When friends are down and out, a pot of soup can be the best medicine. For years, I have offered lentil soup as a panacea, not only because it is so hearty and rib-sticking, but because it easily satisfies vegetarians and carnivores alike. I know that a few key ingredients are all I need to have on hand. In less than an hour, this soup is packed and on the way to friends in need, carried to the last-minute get-together arranged by snowbound neighbors or tucked into the freezer for soup emergencies.
A rich, hearty stock or broth, whether it is chicken, beef or vegetable, is the backbone of any soup, but too often that’s the stumbling block, as well. If your freezer or cupboard has neither, turn to the pantry, instead. Dried mushrooms often pump up the volume in stews, pasta sauces and gravy. Reconstituted in boiling water, they create a woodsy, hearty liquid, rich and redolent. Here, I prefer to use dried porcinis for their strong, slightly meaty flavor, but any wild mix will do. Spanish smoked paprika enhances the mushroom flavor, adding a wonderful aroma to the soup, some color and a wee bit of heat.
Chopped onion, carrot and celery are a necessary part of just about any soup’s construction. Some grocery stores offer this trio already chopped for anyone who is knife-averse or time-challenged (and they even label it “mirepoix,” which is a French culinary term for those diced vegetables). I tested the soup once using one of those prepared packages. I will admit I was skeptical, but it worked out perfectly well.
After cooking the vegetables, adding a touch of white wine is optional; I like the additional layer of flavor. Using a classic technique, increase the stove-top heat before adding the wine, then scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. That’s called fond, and it builds even more flavor.
When it comes to lentil soup, there are two schools of thought, and both of them live in my two-person household. I’m in the smooth camp. I blend most soups made with lentils and beans with either an immersion or countertop blender, looking for a velvety texture upon which I float crunchy croutons, toasted nuts or seeds or bits of crisp bacon. Someone else likes a brothy soup with lentils and vegetables awash in the hearty liquid. Divide and conquer has been my plan; when I make this for a group, I blend only half the soup, leaving the rest as it was. And I bring along plenty of garnishes.
I have written the accompanying recipe with vegetarians in mind, but it can easily be made meatier. Use four cups of chicken, ham or beef broth plus two cups of water instead of the soaked-mushroom liquid. Add a couple cups of chopped ham, shredded chicken or smoked turkey toward the end of cooking.
Or make the recipe as written and revel in the complexity of the simple lentil, enhanced by a pinch of this, a bit of that, one classic technique, and only 40 minutes. Then share it with the people you love. After all, it’s a souper food.
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author.
As You Like It Lentil Soup
6 servings (makes about 10 cups), Healthy
This recipe makes a vegetarian soup as written, but you can use chicken broth instead of mushroom broth or cook the soup with a ham bone for an omnivorous crowd. It contains wine, but you can leave it out.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup will thicken as it stands and when refrigerated or frozen, so add a little water or broth to thin it when reheating. it can be frozen for up to 3 months.
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
6 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 medium carrots, scrubbed well and chopped (about 1 cup)
2 ribs celery, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine (see headnote; optional)
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 cup green or brown lentils, picked over to remove debris
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces thick-cut slab bacon, cooked and crumbled, for garnish (optional)
6 thin baguette slices, toasted and brushed with olive oil, for garnish (optional)
Place the dried mushrooms in a large, heatproof bowl or liquid measuring cup. Add the boiling water and steep for 30 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid. Finely chop the rehydrated mushrooms.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Stir in the carrots and celery; cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Add the finely chopped mushrooms and the garlic, stirring to incorporate. Cook for only a minute before increasing the heat to high and adding the wine, if using. Use a wooden spatula to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook just until the liquid has been absorbed.
Add the smoked paprika and lentils, stirring well, and then pour in the reserved mushroom broth. Once the soup begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for 35 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Stir in the salt and pepper.
For a brothy soup, serve garnished with bacon or a baguette crouton, if desired. For a pureed soup, cool briefly and then use an immersion (stick) blender to puree the soup right in the pot, until smooth. Or, working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender with its center knob removed from the lid so steam can escape, place a paper towel over the opening to avoid splash-ups, and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and heat again, then serve garnished with the bacon or a baguette crouton, if desired.
Nutrition | Per serving: 180 calories, 8 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar