I am not an original cook, but I’ve learned when and how to follow my own instincts. Take soup, for instance. The brilliant thing about soup is that it can be anything you want it to be. Hot or cold. Substantial or brothy. A homey meal in a bowl or something more refined to kick-start a dinner party.
The most wonderful soups I’ve ever had were at my stepmother’s table—very fine mahogany—in a deep-blue room. The space was separated from the kitchen by nothing more than a low, lino-topped bar, and the comfortable aroma of cooking mingled with that of good beeswax candles and the primal smell of dark, oozy pluff mud, from the salt marsh out back.
A big sideboard held napkins and thick woven mats, closet shelves in the hall held plates and bowls that were pieces of memory in and of themselves. The blue-and-white rice bowls I bought her on her first visit to Chinatown were among them. She had been fascinated by the street vendors down on Canal Street—they reminded her of the shrimp and vegetable vendors she remembered from a Savannah long ago—and we staggered home with lychees, oranges, steamed buns, and red pork in addition to what seemed like half the contents of the Pearl River department store. “You bought me too many bowls,” she said, handing me a stack. “You need some, too.”
Ann would pull out oddments from the fridge, all tucked away in battered plastic yogurt or butter tubs. She would peel off the lids and stare at the contents; what didn’t make the cut was returned to the shelf, gently and without comment. There might be leftover pot roast or chicken thighs, a cold sweet potato or two, always braised collards or turnip greens. The dregs of last week’s black-eyed peas or butter beans in ham broth. She might then add okra from the pods growing in the boxes out on the deck, a few of the tomatoes on the kitchen counter, or a cup of rice, specifically the Piggly Wiggly brand, her favorite. She loved adding a few raisins. Plumped up and juicy, they gave her soups an elliptical, mysterious sweetness.
A big part of what made those soups so delicious was the editing, the consideration, that took place. And I liked the fact that no single ingredient dominated the others. Each had something to contribute, and you could settle in and enjoy the conversation, so to speak.
This brings me to the too-small-to-be-useful remnants of lentils and other little dried dals, or legumes, I unearthed in a kitchen cabinet the other day. Combined in a bowl, they started to amount to something. And when I stirred in a half cup of rice (I happened to have white on hand, but brown would be even better), dinner began to take shape. Of course, if you don’t have a variety of dals to play with, don’t let that stop you; plain lentils will work beautifully.
A protein-rich lentil-rice mix is a great basis for a vegetarian meal, but I was not about to waste the cold, easily shreddable poached chicken (and its broth) that just happened to be in the refrigerator.
Chicken Soup with Rice and Dal
1. Put a big swirl of olive oil in your soup pot (mine is wide as well as deep, to give plenty of room for any browning that needs to take place) and add an onion, chopped; a fat celery stalk, chopped; a couple of garlic cloves, ditto; and a bay leaf. If you like, do as I did and nudge the flavor base toward India by adding a fresh red chile, cut in half lengthwise, brown mustard seeds, and ground cumin and coriander. Or you could just keep things simple.
2. Cook all this in a leisurely fashion over medium-ish heat until the onion is the palest golden, adding a splash of water after about a few minutes to gentle the cooking—I like it when the onions and celery taste quick-braised instead of fried. If you are feeling energetic, cook another onion in a small skillet until it is frizzled, for topping the finished soup.
3. Add the lentil-rice mix and equal parts stock and water (about 4 cups each), bring everything to a boil, and reduce the heat. Partially cover the pot and let things simmer away for about 45 minutes or so, until the leguminous bits are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with the shredded chicken. Warm the chicken through, then stir in a handful of fresh spinach. It will wilt in no time and give the soup freshness and flair.
Any flatbread would be good with this soup. I had a package of naan on hand, and in a matter of minutes, it turned soft and puffy in the oven. Along with the soup, it was all we needed on a horrible, sleet-lashed February evening.
A couple of nights later—more sleet, more wind—our thoughts turned to sunny Morocco. I thinned the leftover soup and added a can of chickpeas (drained and rinsed), some chopped preserved lemon peel, and the spice blend called ras el hanout. Raisins went into the pot as well, and once they plumped up, I ladled supper into the very same rice bowls bought years ago. “It smells so good in here,” my husband, Sam, said. “Let’s eat by candlelight.”