Comfort food has an entirely different meaning from person to person. I find a strange solace in fast-food poutine or cheese fries. I am equally soothed by dal and rice with ghee; curry laksa with all the trimmings, or second-day lasagna, reheated with hot sauce on the side. (That overnight rest is magic for lasagna.) Dumplings. Scalloped potatoes. Sticky rice with chile oil. Or permutations of beans and rice.
My husband’s list differs. As do those of my children, my parents and my closest friends. No matter how close the relation, the Venn diagram of our wants have little, if any, overlap.
Thus, I can only explain what defines a comfort food to me.
There has to be the familiar. It should be easy to eat and require only a single utensil. It is often soft, or the specific texture of crisp-gone-chewy, like chilaquiles. It should bolster as much as it mollifies, so for me there is always an element of heat or sharp astringency. It needn’t blow my eyebrows up my forehead. Just a sparkle of contrast to keep it all interesting.
A prime example is this soup. A 20-minute affair combining butternut squash and split red lentils, with only a suggestion of spicing – a subtle grassiness from coriander and the mention of woodsiness by cumin.
At their best, soup recipes offer a glimpse of possibility; a framework filled in by whim and the contents of your fridge. Butternut squash and lentils are mainstays of my winter pantry. Still, the squash could be replaced by another variety, or a combination of carrots and red garnet yam, or one or the other. I used tahini instead of cream because the jar in the fridge was staring at me like I owed it money. If not in a similar situation, use almond butter, or natural peanut, or go for thick yogurt or straight for the cream.
It all blends up to a golden bowl. This soup is a canvas really. With that tahini still knocking around, I used the last to pull together a green tahini; more cumin, then garlic, parsley, cilantro, dill and lemon, whirled up in the food processor with the sesame paste. On a roll now, I made a stripped-down dukkah; a generous handful of the exceptional Italian hazelnuts gifted by friends. Toasting those in the pan with a tablespoon of sesame seeds, a heaped teaspoon of coriander seeds, half that each of cumin and fennel pollen, then pounded all in a mortar and pestle to an uneven gravel and pinched in a liberal amount of smoked salt.
My serving went like this; brown rice on the bottom. Then soup, green tahini, feta marinated with chilies and lemon, the dukkah, then herbs. Collectively it rang all the required bells – softness, a little burn, the gentle chew of rice, vegetal sweetness evened out with more than enough deep savouriness, and the direct saline hit of the cheese. The herbs brought sunshine.
Another day, leftovers struck out on a different path, with a tadka (a South Asian practice of blooming spices in hot fat, also called chaunk, vaghaar and other names). More minced onion, cumin seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon stick and a dried red chili made fragrant and sizzling in ghee. Bronzed cubes of paneer sat waiting in my bowl, chopped cilantro and fresh red chilies went on top.
Each time different, each time a balm for these grey days; light and simple, hearty and satisfying, all at once.
Butternut Lentil Soup
Serves 4 to 6
For the soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, it needn’t be extra virgin
- 4 shallots, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed with the side of a knife, peels removed
- Medium-grained kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, or 1/2 teaspoon ground
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, or 1/2 teaspoon ground
- A good pinch dried red pepper flakes
- 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into medium dice
- 1/2 cup split red lentils, rinsed
- 5 cups vegetable broth or water, plus more
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/3 cup well-stirred tahini
Options to serve
- Cooked brown rice or other grain
- Roasted squash seeds
- Green tahini, gremolata, zhug or similar herb condiment
- Crumbled feta
- Fried shallots
- Sautéed mushrooms, soft-boiled egg, roasted chickpeas
Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy bottomed Dutch oven or similar. Tip in the shallots, garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until softened and without colour, about 5 minutes. Scatter in the spices and cook 1 minute more. Tumble in the squash and lentils, and turn in the shallots until coated. Pour in the vegetable broth, drop in the thyme, and bring to a boil over high heat. Adjust the heat to maintain a simmer until the vegetables are thoroughly tender, around 20 minutes.
Extract the thyme from its bath. Scrape in the tahini and season well. Purée the vegetables until smooth using an upright blender, with the feed hole ajar to allow steam to escape. (If using ground spices, an immersion blender can be used. Whole spices will remain as flecks in the soup unless blitzed in an upright.) Check for seasoning, thin with extra broth or water if desired, and rewarm as needed.
Serve with desired garnishes.
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