Monday, July 8, 2013

Bachelor Chow Lentil Soup

Cooking for one can be a drag, especially if you hate leftovers as much as I do. The package directions on virtually everything assume that you're cooking a family sized meal, and if they offer single-serving measurements, the proportions seem best suited to those wee people who actually need to refrigerate the uneaten portion of a six-ounce cup of yogurt. So, in effect, you're torn between the risk of overeating by doubling the proportions and eating the same thing at every meal for three days because you cooked the whole package.

Well, I've gradually figured out a few handy proportions that have stood me in good stead. For example, I buy rice by the sack and store it in reusable plastic tubs. When I want rice for dinner, I use my 1/3-cup scoop to combine two scoops of rice and four scoops of water in a saucepan. I heat it to a boil, cover it snugly with a foil-wrapped lid, reduce the heat to the lowest flame my stovetop will allow, and set the microwave timer to 15 minutes. That's just ordinary white rice; with something fancier like basmati, I might let the rice stand in the unheated water for 20 minutes before lighting the flame. But basically, the proportion "two parts water to one part rice" has proved to be a handy rule of thumb, and it cooks in the same time whether I'm using the 1/4-, 1/3, or 1/2-cup measuring scoop.

This didn't take much trial and error. It actually came of reading the package directions and doing a bit of math in my head. But I haven't had such good luck with dried beans, peas, and lentils. Generally the time needed to cook them to the desired tenderness was far in excess of what the printed recipe indicated. Sometimes I left them cooking just a tiny bit too long, only to find the beans had totally dissolved into a thick, dry mush that then burned at the bottom. Either I used too much liquid, requiring me to devote hours to reducing it to a smooth slurry of nominally souplike density, or I found myself rushing to add more water. All of these problems arose during one miserable cooking marathon that stretched right through suppertime and into the wee hours of the morning.

And then there were the times when I overdid the seasonings, or forgot that the meat I was adding to the soup was spicy enough without dumping in another load of spices; the number of nuclear pea soups I have endured has led me almost to prefer the times when it came out too bland. These kitchen disasters have tended to discourage me from making much soup of the dried-legume persuasion. And of course, there is always the problem that I have to use the biggest pot in the pantry to cook a whole pound of the dried whatever, all the cleanup afterward, and (God help me!) the leftovers.

And that's kind of sad. Because I have such fond, wistful memories of perfect lentil and pea soups that have been served to me over the years. I would never have believed that reproducing them would be such a pain.

Well, at least I now seem to have some of the basic proportions right. To start, I emptied my one-pound bags of lentils and peas into the same kind of storage tubs wherein I keep rice. Then I dispensed with the idea of cooking a whole pound of them at one time. I started today's lunch with two 1/4-cup scoops of lentil, followed by six identical scoops of water—i.e. three parts water to one part bean. Then, while heating it to a boil, I added about a spoonful of minced onion, about 1/4 spoonful of rosemary leaves, and a slice off a stick of summer sausage cut into roughly 1/3-inch cubes.

I covered the boiling pan loosely (actually, my lid has a steam vent in it) and left it simmering on low heat until a 20 minute timer went off, stirring once or twice in the meantime. I tested a couple of lentils, found them too tough, and set a 5 minute timer. The next time I tested the beans, they seemed just right, so I poured the lot into a bowl and put a spoonful in my mouth... and it was too tough. Back in the pot, on low heat, loosely covered, for another five minutes... and again they tested just right. I ate the soup at this point, though again, once served, the lentils proved to be a bit tougher than when I tested them. They weren't so overly tough that I didn't enjoy the dish.

So I reckon 35 minutes should do it for next time; the same amount of beans and water, no more and no less; and, as a rule of thumb, I shouldn't just nibble one or two beans when I'm testing to see if it's soup; rather, I should munch a whole spoonful of them at once before deciding whether to add another 5 minutes or serve. As for the flavor, I was very pleased. The flavor of the summer sausage combined nicely with the lentil juice and the simple seasonings, which seemed neither bland nor overdone. The fat in the sausage had dissolved into the broth, leaving the meat with just the right texture. After one brimming bowlful I was happily full, and there were no leftovers. Bonus points!

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