The best meal I have ever eaten was a turkey sandwich.
The bread was supermarket-aisle sourdough, the sort that stays fresh for three weeks, easy. The turkey was Jennie-O, a plastic-wrapped loaf, thickly cut in irregular slices. There were tomatoes, crisp, out of season. Lettuce: iceberg. French's mustard. I ate that sandwich twenty years ago. It was, and is, the pinnacle for me of all that great food can and should be.
I was young, see, just twenty two, in college, coming off finals, just getting over a bad head cold. That morphed into the flu. Then, double pneumonia. With a side of broken ribs. Though I didn't know it at the time. Well, I knew the cold. I just thought it a particularly wicked one.
As in, five days in a fevered horizontal haze, unable to walk, speak, move or eat. I never don't eat. Ever. This should've been a clue. I was too dazed and confused for clues.
Eventually, I would find my way to Hall Health, to a kind doctor with a stethoscope, who heard the crackly symphony in both lungs, spied the clouds (and snapped ribs) on the xray, prescribed some pretty life-altering antibiotics.
All's well that ends well.
But first, there was that turkey sandwich. Prepared by my then-boyfriend, who had steadfastly brought aspirin, and water, and cool towels, and countless small comforts, all those many long run-on days. And when, after the better part of a week, I could contemplate, if not sitting, propping my head half-upright, he seized the moment and made me a meal, a sandwich. The best sandwich ever. I may be biased.
(Obviously, I married the man.)
The next best meal I've ever eaten was potato soup, just last week. My dear friend Pam arrived with a pot, still hot, just before collecting my kids from school. There was fresh bread also, and cookies, and chocolate, and smoked fish for those who like it stirred in. It was, she stressed, "just" potato soup, "our" potato soup, even, that simplest of simples. Simple is a relative term.
In practice, it was one part life raft, one part unearned karma, and six parts elixir. It solved problems and filled bellies and brought smiles and nourished bodies and buoyed spirits and kept kitchens clean that would otherwise have been wrecked. It was survival disguised as dinner, bundled up in a plain brown cardboard box. And it tasted so, so good.
See, last Wednesday, after nursing sick kidlets all week, I finally got them well, got them launched, walked into my house, walked up the stairs... and couldn't. It was the weirdest thing. I sat there, feeling very Christopher Robin, halfway up, halfway down, for a good ten minutes.
You know the sinking feeling.
I hadn't had the flu since The #1 Turkey Sandwich, so it took me a while to recognize it.
In retrospect, it's hard to miss.
And it reminded me, all over again, how acutely, how fervently, we eat when we're fevered. Or just recovering. All food is illuminated.
Maybe a person cannot rightly judge when ten hours ago, they couldn't cross the room. Maybe taste buds are desperate for attention. Maybe hardtack and pond water go down like manna, after a storm. I don't know. I don't think so. I think there's something essential about these foods people feed us, when we're down.
Maybe we see food for what it really is, this riot of pleasure, available daily. If we're very lucky, thrice daily. On repeat, spoon upon spoon. Maybe we simply notice each ping and pop of flavor and texture all anew. The way voices all sound louder, for awhile. The way colors almost vibrate, for their bright.
Probably it's what they call mindful. I think I prefer magic. There's always this pixie dust quality to these meals, a deliverance all out of proportion to the potatoes in pot. I felt the same way when friends brought meals after each of my babes was born. My youngest just celebrated her seventh (hastily re-scheduled, with store-bought cake, and cobbled-together plans, see above) birthday. My oldest is my height. Those meals are old. Still, I remember them in crystalline detail, who brought what, when, and how fully it filled us. How each of those meals felt vital. Like resurrection foods. Phoenix foods. Etch-a-Sketch foods, **shake, shake!**, brand new you.
Yes, I'm probably still hallucinating.
Let's talk lentil soup.
Because there's this second circle of awesome, just after foods brought by friends, namely those first meals you are able to make yourself, once you are yourself again. Once the world has stopped spinning, and gravity behaves, and legs, also, and you've found up. It's a pretty great feeling, feeding yourself. I imagine it's how a baby feels when, after months of poking spoonfuls of mashed peas into eyes and ears and noses, theirs and yours, they finally, finally make the mouth. Victory, independence, yum.
The third best meal I've eaten, in a very long while anyway, is this lentil soup, which I made myself (!) when I could stand again. Even if only long enough to chop vegetables. The potato soup pot was scraped clean; one child had relapsed and was home again; I was still not, as my mom says, steady on my pins. But I was steady enough for soup. And I only had tastebuds for one: Peter Miller's lentil soup.
There's nothing particularly unique about this soup, only that it is wonderful and balanced and profoundly savory and deeply (3-bowl minimum) more-ish and just what I always want in a lentil soup. And had never, before Miller, been able to find. I should clarify, here, that the lentil soup of which I speak is of the Italian/European genre, the start-with-celery-and-carrots sort. I make, and love, many lentil soups that lean toward Southeast Asia. Those spiked with lime and red curry paste, hepped up on fish sauce, coconut milk unctuous. Or others that tilt toward India, fragrant with ginger and cardamom and swirled at the end with a heady cumin/coriander/chili tarka. Now, those are some lentil soups.
