Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I Am Iron, Man
Does anyone else feel like lentils don't get the attention they deserve? For some reason over the years they've become the Jan Brady of legumes, only popping up on menus alongside the occasional poached salmon or in a curried soup during the winter months. They remain ignored during the rest of the year, pushed to the back of the pantry, save for the possible summer lentil salad. Beans and chickpeas seem to benefit from the attention they get in purees and hummus, not to mention from being easily available (and affordable) in canned form. Lentils are best when made fresh, which has unfortunately put them on the opposite end of the spectrum from their more popular legume friends. They're seen by many as taking too long to make and requiring too much maintenance.
But the truth about lentils is that they're not nearly as fussy as many cookbooks would have you believe. The old adage that lentils must soak overnight in order to render them edible is completely false and often leads to mushy results. The overarching mother-of-all-lentil-myths however is that they need any help at all to cook relatively quickly. Many recipes suggest a cooking time of 45+ minutes which is absolutely ridiculous. Provided they are cooked properly (with plenty of water and a in a nice large pot to swim in), lentils should take no more than 30 minutes of cooking time, max. And don't even get me started on those delicious French green lentils. With their compact shape and gorgeous slate coloring, they cook up in 20-25 minutes, even in large batches. They hold their shape well and have a wonderful toothsome quality that make them perfect for any type of dish.
Knowing that the whole soaking-then-overcooking business is a sham, I've always had several varieties of lentils on hand in case of emergency. Because they're packed with iron and fiber, lentils provide great heart healthy energy and make a wonderful substitute for protein. I like a big bowl of lentil salad before evening exercise (like a late-night volleyball game) for that extra bit of energy that won't weigh me down. They're also great for folks like myself that are anemic and need all the extra iron they can get, but who don't want a steak for dinner every night.
As a kid I longed for visits to Spain and my grandmother's kitchen where the best lentil soup lived. True to the Spanish way of doing things it was chock full of smoked paprika, both the sweet and spicy variety, along with heaps of garlic, chunks of potato, chorizo and Spanish iberico ham. Like Goldilocks I've spent my adult days searching for the lentil soup that's "just right" but the truth is they're all too watery, too thick or just plain wrong. Not one of them holds a candle to hers, all of them lacking in either flavor or texture. So one night as I found my fridge empty of proteins and brimming with vegetables and bacon, I decided to challenge myself to recreating the soup at home. After all, why should I expect to find it anywhere else?
After a little noodling around with ingredients I managed to make it work. While I didn't have any chorizo on hand I still managed to capture the essence of the soup, including the spot on consistency. I used a neat little trick for thickening that you should definitely try if you'd like an alternative to a fatty (albeit delicious) roux. A mere tablespoon of breadcrumbs toasted in a few drops of olive oil will do the trick just as well, and without all that flour and butter. It's my favorite way to thicken soups and stews, and can even help with seasoning if your soup is a little bland (simply use seasoned breadcrumbs instead of plain). So I encourage everyone out there that's dubious about lentils to please give them a shot. Try buying smaller lentils like the French green variety that cook quickly and have a thinner skin. Despite being a tiny bit more costly than large brown lentils (which can be as cheap as 99 cents for a pound) they're still a relative bargain. I buy several pounds in bulk for less than 5 bucks and they last forever. This soup is a great introduction, and makes for unbelievable leftovers.
Spanish-Style Lentil Soup
1-1/2 cup French green lentils (or other small lentil)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup tomato puree or crushed tomatoes (not tomato paste)
3 small carrots, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3 strips thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 Tbsp smoked sweet paprika (pimentón)
1/2 Tbsp smoked hot paprika (pimentón picante)
1/4 tsp cumin
1 dried bay leaf
1 Tbsp breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Garnish: chopped parsley (optional)
1. Cook bacon in a large soup pot until crispy and browned. Remove to a paper towel covered plate to drain. Add onion, garlic and carrots to the pot along with a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook over medium-low heat until softened (not browned), then remove pot from heat and allow the mixture a few minutes to cool (this is necessary so the paprika doesn't burn--do not skip this step).
2. Add both types of paprika and the cumin to the pot and cook over low heat for 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add stock, lentils, tomato puree, and the bay leaf to the pot and bring to a boil. Cook covered about 15 minutes (the lentils will only be half cooked), then add the potatoes. Cover and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes or until lentils are done and potatoes are tender.
3. Meanwhile, heat breadcrumbs and the remaining teaspoon olive oil in a small non-stick skillet and toast breadcrumbs until they are golden brown, tossing frequently to avoid burning. Once the lentils are done, add breadcrumbs to the soup and stir to combine. Allow the mixture 5 minutes to cook together and thicken, and served topped with fresh chopped parsley and crusty bread for dipping. Enjoy!