Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fall-toned Lentils – All the Earth Tones of Fall, and Protein, Too

I've not been blogging for a while, but I was inspired by a lentil soup meal we shared during a recent visit from one of our kids, Rachel, who I love to feed almost as much as I enjoy her earnest and honest intellect, her enthusiasm for her work as a media artist, and her crazy sense of fun. She loved the lentil soup and asked for the recipe (also posted on this site), but being new to lentils and newer to cooking, I couldn't resist putting together some food gab to add to the soup!

So now, all about lentils - colors and kinds, cooking tips, recipes and anecdotes for spice.

Lentils may be one of the most perfect foods, plenty of serviceable protein, high in fiber, and no significant fat. Also mineral rich, they have a fair amount of calcium, vitamins A and B, and are a good source of iron and phosphorus. In India, which is also the largest producer of lentils and home to more vegetarians than any other region of the world, they’re a star staple. Lentils have been nourishing folk, especially poor folk, even in Biblical times. Remember Esau selling his birthright for red porridge? That was porridge of red lentils, native to Egypt.

Today lentils are found the world over, particularly popular in Europe and the Middle East for spicy soups, health salads and stews rich with meat.
In Ancient Greece, a lentil soup called Pitisane fed the men of iron that fought the wars - and famously, at least one fine philosopher as well: There is the oft-told story of Diogenes and Aristippus, two philosophers at the court of the Syracusian tyrant, Dionysus. Aristippus, the Hedonist, and as such, quite a bit more successful at court, one day sought to counsel his colleague. Musing as he watched Diogenes preparing some lentils for a meager meal, Aristippus quipped:

"If you would only learn to flatter Dionysius more, you wouldn't have to live on lentils."

"And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter Dionysius," retorted Diogenes.

The Romans, too, developed a taste for lentils, and apparently a voracious need: Lentils fed the masses, and the crop at home wasn’t enough. Through the reign of Caligula, it is documented that Rome imported lentils from Egypt on a scale unequaled by any other food stuff trade up to that time.
The long and important history of lentils in the development of man yields many a choice anecdote. Clifford Wright, the food historian and expert on all foods Mediterranean, has more interesting info on his website.

The lentil food gab makes for great tableside chatter, but without the main course – lentils, of course - there’s no reason to be at the table! There’s more info below about the palette of lentil varieties, especially how to handle the cooking and soaking, if any.
Some quick lentil sides are described below, and a few special soups have their own posts – see the links or the list of recipes on the side panel.

One important proviso with lentil cooking, save the salting until the end of the cooking. Lentils cook more slowly if they're combined with salt or acidic ingredients, so add these last. Also, never cook lentils with baking soda – an old housewives trick that does soften them faster, but destroys the vitamin B1 in the process. And worried about the after dinner gases? The soaking water contains most of the chemicals that adversely react with bacteria in your system, producing flatulence: Discard the soak water, and there’s little to fear.

The Colors of Lentils

LENTIL LENTILS (brownish): The most common of lentils are the brown variety found everywhere in the dried bean aisle of all groceries. They are sold in two sizes – small and larger (but still smaller than peas). Mass produced, processed and often very dried, the larger regular lentils do require soaking – overnight is too much, but 4 hours at room temperature works; or, pour over boiling water and let rest for 1 hour before rinsing and using in your recipe. Longer simmering is required to completely cook the larger browns – not a good choice for a 30 minute meal! The smaller brown lentils need no soaking and cook up in soups and stews in 30 minutes for al dente. Both large and small brown lentils are great with meat-based lentil soups. A ham hock or diced pancetta are common broth basics. Sausages or franks also taste great in Euro-style lentil soups, with lots of diced veggies to balance franks and beans! And of course, there's a recipe on this blog.

