Winter break is nothing if not an endless buffet of voluptuary temptations. Almost two weeks at home in San Diego and another in Chicago offered up the requisite enchiladas from my family’s go-to Mexican place, Thai green curry for Star Wars screenings, a lazy brunch of frittata and a citrusy kale salad, a luxuriant New Year’s Eve feast in a subterranean den that began with risotto and ended with chocolate cake, and then plenty of dark, muddy red wine that stained my lips crimson, Bloody Marys with extra horseradish and whiskey cocktails that staved off the Chicago chill — among other things.
But January is the icy month of atonement, a thought that echoed when I opened my refrigerator — after a long and decadent birthday weekend in Chicago — to reveal its spartan shelves and the lone survivors who had grimly soldiered on. When replenishing the refrigerator seems a particularly insurmountable challenge, I want a dish that comes together not from an involute choreography performed by a troupe of ingredients, but arises from a few good alliances between wholesome, leafy compatriots. And when the weather takes on the climate of a refrigerator, I want something that simmers, boils and melds into itself on the stove. In short, what I longed for was lentil soup, the humble little dish that is both edifying and indulgent. The lentil harkens back to Ancient Grecians, who very much enjoyed them; their playwright Aristophanes said “you, who dare insult lentil soup, sweetest of delicacies,” perhaps a hair defensively, in one of his plays.
The soup starts with a generous gloss of olive oil in a big pot — more than you would think necessary at the peak of New Year’s austerity — and a roughly chopped bouquet of vegetables: 1 carrot, 1 yellow onion, 1 leek, 3 cloves of garlic. But the magic of lentil soup is its chameleon form — substitute celery for the carrot, green onions for the leek and shallots for the onion, or whatever other root vegetables lurk in your pantry. The point is to chop as finely as you have the patience for, but uniformity is little prized. I chop roughly and quickly.
Sauté in olive oil until everything has compressed and their aroma begins to make your kitchen feel hospitable again. After 10 minutes, add a very long glug of whatever wine or beer you have and a cup of dried green lentils, plus a can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and another 2-3 cups of water. Stir and bring to a simmer. Add a palmful of salt, a pinch of hot smoked paprika, some stalks of thyme or bay leaves and a squeeze of lemon juice that will cut through winter. After this, cover and walk away.
Forty-five minutes is enough time to read half of the London Review of Books you were gifted for Christmas, or for the more abstemious, take a brisk and nippy walk. And in 45 minutes, the hard, little lentils soften into velvet, and the shards of carrots, onions, leek, tomatoes, and garlic deliquesce into a silky base. The lemon and dark wine lend a richness to the stock not often found in vegetarian fare. I ladle it into a saucer and drizzle with more lemon and a shower of green onions, but it is equally good with a few drops of olive oil, a piece of au courant avocado toast, or a handful of simply dressed arugula.