Lentil soup has a long history in my cooking repertoire. It was probably the first thing my Austrian grandmother taught me to cook. (Sadly only a very few items fall in that category, not including her legendary apfel strudel.) When I went away to university, I flatter myself that my weekly pot of lentils kept a good friend of mine from near starvation. (Through a glitch he was able to cancel his meal contract our Freshman year and take the money...and spent it in the first few weeks of the quarter!) The one complaint I ever had about the soup was that it somehow never really remained a soup: one night in the fridge and you could cut it with a knife. So over the years, I have bowed to fate. I now make lentil stew.
Lentils really are the most versatile of grains. They are great as a main dish or a side dish. I can see why they turn up in so many vegetarian meals, because they have an earthiness and substance that is missing in so many vegetable dishes. That said, the same earthiness means that they go extremely well with ham and other pork-based meats, as well as the odd bowl of leftover gravy. (I am grateful to Nigel Slater for pointing out how well leftover gravy can be with lentils - MMMMM!) Oddly enough, I don't know that I've ever made lentil soup or stew for the Critic. It's one of my deepest comfort foods and perhaps I'm afraid he would cast aspersions on it, and not appreciate one of my favourite foods.
3/4 cup lentils
2 cloves of garlic
1 large carrot
1/3 cup leftover beef gravy (if you have it)
3 cups beef stock
4 smoked sausages or 1 cup bacon bits, lardons or ham
2/3 cup sweet corn
2 Tbs butter
celery salt to taste
fresh or frozen thyme
freshly ground pepper
If you want to make lentil soup the way my grandmother did, you will painstakingly spread out the lentils on a clean work surface a handful at a time and sort them, eliminating any that look unhealthy or are patently not lentils. I used to do this, but with time have grown very lazy. As a result, in the last batch I nearly broke a tooth on a small stone - my grandma was right!
Melt the butter in the bottom of a medium soup pot and add the garlic, crushed, pressed or chopped as you like. When it is soft and yellow (but before it browns!!) add the gravy and bring it to a bubble. Add the soup stock and lentils. Peel and chop the carrots and add to the pot. Stir well. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In the meantime, follow the instructions for cooking the smoked sausages: in my case they were poached for 15 minutes in boiling water. I cooked them separately from the lentils because it's a brand I haven't used before and I wanted to make sure I didn't add too much fat to the stew; use your judgement for the meat element you choose.
Cut the cooked sausages in bite-sized pieces and add them to the lentils, along with the corn. Taste for salt and add a bit of celery salt and a lot of thyme, a few grindings of pepper. The thyme was not in my grandmother's recipe, but as it was used in the gravy I thought it would work well and it did.
When everything is hot and bubbly, serve in deep bowls. The consistency can be anywhere from a thick soup to a substatial stew - regardless it will be the perfect dish for a cold November evening!
One other note: the reason I made lentil soup/stew so often for my poor friend Tom was that I, too, was extremely poor that Freshman year and lentils are CHEAP. And filling and extremely nutritious. Starving college students take note: it's not much more work than Kraft Mac-a-Chee and it's much, much nicer!