Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Very Best Lentil Soup

I love beans.

Through my vegetarian phase and my vegan phase, through my health obsessed phase and my pop-tart phase, through having only a few dollars to scrape together for groceries each week and having a bit more flexibility, and finally through my most recent phase of working a couple of jobs and finishing a master's, beans have been the answer.

I sometimes suspect that beans have gotten...maybe not a bad rap, but perhaps a boring one, thought to be worth eating only when nothing else is available.  And I think, unfortunately, that because of this reputation folks don't put much effort into finding worthwhile ways to prepare them.

This soup is a worthwhile way to prepare them.

Notes:

  • You can use any kind of lentil you like/have on hand.  You can even use some split peas if you want a thicker texture.  Lentils differ quite a bit not only in size and color, but also how well they hold their shape when cooked.  French green lentils (Le Puy) are the most solid of the bunch, as they remain completely distinct and don't break down at all.  They act very much like a tiny bean, softening and plumping but maintaining their shape.  Brown lentils are somewhat larger and break down a little more, mostly maintaining their shape, but their external casing softens enough that some of the lentils will break down enough to naturally incorporate and thicken the broth.  Red lentils break down almost completely, much like split peas.  You want some texture and some "lentil-ness" in this soup, so don't use all red lentils, but you also want some thickness and breakdown, so don't use all French, either.  Some good combos might be: half French lentils and half brown, half French lentils and half red, a third of each or all brown.  Don't over think it.  Whatever you use will work and will be delicious.
  • You can leave out the wine and the Parmesan rind, but I strongly recommend using them.  Both add the umami flavor, or the "fifth taste."  MSG lends umami flavor to foods.  So does soy sauce, Worcestershire, sardines and several other flavor additions.  Often, when we think something needs more salt, what we're really going for is umami.  Adding a Parmesan rind and some wine to the soup give is that delicious depth of flavor, which means you'll need less salt and the soup will taste richer and more balanced.  Trader Joe's sells well priced Parmesan.  It's my favorite variety of cheese, so I always have some on hand.  The rinds freeze well, so I usually just stash them in the freezer until I need them for soup.  I appreciate that not everybody consumes cheese or wine, so if you must leave one out, go for it, just make sure you include the other.
  • Bean soups are my very very favorite work day lunch.  I've stocked up on some 12 oz glass containers and I make a bean soup nearly every weekend to divide into portions and freeze.  Making lunch to take to work thus entails grabbing a container of soup, throwing in an apple and grabbing a spoon.  Easy, healthy, cheap, delicious.
  • When making bean soups, I like to dice my vegetables to roughly the size of the legume I'm using.  You don't have to do this.  I just find it make the whole thing a bit more copacetic.
On to the recipe.

The Very Best Lentil Soup

One large onion, diced
Two medium carrots, peeled (or not) and diced
Two ribs of celery, diced

(What you're going for here is roughly 2 parts onion to one part each carrots and celery, so adjust your vegetables accordingly.  Don't stress over it, though.  Perfect proportions of your mirepoix won't make or break your soup).

Heat a large soup pot over medium heat and drizzle in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil (or butter).  Allow this to heat up for a minute or so, then toss in your vegetables and lower the heat to medium-low.  Give it a quick stir to coat everything in a bit of oil, then allow it to cook until the veg on the bottom are just beginning to brown.  Continue like this for 10 minutes or so, until the onions are beginning to look glassy.  This bit doesn't really need much attention; just make sure nothing burns.

Mince three or four cloves of garlic, throw them in the pot, stir, and allow to cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, about a minute.

Pour in about a cup of red wine (Get real wine--not the stuff intended for cooking.  It makes a difference.)  Allow it to bubble up and cook for a few seconds and you use a spoon to scrape up anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot.

Add:

28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
10 cups of vegetable broth (I use water and a big blob--maybe 2 T.--of Better than Bouillon)
1.5 cups dry lentils, rinsed well
2 t. dry thyme
1/8 t. ground cloves (weird, but trust me)
a few grinds of black pepper (start small.  you can always add more later)
2 bay leaves
one Parmesan rind

This is the best part--just stir it all up, bring it to a simmer, partially cover and allow it to cook until the lentils are soft.  Depending on the age and type of lentils, this might take a half hour or an hour.  Just keep checking on it, adding water if it starts to look low, and after awhile, take a lentil out and eat it.  There's no magic formula here--you'll know if it's done or not.

That's it.  Enjoy.

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