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A quiet soup

That was not the week I planned to have. Whoa.

A week ago yesterday, I went to bed like I do every night. I read “Shouts & Murmurs” in the New Yorker and wondered, as usual, why it wasn’t very funny. I set my glasses on top of the stack of books on my bedside table and then retrieved them when they fell, as usual, and slid behind the table. I felt pretty normal - which is to say, I didn’t feel abnormal. Until I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, feeling nauseous, and spent the next four days on the couch, trying to get down a glass of Gatorade. You know you’re very sick when even a nature documentary about the deep oceans - a nature documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough, whom you adore, and whose voice is a known soporific - feels like too much for your fragile senses. I was very sick. I have now returned to the land of the living, and that’s all I want to say about that. Anyone for soup?

A red lentil soup, namely, from a new cookbook by Melissa Clark? It’s what I’ve been living on for three days now. Melissa Clark writes the terrific column “A Good Appetite” in the New York Times, and I’ve never made a recipe of hers that I didn’t like. She knows what’s what. A version of this soup first ran in her column almost three years ago, and I remember reading about it then, though it took me until this week to try it. I was looking for something soothing to eat, and her book was nearby, so I opened it to the table of contents, and right away, I saw it: Red Lentil Soup with Lemon. It looked reassuringly simple, without a lot of flash or spice - only cumin, black pepper, a little cayenne, lemon, and a restrained garnish of olive oil. And then I remembered that my friend Winnie had mentioned that same recipe to me a few months ago, in the spring, after a long winter of making soup. She said that it was one of her standbys, that it got everything right, and that it called for a dab of tomato paste, a dab that was brilliant and made it sing. Now that I’ve made it, I have to agree.

I only wish I had thought to put chopped cilantro on top before I took this picture. I also wish I had not drizzled the olive oil in a shape reminiscent of a snake closing in on seven unsuspecting mice. At any rate, make this soup.

I’ve made a lot of lentil soups - including one that will be in my column in Bon Appétit in December, so keep an eye out - but I’ve never made a specimen quite like this. Most lentil soups fall into one of two categories: Highly Spiced, or Not Spiced (sometimes called Bland). This one sits happily in the middle. It manages to be both mellow and full of flavor. The cumin chips in nicely, and the lemon helps close the deal, but it’s still a quiet soup, delicate and refined, every note in its place. I can’t say for sure how it works, but I think Winnie was right: tomato paste is the key. Clark ingeniously cooks it in with the onions and garlic, so it sizzles and intensifies and goes sweet-smelling, and though you can’t pick out its flavor in the finished soup, it lends some umami to the mix. All told, it’s the kind of thing you might want to pair with a few crackers and some aged cheddar, the type that crumbles when you slice it. It also screams for a beer. It says October.

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon
Adapted slightly from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark

I had some Aleppo pepper in the spice drawer, and I decided to use it in place of the cayenne. It’s not as spicy, but it brings a lot of fragrance, and it was a good match for the flavors of this soup. So if you’ve got it, use it.

I should note, too, that I forgot to stir the cilantro into the soup, and instead I used it as a garnish. I liked the look of it, though I might try stirring it in next time, since that’s what Melissa Clark intended.

4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional good oil for drizzling
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne or Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups red lentils, picked through for stones and debris
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a large pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook for 2 minutes longer. Add the broth, 2 cups water, the lentils, and the carrots. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Continue to cook until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary. Using an immersion or regular blender, puree about half of the soup. It should still be somewhat chunky, not completely smooth. Reheat if necessary, then stir in the lemon juice and cilantro. Serve the soup drizzled with good olive oil and dusted very lightly with cayenne, if desired.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


We tell stories

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words, and about the way we tell stories. Today, I wanted to share some of the things that have been making me think.

I started listening to Radiolab as a way to pass the time while I walk the dog, because he needs a lot of walking, and now I listen because I’m crazy for it. It’s part science, part philosophy, and part sound editing wizardry, but mostly, it’s good storytelling. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, its hosts, spin the kind of stories that lure you away to somewhere else, and when you drop back into yourself, you realize that you’ve been staring into space, grinning like a dope, through the entire show.

I’m particularly fond of Animal Minds, Words, Oops, the love story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan that begins at approximately 14:45 of This Is Your Brain on Love, and Musical Language. If you’re short on time, start with this last, and listen to only the first five minutes. I was so tickled by it, and tickled really is the word to use, that I laughed out loud on the sidewalk in front of a stranger’s house, me and the dog and some crows.

There’s also a video that goes with Words, and after you listen, you should watch it. They go together so well.

The video made me think of my friend Brian’s blog. Brian is a great observer of everyday life, and he records those observations in photographs, which he then stitches together in a way that, whether he means to or not, quietly tells a story. If you don’t already know his work, you might start here. It’s a story I could spend a lot of time in.

Have a great day.


Before you know it

Somewhere, a woman named Corentine is serving leeks vinaigrette for dinner. It’s been ten years, but I know it.

Corentine was my host mother in Paris, the year that I was 21 and studying abroad. She had the most magnificent name I had ever heard and something a little Jane Birkin, just a little, about her looks. Whenever someone asks me how I learned to cook or how I got into food, I usually credit my parents, but I should also credit Corentine. She and I didn’t have a lot in common, but food was enough, and we seized it. I ate at her table for six months, and she taught me what she thought I should know. She taught me how to eat cheese, how to make vinaigrette from scratch, and how to shell and snap the head from a whole cooked shrimp. She also taught me how to peel an apple in one long, curling, ribbon-like strip, which, it turns out, I still cannot actually do. Perhaps most importantly, she taught me that a plain butter cake with pears, served on a very cold night, can feel like some kind of miracle. She also taught me about leeks. Poireaux, she said.