RED LENTILS: The red split, lentils, native to Egypt are my favorite for soups and sides. Because they have no hull, they take the shortest time to cook and require no pre-soaking whatsoever. This type of lentil is usually found in everyday meals and make a quick and healthy (high protein) starch side. For a tasty salmon go-with, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add an unpeeled clove of garlic, a sprig of rosemary, a shave of lemon peel and a few whole peppercorns. Simmer 10 minutes. Strain to remove rosemary, lemon and peppercorns, then simmer a cup of red lentils in the broth for about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and serve with chopped cilantro or parsley – tastes great with simple salmon. There's a soup to try as well - see the Spicy Red Lentil from the Recipe List.

PUY LENTILS (tiny and dark green): Prized in French cooking, lentiles du puy are available in Whole Foods and better supermarkets. Because of their petit size, they also need little soaking, if any. Diners often remark that puy lentils taste almost like a fresh vegetable, and therefore, they’re great cold in salads. My favorite is a heart-friendly cold dish. Puys are not to be ignored for soups, either. The Velvety Lentil Soup made with puy lentils makes a great mini-meal, especially when temperatures start to climb. (Yes, heat cools!)

BELUGA BLACK (quite black!): These specialty lentils, so-called to conjure up the more luxurious caviar, were featured for a while back at Trader Joe’s, and are certainly a standout. With their novelty came a spate of recipes and recipe gab on the internet, too. Black lentils need no soak, and cook almost as quickly as puy lentils. They, too, work well in salads. I’ve seen some tempting recipes with diced red peppers (hot and sweet!), green onions, lime juice vinaigrette and cilantro, and, with a red wine vinaigrette, shallots, parsely and goat cheese or feta.

TOOR/ARHAR (yellow lentils): The Toor Dal, is dull yellow in color and is most often the base for many South Indian specialties like Sambhar. Other than in specialty Middle Eastern or Indian groceries, yellow lentils are not easy to find. They need to soak for a few hours before cooking, and take longer to boil down to a soft edible center. They cook up perfectly, however in a slow cooker – real comfort food carbs without the high glycemic index.

Spicy Red Lentil

Lentils scented with aromatic cumin and flavored with tangy lemon and garlic, garnished with golden crisp sautéed onions and a little cilantro: a mid-eastern style lentil soup that is both delicious and attractive, and best of all, quite quick and easy and to prepare. Since the soup is water based, no special broths are needed. And the ingredients, except the cilantro, are all pretty much kitchen staples.

I’ve adapted this recipe fusing approaches from several Middle Eastern style lentil soups. The spiciness is most common with the soup flavorings of the Gulf states or North Africa, while the red lentils are more Egyptian. Another recipe on this site, Lebanese Style Lentil Soup, has a much milder flavoring. I’ve come to love these middle eastern lentil soups, and for this I owe thanks to David Scott, author of Recipes for and Arabian Night (Pantheon 1983). His was the first cookbook of Arab recipes I acquired, and I’ve made many of his recipes my own through years of repeating and experimenting.

The Ingredients
1 cup red lentils
5 cups water
1 onion, sliced thin
4 Tbsp Olive Oil, or other good quality oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach or 8 oz. pkge frozen leaf spinach
juice of 1 large lemon, and quarters to server
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt and pepper
¼ cup loosely chopped cilantro leaves (also called coriander)

Notes on the ingredients
Frozen spinach works as well as fresh, but completely thaw the spinach and squeeze out as much of water as possible. Otherwise the spinach will turn to mush when you sauté it with the garlic!

Slicing the onion: Not easy without a high end slicer, or professional experience. But, you will find the onion is much easier to handle if you cut in half from the root to the stem end (vertically). With the cut side down, you can slice thin with greater control.

Getting Started
The lentils cook quite quickly, so it is important to have all other ingredients fully prepped or started. The onions take a good 15 or 20 minutes to simmer and caramelize, so they should go first. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, then add the sliced onions and allow to simmer over medium low heat, stirring as needed to prevent uneven cooking.

The spinach leaves, if fresh, should be thoroughly washed, stems removed, and if large, sliced horizontally in two inch ribbons. Baby spinach doesn’t seem to work as well, but sometimes its the only fresh available. If frozen, thaw in the microwave and remove as much water as you can, as in the above note.

