Recently, my daughter’s preschool teacher admitted to me that she tasted the lentil soup I gave my daughter for lunch. A pescatarian, the teacher said she was struggling to find something easy, healthy, and preferably gluten-free to cook that would make her feel good her and appease her vegan daughter. I told her the basics of the recipe, which I had developed recently for a client. A few days later, she told me she started cooking lentils and lentil soup at home and it changed her life.

Her words came at a crucial moment, when I, along with a number of food and lifestyle-focused writers, started to wonder if our work really mattered. It was reassuring to hear it can.

Recipes on the Internet are often titled THE BEST or even, the best EVER. I can’t necessarily add those superlatives to the recipe here, although the soup is very, very good. I will tell you, learning to make lentil soup—whether you use my recipe or not—could, in fact, change your life. If you don’t believe me, just ask my friend Joy Manning how she started her journey as an avid home cook and successful food writer. You guessed it: A simple pot of lentil soup. And if you’re looking for other inspired versions, check out this fun new lentil soup Mad Lib from Food 52.

Spiced Lentil Soup with Spinach
 
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The depth of flavor in this soup comes from the combination of tomato paste and smoked paprika, both of which get lightly toasted. I also think the vinegar added at the end for some brightness is non-negotiable, but you can try lemon juice instead. Otherwise, you can change the recipe how you like. Switch up the spices or use celery instead of fennel. For the greens, you can swap the spinach for stemmed kale or Swiss chard; just be sure to give them a few minutes to simmer to tenderness. For a thicker soup, use less water. To enrich the broth, add a Parmesan rind further. You can also top the soup with grated cheese.
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Ingredients
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 small fennel bulb, stalks removed, bulb cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 cup black lentils or French green lentils
  • 8 cups low-sodium broth or water
  • 5 ounces baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Instructions
  1. In a pot, heat the ¼ cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and fennel, season with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until it glazes the bottom of the pot, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the coriander, cumin, and smoked paprika and cook until the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. Add the lentils and broth and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the spinach, a handful at a time, stirring until wilted. Add the vinegar and heat for about 30 seconds. Season the soup with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

 

Eggs baked in squash

As I mentioned in my previous post, Cooking Secrets of Adulthood, roasted vegetables make for an excellent breakfast. One of my favorite such breakfasts are roasted halves of small squash, like acorn, delicata, and buttercup. The squash are tasty enough on their own with a little maple syrup, or they can serve as a bowl for more substantial fillings, like porridge or yogurt and granola. I find warm squash in the morning to be a soothing start to the day and often easier to digest than my usual toast.

Because I could never hack open a squash pre-coffee, I tend to roast a few small squash on Sundays and refrigerate them to use through the week. Then I simply rewarm them in the toaster oven as my coffee drips into the Chemex. If I have a little extra time, I’ll bake an egg right in the cavity. (Think of this as a gluten-free egg in a hole.) I wrote up my method for the baked eggs below, but first, a few more topping and serving ideas for your squash halves.

  • Brush with maple syrup and dust with sesame seeds.
  • Put some wilted greens or other cooked mushrooms in the squash halves under the egg before you bake them.
  • Grate Parmigiano-Reggiana cheese over the squash before you re-warm.
  • Fill with warm lightly buttered farro, quinoa, or millet and top with sliced almonds and berries or crumbled bacon.
  • Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios.

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I’m a fan of Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, who, I like to say, writes self-help books for the pragmatist. Most weeks, I listen to her podcast, Happier, while I’m testing recipes. If you read or listen to Gretchen’s work at all, you know that she does not cook nor does she like food that much. Case in point: Her big treat is Greek yogurt with fake sweetener. Ha! No thanks! Still, her way of condensing life lessons and creating lists resonates with me. Inspired by her Secrets of Adulthood (and instead of writing New Year’s resolutions), I’ve created my own list of lessons I’ve learned from over a decade of cooking. Some of them are personal, others more universal. I’d love to know: What are your Cooking Secrets of Adulthood?

  • When you make stock, it’s like putting money in the bank.
  • You never regret making a homemade sauce or stock to use or freeze.
  • Always make more grains, lentils, and soup than you need.
  • Roast more vegetables than you need.
  • Roast garlic when roasting other food.
  • Meal planning reduces stress.
  • For longer-lasting produce, sometimes you need to use plastic bags.
  • Check the fruit and vegetable drawers daily to prevent waste.
  • Tinned fish with bread, butter, and raw veggies is a totally acceptable dinner.
  • Roasted vegetables are an excellent breakfast.
  • You can put an egg on it and totally call it lunch (or dinner or breakfast, for that matter).
  • Grilling in the spring and fall is often more enjoyable than grilling in the summer.
  • It’s ok (and often better) to cut off the bad spots rather than throw it away.
  • Take the time to brown your meat.
  • Tomato paste and smoked paprika are your friends (especially when you’re not cooking meat).
  • It’s better to finish the container of a special ingredient than to savor it for so long, it goes off or moldy.
  • Things taste better with the right context (lobster by the sea; stew by a fireplace).
  • As Julia Child says, Never apologize. (I’m still working on this one.)
  • Your meals taste better than those at most restaurants.
  • Meals cooked for you in someone else’s home are always good.
  • As Gretchen says, Outer order leads to inner calm and this is definitely true in the kitchen.
  • Cleaning comes with cooking. Podcasts or music make it more fun.
  • When you just can’t deal, get take-out. You’ll like cooking again the next day, or the day after that.

 

Quick-Braised Kale with Fried EggWhen I worked at Food & Wine, we would brainstorm story ideas in April or May for the November issue. A former coworker and close friend would always remind the other editors, Thanksgiving is one day! We still need to give people things to cook the rest of the month.

And so, today, my gift to you is a dead simple recipe you can make the night before Thanksgiving instead of ordering pizza or something you can serve for breakfast, lunch, or dinner this weekend when you’re sick of turkey sandwiches.

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