Yesterday, I started this blog about the love and attention I bring to feeding my family, and then to mark the occasion I messed up dinner SO BADLY that we almost had to order in some Chinese. The only thing that prevented us from doing this was the fact that we live in a rural area and it just isn’t possible. If you order anything (and believe me, it won’t be Chinese), you have to go pick it up. This is a fair amount of trouble, or it seems like it to a person who grew up in a city where the only limitation on what you can get for dinner without changing out of your pajamas, straining more than your dialing finger or setting one toe outdoors is the one imposed by your credit card company. If I am going to have to go out and get it, then I might as well go ahead and make another, more palatable dinner to replace the one I botched.
The sad thing is that I did not botch dinner in some instructive way that would make a good blog story, unless you, my lone reader, were also a follower of the Theory of Band Half-Life put forth by one of my college pals. I am not sure I can tell this story without dating myself, as I am going to have to use words like “album.” Anyway, the theory goes that once a band you have entirely liked up to that moment begins to put photographs of their faces, in focus, on their album covers, you may expect the quality of their music to begin an immediate and steep and irreversible decline. The cookbook corollary to this theory, the one that neatly connects the Meat Puppets, Joy Division, The Fall and the emergency dinner-do-over lentil soup I made last night (I always knew there was a way!) is as follows: the more close-up photos of the chef-author’s face that appear in the cookbook–shopping for the food, enjoying the food, generally being beautiful in the presence of food–the greater the risk you take that any given recipe printed therein will be a stinker. It is my theory. I didn’t say it had sound science behind it. Let’s just call it a growing body of empirical evidence.
Lentil soup certainly has a range of quality that permits a lot of missteps. There are the grayish, unsalted ones with big chunks of undercooked potato which often turn up in college theme-houses deeply committed to social change through non-violence, and there are the savory, complex dals of the Indian sub-continent, and there is an entire globe-spanning spectrum of bean soups in between.
I can’t say I love them all. I think I am still digesting one of the former category from the mid-80’s. But I love a lot of them, and I am always game to try a new one. Handled properly, the bean doesn’t give much cause for complaint: cheap, nutritious and endlessly variable, better on every reheating, plus given its propensity to condense as it cools, (requiring thinning out with more liquid), the soup kind of magically extends from meal to meal. It’s hard to say that about a veal chop. A giant pot of lentil or bean soup whipped up for dinner at the start of the week can fuel several lunches and after school snacks as the week unfolds. I am going to drone on and on about them, as this unfolds. Here is the first.
This began its life as a soup of necessity, twin necessities actually: “feed a big group when both the cook and the consumers are worn out from a long day of socializing” and “what the hell am I going to do with a large platter of leftover raw onions, tomatoes and spinach from the party?” A jar of lentils always lives in my pantry, and it jumped in to save the day. This recipe lifted off from a great one in Judy Wick’s White Dog Café Cookbook, which is a well-worn book around here.
savory tomato lentil soup with spinach and olives
2.5 cups small green French or small Spanish brown lentils (about a pound and a half)
a bay leaf, if you have one
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large or 3 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
¼ c minced fresh garlic (about 6 cloves)
1 T ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1/4 t cayenne pepper
1 28-oz can of plum tomatoes
1 t salt, or to taste
2-3 T green olive paste, or to taste
5 oz baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped, or swiss chard or kale, center ribs removed, chopped
It’s always a good idea to look your lentils over for stones, and to rinse them a few times. Then put the lentils in a saucepan with the bay leaf, add water to cover by several inches, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until they are tender but not falling apart. This will take from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the freshness of your lentils, a topic the lentils themselves will be coy about. Drain and reserve.
In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until they are shiny and softening, just a few of them barely brown, about 5 minutes. Then add the garlic. Making sure not to brown it (an entirely different flavor), sauté for a minute or two, until the fragrance comes up, then add the spices. Stir this mixture for about a minute, and dump in the tomatoes and their liquid, using the back of your spoon or your trusty kitchen shears or (shh) your hand to break them up into chunks. Fill the tomato can with water and add that, plus another half-can. Simmer this mixture for about 5 minutes.
Now stir in the cooked lentils and bring this all to a simmer. Season with salt and (if you like it hot) more cayenne, to taste. Keep it on the less salty side, because olive paste is on its way in here, too. This is a good time to pause the soup for later completion, which will only improve the outcome.
Just before you plan to eat it, bring the heat back up, and then toss in the greens and the starter amount of olive paste. Simmer a minute and taste for salt, heat and olivitude; adjust as necessary. I freely admit to gobbing the olive paste in there, as I can’t get enough of the stuff. When the greens are nicely wilted, you are ready for action.
This soup is quite happy to have a little cheese (cheddar, aged gouda or jack, say) grated on top, or some toasted pumpkin seeds if you are of a non-dairy persuasion. Served with nice crusty bread for dunking and maybe a baked or roasted squash on the side, this is all you might need on a cold day. If you’ve set aside some of the garnish and a hunk of the bread in the top floor of one of these tiffins (or a like container), then in the morning you can heat up some soup and put it in one of these groovy thermos bottles, add some fruit to the bottom floor of the tiffin, and you are set to jet.