It’s cold out and it’s a new year – time for lentil soup! Lentils are traditionally served in Italy on New Year’s Day as good luck for the coming year. OK, it’s not quite New Year’s Day…but close enough. This lentil soup is one of my most favorite soups in the world. It’s a good way to practice layering flavors – it’s tempting to save time when sautéeing the vegetables and tomatoes, but trust me – the result is worth the wait. I like prosciutto as the meat-flavoring element in this soup, but you could use pancetta, too, or go meatless. If I omit the meat, I often throw in a Parmesan cheese rind – just lightly scrape the really waxy bit off with the back of your knife, and throw it in with the chicken stock. (I save my rinds wrapped in plastic wrap in a plastic baggie in the fridge.) The rind adds a nice depth of flavor to a lot of soups. I like to serve this soup with a green salad and a few garlic toasts on the side (slice up a baguette, rub a bit of extra virgin olive oil on each slice, sprinkle with salt, broil or bake at 350°F until crispy, then rub a raw cut clove of garlic over each piece).
A word about lentils. It’s worth it to look for French green lentils. They hold their shape much better than regular brown lentils. They are smaller and have a hint of green before they are cooked. They look like little tiny green pebbles. You can find French green lentils at most grocery stores these days. I buy them in bulk because I use them so much – they’re a lot cheaper that way.
This recipe is based on one in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup prosciutto (or pancetta), shredded with your fingers (optional)
1/2 medium onion, cut into very fine dice (about 1/4 cup)
1 small rib celery, cut into very fine dice (about 1/4 cup)
1 small carrot, cut into very fine dice (about 1/4 cup)
1 cup canned whole tomatoes with their juice (I like San Marzanos), crushed up with your fingers
1 cup French green lentils (1/2 pound), rinsed and drained well
4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable stock)
One 2-3 inch Parmesan cheese rind, waxy bit scraped off (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving
- In a large, heavy soup pot, add the butter, the olive oil, the optional proscuitto or pancetta, and the onions. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until the onions are golden (but not even remotely brown).
- Add the chopped carrots and the celery and cook and stir another 3-4 minutes.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices and stir to coat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on the pot and turn the heat down if the tomatoes appear to be browning. (The goal is to have a mixture with very little liquid at the end, but very little browning.)
- Add the rinsed and drained lentils to the pot and stir several times to coat with the tomato mixture.
- Add the chicken stock or broth, several generous pinches of salt, and a few grindings of black pepper. Add the optional cheese rind, if using. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer.
- Cook the lentils for at least 30 minutes, or until they are very tender. You may need to add a bit more broth or water to the pot if you find that it is evaporating too quickly.
- Taste and correct for salt. Serve with grated Parmesan. (Don’t forget to remove the cheese rind before you serve the soup – it’s not good for eating.)