For A Healthy, Wealthy 2013, Eat Lentil Soup

lentilsoupAfter all that year-end feasting, I usually crave hearty and simple vegetarian fare in early January. I may not be the only one, as many cultures around the world welcome the New Year with legumes and vegetables. These foods not only offer a cleansing start to the new calendar, but are also loaded with symbolism around wealth and health – and who wouldn’t want a bit of that in 2013!

Americans – especially in the southern states – traditionally eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day (the black dots – or “eyes” — on the sides of the beans symbolizing coins); the Spanish favor chick peas, and Italians kick off the new year with a bowlful of stewed aromatic lentils whose plump, round shape, they say, symbolizes wealth. In many places, leafy greens – such as collard greens or spinach – are added to symbolize bank notes, and in Eastern Europe long strands of sauerkraut, denoting a long life, are sometimes added. Finally, rice symbolizes fertility (and boosts the protein available from beans and lentils), so why not throw some in for good measure?

I’ve decided to go Italian this year with a rich lentil-and-rice stew.

My favorite lentils in terms of flavor and texture are the tiny dark-green French ‘Puy’ lentils. They have a nutty, peppery flavor and a delicious crunchy texture, making them a very satisfying substitute for meal in stews, gratins or sauces where one would normally use minced meat. They are delicious hot or cold (for a tasty lentil salad recipe, see David Leibovitz’ recipe for Puy lentil “caviar”). Like red lentils, Puy lentils don’t require soaking, though they cook even faster and are easier to digest when they have been soaked for at least a few hours, or ideally overnight.

Another benefit is that – unlike many other types of lentils, which turn into mush if cooked a minute too long – Puy lentils retain their shape and texture during cooking. Lastly, they have an attractive, marbled greeny-grey color which contrasts beautifully with red (tomatoes, peppers), green (salads greens, herbs) and white (goat’s cheese, fish), thus making them the perfect accompaniment to almost any dish!

So, here goes.

Ingredients:

1¼ cup / 9 oz / 250 g Puy lentils, soaked overnight, rinsed and checked for small stones or other debris

2 tbsp olive oil (plus some more top-quality olive oil to drizzling over the soup when serving)

1 onion, finely chopped

1 leek, thinly sliced

3 carrots, peeled, quartered and finely cubed

1 stalk celery, cut into 4 thin strips and finely cubed

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

¾ cup white basmati rice

1 ¾ cups / 13.5 fl oz / 400 ml vegetable stock or water

2 ½ cups / 14 oz / 400 g chopped tomatoes from a jar

8 oz / 200 g fresh or frozen leaf spinach or Swiss chard greens, coarsely chopped

1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1 small sprig rosemary (or dried ‘bouquet garni’ mix or ‘herbes de Provence’)

Salt, freshly ground pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice

3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

50 g Parmesan (cow’s milk) or Pecorino (ewe’s milk) cheese (ideally whole, for coarse shavings)

Directions: 

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, cook onions and garlic in 1 tbsp olive oil until they are translucent (3-4 minutes). Add chopped carrots, celery, leeks, lentils, rice and herbs (except parsley) and stir to combine.

Add vegetable stock or water, bring to a boil and cover. Cook 15-20 minutes on low heat until the lentils are almost soft.  Add chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until the lentils are completely soft (another 10-15 minutes).

Add chopped greens, cook another 2-3 minutes and remove from heat.

Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice and stir in chopped parsley. Serve in soup plates and scatter with Parmesan/Pecorino shavings and a drizzle of top-quality olive oil.

If you like, serve this with a portion of freshly baked corn bread (here’s a tasty gluten- and dairy-free recipe), whose rich yellow glow is said to symbolize gold.

Wishing you a Healthy and Happy New Year!