Monday, January 14, 2013

January Jeliciousness: Lentil & Chestnut soup with Fennel

Reza, who is, to be honest, a rocket scientist [he says "rocket scientists are those who do research in Aerospace. My undergraduate is in Aerospace Engineering and I design aircraft/manage a team of structural design engineers], made this soup on New Year's Eve and although it's probably way too late in my life to be wowed any more by the humble lentil, I was blown away. The lentil should be exalted, lifted up! The lily was gilded with a few slivers of white truffle on top of each bowl by our enthusiastic host. Oh my goodness. You absolutely have to try this soup. (Also, marron glace was a fixture in my childhood. I don't remember which friend it was whose mother made it all the time, but still, for me, chestnuts are a treat).

Reza says: When I was living in Italy, My friend Maria and would take off from Rome and roam the countryside checking out places and hunting for small restaurants and great eats. Late in October, she and I drove to a rather large town 50 km north of Rome called Viterbo where Maria's grandmother lived when she was alive. Since Maria only came to Viterbo to visit her grandmother, she did not know any restaurants. We asked an old woman and after an interesting interchange she pointed in a vague, old town direction and said try Il Richiastro. Based on the address we got, we ended up in a downhill street with no commercial buildings and signs. Finally we saw a yard with some random wild looking growth a door and an archway. This was the address alright but it looked like an abandoned yard of sorts with a wall and an entryway. As we got close to the archway, we noticed handwritten letters on the arch Il Richiastro. So, we stepped into the yard and to the left was a building built mostly underground with its roof about 3 feet off the ground with little windows (ventilators). Inside a restaurant was visible. There I had the most amazing crostini and "zuppa di cece e castagna" (garbanzo and chestnut soup.) Years later, state side, I was trying to find a recipe for that soup and ran into the Deborah Madison recipe and the how to. Later I used this know how to make the chickpea/garbanzo and chestnut soup.

Maria says Richiastro is not a proper Italian word and must be part of a local dialect. It means an herb patch just like the courtyard leading to the restaurant.

Il Richiastro (cucina tipico Veterbese)
Via Della Marrocca, 16
(0761) 228009

My mother cooks lentils the way most people do in the subcontinent; spicy, ginger-onion-garlic base etc. I changed the Deborah Madison method oh very slightly as a tip of the hat to my mother. After sauteing onions, vegetables and aromatics in olive oil, I put the lentils in and coated them with that onion stew for about 3-5 minutes and then added water and followed the recipe.
I love chestnuts, their texture and their semisweet taste. La Puy lentils with their nutty and creamy taste and how they contrast with the chestnuts just gets me. Add fennel to the mix with its earthy and subtle taste and digestive properties and I was hooked.

Makes 6 - 8 servings

The lentils:
1 cup lentils (Pardino or Le Puy, preferably soaked for 1 - 2 hours)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 small fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, the rest finely diced
2 medium carrots, diced (1/2 cup)
2 celery stalks, diced (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
pinch fennel seed
1 teaspoon salt

The chestnuts:
one 10-ounce can chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped, or 1 pound fresh chestnuts (Trader Joe's has great plastic-packed chestnuts in the vegetable aisle -- much, much easier than fresh)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine

The garnish:
1 - 2 slices of sourdough or levain bread, cut into small cubes
sunflower or olive oil, for frying the croutons
minced parsley or celery leaves
or, shave white truffle (if it's new year's eve)

If possible, place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Let soak 1 - 2 hours. Otherwise, cover the lentils with hot water while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, celery leaves, garlic, bay, thyme, oregano and fennel seed. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 - 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and add them to the pot along with 1 quart of water (if the lentils were soaked) or 6 cups of water (if they weren't) and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, 20 - 40 minutes (depending on whether the lentils were soaked). Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and taste for salt.

While the lentils are cooking, get on with the chestnuts. If fresh, score an X in the flat side of the chestnuts. Place the chestnuts in a casserole with 1/4 cup water. Cover and roast in a 400º oven for 30 - 60 minutes, until the shells begin peeling themselves away. Keeping the pan covered, work with chestnuts that are as hot as you can stand, and peel away both the shell and the membrane. If you have a lot of chestnut dust, you can shake the nuts in a colander to remove it. Chop the chestnuts into small chunks.

Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the chopped chestnuts, fennel seed, thyme leaves and a few pinches of salt. Saute over medium-low heat for a few minutes, then add the tomato paste, mashing it smooth, and stir in the wine. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring a few times, until the liquid is thick and reduced.

When the lentils are cooked, add the chestnut mixture to the pot. Simmer a few minutes to meld things together, then taste for seasoning.

In another skillet, warm a tablespoon or two of oil over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and cook, tossing occasionally with a metal spatula, until crisp and browned on all sides. Add a few pinches of salt to taste.

Serve the soup with a handful of croutons, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of parmesan and minced parsley.

The soup keeps well in the fridge for up to a week. Thin with a bit of water if necessary, as the lentils will continue to drink up the broth.

Adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen.


Marcheline said...

I sent this recipe to my mother. She lives on 40 acres in North Carolina and has her very own chestnut trees! 8-)

teamgloria said...

we have never quite understood the lentil - it felt so similar in soup to the scary brown indian Raj and british colonial forces standby of the mulligatawny from boarding school (Not a good soup memory) - but Oh! reading your recipe and story and context and reveries, we are resolved to try it again.

pausing in palm springs and then heading to L. A in a day or so - most excited to be coming home.