Deborah Madison’s Lentil Minestrone

Deborah Madison’s recipe for minestrone soup with lentils was perfect for what turned out to be a cold spring day. Some weeks ago I’d bought some black beluga lentils — “the caviar of beans,” according to the bag — and left them sitting next to my bowls of onions and garlic on my chopping table.  And yesterday, when we were all in the mood for a warming dinner, I flipped through my cookbooks for a lentil soup.

Lentils, because of their small size and thin seed coats, cook faster than most other beans. But because it was a first-time recipe, it took me longer than it should have to get the soup on the table, and by the time I was ready the NBA play-off game that The Professor had planned to watch last night had already begun. Nevertheless … he gave the dish an A- — a rarity for a first attempt!

The Professor liked the flavors. The recipe begins with cooking the onions until they brown and that, combined with a generous amount of garlic, lots of diced carrots and celery and a good handful of bay leaves, parsley branches and sprigs of thyme, gave the broth a richness that is often missing in vegetarian soups.

“It almost tastes like it’s been cooked in a meat stock,” he noted. “I wouldn’t want this soup in the middle of summer,” he added. “But it’s good.”

He also liked the different texture of the pasta, which I’d cooked separately, run under cold water a minute shy of its full cooking time, and and then added to the soup before serving.

“The lentils gave it a nice substance,” he said on the issue of satisfaction, “And it was more interesting than the average lentil soup because of the greens and pasta.”

He paused while I scribbled down his comments, and then added, “Though if there were a few cubes of ham in here, it would be the bomb!”

I ignored the final comment and turned to Ella, who had been trying to get in on the conversation. “The lentils are good with the pasta,” the three-something said seriously. “They would also be good with purple.”

With that said, here’s the recipe:

Lentil Minestrone
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra virgin to finish
2 cups onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste (I didn’t have tomato paste on hand so I added a half cup of chopped tomatoes.)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, diced
1 cup diced celery or celery root
1 cup French green lentils, rinsed ( I used black beluga lentils, which are similar in size)
Aromatics: 2 bay leaves, 8 parsley branches, 6 thyme sprigs
9 cups water or vegetable stock (it will look like too much liquid but add it anyway)
Mushroom soy sauce to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch greens—mustard, broccoli rabe, chard, or spinach (I used chard)
2 cups cooked small pasta (I used lumache, which my “Italian mother” calls little snails)
Thin shavings of Parmesan (be generous!)

Heat the oil in a wide soup pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, parsley, celery, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.

Add the lentils, aromatics, and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Taste for salt and season with pepper. If it needs more depth, add mushroom soy sauce to taste, starting with 1 tablespoon. (The soup may seem bland at this point, but the flavors will come together when the soup is finished.) Remove the aromatics.

Boil the greens in salted water until they’re tender and bright green, then chop them coarsely. (Or, add the chopped greens to the soup while the pasta is cooking.)

Just before serving, add the greens and the pasta to the soup and heat through. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled into each bowl, a generous grind of pepper, and the Parmesan.

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