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4.17.2006

Sex, lies, and lentil soup

My name may not be Dr. Ruth, Ann Landers, or Dr. Phil, but where love and marriage are concerned, I do have this advice: sometimes self-deception is a future spouse’s best friend. Especially at the dinner table.

Take, say, Brandon, my own handy example. Though a vegetarian, born and raised, he has developed a rather sneaky strategy where certain fleshly foods are concerned. His solution is a close cousin of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, something best described as “Ask, But Don’t Hear the Answer.” When served a given food item, he tries in earnest to ensure that it is vegetarian-friendly, but should he learn otherwise, in certain cases, he will—very consciously, and quite conveniently—forget. It’s quite simple, and with more than two decades of practice, he has it down pat. This policy applies to fish sauce, shrimp paste, gelatin, chicken stock, and, among other things, the sauce on Di Fara’s square pizza, which gets its supple, sumptuous body from a porcine base. He has his priorities, and no dietary restrictions will keep him from a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant, a homemade marshmallow, a good soup, or New York City’s finest slice. I am marrying a veritable master of self-deception, and as you might imagine, I really couldn’t be happier.

Brandon’s consciously self-deluding habits have led to many a good meal, the most recent being only a few days ago, mere hours after he arrived in Seattle for this month’s tide-me-over visit. Between bites of sandwiches and French fries at Baguette Box, our conversation turned—as it inevitably does—to our next meal, and the following exchange ensued.

Molly: I was thinking we could make a lentil soup tonight—maybe that one from the Zuni cookbook? [She hesitates.] We could use that chicken stock I made last weekend.

Brandon: You mean that vegetable stock? [He winks.]

Molly: Oh, right. Vegetable stock! We’ll use that vegetable stock I made last weekend.

A trained professional might not agree, but the little lies that we tell ourselves bode rather well, I think, for our future happiness, especially where lentil soup is concerned.


Black Lentil Soup with Black Pepper and Cumin Seeds
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook


Every cook needs a good lentil soup, no matter how simple, in her repertoire. Though there are many worthy ones to be made, this version currently tops my list. It is rustic and full-bodied, and surprisingly complex. I venture to guess that nearly any type of lentil would work here, but if you can, try to find black (also known as Beluga) lentils, which sport a plump, round shape; a rich color; and a sweet, earthy flavor. The same note goes for the stock: while a good vegetable stock would work in a pinch, a homemade (or best-quality store-bought) chicken stock will bring wonderful body and flavor. Lastly, be not afraid of the amount of peppercorns called for here: they settle softly into the background, lending only a subtle undertone of spice—more fragrance, really, than bite. And the aroma that rises from the mortar when you crush them into a few cumin seeds really should not be missed.

3 Tbs good-quality olive oil
½ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
½ tsp whole black peppercorns
¼ tsp cumin seeds
¼ cup finely chopped carrot
¼ cup finely chopped celery
¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 large garlic clove, smashed and chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 sprig of Italian (also known as flat-leaf) parsley, chopped (both stem and leaves)
1 cup lentils, preferably Beluga
4 to 4 ½ cups good-quality chicken stock (such as the homemade version also in The Zuni Café Cookbook)
Salt, to taste
Crème fraîche or sour cream, for serving (optional)
A few leaves of Italian parsley, finely chopped, for serving (optional)

Place a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat, and add 1 Tbs oil. When the oil is warm, add the bell pepper and cook, stirring regularly, until it softens a bit, about 5 minutes.

In a small mortar, crush the peppercorns and cumin seeds. Add them to the bell pepper, and cook the mixture for 1 minute. Add the remaining 2 Tbs oil, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, and lentils, as well as 3 cups of stock. Stir the mixture together, and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat, and cook the soup uncovered, barely simmering, until the lentils are tender and have absorbed most of the liquid, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover, and let stand for 5 minutes to allow the lentils to soften.

Using an immersion blender (or, alternatively, a blender or food processor), partially puree the soup, so that about half of the lentils are still whole. The soup should be a bit creamier, though still rustic, and a touch lighter in color. Add a bit more broth—I added 1 cup total, in ½-cup doses—to bring the soup to your desired texture. Simmer briefly to rewarm, taste, and add salt as necessary. Serve with crème fraîche and/or Italian parsley, if you like.

Yield: About 4 servings

26 Comments:

Anonymous Tana said...

