Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Prison Blues

We really are prisoners of our own desires. Even if the desires diverge significantly.

One revels in all things known. The familiar. Reliving things that have already happened. Over and over.

Driving down the street, or taking a walk, names of known people who live in the houses being passed are recited, events that took place at some location are recalled in a sort of short hand code, the first time a restaurant was visited is recounted in the key details such as year and wine and main course and clothing worn. Favorite restaurants are visited over and over, with the identical dish being ordered each time. The same comments being offered. Like a religious ceremony, whose well worn rituals are caressed over and over. The routine providing comfort and maybe a sense of security, or possibly a sense of everlasting longevity, projecting the ritual into the infinite future.

Then there are the relentless experimenters. Always something new. New location, new people, new gadgets, new tastes. As soon as something is tried, it’s done, crossed off. Time to move on. Push the envelope. Never the same thing twice. Always on the search for the next thing. Always noting the new restaurant, the menu changes. Interest in the past exists only in that it indicates where not to go in the future.

Either road can be a tough grind.

One leading to a certain stagnation, and, anyways, certain to eventually deliver disappointment, as nothing remains the same forever, least of all memories. Seems like a dreary sort of prison to me.

The other leading to certain mental burnout in the attempt to find all things new, let alone new things actually worth trying. This prison might be worse, barring the familiar, holding the prisoner like a rat on a treadmill, always running but never arriving.

All this leading up to the lentils dilemma. You know, cooking something for the umpteenth time, because everyone really does like it, and besides, it’s cold out, the first rainy day in nine months around here. So lentil soup. Over rice.

While some were relishing the reappearance of the known, others (i.e. me) were dreading another go round with the same old thing.

So, despondent due to lack of sun and being stuck in my prison (of my own design, of course), moping about (apparently my creativity is closely tied to the sun), actually moping about on the internet, I stumbled across some ideas. Maybe some keys to escaping both prisons. For a day, anyways.

The ideas coming from the web site, although we didn’t actually follow the recipes there, just the ideas. Improvising as we went.

Lentil soup with a new hairdo. Of roasted carrots and apples. Not mixed in, but set on top of the soup as a garnish. The carrots and apples caramelizing during the roasting process, adding a component of sweetness to the lentil soup.

Plus a simple cayenne crème. Just crème fraîche mixed with cayenne pepper. Drizzled around the edge of the soup for visual interest as well as for a taste punch. Delicious!

And a cracker, made from the lentil soup. Just something fun. With the added benefit of a warm oven on a cold day.

In the end, something familiar with a new twist. Enough of a twist to unlock all of our prisons.

Print Recipe

Lentil Soup with Roasted Carrots and Apples, Cayenne Crème and Lentil Crackers
Based on a recipe from
Adapted by surfindaave
Serves 6 to 8 as a main course

2 pounds spicy Italian-style chicken sausages
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 carrot, chopped fine
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ pounds dry black lentils
5-6 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
several sprigs thyme
1-2 tbsp cumin
salt, pepper
2 gala apples, peeled
4 carrots, peeled
olive oil
½ cup crème fraîche
1 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste (start with less, add more to taste)
Lentil Crackers (recipe follows)
Steamed rice as an accompaniment, if desired

In a large, heavy soup pot, cook the sausages over high heat until well browned. Remove to a plate, reserving fat in pan.

Drain all but 2 tbsp of fat from the pan, and in that, sauté the onions, celery and carrots over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes. When softened, add the garlic, stirring, and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add 1 cup of the chicken broth, and scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom and sides of the pan. Add the lentils, bay leaf, thyme, cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and the remaining chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Add the sausages back to the pot. Cover partially, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add additional liquid if necessary to achieve the desired consistency.

While the soup is simmering, roast the carrots and apples. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Grate the carrots and apples on the roughest side of your grater, using long strokes to get as long of strands as possible. Alternatively, if you have time and the tools, use one of those rotating potato peelers to pare the apples and carrots into super longs, thin strands. Toss the grated carrots and apples with a few tbsp olive oil. Place on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper and spread out as much as possible. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture has to give up a lot of water before it will begin to brown, so be patient (and watchful). When the carrots and apples have browned significantly in places, remove from oven and reserve.

Stir the cayenne pepper into the crème fraîche, taste, adjust (it should be hot, but not unbearable), and reserve.

When the lentils are tender, serve the soup in large, flat soup bowls with a heap of the roasted carrots and apples placed on top (not mixed in), and drizzle some of the cayenne crème around the edges. Place a lentil cracker on the side of the bowl. Enjoy!

Lentil Crackers
Based on a recipe from Emeril Lagasse
Makes 6 large crackers

¾ cup of the lentil soup
¾ cup flour, plus extra for rolling
olive oil
kosher salt

In a bowl, mix the lentil soup with about ½ cup of the flour, mashing the lentils. Slowly add additional flour, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture forms a ball. Continue to mix with your hand, adding additional tablespoons of flour, until the dough achieves a smooth, non-sticky texture and is firm like modeling clay. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten to a disk, and set in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Divide the dough into six pieces. On a floured board, roll out each piece into a long, thin strip, maybe 14 inches long by 2-3 inches wide. Dust off excess flour. Place the strip on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I was able to bake three strips at a time). Brush the top lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Repeat for remaining pieces of dough.

Bake the strips for about 20 minutes, until they are lightly browned and crisp. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

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