A warming bowl

I didn't realise how time-consuming cooking was until I started cooking for myself. I used to read the "30 minutes and under" sections of cookery books and magazines with a slightly disdainful air, thinking that 30 minutes was nothing for a decent meal. But now that I have to be in charge of preparing, cooking and eating said meal - and trying to fit that in around my busy schedule - it becomes a bit more of a chore.

The thing is, I genuinely enjoy cooking. (What, you hadn't guessed by now?) It helps me to relax, and  forces me to take a bit of a break, even if I do sometimes attempt to learn French vocab at the same time.

Here at college we have the option of buying food in the canteen, or cooking for ourselves in the tiny kitchens. It's a handy system in that you pay for each meal separately so there's no fear of losing money if you can't make a meal. I like to go to the canteen because it forces me to be sociable (particularly important after a day in the library), but it does mean that I don't cook as much as I'd like to.

It's a difficult trade-off. But when some evening event crops up that means I can't eat with my friends, I have to take the initiative and make something for myself. Beans on toast, scrambled eggs or a baked sweet potato are quick and easy, but not quite as enjoyable to make (nor, I would argue, as enjoyable to eat).

So, what do you cook when you need to cook but don't have much time or many ingredients?

Red lentil dahl wins, every single time.

Lentils are so good for you (fibre and minerals), and the red ones barely take ten minutes to cook. An onion is a kitchen staple - as are the spices I have listed here. Fresh ginger may seem like a bit of an extravagance, but it's so useful for adding to stir fries and curries that a thumb-sized piece, costing around 40p, is one of the best additions to your shopping basket. Coconut milk, in the same vein, can seem expensive, but if you buy the packs of creamed coconut you can cut a piece off and add it to some hot water, thus using only the amount you need.

In an ideal world, you'd use more than just three spices. I'd recommend adding some turmeric if you can stretch to that. (Use the rest of it in turmeric milk, or throw it in a smoothie!) You could also peel and dice some carrots or sweet potato with the onion and cook them until they become meltingly soft. And if you're making this for a certain someone - or for a larger group - then it's definitely worth spending a little extra money to buy some fresh coriander, which really lifts the dish. 

I do love serving this with rice, but this recipe makes a big enough bowlful that you'll barely miss it, and it keeps the time down, too. Naan bread would also be a delicious addition.

Simple lentil dahl (serves 1)
1/2 onion, chopped
sprinkle dried chilli flakes or half a fresh chilli, chopped
1tsp ground cumin
pinch ground cinnamon
little piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
70g red lentils
100ml coconut milk
Optional: handful of spinach leaves, chopped fresh coriander and yoghurt, if wished, to garnish. 

1. Fry the onion for about 3 minutes, until softened. Add the spices and fresh ginger and cook for a further minute. Add the coconut milk and red lentils (and carrot/sweet potato here, if using). Simmer for 10 minutes or so until the lentils have absorbed most of the liquid. 
2. Stir in the spinach and fresh coriander, if using. Serve.