When I was a sophomore in college, I decided to enroll in Basic Drawing. My first challenge was to make sense of the supply list that the instructor rattled off on the first day of class. I didn’t know the first thing about sketching pencils, charcoals, or vinyl erasers, and thanks to the sparkling goody two shoes nailed, as ever, to the soles of my feet, I was petrified that I would purchase the wrong supplies. The thought of showing up for class unprepared made me break out into a cold sweat. I needed help.
The only visual arts major I knew was a smart, skinny kid with a headful of curls named Eli. He was little more than an acquaintance at the time, but he agreed to accompany me down to Pearl Paint on Canal Street, and guide me through the harrowing task of selecting the proper supplies. It’s a long trip from 116th Street down to Canal. What I remember most about that day is that we did not stop talking, though I don’t recall what we discussed. Wait, come to think of it, I do remember a good twenty minutes on the subject of squatters’ rights. I had a lot to learn from this guy. He made me think. He made me laugh. There was something so natural about our conversation, and I remember thinking to myself all the way up and down the island of Manhattan, “I bet we could talk forever and never run out of things to say.” Little did I know that, a few years down the line, we would decide to put this hunch of mine to the test.
So far, so good. A decade or so later, we’re still talking each other’s ears off. There were a couple of years at the beginning of our relationship when we lived on separate continents. For a big chunk of this time, my internet access was limited, and phone calls were expensive. In the margins and back pages of my notebooks, I would scribble words and phrases throughout the day to remind me of the things I wanted to tell him. When, after weeks or months apart, we would reunite, I would flip from page to page, check off each note, and spin my collected observations into stories until it seemed as if he had been with me all along. Eli isn’t much of a notebook man so, on his side of the sea, he would grab whatever was handy – a cocktail napkin or a paper bag – and scratch out what he had suddenly thought to tell me. Then, he would fold the napkin or bag or, quite often, a page torn from a yellow legal pad, stuff it into an envelope, and send it across the ocean to my door. When one of us has something, no matter how small, to tell the other, it feels urgent. That’s true to this day.
Last week, Eli and I were both traveling for work. I was in New York, and he was in Seattle. We tumbled back into our apartment within 24 hours of each other, just as the weekend rolled in. Eli was jet lagged and exhausted from one of those nasty red-eye flights, and I was standing my ground against a stowaway cold that must have sneaked into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking. We didn’t feel like doing much of anything, except for sprawling head to toe on the sofa, snacking on carrots, cereal, and soy nuts, and filling each other in on a week’s worth of stories. We did manage to peel ourselves up for a walk about town in the blue-ish light of the five o’clock hour, but when dinnertime rolled around, we were back on that sofa, with much more still to say.
After a week away, we had little in our cupboards, less in our fridge and, if you can believe it, even less interest in doing anything about it. I stepped into our pantry without much of a plan, which didn’t really seem to matter seeing as how we weren’t all that hungry. But then my eye fell upon a jar of French green lentils, and I got to thinking about how lentils are not generally known for their beauty, and for shame!, because French green lentils are, in fact, truly lovely, like tiny speckled pebbles or, when wet, shiny black caviar, and my it sure feels nice to swirl my fingers through a heap of them in a bowlful of water. Well, one thing led to another, and when I say one thing, I mean the lentils, and by another, I mean an onion, browned, and then a carrot, sliced, and finally a can of chopped tomatoes. I tossed in some coriander and cumin somewhere along the way, and before I knew it, there was soup. It tasted clean and whole and nutty and bright and, as Eli said, almost citrusy, which I’m guessing had something to do with the coriander-tomato combo. We carried it in deep bowls back to our spots on the sofa, and I told Eli about one day last week when I was wandering around our old college campus and he called, and his number popped up on my phone, the same number he’s had since the year we met, and it hit me, as if for the first time, that “Hey, I married that guy.” Awesome. We wiped our bowls clean with slabs of sweet, chewy bread that I’ll have to tell you about soon because it is so quick and easy to make. Like, jet-lag-and-head-cold-and-practically-nothing-in-your-kitchen easy. But first, the soup which, together with the bread and the sofa and the stories and the kid who knows his art supplies and property law made for a pretty dreamy Saturday night.
Tomato Lentil Soup
I consider this soup to be more of a lentil soup with tomatoes than a tomato soup with lentils, but the name “Lentil Tomato Soup” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely as “Tomato Lentil Soup.” I may or may not have figured this out by repeating each prospective name aloud no fewer than twenty times while sitting alone at my computer desk. The point is, I’m going with “Tomato Lentil Soup” but, if you wouldn’t mind raising your voice, and maybe pumping your fist a little in the air when you get to the word “lentil,” I’d appreciate it. Tomato LENTIL soup. Yeah. Like that.
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick coins
1 T. olive oil
1-2 T. red wine vinegar
1 c. French green lentils (also known as lentilles du Puy), picked through and rinsed
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp coriander
½ tsp cumin
2 c. water or vegetable broth (I used water. It’s all we had.)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 T. fresh chopped parsley (optional)
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot (I used a 3 ½ quart cast-iron pot) over a medium-high flame, and sauté the onions until they are translucent and a little brown around the edges. Add the carrot coins and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are just tender. Turn down the flame to medium-low and add the red wine vinegar, which will allow you to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir in the coriander and cumin, and then add the tomatoes, lentils, and water or broth. Season with a few grinds of salt and pepper, and simmer over a medium-low flame for 35 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are cooked through but still hold their shape. (That’s one of the nice things about French green lentils, by the way: they don’t easily turn to mush.) If necessary, add a few more grinds of salt and pepper, to taste, and serve.
On Sunday, once we had replenished our kitchen’s supply of fruits and vegetables, I topped a bowl with fresh chopped parsley. It was great.
Note: Leftover soup will thicken in the fridge, so you might want to add some water or broth when you reheat it.