WHO MAKES AND EATS A SOUP, THE SAME SOUP, DAILY, FOR LUNCH, HUNDREDS OF TIMES?
REID BRANSON, OF SEATTLE, THAT’S WHO.
THIS IS QUITE A STORY… AND MY PAN PAL AND FELLOW BEAN AFICIONADO, WASHINGTON POST FOOD EDITOR JOE YONAN FOUND IT AS IRRESISTIBLE AS I DID (EXPECT A POST FROM ME ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK, COOL BEANS, IN THE NEXT MONTH OR TWO).
HERE’S THE BACKSTORY. AND, WELCOME, NEW POST-WASHPO SUBSCRIBERS TO THIS SITE!
The subject line: “Lentil soup.”
The sender: Reid Branson. Someone unknown to me.
The receipt of emails from unknown senders with such subject lines are not atypical for cookbook writers in the era of Googleability. When I see one, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a compliment (“I love your Cuban Black Bean Soup!” ), a complaint (“The banana bread came out soggy.”), or a question (“Can the Potato Gratin be frozen?”)
But this email was none of those things.
“… it occurred to me that you might enjoy hearing my story: I came across your Greek Lentil and Spinach soup with Lemon recipe in the DAIRY HOLLOW HOUSE SOUP & BREAD COOKBOOK while casting about for something tasty and nutritious to take to work.
“I tried it out and liked it so much that I have been eating almost nothing else for lunch at work…for 15 years. ”
“Yep, every two weeks I cook up a batch (just did it today, in fact) and seal it in nice little glass jars and transport it to work, where it keeps me well fed and satisfied day in and day out.
“This has been true for around 800 weeks in a row. (Of course, there have been exceptions–illness, vacations, that sort of thing, but not many).
‘My co-workers think I am insane to eat the same thing every day and you might, too, but I wanted you to know how very satisfying I find this rich, fragrant soup.
“I plan to retire in a little under two years and will probably retire the soup, too. We have both had a great run, but as with all good things, the point is reached where enough is enough. However, I still have (if my calculations are correct) about 42 batches to go.
“Thanks so much for your lovely cookbook and other writings.”
I was amazed! I whooped aloud.
After I stopped whooping, based on Reid’s calculations, I made some of my own. If mine were correct, he had already made 316 or so batches! I could hardly wrap my mind around this.
I knew immediately that such an email called for six things:
1.Write Reid Branson back and tell him I had enjoyed his email at least as much as he had enjoyed the soup, though not for as long.
2. Find the recipe in question.
3. Make it again (could it really be that good?)
4. Who was Reid? Who makes and eats a recipe hundreds of times, and is kind enough to tell that recipe’s author?
5. Ask him if I might use the anecdote he’d told me, with his actual name and details, in a blog post. And finally…
6. Write said blog post, including the recipe, and share it with you.
What you are now reading is number 6 on the list above. But first, the previous numbers.
#1 and 5: WRITING REID BRANSON AND ASKING HIM IF…
You can have no idea how delighted I was by your email: it made the day I received it, and several days on either side of that day. I was amused, proud, not a little astonished, and altogether tickled. I am glad to have been eating lunch with you all these years, without even knowing it.
I am so tickled, in fact, I’d love to do a blog post about you and the soup. May I have your permission to use the note you sent me? If you prefer to stay low profile, I need not use your name, but I’d be thrilled if you wanted to participate a little further.
Would you be willing to tell me about what you do and where you work? What day every two weeks you make the soup? What is it about the soup you like so much? If you have rung any changes on it or you still enjoy it as is? And if you wanted to take a picture or two of yourself, or have a spouse or friend take them, and you wouldn’t be shy about my using them, I’d be so pleased.
But whether or not you permit me to share this marvelous story — surely beyond what any cookbook author could possibly dream! — please know you delighted me. I wish you nourishment, joy, and a happy retirement in 42 batches.
#2: FIND THE LENTIL SOUP RECIPE IN QUESTION
I got out my own splotched, kitchen-beaten copy of DAIRY HOLLOW HOUSE SOUP & BREAD. This is a book published back in, get this, 1992. It has sold nearly 500,000 copies.