But mainstream lentil soup? Oy. It always seems a synonym for earnest inexpensive fare. For healthy. For honest. For stoicism masquerading as lunch. And honestly, I'm all for all of those things. (Well, except that last one. Mealtime's no time to be a martyr.) But must they be so stodgy, so bland, so dull, so relentlessly brown? Not if you ask Miller. Or me. (Well, except the brown bit. But, um, chocolate's brown, too?)
It's jumping off point is Miller's Lunch at the Shop, the praises of which I've sung before, and will surely sing again. Miller has a way of building layers and layers of flavor, without spending hours and hours doing so. As pertains to this soup (which is in fact a mash-up of two different dishes), he begins with a good hit of bacon, chopped and browned, which flavors everything that follows. The soffrito that follows (cue the celery-onion-carrots) bathes in that excellent bacon-y goodness, and carries it out into the later pot like a thousand small bacon-studded stars. From there, the soup's a half-hour simmer, give or take, as the lentils soften and split at their seams and sigh a little, until lush and creamy. It's good at this point.
It's about to be better.
Because Miller then tops each bowl with a fling of minced parsley, vivid, sharp, charismatic, which wakes up the calm canvas like nobody's business. And then, then, you add a heap of fresh parmesan.
Parmesan on lentil soup? Revelation. All that salty excellent umami transforms little lentils, something outrageous. Then, that bacon. And if you take Miller's advice, a bit of butter. You know that soaring feeling.
I thought it was unbeatable, as is, rich and light and hearty, incredibly round, ripped with flavor, one of the most satisfying soups I know. I stand by that. I must, however, also confess that ever since Luisa posted her braised beans, I've been adding a clutch of fresh rosemary to the base, and a cup of red wine as part of the stock, and, well.
This past week, as I gratefully downed bowl after bowl (after bowl; I've made three batches since Thursday), I found myself thinking, "...like the best beef stew meets a superior french onion meets a stellar bologenese, only better, by far..." Of course, given the events of the past few weeks, I may be biased. You decide.
A Nice (Life-Saving) Lentil Soup
adapted from Peter Miller's Lunch at the Shop
Like all great soups, this is a foundation upon which to play, pretty much endlessly. Sometimes, I double the carrots. I add and adore diced parsnips when I have them (and don't fret when I don't). Slivered chard would, I'm sure, be fantastic. When I'm all out of chicken broth, I'll use water and a few teaspoons of Better than Bouillon. All good. I've marked The Luisa Braised Beans Variation as optional, because I've loved the soup for six months prior. But oh, do give it a go. That rosemary, that red wine, they rock the pot. Very burlap and pearls. I suspect a bang-up vegetarian version could be made by skipping the bacon at the outset, and dropping in as many parmesan rinds as you can scrounge up, just after the lentils and broth are added. Mmmm...
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 # bacon, chopped
1 large onion, diced
2 tsp. salt + more to taste
1 Tbs. fresh Rosemary, minced (optional; lovely)
3 stalks celery, diced
6 large carrots, peeled + diced
3 parsnips, peeled + diced (optional)
1-15oz. can chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 cups lentils (black, brown, green)
5-6 cups broth (chicken or vegetable) or water
1 cup red wine (optional; incredible)
splash vinegar (omit if using wine)
4 Tbs. butter (optional)
To top: plenty of parmesan + minced parsley
Warm olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or large soup pot, and add chopped bacon. Cook bacon, stirring occasionally, until brown and just crisp. While bacon is cooking, chop your onion. Add onions, salt and rosemary, if using, to crisp bacon and rendered fat, and stir to coat. Let soften and caramelize, stirring occasionally, ten minutes or so, while you continue with your chopping. Chop celery; add; stir. Chop carrots; add; stir. Chop parsnips; add; stir. Let it all mingle and soften and sink into itself, stirring every several minutes, until your veg are roughly half their former volume and limp as old rags, 20-25 minutes, from onions to end. Adjust heat as necessary to keep vegetables from burning.
Once you have your pot of rags, add the tomatoes, stir, and cook another 5 minutes, letting the tomato juices deglaze all the good bits, and the tomatoes themselves caramelize ever so slightly. When the sounds turn from burble to almost-sizzle, add your 6 cups of broth/water/wine, and stir well, noodging at the corners to get up the glorious sticky bits. Add lentils, stir again, and bring to the boil. Turn heat down to a warmish-low, or wherever keeps the pot at a steady slow burble. Cook until lentils are absolutely tender, beginning to split here and there, even collapse. This is lentil soup, not salad. Mine take anywhere from 25-40 minutes, depending on age, type and size. I spoon out a wee bowl around the 25 minute mark, sample, and determine next steps. One tough lentil, and I continue with the cooking. Lentils should be buttery-creamy, not toothsome. And when given the time, lentils do buttery-creamy exceptionally well.
Once lentils are done to your liking, taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt (likely), a splash of vinegar (if not using wine), pepper, if you're into that sort of thing. Next, you have a choice regarding texture: smooth-ish or chunky? I love both versions very best of all. If you like a structured slurp, chunky, identifiable, soup's on! If you prefer something closer to a creamy stew, pulse a stick blender right in the pot, just a few times. I aim to blitz just the bottom layer, to thicken up the broth a bit, meanwhile leaving plenty of bits and bobs intact, for interest and intrigue. Also optional, at this point, is the butter, which you can stir into the pot, add by the knob to each bowl, or leave out entire. It adds a certain ineffable richness, but it isn't necessary. I go both ways.
Ladle big bowls full, top with minced parsley and generous piles of parmesan, more than you think proper. You're welcome.