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Rapha Cooks: Lentil Soup
Recipe and Photos by Matt Card
Despite more than two decades of riding and racing, I’ve yet to master eating well while riding, especially during the long enervating miles of winter training. Stretch me much beyond four hours and its pretty much a foregone conclusion that I’ll bonk. Bad. I know its coming fast when I find myself literally hallucinating food. Usually it’s the expected: greasy burgers, overstuffed hoagies, pepperoni pizza. But when the weather is particularly gross and I’m chilled to the bone, I see lentil soup—big, steaming bowls of thick, warming lentil soup. It may not be the sexiest meal, but it can be the most satisfying.
Good lentil soup begins with the shopping. While any variety of lentil will suffice, I favor the firm, meaty texture and earthy flavor of green French-grown Lentils du Puy. They cost more than most varieties, but are worth every penny. Make sure to sort through them carefully to suss out any errant pebbles or dirtclods (This is most easily done on a wide white plate or rimmed baking sheet)—nothing ruins a bowl of soup faster than a chipped tooth.
To bring out the best in the lentils, it’s important to lay down a deep base of supporting flavors. That begins with a mix of long-cooked, aromatic vegetables—what the Italians call soffritto or the Spanish call sofrito. In my kitchen, it’s typically a mix of red onion, garlic, carrots, and either fennel or celery, cooked in copious amounts of olive oil or pork fat (rendered pancetta). This is not something to rush or skimp on—take the time and maintain the patience to cook the vegetables slowly to eke out as much flavor as possible.
Dicing all those vegetables requires a fair amount of knifework. I like to think that this is the meditative, really enjoyable phase of cooking—as long as you have the right equipment. Nothing’s worse than hacking through a dense carrot with a dull blade. If you don’t have a good chef’s knife, buy one; if you do, make sure its sharp via frequent steeling (honing) and occasional sharpening (let the professionals handle this). Like bikes, you can spend a fortune on beautiful custom knives, though you don’t need to: MAC-brand knives from Japan are reasonably priced, nimble, and durable (and hugely popular in professional kitchens).
To those cooked-to-death vegetables, I add wine (red), paprika (sweet and/or smoked), good quality chicken broth, plenty of fresh herbs, and the lentils. Bring it all to a simmer, drop the temperature to a bare burble, and forget about it for a while. Slow cooking ensures the beans turn tender and creamy; high heat toughens them.
If you want to leave the soup lean, stop here (though add lemon for balance); otherwise blend in a big spoonful of crème fraiche or sour cream to round out the soup’s flavor and enrich the mouthfeel (pureeing a portion of the soup helps here too).
Feel free to serve the soup at this point, but I think the soup benefits from a handful of crisp croutons. From baguettes and pain levain to sandwich bread and bagels, anything will do. Fry them crisp in plenty of olive oil and be generous with salt, pepper, and minced garlic, mixed in at the end to prevent it from burning (overbrowned garlic is bitter garlic).
The soup’s flavor is neutral enough that you should feel free to add additional vegetables, meats, or spices. I usually do: roasted red peppers or cubes of browned eggplant; bits of roasted pork or chicken; shreds of duck confit; or browned sausage, particularly Spanish chorizo. (Pork makes everything better, right?)
Serves 4 to 6
With this basic recipe, all manner of variations are feasible. Feel free to stir in vegetables like roasted red peppers, cubes of roasted eggplant, or pickled onions, found in the beans and rice post. Roasted or braised chicken or pork also tastes quite good.
Hot liquids generate pressure in blenders and can explode upwards. To prevent this from happening, “jog” the power a few times before letting the blender run continuously. I also recommend holding the lid on with a doubled kitchen towel.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, chopped fine
2 medium carrots, chopped fine
1 medium fennel bulb, chopped fine
½ teaspoon fennel seed
6 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 ½ teaspoons paprika (see note)
1 cup dry red wine, plus 2 tablespoons
1 ½ cups lentils
1 tablespoon brown sugar
6 sprigs thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
5 to 6 cups chicken broth
2 to 4 tablespoons crème fraiche or sour cream
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 recipe Garlic Croutons (optional, recipe follows)
1. Combine oil, onion, carrots, fennel, large pinch salt, and fennel seed in large Dutch oven set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and dramatically reduced in volume, 25 to 30 minutes. Increase heat to medium high and add garlic and paprika; cook until very fragrant and paprika has darkened, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup wine, scraping up any browned bits on bottom of pot, and cook until wine has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Stir in lentils, then add brown sugar, thyme bundle, bay leaf, and broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until lentils are tender, about 1 ½ hours (the soup may also be cooked in a 250-degree oven for 2 to 2 ½ hours).
2. Remove thyme bundle. Transfer 1-cup lentils and 1-cup broth to blender or food processor and blend smooth (pulse blender to prevent mixture from forcing upwards); return to pot. Add remaining 2 tablespoons red wine and more sugar if needed. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper and stir in crème fraiche (or sour cream) and parsley; serve.
Lentil Soup with Duck Confit: Swap out the extra-virgin olive oil for duck fat and top soup with shredded confit.
Lentil Soup with Chorizo Sausage: Brown 8 ounces cubed chorizo in Dutch oven and using slotted spoon, remove meat to paper-towel lined plate. Saute aromatics in rendered fat and proceed with recipe, garnishing soup with bits of chorizo.
Serves 4 to 6
From baguettes and pain levain to basic sandwich bread and even bagels, most any bread can be pressed into use for croutons. If the bread is particularly stale, toss it with a tablespoon or three of water to soften it. If you don’t have thyme, feel free to substitute a few leaves of sage, a small sprig of rosemary, or omit altogether.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 cups cubed bread (see headnote)
4 sprigs thyme
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced fine or pressed through a garlic press
1. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until just beginning to shimmer. Add bread, thyme sprigs, and large pinch each salt and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until bread is golden brown and crisp, 7 to 12 minutes. Stir in garlic to coat evenly; remove from heat (garlic will cook in residual heat). Remove herbs before serving.
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