So, remember that fresh coconut pie I mentioned last week? The one I recalled so fondly ten full years after first tasting it? The one that you begged to hear more about? Well, I called my mom, and I got the recipe. Then I bought a coconut. Then, yesterday morning, Brandon and I drained, cracked, chipped, peeled, and grated the thing, a task only marginally easier than breaking into an armored truck. Then, after sufficient rest and recuperation, I made the pie. And it wasn’t very good.
Even now, a day later, I still feel sort of sad. I hardly know what to say. In the pie’s defense, I think we grated the coconut a little too coarsely. We did it in the food processor, with the grating blade, and the resulting shards were on the thick side – less like standard shredded coconut and more, let’s say, like those jumbo matches, the long, fat kind you’d use to light a gas stove or grill. Consequently, the coconut never really cooked in the oven. It wilted a little, but that’s about it. The finished pie tasted alright, but it had an odd, starchy crunch that reminded me of Swiss chard stems, and soggy twigs, and undercooked potatoes. None of which, I should note, makes a nice dessert. It wasn’t awful, but it was wonky. You know it’s bad when you prefer a pot of lentil soup to a slice of coconut pie. Seriously.
But all’s well that ends well, as they say, which brings us, for better and for worse, to this week’s recipe. I know it’s kind of crappy of me to give you yet another lentil dish, but I didn’t set out intending to, I swear. Blame the pie, not me. Anyway, it’s a very good recipe – and with coconut, no less! – so I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.
A couple of weeks ago, back when we were talking about lentils and rice and onions around here, Julie wrote to tell me about a soup she’d made, a green lentil soup with Indian spicing from the cookbook Once Upon a Tart. I was very intrigued – not only because of the bottomless supply of lentils in my pantry closet, but because a copy of that same cookbook had been sitting on my shelf, ignored, for years. I’m not sure why, either, because Once Upon a Tart, the bakery that birthed the book, is a lovely little spot, a place where I once shared soup and scones with my mother and father and sister on a chilly late-December afternoon in New York. The book was long overdue for a little attention, and a good, healthy crack of the spine. So, with a nudge from Julie, that’s what I gave it, and in return, it gave me a very, very good soup.
The only thing it lacks, I’m afraid, is looks. I tried to spare you by eating most of it before the photo shoot, but still, it’s not pretty. Lentil soup is not something to make when you want a handsome meal. It’s something to make when you want a satisfying one, along with, say, a cold beer, some crusty bread, and a few Muscat grapes from the icebox. This particular take on the lentil theme is unusually good, one for the keeper pile. For a homely thing, it’s almost delicate – elegant, even, trailing a lacy perfume of spices and coconut milk, a whiff of India and a slip of Thailand. It reminds me in some ways of dal, but better than any I’ve made at home, and with a Southeast Asian bent. And until I can have my coconut pie the way I remember it – which, with some tweaking, damn it, had better be soon – well, it’s a pretty darn good consolation prize.
Also, I know that many of you have seen me and Brandon on the Food Network recently, and before another day goes by, I wanted to thank you for writing to me with your cheers. Pretty crazy, isn’t it? Our video is part of a series of short promotional segments called “The Power of Food,” in which everyday people share stories about the ways that food impacts their lives. In our case, we tell the story of how we met – through this website, of course, but more specifically, because a friend of Brandon’s did an Internet search for a lemon yogurt cake recipe, came upon Orangette, read for a while, and then told him about it, saying, “I’ve found the woman for you.” As it turns out, she was right, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sometimes I can hardly wrap my head around it. Cake is a powerful thing. I’m telling you, never, ever underestimate what it can do.
Our segment airs during commercial breaks, so be on the lookout between ads and you just might see us. A longer version of the video
Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices
Adapted from Once Upon a Tart
If you’ve got some decent vegetable stock lying around, this thick, warming soup comes together in a snap. It’s delicious eaten plain, but I also like it with a squeeze of lime, and Brandon, Mr. Hot Sauce, likes it with sambal oelek. It would also be lovely over some fragrant rice, maybe jasmine or basmati, and with some cilantro sprinkled around. If you’d like to see how Julie, who first told me about this recipe, makes this soup, hop over to her thoughtful write-up here.
Also, about the butter: if you want to use less, I think you could. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll bet it wouldn’t make a wink of difference, flavor-wise, if you added all the spices in the beginning, with the garlic, rather than adding some then and some later. That way, you could nix the clarified butter – a bit of a fussy step, anyway – and scratch three tablespoons of butter from the recipe.
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
6 cups vegetable stock, preferably from this recipe
1 ½ cups French green lentils, picked over for stones and other debris
½ tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
A few grinds of black pepper
1 ¼ cups coconut milk
¼ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more to taste
In a soup pot or Dutch oven, warm 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic, thyme, and turmeric. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is lightly browned and very soft.
Add the stock and the lentils, bring to a simmer, and cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and tender.
In a small saucepan, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When the butter is entirely liquefied, there will be a foamy white layer on top. Skim it away and discard it. What you’ll have left is clarified butter – a clear, yellow liquid – and a bit of white sediment at the bottom of the pan, which are the milk solids. Carefully pour the clarified butter into a small bowl or cup; then rinse the sediment out of the pan. Return the clarified butter to the pan, and place it over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper, and warm them, stirring, until they are very fragrant, a minute or two.
Pour the clarified butter and spices into the soup. Add the coconut milk, and stir well. Cook for about 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste, and adjust the salt as necessary. Serve.
Note: Like many things with complex spicing, this soup improves with time. It’s great on the first day, but it’s even better on the second.
Yield: 4-6 servings