Friday, May 6, 2011

Lessons From a Soupstress

Even though most of my previous blog entries have focused around more visually evident, traditionally considered realms of creative exploits, this post is going to be (hopefully) engaging to some other senses.  There are many ways in which I feel creatively engaged and fulfilled when I look at my long list of hobbies and interests, each activity that I’m drawn to seems to appease different urges desires.  Few are able to cover as many of these as when I’m cooking, but more specifically when I’m making soup.

Somehow, when I make soup, I feel more free to experiment and less stressed about “making a mistake” than I do when I’m, say for example, baking a cake, or perfecting a new side dish.  Maybe it just feels more like an open-ended equation than a concrete formula for success, maybe it’s all in my head.  But I guess in the end, all that really matters is that I’m satisfied with the final result (which I always seem to be).

The soup I’m going to be talking about is one that I feel is often under-appreciated.  It’s loaded with nutrition and flavor, high in fiber, low in fat, and undeniably hearty and satisfying.  It’s also one that is all too often given a bad reputation by bland preparations, or just a lack of know-how when it comes to ‘zazzing it up.  If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about the red-headed step-child of the legume family, the oft misunderstood lentil.

Lentils have been commonly consumed as a major part of traditional vegetarian diets, particularly in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where there are large vegetarian populations.  With high levels of dietary fiber, protein, iron, folate, and vitamin B1, lentils are a nutritional powerhouse.  In fact, a single cup of cooked lentils can provide 90% of the RDA of Folic Acid. 

There are many loyal devotees to the lovely lentil; some of the most ardent in our own backyard appear to be the lovely folks in Pullman, Washington, where the National Lentil Festival has been held annually since 1989.  You can check out the details of the festival here.

My love affair with the lentil wasn’t always so passionate; as a child, my first experience with lentils was less than delicious.  It was in the elementary school cafeteria, and it was the standard-issue condensed & reconstituted Campbell’s Soup.  It literally tasted like lentil-water (no offense, Campbell’s).   Since my father really isn’t much a fan of it either (likely from similar experiences in his life), it was never really served at my house growing up.  It wasn’t until I attempted to make my first batch of split pea soup (another soup that I have incidentally had poor experiences with until preparing it for myself) at my husband’s request and was thrilled with my discoveries, that he turned to me and asked me to try my hand at lentils.  His former roommate had made it on several occasions, and it was one of his favorite kinds of soup.  Still riding the high from my split pea success, I agreed to give it a whirl.  I spent some intensive research time, reading up on any number of recipes for lentil soup (and there are about a million and one, by the way).  The one that influenced my own recipe the most was one I found by Emeril Lagasse, which is as simple as it is satisfying.  I also found inspiration via searching through, where this recipe  and this recipe both piqued my interest.

In the end, I came up with my own personal recipe, which I’m about to share with you.  I hope you enjoy it and find enough inspiration in this to overcome your own fear or mistrust of lentils, and maybe even come up with your own version!   Be advised that, since everything I do tends to be industrial strength, the recipe is very easily doubled, and once people taste it, it goes quick!  Also, as long as the bullion/stocks you choose are wheat/gluten-free, the soup is perfect for those of us avoiding wheat.

1 large onion (or 2 small), chopped
2-3 Carrots, sliced
2-3 Celery ribs, sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 package of dried lentils
1 lb. Meat of choice (approximately, adjust to your tastes; I suggest turkey-ham, or turkey-sausage, but if pork is more your thing, feel free to sub in whatever floats your boat)
1 32 oz. carton of vegetable stock
1 32 oz. carton of chicken stock
3-4 bay leaves
2-4 T. olive oil (for cooking down the veggies)

  Start by browning the meat in a frying pan over medium heat.  I usually use turkey-ham, which I then cube after browning.  This time, the store was out of that, and the turkey-sausage was on sale, so I figured it would be an interesting change of pace.  While the meat is browning, I usually do all the veggie prepping, starting with the onion, since it goes in the pot first with some olive oil, followed by the garlic once the onions start to soften a little, then the carrots and celery.  I throw the bay leaves in around now, and continue to cook over medium heat until the onions are about half-cooked (not totally mushy).  After picking through the dried lentils and rinsing them thoroughly with cool water, I add them to the pot with the meat and both stocks, cover and bring to a simmering boil.

Continue simmering over medium-low heat for approximately 1.5-2 hours, stirring periodically, until the lentils seems to burst open and the soup suddenly thickens.   Some people stop right before this happens, but I like the soup to thicken to a stew-like consistency.  The soup with dramatically thicken overnight as well, but if it gets to that point before removing it from the heat, I personally think it’s better.

Just after the boiling has started

After the lentils have split
 Some people add a dash of red wine vinegar when they serve it, it certainly is delicious but I find it almost always ends in heartburn for me, but I’m very sensitive, so try it if you like!  Enjoy!!

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