Red Lentil Soup with Mint, Lemon and Tomato

November 8th, 2010

Oh yes, and the book giveaway winner too….

Do I know how to create suspense or what?  You thought I was going to take the book and run, didn’t you? That’s not really my style (well, maybe it is when it comes to pens, but that’s an unrelated idiosyncrasy). No, I’ve just been so busy grading college writing projects that I haven’t had a chance to do any of my own writing – not even a post. Not too much cooking has gone on here either, which is a real tragedy now that I can see my breath in the moments before and after the sun.  The colder air has me aching to kick the oven on a notch.  Seven more weeks until I get a month off for the holidays – you can expect that we’ll be baking up a blizzard here then. (Note: make that 6 weeks now – sometimes I start a post and then wander off to do something else).

For now, I suppose I should tell you how those tomatoes landed on the plate.  It was a very bad idea to ask you all for help. You’re all brilliant, and when I finally sliced one, I don’t know if I was crying for the tomato or for the reality that I actually had to pick a serving suggestion and go with it.  I received so many wonderful recs for maximizing the flavor of those last two red beauties – many of which I’m filing away (mentally anyway, so you may need to remind me) for next season.

But I guess you want to know how the story ended, don’t you? Right then.

In the end, I went with Gilda’s suggestion. There were so many variations on panzanella, but Gilda’s perfectly toasted , garlic-rubbed sourdough and ripe, fruity olive oil seemed the only way to go.  The herbs were still climbing the garden walls and we had both purple and green basil just waiting for a raison d’etre , and the combination could not have been improved upon.  So thank you, Gilda, not only for the perfection on a plate, but also for being a longtime reader and occasional commenter. And for the record, it was a close call. I was really drawn to Linz’s suggestion, and I loved the fact that nothing was wasted.  Though it was difficult to choose a winner, I loved how this played out, and I think I’ll be doing more giveaways like this in the future, so stay tuned.

Exactly how good were those tomatoes? Gilda knew what she was talking about. They didn’t last long enough for me to grab a photo, so picture this instead:

Red Lentil Soup with Mint, Lemon and Tomato

I really wish I could send each of you a copy of In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite; barring that, I’ll share with you my favorite dishes from the book so far.  When I reviewed the book I mentioned that it was one of those that sneaks under your skin.  I’ve only had the book a couple of months but nearly every other page is dog-eared, splattered or otherwise bookmarked with evidence of use or intention.

This lentil soup has become a staple in our kitchen. I’ve made three batches of it, plus one for my grandma (who was so taken with it that she tried to reverse engineer it; she wondered if the black lentils were blueberries) and one for Simon’s dad and his wife. When Simon and I take it to work for lunch, inevitably people catch a whiff of it and start trying to finagle a share. I sent some extra with Simon because one co-worker was especially vocal about wanting to taste it.  Later that evening when I asked Simon how she liked it,  he sheepishly admitted that he had opted not to share and had eaten the whole thing.

In her book Clark has two versions of this recipe (as she does with many), the original and her version. My version, below, is a combination of those. Sometimes I add the aforementioned black Beluga lentils (thanks Trader Joe’s), sometimes I toss in some quinoa instead of bulgur. I imagine you could do endless riffs on it though, sprinkling in whatever grains or veggies you find inspirational in the moment. But whatever you do, there are three ingredients that really elevate this soup: the mint, the lemon juice, and the olive oil garnish.   Serve it with a side of Clark’s browned butter corn bread, and you’re set!

The Recipe
Red Lentil Soup with Mint, Lemon and Tomato
(vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, high fiber)

*from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark

4 tbsp olive oil plus extra for drizzling
2 large onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, julienned
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (I’ve been using frozen)
2 tbsp tomato paste
½ tsp salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
Generous pinch of red chile pepper like aleppo or cayenne – you want something with a bit of heat
2 quarts veggie broth
2 cups water (or you can use additional broth for deeper flavor)
2 cups red lentils
¼ cup bulgur (or quinoa)
*If you have them, 1 package of pre-cooked black Beluga lentils. No additional liquid is needed
1/3 cup fresh mint
Juice of a lemon

1.        In a stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When shimmering add the onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, an additional three minutes. Don’t let the garlic and onion brown!

