There are few flavour combinations that I like so well as garlic and paprika. Married to one another, garlic and paprika have a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts appeal, a briny, lingering, and distinctive aroma and flavour that work equally well with seafood and meat, with pulses and with vegetables. I am, of course, immensely fond of Spanish food, which some might say has its foundations in this happy union. Paprika, or pimentón, supposedly was brought to Spain from the Americas by Christopher Columbus, and it has become such an integral part of Spanish food that in Spain, paprika is rigorously regulated for quality, with denominations of origin, like wine and olive oil. When cooking with paprika, invest in high-quality Spanish paprika (it makes such a difference), and keep both sweet and smoked in your cupboard – you’ll use both.
This soup – it’s a stew really – isn’t meant to be Spanish, but it is dominated by that heady intoxicating smell and taste of garlic and paprika. (Full disclosure: this soup calls for an entire head of garlic; i.e., only serve it at a dinner party if you know the guests well and like them a lot.) It’s a white soup, meaning it’s made entirely without tomato products, and my version is entirely vegan (and thus extremely cost-effective). It’s quick, too; it was ready in about an hour, although like all such soups it improves if it sits around for a few hours or a day before it is eaten. It’s substantial enough to be a main dish, especially, say, for lunch with crusty bread.
You can make this soup with vegetable or chicken stock instead of water, and it will be richer and heartier, but you don’t need the stock for flavour – the garlic and paprika do the trick. For spicy greens, I used radish greens. You know – those greens at the end of your radishes that you twist off without a thought and chuck in the garbage bin? Cooked, they are tender and mustardy without being bitter. Radish greens, in fact, are wonderful sautéed on their own. (For an excellent rant on why you should never throw away your radish greens, see Shu-Han’s blog, Mummy, I can cook!) If you don’t have radish greens, I suggest mustard greens, arugula (rocket), or even chard. I do recommend that you use Puy lentils; their texture and flavour is altogether more refined and complex than ordinary green or brown lentils.
One cup (250 grams) Puy lentils
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon espelette pepper (if you don’t have espelette pepper, substitute ½ teaspoon sweet paprika and ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes)
2 bay leaves
Four cups, or about a liter, of water, vegetable stock, or white chicken stock
1.5 – 3 teaspoons salt (according to your taste)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 small fennel bulb, cored and chopped
A medium handful of loosely chopped spicy greens, such as radish, mustard, or arugula
Juice of ½ lemon
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, or fennel fronds (optional, for garnish)
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and stir in the chopped garlic, smoked paprika, and espelette pepper. When the garlic starts to release an aroma, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the liquid in the pan has turned a rich red and the garlic has become caramelized.
Stir in the lentils and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the liquid and bay leaves. Increase heat to medium. When the soup starts to simmer, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30-40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Stir in the salt, sugar (if using), fennel, and greens, and cook for about another ten minutes, or until the fennel is tender.
Stir in the lemon juice, adjust seasonings, and allow to stand at least 15 minutes, or up to overnight, before serving. Serve on a cold day with plenty of crusty bread.
Makes about 8 servings.