Friday, January 25, 2013

Spicy Tomato Soup with Beluga Lentils and Goat's Cheese


This soup is one of my favourite ways to use up some tails, and it very nicely creates another that leads me into the next day's cooking. It starts with two things I cook every week: a batch of Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter sauce, which is still (after thirty years on the planet) one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted, and a pot of lentils (black beluga or grey-green Puy) simmered with bay leaves and a clove of garlic. Very often, the two go together in a bowl along with some whole wheat orechiette and a shower of Parmesan. When we need something simple, comforting, and filling, this is my standby dinner. I always make a double (or sometimes triple) batch of sauce, since I like to have extras around for homemade pizza, or to turn into this soup. The lentils I often use as a salad topper, or as an earthy accompaniment to finely-sliced red cabbage that I slowly saute in butter with lots of salt and pepper until it's soft and almost caramelized. I also sometimes throw in a vacuum pack of already-cooked chestnuts. Cabbage sauteed in butter, as simple and homely and inexpensive as it is, is one of my favourite vegetables of all time. Tied only with caramelized fennel and roasted onions. And beets.

Okay, so I love vegetables. 

The line between tomato sauce and tomato soup is a fine one--just a matter of a little more or less liquid. The liquid in this case is a combination of water and (another tail) the end of a bottle of white wine from last weekend's dinner party. The proportions don't need to be exact, although I'll give you measurements below. Once the sauce is in the pot, add a healthy glug of wine and stir in enough water that it looks like soup. The acid kick of the wine does something with the butter already in the sauce--the same something it does in beurre blanc--that is magical. Creamy plus acidic is such a compelling combination: think lemon tart, a really good cheesecake made with sour cream, or a slice of sourdough bread slathered in salty butter. It's all about balance.

While I like my tomato sauce almost completely unadorned--the recipe is just tomatoes, onions, butter, and salt--I like to jazz up my soup with some spices and garnishes. We've got creamy and acidic, but we also need spicy and earthy and rich and fresh. First, a good big pinch of dried chili flakes for heat, a perky jolt to make you forget that you're eating leftovers. Next, a heaping spoonful of those beady black beluga lentils, for texture and flavour and just because they're beautiful. Some crumbles of soft, rich goat's cheese, because I love soups that contain surprises--bits of melted cheese, a crouton hiding here or there, a little pile of quinoa or wild rice sitting at the bottom. And a big sprinkle of chopped chives, because hit of green makes a dish look finished, and because I'm a nut for anything of the allium family.

I really should add roasted garlic to that favourite vegetable list.

I'm working on a few recipes for homemade whole-wheat bread, but they're not quite ready for the limelight yet, so today's soup is getting a corn muffin for company instead. I must admit, I didn't make these from scratch: my favourite travelling souvenirs are always food, and I couldn't help but pick up a packet of Southern cornbread mix, one that we don't have in Canada, while I was in Maryland. (I couldn't fit the can of collard greens in my suitcase.) But if you're looking for some excellent cornbread recipes, Jess over at Sweet Amandine has a bit of an obsession, and I've got a few up my sleeve for a future date.

The last thing to mention is the tail that this soup leaves you: the beautiful black cooking liquid from the lentils, already infused with the deep flavours of bay leaf and garlic. If you like, you can use it to thin out this soup instead of water--it deepens the colour, and the flavour, beautifully. But I like to save it as the start of a completely other soup: put a spoonful each of cooked quinoa and lentils at the bottom of a bowl, along with some little cubes of leftover roasted sweet potato if you've got them. Heat up the lentil broth--spike it with a bit of cumin--and pour over. Top with a squeeze of lime juice and some chopped cilantro or chives.

I'm already looking forward to it.  

Spicy Tomato Soup with Beluga Lentils and Goat's Cheese

Serves four to six.

2 cups of tomato sauce with butter and onion, or your other favourite tomato sauce
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup - 1 cup of water (as much as you need to get a soupy consistency)
1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 cup cooked beluga or Puy lentils
1/4 cup mild goat's cheese, feta, or grated Parmesan
a handful of snipped chives

Heat the tomato sauce together with the wine, water, and red pepper flakes until very hot.

Mound a quarter-cup of lentils in the bottom of a soup bowl. When the soup is hot, pour around the lentils. Top with a tablespoon of crumbled goat's cheese and a sprinkling of fresh chives.

Serve with cornbread or a crusty loaf--and, naturally, lots of salted butter.

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