2.       Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, carrots, salt, pepper, and red chili. Stir to combine and let simmer for 3 minutes longer.

3.       Add the broth, 2 cups of water (or two more cups of broth), the lentils, the bulgur, and, if you’re using them, the pre-cooked black lentils. Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until lentils and bulgur are soft, about 30  minutes. Season with more salt and pepper as desired.

4.       Using an immersion blender or regular blender, puree about 1/3 of the soup until just chunky. Avoid over-pureeing.

5.       Keeping soup warm, add the chopped mint and stir.  Allow the mint to wilt from the heat, then ladle soup into serving bowls.

6.  Drizzle the top of each bowl with a generous squirt of lemon juice and a spiral of bright olive oil. Enjoy!

Cookbook Giveaway – and no, it’s not random

October 14th, 2010

Save the Tomatoes: Inspire Me to Eat Them!

I think this may be it. The tables at the farmer’s markets have been buckling under the weight of winter squash and pumpkins, apples, potatoes and dried beans, while summer’s fruits have become scarcer and scarcer each week.  It’s the natural ebb of things of course and I can’t be sad about it (well, maybe a little).  I’m ready for the turning inward that all this end-of-season produce signifies.

But I did snag two beautiful tomatoes at the market this week, and suddenly it feels like a lot of pressure. I don’t expect there will be any more after this, and so I fret. How, oh how, do I use the last two tomatoes of the season? What could happen is that I won’t.

See, you should know this about me: I’m the sort who lets the beetroots wilt, the piment d’espelette dry out and lose its flavor and the pricey boquerones go way, way past their use-by date. Why? Because if I eat them then they’ll be all gone, and I can’t stand that.

I didn’t say it was reasonable. Anyway, please don’t let me do that with these two gorgeous, fully ripe tomatoes.  I want to use them well. I want to celebrate them. I desperately need your inspired help.

The Cookbook Giveway:

I have a copy of In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite to send to the person who posts the idea that convinces me to sink the knife in.  (If you didn’t catch my review of the book, here it is again). Leave me a comment with your brilliant idea. What’s the perfect last tomato supper?

This won’t be a random drawing from comments though; it will be an utterly subjective choice, based on which recipe/dish sounds good to me. Just remember when you make your suggestions that we don’t eat meat (but we are pescetarian so fish is fair game).

I’d guess that these tomatoes have two more really good days, so let’s say that your suggestions have to be made by Saturday morning (Oct. 16) at 10:00 a.m. Central Standard Time. So tell me, what would you do? What’s a great dish that will bring out the flavor of the last two tomatoes of the season? Inspire me. And, as I say to my students, bonus points for amusing me.

A Good Appetite for David Dares

October 13th, 2010

I really wanted to give you the peach rum syrup first, before peaches went the way of low-rise jeans. But I’ve missed the window and now both are out of season (if we’re lucky, permanently on the latter). You might point out that I’ve been known to tease you with pomegranates in May though, and you’d be right. No, what’s really determining the order of things here is the tomatoes. I really, really need your help.  That’s why we’re having pancakes.

While you adjust your neck braces, I want to tell you about Melissa Clark’s new cookbook, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. It’s a sneaky little book.

At first glance, I was not excited. Jokes about food porn persist for a reason: just take a look at my cookbook collection if you don’t believe me. We like pining away after images of perfectly prepared foods that will never look at lush, as ripe, as juicy, or as perfectly plated in our own kitchens, no matter how seriously we take ourselves. In The Kitchen with a Good Appetite is elegantly laid out, with a muted sea-green palette, a combination of clean, Cambria and Calibri fonts printed on rich (sustainably forested) linen pages– but there are no pictures. Not even an insert.

