Friday, March 25, 2011

Penny's Lentil and Lamb Soup - A New Recipe and a Story for You!

I've been cooking lamb since we first began sheep farming over thirty years ago. Now, with the development of our "direct to consumer" farm plan, I'm finding that consumers really need help in deciding what to cook with our lamb. It has taken me a while (let's just say I started this project over a year and a half ago) but I'm finally getting some recipes written down, cooked and photographed.

Taking photos of food isn't easy. Especially when it is brown food that is what I consider totally unphotogenic. Recipe writing and food photography is another one of my blogging journeys. I've discovered some good food blogs. Wow - is that another world as compared to knitting blogs. Here's who I like so far: David Lebovitz, Joy the Baker, my friend Janis's Bite Me New England (Janis is a great lamb customer and frequently blogs about cooking our lamb!),  Dorie Greenspan, The Sweet Beet, Michael Ruhlman, Matt Bites. There is even a food photography blog on the NYTimes website. The food blog world is huge! And it seems to be a big money generating world - unlike the knitting blog world which I seem to be segmented into. There is a food blogging convention! And Food Blogger Camp! It seems like a big pit that I could get sucked into if I let myself. I will just look in from the outside, for now! If you want an inside scoop on it, check out this post by David Lebovitz. It makes us knitting bloggers look like chump change. If you have any favorite food blogs my readers and I might like, leave them in the comments if you will! 

Now where was I? Oh yeah, Penny's Lamb and Lentil Soup, that's right. The back-story..... The Farmer and I lived in Colorado while I was in grad school at CSU. We pretty much had what I would consider no money. We lived on my grad school assistantship stipend and what he made doing whatever job he could find. We weren't married, much to the chagrin of my mother and father. In fact, she was so upset that even though she adored "him" she never would ask about him nor mention his name. (Remember that Mom?) My Dad, being the kindest Dad in the world, would once in a while send me a check so I could pay for my car insurance. 

Whatever.... Mom has gotten over it and here we are - still together almost 30 years later. She didn't have anything to worry about. I remember those days with such incredible fondness. We lived in the basement of a small little yellow house on Whedbee Street with my sheltie cross Haida. The Farmer said we were "worms" because all we could see out of the basement windows was the dirt ground above us. I was studying textiles, writing my thesis (on "Wool Production from Small Flocks of Sheep" - boy some things sure do not change!), and learning how to cook on a budget.

Considering that there were two of us living on a very tiny income, I had to learn to cook cheaply. Meat was a splurge and so we existed on a semi-vegetarian diet (much to The Farmer's dislike but hey - he wasn't cooking, was he?) I have always had a love affair with soup. I will admit, I grew up on Campbell's Soup - out of a can. I used to eat it for lunch every Saturday. My favorite was Scotch Broth with Cream of Tomato a close second. In the little basement kitchen, I had a couple of cookbooks -- a paperback copy of The Joy of Cooking for basics and  "The Moosewood Cookbook." Boy, was that cookbook the thing back then! I cooked my way through it for sure. I just loved those handwritten pages and funky little drawings. Still have it, still cook from it.

Colorado is where I learned about lentils. I had never eaten a lentil growing up. My mom wasn't big on cooking with beans except for her post-Easter "split pea soup" she made with the leftover ham-bone. I latched onto those lentils and turned them into soup. I would make a big pot of lentil soup and we would eat it all week long. Let's just say I overdid it! Nah, Kristin doesn't over do anything, does she? By the fourth night, he would look at me with disdain. I guess I don't blame him but to tell you the truth, I can still eat lentil soup five days in a row. I just love it.

Later on, when we both had jobs and were doing a little better financially, we took a memorable couple of trips to France on my frequent flyer mileage. We were in food and wine heaven, visiting so many fabulous little inns and restaurants. The places we visited would fill a book so I will stop reminiscing and tell you that in France I discovered the lovely little LePuy Lentil. Ahhhhh, a lentil that wouldn't get mushy and was a lovely shade of olive green. When I got back to the States, I found them for sale and I haven't stopped buying them yet.

Enter Penny Vurgulopolous. Penny was a Greek woman who worked in our mill store when I worked at TYC. Penny had a thick Greek accent, a wonderful loving Greek American husband named Chris, and in her basement, she had a SECOND KITCHEN that Chris built her so that she could cook and bake for the different parties she threw and church functions she attended. Penny came to work dressed in Chanel suits, dripping with gold jewelry, hair coiffed just so. Mind you - this was a dirty yarn spinning mill and she was selling close-out yarn. She was quite the picture! Penny was an awesome knitter (she wrapped her yarn around her neck to tension it) and an even more awesome cook. She constantly brought in her homemade Greek delicacies to share with the office staff.  I'll never forget the spanakopita, the baklava, the moussaka, the melty soft long roasted leg of lamb, the traditional deep red Greek Easter eggs.......

