Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lentil Soup for Dummies

Today being my first wide-open, do-nothing day in more weeks than I care to count--possibly even months--I decided it was time to make an all-day recipe: pea soup. Then I found out that that the 1-lb. bag in my cupboard, which I had thought was a bag of dried split peas, was actually lentils. That dialed it down to only a half-day recipe, so with my bonus time I might go see a movie this afternoon!

The reason pea soup takes me all day, but lentils only half a day, has to do with my peculiar taste in both kinds of soup. Some people serve a pea soup in which tender but separately intact peas swim in a delicious broth with pieces of ham, vegetables, and aromatic seasonings; others cook them until they turn into a mush, then strain out the skins and some of the excess fluid and serve them as a lumpy gruel. While I have enjoyed delightful bowls of both types of pea soup, my preference is to boil the peas down until they completely dissolve, skin and all, into a cloudy broth...and then keep boiling the broth for hours and hours, reducing it down to a silky-smooth goo that thickens even more as it cools, until you can (at least almost) stick a spoon in it and the spoon stays upright.

Because this generally takes not only a whole day but a good deal of the night as well, I have only done it a few times. It would probably be smart of me just to make the mushy-gruel-type pea soup, add some of the fluid back in & whip it in a food processor, but I don't have a food processor and there's something about the final result of the "all-day way" that I would really hate to miss.

Lentil soup, on the other hand, has often been served to me as an indiscriminate mush, but the best varieties are on the "tender lentils in a savory broth" order. There needn't be much in the broth, except a couple of well-chosen herbs, some onion, and perhaps some meat. I've enjoyed lentil soup made with roast venison, chopped-up hard summer sausage, and bacon ends & pieces, and even a mysteriously-spiced ground sausage that I found in my freezer and still can't tell whether it was meant to be Italian or breakfast sausage. But ordinarily, I haven't made it with ham, because when I put frozen, bone-in ham in my fridge to thaw, it is usually with the idea of making pea soup. And so today, I made my first lentil-and-ham soup. This was a stroke of luck, since what I thought were ham-hocks (which I would throw away after they were done lending their flavor to the smooth pea soup) turned out to be more like a bone-in ham-roast cut into three chunks with lots of meat on them.

So I ended up with a broth full of al dente lentils and off-the-bone-tender chunks of ham. I've just eaten a bowl of it, and it was superb, even if I say so myself. Here's how a clueless bachelor, especially one who is a beginner at this sort of thing, can do what I did.

