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Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Italian" Lentil Soup

A cloudy January Saturday is just the right time to fill the house with the aroma of homemade soup. Today I fell back on a variation of a soup I used to call Meatball Soup, but this has no meatballs and is almost vegetarian--it does have a base of some very good chicken broth left from some chicken I had used earlier in the week for some other meals. I have put Italian in quotation marks because I make no promises that this is in any way "authentic"-- I just chose to use seasonings commonly found in the southern Italian food we in America are familiar with and start out with spaghetti sauce, that oh-so-Italian, American staple.

Whatever it is called or whatever variation you make, the warm smells coming from the slow cooker are just right after an afternoon of skiing or snowman making, or just sitting by the fire reading a book. Enjoy!

"Italian" Lentil Soup

1 large onion, chopped (about 12 ounces or 2 cups)
2 c diced celery (3 large ribs)
1 c diced bell pepper
approximately 2 c finely chopped cauliflower (that's what I had in the fridge today--cabbage is what I would usually have used)
1 quart rich chicken broth
1 28 oz can "zesty" spaghetti sauce, or your favorite flavor
15 oz can stewed tomatoes with onions and bell pepper
water
3/4 c pumpkin puree
8 oz (about 1 cup) lentils
1 c alphabet pasta (or your favorite shape, or just omit)
1 T mixed dried herbs--basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram
1 to 2 t garlic powder
1 t fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle or just added whole
1 T cider or wine vinegar
1 T Worcestershire sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
16 oz frozen corn

Saute the onions and celery in a small amount of canola oil (or chicken fat from the homemade broth if desired). Cover and cook on low heat for about 20 minutes, until the onions become almost caramelized. (While this step may seem unnecessary, it really adds an incredible amount of flavor, and the onions can be cooking while you are assembling the rest of the soup.)

Put all the remaining ingredients except the corn and pasta into a large pot (see NOTE) and bring to a low boil. Stir in the onions and celery when done and add about a quart of water. (I rinse out every can and use this for the water in the soup, so sometimes I don't have a good measurement to provide.) Cover and reduce the heat to keep the soup just simmering. Allow to simmer for a few hours until the lentils are tender. Taste for seasoning after an hour or two. Add water as needed to bring to the consistency that you prefer for soup. Be sure not to add salt until you have tasted the soup after a little cooking, as many spaghetti sauces and even the tomatoes may already be very salty.

About half an hour before serving, stir in the corn and alphabet pasta. (Larger forms of pasta should probably be added an hour or so before serving.) Taste once more and adjust seasoning as necessary. This makes about a gallon or a little more of quite thick soup.

NOTE: This is an ideal recipe for a slow cooker, but it will take quite a large one. Put everything but the corn in as above and cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours, adding the corn near the end of the cooking period. If you use a slow cooker, you may want to cook the pasta separately and add it just at the end. (This is, by the way, an excellent way to use leftover pasta. If you have some in the refrigerator already cooked, adding it with the corn will work well.)

You can also speed up this soup if you put the lentils in water just to cover and cook them according to package instructions before adding to the soup.

Other options: Chopped spinach or other greens go well in this soup too; just add frozen greens along with the corn. Kidney or other beans are also good additions and any kind of pasta can be used too. Butternut squash can be substituted for the pumpkin puree or you can just slice or dice some carrots and saute them with the onions. The key is to include one of these both for an added beta carotene boost and for the increased depth of flavor they provide. Ditto for the cauliflower or shredded cabbage--great ways to boost nutrition even for those family members who don't especially like vegetables.

Funny how many kids--and adults--who don't like vegetables can tolerate tomato-based things like spaghetti, pizza, chili, etc. Maybe tomatoes really are fruits! Here's your little information snippet for the day, a reference to the 1893 Supreme Court decision that officially declared tomatoes "vegetables:"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nix_v._Hedden

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