A friend and I were talking about soup the other day. I love to talk about food, and do it as often I can, but soup is not a topic of conversation that sets my world on fire. Cheese, yes. Pork, surely. Soup … ho hum.
My friend’s family is from Hungary, mine from neighboring Serbia, and we were commenting on the fact that soup is a part of daily life there. As in other parts of Europe, lunch is the main meal and always opens with soup. To forgo soup is to ask every ailment known to mankind to bedevil you.
I was never a big fan of soup, though my mother served it most days while I was growing up. As she learned to cook outside her cultural heritage, we ate less and less soup, but we still probably ate it more than most people. I loved the chicken soup with homemade noodles or dumplings, but turned up my nose at most of the others. Except, that is, for the ham and lentil soup. Who knew that something that looked like a pot of mud could taste so delicious? Cooked in a flavorful homemade stock and seasoned with a handful of mysterious spices, the rich, meaty soup always had me asking for seconds. I loved those lentils, but loved the little chunks of ham even more. Without these little bits of ham, the soup would have been a pale imitation of itself.
Even now, my parents regularly implore me to eat more soup. In my family, I am known as the soup hater. I would say that is–and has always been–an exaggeration. I do like soup (especially if it’s topped with bread and cheese and baked in the oven) and have been making a lot more of it these days. I have discovered that cooking greens with broth really ups my vegetable quota and that if you add just one little tomato to a pot of soup it gives it an intense tang that really makes the soup without making it tomatoey.
One of my favorite standbys is this creamy lentil soup with Serrano ham, a perfect example of simple Andalusian country cooking. The cream really lends a uniqueness to it, pureeing most of the lentils gives it elegance. Dress it up with some croutons or a spring of your favorite herb and you have a simple rustic soup that suddenly seems quite glamorous.
Creamy Lentil Soup with Serrano Ham
Adapted from Food & Wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
5 ounces Serrano ham or lean bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 medium leek, white and tender green parts only, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
2 quarts plus 1/2 cup chicken stock
2 cups (3/4 pound) brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
2 cups firm-textured white bread, cut into dice
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
1) Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large pot, melt the olive oil and 1 tbsp butter. Add the ham, leek, and carrot. Stirring occasionally, cook over moderate heat until softened–about 8 minutes.
2) Add the stock and lentils and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Simmer the soup over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender–about 45 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, toss the bread with the melted butter and bake for 8 minutes, or until golden brown.
4) Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add the cream. Bring to a simmer and season with salt and pepper. Serve the soup in bowls, garnished with croutons.