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homemade lentil soup

I give a big party just before Christmas, and a spiral-sliced ham is always on the menu. I freely confess that its ease of preparation and popularity with the guests is only part of the story. I want that ham bone for New Year's lentil soup!

When I was little, we always went to my Italian grandma's for New Year's Eve. The family members of her generation had a number of traditions for midnight -- they had to go outside and run around the house, then come back in a different door than they'd gone out, which I think had something to do with bad luck trying to follow you but getting confused and unable to get back in. (Apparently bad luck is not very bright, and that's great to hear!) There was also smashing of dishes; I believe they were supposed to be old dishes, symbolizing getting rid of old things, but at that point my grandmother was all out of dishes she was willing to part with, so it was recent purchases from the 5 & 10 that got ritually broken (kids, some other day I will explain to you about the 5 & 10). And among the special New Year foods on her table were lentils in some form. They are considered good luck, even today, probably because they look like little coins and therefore bring prosperity.

Lentil plant - Lens culinarisThe lentil is a pulse, like beans or peas, a food crop with a lot of protein and the ability to improve the soil by fixing nitrogen. They're one of the earliest plants domesticated by humans, in pre-pottery Neolithic times 10,000 years ago or more. (You can see, at left, that their plant looks a lot like a pea plant, with the lentils in little pods.) Because they are reasonably drought-tolerant, they do well in dry Middle Eastern areas and can be grown in many parts of the world. (The word lens is the Latin word for lentil, and so the optic lens is so named because it looks like a lentil. I didn't know that before writing this diary, but it makes me smile.)

They're delicious and yet, awfully good for you, rich in not only protein but also iron. Much of their starch is of the "slowly-digested" variety, not "readily-digestible", so they are better for diabetics and others with sugar issues. And, unlike dried beans, dried lentils don't need advance soaking and can cook in about the same amount of time it would take to make a decent soup of any kind.

So, my lentil soup is very specifically NOT vegetarian, because: ham bone! But lentils can certainly make a good vegetarian soup . The New York Times has a good recipe for it that is not so different from mine except without the ham bone. Or, if you want to make meaty lentil soup but have no ham bone, you can chop up a ham steak or other thickly-sliced ham, or chop some bacon or sausage to add. If you do that, you may saute the bacon or sausage with the onions and celery below, or you can cook them separately and drain first if you don't want all their fat in the soup. But you do want to brown them first either way and not just boil them.

As to my soup, if any of you have ever read the children's book Stone Soup, lentil soup is a little like that, in that there are lots of things you can add to the pot to enhance your soup. But in this case, the little "stones" that are the dried lentils actually do make soup on their own, and all the other stuff you throw in adds even more flavor. You'll need a big pot to accommodate the bone, the lentils, and all the other ingredients.

I chop up a big sweet onion, and a similar amount of celery, including leaves, and saute them in some olive oil in the soup pot. When they are looking transparent, I add the ham bone. With a spiral ham, once all the sliced part is removed, there's still a hunk of unsliced meat at the end of the bone. Trim off whatever you can of this meat, trim off most of the fat, chop the meat up and toss it in the pot. The remaining meat on the bone will be pulled off with a fork after the soup is cooked.

Put the lentils (a pound, such as is sold in a plastic bag in the rice/dried beans aisle) in a sieve and rinse them well, and look them over to make sure no little stones or sticks found their way in. Dump the lentils in the pot too.

You'll need to add enough liquid to cover the ham bone. You can just use water and it'll be fine. My mom taught me to use V8 juice for part of the liquid, and now I use low-sodium V8 because ham is already mighty salty and we all have questionable blood pressure here. I use roughly a quart of V8, and the rest water. You could use tomato juice too; I like the complex flavor of the V8 and often use it in soups.

Now the really fun part: what else would you like to toss into your stone soup? I always use carrots, about a pound peeled and sliced thickly, or you can use those little pre-nubbinized carrots and cut them in half. I also add two or three peeled and sliced parsnips. Dill is nice with ham, so I chop a bunch of fresh dill and a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley. You could also use dried dill to taste, or choose different seasoning. Some grindings of black pepper are good, and if you like more salt, feel free. And, in addition to the V8, I usually add two or three chopped tomatoes, but only if I can get nice red ones and not those awful styrofoam-looking ones that garnish diner burgers during northern winters.

This year's particular batch of soup has a few scrubbed and quartered baby red potatoes I had around. It doesn't need another starch, but if you'd like one, go for it. Another starch choice is to throw in a few handfuls of small macaroni; whole wheat is good. If you do that, don't do it at the outset. Wait until the soup is basically cooked and then cook the pasta in it only for as long as the pasta requires. And if you have other vegetables, especially root vegetables, that your palate tells you would fit in with your soup, go for it!

When everything is in your pot (except macaroni), and there's enough liquid so it's all submerged if it wants to be, put on the lid and bring it to a boil. Then stir it up, lower the heat, cover it partway, and simmer it for at least an hour. Longer is better, if you have not waited until too close to midnight on New Year's Eve! Give it a stir from time to time, to make sure nothing is scorching at the bottom. You may stop cooking it any time after the lentils are tender and the remaining meat will easily shred off the ham bone. Pull the bone out with tongs and put it on a plate, then use a fork to pull off and shred the meat, and toss the meat back into the soup. Stir it well, and serve at midnight or whenever you're hungry!

As for the bone after that, do you have a dog? I do not, but I am friends with a dog. If you'd like to become friends with a dog, you could do worse than to show up with a large bone in a bag.

Lucy the dog

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