Thursday, April 2, 2009

I'm mental for lentil soup...

By the way, do you remember back to the not-so-halcyon days of junior high when you referred to the stupid boys and your weird uncle and the girl who tried to copy from you as being "mental?" I never quite understood that. Isn't describing someone as mental along the same lines as calling someone cerebral, and, thus, the opposite of stupid? Was I overthinking this? Most likely "mental" is shorthand for mentally retarded in junior high parlance, right? In any case, calling someone - namely, my husband - mental, has become one of my most favorite put-downs, like, "Would you please stop getting all mental about the freezer door being left open? Jeez!" When in doubt, regress. I think The Art Of War has a whole chapter on using the skills you acquired in sixth grade against adversaries. They are lethal.

So, along the same lines of asking general questions of unsuspecting visitors to my little playpen, I have another one: do you ever forget that whole categories of food exist? Like one day, for example, you wake up and say, "Hmm. I'm feeling like making a casserole tonight. It's been a while since I had one," and you flip through your internal Rolodex of recent meals and you realize with growing incredulity that it's been forever, or at least a long, long time, since you had a casserole of any sort, and then the one you make is so delicious and so hits the spot that you get on this huge casserole-making kick until your family tells you in a loving but honest way that it wouldn't be so awful to have a non-casserole-y meal? Of course this has happened to you. Anyway, the point of this whole post is my recently renewed love affair with soup, the bowl of belly-warming, nourishing goodness that has been waiting ever so patiently to be rediscovered. Oh, and also to share a recipe I think you'll like.

I wonder why I forgot about soup? I wonder why it's only before winter has begum loosing it's icy grip from around my shoulders that I finally remembered? No matter. People probably forget about soup all the time: it's like that rather boring friend who is so steadfastly loyal, so there for you, that you kind of neglect her. This is more about you and your screwed up values than it is about your friend. Admit it. In your more aware moments, you realize that this friend is not boring, actually, she's very cool in her serene, non-showy kind of way, the exact sort of person you should seek out more. Soup is like that, too. Unlike your friend, though, who may have moved on to more appreciative company (and who could blame her?), soup remains steadfastly dedicated to you.

Soup is just a notion, hanging out in the farmer's market and cabinet, waiting to take form in a soup pot and then a bowl. From there, it will curve gracefully to the bowl's contours and that of your spoon, and you will think to yourself, "How on earth could I have gone without you for so long?" Soup holds no ill will: that is not the Way of Soup. It was made to do a job: to warm your throat, then a light a gentle path to your belly, with soupy goodness. If it can caress bread or provide a nice canvas for oyster crackers or scallions along the way, that's all the better, but never forget that soup was created to serve number one: You. Call it co-dependent, call it devoid of self-identity (and, thus, ego, and as such, a manifestation of the Buddha) but still, you know, call it.

When we were three and learning our alphabet, it was there to encourage us, an orange-y broth lesson book with floating letters, and when we are toothless and ancient, soup will fill us with nourishment and warm memories. In between it will be there for us when we're at our worst, no questions asked: sick and snotty, heartbroken, tired, impoverished. Soup loves you -- never doubt that.

Public service announcement over, but, first, some random quick points about soup:

1. If you make a big ol' pot of soup every Sunday, or whatever works for you, you will be so rewarded all week. I don't care how busy you are, naysayer: we're all busy! Don't you think I'm busy what with trying to foment the feminist vegan revolution? This is all the more reason why making a big pot of soup is so beneficial. It actually cuts down on time and expense to do this.

A. I have found if I have a container of soup at the ready in my refrigerator, it cuts down on unnecessary snacking. This makes it not only economical but good for those watching their weight.

2. Do what our grandmothers did: keep a freezer bag of leftover vegetable trimmings for making a kick-ass broth or soup. Again, this is economical and elegant in its frugality. You will also feel so rewarded when you obviate the need for a bouillon cube. Would grandma use a bouillon cube? Pish. And isn't frugality and resourcefulness all the rage these days? Create a buzz around yourself with your superlative soup-making skillz. You'll be all like the Joad family in The Grapes Of Wrath but less, you know, desperate and Okie-ish.

3. I'm getting hungry for soup now, maybe something with asparagus and petite peas. Or black beans, chipotle peppers and corn? Soup is the ultimate blank canvas upon which you make something pitch-perfect for your mood: light, spicy, smoky, subtle, tangy, rich, silky. How are you feeling? Soup is here to help match your ever-elusive moods, and, thus, create union with you. I ask you, can a casserole do that? A pizza? Like grandma said above, hands folding down in the ultimate Jewish grandma representation of dismissal, pish.

A. Experimenting with flavors and textures in your soup creating will make you a better cook. It's all about alchemy, and soup is the ideal vehicle for such experimentation.

4. There's so much to say here, about how adaptive soup is to the seasons, how it is comfortable with both peasants or royalty slurping on it, what a spectrum of colors it can come in, and on and on. I'm getting all verklempt.

5. Oh, last, perhaps my final point is soup is perhaps my clichéd Proust's Madeleine as my beloved Grandmother (do you seem how many times grandmother has been invoked here?), who was a very good cook, had a special way with it. I can still see her (totally non-vegetarian, but still, a warm memory as is everything associated with her) matzo ball soup with the round yellow fat puddles on the surface. My grandfather, a man whose mother died in his childhood and who came to this country by himself as a teenager, would hum to himself as he ate it. I wonder how much my Grandmother's soup helped to instill a sense of security, of gratitude, in her husband? Grandma was a wise, generous woman. I can say, my grandfather ate a lot of soup - pretty much at every meal - and he was a very content man. I'm not saying this will work for you but it's worth a try, right?

But enough with the talky-talk. Get out your soup pot and let's get started.

Mental for Lentil Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and garlic; sauté until the onion is golden, about six minutes or so.

1 large carrot, sliced
1 large stalk of celery, chopped

Add this to the onions in the pot and stir together for three minutes or so.

2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste (lemon pepper would be good here if you have it)

Add to the pot and sauté for a minute or so. If the vegetables become overly dry, add a tablespoon or so of water.

2 cups red lentils*
6 cups veggie broth or water
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Cook over medium-high heat until boiling. Then lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and wait for about twenty minutes or so. The lentils should have smooshed by now as they don't hold their shape like other lentils. Blend this with an immersion blender (an indispensable tool for the soup fanatic) or standard blender until smooth. Return to the pot if necessary.

1 lemon

Add the juice of one-half to one whole lemon, depending on your preference. I like lots of lemon in lentil soup. You can juice one half and put a wedge on the side as well.

Season until it's just right and enjoy, preferably with basmati rice.

A last note: this is more of a dal than a brown lentil hippie soup (not that I'm casting aspersions) and as such can be emphasized more as such. Add kidney beans after it's been blended, step up the curry. I have to keep things fairly tame for the developing palate in our home. Add water as you reheat.

Shalom, everyone.

*Why red, as these are little babies are undeniably, gorgeously, proudly orange? Is this along the same lines with why people with orange hair are referred to as redheads? It must be. If so, why the orange phobia? It can be a lovely color, it's the color of your second chakra, and is nothing to fear. Is the word more recent and all things with that hue were referred to as red? Very curious.


  1. Oh my god! Why do you live so far away from me! You are so awesome. I LOVE this post. And I love soup, so much. I never forget about soup. I make it once or twice a week. ORANGE lentil soup definitely tops as one of my all-time favorites.

  2. Go, orange, go! I know! I totally wish we could hang out with our little monkeys.


    PS - You're awesome, too, Chandelle!


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