  • A working stove that you can use, without being challenged, for several hours running.
  • A supply of running water, preferably including hot water.
  • A reasonable amount of counter space.
  • A clean, medium-sized stock pot (say, 2-1/2 gallons) with a tight-fitting lid, preferably vented
  • A clean liquid measuring cup. (I have one that holds 8 cups of liquid at one time, and I find that it saves steps.)
  • A big, sturdy, and above all clean slotted spoon (use wood or plastic if your pot has a non-stick coating).
  • A disposable aluminum-foil baking sheet (best if not previously used).
  • A clean metal fork.
  • A clean, sharp steak knife.
  • A clean colander or pasta strainer.
  • A clean soup ladle or scoop.
  • A clean soup bowl and table spoon.
  • An oven timer or alarm clock (the "kitchen timer" function on a microwave oven will do).
  • A spice rack already stocked with all the standard herbs and spices.
  • Optional: a pair of clean kitchen tongs.
  • Dish soap, clean dishcloths and towels, for cleaning up afterward, or for cleaning any of the above itms (as needed) before you use them.
  • Clean, sealable storage container(s) for the leftovers.
  • A package of fresh or frozen chunks of bone-in ham; if frozen, let them thaw in your fridge (still tightly wrapped up) for a couple days ahead of time.
  • A one-pound bag of dried lentils.
  • A packet of crackers and/or the leftover breadsticks from last night's pizza delivery.
  • Quick-soak the lentils. This is to say:
    • Open the bag of dried lentils and pour them into the stock-pot. IMPORTANT: Don't cook the bag. You can throw that away.
    • Add enough piping-hot water to submerge the beans under 2 inches of water, about 4 cups.
    • Turn on the stove, particularly the flame or heating element directly under the stock-pot. NOTE: No useful objective is served by lighting the stove if the pot isn't on top of the part that is lit.
    • Heat the pot over "high" heat until the water boils.
    • After letting it boil for two minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to ring an hour later.
    • When the timer or alarm has gone off, remove the lid from the pot and pour its contents into the colander or strainer. IMPORTANT: It is best if the strainer is located in the sink at this point.
    • Rinse the beans a bit (losing as few as possible down the drain), rinse out the inside of the pot, and return the beans to the pot.
  • Add the ham chunks (minus their wrappings) to the pot with the pre-soaked lentils.
  • Add 6 cups of piping hot water and bring it to a boil. (See previous note about which heating element or flame to light.)
  • Reduce heat as low as possible so that the water continues to simmer (bubbling gently) without exactly boiling.
  • Put the cover on the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to go off in another 90 minutes. (TIP: If the lid falls right in, it's the wrong one. Fish it out and try a bigger lid until you find one that stays on top of the pot. Be careful not to put your hand directly in the boiling water, because t's, like, scalding hot, dude.)
  • Stay within earshot of the kitchen while the pot is simmering.
    • Good noises to hear: a soft bubbling sound, the lid of the pot gently vibrating, maybe an occasional faint hiss of escaping steam.
    • Bad noises to hear: loud rattling, hissing, and bubbling indicating a more rapid boil; a dribbling sound from the water boiling over; the smoke alarm; sirens; screams; people pounding on your door and asking if you're all right.
    • Also, be alert to smells: cooking ham, good; acrid smoke, burning metal, and melted plastic, bad.
  • Give the contents a stir now and then, using the slotted spoon. (TIP: Hold the spoon so that the "slotted" bit is pointed downward into the simmering liquid, while your hands remain high and dry.)
  • At the end of 90 minutes, remove the lid of the pot and fish out the chunks of bone and meat, using the kitchen tongs or, if none are available, the fork and slotted spoon.
  • Place the meat-and-bone chunks on the disposable baking sheet. Then, using the fork and knife, separate the meat from the bones. Trim off excess fat and cut the meat into bite-sized hunks; then, return it to the pot. TIP: If you are using ham hocks, which are basically pigs' feet, you might want to skip this step and simply throw the meat & bones away, or refrigerate them in a sealed container for another soup-making project within a day or two.
  • Add any additional seasonings you see fit to add. I would suggest some dried onion, a couple of whole bay leaves; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper and garlic powder, and maybe chili powder and/or celery salt; a pinch or so each of sage, thyme, rosemary, and basil, or maybe the equivalent number of pinches of just one or two of the above.
  • After giving the seasoned soup a good stir and a moment to simmer, turn off the heat, and use the scoop or ladle to dish up a bowl of your new soup. TIP: Leave the bay leaves in the pot.
  • Enjoy your soup.
    • TIP: Use a spoon to eat it; otherwise the liquid will run through the slots in your fork.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Try dipping crackers and/or bread-sticks in your soup. Or, crumble up a cracker or two into the bottom of your bowl to soak up the last of the soup.
  • When the remaining soup in the pot has cooled enough to be handled safely, pour it (bay leaves and all) into the storage container(s), seal them, and refrigerate to eat as leftovers tomorrow or within the week.
  • If you want to keep your leftovers longer than that, seal them in a freezer-safe container (no more than half full) and stick them in the freezer.
  • You may find that the flavors actually improve after a night in the fridge.
    • TIP: Transfer a serving of chilled, leftover soup to a microwavable dish, cover loosely (e.g. with a paper plate) and reheat in the microwave until piping-hot, stirring after every minute or so in the microwave.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Don't eat the bay leaves. Leave them in the storage container until you're down to the last serving of leftover soup, then throw them away.

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