So here's a little story for you. On Saturday morning. I was strolling around my favorite green market, filling my bag with snappy asparagus, hyacinths and peonies, rosy little radishes and rondes de Nice, those round zucchini that you're meant to stuff with seasoned ground meat and bake in the oven. I didn't expect to find them at the market, and I couldn't help but buy four of them, round and glossy and firm. Inspired with memories of the petits farcis of Nice, I stopped at the organic butcher to look for ground meat. As I stood in line, though, I decided to use ground dark chicken meat instead, lightening the filling.
Suddenly it was my turn. I asked for chicken thighs, ground. The butcher stared at me, asked me to repeat my request. I pointed to the chicken thighs and asked if he could grind them. Realizing he'd understood me the first time, he shook his head, almost disappointed in me. Maybe even a little indignant? "We don't do that." Now it was my turn to stare. "If you order five kilos? In advance? Then we'll grind the thighs for you. Otherwise, sorry, it's just too exotic."
Exotic! Ground chicken meat! Folks, you can't make this stuff up.
Back at home, hungry for lunch, I decided to put the zucchini away and turn to something else I'd been craving for a while, armed with an old recipe of Molly O'Neill's for red lentil ragout. Yes, I was craving legumes. I suppose that's pretty exotic(!), too.
The original recipe starts with a roasted panful of carrots and onions and ends with ancho chile and other exotic spices. It sounded absolutely wonderful. The only problem was that I didn't have ancho or chipotle chile powder. (Note to self: add to shopping list for May.) So I decided to improvise a little, which turned out to be just fine, because, man, that recipe was wonky. I almost charred my sweet little carrots to a blackened crisp, before realizing that roasting them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes is definitely not the best path to delicious food. Untested recipes! They make you a better cook, I guess.
Instead of ancho and chipotle chile powder, I decided to use a mixture of cayenne, Aleppo pepper and smoked paprika. And let me tell you, folks, this turned out to be a serendipitous choice. Also, exotic! (I'm sorry.)
So here's what happens. You roast a bunch of carrots in the oven with lots of salt and olive oil (and pepper) until they're soft and browned. It is almost impossible not to eat these carrots with your fingers the minute they come out of the oven. Resist! You must! (Onions are tossed in at the very end in rings and they go all fragrant and shriveled.)
Then you chop the carrots into bite-sized pieces and scrape the onions and carrots into a pot with some olive oil and the spices. These cook for a minute and start to release all their wonderful oils and flavors. That's when you add the red lentils and stock. You let the whole thing simmer away for about half an hour, stirring occasionally, while the lentils break down into agreeable sludginess.
What you're left with, in the end, is an improbably sweet and spicy stew. The sugars concentrated in the carrots through the roasting infuse the soup with honeyed sweetness, and are a good balance to the heat of the spices that will warm your body as you spoon up lunch.
The amount of cayenne that I used resulted in a very spicy stew. Not mouth-numbing, but enough to make you stop and take a bite of bread every once in a while. This is what I was going for, maybe just a little bit out of flounciness towards that butcher. Exotic? I'll show you exotic. If you'd rather have a milder stew that's no less nuanced and delicious, just leave out the cayenne or use less of it.
I loved this soup. Loved it. Loved the nubby red lentils, the sweet, melting carrots, the blessed heat that made my nose run, the fragrant soupiness of each spoonful. I sat on my balcony in the sunshine and ate my spicy, stewy soup and thought about that butcher, so solid in his traditions and his convictions, so unbending in the face of a customer's request. Living in Germany is a pleasure and a trial, just like any place, I guess. Thank goodness I've got my kitchen to keep me anchored, no matter where I am.
Roasted Carrot and Red Lentil Soup
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, sliced thin
3/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (less if you want a milder stew)
1/8 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 cup red lentils
4 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the carrots in a roasting pan and toss with 3 tablespoons oil. Season with the salt and a few grinds of pepper. Roast for 20 minutes. Turn the carrots, add the onion and roast 15 minutes, until the carrots are brown and tender. When carrots are cool enough, cut them in bite-sized chunks.
2. Warm 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan. Add the carrot-and-onion mixture and the peppers and paprika. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the lentils. Add the stock and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the lentils are falling apart. Check for seasoning and serve.