Olivia Dish

Lentil Soup: Good to Great

In Homemade, Markets, South Carolina on May 25, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Any old lentils will do, but the bacon makes it great.

I have no idea why I first decided to make “Hearty Lentil Soup” from the January/February 2004 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

I’d had my eye on the Chocolate Bundt Cake recipe and its promise of “Rich, Moist, Chocolatey.”

I’d eaten lentils but had never cooked them before in my life. (We were more of a field pea/butterbean family when I was growing up, and it just hadn’t occurred to me.)

There I was, though, following Cook’s Illustrated‘s meticulous directions.  The soup was good, good enough that I made it regularly for the next year and a half.  I raved about it.  I served it to friends.

But the soup did not rise to the level of perfect until November 2005.  That’s when I went to the inaugural All-Local Farmers’ Market in Columbia, SC and  bought my first pound of Caw Caw Creek bacon.

Yes, like Mr. Frost’s road not taken, that bacon has made all the difference.

The critical tomato simmer, almost ready for lentils.

Now, Cook’s Illustrated will tell you that the key is simmering the lentils in the diced tomato for 8 to 10 minutes.  They will tell you that the acid in the tomatoes somehow prevents the lentils from going to mush.  I believe them. I do it every time.  But it’s the bacon that makes the soup. And it’s the Caw Caw Creek bacon that makes the best soup.  Here’s how it goes.

That old CI recipe and a can of tomatoes.

You cut up 3 or 4 slices of bacon into small pieces and toss them in your soup pot over medium heat.  Render the fat and crisp the bacon, then add a diced onion to the pot, followed by 3 or 4 diced carrots.  Cook these for a while, then if you like, add a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, a pinch of thyme.  Then add a cup of lentils and a can of diced tomatoes (the 14.5 ounce size is plenty) and simmer for that magic 8 to 10 minutes.

From there, Cook’s Illustrated wants you to add a combination of water, white wine and chicken stock.  But I use about 7 cups of my scrappy stock and call it a day.

CI says inspect for stones. Does anyone ever find stones in their lentils?

If Caw Caw Creek bacon on the front end is a critical ingredient for creating perfection, then I guess balsamic vinegar to finish is the other most important part.  I mix in a couple of teaspoons, to taste, just before serving.  The sweet, acidic edge is the perfect balance to the smokey, rich bacon.  I also like to puree a couple of cups of the soup in the blender and add it back to thicken the soup, though that’s not critical.

A delectable bowl of soup.

This lentil soup is so good on the day that you make it, you’ll never stop after just one bowl.  But I find it’s not the best soup for reheating—unless you dress up the leftovers.  I like to cook a half cup or so of brown rice and mix it in for serving on day two.  And if there’s still soup left for a day three, then think about chopping up some kale or spinach and wilting it in the soup.

If you want the original recipe, it’s at Cook’s Illustrated online.  For the trademark Cook’s Illustrated play by play of how the recipe was refined, I guess you’ll have to dig up the January/February 2004 issue of the magazine.

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