Honestly, I had no idea that so many of you apparently love lentil soup as much as I do. A few weeks ago I got an email from a reader requesting a recipe for my garlicky lentil soup. And then another, and another, and so on.
I had mentioned the soup in a short Q & A on the Contributors page of the Oct./Nov. ’11 issue of Fine Cooking magazine. (Elsewhere in that issue of the magazine you will find my article on True Ragù, with four recipes for long-simmered meat sauces and lots of mouthwatering photos).
My reference to “garlicky lentil soup with carrots and Tuscan kale, topped with croutons and a drizzle of olive oil” was in response to the fill-in-the-blank question “My favorite cold weather food is________”
For me, there could be no other answer. I have long counted on lentil soup—specifically, my mother’s lentil soup—to get me through the cold months. It may sound like an odd childhood favorite, but I loved my mother’s lentil soup, thick with chunks of carrots and perfumed with bay leaf and lots of garlic, as much as I loved anything she made. On a chilly night in October or November, with cold rain splashing the deck (bereft of summer furniture) outside the kitchen window, and leaves swirling in the backyard beyond, a bowl of that soup really did fill me with warmth and comfort.
The crowning glory was the handful of croutons I rained on top of the soup. Big, crunchy croutons that my mother made and seasoned with olive oil and salt. She would not have been caught dead with a bag of pre-made croutons in her kitchen—to this day she wouldn’t, and neither would I.
Mom’s classic recipe calls for nothing more than plain brown lentils, broth, and sautéed aromatics—carrots, celery, and onion, plus bay leaf and numerous cloves of garlic, lightly smashed. The soup, simmered until the lentils are tender and the broth is thickened almost to where you could stand a spoon in it, is way more than the sum of its parts. It’s simple, rustic, and hearty, just what you want good lentil soup to be.
So why do I keep messing with it? Because lentil soup is just one of those soups that beg to be messed with. And I’m just one of those people who can’t leave well enough alone. Over the years I’ve added a diced potato or turnip (sometimes both), cut-up sausage or a smoked pork chop, tomatoes, and various greens—spinach, Swiss chard, and (my favorite) Tuscan kale, a hearty winter green with long, slim, dark blue-green crimped leaves.
This particular recipe is adapted from my first cookbook, The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy. It is, at least for the moment, my favorite variation on an Italian classic. If you are unable to find Tuscan kale (also known as dinosaur kale and lacinato kale) just toss in a few handfuls of fresh spinach leaves towards the end of cooking. Buon appetito.
Adapted from The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2006)
Never mind the military-drab color of this soup. The lentils give it a full, earthy flavor, which is enhanced by the herbs and the generous amount of garlic. It's just the thing to eat on a chilly fall day, especially when it is topped with a handful of pepper-spiced croutons.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 4 large cloves garlic, flattened but left whole
- 3 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 small fennel bulb, finely diced
- 1 rib celery, finely diced
- 1 medium yellow potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 turnip, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 8 ounces Tuscan kale, coarsely chopped (substitute fresh spinach leaves if you can't find the kale)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups brown lentils, rinsed and drained
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 4 cups water
- Dried red pepper flakes (optional)
- Black Pepper Croutons (see Cook's Note below)
In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, carrots, onion, fennel, and celery, and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the onion is softened and pale gold and the carrots are bright orange. Add the potato, turnip, thyme, bay leaf, and kale (if using spinach, reserve and add later). Sprinkle in the salt and a generous grinding of pepper and stir gently but thoroughly. Cook until the kale is wilted, and then stir in the lentils. Pour in the broth and water and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the soup to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover partially. Let the soup simmer gently, stirring from time to time, for 45 minutes or until the lentils are tender. (If using spinach, toss the leaves into the pot when the lentils are done cooking. Simmer an additional 5 minutes, or until the spinach leaves are completely wilted.) Discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs (you can look for pieces of garlic to discard, too, but I find by this point most of it has melted into the soup). Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt if you like.
Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle each serving with olive oil and top with a handful of croutons. Pass the dried pepper flakes at the table for those who want to spice up their soup.
Cook's Note: To make Black Pepper Croutons, spread 4 cups of cubed Italian country bread on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle 3 tablespoons of olive oil over them. Toss well with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. Sprinkle with salt and a liberal amount of freshly ground black pepper. Toss again, and spread into a single layer. Bake at 400 degrees, stirring once or twice during baking, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until evenly browned and crisped.