Bring the lentils to boil in the five cups of water, cover and reduce heat. Allow the lentils to simmer for no more than 20 minutes.

Heat the remaining oil in a skillet type pan to medium, add the garlic and gently sauté until it begins to soften (not color). Add the spinach, stirring to coat evenly until all wilted. Set aside until lentils are ready. Next, check the onions – they are done once they have reached a golden crispness. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Assembling the Soup

When lentils are cooked, add the cumin, salt and either cayenne or freshly ground pepper. Swirl in the spinach and let the soup simmer for a good five minutes to blend the flavors. Just before serving and off the heat, swirl in the lemon juice. Serve, garnishing each plate coriander leaves, caramelized onions and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Lots of pita, lightly sprinkled with water and warmed to a gently crisp in the oven is great with the soup. Homemade hummus makes the meal divine.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cauliflower Cress Soup

Like the Zucchini soup in the preceding post, Cauliflower Cress Soup is a really aromatic but light puree, ideal for slimming lunches, or a starter for a warm weather salad supper. There's the nuttiness of the cauliflower and the stronger flavor bite from the fresh watercress, which makes it soothing and interesting at the same time. This recipe is an even lighter version of a recipe with the same ingredients, courtesy of Martha Stewart Living. Martha Stewart uses double the butter, and suggests a chicken broth – her version is also excellent, if not as diet perfect. Don't substitute with oil or spray, though. The butter is both for flavor and texture, and doing without altogether doesn't seem to get the flavor richness for this soup.

The Broth

I like to start with a vegetable broth – here is a suggestion:
4 to 6 cups water
½ onion studded with 2 cloves
6 sprigs Italian parsley with stems.
½ carrot, cut into chunks
1 small celery stalk with leaves
1 bunch watercress, stems only (leaves are for the puree, see below!)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if available
½ teaspoon salt

Bring all ingredients to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat, strain out all vegetables and reserve the broth for the recipe. Freeze any extra broth for another use.

The Soup

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced - or use onion and shallot mixed
1 small head of cauliflower, separated into florets
1 bunch watercress, leaves only
4 cups vegetable stock (see above)
1 cup water
2 thinly sliced radishes and parsley leaves for garnish

Melt butter and add diced onions in a saucepan large enough to accommodate all the soup. Sautee, covered, over low heat to for 10 minutes. Steaming under cover allows the onions to simmer using less fat!

Add the broth and water and cauliflower, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the cauliflower is soft. Stir in the watercress leaves, but do not cook. Puree the soup in batches, or, using a stick blender, blend right in the saucepan. Season with additional salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Pour soup into serving bowls, and garnish with thin radish slices and a few leaves of parsley.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Zucchini Soup

A delicate but satisfying vegetable puree to enjoy as a springtime lunch. Follow with slices of chilled fresh pears.

The Broth – Chicken or Vegetable

Use 1 cup of a light chicken broth, like the one following
5 cups water
1 whole chicken breast, with bones but with skin removed
1/2 onion, studded with 2 cloves
1 medium leek, sliced in 1 inch rings
1 carrot, cut in chunks
1 celery stalks and some celery leaves, cut into 2 inch pieces
4 parsley stems, whole
1/2 tsp salt
Simmer all ingredients together for 40 minutes. Remove the chicken and set aside for another dish. Strain the broth and discard the vegetables.

Or, for a light veggie broth, omit the chicken, double the celery and add in a teaspoon of minced tarragon.

The Vegetables
4 cups diced zucchini
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 T minced parsley and freshly ground pepper for garnish

For the Soup
2 tablespoons of chopped onion
2 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of broth (see above)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
or, subsitute for the broth and salt
1 cup water with 1 chicken bouillon cube

Dice zucchini and soak in ice cold water with a dash of salt for 20 minutes, then drain in a colander. While zucchini is soaking, chop the onion and parsley.
Sauté onion and butter in saucepan. When onion is translucent, add broth, zucchini, and salt; mix well. Cook until zucchini is tender –no more than 10 minutes. Combine the zucchini mixture with parsley and process in batches in a blender until smooth. Serve immediately garnished with fresh parsley and pepper.

