Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Red Lentil Soup

On a cold day like today, the only thing I want to do is sit on the heat vent in my apartment and eat hot soup. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury and I have to tromp around in the snow, but if I had a choice? That's where I'd be. One of the major problems with most bean soups is that you need to soak the beans overnight, which means that you have to plan the meal ahead of time. Not so with lentils: they're so small and absorb liquid so readily that there is no need to soak them, making it an ideal bean to work with on short notice.
I buy my lentils at Whole Foods in bulk, which allows me to get the precise amount that I desire, rather than purchasing too many or too few. They also have a nice assortment, but I prefer red lentils for their vibrant color. We're jar-savers, and nothing is cuter than an old jar full o lentils. The one downfall of the lentil bean is that it is very small, and sometimes a stone or two makes its way into the lentils as they're sorted in the lentil factory. You do have to sort through the beans to make sure there aren't any stones in there, but that has never happened to me: perhaps it's just because pebbles were more prevalent in the '70s, which is the year that my cookbook was published.
I'm using a Joy of Cooking recipe (1973 edition) and this page has to be the most ratty one in the book because I've made this soup so many times. It's stained and kind of hard to read the ingredients, but that just means that it must be a really great recipe. You can make it with any type of lentil, but I prefer red; however, the color tends to melt away after it is cooked.

Red Lentil Soup
Wash 2 cups of dry lentils very well and drain. Be sure to be on the lookout for any small stones that may have gotten mixed in with the lentils. Boil 10 cups of water and add to the lentils. Add a hunk of salt pork, or ham if you can't find any salt pork. I haven't been able to find any since I moved to Chicago, but I never had a problem finding it back East. Is it an East Coast food, or am I just not looking in the right place? I even asked the butcher for some. He looked at me like I was insane. Ham works fine -- you're just looking for some nice flavor. You can even just leave the ham out and make it meat free and vegan friendly, if you wish.
Simmer for 3 hours. While the soup is simmering, sauté one large minced onion, 1 minced carrot, and 1 minced stalk of celery in 1 tablespoon of butter (or in some salt pork drippings, if you prefer -- yum!) Throw a bit of salt in with the mixture -- it helps these aromatic vegetables sweat off some of their liquid, allowing them to cook faster.
Recognize those ingredients? That's a mirepoix, another traditional building block -- as a matter of fact, the holy trinity -- of French cuisine. The last "building block" I talked about on this blog was the bechamel sauce, used in the Layered Macaroni and Cheese recipe. A mirepoix is traditionally a mixture of onion, carrot, and celery in the ratio of 2:1:1 in French cooking, but it can be adapted to fit your dish. For example, if you are making a light-colored soup, you'll want to use a parsnip instead of a carrot in order to preserve the coloring. It can also be adapted to cuisine type: a Spanish dish, for example, may use a mirepoix made from onion, garlic, and tomato.
Enough of my food rambles: where's the rest of the soup recipe? Basically finished, that's where. After your soup has simmered for 3 hours, add the mirepoix and stir. Allow the soup to cook for 20 minutes more or so. You can serve it chunky (which is how I like it) or you can puree the soup to make it smooth. In order to puree, though, you have to bind the soup; otherwise, the liquid will separate from the solids and it won't keep well at all.
To bind the soup, there are a number of methods. My favorite is to just make a roux: blending 3 tablespoons of butter with 3 tablespoons of flour over medium heat is very easy and will work well for the amount of soup you have here. It takes about 1 tablespoon of each ingredient per three cups of soup. Just blend in to the soup when it is all combined, then stir through and boil for 10 minutes or so to make sure it is properly bound.
If you're opposed to flour, you can grate a raw potato directly into the soup. You'll only need about 6 tablespoons of raw grated potato for this amount of lentil soup. Simmer for 15 minutes to thicken. I've never tried it with the potato binding, but it seems like it would work, since potatoes are starchy.
This is such a great soup, I can't get over it. I wish we weren't all out of lentils at home because I'd be making it tonight. Alas -- we'll probably "settle" for some onion soup. We made enough of that to freeze a container; this recipe will make enough for two frozen containers, most likely -- I believe the containers are 2.5 cups each. D likes to pour a bit of sherry in his; I prefer to eat mine plain. It is fabulous either way.

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