When I was 14, my mother went back to work with a vengeance. She had been working from home before then, forever talking on the phone cradled against her neck as she stirred pasta sauce or chopped onions.
But suddenly she was out of the house twelve or more hours a day. After about a year of two minute noodles and Dad's valiant attempts at cooking, I realised it was time for me to learn to cook – but like all good teenagers, I announced that if I was going to cook, then I was going to do it my way. This meant vegetarian.
Looking back, I realise I've been cooking almost completely vegetarian for twenty years now. Early days were mostly pasta, with a few forays into just plain gross; I particularly remember a fairly putrid recipe for bolognese sauce made from mashed tofu. I tried it once, but really there is no excuse. It was – and is – a horrible thing to do to tofu.
Now I have developed my own style and range of recipes, heavy on the pulses and leafy greens. But as much as I hate to admit it, even after all these years of vegetarian cooking and eating I still find it difficult to feel perfectly satisfied with a veggie meal. It's hard to achieve the complexity of flavours and textures that make meat so special.
However, I do have a shortlist of perfectly balanced, utterly satisfying meals. This pasta is one of them. The leek and carrots add a light sweetness, complementing the earthiness of the lentils, chard and buckwheat. Whether or not you add the cheese is up to you; but I find that the chévre is the difference between pretty good and spectacular.
Buckwheat Noodles with Lentils and Carrots
- 270g soba (Hakubaku noodles are from Ballarat)
Sort the lentils, then cover them with cold water, add the bay leaf and salt, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 20 minutes or so, until they are tender. Check regularly to see if they're done. As soon as they're soft, drain them into strainer set over a bowl. Retain the cooking water.
Gently warm a good swirl of olive oil in a wide skillet with the garlic and a pinch of salt. (The salt prevents the garlic from sticking and burning.) Add the leeks, and sauté; then the celery and carrots. Leave them to cook over medium heat while you wash the chard or kale. Remove the tough stems, then slice the leaves into narrow ribbons. Add them to the skillet with the drained lentils.
Measure the lentil cooking water, and top up with water, if necessary, to make ¾ cup of liquid. Pour it into the skillet, then cover and leave to cook gently for 30 minutes or so, or until the carrots are soft. Stir from time to time. Add a little more water if necessary to prevent the vegetables from sticking, and to ensure there is a little sauce at the end.
While the vegetables are cooking, bring a large pot of water to the boil. When the vegetables are tender, cook the soba according to the directions on the packet. Place into a large serving bowl, and add the vegetables and parsley. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and mix gently but well. Serve as is, or with little knobs of chévre tossed through the noodles. Pass the pepper grinder.
Adapted from a recipe by Deborah Madison in The Greens Cookbook.
(Local: noodles, garlic, leek, celery, carrot, chard, kale, parsley, bay leaf, olive oil, chévre. Victorian: lentils.)