In her book Funny in Pharsi, the current Cook the Books club's selection, author Firoozeh Dumas tells stories about her experience as an Iranian expatriate in Southern California.
Some of the stories are funny, others less so, but the author tells them all with irony, so the reader is made to smile and at times laugh. Irony, however, is also a device behind which a writer can hide and this is what happens in this book.
Being an expatriate myself, I am interested in reading other people's experience. The book reminded me of stories I told my friends about funny experiences I had at the beginning of my life in California, like being asked "How are you?" all the time by perfect strangers that would then not pause long enough to hear my answer. Learning that it was a polite greeting expression did not make it any easier to get used to it. (In Italy, you ask that question only to a person you know — and you mean it.)
I expect a memoir to go beyond a series of vignettes and give the individual experience a universal flavor. This did not happen for me with Funny in Pharsi. Still, reading the book in the context of our club prompted me to learn a bit about Persian cuisine.
Among the various recipes I browsed for inspiration, this one from Vegetarian Times reminded me that I had not made a lentil soup in a while. This version from the blog Turmeric & Saffron includes red beets (barbabietole rosse), an item in my spring CSA box, so I made up my mind to create a Persian-inspired lentil soup that would contain seasonal and local vegetables.
Besides baby red beets, in recent weeks my CSA box contained baby turnips (rape). The photo above, from last December, shows some small and some larger turnips I had harvested as part of my winter u-pick CSA. Turnips grow well in our area, yet are not as popular as they could be. Even in Italian, expressions that mention turnips are not flattering, like non si può cavare sangue da una rapa (you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip). A recent interesting article on the National Geographic website talks about this still underappreciated root vegetable.
I like turnips and don't need encouragment to put a bunch in my basket. Of course, in the company of red beets, white turnips cannot avoid getting painted in the same color, but they don't lose their delicately spicy flavor and stand up nicely to the sweet beets, creating a balance in the soup, together with lentils and fresh spinach (spinaci), the latter also from my CSA share.
My preference for small lentils made me reach for my stash of black beluga lentils for the soup: pretty, small and quick cooking. The photo above shows why sorting through lentils before cooking them is a necessary step: on the right there are the small pieces of debris I found during the operation.
So, here is my lentil and vegetable soup, inspired by the book and a Persian recipe, but fundamentally its own story, personal and local.
- 1/2 cup / 3.5 oz. / 100 g black beluga lentils
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium-large onion 9 oz. /250 g, finely chopped
- 3/4 lb / 12 oz. / 340 g approximately half baby turnips and half baby red beets, greens set aside for another use (see Note below)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric (curcuma)
- 2 cups / 475 ml light chicken stock or vegetable broth, possibly homemade +
- 2 cups/ 475 ml water
- 4-5 oz. / 115-140 g fresh spinach leaves or baby spinach
- Fine sea salt — the amount will depend on how salty the stock or broth is
- A dash of freshly milled black pepper
Note: The greens of both red beets and turnips are edible and quite nice. I cook them with other leafy greens, like rainbow chard and kale.
Sort through lentils and remove any pebbles and bits of debris, then rinse in cold water and drain.
Warm up oil in a 6-qt soup pot and add the onion. Stir to coat and cook on gentle heat for 15 minutes, stirring every now and then. The onion will be soft and start to brown.
In the meantime, scrub root vegetables well then dice them. To ensure even cooking, make sure the size of dice is about 1/4-3/8 inch / 6-9 mm.
Add turmeric to the onion and stir, then add lentils, beets and turnips and stir.
Pour stock/broth and water into the pot.
Cover the pot, bring soup to a boil and cook on gentle heat until lentils and vegetables are tender. Check after 20 minutes.
In the meantime, wash spinach leaves and chop them.
When the soup is ready, season with salt to taste and black pepper. Add the spinach to the pot, cover and remove from the heat. The tender fresh spinach cooks in the residual heat.
It is better to let the soup rest for a while before eating it, to allow the flavor to ripen.
When mealtime approaches, bring soup back to boiling temperature and remove from the heat.
Ladle into soup bowls and serve, optionally topped with a dollop or two of homemade fromage blanc.
I like this soup in both the vegetarian version and the version with chicken stock. Lentils and turnips give it an earthy flavor, red beets sweeten it and spinach brightens up the combination.
The vegetarian version of my soup makes it eligible for My Legume Love Affair #71, the current edition of the popular, legume-centered event created by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, now organized by Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen, and hosted this month by Sowmya of Nivedhanam.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the zuppa di lenticchie nere e verdure audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]