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.
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.
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