Story and Photography By Lucinda Hutson
The ominous cushion of dirty haze that hovered above us during the scorching summer is but a memory; the glorious change in light and renewed sparkle of the fall sun are just behind us. Old Man Winter is at the door; he looks like he could use some soup. Though I waited longer than usual to plant my fall garden, I trusted the rains would come. Herbs that would quickly bolt in late spring and summer flourish throughout winter and early spring: cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, chervil and arugula.
And perennial anchor plants like rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay and savory—having withstood the summer inferno and warm fall—are ready for another kind of heat: the simmering soup pot! A generous handful of these fresh herbs fill the kitchen with welcoming aromatic wafts while flavoring soups and stews on the stove.
It’s also time to harvest our edible winter greens: collards and kale, spinach and Swiss chard, especially Bright Lights chard with its vibrant rainbow-colored stems. I particularly love the texture and flavor of Lacinato kale (as do Tuscans) in soups. It’s sometimes called dinosaur kale because of the rough texture of its dark-green leaves. Wilt a chiffonade of greens (try a combination of them) in soups and stews at the end of cooking to retain their color and nutrients, or briefly sauté chopped greens (add stems first) in olive oil with some onion and garlic and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Top bowls of soup or stew with the slightly crunchy greens right before serving.
What could be more satisfying on a chilly winter night than a hearty bowl of herb-scented red-lentil soup crowned with a colorful medley of roasted sweet potatoes, onions, red bell peppers and tasty garden greens? You’ll find a few more steps and a lot more spice in this hearty, crowd-pleasing dish. But like many of my recipes, it’s quite versatile and lends itself to creative variations. If you like a creamier soup, puree it with an immersion blender or potato masher—adding the roasted veggies on top for texture.
Make sure to warm the soup bowls in the oven before filling them. And offer guests small bowls of condiments, like shredded Parmesan, crushed dried red chili, slices of spicy grilled sausage, chopped green onions, lemon wedges, toasted pumpkin seeds, crunchy seasoned kale chips, garlicky crostini or croutons.
Break rustic loaves of bread from the farmers market at the table to savor with locally made cheeses or homemade garlic-herb butter, and consider a simple salad of tender, leafy arugula and mesclun greens with sprigs of fresh lemon thyme in a sherry-shallot vinaigrette as a tasty accompaniment. Don’t forget a bottle or two of red wine. Life is good in this splendid season!
RED LENTIL AND ROASTED SWEET POTATO SOUP
Makes 6–8 hearty portions
For the roasted veggies:
3 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large bite-size cubes
1 large white onion, cut into wedges
1 medium red onion, cut into wedges
1 red bell pepper, cut into large bite-size chunks
4 Fresno peppers, optional
Salt and pepper
Dusting of cinnamon and cayenne
Olive oil to lightly coat
For the soup:
1 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1 large white onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 fresh bay leaves
1½ t. dried thyme (3 to 4 times more if using fresh)
1½ t. dried marjoram (3 to 4 times more if using fresh)
Freshly ground spice mixture (see note)
2 t. sweet paprika
2 c. red lentils, rinsed in a sieve
8 c. rich turkey, chicken or veggie stock
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 large bunch garden greens like kale, Swiss chard, spinach or
Pinch of nutmeg
Prepare the roasted veggies. Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the vegetables with the other ingredients, then place in a single layer in a large roasting pan and roast, turning occasionally, until al dente—about 30 minutes. Remove half the veggies and set them aside, but continue to roast the remaining ones for another 20 minutes or so for added color and flavor. Set aside.
Prepare the soup. Heat the oil and butter in a large soup pot and cook the onions for 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, herbs, freshly ground spices and paprika. Add the lentils and toss with the onion mixture along with the reserved al dente roasted veggies. Add the stock and bring to a quick boil, then reduce the heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the lemon juice and zest and the greens and cook another 4 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle lightly with nutmeg and serve in bowls topped with the remaining reserved roasted veggies. Pass extra condiments at the table.
Note: For the spice mixture, grind 3 dried red chiles de árbol or small cayenne peppers, ½ teaspoon black peppercorns, ¼ teaspoon whole allspice, 1 tablespoon coriander seeds and a few whole cloves.
Use fresh pumpkin, yams or butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes. Add a can of diced tomatoes with their juices. Soup thickens overnight; add more stock as needed.
Follow the lentil recipe with the following additions: Use vegetable oil in place of the olive oil and butter. Add 2 tablespoons of finely chopped ginger as you sauté the onion. On a griddle, briefly toast 1½ tablespoons each of cumin and coriander seeds, then let cool. Grind in an electric spice grinder along with 3 dried red chiles de árbol, ½ teaspoon black peppercorns and 3 whole cloves. Use 1 can of light coconut milk for some of the stock—added towards the end of cooking. Use Thai basil, cilantro and Asian greens. For condiments use spicy peanuts, lime wedges or Thai Pesto from Austin Pesto Company, made with coconut flakes and Thai flavors instead of cheese.