We had some very good friends around this weekend who we love to spend time with but who present a bit of a catering conundrum. In the group are 6 adults, 2 toddlers and 1 baby, which can be subdivided into 3 vegetarians (including one of the toddlers), 5 meat eaters and 1 milk drinker (no prizes for guessing who of the group that is), and with the 2 toddlers opting to be fussy eaters if the food isn't right or the play time is too exciting. Our other criteria were that we wanted to spend time with everyone rather than toiling in the kitchen throughout, and we wanted to serve something a bit more exciting than spaghetti bolognese or vegetarian chilli. We don't make it easy on ourselves.
A vegetarian lesson caught my eye in last week's Observer Food Monthly: Nigel Slater's chickpea and spinach gratin. Nigel describes it as a winter warmer for a snowy afternoon, and it looked chock-full of healthy and creamy things. Crucially, it also looked creamy and gentle enough to be happy on 3 year old Freddie's palate. In a recent lunch with him, Freddie rejected his veggie burger with chutney (my recommendation) because it was too salty and too spicy, though to my adult tastes it was just right. I hoped that this gratin would be more his type of meal.
The dish was easy to make, though with 4 large onions in it it did provoke a few tears. I managed to prepare everything ahead of time and finish off the gratin in the oven 45 minutes before eating, which made it socializing-friendly. The dish was all it promised to be: meaty from the chickpeas, leafy from the spinach, and with the wonderful sweet and tangy flavor of the crème fraîche and onions. It was a big hit with all the adults (both carnivores and veggies) with everyone asking for the recipe, though sadly Freddie found more in our wooden train set to sustain him than in his chickpea gratin. Thank goodness I made two desserts.
Chickpea and Spinach Gratin - from Nigel Slater
Serves 4 as a main course
- 250g dried chickpeas
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 4 red onions peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 Tbs flour
- 450g / 1 lb spinach
- 250ml / 8 oz vegetable or chicken stock
- 300g / 10.5 oz crème fraîche
- freshly grated Spenwood, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese - 80-90g or a couple of good handfuls
- breadcrumbs - about 50g, or a handful
- Soak the chickpeas overnight in cold water.
- Drain and tip them into a deep pan. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Scoop off the froth that rises to the surface, then turn the heat down so that the water simmers merrily. Leave them to cook, watching the water level carefully and topping it up from time to time. When they are tender, after about 45-60 minutes cooking, drain.
- Preheat the oven to 180 C/375 F.
- Warm the olive oil in a roasting tin or large cast-iron casserole over a moderate heat, then add the onion and garlic.
- Leave them to cook, with the occasional stir, until the onion and garlic have softened and taken on a little colour. Expect this to take a good 15 minutes.
- Stir in the flour.
- Meanwhile, wash the spinach thoroughly, then, while it is still wet, steam in a covered pan for 2 or 3 minutes until the leaves have relaxed. Drain and squeeze the moisture out.
- Pour the drained chickpeas, stock and crème fraîche into the onions, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, then turn up the heat and bring almost to the boil.
- Add the spinach, pulling it into pieces as you go, then stir and tip everything into a large baking dish or roasting tin.
- Strew with the grated cheese and breadcrumbs then cook for 45 minutes or so until a golden crust has formed.
- Serve in deep bowls to hold the juices.