Like many cooks, my pantry is stocked with Italian olive oil, Japanese soy sauce, Indian spices, Mexican condiments, Chinese vinegar, and so much more. With such a variety of ingredients at hand, sometimes we end up with a kind of fusion cooking, whether we intend to or not. Take this lentil soup. It is clearly Italian in inspiration, with garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, parsley and Mediterranean herbs. And yet, I couldn’t resist including Asian elements from my pantry: soy sauce, miso, kombu and umeboshi vinegar, all ingredients I know to be spot on when it comes to building flavor in soups. Your Italian nonna might be spinning in her grave, but I bet she’d love this soup.
One Zuppa di Lenticchie recipe I looked at called for only five ingredients (other than salt and pepper): lentils, garlic, olive oil, parsley and tomatoes, and I’m sure it could be delicious. However, my recipe is a little more complicated. I consider soups to be a great way to get more veggies into my diet (sometimes I’m a reluctant vegetable eater–plain steamed veggies are not my cup of tea). This may be lentil soup, but it’s built of onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and kale–I’ve used lacinato (dino) kale, but use whatever green you fancy. As for seasoning, miso adds a kind of meaty heartiness that’s especially welcome in cold weather, and umeboshi vinegar and lemon juice are so useful in lightening the taste, that I almost never cook a bean dish which doesn’t employ them.
While this soup is Italian in inspiration, the great variety and versatility of lentils means that they are well represented in cuisines from Bombay to Guadalajara. Combine them with fresh ginger, turmeric and garam masala and serve with chapatis for an Indian meal, or go Mexican with cumin, chipotle, a garnish of avocado and salsa, and a pile of warm tortillas on the side (a recipe for a Oaxacan-style lentil main dish, traditionally served during lent, is here). Thin this soup a little if it’s to be a first course. For an even heartier main dish, stir in a cup of chopped, cooked chestnuts, or serve the soup over a piece of toasted whole grain bread. Cook it down a little bit and serve as a stew over brown rice. You get the idea, that pot at the end of the rainbow–it may just have been filled with lentils. (Full recipe after the jump)
ZUPPA DI LENTICCHIE–RUSTIC LENTIL SOUP
Cooking times are approximate, as some lentils are drier and take longer to cook. Use your judgement, you may like your lentils still whole or maybe you prefer them cooked longer so they melt into the soup.
Yield: 3-4 servings as a main course, 5-6 servings as a first course
1 1/2 cups lentils, washed and soaked in 4 cups hot water for one hour or longer
one 2-inch piece of kombu
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon dried Mediterranean herb blend (optional)
1 large onion, peeled and diced
5-6 large mushrooms (shiitake preferably, but standard mushrooms are also good), sliced (trim off stems of shiitakes)
1 small sweet potato (about 8 ounces), peeled and diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery stock, diced
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
stems from one bunch of parsley, sliced finely
2 tablespoons vegetable bouillon (optional, if you use water, rather than stock)
4-5 cups water or vegetable stock (as needed)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 bunch (4-5 ounces) lacinato (dino) kale, sliced into 1/4-inch strips (or greens of your choice)
2-3 tablespoons barley miso
umeboshi vinegar, soy sauce (optional), lemon juice, salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 small bunch fresh basil, chopped (optional)
1. Before beginning anything else, wash and soak the lentils along with the kombu–strictly speaking lentils don’t have to be soaked, but it will speed the cooking time and may increase the tenderness of the lentils if you do. The kombu is optional, but soups are a great way to include high-nutritient sea vegetables in your diet.
2. In a large soup pot with a heavy bottom, sauté the Italian herbs, onion and mushrooms for 3-4 minutes, add the sweet potato, carrot, celery, garlic and parsley stems and sauté 2-3 minutes more, adding a pinch of salt.
3. Add 4 cups water or soup stock, the vegetable bouillon if using, the soaked lentils along with their liquid, and the tomatoes. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
4. Bring just to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer about 25 minutes. Add the kale and simmer an additional 20 minutes or until everything is tender, adding water or stock as necessary. If the kombu hasn’t dissolved, pull it out and use it for another purpose.
3. Taste, and add the miso, tablespoon by tablespoon, tasting after each addition. Add umeboshi vinegar, fresh lemon juice, a few drops of soy sauce and salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste until the flavors balance. Stir in the basil (if using), and half the parsley. Garnish with the remaining parsley.