Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kitchen Sink Recipe #1: Lentil Soup

One of the things I love about food and cooking is the creativity that goes into creating a good dish.  Disagree with me if you want, but I think cooking is definitely an art and chefs are truly artists.  What draws me most to cooking shows and competitions is the adroit skill of chefs who are able to look at a cornucopia of ingredients and come up with a variety of dishes.  It’s a talent that I am sure takes quite a lot of time and training, combined with a deep love and appreciation for food of all kinds, its flavors and textures.  Having grown up in a home where recipe cards and cookbooks were rarely used, I have challenged myself over the years to develop a sixth sense about food so that I too could just grab things from my cupboard or refrigerator and come up with something good enough to eat and enjoy.  “Kitchen sink” recipes are among my favorite challenges.  This is the term I use for those dishes that I whip up in an effort to use up the last bits of any foods taking up space in my cupboards or icebox.  This happens most often after parties, holidays or family visits, when I have more food on hand than usual.  Admittedly, most of my kitchen sink meals are soups and stews.  But, no two of them are really ever alike, because it all just depends on what's on hand that day.

Last week, in my effort to create more clean and organic lunches for my Anna, I bought a package of baby carrots and one full bunch of celery.  Anna does not eat sandwiches and I've been at a loss for lunch options that don't look like tired crudite party platters.  Anna certainly likes crudites but frankly she lost interest in both veggies after lunch day two.   So, by the end of the week, I had a small cache of carrots and celery and no bunnies around to consume them.  Now, if you are a cook, you'll know that carrots and celery are two of the three ingredients of a mirepoix.  Throw in an onion (which is always a staple in my kitchen) and you have Emeril Lagasse's "holy trinity", the primary foundation of most good stocks, soups, stews or gumbos.  Lucky for me, I also had a bag of lentils just waiting for me in my pantry.  Before I knew it, a lentil soup was born.   And topped with some shredded roasted chicken and slivers of sliced spinach (which I also needed to clear out of the fridge), we had a very tasty and filling dinner.  Funny thing is, my daughter loves this soup, so much so that she is now begging me to send it in her thermos for lunch.  So, interestingly enough, those carrots and celery did wind up serving their original purpose.  Healthy clean organic lunch accomplished!

Lentil Soup

2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 large cloves of minced garlic
3 tsp kosher salt
tsp ground pepper
3 tsp dried fresh basil
2 cups (or 1 15 oz. can) diced peeled tomatoes
1 lb. lentil beans
2 qts. (or 2 32 oz. boxes) vegetable or chicken stock

Step 1: Sweat the vegetables
Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over medium heat on the stove top.  Let the oil warm, but do not allow it to overheat.  If your oil is popping, it's gotten to hot.  Do not allow it to burn.  Back the heat off if needed.  (Remember that different stove tops produce different temperatures.)  When the oil is warm, add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic.  (Tip:  I diced my veggies fairly small to complement the size of the cooked lentils.)  Season the vegetables with salt, pepper and basil.  (Note that my recipe calls for dried fresh basil.  This isn't a typo.  My basil is grown fresh in my garden but is air dried for about a week before I use it.  It retains a scant amount of moisture and rehydrates in soups and stews.  You can, however, use true dried basil in lieu of dried fresh basil.  Just remember that the flavor of true dried herbs is more concentrated than fresh herbs so you should adjust quantity to suit your taste.)  Stir to coat vegetables with the oil and seasonings and allow the veggies to sweat until onions and celery become translucent.   While veggies are sweating, rinse and drain your lentil beans.
Step 2:  Boil then simmer

Once translucent, add the tomatoes, lentils and stock.  (If you use canned tomatoes, you can use the seasoned variety.  In fact, this time around I used canned tomatoes seasoned with garlic, basil and oregano.  Accordingly, I reduced the amount of fresh basil and garlic.  If you use seasoned canned tomatoes, be sure the seasonings that your tomatoes are packed in complement the other seasonings in your dish.  Adjust other seasonings as needed!  The above recipe presumes you are using unseasoned tomatoes.)  Stir all ingredients to incorporate and allow to come to a boil.  Once you achieve a rolling boil, reduce the heat to medium low, cover and allow to simmer for 35 – 45 minutes until the lentils are tender.  Check lentils for doneness before pulling them off the heat.  If they have too much bite for your taste, you can simmer them a bit longer.  Or, for a thicker consistency, you can blend the soup briefly with an immersion blender. 

For added color, flavor and texture, you can top the soup with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream and a chiffonade of spinach, basil or other leafy greens.  For an additional protein, I topped the soup with shredded chicken but you could use cubed or shredded ham.  (Heck, if this were the holidays and if I had a leftover ham hock, that hock would have been sitting in the soup while it was simmering.  Something to think about this upcoming Thanksgiving!)

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