Now that it’s legitimately cold in Southern California and the El Niño rains are starting and a steaming bowl of soup sounds like the best thing ever, my list of soup recipes to make is a mile long—but this one jumped to the front of the line after I read Adam Roberts’ tender, eloquent tribute to chef Gina DePalma, its creator, who died of ovarian cancer on New Year’s. His testimonial, as well as the hundreds of glowing comments on Smitten Kitchen’s posting of the recipe, all spoke of simple, humble ingredients elevated into something beautiful and delicious. I had to try it.
Still, when the moment came, I was skeptical. I’ve come around on lentils, but they still don’t exactly scream “Cook me!” whenever I see them. And no broth, just canned tomatoes and water? What would keep it from being…well, bland? I’ve made a lot of underwhelming soups in my time. I might even venture to say that in my experience, soup recipes have a higher rate of disappointment than any other category. Sure, they rarely fail spectacularly—a so-so soup is still edible, just boring—but getting something deeply flavorful, that’s more than the sum of its parts, can be surprisingly tricky. Usually, adding some combination of salt, spice and acid can help to perk it up, but the truly good recipes seem to achieve this effortlessly.
And this is one of them! I usually default to chicken sausage, but fearing the specter of blandness, I used pork sausage. I also threw in a Parmesan rind, because I had a ton in the freezer and they work magic in soups, imparting another level of creamy savoriness. Furthermore, I think I nailed the salt level right off the bat, something I often struggle with in soups—they can cross over from tasteless to tongue-shriveling in an instant. But even if I hadn’t done any of these things, I suspect it still would have been a great pot of soup—nourishing and hearty and pretty much the culinary equivalent of a big warm hug. In a rough week like this, wrestling with loss and mourning and reminders of mortality, it was just what I needed.
Also, pro tip: After I swirled a spoonful of the sizzling garlic oil into each bowl, I still had a bit left in the pan. Fearful of making my soup too oily (although I don’t think I need have worried), and knowing A would want something to dip, I made some quickie garlic bread: Run some sliced baguette on a baking sheet under the broiler until barely browned on top, flip the pieces over, and brush them with the garlic oil. (Sprinkling on a bit of extra cheese doesn’t hurt, either.) Another minute or two under the broiler until the tops are golden, and ding! The perfect accompaniment to an excellent soup.
½ cup olive oil, divided
½ pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced
2 celery stalks, sliced or diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into half-moons or diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced, divided
Kosher salt to taste
A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan rind (optional)
4 cups thinly shredded Swiss chard leaves
Grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese to finish
- Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the onion, celery, carrots, half the garlic, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook with the sausage until the vegetables soften a bit, another 5 minutes.
- Add the lentils, bay leaves, tomatoes, water, Parmesan rind (if using), more salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook until the lentils are tender, about 40 minutes.
- When the lentils are cooked, add the chard and cook about 5 minutes more, until the leaves are tender. Discard the bay leaves and Parmesan rind.
- To finish, divide soup among bowls, then add the remaining ¼ cup olive oil and 2 garlic cloves to a small skillet over medium heat until the garlic softens and hisses. Drizzle the garlic oil over soup bowls, and top with freshly grated cheese.
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Leftover potential: Great.