Friday, April 01, 2005

When datamining has your head about to explode, it's time to make soup. But when you can't make soup, you can at least write down a recipe you've been using for over a decade.

Lentil Soup - a simple, inexpensive meal for lots of people, featuring a pleasant amount of chopping.
Makes roughly a gallon of soup, enough for a sizeable party of people.
Takes 30 minutes of prep time, but should cook for a good 3-4 hours before serving.
Korzybskian Disclaimer: Making soup is more of an art than a science, and I have never in my life used a recipe to make this soup. To quote my old friend Bones, "It ain't done until it tastes good."

Roughly 4 cups dried lentils. French lentils are best (those are the little dark green ones), but use what you can find.
Some other grains, like wild rice, barley, or whatever floats your boat. Not much, just a 1/4 cup or so, for variety.
1 large white onion, diced.
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed.
1 large can diced tomatoes.
2 carrots, diced (roughly 1/4 inch pieces).
2 pieces of celery, same.
2 quarts of vegetable and/or chicken broth. (You can get away with using boullion for this if you're on a budget, or forgot to get it at the store.)
Assorted spices, including dried basil, thyme, oregano, chili powder, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf.
Possible accoutrements, including (but not limited to) vegetable boullion.

Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a big soup pot. This recipe makes a gallon of soup, but that's after it's cooked down for a while. I use an 8 quart le creuset bouillabaisse pot because it heats evenly, is the perfect shape for soup, and makes a deep resonant chime like a Tibetan singing bowl when I hit it with my wooden spoon. But for years I made it in a $10 stock pot from Wal-Mart, and it tasted just as good. Well, almost as good.

Use medium heat, just enough to make the oil shimmer, not enough to make it smoke. Toss in the chopped onion, then the garlic. Cook them, stirring regularly, until the onion starts to go translucent. Add a couple of tablespoons of chili powder. Stir some more, then add the lentils. Stir these thoroughly with the onions, garlic, and chili powder. They'll soak up most of the oil, and you'll start getting some brown stuff sticking to the bottom of the pan. It's okay. To a very slight degree, you're flavoring the lentils. Mostly, though, you're cooking them while they're still dry, which means that they'll stay firm in the soup, instead of falling apart when you add the liquid. This is very good, because otherwise you end up with lentil soup the consistency of a chalky milkshake, which is not very tasty, in my opinion. Add the other grains, and keep stirring for a couple of minutes.

Dump in the can of diced tomatoes. Stir them in, and use the liquid to deglaze the pan (i.e. scrape up the brown bits). While they're cooking, fill the can up with water and dump that in, too. Now, add the stock and kick the heat up to medium high. If you're using boullion, just add a few quarts of water and a few boullion cubes. The cubes will dissolve as the water boils, but you can break them up a bit to speed the process. Now's also a good time to toss in the dried herbs and grind in a good bit of pepper. I use about a tablespoon of each, and one or two bay leaves, depending on how big they are. (Food snob alert: I think fresh bay leaves taste better than dried. I bought a little bay laurel tree a few years ago, and keep it in my kitchen window. The reason I prefer fresh is more likely the pleasure I get from snipping a leaf off my own personal tree than any actual taste difference.) I'll usually put in a pinch or so of dried red pepper flakes. It's not enough to really make it spicy, but it adds a nice nuance.

Now's a good time to peel and chop the carrots and clean and chop the celery. Once they're chopped, dump them in. Add a quart or so of water and a teaspoon or so of salt, cover the pot, lower the heat, and let it cook for a couple of hours. How low should the heat go? It depends on your pot. Basically, you want it to keep simmering, but not reach a hard boil or burn to the bottom of the pan. With a heavy lid, low should be plenty enough heat to keep it going. With a lighter one, you might need the heat a little higher.

Why the extra water? Peace of mind, mostly. I have actually burned this soup before, and the smell was atrocious. By adding plenty of water, you can go play video games, watch a movie, work in the garden, or whatever, knowing that your dinner is simmering peacefully in the kitchen.

After at least an hour, go taste the soup. The lentils should be soft, and the broth should be pretty flavorful. If it tastes a little weak, it's okay, because you're going to cook off some of that extra water. If it tastes really weak, then there are some tricks you can use to improve it. More herbs help, as does more salt. As far as salt goes, I think most people are too timid. It's not as bad for you as most of us think (in fact, it's essential for survival), and we're making a big friggin pot of soup here, so a sprinkle isn't going to make much difference. That being said, it's easy to add salt and impossible to remove it, so don't over do it. (That's one reason chefs like sea salt; it's actually not as salty-tasting as table salt.) There are two great tricks for making the broth heartier: boullion and miso. Miso, if you've never used it, is a fermented soybean paste found in the refrigerated sections of most health food stores or grocery stores that have a decent Asian food section. It's salty, rich, and pretty much inedible on its own, but great stuff for sexying up a broth!

If you add anything to the broth, you're going to want to let it cook in for a while. Do this with the lid off so that the extra liquid can cook off. This is a soup, so you want plenty of broth, but not too much. Ideally, I like there to be enough liquid so that if you let a bowl of the soup settle, you'd have about 3 inches of lentils at the bottom of the bowl, and about an inch of liquid above that.

Okay, now you're on your own. At this point, there are always some last minute adjustments to be made, and like the man says, it ain't done until it tastes good. One last tip, though: serve it with a good crusty bread for sopping up the broth, and another piece for cleaning the bowl.

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