This soup clocks in at the top of my "how to survive the holidays" list. (Actually, it's the only thing on that list. Help.)
In any case, there comes a time during each holiday season in which I need a gastronomical break from sugar, butter, spices, and alcohol. During those times, all I want are monastically seasoned leafy greens, and maybe some legumes. This soup is my current favorite palate cleanser.
When you start to feel weighed down by the sweets, boozy treats, cheese plates, charcuterie, and fried potato pancakes in which you will inevitably overindulge at holiday parties this time of year (and by "you" I mean "me"), I offer you this stupid healthy soup as an antidote.
Healthy though it may be, it hails from my bible Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, and, like all of Ms. Madison's recipes, uses a few innovative ingredients that build flavor and turn it into the best soup, ever.
First a mirepoix of onion, carrot and fennel soften in warm olive oil. Garlic, mustard and tomato paste caramelize on the bottom of the pan. A slug of red wine hits the pan with a sizzle, dissolving all those luscious flavors and reducing into a flavorful base, to which pretty green French lentils, vegetable stock and bay are added. When the soup has simmered and the lentils are meltingly tender, a mess of baby spinach leaves are added to wilt briefly. A flurry of parmesan and black pepper make an ideal finish.
Mustard may sound like a bizarre addition to a soup, but here it adds spice and acidity which, along with the tomato paste and red wine, create layers of tastes that blend and shine. Lentil soup may not sound like the most exciting meal (unless you are my sixteen-year-old niece, in which case you text about it "omg, that sounds so good!!!!! i'm so excited!!!!" No joke). But this one is actually kind of exciting.
This soup has a refreshing austerity that makes it feel like a safe haven amidst decadence, a cool oasis in the middle of a sugar desert. Savoring a bowl is revitalizing in the same way as jumping into an icy cold river on a scorching day. And yet it is still nourishing and warm and filling, a wonderful one-bowl meal. It's even better on the second and third day, when the flavors have melded.
If you're on the hunt for more sweet and boozy recipes, don't you worry – I'll be back soon with more of those.
Until then, bon appetit. And good luck.
Mental for lentils:
French Lentil and Spinach Soup
Adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen
Soaking the lentils for 4-8 hours will help them cook faster, but it's not essential. If you do soak them, use the smaller quantity of water as they will have already absorbed some. This soup keeps well for up to a week in the fridge; add the spinach to order if you want it to stay green. Finish bowls with a grating of parmesan and pepper, and enjoy it with the rest of the red wine and some crusty bread.
Makes 2 quarts, 6-8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 large or 2 smaller carrots, finely diced
1 small fennel bulb, finely diced (or 1 large celery stalk)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon prepared mustard (I used stone-ground)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 cups french green lentils de puy, optionally soaked for 4-8 hours
1 bay leaf
6 - 8 cups vegetable stock or water
salt and black pepper
4-6 cups loosely packed baby spinach leaves, washed
parmesan, for serving
In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until is shimmers. Add the onion, carrot and fennel, and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 minute, being careful not to let it burn. Add the mustard and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until it forms a film on the bottom of the pan, 1-2 minutes.
Add the red wine, scrape up all the good stuff from the bottom of the pan, and let the mixture simmer until slightly thickened, 2 minutes. Drain the lentils if soaked, and add them to the pot along with the bay leaf and vegetable stock or water (use the smaller amount if the lentils have been soaked). Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (less if your stock is salted) and continue to cook, covered, until the lentils are very tender, about 10 minutes. Green lentils hold their shape well, so if you see some beginning to fall apart, the soup is probably done.
Stir in the spinach leaves and simmer until wilted, 1-2 minutes. Or, if you're not serving all of the soup right away, save the spinach leaves and add them as you heat up individual portions of soup.
Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed and freshly ground pepper. Serve bowls of soup topped with freshly grated parmesan and more pepper.