So at some point in the past two weeks winter decided to come to Paris. Man, oh man, do I hate winter now. Especially in a place like this, where it more often than not means gray, overcast day after gray, overcast day, with a fair amount of freezing rain and howling winds on the side. I keep buying coats with the idea that I will eventually find one that keeps me warm but doesn’t render me a sweaty, overheated mess when I go from the cold street into the hot, crowded métro. I haven’t succeeded yet, though I did sink my clothing budget for the month into a pretty serious puffy down coat from Uniqlo. I could tell you about how it is Jil Sander’s line and looks nothing like the puffy coat my mother wore to shovel the driveway when I was a kid, but I’d be lying through my teeth. Like most things in my life, it is symptomatic of the fact that my mom was usually right about things, and I had my head up my ass. The universal realization of growing up, I suppose.
Anyway, all this WINTER has meant that we have been making a lot of SOUPS. Some of them have been less stellar than others, but a few have been knockouts and I suspect that they will become a regular part of our schedule. One that already has near-weekly place in the rotation is my lentil soup:
You see lentils and you think “healthy,” right? Wrong! I mean, I guess these are healthy in an abstract sense, but like most things in my life they actually contain a lot of pork fat and booze. Surprise, surprise! But they are seriously delicious, and get increasingly so if you make enough for leftovers. They are easy and a hearty dinner in their own right, especially if you pair with some fresh bread (we buy our baguettes from the amazing Huré, 18 rue Rambuteau, Paris 75003, Métro Rambuteau, and will never pledge this kind of devotion to another bakery again) and a big green salad.
T’s Weekday Lentils
2 small, or 1 large, package of lardons (Lardons are matchstick or cube-cut pieces of bacon or larding fat cut from the belly of pork. In France, you can buy them in any supermarket in convenient packages. If you live in the States, you can ask your butcher if they sell pre-cut lardons, or you can buy pork belly and cut them yourself with a sharp knife. Alternately, you substitute cubed bacon. I’m a huge fan of Niman Ranch’s Applewood Smoked Bacon. One package cut into strips would do quite nicely.)
3-4 large garlic cloves, chopped roughly
1 large (or two small) purple onions, diced
3-4 big carrots, diced
5 tablespoons of San Marzano tomato paste (or whatever you have, but seriously, spend the extra buck and get the San Marzano tomatoes from now on. They will change your life.)
2 cups of chicken stock (We make our own, not because we are so sophisticated but because we eat a positively absurd amount of rotisserie chickens and my boyfriend is terrified of wasting anything.)
2 bottles of a burly red wine (One for the soup, one for you to drink with dinner. By burly, I mean that this isn’t the time for a merlot or a pinot noir. This is the time for a Bourgogne or a Côte du Rhône. Maybe one of those punchy Australian syrahs would be nice! I’m not a wine snob, so just buy something cheap enough that you don’t mind cooking with it but decent enough that you enjoy drinking it.)
3-4 cups of French green lentils, rinsed and picked through for stones (I guess you could use a different kind of lentil, but it might change the amount of liquid you need. All the more reason to buy and extra bottle of wine and eat another rotisserie chicken).
2 tablespoons of dried herbes de provence (I put this in everything, and it’s always good).
Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes (or Srichacha), to taste
Put a big pot on the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, throw in your lardons. Cook, stirring occasionally, past the point where they release all their water, to the point where all the fat melts and they start to brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the lardons from the pot, leaving the fat in the bottom. You should have enough to cook your veggies, but if it looks like they weren’t particularly fatty you can add a bit of olive oil. Return the pot to the heat and add your onions. It should smell amazing. Once your onions have started to become translucent, add the garlic, carrots, herbes de provence, and browned lardons. Cook for a few minutes stirring regularly until everything has softened up. Then add your lentils, stirring so that they become well-coated with fat. This is a trick B learned from a French lady, and it really does help your lentils cook. Then, when everything is nice and hot and starting to sizzle, add the tomato paste. Stir around, and then slowly begin adding wine. You want to keep the temperature up, so don’t add your liquid all at once. I usually put in about three-quarters of a bottle of wine. You can do more or less, based on your own taste. I arrived at this magical amount because I usually drink a glass while I’m cooking, and give another to B when he gets home from work. Once I’ve added all the wine and the pot is simmering, I top it off with chicken stock until it reaches the top. I’ll be honest, the lentil to wine/stock ratios aren’t exact here, as different lentils need different amounts of cooking liquid. Remember, you can always add more liquid if they start to burn, but you shouldn’t add wine too close to end of the cooking process because it won’t have time to mellow out. Turn down to low heat, partially cover, and walk away (stirring occasionally). It usually takes about two hours for this to turn into something magnificent. I add salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes once the lentils have cooked, as I’ve found that I tend to over-salt if I do it beforehand. You’ll know it’s done when everything is tender and thick.
