Luxurious Lentils

I don’t think there is anything I make more regularly and with more satisfaction than soup. I never make a small pot, I always go big because soup is a mainstay of my diet and freezer. So is bread. One and one equals dinner or lunch, from season to season.

My friend Karen recently gave me a box full of pantry goodies.  She was cleaning out her gourmet cupboards for a move and decided she’d rather give me toys for my culinary sandbox  than put them in storage and out of usage for half a year.

“Mostly flavoured vinegars and lentils,” she droned, then spiced it up with “there’s a bottle of truffle oil, some wasabi and white Chinese fungus.”

It was the lentils that sung out for soup.

img_1202.jpgYet… lentils left to their own devices can create the most boring soup in the universe.

Under the spin of magic, lentils can also offer up mouthfuls of rich vegetarian Soup Bliss that is so complex, you’d want to shoot the writer who just wrote the last line’s blasphemy.

One such soup can be found in Myra Goodman’s delectable tome “Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm’s Organic Cookbook”.  Her Mediterranean Lentil Soup is layered and rich, despite missing one of the most quintessential ingredients found in my soups: homemade chicken stock. To make matters more envious, this lentil soup reaches the finish line with nary a piece of bacon, prosciutto, ham, pancetta, sausage or speck.

I couldn’t do it. My copy of that cookbook was in the wrong city’s kitchen and none of its magical equation could be dredged up from the swamps of my memory.  Meanwhile, evil cooking gnats were hissing and spitting in the dark gutters of my hesitation, taunting with incantations of “You’ve got drab lentils, drab lentils!”

IMG_1194Thus, I gave my blonde curls a good shake and pulled out the bacon.

This in tribute to what I imagine was either a Spanish scam or one of Karen’s most luxurious food purchases ever.  Here was a bag containing just three cups of brown lentils with two, not one, $25 price stickers.  Highway robbery! I had to give these Mexican lentils the respect Karen’s wallet deserved, so I pulled out the big guns: a litre of freshly made chicken stock, simmered for 8 hrs on my backburner the day before.

I started chopping.

First, a quarter pound of PC Applewood smoked bacon which went into a large hot pot shimmering with olive oil. IMG_1198Next, a very crisp Walla Walla onion (love our Stateside produce from Washington), two stalks of celery, followed by a red and green bell pepper. Next, I cracked open a 796 ml can of no salt-added, organic “Terra Dolce” tomatoes that I bought – brand unknown – at Costco, gambling on a whole box that has delivered thrice the flavour for all its economy. Finally, in went a cup of Karen’s precious lentils washed and drained, followed by a litre of chicken stock.

Despite the bacon and homemade chicken stock, these lentils were heading perilously close to the oblivion of bland and comprehensive seasoning was in order.  I started by squeezing five cloves of roasted garlic into the brew, and chuckled with a witch’s glee as I rubbed two teaspoons of dried oregano from Karen’s box. No truthfully, I cackled, because Karen’s dried oregano is wickedly strong and full of oomph compared to the dross I had just given the sniff test from my spice cupboard.

Once I had dumped my old oregano stash into the compost pile, I was ready for more foraging through flavour-land (a.k.a. my spice drawer). IMG_1210A fat pinch of smoked paprika, a teaspoon of Club House ground cumin, one “DAN-D-PAK” hot, red dried pepper from Gerrard Chinatown, half a teaspoon of mild chile guajillo molido from Kensington Market, one chopped fresh green serrano pepper, half a cup of chopped fresh coriander and juice from half a lime. Because my stock is made without salt, I added a teaspoon of course Mediterranean sea salt from Italy, straight from Karen’s box (but without a price tag).

In less than half an hour, a scrumptious soup was born. Esta la vita!



Karen’s Pantry Mexican Lentil Soup con Bacon

This is a spicy, full flavoured soup that brings lentils out of the pantry so they can live a little.

1 tbsp              olive oil

¼ lb.                PC Applewood smoked bacon, chopped into ½ inch slices

1                      large Walla Walla, Vidalia or Spanish onion, chopped

2                      stalks celery, chopped

1                      green bell pepper, chopped

1                      red bell pepper, chopped

1                      796 ml can tomatoes

4 cups              chicken stock

1                      cup small green lentils, washed and drained

5                      cloves roasted garlic (or 2 cloves, chopped)

2 tsp                dried oregano, rubbed

1 tsp                ground cumin

¼ tsp               smoked paprika

1                      hot dried red pepper, crushed

1                      fresh green serrano pepper, chopped

½ tsp               chile guajillo molido or mild chile powder

½ cup               fresh coriander, chopped

½                     lime, squeezed

1 tsp                sea salt * or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot, add bacon and cook until golden and crispy.   Add onions, celery and peppers and sauté for five minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, stock, lentils, oregano, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, dried hot pepper, fresh serrano pepper and chile powder.  Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender soft. Season with fresh coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper. 








