How very British it is to doom ourselves with all this chat about the coming Monday being the gloomiest day of the year. Yes, January is a bit bleak, which is why this whole resolutions business seems so crazy at a time when we need all the help we can get. And yes, give booze a break, if you wish – but why not do so in February, which is not only a shorter month, but doesn’t have the post-Christmas comedown to deal with, either? Plus, detoxing (a terrifying prospect at the best of times) is surely much harder after weeks of feasting? Why not just eat more vegetables and run around a bit more?
In a month when everyone is recovering from the financial outlay over the holidays and when winter has barely started, let’s make things easier, rather than harder. Ape the world’s hibernators, tuck yourself up at home and, most of all, get yourself into the kitchen, turn on the stove (to heat up the room, if nothing else) and cook delicious and affordable comfort food. Today’s wonderfully warming and rich one-pot pasta dish is so simple to pull together, and creates so little washing-up, you could even kid yourself that you had called it in, if the taste didn’t give it away.
I used Hodmedod’s British-grown lentils to make this nourishing bowlful, but any variety will do. Leave out the pancetta to make it meat-free. Serves four to six.
½ chile de árbol, toasted and crumbled (or 2-3 dried chilli flakes; optional)
3 tbsp olive oil
75g pancetta or lardons, cut into cubes (optional)
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
½ fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped (reserve any fronds to garnish)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g tinned plum tomatoes (ie, half a can)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary, picked and chopped
200g puy or castelluccio lentils
1.4 litres chicken or vegetable stock
250g short penne (or rigatoni)
150g kale, finely shredded
100g single cream
1 big handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
Parmesan, to serve
Extra-virgin olive oil, to serve
Warm a large, deep pan over a medium flame, then gently toast the chile, if using (much as you would dry spices), for 30-40 seconds, until aromatic. Remove from the pan, then add a tablespoon of oil and, once that’s hot, the pancetta. Fry, stirring, for a few minutes, until the pancetta releases its fat and starts to colour, then add the onion, carrot, fennel, garlic and toasted chile, and season generously. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, for eight to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft. Add the tomatoes, herbs, lentils and remaining oil, stir for minute or two, so everything is well coated, then pour in the stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Leave to cook for 15-20 minutes, until the lentils are done but still have some bite.
Stir the pasta into the pot, add a little more salt, then cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring often so the pasta doesn’t stick together; add the kale to the pot after five minutes. When the pasta is just al dente and the liquid has reduced to a sauce, stir in the cream and bring to a boil. Stir in the parsley, check the seasoning and transfer the pasta to shallow bowls. Scatter over some grated parmesan, drizzle with a little extra oil and serve at once.
Health-boosting chile de árbol also helps speed up the metabolism, so shake up the winter fug by making a batch of chile oil with any excess (árbol is widely available online). It’s really simple to make, too: toast a handful of de-stemmed chiles in a dry frying pan, then blitz with two or three tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, a handful of toasted peanuts and some toasted garlic (toast them all in a frying pan, but don’t peel the garlic until afterwards). Use your chile oil liberally in stir-fries, on eggs and in pasta.