Happy Saturday, reader. This morning, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend recently. He told me about something called Paris Syndrome. It's not a croissant addiction. (I know. You're surprised too, right?) It's an extreme case of shock resulting from an individual's finding out that Paris is not, indeed, what they'd expected it to be. Yep, not kidding. This is a real condition for which the Japanese Embassy in Paris has set up a 24-hour hotline (it occurs in about twenty of its Paris-touring citizens each year). Psychiatric symptoms include anxiety, delusional states, and hallucinations. "I think I might've had it," my friend added. "But it was Disneyland, not Paris. And I was maybe six."
There's a metaphor in there somewhere, about the anticlimax of all those little moments we anticipate and and over-plan for. First trips to Disneyland, promotions, round-numbered birthdays on which we expect to wake up noticeably wiser and more mature than we were the day before, mimosas that are mostly orange juice. And the day Adam and I took my sister-in-law to the beach, about two weeks ago, so we could dip our toes in the water and sunbathe and eat coconut shrimp at Malibu's Seafood. She'd flown in from Brooklyn for the weekend to see us and to thaw her bones under the California sunshine (her weather app showed 18 degrees in Brooklyn that day). When we got to the coast, though, we could barely see the sun; it looked lethargic and pale behind a gray wall of fog.
I'll spare you the banal platitudes on coping with life's little letdowns, reader. It's Saturday, after all, and you're having brunch and generally trying to stay positive about life. So instead, I come to you with a cure: lentil soup. Hear me out. This recipe is like an antidote to disappointment. Last week, Adam and I frantically made a batch for a couple of last-minute dinner guests. Or, more accurately, Adam made it from a set of instructions I texted him from the grocery store, where I'd run out for a baguette and some dessert. I completely forgot to tell him to add carrots and later found out that he'd usurped creative control and added more than double the amount of cumin and chili powder I'd advised. But it turned out wonderfully, maybe even better than my version. No matter how you make it (or ruin it), this soup always promises a dose of comfort.
The credit for this one goes to Melissa Clark of the New York Times dining section, who really knows how to make a foolproof recipe. So many of the lentil soup recipes I've tried (and believe me, I've tried a lot) have ended up tasting like health food experiments gone wrong, the components never fully meshing with one another, the lentils remaining kind of hard and chewy no matter how long I let them simmer. I can't believe I never tried red lentils before—it turns out they held the solution this whole time. When they melt into the broth, the texture of the whole soup becomes thick and velvety from the starch. So many elements of this soup work so well, like the contrast of the earthy cumin and the bright pop of lemon juice and the sweetness from the tomato paste and the carrots. I modified the original recipe to suit our tastes over here. My version has more cumin and tomato and a generous hit of chili powder for heat. If you'd like something a little more delicate, you should consult Melissa Clark's version instead.
This soup has become something of a ritual in my apartment. I make it in big batches on Sunday afternoons for the week ahead. I make it because it tastes wonderful and because it's filling and healthy. But I think there's a small part of me that also takes comfort in knowing that, if nothing else goes according to plan, at least we'll come home to something reliably good and nourishing. I hope you find it similarly helpful.
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2.5 tbsp. tomato paste
3 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
kosher salt to taste
1 cup red lentils, rinsed + sorted
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup water
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1/4 cup lemon juice
chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
a few grinds of black pepper
Heat the oil in a large pot on medium-high heat until it simmers. Add the onions and cook until they're soft and golden-brown. Add the carrots, garlic, tomato paste, cumin, chili powder, and salt. Mix well. Stir for another two minutes before adding the lentils, chicken broth, and water. Once the liquids begin to simmer, partially cover the pot and reduce the heat. Cook at a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are soft and cooked through. Depending on your preferred texture, ladle about half the soup into a blender and puree until smooth. Pour that half back into the pot. Stir in the lemon juice little by little, tasting as you go. Add more salt if necessary. Serve drizzled with olive oil and a garnish of fresh cilantro.