It's getting cold now. I have to put on gloves when I get up early in the morning, soon I'll need a scarf too. The dog is learning to walk on a leash, though it's a stop-and start process. She knows when we walk past the hardware store that Jeff will come out and give her a big bear hug and rub her belly. On Sundays when they're closed she pulls at the leash, ready to roll over at any moment, always a little disappointed. We've pretty much put the garden to bed now. The morning after the first frost we came out to find the elephant ears, previously six feet tall, slumped over like wrinkled old men. There's still hardy kale and broccoli growing. Maybe because I'm a procrastinator too, I've got a soft spot for those very last crops of the year. Other people rave about spring and asparagus or summer tomatoes, but there's something to be said about deep earthy greens, about hard round squashes. Solid. Things that don't emerge until the very end of the year and that sustain through the coldest months. I read somewhere that kale tastes sweeter after the first frost, you're supposed to pick some before and after the frost and compare them. I forgot.
I also haven't raked the leaves in the front yard, they fall bright yellow and red at first, slowly shriveling to brown. I like that I can hear the children walking by on their way to school in the morning, crunch, crunch, kicking up footfuls of leaves. It's the time for soups, for the fortification of dark leafy things and the warmth of broth. In these few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before the sweets and the presents and the snow, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Taking stock of what's in the pantry, cleaning out the closets for Goodwill, planting narcissus that will bloom for the holidays. Winter always seems to bring out the ascetic in me, as the rest of the world is ramping up the commercialism of the holidays, I need to burrow into the pantry for a moment. This soup, with winter greens and a smattering of lentils floating a lemony broth, is the perfect thing to burrow with. It's a good thing, because soon I'll have to get out a scarf and go rake the leaves.
Tuscan Kale and Black Lentil Soup with Pita Crisps
Umm Hana used to make this soup often, it was her take on a Syrian classic "adas bi hamud," but with the addition of pasta pieces it strikes me as the Syrian version of minestrone. My friend Michael, who lives on a diet of chicken, rice, and potatoes, loves this and it's about the only vegetal thing I've seen him eat with gusto. Don't skip the pita crisps, they're our favorite part.
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, smashed
8 cups water*
1 cup black or brown lentils, like beluga or lentilles de puy
8 leaves cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) or 12 leaves Swiss chard, ribs removed and leaves roughly chopped
1 teaspoon mild vinegar
1/2 cup broken up egg noodles or small pasta shapes
juice of 2 lemons
for the pita chips: pita bread, 1 cup olive oil
1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic cloves until softened but not browned. Add the water and the lentils and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper and add the kale leaves and vinegar (if using swiss chard, do not add until later). Lower the heat and simmer 30 minutes, until lentils are soft.
2. Meanwhile, make the pita chips. Break the pita into bite-size pieces. Heat the olive oil in a deep pot until hot. Add the pita chips and fry until golden brown, a few minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. If frying the pita chips is not to your taste, you can brush them with olive oil and toast them in a hot oven until crisp.
3. After the soup has simmered, add the noodles (and swiss chard, if using) and simmer another ten minutes until noodles are soft. Add more water if the soup is too thick and taste for seasoning. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice- don't skimp, it should be very lemony. Serve immediately, with pita chips.
* I am a strong believer that using water is usually better than using canned chicken stock. The Syrian way to do this would be to toss a few bones in the soup pot for flavor than fish them out before serving. If you have soup bones go ahead and use them, or use a homemade (not purchased) stock. I find the liquid gets body from the lentils and greens, and flavor from the lemon, so using water is just fine.