Every year around this time — well into the winter season, but long after we found it charmingly brisk, as it is when you do googly-eyed things like ice skating around a sparkling tree at the holidays — we get some sort of brittle cold snap in the weather that catches me by surprise. Even though we live in New York, a place where a cold snap or two a January is as predictable as being hosed by some unspeakably awful puddle of street juice slush by a car spinning through an intersection; even though I’ve lived in this exact climate for every one of my thirty-I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it years; and even though I have the audacity to look forward to winter every sticky concrete-steaming summer, when I walk outside on that first 20-degree day and the wind gusts into my face and renders it hard to exhale, the very first thing I do is audibly holler in rage and disbelief, “WHAT THE WHAT?” I am nothing — as we joke when my sweet little son tries to clomp down the hallway in his dad’s massive boots and immediately falls on his tush — if not Harvard Material.
Weeks like the one we’re having on the East Coast require their own
bourbon cocktail plane tickets to someplace tropical and child-free, uh, family-friendly elixir and although I’ve previously found comfort in such meal intensities as lasagna bolognese, chili and mushroom and noodles, glorified, I think this year’s pick — a hearty Lentil Soup with Sausage, Chard and Garlic trumps them all. It hails from the new cookbook from the guy behind one of the first food blogs I ever read, and still do, The Amateur Gourmet. I think you should buy it right this very second. Why? Because in it, Adam Roberts does what he does best — schmooze with great chefs and get them to spill the dirt, all in the name of making us better home cooks.
[He’s also good at this with less famous, non-chefs, such as yours truly, when he got me to confess to a packed room last month my top-secret, totally-un-PC method of getting toddlers to occasionally eat what you’d like them to, not that I’d be crazy enough to let that happen twice.]
To write this book, Adam travelled all over the country to visit chefs in their work or home kitchens with a reporter’s notebook and jotted down everything. He learned all sorts of goodies such as why Sara Moulton says you should steel your knives before starting to chop things and how you can tell without sniffing or tasting (or crossing your fingers) whether your butter is still good. Oh, and he’s just getting started. Reading this on a lazy Saturday afternoon before my son decided to start his still ongoing nap strike [our household internal dialogue is something like this right now: noooooooo], I was enrapt as I learned the secret of Jonathan Waxman’s technique for tossing salad and how Alice Water’s “crown” of fresh herbs can make even the simplest olive oil-fried eggs heavenly, plus a font of tips he picked up through observation, such as how chefs manage to use their produce before it gets forgotten and goes bad to (still shocking to me) how sparingly most of them used freshly ground black pepper.
What none of these tips — delightfully, refreshingly — aim to do is intensify the gap between restaurant chefs and home cooks. There’s nobody on a high horse, rolling their eyes at people who prefer to cook from recipes or who benefit from (gasp!) suggested measurements of seasonings. I had very few opportunities to take part in my own eye-rolling-at-chef-recipes pastime, such as when they expect you to use four skillets and eight prep bowls to make a single soup. No, instead this book’s stated goal would, in an ideal world, be the stated goal of every cookbook on the shelves, to be “a prompt, a catalyst for self-reliance in the kitchen.” That it also yielded one of the most delicious, hearty soups that’s ever graced a frigid January day was just the
cherry sizzling garlic oil on top.
One year ago: Buckwheat Baby with Salted Caramel Syrup
Two years ago: Pizza with Bacon, Onions and Cream and Baked Potato Soup
Three years ago: Poppy Seed Lemon Cake, Black Bean Soup + Toasted Cumin Seed Crema and Cranberry Syrup (+ An Intensely Almond Cake)
Four years ago: Squash and Chickpea Moroccan Stew, Vanilla Almond Rice Pudding, Light Wheat Bread, Clementine Cake, Mushroom Bourguignon, Sugar Puffs and Smashed Chickpea Salad
Five years ago: Crunchy Baked Pork Chops, Pickled Carrot Sticks and Chicken Caesar Salad
Six years ago: World Peace Cookies, Salade Lyonnaise, Artichoke Ravioli and Leek and Mushroom Quiche
Lentil Soup with Sausage, Chard and Garlic
Adapted from Secrets of the Best Chefs, where it was provided by Gina DePalma
This soup is hearty and intense and the absolutely best remedy for a brittle, cold winter day — a meal in a bowl that also leaves your home smelling amazing. (I kinda wanted to eat the air.) A few other things I liked about it: it didn’t require you to have broth or stock on hand; you only need to use water because the other ingredients are so aromatic and deeply flavored, it’s not necessary. You could easily make it vegetarian by skipping the sausage. And you could veganize it by skipping the sausage and romano cheese. What you are absolutely not allowed to skip is the sizzling garlic oil as a finish. Drizzled onto the bowls at the last minute (especially with the salty romano cheese on top), it raises the bar, unforgettably.
One P.S. I have a weird aversion to overcooked greens in soups, so only added what I needed right before serving, into the portion we were going to eat. It kept them vibrant, and I kept the leftover greens for today’s eagerly anticipated leftovers.
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
4 large links of sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (I used half of this, preferring the sausage to not dominate the soup’s flavor [update] and from the comments, it sounds like most of you preferred it with just 2 links as well)
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, sliced or diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into half-moons or diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced (reserve half for later in recipe)
A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups shredded or thinly ribboned Swiss chard leaves or kale
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese to finish
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil (enough to coat bottom of pot) in a large pot on medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrots, first two garlic cloves, a pinch of salt, and if you like your soup spicy, a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook with the sausage until the vegetables soften a bit, another 5 minutes. Add the lentils, bay leaves, tomatoes, water (6 cups is, conveniently, a little less than 2 empty 28-ounce cans, so you can get any tomato pulp you missed), more salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook until the lentils are tender, about 40 minutes. (It might be necessary to add more water if the soup gets too thick, though we preferred ours on the thick side.)
When the lentils are cooked, add the chard and cook until the leaves are tender, just a few minutes more. Discard the bay leaves.
To finish, divide soup among bowls, then add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and 2 garlic cloves to a small skillet and heat over medium until the garlic softens and hisses. Drizzle this over soup bowls, and top with fresh Romano, passing more at the table. Leftovers will keep for several days in the fridge.