Friday, August 26, 2011

The Return of Soup Weather

While talking about what to have for dinner at a friend's house several years ago, in the depth of oppressive July heat, my friend's husband suggested making beef stew. When I protested that it wasn't soup weather, he seemed puzzled, first retorting with a chuckle that he didn't know there were weather prerequisites for making soup. Engineer that he is, he then tried to lay out a strict definition of the concept by asking increasingly specific and self-consciously silly questions about what made for soup weather: What is the highest admissible temperature for soup weather? Is there a set ratio of temperature to humidity? Must there be cloud cover for a designated span of time? All of these, as if we could create a standard soup index, possibly to be jointly regulated by the National Weather Service and the Food and Drug Administration. For months after, he persisted with the question: "So, is this soup weather?" asked with varying degrees of a smirk on his face. Every so often, the question still comes up.

The truth about soup weather is that you know it when you see it; some intuitive combination of cold, damp and gray. It's the same kind of weather that inspires staying inside with a sweater and a book - conditions which are, incidentally, perfect for tending a slow-simmering pot. A good soup is more the product of time than of effort (slow cookers are great for vicariously living the slow life, especially as it applies to making soup).

I guess deep summer isn't a total dead-zone for soup. I spent some of the hottest days this summer eating gazpacho, cucumber-yogurt soup, and naeng myun, a light, spicy-sour, cold, Korean noodle soup. They're all fabulous, but don't quite satisfy the same craving: the fragrant steam, the rich, hearty spoonful, radiating warmth from the belly out. Part of it is that it's the weather as much as the soup. Maybe it's just my Northern blood: hot weather tends to make me cranky and I'm too stubbornly cheap to pay for air-conditioning, and so the first cool fingers of fall pulling me back into myself are a relief. Here at the end of August, with the first rumors of Hurricane Irene smacking against the windows, it's finally soup weather again. So I made lentil soup today.

Lentil soup is one of my favorites because it's a versatile, hearty and healthy base. Nutritionally, lentils make for a filling, heart-healthy choice, not just as a lowfat source of protein, but also loaded with dietary fiber, folate and magnesium. Serving for serving, lentils have as much iron as beef and help stabilize blood sugar levels. Not only that, but they're cheap and don't require the presoaking that most beans do.

As far as versatility in seasoning, there is one school of thought around it which involves pulling the vegetable drawer out from the fridge and upending it into the pot. I'm never one to speak harshly against folks concocting to use things up - it's a valid approach, and sometimes sparks a certain kind of delicious, if unreproducible, alchemy. However, there's also a lot to be said for more consciously building a focused flavor from what you have available. They easily pair with the flavors of the Middle East, where they originate, but have been adopted all around the Mediterranean and along the Silk Road deeper East and South into Asia, and are a staple in many regions of India. With or without meat, lentils work well with a summery dress of peppers and tomatoes or with winter squash and sweet potato.

As I tend to this time of year, I let my bag of farmshare goodies guide the dish, using onion, carrot, bell pepper, hot pepper, kale and cherry tomatoes. I also took the opportunity to use up some languishing Italian sausage. While my flavoring scheme varies, there's a few things that are pretty consistent: about a cup of dry lentils to 5 or 6 cups of liquid, which is plenty to get a fairly thick consistency after cooking for a while. I've also become a fan of building up the body a little bit more by throwing in a couple tablespoons of rice that I've toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat. I usually grind this up for a slightly smoother texture, but you'll still get some thickening and toastiness with whole, toasted rice. I usually include some kind of mushroom, with varying levels of sneakiness, as mushrooms help support the savory richness of lentils, especially in meatless versions. Even without the addition of these last two items, you will still come up with a soup that is rich in texture and flavor, but they do add a little more oomph.

Of course one of the best things about soup, to which this is no exception, is that not only does this work well reheated for days after, it gets better the longer it sits around and lets the flavors get to know each other a little better.

    Lentil Soup in August

    gluten-free, dairy-free
    Serves 4 people for 1 meal or 1 person for 4 meals
  • 2 Italian sausages (about 6 oz. total), sliced or crumbled
  • 1 med. onion, medium dice
  • 1 large or 2 med. carrots, small dice
  • ½ large or 1 smaller bell pepper, red or green
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 hot pepper to your taste, minced or red pepper flake to taste
  • ¼ c. toasted rice, ground (optional)
  • 2 Tblsp. Magical Spice Blend
    • 1½ tsp. cumin
    • 1½ tsp. fennel seed
    • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
    • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 c. brown lentils, dry
  • 3 c. chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 c. water
  • 1-2 dried shiitake mushrooms, ground or chopped fine
  • 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  • 8-10 leaves kale, stemmed and chopped/ripped into smaller pieces
  • 6-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
In dutch oven or other deep, lidded pot with at least 4 qt capacity, start cooking sausage over medium-high heat. When sausage starts browning and releasing some liquid (about 3 minutes), add onion. Stir occasionally for another 3 min. or so until onions start to soften. Add carrot, peppers, garlic, salt and spices. Stir occasionally for 3-5 minutes more, then add toasted rice (if using) and dry lentils. Stir to combine, then add stock and water. Cover and let simmer for at least an hour or transfer to slow cooker and set on low for all-day cooking. If using a slow cooker, also add kale at this point. For stovetop cookers, add kale about 45 minutes into simmering. Add cherry tomatoes just before serving. Goes well on its own or with a nice stout bread.

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