Last week I made the biggest dinner of my life. After twenty-four hours of whisking, simmering and baking under the rafters of Bristol’s oldest synagogue – and in a kitchen that at times felt like it too had been put together by the fair hands of a Victorian chippy – I hosted the first Shabbat Supper Club.
Only a couple of roads away from The Mother-in-Law’s House, this beautiful 18th-century synagogue is the spiritual home of a collection of Bristol’s eclectic and somewhat eccentric but totally marvellous Jews. Gay or straight, pious or otherwise, Jewish or not, this is a most fascinating and clearly welcoming community. Thankfully it’s one that also includes a smörgåsbord of ex-chefs, professional caterers and passionate home-cooks who generously volunteered their time with me, and shared with each other their culinary secrets and childhood kitchen stories to a soundtrack of grating, chopping, and washing up. I imagined it was like kibbutz in the 1970s. Only with less free love.
We roasted aubergines (recipe to follow next time), scrubbed beetroots, grated lemons, whisked eggs, minced garlic, steamed rice, baked challah, peeled oranges, and chopped mint. And as the sun sank into the harbour and the wicks were all aglow at the tables, the women, men and children tumbled in, weaving their way into the synagogue, which swelled with the joy of being full again and blushed with the aroma of cooking. We expected 30 diners. We set 60 spaces. 70 came. You could have blown me down with a shofar.
One of the evening’s most popular dishes was roasted heirloom beetroot with lemon, honey and thyme. I’ve remade it since as the beetroot season is still providing and the children happily eat them – the sweet, tangy earthiness being just too good to throw a “yuck” at.
Mixed here with some speckled brown lentils, crumbled feta cheese and freshly-picked herbs plucked from The Mother-in-Law’s Garden, this is a simple, wholesome dish that softly welcomes in the vernal light of spring.
6 golden beetroot (any colour beetroot will do)
200g brown lentils (puy or green will also work)
2 unwaxed lemons
2 bay leaves (I use fresh; dried are fine)
Handful of fresh thyme, rosemary, marjoram (thyme or marjoram will work on their own), plus extra for serving
2 generous tablespoons of honey
Extra virgin olive oil
150g feta cheese (or other crumbly goats or ships milk cheese)
Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 4 / 180°C / 350°F.
Wash and peel the beetroot. Chop them in half and then into wedges. Scatter them in a large baking tray.
Grate the zest of the lemons and sprinkle over the beetroot. Throw in a bay leaf and some of the fresh thyme, rosemary and marjoram. Or whatever it is you’re using.
Juice one of the lemons and mix this with the honey and a good glug of olive oil. Pour half of this dressing onto the beetroot, season with some salt, and then use your hands to bring it all together.
Bake in the oven for around 1-1 and 1/2 hours, until the beetroot are tender and gently bronzed around the edges.
Whilst the beetroot is baking, cook the lentils. Wash them well and place in a saucepan with 350ml of cold water. Throw in the other bay leaf along with some more thyme, rosemary and marjoram. Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cover, and cook for around 30 minutes – or until the lentils are al dente. Remove from heat and transfer to a serving dish.
Once the beetroot is cooked, throw into the lentils along with the remaining dressing. Crumble in the feta cheese and scatter on the remaining chopped herbs.
Best served warm or at room temperature.