When Julia was born, I used to bring her to work with me when she was an infant. Her health was fragile and it was best she was with me. She was a good baby and would usually lie on the floor under my big office table playing with one of those dangly overhead baby entertainment things while I tried to figure out what was going on at TYC. Penny loved babies and she would beg me to let her hold and swaddle Julia. She would sing to her in Greek, play finger games. She was just so darn wonderful with Julia. Whenever Penny was working, Julia would "go to the store" with Penny. She would sit in her little seat next to the cash register and Penny would entertain her. One day I went over to check on her. Penny was feeding Julia some of her lentil soup. I almost died. Julia hadn't had a bite of any solid food yet and there she was sucking down the soup. I went with the flow and Julia survived! It was pretty priceless now that I think back on it. Whenever Julia was going to be at work, Penny would make her lentil soup.

So that's where the name for today's recipe comes from. Sorry for the long, convoluted trip it took to get here. This is a recipe that has evolved over the years..... from the first days of lentil soup in the basement apartment in Fort Collins to our farmhouse here in western Massachusetts. Now I fortify it with ground lamb or lamb sausage. It seems so natural considering the connection with my Greek friend Penny's lentil soup and the Greek people's love of lamb.

Penny's Lentil and Lamb Soup

1 pound lentils (preferably French Le Puy)
¼ cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1 small can tomatoes (14 ounces)
3 carrots
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon oregano
1 pound ground lamb or lamb sausage removed from casings
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and mince garlic. Chop onions into small dice. Heat olive oil in a soup pot. Brown onions and garlic taking care not to burn the garlic. Remove cooked onions and garlic and reserve. Brown lamb in soup pot. Drain off extra fat. Return onions and garlic to pot. Add the tomatoes, and lentils and cover by one inch with water. Bring to a boil, then turn to simmer adding herbs. Cook for thirty minutes. Peel and chop the carrots, cutting them on a diagonal so they are largish. Add carrots and cook the soup until the carrots are done to your liking. Add the vinegar. Let the soup sit if you have time so the flavors will mingle. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Note: Substitute 3 Tablespoons wine vinegar and ½ teaspoon sugar if balsamic is not available. The key to this soup is the vinegar!


Susan said...

LOVE the idea of feeding the baby lentil soup! I'm with you, would have about choked on my own soup! I make a vegetarian lentil soup with dill in the winter and could eat it every day. Thanks for the story!

penny said...

what a beautiful story! i am honoured to share a name with such a wonderful penny!

i met lentils in college. i too can eat them daily to the chagrin of my husband!

ellen said...

Kristin, this is wonderful. You have recounted your memories so beautifully that I can see it all in my mind's eye, and in blazing color too.
I am a lover of both lentils and lamb and absolutely love slow roasted lamb shanks, nestled in olive oil, fresh rosemary, red wine and lots of garlic. Throw them in later with the lentils. Heaven.
p.s. I think your photo is perfect.

Kathleen C. said...

I'd like to recommend the Smitten Kitchen food blog. Her ecipes are well written and the photos are wonderful! And I find her "voice" amusing and sweet. Plus she just had a baby last year and the occasional asides about trying to find child friendly and adult yummy food have been very interesting.

Sojourner Design said...

Hi Kristin,
I believe we have established a tradition. I see the blog post about a lamb recipe with a nice photo, and I get to have a taste that evening. What time will you be here?


MicheleinMaine said...

What a wonderful story and a great sounding recipe! I will have to pick up some ground lamb this weekend (surely it won't be as good as yours).

Deborah Madison has a great recipe for Lentil Minestrone that you may have already tried. I love it.

I think your food photography is wonderful!

Kicki said...

Publishing recipes is a great idea, and a thing that will really differentiate you from everyone else selling food.

Organic veg & fruit box delivery is a major thing here in the UK - the problem is that during the winter months, you basically get a boxful of cabbage and weird veg you've never seen before... :)

So the most succesful box schemes are the ones that also send out a nice colour leaflet with suggestions for what to cook using 2 kg o cabbage and a sackful of onions.

The inspiration it gives to try new things is great - without it, everyone tends to let the cabbage sit around and rot for a month until it becomes worm food :)

I imagine I'd do the same with an unusual cut of lamb - it'd get continuously left in the freezer for another day when I've figured out how to use it.

Elaine said...

This is such a beautiful reminiscing story about a good friend. Does Julia still eat lentil soup today?

Lindy and Paul said...

Wow, what great food blogs to explore! The suggestions by David Lebovitz are some of the best I've ever read on blogging and give me some great goals to shoot for. The Lamb/Lentil Soup recipe sounds great, I think I'll try it today but will substitute ground venison since we have plenty of it. Thanks!

Janis said...

I love this recipe and you know we will try it! We had your lamb last night (Mark Bittman "Crispy Lamb with Chickpeas). Your lamb now shares the freezer with a whole pig. Can't wait to come back up there.


bookagent said...

Great story, can't wait to try the soup!

amy jones said...

Love your blog! I've never commented before but today I had to! I've got the Moosewood cookbook too and I've eaten at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca NY, it is in a mall made from a historic brick school, thought you like to know that ; )I need a lamb to photograph for a project sure wish i lived closer!

Denise said...

I made this for dinner the other night. It was delicious; the entire family enjoyed.

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