And right there on page 208 was the Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup with Lemon recipe.
I looked over what I had written, an unbelievable twenty-freaking-seven years earlier. I’d said, “After years of making lentil soups of every description, I’ve finally settled on this as my number one choice.It’s brightly sparked with plenty of lemon and the spicy crunch of coriander and cumin seeds. The greens, prevalent in Mediterranean bean soups of all kinds, add both healthfulness and flavor. ”
I thought. “Oh, yeah, now I remember.”
I thought, “Yeah, that was really good.”
#3: MAKE THE LENTIL SOUP AGAIN
The Monday following the Saturday I had received Reid’s email, I did just this: made the Greek Lentil Soup with Spinach and Lemon. Goodness, it was good!
Lentil soup. Some adore it.
Take memoirist Bonnie Friedman: “… lentil soup was simmering on the wood stove, and there was buttery cornbread and a green salad with tahini dressing, and red wine… We scarfed up great hunks of bread, and plate after plate of soup, and evening shrank the room into a little glowing bowl… I knew that I was one of the privileged of the earth.”
But then, there’s the cheerfully foul-mouthed anonymous duo behind the Thug Kitchen series, Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis. “We know lentil soup is good for you, but most of it tastes like sweaty sock water. ”
I, of course, am in the former camp.
I blew on a spoonful of my own Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup, then tasted it, straight from the pot I had made after receiving Reid’s email.
Wow. It was truly fine. How, I wondered, could I have ever forgotten this one?
Yet, was it truly worthy of the extreme loyalty and devotion Reid had shown it?
I tried it on my current and congenial writing group the next night, and find out.
About this group: Twice a year I teach a 10-week, one-evening-a-week writing group, limited to twelve people, in my home. About half attend in person, the other over the Internet, via Zoom.
Occasionally I’ll have a pot of soup simmering on the stove for anyone in the group who happens to arrive hungry to dip into (I find writing, like many things, goes better when one is nourished and soothed by soup, and the class starts, after all, at 6:30 and runs through 8:30 — dinner-time. You can take the girl out of the restaurant, but you can’t take the restaurant out of the girl. I’d feel funny if there wasn’t something to eat, just in case).
That Tuesday, writing class night, I reheated the Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup with Lemon, and put a little bowl of skinny lemon wedges set out beside the pot, along with the soup-cups and spoons. I said to everyone who was present physically, bossily, “Be sure and squeeze a piece of lemon over it.”
I noticed one student, the irreverent and feisty Ms. So-Blue-in-a-Red-State Kay, wasn’t doing this. “Kay!” I said. “You have to try it with the lemon! The lemon really makes it!”
Kay put down her spoon and looked at me with uncharacteristic solemnity — this is after all a woman who has written hilariously about her young son being bitten by an insect in a tender place, as well as the leadership skills and charm of some ugly and unruly muscovy ducks.
“Crescent,” she said, “Even without the lemon, this is the best lentil soup I have ever eaten.” Then took her piece of lemon and squoze it in.
“You’re right,” she said, after her first post-lemon bite. “I didn’t think it could be, but that makes it even even better.”
She was not the only one in the group to say, “Oooh, will you send us the recipe?” Meanwhile, the Zoom-attendees moaned, jealously.
Yes, but… fifteen years, Reid? (Note: I wrote this two years before Joe did. It’s now seventeen years).
# 4: FIND OUT WHO REID IS AND…
Hello, CD! Your email has, in turn, entirely delighted me. I have loved your cookbook for years, not only the recipes, but the anecdotes and asides which make it all the more enjoyable…
I would be honored if you would like to include my email in a blog post… being identified by name (is) fine with me.
I am 62, live in Seattle, and have been working as a Registered Nurse for 28 years. The past 18 of those years my job has been in an HIV clinic in the public hospital here, Harborview Medical Center. It is rewarding and exhausting work. For five years now I have been the nursing manager of the clinic and supervise 14 nurses and Medical Assistants.
