Friday, October 15, 2010

ingredient: LENTILS

Lentils are about as old as the pebbles they resemble. Yes, we are talking biblically old. Point in fact, in the Old Testament we see Esau sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of his lentils. Stupid? Perhaps. But it was probably thanks to all those lentils that Jacob was eating that he managed to supersede his older brother to lead the Israelites, wrestle an Angel and win, while managing two wives, two mistresses, and thirteen children. Jacob died at the ripe old age of 147. Esau got skewered by an arrow. I think I’ll have a bowl of lentils, please.

I’ll also eat lentils because they contain the third highest amount of protein by weight of any non-meat source (and while I’ll eat soy, I’ll save hemp for my fimo bead necklaces). Those little heart-shaped pulses also give me iron, folate, fiber, and B vitamins. These are all things people need, and, worth noting, all things that vegetarians have a hard time finding.

There are two countries which particularly know what’s up with lentils: India and France. In India, they typically serve lentils as dal, a stew-like dish that varies from region to region. A cup of spicy dal, either ladled over rice or mopped up with bread, is the perfect comfort food. And not that I need another reason to go the Indian restaurants on 6th street where your head is 2 inches from being strangled in a tangle of chili-pepper lights and they play an amped up Indian version of Happy Birthday when you tell them it’s your birthday (which you should always, ALWAYS do) and it’s byob so you can buy a six-pack of Kingfisher from the bodega across the street and drink them until the birthday song with its accompanying flashing lights is suddenly the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, but they also give you a free cup of dal with your meal. Ok, let’s just move there.

In France, people like to eat Puy lentils, an A.O.C pulse grown in the volcanic soils of (you guessed it) Puy. These small, dark green lentils are particularly great for cooking because they have a rich flavor and they hold their shape after boiling. While I was studying in Paris I ate a lot of lentil salad. Why? Because French lentil salad is served slightly warm, with a few nibbles of sweet carrots, and often some liquoricy fennel, and a garnish of earthy thyme. It’s clean-flavored and elegant yet rustic at the same time. Lentil salad is fairly ubiquitous on bistro menus and pairs perfectly with hot onion soup, a Galouise, and the belief that you’re being très chic.

Here in America, I've found that we like to eat our lentils in soup. While I would like to see some more lentil-thinking out of the box (like in desserts, another thing that Indian cuisine has mastered), I’m a big fan of lentil soup, especially on days that otherwise suck.

Lentil Soup "Off the Cuff"

Today I was at the doctor for four, count em, four hours. It was raining. I was in Murray Hill. Things were looking bleak. Walking is the only thing that makes me feel better, even in the rain, so I pushed on, reaching Madison Square Park just as the offices began to let out their beleaguered captives. It got darker, wetter.

Yet somehow by the time I reached the West Village, my mood began to change. The lights in the restaurants had turned on, casting little orbs of yellow onto the street. People were inside, having a glass of wine, eating undiscovered treasures, laughing over life’s ridiculousness ("Who greenlighted this?")

New York wears many hats: it likes to be trendy, or tough, or adventurous. I love it as all these things. But rarely is it cozy. Yet cozy was the only word to describe it. The rain gave the world just enough of a slicked over, muddled sheen, to obscure the leaves in the gutter and the bums in the doorways. I squelched home as fast as possible, ready to hop under the covers. Because that’s the thing about being cozy: it has to be uncomfortable to be outside for it to be exquisitely satisfying to be inside.

I met my next challenge when I got home. I wanted, no, needed, lentil soup. It was part of the fantasy I had concocted in my head on the way home, and for which I had specifically bought a bottle of Valpolicella, an Italian red from outside of Verona which is big enough to stand up to the rain. There was one problem; I didn’t have many of the typical ingredients for lentil soup. I poured over cookbooks, trolled the internet. It seemed I would have to wing it. But given my new found optimism, I was decidedly up for the challenge. I didn’t have celery. I didn’t have onions. So I diced up some garlic, shallots, and carrots. I call it my mire-pourquoi-pas. The result was quite lovely, a very lentil-y lentil soup. Perfect to keep out the chill and make you forget the M-Hill.

NB: You’ll see I added croutons to my lentil soup. Croutons on lentil soup, you say? Quel horreur! I know, it’s not normal, but this soup was about feeding a very specific hunger. And honestly, when it comes to bread, especially bread toasted and drizzled with olive oil, there’s really no reason to say no.

yield: Makes 1 large pot, enough for 6 or so people, depending on your course/the weather


3 cloves of garlic, minced

3 shallots, diced

1 cup carrots, chopped

6 cups chicken broth, divided

3 cups green lentils, rinsed, drained

2 good sized tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1 lemon ("optional")

¼ cup parsley, chopped

for croutons: 3 slices bread, preferably about 6 inches of a stale French baguette, if we’re being precise

olive oil

salt, pepper


Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Heat four tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add garlic, shallots, and carrots. Let the mire-pourquoi-pas cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the shallots are translucent and the carrots are getting a little soft.

Add the lentils, 4 cups chicken broth, tomatoes, cumin, hot pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.

Let the soup come to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until lentils are soft, about thirty-five to forty minutes. Unfortunately, with this soup, you can’t exactly walk away. Those lentils are thirsty little buggers and they’re going to start absorbing the broth. Add some of the remaining broth whenever it’s looking like the lentils have absorbed what’s there; in other words, keep it looking like a soup rather than just a bowl of lentils.

To keep yourself occupied while the soup is cooking, make the croutons. Cut the bread into 1 inch cubes. Arrange the cubes on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and salt. Pop the bread in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the croutons are golden brown. Take out and set aside.

Now I like my lentil soup to be a mix between the French and the Italian style. I don’t want all purée, nor do I simply want broth with lentils floating around. I think the best is a compromise. To achieve cultural harmony, take 2 cups of lentils and put them in the blender, purée them, and put them back in the soup pot. Or if you’re lucky like me, use your handy immersion blender to purée some of the soup right there in the pot.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls. Over each bowl, squeeze some of the lemon and drizzle a bit of your best olive oil (if you’ve only got crap, ignore this step), and then scatter with parsley. Then float some of the croutons on top. I promise you, with this soup, the garnishes are the key. Don’t shy away!

ps. not to shill for myself, but you're already here so: read my ode to pumpkin (or just check out the other great stuff at Good. Food. Stories)

1 comment:

  1. Just made this soup! It was so easy and delicious!