Tuesday, November 12, 2019

French Lentil Soup...and the power of taste memory...

Someone recently pointed out that I didn’t have any recipes on my blog that use lentils. This had surprised them. I guess it surprised me too. I have nothing against lentils. I love them when someone serves them to me. But I didn’t grow up eating them…and the truth is I never got into the habit of cooking with them. For some reason I just don’t think of them. Since I enjoy them anytime I do eat them, I will need to make an effort to add them to my rotation. 

There is one recipe that I make occasionally that uses French lentils (Lentils du Puy—prized for their firmer texture and peppery, mineral-y flavor). It is a classic French dish from The Balthazar Cookbook by Keith McNally, Riad Nasr & Lee Hanson): Mustard Crusted Salmon with Lentils. I love this dish. Like so many of the recipes I love, it is a study in deceptive simplicity. If you have good ingredients…and use good technique…the result is greater than the sum of its parts. 

I like this recipe so much that when I decided I wanted to make a lentil soup during our recent early dip into the deep freeze, I used their flavorings in that recipe as my inspiration. In the end, I’m sure it’s not too different from many French lentil soup recipes…bacon, the mirepoix triad of carrot, celery and onion, lots of garlic, fresh thyme and tomatoes. It was warming…hearty, yet a bit refined…and delicious. 

It is great with just a sprinkling of parsley…and maybe a drizzle of olive oil.  But I discovered that some crumbled goat cheese was a nice garnish too—definitely worth adding if you happen to have some on hand. 

There were no tomatoes in the Balthazar recipe from which I took most of my inspiration. I had had a delicious soup recently at the table of a friend that included lentils and tomatoes, so that may have been what put the thought of the tomatoes in mind. There is also the fact that tomatoes are often paired with lentils.  And I'm sure that all of this played a part in my final recipe.  But there is another possibility. 

As I was enjoying my soup I had a flash of a food memory from my childhood: the very first (and possibly only) time I had lentils. My entire family had been invited to dinner at the home of one of my father’s business colleagues. My siblings and I had never been included in an invitation like this before, so my memory of it is fairly clear.  Our hostess served a simple meal of lentil stew, crusty bread and a fruit salad. I remember the stew because it was totally outside of my normal eating habits. Being the picky child that I was, if my mother had served it, I would have begrudgingly limited myself to the one bite we were required to take of something we thought we didn’t like. But since we were out, I was on my best behavior.  And I remember truly enjoying that lentil stew…probably asked my mother to get the recipe (although, I don’t remember her ever making it). I’m certain it was just a simple brown lentil soup…but I remember it included the tang of tomatoes. So now that I think about it, I can’t rule out the possibility that my addition of the tomatoes to my Balthazar inspired soup was a subliminal nod to that long ago first taste. 

French Lentil Soup

3 or 4 slices thick bacon (100g), diced small (this is most easily done if the bacon is frozen) 
3 T. unsalted butter 
1 large or 2 medium onions (12 oz.), diced small (2 c.) 
2 medium carrots (1/3 lb), peeled and diced small (1 c.) 
2 celery stalks (4 oz), trimmed and diced small (3/4 c.) 
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced 
2 or 3 well-branched sprigs of thyme 
Salt & freshly ground pepper 
1 lb. peeled & chopped tomatoes or a 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes (see notes) 
1 1/4 c. (250g) French green lentils (Le Puy lentils—see notes), rinsed and drained 
1 quart chicken stock or low-salt broth 
Minced flat leaf parsley, optional 
Olive oil for drizzling, optional 
Goat cheese crumbles, optional 

Place the bacon in a large soup pot set over medium heat. When some of the fat has rendered from the bacon, after about 5 minutes, 

add the butter. When the butter has melted, add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and thyme along with a good pinch of salt. 

Cover and sweat over low heat until the vegetables are just tender—about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, lentils and stock and bring to a simmer. 

Partially cover the pan and cook, maintaining a gentle simmer until the lentils are tender and cooked to your liking—anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.

Transfer 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the soup (mostly solids) to a blender (or the cup of an immersion blender). Purée until smooth and return to the soup. If the soup is too thick add water or stock in small increments to achieve a texture and thickness that you like. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve hot with a sprinkle of parsley and drizzle of olive oil, if you like. 

Makes about 1 3/4 quarts of soup, serving 5 to 6.
  • I used tomatoes that I froze last summer. If you have never frozen whole summer tomatoes to use during the winter months you should give it a try. I describe the process in this post.
  • Any green French lentil will work in this recipe. I use the Le Puy lentils because this is what I keep on hand for the salmon dish. These will hold their texture better and take a bit longer to cook than other green French lentils, so if you don’t use lentils labeled “Le Puy” then begin checking on the tenderness of the lentils after about 20 minutes.
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Anonymous said...

Thank you, Paige! Yummy! This was the fourth Chef Paige soup I have made this month--freezer full of soup--and it is my new favorite. At least for this week

Paige said...

Thank you for letting me know. I'm so happy you liked it! It's definitely soup weather right now!