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B is a well-documented mushroom maniac, so when the chanterelles, death trumpets, oyster mushrooms, and enormous cêpes began showing up at the vegetable market, he became a jittery mess. I suggested that he make an autumn mushroom soup, which was perhaps the best suggestion I’ve ever made. After tinkering around with some recipes he found online, he created the following masterpiece.
B’s Manic Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
1 pound, or thereabouts, of assorted wild mushrooms (we bought giant cêpes, death trumpets, and golden chanterelles, though shitakes and oyster mushrooms would have been terrific as well), cleaned and roughly chopped
1 large leek, cut on the bias
White wine (I believe we used a Mâcon-Villages, though anything dry and not too sweet would work just fine)
Container of crème fraîche (or heavy cream for those stateside)
Salted butter (please don’t insult mushrooms like these with margarine or oil)
Set about one-third of your mushrooms aside (we set aside the otherworldly chanterelles). Sauté the remaining two-thirds along with the leeks in butter until browned. You will have to do this in batches, as it is important to not crowd your mushrooms as they cook (thanks Julia Child!).
When slightly browned, sprinkle with flour and brown a bit further until it looks and smells really yummy (highly scientific, I know). Once you have browned all of the leeks and two-thirds of your mushrooms, gradually put the mixture in the food processor, using chicken stock as a liquid to get things moving. You should be left with an paste, which you should add to a pot with equal parts white wine and chicken stock. In another frying pan, brown up the mushrooms you reserved. These will not be pureed and will give your soup some texture.
Once browned, add to your burgeoning soup, along with the crème fraîche, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about thirty minutes over low heat, be careful not to boil this delicate soup. Serve with white wine, crusty bread, and a big salad (are you noticing a theme here?).
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Finally, I’d like to share with you a soup that can be added to the annals of “growing up is good!” As my mom will certainly attest, I was kind of a weird kid when it came to food. I wasn’t a fan of many of the staples of American childhood, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apple juice, or tomato soup. And while the idea of peanut butter and jelly still makes me nauseous, I’ve been coming around on tomato soup, especially when pair with a classic grilled cheese. Now everybody has their own version of the “perfect” grilled cheese (mine is with buttered wheat bread, Colby cheese, and should slightly burned on one side). Lately, in the absence of my beloved Colby (you can take the girl out of Colorado…), I’ve been making French grilled cheeses with a combination of Mimolette and Emmentaler. At the suggestion of the genius Aarti Sequeira, whose show and internet videos you should be watching if you aren’t already, I’ve begun adding carmelized onions to my grilled cheeses. Amazing and very grown-up.
I’ve struggled a bit more with the tomato soup part of the meal, as I find conventional canned tomato soups to be pretty gag-worthy. I started playing around with combinations I liked and last night I found the holy trinity: tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and basil. This ain’t your momma’s tomato soup, that is, if your momma was in the habit of opening a can of Campbell’s. But it’s pretty stupidly easy and paired with a grilled cheese it makes for a yummy winter meal.
T’s Consummate Tomato, Roasted Red Pepper, and Basil Soup
Extra-virgin olive oil for sautéing
1 white onion, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (seriously already! Life changing!)
1 jar of roasted red peppers in water, chopped and keep the water (approximately five whole roasted peppers if you are fancy and burdened by so much free time that you want to roast your own)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup chicken stock (or ½ cup chicken stock and ½ cup of white wine)
2 tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar (when buying Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, make sure you pick a brand with the seal and the cream-colored cap, which means that it was aged for at least 12 years. If you roll like Daddy Warbucks, splurge on the gold-capped variety, which has been aged for 25 years)
1 bunch of fresh basil (about 20-25 leaves)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 container of crème fraîche (or heavy cream, or half and half, as you like)
Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add cans of tomatoes, red peppers, red pepper water, chicken stock, balsamic vinegar, and oregano. Simmer over low heat for about an hour and a half, or until the tomatoes sweeten up. Remove from heat and cool slightly, and then add roughly torn fresh basil leaves. Transfer and carefully process until smooth in food processor or blender (or use your immersion blender, you fancypants). Return to stove and add crème fraîche and salt and pepper to taste. Cook on very low for about a half hour more.
Well that’s it people. I hope you like these. As with everything I cook, I’m always tinkering with the recipe, so if you make any amazing adjustments, let me know. And I’m always looking for new soup ideas, so if you’ve got a real gem up your sleeve, please share!