Brunch crunch



S.I.L. defines brunch in this city – but who in their right mind wants to Stand In Line on a chilly weekend morning? Sadly, plenty. Hogtowners waiting for brunch is a Toronto phenom and I feel like the Luckiest Girl in Town when I sidle up to the entrance of Lady Marmalade (898 Queen Street East) or Bonjour Brioche (812 Queen Street East) and there’s no one standing there before me, huffing and gasping un-caffeinated breaths of frustration.

I thought things might improve if I went west. A few weekends ago, I crawled out of my lower Riverdale comfort zone and set my dream compass for Vancouver, where they’ve been bragging about tulips and cherry blossoms for months. But reality set in. I was stuck in my SUV, desperate and grumpy with hunger and reached no further than Bathurst and College, land of graffiti-splashed laneways and more cyclists than our mayor can wave a coke pipe at.

Aunties and Uncles (74 Lippincott Street, at College) is a veritable temple to the dawn-time repast. My Designated Eater and I were both blinded with culinary visions of A&U’s garlicky hash browns ensconced in bacon fat and their soft and pudgy breakfast tacos spiked with chorizo, spilling at the seams with scrambled eggs, pinto beans, cheddar cheese, cilantro and sour cream. But a large crowd of cell-phone-enabled twenty-somethings were already milling about, filling up their outdoor patio like a menacing swarm of tattooed wasps. We knew we were beat.

So we went east again, two blocks, our eyes now fixed on the newly-opened-for-brunch Windup Bird Cafe (382 College Street at Borden). Hail! The entrance contained not a soul – save for a young, pretty server, who rushed up to offer us the unbelievable: one of two free brunch tables on a Sunday in Toronto.

Loaded with windows, Windup Bird Cafe makes morning feel full of promise. IMG_6789-edit2While the spring sun streamed in, we felt caressed by the brunch gods and ordered the basics: Eggs Bennie and simple scrambled eggs. Both broke from the mould, featuring an emerald-green pile of lightly sautéed Swiss chard and kale. (Okay, greens are not everyone’s thing but you-know-who scarfed down one and a half portions long before my third-refill of rich, brewed coffee.)

Our table was wobbly, which our server recognized immediately, sending owner Sang Kim to repair. He came armed with a stack of bookmarks to slip beneath the offending leg. But first, he doled out two of them, leading us to discover that Sang is not only handy, but an award-winning Canadian-Korean fiction author who has collaborated with Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and dozens of other Toronto literary heads in The Stories That Are Great Within Us, recently published by Exile Editions.

Sang has been described as a serial restauranteur. Windup Bird is his seventh restaurant and he’s consulted on the opening of 27 others. He presently presides over three – sort of.  Seoul Food Co and Yakitori Bar (1 Baldwin Street) is a “two-in-one” resto serving up modern Korean and Japanese food.  At “the Bird”, his chef Yumiko Kobayashi focuses on locally-sourced international cuisine and the lunch and dinner menu changes with the seasons. Like brunch, the emphasis is more on local and healthy, versus highfalutin cuisine. Plates are stacked high with my favourite thing – veggies – and every table contains different and very dainty china and silverware. These vintage settings contrast nicely with the mod, lime-green and orange upholstered booths on the second level. It’s an airy, bright spot warmed up with shiny wood floors and patches of exposed brick.

But back to the food: Sang sources his smoky bacon from Metzger Meat products in Hensall, Ontario and buys his bread from the hottest new artisanal bakery in town: Blackbird, which just opened its retail doors in a vacated Cob’s Bakery at 172 Baldwin Street in Kensington. The bread was sublime: a slice of airy, moist Toronto sourdough and a slice of flaxseed and sesame sourdough containing a mystery herb: Oregano, is that you?

IMG 6970_edit blackbird bread

I’ll happily windup my birds and fly back to this cafe soon. And if you, my dear readers, concur, I have essentially committed brunch hari kari. Chances are this spot will be Lineup City the next time I have a hankering for eggs.