It’s while I was pondering that absence that the book started pulling me in. Melissa Clark is an artful story teller, and this really is a book of stories punctuated by recipes. If this book feels plot driven, it’s because Clark knows a thing or two about that:  after testing the waters as a chef, Clark decided she’d rather write about food than prepare it (professionally speaking, at least), so she enrolled at Columbia University and earned an MFA in Creative Writing. In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite is her 29th cookbook and its title echoes her widely read New York Times Dining section column, A Good Appetite. Her prose is confident and unapologetic, and her self-revealing parables are short (I have so much to learn from her), funny and forward-looking. Each one evolves effortlessly into a recipe that’s generously shared, kitchen tragedies and all.

And those stories work a funny magic: they paint an experience more fully than a full-color photo ever will.  Clark tells us about her family’s food-sharing ritual of taking a bite and then passing their plates “Clark-wise”, or about how, when she and her husband were courting, she peered into his fridge to find nothing quite edible, save for a solitary, floating preserved lemon.  Like any wordplay worth its sea salt, these stories transport us. She launches into a tale about how her mother refuses to throw away food, even the wilted pile of pale watercress salad, leftover from the night before, and suddenly that makes sense. Why would you throw away wilted, sodden watercress, after all?  Naturally, there is no other place for these stories to end except in a recipe (for non-sodden cress, in this case).

A paragraph in and we begin to anticipate the food; two, and suddenly we’re there, making it along with Clark, all senses charged. These stories become ours, because she gives them to us, and suddenly we can remember what it tasted like when our oldest friend brought us real Irish soda bread (which does not contain raisins, in case you were wondering). We can smell the cinnamon, taste the springy texture, and we can hear the hissing of the oven, or the oil in the skillet, or the steam rising from the pot.  By the time we’ve reached the recipe, we’re hungry, and deeply attached to the idea of making that dish exactly.

Chances are, we’ll be able to, too. These foods are prepared with the things that we’ll already find in the kitchen, or the backyard, or, if we must venture out, at the corner market. These recipes are not designed, they’re remembered and sometimes lovingly altered. And they’re compelling. Once you start in, perhaps you’ll find  that, like me, you have to just try one more…..I’ve gotten through these recipes, each of them lovely, and I’ve got three more queued up:

  • Red Lentil Soup with Mint, Tomato and Lemon
  • Cheesy Baked Pumpkin with Gruyere
  • Browned Butter Maple Cornbread with Fresh Corn Kernels
  • Raw Tuscan Kale with Chiles and Pecorino
  • Sweet Tofu Salad with Spicy Mustard and Pickles
  • St. Mark’s Gooey Honey Butter Cake with Lemon and Cinnamon (I am from St. Louis, after all. And you  know what? Hers is better….)
  • Impossibly Fudgy Brownies with Chile and Sea Salt

Most recently I gave these a go, the Mysterious David Dares Pancakes:

The Recipe: Mysterious David Dares Pancakes

This is the pancake sometimes referred to as a “Dutch Baby” pancake. In Clark’s household they were called David Dares. Growing up, Clark had no clue as to the origin of the names, but she knew she looked forward to the pancake’s appearance at the breakfast table, a rare thing in a home where bagels and lox were sacrosanct.  David Dares is a thick, eggy, souffléd pancake, poured over browned butter and baked in a cast iron skillet.  If you’re going to serve it with peach rum syrup, as we did, then really it’s more a brunch food than breakfast.

3 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup milk
¾ cup all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (I used more, plus some for garnish)
Pinch kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, flour, nutmeg and salt until combined. The mixture will still have some lumps and that’s a good thing.

