Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lentils and Friends, or Learning to Trust the Pleasures of Simplicity

There are certain dishes which, when I see their photographs and read their lists of ingredients, I'm less than excited about. Take lentils. Lentils, I know, have been eaten by humans for thousands of years, so we've had plenty of time to learn what goes well with them, how to season them, how to prepare them. And we wouldn't still be eating them if they weren't satisfying, right? In this version of lentil soup, we also have the "humble clan" of onions, carrots, celery, garlic. A little smoked sausage for flavor. I have to admit that I've been staring at this recipe in Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris for years now, and haven't been the least bit inspired to make it (although I have made several recipes from the book and have always been pleased). Haven't I learned by now that the simplest players make the best results?

Something magical happens when just the right seasonings are paired with just the right combination of time-tested ingredients. No fancy herbs or specialty equipment required; you may already have all of these ingredients in your kitchen. Invite some folks over; take turns stirring the pot while you talk and get really hungry; break off chunks of French bread (or whatever bread-y thing you have around the house) and ladle the soup over, topping with Parmesan cheese (if you have it). Ah, good. I'm so glad you did that.

Lentil Sausage Soup (adapted slightly from Barefoot in Paris)
  • 1 pound French green lentils such as du Puy (I'm sure regular brown lentils would work well)

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 3 large yellow onions, diced

  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 8 stalks celery, diced

  • 4 carrots, diced

  • 3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock or broth

  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

  • 1 pound kielbasa, cut in half lengthwise and sliced 1/3" thick

  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (or red wine vinegar, or red wine)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • for serving: freshly grated Parmesan cheese, extra olive oil, bread

  1. In a large bowl, cover the lentils with boiling water and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Drain.

  2. In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, heat the oil and saute the onions, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and cumin for 20 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and tender. Don't use too high a heat or the garlic will burn.

  3. Add the celery and carrots and saute another 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, and drained lentils, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, or until the lentils are cooked through and tender.

  4. Add the kielbasa, vinegar, and cayenne and simmer about 5 minutes. Check for salt: depending on the saltiness of the broth, tomato paste, and sausage, you may need a lot or hardly any. Serve with a hunk of bread, drizzled with olive oil and topped with grated Parmesan.

Serves 8

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Gnocchi Diaries

I'm addicted to them. I've made my own, from potatoes, flour, and salt, and they were divine, but the vacuum-packed ones you can get at groceries now are very close to homemade. Who doesn't like a little dumpling now and then?

This soup was an improv that totally worked. The beans boost the protein, so if you're eating this for a meatless supper, add them. Cooked pasta or rice could definitely stand in for gnocchi.

Mushroom-Tomato Soup with Gnocchi
  • 1 cup chopped onion, white or yellow
  • 3 to 4 cups sliced mushrooms (I used a combo of shiitake and white button)
  • a little olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • a few tablespoons of dry red or white wine, or 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar
  • 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained, or two chopped tomatoes
  • 3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
  • 2 tablespoons prepared pesto, or some chopped basil and extra garlic
  • 1 15-oz. can white beans (optional), rinsed and drained
  • 1 package gnocchi
  • freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the gnocchi.
  2. Heat a spoonful or two of olive oil in a deep saute pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, mushrooms, and thyme. Season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Saute for about 8 minutes, until the veggies are getting soft. Add the garlic and saute for another 2 minutes, til the pan is almost dry.
  3. Add the wine and stir up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes, broth, and pesto, stir, and bring to a gentle simmer. At this point it can simmer for 20 minutes or so as the gnocchi cooks, but keep adding broth or water if it's starting to lose too much liquid.
  4. When the pot of water boils, add the gnocchi and cook until they float to the top, about 5 minutes. Drain and add to the mushroom mixture.
  5. Add the white beans, if using. Taste for salt and pepper. It might be a good idea to add another spoonful of pesto at this point.
  6. Serve in shallow bowls with Parmesan cheese grated over each serving.

Serves 3-4

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Hard Squash, Soft Soup

This is the most-requested soup I has convinced several people to hang around my house, offering to peel, chop, fix leaky faucets, or entertain until the soup was ready to eat. It won't look pretty while it's simmering--it'll suggest a brownish, murky, apple-y stew--but once the blender does its magic, you get this lovely, sunny winter-spirit-lifting yellow. All the "work" is in the chopping; it's quite easy to finish once everything's in the pot. You'll get a chance at the end to perfect your salting skills.

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

  • 1 large leek, dark green tops discarded, rinsed well and sliced thinly

  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped

  • a little vegetable or olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 tablespoon curry powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cubed (about 6 cups)

  • 1 pound Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped (3 to 4 cups)

  • 6 cups water

  • 1/3 cup whipping cream

  • salt & pepper

  • chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish

Heat the oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the leek, garlic, cumin, curry, and cayenne, and saute for a few minutes to soften. Add the squash, apples, and water to the pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and simmer about 30 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor (be careful of hot liquid splatters), or in the pot with an immersion blender. Stir in the cream and heat gently, without boiling. Add some salt and pepper: I start with a teaspoon and a half of salt. You'll need to add salt gradually and taste after each addition until it reaches its prime flavor. This soup has the ability to be the most flavor-licious pot of goodness you've ever tasted, but you have to trust that the salt will get it there. Be earnest with it.

Makes about 10 cups.