Saturday, February 27, 2010

Beluga Lentil Soup with Saffron Cream

I love lentils. This love snuck up on me slowly, starting with the addictive crispy lentils at Cobras and Matadors. I then discovered the endless variety of Indian dals: some mild and creamy, others fiery and studded with roasted vegetables, all amazing. It wasn’t long before I had four or five varieties of lentils in my pantry at all times. My current favorite is the miniscule black beluga. Once you rinse these in a little water, you’ll see exactly where they get their name.

Lentil soup is pretty hard to mess up. You can riff endlessly with the herbs and vegetables, add a generous squeeze of lemon at the end, or in this case, steal the idea for a luscious saffron cream from 101 Cookbooks. You know all those creative tricks vegetarians use to make their food tastier? They happen to make bacon-containing recipes taste pretty awesome too. I want to eat saffron cream on pretty much everything, but it’s perfection paired with this smoky, earthy lentil soup.

Beluga Lentil Soup with Saffron Cream
1½ cups of beluga lentils (you can also use puy lentils)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup of best quality pancetta, diced
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch of lacinato kale (sometimes called cavalo nero)
1 box of low-sodium chicken broth, plus water as necessary
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Leaves from 5-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt to taste
Pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon boiling water
Pinch of salt
½ cup Greek yogurt

1. Heat olive oil in a Dutch-oven or large stockpot. Add the pancetta and cook over medium-high heat for a few minutes, or until pancetta has cooked and added some of its delicious fat into the pan.

2. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute or so.

3. Prep your kale by washing it well and removing the tough stalk. Cut the leaves into bite-sized ribbons. Pick over your lentils for any stones and give them a good rinse.

4. Add the beluga lentils and kale to the pot, then cover with broth and about one cup of water. It’s up to you how much liquid you’d like in your soup. Keep in mind that the lentils will absorb some as they cook.

5. Cook the lentils, covered, over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or so. Then add the tomato paste and thyme and cook for another 15 minutes. Belugas are quite small and cook quickly. You may need to cook Puy lentils slightly longer. Add salt to taste.

6. Meanwhile, soak your saffron threads for a few minutes in a tablespoon of hot water. Then add half a cup of yogurt to the soaked saffron, a pinch of salt, and mix well.

7. Serve a bowl of the soup with a small spoonful of saffron cream on top. Warm crusty bread and a green salad make this a complete meal. As with most soups, this is even better the next day.

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