The lowly lentil is in the news this week. Yesterday, Mark Bittman devoted his Minimalist column in the NY Times to legumes and beans and has a number of interesting looking recipes. Today, the Atlantic food section offers another paean to the lentil as well as a recipe for "tasty lentils" (that do, in fact, sound pretty tasty). Even before the media attention, I was thinking of lentils anyway because I'm happily eating my way through a large pot of Deborah Madison's lentil minestrone.
I've written before about my general love for Deborah Madison (see here), but I think she's a especially a genius when it comes to soup. Her soup cookbook, Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, is a standby in my kitchen year round, though it's especially useful in the winter. The lentil minestrone is in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which also has an extensive and helpful section on making soup. Madison's soup recipes may have more steps or be slightly more time consuming than others, but the payoff is in the layers of flavor. The lentil minestrone, for example, is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Its humble ingredients--carrots, celery, onions, tomato paste, lentils--belie how delicious the final concoction is.
It's a perfect dish for January--it's filling and full of things that are good for you. (Lentils! Chard! ) But, it's also delicious. You can eat it happily and maintain your New Year's resolutions at the same time. Like most lentil soups, it gets better with time.
A few notes:
This soup is made even better by the inclusion of a Parmesan rind, added when you add the lentils and the water. (This soup has enough depth that it's fine with water, if you don't have any vegetable stock on hand and don't have the time (or inclination) to make any.)
While Deborah Madison has you cook the greens separately, I usually don't. I rinse the chard and chop it ahead of time, then just add it to the soup while the pasta is cooking. It doesn't stay bright green, admittedly, but when you're eating the soup over several days anyway, the chard will not stay bright green no matter what, so you might as well save a step here.
I do always keep the pasta separate and then add it when re-heating. Otherwise, the pasta will drink up all the liquid, and you'll have soup with rather bloated pieces of pasta and no liquid left.
I usually just use dried thyme with the bay leaves, and I don't always include the parsley branches (though I do include the chopped parsley).
I don't have any mushroom soy sauce in the house so have never added it to this soup. While I think adding regular soy sauce would be fine, I sometimes put in a dash of red wine vinegar instead, which adds a nice flavor.
If you leave your bowl on the table too long, watch out, as it might attract the attention of an otherwise carnivorous creature who might stick a tongue out for a tentative taste . . . (In this photo, I think Chaya is actually coming back for more--he already knew he liked it, as the previous night he'd licked my bowl clean, a privilege usually reserved for cereal, yogurt and ice cream. The cat is definitely on to something!)
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Add the cooked pasta and greens just before serving so that they retain their color and texture. And, don't forget the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra virgin to finish
2 cups onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste (The Italian tomato paste in a tube is perfect here.)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, diced
1 cup diced celery or celery root
1 cup French green lentils, rinsed
Aromatics: 2 bay leaves, 8 parsley branches, 6 thyme sprigs
1 piece Parmesan rind (optional)
9 cups water or vegetable stock
Mushroom soy sauce to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch greens—mustard, broccoli rabe, chard, or spinach (I almost always use chard.)
2 cups cooked small pasta (I usually use shells or pipette)
Thin shavings of Parmesan
Heat the oil in a wide soup pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste, parsley, celery, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.
Add the lentils, aromatics, Parmesan rind (if using) and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Taste for salt and season with pepper. If it needs more depth, add mushroom soy sauce to taste, starting with 1 tablespoon. (The soup may seem bland at this point, but the flavors will come together when the soup is finished.) Remove the aromatics.
Boil the greens in salted water until they're tender and bright green, then chop them coarsely. (Or, add the chopped greens to the soup while the pasta is cooking.)