A bowlful of comfort: Tricolored lentil soup with Swiss chard

The last few weeks have not been kind. On a global level, and for many people on a personal level, the world has been a cruel place. It is easy to feel helpless in face of such large-scale pain but we do what we have to do. We get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say hello. We might not feel too cheerful, but we smile and fake it. Sometimes faking it works, and our mood lifts. If our troubles loom large, it may take a little more heavy lifting. When troubles appear, the question always comes down to: ‘how much is in my mind and how much is real?’

I had a conversation with my friend Bruce Rubin the other day, and we were talking about the t.v. show the Dog Whisperer. I haven’t seen too many episodes, but there is one in particular I can recall where the dog in question hurls himself ferociously against a wooden fence every time someone walks past the driveway. Now in this dog’s experience, each time he hurls himself against that fence it has no effect. But does that keep him from repeating the exercise again and again in the course of a day, and getting very worked up about it in the bargain? No, it does not! Bruce pointed out that our minds are a lot like the dogs on that program. They wander about in all sorts of crazy and unfulfilling ways. Our thoughts are out of control. What we forget to do is hold out our finger, just like the dog whisperer, and say, “Stop!”

I am trying to incorporate this lesson. It’s not all that easy to remember it. My mind, disobedient as ever, wants to have its own way. So when troubles arise, I must hold out my finger Stop! Get a grip. Don’t go there. Is it real? Accept and do what you can do. Don’t go into denial, but take sensible action and move to a better and more real place. Be grateful and count your blessings.

There is no avoiding the ups and downs. It is part of living, and sadly, some of those ups and downs are seismic in nature. At some point you have to turn off the television because the news is too sad and devastating. You do what you can do: you send resources and prayers to the people in need. Then you go into the kitchen and perform a simple act; you make something really healthy and satisfying. You savor each spoonful and take some to a friend who is hurting. Then you count your blessings again.

This vegetarian soup is more like a robust stew. It has plenty of flavor—you don’t need any stock which is fine because that makes it fit the new, healthy and clean eating program you’ve probably resolved to take up in the new year. Don’t get too excited about the red lentils, they turn brownish when they are cooked but they’re fun to use nevertheless. I like to use Le Puy green lentils because they hold their shape—they are available at Whole Foods. You can substitute plain ol’ green lentils if you wish. If you can find red chard it will add some color to the soup, along with the greens. This is the kind of soup that you will want to pack up and put in the freezer for a rainy day. That is, once you’ve had your fill of it the first time around.

Tri-colored Lentil Soup (Serves 8) 

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 stalks celery, finely diced (about 1 cup)

2 carrots, peeled and finely diced (about 1 cup)

1 cup green lentils

1 cup red lentils

1 cup yellow split peas

1 bunch Swiss chard (Ruby chard is nice)

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 to 3 rounds of crisply toasted pita bread (white or whole wheat)

1. Heat the oil over medium heat In a large (6 quart) pot until it shimmers. Add the garlic, onions, cumin, thyme, coriander, salt and cayenne pepper. Cook until the onions begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the lentils and the 12 cups of water and simmer for 45 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, separate the chard stems from the leaves: stack the chard and slice along either side of the stems. Cut across the stems to make 3/8-inch wide slices. Add the stems to the soup and cook for 10 more minutes.

3. Stack the leaves and cut them in 2-inch wide, long strips. Cut across the strips 1-inch ribbons. Add them to the soup with the lemon zest and juice. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the leaves are wilted. Taste and add more salt if needed. Crumble some toasted pita on top of each soup bowl for garnish.

Total cooking time: about 1 hour

Posted on January 26, 2010 and filed under Soups, Vegetarian.