Am I the only one who feels relieved that January’s drawing to a close? I’ve been through all the usual variations of the January blues – the impact with routine after a long holiday, the seemingly endless wait for payday – but nothing troubled me as much as the freezing cold. The media have been bombarding us with grim weather forecasts since last October, and yet, the tail end of 2015 was surprisingly mild. There I was, strolling around in a lightweight coat in November, and braving a sleeveless top for my work Christmas party as if it was the middle of July. Here I am, now: jeans upon knee socks upon 100 denier tights, a down jacket that could double as a Michelin Man costume – and the troubling consciousness that, even though this past week was relatively tame, the icy weather could well make a comeback any time between here and April.
Now, I don’t like hats. Most of them make me look like an oversized schoolgirl; a fact I’ve always resented, even when I was a – well, oversized schoolgirl. If I made it through six winters in London, however, it’s precisely thanks to a hat: a black one, made of cheap, bristly fake fur. It was a gift I gracefully accepted, and secretly swore I’d never wear. That was before I experienced my first winter in the UK, which was also the coldest I have memory of (2010, you bastard). I’ve been worshipping the Hat ever since. It keeps my ears warm, shields my face from the wind, and protects my head on drizzly days, when I can’t be bothered to open my umbrella. Also, rather surprisingly, it suits my face. I wouldn’t part from it for any reason in the world.
There’s one wintry food I have a similar relationship with, and that’s soup. When I was a kid, “soup” meant my grandmother‘s minestrone, which she force-fed me for lunch once a week, in a well-intentioned but ill-judged effort to get me to eat my five-a-day. Its foul smell hit me the moment I walked into her tiny apartment after school, and I hated the very sight of it: picture large chunks of boiled vegetables swimming in a brown, sloppy broth, the very definition of unappetising. I don’t remember what it tasted like – it’s been that long since I last ate it – but I do recall swallowing spoonful after spoonful begrudgingly, gagging on the stuff as it went down my throat.
Rebellion, when it came, was bold and defiant: I refused to eat soup for years, until I decided, out of the blue, that it was time to give it another chance. I can’t say I was surprised at the variety of flavours and textures I discovered; what did strike me was how many of those I immediately fell for. I still won’t eat anything involving vegetable chunks in broth, but on some days, it takes as little as a bowl of hot vegetable purée, or a soup with pulses and grains to make me happy.
Soup is now one of my favourite comfort foods, and often my first choice when I’m after a light meal. That’s especially true in winter, when I need a warm meal to feel sheltered from the cold – although I’ll eat it in any season, as long as there’s toasted bread to go with it. The one I love the most is still the first I learnt to enjoy: a creamy, delicate lentil soup, made with few simple ingredients, and oddly filling for a healthy dish. I always ask my mum for it when I’m Italy for Christmas, and since I can’t put up with only eating it once a year, I’ve recently learnt to cook it at home.
I’d always imagined it as a daunting, time-consuming task; an affair of lentils soaking overnight, pots boiling for ages, and a slow, painful wait to reach the perfect texture. Here’s what it really takes: a pot large enough to fit in a heap of lentils, celery and water; a hand blender; about an hour of your time (although you’ll only spend around fifteen minutes in the kitchen). I made it often this month, and always had enough for both a fulfilling dinner and a packed lunch the next day. That’s a doubly effective cure for the January blues, if I know one.
Creamy lentil soup
(serves 3 – 4)
- 250g green lentils (soak them the night before if needed – I use the kind that doesn’t require it)
- 1 celery heart (or 5 small celery stalks), chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1/4 onion, chopped
- 1 – 2tbsp olive oil
- 750ml cold water
- Put the lentils, celery and water in a large pot.
- Cover the pot with a lid, put it on the hob on high heat, and bring the water to a boil.
- While you wait, heat up the olive oil in a small pan; add the onion, fry it until golden, then remove from the hob.
- Cook for a further 30 – 35 minutes, until the lentils are tender and have absorbed most of the water.
- Using a hand blender, blend the lentils and celery together until you obtain a smooth purée.
- Season with salt and pepper, add in the fried onion, and mix well.
- Serve with toasted bread, sliced or cut up into croutons.
- Store any leftovers in the fridge, in an airtight container. I have eaten them up to 2 days after cooking, and they have kept very well.
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