Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Not all bad

So many fall lovers have been extolling the pleasures of the season to me since my last post. Don't get me wrong. I really do love fall, all those crunchy leaves underfoot, long shadows on the streets, sweaters out of the closet finally. My problem seems to be that my little backyard just doesn't have much pizzazz this time of year. It looks so dreamy in the Spring with pale green shoots and flowering bulbs. And in Summer while I don't get enough sun for a satisfying vegetable garden, my plants stay green and cool even on the hottest summer dog days. I tend to have more passion than skill when it comes to gardening, but I'm working on it.
Not every garden in Queens is as pitiful as mine this fall. 
Don't those kale leaves look wonderful? Perfect in soup!

Fall brings finality to all my summer garden ambitions and then there are those darn short days. BUT change is good and fall recipes are great! Sticking to the theme of soup this week I am offering up my lentil soup recipe. This is one of those recipes that can accommodate massive improvisation. I urge anyone who tries this to have fun and play, yes play with your food.

I think of the recipe in four stages:

One- vegetables/aromatics that get gently softened in oil.  This would include onions, garlic, celery, carrots, fennel, celery root, bell pepper, leeks, etc. These are the vegetables that won't completely fall apart or be grossly mushy after an hour of cooking.

If you like things spicy, why not add some chili peppers like these beauties growing at Stone Barns Center for Agriculture

Two- the liquid and seasonings get added now. For liquids think of vegetable or meat stock, tomato juice, tomato paste, or even water.  For seasonings I might add herbs or curry powder or chili powder, what ever I'm in the mood for. Again, you can play and experiment.

Three- When the liquid is simmering I add the lentils, along with maybe rice, potatoes, cubed pumpkin. This is the starchy stuff that will thicken the soup.

Four- Finishing the last 5 minutes of cooking with green vegetables like chopped swiss chard, green beans, broccoli florets, anything that will taste good with a brief blanch in the soup liquid and will add color or a little crunch of texture.

Even pale wax beans will look pretty in the soup

Depending on the flavor direction I have been going in I will also add any of the following: some grated cheese, a splash of vinegar or lemon juice, a dollop of pesto, a drizzle of olive oil.

Four steps with lots of chopping may seem like a lot of work, but you really don't have to pay much attention to what you are doing (not that I'm advocating inattention at the stove). The recipe is very forgiving. Lentils cook quickly and they have a very comforting earthly flavor. This soup will happily feed a crowd, is very cost effective and it can be eaten all week.
I love to serve this soup over macaroni or noodles, which I cook separately.

I am going to sit in my backyard with a bowl of lentil soup and warm myself in the beautiful October sun.

Lentil Soup 
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped into small bite sized pieces
1 large carrot, peeled or scrubbed and chopped into small bite sized pieces
1 clove garlic finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbs. tomato paste
4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp. thyme
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup lentils
1/2 cup diced potato
1 cup chopped swiss chard
1/2 cup green beans cut into 1" lengths
1 Tbs balsamic vinegar
3 Tbs grated Romano cheese
1 Tbs high quality extra virgin olive oil

Part One:
Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan and add the onion, celery, garlic and carrots, the salt and pepper. Gently sweat vegetables till they begin to soften, about 5-8 minutes.

Part Two:
Add the tomato paste, the thyme and the bay leaf and cook with the vegetables for about 30 seconds to mix well. Add the stock and raise heat a bit to bring to a simmer.

Part Three:
When the liquid is simmering add the lentils and the potatoes. Cook at a simmer for about 25- 30 minutes until the lentils are soft.

Part Four:
Add the chard and the green beans and cook for another 5 or 10 minutes till the green vegetables are cooked but not mushy. Finish with the vinegar, cheese and a drizzle of good quality of extra virgin olive oil.

serves 4 and can easily be multiplied

I have to say that each post and each recipe sounds better than the last. This presents a bit of a problem for me. Case and point: Yesterday, I went to the market and purchased the ingredients to make the Cauliflower soup (I also added Kale to the mix). My plan was to make it this evening. This Lentil Soup recipe just about resulted in the abandonment of the said previous plan. I was on my way to the store this afternoon to pick up what I would need to make the Lentil Soup this evening, when it occurred to me there was an expectant head of cauliflower and bunch of kale in my fridge eagerly awaiting my return home from work.  "One thing at a time" I convinced myself, and ultimately decided to let the Lentil Soup wait a few more days.

But - I do at least have a wine (or wines) in mind. Definitely not too big or too bold for this meal. (Remember - it is difficult to pair wine with soup...) My thoughts immediately turn to red - something earthy, perhaps mushroomy, light-medium bodied with soft fruit and spice. Pinot Noir, maybe? Not the big, ripe, highly concentrated Pinots from California. I'd like to say Burgundy, and I know it would work well. However, though I'm confident this meal is wonderful, does it merit the high price demanded by Burgundy? Wines simply labeled "Bourgogne" can include grapes from all over the region and typically run between $15-$25. This would be the best bet for Burgundy. Even so, it's not cheap for a bowl of Lentil Soup (even a spectacular one at that!)

The Marlborough region of New Zealand provides an alternative. The wines typically have bright red fruit flavors, but also a smoky, herbal quality that would work well here. In the wines from this region, there is a similar "terroir" characteristic as is found in Burgundy, as well as those funky, earthy, savory flavors. When I think of lentils, I think of similar flavor descriptives, so I think this would be a match made in legume heaven!

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