Everyone alive rationalizes all day long every day. Here in California, I have heard people of considerable intelligence utter these words in succession: "I'm a vegetarian. I only eat fish and chicken."

So not eating meat and not being dogmatic and inflexible are Brandon's ideals. Long may he live, especially as you don't describe him throwing buckets of paint onto people who are consuming hotdogs.

Bravo.

7:54 PM, April 17, 2006  
Anonymous GoobernGrape said...

ah, yes. yet another page taken from the Zuni cookbook. did you know that bobby flay recommended it as required reading for the modern fill-in-the-blank-sexual male in a recent men's health and fitness magazine? what a bold move to suggest your average joe try something from that tome. i love it. fortunately, soup recipes are user friendly.

Brandon has a great attitude about being vegetarian. if it suits you, roll with it. right on! sometimes ignorance (or even fully disclosed knowledge) is bliss. for me, non-vegetarian bliss takes the sole form of anchovies. go figure.

and by all means, if you have your own chicken stock, use it-- more people should. though sometimes, especially in vegetable-centric soups (or even risottos) the richness can overpower. does Brandon make his own vegetable stock? has he made and used any in a dish for you?

are French lentils too small to use in a soup like this?

8:51 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger Tea said...

Molly (as I polish off the last of your Chopped Spring Salad--yum), this is probably for the best, especially where ethnic food and foreign travel is concerned. I know it's almost impossible to get through Asia completely vegetarian (one may think they are, but they probably aren't).

And with a cook like you around, being too dogmatic might be a great loss. Even my mother took temporary leave of her fierce vegetarianism for a taste of your panade recipe, and didn't regret it (though I suspect she too has convinced herself it was vegetable stock).

Have fun you two crazy cooking kids. I want full report on your culinary adventures:-)

10:50 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger Celeste said...

Sounds like your fella may be evolving into an omnivore...

11:14 PM, April 17, 2006  
Blogger MM said...

Gosh, I wish my ex-colleague could have taken a page off Brandon's book. She claimed to be a vegetarian but would eat seafood. Ordering a prawns noodles, she ate almost half of it before asking us what the base stock was. When we told her it was pork bones, she screamed bloody murder and created a huge hooha, threatening to sue the stall. I made it a point never to eat with her again.

On a happier note, that soup looks too die for!

1:19 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

I'm happy that my vegetarian wife is not only willing to try a little bit of meat from time to time, but cooks one damn mean steak!

7:19 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Shauna said...

I can say from first-hand experience that Brandon has a sly grin and an open heart about food. And life. This serves him well.

(It also, as you rightly claim here, will help enormously in the day-to-day between you. And oh, what fun you two will have.)

That boy doesn't have a dogmatic bone in his body. And good on him -- he wouldn't want to miss this soup!

8:15 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Dawna said...

Ah, I am always up for a new lentil soup recipe! And, as of last night, I have some freshly made stock languishing in the fridge. I was going to freeze half of it, and make Avgolemono with the other half, but now I think we might have two soup-nights this week...

9:31 AM, April 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a real vegetarian who doesn't eat any meat (have been to Cambodia and ate no meat thank you... salads can be your guarantee) I just wish people would stop claiming to be veggie. If you eat meat... any at all.. that is fine, good for you I don't care, I won't judge... but please don't dilute the lifestyle with your carnivorous adventures. Fish, Chickens, Shellfish, Cows,Pigs, etc. are all animals so if you eat any part of them then don't say you are vegetarian. If you choose not to eat meat for health reasons then say so. If you just don't prefer meat then say so. Vegetarianism is a life choice it is not just a whim. Have a great day!

9:39 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Dianka said...

Your right.. every good cook needs a great lentil recipe! That's so true. This looks delicious!

~Dianka
http://na-zdravi.blogspot.com/

10:45 AM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Well spoken, Tana. Brandon's flexibility and tolerance are an inspiration to me, whether we're talking fish sauce or something far more serious. I have a lot to learn from him.

GooberNGrape, that Bobby Flay bit is certainly interesting news! He has good taste in cookbooks, at least, although I'm not so convinced in other areas. And as for this sticky business of vegetarianism, I applaud your live-and-let-live sentiment, and your anchovies. To each his own happiness! And to answer your vegetable stock question, yes, Brandon does sometimes make his own rough-and-tumble version, especially for a roasted squash soup he likes to make. As with chicken stock, the homemade vegetable stuff is an entirely different animal - pardon the pun! - from the store-bought variety. So delicate and nuanced! And lastly, yes, French lentils will work just fine. They are actually very close to the size of Beluga lentils, and maybe, actually, a bit bigger.

