While writing my monthly column for the now defunct MyCurves magazine, I was often driven a little crazy by how regimented my ingredient amounts had to be. That did not fit my freewheeling lifestyle. After decades of recipe writing, all of a sudden I needed to measure out every grain of salt and drop of olive oil, and even stuff chopped herbs into teaspoons. To anyone who’s followed my career, you know I’m an improvisational type, which has always been reflected in my recipe writing style. From the beginning I sensed that my readers had a culinary foundation that would allow them to make their own calls on many ingredient amounts and improvise to suit their tastes. My style grew partly as a give-and-take with my audience. This made me happy. But ultimately the MyCurves column made me very happy too, or maybe enlightened is a better word. Yes, it was enlightening to see just how much or little of everything I was putting into my food, to be forced to confront it. Five tablespoons of olive oil in a pan of broccoli rabe? Really? That’s more than 600 calories. Writing for MyCurves even changed some of my eating habits. I no longer glug through 25 ounces of olive oil a week. Nobody needs that much oil, no matter how good it is for you.
Okay, so I accept that diet organizations (this was the magazine of the Curves fitness chain) have their rules for ingredient amounts. But there were no set rules concerning the actual body of a MyCurves recipe. At least no one mentioned anything to me. At first I automatically thought conservative, even doctor-like. It seemed some of their other writers were working in that direction. After all, this was a serious publication. Some of its readers were clinically obese, and they were relying on me for help. But did I need to bark out military-like orders? I quickly realized I needn’t, and in fact people trying to lose weight deserve all the warmth and comfort they can get. Don’t you think? So I wrote the recipes in my usual way, with a friendly voice and plenty of experience to back me up. That worked out just fine, and, in my opinion, even softened the set-in-stone ingredient listings.
And now I’m developing low-carb dishes for my own blog. Are they diet recipes? I mean, the point of low-carb is partly to lose weight (but also to make sure you don’t develop anything nasty like adult-onset diabetes). I wondered if my recipe style would change when I went low-carb. I soon understood that these recipes could contain absolutely no restrictions. All I’m doing here is creating good Italian dishes that are naturally very low in carbs. No rigidity, no compromise. I just wasn’t going near pasta, potatoes, pizza, or risotto. There’s a big world of Italian food out there that’s naturally low-carb and fantastic. I sometime forget that myself.
So here’s a really good recipe for lentils, a legume I really love. When I starting looking into its carb load, I got some really good news. First off, it’s high in fiber and protein, with only 12 grams of carbs in ½ cup. And its glycemic index, the indicator of how fast and how high a food will raise our blood glucose, is low, around 30. That is mainly because you digest them slowly. Lentils are one of the lowest-carb beans you can eat.
For this soup I’ve chosen the tiny, tanish lentils grown in Umbria. They keep their shape even when cooked tooth-tender, unlike most lentils, which break down almost into a purée. They produce a soup that’s more brothy and elegant. I get beautiful ones from Gustiamo, the best Italian food importer in the country that I know of. French Le Puy lentils, which are green, cook up in a similar fashion and can sometimes be found at specialty shops. Either variety will work well here. Also, just a few words about the sausage in this soup: It’s intended as a seasoning, not a major presence, and that’s why there’s so little of it. The lentils have so much flavor that I didn’t want to overpower them. I think you’ll find that the balance is right.
Umbrian Lentil Soup with Andouille and Escarole
(Serves 5 to 6)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About ½ teaspoon ground allspice
7 or 8 large sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 andouille sausage, cut into very small cubes
1¾ cups dried Umbrian or Le Puy lentils (no soaking needed with lentils—another reason to love them)
A pinch of sugar
A splash of dry vermouth
1 quart light chicken broth
1 small head escarole, cut into very small pieces (about 1½ cups cut)
A drizzle of good red wine vinegar
A lump of unsalted butter
Choose a big soup pot with a lid. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it warm over medium flame. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and its leaves, and let them soften for about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, allspice, thyme, and andouille, and sauté until the sausage and the seasonings are releasing their aromas, about 4 minutes. Add the lentils, salt, black pepper, and sugar, and sauté until the lentils are well coated with seasoning, another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, partially cover the pan, and cook at a low bubble until the lentils are tender, about 35 to 40 minutes. You’ll want to add warm water if the liquid gets too low, so check every once in a while. Give the surface a good skim.
Now add the escarole, and let it wilt into the soup. Adjust the texture by adding more hot water, or a little more broth if you prefer. I like my soup a bit loose.
Turn off the heat and add the butter and a few drops of vinegar to balance out the flavors. Taste for seasoning. That’s it.