Saturday, April 15, 2006

Happy Passover and Happy Easter

How wonderful that these two festivals fall at roughly the same time this year. My partner, The Artist and my two teenage step-sons, The Actor and The Musician are Jewish so for them this week or so is all about traditional Ashkenazi eating. Chicken soup with matzoh balls, matzoh pancakes, matzoh for breakfast...not a lot of variety when you cut out wheat and grain products really. So, in honour of the fact that as a family we are not all Jewish, nor are we all that traditional (in any respect!) we have decided to eat the Sephardic way. Rice, corn and lentils, all forbidden to Eastern European Jews during this period are going to be consumed in copious amounts and this fits really well into a wholefood kind of lifestyle anyway.

I made the chicken soup the Ashkenazi way (with a lovely organic, free range chook) to please my younger step-son the Musician as he particularly seems to require things in their more traditional state, and used Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food, something that has proven invaluable to an outsider like me for making things like matzoh balls and is a joy to read. The soup was delicious, but next year will be different - I'm working on a fabulous chicken soup with chickpeas, saffron and cinnamon with my own stamp.

So last night, I made an absolutely delicious and wholesome dinner for the Artist and myself. Good Friday always requires a great fish dish, so we had ocean trout fillets (they were farmed I'm sure, but tasted great) with garlicky lentils and braised fennel. The lentils and the fennel I'll give the recipes for - the fish was just baked in a hot oven for 20 minutes with a coating of finely chopped parsley and fennel fronds. I can't claim the fennel or the lentils as my own, though they have been tweaked a bit to fit my style of cooking. They come from Nadine Abensur's book Enjoy, one of the best and most inventive vegetarian cookbooks ever.

Garlicky lentils

These lentils make enough to serve 4, but if you're cooking for 2 make the full amount and eat the rest for lunch the next day. All beans and pulses need to be cooked with no salt. Salt will toughen the skins and then you'll never have a tender lentil, so add salt only right at the end (though you won't need much - all that garlic makes it very savoury anyway).

1 tblsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
250g of puy lentils (I used the TLC Australian ones)
2 cardamom pods, bashed with a knife
1 star anise pod
1/2 tsp of dried chilli flakes
4 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
500ml of water
80ml of sherry (I used the 'Pedro Ximenez' Spanish type)

Heat the oil in a saucepan with a lid and add the onion, spices and all the garlic. Fry until the onion is soft, then add the lentils and the water. Bring to the boil, clamp on the lid and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. The lentils should not lose their shape and texture, but they must be absolutely tender (your digestive system will thank you for it) so cook them for at least 40 minutes but probably closer to 1 hour. When they are cooked, and there is only a small amout of liquid left in the pan add the sherry and simmer for another 10 minutes or so. Serve hot.

Slow braised fennel

I know that many people claim to not like the strong aniseed taste of fennel. Neither did I until I learned how to cook it well. Now I like it even when raw! Fennel is great for digestion, thus its pairing with the lentils. This is the MOST wonderful thing to eat.

Serves 2

1 tblsp of olive oil
2 bulbs of fennel, or 4 baby ones
1/2 tsp of fennel seeds
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Sea salt
vegetable stock (a stock cube is fine, but try to get a good quality one eg. Massel or Marigold Swiss)
50 ml of sweet Spanish sherry ('Pedro Ximenez' is ideal)

NOTE: You'll need a juicer for this recipe, but see below for another way to do it.

Cut the tops off the fennel, reserving about 2 tablespoons of the feathery fronds. Cut away the very base of the bulb and tear off any tough outer layers (the first one is usually enough). Juice the tops and the outer layers to make a beautiful bright green liquid.

Quarter the fennel bulbs from top to bottom. Heat the oil in a frying pan in which the fennel quarters will fit cosily. Add the fennel, the fennel seeds, the reserved fennel fronds, the garlic and a little chilli if you like along with a pinch of sea salt and gently fry, moving around occasionally until the fennel has 'caught' on the bottom of pan in places, turning an attractive golden mottled colour. Cover with the juice and some stock - it's difficult to say how much, but the fennel needs to be almost covered by the liquid. If you haven't got a juicer, just use stock - it is just as delicious and less fuss too! Cook at a fast simmer until the fennel is tender and covered in a small amount of sticky sauce. It helps to make sure that the cores of the fennel are immersed in the stock for longer that the outer layers, so turn the fennel as you need to. It will take about 30 minutes to reduce, so will be ready when the lentils are (hopefully!).

Add the sherry and simmer until all is reduced and sticky as before. Serve hot with the lentils and the fish if you like, or plain rice would be lovely to make a perfect protein meal for vegetarians or vegans.

This braising method works well for celery and carrots also.

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