This lentil soup requires some urban foraging, which for me at least consists of walking to Union Square farmers market and buying a lovely bunch of lamb’s-quarters (also known as quelites, wild spinach and goosefoots). Quelites is a general term that encompasses a wide range of wild, edible and supremely nutritious plants. They grow on their own like weeds. You can see them pictured in these photos.
As has been pointed out by others, quelites easily replace spinach in any recipe. I think they almost taste better than mature spinach and far better than baby spinach, which is fairly useless as a vegetable anyway (spitefully placing most baby vegetables into this category). For more information on lamb's-quarters/quelites, go here. I particularly like using these wild, beautiful greens in this soup to break up the tired lentil-spinach soup routine.
And so, this soup -- I hesitated about posting this recipe. I do like warm, rustic seasonal dishes but a lentil soup? Très plain. In the end, though, I went ahead with the lentil photo shoot. Because I love a good lentil soup. It's a nice, comforting thing to have in the freezer on a busy winter night. Also, a lentil soup is completely unpretentious – there is nothing unhealthy about it and it won't even try to entice you. This isn't a cauliflower pizza crust or carrot fries or some other nutritious food item masquerading as a lecherous, unhealthy dish. Indeed, the typical lentil soup is fairly unattractive -- a watery, murky brown mess.
But a few embellishments can make even a drab lentil soup seem new and exciting. I like to balance the lentils with a good amount of other vegetables. We all know how much I love working with rustic, root vegetables (see here, here, here, and here) so this recipe includes sweet parsnips and turnips. Their starch lends substance to the broth. Other important details: a lot of tomato paste to stave off the foggy brown colors that most lentil soups have; minimal liquid for a thick, stewy consistency; lots of dried herbs and warm spices; cups and cups of leafy greens at the very end (chard, spinach, or kale); and a burst of fresh lemon juice off the heat. The simple lentil soup quickly becomes a next level meal.
But even if you can’t be bothered to make an entire soup this weekend, I would recommend picking up some quelites the next time you're at the market.
French Lentil Soup w/Turnip, Parsnip and Quelites (v/gf)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots, scrubbed but not peeled, chopped
2 large celery stalks, chopped
1 turnip, peeled and chopped
2 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 dried bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp crushed red chili flakes
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
1 cup French green lentils (lentilles du puy)
1/3 cup tomato paste
6 cups water (or stock)
5 to 6 cups quelites (clusters of leaves only, no stems)
sea salt and black pepper
Before you start cooking, clean the quelites. Pick the soft leaves off the thick stems (discard the stems) and wash them well. The leaves can be extremely sandy.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, turnip, and parsnips to the pot and cook, stirring often, for about 8 to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and the onions are translucent. Add the bay leaf, oregano, cumin, chili flakes and garlic to the pot and cook for another 30 seconds but do not let the spices or garlic burn.
If using, add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits. Cook for a few more minutes until the wine has slightly reduced.
Rinse the lentils well and add them to the pot along with the tomato paste and water (or stock). Turn the heat up to medium-high and bring the soup to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium low and allow the soup to simmer uncovered for about 20 to 25 minutes. Taste the lentils for doneness and be sure not to overcook them. If the soups dries out too much as it cooks, add another 1/2 cup or so of water, as necessary, but a thick consistency is best.
Near the end of the cooking time, add the quelites to the pot. They only require a few minutes of cooking time and will reduce considerably as they wilt down.
Take the soup off the heat and stir in the juice of half a lemon. Taste for seasoning and add in sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste. Allow the soup to cool slightly and serve with additional lemon juice.
It will keep in the fridge for a few days and will only get better with time as the flavors develop. For long-term storage, freeze individual portions for up to 1 month.
Note: Do not add salt until the lentils are fully cooked through. Adding salt too early in the cooking process ruins their texture. In fact, for the best texture and flavor, be sure to use French green lentilles du Puy. (I also do not recommend substituting canned or frozen lentils because they tend to be mushy). The lentilles du Puy are worth the investment and you should have plenty left over to make salads such as this one by David Lebovitz.