When I was searching for a New Year’s quote as an opening line to this blog post, the kind of things that kept coming up either perkily referenced how the year lay before us like a blank page waiting to be written/blank canvas waiting to be painted/journey waiting to be embarked upon/ bla bla bla; or expressed variations on a theme of “never look back, look only forwards”. Much as I don’t believe in getting maudlin dwelling on past events that you cannot ever change, I actually don’t agree entirely with the mindless insistence on never looking back. In fact, without looking back you can never understand how you got to where you are; you cannot measure how far you have come; and you can never learn from past mistakes. Far more meaningful to me is this, which expresses one of life’s great truths and great paradoxes:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
A year ago I was in limbo, standing on the threshold of great life changes that I could not really fathom or visualise yet. I had received my final divorce decree after 18 years of marriage just before Christmas, a week after our 18th wedding anniversary. It was a surreal but undramatic event after more than a year of separation but it was the catalyst for a lot of what was to come in 2018, the start of a future I could not foresee.
A year ago I had not yet even viewed the house that I was to buy in the summer. I could not even visualise myself living or feeling settled anywhere other than in the house that Nick and I bought together in 2009. I had put a lot of my soul into the house and put my stamp on it, but I also sadly knew that it was too big and too expensive for me to buy.
A year ago I naively thought that four months was enough for a chain-free buyer to buy a house in this country. Well, it might be, but only if the sellers do not lie with a straight face about almost everything, including the fact that THEY were in a chain, and that this chain had collapsed.
A year ago, I was pretty sure (see abovementioned naive belief!) that I would be able to move from my old house directly into my new house – an important consideration for somebody who has no family in this country where most friends’ houses do not have the luxury of guest rooms. All the friends who I had once imagined might be able to put me up had left the city (or the country) and looking into the murky future I just saw not a lot of options. Hello, Air BnB??
As it turned out, I was without a home for four and a half months – first because I could not for love or money get the sellers to complete the sale; and then because my builders (the same ones whom I do love dearly and who did my renovations in 2009) were summer holiday demob happy and all sorts of snags dragged on and on for far longer than I dreamed possible,
At many points in 2018 I just felt ready to throw in the towel. From the first viewing in January of the house that I was to buy until… well, until about Christmas, was probably the most difficult year of my life – an annus horribilis where I felt alone and frustrated at every turn. And yet I had to just carry on living forwards, step by step, without being sure of what the future held. But now, looking back a year later, I can reflect on both the bad and the at-the-time invisible good bits of the past year. The fact that the house I found is utterly perfect for me (a carbon copy of the one we rented back in 2000!); that I have friends who are more amazing than I ever knew and who put me up for nearly 5 months and then helped me move, unpack, build IKEA furniture and generally kept me going when I wanted to give up; and the satisfaction of looking back and seeing how far I have come in a year. But most of all, the understanding that, even when the future seems difficult, dark and uncertain, you need to keep living your life forwards. Even when it looks like every step forwards will bring bigger problems, I guarantee you that in a year’s time everything will be clearer looking back, and you will surprise yourself at how far you have come without noticing.
That’s not to say that I have a new-found love for upheaval! Despite my best efforts, embracing change has never been my strong suit. There were times over the past year when I felt sure that my happiness was somehow tied to my old house and that I would never be as happy anywhere else. But the one thing I keep repeating to myself is this quote from American author Tad Williams: “Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head.”. One of the ways I make a home out of a strange place is by cooking the same dishes over the years in different places – dishes of celebration, dishes of indulgence, and dishes of comfort. I first made a version of this supremely comforting lentil dish in the very first apartment that I owned in South Africa and I still make it today when I need cocooning and comfort. It is a very forgiving recipe and I have made it with various different types of lentils and various different types of roasted squash – but it is always easy and always comforting.
In the spirit of trying to generate a more positive 2019, I recently made this dish as a new year’s treat. As you may know, lentils are among the “lucky” foods traditionally eaten at new year to cultivate good fortune for the coming 12 months. The reasoning behind this is said to be the resemblance that lentils bear to coins and that eating them will therefore attract good financial fortune. Now I don’t know about your country, but in my country coins don’t look a whole lot like lentils… However, lentils are an ancient food and one of those most frequently mentioned in Greek and Roman literature – and if you think of Roman coins (small, irregularly shaped and with a brown patina), the connection becomes far more apparent. And even if this dish does not bring you financial fortune, it will bring you comfort and deliciousness. All the best for 2019 to you and your loved ones!
If you love lentils, you’ll also love my:
- Spicy lentil, radish and parsley salad
- Roasted red pepepr and lentil soup
- Red lentil soup with harissa croutons
Nutty lentils, caramelised pumpkin and spicy feta cheese combine to make this a simple but deeply satisfying winter dish
- 400 g Pumpkin, peeled and cubed
- 30+15+300 ml olive oil
- 2 tsp dried thyme leaves
- salt and pepper
- 200 g feta cheese, cubed
- 1 red chilli
- 1 cup dried brown/green lentils
- 500 ml water
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
You can buy ready-marinated chilli feta, but if making your own, drain the feta and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into 1.5cm cubes. Finely slice the chilli, and place in a clean 400ml glass jar with a lid. Add the feta cubes, then add enough olive oil to cover (about 300ml), seal jar and gently shake to distribute the chilli. Leave in the fridge for 24 hours to allow the flavours to develop.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C and place the cubed pumpkin in a shallow roasting dish. Add the remaining clove of minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste and 30 ml olive oil. Toss lightly to coat and roast for 25-30 mins, turning occasionally, until soft and starting to caramelise.
Rinse the lentils in plenty of cold water. In a large saucepan, heat 15ml olive oil, add chopped onion and clove of minced garlic and fry until soft but not caramelised. Add the rinsed lentils and bay leaf and stir to mix, then add the water and bring quickly to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the lentils are al dente. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste and remove bay leaf.