Before I knew it

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.

Serves 4-6.

Note: Leftover soup will thicken in the fridge, so you might want to add some water or broth when you reheat it.


Adrienne said...

Don't you just love it when a soup comes together from what you thought was nothing? This sounds delicious. Also, I know exactly what you mean about the talking forever feeling, and I think I'm in love with your love story :)

Rebecca Martin said...

Hi. I don't think I've commented on your blog yet, but I've been following for the last half year or so (linked through another food blog; I don't remember which), really enjoying your recipes and your writing. I had to pipe up just now and tell you that this is a *fantastic* piece of writing. One of the best I've read in a really long time. You have a talent for telling a story. And great voice.

Shira said...

So you were at Columbia too? I remember feeling that going downtown was such a big deal and bemoaning my lack of hipness as compared to the NYU students who could hang out in the vintage stores and go to Veselka whenever they wanted. My favourite excursion, though--no inferiority complexes exercised--was to go to the Strand to hunt for books on my course lists. I miss the Strand...

Char said...

what a sweet and wonderful story

Andrea [bella eats] said...

What a lovely story! You have such a wonderful voice, Jess. I get a little thrill whenever I see Sweet Amandine pop up in my reader.

Lentil, with any combination of ingredients, is one of my favorite soups. It comes together so quickly, and I always have a jar of the tiny pearls in the pantry for lazy afternoons and evenings like the one you've described.

Thank you, as always, for sharing.

Chihiro said...

@Shira, I was thinking only Columbia students feel a rush from visiting friends in NYU. It's barely 30 minutes away but so much more "NY" than Morningside will ever be.

I've just started reading and I love your blog. Thank you for the lentil soup, which sounds perfect for a much needed post-midterm detox.

SD said...

Jess! We must me on some magical wavelength. Today Owen and I finished the last of a lentil soup I made over the weekend in a proud, shiny slow-cooker. One recipe suggested adding a touch of balsamic vinegar before serving: I used a fig-infused one (hi-five TJ Maxx!) and topped the warm soup with tzatziki. Hurray lentils!

molly said...

I'm simply smiling, ear to ear, from the layers of stories put down here. And I haven't even tried the soup, yet. Feel better soon, okay?

megan said...

Stop, stop, STOP, this is too magical! Those were heady days, weren't they? Somewhere in there I fell into a different love with you both - and have the good fortune to keep getting stories and food and good cheer from the multiplied energy your marriage made. Cooking is pretty nonexistent this week, but this soup looks like a good one for break -


Anonymous said...

all week i wanted to make lentil soup, so it was bashert that you posted this recipe! i just made it, but with yellow lentils, and it is delicious. the lentils took forever to get soft, not sure why, but i can't wait to enjoy it for lunch tomorrow!

sara marx

jacqui | happyjackeats said...

YOU need to write a book, my friend. with photos. and recipes. and send it my way posthaste.

Joie de vivre said...

What a nice story, so sweet.

Rosiecat said...

Jess, you must have tapped into some invisible soup vibes in your kitchen because your recipe looks so similar to one from Barefoot Contessa. Now, I don't know how these soup vibes work, but I'm ready and willing to try your recipe. And, as though the universe KNEW that I'd need to make a recipe from Sweet Amandine very soon, it instructed me to buy green lentils last week and then told me not cook them as planned. It was fate.

Wishing you a happy weekend and all the lentil soup your heart desires...xo

Emma Nowell said...

Hi, I just recently found your blog, and I think it's great! Your writing is entertaining, captivating and easy to read. I had to comment on this post because I made almost the exact same thing for dinner tonight. It was following a recipe by Ina Garten, and it was more of a stew than a soup, but had almost the exact same ingredients except spices were thyme, curry powder and savory... I love french lentils- they have so much character and sophistication... I made some polenta with it, which turned out to be a great accompaniment. It turned out great and blog worthy! Keep up the great posts! I'll be checking back.

Rogue Unicorn said...

This post is possibly the sweetest thing I have read in a while. I have to admit that teared up a bit when I read it.
I make a very similar lentil soup,but with ginger and the addition of the vinegar at the end. It's one of my go-to, holy-crap-we-have-nothing-in-the-house recipes and I love it.

