Resolution for better meals leads to soup, with a twist

January 10, 2001|By Rob Kasper

THERE IS A rhythm to kitchen life. Every January when the weather turns nasty and holiday decorations droop, my head fills with resolutions to cook better meals for my family.

Usually my first efforts to live up to this resolution involve making soup. There is a lot to be said for soup making in January. The forecast can be cold and forbidding, yet soup is warm and welcoming. A bitter wind may attack your home's doors and windows, but a pot of soup sends out steamy, perfumed clouds to counter the invading drafts. While undertaking outdoor pursuits requires putting on several layers of clothing, soup making is a languorous, indoor, often short-sleeve, activity.

I recited these platitudes to myself the other night to psyche myself into making a pot of chicken soup for the family.

First, I found a reasonably appealing recipe. It was your basic chicken and vegetable soup with a couple of interesting additions - namely, lentils and a shot of grated lemon peel. I am a big fan of lemon peel. Its aroma reminds me of warm days in Arizona.

Even though the ingredients in the soup were basic - the recipe came from that pillar of common sense and home cooking, Betty Crocker - I still had to go to the grocery store to get a few things. Our pantry was bare.

Usually I resist shopping, but since it was the new year and I was brimming with high-minded resolutions, I trudged to the grocery. Once there, I found that the shelves in the store, the Rotunda Giant, resembled those in our pantry. They had been hit hard, and some supplies were missing. Apparently rumors of a snowstorm, the one that never came, had sent the masses to the grocery to load up on canned chicken stock. As I result, I couldn't find my usual, cheap brands of chicken stock and lentils. We may panic at the mere mention of snow in Baltimore, but apparently we panic on the cheap.

After some searching, I found "better" brands of the ingredients. Even though I ended up paying 10 cents more than usual for a can of chicken stock, an action that will probably inflict deep scars on my penny-pinching psyche, I soldiered on.

Back home, I slapped a disc in the CD player, poured myself a glass of wine and went to work. I chopped onions, carrots and garlic, and soon they were sizzling in the bottom of a soup pot. Winter was feeling pretty good.

Betty Crocker's recipe called for adding cooked chicken at the end of the soup-making process. This struck me as strange. I would have preferred to cook the chicken in the bubbling soup, but who was I to quarrel with Betty, a pillar of rectitude? So I popped a few chicken breasts in the oven and let them bake while, up on the burner, the rest of the process continued.

Into the pot went the chicken broth and the lentils, and after bringing the mixture to boil, I turned down the heat and let it simmer. For the next half an hour, life smelled sweet.

Just before my family gathered around the kitchen table to feed, I tossed in the cut-up cooked chicken and the final ingredient, grated lemon peel.

The soup, with its hunks of carrot, legions of lentils and numerous lumps of chicken, looked appealing. It had a terrific aroma. But it was not a hit. Our sons, two teen-agers who can shovel down supper faster than a backhoe digs a hole, took a few spoonfuls and pushed the bowls away. They didn't like the lemon flavor in the chicken soup, they said. After spurning my soup, one of the kids got up and searched out his favorite foods, chips and dip.

Quickly my wife assured me that she loved the soup, especially its lemon flavor. She ate a bowl of the soup, a small one. Most of the soup went in the refrigerator. Instead of a glorious, lick-the-platter-clean success, it had become a lowly leftover.

I was crestfallen. All that shopping. All that chopping. All that sizzling. For naught. So much for the idea of cooking better meals for the family.

I now look forward to going home on these cold winter nights, and enjoying a bowl of my warm, lemon-scented homemade chicken soup. As for my lemon-hating offspring, let 'em eat Doritos!

Lemony Lentil Chicken Soup

Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 1/2 cups chopped carrots

2 cloves finely chopped garlic

1 cup dried lentils

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) chicken broth

2 cups cut-up cooked chicken

2 tablespoons grated lemon peel (1 tablespoon if you have lemon haters in your household)

Heat oil in bottom of 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook onions, carrots and garlic in oil, stirring occasionally until carrots begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in lentils, tomato paste and broth. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to low and let simmer, until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

Stir in chicken and lemon peel, and cook until all ingredients are warm, about 5 minutes.

- From "Betty Crocker's Best Chicken Cookbook" (Macmillan, 1999)

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