Heaven in a Bowl
There’s nothing more satisfying than a bowl of hot soup. It wards off the chill on a crisp fall night. It can be made hours (in some cases, days) before your guests arrive. And, once you’ve bid the last person good night, only one large pot needs scrubbing. With a fresh green salad and a loaf of bread, soup makes for a simple, nourishing meal that warms the stomach and comforts the soul.
Any number of soups will do the trick. Minestrone. Cream of mushroom. Potato-leek. Clam chowder. French onion. And let’s not forget that wonder drug from the Jewish kitchen: chicken noodle. But my favorite hot soup is my own hearty lentil soup. It’s incredibly thick, tangy and spicy--perfect for entertaining at home as well as consoling friends in need.
When I make it, I sometimes feel like a witch doctor whipping up a magic potion. Unlike most lentil soups, mine calls for cumin, which imparts a smoky taste, a pungent aroma and a depth and complexity missing in other recipes. Leeks and spinach add an earthy sweetness to balance the spice’s intensity. And because half of the mixture is blended and then returned to the pot, the texture is simultaneously smooth and chunky, never runny or thin.
The original version was my stepmother’s creation--which she later published in a cookbook--and I adored it as a child. Still, when I began cooking for myself, I couldn’t resist experimenting with her recipe, using more cumin and spinach, eliminating the canned plum tomatoes in favor of more chicken broth and--hey, why not?--throwing in some parsnips along with leeks, carrots and celery. I knew I had hit on the right ingredients and proper proportions when my soup began getting unsolicited raves.
“If I were going to explore the Sahara, I’d have three bowls before I leave,” a friend once told me. And he was right. This is the food you’d eat before and after any life-altering experience.
Take my exceptionally organized friend and her husband, who were expecting their first child a couple of years ago. Anticipating the sleep-deprived haze that lay ahead, they stocked their refrigerator with easily reheatable meals long before the baby was due. Sure enough, when they came home from the hospital, they were exhilarated, exhausted and very hungry. They ran out of rations in no time. So I dashed over and left my magic pot behind. The next morning, I received a call from the new dad, who said: “This is the best breakfast soup I’ve ever had!” Weeks later, the new mom chimed in: “Thank God for that soup! We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t shower. But we ate well.”
What came to be known in their house as “baby stew” has also worked wonders on the lovelorn. Another friend, this one disconsolate after a painful breakup with his girlfriend, needed someone to talk to, so I invited him over. As he recounted the tumultuous relationship over spoonfuls of soup, I noticed his depression begin to lift. Convinced it had to do with my miracle brew, I offered him more, which he happily accepted. Today, whenever we discuss that evening long past, he can’t recall the particulars of the stormy affair, but he can remember everything about the soup. As he likes to say: “It was heaven in a bowl.”
Of course, there’s no need to wait for one of life’s pivotal moments or a blue mood to hit. This soup is just as delicious on the brightest of days.
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LENTIL SOUP WITH SPINACH AND CUMIN
Adapted from “The Good Food: Soups, Stews & Pastas” by Daniel Halpern and Julie Strand (Ecco Press)
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 to 4 leeks (whites only), chopped
2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound lentils, rinsed
2 ham hocks (or ham bone, preferably smoked)
10 cups chicken stock
1 pound fresh spinach, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In stockpot, heat olive oil and saute leeks, celery and carrots over moderate heat until soft. Add cumin and garlic and saute vegetables 2 more minutes.
Add lentils, ham hocks and stock and bring soup to boil. Lower heat, cover pot partly and simmer 1 hour.
Remove ham hocks and shred meat, removing all fat and gristle. Reserve meat.
Puree about half of cooked lentils in blender or food processor and return to pot.
Add meat, spinach, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and simmer soup 15 minutes.
Food stylist: Christine Masterson