Success is a Salad Best Served Warm

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.