I make soups for lunch all winter long for my husband, Drew, and his woodworking students. Many of the soups begin at the beginning…heat some olive oil with onion, carrot, celery, garlic, red chile…But many others start by foraging in the refrigerator. I call these “serendipity soups”. For instance, I suddenly had extra guests for lunch and needed enough soup to go around . I found a quart of cooked lentils (with onion, carrot, and celery), a cup or so of extra marinara sauce, a couple links of cooked smoked sausage, some chard leaves, and a jar of salsa. I put the lentils in a pot with the tomato sauce and added chicken broth to make it “soupy”. I diced the sausage, added it to the lentils and left it simmering on very low heat. It was a little thin at this point, so I cooked about 3/4 cup tiny pasta called “aci di pepe” in boiling, salted water (the chard got blanched in there, too). The drained pasta and chopped chard went into the soup with a few spoonfuls of salsa, and a little chopped parsley and a few grinds of black pepper on top. Then I found out this soup has a name! Sicilian Pasta and Lentil Soup.
Today it will be a different lentil soup. I have leftover rice pilaf made with brown basmati, red bhutanese, and wild rice with sauteed carrot and onion… and a pint or so of delicious cabbage braised with garlic and thyme in red wine. Oh, and a few garbanzo beans from a dish I call “Delicious greens and beans” that I named after eating garbanzo beans cooked with chard in garlicy, chile-hot olive oil –a dish made by my friend Vicki Skemp.
I didn’t have the lentils this time, so I simmered a cup of green lentils in about 6 cups of water with a bay leaf, whole red chile, whole garlic clove, a couple of shallots, and a big sprig of fresh thyme. Lentils cook quickly, so in about 20-25 minutes they were almost tender. I added about 1/2 tsp. salt and some freshly ground black pepper , and turned off the heat to let them absorb the flavors of the broth. I removed the herbs and chile before I stirred the lentils together with the rice, cabbage, and garbanzo beans.
The components of this soup are very much like a Moroccan soup called “Harira” that I used to make with lentils, garbanzo beans, and bulgar wheat. Harira is made with lamb and eaten during the fast of Ramadan. It is a very hearty meal-in-a-bowl, and delicious garnished with chopped fresh parsley and cilantro, as well as a squeeze of fresh lemon. I still have parsley in the garden, but my cilantro is gone, so I will go find some fresh mint leaves to use instead.
If you are starting from the beginning, make the soup like this. You can simplify things by starting the sofritto and just add the lentils and water into it, but I prefer to make the soup in two stages. A pot of lentils simmering with fresh herbs and garlic smells quite wonderful.
Lentil Soup with Sofritto
The lentils: 1 1/2 cups green or brown lentils (rinsed), 2 garlic cloves (lightly smashed), 2 shallots or 1 small onion, 1 dried red chile, 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp kosher salt.
Put the lentils in a pot with the garlic, shallots, chile, thyme, bay leaf, and 8 cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are barely tender, about 20-25 minutes. Add the salt and turn off the heat.
While the lentils cook, make the Sofritto:
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (about 1 cup diced)
2 carrots (about 1 cup diced)
1 celery stalk with leaves (about 1 cup diced)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. red chile flakes
1/3 cup chopped parsley leaves and stems
1 14-oz can whole Italian plum tomatoes with juice (or substitute home-made tomato sauce, puree, or fresh chopped tomatoes)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, carrot, and celery. Stir often until the vegetables are softened, about 7-8 minutes. You want them to release their flavor into the oil, but not to brown. Stir in the garlic, chile, and parsley and cook about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking the tomatoes into pieces, and the salt. Stir to blend well, and simmer gently 10 minutes. When the lentils are tender, stir the tomato sofritto into the pot and continue to simmer another 10 to 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in any of the following additions:
*crumbled, cooked bacon
*2-3 links cooked Italian sausage, sliced (substitute diced smoked ham)
*1 bunch broccoli rabe, chard, or kale, steamed or blanched until tender, drained, and chopped
*1 tsp. toasted and ground cumin seed
*Leftover roasted vegetables: potato, winter squash, parsnip, carrot…
*Fresh tomato salsa
Simmer another minute or two. Taste and adjust the seasoning—salt, pepper, chile, a squeeze of lemon juice or red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley or mint leaves.
How to make Lentils taste wonderful!
Lentils have an earthiness about them…they are unassertive, but quite lovely cooked with just a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, a hot chile, and garlic. Add some sauteed onion, maybe carrot, and a dressing of sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil with freshly toasted and ground cumin seed. Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, and mint add a little sparkle. Toasted walnuts or hazelnuts add crunch.
Lentils pair well with all kinds of sausage, and equally well with deeply flavored green like broccoli rabe, chard and kale.