As I mentioned, I am 18 months from retirement; I will have 30 years of service.
Yes, I pretty much always make the soup on Saturdays, usually in the morning so it has time to cool before I put it into jars. Many people assume, as you did, that I freeze the soup, but I find that makes the squash in particular rather mealy.
The soup seems to keep just fine in the refrigerator for that long. I know the Health Department would not approve, but as I use a vegetable-based broth and there are therefore no meat products in it at all, I don’t worry about it too much. And, if challenged, I have the ultimate defense: I mean…15 years, right?
My wife has offered to take pictures of me. I will send those along when she has, and will also try for a picture of me at work consuming it. Note from Crescent: Thank you, Reid’s wife!
I once again thank you for your kind reply. It is not often we get a chance to connect with a person we have admired and followed for so long. I look forward to seeing the blog post and continuing to enjoy your work. Be well,
6. SHARE THE RECIPE WITH YOU
Why on earth had this simple marvel of a potage fallen out of my personal rotation, I wondered?
I made it a lot when I first happened on to it. If memory serves, its starting place was a lemony lentil soup with a boatload of olive oil, a recipe from a 1940’s spiral-bound Greek Orthodox Church community cookbook. I believe I zapped the original with chile and whole coriander seeds, cut the olive oil way the heck back, rewrote it so you could follow it even if you didn’t have a Greek grandmother in the kitchen with you, and added the butternut squash and potatoes — all while keeping the essentials: lentils, lemon, greens.
This is how recipes get “developed”, a word that usually seems a little hi-falutin to me, considering the way it typically goes, at least for me, at least where soup, the most malleable of dishes, is concerned.
But this one was so good! How had I come to have stopped making it?
But see, that’s how it goes. When you are a cookbook writer, at least the kind I am, you are almost always coming up with new things. Not entirely because you have to, but because you can’t help it. Whether it’s bumpy, warty, bitter-melon at the Farmer’s Market, brought by the Hmong growers who are now locals in Fayetteville, Arkansas, or an old weatherbeaten 1940’s Greek community cookbook, the vast world is always inviting you to eat. To cook. And, in a funny way, the world invites you — the cookbook writer — to invite others to the table.
And this is a marvelous thing. But it means you’re always doing something new.
So sometimes recipes you really, really like get set aside or fall away. Because there you are, seduced by the next ingredient or story or flavor. As much as I liked this lentil soup, and determined as I am to not let so much time go by until I make it again, I still can’t quite imagine having it for lunch over and over again for fifteen years.
But I’m glad Reid can, and did. And I’m honored. I am glad my soup invited Reid. And I’m glad he brought it back to me.
And, P.S. I am thrilled that Joe and the Washington Post brought it to so many more people. These are crazy, anxious times… but I am filled with thanks.
Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup with Lemon
serves 4 to 6 as an entree (with a big salad and good crusty sourdough whole-grain bread)
This is as good now as it is was then: brightly flavorful, easy, and, in addition to all its other virtues, vegan, gluten-free, and low-fat. I think the crunch of the coriander seeds just makes it, along with, of course, the clean zing of lemon.
While this is excellent with just plain-old co-op brown lentils, you might try it occasionally with some heirlooms. If you do not yet know Rancho Gordo, consider going over the top with one of the two lentil varieties they carry, black caviar or french-style green lentils. You might think, a lentil is a lentil, a bean is a bean, but that is because you probably haven’t tasted really fresh dried beans.
This sounds like a contradiction but is not. Each package of Rancho Gordo’s legumes are dated, so they are always uber-fresh, which means they cook up into astonishing melting creaminess (supermarket beans can be several years old, and if you happen to get a geriatric package of them, you’ll discover they never, ever soften to this blissful state).
Dated beans are the brain-child of the visionary Steve Sando, one of my favorite fellow legumaniacs. He’s made his lifework keeping many delectable heirloom bean varieties viable, meaning economically sound for those who grow them. Such a mission requires a perspective encompassing fair-trade economics, cooks’ aesthetics, and a grpunding in environmentalism; Steve has all three, plus enthusiasm. As lagniappe at the end of the recipe, I’ve posted a link to a non-soup lentil recipe from Steve.
