It all started with Dharmapala. Actually his name was Paul but when you were a macrobiotic chef in the early 1980s then ‘Paul’ simply didn’t cut the mustard so he re-christened himself – or whatever the Buddhist re-naming equivalent is.
When I left Cambridge in 1982 I went to work at Wilkins Natural Foods in London’s Marsham St. It was set up and run by Pam Wilkins who had been a manager at Cranks and she took with her many of the best things about Cranks, in particular their insistence on making absolutely everything themselves from raw ingredients: from their bread to their juices. As well as being a superb place to learn the basics of cooking and running a cafe Wilkins was a mecca for faddish cooks and eaters and Paul/Dharmapala was one such. When he wasn’t making salads at Wilkins he was meditating and making food for the astonishingly bland menu at the East West centre on Old Street. The saving grace of a meal at the East West centre was that they always had good quality soy sauce, wasabi and pickled plums on the tables with which to enliven the plates of over-cooked vegetables and brown rice.
However, at Wilkins Paul/Dharmapala used to make a delicious rice and lentil salad which he called a healthbowl and I remembered this dish fondly. In the early days of The Place Below we started experimenting with this idea and gradually came developed our version of this salad which is delicious and has that key quality of being something you can eat every day without getting bored of it. We now serve masses of it every day both at All Saints and Michaelhouse, either on its own or as part of a salad plate. The reason it’s called a ‘healthbowl’, apart from being a shameless marketing ploy to get health-conscious eaters buying it, is that it ticks a number of nutritional boxes. It’s relatively low in fat; it has well-balanced plant based protein (complementing amino acids from the rice and the lentils) and lots of fresh vegetables. But don’t let that put you off. It’s also very tasty.
The recipe given below is a basic version but many different variations are possible. Grated or cooked beetroot, other fresh herbs, blanched broccoli or halved cherry tomatoes can all be added – or almost any other vegetables you have to hand. The advantage of the vegetable selection given here is that the roast sweet potato, mushrooms and celery will all put up with being stored in the fridge overnight. If you start adding, for instance, blanched broccoli or halved cherry tomatoes you want to be sure to finish the salad on the day you make it. For more exotic presentation in tune with the origins of the recipe try serving each portion on a sheet of toasted nori (the kind of seaweed used to make sushi rolls) brushed with soy sauce – and if you’re a real seaweed fan garnish the top with a little arame. If you like things a bit spicey add a few drops of tabasco to the dressing.
Makes a big bowl – serves 6 generously
150g puy lentils
60ml shoyu or other good quality soy sauce
60ml balsamic vinegar
20ml sesame oil – cold pressed is best but not as easy to get hold of as the toasted sesame oil
40ml sunflower oil
1 blob stem ginger in syrup plus a bit of the syrup from the jar
10g sesame seeds
250g brown rice – either long or short grain; my preference is for long grain
300g sweet potato, peeled and diced
1/2 head of celery, diced quite small
200g closed cap mushrooms, finely sliced
1 bunch fresh coriander or parsley, finely chopped (We use coriander in the cafes but parsley is also good)
1. Cook the lentils in plenty of unsalted water. Drain well. Put to one side.
2. To make the dressing: In a blender, whizz together the stem ginger, shoyu, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil & sunflower oil, and then add the sesame seeds and stir into the puy lentils while they are still warm.
3. Cook the rice. Put the water into a large pan with a little salt and bring to the boil. (You need just over 1.5 times the volume of water as rice). As soon as it is boiling rapidly, tip in the rice and bring the water back to the boil. Immediately the water comes back to the boil for the second time, turn the heat right down and simmer, covered, until all the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked (about 30 minutes).
4. Allow the rice to cool.
5. Whilst the rice is cooking roast the sweet potato: Toss the diced sweet potato in enough olive oil to coat it and with a little salt. Spread out on to a baking sheet and roast in a hot oven for about 25 minutes until the sweet potato is quite tender and beginning to brown.
6. Mix everything together thoroughly but gently and serve. Like most salads it’s much nicer at room temperature than straight from the fridge.