By SHANNON WATKINS
The holidays aren’t here yet, but you can see them on the horizon, ravenous eyes glowing like jack o’lanterns, breath steaming with the scent of scorched stuffing and too much turkey, dread flanks gleaming with tinsel and the occasional dreidl (depending on your faith).
If such a dire portrait of what is officially the happiest time of the year leaves you quivering with outrage, chances are pretty good you’re not the one in your circle who’s expected to provide all that holiday cheer. If, on the other hand, merely reading that made you realize you’re going to need two bottles of rum to make your famous eggnog – one for the punchbowl and one for the cook – you probably are that person, and idly wondering if the Witness Protection Program has a seasonal safe house that’ll hide you until February or so. You can always say you were abducted by aliens, you think.
But no, you’re dutiful and you do love your chosen ones; you want them to have a nice holiday season, even though that might mean you have to crawl out of bed to start the turkey at 4 a.m. so it’s ready for Thanksgiving dinner or spend an entire weekend untangling two miles of Christmas lights before teetering on a ladder, spreading them festively on the outside of the house while trying to avoid frostbite.
To get you through this, you’re going to need something hot and fortifying that tastes good and nourishes you without requiring a lot of extra time in the kitchen: soup.
This particular recipe comes from the Barefoot Contessa, whose show and cookbooks I love, although as stated a few columns ago, she tends to blithely use nigh-unaffordable ingredients like lobster and caviar. I haven’t cracked open one of her books and found a recipe for poached unicorn yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
That said, she tends to deliver good, solid recipes, like lentil soup. As for the lentils themselves, I really recommend Du Puy, also called French green lentils. They’re a dark grey-green and rounded (as opposed to the flattish brown kind) and the only place I’ve seen them on a regular basis is health food stores, usually Eats in Blacksburg, though you can check Kroger. It’s not a loss if you use another kind, but looking for them is a nice excuse to go on a quiet shopping trip by yourself.
I will further add that while I’m not normally a huge lentil fan – they’re too earthy and bland by themselves – this particular combination of ingredients really makes them come into their own. They’re also full of protein and fiber; just the combination you need to give you staying power when the weather turns cold and you have two carloads of people coming the next day and far too much to do in the meantime.
1 lb. lentils
¼ cup olive oil
4 cups diced yellow onions (about 3 large)
4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 1 bunch)
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 ½ tsps. fresh ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme leaves (or 1 tsp. dried thyme)
1 tsp. ground cumin
3 cups diced celery (about 8 stalks)
3 cups carrots, halved lengthwise and chopped into crescents (4 to 6)
3 quarts chicken stock, homemade if possible, low sodium from a carton if not (mixing stock half and half with water is perfectly fine)
¼ cup tomato paste
1 lb. kielbasa, halved lengthwise and chopped into crescents
2 Tbsps. dry red wine or red wine vinegar
Put the lentil in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let them sit for 15 minutes and drain.
In a large stockpot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions, garlic, and leeks along with the thyme, cumin, salt and pepper for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are transparent and soft. Add the celery and carrots and sauté for another 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for an hour. Check and adjust the seasonings to taste. Add the kielbasa and red wine or red wine vinegar and simmer until the kielbasa is hot. Can be served as is or accompanied with a drizzle of olive oil and a grating of Parmesan, with some nice crusty French bread alongside.
So there you go! Something you can haul out, nuke a bowl of for a quick meal on the fly, and then get right back to stitching costumes, stuffing turkeys, decorating wreaths, and looking up that darn Witness Protection Program number.