Monday, December 13, 2010

Every mother's recipe box

Somewhere within every mother’s recipe box, or within the mind’s memorized equivalent of such, there is a recipe for split pea soup. It’s there, in the familiar repertoire, the regular rotation of recipes: split peas, onions, carrots, stock, and the unmistakable, iconic ham hock. A few things made me wary of this creation as a child, but none more than that large, meaty, bone-in piece of ham, waiting to be boiled all together in a melting pot of pale, yellow green. The name wasn’t the easiest to swallow, either: ham hocks. My horse, a loving companion and very much alive in the back yard, had hocks. This association was unsettling.

Texturally, the soup was a nightmare. Entirely too viscous (as compared to my familiar Cambell’s chicken noodle), muddy, slightly grainy. To pour it into a bowl was to make a sound vaguely similar to mud squishing beneath your feet, or moving sludge, or on a bad day, both. The color on its own, a green paled and yellowed as if with age, was never encouraging. I could never understand the particular way this soup was able to endure generations, the culinary heirloom of (in my opinion) far too many families.

I made a lentil soup the other day that bared too close a resemblance to the split pea soup of years past. You almost feel bad for the legumes; cooked up into a fragrant soup, with warm spices and coconut milk, they yield what is perhaps one of the ugliest dinners of all time. It certainly does not give the best first impression.

This soup is actually quite good, especially in cold weather, with its warm spices and a bit of heat, tempered and made creamy by a good dose of coconut milk. It’s even better with an egg on top - as most things are. It fails miserably on the beauty contest front, but if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that you can’t, in good conscience, judge a soup by it’s color.

Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk

A few notes: the amount of red pepper flakes listed here is what I used, but it can really be to taste – if you like a little more heat, adjust what I used. Also, the recipe that this is adapted from called for French green lentils. I used red lentils, because that is all I had, and it came out great (the color just suffered a bit).

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
6 cups vegetable stock
1 ½ cups lentils, picked over for stones and other debris
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
A few grinds of black pepper
1 ¼ cups coconut milk
¼ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more to taste

In a soup pot, warm the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic, thyme, and the rest of the spices. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is lightly browned and very soft.

Add the stock and the lentils, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and tender.

Add the coconut milk, and salt and pepper, and stir well. Cook for about 10 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the salt as necessary. Serve warm and with a fried egg (awesome but not necessary).

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