Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit...

Yes, I'm ten years old.
Last weekend I had dinner at a friend's house. She is also of Southern Italian heritage and I always enjoy comparing our cooking. We have many recipes in common but often with a familial twist that make her's her's and mine, mine. Saturday night she made lentil soup. It tasted nearly identical to mine and reminded me of my great-grandmother's kitchen.

For those of you unfamiliar with lentils, they are a legume but are generally very small and shaped like a lens. They come in a variety of colors - brown, green, red, yellow - depending on the geographic origin of the original plant. I prefer the standard brown lentils but only because that's what my family always used.

Thirty percent of the lentil's calories come from protein - making them third highest in protein behind soy and hemp - so, really, the tastiest protein you can have. Also, because they're a legume, they've got a good bit of fiber in them. All in all, they're really good for you. And did I mention tasty??

When I was REALLY poor, lentils were a staple in my house. It also helped that a pot of lentil soup simmering on the stove reminded me (still reminds me) of my family so it provided emotional comfort as well as cheap nutrition.

So, my gift to you on this soon-to-be-cold day (our temps are supposed to drop 30 degrees in the next twelve hours) is my great-grandma's lentil soup recipe. In the spirit of full disclosure I'll admit that nearly all lentil soup recipes are the same - with small variations based on family preferences. This is something you can have on the table in less than an hour and will fill your bellies and your souls with comfort.

Buon Appetito!

- Alex

Agostina's Lentil Soup

1 lb (16oz) bag of lentils (brown, preferably)
1 medium onion - coarsely chopped
2 small or 1 large clove garlic - diced
2 or 3 carrots - coarsely chopped
2 large celery stalks - chopped
8 cups water or vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
Olive oil
A dash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Lightly sautee the onions, garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil. When the onion is a bit soft, add the lentil and stir to mix well. Add water or broth. Add bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 30-45 minutes, stirring often. (Keep your eyes on it because the beans may suddenly expand.) Add more cooking water/broth if necessary to achieve your preferred consistency. The lentils will thicken the broth and make a dense soup. Once the lentils and vegetables are cooked through, add balsamic vinegar, salt, black pepper, and olive oil to taste.

Variations - Chicken or beef broth both add a different flavor to the finished soup. Also, the addition of either ham hocks or Italian sausage can make the soup even heartier than it is already. Experiment!!

Variation also - some people like to use a stick blender and "puree" the soup to a smoother consistency. I like it "bean-y".

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