Nigella Eats Everything

Lentil and olive ragu

I don’t mean to break any hearts but here is a cold hard truth – it is a myth that you lose weight while travelling. In fact, it is more likely you will gain weight. I know this because of my reflection in any full-length mirror is ultimately a depressing sight these days. There have been a few too many moments of weakness, usually served in a pint glass, between burger buns or in a tortilla. That’s food on the hoof for you, it is fatty, carby deliciousness, easily consumed in your hands. And once a crack appears in your will-power – that chocolate bar was only cheap after all – weakness will suddenly surge like a dam, cascading dramatically until the day you look in the mirror and internally weep.

Since arriving in Wellington, what with the distractions of finding a job, flat-hunting, road-tripping, the rugby World Cup – anything, really – temptation has been knocking a little too often. Spontaneous dinner plans are a regular conundrum – to socialise or not to socialise, sitting around the hostel like Billy No Mates with a plate of lentils because that’s all you have in your food supplies is not a enticing prospect. Thus, there have been numerous visits to the local Mexican, where the waiters and chefs now know my friend Laura and I by name and greet us with forced enthusiasm when we appear every Wednesday. Yep, it’s us. Again.

It’s those damn tacos! Ever since Mexico, I’ve had a craving for corn and the soft tortillas at Viva Mexico fulfil those corn needs. Over-excited we over-order and gorge ourselves on molten queso cheese smothering a bed of salty chorizo which we scoop out with tortilla chips. We wolf down guacamole studded with crispy grasshoppers, and share platters of chilaquiles topped with hot pink pickled onions, frejoles, sour cream, avocado, and salsas verde and rojo.

And then there’s the tacos. The tortillas are piled with chicken, pork, mushrooms, cactus, or my favourite, barbacoa lamb. With my first bite of this tantalising taco I swore like a sailor as the smokey meaty flavour hit my tastebuds. Underneath the mound of pulled lamb lies a layer of gently spiced chickpea puree, similar to hummus but a la Mexican. It smooths out the sweet heat of chiles, the tang of garlic and lemon, and adds a creaminess to the taco and you’re soon licking it all off your fingers with relish.

So, to say the least, temptation has had it’s wicked way with me these last few months. It all ends here though (aside from that double scoop of ice cream I just ate). Enough is enough, plus I need to prepare my bikini bod for the looming summer season. It’s time to be good and what could be better for you than home-cooked dinners packed with vegetables? That’s where the lentil ragu came in.

lentil ragu

Although the thought of eating a plate of lentils alone doesn’t entice I can promise this recipe has dolled them up so much they’re positively sexy. It’s full of rich, salty olives packing a punch of umami. It’s also hearty and filling, perfect for a cold, wet day. On this particular day rain was pelting down in sheets and my dear friend Marie staggered from the harbour after a month of travel around the South Island. She’d climbed Roy’s Peak, seen the Milford Sound and hiked through Franz Josef, and our catch up wasn’t complete without a plate of hot food. And probably wine.

Marie laid the table with cutlery, wine glasses and bowls, while I heaved over the heavy pans laden with soft, savoury lentil ragu. Sprinkled with basil it wafted scents of Italy as we dolloped the tendrils of spaghetti onto our plates and topped with grated Pecorino. Served with large glasses of red wine and crisp, fresh salad with pickled onions we wound the pasta around our forks and recounted the last few weeks of gossip.

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Being good is quite easy sometimes.

Lentil and olive ragu

Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s recipe

Serves 4

1 onion
2 stalks of celery
1 large carrot
15g fresh basil
150ml red wine
Large handful of black pitted olives
400g tin plum tomatoes
400g tin puy lentils
400ml vegetable stock
350g spaghetti or tagliatelle

  1. Finely dice the onion, celery and carrot. Heat a little olive oil in a deep-sided frying pan and, once hot, add the diced vegetables. Cook over medium heat with a large pinch of salt until soft then toss in the basil stalks and sauté.
  2. Pour in the wine and bring to a simmer until it has reduced by half. Drain the tin of lentils then empty into the sauce along with the tin of tomatoes, olives and the stock. Season generously then bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour until the liquid has evaporated, the lentils are soft and the sauce is thick. Taste and season with salt and fresh black pepper if necessary.
  3. Ten minutes before serving bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add your dried pasta. Cook according to packet instructions until al dente. Drain and toss through the ragu.

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