4 servings; 2 carb grams per serving.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mexican Meatball Soup - from the lighter side of Mexican Cooking

In Southern California the weeks between Winter and Spring aren't very inspiring for fresh vegetable soups. Even the open air markets are looking boring this time of year. But the other day, while shopping at Trader Joe's, I got a tickler as I spied a wonderful little window sill planter with baby fresh herbs - thyme, oregano and mint, appropriately labeled the 'Mexican Meatball Soup' assortment. Now this is a great idea - a very light broth soup, with lots of vegetables which are happily almost always in season, and savory soft meatballs. The herbs are essential for the meatballs and the broth, the chunky vegetables, like carrots, squash, zucchini and potatoes are garnished with cilantro and fresh lime. This soup is definitely both fresh and hearty.

Sopa de Albóndigas, like all good ethnic dishes, is made so many different ways in Mexico - variations reflecting regional ingredients and tastes, family traditions and just plain widely different approaches. I found recipes that had corn and coyote squash with lots of tomatoes and spices, while other recipes used tomato paste and chopped green chiles in a stronger beef broth.

My direct influences were delicious versions I had in local family style Mexican cafes. Really excellent, if you're ever in the area of Half Moon Bay, is the soup on the menu at La Famiglia Mexican, on the Cabrillo Hwy just south of the town. The broth was light but flavorful, the vegetables just right, even if the meatballs were a bit too large. Another favorite is the Vallarta Restaurant in Fillmore, California, where the meatballs are soft and smaller, and again, the soup features an ungreasy light and spicy broth.

I also checked the recipe in Encarnacion's Kitchen, the wonderful historical cookbook documenting Mexican recipes from nineteenth century California. I found that Encarnacion's meatballs were a little too rich - she adds minced green onions, garlic and some chopped up tomatoes, with some lard or butter, more egg and breadcrumbs along with the cornmeal paste. While almost all recipes I came across used oregano in the meatballs, Encarnacion just has parsley, and parsley only for the soup garnish as well. In general, Encarnacion's recipes are less spiced that cooking south of the border. She clearly had already adopted many of the gentler seasoning predilections of the Europeans in her community around San Jose.

And here is the recipe for Sopa de Albondigas or Meatball Soup:

Sopa de Albondigas - The Recipe

Mexican Meatball Soup is a very light broth soup, with lots of vegetables that are happily almost always in season, and savory soft meatballs. Herbs are essential for the meatballs and the broth - fresh oregano or dried, some tarragon, mint and thyme for the broth. The vegetables, cut larger than usual, like carrots, squash, zucchini and potatoes, and the soup is garnished at serving with cilantro and fresh lime. This soup is definitely both fresh and hearty.

Getting Started:
As always, broth is key. I started early in the day with a light chicken broth - a whole small chicken simmered with celery, carrot chunks, a medium onion studded with clove, lots of parsely, a couple of pinches of dried tarragon and a tsp. of salt. You can always add more salt and pepper later.

While the broth is simmering, cook up a cup of rice, part of which will be used in the meatballs, and the rest will go into the soup

Still not ready to make soup: the meatballs should be started a good hour before the soup is assembled. This gives the meat and spices a chance to bond. The meatballs loosely covered can rest in a cool place or in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
Once the broth and meatballs are prepped and ready, the vegetables take little time to prepare. The soup itself, with vegetables and meatballs, doesn't need more than a 30 minute simmer. While this soup tastes wonderful the second day (just like a minestrone), longer initial cooking won't add a thing. This soup needs to showcase the freshness of the vegetables and herbs, and with overcooking, the root vegetables get too sweet and the herbs turn bitter.

