One Saturday months ago Sarah made French toast with pears caramelised in maple syrup. It was created on the spur of the moment, with whatever was in the cupboard, fridge and fruit bowl. Jotting down the recipe didn’t matter that morning, when we were all sitting around the kitchen table in our pyjamas rubbing the sleep from our eyes, but it matters now I’m wanting maple syrup caramelised pears and have no idea how she managed it. That sleepy-eyed breakfast remains a sleepy-eyed dream.
Sarah is a taster. Her recipes evolve from one thing to another as she tests and tastes throughout the cooking process. I’m a measurer, and a timer. Sarah scoffs when I time pasta – just taste it, she says. But I continue to cook, looking at my watch, and she continues to cook adding things as she goes until it’s just right.
The recipe for this lentil ragu has been an ongoing experiment. The first version Sarah adapted from a recipe given to her from a friend. It wasn’t written down, it was just two friends discussing delicious options for dinner over a cup of tea. A little of this, a little of that, let it simmer – that sort of thing. This first ragu was hearty, a perfect consistency, with a complexity of flavours, and chipolatas were a delicious accompaniment. We remember it was flavoured with fresh bay leaves, it used French lentils, and had only a hint of tomato but subsequent attempts to replicate it have ended in failure. Nothing resembles, to our satisfaction, the original. I say to Sarah – write it down, measure the amounts.
But hooray! On a night of watching bad TV, when everyone is home and cosy, and the heater is on, the lentil ragu emerges from the pot complex, and with the perfect consistency.
I haven’t been home to taste it yet, but I’ve a kitchen for a couple of weeks, and a fridge stocked full of Portuguese groceries – sardine pate`, cheese, melons, figs, sweet potatoes, and duck. But I just might make the ragu and dream of home, spring, and the jasmine blooming over everyones’ fences. And perhaps I can learn from Sarah how to taste and adjust and experiment, now that she has learnt how to be more exact - and to write her recipes down. How should I cook the duck, I wonder.
Sausage and Puy Lentil Ragu
6 good quality large pork sausages or chipolata sausages (preferably free range pork)
2 tbs olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
2 sticks of celery, finely diced
slurp of red wine
2 cups puy (french) lentils
1 good quality beef stock cube
1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley (or any fresh herb you fancy)
1 tin diced tomatoes
4 cups boiling water
2 bay leaves (fresh off the tree is best)
Brown the sausages whole in a little oil in a large saucepan. Set aside. Heat rest of the oil and cook onion for 1 minute, add garlic and stir for a minute, add carrot and celery and stir until celery is translucent. De-glaze pan with a dash of red wine until all liquid has dissipated. Add lentils and mix well over the heat til glossy with onion mixture. Chop sausages into bite sized chunks and return to pan. Add tin of tomatoes and stir well. Add 4 cups of boiling water and stock cube (crushed) and stir well. Add bay leaves and turn the heat to low. Half cover with a lid. Check the mixture and stir every 15mins, make sure you add more water to pan if the ragu looks ‘dry’. Be sure not to cook too quickly, this is ’slow’ food and will probably take up to two hours so have a good book and plenty of tea (wine) on hand. The ragu is ready when the lentils are tender and the mixture is thick (you will have to taste the lentils to check). Season to taste and serve with roughly chopped parsley and potato and parsnip mash.