I’d never thought about leeks before. I’m sure I grew up eating them in things, and certainly in potato leek soup, but I’d never paid attention. I’d certainly never eaten them the way she served them: on their own, as poireaux vinaigrette, steamed to a degree of doneness best described as pleasantly comatose and then sent out on a platter, towing a gravy boat of vinaigrette closely behind. She had two little boys, ages seven and nine, or maybe nine and eleven, I can’t remember, and they used to fight over the sweet white part closest to the root. I couldn’t believe that they actually seemed to know something about vegetable anatomy, much less cared enough to call dibs. I couldn’t believe how much I liked those leeks.

Behold: a mess of leeks vinaigrette, with emphasis on mess. (Corentine’s plating was much neater - as, for the record, was her hair.) I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about this dish. In the abstract, and particularly said aloud, its name sounds like some sort of unusual plumbing problem, but leeks vinaigrette is a classic, a very common first course in French kitchens. You’ve probably heard of it. Maybe you’ve tried it. It’s one of those concepts that slips quietly into your repertoire, and before you know it, ten years have gone by, and you’ve forgotten the ages of the sons of the woman who taught it to you, and you’re about to turn 32, not 22, and still, you’re making that dish. I’m still making leeks vinaigrette. Sometimes as often as once a week.

Leeks are harvested year-round in some places, but I usually think of them as a cooler weather vegetable. (In the summer, if the temperature gets too hot, they can wind up with thick, woody cores.) They showed up at the farmers’ market here a few weeks ago, and I pounced on them. They’re still young and skinny, about the same diameter as a bottle cap, and they’re very sweet, which makes them ideal for simple preparations like leeks vinaigrette. We put them on the menu for our family dinner at Delancey on August 31, and with the help of our friend Olaiya, who was cooking with us that night, we tried something a little different.

Usually I would just steam the leeks, blot them to get rid of excess water, and then lay them out on a plate and drizzle them with dressing, à la Corentine. But this time, we decided to boil them in big pots of salted water, both to cook them faster - we had 40 people to feed - and to infuse them with some seasoning. Then, while they were still hot, we tossed them with a good amount of vinaigrette, hoping that they would absorb it as they cooled. Rather than tasting like plain leeks topped with vinaigrette - which tastes fine; don’t get me wrong - these tasted like a third, even finer thing: leeks fused with vinaigrette, leeksandvinaigrette, rich and saucy. We served them warm, topped with a little more vinaigrette, chopped hard-boiled egg, and chopped bacon, and it was so good, so properly early fall-like, that I made it again yesterday. Only without the egg and bacon, because I got lazy. Either way, I think you’ll like it.

Leeks vinaigrette

I’ve written this recipe with wiggle room on the quantities of vinegar and mustard, and you should feel free to tweak it to your liking. It’s hard to go wrong, and anyway, your vinegars, oils, and leeks may taste different from mine. Whatever you do, it’s important to use a good, strong mustard for this dressing. I like the brands Edmond Fallot, Roland Extra Strong, and Beaufor. Keep in mind, too, that once a jar of mustard has been opened, it slowly loses its potency, so if you’ve had your jar for a while, you might want to invest in a new one.

2 to 3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 to 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
¼ tsp. salt, or more to taste
6 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small to medium shallot, minced
2 lb. small leeks (about 7 or 8)

Optional garnishes
Finely chopped bacon
Finely chopped hard-boiled egg

In a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon mustard, and salt. Gradually whisk in the olive oil, mixing until emulsified. Taste. This dressing should be fairly bright, and the mustard flavor should come through, but not too powerfully. Adjust as needed with vinegar, mustard, and/or salt. When you’re happy with it, add the shallots, whisking to blend. Set aside. Be sure to taste it again later, just before tossing it with the leeks, so that if necessary, you can adjust it according to their flavor.

Lay a clean kitchen towel on the counter near the stove. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it well. It should taste like sea water.

While the water comes to a boil, prepare the leeks. Trim away the hair-like roots, but take care not too cut in too far; you want the leek to stay intact. Cut off and discard the dark green leafy parts, leaving just the white and pale green stalk. Starting about 1 inch from the root end, so as to keep the white part intact, cut lengthwise down the middle of the leek. (If you were to splay the cut leek open, it should look like a stubby Y.) Wash the leeks well under running water, flushing any dirt from between the layers. Boil until they are very, very tender and yield easily to a knife. Their color will become muted, and they may be falling apart a little. That’s okay. To be sure they’re done, taste one: it should taste sweet, with no trace of raw flavor. The amount of time that this will take depends on their size, but it will probably take longer than you think. Ten minutes is a good bet.

Draining the leeks as well as you can, transfer them to the kitchen towel on the counter. Blot and press them dry. (Don’t burn yourself!) While they’re still hot, put them in a bowl, and toss them with a generous amount of the dressing. Allow to cool at least slightly before serving.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with more dressing spooned on top and a pinch or two of salt. If you want to make it a little fancier, garnish with bacon and/or chopped egg.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings (as a side dish or first course)


What this summer felt like

Labor Day sneaked up on us.

We fell asleep last night with the windows open, and this morning, there was a chill in the house. I know I’m not supposed to say it, but I think something is changing.

When I think about this summer, these are the pictures I want to think about. They’re what this summer felt like.

I’ve taken a lot of ferry rides.

I’ve eaten a lot of melon. I’ve eaten a lot of strawberries.

I’ve eaten fried chicken and lemon icebox cake and zucchini. I’ve been eaten by a lot of mosquitos.

I’m ready.

Happy Labor Day.