Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Warm to the Bone Lentil Soup

After a relatively warm early December, winter has finally hit Cambridge, and nothing says "winter" like a big pot of soup.  (Although, as I write this, a mild warm front is moving in, but I'm not complaining about that.)  

Multiple Christmas parties left me with three ham hocks, which got me thinking about lentil soup.  I bookmarked the Barefoot Contessa's recipe a while back, and as a fan of all things Ina, I was eager to try it (especially after an unsolicited ringing endorsement from a friend).  It becomes a vegetarian recipe if you swap out chicken broth for vegetable stock, has a classic vegetable backbone, and uses French green lentils, which I had in my pantry and wanted to use up.  But since I had so much ham and even more lentils in my pantry--red ones--I turned to Google for further inspiration.  This led me to a blogger's Red Lentil and Ham Soup with an Indian spice flavor profile.  Realizing I had all the necessary spices in my ridiculously stocked pantry I ambitiously, and perhaps foolishly, decided to do both.  (Honestly, how much soup can a single girl eat?)

A trip to Haymarket provided all the veggies I'd need on the cheap, and I got cooking.  Both soups used ample amounts of celery, carrot, and onion, and pulsing large pieces in my Cuisinart made quick work of the chopping.  (Between the two soups I would have had to cut over 20 cups of thanks.  Particularly those onions...ouch!).  From there it's just a lot of softening veggies and about an hour of simmering, once all the ingredients have been added.  

So, a few lentil observations:  

- French green lentils hold their shape awesomely.  After over an hour of cooking time, they were perfect.  But I actually prefer a thicker texture, so I used an immersion blender to mush a little bit of it up (but left most of the lentils whole, because they're kind of pretty, and a completely mushy soup isn't appetizing.)

- Conversely, red lentils break down quite a lot, and quickly.  I ended up adding lots more lentils incrementally because the the soup was looking thinner than I wanted.  Happily, the lentils I added last still softened enough by the end of the cooking time.  So if mush is what you're going for (and that's cool), they're an attractive alternative to the classic mushy brown lentils.
- Just a splash of vinegar added after cooking livens up the flavor of these soups so much! Ina's called for red wine vinegar, while champagne vinegar went into the red lentil soup.  Again, ridiculously stocked pantry, so I had both, but I think these are fairly interchangeable.  I wouldn't recommend balsamic, which is strong and distinctive, but red wine, white wine, and champagne vins can be used in place of one another in this application.  Alternatively, you can just use wine (although I prefer the vinegar).

At the end of the day, Ina's soup was the winner for me.  It was hearty, filling, and simply put, delicious.  The tomato paste gave it a subtle sweetness, while the red wine vinegar added just enough acidity to make it do a tango on my tongue.  I thought it was at its peak flavor about 3 hours after cooking, so if you're serving this soup the same day that you're cooking it, making it ahead of time will only do good things.  However, it's still delicious after a few days--just remember to taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.  You may need an extra splash of vin to bring back that POP!  And it makes a HUGE pot, so there's plenty to enjoy now and plenty to freeze for later.  

To freeze: Cool soup completely, then ladle it into containers.  I eat yogurt like woah, so I have about a bajillion quart containers in my kitchen, but any kind of Pyrex or plastic Tupperware will do.  This may seem like a silly observation, but think about the quantities you will need when you thaw your soup (or any other meal that you freeze).  It's all fine and good to fill a bunch of huge containers, but then you'll have to thaw all of that and use it within a few days.  Even when I'm totally jazzed about something, I can only eat it a few meals in a row, so I try to eyeball about three servings per container, even if the container isn't full.  I have the luxury of an extra freezer in my basement, so after partially filling 9 quart containers with soup I moved them all downstairs, and now I can use them throughout the winter (I'm also gifting a few quarts to my parents, because they're big soup fans).  

Lentil Vegetable Soup (Adapted from Ina Garten)
Makes a lot--15 cups perhaps? I lost count...At least 10 or 12 good sized servings.

* 1 pound French green lentils
* ¼ cup good olive oil
* 4 cups chopped yellow onions (3 large onions)
* 4 cups chopped leeks, white and lightest green parts only (3 medium leeks)
* 1 Tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
* 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
* 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
* 1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
* 1 teaspoon ground cumin
* 3 cups medium-diced celery (8 stalks)
* 3 cups medium-diced carrots (4 to 6 carrots)
* 2 quarts vegetable stock (water can be substituted, if needed)
* ¼ cup tomato paste
* 2 Tablespoons red wine or red wine vinegar
* Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Veggie Notes: As I mentioned above, a Cuisinart will make quick work of the chopping.  I cut the carrots into baby carrot sized pieces, and cut the onions in eighths.  I think I cut the celery by hand, but you could also cut them into shorter lengths and 'nart them as well.  Place each veggie in the Cuisinart separately and pulse until you reach the correct size pieces.  Clean the leeks by cutting off the roots and then slicing the usable part in half lengthwise, but leaving them attached at the top.  Run under water to dislodge any grit, then slice in half moons about ¼-inch wide.  
1. In a large bowl, cover the lentils with boiling water and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Drain.

2. In a large stockpot (at least 6 quart capacity) over medium heat, head the olive oil and saute the onions, leeks, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and cumin for 20 minutes, until the vegetables are translucent and very tender. 

3. Add the celery and carrots and saute for 10 more minutes. 

4. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, until the lentils are cooked through.  

5. If desired, blend the soup either partially or completely using an immersion blender or by transferring a portion into a blender (fill the blender no more than halfway if the soup is still hot).  I thought a few of pulses with the immersion blender was perfect, but it's simply a matter of personal preference.  If the soup is too thick, add additional water or stock.  I don't own a pot large enough to fit everything, so I actually used less liquid, but again--personal preference.

6. Before serving, check the seasonings; adjust if necessary.  Add the red wine vinegar and serve hot, and sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese if desired.  Warm, crusty multi grain bread and more cheese make an excellent accompaniment.



  1. Confession: I didn't actually MAKE this soup but I ATE this soup when Macy made it and it's AMAZING. I'm excited that the recipe's not that difficult (especially if I ever unpack my cuisinart) since it will be going into my repertoire for sure!

  2. I am going to try this soup and compare it to my lentil soup. I will keep you posted. Thanks for the fun lesson! I love my apron too.

    1. Thanks, Molly--I'd love to know what you think!