Between the dark and light of the early morning, in slippered feet I stood; flour jar and batter bowl at hand. A warm pine floor dark beneath me and cool stone countertops reflecting back the first bits of daylight. I slipped the heavy linen apron from its hook and over my head, smoothing its front, ritually pushing my hands into each of its pockets before beginning my task. Into the bowl I measured, sifted, pinched & stirred together what will, with any luck, become the start of a dark sourdough bread. It will be coaxed into existence over the next 5 days through a common sort magic, simple but deeply seeded.
On this morning and for the last few, I have been feeling an overwhelming sense of calm. I can only think that it is coming from a place of general contentedness, a feeling of some form of happiness which I have not felt for a time. What I know to be different is how good it feels to finally be back standing in a kitchen of my own after so long.
The thought that the two are connected, this contented calm and having a kitchen of my own again, hadn’t dawned on me until recently. Spurred by the comment of a friend under my image on Instagram, she wrote “one thing about being away is that you miss your own kitchen”.
And this feeling of missing ones own kitchen is something I have known rather poignantly recently. As you may know, a few months ago we, my husband and i, packed up our London life. It was sent one way around the world as we went the other. It was a great adventure, perhaps one of a life time, thought I rather hope not, but the one thing I perpetually missed, that I longed for in this unmoored period was my kitchen. I did my best to mimic some daily rhythm which felt natural to me but how well can one accomplish this in the kitchens of strangers?
I was able to recreate one recipe time and again, with very little resources or ingredients. It became a sort of mooring along our journey. Simple in form but imbued with feelings of nourishment and a sense of home and easily adapted to strange kitchen and the ingredients I found there. It offered us the ability to create that all important familiarity in each new place we traveled but also create a relationship through the local ingredients of each country as we went.
The base of this soup is simple; red lentils, garlic, water. They are the universal truths but the specifics depended on place. Huge fresh bay leaves and tender sprigs of Rosemary from the Mercado Ribera in Lisbon. I bought them as you would a bouquet from one of the stands in the market and watched as elderly hands wrapped them in paper and tenderly passed them across the counter with such care you could have imagined the parcel held far greater treasure.
In Bologna, this soup guarded us against winters impending chill. I walked through tiny streets of the old city below our apartment and found a rich golden olive oil sold in tiny bottles to drizzle over the top.
I made it also in Venice & Istanbul doing much the same in these cities as I had in the ones before. In Venice the soup became a decadent meal with the addition of gorgeous fresh seafood and golden threads of saffron. In Istanbul, I bought not only lentils but the turkish crushed red pepper and freshly dried mint. These became even more elegant atop the humble lentils when I added a spot of hot melted butter.
And so it continued along the way until this soup became our touchstone o sorts. A way to convert the kitchens of strangers, to coax and cajole them, into feeling a bit more like our home. What started as three small lines in my now well-worn notebook is a recipe which reads like a novel spanning five pages. Front and back, each page is scrawled with notes, ideas and splatters of this or that, making the written recipe as much a document of our journey as the photographs taken or places visited. The soup was one constant, knowing we could return to it as something familiar but it also granted us the unique ability to explore each city through foods that were otherwise unfamiliar.
This soup can be the start for any number of wonderful flavor combinations. It can cook up in very little time using what you have on hand and essentially requires nothing more than one big pot and wooden spoon. The recipe below is only a guideline or perhaps better yet, a base line from which to explore ingredients and flavor combinations. Herbs in season, new spices, perhaps a fresh egg on top or hunk of crusty fresh-baked bread.
Red Lentil Soup
- 2 cups red lentils, washed well and picked through
- 6 cloves garlic, smashed
- 6 fresh bay leaves
- 4 tbsp good quality olive oil. Plus more for drizzling
- 1 lemon
- 1/4 fresh chopped parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh chopped rosemary
- fresh ground black pepper & salt to taste
- 6 cups water
- add smashed garlic, bay leaves, rosemary and 1 cup water to a large stock pot. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer about 3 minutes or until garlic is tender
- next add red lentils and remaining water to the pot. bring to a boil over high heat then reduce heat to a simmer add olive oil. cover pot and simmer over low heat until lentils collapse. approximately 20 minutes. stir occasionally and add more water if necessary so that lentils do not stick to the bottom of the pot. you should end up with a bit of broth around the lentils
- when the lentils are mushy and soft remove them from the heat. season with salt and pepper to taste
- spoon into individual serving bowls and top each with a good squeeze of lemon juice, sprinkle of fresh parsley and drizzle of olive oil. Or freely add any toppings you desire.
*do not salt lentils while cooking as they will become tough. add salt at the end to taste