In the 70s and 80s, our family kitchen was the scene of non-stop experimentation, as my mum, Josceline, devised the recipes for her cookbooks. But her research was conducted behind a door strictly closed to her children, lest we disturb her meticulous measuring, testing and note-taking.
We did at least get to eat the results of her experiments. Often, dinner was strangely unseasonal; the publishing lead-time on her books meant that she tended to be testing salad recipes in the depths of winter and yuletide logs at the blazing height of summer. But at least ours was a catholic diet. My mother had spent much of her childhood in Syria and Peru, and our childhood dishes were often laden with exotic herbs and sweet spices.
We were never forced to eat anything we didn’t like, as long as we tried it. If you were unwilling to try something you could expect no mercy. I had a friend, Bruno, who claimed to have “food phobias”. Mum was always trying to catch him out. She would say things like: “So you have a phobia of eggs? Then you can’t have ice-cream. Who else would like some?” That’s a cruel and unusual punishment for a seven-year-old.
The long and short of it is that, by the time I arrived at university, I had very strong views about what I liked to eat, but absolutely no idea how to go about cooking it. During the day I studied quantum physics, while in the evening I struggled to work out how to feed myself. I tried and failed at oxtail stew (bouncy), fried mushrooms (greasy) and Irish stew (potatoes hard as pebbles).
What I needed, I now realise, is the recipe below. This is the perfect starter dish for the student cook: easy, nutritious and cheap. All the ingredients can be found at even the most underwhelming supermarket, and in any case it is open to endless adaptation. Sausages go fantastically well with all legumes, including lentils. My wife tells me that the staple dish of her student years was almost identical to this, but with brown lentils instead of cannellini beans. Later, when she got her first job and had money to burn, she upgraded to puy lentils and chorizo sausage. Sophisticated!
When my own children leave home, this is the recipe I will slip into their suitcases. That, and one of Mum’s cookery books – to inspire them in their own experiments.