The Broth

1 small soup chicken, washed and trimmed of excess skin and fat

2-3 qts water

1 medium onion, studded with 2 or 3 cloves

2 carrots, cut in chunks

2 celery stalks and some celery leaves, cut into 2 inch pieces

8 - 10 parsley stems

2 stalks of fresh tarragon, or 1 heaping teaspoon of dried

1 tsp salt

Put the chicken in a stock pot, add water and bring to a boil. Salt water, and as foam forms, skim as much as you can. When foam subsides, add vegetables and herbs, lower heat to a bare simmer and continue cooking 1-1/2 hrs, or until chicken is well poached, with meat falling of the bone. Remove chicken to a plate to cool, then strain the broth through a fine strainer.

The Meatballs

1/2 lb good ground beef. Sirloin is great - avoid very lean chopped beef.

1/2 lb good ground pork or turkey. Pork + sirloin is a great flavor combo - turkey is 2nd best.

1/4 cup yellow corn meal

1/4 cup milk

1/3 cup cooked rice

1 egg

1 tsp. cumin

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano (use less dry)

1 Tbsp. minced parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix the corn meal and milk. Let stand 5 minutes. Beat the egg and add to the corn meal and milk. Put the meats in a bowl and work with a fork to break down the meat into a fine mash. Add the seasonings, rice and herbs and continue to work with a fork. Add the egg-cornmeal mixture and continue to work meat into a uniform mass. Form meat into 1 inch balls - you should have about 20. Arrange on a plate, covering loosely with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place for a goo hour or two.

The Vegetables

2 Mexican zucchini squash, halved lengthwise and thick sliced

2 Carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch slices

1/2 Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch dice

2 - 3 medium potatoes - California whites or reds are best - peeled and cut into 1 inch dice

1 medium onion, sliced in 1/4 inch thick rounds

1 cup cooked rice

1 cup canned diced tomatoes with some juice

1 sprig fresh spearmint

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 - 3 sprigs fresh oregano

Chopped Cilantro and lime to garnish

Heat broth to boiling, add the onions and carrots, and once the water comes back to a boil, add the potatoes, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and herbs. Drop in the meatballs and simmer at gentle rolling boil for about 25 minutes. Stir in cook rice.
Serve the soup with the chopped cilantro and squeeze fresh lime into each bowl.

Soyer's Soup - Soup for the Poor, or Poor Soup

Alexis Soyer claimed that a meal of his soup once a day, together with a biscuit was sufficient to sustain the strength of a strong healthy man. Not everyone agreed. He was somewhat ridiculed in Punch, where it was said that Soyer's soup was not Soup for the Poor, but rather, Poor Soup!

Here is the recipe he published:

12-1⁄2 lbs leg of beef
100 gallons of water
6-1/4 lbs drippings
100 onions and other vegetables
25 lbs each of flour (seconds) and pearl barley
1-1/2 lbs brown sugar
9 lbs salt

So, lets see. If you divide the ingredients by 50 to put things in a more graspable framework, you'll quickly say, "where's the BEEF?"

4 oz. or 1/2 cup Beef
8 quarts water
2 oz. or 1/4 cup drippings
2 onions
8 oz. or 1 cup flour 8 oz. or 1 cup barley
1/2 oz. or 1 tsp. brown sugar
3 oz or 1/3 cup salt

I have tried this soup recipe two ways: The first interpreted the soup as a beef and barley soup, with nicely browned sliced onions in the thickened broth. I added a diced carrot, an enhancement, but rather modest. Bay leaf and pepper would have helped, but I refrained. The soup was a bit thin in flavor, but not what I would call "poor" at all. Browning the onions and meat with the sugar actually did bring out more flavor than I thought possible. A second version was faithful to the ingredients list, but the presentation was a bit different. Instead of thickening the soup with a flour-drippings roux, I used the flour, some drippings. a bit of the broth and an egg to make little flour dumplings. The soup was a broth made from the browned onions and meat, thickened slightly by the barley, with lots of small dumplings in each serving. Both versions were better than Campbells!