Tea, I just read your post about your mother last night, and wow - what a remarkable woman. You must have done an awfully delicious job of that panade, my friend. And as for culinary adventures, oh, we've got years of those to go!

Celeste, it does sound a bit that way, doesn't it? I would be shocked, though, if he went much farther than the point he has reached today. Having never eaten an actual piece of meat, he will not likely wolf down a chicken leg or rack of ribs any time soon, which is pretty understandable. But I'm certainly grateful that he doesn't judge me when I do.

MM, like your ex-colleague, I used to be what I playfully call a "pseudo vegetarian" - I did not eat anything involving beef, pork, poultry, or other meat, but I did eat seafood. I kept vegetarian about 95% of the time, eating fish about once a week at most. And you'd better believe that when I ate in restaurants, I asked lots of questions about stocks and soup bases! In fact, strangely enough, I remember being saddened once at the Zuni Cafe - the restaurant from which this delicious lentil soup recipe coincidentally comes! - to learn that a soup that I'd wanted to order had a chicken stock base. Funny how I've changed my tune...

Wheresmymind, your wife sounds like a lovely woman. People cite so many different reasons for choosing to keep a vegetarian diet - if your wife's reasons allow room for a thoughtful taste of meat every now and then, more power to her.

Awww, Shauna! You have summed him up well, my friend. Now, if only I could find a way to break my own dogmatic bones, so to speak...

Dawna, the more soup nights, the merrier! I love soup night.

Anonymous, you're very right: vegetarianism is a life choice for many people, and it should not be treated as a whim - nor, for that matter, should any choice where the ethics and politics of food are concerned. In Brandon's case, however, vegetarianism was not a choice: he was raised by vegetarian parents in a vegetarian home, and it was only after learning that several foods he had tasted and loved - green papaya salad and other Asian foods, namely - in fact contain fish sauce, bonito, shrimp paste, etc., that he even considered eating these things in a conscious way. For him, the decision to taste and accept a few select non-vegetarian foods is not a dilution of his lifestyle, but rather a carefully considered broadening of his life experience, because he had never previously been given a choice about eating such foods. I applaud him for his flexibility, and also for knowing his limits.

Thank you, Dianka!

12:03 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Tea said...

PS. I was shocked that she went for it too, Molly (the woman wears insanely ugly foot wear due to her ethical beliefs). But her guard was down--she had just gotten off a long flight from India and I gave the leftover panade a hard sell, as I think that recipe is incredible. It was the first I tried off your site and with that one dish you won me (or at least my stomach) for life.

3:59 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Awwwww - you two are just the cutest!(I mean you and Brandon - oh okay, the soup sounds cute too, then!:-))

9:34 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger hello jamie: said...

That soup sounds remarkably similar to my black bean soup (but NO red pepper, thank you very much!) but I think I would like the lentils better (and I think they are a little better for you- more fiber maybe?) Mine also has coriander in it, and is garnished with cilantro.

I almost always use chicken stock but in a pinch once, used onion stock and found it a wonderful vegetarian option, and more flavorful than straight veggie broth. Pacific Natural Foods also makes a vegetarian/vegan mushroom broth that is quite good.

2:17 PM, April 19, 2006  
Blogger Fiber said...

This looks completely awesome, and I will definitely have to make this!

10:32 AM, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous tanna said...

Love lentils and just about any lentil soup I've tried. Yours look terrific and I'll try it.

11:24 AM, April 22, 2006  
Blogger Carol said...

Last night we had this soup, made with duck stock...yum. Thank you for sharing the recipe, Molly!

10:50 AM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Jason Truesdell said...

I think this is a fairly common strategy for vegetarians who also expect to eat good food, especially if we want to minimize unnecessary social friction when dining with friends.

As a reasonably undogmatic vegetarian, I find the path of least resistance to be willful ignorance, at least when someone else is cooking.

I can't really ask someone to up and change their soup stock just because I show up, and so, when traveling in Japan, eating in Seattle, or letting someone else cook, it's far more harmonious to just feign ignorance, even when I absolutely know better. If I can't stomach something at all, I'll just avoid eating it. That's one of the reasons I love restaurants that serve small plates :)

I'm afraid I haven't learned your companion's skill in the art of gentle self-deception, however. My response is usually more along the lines of "oh, I can ignore that."

