There are times to pull your belt in. Late November is one of those times. Christmas is just waiting to shimmy across the threshold with all of its excesses in tow. I’m talking mince pies. Stocking stuffers. Celebratory negronis (let’s not forget that hot on the heels of the festive season is the realisation that yes, we did just make it through another year relatively unscathed). In five weeks time I’m going to be chubbier, poorer, drowning in a sea of gifted hand cream, chocolates, aspirational novels and wandering what we do with three quarters of a pannetone.

Right now I need things in my kitchen arsenal that are thrifty and sleek. Right now our budget has also been taking a beating. I’ve lost myself down a google-hole of home improvement. There are now raised vegetable beds in the backyard. I’m thinking of it as short term pain, for future gain. And then there are plans afoot to redo a bathroom. Who knew you could lose so much time looking at tiles and vanities? (I do now).

It’s time to raid the plots and have some quiet nights on the couch. This is fodder that is designed for just that. Red lentils are a cheap staple in this house. They don’t require pre soaking, have a pleasing earthiness and are stupidly cheap. They’re low GI and hug your insides in a way that a bowl of tomato soup just can’t muster the backbone to. And Will loves how they sound like rain on the roof in his make shift rattle (add half a cup of red lentils to an old Mount Franklin bottle. Do the lid up tightly. Distract your child with it for at least seven minutes). Here they’re put to work in a dal supper that’s closer to a stew than a soup (though if times really are that tight, feel free to stretch it with another cup of water. That was always my mother’s solution to any last minute dinner guest).

Here are some other hacks. Using an all in one spice blend like garam masala gives you a sneaky head start on measuring individual spices and provides an aromatic back note. It also keeps it mellow enough for the palates of small people.  You could bulk this out with chopped carrots or hunks of sweet potato, but it functions just fine with a simple trio of onions, garlic and ginger to play along side the lentils. The tomatoes at the end help add acidity and levity, as does the apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar is by no means traditional, but it’s a tactic I picked up while testing recipes for the channa dal in Cut the Carbs. This is at its cheapest when you can pull some greens from the veggie plot to wilt through at the close; swiss chard and kale would both be fine, just cut them into ribbons and allow the heat from the stew to mellow them into relaxed tendrils.

Nb, if you’re looking for some sort of synchronicity between what you eat on the couch and what you watch (something that pleases me more than getting nothing but green lights and receiving packages in the mail), then can I suggest ‘The Lunchbox”? It’s You’ve Got Mail without Brinkley the dog,  the cloying capitalist overtones or saccharine conclusion. Plus it’s about food.

As always the proof is in the eating. And I’m happy to report that the lean life can still be lovely.

Red Lentil and Chard Dal

 Serves 4-6

Shopping/foraging

3 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp neutral tasting oil
1 red onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, grated
1 1/2 cups/275 g red lentils, rinsed
1 thumb of ginger, grated
5 cups water
200 g cherry tomatoes
3 double handfuls of swiss chard leaves, roughly chopped (200g)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
Salt and chilli to taste

Cucumber, yoghurt and pappadums to serve

Here’s how we roll

1) In a large heavy bottom pan add the garam masala and toast over a medium heat for one minute.

2) Add the oil, onion, ginger and garlic.

3) Sautee over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until the onion is translucent.

4) Pour in the lentils and the water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and place on the lid and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5) When the lentils have begun to soften, add the tomatoes and turn up the heat, cooking and stirring for 5 minutes until the lentils have relaxed into a slurry and the tomatoes are squidgy and bloated. You can now use a potato masher to pop the tomatoes if you like (stand back, they can squirt!).

6) Add the apple cider vinegar and taste the dal. Season with salt (and chilli if you like). Add the roughly chopped chard and stir over a medium heat until it has wilted through the dal.

7) Serve in bowls with yoghurt, cucumber slivers or pieces and pappadums on the side.