When friends are down and out, a pot of soup can be the best medicine. For years, I have offered lentil soup as a panacea, not only because it is so hearty and rib-sticking, but because it easily satisfies vegetarians and carnivores alike. I know that a few key ingredients are all I need to have on hand. In less than an hour, this soup is packed and on the way to friends in need, carried to the last-minute get-together arranged by snowbound neighbors or tucked into the freezer for soup emergencies.
A rich, hearty stock or broth, whether it is chicken, beef or vegetable, is the backbone of any soup, but too often that's the stumbling block, as well. If your freezer or cupboard has neither, turn to the pantry, instead. Dried mushrooms often pump up the volume in stews, pasta sauces and gravy. Reconstituted in boiling water, they create a woodsy, hearty liquid, rich and redolent. Here, I prefer to use dried porcinis for their strong, slightly meaty flavor, but any wild mix will do. Spanish smoked paprika enhances the mushroom flavor, adding a wonderful aroma to the soup, some color and a wee bit of heat.
Chopped onion, carrot and celery are a necessary part of just about any soup's construction. Some grocery stores offer this trio already chopped for anyone who is knife-averse or time-challenged (and they even label it mirepoix, which is a French culinary term for those diced vegetables). I tested the soup once using one of those prepared packages. I will admit I was skeptical, but it worked out perfectly well.
After cooking the vegetables, adding a touch of white wine is optional; I like the additional layer of flavor. Using a classic technique, increase the stovetop heat before adding the wine, then scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. That's called fond, and it builds even more flavor.
When it comes to lentil soup, there are two schools of thought, and both of them live in my two-person household. I'm in the smooth camp. I blend most soups made with lentils and beans with either an immersion or countertop blender, looking for a velvety texture upon which I float crunchy croutons, toasted nuts or seeds or bits of crisp bacon. Someone else likes a brothy soup with lentils and vegetables awash in the hearty liquid. Divide and conquer has been my plan; when I make this for a group, I blend only half the soup, leaving the rest as it was. And I bring along plenty of garnishes.
I have written the accompanying recipe with vegetarians in mind, but it can easily be made meatier. Use four cups of chicken, ham or beef broth plus two cups of water instead of the soaked-mushroom liquid. Add a couple cups of chopped ham, shredded chicken or smoked turkey toward the end of cooking.
Or make the recipe as written and revel in the complexity of the simple lentil, enhanced by a pinch of this, a bit of that, one classic technique, and only 40 minutes. Then share it with the people you love. After all, it's a souper food.