Recipe: Spicy Lentil Soup
Berkshire native Alana Chernila, mother of two, and author of the cookbook, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making (Clarkson Potter), dispenses change and cooking ideas to readers and friends. She shares her peak-of-the-season recipes with Rural Intelligence to help us make the most of what’s growing in our region. Her first cookbook has achieved top-seller status, and Chernila has a new one in the works; tentatively titled “Meals from the Homemade Pantry,” due out in 2015.
When it comes to lentil soup, I’m a one-trick pony. Isn’t one trick enough? A few soft potatoes, enough tender cubes of nearly-caramelized carrot to include one in each bite, a splash of red wine, and a discreet sneak-in of brown sugar. It’s a slightly evolved but always-reliable version of my childhood staple, and never fails to thaw me out on these cold days. But lately, I’ve been dreaming of sun and tomatoes and spice and green things that actually grow out of the ground. (Remember those?) At the humdrum four o’clock hour when dinner is inevitable but unplanned, I find myself pulling cookbooks off the shelf from faraway warmer places where the world isn’t so… frozen. And it’s one of those very books that taught me a second trick, a new favorite lentil soup.
Do you know Diana Kennedy? If you were to imagine a round table with seats for all the matrons of International cookbooks (and I do!) she’d be there. There’d be Julia Child, of course, and Paula Wolfert, Marcella Hazan, and Madhur Jaffrey, all (again, in my vivid imagination) smoking cigarettes and complaining about how no one knows how to use a knife any more. Diana Kennedy has written nine books on Mexican cooking, and as she’s only ninety, my hope is that we’ll see at least one more. She claims this soup was made for her by the maids in a house she rented one summer in Queretaro. “They loved to cook their simple peasant meals for me,” she writes in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. “And this is one of them.”
This soup is silky and spicy and improves with a day or two in the fridge. Make a batch on Sunday, and it will be ready to reheat and warm you whenever the need arises. The one ingredient that can be hard to track down is nopales, as that prickly cactus doesn’t grow here even when the ground thaws out. Luckily, El Punto De Encuentro Latin Market in Great Barrington keeps the shelves stocked with the canned version. If you can’t get there, feel free to leave it out or substitute with okra or green beans.
Spicy Lentil Soup
(Inspired by Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico)
Makes 4 quarts (feel free to cut this recipe in half, but it freezes beautifully and I predict you’ll be happy to have it there waiting for you)
1 cup French lentils
8 cups water
2 cups canned tomatoes (or roasted and frozen is great, too)
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 hot green chiles or jalepenos, minced (reduce to one of you’re not keen on the spicy)
One 15-ounce jar nopales, drained and roughly chopped
Salt, to taste
Chopped scallions and fresh cheese, for serving
1. Rinse and drain the lentils, picking them over for any stones. Combine the lentils and the water in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat to medium-low. Cook until the lentils are soft and nearly melting, about 1½ hours.
2. Blend the tomatoes and garlic in a blender until smooth. Set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and add the onion and chile. Cook until soft, but not brown.
Raise the heat to medium high, and add the tomato puree. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture bubbles and gets a bit thicker, about 3 minutes. Add the contents of the skillet to the soup pot along with the nopales. Stir to combine, cover, and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Add salt to taste, starting with ½ teaspoon and building from there. Garnish each bowl with chopped scallion and fresh goat cheese or mild feta.