El said...

I love Pearl art supply (but in Cambridge). I love lentils and this looks like the perfect soup for the winter to spring transition.

Jenn said...

that's like, my dream romance, and probably the cutest story ever. i'm starting watercolor painting on tuesday. i want some of that good luck boy karma you got with your art class.. =)

and the soup looks magical, too.

Lindsey @ pickyeatings said...

I love lentils, and I love your story. I spent many an hour venturing out to Pearl in Central Square in Cambridge when I was in college (drawing is the bane of my existence, and I had to take a full year of it), and my now husband used to venture out with me. Although he was an engineering student and I was an art student, so I think he just thought it was amusing that I was buying such random supplies for school.

koshercamembert said...

I love lentil soup and de Puys are the way to go so they don't turn to mush (unless of course, you want the red kind for a smooth soup that I made just this week, with similar ingredients and a splash of lemon to keep it really fresh. Actually, I think I'll have the last bowlful now!

Jess said...

Wow, what incredibly sweet notes from all of you. I have to tell you: I don’t know why, but I never really saw that subway ride down to Pearl as a part of mine and Eli’s “love story.” That day was so long before either one of us thought of the other in that way. I think of our “chapter one” as much later in the game, but that’s a story for another time. If you’re interested in hearing it, that is. But as I read your comments, I realized that there was a seed of some kind in those earliest days of our friendship. I was confused at first when some of you called this post a “love story,” but you know what? You’re right. It is. Thank you for helping me to see that.

Adrienne – Yes, some of my favorite soups come about this way. I’m always so happy when I remember to write down what I’ve done so that I can replicate it.

Hi, Rebecca, and gosh, I don’t know what to say! I’m so glad that you introduced yourself, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of those very nice things that you said about my writing. Writing for this space is such a pleasure, and it means the world to me to hear that you enjoy what you read here. Thank you.

Shira – Yes, I graduated in ’02. I think that one of my favorite things about NYC is how many “cities” it’s possible to find among the boroughs. So many little worlds on a single island. And The Strand – yes! Love it.

Thank you, Char.

Andrea, you are so, so kind, friend. Thank you, as always, for being here.

Chihiro – Welcome! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I took some classes down at NYU over a couple of summers early on in graduate school, and I absolutely loved it down there. I’m not sure I could ever choose between Morningside Heights and the Village. They both have a very special place in my heart.

Stephanie! Hello, hello. Leave it to you to find fancy vinegar at TJ Maxx. Hi five you! And hugs, too.

Thank you, Molly. And don’t worry about me. That cold didn’t hang around for very long at all. I think it knew that it was not welcome.

Oh, Megan. Hi. I don’t even know what to say to you, lady. Wish you were here so that I could drop some soup at your door. xo.

Hi, Sara! It does sound meant to be. I’m not sure why your lentils were slow in softening. Yellow lentils are somewhat larger than French green lentils, but I actually find that they turn to mush much more quickly. I’m very happy to hear that it all worked out in the end. Enjoy!

Jacqui – What a sweet thing to say! Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend.

Joie de vivre – Thank you.

Rosiecat – Well, go universe, then! I’ll have to look up that Barefoot Contessa recipe. Happy weekend to you, too!

Hello, Emma, and welcome. You’re so kind to say such nice things when you’ve only just arrived. I wonder if the recipe you mention is the same as Rosiecat’s. It sounds wonderful. And I love the idea of pairing these lentils with polenta. I’m going to make a note of that for next time. Thank you!

Hi, Rogue Unicorn, and thank you. I think that these comments are the sweetest thing that I have read in a while! I adore that you have an entire genre named for recipes like this one: “holy-crap-we-have-nothing-in-the-house recipes.” Wonderful. I’m going to have to steal that.

El – I was thinking the same thing about it being a nice in-between soup. Thanks for your note, El.

Aww, Jenn, thank you. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! In my mind, there’s something about watercolor that’s already terribly romantic. If you find yourself lucky in love, you’d better report back!

Lindsey – It is fun buying all of that stuff for school. I studied music in college, and I loved that thick notebooks of staff paper were my “supplies.”

