You may have noticed, I have been pretty immersed in bowls these days. Riffing on simple bases of grain, topped with little compositions of colorful vegetables, crunchy garnishes, and drizzles of sauce. My book Great Bowls of Food came out at the end of May, and life’s been a whirlwind of bowls and books. I had already spent some time contemplating what bowls are, are not, and why we love them, having written the book. But now, I’ve been teaching classes, sampling out bowl foods at book events, writing posts about bowl food, and I think I’ve gone deep into the meaning of the bowl.
The bowl is not a salad. It’s not mixed up. At the heart of it, the placement of the elements of the bowl in separate spaces is the core of the appeal of the bowl. Instead of tossing it and coating everything with sauce, we leave all the flavors and textures separate and give people more experiences to enjoy. Perhaps on some level, it gives you some freedom to choose with each bite, a freedom that may just be lacking in other parts of our lives.
Like I said, I’ve gone deep.
Maybe people just want convenience. But it feels like freedom to me.
As October rolls in and the soup season creeps up on me, I’ve been thinking about translating the appeal of the grain bowl over to the soup bowl. So, instead of putting everything in the pot and simmering it all together, I thought it would give my soup some “bowl-appeal” to make a simple base, and serve it topped with a couple of other intense flavors and textures.
It’s just red lentil soup. I know.
I think it worked.
I started with some robust red shallots that caught my eye at the market. Shallots these days are almost as big as onions, and offer up a sweet, slightly garlicky charm all their own. Roasting them at high heat brings out the sweetness and gives them a little browned char, which adds depth and complexity. A dousing in pomegranate juice concentrate added tangy sweetness and an antioxidant-rich red tint. I bought a bottle of pomegranate concentrate at the Coop, but if you don’t have any, you can also just boil down pomegranate juice to reduce it by half. Pomegranate molasses, sold in Import stores, is also made this way, and you can use that, too.
The red lentils cook quickly, making them an ideal pantry item for the season of the soup. I wanted a nice orange color, so I added a couple of carrots and some paprika. The key to this bowl was the texture, so I put it in the Vitamix and let it run for a minute or two, to really make it velvety.
The savory soup base now had the sweet and tangy shallots, but it needed some green and some herbal flavor. The kale in my garden and some fresh sage leaves provided the perfect counterpoint. Don’t skimp on the oil when you cook the greens, it’s vital to the whole picture. The sage infuses the olive oil and it becomes an earthy sauce of its own.
So you can see, with each bite, you get to choose. Should I spoon up a bit of the shallot with the soup, or will I steer my spoon toward the sage and crunch part of the landscape? Heck, you’re even free to stir it all up.
Because your bowl should give you more than just a great, incredibly nourishing meal of real food. It should give you a moment in your day when you get to decide.
I’ll take my freedom where I can get it, how about you?
Red Lentil Soup with Pomegranate Shallots and Frizzled Kale and Sage
The soup and the shallots can be made ahead, but cook the greens at the very last minute. You need that crispness to add crunch to the silky soup.
4 large red shallots
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice concentrate
pinch of salt
1 cup red lentils
2 large carrots, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cups water
1 teaspoon paprika
3/4 teaspoon salt
cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 leaves kale, slivered
8 large sage leaves
red pepper flakes, if desired
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Peel and quarter the shallots and if your shallots are very large, cut the quarters in smaller wedges for pieces about an inch wide. In a 8 or 9-inch square pan, combine the olive oil and shallots and toss gently to coat. Roast, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, then add the pomegranate concentrate and salt and stir, scraping up the seared edges of the shallots with a thin metal spatula. Roast for 5-10 minutes longer, until the shallots are limp and the liquids are thick. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.
In a 2 quart pot, combine the red lentils, carrots, onion, 3 cups water, salt and pepper. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cover the pot, stirring occasionally for about 40 minutes. Add water, if needed. When the lentils are falling apart, transfer the contents of the pot to the blender and puree. It will be thick, stir in water as desired for a creamy soup.
For the greens, heat the olive oil in a wide saute pan over medium-high heat, and add the slivered kale and sage. Stir until the greens are crisp and bright green, about a minute. Sprinkle with salt.
To serve, ladle about a cup of soup in each bowl, spreading it out with the back of a spoon. Top with shallots and the crisped greens. Crack pepper over it, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, if desired, and serve immediately.