In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter has melted, lower the heat slightly and allow the butter to brown – you’ll see the golden flecks in it when it has. Watch carefully – it’s hard to miss against the cast iron and you don’t want it blackened. That has its merits, but not here.

Carefully pour the pancake batter into the skillet and transfer it to the oven. Bake until the pancake is golden brown around the edges, about 15 minutes.

Working quickly, take the skillet out of the oven and, using a fine-mesh sieve, shake the confectioner’ sugar over the pancake. Return the skillet to the oven until the butter has been absorbed into the pancake and the sugar is lightly caramelized, an additional 2-3 minutes.

Splash the lemon juice over the pancake, cut into wedges and serve immediately.

And, if you haven’t figured out what all this has to do with my dire tomato situation, it’s not your fault. But I’ll let you know tomorrow.

Devine Intervention

August 16th, 2010

It’s been Devine intervention all around.

First, there’s my grandma. Last weekend, we spent 7 hours putting up tomatoes: sauce, whole tomatoes packed into jars, stewed pieces, salsa.  Earlier that day, before I arrived at her house, she’d spent a good chunk of time running up and down the basement stairs, chasing after the 8 or so cats that share her home (you see where I get it).  Before that, she spent an hour riding her “tractor” (as she calls the riding mower) over her acre of land, knocking the grass and weeds down to an un-gossip-worthy height. And then she hauled out the weed-whacker and tamed the property’s perimeters.

But before that – a few weeks before — my grandma clocked in at 92 years old.

You’ve met my grandma before – remember the shoe incident when I was 6?  And the biscuit cutters? Yes, that’s the one.  It probably won’t surprise you then, that we had the following exchange during our canning adventure:

Grandma (flipping through the 1867 edition of a pages-missing, tomato-streaked and jam-smeared Ball Canning book):  Let’s see, for the raw-pak tomatoes, we’ll pressure cook at 5 lbs of pressure for 10 minutes.

Me: Are you sure? That doesn’t seem very long for tomatoes.

Grandma:  I’m reading it right here. (Waves book at me. A few more pages slide out and drift under the easy chair she keeps in the kitchen for when she’s snapping beans and shelling peas)

Me: But aren’t tomatoes pretty susceptible to botulism?

Grandma: I’ve never had botulism.

Me: You can’t see it, isn’t that the problem with it?

Grandma: I’ve never had it. I’d know.

Me: Well, yeah, you’d be dead.  I just want to live through the winter.

Meanwhile, my friend Steph gets a frantic text from me.  I consider Steph the #2 expert on all things Mother-Earthy, after my grandma. And Steph’s  #1 in her concern with the formalities of procedure. In her kitchen in upper Iowa, Steph consults her shiny, intact, late-edition Ball canning book and texts back an answer.

Me: Okay, Grandma, I think we need to boil at 10 lbs of pressure for at least 10 minutes, and 20 for the sauce.

Grandma: (patiently, humoring me while she herds wayward pages back into the Ball book): That’s not what it says here.

Me: But these guidelines get updated every year, Grandma. I know we have to cook them longer. I just looked it up.

Grandma: Looked it up where?

I hold up my iPhone.

Grandma: On that? (She snorts dismissively)

Finally I decide that she’s been alive for 92 years so she can’t be doing anything egregiously wrong. And, later I’m humbled when Grandma saves me from shooting my eye out with the pressure cooker steam gauge. The Ball book – yes, hers, the old one – sagely advises to add 2 quarts of water to the pressure cooker when you’re canning pints. And here I was preparing to fill it up and submerge the jars (“Whoo-ooo, my girl, you would’ve lost an eye and maybe half of my kitchen,” my grandma hoots. But then she admits that she shot her own eye out once and that’s how she learned).

My grandma. We should all be so blessed as to have one like this one.

