If A was for Apricot yesterday, then B is for Butter today. I love the alphabet in food form, don’t you?
Before we get to the butter, let’s talk about legumes. I have always loved beans and lentils, but as a kid, I don’t remember eating them too often. We had the occasional can of baked beans, but I’m straining to remember any other beans that crossed my path before college. My dad is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that beans didn’t make it to the dinner table. Which is sad, because they are so delicious. Vegetarianism gave me a great excuse to eat beans and lentils every day, and that’s a happy habit that I’ve been able to keep for ten years.
I won’t lecture you on how great legumes are for your health. I assume you already know they’re good for you if you are reading this blog. Legumes are uncontroversially healthy, hearty food, delicious and satisfying and full of nutrients. However, not everything I eat gets such a shining gold star for its nutritional qualities. One of the more controversial topics in health these days is what kinds of fats are optimal for health, and I admit here that I have my doubts about the conventional advice telling us to stay away from saturated fat. It’s becoming more apparent that if you choose to eat animal products, you should care what those animals have been eating because it can make the difference between health-promoting and health-harming.
I’ve never given up eating animal products, but for a long time, I shunned butter. I was ambivalent about dairy for several years, choosing soy milk over cow’s milk and switching butter for canola or olive oil. I worried that the idea that we can get our calcium requirements from dairy was a myth, and more recently, I’ve read controversial articles about a link between dairy and certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer. Now, please don’t string me up by my toenails for not providing references here. It’s been such a long time since I thought about these issues, and at this point, my main dietary strategy is a little of everything, as long as it’s vegetarian. The science of nutrition is very complicated. Unlike me, who can do her experiments with an entire population of genetically identical organisms, nutritionists have the misfortune of doing their studies on humans, who are annoyingly resistant to inbreeding. (Oh, I kid! That’s a genetics joke, people. I am not in favor of human inbreeding for science’s sake.) So I tend to view nutrition data and the subsequent conclusions with a skeptical eye, and I try to use a heaping spoonful of common sense to make my food choices.
Whew! All of that to say this: I now eat butter again, regularly, and it’s delicious. Also, I want to remind you that butter is not olive oil, no matter how popular olive oil cakes become. Olive oil is not butter, and butter is not olive oil.
Repeat after me, people: butter is not olive oil!
I was reminded of this truth when making a red lentil soup from Melissa Clark’s wonderful cookbook, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. You may have seen a red lentil soup from that cookbook on Orangette, and maybe you even cooked yourself a batch of that soup. I know I did, and my only regret is that I didn’t add more lemon to my soup. Carrots can be so sweet! Their sweetness must be balanced against something acidic or earthy or meaty so they don’t turn your soup into dessert.
That lentil soup calls for olive oil. Its sister recipe, or maybe I should call it the mother recipe, since it is the older and more well-established of the two, calls for butter. In a red lentil soup, that struck me as unusual and therefore enticing. Lentils and butter are an uncommon combination, but wow, the combination is really something special in this soup. I liked it so much that I made it twice and sent Matt e-mails proclaiming the deliciousness of butter.
“Butter!” I wrote. “It’s a cook’s best friend.”
Matt wrote back, “Hell yes, butter!”
(I love that man.)
Here’s the thing about me and butter: there’s a productive tension between us. I’ll never be able to cook with it with joyful abandon; I’ll always be using it cautiously, with restraint. In my mind, I’ll always be thinking, Is this a healthy meal or a rich meal? And if it’s the latter, am I celebrating something or comforting myself? In asking myself these questions, I find my balance between health and hedonism. I like to live right in the middle.
In this lentil soup, the butter adds a delightful and unexpected richness to what is otherwise an incredibly virtuous soup. Earthy with lentils, sweet with carrots and onions, brightened up with lemon and mint, it’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. Then there’s the texture: nubbly with soft bulgur and filled with soothingly slow-cooked vegetables and lentils, this is comfort food made exotic and so good for you.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Red Lentil Soup with Butter and Unusual Seasonings
Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark
2 tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3/4 tsp. kosher salt (I use Morton coarse kosher salt)
1/2-1 tsp. Aleppo pepper, plus more for serving
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving
2 medium or large carrots, diced
1 cup red lentils
1/4 cup coarse bulgur wheat
4 cups vegetable stock
2 cups water
Fresh lemon, for serving
1) In a large soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, salt, and Aleppo pepper. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the onion and garlic are fragrant and softened.
2) Stir in the tomato paste, mint, and carrots. Cook for about 2 minutes. Stir the lentils and bulgur into the pot, then add the vegetable stock and water. Bring the whole thing to a bubble over high heat, then turn the heat down and simmer the soup for 45-60 minutes, until the lentils and carrots are very soft.
3) Serve the soup with a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and a sprinkle of chopped mint.