1:38 PM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Nerissa said...

Oh dear... I wish it was that easy to deal with my beloved. I count it a triumph when I see him eating something "I don't like" because sometimes I don't dare share with him what is in a dish because I'll be hanged if I would make him a separate dish.

8:29 PM, April 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

long-time lurker here. I've been meaning to write you to tell you that every recipe I've attempted from this website has been fabulous, and I've enjoyed your writings very much. so, thanks!

however. the reason I'm writing today is to 1) say congratulations on the engagement, 2) to let you know that I was a vegetarian for 16 years before I fell in love with my now-husband. who is a former butcher. (yes, really.)

and one day, after living together about a month, he came home, looked me deep in the eyes, and said, "Sweetheart, I'm grilling two steaks tomorrow night for dinner. Be prepared." and so it was. (and, yes, the steaks were really delicious. and no, I didn't get sick.) I'm still not a huge meat eater-- I eat red meat maybe once per month-- and my husband knows that if he needs to eat meat more than that, he has to cook it. but I'm learning, slowly. (and last night I cooked fish for the first time, solo (salmon fillet, covered with a puree of garlic, parsley, lemon zest, capers and olive oil)--and it was good.)

congratulations again!

7:59 AM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger David said...

Long live the Baguette Box...and French Fries are certainly the great equalizer since no matter what your 'ism', there ain't no one that can't (or won't) eat potatoes, especially when they're as good as those.

And if I were you, Molly, I'd give them a call right now and make sure they're available for catering your big day!

10:18 AM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Tea, you sneaky thing, catching her with her guard down! Sounds as though you love panade as much as I do, my friend. We both owe The Zuni Cafe Cookbook quite a debt of gratitude. And your mom apparently does too!

Awww, thank you, Zarah!

Jamie, your black bean soup sounds wonderful. I love anything involving black beans and cilantro! My favorite black bean soup / chili recipe is from The Greens Cookbook - warm and spicy, with a smoky edge from chipotles. Oh, and as for the nutritional breakdown of lentils vs. black beans, I'm not sure, but I imagine that they must be quite similar, since they are both legumes. Pretty healthful stuff, either one!

Glad to hear it, Fiber!

Tanna, I think you'll love this. Please let me know how it turns out...

Carol, you're very welcome! I'm so glad that you approve. And as for that duck stock? Amen.

Well said, Jason. I very much admire your outlook. Your "Oh, I can ignore that" is very similar to Brandon's approach, and certainly you both share a love for food - and the people you share it with - that transcends rigid rules and boundaries.

Nerissa, it amazes me sometimes how radically palates can differ! I have a feeling, though, that if you're very patient and loving - and maybe a little sneaky - you can convince your man that some of those items that he doesn't think he likes are actually quite tasty...

Thank you, Anonymous - not only for the congratulations, but for that very sweet story! A longtime vegetarian marrying a former butcher, and eating steak, to boot - I love it. You two sound wonderful together. Cheers to both of you, and to your compromises in the kitchen!

Ooooh, David! I hadn't thought of that. Hot damn. I wonder how a picnic rehearsal dinner might work, with Baguette Box catering? Miam, miam...

1:05 PM, April 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with anonymous. This is a cute story--but why would he call himself vegetarian? He's not. I'm not either. I eat fish, and don't claim to be veggie--but it really is a lifestyle for those who truly are.

He should just eat what he wants--everyone makes their own dietary choices, after all--but no calling himself veggie!

7:20 AM, May 11, 2006  
Blogger Dorothy said...

It's always so funny to me that vegetarians consider their title to be so sacred! Brian is diluting their lifestyle by eating lentil soup? That's hilarious.

Anyway, I just finished eating this soup and it was fantastic. Thank you for sharing.

5:48 PM, September 30, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been waiting for peppers to come into season so I could try this soup. It was delicious! And even better with a dollop of horseradish cream on top! I think I'll roast and freeze some red peppers to use throughout the winter, in this soup and others.

5:01 AM, July 12, 2010  
Blogger TinaW said...

I made this soup for dinner tonight - and lunches tomorrow. It is fantastic! (even though I did accidentally add some black beans instead of beluga lentils - I notice after only adding a few spoonfuls of beans. I was wondering why my lentils were so big...)

8:22 PM, November 07, 2011  

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