We eat a lot of soup in my house. Recently, I wanted to make soup from a recipe. This is a departure from the norm for us. Usually Tom makes our soups, starting from the broth he periodically fabricates from the contents of his two-gallon freezer bag of broth fixings – fresh vegetable trimmings, poultry and beef bones, leftover gravies, and similar flavorful odds and ends.
On a soup-making day he takes some of that broth from the freezer and adds whatever he finds in the pantry and refrigerator – fresh or leftover vegetables, meats, or tomato sauces; fresh or cooked rice, beans, or pasta – and produces a hearty soup. His soups are always good, but they all have a strong family resemblance. Hence my revolutionary wish to make something different for a change.
That happened when my friend Michele Scicolone gave me a copy of her latest cookbook, The Mediterranean Slow Cooker. I neither have nor want a slow cooker, but I’m always interested in Michele’s recipes, and any dish that can be made in slow cookers can be made in ordinary pots. I started by looking at the book’s soup section. Those recipes cover a lot of Mediterranean geography – Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, North Africa, and the Middle East – with a nice mixture of familiar and exotic dishes.
My eye was caught by one of the exotics: Harira, a type of soup that’s made in several Islamic countries, where I understand it’s a traditional thing to eat at the end of the all-day fasts during the holy month of Ramadan. It’s made with chickpeas, lentils, and pasta, plus a lot of spicy seasonings. Sometimes meat is added, but Michele’s recipe is vegetarian.
Well, Ramadan won’t occur this year until July, but we are in Lent now, whether one observes it or not; and anyway, the recipe called out to me. So I made it. It started with sauteeing lots of chopped onion and celery in butter; seasoning that generously with turmeric, black pepper, and cinnamon; and adding tomato paste dissolved in broth. (Of course, I used Tom’s homemade broth: You can’t carry revolutions too far.)
At that point the slow cooker comes into the recipe, if you’re using one. All the sauteed ingredients go into the cooker, along with cooked or canned chickpeas, raw lentils, more broth, salt and pepper – all to be cooked for four hours or until the lentils are tender. Since I’d done my sauteeing in a Creuset pot, I added everything else to it. It took less than 40 minutes for the lentils to become tender. At that point I added orzo, the small rice-shaped pasta, and cooked that until it was done. I finished by stirring in a lot of chopped fresh cilantro. (I’m always happy to find uses for cilantro.)
It was an excellent soup, but very thick. I could have added water at the end, but it smelled and tasted wonderful as is. Each spoonful made you want to hurry and take another. The effect was somewhat like the recipes for pasta with chickpeas and pasta with lentils that are in my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but the seasonings here were very different and much more insistent. In fact, I was a little concerned at first by how strong a sweet cinnamon aroma the soup exhaled by the end of the cooking time, but it mellowed in the taste. The turmeric and pepper lent a warm spiciness to the two mild pulses, and the cilantro gave everything a pleasant herbal lift.
This harira would definitely be a satisfying dish to sit down to at the end of a whole day without food. It makes a good lunch too, as well as a fine first course for dinner – a welcome addition to our household’s hearty winter soup repertoire. Even Tom concedes its pleasures.