There’s additional lagniappe, too: Reid’s comments on how he has changed the soup over the years (just a little), plus a menu suggestion, from me. This menu appeared in the headnote with the original recipe.
This kind of blows my mind: I described serving that dinner to friends (unspecified, but I can guess who was probably there) e on a “drizzly Ozark January night” took place almost 30 years ago… and it still sounds very good to me.
spray cooking oil
1 pound lentils, rinsed and picked over*
2 1/2 quarts vegetable stock or water
1 whole dried poblano pepper, hard stem broken off, or 1 fresh jalapeno, stem removed, halved
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon EACH dried basil and oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 medium potatoes, scrubbed and diced
1 10-ounce box frozen chopped spinach, thawed, or 1 10-ounce bag fresh spinach, well-washed, stems removed, chopped
1 small to medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced (you want to end up with about 2 1/2 cups diced squash)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, with leaves, sliced
3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
paper-thin slices of lemon to garnish; thin wedges of lemon to pass at the table
- Spray a large, heavy, non-reactive soup pot with oil, and in it combine lentils, stock or water, chile, and aromatics. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to low. Simmer, partially covered, about 30 minutes.
- Lift lid. Add potatoes, spinach, and butternut squash, re-cover and let cook another 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.Add onion, and saute, stirring, until it starts to soften, 3-4 minutes. Add the celery and garlic, sauteeing another 3 minutes, stirring often. Add this to the soup, deglazing the skillet with a little soup liquid and adding the deglaze contents back to the soup pot. Add salt and pepper; taste for seasoning.
- Just before serving, add the lemon juice and stir well. Serve hot, with a lemon slice floating atop each bowl. Pass lemon wedges at the table, so any who wish can make their portion even more lemony.
“A few years ago, when I heard of the health benefits of turmeric, I began adding a teaspoonful per batch; it adds an interesting flavor without being overwhelming and I get the benefits as well. Let’s see…what else? I once couldn’t get poblano chilis and tried chile de arbol, which I quite liked and have used ever since. I also use three of the chilis instead of one: I like it with zing. Wow, now that I look, I have left the rest of the recipe intact! Why mess with a good thing? I do prefer a red onion. I sometimes use greens (kale, chard) to substitute for part of the spinach, though I never substitute entirely. What would Greek Lentil Soup with Spinach & Lemon be without spinach?!”
Some lentil lagniappe from Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo:
Here is the link to Steve’s lentil recipe, which he describes as “a recipe you won’t want to miss”: Lentils Folded into Yogurt, Spinach, and Basil; the recipe is, in turn, from his friend Peter Miller’s book Five Ways to Cook Asparagus (And Other Recipes), (Abrams, 2018).
Steve Sando’s work with near-extinct heirloom beans and those who farm them, his cook’s understanding of the essentials of using new-crop beans for full bean-goodness, and his natural and inspiring enthusiasm in getting other cooks to embrace such beans: remarkable. And, as I was beginning this post, coincidentally my Rancho Gordo e-newsletter arrived, and there was that luscious lentil recipe, as well as this from him:
“Why Are Lentils So Wonderful? After years of indifference” (to lentils, now…), “lentils are part of my kitchen repertoire. Beans aren’t going anywhere and in fact, they’re a very different sensation. But I am smitten with how quickly lentils cook and their distinct flavor. Our black caviar and French-style lentils both are very small, which normally would mean the skin-to-flesh ratio would be off, but with these, the skin seems to melt in your mouth.”
And by the way, though for legal reasons you’ll see below each post this boilerplate,”Links may contain affiliate ads which pay the Dragon a small percentage for products ordered, all opinions are her own,” rest assured that the only percentage I am getting in promoting Steve’s glorious beans is joy in sharing a product and a company I love, love, love with you.
On March 8, 2020, The Washington Post ran a story updating the tale of Reid and the ever-loving Greek Lentil Soup. Here it is!