Sunday, October 11, 2009

French Lentil Soup

Now that I'm working outside the home again, and at a location where there are no restaurants, I have to dust off my lunch-making skills. I can't remember what made me think of this lentil soup recipe because I haven't made it in years, but I'm glad I was reminded. It comes from the first French cookbook I ever owned, Jacques Burdick's French Cooking En Famille. It was a gift from my new dorm friends my first year of university. There are a lot of good recipes in this book, though I don't find myself making them often.

This recipe is the first one I ever saw that used orange peel in a savory dish. Likewise, I had never heard of spiking an onion with cloves. Both transform a soup that could be ordinary into something unique (at least to my palate). I love seeing how subtle changes in ingredients can make such a remarkable difference to a dish. For example, so many soup recipes start with onion, garlic, celery, carrot, parsley, thyme and bay leaf. This one omits the celery and parsley (and of course adds the aforementioned clove-spiked onion and orange peel, as well as some rosemary). The resulting soups taste quite a bit different. It is convenient for me that it doesn't call for celery, as this is one of the vegetables we don't see as often at our farmers' market and that I don't have around all the time. (Though of course this week we did get celery in our basket!) Our parsley, on the other hand, is the biggest herb in our garden.

I mostly follow this recipe as written, though I do tend to omit the milk. I also use French Puy lentils rather than the brown ones he calls for. Since I more often have onions on hand than leeks, I took a large onion and halved it. I diced one half to replace the leek and spiked the other half with the cloves. Burdick says that you should slice all the vegetables thinly, but I diced them since that was easier for me. As the soup is going to be pureed anyway, I didn't think it mattered.

Burdick notes that it's easy to omit the bacon to make a vegetarian or even vegan version (called à l'ancienne). Use olive oil instead of butter for the vegan option.

I'd love to serve this with my crusty bread, but alas am still without an oven. We have high hopes that we'll have a working oven again in a couple of weeks.

2 c. brown or French green (Puy) lentils, picked over and rinsed
Water to cover
2 TBSP butter (or olive oil)
2 slices thick-cut bacon or 3 strips regular-cut cut crosswise into lardons, optional
2 medium carrots, diced or thinly sliced
2 medium leeks, white parts only, diced or thinly sliced OR
1/2 large onion, diced
2 plump cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium OR 1/2 large onion, spiked with three whole cloves
1 bouquet garni, tied up with string, consisting of: 2 inch piece of dried orange peel (mine was fresh), 1 bay leaf, 1 sprig thyme, 1 sprig rosemary
2 quarts water
2 c. milk (preferably not nonfat), optional
Butter or olive oil to swirl in soup, optional

  1. Place the rinsed and picked over lentils in a bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak for one hour. If you don't have time for this step, you can skip it, though my guru Deborah Madison does feel that it makes the lentils more flavorful
  2. Start prepping the other ingredients while the lentils soak
  3. Heat the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven over low-medium heat
  4. Add the diced onion/leek, garlic, carrots, and bacon and cook over gentle heat until they are translucent but not browned
  5. Drain the lentils and rinse them. Then add them to the pot along with the spiked onion, bouquet garni and 2 quarts of cold (fresh) water
  6. Turn up the heat to bring the soup to a boil, skimming off any scum for the first five minutes (in my laziness, I often do not skim, I admit it)
  7. Turn the heat down to low and simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour 45 minutes
  8. Remove the bouquet garni and the spiked onion and puree the soup (I use my immersion blender but you can transfer carefully to a blender if you have to)
  9. Return to the pot and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed
  10. Add the milk, if using, and bring the mixture just to a boil then immediately turn off the heat
  11. Taste one more time for seasoning and adjust as necessary
  12. Serve with a swirl of butter or olive oil as desired

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