There are two star ingredients in today’s soup — and if you asked me which one I liked best, I’d be hard-pressed to choose. These two ingredients, although entirely different, are on the same pedestal, at least for me.
Lentilles du Puy are little French green lentils that have been cultivated in the region of Le Puy-en-Velay, in the Haute-Loire, for more than 2000 years. They are so prized that they have their own AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) seal.
These are the diamonds of lentils, blessed with a nutty, earthy flavor and a delicate texture that no other lentil can rival. The tiny legumes acquire their distinct flavor from the thin volcanic soil they grow in, and the abundant sunshine that drenches their native land.
As if that weren’t enough to distinguish them, lentilles du Puy also are very high in protein yet very low in carbohydrates, which allows them to hold their shape as they cook without getting mushy. It’s easy to see why these lentils find their way into many of my recipes — including today’s soup.
And what of saffron? This regal spice fetches a king’s ransom for sure, but it also delivers considerable flavor. The spice lives inside the three tiny stigmas of the female saffron crocus flower (crocus sativus), each of which must be hand-harvested. (No wonder saffron is, by weight, the world’s most expensive spice!)
True saffron threads (another name for the stigmas) or powder should have a deep orangey-red hue, so don’t be fooled by pale yellow-orange copycats! The best way to tell is by paying close attention to its color — and its price tag. If you want true saffron, you will have to be willing to loosen your purse strings.
But what a divine flavor those microscopic stigmas conceal! Saffron has a lovely, mellow and yet potent fragrance and a positively intoxicating flavor.
On a side note, I always use saffron threads in my recipes, rather than saffron powder. Perhaps it’s my suspicious nature… but I want to make sure that I am buying the real thing. Some recommend soaking the threads before cooking with them, but I like to gently pound them to a powder instead.
Two star ingredients, one mighty delicious soup – and it only takes minutes to prepare. One instance where less truly is more.
Food & wine pairing: Rioja Crianza with spinach-lentil soup
For this soup, a medium-bodied red with round flavors and a bit of spice would work very well, like a Rioja — not a Reserva (which could easily overwhelm the delicate flavors of the soup) but a Crianza, aged only about 2 years. Typically a blend of Tempranillo and Grenache grapes, Rioja Crianza boasts ripe cherry flavors, a hint of spice, smooth texture and balanced acidity, all of which pair beautifully with the spinach-lentil soup to make a truly palatable first course.
Spinach-lentil soup with saffron and manchego
active time: 20 min
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large shallots – skinned, quartered and finely sliced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 4 large garlic cloves – finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads (0.25 g) – gently pounded in a mortar
- 1 – 15 oz (425 g) can peeled plum tomatoes – puréed in the food processor
- 1/2 cup lentilles du Puy (French green lentils or black Beluga lentils are good substitutes)
- 3 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups spring water
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sea salt to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 6 oz (170 g) baby spinach – rinsed and spun dry
- 1 teaspoon aged sherry vinegar (preferably 50 years old)
- freshly grated Manchego as garnish
- extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- Heat a large heavy-bottomed soup pot at medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and shallots and sauté for 2 minutes until softened. Add the wine, garlic and saffron and simmer until the wine has evaporated and looks syrupy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the puréed tomatoes, lentils, stock, water, salt and pepper. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until the lentils are tender. Uncover the pot, raise heat to medium and add the spinach leaves. Simmer uncovered for 1 to 2 minutes only, until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat, add the vinegar and stir well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Ladle the soup in bowls. Sprinkle with the grated cheese, drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil, and serve immediately.