you!

Lindy - Most of the time that's the case for me too, as I never take notes on what I cook. This one, with its easily-identifiable components, was pretty easy to reconstruct - luckily. I really must start keeping a notepad in the kitchen.

L - It's funny how it comes it spates, isn't it? Sometimes everything will come out perfectly for weeks, and then just as suddenly everything starts to fail...

S'kat - Amen! Though sometimes, easier said than done :)

Brett - That sounds fabulous! I especially like the sound of pomegranate with the squash and almonds. I'll have to keep that in mind for next time my cupboards are bare :)

Brandon - Thank you!

Lydia - I probably would have tried a soup too, as they seem to absorb odds and ends particularly well, but actually one of my failed recipes had been a soup and I just couldn't bring myself to attempt another!

Corey - Those Sicilians do know a thing or two about cooking! In fact, that ability to create something out of nothing is one of the things I admire most about traditional poor-people's cuisine all around the globe. I've never thought about that improvisational ability in musical terms, though, but why not? :)

Kat - Thanks :)

Bea - It's funny, isn't it? That need to find something to say throws cooking, eating and recipe-hunting in a whole new light...

Jeanne - That's funny, I certainly never thought my cupboards were particularly well stocked!

Julie - I know what you mean. Some of the most satisfying cooking I've ever done was when stuck with limited means while camping, sailing, etc. I see it as the equivalent of putting together a puzzle, only with a much tastier end product!

A - I agree completely! It's something I should really try to practice more, to be honest - it's just so easy to give in to the temptation of supermarkets and constant availability...

Ivonne - The thing with the light is terrible, isn't it? A couple of times I haven't managed in time, and had to go in to work late in order to shoot a picture the following morning... Aargh!

Luisa - Aww, thank you. And no, I haven't, but I really should, shouldn't I? Maybe it would be a good addition to my Christmas list. Hello Mom, are you reading?

Rasa Malaysia - I know, who ever would have thought food blogging was such a high-risk activity? ;)

Jules - I have Manuel to thank for a constant supply of vegemite in our fridge. Before me he had an Australian girlfriend who turned him on to it, and although it took me a while, I eventually came around too. I don't eat it that often, though, since every time I get a craving I find the jar already empty!

Michele - Thank you, my friend! I suppose this is a skill I should continue to hone... ;)

ASMO - That sounds pretty good to me! Eggs are always a good bet for delicious impromptu meals, aren't they? I try to always have some on hand for that purpose, although 'try' is the operative word there...

Anita - Well said! It's surprising how easy that is to forget, though, in our constant search for the next great recipe!

Paz - I know, maybe I should start listening to it more often!

Tea - Why thank you, my dear!

Malka - Yum!

Pritha - Very interesting to hear your take on the same ingredients! It never fails to amaze me how if you give ten cooks the same ingredients, you'll have ten completely different dishes. And yes, if I'd had my head together I would have saved that parmesan rind long before it started sprouting a jungle...

Shelley - You are *certainly* not alone! It's true that a lot of food blogging (and mine in particular) tends to gloss over the disappointments... but they're always there, lurking in the background. I try to look at them as learning experiences, though sometimes it's hard to keep objective when so much is riding on their success... :)

Heather - Don't tell anyone, but I actually took the photo the next morning with leftovers... ;)
December 10, 2006 | Registered Commentermelissa

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