Monday, October 13, 2008

The Eats Sheet: Lentil & Spinach Soup

Autumn is a time for soups. When the temperature begins to dip, it's nice to have some pot of tastiness bubbling away on the stove filling the home with good smells. With the farmer's market abounding in all manner of squashes, I'm looking forward to trying my hand at Cabeza's latest offering.

Over the weekend, though, I discovered a new arrow to add to my quiver of soups: Lentil and Spinach. Lentils, the bean's less imposing cousin, are a perennial favorite of birkenstock-wearing whole foods shoppers. But they can also please a more refined palette. Less gassy and quicker-cooking than beans, lentils are sometimes translated in the King James Old Testament as "pulse," and were famously eaten by Belteshazzar (aka Daniel) and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego when they eschewed the Babylonian King's meat and wine. Since lentils are high in complex carbohydrates and a good source of iron, they're an important staple to a vegetarian diet; it seems the Hebrew expatriates were right to use them rather than meat.

If prepared wrong, lentils are utterly flavorless. Simply boiling them in plain water will not do. You get a bland, gag-inducing mess that's pretty hard to choke down. It's also a mistake to overcomplicate lentils by overwhelming them with with other flavors. They'll taste good, but they won't taste like lentils. But with a few simple accents, you can bring out their natural nuttiness and make lentils good---good enough to trade a birthright for.

This recipe begins with three or four slabs of bacon chopped up into slightly-smaller-than-bite-sized pieces. Throw them in a soup pot over just under medium heat. You want the bacon fat to melt out without burning or browning too much because you're going to use it to sautee some veggies. After about 6-7 minutes, throw in a half a yellow onion, and half a carrott, both finely chopped. Tip the heat up just past medium and let the onion get translucent, while the bacon fat browns just a little on the bottom of the pot. Then throw in two garlic cloves, finely chopped.

After a minute or two, toss in a tablespoon of tyme, a scant teaspoon of salt, a sprinkling of cracked pepper, and a cup of lentils. I used brown, but I suppose any color lentils would do. Scrape up any browned bacon fat from the bottom and dump in four cups chicken broth, a cup of water, and two tablespoons of tomato paste. Crank the heat up to high and get it boiling. Then knock it down to low, cover the pot, crack the lid, and let it simmer.

When the lentils are nice and tender (25-40 minutes), turn off the heat and dump in three packed cups of chopped baby spinach. Let the spinach soak up the flavor and wilt for about 3 minutes. It's done.

I served it with sliced apple and sliced cheese. I also topped off the bowls with some parmesan. To make a more substantial lunch today, I supplemented the leftovers with some leftover rice. It was a good addition. I also think barley or some small pasta could work well instead of rice. I'm also toying with the idea of using quinoa, which I think might be a nice complement to the earthiness of lentils.

The idea of Daniel and his three fire-proof friends sitting down to a bowl of this stuff makes me smile.

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