Winter is coming; once it arrives you want something substantial that feeds the soul as much as nourishes the body; and I’ve been making this particular dish for more than 25 years. I was given a copy of Sarah Brown’s Vegetarian Kitchen back when I was a student and the recipes within saw me through University and beyond. This dish is loosely based on Sarah’s Red Dragon Pie – so called because it calls for Adzuki Beans (also known as Red Dragon Beans) in China.
Although Adzuki beans are much easier to get and prepare these days, I find I still favour the ridiculously simple red lentils instead which used to be so much easier to get hold of and became my “go to” store cupboard staple.
The Dragon reference is a nod to the heat coming from the chilli & ginger rather than the auspicious little Dragon Beans. I also vary the veg according to what I have available, and what needs to be used up. Indeed, part of the reason for cooking this tonight was to use up some carrots that have been hanging around for a while, and a tub of soft cheese that was approaching the use by date.
Some things always remain constant, I always start this by frying off some chopped onion, this time I’ve been able to use one of my own, harvested from the allotment at Quarry Farm. I always get a kick out of using my own veg, and on this occasion the onion kicked back; it’s been a while since I cried when chopping one!
Add the chopped carrots, tonight since I had them, I included sliced mushrooms, some finely chopped chilli, and a chopped red pepper. Let the veg sweat for a moment or two before adding a cup of red lentils, a can of chopped tomatoes – or a bottle of passata and some stock. The amount of stock will vary according to the veg you use and the quantity of lentils, I used about 500ml.
One of the joys of this recipe is it’s adaptability, if you have courgette, use it, likewise frozen peas or whatever veg you have, it is a brilliant way of using up leftovers or end of life veg.
To season, choose your favourite herbs. For myself, a tomato based sauce is always better with bay leaves and if you can pick them fresh from the tree it is extra satisfying (no difference to the taste). Since I love it so much and had some in a pot, I also tore up some fresh basil and added this with some fresh grated ginger but it’s very much your own choice, if you prefer other herbs use them. Put a lid on and leave the stew to simmer until the lentils are cooked and the liquid has mostly been absorbed.
While the stew is simmering, make the topping. Tonight I used macaroni, but most types of pasta shape can be substituted. Once the pasta is cooked and drained, stir the cream cheese through and loosen the sauce with some milk. Usually I make a cheese sauce using the Roux method, but the recipe is adaptable so just go with what you have.
The macaroni now gets tipped on top of the lentil stew. Add a little more cheese to the top and then grill this until it starts to bubble and go brown.
This is delicious served with a side salad.
There are any number of variations that can be made to adapt the recipe to your own needs. Change the herbs to your own favourites, use gluten free pasta if you are intolerant, or vegan cheese alternatives if you have a dietary restriction. Dried spices can be substituted for fresh ones, and canned or frozen veg can easily be used too.
I love this recipe, it has pulled me out of a hole on many occasions, I hope you enjoy!