And then there’s Diane Devine. Diane works with Simon, and she and her husband have been beyond generous in sharing the riches of their vegetable garden this year. Week after week, Diane has brought in box after box of ripe, lush, dewy tomatoes and cucumbers. Her generosity feels nothing short of miraculous to me, because if Simon and I had to rely on our little veggie patch this year, we would have enjoyed exactly three cherry tomatoes. For the first time since I planted my first dill and lettuce seeds at Grandma’s house over 35 years ago, I’ll be having a no-harvest year.  I don’t mind admitting how much this upsets both my pride and my vision of myself – and my plans to go BPA-free this winter.  Chalk it up to unrelenting heat, irregular hot-and-cold patterns early on, or the fact that this is the 5th year in this garden and we lack the space for crop rotation  – I had many theories.  And very few tomatoes.   Until Diane.

It’s strange, but I think that because of Diane this has been my biggest tomato year ever.  Not to mention the cucumbers and other veggies. With her kindness, and with Grandma’s wisdom, I’ve put away pints of tomato sauce, whole tomatoes, cucumber salsa, peach salsa, cucumber relish and tomato bruschetta topping.

Divine or Devine, I’m feeling truly blessed.

Blueberry-Thyme Muffins with Toasted Almonds

And you expected we’d be making something with tomatoes, didn’t you? Well, last time I showed you how to make authentic crème fraiche using active cultures, and if you’ve done that (or if you’re thinking about it) then you need something moist and gently sweet to spoon it onto.  Besides that, there’s the whole liability thing involved with canning. I do not wish to feel responsible for any stomach woes.  As you may realize, there are so many imaginative ways that home-canned food can go wrong if the procedure is not done correctly – even if the recipe is followed precisely. I’m extraordinarily careful with my canning methods (ask my grandma), but I can’t see what you’re doing in your kitchen, so I’m going to have to encourage you to go ask your own grandma, or barring that, to consult a good book or the frequently updated National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

My vegetables may not have fared well but this year my herb plants are bursting well beyond the edging of the beds. The basil patch is teeming with happy, pollinating bees, and the tarragon, thyme, oregano, marjoram (started from seed!), parsley and dill make me feel like a wealthy girl. And so because of these riches, I’ve been experimenting all summer with using savory herbs in creative ways.  This combination, thyme and blueberries, just may be my favorite discovery of the year.

[But, before we move on to the recipe, I do need your help. I have big plans for next year's garden (it'll be a new yard, after all), and my visions of next year's putting up are opus.  And I'll need to graduate to a larger pressure canner. Do any of you have one? Here's what I want (though if I find it, I realize it may be prohibitively expensive): a stainless steel 23-quart pressure canner. Have you ever seen such a thing? Barring that, do any of you have recs for a non-stainless large canner? What things should I watch out for when aiming to buy (besides shooting my eye out with the steam gauge?]

Blueberry-Thyme Muffins with Toasted Almonds

6 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar (I used turbinado and got very granular muffins the first time – there’s a reason that baker’s sugar is refined….)
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Zest of 1 lemon
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup whole milk or buttermilk (buttermilk gives you lots of texture with less fat, plus the slightly sharp flavor)
8 ounces fresh or frozen blueberries
3 tablespoons fresh thyme (lemon-thyme, if you have it), minced
½ cup sliced and toasted almonds

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 2 muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray or lightly wipe with a paper towel dipped in oil – or line them with muffin papers.
  2. Beat the butter, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, then scrape down the sides.  Add the egg, lemon extract and lemon zest and mix well.
  3. In another bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the butter mixture in two separate additions, stirring by hand and alternating with the milk. Mix until just incorporated, being careful not to over-stir.
  4. Add the blueberries, thyme and toasted almonds and mix well.
  5. Scoop the mixture into the muffin tins, filling just below the top of the tin.  Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with turbinado and bake about 20 minutes, until they are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. If you’re using mini-muffin tins you’ll halve the time.
  6. Transfer to a rack and allow the muffins to cool slightly, then ladle a generous spoonful of the crème fraiche onto each one and serve.