Recipe: Lentil soup with chestnuts and fennel

No pictures of the actual chopping of vegetables; I was too disorganized.
No pictures of the actual chopping of vegetables; I was too disorganized.

It wasn’t until my freshman year at Dartmouth that I discovered the wondrous dish that is lentil soup. It’s not too heavy, but it keeps you satisfied, it’s full of fiber and protein, there are generally plenty of other vegetables in there for extra vitamins. Like chili (another food I didn’t really appreciate until going to Dartmouth), it warms you from the inside out, but it tends not to produce the gastrointestinal issues that chili made with really fatty meat (as it often is) does.

Chestnuts!
Chestnuts!

I almost decided to save this recipe for another week, since it’s been feeling more like late summer than fall around Cambridge recently. It probably helps that the heat in my house got turned on. Since it no longer gets down to 50 degrees F inside at night, I felt it was slightly less urgent to make a really warming food for the week’s dinner. But when I biked down to the market Saturday in the rain, the fennel looked so good, and I was feeling in the mood for a vegetarian dish that wouldn’t hurt the wallet too badly; one that I could happily make loads of and eat for a week, so I decided to just go for it. By the time it became clear on Sunday evening that I wouldn’t be making this until Tuesday night, I felt like I was already committed (even though I forgot to pre-soak the lentils. Argh!). So I skipped the convivial atmosphere of Hall and spent some time chopping veggies and simmering soup instead.

Making this reduction with chestnuts, fennel seeds, tomato paste, and white wine made me feel fancy.
Making this reduction with chestnuts, fennel seeds, tomato paste, and wine made me feel fancy.

The chestnuts are an indulgence here. I wasn’t really familiar with them, and I got slightly fewer than the original recipe called for, since they were by far the most expensive component besides spices. If you’re not worried about cost, or if chestnuts are really cheap where you are, by all means add more! They’re little flavor bombs that make the soup a little more hearty and add another dimension to it. You can use pre-shelled/canned or whole chestnuts; if you want to use whole, be sure to read the original post’s cautionary tale about chestnut preparation. I decided to save myself a bit of time and use prepared chestnuts.

Almost ready to add the chestnuts to the soup.
Almost ready to add the chestnuts to the soup.

Other changes from the original: I increased the amount of onions and carrots, since I had so many on hand, and added a handful of frozen spinach for extra healthiness (I’m sure fresh would be better, but frozen was on hand and cheap). I also approximated the herb mixture in the recipe with the basic “mixed herbs” from the grocery store; if you have a better-stocked kitchen, use the original recipe as a guide on that front. Whilst frantically adding herbs to the cooking vegetables (before adding the lentils), I realized that I had mixed up this recipe with another one from the same blog; I seemed to recall this one having mustard in it. I added a bit of mustard anyway, and couldn’t honestly tell it was in there, but I’m inclined to think it made it better. Oh, and everywhere it says “diced,” I chopped. There just isn’t enough time on a weekday evening to dice things. If I’d had the foresight to pre-soak the lentils and pre-chop the vegetables the night before, this could have easily been a 30-minute meal. As it was, I got home late from the lab and various college meetings and ate dinner at 9 pm.

Served with grated Parmesan. Mmmm.
Served with grated Parmesan. Mmmm.

Bonus thrifty cooking tip! I’ve started putting my vegetable scraps in a “broth bag” in the freezer, so I can use them to make stock next time I need it! Should save a wee bit of money and quite a lot of sodium.

Lentil Soup with Chestnuts and Fennel

Adapted from: The Bojon Gourmet

Yield: 6-8 servings.

For the lentils:
1 c lentils (preferably soaked for 1 – 2 hours)
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 small yellow onions, finely diced
1 medium fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, the rest finely diced
3 medium carrots, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
2 Tbsp finely chopped celery leaves (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
1.5 tsp mixed herbs
1 pinch fennel seed
1/2 – 1 tsp wholegrain mustard (optional)
1/2 – 1 tsp salt
2-3 cups frozen spinach

For the chestnuts:
200g chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped, or 1 pound fresh chestnuts (warning! see original)
2 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1/2 tsp mixed herbs
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 c dry white wine

Garnishes:
Parmesan
Minced parsley or celery leaves

If possible, place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Let soak 1 – 2 hours. Otherwise, cover the lentils with hot water while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, celery leaves, garlic, mixed herbs, fennel seed, and mustard. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 – 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and add them to the pot along with 1 quart of water (if the lentils were soaked) or 6 cups of water (if they weren’t) and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, 20 – 40 minutes (depending on whether the lentils were soaked). Toward the end of cooking, add spinach and stir occasionally until incorporated. Taste for salt, adding more if needed.

If using fresh chestnuts, see original recipe for peeling instructions. Chop peeled chestnuts into small chunks. Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the chopped chestnuts, fennel seed, thyme leaves and a few pinches of salt. Saute over medium-low heat for a few minutes, then add the tomato paste, mashing it smooth, and stir in the wine. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring a few times, until the liquid is thick and reduced.

When the lentils are cooked, add the chestnut mixture to the pot. Simmer a few minutes to meld things together, then taste for seasoning.

Serve the soup with a sprinkling of parmesan and minced parsley.

The soup keeps well in the fridge for up to a week. Thin with a bit of water if necessary, as the lentils will continue to drink up the broth.

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