Koshercamembert – I like the idea of finishing a lentil soup with a squeeze of lemon. I’d love a bowl of your red lentil soup now that I’ve finished the last of mine.

Andrea said...

Very sweet story about the art supplies and wanting most to tell each other your stories. I'm so glad to have read this.

linda said...

this is novel material...with rights bought by "big" studio or "celeb" & made into a movie...
it's raining here in nyc & i am deciding what soup to make...but...not any more.
thanks for this oh so lovely post!

Jess said...

Thanks, Andrea. I love the way you put it: "wanting most to tell each other your stories." When Eli comes home from work, instead of saying "so, tell me about your day," he always says, "say stories."

And Linda, I laughed out loud when I read your note. Those are some big plans you have for us! It has been raining all weekend here, too. I hope that the soup hit the spot.

Sprout said...

Great soup, wow! I agree, one of the best things about being a sophomore in college is being able to take classes like Basic Drawing :)

minor catastrophes said...

Aww, such a sweet story. Thanks for sharing it.

Now, I've always made lentil soup using the generic, cheap lentils. But I've seen the more expensive cousin, "French" lentils on the shelves as well and always wondered at the difference between the two. (The French variety is even grown locally here in Montana!) Any coaching on this one, Jess?


Right out of thin air. I think I would need two very deep bowls of your tomato LENTIL soup. It looks amazing. Truly.

Jess said...

Hello, Sprout. Yeah, college is pretty great. But so is the "real world." (Of course, some might argue that, as a long-time graduate student, I've yet to enter it.)

minor catastrophes - I'm no expert, but I can tell you about the differences between lentil varieties that I've observed in my own kitchen. I find that the bigger (and, as you note, less expensive) brown lentils turn to mush a lot more easily than the little French guys. And even when the larger ones do retain their shape, they don't push back against the teeth as delightfully as French green lentils. French green lentils almost pop in your mouth, I find. I also feel that bigger lentils can taste a little mealy, even when they're prepared to perfection. French green lentils, never. David Lebovitz wrote about lentilles du Puy on his blog a while back. In the post, he differentiates between French green lentils in general and true lentilles du Puy from Auvergne. I've never tried the "real thing" (I buy French green lentils grown locally), so I guess there's yet another level of lentil ecstasy that I have yet to experience! David writes that it's the starch content that accounts for the texture variation among lentils. In short, give those Montana French green lentils a try! They may be more expensive than the brown ones, but they're worth it, and they're still cheaper, I'd imagine, than most proteins, right?

Amuse-Bouche - Tomato LENTIL soup, yes! And was that a little fist pump I caught there in the white space between the letters? You know how to make a girl smile.

Jenious said...

Your tale of love has me feeling all warm and schmoopy inside, which I imagine is how this soup makes one feel as well.

Jess said...

Aw, Jenious, you're very sweet.

Rosiecat said...

Sweet Jess, this soup was fabulous! I made it this week and so far it has been one dinner, two lunches, and oh so tasty at all three meals. The parsley is an inspired addition--it adds such a lovely herbal note on top of all those earthy flavors. I think I like your recipe better than that *other* recipe I mentioned earlier...many thanks for another delicious recipe! xo

Jess said...

Rosiecat! I think I need to hire you as my official soup PR person. I'm so glad that you liked it. Better than that "other" recipe? Those are some pretty serious words you're throwing around.

bluejeangourmet said...

you are so dead-on, as usual. I used to do the same thing when Jill & I were doing long-distance...keep a list of things to tell her. it's amazing how the intimacy can grow with restrictions.

we still use the metaphor that we were just in different rooms of the same house. she still travels a great deal and so we'll say "you're just down the hall."

Clarice said...

I made the soup this week. It was so simple and satisfying! I have been enjoying your blog since last Summer, thank you.

Jess said...

I always appreciate hearing your take on things, Nishta. You two are wonderful. Wishing you and Jill a lovely weekend!

Thank you, Clarice, for reporting back. It makes me so happy to hear that you enjoyed this soup. And it means a lot to me - probably more than you know - to hear that you're enjoying this space. Happy weekend to you!